Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Gamers & Their Toys: Of Dice & Men*

The cliché of the frustrated golfer chucking his putter into a water hazard after a missed “gimme” or wrapping his wedge around a sapling after yet another shanked chip-shot is fairly well known. Archers discard “arrows that miss” (as though they maliciously acted), and anglers will leave an expensive lure hanging in a tree “… cuz it wasn’t catchin’ nothin’ anyhow”.

There is a very old saying that goes something like “It is a poor workman that blames his tools.”
But we gamers do it a lot. Gamers want to feel a mystical connection to their dice; that their dice are “with them” and provide good numbers when needed.

Gary Gygax was quoted several times about dice and our connection to them. The gist of his comments had to do with DM’s rolling dice more for the sound they make than anything else. In OD&D, that can certainly be true. I have often picked up a couple and ostentatiously rolled them to get a quibbling party of adventures re-focused.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I wrote a completely tongue-in-cheek article about dice lice. The wee, tiny critters live in the spots or numbers of dice. They live on dead skin cells and dust, with the occasional comfit of felt or velvet lint. Too much direct sunlight could be deleterious to their continued well-being, so games were better played at night or in the basement. If you were “feelin’ the same vibe”, they would give you the number you need. If you had angered or neglected them, well, whatever happened, you had it coming for the callous treatment of your platonic solids.
While I am not saying it has never happened, I will say that I have never known a bowler that named his ball or an angler that named a lure, nor a carpenter that named a hammer. Hold that thought.
We might have a favorite hammer or driver, or have confidence in a given lure type or color, but that is a preference usually arrived at over time in most cases.

Fishing lures and dice have a lot in common. For one thing, they rely on eye-catching colors. There is a saying amongst us fisherman that new lures first have to catch the fishermen; it requires testing to see if they actually catch fish. The manufacturer only cares that it is purchased. Fair enough. The same is true today about dice; they come in a zillion colors and combinations and are made to various standards. I myself own only one set of dice that I absolutely trust to be accurate; a trio of icosahedrons certified to be accurate by the Japanese Standards Association and manufactured in the ‘70’s.

Lest you think that these weird fetishes are the purview of RPG’ers alone, let me assure you they are not. I used to play Fight in the Skies (now re-titled Dawn Patrol) a lot, and only flew if I had my three FITS dice: two black with white spots and one orange with black spots d6’s. I still favor black dice with white spots and numbers; pouring all those sinister dice out on the table at the beginning of the game is a big psych-out sometimes (along with my thoroughly deserved reputation for TPK’s at cons; it’s like letting the condemned see the axe beforehand).

In Jolly Blackburn’s delightful comic, The Knights of the Dinner Table, the protagonists are sometimes slaves to their own dice and dice superstitions. They name some of them; certain dice types (colors, speckles, streaks, etc.) are considered to be intrinsically classier or better or more reliable, which we all know is bunkum. Don’t we?

What happens when a given die, usually the overworked and oft-maligned d20 (icosahedron), goes “sour” and starts delivering horrid results? I have heard of some rather interesting rituals designed to get back the die’s mojo or punish it.

Sometimes at cons you will see a single die, more often than not the d20, sitting forlornly in the center of an empty table. This is a severe form of “dice-shaming”, as though being exposed to all the con for providing poor numbers on crucial rolls will somehow rectify this behavior. Alternately, they could have been purposely abandoned so as not to infect/curse the rest of the dice in the bag.
Then there are those that resort to capital punishment by drowning, being smashed to smithereens with a hammer and death by microwave radar. The first is pretty much self-explanatory; chuck the offending die into a large body of water. Insofar as drowning, how exactly do you drown something anaerobic? Just askin’…
I have met several gamers that claim to have done variations on the second; some refer to it as decimation, a not-quite-correct usage of the word. The tales go generally that all the dice are lined up/taken out of the bag, the miscreant is isolated and subsequently smashed with a mallet or hammer. One guy claimed to put a few shards back in the bag to “serve as a reminder”.

Not solely limited to SF gamers is death by microwave, wherein the die is bombarded with energy waves until it forms a puddle. Make sure that speckley die contains no metal flakes; they can arc-out the magnetron (according to one tale I heard).

Oddly enough, I ran across a third method to enact dice reform that does not involve any dice losing their existences. The big question for you to answer is: Do you believe bad dice can be rehabilitated? A company called Etched It has presented us with a more humane option; their Despicable Dice Dungeon. https://www.etsy.com/listing/249858884/despicable-dice-dungeon?ref=shop_home_active_1&campaign_label=convo_notifications&utm_source=transactional&utm_campaign=convo_notifications_010170_10683759063_0_0&utm_medium=email&utm_content=&email_sent=1443461274&euid=ZO1vWioH9hRON_3t-5susWXrs_fx&eaid=31138463749&x_eaid=bc279336ff

Disclaimer: I have not met these folks and have no financial interest in their operation. But if you want to tell them you heard about it here, I'm cool with that.

What a clever idea. Perhaps a few days in Dice Jail will bring them round. For serious failures I could see where two weeks in solitary in the bottom of the bag might just do  the trick. Would it not be better for “Ole Rosey” to get a second chance after a stint in the cubical hoosegow than be melted to a puddle of goo? It would certainly be cheaper, because as we all know, if you have a set of “matched” dice, e.g., a 4-, 6-, 8-, 12- and 20-siders all of matching material, the remainder of the set becomes sort of superfluous once it is incomplete.

With all of our harsh reactions when the dice let us down, this offers a more temperate response. Come on, it’s not as though our  dice are inanimate, unthinking platonic solids of various material and compositions incapable of any actions on their own, is it?

*I salute all the ladies that play; you weren’t in the book title I am parodying

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Undervalued and Often Overlooked Art of Editing

One of the overriding tenets of playing OD&D back in the very earliest days of the game (mid to late 70’s), particularly if you were the DM, was that anything is fodder for the campaign. Let me clarify that; good campaigns were a pastiche of every neat idea someone else had back then. As we were groping our way through the dark tunnels of ignorance then, we cobbled together every good idea we had read, seen or heard into our campaign’s framework.

I “borrowed” from Tolkien, Leiber, Anderson, Carter, deCamp, Burroughs, Howard, the Grimms and any other writer that had an idea I liked. We did not consider ourselves thieves as what we were doing benefitted no one but ourselves and harmed no one.

There were no pre-packaged adventures (or modules) until Judge’s Guild started publishing; we did not value them very highly at TSR and we were content to let them do so under our license. We did not even approach the idea at TSR for some two years, give or take, and then it was for a different reason, but also the same underlying reason: money.

We did not see the money-making potential at first. We only did the G Series so we could continue to make money with our huge convention tournaments.

I take a little flak now and then for being something of a fly trapped in amber; I play OD&D as I played it in the 70’s. Even though I mid-wifed AD&D, I stuck to my “little brown books” (the digest-sized original three and the four supplements) and have seen no reason to change.

In the two decades I was out of the industry, I was not reading any of the RPG stuff coming out. I stuck to boardgaming and minis, refusing even to run an RPG here in Cincy for my friends. I did a Rip VanWinkle; I missed out on all that transpired during that time. I missed all the “Edition War” crap. I missed scads of bad “next-best-great game” hopefuls. I also did not read anybody else’s ideas. (When I wrote Curse of the Weaver Queen, my partners were leery because of previous Lolth modules which I had never seen, let alone read. I did it anyway.)

Recently, I briefly relented and thought to see “what the other guys are doing”. I can tell you something they aren’t doing: they aren’t using skilled editors. It has recently been my displeasure to look at a couple items by a couple of respected authors/designers who have had wide success in the past, as well as a handful of efforts by newcomers that looked promising based on the settings. Where is the editing? For that matter, where are the proofreaders or copy editors?

I will not make the claim that either I, or my companies Eldritch Enterprises or Celtic Studios, are perfect in this regard. I am sure that someone has found a typo or two by now that we missed. We peer-review every EE release; that means that all three of the other partners vet every manuscript, proof every galley and scrutinize every layout.
Some of the recent products I have tried to read look like they evaded SpellCheck; the idea that anyone that knew what they were doing edited them is risible.
Yes, as most reading this know, I am/was an “Editor”. I hold the skill in high regard. The first job of an editor is to understand what the writer is trying to express; if he or she can’t “get” something, chances are scores more won’t either. This is not ego or hubris; this is what editors do first. They seek the germ of the idea and then ensure that it is understandable. If, or when, they find a rough (or missing) patch, their second-most important skill is to be able to smooth out the rough patches and create new ones to knit them all together, in the author’s voice.

Some of the articles I published in my various magazines (Dragon, Little Wars and Adventure Gaming) are as little as 30% author and 70% editor. Some of those early authors learned from what we had done and later became really good writers; others never noticed. In all cases, we strove to keep the articles in the author’s voice.

(Secret: Some of us writers don’t always write well on any given day. We might think it was good, but not that day.)

I see this appalling trend as bringing down the level of the whole FRPG field; the crap is outweighing the good stuff and threatening to suffocate us all in mediocrity and banality. I haven’t seen stuff this sloppy (some, certainly not all) since the heyday of the over-enthusiastic, sloppily edited and self-proofed fanzines.

This is THE DARK SIDE of self-publishing. Any tool with a printer can call himself a writer. Any tool that can work InDesign can now call himself a designer or layout specialist.

What they lack is well-written, easy-to-understand-and-play content. Just chucking a handful of ideas, some thoughtful and some not thought out at all, and a garbled setting into a manuscript won’t cut it.

The purpose, or usefulness, of good editing is to provide or ensure clarity and understanding. You simply cannot hope to have the latter without the former. The biggest pearl in the world can remain hidden in ordure if you can’t see it. For myself, I prefer not to rake my fingers through it to find the pearls.

Friday, September 25, 2015

I went to Gatlinburg and got a rock

Disclaimer: While I do not hate country music, there is only a little that I like. I really hate overly-commercialized tourist-y areas. I would rather vacation on Edisto Island, SC, than Myrtle Beach. (MB is pretty, but ohmygod, the crowds.) So where did Cheryl plan a little mid-week vacation for us? Gatlinburg TN.

For those reading this unfamiliar with that locale, it is in the Smokies and is really three small towns strung out along Rte 441, also known as The Parkway: Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and the aforementioned Gatlinburg. Pigeon Forge is the home of Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s version of CW Disneyland.

From what I know of the area and its history, Dolly coming in and doing what she did (bought up an old park that was on its last gasps and heavily revamped it) breathed new life into the area and revived all three towns. That’s cool; I have always liked Dolly, ever since she did the movie 9 to 5. I begrudge her nothing.

That said, I must admit that the whole area is really strange, like it is caught in some sort of incongruity-loop. The attractions vary from the ridiculous to the unexplainable to the just plain weird. In between there are almost as many go-kart tracks as there are fudge shops (a goodly number of both), interesting crafts-men and –women, and a bizarre fondness for making fun of all the stereotypes of mountain folk; everywhere you turn there is “hillbilly this” and “hillbilly that”.

We had a few great meals at recommended restaurants; the Apple Barn blew me away when they brought warm apple fritters with a cup of fresh-made apple butter as soon as we were seated. That beat the heck out of a bowl of salsa and corn chips, let me tell you. Their chicken and dumplings were superb. Then there was the Old Mill; I ordered the meatloaf, figuring on a couple of hefty slices; I got what looked to be an individual  meatloaf that had to weigh a pound! We made killer sandwiches the next day for lunch.

I’ll take you on cruise down 441…(not necessarily in the correct order) The coming weekend was the Rat Rod Rally, an annual gathering in Pigeon Forge of hundreds, if not thousands, of old cars, pick-ups, hotrods and other strange wheeled vehicles. They were parked facing 441 up and down both sides facing the Pkwy. There were some incredible rides; the trade-off was that the speed limit seemed to have been reduced to 17 MPH as everyone gawked at the cars. There were folks tailgating and just sitting in camp chairs facing the street watching the traffic, a good deal of which were old and interesting.

Some of the various theme restaurants seem pretty bizarre; even more bizarre than the Ripley’s attraction with the upside-down front façade. The Titanic does not, in my mind, bring to mind fine dining renown. In my mind, it brings to mind images of screaming and panic, people behaving badly and heroically at the same time. It does not make me yearn for a chicken-fried steak. Maybe I have a quirky stomach, but an atmosphere of impending doom does not make my mouth water.

Then there was the Stampede. I like watching trick riders and rodeo. I like eating. Somehow I missed the gene that thinks eating a meal at a table that is on the edge of the “arena’ is a good idea. No matter how much or how little you try, that fine dirt does nothing for mashed potatoes.

There were jousting eateries (more of that fine dirt seasoning), Arthurian/fantasy eateries and name brand restaurant chains were all represented, but one stood out as the oddest, at least to my mind. It was called Biblical Times; I couldn’t help but wonder if you ate fried pita, mashed chickpeas and yogurt off of wooden platters. Nahh, probably not. Loaves and fishes?

That part of the mountains is beautiful country; we were too early for any fall color. We took a ski-lift up Mt Harrison and listened to a three-man bluegrass band, took a cable car up the side of a different mountain. Ober Gatlinburg has two rides down the mountain; one a little sled in a cement quarter-pipe and the other fastened to a steel track/pipe. I thought it looked like a cool ride, but I couldn’t get Cheryl to do it with me.

If you like driving go-karts, this is a great place with lots of venues and every kind of track. NASCAR has a big driving attraction there that looked really interesting. It is probably a good thing that my son and his family were not with us; we would have spent a fortune on those karts trying to kill, err, beat each other. Hell, I probably would have had a stroke.

The only attractions rivaling the karts for numbers were the miniature golf venues. Monsters, farms, one up a mountain that you had to ride an incline to get to, every climate-theme except Arctic, it was there. We played three rounds over three days at the same venue that had three different courses and a great multiple-rate.

You could not force me back there in-season at gunpoint; off-season it was a nice drive and we had some good times.

Oh, the rock? Well, when you live in the mountains, rocks are something you can expect to have a lot of, virtually lying around everywhere you look. We walked into a place called The Sandman in the Old Mill area. They dealt in rocks, primarily flat-sided rocks, and they have a sand-etching machine. They have combined perhaps the oldest communications format—drawing on a wall, with the newest—a computer-controlled etcher. They photo the rock you are considering, then allow you to see whatever you want etched on it on the screen, and they have bunches of different fonts, dingbats and icons. We found an unusually colored stone and had it engraved, already knowing exactly where it was going in our back yard. When we got it home, it was perfect.