Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Things I am Proud Of

So I bared my soul last time with a project that I never completed. On the flip side, what am I particularly proud of?

I'm proud of most of the stuff I've working on over the years. However, what makes me smile are not particularly big things. It is the small tweaks, tight mechanics, and cool explanations that I've discovered over the years. Here are a few of them:

The Universal Table (Marvel Super Heroes) - I've talked about this before, and recognized its origins in the CRTs (Combat Results Tables) of earlier wargames. But the way it fits together, the way it works, the sheer .. universality of it all, still makes me happy. It is a table that carries a lot of load, and I was very happy with it.

The Nine Hells and, more importantly, why they descend (Manual of the Planes) - Here was my problem in MotP - the layers of the Outer Planes are supposedly limitless, infinite in all directions. So how do we create a typical Dante-esque hell where you keep climbing down to get to the nastiest layers?. My answer was that all the gates INTO a layer of the Hells were on the tops of mountains, and those OUT of a layer were in the valleys. That way, you are always descending. I was pretty darn smug about this one at the time.

A d8+d12 random monster table. (Monster Manual II) - I was reading the new edition of the DMG the other day (as one does) and noticed that some of the random monster tables were with 1d8 and d12. I did this in MMII, back in the day when monsters had rarity levels. The d8+d12 produces a bell curve with a large flat space on the top. The Common monsters would be found on the top of that plateau. The Uncommons were found on the sloping sides, the Rares further away from that, and the Very Rares were at the 2 and 20 levels, with about a 1% chance of each. So you could have a random monster table where demons were not as common as orcs

Those are the ones that make me smile. There are a lot of others - Phlogiston and the Crystal Spheres from Spelljammer.  Karma as a spendable experience point system in Marvel. Making Ashnod (Brother's War) and Varesh Ossa (Nightfall) female characters. Cheeeese. The Great Stone Men from Neither Man nor Beast. A good chunk of the Modrons. Tinker gnomes of Dragonlance. The names of the Asura  in Eye of the North (which sound like sound effects from Mad magazine). But those top three make me particularly happy.

More later, 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Bases Loaded

Is it all right to feel bad about an assignment that is 33 years late?

John (Sacnoth) Rateliff has been clearing out his files, and has come across a number of old artifacts of the middle age of TSR (the 80's). Among these artifacts is a page from a 1984 catalog, describing various upcoming products. most of which never saw the light of day. And one of them was Bases Loaded, a Gangbusters adventure by yours truly. A project that was never finished, and hardly begun, and I still feel bad about it.

For those of you not of venerable age, Gangbusters was a boxed RPG, originally based on Bloody Twenties by Rick Krebs who sold it to TSR, where it was expanded/revised by Mark Acres. The default setting of this 1920s Mobsters and G-Men game was Lakefront City, an ersatz Chicago. And the local ball team was going to be the Mudcats (which was a variant on my phone number at the time). The project got approved with a bare-bones pitch - The Black Sox scandal, where players fixed the 1919 World Series.

One challenge in all this, I knew very little ABOUT the Black Sox scandal. And my resources were fairly limited to be able to find out (no Internet in the modern sense, nothing much at the local library, the movie version, Eight Men Out,  would show up in 1988).  It landed on my desk in the schedule with me having done precious little research, and I scrambled to little effect - I had a murder early in the mix as a way to get the players involved (a catcher who would no go in with the others), but I bogged down in research on details, building my own league in the process. But it didn't really hang together, and the deadline loomed and I had precious little to show for it.

And then, the specter of defeat moved on from me. Bases Loaded (and more of the other games on this list) was cancelled as TSR decided to concentrate on other games (like, um Dragonlance and Marvel Super Heroes). I was spared, but to be honest, the onus of defeat, or not delivering the product (and not having much of a plan on how to deliver it) has continued to haunt me to this day.

Maybe that's why I am tolerant of Kickstarters with good intentions but overdue delivery dates. To these people I say - it is OK, but show us you're working on it.

But that's not all the sad nostalgia that this particular catalog page brings me.

One of the projects listed was Tin Man, by TSR Staff (which means they had not assigned it to anyone). It was one of my pitches as well. Originally in the pitch called Operation: Tin Man, it was going to be a hacker adventure. The description is horribly bollixed up in the catalog, but the idea was that the agents were going to be at JPL when the first pictures came back from a martian lander. The first pictures from Mars comes back, and there, on the Mons Olympus, is a banner stating "Surrender Dorothy."

And from there it would become a search to find out who hacked into the supposedly-secure JPL feed, and what else these hackers found. This was in 1983. The year the term "Cyberpunk" was coined. The year after Blade Runner came out. The year before Neuromancer showed up. Years before the Secret Service turned up on Steve Jackson's doorstep wanting to know about the Legion of Doom. It would have been ahead of its time, and concentrated on the "real world" work as opposed to sleuthing through the matrix. Alas, that one was never officially assigned, and nothing ever existed but the pitch. Unlike Bases Loaded, which I still feel bad about.

Sigh. More later,

Monday, December 11, 2017

Play: The Center Does Not Hold

The Humans by Stephen Karam Directed by Joe Mantello, Seattle Rep through 17 December 2017.

Thanksgiving on Grubb Street has for many years been a "Waifs and Orphans" affair, a term I picked up from Zeb Cook, who did something similar in Lake Geneva eons ago. The Waifs and Orphans Feast was set up for people who can't get back to their families elsewhere for the holidays, but has since turned into an event where friends come in from out of town to join friends in a fine meal. I brine a bird, the lovely bride would supervise the kitchen and dining room, and friends bring sides, deserts, and wine. It's pretty good, and I may have mentioned it before.

So imagine my delight at getting the passive/aggressive thrills of internal family feuding found within a  Thanksgiving with The Humans. yay.

Here's the basic info: On Thanksgiving, Erik (Richard Thomas) and Deirdre (Pamela Reed) are visiting daughter Brigid (Daisy Eagan) in her new, two-level basement apartment in New York's Chinatown, where she lives with her organized boyfriend Richard (Luis Vega). Erik and Deirdre brought with them Erik's mother, Momo (Lauren Klein) who is confined to a wheelchair and suffering from dementia. Also attending is other daughter Aimee (Therese Plaehn), who has broken up with her girlfriend, is losing her job, and has a major medical conditions.

Indeed, medical conditions tend to dominate the table talk, which fits in with a lot of American Family Gatherings these days. Erik's got a bad back, Momo slips in and out of lucidity, Richard has suffered from depression, Deirdre is fighting her weight. Aimee is facing major surgery, which she tells her sister but never gets around to telling her parents. It feels like the characters live in a domain where they can survive, but not thrive. Maybe, but I'm not sure if that's the point of the play.

And the apartment is a precarious place itself, in a quasi-gentrifying chunk of New York's Chinatown, in the flood zone of the rising sea, balanced precariously on a hostile future. The unseen upstairs neighbor drops - things- (which sound like battleship anchors) on the floor above, the washing machine churns loudly, the lights flicker and go out. It is a haunted house of an apartment, its inhabitants reduced to cave-dwelling. But I'm not sure that's the point, either.

I'm not sure what the point is, honestly. I've seen some comments talking about the death of Middle Class as a subject of the play, but I'm not entirely sure about that, either. Perhaps if you think about it as individuals who have been clawing upwards who suddenly realize they are slipping back, losing ground, and finally realize that they are not even going to be able to maintain their previous status and lives. Maybe. It's not clear.

Even the title is a bit of a wash for me. Erik dreams of monsters, and Richard talks about how from a monster's point of view, humans are the monsters. But these humans are not monsters - their crimes are pretty petty for the punishments the universe doles out to them. And the monsters that the humans are facing - death, dementia, pain, poverty, the upstairs neighbors, don't seem to be fearing them at all. So I am hard-pressed to tell you what the play is ABOUT. (OK, it's about 90 minutes long, without an intermission. Bah-DUM-bah).

Parts of the dialogue are witty, poignent, and natural, but they don't seem to support a central cause. The actors are excellent (Thomas, Reed and Klein in particular), but seem a little lost on the stage. The set itself feels like a gimmick for the play, the two-tiered stage allowing characters to move easily out of reach of the others and back again. One thing I've noted about these "Put the characters in the room and don't let anyone leave" type of plays is the No One Ever Leaves - they head for the door, but never seem to reach it. The Humans does not do that, but it feels like we're left with characters hanging out, waiting for someone to re-enter.

So that's where I am. The Tony-Award winner is sort of the thematic tent-pole for the season, which talks about Real, Messy, Human, as bywords for promoting the season. And for this they're right. The Humans is human and very messy and real. But it also doesn't seem to have a center.

More later,

Sunday, December 10, 2017

DOW Breaks 24,000!, No, wait, 25,000! No, wait ...

Last month or so has been interesting. The stock market was rising and falling slowly. but in the general rising, then all of s sudden everything took off, with one hundred, two hundred, and three hundred point days. It surged forward with a vibrancy of speculation that almost would lead one to think that a tax bill aimed at putting as much money into the hands of corporations and the wealthy was surging through government, with conservatives, who usually were concerned about increasing the national debt, cheering it on.

And yeah, this is exactly what's happening - the Republican-controlled Congress gleefully abandoned its post, not only declaring that deficits don't matter, but running up the tab on the current one by 1.5 trillion bucks. The Senate voted on its version of the plundering of the treasury in the dead of night, after Friday, on a bill marked up with pen scrawls that they would not let anyone read. The same people who cringed in fright at anything like a minimum wage gleefully shoving money down the pants of the wealthiest members of our society like a frat boy at his first strip club. 

This was such a heady feeling that even news that one of the President's men has turned state's evidence and making clear his dealings with the Russians could only knock off a few hundred points. And indeed, with the deed finally done, the wish list shoved through Congress, they really don't need him at all anymore.

The House and Senate bills were different in many awful ways, and in the week following they discovered they botched the job,but  there is enough pain for the bulk of Americans. The retail apocalypse is still hollowing out the malls, student loans threaten to be the next housing bubble, Medicare and Social Security are on the chopping block to pay for this boondoggle, the rich get richer, and the poor get ... children.

But the end result for a big kick in the pants for the economy, with much of the results unforeseen and still unfolding. Some companies used the humongous windfall to actually raise pay and give bonuses to employees. Some used the money to lay off people, close stores and reorg. Some actually did both. But all this movement of capital and investment creates friction, a heat created from money being shoved from one side of the table to another. And that's what the DOW is giving us right now, a rise of temperature from money being moved from one set of pockets to another.

Wall Street has no longer been connected with Main Street for years now. Now it feels that it has lost full contact with the rest of the universe as well. There are those calling for a "correction", and while the signs are there, it should be another couple thousand before it all hits the fan.

More later,

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Reading

So, how did it go? Very well, thank you.

Earlier this week, we had a reading for "Human Resources", a play I wrote.  Here's the backstory:

This play had its start in a class at the Seattle Rep. We were supposed to end the semester by presenting a short scene. I wrote one about layoffs. It was well-received. Our class stayed together and formed a writing group, meeting once a month up on Queen Anne Hill at the home of one of our group. We would read scenes. We would start plays, change plays, create scenes out of order, retrench, rewrite, revise. And of the bunch, I finished first, and my question was: What now?

I started looking around for a venue to read the play. Not perform, but just let it out into the wild and solicit comment and feedback. There are a number of small groups through-out Seattle (a theatre-heavy town, thank goodness), and I checked out the Seattle Playwrights Salon at the Conservatory, the WARP group at the Armory, and the Seattle Playwrights Studio at the Burien Actors Theatre. At the last they were looking for someone to read one of their plays. I had said I had one and they scheduled me for the first Monday in December.

And so the madness begins -

I was responsible for recruiting a group of actors. I chose as a lead an actress I had seen the previous month at the BAT. Two old friends with acting/stage experience. A co-worker. A young man I knew who was working at ArenaNet. These were my strolling players. We had a table read at a local restaurant the week before. Rust was shaken off, and the readers got a chance to work out bits of business in the play. We had dinner.

And we sent out invites. Members of my writers' group. Members of my gaming group. Co-workers (telling them that they were not in the play. Really). Friends of friends. I did not count the house, but I had a lot of people show up - on previous evenings the readers outnumbered the audience. We had about 20 folk show up that evening.

The SPS is based out of the Burien Actors Theatre, which is located in a community center in Burien, just north of the downtown district. We don't get the auditorium (young people were rehearsing a Christmas pageant), but rather one of the large utility rooms. A mixture of cushioned chairs and sofas for the audience. Readers in a semi-circle facing them, seated in folding chairs and with their scripts perched on their music stands.

And it went very well. My readers were excellent, and I thank Carol, Stan! Janna, Jorge, and Micheal for their help. The crowd failed to bolt at the intermission, and afterwards had a LOT of comments, so many that a lot of them got back to my afterwards by email. They disagreed with each other, revealed some things I was worried about, and made connections that I did not even see. I picked up a lot, and know I have a lot to do to bring this up. And when I got home the Lovely Bride and I went through the bulk of them.

The next step? A revision. Some of the comments can be addressed by a line or two, but the bulk of them involve fundamental changes, knocking out narrative walls and rewiring the plot. It should be interesting, and I learned a lot.

And I have a plan for the next stage of this adventure. More later,