Friday, June 29, 2007
My friend (and frequent-ish Forager Blog commenter) "Lin Swimmer" has been posting some very funny and insightful cultural commentary over at his blogspot site.
Monday, June 25, 2007
I had a pretty strict budget this year, so I ended up being fairly conservative with my purchases: I mostly picked up books that (a) I had been meaning to get anyway (the King-Cat Classix book, Josh Simmons's House) or (b) I would have "been meaning to get" if I had known about them before the show (Ted May's Injury, Dylan Horrocks's Atlas #3).
The only "surprise" book that I would have bought was this Fletcher Hanks collection from Fantagraphics, but it sold out on Saturday. Paul Karasik, who edited and afterworded the book, seemed a little peeved that Fantagraphics hadn't brought more copies.
I always deal with my share of social awkwardness at this kind of convention. It was a little more awkward this year because, while I like to browse, I really wasn't going to make any impulse buys. Saying "I'm just looking" to someone trying to pitch their work to you seems a little rude to me, even though letting them waste their time also kind of sucks.
With this in mind, my favorite "pitch" was delivered by one of the guys at the Picture Box table: he offered me a little catalog and said something like - "No pressure: look through that and order from our website when you've had time to think it over."
Overall, I still feel very "out" of the art/lit-comics loop. Which is cool - I don't have the desire (or the time, really) to get back into it and MoCCA definitely felt "casual comics reader"-friendly. I was happy to go to the Art Fest, see what was up, and pick up a few things that looked promising.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Trying to think of what I want to say about John From Cincinnati is making my head hurt.
(Putting aside the whole issue of everything I want to say about the nature of criticism and media as they exist in my own life.... The more research I do the worse it gets. I came across a description of a press conference where Milch tried to give people an idea of where it came from or what it's "about." ::deep breath:: William James, Einstein's mathematical equations, string theory, the Big Bang, Freud, his own history of addiction, and "themes having to do with the borders and margins of things - political, geographical, and spiritual as well." I like to imagine him walking up there and just unloading like at a cattle auction. "Doawoherawowahherawahgotahjamesawwahjamesowahstring" etc. Can you imagine being an arts and entertainment journalist sent to this thing? Your only job is to return with enough information to write a one-paragraph blurb. At the end of the night you look down at your notes and all that's there are the words "Luke Perry" and a drawing of a Jesus Fish on a surfboard smoking a joint, which means you're fired.)
Friday, June 22, 2007
This has been a busy week at work...
What I'm Watching: Not much since the end of The Sopranos. I will say that HBO's ploy worked: my fiance and I were planning on cancelling HBO, but then we watched the first episode of Flight of the Conchords and not only was it very funny but Eugene Mirman was in it!!! So, now we have to watch the whole thing - damn you HBO! Damn you Eugene!
What I'm Reading: Lots of RPG rules and (relatedly) I'm re-reading Roger Zelazny's Amber novels. I loved these books when I read them in high school - they might be my all-time favorite fantasy series - and, so far, I'm enjoying revisiting them. What's interesting is that since then I've read some other Zelazny books that have been "farther out" - like Lord of Light and The Immortal - and now I'm seeing some of that "farther out"-ness in the Amber books. I'm not sure if I didn't notice it the first time around because I wasn't looking for it or because now that I'm older and have read a lot more books, I'm able to recognize it.
Also - I'll be going to the MoCCA Art Fest on Sunday and I hope to catch up with the indie comics scene a little bit.
I'm continuing to listen to a bunch of interesting gaming podcasts on my commute. I've put up links to some of them in the sidebar and I mean to put up a few more links this weekend. My recent posts about story-gaming have been mostly inspired my response to some of the stuff that these guys have been saying.
What I'm Playing: Sorcerer: Dictionary of Mu, of course. Our sessions of this game just keep getting better. I'd also 100% recommend the Dictionary of Mu to anyone (not just Sorcerer players) who's interested in post-Apocalyptic sword & sorcery fiction. In terms of video games: lots of Fire Emblem 2 for the Game Boy. Unfortunately, I did not use the three "save" slots strategically and now I am faced with having to repeat a huge chunk of the game in order to be able to face the final boss with a hope of winning. I had wanted to beat the game before I moved onto Fire Emblem on the Game Cube, but now I think I might just give up on it for the time being.
I'm seriously thinking of ordering my own Jungle Speed set.
What I'm Working On: So, getting back into regularly playing story-games means that I've also gotten back into reading about story-games which means that I've once again started thinking about designing my own. Right now, I'm looking to incorporate some of the ideas from this post (and in the comments) in terms of aiming for something a bit more muted than I'm used to.
Monday, June 18, 2007
I usually have more fun writing about a movie when I can say something that goes against the conventional wisdom, not only because I enjoy being a contrarian at time, but also because ditto-ing the CW is not that satisfying from a creative, coming-up-with-ideas perspective.
But, sometimes, the CW gets it right:
Spider-Man 3 was too long and tried to do too much stuff. I agree 100% with Jim Henley that it was a "good idea" for a movie.
It felt a little like Peter Jackson's King Kong, except with lower highs and higher lows.
I liked almost all of the goofy stuff that Sam Raimi threw in (the business with Bruce Campbell, the Daily Bugle marketing scene with Ted Raimi, the sequence where badass Peter gets to strut his stuff), except that I didn't like it because it was well done or because it worked but rather because I admired Raimi's perverse and unapologetic willingness to be as corny as he wanted to be.
I got to thinking about the difference between spectacle and fantasy. Most of the fx in Spider-Man 3 seem to be there in the service of spectacle - the big fights, the crazy attack-of-the-Venom-suit. In my own movie viewing, I'm getting really diminishing returns from these fx-driven "spectacular" set pieces. Like: "Ok, they've basically solved that technology problem, so they can really do almost any kind of crazy action scene. But so what?"
The one fx moment I really like in the movie was less spectacle and more fantasy: I wouldn't call it poetic, but there was something very moving about the way they used the CGI during the Sandman's "origin sequence". I'm thinking specifically of the image of his face turning to sand and blowing away and then the image of him trying - unsuccessfully - to form a hand so he could pick up his daughter's locket. I'd like to see more of that kind of thing.
Friday, June 15, 2007
All the best drivers are obsessed with success and winning. Put too many guys like that together, and they inevitably will butt heads. And by too many I mean more than one.
At some point in the near future, Rick Hendrick will have to deal with the fallout. And even the deftest touch won't solve this issue.
A lot of analysts look to other sports, so let's go there. The closest comparison is Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter being teammates with the Yankees. There was tension immediately surrounding who would play short and who would play third. Their tenure as teammates has not been successful.
But as my Yankee-fan friend Nick pointed out in an e-mail to me: "A-ROD won an MVP playing with Jeter and Jeter almost won one last year. They're both playing great this year...the Yankees have finished 1st each of their seasons together. How is that not successful?"
Another point against Matt is that the #5 team is already a strong team. They aren't going to need to pull resources away from the #48 team in order to get up to speed. This is why it makes sense to me that they'd put Junior in the #5 car and not the #25 car, even though Casey Mears seems to me to be the weakest link among the Hendricks drivers.
Now, if Dale Jr. wasn't Dale Jr. - that is if he was just a driver with 17 wins over tktk years, with no championships, who has had to struggle to make it into the Chase - then maybe I'd question trading away Kyle Busch. After all, Kyle has been pretty strong this season and it seems like all he needs is a little mentorship and a little growing up before he'll be a genuine championship contender.
On the other hand, I can see how replacing a hot-head like him with someone like Dale Jr. - who's a pretty steady and stable (not to mention humble) guy on the track - might be a really good thing.
But since Dale Jr. is Dale Jr., this is really a no-brainer.
My favorite part: I want to see all of the Jr.-lovin'-Gordon-haters' heads explode when they're no longer able to talk shit about Hendricks.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
But I think there's a weird tendency among a lot of people involved in internet story-game communities/fora to overvalue "the awesome". (Nathan Paoletta talked about something similar a while back, but my take is slightly different).
What do I mean?
Well, I think that the idea that "Creativity = Going Big" gets a little bit too much play.
I think I understand the origins of this trend: for years, lots of RPGs worked on a model that should be familiar to World of Warcraft players. You start with a basic, lowly peon, who is kind of generic, and then have to grind your way to the top and pay a price for customization. You had to earn the right to be awesome!
A lot of groups saw their games end prematurely with the awesomeness still off in the future, so it makes sense that one of the assumptions about how RPGs should work that has been challenged recently is the one about having to earn awesomeness. So, there's a tendency to push for awesomeness right now.
I'm cool with that! I think that having to earn awesomeness tends to make for an unfun play experience, because most groups aren't really playing their games long enough to reliably achieve that awesomeness. "Awesome Now" is necessary in order to get rid of the lingering spectre of "Awesome Later".
Sometimes when I'm reading through threads at places like Story-Games I find the constant boosting of "Awesome Now" just a little bit over the top. I completely sympathize with the intent, but, in practice, it tends to push this idea that the best gaming is gaming "turned up to 11". By which I mean: it isn't enough just to have a character who's struggling with family issues - your character needs to be Oedipus.
Hey - I like playing in "turned up to 11" games. I'm playing in one now! Judd Karlman's Dictionary of Mu might be my favorite "turned up to 11" fantasy settings ever: it's a mix of Robert E. Howard, Edward Rice Burroughs's Martian stories, Dune, and the Bible, tied together with an aesthetic that (to me) feels like it was derived from the cover art of 1970s Heavy Metal albums. The character I'm playing in a current game is the half-alien master of a Demonic gladiatorial arena. His first scene involved stopping a slave revolt led by a four-armed albino ape-man. And his storyline has been a bit more subdued than that of his fellow player characters! (James, our GM, has a great play write-up, here).
It is, indeed, an awesome game.
And one of the games I'm preparing right now is a pulp sci-fi adventure using Spirit of the Century, which is definitely another "turned up to 11"-style game.
It seems to me that the constant praise of the awesome tends to overwhelm the idea that more restrained story-gaming can be satisfying, too. In fact, the best story-game experience I've had over the last year - a game of Breaking the Ice that I played with a friend - was of the muted/restrained/matter-of-fact variety. This game was set just after WWII: it involved a returning vet courting a young woman who had lost her fiance early in the war and had spent the war years alone. It was a pretty quiet game: there were no big scenes, no crazy reversals, no convoluted family trees. Just two damaged people trying to connect with each other. It was a very enjoyable game, a moving story, and a meaningful experience. But it wasn't "awesome".
Part of the problem is a cultural one: we're used to hype, to bigger-is-better, so that's what we emphasize when we write about our games. But, as Scott points out in his comments on this post, we often get a sense of the possibilities of good gameplay from reading other groups' play accounts. In this spirit, and so this isn't just me being negative, I'm going to finally write up that BTI game and post it at the Forge.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Since World War II, the United States has grown fantastically wealthy and, consequently, Americans consume mightily, but we haven't become happier than we were a half-century ago. In fact, the trend lines are moving in the opposite direction. The author details, via numerous studies, the grim results of our explosion of prosperity. The results indicate that, beyond a point, we are less happy with more stuff. He even notes one recent study indicating that the “ average American child reported now higher levels of anxiety than the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s: our new normal is the old disturbed.”
That's pretty unsettling. I'm working on some kind of grand unified theory that revolves around the way we've lost all sense of perspective as a culture. We'll see how it goes...
Here's something else about games with clear procedures in the text vs. games that assume you'll have your own set of procedures.
Games with clear procedures:
different games with different procedures lead to different play experiences
A corollary (I found is out the hard way): with games that have clearly laid out procedures, it doesn't always work to mix 'n' match. That is, Trollbabe (1) breaks down responsibility over the various scales of game play in a certain way and (2) makes sure that its mechanics "fit" within this set procedure, but the way Trollbabe does (1) might not work for a game with a different set of mechanics: they won't fit.
Example: I tried to port the Trollbabe Stakes/Consequences scenario creation procedure to a game of The Shadow of Yesterday and the result was a game that fizzled. Trollbabe has a great set of procedures for setting up games of Trollbabe, with all that entails in terms of setting, characters, and system. The Shadow of Yesterday requires different scenario prep procedures - ones that are tied more directly into the characters, their cultural backgrounds, and their keys.
Games where you use your own set of procedures:
different games with the same procedures lead to the same (or very similar) play experiences
When playing AD&D 2nd ed. back in the early 1990s, as a group, we stumbled upon procedures for making the game work for us. Like: as GM I'd have responsibility for framing scenes, creating adversity, moving things along; players had responsibility for playing their characters (of course), but also creating subplots and pushing the action forward. Once we settled into these procedures, the game worked and we had fun, but two problems spring to mind: (1) it took some time of us fumbling around, (2) because these were emergent, unarticulated procedures there was always the looming danger of social grief caused by stepping over the invisible lines (for instance, when I would make a decision that screwed up a player's idea for their subplot), and (3) as our ad-hoc procedures developed we started ignoring/altering part of the game's rules that didn't really fit (i.e., we started drifting the game).
Now, issue (1) wasn't really a big deal at the time (because we had lots of it), but, nowadays, I prefer less stumbling. Issue (2) might always be a problem in any kind of social activity, but having something explicitly laid out means it's easier to avoid "grief landmines". Issue (3) isn't really a problem (especially if you're always playing with the same group of people), but...
Later, after we had wrapped up the AD&D 2nd ed. game, we started playing Amber DRPG and we brought the same procedures we had developed playing AD&D with us. We started playign Amber by trying to fit it into how we already played. It turned out this worked really well, but it also meant that we ended up ignoring lots of the Amber DRPG rules, right from the beginning.
Hey - the posts by Ron Edwards in this thread go into a lot more detail about some of these issues and brings up another good "question I want the game to answer": "What is the relationship between the group of players and the group of characters?"
Monday, June 11, 2007
He only had this very short post, so I commented:
The only thing I'm really not looking forward to are the explanations about how we're "supposed" to interpret the ending as Tony getting whacked.
I thought the EXACT same thing. What a strange way to engage with these kinds of things!
And, you know, this is a very strange way to engage with something. It's like: I'm watching and enjoying Sopranos the show, but, as soon as that's over, I'm thinking about and responding to Sopranos the media event.
As much as I like TV shows and movies and comic books, I'm becoming less and less interested in "Television Events", "Cinematic Events", and "Comic Book Events". Not only is the hype tiring, but I think it can warp your actual experience of the shows, movies, and comics in question. Like, The Sopranos finale is an Event, so it needs to be a Big Deal and make a Big Statement and everyone needs to have an opinion on it. In fact, having an opinion is probably more important than just, you know, engaging with the show on its own terms and just responding to what's actually on the screen* - positively, negatively, or however it is you responded to it.
One of the things I like about watching old movies (or old TV shows, etc.) is that there's really no hype surrounding them. Sure, they might have a reputation for being a classic (or whatever), but a historical/critical reputation is extremely passive (not to mention old-fashioned) compared to the constant cycle of media hype.
Hey - my prediction regarding this last season of The Sopranos, which a lot of the show's fans found "disappointing", is that people watching the show on DVD for the first time 10-20 years from now will be see Season 6 as a one of the show's strongest. Ok - maybe that's my prediction because it's also what I happen to believe, and maybe I'm being a little self-centered (not to mention delusional) in thinking that "Of course the world is going to come around to my POV", but I can't help feel that a lot of the disappointment has to do with the way the show played against all the predictions of the cultural commentators and the expectations of the show's fans. And, personally, I think these expectations at least were always a little at odds with what David Chase et al. were actually doing. The signpost moment: when in Season Four the big moment occurs when Tony decides not to do something (go along with Johnny Sack's plan to kill Carmine).**
My prediction was that the show would go out with a whimper and not a bang, and I was only kind of right. It went out on a quiet moment, but one that was extremely resonant, reaching back all the way to the very earliest episodes of the series.
But what I liked best about the last episode were the weird, throwaway moments that didn't have to be there and only added to the series in the most tangential manner, mainly because so much of what I loved about the show were its tangents and the creators' refusal to play connect-the-dots with narrative resolution (plot-wise and theme-wise).
My two favorite tangents:
A.J.'s girlfriend's reaction to listening to Bob Dylan for the first time (that he sounds like he's singing about right now).
Paulie pretending to sweep after Tony almost catches him hitting the cat with a broom. (I liked everything with the cat).
Oh yeah - maybe the most moving scene (aside from the ending) was when Tony goes to visit Janice. It's amazing: I don't think I've ever felt anything for that character before, and, all-of-a-sudden, you can see that she really is grieving (even if the scene ends with some heavy irony).
*I brought this up regarding Borat, too. Borat the Event seemed to cloud people's eyes (or maybe their minds) about what was actually going on in Borat the movie.
**I think that the people who approached the show from the "Who's Gonna Get Whacked this Week"-perspective were really missing the point. Like, I can't help but think that most of the show (and not just the sixth season) would have been really unsatisfying if that's why you were watching.
Inspired by a conversation with my friend James at Recess...
I consider this an essential feature of any role-playing game text - if it doesn't have it, I'm not too interested in trying it out and I definitely don't want to spend money on it:
Clear delineation of the procedures of play.
I don't care what the game does - like, maybe it turns out I won't like what the game does: regardless, I'm perfectly happy to find that out if the text is clear about what I'm supposed to be doing to make it work.
I want to know what I'm supposed to be doing at each "scale" the game operates on. That is, what does the game look like and what are we supposed to be doing...
...as a whole?
It should answer questions like...
...how do we move from scene-to-scene?
...how do we know when to roll dice/draw cards/make use of mechanics?
...what parts of the big picture do we need to keep track of?
...how do we start a session of play?
...if there are different roles for the players (i.e. someone has to be "the Gamemaster"), what are the responsibilities associated with each role?
...what kind of preparation is necessary before starting?
...what kind of preparation is necessary in between sessions?
Most of the games I played and read back in the day, would end up clearly answering one or two of the questions, but would be vague about or oblivious to the other questions.
There's still a continuum here. Some examples:
Trollbabe, Dogs in the Vineyard (inspired by Trollbabe), Burning Empires, and Prime Time Adventures are all really clear: there's a section in each that lays out what you're meant to be doing at any given time; the different responsibilities for the GM and Players are clearly differentiated; there's a clear procedure for setting up the "scenario" for a session of play; there are clear rules for what to do in between sessions. There are still some holes (Dogs, for instance, doesn't tell you how you should start scenes), but, for the most part, these games have extremely clearly laid out procedures.
Note: this isn't a question about "lots of rules" or "a couple of rules" (i.e., "rules heavy" vs. "rules light"). Trollbabe has significantly fewer rules than Burning Empires, but it has an equally strong structure and equally clearly laid out procedures.
Some games do a good job answering a few of the questions, but are unhelpful about others. D&D 3rd edition is like this: on a moment-to-moment basis, things are pretty nicely laid out and there's a clear procedure for building encounters. But scene-to-scene or session-to-session, the procedures are extremely vague and "hand wave-y". You're supposed to "fill in the blanks", as it were, with your previous experience of playing RPGs.
Some games answer all the questions, but they aren't quite explicit about it or they purposefully leave certain parts of the procedure open to interpretation. Jared Sorenson's Lacuna is like this, as is, to a lesser degree, The Shadow of Yesterday.*
Anyway, that's the main thing I'm looking for now in RPGs: clear procedures. And, as a potential consumer, that's what I want to know about the game: does it have them? For instance, on this thread people are saying some nice things about Reign, but no one has said anything about how you're actually supposed to play. I mean, I'm assuming its supposed to work "like most other RPGs", which is kind of a bummer, because, IME, without clear procedures, actually attaining satisfying play is a pretty chancy proposition.
Hey - most of the games I play come out of the Forge (like Trollbabe) or were designed along some similar lines of thinking (Burning Wheel). The major thing that makes me like to play these games over "the games of my youth" (or the contemporary games that are following in that tradition) is that they have clear procedures! Now, it might be related that these games also tend to be "story-games" (i.e., mostly concerned with collaborative story-making), I don't know! What I do know is that I would gladly play a traditional-style RPG if it came with clear procedures for how it was supposed to work.**
*In TSOY there are procedures for moment-to-moment play and good advice about how to set up scenarios, but a lot of the answers to the other questions are "hidden" in the game's system of "Keys ". That is, once you figure out how to use Keys, the answers to the questions become apparent. I think TSOY is a really neat game, but after playing Trollbabe and Prime Time Adventures, it was a little frustrating to have to muddle through a session to figure this out.
**So, technically, because I've seen Burning Wheel, say, work, I could take some of the techniques from that game and apply them to a traditional game to get a complete, clear play experience. However, I guess I'd mostly prefer to play a game that was designed, from the ground up, with an overall procedure in mind.
I've never really played in a LARP before. I have played some LARP-like games - like the Burning Wheel convention scenarios "Inheritance" and "The Gift" - and I've been in a few other convention games that were pretty close, but this was my first LARP-that-calls-itself-a-LARP.
So, I had a pretty good idea going in that LARPs weren't really ever going to be my thing, but I'm always interested in trying out new/different types of games. I'm glad I did - I certainly enjoyed myself and had fun - but I also decided that, really, LARPs aren't my thing.
Now, this is certainly personal preference talking (and I am drawing, of course, on my own experience), but here's why I'm jazzed about tabletop RPG play and not so much by LARP:
In The Mountain Witch game, we sat down at a table and created something together. There was incentive for us to share ideas and to shape the story together. It was a neat social experience, in as much as I got a chance to interact on a person-to-person level with folks who I had never met before that game.
But in the LARP, everyone was kind of stuck behind the character they were playing. As a social experience, it was a little weird and unsatisfying: all the interactions having to pass through the filter of "my character".** The only people I seemed able to connect with were the people I knew prior to playing in the LARP. Because I kind of knew them, it was easier to see the character choices they were making. That is, I could see how the character they were playing was different from them "in real life".
Does that make sense?
More directly: in the LARP, it felt like there was this barrier keeping people apart, while the tabletop game brought us together.
*LARP means Live Action Role Playing. The "Parlor" part just means that the action was all kept in one room: we weren't running around the woods swinging fake swords at each other.
**Sure, some people play tabletop RPGs this way, too, it's just that, with this kind of LARP, it's the only option.
Friday, June 8, 2007
Monday, June 4, 2007
A quick rundown though:
Played Sorcerer (in the Dictionary of Mu setting) last week. It was good to finally get gaming again.
And the games continued this weekend: I ran a session of Dogs in the Vineyard for the first time. Some rough patches and a few lessons learned, but, overall, a good and entertaining experience. The game is set up so that it's pretty easy to run: I could have done a little bit more in the way of preparation (we were using scrap paper instead of nicely photocopied/laser-printed character sheets, for example), but I don't think the game suffered much. Only problem: we didn't quite get to finish the story (we moved a bit more slowly than I anticipated).