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.