If I Had My Dream Job (AKA Fraser’s Iron Fist)

In a discussion about the Marvel series on Netflix, someone asked – since I was very disappointed with Iron Fist – what would I have done. That person obviously had no idea what they were getting into, and while we were discussing the various factors, many of the components and plots that I suggested accreted into something resembling coherence.

And now I am going to throw that semi-coherence in your face, because that’s what I do.

It’s important to stress how much this idea takes from the Matt Fraction/Ed Brubaker run on the Immortal Iron Fist as well as some of the more traditional background of the character. While this was discussed as a TV series, as a counter-factual to what actually happened, there is no way a TV series could happen now, unless Marvel retcons their Netflix series. Of course, it’s also not going to happen as a comic, but it’s not a complete impossibility (a less than absolute 0% chance, but that’s still a chance).

The biggest difference between my conception of the character and the the Iron Fists from TV and the comics is that this Iron Fist is neither white nor male. She doesn’t have to be Asian, but that’s kind of what I was thinking. The Iron Fist Wu Ao-Shi from the Immortal Iron Fist is kind of an inspiration. To separate my Iron Fist, let’s just call her Wu.

Anyway, the backstory is that one of the Cities of Heaven (working with seven, but maybe leave the number open) intersects with Earth once every 10 years, which is how it works in the Immortal Iron Fist. Each city has a champion, an Immortal Weapon, who bears a spark of that city’s essence, augmenting their inner qi and making them powerful beyond even the greatest warriors of Heaven.

During the intersection, all Immortal Weapons must return to their home cities in order to participate in a tournament to decide which city will be preeminent and act as the gateway to Earth. In between those intersections, the Immortal Weapons can stay in their city or wander the Earth. Most Immortal Weapons stay in their city to both train and be lavished with luxuries. Our Iron Fist – and most before her – chose something else because the Immortal Iron Fist is not just an Immortal Weapon, but also a seeker for justice.

It isn’t uncommon for the city that intersects with the Earth to accept supplicants who wish to come and learn within that city’s monastery – the training ground of the Immortal Weapons. Wu is one such supplicant who became the best student of Lei Kung, the Thunderer.

During the last intersection, Iron Fist did not return to K’un L’un, and so a hasty selection took place which Wu won, becoming the new Iron Fist. Further, she won the tournament among the Cities of Heaven and so it was K’un L’un that intersected with Earth. Wu decided to seek for the lost Iron Fist. She has since been wandering the Earth, fighting injustice while searching for her lost predecessor. This is all back story which might be provided through the series, but not all at once and not at first.

Wu is closer in personality to Danny Rand in the Immortal Iron Fist. She is a martial artist, yes, but she’s also a swashbuckler. We learn that it was her empathy and willingness to sacrifice that led Shou-Lao the Undying to mark her and provide a piece of its essence to strengthen her already impressive qi. She revels in her abilities because they allow her to fight injustice and help people. She loves what she is and what she can do, and she’s not afraid to die, if it’s in a good cause.

She’s a knight errant, a noble warrior as she seeks out injustices but is not touched by their darkness.

That’s all background and character stuff. I kind of plotted out how I would have delivered the story, and I’ll share that with you next.

You can find out more about Iron Fist here.

The images are of the Iron Fist Wu Ao-Shi, whom you can learn about here.

The Immortal Iron Fist is rivalled only by Walt Simonson’s run on Thor as my favourite comic series.

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One For Thebes

A recent In Our Time episode, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the Greek city-state of Thebes. There were a couple of points that really piqued my interest – Thebes position in the centre of Greece and its alliance with the Persians during part of the Greek-Persian Wars.

The idea of a powerful – but not the most powerful – city-state at the epicentre of an isolated socio-political region could make for some very interesting dynamics. One could well imagine such a place to be quite cosmopolitan, and Thebes reputation as the oldest of the Greek states puts it at the centre of that wheel geographically as well as culturally. Based on the general process of a city’s founding, one might presume that Thebes grew out of a trade nexus, a confluence of routes originating before the rise of the urbis. These trade routes might be supplanted, but at the iron age, without extensive river navigation, one would expect the land routes would continue to dominate and likely wouldn’t change unless there were rather massive geographical changes.

Such traffic would almost certainly enrich the city – and comments were made regarding Thebes’ wealth – and so one would have this central point, well-protected and militarily powerful with the wealth to be able to continue both, but not politically dominant.

Facing this, one has the naval leader of Athens and the army leader of Sparta. In the end, Thebes saw both of these wane and it finally gained ascendancy in time to be destroyed by Macedon. However, at the time of the Greek-Persian Wars, Thebes was a rival to Athens, and after Thermopylae – at which it fought – it sided with Persia.

So imagine your heroes as citizens or residents of this powerful city, in the middle of a massive war, siding with foreign invaders against domestic rivals and enemies. This Thebes – let’s make it a second-world or at least alt-history setting – faces conspiracies and threats from those outside its immediate orbit, and the heroes must protect the city all the while insuring that they don’t become pawns of the greater power with whom their state has sided. One can have the city ruled by a conservative, greedy oligarchy that might not always have the citizens best interests at heart, which can lead to many situation of the heroes thwarting their own leaders in order to protect the common people. Perhaps, in this setting, the Persians conquered Greece, leaving Thebes preeminent. Or perhaps the heroes can support the flourishing of democracy – whether limited or extreme – and find themselves finding the crowd might not have any wisdom.

The idea of Thebes seems very rich with inspiration to me. And just for fun, were I to run this, I’d do it overlaying the Choson aristocracy – one that downplayed the value of military prowess over diplomacy and knowledge – leaving the heroes with gradually decaying prestige, even as they may be the main reason for the state’s continued survival.

You can find that In Our Time episode here.

The title is a play on the play.

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Immortals from Between the Rivers

I picked up Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia from the Great Courses. I don’t find Dr. Alexis Q. Castor as good of a lecturer as Dr. Jennifer Paxton or Dr. Kenneth Harl, but the lectures are engaging and I am quite enjoying them. The discussion of temples and the role of the gods got me thinking of an old project of mine: Immortals of Bronze.

Immortals of Bronze had the kings of the ancient Mesopotamian city-states and empires as immortal wizards, but listening to a discussion of temple as the literal house of the god and the transition of religious to political power made me think: why not have the kings as the gods, except they are immortal wizards. Cut out that middle-person. Take the ancient religion for its word and have the temple as the centre for religious and secular power for the ancient states.

I’m unlikely to get back to that project, but Between the Rivers is both very interesting and filled with inspiration for writers and gamers.

You can find Between the Rivers here.

My favourite Dr. Paxton lecture is the Story of Medieval England, which you can find here.

My favourite Dr. Harl lecture is Rome and the Barbarians, which you can find here.

You can find a quick encapsulation of my Immortals of Bronze idea here.

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Thor: Ragnarok – I Love It So Much I Want To Marry It!

Okay, I just got back from Thor: Ragnarok – well, I got home, did the prep for dinner, then wrote this, but almost literally ‘just back’ – and I have to say: go see this movie. Go see it twice. This movie is so great on so many levels, I am very, very happy.

Okay, so if you’ve seen the trailers, you know what you are getting into. What might not be clear is that the plot to this movie is incredibly dark and encompasses more than one tragedy, The humour is also ubiquitous. I think this might have more comedy moments per minute of movie than Guardians of the Galaxy, which was previously the lightest of the Marvel movies (I don’t count Deadpool, which is more of a Fox movie than a Marvel one). Like GotG, Thor: Ragnarok leavens the action with humour, but unlike GotG, humour rather than action seems like the default.

Having written that, let me assure you that the humour doesn’t overwhelm the plot or – when it comes – the pathos. It really is an amazing achievement to hit so many moments that make one laugh while also hitting moments that tear one up, and include that with healthy helpings of character development.

It’s important to point out how amazing everyone is in this movie, but I will be forever grateful for Karl Urban’s work as Skurge, the Executioner. The Skure redemption story from Walt Simonson’s run on Thor – in my mind, the best comics ever realized, bar none, dead serious on that – has been something that never fails to move me. I love it. I understand him. And it’s not a “hurray! he’s a good guy now so let’s welcome into the fold” moment like Magneto with the X-Men (in the comics). No, Skurge’s character arc – in the Simonson run and in this movie – makes sense, it has real emotional heft, and it is believable. The Skurge of the comics had a long history, and the climax was both poignant and added weight to everything that came before it (explained quite well here). The Skurge of the movie is quite different as a character, but not in the final noble decision that will define him. The Skurge of the movie, unlike the one in comics, does not have a long history of villainy and so his choice defines him in an even more profound way than the Skurge of the comics. It’s the moment when he is really tested, and he does it right.

Such a glorious movie. Really. The only issue for some might be the amount of humour. One of the people I saw it with said he thought the humour might be a little bit too much. I disagree. I think it’s perfect. I think Thor needed this. He and Iron Fist are my comic favourites, and his previous movies were fine, but not great (unlike Iron Fist . . . I continue to mourn). I worried a bit about the humour, because he was not a light-hearted character in his other appearances. We saw some change in his character in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I think the self-awareness he evidences in this movie fits in his character’s growth. He is maturing, taking himself less serious, but still prone to fits of petulance – as we saw in the beginning of Thor and in The Avengers.

And massive props to director Taika Waititi, who voices the rock gladiator Korg. Korg is a consistently light addition, even when he’s in the middle of massive fight. His timing was perfect, and like K-2S0, he stole every scene he was in, though much less a cynical presence than the former.

So I give Thor: Ragnarok a well-earned 4.75 out of 5, because nothing is perfect. There was probably tightening that could have happened – minor though it might have been – and perhaps a few, very minor other improvements, but I think this is as close to a perfect comic adaptation as we are going to see. Huge recommendation.

You can read more about Thor: Ragnarok on Wikipedia and IMDB.

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The Mayor – A Review

With a bunch of new Korean movies up on Netflix, my wife has been binging. She was kind enough to leave one for us to watch together, and she did so because it stars one of South Korea’s greatest actors and a favourite of both of us, Choi Min-Sik.

The Mayor is about the Mayor of Seoul attempting to get re-elected to a record third term. This isn’t an actioner or genre pic, but a straight-up drama with aspects of a thriller. It starts out showing the two faces of this politician – the public affability and the private ruthlessness. The Mayor, who comes from humble origins but has profited greatly from his time in municipal politics, is assisted by an equally ruthless councilman, and the two recruit a young ad executive to help with the re-election campaign.

The acting was uniformly good, as one always hopes in a dramatic presentation. Choi Min-Sik, of course, was a stand-out. He always delivers an amazing performance. You can never see the acting, and you can never tell he’s wearing a mask. Even when his characters are wearing a mask, as the Mayor is when in public, Choi only provides hints and cues, he never goes broad, though sometimes his characters do.

Although I didn’t live in Seoul when I was in South Korea, there are areas of it I knew very well. These days, the few trips I’ve been able to make back have been to Seoul, and I love seeing it on the screen – not as much as I love visiting it, but I’ll take what I can get. It shows both the fancy and wealthy parts but also the small and pedestrian, like a dingy galbi restaurant probably situated in a side-alley off the main road.

The problem with the movie comes at about the half-way point. This is where its verisimilitude, for me, cracked. It pushed too hard on my willing suspension of disbelief, and became almost soap operatic. I don’t mean in its melodrama, because that’s a facet of Korean cinema I’ve come to appreciate, but in its unreality. The number of events that stack up against the Mayor and their increasing intensity was too much. One or two, perhaps, but as the hits and twists kept coming, the movie lost me.

As much as I enjoyed the first half, I would recommend instead Nameless Gangster – if You haven’t seen it. It’s not on Canadian Netflix any longer, but find it elsewhere as it is both a great showcase for Choi Min-Sik and a straight up fantastic story.

I give The Mayor 3 oh-my-god-how-can-this-be-happening-and-how-can-we-cover-it-up-in-the-most-ruthless-way-possibles out of 5. Choi Min-Sik’s performance pulled me through the whole movie but it broke my willing suspension of disbelief earlier. Check out Nameless Gangster instead.

You can find out more about The Mayor at Wikipedia or IMDB.

You can find out more about Nameless Gangster at Wikipedia or IMDB.

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Blade Runner 2049: Thoughts

I go see very few movies in the theatre, but a sequel to Blade Runner? That had to have the full cinematic experience. A couple of friends also wanted to check it out, so I dropped my money for a Tuesday showing (because it’s cheaper . . . as am I) and we plopped down in our seats.

I am a fan of the original Blade Runner, and more specifically, the first Director’s Cut from 1991. I found a lot to love in the movie, from the setting to the story, to the noir influences. I probably can’t objectively relate to it as it’s been a huge part of my cultural landscape since I was old enough to actually think about the things I was reading and seeing.

That should help situate you for this, because I really enjoyed the experience, and while it might not be the equal of the original, I don’t think anything possibly could be. I think the story was simpler in the original and while 2049 might be a little overstuffed – its running time is 163 minutes – the movie went by quite quickly for me and I was immersed the whole time.

Without spoiling anything, Ryan Gosling plays a Blade Runner in the world 30 years after the original movie. He hunts replicants, and stumbles across a secret that his superior believes could ignite a rebellion between the manufactured workforce and their Human masters. I don’t want to say more than that and the people behind the movie have actually asked that spoilers not be shared. I don’t think this is necessary to the enjoyment of the movie, but it’s also not important to give a general impression of the film.

Everyone seems to agree that the visuals and the soundscape – both the music and the sound engineering more generally – are exemplary. This is an absolutely beautiful movie and one other reason to see it in the theatre is the impact of the sound. Not just the music but the environmental sounds. This is incredibly rich and textured, and you need the best of equipment to fully enjoy both. At times, the heavy bass of the score overwhelmed the sound system of the theatre in which I saw it, and this might be a case where one should splurge and watch it in the best-equipped cinema one can. I saw it in a standard theatre format – no special sound, no IMAX, nothing.

In the Slate Spoiler Special concerning 2049, the hosts complain that there are apparently very many motifs that don’t make sense – Bible references that don’t line up or are contradictory. One of the reasons I could never be an actual critic is that I am not watching a film to deconstruct it but to enjoy it. Maybe if those motifs don’t work the way one expects them to, that is based on one’s faulty expectations and perhaps these are not what you think they are. Just because the character is named Joe, is it necessarily a reference to Joseph the father of Jesus? Maybe one thinks it should be, but if that interpretation doesn’t work with the film as presented, perhaps the director did not agree?

Neither of my friends enjoyed the movie as much as I did. I also don’t think either was as invested in the original as I am. In fact, One friend was very lukewarm on the movie, so I know my experience is not universal, but I found the story and characters worked very well.

The key to all this seems to be one’s opinion of Ryan Gosling’s performance, or perhaps the character he portrays. For me, I was invested in the character, and while I can see why one would expect the character to be an echo of Deckard – whom he resembles very closely in many aspects – I think that he also has many aspects of a different, important character in the original – which is highlighted at the end of the movie. The main difference is that he has Deckard’s cynicism but the other character’s drive. I think it makes a very interesting synthesis.

The one problem that is obvious is the Firefly problem – for a culture apparently steeped in Asian culture (and we prominently see Chinese, Japanese, and Korean text) there were no Asians. There were very few non-White roles at all and no major ones. I honestly find that a real problem, and if you have to ask why I think you may not have been paying attention the last decade or so.

In the end, I found this an amazing cinematic experience. This is a movie I will want to watch regularly. Definitely getting the blu-ray when it comes out. I think it’s a fitting sequel, and it is a much better sequel than I had any hope of ever seeing.

I give Blade Runner 2049 4.5 new-fangled, auto-piloting, kitted up spinner vehicle out of 5. Sumptuous visuals, impressive score and sound engineering and an engaging story make this a great film, an absolute necessity for fans of the original. While its languid pace was welcome, it is a hefty movie that could probably lose a few minutes here and there. The biggest issue was its love affair with Asian culture but not Asian people which really creates a problem of versimilitude in the setting.

You can find out more about Blade Runner 2049 at Wikipedia and IMDB.

You can find the Slate Spoiler Special here.

At least Slate’s Stephen Metcalf on the Slate Culture Gabfest agrees with me! That episode is here.

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That Dungeon is Dark!

Things have been quiet because all of my writing has been focused on getting a substantial buffer for my Patreon (you are backing my Patreon, right? I mean, of course you are!). Things are looking good as the releases up to and including January are complete and I’ve got a lot of work already done on February’s release, so I might be able to ease up soon.

Sometimes I need a break. I have about an hour – sometimes less – to myself, and these days I’ve been playing Darkest Dungeon.

In Darkest Dungeon you assemble teams to enter dungeons – big surprise – from a home-base in a run-down village that has been negatively impacted by its proximity to all this evil and supernatural menace. Each type of character has special attacks and buff-abilities, and there are four destinations, each with different standard opponents.

The idea is to build a bench of specialists and choose the correct team to assault the dungeon. I don’t know the proper terminology for this stuff, but the characters move along the screen in sideview (sidescrolling? I actually don’t think that’s correct, but it seems right). Fights are turn based – almost like D&D – and characters can get magic items that help and hinder them.

Stress is also hugely important, and while it’s pretty easy to repair physical damage – there are a couple of classes with that as either a specialty or option – healing stress is very hard unless one makes camp. There is one class with an optional skill that helps, but generally it’s tough to recover from stress and too much stress can severely negatively impact a character and possibly even kill them. It can get pretty dark and pretty frustrating.

To be honest, I can’t explain why I like it as much as I do, but for me it’s addictive. I have specific classes that I really like and other classes that are somewhat useful and help round out a team. Never get too attached to any character, though, because death is always right around the corner.

I give Darkest Dungeon 4.5 blight-resistant, bleed-attacking, stress-relieving Jesters out of 5. It’s not high octane action but there’s something satisfying about building powerful characters and seeing a thoughtful strategy bear fruit. Even the frustration of bad rolls is present, though not as satisfying.

You can find out more about Darkest Dungeon here.

Please support me through my Patreon.

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This Bureau Needs Adjusting! A Review

I didn’t seek out the Adjustment Bureau, even though it was a movie based on a story by Philip K. Dick, and his stories almost always have something valuable in them. No, I didn’t seek it out, but it was the compromise choice for a movie on Netflix, and so I watched it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine movie. I’d even go as far as saying it’s good. This is almost completely due to the cast and – one assumes – the director who got such fine performances out of them. The script was fine, but not particularly memorable. Much of the script that worked best would have worked in a romantic comedy as well. But this wasn’t a romantic comedy. It’s a fantasy movie – not science fiction as Wikipedia states. There’s no science in it. The antagonists are pretty much . . .

Spoilers? Is that necessary? Spoilers . . .

Angels. This is a movie about magic and how true love can conquer even the most powerful of magics. The Adjustment Bureau of the title has decided to adjust the pair’s romance since it has no place in “the plan,” but somehow they keep getting back together. Perhaps this is through sheer chance or will, but it shows that their love is greater than “the plan” and all the powers that support it. But that isn’t actually the story because – I’ve already warned you, but SPOILERS! – they were actually supposed to be together in a previous plan and only recently was that changed. So really, their love isn’t theirs, it’s from “the plan.” And while Damon’s character argues for free will, his love actually isn’t a product of his free will, but rather a leftover of “the plan.”

This isn’t remarked on in the movie, nor is the fact that if the plan changes, then the planner – known as “the Chairman” – isn’t infallible. To me, this seemed like a kind of a big deal when the Bureau does not question “the plan” because it is supposed to be perfect. One of the agents is shocked to learn that “the plan” changed in the past, but doesn’t seem to follow that on to its logical conclusion – if the plan regularly changes (there’s another change in “the plan” during the movie) they are following whims, rather than a plan.

Nothing is really well-explained and problems are papered-over maybe with hopes that no one will notice. The movie works because of its cast – not just Damon and Blunt but also Anthony Mackie as the agent who becomes their ally and Terence Stamp as the toughest of the tough. It’s a fun watch, but for a movie that seems to think it’s quite smart, that’s a façade. It veers very far away from Philip K. Dick’s original story, and that loses both the science fiction of the premise and the intelligence of the same.

I give the Adjustment Bureau 3.75 magic hats out of 5. The performances are great and the cast is charismatic, but the story doesn’t really hold together. Sure, there’s inspiration with some of the ideas here, but it’s definitely not science fiction and really only fantasy as a strawman – a powerful adversary that isn’t really powerful at all in order to show the strength of true love, which isn’t actually true love.

You can find out more about the Adjustment Bureau at Wikipedia and IMDB.

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The Defenders: The Verdict

I had plenty of momentum when I wrote my review of the first episodes of the Defenders. Finishing the series, that motivation and momentum died a barely noticed death. It’s not that the series was bad, but it had a very high bar to clear, and Iron Fist was pulling at its legs the whole time, tripping it up badly.

The joy at seeing these characters and catching up with them cannot drive one through all eight episodes, and as this is as much a continuation of the Iron Fist story as Daredevil Season 2, the weakness of that former series weighs heavily on this one. This is very idiosyncratic, as I love the character of Iron Fist as depicted in comics, and as each episode went by, I saw very little improvement. There was some improvement over his portrayal in his own series, but I’ve mentioned those already. After some brief promise, my hopes were dashed.

And while I think there was some real promise with the villains – and at least Sigourney Weaver delivers when she is on screen – there is a lot of wasted promise. Murakami looked interesting, but he just ended up being ninja-contrarian. The one that seemed the most promising to me was Sowande, who seemed to suggest (during his captivity) that face punching wasn’t his only talent. Unfortunately, if you’ve seen the series, you know how that promise was answered in the series.

Great at protecting my coffee. Not so as a TV character.

So the villains don’t have the level of threat or fascination that we got from the Kingpin, Kilgrave, or Cottonmouth. We really get slightly better variations of Bakuto, who wasn’t a very strong character. The criminal underuse of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight continued, though there were some hints at future greatness for at least one of them.

In the end, this isn’t the worst of the Marvel-Netflix productions, and with word that Disney will be removing itself from Netflix, I can’t imagine we have too many more of these to go. What that says to me is that we won’t be seeing anymore of Iron Fist. I never thought I’d ever say this, but . . .

Good.

I give the Defenders 3.5 kind of weak fingers on an uninspired Hand out of 5. There were moments of interest and some good action scenes, but the charisma and character touches couldn’t save the series from a mediocre story and its weaker links.

You can find out more about the Defenders at Wikipedia and IMDB.

You can find my review of the first five episodes here.

Please support my Patreon.

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Getting All Patreon-izing

I haven’t posted as much here as I should, and there are two reasons for that. One is that I haven’t been enjoying a lot of media – not watching anything or reading anything right now. Second is that instead of consuming media, I’ve been prepping for my Patreon.

Patreon is a crowd-funding platform based on the old patron-client relationship, like how a noble would maintain a bard on the payroll, or the rich Italian merchant houses made sure people like Michangelo were well-paid for their creations. In the case of Patreon, it’s kind of like a crowd-funding subscription service. Each month, there’ll be a release and for each release, subscribers will have pledged a certain amount. The base amount is $1, but there are higher tiers which have access to more or different products, and have a say in what will be produced.

Right now, I have adventures for some of my games. In September, I’ll release “Lawless Heaven,” an adventure for Sword’s Edge based on Korean action cinema. In October, it’ll be “Face ‘Splosion,” a Sword’s Edge adventure sci-fi actioner that’s an homage to the Borderlands video games. In November, it’ll be “Judged,” an adventure for Nefertiti Overdrive that bridges the adventure in the Quickstart Rules and in the main book. These are all ready to go. They’ve been written, laid out, and the PDFs are sitting on the hard drive waiting for me to pull the trigger.

The plan for December is a campaign framework, but that is in revision. I’m not sure how many pages it will end up being, so it might come as two different releases. After that? We’ll see. I also intend to release unpublished fiction and possibly a serialized novel through Patreon. It all depends on what the reaction is. Since higher tier subscribers have a say on what projects should enter the queue, it might end up all adventures, or short PRGs, or fiction. Hard to say.

Once I have a buffer of about six products (halfway there!) I’ll feel more comfortable putting time in elsewhere, until that, you can check out some of the RPG articles at SEP and maybe start saving your money for the Patreon.

I hear it’ll be kind of cool.

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