27 October 2013

Remembering Smokey and the Bandit

A lot of death in the news today. A lot of people are obviously clamouring about Lou Reed. I must say I know very little about him, or his music. It's OK, I guess, but I never really got into it. Some are mentioning Marcia Wallace. Now her work I do know, though the person behind it not so much. I'm a huge fan of The Simpsons. It's a tragic loss for the show.

But far fewer, I think, in my circles at least, are mentioning Hal Needham.

Now, I must admit, I know even less about this guy than Reed. Without context I wouldn't have recognised the name or paid it any attention. Apparently he was a prolific stuntman back in the day. But he was also a director. Back in the 70s he directed a little film called Smokey and the Bandit.

And man, it's been ages since I saw that movie. But I remember loving it, way back when.

While ostensibly set in the real world, I always felt it was kind of a fantasy movie. It seemed to build this magical world all of its own, a world of cool truckers and their cool radio handles and chatter and moving, living, spontaneous communities. (I don't know how much of it is based on actual trucker life in that era, but I expect it must be greatly exaggerated and romanticised.)

It is a movie of good, simple fun. A real, honest-to-goodness romp.

It's a movie about cars and driving. Several of the movies Needham directed seem to be about cars. I'm honestly not a car person. I don't have a driver's license. I've never had any interest in driving. (Well, not since I was a little kid, anyway.) So it seems pretty weird how some car movies just capture the imagination and pull you along for a thrilling ride.

I can't really think of a fitting ending to this post, so I'll just say goodnight. I'd raise a beer to the Bandit, and Mr Needham, if I had one. But I don't.

24 October 2013

How Do Demons Possess Me? Let Me Count the Ways

There's a picture of a supposed fundamentalist tract listing a bunch of ridiculous (and many of them geeky) things that are supposedly 'doorways to demonic possession', which has been doing the social media rounds over the last year or so. You can see the picture for example in this Huffington Post article.

First of all, it is a fake. It's part of a parody pamphlet printed to promote a short film called Ivy League Exorcist: The Bobby Jindal Story. (You can watch it on YouTube. It's kinda funny. And you can also see the full pamphlet here.)

Even as a fake, it's pretty hilarious. Friends on social media have had fun counting all the various evils they've committed. It would be even more hilarious if it were actually genuine. Well, kinda funny and not funny at the same time. But of course it is inspired by the very real garbage that fundamentalist groups spew out all the time...

So, just for kicks, I thought I'd analyse all my past and present endeavours that have left me vulnerable to demonic possession.

Things from the list I consider I have practised, or 'taken part in', at some point, whether briefly or extensively:
  1. New Age religions (kinda borderline, but I think things like Wicca qualify)
  2. Church of Satan (not the organisation itself, but Anton LaVey's writings should be of interest to anyone interested in the occult, even if one doesn't agree with all he says—oh, and for the record, I have actually in the past, in my more chaotic period, tried out rituals loosely based on material from the Satanic Bible, so I'm counting this one, even if it's not a path I ended up choosing)
  3. Astrology
  4. Tarot cards
  5. Earth Worship (again rather ambiguous, but I think Wicca qualifies)
  6. Wicca (yes, as I wrote in a blog post not too long ago, I identify as Wiccan, and basically all other spiritual topics in this list are variations and branchings out of that interest) 
  7. Divination (well duh, since astrology and tarot were already mentioned)
  8. Meditation (I'm really much too impatient for it, but I try)
  9. Postmodernism (to be honest, I've never been entirely sure what postmodernism even really is, but then again, I'm not sure anyone else really understands it either)
  10. Kabbalah
  11. LOTR (dudes, at one time in my life I was the friggin' president of the Finnish Tolkien Society—that must make me, like, the king of evil)
  12. Alt "comix" (um, don't know what's up with the spelling and quotes, but I'm assuming reading any so-called alternative comics counts—it's a pretty wide field)
  13. Video games
  14. Harry Potter (I've only seen the movies, but I guess that counts)
  15. Dungeons & Dragons
  16. Halloween (my favourite holiday!)
  17. Fornication (yeah, I, too, was young once)
  18. Rock music
  19. Heavy metal (hell yeah, and I regularly make the sign of the horns with my fingers, too—that must make me truly demonic, right?)

Which makes a total of 19 doorways for demonic possession. There's actually a lot of overlap there, particularly in the various spiritual practices, but since they're listed individually, I'm counting them all.

Then there are things that I've been interested in at times, and read a reasonable amount about, but wouldn't say I've actually practised, so I'm not sure about counting them. Some are things I encounter frequently in fiction, role-playing games and the like, but since the list doesn't specify fiction I'm putting them in this category. (This would include things like vampirism or lycanthropy, which unsurprisingly enough I haven't actually taken part in IRL.) Some of these borderline things would include at least:
  1. Eastern religions (I've been interested in stuff like Zen Buddhism for, like, forever, but neopaganism proved much more suited to my nature)
  2. Cyberpunk culture (I love cyberpunk as a genre, but I wouldn't say I'm part of any cyberpunk culture)
  3. Lycanthropy (gotta love werewolves—but no, I'm not actually one)
  4. Vampirism (nope, I've never drunk blood, or bitten anyone—in earnest, anyway)
  5. Goth culture (I like dark aesthetics, I wear a lot of black, even paint my nails—but still I wouldn't exactly call myself a goth, even on my best days I probably look more like a hippie)

Which makes another five things that while perhaps not open doorways to demonic possession, are at least slightly ajar. And many other topics I've obviously also read about, though not perhaps with quite so much interest. And there are some just too ambiguous. Like I'm not sure if Skull & Bones refers to the Yale secret society, the Cypress Hill album or actual decorations (skull designs I've worn on clothing and stuff, but since it's capitalised, I'm assuming one of the former, neither of which I know much about).

Boy, it must be really crowded in my head with all those demons in there...

23 October 2013

October's Rest (A Poem)

it begins in the morning
with grey skies, laden with sighs
and a sigh escapes
in counted syllables:

'The greyness takes me
To darker depths, and mem'ries.
And don't I love it...'

yes, October
is falling heavy on me
smothering, slowly
with its darksome love
that scrapes like bare branches
and cushions your fall with leaves
but leaves you there
to rot

and I look up
to see the trees
so many already leafless
and isn't it just like
the love in my soul?

so I lie
not dead
not sleeping
not lazy

12 October 2013

A Word on Boardgames and a Related Web Series

Not too long ago I wrote a blog post dealing with my love-hate relationship with things like collectible card games and eSports. In a nutshell, I said I tend to find them fascinating as geek phenomena—and interesting to watch, for moderate periods of time—but much too boring, repetitive or stressful to actually participate in. Here's a little addendum, regarding more recent activities.

I only very briefly alluded to boardgames, but everything I said applies equally to them. I just do not like to play boardgames. Or, as I believe the word should actually be spelled, 'bored games'. I tend to find them either really boring, repetitive or limited in scope, or competitive and/or stressful in a way that I really don't like. I think there was a time in my youth when I was more open toward different types of gaming, but as I grow older I seem to steer more and more clear from that type of thing. I've got better things to do with my time, like playing a cool video game or roleplaying game.

Cut to the present. Apparently I managed to acquire some slight cold symptoms, so I decided to have a couple lazy, unproductive days (as opposed to the unintentionally unproductive days that take up most of my time). I'm not sure exactly how it happened, but looking on YouTube for something to kill time with, I ended up watching an episode of Wil Wheaton's show Tabletop. I've watched, and enjoyed, a bunch of stuff from the Geek & Sundry channel, but, believe it or not, had never watched a single episode of Tabletop. Mostly for the reasons outlined above, i.e. how I really don't like boardgames. But somehow over the course of a few days I ended up watching the Entire. Friggin'. Series. That's, like, thirty episodes to date.

Um, yeah, if you don't, for some reason, know what Tabletop is, it's a show, on YouTube, where in each episode Wil Wheaton plays a board game (or card game or occasionally a tabletop RPG) with a bunch of guests. It's a surprisingly fun thing to watch. The guests are cool. The banter is funny. The games are... well, some are more interesting than others, but the people make even the ones I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole in real life fun to watch.

And no, the experience has not made me, even remotely, want to play boardgames any more than before. Like I said, some things are interesting as phenomena, and cool to watch, in moderate doses.

And... I guess that's about all I had to say about that. Now I gotta think of something to do the rest of the weekend...

7 October 2013

A Game within a Game: Kingdom Building in Pathfinder

Today's turning out to be a headachy, unproductive kinda day, so maybe I'll procrastinate a moment writing about my RPG experience last weekend. (It's not that rare for me to get a headache after an RPG session, dunno if it's caused by stress or what. This one turned out to be a real whopper, lasting into the next day as well. But I digress.)

This was the first session of my Pathfinder campaign in several months. In the previous session, the party got their hands on a Deck of Many Things, which is a pretty hilarious thing to unleash on unsuspecting players. As a result the party's wizard suddenly had a brand new castle at his disposal. We decided that it might actually be pretty interesting to skip several levels—none of us had previously played a D&D style game at very high levels—and the new castle was a perfect excuse to fast-forward a few years of game time, as the party settled down and focused on building their own realm.

As it happens, last spring Paizo released the Pathfinder sourcebook Ultimate Campaign, which, among other things, contained rules for running player led kingdoms and mass combat. (I haven't actually managed to purchase this book yet, but, like all the core Pathfinder rules, the content, under the Open Game License, can be read for free at Paizo's website, and other sources.)

I hadn't originally thought of utilising these rules, as I generally abhor overly complicating games with various systems, but in the days preceding Sunday's session I decided to read through them anyway, and thought it might be fun to try them out. So I spent Saturday putting together a simple realm for the players. Normally this would be something the players start from scratch, but I felt this would take up too much time in the current circumstances, and we'd agreed on fast-forwarding several years, so I opted to give them a kingdom that already had a decent amount of resources at its disposal.

Kingdom building using these rules is basically an entire game of its own, not entirely unlike certain computer strategy games. It's played in turns of one month of game time. Each turn you can claim new hexes on a map and build things like mines, farms and settlements in those hexes to provide income. A kingdom has three basic attributes—Economy, Loyalty and Stability—which are used in rolls in various circumstances. These attributes increase primarily by constructing new buildings in your settlements, which you place on a district grid of six by six 'lots'. (For instance, you could build a bank, which adds 4 to your Economy attribute.) Each turn there's also a chance of a random event taking place. Each player character takes on a particular role in the kingdom's leadership—ruler, general, spymaster or whatever—which grants bonuses to the kingdom's attributes based on the characters' ability modifiers.

Naturally the system is meant to be interspersed with more traditional adventuring, whether exploring new lands to claim, engaging in diplomacy or dealing with threats to the kingdom. We didn't actually get around to anything like that this time—the session was more about getting to grips with the new system, and also doing some finishing touches on the updated characters, which took up some time. This should change in the future, though. I hope. Running the kingdom for the first time was pretty fun, but I think on its own it would get pretty repetitive fairly soon.

An aspect of the system we didn't have a chance to try out yet were the mass combat rules. I had prepared stats for a few army units recruited by the players' kingdom—and some potential enemies that they know little about as of yet—but the timing wasn't opportune this time. I'm sure this will be a feature in future sessions, though. I've dreaded the idea of running combat in a situation where the characters would realistically have a large number of NPC allies fighting with them. Running such scenes as mass combat would certainly simplify things a lot. The system is quite simple and abstract, compared to regular Pathfinder combat. Army units are defined by just offence and defence values (and HP, of course), determined by the unit's size and the Challenge Rating of the creatures it's made up of. (There are special abilities and tactics to spice things up, of course, but overall it's still a pretty simple and straightforward system.)

Of course I still want to have the characters engage in traditional combat as well. That is, after all, the heart of Pathfinder. But getting them into suitable situations at this stage of the campaign is something of a challenge...

So, in a nutshell, for a more tactical experience, the kingdom rules from Ultimate Campaign are certainly an interesting thing to try out. Finding the right balance between a more game-like experience and a storytelling experience can prove to be something of a challenge, however. Only time will tell how I manage to work it out in this campaign.

(Oh, as a side note, Sunday's experience inspired me to create a spreadsheet in Google Drive to keep track of our kingdom's attributes. After just a few turns of running the kingdom, it was clear that there was enough erasing and recalculating to make keeping track of things on the paper sheet provided by Paizo bloody annoying. Strangely enough, despite being something of a lifelong computer geek, I have no recollection of actually ever making a spreadsheet before. It just hasn't been something I've ever had a need for in my day-to-day existence. But you live and learn...)

2 October 2013

Numenera Second Impression, or, the Dead Trees vs the Electric Pixels

Today, at long last, I received my print copy of Monte Cook's new roleplaying game Numenera!

This was about two months after I got the PDF version (here's the blog of my first impressions). I must admit that was a good deal longer than I expected or hoped, considering I pre-ordered the game back in May and they had the release slated for August. But then again, pre-orderers (and Kickstarter backers) got access to the PDF for no additional cost and before the game's general release, so I guess that does somewhat balance it out. And I know this has been a very busy autumn for Monte Cook Games, which is still a relatively small company, what with the hugely successful Kickstarter campaign for this game and all.

But on to the book itself. I've written in the past about how I love good looking, sturdy RPG volumes. This is definitely one of those.

Browsing the PDF over the past couple months, I thought the game looked pretty good. Then I finally had the book in my hands, flipped through a few pages, and... there is just no comparison. I was actually quite surprised by how different the experience felt. These are all pages I've seen before, yet the pictures and decorations, even the text itself, seem to come alive in a way they never can on a cold, electronic screen. Oh, and there's even that new book smell!

I'm not saying it's, like, the best looking game of all time or anything. The aesthetic quality of RPG rulebooks these days is, by and large, pretty strong, I have to say. High end releases, as a rule, tend to be quality full colour hardback volumes. Game publishers put a lot of work in making their products look appealing (though of course there's also a lot of cheaper indie stuff out there, whose creators simply don't have the resources). Numenera, however, does not pale in comparison to my other favourite games, not by any means. The aesthetics coupled with a great setting and an innovative system definitely make it the book of the year for me. Of the decade? Time will tell...

There are purely practical considerations, as well, when thinking about print versus ebook. Being able to take in a whole two page spread at once, rather than scrolling through pages in a typical PDF viewer. Being able to quickly flip from one part to another. I just find it a much more pleasant experience, overall, and obviously less stressful for my eyes.

Bottom line, when it comes to RPG books—or almost any books, come to think of it—I still think print beats ebooks any day.

Now, I still haven't actually played the game, but preparation for a campaign has been under way for a little while. I expect I'll write more once I actually have some experience with it.