Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dzurlords Make Me Cry

Been re-reading Steven Brust's novels the past few weeks (the days of comfort reading are upon me) and, having worked my way backwards through the Vlad novels (should that be the Dalv novels, in this circumstance?), I am now proceeding through the Paarfi novels, but in the standard direction this time.

And I hit this passage in The Phoenix Guard:

"We can not all be Dzurlords."

"Ah, that is true, and truth be known, I think it would be a dull world if all were." Tazendra, who had drained her glass and filled another by this time, went on to say, "My mother, the Countess, used to say, 'Remember, we are only one part of this great body of Empire. And if we hold on to the valor, then others must needs take care of the rest.'"


And I choked up. I ALWAYS do. Every time I read that damned passage, I get a damned lump in my throat. From Tazendra, of all people. Why?

I'm now reading Five Hundred Years After, and I KNOW I'm going to hit this passage:

"Of course," said Sethra, "You are a Dzurlord, as was he. To the Dzur, there is a ritual to the sharpening of the sword — so warlike and yet so soothing; a preparation for the future, a defiance, a threat, and at the same time, it is rhythmical, and while so engaged, one is given to dream, and to think about the blade, its history and destiny; and to contemplate and wonder, above all, for what one strives — and always one finds answers to this question, for finding those answers is what it means to be a Dzur.

"Sometimes," she continued softly, "those of other Houses laugh, or call the Dzur foolish, stupid, or blind, and there is no good answer to such charges, for to kill for such an insult is often beneath the Dzurlord; yet there is always the sword, whose sharpening breathes of the future, and the glory which is not only in being remembered, but in knowing one has defied the entire world, and pitted oneself against the impossible, and proven, to all who are not Dzur, that there is value and glory in the battle, regardless of the outcome. All of these thoughts come to mind when the Dzurlord sharpens his sword, and looks upon some token of the past until he can feel the wind that blows to the future."

For some time, it seemed as if Sethra were speaking to herself, but at last she fell silent. "You understand," said Tazendra in a whisper.


Just reviewing it in order to type it up here got me feeling weepy. Why? Is it because, as Steph mentioned, I am so terribly unlike a Dzurlord? So unlikely to pit myself against the impossible, against the world, and that reading these passages brings up in me a sense of lacking in myself, a lack that I'm actually ashamed to admit even to myself?

I remember my heart stirring when I read Cyrano's declaration "Not to climb high, perchance, but climb alone!"

As a younger man perhaps I read that as license to reject any notion of working in concert with others, to keep solely my own counsel and to hoard my energies for myself, but nowadays, much more embracing of the notion of interdependence (ten happy years of marriage will do that to you), I understand Cyrano's point in a more sophisticated way — to refuse to seek advancement through RELATIONSHIPS, and rather solely through ACCOMPLISHMENTS. Accomplishments may depend on relationships; that's healthy and worthwhile. But advancement that comes through skill in flattery or in adjusting one's character to one's environment is hollow, because it is not based in the end on the actual delivery of value.

The problem being, of course, that it isn't always perfectly straightforward to demonstrate accomplishment. Especially if one is mistaken about the relationships around one.

I know many folks who are bad salespeople, especially of themselves. I'm one. A common thinking that bad salespeople carry is an unwillingness to convince others that they themselves are worth investing in. I believe the unspoken notion is that if the worth is not immediately evident, making an effort to display it is unseemly. Not to mention unlikely to succeed.

And yet, isn't it a worthwhile pursuit to make worth apparent to those who haven't yet perceived it? Isn't it honourable to help others see important truths? How do I tell when such an effort is worthwhile, and when it is only vainglorious and empty?

One lesson I always took from Cyrano is that doing the honourable thing does not reliably lead to gain. That doing the right thing often exposes one to, well, the weasels. I've paid the price a few times for doing what I considered the honourable thing. I don't know if I'd call myself valiant. I'm no Dzurlord.

But I do regularly get accused of being foolish, stupid, and blind. Maybe all that emotion I feel is actually relief. Relief that I'm not the only one.


In other news, Steven Brust posted my favourite haiku ever on his LJ the other day:

There was a young man of Honshu
Who tried limericks in haiku.
But


Kills. Me.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Stop Telling Us What To Do!

One of my pet theories (I use the term "pet theories" to refer to ideas I like that I would rather not subject to any actual analysis) is that the real lesson of the 20th century is that as attractive as centralization appears (especially to those doing the centralizing), it almost always less efficient, less effective and less maintainable than de-centralized approaches.

In politics, in manufacturing, and in commerce this lesson seems to keep coming up: putting all the decision-making power in one place never yields the desired results. Autocratic states collapse in on themselves. Decentralizing authority in factories improves productivity. Free markets continue to roll.

Oversight is required, of course, but choosing just the right levers to give the overseers is critical. Monopoly laws hold back one type of imbalance in the market system. Institutionalized lending rates prevent another. One person standing at the whiteboard with a pen does a similar thing in a very different environment.

Perhaps the 2000's will be the century of mass decentralization. Some folks think so. It's interesting to observe this phenomenon popping up in unexpected places.

Like traffic controls. Recently the Telegraph published an article on how REMOVING controls actually improved traffic flow and reduced accidents.

In his book The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey argued that the fear of the "mob" that we take for granted nowadays is a social construct engineered by the elites at the dawn of the modern age, as they insisted that masses of people could not be trusted. This idea is a vestige of classism and lies behind every authoritarian model of government produced. The idea is that common people are too stupid, too foolish and too short-sighted to be trusted with any sort of authority. They must be herded and guided. For their own good.

I reject this idea, and it's encouraging to see actual data that supports it. People are smart, and if they are granted space and time in which to make decisions, they generally do a pretty good job. Folks who try to keep power from the hands of "the masses" do so out of fear. Fear, in the end, that their decision-making ability is no better than anyone else's, and if that's true, how will they justify their elite position?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Just A Ski Instructor

Heck with the Zeppelin reunion; the show I'm agonizing over having missed is the new tour by Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

Here are three reasons to live in the UK:

I Love Girls


Endicott


Gina Gina

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The War With the Weasels


Long, long ago, I was complaining that a message board that I'd been frequenting for ages had of late become overrun with the, let us say, less entertaining types, and that I didn't see any way of reversing the trend. Chris commented in his droll fashion, "The munchkins always win."

I always thought that was a very wise observation, but the term "munchkin" is hard to explain to people who don't play RPGs. So I switched it with "weasel", having the right connotations of nastiness, cowardliness and patheticness.

I played around with the notion for a while and for some reason (this really was years ago, so cut me a little slack, here) I was looking at a photo of a lion sitting and looking all majestic and the idea of a lion fighting with a weasel came to me. And I realised that lions just don't fight weasels. They don't do it. Lions do not belong to the class of things that fight weasels.

Now I know which I'd rather be, between the choice of a lion or a weasel. And we're going strictly with the metaphorical notion of these creatures, so please refrain from confusing the issue with facts. Weasels = snivelling conniving cowards. Lions = majestic honourable lords.

And so, WANTING to be a lion, I am forced regularly to remind myself to never, ever, ever, fight with the weasels.

Because the weasels always win.

I've talked about this before. Not sure if I have so much to add to the notion this time other than an awfully pretty picture of a lion. Nice, isn't it? Mm.

But like I say, every so often I have to remind myself to remain a lion. To refuse to fight the weasel fight. Because to fight the weasels is to become a weasel yourself. Because lions don't fight weasels. To be a lion, you have to let the weasels win. When the weasels arrive, you have to recognize what has happened and move on.

Lions help weasels best by being lion-y: sitting out there on the savannah, being all majestic and shit. That's what lions are for. They remind us that dignity and honour are worth something, even if they don't help you to win. Winning is for weasels. But maybe, sometimes, IF the lion is being all majestic and shit, some random weasel will look up and think, "Hey, why isn't he down here fighting with the rest of us?"

And maybe sometimes a weasel can even BECOME a lion. Maybe. I don't know. But I am pretty sure that if there aren't any lions, then there's just a bunch of weasels, so somebody has to try and be a lion.

I guess I've been thinking about this lately.

Photo by Marco Deppe

Friday, December 7, 2007

Bodging, True20 Style

What's this? It's the Damage Conditions portion of the True20 Narrator's Screen, an indispensable aid for all True20 GMs, who have to refer to the complex damage conditions of the game nearly every combat round. Without this little chart, gameplay can slow to a crawl anytime somebody gets injured. Combat would be excruciating without this guy.

What's that you say? The True20 Narrator's Screen DOESN'T INCLUDE a Damage Conditions chart? Can it be true?

Why, yes. Yes, it is. The Green Ronin folks are obviously quite a bit more adept at this stuff than I am, since they apparently don't need to refer to the Damage Conditions every round the way I do. Which I'm sure is fine for them, but I just can't keep all that stuff straight in my little head, so I need some help.

And otherwise the Narrator's Screen is AWESOME. It's pretty, it's made of sturdy stuff and it has lots of useful info on it. But it doesn't have the Damage Conditions.

But never fear! We here at Scratch Factory are not the sorts to just throw our hands up and make the best of a bad situation. No sir. We'll make the WORST of a bad... Wait.

No. What I mean to say is:

Here's a replacement chart you can print off and affix to your Narrator's Screen. It replaces the "Concealing Items" portion of the existing chart, which I frankly feel I can do without. If you feel likewise, you're welcome.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Serpent, Winged


"First, Shaft is a sex machine for ALL the chicks. He didn't fall for no Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, neither."
I remember (vaguely) when Q, The Winged Serpent came out. 1982, that was -- same year Knight Rider first aired. 1982 was a rough year. Apparently Conan the Barbarian and Joust stole all the "cool" in the world that year and so unfortunate second-raters like Q, The Winged Serpent had to make do with other qualities. Like "long". Or "set in New York".

IMDB's "Plot Keywords" list does a reasonable job of summing up this odd little picture, including as it does Giant Monster, Human Sacrifice, Decapitation, Female Nudity, Police, Blood, the Chrysler Building New York, Death, and Gore, but strangely there is no mention of either SHAFT or MIME.

See, while it's nominally a monster movie, and indeed several minutes of the film are devoted to a monster devouring assorted New Yorkers, after one hour and fifteen minutes, the audience is suddenly confronted with a MIME. Observe:



That is clearly a MIME in a car with SHAFT.

I know, you're startled. Maybe you didn't expect to see a MIME in a car with SHAFT. I don't blame you. But do not doubt your senses. Here it is again:



Notice how the MIME is ACTUALLY ACTING. He's looking over at SHAFT with that "curious" expression that lets you know the director told him to look curious. I tell you, actors are a rare funny breed.

What lies is that actor telling himself in order to go through with this scene? How is he structuring this in his imagination so that he believes he'll be able to get another part on the basis of this performance? And what is the director thinking? Most likely, I imagine, how he's going to spend the money he just won after betting Richard Roundtree he could get that new kid to dress up as a MIME.

Whoever that MIME is, I sure hope he has this blown up to poster size on his bedroom wall:



Words fail me.

Fortunately, ten minutes after he appears, the MIME vanishes from the script, never to be seen again. His presence is not explained (other than the fact that it's 1982 and Knight Rider is the most popular new show on television. We all share the blame for the 80's).

Perhaps you find it strange I begin a discussion of one of the last true B-grade giant monster movies with several hundred words on the subject of a mime, but it was scarring, I tell you. A man doesn't just walk away from something like that. It haunts him.

Oh, yeah, there's a monster in this picture. As these things go, it's by no means a terrible monster -- the design isn't much (it kind of resembles a winged prehensile penis), but it kills people bloodily and SCREEEES with gusto.

But really it's all the secondary weirdness that really makes this film. Michael Moriarity's bizarre performance as the cowardly wheelman who confronts the beast in its lair, and David Carradine going "Phew!" everytime they make another narrow escape (I'm not kidding, the guy literally says, "Phew!" like he's reading some 1950's Batman and Robin dialogue), combined with Roundtree's angry cop makes you wonder if all three of these guys think they're in different movies.

Or this guy:



Okay, you might have believed me about the MIME, but I know you're going to doubt me about this, but honestly. This dude pops up into the frame next to the sacrifical victim, looks down at the naked guy he's about to gut and says

Seriously, I'm not kidding about this. He says

God's Honest Truth, here, people. ACTUAL dialogue, here. Not a word of a lie. This dude says

"How are you?"


Man. I thought the dialogue in Live Free or Die Hard was uninspired. Again, what the heck is going through this actor's head? Because you know he's got himself convinced that THIS is the part. He's going to put that on his reel. He'll talk it up at his next audition. I'd love to hear that story.

But that's not all, folks. There's also the blonde doing push-ups:



1982 was a tough year for actors, obviously. That girl's really givin' her, though. You gotta award some points for grit.

Still, even in 1982 actors had their limits. Apparently there was a rumour that a sequel would be made:



Fortunately, it never came to that.

The Ones Nobody Knows: The Bandy Papers

I first encountered Bartholomew Bandy, Canadian hero of World War I and all-round dashing figure of the twentieth century, in the mid-eighties. I was reading a lot of military fiction then, and the cover, here, with biplanes and a promise of comedy and a Canadian perspective on the Great War was more than enough to pull me in. I found Three Cheers For Me in a used bookstore, of course, as the books had been out of print for a decade or so when I first got hooked, but I continued to prowl used bookstores across Calgary, searching for further tales of the redoubtable Bandy.

I believe Donald Jack is the man who introduced me to the word "redoubtable", actually. Not to mention "obviate", and probably "spifflicated", too. The over-the-top drinking binge parties Jack describes in these books have always been the standard I've held my own partying up to. Nobody's ever actually fired a handgun at copulating insects at one of our parties, however, so there's room to grow, there.

Interesting that Jack -- a Brit who emigrated to Canada after World War II -- should come to write a series with such a dedicatedly Canadian bent on history. Bandy considered Canadianess at length throughout these books, and while he may be somewhat atypical, there's no doubt he represents some of the fundamental qualities of the Canadian character.

And it's not all that flattering. Bandy is self-righteous, deceitful, annoyingly smug, and lacks the ability to see himself and his own foolishness clearly.

Oh sure, he's courageous enough, when physical danger nears, but he cowers in the face of the powerful and is as enthusiastic a bootlicker as one could imagine. He's quite thoroughly despicable at times.

Hm. Maybe the lack of popularity of these books isn't so hard to explain.

But no. There's thrilling aerial combat, romance, the great sweep of history, and some of the funniest stuff I've ever read in my entire life. It doesn't matter how many times I read the bit where Bandy tries to replace Louise's dress; I'm helpless with giggles every time. These books deserve a vast audience, inside or outside of Canada.

Of course, being Canadian, most Canadians will be suspicious of the idea that a story about Canadians would be entertaining. Canadian content, until very recently, was a "genre" that we imbibed of the same way one partakes of cod liver oil -- for good of one's long-term health, and possibly, to demonstrate one's strength of will. I don't remember enjoying a single episode of The Beachcombers, but my family dutifully watched it every weekend. I think perhaps that's why we weren't a very religious family -- my parents felt they'd discharged their spiritual duties by enduring another half-hour of Bruno Gerussi and Molly's Reach.

This attitude does seem to be changing. Slowly, of course, for we Canadians change nothing quickly, but recently the idea that Canadian television might have qualities beyond easing digestion seems less far-fetched. I recently got laughed at in a bar for suggesting that it might be ENTERTAINING, but still, there are signs of progress.

The Bandy Papers might one day be seen as an early salvo in the battle to establish the idea that Canadian stories can be entertaining. Jack might be seen as a visionary who, as early as 1962 dared to attempt writing an adventure novel about a Canadian. And succeeded, in point of fact.

Briefly: Bartholomew Bandy of Beamington, Ontario, goes off to fight in World War I, survives the trenches but infuriates his commanding officer so much that he is promoted to the Royal Flying Corps (where his life expectancy is only a few weeks), and promptly becomes one of the great aces of the war, simultaneously creating so many enemies among the military and political establishment that his career shifts are measured in hours. So many memorable characters are encountered in the course of these tales that it's something of an accomplishment that Bandy himself manages to stand out as he does.

Much hilarity ensues, and much savagery as well, for Jack is writing out of a profound anger towards the powerful who sacrificed so many lives for so little gain. As the books proceed, the shells Bandy inhabits in order to manage his internal fury get stripped away and yet the comedy never goes away. He never loses his wry sense of the absurdity of all this fuss and bother, even when he is helpless in his efforts to placate and soothe the worst of the fussers and the botherers.

As is typical in these sorts of historical satires, Bandy ends up in numerous historically significant events, including the Irish uprisings (due to a mistake in navigation), the German advance of 1918 (Bandy defeats two tanks with the help of a Bicycle Brigade), the Russian Revolution (he steals Trotsky's pastries), Prohibition, and the birth of modern cinema. He trades quips with Dorothy Parker and terrorizes William MacKenzie King (and is in fact responsible for the collapse of his government in 1925).

He seduces and is seduced, rejects and is rejected. There is little rhyme or reason to who ends up his allies and who his enemies; by no means is it clear that "sensible" people like him and fools do not. And yet he is deeply charismatic, especially to the reader. This is probably because of his honesty to us. While he is willing to fib outrageously to others, with his readers, Bandy shows a respect for the truth even when it is uncomfortable or unflattering -- and although he often undermines his own efforts at self-deprecation with a mock self-righteousness, Jack always seems to find just the right tone that will let us know that Bandy takes himself no more seriously than he takes anything else in the world.

These books were a huge influence on me. Jack's episodic storytelling, his delightfully droll tone and the notes of lunacy he throws in are all techniques I strive for in my own writing. I wish I had his knack for nutty, believable characters, but well, you've gotta have something to aim for, right?

Donald Jack died in 2003, at the age of 79. He wrote the final Bandy book, Stalin vs Me, in the last decade of his life, more than thirty years after he'd begun the saga of Bartholomew Bandy. I am immensely grateful to him for his efforts, as they have brought me more joy over the past twenty years than I could have expected from that aging, yellowed volume I first picked up in a Calgary used bookstore.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Best Time

From the journal of Lord Whimsy (brought to my attention via Steph, of course):



I also today came across a note I wrote to myself a few years back:

Whenever I feel smart, I invariably discover have done one of two things: either I have mistaken something trivial for something important, or I have failed to realise my own error and am in fact wrong to think I'm so clever.


Wow, I sure am smart.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Ones Nobody Knows: Dead Girls

Richard Calder's world is not a pleasant one, but it does possess an undeniable, if terrifying, beauty. There are sequences in his early novel Dead Girls that will never leave my mind's eye, I'm sure.

I'll say right up that the sequel to this astonishing novel, Dead Boys, unnerved me so much I still haven't been able to bring myself to read the final book in the series (Dead Things). Calder pulls fewer punches than anyone who's ever mapped this particular bit of terrain.

One of the least-spoken truths of "cyberpunk" science fiction is how little of it there actually is, and how little of THAT is actually any good. I knew that by the time I came across Calder's novel in a bookstore, I was jaded with the whole cyberpunk thing, and only two things drew me in -- the William Gibson endorsement ("Dark, edgy and inflicted with just the right degree of lyricism") and the striking cyber-Nagel portrait that formed the cover. Pouty lips and micro-processors: what young man could say no?

Well evidently plenty did, since this is one of The Ones Nobody Knows. Calder does seem to have some sort of following, based on his Wikipedia page, but I've met darn few people who've ever heard of him.

Upon the most recent re-read, I have to admit that Calder tries to pack way too much exposition into this slender book. There's entire chapters where what plot exists simply grinds to a halt while somebody or other recites yet another massive elegy of how times have changed in the twenty-first century. It says something about the power of Calder's vision that despite this, the book still grips me.

Unnerving. In Calder's world, massive improvements in technology have made androids indistinguishable from human beings. Except that they're not human. They're not "real". They are, if you want to look at it this way, dead.

Which means, of course, that you can do any damn thing you want to them. If I tell the novel is mostly set in Bangkok, you can probably fill in the blanks there, can't you? Well, actually, you may think you can, but I've got twenty bucks says Calder's mind runs in darker channels than yours.

This is a book of really really cool ideas in which almost nothing happens. And what does happen is largely incomprehensible. But cool. You've got Primavera, teenage assassin sexdroid vampire girl, and Ignatz, her lover, who are on the lam having broken out of the quarantine around London. See, these androids, there's a plague, and girls grow up to BECOME androids, and there's ethnic cleasning, and a Fairy Queen, and... Yeah. I don't really know how to get into it all.

And it gets really weird. I mean, you think it starts weird, I know, check the opening paragraph:

They smashed through the door; I vaulted the balcony, running. It was midnight in Nongkhai City and I was lost. The story so far? The Pikadon Twins - notorious henchgirls to Madame K -- had pursued me to the banks of the Mekong. But where was the Mekong? Too dark, too quiet -- and I used to bright, clamourous Bangkok -- this town had me drunk on shadows.


But the intensity of grammar, punctuation and vocabulary rises as the book proceeds. Calder tells his tale in a swirl of noir tough-guy English, scientific doublespeak, French fashion terminology, with Thai and Serbo-Croatian odds and ends thrown in here and there.

Some great lines, though:

The cheaper the femmes, I thought, the cheaper the fatales.


Come on. You gotta give it up for that one. Come on. And the half-page footnote on Primavera's "hemline neurosis" is worth the price of entry alone.

But the story folds in on itself, one universe opening into another, each one weirder than the one before, and Calder doesn't take many pains to make sure we've come along with him. As Primavera and Ignatz push ever-deeper into the twisted world they take for granted, we get more and more inured to the horrible things happening around them, so that the distinctions between real and artificial really begin to matter to us -- when a girl is being tortured, it carries weight if she was born human or grown in a vat. Or in fact if the universe in which she exists was created "naturally" or "artificially".

Which is ridiculous of, course, and that's a big part of what Calder is talking about. The distinctions we invent and then spend so much time and effort delineating, as though it mattered where somebody came from or what they look like. The "dead girls" of this terrible world accept their fate (indeed, they are engineered to do so) and it all comes down to aesthetics. How prettily they pout when threatened with torture and execution.

In the end, Dead Girls asks some very troubling questions about the nature of the sexes and what we want from each other, and what might happen if some of the controls on our behaviour started to slip. It walks us into a world that is a dark, disturbing shadow of the world we live in, rather than some future that might come to pass. And I think it challenges everyone who reads to consider how they feel about dead girls and the boys who love them.

Fire and Brimstone!

Lavatastic!



Today was a pretty exciting day in some parts. Today marks the official release of Fire And Brimstone! A Comprehensive Guide to Lava, Magma and Superheated Rock! Indeed, the thrills are practically non-stop around hereabouts.

See, WAY back at GenCon, there was a group decision that a comprehensive set of rules to govern all situations regarding the use of lava in role-playing scenarios needed to be published. The group making this decision was well-informed, experienced, energetic, astonishingly good-looking and thoroughly drunk. Most of us, I suspect, promptly forgot the decision had been made and all would have come to naught.

But no.

For TONY did not forget, and got the ball rolling in the post-GenCon haze, and so many people contributed that it's impossible to list them all. Luke and Matthew (hm, but not Mark or John) and Deb stepped up with mighty gifts, and tons of folks just threw ideas into the pot and it all honestly and truly came together. Joe and Suzi over at Expeditious Retreat Press offered to host it and we were off.

And THEN somebody suggested we get some celebrity quotes to plaster the back cover with and to throw around in our marketing efforts. And hoo boy. Did we ever get some celebrity quotes.

Let's start with GARY GYGAX. Just the guy who invented the whole hobby in the first place. The Grand Old Man of D&D. Wow.

But it doesn't stop there.

Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms D&D setting. Steve Kenson, creator of True20. Scott Rouse, Senior Brand Manager at Wizards of the Coast (they publish D&D, for those of you in bleachers). Speaking of Wizards of the Coast, how about PETER ADKISON, the guy who started the company in the first place? Or how about Robin D. Laws, creator of the awesome game Feng Shui and one of my personal game design heroes? How about Sue Cook, half of the Sue and Monte team that are responsible for much of what happened to this hobby over the last ten years? How about Wil Wheaton, who I believe is an actor. And plays D&D. And Paul Campion. I know you don't know who he is, but he was the lead texture painter on the Balrog for Fellowship of the Ring -- so he's got, like, lava expertise. You know.

All these folks gladly donated their time and their brainpower to supporting this project. It's been a long haul from GenCon and without everyone's enthusiasm and hard work, it wouldn't have happened. It's very exciting to have the opportunity to work with some of the funniest, smartest, and (as mentioned before) most astonishingly good-looking people I've ever met. I fit right in.

And no matter what, you gotta admit that's a pretty stellar lineup of celebrity quotes. If that doesn't encourage you to download this FREE PDF RIGHT NOW, I don't know what to say to you people. Kids these days, I don't understand.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

KHAAAANNN!!!



That is all.

The Ones Nobody Knows: The Borribles

Sidney. Torreycannon. Vulgarian. Stonks. Chalotte. Napoleon Boot. Bingo. Oroccoco. Adolf. And Knocker, of course, Knocker.

I haven't read Michael De Larrabeiti's masterpiece The Borribles in probably twenty years, but I still know all their names. They lived in our minds as big as Han Solo, Frodo and John Carter, and to this day I can recall them with such clarity it makes me wonder what the hell IS GOING ON inside my brain.

Vulgarian, stomping exhaustedly into the Chief Rumble's bathroom. "All the way from the Stepney. Bloody miles."

Stonks holding the door open with his massive strength. The treachery of Napoleon Boot. Knocker's suspicion of the girls, Chalotte and Sidney. Oroccoco, from "Tooting, man, Tooting." It's all there. Hasn't gone anywhere.

Borribles, for those of you who aren't Glenn or Alex, are kids who never grow up, and live on the streets of big cities, stealing and fighting and trying to stay one step ahead of the Special Borrible Group of the London Police. Their mortal enemies are the Rumbles, humanoid rats who love nothing better to eat than fresh Borrible meat. When it's discovered that the Rumbles are planning an invasion of Borrible territory, the resourceful street punks assemble a Dirty Dozen (well, an Egregious Eight) to infiltrate the Rumble stronghold and eliminate the High Council of the Rumbles.

These few (plus a couple of hangers-on) make their way across a freakish, ghastly version of London where adults are perilous monsters, underground streams flow in grotesque, filth-caked channels and everywhere lurks danger, betrayal and death.

Few worlds have been evoked in fiction with the compelling vision of de Larrabeiti's London. Almost a separate character in its own right, it is foul and beautiful in the same view. We see the city mainly through Knocker's eyes, and his dispassionate view keeps the revolting nature of so much of it at bay enough for us to understand that this is home to him and his brethren. And as it transforms during the course of the story, it illuminates the emotional journey that all the Borribles are forced to undergo in the carrying-out of their quest.

Also, The Borribles has names. Cool names. Just look at them up there. Tell me those aren't some awesome names right there. There's cool names in the DEDICATION -- "For Whitebonce, Spikey and Fang." It's hard to resist a book with names like that, I gotta say. One of my favourite moments is when Knocker gives Adolf his new name: "Adolf Wolfgang Amadeus Winston!" Yeah. There's a bad guy named Flinthead. Tell me you don't want to see HIM come to a bad end.

Damn, I need to go read this again.

I just picked it up and discovered I'd totally forgotten about the map. There's a map of the few square miles of London that the epic takes place in -- from Battersea park to Wimbledon Common. So then of course I browse over to Google Maps and blow up the satallite photos of London and yeah, there it all is: Battersea Church Road, Fulham Power Station where Adolf joined up, Engandine Street where they fell into Dewdrop's clutches... sigh.

You know, I thought this would be easy. I thought, "I'll just write about how much I love these books. It'll be a snap." But it turns out I can't just write "I love this book" and be done with it.

WHY did this book captivate me so much? I mean, aside from the fact that it's so very very good?

Maybe because it's so hard. Bad things happen in this book, to people you've come to love. Things they don't deserve -- this is not a morality play where good is rewarded and evil is punished. De Larrabeiti's world is a nihilistic one, where no answers come to those who struggle, where death is neither consummation nor tragedy -- unless it happens to be your friend. The only real morality here is that of the Borribles themselves -- "If you're my friend, follow me around the bend." The Magnificent Eight (Ten) do what they do not ultimately out of any desire to do the RIGHT thing, but because they're in it together and they'll see it through.

Maybe because these weird little rough-and-tumble Peter Pans of the High Street band together in such a tight fellowship. Growing up in suburban Canada, there was little opportunity for the sort of intense bonding the Borribles go through. My friends and I weren't in mortal peril, we weren't taking a stand against the world, we weren't faced with implacable enemies who would destroy us and our entire culture if we didn't stick together. But we kind of wished we were.

And maybe just because it's so very very good. And has dialogue like, "That's sorted you out, weasel-chops."

But maybe because in the end, de Larrabeiti resists providing any easy answers. The Borribles implicates its heros in many crimes -- theft, murder, even genocide. They hate learning and change, regard outsiders with intense xenophobia and oppose anyone who speaks of "improving things." And they are clearly not entirely wrong to do so. In de Larrabeiti's world, the only people who speak of improvement are those who see personal advantage in that improvement. The only people who rise to power are those who are willing to exploit others and undermine the very foundation of their own society.

Heros win nothing but a name, and sacrifice everything. The Borribles makes you wonder if it's worth it, while at the same time making sure you love watching it happen.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Ones Nobody Knows: The 81st Site

I recently received a treasure from Abe Books: a hardcover edition of a book that I absolutely LOVED as a kid, and have never seen since.

And so I have decided to embark on a little "series" of talking about four books that have brought me intense joy, and that I sometimes think nobody but me (and maybe the folks I first read them with) have ever heard of.

We'll start with the one that just arrived, a book that I literally have never met anyone who's ever heard of it.

The 81st Site by Tony Kenrick



Yeah, I know. You've never heard of it. And given that it's been out of print for 25 years, chances are you'll never hear of it. So I'm not going to be worrying about spoilers here.

But this is the book that made me first want to make movies. The final sequence of this book is a nerve-wracking aerial action sequence that wads up every James Bond movie ever made into a neat little ball, stuffs it in its mouth and chews it into a soggy pulp. I read this book a million times at least, but I read just that sequence a MILLION MILLION times. Even before the old copy from Abe arrived, I could still recite beat-by-beat every moment of that sequence. It still makes my pulse rise, just thinking about it. I don't know anything about Mr. Kenrick, but the finale of The 81st Site puts him very high on my list of favourite writers ever.

Look, just check the premise of the book: After WW II ends, a disgruntled Nazi spends thirty years looking for the 81st V-1 launching site, the site that was never found and destroyed by the Allies after the war. His mad bad-guy dream is to wreak a final revenge on the English by restoring the site and carrying on the struggle single-handedly.

And, as the back of the edition I read as a kid said,

THIS time, the Third Reich will win.

THIS time, they will only need one rocket.

Because THIS time, they have a nuclear bomb...


Huh? Huh? That practically defines AWESOME. What a brilliant idea. And it only gets better. Much, much better. The climactic sequence is so outrageously cinematic it plays out in my head, shot for shot, with ease. Even as a twelve-year-old I could run it in my imagination, sound effects, close-ups and everything.

All that said, I kind of get why it wasn't turned into a movie. Although the final sequence is indeed mind-blowing (I'm not building this up at all, am I?), I think you could argue that the fact that none of the novel's main characters are involved at all diminishes its movie-ability. It doesn't bother me any, but me and "characters" in story-telling have a bit of a rocky relationship at best.

But other than that, I greatly admire Kenrick's construction. He runs two stories in parallel; the tale of the aforementioned disgruntled Nazi, following his decades-long struggle to find the site, assembling his team of collaborating, a bank heist, a couple of killings and such good stuff. These are BAD guys. At the same time, he intercuts with the story of an American insurance investigator in London who comes to suspect that the explosion he's been sent to review might have a more unusual cause than first believed.

As the Nazi brings his fiendish plot together, the insurance guy starts figuring out what's going on, and the two come together for their final showdown just as the last rocket is fired.

Excellent stuff, all of it, and Kenrick's precision with details makes not only the verisimilitude stronger, but allows for his clever protagonists (of course the insurance investigator has a beautiful girl by his side) to demonstrate their cleverness with mailboxes, book elevators, milk trucks and map coordinates. It's all very hectic and part of the fun is that they're basically ordinary folks who don't suddenly turn into action heroes. They spend most of the story running away from scary people, but being very charming while they do so.

Still, it's that final sequence that really blows this book into my personal stratosphere of literary good times. I have to fight desperately against the urge to actually recite the whole thing, beat-by-beat any time I start talking this book up to others. Sometimes I just recite it to myself because, well, nobody else cares. I actually starting writing it in screenplay format for this blog, but that's a little more obsessive than I'm entirely comfortable with.

But it features a shoot-out between a Focke-Wulf 190 and a Tornado jet! A Hercules cargo plane trying to catch a buzz bomb in mid-air before it plunges below 500 feet and the ATOMIC BOMB goes off over the middle of London! Crash landings! High-speed drills! Missiles! Helicopters! Parachutes! Evil Nazis! Suave British secret agents! Exploding aircraft!

If you really want to hear how it all goes down, corner me at some party (because I'm at SO MANY of those) and just say, "Hey, so how DOES The 81st Site end, anyway?" And hang on.

More "Ones Nobody Knows" to follow! Stay tuned if you like reading reviews of stuff you'll never read.

Do YOU Get Paid?

Classic Ellison. Could he be any funnier, any more savage, any wiser?



From Dead Things ON Sticks

Monday, November 5, 2007

Love Labour

MAYBE some of you noticed a wee little change on the site recently.

Okay, I'm reasonably sure nobody noticed, but it was a good opening line and you never want to throw away a good opening line.

Anyways, I added a little line of type to that funny Communist-propaganda-kind-of image the site has always had up in the upper right corner. See? Right there. Now it says "A Labour of Love". It didn't used to. Honest.

That image never had an explanation. I just kind of liked it, even though it didn't much fit in with the rest of the site's design. But when I was casting around for ideas on creating this site, it really seemed to me that I wanted some element of it that spoke of craft and effort and actual hard work. I can't draw, so I knew I'd have to FIND an image if that's what I was going to use. I poked around in a lot of corners, but when I saw that image it spoke to me.

My original idea was to have a record or a turntable, but I thought that would be kind of lame since I don't actually scratch records. I guess I don't do much sledgehammering, either, but somehow it seems less dishonest.

ANYWAY, I was making a few changes here and there, and suddenly I knew why that image was there. And then I wrote that and now I think it looks like it was supposed to be like that all along.

Sometimes, as Pooh says, poems get you. Rabbit never understands, but that's okay.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Rrraaarrrrr

That was a dinosaur noise, if you couldn't tell. Me and dinosaurs go way back. Dinosaurs have never let me down, I have to say. In fact, they just go on getting cooler and cooler as the years go by. I mean, they have feathers now, and they run around, and they're even BIGGER than they used to be, and some of them are just totally BIZARRE.

And by BIZARRE, of course, I mean AWESOME.

So one could probably win some easy money that at some point, betting that Corey's going to be involved in an RPG product that involves dinosaurs. Seriously.

And here it is, the:

True20 Prehistoric Bestiary



Packed full of REAL dinosaur-y goodness, even fully illustrated (thank you, WikiCommons) -- True20 statblocks for all the well-known dinosaurs, and a few beasties that aren't so well known.

It's all kind of Joshua's fault. He was complaining that nobody seemed to be using the latest in paleontology to create cool beasties for gaming. He was right, too, and it got me thinking. And me and Joshua thinking in the same channels? That never ends well.

Anyway, the book lists off 25 creatures of all levels, with (as I said) full-colour illos all the way through (only the Dragonfly, Giant, doesn't get a pic), some details on how these beasties are encountered in the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND campaign setting, and even a "battlemap" of a fun-to-ride-on-and-even-more-fun-to-jump-off howdah that one might find mounted on a triceratops.

Because if you had a triceratops, why WOULDN'T you ride it?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Random Stuff

Spent the morning re-reading Strangers In Paradise 1-60. Every so often I become a helpless slave of romantic tales of people who can't get their shit together. I don't think that makes me a bad person. One of these days we're just going to have to invest in the final 30. You know. I don't think I'll ever pull together characters like Moore can. Jeez.

I read this blog post on "Don't Talk So Much, You Pompous Windbag" and immediately thought of OTHER PEOPLE. Yeah. (via Lifehacker)

Apple programmers have a sense of humour.

Groove Armada are pretty cool. I'm just never going to be that smooth.

Almost have a True20 Dinosaurs book ready to go. Me, with a book full of dinosaurs. I know, hard to imagine. Rarrr. I don't really know why it is that I love them so much, except that they're TOTALLY AWESOME. Which reminds me, there's this insane bookstore down the street from us (well, about ten blocks or so away, but whatever) that, uh, is insane. And a bookstore. Anyway, this bookstore has the most incredible collection of bizarre special-interest books I've ever seen. Forget about coffee-table books about architecture. Forget about coffee-table books about Arabic architecture. Forget about coffee-table books about Arabic architecture in Morocco. How about a coffee-table book (full-colour illustrations, hardcover, the works) about Arabic architecture in a particular six-block region of Morocco? Or about, say, Art Deco pieces that were on auction in like, January 1935? Or cowboy illustrations by American women artists in the mid-50's? You think I'm making this up, but I'm not. Anyway, that's where I found Dougal Dixon's new book on dinosaurs. It makes me happy.

And thank you, world, for Kahlil Gibran.

On Giving


Kahlil Gibran
You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow?
And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the overprudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city?
And what is fear of need but need itself?
Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?

There are those who give little of the much which they have--and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.
And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.
Through the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.

It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding;
And to the open-handed the search for one who shall receive is joy greater than giving.
And is there aught you would withhold?
All you have shall some day be given;
Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors'.

You often say, "I would give, but only to the deserving."
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.
And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream.
And what desert greater shall there be, than that which lies in the courage and the confidence, nay the charity, of receiving?
And who are you that men should rend their bosom and unveil their pride, that you may see their worth naked and their pride unabashed?
See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.

And you receivers... and you are all receivers... assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.
Rather rise together with the giver on his gifts as on wings;
For to be overmindful of your debt, is to doubt his generosity who has the freehearted earth for mother, and God for father.


Damn. I'm just never going to be that smooth.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

These Things Take Time

...and I know that I'm...
The most inept that's ever stepped...


Okay, maybe not the MOST inept. I do try to be less self-important than Morrissey. Not that it's hard, but nice of me to try.

A couple of weekends ago a number of us travelled up to Montreal to study once again under the watchful eye of Sugino Sensei. He had come to spend some time with Michel Martin Sensei, as he had done last year when I saw him, and we were not going to miss the opportunity to practice with him this time.

At one point in the practice session Sensei asked half the group (there were about 30 folks there) to move to the sides of the room and merely WATCH the other half practicing. "Practice with your eyes," he said.

One of the interesting things about watching other people do stuff is that you are denied the opportunity to demonstrate your own skill and cleverness. You have to sit there and wait and watch until they're done. You must observe.

In our education system, passive observation is what is asked of students. Because of this (I guess, little armchair sociologist for you here) we devalue the idea of "studentship". Being a student is a phase that most of us are only too eager to put behind us, as we move into the rareified realm of "being an expert."

As I posted previously about The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts, there is a strong thread in martial arts literature that tries to glorify being a student. The Demon's Sermon makes the claim that only when you are truly and without expectation observing your opponent can you hope to react appropriately no matter what he attempts. That is, the master swordsman is embracing the role of the student, of the observer.

But this form of observation cannot be passive. This is why Sensei insists we "practice with our eyes". We are not to sit back and simply let the kata performed before us leave empty impressions on our retinas. We must attentively inspect the actions of the other students; consider where their choices differ from ours, and take away from what we see lessons that we can put into practice when our turn comes. We must engage with the other students and relish the opportunity to see from the outside what it is we have such difficulty understanding from within.

A dojo without students is an empty shell. I was reading an article today about fostering learning teams, self-organizing groups that accomplish goals and build lasting social capital. The lesson of the article was that the only way to actively build such teams is to listen. By being a good listener, you create an environment where listening is valued, and it is only through listening that teams can ever truly come together. If no one is listening to each other, how can a team pull together?

A dojo where no one is observing will suffer the same fate. And just as telling a story to someone who anticipates every sentence, or keeps interrupting to expand on points they consider themselves experts on is frustrating and useless, so is practicing kata before those who will not observe you as students: without expectation, without the need to demonstrate their expertise.

Being a student is a tremendous honour and a great privilege. Only a student can never be surprised -- because when you consider yourself a student, you EXPECT to be surprised. When you consider yourself an expert, you are in part claiming that you are unlikely to be surprised -- which puts you at a significant disadvantage when (as invariably happens) things occur that you did not expect. A student, unconcerned with how they appear, will be able to react naturally and without self-consciousness. An expert, on the other hand, will be consumed with the fear that if they do not react appropriately, they will betray their own lack of expertise.

Sensei asked us to observe carefully and to find points that we could translate into action for ourselves. I take his own behaviour as a model; when he is watching me practice, he zeros in on the fulcrum points where the tiniest change will bring about the biggest impact on my performance. Just as he did last year, with one simple direction he changed my understanding of maku-uchi men, the foundation cut of Katori Shinto Ryu.

Observing. Listening. It is so easy for me to become passive when I do these things, and so much of modern pastimes encourage a passive engagement (or rather, lack thereof) with whatever is presented to me that the habit is well-ingrained. It is useful for me to have a reminder that when I am watching, I am still practicing.

But you know where you came from,
You know where you're going and
you know where you belong...

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

From White to White

It was a historic moment. For me, anyway. For the first time in my life, I was practicing martial arts wearing a belt other than the one pictured here. This was my father's judo white belt. I have worn this belt since I was a child. It doesn't go around me as many times as it used to, that's for sure, but it's stood me in good stead through my brief association with Judo at College Heights Secondary School, and more lastingly at Skoyles Sensei's Nakayama-kai Ko-Aikido in Calgary, across the Pacific Ocean to Sugino Dojo in Kawasaki, and now at Tong Sensei's Katori Shinto Ryu practice here in Toronto. It's done right by me, that old belt.

I never wanted to wear anything but a white belt. Fortunately, aside from Judo I've never practiced a tradition that used coloured belts for anything, so it's never been a problem.

My white belt reminds me that I am always a beginner. That I need to approach my art with humility and that everyone who practices with me is my teacher. It's a lesson I need continual reminding of, prone as I am to thinking I've got things "figured out".

One of the things I love most about swordsmanship is that there's so little to "figure out". It drives me crazy, but it's that lesson again. It doesn't matter how much thinking I do, or how much terminology I memorize, or how many different cuts I know. It only matters how much and how well I practice.

My new belt is from Aoi Budogu, a splendid outfit in Vancouver who sell a wonderful array of fantastic products for us swordsmen. Not many retailers cater to our demographic, so it's great to have folks like this who offer the sorts of wacky things we think are important. This lovely obi is much more functional for a swordsman. Its greater width holds your sword more firmly in place.

It's good to have fine tools if they encourage one to practice more and better. While you don't want to get all hung up on having the perfect tools, or use NOT having them as an excuse to practice, there's no denying that beautiful things raise one's spirits and encourage practice. Plus it didn't cost very much.

As you can see, my new belt is also white. It's a little flashier than the old one, sure. Don't hate me. But it's still white. I would feel strange wearing anything but white around my waist. I'm a beginner. I don't practice much. But boy am I capable of feeling incredibly proud of myself. Even though I've moved on from my father's Judo belt, I don't want to pretend I don't need a reminder like this.

Also, this one is much longer, so it goes around me a few more times than the old one. THAT reminder I don't need so much.

New obi photo courtesy of Aoi Budogi. Used by permission. Copyright 2007 Aoi Budogu

Monday, October 8, 2007

Creepy, But I Love Her

Steph's short film Amniotic was picked for the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon, last weekend. We believe it screened yesterday (it was a last-minute addition and sadly does not show up on the festival's schedule).

But anyway, it's wonderful that it was picked, and for those of you who haven't seen it yet (if you somehow missed the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon, last weekend), here it is, in all its creepifying glory:



Eew. But awesome.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Raining, Pouring, Capturing the Flagging

I've posted before about these folks, but I need to give another shout out for an upcoming event that the good people at NewMindSpace are putting together.

That unfortunately I'm not able to attend.

But next Friday night downtown Toronto will be host to an immense game of Capture the Flag.



I bought a button to support this because really and truly I love this stuff. Even if I can't go run around like a silly person. Because tell me this doesn't look like total fun:



I've said it before; I'll say it again. Silly is important.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Ya Gotta Admit, That's Pretty Cool

Free Multi-media Language Learning on the web. I don't care where you come from, even if you just came from midget Mexican wrestling strip tease, the idea that there's hundreds of lessons for tons of languages all available FOR FREE is pretty damn cool.

Not as cool as being able to just KNOW every language in the world automatically, but baby steps, right? Baby steps.

But won't it be weird when we don't really need to store this kind of stuff in your head? I watch people walking around talking to people WHO AREN'T EVEN THERE, who are probably a thousand miles away, and I can only imagine that those little headsets they're talking on are just going to seem so crude and clunky in ten years. We will laugh at the idea we once thought BlackBerrys were cool and "high-tech".

It's only been thirty years since computers started showing up in our houses. Assume BlackBerrys will move ahead further than computers did over the same timespan and see what you come up with.

At some point, we're just going to naturally carry on conversations with people without really needing to pay any attention to their geographic location. Or ours. I'll just be able to say, "Hey, Carl," and Carl and I can have a conversation, even if I'm in Toronto and he's in Vancouver.

I think it's going to get weird. And when the going gets weird, the weird, as the good Doctor Gonzo told us, the weird turn PRO. It's already underway.

If people are getting paid to dress up in masks and pretend to fight, the limit has got to be in the ballpark of the sky.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Striking At The Heart

Probably should have just extended the previous note but whatever.

Okay, first of all, I wanted to mention that Finish owed a bigger debt to Steph than maybe I made it seem. The initial version of the song included a funky lead guitar line that I totally loved. It was actually the guitar line that found me the bass line, and I just thought the whole rocked right out.

Steph listened to it and said, "Is the guitar in tune?"

I shrugged.

"It says it is. They're both listed as being in C." (here we see my formidable command of musical theory coming to the fore)

She scowled.

"I don't like it."

"You don't like it? But it's the best part of the song. Listen to that. It's totally awesome. And it's SO in tune."

"Well, I don't know. Can we listen to it without the guitar?"

"No, it's really complicated because I have the rabab on that track as well and the levels are all set and..."

"Okay, that's fine. I just think it would be better without the guitar."

Steph goes on her way and I sit there mumbling about how totally in tune that guitar is and how awesome it sounds and what does she think she's doing grump grump grump.

And then I just kind of wonder to myself. Because that bass IS pretty bitchin'. Maybe it WOULD sound better on its own.

I juggle tracks a bit and mute the guitar.

And I don't like it. But I leave it. I walk away from the Mac and leave the guitar track muted. Come back the next and listen to it again. Guitar still muted. I don't do any work on the song, but honestly, I'm starting to think maybe the song is better this way.

It's another day before I'm ready to delete the guitar track and re-work the few bits that need adjusting with its departure.

So thanks, Steph. Sometimes it takes me a while to try other people's ideas, especially when they seem to strike right at the heart of what I've worked so passionately on. But more often than not, the ideas are good ones.


And Blogger Play is INSANELY cool. Watch the world blog. Live.

He Really Is

Kevin Church offers up Dark Knight Declarations:



Kevin is a kind and generous soul. He likes comic books and the Pet Shop Boys. A lot.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Providing Value

For those of you who don't hang breathlessly on every development of the forthcoming new edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game, you may not be aware that, er, there is one. But there is. This is the fourth new edition of the game, sort of. Anyway, they call it Fourth Edition.

AND Wizards of the Coast (a very tiny division of Hasbro, which owns D&D) is publishing little updates on the design and development process as part of their marketing efforts for this new edition.

Which, predictably enough, has a certain portion of the Internet in an uproar.

Is there ANYTHING that doesn't cause an uproar on a certain portion of the Internet? I mean, besides my blog posts?

Honestly, I have a point in here. Stay with me.

So the latest of these little marketing "Inside Peeks" came out yesterday, and it outlined how demons and devils are going to be treated in the new version. A little cosmology, a little campaign setting history, and some basic ideas on what's fun in gaming. All reasonable stuff, actually. Pretty good ideas, to my thinking.

But here's the thing: it's just one possible way of handling such things. It's not a bad way, in fact it's a pretty good way. But there are plenty of pretty good ways. I'm absolutely certain that just about anyone I've gamed with in the past few years could come up with a cosmology and a history just as good.

So how much value is there, really, in Wizards providing this for us? Maybe I'm off, but I'm thinking, not a lot. Even for folks who don't want to do all that thinking, is there really an advantage here? I mean, there was already a pretty good idea in place from the last edition. Is it just novelty for novelty's sake?

And is THAT a viable business plan? I know it works for the fashion industry (now THERE'S a parallel), but really?

Thing is, if I want some good ideas on a new way to handle demons and devils, honestly, I go online and ask the folks there. I'll get half-a-dozen sharp, creative (and probably play-tested) ideas in a day. That even goes for rules, not just fluffy stuff like this. And the situation is only going to get worse (or rather, better) as time goes by. My interest in paying $40 for a hardcover book full of rules I can get elsewise isn't going to rise, I'm pretty sure.

So where is the value? What is a viable business plan for this industry?

I think the good folks at Paizo are onto something. Their new monthly publication, Pathfinder, offers up a host of useful stuff -- a fully detailed adventure (for those of you not in the know but gamely keeping up, that means that all the math I would normally need to to do before running a game is already done for me -- this is a good thing) (and yes, doing lots of math is actually part of these games), new monsters I can drop into my own games, no matter what the setting (or the ruleset, to some degree), pages upon pages of gorgeous art...

Now, much of this sort of thing I'm sure I'll find in the new D&D books, but those are going to be immense hard-bound volumes selling for $40 a pop. Ish. These Pathfinder books are ten bucks.

And they're more SPECIFIC, and I think that's really where the value is going to be in the future. For better or worse, the Open Gaming License has released the basics of solid rules design into the world for all to observe and make use of. Providing large-scale generic-ish rulesets just doesn't strike me as a solid play for the future. Not compared to providing detailed, specific value.

Heck, I don't even play D&D and I love Pathfinder already.

Remember my original goal with my Mini-Games? Well, that didn't end so well, honestly, but not, I think, because the idea itself was flawed. I think the value in this industry is in making it easier for folks to get together and have fun. The obstacles to me running a game aren't in the rules. I got rules coming out my ears. They aren't in the cosmology and big-picture setting details. The obstacles I face are in getting characters generated, in having some notion of what's behind that door RIGHT THERE, and having some sort of answer when my players ask, "What happens if we just, you know, SET IT ON FIRE?"

Paizo seems to be helping me help my players set things on fire. I appreciate that.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Finish What You Start

Okay, so we were watching this tremendous British noir called They Made Me A Fugitive (damn them) with Trevor Howard and Sally Grey (where are all the Sallys these days?), and there's fantastic bit in the middle where our now-a-fugitive hero (I don't think I'm giving too much away if I say that a some point in the film the hero becomes a fugitive) confronts young Miss Grey and delivers a blistering speech on finishing what you start.

It's a nailbiter, for sure, largely because you're never entirely sure how far our desperate hero is willing to go. Trevor Howard is a great square-jawed but morally uncertain hero, and Sally delivers pluck and charm a-plenty. Rest assured she does, in the end, finish what she started.

Anyway, that speech kept rattling around in my head, and then it got really hot, and one day we were walking across the park and Steph mumbled, "It's too darn hot," and then Trevor Howard got mixed up with Cole Porter. And a cowbell.

So here's "Finish":



It's possible it needs more cowbell.

Friday, September 21, 2007

That Figures

Of course it would happen just after I posted my little "Whiteboards Are Fine Just The Way They Are!" rant: free online whiteboards that are pretty cool.



Usable and simple. But I bet hardly anyone uses them.

It will be interesting, for sure, when real-time online collaboration becomes a reality. I'm not convinced we're there yet, and I wonder if the larger problem isn't technology, but inside our own heads.

As Carl and I have been saying to each other for three years now: Technology is easy. PEOPLE are hard.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

My Loony Bun Is Fine

Steph and I enjoy a nonsensical Hindi musical number as much as (probably more than) the next couple. L even lent us her copy of Big Bachchan The Big Actor. We're not exactly connisseurs, but we've watched entire musicals with real enjoyment.

Still, you don't have to be a fan of the form to choke to death on your own laughter watching the following clip. Some clever soul has taken a typical musical number and transliterated the lyrics into English -- that is, not the meaning but only the sound of the words. Comedy gold.



My loony bun is fine Benny Lava. It's still in your head, isn't it?

Thanks to Kevin Church for this one.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

And... Back

Okay, unsettling technical issues appear to have been settled, thanks to P's tireless efforts. For which he will receive, rest assured, ample recompense.

...

What?

You act like my undying gratitude doesn't count as recompense. Ample, even.

Sheesh.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Be So Stupid

Few practices in my life have been as reliable a source of humility and ego-loss as studying swordsmanship. It seems sometimes that every time I practice I am forced to confront one or more of my many failings.

Those who start out junior to me practice more diligently and quickly outstrip my knowledge and skill. Those who teach me techniques tell me the same things over and over again, to no apparent effect. And yet I unerringly become prideful over what I see as my own spectacular progress.

I have been extremely fortunate in having had a series of teachers who have patiently pointed out again and again how undeserved such pride is. This is, in a lot of ways, the primary function of a teacher: the student learns some tiny detail on their own, and the teacher points out how much they have yet to learn.

I recently read through William Scott Wilson's translation of The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts, written by Issai Chozanshi in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. It is a document that repeats a fundamental message over and over, in a variety of ways and forms:

It is foolish to think that another person doesn't know what you know. If you have spiritual clarity, another person will have spiritual clarity as well. How could you be the only knowledgeable one, while everyone else under heaven is a fool?


Belief in my own specialness is a pernicious fault of mine. I learn something and immediately, in all my dealings with others, I assume that they have never heard of this learning, and that I will be able to do them an immense favour by providing them with my latest gem of wisdom.

Or even worse, somebody else passes on their wisdom to me and I internalize it to such a degree that I return it to them as though it were my own. I apply it in all circumstances, whether or not it applies.

Chozanshi has cruel words for those like me:

How could anyone in the world be so stupid? A man will learn some skill, and after making doubly sure he's got it down, will use it over and over again in vain, never understanding that the skill has now become his enemy, and that he is inviting disaster.


Sigh. Dead for 350 years and he's still beating me up. And of course, there's always the fact that to hold back whatever wisdom one has acquired is deeply selfish -- so sometimes you DO have to pass those gems on. Thankfully, Wilson was inspired to do so with The Demon's Sermon.

Wilson's work in this volume is as assured as in his previous translations of Hagakure and The Book of Five Rings. His voice is confident and never awkward, and he provides plenty of useful context for some of the more esoteric terms.

New to me in this book is the idea of shizen, "spontaneity" or "nature". Chozanshi discusses its application:

He [the martial artist] must perceive any situation with total concentration, and act as a mirror spontaneously reflects what passes in front of it. He can harbour no thoughts of prepared action, for they will only come between himself and the external circumstances. In the same way, any premeditated action will not truly reflect or respond to the reality of the situation.


Of course this does not suggest that there is no place for practice and technique. The demons discuss the relationship between practice and spontaneity at length, dismissing any notion that one is more important than the other. This is an insight into kata that I know I have to keep reminding myself of -- the kata are not rehearsals for battle. It is, in a sense, futile to try and interpret them as functional applications of technique. One does not, for example, always respond to yoko-do with a retreat to jodan (as in ikkajo). What one is learning is a repertoire of techniques and the practice of maintaining posture and distance and timing, but all this learning must be put from one's mind at the moment of crisis, so that one's spontaneous nature can emerge without premeditation, and so that one will respond in the unique manner appropriate to this unique situation.

Learning is something I do myself. It is not something that is done to me. As the old cat says in the tale that concludes the book:

This is not something conferred on you by a teacher. It is easy to teach and also easy to listen to the teachings. It is only difficult to see that they are something within you, and to make them your own.


Wakizashi photo by guuzi. Thanks!

You Can Never Rule Them All

One of the key plot points of J.R.R. Tolkein's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, is the fact that Frodo FAILS. He does not, in the end, prove capable of withstanding the Ring's evil call to selfish security. In the end, Frodo claims the Ring for his own and it is only random chance (or rather, the mysterious workings-out of a higher power) that destroys the Ring once and for all.

The lure of the Ring is greater than any mortal's ability to resist. Or immortal's, for that matter; neither Galadriel nor Gandalf dare even touch it. They understand the meaning of the phrase "To rule them all."

The Ring is "the ultimate machine" -- it is the answer to any problem. To every problem. It is Solution incarnate, whispering the promise of how wonderful things could be. If only that one little niggling detail could be hammered down.

And oh how tempting that promise is to me. How often I fall prey to the succubus notion of fixing the problems in my life, when the truth is that the problems in my life are not fixable in any normal sense of the word.

Steven Erickson has pointed out how profoundly the fantasy genre shifted when Glenn Cook published The Black Company. While I would include Steven Brust as the opposite axle of that shift, I'm on board with Erickson's interpretation of Cook's work and impact. Both writers emerged in the early-to-mid 80's so let's call it a draw. Both inverted Tolkien's norms (which by the mid-80's had become deeply entrenched in genre writing) in playful, modernist and profound ways. In both author's hands, the fantasy genre at last began to transcend the boundaries Tolkien's immense genius had placed around it.

I was walking home the other day and thinking about the fantasy genre and why we tell stories full of magic and swordplay and desperate quests. And most particularly, why fantasy stories almost always seem to revolve around ancient evil left to revive itself and trouble the world once again.

Brust's stories don't, but he's a genius. Moving on.

Tolkien in a way creates this trope, and its ubiquity in the fantasy genre is as much a testament to the power of his mythological restoration as to anything else, but it remains a striking trope and it probably deserves some coherent analysis. Which, sadly, I am uninclined to offer.

What I did end up thinking about was how Cook inverts this element of Tolkien just as he does the elements of innocence, high language, careful history and culture and so on. At the close of the series (the first trilogy), the rising evil has been put down again, but whereas in Tolkien the evil is finally once and for all destroyed through the power of grace (or coincidence, if you prefer), in Cook there is no grace to deliver us. There is no higher power that awaits one who will make the final sacrifice in order to ensure the safety of the rest.

In Cook, there is no Solution to the Solution.

Evil gets hammered down and people make sacrifices in order to encourage safety, but in Cook's world there is no surety. Evil always waits. It always finds a way back, as long as there exist people who are willing to screw over their fellows for an advantage.

The Third Age ends and the threat of Sauron is gone. The final servant of Morgoth is destroyed and the world is at last safe for mortal souls.

The White Rose and the Lady square off over the Dominator and the world is NOT safe. It is no safer than it was. No Age comes to an end, no final solution is arrived at.

Cook's is a perspective that comes after too many wars have been fought to end war. Too many efforts to solve all problems. Too many Final Solutions. Not only is there never One Ring To Rule Them All, but there is never an end to Rings and those who wish to Rule Them All.

Kind of Back

Hi folks

We've suffered some rather severe technical issues of late, but we have at least partial life support back on now. Sort of.

If you don't look too hard.

And pretend those images are all still there.

Anyway.

Hi!

Phew. Now EVERYTHING will be okay again.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

True20 Ship Combat Rules! Available Now!

Hey all you wacky True20 fans out there in radio land -- have we got a deal for you. A whole 11-page PDF of shiny new rules for handling ship combats in True20. With pictures even! And, wonders of wonders, a whole set of example ships (well, three) drawn from the hitherto-unplumbed depths of the legendary DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND campaign setting, which is slowly but surely heaving towards a welcome harbour.

These rules were born on a thread on the True20 forums, and most of the credit for their cleverness goes to True20Chick and iwatt for their creativity and ingenuity in developing and analysing the rules as they were developed. I was late to the party and mostly just brought snacks.

But now there's a PDF! And snacks, tasty.

The Secret of the Whiteboard

I was sitting in on a team retrospective today and I suddenly realised one of those totally obvious things that I occasionally figure out. Usually a few decades after everyone else has.

But it's one of the reasons why whiteboards are such an effective way for teams to collaborate, and it explains why "virtual" replacements never really work.

Picture a meeting area with a whiteboard. Most everybody sits at the table, right? One person gets up and does the writing/whatnot at the whiteboard, right? There isn't really room at the whiteboard for more than one or at most two people, and it's not very much fun standing around while somebody else writes away. You might as well sit down, and so the tendency is always for one person to be the "whiteboard" person and everyone else to be "everyone else."

And it's that simple mechanical situation that makes whiteboards effective. Because you have one whiteboard person facing everyone else, you have a natural flow of information -- everyone else generates ideas and commentary, and the whiteboard person filters all that out and creates a living document of the group's efforts. The technology creates the social environment most conducive to creative collaboration.

If EVERYONE has access to the whiteboard, there's no filtering process. The group's creative energy isn't directed anywhere and so generating forward momentum is harder. But if access to the whiteboard is harder than just standing up and taking up the pen, then the filtering feels forced and overbearing. Likewise, if people can't easily, say, write sticky notes and see those notes get put up on the board, they will feel less inclined to contribute.

Now technologies like SMART boards offer some solid enhancements to this basic technology, but really, I don't know if there's a big leap to be made here. The killer app for whiteboards is just straight-up creative collaboration. They rock at it.

It's interesting to note how some technologies are so fundamental that they're almost impervious to design improvement. Take the book. The book is a marvellous piece of technology, and computers don't seem able to do much to improve them, even though their fundamental task (information delivery) would seem to be exactly the sort of thing computers excel at. Whiteboards aren't quite so extreme that way but still, even the most wildly-advanced whiteboard replacement seems to be getting at most 10% of its value from the additions made AFTER the basic whiteboard value is considered.

Huh.

Photo Credit Michelle Ho

Monday, September 3, 2007

Pure Pop: "Terrible"

Nobody, but nobody, does pop music like the Japanese. They are simply the masters when it comes to smooth production, gorgeous song structure and soaring emotions. "go for it!" by Dreams Come True remains probably the greatest pop tune I've ever heard in my life.

At last year's Vancouver Film Festival we had to make some tough choices, and one film in particular that we only cut from our schedule with the heaviest of hearts was Linda Linda Linda, a seemingly frothy tale of four Japanese high school girls who form a punk band.

Fortunately, Linda Linda Linda received a DVD release sufficient to reach our neighborhood video shop, and Steph snagged it from the shelves last week.

And the cinematic tradition in Japan remains as solid as ever. Linda Linda Linda is as delightful as it is stripped-down. No tricks, no pandering, no over-statement or pretentious under-statement. Four extremely charming young ladies, a couple of unbelievably catchy punk-pop tunes and the never-failing drama of needing to deliver when the time comes. Along with the never-failing heart-warmth of friends helping each other get to that time.

There's a great moment in Linda Linda Linda -- the girls manage their first practice, and Kei, the "cool" one who's the ringleader of the crew, makes a complete hash of her guitar part. Nozomi shakes her head and laughs, "Kei, Kei, Kei... Terrible." And they all laugh and practice carries on.

We were watching Moonlighting this morning and Steph remarked how the thing about Dave and Maddie is that they make each other better people. Same holds true in this film. All four of the girls are immeasurably improved by each others' determination to help make their performance a success. Without giving away too much of the plot, the real story here is not about any one girl overcoming her problems (it's in fact debatable whether many problems are in fact overcome), but about the group lifting each other up in order to reach that moment, that time when delivery is required.

I suspect most of us are masters of avoiding that time. Of staying clear of the need to deliver. When I realise that such a moment is bearing down on me, my first reaction is always panic. I'm not ready. I've got a few things I need to get in order before I take care of that. I'll just put it off for today. Get to it soon. Real soon.

And yet, there's a part of me that seeks out such moments. That craves the inner knowledge, the discovery that comes from those moments where there's no more avoiding, no more getting things in order, no more real soon. When it's time to put up or shut up. I think one thing I've learned is that failing at such moments is never quite as world-ending as my fears whisper it will be. But then I've been blessed with friends just as warm and honest as Nozomi the bass player. And whenever I blow a line or miss an entrance, I can just recall that headshaking "Kei, Kei, Kei..."

Bigger Than (Imaginary) Life

One of the greatest joys of GenCon was getting to observe so many other GMs and their GMing styles.

We're a curious breed, those of us who run our own games. You can play in a game and never really take any of it all that seriously; but if you're going to RUN a game, on some level, in some way, you need to be able to convince yourself that this really needs doing, and furthermore, you need to believe that you are just the one to do it.

It's been said (by me) that the one real requirement to being a film director is simply having the balls to tell other people what to do, for no other reason that YOU think it's a good idea. The same applies to running games. All you really need is the cojones to be able to tell other people what happens next.

I believe this leads to a common trait amongst GMs: they're all, in some fashion, bigger than life.

And I further believe that their ability as a GM increases as they develop the quality they have that makes them so. This is why so many great GMs have such diverse styles.

I think of Kevin, who ran a tremendous game of Dread -- he's got a gift for straight-up oration, and can just reel off spectacular descriptive passages seemingly without reference to any notes. Gift of the gab, they call it. Dread is perfect for him, with its simple mechanic and narrativist structure.

Or Liz, who gesticulates wildly, demonstrating to her players what's happening or how NPCs are reacting. She's a natural performer and her liveliness makes for such an exciting game table you barely notice the rules.

Gabe's dry wit and self-deprecating humour create a game space full of hilarity and yet with a compelling story as we tried to figure out just how all the pieces fit together.

Alan ran a Mars-based game that somehow brought X-Files-like subtlety to fantastic planetary romance and his serious demeanour and careful attention to detail (even when his players were distracted just making up wild conspiracy theories) kept the whole thing grounded and our character's struggles all the more thrilling.

I was really too drunk to evaluate Kirin's performance, but the fact that he handled a dozen drunks in a riotous game of Kobolds Ate My Baby and managed to keep the game on track says everything that needs to be said about his force of personality.

And that's just GenCon GMs. Nobody's going to convince me that Chris doesn't bring that wacky, "What the heck did he just say? Oh wait, that actually does make perfect sense. Weird." sensibility to his games. Nor that Paul's Empires In Collision isn't the perfect vehicle for his obsessions with history, adventure stories and detailed re-creation. And what to say about Stuart and his stunning capacity for developing complex puzzles and relationships?

Us GMs have to be bigger than life in some way -- to possess some quality that we elevate beyond just sad obsession into true creative energy. And I think we all get better the more we give way to that quality and lose our fear of being sadly obsessed. The more enthusiasm and joy we have in our particular gifts, the more memorable a game we can deliver to our players.

Our gifts are different -- a joy in delivery, an obsession with detail, a determination to overcome the obstacle of inattention -- but common to us all is a recognition that we do possess gifts and that we can bring joy and good memories to those who we can convince (cajole, entreat, swindle) into joining us.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A GenCon Review: Steve Thomas

I spent a fair amount of time wandering the dealer hall at GenCon -- full of booths large and small where folks sell books, games, swords, t-shirts and all sorts of loony stuff.

High on my list was checking out the various artists' booths. And top of the artists I encountered at GenCon had to be Steve Thomas.

You know, at a fantasy-themed event, you pretty much know the kinds of paintings you're going to get. Dragons, chicks with heaving bosoms, stern lads with swords and bulging muscles. These days you get a lot more samurai than you used, but it's pretty much all the same stuff.

Mr Thomas, though, brought something very fresh and new: check this out:


I just love the Art Deco travel poster look combined with the Gernsback-style sci-fi details. They're evocative without being sentimental or corny. Some of Mr. Thomas' work might have been criticized for lacking crucial details, but here his clean style really shows off those recognizable forms in their new context.

One of the great surprises of the con that DIDN'T involve gaming insanity.