Wednesday, December 25, 2013

To Sleep, Perchance to Write


I have a confession to make:  I've become a Sleepyhead.  For those who haven't yet heard this term, it's the online name for fans of the new Fox Network dark fantasy series, Sleepy Hollow.  For those who haven't heard of or seen Sleepy Hollow, it has taken Washington Irving's two best known fictional characters, Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle, and blended elements of them into an engaging tale in which Crane awakens in 2013 after a 250-year magical sleep and must join forces with a sheriff's lieutenant to battle demonic forces that are attempting to bring about the End of Days.  (Pauses to catch breath.)

There are many reasons I like the program: The engaging actor portraying Ichabod Crane; the chemistry between the two leads; the mythical premise with its references to Biblical prophecy, Freemasonry, witchcraft and other occult and supernatural elements; and the frequent use of historical flashbacks to the Revolutionary War. 

But aside from those reasons, I think the real appeal for me comes from something else.  For the past two years I have been working on a fantasy novel for which the premise bears more than a little resemblance to the plot of this series.  My protagonist is a man who finds himself awakened in a new time, long after his normal lifespan would have ended, where he must pit himself against the forces of evil.  The details of course differ from Sleepy Hollow, but the basic coincidence of concepts remains. 

I'm not the sort of person to think that any idea I have is an original one, so this similarity doesn't trouble me.  Others have written such stories and will again.  But I do find it interesting that this program has inspired me to write more on my novel than I have in quite some time.  It had been languishing untouched in my "story stub" file since last year, as I lost inspiration and my attention turned to writing other things.  Watching Sleepy Hollow has inspired me to return to this story, to add new details to it and fill in blanks. So, in addition to enjoying Sleepy Hollow for its entertainment value (and for the dishy Tom Mison), I can enjoy it because it led me back to writing.  Anything that inspires me to write is a good thing.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Doctor's Gone All Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

Warning:  This blog post will be full of spoilers from the 50th anniversary Doctor Who special 'The Day of the Doctor' and the minisode 'The Night of the Doctor'.  If you haven't seen them yet and don't want to read spoilers, STOP READING NOW.

There, now that's out of the way, I can express all the thoughts that have been percolating in my Whovian fangirl brain since seeing 'The Day of the Doctor' on November 23rd (and again in 3D on November 25th).

The first issue I want to address is the regeneration of the Eighth Doctor in 'The Night of the Doctor'.  It's a pity Paul McGann's first appearance onscreen as the Doctor since 1996 had to be a regeneration story, but at least now we know how the Eighth Doctor regenerated. 

Except, the Eighth Doctor doesn't regenerate into the Christopher Eccleston Ninth Doctor.  Instead, he regenerates into an incarnation of himself better suited to being a warrior, to fight in the increasingly desperate and terrible Time War.  As we learn in 'The Day of the Doctor', this new version doesn't consider himself the Doctor anymore, feeling he isn't worthy of the name.  But that isn't what's most important to my current thoughts.  What's important here is that when Eight regenerates into the "War Doctor" (or the Other Doctor, as he's already being referred to online), the version of actor John Hurt we see replacing Paul McGann's face is much younger than the man who appears in 'The Day of the Doctor'.

During the events that take place in 'The Day of the Doctor', Doctors Ten and Eleven end up spending some time in a cell with their previously unmentioned predecessor - I'm going to call him Other for ease of identification.  Ten at one point proclaims that he's 904 years old.  When asked, Eleven states that he's 1200, but he sometimes gets confused, or maybe he's lying.  This leads me to feel that not only have we been numbering the Doctors wrong ever since the series rebooted in 2005, but that the Doctor is quite a lot older than he tells us he is.  When we first meet the Other Doctor, he looks older than he did in the regeneration scene because he's presumably spent centuries fighting in the Time War.  Admittedly fighting in a war could age a person rapidly, and fighting in a Time War doubly so, but I still feel it's likely that Other was around for a very long time before he met his two successors. How long, we'll probably never know.  Is Eleven's claim of 1200 years incorporating that time?  I think not.  I believe the figure of 1200 indicates that Eleven has spent 300 years in his present form, adding on to the 900 or so years he claims as Ten. So he is lying, because he's leaving out the time he spent as the Other Doctor. So, how old is the Doctor, really?

Back in 'The Deadly Assassin', we were told that a Time Lord could only regenerate twelve times, thus one could have only thirteen different versions of him/her self.  The episode didn't explain whether this limitation was a biological, legal or social limit.  If we renumber the Doctors to accommodate this previously unknown one, that means the upcoming version of the Doctor to be portrayed by Peter Capaldi will actually be number Thirteen.  I'm not too bothered about bending or eliminating the Rule of Thirteen, since we've already seen that this rule could be waived for the Master - which makes it seem likely that it was a self-imposed limit and not one of Time Lord biology.  Since the Doctor undoubtedly doesn't want to stop gallivanting about the Universe having adventures, and there aren't any other Time Lords around to enforce the rules, the Doctor can keep on regenerating as long as someone is willing to keep producing the show.  And since the Time Lords he saved in 'The Day of the Doctor' may remember what he did even if he himself doesn't, they might even reward him by relaxing the regulations for him - assuming they ever manage to get out of the pocket universe he put them in.

I read a blog a few days ago in which the blogger theorized, based on the events that occurred in 'The Name of the Doctor', that Matt Smith's Doctor is actually the last Doctor, and Peter Capaldi's Doctor will precede him rather than follow him in chronology.  (Unfortunately I can't find it now, but if I locate it later I'll add a link.)  That will certainly give a big headache to the people who are worried about accuracy of numbering.  It's an interesting theory, and the author proposed some compelling evidence to support it.  I'm a bit dubious that Stephen Moffatt will go that far in messing with the chronology of Doctor Who, but it would be thought-provoking.  I don't know how the script would handle that we saw David Tennant turn into Matt Smith.

In addition to thinking a lot about what this new Doctor means to the history of the character, I've also naturally been thinking a lot about the forthcoming regeneration when Matt Smith leaves the series with the upcoming Christmas special.  Regeneration is the core of Doctor Who.  The Doctor always changes.  I've come to look forward to it.  I'll miss Matt Smith, and I'd be equally happy if he decided to continue for another year.  But I'm excited to see who the Doctor will be next.  What will his personality be like?  We've had Nine who was melancholy and guilt-ridden, always seeming like a man who was trying to fight off depression; and Ten who had some of that mingled with a more eccentric and playful attitude; and now Eleven who is aptly described as "a madman in a blue box".  Even though we were told he wouldn't remember what happened in 'The Day of the Doctor' (apparently crossing your own time stream does that), I wonder if the next Doctor won't be a bit less eccentric, a bit more "grown-up" in his behavior.  Not too grown-up, I hope.  There's no point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes.

Of course we know what the next Doctor is going to look like, at least what his face will look like, but we don't know yet how he'll get there.  The new version of the series has a pretty consistent regeneration style, with golden energy pouring out of him as his face morphs into its new form.  But his last two regenerations have been under duress.  Nine had to absorb the energy of the TARDIS from Rose Tyler's body.  Ten suffered radiation poisoning to save Wilfred Mott from the same fate.  But the Other Doctor regenerated as he had done the very first time he did so, when the First Doctor regenerated into the Second: his body was simply worn out.  He actually seemed happy to change, in stark contrast to Ten's protest of "I don't want to go".  What will cause Eleven to regenerate?  Will he be happy about it or fight against it?  Will he do it to save someone else, or to save himself?

And once he's in his new form, what will he wear?  Recent iterations of the Doctor have dressed less eccentrically than some of their predecessors.  The costumes worn by Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant could have passed on any present-day street as ordinary attire.  Matt Smith's costume started out to be fairly mundane as well, though his recent switch to a velvet waistcoat and frock coat are bit less "normal".  Will Peter Capaldi's costume follow that trend?  As I was contemplating these questions, it occurred to me that the Doctor has shown a fondness for frock coats or long overcoats throughout his lives.  Only his Third, Seventh and Ninth selves have elected to wear shorter jackets.  Will his newest self follow the long coat trend? (I like the long coats, so I hope he has one.)  What kind of costume-choosing scene will we get?  Those have varied widely over the years.  Several times the Doctor has essentially stolen clothing from someone else when no other option was available to him (Third, Eighth, Eleventh), while his Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh selves took a great deal of time deciding what to wear from the TARDIS wardrobe.  I like a costume-choosing scene, but could do without some of the sillier ones (Fourth, Seventh).  I just want to see him making a choice, and preferably some more TARDIS interiors.

The TARDIS tends to adapt its appearance to the changes in its occupant as well.  Sometimes the Doctor redecorates without regenerating.  Will it take on a new appearance for its new man?  Does the TARDIS remember things the Doctor doesn't?  We saw that the Other Doctor's TARDIS console room had the  white "round things" that hearken back to the pre-reboot TARDIS decor.  I'd be delighted if that design element continued into the new Doctor's  version of the TARDIS.  But even if it doesn't, I know the set designers will come up with something interesting.

That's what's so special about Doctor Who.  There's always something new to look forward to.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Of Elves and Men

I love to play elves when I roleplay.  Yes, I'm one of those people, the ones who think elves are more fun to play than any other playable race.  Whether I'm playing D&D/Pathfinder or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, my first choice is always to play an elf. 

I'm not going to go into a long discussion here about why I like playing elves, though.  Instead I want to talk about the elves as created by JRR Tolkien, which are largely the inspiration for elves in most fantasy roleplaying games, and how they differ from the elves in those RPGs, especially in D&D and its offshoots.

I'm a big fan of Tolkien's elves.  I love the idea of these ethereal, fey people populating a world.  But the elves Tolkien created are not the elves that got into D&D.  The elves of Middle-Earth are for all practical purposes immortal.  Unless they are slain by accident or violence, their lifespans have no limits.  They don't show any external indication of aging and are never subject to death from extreme age.  They are also the firstborn of Middle-Earth, the first sentient creatures made by the god Eru and given free will.  They are halfway between the angelic Valar and Maiar, which could be equated with celestials in D&D terms, and the mortal races: Dwarves, Hobbits and Men. 

If modeled in D&D rules without any change, they'd probably be more like the eladrins, which are a type of celestial elf, though perhaps without some of the magical abilities given to the eladrins.  Elves of Middle-Earth are clearly magical - Galadriel seems capable of telepathy and clairvoyance, Legolas can walk on top of deep powdery snow - but their magic doesn't run to the same variety as what is assigned to the eladrins. 

I understand some of the reasoning behind making D&D elves so much less powerful.  D&D elves are naturally good at using magic, but they aren't innately magical beings.  They aren't celestial, either.  If they were more magical, or celestial, it would create an imbalance in the game.  Much of the rules of D&D and similar games are designed to make sure no one player-character is significantly more powerful or skillful than any other character.  So the designers of roleplaying games have lessened the elves, taken away much of the power and majesty Tolkien gave them. 

Another important feature the elves lost in translation was their immortality.  This one I miss somewhat, just for roleplaying reasons, though I understand how hard it is to model that in a game with rules like those of D&D.  Although D&D and its relatives have rules for aging, they seldom come into effect.  I've never met anyone who played the same D&D character long enough for the character to grow more than a few years older.  In some past editions of D&D there were magical effects that could cause a character to age unnaturally, but those have largely been lost by current versions of the game.  In practical terms age doesn't mean much in the game.  A character is much more likely to die by violence or accident than to die of old age. 

Why, then, can't D&D elves still be ageless?  Because when you're trying to show a character's level of knowledge and experience in a game like D&D, you have to represent those things with concrete numbers.  Every character gets a different set of numbers to work with, but only within a certain range.  Like many console games, characters in D&D have levels to represent increases in their knowledge, experience, skills and special abilities.  It's typical for all characters in a group to start out at the same level.  To represent a character who is a thousand years old, you'd expect that character to have much more knowledge and experience than other characters that have lived far less.  A thousand-year-old elf would be many levels higher than a 20-year-old human.  But a character of higher levels in D&D has more of everything:  more skills, more abilities, more weapons, more magic, more wealth.  One high-level character can do things that would take three or four characters of a lower level to achieve.  It wouldn't be very fun for the players of the lower-level characters if every time they faced a challenge, the higher-level character stepped in and stole all the glory.

I've tangled with this age issue in the past with elf characters I've played.  If my elf is 175 years old at the start of a new campaign, why is she still only a first-level character?  What was she doing with her time?  I have to rationalize that if she's a wizard, for example, she spent most of those years learning magic.  That rationalization still doesn't quite work, because another player could play a human wizard who's only 21 years old and yet be just as good or even better at magic than my elf.  I've never found quite the right way to explain this disparity.  I just have to overlook it. 

I still wish there was a way to make D&D elves a little more like Tolkien's elves. I suppose much of that will have to come from my imagination as roleplaying rather than from the game's rules.  The minor frustration of not being able to realize my dream won't prevent me from enjoying playing elves for a long time to come.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Give Me Some Good Old-Fashioned Superheroics

My husband and I have recently been re-watching episodes of the animated Justice League Unlimited tv series.  Aside from just being fun, it's reminded me how much I like superheroes, comic books, and superhero RPGs, and how I wish I was still involved in a superhero campaign.  Aside from traditional fantasy, superheroes is the only other genre of RPG I really enjoy.

My first experience with a superheroic campaign occurred in about 1996-7.  One of our fantasy campaign GMs also ran a superhero campaign, using the Champions! Hero System RPG.  My husband and I asked if we could sit in after hearing our other friends talk about the game.  The GM agreed, since his Champions! group had recently decreased in size.  But since my husband and I hadn't played much Hero System, the GM had us play characters that had already been created by other players who were no longer participating in the game.  My first Champions! character was an elastic stretching guy similar to Mr. Fantastic or Plastic Man.  His name was Strider.  My husband took on Inertia, a classic flying blaster whose powers were telekinetic.  The rest of the team was composed of Mind Shadow, a telepath; Shockwave, another flying blaster with energy-based abilities; Kien, a martial artist who also had the ability to teleport in short bursts; Yao-shi-fo, a mystical Chinese dragon in human form who was the team's magic-user; and EtherealGirl, the GM's NPC teen sidekick, who could become intangible.

The campaign was set in the city we all live in, which isn't a large city but in the campaign it managed to have plenty of attacks by alien invaders, megalomaniacal supervillains, evil androids, and all the other foes four-color heroes typically face.  It was also kept a bit behind real-world historical continuity.  Time tended to pass very slowly in the game world. Each game session took place in game time that was only a few days after the events that occurred in the previous session, so that by the time an entire year of real world time had passed, only a few weeks of game time had gone by, since we played about twice a month. 

 After my husband and I learned a bit more about the rules by running Strider and Inertia, we created our own characters.  Strider retired to focus on his family and career, and Inertia went off to college.  My husband created Ground Pounder, an ex-supervillain with incredibly elongated arms who could leap great distances and create seismic shocks.  My first hero was Chimera.  She came from another version of reality that was more technologically advanced than the real world or the game setting.  In her reality, superheroes were controlled by the government and organized into a kind of international law enforcement agency.  She had been given nanotechnology that allowed her to manifest body armor, functional wings and projectiles, as well as giving her enhanced strength and speed.  She was transported to the game version of Earth by a transporter malfunction.

I had tried to make Chimera versatile, but unfortunately I ended up making her a jack of all trades and master of none.  She wasn't strong enough to stand up to the big guns in combat, and since most of our sessions were largely combat, I felt ineffectual.  After a while I decided it was time for a change.  Fortunately, in a superhero campaign, it's easy to find an excuse to swap out characters.  Chimera was found by people from her reality and taken back home, and in her place Shocking Pink joined the team. 

I've never liked multisyllabic names for superheroes, but for some reason the name Shocking Pink pleased me.  She was an electrically powered heroine.  When I created her I got help from my friend who ran Kien, who is a master at creating characters with great powers without having to spend an excessive amount of character building points.  Shocking Pink could do almost all of the things I wanted her to be capable of.  She could fire several different types of electrical blasts, transport herself by passing through electrical wiring and other conductive materials, even zap one target and have the blast arc to a second target.  I also gave her a twin, whose powers were identical except that Pink fired pink blasts and her twin's blasts were blue, hence her name: Electric Blue.  In classic comic book style, Electric Blue had chosen the other side of the law.  Sadly my plans for having them be evenly matched didn't come to much; when the GM did bring the evil twin into play ( which was seldom), her powers had changed so that she and Shocking Pink were no longer twins.

I had a lot of fun playing Shocking Pink anyway.  Around the same time, the player running Kien started a Champions! campaign of his own.  His game was set in the fictional city of San Angelo, which was much bigger than the location for the first campaign.  We started with a team of heroes who met for the first time in our first session.  My heroine in that campaign was Xcel.  I chose the name because she excelled at many things.  She could run 60 miles an hour, throw a car, leap to the roof of a five-story building, regenerate from wounds that would be fatal in an ordinary person.  She also had enhanced vision and hearing, and I gave her a couple of levels of density increase to boot.  She was a lot of fun to play, too. 

Our second superteam was composed of Elemento, son of superheroes who commanded the elements of earth, air, fire and water and also had some telepathic powers; Zora, a powerful warrior who had been transported from a medieval fantasy world (she had been the player's character in a prior RuneQuest campaign); and Night Mask, an old-school Batman-style hero who had been retired but had suddenly returned to action (actually it was a new Night Mask, as we eventually discovered, the daughter of the previous one).  We took over protecting San Angelo when the city's existing team retired or otherwise became unavailable.  We eventually acquired an abandoned alien spacecraft as our home base, which was fun because we didn't entirely know how to operate everything in it.  We had a lot of exciting adventures... up to the point that the GM lost his zest for running the game and it came to an end.  I never got to find out what secret organization was menacing Xcel's family.

Several years later another friend decided to run a short-term campaign using the d20 rules superhero setting Mutants & Masterminds.  It was a bit of a challenge creating characters in a new system, even though I was familiar with general d20 rules.  I chose to create Fluxx, a character made of fluid metallic substance who could shapeshift in a limited sense.  As with Chimera, I was never entirely satisfied with her build, but I still had a good time playing with my friends.  This time the rest of the team was made up of speedster Dash, telepath Guardian, crystalline Crystal, and two other characters whose names and powers sadly escape my memory now.  The campaign had a bit of a meltdown after a little while and was discontinued.

Eventually the same GM decided to give us another chance, although this time the group didn't include the two players whose characters I can't remember from the first campaign.  Once again my desires for my character weren't possible to achieve within the limits of the rules.  My fascination with Chinese martial arts movies had inspired me to play a martial artist, Jade Dragon.  Jade was only good for taking out mooks.  She just didn't have the strength or stamina to fight someone with powers.  But the campaign was still a lot of fun because we worked well together and the other characters were well designed.  My husband played Lord Astral, a 19th-century wizard who was revived from magical suspended animation in the 21st century.  Our other friends ran Grunt, a "brick" (tough and strong) who had melded with some alien technology, and Solar Flare, a flying blaster who with solar energy powers who had acquired her abilities from a scientific mishap.  Even though I wasn't happy with how Jade Dragon turned out, I still enjoyed the campaign and was disappointed when it was over. 

As you can see, I've had a fair amount of experience playing superheroes.  None of my characters ever had all the abilities I wanted them to have, but most of the time I didn't mind that too much.  I still think often of superhero games and how much I like them.  I have to say that I prefer Champions! to Mutants & Masterminds.  It's more complicated when it comes to combat - a single combat in Champions! can last for four hours of real time - but it's more versatile than M&M.  If our San Angelo campaign hadn't ended, I could have made Xcel into everything I wanted her to be.  I doubt I would ever have been able to do that with Fluxx or Jade Dragon.

Someday I hope one of my GM friends will again want to run a superhero game.  I hope we'll be able to go bigger than the games I've participated in previously, which tended to focus only on fighting local problems.  Someday I want to be in something like the Justice League or the Avengers, fighting international and interplanetary threats.  I wouldn't mind if our characters were second string heroes, I'd just like to be able to fight off alien invasions or interdimensional threats alongside the big guns.  Let us defend the Earth against Darkseid or Magneto instead of some crime syndicate.  Let me play a character who starts out with most of the powers I want already in place. 

And while I have great nostalgia for my first superhero campaign and will always be grateful to the friend who let me join it, I hope my next superhero campaign lets me grow my character.  Not her powers, but her.  She needs a background that actually has an effect on the campaign, things and people to care about, and a life that involves more than four-hour combat sessions. 

Now I'll return to hoping that someday I get my wish, and planning for the next superhero I'll play.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Growing the Garden of You

Two weeks ago a coworker who was my mentor and to a certain extent my friend was fired.  Yesterday I found out that he had passed away.  I have a lot of thoughts about this running around in my head, but foremost among them is the feeling that my coworker didn't have a good support system.  His family lives across the country.  He didn't seem to have many friends who could help him out when he was in need. 

Having relationships with other people is a bit like growing a garden.  You have to decide what you want to put in it, how big you want it to be, and whether you want plants that are easy to care for, plants that bear fruit or vegetables, or plants that smell nice and are pretty to look at.  Once you determine that, you have to put in some work to keep it up.  If you don't look after your garden, it might be completely overtaken by weeds or die.

Personal relationships are like that garden.  To have friends takes effort.  First, to make friends you have to be a friend.  You have to be generous and supportive and respectful and interested, and sometimes you have to do those things even when you're not getting anything in return from the other person.  You also have to be careful about who you let into your garden.  If your friends don't make you feel good about yourself and proud to count them among your friends, they shouldn't be a part of your life.  It's okay to have some friends who are just casual friends, people you socialize with but don't expect them to help you move.  But they should still be people who make you feel good about you and about spending your time with them.  Don't let your garden fill up with weeds.

Don't let your garden die, either.  Keep in touch with your friends.  Ask them how they are from time to time.  Make time to see them or call them.  Don't keep saying to yourself, "I should really get in touch with X" and never following up on it.  You never know what can happen.  It's true that sometimes friends just grow apart, that whatever it was that made you friends in the first place can fade away, or people change and their personalities and interests no longer mesh with yours.  But when that happens, don't say to yourself, "I can't make friends".  Go out and actively look for new friends.  Go and try new activities, go to new places, don't be afraid to approach people you think might be good candidates and test the waters.  If it doesn't work out, so what?    Try again.  Don't be afraid of failure.

I wish I could have said these things to my coworker, but I don't know if he would have listened.  I just hope that someone else might read this and give some thought to how their garden of friends is growing.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

To Tattoo or Not Tattoo

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when tattoos were something that only sailors, ex-cons and carnies had.  When tattooing started to become more popular in the alternative culture a few years ago, I had my doubts, based on my upbringing.  Tattoos weren't something to be proud of, they weren't something "nice" people had.

But as tattoos became more common, I started seeing them in unexpected places, on unexpected people.  I knew they'd become mainstream when I noticed that an otherwise fairly conservative woman from my employer's human resources department had a tattoo on her ankle.  The general quality of available tattoos has also dramatically improved.  They are body art, not tacky things done in a back-alley tattoo parlor in Bangkok.  I started to like and admire them. 

But I still didn't want one.  They hurt, of course they hurt, no matter what some people claim.  It's a needle repeatedly jabbing you.  It's painful, the amount of pain varying dependent on the body location, the complexity of the design, and the pain tolerance of the individual.  My pain tolerance isn't great, so I'm afraid of the pain.  They're also expensive, if you get an elaborate one with lots of intricate design and color.  Tattoo sleeves are often gorgeous, but they take hours and lots of money to complete.  What if you run out of money and can't get your design finished?

But it wasn't really the pain or the expense that made me feel I'd never want a tattoo.  It was the indecision.  What would be the right design for me?  Where on my body would be the best spot?  What happens when I get older and my skin stretches and sags and the tattoo no longer looks as attractive as when it was new?  What if I get bored with the design, or just don't like it anymore after a few years?  I was sure that a tattoo would never be the thing for me, because I'd never be able to pick a design that I could live with for the rest of my life, and I was afraid I'd be stuck with something I wasn't happy with and couldn't afford to have it removed.  Something that permanent is scary.  I have pierced ears, but if I decide I don't want pierced ears anymore I can just stop wearing earrings and in a year or less the holes will grow shut. But my body's natural defenses won't get rid of a tattoo. Once you get one it's for the rest of your life.

A few months ago I decided that I really like the gauge earring styles that have become popular with people who stretch their earlobes.  I don't want to wear huge plugs or stretch my lobes so they hang down to my shoulders, but I do want the option to wear larger gauge "tribal" style earrings.  So I bought some stretching gauges and started stretching my piercings.  I'm up to 10 gauge now.  I haven't decided if I'll go bigger, but I'll probably stop at 10 or possibly 8 gauge, no more.  It's still small enough that the holes will shrink if in the future I decide I don't like it anymore, and I can still wear ordinary earrings if I don't feel like wearing the larger gauge ones.

This act of stretching my piercings has awakened in me a desire for a tattoo.  I have a design or two in mind, things I think I can be happy with for the next 20 years.  I've chosen a spot on my body where the ravages of aging shouldn't have too severe an impact, where I can also easily hide the tattoo if I want to:  My back, between the shoulder blades just below the base of my neck.  I've decided not to go for color, because color fades and I don't want to have to worry about touch-ups.  Now all I need is to make the final decision on the design and save some money for the actual inking.  I'm contemplating getting a henna tattoo of the chosen design first, so I can live with it for a few days and see if I really like it. 

The process of deciding on a possible design is difficult.  I like lots of things and have many interests.  Should I have a tattoo of something that represents my sci fi / fantasy fandom?  A Star Wars Rebel Alliance emblem, or the One Ring verse in Elven script?  I think not.  Much as I love my fandom, I don't think I want a representation of it permanently displayed on my skin.  I can't choose which part of that fandom I love more than any other part.  I also love Chinese language.  Should I have some characters or a quote tattooed on my back?  Lots of people have Chinese characters tattooed on their skin. I don't want to look like every other tattooed person.  I want something that makes me happy, something that I can admire in the mirror, something other people will hopefully admire when I choose to permit them to see it. 

Here are a couple of designs I'm contemplating.

This is a mehndi design.  I like the lotus shape - I love lotus flowers.  It also has spirals in it, a shape I'm really drawn to.  It's detailed without being too intricate, and it looks good as a simple outline without any color.

These are more mehndi designs.  I like the sun face second from the top, although I might want to make some minor modifications to it.  I like the rays, but I'm not entirely happy with the lips.

This one isn't an image file.  In the upper left corner of this page there's a design that resembles an eye.  It also reminds me of a cloud.  I really like it.  It's a good graphic design, it's simple, it's Chinese, and it reminds me of a place that I hope to visit someday.  So it would represent both hope and beauty for me.  

I'm trying not to find too many designs.  I don't want to make the choice difficult for myself.  My first thought was to go with the design from Jiuzhai Valley's website, but it's almost too simple, and looks too much like an eye.  Now I'm leaning toward a design like the mehndi lotus, perhaps with some modification to make it more personal to me.  We shall see if I ever actually settle on a design and take the next step toward getting an actual tattoo.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Movie Reviews: Much Ado About Nothing, Despicable Me 2

Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Jillian Morgese, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher

This review will include spoilers.  Because, it's Shakespeare. 

Yes, you read those credits correctly  This film was directed by Joss Whedon.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, The Avengers - that Joss Whedon.  What is Joss Whedon doing filming an adaptation of Shakespeare starring a bunch of people from his previous tv shows?  What does he think he's doing writing the screenplay?

According to IMDb, it was a labor of love for him, filmed in only twelve days during a break from filming The Avengers, using his own home as the sets and locations.   How awesome is that?

But how does it stand up as an adaptation of The Bard?  My verdict:  It won't supplant Kenneth Branagh's 1993 adaptation in my favorite film list, but it's not bad.  The actors all managed to say their dialogue comfortably, which I think is the biggest challenge in making a film of Shakespeare, and an even bigger challenge if you're going to set the story in the present day as Whedon chose to do.  None of the modern elements seem too awkward paired with the archaic theatrical dialogue.  Horses and carriages are replaced by cars, the noblemen returning from the war carry firearms instead of swords, the constables watch the grounds of Leonato's estate on closed-circuit tv.  But none of that detracts from the story. 

In fact, the modern setting probably works better for this play because it's a comedy.  We all laughed when, just after arriving at Leonato's estate, Benedick and Claudio are put up in what is clearly a little girl's bedroom complete with Barbie Dream House in the corner.  The scene in which Don John tries to convince a disguised Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero himself takes place in a swimming pool, with Claudio wearing a snorkel.  After Don Pedro and Claudio convince Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him, Benedick's next scene with Beatrice is performed with Benedick doing exercises.  At one point Benedick gives a soliloquy while jogging up and down a flight of stairs (Whedon really gives Alexis Denisof a workout in this movie).  All of this emphasizes the comedy.

Another aspect that I think was a good creative choice: the film is in black-and-white.  I suspect the modern sets in color would have been too distracting.  This way the audience is able to concentrate on the glorious dialogue and the entertaining action, instead of being overawed by Joss Whedon's gorgeous house.

While it isn't the best ever adaptation of the play, it's a fun adaptation, cleverly done.  And who wouldn't love Nathan Fillion reciting Constable Dogberry's immortal "I, sir, am an ass" speech?


Despicable Me 2
Starring the voice of Steve Carrell

Despicable Me was a surprisingly charming movie.  I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did.  The sequel manages to do something that's always hard:  It's just as good as the first film.  In fact, it's so much fun I might have to pay to see it a second time.

The premise of the film is that since adding his three adopted daughters to his life, former supervillain Gru has retired from villainy and started working on just being a good dad.  Of course, that would make for a dull film, so some trouble must come to Gru's life to create conflict, trouble that provides him with an opportunity to exercise some of his villainous muscles.  It also provides ample opportunity for the adorable minions to do cute and humorous things.  I have to admit, 80% of the reason I like these movies is the minions.

But aside from the cute factor, this move is gorgeously animated.  The colors and textures are fabulous.  I was dazzled by how good it was to look at.  It's also very funny.  I spent a lot of my time during the movie laughing heartily or smiling.  I left the theater feeling satisfied and happy.  I can't ask for much more out of a movie than that.  I don't usually go to see films to be edified or enlightened; I go to be entertained.  This film entertained me very well.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

When I Grow Up

What follows is my To-Do list for when I grow up.  I don't plan to ever grow up, but I will get older, hopefully, so I guess it's really for that.
When I grow up I will...

  Embrace change
  Try new tastes, new styles and new experiences
  Make new friends
  Visit new places
  Learn to use new technologies
  Keep only things I really need or love
  Exercise my body
  Exercise my mind
  Keep an open mind
  Remember that my generation was not better than today's generation

When I grow up, I will not...
  Wear 'granny pants'
  Keep things 'for a rainy day'
  Watch television all day
  Be afraid of my neighbors
  Constantly complain about my aches and pains
  Regret the things I never got to do



Tuesday, July 2, 2013

An Afternoon With Neil Himself

I read this tumblr post today and it inspired me to write my own post about my experience seeing Neil Gaiman.  I saw the first of the two kisses the young lady describes, and while my experience wasn't as memorable as hers, it was a very special day for which I am very grateful.

Let me start at the beginning.  Neil Gaiman is currently on what is meant to be his last book signing tour.  He has wearied of the stresses of traveling from city to city and spending hours signing his books while hordes of people wait in long queues to have them signed.  This does not mean he will never tour again, nor that he will never again sign any copies of his books.  It only means that he will not tour for that exclusive purpose.

Despite being tired of the whole process, having signed past midnight the previous night, and having traveled from San Francisco to Portland that day in a tour bus, Neil Gaiman was kind and generous when he appeared at McMenamin's Crystal Ballroom on Saturday June 29th, 2013.  He arrived during an unusual heat wave in Portland, with temperatures approaching 90 F.  The Crystal Ballroom is an old building, and it does not have air conditioning.  I overheard one of the bartenders explaining to another customer how difficult it would be to retrofit the structure for central air.  Once 900 people were packed into the space, it became even warmer.  Neil (if I may be so familiar as to use his first name) commented several times on how warm it was and that he didn't want to make us suffer in the heat any longer than necessary.  I appreciated that he put up with the heat, even though he was initially wearing a jacket when he appeared on stage.  He removed it for the actual book signing, though he had large fans pointing at him.

Those fans didn't do much good to those of us who'd chosen to sit in the balcony, but we didn't mind too much.  Neil read to us first from Chapter 3 of his newest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which had just been released a few days earlier.   He asked us if we wanted to hear him read more, and we almost unanimously voted Yes.  So he then read to us from his upcoming book Fortunately the Milk, which is ostensibly a children's book, to be released this coming September. I will add it to my library when it is available, even though I have no children to read it to.

He is a very good reader.   Some writers are not very good at reading their own work.  Why should they be?  They are not actors; they are writers.  But Neil Gaiman is a good reader, an enjoyable reader.  I wanted him to keep reading, to read me both books in their entirety, even though I'm not particularly a fan of audiobooks.  I usually prefer the way I hear the story in my own head to the way the voice performer reads it.  But now as I am reading Ocean - which I started yesterday on the bus to work and have nearly finished, consumed in 15 or 20 minute chunks while commuting or eating dinner - I hear Neil reading it to me as he read it on Saturday. 

He took a small number of question from the audience, which were written on index cards and read to him by musical guest Jason Webley.  My friend Janet had her question read: "What was your favorite book when you were a child?".  Then the young lady in the tumblr post asked for a kiss, and Neil graciously granted her request.

Not only did he kiss her on the stage, and again later when she queued to have her copy of the book signed (we all received a copy of Ocean as part of the admission price), he also granted a similar request from my friend's daughter.  She ordinarily would have been working on a Saturday, and hadn't purchased an advance ticket - the tickets sold out on the first day.  But one of her coworkers couldn't go, and she was allowed to take time off and to purchase her coworker's ticket for a nominal price.  So she went and joined the rest of our group of friends in the balcony.  And when she went downstairs to have her copy of Ocean signed, she asked if she could have a hug, and Neil again graciously obliged.

As we went through the signing line, we gave our names to staff members from Powells' City of Books to assure accurate spelling if we wanted our books personalized.  Neil wrote a short message in each book, just a word or two.  A few days prior to the event, my husband and I had disagreed over whether we had ever seen Neil at an appearance previous to this one.  My husband insisted we had, while I recalled no such occasion.  During the Q & A, someone had asked whose fans were odder, Neil's or Clive Barker's.  When my husband heard this he realized it was actually Clive Barker we had seen previously.  As he waited to have his copy of the book signed, he told this story to Neil, and Neil laughed and in return drew a little monster on the frontispiece instead of writing a message, which made my husband very happy.  The rest of our friends and I all had the message "Dream" written in our books, but my husband had a little doodle of a monster.

Now as I'm reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I imagine that the unnamed protagonist has tousled dark hair that won't lie flat, and that when he is grown he mostly wears dark clothes and perhaps has a white Alsatian dog at home.  And is kind, and generous, and sometimes doodles monsters.  And just possibly is a writer of very good books that make people laugh and cry.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

I'd Like More Fantastic in My Fantasy, Please

Right now I'm watching 'Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger'.  Aside from Patrick Wayne's disappointing performance it's a pretty good fantasy film.  I like the boat rowed by a giant bronze minotaur, and the evil queen's transformative potion leaving her with the foot of a seagull when she runs out of potion.  It reminds me of the things I really love about fantasy.

I like a lot of other B-grade fantasy movies for similar reasons.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been a fantastic actor, and at the beginning of his career he was even less so, but 'Conan the Barbarian' is a favorite of mine for its fantastic elements, like Thulsa Doom transforming into a giant serpent and the magic ceremony the wizard performs to prevent Conan from dying.  I like 'Conan the Destroyer' and 'Red Sonja' and 'The Beastmaster' and 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' and other films, because they too have moments of the fantastic that appeal to me.  Each fantastic thing seems to be unique in its world.  Not everyone can transform into a giant snake, not every statue of a god will become a raging monster if you replace a missing part, no one else knows the same magic as the evil queen.

I love playing D&D.  I love playing fantasy RPGs.  But one of the problems I find in playing such games where the elements of fantasy have been codified and standardized is that those elements are no longer fantastic.  Wizards go to schools to learn wizardry, and everyone knows about it.  No one marvels when a wizard summons fire from nothing or starts to fly without wings. 

If my character has the required skill and makes a successful dice roll, I can know what that weird-looking monster is, even if the character has never seen one before - and what's more, I can know what it does and what it's vulnerable to.  Of course, if I roll poorly I might not get any information, but I can't help but know that in a book somewhere that creature's abilities and just how much damage it can withstand before it dies are all written down in a template.  It's hard to set aside that metagame knowledge and pretend that the thing is strange to me.  Even if my character hasn't seen it before, I still know it's probably not unique in the game world.  My character isn't the first person ever to see such a monster.

Of course I realize that if I and my fellow players are going to enjoy our shared gaming experience without getting into disagreements about how the shared world operates, we have to have rules that standardize things.  Otherwise we'd end up like a couple of six-year-olds on the playground arguing over whether "Bang bang, I shot you" really means that the victim is dead.  But I can't help feeling sometimes that all that standardization and designing of rules for every situation makes things seem a bit too ordinary.  When you can go into any town and buy magic wands, the world has lost some of its sense of wonder.

Some of that, I know, is a function of the kind of games we play.  Our group tends toward "high magic" campaigns, where magic is fairly commonplace.  I don't necessarily want to play in a "low magic" game, where magic is incredibly rare.  I wouldn't enjoy that.  But I wouldn't mind a game where things seem a little more fantastic. Sometimes it seems that magic and monsters in fantasy RPGs have become as commonplace as televisions and automobiles in the real world.  I'd like those classic elements of fantasy to be a little more like computers were when I was a child - only huge corporations and governments had them, and while the average person had heard of them, most people didn't know anything about how they worked or even what they looked like.

I want to play a wizard and have people stare in amazement at even my simplest spells, or be able to scare off bandits just by displaying some magical power.  I want to encounter monsters that none of the characters have ever seen before, that haven't been described in any book in any library in the game world.  I want to see a world where the player characters really are special, and there aren't other adventuring groups like them around every corner.  I don't want to make it too difficult for us to have fun playing.  I just want to have a little more "fantastic" in my fantasy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Adventures in Adventureland, part deux

Back in Adventures in Adventureland, I stated my intention to write up our gaming sessions in my blog.  Clearly I have fallen down on the job, as we've played quite a few sessions without a single blog post from me chronicling our activities.  This post won't completely remedy that, but it's a stab in that direction.

The latest news is that we've added a sixth player.  Our party now consists of the following:
Tajah - aasimar oracle
Landon - dwarf alchemist / ranger
San'Kari - elf fighter
Silverleaf - elf cleric (me)
Thim - halfling ranger / rogue
Garrick - human inquisitor / monk

...and Grizzly, a sentient, talking worg.

We had previously discovered that someone called the Stag Lord was leading bands of humanoids to raid local farms and communities.  Then our stronghold at Oleg's Trading Post was attacked by lots of undead and some humanoids, and we learned that there was a necromancer named Nerisa (sp?) involved.  We've done what we can to get rid of a lot of the Stag Lord's followers, but the necromancer is clearly way out of our league, and we have no idea where she is anyway.

We also managed to clear some cursed bears out of the ruins of an old temple, so that a priest can re-establish it.  That has unfortunately made the priest a target for Nerisa's minions, who are trying to bring despair to the area by eliminating anything that could give the locals hope.   We managed to infiltrate a gathering of her followers (or at least, Garrick did) and learned of this, so in our last session we ambushed the party she sent to assassinate the priest.  Minotaurs are tough.

Unfortunately Nerisa is giving all her minions some kind of potion that mind-controls them, so it's a real challenge to get much information about her since people who are freed of the potion's effects don't remember anything they did while they were under its control.  But we have managed to discover (again thanks to Garrick's infiltration of their camp) that the Stag Lord is just a figurehead. 

When we have our next session we'll be fifth level.  I'm looking forward to that (third level spells, woohoo!), but it won't be until July.  Our GM is taking a break, and another GM will be running a sci fi campaign that I've chosen not to participate in.  I bowed out originally to have more time for other things and because I don't really like sci fi games.  But if someone started up another Pathfinder campaign, or D&D 3.5, or even Fantasy Hero, I'd probably be willing to give up my free time to play.  I'm a sucker for a fantasy game.

I Owe My Soul to the Company Store

 "You load sixteen tons, what do you get
   Another day older and deeper in debt
   Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
   I owe my soul to the company store"
("Sixteen Tons", Tennessee Ernie Ford)  

This morning I had a conversation with one of my coworkers about various social and economic issues affecting the US currently, and it dawned on me:  Our capitalist society is the equivalent of the truck system era, where employees of factories and mines bought their necessities from the company, using company scrip that they were given in lieu of wages, and lived in company-owned housing.  That was a form of debt bondage - the workers could never leave because they could never save any money. 

Likewise many of us today can never stop working for the banks that hold our debts.  We're all slaves trying to buy our way to freedom, because we've bought into this American capitalism:  Own a house, own a car, send your kids to college.

How did we get here?  What happened in America that made us think we have to have all this stuff - and go into debt to get it?  In other parts of the world most of the population doesn't own homes.  Many countries have no mortgages.  If you don't save enough money to buy a house, you don't own a house.  If you live in an urban area you rent a flat.  You don't have a bathroom for every member of the family, and the kids might have to share a bedroom.  Your flat isn't big enough to host a party of 40 people, you don't have a backyard or a garage or even any built-in closets.  And people presumably don't sit around feeling like their lives are incomplete because they don't have granite countertops in the kitchen.. 

There are some European countries where higher education is free.  That's right, you don't have to pay $30,000 a year to go to college, let alone have student loan debt for the rest of your life.  I don't know what kind of limits those countries set on who can get a university education, but I do know that not everyone goes to university or is expected to go.  Somehow in the US we've reached a situation where we think a university degree is a requirement to get a job, any job.  My own opinion is that a lot of the current emphasis on getting a degree is encouraged by banks that give student loans, because those are guaranteed sources of income for them.  It was determined by the financial institutions that not paying off your student loan is a high crime, because there's not much you can do to escape it besides die - and I'm not sure even that will free you.

Of course, the biggest difficulty of all is the way our political system has responded to this situation by giving up our modified representative democracy in favor of treating corporations as people.  As long as politicians pay more attention to what the corporations want than they do to what their constituents want, we won't see any improvement in our debt bondage.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

What I'm Writing

I'm a writer.  I write all kinds of things, including this blog.  I'd like to be a fiction novel writer, too.  But most of the fiction I've written in recent years has been journals of roleplaying games.  I used to keep copious notes of all of the campaigns I participated in, and frequently I would convert them into the form of letters from my characters to their families back home, or private journals kept by the characters.  I published these in the form of emails or on an RPG forum site for the entertainment of my fellow players and others.  Originally I didn't think of this as "real writing", or as fiction.  I've come to realize it doesn't really matter what I'm writing, as long as I'm writing.

But I'd still like to write a novel, or several.  I have multiple novel plots in mind, though I haven't finished any of them and have written very little of a couple of them.  I've decided  to take the risk of telling people about them and see if I get any kind of feedback.

The novel I was most invested in finishing - and have the most written for - is a wuxia novel, a genre I'd like to introduce to a broader Western audience.  I am having a lot of problems with the development of this one.  I can't decide if I want to set the story in historical China, an alternate history version of China, or a fictional setting that resembles China.  I can't decide if I want to introduce elements of magical fantasy into the story.  I've been watching a lot of wuxia films and tv series, and I find that I start trying to incorporate what I watch into my story, which is making it a derivative muddle.  So I've decided I will set that story aside for a while, until I can make some final decisions about the setting and the plot elements I want to retain.  I'm also going to read more wuxia fiction.  Not a lot of it has been published in English, but what I've read has all been by the same author and I hope reading some material by other authors will give me a broader perspective on what constitutes a wuxia story. 

The second most developed novel in my collection is a traditional fantasy.  As in many a fantasy novel, the invented world setting of the story is threatened by a Great Evil, and the protagonist is the Chosen One who can vanquish the evil.  I ran my hero through The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test to ensure that I'm not creating a Mary Sue. I've tried to differentiate the character from other Chosen Ones in fantasy as much as I can.  The Great Evil isn't a person but an entity that isn't really evil in the sense that it's made a choice to do bad things; the things it does that are bad are part of its very essence and it couldn't change if it wanted to.  So the hero's task isn't to kill it or make it surrender or take away the McGuffin that gives it its power.  He has to lock it away on the other side of an interplanar barrier so it can't get back into the world where he lives. 

He's done this before, or rather helped to do so, centuries ago when this entity first slipped through a crack between worlds.  At that time he was one of a whole army of people who fought to help their mother goddess hold the entity on the other side of the door.  The goddess has been holding the door shut all this time.  But when the entity manages to slip part of itself past her, she has to use a little bit of her power to send just one of her long-ago worshippers into the realm of the living to warn the inhabitants of the world and recruit help to block up the opening for good.  My protagonist is a man out of his time, unable to even speak the same language as the people he meets (I've got a plan to get around the language barrier).  He has to convince strangers to listen to him and help him.  He also has to deal with some personal issues created by the method the goddess uses to send him into the world of the living.  I hope this doesn't end up being too much like every other 'Chosen One defeats the Great Evil' story out there.  I have no intention of making it a trilogy/quadralogy/endless series.  It's one book, and when it's over it's over.

Novel Number Three is also a traditional fantasy.  The premise of this one is pretty simple:  It's basically a traditional D&D adventuring party.  A group of characters get together - though not at an inn - and set off to achieve a goal.  The world setting is inspired by Hyborea, and my intention is to avoid using anything that is too obviously D&D-derived.  I'm trying to imagine how to take the tropes of D&D and other fantasy roleplaying games and make them seem rational and realistic.  There will not be any elves or dwarves in this story, though there will be beings that somewhat resemble those common fantasy fiction races.  There will be wizards and priests and monstrous creatures, but I hope I'll be able to devise things that, while recognizable as traditional fantasy elements, aren't too obviously derivative of D&D rules.  I don't want to get in trouble with the publishers of any roleplaying game or roleplaying fiction.  I am not basing the story on any RPG campaign I've been involved in.  I just wanted to write a story about the kinds of things that happen in the roleplaying campaigns I've participated in, without being tied to the events of an actual campaign or characters that were created by my friends.  I admire my friends characters, but I don't want to write a novel about them.  I wouldn't do them justice.

Novel Number Four currently exists only in my head.  This is the first time I've actually written something down about it.  It's an urban fantasy.  The premise is that magic and the fey have been cut off from the material world for centuries, but somehow the fey were able to reach into our world and kidnap a person.  After several years of mortal time, they release him, but he has no memory of his time in the fey realm.  At the same time he returns to the mortal world, the fey re-emerge into the world as well, in a cataclysmic magical event.  What does the kidnapping of the protagonist have to do with this re-emergence?  What did he experience during his time with the fey, and why can't he remember anything?  These are the questions that I hope to answer eventually.

You may have noticed that all of the protagonists I mentioned are male.  When I think of a story it emerges from my imagination pre-populated with a protagonist of a specific gender, and all of these have emerged with masculine heroes.  I don't know why that is, but I find that if I try to force a change of gender it doesn't make me feel comfortable with the change.  I may be able to change the gender of the character in Novel #4 because I haven't actually written any of it yet, but the protagonists of the other three novels will all continue to be male. 

Well, there they are, the offspring of my imagination, all still in a fetal state.  Perhaps if I talk about them a little here, it will help them to grow and develop into something that you can read someday.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Nerd World Problems

I may have mentioned before that as part of my tabletop roleplaying experience, I paint miniatures.  I also collect them. Over the years I've purchased far more tiny figurines of sword-waving warriors and staff-wielding wizards than I'll ever be able to paint.  But I love admiring the little people and creatures and imagining how I would paint them if only I had the time (and didn't likely have incipient arthritis in my thumbs).

I used to obsess about finding the "perfect" miniature for every player-character.  My favorite miniature manufacturer, Reaper Miniatures, releases new figures quite often, which frequently led me to find what I thought was the ideal mini for my game character only to see a new one three months later that was even better suited.  I had one character that I played for a couple of years for whom I painted five different figures.  Manufacturers kept releasing new figures that were better and better representatives of that character.  I still have one figure that would have been perfect for that character, but the game ended before I could paint it. 

On other occasions I couldn't find any mini that I felt was really representative of my character, and would keep switching minis because I wasn't really happy with any of them..I have friends who are so troubled by this issue that they just don't use a mini, instead representing their characters on the table by using chess pawns or board game tokens.  I can't do that.  I love minis too much not to use one, even if the one I'm using isn't really what I want.

But since I've developed other interests that are also hard on my hands, namely learning to write Chinese characters, I've cut back on my mini painting and collecting. As a result, I've started picking the mini first and then designing the character around it.  That prevents me from struggling to find the "perfect" mini for a character quite so often, but it has its own drawbacks.  Every time I look at a mini, I think of a character to use it for.  I've created half a dozen potential new characters for a game that I already have a character for, and it's unlikely I'll ever need a new character for this campaign because the GM doesn't like to kill characters.  I could retire my existing character and bring in a new one, but that seems rather silly when there's nothing wrong with my current character.  It's just that I have all these ideas that I fear I'll never get to use. 

It does distract me a bit from putting my best into my current character when I'm thinking about what else I'd play if for some reason I could no longer play that character.  I don't want my character to be killed off, nor do I want the campaign to end.  But at the same time I really want to try out one of my other character concepts.  It's like a kind of gamer ADD.  Yes, I know, I should probably just stop looking at other miniatures.  I could also use the new character concepts in another campaign once the current one is finished.  But often I find that something I designed with a specific campaign in mind doesn't translate well to another campaign.  I could design generic characters to be used in any campaign, but I don't find myself as inspired if I don't have a specific campaign in mind during the character creation process..

Perhaps I'll turn some of my character concepts into fiction concepts.  But most of them will probably languish forever on the USB drive where I keep them, gathering virtual dust, their potential unrealized. Still, I won't delete them.  I might get to actually play them, someday. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Alien Faces

I just finished watching the premiere of the new SyFy series 'Defiance'.  I like sci fi on television.  A lot of my favorite tv shows have been sci fi.  I like seeing human behavior through the eyes of aliens, or from the perspective of the future.  But 'Defiance' reminded me of one of my pet peeves about tv sci fi:  the aliens.

Movies can do a lot with aliens.  They can use digital effects, animatronics, elaborate prostheses, and puppetry to make the aliens more alien and less obviously people in suits.  I know that tv shows don't have the time or budget for that.  I don't expect to see the coolest inhuman aliens on a tv show.  And let's be honest:  We only know humans, and we only have humans to provide the actors and voices.  We can imagine aliens that are not at all like us, but we wouldn't find them very easy to relate to as characters in a weekly tv series.  Even one of my favorite series, 'Farscape', still had aliens that were essentially human.  They had two eyes, one mouth, two arms, two legs.  They talked like us, they walked like us.  I know we're never going to get away from that, especially not on television. 

But recently tv shows seem to have become very lazy about doing extraterrestrials.  The various incarnations of Star Trek had their "funny forehead of the week" aliens.  It's an easy way to maintain the actor's ability to speak and show facial expressions, and it's not too hard to glue some forehead ridges on an actor every day.  Now shows like 'Defiance' have gone even farther with the lack or originality.  One species has white hair and yellow eyes, but they are otherwise entirely human in appearance.  Another species has an extra broad nose bridge.  It makes me want to weep for the lack of imagination shown by their makeup effects designers.  SyFy also features a series called 'Face Off' that shows makeup effects artists competing for a prize.  Some of the things they do are far too complicated for a regular character on a weekly tv series, but one would think they could adapt some of those ideas into something a little more series-friendly.

One of my favorite alien makeups comes from 'Farscape':  The character of Pa'u Zotoh Zahn.  Zahn's multi-shade blue skin, adorned with organic-looking patches of gold, was simply breathtaking.  I was impressed by actress Virginia Hey's willingness to shave her head for years for that role.  It's hard on an actor to wear that kind of full-body makeup.  It takes hours to apply, and it's hard to remove.  All you have to do is look at how much 'Star Trek - The Next Generation's' Brent Spiner (Data) ages over the course of the series to see how wearing it is to be completely covered in makeup every shooting day.  I can understand why a series producer wouldn't want to put the actors through that.  But surely there are other things that can be done to make a human actor seem less human.

Star Trek was certainly guilty of a lot of funny forehead aliens, but they also did some cool things.  'Deep Space Nine' did a lot of work with the Ferengi, who had quite differently shaped heads and ears, yet they were possible as regular characters because the prosthetics could be applied in only a couple of pieces to cut down on time in the makeup chair.  The actors also wore dental appliances.  If the producers of that series could do that 20 years ago, why can't tv series do something even better now?

I can think of many things I'd be delighted to see on a tv show.  Feathers, quills or scales instead of hair.  Teeth that are a different color than human teeth instead of just a different shape.  Females with facial hair instead of the males.  Females that are bigger than the males.  Color the inside of the mouth blue or black.  Head tentacles.  Small prosthetics like the Andorian antennae on 'Enterprise'.  Prehensile hair like the Naavi in Avatar.

I realize I'm not a professional makeup effects artist, so what I'm suggesting may not be as easy as it seems to me.  But surely if amateur cosplayers can come up with clever ways to make themselves look like the characters from Avatar using only commercially available supplies, then an experienced makeup artist should be able to design something that looks cool and sufficiently alien without breaking the budget or killing the actors. 

There are other things besides strange physical characteristics that can make aliens seem more alien, too.  Maybe a certain part of the body other than the face and hands is always exposed, or the hands are always covered.  Some extraterrestrials could wear veils or special spectacles most of the time.  Maybe they speak in a sing-song rhythm or pronounce their vowels oddly, or use peculiar grammar like Yoda.   Perhaps they sniff everything, or taste things, or touch things more often than a human would.  Unusual body language, inappropriate laughter, flattened or excessive emotion - these can all seem alien too.
So come on, Hollywood, put your imaginations to work.  Let's have some genuinely alien aliens on tv.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

Yes, I'm one of 'those' players

Today I took a look at a RPG messageboard and was immediately drawn to a thread entitled "So I finally have one of "those" players".  "Those" players could mean a lot of different things in the RPG world: Players who are uncooperative or start fights regularly with other players, players who are "rules lawyers", players who insist on playing a certain character race or class every time... But in this instance the original  poster was referring to a player who wanted to play a character that didn't seem like a good fit for the campaign setting and tone. 

What do I mean by "not a good fit"?  Suppose you have a player who wants to play a gnome.  But in your campaign setting gnomes live deep beneath the earth and never visit the surface.  All sorts of rumors and stories have grown up around them because no one has ever seen one in living memory, and most people think that gnomes are some kind of horrible monster. Or perhaps you have a player who wants to play an elf in a world where elves just don't exist. 

I can empathize with the desire to play something that doesn't quite fit.  There's a certain appeal to playing a character who stands out, who is unique.  After playing roleplaying games for nearly two decades, I've played nearly every class and most of the races in traditional fantasy games, and sometimes the standard stuff just doesn't seem very inspiring.. 

Sometimes the awkward fit is a minor issue; one of my friends wanted to play a pacifist cleric in one campaign.  That was a little bit of a challenge for the GM and other players because clerics are often useful combatants and everyone had to adjust to the idea that the cleric wasn't going to attack the monsters.  But we managed. 

A bigger challenge is when a player wants to play something that just doesn't exist in the game setting.  In the same campaign as above, I wanted to play a race that doesn't exist in the game setting.  The GM allowed it because the race I wanted to play was essentially human and didn't have any game-unbalancing abilities or physical traits that would be difficult to explain. 

Many of the respondents in the messageboard thread felt the player was just being problematic, in part because the original poster explained that this player had done some problematic things in other campaigns.  But even if the player sometimes did things that the other players didn't like, that doesn't mean he's a problem player.  He probably wasn't trying to cause trouble by wanting to play a character that didn't fit in the game setting; he was just trying to play a character that he thought would be fun. 

I know that's what I'm doing when I want to play something unusual.  I get an idea, or more often get inspired by a tv show or book, and I want to try it out.  I tend to think more about the good of the game than the player in the post apparently did, so I often relinquish my unusual character concept in favor of something that will fit more smoothly with the other characters and setting.  I once had an idea for a character in a superhero campaign who had amnesia and didn't know anything at all about his past or how he acquired his powers.  I imagined that perhaps some secret government agency would pursue him, either because he was an escaped test subject or because they, too, wanted to know about his past.  But the GM I played superhero games with at the time probably wouldn't have done much with a character history like that.  He tended to like very traditional four-color superheroes. I would ultimately have felt that I wasn't really getting to play the character I wanted to play.  Plus, my story might have overshadowed some of the other players, and I didn't want that.  In the long run it might also have turned out to be less fun than I thought to play a character with no history. 

That's often my downfall when I think of an "inappropriate" character.  They're usually too complicated to play, or too difficult to model in the game system we're using.  In one campaign I started out playing a bard, then decided I wished I'd chosen to play a wizard instead.  My GM kindly allowed me to take some wizard levels to satisfy my desire.  But after I'd played that combination for a while I realized that it just made the character harder to play and didn't really give me what I wanted.  So we retroactively removed her wizard levels, and the GM used a little GM fiat to allow her to keep some special abilities she'd acquired as the result of her wizard levels. 

I'm lucky that the GMs I play with aren't of the "I'm the GM and I say you can't play that!" attitude espoused by some of the folks on the messageboard.  My GMs try to make their players happy, because that means we're all having fun.  They're willing to work with almost any character concept, although they might draw the line at a half-dragon, half-infernal, half-drow paladin/wizard who was raised by gnomes. 

I wonder how you could make one of those work?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hey, cancer, I want my life back!

Cancer has stolen my life from me. 

It's true that I'm in remission now, that my chemo treatments are done.  It's also true that I was able to maintain much of my normal lifestyle while I was going through chemo.  I went to work most days, and enjoyed social activities with my friends.  But cancer still stole some of my life from me.

I had to give up one of my favorite activities, studying Chinese, while going through chemo.  I just didn't have enough energy or ability to concentrate to keep going to class.  I gave up weekly meetings at a coffee shop with other Chinese students for the same reasons.  I gave up working on my fiction writing because I  couldn't concentrate on it.  I cut my work hours.  I lost vacation time to chemotherapy.  I gave up driving so my husband had to be my chauffeur.  I gave up going for long walks. 

Now that I'm in remission, my oncologist wants to keep me on a maintenance regimen of Rituxan, the monoclonal antibody I received during chemo.  Every other month I have to return to the chemo infusion center to receive an intravenous dose of Rituxan.  If the Rituxan makes me feel tired afterward, I'll have to sacrifice some vacation time for the treatments.  If that is the case, then over the next two years I'll have to use six PTO days a year for medical treatments.  That's vacation time I could have used for long weekends, trips to the beach, or just a day to loaf around the house and pamper myself. And now I have to work my treatments around other activities like actual vacations, other medical appointments, and workplace commitments.

I'll also have to spend the rest of my life having annual CT scans and going to see my oncologist at least once a year.  I like my oncologist, but there's a part of me that resents having to spend so much time seeing him.  I resent all those CT scans, and especially the hated barium sulfate contrast solution I have to consume before each scan.   I have to worry about the cancer recurring and what treatment I'll receive the next time it comes back.  I have to think about what I'll do if there isn't any viable treatment for me next time beyond a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, and whether I want to give up quality of life for quantity.  I have to think about a lot of things I really don't want to think about. 

I know my problems are small compared to many other people.  But that doesn't make me feel any better about the intrusion of cancer into my life and the ways it's going to change me in the future. I resent it, and I want my pre-cancer life back.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Being Kind to the Sick

I haven't blogged much recently.  But when a couple of my Facebook friends shared the following links, I decided it was time.

The first link is to a blog that gives some excellent advice for those who know someone with a serious illness: Some Thoughts on How to Be a Friend to Someone With a Serious Illness.  I wholeheartedly endorse everything the blogger says.  Good intentions are not enough.  "I meant well" doesn't cut it.  Think before you speak.  Don't offer to help if you don't mean it.  And before you say "I'm praying for you", stop to think about the spiritual beliefs of the person you intend to say it to.  Go ahead and pray, but keep it to yourself unless you know the person you're speaking to will appreciate the gesture.

Link #2 is advice for saying the right thing: How not to say the wrong thing.
It covers some similar territory, but it's worth a read because it gives a clever concrete way to evaluate whether the thing you're thinking of saying is being said to the right person.  We all want to show sympathy by relating similar experiences we've had.  It's a natural behavior.  But it doesn't really help the person who's sick or in trouble.

Finally, I'd like to relate some advice of my own for those who are visiting a sick friend or relative in the hospital.  Anyone who's been in a hospital knows that they are awful places to be in.  A day or two isn't too bad, but if you're in the hospital more than 48 hours it's pretty miserable.  When you're in the hospital, you're not there to be comfortable.  You're there for medical treatment.  You're probably on some medication that may make you disoriented, drowsy, irritable, or nauseous.  You don't get good rest because hospital staff are waking you every hour to check your vitals.  You may be in pain or suffering symptoms of an illness, you may be connected to an IV or monitors that are unpleasant and annoying, you may not be able to get up and walk around or eat or go to the bathroom as you normally would.   You may not feel like having visitors.  

It's important to make sure the patient is really comfortable with having visitors before you pay the person a visit.  And don't just accept a "Yes" at face value if it's from your dad who never complains, or grandma who really loves to see the grandkids.  Dad or Grandma may not really feel up to visitors but be unwilling to say no.  Ask some additional questions to try to assess how the patient really feels before you accept a yes answer.

Even if the patient is feeling good and has no problem with visitors, don't take the whole family at once, or the whole team from work.  Hospital rooms are small.  If the crowd is too big everyone will get in each other's way and block the hospital personnel if they need access to the patient.  Most of the group won't get much time with the patient.  It's even more important to not take too many people if the hospital has non-private rooms.  You can have a crowd for a few minutes if the patient is up for it, but don't hang around.

Pay attention to the hospital rules.  If the sign on the bathroom door says "Patient only restroom", don't use it.  Don't leave your germs in there to endanger your friend or family member.  Don't hang around when visiting hours are over, even if the nurses don't tell you to leave.  Don't leave children unattended.  Hospitals are not playgrounds. In fact, I'd recommend not taking kids unless the patient you're going to visit is Mom or Dad.  Hospitals are kind of scary and creepy.  And don't stand around talking loudly about Grandma's surgery in the hallway or elevator.  Keep personal information private.  

My first stint of chemo, I had to be hospitalized for 5-7 days a month, and the oncology unit had several shared rooms.  One of my roommates had a group of family members who came to visit every day, four or five of them at once.  They seemed not to notice me.  Nothing separated my bed from their relative's bed but a flimsy curtain.  But they stayed for hours, used the patient-only bathroom, turned the tv on too loud, and were generally just horribly inconsiderate.  And most importantly, the patient wasn't getting anything out of their presence; she was on high doses of pain relievers and much of the time was either semi-conscious or so disoriented that she was unaware of who was with her.  Don't be that woman's family when you go to visit someone at the hospital.

I hope some of the advice is valuable to some people.  It's always hard to know what to do when someone is seriously ill or injured.  Be kind and caring, but be sure you're being kind to the person who's sick.  You can be kind to yourself some other time. And then when you're injured or seriously ill, which is almost certain to happen at some point in your life, your friends will be kind to you.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Meditations on the Apocalypse

I've given some thought to the apocalypse, and I've come to some conclusions.  It doesn't matter to me whether it's a Biblical Armageddon, a zombie apocalypse, a nuclear holocaust or an environmental collapse; when the Terminators come to wipe out all humanity, I don't want to be one of the survivors.

Is that a shocking admission?  Shouldn't we all want to survive?  Well, of course I don't want to die any more than the next person.  But I know I don't want to live in a world that is dramatically different from the current one, especially not if it involves destruction of our modern support systems and amenities.  Most apocalyptic visions of the future include a lot of fear, destruction, and struggle for basic necessities like food and water.  I don't want to deal with that stuff.  I like my indoor plumbing, central heating, instant foods, internet and cell phones.  I don't want to live in a world that doesn't have those things.

There are lots of people out there building bunkers and stocking them with supplies to survive an apocalyptic scenario.  Although I don't know any people like that, the ones who appear on television all seem to be planning to save only themselves and their families and friends.  They appear to me to have no room in their plans for strangers who need help.  Do they really intend to turn away anyone who comes to them for aid?  Will they shoot strangers?  If the world after the apocalypse is only populated by people like that, it's not a world I want to live in.  Perhaps I've seen too many post-apocalyptic movies, and it wouldn't really be like that.  But if it is, I don't want to be there.

It's not like I'd be essential to the survival of anyone else anyway.  I don't have any children to care for, and I wouldn't be any good at caring for other peoples' children.  I can't reproduce and continue the human species; I had all my reproductive equipment removed years ago.  I hate physical activity like gardening or building.  I sew and cook poorly. I don't have any special skills or knowledge that would be useful for surviving in a post-apocalyptic situation, unless moderate knowledge of Mandarin would come in handy.   

I don't really believe there will be an apocalypse of that sort, to be honest.  If an asteroid hits the earth or North Korea starts firing nuclear missiles at the US, I doubt there will be enough of the world left to turn into Mad Max world.  If there's a societal breakdown or an environmental collapse, the changes won't be that dramatic, at least not right away.  Global warming isn't going to bring us to Waterworld in a year or even a hundred years.  I'm not a Christian, so if the Biblical Armageddon suddenly occurs I'll be in for a very rude shock. 

But in case there is some unforeseen circumstance that brings modern society to its knees in a very short period of time, I'll be thinking about checking out as soon as it's apparent that things aren't repairable.  I'd prefer oblivion to struggling desperately to get by from day to day, and I'd definitely prefer it to constantly hiding from the zombies. 

Friday, February 22, 2013


Falling down on the job on my plan to put links in my blog so they don't get lost in my Facebook news feed.

An uplifting story involving celebrities.  Sometimes fame and wealth don't make you into a jerk.  The Lifelong Friendship of Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve.  From Buzzfeed.

A depressing story from Time about our totally broken for-profit healthcare system. 

Yes, we really are all related to royalty.  The Atlantic explains why in The Royal We.

We've been rotting our teeth for 7500 years according to this article from Io9.

Someday I want to visit this place.

A writer friend of mine posted the link to this "Is Your Character a Mary Sue?" quiz.  I took it twice, for two different original fiction characters I created.  To my relief, if I answered as honestly as I hope I did, neither of my characters is a Mary Sue.  Both fell well below the critical Mary Sue level. 

If you don't know what a Mary Sue character is, you can find out here

Some nice photos from National Geographic, including one from a garden I frequent and am very fond of.

If only more proponents of teaching Creationism as science would read this article. Teaching Creationsim as Science Insults People of Faith.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Persistence (Or Not) of Memory

I read this Huffington Post article today, and it mentioned a topic of particular interest to me:  the unreliability of human memory.  As a chemo patient, I deal with "chemo brain", which can disrupt memory as well as focus and reaction time.  I've lost some memories, or clarity of memories, about things that happened immediately prior to my previous chemo treatment in 2003.  But while I find that frustrating and disappointing, I don't find it as disturbing as the artist in the article found it when he realized that his memories of his aunt weren't accurate.  That's because I know my memory is fallible.  I know there's stuff I've remembered incorrectly, and other stuff that never happened at all.  I don't place such reliance on my memory that it disturbs my sense of self to find that it's wrong.

The first time I can recall realizing that my memory wasn't entirely trustworthy comes from a childhood recollection.  When I was young, around six I think, my family went to Arkansas to visit my great-uncle, who had a dairy farm.  We arrived in the evening and I was tired, so I fell asleep.  I dreamed that there was a buffalo in a pasture next to my uncle's farm.  For years I believed that dream was reality, until one day I happened to mention the buffalo to my mother and she gave me a "What are you talking about?" look.  There wasn't any buffalo living next door to my uncle's farm. 

This knowledge of the weakness and malleability of memory is further confirmed when I try to recall my childhood and recognize how many of my memories are missing the presence of my father.  He did die when I was a child, but I was twelve, so there should be a few relatively clear memories including him.  But my memory, in an effort to reduce the pain of grief, seems to have excised him from occasions where he was undoubtedly present, just as Titus Kaphar's memory added his aunt in places where he wished he'd had her support.

Unfortunately we (meaning Americans of the 20th century) seem to have developed an inaccurate picture of memory.  We don't want to admit when our memories are wrong, because we perceive that represents some fault in us, as if we didn't try hard enough to remember.  Numerous psychological studies have shown that our memories can easily be manipulated, that stress or morals or socio-economic background can affect how we remember things or whether we remember them at all, yet we persist in believing that our memories are accurate and unassailable, as if we are video cameras recording every event of our lives and storing those recordings in impenetrable vaults (don't get me started on how unreliable film and video are as documents of reality).

My own opinion is that we should learn to doubt our memories more.  Perhaps if we stopped holding so tightly to the correctness of our own memories, we might be better able to understand others, to empathize, to let go of rigid beliefs and opinions and accept that the beliefs and opinions of others are just as valid as our own.  Perhaps we'd be less willing to accuse, to insist on our own rightness, to point fingers and try to enforce our rightness on others.  We'd also be more sympathetic to people who do have genuine problems with memory, such as Alzheimer's or mental illness, if we could admit that we all have moments in which our brains betray us.

The next time you get in an argument with someone over whose memory is correct, stop yourself and ask yourself, am I really right?  Or am I just insisting that I'm right because I don't want to admit I might be wrong?  Admitting that your memory isn't perfect doesn't mean there's something wrong with you, that you've gone mad or that you have the onset of Alzheimer's.  It just means that you are human and your brain works the same way everyone else's does.