Sunday, February 19, 2023

Game: Imperius Lex

 Lex Arcana: An Empire Without End Core Rulebook by Leonardo Colovini, Dario De Toffoli, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello, 2019 Quality Games S.r.l.

Lex Arcana:  An Empire Without End Quickstarter by Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello, adventure by Giacomo Marchi, 2019 Quality Games S.r.l.

Long-time readers know that I will often talk about newly-arrived games in the Grubbstreet household. Many come in. All are flipped through. Some are read. A few are actually played. When I talk about the new arrivals I don't go into a lot of details and hesitate to call my write-ups reviews. The big reason is that games should be played, and reviewing a game based on the text alone is like reviewing a play based on its script. It can be done and done well (look at the voluminous amount of Shakespeare commentary), but doesn't get the experience of the game itself. Similarly, reviewing a live play is like reviewing a performance, where a lot of elements come into play, but I think it is more honest to take it out for a spin. 

Anyway, this is a review. I had the chance to run my regular Saturday night crew through the Quickstarter, and got a fair idea of both the mechanics and the game world. So here goes.

Lex Arcana is the X-Files in a Roman Empire that never fell. The year is 476 CE in our parlance, which was when the (Western) Roman Empire fell. In this world is is AUC (Year of the City) 1229, and Rome is still chugging along at its maximum empirical extent. This is mainly because a) there are gods, and b) there is divinatory magic that allows Rome to avoid letting things fall apart.

That doesn't mean there are no threats to the empire, and that's where the Player Characters come in. You are custodes (watchmen, guards, agents)  of the Cohors Auxilaria Arcana, which is a special detachment of the Roman Legion, recruited from across the Empire to deal with supernatural dangers. You've been touched by the gods and act as agents of Rome. You may be sent off as the result of a vision, an omen, or a report from the hinterlands, and given wide leeway in dealing with threats to the Empire. 

You have Abilities (Called Virtutes) and Skills (called Peritiea) Ah, that's another thing. Everything is named in Latinate terms, which helps in getting the proper feeling but can create havoc in play. The good news is that most of  skills and abilities make sense to a non-Italian speaker - your coordination ability is Coordinatio, your combat skill is de Bello.  The bad news is they truly need a Pronunciation Guide for the poor semi-literate English-speakers. My dog-latin would make a hound howl, and I am afraid I risked one of Jove's Thunderbolts mangling the language. The game master, by the way, is called a Demiurge

Anyway, you have "Dice Points" in your Abilities and Skills, and this is interesting. You can roll any type of dice (d2, d3, d4, d6, d8,etc...) for an ability test up to the maximum number on that dice. So with a Coordinatio of 12, you can roll a d12, or 3d4, or 2d6, or a d10 plus a d2. It is an interesting mechanism. Adding to that is that the dice "explode" (like in Spelljammer's smoke powder rules) - if you get a maximum on your dice (all three d4s come up 4), you roll again and add that to your total. Which sometimes is overkill, since you will likely have made the Difficulty Threshold already. 

Results also come in degrees of success - You can increase damage or get more information if you beat the Difficulty Threshold by a sufficient number. For every three points you get an additional success. In combat, both sides roll their de Bello, and then high score wins damaging the loser (tying rolls do nothing - you are clanging swords at each other). Degrees of success can multiply the damage. Shields can affect whether damage is done, and armor reduces the damage itself.

One nasty bit is that multiple attackers on the same target add their rolls over a single round (tempo). The first attacker makes his de Bello, then that result is added to the next attacker's score and so on. So a mob can really overwhelm a solitary defender (One of the group was hit hard by a number of giggling child-demons and almost got wiped out).

In play, all of the above works out pretty well. As Demiurge, I unleashed this on my regular Saturday night group - 3 or 4 players, which was a nice number, and used the Quickstarter adventure. The Quickstarter has all the basics from the Core Rules, and adds a few wrinkles, like offering a wild card deck of things the player can do to either speed or hinder the plot (Sortes). So here be some spoilers in this discussion, but I will try to make it light.

The group was sent by their local magister into long-conquered Gaul to check out a vision he had. They find a bandit lord who seems to be a lot more charismatic than he has any right to be. He is supposedly a "new Vercingetorix" (yeah, I tripped over that name, though I know it from Asterix et Obelix comics), who was the last great Gaulish chief. In tracking the Bandit Lord to his lair, they discover that the Celtic gods themselves are restless and seeking to mount their own resurrections and rebellion.

And the adventure moved pretty smoothly, with a good combination of action and interaction. There are a lot of random tables for the Celtic gods bedeviling the player characters, and not all of them immediately visible, so I chose results as opposed to rolled them. The story line does have a false branch, in that the heroes can explore the west or the east of the main city(my group, of course, investigated both, setting off ALL the encounters in the process). Regardless of choice, you eventually discover an outpost of the Bandits (same encounter regardless) which in turn leads you to their secret base and potentially a big battle scene (which runs pretty well for such a large number of combatants - my team forced them back into their keep and laid siege, forcing the Bandit Lord's surrender, much like Vercingetorix did). Unfortunately, the way the adventure is written, there is a very small chance the player characters find out WHAT was really going on - why this schmoe got the favor of his gods in the first place.

But all in all, it was a pretty good setup (we're a bit leisurely in our play, so we wrapped it up in about four or five nights). It gave some good challenges for a low-level group. There was a good mix of the prosaic and the fantastic. We had to walk through the combat carefully at first, but it came together naturally. 

The game has elements of traditional (D&D) style RPGs - the call and respond nature, the game master, the use of polyhedrals, to be comfortable, but enough new material (combat system, sortes) to challenge established players. The setting has great potential (I have a number of additional sourcebooks), and gives the players a strong direction of what they need to do (your boss had a bad dream - go check it out). In the Quickstarter, the differences between the classes is a matter of dice points you have, but that expands out in the core ruleset.

Final summary? Worth playing, and worth playing again. A good time was had by all. Just wish I had taken more ranks in dog-latin.

More later.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Book: Burning Down The Haus

From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe, Washington Square Press (Pocket Books) 1981

Provenance: This is again from the collection of Sacnoth, but lacks his normal marginalia and notes. I pulled the book off my bookshelf en route to the bathroom at one point, and it remained there for some time. In fact, I discovered I could ONLY read the book in the bathroom while I was ... otherwise occupied. If I took it elsewhere in the house, I would ignore it as I could only absorb it in small doses, as too much exposure to it raised my blood pressure. Ultimately, though, it has taken me a while to get around to panning it because I had to think about what I hated about it.

Review: Call this a Hate Read. I like Wolfe's work - The Right Stuff is spot-on. Bonfire of the Vanities was great when it was serialized in Rolling Stone (the movie? not so much). But I really didn't like what Wolfe was saying here, and like less the way he was saying it. But at the same time, he has a point - a lot of modern architecture varies between non-descript and outright ugly - big glass boxes without a lot of style or personality. 

Mind you, he's not wrong. Our cities have been overtaken by the big glass box. South Lake Union is full of them. But he ascribes this blandification to a group of architects in Germany that set themselves up as the end-all and be-all high priests, and their followers refining the process to the point that they abandon the physical plane altogether and enter the domain of theoretical architecture, which is planned but never built. And ultimately blaming the consumer and end user for not standing up to these architectural bullies.

Wolfe's text is as overwrought as the architectural ornamentation he mourns. His verbiage is dense and he fits as many obscure references in a he can. He comes off as that dinner party bore eager to share his opinions and width of knowledge without regard to who gets in the way. Here's a reference to a medieval philosopher, there a listing of archaic architectural features. And of course the de rigeur Latin reference that no one who went to college in the Midwest would understand. Tempora mutantur.

Ultimately, he is of that brand of Intelligentsia that scores its points by attacking other Intelligentsia. And he had become a brand, right down to his ice cream suit and smarmy literary pretensions. Heck, even the cover design of this particular edition says it is more about the author than the subject.

Much like critiques of modern literature that seem to begin and end at the MFA programs, Wolfe defines his world very narrowly, and then judges it for being so limited. For him, modernism is an exit to nowhere. Frank Lloyd Wright is mentioned but then discarded from the discussion, even though he did some of same overrunning of his client desires as his German colleagues, and in addition contributed more to American architecture. Brutalism doesn't show up because it is not German enough. The Craftsman and Unosian houses don't even exist. The US Steel Building in Pittsburgh, Sears (now Willis) Tower in Chicago and Transamerica Tower in SF were extant when he wrote this, but apparently didn't make a dent in his arguments. 

The book was written in the 1980s, talking about movement introduced in the 1920s. We are forty years further along, and I wonder what Wolfe would declare about PPG Place in Pittsburgh (A glass box with crenellations!) or The Seattle Library (which looks like it belongs on the back end of a Star Destroyer) or the multi-colored MOPOP in Seattle (identified by Ron Judd, a local columnist, as "The Wreck of the Partridge Family bus"). What about the sextoy-shaped Gherkin in London? The Cell Phone, which melts cars in the adjacent parking lot? Or that monstrosity of the ultra-thin glass box in New York City, the toothbrush box on Billionaire's Row, a thin glass box that towers over all the other glass boxes?

What would he say about open floor plans? The unification of controls, so only one set of switches commands the lights of an entire floor? The removal of false ceilings of asbestos tile, replaced by exposed HVAC systems, giving large rooms a comfy boiler-room feel. And on the consumer level, the rise of "snout houses", also called "Garage Mahals". where the street view is just he driveway and a garage (and are placed on tiny lots that barely demand a lawnmower).

But I digress.

The thing is, it is not (exclusively) the design habits of the Bauhaus school that evolved us to the current state. Advances in material science and design has brought about this change as well. We have moved from exterior walls as a primary means of support of the structure to facades that hang on steel frameworks, and most recently to strong central cores that allow those building-wide open floors. We ended up with these big, boxy buildings in part because we made it easier and more efficient to make them taller and bigger.

So that may be the heart of my dislike, no, my active hatred, of this text - it offends my engineering sensibilities. Science and commerce, not art, got us to this point.

Literally I exited this book feeling dumber than when I went in. It is a rare thing to dislike a book this much and still finish it. I feel a need to do more research in architecture just so I can fully elucidate my dislike of this slender volume. So I guess there is that. If you want a better take on the architectural blunders of the past and present, here's a young woman who has been picking on them on TikTok for some time. And it in turn led me to a podcast on modern architecture. And both are more illuminating and entertaining about the subject than this book.

More later,

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Book: The Little War

The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict by Donald R. Hickey, University of Illinois Press, 1990 

Provenance: This volume has a Half-Price Books price tag on the front cover ($8.49 as of 2/99), but comes to me from the collection of Sacnoth. It has one of his business cards as a bookmark (tagged for "Design, Editing, Research, Proofing"), which is covered with his small, tight handwriting in pencil. It ALSO has another bookmark, saying "This Book Belongs to Rich Baker". Rich was a colleague at Wizards of the Coast with both of us, and is now a colleague with Zenimax Online. So the book has stayed in our orbit all these years.

Review: I've been looking for a long time for a good book on the War of 1812, and this fits the bill nicely. Books on the subject are few and far between, and tend to focus on only one element of the conflict. Part of this is because the war is so granular and diffuse, with many very separated theaters of operation (Great Lakes, Native Nations, New Orleans, the High Seas, Burning Washington) that a high-level view is hard to make. But also because it is a war that we as Americans really want to forget about - our reasons for getting into it are a bit murky, our performance erratic, and the resolution a tie (at best). 

There has been a lot of debate of about how we ended up in the war, possibly because the US usually goes to war as a result of an "inciting incident". Pearl Harbor. The Maine. Gulf of Tonkin. The Zimmerman Telegram. Fort Sumter. 9/11. Sometimes this inciting incident may prove to be fictitious or overblown, but we have it in our constitutional DNA that we don't hit first, but when we're hit, we hit back hard. 

The War of 1812 doesn't really have that. The US declared war first, based on British maritime actions, known as the Orders of Council, that allowed the Royal Navy to intercept and search ships heading for Napoleon's French Ports, and  also against impressment of formerly British sailors on US ships. The Orders of Council were rescinded two days before the vote to go to war, so that dropped away almost immediately. The impressment issue was much greater than it seems from this temporal distance - in the six years before the outbreak of war, some 6000 sailors on US ships were impressed by the British. Because we had a lot of Brits on our merchantmen. The Americans paid better than the British navy, and there was less chance of being shot at, so a lot of British tars came over (The administration estimated were that there were some 9000 British citizens serving on our ships at the start of the war). And there even was an "Incident" - The US Chesapeake affair, where a British  fired on and boarded a US ship to capture supposed deserters, killing four. But this was in 1807, and while it could have created a foundation for war, it didn't. We were not ready, yet.

So why did we go to war? Hickey puts forward the traditional viewpoint - that the Orders of Council and Impressment were the cassus belli. More recent historians push the idea we had a secret agenda to conquer Canada and this was just a cover story. And indeed Hickey notes that we were already building roads north to carry troops before the declaration of war, and during the peace negotiations, the negotiators received instructions to have Britain hand over Canada as one of the terms. So, yeah, we have the declared reasons for war, but if we could get rid of British influence in the New World, that would have been a nice bennie.

I think we declared war because we thought we could get away with it. Britain, with the most powerful navy in the world, was fighting with France, with the most powerful army. Clauswitz said "War is a continuation of policy with other means". The US thought that its issues were not being addressed by the Brits, and declaring war would make them take us seriously (spoiler: It didn't). It should be noted that we did not throw in with the French, but considered "our war" to belong entirely to us. And if it worked, we would get the spoils. 

And we did OK, from a standpoint of reducing British support of Native American tribes in territories we were trying to move into. The battles won were cases where the Brits were at the end of the logistic tether (the biggest navy didn't matter if you were fighting on a lake; one-on-one battles with over-cannoned frigates). But several attempts to invade Upper Canada came to naught, Washington was captured and burned, and the Brits grabbed most of northern Maine (to give them a better route to Newfoundland and their other coastal holdings). The final treaty restored the relationship to its pre-bellum state, and since by that time Napoleon had been contained, that was good enough for the British (No war, no need to stop ships and drag off British Nationals). 

The War was also the last gasp of the Federalist party as a national force. Originally the "Party in Power", they were during this period overwhelmed by the Virginia-controlled Republican Party(also called the Democratic-Republicans or the Jeffersonian Republicans, which would later split into the Democratic and National Republican (later Whig) parties. Yeah, it's complicated)  The Federalists were strongest in the Northeast, and were taking it more on the chin in the war. There was talk of New England leaving the union and seeking a separate peace with Britain, culminating in the Hartford Convention, where they did not do so, but instead sent a list of demands to Washington - which arrived a couple days AFTER the peace treaty did. That and the fact that the then-Republicans were embracing a lot of the things the Federalists stood for, like strong centralized government and economic controls (because wars are expensive), sort of spelled the end of the Feds as a major force.

Hickey pretty much lays that out in the book, but tends to be more forgiving of the Federalists, pointing out that we don't have any solid records of what went on at the Hartford Convention - as a result the Federalists come across as more hapless than rebellious. Still, like the anticipated invasions of Canada, there is enough evidence to support thoughts of secession. 

Hickey's The War of 1812 is an excellent and concise history of a diverse and far-flung war. It is pretty much what I was looking for. I'd love to find something from the British/Canadian perspective, or of the Native American peoples who fought in the war (Hickey does a better job than most bringing them into the conversation). There have been new editions over the years, but you might be able to find this one at Half-Price. Or in the libraries of other friends.

More later, 

Friday, February 10, 2023

Theatre: Story Time

 Metamorphoses, based on the works of Ovid, Written by Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomis, & Sabrina Mahfouz, Directed by Shana Cooper, Seattle Rep through Feb 26

About 2000 years ago, a Roman poet named Ovid gathered together a collection of myths, legends, and stories and put them in epic poetry form. Some 250 stories, occupying 15 volumes. Lotta gods, lotta kings, lotta violence. That collection has survived to the present and has become one of our (usually unread) cultural foundation stones.

Here we have is a few of those stories, starting with a creation myth and running through the deification of Augustus Caesar (with Phaeton and the chariot of the sun as a bonus round). We have an Orpheus story (but not the one with Eurydice), Medea, Actaeon watching Diana bathing, Midas, and an argument between Jupiter and Juno arguing about who gets more out of sex - the man or the woman. It is not a "greatest hits" album, and there is a nice mix of the familiar and the forgotten.

And that's part of the problem here - it is a grab-bag of stories, so it starts, stops, and starts again. It doesn't build up a good head of steam, and you're left trying to figure out how everything fits together. The theme is stated as "what it mean to be human", but that doesn't seem to fit snuggly in with the vast variety of stories it contains.

What it does do is present a whole raft of storytelling styles, but it does it subtley, so I'm not sure if that's an intended point. The Juno/Jupiter argument opens up to audience presentation. It is followed by a tale of Bacchus that comes off as a flop-sweat comedian's routine. We have a singalong (geared to the age of most of the audience), a song about how sucky Midas is, and traditional story-telling of friends around a campfire. It is interesting, but uneven. 

What is excellent is the ensemble - Kjerstine Rose Anderson, Meme Garcia, Nike Imoru, and Darragh Kennan. Most have been at the Rep before, and I'm a sucker for returning actors. They also are excellent storytellers, and I could listen to them for much longer than the 90 minutes.

And the set is fine, though is outdone by the rotating platform and beaded scrim in the theater next door. The props are onstage, but come apart and enter into the stories, and in the end, the stage itself is a shambles. Which may be a point as well, but I'm just not sure.

It feels like a missed opportunity. If we're going to delve into various ways we tell stories (and, mind you, Ovid himself was all over the joint on his storytelling), they could expand it out. Daedelus and Icarus as a powerpoint. A point/counterpoint of Noah and Deucalion. The deification of Augustus as letter of recommendation. Something that could bring things together. As I said, 250 stories in the naked Greek isles, and these are just a few of them. AND telling stories in what makes us human.

Over twenty years ago, the Lovely Bride and I saw another production of  Metamorphoses. Mary Zimmerman's version, presented by the Seattle Rep at the former Intiman stage across the way. It told some of the same tales, and took advantage of the seats rising around a thrust stage to put a swimming pool in the center. And it felt that that production hung together more, though it took some of the same stories as the base. This production was OK, but pales in the memory of that one. It is not bad. It is just OK.

More later,

Monday, February 06, 2023

Theatre: Teenage Wasteland

 I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Isaac Gomez, Based on the novel by Erika L. Sanchez. Directed by Juliette Carrillo, Seattle Rep, through 5 February.

OK, this one works. Full play, large cast, even an intermission.  Yeah, I've had my fill of one-person performances for a while, and a bit of old-school theater (created recently, but in the old forms) is appreciated.  

Here's the basics: Julia is a volcanic fifteen-year-old nerd, half MTV's Daria and half Sam Kinison. She fights with her parents, comments sarcastically on everything, and lives in the shadow of her older sister, Olga, who IS the perfect Mexican daughter. Or WAS, because she got by a truck, while texting. We open with Olga's funeral, and Julia grousing about the mortician's makeup job. 

And the play is about grief and mourning and growing up. Julia blames herself for her sister's death, and for cutting herself off from her. There are a lot of incidents and accidents in the course of her maturing. We have dealing with family and friends. We have sex, drugs, violence, altercations major and minor. 

And it works. The actors across the board are excellent, with a lot of them taking on additional roles to swell this world even further. Karen Rodriguez is excellent a Julia, containing the infinities and pettiness that only a fifteen-year-old can have. Sofia Raquel Sanchez is an excellent Olga, sweet and perfect and flawed in her own right. Jazmin Corona is a tyrant mother in opposition with her willful child, and only when the child understands why does she become more sympathetic. And Marco Antonio Tzunux and Leslie Sophia Perez are stealing scenes right and left as Julia's over-the-top classmates. All of them come across as believable characters.

I usually pick on the business of the set design, but here it is broad and open, a set of moving rings in the center (thanks, Hamilton), with various props (doors, coffins, tables) drifting onto the stage or being dropped from above. The background is a beaded scrim, semi-translucent, with a beautiful hummingbird design on it. The actors have space to move and interact, and it really works. 

We watch Julia grow, fall, and rise again. Only when she recognized the flaws in others and in herself does she understand her world better, when she sees other people's scars in addition to her own. Over the course of the play, she evolves, and we get to grow with her. 

More later,