Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sick of too much fun

Did you ever come home from vacation only to get sick?  Well, that happened to pretty much everyone in our house this week.  On the one hand, you end up being off from work for 2 weeks instead of one (more or less).  On the other hand, it’s totally not worth it.

Let me stop right there before I give you way more information than you really want to know.  Next week should be more productive.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

80s My Way (Intro)

[This is a post relating to my series about music mixes.  It’s not a proper post in the series, because there’s no actual mix featured.  However, it provides some background for some (hopefully) upcoming posts which will be part of the series.

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.]

While our musical tastes tend to evolve over time, there’s something to be said for the axiom that the music of our youth will always hold a prominent place—perhaps even the primary place—in our hearts.  In particular, I have a theory (unproven, true) that your favorite type of music is most often going to be the one that you first discovered when you diverged from what was handed down to you by your family.  You grow up listening to what they listen to, and you appreciate it, and maybe even come to love it.  But there always comes a time when you need to branch out on your own and find music that is uniquely yours.  When you need to prove that your musical taste is not just a reflection of someone else’s, but its own beast, capable of discernment and culture.  Whatever music it is that you latch onto at that point ... that’s your music, forever and always.  Even if you don’t listen to it all the time, even after a few decades have passed and your tastes have matured, it will always have the capacity to transport you and transform you.  First loves have power.

For me, the time of my musical discovery was the 80s.  I turned 13 just two months before the decade rolled over, and that was right around the time I began wondering if there was more music than the 50s early rock-n-roll and rockabilly that formed the majority of my father’s record collection.  Oh, sure: I loved all that stuff—Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley, and Roy Orbison, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Del Shannon.  But I was starting to discover another side to pop music: a stranger side, infused with synthesizers and riddled with surrealistic lyrics.  You see, I was witnessing the birth of what would eventually come to be called “alternative” music.  It was, back then, a giddy mix of post-punk, new wave, and synthpop, with vestiges of punk and psychedelia, and influences from reggae, swing, and even some of that rockabilly my data was so fond of.  And, jammed sideways into all of that, a second burgeoning musical movement that was cross-pollinating with alternative, each infusing the other with their style and techniques: hip-hop.  This was not my father’s rock and roll.

Now, the 80s means different things to different people.  For some, it’s stadium rock: “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, and “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, and “Juke Box Hero” by Foreigner.  For others, it’s glam metal (Bon Jovi and Def Leppard and Quiet Riot), or rap (Kurtis Blow and Run D.M.C. and Beastie Boys).  I listened to all that at the time, and still listen to much of it today.  But that is not my 80s (although my 80s will touch on all of them).  My 80s is strictly alternative, in all of its amorphous, broad-ranging and far-reaching, over-inclusive-to-the-point-of-making-a-single-name-meaningless glory.  And, when I started making the current crop of mixes, back in the mid-2000s, I knew that one of those mixes had to be 80s My Way.

And the name was obvious too.  Even though I love Journey and Foreigner and Styx and Queen and all the rest, and even though some of those songs are ultra-classic and just as emblematic of the 80s as any I would want to hear, I wasn’t going to include them.  I would include way too many mega-hits to satisfy any discerning musicologist looking for hidden gems of the period, but I would also include way too many totally obscure songs that never charted anywhere to keep the attention of casual fans looking for an injection of nostalgia.  It really is going to be a mix (a mix with many many volumes) that will probably only satisfy me.  Although I hope it has some redeeming value to others, and I certainly won’t refrain from putting it up in this blog series.

I also made what would come to be a fateful decision on how I would organize the mix: chronologically.  Now, on the one hand, rough chronological order is a fairly reasonable choice for a retrospective on a decade.  But it also presents significant challenges.  My first, crazy idea was to arrange the volumes like so:

  • volume I: 1979 – 1981
  • volume II: 1982 – 1983
  • volume III: 1984
  • volume IV: 1985
  • volume V: 1986 – 1987
  • volume VI: 1988 – 1990

(We’ll talk about the decision to include ‘79 and ‘90 in just a moment.)  I liked the symmetry of telescoping in on the middle years, where the true heart of the 80s would no doubt lie.  Also note that I graduated from high school in 1984, so this also has a good deal of personal relevance for me.  But the first problem is, the music itself just isn’t going to cooperate.  I ended up with nearly 3 hours of tracks in 1982, for instance—1982 was just a powerful year, for whatever reason.  And, unlike with other mixes, I can’t just cut songs, or defer them for a later mix: with the chronological scheme, they either have to go where they go, or they have to get gone.  And most of the songs I picked weren’t really optional: it wouldn’t be my 80s without them.  So I had to lob symmetry out the window and just let things expand to fit what they would fit.

Another big problem is that music isn’t always so easily pinned to a particular year.  There’s the year it was recorded, the year it was released, and the year it charted, and those aren’t always the same year.  And picking one of the three doesn’t help: does “release” mean when it was released as a single, or released on its album, ’cause those can be different, and can be in either order.  Or what if it’s a song by a British or Australian group, but it was released in its home country before it was released in the US, which would be when I would have heard it?  If you choose charting, do you use the date it entered the charts, or when it peaked?  Which charts do you use?  Each country has its own charts, and the US has several (the “Modern Rock” Billboard list is probably the most relevant, but that doesn’t even show up until 1988).  For many songs, it doesn’t matter which marker you choose: the year ends up being the same.  But there were several songs where I ended up with my choice of two years to pick from, and a couple of wacky cases where I had three.  In all those cases, I just stuck it where it felt right to me ... it’s the 80s my way, after all.

But the biggest problem, of course, is that doing things in chronological order like this means I pretty much have to plan out the whole thing before I can really start finalizing any of the individual volumes.  Which sucks, and it explains why I’ve been “working” on this mix for many years (possibly decades, at this point) without making any real progress.  But lately I’ve decided to get serious about finally producing something, and the one of the first things I realized is that I have to set some ground rules.  This mix is not going to be like any of my other mixes for many reasons, and it’s going to have its own set of rules which are different from the rules I usually use.  So I thought I’d do a separate post on what those rules were so I can refer back to it when I eventually get around to start posting volumes of this mix.

Without further ado, then, the Rules of My Eighties Mix Volumes:

It’s okay for the 80s to bleed out of its boundaries a little.  Like any decade-based cultural trend, 80s music does not magically spring into existence on January 1st, 1980, and cease to exist with a small pop on midnight of December 31st, 1989.  One of the first things I realized when I started compiling songs was there were some really important “80s” songs which were released in 1979, in particular “My Sharona,” which is so utterly archetypal of 80s music that it would be criminal to omit it for the sin of being ahead of its time.  Likewise, there are a few tracks released in 1990 that were still pretty 80s, although nothing so important as “My Sharona.”  Of course, I could go back to 1978, or forward to 1991, or even further in either direction.  But I had to draw the line somewhere, so the 80s is “officially” 1979 – 1990.  At least for my purposes.

One song per artist.  This is a much more controversial decision, and I struggled with it for a long time.  But there’s just too much damn music otherwise.  Even restricting myself to one song per artist, I’ve already amassed over 12 hours of music, and I think I’m probably going to end up closer to 15.  If I started bending the rules, even if only for some of the truly prolific 80s greats such as the Cure, Depeche Mode, INXS, R.E.M., etc, this mix would rapidly get so out of control that listening to it would be a chore instead of a joy.  Which sort of defeats the purpose.  So I’m going to end up leaving out some favorite songs because I wanted to choose a different song by that artist, and people are just going to have to deal with it.

What counts as “the same artist” is entirely up to me.  Adam and the Ants is not different from Adam Ant, but the (English) Beat is different from General Public.  It’s just whatever feels right to me.

The “No Reuse Rule” is out the window.  It’s just too hard otherwise.  I tried following it for a while, but a lot of the truly great songs were immediately ruled out because I was already using them on another mix.  And that’s not what I want my 80s mix to be: a collection of 80s songs not good enough to show up on other mixes.  Still, my decision to choose a lot of the bigger hits, which I tend to avoid on the other mixes because they’re too obvious, means that I won’t be breaking the No Reuse Rule as much as you might think.  But I will break it sometimes, and I’ll just have to be okay with that.

I’m okay with going over 80 minutes.  Normally I like to keep my volumes under 80 minutes, and I very rarely break that rule.  On the one hand, 80 minutes is a bit arbitrary—it’s how many minutes you can fit onto a standard recordable CD without overburning—but, on the other hand, it’s also turned out to be a pretty good unit of time for how long I can listen to one thing (or one style of thing, or one theme of things) before I start to get bored.  But I’m not going to cut a really cool 80s song just because it would cause me to blow an arbitrary time limit.

There are no mix starters.  It’s just not that kind of mix.

I’m more flexible on transitions.  Transitions are a pain in the ass for this mix.  Songs which are close together in time often start and end the same way, and the lack of variety can make it hard to find tracks which butt up against each other well.  And there are no bridges at all.  I’ve just done the best I can, and that’s the best I can do.

So those are the rules.  There will still be volumes, even if they run a bit long, and there will still be volume namers.  (In fact, the first two volumes are already named, and their names were insanely obvious once I started picking songs.  I’m hoping the others have such happy accidents as well.)  I will still order the songs within each volume by whatever order I think makes that volume work best—similar songs may go together, or I may want to choose interesting tempo variations (slow songs leading to mid-tempo leading to fast songs, etc).  The volumes themselves will be in chronological order (given the caveats above), but the songs on a particular volume will not.  And, as always, every song will be something I consider a good song.  That means that your favorite 80s artist—even the alternative ones!—may not show up, just because I never liked them as much as everyone else.  But that’s just because, this is the 80s ... my way.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sentiment for the Day

Mother’s Day has come around again, and I’ve found myself pondering (as I do about every two years or so) how much I have to be thankful for in The Mother.  She’s not my mother, it’s true ... in fact, she is but one of many mothers that I appreciate for their hard work and devotion.  There are mothers that I rely on at work, at my chiropractor’s office, in my children’s homeschool groups, and even at my grocery store, where I go at least once a week and everyone there knows my name.*  Of course, not all the women who work at those places are mothers, and many of them I have no clue whether they’re mothers or not.  So I think it’s safe to say that those particular mothers I appreciate for reasons totally separate from their motherhood (although no doubt their many good qualities are informed by their motherhood).

Of course, there are still other mothers that I appreciate specifically for their maternal nature: mothers of friends, mothers of my children’s friends, even The Mother’s own mother.  Perhaps especially her, as she has often been quite supportive and quite helpful throughout the years I’ve known her.  But, let’s face it: the most prominent role of these women in my life is their children, and motherhood is a lot more than just giving birth.  Many of these latter kinds of mothers have done nice things for me personally, and of course I owe them for the gift of raising lovely human beings—no small task!—but, still, it’s not the same level as The Mother herself.

And naturally there is my own mother, whom I’ve written about before.  My mother and I have a fractious relationship, mostly revolving around me telling her how much it annoys me that every time she calls me I can’t get her off the phone, followed by her apologizing and promising to do better for the next hour or so.  But that’s just the present: there are plenty of past things to appreciate my mother for.  There is no doubt that my mother played a huge role in making me who I am today.  And yet ...  You know, I’m not sure where exactly the line is, but this is just about the point in my life where the time I’ve spent in close proximity to The Mother will surpass the amount of time I’ve spent with my mother.  That’s one of those factoids that seems both weird and right at the same time.

So The Mother, out of all the mothers, is at a level all her own.  There are no other mothers—perhaps not even any other peoeple at all—that have given me as much to appreciate as this mother.  That is something truly worth celebrating, which is really what Mother’s Day is for, I suppose.

Of course, Mother’s Day is one of those holidays invented by greeting card companies, right?  Just an excuse to sell more cards, so the story goes.  Except that, if Wikipedia is to be believed, it was actually invented by a woman named Anna Jarvis, who wanted to honor her mother Ann, a social activist and Civil War nurse who herself had organized “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to advocate first for public health and later for peace and neutrality during the war.  Ann died during the second week of May in 1905, and Anna began her campaign to establish Mother’s Day that same year.  The first official Mother’s Day celebration was in 1908, in Anna’s hometown of Grafton, West Virginia; by 1914, she had convinced both Congress and President Wilson, and the holiday was official.  Granted, the commercialization (by Hallmark, among others) was not far behind: by 1923, Anna was organizing boycotts of her own holiday, threatening lawsuits against greeting card companies, and crashing candymakers conventions.  She (supposedly) said:

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.  And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself.  A pretty sentiment!

So railing against the commercialization of the holiday is only a decade younger than the holiday itself, and both were initiated by the same individual.  But the point is, the commercialization is newer: not by much perhaps, but, no, Mother’s Day wasn’t invented as an excuse to sell greeting cards.  It was invented by a daughter, to honor her mother, who in turn had organized other mothers.  So, as it turns out, celebrating the many reasons we have to appreciate the various mothers in our life is what Mother’s Day is all about after all.

Right now there are potentially some difficult times ahead for our family.  Oh, there’s plenty of good things going on in our lives too: we’ve got season passes to Disney again this year, we’ve got a decent amount of money in the bank at the moment, and summer camp is coming up for 2 of our 3 human children.  But I’m particularly glad for The Mother right now, because I don’t think we could make it through the tough times without her, and we’d have none of those good things without her because she’s the one who organizes all that.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know how to express how much we need her.  Sometimes when you try to say it, it comes out sounding insufficient.  “I really appreciate you, you know.”  “Yeah, yeah ...”  State it too simply and it sounds perfunctory.  Belabor the point too much and it sounds overblown, as if you’re trying too hard.

But perhaps this is the one day of the year when we can say—when I can say—how much she is needed without it sounding trite or overly effusive.  Perhaps this day, of all days, I can say that, without her, we would be lost, facing a gap between what we have and what we need that would threaten to overwhelm us in its immensity.  We would all be hard-pressed to dress ourselves in the morning, much less carry on living normal lives throughout the day, without her guidance, her patience, and her love.  She gives much and takes little in return.  She puts up with an inordinate amount, but she asks for very little for herself.  She’s not used to asking for help, so she just doesn’t.  She likes to provide for us, so she does.

It is my hope that I can convey to her how much she is loved and appreciated, but I fear that is beyond me.  We may have to content ourselves with these feeble annual attempts, fall short as they inevitably will, and know that we fail, year after year, but keep trying anyway, because it’s the best we can do.  I suppose we could just assume that she knows.  But it seems poor enough thanks as it is.

One day it’s possible that the right words will just fall out of the sky.  Not likely, perhaps, but possible.  Until then, we’ll have to be satisfied with a simple “thank you.”  It may be inadequate, but it’s earnest, and it’s the best we’ve got, for now.  For now, please accept our thanks, and know that our appreciation and amazement at all you do runs deeper than we can properly express.  Even when we don’t bother to try.


* In a bizarre way, I suppose my local Trader Joe’s is like my own personal Cheers.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

GM Philosophy: Playstyle Matters

When starting a new D&D game, there are many things you want to get new players on the same page with, and other entries in this series have addressed several of them.  But perhaps one of the most important is to figure out what style of game you want to play.  Now, there are many different ways to categorize style of play, but I’ve come up with one that I think will make sense to everyone: you can either play a Conan-style game, or a Game-of-Thrones-style game, or a Lord-of-the-Rings style game.*

Now, to fully understand what those different styles mean in concrete terms, we should discuss what D&D’s fifth edition (affectionately known as 5e) calls the “Three Pillars of Adventure.”  From their online basic rules:

Adventurers can try to do anything their players can imagine, but it can be helpful to talk about their activities in three broad categories: exploration, social interaction, and combat.

Exploration includes both the adventurers’ movement through the world and their interaction with objects and situations that require their attention. Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result. On a large scale, that might involve the characters spending a day crossing a rolling plain or an hour making their way through caverns underground. On the smallest scale, it could mean one character pulling a lever in a dungeon room to see what happens.

Social interaction features the adventurers talking to someone (or something) else. It might mean demanding that a captured scout reveal the secret entrance to the goblin lair, getting information from a rescued prisoner, pleading for mercy from an orc chieftain, or persuading a talkative magic mirror to show a distant location to the adventurers.  ...

Combat ... involves characters and other creatures swinging weapons, casting spells, maneuvering for position, and so on—all in an effort to defeat their opponents, whether that means killing every enemy, taking captives, or forcing a rout. ...  Even in the context of a pitched battle, there’s still plenty of opportunity for adventurers to attempt wacky stunts like surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield, to examine the environment (perhaps by pulling a mysterious lever), and to interact with other creatures, including allies, enemies, and neutral parties.

This explicit distinction between the three different aspects of roleplaying is new for 5e.  Previous editions (and a majority of other PnP RPGs, for that matter) have been all about combat.  It’s a bit refreshing to see the other “pillars” get some love, especially if you believe as I do that roleplaying is storytelling: a good story needs some good fights, sure, but a string of constant battles glued together minimally with various other bits does not a story make.  You need a balance of all three.  But of course you can lean one way or another (or another) pretty hard.  Which brings us to the 3 styles.

A Conan-style game is all about killing things.  Recall your fondest memories of the archetypal barbarian: Conan fighting a giant serpent, Conan holding back hordes of wild Picts single-handedly, Conan using a giant sword to lop off a wizard’s head.  Oh, sure: there’s a few other bits as well—sometimes you have to fool some guards in order to get into the wizard’s tower to lop off his head, and sometimes you have to survive the dangers of the swamp where the fell beast lurks—but, generally speaking, Conan wanders around, kills things, and takes their stuff.  It’s just what he does.

Contrariwise, a Game-of-Thrones-style game is all about politics.  Think about the most iconic Westeros moments: Littlefinger saying to Ned Stark “I did warn you not to trust me,” Tyrian talking himself out of the dungeon in the Eyrie, Cersei consistently crushing her enemies without ever having to stab a single person.  Again, there will be aspects that don’t involve interaction (duels with Kingslayers, wandering around the frozen tundra beyond a giant ice wall), but mostly it’s about diplomacy, treachery, and manipulation.

Then you have the Lord-of-the-Rings style, where you know there’s going to be an epic quest with many obstacles to overcome.  The big set pieces here are things like the chase through the Mines of Moria, Sam and Frodo trying to sneak past entire armies of orcs in Mordor without being seen, or Aragorn’s amazing tracking of Merry and Pippin.  In a Lord-of-the-Rings-style game, you’re certainly going to have to fight a giant spider or two, and you may have to talk some walking trees into helping you take down an evil wizard, but mostly it’s going to be about the journey and all the challenges you face along the way.

Now, one thing to note here is that each of these has a different balance among the three pillars.  For instance, say we rated the amount of each pillar in each style of game on a scale of 1 – 5.  A fully Conan-style game might be rated: Combat 5, Exploration 2, Interaction 1.  And a Game-of-Thrones-style might be: Interaction 5, Combat 3, Exploration 2.  Whereas a Lord-of-the-Rings-style might be: Exploration 4, Combat 3, Interaction 2.  At least those might be the numbers if we were trying to emulate the trope namers as closely as possible.  But of course we’re not locked into those numbers: each pillar is like a dial, and we can turn it up or down.  So, if we wanted to play a Conan-style game but with a lot more social interaction, we could change it to Combat 5 / Interaction 3 / Exploration 2.  Or say we wanted to play Lord-of-the-Rings-style but we also want to kill things more than anything else—just crank the combat up to 11, so to speak, and get Combat 5 / Exploration 4 / Interaction 2.

But now I hear you thinking, “wait a minute ... I thought a focus on combat was what defined the Conan-style.  If we crank up the combat dial on Lord-of-the-Rings-style all the way, haven’t we just turned it into a Conan-style game?”  No, not at all.  Because the focus on the different pillars turns out to be just a characteristic of the various styles; what actually defines the styles runs deeper.  The tales of Conan are a series of disconnected adventures.  Robert E. Howard once wrote:

In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That’s why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.

So a Conan-style game is basically just a set of adventures whose only connection are the lead characters.  Now, they won’t “skip about” the way Conan stories do—they’ll happen in chronological order, and the characters will grow stronger and more deadly as the campaign progresses.  So, if the characters can be said to have any goal at all, it would only be personal growth: to gradually become better and better at what they do, which is mostly killing things in the classic Conan style, but could be exploration or even interaction, if we’ve twiddled the dials.

Contrast that with the Game-of-Thrones-style, where the characters have very definite goals that revolve around gaining more power and respect and influence (which is what politics is all about, really).  Most of the characters tend to do that through social interaction—Tyrian, Varys, Littlefinger, Cersei ... even Daenerys becomes quite an astute political animal as the story progresses.  Jon Snow is probably the only real exception to this rule, and even he has to learn to navigate the political waters of the Night’s Watch.  So the goals of the characters in this style of game are to gain more and more importance, eventually perhaps becoming rulers of their own kingdoms.  (Some early D&D games often focussed on this style, particularly settings like Birthright.)  Though this is most commonly achieved through interaction, you could imagine a campaign where characters amassed military might and conquered their kingdoms, or carved them out of untamed wilderness.

And the defining characteristic of a Lord-of-the-Rings-style game is the quest to defeat evil: in this type of campaign, you are assured to have an evil artifact to destroy, or an evil sorcerer to slay—or preferably both, as Frodo and the Fellowship do.  While Frodo and Sam work on getting the Ring into Mount Doom, Aragorn and Gandalf lead the main forces to Sauron’s door to confront him.  (Although note that the combat aspects of this latter confrontation are downplayed even there.)  There may be other stories along the way—one could convincingly argue that that’s exactly what The Hobbit is—but overall the entire campaign is going to seem like one overarcing storyline when you look back on it.  And that will be true even if you had to mostly kill things to defeat the great evil, or if you just had to talk it to death.

So, when we first decide to sit down and play D&D, one of the first things I want everyone to agree on is what style we’re going to play.  Are we going to go with the Conan-style, having a series of mostly disconnected adventures, probably focussed on killing things and amassing treasure?  Or perhaps we want a Game-of-Thrones-style campaign, focussing on rising to the upper echelons of nobility and perhaps even acheiving godhood, almost certainly with lots of political maneuvering and finessing?  Or would we rather see a Lord-of-the-Rings style epic quest, no doubt including solving puzzles or even crimes, wandering through or taming nature, and avoiding traps set by long-lost civilizations?  All of these things can be fun, but if we’re not all on the same page, some of us are going to be bored, and eventually disappointed.  At the very least we can set the expectations of the players appropriately: you may think constantly wandering around killing everything you encounter is boring,** but you can’t complain as much about it if you had your chance to opt out at the beginning but agreed, however reluctantly.

Thus, playstyle matters.  It matters because roleplaying is storytelling, and it happens to be shared storytelling, and all the storytellers need to be on the same page.  Otherwise we end up like those stories crafted by grade-schoolers, where each person gets to contribute a single line to the story, and the whole thing ends up being a schizophrenic mess as each narrator tries to wrest control back and force the story to go in the direction they had envisioned.  In the end, those exercises rarely produce good stories.  Because the participants didn’t agree beforehand on what type of story they were telling.  In the case of D&D, you know you’ve already agreed to a fantasy story.  But there are still several different kinds of stories that fall under that rubric, and we need to choose one.

Because, once all the players are aiming in the same direction, the net effect will be magical.


* The fact that these are the top 3 things I mentioned as likely being in everyone’s shared experience (when talking about how roleplaying is storytelling) is no accident.

** This practice, by the way, is sometimes derogatorily referred to as being a party of ”murderhobos.”