Saturday, July 28, 2012

Hey there Ralphie boy

Today's not Blendsday, but I thought I'd point out a funny resemblance.  If I had consulted with my pal Google and found that hundreds of other people had noticed it too, I wouldn't bother, but I may be the first...?!?

Like many, I've enjoyed a recent song called "Ho Hey" by the Lumineers (awesome name; video here).  But do you think band member Jeremiah Fraites is going for a specific look, here?   :-)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: Batchelor's Antarctica

This is a review of a novel with a long title by an author with a long name. The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica, published in 1983, was John Calvin Batchelor's second novel.  Batchelor wrote a half dozen other books, then went on to become a radio talk show host.  I've read two other of his novels, and have never heard his show.

I've also read this book more times than I've read any other novel.  I just finished what is either my 6th or 7th time through it.  In many ways, it's a touchstone for me, and I keep coming back because there is still so much I don't fathom about it.  Someday, I'll understand it's depths.

Antarctica, as I'll call the novel from now on, is a strange bird.  It takes place in an imagined future, but it's not sci-fi.  Remembering that it was published in 1983, most of the action spans the 1990s and the early 2000s.  One of the final chapters is titled "Christmas, 2037 AD."  It deals with mass migrations and the collapse of civilizations, but it's wholly about people and not technology.  (I don't think the word "computer" can be found in the novel at all!)

Antarctica is also the story of Grim Fiddle, a young man raised by quirky American expatriates in Stockholm.  Grim grew up playing Viking warrior at the summer camp run by his family, doing odd jobs to make ends meet, and learning a lot about life without ever going to school.  But tensions were brewing in this alternate Sweden... When Grim celebrated his 17th birthday with his family (who were all working in the kitchens at the Nobel Prize Ball), he didn't know that he was on a collision course with not only a cadre of xenophobic demagogues who wanted to cleanse their holy land of foreigners, but also with his father's haunted past and cursed future.  I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Grim and his family soon became intimate with phrases such as "the Age of Exile" and "the Fleet of the Damned."

Many online reviewers balked at the sense of loss and tragedy (often written through the lens of pagan Norse fatalism) in Antarctica.  When a sibyl tells Grim that his destiny is with the cold and the cruel, and that the blackened and hurt half-men await his coming, she's not wrong.  The lows are low, it's true.

Elsewhere online, I've gone on record despising the "tragedy porn" of much of what passes for contemporary literature.  (Is it fair to cite McCourt's Angela's Ashes as a poster child?  Irving's Garp?)  It seems sometimes that a novel can't be considered "serious" without some gash of nihilistic atrocity running through it.  But this, I feel, is fundamentally different from what happens in Antarctica.  Like Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, the bad stuff here is the result of flawed, fatal decisions.  Going through it with the characters is part catharsis, part reminder (this has happened before), and part warning (don't let it happen again).  Through it all, there is earned happiness at the end.

This review is getting long, but I shouldn't neglect to mention the beauty of Batchelor's words.  Maybe that's the siren song that keeps me coming back.  Here's a taste:
I believe that every man and woman, no matter what their station or luck, is granted a right to high dreams. If one exercises such a right, it costs. One pays with heart. That is not a bottomless account. It can be replenished after depletion -- the sun, some good food, a human kindness -- but it can also be exhausted, and after that sort of despair, death has no meaning I can think of. And I insist these high dreams speak every language, come to the very old, the very criminal, the very young.
That last sentence is an example Batchelor's trick of eliminating the penultimate "and" from lists of three, which for some reason still strums me like King David's secret chord.

There are aspects that won't be to everyone's taste.  Batchelor has a habit of naming characters based on punny stereotypes.  Grim's dad, ever the wanderer, is named Peregrine.  As another example, here are two names: Cleopatra Furore and Charity Bentham.  One is a silver-haired, matronly economist.  One is a dark, passionate, and manipulative beauty.  It's not hard to figure out which is which!  :-)

Antarctica is also a discursive novel full of meaty philosophical asides that don't move the plot along. (I like that in a novel... Why spend weeks to months in a universe without that universe being fully fleshed out?)  These asides are often political in nature, but Batchelor has the gift of saying a lot of meaningful things, and speaking a lot of truth, without hitting on the sore spots that would get people on either the left or right to throw the book away in anger.

The novel itself is supposed to be Grim Fiddle's own autobiography, and he writes what he feels like writing.  It ends up feeling kind of like "Moby Dick by Charles Dickens," if you get my drift... From Dickens you get the sometimes cartoonish characters and melodramatic themes of love and revenge; rich versus poor.  From Melville you get those long digressions, the ocean and exile, and some hard-edged religion.

Finally, there's the matter of the ending.  I won't give away too much, but it can seem rushed.  The last 60 pages of this 400 page book do have a more rapid tempo than what came before.  There are also big swaths of major plot squeezed into those pages.  There is an in-story explanation for why this is so, and I'll leave it to readers to decide whether that's convincing or not.  I used to be majorly perplexed by this accelerando of an ending, but I think that's because I often rushed through it myself, in a marathon reading session.  I broke it down into smaller pieces this time, and it made much better sense to me.

I love this novel, and I recommend it highly.  However, it's not a light, summer beach read.  Maybe it's more of a winter solstice read.  :-)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Someone's got a case of the Blendsdays

Words fail.  The following is editing perfection.

Apologies to those who aren't simultaneous fans of this and this.  Will I ruin it by adding mashed up quotes?  I'll risk it...

"There is no stapler."

"Unfortunately, no one can be told what pieces of flair to wear. You have to see it for yourself."

And... well... the phrase "Ne-O face" popped into my mind, but for the life of me I can't figure out how to embed it in a recognizable quote!  :-)

Monday, July 23, 2012

More than meets the eye

After recently seeing a piercing photograph that drove home the old adage "Eyes are the windows to the soul" (no, it wasn't Salvador over there), I've been thinking about Eyes and Magic in role playing games.  There are many different aspects of this that someone could explore, of course. Ancient mythology provided many links (Egyptian and Greek and Norse, oh my!) and so do some more modern strands of all-seeing conspiracy theory.  I guess I'm also inspired by the alternative medicinal practice of iridology, in which some claim that all sorts of physical and mental aspects of a person can be divined via detailed analysis of their irises...

I'm sure there are many RPGs in which characters can roll dice to determine their eye color (hey, there's one), but usually the result of that die roll has no in-game importance.  Here's my crazy idea:

If your character can do magic, then that character's eye color determines what type of magic he or she can do.

In some ways, this idea is related to proposed schemes for splitting up magic spells by color-themed schools.  OSR bloggers have suggested several options, from a simple white/gray/black axis to a more varied palette.  Of course, in some games it doesn't work to limit a spell-caster to just a small subset of the available ways of breaking the laws of physics.  This idea is probably best for worlds in which magic is rare and difficult to learn.

Anyway, here's my initial take on how it breaks down...

According to superstition, people with GRAY eyes are obstinate and resolute, like stone.  Thus, the gray-eyed magician specializes in manipulating concrete physical elements:  moving them around (telekinesis, teleportation), changing their form (transmutation, making them hot or cold), and enchanting them (e.g., forging magical weapons).

Best known amongst the fiery Celts, people with GREEN eyes are passionate, creative, and prone to jealousy.  The green-eyed magician is a master of spells that go on the direct offensive:  fire bolts, lightning, ghostly punching fists, noxious gas, and so on.  The cleric's special role of repelling or blasting the undead with holy symbols also falls to the emerald-eyed casters.

BROWN eyes may be the most common throughout the world, so they correspond to the most commonly found type of magician: the shaman, witch, and medicine man.  Brown-eyed magicians thus are expert at nudging and persuading the natural world to do his or her bidding:  weather control, healing, communicating with animals and plants, and general luck modification (blessing or cursing).

You've got to watch out for HAZEL eyed people!  As a blend of the brown and the green, they've got a soaring, martial spirit, but with their feet planted firmly on the ground.  Thus, they're best at spells of defense and protection (force fields, strengthening walls and doors), as well as sneakiness (invisibility, silence), and also being able to nullify or disrupt an enemy magician's spells.

BLUE eyes are the rarest, being tied to a delicate, recessive gene.  These magicians command the subtle powers of the mind.  Not just those manipulative Jedi tricks, but also telepathy, clairvoyance, creating visual illusions, and sensing when people are lying.

It may be difficult to tell someone with very dark brown eyes from a truly BLACK eyed person.  The latter are rare, too, and the magical among them are the deep seers -- the ones who communicate with spirits, demons, and angels to learn things that may not be best for humans to know.  They're also experts at all forms of divination (tea leaves, Tarot cards, and so on).

Anyway, I have no idea if this makes any kind of practical sense to include in a role-playing world.  But what's a blog for if not to toss these ideas out there?  :-)

And what would an iridologist do with Fionna and Prince Bubblegum?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Because there's no post on Blendsdays

I knew I wanted a good Harry Potter themed image mashup, but it took a while to find one.  Due to a certain actor's crossover between franchises, a huge fraction of HP-themed fan-made pictures have to do with this -- shall we say sparkly? -- theme.  Not up my particular Knockturn Alley.  Thus:

Artist: Unknown
If you know who that is, then you know what this movie is called.  (The punch line was originally a caption on this image, but I thought it much funnier without it. If you don't get it, please ask.)  But I'll say that this one would be of great help if we began a Kevin Bacon type of chain game with these image mashups, since it would allow us to link Harry Potter to Star Wars, the Incredibles, a whole lot of Tarantino, and the new Marvel movie-verse!

In related news, my son turns 11 this week.  You know what that means...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Homebrew '82: Reaction Rolls

Ah, it happened again.  Just when I said "I have no time to post," I got the urge to post!

So, Brendan over at Untimately wrote a very cool summary of the minimalist rules behind the very oldest version of D&D.  (What I would give to have played in those early, seat-of-the-pants campaigns on picturesque Lake Geneva...)  I knew a lot of the details, but the bit about reaction rolls caught my eye:

Monster reaction:  (roll 2d6):  2-5: negative, 6-8: uncertain, 9-12: positive

For those who don't partake of the RPG drug, reaction rolls are just something the GM does, usually in secret, to more quickly figure out how a foe (or just a random person on the street) acts in response to meeting the player characters.  Some GMs don't like to rely on randomness for this, but for many it seems to help move things along and avoid decision panic.

Back in the 1980s, I never used reaction rolls.  Monsters usually attacked, and humans usually didn't do anything until provoked.  Exceptions were "plot driven" (cough... railroad... cough).  But as I've been developing Homebrew '82, I realized that there were many more possible options that could lead to fun, emergent role-playing, and the reaction roll table seems to be a good place to put them as a memory aid.

So, I set about making tables.  Lots of tables.  The OSR crowd provided many examples, too (thanks JDJarvis and Jeff and Roger).  I kept the classic 2d6 roll, modified by charisma, but I made separate tables for intelligent human-like foes (who could be sneaky) versus non-intelligent animals or monsters (who spook easily).  I also had separate tables for attempts to hire henchmen, and for attempts to be apprenticed to (hired by?) a mentor when training for one's next experience level.

After seeing the one-liner above from the little brown books, I think it was too many tables!  :-)

Anyway, some or all of them may disappear or be greatly simplified when I get to the GM's book (volume 2 of HB82).   However, this blog is the perfect place to enshrine the extent of overly complex, baroque filigree that I'm capable of reaching when left to my own devices...

Click for Brobdingnagian nuttiness
The first column contains the Spartan simplicity of 1974.  The others are the 4 situations I mentioned above.  I still think there are some interesting "reactions" in there that I know I'd never remember to trot out if I wasn't using a table like this.  But I know I've got to pare it down somehow!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I am the Eater of Worlds, and of Blendsdays

Summer is supposed to be a slow moving, laid back, kind of time, right?  Not for me right now.  The blog (and my other attempts at gaming-related writing) is unfortunately suffering as work is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the nice weather outside.

I can dream, can't I?  I try to visualize walks on the beach... cookouts... long country drives... fun trips to Mickey D's.... Well, except for if you happen to be driving through the unlucky town of Derry, Maine:

Artist: Nik Holmes

If you've only read Stephen King's massive 1986 novel IT, it may take a minute for the above joke to sink in.  This one is really for viewers of the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation, which boasted Tim Curry as the ΓΌber-creepy clown-form of the monster beyond space and time.  I actually liked the miniseries more than the book.  The latter plodded on for 1100 pages, and contained some scenes where beloved characters behaved so, well, out of character, that it completely plucked me out of immersion in the story.  We geeky types often rail against how movie makers ruin our beloved book-based franchises, but in this case I think the makers may have improved on King's material!

Don't look into it's dead-lights, Mayor McCheese!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Midwives to an Egg

So, you remember that time when Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World, the narrator from the Tom Baker Doctor Who, and the White Shadow all got together to break away from Great Britain?

How's that not the best Blendsday concept ever?  It's even got Pepper Potts' mom, the governor from Benson, and Holling from Northern Exposure.  Seriously, you just can't go wrong celebrating July 4th on Wednesday by watching this classic musical.  (If you've never seen it, whet your appetite here with the first scene.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

New Ideas... but spacing out on the details

Sometimes you have what you think is a wonderful idea, you jot it down, and then later you revisit it and think: "Eh, maybe..."  Sometimes you have that idea and you KNOW it will turn into something really cool (if you put in the work, of course).  I hope that the one I had yesterday, for a new game project to follow Homebrew '82, will remain in that second category.

I feel strange not revealing any details about this new idea, which may end up being something that combines the styles of "board game," "party game," and "role playing game."  It may be a year or more before I have anything resembling a finished product, and I want to give myself time to let it develop without worrying about the busier bees of the game design community catching on to what a cool idea it is.  (Note I'm not saying "stealing it," since I do intend to release it freely and open-source -- and I hope it will kick off a trend of D.I.Y. activity to broaden the basic idea -- but I do want to get my own thing out there first.)

So, apologies for being cryptic.  As a memento for my future self, let me just transcribe the lyrics to a fun song (that may... or may not... be relevant) that I heard on the Sirius/XM kids channel while driving with my son...

Space Cadet, by Secret Agent 23 Skidoo  (video here)

You're my little telescope, always starin' into space.
You're my little wall-clock, always got your hands on your face.
Your eyes are like donuts, big and warm and glazed.
You're my little space cadet and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Hey daydreamer, what's your dream?
I can tell that your mind is a movie screen.
What's the scene on that invisible TV?
I walk by, say hi, you don't even see me!
Easy, I ain't mad at your daydreamin,
Not furious; I'm curious, the main reason I'm askin'
Is I wanna know what you imagine.
What sort of supergenius thoughts are you havin'?
What's the gas revvin' your mind's engine?
Maybe conventions have your attention...
What are you creatin'? makin' in your magic imagination?
From the attic to the basement, your house is full
Of real cool characters,
I know, me too; I'm right there with ya!
Let's compare notes and combine stories.
Go ahead, space cadet, open your mind for me.

You're my little telescope, always starin' into space.
You're my little wall-clock, always got your hands on your face.
Your eyes are like donuts, big and warm and glazed.
You're my little space cadet and I wouldn't have it any other way.

"If I wish harder, would it make a shooting star shoot farther?
How can you pee when you wear a suit of armor?
Do birds like to practice singing in the bath?
And is it still called skinny dipping if you're fat?
If I was a sky-writer, I'd sign my name on a sunset,
And put a picture of it in our plane.
If I was a scuba-diver, I'd hide,
And jump out and scare submarines that ride by.
Like booooo...
Are ghosts made of fog?
And do you only dream in black and white if you're a dog?
Does a tree sloth sleepwalk without movin'?
And if robots talk through fans, do they sound human?
Do fish burp?  Can they whisper?
If a starfish splits in two, is that a sister?
If I ran a race backwards and took last place, did I win?
And why are you lookin' at me that way?"

It's how you keep on askin' all these questions every day
Reminds me of a joke book with all the punch lines taken away...
"That's not funny!"
You're my little telescope, always starin' into space.
You're my little wall-clock, always got your hands on your face.
Your eyes are like donuts, big and warm and glazed.
You're my little space cadet and I wouldn't have it any other way.

"How does a dung beetle stay clean?
And can nocturnal animals daydream?"

I don't know, but I bet that they never have nightmares.
Are albinos born old because they have white hair?
"And how can you ever be wrong if you're right there?
And if a lion attacked a cheetah would he fight fair?"

Are there 8 more lives when a tiger dies?
Are spiders' eyes blinded by fireflies?
"Could a flying squirrel cross the Grand Canyon?
And do you think they only have crash landings?"

Do trees miss their leaves when they leave?
And if turtles have turtlenecks, are their arms long sleeves?
"If planets orbit, do stars turn?"
If dragons breathe fire, do they get heartburn?
"If I cheat on an eye test, is that wrong?
And where do babies come from?"

Um, ask Mom.

You're my little telescope, always starin' into space.
You're my little wall-clock, always got your hands on your face.
Your eyes are like donuts, big and warm and glazed.
You're my little space cadet and I wouldn't have it any other way.