Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gary's Rules II: Savor the Flavor



CHAPTER 5
RULES: CONSTRUCTION & RECONSTRUCTION
ADDING FLAVOR (83-87)

"In addition to providing the structure that enables the participants to operate their characters within the game milieu, the rules of a role-playing game also describe the elements that give a certain game its particular flavor" (Gygax 83).
What is derisively referred to as "fluff" in some RPG discussions (in contrast with the "crunch" of the mechanics) is intimately related to the game rules for Gygax. Note that before Gygax even moves on to flavor, the rules enable PCs to operate not just in some mathematical vacuum, but "within the game milieu" (Ibid).  Further, within a shared milieu, a particular game gets its own special flavor from the rules, not from some other, less-than-crunch element.  Gygax divides the flavors up into seven major families:

  1. Wonder and fear - that which makes a game world different, mysterious, and frightening.
  2. Adventure and heroism - difficult conditions for performing great deeds.
  3. Problem solving - achieving goals by wits.
  4. Role-playing - creating, personalizing, and playing a character.
  5. Combat, conflict, and battle - I'll come back to this.
  6. Group cooperation - this goes back to Gygax's spirit of the game and morality of play, already covered.
  7. Enlightenment and education - I'll leave this aside, as I find Gygax at his most opaque here, beyond: "being a gamer makes you research stuff you otherwise likely would never research."*
The first two of these have more to do with the flavor of the game world, three through six have more to do with the flavor of the style of play, though I believe there are some intersections between play flavor and world flavor, I will focus on 1 & 2.  I will come back to touch on 4 & 5, however, as these let me finish of some points from last Tuesday as well tie into today's subject.

Gygax's first two categories provide the flavor of the game by the ways in which rules mold (and meld with) world-building.  They also seem to recognize matters of emphasis: a game of space exploration or of wizardry would tend to emphasize wonder more, a game of elder horrors from space or undead wizardry would tend to be heavier on the fear ingredients.  Similarly, a high fantasy game would tend to have more heroic elements, while  a game of rascally rogues on the make would have less heroic and more adventure elements.  Random tables in the rules would provoke wonder, insanity mechanics would support the element of fear.  Experience points granted for gold pieces would support adventure playing, while experience points for monsters killed would shift more support to heroism.  The principle is clear: the flavor of the milieu and setting are not simply sprinkles on top of the RPG sundae.  They are major ingredients that must be provided for in the rules of the game.  In my book, this puts Gygax where he should be on the question of crunch versus flavor: in my camp!  The rules structure is made to hold the flavor, and thought should be given to that end.  If flavor doesn't matter to a rules set, then it would seem that Gygax would question whether you have an RPG (yet, or at all).  I'm happy to find that Gygax's terminology in '85 was superior to a lot of what I run into on the internet.  Now to 4 & 5.

Gary's assertion that role-playing is not the purpose of an RPG, but the vehicle; not the end but the means can be taken to mean something Gary clearly, in context, does not mean.  Again, he notes that the mix of the ingredients, or what elements get the emphasis, vary according to the game.  Let's take his terms to heart: it is a game of role-playing, not a game for role-playing.  The game is for the genre, the milieu, the setting.  You create this unique character and inhabit it for the purpose of pursuing that character's goals as they are appropriate to the milieu and the setting -- maybe it is to steal the wizard gem of Grognardac the Mirthless, maybe it is to save the princess by slaying the evil dragon Stasistix the Cruncher -- and as they are supported by the rules (disarming Grognardac's traps and preceding undetected or making a save versus Dragon Breath and then dealing enough damage to kill the dragon).  To the extent that acting is done (and now Gygax explicitly recognizes this possibility without his earlier distaste: "this in and of itself neither adds to nor detracts from the work."  It would probably be more accurate if he had added, however, "in and of itself." 84), it is done for carrying out the action by the character in attempts to achieve milieu-appropriate goals through teamwork.  I believe the very next paragraph strengthens my take on this: Gary distinguishes between role assumption and role-playing.  If you simply take up someone else's character creation, as in a choose-your-own-adventure book, you are assuming a role.  Playing a role for Gary meant creating a persona for yourself through play, and playing him or her towards the ends of the game in question.

This brings us finally to combat, conflict, and battle.  "Conflict is more important that combat" (85)!  Now Gary sounds closer to what I said he should have said than what he actually said before.  That is, some games will be more acting, some games will be more tactics, but there should be a range in role-playing games for differences in the mix of elements, as long as they contain enough of whatever is requisite for being an RPG.  If there is too much emphasis on combat and battle, Gary advises that stock be taken of whether role-playing is actually happening at all, or whether one has slipped over into role assumption (You be Caesar and I'll be Vercingetorix) or "worse still, the system might be a military simulation or war game masquerading as a role-playing game" (85)!  This saves Gary from falling into role-combating games from an allergic reaction to some over-the-top ham or method-reject that must have been haunting him.  There must be conflict in a role-playing game because the play of characters in a setting towards a denouement will call forth conflict: it is the one element of story that is missing, and the most crucial element.  I hasten to add that Gary does not make the connection to story elements, that is mine, but I am confident the conclusion is inescapable.


DEFINING PARAMETERS OF PLAY (88-90) & REMODELING THE RULES (88-103)

Everything "that is set forth to bring the game into being as a shadow of actual life" operates within the parameters set by the rules (and spirit) of the game (88).  Thus the creation of "cultures, political systems, societies, secret groups, strange inventions or whatever else [that] gives greater depth and breadth to the campaign" operate within the parameters and spirit of the game to make the shadow of real life more substantial and the roles of the game more inhabitable (89).  Adventure, conflict, fear, and awe will be felt more deeply and the achieving of the goals more rewarding.  How deeply should we go into any of these  and how do we chose?  Gygaxian morality means we know the answer even before we read it: "those areas in which the players evince the most interest" (91).

Again, for whatever weaknesses you may find in Gary's presentation, I hope I have pointed out the conceptual riches to be mined herein.  It would be foolish to hope that no one would ever divide the game up into "fluff and crunch" again, but I can always dream.  Best wishes as we come to the end of another Tomeful Tuesday, especially to the families of SR and BP.



* Plus this subject gets its own chapter later, so I am sure that this Gygaxian element will become more transparent there.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dwarves are Dudes


I remember the days before Betamax and cable TV.  We had these arcane devices called projectors and we put quaint objects called reels on them when we wanted to watch something like, say, Disney's Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs.  Luckily, my family had a copy, so this childhood favorite was available to make an impression on my young mind in the years before it was released for video players: between theatrical re-releases (no, I wasn't around in 1937, thank you very much) and televised broadcasts, I was not left dwarfless.  The most important lesson this animated classic taught me was simple.  DWARVES ARE DUDES.  However much fairy tale purists may deplore Disney's adaptations from the traditional source material, the film found a way to represent faithfully certain folklore aspects of the dwarfs of the Märchen that go back at least as far as Norse mythology -- above all, that they are uniformly male.  Iconic dwarves of today fit this mold just as well as Grumpy does.  (See Pathfinder's Harsk, below.)



This has so impressed my imagination, that I find mythopoesis that turns dwarves (yes, I still prefer Tolkien's spelling for them) into just another race of two sexes, with a mundane biology like our own, uncongenial.  Dwarves are male just like some other beings (magical?  fey?) are female: sirens, mermaids, gorgons, harpies, dryads, nymphs, and so on.  This observation suggests a natural role for dwarves in a fantasy ecology as the male progenitors of these various female races.  Males born of such unions would be dwarves, females born of these unions would be the same as their mothers.  I like this more than bearded females that only dwarf males can tell are female (Tolkien) and dwarves growing out of stone (C. S. Lewis), and it opens up further avenues of world-building and story-telling, in which the relations between dwarves and their mates play out.

That's all for today, fellow Ramblers.  Thanks for joining me for another Mythopoiec Monday.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Deckcard's Gallery of Random Rogues


I posted a link to my rules document for generating NPCs using a standard deck of cards on Monday* because I had fun developing and testing the method, and I liked how random and gritty it felt, as opposed to a villain or a Mary Sue that a GM or publisher would carefully craft.  (It's a funny thing, but even using 3d6 in order for NPCs tends to create characters that play closely to their ability scores, which is not how everyone is in real life.)  My rules skew the scores towards race and class, but not to the extent that other factors of life (personality, circumstances, etc) are ruled out -- leaving a skeleton for a GM to enflesh from the data, reasoning out why the NPC is who s/he is, if the GM so desires.  Again, the niche for these characters that generally trend lower in score is this: Just as not every character has what it takes to be a hero, so I felt there should be plenty of non-player characters out there that didn't have what it takes to become a hero or a significant villain,** and (as I blogged previously) I like the color and the symbols that cards bring to character generation.

Perhaps just seeing the rules laid out in the most concise way I could devise doesn't suggest enough what the results would look like.  So I took the NPCs I developed during testing and put them into Deckcard's Gallery of Random Rogues weighing in at 5 pages and 50 NPCs, these are bare-bones stat blocks.  The characters are in the order that they were generated.  Maybe later I will do something about that, if I continue to expand the Gallery.  You may note that dwarves are assigned no gender therein.  More on that soon. 


__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
* Gee was I extra rambly on Monday.  Sorry about that.
** Or at least, not a villain who has planned significance.  If I haven't mentioned how I love the emergent, unplanned stuff that happens even in a session that is on the planning intensive side, then I'll just do that right now.  My college DM still marvels how a completely random NPC hobgoblin mercenary, turned to stone years ago on an island far away, somehow became significant enough that there is still a chance that someday the now Emperor of Vazhoi will return to restore him to life, if the means is ever found.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Female as Fantasy Goal



Fantastical fiction is, felicitously, no longer the forbidden fiefdom of phallus-kind.  In spite of the success of female authors and the growth of female fandom, the ongoing strength of male, and specifically heterosexual male, perspective is undeniable.  For good or ill, fantasy was and still is highly popular with male readers.  The extent to which fantastical fiction is subject to this perspective and to which it incorporates the quest motif, is the extent to which the male quest for a woman, or women, or The Woman, exerts itself in fantastical fiction.  This came to mind as I thought back over three novels that I have read in the past year in which main male characters' quests for female companionship end in ways that suggest certain patterns.  For what it is worth, I am assuming that there is nothing particularly significant about the fact that these three novels are all game-related.

SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR
Saga of the Old City (1985) by Gary Gygax,  
Man of Gold (1984) by M. A. R. Barker, 
and Prince of Wolves (2010) and Master of Devils (2011) by Dave Gross.  
If you haven't read the latter three books, I highly recommend that you bookmark this post and come back later.  I will at least try to soften the spoilers for Gross' novels, so as not to undermine my ongoing campaign to convince everyone to read them.  No seriously, go read Gross' two NOW, then come back.  I'll keep the post up.



In Gygax's first novel, the young thief Gord strives to rise from his humble beginnings and make his way in the world (of Greyhawk).  A part of his rise is finding a woman.  The first two are false prizes, but all indications are that he finally has found The Woman in Evaleigh.  (PS She's a princess.)  Only she turns out to be The One Who Got Away.  Thus Gord is free to continue his Oerthly wanderings.

In Barker's first novel, the young scholar-priest Harsan leaves his life of quiet study in the temple and is set upon a path of adventure and advancement in the world of Tekumel.  First he meets the bad girl.  Then he meets the good girl.  Finally {MAJOR SPOILER} he ends up getting both the sexy bad girl (who is high caste) and the sweet good girl (low caste and with a curse), because -- hey! -- who doesn't want to have the wish fulfilled of having the best of both?  (It is natural to suppose that Barker's conversion to Islam makes polygamy a live option for his character.)  My expectation from the double domesticity of the hero at the denouement is that Harsan's career as an adventurer is at an end.

Dave Gross' excellent novels, set in Pathfinder's Golarion, follow the exploits of Pathfinder and nobleman Varian Jeggare and his bodyguard of partially demonic heritage, Radovan.  In the first, we glimpse a noblewoman of Count Jeggare's past: a youthful flame who gives every indication of having been a female mentor and a bad girl.  Radovan, however, meets both the sexy bad girl (a real bitch!  No, I'm not being a male pig, honest!)  and the sweet good girl (with a curse).  Radovan leaves them both behind when he must leave the scene of adventure for home, though he certainly continues to think of them (am I wrong to think the former carnally and the latter as something more than merely carnal?) afterwards.  In the second novel, the ladies are off-limits to Radovan, because he gets stuck in a state of demonic, uh, enhancement.  So it's Jeggare's turn to have a love interest: yep, she's a princess and has the potential to be The One.  However it doesn't work out, and there's some indication that she may instead turn out to be The One Who Got Away. 

From this selection of three authors and four novels, common characteristics recur in regard to the female love interests of the male main characters.  In the stories of Gygax and Gross, the females who are the characters' goals elude them.  The character (particularly in the case of Jeggare) is deepened by loss and is kept free for further unattached adventuring.  Further, male readers who have suffered the loss of a beloved woman are given the opportunity to strengthen their identification with the heroes.  In Barker's story, the struggle of the book is doubly rewarded, and the male reader enjoys the fantasy of not having to choose between two desirable women -- who, incidentally, resonate with different archetypes.  Hmm, now I'm tempted to go back and analyze all these female love interests in terms of four feminine archetypes.  Maybe I will save that for a future post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gary's Rules I: Basic Structure & Combat

Chapter 5 - RULES: CONSTRUCTION & RECONSTRUCTION

The rules provide the structure of role-playing games, in Gary's words they are "the general framework within which participants operate" (77).  As we saw before, they provide (implicitly or explicitly) the objective of the game (see the idea of the spirit of the game from chapter 2).  There is enough meat in this chapter for me to reflect on it in at least two blog posts, so this first one will confine itself to the how Gary sees the fundamental elements of rules in RPM, and further to focus on the two key areas of insight that the first part of the chapter offers.

COMMON RULES AREAS FOR RPGS
Gygax breaks the rules down into seven categories.  Those categories are
  • Objective
  • Time and Distance Scales
  • Movement Rates
  • Combat
  • Character Types
  • Technical Data
  • Rewards
He acknowledges a difference in emphasis between play and realism, and tends to note how in each area the rules indicate whether a particular RPG comes down on the side of playability or accuracy.  While his brief reflections on these are of some interest, and indicate a breadth on his part recognizing the validity of different approaches within RPGs, there is a clear standout as far as which is the greatest, and it is carries forward from what Gary sees as the objective of RPGs.

As a reminder, objective for Gygax means more than the obvious purpose for playing a game: fun.  A game's objective is how fun is had: what is a game's specific way of having fun?  Games have different ways of having fun, and though he recognizes that RPGs have some range in different kinds of fun, there is distinctive which makes RPGs an identifiable game genre, defining the range of what is an RPG.  The above bulleted outline gives a clue to Gary's answer: for him, the purpose of role-playing games (or at least, and especially, D&D) is "make-believe combat" (79). 

It is common knowledge that the first RPG came out of military miniatures or war games.  But it would be a fallacy to assume that the origin of a thing dictates its identity and purpose.  We can easily imagine, for example, that Tarot has its origin in other kinds of card games.  But for Gary, war gaming is more than an origin for RPGs: "the core of the game is the combat between the players' characters and the nonplayer opponents controlled by the game master" (79).  We can know see how the outline provides a sandwich structure: Combat is the central rules feature, and the other features are understood as support.  The objective is victory in imaginary combat and the rewards will be appropriate to victory in imaginary combat.  While he acknowledges other kinds of imaginary action, such as problem-solving, "the heart of the action" is "combat of a personal sort" (79).  This takes us right back to the invention of the idea that the player takes on the role of a single combatant, which Gary owed to Dave Arneson, in war gaming.  Acknowledging that "rules systems that are virtually nothing but combat are, without question, not role-playing game systems" he still insists that relagating combat "to an adjunctive [sic] position [is] best understood as overemphasizing role-playing to the exclusion of gaming" (Ibid).  This offers a fascinating insight into Gygax's thinking at this point.  RPGs are seen here as not merely born from war-gaming, but a kind of war-gaming.  In fact, Gary's playing "role-playing" and "gaming" against each other above indicate that he is equating gaming in this context with war-gaming.  It would be more accurate then from this POV to use the phrase "role-playing war-game" rather than role-playing game.  Proponents of other points-of-view might well ask why it wasn't called combat-role gaming.  For "some RPGs will stand as virtual battle games, some as abortive attempts as theatrical training, but most will lie somewhere in between" (emphasis mine, 80).  This shows Gygax at a moment when he is better at issuing norms than describing the way things are.  I propose the logic of the sentence demands that it be re-written as "some RPGs will stand as virtual battle games, some as virtual theatrical games, but most will like somewhere in between" if it is to hope to stand as a description of the field of play.  This is of course an area where gamers' feelings run high, but whatever my own preferences, I have no need to tell others' what they should be doing here, only how I want to play: "somewhere in between," but perhaps more theatrical than General Gygax.  I'm glad to have authorial evidence of his preference, but it is mainly of historical interest to me.  Gygax has arguably slipped from describing the spirit of the game to prescribing the spirit of his subset of the game: a trap that I argued he earlier avoided.  So I turn to the other area of insight.

Where I find Gygax most suggestive is in the first part of chapter 5 as he turns to a more general description of gaming.  "The game is the culture" and "the rules are the standards" that "attempt to describe a culture based upon an adventures life of make believe" (82).  There is a broad enough umbrella to take in combat, problem-solving, and the more personal extroversions that Gygax seems uncomfortable with.  Of course I don't want to sit through theatrical training when I sit down with my friends and my funny-shaped dice and who wants theatrical abortions at the game table?  But I do want to imaginatively embark on an adventurous life in a fantasy setting that will overcome problems, force villains to yield, slay monsters, and express and develop character, however rules-intensive I may or may not want any of those areas to be at any given seating.  The idea of game as culture and rules as cultural standards that allow the culture to function are interesting.  Further, Gary will take these ideas in a direction that I will cover in my next Tomeful Tuesday, and a direction that I am quite excited about: the rejection of the dichotomy between "crunch" and "fluff."  A popular way of terming the pairing that I utterly despise!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Deriving Characters for Gaming from the Symbols & Values of the Standard Card Deck



There's something about card decks with their suites and numbers and the potential for interpreting their symbolism in archetypal ways.  Jung, famously, was fascinated by the Tarot, as was Christian novelist Charles Williams (see the novel The Greater Trumps).  Many gamers have been likewise captivated.  The first cards that appeared in D&D, to my knowledge, were the magical Deck of Many Things (in game).  Later, cards appeared both in game and with physical decks at the table.  The Ravenloft campaign setting had the Tarot-inspired Tarokka deck to do character readings, and Paizo has followed up with the Harrow deck for the Golarion setting.  (I can testify from experience that this deck makes a very fun addition to role-playing.  It's available for sale here.)

A Harrow Card
But even a standard deck of playing cards holds an attraction for me: especially the face cards.  The idea that a character's future might be foretold by cards is not far from the idea that cards could predetermine who a character will be.  The archetypal nature of the character classes themselves suggested a link with card symbolism.  Reflecting on the numerical needs of character generation and the suggestive possibilities of the suites and faces, I recently created rules for using the standard deck (including the two Jokers or whatever your deck calls them) to create NPCs.  After tweaking with the rules to get the method up to optimum speed and written with maximum clarity, I created scores and scores of NPCs.  It seems fun and useful to me, as well as drawing on the mystique of the cards.  What do the cards have in store for your game?  Play around with my download and find out.  Feedback welcome.


Note: The method was made with my own evolving house rules of classical D&D in mind, so primary attributes will not be what you are used to.  I assigned one of the four classic races to each suite and one of the four classic classes to each suite, and each race and each class have their own primary attributes (except human which gets the free choice of a racial primary attribute and halfling and thief which both share dexterity.)

I hope that these may be of some interest to others, so it's time to step away from hording gaming material other than flavor away and risking a little sharing.  Though it's late, from where I am, I can still wish you a merry Mythopoeic Monday.

How much XP do I get for post 100?

Coming up on 7 months old, with 63 followers and over 17k page views, I now reach my 100th post (seriously, would it kill you people to comment?  ;-p ).  I had been wanting to do something special for my one hundredth post, but my brain has been too distracted by lots of practical life demands lately to come up with much of anything.  And then it struck, yesterday, when I least expected it: during mass.

I had to go to a neighboring parish so I could go in the evening instead of the morning, and I opened the service leaflet so that my eye fell directly on this:


XP for Men!  What was this advertisement for Experience Points!?  There's an RPG group at a local parish?  I had no idea why it would be male-only, but was dumbstruck at the thought.  At least it wasn't for kids.  Then my eyes continued down:



Ah.  Chi Rho = Christ.  Not XP.  I see.  So no Experience Points.  Listen, Fr. So-and-so, is Jesus your GM, or what?  Well, I better get some XP for post #100, is all I'm going to say.

Up late today: Mythopoeic Monday

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gygax on Groups

My last gaming session with my OK pals: a small but good group.  Bonus points for assigning it the correct Gygaxian type.

Today I pick up again with another installment of Tomeful Tuesday!  I'm continuing my read-through of Role-Playing Mastery by Gary Gygax.  I'm laying it out in outline form today with a little summary, some key terms, and what I identified as the quotes with the greatest Gygaxian gaming goodness.  My other take-aways here were the dredging of memories of problem players from my youth (the player of the supposed paladin that motivated a friend of mine and me to secretly become assassins with the help of one of our group's DMs just so we could assassinate his character in revenge for his unchecked abuse of his fellow players that one DM encouraged and the other didn't know how to handle but was willing to be our accomplices to address) and yet another moment of recognition that I am not getting to play often enough.



Chapter 4

The Group: More Than its Parts
To Gygax, it is inherent to RPGs like AD&D that they are focused on the group and dependent on the group.  By group, he predominantly means the player group or the playing group (players + GM), which are the main subjects of the chapter.  The PC group is considered predominantly as an expression of the former.  Gygax considers the danger signs of players and playing groups that are not working well and hence not producing ongoing, successful play.


Group Interaction
“The game master is dedicated to providing fresh and challenging problems in an imaginative setting to a group of players who appreciate his effort.  The players are uniformly interested in the genre, have a sound grasp of the game rules, understand roles and role-playing, and function as a cooperative entity” (58).

Types of Groups:  1) regular veteran playing group, 2) fragmented veteran playing group, 3) enthusiasm-driven playing group, 4) peer-group, 5) club gatherings

Danger Signs: Group Insularity, Infrequent and Irregular Meetings, Frequent Absenteeism, Gamer Dropout, Non-Integration of Casual Gamers, Overdependence on GM, Overdependence on Gaming Location, Overly Frequent Changes in Group Membership, Elitism, Poor Choice of PC for PC group balance or for player ability


Problem Players
Bully, Know-it-all, Adviser, Cheater, Pouter, Talker
Outside of these types of players, the other player danger is incompatible players.

The Problem GM
“The Game master should derive his satisfaction from entertaining the associated group, from testing them and seeing them succeed, and from the approbation they give him in return” (70).  Not by:
  •  Viewing the players as enemies
  • Viewing the player group as a means to self-importance through denigration (would seem to be a form of the preceding.)
  • Viewing the players as mere puppets
  • Inappropriate referring such as the killer campaign and the easy rewards campaign 


mastery is group success
“Your entire investment in the game genre, your survey of the field, selection of a topic, study of the rules, and application of what you have learned should be used to the benefit of the group” (74).



Thanks for reading and may all your games be mythic!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Myth-Making & the Spirit of Inquiry

An Artist Who is Looking for Commissions

For why-wolves, possessed as we are by both the spirit of Inquiry and the spirit of Bloodlust, it is natural to ask why have humans engaged in the making of myths?  For the historically-minded, answering this question would, among other things, give us historical context in which to ask why do humans engage in myth making?  At this point the major attempts to answer this question that are still popular seem to me to fall out into five broad tendencies, the last one, arguably, ahistorical.


  Five Kinds of Mythological Theory
  1. Humans created myths due to confusion about the past. (Euhemerism, F. Max Müller)
  2. Humans created myths as hypotheses to explain their world and how it works.  Myths have Ritual as their corollary.  (Edward B. Tylor, James G. Frazer)
  3. Humans created myths to create group identity and control behavior.  Myths are a major feature of Society.  (Plato, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Bronislaw Malinowski)
  4. Humans created myths because they were inspired to receive important encoded truths.  (Plutarch, Origen of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, C. S. Lewis -- and in very different ways, Rudolf Bultmann and J. R. R. Tolkien)
  5. The creation of myths is actually an expression of the Human Sub/Unconscious. (Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung -- and thence, perhaps, Joseph Campbell)
Now, if you are one of those people whose eyes start glazing over when conversation turns historical, think about this.  If you want to skip history and say, "Who cares?  We make myths because myth-making is fun!"  Then how do you answer this: Why is myth-making particularly fun?  Why not just rather write romance novels, comic strips, cartoons, horror short stories, TV Western scripts, screenplays for blockbuster action movies?  Further, as significant as enjoyment is, there are questions of power and resilience entwined with considerations of entertainment: myths are a lot older than the other genres, and signs suggest that they are not declining any time soon.  Beyond that is the possibility that they exercise a profounder pull, a deeper reach, and not merely a longer lasting and more popular appeal.

Wrestling with theorists on the one hand and my own attempts to make various kinds of sense (history being but one way) out of mythos (originally "story, narrative, plot")  on the other, I am always alternating between fascination and frustration.  One the one hand, there is an abiding sense (or at least suspicion) that there is a unified something behind or beneath mythology, whether that something is human or divine or both.  On the other there are the errors of the theorists, their prejudices (both good and bad), and the resistant particularity of any given mythological datum.  Perhaps the fascination and the frustration are just two sides of the same coin.  Lack of consensus on whether the categories true/false apply to mythos, what it is, what it is about, what it is for, and how it works does not dampen the attraction of the mythic field and thus makes the search for theoretical answers persist in the face of such a lack of consensus.

The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society has a number of helpful entries that are worth checking out, including many of the figures named above.  Sadly, there is no entry for Myth.  But there is for Demythologizing!  Really, editors?  Still, I am happy that at least one contemporary reference work of religion is available for free online.  Theoretical entries fall in an area where dating is a more serious problem in older works, such as the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.

I hope this week's Mythopoeic Monday stirs your interest in such questions.  One place to begin furthering such interest is to start with Robert Segal's Very Short Introduction: Myth (Oxford), though this work will only introduce you to modern theorists.  Finally, I'd like to thank Trin and Droz for taking time in their post-Gen Con recovery to blog about their experiences in Indianapolis early this month.  Thanks again, guys!

According to at least one mythos, all questions stop with the Cosmic Owl.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Gen Con: The best 4 days in gaming...Exceeds expectations!

Paizo Beginner Box Iconic Minis - WizKid Booth

My family and I attended our first Gen Con this year in Indianapolis. It was nothing short of amazing. To those readers who have never gone to Gen Con or any gaming convention before, I have one word of advice -- GO! However, I must warn you, once you go, you will be hooked. Below are my impressions of the best 4 days in gaming.

Day one was so overwhelming, I could barely breathe. Between role playing events, game demos, and cool gaming loot on sale, the number of choices was daunting. How could we possibly fit everything in to just four days? Our first of four scheduled Pathfinder Society (PFS) Events during the convention started at 8 am, Thursday. Even this early morning, first day event was packed. This was the theme for the room for the entire weekend. Almost every PFS game was sold out for every slot for the entire four days. The only drawback to the room was the noise. 240+ players all role playing simultaneously can be quite loud, and it was difficult to hear the GM describe the scene. By midnight on day one, our characters had made it to level three and we were ready for the convention special, Blood Under Absalom the following night.

Erik Mona interrupts Blood Under Absalom to announce Paizo's ENnie Sweep.
By the second day, our convention routine began to round into focus. Scheduled events in the morning and evening with heavy time spent in the dealer room in between. Every board game, role playing game, miniature, and Renaissance accessory you can think of was being sold by somebody in the dealer room. At first we tried to be methodical and start at the right and go row by row but that fell by the way side very quickly as new shiny items popped up every other booth. It didn't take long until the lure of the Paizo booth was too overwhelming to resist. All kinds of goodies were available at the booth in addition to the newly released material. I was able to pick up a copy of the Book of Drakes by fellow FAWTL member Mike Welham, a deck of GameMastery Condition Cards featuring the lovable Paizo goblins, and another set of combat tiers to handle of all the flying PCs in my Rise of the Runelord game group. Speaking of which, Paizo announced a special 5 year anniversary edition of the adventure that launched the entire Adventure Path series, entirely updated to the PFRPG rule set will be released in mid 2012.

Near the end of the second day, we discovered the Mayfair Games booth. Mayfair is best known for the award winning Settlers of Catan series of games, but as we soon discovered, they make a whole host of different and interesting games. Mayfair runs a terrific promotion every year where each time you demo one of their games, you collect a resource: Sheep, Clay, Wood, Grain or Ore. Once all five, are collected, you become a Knight of Catan and are eligible for 50% off one of their in stock games at their booth. We were able to try several games that we would never have tried otherwise including, Steam, The Dutch Golden Age, Sutter's Mill, and, Witch of Salem. Of the group, we liked Steam and Witch of Salem (think scaled down version of Arkham Horror) the best and ended up buying both.

Gen Con is also a time to meet fellow online gamers in person. Unfortunately, I was not able to catch up to fellow blogger Droz or Paizo board member BluePigeon, but I did meet Paizo board member and fellow player in my Ravenloft play by post (PBP) game, Rev Rosey. She and her family traveled all the way from England for a once in a lifetime trip to Gen Con. It turns out the Dungeon and Dragon Troll was the best place to meet. We had a great evening Saturday night discussing everything from D&D to politics to foreign currency to Magic: The Gathering. Also, it was a chance to meet and thank the great people at Paizo who put out such wonderful products. Jason Bulmahn signed my copy of Ultimate Combat, I thanked Liz Courts for the virtual cookies she gave me when I first posted on the Paizo boards and I was able to snag a picture with Supreme Customer Service manager Cosmo and his equally famous mustache.

Gen Con is truly a family affair. We saw countless parents with their kids sharing the joy of gaming at the convention. The next generation is already following in their parents footsteps which bodes well for the future of gaming. Gen Con just reported record attendance at this year's event with over 36,000 unique registrants. The camaraderie shown by all gamers was wonderful to see. We felt completely comfortable where ever we went at the convention.

Finally, gamers are a generous bunch. Over $18,000 was raised for a local charity, School on Wheels. My favorite fund raiser was Cardhalla. Over 180,000 Magic: The Gathering cards were donated so that convention goers could build all variety of card houses. What took 3 days to build was destroyed in a matter of minutes as people threw spare change at the card houses to bring them all down. Including the auction of the first throw, over $3,000 was raised from this single event.

The aftermath of Cardhalla

If I can only go to one convention in a year, it will be Gen Con. The variety of vendors, games, and activities ensures that everyone can find something they like to do. The opportunity to try so many games before buying is unparalleled. My only regret is that there is only 24 hours in a day, because that is just not enough time to experience all the great games available in the market today.

Thank you to Theodric the Obscure for the opportunity to share my Gen Con experience with everyone.


Friday, August 12, 2011

ENnie Congratulations and Bragging



The ENnies (yes, I know some people hate them) are the most widely industry-recognized awards for excellence in role-playing games.  They issue awards in 22 categories, a gold and silver in each, according to fan votes on the nominees, and a few other special awards that are chosen by the judges.  I didn't place the maximum votes in each category, and I skipped a couple categories all together (I don't know what the hell people were thinking in the Best Cover category, in particular), but the big winners were Pathfinder (Paizo Publishing) and The Dresden Files RPG (Evil Hat Productions).  These two definitely deserved their spoils, in my opinion, and I'm always happy to see worthies win.  (I think my Paizo fanboydom is beyond disclosure at this point, but of the Dresden Files RPG I only have podcast and skimming experiences.  However, that was enough to make me confident that the voters, and me among them, were right.  People will probably throw rotten produce at me, but my only experience of the Dresden Files other than this is through the under-appreciated Sci-Fi channel series, and not the novels themselves.)  Another winner that deserves individual mention is Old School Hack.  Yeah!  (Goliath, meet David.)  Congratulations, folks, and keep up the good work!  Finally, I assume fellow Texan Reaper's charming Mousling miniatures are for playing Mouse Guard?  They earned my vote, too, though I anticipate next year going for WizKids new Pathfinder minis.

There were a few disappointments, especially that the Atomic Array podcast, which won gold last year, came away with nothing this year.  Clearly, the fact that the Paizo fans' votes were split three ways affected the outcome.  At least the excellent Chronicles: Pathfinder Podcast won silver.

Humor me, but the 2011 ENnies would not be complete for me if I didn't tabulate my voting record.  Out of 44 possible points, I will give myself 1 point for every time my vote exactly won, and half a point for when I voted gold and it got silver or vice versa.  My score: 20.  I think that's pretty good, considering the categories I felt like I simply couldn't (or in one case, wouldn't) vote in or the times I thought a second candidate didn't deserve to compete with my first choice.  (I wish I'd kept my records from last year for comparison, but I think my record was actually even better last year.)

If you're full of envy over my voting record, feast your schadenfreude upon my lousy record with the 2012 judges: I used all eight of my votes, and only one of my candidates made it among the elect five.  I'm toying with publishing my judges voting guide next year instead of just showing it to a few friends, for all the good that will do.


So, yay ENnie winners, and yay me!  I hope more OSR and indie folks will continue to put themselves in the running and not get discouraged.  Competing against large professional companies and their legions of fans and coming away with any recognition is a big achievement and deserving of celebration.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wandering through GenCon

We arrived on Wednesday night around 7:00 pm and went right to the Will Call line to pick up our badges and tickets. I'm glad we did because it introduced us to the overall theme of GenCon 2011 -- waiting in line. We spent an hour waiting to pick up our badges. After that, we grabbed dinner and then turned in for the night.

Day 1

The day began with a beautiful sunrise, the gold and pink hues in the sky creating a terrific mosaic over the Indianapolis skyline. I'm told it was quite pretty. However, I spent the morning waiting in a 40 minute line for a bagel sandwich, then heading to the Exhibition Hall.

Peter Adkison opened the day with a roll on the main stage, right outside the newly expanded Exhibition Hall. As the doors parted, the vortex of games and dice drew in the crowd, almost against their will. The rush of people was both terrifying and strangely euphoric. What new treasures would we find in the hall? Who would we meet? Would any of the authors or artists fail their San checks and run screaming?

To be honest, the morning was very much a blur.  Hmm... That's not quite right. Blur implies speed, and that's just not what I experienced. It was more like being frozen in amber. Half of the morning was spent in the Catalyst Game Labs booth, picking up my Shadowrun stuff, then the second half of the morning getting my Paizo subscription. The Catalyst booth was bogged down with computer problems (another recurring theme), while the Paizo booth was just bogged down with people.

After lunch, our group got together for the one game we all signed on for and wanted to play. We Be Goblins! was a total success and complete fun to play. Although they only had four pre-gens for a group of six players (we doubled up on alchemists and clerics), the game was incredibly fun. My little Globber was able to "heal the party" only once, sadly though. They were as appreciative of my god's blessing when it turned out I channel negative energy and nearly killed the rogue and one of the alchemists. (I, however, was fine as my god provided me with a stick of feel good -- wand of cure light wounds). I think we finally broke our GM, though, when the other cleric cast Divine Favor on his pet toad and the Tiny toad proceeded to deal more damage to the Medium-sized Frog than anyone else in the family. Like all good goblin adventurers, we made sure to try and test the fireworks before returning home and Globber was chosen by the group to hold the blessed banger as they lit it and ran away. Fortunately, my god worked through me and aimed the banger at the big box of bangers, killing the entire party (except that sneaky rogue -- but he got his later).

After Goblins, we did some more wandering of the Exhibition Hall, before nearly collapsing and returning to our room to drop off our goodies, then grab dinner. My friends and I then headed to the Westin hotel lobby, where Keith Baker (of Eberron fame) was holding an impromptu gathering of gamers to "just chat". The next hour was a discussion that ranged from favorite moments to how to handle different types of players to what to do if you're blocked (as the GM) on where to go next in your campaign. Mr. Baker was very personable and helpful, and the informal gathering was a high point of the convention.

The first day ended as exhaustion set in and we realized our Pathfinder Society game was at a bright and early 8:00 am the next day. As dreams of silly goblins and precious swag danced through our heads, we fell asleep, imagining this is how Ralphie felt the night of Christmas as the cool blue steel of his Red Rider rested next to him. (Little publicized fact. Randy was found shot to death by 400 B.B.'s about a month later).


Day 2

As we awoke in the morning, we tried hunting out breakfast, but then simply decided to grab Starbucks from the lobby of the JW Marriott before heading over for the game. While waiting for the PFS game, we encountered the new regulations that we hadn't seen in the previous trip in 2009. Instead of simply opening the doors and letting everyone in, the people with "real" tickets were allowed in first, to ensure they all got seats before letting Generic ticket owners in. This was both good (since it guaranteed that "real" tickets weren't left in the dust because they were slightly late) and bad (this unfortunately meant that our friend Jesse did not get a chance to get into our game).

The game was part of the introductory adventures set up for new players/characters to start off. It was a interesting storyline, introducing four of the factions in the Society, and was paced well. The game was four hours long, but we were able to get 3 combats, a puzzle and lots of interesting roleplaying in. Overall, it was a good game, although my friend's Barbarian was actually taken out early in the big fight and the Oracle unfortunately cast Cure Light Wounds three times, for minimum healing each time, resulting in the big guy being stable but unconscious.

After the game, we wandered the Exhibition Hall, seeing what goodies we could find. No demos were tested this day, as we merely wanted to take in as much as possible. We found the Who North America booth, where the fans of the Doctor were drooling over the wonderful toys and giant TARDIS, and I purchased Jelly Babies to try. We then determined why the good Doctor was always trying to give them away (and why no-one took them) as they are the foulest gelatin-based candy I have ever tasted (and I always wind up with the vomit flavored Bertie Bott). After poisoning myself and my friends with the horrid British concoction, I bade farewell to my companions and headed off to the Shadowrun seminar What's Up with Shadowrun?  The seminar (which John Schmidt is uploading to his YouTube channel) was very fun and informative about their new products and what's coming down the pipeline. I'm a little biased (being a global moderator for the official forums -- here), but the Catalyst guys seem to really love their job and their products and go the extra mile for the fans.

The seminar over, I headed back to our shared hotel room, where we relaxed for a bit, going through our swag and new preciouses--er, purchases. Both my friend and I were astounded by the quality of the Runner's Toolkit, the Shadowrun box set that had a ton of useful stuff. Ultimate Combat was also a treasure for me, because I love to have options for games and the book is full of them. And, we spent much time drooling over the black & silver Limited Edition Runner's Black Book (Shadowrun) and the Degenesis game (Posthuman Studios), with it's beautiful artwork and crisp rules. Dinner came and then I was off to the first round of my Shadowrun tournament.

The big surprise for the tournament was that they dipped into the Street Legends book that was released and we were all playing some of the big NPCs from the universe. It took us a good half hour to not only wrap our brains around playing legendary characters, but to also go through all their abilities and goodies that we had to play with. At the end of the night, we were the first team to finish the objection (and the only team to do so on time). Stumbling back up to my room, I promptly crashed into bed as we got ready for Day 3.


Day 3

The day began with us being able to "sleep in" to 8:00 am, since none of us had anything scheduled until 10:00 am. My friend and I went to the Paizo seminar, detailing their upcoming plans for Pathfinder and Paizo. Yes, the minis are coming. Yes, there will be "theme packs" of things like a goblin swarm. Yes, there will be a Rise of the Runelords pack to coincide with the compilation/5th anniversary book and they are confidant it will include a Gargantuan-sized Rune Giant miniature. No, they are not planning to do compilations of the other APs at this time. No, they are not planning a modern/future/space/sci-fi Pathfinder at this time (although Lisa had tried to get an offer on the Star Wars/Lucasfilm license). Yes, they were the #1 ranked gaming product on ICV for quarter 2. No, Erik Mona doesn't do that with his minis.

After the seminar, we headed out for Exhibition Hall again, hoping to try some demos and spend some coin. The first stop was to Fantasy Flight Games to try out their Mansions of Madness, but the tables were already crowded and the next opening was a good wait. So, we wandered a bit more. We checked out dice, games, dice, t-shirts and dice. The full-sized TARDIS at Who North America became the common rallying point when we became separated (which was often), but we did drop by Steve Jackson Games and were able to Demo the Axe Cop card game, based off Munchkin rules.

As the clock struck 4:00 pm, I headed over to the lobby of the Marriott hotel, where I met up with Erik Scott de Bie, Jaleigh Johnson, Ed Greenwood, Steven Schend, Erin Novaks, Bruce Cordell and Matt James for the first official unofficial Candlekeep Symposium. For those of you not in the know Candlekeep is a forum and gathering place of Forgotten Realms sages and lore. We style ourselves after the sages in the Candlekeep monastery set in Faerûn as keepers of Lore and knowledge of the Realms. Again, this was an informal setting, with only about a dozen in attendance (yes, the authors outnumbered the fans). The discussion began with Ed asking us what we'd like to see come down the road for the Realms. From there, we again discussed writing suggestions, queried lore on our favorite people and places and had a grand time sharing a drink with truly outstanding folk. But time grew short and hunger called...

That evening, I attended the second round of the Shadowrun tournament. Our group quickly fell into characters for the game and we were off like a shot. And then the GM (a different GM from the first night--they rotated since they were also our judges for scoring) began to slow us down. He was a nice guy, but he seemed underprepared for the game. Rules, story and characters, he wasn't up to date on most of them. So we spent the night trying to hurry him along while not missing important things. Unfortunately, his lack of preparation did us in, since a couple of key story items were not brought up, resulting in us not knowing things were skipped, and we finished feeling we had the tournament easily in the bag. Much to our dismay the next day, we discovered we hadn't even scored high enough to get in the top three.

I turned in for the night, preparing for the final day of the convention, feeling like an American Gymnast at the Olympics facing off against the German judge.

Day 4

We awoke on day 4 with absolutely nothing planned. Grabbing breakfast at Subway, we headed into the Exhibition Hall and met up with friends to do a final pass through all the booths (and try to roll 20's on negotiation skills against the people that would be packing up stuff later). We grabbed the final purchases of the 'Con (dice, a River Song sonic screwdriver, Munchkin Cthulhu), then headed up to the Sagamore Ballroom and sat down at one of the many empty tables to play Munchkin all afternoon. This GenCon was the first time our friend Jesse had ever played a Munchkin card game and he fell in love with it. Unfortunately, I don't think he realized what complete bastards his friends were until we started playing.

The game was over and we bade our goodbyes to the friends that weren't going back with us, then went out for a glorious final night feast to celebrate our new treasures, old friends and cherished memories.


In retrospect...

GenCon is something special. It is a gathering of like-minded fools and their friends, intent to spend four days creating stories, slaying fell beasts and walking away with the treasure. Your first GenCon is always filled with wonder and amazement as you try and do and experience everything they offer. This being my third trip, I'm beginning to finally get into the rhythm of the convention, knowing what days to do what, where to go for this and -- most importantly -- how not to overdo it.

As a reporter for the convention, I probably could have attended more industry panels, tried more demos and recorded interviews with more celebrities. However, if I had done all that, I would have missed out on simply enjoying the close nature of the panels and informal gatherings I did attend. If you go into something, looking for a story, you come out with facts and figures that you regurgitate for your readers. If you go into it to just enjoy it, you come out with stories and memories that are dear to you. Some of the best memories of GenCon 2011:


  • Giving a t-shirt to Keith Baker. It was a simple graphic tee we had made up for our group based on our Eberron Adventuring Guild, and we gave it to him to say "you're part of the guild". From his reaction to the shirt, it was apparent that he enjoyed the gift and sentiment.
  • Meeting the Catalyst Game Labs crew face-to-face. Especially Bull (Missions Developer). Being the only moderator on the boards that's not working for Catalyst, I've gotten to know these guys pretty well from the forums. To actually meet them in person was a blast and I hope next time I get to spend more time with them (especially at Claddagh, for the meet-up on Wednesday night before the 'Con).
  • Unofficial Candlekeep Symposium. Like the Catalyst crew, I've been wanting to meet the sages and authors that frequent the forums for many a year now. To finally get a chance to sit down and chat as fellow games and fans of the Realms meant a lot to me. Now, if I can just get them to put Ashe in as a character...
  • Scaring the bejesus out of Wesley Schneider. It was unintentional. But hilarious. The running quest became getting the Paizo buttons they released each day. We had gotten Thursday's, but missed Friday's because we were in the PFS game and they ran out by the time we got there. On Saturday, we attended the Paizo seminar, then rushed over to the Exhibition Hall to get our button. I spotted Wes at the front of the Paizo area and we asked him for the button. Upon finding out there were all gone, my friend had a Cartman moment and yelled out "Sonovabitch!". He didn't notice Wes' eyebrows shooting up and then stepping back from us, but I did and pulled my friend away before we scared him further. All I could think the rest of the day was how we put the fear of god into the nicest guy working at Paizo.
  • The Drive. Now, I'm not saying it's for everyone, but it was the cheapest method to get six people to the 'Con. My friend and I were the drivers of the orange Dodge Minivan (we could never agree on who was Chevy Chase), and spent most of the trip out and back keeping each other sane by being totally silly and cracking each other up. His wife, god bless her, looked at us like she was Gandalf and we were Merry and Pippin. Everyone else in the car slept.
  • The Energy. There's something about GenCon. I haven't been to ComicCon, nor DragonCon, but both are more about the entertainment industry rather than the game industry. Sure, GenCon is smaller than both, but it's more focused than the others too. At the other cons, you spend most of your time spending money to see celebrities, or buying cool toys, or spending money on Seminars. GenCon, you spend most of your time with friends (or strangers) playing games.


The Downside

They are growing. Having just reported the numbers today, they showed there were over 100,000 "turnstiles" at the convention (that's the count of people coming in the door). That's up more than 20% from last year and even more than the 69,000 from two years ago. We felt an energy at the convention that they are quickly reaching a breaking point before they have to make major changes. My friend Jesse went to pick up his badge and tickets Thursday morning and the line for the Will Call was over two hours to wait and double-backed on itself twice. The most heard complaint came from the wireless network, where it not only cost a lot ($10-$15 a day), but was incredibly slow. Then there's the rumor that once the contract is up with Indianapolis, they are considering moving the show to California. No matter what else, GenCon is heading for a change. Whether the gamers will be ready or willing is a big question.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mythopoeia and the Public Domain



I got it into my head that J. R. R. Tolkien's poem, "Mythopoeia," written in 1931 (after one of those BIG conversations that changes the life of intellectuals, in this case, Tollers, Jack, and Hugh Dyson) and dedicated to Lewis, was in the public domain.  I'm not sure how I got that impression, perhaps because it was on Wikipedia at some point?  Anyway, apparently it is not freely available.  And thanks to Sonny Bono, the Walt Disney Co., and various other corporate lackeys in Congress, it will not be in the public domain in the US any time soon.  Now, I'm all for the rights of creators, but at some point, it is reasonable that the creator and the family that she or he provided for have been taken care of, and the culture of which they are a part have a claim on their creation as something that now belongs to a people.  You know, like all those stories that Grimm and Perrault and others published, but then were later available for Walt Disney to adapt in animations that made them tons of money?  So yeah, I'm one of those disgruntled people that thinks that copyright was plenty long already and didn't need a greedy extend that keeps things out of the public domain even longer.  Even if it was simply occasioned by the fact that I was going to republish "Mythopoeia" today until I discovered I was all wrong about its copyright status and that made my life more difficult this Mythopoeic Monday.  Yet another reason to appreciate things like the OGL, Creative Commons, the sharers in the OSR community, and artists like Nina Paley.  I might also mention Paizo's community use policy (found by scrolling down the page, right hand panel).

The problem with grumpiness is that it calls for connections.  Like a connection to the fact that I love the Tolkien volume Tales from the Perilous Realm, illustrated by Alan Lee.  It's an almost perfect collection of fairy stories together with Tolkien's seminal essay "On Fairy-Stories."  Almost perfect, except that it left out the other major work on mythopoeia in Tolkien's corpus: the eponymous poem that is the subject of today's grumpiness!  Ugh!  Another link in the grumpiness chain.  Truly, everything in this life is marked by dukkha.

So you will not be treated to a reproduction of "Mythopoiea" in today's post.  For that matter, any lengthy quotation opens up the tricky question of how much of it I can quote under fair use.  But if you haven't read it, I highly recommend that you seek it out (even though you can't find it in the book I'd love to point you towards buying).  Aside from its literary quality and its historical importance (Lewis' corpus would be utterly different if he had not converted), it is a statement of the nature and value of myths.*  There have been at least two attitudes towards myths other than they are literal statements of historical or natural realities.  One is the view of Plato, that they are dangerous, foundational lies, only justifiable as a necessary evil in the maintenance of a good polis or society, but hence demanding careful and strong social control.  The other is that they are the bearers of deep truths, hidden but of great importance to the cosmos and the individual.  This attitude is at least as old as Plutarch and dominated the thought of ancient Alexandria.  This was the perspective, broadly speaking, to which Tolkien and Dyson belonged and to which they hoped to win their friend, the atheistic Lewis.  Hence its dedication:

"To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though 'breathed through silver'."

I recommend it to your enjoyment, study, and contemplation.  Finally, the anthropology of the poem sees sub-creation, or the building of secondary worlds, as a part of human nature by virtue of humans' being made in the image and likeness of God.  So, did I setting out complaining about the distortion of human good that keeps people as a group from participating in certain pieces of mythic material so that I could arrive at the point that joining in mythopoesis was a participation in the divine nature?  Yeah, let's say I planned that.



* For that matter, it is also full of keys to what Tolkien is up to in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Master of Devils by Dave Gross

Cover by Lucas Graciano
Instead of wondering what my Gen Con correspondents are up to, I should be cleaning up parts of my blog, like the outdated book section at the bottom (does anybody look at that but me?).  When I do, I'm going to add the book that came on Monday, causing me to put down everything else I am reading: David Gross' newest addition to Paizo's Pathfinder Tales, set in their world of Golarion: Master of Devils.  I am really enjoying it.  In this installment, Master Varian Jeggare and his man Radovan have traveled to Golarion's Asian analogue.  (I point you to Gross' blog where he's been presenting a series on Asian cinema.)  The story quickly moves from seeming repetitions of their earlier adventures to weave the variations into contrasts and then goes on to take more risks than the earlier stories -- risks that are very fitting to the move from a western to an eastern inspired background.  I'm about half way or more through, and I'm confident that Gross is going to easily equal, and most likely outdo, his previous tales of the adventuring duo.  Also, I feel very vindicated in having Count Jeggare as my favorite.  I expect to hear some conciliatory remarks from the Jeggare haters out there.  If the words come hard, I will also accept Paizo gift certificates.

Cheers!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

OSR = Old Scots' Renaissance

People who have been following me on my rambles know that my early imprinting by D&D manifests itself today primarily in my love for Paizo (and their Pathfinder RPG and its third party publishers) and the OSR (and its multitude of bloggers, do-it-yourselfers, cloners, and pontificators).  The OSR can be (and has.  Oh boy, has it.) analyzed in multiple ways, but at least one way of looking at it is by distinguishing between the nouveau professionals and the do-it-yourself crowd.  I'm glad they are both there.  They have the potential for different strengths and weaknesses, and I believe this is another one of those areas of life where pluralism is a good thing.  But as somebody squeaking by as an adjunct until the big money comes a-callin', (and, okay, I have through one of my family lines a good infusion of Scots) I really appreciate the sharers out their who give their hard work and inspiration away.  We should all be rewarding these folks with appreciative comments and critical feedback (and I'm saying this to myself, above all).  But sometimes the relatively commercialized, that is, the for-pay folks, offer one of their products for free.  This I also appreciate, and I was reminded by the recent appearance of The Marg that not everyone may have stumbled across these lovely giveaways.  Now is a great time to get two pay OSR products in PDF format for free for a limited time. 

The new issue of Oubliette:


And an old issue of Fight On!
It's a great time to get a feel for what OSR zines have to offer -- just click on the covers linked above.  For those who, like me, have to hold off on any further subscription for the time being, some gamers Down Under produce ENCOUNTER magazine.  You know, that makes me curious to see the insides of Knockspell, which I've never seen.
:-)

A big thank you to the generosity of the gamers involved in the above enterprises, whatever their ideologies.  If they are out to earn an honest buck, I hope that their generosity pays off.  If they are committed to free gaming, then may their generosity return to them.  And remember, if it's nae Scottish, it's crap!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Gygax on the Master GM

Gygax in Futurama 2ACV16

Well, here we are on another Tuesday, and it looks like I have another Tomeful Tuesday on tap!  (Don't hold your breath, though.  I'm still not sure I'll come through every Tuesday.  But we're building confidence together.)  I'm continuing my read-through of Gygax's Role-Playing Mastery, and this week I'm taking a look at chapter 3.

What strikes me about Gygax's vision of game-mastering (or refereeing or judging) is that the morality of the group at play that we explored last week as the key to what Gygax meant by the way to play in the spirit of Advanced D&D is also what is at the heart of his vision of GMing.  Consider his assertions:
  • The GM is not the enemy of the players.  The GM runs the challenges for the entertainment (includes excitement, fun, and challenge) of the players (42-43).
  • The GM maintains the milieu, that is the imaginary world in which the game occurs, not primarily in accord with his own artistic vision, nor primarily as the instantiation of the game's rules, but primarily as the context for the players to imagine and enact their characters (the "testing ground... for their game personas," 51).  That is, even world creation is for player entertainment and participation, as long as it is constructive for the ongoing sustenance of the campaign (48-49).
These are by no means easy to do when players' desires come into conflict with the milieu and goal of the campaign or elements of the rules upon which these depend.

"The wishes of the game group might well be contrary to the goal of the game [in context here Gygax means the particular game's campaign, not the game system], and you must find a way to satisfy the players while not compromising that goal" (50).
The sovereign principle is this: "the campaign serves the singular play group, not the game system, or other play groups outside the campaign" (52).  Neither is it GM self-service.  "The selflessness of the GM" is the enjoyment of the players and the bond between them (52-3) in the ongoing, active, creative sharing of the entire group, GM and players,  in the further development of the campaign.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Did You Really Wonder If There Would Be More Pre-Painted Minis?


Paizo and Wizkids have finally announced that their toe dip into the world of pre-painted plastic minis was so (gasp) successful (feign surprise) that they are coming out with a regular line, called Pathfinder Battles, starting with the Heroes & Monsters set at the end of 2011, to followed up six months later with Rise of the Runelords.  Yes, this means the preorders of the four-piece intro set, to release in October, must have been gonzo successful.  Well done, Paizo!  Huzzah Wizkids!
Press release here.  Preorder here.

I told myself I wouldn't cry... I love you guys!

The Ouroboros

The image of a serpent (snake or dragon) with its tail in its mouth is ancient, pervasive, and arresting. Frankly, it's also one of my favorites. The serpent itself is popular in symbolism in its own right, but something about the ouroboros makes it stand out.  While obviously the circle itself is suggestive and useful, I propose moreover that it is because the ouroboros introduces an irreducible ambiguity that creates tension and narrative.

The Rub: what is the serpent doing?  The Greek name of the symbol tells us literally that "he eats the tail."

But is the serpent eating his own tail?  
Why would the serpent be eating itself?  Is it an expression of the death wish?  The greed or gluttony which consumes itself? Total Self-Sufficiency (or the futility of the notion)?
Certainly, the alchemists were attracted to this symbol (as were Hermeticists and Gnostics) from time of the second century Chrysopoeia ("Gold Making") of Cleopatra, and so it was reproduced throughout the Middle Ages.  In the version in the Chrysopoeia, it is accompanied by the Greek inscription, "One is All."  Yet, the failure of the attempt to transmute base metals into gold by discovering the quintessence, the philosopher's stone, can't help but cast such proclamations in a futile light.  For the quest to have value, once must spiritualize alchemy as Jung and his followers have.


In contemporary tales of alchemy (see the Full Metal Alchemist and FMA: Brotherhood franchise of manga and anime), the symbol might implicitly indicate the tendency of the state to consume the people it uses as weapons and the fundamental ambivalence of power, in contrast to a principle of equivalent exchange.  If the state destroys all its members in the perpetuation of itself, where then is the state?


One final note: if a snake does mistake it's own tail for a meal, the results are disastrous for it apart from human intervention.   If human beings had come across such a snake in an ancient context, the primitive mind would have likely latched on to such a prodigy as a potent omen.  There is at least one more good candidate in nature for the inspiration behind the ouroboros.


Or is he curling up and holding on?
There is a species of lizard in Africa that has adapted a peculiar antipredator behavior:

Armadillo Lizard (Cordylus cataphractus).  Photo by Cindy Shuttleworth
 So the serpent might be protecting itself, rather than engaging in autosarcophagy.  Inscribing something inside the serpent might, however suggests that serpent is protecting something else.  Or is it?  One of the most common instances of the encircling serpent is the Midgard serpent of Norse lore.  Jörmungandr is usually understood as threatening the world with an encirclement of doom.  Are we trapped?  Will we be crushed?  But beside a native hostility to the snake, the encirclement might be an embrace rather than assault.  Perhaps he girds us to guard us.

Or is he shedding his skin?
The snake's shedding of his skin seems to have fired the human imagination early on.  Does he go on shedding his skin, renewing his youth, ever-growing and ever-living?  Oh for the power that we might do so!  So it seems that some have latched onto the ouroboros as a symbol of reincarnation, eternal life, or related concepts.  I don't know that any snake actually engages in biting the tail to assist itself in moulting, but the ancients may well have thought as much.  It fits with the circle as a symbol of infinity or eternity.

Ultimate Ambivalence
Finally, the ambivalence of the ouroboros symbol calls to mind another serpent symbol.  There is a serpent encircling a tree.  How do know it is the serpent tempting you to disobedience, forbidden knowledge, and death?  What if your knee-jerk identification of the serpent as Satan mislead you from the appearance of Christ on his cross (Nehushtan*)?  Is this the wise serpent that poisons or that saves?

Sébastien Bourdon, Moses and the Brazen Serpent, 1653. The Prado, Madrid.

Until the next time our rambles cross, I wish you a merry Mythopoeic Monday!


*Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-15.  Cf. the rod of the healer Aesculapius.