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first session: Tapestry

Tapestry's first session was largely devoted to preparatory business, with bits of explicit roleplaying fitted in. The five player characters, partners in owning a small merchant ship, decided when and where to sail on their first voyage (during the midyear sailing season, and on established trade routes to Flumen Anguipes, possibly Cuniculi Longi, and Forum Metallicum) and what to carry (three-fourths export products, including cedar, linen, and smoked salmon; one-fourth luxuries, of which half represented an error of judgment and would never be sold; plus five tons of consignments, for which they got half payment up front). This dictated provisioning and crew selection (they were legally required to hire through the Seafarers' Guild, which assigned them a crew of six to report on the day of departure).

One long roleplaying scene involved their calling on Yarikh, a wealthy local nixie landowner who raised medicinal herbs and brewed mead. Nergul entered his house by a land-dweller's tunnel, but the rest used the formal entrance, which involved swimming; unfortunately Raintooth wasn't as good at swimming as he thought, and Hanno had to rescue him. Sangmu, a troll healer and shaman, talked with him about herbs over dinner, and demonstrated the use of tobacco, an herb she had been introduced to by a troll pilgrim from Occasia, the western continent. Raintooth and Nergul, the two ghouls, were socially awkward, but Yarikh, like most nixies, was adaptable and didn't take offense. Yarikh both lent them a substantial amount of money to spend on more cargo, and gave them a note of introduction to his business agent in Portus Argenti, who could sell them herbs for export.

Before they left, Bengta got a visit from Elissa, a local nixie who asked about signing on as the ship's girl. Bengta, a selkie, wasn't familiar with the idea, and consulted with Hanno, a nixie, who had heard of it; they considered Elissa's terms and decided to let her sign on. In fact Hanno was the first to take advantage of her services during the voyage (to establish his prerogative as senior owner!).

With support from Raintooth and Nergul, Bengta hired a carpenter to build a hidden compartment into the ship—all three of them might have reason to want to hide from view!

The ship sailed for Flumen Anguipes, hoping to buy figs, olives, and olive oil for export to Forum Metallicum, which imported a lot of agricultural products for the dwarves of Fodina Magna. The voyage went well, though the crew wasn't fully accustomed to the ship; they had fair weather and made port after eight days.



Earlier this evening I was editing an economics paper, and was interrupted.

description of symptomsCollapse )

define in play

I've been playing Linnaeus Jorgenson, a retired general practitioner, in koressa's campaign Road to R'lyeh for several years now. But I only just discovered yesterday that he's a Sherlock Holmes fan.

This began when he was talking with Tommy Aoki, a Nisei college student who has just lately become entangled in the weird events of the campaign. Aoki was trying to figure out who was responsible for the kidnapping of Sylvia Kennedy (the campaign patron) and the searching of her house, and putting forth hypotheses involving pinning both on one specific group. This sounded kind of speculative to me, so I quoted Holmes's line about "It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the data, prefacing it by asking Aoki if he had read the Holmes stories.

Somewhat later, Joseph de Philippis, a loan shark who used an accountancy practice as his legitimate business cover, started speculating about whether his boss, Mr. Zenacola, or his boss's nephew Carmine might have organized the whole business, and wondering if he should go and ask or if even asking would be too dangerous. I thought about it and had Linnaeus advise him that not asking might be even more dangerous, because asking would suggest that he was wondering if his interests and the mob's were opposed, but not asking would suggest that he had already decided that they were. And Holmes's other line about "When you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however impossible, must be true" seemed relevant, though I changed it to "must be right" to make the point better.

Of course, the fact that I had previously quoted another maxim of Holmes's put him into my mind. But now I've definitely established Linnaeus as someone who would think of quoting Arthur Conan Doyle. Funny how that happens.

two robots

Curiously, two of my favorite current comics are both focused on characters who are robots. What makes this more interesting is that they're almost polar opposites, almost the way Superman and Batman are polar opposites in the superhero genre.

Atomic Robo, from Red 5, written by Brian Clevenger, is action/adventure, set in the present and the recent past of an alternate world, one where a lot of the motifs of pulp science fiction are true. For a start, brilliant inventors can single-handedly create advanced technology; the title character is such a creation, built by Nikola Tesla (everyone's favorite real world mad scientist) and raised as his foster son—his actual name is "Atomic Robo Tesla." The whole feel of the series is light and often comedic.

Alex + Ada, from Image, written by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, started out looking like character-driven comedy, or maybe even situation comedy, but seems to be evolving into personal and even political drama; it's set in a plausible extrapolated near future. There are no solitary geniuses here! Robots are built by corporations with big research budgets, and marketed as consumer products, and there are political controversies over them. The robot in this series, Ada, is such a product, bought for the other title character as an outrageously expensive birthday gift ($800,000!) by his rich, smart, and eccentric grandmother. The story is largely character-driven and I find this aspect pretty convincing.

So about those contrasts:

Atomic Robo looks exactly like an old-fashioned clunky robot; in the first storyline he even makes a joke about "clumsy robot fingers." Ada looks so humanoid that she can be mistaken for human if she doesn't show the corporate logo printed inside her wrist. We haven't seen her undressed (it's not that kind of comic), but the dialogue has established that her model of robots are sexually functional, though the earlier generation apparently had a "lubrication problem."

As part of this, Atomic Robo is powered by nuclear fuel; Ada eats human food and digests it, and can get faint if her energy reserves get low.

There's no question of Atomic Robo passing for human, even though he's been granted citizenship in exchange for his services during World War II. Ada could perfectly well pass for human, and there are legal restrictions on letting robots do so.

Ada is very definitely based on current computer technology: she has a data port in the back of her head (normally covered by her scalp) and can be programmed through it. Atomic Robo may not even have an internal computer or run programs. We don't know what kind of internal information processing he does, but we certainly never see him downloading anything.

Atomic Robo's personality is totally human. In fact the author describes him as a cranky old man; he's seen a lot of his friends die. He was built around 1900, it appears, and he has a bit of the Steve Rogers "man [or robot] out of time" syndrome. Ada, on the other hand, starts out with no personality and no preferences, liking whatever she's told to like; when Alex has her jailbroken (quite illegally!), her personality remains a bit nonhuman—that's partly because of the Candide effect of her being an innocent, physically and intellectually adult but totally inexperienced, but also we have things like her saying that she interacted with things before she was jailbroken but she has never seen them before. There's a great sequence where she goes about Alex's apartment wanting to smell everything in it, including his unwashed socks.

Atomic Robo is nearly indestructible; Ada could be torn to pieces by a mob, and other robots like her have been.

I'm enjoying the writing on both these series; they're bright spots in my increasingly scanty monthly comics schedule. But I really can't imagine a story where it would make sense to have both of them as characters.

first session: World Class

A lot of the first session of World Class was spent on all of us struggling to figure out unfamiliar game mechanics. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying uses a system where the player picks a bunch of dice of different sizes that represent the character's abilities and situation; possibly raises or lowers the sizes of some of them, or adds more dice based on rules options; rolls them all; and then picks two (or sometimes more) to add up to determine success or failure by comparison with another roll, and on success, picks out another die to determine how big the effect is, with bigger dice indicating more impact. I think we've all started to figure this out, but we're still working on knowing all the things we should look at.

This is a really cinematic game system, with play divided up into action scenes and transition scenes—to which I added a third type, which I originally called resets but which rhinogirl referred to as montages, a name I thought so happy that I adopted it. Rather than make it difficult for player characters to converge, I simply suggested that certain scenes would make that dramatically logical, and they took me up on it.

Most of this session was an action sequence, with a major threat appearing in Sorrento Valley at a nanotechnology firm, Ultrastruct. One character was sent there by EAGLE (the setting's analog of SHIELD) to investigate, and took along another as a bodyguard to keep her from being distracted; this led to appeals for help that brought in the other four—one flying, two teleporting, and one materializing a body out of available mechanical parts. They called the attention of the nanotech menace to themselves and were assailed by half a dozen combat drones equipped with automatic weapons. This was a tough fight, with a lot of the characters getting minor wounds and suffering physical stress, but eventually they shut down all the drones, after which the three scientifically inclined characters did some hasty analysis and came up with a strategy—which we will play out next session, possibly with modifications. In the meantime, one of the magical characters used a spell to probe what was going on and recognize hints of an old foe in the adversary—but also within one of her impromptu teammates.

I was amazed, actually, at how hard a fight this was for the heroes. Part of this, I think, was that I was getting good dice rolls, and they weren't, and this system allows dice fluctuations to have a big impact. But also, part of it probably was that the drones were overdesigned and were more of a threat than I had intended. We may be doing some redesign of characters after we've had experience with a few more sessions.

Still, it seemed to work pretty well for a first time. We were all surprised when the scheduled end of the session came around and we had a storyline all ready for the next time.

"Poikilothermic Blues"

Two friends of ours were asking about this set of lyrics, which chorale and I came up with years and years ago. I was able to dredge six verses out of memory, though I had to make up most of the fourth lines of the refrains.

I want a homeothermic woman
To keep me warm at night.
I want a homeothermic woman
To keep me warm at night.
But I got a poikilothermic woman.
Lord, that just don’t seem right.

Oh Lord,
I got those poikilothermic blues.
That woman’s so cold-blooded
Guess that’s why I always lose.

A poikilothermic woman
Can’t wake up when it’s cold.
No, a poikilothermic woman
Can’t get up when it’s cold.
She sticks her head beneath the blankets,
Lays in bed while the day gets old.

Oh Lord,
I got those poikilothermic blues.
That woman’s so cold-blooded
She ain’t never heard the news.

And when I come home from working
She’s too tired to mess around.
Yeah, when I come home in the evening
She don’t want to fool around,
Cause her metabolism
Shuts off when the sun goes down.

Oh Lord,
I got those poikilothermic blues.
That woman’s so cold-blooded
Makes me want to hit the booze.

Those homeothermic women,
Their blood is always hot.
Those homeothermic women,
Their blood is always hot.
But with my poikilothermic woman
Twice a year’s the most I got.

Oh Lord,
I got those poikilothermic blues.
That woman’s so cold-blooded
She ain’t never gonna blow my fuse.

She got nictitating membranes
That come down over her eye.
She got nictitating membranes,
Looks like she’s always winking her eye.
Lord I don’t know how I’d stand it
If she winked at some other guy.

Oh Lord,
I got those poikilothermic blues.
That woman’s so cold-blooded
Lord she makes me pay my dues.

Her heart it’s got three chambers
Her blood goes flowing through.
Her heart’s got just three chambers
Her blood goes flowing through.
She’s underoxygenated—
So how come it’s me that’s blue?

Oh Lord,
I got those poikilothermic blues.
That woman’s so cold-blooded
Every day I’m bound to lose.


My musical tastes formed in the 1960s and early 1970s, and most of my playlists reflect this. But today I was in a different mood, and I've been listening to a collection of older songs:

Jacques Brel, La Chanson des Vieux Amants
Ray Charles, Busted; Crying Time; Hit the Road, Jack; I Can't Stop Loving UYou
Heart, Tell It like It Is
Peggy Lee, Fever
The Mamas and the Papas, Dream a Little Dream of Me
Pete Townshend, Begin the Beguine

Some of these, of course, are covers, but I find it really impressive how convincingly Townshend and the Wilson sisters convey the vocal and emotional quality of an earlier era.

Overture! Curtains! Lights!

And now that my three old campaigns are over, it's time to begin the new ones: World Class on July 6, and Tapestry on July 20.

World Class is ready: The characters are all designed, and I have the opening couple of scenarios in mind. About the biggest thing still to be done is one of the players coming up with his character's superhero name. (This isn't a world where superheroes are necessarily called by superhero names—it could be like the MCU, where Bruce Banner talks about "the other guy," and "Hawkeye" and "The Black Widow" are nicknames. But I'd like to have some sort of nom de guerre lurking in the background.)

Tapestry has a little way to go: Two of the players haven't finished coming up with their characters' lists of possessions. And besides that, I need to think out the details of how I'm handling the business of sea voyaging—navigation and sailing time, weather, shiphandling, and buying and selling cargo. I have ideas for all of that; I just need to pin it down. . . .

I'm feeling quite a sense of anticipation, actually.

watching the Supremes

With a nice sense of drama, the Supreme Court waited till the last day of this judicial season to announce its decision in the Hobby Lobby case.

I'm struck by the impression that the actual decision was made on narrowly technical grounds: on one hand, the relationship between two acts of Congress, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Affordable Care Act, in which the former granted a general protection going beyond the Bill of Rights and the latter failed to exempt itself from it; on the other, the point that sole proprietorships and partnerships benefit from that protection and closely held corporations are not fundamentally different. Nonetheless, most of the reactions to it are going to be in terms of larger cultural points of view. I have no sympathy with the moral convictions of people who disapprove of contraception or of abortion, but I also have no sympathy with the left.

On one hand, I'm confident that in this case, just as in the Citizens United case, we're going to hear unending rhetoric about "the Supreme Court treated corporations as people!" In fact, that's the exact opposite of what these two decisions did! In both cases, the point is that people have certain rights—the right to freedom of expression, and the right to live by their own religious beliefs, however, wrongheaded—and that when they go into business, they have the right to conduct that business in accord with their beliefs: A Muslim or Jewish butcher can't be forced to slaughter pigs, for example. And the choice to organize a business as a corporation doesn't take away the rights that the organizers would have retained if they chose instead to set up a partnership.

Now, it seems to me that people who work at salaried jobs, whether in business, in nonprofits, or for government, tend to think of corporations as entities: impersonal things that they have to deal with, as employees, customers, and perhaps shareholders. But entrepreneurs have a natural tendency to think of business as a personal activity and an expression of their personal values, and to view incorporation as a legal device for carrying on that personal activity. And entrepreneurs and the left don't get on very well. So I think one thing that's going on is that people who would not themselves set up a corporation for profit are unable to grasp that people who do still feel a personal involvement in what they've created; they don't view it as a vast impersonal colossus for whose actions and policies they have no responsibility. But as an entrepreneur myself, if a very small one, I do value my freedom to carry on my business in accord with my own values.

But the other thing that strikes me is that a progressive who owned a business might, for example, choose to run it in a way that protected the environment, or minimized its carbon footprint—that is, in accord with green values. And if the government were to come in and compel them to disregard environmental concerns and use cheaper methods that maximized shareholder return, they would be outraged. And that's because, whether they use that word on not, greens and a lot of progressives feel that the earth is sacred, and that it's wrong to engage in business activity that violates something sacred. But that's precisely the way people like the owners of Hobby Lobby feel about their particular issue: These are people who feel that sex and reproduction and the unborn are sacred. So it rather looks to me as if a group of people who often regard one thing as sacred are uncomprehending and hostile toward a group of people who regard a different thing as sacred, and want them forced to recant. That is, this looks to me as if there are two different religious convictions at odds.

Now, I'm opposed to having people use the government to force other people to accept their values; so I feel that in this case the Supreme Court made the right call. That's my set of cultural values, and that's what I regard as sacred, I suppose.

Addendum: Here is a beautifully written bit from today's majority opinion explaining the whole "corporations are people" meme:

But it is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings. A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people. For example, extending Fourth Amendment protection to corporations protects the privacy interests of employees and others associated with the company. Protecting corporations from government seizure of their property without just compensation protects all those who have ae a stake in the corporations’ financial well-being. And protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby, Conestoga, and Mardel protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies.

Addendum: Here's another well stated bit, from Megan McArdle's column on the decision:

. . . while the religious right views religion as a fundamental, and indeed essential, part of the human experience, the secular left views it as something more like a hobby, so for them it’s as if a major administrative rule was struck down because it unduly burdened model-train enthusiasts. That emotional disconnect makes it hard for the two sides to even debate; the emotional tenor quickly spirals into hysteria as one side says “Sacred!” and the other side says, essentially, “Seriously? Model trains?” That shows in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent, where it seems to me that she takes a very narrow view of what role religious groups play in the lives of believers and society as a whole.

finales: Nowhere Fast

For the last session of Nowhere Fast, chorale, who dropped out a while back because of the pressure of school, sat in.

We started out with a quick bit of exposition, as Murray, the team's current mage, was sent for debriefing to Greene, the team's previous mage. This led to Greene looking in on Lt. Col. Weldon and asking him if Mason, the djinn-ridden media specialist/hacker, could also come to her for debriefing. After talking with both of them, she reported her suspicion that Murray's phone might have been corrupted during a previous mission, and recommended a scanning of phones for intrusion by demons.

In the course of the debriefing, Murray's phone beeped, and she discovered that she had gotten a text pointing her to a Web site for "Asian secrets of breast enlargement!" She ignored it, but began to be more concerned when she got two more, the last of which promised to reveal the path to apotheosis. While that was going on, Harper's drilling a set of new recruits was disrupted which the whole outfit kept ignoring her to look at their phones, leading her to confiscate the phones and take them to the Information Services department for inspection.

This revealed the main thing that was going on, which was that a lot of low-grade extradimensional entities were trying to gain footholds on Earth by spamming phone and computer users, offering things like superhuman powers or exotic sexual gratifications. Many people's phones had acquired level one gates, which could transfer small amounts of information and enough energy to keep a phone on when its battery was removed. After that things got very chaotic, as measures were taken to hold off this latest version of Case Nightmare Green:

° Bishop and Harper going about the complex confiscating cell phones, many of which they eventually took to the explosives disposal room for a close encounter with Willy Peters;

° Murray being sent off to Medical and Psychological Services for an interview (intended to keep her distracted from the fact that she was not fully trusted), only to learn that the staff there hadn't gotten the word about cell phone spam = the apocalypse;

° Murray buying a bunch of never used laptops to use in running diagnostics on her own seemingly corrupted phone;

° Mason researching the source and flow of the spam, and learning that though it had been routed through Finland, it originated in a bunch of servers in another dimensional plane;

° Mason using her mastery of hacking to shut down Finland by revoking the trust certifications for the entire country;

° Harper dealing with a member of her squad who had reacted to the loss of his phone by hulking out, and who needed to be hit with multiple banishing rounds;

° Murray and Greene tracing the physical locations of the main corrupted servers in Finland, and realizing that though they didn't form a meaningful pattern, the activation of just eleven more servers in the right places would trace a Dho-na curve that would swap Finland for a piece of a hell dimension—but a different set of servers would dump all the energy into sex magic instead, which led to Mason hacking those sites and setting off the Great Finnish Orgy of 2014.

I'm pretty happy with how this came out: It had roles for everybody, and though it had a lot of action, it also went back to the root idea of the Laundry Files, cosmic horror as a vehicle for comedy.

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July 2014


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