The Oz Project

Lately, I have been finding myself with the urge to…revisit.  I am sure there is a more elegant way of saying this.  Probably in French, which has also given us such fantastic idioms as “l’esprit de escalier” – which means literally “the spirit of the staircase, I believe.  What does it mean?  “That thing that happens when you’ve been having an impassioned discussion with someone and you leave and then, just as you’re on your way out, the perfect thing to say occurs to you.”

So perhaps if any language has a pithy phrase for “the powerful urge to revisit things you have known and loved” it is probably French.  I would call it nostalgia, but it is a little more than that: it isn’t so much that I want to get back to some lost age as that I want to revisit these things with new eyes, get to know them afresh – or perhaps “reintroduce myself to them” is a better way of putting it.

This feeling has manifested in my life in several ways lately.  I find myself craving to pick old favorite films from the video store instead of new ones; I think of things I haven’t eaten or read or done in years and years and suddenly feel I want to experience them all over again.

The other day I was telling someone about a passage from one of the Oz books that really creeped me out as a child.  In Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the titular characters, along with a talking horse, a talking cat, and a farm boy, are drawn deep into the bowels of the earth in an earthquake and have all sorts of bizarre adventures while trying to find their way back to the surface world.  One of the places they visit is the kingdom of the Mangaboos, beautiful but cruel people who are vegetable through and through: there they meet a sorcerous party who essentially challenges the Wizard to a magic duel.

The Wizard, of course, is a humbug magician – all of his magic is tricks and show (at least at that time – he does get significantly more legitimately magic-capable later in the series).  So it is him and a pair of kerosene lamps and a theatrical trick sword against a real magician, who is slowly trying to kill him by stopping him from breathing.  As a little kid this was thrilling to me in a very nasty sort of way, and it clearly left an impression.

The series continues, of course, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Dorothy and the Wizard and their companions get out alive.  But as I was recounting this episode, I thought:

  1. Damn, that series was weird, when I think about it.
  2. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to get away with some of those things in books for kids these days – at least not kids who were the age I was when I was reading the Oz books.  (I started with The Wizard of Oz when I was four.)
  3. …You know what?  I really want to read that series again.

And, being the big nerd that I am, I then went on to think to myself: Wouldn’t it be cool if while I was reading it I did some research on the time and place the books were from?

I mean, I remember how saturated the Oz books seemed to be with what I think of as that turn-of-the-century “Oh, my goodness. The future is so expansive!  Progress will make everyone’s lives better!” optimism.  (Perhaps that is just my memory playing tricks.)  And I wonder how much the world of the early 1900s had to do with the land of living paper dolls, for example.  Were they popular then?

My inner child wants to revisit the series because it’s been such a long time, and because my memories of it are fond.  My inner adult has suddenly realized that it’s probably a lot stranger than I thought it was at the time, and is keen to go back and have a look.  Maybe both of us will learn something, whether about ourselves or about the early 1900s or something else entirely unexpected.

So, it is decided.  We will go back, and have a look.  I have gone to the library’s website and placed some books on hold, and retrieved the first four of the books from storage.

I feel rather like an archaeologist preparing for a dig.  Do I have all the permits?  A suitable Local Guide?  It is exciting and slightly daunting at the same time.

Anyway.  More on this as it develops.  Probably slowly.  After all, there will be a lot of reading to do.

I ponder the Western

This evening it will be movie/tv night, as it is most Mondays.  Our regular crew has just finished watching the BBC miniseries Jekyll (my assessment in brief: many lovely moments, and is good watching up till the last episode, when a number of things come apart.  Oh, and don’t watch the last five minutes at all: if you are anything like me they will only serve to annoy you.  On the other hand, James Nesbitt is delightful.  Might be worth picking it up just to watch him cavort about the screen.)

Tonight, we begin our next project, a sort of exploration of movie Westerns.  This delights my husband hugely, since he is all about Westerns and has recently come off a bender of Red Dead Redemption.  There is at least one other big fan of the genre in the group, too, so good times are anticipated.

True confession: I am not that much of a Westerns kind of girl.  Considering that I’ll be seeing a lot of them in the next little while, I’ve been thinking today about why this might be.

Westerns, as most genre works, tend to share some common features (apologies for my wild paraphrasing to Diana Tixier Herald, from whose excellent reference Genreflecting I learned most of this):

  1. They take place primarily somewhere in the American West, usually in the last half of the nineteenth century (the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption is an exception, set as it is in the decade just prior to World War I.)
  2. Heroes tend to be strong-willed, individualistic characters, often in opposition to social or political realities of the time.  The rugged frontier individualist vs. the artifice of city life, and so on.
  3. That said, the real star of a Western is often…the West.  The landscape, the natural environment, the huge, sweeping forces with which the hero must contend…
  4. Themes include: clashes between chaos and order; the struggle to survive in harsh surroundings (both natural and social); justice and redemption. (Herald, 2006)

Morality in a western tends to be fairly black and white – we do, after all, get our very literal concepts of who is “white hat” and who is “black hat” from the genre.  The good guys may not win, though it is no less clear that they are the good guys.  And there is a kind of nostalgic haze over the entirety of the goings-on, or so it seems to me – but perhaps that is simply my status as a modern reader/viewer looking in.

I get why my husband loves Westerns so.  He fancies stories with heroic! men of action! who sally forth and overcome mighty challenges – or don’t – while adhering to a strict moral code.  (It is not unlike what you see in heroes of noir stories, really – in both genres you get many protagonists who are essentially chivalrous white knights displaced in time and space to a land or society where the things they value are in conflict with reality.  This probably tells you a lot about my husband, too. ;))

What is a little more strange to me is why I am not correspondingly into them.  I have read several, watched quite a few, and often enjoy them – but I almost never pick up a book or film of this type when I’m out looking for media to consume.  It isn’t the type of protagonist.  I enjoy noir (generally.)  It isn’t the landscape: I have been to the American West on several occasions and find it very lovely and mysterious in that rather terrifying way that deserts are beautiful.

Perhaps it is simply that I am not much of a rugged frontier individualist myself – I’m a geek, a big one, and enjoy city living.  And, while I do enjoy solitude as much as the next introverted person, there is to me something stimulating about having lots of people out there even if I’m not interacting directly with them.  Ah-ha, perhaps that is it: the vasty wilderness of New Mexico is less populated with characters for me to latch onto than Los Angeles circa 1935, hence the greater appeal for me of noir’s streets of intrigue.

Well, that and that most westerns I’ve encountered tend to be…shall we say…testosterone-heavy.   This is in part just a factor of when and where the stories tend to be set: the frontier is classically a man’s world, and there’s not really anything wrong with that.   Wouldn’t it be fun to have some more action girls in the Old West though?  (That said, I did recently read Sandra Dallas’s Spur-award-winning The Chili Queen, which was great fun and features some entertaining female characters.)

I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like to explore the Weird West a bit more, since that subgenre intersects very nicely with my fondness for fantasy and science fiction.  I’ve already read Midori Snyder’s interesting western/fantasy fusion The Flight of Michael McBride, and enjoyed it quite a bit – there is something endlessly entertaining in the way that combining unlikely things produces quirky results.  Recommendations for Western + supernatural hybrids, anyone?

Anyway.  Tonight’s film will be Destry Rides Again – it would have been Stagecoach, but that one was out at Our Favorite Local Video Store, alas.

We’ll see how I do. 🙂

Further Reading

Herald, D.  (2006). Genreflecting: A guide to popular reading interests.  (6th ed.).  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Lovecraftian Listening

Love him or hate him, most people have strong responses to H.P. Lovecraft.

“Who?” I hear some of you asking.  Well, there is always his entry on That Wiki if you are so inclined.  But here is the short version:  H.P. Lovecraft was a writer who published mainly short fiction in magazines like Weird Tales back in the early decades of the 20th century.  His work emphasizes themes of “cosmic” horror, with his human protagonists often dwarfed and left feeling somewhat at sea – if not utterly broken and insane – by the forces of a vast, uncaring universe.

The prose is purple, the subject matter curious and strange.  Some people are put off by the abundance of words like “eldritch,” “squamous,” or “cyclopean,” some decry his racist tendencies – these are viable criticisms, certainly, though I have always been of the opinion that I should do my best to make allowances for the social mores of other times and places.

The thing is, though, that Lovecraft’s influence has spread pretty widely.  During his lifetime he kept up a lively correspondence with a number of other writers whose names may be familiar to you, including Robert E. Howard and Robert Bloch, and his influence can be felt  from time to time in their works.  He’s also inspired a number of movies, most of them pretty awful – but not all! – at least two different tabletop roleplaying games, board games, collectible card games, and much more.

Perhaps you are curious about Lovecraft, but aren’t sure if you’re up for snuggling in with his entire canon.  Or perhaps you’re already a Lovecraft fan and would like to delve a little more into the works.  Or perhaps you just like podcasts – hey, it happens.

In any event, for anyone in any of these categories I’d like to recommend the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast.  In it, filmmakers Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer work their way through the Lovecraft oeuvre in chronological order, typically choosing one story at a time.  Extracts are read (usually by a “guest star,” frequently Andrew Leman of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society but also including such online Lovecraftian luminaries as Paul of Cthulhu from Yog-Sothoth.com.)  And there is discussion, often simply between the two hosts but occasionally bringing in other contributors such as Kenneth Hite (whose book Cthulhu 101 is an excellent and very funny little beginner’s guide to things Mythos.)

The podcast is often fascinating, frequently witty, and combines the deep affection of the true fan for its subject matter with sly pokes at some of Lovecraft’s foibles – it is extraordinary how often, for instance, his protagonists faint, and we might as well all have a bit of a chuckle over it.  It’s well-produced, too, with solid sound quality and pleasingly moody ambient music underscoring the story segments and some portions of the discussion.

The podcast is on a temporary hiatus at the moment, but is, I believe, due back next week.  You can, however, listen to their epic three-part breakdown of “The Call of Cthulhu” – or go all the way back to the beginning of the podcast and get caught up.

(If you like it, you can subscribe through iTunes, too!)

Enjoy!

Close, but not quite

Sometimes, one can learn the most interesting things when something doesn’t quite work.  Last weekend, during a D&D session, I was reminded of this.

First, a little background: Approximately a million years ago, I was an undergrad taking theatre courses.  I didn’t know whether I wanted to be an actor or a techie, but I knew I wanted to be involved; theatre was a kind of magic thing, and it had immense appeal for me.  I eventually came down on the techie side of the line: in the end the appeal of making things with my hands won out, and anyway my acting style was ill-suited for the stage.  I was neither big enough nor loud enough nor bold enough for The Industry, and that’s just fine.

I’m a pretty good acting match for the tabletop, if I do say so myself, with its mixture of collaborative storytelling and intimate scale.  A bit ironic, considering that the improv exercises were the ones I hated most in my formal acting classes.  In the D&D games I play in, there is a fair bit of improvisational acting, and while I adore it and am generally having a grand time, I sometimes find that the spectres of acting-class problems tend to come back to haunt me.

Here’s my little case study for the day: Every session of “Chosen” that we play opens with a flashback sequence, or a cutaway scene, which serves as a warm-up for everybody and typically stars one particular player character.   Last week, I was tapped to help out with making one of these work, and had some pre-session chat with our DM.

What I knew going into the session was:

  • I was going to be playing opposite the scene’s star
  • My character was to be under the influence of a supernatural entity.

The intended function of the scene: The starring PC gets to use the skills at which he is strongest (arcana, insight, and history) to resolve the problem, also showing our imaginary TV audience what he will do when confronted with a problem whose nature is mysterious to him and to which no obvious resolution was presented.

Sounds pretty cool, right?

This is the part where you’re expecting me to say “Well, it wasn’t; we totally failed.”  But while the scene didn’t work as planned, I don’t think it’s true that it was a failure, either.

What actually happened was that the DM gave us the expected setup – here is what our featured PC has been doing all day, here is what my character would normally be doing now – then turned to me and said “But today’s a little different.  What’s she doing when he gets home?”

Whoa.  Okay.  I had expected a tiny bit more direction than that – I didn’t even know what kind of thing I was supposed to be being influenced by! – but I made something up that seemed just a little bit weird, while not immediately suggesting any one particular kind of Ominous Nasty.  The featured PC bit.  So far, so good.

However, here is where things got interesting.  Once it became apparent that the character I was playing was quite literally not herself, the featured PC’s first response was to immediately go and find someone else rather than engage the problem himself at all.  (Something that had not been reckoned with in the original prospectus for the scene.)

This is where I point out that Jonathan is a very good DM, capable at most things and outstanding in several (his encounter designs and NPC portrayals in particular are excellent and everyone enjoys them.)  However, life does have a habit of getting hairy on occasion, and on this particular week there had been less time to prepare than usual…and on this occasion, it was plain he hadn’t had time to prepare and was suffering a bit of a deer-in-headlights moment.  Happens to everybody.

This is a particularly interesting improvisational challenge in an RPG setting.  In D&D one of the many functions served by the DM is the directing of scenes – he or she will try to pick things up when they’re dragging, or gently make suggestions as to things that might occur to the characters that the players might not be picking up on.   They are the players’ eyes and ears in the world, as well, and have the final say on what is and isn’t so in the world you’re playing in.  What this means is that unlike a traditional improv setting, where pretty much anyone can add anything to the mix…if you’re improving in a D&D scene, you’re working with at least a semi-structured universe in which one person knows What’s Really Going On at any given time and the things you try to introduce may or may not be viable components for that narrative.

However, at this moment, nobody was at the wheel, and the sensors had, so to speak, shut down.  I wasn’t precisely sure who or what I was supposed to be, or where the scene was ultimately supposed to go, and the other player wasn’t sure what to do, and the person who usually serves as arbiter of these things was looking at me and asking “Okay, what happens now?”

It was exactly that moment from acting class where you are playing a two-person scene and your partner is not giving you anything to play off of, and you have the feeling that someone really must do something, right now.  And you realize suddenly that it is probably going to have to be you.

Well, all right then.  There wasn’t enough urgency in the scene, so I tried to make some by inventing some additional strange actions for my character to take, and other players jumped in to suggest courses of action to the featured PC’s player.  I continued frantically making things up until suddenly enough of a narrative coalesced for me that I was able to give the entity’s behavior some internal consistency (for myself, anyway) and kind of nudge the scene to a natural conclusion on my own.

Here is the funny thing.  The scene was not precisely a success, in that it didn’t really achieve the goal of providing a setpiece for the featured PC.  I suspect this may have been in part because of a mismatch between the design of it and the preferences of the featured PC’s player – I don’t know that he is especially fond of operating alone in scenarios where the “rules” of what is going on (so to speak) are not quickly apparent.  And of course it could have been much improved by additional input from the DM as we went, but that is, as I have said, not really his fault.

On the other hand…it wasn’t a failure, either.  We still ran a scene that had a beginning, a middle, an end, and an internally consistent narrative, and I got through the whole thing without having any real idea of who I was supposed to be or how all this would fit into the plot at large.  That has to constitute an achievement of some kind.  There is even a teasing little nugget of mystery in it that we can pick up and improve on later: what really DID happen there?

I think what was most interesting about this for me, though, is that for a minute there I was doing a number of things that DMs usually do.  And no, I wasn’t expecting to have to do it when I got to the session that day.  And yes, it was kind of scary trying to do it myself.  But you know, it wasn’t as bad as all that.

It’s certainly gotten me thinking.  Perhaps it really isn’t as bad as you think, not knowing what you’re supposed to do.

Lesson learned: Be ready to back up the other players, even and especially the GM, by giving them something – anything – to pick up and run with.  If they don’t pick it up, try again – but be thinking of a graceful exit strategy, just in case.

The most dangerous website on the internet

There is…this website.

When it is linked to in message board threads, cries of “NOOOO!” can be read for posts and posts thereafter.  People speak of it in hushed tones and warn people away from clicking links to it.  I once sent a link to a single page on this site in an email, and my warning went unheeded, and the person I sent it to lost some four or five hours of his life.

He didn’t listen, but I am warning you now that I am about to link to this very site.  Do not click any of these links unless you find yourself with time to spare.

The website in question is the mighty TvTropes.org, a wiki which seeks to categorize, refine, and provide many, many examples of common tropes and tricks used in narrative media (not just television – the site’s name is something of a misnomer at this point.)  It is devilishly entertaining to read, and the entries have a certain quality to them of popcorn, or potato chips: you read just one more, and just one more, and just one more, and before you know it hours have passed.  You’ve been having a great time, but now the bank is closed.

For those feeling brave enough to explore – and for heaven’s sake do not click unless you have time! – here are a selection of portions of the wiki I have recently enjoyed:

This is just a tiny, tiny fragment of what the site has to offer, though.  Go forth and enjoy – just don’t forget to come up for air sometimes.

Where have you been?

The short answer is:  Away.

The longer answer is that I have been doing a number of things pertaining to a) finishing my graduate school and b) hunting for a job.  (Still working on the latter, though I have also been volunteering, freelancing, and otherwise doing my best to keep busy while I am on the hunt.)

Some of these things may be of interest to you, Internet, such as the massive project I did on Weird Tales magazine for my rare books class – but that will have to be saved for a day when I have more time to spend typing. 🙂

In the meantime, though, I would like to share with you one of the other things I have been doing while I was away.  Brace yourselves, because it is very, very nerdy.

Are you braced?  Good.  Then here it is:

I have (re)discovered tabletop roleplaying.

People who read Rampant Bicycle in its former incarnation may not be so surprised by this news – I have, after all, been an eager reader and collector of roleplaying sourcebooks for many years.  Prior to the fall of 2008, I had only ever played four sessions, however – of D&D 3.5, set in Eberron.  (I played a bard.  And the DM had to move to Cleveland just as the plot was ramping up and now I will never know how it would have ended.  Gyah!)

In the fall of 2008, though, my friend Jonathan rounded up a number of us and said “Hey, D&D is coming out with a fourth edition, and I’d like to give it a try…”

We did.

His idea was for a campaign in which all the player characters were teenagers – the youngest 15, the oldest perhaps 19 years old.   Sort of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Dungeons and Dragons experience.  There would be comedy.  There would be angst.  There would be strivings against impossible odds and all the other fun stuff that goes along with playing a young hero.  We would enthusiastically steal borrow from the great stories we knew and loved, and add our own embellishments as we went.

And we have.

We came up with an interestingly mixed group of characters.  My husband plays a human scion of a local noble house, ill at ease with the destiny that birth seems to have laid out for him.  (Mechanically, a warlord.)  We have an elf ranger (classic, no?) with a terrible case of amnesia, who is slowly unearthing his memories as the campaign proceeds.  We have a dragonborn of a most unusual color, who also happens to be a paladin of Bahamut with a uniquely personal relationship to his god.  And we have an orphaned brother-sister pair of eladrin (think Tolkien’s high elves or the Fair Folk of Irish lore): the older brother is our wizard, sardonic and aloof, and the younger sister (me) has spent much of her life on the street, doing whatever work she can to help make ends meet.  (Yes, she can pick locks.  So what?  She’s not a thief, thank you.)

Almost two years later, this campaign is still running.  One of the characters above has turned out to be married. One has suffered a grievous, disfiguring injury.  One has manifested a magical wild talent of which they are still unaware.  One is being threatened by mysterious forces from Beyond.  One of them has committed adultery.  And one may or may not have gone a bit mad.

This is all me doing that thing you’re not supposed to do, of course – one of the great geek faux pas is to ramble on in an overlong sort of way about your characters or your campaign.  However, this I will say:

It is a funny thing how one can go a very long time without a certain something in one’s life without really realizing what one is missing.  I had gone a very long time without much in the way of creative outlets – I enjoy my knitting, yes, but typically follow patterns, and most of the writing I had done for the last two years was of the very useful but scholarly sort.  When I started playing tabletop games again it was as though my eight-year-old self had been sitting in a room on her own for several hundred years waiting for somebody to come along and play with her…and I’d just opened the door, poked my head into the room, and said “Hey.  Want to come build a blanket fort?”

Glee and delight all around.

I’m lucky to be in a group of fantastically creative people, all of whom are mature enough to be able to incorporate difficult content into a roleplaying session sensitively.  We’re all a bit crazy, and that’s okay.  I love my geek friends, and look forward to getting together to roll dice and pretend to be somebody else once every couple of weeks.

In a later post I’ll talk a little bit about why I like fourth edition D&D – and I do like it from a mechanical perspective, quite a lot.  For today, though, Internet, I am just going to be completely self-indulgent here and share something else with you…

Our campaign has a wiki.  This means that if you are so inclined you can read more about the characters we’re playing – or, if you are feeling truly curious, there is a complete episode guide available where you can read the entire story of the campaign so far in downloadable chunks.  (They gave the aspiring librarian with vague writerly leanings the responsibility of keeping the campaign journal.  This is either awesome or terrifying or both depending on your inclinations.)  Early sessions tend to be a bit patchy in their representation, since I was having to type and play at the same time, and while my typing speed is nothing to shake a stick at it’s just not up to keeping track of the conversation for six – sometimes seven – people.  However, by the time you get to around session 16 we have started recording our sessions for later transcription, which means that the quality improves substantially; a typical set of session notes now lies somewhere between a TV script and a novel with commentary.

There be dragons, of course.  (Literally.)

More later, but now it is time to go out and buy provisions.

Rise from your grave

…What?  That is what we’re doing here, isn’t it?  Resurrecting an old blog?

I expect things will be a mess here for the next while as I figure out how things ought to  look and work.  Stay tuned, cats and kittens.