Retroactive Continuity: Base Raiders

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If you want to get me to throw your book across the room in disgust, quoting Nietzsche on the first page is a great start. His On the Genealogy of Morality remains the only book to which I have actually done this, though I have threatened it to other books. Unless you’re going to pull a Xenosaga and spend the next 100+ hours of gameplay across three games taking the piss out of him, referencing the Ayn Rand of humanities majors is just going to get my guard up from the start.

Base Raiders: Superpowered Dungeon Crawling, a FATE RPG by Ross Payton, starts with just such a quote, and it’s one of the worst ones–the Will to Power. Admittedly, this is in the forward, which is by one Caleb Stokes–but Stokes is also named in the book’s acknowledgments of family, friends, and playtesters, implying he bears least one of those relationships to the author. His description of the philosophy behind Base Raiders can be taken as, if not a direct description of its authors’ views, at least not antithetical to them.

Stokes lays it on thick; the quote is immediately followed by a lament that superheroes–referring to the characters, but implying the genre as well–reject the idea of seeking power over others, and label those who do seek power as villains. He actually notes that superheroes almost never want their power–though he doesn’t go quite as far as to label it as trauma–but then describes this as being “ungrateful.” The point of Base Raiders, he writes, is to present a vision of superheroes for “the generation that stopped being purely ‘human’ twenty years ago and couldn’t be happier about it.* It’s for the people that never met something they didn’t want to hack, customize, remix, or make better, including their own bodies. It’s a vision of superpowers tailor-made for a people that… won’t tolerate being told ‘no.'”

I’m not sure I’ve ever read something as pure straight white male Silicon Valley technocrat incel nerdbro as self-describing as “a people that won’t tolerate being told ‘no.'” It’s almost beautiful in its pure, disgusting selfishness, the utter lack of self-awareness with which it explains why power fantasies work better as villains, because the fantasy of power is precisely that, fantasizing about no one being able to tell you “no.” The fantasy is to override the consent and wishes of everyone you meet, to act devoid of anything other than compassionless self-interest.

And that fantasy is repeated everywhere in this book. I mentioned above that it’s based on the FATE system, which caught my attention immediately, because FATE is my favorite tabletop RPG. Yes, I’ve played D&D more than it, and BESM more than anything, but FATE is the one which I appreciate aesthetically, the one whose design philosophy seems to align best with how I like to play. I won’t go in-depth into game mechanics here, but the short version is, FATE emphasizes tabletop roleplaying as a form of collaborative storytelling. The rules are relatively simple and highly flexible, and character abilities are deliberately rendered somewhat vaguely, because the assumption is that players will work with the GM and each other to tell an unfolding story about their characters, and thus cooperate on interpreting their characters rather than needing detailed adjudication up front.

So, for example, there is a mechanism by which the GM can tell players to act according to particular aspects of their character previously defined by the player, but must offer the player Fate Points for doing so–points which the player can later spend to reject such an instruction from the GM or make story declarations of their own. FATE quite deliberately has no character flaws or merits; players are encouraged to define aspects in such a way that they can serve both roles, allowing the player to spend FP on an aspect to receive a bonus, or receive FP when the GM uses an aspect against them. The game, in other words, can make aspects flexible, multi-faceted, and highly subject to interpretation because it is assumed that the GM and players are going to work together to make the game enjoyable for all.

Base Raiders retains these aspects–but it adds various forms of merits and flaws. It complicates the skill system enormously to far more carefully define what characters can do, and how hard it is for others to stop them from doing it, and in the process discards that assumption of cooperation. Of course it does! Power inherently cannot cooperate; it is, as Stokes so accidentally eloquently put it, unable to tolerate hearing “no,” unable to negotiate or take turns. It must subjugate or be subjugated, and so to build a game with power as its core value, it is necessary to carefully delineate how to determine who dominates whom and when. The game outright admits this is what it’s doing in the discussion of one of the new mechanics, skill tiers, when it notes that, in a struggle between characters in very different skill tiers, it is impossible for the lower-tier character to succeed, “As it should be.”

The addition of merits and flaws, the increased crunchiness, and even the emphasis on numerical dominance over cooperative roleplay, however, are not where I finally broke down and exasperatedly asked the air, “So why are you even using FATE then?” No, that cry came when I noticed a subtle change in character creation. You see, the Fate Point system is not particularly unusual for more narratively focused RPGs; the flexibility of aspects is slightly more so, but still not by that much. One of the truly unusual features of FATE, however, is the incorporation of character creation into play, and specifically the way in which it’s rendered as collaborative as the rest of the game.

You see, character creation in FATE is done in the group. Players take turns defining aspects, and in the process each tells the story of their character’s origin and first adventure, prior to the game’s start. Then, each player picks another character’s first adventure, and works with that character’s player to describe what role the first player’s character played in their adventure, this role serving to set up their final aspect. Base Raiders, however, changes this subtly: to define their character’s final aspect, the player is instructed to “pick another player character as your associate and incorporate them into the adventure.” This eliminates the collaborative element entirely! Players must no longer work with each other to figure out how to fit their character into someone else’s adventure idea; each acts unilaterally, declaring someone else’s character to have had a role in their own development. The FATE Core rulebook emphasizes that, in this final phase of character creation, the character receiving the aspect is a minor figure in the other character’s prior adventures; Base Raiders instead describes the player taking another’s character for their own “greatest adventure.”

This is where superheroes-as-power-fantasy leads: the fantasy of being so much more powerful than anyone else that you can impose your will on them. The fantasy of ignoring consent, compassion, and community to be a lone figure, “free” at the expense of the freedom of everyone else around them. It is the fantasy of people who want nothing more than to violate the boundaries of every person they meet; which is to say, the fantasy of people who can’t tolerate being told “no.”

What other word can there be for people like that, besides “villain”?

*No, I have no clue what technofetishist nonsense this is referring to, either.


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Assuming his girlfriend (Mad Love)

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After the beginning, the end.

Nothing profound about that, of course. It is the one and only absolute certainty in life, that for every beginning, there is a corresponding end. For a new Batman to rise, the old must step aside.

It is fitting that it does so with more beginnings.

It’s still January 16, 1999. On TV, we have the end of an era that began seven years and four volumes ago: Batman: The Animated Series is ending with the final episode of The New Batman Adventures, “Mad Love,” an adaptation of the Batman Adventures comic of the same name. We’ve already discussed the main difference between the two versions, a sequence in which Batman gives an account of the pre-Arkham life of Harleen Quinzel that makes no sense whatsoever, and tied it to both the indelible contribution of Arleen Sorkin to the character and her erasure from almost all discussion thereof.

We won’t rehash that discussion here. Instead, we will focus on the choice for the one DCAU series* that does not start with an origin story to instead end with one–because of course that’s what “Mad Love” is, an unusually robust framing device around a core of Harley Quinn’s origin story.

It’s a familiar structure–a present-day adventure in which someone known to the audience as a joke character is depicted instead as a tragic figure who turns to crime for love and loses painfully, in the process letting the audience see how they came to this state in the first place. That’s exactly how “Heart of Ice” functioned, and while not the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series to be made or to air, it was the first episode that was recognizably part of a groundbreaking, award-winning, genre-transforming work of art. It was, in short, where BTAS earned that “The” in its title. Of course we end in the same kind of story. Of course we take the subgenre that BTAS so uniquely excels at, the sympathetic villain story, and apply it to the one villain who most deserves and needs it, who happens also to be the single best original character to come out of BTAS.

Who could it be but Harley?** And what a gut-punch it is. “Harley and Ivy” already gave us a stunning depiction of a woman who escaped her abusive partner into the arms of a far better match, only to return to the familiar suffering of being with her former partner. “Mad Love” takes that further, keeping the focus throughout on Harley’s feelings and desires. We see how the Joker tricked and seduced her, how he played to her expectations and fantasies. At first he seemed to be reaching out to her for support, flattering her ego and making her feel powerful and special at the vulnerable moment of first embarking on a new career. Then he used her burgeoning Nightingale syndrome to make her increasingly dependent on him, and finally a well-timed escape to make her realize that dependency could only be fed by freeing him and becoming truly dependent on him as his sidekick.

In her state of dependency, all she can do is try to please him and hope he gives her the attention and care she desperately needs–attention and care she deserves from someone who will actually treat her well. But she can’t see that, can’t see any way out. She blew up a world to make her own a little less dark, to make a tiny window of space in which maybe a tiny bit of queerness could be allowed–but she herself remains as trapped as ever.

Because although he is the guard and chief torturer in Harley’s dungeon, and creator of her prison, it’s not made of him–it’s made of her. She casts blame anywhere and everywhere she can–on Batman for “getting in the way,” on herself because she “didn’t get the joke”–but it’s the Joker’s fault, the Joker’s doing, the Joker who hits her right after commenting about taking blows from people who didn’t take the joke. He’s the one who’s humorless, and cruel, and neglectful, and not good enough.

Because as we’ve seen again and again, Harley is smarter than him, tougher than him, funnier than him, more chaotic than him. She, not the Joker, captures Batman near-effortlessly here, and she, not the Joker, makes him laugh. She even, as Batman acknowledges, comes closer to killing him than the Joker ever did. She is the most magical, transformative, powerful character in the DCAU to date, the wielder of the Magic Batte and destroyer of Krypton.

And this is where she ends. Oh, she’ll show up here and there, including one last appearance as Poison Ivy’s partner, but in her other appearances she’ll just be an echo of the Joker, his sidekick, the grandmother of Dee and Dee. She goes back to him, again and again, as abuse victims so often do, because he has persuaded her she needs him. That is her tragedy: bringer of the apocalypse, the revolution, the new art style, the one world she cannot transform is her own. She remains, forever and always, in the prison that is Harley Quinn.

And yet there is always that glimmer of hope. That moment just before she sees the flower in the vase–the same flower and vase that started her on the journey down into misery–when she is able to clearly see the Joker for what he is and the harm that is done to her. She returns to her prison again and again, but there is always hope that one day she will transform, and walk free.

Which is yet another reason why it has to end with her. Because as we’ve seen with so many other sympathetic villains–Two-Face especially–the person who most needs to believe that villains can change, that they can heal and grow and eventually leave their prisons, is Batman. If anyone else in this show lives in a prison built by someone else but made from their own selves, it’s him.

Batman has almost never been at the center of his own show. He is a creature of the shadows, and that is where he usually remains–in the shadows at the periphery of the narrative. It is entirely fitting that he should spend the last episode of his show there, too–and that the person at its center be the one character who perhaps most perfectly reflects him, trapped in a tortured persona whose suffering she cannot let end. She, here at the end, is the apocalypse-light, all red and black, that casts the shadows in which he lurks.

And neither of them will ever get that joke.

*Counting Justice League Unlimited as part of Justice League, The Batman and Robin Adventures and The New Batman Adventures as part of Batman: The Animated Series, and the Batman Beyond episode “Zeta” as the first episode of The Zeta Project, all of which seem reasonable enough choices to me.

**I checked. That really sounds like the title of a song from the 1930s, possibly in an obscure stage musical, but it’s not.


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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S2E3-4 “Signals” and “Roll With It”

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Given the short season–if it can even be called a season (see my last Retroactive Continuity on the show)–She-Ra needs to transition swiftly from resolving threads from last season to setting up threads for this season. One of those threads is introduced in this pair of episodes, first with the Horde, and then with the Princesses: characters feeling inadequate in the face of tasks that seem impossible to do alone, and seeking out (or begrudgingly accepting) help from others to complete them. Bow’s repeated “deaths” in “Roll With It” are a silly but obvious example; his admission in “Signals” that he doesn’t think he can live up to Entrapta’s technological skill and know-how is a better one. And he’s right, he can’t do that alone–he will need his parents’ help by season’s end. Catra likewise realizes she can’t run the Horde army singlehandedly and turns to Shadow Weaver for aid–foolishly, given Shadow Weaver’s penchant for treachery and manipulation and the fact that Scorpia is right there. Likewise, Scorpia can’t take on five princesses and Bow alone any more than Adora can take on total responsibility for the entire Rebellion alone, and Hordak can’t create a working portal alone.

That last brings up something else that’s happening in these two episodes, which is that the show is trying to bring up potentially romantic character pairs other than Catra and Adora, because Catra and Adora are increasingly going to be depicted as an extremely unhealthy relationship. So, we get Scorpia very obviously head-over-heels for Catra, and an extended imaginary sequence in which Glimmer’s image of Catra is the most sexualized any character in the show has ever been. Most of all, we get Entrapta and Hordak working closely together and appreciating one another, with Hordak trusting Entrapta with more information about his plans than he ever trusted Shadow Weaver or Catra, and Entrapta commenting on him being her first “lab partner.”

Entrapta has come up quite a few times in this discussion already, which is fitting, because she’s also being used to open up another theme for this season, and it seems likely the show going forward: the convergence of magic and science. Consider her unusual status: she appears to be the only named, recurring princess who has no magical abilities at all. Not all princesses have the massive elemental powers of Glimmer or Mermista, but Spinerella and Netossa definitely have their own kind of magic. What, then, of Entrapta? This question is answered by another: why is her technological prowess treated as not just above Bow, but unattainably above him, impossible for him to reach on his own? How is it that a self-taught inventor from a “backwater planet” can seemingly surpass the work of Hordak, who as we will learn has scientific and engineering skills from a vastly more technologically advanced civilization?

The answer is simple: she isn’t the only princess without powers. Technology is her magical gift, her element if you will. Bow says it himself early in “Signals”: “Magic and tech aren’t totally separate things. Entrapta is one of the only people who really understands that.”

And he’s right. Magic is, after all, just symbolic manipulation in an effort to similarly manipulate reality. We all to some degree believe in it; that’s why we yell at technology that doesn’t work or call out for lost objects. It makes sense that we should believe in it, because using symbols to express what we want to happen is generally the most effective way to get it to happen what it involves other people, which is most of the time; add in that sometimes the car does start right after we yell at it, and of course it’s our go-to solution! The history of science, looked at closely, is not a rejection of magic but an evolution of magic. Look at two of the oldest sciences, astronomy and chemistry. People started out looking at the stars, noticing the regularity of their motion, and surmised that they reflected or even influenced the motion of objects on Earth. Eventually, after careful study, it was found that it doesn’t work like that–but by that time we had a carefully crafted system of symbols by which the movement of the stars could be predicted, which we call astronomy. The same thing happened with alchemy–after centuries of mixing this and melting that and writing down what happened and guesses as to why, eventually we worked out patterns and rules for how it worked, finding ways to manipulate substances to get what we wanted, and called that chemistry.

As it turns out, the rules that work are more mathematical than poetic, and machines aren’t actually very much like people at all, but it’s all still manipulating symbols. Press a key, labeled with a particular letter, on the keyboard and that letter appears on the screen–you have manipulated a symbol to effect change in the material world. Entrapta’s gift, her power, is that she’s one of the few people who really understands that.

It’s no accident that we’re introduced to Hordak’s interdimensional portal and holographic “ghosts” in the same episode, because they’re both technowank excuses to have fantasy phenomena, just as is the notion of elemental magic being characters tapping into an artificial planet’s environmental control systems. They come at it from opposite ends, of course: ghosts sound magic and holograms sound technological, while an interdimensional portal sounds technological from the start. But it’s really just the old fantasy notion of the magic door, a gateway to Faerie or the underworld, given a sci-fi makeover. (As is much of science fiction, for that matter. The distinction between science fiction, fantasy, and pulp adventure is often just surface aesthetics.)

This approach to magic can be seen as somewhat reductionist. If science and technology are just magic that works, is the rest of magic just failed science? Well, yes. But flip it around: there is magic that works. That’s not reductionist, that’s astounding. We live in a universe in which magic works, in which human minds and hands are capable of constructing and manipulating symbols which tap into cosmic forces to do whatever we can imagine and figure out how to do! How terrific is that?

And, as the end of “Signals” ominously looms, how terrifying?


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