Saturday, April 15, 2017

Been A Long Time

Since I've uploaded anything here.
A long time for a blog that I never really kept up with to begin with.
It's been over two years, and a lot has happened. I've moved several times, I've started and ended projects, found a new job and then quit, I've started a new relationship, and I've gone back to college.
Maybe now I'll start posting on here again. Maybe.
Right now, I'm probably not talking to anyone, but maybe someone will see this in retrospect. But writing something is better than writing nothing. The whole point of starting this blog was to try and leave behind paralytic perfectionism, so here I am again.
This time around, I think I'd like to talk more about gaming and my hobbies, and maybe leave behind that pretentious psuedo-philosophical vibe I was going for before.
To a brighter future.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Beautiful Moments

Beautiful moments is a concept that I've stolen and kept close to my heart. It's my reason that keeps making me want to write despite meeting my own inadequacies as a writer every time I sit down. I've seen so many beautiful moments over the years that I have greedily devoured and horded for myself. They fester down in my guts, glowing and burning, my most prized possessions. I can feel them all running together, melting into each other and forming a single soft glow inside my soul. I feed it, throw fuel on it and fan the embers hoping to turn it into a fire. Maybe someday, it will grow and I can pass it to someone else.

Pendleton Ward is the creator of the popular animated show Adventure Time on Cartoon Network. A lot of people like it, and a lot of people hate it, for a lot of different reasons. I have my own feelings on the show and my own reasons, but that's a story for a different time; before I even started watching his show, I read an interview with Mr.Ward, and one part of it stuck out to me.

"Pat McHale and I (Pat's my creative director), we both like nice things a lot. I'm a big fan of Miyazaki's Totoro. It's really beautiful and it makes me feel really good inside to watch it and I want to recreate that feeling. I'm just inspired by that feeling. I often times try to make things like that. We try to have moments like that."

I'm a long time fan of Miyazaki's films. Totoro was a movie I watched a lot as a kid. His movies stand out in my mind as not being simply entertainment, but having an element of poeticism that touches something human deep inside me, stoking that inner flame. Ward strives to put that into his own creation, like little jewels that aren't obvious at first glance, that you have to dig for. I realized I wanted to create my own beautiful moments, because they're so precious to me and I don't think there are enough of them in this world.

Civilization: Heart, Hearth, Earth

Civilization is an organism.
It's made up of walls, buildings, plowed fields, books, laws, ideas, people.
The objective of an organism is survival, for self and kind.
Civilization spreads.

At it's heart, civilization is our attempt at controlling our surroundings.
It starts out with ignorance: we don't know where the sun goes at night, where the stars go after dawn, why it rains one day and is sunny the next.
From there, we start to wonder, we come up with ideas for why things are the way they are: storms are when the gods are angry, the sun dies and is reborn every day, and the stars are the souls of our ancestors looking down at us.

That's just how we work. Observe, look for patterns and meaning, then adapt. That's how we, as a species, survive. You have to know what lies over the next hill, because whatever is over there could be the difference between life and death.
But there's always another hill.

So we build walls to keep the Outside out and the Inside neat and tidy. We build houses to shelter us from the environment. We till the earth so that it will grow, or lay down stones to build roads. Animals are tamed, plants are bred and grown. It's a game of control as we eliminate variables.

Observe, find a pattern, form ideas. You have to understand the world around you before you can master it, so civilizations exists in a metaphysical space, a division between the known and unknown.

Sometimes, civilization sprout up beneath an individual. A monarch, a tyrant, a despot, a leader. These civilizations are extensions of the individual's will. Anyone that resists is removed from the equation, like how an immune system reacts to a foreign body. It's all about control. You have to remove the variables.
But these organisms don't last. Once the head dies, so does the body. Or what if the head loses the favor of its body, to find it has turned against him.

So you create things that last. Longer than walls, longer than roads, something that will be passed on. Laws. Boundries. A code. A concept. An idea. A nation. A flag. You draw an invisible line in the sand so that everything is either Inside or Outside.

Laws are the ageless walls within the realm of ideas.
Think of traffic laws for a moment. Everyone agrees that we will drive on the right side of the road (or left, depending on where you are). Follow the laws. Draw withing the lines. You'll be safe. That 2 ton steel death-machine that you're driving? Don't worry about it. As long as you follow the Rules of the Road, you'll be safe.
We know that's not true. We know unexpected things happen. Machines break down, weather changes, people make mistakes. But deep down, don't we think that as long as you do what you're "supposed to" that you'll be okay?
Nothing MAKES us drive on the correct side of the road. It's a choice that we each make. A series of individuals. You have no certainty that someone will decide to drive on the Other side today, you know... just for a change of pace.
Is it a system now? Is it orderly? No, it just takes that one stray element to create chaos.
It's amazing that we can get anything done.

So... Why? What's the point?
We know that if we all agree on the same laws, we will all be safer for it. You give up the freedom to drive on the Other side for safety. That's smart. That's what keeps us alive, the ability to act as a larger organism.

Laws only exist when people follow them. We keep them alive. We pass them down from parent to child, teacher to student.

And so the organism lives on.
We see more, we learn more, we build more.
And so the organism thrives.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Existential

Existentialism is something I've dealt with for most of my life.

I don't know why, but it's something that I seem to have an unusual tendency toward, often falling into the pits of existential dread at the tip of a hat.

It's a word that most people probably recognize, but it's an odd concept that more describes a feeling than a concrete idea. A quick look at wikipedia defines it as "a term applied to the work of certain late 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual." It goes on to explain the key trait of the philosophy, called "the existential attitude," as follows:"a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world."

I've heard this called angst and existential dread. For me, it's the feeling I get when I stop and think about life, when I start looking at the big picture. Everything small starts losing focus for me as I look at the progressively larger system; you stop seeing the trees and you start seeing the forest. But then you stop seeing a forest, you see a territory, a greenish blob on a map edged by dotted lines, and there are many more, just like it. Before long, it isn't even a map, you're looking at a green pixel on a satellite image. To make room for the big picture, you lose sight of the details. You realize that your whole life has been spent on a chunk of rock, drifting through space, big empty space. And it's so small. What does that make you? Just another gear is a giant cosmic mechanism, ticking away towards... towards what?


The universe began.

The universe will end.

Nothing will be left of you, and nothing you did will have made any difference as the entirety of everything returns into the black seas of oblivion. You were just another mechanism to march the universe towards its inevitable heat death, the tiniest moment of time in a dream and it will all be forgotten once the dream is over.

What now?

Now I'm sitting on my couch, and I can't even get up. I'm paralyzed by the thought of my own futility. Once you hit that point, it can be hard to pull yourself out again. You need something to latch onto. Maybe wikipedia has the answer."He (Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, generally considered the first existential philosopher) proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely ("authentically")."

Life is a very personal thing. We all need to figure it out ourselves. We all need to find that something that makes life meaningful, and no one can tell us what that is. For me, it's beauty.

As a 23 year old guy, I get some odd looks whenever I start talking about beauty (or maybe that's just my own self-conciousness kicking in, making me think I get weird looks), but I really think it's why I'm hear. Sometimes, I'll come across something beautiful, whether it's a passage in a book, a walk in a Washington forest right after the rain, the beach on a stormy day, or a the lyrics in a song. It fills me up inside and everything becomes meaningful.

It's something new to me, it's only been this last year that I've been focusing on the details around me and trying to find beauty wherever I can. Yet I feel that even before I realized that I was doing it, whenever I found a beautiful moment by accident, that all my life I horde those little moments. I swallow them down like little fireflies, and whenever I start to feel that hopelessness start to inch back in, I take a step back from the big picture. I remind myself of all the beauty in the little things. I count my fireflies. I think about how little of the world I've seen, how few people I've met, how much is still undone, I think about how many more fireflies are out there for me still to find. Suddenly, I'm not just a gear in some soulless mechanism marching towards oblivion, I am a fortunate observer and participant of a huge dance of light.

Maybe that's odd. Maybe I'm overly romantic and sentimental, but I want to share that light with other people, so that it can touch something deep and human inside of them, make them wake up from the world around them.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Threshold

When I was younger, before the first time I drove across the country, all I really knew was my hometown. It was surrounded by an invisible barrier, and everything beyond it was simply... outside. If it wasn't Longview, it was part of "the outside world." The was no next town over, no state on the other side of the river, no houses around that street, it was all just one big monolithic something. And it simultaneously terrified me and fascinated me.
(awesome artwork by alexiuss from deviantart) 

I don't think I'm alone in this, I think that we as human beings all categorize the world around us between the known and the unknown. This happens geographically, but also conceptually. In all regards, we draw that invisible line that separates the two, and we always very aware of that threshold.

My favorite part of the Lord of the Rings films is a part that most people overlook. It's not important to plot, it doesn't force them to confront the external forces that are against them nor does it significantly enable them. It's not an obstacle, it's not a character's introduction. It's that part when Sam and Frodo haven't even left the shire, when they're walking through the middle of a field. Frodo has a half-smile on his face, he's comfortable with how things are going. Sam just stops. Frodo doesn't notice as first, he's too busy looking off into the distance, enjoying the nice sunny day in the Shire. After a moment, he notices that Sam has stopped, and he turns and looks at him, asks him what's wrong.

Sam kind of stares at the ground, then looks up. He tells Frodo that this is it. This is as far as he's ever been from home. One more step farther, and he'll be beyond everything he's ever experienced, everything he's ever known will be behind him.

When you get to that threshold, you don't know what to expect. It's programmed into us to seek out the unknown, to try and understand it. We are naturally curious creatures, because everything we can learn about what lies around us gives us a better chance at survival. However, that curiosity is tempered by fear, for obvious reasons. Monsters under the bed, in the closest. There's a reason that children are afraid of the dark, and that's because the dark is the unknown to us, we don't know what's just beyond the reach of our night light, and everything we don't know could be a threat to our survival. Crossing the threshold into the unknown is a weighty matter, and it deserves respect.

Frodo just sort of smirks at Sam. We all know that Frodo is the hero of the story, that he's the more worldly of the two, that Sam is just the naive gardener, tagging along. Genuinely, I think that Sam is the hero of the story, but I will get into that in a later post.

After the moment of respect that Sam gives to this act, he takes a step forward. To most of us worldly folks (and Frodo) who've traveled around, we've crossed a lot of thresholds and it isn't something we really acknowledge anymore. After my drive from Washington to Georgia, I can't get much farther from home without leaving the continental United States. Knowing the exact spot in the middle of a field that is the farthest from home you've ever been is a quaint notion that just shows how endearingly mild mannered our Sam is. Although I think he's sympathetic to Sam, I think Frodo is thinking something along the same lines we are. It's just one foot step farther from home, nothing big.


It's right after that they (literally) run into Mary and Pippin, with Farmer Maggot right on their heels, waving sharp farming instruments menacingly. That in itself still isn't out of the ordinary, they've known Mary and Pippin a long time, and this is nothing knew. However, because of this, they fall down a cliff, they almost get injured. Worst, they almost land in a cow pie.

Close indeed, Pip. Close indeed.

Now, I may be rushing things a bit in my mind as I recall these events, but my impression is that it's almost instantaneous (after the battle for the mushrooms) that Frodo senses the approach of the ring wraith (well placed dolly zoom) and group is confronted for the first time by the supernatural and sinister forces that are hunting them.

It all started with that first step across the threshold, and adventure found them.

As we grow older, life moves faster. Things that used to be new and glamorous become part of the everyday and the exciting becomes dull.

When I was younger, at first I thought that the outside world was something strange and alien that had nothing in common with my home. As I got older, I grew more cynical and started to think I had seen it all and that there was nothing new for me to see, even though I had rarely even left Washington. Then I started to realize it was somewhere in between. Somethings are universal, but the world is a large place with a lot of strangeness, a lot of beauty, and a lot of darkness.

I think we forgot that sometimes. Sometimes we forgot that a lot. Sometimes, we are so caught up in our day to day that we forget that adventure can be just around the corner. As often as I can, I try to remember that wonder and fear I felt as a kid. Just beyond that threshold lies a lot of wonderful things, but we don't always have to go very far to find it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sympathetic Magic: A Note For Fantasy Writers and Gamers

Sympathetic magic was the first tumble I took down the rabbit hole that has consumed my life. Introduced to it by a friend while on a car ride, my first response: this sounds stupid.

This book. Read it.
But what is it?

For the most complete look that you can get at sympathetic magic, you should check out James George Frazer's Golden Bough. While this may not have been the origin of the idea, it is certainly the book that popularized the concept, and is relevant all these years later.

It's an analysis of magic throughout different world religions and mythologies, and tries to create a set of rules to govern how they work within those stories cohesively. The concept is simple, that there are two types of magic; imitation and contagion.

  • Imitation magic says that things that look like or somehow resemble each other, are fundamentally connected. Power over one is power over the other. You know, make a doll that looks like someone and stab it, they feel pain, we all know the gig.
  • Contagious magic says that once things become connected they will always be connected. A common example of this is hair, teeth and bones. These things were all once part of you, then feel off/out. According to this, it's still a part of you in a non-physical sense.
Through these two concepts, you can control just about anything. If a witch has your hair or a tooth, you're screwed. Wizard finds out your name (that's part of you too, somehow), then you're screwed. Witch doctor makes a doll that looks like you, yeah... you're screwed. Moral of the story, you never know who might be magical, so watch make sure you hide your toe nail trimmings kids!
This gal? Def totes witch.
I know, hard to believe, but it's true.

Simple, right? So you may be like me and think, why does that need a whole book to be explained?

Because that's only like the first page of the book. The rest are endless (fascinating, yes, but endless none the less) examples.
"Alchemy isn't magic, it's science!"
Proceeds to solve all problems by clapping
hands together and drawing circles.

Why does this matter? Well, not only does this raise some interesting ideas of how the human mind works on a universal level, since these are things that each culture invented independently, but it's an important lesson to fantasy writing: if you're going to have magic in your story, it needs to be consistent. Few things will make your story as silly as directly contradicting yourself. Don't have your wizard say something, like, oh... "I can't create water out of thin air, I need base materials to work with" to make dying of thirst a serious threat only to turn into a magical fire hose to extinguish the fire engulfing the palace. I'm looking at you, Genie.

You're the reason I can't watch Disney Channel anymore, you blue bastard!
When I first heard about this concept, I thought it just sounded like a tired trope. I mean, who hasn't heard of a voodoo doll or a witch that needs a lock of hair or a personal possession before they can curse their victim? Well, sometimes an idea is cliche for a reason. It makes sense to people and a lot of these ideas resonate with a primal part of us that we don't really understand. If you make your magic system too technical, then it's just an alternate science, but if it doesn't make sense, it'll seem like you don't know what you're doing and like you're just making it up as you go along; you either ruin that sense of magic or they won't stick around to see what happens next. But sympathetic magic walks that fine line, a sort of dream logic, where you know that wouldn't work in the normal world, but when reading you can just sort of tilt your head to one side and say "yeah, that could work."

Besides, what's your other option? A generically magical energy that fuels spells the way electricity powers a computer? Not only is that a cheap plot device but it's also boringly drab! Your audience would never accept that!
Oh... oh yeah.

It Arrived!

Muh copy of Crypts & Things arrived in the mail today.
I've been reading a lot of review on it, so I'm pretty psyched to run a game.
Expect rant soon.