2009-02-27

Music Hath Charms

It’s been a long, long, time since any new band or piece of music has completely blown my mind, and i’m worried about what that means.

I was put in mind of this topic while discussing with a friend of mine (Ron) (’sup, dude?) a band called Marillion that you’ve probably never heard of, but which he and i both had a fondness for back in the day. Marillion is a band that i’ve followed since 1986 or so, but about which i’ve grown distinctly less passionate in recent years. Their last few albums have all had a number of solid tracks on them, but they've lost a huge amount of the edge they used to have when they were fronted by a berserk Scottish poet named Fish, and even on on the first half-dozen albums fronted by the newer, less berserk, but more evocatively emotive Steve Hogarth (probably up to the excellent This Strange Engine).

But the thing about Marillion is that when i first heard them in the heavy-progressive Fish years, and the first time i heard the “new” Marillion at the start of the angst-psychodrama Hogarth years, the band were like nothing i had ever heard before. Marillion blew my mind. Consistently. Repeatedly. And although i keep trying to find that same energy in the new Marillion and in Fish’s solo material, and though i look in vain for another band to knock me on my ass like Marillion did back in '86, i'm having precious little luck so far. I can still remember the day, with picture-perfect clarity, when Ron brought home the Market Square Heroes 12-inch to our little university-student enclave in Coquitlam and i listened to the 20-minute Beowulf-inspired prog-rock epic “Grendel” incessantly for, like, the following month. I can still remember when i picked up Season’s End at the tail end of a soul-shredding period of emotional and physical exile, when the experience of hearing Hogarth’s “The Space” and the feeling of hearing something that moved me in a way i’d never been moved before.

I can still remember Ron throwing on Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime a few years later at another shared domicile (Chateau Angst, we called it; hey, it was the 80s) and being aware that as the first notes of “Revolution Calling” shook the windows that i’d never heard anything like this before. Time and time again, band after band, the feeling of never having heard anything like this before.

But then at some point, it starts to slow down. At some point, it stops.

Twenty-odd years after the fact, i’m as dependent on Ron to guide my musical tastes as ever, having most recently been introduced by him to the band Blue October. And i like Blue October a lot, but while they're as good as or better than most anything else i've ever listened to, they're just a little shy of being life-changing as was the experience with Marillion, or the first time i heard Rush (Moving Pictures, fall of 1981, working at 100 Mile Esso with Kevin, another friend to whom my taste in music owes a great debt), or the whole of Dark Side of the Moon (New Year’s Eve 1982; i was a late arrival on the Pink Floyd bandwagon; don’t ask). And even as i hope that there's still something out there waiting to really blow my mind, i worry that maybe it's just a matter of being harder to get knocked on your ass by new stuff the more old stuff you have to compare it to.

I remember when i left home after high school to attend university in Vancouver, i owned a little over one hundred cassettes and albums, which were the entirety of my musical library. I can remember a couple of occasions when i decided to listen to everything i owned, in order by artist and year, a process that took about a week-and-a-half, if memory serves. A quick look at iTunes today tells me i have 1,827 albums catalogued there, and while they're not all full albums, that's still a stupidly huge number.

They more you know, the more you’re aware of how much you don’t know, or so i’ve always believed. However in thinking about it, i realize that it’s likely also the case that the more you’ve come to know the limits of what art can do to you, the harder it gets to keep pushing those limits. And so at some point, the state of rapture you once attained in response to a song, a story, a poem, an image becomes just a marker to remind you how far you went once — and that you’re never going to get there again.

2009-02-21

LOST, in Translation

Yeah, i’m pretty sure this is going to be the beginning of a thing.

So i’ve got the last LOST ready to watch but haven't watched it yet, which is historically unusual for me and my insatiable appetite for all things Island. However, as has been overheard in other contexts, i’ve got a bad feeling about this.

From the episode previous (i think; maybe it was the previous previous) i didn't like two things. First, Christian's line implying that the whole mess was John's fault because he didn't get the subtle inference of the word "you" when he said that “You need to move the island.” Rule 101 of drama — don't freaking treat your characters like four-year-olds. And second, Charlotte's big burst of exposition just before she croaked. (Spoiler alert! after the spoiler. I suspect that’s also going to be a thing.) That kind of stuff is potentially interesting storywise, but it's sloppy writing — and at this stage in the game, sloppy writing is a bad, bad sign for this show.

2009-02-17

Laugh It Up

I like the new D&D. But i miss the old D&D. Especially this bit.


That’s a cartoon by Will McLean from the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (page 123 if you’re playing along at home). It was one of about a half-dozen cartoons that graced the pages of that classic tome, highlighting a sense that D&D in those days carried itself with a bit of a nod and a wink. And i can’t imagine any circumstances under which Will McLean, NPCs named Gutboy Barrelhouse and Blastum, the gust of wind spell’s material component being a legume seed, an artifact causing a possessor to break out in acne, or the wandering harlot table would be a part of the D&D game today.

What, you don’t believe me?


Successive versions of the game and its core rulebooks have acknowledged that playing D&D will typically involve humor (assuming you’re not gaming with, like, a group of flagellant monks or something). However, in each successive iteration, the rulebooks have taken themselves slightly more seriously, and i think the game has lost something as a result. Especially for younger players, a certain amount of humor is a hook that translates directly into a good time playing — and that in turn translates directly into wanting to play again.

When i wrote up a starting adventure for the RPG club i run at my daughters’ middle school, i made sure to throw in the following:

As the party approaches either of the archways, they will automatically hear splashing water and a deep voice singing:

“Oh, humans make a wholesome snack
 And I love dwarves on whole wheat toast
 But an elf pan-fried in a halfling sauce
 Is the special meal I love the most!”

This is the bedchamber of Narvik the ogre. Narvik is currently in his bathtub, singing. The tub is really just a huge barrel cut in half and filled with water. A massive kettle on the fire heats water for the bath.

Narvik is the leader of the hobgoblins because of his size, but he is a bully and a coward. He is also easily embarrassed. When the party enters, Narvik shrieks and wraps a towel (really an old bearskin) around himself as he jumps from the bath. He then attacks with a large scrub-brush. Because a scrub-brush is a poor weapon, he does not deal as much damage as a normal ogre.

Narvik is a tough challenge, but the party can make him easier to fight by pulling his bearskin towel away. A character can try to do this on purpose by saying that they are trying to yank the bearskin away, then making a DC 16 Strength check. On a successful check, the character has snatched the bearskin, leaving Narvik in his bare skin.

If the players don’t think of this, help them out. Every time Narvik is hit, describe him clutching the bearskin tighter as he howls and swings the scrub brush in retaliation.

If the bearskin is snatched away, or if Narvik is taken to 5 hit points or less, he will shriek and flee through whichever archway the party is farthest from. Because he is not wearing armor (or anything else), Narvik moves 8 squares (40 feet) per round. If the party follows, they will see him run into area 14 and flee up the ladder. Once outside, Narvik heads for the hills.


Silly? Sure. But laughter is one of the key anchors of positive experience, and D&D seems to have forgotten that for some reason.

2009-02-06

Shopping

One of the constant banes of my existence is that i have to do the grocery shopping, both because i’m the work-at-home guy and therefore have a slightly more flexible schedule most days of the week, and because Colleen (much as i love her) has some kind of genetic-level inability to compare prices and singlemindedly buy whatever’s cheapest. Advertisers and marketers hate people like me, because i pretty much only ever buy what’s cheapest when it comes to non-essentials like food and clothing. Important stuff like books, music, movies, and gaming supplies i’ll pay through the nose for, never fear.

Anyway, i hate shopping and i’m mentioning that because the worst part of shopping for me is having to watch other people shop. I hate watching other people waste their money on brand names when the generic is not only cheaper but often has less sodium, sugar, fat, or whatever else you want to be avoiding. I hate that you can only get original HP Sauce in the convenient 1 liter bottle, not the far superior HP Fruit Sauce. I hate that HP Sauce is all being made in the Netherlands these days anyway.

I hate watching parents buying fruit roll-ups instead of actual goddamn fruit. I hate that raw glucose and modified starch can be sold as “breakfast cereal”. I hate seeing the guy who feels compelled to give his girlfriend constant grief as he points out things that he says he’d buy if only she was a better cook. I hate having to watch the woman in front of me at the checkout giving items back to the cashier to try to get her total under the sixty dollars she’s got in her wallet. I hate the fact that her kids are with her, watching as the granola bars they picked out get sent back to the shelves. I hate that the reason she’s got to send her kids’ granola bars back is the carton of Player’s Light that somehow always makes it onto the “must buy” list. I hate watching the stooped cashier who should be close on comfortable retirement but instead is stuck making $9 an hour in this white-tiled fluorescent tomb. I hate, i hate, i hate.

As a race, the whole idea of our abandoning the hunter-gatherer thing in favor of the market exchange of goods and services was to be able to avoid the stress and strain involved in actually growing and/or killing your own meals. However, at least with the big-game stalking and the hardscrabble tilling, the only stress and sorrow you have to deal with is your own.

2009-02-04

Obsession

Gaming is probably the only thing in my life that i would acknowledge as a hobby. Though i’ve been known to spend time in the garden under certain rarefied circumstances. Oh, and i have four dogs, whose care and training suck up enough of my life that i’d probably have to call them a pastime, at least. But it’s odd to me that in addition to gaming as a hobby, i also do gaming as a living, meaning that for a significant amount of my time, i’m engaged in a single activity that bridges the work/life divide in a way i suspect is unusual for most people.

For me, this is different than saying “I’m a writer, yet i also read” because reading and writing are different sides of the same creative coin. One becomes a better writer by reading, certainly, but it’s a basic input/output kind of scenario. However, with RPG work, i’m always playing the game mentally in the course of editing or designing it. As a result, it gets easy to get lost in gaming when the RPG work i’m doing hits critical mass, as it has these days.

I’ve never had a problem shirking work (i took Skill Focus (Procrastination) and the Layabout feat last time i leveled up). It's just that my deadlines these days are scoring criticals on 10-20 and coup de gracing at every opportunity. Prior to now, the work i've been doing for Wizards of the Coast has amounted to about half time, and i've filled out the other half of my paid work with the other stuff i do (primarily script reading and story editing these days). However, i'm now freelancing effectively full time for Wizards, even as i still have as much of the other stuff coming in as always, and much of what's coming in is stuff i've already contracted to do, so even if i do cut back on that side of things, it won't make any difference for a while. Still, there are definitely worse things than being able to work at home doing something you like, so i'm not complaining.

Anyway, the point of me saying all this is that even as i willingly bury myself in the continuum of gaming that is my work and life, i realize that i could easily spend much more time gaming than i do, which is frightening considering how much time i already spend doing it. But i guess if you’re going to have an obsession, it’s good to have one that pays.