Guns, Elves, and Fireballs

Who needs a gun when you can summon a demon from the Abyss to crush your enemies?

November 30, 2011

It’s no secret that I like me some fantasy. I started out and still love science fiction, though, and you’ll find most fans have a nice overlap in their tastes like this. Sword and sorcery is awesome, especially if I can make it part of an Saturday RPG session. However, one thing that’s always bothered me is the lack of guns in fantasy.

Please note that I am not advocating gun use or gun control or anything like that. I’ve always just wondered why fantasy in general, even in stories set within a medieval time period where gunpowder could exist, shy away from firearms. Science fiction isn’t shy about including “magic” like the Force, so why is fantasy afraid of technology?

Historically, firearms have existed in one way or another for hundreds of years. Everything from single-shot hand-cannons to rocket-powered arrows made a bang on the battlefield, even if they weren’t primary weapons. Most of us probably know early firearms as the slow-loading muskets and flintlocks from old Revolutionary War movies and Three Musketeers. For most fantasy stories, a bow or a crossbow will do.

Dragon’s Breath Crossbow by ~orcbruto on deviantART

There’s something elegant about an archer with a bow, so I can see why a black powdered-fueled firearm seems clunky and overtly modern. Even a crossbow looks too much like a gun. Some writers and players want that feel of agelessness that bows and a gun-free world evoke. Imagine the elves in Lord of the Rings wielding muskets or shotguns instead of bows and arrows. It might look awesome, but it would also be noisy and time-consuming to shoot and reload.

There are valid reasons for not using firearms in fantasy, though. Some people believe they led to the death of the knight and all those wonderful medieval combat clichés we’ve all come to know and love (they didn’t, but contributed). Say goodbye to shining armor and clanging swords. Who needs those when you can shoot a .70 caliber ball of lead at your enemy from fifty yards away? There goes the one-on-one duel. Likewise, firearms are more closely tied in with modern times. Even though gunpowder and gunpowder-based weapons have been around since the 14th century, we still mostly associate them modern war. Of course, all this is moot if, in your fantasy world, magic has advanced to the point where wands and spellcasters can rain eldritch homicide on their enemies. Firearms maybe accessible… but why use them?

Vampire Hunter-Gun by ~Maury73 on deviantART

But that doesn’t have to be the case. Plenty of fantasy uses firearms. Urban fantasy justifies it by usually being set in a modern world. The Harry Dresden series, for example, has the titular wizard carry a gun to deal with threats magic can’t handle or if he tires himself out. Likewise, Final Fantasy hasn’t shied away from guns, either. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower has the main character be a gunslinger who would be right at home in an old Western (except for the whole End of the World and different realities thing).

It just depends on flavor. For example, in my own Dungeons and Dragons game, I’ve always been interested in introducing firearms, but making them one-shot weapons that have to be reloaded more slowly than a bow and arrow. I don’t want to get rid of the sword, shield, and bow and arrow, but I want to show a world in transition. Eventually, I’d like to actually have something like the Old West… but not yet.

Fantasy Pistol 01 by ~TypoCity on deviantART

Besides, it’s FANTASY. If you want to have samurai swords and revolvers next to each other, why not? If in your world, dwarves use shotguns heavy enough to double as warhammers, what’s going to stop you? Me? I’m thinking of actually writing up rules for firearms in 4E in maybe selling that pdf at some point. Don’t hold your breath, though…

In the meantime, let’s enjoy a trailer for a movie that takes this kind of genre-bending to heart, shall we?

Learning How to Spell: It’s Just Hocus Pocus

Shown here? Sociopathic child murderers. No, really.

November 21, 2011

If you’re a regular reader, you know I love a bad movie. Give me cheese. Give me ham. Serve it with some well-fermented low budget and you’ve got a winner!

Every so often, though, I come across a movie that isn’t bad, but it has so many things that could easily qualify it as Rifftrax material. However, a weird alchemy of performance, writing, and just the right amount of cheese make it into a wonderful movie that actually gets better with age.

One such movie is Hocus Pocus.

Wait, I know what you’re thinking.

“The Disney movie with Bette Midler?”

Yeah, that’s the one. Mary and I actually sat down to watch it this weekend out of pure nostalgia, and the more we watched it, the more we realized how smart and genuinely funny it was. Yes, there was a drink or two involved, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a movie you should watch if you want to learn a few things about writing.

Yes, writing.

Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus by ~MirrorCradle on deviantART

Take Refuge in Audacity

The Sanderson Sisters are so completely over the top and fit so many of the standard “witch” stereotypes that they probably seem like a minstrel show for Wiccans. The movie is historically inaccurate to the point of being a Fox News documentary.

And I’m fine with that.

Winifred (played by Bette Midler) is so hammy that it works. If you’re going to have a villain be over-the-top, go all the way. Nothing kills the mood more than a half-assed attempt at villainy that ends up coming off weak because it was supposed to be taken seriously. Unless a character is supposed to be goofy, at least make him or her aware of the insane amounts of scenery they’re chewing. Winifred is as stereotypically villainous as it gets, but she’s very much aware of her image and plays it off every chance she gets.

Not to mention the fact that she’s genuinely dangerous and one of the first things we see her do is drain a child of life and sentence her brother to an eternity as a cat.

If you’re going to have ham, might as well have the whole pig.

.:Hocus Pocus by ~IsaiahKS on deviantART

Aim at Kids, Hit the Adults

I first saw this movie when it came out in 1993, then again a few years later, but it really wasn’t until I saw it this weekend that I realized just how adult a lot of the humor was. Seriously, the entire premise starts with our lead character getting made fun of for being a virgin, then lighting the candle that brings the Sanderson Sisters back.

After this, everyone from the talking cat to his little sister (played by a VERY young Thora Birch) points out he’s a virgin every chance they get. What are the odds her character even knew what a virgin was?

Then, you have Sarah, the ditzy witch who is about as sharp as a turkey sandwich. She easily comes off as child-like and whimsical… until she starts making cracks about hanging kids on hooks and playing with them. Throw in the fact that she’ll apparently mount anything with a Y-chromosome, and you get someone who may appear harmless to the little kids watching her while appearing to embody every aspect of lust and the cruelty of childhood.

I Put A Spell On You by *TraditionalDanimatio on deviantART

Your Readers are Smart

Nothing kills the mood more like the reader calling out things your characters should have done. The Sanderson Sisters are bumbling Disney villains most of the time. The heroes are two high-schoolers, one 10-year-old, and a talking cat from Colonial America.

But they do a lot of things that make sense. The kids are smart enough to recognize they have a few advantages over the witches, such as their knowledge of modern technology. Max takes early advantage of this by using a lighter to set off a fire-suppression system and pretend it was a spell to the newly-arrived witches. He later uses a car’s headlights to simulate sunlight and make them think they’re about to die. Plus, they actually try to warn the police and the adults about the situation.

Of course, running around and saying you just resurrected 300-year-old witches that are part of local lore does you make sound like you’ve been licking frogs.

The Sanderson Sisters also have their moments. After they realize everyone is really in costumes and they get made at a grand party, they play it off as though they too are in costumes and sing a song that’s really a component to a spell that enchants a good chunk of the adults in town.

A Bunch of Hocus Pocus by ~Anamated on deviantART

There are moments of stupidity on all sides, of course, but the rest of the movie really is put together very well and does so many things that redeem its flaws. Remember to not be afraid to make things over the top. If you have to dial it down later, so be it, but better to have more than you need than to have to try and make things more dramatic or funny later.

Hocus Pocus should have been on my Halloween movies list. It’s one of those movies that really just goes with the premise and plays with it. It’s got stuff for adults, for kids, and it’s just fun.

Let’s enjoy Bette Midler one more time, shall we?

The Luck o’ the Skittish

It's real because I say so.

June 15, 2011

Careful readers may have noted how I tend to knock on people who hold outrageous beliefs for the sake of tradition or comfort. Think gays are committing a sin by loving and existing because the Bible says so? Do you think that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles despite the Bible being entirely opposite to what the Bill of Rights guarantees?

Guess what? You’re a moron for ignoring reality.

On the other hand, it’s comforting to believe in something that has no basis in reality. It’s yours. It’s personal. Conspiracy theorists work this way. They see themselves at the center of some unimaginable tangle of powerful beings and organizations that can somehow control everything from the political landscape, to the progress of technology, and yet cannot catch these desktop detectives as they unravel the web of deceit.

And yet you and I are much too smart for that, right?

Well, I got to thinking…

Tempting fate by ~jsings on deviantART

How different is superstitious thinking from fanatical religious thinking? Not that far off. We had people who believed, who genuinely believed, the world was going to end last month. Some people, even if not religious themselves, will cross themselves before entering a Catholic church, just in case. My sister refuses to shuffle cards a certain way when we play poker because it will disrupt her card-ma.

Yes, “card-ma.” Her word, I swear to Bob.

I have a Dungeons and Dragons player who insists her dice rolls don’t count if the die touches an object before it comes to a standstill. While I don’t think she really believes it, she insists that touching another object throws her off. In fact, gamers are finicky when it comes to their dice. Some dice are just “lucky.” Of course, gaming dice aren’t tested for balance like casino dice, so there very well might be lucky and unlucky dice.

Everyone’s done these sorts of things, and I tend to laugh when I see them or hear about them.

I believe in chance and choice. I believe there are things I can and cannot control. The things I cannot control are the events that are beyond my grasp, the choices others make, and the totality of existence. I can’t tell lightning where to strike. I can’t make others think what I want them to think. I can’t luck out and hope a publisher sees my work online and offers me a contract.

love is chaos by ~parasite3 on deviantART

I can, however, choose to not stand out during a lightning storm while wearing a tin foil hat. I can learn how to put together a coherent argument and make my point as persuasively as possible. I can make my work the best possible and look for ways to advertise and get the word out.

There is nothing that says charms, spells, or even good luck rituals work for us, and yet so many of us really do cling to these beliefs. I know someone’s going to fire back with, “But that’s the die I used when I slew the vampire king! It’s lucky!” or “I was wearing this shirt when I met the love of my life. It’s my lucky shirt.”

Well, show me the study where we discovered luck. Show me equations. Prove to me that our lives and random events around said lives are controlled by invisible force fields and I’ll eat my words!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go do laundry and make sure I have my gaming shirt for this Saturday. When I wear my Star Wars shirt, I KILL!

Old school gaming by ~Kiaaaa on deviantART

And now, for your viweing pleasure, links.

  • And finally, I have to say that while I’ve never heard of or tried this beer, this commercial alone makes me want to do it. it’s over the top, obviously conscious of its own absurdity, but it owns it like a boss. Enjoy, and I’ll see you Friday.

Letters from a Ghost

I am a metaphor...

January 14, 2010

It’s preview time! One of the greatest things to experience is reading old books. I don’t mean words that were written a hundred or two hundred years ago. I’m talking about actually holding old paper, wrinkled, bark-like leather, and smelling the decay of paper itself. Ink turns different colors with age.

Maybe I’m just a bibliophile, but it’s a much richer experience. I’ve been lucky enough to work in archives and look through records and letters stretching back centuries. I even got to restore an old Civil War letter by digitally scanning it and bringing out the ink.

And yet… it’s easy to think of the past as something that’s gone. We may realize people existed, but to hold a book so old, or better yet, something hand-written decades ago, is to touch someone else’s thoughts…

This is a true story. In a way. It’s real in that it exists. I’ll let you decide if it really happened.

Kill Hannah - Statues Without Eyes

The Notebook by ~the-bumble-bee-one on deviantART

I found the old journal while cleaning out my grandmother’s things. It was an old elementary school notebook with a blue grid for practicing letters, but when I opened the yellowed pages expecting to find a child’s scribblings, I instead found tiny handwriting that had turned almond-brown with years. Each word looked like a single line with the occasional spike indicating a letter, and it took me an afternoon staring at them to finally figure out what peaks were vowels and what peaks were consonants. I forgot about dinner and read as much as I could, but it hurt my eyes. The notebook was a journal, something my grandmother kept secret. In just a few entries, I knew the names of her friends, the little restaurants by the river she liked to go to, and her excitement with her new husband. I went to sleep just after I got to an entry talking about a man my grandmother met.

I woke up around three in the morning to get a drink of water. I felt my way to the door. As I walked into the hallway, I saw the shape of a man at the end near the bathroom. He was looking at me and the hallway smelled like fresh-cut plants, dirt, and sweat. Intense, wide eyes looked at me from a tanned, wrinkled face marked by the sun. Even though his mouth moved, I couldn’t hear anything. I wanted to run, but a combination of fear and curiosity kept me in place. As soon as I moved towards him, he disappeared.

My house smelled like cut grass and dirt until the sun came back up. I didn’t go back to sleep.

Subconscious by ~NoRainInApril on deviantART

The next morning, I asked around to see if anyone at work had any idea what to do. My friends all thought I was insane, of course. They went back to scanning books into the library system. I helped people at the reference desk, but I kept smelling cut grass and wet dirt every few hours. At any moment, I expected to turn the corner and find the man staring at me like some horror movie cheap shot. I wasn’t even sure what he looked like, but my nerves were so frayed that I skipped lunch and just walked around the block three times.

I didn’t open the notebook again for two days, but every time I wanted to, the smell came back.

Every day, walking the stacks in the library, all I could smell was the paper, the scent of the new arrivals contrasting against the dull aroma of old paper from the older volumes. I remembered the journal and instantly thought I saw the ghost in front of me. It was just another patron. That happened at least three times before lunch.

I wasn’t going to start checking books out on what to do, either. All my friends would see them and think I was crazy. I spent my next few lunch hours looking through old newspapers. Nothing in the front page, of course, but I thought somewhere in Via Rosa there had to be a human interest story. There were plenty of psychics and mystics in the yellow pages, but they were there for profit. I was looking for someone who didn’t advertise. It took a week, but I found a story about a story about a young woman that suffered some sort of gang attack. The neighbors all said she was a witch working with a demon. She sounded like a brat, and there wasn’t much beyond a picture of the home where it looked like someone had taken a pound of dynamite to the front door, but I recognized the place.

Every city has it. It’s the house or the neighborhood where the witch lives. In this case, it was an old Spanish mansion downtown near Herradura Street. The place was vibrant once. The iron gate squeaked and shed bits of rust as I opened it and walked the overgrown path to the front door. I was about to knock when the door swung open and I was face-to-face with a young Hispanic woman, no older than twenty-five. She was thin and dressed like she was in high-school.

I swallowed hard and said, “You were waiting for me?”

the witch. by *m0thyyku on deviantART

She smiled and said, “Actually, I was going to check the mail. Can I help you?”

I showed her the newspaper clipping and she frowned. “I hate that picture,” she said. “They made the house look like was condemned. Look, I don’t do love potions or voodoo dolls or anything like that, so if you have a problem with your vieja, go to counseling.”

“It’s a ghost.”

Her eyes lit up and she opened the door wide for me. I walked in, clutching my briefcase, and was instantly hit by the smell of a dozen spices. The walls were painted a dull orange that screamed faux-Spanish, but almost every wall was covered in mismatched shelves stuffed with books, notebooks, and jars, spice racks, and plants in various stages of bloom. I wondered if any of them were illegal. She motioned for me to turn into the living room. None of the couches matched either, and the coffee table had more stacks of old, fifty-pound books sitting on top. She sat cross-legged in the loveseat and looked to me while she took out a notebook and pen.

“So what’s the problem?”

I explained the ghost, the smell, and the journal. She asked for the notebook and I carefully pulled it from my briefcase.

She took it in both hands and inhaled deeply.

Closing her eyes, she said, “He’s here…”

I looked around, but she giggled and said, “Well, mostly here. It looks like we have some work to do.”

“What kind of work?”

Once again, she giggled and said, “You don’t bring up the past without the past coming back for you. You need to set things right.”

“But I didn’t do anything!”

“Yes you did… You peeked.”

To be continued…

Want to read more? Just visit the main Charcoal Streets page and take a look at the complete stories, samples, and other fun features, and stay tuned in 2011 for the release of the first volume of collected stories!

My Paper Heart by ~zbo7800 on deviantART