2014-10-26

A Blast from the Past

This is for people on the fence about Gamergate, or who are trying to give the movement the benefit of the doubt for the sake of “There’s always two sides to every story.”

There’s a historical example of a movement within gaming that I think most of us (or at least most of us of a certain age) are familiar with. That’s the anti-D&D hysteria of the 1980s, in which it’s absolutely true that there were two sides to the story. Except that the side saying that D&D was an occult plot and that gamers were killing themselves by the score was categorically wrong. About everything. It was a movement based entirely on falsehood, which was ultimately revealed to have not a single shred of factual evidence to back up its claims.

In point of fact, the movement that opposed D&D consisted of a small number of people willingly lying in an attempt to discredit and destroy something they didn’t like, and a larger number of people who unknowingly spread those lies through misguided good intentions. And for me, the parallels between that and the present state of Gamergate are fairly profound.

2014-10-14

The Warm-Air Gods

It’s been unseasonably warm enough the past month or so that I haven’t yet needed to put the furnace back onto its programmed schedule, but have just been turning it on manually when it’s needed. As a result of this randomness, the cats have taken to clustering meekly around the cold floor vents in the mornings, as if not sure why the warm-air gods are being so capricious with them.

2014-10-09

Had a Dream

Had a dream that I was playing D&D with Stephen Colbert, on a bus tour not unlike the one I took to California in high school. He was DMing. When we talked, it turned out that he had actually started gaming with a hardcore-punk friend-of-a-friend of mine back in the day, and we had met previously without realizing it at a party at the aforementioned friends’ place in 1982. He had pictures of the two of us together and everything.

His campaign was built around the world being in the throes of magical environmental disaster in the form of a deadly long-term drought, and our goal was to figure out its source and set it right. However, every time the characters tried to get closer to solving the problem, Colbert would slip into his Colbert Report persona and start denying that climate change was real. It was very frustrating. But then we went for ice cream.

I distinctly remember that Colbert ordered his Ben & Jerry’s flavor, “Americone Dream”. He made me go up to the counter to get it for him, and I was still trying to decide what I wanted when I woke up.

(Aside: I woke up really hungry.)

2014-10-06

Monsters

So this is what forty years of monsters looks like.


All told, I’ve been lucky enough to work on four of these books, including the 5th Edition Monster Manual on the far right, just delivered Friday into my trembling hands by my FedEx guy. (Yeah, I have “a” FedEx guy. I live in a very small city.)

Of the larger mass of titles in this collection that I wasn’t privileged enough to work on, I’ve read them all, starting with the AD&D Monster Manual in 1981 and with the AD&D Fiend Folio not far behind. And here’s why I like the underlying concept of the Monster Manual (by that name or any other of the many variant names of the many excellent creature books that have become part of the extended reality of the D&D game), and why it was such an enormous kick to be asked to edit the 5e MM:

Any good monster book actually needs to be two books in one, depending on who you are when you’re reading it. And for an editor, that’s a major challenge.

The second time you read a Monster Manual, it’s a reference book. It’s backstory and plot points, mechanics and numbers that can all be crunched in pursuit of the game. It’s cool art, and interesting campaign hooks, and “Holy frak, the players will never see that coming!” moments of devious epiphany.

But that’s only the second time you read it. Because the first time you read a Monster Manual, it’s the book that tells the story of the world of the game.

If you’re playing D&D, the Monster Manual is the book that really and truly brings the world of the game to life. If you’re playing D&D, the Monster Manual is the book that carries you into that world one page, one stat block, one alphabetical entry at a time. And most importantly, if you’re playing D&D, the Monster Manual — not the Dungeon Master’s Guide — is the book that ultimately convinces you to cross the table and start running games rather than just playing in them.

Once you’ve made that decision, the Dungeon Master’s Guide becomes the next book you buy and your primary resource for helping to shape and hone the world of your games. And just as with the Monster Manual, there have been many different versions of the Dungeon Master’s Guide that have been really freaking cool in their own ways. (Aside: I’ve read the 5e DMG, and it’s really freaking cool.)

But the DMG is a book you dig into only after you’ve made the decision to run a game — most often because the Monster Manual was the book that first made you say: “It’s not enough to just read this… I need to make it real.”

The work that’s gone into the 5th Edition Monster Manual — even with me coming late to the game and maintaining the periphal perspective on the project that is the editor’s lot — is amazing. The long list of people who worked on this book have a lot to be proud of. But what I’m most proud of for my own minimal contribution to the work is that somewhere out there, there’s a player who’s going to read this book, and who’s going to take its remarkable mix of fantasy world-building and mythology and mechanics and wonder and be inspired to make it real.

And I know what that’s going to feel like, because that’s what happened to me back in 1981. And I’ve been working to make the mythology and the wonder real ever since.

2014-09-29

Boyhood

I saw Boyhood the other night and it was awesome. But I’m still trying to figure out whether part of its awesomeness ultimately boils down to “gimmick” filmmaking, as opposed to real art and inventiveness.

I’m sure you know the technical details, but the film was shot over ten years, with all the actors (including the two kids at the center of the story) showing the real honest-to-god aging and maturing of their characters in real time. But after watching the film, I found myself imagining an alternate version of the film, perfectly identical to the real thing — scene for scene, shot for shot, line for line — except made with entirely traditional techniques. In this alternative film, the young leads would have been played by three different actors (one as a child, one as a pre-teen, one as a teenager), with they and the rest of the cast aged up or down with hair and makeup. Which is to say, a totally normal, totally traditional biopic.

If I'd seen that alternate film, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much, because objectively speaking, the actual story in Boyhood is a little bit on the thin side. It’s a collection of great moments, but relatively few of them really connect from beginning to end. In that way, Boyhood reminded me a lot of Angela’s Ashes from about fifteen years ago — which is also a film following a character from boyhood to adolescence, but in which the central character is played by three different actors at different ages. Which is to say, a totally normal, totally traditional biopic.

So in thinking about why I loved Boyhood and why I thought Angela’s Ashes was about as exciting as warm yogurt, I start to ask myself whether the only reason I love Boyhood is for its technical side — the insane, amazing, brilliant experiment of actually shooting a movie over ten years. Or are those technical considerations totally secondary to the more important emotional connection that they allowed the story to create — the idea that explicitly knowing that I’m seeing these characters age over ten years creates a resonance with those characters that no traditional film could ever create?