Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Brand Inspector

I didn't want to bury the answer to the last post's quiz question in comments, so here's a quick post for closure.

Although the symbols I showed do look very astrological or alchemical, I'm pretty sure they're supposed to be American cowboy "brands" for cattle and horses.  They were displayed on the walls of the fictional Mel's Diner on the 1970s TV show Alice.  I don't think the characters ever actually talked about these decorations, but they were an omnipresent mini-mystery to me as a viewer.

Meaningless?  Maybe... maybe not.  I've always meant to learn more about the elaborate symbol system of cattle brands, and their ancillary use as the names of ranches and estates.  Most of the ones I've found online seem to be letters of the alphabet that have been morphed or transformed in some way.  That makes the ones from the TV show kind of odd.  The Wikipedia article on the show says the diner was decorated in an "Aztec and cowboy motif," but these symbols don't really look Meso-American, either.  I guess Occam's Razor points to some anonymous Hollywood set-painter who just had a vague idea of what diner decorations in Phoenix, Arizona might look like!  :-)

Anyway, that's all for now.  I've been plugging away at the sooper-secret project hinted at in the last post, but things aren't quite ready to be revealed.  Soon!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Teaser & Quiz

Two quick things...

First, Cygnus has got something kind of big up his sleeve.  A new project will be revealed very soon.  (Well, maybe in a week or two; we'll see.)  I'm not quite ready to spill the beans about it, but let me give you all one hint:


Second, I'm curious if any of your memories might be jogged by a little trivia obscura. Long-time readers will know that I'm obsessed with signs, symbols, and alphabets of all kinds.  There is one set of symbols that I've had in the back of my mind for almost 40 years now.  They made their first appearance in popular culture in the 1970s.  Thanks to the internet, I've finally been able to reconstruct the full set accurately:

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to tell me where these symbols come from.  (I won't ask you what they mean, because I'm not quite sure about that, myself!)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Update on the Right Stuff RPG

Back in 2012, I mused for a few posts (here and here) about an idea for a new game that allows players to recreate the excitement of not only the 1960s space race, but also the way things "could have been" in the succeeding decades -- moon bases, orbiting agricultural colonies, terraforming Mars, and so on.

Anyway, I just learned about a fascinating new game, just published this year, that covers some of this territory.  I admit that my first thought was along the lines of "Oh no, have I been scooped?!"  However, reading its rules has been a huge help in figuring out what I want my game to be, and what I don't really want it to be.

Leaving Earth is a tabletop board game written by Joseph Fatula and published by the Lumenaris Group.  Each player takes the role of a space agency, and the goal is to plan missions, build spacecraft, manage risk, and reach for the stars!  In itself, this isn't a new concept.  A year or so ago I also came across a much more detailed game/simulation on the same topic: Phil Eklund's High Frontier.  But Leaving Earth aims to shave off enough of the scientific and engineering crunchiness to make it a fun experience for players of all backgrounds.  It's essentially the same level of complexity that I'm looking to hit in my game.

Despite my love of all the techy goodness of space mission planning -- and I say that without an ounce of irony -- I think that my original "Right Stuff RPG" (name to be changed to avoid getting in trouble) wasn't really about that, um, stuff.  I was always thinking more about the personalities of the astronauts and the ways that they made larger-than-life history.  You can see even in my placeholder name that I consider it a Role Playing Game first and foremost.

I want each player to really get into their chosen astronaut characters, to care about them as people.  And, of course, to inject something of themselves into their characters, too.  Balancing the first (play acting) with the second (wish fulfillment?) is a juggling act that tabletop RPGs have been trying to perfect for more than 40 years now.  I'd love to prod players toward that goal, but traditional RPGs like D&D have an open-endedness of "plot" that requires a knowledgeable DM to manage it all.

Thus, the big question is:  How much of that experience can be programmed into a more casual kind of game?  I still have no answer to that, but I'm always open to inspiration...  :-)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Different Keystrokes for Different Keyfolks

As you may have guessed, I'm not going to let the lack of a new, over-arching theme for this blog stop me from posting about random stuff that I find interesting.  So, let me take this opportunity for a picture post in which I convince you that keyboards are cool.

The above is a close-up of part of the Commodore 64 keyboard.  I spent much of the 1980s figuring out the innards of that beastie.  It served me well.  Note that even back then, there was a superfluous "operating system brand" key -- I remember the "Commodore key" giving access to the weird emoji-like symbols you can see printed on the fronts of the letter keys.  Each of those symbols also served as shorthand commands for various things.  I remember that printing the heart symbol was obligatory at the beginning of most programs, since it was equivalent to a "clear screen" command.

But if you want even more keys for symbols, non-standard shift-key sequences, and overall high weirdness, you can't go wrong with the Space Cadet Keyboard:

Click to zoom... you won't be disappointed

Roman numerals!  Thumbs-up and thumbs-down keys!  Hyper, Super, and Meta?!?  I especially like the keys for set theory, partial differentiation, and infinity.  Hat tip to the great Ron Hale-Evans for introducing me to this one.

However, if you're really into the state of the art, I suggest you find an Optimus Maximus... in which each key contains a fully programmable little screen that you can change to any image you want...

This one made me think of the esoteric, customized keyboard (with a similar tactile look to it) that someone spent a lot of time in crafting for just one brief scene in the 1979 sci-fi movie Alien:

Another one to click on and be amazed

Note all the quasi-Buddhist Theosophical terms... Aum, Padme, and Hum all make an appearance.  Also Lingha and Yoni... as well as "Agaric Fly" next to "Trip."  (If you don't know, I ain't sayin.)  But what exactly is a "Druze Pile," and how does one get rid of "Shakti Excess?"  These keys might come in handy if you encounter Ascended Master Koot Hoomi on the seventh etheric plane, but I'm not sure how they helped Ripley blast a xenomorph out of the airlock.  See here for some additional exegesis of the fonts, buttons, and keyboards from Alien.

But anyway, now that we're firmly transported into the future, I can't help but also remember some other buttons and keypads out of my nostalgic sci-fi dreams...

Don't do it, Scotty!

Putting aside the obvious question (i.e., how would anyone remember what each button does if they're not labeled?), let me just point you to an amazing web page that tracks down the origins of every gol-dang button on the bridge of the original starship Enterprise.  Some were repurposed from existing electronic equipment, and some were made from pouring colored resin into ice trays.  Don't believe me on the latter, do you?  See some recent fan attempts to make some!

This image speaks to me in a language I don't understand, but must follow. :-)

Another sci-fi TV show with interesting background graphical elements was 1978's Battlestar Galactica.  I loved all the quasi-Egyptoid and pseudo-Mormon symbolism, but in a post about buttons and keyboards, the closest thing I can think of is the joystick of the Colonial Viper ship...

The image on the left is the one seen most often... "fire" and "turbo" are obvious, and "IM" (inverse maneuver) was only used once: a rapid stop and reverse.  The image on the right was shown rarely -- possibly accidentally -- since it was the unaltered version. This prop really came from the cockpit of a Vietnam-era surveillance plane; it must have controlled the remote cameras on the outside of the aircraft.

Anyway, that's all for now.  If you're hungry for more stuff like this, there's a lot out there for the astute searcher.  There's also a surprising amount of interest in deconstructing the methods and meanings of sci-fi TV and movie "interfaces," too.  The blog that explored the Alien buttons and fonts also delved deeply into Kubrick's 2001 and a few other movies.  This blog had fascinating multi-post musings about the interfaces of Logan's Run, The Fifth Element, and quite a few others.

Lastly, I thought I'd show you the most sophisticated keyboard of all.  For the budding pirates in the audience, I give you the Corsair!


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.

- - -

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!  :-)