I think I jinxed myself with my post about DRM on September
30th. In my comments, I mentioned how absolutely reliable my
Windows 2000 machine had been. It naturally committed suicide a few
days later by burning out a graphics card. I replaced the graphics card
and 9 days later the computer crashed again. After many tribulations, I
finally concluded that it must be "some damn thing on the motherboard".
So then I had to research, purchase a new
computer, wait for it to be delivered, and then go through the
laborsome duties of stripping out the bloatware, loading up the
essential utilities, and transferring over my files.
On the other hand, the Windows 2000 installation
is still humming along merrily, the drive having been transplanted to
another machine which it is now running quite pleasantly. (Something
which would be impossible under Windows 7, of course, thanks to its
DRM. Seriously, I hate DRM.)
By and large, you probably have no reason to care
about any of this, except insofar as the conclusion is this: Barring
any new catastrophes new content should begin flowing onto the
Alexandrian starting tomorrow.
the story of a sad, pathetic, socially maladjusted boy who suffered
from borderline delusions in an effort to escape his sad, pathetic
existence. He fell in with a group of assholes and chose to continue
hanging out with that group of assholes even when it meant becoming an
himself and pissing over
the people who were actually his friends. In the process, he grew up to
be a sad, pathetic, socially
Between those two points on his lifeline, he
played Dungeons & Dragons. Ergo, it's only natural for him to
conclude that D&D retroactively caused him to be a sad,
and socially maladjusted person.
He'd also like you to believe
that he got over being an asshole. But even in the controlled narrative
of his own book he can't hide the fact that he spends a great deal of
time considering himself "superior" to wide swaths of people. For
example, consider his thesis that "fatties are failures". Or the fact
that he considers the moment that he became a responsible adult to be
the moment in which he left an injured child in the middle of a park so
that he could try to hook up with a cute girl.
And not just any injured child: A child he had
actually injured himself.
(I wish I was making that up.)
the book's credit, most of Barrowcliffe's anecdotes regarding a
childhood spent playing D&D and other roleplaying games are
charming, resonant, and well-written. His struggle to differentiate
between delusion and reality is actually quit harrowing (and great
material for a memoir). I can even sympathize that, for a man like
Barrowcliffe who has difficulty differentiating fantasy from reality on
an everyday basis, D&D might be a dangerous addiction that
feed into his inherent predilection for delusion.
The problem I
have with Barrowcliffe, however, is that he claims his personal bad
experiences to be universal and then uses that claim as a bludgeon to
derogate gamers in general. (Which is, of course, nothing more than
Barrowcliffe's continued proclivity to be an asshole rearing its ugly
head.) His entire book is written around the thesis that "D&D
you a bad person and you should run away from it as fast as you can".
(Which he literally does at the book's conclusion: "I could hear a
noise I couldn't place. Then I looked down and realized it was coming
from my feet; I was running. Something in my subconscious was rushing
me back to my wife, the dog, the TV, away from the lands of fantasy and
towards reality, the place I can now call home.")
It is perhaps
unsurprising to discover that I would consider this thesis to be
grotesquely repulsive and offensive. In no small part because there's
another story of D&D to be told: In my life, D&D was
venue in which I learned how to interact with fellow human beings in a
mature fashion. D&D encouraged my development in both verbal
mathematical skills. D&D is the foundation of the passions
now shape my professional careers. And there are a lot of people like
me. People who didn't suffer from delusional mental
instability when they came to the game.
writes, "Gary Gygax once pointed out that to talk about a 'winner' in
D&D is like talking about a winner in real life. If I had to
D&D up that would be how I'd do it -- a game with no winners
lots of losers." It is perhaps notable that Barrowcliffe feels that
real life is populated by losers (there's his asshole tendency again),
but I find it more notable that his summary is the exact inverse of
mine. In my world, there are no losers in a roleplaying game. Only
Mark Barrowcliffe is
an alcoholic who wrote a book concluding that everyone who drinks is an
alcoholic. He is no doubt baffled that wine connouisseurs aren't amused
with the broad brush he's painted them with.
One of my long-standing concerns with the D20
system was the skewed probabilities of opposed group checks. For
example, consider the example of a PC making a Move Silently check
opposed by an NPC's Listen check where both characters have the same
skill modifier. In this scenario, a single PC attempting to sneak past
a single NPC has a 50% chance of succeeding.
Compare this to a situation in which 5 PCs are
attempting to sneak past 5 NPCs (with, again, all of the characters
involved having the same skill modifiers). This effectively becomes a
check in which the 5 PCs are rolling 5d20 and keeping the lowest result,
while the NPCs trying to detect them are rolling 5d20 and keeping
The average roll of 5d20-keep-lowest is 3. The
average of 5d20-keep-highest is 17. That 14 point differential means
that it's virtually impossible for a party of characters to sneak past
a group of evenly matched opponents. (And even sneaking past a single
watchman is difficult as the average party roll of 3 is
opposed by an average roll of 10.)
Of course, the odds are actually worse than this:
A successful stealth attempt will also usually require a Hide vs. Spot
check, so you need to succeed at not one but two checks at these
outrageous odds. And this assumes that the PCs all keep their Stealth
skills maxed out (which in practice they won't, particularly since it's
so pointless to do so).
The argument can certainly be made that this is
realistic in some sense: A large group should have a tougher time
sneaking past a sentry than one guy and more eyes means more people who
can spot you. But I would argue that the probability skew is large
enough that it creates results which are both unrealistic and
In practice, the effects of the skew are obvious:
Group stealth attempts quickly drop out of the game. When stealth is
called for, it takes the form of a sole scout pushing out ahead of the
rest of the group. And when the scout becomes too fragile to survive
when the check finally fails, stealth stops being a part of the game
Since I'd prefer stealth to be a potentially
viable tactic, a solution is called for.
DISTRACTION PENALTIES: A guideline that can really help
the stealther is the -1 penalty per 10 feet that is supposed to be
applied on Listen and Spot checks. Keep about a hundred feet away from
the guy trying to spot you and you can quickly cancel out the
probability skew of the dice.
Unfortunately, these modifiers become
kind of wonky, particularly when it comes to Spot checks. On the open
plains, for example, the "maximum distance at which a Spot check for
detecting the nearby presence of others can succeed is 6d6 x 40 feet".
The minimum distance of 240 feet, therefore, is supposed to impose a
-24 penalty and the maximum distance of 1,440 feet impose a -144
I've tried a few different ways of
fixing these modifiers, but am currently just using an ad hoc sense of
what the range of the check is.
Instead of making these opposed checks, set a target number for the
PC's skill check of 10 + the NPC's skill modifier. (This essentially
halves the probabilty skew.)
Make only one check for each group. But what skill modifier to use?
Using the average value is cutesy, but impractical at the game table.
Using the lowest value still effectively takes group stealth off the
table. Using the highest modifier
And how big can a group be? One guy with
a decent Hide check shouldn't be able to sneak an army of ten
thousand soldiers under the nose of a watchtower, but where do you draw
Maybe you could limit the number of
people covered by a check to equal the skill leader's skill ranks? Or
impose a -2 penalty per person in the group?
STEALTH / PERCEPTION SKILLS: I've been folding Hide/Move
Silently into a Stealth skill and Listen/Spot into a single Perception
skill intermittently since 2002, so I wasn't particularly surprised
when both Pathfinder and 4th Edition went in the same direction. It
cuts down on dice rolls and eliminates the undesireable "need to
succeed twice" feature of stealth checks.
This does create some interesting
oddities around trying to resolve invisibility,
and while I haven't found the perfectly elegant solution yet, this
slight corner case is (in my experience) preferable to the constantly
degrading effects of splitting the skills.
Using some combination of these solutions tends to
mitigate the problem, but I've generally been unsatisfied with the
hodgepodge fashion of it all. So taking my unified Stealth and
Perception skills in hand, I've been looking for a more elegant
I found the roots of what I think may prove a
usable mechanic in the GUMSHOE system:
When a group of characters act in concert
to perform a task together, they designate one to take the lead. That
character makes a simple test, spending any number of his own pool
points toward the task, as usual. All other characters pay 1 point from
their relevant pools in order to gain the benefits of the leader’s
action. These points are not added to the leader’s die result. For
every character who is unable to pay this piggybacking cost, either
because he lacks pool points or does not have the ability at all, the
Difficulty Number of the attempt increases by 2.
Obviously the point-spending mechanics which
underlie the GUMSHOE system can't be translated directly into the D20
system, but the basic structure of a lead character making a check onto
which others could "piggyback" was inspiring.
When the whole group needs to perform a single
task collectively (like sneaking past a guard or using group-climbing
techniques to scale a cliff) they can make a piggybacking skill check.
(1) One character takes the lead on the check.
This character makes the skill check using their normal skill modifier,
just like any other skill check.
(2) Other characters can "piggyback" on the lead
character's check by succeeding a skill check. The Piggyback DC of the
check is equal to half its normal DC. (So if the leader is making a DC
30 check, the other characters must make a DC 15 check to piggyback on
the check result.)
(3) The lead character can reduce the Piggyback DC
by 1 for every -2 penalty they accept on their check. (They must make
this decision before making the check.)
(4) The decision to piggyback on the check must be
made before the leader's check is made.
PIGGYBACKING CHECKS: The DC of the check is set by the
lead character's check. Just like any other piggybacking check, only
characters who succeed on the piggybacking check benefit.
(To simplify the resolution, you can start by
rolling only the lead characters' checks. After you've determined which
lead character succeeded, you can call for the necessary piggybacking
checks. Anyone piggybacking on the failed check, of course, will fail
no matter what their piggybacking check would have been.)
This is somewhat belated, but John and Abigail,
the play I wrote starring John and Abigail Adams, is now available for
Through war and peace, tragedy and
joy, the friendship and love of John Adams and Abigail Smith formed a
passionate and enduring marriage which helped shape the future of a
Through long years of separation –
brought about by John’s work in
Boston and Philadelphia
during the events of the American Revolution – the couple’s only means
of communication were their letters. Literally thousands of letters
survive, and this unique adaptation – in the style of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters – allows the couple to live
again in their own words.
play was produced independently
in January 2002. It received a second production in August
2007 as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
its inaugural performance in 2002, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote:
"John and Abigail is an adroit adaptation … a chance to hear about the
sacrifices involved in championing the American Revolution. John and
Abigail endured their extended separations with pen, paper, and
patience, communicating news of disease, death, battles, longing, and
The print edition from Lulu is still available,
Have you guys seen the BATMAN & ROBIN #16?
The ending really knocks your socks off:
(You can see the original comics pages here
if you have no idea what I'm talking about. The thing is, this really
does open him up for legal liability for every bat-shit thing that
Batman has ever done or that anyone could ever accuse Batman of doing.)
I'M READING 74: COLLECTED FANTASIES OF CLARK ASHTON SMITH,
the lost authors of early fantasy and science fiction is often a
humbling lesson in the fickleness of fate. Authors who were just as
talented and creative as Robert E. Howard, Isaac Asimov, H.P.
Lovecraft, or Ray Bradbury have been largely forgotten by later
generations. Nor can their modern anonymity be explained due to a lack
of influence or popularity -- in many cases they were more influential
and popular during their publishing careers than contemporaries who
remain well-known today.
I first became aware of this phenomenon in the mid
'90s when Kurt Busiek pointed me towards Mutant,
a collection of stories written by Henry Kuttner that had played a
major influence in the creation of the X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack
Kirby. Kuttner, I discovered, had influenced an entire generation of
science fiction authors. In 1946, at the height of the Golden Age of
Science Fiction, fans were asked to choose between Isaac Asimov,
Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. Van Vogt, and a dozen others to name one of
them as the World's Best SF Author. They chose Kuttner. Kuttner married
C.L. Moore, who had already become known as the First Lady of Science
Fiction. The two of them writing together created an amazing corpus of
work at such an incomprehensible pace that it required more than twenty
pseudonyms to publish it all.
Kuttner died in 1958. Moore retired
form writing. And for half a century their works slowly faded into
obscurity. Discovering these lost jewels of speculative fiction
which remains one of my Top
10 Science Fiction Novels of all-time) was a real wake-up
the past 10 years or so the information-deluge of the Internet coupled
with global access to catalogs of used books and small press
collections have started to return many of these Lost Authors to the
light. Among them is Clark Ashton Smith.
I originally encountered
Smith's writing about a decade ago when I found a collection of his
Zothique stories (set on the last continent of a dying Earth). These
stories made me want to read more, but it proved devilishly difficult
to find more of Smith's writing in print. (At reasonable prices,
So when I heard several years ago that Night Shade
was planning to publish a five volume series collecting all of his
stories, I immediately signed up for a subscription. Unfortunately, the
series has proven to be absurdly lethargic in the pace of its releases.
In fact, it has yet to be completed (although there is great hope that
the last volume will appear later this year).
series presents Smith's writing in the chronological order of its
composition, starting in 1925 with "The Abominations of Yondo". This
was a story that I had read before, but had no idea that it was Smith's
first stab at speculative fiction. It is a remarkable freshmen work,
effortlessly conjuring forth an alien and fantastical environment of an
utterly unearthly character. This, in fact, becomes Smith's defining
strength as an author. The alien planets, alternate universes, and
ancient epochs in which he sets his stories are not merely distant in
time or space; they are utterly alien in their character.
sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for
Yondo lies nearest of all to the world's rim; and strange winds,
blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its
ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes
of extinguished suns. The dark, orblike mountains which rise from its
wrinkled and pitted plain are not all its own, for some are fallen
asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept in from
nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and
well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the
hoary genii of stars abolished and decrepit demons left homeless by the
destruction of antiquated hells.
the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished
suns." Could anyone mistake such a place as merely being the analog of
some Earthly wasteland?
The strength of "The Abominations of
Yondo" aside, however, Smith's talent did not spring forth fully formed
from the brow of Zeus. And this volume, containing as it does Smith's
earliest efforts, has a fair share of formulaic work: "The Ninth
Skeleton", "Phantoms of the Fire", and "The Resurrection of the
Rattlesnake", for example, are paint-by-number horror
"The Last Incantation" and "A Night in Malneant" are thin and
predictable morality tales.
But even in these weaker tales there
is a vividness of description and a poetic quality of verse which
raises them, however slightly, above similar fare. (With the exception
of "Phantoms of Fire" which is simply a bad story by any accounting.)
The dead streets of Malneant, in particular, continue to echo through
the chambers of my mind many long nights after I finished the tale.
are, similarly, far too many tales starring self-inserted writers of
pulp fiction and poverty-stricken poets. But here, again, Smith manages
to use this weak conceit to good effect from time to time. For example,
"The Monster of the Prophecy" is the tale of a struggling,
poverty-stricken poet who is plucked off the street by an alien visitor
from a distant planet. Not only does the poet's writing become famous,
but he himself is given the opportunity to adventure among the stars.
In synopsis, the tale sounds like ripe fodder for a Mary Sue. But, in
practice, Smith sidesteps the abyss and produces a memorable (if
somewhat flawed) tale.
If Smith suffers from a consistent flaw
throughout this volume, it is the weakness of his plots and the
forgettable quality of his characters. In some ways, however, this flaw
stands in complement to his strengths: His tales often read as
travelogues of the bizarre, featuring cipherous everymen who serve as
the readers' empty avatars as they wander through the alien vistas.
many ways, the stories reveal Smith's true passion as a poet: Many read
like tone poems, and I found the book most enjoyable when I chose to
sample its contents instead of trying to barge from one tale to the
next from front cover to back.
I am curious to see, as I continue
to work my way through Smith's oeuvre, whether his poetic mastery of
language and his mind-blowing descriptions of fantastical landscapes
will become wedded to plots of substance and characters that you can
On the other hand, I feel this review will be read
more negative than it perhaps should be. In addition to "The
Abominations of Yondo" and "The Monster of the Prophecy", this
collection also contains "The Venus of Azombeii" (in which the
characters do explode off of the page with a surprising passion),
"Thirteen Phantasms" (in which a morality tale is twisted and turned
into something unpredictable and beautiful and special), "The Tale of
Satampra Zeiros" (which could be described as capturing all the vigor
and spirit of Howard's Conan stories and wedding it to Smith's
fantastical vision, except for the fact that it was written three years
before Conan appeared), "The Metamorphosis of the World" (which,
although flawed in parts, is majestical in its scope), "Marooned in
Andromeda" (an excellent entry in the travelogue category), and "The
Immeasurable Horror" (featuring one of the most memorable depictions of
the jungles of space opera Venus). And these are all excellent tales
which anyone might be well-advised to read.
importantly, Smith's eye for the fantastic is utterly unique. The
influence of his writing has been widely felt, but if you haven't read
his own work, then you've never read anything quite like Clark Ashton