Sunday, August 25, 2019

Another Camp Week

Today our middle child went off to summer camp again.  This is his third year, I believe; it’s starting to get to the point where I’m losing track of how often he’s gone.  You may recall that this is the child with the heart condition, which might make you wonder how we can send him off to camp, until I remind that we are amzingly lucky and live sufficiently close to Camp del Corazon, which is a summer camp designed specifically for kids with heart conditions and staffed by off-duty pediatric cardiologists and cardiology nurses.  It’s an amazing opportunity for my kid to go off to Catalina Island, which is a place even I haven’t gotten to go to yet, despite it being one of the first places I indentified as a must-see when I moved here 12 years ago.  So we take full advantage of it and he seems to enjoy it, although—as I’ve mentioned before—he’s the type of kid who likes to play things pretty close to the chest, so it’s always difficult to say for sure.  But I’m glad he gets the opportunity to be out from under the shadow of the eldest and the tyranny of the youngest for a week.  I’m sure he’ll have fun.

In the meantime, The Mother will take said youngest off to Lake Cachuma for some quality mother-daughter time, and I’ll take a few days off work for a bit of a staycation, and technically speaking the eldest will still be wandering around (they have work, as well as their second week of college), but I’ll barely notice that one.  So, a quiet week for me.  Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to catch up on some pet projects.  We shall see.

Next week, something more substantial.  Probably.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

D&D and Me: Part 4 (If I Could Talk to the Animals)

[This is the fourth post in a new series.  You may want to begin at the beginning.  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.]

[Last time I talked about playing a lot of different games, including a lot of D&D.  More importantly, playing a lot of very different characters.]

One of the most awesome things about D&D—all tabletop roleplaying games, really—is that it’s open to a lot of different playstyles.  Different people can get different things out of it, and that’s great.  I’ve talked before about my personal goals: chiefly, that I believe that roleplaying is storytelling and, in any story, character is king.  So I’m one of those folks who puts a lot of effort in my character when I’m a player, and wants my players to do the same when I’m the GM.  D&D can feed a lot of needs for people: a need for tactical combat simulation with more flexibility than any computer game can provide, a need for an improv space where you’re not limited by even a rough story outline but can do (or at least attempt) literally anything that pops into your head ... or, for many, it’s even simpler than any of that.  It’s a chance to play make believe, like you used to do when you were a kid.  A chance to return to a time when you could be anything ... be anyone.  Don’t like your name? fine, pick a new one.  Frustrated by your family situation? no worries: recast yourself as the long-lost heir to a vast fortune, or an orphan who discovers their parents were superspies who had to give them up for their own safety.  Don’t like your age? poof! you’re a little kid, an old man, a middle-aged matron with a huge family, an aging oil baron, an alien intelligence trapped in the mind of an infant, a faerie changeling in a pre-adolescent body, a girl who falls down a rabbithole, an orphan boy who finds out he’s a wizard, a girl whose house is carried away by a tornado, one of a family of orphans whose parents were involved in a secret international organization.  Anything.

And that’s all D&D is, really.  It’s make-believe for grown-ups.  Well, and still for kids too, but for kids who are ready to stop fighting about whether your invincible forcefield actually stops my laser sword or if it’s really true that MY LASER SWORD CAN CUT THROUGH ANYTHING!!  It’s just a way to roll some funny dice and figure out who wins: unstoppable force, or immovable object.  And what you use that for is to relive those childhood fantasies about being anything you could imagine.  Or anything you could steal from popular culture.

When I was a kid, I was really into animals.1  So a lot of who I wanted to be was wrapped up in Tarzan, and Mowgli, and Dr. Dolittle.  This is one of the very few concepts that D&D struggles with, actually ... the closest I ever came was playing a “beastmaster” bard (technically, the “meistersinger” kit from The Complete Bard’s Handbook).  You might ask: what do bards have to do with animals?  But apparently the theme was sort of a “pied piper” character.2  I really loved this character, although his name and stats haven’t survived, unfortunately.  But he was problematic in a fundamental way, because a beastmaster-style character “breaks the action economy.”  This is a phrase us D&D nerds use when we talk about characters who can do too much in a single turn.  How much you can do in a turn is limited in different ways for different versions and editions of D&D, but it’s always limited.  My beastmaster character had a weasel, a leopard, and a jaguar, which meant that when my fellow party members were taking one turn, I was taking four, because I was essentially four characters.  Sure, the weasel couldn’t do much, but even being three characters can monopolize a combat.  Eventually the GM put his foot down and I had to retire that character, and I’ve never seen anything approaching it ever since.3  But, you know, there are plenty of other ways to do animals in fantasy settings.

There are druids, for instance.  As a druid, you get to hang around with animals, talk to them, and even turn into them.  I played a druid for many months, possibly even years.  I have a vague recollection of doing so twice, although I may be misremembering ... certainly Sillarin is the only one whose name and character sheet has survived.  He was, according to the latest sheet I still have, an 8th level half-elven druid, with +1 leather armor, a ring of protection, a ring of invisibility, and a staff of the woodlands,4 who favored spells like entangle, faerie fire, dust devil, and spike growth.  He was left-handed, and the “flaw” he took was “tongue-tied.”  Back in those days, you could accept roleplaying disadvantages in exchange for mechanical advantages, which is overall a terrible system if your goal is to have roughly balanced characters.5  On the other hand, there are many cases in my own experience where those flavorful disadvantages are the main things I remember about the character.  And that’s never more true than in Sillarin’s case, where I decided that interpreting “tongue-tied” as “having a stutter” was just a cop-out.  Sillarin’s issue wasn’t with stuttering; in fact he spoke rather eloquently, and often at great length, and sometimes, if you got him started, he couldn’t really stop, and it was just that, sometimes, or even often, you might say, if you knew him, sometimes when he began a sentence, usually with the best of intentions, he would somehow get lost in the middle of it—through no fault of his own, mind you!—and you might never see him emerge from the other end, which could make conversational gambits with him somewhat ... tiring.  I loved playing Sillarin, who was endearingly annoying (as opposed to annoyingly annoying), and not exactly heroic, but not exactly not heroic either, and who believed that good could not exist without evil, which meant that, in the end, evil wasn’t all that bad, and that the preservation of nature was really the most important thing.

The next time I returned to the concept of a nature-loving (and, this being D&D, pretty much nature worshipping) character was with my first female character: Ellspeth, cleric of the nature domain.  My party wanted me to play a cleric for a change (druids can provide some healing, but not as much as a proper cleric can dish out), so I was doing something I’ve often done over the years: building a character to fill a gap, but trying to find a way to make it interesting for me.6  I’ve always thought of this as being somewhat akin to writing poetry using meter and rhyme: sure, free verse is fun and all, and you get to break the “rules,” but sometimes giving yourself constraints—even artificial constraints—will force you to get more creative than you otherwise would.  So how could I take the concept of “cleric” (which many, many people view as equivalent to “walking first-aid kit”) and make it actually fun?  My min-max-ing friend (who may well have been my GM at the time too) suggested I find a race with a bonus to wisdom, which is the primary ability score for clerics.  But racial wisdom bonuses are hard to come by; one of the few races that get it is the swanmay, which is just a refluffed human who can turn into a swan.  They make excellent rangers and druids, and, yes, clerics, but the one catch is: only women are inducted into the swanmay order.  No men allowed.  I wasn’t looking to play a female character, but I didn’t dismiss it out of hand either.  Could I take on that challenge?  Playing against type is one thing, but playing against gender is quite another, and I think it may be harder for heterosexual cisgendered males (especially younger ones) to do so than their female counterparts.  Intellectually, we all knew that playing a female character didn’t indicate any tendency towards being gay, but societal messaging can be insidious and doesn’t always respond to logic.  So playing that first woman was a bit daunting, I won’t lie.  But there were a lot of things to make up for it.  A swanmay is essentially a lycanthrope—a wereswan, in a weird way.  Where Sillarin worshipped Silvanus, Ellspeth worshipped Artemis, the huntress, and took the bow as her signature weapon.  Her flaw (still taking those to get the corresponding benefits, of course) was a phobia of the undead, which she acquired at a very young age when her family was wiped out by zombies or somesuch, leaving her as the sole survivor.  Raised by elves and then inducted into the swanmay order, she hated undead and vowed to kill them where she could find them, but she was also terrified of them, leaving her with difficult choices when confronted with them.  Since I had dumped charisma for her stats (most of us dumped charisma back in those days), she was blunt and plain-looking, totally unremarkable personality-wise.  But she was fiercely loyal to her friends, had a love for her horse Fiona, animal empathy, omen reading, and in addition to her bow could throw a mean chatkcha (which was just the closest D&D equivalent I could find to a glaive) and favored the hatchet for close-up work.  Unlike druids, when a swanmay transformed, her clothes and equipment just dropped to the ground and had to be retrieved later, which meant that, just as would an involuntarily transformed lycanthrope such as a werewolf, Ellspeth would come back to human form naked and vulnerable.7  This never bothered her; I decided that someone who had to go through that process with this much regularity had probably abandoned the quaint concept of modesty long ago.  She achieved 9th level, as near as I can tell from my old character sheets, and had an even more impressive array of magic items than Sillarin had amassed, including a staff of curing, a cloak of elvenkind, and a bow of accuracy.  She was often gruff and perhaps she sometimes complained about having to heal everyone all the time, but she was yet another character that I developed a sort of closeness to, and one which stretched my concept of what sort of character I could be if I pushed myself to explore parts of myself I hadn’t yet discovered.

Next time: even more characters that I played, and what they meant to me.


1 As I’ve already mentioned a couple of times in this series.
2 That explains the German name, I guess?
3 Although I’m currently working on a way to import the concept into fifth edition.  If I can figure out a way to do it without breaking the action economy again, I’ll really have something.
4 For those who are familiar with newer versions of D&D but not the older ones, this was a pretty standard amount of magical loot for a 2e character of that level, although I agree it seems excessive by today’s standards.
5 Whether D&D characters of different classes—particularly when pitting fighters against wizards—are even remotely balanced in any edition of the game is an ongoing debate that will probably never die.
6 For a more recent example of me doing this, you could go back and review my character concept for Arkan.
7 It is probably worth wondering why the designers intentionally assigned this particular disadvantage to a race composed only of women.  The early days of D&D are not particularly enlightened in terms of feminism (or any other ism, for that matter).

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Another fallow week

A bit of a hectic week this time, so I’ve got nothing for you, really.  Try again next week.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Mystical Memoriam I

"Behind the Purple Stars"

[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.]

Wikipedia tells us that a celesta is a “struck idiophone operated by a keyboard,” and that “the keys connect to hammers that strike a graduated set of metal (usually steel) plates or bars.”  In other words: piano on the outside, glockenspiel on the inside.1  It has a tinny sound that’s vaguely reminiscent of a child’s music box, but much richer and more complex.  This makes it ideal for imparting a magical, childlike quality to music, which you can hear in its most famous use prior to the 20th century, “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker, or when it subsitutes for the keyboard glockenspiel in The Magic Flute or the glass harmonica in The Carnival of Animals, or in pop songs such as “Rhythm of the Rain” or “Novocaine for the Soul”, and of course in soundtracks.  For instance, that’s a celesta you hear in the opening bars of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and it’s even more prominent in the opening of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” from the classic Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  But surely the most recognizable celesta strains in all of musicdom are found in John Williams’ recurring theme from the Harry Potter movies: “Hedwig’s Theme.”  Just the first few notes are enough to transport the listener to a world of magic and child-like wonder.2

Of course I was familiar with this recurring theme through the movies, and I also felt it was pretty perfect.  Could there be other musical takes on the combination of magic and nostalgia that one gets from a re-viewing of the world through the eyes of a child?  Sure, but would they ever be as good?  Nah, probably not.

But, as I was perusing Jamendo one day several years back—I talked about Jamendo, and in particular their hosting of what seem to be soundtrack portfolios, back on Phantasma Chorale II ran across a track entitled “3 Minutes Later” that had a very ineffable Harry-Potter-like quality to it, despite not being in any way derivative of “Hedwig’s Theme” (actually, it more reminds of the scene from Goblet of Fire where the students from Beauxbatons arrive).  I thought, hell: put this together with some Harry Potter music, perhaps some of the lighter Coraline fare, and we could have a real mix on our hands.

So now we do.

The obvious choices here are our mix starter, the aforementioned track by (probably would-be-soundtrack-composer) artist Greendjohn, my Bruno Coulais pick “Exploration,” and “Prologue” from Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I actually pored over all the instances of “Hedwig’s Theme,” both solo and buried in other tracks, and I think it just doesn’t get any better than this one, which is the original presentation.  To me, that’s the perfect opener, and the other two follow in quick succession, and then I only had about 70 more minutes to fill.  Where in the world was I going to find more candidates that would fit this theme?

Well, first off, back to Jamendo to scour the other “pseudo-soundtracks” for possibilities.  That led me to zero-project, a somewhat mysterious artist: I would guess they’re in Greece, from the TLD of their website’s domain, but other than that, I can’t tell you much.  But they do some great cinematic music, and there are two tracks here: “Princess of My Heart,” an almost romantic piece, and “Forest of the Unicorns,” from what could be a pretty decent fantasy gaming soundtrack, Fairytale.  Also on Jamendo I discovered Epic Soul Factory,3, an orchestral group from Spain that does some pretty great cinematic music as well.  Their simply-titled “Love” is probably more on the nostalgic side than the magical one, but it works well enough here, I think.

Real soundtracks work well, too.  There’s a short bridge here from Jon Brion’s score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind4, and the “Love Theme” from Until the End of the World by Graeme Revell, which is a flute-filled little bridge between the first zero-project track and the Mannheim Steamroller.  “La Clé de la victoire” is also a fairly short track, this time from The City of Lost Children by Angelo Badalementi, which also gives us a longer piece, “Le prince de l’opium.”5  These two abandon the flute for some lower-register woodwinds, and the latter even layers on some harp and strings, but they still maintain the magical feel that this mix is all about.  Finally, “Memory,” by the Seatbelts off the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack, was too on-the-nose not to include (and plus I’m pretty sure it has some of that sweet celesta in it).

One very early track I picked for this volume is its longest, “Minitoka,” by DJ Food, originally a loose collaboration of various electronic artists and producers but now mostly a one-man operation.  Like many artists of this nature, I find a lot of the music to be repetitive and only vaguely interesting, but every once in a while you find a hidden gem.  I originally heard “Minitoka” on the “Zen” music channel,6 and I was immediately struck by its alternating harp-and-bell-like glissandoes with pan flute trills.  No doubt both are electronically enhanced—if not entirely electronically generated—but it still retains a lyric, magical quality that immediately put me in mind of this mix.

I figured other, similar downtempo (a.k.a. “chill”) electronica might work as well, so I went searching through some of those albums too.  This led me to “Zamami,” by Plaid,7 which uses some synthy subvocal undertones for the memoriam and what are probably tubular bells for the mystical.  I also found “Behind the Bamboo Curtain,” by the Karminsky Experience, which really leans more out of chill and into trip-hop.  I can’t remember how I discovered these guys, but they’re quite good; we saw them previously on Apparently World.  This track floats in on a shimmering curtain of chimes and then adds a sitar for a more subcontinental flavor of magical.

Of course, ambient is fairly adjacent to downtempo, so I went looking there as well.  Jeff Greinke is an artist I normally reserve for my Shadowfall Equinox mix, but, as I’ve mentioned, he’s an eclectic musician whose every album is a little bit different.  His Winter Light is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: mostly tunes that are brittle and a bit cold.  Overall more suited to a whole different mix.8  But “Orographic” is a little different: for some reason, it makes me envision a frozen lake, where the water has receded and then refrozen so that there’s an air pocket between the two layers of ice, and the sunlight filters through the surface layer and glitters off the stray ice columns, creating a sparkling alien landscape ... or maybe it’s just me.

But probably the richest musical vein to mine, outside of cinematic, is new age.  As I’ve said, there’s not a lot of new age that I really enjoy, but Anugama is right up there.  “Purple Dawn” is another track that doesn’t play coy in its title: it evokes day breaking over a quiet forest glade, which is certainly its own kind of magic.  David Arkenstone I’m a little less bullish on, but he does have a song every now and again that speaks to me, and “Stepping Stars” has that exact tinkling, mystical quality that I’m looking for here.  (Also, note that, due to pretty much every song here being instrumental, I employed my tactic from Classical Plasma and just glued words from different titles together, so “Puple Dawn” plus “Stepping Stars” gave me most of it, and the Karminsky tune provided the preposition.)  Finally from the new age genre, our closer here is from Peruvian-descended Australis.9  “Little Clockmaker” is indeed reminiscent of a timepiece, but more like the scenes you may have seen in movies or videogames where some small character is confronted by the grandeur of a clockwork mechanism that is giant to them, and they must navigate the turning gears and spinning oscillators in order to reach some goal.  It’s the perfect closer for this volume.

Mystical Memoriam I
[ Behind the Purple Stars ]

“Prologue” by John Williams, off Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone [Soundtrack]
“Exploration” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
“3 Minutes Later” by Greendjohn, off Loophole
“Minitoka” by DJ Food, off Kaleidoscope
“Behind the Bamboo Curtain” by The Karminsky Experience Inc., off The Power of Suggestion
“Postcard” by Jon Brion, off Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [Soundtrack]
“Paradise Found” by Martin Denny, off The Exotic Sounds of Tiki Tribe [Compilation]
“Orographic” by Jeff Greinke, off Winter Light
“Princess of My Heart” by zero-project, off Autumn Prelude
“Love Theme” by Graeme Revell, off Until the End of the World [Soundtrack]
“Full Moon” by Mannheim Steamroller, off Halloween: Monster Mix
“La Clé de la victoire” by Angelo Badalamenti, off The City of Lost Children [Soundtrack]
“White Woodlands” by Nox Arcana, off Winter's Majesty
“Memory” by The Seatbelts, off Cowboy Bebop [Soundtrack]
“Love” by Epic Soul Factory, off Xpansion Edition
“Stepping Stars” by David Arkenstone, off Valley in the Clouds
“Zamami” by Plaid, off Double Figure
“Purple Dawn” by Anugama, off The Lightness of Being [Compilation]
“Le prince de l'opium” by Angelo Badalamenti, off The City of Lost Children [Soundtrack]
“Forest of the Unicorns” by zero-project, off Fairytale
“Little Clockmaker” by Australis, off The Gates of Reality
Total:  21 tracks,  71:50

For the rest, I had to get more creative.  I figured that gaming music would be a good source, but most of it turned out be way too dramatic for this mix.  There were mysterious creepy tracks, and sweeping tracks that evoked a wizards’ duel, but nothing that seemed to fit this much quieter theme.  The only thing I could really settle on was “White Woodlands” (which I suspect also has a bit of celesta in it) by gaming music mainstays Nox Arcana.  Normally NA focuses on the darker side of fantasy, but Winter’s Majesty, while still dark in some places, has a bit more light to it.  “White Woodlands” is probably the lightest track on that album, although I suspect it may be the darkest one here.  But the contrast of the sparkling (probably) celsta with the deeper (probably) tubular bells works well.

Similarly Mannheim Steamroller’s Halloween: Monster Mix was an unlikely place to find a quiet, mystical tune, but “Full Moon” really fits that bill.  The background crickets counterpoint the slow synth notes that seem to drop like water falling onto a quiet nighttime scene.  And, last but not least (although possibly most unlikely), we have “Paradise Found” by Martin Denny, the father of exotica.  While most exotica evokes (quite deliberately) the sound of the Pacific Islands (and Hawaii in particular), there are deeper jungle tracks, and the occasional quiet track such as this one.  I can’t say for sure, but I strongly suspect that’s a vibraphone that’s giving the this great track its mystical, nostalgic feel.

Next time, we’ll go back to some smooth loungin’ around.


1 Some people would say “xylophone,” but the bars on a xylophone are made of wood, not metal.  Yes, all your toy “xylophones” are actually glockenspiels.
2 For a pretty good breakdown of what makes this music so perfect for a story about wizards, professor of music theory Mark Richards has a fascinating discussion.
3 Although they’ve moved to Bandcamp nowadays.
4 We’ve seen that soundtrack in this series before, on Paradoxically Sized World II.
5 We’ve also seen this soundtrack before, on Darkling Embrace and Phantasma Chorale.
6 I talked about my cable/satellite provider’s “Zen” channel back on Paradoxically Sized World I.  Although it’s also fair to note that a) that provider doesn’t have that channel any more, and b) I don’t have that provider any more.
7 Another artist I discovered via LittleBigPlanet.  We’ve seen them, naturally enough, on Paradoxically Sized World II.
8 Which we shall (probably) come to in the fullness of time.
9 Whom you may remember from their turn on Shadowfall Equinox IV.