Books: I Can’t Believe I Did This

So I decided in June that rather than re-read the entire Harry Potter series in preparation for the new book that I would just read the sixth book and be done with it. So I did. I re-read “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” in June.

It is now July and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” will come out this Saturday. Abandoning my sensible policy of last month, I decided I would re-read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Not stopping there, I continued through almost all of them and am now re-reading the fifth book (“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”). If I am wise, I won’t re-read the sixth book a second time in two months.

On the other hand, why should I start being wise now?

Comics: Your Webcomic is Bad and You Should Feel Bad

Critics can be valuable. When you’re talking about something that you might pay for (like a book, movie, or CD), critics can warn you away from something that looks great in the advertisements, but pretty much sucks in reality.

They can also be valuable to the artist if the critic points out real flaws in the work.

On the other hand there are also critics whose stuff I read and think, “This is criticism for the sake of criticism.” I’m talking here about criticism that is over the top negative and (for example) calls the author a pedophile and suggests that he “die in a fire.” To me, it feels like the critic is going nasty because people find nasty reviews entertaining–not because the object of criticism is as bad as they say.

That’s not to say that that sort of thing can’t be funny. It can even still be valuable stuff despite the tone.

Bearing that in mind, I’d just like to point out that people doing exactly those sort of reviews have come to web comics. I give you:
Your Webcomic is Bad and You Should Feel Bad

So far as I can tell, it gives no good reviews and specializes in demolishing comics. I find it amusing that someone would bother to review web comics in this way in that
1) The critic is not saving anyone any money since most web comics are free.
2) Despite the fact that most web comic authors will actually read a review, the critic is giving up any chance of influencing them by writing as if they were the source of unrelenting evil instead of writing a lousy comic.

I agree with the author’s criticisms about some comics, but I’ve got to admit that he goes considerably farther than I would. Am I planning on reading it further? No. Not when stuff like Websnark exists.

There’s no denying that bad web comics are out there, but I don’t feel compelled to wallow in them.

Harry Potter Predictions

As the next Harry Potter book comes out relatively soon (about a month from now), I thought I would get my predictions of what will happen out in public.

The ones I’m fairly confident of:
1. Dumbledore really is dead. Admittedly this isn’t a prediction, but since some people argue that he’s secretly alive, I thought it worth mentioning.
2. Harry (or more precisely his scar) is a horcrux. For more on this, read my original post on the subject.
3. Harry will ultimately survive the seventh book. I’ve no reason to believe this, but it seems more probable to me at the moment. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if his death seems like an inevitability through a large chunk of the novel.
4. Ron and Hermione will also survive, but, this doesn’t mean that they can’t be seriously hurt.
5. The fact that Voldemort used some of Harry’s blood to embody himself will somehow help Harry.
6. Peter Pettigrew will ultimately somehow help Harry against Voldemort whether deliberately or no.

Predictions I’m not at all confident of:
1. That RAB stands for Regulus Black, Sirius’ younger brother. I’ve no clue whether he’s alive or dead though.
2. That Percy will ultimately be restored to the Weasley family–but I wouldn’t be surprised if he dies in the process.
3. That at least a couple Weasleys will die in the book as well as other Order of the Phoenix members (I don’t dare even guess how many) .
4. Arthur Weasley becomes Minister of Magic by the end.
5. Dumbledore was right about Snape and Snape will ultimately be fighting on Harry’s side. Why? Well, here’s a total guess… Remember the bit at the end of the sixth book where they mention that Snape told Dumbledore that the Potters’ deaths caused him to stop serving Voldemort? I’m going to guess that while Snape hated James Potter, he loved Lily. Thus he would have motivation to change sides after her death. Of course this is largely conjecture on my part…

Anyone else have predictions?

Actual Play: Psi

I actually played a game of what I call “Psi.” I’ve written about it before, but basically it’s a game of diplomacy and espionage set against a background of a massive, sprawling, psionic culture.

The players staff Earth’s embassy, playing soldiers, diplomats, and support staff. The story was pretty simple by my standards. While occupying the embassy, the players discovered that the building contained an organic, artificial intelligence. The climax came when they convinced it that they were not allied with the past owners (which it feared). The players also stopped an attempt at spying on the embassy (this will be more important later).

There were many things that were cool about the game that I’m just glossing over in that account of play, but I’ll just leave them for now. The most important thing for me at present is that I got a chance to try out the rules I put together for it.

It’s not a brilliant or new collection of ideas. Mostly I grabbed Dogs in the Vineyard and modified it to fit what I’m doing. Still, this did allow me to test whether the ideas I did add worked or not. What elements did I add?

1. Fate: Basically a player describes one of his character’s most significant future events as a “personal fate” and chooses a universal fate that his character’s actions unintentionally help bring into being. Players choose between Earth’s destruction, the Clades’ destruction (the civilization they are ambassadors to), the destruction of both civilizations, and the survival of both.

In Play: Players seemed to grasp the idea and came up with some really interesting fates that do add an interesting dimension to the characters. In some cases, they did a very cool thing and chose fates that acted in counterpoint to their character’s goals. For example, one character that is mostly interested in peaceful coexistence between Earth and the Clades will ironically be unintentionally working toward the destruction of both civilizations.

2. The Use of Fate in Conflict Resolution: Each character has fate dice that they can swap in for an attribute if they don’t like their roll. To this, they can add other dice. The number of other dice is determined by whether the universe is currently heading in the direction of their universal fate. The bad/good point of using fate is that each use makes the universe marginally more likely to be leaning that direction in the future. Also, any experience points gained through the use of Fate can only be used for improving the fate attribute itself. That being said, using Fate greatly improves your chance of winning so in some cases it’s a good deal.

In Play: Only one character used Fate in an effort to win a conflict, but it’s worth mentioning that it worked. He succeeded. I couldn’t help but notice that another player commented that he would never use Fate. I think that that’s a reasonable response on some level, but I hope that’s not true. If it is I’ll have to rethink things a little. Having characters constantly move the future unintentionally is big part of the game.

3. Escalation: Escalation is one of those things that I’ve been flip-flopping on. It was essential in Dogs in the Vineyard in that that game was very much about the question of how far you were willing to go to solve the problem you’re facing. In a conflict, you could move from talking to fistfighting to weapons (clubs, knives) to gunfights. Attached to each different level of lethality was a level of damage.

This game is less about how far people are willing to go for their beliefs than it is about individual and societal fates. What are you willing to do to avoid or achieve yours? Will you just let it happen? If you do, who does that hurt?

As a result, one might argue that escalation isn’t really needed in the game. Fate takes care of pretty much all of that. Trouble is, if I completely dump escalation, there’s only one level of fallout (damage) to all types of conflict ranging from verbal arguments to automatic weapons fire. And that’s obviously pretty crazy.

What I’ll probably end up doing is some form of escalation that’s a purely mechanical as opposed to thematic construct. I’m not sure of the details yet.

In Play: Honestly, it just didn’t come up. We never got to a point in a conflict where escalating made sense. For that matter, people in a conflict could mostly see the writing on the wall pretty quickly and generally gave rather than take fallout.

So anyway, it’s worth mentioning that playing the actual game was a great deal more fun than you’ll likely experience while reading this post. We didn’t think too much about the rules. We spent a lot more time with the characters and the situation. Better yet, the players added some very cool stuff to my ideas. I look forward to the next time.

Novel: The “Bad Guy”

So I’m working on my novel and it’s been going more slowly than I’d like. Part of the reason for this is that I’ve been deliberately planning more than I generally do. Thus, when I don’t have the slightest idea what should be happening in the next scene I stop and think about it rather than write. Sometimes I even outline the next bit.

I’m not sure if this is better than just writing until you have an idea, but I know that the last draft of my novel included a lot of pointless digressions and scenes that started several paragraphs after the scene supposedly began. Hopefully the current draft avoids this problem.

The scene I’ve been working on lately involves the protagonist meeting the antagonist. An “antagonist” is colloquially better known as the “bad guy.”

A couple of drafts ago, a reader (by which I mean my sister, M.A. English, MFA Creative Writing…) complained that the initial scene in which my main character met the villain of the piece made it too obvious that the guy was dangerous.

This was a bad thing in that the main character ends up working for the guy for about two-thirds of the novel. Narbonic aside, you generally don’t take on a job with someone if you suspect he’s got a plan for world domination.

Not that the villain of my story has a plan for something that obvious, but still…

It’s funny that I screwed up in that particular way. My bias in terms of conflict is that you can have a lot more fun with it when the people in conflict have a history. This means that at some point in their lives they were probably friends and may have been relatives or coworkers.

More to the point, it makes it a little harder to write someone who is pure evil. I prefer an antagonist whose ideas have some appeal to the main character and thus to the reader. Basically I like a situation in which the main character has to make a real choice and maybe by the end of the novel still isn’t completely sure it was the right one.

Needless to say, I’m taking a different tack in this draft.

I’m ditching the bit where he explains his philosophy of life and how he’s going to make the world a better place (a typical speech for Someone Who’s Really Evil) and going with a slower process during which the main character comes to like and admire the guy.

Hopefully this will make for a better story. At the very least I think it will make for a richer and more complex story. Ideally, it might even have some sort of emotional punch to it, but that’s hard to guess at present.

Anyway, back to writing the novel.

P.S. This list of the Top 100 Things to Do If You Ever Become an Evil Overlord amuses me. It offers a multitude of stereotypes to avoid–some of which I’ve already had antagonists commit.

Movies: Winnie the Pooh

I’ve watched the classic Disney movie Winnie the Pooh again recently. It’s not by choice.

My mother-in-law has a lot of children’s videos and dvd’s and loans them out to my kids when they come over to her house. While this is very nice of her, there is a downside.

I work at home. The VCR, dvd player and tv are in the same room as all three of the working computers in our home. Though we limit the amount of time that Abby and Rebecca watch tv, kids often watch the same movie over and over again if they like it.

They like Winnie the Pooh.

As a result I’ve heard it many too many times in the 2 weeks that they’ve been borrowing it. I look forward to the next time they visit their grandma. It means that they will return the video and I won’t have to hear any of the songs in the movie again.

Not that that will make a difference. I can sing most of them from memory now. Occasionally they pop into my head and repeat themselves just for no good reason.

With any luck I’ll be able to avoid breaking into song when I’m with a client. I’m thinking that Tigger’s song would be a good one to avoid. An excerpt:

“Flouncy, bouncy
flouncy, bouncy
fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!”

“Another wonderful thing about tiggers is
I’m the only one!
IIIIIIII’m the only one!”

Here’s one thing I’d forgotten about Winnie the Pooh: It breaks the fourth wall. The narrator talks to the characters and actually helps Tigger out of a tree. It’s pretty odd. Also, some of the animations (I’m thinking in particular about the one for “Heffalumps and Woozils”) are psychedelic.

Interestingly, Christopher Robin, the son of the author of the Winnie the Pooh books, had very mixed feelings about being famous. Let me rephrase that for greater accuracy… He hated being famous, something that ultimately strained his relationship with this father.

There’s some sort of lesson there about being careful about what you write about family members. On the other hand, I recall that Kurt Vonnegut’s son ended up having mental heath issues that Vonnegut’s success played some role in–and so far as I know Vonnegut didn’t write about his son at all. So it may be that lessons aren’t especially easy to draw.

It may just be that fame is bad for kids.

Whatever the case, I know that I liked Winnie the Pooh books and movies as a child and I’m sure many other people did as well.

I’m just hoping my enjoyment survives the current bout of overexposure to Pooh.

Books: “Little Men” and Studying Until You Go Insane

I don’t make a habit of reading classics. My tastes run toward science fiction and fantasy. That being said, I do read classics occasionally.

In this particular case it’s because I had a large pile of books sitting in my bedroom. When we finally got around to putting in a book case, my wife chose what books to place in it. Rather than put in the books that I would have preferred (mostly role-playing games), she put in the books that I had gotten out of my parents’ basement when they moved–that is to say the books I was reading around age 10 or so. We’re talking The Hardy Boys, a couple books related to Snoopy, a number of young adult novels (A Wrinkle in Time)and a few classics that I happened to own and like (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Little Men, the sequel–sort of–to Little Women).

As such, I’ve been flipping through them every so often and re-reading bits. Here’s a funny thing I noticed recently though… In one of Mark Twain’s books (I forget which), he mentions a boy who is fantastically gifted, studies incredibly hard and ends up far in advance of his age. Then he has a breakdown and ends up unable to read. Similarly in Little Men, Louisa May Alcott includes a character who was pushed too hard as a child and also breaks down and similarly has trouble even learning the alphabet after that.

In fact there are a number of points in Little Men where there seems to be concern that too much studying can damage a child, specifically a boy. I could imagine that in a society that is slowly moving from being a mostly rural society to one that is mostly urban. Also, the timing is roughly right for the authors of both books to accept some of the ideas associated with muscular Christianity.

It struck me as funny that they seemed to have a similar anxiety about studying too much that some today have toward video games.

It makes me wonder what other anxieties people have today that will seem a little odd to people in the future.

Off the top of my head I can think of:

–weight gain
–excessive internet use
–excessive television use
–video games (I’m looking at you, Jack Thompson…)

I’m sure other people can name more.

That’s not to say that these things can’t be problems. Any one of them can be a problem. I’d argue though, that each of them get more press than heart disease. Heart disease is of course, one of the biggest killers in the US.

I’m not claiming exemption from worrying about any of them. I limit my kids time on the television and with video games. I’m just saying that I’d bet that there are bunch of things that we worry about far out of proportion to the actual risk.

Nine Worlds: Earth

The following is a summary of a role-playing game. People with no interest in them will probably want to move along now. This isn’t the blog entry you’re looking for.

I’d intended to write up my portion of the Nine Worlds game of last week sometime last week, but I didn’t. Prompted by Ed’s write up of his own portion of the game, I’m either inspired or shamed into action…

Too bad I don’t (as per Amber) get points for doing so, eh?

So we left Cyrus in the process of exiting the Jovian atmosphere and traveling to Earth with Milo Icarius. Milo was, as mentioned, a lead weapons designer for Zeus.

The first portion of the game involved the two week trip from Jupiter to Earth. Not willing to risk being contacted by Aegis agents, Cyrus choose to go straight to Earth without stopping anywhere. Thus, he spent most of the journey talking with Milo, learning about what it was like working as a weapons designer for Zeus and talking about his plans.

Cyrus is, as I’ve mentioned previously, a bit of a revolutionary. In a universe where each planet is ruled by a god, he believes that the planets should be democracies. Inconveniently for his hopes, the solar system is in the midst of a cold war between the Titans and the Eternals–two groups of deities. Also inconveniently, the order of the universe requires that each planet be linked to one individual ruler who gains considerable power as a result. Cyrus is trying to work out a way to allow a democracy in this situation, and he’s got some ideas, but it’s not fully worked out.

For the moment, he’s simply attempting to create a society that can pull down the Eternals and simultaneously defend planets against the Titans who will undoubtedly take advantage of the confusion that a revolution will cause.

A more sensible person would probably start by creating or joining a secret society. Cyrus, being an engineer, decided to start by creating a lab. What sort of lab? One focused on the creation of telluric weapons–the Nine Worlds’ equivalent of WMD’s.

Milo listened politely about Cyrus’ plans, but doesn’t really care. He’s more interested in finally being able to create things that he’s interested in rather than having goals dictated by the Jovian bureaucracy.

When they reached Earth, arriving at Europa Major (Earth’s spaceport which appears at random locations on the planet), Cyrus began putting his plans into motion.

Buying a deserted warehouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (his hometown), Cyrus used his contacts to arrange the purchase of Nine Worlds and 21st century Earth style lab equipment. Then he started up his lab.

Though initially more interested in exploring Cyrus’ CAD software, Milo was eventually lured back into creating telluric weapons by the fact that Cyrus started working on one himself (and asked questions about Milo’s designs).

They could only go so far however without obtaining orichaulkum, a metal that is hidden by illusion on Earth, but used commonly in devices among the Nine Worlds. Not being able to import it, they used Cyrus’ spacecraft (the “Ben Franklin”) to fly to Greece and mine orichaulkum there.

Interestingly, they were not the only ones looking orichaulkum. With the metal, they also found one of the hundred handed ones and a cyclops. Milo immediately befriended the cyclops (one of those who created Zeus’ lightening in myth and his telluric weapons in the game), leaving Cyrus to talk to the hecaton.

It turned out that the cyclops was there by force and wanted to escape while the hecaton was his keeper and was there under orders from Hades.

Cyrus is, as I mentioned, something of a revolutionary and isn’t particularly keen on the idea of enforced servitude. On the other hand he’s smart enough to realize that he’s not powerful enough to take on a hecaton.

Thus, rather than attacking the hecaton, he deliberately caused a cave-in, burying the hecaton in tons of rock. In game terms, he started a conflict with the wall rather than a creature that could undoubtedly destroy him.

After that, Cyrus, Milo, and the cyclops raced to his ship with the ore and introduced the cyclops to designing with modern technology at the lab.

So by the end of that game, Cyrus has good reason to fear the attentions of:
1. Zeus: In the form Aegis (his agents) for freeing Milo Icarius and probably for bringing in the cyclops as well.
2. Hades: The cyclops and the hecaton were on a mission for Hades when Cyrus interrupted them.
3. Prometheus: While Prometheus doesn’t rule so much as let things happen as they will, the knowledge that Cyrus is creating the Nine Worlds’ equivalent of nuclear weapons has the potential to move him or the Illuminati (a secret society that acts his agents) to action.

Not to mention
4. Ares: Early in the first game Cyrus smuggled Earth technology to rebels on Mars.

At this rate, he could have reason to fear the primarch (ruler) of each of the Nine Worlds within two or three games.

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