Monday, June 8, 2009

Dungeons & Dragons: Satan's Game

(If you don't get the title, look up Dead Alewives. Really.)

On my other blog, in the bowels of LiveJournal, I do a series of posts entitled "The Monsters of Dungeons and Dragons", in which I explain the monsters of Dungeons and Dragons. Since I started the series, a new edition of D&D has come out. I haven't got to that yet. I'm still in the letter "H" of the old Monster Manual! Maybe I'll never finish this, but who cares - it'll be fun while I still feel like it. ...Which I guess is sort of circular.

So far I had 15 parts, and now part 16 is online. A list of links for your convenience:

Parts 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

And now... The Monsters of Dungeons and Dragons, Part XVI, from Gorgon to Half-Fiend. Read them if you're in the mood to be entertained by nerdy things!

(I'd post them here, but I don't know how to duplicate the LiveJournal-specific codes. Perhaps if I figure that out...)

Pants On Fire

My computer breaking down was the start of a series of rather unfortunate events (apologies to Lemony Snicket). In summary, ...well, can the summary. Suffice to say that my lacking-in-paid-employment status is entering dangerous levels. Much of my time has been taken up with absolving this.
But no sirree, this blog is not here to whine. Well, not only here to whine. So expect more posts in the coming days!

EDIT: Or not. I lied.

Monday, February 23, 2009

How You Know That Something's Gone Terribly Wrong

...When your laptop computer begins making funny scritchy noises, and a dainty ribbon of dusty smoke rises from the back vent.

I'm off to the Apple Store to get it looked at. Until then, posts shall be in short supply!

Friday, February 13, 2009


I've been playing video games again a little bit lately. Well, one video game: Oblivion, being the fourth installment in the fantasy role-playing game series, "The Elder Scrolls".

I play video games, as most people do, for a variety of reasons. A less entertaining reason is that it's a stress reliever. A more entertaining reason is that I enjoy being in the role of someone who can accomplish spectacular things in other worlds, living through dramatic stories with no consequences to myself but emotional ones. I want to call lightning with the power of my mind, find ancient supernatural artifacts in underground caves, leap off mountains and survive. This is why I tend to play video games like "Oblivion".

"Oblivion", and the Elder Scrolls series in general, is a roleplaying game, and is somewhat unique in the video game world. The game starts you off as a forgotten prisoner in a dungeon; what you did to be put in the dungeon is never explained. As the game opens, the Emperor of the continent, voiced by Patrick Stewart, comes traipsing through your prison cell. His guards are very annoyed to see you there - apparently your cell houses a secret escape route from the city (if only you'd known!) and the Emperor is being chased by assassins. It looks like a bureaucratic mix-up stuck you in the middle of this - or maybe Destiny, because the Emperor recognizes your face. It seems he's seen you in his dreams. Before the next few hours are out, he'll be dead, and you'll be tasked with the mission of finding his illegitimate surviving heir and delivering to him a supernatural heirloom.

The story continues from there, of course, but if you just follow through that story and nothing else, you're missing the point. The world of "Oblivion" (and its predecessors "Morrowind" and "Daggerfall") is huge and open. It is over 16 square miles wide in 'real' absolute terms, with giant cities, small towns, open tracts of wilderness, rivers, mountains, swamps, forests, and people everywhere; that's not even counting the alien world of Oblivion (a combined metaphor for outer space and hell, believe it or not) which the player can venture to. It's a world to get lost in.

Sure, technology puts limits on the realism; some of the world is randomly generated, the people who populate the world have limited dialogue, and, well... you're playing a video game. It's as unrealistic on the edges as you would ultimately expect.

Still, "Oblivion" is powerful in that, within the loose bounds of the fantasy world provided, you can be anyone. You choose and design your own character, appearance, personality, skills and physical traits. It's easy to design a range of characters who do completely different things in this other world, live in different cities, befriend different people. This is the appeal of the role-playing game; god forbid I play a game like "World of Warcraft", in which the possibilities are truly infinite because you're surrounded by real people. It's this kind of thing that turns people into addicts, who sacrifice their outside social lives on the altar of a fantastic world where they can live lives they never could in the outside world.

Not I. There's an edge of frustration involved, and for me, it makes me want to write. A game like "Oblivion" has an inevitable story problem; it's sharply limited despite the openness of the world. There's only a few conversation options, and an ultimately finite number of unique stories you can experience in the world. Inevitably, most are predictable, and the ones that are surprising still amount to very very short stories once you subtract the amount of fighting and looting and exploring that you do to get from point A to point B. The beautiful world of the game triggers inspiration; walking down a woodland road in the rain holding an enchanted sword gives one a sense of possibility, a sense of wondering, for me, what this character that I have so carefully created might be doing or feeling walking down this road in another world. The game, good as it is, cannot but fall short of these speculations. It's from these frustrations that stories can be born.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


I just realized that my posts on Blogger for the last month of January totaled more than either of the past two years altogether. I didn't realize I'd been that bad with updates. On the other hand, now I feel a little more accomplished.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The 80's-90's Daycare Sexual Abuse Hysteria

I have this tendency, a tendency in which I am certainly not alone in possessing, to become interested in completely random subjects and devote excessive periods to studying them. I find this tendency gets worse when I'm sick, as I am now.

Subject of the hour: the day care sex abuse hysteria from the late 1980's to early 1990's. This was a moral panic touched off by an increase in day care centers and parents becoming insecure about them. A mentally ill grandmother and a schizophrenic alcoholic brought up some rather crazed accusations involving quite spectacular stuff - orgies, torture, child pornography rings, secret hidden tunnels, livestock and pet butchery, blood drinking, feces eating, Satanic worship and rituals... some daycare providers were even had a Satanic power of flight. All of this (minus the flight, which was generally ignored) was held credible by people across the nation, law enforcement officials and courts who rigged or forced convictions, and of course parents who knew 'in their hearts' that this had been true all along.

Of course, it wasn't. Kids were bullied into confessing, the lives of those accused were completely ruined, and, more subtly, I suspect some actual abuse cases were pushed under the rug once they all got the taint of the hysteria. And now arrogant young folk like me look back on this and say, "What were they thinking?"

Moral panics. They're fascinating things, really.

This article from the New York Times gives an interesting take on the whole thing. A choice quote:
In the prototypical witch hunts in Europe and in the Massachusetts colony, the accused were often scapegoats for some calamity -- disease, bad harvests, the birth of a deformed child. In the witch hunts of the 80's, there was no such injury to be avenged or repaired. There was, however, a psychological need to be fulfilled. Our willingness to believe in ritual abuse was grounded in anxiety about putting children in day care at a time when mothers were entering the work force in unprecedented numbers. It was as though there were some dark, self-defeating relief in trading niggling everyday doubts about our children's care for our absolute worst fears -- for a story with monsters, not just human beings who didn't always treat our kids exactly as we would like; for a fate so horrific and bizarre that no parent, no matter how vigilant, could have ever prevented it.

Many of those of my generation (I'm 23) may look at this with bemusement, as something 'our parents' worried about, something irrelevant, even, if an era post-9/11. But then again, most of those who fell for this craze lived through or had parents who lived through at least one World War; we are all equally susceptible to this brand of madness, I suspect.

Though I have to admit, as a writer, my first thought isn't so much "What can I, or we as a society, do to stop something like this from happening again?" so much as "How can I use this in one of the stories I'm writing?" I take comfort in the fact that my immorality is a shared one.

Monday, January 26, 2009


So, now I've got Twitter. I couldn't decide whether to sign up as "jakejesson" (so obvious!) or "redwinggreen7" (my old screenname - so awkward!), so I took a third option.

You can find me here:

Anyone else do le Twittre?

Update: I am now following Barack Obama, Neil Gaiman, and John Cleese. Of these Neil is by far the most interesting, as he appears to "tweet" constantly. Addict!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

This... I ... Gwah?!

I just watched the newest Battlestar Galactica episode, and can't post about it here because it would be an outrage to subject random unsuspecting people stumbling on this blog to such spoilers...

Luckily, that's what LiveJournal is for, with its "lj-cuts" and such.

So, thoughts after the jump (warning: emoticons!):

(Click here to jump to the post!)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

But They Didn't Mean To

(Warning: Analysis Post! If you don't like Reading Stuff (maybe Too Much) Into Things, then read no further!)

Open thread by Jennifer Kesler at the Hathor Legacy (or: "The Search For Good Female Characters"), asking the question: "Does intent matter?"

"Intent", in this case, refers to whether or not an author meant to stick elements that could be seen as racist/sexist/homophobic/etc into their work. (And if you've had any involvement in race/gender/queer/etc studies, such elements are more obvious, and if not, well, take my word - or Google's - word for it, they're common than you might think.) If the nonwhite people always die while the white people survive*, if women are all simpering weaklings next to male Adonises, if all protagonists ever are white males for no apparent reason, well, something might be off, some would say...

But wait! This is a book you like! Or a show you watch all the time! Racism? Sexism? You assholes! My show's/book's creator wouldn't entertain such a thing! In fact, he/she's a proud feminist, too!

There. You see? You were just talking about intent.

Yeah, that's how it goes. I've done it plenty myself, especially since certain shows I love can be particularly bad about this. (That's a post for another day, though.)

Kesler argues, in short:
...I believe a creator’s intent doesn’t matter. Sexism can occur without the presence of a sexist person, therefore we can talk about sexism without being asked to prove that the people behind the sexism are sexist.

My opinion, tangentially: I'd argue that always putting Straight White Males front and center is as much an artistic issue as it is a social one; I imagine (and Kesler acknowledges in her post) that many or most creators just do this because it doesn't occur to them to do otherwise - a lazy adherence to cliche more than anything else, and as such, something that ought not to be done so freakin' much.

Creator intent should matter to discussion in terms of the goal of pure social change; attacking a creator and branding them as 'racist' (or, I dunno, calling an avowed feminist creator a rapist) isn't gonna get them to listen to you. (This is certainly not Kesler's standpoint, but it's certainly out there.) In terms of pure analysis? It matters only a little, I suppose, and then only so much as you care about analyzing where the author is coming from as part of your critique. From an artistic standpoint, the same also holds true (though obviously with lower stakes, but more pertinent to the supposed point of my blog!).

* For your amusement value, also check out the Sorting Algorithm of Mortality over at TV Tropes. Sorted by age, sexual orientation, love interest (by genre), race, role, race, aesthetics, personality, flaws, 'virtues', species, and occupation! (Yes, I love my TV Tropes. Even if it does ruin your life.)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dungeons and More Dungeons

I like 4th Edition.

There. I said it.

But I don't JUST like it. In fact, I think it's my favorite D&D edition so far.

If this is a WoW clone, then bring on the WoW clones.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Making Friends In Fiction

It may not surprise you to learn the following: people are more likely become friends with people they bump into often. Social psychology calls this propinquity, and it goes like this: if you're Bob's next door neighbor, and you pass each other all the time going in and out of the place, odds are you and Bob will become friends. If you and Bob have different schedules, it's less likely you'll become friends. If you and Bob live on different floors, but you both live near a stairway, you'll more likely become friends. You're more likely to stay friends if you're around each other more. Anyone who's moved has experienced the downside of this - that even if you're pretty close friends with someone, you may well fall out of touch if you don't easily run into each other often.

(A personal aside, for a moment: Of course, this has happened to me. I've just got off of Facebook (if you don't know what that is, type it in Google search or get off the Internet before you hurt yourself), after messaging a couple of relatively close friends from UC Berkeley, friends whom I have not spoken to in months. I graduated mere months ago; and already I've fallen out of touch with most of my friends there. Even those I was closest to - for the time being at least, I talk to them only sporadically.

Ah, guilt. It's so much fun.)

In fiction land, I rarely see this concept at work. Characters are more likely to become fast friends, and remain so barring a dramatic falling out) after bumping into each other once. This sounds perfectly logical - why wouldn't you want to be friends with someone you obviously get along with well? - but in Real Life, you may never really connect with that awesome person you met on the bus that one time, because even though you've got their phone number, you'll never run into them in your daily life.

It's an open question whether this is really a problem. For one fiction tends to depict the interesting rather than the everyday; 'propinquity' is firmly of the everyday. Becoming longtime friends with someone you hardly see happens in real life all the time; it's just that more of your friends than not will probably be people you run into all the time.

However, if/when this doesn't hold true for characters in fiction, I'm not sure anyone would notice. I probably wouldn't have even noticed this trope operating if I didn't watch so many sci-fi/fantasy ensemble shows, genres that aren't known for their psychological realism. In the TV series Angel, for instance - a series I love - sometimes you get the idea that Los Angeles is empty of all people except the main cast, demons/vampires/monsters, and victims. That goes for its parent show Buffy, too, depending on the season. These two shows are giants of the genre in the televised field.

So, how much should a fiction writer take propinquity into account? Is this the sort of thing that can safely - even happily - be ignored?

Existentialism, Dirt Cheap

(I wrote this post on June 16, 2008, about six months ago. I just rediscovered it, and decided to put it up, before it gets any older. Oh, Blogger, saving all my drafts - I love you so!

WARNING: The following post may contain trace amounts of whining, and jobless-college-graduate angst. Read at your own risk.)

"Life. Don't talk to me about life."
- Marvin the Paranoid Android (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams)
"What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action."
- Søren Kierkegaard

What does one type about in a blog, eh? I've had a blog of some form or another for years now, yet I don't believe I've quite got the hang of it. I'm starting to believe that perhaps worrying about this is, in itself, part of Missing The Point.

So I am, indeed, going to talk about life. After all, is this not a hallmark of my fledgling generation - the habit of laying bare everything for the entire world to see?

I am a college graduate, less than a month out of one of the most prestigious universities in the nation (I'm still wondering how I managed to sneak in!), and like so many other recent college graduates, I have not yet found a job.

It's not as if I didn't anticipate this uncomfortable scenario. I'd long realized I wanted to "create" - to write, to create art, to work on films - and I figured yes, but twenty billion other people would like to do the same thing, and a good percentage of those probably are getting degrees as we speak. Somehow, through hubris or - "something", I felt I had to be "different".

I chose to take a "unique" route through college; I designed my own course of study. I studied psychology, literature, anthropology, social theory, art, writing, ethnic/gender/queer studies... etcetera, etcetera. This selection of classes was chosen with the goal of finding out as much about how the world works - what makes people tick. I figured that would be my "edge".

So did it work?

(I left off the post here, amusingly enough. Since writing this, I've gained an excellent internship, but still no paying job. So, uh, we'll see, eh?)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Terminator, Genre Movies, and "Standards"

This may qualify as being a little late to the party (okay, it does qualify), but the hype machine behind the latest Terminator movie has been building, from action figures that spoil plot points to a shiny new movie trailer.

The first two Terminator films, particularly the second installment, are generally thought of as action films with brains behind them (okay, not as much the first one, though it's a solid film). I won't go into the plot behind them; in case you've been living under a rock for the past twenty-plus years, there's always Wikipedia. They're notable in particular for having one of the most well-drawn female characters this side of the science fiction ghetto, Sarah Connor. (Talk about a character arc, too - she goes from damsel-in-distress waitress to badass warrior hero in the space of two films. But I digress.)

After those two movies came Terminator 3, a 'meh' movie with some great action scenes, boring characters, mediocre writing, and the complete absence of the central character of the first two films, Sarah Connor. (She's killed off by cancer offscreen.)

After that came a still-running TV series, which, as if to thumb its nose at the mistakes of the third movie, calls itself "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles". Awkward name, but straight to the point, no? Ironically, recent episodes of the show have occasionally suffered from too much subtlety and experimental writing and a dearth of good action sequences. More on this in later posts, as I'm still following this show.

The newest Terminator movie, weirdly titled "Terminator: Salvation", is set in the post-apocalyptic future the first three movies lead up to. After the sheer disappointment of Terminator 3, exactly no one was interested. So the producers and director pulled what TV Tropes calls a "Cue Cullen", which is when the people involved in a blockbuster flick with bad buzz "bring out the one person that makes you go, 'Holy crap, this is going to be awesome.'" They cast Christian Bale, rare combination of Action Star and 'Real' Actor.

There was just one problem, which brings me to the point of this post, a problem I read all about in a months-old interview with pretentiously named director McG.
"Initially (Bale) told me to 'f**k right off.' He said it had to be about character, not explosions. He said, 'If you can get it too a place where it can be read on a stage like a play, with no action or special effects, then I'll do it.'
A few drafts later, Bale signed on.

I still have no idea whether or not "Terminator Salvation" will turn out to be either well-written or entertaining. Either way, this situation is an interesting sign of the times. Once upon a time, I hear tell, genre films only needed a cool idea and neat special effects (or the written equivalent, in plain ol' prose fiction land). That's still the case now, but standards are rising across the board - make no mistake, if Terminator Salvation is a success, it will be because people expect great things out of Bale, not because of the explosions in the trailers. I don't think it's a coincidence that two of the most popular sci-fi/action films of last year were Iron Man and The Dark Knight; Iron Man had a great director and a well-written and well-acted central character, and The Dark Knight... well, I hardly need to add to the critical gushing over that film, do I?

If this is becoming an era of higher standards for genre fiction, then I wholeheartedly embrace it. I love pretty special effects and spiffy fantastical ideas, but I love good plot, character and writing even more - and I hardly think I'm alone.

UPDATE: After watching Terminator Salvation, I have to wonder how bad McG's original drafts were if that was supposed to be a character-based script. I mean, I enjoyed the film on balance, but seriously.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

On Wand Decay, Part Two

I was running through my old blog posts, wondering why I don't update more (and resolving to do so, once again), and I realized that back in July, I missed a fascinating comment by one Luke Maciak of Terminally Incoherent. My original post was questioning why Magic Items Of Magicness never break down in stories in the fantasy genre. Luke's response merits its own (if very, very late) post.

Luke points out:
I'd imagine that in a world where magic would actually exist an enchanted sword would sometimes need maintenance or recasting of said enhancement - especially after heavy use.

Most RPG's both pen and paper or computer based do have some restrictions on magic items that zap things, or cast spells themselves. Wands and staves usually have "charges" and once you drain them you either have to wait till they recharge or the item is simply spent and must be re-enchanted or discarded.

Additive or buffing items (like the Mighty Sword of +1 Strength) usually never get depleted however. They probably should.

There's an interesting counterpoint for these statements: since magic is itself imaginary, why does it have to follow a particular set of rules? Who are we to say that magic power requires maintainable? Some would argue, further, that magic doesn't need to seem real in fantasy fiction - after all, isn't that missing the point?

To me, it's a question of believability. Magic isn't real, of course. If an author wants to go for believability, created a feeling of this-could-really-exist, then drawing real-world parallels is more important. So a magic sword running low on batteries, so to speak, can be more believable than a magic sword that never runs out of power. Everything in our world is governed by rules - magic should be the same, to a certain extent. (All fiction bends real-world rules to serve the plot, as necessary)

The importance of believability depends highly on the story; in epic fantasy (along the lines of Lord of the Rings) treating magic from a perspective of realism is a bad idea, but in contemporary fantasy this is more important.

Luke comments further:
As for cast spells many systems require skill checks before casting and have miscast effects which work similar to "fumble" rules for physical skill checks.

In most games I played the duration of spells that can be cast by PC's is strictly defined and the caster must periodically renew the spell to keep it in action.

Spell 'durations' are something familiar to anyone who's played a fantasy videogame or tabletop role-playing game; they exist because strict boundaries on character power are required to make the game fun. (Fumble rules - rules for what happens when someone screws up casting an in-game spell - are there primarily for entertainment value.) This is a principle generally ignored in fantasy fiction itself, though; usually the writers just "handwave" how the magic powers of magicalness actually work. If someone is unaffected by a spell, for instance, it's because he or she is "too powerful". If someone fails to accomplish something with magic, it's because they "weren't powerful" enough".

Certain fiction series attempt to establish "power levels" for characters, which are inevitably fudged or ignored soon afterwards. Notably, in books based on RPGs, rules for spells are generally ignored as convenient for the plot.

I've yet to see an effective set of (non-mystical) rules governing magic outside of fantasy games. The closest we get is the Midichlorian Explanation (also referred to as Doing In The Wizard - warning, clicking that link may ruin your life), where the question of Where Magic Comes From is answered using technobabble, science fiction style. All this usually does is annoy readers/viewers (see fan reaction to the new Star Wars movies explaining that the Force comes from "midichlorians"), and rarely affects how magic is used in the story anyway.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Doomy Doom Doom

Now that we know, thanks to the Pope, that nontraditional sex - gay or non-procreative, for instance - is destroying mankind (and also the rain forests), David Isaak tells us all exactly how much ecological damage we can expect to do with the rampant non-procreative sex we all may or may not be having.

...On a completely unrelated note, I cannot stop listening to "Super Trouper" as sung by Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia!, a film which I've not even seen completely. My family's been playing it in the background for the last few days, and... well, draw your own conclusions. (And now, thanks to Wikipedia, I now know more about 70's-80's "pop supergroups" than I ever expected to...)

Thursday, January 1, 2009