Friday, July 29, 2011

Going to Arizona

Connor and I are off with my dad today to see the American Southwest. We have not seen mountains or deserts before, so that's an attraction in itself. On the way we'll hit Roswell and make sure to check out the big meteor crater, Grand Canyon, Mars Hill, and whatever else we find on the way. We're bringing the telescope, too, and plan to find some spot in the middle of nowhere to do some observing. I may not be back here for a while, but I'll check in at some point during the vacation with some photos.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dixie Knights

Here's a picture of some stuff from a really cool Fudge-based RPG I've been running with my son and two nephews: Dixie Knights. The basic premise is simple: "It's the Dukes of Hazzard meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

The campaign is set in fictional Sherwood County, U.S.A. The heroes are all members of the Hagg Clan - two brothers and a cousin, just like the real-life players. So far the place has really come to life, and we've already come to know such towns as Hog Lick, Billville and Bob's Hope; we've crossed the Apaloosa River and trudged through the Okeedokee Swamp.

So far the gang has smuggled super-charged Beefaroni, fought Klan Zombies over a treasure of Civil War-era moonshine, tangled with their undead Cousin Junior, and run afoul of Mr. Jefferson Davis himself, who is a vampire nowadays. The fun looks to continue.

Pictured is the campaign map of Sherwood County, a small GM screen I made for the game (using the liquor menu of an unnamed suburban eatery) and Connor's character sheet featuring "Cousin Virgil Stump."

It's been a great proof-of-concept and playtest, so I'm definitely using this setting for the "big group" in the future.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Lost Art of the Matchbook Cover

My great-grandparents collected matchbooks. I don't know whether they went to all the places they collected matches from, but they had a lot. My great-grandpa died before I was born, but we used to go see my great-grandma and I was fascinated by great glass jars of matchbooks.

Somehow, my sister got a hold of these over the years and I have always coveted them. Now that she is moving and getting rid of excess, I was finally able to get them.

Some of these matchbooks are really cool-looking. Most are from restaurants, casinos and hotels. One is from the Twin Drive-In in Independence, MO, which proudly advertised itself as "Kansas City's Most Fabulous Movie Entertainment Center," which is kind of funny if you know Independence. But some are from odd, out-of-the-way places, and others are advertisements or even political campaign materials. The one thing they all have in common is a pleasing retro design, some more pleasing than others.

This collection is a real snapshot of America from the 1940s through 1960s. Some of the matchbook covers are worth scanning in at high resolution, and I may get around to that someday soon. There's probably a whole sub-branch of history that deals with matchbook covers, for all I know. It's certainly a real slice of popular road and club culture.

...and a big glass globe full of them is an interesting and attractive accessory for home or office.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Singing in the Rain (on Saturn)

My friend Ryan just sent me a link to this story about the moon Enceladus "raining" water onto Saturn. It has been known for a long time that Saturn had water in its upper atmosphere but no one knew why. Now we do. Encaladus is shooting plumes of water out into space.

That's awesome, because, you know, where there's water...

Incidentally, Enceladus was the departure point for three astronauts, Baxter Bradbury, Sascha Sagan and Hymie Heinlein, who would return from the future with the rock band Rocket to Saturn. But that's another story...

Monday, July 25, 2011

What's the Difference?

Here's something that has always confused me: What is the difference between Power Girl and Supergirl? They both seem to be named Kara, both seem to be Superman's cousin, and both are from Krypton. Supergirl seems to be younger and less respected and better behaved; Power Girl is older and more powerful and has a sluttier costume. That's about the only difference I am aware of, having only an imperfect understanding of DC canon.

Watching Smallville, their Kara seems to have Power Girl's back story but Supergirl's last name (Zor-El). Not that the creators of Smallville care very much about the canon of the DC Universe (and neither do I), but I get the sense the creators of the DC Universe don't know, or care, much about canon either.

In researching the difference between the two heroines, I realized that I'm not the only one with this confusion, and it all, apparently, boils down to the so-called Crisis on Infinite Earths, when the DC editors decided their canon was a mess, that nothing made sense anymore, so they released all these "reality waves" that changed a bunch of parallel universes into one. Or something like that.

Of all the explanations I read, this is the one that made the most sense to me. And it barely makes sense. But it is the best I'm going to get. Essentially, it seems they are the same person, but from different realities.

So, if you're like me, and these sorts of questions keep you awake at night, now you know the answer.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Life After Rock

This just in - filed at the top of my "why the hell do I think this is noteworthy?" category:

Former Hanoi Rocks rhythm guitarist Nasty Suicide:


Is now mild-mannered Finnish pharmacist Jan Stenfors:

Same guy. I guess there is life after rock after all. It is somehow heartening to know that one can ingest well over half of the vodka and cocaine in the Western hemisphere and turn out OK in the long run. Well done, Jan. I hope you're living well. I always thought you didn't get enough camera time, what with Michael Monroe's and Andy McCoy's constant mugging. There would be no Guns & Roses without you. Well, no Izzy, anyway.

As for why Hanoi Rocks is so underrated and doesn't get the credit they deserve for a) refining, if not inventing, the "hair band" look, and b) mixing punk and metal long before it was cool (i.e., obligatory), well...that's another post.

Keep on Truckin'

I've been playing two older video games lately, both involving trucks.

One is Big Mutha Truckers 2, which is a British game that lampoons America. You drive around in a big rig, making deliveries across Hick State County to raise money to bribe jurors so your momma can get out of prison. Along the way you have to tangle with bikers, UFOs and the po-lice. There is something about this game that is very addictive and satisfying. I can't tell you what that is, though. I guess it's because it combines racing and trading. I have been playing this on the PS2 but there is also a PC version, which I have not tried yet. The game does have other legitimate flaws, and a quick Google search seems to indicate that it was, in general, badly reviewed, but I have come across nothing that has stopped me from enjoying it. For the record, I have never played Big Mutha Truckers 1.

The next is Hard Truck Apocalypse. I've only just started this one but it's very satisfying. It's a Russian game and the translation to English is wonky sometimes (my character's father is missing and/or dead, and one NPC said, "We are condole for you!"). In a post-apocalyptic Europe, where everyone wears Kabuki-style masks to keep out the poison atmosphere (and, no doubt, to make the animation easier), you must drive your armored truck around looking for your dad, fighting nomads and scavengers, and visiting various settlements taking on missions and raising money through looting and trade. This game reminds me very much of Freelancer. It has a similar interface, controls, and themes. The graphics, for an older game, are pretty good. But again, this one seems to have been badly reviewed in general. But I don't care. I like it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Foundations of Fantasy...

Lately, I've aimed to update my blog every weekday. It's not like I have something startlingly spectacular to say every weekday, but I inevitably have a few minutes of down time here and there at work and I have a lot to share with whoever is listening.

Today, I'm cheating: I'm linking to another blog entry of mine on the Gonen's World site. It's the first of a series of posts in which I will demonstrate, to my own satisfaction, the literary (I hate that word) influences on traditional fantasy game settings.

First up, I talk about the most obvious - Tolkien - and if you want, you can read it right here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Paracelsus: Wilder Than Fiction

After reading up on French criminal/cop Vidocq, I started trying to find other historical subjects whose lives would make a great adventure story, so I will continue to feature them with the "Wilder Than Fiction" tag. One, who I discovered in Norman Davies epic Europe: A History, is Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a.k.a. Paracelsus (which basically means "Better Than Celsus," heh).

Medicine may not be all that exciting (interesting, maybe, but not the stuff of adventure stories) but Paracelsus was clearly an adventurous medical man. While he was firmly rooted in the beliefs of his time (16th century), believing in astrology and alchemy and other things, he also made some major leaps forward in the study of human anatomy, the idea that chemical remedies could cure some illnesses, and pioneered what we would now call holistic medicine.

But Paracelsus was also an adventurer in the truest sense of the word. He traveled the world seeking occult and philosophical knowledge, spending time in almost every nation-state of Europe, as well as traveling through Asia Minor and parts of North Africa - even as far away as China (extreme western China controlled by the Tartars, but still). Along the way, he named zinc and invented laudanum, which was still used as a painkiller in the early 1900s. He was considered very arrogant and, apparently, loud - it is theorized the use of the word "bombastic" to describe a loud speaker may have come from his name (see above).

Here's the Wikipedia article on Paracelsus. Davies' Europe goes into greater detail about the adventurous aspects of his life, including some close brushes with being burned at the stake, invention of occult alphabets, writing a book about surgery in an age where that was frowned upon, grave-robbing and defying traditional medics and the all-powerful religions of the day.

Once again, we see that real history is full of larger-than-life figures who would give many literary characters a run for their money.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Monty's: The End of an Era...

When I was about 13 years old, I got a "job" rolling up newsprint grocery store ads in the back of what was then called Monty's Book Swap on 40 Hwy in Independence. Apparently the owners of this used book, comic, and game store also owned a grocery store. My friend J.D. and I would get 2 or 3 cents for every ad we rolled up and rubber-banded; then we'd turn around and buy comics with the money (not a bad deal for Monty).

Over the years I've come back to Monty's off and on, despite moving away from Independence and falling in with better organized stores like Pulp Fiction in Lee's Summit. Why? Nostalgia, I guess. But Monty's has always held a special place in my heart. A more or less chaotic jumble of gaming and comic materials rewards the diligent searcher (nothing is organized at all). But if you like back issues, old games and books, and don't mind searching through crap for them, Monty's has a special sort of charm all its own.

But not for much longer. I went out there last Saturday morning (I was up early and feeling nostalgic), and they tell me they're closing up shop in a few months. Monty has breast cancer. They caught it early, but they're both getting older (that store is almost never open anyway - like, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or something ridiculous like that). They don't get a lot of returning, regular customers because they're not carrying first-run comics anymore. In short, they're just ready to retire.

I'll miss Monty's. I picked up awesome, matching hardcover copies of the Thomas Covenant trilogy and Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun trilogy, as well as Harry Harrison's West of Eden and two cool additions to my GURPS reference collection (Arabian Nights and Religion...I love those GURPS sourcebooks because they're useful regardless of genre). I saw a few other things I'd like to go back next week and get, including what appeared to be a nice boxed set of Traveller: 2300.

Some of my friends don't love Monty's. I think it's a treasure house of cool stuff (you've just gotta dig for it, like any good treasure). Growing up in Independence in the 1980s, there was nowhere to get obscure comics. Sure, I could get my favorites (Avengers, Iron Man, Warlord, X-Men, Justice League) at 7-11 back then, but where was I going to get Alpha Flight, or Alien Legion, or The Watchmen? Or the British black-and-white magazine sized comics like Judge Dredd, 2000 A.D. and Savage Sword of Conan? Clint's, in Midtown KC, was too far away to get a ride to. Monty's was it. I could get an AD&D book, and even Traveller materials, at Hobby Haven at the Independence Center - but where was I going to get Warhammer books?

I'll keep going back to Monty's every two weeks until they close and see what I can find. They're doing pretty good deals on what's left...here's hoping all goes smoothly with their health concerns and that all those obscure items find good homes. As far as I'm concerned, it's the end of an era, and as much as I love my slick local game store, nothing will ever replace that slightly shabby, hidden-in-a-basement shop that was nothing less than a window to the world of the fantastic for a young Seann (and who knows who else).


Friday, July 15, 2011

Vidocq: Wilder Than Fiction

What I love about the Internet is all the interesting facts and stories I can accidentally stumble onto. As a kid, I used to love flipping through the World Book Encyclopedia. I'm a bibliophile through and through and I love physical, paper books - but you've gotta admit, the Internet essentially renders that family encyclopedia set obsolete, or at least sends it to the nostalgia bin.

The other day I stumbled onto the story of Eugene Francois Vidocq. I'm not going to recount it here, other than to say he was a criminal who ended up founding what became the French national police. He's credited with being the father of modern criminology, undercover work, forensic science, and more. Vidocq is widely regarded to be one of the major inspirations for Sherlock Holmes, and served as a model for other literary detectives as well.

The cool thing about Vidocq is that he was a thoroughgoing criminal and had a lengthy criminal record, including multiple prison terms, by the time he became a detective. His life story is every bit as entertaining as the wildest adventure tale, full of seductions, hair-raising prison escapes, criminal capers, and mysteries worthy of Sherlock or Sam Spade. I couldn't do it justice by trying to paraphrase it, so I'll just direct interested parties to the Wikipedia article on Vidocq. It's long, but it's worth it if you like true-life adventure.

Interestingly, Vidocq was apparently the subject of this French science fiction film, which looks rather cool. I will have to check it out - I'll let you know how it is!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why I Like Smallville

Most people who know me well know that I tend to get to things late - when it comes to TV shows and video games, that is. I just finished Buffy & Angel a few months ago, and now I'm into Season 6 (of a total of 10!) of Smallville. I never thought anything would replace Buffy on my comfort-food TV pedestal, but Clark & Company have delivered.

I like Smallville for a variety of reasons: great cast, interesting take on the DC Universe, creative ways of finding about a billion ways to twist "meteor rock" into all kinds of weird situations, villains and other plot elements (anyone who is familiar with warpstone, ghost rock or gaxium will appreciate that). But what I like most about Smallville is that, at is core, the central message of that show is very uplifting to me:

Light in the face of Darkness; Hope in the face of Despair.

A few days ago I was writing up a story for work about a raping/murdering ex-cop. In reading what some of the other newspapers had to say about it, I clicked on a few other headlines. Before I knew it, an hour and a half had passed and I was morbidly depressed after reading about everything from child rape to a dad falling to his death at a ball game while his son watched to the fact that Michelle Bachman even exists....There is so much evil, so much pain, so much BAD LUCK in the world that sometimes it can seem almost impossible to imagine that there is any positive underpinning to existence.

And I need to have that feeling, just to get out of bed every day and face this universe, to focus on what's good about it and not be overwhelmed by what's bad. I want to think that everything is going to be OK.

I guess what I need is FAITH. And I've always had trouble with the whole "you've just gotta have faith" argument. I don't think it's something you can stumble into or manufacture. Without a life-changing supernatural experience like George Bailey or Ebenezer Scrooge (or even Lex Luther, though he managed to come out of his "Lexmas Carol" experience even more evil), I don't know that I'll ever be convinced everything is OK.

But when I watch Smallville, everything seems like it will be okay. And that central philosophy of the show - light out of darkness, hope in the face of despair - is one I've been holding onto tight lately.

I don't have faith in much. But I have faith in Clark Kent. He doesn't have to be real for me to believe in him.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Evil Dead 4...?

Screen Rant reports that Evil Dead 4 is in the works. Apparently Sam Raimi will produce and they're going with an unknown indie director.

The real question is whether Bruce Campbell will reprise his role as Ash - likely not, according to this report. But it also reports that fans want Campbell back and that he may be involved in a cameo role, and they didn't exactly rule out anything.

As for who should play Ash, if not Bruce, my money is on Seann William Scott, who was mentioned when they first started talking about this back in 2004 (incidentally, he is the only other person I have ever heard of who spells his first name the same way I do). But I don't see his name involved anywhere now. The first few scenes of Evolution feature Scott acting very Ash-like, and he's one of those few actors who can handle both "action hero" and "dumbass" in the same role.

But my top choice for Ash was, is, and will always be Bruce. I'm not sure he's in fighting trim these days - on the last few seasons of Burn Notice, he's looked a little chunky. Nothing weird about that in a guy his age (he's 53). But I also noticed on the Season 5 premiere that he's obviously been taking care of himself and slimming down (they even joke about it a bit on the first episode).

Call me a dreamer, but I can only hope he's working out to get into shape to reprise his role as Ash. I guess we'll find out.

As for whether an Evil Dead 4 (which will probably be called something else, and which Raimi is calling a "quasi-remake" of the original Evil Dead) will be a success, I think the whole thing rises or falls on who they cast as Ash. All of those Evil Dead films (1, 2, and Army of Darkness) rely heavily on Campbell's schtick, so whoever wields the shotgun and chainsaw this time around has some very big shoes to fill.

Friday, July 1, 2011

"Masquerade" at Tacticon 2011

Every now and then, Masquerade of Horrors pops up out of nowhere, and Hermann Von Barbe rides again. The adventure (by me and Colin in case you forgot) is one of several featured in a four-hour time slot at Tacticon, a gaming convention over Labor Day weekend in Colorado. Sumit Sarkar (aka prettyflybrownguy on various forums), who is running it, just sent me some nice comments about the adventure and asked if we had any extra handouts or maps for it (alas, no, as we wrote this to “fit anywhere”). He’s promised to let us know how that goes (he’s playtesting it this weekend with his regular group).

Anyway, it’s gratifying to know folks are still noticing and enjoying the adventure. Maybe Colin and I should finally get around to writing that sequel.

For more on my gaming life you can visit Gonen's World.