Works in Progress

Reading Dom Lorenzo Scupoli's The Spiritual Combat

As part of my foray into mysticism and spiritual warfare, I picked up Dom Lorenzo Scupoli's Spiritual Combat (which in my edition is combined with A Treatise on the Peace of God).

The author's background is obscure, with the first four decades of his life being a blank slate.  It is only after he embraced a religious vocation that we hear of him, and this work (which was apparently modified several times after his death) was a favorite of St. Francis de Sales, the two having met between 1589 and 1591.

It consists of a series of short chapters, ranging from a paragraph to at most three pages in length on various topics, each mapping a path of victory in the spiritual combat against temptation and evil.

I think it reasonable to assume Scupoli was a soldier in his early life; his references to battle and soldierly life are unceasing - certainly not something a merchant or peaceful member of the landed gentry would be expected to know.  In a recent reading he remarks that when fighting against temptation, one might start to give way, which fine, but surrender is never acceptable.  He gives the graphic image of a warrior that is unable to bring the point of his blade to bear (crucial to penetrating the armor of the time) and so punches his foe with his hilt in order to force him back and regain his position.

I will give a fuller account when I've finished the whole thing, but this passage resonates with me because I've just had one such episode, and the temptation to go nuclear was almost unendurable.  So easy to burn a relationship in an reckless show of wrath!  Satisfying, too - in the short run.

But as Scupoli said, having felt myself losing, I decided to try to hang on, to let the storm pass and instead of turning to curses, utter some prayers instead.

And the wrath faded.  It was uncanny, but as the seconds ticked by, I could feel the anger dissipating.  It's now entirely gone, replaced instead by a desire to understand.  Freakish.

One might even call it miraculous.


Abortion, AIDS, Covid and shifting views on divine judgement

While American society is heavily secularized, it retains a lot of the theoretical framework that has its origins in Christianity.  One of the strongest (and paradoxically most overlooked) is that of Calvinism.

Calvinism (or Reformed Christianity as it's sometimes styled) holds that God's favor can be known in this life by visible, tangible signs.  The Elect or Anointed are there for everyone to see - their prosperity, good looks, life advantages - are proof of God's blessing.  This religious view has been secularized into a "meritocracy" where the people born into wealth and privilege are owed it through their own merit.

There are several heresies involved in this worldview and it is in direct conflict with the traditional (that is Catholic/Orthodox) view that the mortal life is but preparation for what comes after.  Devout, believing and beloved children of God may suffer terribly in mortal life, but that is part of their purification.  To the meritocrats and the Calvinists, there is no benefit to suffering in the here and now.  Bad things happening are instead a call for immediate purification so that blessings can return.

This view permeates our language and our discourse, and right now it is at a fever pitch.

I find it fascinating that abortion proponents constantly speak of women being "punished" with a child as a consequence of having sex.  There is genuine outrage that men don't give birth and have to bear the same burden.  Despite many different and effective ways to prevent pregnancy, there is a fanatical devotion to this secular sacrament, which is seen as the last line of defense for ultimate individual autonomy.

Of course, no one gets pregnant alone, and not too long ago, there was a reason sex was supposed to take place after marriage (or at least after betrothal).  A "ruined woman" was seen as fitting punishment for immorality.

The legalization of abortion was therefore a welcome liberation from the "oppression" of biology.   Women could now be as immoral as the wanted.

Similarly, when the AIDS epidemic swept through the homosexual community, the same people insisted that one could not even think it was divine judgement.  A sexually transmitted disease that was most easily spread through religiously proscribed sexual behavior was simply a thing that happened and enormous resources would have to be expended not only to cure it, but in the interim, the risk-taking behavior could not be curbed.

It's interesting to note that the State of California has decriminalized passing the disease to a sexual partner without their consent.  No harm, no foul.

In both these cases, cause and effect are irrelevant, and all right-thinking people" know that to draw lines indicating how immoral behavior can beget negative consequences is hateful nonsense.

Thus it is interesting to see how one's Covid vaccination status has become a great exception to this belief.  Unvaccinated (or maskless) people who die of the disease are widely mocked as getting what they deserve.

It's divine judgement, and cause and effect are now operative.

My point by the way is not to highlight hypocrisy, but to note that in all three instances, the underlying framework remains Calvinist.  In the first two examples, the goal is to escape punishment, which is presumably not from God but rather from the Devil.  Women not being able to abort children is evil, an infringement on their God-given freedom to have absolute control over their bodies.

Similarly the AIDS epidemic could not be permitted to change the homosexual lifestyle because freedom is the highest value, even above stopping a once-incurably fatal disease.

Yet now the righteousness is on the other side, with anti-vaxxers being justly struck down for their impiety.

While the examples are contemporary, the issue is not new.

G.K. Chesterton's writing reveals that this mentality has been around for a while, chiefly being a function of unprecedented prosperity.  People can draw various philosophical lines on how thought progressed, but the key ingredient was leisure time and increased material comfort.

Evelyn Waugh's dark satires of the Smart Set illustrated the moral bankruptcy, and it was not until his later work that he began to look at how religious people can co-exist in this environment.

I plan on incorporating this into my writing on the spirit world.  As others long before me have pointed out, unbelievers don't necessary lack faith, they simply place it before something besides God. 


A garden of trees

This time last year, we were busy working on a vegetable garden.  We ripped up the sod, put down fertilizer and planted the seeds.

Our efforts were rewarded with lots of healthy plants, but that was before the local wildlife got a crack at them.  I spent the balance of the summer trying to outwit these predatory herbivores, eventually creating an elaborate fence system designed to keep them out.  I also deployed a trail cam for better intelligence regarding their numbers and capabilities.

In the end, our harvest was meager: a couple of green peppers and a tomato.  I think we got part of a squash.  The animals ate the rest.

This year I'm planting something different: trees.   These aren't from a nursery, either, but saplings that are sprouting around the yard, usually in planters.   I'm really just transplanting them to a single area.  They are mostly maple trees: box elders, silver maple and a red maple.  These are common in the neighborhood, so I know they'll grow here.

In doing this, I'm following the lesson of the wild raspberries, letting nature by my guide rather than trying to impose my will on it.  Some of the saplings have already been eaten, others are struggling, but a few seem to be doing well.  That's all it takes.

My writing has ceased for the moment due to some other distractions, but that's also okay.  When the time comes, I'll have something to say.


Some Thoughts About Prequels

I've written at great length about the many problems with the Star Wars prequels (including of course the Man of Destiny series), but one area I've neglected is the problem of creating tension within the story.

Yes, it's possible to keep an audience's interest in seeing how a character gets out of each scrape.  This is the foundation of the James Bond franchise.  No matter how bad things look, somehow Bond survives for yet another adventure.

I'm not particularly interested in those kinds of stories, however. 

I think the best way to pull off a prequel is to relegate the known main characters into supporting roles.

This allows other people (who don't have script immunity) to come forward and provide the proper dramatic tension.  It can be interesting to see how events formed a future hero, but for those who want actual suspense, you can have that with all the additional characters getting bumped off (or looking like they might get bumped off).

I will say that if you are going to make the future main characters take center stage, the demands for a very good story become that much greater.  And as noted above, that's hard to do when physical danger is categorically out of bounds.

In fact, emotional danger's also largely taken away because they have to come out reasonably intact.   I'm tempted to say that prequels are by nature locked into a static characters, but that's not entirely true.  You can take a beloved character and show him as a complete dope who will turn into something more familiar.

But even there, with the outcome known, it's critical to make that path of that progression really interesting.

I've been asked a couple of times to write a prequel to Man of Destiny and the natural thing to cover would be the Deimos War.  It's vague enough that I'm not giving anything away and any "crossover" characters from Man of Destiny would be children.

The thing that holds me back is not just the potential scope of the project, but the fear of giving in to "fan service" type call-backs.  If I were to do it, I think I'd have to write it as a standalone book, explaining everything anew.  I think only then would it be worthwhile.


Conqueror: Siege Assault - basic concepts

Over the next few days I will be posting some of the working rules I've developed for Conqueror: Siege Assault.  These are the trial versions and obvious need to be firmed up.

Feedback is much appreciated.

The Fortress

Fortifications over time have varied greatly, form simple earthen mounds to wooden stockades and finally stone castles.  It is impossible for one set of rules to cover all of these materials in detail (and foolish to try) so instead we will focus on the essential structures and provide rules to support attacking (or defending) them.

Curtain Walls

This is the building block of all fortresses, and their height and materials are entirely up to the players’ imagination.  For convenience, however, we shall assume that they are at least twice the height of models being used to attack them and created in sections six to twelve inches long.  They should have some form of parapet along the top where the defenders can stand and this should be wide enough to support two models.

The key features of curtain walls for our purposes are that they can be scaled using ladders and breached with greater ease than any other section of the fortress.  We will look into this in greater detail later.

Towers

Towers are self-contained defensive works that overshadow the curtain walls.  Towers are much smaller (no more than four inches on a side) and too high to be reached by ladders.  Breaching a tower is more difficult (due the deeper foundations necessary to support their immense weight) and also more dangerous to the defenders.

The Gate

The gate is the most vulnerable and therefore important point in the entire fortress.  The gate may be simply a gap in the wall or a complex building featuring a portcullis and multiple doors.  Either way, possession of the gate is usually tantamount to taking the fortress.

The Keep

Some castles may be built with a keep, which is rally just an enlarged tower.  The keep is too high for ladders, too difficult to batter down (since it is often inside the curtain walls) and it serves as the last refuge for the defenders.

Rally Points

In field battles, routed units have plenty of room to try to make good their escape, but within the confines of a castle, there are less options.

Troops outside the walls will fleet away from the enemy as normal, with defending troops attempting to reach the (relative) safety of their fortress. 

Within the walls, defending troops will attempted to reach a rally point, that is a spot within the castle selected before the game begins.  This will usually be a tower or the keep (if there is one).

Attacking troops will attempt to escape and will only rally outside the walls.

Special Morale Rules

Limited Outranking

Because the tight confines of a fortress do not lend themselves to fighting in close order, combats will generally not see the outranking bonus applied.  Thus units scaling walls, using siege towers, etc. will not receive this bonus.  However, where space permits (such as a breach), the extra weight of numbers will be felt.  The simple rule is: if both sides are fighting from a position where normal ranks can be utilized, this is included, if either side cannot benefit from it, no one does.

Desperate Defenders

Troops defending a fortress are under no illusion regarding their chances of escape, and typically will fight with greater determination than in the open field.  To reflect this “backs against the wall” mentality, defending troops gain a +1 bonus to all their morale rolls.  Note that this applies even to units outside the fortress (since the sortie may be their best hope to survive).

Special Shooting Rules

Full Cover

Units within a fortress generally benefit from a -2 to hit modifier for being in heavy cover.  However, if the walls are properly battlemented (which they should be), units may take Full Cover, that is stay below the parapet or step back from the arrow loop to avoid any risk of taking missile fire.

Units within a fortress may start the game in Full Cover (and it’s a good idea to assume that they do), and may only emerge from it during their own movement phase – they may not “pop up” during the opposing player’s turn to participate in their portion of the shooting phase.

Once out of Full Cover, they may not return to it until it is once again their Movement Phase.

Overhead Bombardment

Models on the top of walls or towers are assumed to be equipped with copious amounts of missiles (rocks, boiling liquids, darts, pianos, kitchen sinks) that can be dropped on the attackers below.

These weapons make missile attacks as normal during the Shooting Phase using their unmodified Shooting Skill.  Unlike normal missile attacks, the resulting hits are not halved (because the targets are so closely packed together) and have an armor save modifier of -2.

Models may only target models “beneath them” aligning as if they were to engage in Melee Combat.  Just as with Melee Combat, only a partial overlap is needed to conduct the attack.

Models may move into position (either up to the wall or along it to reach a troop concentration) and still attack without penalty.

 


Geek Guns on hiatus

After 23 consecutive installments, I've decided to take a break from Geek Guns over at Bleedingfool.com.  The decision is based on a thinning of material to work with and also declining feedback.  People used to comment on the articles and now they're not.

I'm not writing this stuff for my health, so I figure I'll take a break, recharge, and maybe write more later.

There's also a sense that in trying to sustain a weekly column, I'm siphoning off creative energy that could be used for bigger projects.   When I was writing Long Live Death, I basically abandoned that site, and I started writing again only after the book was published.

So I'm going to take a break and see what happens.  I've got some ideas for a book and I know I'm being horribly indecisive, vacillating back and forth between projects.  My hope is that if I dam up the creative energy for a bit, it will cut a new channel and I can roll with the flood.


Conqueror: Siege Assault continues to grind forward

I've been tinkering with siege rules for Conqueror: Fields of Victory on and off for years.  I'm currently in an "on" cycle.

Though I'm not sure what will come of it, it's fun to do some recreational game design, especially when it involves cool figures and a neat custom-built castle.

One of the great obstacles is integrating siege warfare into a system designed for open-field combat.  In the close confines of castle courtyards and along battlements, things like wheeling and formation changes just don't apply.

I also want to ensure that I'm using the right amount of detail.  That was the hallmark of the original system and I want to retain that.

At this point, I'm looking only at the culminating assault (hence the name) rather than the strategies of a siege (undermining, blockade, etc.) so that the game moves quickly.  I've been tinkering with a grid where each player picks an option and that sets up the type of battle, but it's getting somewhat complex.

In the mean time, the assault ladders are being placed and battle beckons.


Conquest of the Empire 30 years later

Over the past few weeks I've been doing some housecleaning and that's involved reviewing my game collection.

This in turn has caused me to pull out a few venerable designs and re-examine them.

Those of a certain age will recall that during the 1980s, Milton Bradley made a concerted push into the burgeoning wargaming market with their Game Master series, which combined high production values and plastic army men with a design philosophy that was closer to Risk or Stratego than Advanced Squad Leader.

The most prolific offspring of this project was Axis and Allies, which has spawned endless variants, both official and player-driven.   However, that was not the first offering, and earlier this week I dug into a battered copy of it's predecessor: Conquest of the Empire.

This was a multi-player strategy game of the Roman Empire at its height.  The players are rival claimants for the imperial purple, and they fight out their contest on an excellent map of the Empire.

I bought my copy from a classmate, and it was already well-used and missing all the money tokens.  That didn't bother me because I had no interest in the game as written, but instead used it as a test bed for various alternative mechanics.

Thus my first actual playing of the game was only a few days ago.  It kind of sucks.

I was warned about this from my classmate, and I now see that it was true.  I won't go into detail, but if you are expecting the classical design excellence of the peerless Shogun (since renamed Samurai Swords and maybe renamed again), you're in for a huge disappointment.  Combat consists of single die rolls to eliminate individual units, which is a grossly inefficient way of fighting battles.  Apparently this was before MB figured out that hurling fist-fulls of dice is not only faster, but much more satisfying.

There's also an inexplicable rule for inflation that I won't go into, but essentially it punishes players for capturing too much territory.

All that being said, the game still looks beautiful, and a single page of updates should suffice to make this the high-quality social experience it was meant to be.  I'll post it once I get a chance to try them out.


Well, let's see how 2021 works out

Happy New Year!  As the song says, it's been a long December but there's reason to believe that this year will be better than the last.

Taken as a whole, 2020 has not been without its joys.  The publication of Vampires of Michigan and the subsequent writing of Long Live Death and its success was not something I contemplated a year ago.   The COVID lockdown has put our family under great strain, but we also celebrated the birth of our first grandchild, who has been a source of unceasing wonderment and happiness.

In many ways, how we approach life determines how we perceive it.  What makes a "very good" year versus a bad one?  Folks used to advise people to "count their blessings" and I think it's good advice - though not something sad people want to hear.

That's my other observation this year, something I'd noted before but I've now seen it spread on a far wider basis: misery loves company.  Online places I used to visit have become so unrelentingly negative that I can't even stomach them.  If you bring in good cheer, they boo you right off the network.

I'm not a big fan of New Year's Resolutions but I am going to enhance my efforts this winter to push aside complaints and try to hold onto moments of joy that might otherwise have been lost.

 


Vampires of Michigan: Pandemic

The title of this post is a teaser for a sequel I've been mulling over for a while.  I know, I know, I keep announcing my next project only to bail a day later.

The problem of course is twofold.

The first issue is not knowing how things will turn out.  That's a pretty tough position for a novelist to be in, especially if one wants an intricate plot. 

Then there's the problem that writing about reality cuts into the escapism that is part of why I write.

I suppose I could go all-in on wishcast/Mary Sue type work, but I like to think I'm above such things.

Still, I've got a notion how it would work, so maybe once the vaccine and election work their way through, I'll get to work.  Though it sold less than some of my other books, Vampires of Michigan did get some of the strongest fan response I've seen.  I'm pretty sure people would read it.

Maybe next year.