June 2003 Archives

Best campaign ad ever

Bizarrely, it's from Kucinich.

Now, I vaguely remember seeing this before, so I don't know whether it started out as a Kucinich thing or whether it became one later on. And while I agree 100% with Dennis Kucinich that the war in Iraq was a tragedy of immense proportions, I think his policy of cutting and running is misguided and will lead to further turmoil in the Middle East.

But still: the ad is a brilliantly savage indictment of the war in Iraq which almost literally sends chills down my spine. It is compelling, fascinating stuff, and even if you disagree with all of his positions, you should watch it just to see true artistry at work.

(Update): Via, most recently, Atrios.

Political blog humour

Another day, another Dean-friendly quip.

From the Dean blog:
"Psychics for Re-Electing President Dean"

The Dean Connection

"I saw a middle-aged man at a garden party in New Hampshire preface a question to Dean by saying he was associated with Howards for Howard. Dean nodded, as if the man had said he was with the AARP."

From a long New York Times article talking about the Dean grassroots, and how the campaign is building a community. Well worth a read. Via a snarky comment on the Edwards blog, ironically.

World's worst random name generator

Not based on actual names.

A bunch of spammers just sent me a whole load of identical messages, all from the same email address, but with different names:

Cool O. Poultices
Caryatids K. Pricier
Unseemly Q. Yodeled
Ambience G. Benelux
Handicraft H. Rug
Holloway S. Tapestry
Nothing L. Oppenheimer

You know, if you're going to generate random names in an attempt to persuade people that an email was sent by a real person, not a machine, you should pay attention to your list of first and last names. Make sure they're names that people actually have. Remove adverbs, past participles and fabrics.

Oh, and not send the same email 7 times to the same person.


If only people would quote their sources

It's not hard, and it reduces uncertainty and doubt.

I like the Dean campaign, but the guy is running for election. So I'm used to the blog pointing out the good bits of things people are writing about Dean, and ignoring the others - that's fair game, and you'd expect to read the primary sources rather than blindly trust a partisan interpretation anyway.

But I'm not sure about "Bush Down, Dean Up". In the Zogby report in question, Dean did indeed poll more than any other Democratic candidate, with 16% (compared to Kerry on 13%, Lieberman on 12% and Gephardt on 8%). But according to the Daily Kos, the previous scores were 17, 9, 10 and 11 (so so Kerry is up, Lieberman and Gephardt are down, and Dean is down a bit).

Problem is, neither of the articles link to their sources (which in this case is laziness - the stuff is freely available online) so I can't check. The most recent national poll I can find on the Zogby site is the July poll that puts Gephart, Dean and Lieberman tied on 12%, with Kerry on 9, so it looks like the Dean folks are correct. In which case, where is Kos getting his figures from?

This isn't amazingly important at the moment - national polls don't matter months before the first primaries, especially as most people don't know about the candidates. Still, it's a useful dress rehearsal for the more serious stuff that will follow, and it would be nice to get this sort of thing right before then.


"This war on terrorism is bogus"

'The conclusion of all this analysis must surely be that the "global war on terrorism" has the hallmarks of a political myth propagated to pave the way for a wholly different agenda - the US goal of world hegemony, built around securing by force command over the oil supplies required to drive the whole project.'

Michael Meacher, ex Environment Minister in the Blair government and someone who, I always felt, talks a lot of sense, claims in the Guardian today that the US deliberately ignored warnings about the September 11th attacks because it wanted a pretext to take control by force of the world's major oil supplies. In the middle of the Hutton enquiry, talk about a bombshell.

(Via Charlie's blog.)

Doing Fantasy properly

This means as unlike D&D as I can manage.

Playing Baldur's Gate II (computer game) and Pakh Pakh (Brian, Pix and Andy's tabletop game), as well as reading the new Harry Potter, has given me the urge to run Fantasy. I'm not at the touting for players point at the moment, but there are already a few points that I'm clear on.

This isn't hack'n'slash

I think the main one is this: that much in the way of computer or tabletop fantasy roleplaying is amazingly unlike the fantasy literature. Part of this is down to party numbers - it's rare that you'll read a fantasy novel with more than 3 main good guys. Part of it is down to early D&D. Maybe it's just the style of fantasy that I read, but I have never read a book which involved a dungeon crawl.

SF is sometimes abbreviated Speculative Fiction so to encompass historical fantasy, science fiction and Lord of the Rings style fantasy, because all of these types of literature share a common aspect. Fantasy, to me, is What If fiction - what happens if we take a pre-modern civilisation (if you take a modern or futuristic civilisation, i.e. one with bleepy shiny things, it's science fiction), and add something weird? These additions are mostly non-human races (Tolkien), ancient magical creatures and prophecies (Terry Goodkind), powerful but costly magics passed down through noble bloodlines (Robin Hobb), or excuses to make things even more epic and bitter (George R R Martin - why kill off the hero's entire family and then restrain from resurrecting one of them as a walking corpse?).

In the Earthsea books, Ursula Le Guin conjures up a completely different world by dint of only two changes: 1) both petty and high magic; and 2) land mass size. You've got a completely different geopolitical dynamic when the biggest land mass is only a few hundred miles long, and all the rest of the land is split across hundreds of small islands.

I did something like this in In Nomine, when I had the players (angels) travel to an alternate world where Adam and Eve never ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and, therefore, a) the Fall never happened, and b) humans did not know good and evil. It took me ages to work out all the ramifications of that single change, but once I was ready, and sprung it on the players, the effects were spectacular. This, I would say, was Fantasy in all but name.

Note: most of these changes do not require every single character to have to know how to use a weapon, or expect to use it regularly.

So how do we run it, then?

So how does Fantasy work? Well, first of all, for all that I've said that you should have it be as like the literature as you can - and I think this means narrating cut scenes in the past tense, for instance - you can't use standard Fantasy plots. Lone hero meets up with Other Person, has all sorts of thrills and near-death experiences, and ends up saving the world, doesn't work when you've got 4 or 5 players who all want the limelight. You can maybe pull the "You are all mentioned in this ancient prophecy" schtick, if you don't want to sound too much like David Eddings (he liked "Pawn of Prophecy" so much he re-wrote it 9 more times). Or, and this would be my preference, you can have something affect a whole bunch of people - a village or a convent, say - and have the PCs play members of that group who are somehow involved. I'd be inclined to use troupe play at this point, if I knew how to do it (I'm going to experiment with that in Feng Shui). Ars Magica is probably the best example of this.

Secondly, almost all Fantasy plots involve discovering elements of the world that were previously unknown; even things that are commonplace and well-known to most people tend to be presented to us as new and exciting, by way of characters who aren't aware of them because a) they didn't grow up amongst wizards (Harry Potter), b) they're too young (Earthsea) or c) they're secret or long-forgotten (Terry Goodkind). (People in Terry Pratchett's Discworld don't bat an eyelid at all sorts of outrageous stuff; in this case, the ingénue is us, the reader.) If magic is well-known and understood, then the plot will involve some new form of magic emerging, and posing a threat to the status quo. D&D completely fails to represent this: all magic is static and known, the only form of ambition is to climb to the top of the pile by emulating the prowess of your peers, and there is little in the way of research or progress in the ways of magic. Nothing changes because that would upset game balance.

I think that if you're going to run Fantasy, you've chosen a world, a (probably magical) difference from our world (not just that it's 14th to 17th century technology), and you want to see what happens. And you probably have some idea of what the implications of that change would be, which is why you want to explore them with your players. So I think that a Fantasy campaign has to be fundamentally plotted; you have to have some idea of what the main issues are going to be, whether they're good vs evil, determination vs choice, overcoming fate, race or temperament, or whatever.

Fantasy as I'd run it

I'd like the world to be mostly based around city states, because that seems like a reasonable level of technology / political development, and it allows for a wide variety of political and cultural structures within easy travelling distance - which, of course, means cultural cross-pollinisation and easy plot devices involving strangers from foreign cities. I'm interested in having a wide variety of intelligent races, mostly because that means I can have NPCs who are truly alien - I'm looking forward to working out all the details of the bird people, who, as befits birds, are migratory.

More generally, as a GM, I would do the following.

1: Emphasise that this is a book. That means that when I have cut scenes, I'll dim off the music (this is no longer the reader immersed in the scene, this is a description of something elsewhere), and I'll narrate in the past tense.

2: Everything has a price. Every action has a consequence. For whichever reason, the PCs are special; after all, the book is about them. This means that their decisions affect the world - which means that they should be concerned, and not just blithely assume that everything will be OK. I think the best in-character roleplaying happens when players develop consistent world-views for their characters, and confront them, and I want to make sure inter-party arguments happen. While, of course preventing inter-party strife...

3: Gaining extra powers isn't something that happens automatically, like a performance review. Nor is getting better. In a narrative-driven universe, there's always a moment where something clicks, and suddenly the protagonist is able to execute that tricky move, unleash a power that had stubornly been resisting them, etc. And it never happens during downtime; it happens at a crucial moment. So I'll ask my players what sort of thing they want next, I'll make them spend points on doing the preparations if necesary, and I'll bear that in mind when I'm planning important scenes. Then. at the moment when that new / better power would be really useful, if the player spends the appropriate points, It Works. Cue celebration. Much better, I think, than the standard "Well, since we slew that Basilisk the other day, I've been really thinking about magic, and I've worked out how to shoot balls of fire out of my fingertips" attitude that downtime XP expenditure normally produces.

Comments are especially welcome.

I swear, airlines and travel agents are worse than banks

Really, I swear a lot in the following rant. If you'd been trying to order flights in the US, you would too.

I've been desperately trying to find a website that would take my money for a major intra-US flight. (JFK->AUS if you must know.) It's been an uphill struggle.

So many of the websites let you go so far - some of them even let you specify which country you're based in, coyly teasing, the fuckers - before telling you that, no, if your card isn't billed in the US you can't buy this service.

Instead, say expedia or travelocity, go to the .co.uk site, rather than the .com. Which is fine, except that a) the special deals (opt for lucky dip, and we'll give you whichever flight isn't full at the moment) aren't available, and b) the same flights that retailed for $500-$600 now retail for £500-£600. Feh.

OK, I think, I know that the major airports are squatted by the high-price established airlines; how about I look at budget airlines? Well, none of them are significantly cheaper than the likes of fucking Delta, so that's a non-starter.

In the end, travelhero.com deigned to charge me the full fucking rate without requiring that I be a US citizen. Still haven't got confirmation from their systems yet, but at least they're issuing an e-ticket, which should solve the problem of booking the flights so late (yes, I know) that I won't be in the same country by the time their staff get up.

Fuckers. If I hadn't worked with banks, and didn't have some eerie uncanny dread of what airline systems will be like to deal with, oh, and if I wasn't desperately short of venture capital to throw at a mature market, I might think about doing something about this.

My mother is wise. Listen to my mother. This means you, [boss]

"Did [boss] write this himself?" Or why you shouldn't get non-native English speakers to write promotional material, even if they do own the company.

On the phone to Margaret today, she mentioned how she got back to her flat in Edinburgh after a couple of weeks in France, to receive, along with the rest of her email, a mailshot from [company]. Her comments to me were "It's so obvious this was written by a non-native English speaker. Did [boss] write this himself?"

Yes, [boss] did indeed write it himself, and didn't ask anyone to double-check it (I've occasionally bullied him into having people double-check previous newsletters, and they've ended up better written as a result, but I don't think he likes that). And it shows.

One thing she said, which I think is very true: it's a common mistake to think that because you can communicate easily in a language, that means you're fluent in it. It's one thing to have a funny accent and say things slightly strangely (or, as [boss] would say, "a little bit strange"); most of the time this doesn't matter, because you're dealing with existing colleagues, clients or suppliers, or, if you're trying to make a deal with someone who doesn't know you, they nonetheless know that you're the founder and boss of [company], a non-exec director of [other company], and in general someone to pay attention to.

When you're sending a mailshot out to hundreds and thousands of people, every little bit counts, and every single typo or weird phrasing counts against you. Consider that half of all CVs get rejected on sight because of spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, then apply that reasoning to what many people consider to be semi-spam in the first place... it's not pretty.

[Edit]: Apparently, [boss] did have the mailshot checked by native-English speakers. Then he added some more [boss]-ness. Feh.

[Further edit]: I've been asked to remove personal references from this post. As it was a comment about language, and not individual people, I think my point still stands.

The story about the baby

When Cordelia wakes up from a nap, she sits up in her crib and stares sadly at the door,...

When Cordelia wakes up from a nap, she sits up in her crib and stares sadly at the door, hoping each moment might be the moment a parent comes through it.

Thus, having passed through the intelligence stages of limpet and turtle, she has reached puppy.

From The Story About The Baby - a must-read every week, documenting this guy's new baby and the dopey things she does (because, as he reminds us, babies are stupid). Wonderfully funny.