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Role-Playing Games for People Who Don’t Like Dungeons & Dragons

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If you ever tried to get into tabletop role-playing games—the kind where you sit around with character sheets, describing your actions and rolling dice—it was probably through Dungeons & Dragons. And if you’re sick of medieval fantasy, or you don’t care about fighting monsters, or you hate looking up stats on different charts, you might have walked away thinking “I guess I don’t like RPGs.” Which is a shame, because there are thousands of other RPGs out there.

D&D is the oldest RPG, and over the decades its evolved into several editions, with a variety of complexity, settings, and character options. But they’re all related to the core concept of playing elves and dwarves that fight fantasy monsters, in a vaguely Middle Earthy setting. So if that whole vibe isn’t working for you, here’s a guide to searching for something better.

Different Settings

There’s no reason that a game has to be medieval-flavored. There are RPGs in every genre and setting: cyberpunk, post-apocalypse, kids’ cartoon, espionage, vampire, superhero, 18th century gothic romance, even religious wars in pre-statehood Utah. You can play the minions of a vampire or mad scientist, or an intentionally overpowered adventurer. (If you want to be a modern-day magician, I recommend Mage: The Awakening or its predecessor Mage: The Ascension). Wikipedia has a long, but far from complete, list of games by genre.


Different editions of D&D You can easily tweak the setting or characters in D&D; different versions of D&D, as well as loads of supplemental materials even

Just like D&D was inspired by Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian, some of the most popular RPGs are inspired by famous genre fiction. Call of Cthulhu uses the “Cthulhu mythos” developed by HP Lovecraft and other horror writers, but you can set it in any time period and any place on Earth (or even off Earth). Mouse Guard was based on comics of the same name, which were inspired by Brian Jacques’s Redwall books.

If you want to play in a specific fictional universe, like Star Wars, Firefly, or James Bond, just do a search for the title and “RPG.” If there’s no official game, there’s often an unofficial game (check out this Harry Potter RPG). If there’s no unofficial game, there’s usually something in a matching genre.


Some systems aren’t even built for a specific setting or story. The Generic Universal Role Playing System—GURPS—builds interlocking sets of rules for everything you can think of, including some specific fictional worlds like Mars Attacks and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Different Rules

Every game works a little differently, or a lot differently. In D&D, wizards learn specific spells independently of each other, like they’re collectible cards. In the Mage games, a character’s magical ability is more holistically determined by their skill in “arcana” like temporal magic, necromancy, and mind control.


If you just want a version of D&D that’s less complicated, you have tons of options. Two of my favorites are Dungeon Crawl Classics and Dungeon World, and they’re roughly opposites. Of the three major paradigms of role-playing games—drama, simulation, and game—DCC focuses on game, Dungeon World on drama.

DCC runs on an old-school system of rules, stats, and randomized events, so you can have fun one-session adventures. You don’t want to build friendships with non-player characters, you want to kill them and take their loot. You know barely anything about the monsters that surround you, but you know your new enchanted axe does extra damage to the undead. DCC’s creators publish lots of modules, so your dungeon master doesn’t have to make their own story if they don’t want to. DCC also uses even weirder dice than D&D, like dice with 7 or 30 sides.

Dungeon World focuses on character relationships and storytelling—you get points for fulfilling a “bond” with another player—for satisfying long-term narratives. You can make choices based on the most interesting story, rather than maxing out your stats. Your dungeon master is encouraged to make most details up as they go along, which saves them prep time and lets the players help create the world. There’s less arithmetic, but some more abstract concepts to keep in mind.


You can get a lot weirder, and throw out the dice entirely. In the trippy, multi-dimensional fantasy game Amber, if two characters come into conflict, there’s no dice roll, no randomization at all: If two characters are wrestling, the stronger one wins, unless a character can pull out some other item or ability that gives them the upper hand.

The horror game Dread is run with a Jenga tower. Every time you try to do something you could fail at, you have to make a Jenga move. When the tower falls, you die.

For minimalist games with fewer rules, try this list on RPG Geek, which includes several games with only one page of rules. For a minimalist version of D&D, try the Tiny Dungeon Roleplaying Game Handbook. Players don’t level up, and all dice rolls use a couple of regular six-sided dice.


If you’re already familiar with a few systems, but you want to find a simpler—or more complicated—one, read Rolfe Bergstrom’s list of games ranked by complexity, or Lunatyk’s follow-up with more games. If you’re familiar with all the gaming tropes and you want a system that leaves you tons of room to handwave or improvise, try the intentionally incomplete World of Dungeons (here’s a collaborative rulebook on Google docs).

If you’re a beginner, try Paste Magazine’s list of beginner RPGs (including several I’ve mentioned). If you just want to play D&D for free, try the free-as-in-speech, free-as-in-beer Pathfinder system (here’s a more web-native rulebook).

Less Combat

For all the variety of RPGs, most of them are engineered for fighting. But a few games avoid this cliché. In the acclaimed Japanese import Golden Sky Stories, recommended for kids 10 and up, you play a magic animal that helps people and makes friends. ^-^ A play session lasts just an hour or two.


You could also try The Cloud Dungeon and ExSpelled, two cute adventure games played through imagination and papercraft. The first is a family-friendly fairy tale; the second is an affectionate Harry Potter parody set at a community college for mediocre wizards.

For more games, check out the “Non-video game examples” section of this TV Tropes page.

No Dungeon Master

Most RPGs require a dungeon master, to build and narrate the world around the players. But maybe no one in your group wants to spend hours prepping your sessions and studying the rules.


DM-less games often feel more like collaborative storytelling. Universalis, for example, has players bid for character attributes using coins, then trading those coins to take actions, to change the rules, or to take control of each other’s characters. The system is meant to work with any genre or setting.

Fiasco tells a much more specific story: a caper that feels like a Coen Brothers movie or a Jane the Virgin plot, set in locations like the suburbs or an Antarctic outpost. The game plays out in one sitting, and it’s a lot like a board game with no pieces and no board. You and your fellow players are all tangled in a web of intrigue with each other. You win by developing twists and turns in your story, so bungling a heist and getting murdered by your secret twin brother can be a victory. You do roll dice, but just the regular kind.

Also try Board Game Geek’s forum discussion of DM-less dungeon crawls, and blogger Doubleninja’s list of over 200 GM-less games in all genres.


Experienced gamers will know we’ve just barely gotten started, so check the comments below for more suggestions, stories, and gracious corrections of our gross mischaracterizations.

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135 days ago
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Three Delicious Ways To Use The Whole Lemon

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My area of the country saw four nor’easters in the last six weeks, which means that local March produce has been less than inspiring. As a result, I’ve been leaning on lemons even harder than usual to brighten up my meals.

I’m a confirmed lemon freak. I love their bright acidity and subtle bitterness in applications both sweet and savory, and firmly believe that a squeeze of lemon ties any dish together; I buy them in shocking quantities, usually keeping anywhere from one to three pounds in my crisper drawer. It makes sense, then, that I was given a copy of Alison Roman’s Short Stack cookbook on lemons for my birthday earlier this month—and that I’ve been cooking from it nonstop ever since.


This book covers all the basics, but also introduced me to the concept of cooking with the entire lemon. I can’t believe I hadn’t tried it before; I’ve always loved lemon Shaker pie, but it never occurred to me to use whole lemons in other applications. Not only does a flesh-to-peel approach eliminate the waste that comes from juice-only recipes, but the pith and rind provide complex flavor and textural contrast that you can’t get from the juice alone.

If you love lemons like I do, you owe it to yourself to start using the entire fruit. I’ve collected three awesome whole-lemon recipes here—two adapted from Alison Roman’s lemon cookbook, one of my own design—to get you started.

A Note On Seeds

Even though these are “whole lemon” recipes, you still need to remove the seeds. The pith and rind are pleasantly bitter, but the seeds are anything but pleasant to eat.


The easiest way to seed a lemon is to slice it into quarter-inch (or thinner) rounds and pick out the seeds with your fingers or the tip of your knife. The number of seeds will vary from lemon to lemon—some have none at all, some have way too goddamn many—and thin slices expose every single one. This process is just as fiddly as it sounds, but it goes quickly: I can slice and seed a lemon in under a minute, and I prep at a pretty leisurely pace.

Whole Lemonade

This is the first recipe in the lemon cookbook, and it’s a banger: dead-simple, satisfying, infinitely useful, and bursting with lemon flavor.


  • Wide-mouthed Mason jar (quart-sized) or plastic soup container with lid
  • Cocktail muddler, sturdy wooden spoon, or French rolling pin


  • 2-3 medium lemons, sliced into quarter-inch rounds and seeded
  • ¼ - ½ cup sugar (I used a half cup and found it very sweet; I’m using less next time)
  • 3-4 cups water


Place the lemons and sugar in a sturdy, quart-sized vessel like a wide-mouth Mason jar or a plastic soup container. Use your tool of choice to aggressively muddle the lemons and sugar together until the sugar dissolves and the lemons are thoroughly broken down; I used a tapered rolling pin and this step took me about 90 seconds of continuous pounding.

Pour in enough water to fill the container, close the lid securely, and shake to dissolve any errant sugar granules. Serve over ice full-strength or topped with seltzer, but if you ask me, this stuff cries out for some booze. I combined equal parts lemonade and gin over ice, added a splash of Campari, and called it Whole Pink Lemonade. It’s my new summer drink.

Whole Lemon Salsa Verde

Lemonade might be the first recipe in the book, but this is the first one I made—and it was so good that I did it twice more before the week was out. The version below is tweaked to suit my tastes—more lemon, more cilantro, and a generous helping of red pepper flakes for heat—and I encourage you to do the same.


  • 1 medium lemon, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 scallions, finely sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, grated or minced
  • Up to 1 tsp dried red pepper flakes
  • ¾ tsp fine sea salt (or table salt)
  • 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 bunch cilantro (if you hate cilantro, use a mixture of other leafy herbs equal in volume to the parsley)
  • ½ cup olive oil


Combine the chopped lemon, scallions, garlic, and pepper flakes in a bowl or glass measuring cup; add the salt and stir to combine. Let this mixture rest while you chop the herbs.

Finely chop the parsley and cilantro and add to the bowl with the other ingredients. Pour in the olive oil, stir well, and taste for seasoning. Add a bit more salt, pepper flakes, or lemon juice as needed, then cover and refrigerate until ready to use.


You should consume this within 48 hours, which won’t be hard; this goes with everything. I love it dolloped on black beans and rice, or mixed with mayo and spread on fried egg sandwiches.

Whole Lemon Greek Potatoes

I’m fully obsessed with lemoni patatas, the Greek dish of potatoes baked in lemon-spiked chicken broth: rich and hearty enough to stand alone, but acidic enough to complement fatty cuts of meat; I could eat them every day and always be excited for more. This version is my own creation, and some of my finest work to date—the lemon bits caramelize in the oven, turning into chewy little morsels that burst with lemony goodness.


Note: The chicken broth (or concentrate, which is anything but a compromise here) is non-negotiable for meat eaters—but if you’re vegetarian or vegan, try adding some nutritional yeast broth à la Andrea Nguyen’s vegan pho. It’ll add much-needed chicken-y richness to the dish.


  • 2 pounds of potatoes (any variety but reds will do), peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ tsp fine sea salt or table salt
  • 2 cups chicken stock or water with chicken concentrate
  • 2 medium lemons, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 tsp adobo seasoning (I use Iberia brand because it has MSG)
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 cloves garlic, grated or finely sliced (optional)


Preheat oven to 475ºF. Heat a large stainless steel skillet over low heat for a minute to warm it up, then add the olive oil. Increase heat to medium-high and heat until oil shimmers—a few tiny wisps of smoke are okay, too.


Carefully add the cut potatoes to the hot oil, sprinkle with salt, and cook for five minutes, turning halfway through so they brown evenly. While the potatoes cook, combine the chicken stock, lemons, adobo, oregano, and optional garlic cloves in a soup container or glass measuring cup. When the potatoes are browned, pour the stock mixture over the potatoes, gently stir to distribute, and transfer to the oven.

Bake for 30 minutes if you want firm potatoes with a bit of sauce (the sauce is very good, y’all) or up to an hour for drier, deeply browned potatoes. Serve with anything—or alone in a bowl, sprinkled with chopped parsley, and some toast to sop up the sauce. These are also great the next day, pan-fried until crispy and served with sunny eggs and some breakfast meat.

Thanks to this hyper-specific cookbook, I now have a whole list of lemon projects to tackle while spring produce makes its way to market. Lemon Shaker pie is a must before Meyer lemons disappear, of course, but I’m also scheming up a whole lemon vinaigrette (zested, seeded, and suprêmed so I can purée the flesh with oil, garlic, and seasonings), whole lime guacamole, and key lime Shaker pie. Even if you’re not a huge citrus fan, I hope these recipes inspire you to look at your favorite ingredients with new eyes—and discover hidden applications you’ll use for years to come.

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140 days ago
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chocolate peanut butter cup cookies

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The internet, or at least as far as I’ve seen, has three favorite peanut butter cookies. The first is a thing where you take a peanut butter cookie dough or prepared chocolate chip cookie dough, press it into a mini-muffin tin, press a miniature peanut butter cup inside of it and bake them together. Nobody has ever made these for me and I’m kind of mad about it. The second is this 4-ingredient, one bowl, hand-whisked salted peanut butter cookie, curiously absent in flour, butter and leaveners, that’s been around forever until the clever cooks at Ovenly figured out that using brown sugar instead of white, them into larger half-domes, and covering them with sea salt raised them to the unforgettable. The third is a soft chocolate cookie wrapped around a peanut butter filling and bakes into peanut butter cup cookies. No wait, pillows.

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174 days ago
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We’ve long blamed carbs for making us fat. What if that's wrong?

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It’s one of the most hotly contested areas of dieting: How much do carbohydrates matter when it comes to weight loss?

If you ask a number of celebrities and authors of diet books, it’s pasta, bread, and cookies that stand between you and a svelte physique.

These low-carb proselytizers make very specific claims about the effect cutting carbs has on the body, suggesting that it can speed up fat loss and increase calorie burn. Indeed, many dieters have found at least short-term success following low-carb schemes like the Atkins or Dukan diet.

A group of researchers published the best test of those claims to date in the journal American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

They didn’t find evidence that carbs are the magic key to weight and fat loss. But the study demonstrates just how controversial and fraught the low-carb idea is, and how, despite all the magical claims, there’s a lot we still don’t understand about this diet.

The carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis

The main scientific model behind the low-carb approach is the "carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis," which journalist Gary Taubes, Harvard professor David Ludwig, University of California San Francisco's Robert Lustig, and others have extensively promoted, including in a New York Times piece by Taubes in July 2017. It suggests that a diet heavy in carbohydrates (especially refined grains and sugars) leads to weight gain because of a specific mechanism: Carbs drive up insulin in the body, causing the body to hold on to fat and suppress calorie burn.

According to this hypothesis, to lose weight you reduce the amount of carb calories you eat and replace them with fat calories. This is supposed to drive down insulin levels, boost calorie burn, and help fat melt away.

This method arose as an alternative to the classic approach to dieting, in which calories in general are restricted. So instead of just cutting calories, you’re supposed to change the kinds of calories in your diet to lose weight.

But what’s often lost in all the boosterism around the low-carb approach is that it is still an unproven hypothesis in science.

Most tests of low-carb diets have involved either measuring what people eat over long periods of time or assigning people to different diets, and then tracking their weight and health outcomes. But people can’t always stick to the diets they are assigned to for long periods. And when you measure what people are eating naturally, there’s always a chicken-and-egg problem, which is why many diet studies are marred by confounding factors and flaws. (We explained them here at Vox.)

A study tested the low-carb model — and found little success

The study, led by National Institutes of Health obesity researcher Kevin Hall, tried to address those limitations in an effort to see whether a very low-carb diet (and resulting drop in insulin) led to that often-touted increase in fat loss and calorie burn.

Hall and his colleagues confined 17 overweight and obese patients to the hospital for two months, where they measured their every movement and carefully controlled what they were eating. (Diet researchers call this the "gold standard," since it was an extremely well-controlled experiment, with all food provided, and it used the best technologies for measuring energy expenditure and body composition.)

For the first month of the study, participants were put on a baseline diet, which was designed to be similar to what they reported they were eating outside the hospital, including lots of sugary carbohydrates. For the second month, the participants got the same amount of calories and protein as they did in the first month of the study, but this time they ramped up the amount of fat in their food and got far fewer carbs.

 Javier Zarracina/Vox

Sample menus from the study’s low-carb and baseline diets.

The researchers were then able to measure what happened to the participants’ insulin production, and related energy burn and fat loss, when they ate fewer carbs.

The results weren’t nearly as dramatic as low-carb boosters claim. "In this case," Hall said, "we saw daily insulin secretion drop substantially within the first week and stay at a low level. But we only saw a small transient increase in energy expenditure during the first couple of weeks of the [low-carb] diet, and that essentially vanished by the end of the study."

That short-lived increase in calorie burn amounted to about 100 extra calories per day — less than the 300 to 600 calories promised by low-carb gurus. And compared with the baseline diet, the low-carb diet did not cause subjects to experience an increase in fat loss. To be more specific, it took the full 28 days on the low-carb diet for the subjects to lose the same amount of fat as they did in the last 15 days on the baseline (higher-carb) diet that wasn’t even designed to get them to lose weight.

In other words, the researchers did not find evidence of any dramatic effects after switching to a low-carb diet.

"According to the insulin-carbohydrate model, we should have seen an acceleration in the rate of body fat loss when insulin secretion was cut by 50 percent," Hall said. But they didn't, which he thinks suggests that the regulation of fat tissue storage in the body has to do with more than just insulin levels and their relationship with the carbs we eat.

The results of the study also echoed a previous paper on the insulin-carbohydrate model, where Hall found that when people who cut fat in their diets, they had slightly greater body fat loss than when they cut the same number of calories from carbs. (Here’s Hall’s new review of the literature on the carb-insulin model of obesity.)

"These studies represent the first rigorous scientific tests of the carb-insulin model in humans," Hall added. "The public needs to understand that this [insulin-carbohydrate] model now has pretty strong evidence against it."

Can pasta and bread lovers now rejoice?

breasd DeAgostini/Getty Images

All the delicious bread.

The study is a real blow to the low-carb camp, said Richard Bazinet, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. "For the [insulin-carbohydrate] hypothesis to be true, you’d expect they’d lose more weight, and have increased energy expenditure in the low-carb group. But the researchers just didn’t see that."

But before we throw out the low-carb approach to weight loss and load up on a bowl of linguini, let’s be clear: This study had some important limitations, leading some researchers to react more cautiously. It lacked a control for comparison, and while the baseline diet was designed to keep participants at about the same levels of energy burn they experienced outside of the study, the participants started to lose weight on that diet too. So they were already slimming down by the time they started their low-carb month.

And while the study was designed to overcome some of the limitations of real-world diet studies, a highly controlled setting that amounts to confining people to a hospital and lab isn’t exactly representative of how people actually live and eat.

"These points, along with the small sample size and short-term follow-up, prevent the ability to draw conclusions about the effects of a very low-carbohydrate versus usual carbohydrate diet," said Deirdre Tobias, an associate epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital.

What’s more, one of the promises of the low-carb, high-fat diet is that when people start eating this way, they naturally cut back on calories because they’re more satiated (from the protein and fat in their diet). This study didn’t measure that either, since the participants were forced to stick to strictly measured menus.

But as Bazinet points out, "The study ... doesn’t see any [relationship between a decrease in insulin and an increase in fat loss]. Show me a better study that supports this."

There isn’t any, he added.

Other big studies comparing popular diets of different macronutrient compositions also suggest that the low-carb approach probably isn’t a sustainable solution for weight loss. While low-carb diets seem to outperform their higher-carb counterparts in the short term, that effect goes away after about one year.

A 2015 review of the research on different types of diets in the Lancet found that low-carb diets outperform low-fat diets. But as a related commentary (also authored by Hall) pointed out, the difference in weight loss among groups of dieters was tiny: "Participants prescribed low-carbohydrate diets lost only about 1 kg of additional weight after 1 year compared with those advised to consume low-fat diets."

In a high-quality randomized control trial, published in JAMA in 2018, study participants following low-carb and low-fat diets once again lost about the same amount of weight after a year: 13 pounds in the low-carb group versus 12 pounds in the low-fat group. And when the participants' individual weight loss was charted by the researchers, they found the exact same variation between the two groups:

Tobias urged dieters not to lose sight of the bigger picture. "Low-carb versus low-fat should not be the focus for people selecting a weight loss diet." The focus, she said, should be on improving the quality of food that people eat instead.

Why you shouldn't exercise to lose weight

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177 days ago
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“I am half agony, half hope”: Jane Austen’s most romantic love scene

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When it comes to Jane Austen’s love scenes, there is the letter scene in Persuasion, and then there is everything else.

Persuasion may not have the sparkling charm of Pride and Prejudice or the satirical bite of Emma, but it is Austen’s most deeply felt, melancholy, and beautiful novel. It is the last novel she completed before her death, and it’s written in a different mode than the rest of her books: It’s more lyrical than the rest, and a little sadder and less aggressively witty.

It also has an older heroine. Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is 27 and unmarried, making her by Regency-era standards a spinster — and as we are told in the book’s opening pages that “her bloom had vanished early,” her prospects look dim. She seems doomed to spend her life waiting on her buffoonish, appearance-obsessed father and spendthrift elder (and also unmarried) sister, with perhaps the occasional dubious reprieve in the form of a visit to her married younger sister’s home to look after her nieces and nephews.

Anne was engaged once, to a man named Frederick Wentworth when she was 19, but her well-meaning friends and family convinced her to break off the engagement: Wentworth had no money and few prospects, and everyone was convinced that a pretty and wealthy young heiress like Anne could do better. Eight years later, Wentworth has joined the navy and made his fortune. When he sees Anne for the first time since the end of their engagement, he declares her — in perhaps the most blisteringly painful insult of any Austen novel — “so altered that he should not have known her again.”

Over the course of the book, Anne and Wentworth come back together, culminating in the much-celebrated scene in which Anne stands in a pub talking with a friend as Wentworth, at the next table, writes her a love letter. It’s perhaps the most swooningly romantic moment in all of Austen’s novels, and it works so well in part because of its impeccable structure, and in part because it fits so nicely into Anne’s larger character arc.

Anne Elliot’s personal storyline is about learning that she is allowed to feel feelings

Anne is an odd creature for an Austen heroine: She is not sparklingly witty, like Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzie Bennet; nor is she acerbically rational like Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor Dashwood, endearingly silly like Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland, or brashly confident like Emma’s Emma Woodhouse. Her closest cousin might be Mansfield Park’s fading and timid Fanny Price (nobody’s favorite Austen character), but Anne has more backbone than Fanny does, and her narration is more thoughtful. She is quiet and self-contained; she would easily fade into the background if not for the exquisite craftsmanship of her inner monologue.

Anne sees the world with as much intelligence and insight as Lizzie Bennet does, but where Lizzie is by turns delighted and outraged by her neighbors’ foibles, Anne is either gently amused or gently saddened. She is too tired and too worn down by life to express her emotions as vividly and passionately as Lizzie does; she has learned instead to react to the world by shrugging.

That’s part of what makes the emotional arc of Persuasion so effective: Over the course of the book, you watch Anne slowly learn how to express her feelings once again — at first painfully, with her profound mortification over Wentworth’s return, and then more happily, as she and Wentworth gradually fall back in love with each other. And that arc reaches its culmination in the letter scene.

Persuasion’s letter scene builds its tension slowly, piece by piece

In Persuasion’s penultimate chapter, Anne and Wentworth find themselves in the same room of a pub together, Anne to meet a friend and Wentworth to write a letter. The scene that ensues is a master class in slowly building romantic tension and the catharsis of relief, and in how to marry a romantic arc to a character arc.

As soon as she sees Wentworth, Anne is at once overwhelmed with emotions so intense and so confused and inexpressible that they are almost claustrophobic: She is “outwardly composed” but inwardly “deep in the happiness of such misery, or the misery of such happiness.” She cannot describe what she is feeling even to the reader; she certainly cannot express it to Wentworth. Wentworth, meanwhile, is engrossed by his writing, and a whole flock of other characters sit around gossiping.

The tension mounts slowly at first. Anne continues to sit perfectly still and silently in a torrent of feelings, and Wentworth continues to write, and neither of them so much as glances at the other until the conversation turns to the topic of engagements, and how important it is that children listen to their parents’ advice in such matters. Then:

Anne found an unexpected interest here. She felt its application to herself, felt it in a nervous thrill all over her, and at the same moment that her eyes instinctively glanced towards the distant table, Captain Wentworth’s pen ceased to move, his head was raised, pausing, listening, and he turned round the next instant to give a look — one quick, conscious look at her.

For Austen, who tends to keep her characters restrained even during their most passionate speeches — and for Persuasion, which has been starving Anne Elliot for genuine emotional contact for hundreds of pages by this point — that “quick, conscious look” is the equivalent of a gunshot.

The tension is high now. Anne can no longer hear the conversation — “it was only a buzz of words in her ear, her mind was in confusion.”

As Anne struggles to maintain her composure, Wentworth’s friend Captain Harville draws her into conversation, and they begin to discuss the different ways in which men and women fall in love. Women, Anne explains, “live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey on us,” which makes it almost impossible for them to fall out of love. But men “have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately,” which allows them to easily forget a relationship as soon as it ends.

It’s a quietly radical defense of female emotions in a world that dismisses them as so much hysteria, and — more pertinently to this scene — an indirect avowal of Anne’s own emotions. After spending an entire novel trying to present herself as someone who feels nothing and is bothered by nothing, she’s at last beginning to lay claim to the idea that she is allowed to feel things.

The speech stops Wentworth cold. He goes so far as to drop his pen, which in this refined and elegant world is more or less the same thing as climbing on top of the table and screaming. And as he finishes his letter, he is in “great haste,” his papers “scattered” and his attitude “forgetful” and “agitated.” It’s in a positive torrent of emotion, with the scene at its most tense, that he at last slips the letter to Anne, “with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her.”

The tension is unbearable, both for the reader and for Anne, newly awakened to her own emotions. “Anything was possible,” she thinks feverishly, “anything might be defied rather than suspense.” When she opens the letter, she is not doing anything so passive and so ladylike as reading; instead, “her eyes devoured” its contents:

I can no longer listen in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me that I am not too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you with a heart even more your own than when you broke it almost eight years and a half ago. …

The letter is such an effective climax — both to this particular scene and to the novel itself — that it almost doesn’t matter that Anne and Wentworth have not, technically, spoken to each other, or that their true reunion won’t come for another scene. The reunion scene is beside the point; it’s denouement. It’s the letter scene that matters.

The letter scene keeps plot mechanics and character arcs moving in perfect harmony

Part of what makes Persuasion’s letter scene so swooningly romantic is that it’s structured like the revelation scene in a murder mystery, where the detective lines up all of the suspects and explains exactly who the killer is and how they did it.

We have a problem — in this case, not a dead body with no clear killer, but two people who clearly should be together but are not. We know what the solution should be. In a murder mystery, it’s for the killer to be revealed and face punishment; here, it’s for the two lovers to recognize that they are both in love and reunite.

And the scene keeps inching us toward that end, only to frustrate everything: There are Anne and Wentworth in the same room, but unable to speak to each other because Wentworth is writing a letter. There are Anne and Wentworth recognizing the significance of their past relationship, but unable to speak of it explicitly while in front of other people. There is Anne at last recognizing the strength of her feelings out loud — but can Wentworth hear her? What is he writing? The frustration mounts and mounts until Anne can finally, at last, open the letter, and the reader gets the same satisfaction as knowing whodunit in a murder mystery: At last, all is revealed.

But what really elevates Persuasion’s letter scene, beyond its mastery of plot mechanics, is how carefully it marries Anne’s character arc to the love story of Anne and Wentworth. Anne’s quiet repression is the great problem of Persuasion, her willingness to put her own feelings aside for the convenience of others. It’s that repression that leads her to break off her first engagement to Wentworth at her family’s urging, and that, in the novel’s opening pages, seems to have committed her to a life of self-effacement, of uncomplainingly doing nothing but what is best for other people.

The great relief of the letter scene is that, for the first time, Anne is allowed to recognize that she has emotions, that they are real and strong and valid. That personal breakthrough enables the romantic breakthrough, and creates the immense catharsis of not only the romantic resolution but also the resolution of Anne’s personal arc. She has, at last, solved the novel’s problem and come into her own.

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183 days ago
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Deep Space Nine Is TV’s Most Revolutionary Depiction of Black Fatherhood


As long as there’s been TV, the family has been one of its favorite go-tos. All week long, Vulture is exploring how it’s been represented on our screens.The arc of American history is undergirded by a continuous, pointed degradation of the black family.The crux of this is the pervasive mythology ... More »
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209 days ago
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