Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Grumblecakes, Gygax, and that damned D&D archetype

On Monday of last week, I turned a year older. If I could do it over again, my birthday wish would be to skip the following Tuesday through Friday.

Last week was bad for the J. I had a great birthday one day, and the next… everything went to crap. The weather turned über-cold again. Brett Favre retired. Condescension Clinton won the states she was likely to win. Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) died.

Bad freakin’ week.

Granted, sports & politics are monsters of passion, and a very bad day for one is another’s joyous rapture. That’s neither here nor there.

Being a fellow whose Masters’ thesis focused on gaming, however, it would be remiss of me not to discuss Gygax. As co-creator of D&D (with Dave Arneson), the Double G is credited with the archetype of a new medium: the commercial role-playing game (RPG).

Perhaps it’s my contrarian nature, but my favorite reaction to the passing of Gygax is this article by Erik Sofge (which, in the couple of days since I started writing this, has showed up on the front of In it, Sofge decries D&D as a horrible archetype: a “lame” set of mechanics that offers little in the way of actual role-playing, and rewards reprehensibility.

From a personal viewpoint, methinks Sofge overstates his case a wee bit. In theory (yes, I’ll come back to that word), D&D characters aren’t slaughtering peaceful, sleeping families of misunderstood fantasy denizens. Rather, as the theory goes, the game is a method for telling a good story, and looks for players to create consistent & believable motivations for their characters – glory, self-sacrifice, greed, nobility, or what have you.

Theory is great and all, but most of us should be aware that it doesn’t always follow into practice (watch Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room for a good example of the theory/practice disconnect). This is where Sofge’s article hits the nail square on the head with a +1 Warhammer of Truthiness.

Games in the D&D mold offer you one way to improve you character – “Experience Points.” And how do you get these oh-so-important points? Killing stuff. Plain & simple.

Sure, in theory your character develops as you role-play him or her. Oh, but there are those tricksy words… “in theory.” When it comes down to it, in D&D games (and those following its model), the power gamer who can’t role-play to save his life will be the one whose beefed-up character saves lives and earns his place at the center of the story. Meanwhile, Johnny Role-player, despite having the most interesting and complex character, is relegated to a support character. Odds are, he’ll be a funny anecdote who gets killed when his lack of a body count results in him being over-matched by whatever is thrown in his power-gaming associate’s direction.

To quote the folks from Monty Python, now you see the violence inherent in the system.

The gamers in the audience might remind me that such RPGs usually award experience points for completion of quests or tasks. My response is simple: play a D&D character who’s interesting and multi-faceted, and one who’s a two-dimensional slaughterer… and let’s bet on who hits level 20 first. My money’s on Korgoth of Barbaria.

In the RPG lexicon, this style of gaming is often referred to as “hack and slash.” That is, you kill = you level up. Anything else, including role-playing, plays second fiddle to this simple equation. Despite the plethora of alternatives to it, D&D-style hack ‘n’ slash is still the archetypical RPG. Part of this is due to its designation as the first, and to its publication by TSR (bought out by Wizards of the Coast (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc.)).

Hey, look at that. Nested parentheses!

Sorry, I was distracted by corporations in practice for a moment. I mentioned earlier that I’m a guy who did his Masters’ thesis, from a theatre/performance perspective, on RPGs. As such, the spectacle in Sofge’s piece appeals less to me than one of his main arguments:

“Sadly, Gygax’s creation defines our strange corner of the entertainment world and drowns out all the more innovative and sophisticated games that have made D&D obsolete for decades.”

There it is, the problem bound in a nutshell, with Gygax accounted a king of infinite space. And the accuracy of the assertion gives me bad dreams.

Sofge puts forth Steve Jackson’s GURPS (Generic Universal Roleplaying System), but it isn’t the only long-standing alternative to the D&D d20 System (my personal fave is what’s now known as the BRP – “Basic Roleplaying” – from Chaosium).

But it’s more than just re-thinking systems – it’s a matter or re-thinking RPGs. Let’s face it, tabletop gaming is in a horrible place. It’s the derided older brother of computer gaming, the much cooler sibling. CCGs are in a vicious, uncaring industry where companies cannibalize each other and Wizards of the Coast has a ridiculously restrictive patent. Board & DVD games are enjoying a renaissance, but usually prefer a little crowbar separation from those other “weird” games.

And those games are condemned as “weird” thanks to the choking specter of D&D. Its influence is pervasive and overwhelming. When I wrote my thesis, the recommendation was that I use D&D as a baseline for readers – despite the fact that what I researched had no experience points, was based in a more realistic setting, involved improvisation & problem-solving, and rarely included combat. But if I didn’t reference D&D, I risked alienating readers, since everyone knows the game and its stereotype.

The solution to this situation is not a simple one. To get closet or non-gamers interested in less traditional tabletop games is a Herculean task, thanks largely to D&D and Wizards of the Coast. For us unabashed gamers, it’ll take a lot of legwork – one good way is to start going off the beaten path. Many of the writers & designers you enjoy do stuff outside of the companies. Get to know their work, and use it to bring this medium up from the stereotyped cesspool it inhabits. As Sofge writes,

“There is a way to wring real creativity, and possibly even artistic merit, from this bizarre medium—and it has nothing to do with Gygax and his tradition of sociopathic storytelling.”

Let’s get wringing.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hope-monger & Speechify!

I know it's "just politics."

I know she needs to blunt his strengths.

I know it's more a ploy than anything else...

But for this citizen, the easiest way to lose my vote is to belittle the power of speeches, and turn public speaking skills into a liability. Anyone up to date with American politics will know what I'm referring to, but here's a taste of it from MSNBC's FirstRead.

Now, as a youth who speech-ified, and as a man who still thinks giving & writing speeches is a Noble Goal, I may be overly sensitive to this kind of thing. That said, I've seen so many people in the professional world whose public speaking skills are laughable... at best. I see corporate big-wigs who make the big bucks but become insignificant chickadees when they approach the podium. I remember conference panels where brilliant academics couldn't express their research. Now, I watch potential candidates, 2/3 of whom are capable of little more than uninspiring talking points.

Did I miss something? If there was any job, any occupation in this great nation where the primary requirement is to speechify and inspire, I'd argue the Presidency is it. Remember the three branches of government? You know, in the time before President Signing Statement, our government divided power among the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative... Yeah, that last branch, what we call "Congress" in the States. I've always thought Congress as the workhorse of the government; that is, they legislate. They come up with... solutions.

Meanwhile, if there's a quality I want in the person leading the Executive branch to have, it's the ability to inspire me. We've had eight years of fear-mongering and seventh-grade speech skills; I'm ready for a leader who could give us the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V.

::sigh:: I guess I've got all my eggs in a single basket now. If November comes around, and my choices are another Imperial Legacy or Damaged Goods, I'll have to go third-party again. I really hope I don't have to.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

J.'s Night Out... at Wrigley Field

On this night, I went to the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field, and left with a sign from the gods.

It all started with tickets. Free tickets to the Cubs vs. Brewers game, provided by a vendor who wanted to make nice with my boss. She, in turn, gave them to her diligent, industrious, and appreciative underlings. Let us sing her praises.

Game day arrived, and I got to leave work early — okay, ten minutes. But, considering the late nights I’ve put in the last few months, I got to leave early.

The ride home on the L was almost unbearable. It was 90 and humid outside; thanks to a misfiring AC, it was 89 and humid inside the train. Normally, my ride home disappears in reading and music. Unfortunately, I had just finished the Soul Drinkers Omnibus, and my busted headphones rendered my iPod useless.

I never realized how bad construction was on the Brown Line of Chicago’s elevated trains. Without my distractions, all I could to was stand in a packed train car thinking, “Why have we stopped… again?!”

Eventually, I was able to pour out of the train, hurrying home to the twin comforts of working AC and adorable kittens. I engorged myself on water, added a little chocolate to the stomach, and headed out to meet my co-workers at Murphy’s.

Now, I had looked up where we were going to be sitting. According to the schematic found on the Cubs’ website, they appeared to be choice seats. But I was not prepared for the splendor of walking into Wrigley Field, fried grease and cold beer striking my nostrils, and through the tunnel to the boxes. The helpful ushers showed us to our seats, nine rows back from behind home plate.

Okay, it was to the first base side of home plate. Such details were unimportant, as I realized how freakin’ young Rich Hill looks.

I was enraptured. To make things even more divine I watched Corey Hart drive in a run on a sac fly. First blood went to my Brewers! Plus, you know, he’s on my fantasy baseball team, and I could really use those RBIs.

And it only got better. Jeff Suppan pitched a quality outing. Hart added two more of those delectable RBIs in the 5th inning. And that overpriced food tasted so good as it passed over my tongue. Never had a small hot dog and watery, brand-name American beer tasted so delicious.

Then came… the 7th inning.

It started promising, as disasters tend to. Suppan, still fresh after only 80-some pitches, had two strikes on Cliff Floyd. And then, he plunked the batter. Manager Ned Yost came out, and called for the veteran reliever.

If you’re a Brewer fan, and you’ve been following them this year, you know what the script holds. And most of the words to describe it are of the four-letter variety. Oh, sure, it seems like everything’s okay. I mean, that’s Scott Linebrink, longtime dominant set-up guy acquired from San Diego. Fans across the MLB spectrum would love to see such a face with the tying run at the plate.

Unless you’ve followed the Brewers; in that case, you know that Milwaukee is constantly on the knife’s edge lately, no matter the score. Or the pitcher. Or the opposing hitter. And the Brewers cannot escape this scenario without slashes and massive blood loss.

Linebrink gives up a base hit. Jacque Jones ties it up with a 2-RBI double. Then, as I ponder the effect of extra innings upon my ability to wake up for work the next day, I start to hope. Linebrink intentionally walks a guy, but he’s gotten two outs! And Ryan Theriot has just hit a soft high-hopper back to the pitcher—

Who promptly knocks it down and boots it. Like some bizarro Buster Keaton film, the Chicago faithful groan as they expect the third out — and suddenly, there is uproarious, joyous cheering. With Linebrink waddling around like a Keystone Kop, the Cubs scored the go-ahead run.

By the time it was all said and done, another run scored, before a rookie pitcher was brought in to get that final, elusive out.

But a two-run deficit is nothing, right? Especially for the hard-hitting Brewers, right?

My friend, if you have to ask, you have not followed Milwaukee since the All-Star break. The script, so predictable that even Hollywood would thumb its nose, is as follows: The Brewers will mount a comeback. They’ll get the tying run to the plate, perhaps even the go-ahead run. Then, no matter how many outs there were when the rally starts, it will stop. With everyone stranded. No runs, no win, no joy.

And that script started all over again. In the 8th, the Brewers had two men on, with two out. Throughout the inning, all I could think was, “I’ve seen how this will end. I know the disappointment that will ensue.” And yet, part of me screamed, raging against the fates; all I wanted was to be proved wrong. It wasn’t even hope — merely the need to be wrong.

Up stepped Gabe Gross; not exactly the guy you want in the clutch, but he’s been swingin’ a hot stick lately. He worked the count to full. And then fouled off a pitch. And fouled off another. And another.

It continued like this for ages. I lost count of how many pitches were thrown, only to be fouled off. Some guy named Godot showed up during the at-bat, looking for a couple of blokes in bowler hats.

Then! A solid crack! The ball is screaming over—

I mean, right into the second baseman’s raised glove. Four-letter word.

I think I can equate the feeling to… well, I imagine it would be like a devout Christian coming to the slow but inevitable conclusion that there is no God. And in one impeccably painful moment, that conclusion stands in front of him, naked and irrefutable.
(I say “imagine,” since I steer away from anything that is supposedly irrefutable. I’m all about possibilities. But we’re not here for my Nietszchean tendencies; heartbreak is so much more exciting.)

The rest of the game was… well, it happened. I think I was starting to feel the effects of constant sweating and not much eating. Or that feeling of adrenaline suddenly stopped short, the bodily chemical trapped without any means of escape, and nothing to be used towards.

I shambled out of the aisles, noting the bitter taste in my mouth (left by that watery brew, no doubt), with the choirs of the faithful singing all around my heathen ears. Instead of incense and a hymn, though, there was the smell of beer & sweat and the hymn was “Go Cubs Go.”

On the walk back to my apartment, I was hit by an epiphany. Thankfully, I put some ice on the resulting bruise. Freakin’ epiphany. I also had a realization. It was time to give up on the Brewers chances this season, and enjoy the playoff races across Major League Baseball. In other words, the same thing I’ve done every year since my introduction to baseball. Only this time, the moment had arrived later than usual.

Now, this is not the melancholic “wait until next year…” I save that for football.

Rather, it’s just a natural part of fandom. We’ve fallen from decisively being in first place to… Well, we’ve now got a losing record, we’re third, and even if we win this series with the Cubs, we could still be in third. It could be sad, but it is true. And we (theoretically) could pull it off, but hope is such a dangerous thing to spectators.

Instead, I’ve got my adorable kitties to play with, and a wedding I’m looking forward to. Not to mention, Corey Hart racked up 3 RBIs for my fantasy team tonight.

In the end, the epiphany has been freeing, even if painful. At least the bruise looks like the face of Jesus.

Or is that Odin? Man, these miraculous signs are so difficult to interpret.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Bridge, Fire, Reams of Paper

The title is a pretty good summary.

As most folks should be aware of, there was a horrendous event in the Twin Cities last night. The I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed, and during heavy traffic. Thankfully, as far as I know, none of the Minnesotan friends I know (but don't correspond with much anymore) were involved. I got a voicemail from my mom, letting me know that all my relatives in that area are all right, too.

The reason I heard it in a voicemail, was because she called while I was on the phone with my father. It seems the little village of Cleveland, WI, had its own brush with disaster. Thankfully, this one was less deadly and more ironic. See, most of us Clevelanders know about the hotel that Al Capone liked to stay at; it was located in Hika Bay, part of modern-day Cleveland. It famously burned to the ground.

Last night, another Cleveland icon felt the touch of immolation. The Wisconsin Box factory, formerly the sea green Hipke Packaging building, has been an unassuming landmark in this small lakeshore village for decades. Here's how it looks now:

I got the call from my father the moment I got home from working late. He and my sister were out on the swing, calling family members. Power was out all over the village, and the water supply wasn't running -- both thanks to the fire. Those train tracks you see are a block from the house where I grew up (a large block, but visible from the backyard). Here's the sight that greeted Cleveland residents and the numerous firefighters from all over the Manitowoc/Sheboygan region:

That's 200,000 square feet of factory, all for the purpose of making wooden boxes.

Meanwhile, it all feels a little much. Over 100 invitations sent out for the upcoming wedding. Nearly 30 letters/agreements created and sent out yesterday. Unlike the wedding mailings, these were not happy letters. They've occuppied my worktime for weeks. I'm utterly beat, tired of clerical work, lacking creative outlet... and now these two events, on the same night.

Oh, and the Brewers gave up the lead in the NL Central. Sure, nothing compared to everything else, but... man don't liked to be kicked when he's down.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Trafficked Ground!

One would think that, at the Taste of Chicago, I would remember the food. Or maybe the music.
Nope. It was the pastel-clad folks dancing and singing "Hare Krishna" from the Taste around the Loop. It's hard to witness that much energy and singing, and not smile. That, and it was horribly surreal... and I loved watching the confused reaction of the folks they passed in the street.

But we're not here to reminisce about singing in the street. Howsabout a taste of the latest script from the upcoming Trafficked Ground series? Well, sounds good. Of course I have to cut some parts out; can't give everything away. Here we go:

Episode 3 — “Monday: Armchair Apocalypse”

When the words we use have lost their bite
now they hit you like an imaginary pillow fight.

—Andrew Bird, “Banking on a Myth”

This should be an overtly, unnecessarily dramatic style by the time Isa starts her speech. -REDACTED-. Once again, the humor here is all about these supernatural beings in a horribly mundane situation.
Panel 6:
Rat has scampered off. Isa is standing at the counter, on the left side of the panel. She is giving a fierce pre-battle speech, a la Braveheart (or some other war movie). She is an inspiring, morale-raising figure; her word balloon takes up almost all of the right part of the panel.

All right!
Donny, you get space ready on the racks for more Bird!
Esther, I want you to write down the ordering information for Armchair Apocrypha! Put it up front, next to the register!

Panel 7:
Isa continues with her rousing speech. We’re now at a close-up on her upper body, face, and arm (fist pumped in the air). Isa is still on the left side, word balloon again takes up most of the rest of the panel.

Everyone— if we run out, offer to order it—we’ll have it tomorrow morning.
Together, we can weather this crisis!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Drink Revival

Apparently, I have libations on my mind. On my daily trawl of news sites, I came across an MSN article entitled "5 Cocktails That Deserve a Comeback." The Bronx seemed interesting, the other three induced a shrug... but there was one I need to try:

3. The Black Velvet
The Black Velvet couldn't be simpler: one part Guinness (bottled beer is preferred, for its consistency) and one part dry champagne (as cold as winter in Valley Forge). But the result is an excellent combination of sweet, dry and bitter flavors. It's a wonderful beer cocktail that saves you the trouble of dropping a shot glass into your pint. Plus, the drink is layered and looks cool.

We suspect the diminished popularity of layered drinks is the product of lazy bartenders who roll their eyes. But really, how hard is it to pour off the back of a spoon?

Some purists scoff at the Black Velvet, maintaining it spoils the taste of both the bubbly and the beer. But these are the same people who would deny you crème fraîche with your caviar, sauerkraut with your hot dog and, of course, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

Now to put my plan into motion... After work, of course. After work.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Cubicle-dwellers, raise your pints!"

That line is from this article on, courtesy of Field Maloney. The gist of it is, wine has overtaken beer as the national libation of choice.

Now, as a man who will always have a place on his shelf for Jack Daniels and Drambuie (not to mention various types of vodka), the last few years have seen my beer appreciation on the rise. This can be blamed on a man from Pittsburgh named Geoff -- who first introduced Corsendonk to my palette.

And there's the problem and solution, methinks. Mainstream American beer tastes like ass. More often than not, they're watered-down pilsners that we buy on the cheap. As opposed to, for example, a bottle of Pilsner Urquell to accompany that steak sandwich. That's a damned fine pilsner.

To combat this, I recommend that all folks of legal age remember to have beer with your meals. Not just sporting events or grilling, and not the crap that comes in cases of 48 cans. Grab a Harp with your deep-dish pizza, or a Blue Moon with your breadsticks; when your fellows order a bucket of cheap Lite beer, ask the waitress if they have 312 or Leinenkugel's on tap.

Because, though I like wine, I'm all about some damned good beer. Hooray, Beer.