Sunday, March 26, 2017

Numeric Driftwood III

"Shadows Fall So Blue"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

Our third volume of music to drift off to dreamland to doesn’t stray too far from the template set in the previous two volumes ... which I think we can construe as a good thing.  Just as before, we’re hearing from Anjey Satori, Kitaro, and the Angels of Venice—who provide our opener this time around, “Awake Inside a Dream”—although only one track each this volume.  David Darling also returns from volume II, this time with the title track off his even mellower album Cello Blue.  And while our first volume had Siouxise singing the song that Kaa sings to Mowgli in Disney’s Jungle Book, this volume sees Better Midler give us a take on the song Dumbo’s mother sings to him in Dumbo.  And, in one final echo of volume II, this volume also ends with two consecutive vocal tracks: “Baby Mine” is followed by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s uncharacterically soporific “Sleep Tight.”  It’s a nice way to end: two pretty lullabies to help make sure you’re solidly somnolent.

But this volume also brings us a lot of new artists, including some of my favorite albums to drift off to.  Enigma finally makes an appearance here, with “Callas Went Away,” which is probably the most restful of the tunes off their classic debut album MCMXC a.D.  The rest of that album is good, no doubt, but it’s not as apt to actually put you to sleep as what I generally look for in this mix.  Another of my favorite albums to just chill out with is the soundtrack from Twin Peaks, by Angelo Badalamenti, with occasional vocals from Julee Cruise, such as the track I’m using here, “Into the Night.”  “Into the Night” is a curious tune, because while it’s super-mellow for 95% of its just-under-5-minutes’ running time, it does have an unexpected crescendo towards the end which might actually wake you up if you’re not expecting it.  That’s probably the reason it took so long to land on this mix, to be honest.  But, in the end, I felt that that one moment couldn’t completely negate its appropriateness here.  Besides: once you know it’s there, it rapidly loses its power to shake up your consciousness.  And, if nothing else, I put it fairly early in the tracklist so there’s a decent chance you’re not quite asleep yet.  Plus it handily provides our volume title, so it’s sort of crucial to the volume.

Another of my favorite mellow bands is the Blue Nile.  Like Enigma, most of their music is relaxing but not quite sleep-inducing, but every now and again they hit the jackpot.  While “From a Late Night Train” has a gentle, pining quality that almost qualifies it for Wisty Mysteria,1 it’s also soothing in a strange way that I can’t fully describe.  It makes a nice transition into our middle stretch, and also means that there’s four fully vocal tracks, as well as two others with a few breathy, whispered words,2 which is a new record for this mix.

There’s also more proper new age on this volume than on previous installments—perhaps even more than on any other mix volume I’ve done so far.  Besides Kitaro and Satori, who we can definitively say are new age, and Angels of Venice, who we might dabble with describing as “neoclassical” before admitting that, yeah, they’re pretty new-age-y, we also have Anugama, Torben Thøger, and Hilary Stagg, who form a 4-song block with David Darling wedged firmly in the middle.3  Anugama we’ve heard from before, on Shadowfall Equinox; he’s a German musician who spent many years in Asia absorbing meditative music.  “Shaku Sunset” is a perfect example of that influence: it has a gentle East Asian feel, and fades away into the chirping of crickets, which transitions beautifully into “Cello Blue,” which kicks off with chirping birds.  The overall effect is that of a pre-dawn morning.  Then “Cello Blue”‘s chirping birds flow into the babbling brook of “A Wonderful Place.”  Torben Thoger is a Danish composer and filmmaker; most of his work I find a little too new-age-y, but “A Wonderful Place” is really beautiful, even though at over 13 minutes, it’s the longest track on this mix (or, again, quite possibly on any of my mixes).  But I make special allowances here: this type of music is one of the few places where very long tracks can actually serve the purpose well.4  But assuming you’re still awake after nearly 13½ minutes of the calming soundtrack that accompanies the running water, that fades nicely into the sublime harp of Stagg.  Hilary Stagg was an electrician inspired to take up the harp after attending a concert by Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider, and he soon created a unique harp style that combines electrical amplification and lucid dreaming.  Again, Stagg is often way too new age for my tastes, but “Drifting Toward a Dream” is a pretty perfect example of how good he can be when he’s on.

Numeric Driftwood III
    [Shadows Fall So Blue]

        “Awake Inside a Dream” by Angels of Venice, off Awake Inside a Dream
        “The Mist” by Kitaro, off India
        “Night Surround” by Anjey Satori, off For Relaxation
        “Into the Night” by Angelo Badalamenti, off Twin Peaks [Soundtrack]
        “From a Late Night Train” by The Blue Nile, off Hats
        “Callas Went Away” by Enigma, off MCMXC a.D.
        “Shaku Sunset” by Anugama, off The Lightness of Being [Compilation]
        “Cello Blue” by David Darling, off Cello Blue
        “A Wonderful Place” by Torben Thøger, off Akasha
        “Drifting Toward a Dream” by Hilary Stagg, off Dream Spiral
        “Floating On” by Koushik, off Out My Window 5
        “Grace” by Beth Quist, off Silver
        “Baby Mine” by Bette Midler, off Beaches [Soundtrack]
        “Sleep Tight” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off This Beautiful Life
Total:  14 tracks,  76:57

Which only leaves us with two tracks.  Beth Quist we’ve seen before on other mixes,6 but this is her first appearance here.  “Grace” is a track off her first album, Silver, and exemplifies what make her great: middle-Eastern-influenced music, and her wordless vocals are just another instrument, and one with magnificent range.  This is more relaxing than most of her œuvre, which is of course why it fits in so nicely here.

And leading into Quist is a short bridge from Indian-Canadian electronica artist Koushik.  “Floating On”7 is exactly what it says on the tin: a short, floating melody that carries us gracefully from the transcendent harp of Stagg to the otherworldly voice of Quist.

Next time, we’ll wake back up with another installment of getting down to brass tactics.

Numeric Driftwood IV


1 A mix which we shall come to in the fullness of time, of course.

2 That would be the Enigma, of course, and the Angels of Venice track, perhaps a bit surprisingly.

3 And we could probably describe Darling as new age too, if we’re being honest.

4 The other place being Shadowfall Equinox.

5 On some versions of this album, including the one I’m linking you to, “Floating On” is listed as “Flying On.”  But it’s the same song.

6 On Smokelit Flashback IV and V, as well as Sirenexiv Cola I and Paradoxically Sized World IV.

7 Or, on some versions of Out My Window, “Flying On.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

GM Philosophy: Roleplaying Is Storytelling

So having talked at some length about why I play D&D, this post may seem somewhat repetitive,1 but it really is the linchpin of my GM philosophy.  See, the whole issue stems from the fact that, while almost all games that you’ve ever played before are competitive, D&D is not.  It’s cooperative.  This leads many people to wonder: so what is the point?  Every game—even a cooperative one—must have an object or goal.  That’s what tells you what to do in order to improve your performance.  You need some sort of yardstick to measure yourself against.  If you’re not striving to outdo your fellow players, then what exactly are you striving towards?

Different people have come up with different answers to that question, and, while none of those answers are wrong, it is true that the members of any given gaming group need to aim at the same target.  That is: it’s okay for different groups to have different goals, even though they’re all playing the same game, but within a single group, everybody needs to be on the same page, or the game doesn’t work (or at least doesn’t work very well).  So let’s look at a few of the options and see what the pros and cons are.

For some people, it’s simple escapism.  In this model, playing D&D is much like going to a movie: you get to step out of the real world for a bit and live in a more exciting place.  But the problem with that is that a movie is a passive experience.  If you’re doing it properly, you’re just absorbing the story that someone else has built for you.  D&D needs to be more active than that—you must be a participant, not merely an observer.

Other people take the view that D&D itself doesn’t have any one objective, but rather that it’s a game like Fluxx,2 where the objective for each game is different, and may even change mid-game.  And I’ll agree that each individual adventure or campaign should have a goal, and it’s good to recognize that, but I think this view misses the bigger picture.  D&D is not just a collection of various disconnected campaigns: there is a common thread that ties them all together.

Some people treat D&D like fantasy dinner theater, and use it to show off their acting chops.  This is a particularly tricky one to address, because it’s absolutely true that you need to inhabit another person.  And sometimes would-be actors can make excellent D&D players.  But the analogy is not perfect: acting is about taking an existing character and bringing it to life by the way you move and speak.  D&D is about inventing a character from scratch, and detailing their adventures.  It’s much closer to writing a play than it is to starring in one.  And players don’t have to act to do that, and shouldn’t be made to feel inferior if they can’t or don’t want to.

But the most insidious one of all is when people just can’t help themselves and try to inject an element of competition into it.  Sometimes this manifests as a competition among the players—my character can do more damage per hit than yours! oh, yeah, well my character can run faster, jump farther, and climb better than yours! yeah, but you both suck more than me, because my character can take the most damage without going down—and that’s what leads to min/max-ing and munchkinism.  Sometimes instead the game becomes a showdown between players and GM: the latter tries to kill everyone, while the former try to dispatch all enemies thrown at them so quickly that the GM goes “awwww.”  But neither of those strategies makes for a good story—the one is a pointless tragedy and the other lacks any tension or drama.

For me (and the many other roleplayers who share my views), roleplaying is storytelling.  The object of the game is to create a magnificient, shared story.  A story requires many things: an interesting setting, a plot filled with action and tension, and most of all great characters.  The players will each provide one character, who will be a co-protagonist, and the GM will provide the supporting cast, the background characters, and of course the antagonists.  Each person brings to the table a certain amount of shared experience—these days, it’s a safe bet that we’ve all seen or read The Lord of the Rings, and probably Game of Thrones, and probably experienced some form of Conan,3 and probably played some version of The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy.  Each person will also bring some amount of idiosyncratic experience—some of us will have seen Brotherhood of the Wolf, or Willow, and others won’t; some of us will have read Imajica, or the Magic Kingdom of Landover series, and some won’t; some will have played one or more of the Elder Scrolls games, or one of the Zork games, and some won’t; some will have read The Sandman, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and some won’t.  All these influences will mesh, and cross-pollinate, and together we will forge a story that will be even more amazing than all of these others, because it will be our story.

And we will tell these stories.  We’ll tell them to each other, years from now, to remember the good times.  We’ll tell them to our friends and family, although for the most part they won’t appreciate them.  And, most amazing of all, we will tell them to utter strangers that we’re meeting for the first time, and who we just happened to discover also play, or used to play, pen-n-paper roleplaying games, and they will tell us their stories, and we will laugh, and we will gasp, and we will congratulate each other on the ingenuity of our characters, and the luck and the skill of our party, and the incredible nature of our stories.  Any person, of any age, from any culture: once you find that you both have roleplayed, the stories will begin to flow, like magic.

Which is appropriate, because D&D is a fantasy game, so if you happen to be playing D&D, as opposed to one of the many other fine PnP RPGs out there, you’re going to be building a fantasy story.  Oh, sure: there will probably be elements of sci-fi, and horror, and perhaps even historical drama, but primarily it’s a fantasy genre, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Fantasy traditionally has excellent villains, both of the blacker-than-black and decidedly-gray varieties, depending on your tastes.  It allows for physical heroism, quick wits, political maneuvering, camaraderie and romance and betrayal, the amassment of truly magnificent levels of power by some characters, and yet the saving of the day by perfectly ordinary folks with no aspirations to grandeur who just had the fortitude and the courage to step up and do the right thing.  Plus you get to stab things with your sword and sling magic spells around—what’s not to love?

So this will be an epic story, and all we have to do to make it so and keep it so is follow a few simple rules.  We build epic and interesting characters.  We make sure that those characters only die when it’s dramatically appropriate.  We make sure that everyone has an equal stake in the story so it doesn’t get sabotaged by pointless competition.  And we make sure that everything we do—everything we have our characters do, to be more precise—makes logical sense.  Simple example: some gaming groups will say, if player X can’t make it to the game tonight, we’ll just say their character disappears for this session and reappears next time.  I can’t go along with that.  Why not?  Simple: it borks the story.  If you were reading a book, and it was getting good, and then the author wrote:

When the party awoke the next morning, Hafnir was gone.  His animal companion and all his magical items were also missing, although his share of the food and supplies remained behind.  “Oh, well,” shrugged Delea.  “I guess we’ll see him later.  Now let’s finish tracking down those orcs!”

I think you would find this somewhat infuriating, because not only does it make no logical sense that a character simply disappeared right in the middle of things, but it makes even less sense that his beloved companions of lo these many months would simply ignore his absence.  It would ruin the story for you.  In my games, if a player can’t make it, they have to accept whatever fate befalls their character.  We might keep them around and let another player run the character, we might have them knocked unconscious the first chance we get and just lug their comatose body around, or I might have them kidnapped and held for ransom just to keep things interesting.  But, however we handle it, it will make sense in the context of the ongoing story.4

The other important mechanical consequence of treating roleplaying as storytelling is my attitude towards balance.  Some D&D players are obsessed with balance.  This class is overpowered, they’ll say.  This class is mechanically weak and no one will ever want to play it.  This multiclass combination could only possibly appeal to munchkins—in fact, I have read people online claiming that all multiclassing is a sign of powergaming.  This is bollocks.  As a player, I love multiclassing, because I have weird, atypical ideas for characters, and multiclassing is often the best (and sometimes only) way to achieve that.  As a GM, I cut way back on the chances that you will use multiclassing—or homebrew classes/races/weapons/whatever, or just plain special requests to bend the rules—to min/max by demanding more detailed backstories for the characters.  If your backstory supports your crazy combination of things, then your GM supports it too.  Everything has to make a certain amount of sense, yes, but let’s not ignore the Rule of Cool.  Remember: we’re trying to tell an awesome story here.  I’m not going to let you have massive amounts of HP at first level or anything, but if you want to have a magic weapon when you first start out, perhaps because it’s a bequest from your father, who was killed in the Great Goblin Wars, I’m not gonna say “no” to that.  I might give you a penalty to use it until the weapon “warms up” to you or somesuch, because balance should never be ignored entirely, but as a GM my general rule is “don’t say ‘no’; say ‘yes, but ...’”

In fact, nothing I ever tell you as a GM should ever be construed as meaning “no.”  If you say “my character will be a dwarven sailor,” and I say “in this world, all dwarves are terrified of water,” that doesn’t mean you have to abandon your character concept.  It just means you’re going to have to work extra hard to come up with a reason why they exist.  Perhaps they weren’t actually raised by dwarves.  Perhaps they were blessed as a baby by a naiad.  Perhaps, as a child, they fell into the ocean, and their family was sure they were lost forever, but then they were saved by a mermaid.  Go crazy: your creativity will be rewarded.  Likewise, if you say “my character will try to jump over the chasm,” and I say, “you don’t think that’s a good idea: it looks like it’s too far,” that also doesn’t mean you can’t make the attempt.  I’m just trying to gently talk you out of something which may get you killed.5  But, hey: if you really have to try it, that’s your business.  I’m not gonna stop you.  ‘Cause it will probably make the adventure more interesting, whether you succeed against all odds, or whether you fall and your companions have to figure out how to rescue your broken and battered body.

And, you know what?  Either way it goes, it’ll make a great story.


1 In fact, I’ve lifted whole sentences from that previous post.  Please forgive me for that, but I don’t want to rewrite something that sounded perfect the first time around just to avoid charges of self-plagiarism.

2 Or, to a lesser extent, like my other great passion: Heroscape.

3 Be it the original short stories by Robert E. Howard, the authorized fan-fiction of people like L. Sprague de Camp, the comics by Thomas and Buscema, the movies starring Schwarzenegger, or one of the many videogames.  Conan is truly a cross-media barbarian.

4 Also, the player will not be nervous about their character, because they are confident in the power of our shared story: everyone in the group wants the best—which generally means the most interesting—things for every character.

5 Okay, not permanently killed, since I don’t kill characters.  But really really messed up.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

More quotes for our time

I had really hoped to get you a full post this week—I even started on one already—but the tyranny of the birthday weekend has other plans for me.  For now, I’ll give you another quickie quotes post.

Amongst the great quotables, everyone knows Voltaire and Mark Twain, Confucius and Ghandi.  Most know Will Rogers and Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce and Dave Barry.  But not enough people know H. L. Mencken.

Ever heard of the Scopes Monkey Trial?  Well, Mencken is the one who named it.  He was an American newspaperman and author who was most prolific during the period of World War I to World War II, but many of his quotes ring true today with a foresight that is almost eerie.

Of course, he was not a perfect man, as no historical figure is.  As his Wikipedia article is quick to point out, he was extremely racist, and he once wrote “war is a good thing.”  He also didn’t believe in populism and was quite a big fan of Ayn Rand.  Which makes it all the more curious to me that his words are such a clear indictment of our current president, who it seems he probably would have personally thought well of.  For instance, he once noted:

It is [a politician’s] business to get and hold his job at all costs.  If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out, he will try to hold it by embracing new truths.  His ear is ever close to the ground.

    — H. L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1926

Of course, one could argue that Trump doesn’t have much truck with embracing truths, new or otherwise.  However, it is true that Trump has an amazing ability to tap into people’s fears: economic fears, xenophobic fears, isolationist fears.  And, of course, Mencken has a comment for us on that too:

Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.

    — H. L. Mencken, In Defense of Women, 1918

Again, this is highly amusing, given Mencken’s personal views: one could easily imagine that he would have been fully in favor of, say, bans on refugees.  But PolitiFact rates the commonly touted opposition statistic that your chances of being killed by a refugee are 1 in 3.6 billion as “mostly true,” primarily because the statement should more properly be considered to be “your chances of being killed on American soil by a refugee in an act of terrorism are 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”  Still pretty low.  And, while it’s true that the study this is based on excludes the 3 people that died in the Boston Marathon bombings because those perpetrators were not refugees but rather their family has been granted political asylum—an admittedly nitpicky distinction—it’s still a wash because the only people that the study could identify as having been killed by terrorist refugees were 3 people killed prior to the 1980 Refugee Act, which radically increased how hard it is to get refugee status.*  So I think it’s safe to call this fear of refugees, which is being masterfully played on by Trump and many other politicians, as imaginary.  As Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu pointed out when he originally trotted out this statistic, your chances of being struck by lightning twice is 1 in 9 million.  You know, just for comparison purposes.

Given the recent WikiLeaks dump on the CIA’s ability to turn your televsion into a listening device, I found this one pretty spot-on as well:

Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.

    — H. L. Mencken, 1920

Ah, if all we had to worry about were letter-openers.  Those were truly the good ol’ days.

I’ll leave you with that thought for this week.  Next week I hope to have a more regular post.


* Also, classifying those incidents as “terrorism” is a bit dicey, and 2 of the 3 people killed weren’t American, although they were on American soil at the time.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A quick quote

Partially due to the prior craziness of this month not having completely abated yet, partially due to a somewhat exhausting trip to Disneyland this week, and partially due to coming into our March birthday season, there’s no time for a full post this week.  However, I will give you a partial post by sharing one of my many favorite quotes.

When it comes to non-fiction television, there are only a few shows that I regularly watch:
  • The Daily Show (with Trevor Noah)
  • @Midnight (with Chris Hardwick)
  • The Late Show (with Stephen Colbert)
  • Last Week Tonight (with John Oliver)
  • Full Frontal (with Samantha Bee)
That’s it.  No reality TV, no sports, no cooking shows,* no travel shows, no talk shows, no hard news ... outside of the occasional nature documentary or science show with my kids, there ain’t nothing else.  And you can see the pattern here: these are all shows where I can find out what’s going on in the world, but they make me laugh at it instead of depressing the hell out of me.

Of course, the first 3 of these also have guests: often celebrities of some type or other—actors, directors, musicians, politicians, sports stars—but sometimes less well-known folks, like lesser-known authors, activists, historians, political commentators, or journalists.  I have an interesting take on the celebrities,** but the other guests are usually more intriguing.  They’re typically people I’ve never heard of before (unless they were previously guests on one of the other shows), and they often have really interesting stories, which they have a few minutes to spit out on the air in ultra-condensed form, and sometimes they say very cool things.  Here’s a quick example.

Wes Moore is a fellow that Wikipedia describes as “an American author, social entrepreneur, producer, political analyst, and decorated US Army officer.”  The man has done a veritable shitload of things in his less-than-40 years on the planet, and he’s quite an impressive guest on a show like those I mention above: knowledgeable, articulate, and passionate.  On February 4th of 2015, Jon Stewart interviewed him on The Daily Show.  You can watch the entire clip on the Internet if you like,*** but for purposes of this quick post I want to just mention one thing he said:

Every day you’re doing what you’re not passionate about, you become extraordinarily ordinary.

    — Wes Moore, quoting a mentor of his

As I sometimes do when I hear a quote worthy of capturing, I had to stop (in this case, pause the DVR) and digest that for a minute, then back up and transcribe it, going over and over it several times to make sure I had it down exactly.  ‘Cause that’s just damned inspiring.  I have tried to focus my life on doing things that I’m passionate about, and I hope I’ve managed to instill that in my children as well.  But I have never been able to say what Wes Moore said so succinctly or clearly: don’t waste your time on things you’re not passionate about.  Don’t even bother.  Because that’s how you fade into obscurity, and perhaps even worse: that’s how you deprive the world of your talent.  I thank Mr. Moore for sharing his wisdom with me.

Which I’ve now passed on to you, in case you missed it the first time around.  Hopefully it will inspire you as it has me.  Until next week, go out and do something you’re passionate about.  I plan to as well.


* I used to watch Good Eats, but it’s not on any more.  And Iron Chef, in most all of its incarnations.  But I gave up on cooking shows.

** Which is probably worthy of its own blog post someday.

*** And if you can stand to deal with Comedy Central’s horrible player, which generally I can’t.