Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages: Photography in the SCA

As a recent immigrant to the Knowne World of the Society for Creative Anachronism and a fairly new convert to LARPing one of the potential issues I’ve encountered is taking pictures at costumed events. While many can disregard a camera pointing at them (and in fact, want their pictures taken), some participants at LARPs and SCA events find the mere presence of a camera to be jarring and a disruption. If Alexandre Franchi and Mark Krupa had to disguise their movie camera at the Bicolline site in Canada for The Wild Hunt, what might be expected of me at an SCA war? Fortunately there is an eBook on the subject, Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages: A Quick Guide to Photography within the Society of Creative Anachronism, available for Kindle readers on Amazon.com

That is, once the reader successfully makes it through the number of glaring spelling errors and typos that riddle Soul Stealing. Perhaps author Carl Trinkle, or as he is known in the SCA, William “Cookie” Barfoot, will be able to edit the multitude of errors out. One early sentence reads, “There are probably thousands deferent types, models and formats of cameras out there.” Another reads, “That lens has limited zoom capabilities and you there is no option for you if you want to improve your lens.” There is the misspelling of the birthplace of the SCA as “Berkley” instead of Berkeley, and then “out” for “our”, “cleaver” for “clever”, “grantee” for “guarantee”, and so on. Not to belabor the point, but, “There is hundreds of photo sharing website out there.” is just one of the many dozens of errors that permeate this 44-page work and speak to the lack of editing. Even the title differs from the Amazon store to within the eBook: Soul Stealing in the Current Middle Ages versus Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages.

Getting past the myriad typos and grammatical errors, Trinkle has a breezy, conversational tone with the occasional humorous aside. For the most part it works, but in reality, the “book” could really better be considered several in-depth blog posts or the sort of how-to that tends to appear pinned to the top of a board in online forums. From what I can see in the 22 photographs accompanying the text, Carl Trinkle is a talented SCA photographer, but the pictures are too tiny (generally around 320 by 200 pixels) and too few in number. The digital medium of Kindle would seem to be perfect for reproducing full color pictures that might be costly to print in a traditional book. There are also no comparisons between two similar pictures diagramming what is good about one picture’s lighting or composition and what is wrong with another. Even at only $2.99 for its 44 pages, this is just too little.

Small SCA pictures of children fighting and text from eBook Soul Stealing

Relative Size of Tiny Pictures to Text in Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages

Sections in Soul Stealing

What Trinkle does include are sections on cameras, light/aperture/ISO, equipment, and etiquette. Trinkle admits to being an anachronism himself because despite owning an iPad and advocating having a smart phone, he still shoots in 35mm and 120mm film. After going over his own cameras (including plastic disposable cameras which Trinkle employs for their ability to occasionally get surprisingly great shots), Trinkle leaps into exposure, f-stops, aperture, and ISO. Here he uses a truly SCAdian analogy to explain “how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together” that goes on for pages using terms like “ISO War Band”, “House of Aperture’s shield wall”, and “Autocrat Meter”. I found it bewildering, but his love of the SCA is always apparent.

The Kit: Equipment

Linen three-buttoned Jas Townsend and Sons haversack from 1800s

The Jas Townsend and Sons Linen Haversack

Trinkle’s section on equipment is where he really shines, though he worries aloud about advertising specific products, writing that he does not “mean to sound like a commercial”. He shoots with a 28mm-75mm zoom lens and a 75mm-300mm telephoto lens. He keeps these lenses, his film, iPad, and snacks in a “natural linen harvest sack” from Jas Townsend and Sons “that passes for a pilgrim’s bag or whatever you want to call it. Yes, it is strictly not period for the SCA timeline, but it is close enough for most people besides Laurels to not take notice.”


He also suggests a note pad to record subjects’ contact information and photographic settings, an 18% grey card to find the right exposure setting, and UV filters to protect the expensive lens in the event of a camera fall. There is the humorous suggestion of a dagger (“What if you are attacked by barbarians or corsairs or a bear or something?”) as well as many other mundane objects like Ziploc bags, duct tape, and a flashlight. He covers the basics, but then suggests possibly bringing the intriguingly-named “slave lights” without explaining just what slave lights are. Trinkle does wax poetic though about the flexible JOBY GorillaPod and points out that “the knock offs of the GorillaPod are not worth wasting your money on.”

Etiquette, Camera Disguises, and More

Trinkle next weighs the merits of the perfect photo versus ruining the moment for others at a event by the use of flash photography. Curiously he doesn’t touch upon blocking other photographers’ shots or the views of the attending populace, but he does point out possible legal issues for some members’ photos being taken including professional performers and those in law enforcement. Trinkle advises, “if you have to take that picture because every photographic fiber in your body says this is the picture of all pictures, I say take it. Then learn how to grovel really fast.”

Picture divided into nine sections to illustrate rule of thirds

Trinkle’s Example of the Rule of Thirds

Trinkle briefly mentions that other photographers use disguises for their cameras, but eschews the practice himself. Detailing that some people dress up their cameras and tripod as very skinny women is entertaining, but there is no photographic evidence of the practice and besides suggesting hollowing out a book to use as camouflage, Trinkle disappointingly has little to offer in this area. He moves on to actually taking pictures, making the most of early light near dawn, and gives an example of the Rule of Thirds using some household banners or personal devices. If Soul Stealing stuck closer to such examples, it would be much more useful.

Trinkle rounds out the book with an admonition to practice and experiment, as well as the suggestion that would-be photographers learn the rules of Heavy Combat to be able to take the best pictures (and avoid danger). Rapier combat should not be neglected though, Trinkle warns, as well as Arts and Sciences projects. Night time photography and portrait photography are also touched upon as well as photo-editing software. His parting advice is worth repeating: “Take pictures of all your events, we love to see them. Just remember not to ruin the dream for anyone by your picture taking. Sometimes it is better to miss the picture, but keep the memory.”

Final Thoughts on Soul Stealing

As it stands, Soul Stealing is an incomplete and error-laden work. Actual members of the SCA will benefit more from collegium classes on photography if available or by joining a photographers’ guild than by purchasing Trinkle’s work. Even an experienced photographer with a detachable lens spotted at an event will probably yield just as much valuable information. This is, after all, the SCA; members are generally friendly, courteous, and love to help others. However if none of those resources are available or you are the photographer in a LARP group struggling with how to take better pictures, Soul Stealing may prove to be helpful. At only $2.99, it will be one of the lowest costs you will incur in the SCA (or in LARPing for that matter).

Ultimately the most important question for any informational book or video has to be asked: has Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages increased my understanding or knowledge of photography in the SCA? No, not significantly. It is a $2.99 reminder of what I learned in an hour-long SCA photography class, but it did point me towards several useful pieces of equipment that I might soon acquire.

Photographs and text from Soul Stealing in the Modern Middle Ages are copyright Carl Trinkle and used without permission under Fair Use doctrines of criticism and commentary.

Drakmar: A Vassal’s Journey

14-year old Colin Taylor with longbow on cover of Drakmar A Vassal's JourneyDrakmar: A Vassal’s Journey is a heartwarming documentary from 2006 about 14-year old Colin Taylor. Colin loves dragons and plays Halo, Sonic, and D&D. Recorded in 2004-2005, the film follows the bright but alienated Colin at school, home, and at Adrian Empire events. Though much of the documentary revolves around Colin’s vassal relationship as the squire Drakmar to his knight Sir Cledwyn, the film shifts focus to the possible renewal of Colin’s relationship with his biological father in Arizona. Film students Lowell Frank and Destin Daniel Cretton shot Drakmar on the cheap, but it doesn’t impact their storytelling at all. Within the first few minutes Colin will endear himself to the viewer who will later share in Colin’s nervousness at the prospects of reunion with his father. If Colin and older brother Corwin fail to tug at your heartstrings, there’s also Colin’s grandfather, an inveterate ham, who provides occasional comic relief. These human elements are Drakmar’s strengths and should be compelling to any person on the fence about the possibility of putting on armor and pretending to live in another time, whether it be the Adrian Empire, the SCA, or a LARP.

The Adrian Empire: Kingdom of Terre Neuve

Less famous than the SCA, the Adrian Empire has a narrower time frame for its personas, from 1066-1603 compared to the SCA’s generally accepted 600-1600. Geographically the Adrian Empire is exclusively Western Europe in its historical focus, whereas the SCA is global. Perhaps more importantly, the heavy end of Adrian Empire fighting is done with real steel instead of the SCA’s rattan. Colin Taylor is not old enough for these real steel battles, instead fighting with a shinai, a bamboo sword. But he boasts, “I’m actually a better archer than I am a shinai combatant. You give me a bow and I can shoot a penny off of your head.” Both Colin’s mother Kathy Taylor and his brother Corwin Taylor participate in Adria, respectively known as Mistress Aileen Bristow and Corrwyn Ardwulf. Living in San Diego, their Adrian region is the Kingdom of Terre Neuve. In the SCA, knights wear white belts with no other colors restricted to other fighters, but in Adria, knights like Sir Cledwyn wear blue belts, pages like Colin wear yellow belts, and men at arms wear green. Colin desperately wants his green belt.

Chivalry: Alive and Well in the Adrian Empire

Known mundanely as the jewelry store owner Scott Mallory, Sir Cledwyn is much more than a lord to his vassal Drakmar, also serving as Colin’s father figure (as well as Corwin’s). Mallory’s feudal ideals run deep. Speaking about Colin, Mallory says, “He does something wrong, it’s my responsibility to fix it. It’s my responsibility to equip him and to make sure that he’s not lacking for anything.” It’s not hard to imagine that Mallory is speaking both in game and out of game. In fact, the Taylor brothers recount Cledwyn’s very physical defense of his vassal’s honor owing to a belt-pulling incident that happened in the Adrian Empire. That the perpetrator of the dishonor was himself a knight says something, but in general other Adrian members captured in Drakmar seem to echo Mallory’s fondness for chivalry. “We are Adrian; that means we do things for honor,” one official reminds the Adrian populace before battle.

Belly dancers flank a knight in armor from the Adrian Empire at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

Kingdom of Terre Neuve Members at San Diego Comic Con 2012:

The Rush of Battle, Being Who You Want to Be, and History Re-Imagined

The documentary captures several fighter practices, including one involving rapiers at night near tennis courts. For Corwin, fighting in Adria is “a total complete adrenaline rush.” Others are attracted by the desire to recreate a different time, complete with wooden stocks and a wooden gaol. For Colin, each fighter practice and weekend trip to Adria, is “a break from reality” and far preferred to the complexities of our modern world. For another Adrian, it’s more about the freedom. Stan says:

“Out here, where these guys are finding themselves out and beating themselves silly, you can be a knight, you can be a lord, you can be a king (if you get elected). Anything you want and you can imagine, you can sit there and be in Adria. We call it mundane out there. This, for some people, is the real world. They get to come out here and do what they really want to do and be who they really want to be. I think that’s really what it’s all about.”

The Crown War for Terre Neuve

The climax of Drakmar: A Vassal’s Journey as far as the Adrian Empire goes is the Crown War, fought in March at the Potrero County Park. Because progress towards knighthood in the Adrian Empire depends on a combination of skill at arms, artisanal skill, service to others (ministry), and archery, Colin finishes a belt pouch in order to get his green belt but must also supply documentation about its crafting and historical accuracy, before facing an oral panel who grill him about its construction. Fantasy gaming is only hinted at in Drakmar. Colin reveals around the Crown War campfire that he “had seven draconic items: the Draconic Orb of Doom, the Draconic Lance of Greatness, the Draconic Greatsword of Light, I had a Shield of Dragon Might, and the Boots of Dragon Speed, just to name a few. ” Yes, Colin loves dragons. The Crown War seems to be fought with 30 armored men or less on each side, but the action is intense as one warrior bashes his gauntleted fist over and over into another’s helm, following him down to the ground.

Hope is Here: The Real Vassal’s Journey

The real climax of Drakmar is much more touching than knights battling or even an oath of fealty. The knightly virtues of mercy, generosity, and courage come alive on screen, embodied in the form of a scrawny 14-year old. Role-playing can be about much more than identifying four-armed greater demon-dragons as Colin does at one point. Occasionally in a tabletop RPG, a player can so identify with his paladin PC or another character’s high morals as to transform his interactions in the real world. Drakmar presents evidence of fighters who learn the meaning of honor and courtesy on the fields of Adria. Many other participants though, like Colin Taylor and Scotty Mallory, already possess those virtues and the Adrian Empire merely refines them and lets them share them with the rest of the world.

A Lot to Enjoy: 3D6’s Space Fapping

Album cover for Space Fapping with letters 3D6 heading towards moonSpace Fapping is 3D6’s follow-up to 2011’s Damage and it’s almost out of this world. If Damage were an 18 on 3d6, then Space Fapping is a 17. The trio of Las Vegas gamers continue to satisfy with their brand of humorous, dirty, nerd punk throughout the album’s ten tracks. While the focus tends towards science fiction, 3D6 remains firmly rooted in fantasy RPGs, beginning the album with “Save Does Not End”, lifting the term from D&D. The saving throw is for the “18 ongoing rocking damage” as 3D6 promises to “fuck your ears with our nerd punk dicks.” It’s fair warning and a strong opener for the album, with the party facing spider-summoning drow in a dungeon in search of an axe. My favorite track on Space Fapping is the gamer anthem “I Killed a Dragon”, which at first listen could apply to any fantasy RPG. The narrator’s dragon-slaying goes unappreciated out of game as he repeatedly sings “I killed a dragon / and you don’t even care” and only later does it become clear that he’s not singing about a tabletop game, but instead about a video game (Skyrim), ultimately losing his wife to his gaming addiction. “I’d Rather Live in an R.P.G.” rounds out their gamer songs and is yet another sing-along gamer anthem. It’s for all the gamers tired of reality, who’d “rather live in an RPG / Creating who I want and how I want to be / There’d be no rent or power bills / I’d just go out and hone my skills / Defeating enemies for gold and XP”.

Stellar Songs: I Love Star Wars Anyway, The Whore of Enterprise D

Despite labeling George Lucas as the enemy and threatening to punch him in the face, “I Love Star Wars Anyways” is 3D6’s love song to the universe Lucas created, both tenderly nostalgic and humorous at the same time. Think of a more critical version of the film Fanboys as a song and you get “I Love Star Wars Anyways”. The main villains are the prequels and new editions with 3D6 rhyming, “When we were kids we used to watch those movies every day / Leia was the first girl that I thought about that way / And all the Gungans in the world cannot take that away”. The next track,”The Whore of Enterprise D”, is downright dirty. The song highlights 3D6’s lyrical genius with lines like “I just saw her leave Ten Forward with Deanna Troi / Carrying some synth-ale and a double-sided toy”. It’s probably 3D6’s raunchiest song and the most likely to offend as the whore makes her way through the Next Generation’s crew (with Picard notably absent). Wesley also doesn’t get any, but she’s not xenophobic; “Even after Klingons it’s not long before she’s healed / She can take a pounding like the ship’s deflector shields”. 3D6 offers up a pretty even contribution to the classic Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate because both “I Love Star Wars Anyway” and “The Whore of Enterprise D” are so awesomely good.


Of the space songs, the album’s closer “Red Shirt Requiem” is my third favorite. It’s a filk dirge that slowly builds with orchestral strains that I could see hardcore Trekkers wanting played at their funerals. The chorus is moving: “You were killed in service of Starfleet like so many brave women and men / And although you are are gone / You will always live on / In our Red Shirt Requiem.” The title is about the only humorous part, though I can imagine Trekkies lifting up cups of Romulan Ale and swaying with phasers out to it. “Satellite of Self Love” provides the album’s title with its chorus of “Space Fapping! Space Fapping!” and references Mystery Science Theater classics Eegah! and Manos! Hands of Fate. The song also features the sound of space fapping, a liquidy, squishy sound. When performed live at the Space Fapping release party, singer Dave replicated it by moving his cheek back and forth rapidly into the microphone. I prefer “Jerkin’ Off” myself.

Return to Parvo and Others

Space Fapping also regurgitates the topic of parvo in “Parvo Deuce” and the theme of not eating poop, with a mention of “don’t eat poop” in “Save Does Not End” earlier as well. The band sells T-shirts with the phrase, but the chorus of “Parvo Deuce” is dark and lacks the light charm of “That Parvo’s a Real Killer”. However the stanzas featuring Mario Brothers, Smurfs, and bantha poodoo are hilarious. “Stonerd” is possibly a bona fide stoner nerd anthem, but not being one, I can’t relate. “Part of me is Stephen Hawking / Part of me is Cheech and Chong,” is how the band explains the mixed love of weed and painting miniatures. “Why Do I Go Out in Public” is more compelling musically with attention divided between shopping, going out to the movies, and going to shows with the accompanying “dicks and morons, bitches, jerks, and assholes” found there.

“You love this band, call yourself a fan, want to see a show”

While I would steer new listeners to Damage over Space Fapping, 3D6 has successfully passed that important Sophomore Album saving throw that cripples many bands. In “Save Does Not End”, drow and dungeons dominate the first stanza, but there’s no fantasy in the second stanza as the band accurately predict that a listener will “love this band, call yourself a fan, and want to see a show”. To see them for yourself, check out 3d6band.com. Get Space Fapping on Amazon or iTunes.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Book cover with medieval illumination for TIme Traveller's Guide to Medieval EnglandI’d like to think that I’ve gotten a lot out of my world travels, but in my visit to Japan, Shinto shrine blended into Shinto shrine. European castles vary, but only so much. Is one walled town so different from the next? Don’t get me started on Baroque and Rococo palaces. There is always a sense of place, but not necessarily of those who lived and died there. How did these people actually live? In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer provides a captivating answer for the English living from 1300 to 1400. Mortimer writes of Geoffrey Chaucer, that “he can make the people come alive, with all their desires, fears, deceitfulness, lustfulness, and cheating.” But Mortimer’s description is just as apt for his own writing and because he does breathe life into 14th century England, I recommend his guide to any English teacher aiming for a better understanding of Chaucer, student of history, or fan of Braveheart, as well as to any tabletop gamer or LARPer.

Beginning with his description of Shitbrook, the refuse-laden stream on the outskirts of Exeter, Mortimer unlocks the door to a treasure trove of medieval body functions. How one goes to the bathroom in a different place or time is really one of the most common questions we all have. In the case of medieval lords, Mortimer remarks, “wherever you go, a neat pile of wool or linen will be provided for you to “wipe your nether end.” Some great lords insist on cotton but it is not always available.” Life is different aboard a ship with Mortimer outlining diversions at sea, but he returns to the subject of relieving oneself and concludes that below decks on a ship, “Every storm has seen men and women emptying their stomachs, souls, and bowels down here in darkness and fear.” Occasionally Mortimer gets a little dry, such as when cataloguing merchants’ town house goods, but he gets juicy when describing surgeons, such as John of Alberne who pioneered surgical cleanliness as well as a method of “curing anal fistula, a nasty affliction following abscesses in the colon which particularly affects men who have spent too long riding in wet saddles…” Another medical highlight is provided in a quote from the physician John Mirfield on a remedy for tuberculosis: “take blind puppies, remove the viscera and cut off the extremities, then boil them in water, and bathe the patient in this water…” On the whole, Mortimer’s writing retains a conversational and informative flow with some occasional humor. In his chapter on medieval medicine he writes:

So, as long as you can get enough to eat, and can avoid all the various lethal infections, the dangers of childbirth, lead poisoning, and the extreme violence you should live a long time.
All you have to worry about are the doctors.

Role-Playing and Gaming Connections

Besides a brief mention of popular medieval games, Mortimer’s book has little to do directly with gaming itself. But since medieval Europe – England in particular – is the basis for most of Western fantasy, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a great study in improving the earthiness and sense of reality for role-playing games. Even within the first paragraph of Ian Mortimer’s introduction he poses questions familiar to any role-player after first setting the scene of a dusty London street:

The wooden beams of houses project out over the street. Painted signs above the doors show what is on sale in the shops beneath. Suddenly a thief grabs a merchant’s purse near the traders’ stalls, and the merchant runs after him, shouting. Everyone turns to watch. And you, in the middle of all this, where are you going to stay tonight? What are you wearing? What are you going to eat?

As for those medieval games and pastimes Mortimer details campball (football/soccer), tennis, archery, and wrestling. More intriguingly he categorizes cockfighting as an interest of boys and girls and describes cockbaiting as “throwing sticks and stones at a tethered chicken.” This is the child’s version of bearbaiting and bullbaiting, in which adults attack those animals with sticks and sic dogs on them. As for dice games, Mortimer states that they, “are are enormously popular”, which is also indicative of his present-tense style used throughout the guide to present the facts of medieval England to the reader as if he or she were really present. The last games described are board games including an early form of backgammon called tables, nine men’s morris, and checkers. Mortimer points out to his modern audience that the rules of chess differ between then and now with queens only moving one square and bishops moving only two squares at a time. These pieces were also known by different names, prime ministers and elephants respectively.

World Building for Fantasy Authors and GMs

Back in 1989 TSR released Cities of Mystery for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, featuring several dozen card stock buildings and double-sided city street maps. The box also came with a great city guide written by Jean Rabe for GMs to design their own fantasy towns and cities. How did the town come to be? How has it grown? Who guards it? The Time Traveller’s Guide is a great compliment to Rabe’s hard work. Both cover much of the same ground, but in different veins with Rabe quantifying and randomizing a town’s dimensions and occupants in true D&D percentile fashion. Mortimer is much more personal and personable, putting a human face on many medieval problems. Rabe’s prohibition on the smellier occupations, like tanning, are best explained by Mortimer. His Borough Ordinances of Worcester list includes “The entrails of butchered beasts and pails of blood are not to be carried away by day but only by night.” and “No saddler, butcher, baker, or glover, nor any other person, may cast entrails, “filth of beasts’ dung”, or dust over Severn Bridge. Also no one may shave flesh, skins, or hides but above the bridge…” In our sanitized world it is easy to forget how leather gets created or how steak gets to the plate, but in medieval society neighbors affected by the processes of tanning and butchering had to deal with their side effects on a daily basis. That the medieval English were concerned about hygiene, sanitation, and cleanliness despite ignorance of germ theory is shown by their laws and ordinances. It’s also one of Mortimer’s few reoccurring themes: the similarities between past and present and withholding judgement on our ancestors. As he puts it, “Of course they are not all filthy. Many are proud of the clean state of their houses – like their modern counterparts – regardless of the judgments of people in six hundred years’ time.” After reading through Mortimer, a GM will probably question and improve on many of the basic realities of his fantasy setting. To put it more bluntly, he or she will have to decide where the high elves crap. Do prostitutes denote themselves with a special color (yellow hoods, in the case of the historical English)? Fantasy rules for peace-bound weapons abound, but what about gate and bridge tolls?

The Time Traveller’s Guide has a more specific use for GMs as well. Those dry tables of 14th century values collected from tax reports listing folding tables, brass pots, and basins are reminiscent of the equipment sections of any Player’s Handbook. While there are only a handful of weapons and armor priced out, Mortimer has the appraised values covering many other areas. A GM (or even a fantasy author) could compile the values in a spreadsheet and compare the prices to arrive at a ratio-based understanding of how a sword’s price (1-2 shillings) compares to a roast goose (7 pennies) compared to a packhorse’s price (5-10 shillings). Mortimer also details wages, inn stays, and quite importantly, fines. Don’t worry, the odd monetary system of the English is covered in Mortimer’s chapter on measurement so you can convert between pounds, shillings, pennies, and stranger denominations with a little effort. Keeping in mind the economic turmoil created by the Black Plague and many other factors, an industrious Game Master can create a table of ratios for use in any fantasy RPG with a setting like medieval England.

Food and Clothing: Medieval England for LARPs, the SCA, and Re-Enactors

While tabletop GMs will reward their players with close attention to Mortimer’s chapters on clothing and food, the two chapters are essential reading for Society of Creative Anachronism members and LARPers. Besides the costuming, most good SCA/LARP events feature food. Great events feature drink of the alcoholic variety! Throughout his guide, Mortimer presents information on the three estates of England, the peasantry, townsfolk and gentry, and the nobility. The nobility are further divided into the clergy and the secular, with occasional special mention of royalty. Just like your clothing or domicile, what you would eat or drink in 14th century England is based on your estate. Wine and spirits were limited to the well-off while the prices of ale and bread, as staples of townsfolk, were heavily regulated. Rural peasants made their own. Mortimer focuses a lot of attention on the rarity of meat, which was normally limited to four days a week due to church edicts, and the corresponding association of meat as a status symbol. While his descriptions might make a chef drool at the variety of spices and fruits on offer, what was actually included in the category of fish caught my attention. Besides whales, “seals, porpoises, dolphins, barnacle geese, puffins, and beavers are all classed as fish as their lives begin in the sea or in a river.” The prohibition on eating meat was taken quite seriously, Mortimer notes, so these sources of protein were “eaten gleefully” on the 194 or 195 days of the year when only fish were allowed.

Mortimer’s 19 pages on medieval clothing are the most engaging that I’ve read on the subject, having thumbed through a dozen or so costume books. Using the same structure of the three estates, Mortimer notes the contrasts between the dress of paupers, yeomen, and noblemen. More importantly, he lists the clothing regulations established by the Sumptuary Laws of 1363 which actually restricted the lowly-born from dressing above their station. Mortimer also traces the considerable changes in both men’s and women’s fashions in 14th century England. Ever wondered about those odd pointy shoes so similar to those worn by court jesters? Read The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and Mortimer will satisfy your curiosity and introduce you to the ridiculous twenty-inch Crackow, which was the footwear equivalent of a Humvee in its day.

Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands DVD

Heavy Gear Battle for the Badlands DVD Cover with Mecha GearsWanting to get deeper into Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear: Blitz! game and setting, I ordered Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands from Netflix with low expectations. Friends had warned me that the animated series isn’t very good and they were right. They maybe should have said. “Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands? We don’t talk about that.” Released in 2002, Battle for the Badlands is a collection of five episodes from the second act of the 3D computer animated series, presented as a single film with one opening sequence and one set of credits at the end. Besides the lacking animation and uninspiring stories, there is also little attempt to explain any of the action onscreen to the viewer. You either understand a traveling arena with mecha whose pilots are trying to kill each other in between sanctioned tournaments or you already follow Heavy Gear. But then there’s very little for a Heavy Gear fan to get out of Battle for the Badlands except to see the Gears in motion, but for that, there are video games which I bet are far more entertaining. The question I kept asking myself throughout the DVD’s hour and 39 minutes was “Why was this ever made in the first place?” Most of the other movies involving gaming I’ve seen are worth seeing at least once, but I suggest staying away from this dull stinker. If you have to see it for yourself, watch any five minutes of Battle for the Badlands; it will never get any better. That said, if you are a fan of the podracer scene from The Phantom Menace and its double-headed announcer, this may be the film for you.

The Good in the Badlands and the Gaming Connection

The only reason I would consider watching Heavy Gear: Battle for the Badlands again is to study the Gear designs up close and in action. The beauty of Heavy Gear really comes down to the wonderful aesthetics of its Gears and they fortunately are in 95% of the movie. It is easier to spot what a particular Gear’s part does when it is blown up on screen as opposed to trying to figure out the detail on a 28mm figure. MRFs or Medium Rifles are just as ineffective in the animation as they seem to be in the game and there are plenty of Light Rocket Pods (LRPs) and Medium Rocket Pods (MRPs) in the film, though when the rockets and missiles fire on screen, they’re slow and kind of impotent. There’s not much variety in the Gears themselves with the Southern pilots using a variety of Jagers plus one Cobra and a Rattlesnake. It looks like the Northern Gears may be Hunters with a Mad Dog thrown in. One cool detail in the DVD is the existence of “Gear Beat” magazine, which is Terra Nova’s version of “Tiger Beat”. Something I’ve also not encountered in Blitz is a Vibro Naginata, which is wielded by the villainess Yoji in the show. While I’m unfamiliar with the Heavy Gear RPG or miniatures game of the early 2000s, the current iteration of the game is far, far superior to anything in the animated series. I would not even have this DVD on in the background while painting because the animation and dialogue are really that bad and distracting.

Plot, Characters, and Dialogue


No matter how wonderfully designed the Gears are, if the story is subpar and the characters are flimsy, it all adds up to a steaming wreck. The stories could be lifted from RPG adventures or Heavy Gear scenarios, but poor ones at that. The good Shadow Dragons from the South battle against the cheating Northern Guard team, Vanguard of Justice. First they do it aboard a gigantic Mag Lev train, then in the mysterious MacAllen Tunnels and Waterloo Arena, then twice in the main tournament in Trash City Arena to see who will become Heavy Gear Tournament Champion, and yet again, in a third tournament (with a twist) in Trash City Arena. Along the way young Marcus Rover is shown to be far superior to his older teammates, a teenaged ace who fights with honor. Despite being the protagonist, he’s also nearly as shallow as the GREL soldier Sebastian or his Japanese ally Tachi who fights with his great grandfather’s Vibro Katana. They are all cardboard cutouts and the Battle for the Badlands makes no attempt to even have a moral of the story, except for “Don’t cheat!” As for the cheaters themselves, they’re drawn from old clichés, ranging from the Russian sniper Serge to the Dreadnok-like Rank. They certainly cheat and double-cross at every turn with zero consequences from the Heavy Gear Championship Tournament organizers and with the complicity of announcer Maddox, who even remotely pilots a gigantic dragon Mega Gear against Marcus Rover during one of the arena combats. In a setting where Southern Gears derive their names from serpents and other reptiles, it’s odd that no one comments on this draconic Mega Gear or even on Major Drake Alexander Wallis III’s first name.

“Hot metal-munching mama!”

The dialogue is horrible stuff. I love some pretty bad puns, but “This is what I call a Gear death experience,” is pushing it. “Goodness gearacious!” is over the line. Marcus Rover has a constant refrain throughout the film, “Dragons forever!” What this means and who it inspires is anyone’s guess. There were a few little gems. One character exclaims, “Hot metal-munching mama!” My favorite lines though followed a character’s apparent death. After one character mourns, “He was like a father to me,” the other responds “He was like a commanding officer to me.” Very dry and these came from the villains’ team.

This is Heavy Gear? Animation and World

When not in their Gears, the characters’ animation from Mainframe Entertainment ranges from barely passable to awful. I was surprised to see that motion capture was actually used. Faces are usually expressionless and resemble mannequins. The shot of the crowd cheering is especially obnoxious. I know this was 2002, but World of Warcraft introduced /cheering that was much more lively two years later in 2004. Every environment in WoW also has more depth and occasionally the only texture in Battle for the Badlands is a skin applied to one of the surfaces in the background. By the end of the disc I would have settled for static frames with voiceover as is sometimes done to save money in animation. At the same time the directing and visual narrative is consistently strong. The animators went for cinematic shots found in Hollywood blockbusters, eschewing simpler shots common in 2D animation. Make no mistake about it, a lot of effort went into Battle for the Badlands with battle damage on gears and attention to lighting sources and shadows, but to no avail.

The other sad part of the animation to me as a fan of Heavy Gear: Blitz is that while I am aware that Gears have multiple movement modes including Walker or Ground (wheeled), I really hadn’t realized how much like roller derby Heavy Gear actually is. At times in the animated series, they are actually skating by crossing their Gears’ legs over and not just moving directly forward on their wheels. The world onscreen is also a puzzling one. I know it’s the Badlands and it should be a rough place, but where do the tens of thousands of spectators actually live? What do they even subsist on in the desert landscape? What powers the huge arena video screens? Why in such a desolate area are there giant roller coaster cars that seat six 25-foot tall Gears each? Obviously so the Gears can race each other for the audience’s entertainment. Phantom Menace podracing indeed.

DVD: The Dungeon Masters (2008)

Blue skinned cartoon drow on cover of 2008 DVD Jacket of The Dungeon MastersThe Dungeon Masters is a depressing documentary from 2008 about the depressing lives of three gamers. In form and style, The Dungeon Masters is everything a documentary should be. The visuals are excellent, with good establishing shots, steady camerawork, and zero confusion in transitions. As far as content and its subject matter, The Dungeon Masters is deceptively titled, especially for existing gamers who would imagine that the movie might actually capture what the role of being a Dungeon Master or Game Master is all about. The movie doesn’t go there. There aren’t topics like “Dealing with Problem Players” or “How I Became a DM”. Even if “Dungeon Master” is taken to be about being a master of Dungeons & Dragons, the title is way off and sure to arouse the ire of even casual D&D players.

The only parts of The Dungeon Masters I can recommend are the opening Gen Con sequence and the filming at a LARP in Mississippi for four minutes. Otherwise the movie has little to do with gaming and too much to do with the dysfunctional lives of its three subjects. Even though it is only an hour and 27 minutes, The Dungeon Masters has the emotional impact of Sam and Frodo’s trek through Mordor and seems like a much longer film. At the same time, director Keven McAlester and editor Christine Khalafian vary the shots and cut between the subjects enough that the despair and loneliness never get tedious. Just when you think that you have a handle on each GM’s life and problems, there’s another horrible revelation or another misfortune waiting in the wings. Having seen it multiple times now, I would rather watch Precious or The Human Centipede again before I shoulder the burden of another viewing of The Dungeon Masters. Comic relief is sparse, unless you are laughing at gamers’ expense. By comic relief, I mean that I chuckled when I saw that some school children were following the costumed Scott Corum along outside his son’s school, obviously fascinated by his strange outfit.

Keven McAlester’s film is so unflattering to its subjects and gaming as a whole that I give credence to claims that McAlester may have approached and edited the film with an agenda other than portraying the truth, but that is a subject for another day.

Gen Con

The first 13 minutes of Dungeon Masters is a captivating look at the three GMs in the context of the 2006 Gen Con and manages to capture as much of Gen Con in that brief time as Hobocon does in its entirety. The gloom of the rest of the movie is also absent in the Shangri-La that is Gen Con. Besides introducing the three DMs, there are interviews with many other gamers, gamers who do not appear later in the movie. For the most part, it’s also the most colorful and action-packed part of The Dungeon Masters, as the camera focuses on costumed attendee after costumed attendee, Gen Con’s opening balloons, and Cardhalla in an accurate encapsulation of the Best 4 Days of Gaming.

The LARP Segment

“When you played Cops and Robbers, you were LARPing. When you were playing dress up with your mom’s clothes, you were LARPing. When you were hiding them from your mom after you were done, you were LARPing and learning how to lie, which is a great LARP skill.”

– Jeffrey Ingram

The LARP segment is much briefer at only four minutes or so, but also embodies the sights and sounds of a LARP. Based on the reference to a Celestial column of magic and the called damage, the Live Action Role-Playing sequence seemed like a NERO LARP or an offshoot, which in fact it is. The LARP is Cerroneth, which is part of the SOLAR rules system. LARPer Jeffrey Ingram describes LARPing inclusively: “When you played Cops and Robbers, you were LARPing. When you were playing dress up with your mom’s clothes, you were LARPing. When you were hiding them from your mom after you were done, you were LARPing and learning how to lie, which is a great LARP skill.” In particular, I love how the camera captures the PCs spilling out of the tavern, surging forward as they do battle with the four undead who have come to harass the town. The drow of The Dungeon Masters, Elizabeth Reesman abandons playing her character to serve as a Monster Marshall; it would have been great if she had been asked to compare GMing tabletop games with GMing a LARP, but the closest the movie comes is Reesman’s love interest Jack Penton’s praise for her devotion as a DM.

The Dungeon Masters Themselves

GMing and role-playing are deeply personal and criticisms of one’s RP can be devastating. Players’ creative and intellectual reputations can be on the line. With that said, I have to imagine that any tabletop gamer watching The Dungeon Masters has had more meaningful and entertaining roleplay than the scant bit the film portrays. These are not masters of their craft. I think they would say as much themselves, despite their vanity. Role-playing is ultimately about FUN. D&D didn’t sell millions of copies without being fun, yet none of that is apparent watching the film’s three GMs at work.

Richard Meeks

Seattle-based Richard Meeks has what appears to be the most stable home life, working a 9 to 5 in the King County Waste Water Treatment Division and serving as a US Air Force reservist one weekend a month. His second wife doesn’t share his interest in gaming, much less seem interested by it. Meeks ranges from eccentricity to downright villainy. What will viewers remember him for? His nudist lifestyle, the emotional abandonment of his stepchildren from his first marriage, or for being a self-important party-killing DM? Meeks describes his party’s encounter with a Sphere of Annihilation as, “somebody got stupid and just decided to run through a door.” This is punishment from the DM though because Meeks “was just really mad that they were being so greedy” and therefore put an end to 7 real life years of adventuring for his Florida players. The camera catches Meeks’ journey out to Florida years later as he makes amends with a final game, letting his former players save the world of Greyhawk. Later though he sends a pissy email to his Washington players ending his campaign with them.

“You do not play Dungeons & Dragons to win or lose it in the Monopoly sense… You play the game for the experiences that you’re going to go through, not where it’s going to end up.”

– Scott Corum

I have only encountered Meeks’ brand of GMing once and it came as a shock. For most role-players, Scott Corum’s description of RPGs is accurate: “You do not play Dungeons & Dragons to win or lose it in the Monopoly sense… You play the game for the experiences that you’re going to go through, not where it’s going to end up.” Despite what Meeks says to the contrary about a GM not flaunting his power, for Meeks it is about winning or losing. His gamer friend questions whether he’s going to kill the party as Meeks reviews a Greyhawk module on public transit; he smirks in response. “Because If I don’t kill you by midnight then I haven’t done my job,” Meeks threatens his Washington players. While player death is a great motivator, for Meeks it seems to go much deeper psychologically. “But if I really wanted to, I could kill any of you and I know that,” he has to point out to his players, who admittedly seemed to be enjoying themselves. One of his Florida players finds this style to be fun, saying “Richard is a very entertaining Game Master. He has a real knack for making the player characters feel that they’ve accomplished something in some way.” In character taunts are one thing, but most players I know would have nothing to do with a GM who taunts them out of character.

Scott Corum

Scott Corum overlaps with Richard Meeks in his own grandiosity. The creative and charming Corum is shown working on his modern day fantasy adventure book manuscript throughout the film. He also pursues his own program on the local cable access show in Torrance, CA. Besides a Strategicon DM t-shirt, Corum also has plenty of stories, divulging his teenage nickname “Sherlock”, his $50,000 in educational loan debt, and a background in puppetry. McAlester captures moments of domestic strife between Scott Corum and his more down-to-earth wife. When they’re not disagreeing with each other on camera, Corum has to ask whether the family can afford $20 so he can get new shoes at Payless. This trouble is compounded by his close attachment to one of his player’s wives, which comes to a head on camera when the player confronts his wife about something involving her “best friend” Corum. Corum is vague about what the exact trouble is. These unflattering moments could be studied in a psychology or sociology class and the term “emotional affair” might be used.

Corum is full of hopes and literary dreams, shedding tears when literary agent Denise Dumars telling him that she fell out of her chair after her professional reader read seven page’s of Corum’s book and told her “Buy it! The people who love The Da Vinci Code will love it.” Dumas continues to blow smoke up Corum’s ass, praising the first hundred pages of With a Single Wish Forever as “really, really good.” She goes on to relate a meeting she’s supposedly had with a Del Rey acquisitions editor who is looking for a series of books to buy and how she was thinking “Three book deal!” Consequently Corum praises her as the best agent in the world. In true Dungeon Masters fashion though, she calls and informs Corum that she hates his book. How she couldn’t have realized that from the first 100 pages, if she’d actually read them, is beyond me.

Elizabeth Reesman

It’s easy to forget that Elizabeth Reesman is a Dungeon Master, since only two minutes of her DMing are ever shown in the documentary. Instead McAlester focuses on her drow alter ego and her pillows stained with her black makeup. Living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Reesman is recovering from Hurricane Katrina and there’s many shots of her environment to remind us of how far from cleaned up the region was in 2006. Why does Reesman play World of Warcraft in her full drow makeup in a motel room, the viewer may wonder as she does just that on screen. It’s one of the more puzzling scenes in the movie that hints at a fuller untold story. Almost every segment featuring Reesman, in fact, seems to center around her costuming and her putting her makeup on. Despite two boyfriends’ praise of Reesman’s gaming skills, she is never treated as Meeks’ or Corum’s gaming equal, though she shares in their cup of misery. Reesman’s ex-husband was violently abusive and she had a miscarriage the day after her wedding. She also fends off her employer’s sexual harassment and has trouble finding new employment.

The Mirror of The Dungeon Masters

Don’t we all know some fellow gamers like the three in The Dungeon Masters? If your pool of acquaintances is large enough, Meeks, Corum, and Reesman should be vaguely familiar. These are all people I would game with, even PK-happy Meeks. I have questioned when exactly it is that some gamer friends see their wives or children or have been startled to learn that they actually have them in the first place. I’m open to the idea that one of the reasons I might dislike The Dungeon Masters and find it so disheartening is that it hits fairly close to home. Meeks and Corum are both self-important and vain; I share in their egotism. I have ended a D&D campaign angrily, frustrated by competing distractions and I have to admit that in his aspirations, Scott Corum is a kindred spirit. Hell, I love UHF and have even dreamed of my own horrible public access TV shows over the years. Fortunately I just don’t have a documentary film crew capturing me at my worst (I leave that to my own writing).

In the end, I would rather escape and laugh along as fictional characters’ lives fall to pieces in movies like Observe and Report, Super, and Foot Fist Way than watch reality play out on screen as it does in McAlester’s film. The Dungeon Masters is worth visiting once, but then belongs safely below ground, locked away like the Tomb of Horrors that it is.