An Infinity Gaming System Wiki is Under Construction

As the core mechanics of Infinity are becoming clearer and more stable, I’ve decided to put up a wiki, so people can review the current version, without needing to troll back through posts on the blog.

I’m piecing the infrastructure together out of the shards remaining of my short-lived Storm Knights wiki, from a year ago. It’s slow going, because I have to relearn bits of PHP and PMWiki code I’ve forgotten, just to figure out what I did. Figuring out why takes even more effort.

When I’ve got it complete enough to debut, I’ll post info and links here.

The Moral Universe of Bones

Bones: Not just another police procedural.

Every work of fiction has an implicit moral universe: all writers and authors create a fictional world, and that world works according to their own notions of causality. How people act, why they act, and what happens to them as a result, all these are determined by the author and they proceed according to his beliefs and assumptions about reality.

The Game of Thrones, for example, depicts a far different moral universe than The Lord of the Rings. Anita Blake inhabits a very different moral universe than Harry Dresden. And the moral universe of Battlestar Galactica is drastically different from Star Trek’s, despite both being relatively soft science-fiction. (Also illustrative: James Bond’s movies, as compared to Killer Elite.)

A large part of the appeal of fiction comes from the values illustrated by a work’s moral universe; we tend to like works that are compatible with our own views of morality and reality. When a work has a weakly defined or conflicting moral universe, it can seem confused and ill-focused, and hence put off the audience.

This isn’t the same as theme, mind. The moral precepts of a fictional reality are more fundamental than theme, indeed these moral laws are what allows the theme to be illustrated. If the theme is “family secrets coming to light” (very Gothic), it’s the workings of the moral universe that demand or allow it to happen.

(They’re also what allow character arcs to happen. How does a character change? Why do they change? What do they start out as, and what do they become? The moral universe is what defines the causality that character arcs obey.)

A genre describes works that share common tropes and similar moral precepts. The Comics Code gave us “four color morality”, Western sagas depict vigilantism as necessary on the frontier, and the pulps shared a “two-fisted” ethos, in which bad guys were stopped by personal violence. Deconstructionist fiction attempts to subvert the moral framework of a genre (witness Unforgiven), presenting it as unrealistic or simply false.

[Ob. gaming reference: For a game, moral precepts are often explicit, witness Alignment rules. When defining the genre for your game, it pays to consider the moral framework the game occurs within, even if that framework isn’t codified mechanically.]

The moral framework of Bones is odd, to say the least. It’s not conflicting or confused, it’s just very different than that of most similar shows, typically labeled Police Procedurals (but which I refer to as mysteries).

Many Police Procedurals are strongly oriented towards justice: the killer is identified and  caught, nearly every episode. Detective work and evidence collection leads to victory over lawbreakers. The moral universe: Lawbreakers will usually be caught and punished, due to the efforts of the police.

The moral universe of Criminal Minds is very different, despite being (superficially) the same genre. According to Elizabeth Bear, Criminal Minds is “conducting [a] very high-level argument about nature versus nurture and good versus evil, with side trips into the existence of free will.” The moral universe of the show is arbitrary, cruel, and cold (though not so much as in other serial killer-centric media).

Bones’s moral universe is different yet again. Superficially similar to CSI (with a shared focus on scientific evidence gathering and analysis) and Criminal Minds (Bones also featuring serial killers who sometimes escape), Bones occupies a space I can best describe as magical realism.

Not that this is obvious. I, myself didn’t begin to piece it together until this season (it’s eighth). But three pieces of evidence make it apparent.

[Spoilers follow.]

The first clue came during Season 4’s “The Hero in the Hold”. FBI Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanz, of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel fame) is trapped alone and has to escape, braving sealed chambers, the threat of drowning, and a massive bomb along the way. During his ordeal he is accompanied by the ghost of a dead friend, who alternately encourages and disagrees with him.

So far, nothing that can’t be explained away as a hallucination caused by exhaustion and great duress. Save that at the end of the episode Temperance “Bones” Brennan (the title character, played by Emily Deschanel) sees and greets the ghost, in a manner that cannot be explained away as a hallucination.

Supernatural event #1.

This season, “The Ghost in the Machine” was an entire episode filmed from the point of view of the skull of a slain boy. Avalon, a psychic (played by Cindi Lauper), insists that the boy’s spirit resides in his bones, and will until his unfinished business is laid to rest.

We see, perhaps through the eyes of the boy’s ghost, as the team gradually pieces together the cause of his death, but even solving the case doesn’t end the episode. It’s only when the team discovers hidden evidence, and ensures that this final message is delivered, that the show ends and, perhaps, the boy’s spirit has been freed.

Supernatural event #2.

“Once is happenstance, twice coincidence, thrice enemy action.” And “The Shot in the Dark”, broadcast just over a week ago, marks the third occurrence of the supernatural, proving supernatural action.

During the episode Bones nearly dies, several times, after being shot. Each time she does, she finds herself talking to her dead mother, in a place that’s strongly hinted to be Heaven. Again, nothing that couldn’t be explained as a hallucination, until the last, when her mother reveals a secret. When she reawakens, her father tells her “No one knew that except me.”

In all three cases, the supernatural element is light, even explicable. Unlike, for instance, Supernatural (which has its own very strongly depicted moral universe). Bones has never struck me as strongly charactered (unlike the thematic coherence displayed by Breaking Bad). Yet the trend and conclusion is clear: for all its reliance on science, and in stark defiance of Brennan’s strongly avowed atheism, Bones has a touch of the supernatural.

I have no idea where the writers are going with this, or indeed if they have any destination in mind at all. But the supernatural elements are an oddity, in a genre otherwise bound up with deductive reasoning, evidence, and an indifferent universe. Bones’ moral universe stands out all the more starkly because of that.

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Cinematic Indulgences: Worldbuilding Weirdness

Modern Military Fantasy
The UK cover.
(Loads better than the American one, in my opinion. Better title, too.)
My theory on speculative fiction: Like a rollercoaster, a piece of genre fiction has a little sign before you get on — You must tolerate this much bullshit to enjoy your ride. Too much bullshit, and you can’t enjoy the ride. Call it the Bullshit Tax. (To mix the metaphors thoroughly.)

What do I mean? Epic Fantasy is based around magic, usually powerful magic. If you can’t accept the existence of magic, or find it aggravating, Epic Fantasy just isn’t for you. Powerful and pervasive magic is the Bullshit Tax for epic fantasy.

In other words, I’m talking about the premise. When considering suspension of disbelief, works of fiction basically get their premise “for free”.

“What if Elvis was still alive, and was an avatar of Cthulhu?” If you can’t accept that, don’t read the story.

Yet even granting the author their premise, one can criticize how it’s developed, both in world background and in the story. Sooner or later, you have to be able to say: No, that makes no sense. And aspects of Shadow Ops: Control Point, even granting the premise, make no sense.

Magic returns to the modern world. Okay, that’s cool. As a premise, I can buy that.

Magic is innate, and can manifest at any age. When it does, it is often uncontrollable. Again, no problems.

Some kinds of magic are inherently harmful. That’s not a big stretch.

Harmful magics are banned by law. Okay, that’s a little odd. How do you ban something that is innate, especially when no external force can prevent it?

The law is a behavioral regulator. By punishing specific actions, it discourages those same actions. In its ultimate form, it prevents actions by incarcerating or executing people. In prison, you can’t rob a bank. Dead, you can’t kill others.

The law is only effective to the extent that it can affect behavior. In this world, people can only control the magical abilities of others personally, one-on-one, by riding shotgun over them at all times (an expensive and difficult endeavor). And Selfers either lack control, or refuse to control themselves. So how can the law regulate their behavior?

Manifesting a harmful school of magic means the death penalty. What? Manifesting a Prohibited school (which makes one a “Probe”) is an instant, universal, and unappealable death sentence? Are you kidding me? That answers the previous question, but with something that’s far, far worse. And not just morally. But let’s start with the morality.

Justice is based on the desire to render to each offender what they deserve. The punishment is proportional to the severity of the offense. If you steal from a person, you make restitution. Even those who support the Death Penalty do so because they see it as a just punishment: if you murder, you sacrifice your own life.

How is killing someone just for manifesting magic, and not for anything they’ve done with it, in any sense just? “You have the capability to do Y, so we will execute you.” That’s simply wrong.

The next problem is practicality. As noted above, the law exists to influence behavior. Penalties attached to actions discourage those actions. Arbitrary and draconian penalties, on the other hand, often encourage the opposite.

You’re a nice, normal person who’s just become a Probe, simply by breathing. Now, you WILL be executed, no questions asked, no trial, no hope of appeal. What do you do?

Flee. Rebel. Strike out. Wreak vengeance.

If they’ve have done nothing wrong, and have no hope, then desperation will drive many Probes to do horrible things, out of panic, anger, or despair. People rebel against injustice, and this is an unjust law.

And who will bear the brunt of these outbursts? The people around them and the law enforcement agents assigned to capture them. Congratulations, you’ve just taken a difficult, but manageable problem and turned it into a nightmare.

So the law is morally wrong and fails to discourage the behavior it outlaws. Yet somehow it’s politically feasible.

Politics is the art of the possible. And, as a matter of sheer practicality, I don’t see how it’s possible for such laws to be passed in the first place.

The Death Penalty is hideously controversial. How much more controversial would a law that mandates the Death Penalty for every single Probe, without trial or recourse, be?

Yet we’re to believe that everybody in America just accepts it. No protests, no civil disobedience, no pastors appealing to the consciences of their congregations (a magic Martin Luther King, Jr.), no opinion columnists elaborating on how impractical and unjust these laws are, no civil rights lawyers slavering to make their bones taking a test case to the Supreme Court, no governors who commute these instant death sentences, no Presidential pardons? No controversy, ever?

Can you imagine the news stories? “Next on 60 Minutes, the story of teen prom queen Sally Pretty, the vivacious blonde from Cornfield, Kansas, who just last week was giving her valedictory address at Smalltown High, and this week finds herself in front of a firing squad at the tender age of 18.”

The Death Penalty is one of the most circumscribed outcomes in American law. It has already been outlawed once by the Supreme Court (in 1971), and allowed only under narrow circumstances (including requiring an entirely separate trial, held solely for sentencing purposes). The total number of executions in America since 1976 (according to this site) is 1321. For those opposed to the Death Penalty that’s 1321 executions too many, but in any case, it isn’t a common event. (By way of comparison, more than 40,000 U.S. citizens die every year in car crashes.)

Probes are so common, there’s an entire branch of the military dedicated to (or at least tasked with) hunting them down. How many Probes is that? No way of telling, but let’s suppose it’s .001% — 1 out of 100,000. That’s 3000 probes instantly executed. 1 out of 1 million is still 300 probes, dead. And if it’s more common, the numbers go up, drastically.

The book would have us believe that society accepts, as a settled matter of Constitutional law, that some citizens can be executed immediately, just for becoming capable of manifesting a specific school of magic, and for no other reason.

Call me a dewey-eyed optimist, but since we have enough trouble executing two brutal murderers (like the Hi-Fi killers), I do not see Americans accepting a regime that executes 3000 people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

I do not believe it. It’s too large a Bullshit Tax, which is why I didn’t enjoy the ride.

[Ob. Gaming reference: We’re talking worldbuilding. As a GM, you worldbuild, even when running a published setting. Be sure your settings don’t have a higher Bullshit Tax than your players will be willing to pay.]

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Cinematic Indulgences: Sympathy for a Klebold

Modern Military Fantasy
Black Hawk Down meets The X-Men.” Right there on the cover.

According to one reviewer, Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops: Control Point is “Black Hawk Down meets The X-Men”. A modern magic book, it’s about people who begin manifesting magical abilities and the soliders who are tasked with hunting them down.

Magic in this world is an innate talent, akin to psionics. [Ob. gaming reference: This world is an Aeon of Mastery setting.] People are born with the ability to work magic, and some of them do bad things. The Lincoln Memorial was deliberately destroyed by one of these “Selfers”, killing thirty-four tourists in the process.

Army lieutenant Oscar Britton (the main character) is a member of the Supernatural Operations Corps, a Special Forces unit tasked with hunting down Selfers. Since he’s the POV character, and the book is his story, it’s his mind we’re inhabiting for the duration. And Britton is an exceedingly confused man.

The first scene in the book is set at a high school, where two high-school-aged Selfers have committed a massacre. (This doesn’t qualify as a spoiler, because it’s literally the opening chapter of the book.) The SOC (including their own combat magicians) is sent in to capture the teens, through Britton suspects it’s actually an assassination mission.

Without commenting on the rest of the book, this opening sequence is one of the more morally idiotic pieces I’ve ever read. Let’s begin with a critical quote by Britton:

“Oh God,” he thought. “I didn’t sign up to fight children.”

Yes, you did. The SOC is a Special Forces unit, and membership in any Special Forces unit is entirely voluntary. Simply by joining the SOC, you’ve signed up to hunt Selfers, including teens. That’s the primary purpose of the unit.

Fine, I get the doubts and worries. You’re sending in Special Forces soldiers to capture or (if necessary) kill teens. Second thoughts are to be expected.

Yet, these aren’t just any teens. They’re murderers, armed with magic that could blow up a building, currently in the process of committing a massacre in a high school. They’re Klebold and Harris, and this is another Columbine. (But with magic.)

Folks, we can debate the X-Men issue. “Should a six-year-old who accidentally burns people to death when he throws a fit be sent to school with normal kids?” In the Marvel Comics universe, and the X-Men Cinematic Universe, saying “no” makes you a Neo-Nazi.

I could argue the point, but let’s just stipulate it. Segregating toddlers who accidentally incinerate others when they get mad is racist and bad.

The situation changes when you’re dealing with mass murderers who are stalking the innocent students and teachers in a high school, setting them afire, and laughing as they burn to death. Those aren’t people you should feel sympathy for. Those aren’t people you should feel guilty for apprehending or even, if necessary, killing.

They’re murderers. Mass murderers.

Their guilt isn’t an inference or assumption, by the way. It’s established on the very first page of the very first chapter. It’s literally the first thing in the novel. The main character sees it on a video camera:

Billowing smoke clouded the camera feed, but Britton could see the boy stretch out a hand, flames jetting past the camera’s range, engulfing fleeing students, who rolled away, beating at their hair and clothing. People were running, screaming.

Burning other students alive, arguably far more cruel than shooting them. The section continues.

Beside the boy stood a chubby girl, her dyed black hair matching her lipstick and eye makeup. She spread her arms.

The flames around the boy pulsed in time with her motions, forming two man-sized and -shaped peaks of flame. The fire elementals danced among the students, burning as they went. Britton watched as the elementals multiplied—four, then six. Wires sparked as the fire reached the stage. The girl’s magic touched them as well, the electricity forming dancing human shapes, elementals of sizzling energy. They lit among the students, fingertips crackling arcs of dazzling blue lightning.

Stop and think about that for a second. You live in a universe where the Lincoln Memorial was destroyed by a Selfer. Selfer attacks are so common, there’s an entire military unit devoted to hunting them down.

And you watch the above on a video: a teen deliberately burning other teens alive. Murdering them. Reducing them to charred, smoking meat.

Where do your sympathies lie? Do you think “Oh noes, I might have to capture or kill that murdering psychopath?” Or do you think “Jesus Christ, kids are being burnt alive as I stand here. We have to do something.”

Britton thinks the first. Which says a lot about him.

Call me judgmental, but I’m anti-mass murderer, all the way. My sympathies lie entirely with those victims who were deliberately and brutally set aflame. I cannot imagine the moral universe where their murderers are figures of sympathy.

They’re doing this deliberately (the book makes that clear — they have full control over their abilities), in an auditorium full of students and teachers. Hundreds, maybe thousands of potential victims.

They choose this. They choose to attack there. On purpose.

And we’re supposed to feel sorry for them? Or sympathize with a protagonist who does?

How does that make any sort of moral sense?

This moral confusion underlies the opening sequence, and the entire rest of the book. Nearly every other event in the novel is based around us feeling sympathy for attempted or actual mass murderers, who are treated harshly by society. We’re expected to cheer for these people.

I do not get it.

This moral confusion that ruins an otherwise good novel. The book isn’t perfect — there’s some decidedly odd world building going on — but it would be serviceable (even imaginative) were it not for the pervasive sympathy we’re expected to feel towards mass murderers.

Say what you want about the X-Men, but they were the good guys. And the X-Men movies weren’t based around the audience cheering for Magneto’s plans to murder hundreds of thousands.

So, if Shadow Ops: Control Point is “Black Hawk Down meets The X-Men”, it’s in a universe where Magneto is the good guy and the X-Men, who oppose him and throw him in jail, are the bad guys.

A morally inverted universe, in other words. Not a pleasant thing.

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Jasyn’s House of Gaming Stuff

Debuting today, Jasyn’s House of Gaming Stuff. It’s my own little storefront, where you can buy the stuff I’ve discussed on the site.

Each purchase through the House nets me a few bucks, without costing you any extra. It’s not a lot, but every dollar counts.

So, if you’re going to buy something anyway, you may as well buy it through the storefront (or one of the “Buy Now” links). It’s a free way for people to support the site (and, more importantly, the poor, dumb bastard running it).