Essential resources for internet culture

Last night we had some visitors (hooray! visitors!), both sociology professors (this happens when you move in certain social circles, it seems.)  And, as will happen when you put people who study sociology for a living in a room with people who studied sociology – and in my case anthropology – in school, we fell to talking about the various weird and wonderful ways that internet culture develops.

…Okay, sometimes just the weird ways.  But you get the idea.

The point is, eventually we ended up on the subject of cultural memes on the internet, how they develop, and how one can go about keeping pace with them.  We eventually whittled the essential resources down to:

  1. 4chan.

    I won’t link to this here, and I especially will not link to /b/ – let it not be said that I have led anyone down that particular path unawares.  However, it is true that 4chan in general and particularly /b/ serves as a kind of collective id for internet users – a stew of primordial thought-genes constantly colliding and combining with one another until finally one of them becomes strong enough to achieve escape velocity and appear on the internet at large as a meme.  (Hmm.  Some very mangled quasi-scientific metaphors there.  Ah well.  Somehow that seems appropriate in this case.)

    The thing about 4chan is that it is akin to the abyss.  If you gaze long into it, it gazes also into you.  And there is, occasionally, some very, very disturbing stuff on 4chan.   You must be prepared to accidentally encounter it if you brave that wilderness.

    If you’d like to learn more about 4chan without actually taking the plunge and going there, there’s always the convenient entry at That Wiki.

  2. Encyclopedia Dramatica.

    If you’ve just spotted something on Twitter, for example, and aren’t sure why the heck this seems to be so relevant to anyone, you could do worse than look up the mystery thing on Encyclopedia Dramatica.  Odds are good that you will find at least a little about the object of your interest there, along with a heaping helping of satire (and yes, very possibly trolling.)

    Be advised, of course, that ED is a parody of an encyclopedia, and treat information discovered there accordingly – as jumping-off point rather than definitive reference.

    Read more about Encyclopedia Dramatica at That Wiki.

  3. Know Your Meme.

    This meme database/video series is perhaps my personal favorite of the meme resources.  In addition to a spiffy little database of memes with origins and dates, there is also a series of charming little videos explaining selected memes, why some people find them funny, and where they come from.

    What’s especially awesome about these is that you can easily send videos explaining (for example) “Om nom nom” to your parents and they’re very likely to be able to get the idea, even if they don’t spend much time on the internet normally.  Couple that with high-quality video presentation and a friendly browsing environment and you have a winner.  Of course, the high production values mean that Know Your Meme isn’t quite as up to date as we might sometimes like – but it’s a small tradeoff, really, considering.

    Read about Know Your Meme at That Wiki.

  4. And, to a lesser extent, the mighty TV Tropes, of which we have already spoken.

Of course, none of these are Reference Resources in the academic sense, so I wouldn’t recommend using any of these for a research paper (unless of course you are doing so as primary sources!)  But they are good fun, and good ways to keep yourself posted on what the bizarre thing that just landed in your inbox is.  So go forth and explore.  (Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;))

On a mostly unrelated note, this smartphone app is genius: it turns your to-do list into a roleplaying game, awarding you points for every task you complete.  I love the idea, but feel it is rather tragic that I didn’t think of it first.

LFG

Recently The Boy and I had one of those discussions.  The sort that begins with “You don’t get out enough.  You should go find some groups to join.”

He is probably right, of course.  I don’t get out enough, as is probably evident from the glee with which I pick up any invitation that comes my way.   And so this week I have promised to begin the long and arduous process of hunting for something to do.

Problem one: I appear to be in one of those phases of ennui where nothing seems particularly exciting.  Perhaps this is the weather, which has been stultifyingly sticky and motivation-crushing.

Or perhaps not.  There is also the part where if one is very bored very consistently for a very long time it becomes difficult to get excited about things.

Problem two: I am naturally a somewhat shy person, and the idea of going someplace all by myself and talking to a bunch of strangers is a front runner for most terrifying evening’s “entertainment” ever.  I am not partial to loud, crowded places, so just wandering down to the pub and schmoozing isn’t really something I’m keen on.  Never mind that I am not dating, just looking to expand my social circle.

Problem three: It’s difficult to justify to myself the notion of taking part in any new activity that does not seem to have some immediate relevance to my job hunt.  Of course, on the other hand, it’s probably not conducive to mental health to spend as much time as I do obsessing about that, either.  Does having more fun make you more likely to get employed?  I wonder.

Still, I have gamely plowed through all thousand-odd meetup groups on meetup.com, and found a couple that might maybe possibly be kinda sorta interesting, except then we get again to problem one.  It’s hard to imagine myself getting brave enough to overcome my shyness without being really interested in whatever is going on out there.

It’s a heck of a first world problem to have, I suppose.  I am not starving or homeless or hiding in a war zone from people who would like to massacre me and my family.  I am just under-stimulated.  The other day I was told “Your brain is like a greyhound cooped up in a tiny apartment; it needs to get out and RUN.”  This seems accurate.

Frustratingly, the thing I feel most like doing is rounding up a friend or two and working on something creative together – writing an adventure or something, perhaps, for fun.   Unfortunately this is impossible, as my social circle is so busy as to make it just this side of impossible to arrange contact, and anyway most of them are going through some Very Bad Things right now and aren’t feeling up to much.  Hence the need to meet more people, and we are back where we started.

How does one go about auditioning for friends?  I always met people through people, before.

And why is there not a more convenient listing of all the social groups there are in a place?  Someone should get on that.

Those of you who prefer it when I just post things: Please enjoy this man’s loathing of Bella Swan, which mirrors in many ways my own. (via The Boy)

Alternately, there is some amusing video game nostalgia here at Kotaku, and the art of cheating has apparently gotten much more high tech than I remember it – or so sayeth Neatorama.  Still not doing it for you?  Try this list of weird things stolen from hotels (via Apartment Therapy).

Character-driven storytelling with Primetime Adventures

Some time ago, because I am a very bad girl, I picked up a copy of the .pdf of the roleplaying game Primetime Adventures.  Today, I finally got around to reading it.

The Elevator Pitch

Primetime Adventures is a game where you and your friends work together to create a story in the style of a prime time TV show.

The Assessment

I like it.  Don’t know if I’ll ever play it, but even if I don’t, there is high-quality material to be mined from it no matter what system I’m playing in.

The Details

PTA is a pretty easy system to like.  It requires very little in the way of materials, setup, or prep time for the game master – odds are excellent that aside from the PTA rulebook you already have everything you need lying about in your house.  It’s also pretty much entirely genre-independent and will support any sort of story you care to dream up, provided that:

  • The story you want to tell includes strong character-driven elements and
  • You have the right group.

Having the right group is of course important for any game – and certainly reams of paper and piles of pixels have been devoted to the subject – but more than almost any other system I’ve ever looked at, PTA relies on your group’s ability to work together and compromise.   This begins at the very instant you make the decision to use the system – the first session of any campaign is always devoted to the pitch session, where the players work together to decide what genre and tone they would prefer and establish the length of your imaginary television show’s “season.”

After that, the players work together to create the ensemble cast that will populate the show, and work out what their character’s central issues and defining traits will be.   These traits can be called on to gain advantages and extra cards when the time comes to negotiate conflicts – but more on that in a moment.

Each session of PTA is an “episode,” naturally, and each episode proceeds in a very democratic sort of way.  A scene is proposed, the players work out the outlines of what the central conflicts will be, and these conflicts are played out as other players (and audience members if any) look on.  Conflict resolution is diceless, and relies on a standard deck of playing cards to determine both who will get the result they desire and who wins the right to narrate the scene.  The narrator will describe what happens, and you’re off to the races.  New scene, everyone!

Some of you might be thinking that this sounds like you spend a lot of time sitting around listening, and you would be right; in this sense PTA is probably not a game for impatient folks.  On the other hand, literally every moment of the game encourages contributions from other players to the action: players who are not participating in a scene can even spend some of their resources to tip the balance of a conflict they are watching in a direction they think is most interesting.  It’s not hard to imagine how some players would be put off having their story so heavily impacted by the peanut gallery – again, the key here is getting together a group of folks who don’t mind that sort of thing.

Whether you mean to actually play the game or not, however, the rulebook is well worth reading just for the very sound advice it gives on getting quickly to the core of how a character can contribute to dramatic situations (via his or her Issues) and how to identify and employ well-placed, satisfying narrative scenes in a collaborative medium.  This stuff is gold – no matter what system you’re playing, attention to details like these can very simply just make your game better.

Let’s pretend, for example, that you’re playing D&D.  D&D tends to be much more action-heavy than PTA, and tends to rely on the whims of the dice, rather than the metagame-level agreement of the players, to produce its narrative.   Sure, you’re not going to be plotting out your scenarios months in advance, but what if you’re planning a session that will really let one of your PCs shine?

You could do this overtly, by choreographing a grand set-piece battle – but you can also play some subtler tricks using the guidelines offered in PTA for characters in supporting roles and emphasize your featured PC’s conflicts and troubles by setting them in counterpoint to scenes or subplots involving other PCs.  You’re setting your rogue up for a confrontation with his father, poised even now to betray him?  You could play up the need to take care whom you trust by having your unworldly paladin encounter a devious con man – or really drive the knife home by setting your warlord up to depend on his former mentor in a time of desperate need.  When the mentor comes through and the father lets down the side, the contrast should make the drama of the situation all the more poignant.

This is the sort of thing PTA is designed to enable – using the conventions of well-told TV tales to punch up the character dramas that keep audiences tuning in every week.  It may not matter to the folks on the couch all that much what happens in the overarching Villain-of-the-Week plot…it’s the characters and the interactions between them that really keep the audience coming back.  And there is room for more of that in almost any game, regardless of genre or degree of rulesy crunch.

If You Only Read One Thing

Read the explanations of “Issue” and “Screen Presence” (pages 12-14), which will explain the basic mechanics of how a character-driven story arc works.  For bonus points, add in the basics of scene creation on pages 26-31.  Players and GMs alike can benefit from asking themselves what the scene they’re engaged in is really “about” and what it’s meant to play up.

If anyone out there has actually tried PTA, I’d be happy to know what they think.

Happy gaming, everybody.

Have you heard the message?

I have this talent, apparently, for attracting small weirdness.

Oh, it’s little things.  I am the person who will be standing on the sidewalk when a man rides by on a bicycle, and points a banana at me and says “Stick ’em up!”  (I did, for the record.  He said “That’s right!” and rode on by.)  I will comment on a Sherlock Holmes poster in the subway and be drawn into a long discussion with a very quirky aficionado of the steampunk aesthetic.  I will be in the one car on the entire train that has That Crazy Dude in it, and he will spend the entire train ride making threatening holding-a-gun type gestures at another passenger.  I will be accosted by creepy people and asked to pretend my name is Debbie.  I will bump into a guy who tells me my aura would be so much better harmonized if I wore more green.

Sometimes the people I am with will be lucky enough to be around when one of these things happens.  If it’s my husband, he will usually then turn to me and say something to the effect of “This NEVER happens when I am on my own.”

Honestly, most of the time, I like it when this happens.  These strange encounters are sometimes like little presents from the universe, reminding me that yes, the world is a strange and lovely place where all sorts of oddities are possible.  (Man Who Was Making Up Songs About People On The Sidewalk While Playing A Harmonica, I am thinking of you.  You rock.)  Sometimes, on the other hand, they’re kind of creepy and alarming, and then…well, then it is not so nice.

This afternoon I was on my way to have lunch after I finished volunteering.  Had my headphones on, was thinking about nothing much, strolling toward the prospect of Chinese food.

All of a sudden, I registered that someone was, you might say, up in my grill.  A cute girl (Japanese?), nicely turned out in a red dress shirt and black jacket, leaning riiiight over into my path and rather alarmingly into my personal space.   Whoa.  Um, okay.  Normally I leave my headphones in to avoid just this sort of occurrence, but sometimes the people stopping me want directions or something, and with the vague thought of being nice I pulled mine out.

At around this point I noticed she had a guy with her, about the same age, also respectably dressed.  The girl apologized for stopping me and said, in a very heavy accent, that they were students.  Well, they looked like students – university undergrads maybe.  So, okay.

I am not sure what I would have expected next, but it was not what she actually said, which was something like “Have you heard the message about the female form of God in the world?”

Wait. What?

This was about as surprising as being stopped by a stranger and asked if I had seen the Yellow Sign, though oddly enough I think I would have had more of an idea how to respond to that than I did to this.

I am naturally a somewhat shy person – it takes me quite a long time to open up to people at the best of times.  When suddenly confronted by something startling, that shyness tends to kick into higher gear.  And anyway, something seemed weird.  These people weren’t handing out literature or anything, and they looked very normal, except for that rather extraordinary question.  But…I don’t know if you believe in “vibes,” Internet, but there was something about these people that weirded me out, in a way that more overtly “weird” people I’ve met have not.

And so I begged off, stammering something about needing to hurry someplace, and left.  Escaped downstairs to the comforting anonymity of a nice crowded eating place and settled in with my Chinese.

In spite of myself, though, I still find myself wondering what the message is.

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.