Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Plague Book: Money for Nothing

 Money in the Bank by P. G.Wodehouse, Penguin Books, 1942

Provenance: This is from the collection of John Rateliff, purchased from Skoob Books (Secondhand Books for Students), 66 The Brunswick off Marchmont Street in London (near the Russel Square Tube), on the 9th of December, 2012. I know this because John used not only the receipt as a bookmark, but also a coupon from the store (20% off for students, expired 31 October) and a tag from a Twining's tea bag as well. About the most British set of bookmarks I could imagine, short of the Queen herself holding a finger in the page where you've left off.

For my part, I was reading SPQR in early November, and the stories of mobs throwing rocks down on the Senators sort of convinced me I should read something else for a while. I am a Wodehouse fan, though my participation has a lot of glaring gaps in it (Code of the Woosters remains the best). So, I pulled this one out for something, well, lighter.

The Review: I have seen the quote in several places, attributed to a number of individuals, that Wodehouse wrote just one story for 75 years. That is a bit unfair, in that it his plots are always convoluted pieces of machinery, and his prose is spritely and engaging. But even I will admit that his component parts are often the same - vapid young men, headstrong ingenues, dotty relatives, English manor houses, class discrepancies, hare-brained schemes, and ultimate comeuppances. 

Here's the scoop on this one: Jeff Miller is a very inept novice solicitor who is engaged to a headstrong young woman, and longs to escape both situations. Through a series of daffy and unlikely events, he is hired as a detective at an English manor house that is being rented by a famous female African Explorer, hired to investigate the manor's butler. Said butler is actually the owner of the manor house who has hid a treasure .... somewhere on the grounds - he forgets were, and his daughter (also headstrong, but one of the sane ones in the book) is currently working as the female African Explorer's personal secretary, and is the one who engaged Jeff Miller to follow her father around and find out what he is up to. Which she really doesn't want him to do. Add the real detective and two petty crooks and, yeah, it a Wodehouse romp with all the bells and whistles. 

Wodehouse has his troupe of types and character actors, like the old commedia del'arte. His male lead is hapless (Jeff Miller's superpower is to make small talk, which he uses to get himself out of numerous jams). His women are made of sterner stuff, ranging the dangerously overbearing (the female African Explorer) to the dynamically resourceful (the daughter whose family owns the manor). His male figures tend to be made of much milder stuff, ranging from the forgetful father/butler, to the original detective, (who has a tendency to hide in closets when threatened) to the female African Explorer's milquetoast and doting admirer. There is much in the way of confrontations and conversations in various rooms in the manor as the characters bump into each other and then pinball their way into other confrontations and conversations in other rooms. Wodehouse's style is perfect in this, much like his protagonist, his superpower is chat, bringing the reader along with involved, perfect sentences that you would hate to interrupt.

The interesting thing about this book is that it was written when Wodehouse was the guest of the Wehrmacht, as an internee during the war. Wodehouse and his wife had decamped for the South of France for tax reasons, and while they made a few half-hearted attempts to get out of town before the Germans arrived, they ultimately were interned as foreign nationals, and Wodehouse imprisoned is various locations. The idea that Wodehouse could write a book, and get it published in America in the middle of all this is a bit amazing. There is not a hint within the pages of the war, or of much of anything else outside the characters' immediate surroundings. His characters are self-absorbed to the point of immunity.

Wodehouse himself during this period did some radio broadcasts for the Germans. While they seem to have been very much the "Stiff Upper Lip British We Are All Making Do In These Difficult Times", appearing on behalf of the Germans was not the wisest course of action. It was labeled propaganda, he was pilloried as a traitor, and Wodehouse got, for lack of a better term, JaneFonda-ed, where any mention of his name in England for the next thirty years would cause Someone to trot out the charges. Finally, in 1974 all was forgiven and he was given the KBE, though Wodehouse passed on before the knighthood ceremony.

Wodehouse never returned to the England he left in 1930. His fantasy world remains timeless in part because of it - trapped like a fly in apsic between the wars. His manor houses have evaporated over the years, but his prose keeps them shining bright in memory.

More later, 

Monday, March 01, 2021

Plague Books: Rome on the Range

 SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, Livewright Publishing, A division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

Provenance: This has been my doorstop book for several years now. Bought it at Half-Price up in Redmond on a whim because the author had been publicly quoted somewhere as expert on the subject (she is). I started it, stopped it, started it again, let it occupy my shelf of abandoned books, read it along with ANOTHER book on Rome, finished the other book, abandoned this book again, actually WENT to Italy, picked up this book again, and finished it a year after that. So it has been a long journey. So I have thoughts.

Review: Hey, let's summarize a thousand years of history in a single volume. Yeah, that will be easy! We're talking about the history of Rome from about 753 BC to 212 AD, a point where citizenship is extended to all free inhabitants of the Empire.

What is SPQR? It stands for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus - the Senate and People of Rome. Which is interesting because one of the things about Rome's expansion is that it continued to expand the definition of "People of Rome" throughout its history. As it conquered and absorbed its neighbors, it incorporated them within their political systems. Historically, this was not always the way. The Vikings in Ireland and Russia ruled but didn't have a significant cultural impact on the ruled. The European Powers in America or the ancient Greek colonies in the Med were very much about moving large amounts of their own population in. The Romans swallowed other nations and peoples whole, and eventually elevated them to powers within their own spheres. Not quite equality - the folk in charge were an oligarchy, but even that oligarchy expanded over time. And the people who were already citizens were often against further enfranchisement. But it is an interesting version of colonialism.

Rome's Republic in part fell apart, in part, because of their own success. The Roman plan of absorbing other peoples into their nation "Hey, you're now Roman! And your gods? They're just different versions of our gods! Expansion brought in huge groups, who then had to be mostly managed, both at home and abroad. The advancing legions had to be paid, often with retirement land in the new territories (which was not always appreciated by the original inhabitants). And keeping the mobs happy in Rome? Yeah, that put grain-producing Egypt as the equivalent of Middle-Eastern oil in the geopolitical consideration.  

The distance of time gives us difficulty with original sources when talking about the Roman Republic. Beard opens with Cicero, once a staple in "Western Education", about halfway through the Roman Millennium (63 BCE). Why is Cicero still important to us moderns? Because he was a first-person account (though obviously biased) of the life and times towards the end of the Republic. And we have a lot of his words because he published his speeches, so that copies of the copies of his words have survived down to this day. Other than writers like him, we are pretty much confined to stone as information source - carvings, inscriptions, and the occasional graffiti. Sort of like trying to sort out the American Civil War only through gravestones - doable, but you know it is not the full story.

Even by Cicero's time, Rome has a bunch of conflicting origin stories. The mythical approach stars Romulus and Remus, a Cain and Abel story with a wolf-mother. But there is also Aeneas,who tied the Roman people to the Trojans at a time when they loomed large over the Greeks. There is a semi-historical record of the "Twelve Kings", the bad-old-times before the Republic took hold. And there's the archaeological record, who indicates that the area was originally dominated by the Etruscans,a once-successful and now-mostly-forgotten predecessor nation.

The Romans had an empire before they had a emperor. They did most of their expansion before they hit Julius Caesar and his lot. What Beard makes clear is that while the Romans professed a hatred of monarchs, its Republic was a rough affair, with powerful individuals commanding mobs (and later armies) to influence governance. One particular incident in 133 BCE involved a mob led by a faction of the Roman Priests which attacked a group delivering the votes for the tribunes and killed reformer Tiberius Gracchus with a table leg (not that we moderns would do anything that barbaric). 

The fall of the Republic was a relatively slow, bumpy process. Powerful oligarchs sought more individual power. Power came to reside within different factions of the army, which were then turned against each other. Attempts to consolidate power in the hands of a few trinities collapsed, and out of the continual conflict, a single strong figure emerged who would bring stability. Julius never claimed to be emperor, but quietly sucked up positions of power such that his successor Augustus moved in easily.

But even during the emperors our history is slanted. "Good" emperors were often simply followed by those with personal connections that wanted to declare their predecessors good, while "Bad" emperors were followed by rulers wanting to put some distance between themselves and previous administrations. But when looking at the health of the Empire as a whole, things ran on fairly well regardless of who was in charge. Until it didn't.

Large, engaging, accessible, and readable, SPQR sent me down some passageways and thought processes that I had not considered previously, some obvious and some more refined. SPQR is a great overview of a Rome that neither was built or was destroyed in a day, but rather evolved from one state to another, often as a result of its own growing power, until at last the ability to hold that power crumbled.

More later,

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Old TSR Boardgames (War of the Wizards)

 Over on his blog, John (Sacnoth) Rateliff has been talking about TSR boardgames from the eldest of days - Lankhmar, Cohorts, Battle of the Five Armies, Knights of Camelot, 4th Dimension and Warlocks & Warriors. I know he doesn't have War of the Wizards in his collection, so I will talk about this one.

There is an interesting thing to note. In Elusive Shift, Jon Peterson makes and excellent case for how early D&D was shaped by players who came in from the wargaming side and those who came in from the SF Fandom side. I noted that a lot of my generation of designers were from the wargaming side of fandom. However, at the very beginning, we had a strong component of established SF/Fantasy authors who were contributing to the milieu. authors such as Fritz Leiber, Gardner Fox, Harry Fischer and L Sprague DeCamp were not only helping create the fantasy genre we mined in the game, but were also creating new games in the early TSR years.

In addition, we have early games like the original Dungeon! (which predates D&D) and M.A.R. Barker's War of the Wizards. War of the Wizards is a game set in Tekumel, Barker's setting for Empire of the Petal Throne. The games were released pretty close to each other, WotW name-drops a lot of the places, creatures, and background color of the setting. It never mentions Tekumel itself by name, but rather the nation of Tsolyanu and refers to the RPG as "Petal Throne". The gods are the Lords of Glory and the Rulers of the Shadows and generally identified as good and evil, or law against chaos. Creatures include a lot EPT standards, along with more traditional names that you can use instead.

The concept of the game is very simple - two spellcasters (choice of sorcerer or priest) are at opposite ends of a football field. They cast spells at each other, which then advance down the field at their opponents. Spells can affect other spells, walls, and summoned creature, and ultimately the opposing wizard, who has so many hit points. Kill the opposing wizard, and you win.

The first version of this game was self-published by Barker and is apparently rarer than hen's teeth. The "second edition" was in a plastic bag from TSR, and was quickly replaced by one of TSR's early boxes. I played the game itself back in college (Purdue University) in the Boilermaker Grill in the basement of Tarkington Hall. I got hold of the box version is one of TSR's frequent clean-out-the-library purges. So opening the box, I found I had versions 2 and 3, both with unpunched counters, along with the ruleset for the 1982 Car Wars minigame and instructions on how to paint the Bear Chariot miniature from Ral Partha.

War of the Wizards was a classic "wizards duel" game, and, like Empire of the Petal Throne, was extremely advanced for its time. Released in 1975, it showed that early TSR had a strong commitment to Barker's work. A set of miniature rules followed, and Zenopus Archives has an article on a Dungeon! variant that was in the works that never saw the light of day. Adventure Modules were not much of a thing yet, so there were none from TSR at the time. Yet TSR showed a commitment to Tekumel, and then they didn't, and things faded away by the time the G-series and later the campaign worlds showed up.

It is an interesting part of history, and a good game as well. I'm not sure if this is the first "wizards' duel" sort of game, but it is one of the most involved and detailed. Someone could easily resurrect it, or create a version online (and it is sort of like Plants Vs. Zombies in its approach - things keep changing and staying the same).

More later, 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus: Full Circle

New York Office, Hopper, 1962
 A year ago, at the end of January, I was in New York City. I was recording lines for a game with an Emmy-winning actor, lines which will now never see the light of day. I had pizza in a crowded restaurant off Times Square. I had dinner with my niece and her husband at a nice place in Brooklyn. I walked down to the Strand bookstore. I bought a copy of William Gibson's book, but not from there. I flew back in a crowded plane.

A year ago, in February, I was planning to go to London. We were going to do a live event and meet with the European gaming press. As the reports of the coronavirus spread, the idea of travel to Europe became dicey. Some of the guests had already cancelled. I was in the "High Risk Group" that was already being intubated in overfull hospitals. I cancelled my attendance. The next day, the company cancelled the event.

A year ago, in March, we emptied the office. Everyone went home to work. I brought my laptop home and set myself up in the basement, on an old table from Milt's Wood Shed, in Wisconsin. We learned to handle the vagaries of on-line conferences. Having met most of my co-workers' dogs in the office, I now got to know their cats. In May we launched in the game. In June we pulled it back to Beta. In October we cancelled it outright. I moved onto another project.

It has been a year. I think is the last of these write-ups, because there is little more to be said. The world has changed and we have changed with it. I am comfortable with the fact that it will change further as we move along.

I am not vaccinated yet, nor is the Lovely Bride. By the priorities of our particular state, we are neither old enough, nor essential enough to do so. I'm good with that, but want to make sure that those who are old enough, or essential enough, or from large multi-generational families, are vaccinated. The roll-out has been rough, with anecdotes of insufficient stockpiles, broken freezers, sudden rushes, long lines, fools spoiling the vaccine, and other pains.

My mother, in her retirement community, has had her first-round vaccination, not because of the efforts of the village's managers, but because my younger sister and brother canvassed the area for a place where she could get the shot, and then took her there. She says everything about the procedure itself was well-ordered and efficient and not crowded at all. So there is some solace there.

In the outer world, the Lovely Bride has returned to working in her office every day. She is an Enrolled Agent, a professional tax preparer, and her works with an investment firm. Most of the investment agents are still working from home, and her office has a door. I am left with the cats, who demand attention regularly, usually when I am on a conference call. I leave the house for groceries and a weekly comics run. I play D&D and Call of Cthulhu over Discord with friends who I once sat around a living room with.

I am noticing a change in the news, in that I am suddenly hearing about things in other countries - protests in Russia, a coup in Myanmar, the repercussions of Brexit, a farmer's strike in India, and the United Arab Emirates have sent a spacecraft to Mars (wait, what?). It may because our own government is no longer sucking all the oxygen out of the room with their clownishness (and they could reduce it a bit more), or that we are waking up from a long self-imposed slumber to pay attention to the rest of the world.

Bu as a note to a future self, things are still more than a little tense. We have functional vaccines, but we also have variants and mutations of the disease itself, so the question remains of how long this will go on. But it feels like there is hope that will be an end to it, and though I don't want a return to "normalcy" (a cry of the Coolidge administration in the wake of war and plague), I do want stuff to settle down for a while. Boring. I could go with boring. Boring would be good.

More later,

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Plague Books: The Evolution of Gaming

The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson, The MIT Press 2020

Provenance: Christmas present, 2020, despite the fact that it went on sale on 22 December of that year. This one is jumping the queue in the reviews, because I have three friends who are already interested in reading it as well.

Review: OK, I'm a fan of Playing at the World, both the book and the blog. PatW covers the history of wargames and roleplaying games, up to about 1975 or so. Elusive Shift carries the story just a bit further, drilling down on the gaming community from about 1975-1980, and the changes that swept roleplaying during that time. In particular, it starts with the fact that the original D&D, the little brown box with the pamphlet-sized booklets, were not called a roleplaying game at all, but rather a wargame. It did not even mention Dungeon Masters*. So how did things change? How did D&D evolve?

Peterson concentrates on the playing community in this book. TSR walks onto the field with statements by Gygax and Top Secret designer Merle Rasmussen, but most of the action is outside the city limits of Lake Geneva, in the fandom and in the myriad of small competitors that sprung up around the initial release of D&D. 

Peterson works from primary sources as well, with the published fanzines of the era, as opposed to the memories of the original participants. That's got plusses and minuses. One great plus is that memories are short and recollections are often shaded by intervening events. The past gets revised and rewritten in the retelling. I cannot remember if our group ever referred to the DM by the earlier term of Referee (even though we had a song called "My God What a Cheap Referee")**

The downside is that these primary sources are they are the words of people who wrote stuff down, which is a vocal subset of the entire playing audience. These were people who had opinions, and for whom examining, expanding, explaining, and defining the game was as important as playing in it. It is valuable information, but there is a lot of personal opinion in there as well.

One of the big primary sources for this information was the late Lee Gold's Alarums & Excursions, an excellent zine that has run from the distant past of D&D to the present. In construction, it was actually a collection of zines - you'd write up your four or ten pages, make copies (often mimeographed) on colored paper, send in the copies, and Gold would assemble and distribute them to the other readers and contributors. I've read a number of copies over the years, but because I did not read them sequentially, I missed a lot. Many writers would respond to things from the previous issues, making any edition of the magazine sort of like coming into the middle of a thread on the Internet, where everyone seems to know what is going on but you. 

Lee Gold created A&E in part because she came out of SF Fandom, and Peterson shows that as a definite split in the early fans - those that came out of SF that were attracted by the subject matter, and those who came out of wargaming, who were playing Avalon Hill games like Panzer Blitz and Gettysburg, writing up Diplomacy 'zines, and playing games at conventions. Each group wanted different things out of roleplaying games and saw different routes forward. From this dynamic came a lot of the early fan-based evolution of D&D

The early TSR designers were mostly from the wargamer side of the equation, but a lot of the longstanding RPG worlds came from the other side - imaginary worlds that used roleplaying as a mechanism to tell their stories - The Forgotten Realms, Glorantha, and Tekumel all had a life before before becoming RPGs. But most of the design team had wargaming blood in them, and while I was an SF fan back in the day, I did come in the door through wargaming. (The Lovely Bride, on the other hand, had her own Federation Starship, the Quetzalcoatl, in high school, so tag her more from the SF contingent).

The book was a tough read for me, primarily because I kept stopping to double-check stuff and think about what my experiences were during this period. I started at the Purdue Wargaming Club in the fall of 1975. We never had a Caller, though my group tended to have a Leader who kept the group together and a Mapper who kept the maps together. We solved problems like how to deal with paladins and thieves in the same party, alignment languages, and the fact everyone wanted to be an dual-class elf.  Oh, and how to handle "Fighting Florentine" which everyone else knows as dual-wielding. I should unearth the old volumes from the storage room and remind myself how much we used and discarded over the years (encumbrance, critical hits, damage locations, segments, weapon speed factors, and unmarked doors that had to be pushed/pulled without a clue to which, just to name a few).

Roleplaying has evolved and continues to evolve. Even the name has been bent and morphed over the years. It has been spelled as roleplaying, role-playing, and role playing (I go with the last because that's what we called it at WotC, but before then I was more hyphenated). We have lost the name to computer games, which at the dawn of time we called CRPGs. Even today, while some arguments unknowing recapitulate earlier discussions, there are new designs that challenge the traditional boundaries of role-playing games.We continue to change, and much of that change occurs on the ground level. The heart of roleplaying at conventions has never been in the dealer's rooms or on the panels, but rather scattered across the gaming tables.

There are a lot of nice, meaty ideas within the book, but here's one that had not seriously considered before now. D&D and other RPGs really contain two separate games - one for players, one for GMs The more I look at that, the more I nod my head in agreement. When I am playing an RPG I am in a different head-space than when I am running it, and my metagame/downtime as a DM/Judge/Keeper is much deeper when I am running a game than when I am playing in someone else's world.

This is a book that is worth hunting down, picking up, and reading. It is densely packed with a lot of info from the time. Go read it.

 More later,

* The term shows up as a single, lower-cased word, "dungeonmaster" in Gary Gygax's introduction to the Blackmoor supplement, to describe Dave Arneson, and as "Dungeon Master" as a proper noun in Tim Kask's intro to Eldritch Wizardry.

** To the tune of "Rosin the Bow"

     We fought a group of Ogre Magi.

     Killed two, let the others go free.

    The lair had a welcome mat in it.

    My god, what a cheap referee!


    My god what a cheap referee!

    My god what a cheap referee!

    The lair had a welcome mat in it!

   My god what a cheap referee!


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus - Finnegan Begin Again

It is a new year built upon the ashes of the old. 

New York Movie by Edward Hopper, 1939

Sadly, we did not cross the yearly meridian and found our problems solved. There are vaccines on the horizon, but the same venal incompetence at the the national level the got us so deeply embedded in this mess continues to screw up delivery. New strains have popped up, first in isolationist England and then Denmark, expanding to everywhere. These should be affected by the vaccine. Should be.

It feels like walking fire, a cascade of artillery shells that keeps getting closer to our position. I have colleagues who I have never met in the flesh, video ghosts, who have come down with it. Old friends I have not talked to in years tell me the tale on Facebook. People I know have been hospitalized, while ICU beds have failed on us. It looked like we were bending the curve six months ago - now we are being overwhelmed again while people, tired of precautions, are making matters worse by trying to return to a deadly normality.

What happened to the Army Corps of Engineers? Back about a year ago they moved into Quest (now Lumen) field and elsewhere and built overflow hospital space out of nowhere. That was impressive. Yet we have not pulled the trigger on it for this resurgence. Are we better at dealing with it now? I don't think so.

And yet there is hope. Vaccines are rolling out, in sputters and starts. Delivery terms keep changing, but are changing in the right direction, at least.  The entire check on public gatherings has put Washington State, once an epicenter, at 45th on the list of united plague states - not great given the fact that there are 44 states worse off at the moment, but still impressive. At the state level, there is a plan, and it is modified as we know more. Currently the Lovely B and I don't make the initial cut, so we remain working in place.

The holiday season has passed, which on Grubb Street lasts between Thanksgiving and the Lovely Bride's birthday in early January.We went out and cut down a live tree on a small tree farm south of Auburn, as is our wont. Electric candles in the windows, the Lovely Bride brought out her doll collection. Way too many cookies were baked. We had a holiday feast similar to Thanksgiving's - shared dishes that were collated and delivered, followed by an online sharing. We didn't have to iron a tablecloth or clean silverware or set the table, so that was OK.

Shopping was online this year. I had a panic moment in a mall when I popped in for the last-minute things. Most of the people were masked, but the sheer numbers sort of a freaked me out. Yeah, shopping I am more situationally aware of my surroundings.

I have been reading more and writing less. Part of it is a letdown from blogging before the election, and another part is the work load, but I have been carrying a low level of exhaustion through the holidays and afterwards. This entry took a couple weeks to finalize. I have three books that need reviews already in the queue, along with a couple half-written entries on other sundry matters. Right now I have half-way through the latest Three Musketeers translation by Lawrence Ellsworth, which consists of the back half of "Twenty Years Later".

And I have been sporadic on watching streaming stuff. Watching on a tablet is chancy because I can get easily distracted. You hear a reference you don't understand, check out to research it on Wikipedia, and twenty minutes later you are watching a YouTube video on raising bunnies. Caught Mank on Netflix, which I generally liked. BBC Comedies in bits and pieces. I found the Great Canadian Baking Show on the DailyMotion site (the site is overrun with commercials, but serviceable). The GCB is the Great British Baking Show, but even nicer, and is chock full of regional accents, maple syrup, and bacon as a savory component.

Working from home continues. A heavy windstorm rolled through last week, knocking out power for a while, and in an all-online group, that becomes the 21st century version of a snow day. Power was restored, alas, though I spent too much time cutting up large branches in my driveway. That is winter in the Pacific Northwest - rain, wind, fog, and just the barest threat of snow.

I really want to say that we are rounding a corner, but the bend seems further and further away every time I check. We press on, curled up against the winter and the plague winds, because that is the best we can do.

More later,