Hitting the Road

I’ll be away from home for about a week and don’t know how frequently I will be able to check the blog, email or reply to comments.

I am sure you will all get along fine without me.

The Success and Failure of Gygaxian Naturalism

One of the fun things about D&D that was integral to the whole concept of the game from day one was the idea that ‘things’ in the D&D world more or less worked like they did in the real world but with magic and the fantastic and mytholgy just rolled in. So rats ate dead adventurers, kobolds ate the rats, goblins ate kobolds, etc., and a big gelatinous cube came through and cleaned it all up in order to prevent the dungeon passages from getting impassibly clogged with bones, torch stubs and orc dung. I think some people call this “Gygaxian Naturalism” (although I don’t know who coined the term or how it was originally intended; this is the meaning I have gathered through the context in which I have seen it used).

“Gygaxian Naturalism” is probably not good enough for science, but a vague outline of the circle of life exists in the fantasy world, allowing us to sit down and enter the fantasy world with enough ‘real world’ knowledge to help us along. It’s one of the things that helps a new player easily immerse themselves in the game. So one might know, without having been told, that in the fantasy world water is wet and our newly rolled up dwarf characted will drown if held underwater. The fact that one had to employ knowledge of the real world to navigate the fantasy one made immediate intuitive sense to me when I first sat down to play. How far my character could move in my turn was deduced by how fast I wanted him to move (did I want him to stroll or run?) and whether or not he was heavily burdened with armor, weapons, treasure, etc. It is difficult for me to convey how ‘different’ this was in my circle of friends in 1978 when we first started playing.

One of the places where ‘Gygaxian Naturalism’ breaks down for me is in the intersection between monsters of myth/legends and those same/similar monsters presented in D&D. Initially, learning that in D&D, ‘Medusa’ was not the proper name of one of the gorgon sisters killed by Perseus but rather the species name of a woman with snakes for hair and a parlyzing gaze was somewhat confusing. Discovering that “gorgons” were not the daughters of a sea god but were, instead, a bull covered in iron scales was, similarly, disconcerting. This made my meager knowledge of mythology less useful in the gaming context but delivered the advantage that in the Greek myths, Perseus could defeat Medusa only once since once she was dead she was gone, whereas in our D&D games we could kill (or, more likely, be petrified by) medusas every session. I think the trade off is well worth it.

Who is Charles Foster Kane?

Citizen Kane was one of those movies that they used to show us in school to illustrate the ‘art’ of cinema and I think most of the kids watching resented it because we really didn’t want to see some ‘old’ movie where nothing blew up, no one got shot, there was no shower scene and we had to pay attention to what people were saying in order to understand the point of the film.

Despite my immaturity at the time of the first viewing, I remember thinking Citizen Kane was a great movie, even though, as a kneejerk teenager I was probably predisposed to hate everything that a teacher might have said was worth watching. What I continue to like about it is that it is one of the few films in which the ‘hero’ (Welles’ “Kane”) transforms from a charismatic, idealistic and energetic reformer into a tyrant. Usually we get to see it go the other way around (the ‘bad man’ gets a shot at redemption).

I understand Rupert Murdoch’s career has followed a similar trajectory, except without the “once having been a nice guy” part. According to folks who knew him ‘back in the day,’ when he was in college he was an outspoken leftist and continually publically pilloried his fellow students for perceived defects in character or ideology. As the son of a wealthy Australian newspaper owner, he was apparently one of those people who claimed to ‘love the common man’ without ever wanting to actually go through the inconvenience of having to be a common man. He dropped the ‘Labour’ party bit like other folks droped flares and found his raison d’etre as a “kingmaker.”

My own hope is that, frustrated by the recent “News of the World” scandal, he will soon retire to his Xanadu where he will marinade in isolation and bitterness and eventually mutter the name of a beloved childhood toy before slipping off to the next world. Unfortunately, the real world is not like cinema and the grasping, cynical people seem to live forever.

Welcome to The Village of Hamlet

Click the pic to go bigger! There’s lots of bad shit going on in Hamlet!

Welcome to Hamlet!

Hamlet (named in honor/satire of Gygax’s ‘Hommlet’) is/was a village in my original campaign just a short walk from Khunmar. It is a village where chamber pots are continually being dumped from upstairs windows on the heads of unsuspecting persons below, dogs fight over severed body parts in the street, executions are so commonplace and frequent that they barely draw a crowd and everything is for sale — East Saint Louis, pre-WW2 Berlin, Rome in it’s glory, NYC before Disneyfication and post-economy Detroit all distilled down to their essence and crammed into a village that will fit on one piece of graph paper.
Price lists should include standard dungeoneering items (ten and eleven foot poles, ropes, spikes, etc) as well as blow jobs, VD cures, exorcisms and whatever the medieval version of crystal meth might be.
Nihilist gaming at its best. Penis size and anal circumference size charts optional and probably not a good idea.

On Life Drawing

In the June 27th issue of the New Yorker, there was an article by Adam Gopnik called ‘Life Studies’ about how he took art lessons (sort of) to learn to draw. You need to be a subscriber to read it, but the link is here anyway. If this interests you, hopefully you can beg, borrow or steal a copy. My s.o., Annie, gave it to me saying I might find it interesting. She was right.

Gopnik is an art critic, and writes extensively about art and culture… but it seems he felt a bit like an imposter since he spent all that time talking, writing and thinking about what made some art good and other art bad and yet he felt he could not draw a convincing stick figure. The article tells of Gopnik forming a friendship with an artist who gives lessons in life drawing (i.e.: drawings where one draws directly from observation, striving to make the marks on the paper resemble the ‘real thing’ as much as possible). By the end of the article, Gopnik doesn’t feel that he has become a good draftsman, but he does feel like he has at least learned a new appreciation for the art of representation. There is a lot more to the article than this pat little summary (including some fascinating glimpses into how his friend tries to teach Gopnik how to draw from life), but that’s the part I found myself thinking about today.

Gopnik’s artist friend, Jacob Collins, considers himself a bit of an ‘artistic throwback’ to art’s past. He doesn’t draw or paint anything other than what he sees with his own eyes. Collins impresses upon Gopnik that when most people sit down to draw something, they don’t look at the thing they are drawing — they look at the paper and draw what they think that thing looks like. So we are drawing ‘symbols’ rather than the thing itself.

I had occassion to think about this when I was talking to someone about some drawings I have been working on for a collaborative project. She was explaining why the drawings didn’t quite work for her, and that was frustrating for me (who likes to hear that they have to do something over again?). Suddenly I wondered if part of the problem was that I wasn’t drawing anything other than the ‘representation stuck in my head’ of things. As I looked at the drawings under discussion, all of the faces of the characters started looking alike to me — these were not individuals, they were just place markers or chess pieces. Perhaps I had to at least spend more time looking at source materials and inspiration before drawing something rather than just relying on my imagination, simply because my imagination may have started to travel down some very well worn paths recently, especially as I have gotten busier and some drawings have felt more like ‘work’ than ‘fun.’

One goal for the coming months is to try to do a bit more research and preparation before I sit down to draw. I can’t hire models or limit myself to drawing/painting plaster casts, wine bottles and drapes, but I can at least try to find photographs and attempt to make the people in the pictures a bit more differentiated. Expect to hear more about this current experiment, especially in about 3 weeks when I (hopefully) will have finally finished the big mosaic commission that is kicking my butt right now.

(above, left: some studies of hands by Da Vinci)

With a side of Mugwumps, please…

Found these delightfully pervy pictures by Mat Brown via Monsterbrains today. Brown’s work reminds me of some dinosaur books I had as a youngster, but with more perversion than I recall seeing in those illustrations of trilobites and pterodactyls. If you don’t visit Monsterbrains regularly, do yourself a favor and sign up — good stuff.

"Try the whitefish…I’ll be here all week!"

So my s.o. and I are in the kitchen this afternoon and she tells me she wants me to chop up all of the vegetables for our dinner tonight. “You are going to be the cut-up,” she says.

“This horse walks into a bar,” I respond, attempting to affect the simultaneously nonchalant and manic delivery of Sheckey Greene and failing utterly. “Bartender says, ‘Heya pal, whats with the long face?’ Bud-ump-bump-tish!”

“Never gets old, does it?” she responds, having heard that tired joke many times before.

“Try the whitefish,” I repond, “I’ll be here all week!”

“Why did they say that?” she wonders aloud. “Were they trying to get rid of it?” (it=whitefish)

“I have no idea,” I reply. As a midwestern kid, we all told jokes with all of these Borscht-belt references… and I doubt we even knew where the Catskills were. Annie grew up in Denville, just outside N.Y.C., but, even if she were Jewish, she would have been too young to know about the Jewish supper clubs in the Catskills. By the time she came on the scene I’m guessing those clubs were long gone. And I grew up in Missouri; pretty far from Milton Berle’s stage. I guess we grew up listening to commedians who admired the work of Berle, Greene and the other commedians of that time and place. “Try the whitefish,” is something we say after having repeated an old joke. Growing up, my friends and I repeated it endlessly, as well as cribbing lines from Marxs or the Howards/Fines (“If you moved any slower, you would be walkin’ backwards,” or, “Roy Rogers never met you, did he?” and the like). We admired the unflappable wise guys who were never at a loss for words.

It wasn’t ‘our’ culture any more than ‘Gangsta Rap’ is really the culture of my 13 year old solidly middle class private schooled nephew… but we sucked up and regurgitated those jokes from Three Stooges routines the same way he soaks up Grand Theft Auto and we dropped references to trying the whitefish like he mentions ‘loading the nine.’ We also watched Looney Tunes cartoons, many of which dated back to The Second World War, so we had access to references to coupon books, rationing, blackout regulations and Carmen Miranda without really understanding those things. It’s really strange when you think about it.

In an interview, Robert Crumb says he thinks he internalized all kinds of ‘cultural junk’ when he was a kid — like ‘Little Rascals’ serials, Bazooka Joe cartoons and the like. Recently I’ve been thinking of all the crap I’ve absorbed (or steeped myself in) over the years, and wonder how it ‘comes out’ in how I view the world and what I do.