Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Mind of the Form

I'm getting a lot of mileage out of The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts. I was re-reading this lovely book recently and found yet another pearl that has stuck with me.

In the tale of "The Transformation of the Sparrow and the Butterfly" we read about how the sparrow envies the butterfly, for the butterfly has transformed from a lowly worm into a beautiful, free-flying butterfly, while the sparrow expects to transform from its current free-flying state into a clam, with no power of movement and forced to exist in the mud and filth of the ocean floor.

Predictably, the butterfly scoffs at such worries, and chides the sparrow for trying to project its current mind into its future form. The butterfly says:

"The mind of the form follows that form. When the form is extinguished, the mind of the form disappears, too."

When I read this most recently, I thought of how the kata we study are composed of a series of forms -- postures or actions. And how often I will have my mind in either the form ahead or the form behind the form I am currently presenting. If I make a mistake, I berate myself through the next several forms, paying little attention to the forms I carry on with. Likewise, if I know a difficult move is coming up, I will anticipate it several steps ahead, reminding myself to get ready, and often moving too soon or without proper mindfulness.

But this is why I practice. The "mind of the form" will come, if I learn to correctly take the form. If I practice my body, my mind will follow. I cannot practice Katori by imagining, or by reasoning, or by any mental process whatsoever. Only practice will bring my mind to the correct place. And once the form is completed, spending any further mental energy on that form is futile. The mind of the form has disappeared.

This is why questions in the dojo are so often unhelpful. It is rarely the case that new information will improve a student's form. Practice is what is required. Until the form is correct, the mind of the form cannot be grasped.

Photo by Lida Rose

Friday, November 20, 2009

Attack of the Mad Scientists!

Those of you who know me know that the bulk of my work is for those crazy Canucks at Fiery Dragon. For the past two months I've been doing work for their line of boardgames, the latest of which is the sure-to-become-a-classic "Attack of the Mad Scientists!

AotMS's author, David Cuatt, posted on the Nerdabout New York blog some looks at the different stages of the game's production, from sketch to cover. And what a cool game to work on!

The map has an old parchment texture, while the cover was made to resemble some of those old horror movies (with a name like "Attack of the Mad Scientists", how could it be anything else?).

So head over to Nerdabout New York and enjoy!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

RPG Theory: Memorable villains

Someone recently asked; what makes a great villain? While the context around the question was in a roleplaying game mileu, I think it makes some sense to talk first about what makes several fictional villains great from movies and books, and examine a few of the most iconic ones and what their appeal is. Partly because that's my own personal favorite mileu, and partly because it's one that's ideally suited to roleplaying games, I'm going to focus on villains that would fit in a pulp, serial, or comic book mileu in particular. Then, after I talk a bit about why some of these really memorable villains were memorable, let's talk about how to adapt those ideas into a gaming context.

Here's a few examples of what I consider really iconic villains; the kind that I'd love to emulate in my campaigns.

1. Often credited as the first "supervillain", Professor Moriarty is a great place to start. The first thing that made Moriarty compelling is that the superhuman Sherlock Holmes himself has met is match in the man. He's a prodigious intellect, and is a criminal mastermind, with his manipulative paws on all kinds of things that Holmes has to thwart. But that doesn't mean that he's a patsy to Holmes; what Holmes thwarts are some of his minor minions, not the greater schemes. Only in "The Final Problem" in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle meant to kill Holmes off and finish writing about him, does Moriarty himself put in a personal appearance. Despite that, Moriarty recurs at least as a shadowy name in the background. Keep this in mind. It's going to be my advice, actually, to not have your villains make a last minute first appearance just in time to be defeated. But certainly there needs to be their mark, their sign, evidence of their handiwork in all kinds of problems that the PCs thwart.

2. Comic books are in many ways the successors to the pulp aesthetic, and they've given us some of the most iconic villains of all time. Doctor Doom is a good one to start with. Doctor Doom's appeal is in large part due to his charisma. He's got a very iconic and unusual visual image; instantly recognizable, sinister, and melodramatically villainous. Perhaps most importantly, Doctor Doom gets seen. A lot. A big part of the reason folks love to hate Dr. Doom is because they feel like they know him. He's not a mysterious shadowy figure who only gets seen occasionally; he's always showing up.

3. Along those same lines, I give you Magneto of X-men fame. Magneto's got everything Doctor Doom's got and more... he's also sympathetic. Especially since the early 90s, Magneto has been presented as a very reasonable, charismatic and personable villain, and sometimes you don't wonder if maybe he's on the right track and Professor Xavier is just a hopelessly naive hippy with his dreams of humans and mutants living together harmoniously.

4. Also building off of Doctor Doom but going a different direction, I give you Darth Vader. Just to be clear, I mean Darth Vader before the badly concieved prequel trilogy. Darth Vader only had about six minutes of screentime in the original Star Wars movie, but he made every second count. He was one of the first characters to be introduced, and he appeared throughout the movie. His notable traits include a very sinister, iconic and unique get-up, very casual evil (further built upon when he kills officer after officer in Empire Strikes Back for minor tactical failures). And as the series progressed, we can see the evolution of an iconic villain for the ages. We saw more of him. He became sympathetic. His fall from grace into villainy was shown as a mistake that in many ways he regretted, even though he could hardly undo it. Of course, Darth Vader is rehabilitated and repents (fatally) at the end, but that's not what made him so iconic. He was already iconic before he did that. Part of what makes him so appealing as a villain is that he represents temptation. When he springs the horrible surprise on Luke that he is his father, he makes him the offer to join him, overthrow the emperor themselves, "end this ruinous conflict" and rule the galaxy side by side as father and son.

So what can we learn from looking at a snapshot of a few iconic villains? First of all, the best ones are not one-dimensional. Even Professor Moriarty and Doctor Doom are given tragic, sympathetic traits along with their evil. Secondly, very few memorable villains only appear in the background. By that same token, Sauron himself isn't memorable; it's his war machine and his Ring specifically that represent Sauron's evil. Rather; get your villains up on center stage. Make sure the PCs have to interact with them in ways other than simply a big fight in which only they (or the PCs themselves) are left standing. Take a page from the X-men/Magneto relationship---sometimes, as much as it pains them both, they even have to join forces temporarily or find themselves on the same side of some other conflict.

Like Moriarty, make sure that they're at the center of lots of shadowy things going on. Sometimes random evilness is good, but more often than not, you should be able to tie a string back from that random evil to the villain at the center of the web like a fat spider, pulling strings.


Maybe we can get barsoomcore to chime in on his success with his Barsoom campaign's villains; all folks I think are very memorable.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Silly, Silly Galaxy, Far, Far Away

Did anyone think, when this whole "Internet" thing started, that what it would REALLY do is allow geeky science-fiction fans to share their fetishes so quickly and so broadly that they would start creating whole new media of their own?

Who foresaw fanfic? Or slash? I mean, in hindsight it seems so obvious, that if you design a set of interlocking protocols so that computers can pass data around in discrete packets, people will use that to share home-made pornographic stories about television characters. Duh. What was that Vinton Cerf guy thinking?

But it has to be said, the feverish energy of fandom, when harnessed properly, is capable of truly amazing things. It's a little bit old news, but still, this trailer for "Star Wars: Uncut" is pretty awesome. Hundreds of total strangers collaborating to produce a feature-length film (granted, they already had a script and a built-in audience, but still.


Star Wars: Uncut Trailer from Casey Pugh on Vimeo.

I've talked before about the essential silliness of the future, and this is more evidence that I am, as always, correct. Technology that enables silliness is technology that has a future. Note that "technology enabling silly" is different from "silly technology". Put Microsoft Bob back on the shelf, Bill.

The best part has to be the final high-speed montage, when you really get a sense of how wild people are being with the concept and how many creative solutions people are coming up with solve the problem of "how do we film our OWN version of Star Wars?" I remember plotting with my friends on how WE would film our own version of Star Wars, but the project was just too daunting, too long. Chopping it into 15-second clips is genius -- and generous. People WANT to do this sort of thing. They're DYING for opportunities like this.

Because it's silly.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bad science fiction

While barsoomcore has just told us about what makes good science fiction, I have to admit to a fondness for bad science fiction. For fun, I've read a few books on science fiction authorship and writing over the years, and most "real" science fiction writers are somewhat disparaging of the concept of a space opera; a science fiction story in which the science is nothing more than the trappings. If the same story could rather easily be transplanted into the Western genre with a few superficial amendments, in other words, it's not "true" science fiction. True science fiction has, at its heart, the science, and the plot resolution, and in fact the main conflict and thrust of the story should be dependent on it. In their words.

Of course, a lot of these books were written in the 60s and 70s. Post Star Wars people are not nearly so disparaging of space opera anymore for obvious reasons. Even writers of books about authorship are not immune to the siren call of financial success over integrity to a tightly defined artistic ideal.

And yet, even so, in the most apparently transient and vacuous adventure story, the fact that the work has characters means that at some level, there's an exploration of what it means to be human. In fact, in some of the worst of these novels, there's something salvageable along the lines of "what exactly is going on between the lines here where these completely wooden and bizarre characters are put forward as supposedly reasonable people?"

Some of the better pulp adventure stories "back in the day" were fairly obvious metaphor's for situations in our world... Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore's native Martians and Venusians were much like the inhabitants of colonial Africa, Asia, or the indigenous Americans as the nation pushed westward.

Really, I think any science fiction (even the bad stuff) succeeds on some level, because by divorcing concepts from the reality to which they're so intimately tied in our perception, we can stop and have a look at these concepts in a more abstract way, a more objective way, and see where that gets us. I recently read Gardner F. Fox's Warrior of Llarn and Thief of Llarn, a somewhat lackluster Barsoom rip-offs (although the first book had a Frazetta cover and frontspiece, so it's worth it for that at least. I've attached the frontspiece for fun here). Llarn is superficially Barsoom-like as a setting, but one key difference is that it got that way after a devastating nuclear war. The heroic Barsoom-like state is actually a post-apocalyptic Dark Age for Fox. His hero, Alan Morgan, is a callous, dumb jock (written a little tongue-in-cheek, I presume, although the parody is subtle) which calls into question what kind of person succeeds at these types of ventures, really. And although he's certainly a very capable fighter, his greatest trait is his unbelieveably good luck. The nuclear war metaphor was a bit thick at times, but hey... it was the mid-60s. Hardly any science fiction from those times didn't touch on it in some fashion or another.

I can't exactly recommend the Llarn books... they barrel along without much in the way of character development, deus ex machina is a perfectly acceptable tool to keep the plot moving when a good explanation and exploration of character motives would take too long, and it occasionally pauses and does a tour-guide like monolog of some setting element or other that Fox wants to showcase or highlight. On the other hand, it's a very subtle dig at the Burroughs tropes and, like I said, there's a potentially interesting discussion to be had about why the book might have been written the way it was.