Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Play: Wet Squib

Dry Powder by Sarah Burgess, Directed by Marya Sea Kaminski, Seattle Rep through April 15th, 2017

So. Yeah. I'm going to hit a bump in our plays every so often. You sign up for a season ticket with the acknowledgement that not every play is going to be to your particular taste. And sometimes (hell, often), you come out feeling that, even if the subject didn't appeal to you or the acting was weak or the plot needed some punching up, you've gotten something out of it.

Not this time. Not only do I resent the hour and half in the theater. I resent the time it took to commute there up and back in deary Seattle weather. I resent the price of my parking spot. Heck, I'd even resent the gas money if my car didn't run on house current.

Dry Powder is about high finance, a great subject, particularly in these days of Occupy America. Rick (Shawn Belyea) runs a private equity firm with the cold, calculating Jenny (Hana Lass) and the glad-handing, deal-making Seth (MJ Seiber) as the angels/devils/employees on his shoulders. The company has taken on some serious bad PR and protests from the fact that they bought out a supermarket chain and gutted it. Now they have the chance to redeem themselves with the purchase of an American-made suitcase firm in Sacramento. The founder of said luggage firm  is looking to sell out, and its CEO Jeff (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) is looking to revitalize the company with fresh cash flow and an eventual IPO.  Seth has put together a deal which risks an on-line presence but keeps the company intact. Jenny advocates a massive work-force cut and offshoring production.

And from that description you'd think the Rick was the central character, but he quickly fades as he slips from one side of the argument, then the other. Actually, it is Seth's story, as he tries to preserve the deal he made against his own supposed allies. And it is not much of a story, really, and despite its relatively tight running time, it feels like it goes on too long to get the simple conclusion: Rich People suck.

And wealth carves the deep chasm between the principles and the little people who suffer for their actions, as well as a gulf between the actors and the audience. Rick is primarily concerned that the continual protests make him look bad on the eve of his wedding in Bali (his engagement party got bad press by springing for an elephant while they were cashiering cashiers). Seth has yacht. Jenny refuses to take cabs. Jeff has the corporate jet and the struggling personal winery. There's not of lot of empathy between the characters and us, even though Rick is getting married and Seth has a kid on the way. These are the wealthy, and they are not very interesting. They are cartoons in a cartoon graveyard.

I want to like Seth or Rick, but they are both blatantly sexist and uncaring. Seth get the most potential depth where his loyalty is tested, but there is no real risk for him. Rick is the kind of boss who is firm in his beliefs until he changes his mind and then expects all to follow.  Jenny is an office Randite, quite frankly, without a single redeemable feature as she drives one of her analysts into rehab without even remembering his name. Jenny in particularly offends me deeply, since she is a character bled of anything resembling humanity. The rivals/frenemy relationship between her and Seth falls flat, and I can't ever see the two working at the same office for longer than two months. And CEO Jeff? He's a speed bump, needed for the plot and resolution.

Here's where I normally pump up the actors who are laboring with a bad script, but I can't do it. Lass delivers a Jenny that feels like Sheldon from the Big Bang, but with less self-reflection - and when she allows some passion, she scrunches her nose like a bunny. Belyea has to change his mind as Rick continually and still sound like a leader - in fact, he's often verbally abusive to both. His thought process and emotions are lost to us as he pivots. Sloniker as Seth doesn't seem to extend the warmth he feels with Jeff to either his boss or co-worker. I don't even see the actors struggling with this - they know where they are going, and deliver it with the passion of an accounting review. These aren't characters so much as talking points, and I think the actors have tweaked to that. I'm not believing that these guys, despite the jargon, actually know anything about business.

OK, we're down to praising the set, which has the Seattle Rep standard of desks and bars and chairs flying in from the sides to show progress. The cool thing is that everything is askew, presented in trapezoids, which creates a feeling of uncertainty and being off-balance. Qualities that the play itself did not have.

I will pause from all this foaming at the mouth to say the Lovely Bride actually liked it - or at least was not as deeply offended by the facile nature of the characters and the tediousness of the plot. We talked about plays about business that feature terrible people (I like Glengarry Glen Ross, for example, she does not, and I felt The Comparables from last season was better than this, while she disagrees). She is a bit more accepting of the cynical nature of people, and points out that play has some value if it provoked such a strong negative reaction from me. So there's that.

The robotic Jenny' gets the last line of the play - "That's all I have". That  pretty much sums up the play, and this review. Rich People suck. That's all I have.

More later.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Gaming News

One thing leads to another in the Gaming News this week:

First off, I got my Kickstarter Special Edition version of the new Blue Rose RPG from Green Ronin using their AGE engine. It is a beautiful looking hardback with embossed leatherette cover, gold foil edged pages, the whole schmear. Sat down and prompty began to consume it.
Last year's logo. They always look cool.

But I had to stop almost immediately because the very NEXT day I got a package from North Texas RPG Con. NTRPG con is a venerable haven of Old School roleplaying, and while I cannot make it down to Texas this year, I had volunteered to be a judge for their Three Castles Awards. So a package with the four finalists showed up on my doorstep and demands attention. I know what I'm doing in the evenings for the next few weeks.

And speaking of the older schools of gaming, Troll Lords has put together a Kickstarter for the 7th Printing of their successful Castle & Crusades Player's Handbook. The game is old school, Their Siege Engine mechanics uniting the simplicity of earlier versions of D&D with the unified mechanics and skills of later editions.

And speaking of Kickstarters (see how I'm seguing here?), there is a brief Kickstarter up from Oscar Rios' Golden Goblin Press for Cold Warning, a semi-lost Call of Cthulhu adventure by Scott David Aniolowski. The Kickstarter is running only for one week, so check it out sooner as opposed to later.

And further speaking of Kickstarters, the Lovely Bride dropped into the home office to say that she wanted me to fund the Dry Erase Game Tiles from Gaming Paper. She said she saw it on a Facebook post by the ever-talented Stan! So, social media does work!

I always wanted to write something for Empire of the Petal
Throne. Now I have.
And finally, I earlier in this blog praised The Excellent Traveling Volume, a Tekumel fanzine by James Maliszewski, I liked it so much, I wrote a up a brief adventure for it, and submitting it to him. He's publishing it in Issue #7. I'm looking forward to it! (and you can find back issues of TETV here).

More later,

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Short Story: That Fitzgerald is a Funny Guy

The I.O.U. by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The New Yorker , March 20, 2017 Issue

The magazine in question.
Provenance: I've subscribed The New Yorker recently. I read the magazine sporadically in the late 70's when it was laying out on the lobby tables in my dorm at Purdue, but it never really caught.It felt at the time to be dry and bloodless and unconnected with my Midwest Engineering Life, even down to the cartoons (and I was a big fan of Chas Addams work growing up). In my most recent stab at East Coast culture, I now find the magazine deep, engaging, and with a lot going on. Cartoons have improved a bit as well. There is usually some huge article (Anthony Bourdain, the Mosul Dam, Russian cyber-policy) which I find worth plowing throw in detail.

In any event, the most recent issue found its way to my mailbox, with a lovely cover by Tomer Hanuka I found nice, but that my friend Stan! asked to have after I was done with the magazine, and my Lovely Bride declared "That would be worth the subscription". The magazine contains a "lost work" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Written for Harper's Bazaar but never published, The I.O.U. is a short piece about, well, let's leave the summary  for the review section. In any event, there is a book of unpublished stories from Fitzgerald coming out in a single volume, which includes this one, and so the promotional nature of publishing lays it at our doorstep. Which is amusing, since the story is about publishing.

Review: This is a humorous story about publishing, ts characters larger than life, its resolution as straightforward as a punchline. Our narrator is a publisher who has unleashed his most recent bestseller - a book of spiritualism in which a noted psychologist and psychic researcher communicates with the spirit of his nephew who died in the Great War. The publisher goes into great detail about the process of preparing the book for launch, and upon a successful release, sets out by train, a case of books under his arm, to meet with the author in Ohio. And on the train he meets someone who will completely blow the gaff and doom his publication. To say more is to reveal too much. Our publisher is set up for the fall from the onset, and we get to see him scrambling faster and faster to keep all the balls in the air.

Illustration from the story.
Heck, just go read the thing.
The story was written and published in 1920, around the time Fitzgerald's first novel  This Side of Paradise, showed up up to great acclaim and suitable sales. Yet this period was also one where Fitzgerald was getting published mightily for his short works - magazine pieces that paid surprisingly well, yet today live in the shadow of The Great Gatsby. And Fitzgerald's language is firing on all cylinders, particularly when he it is laying out litanies, be it towns in which the books with be distributed or reporters calling out their representational papers.It is, at heart, a good read.

This could be Wodehouse with only a few more malaproped allusions. Bertie could be saddled with this mess with some ally in the Drone's club in the publisher's role, Jeeves directing the final shatterer of their plans in the proper direction. Psmith could serve equally well with just a bit more trimmings. The female lead, Thalia (Goddess (well, Muse) of Comedy - shall F. Scott put a lampshade on all this for us?) is one of those drippy dedicated young maidens that populate Wodehouse's work. Happenstance weighs heavy in the plotting and the resolution.

Fitzgerald can be a funny writer, and Gatsby itself is filled with comic bits that get glanced over in the seriousness of being a "great novel". The Owl that Nick encounters in the library is one such moment, as is the comparison of the names of East Egg and West Egg cognoscenti. Yet we breeze past these, and I wonder if we think of Gatsby as a comic novel with a bleak ending, it holds together better. I'm sure there is some doctoral dissertation out there on "Uses of Humor is F. Scott Fitzgerald's Canon", and if there isn', there should be. Perhaps Fitzgerald, like God,  is ultimately a comedian playing before an audience that is afraid to laugh.

More later,

Thursday, March 02, 2017

DOW Breaks 2100!

Hey, it's something. Powered by the revalation that the President of the United States can actually read off a teleprompter (remember when that was considered a BAD thing?), the DOW took a nice healthy boost to loft itself to another milestone.

OK, it's more than that. Part of it is that the administration is now filled with people FROM Wall Street who promise to not investigate Wall Street EVEN HARDER than previously. Add to that others running the government who seek to reduce the influence of consumers, minorities, safety, and/or the environment. Plus, we have a president who likes to sign bills, get applause, and be photographed with important business leaders (the actual job of being president - not so much). So Wall Street is getting the go-ahead to engage in the very behavior that almost laid us low more than eight years ago, though I'm SURE they will have learned their lessons from that previous debacle well.

I will admit, not all is rosy. Flights are seeing more empty seats as people are less likely to travel if they are being hassled at the US airports. Agriculture that relies on migrant workers is discovering their workforce is staying away from the fields (perhaps they can ask those nice people from ICE to lend a hand). And in the tech industry, the status of foreign workers is screwing up day-to-day operations (Amazon called back everyone from overseas that might have trouble returning in a more hostile environment).

And of course, at any time, a mean tweet from the White House can send stock prices spiraling. But he can't get EVERYONE all the time, so those who are willing to send their CEOs to smile and make nice will likely avoid the stinging lash of retribution. You aren't a CEO? Well, that's not Wall Street's problem, is it?

More later,

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Play: Not Bad. You?

Well by Lisa Kron, Directed by Braden Abraham, Seattle Rep, Through March 5.

Well. That was a bit of a mess. But I think that's the whole point.

Well is a monologue (with other people) that goes horribly and amusingly awry. It is not about the monologist and her mother, when it is, of course, totally about the monologist and her mother. It is also about racial matters, illness, being an outsider and few other things I haven't mentioned. But ultimately, it about mother and daughter.

The talented Sara Rudinoff plays Lisa Kron, who is both IRL playwrite and character in her play about putting together the play. Yeah, its very meta, and that's one of the challenges. Rudinoff/Kron sets herself up as a target at the outset, effervescing early about how this would be an "theatrical space showing the status of illness and wellness on the community and the individual" (I may be paraphrasing here). Then she starts undercutting herself by interacting with her mother.

Her mother (a fantastic Barbara Dirickson) occupies one half of the stage, her domain being a comfortable clutter of binned items for various projects, bound magazines, her favorite lazy-boy, and nostalgic age. She has been in pain most of her life, which she blames on allergies, but she is sweet, interrupting, and continually countering her daughter, whether as to her intent, the veracity of her stories, or whether the audience would want something to drink.

The other half of the stage is bare, where Kron is putting together her work, with the help of four supporting actors who are sometimes various roles, and sometimes actors. These merry elves are supposed to carry out her scenes, but they start having their own suggestions and comments. Various sets wheel and lower onto the stage, with the fussiness that becomes obvious when things start to go wrong.

And things go wrong. Kron is trying to address why some people stay sick and others get well, and cast it against her integrated community where her mom was an activist in the 60s and 70s. However, she is ultimately trying to understand why she and her mother, so similar in many ways, went different ways, where she recovered from her illnesses and her mother merely continued with them.

Kron as character loses control of the proceedings quickly, as her mother expands her own reality into the play, sweetly and relentlessly. The merry elves rebel as well, brought over to mom's side. And an childhood bully, a creature of id, appears in the midst of all this from the audience to terrify Kron further. She is creator left at the mercy of her creation, because she is not dealing honestly with them.

I think. To be fact, I don't know. The play doesn't go for easy answers or explanations (and subverts a potential happy hug moment at the end). It sort of ends where it ends, and could have gone on longer or ended a few lines back. I'm really not sure, and I'm not the only one: for this review, I cheated and looked up other comments on the play - all seemed positive, many just embraced the facile facts at the surface of the place, and a few deliver that mantra of the midwest indeterminalism - "Well, it's different".

And I came away with this: Did I have problems embracing a memoirish play where I knew that the individual portraying the monologist was not the original creator? Does monologue (even as burlesqued here) demand the authenticity of original voice? I accept actors portraying all manner of characters on the play, but strain at them portraying the author of the work? And why this work, when I had little problem with a similar conceit in the earlier "Viet Gone" (where the playwrite shows up to say that it is not about his parents (It is totally about his parents)? In short, would a Mike Daisey monologue be a Daisey monologue if I delivered it?

So put me down as puzzled on this one. Well reminds me of a performance of  Six Characters in Search of an Author that I saw many, many years ago in Milwaukee.  I feel I have experienced theatre, but I'm not quite sure I know what it all means.

More later,


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Adventure: Not-So-Pulp Tentacles, Part II

Darkness, Descending by Mike Mason, an adventure from Cthulhu Britannica, from Cubicle 7 Games


Goodness, it has been more than two years since the last time I checked in with my plucky crew of Lovecraftian malcontents? Seems as if. My Call of Cthulhu group is still playing semi-regularly, but for the past few years, we have been working our way through the upgraded Horror on the Orient Express, run by one of my fellow group members. I tend not to review RPGs I am playing a character in, as such a review is a reflection on the limited information my players has, the group the GM/Keeper's style as it is of the product itself. And while I read a lot of Call of Cthulhu gaming material, I don't tend to review THAT publicly without actually taking it out and running it.

Anyway, this is the second of the adventures from the Cthulhu Britannica booklet from Cubicle 7 Games. The first was Bad Company, which I talked about here. The book consists of four adventures for different eras, set (mostly) in Britain. I won't be running the last two for this group, since they have modern and futuristic flourishes which would be difficult to fit into my campaign, in which it is eternally 1928 and consists of a company of random individuals who have come together to fight the Mythos.

The group consists of Smokes, our exiled Chicago gangster; Horace, our spy/newspaper photographer; Cliffy, our aspiring archeologist; JB,our wealthy dilettante, Hyacinth, our author' and her bombastic boyfriend/hero of her novels, Goodwin McNash. My style with them is very pulp/adventure, and I tend to run with more of an eye towards survivability than TPKs. They have been world-travelers, but are based out of London, and I've been eying this adventure as a means of doing something local. Spoilers, of course, follow.

Cliffy's player could not make it, so I used him to bring the others. The young archeologist was assigned to a dig sponsored by Cambridge in the county of Norfolk. A small team working in a small forest found a site of an old Roman settlement. Among the potsherds, tools, and weapon fragments the group found a particularly ugly bat-statue, and Cliffy called in the rest of the team as volunteers.

The bat-statue is one of five vaeyans, used to imprison an Elder God, Cyeagha. Cyeagha can only break free (apparently) on the fall equinox, which is three days away. Removing the vaeyans will allow him to return. Cyeagha has already possessed a local poacher, and is working on one of the archaeological team as well. should Cyeagha escape, bad things happen. Challenge to the players is to figure out what is up, and either keep the Elder God trapped or banish him entirely.

The adventure is based on a Eddy C Bertin's "Darkness, My Name Is", from The Discples of Cthulhu short story collection, moved from Germany to England as its location. It is designed as a one-shot  as opposed to part of a larger ongoing campaign, and shows it, from pre-generated charters with more archaeological backgrounds to a lack of SAN rewards and the general "everyone dies horribly" ending if things go terribly wrong. So some work is needed to make it part of a campaign.

There are some additional challenges for the adventure. A good chunk of the space is made up of describing the inhabitants of Middle Harling, a community to the dig site, but there is nothing within the presented flow of the game to get the players to TO Middle Harling.over the course of the game. This is particularly nasty since some of the clues to explain what is going on are located in Middle Harling, and straightforward playthrough could miss them entirely.

For my session, I dropped them off in Middle Harling at the outset and let them interact with the locals a bit before Cliffy (being run as an NPC) picks them up to take them to the dig site. They are made aware of the local constable and the church and in particular the local pub. While it felt like the first ten minutes of an episode of the old British Avengers TV show - before the small quirky town reveals its dark secret, it actually gave me a good collection of NPCs to do horrible things to later on.

Worse from a playing perspective was that I had no note how far it was from the small town to the dig site. It had to be short enough that that they could come back and interact easily, but far enough away that whatever happened at the site would not immediately become known. I settled for a 45 minute walk (or a half-hour run), but it is something that is pretty basic for the game. In this case, unlike the usual curse of Cthulhu, the maps were pretty good, and had player versions that I could share with relative clarity.

Organization was a pain. Useful information was sometimes lost in body copy or in numerous sidebars, such that despite it being a short adventure, I kept flipping back and forth trying to find some scrap of data that I swore I knew was in there. Plus, the entire section on Middle Harling itself was banished to the back, after the adventure itself, making it unclear when or where the players would encounter it.

And the handouts were a bit odd, with Library Use getting standard information on "What is an Equinox?" while the translation of an old Latin tablet gets a summary as opposed to a full translation. This is worse because it has an incantation to trap Cyeagha, without any clue to what it says (there is a second spell to defeat Cyeagha utterly which is presented in such an off-handed way I'd be surprised to see anyone understanding and using it).

Art was a bit off as well, as the description of Cyeagha's minions (vomitting forth black tendrils) did not quite match up with the art of half-melted, tentacle-armed individuals, but that part is minor.

In play, however, the townsfolk were surprisingly useful, and I could show the madness that the players take for granted slowly dawning on them. The vicar who translated the tablet for them went more than a little mad, the constable was overwhelmed by sudden deaths, and one of the farmers met a messy end at the hands/tentacles of the possessed poacher. The investigators did have enough action and mystery, and headed down a few wrong paths before they understood that they needed to re-bury the statues (and re-chant the locking spell for the good measure). The poacher (unkillable, slimier each time he returned, and the possessed archeologist made a last-minute assault to break the magical seal on the their god, but ultimately, the player characters survived. And, being an ongoing campaign, they had to figure out how they would seal off the area to prevent anyone else from trying to break the thing open again (like - what about NEXT equinox?)

In general it was OK, but it required a bit more work than I had put in with the Goodman Games versions. Still, it provided a nice base that one can spin an adventure out of, and merits a revision to strengthen the parts that could be part of a long-standing campaign.

More later,

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Gaming News

There are a lot of Kickstarters going on right now, and I missed the closing of a couple of them, but want to mention the others in this space as "offered for your consideration" before they all shut down.

Many years ago, I did a small chunk of the Midgard Campaign Setting for Wolfgang Baur at Kobold Press. Now, the setting is making an expanded return (and other talented hands are picking up the parts I worked on) as the Midgard Campaign Setting: Dark Roads and Deep Magic. There are three main books now, the first of which, on the world itself, clocks in at 300+ pages, with volumes of rules for both 5th Edition D&D and for Pathfinder. Plus a lot of adventures. This one in huge, and is already funded and moving to stretch goals.

Wolfgang Baur is a member of my regular gaming group. So is Bill Webb, whose company, Frog God Games, is putting together a contemporary card game ripped from the headlines. Conspiracy theories, faux news, and click-bait reign in Alternative Facts. Hasn't funded, yet, but has about two weeks to go.

Also in the department of projects with long names, Goodman Games is putting together a series of essays on How to Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck. The venerable and wise Jim Ward has invited in an all-star squadron of veteran designers and editors to give you the inside track on building cool adventures. Also funded, and wraps in three days.

I usually talk about Goodman Games in connection with their Cthulhu adventures, and that makes as good a segue as any for moving into Lovecraftian territory. Stygian Fox got good marks for their previous foray into Cthulhu Modern with. The Things We Left Behind and is plunging into one-night short adventures with Fear's Sharp Little Needles. The talent behind this one is solid as well, with Brian Courtemarche and Oscar Rios among the names contributing. Bonus: they are making The Things We Left Behind available at an upper supporter level, in case you missed it the first time around.

Oscar Rios is the man behind a LOT of good Call of Cthulhu scenarios from Golden Goblin Press. He was the writer of Miskatonic Press The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, which is on my list to run (on top of everything else currently in the queue). Making that running even MORE imperative is that he just launched a Kickstarter for a new version of Cthulhu Invictus, Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome. This sourcebook got its start as fan-made tome, and the officially published version from Chaosium could have been improved. I have no doubts that the new edition will give a firm foundation for the Ancient Roman time period (and, at a high level of support, you can get De Horror Cosmico, a collection of Roman adventures which confirms for me the fact that this will be a good project). It just launched, and is well on its way to funding.

I'm not certain about the last one, but I want to bring it to everyone's attention. WotC-vet Rodney Thompson, who was behind the excellent Lords of Waterdeep game a few year back, is launching a caper-style fantasy RPG - Dusk City Outlaws. Apparently one is running heists in a large fantasy city, which is intriguing, but what makes it interesting is that the games sessions themselves are set up to be easy to run and get into as a player. That's a bit of a grail quest for RPGs, so I am interested in seeing him pull it off.

And that's more than enough Kickstarters for the moment. More later,