Tagged with " characters"
Aug 12, 2013 - Game Theory, Psychology    2 Comments

Gamerography, Vol. 3: Wired to Play Differently

There’s finally a decent volume of literature out there about how women experience games–especially RPGs and video games–different than men. It helps all of us who’ve struggled to put words to the perspectives that we bring to the gaming table, many of which result in very different interactions with the rules, the stories, and the other gamers. And it provides writers and designers with insights that have changed the way games are written, so they allow more kinds of gamers to contribute to the collective interaction.

So I’d like to attempt to do something similar with another piece of myself that I bring to the gaming table. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a difference in brain-wiring that places me on the autism spectrum. This part of myself is a relatively new discovery, but it’s undeniable and incredibly enlightening about things I could never otherwise explain. Many of these features affect how I experience creativity, social interaction, and collaborative work, three central pieces of the act of tabletop gaming.

The most important factor for me is my visual memory. I’ve written about my odd filing system before, but until the HBO movie about the life of Temple Grandin, I’d never seen my memory process outside my head. Because I have that visual catalog in my mind, I get incredibly vivid pictures from a multiplicity of contexts whenever someone invokes a place, a person, a costume, and a piece of equipment.

Practically speaking, this manifests for me in gaming in a number of ways. I have virtual battlemats in my head, and I can examine them from any vantage point, without needing minis or land/cityscapes (though I do enjoy the physical objects very much, too, for different reasons). I have pictures of characters and settings in my head that I literally inhabit. I know the size of my character’s bodies, how various features affect the way they move and sound. I assign them sensory features as well as hair and eye color, so I know how they smell and the close-up feel of their skin and clothing. They’re live, vivid people in real, textured places.

Another factor is my tendency to seek out patterns. It’s not compulsive, like someone with OCD might be; it is, though, automatic. For many autistic gamers, this allows them to understand RPG systems and make them do fantastic tricks, like a lion tamer making a beast jump through hoops. They see game systems as just another coding language that can be manipulated to perform the desired action.

Sadly, this is not me. I cannot grok systems unless the rules are so basically logical and self-evident, with a minimum of math, that they’re labeled “Ages 7 and up.” (No, I can’t explain this at all. I can at least read 10 different languages, so systems aren’t the problem, but math and I have a beef going back to 7th Grade.) As a consequence, character generation is agony unless it’s basically a single-step process, and I almost never play magic users. I vastly prefer cinematic, story-driven systems in which dice are only employed to give an edge of chance to the action I propose.

My pattern recognition talent gives me a different edge. First, I’m hell on carefully planned mysteries and adventures. One friend calls me the “storybreaker”–you can practically see the tire tracks where I went offroad, revealing options that never occurred to the author, in the ones that were eventually published. I don’t mean to circumvent plot devices; it’s a function of my autistic tendency to rapidly play through consequences to the Nth degree, thus eliminating options which I know will end in failure and generating other possibilities from that birds-eye view.

Second, I love pregens, even in systems that are entirely new to me. The words and numbers assemble themselves into 3D constructions in my mind. The closest I can come to a visual representation of this experience comes with the virtual reality models Tony Stark uses in the Iron Man movies to analyze maps, machinery plans, and crime scenes. (Here’s an example.)  The alchemical process of “blowing up” a character sheet combines with my sensory memory to conceive a fully formed person almost instantaneously. I really wish you could see what this looks like–it’s pretty amazing from the inside.

The final factor I’ll mention in this post is my relationship with words. I’m hyperlexic (in short, far too many words for any and all things that pass through my head or mouth) and I’m a terrible show-off. Just as words form lifelike people and places in my mind, I love to craft my own contributions to the game with descriptions and dialogue, as vividly rendered as I can manage. Back in my days of MUSHing, the whole game was nothing but words on a screen, but I have scenes lodged in my memory that are so thoroughly illustrated and acted that I have difficulty remembering whether I saw them in a movie. And when I’m at the table, I can use the additional tools of vocal inflection, accents, gestures, and expressions, so my love of acting, connected to that vivid character in my head, can lead me to overplay my parts to a degree that might make other players uncomfortable. At least I don’t insist on staying in character while we take pizza breaks.

Un-fair-y Tales

 

FTF 2013 button text popThis post is part of the Fairytale Fortnight, organized by fellow blogger The Book Rat and A Backwards Story. It’s a super cool idea, and there’ll be posts all over the web for two whole weeks, so I hope you come back for more here, and search out other interesting observations and book reviews as a part of the event!

*****

When I asked my sons about fairytales, they didn’t have much to say beyond, “We love them.” I wasn’t surprised–I’ve raised them on mythology and folklore of every kind since they were born. Fairy tales are an essential part of the narrative fabric we’ve woven around them for their whole lives.

I wasn’t surprised either that it’s the twisted modern retellings that particularly tickle their fancy. The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, The Frog Prince Continued…, and The Stinky Cheese Man are popular because of their humor as well as the subversive, topsy-turvy act of inverting classic story structures. Our boys are raised on satire like mother’s milk, so it’s natural that they’d prefer twisted tales to the straightforward ones.

When I asked if there were any lessons the fairytales taught them, though, both boys were at a bit of a loss. I mentioned how many parents of daughters worried that fairytales taught girls to wait for a man to solve their problems for them, and asked if that seemed right. (They’re quite the little feminists; of course they said it wasn’t right.)

But when I thought of the male characters in the revised fairytales of recent years that are designed to address that lack of feminine agency, I came up embarrassingly short of good lessons for boys. Current fairytale telling seems to operate on the idea that there’s a finite amount of power and smarts in the story, and if the women get more of it now, it has to happen at the expense of the men.

This certainly isn’t the only place in society that smart women are rising and smart men are falling in the media. My friend Amanda Valentine wrote a scathing post recently about how gendered entertainment and advertising–especially as it’s targeted at parents–does men an incredible disservice by portraying them all as bumbling idiots who shouldn’t be trusted with home or offspring.

Princess Fiona, Merida, and Rapunzel are smart, feisty, and entirely capable of their own liberation and defense in times of peril. Heroes, on the other hand, like Shrek, Merida’s father Fergus, and Flynn, the hero-rogue in Tangled, are to varying degrees incompetent, gullible, morally weak, and easily distracted from their goals, dependent on the women in their lives to keep them in line and out of trouble. The only male characters that go through real, multi-layered, character evolution in recent years are Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon. Jack in the recent Jack the Giant-Killer is a fairly humble live-action hero whose love for the princess, at the very least, does not make him stupid. Shrek does go through some evolution, but seems to stumble his way from lesson to lesson, and seems weakened and henpecked by the end of the series.

My boys love that these stories are full of adventure and derring-do, and they honestly don’t care too much who’s doing the swashing and the buckling. They’re just as in love with Merida as they were with Shrek. I’m proud of the fact that they don’t see much difference among heroes of different genders. They buck the convention that “you can get a girl to see a boys’ movie, but you can never, not ever, get a boy to watch a girls’ movie.”

But I wish there were room between the domineering, Johnny-Come-Latelys of Charles Perrault and classic Disney, and the updated, apologist buffoons that Hollywood is serving up to boys like mine. They don’t want their fairytales to undergo a gory reversal toward the truly grim versions of Grimm’s. My ten-year-old understood that once parents felt the need to educate their kids that the outside world was a scary, unpredictable place, but when asked if boys still need brutal fairytales to teach that lesson, he replied with a snort, “Are you kidding? All you have to do to learn that is watch the news, for gods’ sakes.”

That’s how I feel too as his mother–no kid growing up today needs fantasy violence to learn that the world is dangerous. Fantasy can be safer and more meaningfully inclusive of rich, complex, powerful characters of both genders (or *gasp* fluid genders!) doing fun, adventurous things in challenging situations. Maybe then, we’d both be satisfied at last with a Happily Ever After.

A Government of the People

I think we can all agree on the winner of last night’s first presidential debate:

Big Bird.

Seriously, more than the President’s apparent NyQuil mishap, or the former governor’s faulty truth software, or the tragic demise of both Jim Lehrer’s moderator cred and the formal debate format, it’s Romney’s comment about getting rid of Big Bird when he would defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that’s blown up my social media feeds today. If Joe Biden doesn’t say “Bin Laden is dead and Big Bird is alive!” at next Thursday’s veep debate, he’s missing a great opportunity.

But that got me thinking. We’re big PBS and NPR fans in the Banks household, and the way I see it, the takeover of the federal government by the combined talents of those two organizations could only improve life for us all.

So here’s my plan for the new, improved CPB American government: Calm, Patient, Brilliant.

THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH

I think a Garrison Keillor/Carl Kasell ticket is just the thing to bring dignity, truth, and mildly humorous storytelling to the White House. Martha the Talking Dog could bring a new articulateness to the role of First Dog, and fill in as White House Press Secretary whenever Peter Sagal needed a break.

The Cabinet is where my plan truly shines. The Dowager Countess is an obvious pick for Secretary of State, as is Wordgirl for Education. Bob Vila‘s got Housing and Urban Development covered, and Bill Moyers would make a strong, moral, incorruptible Attorney General. Clifford the Big Red Dog will advance a “speak softly and carry a big stick” policy in his Department of Defense. Ken Burns gets the Department of the Interior, with its oversight of national parks, monuments, and natural resources. Helen Mirren/Jane Tennyson would be a ferocious head of Homeland Security. Click and Clack should do nicely for Transportation, as would the Antiques Roadshow folks for Commerce and the Victory Garden people for Agriculture. Marketplace could manage both Treasury and Labor, and the Frontline reporters have been with the soldiers all the way through the last 10+ years of warfare, so they’d a natural pick for Veterans Affairs. Martin Clunes/Doc Martin is good for Health and Human Services, especially coming from National Health Service as he does. And let’s give the NOVA guys the Department of Energy–at least they don’t think the cast of Dinosaur Train are the only source out there.

THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH

My plan is beautiful in its simplicity for Congress. Over the years, I’d wager Masterpiece Mystery has killed off at least 541 people. If we include the perpetrators, that’s enough to field candidates for actual contested races in all those states and districts. For that matter, probably enough to completely staff the home and Washington offices.

Between the corpses and the criminals, we’ll achieve roughly the same levels of trust and productivity as the 112th Congress. And probably a better gender and minority balance.

THE JUDICIAL BRANCH

Sesame Workshop’s got this covered.

 

And, obviously, Nina Tottenberg continues to provide dramatic readings from the transcripts from this esteemed body.

 

A FEW LOOSE ENDS

The Yip-Yip Aliens can only improve the FCC. Sid the Science Kid might be a bit young for the CDC, but at least he won’t treat it like a faith-based department. Bob Ross, bless his soul, would’ve ruled as director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Cyberchase kids should be outstanding at all the electronic surveillance over in the CIA. Terry Gross is a relentless interrogator who could whip the FBI into shape in a heartbeat. And Congressional Budget Office’s reports might take a little longer with Count von Count at the helm, but the constant thunder will comfort everyone that he’s always hard at work. Neil deGrasse Tyson already should be the head of NASA, so that’s a no-brainer.

And Curious George would definitely be a pro-legalization Drug Czar.

The CPB government will eliminate all personal income taxes, but you’ll have to deal with Fall and Spring pledge drives. The guilt trips will be epic, but between Austin City Lights, The Mark Twain Prize, and This American Life, there’ll be some outstanding programming twice a year to get citizens to chip in their fair share.

I’m sure there are many positions I’ve forgotten, or other excellent candidate for the posts I’ve named, so feel free to suggest your own in comments.

Wouldn’t it be nice to finally have a government for 100 percent of America? And commercial-free, too.

 

Jun 3, 2012 - Literature    3 Comments

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That: Reverb Broads Summer #1

I took part in an offshoot of the Reverb blogging projects, called Reverb Broads, last December. I really enjoyed the almost-spiritual discipline of writing something every day, and the community of other women I hooked into has lead to some incredibly fulfilling new friendships and a whole bunch of excellent reading. So I’m doing the summer iteration throughout June. If you’re enjoying the prompts and the posts they inspire, consider joining in the fun! 

Summer Broads 2012, Prompt 1: With what fictional character (book, movie, TV, etc.) do you most identify? Why? (by Kristen of Kristendom)

This one has two parts, and neither of them include Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) like everyone else’s responses apparently do. :)

First, there are the characters I’d like to be like. They tend to be wildly intelligent, super useful, ultra competent women who stay calm in the most unimaginable situations. There’s Claire Fraser from Diana Gabaldon‘s Outlander novels. She starts out as a war nurse in World War II, then goes back in time to 1848 Scottish Rebellion (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that). Once they think she’s not a whore who went out into the woods in her slip, she quickly ingratiates herself to the rebels with her useful medical skills. She picks up a hot redhead for her troubles (that much, at least I can live out), and generally rolls through major events of history with grace and aplomb.

Then there’s Mary Russell from Laurie R. King‘s series of the same name. Mary’s a precocious, bookish teenager when she meets Sherlock Holmes, and first becomes his apprentice in the art of detecting, and later, his wife. She’s easily as intelligent as he is, and though their life is anything but restful, their relationship could be described that way. She’s brilliant, a fast learner, and wicked cool in a crisis.

And, while I do have some reputation for functioning well in the face of disaster (hence the nickname Emergency Lass), I don’t have any illusions that I’m as cool as they are. Nor am I as consistently one personality as most characters. That’s not surprisingly–characters need to conform to predictable archetypes, and only evolve a modicum of complexity after a series is well under way. So, while this question left me at a sincere loss for days, the closest formula I can come up with is what follows.

A big part of me is Hermione Granger. I’m a bossy know-it-all witch, always eager to share what I’ve learned with other people. That’s why I’m happiest when I’m teaching–all that reading and study is zero fun if I’m not sharing it with someone else. I’d rather spend my vacation in the restricted section of the library, and I’m a bit befuddled by how little attention most people seem to be paying to, well, everything. I’m pretty sure there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved with more reading. I’m also fiercely loyal to those I love, and willing to go to the mat (or the troll, or the Shrieking Shack, or the Ministry of Magic) for them.

But Hermione doesn’t cover my weird, unpredictable, impulsive side. For that, I turn to Delirium. She’s one of the Endless, a group of mythic archetypes that function as quasi-divinities/forces of nature in the classic graphic novel series The Sandman. Delirium hasn’t been quite right in the head since her brother Destruction, the big bluff protector of the bunch, split town. She wanders between her own reality and everyone else’s, and is fond of bizarre pronouncements and non sequiturs. At heart, though, she’s a little confused, a lot optimistic, and genuinely loves her family, imperfect though they are.

And her hair changes color with her moods, a power I sincerely covet. If only so I don’t have to touch up my roots.

Apr 13, 2012 - AV Club    1 Comment

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Part III

So, Friday Night Lists is a good intention, and even after this last installment of my Dinner Guests series, I’ll be keeping it up (so suggest topics for lists you’d like to see!), but here’s the thing about Friday night: If I’ve been singlemomming since oh-dark-early Thursday morning, my Friday night “WOO HOO” excitement is sneaking an ice cream bar over the kitchen sink before crashing into bed at 8.30. (More on this subject in another post.)

This list was perhaps the hardest of all three to write, because some of my favorite characters from film or fiction just wouldn’t make good dinner guests or conversationalists. I mean, need I cite passages of Katniss’ table conversation, or post the video of Denethor eating? (Not that I like Denethor, just to be clear.) But that’s why you won’t find Gamera on my list, much as I love him. Other favorite characters are not included because I would prefer to host them in more intimate settings (I’m looking at you, Frank N. Furter).

I’ve included pictures of those characters for which there are photos/clips or official pictures from things like dust jackets. In a couple of cases, though, with book characters, I’ve chosen not to post a picture. I’m a really visual reader, and I prefer to keep my pictures in my head uncontaminated by other people’s faces as long as possible.

As always with my Friday Night Lists, please add your own in comments!

MY FICTIONAL GUESTS

  • Barbara Gordon: daughter of Police Commissioner James Gordon; Batgirl; Oracle. Her evolution just takes her from one powerful female rolemodel to another. (Batman)
  • Death: one of The Endless. Her gentle manner is an aspect of the most inescapable of all fates that both frightens and comforts. (The Sandman)
  • Dr. Sheldon Cooper: theoretical physicist; super-genius. Some may find him abrasive, insulting, and annoying. I just find him familiar. Plus, I want to see my next guest make his eye twitch. (The Big Bang Theory
  • Harry Dresden: wizard-for-hire. One of my best friends, Jim Butcher, invented this wry, embattled, deeply human character, and plopped him in a high-wire act of a life. I just want to feed the man one good, homecooked meal without someone shooting at him. (The Dresden Files)
  • Iorek Byrnison: king of the Panserbjorne. I’m sure he’s a lovely conversationalist, especially with the voice of Sir Ian McKellan, but I mostly just want to cuddle with him. (His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman)
  • Jamie & Claire Fraser: Scottish rebel, American colonist; WWII nurse, time-traveller, healer, surgeon. One of my two favorite couples in all literature. It’s hard to explain, but I hunger for news of them like they’re family. (Outlander by Diana Gabaldon)
  • Jed Bartlet: president of the United States. He’s the president every liberal dreams of; it helps that he gets his lines from Aaron Sorkin and his gravitas from Martin Sheen. (The West Wing)
  • Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes: detectives. My other favorite couple in literature. A man of boggling intellect, the more recent incarnation with a strong, smart wife and partner only makes him more interesting. While my first Holmesian love will always be Doyle’s erratic, exuberant, brilliant misanthrope, I I think I may like Laurie King’s older, steadier, but just as adventurous and insightful version. (Mary Russell novels by Laurie R. King)
  • Phineas & Ferb: brilliant inventor kids. Just because I want to see what they’d come up with for dessert, and how it would disappear before their mom arrived. (Phineas & Ferb)
  • Diana Bishop: historian; witch. She embodies the dichotomy of science and magic, power and restraint, reason and passion. I want to read manuscripts and cast spells with her. (A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness)
  • The 10th Doctor: Time Lord; explorer. My favorite Doctor for so many reasons. I’d have him to dinner just to give the man a rest from all the running. (Doctor Who)
Mar 14, 2012 - Literature, World Religions    2 Comments

Some Facts About Fantasy

Connor, Cam, and I snuck off to see John Carter this weekend. Griffin, refusing to fall in with the family-wide cinephilia, couldn’t care less about the whole theater experience; he downright hates 3D movies–they give him horrible headaches. So we unceremoniously dumped him at a friend’s house, and the three of us reveled in two hours of pulpy fantasy goodness.

Reviewers have widely panned the movie as a “big-budget fiasco” and “the year’s first mega-disaster.” A few, like RopeOfSilicon.com’s Brad Brevet, not only took the movie at its popcorny fun face value, but also put the movie’s influences in the correct order–when the Guardian claimed that director Andrew Stanton must have pitched Disney with “Star Wars meets Avatar,” that reviewer made the same error as someone claiming that The Beatles were just rip-offs of Oasis. Brevet explains, “Throughout the history of cinema several sci-fi films have been inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs created the character of John Carter in 1912 and his stories have influenced a generation of filmmakers including George Lucas, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. So if you see bits of Star WarsAvatar and Indiana Jones inside John Carter don’t be surprised.” And, as a parent, this film adaptation passes the most important test–it had Connor scouring the shelves of our local Half Price Books so he could read the Barsoom series for himself.

This certainly isn’t the first time in recent years that a book or movie seems to have gotten the short end of the critical stick, just for being science fiction or fantasy. When George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire was adapted as an HBO miniseries last year, NYT critic Ginia Bellafante turned her nose up at “the universe of dwarfs, armor, wenches, braids, loincloth,” and suggested that “normal” women would never choose to read or watch such a series, thus triggering righteous floods of nerdrage.

Bellafante (mostly) got away with these statements because fantasy has been increasingly marginalized in Western culture since the Enlightenment, relegated primarily to juvenile literature. No, obviously I’m not saying that only children read fantasy–duh, I read fantasy, folks. But part of why adults who read fantasy find themselves as the butt of abuse or jokes is because fantasy is something society expects us to outgrow. Think about one of the most common insulting stereotypes levied at sci-fi/fantasy fans: that they never leave home, never grow up, never get out of their parents’ basement.

[WARNING: I'm about to go all pedagogical on you here. I'll provide links where I can, but it's not meant to be a research paper.]

The secret about fantasy that most folks don’t know is that it was the most popular form of literature for centuries before the Enlightenment. “How could that be?” you may ask. “Wasn’t the pre-modern period dominated by the Catholic Church?” Yes, but here’s the twist–the Church was the primary purveyor of fantasy literature throughout the Middle Ages. They delivered it in the form of hagiography, or the genre of writing known as Saints’ Lives. Sure, these stories of good and righteous models of Christian values were important teaching tools for Church history and theological principals to a largely illiterate population, but if it had been all morals and no miracles, medieval listeners would’ve zoned out like the rest of us do during lectures.

This mosaic depicts the martyrdom of St Edmund: (top L) surviving total perforation; (top R) Danes searching for the missing head; (bottom L) wolf guarding Ed's head; (bottom R) followers discover a restored and uncorrupted body upon translation of relics

Instead, Church writers folded in fantasy elements that modern readers would easily recognize: superhuman strength and endurance, monstrous beasts, mysterious lands, cosmic convergences, even the walking dead. For instance, Saints Anthony of Padua and Francis Xavier, among many others, were said to have bilocated, or appeared in two places at the same time, and Saint Collette foretold the future. When Saint Edmund was beheaded by the Danes, some versions of his Saint’s Life say that the head rolled away into the underbrush of a nearby forest, and was only found when his devoted subjects followed the howls of a wolf and found the animal calmly guarding the head from other predators. In other versions, it’s Edmund’s own decapitated body that plucks the missing head from its hiding place.

Even in this Christian icon, notice that the bowl of fire is the most prominent of Saint Brigid's symbols.

Woodcut depicting St Brendan and his companions celebrating Easter Mass on the whale's back. Yes, we now know that whales don't look like that.

Irish monks in particular, with their country’s millenia-old tradition of fantastical tales of heroes and holy men, had a knack for writing the most wildly imaginative and popular Saints’ Lives. Saint Brigit’s Life carries over many elements from the stories of the pre-Christian fire goddess of the same name, such as an unextinguishable flame at her abbey in Kildare. In tales of her auspicious youth, it’s said that Brigit’s mother had left her in a cradle at home, while she went out to gather sheep. From a distance, she saw a pillar of fire pluming through the roof of the house; panicked, she ran back, only to find the column of flame originating in baby Brigit’s crib, where the child lay happy and unharmed. Saint Brendan’s Voyages (Navigatio Sancti Brendani) included aspects of all great classical voyage literature, such as the Odyssey and the Aenaid. On his way, he encounters a sea monster, various devils, and magical animals. At one point, far out at sea, he wishes aloud that he and his companions could celebrate Easter Mass on solid land. A whale surfaced near their boat, and allowed Brendan and company to hold their services on its back.

Don’t fall for the old trope about the “Dark Ages” and how ignorant and gullible medieval people were, to believe stories like these. There were active debates about the nature of the allegory playing out in these stories, even as they were recopied and retold all across Europe. Medieval listeners could read the subtext in Saints’ Lives as easily as modern fantasy reader can pick up the underlying references and messages in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Hagiographers (writers of Saints’ Lives) included fantastic miracles, not just for entertainment value, but also to demonstrate an important Christian belief–that, through God, anything is possible.

As science developed and evidence-based explanations replaced the old myths and stories by which we interpreted how the world around us worked, miracles and magic gradually retreated from the realm of plausibility (though, to be completely fair, for the vast majority of the population, science was just as impenetrable a mystery as magic). Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic is a detailed, dense, and deeply researched guide to that transition; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Those who accepted tales of the unnatural in defiance of apparent laws of the universe were thought of as gullible, and it was assumed that only people who had no experience of the world–the uneducated lower classes and children–could appreciate or believe fantasy stories.

The need for escapism, though, never went away, and many of the greatest works of modern fantasy were written in (or in response to) periods of social tension, war, and economic hardship. We don’t believe in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom any more than Tolkien believed in orcs, or medieval readers believed in Brendan’s sea monster. But a good story can make a bad situation better, even if only for the hours you spend in a darkened theater or sunk in a book. It’s no surprise that, following 9/11 and the economic crash, we’re suddenly awash in brilliant, compelling fantasy that both pays homage to and breaks down motifs that spring directly from pre-Christian mythology and medieval hagiography. And if it’s good for nothing more than a popcorn-munching, visually appealing (helloooo, Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins) brain break…well, we’re just following in our ancestors’ fantastic footsteps.

 

Jan 15, 2012 - Game Theory, Literature    1 Comment

Straight Into Hell: Reverb Gamers #9 & 10

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #9: Have you ever played a character of the opposite sex? Why or why not? If yes, how did the other players react? (Courtesy of Atlas Games.)

I can only think of two male characters that I created and played–I’m sure I’ve played male pregens at cons over the years, but they don’t stick in my memory so much. The first was the aforementioned Wasabi Delmonico, the San Francisco Kid. He was for a pulp one-shot, a Chinese-American teenager who raced soapbox derby carts down the Bay Area hills and did other sorts of wacky stunts. I think we fought flying gorilla men. His name is clearly the most memorable thing about him; his gender wasn’t really a factor in the game.

Scottish pirates, burying William Kidd's treasure.The second male character I played was in a con game, but he’s lodged in my memory (and possibly those of other players) as firmly as any character in an extended campaign. My friends Lydia and Rob had raved about the fantastic sessions of Run Out the Guns! they’d played at Gen Con the year before, run by the game’s creator and historical-replica sailor Jason Hawkins. There’s a big focus on historicity and realism, for all that it’s a swashbuckling adventure game, so I didn’t want to introduce the anachronism of a female sailor, or deal with all the actual prejudice and liabilities that would come with portraying a woman accurately in the setting.

So I made a bosun’s mate named Hamish Macbeth, a brawny ginger Scot. I was thoroughly immersed in the BBC series based on the M.C. Beaton books at the time, so sue me for unoriginality if you must. I’m a pretty fine vocal mimic, so that same immersion meant that I could affect a mighty strong (and fairly accurate, if I do say so myself) Highland accent. Jason was an amazing GM–his extensive work on the Rolemaster system meant he could handle the technical aspects with a facility not associated with Rolemaster, and his deep knowledge of the setting and ships meant he made very complex things run with a wild, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, theatrical ease. The ship battles were epic, and it’s a bosun’s mate’s job to relay orders from the captain to the crew. I did this in a salty, broguey bellow that was, upon reflection, completely inconsiderate to every other game going on in the labyrinthine basement of Milwaukee’s Mecca Center. But, great good gods, did we have fun.

When the game was over, Jason shook my hand heartily and said, “Hamish, man, I’d follow you straight into hell with that voice!” I’ve shared that compliment often over the years, as one of the highlights of my game convention experience, but only upon thinking of my answer to this prompt did it occur to me that Jason and my fellow players referred to me and called for my attention all that night with male pronouns and epithets. I was so deeply into Hamish’s head that I honestly didn’t notice.

I’m not usually so thoroughly sunk in a character that I forget I’m not him/her, and the dissonance between my feminine self and a masculine character when I’m not completely in either world is the reason I don’t play male characters more often. I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be inside a man’s head, and I wouldn’t dare to suggest that I do, so I don’t trust myself to accurately portray a man’s motivations as I make decisions for that character. I think most game settings and GMs go out of their way to allow for greater gender balance than strictly historical mores would accommodate, so I haven’t felt restricted in my character choices by sticking with the gender I know.

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #10: Have you ever played a character originally from a book/TV/movie? How did the character change from the original as you played? If not, who would you most like to play? (Courtesy of Atlas Games.)

I’ve played a lot of great characters from book, TV, and movie settings I love, but for this prompt, all I can think about are the ones I despise. I’m going to bring some flak from earnest fans, but here’s the honest truth:

I HATE Sand from The Chronicles of Amber and Goldmoon from Dragonlance.

For those not familiar with these characters, here’s a bit of background. The Wikipedia entry for Sand and her brother Delwin, introduced in Blood of Amber, says this: “Delwin (brown & black) and Sand (pale tan & dark brown), twin brother and sister. They only lived a short time in Amber, preferring to live in the Shadow worlds and keep themselves removed from the affairs of their siblings.” I think it was the Diceless RPG by Erick Wujcik that introduced the idea that Sand has power over the dreams of others, but I’m not entirely certain of this. In any case, she’s a minor character, and she’s as flat and colorless as the substance for which she’s named.

And I’ve never played Goldmoon in a run-through of the Dragonlance adventures that didn’t make me wonder why Goldmoon and Riverwind didn’t take their toy and go home. In one particularly memorable campaign, Goldmoon met the rest of the companions as they punched Flint repeatedly, in an effort to render him senseless so they could cross the river. I’ve got lots of problems with the character, but frankly, I’ve never been able to get past that first, most essential obstacle.

The cruelest thing my Darling Husband has ever done to me was to make me play Goldmoon in a Dragonlance one-shot while we were hanging out with friends in New Zealand. Halfway through the game, all the characters “woke up” to discover that they were actually Amberites, being manipulated through their dreams. And Goldmoon was actually Sand.

At which point, the words “divorce” and “green card” and “one-way ticket home” were casually thrown into the conversation.

Ironically, though Cam writes RPGs for licensed properties, I’ve only played Smallville once; I’ve never had the chance to play Serenity, Supernatural, Demon Hunters, Leverage, or Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. This isn’t because I wouldn’t love to. Rather, it’s a function of not being able to afford babysitters for game nights, and game conventions being work rather than play for us, on the rare occasions in the last decade when we can arrange someone to stay with the boys so I can attend. Hopefully, that’ll change, and I can finally find out what all the buzz is about.

Jan 10, 2012 - Game Theory    4 Comments

Now With Extra Pulp: Reverb Gamers #6

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #6: Describe your all-time favorite character to play. What was it about him/her/it that you enjoyed so much? (Courtesy of Atlas Games)

I am terrible at picking favorites. That may make me a better mom, but it makes me a terrible blogger, and at the moment, it makes me an especially behind-in-posts blogger. I’ve been positively paralyzed with indecision for days now over this question, and there’s no way I’m ever going to be able to settle on a single favorite, so I’ll just write about two characters I enjoyed immensely.

The USO dance from "Memphis Belle."

Little known fact about me: if I could go back in time for one night to any period of history, I would go back to 1942 for a USO dance. (No, not the Middle Ages; I know so much about them that I’m quite sure I would be miserable back then.) I love the ’30s and ’40s–the fashion, the movies, the music, the architecture, and the general sensibility. Sure, I’d ditch the sexism and racism, and I know from direct testimony that the Great Depression sucked immeasurable ass; I’m not wishing things could be exactly like that again now, like some weirdly myopic nostalgic folks do. But I’d give a lot to check my hairpins and Max Factor red lipstick, straighten my stocking seams, and go swing dancing in an airplane hangar for one night (preferably with Capt. Jack Harkness, but I’m not picky).

As I’ve mentioned before, I also really love theatrical, over-the-top, seat-of-the-pants adventure roleplaying, and when pulp action games are at their best, that’s exactly what you get. So when the Darling Husband announced his plans to run some pulpy goodness using his own house system, I was all in.

My character was mild-mannered housewife Rosemary Rogers. But at night (you knew it was coming), she became a masked vigilante, determined to rid the streets of crime. She was…

The Cleaner!

No, this isn't The Cleaner, but it's in the ballpark.

Yes, with her matched shotguns Spic & Span, she patrolled the streets on her trusty Rinse Cycle, red raincoat snapping smartly behind her as she scoured New York City!

And she did kick unholy amounts of ass.

I don’t remember a lot of specific events, to be perfectly honest. She did fly a plane (or was it a pterodactyl?) through the window of a museum to escape some thugs, long before Ben Stiller did. And we had many fine confrontations with Mexican badguy El Suerte (later revealed to be criminal mastermind El Muerte) and his stubbly henchmen, led by the mountainous luchador El Toro.

If this all sounds terribly cheesy, you’re absolutely correct. That was the point. The puns, the one-liners, the ridiculous stunts–the only thing we didn’t have were giant primary-color speech balloons reading “POW!” and “BAM!” There was no deep angst, there were no wrenching decisions, there wasn’t even any meaningful character development. I’m not saying that those things don’t happen in good pulp/noir fiction or games; I’m just saying that we weren’t in the game for that. Personally, I was in it for the moments when I described the most outrageous, over-the-top stunt I could think of, earning a squint from Cam and, in a highly dubious tone of voice, these words: “Roll it.”

And somehow, far more often than probability math supports, I did.

I played in other fantastically fun pulp games over the years, most notably a one-shot of Silver Age Sentinels on one of our trips to California, in which I played a Judy Holliday-style ditzy blonde bombshell, exposed to an atomic test while visiting the troops in the Pacific, leaving her with flight and light powers. I called her The Hollywood Starlet, and I chewed gum and talked like Marisa Tomei does in “My Cousin Vinny.” While I did a number of heroic things in the game, I best remember tormenting Fred Hicks’ inscrutable Atlantean character Deep Blue by asking repeatedly, in that squeaky Brooklyn accent, “Deep blue what?!”

None of these characters are worth more than a few panels in a yellowed comic book, but for sheer untroubled fun, it doesn’t get much better.

Game On: Reverb Gamers 2012 #3, 4, & 5

Ironically, catching up with work at Atlas Games has put me behind on Atlas Games’ blog project, Reverb Gamers. But it’s a quiet afternoon at work, with no big restocking orders today and my bosses home with sick twins, I’m taking a moment to get up to date.

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #3: What kind of gamer are you? Rules Lawyer, Munchkin/Power Gamer, Lurker, Storyteller/Method Actor, or something else? (Search “types of gamer” for more ideas!) How does this affect the kinds of games you play? For example, maybe you prefer crunchy rules-heavy systems to more theatrical rules-light ones.

This question refers to basic archetypes offered by game designer extraordinaire Robin Laws. If you’re not familiar these terms, he says most players fall into one of five categories, as summarized in an excellent blog post:

  • The Power Gamer: Get more powers and use them often and efficiently.
  • The Butt-Kicker: Enjoys combat and pwning NPCs!
  • The Tactician: Like to beat complex situations through thought and planning.
  • The Specialist: The one who plays a <insert character type here>. Ninjas and Drizzt clones are popular.
  • The Method Actor: Likes total immersion in a character’s assumed persona, whatever the costs!
  • The Storyteller: Enjoys exploring a story unfold around a character’s actions and choices.
  • The Casual Gamer: Shows up to be with friends and share the social energies of the group.

(These are also the character types in the fantastically entertaining movie The Gamers: Dorkness Rising.)  Of those, I’m clearly The Storyteller: I love telling stories with my friends around characters. I explained this more fully a little earlier.

But I’m quite taken at the moment with a different set of classifications, offered by my dear friend Rob Donoghue:

  • The Connector: Plays for story; rules are of negligible importance.
  • The Evil Muppet: Creative, whimsical, engaged, and in it for a specific kind of interaction: he wants the GM to bring the pain.
  • The Swooshy Giant Brain: Super-smart, but mostly just wants to stab things for fun.
  • The Rookie: Enthusiastic, rules savvy, in it for fun, but with not as much experience to draw on.
  • The Wildcard: Somehow both the most inspiring and most maddening player at the table, with a creative, twisted mind and enough rules know-how to take the whole game offroad.

These categories don’t make some of the assumptions that Robin’s do, the most problematic of which being the incompatibility of technical and creative emphases. Rob’s archetypes are patterned after mutual friends, which makes it personally fun, but they’re also more easily combined to reach a personal description.

In this system, I’m about 70% Connector, but at least 30% Wildcard; these proportions vary depending on my mood. It’s still all about the story for me, but some of my choices have been known to derail entire chunks of planned adventure. What can I say? It’s a gift.

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #4: Are you a “closet gamer?” Have you ever hidden the fact that you’re a gamer from your co-workers, friends, family, or significant other? Why or why not? How did they react if they found out?

I was surprised at how negatively some respondents took this question, so let me clarify. It’s pointing to the fact that some people feel that they have to hide their gaming, not suggesting that anyone should feel that they have to. And sure, if you’re writing a public response to this prompt, you’re probably not closeted anymore, but many kids had to dissemble with parents and teachers about what, precisely, they were doing with friends, so it’s not as alien a notion as it seems.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in a number of ways that have prevented it from ever being necessary to hide my love of gaming. While very devout Christians, my family is the liberal, Methodist, God-is-love kind of Christian, not the kind that’s threatened by imagining worlds where other powers are possible. To their minds, we were kids who were reading, doing math, telling stories, and not committing crimes–what’s not to love? My work never made an issue of it, either. College is all about exploration, and I was only a lowly TA or adjunct, so nobody cared enough to be upset about my hobbies. And now my hobby is my work, at least for the time being.

All this being said, I know at least two good friends who do not want a word of their participation in gaming breathed outside the confines of the houses where the games take place. Both of them feel strongly that being “outed” as a gamer would be a liability to their careers, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Yes, it’s unfair, yes it’s silly, and yes, attitudes are changing. But they haven’t changed all the way, and some fields are more conservative in their expectations and acceptances.

So it’s still very possible to know these people. You may even game with them. Just something to be aware of when you go naming names in the posts about your weekly game. They’re not just being silly, and it’s nobody’s decision but theirs to let those around them know what they do for fun.

Me playing Gloom with some kids at the Student Council Game Day last May

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #5: Have you ever introduced a child to gaming, or played a game with a young person? How is gaming with kids different than gaming with adults?

The short answer is yes. I used to pack my copy of Kill Doctor Lucky when I went to substitute teaching assignments, and at some schools, kids would come up to me in the hall and ask whether they could sign into my study halls to play whatever I’d brought that day (yes, they asked a sub. Take a moment to absorb that.)

Now I have my own kids, and they’re finally at the ages (9.5 and 5.75, as of this moment) where I can enjoy playing organized games with them. I’ve also been doing this more for other people’s kids over the last year: I helped the Student Council at my boys’ school organize a Game Day, and I taught games at last fall’s Youth Pride Festival in Anoka, MN.

I’m not a particularly patient teacher of game rules, though, and I’m married to Cam Banks, a vastly more experienced GM with the skills and creativity to roll with whatever wacky plans the kids come up with, so I’m usually only in charge of teaching board and card games. That being said, it’s been unexpectedly fun, just over the last few months, to try out new finds and old favorites on my sons. They’ve really arrived at what I consider the earliest optimal age for games. Yes, I know they can play at much earlier ages; you don’t need to convince me. I just have this aversion to one particular feature of gaming with kids (or anyone): the complete devolution into silliness.

I love joking and kidding and having fun at the game table as much as the next person, but both the mom and the Aspergian in me absolutely lose it when kids start making the pawn figures knock each other around the table, and going up chutes and down ladders, and stealing money from the bank, and drawing cards until you get the one you want. Yes, I need to relax, and yes, more play teaches them play etiquette faster. I’ll be the first to say that my reaction is more a matter of me being annoyed than them being annoying. But it’s a barrier to enjoying games, and it leads to the urge to knee-jerk refuse requests to play something.

These things aren’t as much of a problem with RPGs, but sitting down to roleplay with kids requires a level of attention,energy, and uninterrupted time that isn’t always available in the day-to-day chaos. I really enjoy roleplaying with kids sometimes; we had friends’ pre-teen son at our games for several years, and it was just fine.

Gaming with my own pre-teen son is an astonishing experience. He thinks in storyboards, and he’s had an amazing grasp of narrative since he was two (no lie), so his capacity for character-driven drama and decisionmaking is far beyond his years. He’s also got that kid-gift for lateral thinking, which makes him a real Wildcard (see earlier) sometimes.

His Asperger’s brings its own blessings and challenges to the gaming table. His volume control goes away when he’s excited, which is most of the time when he’s having fun. He’s happiest when he’s the center of attention, so he’s not good with extended cut-away scenes that don’t involve his character (Cam does an awesome job of managing game flow to minimize this). And he gets really frustrated when the rules or chance won’t let him do what he’s picturing in his head; he takes it very personally when he can’t bring those visions to fruition. But his attention to detail, steel-trap memory, and typical Aspie fixations mean that, once he’s decided to master a system or if we’re playing in a world he knows and loves, he brings a level of sophistication that is frankly astonishing.

There’s nothing like gaming with kids to blast apart all the stodgy, preconceived notions experienced gamers bring to the table. As with everything else, they’re seeing it for the first time, and their perspective shatters the jaded accretions we’ve picked up over time. It’s good to be reminded of the wonderment we all experienced the first time we discovered the power to build worlds.