Thursday, July 2, 2015

Lords of Waterdeep

Wow -- I really like this game! It's one of these "worker placement" games, kind of like Agricola, but not as cutthroat, because you get to choose what quests you are going to pursue. The D&D theming is cute, but not really tied to the mechanics, because mostly it is a game about harvesting scarce resources to spend on even scarcer resources, but themed as "gathering a party" and "sending them on quests." But that doesn't hurt anything, it makes it kind of cute. I like all the choices, I like the game balance (it must have taken forever to get right), and I like all the different options that keep popping up during the game.

Hey, this is a good place for a side rant I've wanted to make for 30 years. I was a massive D&D fan in the eighties. It defined my life for a time, and it likely forged the career I have today. There were a lot of things that were exciting and revolutionary about D&D. But there is one thing I could never understand... why does the D&D story world suck so badly? In the beginning, it was a loose mishmash of Tolkein, Greek Myths, Elric, Conan, and King Arthur. That wasn't so bad -- it was all roll your own. but as the eighties proceeded, they started to make a sort of world. And it was terrible! B2, Keep on the Borderlands? Revoltingly bad and confusing, especially for new players. Some modules were amazing (I still see S1 in my dreams), some were not (C1, I'm looking at you, nor am I a fan of G123). But we didn't have a coherent world. So we were all so excited when the "World of Greyhawk" map appeared! And, while it looked cool, it sucked. It was way too big, with too many countries, and it was completely unclear how to use this as a DM. There was no connection between it and the Monster Manual, for example. Later, they stared writing various D&D novels to try and get some kind of concrete world in place, and so they seem to have something slightly more coherent now... but by the nineties they had lost me, and when I look at what they have now, I'm still not seeing a solid, Tolkeinesque world. Maybe it wouldn't have been possible? It bums me out that it was a massive missed opportunity. Anyway, I only mention it because I'm still feeling that today... "Lords of Waterdeep?" The theming and the story and even the box art raise no emotion in me.. not like this did. This is a world I wanted to be in. Anyway, maybe their "no solid world" strategy makes sense? Maybe it makes space for people to make their own things? I'm not sure. I guess I wish I was still moved emotionally by D&D like I was in the beginning.

Anyway, to sum up Lords of Waterdeep: Relatively simple, fun, not too cutthroat, and the right level of thinking. I'm sure some people would prefer a more competitive game -- but this one is just right for me. Well done, WotC!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Zuhl Museum

Gah! This small museum at New Mexico State University houses the worlds largest collection of petrified wood, and many other wonders! I had no idea that...

  • Cathedral geodes could be six feet tall
  • Completely three dimensional crab fossils from 50M years ago even existed
  • Ammonites could UNCURL
  • Fossilized ammonites sometimes get a different mineral crystallizing in each chamber of their shell (??!!??)
  • Oviraptors arranged the eggs in their nests so neatly
Total side note: Some exhibits are outside, which gave me a chance to examine New Mexico ants. They are tiny, a sort of orange color, darker toward the front, and more yellow toward their creepy translucent abdoment. They also run insanely fast. If they were humans they would be running at 150 mph. I wonder what their stride pattern is, and how frequently their legs move? Not to mention this. It has nothing to do with the museum... or does it? Seeing so many wonders made me appreciate even the nearby ants. 

Anyway -- it's an incredibly cool place to visit if you ever find yourself in Las Cruces. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Trial

I had no idea this existed, and then I tripped over it on TCM one night. It's Orson Welles' interpretation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, starring Anthony Perkins. I had really enjoyed the haunting quality of the book, so I was quite intrigued to know how Welles would handle it as a film. First: it's gorgeous! The locations and cinematography do a beautiful job of capturing the dreamlike weirdness of the book. Second: Anthony Perkins can act! I only really remembered him from Psycho, and, well, playing a creepy guy always seems to me to be an easier challenge than playing a real person.

The film does have weaknesses. It is quite slavish to the book, probably to its peril. In trying to cram everything in, everyone talks very fast. In the book, we get to hear Joseph K.'s inner monologue to help give us context. In the film, we don't get that, so when we meet the woman dragging the trunk, we aren't given a chance to understand just how strange it is. The whole thing becomes a kind of fast-motion fun house, which is visually engaging, but not as emotionally engaging as it might be.

The part I found most surprising was the ending (spoilers ahead). As slavish as he was, Welles found it necessary to change Kafka's ending! For me, the message of the book was that just by being born into society, one is instantly judged, instantly on trial, instantly doomed. And this fact means that no human being can ever truly have dignity. Kafka's ending drives this point home. But Welles apparently concluded that Joseph K. was surely Jewish, and to create a film that featured a Jew pitilessly humiliated and murdered by the government was in bad taste, so he made a minor change that did not let Joseph K. survive, but let him at least go down fighting. It's a peculiar, almost cartoonish ending, that personally, I thought cheapened the whole thing. Even Welles admitted that he wasn't happy with this solution, but it was the best he could think of to solve his problem. And I suspect this gives us an interesting view into Welles' character. He was definitely a man to whom dignity was central. I suspect that the The Trial was interesting to him since it is a story about man's battle for dignity. But I don't think I buy his story about not wanting to offend the Jews -- WWII was over about 20 years before this film, and when did Welles care about offending anyone? I think that Welles himself could not accept the idea of a man's battle for dignity shown to be impossible and futile, and so he pulled a Kobayashi Maru, at Kafka's expense, and at the expense of the integrity of the film, of the integrity of Welles himself. I believe this captures the essence of the tragic path of Welles' life and career: protecting one's dignity at the expense of one's integrity. One could easily argue this is also the theme of Citizen Kane, and The Third Man -- possibly of all of Welles' work. He once said The Trial was his greatest film. If dignity over integrity is the great theme of his life, then what greater art could he create than actually compromising his own integrity for the sake of not just his own dignity, but the dignity of the everyman?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

This Jules Verne classic is one of those books that everyone knows about, but that I suspect very few have actually read. I've often seen interpretations of it, such as the famous Disney movie, but reading it was another matter entirely. Well, technically, it was read to me, and by Harlan Ellison, no less! He was a great reader, mainly because of his enthusiasm - you could tell he LOVED this book, that it had great personal meaning to him. He read it so naturally that Victorian turns of phrase seemed perfectly normal.

I can only imagine what it was like to read this book when it was new. The details of the Nautilus must have been astonishing, a revelation, in a time when electric light was just an experimental idea. So much is in here (spoilers) submarine science, the aqualung, giant squid, Atlantis, the Arabian Tunnel, icebergs, maelstroms, extinction of the whales, and much more. but what fascinated me most is the mysterious Captain Nemo. Where did he come from? What is his strange language? Why did his crew follow him? What happened, exactly, to make him hate humanity? Films portray him as a villain - he is not that way here. I also wonder how Ned Land could have possibly passed the time - that is not mentioned. Anyway, it's all made me eager to read more Verne... Perhaps I will!

Inside Out

Wow... I sure liked this! I'm pretty sure, in fact, that this is my favorite Pixar movie! I always like thinking about the interior of the mind, and this is the most creative visualization of the functioning of the mind I've seen yet! Emotions, imagination, dreams, imaginary friends, brain development, all of it accounted for in a fun, understandable way! This must have been an incredibly challenging project to get right. When I first heard about the film, my heart fell, because it shares a lot in common with my great unfinished game Ordinary, which is a puzzle game based on six emotions (fear, love, joy, sadness, anger, and confidence) used to drive a choose your own adventure romance story (also the first Schell Games patent!). But watching Inside Out, it's a different enough concept that I have no worries about overlap.

Really, I liked everything about this -- the concept, the writing, the voice acting (best acting Amy Poehler's ever done, I think!), even the weird rendering shader that makes the emotions look kind of like muppets. Unlike Tomorrowland, it had a solid grasp on the hero's journey, and also made the most of Pixar's famous rule-based storytelling... (I *love* rule-based storytelling... so many delicious rules...) I'm so glad they made this! You go, Pixar!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Comedy from the Second City

Got this as a birthday present from my brother (thanks, Ben!) -- it's pretty interesting to listen to. A snapshot of intellectual comedy from 1961. Unfortunately, I think you kind of had to be there to appreciate it. It kind of felt like the sort of laughter that you get when people are amazed that someone smart is making a joke, as if the idea of intelligent humor had never occurred to them, and they are delighted to find it... in other words, the kind of laughing you do to sound smart. There is an extended sketch about people at an intellectual book club, for example, and a song about how Shakespeare's wife must have suffered... that kind of thing. There are some "old standard" jokes on here -- but the audience tends to ignore those. I only got one really solid laugh out of it -- a silly bit where Alan Arkin sings the works of William Blake as if they were cowboy songs. It was brief, but sharp and funny. Severn Darden is on here too -- I grew up fascinated with his solo album, with its Oedipus sketch. I can't say he was quite that funny on here, but he was definitely the one who taught me that intellectuals could be funny, and I was glad to know it! I remember being in junior high, and being really disappointed with his appearance in Saturday the 14th, as it was very lowbrow. Sounds like I would have been a perfect fit for that 1961 audience!

Monday, June 22, 2015


I LOVE the Toroflux! I saw it at a juggling convention last year, and had to get one. It is my favorite desk toy. When still, it appears to be a small set of wire rings. Pick it up, and it snaps into a sort of strange torus. Put it on your arm and it flows around your body like something from the future. I hope it wins awards – it certainly deserves them! When this book talks about surrounding yourself with things that create a spark of joy when you hold them, the Toroflux definitely fits the bill. I also can’t help but see the connection between the construction of the Toroflux and the way 8-Track Tapes work. I also keep thinking this is just the beginning – that much more could be done with this simple idea.