Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Having been immersed in D&D party creation lately, I was inspired to write my own taxonomy of the fourth edition party roles. This may be deathly boring to you, in which case, well, stop reading. But people seemed to enjoy my communication style on this sort of topic for WoW, and I like doing it, so there.

D&D 4e explicitly breaks character classes down into four roles: defender, leader, striker, and controller. However, when I think about how a class works, I just think about resources. Pretty much everything can be generalized as a resource. Spells? That's a resource. Hit points? Throw 'em on the resources pile. Potions, ammunition, special abilities, how many actions you can take in a turn, even how many warm bodies your side has - all just resources. Fights between the party and monsters are really just races to see who can deplete whose pile of resources fastest. When you think about how a character works, think of it in terms of how they (i) conserve the party's resources, and (ii) deplete the enemy's resources.

Defenders are characters whose special talent is making the bad guys use their resources inefficiently. They do this in a couple of ways.
Having good defenses, and marks. If your character has very good defenses, enemies who attack you are using their resources inefficiently. It's as simple as answering this question: if two party members are going to be attacked by an attack that deals 10 damage, and A has a 40% chance of being hit by that attack while B has a 75% chance of being hit, who would you rather throw under the bus? Now answer: who would the bad guy rather attack? Anybody can have a high defense. A defender is only making the enemy inefficient if she (i) has better defenses than the bad guys' alternative targets, and (ii) a way to incentivize the bad guys to attack her nevertheless. That way is called a "mark," and generally only defenders can mark the bad guys. When a bad guy is marked, he takes a -2 penalty to attack anybody other than the person who marked him. But note that merely being able to mark somebody is not enough. If you have high defenses, the enemy can sensibly not attack you. If you have marked the enemy and he wanted to attack you anyway, he's just doing what he wanted to do all along. But if you have high defenses and mark the enemy, you have degraded his efficiency no matter who he attacks. And the more inefficient the enemy, the more likely your side is to win the resources race.

Punishing the bad guys. A high-defense character who marks a bad guy is already making him use his actions inefficiently, giving the good guys a competitive edge in the resources race. Defenders also generally have a way to hurt the enemy if they attack somebody other than the character who marked them. For instance, if A marks bad guy X, and X still tries to attack good guy B, A will have some ability that interrupts X's turn and lets her deal damage to him. This is part of the Catch-22 that is how defenders contribute to the resource race, but note that now, instead of making the bad guys use resources inefficiently, you're directly depleting their resource pile by taking away hit points (and possibly a warm body or two).

Some defenders are better at having super defenses; others are better at punishing the bad guys, but I find that having a clear idea of which a character is best at helps me figure out how to best contribute to the team.

Leaders are characters whose special talent is in making their team use resources more efficiently. They do this in a couple of ways.
Healing. Restoring hit points to the team may seem like it's just restoring team resources, like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom. But that's only half the story. The other point of healing is that dead characters take team resources with them when they die. The sorceror who died with a devastating spell uncast, the knight whose plate armor is now lying useless on the floor - all those things are team resources. When a leader heals a party member, she should think not just about who is most likely to die but about who would take the most valuable resources with them if they did. If Johnny the wizard has used all his spells but Alice still has a special attack she's yet to use, all things being equal, Alice gets the heals.

Moving the party. Turns are resources just like everything else. If you have to spend a whole turn moving into position before you can unleash your devastating attack, you're being less efficient than if you could unleash that devastating attack right now. Some leaders are particularly good at moving party members even when it isn't their turn, which can ameliorate this problem. But note: only if doing so is more efficient than what the leader could do herself. Suppose A is a leader who fights with a bow. If she can deal 10 damage to monster X right now, or move B into position to stab X in the back with B's daggers, what should A do? Or suppose X is threatening B, and A can move B out of the danger zone - or deal 10 damage with her bow. What should she do? There's not necessarily a correct way to assign mathematical weights to this question (although sometimes there is, with the simpler versions of this question). The important thing is that A is thinking not just about her ability to move the party into attack position, or out of danger, but also about what resources she is consuming (i.e., her own turn) to do so.

Helping the party attack. The third thing leaders have in their bag of tricks is the ability to help the party attack directly. In some cases this literally means an ability for A to give up her attack so that B can attack instead - obviously only worthwhile if B's attack depletes more resources than A's. In other cases it's a bonus to the team's attacks - for instance, A hits X, and for the next turn, everybody else who attacks X is more likely to hit, or does more damage if they do hit. There is a double efficiency here: by making the party's attacks more likely to land or hit harder when they do, the party's actions are used more efficiently, and of course a successful attack depletes enemy resources as well.
As with all roles, some leaders are better at one trick than others. All of them, though, pretty much contribute through some combination of these three.

Strikers are characters whose special talent is in depleting the enemy's resources. There is really only one way to do this, and that is to attack the bad guys; to assist in this role, all strikers will have some way to increase the amount of damage they do, make their attacks more likely to hit, or both. The more a striker can maximize how hard she hits, maximize her chance to hit, and minimize the time she needs to get into position to hit, the more efficient she will be.

Solving that puzzle is only part of what a striker does, though. Consider this question: monster X has 100 hit points left, while monster Y has only 10. Striker A can attack either of them for 10 damage. Who should A attack? If you answered, "Well, how likely is A to hit each of them?" good for you. You have grasped a nuance in how A can best use the team resource that is her turn. Also note: if X is hit, he will continue to deplete party resources (i.e., attack the good guys); if Y is hit, he will not continue to deplete party resources (i.e., he will be dead). That certainly weights things in favor of hitting Y. A related wrinkle that a striker will often have to decide is this: if I can't kill X or Y, which is more likely to take away more party resources on its turn (i.e., if neither can die this turn, who should die first)?

These are problems that all characters should consider, but as strikers have the most direct role in taking away the bad guys' resources, it's particularly important for them.

Controllers are characters who specialize in making the enemy inefficient. They share this trait with defenders, but they inflict inefficiency in very different ways: Area of effect attacks. Attacks with an area of effect (often abbreviated "AOEs") can damage many enemies, but generally only kill very weak ones. Killing the weak may seem more like a matter of taking away the enemy's resources than degrading their efficiency - and you can think of it that way. However, the really weak enemies ("minions" is the technical term), pound for pound, do more damage than other type. Consequently, pushing them off the table with a broom actually takes away the bad guys' most efficient killers.

Moving the enemy. Moving party members into attack position, or out of danger, makes the good guys more efficient. By the same token, moving the bad guys into danger, or out of attack position, makes the enemy less efficient - and for that matter, can make your team members more efficient, as well. Some controllers do this by making it hard or impossible for the enemy to move in certain places - erecting an invisible wall of force, say. Other controllers do it by literally picking the enemy up and moving them.

Hindering enemy attacks. If the party is more likely to hit, its attacks are more efficient. Similarly, if the enemy is less likely to hit, its attacks are less efficient. Controllers have a variety of ways to hinder enemy attacks. They can blind or stun the enemy, for instance, but they could also cause the enemy to take damage when they move next to a party member, or perhaps immobilize the enemy so they can't even get into attack position.

Again, not all classes are equally good at all the signature tricks of their role. The point of thinking about things this way is that pretty much all classes' primary abilities fall into one of these categories. Knowing what they are is a useful way to keep straight in your head what you should be doing in battle. But it's also a way to keep your character organized in your head. Are you a defender? Which of the two defender tricks does this ability tend towards?

Well, that's all. Hope this was useful to you, or at least fun to read.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Having alluded a number of times to Mando'a now, and finding myself in more of a blogging state of mind lately, I thought I would meditate a bit on what exactly I'm getting out of all of this. Twilight observed recently that the whole Mando thing for me seems bound up in my relationship with Thayet, which is an accurate observation, so I thought it appropriate to determine the traditional Mando marriage vow. This consists of four first person plural declarative sentences. Owing to the time-elasticity of the Mando'a "present" tense, these are both statements of identity and promises of future behavior, but I'll translate in the English present tense.

Mhi solus a tome. Mhi solus dar'tome. Mhi me'dinui an. Mhi bajuri verde.

We are one together. We are one apart. We share all. We raise warriors.

The exchange of these statements is all it takes in Mando law for two people to marry each other. Neither witnesses nor synchronicity are required - if you want to explore the boundaries of what's legally allowed, you can think of it as a sort of offer and acceptance. For example, it wouldn't matter if one person makes the statements via text message on April 3, and the other made them via Skype on April 14, so long as the person who wanted to be married on April 3 still wanted to be married on April 14. Obviously this has not happened in my life, though fortunately for me I don't expect the validity of my marriage to be challenged under Mando law any time soon. And while an exchange of this kind would be super cool, the real significance for me of all this is as a shorthand to encapsulate what I think about marriage.

Mhi solus a tome.
We are one when together. We will be one when together. The value here - and this comes across better in the Mando'a than the English, I think - is as a declaration, a promise. I promise that I will be one with you when we are together. How so one? Not as halves of a person, surely. We are personal, but we are not a person. Only I, only you can be a person. I fall back on the only model I have of the super-personal: if I am to become part of something without diminishing my personhood, it must be something like my heart is part of me. My heart is my heart, separate and distinct and completely described as "my heart," but it is also part of me - and, crucially, while my heart is not less a heart if it is not a part of me, I am less a body if my heart is not a part of it. Of course a heart cannot survive without my body, so the analogy breaks down there. Call it like a family, if you are fortunate enough to know what it is like for a family that is a living, breathing, entity in its own right. I can survive apart from my family (as my heart cannot apart from me), but my family is nevertheless less my family - indeed, less a family, period - if I am not part of it. But - and this is where the heart is perhaps a better analogy after all - while I can survive apart from my family, I am diminished by not having its blood pump through me. Think of it like the Godhead, if you're used to thinking of God as a super-personal entity. God is still God if the Son is not part of God. And the Son is still the Son if it is not part of God. But God is diminished by separation from the Son, and the Son is diminished by separation from God.

When we are one, I think it is because we are part of a super-personal entity that is diminished by the lack of either of us. I am still me whether I am married or not. But I should also diminished by not being part of - by not being one with - that marriage. How so diminished? Not in that I should lack anything I possessed, or was, before I got married. More as if something good and vital pumped through me and is now pumping through me no longer. I cannot think of a very good analogy, but I am reminded of Lewis' observation that Christians have always pictured divorce as more like cutting a body than anything else. Cut off from my marriage, I am still me, but my riduur's blood, which surged through me and nourished me, surges through me no more.

How so together? Together in space and time, certainly. We are never one by default; we must choose to be one and God must give consequence to that choice (more on this in a later post, perhaps?). When we are together in time and space, when we have the opportunity to hold and touch and speak, then of all times we must choose to be one. But also together in beliefs and temperament. When it is easiest to be one, we must choose so to be.

Mhi solus dar'tome.
We are one when apart - or more literally, "not together." As we must choose to be one when it is easiest, so we must choose to be one when it is hardest. When we are not together in space and time. When we are not together in beliefs or temperament.

This is one of the must significant portions of the riduurok to me, and one of the things that drew me to Mando'a when I first discovered it. This sentiment already had a Natalian expression: "I will love you no matter what you do, or who you are." That is essentially how I understand God to love. This is not really even about love so much as the nature of promise. Suppose I promise to make it to my daughter's school play, or fencing match. What conditions are entailed in that promise? What if traffic is just really bad? What if a client has a problem that came up unexpectedly? What if I'm the only person who knows enough to fix it? When do I get to say, "I didn't break my promise. I never promised to make it if X happened."

Maybe some contingencies are implicitly included in a promise like that. If I miss a fencing match because I stopped to help the victim of a hit-and-run to the hospital, I didn't really break my promise, did I? I imagine a lot of people would say I didn't. I think I actually prefer to think that I did break my promise, and hopefully Meshparjai would forgive me.

But what if it isn't a promise to make it to an event? What if it's a promise to love somebody. What contingencies, if any, are implicitly included in a promise like that? One cannot know who another person will be in the next moment, let alone in years to come. If you love dancing together, what if that person later stops dancing? If you love that person's sense of honor, what if their sense of honor evolves to something unrecognizable? If you love their faith in something, what if they lose it? What if their personality changes in a way you would never have predicted and find utterly monstrous? What if? What if?

I recently saw Finding Nemo with Meshparjai, and I am reminded of Marlin's question to Dory: "How do you know something bad won't happen?" Dory's answer: "I don't." We never do, and God certainly offers us no assurances. "Nothing bad will happen" is not among the promises that God makes. So we have two choices. We can either try to anticipate all the things that will make it too hard to love somebody, and carve those out of our promise either explicitly or implicitly, or we can promise to love anyway.

Of course, no matter how thoughtfully we approach the promise, the time will come when we look at our beloved and wail, "I didn't sign up for this!" Something will come up over the course of a love relationship, probably more than once, that causes us to say, "I shouldn't have to love you like this." And we will be right. It will be something that nobody should have to love anybody else through. But for myself, I am ashamed to seize the excuse that fairness offers when I remember that Jesus had the opportunity to do as much for me, and refused. Why? Because he promised to love me, no matter what. Even when it was unfair. Even when it was unjust. Even when he got nothing out of our relationship. Even when acting on his love was to his personal detriment.

Insert the obligatory caveat about God being perfect and us not being perfect and not being God and blah blah blah here. But by God, I can try. Mhi solus dar'tome.

Mhi me'dinui an.
Share. We will ... share. Share what? Property, certainly. I think separate property regimes are fundamentally at odds with what marriage is. To be honest, I don't feel nearly as much pride about the fact that California recognizes my right to, say, religious freedom as I do about the fact that California recognizes that I do not earn income. We do.

So property, yes, of course. Do we share dreams? I don't mean hold dreams in common, though may there ever be dreams that we do. I mean do we tell each other about our dreams? Do we share our feelings? Do we communicate? We won't by default. It must be promised. What about when we're trying to avoid a fight? What about when what we have to share is only anger and hatred for each other? What about when we are empty and drained, and have nothing to share? Do we promise to share all, even then? I think we should. Mhi me'dinui an.

Mhi bajuri verde.
What makes a warrior? The silent workmanlike butchery of the Spartans? The refusal to admit defeat of the Romans? The passion of the Picts? Is it skill at arms, a strong spiritual core? Is it to embrace the desire to see one's enemies utterly destroyed? An ethic of victory that offers mercy to the vanquished? Esprit de corps?

I like to meditate on this question, but if I had to put down an answer, I would say that a warrior is praus as Jesus was praus (link). My understanding of that begins with a true assessment of what is a threat and what is not. I understand Jesus to have been a person who knew that many things that most people would think are threats in fact are not, and thus require no violent response. I also understand Jesus to be somebody who would fuck your shit up if you actually were a threat. I don't want Meshparjai to be a "violent" woman. But I do want her to be a woman of force. I want her to be the kind of woman who is serene in the face of things that would drive others into fits - but when she is presented with a real threat, I want her to have the will and the skill to obliterate it with absolute finality, with utter suddenness and unfettered by notions of fair play.

But of course, not just Meshparjai. And not just her siblings, God willing that she have any. I do not rear only the blood of my blood, but all children who come into my life. And as the childrearing lessons I teach my children are passed on to their friends, I rear those children as well.

So how so bajuri verde? On the one hand, by teaching her the skills of force. I would identify these, at least, as skills of force: How to kill, how to explain one's beliefs, how to question one's beliefs, how to acquire new beliefs, how to pray, how to engage demons. And on the other hand, by teaching her how, when, and why to use those skills. By teaching her just who Jesus was and was not, and in what way he was praus.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Beliefs and Consequences

On the way home from my new (temporary) job today, I saw an ad caught my eye. It showed two young women, one captioned a Jewish Israeli, and the other captioned a Palestinian Israeli. They were smiling and inviting the viewer to end U.S. military aid to Israel in the name of peace and Israeli unity.

My immediate thought, which is what inspired this post, was that a lot of Americans would probably object to ending military aid to Israel out of a Christian belief that Israel belongs to the Jews and America, either as a Christian nation or as a nation spends money to do the Right Thing, ought to expend her treasure to protect Jewish possession of Israel. (Speaking personally, I have no particular political beliefs about military aid to Israel beyond a vague suspicion that it's (i) a policy holdover from the mid-20th century and (ii) motivated by a lot more realpolitik than most Americans are willing to admit.)

And then I thought, how many Americans really believe that Christianity teaches that America (or any nation, or for that matter any entity) ought to expend its treasure to bolster the Israeli military? If you put it to them that way, probably not that many. I have a nagging suspicion, though, that depressingly few of the people who think Christians ought to bolster the Israeli military bother to make the distinction.

I think that's to our loss, and not just because it's probably indicative of intellectual dishonesty. From a pragmatic standpoint, Christianity survives in large part due to the fact that its core beliefs - the minimum that you really need to believe to be Christian - are both few and relatively well-defined (pro tip: they don't include anything about foreign aid). That flexibility has historically served us well; the fewer rules your organization has, the easier it is to adapt through time and space. The more that actual Christians lose sight of that core, the more they diffuse what it means to be Christian in real life. That will tend to take the religion "off message" in the short term, and in the long term, expand the term "Christian" until it doesn't mean anything.

It's also an unfortunate practice as a Christian. If I believe in military aid to Israel for Christian reasons, my actual chain of belief probably should go something like this: (i) I believe that the text of the Bible is the word of God (yes, I know this could be preceded by an infinite number of prior bullet points, but we have to start somewhere); (ii) I think the text of the Bible gives "Israel" to "the Jews;" (iii) I think that the modern nation of Israel can be equated with both "Israel" and "the Jews;" (iv) I think that, if "the Jews" cannot hold "Israel" with their own resources, they ought to be assisted in doing so; (v) I think that America's foreign policy ought to enact, at least in part, my personal beliefs about the universe. Now, if I, as a Christian, meet someone who doesn't agree that America should give Israel foreign aid, how am I likely to react based on that chain of belief? I venture that I will be much more likely to find common ground with such a person, since I recognize that my desire for our foreign policy is the result of not one but five beliefs.

If that person is a Christian, the odds that we agree about at least belief number (i) are pretty high. In fact, belief number (i) is the only thing I'm really committed to. All other beliefs flow from my interpretation of the text of the Bible. As long as I can recognize that, I shouldn't find it very hard to respect somebody whose honest interpretation of the text leads to a different foreign policy.

Why should I care about this sort of thing, other than a commitment to intellectual honesty and a pragmatic desire for my religion to remain relevant after I'm dead? Those are both good reasons, but I can think of another one: because when I have common ground with somebody, I am much more likely to treat them with compassion, and much more likely to love them without being a jerk about it - and those are things that, as a Christian, I want to help myself do (treating people with compassion and loving people without being a jerk being one of the fairly few things that actually is pretty core to the religion).

I got a good object lesson in this myself in college, when I was wrestling with Reformed theology. The implications of Reformed vs. Armenian theology can seem fairly significant; the principal implication, for those of you who have had the good fortune to avoid this particular schism within Christendom, is whether salvation is available to everybody or not. Like many Christians who run into this schism for the first time, I was kind of horrified. How could there be Christians who didn't believe that Christ died to save everyone? (My Reformed counterparts, to give them their due, have equally horrifying versions of Armenian theology). Were those people even part of my religion at all? It's one thing to be trying to describe the same entity and failing every now and then; were they even trying to describe the same god that I was?

The thing that broke the philosophical deadlock for me was realizing that I actually wasn't committed to a belief that Christ died for everybody. What I'm actually committed to is a belief that the text of the Bible is the word of God - and the text of the Bible doesn't answer this particular question (I know there are plenty of people on both sides who think it does, but really ... this debate is at least four hundred years old. Debates do not last that long for lack of reading comprehension). People can be committed to that same belief and come up with different theological answers.

Especially living in the Bay Area, where Christianity tends to be opposite the sociopolitical spectrum from many of the places where our religion is strongest, I often feel that this is a lesson American Christendom needs to relearn. If two Christians can recognize that they're committed to the text of the Bible, there's a lot of room for differences on sociopolitical issues. Now they aren't disagreeing about foreign aid, or homosexuality. They're agreeing about the Bible, and with respect to any given issue, they're doing what we have taught ourselves to do from the beginning - searching the Scriptures to see whether these things are true.

The other signal benefit of having a firm grasp on what one is really committed to as a Christian, I find, is an increased ability to deal with non-Christians without coming across as a jackass. Suppose somebody comes to me to discuss my beliefs, as a Christian, about homosexuality. If I think that I actually do have beliefs, as a Christian, about homosexuality, the odds are high that I will disagree with my interlocutor, and ... well, we've seen repeatedly what often happens in that case.

But I don't really have beliefs about homosexuality, as a Christian. What I have is a belief about the Bible, from which I derive beliefs about homosexuality. Forget talking about homosexuality. Let's talk about the Bible first.

I mean that, and not as an excuse to evangelize. For any discussion to be civil, let alone successful, you need to start from some kind of common ground (and if you don't want the discussion to be at least civil, well, you have bigger problems). Maybe we can talk about homosexuality from the perspective of Americans. Or fans of the Enlightenment. Or believers in the rule of law. But for a Christian to talk about homosexuality (or any other issue) as a Christian with somebody who doesn't share some more basic belief about Christianity is just looking for trouble.

And it's silly. Suppose somebody who didn't believe in quantum mechanics came to you with a question about superpositions. You can try to explain, but why would you do that? The first thing to do is make sure you both believe in quantum mechanics.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The End of the End

Well, it's been a long time since I've had a game post, and with the announcement of Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut, the time has come.

There is no further part of this post that does not contains spoilers of the most intimate kind.

For those who don't know but are still reading this post, the ending of Mass Effect 3 has occasioned a large enough fan base kerfluffle that developer BioWare has actually agreed to change the ending. Well, sort of. They've agreed to "more context and clarity to the ending of the game, in a way that will feel more personalized for each player" through "additional cinematic sequences and epilogue scenes." Whether any existing content is actually being changed is so far unclear, though I'd be surprised if it was. I haven't had a chance to lay out my thoughts on the ending in detail, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to do so by considering which complaints extra ending content can and can't fix..

As far as I can tell, there's some appreciable portion of the fan base that feels that the ending off Mass Effect 3 fails to deliver on the promised multiplicity of endings and character closure. I can sympathize with wondering whether Garrus starved to death on Earth or not, but in the largest sense, I think this was always impossible. Like the Matrix "trilogy," the Mass Effect games tell a story in two parts and three products. Mass Effect is the story of how Shepard discovers that the Reaper menace exists. Mass Effect 2 sets up how the galaxy prepares, or fails to prepare, for the imminent arrival of the Reapers. Mass Effect 3, like the third Matrix movie, is simply an enormous climax.

You spend a lot of the first two games making decisions that one feels must surely have a major impact on the climax. Do you save the last of the rachni or destroy them? Does Wrex survive to unite the krogan or does he die for his principles? Do you save the Council or sacrifice it? Do you destroy the Collector base or hand it over to Cerberus? Even in the midst of the climax itself you're making these kinds of decisions. Do you cure the genophage or not? Do you win the support of the salarians? Do you kill the geth or make peace between them and their creators?

I suspect there were a lot of people who were hoping that Mass Effect 3 would tally all these decisions and present you with a way to defeat the Reapers that was the sum total of them all. In reality, all that has to happen - and, at least the way the game is presently constituted, all that can happen - is that Shepard reaches the Crucible superweapon, meets an avatar of the race that created the Reapers, and then chooses one of three equally unpalatable ways to use the Crucible to defeat them. No matter what you do, Shepard makes it to the Crucible. The only real effect that uniting the galaxy has is that more people are there to die while you do it.

My question to people who complain that this doesn't take enough account of all you've done before is, "How else could it end?" I don't think anybody seriously wants an ending where you don't stop the Reapers. But does anybody seriously want an ending where the combined might of the galaxy simply beats them? That would be ridiculous. The Reapers are supposed to have harvested the most advanced of the galaxy's races every 50,000 years for millennia beyond memory. What would make this cycle so much more militarily badass than the rest of them? The answer to the Reapers has to be a superweapon, and unless the entire trilogy was about searching for that superweapon, the superweapon has to be a deus ex machina. That's the inevitable consequence of having as your villain a race of sentient cyborg starships that has harvested the most advanced of the galaxy's races every 50,000 years for millennia beyond memory. So if you object to defeating the Reapers through a deus ex machina, well, that was always how it was going to end.

On the other hand, you could see exactly in which way the assembled races of the galaxy are inconsequential. That might not be as silly as it sounds. Right now, the only consequence of having the various races or other galactic war assets on your side at the final showdown is that your space and ground forces get decimated later rather than earlier. But you never actually see them fighting. That's something Extended Cut could conceivably fix. Would it feel better to see an Alliance soldier get saved by a geth before both are blown to smithereens - or alternatively, see him not get saved by a geth who wasn't there, before he's blown to smithereens? Honestly, yeah, it would to me. I can accept that all roads lead to the superweapon. But seeing how each road differs in the details would certainly make those details feel weightier.

I know there are also some people who object to the fact that all three endings destroy the mass relay network, thereby rendering interstellar travel beyond fairly short distances (galactically speaking) impractical. This has the unfortunate effect of, for instance, probably dooming the various alien forces you've brought to Earth who can't eat terrestrial food. So no matter what you do, odds are you've killed tens of thousands of your allies. Oh yeah, and plunged the galaxy into a sort of new dark age of isolation.

Well ... yeah. The relays themselves, and the very existence of pan-galactic civilization, have always been a Reaper trap; that much is revealed in Mass Effect. It should come as no surprise to anybody that the Reaper solution, whatever form it ultimately took, involved a galaxy without mass relays. And what about all those stranded aliens (and humans too, for that matter)? Or the destroyed mass relays, what about those - did they just burn out, useless artificial asteroids? Did they explode (and if so, why doesn't that wipe out their associated systems like it did in Mass Effect 2)?

Mike Krahulik has a point that worrying about this sort of thing is a lot like worrying about the Endor Apocalypse after Death Star II was destroyed. Yeah, it probably happened, but dwelling on it misses the artistic point. But even if you do choose to dwell on it, Mass Effect's strongest theme has always been that war requires you to make terrible choices - that no matter what you do, and no matter how hard you try, and no matter how special you are, every decision you make kills someone you don't want to die. So if saving the galaxy means dooming thousands and thousands of your allies to a horrible, anticlimactic death by starvation ... um, duh?

Of course, all this is conjecture. It does feel a bit anticlimactic to wonder what exactly happened to all those ships in Earth orbit after you destroy the mass relay network. Did any of them know what was happening? Did they try to use the relays one last time before they were burned out (the three endings sort of imply that, though there's no explanation of how anybody could have known to run for the nearest relay)? Did they all starve to death? Did any of those ships ever make it home, perhaps crewed by the descendants of their original crews? All those are questions that, sure, it would be nice for Extended Cut to show answers to.

Then there are the people who feel like the ending (or rather, the end of the ending - if you didn't feel like the entirety of Mass Effect 3 was the end, I'm not sure what's wrong with your artistic antennae)came out of nowhere. In some senses I think that's just people being tone deaf. For instance, of course the Illusive Man was on the Citadel with Shepard and Anderson. By the time you get to Earth you already have confirmation of what you've known for a long time - that the Illusive Man is indoctrinated by the Reapers - and you know that he left for the Citadel before the Reapers seized it. Why wouldn't the Reapers leave their powerful indoctrinated thrall on the station? On the other hand, finding out that the Citadel has had a secret core holding the digital avatar (or maybe the spirit? It's unclear) of the race that created the Reapers, just waiting for somebody to finally finish the superweapon and thus prove that the Reaper solution was unnecessary ... well, yeah, that kind of comes out of nowhere.

I think this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I was really expecting the end of Mass Effect 3 to come down to a binary choice, like Mass Effect 2 did: side with the Illusive Man and control the Reapers for humanity's benefit, thus advancing human civilization immeasurably but at the peril that they would fall into the wrong hands, or side with Anderson and destroy them, thus returning to the status quo ante. I was pleasantly surprised that it did not end that way.

I was less pleasantly surprised that, when all was said and done, I couldn't think back on the rest of the series and say, "Oh yeah, now I see where that was hinted at." That is my biggest problem with the end of the end. It isn't as if it came completely out of nowhere; characters do wonder who created the Reapers, and why, as early as Mass Effect. But there isn't very much of it, and I don't feel like you can look back after the credits and have an "aha" moment about all the seemingly unrelated pieces whose connections you can now see. You can't, because there simply aren't all that many pieces to begin with.

If I were to expand Mass Effect 3, I probably would still do it with additional dialogue and cutscenes rather than rewriting the whole game, as some people seem to implicitly prefer. But I wouldn't add a lot to the end. What I'd do is add more to the middle of the game, so when you finally meet one of the Reapers' creators, you have more pieces to connect.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

On Easter

Every year at Easter I am struck by how hard it is to get into the Easter spirit. I'm not even sure what the "Easter spirit" is. The Christmas spirit, by contrast, is so easy to define and get into that it can be found at events like Dickens Fair, where I'd be surprised if even 50% of the workers care (or even agree) that God invaded the world.

My strongest memories of Easter are of uncomfortable little-boy clothes, bizarre rituals, and awkward family gatherings. There were certainly fun parts of Easter growing up (such as the morning search for the Easter basket), but on the whole, Easter was a rather unhappy holiday for me. Now, there's an argument to be made for Easter not being a joyous holiday, but how are you supposed to get into a holiday that's unhappy?

Of course, there's an argument to be made for it to be a joyous holiday too, but I've never really been able to get 100% behind that. As an adult, the adjective that feels to me most appropriate to Easter is shell-shocked. A previously dead man is no longer dead. The executed deity is no longer executed. The one who descended into hell is no longer in hell. Those are good things ... I guess? My honest reaction to those things is not joy. It's more like just ... whoa.

When I need a handy lens through which to think about Christmas, I tell myself a Phoenix Earth story, where Alaen Kerona relates to Mackenzie Taylor what it was like to be there on Christmas night, when the armies of heaven were for just one brief moment unleashed on the world and battered a hole in the serried ranks of the enemy to allow the First to be born as a baby. For what? Nobody knew. Those were their orders; not for them to know why. And I think of the angels of the expeditionary force witnessing that invasion after millennia of fighting a losing battle and, even if they didn't know why it was coming, I can easily imagine myself standing on the sidelines shouting myself hoarse, roaring, "Go! Go, you magnificent bastards, go!"

When I need a handy lens through which to think about Easter, I don't really have one. I know the theology, just like I know the theology about Christmas, but trust is not maintained by knowledge alone. I'd almost venture to say the opposite: that the fabric of trust is primarily emotional, propped up and given stability by knowledge.

But I did have a thought today, walking Meshparjai to the store to pick up ingredients for an Easter salad. I was struggling with something that might make sense but that I don't want to do. It was (is?) all mixed up with outrage at other people, my dreams for what might have been, my fears for what might not be, but God directed my gaze, as always, at one particular aspect of my emotional hurricane - the pride that says, "I shouldn't have to do this." Maybe that shouldn't be the most salient fact. But, funny thing about being a Christian, pride always seems to become the most salient fact.

And I realized - or God pointed out to me - that, "I shouldn't have to do this" is a very Easter-y dilemma. Invading occupied Earth, well, that's one thing. Anybody can get behind liberating occupied territory. But then the liberation turns out to require the better to die for the worse. And ... well, you shouldn't have to do that.

I imagine that at some point the observing angels must have realized what their master and commander meant to do. I think of Alaen Kerona realizing what the point of the invasion had been all along, and thinking to herself, "He shouldn't have to do this." Reading the Gospels, I'm pretty sure that Jesus felt that way in Gethsemane, and it wasn't even a secret to him. Just ... it's one thing to commit to do something in the future, and another to stare at it from inches away.

And - and perhaps here's the most important thing to me - I agree that he shouldn't have had to do this. As any number of thinkers (mostly skeptics, perhaps) have pointed out over the years, God doesn't need people (or, if you don't think God exists, God shouldn't need people, were he to exist). If the nature of God is such that people can choose to walk away from him, and they do, well ... they made their own bed, right? Let them lie in it. If any of them have regrets down the line, well, we all have regrets in life, and you can't undo the consequences of your past actions.

It's the world we live in - and the world, I think, that we all accept. In my younger and crueler days (at least I hope I become less cruel as I grow older) I would look at parents dealing with broken teenagers and shake my head because, hey, it's too late. If you don't have a strong home by the time your kid is fifteen, well, it's too late to fix it now. It's too late to fix it when your kid is five. Heck, my kid is fifteen months, and you know what? It's too late to fix the mistakes I've already made. It's always too late to fix the past. All we can do is pick up the pieces and move on as best we can.

Isn't that how we all live? It's sad, but we accept it, don't we? How many of us really think that it needs fixing? Because that's the main theological point of Easter, I think - that it never has to be too late. For a better man to die for a worse man - a better man who doesn't need the worse man in the least - to fix something we are pretty much all okay living with, well ... he shouldn't have to do that. Who among us hasn't felt the power of that simple protest? I shouldn't have to do this.

And maybe you shouldn't. Maybe I shouldn't. Maybe I don't. Maybe there's nothing requiring me, or us, to do it, than our own natures. And yet ... I shouldn't have to do this! Even when the only person demanding you do something is yourself, the power of I shouldn't have to do this can stop you cold.

Perhaps the spirit of Easter is overcoming that protest, that last ditch scream of an outraged pride. If Alaen Kerona had been at Gethsemane, I don't think she would have understood everything that was going on. And overcoming my own pride isn't going to create the possibility of redemption for the world.

But it may create a bit of the Kingdom in my own family's sphere. And isn't that what I should do? Isn't that what any good buir would do - isn't that, in fact, what makes a buir?

Last night Meshparjai and I saw a bit of Peter Pan. She lost interest, but I think I needed to see it. I needed to hear Mrs. Darling say once more that Mr. Darling was a brave man.

Says Wendy in the cruelty of youth, "Father. Brave."

"There are many kinds of bravery," her mother replies. "There is the bravery of thinking of others before oneself. Now, your father has never ... brandished a sword, nor - nor fired a pistol, thank heavens!* But he has made many sacrifices, and put away many dreams."

Michael perks up. "Where did he put them?"

"Why ... he put them in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the door. He does. And that is why he is brave."

* A good buir, of course, should be able to brandish a sword and fire a pistol. Working on it. Funds are presently lacking.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A Dalyc'ade Kotla'shya

It is late, and behind me, Meshparjai sleeps on the couch while Kendall Payne plays on my iPhone. We have just finished watching Tinker Bell.

Meshparjai is almost sixteen months old now. She walks, she climbs, she begins to run. She begins to speak, and certainly understands some of the words that Thayet and I use. Mostly those words are English. When we are alone, I still speak some mando'a. In part it is for my own practice. But only in part.

There is a Mando saying, "Raise your children: raise your sons to be strong, but your daughters to be stronger." The Natalian appeal should be obvious, but it's probably less obvious that there's nothing about Mando culture that is pro-female or anti-male. This is one of the many reasons the Mando mindset appeals to me. It's ... a lens, I guess, through which to process my fatherhood.

In what does fatherhood consist? When I vowed to Thayet, "Mhi bajuri verde" (well, in my heart anyway; I try to avoid vocalizing too much Mando stuff lest it become silly), what exactly did I have in mind for a sixteen month old? She still needs her diapers changed and the turmoils of babyhood soothed, but now that she begins to understand ... what? How do you teach a sixteen month old to be a lady knight, a verd mandokarla?

I can't articulate an answer to that doesn't seem immediately incomplete. But I can name little things to do. Sing to her songs that explain who Jesus is. Watch movies and read books that dream of a better place than here - so she will know that here can be made better.