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.