Tuesday, August 5, 2014

New Jersey pictorama

A trip to the Jersey shore isn't complete without a visit to the beach.

But of course some of the Garden State's weirder attractions deserve some homage, too.

 (I learned more from the dinosaur artist's wikipedia page than I ever learned living a quarter of a mile from him for decades.  I have no idea what's up with that Tin Man, but Jersey's certainly got heart...)

I also was glad to show my son the school where I went to kindergarten through 4th grade...

and to go digging for treasure at the local swap meet,

However, we had just as much fun rooting around my parents' musty attic...

and checking out the local flora and fauna.


A heavenly good time.

FYI, that flea market contained what I think is a pretty rare find... at least in my geeky universe... and I'm planning another post to talk more about it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Project Rockfish

Much of the history of this blog has been about my getting re-acquainted with old-school role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.  I still haven't gotten back into the groove with an in-person group, but I haven't ruled it out.  If I do decide to take the reigns and perform as the world-building "Dungeon Master," there's one aspect of it in which I've decided to go decidedly new-school...

I'll need a computer at the table.

This may be sacrilegious to some, for whom anything beyond "paper, pencils, dice, and the imagination" is no-go territory.  I'm happy to stick with low-tech for a lot of it, but in order to weave a world worthy of capturing the attention of players, I'll need to have a spare brain on call.

So with apologies to the non-D&D-types out there, I'd like to use this post to archive my current ideas for what I'd consider the ideal set of software tools to have at the gaming table.

The name for this project, up in the title to this post, came to me upon hearing of the sad passing of actor James Garner, who played a character that inhabited the kind of world -- i.e., never boring, always on the cusp of adventure, yet grounded in flavorful verisimilitude -- that I'm trying to help build with these tools.  (If you don't know the appellation "Rockfish," go find some episodes guest-starring Isaac Hayes as Jim's old pal Gandy...)

Jim was using a new-school answering machine in 1974!
RPG insiders will quickly see that the following outline contains tools for building a "sandbox" type world.  This probably all could be done with dice and lookup tables, but the sheer number of random numbers needed makes it ideal for a computer.

- - - - - - -

(1) Weather

For each new day in the campaign world, I'll click a button and it will tell me the following day's
  • high & low temperature
  • times of sunrise & sunset (for me only); approximate durations of light & dark times (for the characters, who don't have wristwatches) 
  • moon phase, & times of moonrise & moonset
There will be a pulldown menu for me to choose the current terrain type (forest, mountain, desert, etc.), which will influence the
  • precipitation amount & type
  • clouds (probably only 4 discrete types: clear / partly / overcast / fog)
  • wind (4 types, too?  calm / light breeze / brisk wind / gale-force)
The program should be smart enough to rule out crazy combinations (snow in the desert) but still contain small chances for weird & interesting phenomena (thundersnow, will o' the wisps).  From all of the above, the program will also display customized charts for
  • character movement rates,
  • visibility distances, and
  • chances of getting lost while exploring outdoors.
- - - - - - - 

(2) Random generation of micro-locale details

This is only for when the players are entering a "new" (previously unexplored) region that I hadn't yet mapped out in detail.  If they've been here before, it will still be the same.

For a new wilderness hex, I'll have a handful of input options that specify its overall terrain type, and whether there are any major features (like coastlines or big rivers) in it.  Then it will generate a set of random landmarks, small waterways, paths, hills, animal dens, and so on.  (Definitely will be inspired by Alexis' work, here.)  These are keyed to the terrain type (e.g., a desert hex may have an oasis; a mountain hex may have a bubbling geothermal vent).  Some weird things -- graveyards? kooky hermits in huts? -- may crop up nearly anywhere.

For a new village, town, or city, it will generate some rough guidelines about the
  • population
  • overall spatial layout
  • main products produced by them
  • quirks about their traditions (governmental? religious? other?)
  • notable NPC resident(s)
  • yes/no answers to common player questions about specific types of shops or industry that are there or not (e.g., blacksmiths)
- - - - - - -

(3) NPC generation mini-module

If a new NPC (non-player character) is called for, there will be a screen that I can refresh to get a description of a random person's
  • basics: gender, age, name
  • place of origin
  • profession, station in society, and/or experience level
  • 1 or 2 distinguishing physical features (height, hair color, weight, clothing)
  • notable personality traits
  • major items they're carrying (money, food)
  • rumors they may convey to PCs
- - - - - - - 

(4) Random Events

This is the heart & soul of the program... but I've blogged before about what I'd want this to look like.  In short, it kind of unifies several other existing ideas in role-playing games, including
  • wandering monsters
  • random NPC encounters
  • location-based "shenanigans" (thinkin' of you, Jeff)
  • town/city rumors
  • adventure hooks/quests
  • things that seem like adventure hooks/quests, but aren't  :-)
- - - - - - -

  • I know I'm reinventing the wheel, but I've got to do it my own weird way.  I've already been scouring the internet for random tables that can be used to feed this behemoth.  As I build it, I'll keep a good honest log about where the ideas came from, in case I ever decide to make the code public.
  • In practice, I plan to override these random results from time to time, because there are some specific events and NPCs that I want to make sure the players encounter, at specific times.  I'll try my best not to turn these into opportunities for excessive railroading, or quantum-ogre-ism, or Mary-Sue-ism.  :-)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Songs of Summer

Here we go!  This is my entry in the Songs of Summer bloghop, hosted by the Armchair Squid, Suze, and yours truly.  (I'm posting early, but not as early as Yaz Pistachio did...)  The goal is for each of the participants to post about 5 of their favorite summer songs, so between us we can swizzle up an awesome mixtape of tunes to carry us through the fall and winter.

I wonder if summer memories tend to overlap strongly with coming-of-age (high school?) memories.  I could have filled this list, and several more, with songs from just a couple of pivotal years.  You'll see those years represented below, no doubt, but I did try to stretch a bit both backward and forward in time from the days of Bueller and Spicoli.  :-)

1. Under the Boardwalk, by the Drifters.

I grew up just 20 minutes from the Jersey shore, so for me the idea of "summer songs" pretty much requires something that gets sand in your shoes.  It took me a while to figure out which sunny, beachy song would help me get this theme out of my system.  I could've chosen anything by the Beach Boys, of course.  Springsteen's Jersey Girl hits close to home, but the lyrical protagonist is kind of a jerk. The Ramones' cover of California Sun is awesome, but I only discovered it a few years ago.  Nah, I've got to go with this 1964 classic.  It's never gone out of style.  This is the prototype, the patriarch, the Ur-beach-song, for me.

2. Magic, by the Cars.

Okay, now let's jump into history.  It's June 1984.  Junior year of high school is ending, and little do I know that this will be the summer that changes everything for me.  More on that in a bit.  All I know in June is that some strange things are going down.  My best friend -- who normally was as straight-laced and nerdy as me -- was rebelling against the system and about to go to summer school for his transgressions (speaking truth to power, I still say).  I'd just had my first "real" kiss, after the Junior Prom, and was about to start working my first "real" summer job.  Life was feeling pretty topsy-turvy.  So, when I saw Ric Ocasek walking on water, crooning about how summer turns him upside down... and is like a merry go round... I knew I had my theme song for the coming months.

Twisted, under sideways, down.

3. Rock Lobster, by the B-52's.

Ah, but did I really know what life had in store?  Not quite.  Fast forward to August 1984.  I left my summer job early because I got into a three-week program for future scientists at a local college.  Even my nerdy, D&D-playing friends joked that I was nuts to voluntarily go to anything resembling schoooooool during the summer.

Suffice to say, going away to that program was a defining moment in my life.  For one thing, it helped me discern what I could, should, and would do, career-wise.  That was huge, but it wasn't the most important thing.  It put me in a dorm with 99 other kids who, more or less, were just like me.  Have you had this experience?  The realization that "These are my people," which feels both like a weight being lifted, and like an urge to close your eyes, fall backwards, and crowdsurf?  Down, down, down...

At a weekend dance party, one of these 99 fellow weirdos put on this weird record by a weird band I'd never heard of before, and whose crustacean-ish song I still don't claim to understand.  To this day, though, it brings me back to that time.

4. Your Love, by the Outfield.

I went on to my senior year of high school a changed Cygnus, and graduated in 1985.  Then came college in the fall, which found ways to keep blowing open my doors of perception even beyond what I've mentioned already.  New friends, new things to learn.  And I also had Philadelphia as a playground -- a big city to explore with those new friends.  In early 1986, we got the spring fever bad, and started making firm summer plans probably around March.  I earned some of my worst grades in college in that spring semester, but our many walking trips to the museums... parks... bookstores... oh, anything and everything... of Philly were worth cutting class for.

This silly pop song by a British one-hit wonder band was peaking along with our wanderlust, and I remember sitting back in the dorm room, playing it over and over on vinyl 45 with my two best college friends.  That song (whose lyrics, for some reason, I never cared to think one whit about) cemented those friendships and helped build us into the adults we wanted to be.

5. Nightswimming, by R.E.M.

I'm not sure if I have a coherent story about this one.  It was released in 1993, and I most associate it with a trip I took to a conference in Quebec in 1996.  Ten years after that Philly spring, I was a graduate student about to defend my PhD thesis and (finally!) go out into the real working world.  This trip was to a drop-dead gorgeous lakeside resort (Lac a la Truite, St-Michel-des-Saints), and we swam and kayaked on that lake in between talking science in the conference rooms.  It's still one of the only times when I've stood with my colleagues under a sparkling night sky and talked about life, love, and stellar astrophysics.  I don't know... something about this song just meshes with that moment.

Remembering that night
September's coming soon
I'm pining for the moon
And what if there were two
Side by side in orbit
Around the fairest sun?
That bright, tight forever drum
Could not describe

It's been interesting... and a bit scary... to use music to go deep into autobiography, here.  Apologies if I've blathered too much about peak experiences.  There were of course lows to match the highs, but summer isn't the time to focus on them.

Now, go (blog) hop around to see the other participants, good people!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Ceád Mile Fáilte

A couple of interesting news items today.

First, I've noticed that the total view count odometer for Servitor Ludi has just "turned over" at 100,000.  This number is small potatoes for a three-and-a-half year old blog, but I'm proud nevertheless.  Thanks so much to all readers past and present.

Second, I ought to announce that in January 2015, my family and I will be moving.  I've gotten a new job in Colorado, and it looks like our stretch of roughly 18 years in New England are just about over.  That pretty much matches the only other span of time I've spent in one place -- birth to age 18, in New Jersey.  (To quote Archie Bunker, "Nobody wants to live there, but someone has to!")

Does English have a word that simultaneously means "excited," "optimistic," and "nervous" -- with a hint of "scared out of our wits" thrown in for good measure?  Well, let's call it kltpzyxm.  We're quite kltpzyxm about this next step.  :-)

Post title:  Irish for "a hundred thousand welcomes."

Friday, June 27, 2014


So, have you ever been bored in a meeting or lecture, and found yourself doodling randomly on a piece of scrap paper?  Here's how to turn that scribbling into a suuuper mystical act of prophetic fortune telling.

This post is a microwave-quick introduction to the ancient art of geomancy, which in the middle ages was often considered the "down-to-earth" counterpart to traditional pie-in-the-sky, head-in-the-clouds astrology.  It's been written about since at least the 11th century, but it's lesser known these days than many of its magical cousins (e.g., Tarot cards, rolling bones, I Ching, and so on).

Artist unknown; img yoinked from here
There's a traditional system for doing this that you can find on plenty of web sites, but I'll give you the bite-sized version.  It's summer, after all -- you've got stuff to do.  So here's the deal:  take out your pencil and paper, and sit at the ready, thinking about your future.  Try to zone out, or trance out, just a bit, so that when you do the next step, you won't be tempted to count along.

The next step is to start making a row of dots with your pencil.  That's all.  Once you've done a few dozen, just stop when you feel it's right to stop.  Like I said, don't count along!  You're following in the footsteps of desert mystics who poked similar dots in the shifting sands of the Sahara.

Now, take a breath or two, then repeat the above three more times.  You'll end up with four rows, each with essentially a random number of dots.  (This act of poking your pencil is called "squilling" by the official geomancers, by the way.)

Okay, now you can count up the dots in each row.  Does the first row contain an even or odd number of dots?  An odd number can be shortened to just one dot.  An even number is shortened to two dots.  Do this for all four rows, and you'll be able to construct a symbol that looks something like this:

The traditional system would have you repeat this process several more times, then permutate and recombine these things like little strands of mutating DNA.  But let's just be satisfied with one symbol for now.  Feel free to dig deeper if you like.  (And yes, there's an app for this, too.)

There are 16 possibilities for these "geomantic figures" -- or sigils, or geomes, or hexadecagrams -- occultists love inventing words.  I've combed the ancient texts and extracted what I thought were the most artful and poetic interpretations of them, and assembled them into this here meme-worthy infographic...

Be warned that there are some not-so-nice possible outcomes.  You'll see "sadness" and "loss" in the above list, but that's life.  Sometimes we need to lose to know how to win, as the great man says.  You'll also see, from the bottom two symbols in the list, that J. K. Rowling must have perused this list at some time in the past, too...  :-)

Hmm, I feel I should keep going with the disclaimers.  Let me just quote an old Usenet colleague, who once ended a similar kind of post with:
Nobody believes what I say, not even me. The above is a joke for all legal, moral, or ethical purposes, and is not meant to be ingested.  Yeah, right.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

New Blogfest: Songs of Summer

Ah, summer.  Sunny mornings full of possibility, lazy poolside afternoons, and rockin' nights lit by tiki torches.  What songs bring back the sunscreen and beach-sand to you?  What songs defined your one perfect summer, be it decades ago or just getting started with today's solstice?

Welcome to the Songs of Summer bloghop, hosted by the Armchair Squid, Cygnus, and Suze.  On Friday, July 11, 2014, please join us by posting 5 of your favorite summer songs, and sharing some memories about them.  Maybe between us, we can build the perfect soundtrack to accompany us over the next few months.  If possible, include links so we can hear these gems.  And, if you're in the southern hemisphere, join us to dance those winter blues away!

Please sign up to the link list on the site of our friendly neighborhood cephalopod, then post on July 11.

See you there!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Then and Now Blogfest... goes Down Below

Today's the day!  Well, right now it's the night before the day, but I feel getting a jump on it.  In any case, it's time for Then and Now, a blogfest hosted by the Armchair Squid, Nicki Elson, Suze, and Nancy Mock.   The idea is to celebrate some things (like movies) that were important to us in our younger days, and to revisit them and see whether they've aged as gracefully as we have.  :-)

I already spilled the beans that I would be re-watching the 1987-1989 TV show Beauty and the Beast.  I ended up watching 11 out of the 22 episodes of the show's first season.  I'm not sure if my thoughts will gel into one continuous narrative, but let me just start typing and see how far down the rabbit hole -- or New York City subway tunnel -- I go.

First, I was pleasantly surprised to see a name in the credits that many people will recognize.  Although the show was created by Ron Koslow, a major force behind it was fantasy writer George R. R. Martin (now infamous for his long & convoluted beard Game of Thrones).  He wrote many of the best episodes, and produced nearly all of them.  Although I'm not into GoT, I can see him starting to develop the ear for moral ambiguities, idealistic crusades, and heartbreaking plot twists for which he's now well known.

On the surface the show is a love story, even if it's based only loosely on the original fairy tale.  The trope that recurs again and again, though, is how romance can be the conduit to discovering one's highest and truest ideals.  Maybe one can never live up to those ideals with 100% fidelity, but just knowing they're there is a steadying influence in a chaotic world.  Even the other people who are around Vincent and Catherine's love are energized, vivified by its power.

I'm probably apt to underplay the twists and turns of the love story itself.  I must say that, other than the obligatory action-adventure plots (straight out of Knight Rider, Starsky & Hutch, and cousins) the love story is the most hackneyed part of the show.  Let me just copy and paste some thoughts from my notes, with no editing:
Ha!  As characters, Vincent & Catherine are such children!  so over-wrought...   (writing attempts to be fairy-tale-ish; is often treacly)  Back then, I was wannabe Byronic, too.
The "such children" line would have shocked the hell out of 20-year-old Cygnus, let me tell you.  I looked up -- way up -- to that love story, and probably idealized it far too literally.

The other major aspect of the show was the utopian community Down Below the streets of New York, created by tragic figures "Father" and "Paracelsus" in the 1950s.  Out of the unfairness of the world above came an attempt to build a more just and loving society.  It looked like they had roughly 100 people in those secret caverns and chambers, and they were aided by selfless "helpers" up above.  The scenes down below are by far my favorites, and the warm ambience, cluttered bookshelves, and soft background clanging of pipes (which they use for Morse code communication) paints a serene picture of paradise to me.

Paradise doesn't come without costs, of course.  There's the danger of their world being discovered.  Some denizens are probably on the wrong side of the law, even if they've been redeemed by the depths.  There's also the issue of Vincent, the mutated (?) lion-beast-man with the soul of a poet.  He was discovered on the steps of St. Vincent's hospital as a baby, and was raised lovingly by Father down below.  If the sunlit world got a hold of him, one can only imagine terrible fates ranging from John Merrick's sideshow to E.T.'s hazmat-suited goons.  Each night-time journey up to Catherine's balcony comes with a universe of peril.

Throughout the first season, the stakes kept getting raised.  I'll admit that my comment about the leads being "such children" comes from the earliest episodes, when it seemed like too much too fast.  But they grew into their sturm und drang.  After a while, good people started dying.  Vincent found a worthy adversary in the Nietzschean Paracelsus.  Catherine found it ever-more psychologically draining to simultaneously be a good district attorney and keep all these secrets -- including the most life-affirming and transformative love she'd ever experienced -- from the other people in her life.

As I hinted in my earlier post, it didn't last.  At least they didn't maintain an ever-static status quo, to keep the series going.  Oh, George.  Your Red Wedding is nothing to me, after the events of the cliffhanger between seasons 2 and 3.  I didn't re-watch these.  I'm not sure I ever want to.

Strangely, my mind kept thinking about the long term.   Wondering how much of the self-imposed secretiveness of the world below was because of the need to protect Vincent.  What would happen decades into the future, after Vincent's passing?  I kept thinking about how some of the youngest people down there -- inventive Mouse, bold Jamie, impetuous Kipper -- could someday lead their community back up into the sunlight.

Maybe they would have kept Vincent and Catherine's love in their hearts, even after all those years.  The ones rejected by society, who found redemption down below, could then help energize, vivify, and redeem the rest of us.