Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Avatar Review

Wow! That movie had amazing special effects! I saw it in 3D, and there were times when this movie took my breath away. There were stunning vistas. Incredible action. Awesome battle scenes. There were times when I actually forgot I was watching movie (like when the forest is on fire, and there's ash everywhere, and I started brushing my pants off. Then again, I'm a smoker, so I'm particularly susceptible to fear of burning ash.). I wonder what this movie will be like in 2D when it comes out on DVD. Anyway, too bad all this amazing technology was used to tell the crappiest science fiction story of 2009.

The plot was hackneyed and tired. Some people compare it to Dances with Wolves. Kevin Costner should find everyone one of these people and sue them. Because Dances with Wolves at least kept me in suspense. I knew what was going to happen at every point in this movie. The script had to hit every beat, and it did so as efficiently as possible. Typically by pulling the simplest, most over-used plot point out of its ass.

Did anyone think that Sam Worthington's character, Sully, would not successfully ride the giant, red dragon-thing? Did you at any point expect the corporate stooge to listen to reason? Did you worry, for a moment, that the Na'vi wouldn't win the last battle? That's because there is no dramatic tension in this movie. The actors are basically moving scenery, a hook upon which James Cameron hangs his special effects. The plot decisions Cameron makes are so simplistic, which is sad because if he'd spent a minute on the plot this would have been a great movie.

Press reports have it that Cameron's been working on this script for almost ten years, while he waited for the techology to catch up to his vision. Maybe he should have given the plot another editing pass. Either that, or everyone around him was too scared to tell him his plot sucked. Examples abound.

The Floating Rock: Tell me, what does this rock do? Besides float, I mean. Why is it so important to Earth? It would have made the plot more understandable, and given us a reason to care, if we knew what we were fighting for. The story tells us that there's no green anywhere on Earth, and that we're a dying species; does the rock protect us from global warming? Does it power giant atmosphere processors, thus allowing us to breathe? (After all, if there's no green on the planet, we're not breathing). See, if you tell us why the rock is so valuable, then we understand the human's actions, and we might even find ourselves rooting for them at first (since they're saving our planet). After all, this is supposed to be an eco-movie; if the rock saves our planet at the Na'vi's expense, this makes us face the question "which ecology is more important?" The plot automatically becomes deeper. Cameron could have spent five seconds on this, and sacrificed a scene of glowing plants.

The Corporation: Ah, that hoary old science fiction chestnut, the evil corporation. Why is the corporation evil? Because they're a corporation. They have share-holders. They make money. They must be evil. This is tissue-paper thin movitation. Why spend any time developing a real motivation when all you have to do is make the villain a corporation? Remember when Coke wanted more market share in China and invaded with their private army? And how about the Great IBM War of 1985 in India? See, this shit doesn't happen anymore. (Some know-it-all asshole is going to bring up the East India Company. Once again, this shit doesn't happen anymore.)

Let's put it this way, if the Evil Corporation exterminates the Na'vi, I think the UN might have something to say about it. The 2154 versions of Hugo Chavez and Mummar Khadaffi would go apeshit, railing against Imperialism. Someone would be prosecuted. Because corporations are subject to laws. When they want to strip mine in Brazil, they get a contract from the government or buy the land outright; they may bribe lawmakers to change laws, but that's because board members understand they can be prosecuted. Moreover, Giovanni Ribisi's character acts unilaterally; he's so far away from home it takes six years to get to Pandora; it's his ass going to the Hague charged with genocide. You'd think his character would take that into consideration, but more on that later.

(Also, note to James Cameron: FOX is a corporation concerned with profits. You better hope this movie makes it's 500 mill back, or they'll have you whacked, if we're going to follow your corporate-bashing thesis). Unless the governments of the world all suddenly collapse, plunging the world into anarchy, corporations aren't going to do half the shit they're accused of in sci-fi movies. I think it's time we put the evil corporation plot device to rest.

The End: Sam Worthington's character spends much of the movie trying to learn about the Na'vi. He wants to help negotiate some kind of treaty or settlement. The Na'vi kick ass and take names, and what do they do? They banish the humans. What?! Sam, you wanted to negotiate on behalf of the humans. Now you're in a position to negotiate from a position of strength. You're human, too. So you can do the same thing you wanted to do the entire movie, but this time from the Na'vi perspective. Instead, you just exile everyone. Wouldn't it have been a more nuanced ending for Worthington to say "okay, you guys can stay, but you have to agree to stop fucking with us"? That would have been a nice message of tolerance. And would have set up a good sequel, as the Evil Corporation tries to break the deal. (Also, the humans already fucked up the giant treehouse to get at the floaty rock; so the Na'vi could have said "keep it, assholes" and used it to buy concessions, like leaving the rest of the planet alone).

Moreover, have you ever heard the word "hostages", Sam? See, the Evil Corporation is going to come back. And if they're smart, they'll stay in their spaceships and throw rocks at Pandora from orbit. It might be smart to be holding a few hostages. In the meantime, maybe humans and Na'vi could learn to work together in the six years its going to take reinforcements to arrive.

It's like at every point in the movie, if Cameron had a choice between the slipshod, hackneyed plot and something more nuanced, he chose the former. James, next time you write a script, write the exact opposite of what you're thinking.

Plot comes from drama. Drama comes from character. And it's on this level that the script really disappoints. As much as Cameron goes for the easy with his plot, he also goes for the single-dimension character.

Let's take the bad guy. Evil Marine wants to kick Na'vi ass from the minute you see him. You know that no matter what Worthington does to negotiate a settlement, Evil Marine is gonna break that treaty. In fact, this would have at least made for a more interesting plot. Can someone tell me why this guy is so unhinged? Because something scratched his head? At least give us some backstory on this guy. Maybe a Na'vi warrior gave him those scars, and Evil Marine wants a little payback. That at least makes this guy two-dimensional. See, James, without a clear motivation, the villain is just a cartoon. I knew what this guy was going to do at every step. That means there's no tension.

Giovanni Ribisi's character, the Corporate Douche, is similarly one-dimensional. (I didn't even bother learning these character's names; they were all stereotypes). There was a moment where you got the sense that this guy was conflicted about what he was doing. Let's see how we can make this guy interesting.... He doesn't want to exterminate the Na'vi for the shareholders back home, because he knows it's his ass going to the gallows when the folks at home learn about it; he makes an impassioned speech via video screen, but his corporate masters tell him to do it anyway. Now, at least you get a sense that he has some feelings. Maybe you even see him as a flawed corporate stooge. Cameron should have just given him a handlebar moustache to twirl...

The Gorillas in the Mist character was also your stock scientist from central casting. She resents Worthington because he's a jarhead. Okay. That's enough characterisation for you, audience. We gotta get back to showing you great CGI. It would have been much more interesting if they went the Gorillas in the Mist route, with her and the others finding a way to make peace, only to be thwarted by unhinged Evil Marine. There was that other scientist dude who seemed really pissed that Worthington is taken in by the Na'vi; I thought he was going to sabotage Worthington's efforts out of jealousy. There was even a scene with nasty, resentful looks being flung around. THAT would have been an interesting plot! The scientists don't want Worthington to steal their thunder, and they actively try to undercut him; it's not the enemy outside, but the enemy within! Oh wait, no. Everyone's on board now, helping Sully out. Time for more 3D...

For all the time Cameron lavished on the digital crap, he could have taken a half hour from it to spend on characterisation.

To summarize: Rather than give us interesting characters, with, you know, real motivations and shit, we got cartoons. And instead of giving us a plot with depth and nuance (and an occasional surprise), we got a hackneyed script right out of Sci-Fi writing 101. But man! Were those special effects neat! Now, if someone can tell me why I give a shit about CGI giant blue aliens and their magical floating rock, I'd appreciate it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Christmas Special

I was watching Lord of the Rings again a few days ago, and I came up with what I think is a great, holiday-themed short movie. I wish I had the resources to film it, but here it is, in a nutshell.

Jolly old Saint Nick sits in his study. He smokes a pipe while consulting lists of naughty and nice kids. There's a knock at the door.

SANTA: Come in.

ELF: Santa, we're having a problem with the replacements.

Note, this elf is like Hermie, short, pointy ears, wearing red-and-white striped stockings. The classic image of Santa's elves.

SANTA: Replacements?

HERMIE: Yes, sir. You remember, we had to replace our usual work force. Everyone came down with Swine flu a few weeks ago -- prime toy-making season -- and we were falling behind. And you insisted on elves....


HERMIE (apologetic): Well, they're not our sort of... elf, sir. If you take my meaning. They're a bit, well, dodgy.

SANTA (annoyed): What do you mean? They're not working well? They came highly recommended....

HERMIE: Perhaps you should take a look....

SANTA and HERMIE exit the office and walk down a long, ginger-bread-like hallway. Past pillars of giant candy canes festooned with holly garlands, and portraits framed by wreaths. It's all very Christmasy. ELF opens a door to what sounds like a busy workshop.


We can see long work benches, with workers toiling away. Just under the sounds of hammering and sawing, we can hear etherial music.

SANTA: What's the problem? All I see are elves, working.

HERMIE: Just a moment, sir. I'll show you. You there... What's your name? Elbereth, isn't it? Come over here and show Santa what you're making.

A tall, willowy elf stands from his bench. He's dressed in gauzy, shimmering robes. His long, flowing blonde hair cascades past his shoulders. We walks, slowly, purposefully, towards Saint Nick.

HERMIE: Well, get on with it, show Santa what you're making for....

ELBERETH: Timmy Johnson.

HERMIE: Timmy Johnson.

ELBERETH produces a ring of incredible delicacy and beauty. He presents it to Santa.

SANTA (Looking at HERMIE): What is it?

ELBERETH: I call it the Ring of Dreadful Retribution, Alambion in the Old Tongue.

SANTA (Looking confused): What's it do?

ELBERETH: It shoots balls of fire.

SANTA (really confused): Balls... of... fire...

HERMIE: Go back to work Elbereth.

ELBERETH leaves.

HERMIE: You there, what's your name?

ELF: I am known as Gloriandra.

GLORIANDRA is also an elf of towering beauty, dressed in Middle Earth's finest.

HERMIE: So, what are you making?

Gloriandra whips up a sword wrapped in the folds of his robe and presents it with both hands to Santa.

GLORIANDRA: It is a sword that can never dull, never break. It shall remain whole until the unmaking of the world. It shall sever the hand of the Sorcerer King of Tol Amun, thus freeing the peoples from his evil, as forespoken by Galadriel. It also glows blue when orcs are about.

SANTA (dubious): Right. And who's this for?

GLORIANDRA: Betsy Williams. She's been an especially good girl, I'm told. Also, she's going to slay a dragon with this sword, according to the scrying pool....

HERMIE: See? These elves don't seem.... Well, sir, they don't seem to have the "Christmas" spirit at heart....

SANTA: Hermie? Where are the Chrismas songs? I don't hear any Deck the Halls or Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer. (And you know how much he loves that song...)

HERMIE: I was coming to that.

SANTA: What is that they're singing?!

GLORIANDRA: It is a lament for the death of Obereth at the hands of Melkath the Unwise during the Final Battle of Four Realms.

HERMIE: See what I mean?

SANTA is dumb founded.

HERMIE: At last count, these elves...

GLORIANDRA: We prefer to call ourselves Silvenni.

HERMIE: ...Silvenni have made 142 magic rings, 347 enchanted cloaks, 233 ensorcelled daggers, 712 magic swords, 14 charmed mirrors, 3,488 cursed belts...

GLORIANDRA: We felt those would be more effective than coal.

HERMIE: ...482 magic hats, 1,015 suits of enchanted armor, and an assortment of what these "elves" call Artifacts of Power.

GLORIANDRA: Ah, those will be the "must have" presents of the season. We are particularly proud of the Starstone...

SANTA: Enough (shaking his head).

SANTA sits down heavily in a nearby chair.

SANTA: Let me get this straight. You want me to hand out, to the children of the world, a bunch of magic swords, knives, cloaks, armor, and assorted enchanted what-have-you. To children.

GLORIANDRA: We believe the blood of Numinor is all but spent. We hope that by gifting the children of Earth with our magic, they'll be prepared for the coming battle with Ultimate Evil, and...

SANTA: Enough!

Everyone in the workshop stops working. The singing ends.

SANTA: Look. Do you think you guys could make some toys? You know: dolls, rocking horses, train sets, sleds, baseball bats and gloves... Toys.

GLORIANDRA: Can the toys be magical? The glove idea sounds particularly interesting, though we do not know what "baseball" is...

SANTA: No. No magic. Ordinary, every day, non-magical TOYS!

The elves in the room look at each other, back and forth, confused. They begin to murmer to each other.

SANTA: Perhaps it's time we get us some Chinese, Hermie....


Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Obama Administration R.I.P.

The stimulus package. Health care reform. The climate agreement. Heck, the Olympics. At this point, I'm ready to call the Obama adminstration officially over. Not in a technical, legal sense -- we've got three more years -- but in the sense of relevance. After sweeping in on a tide of hope and good feeling, President Obama's performance has been underwhelming. I didn't think it possible to combine the sweeping oratory of Kennedy with the achievements of Ford (at least we haven't reach Carter levels. Yet). By that I mean, he's a man with so much promise, who just can't seem to get anything done.

My first, and most troubling, proof is the most recent climate meeting in Copenhagen. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao snubbed Obama in the morning. He simply decided he'd rather go shopping, or sleep in, than meet with the leader of the free world. Then, while the Chinese were meeting with Brazil and India, Obama had to push his way into the room, petulantly yelling "are you ready to see me?". There wasn't even a chair for Mr. Obama to sit in.

Internalize this for a moment. I'll wait. Ready? The Chinese see us as irrelevant. They are ignoring us, as if we were Uruguay. We are allegedly the most powerful, productive nation in the world. And at least one world leader see our leader as... superfluous. What happens when every other leader in the world sees it China's way? The world has learned they can roll us. (Also, let's not forget China holds a trillion dollar's worth of our debt. It's not a good thing when your creditors have no respect for you).

I don't care that Obama came away empty handed with an agreement on climate change. Much as he did when he went to Copenhagen for the Olympics. But when you put the power and prestige of the office on the line, by attending what is supposed to be high level meetings to finalize a world-wide agreement, you'd better make sure 1) you have an agreement and 2) it's going to be signed.

Second, let's look at the health care debacle. Yes, I know. You want to blame Big Pharma and the insurance companies and Joe Lieberman. And you'd be partially right. Ultimately, however, this is a failure of leadership. When the White House puts its full weight behind legislation, it normally has had a hand in drafting the legislation itself. If you want a crime bill, if that's your issue, you draft the bill yourself and send it to Congress. All Obama has done is create a laundry list of desires, and told the Congress to draft the legislation. He did the same thing with the stimulus package.

What's the old joke? What is an elephant? A mouse designed by committee. When Bill Clinton wanted health care reform, he had it drafted in the White House and sent to the Hill. (I'm also tired of the meme that we haven't had a serious attempt at health care reform in 50 years. What the hell was 1994? Not serious? Tell that to Hillary.) What did Obama expect? What he got was thousands of pages of competing bills that no one's read. He got the death of a thousand cuts. He's got a bill that no one on the Right or the Left wants or likes, for their own partisan reasons.

You can't just make high-minded speeches. You have to craft legislation. It's almost as if Obama is scared to write a bill, which is something the President can do. Didn't he watch Scholastic Rock when he was a kid? Even I can send a bill to the Congress. Maybe he just doesn't have the experience with crafting legislation? Or maybe he wasn't in the Senate long enough to understand how it works. He should have had someone in the White House write up a bill that included exactly what Obama wanted, then make the House and Senate vote for it up or down. Or at least use it as a starting point for horse trading. But you don't let Congress actually craft your legislation for a mouse, because you're gonna get an elephant.

The stimulus package was supposed to be targeted and timely. It was supposed to go to "shovel ready" infrastructure upgrades. It went instead to turtle tunnels and theater companies. It has stimulated nothing. Again, because Congress basically wrote a giant list of earmarks, called it "stimulus" and went home. Obama is completely ineffective at getting legislation passed.

Therefore, because of his combination of ineffectiveness on the Hill and irrelevance on the world stage, I'm ready to say the Obama administration is effectively done.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Love Facebook (Sarcasm Edition)

I love Facebook. Many of you, my long-time, loyal readers (all four of you, apparently), already know this. From my obsessive commenting on my friends most trivial status updates to my posting cute pictures of kitties, I'm pretty much on Facebook all the time. See, I work in a restaurant whose business plan was apparently concocted by a Fred Flintstone, and we never have any business. (For example, we don't have business cards, even though every customer who comes in asks for one, so they could presumably remember the place or recommend it to their friends. But the owner doesn't want to spend the money on them. Ditto take out menus, which cost a penny a piece). So I stand behind the bar, with this convenient outlet and free internet connection, and nothing to do.

Now, even though I love Facebook, I find some of the things it does to be really annoying. Fingernails on a chalkboard kind of annoying. For example, Facebook has this section of "suggestions." Now, if these were really helpful suggestions, it would be telling me how to pick up hot women in bars, or recommending stock picks. Instead, it does things like this:

* "Lucille Willard has only 9 friends. Suggest friends for her." Well, FB, I would. But she's my mother. She only has 9 friends because she's 65-years old, and we're lucky she's even on the internet. For years she avoided computers because she wasn't sure where to insert the crank to power it up. If there were no eBay, I'm sure she wouldn't even bother with computers. So the number of people with whom she could be friends (i.e., proto-senior citizens not scared of computers) is already quite small. And besides, I don't think she'd like to be friends with any of my friends, unless she wants to be bombarded with hip cultural references to zombies, Halo 3, and Taylor Momsen, none of which she'd understand. (Nor do I think my friends want to be bombarded by her motherly nagging, which is apparently (based on her messages to me) the only thing she's capable of.)

* "Green Ronin Publishing. Say hello; write on their wall." Yeah, FB, I would love to. Unfortunately, GRP is a business. A company. It's not a persona. First, I don't think GRP gives a flying 20-sided die whether or not they hear from me. Second, I don't think anyone over there is sitting around, pining over the fact they haven't heard from me in awhile (which would mean, actually, never). Apparently, the programmers over at FB (motto: will program for curry) never took into account that not only people sign up to their service, but also businesses, who use it to communicate with their fans. Were I to write something on GRP's wall, it would be something along the lines of "can I have work?" and "can I have free games?"

* "[insert name]. Reconnect. Say hello." Hello person I friended after casually meeting them in a bar (typically female, always hot). Howdy friend from high school I haven't seen in 20 years, and only friended out of curiosity. Hola acquaintance who turns out to me a major douchebag who peppers me with ads for his business, a service I neither want nor need. Bonjour friend who pissed me off by borrowing money and never paying it back, meanwhile buying a new cell phone and TV. See, FB, there are people on my friend list that are not, in the strictest sense of the word, my friend. Maybe I'm too lazy to de-friend them; maybe I fear the karmic backlash that would no doubt result from hurting their feelings (I hear this is why Gandhi was shot). Perhaps the individual in question stopped logging into Facebook (I know, this is hard to believe), and hasn't responded in awhile, so I stopped trying. If I haven't interacted with a "friend" in awhile, FB, there may be a reason. It might be better if you just dropped it.

* "[insert name]. XX mutual friends. Add as a friend." I don't care that 36 of my friends are also friends with this person. I may be the only one in the group who always thought so-and-so was a douche. Maybe he slept with my girlfriend at a frat party. Maybe I still owe him money. Let's just say, if we're not friends already, we're not going to be. Tell you what: I'll search for the people with whom I want to be friends, and you can spend more time and energy recommending MILF-dating or chubbie-dating websites (you seem good at that already, and I say stick to your strengths).

*Facebook Chat. Sometimes, on especially boring nights, I like to chat with my friends. I find this a convenient way to interact with friends who may be far from me, geographically speaking. Or who have stopped taking my calls, for various reasons. And by "various reasons" I mean "drunk calling." So it would be handy, some might even say useful, if your chat service were a bit more reliable than opening the window and shouting. I've had fewer problems with two tin cans and string.

* Notifications. Hey Facebook! It's very nice that you inform me whenever someone comments on something I've posted to the site, or comments to a thread I'm following. Thank you for telling me I have new Zoosk matches, can get $10 off a spa day, or that I can now find out what Christmas song I am (that last one is really crucial, FB. FYI, it would be the Hannukah Song, by Adam Sandler). But it would be extra special nice with a cherry on top if you could keep it straight. For the last few days, I've had 42 notifications. The same damn 42 notifications, no matter what I do. I have notifications from last week appearing as though they were sent two minutes ago. It's irritating to click on a notification, thinking it's to something current, only to find out it was from last month. It's called "clearing the cache", which I'm not sure you've heard of FB. You may want to check it out.

That's really about it. I know most of these gripes are petty. I realize I'm criticizing a website for which I do not pay. Moreover, I understand that many of these issues result from lowest common denominator programming issues. Facebook doesn't know about the douchebag from Idaho, or my laziness to delete him and his obnoxious comments. It doesn't know Green Ronin or Zombie Planet aren't people. But then again, if I didn't bitch about it, I'd have nothing to write.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hating on Avatar (Pre-release Edition)

We are a week away from the release of James Cameron's Avatar. The trailers for this movie pretty much play my psyche like a xylophone, so I can't wait to see it. Cameron's given us The Abyss, Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic (which to my mind would have been much better if aliens and terminators were in it), so I think expectations are pretty high. After all, the dude hasn't made a movie in ten years.

The marketing for this movie is as unescapable as coverage of Tiger Wood's harem. We pretty much keep ESPN on the TV all day long where I work, and I see a commercial for this movie once every half hour. Because sports fans are the target demographic for a sci-fi movie. I see ads for Avatar on almost every website I visit, too. Though admittedly, I visit a lot of nerd-oriented websites, so I shouldn't be surprised. It's the ones on the porn websites that I find a little disturbing.

The problem with this is the way the film's being marketed. So far, we've learned that it's James Cameron's first movie since Titanic, that it's got incredible CGI, and it's got Sigorney Weaver in it. But about the plot, I'm a bit fuzzy. As near as I can tell, it's about giant stompy robots beating up on blue Indians (sorry, Native Americans) and taking their land, which floats. Oh, and there's dragons in it. And Sigorney Weaver. There may or may not be a buffalo hunt; I'm unclear on the point. I'm hoping someone has a sick sense of humor, and cast Kevin Costner in a cameo role.

Since we've perfected our giant, stompy robot CGI technology, can we please remake Starship Troopers the way it was supposed to be made? That would be more giant, stompy robots, less rumination on the nature of violence. Honestly, it's like the director read the novel, completely missed the point, and made the movie anyway. How else to explain a movie about guys in battle-suits with exactly zero battle-suits? (Oh, and apparently, in the future, the space marines completely forget how to do things militarily, like set up a perimeter or establish a fire base). And now I'm harshing on the wrong movie....

I really wish Cameron had come up with a different name for his movie. Whenever I hear it, I think of the Japanese anime Avatar, the Last Airbender. Now I haven't seen this particular anime yet, mostly because I don't know what "airbending" is, and it doesn't appear to have quite the level of alien tentacle rape I usually demand. I don't know what "airbending" has to do with huge, blue cat aliens, either.

On the subject of the cat aliens, I'm a little creeped out by this, too. Unbeknownst to a large number of you out there, cat aliens appeal to a tiny, very disturbed segment of science fiction fandom. Unfortunately, I became acquainted with this through my involvement with Star Trek. The animated series featured a female cat alien. Almost once every few months, I'd get a disturbing e-mail asking me when we would provide more information on these aliens. And by "disturbing," I mean the letter would eventually turn to sex with the cat aliens. I was actually attending a Star Trek convention (purely for work purposes) when some guy brought the Q&A to a screeching halt with a question about how a human and one of these (again, animated) cat aliens might mate. As near as I can tell, cat aliens combine the worst of the fuzzie community with the worst of the sci-fi world. I hope Cameron likes being stalked by creepy fat guys in Avatar t-shirts and tape on their glasses, all hoping he's got a blue cat alien locked in his basement....

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Surge Edition

I've had time to digest the President's speech at West Point yesterday. All in all, it was the kind of eloquent speech we've come to expect from Mr. Obama. And I don't mean that as a knock against him. It's nice to have a President who can not only form a sentence, but create a mood. Pundits are already staking out claims; I've come not to bury Mr. Obama, but to evaluate what he said strategically. Some thoughts:

The Bush Playbook: I'm disturbed and elated by what appears to me to be a page out of the Bush playbook. I'm elated, because Obama clearly looked at what worked, and tried to copy it for Afganistan. I'm disturbed because he doesn't apparently understand how or why the Iraq Surge worked.

A) The Bush Surge similarly targeted the cities and most troubled districts of Iraq. Military forces occupied buildings in dangerous areas and stayed (rather than the usual shoot-and-scoot), which signaled to the residents that we were there to stay. But this was accompanied by an overwhelming popular disgust with al-Qaida in Iraq, and a massive defection by the Sunnis (amazing what cutting off people's fingers just for smoking will do). This is not the case in Afghanistan; sending troops to secure population centers will only result in a bunker mentality and the appearance of protecting the Karzai government.

B) The Bush Surge also included a contingent of trainers meant to "stand up" the Iraqi army. Yet by the time of the Iraq surge, the Iraqi army already had a firm core of units who could be relied upon to show up to battle; they also had a strong military tradition, which became more pronounced as we relaxed "anti-Ba'ath" restrictions. Afganistan's forces, even after eight years, are pitifully small and unreliable; the country has lacked a credible central government for so long I doubt anyone even remembers a central army. Eighteen months more of training isn't going to change this.

C) The Bush Surge included a date certain for withdrawal. This was also meant to sharpen the Maliki government's attention on settling internal political differences. However, the Status of Forces agreement was with the Iraqi government; it was negotiated with the Iraqi Parliament. They basically asked us to leave by that date, because they felt they would be ready to stand on their own two feet by then. They were doing what Cortez did when he got to the New World. The situation is much different in Afganistan. We are, basically, telling them we're leaving, end of discussion.

Thus, on the face of it, Obama's plan for Afganistan mirrors Bush's plan for Iraq (eerie, isn't it?); it contains all the hallmarks of the previous surge (fortify the cities, train the army, get out by date certain), with none of the understanding for why the previous effort worked.

Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma'am: Others have already noted that it was, at best, confusing and, at worst, moronic for President Obama to announce a departure date of July 2011 for our troops. Republican pundits have already spilled gallons of ink on the latter position. By laying out a date certain for withdrawal, critics claim, Obama has only emboldened the Taliban to wait us out. I'm not sure that's Obama's position.

What he said in the speech is that U.S. forces will begin to withdraw in 2011, depending on conditions on the ground. It's a neat parsing. What he's done is signal Afganistan's elites that they do not have a blank check, that there must be progress in their governance. This, however, may not be the cudgel the President hopes. If they successfully combat corruption and field a real army, the U.S. military leaves; if Karzai et. al. fail to get their house in order, the U.S. stays, presumably continuing to prop up and protect them (allowing them to steal more). And if Obama decides that enough is enough and cuts them loose no matter what, they've had an additional 18 months to pillage and embezzle, and shop for real estate in the French Rivera. Rather than getting the Afganis to "stand up" Obama may have just infantilzed the Karzai government.

I'm troubled, also, by the date. 2011 is campaign time. It's all too tempting to declare victory and withdraw (in which case, the "conditions on the ground" may mean the ground in New Hampshire and Iowa). Even if Obama is being sincere in his desire to prosecute the war effectively, the pressure from his far-left, ACORN/ACT UP wing may be too much for him to resist.

The Wrong 'Stan: In the speech, Obama clearly makes a link between Afganistan and Pakistan. My gut tells me this is going to end being the cassus belli for widening the war. That's not a bad thing. First, Pakistan's security forces (the Inter-services Intelligence or ISI) created the Taliban, and have been reluctant to turn them over. They "prune the hedge" so to speak, by killing or capturing (or allowing us to kill or capture) some Taliban, to keep the aid checks coming in. In certain measures, our financial aid to Pakistan has been as much a bribe to keep the Taliban leashed as it is a reward for their continued assistance. Hillary Clinton got it right: Someone in the Pakistan government knows exactly where Osama is hiding. But why turn him over, and slay the goose that lays the golden foreign aid check?

(And I suspect the big scandal coming out in the next few years is a review that shows some of our money went directly to the Taliban through the ISI. You thought "Oil-for-Food" was bad...)

Second, if the Pakistanis were half as interested in battling the Taliban (who also pose a threat to their own government. See: Swat Valley) as they were in India, they'd move more forces out of the disputed Kashmir region and into disputed Pakistan. Let me state that again: The Pakistanis are more interested in their conflict with India -- a peaceful, stable, representative democracy -- than in fighting the militant fundamentalists running around their backyard. Let's recall the Mumbai massacre was carried out by Lashkar-e-Tayyba, who were created by al-Qaida and nurtured by the ISI; this was nothing more than a direct attack on India through proxy forces. Have we mentioned the nuclear weapons in Pakistan's arsenal, just a stone's throw, literally, from people who want to turn back the clock to the fourteeth century?

If our scampering across the Af-Pak border to chase terrorists becomes a wedge for taking on the two-faced cleptocrats in Pakistan, I'm all for it.

Our Ace in the Hole: All this leads to our ace in the hole, India. Ignoring for the time being the spectacle of the Salahis crashing the party, it wasn't a coincidence that the Indian Prime Minister came for Obama's first state dinner right before the President's key address on the conflict in Afganistan. India is an important lever in this conflict, one we're resistant to use. First, India is a stable democracy with its own Islamic terrorist problem. Second, they possess a counter-weight to Pakistan's nuclear bomb with one of their own. Third, they have historically been heavily involved with the Northern Alliance in Afganistan, and provide a significant amount of reconstruction aid. Fourth, they have an extensive covert presence in the region (spying on the aforementioned terrorists), as well as experience in the lay of the land. The only reason the Indians haven't been more involved in the War on Terror is we've asked them to stay out, for fear of angering the Pakistanis. But if we're going to move against the Pakis anyway...

It would not be difficult for us to leave the region, with the Indians providing both a watchful eye and a military presence. Let them fill the vacuum when we leave. (Even better if we can leverage this with the Pakistanis, by threatening to throw all our support behind India, and making them de facto hegemons in the region, unless the Pakis clean up their act).

Friday, November 20, 2009

B&N = Fail

Today, I went shopped at Barnes & Noble. Nowadays, brick and mortar bookstores are pretty thin on the ground. Borders only has two locations in the city that I know about. There's the world-famous Strand, but they only do used books (and is a bitch to navigate). There are a few mom-and-pop booksellers. So when I want a book, my option is pretty much B&N. This isn't so bad, because they usually have a good selection of books. It's at the checkout that B&N fails. And fails big.

It's the book club. "Would you like to join the book club? You save 10 percent on every purchase," the clerk helpfully offers. Sounds good. "It's $25 a year," he adds. You can hear the tires squeal at that point. No dude, I don't want to spend $25 for your club. Let me count the ways.

First, if I'm going to spend $25 of my hard-earned cash, I would prefer to buy a pile of books. Spending $25 in order to save a buck fifty on my purchase just seems counter-intuitive. Even if I end up spending thousands of dollars, and saving hundreds, over the course of the year, I'm just annoyed that I have to pay for the priviledge.

Second, in this day and age, it just seems silly to pay for this service. I can go to Amazon and get books at a ridiculous discount. If you're competing with a web retailer, which B&N essentially is, it doesn't make much sense to charge for a discount I can get for free automatically. Admittedly, B&N has costs Amazon doesn't -- the aforementioned brick and mortar locations. Okay. I'll accept this...

...Until I realize that the drug store chain CVS gave my this nifty red card that offers me a discount on my purchases. Cost to me? Zero. Hmmm. That must be an anomaly.... No, wait; Best Buy also gave me a nifty blue card that gives me a discount, also at zero cost to me. Now, again admittedly, the way these cards work is that I get a discount (or coupons) based on how many times I use the card. Which is every time I go to these stores. Certainly, B&N could switch to this kind of model.

The best deal was Virgin Megastores. They gave me this silver card that saved me money every time I shopped. In fact, I would ONLY shop at the Virgin Megastore for DVDs, video games, and music. I loved that place. Some days, the little coupon printer would chatter out discount after discount after discount. I bought my Xbox 360 there, and with their VIP program I basically got a free game out of the deal. It's a wonder, and a shame, that they went out of business. Because that place was always packed.

So it's not like B&N has to go with the whole "charge for a discount" model. In fact, given the competition and existing alternate discount programs, the Barnes & Noble membership card sucks. It smacks of corporate stupid-headedness (oh, and greed). Just give me the stupid card, already.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Star Trek

I've been a fan of Star Trek since I was old enough to watch TV. I was basically only allowed to watch Sesame Street and Star Trek. I, in my childish mind, thought what I was watching was in some sense real, that there was a Starfleet. After all, the news was showing me Vietnam and Nixon, and those were real. I wanted to grow up and join Starfleet. Imagine my disappointment (which may have actually been worse than learning about Santa Claus, since I was Jewish).

I remember when Christian Moore, the President of Last Unicorn Games bemoaned the fact that he couldn't find a Star Trek expert to hire. I remember staring blankly at the phone for a second before saying "are you fucking kidding me?!" It was my dream job, because not only did I get all the toys sent to me for free, I also got to visit the sets from time to time. Then there was that time we were invited to a private Star Trek party, only to discover we were the only guests there not affiliated with the shows; only the "big three" (Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelly) were not in attendance. But I digress.

Thus, it was with great joy that I ran out to buy the newest movie on DVD. I come to praise Star Trek, not bury it. There is so much to love about this movie, I'm willing to forgive its shortcomings (of which there are more than a few, I'll admit). And I'm not going to talk about vague generalities (it captured the classic Trek feel) or the casting (we all know Quinto and Urban were awesome). I'm going to list the things to which I twigged, that made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up:

1) The sound effects. Pike or Kirk push a button on the captain's chair, and it makes the same sound it did on the original TV show. The background noise on the bridge, all the pinging and booping, was also accurate. I felt like I was home again. The communicators also chirped when opened, again with the original sound effect.

2) The tribble. On Scotty's desk on Delta Vega, there's a round cage with a fur ball in it. It's a tribble. And it trills properly, too. Abrams just passes by it. He doesn't say "hey look, Trekkers, it's a tribble!" with his shot. Kudos also for giving it to Mr. Scott (who beams the little buggers away in the original episode). If only they'd put it in Uhura's dorm room, instead!

3) The beauty shots. Let's face it, the Enterprise is an iconic spaceship. It is a character in its own right. They make sure to show it in at least three beautiful scenes (Abrams admits to enjoying the beauty shot from the first movie). Whenever I saw the Enterprise, I whooped with joy.

4) The Klingons. Now we're getting into deleted scenes. Too bad they were, because they really show off the Abram's team's knowledge of Trek. The Klingons capture Nero and send him to Rura Penthe (point for getting the Klingon prison planet right). All the Klingons wear helmets, neatly side-stepping the whole "do Klingons have head bumps" question. If they ever do a Klingon movie, I'd suck Abram's cock if he went back to the non-bumpy, Mongolian-looking Klingons.

5) Kirk's brother. Also among the deleted scenes. Kirk has an older brother. He's the kid young Kirk passes by when he steals the car. This is canon. Kirk had a brother. He died in the episode with the giant, flying, killer amoebas.

6) The uniforms. The movie starts with everyone on the Kelvin wearing the blue jumpsuits of "Enterprise." But then we get back to the good old gold, blue, and red shirts. With the different department arrows, I'll note (stars for command, two interlocking circles for science, crook for the red shirts). That's what really got to me -- those arrowheads.

7) Green blood. Spock's got a split lip. He's bleeding green. Romulan guard gets stabbed. He's bleeding green. Not chartruse. Not red. Green. (I know it's not a big deal, but given Hollywood's proclivity to put its fingerprints all over everything, they might have at least messed up on the Romulans.)

8) Not a single fucking mention of the Prime Directive, that element that always seems to bring the plot to a screeching bore.

The devil is in the details, they say. Star Trek succeeds for me as a movie because this crew (Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman, et al) get the little things right. They could have said "screw it" or "this is our version Trek, so we'll do what we want." But they didn't. They gave me back the Enterprise I knew from my childhood.

Now, where's the nearest Starfleet recruiting station?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Facebook Dating

As many of you know, I'm on Facebook. A lot. At this time of year, with only one table all night long, there's nothing really to do but keep Facebook open while I putter around on the web. And you can already tell this is going to be a Facebook rant.

Facebook is free because they advertise to us. They make their money from advertisers (right now, you're saying "duh!"). What's great about this is that, unlike Google, which selects its ads based on your search terms (one wonders what ads you'd get if you searched for "hot lesbian dwarves"), Facebook pulls its ads from your profile. Do you live in New York City? Then you get ads from city-based businesses. I'm glad to learn I can get my teeth cleaned for only $10, Facebook, now what are you trying to tell me?

I'm single. So I get a lot of banner ads for dating services. At first, they were fairly innocuous. Typically mainstream sites like and But as time goes on, I've noticed them becoming progressively, well... skeezy. First came the site offering to hook me up with single women with children. MILFs. Moms I'd like to fuck. Okay, thanks Facebook. Not questionable at all. Then there were the sites for Asian dating. Again, thanks Facebook, for indulging me in my yellow fever and penchant for bukkake. Today, I got an ad for plus-sized women. I think you can write your own joke here, folks. (Mine is, I'm not into jumbo loving, Facebook.)

It's as though Facebook will continue progressively going down the list of kink until it finds a site that appeals to me. What's next? Necrophilia dating? Foot fetish dating? Scheize dating? Facebook seems relentlessly interested in my social life, and just will not be happy until I find a dating site to my liking.

It's not like I'm a science fiction fan (sorry, no sci-fi dating, though I know of at least one such site. Let's just say I was horrified, and move on). So don't send me ads for science fiction movies or comic book stores, Facebook. I'm also not a fan of Jameson and Heineken, so don't you dare send me ads for local bars. I don't want ads for books, either. Nope, Facebook, keep on bombarding me with ads for dating services.

Because I don't feel like a pathetic dateless loser already. But thanks for trying to hook me up. Now can I get that ad for lesbian dwarves?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mojito Hell

I'm a bartender, and as we all know, it's my job to make drinks. It's my raison d'etre, as it were (and I know my mom is so proud that I'm putting my $100,000 higher education to such good use). One of the drinks I'm asked to make repeatedly is the mojito. I make hundreds of them. Because, you see, we have a $5 mojito drink special.

Do you know what a pain in the ass it is to make this drink? Pick mint. Add sugar. Pour rum, lime juice, and triple sec. Muddle. Add soda. Garnish with lime. And I get to do this all for a $5 drink.

Mojito Hell begins at three o'clock and ends at seven. It's as though someone flicks a switch, and I suddenly find myself muddling, muddling, muddling. My forearm is getting huge (and not just from the masterbation). Then, just as suddenly, it stops. Everyone wants their mojitos for five bucks, but God forbid they have to spend $6.50 (which is the regular price).

I've had customers change their drink order to soda at the magic hour. I've had some beg me to give them their mojitos after 7 pm at the reduced price. (I can't do this, because the computer automatically switches the price at the appointed time. So stop asking.) When you come into the bar and order your mojito, all you're doing is announcing that you're cheap. I imagine the folks behind the counter at MacDonalds feel the same way about people ordering off the dollar menu ("Oooh, you have a whole dollar... Don't forget the tax.").

Now I understand why people are doing this. It's the recession (depression?), and people don't have money. I get why people want (need?) to get drunk on the cheap. But really, if you're so desperate to drink, and don't have the money, let me offer some alternatives.

Go buy a 40 ounce bottle of Colt 45 and drink it in the park. Get a cheap bottle of vodka and drink it in your home. Be really edgy and drink a bottle of shoe polish (like the homeless do). You could get a bottle of Nyquil and enjoy some hallucinations with your drunk. (Wait, Nyquil is actually more expensive than our mojitos. Never mind.) Just stop coming in here and making me mix this annoying, complicated drink. Because my right forearm is doing just fine on its own, thank you very much.

Friday, November 6, 2009


I love douchebags. They're always so much fun. For example:

1) I'm standing in like behind this douchebag at the corner bodega. He's got all the hallmarks of douchey-ness. Spikey mohawk? Check. Barbed wire bicep tat? Check. Too-tight t-shirt to show off his pectoral superiority? Double-check. He's in line to buy gel for his spike-tastic do, but the hair products are kept behind the counter. Bless her, the woman behind the counter is being patient with him, as he keeps asking her to take stuff down off the shelf, then put it back. "I'm sorry," he says, "I forgot my glasses." (Bonus douche points: He pays is $2.72 bill with a $100).

2) These two douche-tards from Ireland walk into the restaurant to eat. I always thought douche-ness was limited to the good 'ole U.S. of A. Now the restaurant is completely empty, except for this table of two women, so, of course, they demand to sit down right next to them. Then, they buy the girls a bottle wine. The women are polite, and gladly down that bottle of wine. But when it's time to go, they say "thanks" and "see ya!" Which pisses off douche #2. I guess they figured New York girls are easy (and not the man-eaters that they really are), and douche #1 had talked douche #2 to spend some of their precious coin on the women. Now that the deal was definitely not sealed, douche #2 had buyer's remorse, and blamed his buddy. They almost came to blows right here at the bar.

I wasn't going to serve them because a) they were drunk and b) they were belligerent. But it was fun watching them push and shove each other. I was hoping they'd come to blows, because I wanted to show them Rikers as part of their glorious vacation package.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Time for a Change

The more I write on this blog, the more it becomes apparent that I need a second blog. Some of you come here to read my wry, witty comments about life. But increasingly, I am only blogging about my nacent game company, Studio Manta. In order to keep both separate, I'm creating a second blog only for Studio Manta material. From now on, this site will return to pithy commentary on life's irony.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

What's It About?

I was in the roleplaying design business for seven years, and I've seen a lot of games come and go. Some have gone because, despite their interesting premises and innovative mechanics, they simply did not capture the buying public's imagination. Others couldn't get traction at the retail level. Still more lacked proper capitalization, and disappeared along with their publishers in a cloud of debt. One of the worst ways for a game to go, however, is poor execution (and I'm not talking about the rules, or bad cover design). I've seen quite a few games violate a simple principle: In order to be successful, a game has to be about something.

I remember wandering the halls of GenCon, looking for something refreshing and new. Eager, enthusastic game designers, upon seeing my exhibitor badge, would want me to take a look at their new, innovative game. They'd tell me how cool their setting was, or how it had a great new mechanic. Then, things would turn ugly, fast. "So what's your game about?" I'd ask. Sometimes, I'd get blank stares. Other times, I'd get answers like "it has derrigibles," or "it's about demons," or some other setting element they thought I should instantly get as being super cool.

"No, what is it about?" What or who do I play? What do I do? I'm a galactic knight defending the universe from other-dimensional aliens. I'm a fighter, descending into dungeons, killing the monsters and taking their stuff. I'm an intrepid investigator investigating Things From Beyond. In other words, what is the central idea behind the game? I can't tell you how many times I haven't gotten a satisfying answer to this question. And the game later fails.

I say this is one of the worst ways for a game to go because if the designer had taken the time to try and answer these questions (Who are you and what do you do?) they may have never wasted the time, effort and money to produce a dud. Or maybe they would have sharpened their ideas in order to produce a winner. Instead, the game arrives stillborn. That's sad.

Why are these questions important? For the consumer, it gives him or her an idea of the setting. It tells them what they'll be doing, while they sit around the kitchen table with their friends. It gives them a hook upon which to hang their imaginations. For the writer/designer, it provides a lighthouse on the horizon, a destination; anything that doesn't support the central idea can be cut out, those elements that do can be sharpened.

I'm not certain why some designers fail to take this into consideration. Yes, I'm sure playing demons is fun. What do I do as one? Yes, Victorian-era airships are cool. What do I play? If you can't tell me, I'm not buying or playing. Think about it, would you play Monopoly if someone told you it was a critique of capitalism and the real estate market in New York? You play a shoe and you buy hotels as you screw over your friends. (I'm told in the Soviet version everyone played a wheelbarrow and contributed to the collective wealth of the state. Bo-ring!)

In some cases, even if the designers know, it's not always a case for success. Sometimes, the public doesn't want to play viruses intent on infecting as many people as possible. But at least, armed with this knowledge, they can make an intelligent choice.


Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about Studio Manta, and the question naturally came up "what's it about?" This question floored me, because while I've been doing a lot of thinking about the project, and been writing the rules, I hadn't actually stopped to consider this question. It's been floating around in my head, of course, but I haven't designed a setting.

This may sound odd to you. A game is about something, whether it's Monopoly or Mass Effect. So you'd think that I'd have an idea what the setting is. I generally believe this to be true: Most games start out as a setting/story (an intellectual property). Oftentimes, they're simply the designer's setting for his own private weekly game. You like Westerns, but you want your world to include the supernatural, so you grab Boot Hill and Call of Cthulhu and kludge them together. Viola! You have Deadlands. Other times, the designer has an idea in his head -- Vampires in space! Lost underwater kingdom! -- then starts to flesh out the world.

The rules come second. They have to conform to, and reflect, the setting for which they are being designed. Deadlands has that really cool playing card mechanic, because Poker features prominently in Westerns. Call of Cthulhu wouldn't be the great game it is without the Sanity rules. You get the point. And what makes my not having a setting in mind so odd is that I'm designing a game backwards.

I'm working on a ruleset first because I don't intend to market just one game. I want to have a space setting, a Western setting, a contemporary setting.... And I want them to all work off the same rules. I'm not designing a game; I'm working on number of them. This hampers a great deal of the work, because I have to leave holes in the core mechanics in which to insert the setting-specific mechanics. The rules for magic have to plug into the basic rules (or I must create those rules as I design), for example. Similarly, it's hampered my thinking about a setting (because I'm not thinking about one setting, but the possibilities of many).

It's not like I haven't thought about creating an IP, however. It's floated around in my head, but I haven't really committed it to paper (or, in this case, electrons). I know what I want to do in a vague way:

Naturally, I want it to be popular. I've seen dozens of roleplaying games come and go. They've even had interesting settings and mechanics. But I don't want to be Hong Kong Action Theater or Everway. I don't even want it to be Shadowrun. I'm looking to create something I can build upon, like Vampire: The Masquerade or even Legend of the Five Rings. Something with a large following, to whom I can eventually sell a metric ton of useless crap (hats! T-shirts! Soap!).

I also want to model it on Japanese Anime. This is for a practical reason: Games based on lone heroes don't make good games. James Bond is a terrible IP for roleplaying games. That's because everyone wants to play Bond (or someone Bond-like); no one wants to play Felix Leiter. The same goes for Dr. Who, Elric, Solomon Kane, Conan the Barbarian, or any other hero who appeals to the American sensibility. Roleplaying is a group activity, and everyone should have an opportunity to contribute, a chance to shine. The Japanese generally create stories involving groups (given its group-oriented society). The Seven Samurai, for example.

Even if the star of the show is the teenaged boy who is the only one who can pilot the alien giant robot, he has friends. And they have giant robots of their own. They often have to save the prodigy's ass, from time to time. Cowboy Bebop tells the story of four bounty hunters. Inu Yasha has his companions. There are five Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.... You get the idea. Also, since I intend the game to be highly visual, it helps to model the project on anime.

But I also want it to appeal to my sensibilities. For this, I find James Malisewski's observation on his blog quite helpful. "[m]any… pulp fantasy worlds have a strongly "autumnal" feeling to them. The best days of the world are over and "Winter" is coming. [I]t is coming and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it.” That about sums it up for me, too. I also tend towards the “post-apocalyptic” in my tastes in movies and books. Additionally, it meshes with tropes in Japanese anime, which often focus on life after a cataclysmic war (because of, you know, the whole atom bomb experience).

So it’s not as though I don’t have a set of criteria to use when designing a setting, I just don’t have a setting yet.

Friday, October 23, 2009

An Odd Snag

I spent the better part of the last day-and-a-half writing System X. As I read over what I've written, I discovered an odd problem. I can't make up my damn mind.

I appear to have written two completely different systems for calculating skill points, and two systems for hit points. Both sets of rules exist within the document on different pages, so only by re-reading did I catch my conundrum.

Skills: First, I state that skill points are a function of a character's attributes, modified by the character's profession. Later, I state that, no, actually skill points are a function of profession, with a modifier for attributes.

Hit points: I do the same thing with this rule, too. So you can read the above two sentences and just substitute "hit point" for "skill point."

The trouble, aside from completely not paying attention to what I write, is that these are two diametrically opposed approaches. It means I haven't made up my mind which is more important -- attribute or profession. Both approaches are perfectly viable. I just can't decide.

Which is more important, a person's innate abilities or their training? I'm asking that rhetorically, of course. I have to ask myself, do I want a system where the attribute provides the base value, with modifiers provided by the profession? Or do I want one where everything comes out of profession, modified by attributes? It's not a question of elegance or aesthetics. It's not even a question of which system is "better." Both calculations do the same thing, in roughly the same way.

I think, for me, it's a question of emphasis. One system places the emphasis on attributes, which means coming up with higher scores is more important. The other emphasizes profession over attribute.

Dungeons and Dragons straddles this line nicely. But I'm not sure what I'm going to do for System X.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


As I continue designing a new roleplaying game, I've come to realize that I need to establish a set of guiding principles. I need to state my vision clearly in order to realize it.

I believe that modern roleplaying games are too big: Part of this is due to economics, part of it results from an impulse towards completeness. Game companies obviously want to sell as many books as they can, in order to keep revenues flowing in. This often means a release a month, typically supplements (see below). Also, writers write, and the more they write the more they get paid; I saw this with LUG (saying something in ten words when only five would do). As for completeness, gamers demand that the publisher provide the "right" answer to their rules questions. Rather than wait for the questions to roll in (thank you Sage's Corner), it's more efficient to include rules for every situation in advance. Thus, you get 256-page phone books that weigh ten pounds. I don't have time to read all that.

I believe there are too many supplements: Again, economics. After you publish your core rulesbook, what next? The Complete Guide to Thieves. The Ventrue Splatbook. The Tome of Additional Spells. I understand it. But I was looking at one company's offerings because I was interested in the premise, and I was intimidated by the sheer number of books on the shelf. I don't have time to read all that, either.

I believe that the length and breadth of contemporary games acts as a barrier to entry.

Let's face it. We're all pressed for time these days. And we have a lot of entertainment options open to us. Let's not forget that we're dealing with adolescents with the attention span of a fly. Why are we churning out giant mega-games when what we started out with were 96-page, saddle-stitched games?

This shouldn't be construed as an attack on the hobby as it stands now. Nor is it an attack on how you all do business these days. I just think there's a simpler way. I'm just not sure how to do it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

To Skill or Not to Skill

One of the questions I've been wrestling with is a skill system, and whether or not to include one in System X. And if so, what kind of system it should be.

In the original OD&D (that's the Dungeons and Dragons before 2nd edition), there was no skill system. Certain classes had skill-like abilities, notably the Thief. (Actually, that's the only class that comes to mind.) They had a percentage chance to pick locks, disarm traps, and so on. If something resembling a skill cropped up in a game, such as successfully swimming a raging river or appraising a gem, my referee usually called for a simple attribute check. We seemed to get along fine. The game didn't seem to suffer without a skill system.

Then along came Traveller, and it had a skill system, since it didn't really have professional classes. Call of Cthulhu was the next system to include skills, since those also defined a character's profession. Ever since then, a method for defining skills and resolving their use has become integral to game design. I can't see designing a game without one. Characters would seem somehow diminished without skills.

There exist currently two kinds of skill system:

1) Roll dice and try to attain a result lower than the character's skill level. Thus, if your character has a 40 percent chance to swim a river, the player must roll under 40 percent. Or in a d20 based system, you have to roll under your skill level 12 on a 20-sided die. As you gain in skill levels, your chances to roll under that "target number" increases. This, however, violates the "higher is better" meme that runs through contemporary gaming.

2) Target Number. Your character has a skill level, and the referee sets what is known as a "target number" you must beat, typically by adding your skill level as a modifier to a dice roll. The harder the action being attempted, the higher the target number. While this adheres to the "higher is better" ideal, it also places a lot of responsibility on the referee (since he's defining the target number). Some games have tried to ameliorate some stress here by giving lists of sample target numbers.

Something I've been toying with is the "opposed test." I stumbled upon this idea when designing the Coda System for Decipher, and I was quite taken with it. Most skill tests players will get involved with are, in fact, opposed tests. That is to say, one player is pitting his dice result against the dice result of another player. One player tries to hit the orc with his sword, while the orc (played by the referee) tries to avoid this; one rolls "to hit", the other "to not get hit". That's the simplest, most common example.

But what if a character searches a room for a hidden clue? Why not roll the hiding character's skill test for hiding things? The latter becomes the "target number" for the former. Dave and Buster chase each other down the street in cars, both trying to run the other off the road. Dave rolls to ram Buster, while Buster (played by the referee) rolls to avoid this. Both make driving rolls, with the higher result the winner. You could make the case that almost every skill test opposes another character's skill test, either immediately (combat) or through time (as with the hidden clue).

The rest of the time, you could use the standard target number system. There's nothing opposing the character except circumstances, fate, or nature. The characters need to appraise the value of the diamond they've just stolen, so that's a simple target number test. They need to climb a sheer cliff, roll versus a target number.

To me, this doesn't seem like anything different from the typical skill test system used by the majority of games today. Except for the emphasis on opposition; the referee doesn't set target numbers for the majority of tests. Players roll off against each other.

The Devil is in the Rules

In my last post, I discussed my preference for simple rules, in order to lower the barrier to playing the game. As I go through the necessary components of the rules, however, I find myself asking the question "am I trying to reinvent the wheel"?

Let's face it, there are a lot of rules systems out there. Each has it's strong points, quirks, and good ideas. But each is just a variation on rolling dice and determining a result. Do I hit or not? Do I successfully sneak or not? Do I survive the dragon's fire?

Most variations between rules involve character creation. You spend points on character elements, with the difference being what you can select and their cost in points. Obviously, the next big difference is in the dice rolling mechanic, whether it's Basic Role Play's percentile system, White Wolf's dot system, or Coda's Target Number. There are few ways to handle character creation and task resolution, and I think by now we've pretty much exhausted them all.

So why not simply use an existing system? Since rules systems cannot be copyrighted (only the expressions of the rules), I could rewrite the BRP system, or swipe the Coda system, or use whatever rules set tickles my fancy. Isn't this, basically, what Paizo did for Pathfinder? George Vasilakos mentioned that Decipher was selling the rights to the Coda system for a silly amount of money. He suggested perhaps licensing a rules system, too. For me, this is odious, because I'm a game designer and I should design the damn game myself.

On the other hand, I find myself cobbling together elements from other rules sets that I like. For example, I've always liked the Palladium system of combat, where the attacker rolls to hit and the defender rolls to parry/dodge before accounting for armor class. I like the idea of "class skills" from which a player selects his character's skill set (from BRP and Palladium). So is it wrong to create a BRP/Palladium/Coda/Unisystem hybrid?

God, I feel like such a hack.

Simple Rules

As I've gotten deeper into the design of my new roleplaying game, which I currently call "System X", I've begun to think about the goals I have in mind. Recall, I believe that today's games are too complicated, and require too much time investment, which prohibits people from picking them up. I certainly understand what I call the "simulationist" style of play, which calls for complicated rules in order to mimic reality. But returning to an old example, imagine if playing Monopoly required you to read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged before you could play.

While visiting George Vasilakos last week, I was discussing some of my ideas for the rules system. He asked me, quite curious, why it had to be a level-based system.

Primarily, I believe level-based systems, with their random-generation of characters, to be easier to use. I've played GURPS and Vampire: the Masquerade, and it always took us two hours to build characters. And that's what you're doing in these games: Building a persona. This appeals to those who like to maximize their point expenditures, and those who like to find hidden (often unintentional) "efficiencies." But it takes a God-awful long time to start playing the game.

I once had a player who actually continued to "build" his character each week, by asking if he could drop this to buy that, because it made more sense for this character concept, yadda yadda yadda. So the character was perpetually in creation, and he'd change things on his character sheet even if I said "no" to some of his suggestions. This is point-build taken to it's horrific, logical conclusion.

I recall playing AD&D (no 2nd or 3rd edition, either), and rolling up a character in a matter of minutes. You could be playing in about 15 minutes once you memorized the rules. It was like deciding whether to be the shoe or the race car; Roll your attributes (with a bit of fudging for horrible dice rolls), pick your race and class, roll hit points, and you're off!

We didn't seem any the worse for wear. We didn't seem to be having less fun than gamers of today. The kids, so they say, turned out all right. (Moreover, most of us designing RPGs these days actually started out playing this way, so I'm not sure why random character generation has such a bad reputation).

James Malisewski points out on his blog, Grognardia (which you should read, by the way, as he tries to plumb the mysterious origins of our hobby), that the difference seems to be between "building" a character and "generating" a character. I largely agree with him that, with the latter, you are stuck with the character you randomly generate, which leads to greater creativity (since you have to make sense of the randomness). Sorry, James, if I mangled your thoughts in paraphrasing them.

Finally, I've found that with point-build systems I never get the character I imagine in my head. There are never enough points to spend to get what I want. And if I get enough points, say by being allowed by the referee allowing a "high-level" campaign, I find there's no where to go with the character. Character advancement becomes meaningless. Or, I end up taking so many disadvantages that I end up with a retarded hunchback with a drinking problem (but who can totally kill everything in sight with a lightsaber). I don't want to play my awesome, badass vampire before be becomes his awesome, badass self. I find I'm not creating a character to play, but a character for a novel.

Therefore, with System X, I'm going with random character generation and a level-based system.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Love in a Dumpster

According to today's NY Post, a couple was robbed while having sex in a Dumpster. Before we can begin to dissect this, for those of you not in the know, a couple of facts.

The NY Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch, which makes it part of the Fox right-wing conspiracy in some circles. It's not really known for high standards of journalism. When the ACORN brothel scandal broke, the Post made sure to have a picture of the girl dressed in her phony-hooker finery. The paper is written at a sixth-grade reading level, and in between the anti-Obama, pro-Iraq War screeds is a healthy helping of this kind of salacious story. Which is precisely why I read the NY Post.

Next, and I'm certain many of you did not know this, but when you write the word for the giant metal box in which you throw your garbage and dispose of your corpses, you must capitalize it. It's "Dumpster" not "dumpster." I'm not entirely sure why; I believe it's the same reason you must capitalize Gatorade and Band-aids and Coca-Cola -- it's a proper name. I've sometimes wondered if it's actually named after someone, like William Dumpster. In which case, I'm sure his mother is proud he invented the damn thing.

Now, on to the heart of the story... If you recall, a couple was robbed, at knife point, while they were having sex in a Dumpster. This occurred in Witchita KS, which surprises me because you'd think with the high number of discarded babies found in Dumpsters, and mob soldiers found in Dumpsters, this event would have occurred in good ole NYC. But no, Kansas it is.

How horny do you have to be to have sex in a Dumpster? You know how it is; you're at a club, and you meet Ms. Right (or Ms. Right Now), and you just gotta get your groove on. The stalls in the bathroom are full of people already having sex (or snorting coke -- wait, this is Kansas, so they're doing crystal meth). You can't go to your car, because you don't want to mess up your upholstery. And you can't stand to drive to a Motel 6, because, you know, you gotta have it right now.

So you propose the Dumpster. Now, was this thing full or empty at the time? This question oddly consumes me. Because it makes a big difference -- the one between fucking on a pile of smelly garbage, or fucking in an uncomfortably hard metal box. I'm not sure which I'd prefer.

How do you talk your impending sex partner to have sex in a Dumpster, anyway? "Hey baby, I really have to have you right now; you're so beautiful and I love you so much. Let's fuck in this Dumpster..." What amazes me is the other person agreed to this, instead of suggesting the back seat of the car or the aforementioned sex in the bathroom. Somehow, this whole Dumpster thing seemed like a good, viable option to them. Both individuals were 44-years old, so you'd think they'd know better.

Then, along comes two guys with knives to ruin what was, I'm sure, was a romantic moment. Or screwing in a Dumpster. I have a funny feeling these men were two homeless guys who were simply rooting around for food in Dumpsters and when they stumbled upon the couple they thought "ew!" But then they thought "opportunity." So they robbed the couple of their shoes, jewelry, and wallets.

(All of this has gotten me to thinking about the strangest place I've ever had sex. It was Toledo, Ohio. That's all. No phone booth. No airplane bathroom. No map room at the local library. Just, plain, old Toledo. Period. End of sentence.)

Thankfully, these criminal masterminds were apprehended soon afterwards, and the couple's property was returned to them. No idea if the sex-in-Dumpster-couple was given a citation for indescent exposure (or monumental stupidity).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Meet the Real Life Buffy

This is just too good to pass up. Apparently, according to USA Today, a 16-year old cheerleader in South Carolina bagged herself an alligator. Cammie Collins, of Pelion, caught a 10-foot-long, 353-pound gator. She was out on a boat with her family, apparently with the intention of alligator-hunting (since they were in a swampy area, and used a fishing pole to lure the beast close to the boat). Especially since she just registered earlier this year for her alligator-hunting license. Oh, and she finally killed this giant, toothy eating-machine with a crossbow.

This just boggles the mind.

First, who in the hell goes out in a boat with the intention of hunting alligators? I didn't know you could do that, though the state of South Carolina actually hands out licenses to do so. Also, apparently, her father thinks this is a perfectly legitimate way to spend quality time with the family. "Hey kids, let's go out and hunt us some 'gators!" Kids: "Yay!" My father thought going out for Carvel ice cream was a suitable family outing. I don't know what I would have done if he'd suggested alligator hunting.

Second, clearly this girl has issues. When I was a kid in high school, no cheerleader I knew would even go fishing, much less hunt an alligator. Isn't she supposed to be worrying about her hair and nails? Isn't her day supposed to be consumed with texting about boys? If I were a guy in her class, I'd think twice before asking her on a date. Lest I get a crossbow bolt in my head for, you know, doing what you're supposed to do when you date a cheerleader.

And really, it's the crossbow element of this story that propels it from "interesting" to "bizarre." If I were going to hunt alligator, I would think "gun." Not "crossbow." It's not like the crossbow is a speedy weapon. You've got to crank it, noch a bolt, fire. Hell, a bow and arrow is faster. What would this family have done if Cammie missed the first shot? They'd be gator chum. How does a cheerleader even learn to use a crossbow? It's all just too medival.

This whole thing smacks of a bad real-life immitation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All I know is, when the vampires or zombies finally attack (and you know they're coming), I want Cammie on my team.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

She Sinned for Your Shoes

Puma, the running shoe company, is running a new ad campaign in the NYC subway system. I'm not sure if it's being run elsewhere, for the simple reason that I don't live anywhere else. They've taken over an entire tunnel at the West 4th Street station, which means you cannot escape the intense Puma-ness. I'm often overwhelmed when a company does this, simply because it smacks of some kind of Soviet-style propaganda campaign; the only thing you see is one thing, the thing they want you to see. And it's overwhelming. But that's not what bothers me in this case.

It's the actual ad campaign. Puma wants you to come meet one of their employees. Her name is Jessica L. and apparently she runs across the rooftops of NYC. I didn't know you could do that. I would imagine a large number of people would call the police if they saw someone vaulting, parkour-like, along the skyline.

The billboards exhort you to come by the Puma Store to meet Jessica L. and hear about her exploits. Naturally, she does this in Puma sneakers. Maybe, after you speak with Jessica, you'll be inspired to buy a pair of their sneakers and run, Parkour-like, across your own neighborhood rooftops. I'm not entirely sure the NYPD likes this ad campaign.

Personally, I have only two questions for Jessica: 1) Do you wear some kind of superhero costume while you do this (I'm betting it's Spiderman)? and 2) why in the hell would you do something like this when there are perfectly non-high places where you can run? Then again, I was raised Jewish, and my mother thought playing anywhere near a street was dangerous, that little Jewish boys were better off reading than running around, and that I should wait an hour after eating before I go anywhere near any kind of water. I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was in junior high.

Jessica L. herself looks like a young Farah Fawcett clone, which creeps me the hell out considering the latter just died from ass cancer. (I'm certain I just offended someone with that one, but that's what "rectal cancer" is, and I think it sounds nicer). So is the motivation to get you to talk to Jessica L. about her running exploits, or to have a line of sketchy men asking her for her phone number all day long? (And would she give it to me if I bought a pair of Pumas? Please?) Would any of us care if Jessica L. was actually Jesse L., a hairy, 300 lbs. tub of lard? (Then again, such a person wouldn't be running anywhere, I suppose).

What really caught my eye, however, were the hours when you could meet the lovely roof-top running, Puma-wearing Jessica L. Monday to Saturday, 10 to 8, and Sunday, 11 to 7. Apparently, Jessica, trooper that she is, works seven days a week; and she works a ten hour day most days, and an eight hour day on Sunday. Now, I'm pretty sure this is illegal for an hourly employee, so someone in government somewhere should drop by and have a little talk with the Puma slave drivers. Does she even get a lunch hour?

But moreover, if Jessica L. is the hardest working woman in the shoe business, working 68 hours per week, when in the hell does she have time to go galavanting across the rooftops of NY? Is she out there at all hours of the night, leaping from building-to-building? And if she is, maybe she should consider wearing a superhero costume after all. Maybe this could be Puma's next ad campaign, where you can talk to Jessica L. and find out how she beat up Green Goblin, or that time she took out the Riddler.

Or maybe, it's all a put up job by some corporation, and Jessica L. isn't a real person at all. In which case, I wish they'd take their damn annoying propaganda campaign down.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The WWE came on after the Yankees game ended, and I figured, since we are only allowed to watch sports here at the bar, we may as well leave it on. Now, I consider the WWE a "sport" in only the loosest sense of the word. And as I watched the panoply unfold before me, I got to thinking about wrestling.

First, the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) used to be called the World Wrestling Federation. Vince McMahon changed the name after an unrelated court case, in which opposing counsel asked him the truth about wrestling (it was not germane to the case, but Vince was under oath). McMahon had to admit the wrestling was rigged, with winners decided by script writers.

Which brings me to my first thought. How in the hell do you get a job as a script writer for the WWE? I've never heard of them advertising. And since they try very hard to get people to forget that the wrestling is faked, it's not like you can really advertise this kind of position anyway. What would you say? Wanted: script writer for rigged, faked wrestling promotion; must have typewriter? Do they promote from within? Do they go to established writers and offer them jobs? Is this what happened to Joe Esterhaus and Oliver Stone?

Next thought. Why do people still watch this crap? First of all, it's fake. It's basically a soap opera played out in the squared circle. Secondly, the weekly TV show is basically an hour-long commercial for the upcoming pay-per-view. All the posturing and the yelling and the shoving... that's all just to keep you up-to-date on the drama unfolding outside the ring. I had a friend and co-worker a few years back who was obsessed with the WWE. He followed every twist and turn of the plot. If you wanted to get into an argument, all you had to do was denigrate Rowdy Roddy Piper. It was hard not to get wrapped up in it all, and soon several of us found ourselves watching weekly.

Final thought. How in the hell do they come up with the gimmicks? Ultimate Warrior. The Undertaker. The Rock. Do they have some committee that decides "we'll make him like a cross between Rowdy Roddy, Andre the Giant, and the Flying Bulldogs, and we'll call him.... Braveheart!" Does the performer invent his own gimmick? Does he go down to wardrobe and pick out a bunch of shit, and present his idea to McMahon? "Nah," Vince says, "it's a little too Khalid, the Wacky Iraqi."

I wonder how the whole wrestling entertainment industry works. One thing, however, has been whispered about for years -- how they pick the winners; it's whoever "services" McMahon.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reality TV

I'm watching a commercial for Big Brother 11. First of all, I'm amazed that this show is still on. They take a bunch of closet-sociopaths who crave fame and seclude them in a house for weeks and watch the fun ensue. Only, it's not that much fun. I don't care if Chad loves Allison but has to boot her out of the house; it's not like they're going to air the sex scenes. But what really bothers me about this show, and all the other reality TV shows, is the low amount of money they offer.

A half-a-million to embarrass yourself and shame your family? On national TV? No thank you. Swim through a pool full of boa constrictors? For $50,000?! I have two words for you. Fuck. And off. To me, the only amount of money to humiliate future generations of my family is one million dollars. This way, when my kids come to me, hanging their heads in shame, I can point to their college fund and laugh.

The only reality show I would consider going on would be Survivor. And I hate that show.
I’ll admit, I watched the first season. I was expecting some Lord of the Flies experience. Weren’t you? I assumed they’d chosen some remote tropical island where no one had legal jurisdiction. They’d set up blood-drenched challenges like “we’ve put food up in that tree, here are some sharpened sticks; who ever beats the crap out of the other team gets it.” I wanted to see someone “voted” off the island with a machete. I wanted to see someone dancing around a fire with a pig’s head on a stick.

I lost all respect for this show when they had the archery challenge. They gave both teams a bow and some arrows and told them to practice for the next day’s contest. And they did! Really, Survivor contestants?! That’s the best you could come up with? I would have pointed my newly-acquired weapon at the camera-man and announced my ransom demands.

Here’s how I would play this game. I would explore under cover of night, searching for the opposing team’s camp. Once it had been located, I would sneak back with my compatriots and some improvised weapons. We would then proceed to beat the crap out of them and tie them to trees. That way, the next day Jeff Probst could look all confused when the other team didn’t show up and he had to announce us the winner. And God help anyone who even thought about voting me off the island! I’d vote them off first, with “extreme prejudice.”

I think, ultimately, this is why “reality TV” doesn’t work for me. It’s really “contrived TV”. That, and I don’t have cable.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

This is not a review of Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's latest film, so you can relax. No, this is my speculation about the movie before I see it. See, I'm of two minds about seeing a Tarantino movie.

On the one hand, I love watching his movies. I've seen Kill Bill dozens of times. I thought Jackie Brown was an inspired look at the criminal underworld, and the people who get caught up in it. Pulp Fiction had crackling dialog and the inter-relationship between the vignettes challenged the viewer to pay attention to details. I generally think Tarantino's storytelling is layered and complex; you can tell that there is much more to the story than what appears on the screen. These characters and their inter-relationships are complex; they have dense back-stories. And generally, you want to find out more -- how did Jackie Brown end up meeting Beaumont? How did Bill put the Deadly Vipers together?

On the other hand, Tarantino is excessively violent. He makes you squirm in your chair. Some critics call his work "torture porn" and I'm not sure they're wrong. Tarantino seems to be saying something about violence, and our propensity towards it. Sometimes he seems to be saying "these people deserved it". Didn't Vivica Fox deserve to be killed for what she did to Uma Thurman? Was it not the sins of her past coming to visit? Other times he seems to simply revel in making his audience uncomfortable; as though he wants you to feel bad for enjoying people's suffering. Reservior Dogs, anyone? Still other times, the violence is completely senseless; perhaps fate and life are fickle. I'm thinking here of when Travolta accidentally shoots that guy in the face in Pulp Fiction.

I want to see Inglorious Basterds. I'm totally down for some Nazi killing. Who doesn't like to see Nazi's suffer? They're like zombies -- you can kill dozens of them and not feel a thing. It's like you're not even killing humans. You are, for all intents and purposes, killing monsters. But, I wonder, will Tarantino's movie add nuance to this? The Basterds are all Jews; is this to be a revenge fantasy? Will I feel that some sort of divine retribution is being meted out to the Nazis? Or, will Tarantino try to make us feel sympathy for the Nazis with his over-the-top violence?

Let me put this another way. There is a scene in Saving Private Ryan where captured Nazis are marching down a road, and a Jewish soldier holds up his Star of David and announces to each of them that he's a Jew. That's perfect. I get a sense, as the viewer, that justice is being meted out. It's understated, but gets it's point across. In another movie, whose title escapes me now, a bunch of Nazis are trapped in a castle while a monster slowly kills them all. My friend Kenneth Hite points out that you feel sympathy for the horrible ways the Nazis are dying, then catch yourself feeling... unclean... about feeling bad for the Nazis. It's a complex emotion -- your revulsion for what the Nazis did and stood for, warring with your basic human compassion.

How will I feel during the Nazi scalping? Or the beating to death of Nazis with baseball bats? Which of those two emotions will I feel: satisfaction or revulsion/sympathy? Even the reviews have suggested that the violence is value neutral, which if true, is a disappointment.

I shall have to go see the movie in the next week and report back.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Studio Manta -- Genesis

It's been awhile since I wrote about Studio Manta, but that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about it. Since most of my friends are game designers, I thought I'd blog about my idea and its progress. Studio Manta is an idea I had a long time ago (circa 1999-2000); it's my dream for a game company.

The original idea stemmed from a conversation with Owen Seyler while we were both working for Last Unicorn Games. We had licensed the rights to Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, and had just finished our proposal for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game. My question to Owen was "why are we licensing intellectual properties from others when we should be creating our own?" It is every game designer's dream to create an IP that can then be licensed to others. It is this dream that largely influenced the direction of game design for the last two decades.

Beforehand, games were seen as, well, games. They generally consisted of one or two books and were complete in and of themselves. Traveller, for example, was a generic science fiction game; there was a setting, but it was only a whisper of an idea. There were planets, and space travel, and some kind of intergalactic empire, but I played that game for years and never once had a sense of overall setting. Similarly, Boot Hill was a generic, catch-all game for the Wild West. Gamma World was a post-apocalyptic game. A game like RuneQuest presented a ruleset for a different kind of fantasy from the type found in Dungeons & Dragons. It wasn't until the end of the '80s that game design morphed into creating settings and stories -- generating intellectual properties.

My idea was to create an intellectual property, but not start as a game. It was to present the IP as a fait accompli; the setting would be portrayed as though it were a licensed IP, as though I had licensed it from someone else. The intent was to generate buzz -- where was the TV show upon which the game was based? Could you buy it on DVD? Why hadn't I seen the show in the first place?

Because the IP would be presented as a Japanese anime. You couldn't get it because it was produced in Japan, and hadn't gotten U.S. distribution. But maybe, if there were enough demand (hint, hint), someone would release it here. Maybe, just maybe, someone would then come to me and offer to produce an anime based on my game... It was a crazy idea, I know.

That's where the company name came from. It had to sound like it was a game published in Japan. The company had to have a wacky "engrish"-sounding name, like TokyoPop or Studio Ghibli. I decided on the name Studio Manta.

Soon afterward, I shelved the entire idea, for various reasons. Christian Moore, by boss at the time, was uninterested in creating intellectual properties. Owen Seyler felt the idea was doomed to failure, largely because no one would ever approach us for licensing.

Recently, however, I've decided to resurrect the idea, though not to generate an IP to license, but rather to try and present a new kind of game altogether.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

CIA Confessions - Part 2

All this begs the question: What, exactly, is the Special Operations Group?

SOG is the CIA's own, special army. Because the Central Intelligence Agency is a part of the Executive Branch, it isn't subject to the War Powers Act. This is the act, passed in 1973, that limits the President's ability to send the U.S. military abroad; he must notify Congress within 48 hours of deployment, and they can remain in the field for 60 days before he must get the approval of Congress. This was in direct response to our involvement in Vietnam, in which we found ourselves in a very long, costly war, without any approval from anyone. Like I said, the CIA isn't bound by this, because it's not the military. It's intelligence.

Thus, for example, the President could order the CIA to deploy SOG forces to Venezuela to oust Chavez from power, and Congress really wouldn't have a say. Now, of course, that's not how we do that, because then we'd have to send in conventional military forces to stabilize the situation. Also, the CIA is specifically barred from assassination. That's not a mission for the Special Operations Group. No. SOG would go in and destabilize the region, either by causing internal trouble for Chavez (like blowing up electrical transmission lines and cutting phone lines), or instigating trouble with a neighbor (Colombia would be good).

The CIA usually takes people from various military branches and assigns them to SOG. This became prevalent during the Viet Nam war, when the U.S. government wanted soldiers to do something that, perhaps, they shouldn't. Like, say, invade Cambodia or Laos. Or they were assigned missions that required a high level of secrecy. Really, the movie Apocalypse Now gives a good idea of the kinds of missions SOG might go on (not so much with the assassinating Army Colonels, more with the whole infiltrate and kill). The other good movie that gives you an idea of what SOG does would be Clear and Present Danger, wherein the CIA sends down a few soldiers to Columbia to blow up cocaine labs.

These military cut-outs (meaning soldiers who were "cut out" of the normal chain of command) generally come from special forces (though not always). In Vietnam, they might be Green Berets or Long Range Recon Patrol. Today, they would be Rangers, SEALs, or Delta. Marines are also very popular because of their high sense of esprit de corps. In addition to taking military cut-outs, the CIA also trains people for SOG. The training is basically the same as, well, basic training. Only the CIA directs it. Which makes it extra special nasty.

So what does SOG do today? Let's say you've got four forward operating bases (FOB) along the Afghani-Pakistan border. Now, one of these places is being used by a "certain governmental organization," for the questioning of mid- and high-level terrorists. You can't have Billy Bob from the Texas National Guard guarding this FOB, because maybe he owes $20,000 on his truck, and he likes to cheat on his wife, and smokes a little pot from time to time. He's susceptible to bribery by your friendly neighborhood Taliban (money, girls, and drugs). He might be convinced to look the other way when they come to rescue their friends. No no. You get SOG to guard that FOB. Because they're CIA anyway.

That, in a nutshell, is what SOG is, and what it does. Neat, huh?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

CIA Confessions

There is a reason I chose this title for my blog. It comes from the title to Chuck Barris' memoir of the same name. In it, he discloses that while he was the producer for the Dating Game, he was also an assassin for the CIA. The Dating Game was a TV game show where pretty, young bachelorettes would ask questions of three eleigible bachelors (who were sitting behind a partition). The questions were risque and always had a double-meaning. The "winners" would go on some whirlwind, exotic trip, chaperoned by Chuck Barris himself. It was the perfect cover. The young couple would go on a romantic trip to fantastic places, and Chuck Barris would kill some commie bastard.

Now it is time to reveal the truth. I, too, was a hired killer for the CIA.

I was recruited in 1989, the year I graduated from George Washington University. I had heard they were looking for speakers of Mandarin Chinese, which I had studied, and I gave them a call. Believe it or not, the CIA is in the phone book (well, the DC phone book). The next day, I received, via FedEx, a two inch stack of papers. It was the questionnaire. They wanted to go back as far as about the third grade. This is standard operating procedure for the CIA.

The Company wants to know everything about you. They talk to your parents. To your grandparents. To your school teachers. To your aunts and uncles. To your neighbors (even from 20-years back). They don't show up and announce they're the CIA, of course. They might pose as police officers, or the FBI, or whatever else might sound plausible when they ask your high school sweetheart about you twenty years after you dumped her.

Were you a bed-wetter? You may have psychological problems. Were you a bully? You might be maladjusted. Does one of your parents have a gambling problem? If they owe too much, they might ask you to sell secrets to help them out. Were you a loner? You might have problems relating to people in social situations. They pretty much ask you a million questions about your past, not to trip you up, but to find out if you can be trusted. There are things that get you booted from the process pretty quickly. Does your father have Mafia ties? Out. Do you have a drug problem? Out. Have you ever visited a communist country? Definitely out. The Company is looking for people who are incorruptable.

Yeah, I failed this part. (Dad was an inveterate gambler and pot-smoker, who was a bookie for the mob, and hadn't paid his taxes in ten years. I pretty much failed once they discovered two of those four things.)

Then there's the psychological profile. The CIA is looking for people with a high sense of patriotism, highly motivated, with a willingness to stand on the wall between danger and the rest of society. This doesn't mean they won't take malcontents, however. They're not looking for Clark Kent here. If you cheated on a high school exam, for example, this might be couched as "risk taking." If you stole a car for a joyride, they might look favorably on this as "being resourceful." The CIA wants to know who they're dealing with, psychologically speaking. They take this part very seriously. While I couldn't pass the background check, it was the psych exam that made them very interested; I fit a certain, specific profile.

I was basically Jason Bourne, with out all the water-boarding and drugs. So while I would be unable to, say, handle state secrets at Langley (thanks, dad!), I was perfectly suited for the Special Operations Group.