Saturday, January 31, 2009

Saturday Feature: What Features?

Boy, I didn't do very well keeping to the feature ideas I began, did I? Maybe I'll try again.

In Dudgeons & Draggings this week: First I want to welcome my new readers Sham and Ragnorakk (whom I don't want to call "followers" even though you can see them in my Followers list). Your interest inspires me to make time to . . . I don't know, ramble on about not much and write overwrought sentences trying to show off my book learnin'--which really isn't anything to crow about. Welcome, guys!

As for D&D, neither of my groups played this week--heck, neither of the bands even had practice this week--you'd think I would've had some time for posting. Oh, but part of a D&D group did meet to play the Battlestar Galactica board game from Fantasy Flight.

I was dreading it because nothing (besides work, school and family) has robbed me of more hours and replaced them with crazy-making torment than Fantasy Flight games based on licensed properties. I played the Game of Thrones board game at GenCon So-Cal in 2004 for at least six hours during which nothing happened--but that was not enough! For god knows what reason I then played my own copy--that I paid money for--for what felt like six hours but was probably only four (during which nothing happened) except that I learned new and feverish ways to hate.

My experience playing Arkham Horror was much the same, though there I had the option to kick the players out of my home before they finished the game that I wanted to set fire to so that I could piss on its ashes. I didn't exercise the option, but it's nice to know its there.

That's an awfully roundabout way of saying that I was surprised to really like the Battlestar Galactica game. The "secret cylon" element is fun and I hope I get to be a Secret Cylon sometime soon. I guess it's a game of hand and resource management that turns into a race to the finish. With dogfights in space! It's too complicated for its own good, but if someone else has read the rules and can explain them to you, it actually plays easily and very smoothly. Thanks, Tommy!

And going along with my growing readership, I was thrilled to receive some copies of Christian Walker's zine Iridia out of the blue this morning. I'm flattered that they might be intended as "review" copies, and I intend to treat them as such. Soon. Really.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My hopes for fame, after long delay, dashed on the rocks of exclusion!

A couple of months, ago an issue of Amazing Spider-Man (#575, written by Joe Kelly, whose series I Kill Giants you really should have been reading) so offended me that I wrote a brief e-mail of complaint immediately upon reading it--actually I set the issue aside immediately after the offending four or five pages but thought it wise to finish the issue before airing my ire, lest later events change my interpretation of the offending pages.

There is a character in these pages, called Greta, who is a mockery of a mentally ill homeless person, and she's used solely as the build up to a barf gag. I didn't want either of those things in my Spider-Man comics, so that's what I wrote, adding "small-minded" and "mean-spirited" and mentioning that I, a nobody who writes nothing, would be ashamed to make a joke of that kind.

So the weeks rolled on. I didn't realize the gap between issue completion and street date--even though the letters pages usually tell you exactly which issues the letters are commenting on, and I could have compared the cover dates. Well, I never had any interest in it before. But I became impatient.

Then, for mysterious reasons, a particular issue of Spider-Man attracted an unusual amount of media attention--going to four printings so far, and selling out, even with restrictions on per-customer purchases, in bustling comics stores all across this--also mysteriously--newly hopeful land.

I get my Spideys in the mail, so I was aloof from the hoopla. I think I'll change the name of my blog to Aloof From The Hoopla.

Aloof, except for the fact that two weeks after the street date I still didn't have my copy of the mysteriosly popular issue--and I wanted to know if they printed my letter.

What if my letter ended up in the issue that was taken home by four times as many people as a usual issue? FOUR TIMES as many people wouldn't give a crap that I didn't like a few pages of an issue they didn't read!

Right. I got my copy yesterday, ending my waiting agony. I have no idea what the fuss is about. There's nothing special about the cover I have. Just Peter, Spidey and some women. And a Cougar joke. But sure enough, the letter column--double-sized, I might add--is devoted to issues 575 and 576!

My letter is not there.

Hmf. I didn't want to be in your incredibly sought-after comic anyhow.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How to Stab Old Habits

It should be a question: How do we get those old habits to die? The habit in this case is a holdover from my last campaign, which may have only been a few months ago, but as it was conducted under the modern D&D mindset, it really is a world away from what I'm trying to do now (and not just because I'm trying to get to Mongo).

Oh, right, the habit: I have a habit of treating the player characters as protagonists in a story that I'm trying to tell, with the players apparently there just to interfere with the progress of the narrative by flubbing their die rolls and not having enough hit points to survive my hot streaks of max damage. That's an exaggeration--I don't actually sit down with a story ready to inflict on the players, but story threads stemming from character backstory occur to me as we play, and they drive the events in the game world.

The problem with this in old-school play--or any play, I suppose, where the characters haven't got "plot immunity"--is that the characters are going to die. A lot. If they're no longer around to carry your plot threads what happens to your game?

It fizzles, stumbles, stops. Or, that's what happened last night. So what I have to figure out now is how we can think about the PCs and their roles in the game so that their deaths don't hollow out the whole affair--so that there is something left behind when a character's motivation is lost.

I think the solution is to keep it simple: the wilderness is dotted with ruins that hide unknown riches, free for the taking of any brave soul who can discover their hiding places and overcome their horrid, unnatural guardians. The dungeons are like mountains calling to mountain climbers: someone is going to plunder them just because they're there.

Well, I think the promise of untold riches is a way better motivator than wanting to get to the top of a mountain just to challenge yourself. And that's why I play pen-and-paper games.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Further thoughts on my first old-school sessions

First, I watched some Flash Gordon serials last night, and I can't see any way that our next session is not going to take us to the planet Mongo. Giant Space Iguanas, man.

But back to last week's session: What did the player's think? Our youngest player, totally new to D&D, comparing the game we'd just played to his brief exposure to the Byzantine rules of 3.5, said of Swords & Wizardry (with interference from the Little Brown Books), "It's easier."

And it is easier for the players, in that it requires little front-end learning before they can participate in the game. It's probably harder for them to survive (if they're foolish enough to roll the dice, as Jeff Rients drew my attention to over on the TARGA blog), and it probably requires more problem-solving on their part--but, hey, that sounds like the makings of a more satisfying game to me.

I learned something important from our other (nearly) first-time player, and it happens to be in line with what that post about the way to survive being avoiding OD&D's very deadly combat rules. This new player, the derisively-laughing elf maid I mentioned last time, when the party sighted a group of bandits in the middle distance, unlike the experienced players, thought first of parley and avoiding a fight.

I told her that I thought it was a very wise thing to do, but like a scientist altering the object of study, my comment caused to ask if she should have immediately prepared for a fight instead. I hope her better instincts haven't been quashed already, considering that the bandits did in fact attack the party without provocation. Well, they outnumbered the PCs 2:1, and they were mounted. It looked like easy prey.

Turns out OD&D's sleep spell is an amazing value for the budget-conscious young magic-user: this first-level spellslinger and his lonely single hit point, with but a flick of the wrist, dispatched all of the foes in what otherwise would surely have been a totally party kill.

So, a play philosophy that I had to learn from an external source, but came naturally to a brand-new player, and a glass-shelled magic-user saving the day with a noted lack of either fuss or muss for a player not at home with elaborate rules. It sure seems that for me progress in this hobby is backwards.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Second session report: International Traditional Roleplayng Week

I was pessimistic going in--I was ill-prepared, the players had been bugging me all day with questions about character generation, and I decided to change rulesets at the last minute because one of the players had spent money on Swords & Wizardry (even though it's free) but that was the game I directed them to in the first place--but I'm pessimistic going in to everything, and I'm usually wrong.

Pleased to be wrong again. Old-school gaming is fun.

Me and four other players, all of us new to old-school play (two of them new to D&D altogether), set out to explore James Maliszewski's Outdoor Map from Fight On! #2 (seriously, go buy it. If you're ever gonna play old-school, there is no better value. Well, okay, the blogs are free, and full of really good stuff too, but. . .go buy Fight On!).

I was pleased that the players took advantage of the sandbox opportunity that was only weakly presented to them: I plopped them down in a roadhouse (the one I made with James Raggi's Inn generator from, yes, Fight On! #2) and (one of them) took the advice of Matthew Finch's Old-School Primer and hit up the one-legged innkeep for information about the environs and their denizens. They learned about how the inn (Singing Easy Basilisk) was named for an encounter with one such lizard, in which it was fed a crock of whimsey wine, and they learned of the starmetal found in the nearby town of Vidda.

They decided to check out the starmetal, even though the inn-keep had really been prepping them to head in the direction of the Keep on the Borderlands, there ot seek the rumored Caves of Chaos. I feel like I'm telling you the same stuff I said last week. Ah, that's because I am. Anyway, sandbox play--they went somewhere that required me to extemporize.

They ended up staying the night in the stables after the 'cleric' hit on the tavern keeper's daughter. Their night of sleep was rent by cries from near the palisade where a monster (from the Random Esoteric Monster Generator) was feasting on the fear of the townsfolk. This was a monster that I didn't think was usable: a furry rhinoceros-amoeba with extrusive bone structure that phases through wood and feasts on fear. Oh, and it throws its voice. But it seemed to fit the weird mutation theme of the starmetal-warped town, so I threw it in, and the players were a little afraid of it--except that the girl playing the elf laughed at my attempts to be scary. N00bs. They still think our hackneyed portrayals of Dark and Evil Creepiness are ridiculous.

It was a good time and a satisfying game. Thank you Old School Movement.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

First Session Report: International Traditional Roleplaying Week

This was an impromptu session, with the guys I sometimes play Xcrawl with (and together with whom I complete the line-ups of both The Boxers and ION--well, not quite all of ION).

But I digress. A moment ago I clicked on a link to an OD&D blog (Semper Initiativus Unum) that Google Reader suggested to me, and (apart from enjoying the content) my thought was, now why is Raggi following this guy's blog and not mine? Granted, this guy actually writes knowledgeably about D&D, and I . . . don't so much, but, still, I have more entries! Then I looked at Lamentations of the Flame Princess and saw that Raggi IS in fact following this space. Welcome, James! Your presence is a somewhat frightening inspiration.

Anyway, I didn't tell the players they would be playing OD&D until we sat down. It went something like this: (In Xcrawl the dungeons sporting events hosted by a Dungeon Jockey, and in this case the DJ is a giant green hologram head) "The cyclopean jade head address the crowd, 'Ladies and gentlemen, do you remember a game called Dungeons & Dragons?' The crowd roared back, here and there a cry of 'Nerds!' was heard. Well, wouldn't it be fun to have these Xcrawlers play D&D in real life?"

Now, I know this looks nothing like an example of old-school play, but it's a bald contrivence I thought up on the way over, as a reason for the changed ruleset and the need to roll up new characters.

Then the characters were led to a mock-up of a medieval castle armory, where for some reason all the basic adventuring supplies were for sale. Once outfitted they stepped outside into a massive soundstage on which was built a field leading up to two cave mouths. (There's no sandbox element here, but since the narrative already has them in the midst of a live television competition in a coliseum, there wasn't much room for that.)

They didn't get far into the cave they chose before the were set upon my orcs--no, actor-athletes in rubber pig-face masks, in a racist sterotype of the orcish minority of the American Empire. I though this bit would be funny for the player of the half-orc, and for its meta-textuality (which I acurately predicted Tully would say in regards to the pig-maks).

The orcs quickly killed all the PCs.

So. . . I was fully expecting plenty of character deaths, but I wasn't expecting how disappointing it would be. I clearly don't yet understand how to referee the old school way, and they don't know what kind of play is required for them to keep their characters alive. I didn't give them enough information about the alternatives to staying and getting cut to pieces, and they didn't realize that is this game, sharp things can hurt you. They're not used to that after years of playing 3e.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Saturday Feature: Dudgeons & Draggings

It's a dumb name (you might even say it's a symptom of Dumb Name Disease), and it doesn't make sense, but I get a kick out of it, so there ya' go.

No, I think it's extremely unlikely that you would say anything about Dumb Name Disease--it's something I read in a Paizo messageboard thread back in March and can't now locate for a link. It was a curse that afflicted the world of Greyhawk, I believe.

Enough dithering! Today marks the start of International Traditional Roleplaying Week which, schedules permitting, I'll be participating in--by weird coincidence, I got a wild hair to try OD&D with my regular group, and our first scheduled game falls during the week that TARGA picked. But you don't care about any of that.

My goals in this are twofold: to learn from the original D&D rules what magic in them made them so popular in their faddish days, and to play one or two of the old modules, whose names I hear in reverent whispers, but were showing their age even before I ever rolled a twenty-sider.

(Let us digress a moment and run over my history with D&D: 1984, while at the Mountain Home landfill with my grandfather, I find the Moldvay Basic book, fall in love; my grandfather (whom I adore, so don't get the wrong idea) apparently never having heard of anything ever, is horrified by the description of a Medusa--Medusa, of all things!--particularly the line 'live snakes growing from her head instead of hair' which he quoted as reason for taking the book away from me. For the rest of the 80s I'm supplied by my mother and paternal aunt with the Mentzer basic rules boxed sets, the covers of which are redone on several years' of birthday cakes by my step-mother's aunt. Did you notice that I mentioned four different women abetting my D&D love? Why couldn't I just reduce it one and save you the headache?

(In high school ('90-'94), all my friends are in to D&D, and I get to play with them a couple of times, but other than an extended two-person campaign with Erik, who DM'd a Dragonlance game where I brought Ebony Manrend to the Imperial Throne of the Minotaur Islands, they determined that they preferred to play without my self-indulgent and infantile disruptions. I don't blame them, but I still wish I could've played.

(After high school I DM'd a semi-successful Dangerous Journeys campaign in which a certain fellow called Sup played a Babylonian/Arab sorcerer who wielded a dagger called The Horrible Thorn. Ask him if he remembers the Arabic name.

(And then, not much playing at all, until my quite-a-bit-younger sister, who had caught the bug from me, brought her own life-long love of D&D to college--but it's 3e for her. If only I'd known the old school ways, I could have saved her! And we've been playing 3.5 . . . 4e for a couple of years).

I think I've blown my word count on that little digression. Good thing I don't have a word count.

So, this new old-school campaign I'm launching will begin in a roadhouse (drawn up with James Raggi's excellent Random Inn Generator from Fight On! #2) on the Borderlands, just down the road from the Caves of Chaos. I wanted to have the characters meet in a tavern because it's cliche, or rather because it's an well-known convention and I want to establish a mood of tradition. I suppose it's also a crutch of lazy or unimaginative referees--are there really people who want to run D&D games who are unimaginative? Maybe not completely unimaginative, but there are degrees--but in this case, I chose it, so if you want to call it a crutch, then you want to fight. And I will hit you with my crutch.

My problem with module B2 (The Keep on the Borderlands, for those just joining us) is that it's peopled with tons of humanoid monsters --goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, kobolds, gnolls--which I'm sick of. Once upon a time you could throw some of those monsters at players and they might get a taste of novelty, but in the ages since everybody has killed billions of those same monsters and I for one don't need to see any more. So, seeking to present challenges the players have never seen, for assistance I again turn to James Raggi and his (also exceedingly excellent) Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games and Their Modern Simulacra.

The first two things to crawl out that infernal grimoire are the Invisible-Skinned Lamprey-Tentacled Cave Lamprey and . . . something that came out almost exactly like Warhammer's skinks. I like skinks. I even have a 7" record by a "band" called Prehensile Monkey-Tailed Skink. I would be kind of rad to scan the cover and show it to you.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Look what my buddies in Lust For War are up to:

Here's the latest entry from their myspace blog:


METAL AS COMPREHENSIVE WORLDVIEW

Isn't Metal a style of music?
NO. It is, but it is NOT. Metal is a comprehensive worldview.

Like the Great Religions?
Yes, like Christianity and Islam. If Satanism is Christianity upside down, METAL is Christianity INSIDE OUT. And headless.

And disemboweled.

So Metal is all we need?
Yes, Metal answers all of the Great Questions.
Observe:
How ought we to live?
METAL.
What is best in life?
METAL.
Is there life after death?
No, but there is METAL. And the walking dead.

Anything else?
Though Metal's hate is wide-ranging and far-reaching, it reserves its bloodiest hatred for heretics within Metal itself--thus, all death metal bands which go metal-core are the vilest of vermin, and any grindcore band--regardless of their seminalness, influence or general excellence--that makes a pop record must be burned alive. And to even speak of Nu-Metal is to be crucified in the balls.

How else is Metal like the Great Religions?

Metal will tell you how to dress, what to believe, and when to bang your head.
Metal is dumb.
Metal brings like-minded people together and gives their lives meaning and purpose.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wednesday feature: In the Forest of Sticks and Skins

This is feature is to be a place for me to write about drumming, drums and the drums I play in bands--but what is there to say about playing drums? Awesome practice, great job!

I'm not satisfied with my part on 'Quaalude Thunder' so I'd like to give it especial attention next out, and not just to maintain the fitness level that the Quaalude Thunder itself requires.

Here is my favorite METAL drummer:
Flo Mounier of Cryptopsy.
He's both French and Quebecois

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Giantess and the Clever Moonelf

Many winters agone a clever moonelf sought revenge against a cloudcastle chief who had laughed at his hat--upon their mountains of cloud, the castellans, the miners of the cloudsilver veins, in their homes of lavender brick, fashion great sinuous chains of sempiternal strength; these are the chains that hang the clouds and the Cloud mountains from the sky--and up the chains to their anchoring in the firmament, among the starsilver and the moonsilver lights go the Moonmad Elves of the Pines--Elves of the Pining, pining for the Vanished Kindred gone in an ancient age to the Near Moon, in their ships of swanwood white as snowfall.

"See this small one's hat. It looks a right limpling!" was what the cloud-builder said.

The clever moonelf brooded under his homebeams for three days. On the third night a starflash struck him. "I shall seek the giant's wife," said he, and he took up his willow staff and walking cap.

The giantess was at her spinning in the sun parlor, weaving the silver cords the wind rides down. "Hark, Chieftess," said the clever elf. "I have word of goblin gold." Never was born the cloudcastler who could ignore such news, least of all from the mouth of an elf himself.

"Vouchsafe your secrets, elf, but baffle not my ear with moonfroth," said she.

"The moonwind tells that the next giantling quickened shall have a goblin crown for a caul. Pity your master swings a hollow club," said the clever elf.

"How now?"

"Or so he said this noon at the rain quarry. Beg pardon if I am the storm crow of this news."

The giantess frowned.

"But I may have help in hand."

"More moonfroth, now?"

"No, Lady. This I skimmed from the waves on every hollow month of the Far Moon for the whole of a Great Year. Let us call it moonscum. I have blended it with the fluid of night-blooming mushroom"

The clever elf held out a crystal vial.

"The mushroom gives that mickle smell. See that his lordship slathers his lambskin with it freely."

Some months later, after an unburdensome time with child, a son was born to the giantess and the chief: a tiny, elf-skinned babe, and upon his brow was a forelock of silver.

Monday, January 5, 2009

What's all this Booga-Wooga music?

I saw that question on a Captain Beefheart record sleeve (okay, on the back of a CD) once upon a time. I don't know what it's all about, but I wish I did know. About the Booga-Wooga music.

So, Mr. Joss Pip-Knight "Shuggie" Otis has taken my suggestion of listening to the Paris Symphonies--including, as I said, my favorite, No. 87, which I'm nicknaming "The Eel." Which is what Joss nicknamed it. But the thing is, if you don't know the details of their form, Classical era symphonies tend toward a wallpapery, patterny sameness that will do nothing to help you forget all the times you've heard similar music in restaurant bathrooms.

Thus, in his honor, I present everything I know about the form of the Classical era symphony. This won't take long.

They ALL have Four Movements: the first is for the head, the second for the heart, the third for the body to dance to, and the fourth is ROCK 'N' ROLL.

Movement One presents two themes (a theme here means a tune, and in Haydn they're pretty short, maybe 16-20 beats . . . maybe that's totally wrong); sometimes one theme is masculine and one is feminine, but if not they do contrast in some way--though it's often pretty subtle. Don't forget to listen for changing orchestration, that is, the mix of instruments playing at any given time. Each theme will be presented in turn, then the presentation is repeated (although the repeat is often skipped). Then they FIGHT.

By the end, the female theme has usually been taken over to the key of the male theme. I'm just saying.

Movement one might begin with a French Overture, so if the beginning sounds pompous and ponderous and slow, and goes Ba-Buuuuuhhhhm, Ba-Buuuuuhhhhm, that's a French Overture.

Movement Two is a love song, and usually slow. It might be in rondo form were a whole section of music will be repeated after variation sections, again and again. That's the wallpaper-pattern I mentioned.

Movement Three is a dance in waltz time, or three beats per bar. Actually it's three dances: dance A is played twice, then dance B, which might be a minuet-and-trio, which means only three instruments are featured, so listen for the stripped down orchestration. Then dance A is played again, only a little different this time. This is really where you hear the wallpaper.

Movement Four is ROCK 'N' ROLL. Just pump your fist in the air. Pump it like you just don't care. It might be in rondo form too, or in the form of movement one, which is called sonata-allegro form, though that's not common in the Classical era, I don't think. All Classical era symphonies end the same way. You'll know it when you hear it. It didn't bother anybody--this is weird, but originality was not an aesthetic virtue in those days.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Blog is Dead!

Long live the blog!

If there's going to be just one derelict post lingering at the top of this pitiable page, I'd rather it was someting inspiring; so, while I weigh the thought of chucking it all and switching to writing about my thoughts on old-school D&D (in the mold of the several blogs I've recently discovered, and in whose life-giving waters I'm now floundering) I want to recommend some music to you.

What could be more banal--and probably unwelcome, if experience is any guide--than that? Probably nothing, and furthermore I expect you're all well aware of the splendours I would urge you toward; nonetheless I come here today to recommend to you Haydn's Paris symphonies (nos. 82-87, including those nicknamed 'The Bear,' 'The Hen' and 'The Queen').

They are pure exuberance--they are 'concupiscent curds in kitchen cups'--they are a mauve glow along the bottoms of pillowy clouds at dusk--they are French milkmaids whose white bucolic sleeves are damp with dew. 'The Bear' or No. 82 is my personal favorite.

Wouldn't it be funny if--just once--when you recommended something to somebody, when you asked them if they checked it out, they said "Why Yes, I did. I like this and this; I didn't like this and this"?

The poor question mark is out in the cold. Maybe I should bring him inside.