Sunday, April 17, 2016

Some five-dollar words

dark and sombre in color

pertaining to breakfast

loudness and clarity of enunciation

a person who begins to learn or study late in life

something worth seeing; things that should be seen or visited, especially if they mark the character of a person or place

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Alas, alas, that great city Babylon

Despite my Biblical title, this post has absolutely nothing to do with the book of Revelations.  It's a celebration of J. Michael Straczynski's epic TV space opera Babylon 5 that ran from 1993 to 1998.

My family and I recently finished watching all 5 seasons, plus the 7 stand-alone movies, in an intense three-month roller coaster ride.  We're kind of in B5 withdrawal a bit now, but it was worth it.  In fact, watching it so "densely" meant that Straczynski's intrictate foreshadowing (in the early seasons) and heart-breaking callbacks (in the later stuff) weren't lost on us like they may have been if we only watched one episode per week.

I'm not sure how much needs to be said about the show and its background.  It takes place in outer space, in the 23rd century, and involves humans and aliens in a story of war, peace, love, and betrayal.  Straczynski plotted the whole thing out as a single story from start to finish, and he wrote something like 90% of the episodes.  Back in the 1990s, he also was ahead of the social media curve, contributing notes and answering fan questions in online forums.  I was a frequent reader of the Lurker's Guide to B5 back then, and I'm impressed that hoary site is still live.

Straczynski's writing was at times a bit stilted, but that was a small price to pay for the scope of his ideas and the depth of his characters.  I knew this was a special show from the earliest episodes, when the main character often reflected on his favorite poem.  Now that I think of it, the themes of that poem ran through much of the rest of the show, too.
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
The mind-blowing high-concept sci-fi ideas were brought to the show, in part, by creative consultant Harlan Ellison, about whom I've sung praises before.  The heart and soul came, mainly I think, from actors Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik, who played alien ambassadors G'Kar and Londo -- sometimes bitter enemies, and sometimes bitter friends.

I never got into any of the Babylon 5 role-playing games, and there were a few out there.  However, there was one old sci-fi game that I think could be morphed quite nicely into the B5 milieu.  Weirdly enough, it was based on a much less intellectual, more action-packed pew-pew-pew, franchise.  Flash Gordon and the Warriors of Mongo (see a nice review here) was published in 1977 and was largely forgotten by 1978.  It was a hybrid of a role-playing game -- where your "player characters" could go where they wanted, and do what they pleased -- and a recruitment game -- where the overall goal was to gather up a team of allies to defeat bad ol' Ming the Merciless.  I think the main characters of B5 probably spent more time gathering allies -- and trying to prevent them from infighting and one-upping each other -- than they did fighting wars.  The idea of shoring up alliances in order to prevent war is one that I don't think games have utilized as much as they could have over the years.  This activity can certainly be gamified into something just as "fun" as blowing away your enemies, I'm sure.

Ah well.  There's so much else about Babylon 5 I could wax on about.  There was that "Day of the Dead" episode (penned by Neil Gaiman), when four deceased characters came back for one night, in the most heart-wrenching way possible.  There was Zathras!  There were some dangling loose ends, some of which I think were tied up in novels (that I'm starting to track down, naturally).  And there was love of all varieties... long-lasting, unrequited, obsessive, tragic, and comic.  I'm not sure whether the happy endings or the sad ones will stick with me the longest, but there are lessons in all of them.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Gamey update

Although, as a whole, the gaming blogosphere isn't as active as it once was, I have been buoyed by some recent quasi-random gems of phantastical ludology...
  • I'm sure I've plugged Jon Peterson's blog Playing at the World for its exhaustive and energetic sleuthing about the early days of D&D.  Recently he discovered a key 1970 precursor to a better-known 1971 precursor of the game.  If that sounds boring, it's all my fault... the story of Leonard Patt and the Pelennor Fields is pretty fascinating!
  • Old-school D&D often gets a bad rap as always devolving into "hack and slash" combat mode.  Even lots of the fantasy fiction it's inspired by (hint: see previous bullet) is often grounded in battle and war as the primary narrative structure.  But is that necessary?  In a fantastic blog post that I missed when it was published, Joe Manola shows that romantic fantasy (in which the bad guys might be redeemed, befriended, or defeated by something less lethal than the sword) is an ideal fit for the old-school D&D rules.  Think about reaction rolls, morale checks, combat that can actually kill your PC, and the presence of hearty level-zero retainers:
"The cumulative impact of these four systems is to create situations which heavily favour relationship-building and non-violent forms of conflict resolution. Of course there will still be fights; of course the PCs will occasionally just say 'fuck it' and shoot a bunch of guys in the head. Of course there are going to be some people who just need killing. But mass violence isn't the default solution, and it usually isn't the best solution. The best solution is talking: treating your potential enemies like people, negotiating, finding common ground. With a bit of work, you can turn them into allies instead of enemies, leaving the encounter stronger than you were when you came in."
Not every melee ends with negative hp

  • Lastly, although I haven't spent much time on my own gaming projects lately, the idea for a computerized DM's assistant never seems far from my mind.  When doing a search for something else, the following image popped up:
I'd never seen different climates plotted in such a way before... order brought to (what I thought was) the messy chaos of nature!  Very satisfying for my inner worldbuilding geek. The site that picture came from is pretty cool, too.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The clock is striking twelves

About two years ago, I did a series of posts about each of the incarnations of Doctor Who.  (I consider this kind of sequence of themed posts to have many of the hallmarks of a "Glass Bead Game," so I added the list of posts to the new Glass Bead Games tab at the top of the blog.)  In January 2014, the current Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, had only a few seconds of on-screen time, so I had to guess about what kinds of unique traits he'd bring to the character.

In the original set of posts, I followed another blogger's idea that each incarnation behaved very much like each zodiac sign in the sequence of the solar year.  Under that system, Capaldi was set to be a Cancer.  Riffing on stereotypical Cancerian traits, I predicted that
"...we may see an emotional, intuitive, changeable, exceedingly loving, and over-protective Doctor."
It's been two full seasons now, so we can assess.  The only word in my prediction that seems a bit off is "changeable," since he's been someone who definitely knows who he is.  But I think all of the other traits are eerily SPOT-ON.

More than any Doctor before him I think, these qualities were so strong, they were almost his undoing.  The "duty of care" he felt towards Clara, his companion since before he wore this particular face, burned as hot as the Big Bang.  The sacrifices he made for her, and for his estranged, time-travelling spouse River Song, were quite immense.

Was he sometimes gruff and manipulative?  Sure -- some of that may have rubbed off from Capaldi the actor -- and some may be a counter reaction to two earlier incarnations that were more "manic pixie dream boy" than the show had ever seen.  The contradiction we see, between the depths of compassion and those scary eyebrows, seems to be a consequence of the fact that (to quote excellent reviewer Charlie Jane Anders at io9), "time imposes costs on him, even more than everybody else."  The Doctor is now more than 2000 years old ("I'm old enough to be your messiah," he once said gleefully), and he clearly has made the decision to hold on to caring above all else.  Good for him.


Nothing's sad till it's over. Then everything is.

- - -

This is not a war! I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you could ever imagine, and when I close my eyes… I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count. And do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight… till it burns your hand, and you say this: No one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will have to feel this pain. Not on my watch.

- - -

Davros: Compassion then.
The Doctor: Always.
Davros: It grows strong and fierce in you, like a cancer.
The Doctor: I hope so.
Davros: It will kill you in the end.
The Doctor: I wouldn’t die of anything else.

Come on Ace, we've got work to do.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Janus Review

It's been a while since I've done a January blogiversary post.  Servitor Ludi was started on January 2, 2011.  It blows my mind to think of this weird project as 5 years old, but the data is the data...

The last two years have been busy in other areas... 2014 filled with uncertainty, interviews, and preparing for a leap into the unknown.  2015 being the first year in a new job and new state.  Are things settled down enough to get back to the 80-ish posts per year of the early days?  Probably not, but I do hope to inch my way back up to that neighborhood.

I recently got an idea for a theme for the infamous April A-to-Z Challenge.  I've been down that road three times before, and it's always been rewarding.  Stay tuned for a definite announcement once I've pondered it a bit more.

I've got more content queued up for the Youtube channel, and a few other ideas for posts clunking around, but I don't have any other grand plans.  Over the past few months, my family and I have been binging our way through the 1993-1998 TV series Babylon 5, which I may write about here when we're done.  Other than that, I guess you can just expect more of the same -- games and geekiness, all with a sprinkling of esoterica.

I hope 2016 brings you all joy and fulfillment!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars Eve

My family and I may not be going to see the new Star Wars movie until early next week, but the premiere of Episode VII is nearly here!

In honor of the occasion, I wanted to give you fine nerf-herders a few interesting links...
  • I put up a new video on the Cygnus Youtube channel, with text from the evocative post about Luke Skywalker that I blogged about this past April.  (Hat tip to Fialleril for writing such great words!)
  • If you're an old-school D&D player and would like to role-play adventures in a Galaxy Far Far Away™, I propose avoiding all licensed games.  Just go download a copy of Encounter Critical, and staple on Jeff Rients' super-awesome Star Wars campaign guide from a blog post back in 2010.  (For added context, see two earlier posts that describe Jeff's motivation, here and here.)
  • When I was first exploring the Internet in the late 1980s, I came across a script titled "Star Wars Episode III: Fall of the Republic," written by someone named John L. Flynn.  It's essentially fan fiction, but at the time there was nothing like this in existence.  Go read it!  No worse than the prequels, I say.
  • I wasn't a subscriber to the original Star Wars Fan Club Newsletter ("Bantha Tracks"), but my best friend in 1978 was.  I enjoyed leafing through those things when they'd arrive... getting the inside scoop on what "Star Wars II" would be about.  Someday I'll have to get my hands on some old copies to relive those times.

  • Lastly, I think I may have already blogged about my experience with an, um, less than reputable mail-order publishing house.  In 1982, on the heels of Yoda's wisdom, I sent away for a book (advertised in the back of Starlog magazine) called "The Teachings of the Force."  Darn thing never came.  The P.O. box was in a town just 45 minutes away... and my Dad worked in our local post office... so he drove me over there.  We tried to learn what we could learn.  No dice, though; the perps were long gone.  Still, if anyone out there happens to know if the following thing actually exists, I still would like to know more...  :-)
Redacted, der.

May the Force be with you all, this fine holiday season!

Update:  Saw Episode VII on Sunday!  Woo-hoo, that was some Star Wars.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Whose Tube? My Tube!

The day is here.  Here is the big announcement:  I've started a YouTube channel called "Cygnus' Magic Words."

The URL may change eventually, but for now it's the following mush of characters:

The tag line is "Magic words for the soul."  More from the channel description:
Since 2011, I've been blogging at about games, philosophy, and whatever other weird bits of esoterica I can think of. I'm no master of the Game, just a servant who wants to see what the future holds for both the high-concept stuff (like Hesse's Glass Bead Game) and my old favorites (classic tabletop roleplaying games like D&D).

Here on Youtube I'm exploring another aspect of that weirdness: the magic of WORDS. On my blog I've posted a lot about my favorite creative people, many of whom are wordsmiths of some sort. Posting excerpts of text is fun, but sometimes the words need to be heard by the ear. Sit back, close your eyes, and see how the words will change you.
Right now I've got four videos up.  You won't see me directly, but you'll hear me reading a variety of things -- both poetry and prose -- that I hope will inspire and move you.  What you'll see with your eyes, in most videos, is a sequence of Kandinsky-like artworks that I've generated via a randomizing computer program.  Why?  No reason other than it was fun to make.  (I'm not the first person to think of doing this, but I haven't cribbed from anyone else's algorithms. I'm still tweaking and optimizing.)

That's all for now.  If you're inclined, go have a listen.  Please let me know if there's anything that you'd enjoy hearing, too.