Excuse me, sir, but can you fix my glaive guisarme?

Ok, so in the real world I need to fix shit (or hire someone to fix shit) all of the time… or replace shit that has worn out. Pipes leak, shoes wear out, food rots or gets eaten — even this sack of blood and meat I call my body needs the occasional repair. In D&D world, stuff never really seems to break.  You can buy that sword at 1st level, and, assuming you don’t hit a rust monster or a black pudding with it, still be using when you are 10th level without ever even having sharpened the damn thing. Of course, by the time they are 10th level, most player will have a pile of magic swords to choose from (unless their DM is a real skin flint), but you get my drift.

I remember in 1st edition AD&D, Gygax suggested you charge player characters x amount per month per level for upkeep (I don’t remember what he called it) and I guess that was supposed to represent hair cuts, getting your boots resoled, the occasional clean shirt or new pair of socks, armor and weapon repairs, etc. I don’t remember ever enforcing that rule (or having it imposed on my character when I was a player), but the Gygaxians will claim that ‘Saint Gary already covered that.’ And I’m not sure that having players deduct 3 silver pieces from their inventory every time they need to get a haircut or their bowstring replaced is going to feel like the ‘stuff of high adventure,’ but since D&D first caught my fancy because it was ‘less abstract’ than other games I had played up until that point, the occasional lack of abstraction within the game can sometimes be jarring or amusing. Greyhawk city is probably chock full of shoe repair shops, but the rules don’t have any accommodation for forcing the players or NPCs to go get their shoes repaired… so how do all of those shoe repair shops stay in business?

Two of my favorite video games, Fallout 3 and Oblivion, have some accommodation for repairs.  In both these video games, armor and weapons wear out as you use them… every time an enemy hits you, the degree to which your armor protects you drops a little bit.  Every time you use a weapon, it wears a little bit and gets a little less effective. In Oblivion, you can purchase ‘repair hammers’ and use them to repair your weapons or armor (how much they repair it depends on your character’s repair skill, but, bizarrely, these little blacksmith hammers disappear as you use them). As an alternative, you can take your equipment to a blacksmith and they will repair it for a price. In Fallout 3, there are merchants who can repair things for you for a price, or, if you have 2 items of the same type (like 2 laser pistols), you can use 1 item to repair the other, leaving you will 1 item in better shape.  The item you used to repair with disappears (and the game makes a little ‘repair’ sound which sometimes sounds like someone tearing off a length of duct tape — which always makes me chuckle). In both games, how high your repair skill is governs how well you can repair. After a while, in both games, I find the ‘repair’ concept gets a little tedious, although I do wonder how my Fallout 3 character takes 4 worn out shotguns and with the click of a mouse creates 1 really good shotgun with no parts left over. Since it’s a computer game, though, you don’t have to track the current condition of your armor and weapons; the computer does it for you.  If you had to keep track of that using paper and pencil, it would require too much effort.

And ‘too much effort’ probably describes why I won’t have rules for wear and tear and repair in Aldeboran (although I guess since the combat “fumble” tables I use have a chance for your weapon to break, so there is a chance a player might need to seek out a repair person from time to time). Things needing repair seems pretty mundane — certainly not what I imagine when I say “adventure.”

"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.

Memorial Day Musings

Today is Memorial Day, when we in the US are supposed to spend some time thinking about the sacrifices that soldiers have made in the wars over the years (and also attend car races, drink beer and have bar-b-ques).

My grandfather on my mother’s side was not an American soldier; he was in the German Cavalry in World War 1 and an officer in WW2, but he is usually the one I think of when I muse over military history.

(If it matters, he is not one of the three men in the picture at right — in fact that is a picture of cavalry from WW2… I just think standing up to shoot from the saddle is a neat trick — those must be some well trained horses).

Following Germany’s surrender at the end of WW1, my grandfather ended up as a P.O.W. in France (where he nearly starved to death; he and all of his fellow prisoners traded all of their personal belongings for bread). Following WW2, my grandfather ended up in American hands, and, since he was an officer, he was transported to the US for debriefing and captivity following surrender. Interestingly, despite having been a member of the defeated opposition, my grandfather came away from the experience with a positive view of the Americans. He said that the Americans had treated everyone very fairly and great efforts were made by the men who ran the P.O.W. camps to insure that the prisoners were well fed and well treated (the same could not be said for many of the soldiers, particularly the Soviets, who ended up as prisoners in German camps).

Though there is evidence of some atrocities were committed against German prisoners in WW2, the US was relatively magnanimous in victory (on the other hand, I have a great uncle who spent several years as a captive of the Soviets following WW2 and he tells a very different story). And the Germany that my grandfather returned to after his captivity was different, politically and culturally, than the one he left (and probably much for the better since the US has counted on Germany as a military partner rather than an opponent ever since). I think creating an ally out of a defeated enemy in Europe helped secure a relative peace for following generations. The US offered defeated Germany a measure of safety from the Soviets (well, West Germany, anyway).

Maybe ‘Memorial Day’ shouldn’t just be about the past, however. I look at the news from places like Afghanistan and Iraq and wonder how the US will succeed in converting these people from enemies to friends. We don’t seem to be having much success at that and our efforts seem much more piecemeal. Unfortunately, this means that these wars just continue, despite ‘surges’ and declarations of troop withdrawals and banners that read, “Mission Accomplished.” I don’t get the sense that there is a large number of Iraqis or Afghans who see America as an ally or see American intervention as a ‘net positive.’ I got the sense from relatives who had fought for Germany in WW2 that they regarded Hitler’s rule as a national failure, and although erasing that was unrealistic, they at least wanted to try to make up for it and be a very different nation in the future. I think America created that process of turning former enemies into allies not only by helping to rebuild and delivering needed food and supplies, but also by presenting a coherent vision of peace in Europe and a new Germany as a part of that peace rather than just giving the Germans the role of a defeated enemy. The Marshall plan may not have been perfect, but it was a plan and if there is a plan for Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Pakistan and Syria and other points on the map), then I don’t know what it is.

I just don’t see how the US efforts in the ‘epicenter of current troubles’ is going to result in creating a stable democracy in any of these places. If there is a plan, I don’t see it or understand it. I don’t have suggestions, but don’t feel that either the Bush Whitehouse nor the Obama Whitehouse has presented a coherent explanation of what we hope to accomplish and when. Too many half measures and bad compromises and a war in Iraq that we should probably not have started in the first place add up to a chaos where the weak get abused by the strong and the resentments pile up— all of this make me wonder how many more graves are we going to need to dig before the next Memorial Day rolls around?

Strange Monsters

I was originally going to call this post ‘Weird Monsters’ but I have become afraid of using the word ‘weird’ in public because I always misspell it. That whole ‘i before e’ thing.
There are D&D monsters that are just fun to speculate on, especially on a Sunday morning when you are hung over. Like the ‘catoblepas‘ (which is apparently based on Pliny the Elder’s misconception of the wildebeest). How does a creature with a ‘gaze that kills or petrifies’ reproduce? I mean, I know that female spiders often eat the males after reproduction (which seems much worse than not returning a phone call), but the female spider waits until AFTER humpage to eat the male (which would probably result in a lot of gay spiders, but I digress). I imagine two catoblepases (catoblepi?) meeting at a watering hole in Ethiopia and one saying, “What is a nice catoblepas like yourself doing in a place like this? Ugh!” The catoblepas says ‘ugh’ because it dies. And the date is over because they gaze into each other’s eyes and kill each other. Does a catoblepas who is ‘ready to mate’ walk around with a bag over his or her head? If so, couldn’t even a tribe of ambitious kobolds wiped out the ‘bagged and desperate’ catoblepas? And where would the catoblepas get the bag, anyway? And since it doesn’t have hands, how would it put the bag on its own head?
And how could poor old ‘Pliny the Elder’ have been so wrong about the wildebeest? I don’t know much about the wildebeest (although, if I were a wildebeest, I would be thanking Pliny for his misconception since hungry readers of Pliny would run away in terror rather than trying to kill and eat me). I mean, he was wrong about just about everything except that the wildebeest/catoblepas had four legs (which is pretty much a given with large mammals that are not humans or monkeys/apes or whales/dolphins anyway, isn’t it?). It’s gaze kills? Where did he get that? If Pliny ever was in Ethiopia, I wonder if some lazy guide/local just fed him some misinformation. Perhaps Pliny sighted some wildebeests from a long way off and wanted to walk through the noonday sun to have a closer look, but a lazy and wily native guide who wanted to remain in the shade said, “We don’t want to do that, chief. If we, uh, get close enough to that animal that it can see us, it’s gaze will kill.”
“Really?” replied the incredulous Pliny. And then he went and wrote that down in his book.
Everyone loves to speculate on the how/when/why of ‘The Owlbear.’ Yet another creature where St. Gygax took the ass of one creature and the head of another and combined them. I can understand being afraid of bears. I once met a bear on a forest path and nearly shit my pants. The thing was the size of a Yugo (which is small for a car, but really big for an animal). Or maybe I was just frightened and it looked bigger. St. Gygax explained the owlbears origin away by saying, “A mad wizard did it.” OK. But it is pretty strange that the wizard, mad or otherwise, would combine an owl (which is smaller than a bread box), with a bear (which is usually about the size of 50 bread boxes). Wouldn’t the owlbear therefore have a (comparatively) tiny head and tiny claws? Maybe the ‘mad wizard’ started with a ‘giant’ owl. Fair enough. There is a giant version of everything in D&D land. And perhaps he didn’t call his creation a ‘giant owlbear’ as opposed to an ‘owlbear’ because he thought that would cause people to confuse his creation with a creature that was 50 stories tall and ate Tokyo every Saturday (speaking of which, I just noticed that I feel ‘an owlbear’ sounds more correct than ‘a owlbear.’ Why is that?). And were there other bird/mammal hybrids in addition to the owlbear? Turkeydogs? Pelicancows? Duckbeavers?
Because it has been discussed to death, I suppose I better give the owlbear a pass. Besides which, my experience in playing D&D is that the noobs always underestimate the owlbear based on it’s name alone. “Owlbear?” they say, chuckling at the silliness of the concept. One initiative roll later they need a new character.
Gelatinous Cube
The gelatinous cube has always inspired a lot of speculation. When I first started playing D&D, I don’t think we understood that ‘gelatinous’ meant ‘like jello.’ I don’t know what we thought ‘gelatinous’ meant. Therefore, if we were attacked by a “gelatinous” cube we would hammer a spike into the floor and retreat behind it. The cube (which I guess we supposed was solid, like a big meat brick) would slide up to the spike and, according to our DM, be unable to proceed any further. And we would kill it with arrows. I don’t know how we thought it attacked people. Maybe we thought it had a big-ass mouth on the front.

But most people puzzle over a creature that evolved to exactly fill a 10×10 corridor and just slides around the dungeon, like a big see-through Roomba, sucking up everything and anything in it’s path (does anyone else find it creepy that the company that makes the “roomba” is called “irobot”?). Perhaps the gelatinous cube did not ‘evolve’ to be 10x10x10, but some wizard bred it to be that way… like the way that the Chinese bred their little dogs to have pushed-in looking faces.

Travels of Sir John Mandeville and finishing things

One of my new intentions is to try and finish things. For example, I have hundreds of drawings lying around that I have been too lazy to finish. One of the ‘first fruits’ of my newfound ambition is the drawing of a creature known to our ancestors as a ‘Blemmye,’ at right.

“Blemmyes” belong to that class of creature which today would be called an ‘urban legend’ or ‘folk lore’ — like leprechauns or the Loch Ness monster. But in the 16th century, before satellites were constantly photographing the earth from overhead and everything had been google-earthed, there were still lots of blank spaces on the map marked with question marks. Someone (author unknown) wrote about“The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.” Mandeville had apparently travelled to some of those blank spaces on the map and returned to tell of the tale.

Mandeville gives details of the lives of different species of humans like the ‘Skiapods,’ ‘Cynocephales,’ the ‘Cyclopes’ and the ‘Blemmeyes.’ As you can see, the Blemmyes have no head (making decapitation and buying shirts difficult) and their faces are on their chests. Belatedly, I realized that my Blemmeye has no ears; in some of the classic illustrations, the Blemmye is portrayed as having ears that flank his eyes… and female Blemmyes are portrayed as having boobs that start on their cheeks.

Another favorite is the ‘Cynocephales;’ a race of men with the heads of dogs (sometimes portrayed with fur). Their speech apparently sounds like barking and Mandeville notes that although they are very intelligent and reasonable, they worship a god who takes the form of an ox (I suppose thinking that god could be an ox seems just silly to Mandeville, since, as a Christian, he knows that god is really a dead man nailed to some wood).

‘Skiapods’ have one leg and a single giant foot which the Skiapod uses to shield himself from the sun. The classic illustrations of the Skiapods I have seen almost always portray them as lying on their back in the shade of their own giant foot (like in the period woodcut at right); I wonder if the skiapod puts sunscreen on the sole of his foot? Or does he just wear a big-ass shoe?

A sample of the unknown author’s prose:

From this land men go to another isle that is clept Silha. And it is well a 800 miles about. In that land is full much waste, for it is full of serpents, of dragons and of cockodrills, that no man dare dwell there. These cockodrills be serpents, yellow and rayed above, and have four feet and short thighs, and great nails as claws or talons. And there be some that have five fathoms in length, and some of six and of eight and of ten. And when they go by places that be gravelly, it seemeth as though men had drawn a great tree through the gravelly place. And there be also many wild beasts, and namely of elephants.

The book is filled with all sorts of creatures, countries, personalities and observations; like giant snails, dragons, Prester John and other weird stuff. I’ve only read bits of “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville;” maybe I’ll have to make time to read some more of it.

(edit: corrected spelling of ‘Blemeye’ to ‘Blemmye’; and discovered this was also the name used by the Romans for a tribe of Nubian nomads with conventional anatomy (it is not known what they called themselves) — how the name came to be applied to the headless people of Mandeville’s travel is unknown… also found out that ‘cockodrill’ probably means ‘crocodile.’)