Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blendsday: A New Feature?

I've made a couple of recent posts on "Glass Bead Pairings" (here and here): interesting comparisons, contrasts, and juxtapositions of little sets of cool ideas, reminiscent of individual "moves" of a Glass Bead Game.  I thought I'd try to formalize this into a weekly feature.  Bad punster that I am, Blendsday was born!  (I refuse to Google it to see how unoriginal that term probably is...)

Although I've got some vague ideas for other juxtapositions to talk about, I thought I'd just start by showing some cool/geeky "visual mashups" that I've found from across the webz.  Many of these can be clever, but lots of them verge on the mediocre.  I've found roughly a half dozen that I'd call the best.  My rock-solid selection criterion was that it HAD to elicit a real, audible laugh (or at least snort) when I first saw it!  After these are exhausted, we'll see about other directions in which this feature can go...

Without further ado, here's something from artist Dave Filoni (which was originally featured here):

You'd have to be a fan of both Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars to get the brilliance of it, of course!  There's a bit of awkwardness in that Luke and his mother are portrayed by the main two romantic leads on A:TLA... but other than that, it's really quite on-the-nose.  Iroh/Yoda is what prompted my muffled snort!  :-)

Monday, May 28, 2012

5e: If you can't say something nice...

Like dozens (hundreds?) of like-minded old-school gaming bloggers, I took the plunge and signed up for the open playtest for "D&D Next."  Back in January, I registered my skepticism about how difficult the designers' concept for an "edition to rule them all" would be to make work in practice.

And, even though I have some negative criticisms to level against the game, I admit to being pleasantly surprised by the overall feel of the playtest rules.  So, in the hopes that WotC will be scouring the blogs for people who ac-cen-tu-ate the positive, let me offer some feedback of that kind first...
  • The system is quite stripped down and basic, rules-wise.  I can definitely see how these rules would quickly "get out of the way" and let role-playing happen.  Rob Conley got the vibe that this is retro-clone-like, and I think I agree.  I can imagine that the designers did much the same thing that I did when working on my own thing -- i.e., dig around for the best of what the OSR had to offer and assemble it together around a basic central system.  I'm just hoping they can resist the urge to pile on the bells and whistles (long lists of skills, feats, and creeping bonuses) in the final core rules.  Relegate that stuff to supplements, please!
  • The 2 pages on Social Interactions in the DM's Guidelines were a thing of beauty.  Not only did they give clear options for different styles for both DMs and players (speaking in character, talking out encounters vs. rolling, etc.), but it gave what I think is a nice example of how elegant the d20 "core mechanic" can be: When approaching an NPC to bluff or convince, use that NPC's wisdom or charisma score as the Difficulty Class.  That brings the "scaling" of DCs home for me in a new and intuitive way. Maybe this is an idea as old as 3e, but it's the first time I've seen it.
  • I wasn't the only one to be happy to see the deadly sandboxitude of the Caves of Chaos.  The fact that it has wandering monsters is surely making some heads explode amongst die-hard 4e fans.  The introduction even made an explicit contrast between the sandbox approach and the carefully scaled and balanced nature of 3e and 4e adventures!
  • Magic-users get cantrips.  Clerics get ORISONS.  That's a nice little shout-out to the medieval source concept (from Archbishop Turpin to Friar Tuck), there.
These are just first impressions, and I'll edit if I think of others.  The negative comments?  They're coming... don't worry, they're coming...  :-)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Congrats to SpaceX

Early this morning was the first launch of a rocket developed and built by a private company, Elon Musk's SpaceX, that hopefully will dock with the International Space Station in a few days.  I normally don't do "news" like this on my blog, but I think this event is rather portentous.  It's awesome to see private citizens taking the lead in moving us down the path to becoming a spacefaring people!

You can find photos of the launch online... Instead, I wanted to share a cool infographic that conveys a lot more about the spacecraft itself... (from here and here):

Click for bigger version
Okay, I admit that I liked this one because it also includes an outline of another company's future spacecraft, with a name close to my heart...  :-)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A cessation of stupidity?

"Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected."
"Creativity is the greatest expression of liberty." 
"Creativity is the sudden cessation of stupidity."

My post's title comes from the third quote, but my thinking about creativity often meanders between all three...

But enough of that, since I am grateful to the wonderful Amanda Heitler for nominating me for the Kreativ Blogger Award!  For such a vaguely German sounding award, I think I must do my best to obey zee rules...

1. Thank and link back to the awarding blog.  Check!

2. Answer the following seven questions:

(a) What's your favorite song?  Everybody seems to avoid this one... or give multiple answers depending on genre... but I don't think it gets any more perfect than Rush's "Closer to the Heart."  (Live extended version, please.)

(b) What's your favorite dessert?  I can still be macho and say "anything with chocolate," right?  Right?

(c) What do you do when you're upset?  Now THAT'S one that varies with the circumstances.  Ample alone time is usually a part of the cure.  There are a couple of books and short stories that I dip into to when feeling out of control.  I've written a FAQ about one of them... maybe I'll review one or more of the others on the blog...

(d) Which is your favorite pet?  I'm with Data.

(e) Which do you prefer? Black or White?  Although I'm tempted to buck the question and go with shades of gray, or the whole visible spectrum, or a 256-entry chromo-palette, there are some days when I'm with Steve Ditko...

(f) What is your biggest fear?  Too many days when I'm with Steve Ditko.

(g) What is your attitude mostly?  Is INTJ an attitude? 

3. Provide ten random factoids about yourself:

Oh, glob, weren't the 7 questions enough?  :-)  Maybe in another post.

4. Last but not at all least, hand this on to seven deserving others:

I hate to be such a rebel, but right now I can only come up with four...
  1. Fr. Dave over at Blood of Prokopius always has some fascinating things to say about the crossover between RPGs and religion.
  2. I may not always understand what Porky is talking about, but I always enjoy my visits to his pink-snouted domain.
  3. The "Catacomb Librarian" at Mesmerized by Sirens blogs about the lesser known cousins of classic old-school RPGs.  His intended audience may be small, but his opinions are big and bold!
  4. Anathemata over at the d20 Dialectic blog is self-described as "a gamer and a thinker, a writer and a dreamer."  Good enough for me!
I think I'll just list them here and not contact them.  If you like 'em, feel free to let them know where you heard of them, but it feels weird for me to reach out to people that I haven't communicated with that much to begin with.  (In 2 of the 4 cases, I don't even think I've ever commented on their blogs...)  INTJ, people!

Thanks again, Amanda!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Too many choices?

Apologies in advance for a post that's a bit of a rant, but I do think there are ideas here that link the RPG and GBG worlds in interesting ways...

A topic that has reared its head a few times in the old-school role-playing community is a worry that there may be TOO MANY versions of Ye Olde Game floating around.  Everybody has their own favorite tweaks and house-rules, and many people have packaged these into stand-alone rule-sets.  The worries that I've seen include questions like "Are the newest versions really contributing anything new and original?" and "How many retro-clones can the market support?" and "How can a newcomer ever decide which one to choose?"  (I've paraphrased these from comments in Tim's recent post on this topic, but they've been seen before...)

I admit to getting a little frustrated when I see these, but I can't rule out that part of that comes from the fact that I haven't yet published my own version!  In other words, part of me wants to scream "Hey! Don't stop gobbling these things up until mine is on the menu!"  :-)

Still, I think there's an even bigger part of me that's objecting to the idea that too many choices is a bad thing.  A few weeks ago, I heard some discussion on the radio about the latest in a series of "scientific" studies of choice paralysis.  Oh noes, they say, look at all of those breakfast cereals that have the gall to fill up an entire aisle in the supermarket!  How will we eeeever choose?

Sarcasm aside, I don't ever hear that argument applied to things that people think of as inherently worthwhile.  "Oh no, look at all those books on the library shelves!  Someone should start limiting my choices so I'm not so confused!"

Hmm, I did say "Sarcasm aside," didn't I?  I do think that there's a variable that people are leaving out when discussing this issue:  That's the amount of knowledge that a person has about the topic.  One person's blurry morass of choices is another person's crystal-clear selection of well-known options.  (An example: To me, the wine aisle at the market is a scary, confusing place... but my wife goes in there and has a good old time selecting and exploring.)  Being the person I am, I started sketching out a 2D grid of possibilities, and it resulted in the following Choice-o-gram...

Click to enlarge, but you're not that bored, are you?

I think a case can be made that "Analysis paralysis" only occurs when one is not that knowledgeable about the ins and outs of a given range of choices.  The other extreme end of the spectrum is when the expert is confronted with too FEW choices, which can be a dull and boring experience.  The sweet spot in the middle slides around, depending on one's knowledge.

After I sketched out the above grid, I realized that I had seen it before in another guise:

Duh!  Combat in old-school RPGs works this way, too.  The range of situations in which one is healthily challenged (i.e., the fight is neither impossibly futile nor laughably easy) is a sliding scale that depends on your experience and skill.

Now, I should be clear that I'm not intending to tar anyone with this brush...  If you believe there are too many old-school retro-games out there, I don't mean to imply that you're "not knowledgeable" about these options!  There are plenty of reasons in heaven and earth, Horatio, why you may consider yourself done with new RPGs.  Curmudgeon that I am, I'm sure I'll hit that point myself some day!  :-)

Before I sign off this too-long post, I did want to mention Glass Bead Games, too.  There ARE potential "dark sides" to the quest for endless associations between ideas.  Hesse's novel warned of the dessicating effects of too much academic detachment. However, a more relevant warning here (i.e., related to choice overload) was articulated by Ron Hale-Evans in an article about his own bout with mental illness.  Sometimes the brain gets itself into a state where it seeks out connections between anything and everything, in an uncontrolled, chaotic way.  That's almost a definition of schizophrenia, but I think it can easily happen in someone with "normal" brain chemistry, too.  It's up to us to retain our balance, avoid overload, and maintain that sweet spot so we're up for the challenging choices the world throws at us...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Glass Bead Pairings: Fire and Ice

My previous Glass Bead Game related post left some frayed loose ends in my brain, so... anal-retentive chef that I am, I've got to tie them up...  :-)

In Renaissance magic and occultism, the potent Star of David hexagram symbol was believed to be made up of two specific kinds of triangle:  the upward pointed red triangle of FIRE, and the downward pointed blue triangle of WATER.  The individual triangles are the standard alchemical symbols for these elements, and they make a lot of sense: flames are ever arching upward, and water is always on a downward trajectory, seeking its lowest level.  The combined hexagram is thus a symbol of balance and stability.

Fast forward to 1912. Leave it to Aleister Crowley, the Howard Stern of his day, to throw a monkey wrench into that nice state of repose.  In his Book of Lies (Falsely So Called), he suggested a switch of roles between the two triangles:
This is the Holy Hexagram.
Plunge from the height, O God, and interlock with Man!
Plunge from the height, O Man, and interlock with Beast!
The Red Triangle is the descending tongue of grace; the Blue Triangle is the ascending tongue of prayer.
Aha, now the down-pointing fire triangle alludes to the descending flames of Pentecost. (Remember T. S. Eliot's dove descending?)  The other triangle now points our gaze, along with our prayers, toward the blue heavens above (in which one find the lark ascending!).  Rather than just sitting there in boring, static harmony, the two triangles are now reaching... arching... but never... quite... getting there.  Is this a dynamic equilibrium, or is it inherently unstable?  :-)

Crowley also hid some suggestive double entendre in the rest of that passage (it was in Chapter 69... nuff said), but where this set of ideas took me was back to music.  See, there's a matched set of red and blue (coupled with some, um, thunderous emotion) here, too...

I've written a lot about prog-rock gods Rush.  Their 1984 album Grace Under Pressure wasn't quite a full-on symphonic theme album like some of their earlier ones, but it did have an interesting thread running through it:  Each song mentions the color RED at least once.  Despite the cold, icy sound to the music, the lyrics to all of the songs are certainly red-hot with a range of feelings.  Anger, grief, and fear are all represented, along with exuberance and joy.

Flashing back to 1977, there's also Electric Light Orchestra's double album Out of the Blue.  Can you guess what color is mentioned in every song?  I'm not enough of an ELO fan to be familiar with even the majority of the songs on this album, but I've always loved Jeff Lynne's frequent use of the contrast between the blue sky of day and the black sky of night.  "Mr. Blue Sky" on this album invokes it, as does "Telephone Line" from the previous album.  They're both upward pointing, prayer-like entreaties, in a way.

Where else can we go with this?  The day/night contrast could be brought back to Crowley, who symbolized a state of quiet, star-lit spiritual evolution called NOX that is supposed to go far beyond the gaudy, bedazzled enlightenment of LVX.  Or you could take a left turn back to Canada and listen to Neil Young's haunting "Out of the Blue / Into the Black."  The fun of the Glass Bead Game is that the ideas and associations never end...

Friday, May 4, 2012

The King as Cap

Over on Grognardia, I posted a comment on a recent post that showed a cool picture of sci-fi author E. E. "Doc" Smith dressed up as C. L. Moore's swashbuckling character "Northwest Smith."  I noted that it reminded me of a picture I saw of famed comic artist Jack Kirby aggressively brandishing a Captain America shield.  It takes "cosplay" to a whole 'nother level when a creator steps into the shoes of his or her own creation!

I couldn't find a link to the picture, but I did know I'd saved a copy... so here it be, true believers:

Boy does he look like one of his own characters there... maybe Mister Miracle's diminutive manager Oberon?

I wonder if his simmering look of righteous indignation has been on people's minds lately, since the recent Avengers movie has again raised the issue of how Jolly Jack was treated by Marvel Comics back in the day.  Comics creators in general usually didn't get to own the rights to their characters and often had to take legal action to even get back a fraction of their original art.  I'm not up on the current state of affairs with the Kirby estate, but I do hope his family will be reaping at least some of what the movie will make over the next few weeks...

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Glass Bead Pairings: Analog Man

I'm not sure if this will become a multi-post series or not, but I discovered something today that would be an interesting single "move" in a Glass Bead Game.  (See here if you're not sure what GBGs are all about.)

My old GBG mentor, Charles Cameron, often focused on interesting "pairings" of ideas that contained a chiaroscuro of similarities and differences. A favorite example was to compare the lush musical work The Lark Ascending, by Vaughan Williams, with a fiery excerpt from T. S. Eliot's poem Little Gidding, which begins with "The Dove Descending..."  Charles described the almost mystical attempt to perceive both items being juxtaposed and merging them (in one's mind's eye) into a unique third thing.

In 1982, the Canadian rock band Rush put out an album with two songs on it that were kind of juxtaposable in the above way:  The Analog Kid and Digital Man. The first song was a wistful, Romantic reverie about a young person about to leave home and begin to see the wider world.  The second was a more jaded look at an adult who is beginning to have too much of the world, and wants to escape back to reverie.  These two songs were pretty much designed as a matched pair, so it was never a huge challenge to figure out their similarities and differences.

Today, I heard a new song by an old artist that, unintentionally I'm sure, called back to this matched pair from the early 1980s.  Good old Joe Walsh always makes me smile.  His new song is called Analog Man, and it's a fun rebuff to modern-day Internet living...

The whole world's living in a digital dream
it's not really there
it's all on the screen
makes me forget who I am...
I'm an analog man.

It's light and fluffy compared to Rush's densely packed lyrics, but one can find parallels to both songs in Rush's analog/digital pair.  I'm sure it echoes the sentiments of that unnamed adult protagonist of Digital Man, who wants to run away to a Tropic Isle of Avalon...