Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Very Metal Creation Story

I've written about the Metal Gods a whole bunch of times already, but recent thoughts and readings about cultural production spurred me to put together a... well... I guess a theology is the thing I mean. So, here, I lay out a theology of the Metal Gods. But first some things about culture.

Metal Gods Are a Product of Culture

I will begin with a pretty simple idea: That Metal, as such, is cultural. This means a variety of very complicated things, most of which are irrelevant to this post. Still, culture and its pursuit give rise to a variety of passions, one of which is music.

Culture Is Both Product and Process
First, culture is the set of things that people make through their actions on the empirical (and obdurate) world around them. This expression may be ephemeral (e.g. live music or conversations about music) or it make be more durable (e.g. a musical instrument or a recording).

Cultural production, as a process, creates groupings, patterns, and regularities, not just chaos. We get genres of music, for example, and material culture that surrounds those genres. But time also passes, and some cultural products and processes are abandoned or forgotten, and some are reimagined in new ways. The regularities break down again, and some are remade. Sometimes this happens in recursive cycles. Doom metal, for example, is a rearticulation of older rock/metal genres, but in new ways; as a genre it both repeats and creates cultural patterns.

Those cultural patterns are objects of human attention and affiliation. We like some kinds of music, so we listen to them, evangelize about them, and so forth. We pass on musical culture to others. We receive it from them, also. We do this just by living life. Richard Dawkins used the term "meme" to express how relatively ephemeral culture gets propagated socially, using an infectious disease metaphor to express that idea.

Culture is Unevenly Distributed in Time and Space

A person lives at a particular time, in particular material and symbolic environments. Those things shape him or her, and provide both means and patterns of expressing culture. For example, by being a consumer of particular products, I am interacting with the world. But those products and process I am a part of are not everywhere and ripped from the moorings of time itself A kid growing up in suburban New Jersey or rural Georgia does not experience the same things in the same ways, and those make both experiences and expressions of music culture variable from scene to scene, creating differences among people calling themselves metalheads. Nonetheless, metalheads probably can spot other metalheads in a crowd--like maybe walking across the mall and seeing one of My People out among The Straights, or not being able to find a single other person like you in other, more rarified climes for whatever your particular subculture might be.

There's also the power issue.

Culture Expresses Power Relations

The conditions under which you live, material and symbolic, are historically rooted in your particular cultural space. You live an inherited culture. And not all of the roots of that culture will be oriented toward you and your interests. Power relations are a part of that.

Not all cultures are valued equally. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, there was a shift during the Reagan years toward the demonization of punk and metal. I was a punk for the most part, but we sort of got lumped into the same crowd by the religious types. We were all just into that Devil Music, don't you know. And the religious Right came after us. They also instituted the Satanic Panic about gaming, so there's that as well. The fact that gaming and metal are sometimes the passions of the same folk, of course, means that sometimes we were doubly targeted, both by adults and by Straights in general.

So, cultural difference led to cultural conflict, and there were asymmetric powers at work. Teenagers have less influence than adults. The religious Right at that time was ascendant (not that they've left since), and able to be influential in significant ways, using mediated social activism in reaction to the bugaboo living in their brains. This didn't make life easy for teenagers at the time (with some exceptions), but it did create a sense of some degree of solidarity, at least in relation to Straight culture. Eventually, though, some Outsider cultures get appropriated in the mainstream (whence we got hair metal and New Wave).

But enough about culture. What does it have to do with the Metal Gods?

The Kids in the Basement

Somewhere, somewhen, there are some kids in a basement. They're listening to Metal. They're listening to it a lot, an they're listening to it LOUD. They're listening to it with their friends. They're expressing the "Metal-ness" in various ways, some of them frightening to adults. Many of them are really, really passionate about it. Here's where the theology comes in.

That passion feeds across all the planes of existence, calling into being and making real a particular version of Creation: Planet Ore, and Golden Ur-Hadad, the First City of Men.

Every song calls Planet Ore into being. Every chord brings forth the land and the seas, and the people and the creatures that dwell thereon and therein. The crash of the drums upon the warp and weft of Chaos sends out ripples, causes effects. The cities and rise and fall. Empires wax and wane. The moon is broken and the floating city crashes into the Thunderlands. A thousand years pass, and with them the rises the culture of Men, and the forging of Metal.

The act of playing raises the creators of the songs to the status of Creators of the World. They find themselves among the gods of that place, authors of the Lost Hymns. And the Lost Hymns still echo across Creation, making and unmaking it simultaneously. Here's how it works on Planet Ore.

  • A kid in New Haven blasts some High on Fire. On the Planet Ore, near Ur-Hadad, Graki Deathstalker takes up the Frosthammer in a futile quest to destroy the Serpent-Men and their minions.
  • An old fart in Augusta cranks Deaf Forever up to 13, and war sweeps the land, only a hardy few winning their lives (and riches and glory, but who's counting?). He speaks the name of Lemmy in praise, and on Ore rises the Cult of Lemm the Killmaster, whose aspect is the Steel Boar called Snaggletooth.
  • A teenager in Finland does what teenagers in Finland do, what with their black metal and whatnot, and a ravening horde descends upon a slumbering town. The survivors are your zero-level party.
  • A certain artist who shall not be named quests afar to create a shrine, a Wizard Van driven by an actual wizard (I've seen the hat and robes, y'all. He's a wizard.). The painted image on that van creates some aspect of the land and its peoples. The paint forms a substrate for the image in one universe, laying the foundations of existence in another.

The very expression of this culture is a profound act of creation, making from the Void, a land, people, situations in which the people live, and a sense both of urgency and of destiny. For the language in which this reality is expressed is not a thing of sense and metrics, but of possibility and passion, at once crying, "What if?" and also, "Fuck yeah!" Oh... and probably, "Fuck you!" as well.

It happens in the art on every album cover, in the notes and chords of every song, in every backpatch on a denim jacket, with each bang of every head, and in every basement where some kid, somewhere, has found The Music and The Music has found that kid.

And lo! Lemm played the first note upon the Rickenbastard, and the seas parted to form the land. Robhal chanted the Purest Note, and there came into being all of the creature that ride upon the winds, and the Greater Moon was broken. Each of the Metal Gods, given life by the Outsiders From Beyond Space and Time, became real. Each added its particular alloy of Metal to create Ore. Men once were slaves on Ore, but they would be slaves no more. Metal had been forged and it would see good use. The Metal Gods called upon their people to rise and take Ur-Hadad for themselves. And so they did. And thus, also, was born the Cult of the Metal Gods. 
                    ~Kormaki Lemmisson, Zealot of the Metal Gods)

Mighty Deeds of Arms, With Friends

I've been out on assignment the last couple of weeks, working on some writing, so not much time to post to the blog. It may be like that for a while, but I'll try to get some thoughts out there, even if they don't quite add up to the long-post glory that you've come to expect.

Anyway, I saw something +Keith J Davies posted earlier today on the G+, for his Teamwork Feats element in the Echelon Reference Series. The whole idea of teamwork feats seems like it could easily be adapted to DCC RPG. Think about it: Two or more warriors attack an extremely large creature, say an ogre or something. Neither one of them is particularly strong, so brute force won't do. However, they have each other to rely on, and complementary might deeds of some sort.

 Wonder Twin powers... ACTIVATE!
No, not like that. Please, god, no. 
Oh, now I get it. They're elves. 

Maybe something like this is a little more apropos, given the probable intelligence of the average warrior.

Shake... and Bake!

One last image. This one better captures the gritty nature of the Mighty Deeds, because they are Warriors, right? Maybe it would be more like this, but without the Juggalo paint. The silly armor, though, that can stay.

A staple of my Saturday mornings in the 1980s.

Anyway, think about how individual Mighty Deeds could stack to achieve greater effects.

"Oh, what's that? An ogre? A big ogre? Whatcha gonna do, Sir Mighty Pants, with your 12 Strength?" (because you rolled 3d6 in order, right?)

You're gonna bring a buddy. That's what you're gonna do. None of that silly tagging in and out, either. This is a steel-cage deathmatch battle royale! So...

  1. The warriors attempting the team Mighty Deed go on the lowest initiative of the characters attempting the Deed. Doesn't matter if one of the people has a 20 and another one rolled a 1. You go on the 1.
  2. Each player must achieve the Mighty Deed, as per the rules--You have to hit, and you have to roll a 3 or better on the Deed Die.
  3. To determine the outcome, do some math. You could either average the results, add them together, or take the highest and add only part of the lower one. I like the idea of adding the results together, as they give a sense of added value of teamwork, and emulate the added Power of Friendship (or whatever) achieved by the Team Deed.
Sorry, daughter, no pony pictures for the Power of Friendship. That's a bridge too far.

Remember: The actual mechanic used to determine the nature of the outcome just needs to capture that the Team Deed is more potent than the individual Deed. Use whatever is easiest for your brain to handle. Like I said, I would add the results, as it makes it more like two (or more) characters have combined to make themselves equivalent to more powerful character.  

So, why do this? Because it could be fun, that's why. The Team Deed has the added benefit of moving the players away from just taking turns, rolling sequentially, and then waiting in between for the next attack, hoping they don't die in the interim, and probably dicking around on their cell phones. I think it also could promote better role-play, and even (I shudder to say) "team-building" among the group of players, and, by extension, the members of the adventuring party. When everyone is engaged, and stays engaged, the game session just got more fun for everyone (except for he wizard, but that guy's a jerk, anyway). 

I could even see the possibility of non-warriors getting in on the act (spell duels, anyone?), but I'm not sure how that might work. Maybe the thieves could start with "trust falls," and work up from there. Team-building is hard, guys, especially for larcenous types.

Oh, and if one or both of the Mighty Deeds doesn't go off as planned, the Big Nasty gets to play with the little warriors. That's where the Judge's fun begins (and the lives of the characters may end). But when it works, the result is <insert dramatic pause here> mighty, indeed. 

And then the players get to do this, because you just know they'll want to.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


First, thank you +Jeffrey Tadlock+Jim Wampler, and +Jobe Bittman for featuring my research project (and my email) on the recent Spellburn podcast. Everything Jeffrey said was pretty much correct. I'll answer some of the areas of uncertainty, below. Thanks, also, for your kind words about the 'zine. We will have a new one coming out soonish (end of May, probably). My contribution to that one will not be quite as substantial, but will lay out some history of the Elder Races of Ore (the planet where Ur-Hadad is located).

Now, to answer a couple of questions folks might have.

Who is this Edgar Johnson guy anyway?

I'm an old punkrawk and gamer guy (45 in May) who started playing D&D in 1979 and listening to Black Flag in 1982. I flunked out of college, joined the Marines (1987-1991), got out and went back to college again, for engineering. I sucked at that, and was much better at drinking and gaming. Almost flunked out again. Eventually got it together, got a B.A. in sociology and a minor in writing (1995), with honors. Got a full-ride fellowship for grad studies at the University of Iowa, where I studied rhetoric, media, and ethnography. Graduated with a Ph.D. in Communication Studies (2000). Took a job I hated, and kept it for four years. Found a better job and have been at this institution for 10 years (we recently consolidated with the medical college and became Georgia Regents University). Got tenure in 2008 and got promoted to full professor last year. I teach persuasion, media studies, business and professional communication, argumentation, and rhetorical studies. I also serve on a lot of committees and workgroups. Published my first book, What About Us? Standards-based Education and the Dilemma of Student Subjectivity, in 2010. I blog here, and game regularly with the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad group. I also am a pretty decent cook, if anyone is passing through the Augusta, Georgia area and wants to hook up for food, beers, and gaming.

What's the research all about?

After I started gaming again, and the university shifted from four-tier state school to research intensive, I decided to do some research on gaming, and particularly the rise of online tabletop gaming. The project began as a short paper about the Google+ community and the development of hangout gaming there. I soon realized that I wanted to turn it into something more. I submitted a proposal to the university's institutional review board for human subjects research (You guys are the "human subjects." MWAHAHA!). The proposal covered all the bases: Survey research, face-to-face interviews (both focus group and individual), online research of other kinds, content analysis of blogs and websites, and field observation of actual play. The survey research I posted on the blog (links over there on the right) are a small part of the puzzle, a snapshot of what's going on right now.

What happens next?

I'll be continuing the survey research. I also will be running some live, in-person play sessions with younger gamers over the course of the summer (mostly college-aged people who either have only played 3rd ed D&D, of who have not played any tabletop RPGs at all). I want to get a sense of how they approach gaming. I'm probably going to run DCC RPG for them, to get both the old school feel and the new school die mechanics. The d20 system should provide a good bridge between what they're used to and what I hope to show them (and find out about their play styles).

I also will be petitioning some of you for "live" intereviews, either at GenCon or via a hangout. Those interviews will be similar to some of the stuff covered in the surveys, but more far-ranging and specific to your own situation and interests.

I think I also will be asking my regular G+ group to play a major role in the research, as much of what interested me in pursuing this project was inspired by my experiences with them. I haven't brought it up yet, but I will soon.

While I was at my conference, I met with a publisher who had contacted me beforehand. She was interested in my work and wondered if maybe I had a book-length project in mind. "Funny you should ask," I told her, and explained my research agenda. She was interested, and contacted me after the conference. I also made a visit with another publisher, and their rep seemed to be very interested as well. Short version: I will be producing a book proposal this fall, and hope to secure a contract with one of those publishers. It would be nice to have them both want the project, and get into an intense bidding war, but only one is necessary. Still, a boy can dream.

Why should we help you, anyway?  

For me, the answer is pretty obvious: I'm going to be writing about this thing that we all do: tabletop gaming. I want to make sure I'm telling as good and accurate a story as I can. The more people who participate, the better I can do my job.

For you, each person's answer would probably be different, but here are a few potential reasons you should help me out:

  • Collegiality: That Johnson guy's alright, and I want to help him do a good job. Why not?
  • Lust for Glory: I have important opinions, and need a person to listen to (and publish) them. Fame will be mine!
  • Fear I'll Get it WRONG: That Johnson guy is going to screw this up if I don't set him straight on some Very Important Things.
  • Curiosity: I've never done anything like this before, and I want to find out what happens.
  • Desire for Vengeance: That Johnson guy is a dick! I will work from the inside to destroy him!
  • Stalker: I secretly have a big man/woman crush on Johnson. This is my very best chance to demonstrate how much I love him. I will give my all (nay, my very life) to further his ambitions!
  • Profit: Dude must be rolling in dough, and I'm gonna get mine! [Yeah... sorry. Nobody's making any money off of this, including me. Academic publishing is not a lucrative trade, nor is teaching in the humanities.]
  • Precursor to Alien Invasion: I am the one with the real research agenda. You puny humans must be studied, and this will be where I must start. Then, later, will come the anal probings.

I'm hoping the spirit of Collegiality moves you to participate, but I'll take what I can get. Feel free to make up your own reason, if none of the above appeals to you.

How do you really pronounce Adam's name?

Also, to amplify this for my friend, +Adam Muszkiewicz: It's pronounced "MOUSE-kah-witz." Nah, just kidding.

From the man himself, it's actually pronounced "muz-KEV-itch." (but feel free to keep mispronouncing it, anyway, just to fuck with him)