Monday, December 31, 2012

New Years Blogoversary

The new year marks the second anniversary of Servitor Ludi.  It's become customary at times like these to do a bit of reminiscing and crystal-ball gazing, so let's have at it...

An informal goal of mine is to post to the blog at least once a week, and this year I'm glad to have been able to surpass that a bit.  My post counter says there's a total of 158 posts here, and in last year's blogoversary post I said that I had 79 posts in the first year.  Thus, oddly, that means there were exactly 79 posts this year, too!

For me, the blogging high point of the year was definitely the April A-Z Challenge, in which I attempted to take readers on a whirlwind tour of weird signs, symbols, and glyphs.  Those 26 posts often veered into the philosophical and esoteric, but I tried to keep them fun and full of game-relevant content, too.  They're all collected here for easy browsing.  I'm also grateful for some wonderful new friends found via April A-Z blog-hops.

The springtime of philosophical A-Z posts led to some continuing musings about "pairings" of ideas with regard to the Glass Bead Game, and also to some reviews of books and CDs.  Throughout the summer and fall, I also got a bit braver in sharing some awkward attempts at fiction (that's the blog label term that seemed most appropriate!), mostly spurred on by the indomitable Suze's challenge to post literary "False Starts" on Fridays in November.  I'm surprised that I was able to post as much as I did in the fall, since I was also teaching a graduate course for the first time in many years -- the workload was enormous, but it was an amazing experience.

I've kept working on my Homebrew '82 old-school role playing game rules, but with everything else going on, it's been relegated to seemingly eternal back-burner status.  That doesn't seem likely to change soon, but I can still hold out some hope for finishing Volume 1, the Player's Guide, this year.  In the fall, I also started some brainstorming about a new game concept to emulate the friendly competition of hotshot astronauts and their dangerous missions at the dawn of the space age; i.e., a kind of Right Stuff RPG.  (There are only two posts on that concept right now, but I hope to do more on it...)

And I can't forget Blendsdays!  :-)

What of the future?  More game development, as described above.  I also hope to unearth some additional "lost gems" like the Perry Mason plot wheel that I posted about last month.  As of right now, I'm beginning to plan for the April 2013 A-Z Challenge.  I have an interesting unifying topic for 26 mind-bending posts, but I think it's still a bit too early to talk about the details.  All in good time!


Have an awesome 2013, everyone!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Holly Jolly Mistletoe Harvest

Now that the Mayan apocalypse has passed (it's a new world... haven't you noticed?), my thoughts turn to their natural focus at Solstice time... the druids!  :-)


In classic D&D, druids must gather mistletoe to enact their magic.  That idea seems to be based on a few stray sentences written by Pliny the Elder, 2000 years ago, which puts it way ahead of just about every other "ancient" druid tradition that modern-day folks have tried to re-enact.

Although some D&D players may have chafed at the strange rules and rituals for gathering mistletoe, in most versions it's actually less restrictive than what plain old wizards had to go through... Not only did the garden variety magic-user have to lug around a heavy spell book (what adventurer wants nightly homework?), but each spell had its own required "material components" (e.g., pinch of talcum powder to detect invisibility; a chunk of amber to cast a lightning bolt).  Compared with all that, having to gather mistletoe at Midsummer Eve with a gold or silver sickle doesn't seem so bad.

In Homebrew '82, I decided to remove the cumbersome books and material components for magic-users and replace them with the requirement to own and use a wand.  Fans of Harry Potter know the possibilities of Priori Incantatem, the mysteries of Ollivander's shop, and what can go wrong if you don't have some Spell-o-tape.  I've already talked a bit more about this proposed magic system here.  If you don't have a proper wand, it's a flat -5 penalty to the d20 "to-hit" type die roll to see if the spell succeeds.

I suppose that a similar thing could be done for druids:  if you're lacking in proper mistletoe, you get a similar penalty.  However, I also think that the lore about gathering the stuff at the proper time should play into these penalties and bonuses. Thus, have a look at a trial version of a Lunar Phase Mistletoe Gathering table...

Click to polymorph

Note that I've listed four types of mistletoe, each with a different monthly phase.  In reality, the Celtic druids only had access to the classical European variety -- viscum album with the white berries -- but in a fantasy game world, the more the merrier.

European Mistletoe peaks in magical freshness on the sixth day of the month (as Pliny described) counted by starting at the new moon.  If you're just a day late, though, it goes bad quite quickly.

Dwarf Mistletoe is best when gathered under the bright full moon (it's hard to find in the dark!) and isn't so great when cut under the new moon.  The related Red Mistletoe has a similar bonus under the full moon, is worse than its dwarfy cousin in the complete darkness, and has some unexpected oomph when the sharp, sickle-shaped crescent is in the sky.

Ghost Mistletoe is the rarest variety (maybe because I totally made it up), but it's the most reliable in terms of bonuses over the course of the month.  Avoid the new moon, though!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

RPG Sandbox Delivery System

If and when I ever get back to running a long-term RPG campaign, one thing that I'd really like to get right is the simulation of a complex and interesting world.  A world that doesn't just exist as a series of disconnected "adventure hooks" for the players, but one that breathes and evolves on its own as the PCs interact with it.

There's tons of advice out there for building such a vibrant SANDBOX world (see, for example, tips from noisms or Rob Conley or ckutalik), and last year I tried my hand at beginning to work out my own (see posts 13 thru 18 here).  For me, the problem isn't laying out all the ideas on paper -- that's just a matter having available prep time.  It's the thought of actually "running" it, in real time at the table, that scares the bejeebus out of me.  What I really need is some kind of unifying system for keeping track of it all, parceling out the information with dramatic tension, and not introducing too much to the players too early.

Recently, though, Black Vulmea has been posting some fascinating takes on chance encounters (especially details about a cool scenario generator from a game called Robots & Rapiers) and those posts have got me thinking...

Artist: Bruce Bailey
A properly done random encounter table can be an efficient "delivery system" for an entire campaign.

By "properly done," I'm thinking nesting.  Wheels within wheels in a spiral array, baby. :-)  Below is version 1.0 of a possible master campaign event table.  Each potential result will likely spawn more die rolling on other tables or on-the-spot choices to be made by the GM.  The key is that these choices not be too open-ended, but ratcheted down by the previous die-roll results and the present situation.  The top-level table must be simple enough to be memorized.

Master Event Table:

Every day that the PCs are out in the world (wilderness, city, whatever... but not a specialized closed environment like a castle or a dungeon), roll 1d12:

1-5:  Nothing unusual occurs.
6-8:  Intra-party event occurs.
9-10:  Location-based event (i.e., hex-specific random encounter) occurs.
11:  Random adventure hook occurs.
12:  Large-scale "plot" event occurs.

Seems simple, but there's a lot packed in there.  Here's more about each type of event:
  • Nothing unusual:  Of course, the GM should still roll to figure out what the weather will be, keep track of PC rest and rations, and so on. Do the PCs need to hunt or forage for food?  Do they need to go to a market or take care of their horses?  Some people may not be fond of all that day-to-day record keeping, but I think it keeps this whole enterprise from devolving into a video game stuck on the "Easy" setting. 
  • Intra-party event:  By these, I mean things like checking NPC morale to see if any henchman run away, or seeing if anyone comes down with a case of trench foot, accidentally tips over a beehive, or has their saddle-bag straps break when they're trotting over some deep mud puddles. Maybe a cleric character has a prophetic dream?  Or a bard-acrobat accidentally injures himself when practicing his juggling?  If the GM rolls on a sub-table, I suggest crossing off an event once it happens, to avoid repeats.
  • Location-based event:  Each "hex" on the campaign world-map should have its own local "wandering monster" type table that's appropriate for that location.  No jaguars in the tundra, please.  These days, I'm more apt to keep kooky monsters as a very rare and special thing, and populate these lists with more of a panoply of human and animal variety.  There's ample room for the weird and gonzo without needing to dip into the bestiaries of Tolkien, or the ancient Greeks, all the time.
  • Random adventure hook:  I may have talked them down at the top of this post, but in moderation they can add some spice.  These events can happen pretty much anywhere and can be the start of something the players will latch onto as a goal.  The Robots & Rapiers generator linked above had several tables worth of possible "scenario introductions," and there are many other suggestions for "adventure starters" out there.  I'm also thinking about including my ideas for unorthodox rumor delivery in this category, too.
  • Large-scale plot event:  Ah, here's the home of the grandest designs of the GM.  The mythic over-arching narrative arc.  Maybe some don't think that a sandbox campaign is the place for something like this, but if used sparingly, it can transform a series of unconnected events into an epic.  If one is running a feaux-medieval fantasy world (without cellphones and global networks), then these big plot "events" should be location-based, too.  Each kingdom has its own grand intrigue.  A plague of zombies or vampires starts at a given ground-zero and spreads at a given rate.  GMs should have a big map with big swaths of area circumscribed for these kinds of major events.  Maybe the PCs could be lucky enough to travel all the way through one of these regions without interacting with the big event, but with a 1 in 12 chance per day, who knows what will happen?
Other details:

If any event happens, the GM can also roll to find out what time of day it happens.  Of course, many of these rolls can and should be done either in advance, or at the subtle tap of a laptop key, to help maintain the illusion that everything is happening according to God's own plan.  :-)

Also, I'm sure that I'm not the first to have the idea to base both "local" and "global" events on a unified set of nested random tables.  I'll bet someone has done something similar with grand-campaign type games like Pendragon or World of Darkness.  This is just my own take on these archetypes of the RPG collective hive-mind....

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Spoonerism Saturday

Three hour flight delay in the airport... what to do?  I suppose I could do some, you know, actual work, but how about a blog post instead?  :-)

Both in games and in other forms of artistic creation, we often dip into the well of randomness to kickstart creativity.  Often it's done consciously, but sometimes our subconscious minds do it for us.  One example is the verbal spoonerism, where one intends to say a specific phrase, but a few of the letters get jumbled around.  (Sometimes the spoonerism may become more well known than the original phrase... like bass-ackwards?)

There is spo noon.
You can easily find lots of example spoonerisms out there, but for the last couple of years I've been keeping track of the ones that I hear (or say) in everyday life.  Below is a sampling.  Maybe the chance combination of syllables could get some creative juices flowing?  Or at least generate a chuckle or two?

(Note: not all are "pure" spoonerisms, where the first syllables of two adjoining words are transposed.  The wikipedia entry linked above also discusses a proposed definition of "kniferisms" and "forkerisms" that deal with other syllables.  Some of mine probably don't even fall into those neat categories...)


bopped a plock-up  (blocked a pop-up)

sundraising fupper  (fundraising supper)

a flue gew sticks  (a few glue sticks)

pence-fosts  (fence-posts)

pass-snerchin'  (purse-snatchin')

BcCormack Macon Pieces  (McCormack Bacon Pieces)

macaroni and chaise tree  (macaroni and cheese tray)

cast cotegory  (cost category)

villi chezzie  (veggie chili)

potem tole  (totem pole)

toter vurnout  (voter turnout)

When Hallie Met Sarry  (When Harry Met Sally)

The Mantom Phenace   (The Phantom Menace)

Mess-winster  (Westminster)

show snovel  (snow shovel)

chee-kain  (key-chain)

tee two-spoons  (two teaspoons)

logue brudger  (rogue bludger)

Is your zacket jirped?   (Is your jacket zipped?)

beed firders   (bird feeders)

Many more beyond the cut...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

False Start Friday the Last

Submitted for your approval.  Snippets of discarded prose, growing in yellowness of age, in drawers both wooden and virtual.  Do their authors dare to unearth these moldy words, and risk infecting their present-day lives with the thoughts of their former, sloughed-off, selves?  Even if it's not technically Friday yet?  This is the dimension of clumsy constructions and sublime reminiscences that we call... the False Start Zone.

I was preparing to just make a list of all my other unfinished writing projects, some of which rivaled the Theothany in unnecessary complexity and unrealistic ambition.  But then I dug out "December," an unfinished short story only about three and a half pages in length.  I'm nowhere close to being happy with it, but it's got a unity of purpose not unlike a fifties doo-wop song.  I'm curious what alchemical reactions will occur upon exposing it to the light of 2012.

(I can only bear to type out the beginning and a bit of the end... the middle is just too awkwardly terrifying to behold.)
 
- - - - - - -
March 16, 1990; Philadelphia

If he hadn't tripped, he wouldn't have seen her.

His pleasant downward movement was caused by a jutting piece of sidewalk at 17th and Chestnut Streets.  His shoelace decided to remain behind for a while.  A common enough occurrence, pratfalls being the rightful realm of the clown's face he often found himself wearing these days.  During the first few moments he took to re-tie that stubborn lace, his gaze was interrupted by a woman's spiked heel, attached to a vaguely familiar ankle about to step on one of his dropped bags.  He looked up at her face, the face that echoed in his dreams and waking life for the three months they were together and the three months they had been apart.  He saw her.

"What are you doing down there, Steven?"

Steven.  He almost forgot.  Never could get rid of that final N, could she?

"Oh, just decided to take a little trip."

Being down there on the ground, still looking up at her, struck him as strangely symbolic.  Composition of opposing foreground figures:  up/down, male/female, passive/aggressive.  With blurred city streets in the background.  He remained on the sidewalk, sat cross-legged, and slowly gathered his parcels as she stood, nervously looking at her watch.  Glint of gold.

"So, you're working around here, right?" he inquired up to the sky, though he thought he already knew.  She was going on interviews when they broke up, and in one of those final frigid phone calls she brushed off his inquiries with a wonderfully offhand never mind about that.  Subtlety her specialty.

"Mm hmm," she bit her lip and looked around.  "Steven, you really ought to get up. You look like a homeless person.  People are watching."

- - - - - - -

In between:  A knife-edge smirk.  The groundhog seeing his Jungian shadow.  Blood-red eyes.  A bit of light stalking.  Lastly, a flashback:

- - - - - - -

You stand trembling in the winter chill, your arms locked around his waist.  He speaks to you about when he can come back for you.  Hopefully by Christmas at least.  You kiss him as the snowflakes begin to fall.  You are getting too attached, you think.

He tells you that he loves you.

You reply that you love him back.  You have a reason for not using "too."  Undaunted by your shade of meaning, he happily gets in his car and starts the long journey home.  Second in his mind only to the love he now knows is mutual are the shapes of the tiny snowflakes in your hair, reflected in the blinding porch light in the starry December night.

- - - - - - -

Monday, November 26, 2012

Perry Mason's Dungeon Master

In the past, I've posted about my fascination with narrative plots (see the letters B and P from last April's A-Z), and the search for patterns and forms in them.  Although I realize what a dull world it would be if all plots could be broken down into a consistent and logical "grammar," I still feel the need to search for some order in that seeming chaos.

A fun thing about role playing games is that Game Masters usually are on the prowl for this same kind of order, since they're often spurred to come up with plot "hooks" for their adventuresome players with little to no prep time.  A good table of random choices can really save the day.

Burr-ning gaze
Now, you may ask, how does Perry Mason enter into this?  The famous TV detective show was based on a series of popular pulp novels (82 of them -- running from 1933 to 1973) by Erle Stanley Gardner.  Many people suspected for years that Gardner used a formula to construct the plots of the novels.  Recently, it was found that he constructed elaborate "plot wheels" which contained multiple options for various pieces of the story. He pinned them up on a cork board and spun them to provide a total of 36,864 possible combinations.

After seeing original images of the hand-made wheels (see, for example, here and here), I looked around to see if their options had been typed out and tabulated for more easy reading.  No dice (pun unintended)!  Thus, here for your enjoyment are the contents of those four wheels.  Two of them have 16 entries and the other two have 12 entries, so my paper-and-pencil RPG peeps can either use a d20 for the former (and ignore results greater than 16) or get their Zocchi on...

Blind trails by which the hero is misled or confused (d16):
  1. Client misrepresents
  2. Client conceals
  3. Witness "planted"
  4. Document forged
  5. Witness lies
  6. Impossible statements
  7. Planted clues
  8. Witness sells out
  9. Suiciding witness
  10. Kidnapped witness
  11. Flight witness
  12. Genuine mistakes
  13. False confessions
  14. Vital witness refuses [to] talk
  15. Villain's asst pretends betray
  16. Friend pretends betray
Hostile minor characters who function in making complications for hero (d16):
  1. Detective
  2. Newspaper reporter
  3. Attorney
  4. Hick detective
  5. Thickheaded police
  6. Hotel detective
  7. Incidental crook
  8. Spy
  9. Hostile dog [?]
  10. Suspicious servant
  11. Meddlesome friend
  12. Gossip
  13. Blackmailer
  14. Father [of] heroine
  15. Rival in love
  16. Business rival
Complicating circumstances (d12):
  1. Zeal of hick cop upsets plans
  2. Rival in love tries [to] discredit
  3. Some character not as represented
  4. Heroine's mind poisoned against hero
  5. Hero violates law & is sought
  6. Witness mistakes hero for villain
  7. Hero commits incidental crime (speeding battery) & is arrested
  8. Detective believes hero guilty & attempts to arrest at critical time
  9. Father of heroine hostile to hero
  10. Heroine's maid is a spy
  11. Every move of hero gets from frying pan to fire
  12. By spies, hero is betrayed to villains
Solutions (d12):
  1. Hero turns villains against each other
  2. Hero smashes obstacles by sheer courage
  3. Meets trickery with horse sense
  4. Gets villain to overreach self
  5. Gets villain killed while trying to frame other
  6. Villain hoist by own petard
  7. Tricks accomplice into confessing
  8. Frames circumstances so villain thinks discovered
  9. Fakes evidence to confuse villain
  10. Puts additional evidence -- planted -- nullify villain
  11. Gets villain [to] betray self through greed
  12. Traps villain into betraying hiding place [of the] incriminating thing by: (a) Fake fire; (b) Giving something also conceal; (c) Necessity for flight.
FYI, I don't pretend to understand what all of them mean, or to have deciphered Gardner's handwriting with 100% accuracy.  I also tried to do a little clarifying cleanup with a few words in square brackets here and there.

My favorite!

Friday, November 16, 2012

False Start Friday 2: Electric Boogaloo

Last week I took the plunge and discussed (for the first time ever, I think) some old and ambitious plans for a world-spanning novel.  At the heart of that novel was going to be a rediscovered ancient manuscript called the Theothany that described the death of the Greek gods.

FYI, I honestly don't know how I would have inserted these ancient words into the "present-day" action of the novel.  It probably would have been too ham-fisted just to include the whole thing, in feaux epic-poem translation, but I would have hated to give only small pieces.  Like I said last week, a huge majority of my research time was devoted to the ancient manuscript instead of to the story of my idealized alter-ego.

Anyway, after digging through my Theothany notes, I found my detailed (and dot-matrix printed!) outline of the ancient manuscript, dated September 24, 1989. I didn't read it last week, but I did now.

Urgh... I think I just rolled my eyes almost as much as I did in my last post.  Bloated and disjointed to say the least.  But I'll press on!  ;-)  Hopefully my fortysomething brain will mold my twentysomething thoughts into something that makes a little more sense as I summarize...

Live from New York, it's the fire bearer!
It starts with Prometheus.  You know his deal: bound to a rock and tortured for crimes against the gods.  Not only for giving fire and forethought to mankind, but also for refusing to tell Zeus the name of the woman he will impregnate with the son that is fated to dethrone him, as Zeus overthrew his own father.

I have in my notes that Prometheus said he wished to become mortal at the end of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, to end the pain of the torture. So, in my alternate take on the story, I had Zeus grow exasperated enough to eventually grant that request: "Sure, BE mortal. Try to lead men as I lead the gods and see what I have to put up with!"

Prometheus is released, now mortal.  He still has his memory and knowledge, so he doesn't wander far before people realize he's special.  I noted in my outline that this occurred in 1464 BC (der... why so exact?) so it turns out he gets crowned king of Minoan Crete.  His people appreciate his limited future-sight, but they remain distant from him because of his sullen and solemn nature.

A wandering dude soon appears at Prometheus' court.  He is Senenmut, recently exiled from Egypt because of some intrigue with the queen.  He's traveled far, and he's learned many things.  He knows that many past generations of gods have come and gone throughout human history. He teaches Prometheus about their eternal cycles.  They become friends and initiate a cultural renaissance (giving rise to the Atlantis legends, to boot).

Prometheus eventually finds a wife and has a son.  The son, Glaucos ("bright one"), dies from some malady, and Senenmut uses his Egyptian healing arts to bring him back.  But one of Hades' minions sees that the butterfly-like soul of Glaucos started to enter the underworld, but then flitted back up to the world of the living.  Hades reports this anomaly to Zeus, and Zeus thunderbolts Senenmut for messing with things he shouldn't.  This brings back all of Prometheus' prior rebellious rage, and he swears a very loud and vocal oath that all of the immortals will DIE on this very spot within the next 1000 years.

Zeus no like that, so to punish this whole Minoan renaissance, he thunderbolts the island of Thera, whose volcano is known to have destroyed said civilization.  My notes have some suggestions for Prometheus to survive this devastation, make it to the island of Samothrace, start up their mystery cult, and live out the rest of his days in exile.  Kind of anticlimactic, though.  But Prometheus and Senenmut (the latter becoming the model for legends of the healer Asklepios) live on as shades in the underworld, and hold their grudges.

Anyway, flash forward to 456 BC.  Two men have re-sparked Zeus' fear of being overthrown.  One is the playwright Aeschylus (whose entire Prometheia trilogy is conveniently lost to us), who was accused of revealing the secrets of mystery religions on the stage.  The other was a brash Olympic athlete named Brisos -- my notes mention similarities to this guy, who I recall being very full of himself.  Brisos was a distant descendant of Achilles, and thus a carrier of the blood of Thetis, one of the possible fated mothers of Zeus' dethroner.

Long story short: Zeus thunderbolts these guys, too.  Sigh. I said it was disjointed.  Now there are FOUR ghosts in the underworld who are carrying a torch (pun unintended) for the death of the gods.  Their hopes are to be fulfilled by young Socrates.

Bogus.
The infamously disagreeable philosopher is contacted by the ghosts, who can't accomplish much in the living world in their ethereal state.  Socrates has some ideas of his own, too.  He proposes they find a temporary ally among the gods who would be a natural supporter of mankind's bid for "independence."  That ally ends up being Pallas Athena.  She has a soft spot for Prometheus (who helped her be born from Zeus' skull), and is well balanced in her wisdom.

Socrates travels around and uses that persuasive rhetorical power of his to convince Greeks to elevate Athena to a more prominent position in their worship.  Over years, they do, and she absorbs this new power and sets herself up on another mountain as a rival to Zeus.  Guess who begins to become increasingly jealous?

Zeus eventually destroys Athena (gah, I repeated that trope a lot).  This causes Metis -- the mother of Athena, still tucked away inside Zeus' head -- to freak out.  "That's enough!"  Zeus' head throbs and throbs, and eventually explodes him with a golden light.

What emerges is a golden, youthful god, the second child of Metis, whom Socrates (seeing this in a vision, I think) recognizes as Phanes of the Orphic mysteries. Phanes had some primordial "Logos" action going on, since he actually existed before any of the other gods, but was also ever-new.  Phanes extracts the immortal "ichor" from all of the gods (including himself) and disperses it, much diluted, to all of humanity, present and future. This is a kind of "grounding" of the heavenly energy back down to the earth.

Socrates wakes up from his vision, and the world looks fresh and new.  No more gods -- we must be our own inspiration from now on.  His final line is "I have so much to learn...."

--------------------------

Like I said, not too polished!  I probably tightened up the plot in a bunch of small ways in the act of typing out the above, and I can think of many more things that could be done to improve it.  But do I want to?!?  I should make it clear that I was hugely inspired by Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.  At the time, I even memorized the final few stanzas that began,
This is the day, which down the void abysm
At the Earth-born's spell yawns for Heaven's despotism...
Yes, yes, Romantic angst mixed with Nietzsche's "Gott ist tot."  Fun for 1989-me; much less my bag in 2012.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Clockwork Angels, the Novel

In June, I posted a review of Rush's newest album, Clockwork Angels.  I also reported that drummer and lyricist Neil Peart was in the process of collaborating with an author to devise a sort of "novelization of the album."  The book was published a short time ago, and I just finished it.

It's an odd little bird, I'll tell you.

We can get the most of the bad out of the way quickly.  My initial impression of it can be boiled down to one word: "simple."  Peart and author Kevin Anderson took the basic adventure plot from Voltaire's Candide, removed nearly all of Voltaire's wit and subtlety, and substituted in some stale steampunk set dressing.  Having to take the plot through the rather linear set of situations suggested by the songs was a bit plodding and ho-hum.

Other than a few exceptions, the characters were cartoonish.  The evil "Anarchist" is motivated by a backstory only Lex Luthor would see as viable.  His counterpart, the evil "Watchmaker," micromanages his kingdom like a mad puppeteer, determining everyone's careers and approving their marriages and living situations.  That's okay on its own, but to drive the point even more to the edge of overkill, he also forces scientists to hew to a literal Ptolemaic cosmology.  The deviations of the planets from perfect circular orbits is recognized as a "problem" by some, but it's a problem that all have faith in the Watchmaker to fix by (someday) moving their orbits into their proper, anal-retentive shapes!

And the "Easter Eggs."  Oh, the Easter Eggs.  I get that Anderson is friends with Neil Peart, and is probably a huge fan of the music.  But the insertion of out-of-context song lyrics from Rush's 40-year history -- pretty much one every 3 or 4 pages -- was jarring and annoying.  I'm not misusing the word literally when I say I literally turned my exasperated gaze skyward whenever I came across one of these groaners.

Okay, the worst is over.  What's left?

The negative points listed above were just about all that were filling my head as I was reading the first few chapters.  But then, somewhere around a third of the way in, I had a mental shift that made me far more forgiving of its flaws:  I pictured reading it to my son.  He's 11, and will soon be a wistful teenager looking to break away and have adventures of his own.

Actually, this book couldn't be a better guide for that.

Its simplicity can be forgiven as the allowances that (I assume) must be made in all Young Adult type fiction.  In that vein, it does remind me a lot of the overall reading level of the Harry Potter books.  (And by "reading level" I don't just mean vocabulary and sentence complexity, but also the themes, ideas, and challenges the main character is exposed to.)  The cartoonish characters are no worse than those created by George Lucas, and they may be just as memorable for someone who doesn't know the dozens of literary originals that were plundered to create them.  The Rush lyrics wouldn't be a problem -- unless a prog-geek Dad like me would be constantly pointing them out and talking about each song they come from!  :-)

There's one other troubling aspect that I discussed in my review of the album.  ("Spoiler alert," I suppose.)  In both the lyrics and the book, we see that the main character eventually finds a happy home and leaves behind the grand battle.  We learn in the book that he was a symbolic "pawn" that both the Anarchist and the Watchmaker desired to convert to their way of thinking.  He said "No thanks" to both and went his panglossian way.

I know that a protagonist doesn't always need to defeat the bad guys and save the world, but I still felt the lack of righteous "comeuppance" for the villains as a pang of emptiness at the heart of this thing.  They need to be checked, or their darkness will grow.  The Watchmaker will always want more.  If I can quote myself from my review of the album:
Okay, maybe I'm not at that point of inner peace where Neil Peart abides.  I still want to see the redeemed Prince By-Tor defeat the Necromancer.  I want to see the apotheosis of my namesake Cygnus, the god of balance, who teaches silly Apollo and Dionysus the errors of their extremism.  I want to believe (yes, there's Fox Mulder again) that the death of the guitar-discoverer in 2112 wasn't in vain, and that the elder race of man really did return in the end to knock some Syrinxish heads.
I guess I'm guilty of including Rush Easter eggs, too, but the book didn't give me the kind of closure that Neil has espoused in the past.  Maybe it's the mature choice, the choice that will help guide young readers to live healthier lives full of forgiveness.  But it's enough to stop me from loving this story wholeheartedly.

Friday, November 9, 2012

False Start Friday: The Theothany

A certain desert lily has thrown down the gauntlet and issued a challenge for people to post bits of their shelved and dusty writing projects on Fridays in November.  Although I'm not a fiction writer in any sense of the word, in my college days I spent a number of years fervently taking notes and building the superstructure of a "great American novel" of sorts.  These notes just celebrated a birthday that would make them of legal drinking age in most US states, so maybe it's time to air them out and see what they contain.

I should warn the reader that I only wrote a teeny, tiny bit of actual prose for this book -- and this post won't present any of that!  The inch-thick folder that I've been looking through contains outlines, bits of plot and character, and even some poetry.

So... gulp... here it is:

Alma-Tadema FTW
The Theothany.

That title is meant to be an ancient Greek neologism, the flip side of Hesiod's Theogony, which dealt with the birth of the gods.  My term deals with their demise (theos + thanatos), and thus is a closer cousin to the Norse Gotterdรคmmerung.

There was a Greek myth component to this novel, but that was just one part of it.  The main action was supposed to take place in the present day, with a protagonist who was a thinly veiled surrogate for myself.  (I was entranced by Joyce's fiercely independent alter ego at the time...)  But the "twist" is that the action takes place in a slightly alternate world than our own.  In the late 1970s, archaeologists in that world discovered the manuscript of an ancient Greek epic poem -- also called the Theothany and reported to be a lost work of Aeschylus -- in which the death of the gods is starkly portrayed as something that happened literally.

The discovery of these ancient words changes history, but only subtly.  The first chapter of the book was going to be a "show don't tell" example of that divergence:  After reading a published translation of the ancient Theothany, an infamous individual goes further off the beam and kills himself before, in our world, he would have killed John Lennon in 1980.  I researched Chapman's mental illness quite a bit and attempted to weave some of it into this chapter, with his own final thoughts interleaved with the lyrics of Lennon's Starting Over.

(I think Zack Snyder did something eerily similar in his 2009 movie of Alan Moore's Watchmen.  The introductory montage showed the introduction of "real" superheroes into that alternate world with Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A Changin playing in the background...)

But most of my book was going to be about the protagonist, who in my Joycean fog I gave the provisional name "Finn."  We see a bit of his time in college in Philadelphia, but then something happens in his life that makes him reevaluate his path.  Inspired by Lennon's further alt-history activism in the 1980s, Finn joins the Peace Corps and begins an international journey that forms the backbone of the novel.

There's love, there's loss, and there's an ending in which, naturally, our hero finds himself among the ruins of Greece.  Through it all, there are parallels between Finn's present-day travails and the events of that ancient manuscript.  (If I ever would have started writing this thing, I feel I would've gone overkill on those parallels!  Learning the finesse of "less is more" is something it took me much longer to do... in many aspects of life.)

I think I'll save the scary/fairy-tale details of the ancient manuscript for next week's False Start Friday.  Despite my desire for parallels, it really is a Different Thing than Finn's journey.  For now, I'll just reminisce about some of the other characters that continue to call to me for attention...
  • In Philadelphia, Finn is dragged to see an avant-garde play at a dingy little theater. On stage, he first spies Tamara Albayeff, free-spirited girl of Kalmyk Mongolian descent, who is to be the love of his life.  Yes, I think she was a "manic pixie dream girl" long before they were a thing.  "Tara" initiates Finn into the wonders of life, shares her quirky spirituality with him, and dies an untimely death later on in the novel, after Finn meets up with her again in a foreign land.
  • Finn is initially good friends with his slightly older cousin, Shandon Corrigan.  (Actually, neither of those Irish names are Joyce-inspired... so there!)  Shandon starts out as somewhat puckish comic relief.  He's the one who introduced Finn to things like Monty Python, SNL in its early days, and prog rock.  But, much like Loki in the Norse myths, his trickster side gradually grows darker.  When Finn runs into trouble and turns to his cousin, he is disappointed at the nihilistic way Shandon retreats from challenges.  (Shandon is partly inspired by Svidrigailov, the disturbing "shadow" of the protagonist in Crime and Punishment.)
  • I'm not sure at what point Finn meets South African Betty Botha, but it's lust at first sight. Outwardly she's blonde and bubbly, with many other personality traits that make her endearing.  However, eventually conversations turn to certain topics, and the bigoted opinions she shares with a fraction of her 1980s countrypeople make themselves known.  Actually, Betty is the result of my trying to understand the lyrics of a song by the Housemartins called Johannesburg.
  • I was toying with the idea of Finn's uncle (his father's brother) being an Apollo astronaut.  The old family story was that the uncle hated the idea that the only non-astronaut's name to be left on the Moon for posterity was that of the despised Tricky One.  So he smuggled up something else -- maybe some immortal words of Hunter Thompson or Ken Kesey?  I never decided.  However, Finn's experience of the uncle was always filtered through the bitter lens of his father, who was the brother who always worked harder and never got the rewards.
Upon looking at the sheer number of cliches in the above list, I realize that a builder of realistic characters I'm not.  :-)  My high-minded goal with this book was to reconstruct and present a new mythology for a new, god-free world.  Yes, I was full of Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Bertrand Russell, and Neil Peart's early lyrics, and was convinced that the only good god was a dead one.  I'm certainly not that twentysomething any more, but I still do think a healthy D.I.Y. approach to spirituality is what's called for.  I'm still hard at work reconstructing, is what I'm saying.

I admit that I never worked out Finn's final scenes in Greece.  After all the adventures and heartbreak, I imagined a "rock bottom" which at some point would drift into the surreal and hallucinogenic.  A temptation in the desert, complete with a dragon or lion (like St. Jerome -- or Eustace Scrubb)?  Maybe the astronaut makes an appearance?  Some unfinished part of Tara's philosophy gets cleared up, surely.  There's definitely a deep connection to the distant past, via the ancient Greek text that I probably spent 80% of my time thinking about, despite it being a small part of this whole story.

Which probably sets things up for the next False Start Friday.  In a week, I hope to talk about this putative lost work of Aeschylus, and just maybe post the epic-poem verse that I toyed with that started it off...  :-)

My Theothany notes are dated between 1987 and 1991.  In 1992, I started graduate school in earnest and also realized that if I ever wanted to really write a novel, I'd have to put in thousands of more hours honing that very specific craft.  Many other aspects of life got in the way of that, but I'm happy to have spent the time thinking and dreaming about this particular little world and its denizens.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Frankenstorm Miscellany

How many random items make a post again?

  • Release the Kraken!  We're bracing for Hurricane Sandy here on the east coast of the US.  Cygnus Central is hundreds of miles away from the projected path, but we're expected to get lots of rain, 30-40 mph wind gusts, and possibly power outages.  In doing some searching for the above image, I also found an old-school RPG discussion of treating a Maelstrom as a "monster" rather than a mere environmental event.  It certainly feels like a determined foe right now!
  • I reviewed a book by John Calvin Batchelor a few months ago on the blog.  More random internet hopping tonight revealed that I could listen to him live, right now, on the radio if I wanted to.  (He's now a talk-show host.)  Politics aside, I'm not sure if I want to listen, just because that book means so much to me and I worry about ruining it...
  • I'm still pondering the Right Stuff RPG and slowly building lists and forked trees of missions and events.  Slow going because of teaching and other things.
I've also been saving up some of the oddest of the odd search terms that I've found in my Blogger traffic sources.  If anyone reading this got here by way of one of these terms, more power to ya!  (But I can't resist riffing on them...)
  • "Foundation trilogy cartoon:"  If only Max Fleischer had done that!
  • "Skeeball wizard:"  Kevin Smith is doing a remake of the Who's rock opera.
  • "I Ching sword:"  New magic item for Oriental Adventures!
  • "Bardic grade:"  I just see a medieval Simon Cowell making snarky remarks about minstrels in a tavern.
  • "Veve 3D:"  Heck, I'm scared of them in 2D!
  • "American gesture connected with nose:"  So, why do they call you Booger, anyway?  (Revenge of the Nerds reference)
  • "Avatar airbender p*rn:"  Why, Rule 34, why?
  • "Enochian miniatures:"  Pew pew!  A 28mm Edward Kelley just destroyed John Dee's obsidian mirror!
Be safe, fellow east coasters!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Timey Wimey Blendsday

We've been really enjoying the exploits of the 11th Doctor lately.

Artist: James Hance
I loved the classic exploits of the 4th Doctor back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I caught one or two adventures of the 7th (Pex Lives!), but it wasn't until this year that my lovely wife got me back into the Whovian fandom with the 11th.  Now we're eagerly awaiting what will happen on the fields of Trenzelor -- and whether we'll see Oswin again at Christmas time!

There have been several Doctor Who board games and RPGs, and I'm currently having a look at an old one that is freely available for download.  The most modern one looks pretty interesting, too, but I don't know if I'll ever plunk down the cash for it.  I don't think I've ever actually played a "licensed-property RPG" -- other than Star Fleet Battles, which isn't an RPG -- but I have bought some supplements in the past, since they often contain so much extra world-immersing detail!  :-)

More picturey wicturey fun is below...

Artist: Bill Mudron
Artist: Misskari

 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Am I a Pythagorean?

A few interesting threads have come together for me lately, and they all seem to have something to do with music.  I don't play an instrument, but I've made no secret of my love of the interesting aspects of musical harmonies (especially as related to the Glass Bead Game).  My long-time devotion to math-rock gods Rush is also on record.  :-)

I also have an on-again, off-again fascination with astrology and its metaphorical links both with psychology and with numbers and harmonies.

Then, just over the past few days, I've heard random songs on the radio that all seem to be telling me that music is Something Important...  There's been Frank Turner telling me that something as simple as rock and roll will save us all.  Then Triumph saying that music has the magic power to bring us closer to our dreams.  Then, my man, Stevie, cluing us in how music is a world within itself; a language we all understand.

Then!  Fellow blogger Suze chimes in, weaving a musical creation myth to explain the trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit.  (I couldn't resist commenting on the similarity to Tolkien's Music of the Ainur...)

There's definitely something in sound that strums us where we live.  Is it such a leap to connect it with spirituality?

Of course, music has always played a big part in communal worship.  True prog geeks (like ol' Johann Sebastian) have known how to make the most uplifting use of harmonies for a long time!  But for some reason I'm thinking further than just the "use" of music.  The actual worship OF music?  No, that's not quite it.  The deification of Harmony as an abstract concept?  Not really that, either.  I'm not actually sure where it's pointing me, but I will be reading more about the Pythagoreans, who seem to have trod this path before.

I thought for a while about whether or not to write this up on the blog.  I haven't made any concrete breakthroughs, nor had any truly NEW insights (yet?).  And, I worried, how relevant will it be to my true-blue D&D gamer readership out there?

Then I remembered that the Pythagoreans had quite the affinity for the Platonic solids...

These ARE the gods... of the player characters, anyway!
Relevant enough for me! 

And I still believe (I still believe) in the sound, 
That has the power to raise a temple and tear it down.
And I still believe (I still believe) in the need,
For guitars and drums and desperate poetry.
And I still believe (I still believe) that everyone,
Can find a song for every time they've lost and every time they've won.
So just remember folks we not just saving lives, we're saving souls,
And we're having fun.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Superdome

No real post today; just a neat picture I snapped the other day.  I got to visit a really cool place this week...


"I don't always give a talk underneath a 120-foot tall buckyball, but when I do, I drink Dos Equis..."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dude, where's my L5 colony?

(Insert standard blogger apology for not posting more frequently... my teaching this semester is rewarding, but it's taking up a huge chunk of time.)

In the last post I began outlining a new game concept where players take on the roles of 1960s astronauts.  We follow both the missions and the personal lives of our intrepid sky pilots, and each success helps them "improve" in various ways.  They can spend their down time honing their technical skills, or they can choose to do things that may benefit them in other ways (who wants to go on Johnny Carson?).

But if one turn is one year, then players would reach the end of the Apollo period pretty quickly. We all know that things slowed down a bit after 1972.

What if they didn't?

In the comments on the last post, Porky predicted that this game could shift into alternate futures quite easily.  Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was entranced by the grand goals of the L5 Society...


In the last post I threw out the phrase "engineering positivism" about the gung-ho early NASA period. That was nothing in comparison to the L5 peoples' attitude!  They were planning for the evolution of humanity into a fully spacefaring, space-living race.  I'm overjoyed that their full collection of L5 News PDF files is online... I'm going to read a bunch of them as inspiration for where I'd like to go with the game.

(There's a lot one could say about the sense of disappointment felt by many that these imagined futures didn't come to pass.  That's a whole 'nother post in itself.  I feel it to some degree myself, but I also cringe when I hear people say, even in jest, things like "I was promised a flying car! Where's my flying car?"  Come on... does this really look like a societal contract to anyone?)  :-)

For the game, I'm leaning in the direction of having the players choose from a set of several possible "Event packages."  (I could call them "decks" if I was settled on the use of cards, or "tables" if I was sure the players would all be familiar with D&D-style lookup charts... we'll see!)  These events will contain the possible space missions -- and their progressions and prerequisites -- as well as the "worldly" events that may occur randomly.  I'd also like to include guidelines for players to make up their own packages.  I'm hoping these will get rid of the need for a human "Game Master" (GM) and allow everyone at the table to actually play a character.

Some sets of events will be more "out there" than others.  As I work on these packages, I'll certainly start by emulating history and tracking some of the "retro-future" paths not taken.  But there's nothing stopping the game from containing increasingly sci-fi-ish elements such as alien first contact, self-aware AIs, terraforming Mars, and having to save the Earth from being hit by an asteroid.  It's a cliche, but the sky is the limit!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Right Stuff RPG

A few months ago, I made a cryptic post about a new game idea I was starting to develop.  I didn't give any real details, since I wanted to give it some time to gel before releasing it into the world.  I admit that I still haven't done a huge amount of work on this thing, but I had a change of heart about discussing it.  I'm hoping that working through my ideas on the blog will be more helpful for (a) prodding me to accomplish some real work on it, and (b) improving it via either external feedback or my own process of just writing it down.  :-)

So, you've seen the working title above.  The idea is to have players play the roles of test pilots and astronauts at the dawn of the space age.

You know the 7, but do you know the 13 ?
There are other games with semi-related themes, but I haven't seen one that focuses on the test pilot culture, the friendly rivalries, and the overall sense of "We Can Do It" engineering positivism that Tom Wolfe famously wrote about.  (Of course, The Right Stuff is a copyrighted property, and my game will have a different name and will be based purely on our common public history and my own extrapolations!)

All of the games that I've seen that attempt to evoke or simulate this period of history focus mainly on the "Space Race" aspect -- i.e., one player is the Americans, another is the Russians, and they compete to see who can get to the Moon first, or whatever.  Fritz Bonner's Liftoff is one example.  Prolific DIY game designer Lloyd Krassner has another.

The overall idea, as it stands right now, is that each "turn" of the game will correspond to a time period of something like one year.  The big events are the space missions, of course -- which can go well or badly, depending on the roll of the dice.  But the astronauts can attempt to do other things in their "down time" to improve their lot, too -- training, publicity, research, and so on.  Semi-random "events" can happen to them in each year: some personal (divorce? broken leg while water skiing off Cocoa Beach?), and some worldly (what did those Russians just do?).

I'm still not clear on how the game is won.  Maybe there should be multiple options.  A clearly defined "victory condition" would be nice for a version that could be played out in just an hour or two -- a casual party game.  But I'd also like to enable people to be able to role-play an open ended long-term RPG-type campaign.  (I'm in awe of what Greg Stafford has done with the Great Pendragon Campaign, for example.)  To play John Glenn first going into space in 1962, then again in 1998, could be quite an experience!

Anyway, in future posts I hope to discuss more of the details that have been swirling around my brain about this game.  The next post, for example, will describe how this game may just be something MORE than nostalgic historical simulation...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why are we here, part deux

Okay, maybe not why, but more like when.

Earlier I splurged out some thoughts on some possible ways the Sun and Moon may have teamed up to help get life started in the tidal pools of young Earth.  But that's a separate issue from why WE are here -- we humans, who come pre-packaged (these days) with all this culture stuff piled up around us.


And we can also wonder "why now?"  There have been true homo sapiens walking around for something like 250,000 years, pretty much identical to us in terms of anatomy and brain size.  The Neolithic revolution could have happened at any time, but it waited until about 10,000-12,000 years ago. Agriculture, animal domestication, and the development of towns and cities took off like a rocket.  Other things like writing and commerce came not too long after.

It's probable that the end of the last ice age had something to do with it.  With more opportunities for movement and resettlement, formerly isolated peoples may have found new ways to interact with one another and share their cultural developments at a faster pace.

Or maybe the aliens came down to teach us?

No, I'm not really going there.  But I do want to bring up a kinda-sorta related idea proposed in the 1970s by archaeologist George Michanowsky.  He made note of the fact that there was a very bright supernova that exploded in the southern sky approximately 11,000 years ago.  It would have been much brighter than the planet Venus -- maybe almost as bright as the Moon -- and it would have shone for several weeks before fading.  There's no doubt that it would have been a shocker to ancient peoples.  Michanowsky wrote a book that described various ancient inscriptions that may be dim memories of people observing this event.

Michanowsky was also a bit of a mythmaker...
"The psychological and possibly environmental impact of the Vela starburst triggered a development in their culture that, in a short time span, made them something entirely different from what they had been before. For better or worse, humanity had thus quite suddenly bitten into the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge."

"My research indicates that this heavenly event became the source of the creation myths, the cosmological concepts, and the cultural traditions of much of our civilization."
Too far?  Maybe.  But it's still fun to think about, and a nice reminder that we're not isolated from what goes on out there in this huge, awe-some (literally!) universe.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bring the balance back

I suppose I don't have a HUGE amount of additional thoughts about clerics after getting that last post out of my system.  I've just always been a bit bothered by how they're often constrained to never stray far from their assumed supporting role to the rest of the party.  The 4th edition of D&D annoyingly codified official Roles for party members (Leader, Striker, Defender, etc.) to set these ideas in stone, but there's nothing new about calling for the ol' "medic:"

Click on image for bigger J. D. Webster goodness
Maybe it's the lack of easy-to-identify genre characters for fighting holy men.  Friar Tuck?  Non-magical.  Van Helsing?  He channeled powers from above, but he wasn't a "fighting priest."  Archbishop Turpin from the Song of Roland?  Maybe the closest match, but how many gamers (sad to say) even know about him?  :-(   So what was left for people to do but build the narrative trope around their most talked-about role as dispenser of the healing spells?

But come on... these are guys who channel the powers of their gods to do wondrous deeds in the world.  I think they need to interact more with that unseen world that swirls around them...

The sky is filled with good and bad that mortals never know.
Oh well, the night is long; the beads of time pass slow.
Tired eyes on the sunrise, waiting for the eastern glow.
The pain of war can not exceed the woe of aftermath,
The drums will shake the castle wall,
The ring wraiths ride in black... Ride on.

This was my motivation for Sister Rebecca's spiritual warfare.  Maybe it's something that all clerics should face as they test themselves for level advancement.  (Luke Skywalker seeing his own face in the cave on Dagobah.)  Maybe it's what DMs should make happen when clerics violate their alignment or codes of conduct.  I'm curious what kind of more psychological and introspective game that might produce.  If anyone knows of supplementary RPG resources that take clerics further in this general direction, I'd be curious to know about them.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sister Rebecca's Confession

Found on a yellowed piece of parchment in an old bottle...

Dear Father Confessor,

I pen these words to you with little hope you will ever read them. I fear I have sinned most grievously against our most Holy Creeds.  When you gave me your benediction to leave the cloister in the company of such gallant and jovial adventurers as Ironwolf and Dougal, I fear you did not see into their hearts as I now have.

Our first weeks in the wilderness were full of merriment and song.  Even the taunts of the crude soldiers at the Keep were of no worry.  A swing or two of the blessed "thurible," in which you had made sure I was so adept, silenced several a stray cat call, let me tell you!

But as we approached those horrible caves, truly a home of chaos as they are named, the true natures of my companions seemed to rise to the fore.  The talk of gold and gems -- and how they would be spent in the looser quarters of the Town -- became more prevalent.  Less so the cause of our quest:  the stopping of the raids by those horrible creatures on the innocent farmers of the valley.

Our first sight of one of those creatures, a shriveled one called kobold  by Silverleaf, sent them into a frenzy.  I am ashamed to admit to being whipped up by some of that aggressive talk, because I was with them, arm to arm, when we attacked.  We hacked, we pounded, we stomped.  As we chased some of them into the mouth of the cave, Dougal went off into a side cavern where I heard what sounded like the wailing of babes.

When Dougal emerged, smoke billowed behind him.

I kept telling myself that these foul creatures were the Spawn of the Adversary, impossibly corrupted and wholly exempt from mercy.  When Dougal died, I earnestly gave him the Rites and commended his soul to the High One because of his brave actions.

Later, much later, at the campfire, as Frederick and Ironwolf argued over the disposition of some bauble, the talk turned back to the Keep.  Over and over again, they talked of the weaknesses in the soldiers' defense, the sheen of the new weapons they carried, and the unfairly gathered tax money stored in their coffers.  I held my tongue and offered Hands and Balms to their wounds.

My sleep that night was fitful.  After my turn at the watch, I settled into a deeper slumber.  My dreams began in the caves -- as they have every night since -- but on that night there were no beasts.  Only one fiery form, tall and thin, with the brightest flames covering the face.  From time to time I thought I could see a piece of armor or clothing that resembled that of one or other of my companions.  It walked towards me and drew a bright sword.

I swung at this demonic visage with my mace, but it passed through as if my opponent was made of the wind.  Panicked, I dropped the mace and, as you know is my habit in times of trouble, clutched at the Holy Symbol of the High One around my neck.  The cross came off its chain and was tightly gripped by my right hand.  I was astounded to see that the cross became a hilt, and a long blade of light, even brighter than my opponent's, grew out out of it.  I did not even need to swing or thrust, since its shining light made the fiery person (man? woman? I still know not) recoil and speed away in terror.

I awoke, knowing exactly what I needed to do.  I still do not know whether it was a dream or a true encounter with one from the realms of the inner world.  May it have been a test of the High One... or possibly a temptation from the Adversary?  No matter.  I am strengthened.  I am resolved.  I am... experienced.

I now must stop my careful scratching, as this, my last piece of parchment, is full, and my hastily gathered quill (apologies, good goose!) is wearing thin.  Be not alarmed by these scarlet words, since I had no other ink than mine own.  The bloodletting has not weakened me, since I am uplifted by the High One and by the hope that my path away from those mercenaries has been well hidden.  I took no treasure but this bottle in which you find this confession of a sinner, now hopefully redeemed by fire.  I pray to arrive back at the cloister by the next full moon.

Yours,

Sister Rebecca

(Inspired by this, and by some recent thoughts on ways to make the CLERIC class more interesting... specifics to come eventually.  Suffice to say, Rebecca didn't need formal training to level up, did she?)  :-)


Monday, August 20, 2012

Leveling up with Kundalini

You can't go far on the internet without seeing ads for geeky T-shirts.  This one caught my eye the other day -- a super silly mash-up of the Hindu chakras with D&D polyhedral dice.  People familiar with the seven chakras will immediately realize that one's missing here (if you ignore the D&D logo at the bottom).  Old-school role-players will recognize that they should have included the momentous 30-sided die to complete the set.

I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I was first exposed to chakras via the 1988 PBS TV series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.  Although that show was slammed, fairly I think, for reasons of superficiality, new-agey-ness, and George Lucas worship, it was still the thing that broke me out of my ultra-materialist and atheist shell as a college student. Just being able to see that there were other spiritual traditions that didn't have the flaws that I perceived with the faith of my upbringing was liberating.  (I didn't end up converting to Hinduism or anything, but the chakras have stayed with me because they're a very useful "filing system" for our inner worlds.)

Nowadays, many people may have been introduced to the chakras via Avatar: The Last Airbender.  (Not just a show for kids!)  Aang was mentored through a process of chakra awakening in the episode "The Guru," and someone collected the relevant clips into a tidy 11:28 here.  I'm nearly certain that the writers used a popular book that attempted to reframe the concept for a Western audience -- to great effect, in my opinion.

But does this have anything to do with D&D?  I originally thought to correspond the chakras to the primary attributes (strength, intelligence, and so on) that one determines when first creating a character.  I don't think that works too well, and it also has the problem that one doesn't necessarily want "excesses" (high values) for the attributes of their chakras.  In D&D language, having all bog-standard 10's would be a much more balanced and beneficial state than having one glaring score of 18/00 calling attention to itself so loudly!  :-)

The chakras are things people think about when they ponder their lives and their goals. So what better to correspond them with than the different ways that RPG characters gain experience in the lives we imagine for them?
  1. The first chakra, at the base of the spine, governs the basic survival instinct:  eating, shelter, and other absolute necessities.  It's no coincidence, then, that the original version of the game awarded most of its experience points (XP) for the TREASURE gained by the players.  In a game where the actual eating, sleeping, and other biological realities were often hand-waved as uninteresting to role-play, those coveted gold pieces became the most basic way of keeping track of one's needs and wants.
  2. The second chakra corresponds to the genitals and that other most basic need that calls out to be met after one has eaten and found shelter.  More generally, it deals with pleasure and its flip side, guilt.  So what better form of XP award to discuss than Jeff Rients' infamous rules for CAROUSING once the adventure is done?  This is one of the most fun things the old-school renaissance has given the world, I think, as well as being a natural extension to the idea of "gaining experience."
  3. The third chakra sits near the solar plexus and deals with the need to have power over one's environment -- to project one's will in the world.  This, of course, is where XP awards for DEFEATING FOES comes into play.  Traditionally, one calls it XP for "killing monsters," but most GMs take a broader approach.  Winning the day by subterfuge against purely human foes often counts just as much as hewing away at goblins...
  4. Next, at the level of the heart, is the fourth chakra, which deals with love and relationships.  (The needs are ascending in a similar way as Maslow's hierarchy.)  We've now run out of the oldest of the old-school ways to award XP, but one that's been often added is the idea of gaining experience for FULFILLING QUESTS, which usually involves deciding to help others and become useful members of a community.  Other games, like Pendragon, have explicit rules and goals for the courtly wooing of fair maidens, as well.  :-)
  5. Movin' on up, there's the fifth chakra at the level of the throat.  Here's the site of intellect and communication.  The guru on Avatar said it's purpose is truth, and it is blocked by lies.  In role-playing games, the goal of many adventurers is to spread the word of one's exploits far and wide.  I'm not sure if many GMs award XP for gaining FAME (or its flip side, INFAMY), but it's certainly a milestone when peasants from leagues away can recite the bardic songs about you that have spread through the countryside.
  6. Next comes the sixth chakra at the "third eye" position on the forehead.  This is the domain of finding one's unique place in the world.  It governs the use of insight and wisdom to combat illusions and grow as a person.  I wonder if here, the goals of the character start to give way to the goals of the player.  Usually RPG characters don't have such a rich inner life, but I wonder if it would be rewarding to play that out "at the table," too.  Of course, another way to go here is to talk about what happens when powerful characters can "find their place in the world" by establishing their own kingdoms!  This type of DOMAIN-LEVEL play has its own challenges that make it essentially a different game than grubbing around dungeons for loot.  Some new iterations of the game are known for focusing on it.
  7. Can we go even further?  The seventh chakra is the "thousand-petaled lotus" at the crown of the head, and it deals with ultimate spiritual transcendence.  Believe it or not, but at least one version of D&D went there -- by codifying APOTHEOSIS in the Immortals boxed set, and prodding on new godlings to wider vistas of adventure in the outer planes of existence.
Now that I'm at the end of my list, I'm doubtful that there's much practical, "game-able" content in here.  I'd love to hear if anyone finds ways to apply these ideas to their games, though!

FYI:  Blogging may be light for the next month or three.  I'm starting to teach a university course after Labor Day.  Very time-intensive, but hopefully very rewarding... on many chakra levels!?  :-)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Some Blendsday, girl, I don't know when...

I can't remember if I did a Muppets mashup already.  The other funny one I found was Star Trek themed (search for "Gorn in the USA").

Although I'm not the most devoted or knowledgeable fan of The Boss, I do love the earnestness and poetic detail in the dude's early (pre-1982-ish) songwriting.  I also feel somewhat obligated to know what he's all about, since he grew up about a half-dozen miles from where I grew up in central New Jersey.  7.3 miles, to be precise.  (Thanks, Google Maps!) The mother of one of my best friends went to high school with him in Freehold, NJ.

People who live in NJ are sometimes conflicted that a favorite son so often sung about GETTING OUT.  As someone who got out, I'm not that conflicted.  :-)

However, this weekend, I am taking the boy to the land of hemi-drones and giant Exxon signs.  To prepare myself for the mythic environment, I plopped a few virtual pushpins onto a map of the area where fans have realized that Bruce was singing about real, specific locations.  We will be exploring the inside of the following crooked pentagram, letting the ley line energy flow over us...

Click for bigger; this article will help you add even more points.