Yeah, sorry, it's that time again
Time for more of JONO'S TOTALLY WEIRD DREAMS.
I was back at Ootsuchi Jr. High School in Japan. There was a prophecy that somebody was going to have his arms and legs burned off. Then there was a fire at the school and a guy got trapped under a burning falling chunk of wood. I was running around helping put out the fire, and then I dragged the guy free, but his arms and legs had been burned off as prophecized. A guy with no arms and legs doesn't weigh very much so he was easy to carry out. The thing was that nobody else cared whether this guy lived or died, I think because he was that annoying guy from Bloom County. I carried him to the school auditorium and put him on top of the piano and wrapped him up in the piano blanket and tried to nurse him back to life. There was one of those "dream continuity errors" and instead of a normal guy with no arms and legs, he was now a little tiny man like two or three inches high, but with all his limbs. And he was in a coma or something and I was taking care of him, and I had him in a little tiny bed made out of paper towels and I had to keep giving him water with an eyedropper and put my index finger on his chest to feel his breathing and change his paper towels regularly. Then I was in the teacher's room trying to ask all the teachers if anybody knew of a hospital I could call that specialized in tiny men, but they all just talked over me and ignored me, because nobody but me cared whether Tiny Annoying Guy from Bloom County lived or died.
Other dreams recently, not quite so weird as that one:
I was in a red, sandy canyon, way out west (of Kamaishi?) in the mountains somewhere. I was walking my bike since it was too sandy to ride and I was looking for the right road. The canyon was full of people, mostly beach-bum type people. A lot of them had set up stores selling beach equipment and hippie stuff inside caves in the canyon walls. Finally I found a road with a sign that said, "Road-you-should-have-discovered-in-the-first-place" (since that's what early explorers of the area had named it) and it was perfect for biking on.
I was exploring a cave with Stephen. We were crawling through rocky tunnels and over rocks and splashing through underground streams. I found a dry rock to climb up and sit on, so I pulled my laptop out of my backpack and guess what? there was a wireless access point in the cave. (We must have been underneath a Starbucks or something). So I started writing a blog post about how awesome the cave was, and Stephen was making fun of me for blogging in a cave.
I had to get married, for political reasons, to the Queen of Dorne. (This would be a character in the Song of Ice and Fire novels.) Actually I haven't read far enough for the Queen of Dorne to even have shown up. Actually I don't know whether Dorne even has a queen. But in the dream it did, and I had to marry her to solidify some alliance or other. I didn't meet her until the day of the wedding; she was a lot older than me and kind of chubby. But she was very horny and she liked younger men, so... awesome?
A barren wasteland where only the PACE buses run
Recent adventures, continued.
Two weekends ago, we had a fruitful meeting with the Humanized investors that lasted all of Saturday and part of Sunday morning. As I was leaving, I got a call from Mike (a guy I know from the Internet who I've played Warhammer 40k with a few times). "Come to my place in Oak Park and play board games!" he said. "OK! Awesome!" I said. Then I got a call from Cat (anime club kaicho Cat) who said "I'm finished with my finals, and now I'm bored, let's have dinner together or something". It is good to have friends. I tried to figure out how to squeeze in both.
Now, to understand this next part, you have to know something about Chicago geography, so here's a map of the CTA elevated train system AKA the "El". Mike told me his apartment was very close to the Green Line Harlem stop, which as you can see from that map is at the west end of the Green Line. Humanized's HQ is near the Montrose stop on the Blue Line, pretty far northwest of downtown. Got it? OK, good. The sensible thing for me to have done would have been to get on the Blue Line, ride it to downtown, transfer to the Green Line, and ride out. But I didn't have a book with me so it would have been really boring, and I had my bicycle, and it was a nice day, so I thought "I'll just bike there!"
Now, since I am dumb, I didn't look at a map before I left. I just figured "I'll ride west till I get to Harlem street, then I'll ride south until I get to the Harlem end of the Green Line". But for some reason, I was thinking that the Harlem stop was at the south end of the Green Line. Probably far back in my brain there was some chain of faulty logic that looked like "Harlem = Black people = South Side". Never mind that Chicago's Harlem has nothing to do with New York's Harlem. Also, I was imagining that the Green Line was shaped like a katakana "Ko" (コ) and not a hiragana "tsu" (っ). That is, I thought the south end was much futher west than it really is.
So, armed with my completely faulty mental map, I set out. Riding west to Harlem took a while but was uneventful; eventually I passed outside the city limits into the suburbs, the first time I've ever done so on bicycle. It's weird out there! There are strip malls and big-box stores and sometimes the roads even curve and there are PACE buses instead of CTA buses!
I turned south on Harlem and, narrowly dodging one crazy driver who was probably still drunk from a St. Patrick's Day party the night before, I proceeded south. I cruised right past the Harlem stop of the Green Line, thinking "That's the north end, that's not what I want". You would think that the fact that I was on Harlem street and therefore this was, by definition, the Harlem stop of the Green line, would have tipped me off, but no, I was oblivious. I kept going, stopping only to get a tuna grinder and a bottle of water at a Subway. Maybe I was drunk on the speed and power of my new bike which is actually a street racing bike and not a little girl bike.
I kept going, and going... over the Metra tracks, past 47th street, over the Sanitary Canal (the one that sends all our filthy water to St. Louis)... But just then, on the bridge over Highway 55, I got a flat tire and had to pull over. Maybe this was luck in disguise: since the south end of the Green Line was way east of me at that point, I never would have hit it at all if I had kept going. Who knows where I would have ended up?
I figured out my mistake when I called Mike and told him where I was and he said "What the heck are you doing way down there?". I had passed his place an hour ago; if I had just stopped I would have been right on time and I never would have gotten a flat. I called Cat, since she had said she was bored, and asked if she'd be willing to come rescue me. (I thought I was a lot closer to Hyde Park than I really was. Looking at a map later, I discovered I was actually way out west of Midway airport.) While I was waiting, I pulled over to the grass on the side of the highway, ate my sandwich, and tried to fix my flat tire with the bike tools I always carry.
I had patched up the hole in the inner tube and just about got the tire back on when Cat called again. "I'm all the way down at 80th street, where the heck are you Jono?". I hadn't given directions very well, and there was some confusion about "highway 55" vs "55th street", so she had actually been just a couple blocks away from me but had then turned in the wrong direction and kept going. It was just one of those days.
Cat and I finally met each other at Harlem and Archer, which is actually in the town of Summit, Illinois (pop. 10,000). When I found this on a map later, I was fairly amazed at how far I had gotten in just a couple hours of cycling. "At that rate", I thought, "I could probably ride all the way out to LaGrange..." but that's another story. I took my bike apart on the sidewalk in order to get all the parts of it to fit into Cat's car. Oh, the tire that I patched still wouldn't hold air, so I guess there was more than one puncture in it, so I just needed a whole new inner tube. Figures.
I asked Cat if she was maybe interested in joining a game with me and the nerds from the warhammer forum. "Are they afraid of girls?" she asked. "No, they all have wives and girlfriends actually." "OK then!" So we drove back up to Oak Park, met the guys, and played partway through a game of Arkham Horror. This is a Lovecraft-themed cooperative game; sort of a board game hybridized with a GMless RPG. Everybody works together to try to seal all the gates before the Ancient One can enter our world. Everybody had to leave before we could finish the game. My fault: we could have started three hours earlier if I had just bothered to check a map before I started out. But if it had been that way Cat wouldn't have gotten to play, so you win some and you lose some.
Cat drove me all the way back to Hyde Park so we could have dinner with Satomi at Snail Thai. This took forever because neither of us knew what highway to take, so we took local roads all the way back. So we drove through a massive swath of the deep southwest side, which is mostly poor Hispanic neighborhoods with nothing interesting in them.
After dinner Cat took me back to the Red Line stop, I put my bike back together while waiting for the train, and rode back up to home, completing my grand-tour gigantic loop of Chicago.
A couple times in recent months I have gone to events run by Nerds At Heart.
A couple times a month they invite people to meet in the back room of this local bar called Guthrie's to play board games and meet other single nerds. It's... well, it's OK. I haven't met anybody worth blogging about yet. Except the organizers, Julia and Bathsheba, who seem pretty cool for running the whole thing and making up trivia questions and giving out endearingly trashy prizes to the winners. I had an e-mail conversation with them where I made some suggestions and the next time I went, they actually did what I suggested, so hey.
Chicago public radio sent a guy there who arbitrarily picked me to interview. The radio segment is online as an mp3 file. I haven't listened to it cuz I hate the way my voice sounds when it's recorded and played back, and I don't quite remember what I said, and I certainly don't know how they edited it up, so I don't really know what you're in for if you click that link.
I look at nerds@<3 as a class I'm taking to practice a skill. The skill is starting up conversations with strangers, aka schmoozing, mingling, and in specialized applications, flirting. I've never been good at this and have always found the very idea quite terrifying, in fact. Nerds@<3 is a good forum for practicing this skill because there's absolutely nothing at stake.
It's weird. I have no problems talking to customers or business contacts on the phone, and I don't even fear public speaking. Those are situations where I'm talking to strangers and it's fine because I have an objective. But put me in a room full of strangers and no objective and tell me to hobknob, and I totally freeze up. I don't know where to start. I just want to crawl off into the corner and hide, maybe get out my laptop and do some work. This is why I hate parties and bar gatherings and so on and avoid them whenever possible. But I'm thinking maybe it's a skill I should push myself a little to try to learn.
The one gigantic blotch on the Nerds@<3 experience, and the reason I haven't gone more often, is that the board game selection tends to suck. The way it's organized, we get put into large groups and rotated every 30 or 40 minutes, so it's really not conducive to playing anything in-depth. They have several good games at Guthrie's (including Ticket to Ride, Blokus, Carcassone, and Scrabble) but just due to the limitations of the format I usually get stuck with some kind of "party" game. I try to steer this towards Pictionary or Tabbo or something which is at least tolerable, but once I got stuck in this horrible trivia game called "Blast from the Past", aka "Pointless nonsense segregated by decade instead of by category". Blegghh. Trivia games suck. "What movie starring a famous person you've never heard of won some meaningless award in a year two decades before you were born?" Games like that are not even good for their intended purpose, encouraging people to get to know each other. If I want to get to know people I'd rather ask them questions about their lives, which I can't very well do when they're sitting their racking their brain to remember the birthday of some famous person I've never heard of.
(Oh yeah, then there's Apples to Apples. I liked that the first time I played it, but after four or five plays it has become exceedingly tiresome. "HA HA GUESS WHAT I'M GOING TO PICK THIS CARD WHICH HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ADJECTIVE! ISN'T THAT HILARIOUS? AREN'T I SOOOOOOO WACKY? I BET I'M THE FIRST PERSON TO EVER THINK OF THAT!")
I brought a bunch of my board games one time but wasn't able to get anybody interested. "That sounds too hard and complicated", "I don't want to think, I just want to relax". This was in reference to Settlers. That's a gateway game, people, I play it with my six-year-old sister. Don't want to think? How can you call yourselves nerds? For shame.
Too busy living life to write about it
I have lots and lots of stuff I want to
blog write about, from politics to RPGs to aikido to Windows Vista. But lately I've been finding that if I want to work for Humanized, practice Aikido, and draw The Scariest Thing In The World, and do all three properly, I basically can do nothing else. I wish there were more hours in the day.
Anyway, I'm taking a few minutes at work (sssh don't tell my coworkers, they don't read this page) to write about my last few adventures.
Three weekends ago, I went down to Hyde Park to play an ancient, long out-of-print boardgame called Advanced Civilization with Jim and his friends at the Snell-Hitchcock dorm. It's a pretty cool game; I'm not sure whether or not it has any relation to the computer game. The theme is similar but the mechanics are unrelated.
I got to play Egypt (considered to have an advantage due to good starting position) because I was the newbie. A veteran player named Tuwalide (sp?) who is a student from Nigeria, chose to play Crete (considered to have a very difficult starting position) because he wanted a challenge. Everybody else at the table seemed to be in awe of Tuwalide's Civilization skills due in part to a certain stunt he had pulled off in a previous game which has apparently entered the realm of legend and is now simply known as "Pulling a Tuwalide". I think it involved something like abandoning Egypt and migrating the entire Egyptian population into Italy, in the process committing total genocide of the indigeonous Italian population, just for the hell of it.
I did not have such good luck playing Egypt; early on I got hit by four disasters in the same turn -- flood, earthquake, civil war, and epidemic. In a later turn I got hit by four more. This was apparently a statistical abberation. It was frustrating, since I kept getting knocked back to the stone age (literally) but I tried to be a good sport about it. The civil war made half my cities turn against me; there was an eigth person who wanted to join the game, so we used the optional rule where your rebellious cities become a new faction in the hands of a new player. So he replaced half my Egyptian cities and units with African ones. Their armies are represented by little elephant tokens. "Why does everybody else have men but you have elephants?" asked an onlooker. "These are my MANIPHANTS!" he answered enthusiastically. For the rest of the game this guy would not shut up about his "MANIFOLD MANIPHANTS" and their "MANIFEST DESTINY". Weirdo.
The game went on for 12 hours; I was starting to fall asleep at the table by the end. I expected this to happen so I had brought a sleeping bag. The Snell-Hitchcockians told me I could sleep on the couch in the rec room. This turned out not to be such a great idea since people were going in and out of the rec room all night and watching ultraviolent Korean movies, and I kept hearing things like "Who is that guy on the couch? Does anybody know who that is? Is that like somebody's boyfriend who got kicked out of her room?" It was my most unsatisfying night of attempted sleeping ever.
Song of Ice and Fire, summarized
George R. R. Martin: Here are about a hundred awesomely cool, likable, well-developed, three-dimensional characters with fascinating life histories who you will come to care about as if they were real people.
George R. R. Martin: Here's several thousand pages of all your favorite characters getting betrayed, ruined, imprisoned, beaten, mutilated, tortured, beheaded, raped, poisoned, backstabbed, burned, drowned, starved, executed, bereaved, dismembered, and/or murdered one by one.
George R. R. Martin: Because life isn't fair.
Corn is a Deal-Killer
It's two days late, but I'm proud of this comic.
I don't have the comic up yet because I was weak yesterday and succumbed to the urge for socialization and fun with friends instead of locking myself in my room and inking all day like I intended. Bad Jono!
(Am I being sarcastic or not? I can't tell sometimes.)
But maybe I can still get it done tonight. Not sure.
Alignment in D&D
This is a rant about the alignment system in Dungeons and Dragons. It was inspired by Bill's thoughts on his upcoming D&D campaign which he linked to in a comment on a previous post.
I've decided that I like the law-chaos aligment axis in D&D but I hate the good-evil axis.
Law and chaos are good because they spark lots of conflict but they don't tell you which one is right. It can inspire dilemmas where PCs have to choose the side of law or the side of chaos, possibly supported or opposed by their own nature. Having "Good" and "Evil" as objectively identifiable game mechanics kind of ruins any possibility of creating an interesting dilemma, because obviously the side of Good is the right one to pick, by definition! I was always running up against this in my Planescape games, and my solution was just not to send the players to any of the strongly-good-aligned or strongly-evil-aligned planes, or have anybody from those planes in the plot too much, because I didn't know what to do with them. That's always been a bizzare contradiction in Planescape -- the setting wants to be all about competing philosophies, but it's stuck with a traditional cosmology that has objective "GOOD" and "EVIL" written on it in mile-high letters of fire. And "detect alignment" spells.
(If magic can tell you what's good and what's evil, it seems to me that somebody could come up with a spell that judges the morality of thoughts and intended actions, and then you could use it on yourself, and know instantly what is the good thing to do in any situation. No more moral dilemmas ever! So "detect alignment" has always been a very weird spell. Bill's solution is to make it into more of a "detect holy/unholy magic" spell rather than a spell that judges right and wrong.)
I would much rather keep Law-Chaos, but replace the perpendicular axis with something like "Selfish -- Altruistic". It covers a lot of the same ground in terms of describing actions, but selfishness and altruism is a much better basis for setting up interesting and difficult decisions for players. Altruism isn't always the right choice. It would also be a much better basis for Planescape's competing philosophies, because it makes much more sense to have a group that preaches altruism and a group that preaches selfishness (in real life we call them Objectivists) than it does to have a group preaching "Hey everybody let's be EVIL!" Nobody would ever say that.
Other axes worth considering, instead of "Selfish -- Altrustic": "Idealistic -- Cynical", "Hopeful -- Despairing", or perhaps "Honorable -- Pragmatic", though the last is pretty close to law-chaos.
Another rant: Alignment is unconnected to any of the other game mechanics in the standard D&D rules. If you took alignment out completely, then the rest of the game would still be exactly the same (except for a few spells, and restrictions on a few classes). Alignment seems like it was thrown in as an afterthought. I mean, the game was originally about going into an underground maze, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. The kind of actions you're simulating during play are completely driven by greed and selfishness. I'm not complaining; the dungeon crawl is a damn fine basis for a game! (Look at the popularity of WoW, etc). I'd rather play kill-the-monsters-and-take-their-stuff in a well-designed dungeon with a good tactical ruleset (which D&D3e finally provides) than be railroaded through some self-absorbed GM's preconceived plotline, no matter how highbrow it is. But I digress. Point is, a game about killing monsters and collecting treasure has no need for an alignment system. If your aims are different and you're doing a campaign that's not about killing monsters and collecting treasure, then you may have some use for an alignment system, but you should decide for yourself whether or not you need it, and if so, what for.
E.G. is an alignment system supposed to be descriptive or proscriptive? If actions x, y, and z are defined as evil, does that mean "if you do a lot of XYZ, then you are an evil character" or does it mean "you chose to be a good character, so you may not do XYZ".
If it's the latter, I would say it should be treated like a mental disadvantage in GURPS: normal people have no alignment, but you can choose to take one at chargen (weakening your character by restricting your actions, balanced out by giving you more points for buying skills etc). Then when you try to do an action contrary to your stated alignment the GM would overrule you, or perhaps make you roll something for it.
If it's the former, if your alignment is a description of actions you've taken, then everybody should start out as neutral, earn an alignment through play, and that alignment should then have some effect on the campaign. Some effect so important that every player is thinking "What will this do to my alignment?" every time they choose an action. It should really be central to gameplay and not just an occasional add-on.
I would recommend do one or the other of these (not both, that's too restrictive) or else drop alignment entirely. (My philosophy of game design: if it makes the game more interesting, play it up, otherwise, ditch it! Don't leave it halfheartedly hanging around in an appendix.) Of the two, I think the latter is more interesting, as it makes for interesting decisions over and over again in play, while the former only makes for an interesting decision once at character creation.
Here's a concept: a lot of fantasy is all about making good and evil into tangible things instead of abstractions. Evil acts tangibly corrupt people into an ugly form so that the outer reflects the inner. Think of Gollum or the Ringwraiths, or the Dark Side of the Force. How about, instead of just writing "good" or "evil" on your character sheet, give each character a Corruption score. It starts at zero. Each time you use evil magic you get corruption points (in some game worlds, ALL magic might be corrupting). You also get corruption points for giving in to everyday temptations like lust for gold, power, sex, vengeance, etc. Bad Things happen to characters who get too much corruption going on: they turn warped and hideous, small children and animals instinctively fear them, they are repelled or burned by holy symbols, can't enter the sacred temple, whatever. For something with more immediate gameplay effect, maybe positive magic such as healing etc is less effective or stops working entirely if you are too corrupt.
Note: the GM should be very clear about whether you are being judged on your character's actions or your character's intentions. The group should hash out and agree upon exactly what actions invite corruption, or if it's intentions, what intentions invite corruption and how intention is to be judged. Judging intention is hard! In Star Wars there's this idea that if Luke kills Darth Vader out of anger, then Luke will go to the dark side, but if Darth Vader kills the Emporer out of love, or something, then Darth Vader goes back to the light side. What the heck would this mean in an RPG? Every time your character killed somebody you'd get in an argument with the GM over whether your character was acting out of anger or not, and there's no way to resolve that. For this reason, I'd stick to assigning corruption based on actions. The trick is that the actions that invite corruption are often going to be the most obvious way to solve an adventure -- sneaking up and backstabbing guards in order to get into the palace, for instance, or taking treasure that doesn't belong to you (both common RPG hero actions), are both worth tangible corruption.
There should also, perversely, be rewards for getting more corruption. In the fantasy genre, turning evil is often portrayed as a slippery slope, with minor evils making the bigger ones come easier and easier. Also, if there are rewards for staying good, (like having priests like you, and having healing magic work well on you), this should be balanced out with rewards for turning evil (your rogue skills or your dark sorcery increase, or you start to be able to command the undead, or stuff like that). Whether to stay pure or embrace the darkness should be a difficult choice, which means that both choices should be legitimate strategically, but different in game mechanics and very, very different in story outcomes. And it's a choice that characters should be reconsidering in every adventure -- "well, maybe I'll do an evil deed just this once -- it's for the greater good anyway -- I'll make up for it later". Finally, there needs to be some way for a corrupt character to turn good again through some dramatic self-sacrificing act of redemption. That would make a very cool climax of a game session or a whole campaign.
I think this system would best be used in a very polarized, black-and-white, gothic kind of setting, where choices of good and evil could be brought to the center of gameplay. Maybe something with witch hunters and werewolves and so on? (Am I describing Ravenloft now? Any readers ever played Ravenloft who could tell me whether it had any of this going on?)
"A week ago it was snowing, and today I'm riding around in a t-shirt and sweating!", I said a couple posts ago. Of course, the day after I wrote that the temperature plummeted again and that night it was sleeting.
Today was day 2 of get-up-before-dawn, ride-bike-to-Aikido, do-Aikido, ride-bike-to-work. If I can keep this up for a few weeks and cut out the junk food, I'm gonna be in really good shape!
A nice post at somebody's blog about why Enso was worth buying for him.
Wikipedia page on Aza Raskin. Someday, there will be a Wikipedia page about me. I swear it on my father's corpse.
Humanized's first insane flamer
It would be bad form for me to respond directly to this insane flamer on the Humanized weblog. It's better not to officially acknowledge him at all. But I think it's safe for me to mention it here.
Go to Aza's weblog post about the resurgence of the command line idea and look for the comment by "The IT Profession". (Like, he claims to speak for the whole profession?)
He calls us Microsoft shills (spelled with two dollar signs), calls us snake-oil charlatans, and then says we have "a whole concentration camp of victims in your wake" and that he has "gone through hell most of my life because of people like you" and "it's too late to seek our forgiveness now".
Geez, dude, we made a piece of software and we're trying to sell it. We have no connection to Microsoft and we certainly don't have a concentration camp of victims. If you don't like our software, fine, don't buy it, but I can't figure out where all this vitriol is coming from. The weirdest part is that he seems to be agreeing with the substance of the post about the advantage of a command-line style interface, but then it's like he's holdins us responsible for everything that's bad about GUIs for the last twenty years. I can't even begin to figure out how that would make sense.
You would have to go to a creationist website to read a post less connected with reality.
I can't think of a clever title for this one so I'll just call it NEW BICYCLE
Oh, Chicago weather. One week ago -- One week exactly! -- there was a foot of snow on the ground. Today I was outside in a T-shirt and sweating.
Since the roads are no longer a morass of filthy salty slush and the wind no longer bites exposed skin like a knife, it's time to start biking to and from work again.
I got a brand-new bike. This one is from the bike shop, not from Target, and it's a road/racing bike, not a mountain bike. Also it's not a girls' bike and it's not pink. It's got those handlebars like the horns of a sheep, which took some getting used to, but it is much more energy-efficient on the roads and has a faster top gear. Outrunning the bus is now much easier!
The person at the bike shop was really helpful and let me test-ride four different models around the block, answered questions, tuned and adjusted the bike and added extras to it, etc. Great customer service! The weird part was that I talked to this person for about an hour and I still wasn't sure if it was a man or a woman. Maybe a transsexual? Another bike shop employee has these HUGE rings stretching out his earlobes like some amazon tribesman, and the bike shop is decorated with overt leftist propoganda, so I'm gathering that it's kind of a sanctuary for weirdos.
I can also go grocery shopping again, finally! I haven't been to Trader Joes in a couple months because it's too far to walk and it's not on the bus line. Tonight I went there after strapping a milk crate to the rear rack of the new bike, so I can carry groceries in there and not have to cram them into a backpack or loop a bag over the handlebars.
Early tomorrow morning I'm going to ride to Aikido (which just got an hour earlier due to DST, gross!) I'm dependent on my bike to get there, too, which is a big part of why I barely went in the winter. Bad road conditions = no aikido, no groceries, no exercise = unhappy Jono. Next winter I'll have to work out a better plan.
The Fog Over Poughkeepsie
It's pronounced po-KEEP-see
For my third convention weekend in a row (after NonCon and PyCon), I went to this little convention called NonCon
at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Jake
and some of my other Connecticut friends have been going to this for a couple years, Jake has been demoing his game designs there, and it sounded like a good time, so I went. It's a real small, local thing, just a little bigger than our Uchicon, so it was real friendly and intimate-like, and it was a whole weekend of random nerdy wackiness and tabletop gaming goodness
. People there thought I was crazy when I told them I came from Chicago just for NonCon, but who cares? I had a great time.
Well, getting there was kind of a chore. Train down to Midway aiport, flight into Providence arriving at midnight, then an interminable wait for a man named "T-Ray" who I didn't know. My aunt sent out to pick me up at the airport because she couldn't go herself. He turned out to be a pretty cool guy. He plays guitar and sings, he's done a bunch of martial arts, and he used to be in the Army, so we had a bunch to talk about on the ride back. I forgot how deserted New England roads can be: a lot of the highway between Providence and Niantic doesn't even have streetlights.
And then I spent Thursday night at Rachel and Jake's house. It was 3 AM by the time I got there so I just wanted to sleep but they were so excited I was there that they wanted to keep me up showing me things. Look I got a Wii wanna play it? Here try these crab-cakes I made aren't they great? Check out these 60,000 plastic pieces that came in the mail from the piece factory that are going into my board game! I made a MySpace page isn't it cool? Yes that's nice but please let me sleeeeeep!! And yeah, my aunt made a MySpace page, she's just like a teenager. Watch out, if you click on that link it starts playing "American Pie" and showing a slideshow that's timed up to the lyrics (she's very proud of this). Stuff like this is why MySpace makes web designers cry.
Jake kept calling this the "Hitler Building" for some reason.
Friday morning, many of the roads in the area were actually flooded, so we didn't get started until Friday afternoon when they had mostly drained. Some random guy named Dave who Jake knows from the internet (specifically, from an online game called RetroMud
) was nice enough to drive miles out of his way to pick us up and bring us to Poughkeepsie. Dave was only able to stay at NonCon for a few hours himself before he had to drive back that same night to go to his job at Stop&Shop in the morning.
By the time we got to the tiny town of Poughkeepsie, after about a four-hour drive, a thick fog had settled in, reducing visibility to about three feet in front of the car. We knew the college had to be close by, but we drove up and down, up and down the same stretch of road again and again, looking for the turn-off to the campus, which would have been painfully obvious if not for the fog.
It struck us that Poughkeepsie at night in the fog would make an excellent setting for an H.P.Lovecraft pastiche kind of story, and "The Fog over Poughkeepsie" would be the perfect title.
Prepare to meet your maker in the stygian haunts of hell, barbarian!
Welcome to NonCon!
A hilight of Friday night was a group read-aloud session of "The Eye of Argon". This is a yearly tradition at NonCon and many other sci-fi/fantasy type conventions. "The Eye of Argon" is an unbelievably, hilariously, stupefyingly bad short story about a barbarian named Grignr the Ecordion, published in 1970 in some forgotten fanzine. The fun of a group reading is that each person tries to read as much of the story out loud as he can before he can't read anymore because he's laughing too hard. Then he passes the printout to the next person in the circle, and so on until the whole thing is finished. It's kind of an MST3K kind of activity except that everyone's trying (and failing) to keep a straight face.
No description could do justice to the very special quality of the writing in this very special story, so here are a couple of choice excerpts:
Consciousness returned to Grignr in stygmatic pools as his mind gradually cleared of the cobwebs cluttering its inner recesses, yet the stygian cloud of charcoal ebony remained.
"Aye! The ways of our civilization are in many ways warped and distorted, but what is your calling," she queried, bustily?
Here is a link to the full text of "The Eye of Argon"
. Start at the beginning and try to read it out loud, if you dare. How far can you get before cracking up?
Gamers are cool people
Not so creepy in the daylight.
Vassar used to be an all-girls' school (much like Connecticut College). It's not anymore, but there's still a female majority (I think?) and therefore women are well-represented in the NSO ("No Such Organization", formerly "Non-Human Students' Organization"), the club for general nerdliness on campus and the organization that runs NonCon. So there were plenty of gamer nerds of the female persuasion. That makes me happy.
Erica plays songs from Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger
One of them was a Vassar alumn named Erica. She was one of the NonCon organizing staff. She beat everybody in the anime trivia contest, played scores from old video games on the piano, and dressed up in this crazy costume with eye makeup "inspired by Kefka from FF6". And agreed with me about how much Asha Greyjoy kicks ass. So yeah, I was a little bit in love.
This is actually making me think it may be time to thaw out my moratorium on dating (it's been a year now). There have to be a couple single female gamer geeks in Chicago, right? I think I can pass a very strict rule that for me to go out with a woman she has to consider playing board games and role playing games to be spending quality time together. Otherwise, we just ain't gonna get along. I think I will write up a Requirements Document.
Playin' PR in the dealer's room
I hung out in the dealer's room a bunch playing Puerto Rico and Citadels with this middle-aged couple who are in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). The husband runs a game store, the wife plays the Irish harp and 12-string guitar and practices Viking longsword dances. (In my experience, the backwoods of New England and upstate New York is full of cool weirdo hippies like these two.) They said I'd be a natural for the SCA (I was wearing one of my homemade kimonos most of the day) and you know, it is tempting (there was another SCA guy there who showed off a chainmail bracelet he made) but dude, I have way too many hobbies already. Let's see...
- Drawing comics
- Board games
- Role playing games
- Warhammer 40k
- Writin' stuff for this web page
- Readin' books and manga and stuff
- Taiko drumming I hope?
- Electronic tinkering (not for a while though)
- Open source software development (if I had a little more time)
And probably more I'm forgetting about. Yeah. In my copious free time. That list doesn't count work or household chores or anything.
The "vicious cycle of unemployment".
A guy named Oliver who was playing Puerto Rico with us made a paper circle to hold the role tiles and rotate them easily towards the active player. He labeled the circle "vicious cyle of unemployment".
When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die!
Aftermath of the Wildling invasion
The best way to play Game of Thrones
is with five players who have all read the books, because then you can communicate your moves entirely in quotes from the book and everybody can talk in character. We didn't quite achieve that, since there were two non-Game-of-Thrones-reading newbs in this game, but it was still hella lotta fun. I randomly picked Lannister. In a five-player game, Lannister starts with Greyjoy breathing down their neck, in a position where they really need to make alliances to survive. But if everybody is playing in character, Greyjoy isn't likely to ally with anybody, and everybody else has a perception of Lannister warped by, shall we say, "emotional baggage" related to certain things that the Lannister family did in the books, and may not want to ally with them because of that. Anyway, it's cool, I'm happy to play Lannister, they've got Tyrion
and he's the man. Or rather, he's the HALFMAN!
Chant it with me now! HALF-MAN! HALF-MAN! HALF-MAN!
So anyway, I was dealing with an agressive Greyjoy player right off the bat. "The Kingslayer" held off their first attack, but they kept pushing me back, and then "The Hound" lost to Asha Greyjoy a decisive battle that I could have won because I forgot to call in my support. D'oh! Meanwhile, I've got a tentative alliance going with Tyrell, and at some point I throw away Joffrey as a chump-blocker ("Hey Joffrey! Here's a crossbow that shoots three arrows at once! Go kill rabbits!").
Theon Turncloak, I name you!
It got really bad in the first wildling invasion. I had used up all my power tokens bidding in the Clash of Kings. Stark had one left, Tyrell had two, and nobody else had any. We needed all three to be bid to stop the wildlings. (I think it would be cool for everyone to recite the oath of the Night's Watch during this bidding -- I am the horn that wakes the sleepers! I am the shield that guards the realms of men! etc.) Everybody's hands opened and Tyrell had only bid one
. They let the wildlings south of the Wall on purpose! So everybody's getting ransacked, Tyrell is laughing because he's got so many troops down in the fertile southlands that he doesn't really care, and then it comes time for Baratheon to pick a scapegoat. (Whoever bids least gets hit hardest by the wildlings; there was a three-way tie; holder of the Iron Throne breaks ties). He picked me
, who had the least
troops before the invasion. After being chosen as the scapegoat I had one pawn
left. I think I was a pretty good sport about it; I was laughing because it was so ridiculous.
DO NOT WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNNNNNNNT !!!!
I got the pawn back inside Lannisport in a hurry, and used a one-time order to muster up some more troops for my one territory. Then I saw Riverrun was only defended by one Greyjoy pawn, so I planned an attack using Tyrion's special power to block any troops from supporting. Would have gone great except that Theon Greyjoy has some silly bonus when holding a city (perhaps he threatens to hang hostages?) and between him and the Valyrian Steel Blade, that one pawn got up to freakin' 8 strength
. My army broke and fled back to Lannisport, and then the Greyjoys came in from the other side and slaughtered my exhausted defenders, wiping me entirely off the map. It was turn four. OH MAN do I love Game of Thrones. Even losing horribly is fun!
On the plus side, this meant that I was out of the game in time to join in a new game -- a one-shot role playing session of a game called Unknown Armies that was just getting started.
Caylus features tiny pink cubes of ham as a resource.
I'd never played Unknown Armies but I'd heard vaguely good things about it. As an "urban fantasy" type of game, it's got a lot of similarities to "World of Darkness" but doesn't come with quite so much baggage attatched. Maybe "Call of Ctulhu" is a good comparison too because there are mechanisms for flipping out and going crazy after too much exposure to weird scary stuff. Anyway, we were playing in mixed-up New York City where all kinds of weird magical stuff was going on under the radar. The leader of our party was the True King of Central Park. Within his domain, he could command the elements and sense anything going wrong and stuff. He was on a quest to defeat the other pretenders to the throne and become True King of Manhattan. The rest of us were his entourage -- an nerdy occult expert kind of like Egon from Ghostbusters, a "plutomancer" who could do magical things with money, an "urbanomancer" who could command the city itself to attack people (and make it look like an accident), and then me, playing Reggie Wilson, a regular NYC beat cop with no special powers.
Normally, if I was designing a game, I would have avoided the possibility of a dramatic imbalance of power within the party -- one guy is the True King and can bend reality to his will, another guy is a regular muggle-type human? Doesn't sound fun, right? -- but I gave it a try and it worked out fine, actually. I think the real issue is not power balance per se, but rather making sure that everyone in the party has something to do at all times, which is easier if each player has a defined niche (this is the real reason for the D&D class system, I am now convinced). And so the King had one role, which was making the big decisions about what to do next and interpreting mythological challenges, and I had another role, which was watching out for everyone's safety, shooting things, and interacting with normal humans. I think there's a lesson here for RPG design.
It's one of those games where you can invent your own skills just by naming them and putting points in them, rather than choosing from a fixed list. This can be a surprisingly good tool for defining your character concept. I wrote down "forensics: 25" on my sheet, then thought about it for a second, erased "forensics", and wrote in "That CSI Shit: 25". And sudenly I knew exactly who my character was. He was the kind of guy who would refer to forensics as "that CSI shit".
Heroscape: cool minis AND hexagons? I am tempted.
Another thing I liked about this game was that you must pick an Obsession for your character, as well as something that inspires you to be heroic, something that makes you furious, and something you're scared of. When any of these things comes up in play you get bonus dice to do an action that's appropriate to your character and the situation. It's a nice simple mechanism that helps tie characterization to game mechanics, so I liked it.
I won't go into detail about what happened in the scenario (I didn't understand half of it myself -- the other players had some previous experience with this setting and some of the NPCs, but I didn't have a clue, so I was a very good match for the "muggle" character I was playing!) but we got stuck in a subway car full of zombies, fought a graffiti elemental, followed a trail of clues that lead to an enchanted artifact in the form of an "I(heart)NY" pin, watched a homeless man disintegrate into a windblown pile of trash before our eyes, and eventually used a suitcase nuclear weapon to disrupt a cultish ceremony that was opening a portal to some kind of nether realm of chaos. Also a demon posessed me after we drove him out of the body of the lead cultist.
The adventure was kind of a railroad (I'm talking RPG theory now, not subway system) but I didn't mind too much, as the party was pretty much in agreement about what to do most of the time anyway, and there was lots of cool scenery and chance for role-playing along the way. (Reggie Wilson upon seeing the suitcase nuclear device: "I told the sarge those Homeland Security boys are useless! Look at the kind of shit they're lettin in to the country!")
A creepy guy named CJ Henderson wouldn't let me leave until I bought his book and took a free "Ctulhu Sex" magazine along with it. The scariest thing about this is that it seems to be issue 24, meaning somebody came up with enough material for at least 24 issues. Ummm... I don't want to read this even a little bit.
Why doesn't WoTC publish cool settings like this anymore?
I scored a copy of the vintage 2nd edition AD&D "Dark Sun" campaign setting for just $18. It's been used but it's in good shape and nothing is missing. 2nd edition AD&D had the absolute worst ruleset of any RPG I've ever attempted to play, but it had some really cool setting material. I've had a lot of fun the last couple of years playing in the "Planescape" setting with a more modern set of rules, so maybe some day I'll get a chance to do the same with this.
Stupid WoTC discontinuing everything except stupid Forgotten Realms and stupid Eberron. Instead of cool new setting material or adventure ideas, all they publish for 3rd edition is "Yet Even More Feats/Spells/Prestige Classes/Monsters Volume 17" for $40. Blahh.
This room could be a setting from Berubara!
Let's see, what else... I helped Jake playtest and show off two new games he invented: "Collision" which is like a turn-based "Lightcycles-from-Tron" using Robo-Rally-esque preplanned movement; I never got to try this out, but I did
spend several hours Friday morning cutting out hundreds of tiny colored line segments to be used for it. And then "Red Shirt" which is a kind of Star Trek parody card game where you assemble a crew by using prestige points to bid on face-down crew members, then go on missions with them. As long as a crew member is face-down, he's a "red shirt": unknown, unloved, easily sent to his death in order to get past the perils of the mission. You can flip him or her up, revealing a name and rank and skills; the skills will help you solve missions without anybody dying, but now that people care about the character he or she can no longer be sacrificed as a red shirt. The game needs some more development work but the basic idea is very strong, I think.
I also sang, briefly, in a Karaoke Revolution tournament. This is like any other rythm game except you play it by singing instead of hitting things or dancing. I found this somewhat unsatisfying, since all the game cares about is that you put the right frequency into the microphone at the right time for the right duration. So it will give full points to a precise but lackluster performance (it doesn't care if you mumble the words, or even if you get the words right) but punish you for adding your own style. Screw you, Karaoke Revolution! A mere machine cannot judge Jono's karaoke skills! Jono's karaoke is about guts and passion and funk and things that cannot be analyzed with a fast Fourier transform! (If you can't tell, I lost pretty bad.)
I left the con about 1:30 pm on Sunday. There was much left undone-- I wanted to spend more time just chatting with interesting people, and I regretted not being able to get in on Paranoia or Toon or Diplomacy. But I had to try to make it to a 6:30 flight out from La Guardia.
I failed. It took me an hour to walk to the train station (Poughkeepsie is bigger than I thought -- should have asked somebody for a ride). Then the next train to New York City was at 3:30, arriving at 5, and by the time the bus had gotten me from the train station to the airport it was 6. And when I looked for my Southwest flight to Midway, I noticed two things:
- There were no flights to Midway on the "departing" screens.
- There is no Southwest counter at La Guardia
Turns out that my flight was "operated by" another airline "on behalf of" Southwest. They gave me a ticket for the next flight, which was at 6 am next morning. So I slept for a few hours in a sleazy motel near the airport, got a 4:15 wakeup call, went back to the airport again in the predawn chill... and got chosen for the full baggage search. Curse you airport security! After my flight back to Midway, an hour and a half on the El got me to work right on time. Yay sleep deprivation!
Touched by his noodly appendage -- Ramen.
Yuki is back! First new comic in three weeks! Huzzah!
Stephen went crazy and made fan art. Don't believe what he says, I never asked him for anything, but I'm flattered all the same. As Isaac says, "this is both nice and weird/horrible".
Apple, you know I love you, but sometimes you do things that make no sense.
I am aware that the start and end dates of my hated nemesis, Daylight Savings Time, are changing this year. I appreciate the fact that you're sending out an update to all our copies of Mac OS X to make them reckon the time correctly. But...
Why is this update 4.7 Megabytes? I know hard drive space is cheap these days, but 4.7 megabytes is a quarter the size of my first Mac's entire hard drive. As far as I can tell, the point of this update is to change two date numbers in the code of the date/time control panel. There's no reason it should even be as much as 10k. So unless that 4.7 meg download contains, like, MP3 files of songs about daylight savings time, pictures of daylight savings time being "celebrated" around the world, and a cheesy 2-d side-scrolling edu-tainment game to teach kids about time zones, I'm completely baffled. And now I have reason to question the size of all these other system updates as well. What's really in that iTunes update, for instance?
I've been going to Aikido in the mornings pretty consistently. I've adjusted my schedule so I go to sleep at 9:45 on weeknights and wake up at 5:45 am. The morning class is mostly the basics, or maybe that's because there are a couple of newbies (including Andrew, who complains of soreness in "muscles [he] didn't know [he] had" but is giving it the ol' college try) in the class. I never really understood Kevin Choate-sensei's teaching method before. But after being in his classes regularly for a while, now that he's giving me personal attention (i.e. well-deserved ridicule for not being as good as I know I should be), I appreciate his style a lot more.
I've realized that when he corrects people, he's not just correcting our technique, he's looking right into our souls and correcting what's wrong with our whole attitude towards training. One time he came over, watched what I was doing, and said to me, "Aikido is not an abstract activity". And walked away. And I was like "Whooooooaaaaa duuuuuude, he's right" and then I suddenly got a little bit better. He's been picking a lot on the way I take uke*. I've never paid all that much attention before to the way I take uke, but there's a lot of emphasis on it at this dojo, and I think that's a very good thing. I always knew that uke was important, but most of my teachers have focused on correcting my technique, and so I wrongly assumed that I was doing uke correctly.
*("Uke" means "receiving"; in Aikido practice it's the role where you attack somebody, and they do the aikido technique to defend themselves, and the uke ends up getting thrown or pinned. The tricky part is that uke is not supposed to give up and lose too easily, nor is he supposed to fight so much that the other guy can't do anything. The uke is supposed to adjust his attack to his partner's level of ability. You learn as much about the technique from doing uke as from actually doing the technique.)
So here's a puzzle: If I'm doing uke, and the guy doing the technique screws it up, what should I do? Should I stop and correct him? Should I just pretend to fall over anyway? Should I hit him? Should I stop right there until he figures out how to do it right? Choate-sensei has been giving me excellent reasons why all of these are wrong. When I can deal with surprises like these and absorb them fluidly into my uke style, then my Aikido will improve.
Exciting stuff: I got into the summer Aikido camp in Boulder, Colorado. It's a full week in July where hundreds of Aikido students train all day long and sleep in the dojo and it's basically a full-immersion thing like some crazy martial arts movie. I've been wanting for several years to do this, but I never got my application in in time: the thing fills up really, really fast. This time I applied in February (for an event in July!) and finally got in.
The Taiko lesson was pretty awesome! Me and Aza were the only two there, and the teacher was this very nice young woman, and we shocked her by both speaking Japanese. The stuff she told us to do included kneeling in seiza and meditating before the class started; standing in a stance with back straight and knees bent; and holding the sticks tightly with our last two fingers and loosely with the rest. Hmmm, why does this sound so familiar? So yeah, Taiko is exactly like any of the Japanese martial arts I've tried. By the end of the night I had peeled the skin off my right middle finger from fervent drumming. I love the sound and the rythms of taiko and I decided I want to keep this up and get good at it. But unfortunately, the lessons are on hiatus until summer. Curses! How will I practice now? I found instructions online for building my own taiko drum out of a wine barrel and cowhides, so I'm gonna do that (using Al's basement workshop) and then teach myself on my own homemade instrument. How cool is that?
I'm blogging this from Google's Chicago branch office. It's the monthly meeting of ChiPy, the Chicago area Python user's group. Google was kind enough to host tonight and get pizza and drinks for everybody.
Speaking of Google, we Googled ourselves today and discovered that we are now the number 1 result for Humanized (Take that, monoclonal antibodies!) and we are locked in a vicious battle against El Nino Southern Oscillation as the number one result for Enso (Curse you, "El Nino Southern Oscillation"!)
I am lame because I haven't posted a comic for 2 weeks. I blame the conventions. I went to conventions three weekends in a row: UchiCon, then PyCon (Texas) , then NonCon (New York). And all the traveling didn't leave me any time for drawing. This weekend I'm staying home (gonna play Advanced Civilization with some Hyde Park friends on Saturday) but Sunday should give me some drawing time to finish a comic. When I started posting them online I had six weeks of buffer zone saved up, but the Enso launch followed by three weekends of conventions meant Iran my buffer zone down to nothing.
On the plus side, all this stuff happening in real life has given me lots and lots of ideas for comics.
Here's a couple of random links which have nothing to do with anything.
Kirby + Snoop Dogg, see how well they match up.
An excellent essay about Why the game publishing industry must be destroyed.