Tuesday, 11 September 2018 02:03 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Over the last few years stv&jo have variously participated in a sort of bloody-mindedly perverse version of Ludum Dare, which is a game jam, a themed, annual competition to design a video game in 48 hours. While stv and his cohorts have in the past actually programmed a game, some combination of jo&stv have at various points also run a personalised version where they design a board game or RPG to the specified theme, and within the specified time. This is, in fact, how jo and I came, back in 2013, to invent Space Amnesia, which was a LARP which messed with the theme for that year ("10 seconds") to play with the idea of an amnesiac spaceship crew receiving their memories back in short, if not quite 10-second, bursts. We never quite perfected the LARP, but it had a couple of rather entertaining test plays.

This year's August Ludum Dare had the theme of "running out of space", and jo&stv and I and their friend Sara ended up trying the board game version this last weekend, delayed from the actual August date by the fell descent of lurgis. We ended up with a strategic tile-placement game called Space Termites! (the exclamation point is integral and vital).

You are an intrepid space engineer, tasked with building a spaceship in simultaneous co-operation and competition with your fellow space engineers, and hoping you do so well enough to survive the subsequent space termite attack. The "running out of space" theme comes in the reduction of your spaceship size not just by termite depredations, but by your deployment of your fiendish module-folding skills, which allow you to compress and fold back the spaceship you have just carefully built, to retain all necessary facilities and make sure (a) no sticky-out bits are gnawed off by space termites, and (b) it's small enough to be picked up by the rescue vessel. You are scored competitively on how many of your tiles survive. Tiles are placed according to the air/power/water connections, and facilities designated by the same processes, and you end up with something that scorns design regularity (we decided space engineers have no truck with architects) but during various different games did, in fact, amorphously come to resemble a space fish, the Millenium Falcon if you squint, or a Star Destroyer with its front point gnawed off. Unlike this one, which once the termites have finished will look more like a Borg cube.

The game is ridiculously entertaining and rather back-stabby to play, and also weirdly tactical for a basic, silly concept, but it was also absurdly fun to design. It's fascinating to me how incredibly generative limitation can be (which explains, I suppose, why I'm so into highly reductionist genre convention). If someone tells you "design a board game" you flounder, but if someone says "design a board game about running out of space", ideas self-generate in excited flocks and have to be wrangled over heatedly while they bounce off each other and mutate. (It is not entirely impossible that this process was unduly exacerbated by (a) wine, and (b) high levels of postgraduate education among the participants, which means things became at times conceptually dense and polysyllabic.)

And I really think we struck it lucky (or highly intentional and clever. Or both.) with the core concept, because the balance between co-operation and back-stabbing really makes the game interesting, and ramifies out the tactical possibilities in weird and challenging ways. Also, I have to say, there were untold opportunities to make cheerfully mean space engineer jokes. Sorry, engineers. You can laugh when the termites get me.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It's bucketing down outside, and in the interstices between lectures the foyer of my building is filled with damp-puppy students staring dolefully out into the downpour amid the smell of wet hair. We are clearly in autumn, a season of pleasing damp and benevolent chill, and I have broken out the first boots of the season. I am happy. I am, however, also faintly worried to consider the inexorable drift of my language vis à vis students towards dehumanising diminutives - when they're not gazelles, they're puppies. The latter is perhaps a more healthy characterisation along the maternal/cute axis than than the former, which has a lurking hint of the predatory. I do, of course, owe the "gazelles" designation to [ profile] starmadeshadow, who views the quivering herds from the vantage point of her own leopard-like stalk. She is planning on returning her big-cat self to Cape Town more permanently in the near future, causing much callooing and, for that matter, callaying in the ranks.

I have spent the morning immersed in the inevitable realities of my working life, viz. checking student transcripts. This has vouchsafed to me several insights, most notably (a) that my advisors, train I them never so carefully, are bloody useless at checking course pre-requisites despite repeated reminders and pointed inscriptions on lists of "common advisor mistakes". Insight (b) is, however, more interesting and rather less depressing. Honestly, the skills and experience on which I draw most frequently in this job are those of my frivolous role-playing proclivities. I spend my days wrangling student character sheets, the lists of numbers which quantify experience and achievement, each individual mapped carefully within the constraints of the system. I am alert to rule-breaking, to player dissatisfaction and lack of success, to the judicious balance between challenge and reward, test and fulfilment. I also rely heavily on the experience gained from DMing players like [ profile] rumint, whose control of the system and its potential exploits is absolute and terrifying. It's all one in the eye, really, to anyone who thinks of D&D and beyond as a waste of time. Not only is play intrinsically about experimentation and learning in a low-stakes environment, it's about understanding the shaping of behaviour through structure. Which also explains, I suppose, why I've drifted inexorably into genre theory in my academic life.

Talking about genre: David Bowie is busy releasing his first album in about ten years. The one single, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)", and particularly its video, is an utterly fascinating disquisition on fame, identity, androgyny, and an explicit and rather wry dialogue with his own past. Also, Tilda Swinton. The music is very Reality-era, which works for me.

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We ran Attack of the Vapours, our insane 24-person parody LARP, for the latest generation of university roleplaying types last night. As a result I'm pretty much dead, but it was fun, and the players did very well. Some really good roleplayers beautifully in character, and a lot of attention paid to costume and prop. Memo to self: always put a costume box onto LARP character sheets in the future. Yes, there will be a future. I haven't written LARPs in far too long, and I have two half-finished and one in concept form which I really want to do. I may noodle around with them during this break. It'll make a pleasant change from the academic papers, even if the academic papers are mostly Miyazaki and Harry Potter.

I have to say, though, Vapour's yearbook photo is annotated "LARP most likely to make me wonder vaguely if my firm conviction that I've never done drugs is actually correct". It was written by a team of four of us in a series of 9am Sunday morning design sessions, and it's insane. It has evil sex twins, and polar-bear fixations, and trained killer attack throwing Pomeranians, and a Sinister Philatelist Subplot which results in the existence of stamps such as the Gawungafingi Badger-Black and the Spasmodic Flying Squirrel. It also rejoices in ranked ability cards which range from "Anyone for tennis?" to "This is not, in fact, the case". Contemplating the ravages wrought by Rudy with the latter brings a tear of joy and pride to my eye. The front page of the LARP explicitly instructs players to use the ability cards in creative and horrifying ways the designers couldn't possibly predict, and wow, did they ever.

I'm also dead because of unexpected root canal on Friday, which tends to leave me feeling as though I've been beaten with clubs. I have a wonderful dentist who has the superpower of giving injections I can't actually feel at all, but the vibrations cause me to clench every muscle in my body until I'm levitating off the chair, and not to relax for at least twelve hours. However, two out of three roots are thoroughly, patiently and meticulously drilled, and the assault on the third is only to come in about a month, by which time my jaw may have unclamped. Hooray.

I should also mention that I'm totally addicted to the one She Wants Revenge album I actually possess, which is Valleyheart (the earlier albums arrive from Amazon shortly), and which is channelling Bauhaus, Depeche Mode and Joy Div in strict rotation. It's poppy and retro and totally derivitive and it makes my little fangirly 80s heart go pit-a-pat.
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I have a New Resolution for today. When the Dear Little Students knock on the door, I will attempt to school my inevitable, snarling gut-reaction into a welcoming smile. If it kills me. It may be more of a terrifying grimace, in which case score, they'll all run away and never come back, but hopefully it will, via strict behaviourist principles in which I do not believe owing to early romantic conditioning, at least modify my behaviour slightly towards the "sweetness and light" end of the spectrum. Maybe.

I've been at home for two days, wrapped in the loathsome embrace of Sid the Sinus Headache, and while I'm back at work today, I still feel as though some bastard snuck in and packed my skull with hot cement. It is not unlikely that this is affecting the tendency to red rage. I also think my hormones are horribly out of whack, the homicidal urges seem to be fairly cyclical, so seeing my Nice Doctor is high on the agenda. That would be the agenda labelled "Let's Not Kill Students Today and, Incidentally, Remain Employed". My incredibly lovely boss is very cool about me working at home fairly regularly, she says because she's not sure the university insurance will cover it if I dismember anyone. This means she is noticing the snarling. Busted. Oops.

In other news mostly unrelated to my decomposing state of health, we finished the Lady Blackbird game last night. This was completely indecent amounts of fun, at least as much because of the composition of the group as because of the game ethos and setting, and the fact that Lady Blackbird herself was a deluded and flamboyant narcissist who I could only play while drunk. The player input to the scenario is fascinating and, in our hands, completely demented. Example: I do a sort of general magical sense thing to see how many people are in the three pirate ships parked on the asteroid for our rendezvous. I randomly come up with:
(a) one ship with 37 people on board;
(b) one ship with only four people on board, only they're extra large; and
(c) one normal pirate crew complement of 12.
The rest of the group refine this into
(a) the Raven, crewed by Captain Emeritus Fop and his 36 dandyish, effeminate, bureaucratic incompetents;
(b) the Potato Chip, crewed by four cyclopses, who are very large and very fearsome fighters with high squeaky voices; and
(c) the Knotted Pine, crewed by Captain Jack Table, who is efficient and manly and completely backstabbed us at the last minute, the bastard.
The scenario finally ended on a large scale, with betrayals, revelations, disillusionments, rejections, realisations, hostage scenarios, allegiance shifts, lightning bolt attacks, an enormous space battle between the pirates and the Imperium, and a successful annexure of the pirate kingdom by [ profile] librsa's character, more or less accidentally. Ten minutes before the end the DM was planning to suggest we made this into a campaign. Ten minutes later we'd utterly stuffed that by bombshelling the party in all directions while role-playing to the hilt. It was epic. And enormously good fun. I want to play more with that group of people and with that particularly open-ended contribution thing. It made me realise that actually DMs and LARP designers are wasted as players.

Finally, since we're working this "a propos of nothing" theme, here is China Miéville being blackly funny about Britain's current state of political incompetence. Now with added political superheroes.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
It's been a rude shock to come back to work after a ten-day break, particularly when my week has been rendered more than somewhat hideous by a continual stream of angsty student queries. My immediate response to a knock on my door has been instant, reflexive, homicidal rage, which I instantly have to choke down in order to be empathetic to their problems; this has resulted in increased homicidal impulses owing to frustration, and as a result a rather nasty feedback loop. It is also bringing out my worst hedgehoggy tendencies to contemplate the fact that, following a roleplaying game on Wednesday night and Salty Cracker expedition last night, I have [ profile] khoi_boi's birthday dinner tonight, a LARP tomorrow and a dinner date for Sunday night. Five days of unrelieved socialising make Extemp a grumpy, grumpy thing. I apologise in advance if I accidentally dismember anyone in the next few days. Nothing personal.

That being said, last night's dinner was excellent (La Mouette has a winter special on their six-course tasting menu, highly recommended), and our Lady Blackbird game is continuing to be disreputably and chaotically hilarious. The game system allows for a minimal DM presence and considerable input from the players, three out of five of whom are experienced DMs, so we tend towards horribly complicating our own lives in inventive ways. There is, thank the aetheric space-jellyfish, reason to believe that my thoroughly annoying character may be showing signs of actual personal growth, and a concomitant drift away from rampant and entitled narcissism. We can hope, anyway. If not, the Pirate King is going to almost certainly have to spank her frequently just to remain sane. On the upside, detonator innuendo, a moodily-organ-playing captain, an asteroid field which grows evil vodka potatoes, experience points for disdain, and a pirate called Cholmondeley Veruca. "We have booby-trapped your ship, in the sense that we've sent Kale to fix your engines". Also, points to the (somewhat besotted) Captain for reflexively shooting the pirate who made personal remarks about Lady Blackbird. It was cute, and is directly contributing to her personal growth. Thank the gods.


Thursday, 21 April 2011 11:34 am
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Yesterday was all misty and moisty, with that kind of light, persistent rain that drifts gently sideways in the wind but doesn't let that distract it from implementing a fairly relentless soaking policy. My garden is all happy and damp, if somewhat buried under plane tree leaves because I've been too busy playing Dragon Age to actually do any raking. (There's a long post in my future about the narrative structure and principles of Dragon Age. You have been warned). Today is clear and cold, and the cats ran screaming through the house when I emerged from my bedroom in the first boots of the season. You'd think they'd learn that I metamorphose into a sort of clumpy, jackbooted thing punctually every year and no-one ever actually dies, but no, the annual ritual is fear and trembling for several weeks as my feet inexplicably morph. Dear little twits.

In fact, it's autumn, and winter is breathing down its neck. I am a happy bunny. Also, memo to self, acquire new umbrella, those bastards who broke into my car that one time nicked it.

The Dragon Age fixation means I'm not good for much in the Interesting Life department, because second-hand rehashes of someone's gaming experience are not of blinding interest to the onlooker. (I assume. If you'd be blindingly interested, do let me know and I shall unleash the wittering accordingly). I did, however, cook dinner for [ profile] strawberryfrog on Tuesday, which was fun, and stretched my catering-for-vegetarians muscles a bit, as well as allowing the Frog to photograph my cats in a variety of contorted positions (both him and them). There was also a Lady Blackbird gaming session last night, which is evincing more and more bizarre twists as we get right into the swing of the DMless format in providing our own challenges. (Giant space jellyfish! Three giant space jellyfish! And an Imperial fleet!). It's been an interesting roleplaying experience because I'm playing a character I frankly dislike - she's a privileged, sheltered, narcissistic twit, and I'm only able to access the necessary mode of flamboyant self-centredness if I'm slightly sloshed. On the upside, fated love triangles, and she blows things up with lightning, which is always amusing. Also, parrot!

I also posted a new Microfiction. You are probably bored with me saying that I don't like my own writing and never feel it succeeds, but this one felt particularly slight to me. I was weirded and confused when a fellow writer mentioned they really liked it. For a highly trained literary critic I have absolutely no discernment, apparently.

Finally, today is my last day of work before an 11-day break, sparked by the inescapable elegance of taking three days off around the mad Easter holidays. *dances around office on tip-tips of toes*
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Good lord, but the spam on this LJ account is starting to gain momentum - I'm having to delete it several times a week, which is odd, as I am certainly not a high-traffic site, or even one with a particularly obvious demographic. Strange and random and horribly wholesale are the targetings of marketers. And the spam comments are all completely surreal. I fail to see the purpose of spam which makes some generic, specious and reasonably accurate flattering statement about my beautiful prose, ritually reiterates one word that's a product-related trigger of some sort, and fails to include any linkage or actual product name.

It's been a very odd few days, as you can possibly tell by the uncharacteristic gap in posting. I am, once more, insomniac like whoa and dammit, which means that I have even less brain than usual and a tendency to utterly forget important things, like, e.g. to bring up to campus this morning all the work I did at home on Friday. Or to finish or post a Micfic. My level of stun has been entirely appropriate for bumbling around Ferelden hitting darkspawn very hard and with a sort of meditative calm (or, in fact, hitting on companions very hard and in a spirit of amused experimentation), so thank heavens for Dragon Age. I certainly haven't been appropriate for much else.

The oddness of the last few days may, in fact, have been triggered by, or at least be perfectly exemplified in, our Thursday night Fiasco! game, which managed to infest a small Kansas motel with love triangles, obsessive Pony Express subplots, teen pregnancy, wild and rather hit-or-miss badger-acquisition schemes, [ profile] librsa's completely bizarre and beautifully deadpan immortal eccentric, and a Family Secret about circuses and super-strength. (My character hoarded all the white dice and then rolled ridiculously well for a good outcome, and ended up finding happiness as a superhero called Padlock). I do like this game.

It was also a reasonable herald to the weekend's levels of odd: I'm possibly also very tired (and hence, paradoxically, insomniac) because our Cherished Institution ran its open day on Saturday, and I spent five hours solid giving advice to confused Matrics and talks to giant crowded lecture theatres. This was on top of Friday night's shindig to celebrate the professional oath-taking of the students in one of our department's programmes, to which I was invited rather pointedly because of the curriculum work I do with the programme. It transpires that the pointed invite was so that they could haul me up on stage for a Special Award for, apparently, input and patience and keeping them honest. In the Great List of Completely Blindsided Moments in my life, it's currently ranking slightly below the Evil Landlord giving me a netbook for my birthday. Did not see that coming at all. May have simply gasped incoherently, like a goldfish, in place of a thank-you speech. Am somewhat gratified that the Dean was in the audience being forced to notice that I am apparently doing a Good Job. Also, it's entirely fortuitous that none of the incidences of me losing patience badly at peak times of the year have apparently been in the context of the programme. Lucky, that.

Now I shall write a micfic, because I am being Haunted by the Spectre of Stv's Eyebrows. Aargh.

tchokka cheep

Sunday, 20 March 2011 09:17 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I can't make chocolate chip cookies without remembering the first Jo'burg roleplaying tournament I ever played, which was one run by the Wits crew, way before ICON was even a twinkle in Grant's eye. It was a cute tournament. We played pygmies, members of the Tchokka Cheep tribe, tasked with dealing with a crashed spaceship in our jungle. I was in the 'B' team, having had all of about two years of roleplaying experience by then, and we dismally and totally failed to do anything meaningful to the module. I don't even remember who else was in the team - Mike, certainly, possibly Anton? Carlo? I was probably 22, it's a hell of a long time ago now. It was fun. But it's the "Tchokka Cheep! Tchokka Cheep!" chant which stays with me, for some reason.

All of which is an unlikely segue into the fact that [ profile] wolverine_nun asked me for my chocolate chip cookie recipe. Since I am still sinusy and pretty much without brain after a blissful four days of doing damn near nothing, I am delighted to oblige her and incidentally achieve a free blog post without needing to think about it.


(This recipe is based on the Quick Oatmeal Cookies one from The Joy of Cooking, with variations. I think if you stood over me with a whip you might persuade me not to fiddle with a recipe for the space of a single iteration, but it's a long shot).

  • 125ml soft brown sugar (they're currently selling it as treacle sugar, for no adequately defined reason)
  • 125ml brown sugar (i.e. the yellow-brown unrefined sugar with the same granule size as normal sugar)
  • 110g butter (not marg, it does affect the flavour)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tblsp milk
  • 250ml cake flour
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground ginger (optional, but I think it improves it - you can also stuff around with allspice and cloves if you feel so impelled)
  • 250 ml uncooked quick-cook rolled oats
  • 2 bars Bournville Dark (the 90g slab. And when did those start being 90g instead of 100g? Rotten swizz, if you ask me).
  • 100g pecan nuts

Right, so for various arcane reasons this recipe is much easier to make when the weather's hot, particularly since I just burned the motor out of my hand mixer. To start with, preheat the oven to 350/180, and leave the butter out on the counter for half an hour so it's a bit soft and you don't have to start the process with an ice-pick.

Either sling the butter and both sugars into your food processor and process the hell out of them with the normal blade, OR mix with a hand mixer, OR assault it sadistically with a wooden spoon. By whichever method, or preferred substitute (place in large tub and dance upon with clean wooden clogs?), you want the butter/sugar mix all creamy and slightly light. Add the egg, vanilla and milk to it and give it another whirl so it's even lighter and creamier.

If you're using the processor, at this stage use a rubber spatula to remove the mix and put it into a large bowl. If you're using a wooden spoon or hand mixer you should already be using a large bowl. Oops. Go back and use a larger bowl.

Right, now sift the flour, bicarb, baking powder, salt and spices into the creamed mix. Secret confession: I don't usually bother to sift them. The skies have not yet fallen, nor have the biscuits. Mix it all in, either by hand or by machine - it should be a slightly sludgy batter. Now sling in the oats and mix with a wooden spoon - trying to use a machine at this stage will burn out the motor, see above. You'll end up with a sort of crumbly oaty consistency, not a smooth batter.

Unwrap the two slabs of Bournville Dark and place them lovingly on a chopping board. Take a large, broad-bladed knife, a sharp one, and pray it's a warm day, softening the choc just enough to cut it easily. (Bournville Dark is very hard indeed in temperate climes. See ice-pick, above). Slice the bar in a grid both ways, so that each block is cut into two both lengthways and widthways. The best way to do this is to put the knife across the line you want to cut and lean on it heavily - as I say, works better if the weather is warmer. You could cheat like hell here and use commercial chocolate chips, but I don't like the grade of chocolate they use. Feel free to ignore my chocolate snobbery. Your delicate bar-hackery process should end up with a whole bunch of semi-regular chocolate blocks plus a whole bunch of shavings, bits and what have you. Fling the whole lot into the biscuit mix.

Coarsely chop the pecan nuts - I usually aim to cut them approximately in half down the length and in three bits the other way, but this is not an exact science. You want chunks of pecan nut of a pleasing size to bite upon unexpectedly in a cookie. Sling them into the mix.

Mix the mix a bit with a wooden spoon to make sure everything is more or less distributed. Your texture here should be a sort of sticky-together oatmealy not-quite-batter full of pleasing nutty/choccy chunks, i.e. it's not smooth. It shouldn't be smooth. It can't be smooth. Abandon smoothness all ye who enter here.

Chocolate chips in cookies melt and stick like evil-minded glue demons, so if you have teflon-coated baking sheets I strongly recommend you put down a layer of baking paper, or else the burned chocolate bits will lift the coating off the sheet. Take teaspoonfulls of the mixture and plop onto the paper in rows, leaving a good 5cm between dollops - they spread. I find the biscuits are a bit more regular and morphous (as in, not amorphous) if you very vaguely shape the dollop with your fingers before you drop it, so it's a sort of roughly spheroid thingy. Alternatively, cookie shoggoths are a valid lifestyle choice.

Bake for about 10 minutes, until they are starting to brown. They'll be a bit soft as they come out the oven, but harden and become crispy as they cool. The optimum time to nosh them is about ten minutes after they've emerged from the oven, when the chocolate is still soft but won't actually take the roof off your mouth.

Ways to mess with the recipe: responds well to flavour modulation, e.g. orange zest instead of the ginger, or fresh ginger in addition to the ginger. The original recipe doesn't include nuts and says the chocolate chips are optional, but they're not, trust me.

Let me know how they turn out!
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I am still astonishingly tired, but thank heavens, that should be the worst of the year officially over. Student body count high, but not quite as high as it could have been. I'd like to thank Red Bull and Smallville for their contributions to my sanity over the last month. All I have to get through now is the inevitable sinus/glandular fever two-punch which follows these little challenges, and which I can feel building up in my skull and under my chin even as I type.

The start of term being what it is, it's only appropriate that we playtested jo&stv's zombie apocalypse Fiasco! playset yesterday. I felt very much equipped to embody both the hysterical over-reaction portion of the scenario and the shambling undead "braiiiiiins" aspect, and I'm right at home with the chaotic breakdown of social systems. In addition, the setting was contemporary Bloemfontein. On an ostrich farm. You haven't lived - or, in fact, inevitably died - until you've watched the Afrikaaner vet run his Isuzu four wheel drive over the zombie ostrich to rescue the screaming girls from the infected Labrador. I'm just sorry he never used the chainsaw. The whole subplot with the Boer sacrificial cult, the sinister doctor with the ostrich serum, and the elderly zombie mother kept locked in the attic, was also colourful. Also, jo made zombie cake. Everybody died. It was great.

My fiendish plan to spend most of Sunday horizontal on the sofa has so far been foiled by the dastardly Hobbit, who has just killed a large pigeon messily all over the living room floor, but once I've vaccummed up both the feathers and the Hobbit, who has it coming, I propose to gently flatline again in the interests of recuperation. Have a nice Sunday.

a bear called Eric

Tuesday, 7 December 2010 05:53 pm
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Fiasco! is my new favourite roleplaying experience. I'm addicted. I spent most of Sunday being the fake-twin bubblegum-pop-fake-hard-rock lead singer to Jo's version of my fake twin sister (she was the emo one, I was the poppy one, we had catfights and no brain worth mentioning and did drugs and drummers in equal quantities). Our rock band was called Unicorn Bloodsports. The final song in the stadium performance featured a live bear and fireworks. Highjinks were going to ensue even before the crazy mixups with the extra gunpowder, the PCP, swapping the mostly trained bear for the mostly untrained bear, the bit where our tame reporter punched the guy from Rolling Stone, and the convoluted insurance scam with the secret abortion and the fake bear attack. It was a complete fiasco, and deeply satisfying on a rather cinematic narrative level.

I am going to try and do Fiasco! sessions at approximately two-weekly intervals until further notice, let me know if you want to be on the mailing list for the "I want to play this Saturday/Sunday, first sign-ups get the places" mails.

Fiasco! is completely necessary to distract me from the horrible patchwork quilt of training, meetings, training for meetings, board schedule checking, student angst and orientation planning which makes up the end of the year. This is my second ten-hour day without a break. Thank the involved and arbitrary gods of bureaucracy, it calms down after the final, giant, culminatory meeting tomorrow. The Dean is saying nice things about my work for the year, but I still feel I haven't beaten this giant, tottering system into anything like the clockwork efficiency demanded by my inner jackbooted fascist, and it annoys me.

Now I am going to go home and play mindless computer games in a spirit of "aargh I have no brain". And probably eat ice-cream for supper, because I've earned it. Dammit.
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[ profile] smoczek, being a lady of infinite resource and sagacity, has recently acquired the Fiasco! role-playing system, and five of us spent a somewhat enjoyable few hours in narrative construction yesterday. It's a lovely system: the point is character interactions rather than stats or exploring a world, and the whole thing progresses as a series of highly cinematic scenes, with responsibility for driving them rotating between characters. The mechanism for choosing and resolving scenes is both minimalist and elegant. At a conservative estimate I'd say that the whole thing was designed in response to the classic gaming group predicament of everyone wanting to play and no-one actually wanting to run a game, by a bunch of roleplayers with a neo-noir fixation, a respectable chunk of LARP-design experience, a good grasp of narrative balance, and thoroughly evil minds. It is quite possibly the most fun I've had role-playing ever, and I'm not just saying that because I ended up with the contortionist burlesque performer with pythons and a cat-burglary habit who finished the session having sold out absolutely everyone at least once. And we didn't even use the jewel-encrusted sex toy.

Also, the mechanism for choosing who gets to go first is to determine who has the smallest home town. I was born in Bulawayo. Win.

It was a lengthy, animated and (as usual) rather drunken session. I'm feeling more than somewhat fragile today, although I can't tell if that's because of the booze (I don't think so, actually), another thrice-damned sinus infection (a bit of an occupational hazard at the moment, everyone seems to be exploding from pollination), or the fact that I attended my Favourite Niece's fifth birthday party this morning. She had a fairy party. There must have been two dozen small kids there, most of them in some combination of fairy dresses, wings, wands, glitter and butterfly deely-bobbers, and a uniform outbreak of pink. Even the little boys were all crowns and cloaks and what have you. (And, for no adequately defined reason, a Spiderman). Much fun was apparently had by all. I bowed out early owing to the depredations of Sid, but it was rather fun watching them bounce around the show on frenetic cupcake energy. Also, memo to self, decision not to procreate apparently working well for me.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Ooh, interesting, another phishing spam mutation. I'm receiving increased amounts of spam at my work address at the moment, which is mildly annoying as you'd think my Cherished Institution would be more alert on the spam filter front (although, to be fair, it's a particularly long, nasty and ragged front). A lot of them are from "Standard Bank", plaintively requiring me to log onto my bank account to change details/because it's expired/because they've updated the login software, whatever. Not badly written, as spam goes, and only almost completely implausible, not least because I don't actually have a Standard Bank account. Today's one was different:

Due to the recent Malware and Phishing attacks encountered by our customers, Standard Bank has made it mandatory to all Customers to download the Rapport Software that will help fight against it. Our system shows that you haven't downloaded the latest version of this software that was introduced on 03-09-2010. It's your responsibility to protect your account by installing this new patch as a precautionary measure. If you do not log on to download this software now, Standard bank will not be liable for any theft that may occur on your account.

Click here [links to] to download the Rapport software immediately.

This is interesting because it's surprisingly free of grammatical errors - bonus points for the correct use of "it's", although the Random Eighteenth-century Capitalisations are a bit of a red flag. Mostly, though, I'm impressed by its self-referentiality: it rather neatly attempts to stampede the naive reader into succumbing to a phishing scam by semi-plausibly representing its phishing scam as a protection from phishing scams. A horrible circularity results: save yourself from malware by downloading this handy piece of malware! Further fear factor arises in the refusal of indemnity for phishing if you don't. In linguistic terms "patch" is good, people are lulled into thinking of patches as necessary and inevitable owing to the hideous Windows tendency to spray them out like Cape Town's pollen. I actually think this one might get people, even in this more virus-aware age: I still remember the number of innocent campus denizens who were taken in by the Windows SULFNBK.EXE hoax (delete it! it's a virus!) in the early 2000s. Even worse, Phishing Spammers May Be Acquiring A Clue. News at 11!

It's all particularly horribly relevant at the moment because [ profile] smoczek is running a Paranoia game, and we're bumbling manically and paranoidly around trying to unravel a convoluted plot involving spammers, hideous revenge against same, and virus-infected scrub bots killing people. I'd forgotten how much fun Paranoia can be. And how horrible the puns.
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Ah, Google Translate. Absolutely the only thing that's keeping me sane in the process of trying to own and administer a house and bank account in France and French, but every now and then it produces small, furry gems such as my subject line. I have no idea why a French banking login requires you to enter your PIN number in mice, but the idea has a certain charm. Perhaps you need to tune and record their squeaks.

I'm at home today, having acquired either my mother's evil 'flu germs, or those of stv: either way, throat hurts, head hurts, bones ache, sinuses colonised by Sid, and someone's been bloody well chewing under my chin again with really blunt teeth. I managed to give my final lecture on Frankenstein this morning, but I'm really not sure I was coherent. Then again, I'm really not sure I'm ever coherent when babbling enthusiastically about science fiction.

I walked back to my office after the lecture with one of the 3 actual students in the class who admitted to actually reading science fiction when I asked. He is, of course, a CLAW member, and, emboldened by my confession of about 5 years on the CLAW committee in my time, told me enthusiastically all about his Shadowrun campaign. This has reminded me of an epiphany I had recently, which I shall enshrine here because it was extremely illuminating and I don't want to forget it.

See, I'm not really an administrator, I'm a frustrated academic; I just happen to be very good at administration when I put my mind to it. Part of this is because I have a mind and the will to use it, and part of it is because I have trained myself into successful administration by dint of many years of administering not particularly diverse and far-flung student and hobby groups, including role-players, Tolkien fans, the SCA and the like. If you can administer role-players, you can administer anything. Herding cats ain't in it. It's a Kafkaesque challenge of which mere mortals were not meant to wot, and mere Humanities academics and students pale in comparison.

But I realised the other day, that's not the only thing that role-playing has taught me. The curriculum advice job I do, I do very well (and I have absolutely no false modesty about this. I kick its butt). This isn't just about fundamentally liking students and having a relatively high empathy stat, although these are important. It's actually about an experience of a very basic role-playing and particularly DMing skill, viz. the ability to process satisfaction through a numerical system.

Most Humanities academics aren't actually very good at curriculum advice because they don't grasp the technical aspects of the system we use to build up a legitimate degree structure: its underlying numerical logic, its wildly different iterations under different circumstances and with different individuals, and its rather clunky perpetration through a maze of exceptions, additions and special instances. I shouldn't, as a mere lit professional, be any good at this either, but I've played AD&D. I know all about clunky systems with an underlying numerical more-or-less logic and a maze of additions and exceptions. I'm not only used to dealing with such a system, I'm used to applying it creatively to try and create satisfaction and fulfilment in my players, which is absolutely what I'm trying to do for my students. You have to obey the rules, but the point is not the system itself: the point is either the role-playing experience, or a successful degree qualification built up from course choices which are adapted to the student's skills and enjoyments.

This realisation makes me very happy. It's official, kiddies. Role-playing gives you real-world skills, and not just the ones to do with strategic thinking, persona as a social interaction tool, and following the geek references in Wil Wheaton blog posts. Nope: it's all about systems, and how to exploit them for the greater good. Human civilisation in a nutshell, really.
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I started playing D&D in my first year of university, which was not a good year: I was very shy, very introverted, horribly homesick, and pathologically incapable of striking up new friendships owing to all of the above. I was dragged off to a regular D&D game by the first-year med student who lived across the road from my aunt, and acquiesced, I suspect, mostly because I couldn't think up a plausible reason to refuse. The group was the usual crew of cheerful eccentrics who took happily for granted my inclusion in the game, and assisted me to roll up the usual designated starter cliché, a half-elven ranger who was almost killed by ghouls in a graveyard in her first combat. (I think I date my ongoing roleplaying fondness for staying at the back of the group with arrows and/or magic from this rather vividly-remembered moment). The game was DMed by an Honours student in theoretical physics, on whom I developed a minor crush, and who is probably responsible for infecting me with my predilection for Earl Grey, which I still associate with those sessions. The group played absolutely standard AD&D, hacking our way through several levels of the Temple of Elemental Evil during that first year I played: it was rote, standard, unexamined adherence to the tropes, and I loved it unconditionally.

From there, of course, the rest is history: contact with the motley hordes of CLAW and their far more wide-ranging and exploratory take on roleplaying in my second year, and very quick eradication of the shyness in the face of the completely mind-bending experience of being one of approximately two and a half girls in an otherwise all-male role-playing group. I'm not really sure if it was the confidence boost of this, or the powerful shields afforded by a role-playing persona, which kick-started the transformation from pastel schoolgirl mouse into something more in possession of a personality. But it wouldn't have been possible without that year of exposure to AD&D in its most standard form; that first game was lame and grotty and, in an odd sort of way, profoundly unimaginative, and it met a need I didn't even know I had.

So it's not really surprising that every now and then I still randomly develop a sudden, deep, alarming desire for something D&Dish. This is difficult to fulfil in this day and age, even with the high concentration of roleplayers in my immediate social circle, as everyone's moved on to other systems, or their own systems, or families and work. ([ profile] bumpycat's late lamented D&D game was enormously retro fun and I still miss it passionately. Barbarian clerics ftw!). But for the moments when the jones is paramount, there's Munchkin. Munchkin is perfect because it speaks to our juvenile experiences of D&D: it's firmly embedded in the paradigm, the in-jokes1 and tactical nastinesses and sneaky min-maxing and lame system features. It knows the gazebo joke. But it's also ironic, distanced, self-consciously condemnatory as much as it's affectionate: we are invited, playing Munchkin, to celebrate both our unsophisticated enjoyment of a dungeon hack, and our graduation to something better.

By the end of last night's game I had a surprisingly coherent character: a dwarven cleric with a Talking Horse, Leather Armour (picture: busty brunette in skimpy corset and thigh-high boots), Pantyhose of Giant Strength, and Broad Sword (usable only by female players). Munchkin is a profoundly nostalgic pleasure if only because there aren't many women who enjoy playing it in our crowd (me and [ profile] smoczek, and she's still in Madagascar), and you can trade shamelessly to end up with all the items useable only by females and thus useless to the rest of the group without a quick sex change. It's quite like old times. The session took over four hours and ended with all five players on 9 hit points, needing just one combat to win, and staving off the inevitable victory for a random one of us for three rounds by serially preventing, in a desperate, marginal and happenstance way depending on the fall of cards, our opponents' success in combat. I didn't win, alas, as the bastard elves ganged up to use their sneaky helping-someone-else-to-win-a-combat bonus, causing game end in a tie, but it was bloody good fun and completely worth staggering off to bed somewhere around midnight. I'm just sad I didn't get a chance to use my Kneepads of Allure.

1 They have a Level One Potted Plant as a monster! I recall affectionately the early days of CLAWs, when one of the in-jokes was the Party Potplant ("DM! DM! I rustle my leaves!"). And a Large Angry Chicken! Do you remember the ongoing gag about the Rolemaster sheep?

I dugged an hole

Sunday, 17 January 2010 03:16 am
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DSCN1751, originally uploaded by extemporanea.

Our back courtyard is currently making me think irresistibly of the random NPC peasant from one of[ profile] egadfly's games lo these many years, if not decades, ago, who came up with the immortal pearl of syntax in my subject line after being pressganged into digging, IIRC, graves for the party after a particularly successful combat. (In fact, it may have been for the red herring fast courier guy who we accidentally killed after making him fall off his horse.) At any rate: holes. Lots of holes. Lots of deep, dangerous holes into which the cats peer with fascinated horror. (They're all very clingy at the moment, there's usually a full set within a 10m radius of the pink blobs. It's going to get worse tomorrow when the electrician starts cutting channels in the walls: up until now all the landscape-rearranging has been outside, which I think has been quite alarming enough for feline territorial urges).

In addition to the back, the Army of Reconstruction has ripped up the front patio. Before and After:

I have been forced to conclude that either Hobbit really is a ridiculously hyper-friendly people-cat, or he's a slut for the camera. Every time I try to take a photo, there he is.

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Perfect birthday! wake up to bucketing rain and high winds, lie in bed enjoying it without having to dash off to work. When [ profile] maxbarners arrives, tragically without [ profile] smoczek because her work is being evil, hijack his plan to go out for a birthday breakfast and instead use him as an excuse to make waffles. With chocolate ice cream, because that's all that was in the house. Consume vast and unlikely quantities of same.

Read multitudinous birthday messages on Twitter and Facebook and email, being touched and surprised that so many people remembered. Realise that both Facebook and LJ send out reminders if you tell them your birthday, which I apparently did. Be touched and happy anyway.

Spend the afternoon in a warm kitchen with cats and tea and loud rock music, cooking enormous meals and chocolate cake for my favourite group of role-playing lunatics this evening. Why, yes, role-playing is my idea of a perfect way to spend a birthday evening. Why, yes, I am an enormous geek.

That Dreaded Age has apparently found me still firmly in the Cooking Huge Meals For Friends camp, to which I say, damn straight. It's also given me a bit of a warning about doddering dillyness, being as how I accidentally left my wallet on the counter in the liquor store this afternoon, necessitating one of those embarassing groping sessions at the Woolies checkout, immediately followed by fleeing the store without paying. On the upside, the Cosmic Wossnames dictate that I wasn't actually pickpocketed, and didn't drop the wretched thing in the street, and that the liquor store clerk returned it to me with the minimum of mockery, so I think we're ahead.

My subconscious seems to be firmly convinced that this is just another birthday and I'm really no more than a day older now than I was yesterday, so I seem refreshingly free of Milestone Angst. Thanks to everyone for wishes, will reply individually, eventually, but for now know that there's a Warm Glow that's not entirely about the Earl Grey. Also, looking forward to seeing a pleasing proportion of you on Saturday.
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I've waxed lyrical before about the "functionality" of our role-playing group, which has currently undergone a metamorphosis from the recently-completed game run by [ profile] smoczek to a short campaign run by [ profile] khoi_boi. We have had two sessions, entailing character design and the obligatory party meet-up/quest outline. I am generally pleased to report that, other than the GM-switch, absolutely nothing has changed. We are still wildly individualistic, severely lateral, only marginally goal-directed, and unwontedly hilarious. One actual session of play has revealed the following:
  • A tendency to visit upon the unfortunate GM the mantle of Snow Owl, his previous Belkar-clone. We heckle him unmercifully.
  • A series of characters whose position in society is marginal and iconoclastic, and whose participation in the quest is reluctant and attended by ongoing and creative avoidance attempts.
  • In a society characterised by pervasive religious belief, three out of four atheists.
  • In a society characterised by somewhat hidebound and disapproving attitudes to homosexuality, two gay characters out of four.
  • Upon being introduced to the reason for the campaign, the cute blonde female priestess we're supposed to be escorting to her Manifest Destiny, three out of four of the party immediately hit on her unmercifully. (Admittedly this has a lot to do with the fact that the GM himself has an enormous and obvious crush on her). Quotations of "everyone hitting on me, cannot cope, off to Mordor" have been inevitable.
  • The society uses riding dinosaurs called tarawaks. Mine is called Twit. [ profile] librsa has christened his NickNack. We break into song at intervals. Memo to self: must give my dog a bone. (I have a dog, a large, floppy, friendly hunting dog loosely modelled on a Weimaraner. I will undoubtedly find ways in which to use said canine to annoy the GM).
  • The character design process seems to have ended up with me and [ profile] smoczek accidentally and independently generating extremely similar characters, who have immediately formed a well-oiled machine for Getting Things Done, now with Added Flirting. Mine, in a further involuntary coincidence, appears to be Xena the Warrior Princess. I think I must be responding subliminally to all that homoerotic subtext.
  • We continue our tradition of rather excessive booze consumption, given that we tend to bring one bottle of wine each to go with the home-cooked meal provided by the host. This pleasing substitute for the traditional junk food and drink seems to be just as much a feature of grown-up roleplaying sessions as the increased X-rated content. Adulthood certainly does have its compensations.
The slightly drunken hilarity of the game has been a welcome energy boost in the middle of a difficult week. Exams have just finished, which means that I've personally signed twenty-five change of curriculum forms since 9am. I'm a little frayed and inclined to snarl when yet another knock on the door manifests itself. On the upside, in keeping with probably 66.6% of known South Africans I've taken off the Monday of next week, giving me a four-day weekend, which will hopefully preserve a few more students intact for future curriculum indiscretions. God, roll on the vac.

it gives you whinges

Wednesday, 10 December 2008 02:45 pm
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Gosh, look, another day in which I have to retreat into Red Bull as a viable alternative to curling up in a corner and whimpering until it all goes away. I have just wasted 20 minutes of my time trying to patiently talk the twitchy parent of an excluded student through finding the relevant appeal forms on my Cherished Institution's website. Said website uses funky drop-down menus which randomly and unreliably futz out at intervals, depending on your browser, traffic levels, the phase of the moon, wibbles in the space-time continuum or the flapping of Cory Doctorow's cloak. There are no actual linkage alternatives to the drop-down menus, a gesture of confidence I cannot help but feel is sadly misplaced. Said parent was unable to take my dictation into the location bar owing, I suspect, to basic absence of internet-grokkage. After twenty minutes with one eye on the patiently-waiting student in my office and the other three queuing outside my door, I told him to wait for the bloody letter with the form in it. (Only more politely).

I am now Red Bullish and bouncing off the walls. *bounce*. This bodes slightly better for Jo's game this evening, there being a good chance I would otherwise have spent it curled up in a corner and whimpering until it all went away. Since we're currently fleeing the epic and apocalyptic rising of the stupendously powerful alien race whose balanced truce with our own gods we have just dismally failed to protect from sabotage, cowering and whimpering may actually have been the appropriate mode of response, but I can't help feeling the Red Bullishness may be more practical. Or, at the very least, allow us to run faster. Why does this suddenly feel like a CoC campaign? Iä! Iä!

In between bouncing off the walls I console myself with Random Linkery. MightyGodKing is entertainingly rude about pulp sf/fantasy, particularly Twilight (the last one in Part 2).
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Nicked from Elizabeth Bear, a hysterical link to American politics as an AD&D game. Primarily I love this because it's making me mentally cast South African politics as a Call of Cthulhu scenario, mostly because currently the only possible political response is to screech "DON'T SPLIT THE PARTY!" at all the oblivious idiots. (I mean, I actually think the party is way overpowered and a significant proportion of them probably need to wander off alone down a dark corridor and get their innards gnawed by something, but it's pretty much a classic mistake).
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Jo's game is The Fun, but I swear our roleplaying group is the most dysfunctional, incoherent bunch of wild individualists with whom I have ever had the (mostly) pleasure of playing. I mean, we make my Falkenstein group look like a well-oiled machine. If an action is worth taking, it's worth taking after two and a half hours of argument, false starts, lone and eccentric forays wholly without consultation, and wildly inappropriate planning which we will subsequently abandon completely in favour of reacting on the fly. I honestly don't know how we've got this far. If our planning skills are any indication we should long since have ended up painted blue and buried alive in a lead-lined box full of rabid gnats.

So, last night's game (a short session owing to my state of lurgy) was distinguished by the need to rescue a party comrade from a small island in the middle of a lake in the middle of a zoo in the middle of a highly over-regimented squeaky-clean Big Brother city. This bloody city cripples us: we can't use any of our (considerable) magical abilities without being detected, squashed, sat upon and neutralised by several scores of Official Wizards who then drug us and ship us off to the mad prince in the crazy south where we Do Not Wish To Go.

[ profile] librsa's character is convinced that we'll perform this rescue by means of forty metres of rope ladder constructed from the disassembled fragments of three stepladders, which he's subsequently packed into a barrel which is too large for him to carry alone, and none of us will help because we think it's a silly plan. After considerable argument while we sneak through the sleeping streets he has to stash the Suspicious Bloody Great Barrel in an alley somewhere before the unnaturally polite city police start asking inconvenient questions. Despite all this we arrive at the zoo undetected and break in using the one teeny bit of magic ability this bloody city doesn't detect, and which we're all crap at, and make our way to said island.

[ profile] khoi_boi's character, the notorious Snow Owl, is convinced that we'll perform this rescue by draining the lake. There is no evidence that there is, in fact, a way of draining the lake, but he's adamant there must be a giant plug somewhere, detectable by swimming. The lake is murky and disgusting. We persuade him, after much argument, that draining the lake is unfeasible and if he must swim, rather swim out to the island with a rope so we can construct a rope bridge. He does so, arriving bleeding and exhausted as it transpires that the lake is filled with carnivorous fish who make a spirited attempt to remove his leg while he swims. The person we are trying to rescue declines to go back across the rope bridge, being pathologically afraid of water. Rescuee and bleeding rescuer remain on the island, arguing.

Jean's character is convinced that we'll perform this rescue by using a carriage as a boat. Hearing a carriage clatter through the zoo, she dashes after it, critically fails her sneak check, and falls into a pit which turns out to contain an angry gorilla and his two wives. After a brief, painful interlude she has two cracked ribs, considerable bruising and a dead gorilla. The two female gorillas steal two-thirds of her rope, which is the only rope left after Snow Owl's island swimming adventure. She is subsequently too exhausted to throw the remnants of the rope up for rescue by [ profile] librsa's character, who has arrived late to the party as a result of fumbling his attempt to hear where she'd gone, and starting off in the opposite direction at speed. She is eventually extracted with difficulty from the pit, and returns to the lake shore to recover within recrimination distance of the bleeding Snow Owl. By popular consent, a natural 20 (critical fumble in this system) is henceforth dubbed an "angry gorilla".

My character is convinced that we'll perform this rescue by improvising a raft out of materials at hand. She spends most of the session sneaking around the zoo and discovering that there are no materials at hand.

As the curtain falls on this sorry episode, my character and [ profile] librsa's are planning an assault on a food storage shed with his handy pickaxe, for purposes of stealing four barrels and the door to construct a raft with. In the intervening week before we play again, each member of the group will infallibly concoct a plan which we will then argue about for two hours before doing something completely different which has far more potential for going entertainingly wrong.

I love this game. Probably not as much as the sadistic DM does, though.


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