Saturday, March 26, 2022

Theatre: Those Girls

This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing by Finegan Kruckemeyer, Directed by Johamy Morales, Arts West, through 10 April.

Another expedition to the Hermit Kingdom that is West Seattle. Last year, the main span to that region from the mainland was shut down, forcing traffic to approach by lesser roads from the south. This particular trip we did not get lost, but the traffic was slow and jammed along those routes. However, we had an excellent meal at Mashiko Sushi (tuna tartar, grilled squid, and the Lovely Bride's favorite, spider roll (actually a soft-shelled crab)). Then the play itself, just next door.

How was the play? I liked it a lot. The LB felt it lacked depth and gravitas, and was more suitable to children's theatre, and indeed both the award-winning writer and director have serious chops working with young audiences. But after musical plays, improv rap, and blocking set dressings, I was ready for a simple, straightforward play, and I thought it was great.

The play itself is as linear and as convoluted as a faerie tale. There are three sisters, triplets at birth, identical but different. Their mother dies, their father remarries, the stepmother is of the evil variety and (it is supposed) commands the father to lead the children (Age 13) out to the forest and abandons them. The sisters are distraught and go their separate ways into the wider world. One goes East and has adventures. One goes West and has adventures. One remains in place and has adventures. Eventually they come back together, both united and changed.

And it works. I complain about actors who have to fight with tough material, who are visibly struggling with the lines and characterizations. Not here. The ensemble grasps, internalizes, and conquers their world. They dance, sing, laugh and make the world a living and (mostly) pleasant place. The roles are broad and yes, it is a fairie tale, a fable, a simple thing, but they nail it. 

The company is great and many of them are making their first appearance on the ArtsWest Stage. Mara Palma, Bella Orobaton and Lola Rei Fukushima are the triplets, who sell their unity and their differences wonderfully. Anjelica McMillan has the quicksilver ability to shift characters, ages, and genders smoothly and effectively. Tyler Campbell is equally versatile as heartbroken father and a very unpleasant badger. All fill in the other roles and encounters that the daughters encounter, effortless dropping one guise and taking on another. 

And yeah, the set works this time. a collection of 20-odd stools, tables, trunks (with additional props within) and a ship's wheel are transformed and re-transformed through the play. The stick is a cane. The stick is a sword. The stick is mixing spoon. The props are just tools in the hands of capable actors. 

So. A wonderfully pleasant play delivered by talented and capable actors. An excellent evening. And yes, if you have daughters, this is a great play to take them to (most of the Friday evening house was traditional mix of middle-aged local supporters and some folk in their 20s). A good yarn, with excellent actors. A nice fable. Worth seeing. 

More later,

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Tekumel: Ditlana

 What happens when bad people make good things?

The latest serious discussion on this subject involves M.A.R. "Phil" Barker and Empire of the Petal Throne. It turns out the creator of this classic RPG setting was a full-on, deeply engaged Nazi. Wrote under a pen-name a Third-Reich wish-fulfillment novel that was published by a notorious white supremist publisher. And he sat on the board for a holocaust-denier group. Yeah, definitely a bad person.

And yet there is a good work. The original Empire of the Petal Throne campaign setting was a marvel of its age. Published by TSR in 1975, at a time when D&D was still emerging from its "little brown books", it was an amazing product: the first full campaign setting in a box, with detailed maps, tons of lore, and a high price tag. In a genre already dominated by Western Medieval tropes, it carved a non-western, exotic, unique setting. I have been a fan, and EPT's very publication has had deep repercussions within the gaming hobby about how to do this sort of thing. Since its release, there have been numerous attempts to simulate the world with a number of game systems, but the core world remains as Barker laid it down.

A horrible person created something worthwhile. And his work will forever be tainted by the failures of its creator. I want to separate art and artist, but that just doesn't fly in a world where we bind the two together, for the purposes of analysis, enlightenment, and more mundane marketing. How we live affects how we write. The creator infuses the creation. So, what to do? 

Nine years ago in this space, in the midst of another tempest involving another author, I wrote about Lovecraft, who was definitely problematic. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that while we cannot fully separate creation from creator, we can TAKE the creation away from the creator. We recognize Lovecraft's racism, and will not excuse or bury it. But moving forward, we take the good parts and evolve them fully, and leave the worst behind. In RPGs, in the modern interactive tradition, that can be done more easily than in other media. RPGs are ultimately a group activity, and the bad actors can be overwhelmed by the common good.

I wrote that in 2013. How has it worked out in Lovecraft's case? Well. in 2017 the award winning RPG product Harlem Unbound showed up, which deals with marginalized populations in Lovecraft's universe. Originally from Darker Hue studios, the book has been expanded upon and republished with Chaosium, publisher of Call of Cthulhu putting an official mark on it. The novel Lovecraft Country deals with this in fiction, and has not only been a best-seller but turned into a TV series in 2020. And Alan Moore produced a decidedly creepy comic called Providence dealing with sexual issues within the straight-laced original stories. None of this would have met the approval of the original dead racist.

So yeah, take the ball and run with it. Jeff Dee, who wrote an excellent set of recent rules set in Tekumel, Bethorm, has posted the suggestion to OCCUPY TEKUMEL Challenge or remove the violent, authoritarian, and unchanging nature of the empires. Give it a cleansing scrub. I think this would work. I get the feeling that, much like our own histories, the illusion of a continuous civilization is misleading, as looking at it hard reveals civil wars, uprisings, revolutions both quiet and violent. Yan Kor not only wins its war but inspires other breakaway chunks of Tsolyanu to find their own paths. Let the PCs lead a revolution for a city state within one of the Empires, and forge their own destinies.

The interesting thing is, Tekumel has a couple things already hard-wired into it that encourages this approach. There is the custom of ditlana, a renewal process where cities are literally razed, buried, and new structures place atop them. In game terms, this process creates a a huge number of underground areas with ancient treasures and lost tombs, which facilitates the entire "Go Down In the Dungeon" aspect of play. I have noted in an essay in the Kobold Worldbuilding Guide ("Apocalypso: Gaming After the Fall") that traditional fantasy by its nature is a post-apocalyptic world, in that there were previously great fallen empires that overshadow the "modern day" as well as provide a location to create new adventures in.

In addition, Barker himself spoke of alternate universes, and the desire to let players make the campaign their own. Part of this always sounded like not having to be the "authoritative" source for all things Petal Throne, but also to recognize that others will want to further develop. So be it. The Tree of Time has many branches, and it does us little good to adhere too closely to the main trunk..

The World of Tekumel may need a ditlana and a rebirth after all this. Not to forget the foundations, nor to excuse its original creator, but rather to distribute the depth and potential of the world among others, and let them continue to create and, more importantly, to grow. 

More later, 

Monday, March 21, 2022

A Change in the Life

 So, long-term readers (both of you) may have noticed that I rarely talk about my personal life up here on Grubb Street. Yeah, I talk about the effects of the recent pandemic on our daily lives, and often talk about the weather, the seasons, and local wildlife. Sometimes I talk about food. Sometimes I talk about adventures with the Lovely Bride But mostly it is book reviews, theater reviews, collectible quarters, and the ongoing saga that is local politics. I know, boring stuff.

However, it this is a good place to mention a major change in my life. As of last Friday, I am no longer with Amazon Games. It was a good run, and really like the people I was working with and the projects I have contributed to. I have great hopes that the current project I left will be a smashing success. You want any gossip, the deal is you have to buy me a beer. Several beers. 

As of today, I have joined Tempo Games, and am working on The Bazaar, and new game they have under development. I remain a Senior Narrative Designer, responsible for sorting out the lore and minimizing the typos. My new team includes a lot of new folk, but also a lot of veterans I have worked with before at ArenaNet and Amazon Games. I'm looking forward to it, and not just because I spent the bulk of the afternoon playing the game intensely. I like it, and I think a lot of other people will like it as well.

I am also serving as a design consultant on a new RPG called Everyday Heroes. A descendent of D20 Modern brought up to date for the 5th Edition, I serve as the "old guy" walking around behind the others and giving various warnings about how we used to do things. I am not the primary designer - those roles are Sig Trent and Chris "Goober" Ramslay, and they're doing a bang-up job. But beyond that, I will say nothing (OK, there's a Kickstarter coming. There. You happy?)

And that's about it for right now. I didn't have a lot to say about what I was working on before, and probably will not have a lot to say about it right now. And a big part of it is that most of what I am working on is "in process", which means it can change, evolve, revise and otherwise mutate between now and when it seems like the light of day, and I don't want to say things on Monday I will have to correct on Friday.

Back in the old days, before everyone carried a recording device in their pocket, the TSR gang could go to GenCon and say any number of things to small rooms of people, confident that we would not be called upon to make corrections when things changed. And often, things WOULD change after we talked about them, because our bosses would ALSO be at those conventions and listen to a lot of fans about what THEY would want us to do. Such things are a part of the past, since we live in a real-time world these days, so I will wait until the cake is done and iced before inviting everyone in for a slice.

That's about it. It's a new adventure, and I am looking forward to it.

More later,

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Theatre: Little Richard

Teenage Dick by Mike Lew, Directed by Malika Oyetimein, Seattle Rep through 3 April.

Lord, let me get through this one without an off-color joke. 

OK, Teenage Dick is one of those "Shakespeare Adjacent" plays you might find at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Not the Bard, nor even his verbiage in a new setting, but still related to the Shakespearean canon to that playgoers go in with something that feels like a reference point. 

In this case, Richard III set in a high school. 

Yeah, I know. It has been done. 10 Things I Hate About You. West Side Story.  Heck, the play itself even references Clueless, which was an updated Jane Austen's Emma, for god's sake. It is everything old is new again, filtered through high school melodrama and twitter-based technology.

Except it isn't. Yes, Richard Gloucester is a disabled young man (cerebral palsy), bullied and picked on, and has evolved a nasty attitude that mirrors that of his Shakespearean namesake. And he sets his sites on wresting the senior presidency from pretty boy jock Eddie Ivy (Edward IV), and part of his plan involves going to the big dance with the Eddie's ex-girlfriend, Anne Margaret (Anne Neville). Richard is mentored by off-kilter teacher Elizabeth York (Elizabeth of York), aided by fellow disabled frenemy Barbara Buckingham (Duke of Buckingham), and opposed by christian student Clarissa Duke (Duke of Clarence). The names are familiar, as is the starting point for the play. Here is man who feels himself scorned, who plans for vengeance, pulls out all stops to get it, and ultimately dies for it. His twisted mortal form that hides a black heart.

But. This is set in a high school and the stakes are slightly lower (and in reality more intense) than England's throne. And Richard, unlike the black-hearted villain of Shakespeare's history, actually has serious doubts about what he truly wants as he starts to break out of his self-imposed shell, such that actually, his decisions carry some weight, and we start to wonder - can the blackguard be redeemed?

But this is Shakespeare, and you know the answer to that. Much of the play is Machiavellian Chess with Teenage Richard putting his plans into motion, wallowing in his own cleverness. Then he falls for a dream he did not see coming and, once he makes his resolution, things turn very savage very fast. There is no Earl of Richmond here to carry home the point here, to make better promises for the future. The ultimate damage is self-inflicted. It is very much a tragedy.

The actors are excellent. MacGregor Arney is a transformed Richard, his twisted body turning more controlled and mannered when he turns from his fellow actors to soliloquize to the audience, selling the double-faced nature of Richard's treachery. But Rheanna Atendido is absolutely fantastic in a role (Ann) that, under Shakespeare, was merely a stepping stone for Richard's conquest.  Here playwright Lew gives her the moment she needs to drive Richard's cruelty home, and she kicks everything up several notches in the process. The Rep is pushing the play as satiric, which seems to undersell it. It takes the tropes (both Shakespeare and high school PTSD) and melds it into something stronger than either.

The original play was propaganda, of course. Richard was the last of the York rulers, and succeeded by the first of the Tudors (Richmond becomes Henry VII), of which the then-current ruler Elizabeth I was very much in present tense. So any historical play which blackened the name of the last York King would be well-received in court, and Shakespeare hangs a brace of bodies around Richard's neck. And in the centuries since, there is a lot written on how most of Shakespeare's reporting on the man was invention, or stealing from other sources that were equally skewed. Yet it is the theatrical Richard that survives in our minds, and the source which this play mines.

Teenage Dick succeeds in that it builds from a known base, and takes the discussion in a new direction. Lew internalizes Richard's own struggles even more than Shakespeare does, both broadening and deepening his emotions and reasons. Young Richard is hot garbage in a shirt, but a sympathetic villain none the less. It is a hard thing to pull off, and the play does so admirably. 

More later.

Sunday, March 06, 2022


A box arrived this week the contents that you see. They are all candidates for the Three Castles Award.

The Three Castles Award is an award given every year at the North Texas RPG convention (NTRPGCon) in Dallas IWell, Irving, within sight of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. It is awarded to Old School RPGs/ Revival/ Renaissance/ Reformation projects (OSRs for short). The category of OSR is not reserved to just early editions of D&D, but include a wide variety of related works, other elder games and derivative projects thereof. The award's steering committee put together a short list, and it went out to a team of esteemed designers.. 

I am one of those esteemed designers this year. I will leave it to others to identify themselves, should they see fit. We have received detailed instructions on judging Presentation, Organization, Content, playability, Uniqueness, and Art.

Why yes, we take this seriously.

The candidates for this year's awards are: 

A Time For Sacrifice by Ben Burns, Brian Courtemanche, Jonathan Bagelman, For Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, New Comet Games

Moon Daughter's Fate by Alive Peng - for 5th Edition Compatible, Necromancer Games

An Occurrence at Howling Crater by Levi Combs, for 5th Edition Compatible, Planet X Games,

Seekers of the Un-K'Nown by Louis Hoefer, for MCC RPG, Dand Y Line Games

Crypt of the Science-Wizard by Skeeter Green, for DCC RPG and MCC RPG, Skeeter Green Productions,

The Basic Rules for the Majestic Fantasy RPG, By Robert S. Conley, Bat in the Attic Games.

I'm not going to review them in this space - that is reserved for the award ceremony itself, but the convention is June 2-5, 2022. I cannot make it, but there are a lot of people who can. So we'll see what we/they decide when the day comes.

 More later,