Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cthulhu fhtagn!?

I've recently had a chance to fill in a huge, yawning gap in my geek cred.  Up until this past month, I'd never actually read any H. P. Lovecraft.

I've always known the tropes... In the 1980s, I practically memorized the "Cthulhu Mythos" section of the original D&D Deities & Demigods book.  I got the joke about "Uhluhtc" (oo-loo-tec) in the original Heavy Metal movie.  Heck, I own the game Call of Cthulhu, and I even consulted on a supplement for CoC back in the 1990s!

Artist: Erol Otus.  I'm trying to illustrate this post without any tentacles.

So shame on me for taking this long, for sure.  What spurred me to start reading wasn't Lovecraft himself, but rather a short story from 2014 by Ruthanna Emrys called "The Litany of Earth."  (Online in full here.)  It's powerful and very well-written.  I resist saying too much more about it because I'd like people to read it without preconceptions, as I did.  Suffice to say that it provides a new perspective on the Lovecraftian world that genuinely surprised and charmed me.

This story also got me to seek out more information about cosmicism, a (sorta kinda) real-world attempt to broaden Lovecraft's ideas into a coherent and satisfying belief system.  Despite its stereotypical veneer of bleakness and existential nihilism, there seems to be some raw material for a more positive and optimistic path; see here, for example.  I was already familiar with Kenneth Grant's mind-bending attempts to do something vaguely similar, but it was nice to see a few more modern, less occultish, perspectives on it all.

Virgil Finlay

However, the rub:

Nearly all of the ideas that fascinated me -- both from Emrys' story and from the cosmicistical writings I found on the web -- were extrapolations from Lovecraft... not really taken directly from what he says on the page.  His stories are powerful and interesting -- and I do intend on reading more of them to complete my education.  But after reading a handful, I'm learning that Lovecraft's well-known reputation for bleakness and terror is well justified.

I'm hoping to find some small kernels of hope in the remaining HPL stories in my queue.  I might give Derleth a try, too.  But I'm starting to suspect that Lovecraft may be a bit like another early 20th century thinker who ushered in some scary new ideas: Aleister Crowley.  Both kind of serve as anti-prophets -- i.e., conveyers of wild thoughts that spurred on others in unique ways, but who ought not to be "followed" too slavishly or literally.  That way lies, well, the mountains of madness.

Back to Erol Otus

Friday, September 25, 2015

Won't you please?

Won't you please?
Please won't you roll... for initiative?

Hat tip to the Old School Roleplaying FB page

In a way, it was the perfect gateway drug for RPGs and other imaginatory pursuits.  A trip to the Neighborhood of Make Believe every day?  Who could ask for more?  And given that land was filled with kings, trolls, witches, talking animals, and aliens from the Planet Purple (I'm lookin' at you, Arneson's Blackmoor) I see no incongruity here.

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More content soon, folks.  This blog ain't dead yet!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Gen Con 2015

I usually don't talk much about games to colleagues in my professional life, but I do happen to be mentoring a grad student who is very much into board & card games.  I knew she was taking a trip to Indianapolis last month, but it took longer than it should have to figure out where she was really going.  Here's a snippet from the email I sent her a few weeks ago:
I just put two and two together.  You said "a game convention in Indianapolis."  Understatement of the year!  I didn't realize until now that I should have translated that as "the legendary game convention started by Gary Gygax in the 60s, which I read about all the time in Dragon magazine as a kid, and dreamed about attending all through the late 70s and most of the 80s."  :-)  :-)
That's probably more than I've talked about games to colleagues in the last 25 years!  But what did my student hand me when I saw her this week?

Am I going to have to actually start playing again so I can use these?  We'll see!  :-)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Church of the Big Gamble

Apologies for not a lot going on here lately.  I'll know the new direction I'm looking for when I see it.  :-)

The other day I came across a really thought-provoking blog post by Joey Vigour in defense of randomness in games.  It helped to explain some of my own (unformed) thoughts and predilections.

The basic idea is that there's a sweet spot between the two extremes of order and chaos.  Staying balanced on that knife-edge is difficult, but well worth it.  The more I thought about it, the more I'm sure this general idea applies to lots of things.  Let me just list a few of them...

Games:  Joey Vigour explained that including the "dark forces" of randomness (dice, cards, etc) in a game gives us a glimpse of the craziness of life.  I'll just let him tell you:
"So why do most game designers introduce an element of randomness to their games? I would argue that dark mystical (or at least unknown) forces are a game designer's ally because the introduction of chaos to a game causes our subconscious to be reminded of real life. Games are a simulacrum of life, but all the beautiful photo-realistic art and all the flavor text is still just fluff on top of the Spark that moves us emotionally. Understanding the Spark is the struggle of all artists: to know that there is unknowable, and to grasp at it in a comprehensive presentation."
Vigour also considers human strategizing as being in the same category with the dark forces of randomness -- after all, other people can sometimes be as inscrutable and hard to predict as a roll of the dice! -- so games like Chess can also invoke these feelings.  Still, too much of the human/random element in a game can be pointless and dreary (like never-ending games of Chutes and Ladders).  Too little of it gives you something easily solved, like Tic-Tac-Toe.

Stories:  The knife-edge between order and chaos is apparent in narratives, too.  Too much order gives us the logical tying and untying of plot-driven "knots."  I'm thinking of the inevitability of events in things like Greek and Shakespearean tragedies.  Fatalism can sometimes be interesting, but not in isolation.  Too much chaos is just surrealistic dada.  :-)

Life:  Too much order leads you right into a rut.  (Think of Mr. Incredible stuffed into his tiny car on a traffic-filled freeway... that had to be inspired by this song.)  Too much chaos means adrenalin and stress all the time, which is just plain not good for you, whether you're a superhero or not.

Music:  Goes without saying, I think.  Our ears and brains have evolved to respect the knife-edge between monotonous order and dissonant chaos.

There are probably so many other examples... enough to build a Glass Bead Game worthy of the ages, I'm sure.  By the way, the title of this post comes from old-school D&D; see here for more about my own history with it.

Back to Joey:
"So let’s embrace dice rolling, deck shuffling, hidden information, and mystery in games. It’s what our subconscious relates to anyway. It’s how we lose our forgetfulness and reconnect with hidden truths. It’s how we find ourselves. Anything less than that is just Tic-Tac-Toe."

Monday, June 15, 2015

Venus Paradise: Cyber Edition

I'm still not done thinking about the long-term goals of this blog, but there is one idea for a post that I've had for a few months, and I'd like to get it out there.  Does anyone remember these?

Some time in the early 1970s, I got a few of these color-pencil-by-numbers sets as Christmas gifts.  For young Cygnus, the color pencils were a godsend.  I loved the ubiquitous Crayola rainbow, but wax crayons left a lot to be desired.  They couldn't give you the fine lines of a pencil or pen... and if you stacked up a few of your creations on top of one another, the papers would stick together and get kind of goopy after a while.

I was fascinated by one particular brand... the Venus Paradise pencils, which had their own unique color palette.  Each color was assigned to an evocative name and a specific number in an esoteric sequence.  The numbers corresponded to the digits on the color-by-numbers outlines, but I don't remember filling in many of them.  I tended to just hoard the pencils and draw other stuff with them (and I still have some nubs left in a box somewhere).

So, a few months ago, I discovered a massive, labor-of-love web site for Crayloa crayon collectors.  Over the years I've also seen quite a few attempts at creating web-based color palettes out of the classic crayon colors.  But where's the digital love for Venus Paradise?  Someone might want to re-create their childhood color-pencil artwork as accurately as possible.  Okay, Cygnus (plus some image-grabbing software) to the rescue.

1. Deep Yellow:  (247, 210, 039),  #F7D227
2. Sarasota Orange:  (245, 120, 057),  #F57839
3. Poppy Red:  (231, 067, 069),  #E74345
4. Hollywood Cerise:  (255, 111, 145),  #FF6F91
5. Orchid Purple:  (089, 062, 103),  #593E67
6. Navy Blue:  (022, 057, 108),  #16396C
7. Peacock Blue:  (078, 195, 239),  #4EC3EF
8. Emerald Green:  (036, 179, 134),  #24B386
9. Deep Chrome Green:  (024, 092, 069),  #185C45
10. Photo Brown:  (136, 068, 032),  #884420
11. Chestnut Brown:  (067, 047, 026),  #432F1A
12. Midnight Black:  (017, 017, 016),  #111110
13. Ultramarine Blue:  (059, 123, 210),  #3B7BD2
14. Natural Flesh:  (246, 224, 181),  #F6E0B5
15. Lawn Green:  (056, 134, 079),  #38864F
16. French Green:  (203, 215, 087),  #CBD757
17. Smoke Gray:  (159, 153, 146),  #9F9992
18. Blush Pink:  (251, 133, 126),  #FB857E
19. Cherry Red:  (217, 057, 064),  #D93940
20. Arizona Topaz:  (243, 208, 119),  #F3D077
21. Indian Red:  (174, 064, 042),  #AE402A
22. Sky Magenta:  (208, 123, 154),  #D07B9A
23. Cotton White:  (254, 253, 253),  #FEFDFD
24. Lemon Yellow:  (253, 243, 132),  #FDF384
25. Bright Gold:  (195, 170, 117),  #C3AA75
26. Bright Silver:  (155, 185, 190),  #9BB9BE
27. Sky Blue:  (104, 192, 236),  #68C0EC

I so love those color names.  If I ever write a noir-ish crime drama, I'm sure I'll steal at least three or four character names from the above list.  I think #4 and #17 must be having an affair.

Here's what the digital RGB colors look like in graphical form:

Please do whatever you like with this information.  I'm still not sure why it's ending up on this blog.  I just know I had a blast putting it all together.  Right now, that's enough for me.

I should note that I never owned numbers 25 or 26.  According to the web, these two were the rarest colors of the bunch.  It took me a while to even find an image of #26 (see below... ain't it bee-u-tee-ful?).  For #25 I had to go slumming with online images of other brands to even begin to guess what "Bright Gold" might look like.  I'll find one someday!  :-)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

No X, Y, Z

I'm so sorry, folks, but I'm going to have to cancel the last 3 posts of my (already stretched out) A-to-Z challenge.  I'll give you brief summaries of the ideas I had for X, Y, and Z, but I've just been too busy to devote the time needed to flesh them out into posts that I'd consider worthy to include with the rest.  We moved into a new house over the last few weeks, and I'm still looking forward to the day when I won't be seeing boxes & bins everywhere I look.  :-)

- - -

X is for eXtropy:  As some of you know, I've got a soft spot for the ultra-optimistic claims of the transhumanists.  I was planning on reading up on Max More's idea of Extropianism and letting you all know about the bits that I found most interesting.

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Y is for Your Weird: I actually wrote a little bit on this one, so I'll let me-from-March explain more:

In March 1991, sci-fi author Bruce Sterling gave a speech at the Computer Game Developers' Conference in San Jose, California.  He titled it "The Wonderful Power of Storytelling" (full transcript here), but it's since come to be known as the "Follow Your Weird" speech.  Back in 2011, I blogged about some of the juicier quotes, but I thought I'd recall it here, since it's quite clearly a call to arms... a yelling, screaming screed of hope... a manifesto, for short.  :-)

Among many other things, Sterling tried to wean the video game programmers of the day away from trying to ape the tropes of story and narrative in their new medium.  If it's good enough, those things emerge naturally without the need for heavy-handedness.  His experience at being a genre writer is valuable...
We're not into science fiction because it's good literature, we're into it because it's weird.  Follow your weird, ladies and gentlemen.  Forget trying to pass for normal.  Follow your geekdom.  Embrace your nerditude.  In the immortal words of Lafcadio Hearn, a geek of incredible obscurity whose work is still in print after a hundred years, "woo the muse of the odd."  A good science fiction story is not a "good story" with a polite whiff of rocket fuel in it.  A good science fiction story is something that knows it is science fiction and plunges through that and comes roaring out of the other side.  Computer entertainment should not be more like movies, it shouldn't be more like books, it should be more like computer entertainment, SO MUCH MORE LIKE COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT THAT IT RIPS THROUGH THE LIMITS AND IS SIMPLY IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE!
I planned on digging for more gems, but you know the story.

- - -

Z isn't quite for Zoas:  There was a bit of a bait-and-switch, here.  The title refers to William Blake's concept of Four Zoas, or four fundamental archangel-like principles in the universe.  Carl Jung may have gotten his love of alchemical quaternities from this unfinished poetical work...

However, the actual "manifesto" here was going to be Blake's earlier work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  I've always loved its irreverence, energy, and long lists of pithy proverbs.

This one, I might come back to later.  In the mean time, I've got to do some re-evaluation of where I'd like this blog to go, topic-wise.  I'm still very much interested in the two main gaming related foundation stones that the blog was built on (RPGs and GBGs), but I think it might be time to broaden the field of view a bit more.  Let's see what's out there.

Friday, May 22, 2015

W is for the Wilburys

Well, it's all right, riding around in the breeze.
Well, it's all right, if you live the life you please.
Well, it's all right, doing the best you can.
Well, it's all right, as long as you lend a hand.

Is 1989's End of the Line a manifesto?  Glob if I know... but I do think it fits in with my theme.  It seems to encapsulate the hard-won wisdom from the lives of Bob, Jeff, Tom, George, and Roy, which is nothing to sneeze at...

You can sit around and wait for the phone to ring
(At the end of the line)
Waiting for someone to tell you everything
(At the end of the line)
Sit around and wonder what tomorrow will bring
(At the end of the line)
Maybe a diamond ring.

To quote a recent D&D blog post from Joe Bloch, "There's no DIY unless YDI."

But I really love how maturity and moderation seep through this song.  Yes, you've got to go out and do all the things.  But there are no guarantees that the results will be what you hoped they'd be.

Well, it's all right, even if they say you're wrong.
Well, it's all right, sometimes you gotta be strong.
Well, it's all right, as long as you got somewhere to lay. (*)
Well, it's all right, every day is Judgement Day.  (**)

Hmm, I still don't quite hear those exact lines.  (*) has always sounded to me like "...someone to lay with," and (**) really has got to be "...every day is just one day."  But the sentiments are pretty similar, no matter which lyrics website you believe.  :-)

Well, it's all right, even when push comes to shove.
Well, it's all right, if you got someone to love.

I won't quote the whole song.  Their mini-homage to Purple Haze was fun.  But I do have a special love for the above couplet because it was one of the last things Roy sang,

Well, it's all right, even if you're old and gray.
Well, it's all right, you still got something to say.

And that one because it was George,

Well, it's all right, remember to live and let live.
Well, it's all right, the best you can do is forgive.

And that one because I'm still so far from achieving it.

I had a big ending planned for this post, in which I'd compare the "life is a journey" metaphor in this song with some other ones that use the same idea.  But, eh, maybe another time... or in the comments.  (What are some of your favorite songs about the journey of life?)  For now, I'm going to go riding around in the breeze for a bit.
Well, it's all right, even if the sun don't shine.
Well, it's all right, we're going to the end of the line.