More improv GM skills: Drawing on your own memories
Let's say you're narrating in an RPG and you need to describe a forest. (PCs seem to spend an awful lot of time wandering through generic forests. I'm sure you know the drill.)
Here's my trick for making the forest sound cool and not just like a generic forest.
Think back to the last time you went camping or hiking in a real actual forest. You have been to a forest at least once in your life, right? Just describe that one. (Your players won't recognize it. Trust me.) Think about what made it different from any other forest, and describe that.
Was the ground covered with a thick layer of wet, dead leaves? Or were they dry brown pine needles? Were there clumps of moss-covered rocks and boulders everywhere you looked, or was it dense thorny underbrush? Was the ground swampy and full of tiny streams and ponds? Were there mosquitoes all around you? How much light filtered down through the leaves? Was the path smooth or was it full of roots that had to be stepped over carefully? Was it mostly flat or did it go up and down over many small hills and valleys? When you looked up towards the sky, did the tree trunks rise straight and tall like pillars in a cathedral or were they dense and branchy and gnarly? Were there fallen trees with fungus growing out of their rotten bark and roots up in the air?
Use all five senses. What sounds could you hear? What did it smell like? Was it hot or cool, humid or dry, would the stones and the tree-bark feel rough or smooth if you touched them?
(You know how in comics, the reader's vision has to substitute for all their other senses? Well, in an RPG, hearing words has to substitute for all the other senses.)
If you make the forest sound pleasant and natural, it will prime the players for a relaxed and low-key scene. If you make it sound mighty and majestic, you set up the expectation for an epic scene of high adventure. If you make it sound dark and dangerous, then the mood becomes "keep your wits about you and be ready to fight for survival".
Obviously, it's not just for forests. Apply the same mental trick to cities, farms, rivers, grasslands, beaches, houses, mountains, seaports, markets, churches and temples... etc. Unless you've led an even more sheltered life than most role-players, chances are you've been to something resembling each of these places at least once.
If you ever get a chance to visit a real cave, a castle, ruins of any kind, or a similarly unusual location, take it! Fix every detail you can in your mind. You'll be glad you did, the next time you describe one in a role-playing game.
If you've never been to a place like what your'e describing, think of one you saw in a movie or on TV. It's never going to be quite as good as your own memories, but it'll do in a pinch.
If you're describing a fantasy or science fiction locale (as GMs often do), then base it on the closest thing you can think of and add a layer of fantasy or science fiction onto it. (Writers do this all the time.) You'll be surprised how easily you can transform an airport into a spaceport, or that room in your grandmother's house where she kept all her weird dusty knicknacks into a wizard's laboratory.
These settings will feel more real to your players because they are based on reality. You might never think to include vending machines or janitor's closests in your secret research facility if you were just thinking of it as a secret research facility — but if you're making your high school into a secret research facility, then those details will be there.
Got it, GMs? I don't want to hear any more generic featureless forests out of you, ever! I mean it!
How to do Scene Framing
What's Scene Framing?
Scene framing is a super useful skill for role playing. The idea came from "indie games" but can be applied to any RPG. The basics are easy to grasp, but the more you practice your scene framing skills, the more they'll improve your game.
Most movies you've seen use scene-framing. So do TV shows and books. Thing is, if they're doing it right, you'll never even notice it unless you're looking out for it specifically.
So, let's contrast a typical Hollywood movie with a "cinima verite" which is French for "weird, boring, artsy movie where nothing happens". Cinema verite does this thing where the camera just keeps rolling, pointed at the characters, while the characters go about their daily routine. Somebody will be, like, silently mashing potatoes for two and a half minutes without saying anything, and the camera never moves.
Yes, we get it, artsy French director, that's what real life is like. Thing is, we're already living real life; most of us don't want to see it on a screen. We want to see something that's edited down to just the good parts.
If you want 'just the good parts', Hollywood movies are ruthless about cutting out everything that doesn't advance the plot. It's like, Julieta the sexy librarian says to the hero, "They took the alien mummy to the museum! We've only got one hour before it wakes up!" and the hero makes his Serious Face and says "Let's go!" and then maybe you see like two seconds of a car driving through the city, and then you see the museum door from the inside right before the hero kicks it down and runs in with his gun drawn yelling "Hand over that space mummy, scumbag!"
They most certainly do not spend time showing the hero checking Google Maps to find out how to get to the museum, or driving around looking for a parking space, even though those are things he would probably have to do in real life. In the unlikely event that the audience cares about that stuff, they can fill in the blanks with their imagination.
Before I learned how to do scene framing in RPGs, my games were a lot like the cinema verite: characters spending a lot of time shopping for gear, chit-chatting, wandering through forests, sitting around campfires, etc. The players are bored; they want something to happen, dammit!
Now that I've started thinking of a gaming session as a series of linked together scenes, things flow much better, it's easier to improvise, and people are bored less often. We skip lots of stuff, but it's not stuff anybody really wanted to play anyway.
How do you frame scenes in RPGs?
Some games will tell you; for instance, Bliss Stage has Mission Actions and Interlude Actions and Briefing Actions which are all types of scenes that are game-mechanically different. Certain types things will happen in each one, and there are rules which tell you how to decide what kind of scene should come next. In Primetime Adventures you go around the table in seating order and each player gets a turn to frame a scene of their choice.
But let's say we're just playing a generic game that says nothing specific about framing scenes. You're the GM. We'll go with the 'default assumption' that the GM frames all scenes. How do you do it?
Advice often given by writers to other writers: "Start each scene as late as possible; end it as early as possible."
Which is to say: Don't include the boring stuff. Start with the minimum information needed to convey the purpose of the scene, and end as soon as that purpose is accomplished.
By 'purpose of the scene', I mean what's it about? How does it advance the story? What's at stake in this scene? When a scene starts, the audience of a movie doesn't know how it's going to turn out, but they do know what they should be looking for:
In our hollywood example,
"the hero kicks down the door of the museum and busts in with his gun drawn yelling "hand over that space mummy, scumbag!"
This begins the scene. It tells us what the purpose of the scene is: the hero is at the museum trying to get the space mummy — something that matters to the story. There is now an expectation in the minds of the audience that this purpose will be resolved somehow during the scene: either he's going to get the mummy, or he's going to fail, in some suitably dramatic fashion, to get the mummy.
The scene is interesting because of this uncertainty — we don't know which way it will end. But either way it ends, the scene will be satisfying because it fulfills that expectation that was set up at the beginning, and the resolution will advance the plot, setting up the next scene.
If he busted down the door and then spent the scene drinking tea in the museum gift shop and talking to his girlfriend, the audience would be very disappointed, because their expectations for the purpose of the scene have been violated.
When you're setting a scene in a role-playing game, it's the same thing: you create an expectation about the purpose of the scene, but neither you nor any other player yet knows how it's going to turn out (unless you're railroading, but if you want to railroad you are reading the wrong blog). The combination of 'this thing that matters to the story is going to get resolved' and 'we don't know which way it will be resolved' is where the excitement comes from.
Starting the Scene
My rule of thumb is that setting a scene requires:
- A time
- A place
- Some people
- A potential for conflict
That is, think of the scene framing as these people are in this place at this time, character X wants thing Y to happen, and character Z wants to stop thing Y from happening.
So in our museum example, the kicking-the-door-down scene intro establishes that: the hero and Julieta are at the entrance of the museum about 30 minutes before the alien mummy wakes up. They want to find the mummy and get it back but some scumbag doesn't want them to do that.
If you were writing a movie, you would get to dictate, as part of setting the scene, that the hero kicks the door down and yells "HAND OVER THAT SPACE MUMMY, SCUMBAG!". But you're not — you're playing an RPG, and you don't get to decide that. That's the difference between writing a movie and being a GM. So if you were framing the museum scene, in an RPG, you'd have to back up a little bit and leave the hero's options open. You might say something like this:
"Ten minutes later you and Julieta are at the museum where she told you the mummy had been taken. There's a huge main entrance with steps and columns and big flags hanging down to advertise their latest big exhibit. A huge double line of people stretches out of the front door into the parking lot, and it's barely moving. You've got about 30 minutes before the mummy is supposed to wake up. What do you do?"
Let's have another example:
"You've been at sea for two weeks; the men are sick of eating nothing but hard-tack and salt pork. It's mid-morning, there's no land in sight, and suddenly your lookout (who is up in the crow's nest with a telescope) yells down: JOLLY ROGER OFF THE STARBOARD BOW! PIRATES, COMING IN FAST! What do you do?"
(You don't have to actually say "what do you do?" every time. It's implied.)
The time is mid-morning after two weeks at sea; the place is a ship in the middle of the ocean; the people are the player character and crew, plus whoever's in the pirate ship; and the potential for conflict is 'these pirates want to steal your booty and presumably you want to stop them somehow'.
I'm making it sound like the GM does all the talking for the scene framing, but that's never really true. In actual play, people will be interrupting you constantly with ideas, snippets of dialog, things their character is doing, etc. If it's a functional group, everybody else should be respecting your scene-framing authority over what is and isn't actually happening and will just be trying to help you set the scene with their suggestions. Take their ideas and run with them!
The Purpose of the Scene
You've established the time, the place, and who's there. You've implied the potential for conflict by reminding the player what will happen if they don't do something. But you're leaving the actual conflict up to the player. You have a hunch that the conflict of the scene will be between the hero and the villian over the mummy, but depending on the player's actions it could turn out to be something else.
So the purpose of the scene depends not just on how you frame it, but on how the other players decide to use what you've framed. That's why I say that framing a scene requires establishing not the conflict, but rather the potential for conflict.
(Remember that every conflict is basically 'character X wants thing Y to happen, character Z wants to stop it'. It can go both ways: In the previous example the PC was character X, trying to get the mummy; in this example, the pirates are character X, trying to do some piracy, and the PC is character Z, trying to stop them.)
After you've framed the scene — and given the PCs the implicit question, 'What do you do?' — you can sit back a bit and let them figure out their actions. The combination of your scene framing and the PCs role-playing will give you the purpose of the scene. Pay close attention and try to figure out what that purpose is.
Sometimes it's something you didn't expect. Say you just framed the scene with the Jolly Roger. Then the other players start role-playing an argument between the captain and the first mate (who has a history of insubordination) about whether to attack the pirates or to run away.
Maybe the conflict in this scene isn't about stopping the pirates at all — it's really a conflict between the captain and the first mate over who's going to be in charge. More of a character development scene. If you think that will work, then run with it! The purpose of your scene is now to find out how this argument turns out and what it says about the relationship between the characters. So play to that purpose. (Dealing with the pirates themselves can always be in the next scene, right?)
I'm talking like the scene's purpose is always a conflict, which is sort of a lie. Putting a conflict in every scene leads to a Hollywood kind of feel — fast-paced, larger than life, etc. Some stories require a less in-your-face approach. Some scenes in those stories might focus only on development of character through role-playing, without an explicit conflict. Or they might focus on a character making a difficult personal decision, which isn't exactly a conflict, unless you count "Me vs. myself" as a conflict.
But if you are new to framing scenes, then I recommend basing most or all of your scenes around conflicts. At least your game won't be boring! After you've gotten the feel for scene-framing, and you desire a little more subtlety in your storytelling, you can ease off the conflicts and have more low-key scenes.
Whether the scene has a conflict or not, it always needs a purpose. It's important to identify the purpose of the scene, and not just because it lets you know what to focus on flogging during the scene — also because it lets you know when the scene is over.
Ending the Scene
How do you know when the scene is over? It's over when the purpose has been fulfilled — not neccessarily that the underlying conflict in it has been resolved for all time, but it means that something definitive has happened with it, it's reached a turning point, it's transformed somehow, and nobody has anything else to say about it or do about it in the current time and place.
So your scene in the museum is over when either the hero gets out of the museum with the mummy, or the villian gets out of the museum with the mummy, or the mummy wakes up, or something similar. In any of these cases, the whole mummy thing is still going on, but the objective of "try to get the mummy" cannot be continued in the current place at the current time — either the objective is achieved, or there's a new objective.
The scene where the captain and first mate are arguing over what to do with the pirates will be over when some sort of decision is reached. In the process, something will have happened with the relationship between the captain and the first mate; the rivalry might still be simmering but the first mate chose to back down, or maybe the first mate has thrown the captain overboard and seized control of the ship, but either way there's no more arguing between them in this place, at this time.
Your job as GM is to watch and listen and recognize when the scene has played out to a natural conclusion. If a player really still wants to do something in the scene, you should usually let them do it before you wrap up, but don't let the scene keep dragging on after the purpose has been served, because it will get boring. That is the meaning of the writers' advice "end the scene as early as possible". I have been known to say to the group, literally, "I think this scene's over. Any objections?".
Then, I like to wrap the scene up in dramatic fashion by recapping what has happened, giving an overview of how the situation has changed due to the events of the scene, and foreshadowing what might come of it.
"Alright, so looking around the wreckage, you see that the museum's main dome is collapsed, priceless artifacts are in flames everywhere, people are running and screaming, and the now awake alien mummy disappears into the smoky sky. The last you see of it, it's flying straight towards downtown with green laser beams shooting out of its body in every direction. If it was a movie there would be some ominous music."
What's the Next Scene?
Between scenes, it's often good to have a little bit of downtime where people can stretch, get a snack, or talk about the game. Then figure out what the next scene should be.
Remember, you're skipping all the boring stuff between one scene and the next. That means the next scene can start thirty seconds later on another continent, or it can start ten years later in the same place, or any other combination of time and place. The next scene might be a flashback. It might be "Meanwhile, on Pluto..." It's all about what's important to your story, so skip over anything that doesn't matter to the story and get straight to the stuff that does.
With so many possibilities, how do you decide on a scene? Technically there's an infinite number of possibilities, but usually there's only two or three that make any sense.
Sometimes there's an obvious follow-up scene: "Let's get in the car and chase down that mummy" is one. "I'm in charge of this ship now, so I'm steering us straight towards those pirates. Man the cannons!" is another obvious follow-up.
Other times, there's no obvious follow-up. Like, if the PCs had recovered the mummy — now what? The next scene is probably not an action scene. And you don't want all your scenes to be action scenes, anyway — that gets boring fast. It's good to alternate conflict-heavy scenes with more peaceful interludes. Maybe an information-gathering scene where the PCs try to find out why the vilians wanted the mummy. Or maybe it's time to give the mummy plot a rest for a little while, and follow up with a different plot thread, or a character development scene (Conflict: Can the hero confess his love for Julieta the sexy librarian, and what will she say if he does?).
If you have two (or more) groups of player characters in different locations following different plot threads, then this is a good opportunity to switch to the other plot by framing a scene with the other set of characters.
Even if all your players are together, you can think about alternating scenes between them. If one player was the obvious star of the last scene, maybe try to frame the next scene in such a way that a different player can have a turn in the spotlight. That might mean framing a scene towards situations that will need her character's abilities, or a scene oriented around her character's issues, or a scene designed to appeal to that player's interests.
Very often, one of the other players will be asking you for a scene. Some people will literally say "Ooh ooh I want a scene with me and the first mate at the San Juan prison", but others will say "Let's get in the car and chase down that mummy!" — both of these are asking for a scene, just in different ways. Learn to listen to your players and hear the scenes that they're asking for and you'll seldom be at a loss for ideas.
If you are at a loss for ideas, just say "Hey everybody, I don't know what the next scene should be. Any ideas?". You shouldn't be afraid to do this. Your players don't expect you to be an omniscient GM — they know you're making stuff up as you go along. And don't be afraid to let everyone talk out-of-character about what they want to have happen; between scenes is the best time for out-of-character jibber-jabber.
Summary of important points:
- Your game is a series of scenes. All the stuff that's not important to the story happens between scenes and gets left to the imagination instead of roleplayed.
- Frame a scene by describing a time, place, what characters are there, and some event that creates a potential for conflict.
- Listen to the PCs role-playing and figure out what the purpose of the scene will be.
- It's useful to try to understand the purpose as a conflict of interest between characters.
- Play to that purpose or that conflict. Help it develop and escalate.
- Watch for the conflict to reach some kind of resolution point such that it can not usefully continue at this time in this place.
- End the scene with a summary of the newly transformed situation.
- Give the group some downtime to chat about what should happen.
- Figure out the next scene by:
- taking the obvious follow-up
- listening to what your players are asking for
- giving the spotlight to a different character
- alternating action scenes with interludes, or plot scenes with character development scenes
Improv GM Lessons from Trollbabe, part 4: It's not about challenge
The Trollbabe game system makes players extremely powerful. They players can pretty much have their trollbabe win any conflict as long as they want to win it badly enough (i.e. if they spend their re-rolls, risk injury, etc.) And if they don't want to win it badly enough, they can accept the failure and narrate how they fail. They're not allowed to twist their failure into a victory, but they can use this narration to make other things happen to their advantage, things unrelated to lost conflict.
Throwing random obstacles in their way — natural hazards, random monster encounters, the meat and potatoes of D&D-style adventures — doesn't even slow Trollbabes down; it just gives them a chance to show off.
Also, you can't kill Trollbabes. Only the player can kill their own charcter. This means that you don't have to worry about pulling your punches; play as hard as you want with regards to introducing danger. But this also means that you can't threaten Trollbabes with deadly situations -- the player can call your bluff and you've got nothing to back it up with.
There's no way around it: You have to give up on the idea of "challenging" the players with danger or obstacles. This was a hard one for me to come to grips with, because it was drilled into my GM-ing noggin at a very young age that my job was to provide dangers and obstacles for the players to overcome. But Trollbabe ain't about that.
A corollary of this rule is: no filler. Don't try to pad things out with mook battles or a trail of clues before getting to the next Dramatic Plot-Advancing Confrontation; just go straight to it! The meat of the game is in the plot-advancing confrontation and what comes after it, not in the stuff leading up to it.
Since Trollbabes can succeed at almost anything they want to do (if they want it badly enough), the best way to make life interesting for a Trollbabe is to put her in a situation where she doesn't know what she wants to do. Situations where the player must make decisions with no obvious right answer: that's where the good stuff is in Trollbabe. In the next section, I'll share some strategies for setting up these kind of dilemma situations.
Improv GM lessons from Trollbabe, part 3: Making cool NPCs
Focus on your NPCs. Your NPCs are your hands in the world; they're how you make stuff happen. A scene where there aren't any interesting NPCs for Trollbabes to interact with is a boring scene! Creating interesting NPCs and playing them is about 80% of the GM's job in Trollbabe.
If you're used to GMing a traditional prep-heavy game, you may have gotten used to thinking in terms of preparing events, puzzles, adventure locales, plot hooks, monsters, items, etc. The problem with using this sort of material in an improv game is that most of it is tied town to a particular place and/or time. You never know where Trollbabes will be, or when, so you can't rely on anything tied to a place or time.
That's why NPCs are so important. An NPC can appear anywhere, any time. Is there an NPC you want to be involved in the next scene? Poof, they show up. Easy as that.
For that reason, if you have a little time to prepare before you run the game, I recommend spending it to come up with some intriguing NPCs. This is the one kind of prep work that will NEVER go to waste.
Whether or not you have some ideas for NPCs before the game starts, most of your NPCs will be improvised.
I'll cover how to improvise an NPC in a second, but first I want to drill this into your head: You cannot know ahead of time which NPCs will be important to the story. You can create a powerful emperor who you think will be one of the movers and shakers of the game world, but it turns out he's only in one scene and nobody bothers with him again. You can create a lowly fishmonger, intended to be just background color in a city scene and not even a real character, but the players take an interest in her for some reason and she keeps reoccuring and becomes the most important and memorable character in the whole story.
That's just the way things roll in an improv game. The importance of an NPC is determined by one thing and one thing only -- how much interest the players take in that NPC. And that's beyond your control. Learn to love it.
So when you first narrate an NPC into existence, don't worry about giving them a whole lot of detail or depth. If it turns out they come back for another scene, then you can start giving them more detail. If they don't reppaer, you'll be glad you didn't put a lot of effort into something the players weren't that interested in.
Now let's talk about the bare minimum information you need in order to have a playable NPC. Because NPCs are entirely non-numerical in Trollbabe (that's right, they have no stats whatsoever), improvising them is a cinch. All you need is these four things:
- A name
- A role they play in society
- A personality quirk
- A motivation
That's it! Decide those four things and you've got an NPC you can play. With a little practice you'll be doing this on the fly.
Names (They Have Power)
The name is actually the hardest part, which is why the Trollbabe book has a short list of names for you to use, divided into male/female and troll/human. Make a list like this appropriate for whatever cultures are commonly encountered in your game, and keep it handy, so you can just grab a random name off of it and go.
Names have power. You know the magic in A Wizard of Earthsea where knowing true names gives you power over things? RPGs are literally like that. Because RPGs are worlds that consist of words and words alone. As soon as you name something, you make it real. "A hunter" is nobody, but "Gunnison the hunter" is somebody. As soon as you name an NPC, your players will pay attention. Conversely, as soon as your players pay attention to an NPC without a name, name them!
Role in Society
The NPC's role in society is usually dictated by the needs of the story. Like, if the player wants to go talk to the tribe's shaman, then hey, you need to invent a shaman. The role comes first and everything else follows. Roles might be official like "the tribe's shaman", or "the queen of the bone-bashers", or "the official in charge of the seaport". Or the role might be there because you need an obstacle, like "an obstructive bureaucrat" or "The troll guarding the bridge". Or they might be family, like "The panicked father of the missing girl" or romantic, like "the soldier who the girl snuck away to elope with".
For the personality quirk, pick some obnoxious, funny, endearing, or memorable trait that will give the players something to remember this character by; e.g. what makes this soldier different from every other soldier? When you first introduce a new NPC, their personality can be rough, one-dimensional, even stereotypical; that's fine. Think about the last time you started a new job in real life, and met a new set of co-workers. What did you notice about them? This one is real quiet and avoids eye contact with the boss; that one chews gum all the time and makes jokes that aren't funny. These traits are not, like, their innermost souls or the core of their being or anything; they're just some dumb thing you noticed first. In time, as you got to know them, you built up a more three-dimensional understanding of how they think and act and what drives them, and the initial impression became less important to how you thought of them. (Right?)
Well, your players are meeting your NPC for the first time, so the surface-level impression is all you need to give the players. If the NPC reappears in later scenes, you can develop their personality to give them more depth and personhood.
A trick I like to use when thinking of personality traits it to take the NPC's role, pick one trait stereotypically associated with that role, and give the NPC the exact opposite trait. For instance, if you need "a captain of the castle guard", stereotypical traits might be courageous, loyal, duty-bound, competent, etc. Booooooo-ring! Make him brave but incompetent, or loyal but cowardly, and you have a much more interesting character.
Motivation (It drives the story)
Finally, the motivation: this is the most important part, because conflicting motivations are the engine that makes the story go. The NPC wants something from the Trollbabe, something the Trollbabe isn't too eager to provide. Basic motivations include money, sex, love, revenge, food, land, and protection, but you don't have to stop there; maybe the NPC wants to use the Trollbabe as a pawn in an ongoing political intrigue, or to saw her horns off and use them as an ingredient in a magic potion.
It's important to make your NPCs' motivations neither too sympathetic nor too repulsive. They should exist in a morally grey area, neither hero nor villian -- someone you can understand, but still not agree with. If you make them too angelic, the player will feel no conflict about doing whatever the NPC asks. If you make them too diabolic, the player will feel no conflict about chopping off their heads. Keep them ambiguous, like real people, and the player will have to think harder about what to do with them. In the next part, I'll talk about how to use your NPCs to set up interesting dilemmas for the PCs; that's where I find the meatiest part of the game comes from.
Jot the name, role, personality, and motivation down somewhere on a piece of paper (you can fit pretty much everything you need to remember about a whole trollbabe campaign on one piece of paper) so that you can easily re-use the NPC in a later scene or a later session.
Improv GM lessons from Trollbabe, part 2: No Party
Trollbabe forces GMs to abandon the habit of thinking that they must "keep the party together". (This is built right into the rules, in fact -- you're supposed to start with each player choosing a location on the map for their trollbabe to be journeying to, and there's no pressure to pick the same location.)
That means the trollbabes are not and never will be "a party" except if they decide to travel together, and such arrangements are usually temporary. Each character has her own goals so it's unlikely that they all want to go to the same place at the same time, and they've got no reason to huddle together for protection like low-level characters in a more killy game have to.
Expect that each trollbabe will be in a different place doing her own thing. You might think that if you have (e.g.) three PCs in three different places you have three times as much work, but this is not really true. Think about the players instead of the characters for a second: If you have three players, then ideally each player is in the spotlight one-third of the time, whether they're together or separate. The players who are not in the spotlight are going to be mostly watching and listening whether their character is in the scene or not! One scene that includes things for all three PCs to do, or three scenes each of which includes things for one PC to do -- they're approximately the same amount of work, especially when you're improvising everything anyway.
And trying to force the PCs to stay together means putting the players in a position where they have to make their characters act out-of-character in order to keep the group going. This is not fun. In some games it's a neccessary sacrifice, but in Trollbabe it isn't.
So, your trollbabes are in three different places. This doesn't mean you're running three separate games. You're still running one game. The characters still affect each other, because they are all part of the same world. The consequences of something that one trollbabe did can become apparent in another trollbabe's scene. Like if one trollbabe travels through a forest which is now mostly burned down thanks to a magical firefight that another trollbabe started in that area the day before. Or if one trollbabe encounters a NPC that has changed his behavior thanks to something another trollbabe did with that NPC earlier. Reincorporating stuff between scenes makes the game world feel alive and is lots of fun -- and it lets you add more depth to your existing NPCs and locations instead of constantly inventing new ones.
Improv GM Lessons from Trollbabe, part 1: Why Improv
(This is this first of a series of blog posts, sharing the things that Trollbabe taught me about how to GM an RPG in a fully improvisational style. The target audience for this series is anyone who wants to run Trollbabe specifically, or anyone interested in making the transition from a prep-heavy GM style to an improv one.)
(In other words, the target audience is Dave.)
Trollbabe was the first Forge-derived / "indie" RPG I ever played.
It was the first game I played to be designed around scene framing, conflict resolution, player narration, and trading narration rights. I think it was also the first RPG since Master Plan where I used all the rules, exactly as they were written. (It's a very simple ruleset.)
Most importantly, it was the game that first taught me the fully improvisational style of game mastering.
Before then, I thought about RPGs in terms of prepared content. The GM (usually me) would make up a bunch of stuff (setting material, maps, NPCs, conflicts, adventure seeds and hooks, secret plots, monsters, challenges, puzzles, etc.) and that content would get consumed in the course of actual play, so then I would have to prepare new content before the next session. Even though it had been many years since I played a pure dungeon-crawl campaign, I still thought of adventure prep as a duty analagous to the creation and mapping out of dungeons in the old days.
What Trollbabe taught me is that a role-playing session can be something that generates content, instead of something that uses it up. The GM can start with nothing more than a vague idea for a starting point, and everything else gets invented in play by a the conflux of creativity that happens between the GM and the rest of the players.
Not only do you create a cool story out of nothing in the course of play, but paradoxically you end up with more in the way of 'content' than you started with -- each adventure you play produces NPCs, setting material, conflicts, etc. enough to spark off many more adventures.
It's kind of like I had been toiling away in a coal mine to get enough coal to power my factory, and then I discovered that the factory across the street was powered by perpetual motion machines that produce coal as a waste product. It's the kind of discovery that makes you seriously re-evaluate what you've been doing with your life.
In this case the 'perpetual motion machine' is, of course, the imagination of the other players. In an RPG driven by GM prep, there might be five creative people in the group, but one of them is doing nine-tenths of the creative work — and that same person spends half the time trying to figure out how to prevent the other four from taking the plot off track, so that his prep work will not be rendered moot. It's a sure recipe for bored, frustrated players and a burnt-out GM.
So, why not let everybody create the story along with you?
I could have learned this lesson from any number of games; Trollbabe just happened to be the one I played first.
That said, just because you realize that fully improvisational role-playing is something you want to do, doesn't mean you're instantly going to be good at it. It's a skill that gets better with practice. Therefore, over the next four or five posts, I present: the lessons Trollbabe taught me about improvisation.
Stances, for future reference
I am working on a series of RPG blog posts and I will find it useful to be able to link to a good summary of Stances. Sadly, I can't find a good summary of Stances anywhere on the web. So I will just have to describe the theory in my own words here, for future reference and linking purposes.
(If you are one of my readers who already knows all about stances you can skip this post.)
When you're playing a character in RPG, how do you decide what your character is going to do? There are several different possible ways you could relate to your character, which influence how you choose and describe the character's actions. These ways are called Stances.
Here are the commonly recognized Stances. Vega, my Polaris character, will illustrate each one.
- Actor Stance is when I'm pretending to be Vega, and doing what I think Vega would do given his situation. Example: Vega doesn't love his wife (it's a marriage of political convenience) but it's important to his career that he keep up appearances. When she dies, I have Vega go through the motions of mourning in public, but I don't role-play him as being sad at all.
- Author Stance is when I have Vega do things because I think they will make the story more interesting. Example: I think it would be cool to have a confrontation between Vega and his political rival Antares, so I have Vega storm into Antares's private office and demand to know what the deal is with his latest proclamation. I play up Vega's motivation for doing this, but the real reason is because I (Jono) think that playing this scene will take the story in an interesting direction.
- Director Stance is when I make up details of the scene, things outside of Vega's actual control, as part of my role-playing of him. Example: I want to show that Vega is feeling confused and in need of guidance, so I say that he goes into a nearby church and kneels in the spot where the light of the North Star is refracted through a prism into a rainbow on the floor; the prism (and in fact the whole church) are things I just made up and narrated into existence.
- Pawn Stance is when I, Jono, want something, and I use Vega as a tool to get it. Example: I want to cleanse the city of Southreach of demonic infestation, so I have Vega do whatever I think is most likely to bring that about; I don't bother giving him an in-character motivation.
This is all entirely basic and uncontroversial role-playing theory, which I got from the Forge (and the Forge got from rec.games.frp.advocacy).
I've found Stances quite useful in thinking about and discussing how we roleplay. Instead of saying to each other "OMG you are playing wrong!" or "Stay in character!" or "Quit metagaming!" (not a constructive conversation), we can talk about what's a better or worse time to use each Stance.
Speaking of court cases, thank you Loving vs. Virginia
One of the reasons I support gay marriage is because I believe very strongly that the government has no business telling us we can't marry who we choose.
And one of the reasons I believe that so strongly is because there was a time, in living memory, when it would have been illegal for me and Sushu to get married in California — and fourteen other states.
A mere few decades ago, it was very common for states to have laws against interracial marriage. These laws were openly racist attempts to maintain the "purity" of the "white race". Most common were laws banning whites and blacks from marrying, which existed almost everywhere except the progressive Northeast. Laws banning whites and Asians were less common, but still widespread. From the Wikipedia article on 'anti-miscegenation laws', I learned that I wouldn't have been able to marry Sushu in:
- California until 1948.
- Idaho, Oregon, Montana, South Dakota, or Nevada until the 1950s.
- Arizona, Nebraska, Utah, or Wyoming until the 1960s.
- Georgia, Missisippi, Missouri, South Carolina, or Virginia until June 12, 1967
Back then, anti-miscegenation laws (what a wonderfully cumbersome and archaic phrase) were widely supported. Their supporters used arguments which sound suspiciously similar to the arguments of gay marriage opponents today. For example, appeals to tradition (think "changing the definition of marriage"); appeals to the majority opinion: A 1958 Gallup poll showed that 96 percent of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage; and appeals to the Will of God: Virginia judge Leon Bazile said in 1965,
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
I repeat, >:-O
Today, anti-miscegenation laws would be almost unthinkable. That's how much attitudes have changed in just one generation. What will attitudes towards gay marriage be like one generation from now?
In our time, state supreme courts are overturning gay marriage bans one after another. In 1967, it took the supreme court of the US to overturn the remaining state anti-miscegenation laws. Loving vs. Virignia (legal text here) was the landmark case. The Lovings were a black woman and a white man who married in the District of Columbia (where they were allowed to marry) and then moved back home to Virginia (where they were not). The police burst into their bedroom and dragged them off to court, where they were sentenced to jail time for trying to circumvent Virginia's anti-miscegenation law.
They could have given up, but they kept fighting the system. They took it all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided that all state anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional and invalid. It's thanks to the courage of the Lovings that today me and Sushu can be married in any state in the union. They deserve our gratitude!
Prop 8 upheld? So be it! We'll win this the hard way.
Proposition 8 was upheld by the California supreme court yesterday in a case called Strauss vs. Horton. The full text of the court's decision can be read in this PDF file from courtinfo.ca.gov.
On the one hand, this decision is a scary legal precedent in that it seems to say: "No, actually, in California you don't have any protection against the tyranny of the majority — 50% plus one vote can change the state Constitution to take rights away from a group." In the lone dissenting opinion, Justice Moreno said, "The majority’s holding is not just a defeat for same-sex couples, but for any minority group that seeks the protection of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution."
On a national level, we have a constitution that lays out certain rights, and that constitution is very difficult to amend, for precisely this reason: a movement to take away the rights of a minority is sometimes very popular with a larger majority. The difficulty of passing a national amendment protects us all from the whims of such majorities, which at times can resemble vengeful mobs more than rational voters.
So this is another example of how California errs on the side of too much democracy.
On the other hand, I didn't really think this legal challenge to prop 8 would work. The time to challenge the legality of the proposition would have been before the election, and preferably before it got onto the ballot at all. Challenging it after it won smacks of sore-looserism.
And ultimately, I don't want the gay marriage movement to win by judicial decision. Those decisions cause too much resentment on the other side; gay marriage opponents see judicial decisions like the recent one in Iowa as proof that we're trying to inflict the tyranny of the minority on them. Don't get me wrong, the Iowa supreme court decision was a great thing for gay Iowans, but I'd much, much rather see the gay marriage movement win by changing people's minds first, and then changing laws through our representatives in state legislature, like the recent victory in Vermont. (Go Vermont!)
The work begins now to get a counter-proposition on the ballot and make it pass in 2010 or 2012. What a majority took away, a majority can give back. We only lost by 48% to 52% last time. We can swing that! And time is on our side, because the younger generation is far more gay-friendly than their parents — a significant majority of people 34 and under support same-sex marriage.
Yesterday's decision did not nullify the marriages of California's approximately 18,000 existing same-sex married couples, because the court ruled that Prop 8 did not apply retroactively. I'm very relieved about that. Nullification would have been a hateful and petty act with no purpose. I mean, retconning marriages out of existence? Only Joe Quesada would stoop that low.
Rock Band pedals like to break in half
I love the heck out of Rock Band. I mostly play the drums. Sushu plays the guitar. (We dressed up our game avatars like the characters from Gurren Lagann.)
The drum set has a design flaw, though. The pedal is made of thin plastic, and too flimsy to stand up to repeated stomping. I held it together for a while by reinforcing it with chopsticks and duct tape, but here's what it looked like after the first time I played the drum part in YYZ by Rush:
The Internet soon revealed that this pretty much happens to everybody's Rock Band drum pedal. Luckily, the internet also had a solution: there's a company called PEDAL METAL that makes a metal plate you can screw into the plastic pedal to repair or reinforce it.
The metal plate and screws came in a flat postal envelope with an instruction sheet that was obviously printed out from somebody's home printer. I'm pretty sure that PEDAL METAL is just one guy somewhere, making these in his garage and selling them on Amazon and eBay.
That thought makes me smile. That's capitalism at its best right there — one company's product is lacking, so an entrepreneur makes an invention to fill a need, and starts selling it. Everybody wins.
Here's what my pedal looks like now:
I haven't had any problems with it since.
"California is Essentially Ungovernable"
California had a special election on Tuesday to vote on six budget-related propositions.
In a normal state, the budget is handled by the legislative and/or executive branches — you know, the people we elected to make these decisions, and who we pay to make these decisions. But in California certain budget things have to come to a statewide popular vote.
What things? Why some things and not others? I don't rightly know. I think it's something to do with the idea that any budgeting rule that was passed via a proposition on the state ballot can only be undone or altered by a similar proposition. So, even though the governor and legislature had already approved them, they needed our permission to go through with the changes described on the ballot.
These changes were, collectively, a desperation move by a state government that is broke, deep in the hole, and trying to scrape together money anywhere it can, before more services have to be cut. They were as follows:
- 1A would prevent a recent tax increase from expiring, and change the budget process in arcane ways.
- 1B would secure funding for public schools; it was contingent on 1A and would have no effect unless 1A also passed.
- 1C would expand and modernize the state lottery to increase the take, and borrow money against future lottery profits.
- 1D and 1E would take money that had been collected for particular purposes but had not been spent, and re-allocate it to the general budget.
- 1F would prevent state government employees from getting pay raises as long as there was a budget deficit.
I went back and forth in my head several times. I ended up voting for 1B because I don't want schools to lose funding, and 1A to support 1B. I voted for 1C, 1D, and 1E because they seemed
I voted against 1F because I didn't think it was needed — it's not like there's been a rash of government pay raises; their salaries haven't kept pace with inflation, in fact.
Well, everything I voted for failed, and the thing I voted against passed. (This seems to happen a lot.) Not even close: 1A-1E were voted down with almost a two-to-one margin in some cases, and 1F got 3/4 of the vote.
I see that CNN describes the result as "a budget nightmare".
I understand why 1A failed, since it extended a tax increase. But I wonder about the others. In California we get these info pamphlets in advance of each election, which contain PRO and CON arguments from the supporters and opponents of each proposition. In this election, nobody submitted a "CON" argument for 1B or 1C. Not one person thought it was worth their time to explain the argument against... yet both propositions failed by huge margins.
Are people just in a mood of general rage against the state, such that we automatically reject anything they ask for, even if it's cutting off our nose to spite our face?
Was it just because people are more likely to vote 'no' if they feel like they don't understand the proposition, if it's too complicated, or might not really do what it says it does?
Or am I just being really naiive, and these were all actually horrible propositions?
It got me thinking. What if everything on the budget came down to a popular vote?
- Everyone would vote for more services.
- Everyone would vote for tax cuts.
- Everyone would vote for a requirement that the budget be balanced.
- Nobody would vote to run up more debt.
Total deadlock. Nothing could be done. I mean, this already happens to the extent that people's elected representatives follow the will of their constituents. Republicans fight for tax cuts, Democrats fight for more services, and it's usually the balanced budget and debt that end up taking the hit.
But my point is, there's a good reason we're a republic and not a democracy. Somebody has to make unpopular decisions, especially with regards to the budget.
Now I understand something I read in a Wall Street Journal article the day before the election. It said that the Governator would learn the hard way what so many of his predecessors had learned: "that California is essentially ungovernable".
Cartoon Cultural Exchange
Sushu missed out on The Eighties. So she doesn't get a lot of references to eighties culture. She didn't know why I was going around the house yelling "BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL!!". So I had to show her He-Man cartoons on Youtube.
For whatever reason, I remember watching way more She-Ra than He-Man as a kid.
Remember: He-man says "By the power of Greyskull" and protects Eternia from Skeletor. She-Ra says "For the honor of Greyskull" and protects Etheria from Hordak. It's important to keep that straight.
In exchange, Sushu has been showing me Chinese cartoons of her childhood, such as Black Cat Detective and Seven Gourd brothers. The latter is fun to watch even if you don't understand a word of Chinese, thanks to its awesome shadow-puppet-theater-inspired animation style and mythological trippyness.
What more can I say? I wouldn't be here today if the Old School hadn't paved the way
Part One: The Old-School Renaissance
There's an Old-School role-playing renaissance going on. "Old-School" in this case means the style of gaming epitomized in the very first version of D&D (thanks Jake for the link), sometimes called OD&D or 0th Edition — something I'm too young to have tried out the first time around, so it's mostly new to me.
This style of gaming is described wonderfully in a 13-page PDF called A Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming.
(Funny story: I was talking on Instant Messenger with Googleshng one time, and we happened to get onto the topic of old-school gaming, and we both sent each other the above old-school primer link at exactly the same time.)
There's also a great blog about old-school gaming called Grognardia. The Grognardia guy is a D&D player so old-school that he doesn't allow the Thief class in his game (after all, it wasn't introduced until 1976, so it's not really part of the original (1974) D&D). At first I thought that was just sheer bloody-mindedness, like a Japanese soldier found on an island in the Pacific who doesn't know the war is over.
But it turns out that Grognardia guy has a good and specific reason for not including the thief. With the thief, traps and secret doors become the thief's job to find, using game mechanics — skill rolls. Without the thief, traps and secret doors are everyone's responsibility, and they are found and opened/avoided by asking the DM the right questions and stating the right actions, i.e. by player deduction. Grognardia guy wants the game to be about player skill, not character skill, so for him the game is better without the thief. It makes sense.
"Player skill, not character skill" pretty much sums up the old-school gaming style. It's not just mindless hack-and-slash dungeon crawling — it would be boring if it was. Instead, it's a combination of unabashed Gamism with a rules-light, almost freeform system, heavy on DM judgment calls (known in Forge-speak as "Drama resolution"). By Gamism, I mean that an adventure is something you win or lose. You get out of the dungeon alive with the loot and the bragging rights, or you die trying, so don't let anybody tell you it's about "telling a story" or any of that. Unlike modern Gamist designs, though, there are barely rules for anything, so you can't rely on dice-rolling or tactical skill with numerical game mechanics — instead, you have to rely on creative manipulation of the game world, and arguments that appeal to the DM's sense of plausibility. To make a video game analogy — it's Zork, not Diablo. But Zork with a human game master. I find this an intriguing combination. I want to try it out!
In reading about how a GM ought to run old-school games, I keep running across the idea of "GM As Referee": Neutral enforcer of the rules, deciding things based on what should happen in the game world, without trying to impose any particular plot, without trying to protect the PCs or to be their adversary, the GM-as-referee runs the world and leaves the story up to the players. This is very different from how I learned to GM in modern games, so it's another thing I want to try out. (The more I can learn about different approaches to GMing, the better, I think.)
Part Two: Disappointment
So I got myself a 1981 Basic D&D set (also known as the Moldvay version) off of eBay for about eight dollars plus shipping. I was all psyched to try out this old-school thing.
When my game group got together on Saturday, since we had finished Polaris and were not yet ready to start our next real game, I talked everyone into trying out The Keep on the Borderlands ("Adventure Module B2, for Character Levels 1-3, by Gary Gygax").
I played everything exactly as written — stats were 3d6 in order, hit dice were rolled meaning you could start with 1hp. If you died, I said, make a new character and I'll let you join back in after some reasonable in-game time has passed. (The theory in old D&D, played as written, was that randomly generated characters weren't so bad because you would go through a lot of them before winding up with one good enough to survive.)
I did not fudge anything, because I wanted to try out the "GM as Referee" thing. It would be up to the players to keep themselves alive.
So, I got my old-school game on. And... (drum roll)... it kind of sucked.
The players tried to avoid getting attached to their characters because they were probably going to die real quick. Therefore characters didn't have much personality. Cat died *twice* within the first 30 feet of dungeon corridor — not through any fault of her own, just because kobolds kept rolling lucky. (Kobolds are evil! Read this hilarious story about kobolds to learn just how evil they can be.)
The random death factor meant Cat never got to have any impact on the game. That made me feel bad.
I want a game where I can be GM -as -referee *without* feeling like I'm being a character-murdering jerk to my friends.
I'm still intrigued by the old-school style of gaming, but I don't think original D&D is going to give me what I want. I might have to invent a whole new system of my own — one that's Gamist and challenge based, light on mechanics and heavy on fiction, where the GM is referee — but where where character survival is a lot less random when you're starting out.
A random thought about Final Fantasy
Not sure what made me think of this today, but it occurred to me today -- I would have liked the story of Final Fantasy 7 a lot more if the whole thing had focused on the premise that the first hour or so seemed to offer.
That is: a grimy cyberpunk/urban fantasy where Barrett was the main character; the inescapable, all-encompassing city of Midgar was the setting; Avalanche vs. ShinRa was the main conflict; and the theme was the ethics of Avalanche's eco-terrorism: questioning how much collateral damage you're willing to inflict on the urban poor in order to take down a power structure that you believe is destroying the global ecosystem. Cloud and Sephiroth, two characters who I never found that interesting, would have been secondary if present at all.
Instead, in the game that we got, the Avalanche vs. ShinRa plot was unceremoniously dropped, and the stupid Cloud-Sephiroth subplot (a thinly veiled gay romance if there ever was one) took over the whole damn story. Bah. Boring.
Maybe someday, somebody could make the "Eco-Terrorists in magitech Midgar" game.
Here's me and Sushu in our costumes for Anime Central. We're Iroh and Toph from Avatar: the Last Airbender.
Wow, it really looks like Toph (Sushu) is sucker-punching me in this picture.
The girl on the left is Kitara in her Fire Nation disguise. Um, I don't know what her name is in real life. That's anime conventions for you: instantly bonding with total strangers just because they're dressed as characters from the same show as you are.
We found a lot of other people cosplaying Avatar. It's a popular show! (And nobody seems to care that it's "Not really anime". I'm glad; it's a stupid thing to care about.) Here's a group of us, including two Kitaras and two Zukos:
That one Zuko is shooting lightning out of his arm, in case you can't tell that's supposed to be lightning. It's made of clothes hangers. I thought it was pretty clever.
Here's what our characters Iroh and Toph are supposed to look like:
Sushu did all the sewing for both of our costumes. I just made my armor (cereal boxes, coat hangers, hot glue, paint), grew a beard and colored it grey, and bought an "Einstein" wig which I failed to completely get all the curls out of. Also I ran out of time so ended up not making any footgear, which is why I'm in those very inappropriate sneakers. Man, I could have done a lot better if I had more time, but it was a really busy week at work.
Non-Avatar cosplay that was cool:
This Jack Skellington had stilts inside his pants to get the proper proportions. He was like ten feet tall. It was freaky!
Other really cool cosplay that I did not get pictures of included...
- A group of ALL THE BATMAN VILLIANS, in their old-school comic-book versions. They sang an a-capella version of "Never Gonna Give You Up" (a.k.a. "the Rickroll song") to passersby in the dealers' room.
- An absolutely fantastic-looking Final Fantasy 6 group, which was all the obscure characters: Gogo, Relm, Setzer, and Gau. It warmed the cockles of my bitter heart.
- Rorschach and the Comedian, from Watchmen. Later I also spotted a red-headed hobo-looking guy with a sign that said THE END IS NEAR, but I don't know if it was the same guy as the Rorschach mask or not. Spooky.
Here's us with Helena, who was the president of the U of C anime club way back in 2004 when I first met them all.
She's not in costume; she just always dresses like that. "It's not cosplay! It's fashion!" she likes to say.
From left to right are Kimberly and John and Cat, then Helena and Sushu. (Hey Helena, what are you up to with my betrothed?) John and Kimberly were in the club before my time, so I only know them from A-CEN. That's the main thing that's cool about A-CEN - meeting up with cool people I never get a chance to see otherwise.
It's pretty much a college reunion that just happens to take place at an anime convention.
Oh, you know what else was awesome? On our way home from the con, me and Sushu and Cat stopped by my parents' house to see Aleksa (who had her ninth birthday the same weekend). She had also been watching Avatar, borrowed on DVD from the library, and she had gotten almost all the way through the series. We sat down and all watched the last episode together, with us still in costume. Is that perfect or what?
Then of course she was all hyped up, and we had to go act out battles in the living room, where punching a pillow at someone is "earthbending" and whipping someone with a blue sheet is "waterbending". Ahhh, good times.
The Difference Engine
This is the Difference Engine designed in 1847-1849 by Charles Babbage. It was never built in his own lifetime, but starting in 1989 (to celebrate Babbage's 200th birthday), the London Science Museum constructed one to his original specifications.
(Here's the view from the other side.) Some extremely rich guy decided that he wanted a Difference Enginge too, so he financed the construction of a second one. This is the one that ended up on display in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, which happens to be just around the corner from my apartment. I went to see it with some friends in March.
(Here's the side view.) It was constructed using only the metalworking technology that would have been available in the mid-19th century -- they loosened up the tolerances on their machine tools to introduce the same amount of inaccuracy that engineers at the time would have had to deal with.
Despite that, it does in fact work. What does it do?
It calculates the values of polynomial expressions like these here. It can do up to seventh-order polynomials -- i.e. anything that can be expressed in the form:
Ax^7 + Bx^6 + Cx^5 + Dx^4 + Ex^3 + Fx^2 + Gx + H
You input the coefficients A, B... H by turning wheels to certain starting positions, and then...
...this guy turns the crank to make it go. He really has to put his back into it, because he's turning hundreds of gears which total to something like fifty pounds of resistance. (The shaft could also have been hooked up to a steam engine.)
Each turn of the crank increases the value of X by one, and then the polynomial result can be read off of the main wheels, one digit per wheel.
When it's in motion, these columns rotate, and the little doodads sticking out of the sides spin in an ascending/descending helical pattern that interlocks each column with the next. It's quite hypnotic to watch.
After designing his first Difference Engine, Babbage designed the Analytical Engine, which would have gone far beyond simply crunching polynomials. It would have been fully programmable, the first true computer.
After designing the awesome but extremely impractical Analytical Engine, Babbage revisited the Difference Engine and improved the design significantly, coming up with a second design that accomplished the same thing with drastically fewer parts. (Even today, we computer programmers spend a lot of our time looking for ways to do exactly the same thing.) The model pictured here was based on this improved redesign.
Here's something I bet you didn't know: The Difference Engine design included a printer (which even had adjustable margins and line heights). We got to see the printer in action.
After all, without a printer, it would be nothing but a massive and expensive novelty. But with a printer, it had a practical purpose...
This is a close-up of a plaster-of-paris plate that was imprinted by the Difference Engine printer. A plate like this would be produced, and then used as a master to cast a metal plate that could go into a printing press in order to churn out copies.
Copies of what, you may ask? Well, with a seventh-order polynomial you can produce a reasonably accurate approximation of many other mathematical functions, such as sines, cosines, and logarithms. Ultimately, that was the purpose of the Difference Engine -- to automatically churn out tables of logarithms etc. that engineers and scientists could use for reference in the days before calculators and slide rules.
Here's my current role-playing game group posing in front of the Engine. That's me in the front, and behind me from left to right are Dave, Aaron, and Cat.
And here's me with my Sushu!
Recently I decided to get into hip-hop, a genre that I knew nothing about aside from stereotypes and parodies. (And nerdcore rap like M.C. Frontalot, which I enjoy very much, but that doesn't count.)
I did the same thing I did when I decided to get wholesale into other genres -- gather recommendations from friends, coworkers, and the Internet at large, then go on basically a humongous archive binge. (I did similar when I got into jazz, electronica, prog-rock, funk, etc.)
I've been listening to A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Wu-Tang Clan, 2Pac, NaS, Public Enemy, KRS-One, Cee-Lo, and Dr. Dre.
I couldn't get into the Dr. Dre album (The Chronic) at all. That was the only miss -- I liked all the rest of them. 8 out of 9 is pretty good! In particular, Phrenology by The Roots and Illmatic by NaS are fan-freaking-tastic albums (at this point anybody who knows their hip-hop is like "No duh, where have you been?"). They are now among my favorites from any genre, along with Cee-Lo Green Is The Soul Machine (thanks Isaac).
Anyway, while listening, I had an epiphany that I want to talk about: Rap is blogging. Rap songs are blog posts in musical form. Consider the similarities:
- Rappers make a living from two things: their charismatic personas, and their wordsmithing skills. Bloggers (those who aspire to do it full-time): same deal.
- Rappers sample each other, talk smack about each other, give shout-outs to each other, respond to the smack-talk and the props, etc. It's like an ongoing medium-wide conversation. Bloggers link to each other, quote each other, fisk each other, start flame wars with each other... same thing.
- Rappers express their opinions on controversial topics of importance to their community, like whether money inevitably changes art or whether it's possible to "keep it real" while making oodles of dough. Many rap songs are statements of the artist's position on such issues. Just like blog posts.
- Rap songs that are not statements about issues are often very personal stories drawn from the artist's life, e.g. what it was like growing up disadvantaged in an inner city slum. Bloggers are usually from more pampered backgrounds, but the best blog writing has a similar source in personal life experience.
- Rappers stick it to the man; bloggers stick it to the "Mainstream Media".
I used to think of rap music as an intimidating if not forbidding genre, but finding this parallel with blogging has made it much more accessible to me.
Of course, there's no real parallel in blog-writing for the fantastic rythms found in good rap, or for the almost entrancing quality of the phenomenon called "flow" in rap vocals. Also I don't think blogger slang has enriched the English language nearly as much as rap slang has.
Oh, hey, a question for the commenters: What else should I be listening to?