Sunday, July 29, 2018

Because reality is real

Tonight we watched Ready Player One.  I thought it was pretty awesome, personally, although of course it’s one of those movies that you pretty much want to turn your brain off for maximum enjoyment.  But, you know, I don’t have any problem with that myself.  It’s certainly gorgeous to look at, and it has a bangin’ 80s soundtrack that I particularly appreciated.  Worth at least a look.

That’s all I’ve got this week.  Tune in next week for a fuller post.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Dreamtime I

"We Came Out from the Deep"

[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.

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.]

This mix is a bit unusual, for a couple of reasons.  Primarily, it’s different from other mixes that I have presented here because it’s a “transitional mix.”  That is, it’s one of the three mixes I made between the “pre-modern mixes” and the “modern mixes.”1  As such, its original version showed the strong influence of Hearts of Space, but still didn’t have the full sophistication that my current mixes have.  For instance, the themes of the transitional mixes were very loose, not very specific.  They tended towards mellow instrumentals, beacuse that’s what HoS was doing.  And, while the transitions were somewhat important, I didn’t fuss with them the way I do now, and I didn’t put much thought into openers and closers at all.

Now, the mix I’m presenting today is Dreamtime, which is pretty much what it says on the tin—dreamlike ambient, showcasing the unusual and perhaps slightly sonically surreal.  It’s slightly upgraded from its original form: songs have been shuffled around, and in some cases shuffled out entirely (mainly to bring them in line with the No Reuse Rule).  A new opener was chosen, and the mix was cut off at a track that provided a good closer, in order to make a statisfying volume.2  So it’s much closer to a modern mix now.

The transitional mixes were different in another way as well: instead of consisting of songs from my collection, for the most part they utilized various snippets I found lying around the Internet.  Some of those I’ve since purchased.  Some of them are just gone—while the Internet is often forever, even the Wayback machine doesn’t generally have copies of old WAV and MP3 files.3  So some of these tracks here only exist on the hard drives of people like me who downloaded them æons ago as curiosities.  For that reason and that reason alone, I’ve uploaded a few of the more bizarrely obscure tracks myself.  I am in no way attempting to claim ownership or in any way infringe on the copyright of any of those original authors.  I just want to see these tracks preserved in some way.

Now, I’ve already spoken about my discovery of Ensemble of the Dreamings; reread the relevant paragraph there if you need a refresher.  Back in those days, the Internet was new and jumbled and just a little bit like a huge flea market: there were treasures, if you had patience, but they were buried under a whole lot of useless junk.  Who can say how I found some of this stuff?  Linkwalks, maybe, or just aimless wandering.  Besides the two tracks here we have from the aforementioned Dreamings, there’s “Dotiki,” by Bostjan Perovsek, a Slovenian “musician, composer and soundscape artist,”4 who dabbles in setting electronic backgrounds to the natual sounds of animals, especially insects.  “Dotiki” is an amazingly original piece of ambient music that I’ve adored for years.  Taking that concept a step further, the aptly named Zoolophone (in reality, Randy Weddington of Arkansas) composes tracks entirely of animal sounds: frog calls for basslines, cricket chirpings for percussions, etc.  As you might imagine, this is one of those experiments that doesn’t always work, but, when it does, it’s kind of amazing.  The track here, “Clair de Loon,” is centered around a loon’s evocative call, but also features an eagle’s cry, and the buzzing of some mosquitoes or flies ... really, you have to hear it to believe it.

Continuing on the natural sounds theme, at some point during those early days of the Internet, I went looking for a nice, ambient thunderstorm recording.  But I couldn’t find one.5  What I did find were various snippets, each one a minute or two, of various rainstorms that were uploaded to various sound hosting services.  And then I had the brilliant idea to glue all those bits together and make one big thunderstorm out of them.  Thus was born “Washed Clean,” which I composed out of various bits in some primitive late 90s/early 2000s sound editing software.  It starts with just the thunder, then the rain comes in, gently at first, then ratcheting up to a downpour.  Finally the rain stops, the thunder rolls away gradually into the background, and you start to hear birds, and then a stream, which starts out as a trickle but soon becomes a flood.  Just for fun, I threw in some very distant wind chimes in the background, but I made it so subtle that I personally can only pick them out when I’m listening with headphones.  Listen for them at about 3 minutes in.  Anyways, it’s not my original work, since I just glued together other parts, and it’s nothing fancy (because I am only barely adequate with sound editing programs), but I’m happy I finally got an opportunity to share it with you here.

So all this is hopefully giving you the idea that, aurally, this mix is a journey through soundscapes that are just a little ... off.  Sometimes I’m almost a little too on-the-nose with this theme: one of the Ensemble of the Dreamings selections is literally titled “Here in Our Dreams.”  And a bunch of songs featuring actual insect sounds apparently wasn’t enough, because I also threw in “Insect Justice” by A Produce (the nom de plume of Barry Craig, who is one of the greatest ambient artists you’ve never heard of), which features electronic noises that only sound like insect noises.  To really nail it home, I threw in a track off Iain Bellamy’s brilliant soundtrack to Mirrormask,6 which is exactly as surreal an experience as this mix wishes it were.

When it comes to genres of music that might have something that works here, darkwave is of course good, and I fell back on my two go-to choices there: Black Tape for a Blue Girl and Falling You, both of whom give us a very early tracks of theirs.  “Overwhelmed, Beneath Me” is one of the first BTfaBG tracks I ever actually loved;7 it’s from The First Pain to Linger, which compiles some of the tracks that didn’t make it onto his early albums.  ”(and the muse spoke solemnly)” is a track which floated around the Internet for many years but never ended up on any actual Falling You album that I know of.  Its quiet beauty is perfect here.  Bridging the gap between darkwave and dreampop, I added a track from Unto Ashes when I upgraded the mix; “Swarm” is another insect-evocative track with a droning sort of minimalism.  And arriving in dreamscape proper, we couldn’t of course forget about This Mortal Coil, whose mellow-but-trippy track “Barramundi” is perfect here.

But of course the epitome of dreampop is the Cocteau Twins, and the original version of this mix opened with “Lazy Calm.”  But that’s also the opener for Numeric Driftwood I, and really it works much better there.  So I went hunting for a new opener, and finally settled on “Second Chapter,” which is the opener for Enigma’s overall-less-good follow-up to their excellent MCMXC a.D., The Cross of Changes.  Despite coming out the worse for comparison to Enigma’s strong debut, Cross has a few good songs, and “Second Chapter” is one.  Plus it finally gave me a title for this volume.  But then there was no Cocteaus on this volume, and that just wouldn’t do, so after long delibaration I settled on “Whales Tails,” which is also off the amazing Victorialand.  I’m not 100% sure it’s dreamier than the rest of that excellent album, but I felt like it worked well enough for this mix.

But of course the best subgenre choice for this mix is ambient, and there’s a decent chunk of it here.  Returning yet again to the insect theme, “Humito Final” is from the collaboration between well-known ambient artist Michael Stearns and lesser-known (but undeservedly so) Native American ambient artist Ron Sunsinger, Sorcerer.  This is my favorite track off that album: it’s got a spooky, ritual vibe that works very well here.  Ably representing the Magnatune influence, Claire Fitch provides a track from her album Ambiencellist.  Although much of that album is more mellow (and neoclassical, really), this track has a sort of surreality that really speaks to the theme of this mix.  And our closer is yet another track from unsung ambient genius A Produce, the live version of “The Dreaming Room,” one of his most ambitious pieces.  At over 13 minutes long, it’s one of the longest tracks I’ve ever put on a mix,8 but long tracks are okay for this sort of mix, where you’re just letting your mind drift away.

Dreamtime I
[ We Came Out from the Deep ]

“Second Chapter” by Enigma, off The Cross of Changes
“Swarm” by Unto Ashes, off Moon Oppose Moon
“Whales Tails” by Cocteau Twins, off Victorialand
“Here in Our Dreams” by Ensemble of the Dreamings, off Chthon [Videogame Soundtrack]
“Insect Justice” by A Produce, off Land of a Thousand Trances
“Overwhelmed, Beneath Me” by Black Tape for a Blue Girl, off The First Pain To Linger
“Abandoned Hall” by Iain Ballamy, off Mirrormask [Soundtrack]
“Humito Final” by Michael Stearns and Ron Sunsinger, off Sorcerer
“Washed Clean” by Wavmaster B [Single]
“Clair de Loon” by Zoolophone [Single]
“Monkey Road” by Ensemble of the Dreamings, off Chthon [Videogame Soundtrack]
“(and the muse spoke solemnly)” by Falling You [Single]
“Really” by Claire Fitch, off Ambiencellist
“Barramundi” by This Mortal Coil, off It'll End in Tears
“Early Bird” by Banyan, off Anytime at All
“Secret Heat” by Jami Sieber, off Lush Mechanique
“Dotiki (Touchings)” by Bostjan Perovsek, off Bio, Industrial Acoustica
“The Dreaming Room [live]” by A Produce, off Land of a Thousand Trances
Total:  18 tracks,  76:42

That only leaves us with two tracks: “Early Bird,” by Banyan, and “Secret Heat,” by Jami Sieber.  The first is an almost-bridge that features some slow, jazzy noodling around by Buckethead and Stephen Perkins backed by what seems to be a bird washing itself off.  The second is a primarily instrumental, electro-ambient piece which is quite a departure for the American cellist.  I’ve read that she sometimes plays an electric cello—who even knew there was such a thing?—so perhaps that’s what’s going on here.  The syncopated plucking of the cello combined with her background whispers make this a weird, dreamlike track indeed.

Next time, let’s get nostalgic, like we did once before.


1 For a full set of definitions, check out the series listing.
2 No doubt the remainder of the mix will eventually show up as a volume II.
3 Trust me.  I tried.
4 According to his website, which didn’t even exist at the time I originally discovered this piece of his.
5 Remember: that was 20 years ago or so.  Nowadays, I could find hundreds.  But we had no YouTube back then.
6 Another artist we also heard from on Phantasma Chorale I.
7 I’ve said before that I admire Sam Rosenthal much more for his influence and the record label he founded than for his actual music.
8 And the only longer one I can think of will show up on volume II of this very mix.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The weeks just keep rolling on ...

Once again, nothing exciting to report this week.  Just all the usual work and family stuff.  As per usual, a full post next week.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Multiclassing, Part 4: History of the Multiclasses (5th edition)

Last time, I bitched and moaned about how 4e (that is, D&D’s 4th Edition) eviscerated my beloved multiclassing.  To be fair, some people were overjoyed at this move, primarily because they believed (and possibly still believe) that multiclassing is only for powergamers.  But I saw it as a crushing blow to my ability to be creative during character building.  If you don’t want to play one of the dozen or so classes we’ve predefined for you, that decision said to me, then we don’t want you to play at all.  So I didn’t.

And so Pathfinder came along, and I already talked about that in conjuction with my discussion of multiclassing in 3e, because it wasn’t significantly different from what 3e offered.  And I was perfectly happy with Pathfinder ... honestly, in many ways I still am, especially in terms of character building.  But, eventually, D&D came back to answer the upstart Pathfinder (which, many sources claimed, was outselling the game that had spawned it) with a fifth edition, which of course we call “5e.”

Now, the vast majority of what makes 5e stand out above Pathfinder is in the gameplay: faster combat resolution, simpler rules for many systems, the elimination of dozens and dozens of little bonuses all over your character sheet, saner numbers even at higher play levels, and so forth.  In terms of character creation, 5e can’t really compete with Pathfinder, and I suppose it doesn’t really aim to.  But let’s give them this: they learned from the debacle of 4e in many ways, and (for purposes of this discussion at least) one of the most important of those ways was the restoration of proper multiclassing.

Which is not to say that they put back all the crazy flexibility of 3e’s multiclassing, because they had learned from that as well.  They wanted something which gave the same amount of flexibility, but allowed for less abuse.  Again, we’re not yet talking about whether that’s a necessary thing or a good idea or any of that.  Let’s just look at the rules.

Multiclassing in 5e is a fascinating collection of rules that make it simultaneously very attractive and remarkably inconvenient.  Presumably this paradox exists so that they could both satisfy the people like me who think multiclassing is a necessary part of character customization, and the people who think that multiclassing only exists for powergamers to try to gain every power in the game.  This leads to a series of “yay!” moments which are promptly counterbalanced by “aww!” momeents.  So, for instance, you can take a level in any class when you level up, just like in 3e (yay!), but you can only multiclass if you have a 13 in the “prime ability scores” of both the class you’re coming from and the class you’re switching to (aww!).1  Your proficiency bonus is based on your character level, and experience point penalties for multicass characters are gone (yay!), but now you don’t receive all the starting proficiencies of your second (or more) class (aww!).  Best of all, the horror of trying to be a multiclass spellcaster is utterly corrected: all spellcasting classes have a single table for spells per level, and all your spellcasting classes are added together to determine how many spells you can cast.2  On top of that, you can now cast a low-level spell in a high-level slot and have it actually be much cooler than using its original low-level slot, which completely eliminates the problem of multiclassed spellcasters only having pointless low-level spells and no way to use them on the high-level enemies they’re more likely to be facing.  Yay!  But worst of all: ability score increases are no longer tied to your character level.  They instead come as class features.  The smaller benefit of this is that some classes (fighter and rogue, specifically) can have more ability score increases than others.  The larger “benefit,” of course, is that multiclass can easily fall behind in ability score increases, unless they take at least 4 levels at a time in each class.  Aww.

(We could also note that 5e, like Pathfinder, adopts the concept of “capstones”: powerful abilities gained at 20th level in a class, making them simply unavailable to multiclassed characters.  However, as I mentioned when discussing multiclassing in 3e, nobody ever gets to 20th level anyway, so this is rarely relevant in a real-world game.  Still, it’s a carrot rather than a stick, so I generally approve of it as a practice.)

Now, some of these new rules are fine—better than fine, even.  The fact that taking your first level of fighter after already having several levels in another class doesn’t automatically make you proficient at wearing heavy armor actually makes sense, from a thematic standpoint, and it’s a perfectly reasonable mechanical restriction.3  Even missing out on the skill and saving throw proficiencies that you normally get at Fighter 1 can easily be explained by not having the extensive training that most apprentice fighters get, and it solves a lot of the issues that 3e had with dipping.4  As a restriction, limiting proficiencies that multiclass characters get for their first level in another class makes a lot of sense.

The fact that multiclass spellcasters are somewhat “fixed” from how badly they lagged behind in 3e is pretty awesome too.  Sure, as a sorcerer 5/bard 5 you don’t have access to 5th level spells (nor even 4th level spells), but you do have access to 5th level spell slots.  And there are plenty of 1st-through-3rd level spells (for both sorcerer and bard) that will do cool things if cast in a 5th-level slot: burning hands will do an awesome 7d6 of fire damage in a 5th-level slot, charm person will charm up to 5 people with a 5th-level investment, or just do a 5th-level healing word for 5d4 + Cha points of healing goodness for your compatriot, and you don’t even need to touch them.  And those are just your 1st level spell options; many of your 2nd and 3rd level spells have similar scaling properties.  And your cantrips?  Those now scale by character level, meaning even spellcasters multiclassing with non-spellcasting classes can get something out of them.

But the corresponding downside I have mixed feelings about.  Every class gets an ability score increase at level 4, meaning that a strict alternation of levels is not always the best way to go.  For instance, a sorcerer 1/bard 1 is fine, and a sorcerer 2/bard 2 is okay, but a sorcerer 3/bard 3 is just stupid.  And then when you get to sorcerer 4/bard 4, you get two ability score increases in a row, which is weird.  You’re really much better off going single-classed up to sorcerer 4, then sorcerer 4/bard 1 and so forth until you hit sorcerer 4/bard 4.  And, even then, there’s a weird breakpoint at 5th level, where classes change from “tier 1 play” to “tier 2 play”: martial classes get their extra attack, spellcasters hit 3rd level spells, etc.  So you can make a strong argument that even sorcerer 4/bard 4 is inferior to sorcerer 5/bard 3 (or vice versa).  And I see what they’re going for here: make it painful to jump around a lot, use the progression itself to strongly encourage sticking with one class as long as possible.  And it’s clever design, and I really respect that.  But what I don’t like is how it forces you into these artificial channels.  If you believe multiclassing is only for powergamers, this is brilliant: it’s like a carrot that weirdly turns into a stick when you try to turn up your nose at it.  On the other hand, if you believe multiclassing helps you build more interesting characters, being punished for strictly alternating between two different classes, which is as close to a smooth progression as you can come and therefore the most realistic expression of a “blended” class, just seems bizarre and unnecessary.

And then you have the ability score requirements.  This is just generally bad.  First of all, it’s a blatant stick, which I don’t care for.  Thematically, it’s on shaky ground; the Player’s Handbook says:

Without the full training that a beginning character receives, you must be a quick study in your new class, having a natural aptitude that is reflected by higher-than-average ability scores.

Which almost makes sense, if you squint just right ... but only for the second class.  Except that it also applies to the first class, which is not explained by this logic at all.  I don’t need to have a 13 wisdom to be a cleric in the first place; why do I need it to study anything other than divine magic?  But the worst problem is with something that D&D players often call “multiple attribute depedency,” or just plain “MAD.”  Certain classes are considered MAD all by themselves: monks, for instance, need strength for their attacks, dexterity for their acrobatic and defensive maneuvers, and wisdom for many of their powers.  Many multiclass combinations are inherently self-limiting because of MAD issues.  For instance, you may find people railing on the Internet about how “broken” certain combos are, like sorcerer/monk or barbarian/wizard, but the truth is, no powergamer in their right minds would build such a character, because you need to maximize 4 out of the 6 ability scores to do them right, and, if all you care about is having the best numbers on your character sheet, there are far better ways to go about it.  So being MAD is already a problem for some single-classed character concepts; forcing an artificial MAD-ness by demanding high ability scores in order to multiclass just exacerbates the problem.  And the hardest combinations to achieve by these restrictions—paladin/ranger and paladin/monk, both of which require four 13s—are generally considered to be two of the worst possible combinations by hardcore optimizers anyway.  So who exactly are we punishing here?  The only people who would even want to play a paladin/monk are going to be the players who have a crazy vision and have already said “who cares that my character will be suboptimal?”  We want to discourage those players from achieving their vision?

So 5e makes a huge amount of progress, but perhaps still doesn’t completely hit the mark that I’d like to see.  It’s one of the best expressions of the multiclassing concept that we’ve seen yet, but it still has a few warts and wrinkles that I think can be improved on.

Next time, we’ll step back from the history of what has been done, and start looking and what we want to see in the future.


1 For the most part, the “prime ability score” for a class is exactly what you expect it to be: intelligence for wizards, wisdom for clerics, etc.  Fighters get to pick either strength or dexterity, making it the easiest candidate for multiclassing, which is probably sane.  The more “gonzo” classes—that is, those which are already a bit like multiclassing compacted into a single class—have two prime ability scores (those would be monk, ranger, and paladin).  Also, “prime ability score” is not what they call it in 5e, but that’s what it was traditionally called, going all the way back to first edition.

2 With the half-casters only contributing one every other level, and the spell-dipping archetypes (like eldritch knight and arcane trickster) adding only one every three levels.

3 You might still magically become proficient at medium armor, of course, but that’s okay.

4 Both single-dipping and double-dipping.  Of course, to be fair, 5e has different issues with dipping—dipping two levels of warlock or moon druid, or one level of rogues, for instance, can still make powergamers lick their lips.  But there are fewer issues overall.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Another week gone ...

It’s an off-week, and I’ve been sick all week.  So, as much as I’d love to toss out a few paragraphs about this or that, I’m just too tired.  I’ll just leave it there and see ya next week.