Sunday, December 24, 2023

Happy Holidays

 Yes, I know, I'm tempting fate, but I miss snow in this season. May everyone have a safe, sane, and healthy holiday from Grubb Street.

 More later.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Book: Shaggy Dog

 A Night In The Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny, Illustrations by Gahan Wilson, Avon Books, 1993.

Provenance: My company has a book club that meets every month or two, and we vote on a book to read next. I often don't get a chance to read the assigned work, but A Night In the Lonesome October was an option  this time, and I voted for it, figuring that I had a copy on the paperback shelf downstairs, so there would be no excuse not to reread it.

And then I didn't have a copy downstairs. I had given it away or donated it somewhere in the past thirty years. So I went to my local used bookstore, The Page Turner, where I had last donated some books during COVID, and THEY didn't have a copy (though I picked up a couple China Mieville books I didn't know existed while I was there). Finally, I turned to my colleague Sacnoth, who rose from his chair, went to HIS bookshelf, and immediately plucked off a copy. So I had no reason not to read the book.

Review: I loved Zelazny's Nine Princes In Amber series (the first five), and feel he was a master at the novella format. This one was OK and amusing, a bit of lighter fare. Its chapters stretch out over the month of October, reaching Halloween Night itself. On those occasions when a full moon occurs on Halloween, there is a battle between the Openers and Closers. The Openers wish to bring down the gates of reality and bring the Lovecraftian Old Ones into the world, while the Closers want to keep that from happening. So far, the Closers have won.

Our narrator is Snuff, an enchanted dog who calculates the location of the rite based on where all the Players are based. His master is Jack, as in Jack the Ripper. Spring-heeled Jack is a favorite of SF/Fantasy authors, and such luminaries as Philip Jose Farmer, Fritz Lieber, and Harlan Ellison have used him in the past. This Jack is a Good Guy, a Closer, who keeps various Things in his house, that Snuff carefully guards and keeps contained (the Thing in the Steamer Trunk, the Thing in the Circle, and the Things in the Mirror). Snuff, as the calculating companion of the pair, tries to figure out where the rite is going to be, based on the locations of the the other players, which is made difficult by not knowing who exactly the players are, and if any of them die over the course of the month.

And there are plethora of other players and potential players. Zelazny reaches back to old Universal Horror films than by original source material. There is the Good Doctor and his animated creation, the Great Detective and his assistant, the coffin-sleeping Count, a witch, a Rasputin-like monk, a pair of grave robbers invoking Burke and Hare, and an evil Cthulhu-worshiping clergyman. Each (or most) of the players have their own companions, who Snuff communicates with. The horde of players, potential players, and companions is a bit overwhelming, but I was fortunate in Sacnoth left a bookmark with all the information noted down.

The pacing is interesting in that each chapter is a day in October, leading up the fateful rite at the end of the month. Each night Snuff goes out, gathers information, walks the area (outside London, presumably Victorian-era) and makes his calculations. His frequent frenemy in his travels is Graymalk, the cat familiar of the witch, Jill, who are definitely Openers. A less-hospitable Opener is the Cultist Curate, a worshipper of the old ones (Nyarlathotep gets name-checked), whose companion is a white raven named Tekela (invoking the cries of the albino penguins from Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness).

Openers and Closers get along well early on, leading to a graveyard scene where all are gathering materials for the ceremony, and trading body parts they dig up with each other ("Who needs a femur?"). After that, things get darker fast, with bodies falling and trust failing, ending in the rite itself. There is a long evening where cat and dog are sucked into Lovecraft's Dreamlands, with a tour of the entire area. With such a large crew of characters, Zelazny keeps a lot of balls in the air at once, and the finale wraps up all the loose ends.

The book is accented with illustrations by Gahan Wilson, A cartoonist whose blobby, lumpy characters have been found in SF magazines, Playboy, and National Lampoon. Wilson also created the first map of Arkham, Massachusetts, so he has the proper Lovecraftian chops.

Ultimately, this is a shaggy dog story about Snuff, a literal shaggy dog. There is light humor and puns throughout. I know more about old movies and the Cthulhu Mythos now than I did back when I first read it, nearly thirty years ago, and part of the Game for the reader is recognizing who the players are in the greater horror canon. It is a good book to read, a chapter a day, through October, preferably with a cup of hot tea laced with whiskey. 

More later, 

Monday, December 04, 2023

Holiday Play 2

Snowed In, A New Holiday Musical, Created by Corinne Park-Buffelen and Mathew Wright, Directed  by Kelly Kitchens, Arts West, through December 23.

I talked previously about Little Women being a "Holiday Play", in that it a relatively family-safe classic that invokes the holidays, in a similar manner to "Die Hard" or "The Thin Man". Neither of those two movies are ABOUT the holidays, but it provides part of the spine and connectivity of the presentation.

Snowed In, on the other hand is VERY much the holiday play in that it seizes the season by the throat and grapples it into submission. Four performers their piano accompanist decamp to a well-appointed mountain cabin with a killer deadline to come up with a Christmas show. And by Christmas Eve's eve they still got nuthin'. And then they are snowed in. So they are frantically working on producing something while unsure if it is going to see the light of day.

And that's about it for the plot. The Lovely Bride mentioned that it is more of a musical revue than a musical, and she's right - there are a lot of sketches and bits strung through the evening, all tied into the holiday season. There's not a lot of character evolution or overwhelming moral, and the ending is more than just a bit meta. But still, its a really good show, because of the performers.

And I've seen most of these actors before on-stage, which is something that I've mentioned as being a plus for local theatre. Sarah Russell starred in Lydia and the Troll at the Rep. Rachel Guyer-Mafune was in The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion here at Arts West, and Feathers and Teeth at the 12th Avenue. Christian Quinto was ALSO in The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion. Nik Hagen was the new kid for me, and had incredible dance moves. And Riley Brule was the pianist of the group and thematically the most grounded and rock-solid of the characters. All the actors had incredible voices and passionate deliveries (If I had to rank them, Quinto was probably the weakest, but that's just by comparison).  There were a lot of topical references (GPTChat, Tindr) and local touches (count the localities given a nod). The original songs were cool and there were several show-stoppers in the collection. 

But it is a holiday revue. The stakes are not high, and it deals with the whole back-stage musical that actors have loved since Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. It is one of those shows which benefit from an engaged, amused audience, and our Friday night had both, in particular a trio of patrons right ahead of us who were Friends of the Performers AND/OR Drinking Before the Show, since they were loudly enthusiastic about every song. 

In the end, this is a sugared gumdrop of a show, heavy on the sweetness and light, millennial in its sensibilities. It was a fine time had by all. Ho, ho, ho.

More later, 

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Play: Holiday Play 1

Little Women by Kate Hamill, adapted from the novel by Louisa May Alcott, Directed by Marti Lyons, Seattle Rep, through December 17

Hey, a real play at the Rep! Not a performance, not an exhibition, not a looping  musical, not a dance troupe. With real actors portraying distinct roles, a couple of whom I've actually seen in other stuff (which is part of what a Repertory is -  while delighted to see actors making their "Seattle Rep Debut" I could stand to see a few other dependables). And an intermission. I don't know how long it has been since I've seen an intermission!

OK, I never read Louise May Alcott's Little Women back in the day. The Lovely Bride did, but her memory has faded in the half-century-plus since. But a lot of other women had read it back in the day, as I noticed that the audience had a lot of women in it, young and old. So call it an American Classic. Me? I'm relying on Wikipedia for what happens in the original text.

So for those of you who missed that part of English class, here's the skinny. Little Women is the story of four March sisters during the Civil war - Would-be author Jo (Ameilio Garcia), studious Meg (Cy Paolantonio), delicate Beth (Katie Peabody), and bratty youngest Amy (Rebecca Cort). Their father is away at the war, and they are trying to make ends meet. The young women squabble, argue, laugh, relax, put on theatrical productions, and press on through life. Jo is traditionally presented as a "tomboy", but in casting a transmasc actor (Garcia), director Lyons pushes the envelope further - Jo presents male in a lot of the scenes, and when forced into traditional female garb of the era, is a fish out of water.

Traditional gender roles are a big part of the first act. Meg is very much a feminine icon of the times, while baby of the family Amy (Cort plays the role to the hilt) is obsessed with growing into societal expectations. Jo, for her part, encounters the visiting neighbor Laurie (an excellent Austin Winter), a sensitive young man unsure about his own expected role in society as well. He and Jo hit it off as a nice duo.

But actually Peabody's Beth is the secret protagonist of the play - the character that drives the action forward. She's the one that takes action. Jo has announcements and pronouncements, but it is quiet Beth that takes action with the neighbors, that engages in helping the poor, and, when she takes to her sickbed, rallies the family together. She's also the one that, at the start and finish of the play, encourages Jo to not write potboiler action romances, but to instead write about the family, closing the loop on the work itself. 

The play's pacing is a bit weird, in part because the original work has its own odd pacing (here comes the Wikipedia notes). The text version most folk are familiar with is really two works mushed together. Little Women was the original work, and Alcott expanded on it with a second volume that was published in the States as a combined work (In Britain it was published as a separate story and titled Good Wives - Alcott's coffin would be strapped to the rotisserie and set spinning on "high" for that one). In any event, the play's first act is that first story, and everything resolves by the intermission - father returns home, Jo sells her first story. Meg starts courting Laurie's tutor. A delayed Christmas happens. Jo and Laurie kiss under the mistletoe. Happy resolutions. When act two kicks off, it's a couple years later - Meg is now a stressed-out mother, Amy has become the unpleasant society woman that Jo disdains, Jo is still dreaming, and Beth is still the fragile secret protagonist. The theme has changed as well, stressing now the demands of adulthood on the quartet. There is a lot of "Oh, grow up" among the character discussions here, and a question of what that really means.

The second act also takes some liberties with the original text. Characters and actions from the additional volume don't appear, and there feels like a disconnect as JoLaurie becomes AmyLaurie (the two hook up in Europe in the book, which is not covered here). It is a weird sort of denouement that resolves with Jo choosing to become the writer we know Alcott as. It feels like a bit of a change-up a sequel to the first act as opposed to a continuation..

Hamill did Pride and Prejudice at the Rep a few years back, and took some amusing swings at the original text. She feels more grounded in this one, more traditional to the written text, more fitting into the period. The sets have that suitable, open feel that suits the Rep well, with pianos, dinner tables and sickbeds wheeled on and off. It does have that cozy feel suitable for a a traditional Holiday Play, something you can take the kids or the visiting relatives to. I still have no great desire to engage with the original source material, or even the half-dozen film adaptations over the years, but it was a good afternoon in another place, another era. 

More later,

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Recent Arrivals: Pre-Holiday Rush

This season's collection, with a 
festive fall display.
This particular entry is a mixed bag of  goodies come from a variety of sources. Kickstarters, purchases from local stores, mailing list, and even Amazon (yes, Amazon). 

I notice these write-ups are getting longer as we go along. Often it is because they refer back to a previous product and I've read, or remind me of something in the long-ago. Also, credits are getting longer over the years and projects get larger. Bear up, folks, and have a happy Holiday Season.

Heroes' Feast: Flavors of the Multiverse, an official D&D Cookbook, by Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Michael Witwer, Sam Witwer, recipes by Adam Reid, 216-page hardbound, Ten Speed Press, part of the Penguin Random House Empire, 2023. This arrived on the doorstep unannounced. I am on a mailing list, apparently. This is a sequel to the previous Heroes' Feast, by the same talented group. The first cookbook was framed around various fantasy racial cuisines, while this one is geared at the various D&D campaign settings. The adventuring firm of Newman, Peterson, Witwer & Witwer deliver good works, the food photos are nice, and the recipes are by an unbio-ed Adam Reid, who I believe is the guy doing the equipment tests on the Cook's Country/America's Test Kitchen shows. One amusing reference is in their shrimp tarsis recipe, which does a nice call-back to the turkey tarsis recipe the Lovely Bride put into the now-classic Tales of the Inn of the Last Home book.

Historica Arcanum: Empires of the Silk Road and Herald of Rain by Sarp Duyar and Doga Can Sayilkan (Project Leads), 256- and 224- page hardbound books in slip case with maps, Metis Creative, Kickstarter. I thought that their first project (City of the Crescent) was good, but when this handsome slipcase arrived, it convinced me to back their NEXT Kickstarter project (Era of the Crusades) immediately. You can really see the Evolution of the company's styles here both in design and presentation. Crescent was about Constantinople, and these volumes focus on the Baghdad to Samarkand route in the 13th Century.  Empires of the Silk Road is about the cities and cultures of the region (which is underdeveloped in RPGs), and is packed with 5E alternatives. Herald of Rain throws the PCs up against the Assassins - the OG Assassins out of the Citadel of Alamut. One amusing thing is the hardbounds back in the day sometimes had blown-in pieces of paper when they are bound to help the covers cure. In this case, the blown-in endpapers were Captain America prints. Amusing and unintentional meeting of West and East. 

Paladin Adventures by Ruben in 't Groen, based on the King Arthur Pendragon Rules by Greg Stafford, 120-page hardbound, Nocturnal Media/Chaosium/Moon Design Publications, 2019, Purchased at Mox Boarding House, Bellevue. This was a whim purchase, and a surprise that it would show up on the shelves after all these years (Nocturnal Media is no more, and I don't know how this would end up on the shelves of the Mox (by the way, I like the Mox, but its parking situation is usually dire)). Paladin is Pendragon switched up from Arthur's Day to the time of Charlemagne and the Song of Roland. It is a direct descendent of Pendragon 5.2 in a slightly more modern setting. I always despair of good rules not getting good support material, and was happy to see eight adventures for the game. The book has the high quality of its predecessor, and drips with the vibe of the era and its stories. The feeling of it is very European, and it does feel like a translated import, but the Internet has failed me on that. Good job, regardless.

Heckna! Campaign Setting Boxed Set, by Ashley Warren, Misty Bourne, Verity Lane, and others, 294- page hardbound PLUS a box crammed full of card decks and standup paper counters, Hit Point Press. Kickstarter.  This is something that Kickstarter does well - I don't think I would pick up something this massive in the local store. It is a 5E campaign centered around a demiplanish carnival oe eeevil. It feels like Ravenloft with all the jambs kicked out and Strahd sent to clown college. The game has taken a lot of modern 5E tropes (like milestone advancement), adds tons of content, new monsters, and items, and wraps it up in a cool narrative bow. AND then adds decks of cards for monsters, spells, and magic items, stand-up cardboard counters, tickets, and a regular card deck with game material. The production values here are top-notch, with lavish art and a huge amount of content. I don't know if I'm ever going to PLAY this one - it is a bit daunting, but I am going to READ it all the way through.

I actually gave this book to 
a friend, so I had to ask
him for a picture
Monsters, Aliens and Holes in the Ground, by Stu Horvath, 256-page hardbound, MIT Press, 2023, Picked up on a whim at Midgard Games and Comics, my regular comic book shop in Fed Way. This is not a complete history of RPGs, but rather a wandering through the author's collection of highpoints. It is broken down into eras, but he wanders into later editions and reprints, particularly in the photos. The results are uneven, as certain projects are slighted because they were not part of his personal journey, or because he just didn't like the creators. His source material is often other published works, including the Internet, which means a lot of old rumors bob to the surface. In particular, he ascribes to the old hack that everything TSR (and later WotC) did was wrong, but all the scrappy independents were OK. Bloggy, gossipy, and definitely opinionated, it's a fun read but definitely makes me want to come out swinging in places. Your mileage may vary. One petty nit? He shows the cover of the original yellow-box Marvel Super Heroes game, but credits the art to Jeff Butler (Jeff did the Advanced Set covers - the original was by (drumroll) John Romita Sr.) 

This book is also on loan, 
so I had to get a separate
photo to include it here.
Lore and Legends by Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Michael Witwer, Sam Witwer, 416-page hardbound, Ten Speed Press, 2023. Yep, I'm definitely on a mailing list, and that's OK. This volume sings the praises of 5th Edition, now ten years old. I'm an old grognard, but I am definitely good with this. Recent books have been dealing with in the depths of D&D History for a while now - it is practically it's own subgenre. I'm delighted to see something written about the 5E era. It's a little self-congratulatory, but makes an excellent tonic for the previous tome above, More importantly, in addition to talking about all the hardback adventures since (and yeah, there are a lot of them), they recognize the importance of Live Play in the modern era, and show pictures of people actually playing the game! Yay!

Cults of Runequest by Greg Stafford, Jeff Richard, and artists Loic Muzy, Agathe Pitie and Katrin Dirim. Mythology 158-page hardbound, The Lightbringers 164-page hardbound, The Earth Goddesses 142-page hardbound, all 2023. Amazon. Yes, I bought game products from Amazon, as NONE of my regular shops carried this new series of hardbacks, and while you can order from the publisher (and get free e-versions), the household already had free shipping through Prime. In any event, Runequest is my favorite game that I follow but do not play (I have played EPT and Traveller, two others I tend to follow, within living memory). In my work the Runequest game operates on two levels - a tactical, personal level which has a Bronze age feel to it. Alongside that is a religious backstory of Gods that makes the Realms seem frankly underpopulated. Mythology gives a good overview I really like untangling a mythology where the gods themselves are both good or evil depending on point of view. Mythology gives an overview of the legends (a lot of which occurred before the beginning of time, which you have to wrap your head around). The Earth Goddesses and The Lightbringers are more grounded, dealing the various cults to the Earth Goddess pantheon and the old-school hero pantheon of the Lightbringers, whose rescued the Sun God Yelm after one of their numbers (Orlanth) killed them in the time before Time existed. Yeah, it's complicated. Also, the art in these books is great.

The Cataclysm of Kang Adventure by Matt Forbeck and others,  256-page hardbound, Marvel Worldwide, 2023 Midgard Comics, Games, and More. Picked up this one up on my Wednesday lunch break. One of the challenges to the old 80's MSH game was adventures. They were designed to feature one particular group (Avengers, FF, Alpha Flight) but we had to take into account what happens when someone wants to bring in a different team, or bring a custom-group of their local heroes as well. The new Marvel Multiverse RPG (MMRPG? MarvMult?) deals with that in that the adventure is hero agnostic, and that you can run it as a 7-issue graphic novel for one group of fledgling heroes that advance over time, or 7 separate adventures with various heroes of the appropriate power levels. You start off in an Italian Restaurant and end up fighting in an Galactus-level Kang to save an alternate-Earth ruled by the bad guys. The book also include 60 new MU characters that were left out of the initial hardback. 

And that's it for this round. Happy Thanksgiving, or general fall festive holiday, to all who observe.

More later,

Friday, November 10, 2023

The Political Desk: Results - The Center Holds

So, long-term readers of this blog know that I wait a couple days before posting the results of the election. This is because Washington State uses mail-in ballots, and it will sometimes take a while for the dust to settle. Particularly in this season, because some knuckle-head mailed white powder to the voter-counters. Fortunately, the Elections Department actually planned for this type of A-hole move, evacuated, cleaned up, and went back to counting.

The nation story this year is that the GOP and its candidates faceplanted. More progressive candidates and issues carried the day against more conservative alternatives. But in Seattle, the big city next door, the more centrist, business-friendly wing of the Democratic Party succeeded in taking control of the City Council (and yes, the Progressive votes tend to come in late, I don't think we're going to see the amount of movement necessary to overturn many of the early results). So the centrist-business-friendly Mayor has a centrist-business-friendly council to work with. That's cool. Let's look for some results.

And lest the chattering classes tend to view this as a sudden lurch to the right (and I'm looking at you, Seattle Times columnists), the city overwhelmingly approved a near-billion dollar levy for low-income housing. Oh, the horror.

Down in our neck of the woods, the story is actually much the same. Incumbents and moderates prevailed, with one exception. That's cool, generally. Let's check out what happened. 

 King County Director of Elections - Incumbent Julie Wise smashed her opposition, a MAGA-leaning, election-denying talk show host, flat. She actually got more votes than were cast in the King County Assessor's race, where the incumbent was running unopposed. As for her opposition, who knew that denying the fairness of elections would make people less willing to vote for you in an election? 

Port of Seattle Position 5 -  Fred Felleman handily won re-election to his position as well. That's nice.

City of Kent Council, Positions 1, 3, 5, and 7. Incumbents Marli Larimer and Zandria Michaud won re-election, and retired Boeing guy John Boyd joins the team. Yeah, that works. 

Kent School District No. 415 Director District 2 and 3 - Here is where it gets interesting. At the time of this writing  Meghan Margel won her position, but and Leslie Kae Hamada has fallen behind Donald Cook by a gnat's whisker (a politically scientific term for 166 votes, which even in our small city is not a lot. Which is odd for me, since Hamada was the only candidate that had (so far as I noticed) mailers and yard signs. But it may be tied to next item.. 

Kent School District No. 415, Proposition 1 (Replacement of Expiring Educations and Operations Levy) is passing (by two gnat's whickers) while Proposition 2 (Capital Projects and Technology Levy) is failing. Disappointed in this one, but These props were a rebuild of a bond issue in the last election that didn't make 50% either, so it is not a horrible surprise. Funding issues are going to be a discussion in the near future.

Special Purpose Districts -  I know no one besides the candidates who are googling their names will find this one, so congrats to the winners. 

  • Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Commissioner Position No. 1 -  Alice Marshall 
  • Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 1 - Anthony R. Berkley 

And that wraps up this year's election. But, oh ghod, they're already talking about next year's elections.

More later. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Political Desk: All Together Now

 Literally, there is so little on the ballot this time, that I want to put everything down in one sitting. No Initiatives. No Advisory Votes. The EVEN numbered districts of King County are voting, but Grubb Street is in the 5th, so there is nothing there. The only state-level judicial positions are unopposed, as is the King County Assessor (which is not horrible). Now, nearby Seattle's got a LOT going on (Seven out of Nine council seats), but we're not in Seattle. But let's see what is on the rest of the ballot. 

King County Director of Elections - This is the largest King County position we have a race in. I've complained previously about this becoming an elected position, but in truth incumbent Julie Wise since that time, has done a primo job in her time in office, and has, in Amazon-speak "Earned Trust". Her opponent is a right-wing election-denier talk show hosts who runs for things, loses, and complains about the game being rigged against right-wing election-deniers. Yeah, I'm going with Julie Wise.

Port of Seattle Position 5 -  Position 2 had no competition, but we have two candidates for Position 5, and we there is even a scandal (being the Port and all). It's not much of one, but it was duly reported in the Seattle Times. Incumbent Fred Felleman used his position to try to gain admittance to a lobbying group meeting that he was not otherwise allowed to attend. Yep, that's it. Small potatoes in comparison to the Port's heyday, but perfectly fitting with this year's theme of low election expectations. I'm going to recommend Fred Felleman in any event, but we'll need to keep an eye on him.

City of Kent Council, Positions 1, 3, 5, and 7. I tend to favor incumbents and endorsements here. Not blowing things up is a major consideration, along with keeping your nose clean. I know, it feels like a lot to consider, but this year's crop is generally good at it.

  • Position 1 - Marli Larimer - Ms. Larimer was appointed to the position in 2018, and hasn't made of mess of things. Her opponent didn't put anything in the voter's guide. 
  • Position 3 - John Boyd - Former Navy, Former Boeing, now retired. has a fistful of endorsements. Sure, let's give that a shot.
  • Position 5 - Bill Boyce versus no-one. Yeah, it is part of the trend. 
  • Position 7 - Zandria Michaud. Her opponent has a Tacoma PO Box for a campaign address, and has a platform of "I dunno, what do YOU want me to do?" Politics is not about choosing a lunch place.

Kent School District No. 415 Director District 2 and 3 - Position 1 has no opposition (of course), and the one piece I've found on the candidates has them all discussing the importance of communication. And there is some frustration over the previous bond issue failing  (see below). Here's what I got.

  • Director District 2 - Both candidates have a solid endorsements, but I am going with Andy Carter for this one.
  • Director District 3 - I am leaning towards the incumbent Leslie Kae Hamada, but note that the WEA has endorsed Donald Cook.

Kent School District No. 415, Proposition 1 (Replacement of Expiring Educations and Operations Levy) and Proposition 2 (Capital Projects and Technology Levy). Last election, Kent voted down a bond issue for widespread capital improvements in the last election. These are more refined and targeted levies, broken into two chunks. The difference between a levy and bond is that a bond vote allows the district to raise money through taxation by guaranteeing the bonds, which are then sold of the open market, while a levy is a direct property tax. But the BIG difference as far as voters are concerned is that a bond requires a 60% approval, which a levy just has to make 50% (go figure).

In any event, the two levies are pretty much what is on the tin. Both propositions are replacement levies for funding that is going away. There is some concerned opposition in the Voter's Guide on these. The stated argument against is that we don't do enough for the schools, so we should not give them more money without more oversight. I'm a fan of oversight and transparency, but it sounds like a meta-issue (What type of oversight? Beyond the School Board itself?) as opposed to something that shows up on the proposition itself.  At the same time, a different group has lodged official complaints against the school board for promoting the levies (like announcements at high school football games). So, the district is being simultaneously too transparent and not transparent enough. OK, then.

Regardless, I am a YES on both of these. I am willing to fund education, AND I think they that more communications is always good.

Special Purpose Districts - OK, we are FAR down in the weeds on this one, and barring any breaking scandals, I have to base it on their Voters' Guide statements and endorsements.

  • Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Commissioner Position No. 1 -  Alice Marshall is listed on the District's site as being a Commissioner since 2010, and I have to say the District's done a good job - we had to drop a small bundle when our septic field finally failed and hooked up to to the district sewer, but I think that's a more responsible approach than increasing rates in the face of more development. 
  • Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 1 - And I am a little torn on this one, Erin Smith Aboudara has been fighting the good fight in the ongoing relationship with UW Med, but Anthony R. Berkley comes in the door with a fistful of political and union endorsements. I'm going to go with Anthony R. Berkley but this is a race between two good candidates.

And that wraps the ballot from Grubb Street (and it WAS longer than anticipated). I'll tune in later with the results. 

More, as I usually say, later. 

Monday, October 30, 2023

The Political Desk: News and Snooze

 So the Washington State Voters' Guide (and later, the ballot) showed up in the mailbox, which for me is the opening gun of the November election. And for my neck of the woods, it is a little bit boring. At the state level, we are voting on three positions. All judgeships. All unopposed. Seattle is a hotbed right now - seven positions out of nine on the City Council are up, but since Grubb Street is not in Seattle proper, we don't get a vote.

And this is exactly what bothers me about moving elections to all-even or all-odd years. Without a "marquee" race, there is very little draw for the average voter. Already, everyone is gunning up for next year, which in addition to the Presidential Race, we are revising the entire Executive Branch of the State (Governor is retiring, everyone else is shuffling positions around). But this year? There's not going to be an overwhelming amount of voters.

But you know what is missing this time? Those horribly-written Advisory Votes. These were toothless push-polls that at best let people vent about how Olympia is raising money. Finally, after many years, they are banished. So that means we don't know where the money is? Well, no. There's a new web site that lays out the State's spending right here. Not as urgent as grabbing one piece of legislation and shoving it in your face as outrage fuel, but a good tool. 

Mind you, the dearth of choice at the state level is mitigated slightly by the fact that the King County Voters' Guide  has also shown up, which handle the County, City, and School Board elections. Which is good, meat and potatoes stuff, but still not the attention-grabbers you see at the State and National level. 

What does that mean for the Political Desk? Mostly business as usual. I will pass through the ballot, but only make recommendations on races that are really races. So for folks who are not local, and are expecting theatre, book, and game reviews, you might want to just take the week off. The Seattle Times has their recommendations (mostly centrist-pro-business, behind a soft paywall - smooth move, guys) and the Stranger has theirs (mostly progressive, pro-renter and consumer). Fuse has a list of progressive endorsements as well, but it dovetails neatly into the Stranger's with less snark. Crosscut gets into money raised and issues here, but doesn't get outside the major metros. Talking about school board elections is pretty rare, but the Washington Educational Association has its here

Everyone else can take a break. For those of us in our hyper-local locality, let's turn over our ballots and begin.

More later,

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Play: A Fair Folk Tale

 Islander Conceived & Originally Directed by Amy Draper, Stage & Associate Direction by Eve Nicol, Book by Steward Melton, Music and Lyrics by Finn Anderson. Seattle Rep through 19 November.

This was excellent, Standing Ovation excellent, which is not what expected from a highly technical, two-person musical.

Let me first deal with the now-standard frustrations with parking up near the Seattle Center. Usually the LB and I park in a small parking lot in a nearby bank. This time, all the slots were filled and there was a sign saying that Event Parking was $20. OK, we went to our backup site half a block away, which was full with a sign saying that Event Parking was $40. So we hit the large parking garage near the Climate Pledge Arena, where Event Parking was $70. We quickly tweaked that something was going on at the arena, and hit a garage on the other side of the Center, near the opera house. Cost there was $25, had copious free space, and a living human being was taking the money at the gate. Fortunately we left with plenty of time to get there, so we made curtain with ease.

Oh, and the something going on at arena? It was a tournament for DOTA 2. So computer games are my own worst enemy.

Anyway, as I was saying, Islander is excellent. Here's the overarching plot: Kinnan is a small island off the Scottish coast, which exists in its own sense of mystic isolation from civilization on the bigland (mainland). The community is dying, as more folk are moving to the mainland, and there are heated discussions about abandoning the island entirely or toughing it out without government support. Eilidh (pronounce AY-lee) is the youngest inhabitant on the island, and first finds a dying whale on the island's shoals, then a mysterious new arrival, Arran, who claims to be a native of the lost island of Setasea and a keeper of whales. Add to all this Eilidh's dealing with a long-distant relationship with her mum on the mainland, with her aging grandmother still on the island, and with the various inhabitants on the island and you have a rich broth to work with. 

For our performance Lois Craig was Eilidh and Julia Murray was Arran (two other actors switch off for other performances), and they are, well, excellent. Both in the strength of their voices and in their acting chops. In addition to the two women, they are everyone else on the island - the marine biologist, the local radio DJ, the very pregnant neighbor, the grandmother, the mother, and various other natives, including Paul, who is missing his garden gnome. They switch off characters continually in several songs, creating a rich medley of the islanders and giving a Northern Exposure vibe of the quirky townsfolk. It is all a tall order, and Craig and Murray pull it off seemingly effortlessly.

So. Two person musical with heavy use of looping - taking the notes and playing them back immediately, allowing the actors to build and harmonize with their own voices. This is a highly technical show from an audio standpoint, and the tech people deserve a round of drinks for their achievement (several people in the audience paused on the way out to congratulate the person running the sound board). He and his looping tech provided a third character on the stage. 

Yes, it is another show on tour, but instead of Canadian Acrobats we're dealing with Scottish actors/singers. And the accents can be a little thick sometimes (there is a glossary in the program book), since we are dealing rural Scots accents in song. But Islanders pulls it off to a great degree that I did not see as possible, and I think Craig and Murray set a high bar with their voices.

So, a worthwhile afternoon, even if it was in competition with a computer game tournament. Recommended

More later, 

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Theatre: Bodies in Motion

 Passengers Directed, written, and choregraphed by Shana Carroll, Seattle Rep, through 15 October.

Our Seattle Rep season kicked off with a time change - instead of the usual 2 PM curtain, it was moved to noon. Not sure if it is a one-shot or the new normal, but the end result was an easier drive and more available parking, even though it involved getting up earlier on a Sunday morning.

But it was worth it. I think I've mentioned that one of the good things about subscribing to a season is that I would end up at performances that I would never normally go to. In this case, it is a Canadian acrobatic troupe. It is my understanding that if you live in Montreal you are automatically entered into the ranks of a performing group, and are expected to spend three months a year working on trapeze work. Sort of like jury duty in the States, but more exciting.

In this case the group is The 7 Fingers (Les 7 Doigt de la Main). And they are impressive. This particular troupe is a traveling show, and consists of (in alphabetical order) - Eric Bates, Valerie Benoit-Charonneau, Eduardo de Azevedo Grillo, Kaisha Dessalines-Wright, Marco Ingaramo, Nella Niva, Mandi Orozco, Santiago Rivera Laugerud, and Meliejade Tramblay-Bouchard (there are accent marks and the occasional carat that I am missing).

And the troupe is brilliant.  During the performance, I mentally assigned them names like Hula Hoop Girl, Aerial Apparatus Guy, Woman Being Juggled, and Comic Juggler Guy.  Each has a specialty and a moment in the limelight, but all are onstage continually, emerging from the chorus while others continue to spin and whirl on the stage itself. The continual movement on the stage is enticing and overwhelming, since so much is going on at once. It is well-organized pandemonium. 

The plot? There isn't much of one beyond "Life is Journey". Our troupe are all passengers on a train evoking the middle of the last century, and they rock in their seats, climb over the baggage carts, move their suitcases, sleep and interact like a single organism made of random parts. There is some dialogue, but it is secondary, accent marks in the flow of bodies moving across the stage. One long discussion about how "Train travel is Time Travel" is ultimately drowned out by the train whistle. It is an active world, not an explained one. Even at the end, it is clear that stories have a resolution, but travel just stops. A lot like life. 

There athleticism of the group makes my ancient knees hurt just watching them. The music, by Raphael Cruz and others, is pinpoint accurate, and the dance and movement dovetails precisely into it. It is triumph for Shana Carroll's choreography, and for the acrobats involved. Passengers is not about plot, but it has its own story, one of grace and movement. A good train trip, out of the ordinary, for the Rep.

More later, 

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Play: Bromance

 Matt & Ben by Mindy Kaling & Brenda Withers, Directed by Zenaida Rose Smith, Arts West through October 1, 2023

The play season has begun for us in West Seattle. Actually, it begun two weeks ago - we usually catch opening night but misplaced the online tickets in a file folder, so we showed up to the theater two weeks late, but did get a great dinner at Mashiko almost-next-door-to-the-theater (and who remembered us from previous times - so I guess we're regulars now). 

The story about how the movie Good Will Hunting came to be is covered in detail in the Wikipedia article. This isn't that story. It's nowhere NEAR that story. Instead this is a story about how buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, struggling slacker actors, suddenly had the copy of their future masterwork literally drop into their laps, and the stresses that promise of future success puts on their friendship. They are a nineties oddish-couple. Matt is the plotter, achievement-driven and control freak. Ben is the pantser, goofy sidekick, and good luck charm. They argue about stupid things. They are visited by famous spirits. They screw up, fight each other, reconcile, and are ultimately rewarded with the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Feel good story.

And it did not work for us (yeah, the Lovely Bride agrees with me on this one - usually we get a split decision when one of us doesn't like something). Maybe its the fact that she and I have been collaborators IRL, or simply that neither one of us saw Good Will Hunting, despite its many awards. Maybe the only idea I had of Matt & Ben's personal chemistry was their turn in Kevin Smith's Dogma. Maybe we're just, you know, OLD. But the play felt unmoored (shifting between story-telling and living in the events) and at the same time predictable (a lot of sequences ending in someone saying they will leave, but not leaving). It was OK, but simply OK.

The actors, though, were really, really good. Nabilah Ahmed was an excellent Matt, recognizing his tendency to overcontrol but not able to handle when things are not organized his way. Jacquelyn Miedema has a tougher row to hoe in the goofy sidekick Ben, the lesser of the two. Matt is the brains, Ben is the heart, and the play needed the chance to show that more. Both of the characters are goofs, and the physical comedy as they fly around the cluttered apartment set are the highpoints of the play. Miedema also creates a slinky Gwyneth Paltrow and Nabilah a world-weary JD Salanger, ghosts of future and past who visit the two. The actors? Just fine.

Ultimately, this was average. I made my peace early on in the performance that this was not going to be a play about writing the movie, and Matt & Ben were at best caricatures of Damon and Affleck. But with all that stripped away, the core relationship was kinda light, and barely sustained its 90 minute run time. 

More later, 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Book: Damp Squib

Uncle Dynamite by PG Wodehouse WW Norton & Company, 1948

Provenance: Half-Price Books. This was a whim purchase a few months back, while I was looking for something else. That happens sometimes. OK, that happens a LOT.

Review: It is a well-known fact that I am a big Wodehouse fan, but even I must admit there is greater Wodehouse and just-average Wodehouse. Greater Wodehouse just drips with class-system wackiness, sly banter, and preposterous situations. Wooster and Jeeves stories are the hallmarks of this, but we also see good examples out of Blandings Castle as well. Greater Wodehouse thrives in the interwar years, where makes a fanciful portrayal of a world a short train trip or tram ride from the city hustings of the author and the audience.

Just-average Wodehouse still has the brilliance of language and the twistiness of plots, but it feels like the pilot-light has gone out. And part of it is that Wodehouse created a space in which he could write stories, and those stories in turn have defined his output. Having built his own personal genre, he was now bound by it. He could write gloomy reflections on the intangible nature of the soul, but it probably would not sell in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post

Anyway, the story at hand. Uncle Dynamite is Uncle Fred, a local lord (Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton , 5th Earl of Ickenham) of WC Fields disposition (though of slenderer build), and notable for drinking, gambling, creating a general nuisance, and getting up in other peoples' business. He uses that last talent for what (he presumes) is good, such as trying to put lovebirds back together and pilfering statuary busts containing gems that a young lady hopes to smuggle into New York without those bothersome tariffs (such Macguffins abound in these stories). Uncle Fred lies effortlessly, takes on false identities, and then imposes additional false identities on others. Uncle Fred is a recurring a number of stories by Wodehouse. If it was reincarnated today, the entire canon would be called the Wodehousiverse, and get five separate shows on Netflix.

The stock characters are here, a commedia dell'arte set in the green and pleasant lands, a day's motorcar drive from the Smoke. Here we find the headstrong young woman, the young man who can't quite figure out how he got engaged, the shy, blundering lunk, the petty tyrant lord of the manor, the long-suffering wife, and the stiff-necked constable. There are mix-ups and false identities and numerous petty burglaries. One of the charms of the book is watching Dudley dig himself out of one obvious prevarication while setting himself up for the next.  

And it works. All the pieces slide into place, one lie leads to another leads to a third effortlessly, and the clueless young man finds himself dancing around exploding revelations. If this was a sitcom, it was a very nice episode.  I would not say that the author is coasting, but I think he has tamped on the brakes a bit too hard. 

This was written after the war, after Wodehouse soiled his reputation by doing light, airy radio broadcasts from a German POW camp. Post-war Wodehouse tends to be nostalgic, pining for an age that no longer exists in a land the author cannot return to. Manor houses, train stations, smuggling diamonds all belong to another era, a black-and-white film of a lost period where serialized stories lived in the glossy magazines. It's good, but not Greater Wodehouse.

But even OK Wodehouse has its moments - this is worst pun I have encountered yet:

"Yes, my dead wife, I am glad to say, continues in the pink. I've just been seeing her off on the boat at Southampton. She is taking a trip to the West Indies."


"No, she went of her own free will."

Try the fish, and remember to tip your waitstaff. More later,

Thursday, September 14, 2023

New Arrivals: Green and Pleasant Lands

A large collection this time, as Kickstarters resolve and I take another quarterly trip to Gabi's Olympic Cards and Comics down in Lacey with Stan! And in the time I've taken to write this up, two more Kickstarters have shown up, so I need to write these up before I am buried by them.

One of the ongoing challenges to Kickstarters is shipping. I grumbled previously how there are now added costs in Kickstarter as everyone tacks shipping on later in the process. And that sadly is part of the modern world. But another component of this is that everyone seems to have a different method of finalizing fulfillment. I've already dropped the ball on a couple Kickstarters where I got the process gumbled up, and am dropping one which requires me to use Paypal (sorry - very untrustworthy platform, would not link it to my bank account). That's more than a pity.

Looking over this season's crop of games, I am struck by how many of them are in England. I have King Arthur's Britain, Queen Victoria's Britain, Mythos Britain and Roman Britain (with a good chunk of Mythos on the side). There are also five projects in the Mythos/Horror vein as well. So I may have a "type" in my gaming purchases. 

Anyway, here's a bunch of games.

Old Gods of Appalachia Roleplaying Game, by Shanna Germain and others, 416-page hardbound, Deep Nerd Media/Monte Cook Games, 2023. Kickstarter. The game is based on the impressive and award-winging horror podcast of the same name from Cam Collins and Steve Shell. It is set in an alternate Appalachia (the mostly-rural mountains which run between Tennessee and New York State), where dark things dwell in the runs, creeks, and glens. Several colleagues worked on it, including some that have a heritage from that part of the world. The book looks fantastic and the rules are MSG's Cypher system, but backgrounded in favor of the flavor and color. This is one I've been looking forward to, since I am a native of Pittsburgh (A metropolitan anomaly in those mountains), I've hiked some of these regions as a boy scout and as a surveyor, and I still have all my Foxfire books in the basement. Looking forward to digging in.

The Book of The New Jerusalem, An Occult Miscellany of England by Paula Dempsey, 264-page softbound digest, Pelgrane Press, 2022. Olympia Cards and Comics. Call of Cthulhu has always have been heavy on the handouts, which is one of the pluses for the setting. Pelgrane Press's Trail of Cthulhu (similar universe, different mechanics) issues entire BOOKS as support material. This heavy little tome supports their Fearful Symmetries campaign, and in addition is a sequel/prequel to another volume, Book of the Smokes, which involves ANOTHER campaign. I have none of these other works, but find Book of the New Jerusalem to be an excellent tour of rural England in the 1920s, which is filled to the brim with supernatural encounters and adventure hooks for potential GMs (and it was the second encounter of "headless bears" in a single week). How much is pulled from existing folklore and how much is made up for moment, I really don't care - it is pretty darn impressive. 

Cults of Runequest Vol 1:The Prosopaedia by Greg Stafford, Jeff Richard, Dandy Peterson & Katrin Dirim, 152-page hardback, Chaosium Inc, 2023. Olympia Cards and Comics.  Runequest is my favorite RPG that I've never played, and I have been following its projects off and on ever since White Bear/Red Moon. Its cosmology is so peopled and varied that it often leaves me mildly confused (yeah, and I'm the guy behind Manual of the Planes). So this is a welcome start to sorting everything out. It is a simply a listing of all the gods/divines/powers of Glorantha, and is an good overview of the grounds, before they drill down into the various pantheons and portfolios.

Dragonbane: Mirth and Mayhem Roleplaying by Tomas Harenstam and others, Boxed set, Free League. Kickstarter.  Free League Produces some of the best-looking products in the business, and Dragonbane is no exception. This is a good-sized box with 112-page rules, 116-page adventure book, stand-ups, maps, a solitaire adventure, and special dice. The game is a German descendent of an adaption of Chaosium's Magic World (itself an early BRPG product), and I am very interested in knowing more about the intermediate evolutionary steps, as there is a lot here that echoes development in both CoC and D&D over the past 30 years. It bills itself as a "Game of Mirth and Mayhem", though I'm not sure if that is quite on target (It does have sentient ducks, which are likely a heir to early Runequest). But its approach is hardly that of "grimdark" fantasy, and it echoes the early D&D boxed sets with a positive, heroic, and active approach to adventuring. Perhaps I need a new word for this type of play - Brightheart? Shimmerlight?

Pendragon Starter Set, by Greg Stafford, Boxed Set, Chaosium Inc. 2023.  Boxed set.  Olympia Cards and Comics. An excellent introduction to the upcoming Pendragon revision, which I have played, and have enjoyed the support material as well. The thin box is packed with a46-page solo adventure, 66-page rules/setting book, a 50-page adventure, appendices, pre-gen characters, battle cards, and dice, and is an affordable (Thirty dollars, compared to 60-buck hardbacks) entry into the world. It looks like they have tidied up the mechanics of the elder versions, while keeping concepts unique to the game like seasonal play (creating multi-year campaigns) and paired traits. Probably will spring this on my regular group.

Cthulhu Hack by Paul Baldowski,156-page softbound digest, Just Crunch Games, 2023, Kickstarter. The Cthulhu Mythos gets a lot of gaming variants. There is the original CoC, a d20 version, Trail of Cthulhu, and this one, which is a Hack. Hacks are a subgenre in themselves, and tend to shorter, self-contained game, with limited scope, and easier mechanics. This one has built on those base principles, in that it uses the standard abilities as saving throws, adds depletable investigative resources like "Smokes" and "Flashlights", and various die sizes for resolution, similar to Margaret Weis's Cortext system. But to be honest his one leaves me a little off-put, though, in that it arrived with AI art in the credits. Now, the lead (sole) artist is also the art director, they made a donation in kind to an artists fund, and if you're going to make lumpy, unspeakable, uneven-looking creatures, Midjourney fits the bill nicely. Still, it makes me feel uncomfortable, and not in a rugose and squamous way. And yeah, it wasn't mentioned in the original Kickstarter, and (checking) they did address it in the comment section, but it opens up a can of worms for me about artistic responsibility in these purchases, and will affect future purchases from this group. 

Britannia & Beyond: A Setting Guide to the Province of Britannia and the Barbarian Lands of Caledonia and Hibernia for Cthulhu Invictus by Stuart Bloom and others, 142-page softbound, Golden Goblin Press, 2023, Kickstarter. This one has been a little late, for a number of reasons including illness from the guy running the Golden Goblin Press, which is a challenge to all operations large and small (Hope you make a smooth recovery). Britain itself is a effectively a Subgenre of Cthulhu subgenre, and Roman-era Cthulhu is a sub-sub-genre (see projects like Lex Arcana, for example). Golden Goblin picked up the Cthulhu Invictus torch and has been producing excellent material, and in this case takes its OWN tour of supernatural Britain. This can work well with New Jerusalem, I think. It is texturally dense, as most Invictus books are, though the font is a little thin and they've gone from a glossy stock of the original book to a non-gloss stock. Still, well worth the wait. 

Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game Core Rulebook by Matt Forbeck, 320-page hardback, Marvel Worldwide, 2023, Midgard Comics. Midgard is my local comics shop, and carries games as well. Like a lot of stores, it manages a large playing space for gaming and runs Magic and D&D games. It's a good place, and the have a new puppy (Miles) but that's not relevant to the current discussion. I talked about the Alpha version of this a few months back, and this is the finished draft. And there is a lot here, and a lot more that can be here. We're talking about 130 characters from the Marvel Universe, and, the way they have defined super-powers (specific applications within broad categories) means there are a dozen different super-powers all gathered within the heading "spider-powers", (including using your webbing to make a glider). And that doesn't cover everything - there will more to come with expansions and adventures. One disappointment is that the hardback lacks an initial adventure, but that should show up soon as well. [Update 9/19 - Ask and ye shall receive, true believer. Here's a free adventure, which is an update of the Playtest adventure. Also Errata and a FAQ.]

StokerVerse Roleplaying Game by Chris McAuley and others, 208 page hardback, Nightfall Games, 2023, Kickstarter. I am spending way too much time in England, apparently. Here we are in London of the 1890s. Gaslight territory. Set in an world evolved out of the classic Bram Stoker novel by the author's great-grandnephew, Dacre, the game features the Famous Monsters of Public Domain - Drac, Frankenstein's Monster, Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, all given a unified backstory.  The game uses the "S5S" system using d10s for task resolution. The presentation is solid with a full-color interior that is mostly red. A lot of red.

Venture Maidens by Celeste Conowitch, 224 page hardback, 2C Gaming, 2022, Kickstarter. Good campaign settings come out of long-standing campaigns. Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk are good examples. With the explosion of live-play and podcasts, we have a lot more personal game campaigns that turn into published campaign settings. Tal'Dorei comes to mind, and now Venture Maidens, which blossoms from a "femme-forged podcast." The world has a couple interesting angles, in that it has a more morphic, dynamic cosmology, where the the mortal world is slowly being consumed by the fae lands. In addition, there is a "heroic destiny" mechanic which creates some interesting long-term play effects, which makes sense for social, multi-season adventures. Even without these, the book is crammed with backgrounds, treasures, and beasties, and the production values are at WotC-levels. I picked it up on a whim, and am glad I did.

And that's it for now. Wait, SOMETHING ELSE just showed up on my doorstep? OK, we'll save that for next time.

More later,

Sunday, September 10, 2023


I've been thinking about how we played the game under REALLY Old School Rules:

The DM kept track of your hit points

It mattered if dungeon doors were push or pull.

You could spend 5 minutes of game time trying to open a dungeon door (badly).

Adventuring groups with 12 or more people.

Classroom dungeons.

Caller. Mapper. Party Leader. Three different people at the table.

There was no saving throw for Level Drain.

You paid attention to encumbrance.

You paid attention to weapon length.

You paid attention to weapon speed.

You tried to work with segments. Briefly.

If you had a 2-handed broadsword in a corridor, you were fighting alone.

Fumbles hit an available ally.

You never fired a missile weapon into melee.

You had group initiative.

You told the DM what you were doing, THEN rolled initiative.

You went through multiple characters in a single night.

3d6, no rerolls.

You traded strength for intelligence.

You got an XP bonus for a high primary stat.

Cleric, Fighting Man, and Magic-User.

Thief was a new thing.

No new classes – only subclasses.

Every new subclass is now a kit.

New subclasses just happened to be the characters on the cartoon show.

Someone really was willing to play a Cavalier.

Someone wanted to play a new class from DRAGON.

Someone wanted to play a new class from The Strategic Review (TSR).

Witch was a character class.

Alchemist was a character class.


Reincarnation was pretty much a career-ender.

Players kept a bank account with the local temple to cover resurrections.

The dungeon was within walking distance. Sometimes it was in town.

Dungeons sorted their monsters by level beneath the surface.

Overland encounters were not.

It was safer to adventure in a dungeon than overland.

Level meant the character level. Also the spell level. Also the level of the dungeon floor.

You ran a Magic-User with one hit point.

You ran a Fighter with one hit point.

Someone started identifying a characters with a number. Same name, different number.

You could leave your equipment to your next character in your will.

The Paladin was obligated to kill a Thief.

Someone played an Assassin. Once.

Your Ranger got followers. And got them all killed.

Lightning bolts bounced.

Fireballs filled the available space.

Rot grubs as anti-thief door protection.

Pits killed player characters.

You ran, the monster got a free attack on you.

Only Thieves could open locks. Or climb walls.

Thieves could climb walls like Spider-Man.

Demons had types.

Negative armor class.

There was a beautiful witch, but no stats.

Someone at the table had read John Carter of Mars and understood references to Thoats and Green Martians.

There were no stats for Thoats or Green Martians.

You could definitely NOT swim in full plate.

You could DEFINITELY swim in full plate.

You got ONE AD&D hardback rulebook a year. And you LIKED it!

You'd go to GenCon just to get the latest AD&D hardback rulebook.

You had to wait for the DMG to come out to know the official XP for a monster.

You used original books from the little brown box with your new AD&D Monster Manual.

Taking one hit point of damage was a “shaving wound.”

Zero hit points was DEAD. Dead, Dead, DEAD.

You only got XP from killing monsters.

You only got XP from killing monsters and getting gold.

You divided gold by level for XP.

Gold from selling magic items didn’t count to XP.

You discovered what potions did by tasting them.

You would go down the list of potion types, trying each in turn.

You played with a Deck of Many Things.

You discovered that sword was cursed by going into battle with it.

Percent in Liar.

You would find no treasure for a monster with Treasure Type H.

A random bunch of stirges would have massive treasure.

High-roll gets it!

Whether dwarven women had beards was definitely a thing.

Exploding oil.

Kamikaze mules.

The engineering student built a remote chest-opening device.

You had lightsabers. Briefly.

You used critical hit locations. Briefly.

You could see an ogre from a mile away. Then realized it was Steve Jackson's Ogre.

It wasn’t a greatsword. It was a 2-handed broadsword.

Bastard swords were called Hand-and-a-half swords. Also, called Bec De Corbins.

Pole arms.

It wasn’t two-weapon fighting. It was fighting Florentine.

Doors always opened for monsters unless spiked shut.

You brought dungeon rations to drop when fleeing

You brought iron spikes to drop when fleeing rust monsters.

Fighters were afraid of rust monsters.

No one knew was a rust monster looked like.

Bugbears had pumpkin heads

Orcs looked like pigs. Until Jabba the Hutt starting using them.

Leather, Chain, Plate. That’s it. 

Oh yeah, and shields.

If you ran a gnome, it would have been a gnome Illusionist/Thief (or GIT)

If you could make the required minimum stats, you would be an elf.

If you ran an elf, it would a Fighter/Thief/Magic-User.

If someone wore leather armor and had a shield, they were an Assassin.

Standing order - shoot the guys without armor first. They're usually magic-users.

Level limitations on non-humans didn’t matter if you weren’t going to live to 3rd level anyway.

Hirelings with torches.

Horses that disappeared when your group went into combat.

The dungeon was safer than the wilderness.

Clerics only were useful once they reached 2nd level.

High-Level Fighters wearing motorcycle jackets. Mithril studs on the back spell out "10th Level Lords".

Pronouncing "paladin" as "pah-LAY-din".

Pronouncing "chimera" as "Shimmer-rah"

Arguing about the pronunciation of "drow".

Random teleporters inside the dungeon.

Random-rolled dungeon occupants.

Random-rolled spellbooks.

Alignment languages.

You used alignment languages as a de facto Know Alignment spell.

Thieves could spoof magic items.

Skeletons that were animated objects.

Skeletons with electric shocks.

Gas spores.

Neutral Beholders.

Giant Weasels/Hogs.

The Extension spell.

It mattered if the spell was clerical or magical.

Spell descriptions that read "Same as the Clerical spell of the same name, except where noted".

To Hit Armor Class 0 (THAC0) was a new thing.

Different combat tables for different classes.

No one knew what a holy water sprinkler looked like.

Not only were elves immune to ghoul paralysis, they could “unfreeze” fellow party members.

Carrion crawlers were the worst opponent for their hit dice

Psionic player characters meant encountering psionic monsters.

Psionic monsters were horrible for non-psionic players.

Needed a 17+ Charisma to be a paladin.

Percentile strength scores.

No one knew what a kobold looked like. Other than they were short.

Attack Matrixes.

Named Character Levels.

No good 2nd level Magic-User spells.

Paladins with holy swords were immune to magic.

Cloudkill could specifically be used to clean out ant colonies.

Thor had 275 hit points.


Sneak attack for double damage!

A random encounter with 300 bandits. Or 400 gnomes.

Mars mounted upon Talos’ shoulders.

The good old days - they were terrible.

More later,

Friday, September 08, 2023

Game: Critical Response

Critical: Foundation  -  Season One by Yohan Lemonnier and Kristoff Valla Gigamic/Hanchette Boardgames, 2022.

It is the distant, dystopian future of 2035. You are an expert in your particular field (Scientist, Data Analyst, Mercenary), recruited to be part of the Icarus Project, an organization whose goal is to ferret out a high-tech conspiracy. It is a corporate-owned world. You stand on the edge of advanced cybertechnology, nanobots, and AI. And it is always raining.

Critical Foundation - Season One is a self-contained boxed RPG designed to be played in a series of short adventures. Think of it as a TV show, and the subtitle of "Season One" makes sense. Each adventure should run about 30 minutes. Think of it as binging an RPG.

The game is minimalist in design. Character generation consists of choosing one of four characters classes, and which side of the character card you want to represent you (Changes only in gender and some personality traits). Task resolution uses special dice listed one to three, with one face being an auto-fail. Roll dice and add the appropriate skill plus any bonuses for weapons, tools, or traits. It is a pretty simple system. There is no real character advancement after the intro adventure.

The presentation, on the other hand is maximumalist. This is a deep box filled with toys. In addition to the custom dice, the is a GM screen with slots to display cards, a deck of card/handouts presenting scenes and clues from the adventure, and all manner of chits and counters for the game itself. There is a lot in the box, and the GM does not need to reach for outside materials (pencils, scraps of paper) in running it. It is self-contained.

The art is key part of the game, and makes extensive use of hand-out and illustrations to sell the mood and feeling of the game. This art is copious but not always useful. Some of the cards hold vital clues (the note in the lab coat in the card showing the lab) while others are just thematic (Here is a car chase in a rainy city, followed by a car chase on a rainy highway, followed by a car chase in a rainy industrial zone), and some feel extraneous (fold-out of the air ducts of a skyscraper). The GM Screen shows a rainy, neon-lit street scene with a prominent sign declaring "Feet In Your Face!"  Needless to say, this became our team's rallying cry.

The adventure itself is linear and episodic. Your team gets an assignment, you get handed cards for equipment, you go to the location(s) of the episode, discover/fight stuff, and hand the cards back in. The guard rails are up and there are a couple places where only one action can move the plot forward. Failure is not published by death, but merely by a less-satisfying conclusion (someone else comes and rescues you). 

But of course, playing games with game designers is like driving with mechanics. We're continually stopping the car to check out that noise from under the hood. We make suggestions. And we kept trying to go off-road. So for us Critical: Foundation played out over three leisurely nights, which is just a tad longer than advertised. We also forced the GM to check between multiple episodes as we jumped the linear track and got ahead of ourselves, and there were places where he said "Yahknow, the game doesn't have an answer for that". And part of the game is set in Seattle, which we know better than the designers, so we are bringing more to the table than usually expected. 

The adventure's ultimate reveal is a blend of Neuromancer and Casino Royale (the one with Woody Allen). It comes up on you suddenly, and you don't have that much of a clue that it is coming. It definitely feels like a setup for future seasons (which aren't talked about on their site yet). 

All in all, Critical; Foundation - Season One is a good, "lite" RPG, and pushes the lower boundaries of what can be called an RPG. You have character identification, minimal character generation, task and combat resolution by a randomized system, and defined roles of GM and players. It does not require a lot of preliminary work by the GM, and does not require a lot of personal engagement by the players in their characters. It is a pleasant break from more involved RPGs, and good for a couple evening sessions. Go have fun.

More later,

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Game: Hope-less on the High Seas

 Grey Seas Are Dreaming Of My Death: A William Hope Hodgson RPG by Derek Sotak with Kevin Ross and J.R.Hamantashen, 2020

I've previously mentioned (ranted on) the idea that if you're going to review a game, you really should play the game. I didn't run this one, but rather was a player in our regular Saturday Night group, and the adventure was run by Steve Winter. He ran an adventure from out of the booklet itself, so there will be spoilers. 

William Hope Hodgson is not in the first DMG's Appendix N, but is the predecessor and influencer on a lot of them. Most of his work appeared in the first two decades of the 20th century, and Hodgson died in the fourth battle of Ypres in 1918. Yet he was very prolific, and wrote a lot of tales which would influence the later pulp writers. His Carnacki stories set the tone for the "Mystic Detective" character, and his "House on the Borderland" may have influenced the later D&D Module as well as being the inspiration for the pig-faced Orcs. 

But the game concentrates on his Sargasso Sea stories. Hodgson spent many years at sea as a young man, and his maritime experience comes to the fore in his stories. The Sargasso Sea is a region north of the Caribbean where the currents and flora create a region filled with seaweed (sargassum). In the real world, the seaweed is dense but not impassible, but popular imagination (including Hodgson's influence) transformed it to a haunted region of ghost ships, ball lightning, and stranded vessels. 

The game itself keeps the scope small - you are crewmen on a ship. - for our group we had a First Mate, Second Mate, Cook, and Carpenter, but there are other positions available, including Bosun, Cabin Boy, Jonah, and Fungal Human (OK, Steve didn't give that one as an option). Each position has a pregen sheet showing strengths, weaknesses, and a small bennie for that class. The GM acts in the role of Captain, which negates the arguments of who is in charge (mostly). 

The core statistics are Brawn (strength), Nimbleness (dexterity), Perspicacity (wisdom/intelligence), Physique (constitution), Seaworthiness (all ship-based skills), Salt (hit points), Backbone (morale/sanity) and Mettle (luck). Statistics range between 8 and 14, with about 10 being the averages.  Roll Statistic Checks in the game on a d20, rolling low for success, with a 1 being a critical success and a 20 being a critical miss. 

And that is pretty much it. It is not that confusing, though the rule set might make it seem so through extensive use of ALL CAPS and BOLDFACE, for important words, such that the last line of the previous paragraph would read: Roll STATISTIC CHECKS in the game on a d20, rolling low for success, with a 1 being a CRITICAL SUCCESS and a 20 being a CRITICAL MISS. So the system seems tougher than it really is. 

This was a Kickstarter, but we had three copies among the five of us, so we could check rules easily. In addition, most of us are fans of the Master and Commander movie and the various maritime novelists such as Patrick O'Brien and C S Forester, so we were well-positioned in talking a good game (though somehow most of our characters were all named "Jim"). Our ship, the Malandra, was caught in a storm in the Caribbean, and when we fought our way clear, began encountering the remains of ships that were not so fortunate. We found some flotsam. We rescued a half-drowned seaman. We took an abandoned vessel under tow. We found a ship with chanting, mindless cultists on it. And it gets worse.

And that's a thing about Hodgson's stories - they tend to build up slowly to the inevitable final reveal. Something unearthly happens, then there is an attempt to resume normality, then something even more unearthly happens. That's the case here. Kevin Ross, the designer of the scenario, did an excellent job not only capturing the flavor of a Hodgson story, but the pacing as well.

In our case? We all died. TPK. And it was a fair cop. We had access to materials that could have made the situation more survivable, but failed to recognize them at the time. Our GM/Captain is more than willing to allow us to mess ourselves over, neither encouraging or discouraging our decisions (curse you, free will!). However, it made for the an excellent one-evening session, and I would recommend Grey Seas Are Dreaming Of My Death to any RPG group that thrives on Cthulhian horror (before it was Cthulhian).

More later,

Monday, August 21, 2023

Game: Cthulhu at Seven

The Bifurcated 7th Edition
 Call of Cthulhu, Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft By Sandy Peterson, with Mike Mason, Paul Fricker, Lynn Willis, and Friends. Chaosium, 7th Edition, 2015

I've said (repeatedly) that to properly review a game you should actually play the game. Otherwise you are reviewing a meal based on the menu, or a movie based on the screenplay. Reviewing without playing can give you some insights, but will not take into account the full product. I will note that there are perils with reviewing RPGs even with playing, as each GM has their own style, and each gaming group has their own strengths and challenges, so one's mileage may differ even within a particular type of review. With all of that in mind, here is my mileage on the mechanics of the most recent edition of Call of Cthulhu.

I have a (mostly) regular Saturday group (when we don't reach quorum, we watch old movies), we have mostly done CoC in its various incarnations over the years, including long sojourns at the Mountains of Madness, on the Orient Express, and girding the globe in Masks of Nyarlathotep. However, we had a interest in taking a new product, Berlin, the Wicked City out for a spin, and that was written for the 7th edition, and I chose to run it in the new edition. We had previous dabbled with it in an organized play adventure, A Time To Harvest, before publication of 7E, but that was run by a colleague, and this was my first chance to run the system myself. 

Most of the earlier editions of the game have been pretty interchangeable - the differences being primarily in presentation and in the skill lists. The game mechanics were pretty well-defined, and old products could easily be run with later editions. I will leave Berlin itself for another review (I have opinions), but let's talk about mechanics of the current Call of Cthulhu

CoC 7 is a different animal than its predecessors. Each edition has been larger than its predecessor, and with 7th it has fully split into two volumes - an Investigator Handbook (Player's Manual) and a Keeper Rulebook (DMG). But the big change is how they evaluate ability scores/characteristics,  which in turn makes changes to combat, and the eliminates the Power/Resistance table. This is a fundamental break with the previous editions, and to the better of the game.

The primary ability scores of earlier editions all built out of a 3d6 roll, like D&D. Some abilities are 2d6 plus 6, but that's a variant. Secondary scores are derived by averaging existing scores, often (Sanity) by multiplying by 5, creating a percentage. Skills are also created as a percentage, and where a skill in not applicable, you multiply a primary score to get a percentage. 

The new edition inverts and unifies that process. You still have abilities in the 3-18 range, but you start off the game by doing the math and multiplying by five for the characteristic. That's your starting percentage. Then you take half of that value and finally a fifth (your original score). All of these numbers go on the character sheet. When you resolve a task, you determine the difficulty and roll percentile dies as before.

That's more numbers on the character sheet, but what this does is create more degrees of success. In 7E we have Regular, Hard, and Extreme degrees of success. This both allow the Keeper (GM) to set levels for tasks, as well as help determine the level of success. I found as a Keeper that I could more accurately describe ability successes in play beyond a binary success/failure. In addition, the player can "push" a failed roll to get another attempt. The push usually consists of some mitigating circumstance in order to allow it, and a second failure indicates something has gone horribly wrong. So we have critical failures, but they are player-instigated.

This is particularly good for opposed rolls, which previously used the Power/Resistance table when dealing with two characters in direct conflict. The Power/Resistance table was a full page table of numbers that could have been an equation (50 + 5 times (Active - Passive characteristic)). The resulting curve (more of a line) sloped off quickly in both directions, such that if your Active Characteristic was more than 3 better than your opponent's, you likely would succeed. Now, each side rolls for against their characteristic, and better degree of success determines who wins. It feels better than the bare-bones comparison of characteristics, and provides a bit more swinginess for evenly-matching opponents.

This methodology also applies to combat as well, and creates a more vibrant combat environment. As opposed to making a direct "to-hit" roll, you can make choices, and your opponent can make choices as well. For the attacker, they can attack, flee, or maneuver (a catch-all category that includes things like grappling, pushing, tripping, disarming and other non-lethal attacks). The defender can choose to dodge, fight back, or maneuver as well. Making the combat round involve decision-making from both combatants improves engagement without bogging too far into tactics. It also means that in some case you can take damage as a result of your attack roll, which some players did not care for, but I found sped up play more. 

Gunfire, by the way, remains as lethal as it ever has been, given the damage that guns inflict versus the weak hit points of the PCs,.

7th Edition also embraces bonus and penalty die, much like advantages and disadvantage in 5th edition D&D. However, this does create the problem that you're hunting for every advantage in every situation ("I have the higher ground, but you've got an aimed shot and has the salad at lunch')  D&D has an advantage in that one penalty die cancels any number of bonus dice and vice-versa, and I use that as a house rule in play. 

7th Edition CoC is like 3rd Edition D&D, where we shook the entire system up and standardized it with a regular (mostly) system. It moves itself further away from the D&Dish roots, but still a clear descendant of early RPGs - The call and response of a GM (Keeper) and players, hit point terminology, character classes, etc...

And in play, it worked out much better than I thought it would on first reading. The rules are very clear, and copious amount of tables (in particular the ones on the GM Screen) help with a minimum of page-checking. I found in play that combat moved fairly swiftly, and allowed me more latitude in describing combats as opposed to standard "roll-to-hit and roll-for-damage", and in addition gives the players more options with the general maneuver rules without requiring specialized rules. It definitely moves the system forward, and (I think) will allow for easy retro-fitting to earlier published adventures. All in all, an excellent job.

More later,