Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Overlooked Arneson

I've always been a Gygax fan, for one major reason - not because I think his method is the holy grail of gaming, but because I reached out to him once and he was nice to me and took time to talk when he didn't have to. I admired that. I also like his over-the-top prose style, and appreciate his sheer productivity, and I think the entire RPG industry owes its birth to Gygax's obsessive writing schedule and convention appearances.

That being said, my reading of this book has me realizing that Dave Arneson has been pretty badly overlooked by history.

This article on Grognardia, an influential blog of the so-called Old School Renaissance, discusses the First Fantasy Campaign, a distillation of Arneson's own campaign notebooks for the Blackmoor setting, which predated and inspired Gygax's own Greyhawk setting.

In fact, the idea of a party of adventurers descending into a dungeon to loot and slay is almost entirely Arneson's, as is the idea of an ever-evolving campaign setting. I do think Gygax's rules and procedures were superior to Arneson's, who came from a Napoleonic wargaming background and tended to be somewhat more arbitrary as a GM - but the bottom line is, I think Arneson had the core concept - Gygax had the energy, the enthusiasm, the background, the contacts, and the extroverted nature needed to refine and "pimp" it at conventions. The more introverted and scholarly Arneson was overlooked in the long run. 

It sounds as if maybe our group - certainly my GM style - is a bit more Arnesony than Gygaxy, at least on the face of it. I know that the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks module, though written by Gygax, was hugely influenced by Arneson's habit of including high-tech anachronistic stuff in his "medieval fantasy" world, a concept which obviously informed the Gonen's World and Dearth of the Red Sun settings. This book certainly looks interesting, though I will surely not plunk down the large change to get a rare copy.

I'll be exploring more of Arneson's contributions to the hobby in later posts, I think, though, admittedly, all my research comes from this.

Interestingly, I've learned that both Gygax and Arneson were devout Christians. Arneson did mission work in the 1980s, and Gygax was a Jehovah's Witness who once retired from gaming in 1969 to focus on his ministry (thankfully this was short-lived, and he'll always be remembered for the Church of D&D). Still, that's kind of weird, given the religious hysteria against D&D in the early 1980s. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

In Thrall to the Crimson King

For the past several months, my obsession with King Crimson has pushed most other bands (temporarily) out of my line-up. I believe I've discussed Robert Fripp & Co. before on my blog, but I think I've finally figured out why I like 'em.

First, I have widely surveyed the field of rock music, and after more than 30 years of active listening, I guess I've just gotten bored with the traditional verse/chorus/verse format. I have nothing against a good formulaic pop song: Cheap Trick's "Tonight It's You" is one of my favorites, for example. But my growing sense of ennui with the sameness of much popular music led me, a few years ago, into jazz. After watching the Ken Burns documentary on the subject, I became enamored of older Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Dave Brubeck. I also enjoy Duke Ellington when I'm feeling classier, and have recently begun to explore Coltrane and Miles Davis.

And yet I still love that loud, metal guitar. Totally absent in the world of jazz, of course.

That's why I like King Crimson - and I should specify here that I am specifically speaking of the so-called "Third Incarnation" of the band: the albums Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless & Bible Black, and Red (aka the John Whetton period) - because they give me everything I love about the jazz I've become accustomed to: that is, abandonment of the typical verse/chorus/verse structure, expansive free-form improvisation and intense dynamic swings from mellow to hard. King Crimson also gives me the heaviest metal there is, in tiny doses, when I want to hear it. It's really the best of both worlds for me right now.

I'm enjoying my initial explorations of the post-1980 Adrian Belew period, especially Discipline and Three of a Perfect Pair; I also like the pre-Larks' Tongues stuff, and am only missing Islands and In the Wake of Poseidon from that period.

After many years of playing in bands, I sort of "retired" simply because it was difficult for me to find much meaning or excitement in the types of bands I'd be likely to start. The KC music scene is very much awash in what I call "duh rock," and while I dig on that from time to time, it's just not for me anymore. I can't see myself, a 41-year-old man with a growing pot belly, leaping and prancing around on stage like some second-rate Jon Spencer. I've been there, done that. But I can see myself getting a bit artsy and esoteric along the lines of King Crimson, recognizing that "art rock" is still "rock."

So I've been toying with the idea of starting a progressive rock band - and I don't mean a throwback to 1970s art rock. What is the new prog rock? That term seems to have been appropriated by very heavy, math-y "nu metal" bands. I think the terms is broader, and I'm interested in discovering what "progressive rock" means to a post-punk, post-alternative world. If anything happens on that front, I'll let you know. Until then, I'll leave you with this:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wilson Bay

Pharaoh Publishing USA has just released Wilson Bay: Tales From an Eskimo Village, the latest book by my dad, Conley Stone McAnally. You can get it on Amazon, or better yet here, where I'll make more money. :)

From the blurb on the back of the book:

“What follows is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. However, I did change names, dates, facts, and major details a little, and any resemblance to anyone now living or dead is coincidental.” 

The author of TALES FROM HOMER takes us on a year-long odyssey to a remote region of Alaska, where he chronicles his experiences as a “gussick” among the Eskimos. Stories range from hilarious misadventures (getting stuck in tundra mud, losing a friend off the back of a snowmobile, eating frozen raw eggs) to the mysterious (exploring a ghost ship, seeking a Shaman, hunting “little people”) to serious reflections (a young girl’s funeral, a priest’s doubts, the neglect of a child). WILSON BAY is a comical, heartfelt, and unflinching portrait of life in rural Alaska - one where the line of fact and fiction is often blurred.

This is the third book of fiction Pharaoh has released; we have one other, Manifesto: Universal Tabletop Roleplaying Game under the Nerd Glows On gaming imprint. In November we'll wrap up the 2013 production season with a collection of lyrics and drawings from my old buddy and bandmate William Chaffin. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Playing at the World

I've been neglectful of my blog for a while...much has been going on, and I haven't made the time. But I want to take a moment today to share the fascinating book I'm now reading - Playing at the World, with the mouthful of a subtitle: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, From Chess to Role-playing Games. You can get it right here.

I won't do a proper review because I'm barely one-twelfth of the way through this massive tome. The history and development of tabletop wargaming, hobby boardgames, and role-playing games is given full, scholarly treatment. Author Jon Peterson is that rare, special sort of journalist who can weave together rhythmic prose, academic-level research, and deep understanding of his subject matter into an utterly absorbing narrative. It's not easy to pack in this level of obsessive detail, and if nothing else, Peterson's earned one solid fan of his writing style - me.

Here is a fair-minded review with a better look at the actual content of the book. Note Peterson's response to the review, which I'll quote here:

"One point, on the question of what the book is basically about. If you read it as a story of how wargaming systems inspired D&D, I can understand why some of the material might seem interesting but superfluous. But I aimed for something a bit larger. I wanted to show how the techniques of simulation invented for wargaming expanded beyond the point of just modeling conflict, and beyond modeling things that were real or even possible. D&D was the focal point in this transition, but by no means the end of the story. The ways that D&D simulated people and fantastic adventures have set the stage for a radically different kind of cultural product, a participatory form of media that is today exemplified by video games – but I think this revolution is still in its infancy. This book is thus written, in a sense, as a history of a form of media that is still evolving, so we can’t be entirely sure where it will end up, but we can see where it started: with D&D."

Wired also posted a review that's worth reading. For myself, I adore the almost obsessive level of detail; it's a triumph of research, as most of Peterson's sources are long-lost fanzines and periodicals, as well as private correspondence, and a ton of interviews. I don't know whether the development of such games "deserves" this level of treatment, but it's now got it, and from the reviews I've read, this book writes circles around similar books, which are often written through a lens of system/company bias and partisanship. He's not afraid to call "bullshit" to many claims of RPG industry luminaries or statements in similar books, and while he's always respectful to Gygax, for example, he's not above poking holes in some Gygaxian hyperbole about convention attendance and other matters.

But maybe what I like most about this book is how familiar seem the scenes it depicts and stories it tells. I like hearing about a "crisis" developing when a bunch of gamers realize they need different rules to govern the movement of mounted and regular troops, or the vociferous arguments that developed between adherents of fantastic vs. historical wargaming.

While the focus of the book is on the development of Dungeons and Dragons, much space is also devoted to the lengthy "prequel" of games development that went before it, beginning with the "kriegspiel" wargames played by the Prussian military in the 1800s, as well as H.G. Wells' "Little Wars," the rise of Avalon Hill boardgames in the 1960s, and the slow development of a wargaming/hobby/fantasy community in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Of course, I haven't read the whole thing yet. At 720 pages, with small type and copious footnotes, I could be at this a long time (I'm also reading some fiction and history simultaneously). But my "gut reaction" review so far is this: this is the ultimate gift for any game geek who happens to be a voracious reader. There is definitely "too much information" here, but it's all interesting to me, at least, and by the time I'm through with this book, I know I'll be an absolute expert on the development of this hobby - which, as Peterson implies in the quoted material above, goes far beyond "D&D."

Peterson is a thoughtful and intelligent blogger as well, and has much interesting supplemental material and insights here in his blog, which has all the extra stuff he couldn't fit into the main book.