Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Gaming News

There is a lot of gaming news that gets passed around these days. However, most of it is on Facebook, which means you will see it once, think that you might get back to it later, and then never see it again as the feed churns relentless onward. Here are some things of note from the past few days.

First off, Baker Street: Roleplaying in the world of Sherlock Holmes is for sale on RPGNow. This is a nice game which works off the very inspired conceit that while Holmes was off on his European Holiday (and the world assumes that he had plunged to his death at Reichenbach Falls), Watson employed talented amateurs to fill the Great Detective's shoes. Those talented amateurs would be the player characters, who negotiate clues and get to the truth of matters great and small.

As part of a stretch goal for the product, Fearlight Games produced a Baker Street Casebook, which involves a handful of talented individuals such as Skip Williams, Bryce Whitacre, Steven S. Long, and yours truly. Naturally, given the chance, I wrote about the goings-on at a club on Pall Mall where the younger members pinch policemen's helmets. Because I could. Find out more about it here.

Secondly, speaking of Kickstarter, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the talented and lovely Rob Schwalb has a kickstarter going on for his new project, a dark fantasy RPG called Shadow of the Demon Lord. The game has already burst past its inital and is wracking up the stretch goals even as I write this. Go check it out here.

Third, I am planning to go to GenCon in Indianapolis for the first time in many years, despite the best efforts of the Indiana State Legislature to convince me otherwise. The state legislature has passed a bill, SB101, which pretty much says you can refuse service to anyone as long as you belong to a faith that says its all right to do so. It is pretty much aimed at the GLBTQ community, although under the law of unintentional consequences, things can get out of hand pretty damned quickly. Being Indiana, the bill was passed by the legislature and now only needs the governor's signature.

Now GenCon is currently hosted in Indy, but is run out of this part of the country, and a goodly chunk of it and many other game companies are part of, or friends and/or relatives and/or co-workers of, the very community that the bill is targeting. GenCon put together a very cogent, polite letter pointing out that the convention brings some 50 mill into downtown Indy and, if they and their friends aren't wanted, they will gladly take that business to people who are more willing to treat their convention-goers with respect. A lot of the click-bait online sites are calling it a threat, but it sounds pretty damned calm and reasonable. You can read the letter here.

It is a pity, after spending years trying to convince people that they should actually go to Indianapolis in the middle of August (And I have BEEN in Indiana in August), they are now determined to flush all that away.

Finally, on a very sad note, I must report the passing of Mike McArtor. I worked with Mike on the D&D 3.5 Spell Compendium, which was pretty much my last WotC D&D project. Mike would go to work on Magic: The Gathering and for Paizo, and he and his wife joined our gaming group of a while, playing Call of Cthulhu. Mike died in a car accident yesterday, and I will honest, has left me rattled. He was a pleasant, talented, thoughtful young man, and the industry is lessened by his passing. Rest in Peace, Mike.

More later,

Saturday, March 21, 2015

DOW Breaks 18,000

Actually, this happened before Christmas. And then it dropped below for a while and then it showed up again in February, and then it dropped for another while and now it is back again. And it will probably drop again and rise again, but I suppose I should mention it before it gets to 19k.

The market in recent years has taken huge swings. Once, long ago, a hundred point swing was considered a major news item - now it is Tuesday. Part of this is because the nature of how stocks are traded. The human factor seems to be almost completely eliminated, such that even the once ubiquitous independent day traders from when I started this blog have settled into a small clique, while the bulk of decisions are made by computer agents programmed to response to particular trends.

For the mildly paranoid, releasing untested rules into the wild tends to create unintended consequences, where independent programs tend to cause spikes and crashes. For the really paranoid, it is but a small step between programs which analyze and play the market and those which analyze and manipulate the market without need of human direction. These pop up as a minor concept in William Gibson's recent book, The Peripheral, where Aunties - autonomous financial programs from the future, are unleashed further up the timestream to affect a divergent universe.

But that sort of things does not capture our attention so much as something closer to home - gas prices. They went into a steep dive of late, getting to below $2.50 here in the Puget Sound region and below two bucks in the more accessible parts of the country. And there were a flurry of articles about how this is a bad thing, most of them in the line of "Yeah, its good for most drivers, BUT..." And then they would talk about how low gas prices add to instability by undermining fracking or oil shale or solar power (yeah, I don't get this one either) or makes Russia or Iran or Alberta more desperate by reducing their income.

In the short run, things seem to have stabilized, which most of us means that prices have been slowly climbing upwards. But that comes with a price - apparently a lot of gas is being kept off the market, warehoused for the eventual day when it will bring more money. And we're running out of space to hide it. So sometime this summer we should see another price drop and another round of pearl-clutching as the producers are faced with either reducing production (which has happened to some degree, ending booms in South Dakota) or actually selling the product they have. And prepare for another round of worries about how this will affect the status quo, as if that status is considered to be the ultimate desirable quo.

Unless, of course, the Aunties from the future do something else to jimmy with our markets.

More later,

Monday, March 16, 2015

Play: Mean Girls

The Comparables by Laura Schellhardt, Directed by Braden Abraham, Seattle Rep through March 29

Remember when I used this space to talk about stuff that wasn't politics or theatre? Yeah, me neither. Probably those two last topics survive here because they are time-sensitive - elections resolve and plays run their course. Other subjects I tend to overthink, or leave fallow, or abandon entirely. But still, for the moment, theatre.

I want to like The Comparables more than I do. It has a lot of the stuff that I'm always going on about in this space. World premiere. Developed here. Playwright wrote the excellent K of D from a few seasons back. Two thirds of the actresses have tread the boards before. It clocks in at about the right time ( hour and a half, no intermission). Does not succumb to polemic. So what happened here?

Let me start out with the basics. Monica (Cheyenne Casebier) works for Bette (Linda Gehringer), a high end New York real estate firm. Iris (Keiko Green) is a rookie who comes in for an interview with Bette, crashes and burns with the pre-interview with Monica, but gets hired anyway, Iris and Monica become both rivals and allies as the play deals with the conflicts that women have with each other as well as with the old-boys network of society at large.

But the play never really seems to find its level, and quantum jumps all over to the place to different energy states. The stated conflicts feel pretty facile (Bette has a reality show coming up, while Monica and Iris are working on opposing sides of a divorcing couple, seeking to get them to purchase multiple new digs). The deeper issues of Monica's own paralysis in her job are interesting and universal, and but it seems to take its time finding its way to the surface, egged on by frenemy Iris.

And it misfires, particularly when talking about corporations. The initial interview involves sharing way too much personal information, which serves plot but undermines character. Iris and Monica flip between allies and rivals way too often, and suspicions that either one is playing the other sort of evaporates in the shuffle. Bette shifts between Devil-Wearing-Prada to King Lear seeking to pass on her kingdom all too quickly.

Similarly, the play itself flips between a sitcom staginess (Iris encounters Bette in the elevator on the way out and gets the job anyway) and real issues for women operating both in a man's world and against other women. They aren't really competing (comparing) because they are all at different levels in life and professionalism. The action builds to slapstick of a Laverne and Shirley level, then sort of all falls apart in the denouement. Violence on stage is difficult, particularly in the build-up, and it is tough to believe that the characters went that far. (A similar problem existed in Mamet's American Buffalo, where the violence builds to a particular level only to dissipate in an avalanche of pillows).

The comparative age of the characters holds hope for an Maiden/Mother/Crone analysis (as in Three Tall Women). And even here there is room for some definition of character. Iris could be a trickster Loki, getting by on wits and charm. Monica, the matronly self-declared load-building pillar of the company, is very matronly. And again, if we had taken Bette either to wisdom or to dotage we would have had more definitive characterizations.

It felt like the characters were too similar and at the same time not defined enough. On the way in, I passed a portrait of the three actresses, and they had the exact same smile. It may have been intended, that superior, real-estate broker mask in all three, but that mask frustrated me getting to the characters themselves, and to empathizing with them. And it may be as simple as that - I want to root for Monica, but I don't get a lot to base that desire on.

In short (I know, too late for that), it was a failure, but a good failure. It feels like it needs a couple more turns on the wheel, a little more time in the oven, to come up with something with deeper feeling and meaning.

More later,

Monday, February 16, 2015

Play: Love among the MFAs

Dear Elizabeth, but Sarah Ruhl, Directed by Allison Narver. Seattle Rep through 8 March.

I will get to the play in a moment, but let me whine (and whine way too much) about Seattle traffic. This is the first time I have ever been late for the theater, despite living some 20 miles south of the Seattle Center, where the Rep is based. Yet that particular day, I failed to make it before the door shut. I had to see the first act after the play had begun, in (duh-duh-DUM) late seating.

Here's the story: The Lovely Bride was busy in the city in the morning, practicing for a Tai Chi demo, and I told her I would meet her at the theater and bring the LB's mom up (who, I may have mentioned, is an actress). Given the fact that the LB's mom has just celebrated her 80th birthday, we left early to get there with plenty of time, and made it down off Panther Lake to the major highways by 1 PM for a 2 PM show.

So, 20 miles, an hour to do so, should be OK. What I did not know about was road work in the proverbial Mercer Mess, which is the exit that leads from the highway to the Seattle Center (a couple miles). The first warning was when there was a dead-stop backup a mile from the exit itself, at which point it was too late to change plans. Finally making the exit, one could only see a packed road leading ahead off to the horizon. It was that sort of treacherous mess where the lights turn green but no one moves because there is no place to move. A motor vehicle mosh pit.

I mention to the LB's mom that with a mess this bad, there HAS to be a police officer directed traffic at the other end. And indeed, after taking an alternate route that sent us back into the town, rejoining the backup at the very end, there were not one but THREE police officers directing traffic on Denny and doing their part to contribute to a forty-minute snarl between I-5 and the Space Needle.

We worked though the worst of it with (relative) patience and grace, and I manage to deliver the LB's mom at the theater with five full minutes to spare (huzzah). Then I find out that my usual parking lot, which normally is cheap and pretty darn empty, is today full, including a mobile crane. And that all parking was twenty bucks for some event of which I had no idea. AND the parking spot I eventually found was presided over by a machine that obvious served a very long and very hard life, and was bitter about it and moving with the speed similar to that of the Mercer Mess.

And then in the middle of it all, a Seattle moment. Which I was standing there waiting with several other would-be parons for the parking machine to decide if its electronic life was worth continuing, a Dixieland band came down the street. No, I'm not kidding. Bass drum mounted on the chest, some horns, a trombone, a clarinet or two, and a sousaphone (or maybe a fluegelhorn). They bounced there way down Mercer, hooked a right in front of the theater, and were gone. It was just something I never thought I would see in Seattle, and there it was. And it really took the edge off all the rush.

In any event, while I got the Lovely Bride's Mom to the theater in time, the doors were closed before I got there. I was given (duh-duh-DUM) late seating, which meant that I and a few others who had been caught in the Mess had to wait, hearing the play in low tones but like Tantalus, barred from actually witnessing it. Then we were parked in the balcony boxes for the first act, which in the Leo K theater were actually not that bad, though I lost a chunk of the stage that was stage right/house left. It is not a play that moved around a lot, so that worked out.

And while I cannot blame the theater for the traffic, I will note that there is a concierge function in their promotions, which has in the past reminded us that a play starts an hour early or some big event was happening. This time, not so much. So yeah, an email saying "MY GOD, it will be quicker for you to drive around the Sound and take the ferry in from Bainbridge!" would have been appreciated.

Anyway, what all this means is that I didn't get the opening of the play, and was forced to cross-examine the Lovely Bride at intermission about what I had missed. "I got there by the time he came up to Maine to see her." "OK, so when they were exchanging poems?" "I caught the reference to Celluloid Bird." "No, there was stuff before that." So I don't know how the two main characters met, which I feel is a wee bit of a problem when you want to evaluate their relationship.

More than enough whining. Dear Elizabeth is a presentation of the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop (played by Suzanne Bouchard, and it is nice to actually see actors onstage at the Rep who have been there before), and Robert Lowell (Stephen Barker Turner, his hair in the continual upsweep of a man who often combs it with his hand in moments of frustration). Now, about 85% of the readers here will say WHO?. And that's part of the prob. These two are noted postwar poets, and the story talks about their long distance, mostly platonic relationship between 1947 and 1977.

And in many ways it is like attending someone else's high school reunion. I am not a poet and find poetry one of the harder things to get through - I find myself lulled by cadence and stop I paying attention to the words.. [Important digression however - one poet I particular like is Lester Smith, who has the benefit of being both very good and still alive. Lester's stuff I can read all day, though I would be hard-pressed to categorize him as either "raw" or "cooked" (which is a Lowell quote). But back to the play.] I don't know either of Bishop or Lowell or their work, and instead of the play opening new doors for me I found myself at the wrong booth in the cafe, overhearing things I know about only tangentially at best.

So, Ruhl has compressed the written correspondence into a dialog, filled with starts and stops and parts of life - marriage and lovers and suicides both potential and realized and stays in the mental hospital. And mixed with it are bits they are working on, ranging from getting published to reviewing other works. And as a word-cruncher by trade, the concept of fretting about the perfect choice of a phrase for weeks at a time seems like an alien concept. I fret about the right words,but I live in a world where deadlines loom like ogres with clubs, just waiting to pick off the slow ones.

And through it all, I was stunned by the idea that these folk are poets, yet get to go to Europe and Brazil. How the heck does that work, financially? Checking the wiki (the play gives us little clue) part of it is through teaching and grants, but also Lowell is listed in the wikipedia as being a Boston Brahmin (which means money in the family) while Bishop is mentioned as having an inheritance. Still, their presence in the greater world seems to not matter as they fight with their own creations, which in turn are mentioned only in passing.

That may be the biggest problem with this play - I'm not sure if it about the authors' work or their struggle or just a very polite relationship. It shows an affection between the two but doesn't really engage. Passions reserved for the work, which, like polite children, remain offstage. The closest thing to a conflict is case where Lowell converts his second wife's correspondence into a series of poems, which Bishop finds scandalous, which is very meta since Ruhl is turning THEIR correspondence into a play.

The actors are just fine, but the play itself is pretty flaccid, neither raw nor fully cooked. I cross-examined the Lovely B and the LB's Mom for further enlightenment, in case there was a central thesis put forth early on that I missed, but no, there was no early statement apparently that bound it all together. It was what it was, and getting there on time was no rescue.

Would I recommend it? Let me damn it by saying that if you like this sort of stuff (as in "the lives of post-war poets"), then you will like the play. After three strong courses of LBJ and August Wilson, anything would be a let-down, but this one made me wonder where that Dixieland band was heading.

More later.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Play: August Wilson's Ghost Story

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, Directed by Timothy Bond, Seattle Rep through 8 Feb.

I never expected a ghost story from August Wilson. His body of work deals with the African American experience, in particular the effects of the Great Migration up from the South into northern industrial cities, in particular Pittsburgh. Yet here we have what is on one side a conflict between the rural past and urban future, and on the other a story of vengeful ghosts and protective spirits.

The play is set in 1936 Pittsburgh, in the home of Doaker Charles (Derrick Lee Weeden), a railroad cook who lives there with his niece Berniece (Erika LaVonn) and her daughter Maretha (Shiann Welch). Among the belongings is the piano in question, a venerable upright carved with the family's history as slaves in the south.

Setting the play in motion is Berniece's brother Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and his buddy Lymon (Yaegel T. Welch) , who arrive with a truck full of watermelons of questionable provenance and news that the owner of the land their family worked (and the descendant of the family that had owned their family in slavery) had died, fallen/pushed/disposed of in a well, and the land was up for sale. Boy Willie figures that with his current savings, the profits off the watermelons, and selling the family piano, he can afford to buy the land for himself.

Berniece will not hear of selling the piano, and that sets the plot in the motion. LaVonn's Berniece is the centerpoint of the play, resisting arguments from all sides as to why she should sell the piano. Boy Willie wants the money for the land. Berniece's suitor Avery (Ken Robinson) thinks that it would help her move on from the death of her husband. Doaker claims neutrality, but sees the parallel between Bernice's husband's death and the death of her father, Doaker's brother, and the effect it left on both women. Berniece remains resolute, through for the wrong reasons, and the depth of the character is brought out by LaVonn.

But Boy Willie was not the only thing that came up from the south. The vengeful spirit of the dead man apparently as followed as well, demanding its own compensation. So while the heart of the play is the contesting of a family relic and with it the family's heritage, the resolution comes from the ever-ratcheting haunting of the house by the descendant of the family's owners.

To be honest, the supernatural is a hard sell on the stage, where the immediacy of the audience creates a danger that it can go into farce. What grounds this particular haunting is the people and their stories. Everyone has their tales in the group, and August Wilson creates a lyrical patter for everyone, in particular Boy Willie, such that you feel after a while that the only thing that keeps him aloft if the stories he tells about himself. There is a long stretch in the final act which is effective monologue as Williams drives everyone else to silence with his nonstop chatter. And indeed, this long running of the mouth provides the perfect setup for a comeuppance at the hands of the ghost.

There is also an undercurrent of violence within August Wilson's works, and guns appear from the outset and haunt the stage with their own presence as well, as the words and tales may go too far and spill out in bloodshed. Blood is rubbing into the finish of the piano itself, with the blood of slavery that it depicts.

So the lesson of The Piano Lesson refers to both the story of the family on the piano, the story about the piano (a variant of the parable of the talents from Matthew) and a lesson of the power of the spirits of the past. I have often dinged the Rep for the shortness of their modern plays, but the past three have been three-hour powerhouses, and exercise the full potential of the stage.

More later,

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Big Game, Big Story

Humans, we love our stories. It is something about us, our desire to make connections, to seek out links, to explain, that fuels a need to create narratives. It may be what defines us as humans. Something cannot simply exist. Events cannot simply occur. Things must have a reason. Actions must occupy a continuity. The world must have meaning over and above the obvious.

So, this weekend, there's a big football game. The champions of one group of teams (The Seattle Seahawks) will meet the champions of the other group of teams (The New England Patriots) in a head-to-head match up for all the marbles and bragging rights and rings and bonuses. And there will be music and fireworks and fans painting themselves and expensive commercials that you've probably already seen on YouTube and, I dunno, dancing bears.

And there will be stories.

In the two-week gap between determining the combatants and the game, something needs to fill time, and that becomes the narrative. Who are the white hats? Who are the black hats? Who are the upstarts? Who are the veterans? What does this say about the teams' home regions? What insights do we gain?

Looking at this year, and several past Super Bowls Seattle was a part of, the general feeling is that the mass media doesn't really get Seattle at all. We're quirky. We're tucked away in the northwest. Too much coffee. Too much rain. Young. Technie. Distracted by our phones. Not serious about our sports.

The first Super Bowl Seattle played in was against Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh's aura as a heavy-lifting steel town predominated (never mind that the biggest industry in medical services these days). The coverage was overwhelming about how the Steelers, who had the right stuff, would dominate the other guys, who would be the Seahawks (The Steelers won, confirming this narrative).

The second Super Bowl Seattle played in had a similar vibe. The opponent was the Broncos, under Payton Manning, and in the weeks leading up to the event, the national media treated it as a coronation of Mr. Manning as the Greatest Player Evah (And he IS real good) and the game as just a confirmation of that obvious fact. Seattle defeated the Broncos soundly in that game, leaving the media without a narrative and scrambling.

So you would think that, this time out, there would be a little more love for the Seahawks? Not so much. Most of the week has concentrated on the scandal of whether the Patriots kept their balls properly inflated. There is some real science about this, but pretty much it has gone in the direction you would expect it - people looking for reasons to say "The Patriots' Balls".

Reporting on the Seattle side? Not so much. The most news we get is about how on of our running backs (who IS real good) won't talk to the sports press, and one of our cornerbacks (who ALSO is real good) talks way too much. Our quarterback comes across as a nice, intense, dedicated. talented youngster, which as a result, apparently, makes for bad interviews and bad television (until he starts scrambling in the open and gives every fan in the stadium a heart attack).

So the story is yet again centered on the other team this year, with some factions fitting them for black hats and others being more charitable (in the manner that one expects charity when you are caught with your hand in the cookie jar up to your elbow) . We have not hit the level where the Patriots are playing for redemption quite yet, because that involves actually admitting there was anything wrong in the first place. And I should be happy from the standpoint that while all the news leans on the Patriot side, the previous Super Bowl champions are cruising along, effective underdogs for the very prize they took home the previous year.

And I don't think anyone has caught that particular narrative. Leading up to this, we kept hearing how teams that win the Super Bowl are not even expected to make the playoffs the next year, yet once Seattle did that, that entire line of thought died away. This is a rarity, but in a landscape scraping for any narrative that doesn't involve "The Patrtiots' Balls", I think the media missed the obvious story of a team of individuals coming together to win games.

I suppose I should be OK with the attention on the Patriots, given that the other big story from the media is that our running back (who, I may have mentioned, is real good) doesn't want to talk to them. And I will be watching the game with friends on Sunday. But I think the media blew it this time with their narrative, Again.

More later,

Thursday, January 22, 2015

PAX South

PAX South, part of the ever-expanding Pax Empire, is this weekend, down in San Antonio. I shan't be there (I wasn't planning of going, and right now I am in the second week of a mindbendingly nasty cold), but a lot of people that I know and like will be there.

Of particular mention would be former ArenaNet colleague Matthew Moore, who will be demoing a new card game called Bring Your Own Book, which combines card play with being well read, as players delve through books to come up with that one perfect line that matches the card. The demos will be part of Pax South Indie Showcase. He said he was going to use a copy of Ghosts of Ascalon for the demo, should he find a copy. That would be cool..

And speaking of ArenaNet, you have probably heard by now that we're going to have a big announcement on Saturday morning, hosted by voice artist Jennifer Hale, who is Queen Jennah in our game, and featuring the equally dulcet tones of Mike O'Brien, our head honcho, and Game Director Colin Johanson. For those who can't make it, the announcement (at 10:30 local time - 11:30 EST and 8;30 ohmighod early west coast time) it will be on a twitch feed. It probably has something to do with this video:

And also for those who can't make it, and are playing Guild Wars 2, we're celebrating the announcement with a weekend of double experience. Well, now I know how I am spending the weekend.

AND, if you don't have Guild Wars 2, we're actually going to make it easy for you. On Saturday and Sunday, we're dropping the price on the digital version of the game to all of $10. Short of me sneaking into your house in the middle of the night and putting it on your drive, that's the best deal you've seen.

But for me? I'm spending it healing up, drinking hot tea, and playing Guild Wars 2. Lots and lots of Guild Wars 2.

More later,

{UPDATE:} And this is what the fuss is all about: