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let the games begin

I've just gotten back from the character design session of my new GURPS campaign, set on Mars in the year 1889. This is a version of Percival Lowell's Mars, with a thin oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere, canals bringing water down from the polar icecaps, and humanoid inhabitants struggling to maintain civilization as their planet dies. Travellers from Earth get there via spacecraft with reactionless drives based on electromagnetic physics. At this point there's a small human population in Mars's huge equatorial valley region, and a start has been made on establishing diplomatic relations.

Five people attended the character creation section, and at this point we have two scientist/explorers, a trader seeking Martian antiquities (scientific or artistic), and two dubious hirelings—one huge and muscular, and one smaller and sneakier. I believe the first three are Old Mars Hands; the other two are new arrivals. Three players have played GURPS before (one of the three only 3/e); the other two are new to it and needed a little help with character creation, especially with the idea that you have a number for your character's ability and a different number for the cost of that ability. But everyone has a character sheet filled out.

We got through about an hour before my scheduled ending time, so I suggested that the two new players might like to run through some combat and see how their characters functioned in a fight. This turned out to be fairly one-sided, as one of the two had fairly successfully made a combat monster, both very strong and very fast. But I could see both of them getting more involved in the situation as the exchange of blows continued and they saw how their different options worked. So I'm hoping they'll get caught up in the first actual session, taking place next weekend.

All in all, I think I've got a decent set of new players, and I'm hoping to sustain their interest with an initial campaign.

Civil War

Just lately I added Captain America: Civil War to our film collection, and yesterday C asked if we could watch it (which we did on her laptop, as the file was too big to fit on the tablet, and both of us were somewhat unwell and didn't feel up to sitting in front of my desktop). I had enjoyed it a lot in the theater, but my opinion of it went up on this second watching.

One of the strengths of this film, as of many Marvel films, is the emphasis it puts on relationships between characters. There isn't just an us-vs.-them dynamic; each group of superheroes contains people with different motives for belonging to it, and there are also distinct individual ties that reach across. Natasha Romanov, in particular, both has her long friendship with Clint Barton (and doesn't want to lose it) and cares a lot about Steve Rogers; more than once, we see her wanting to make sure he's all right, despite their being on opposite sides. And it's telling that Team Rogers is mostly made up of people who are personally loyal to him or to each other—Bucky Barnes is his oldest friend, Sam Wilson is a new and deeply loyal friend, Wanda Maximoff is someone he wants to protect, Clint Barton is someone else who wants to protect her, Scott Lang has met Sam Wilson—whereas Team Stark is not so based on personal loyalty: Natasha Romanov thinks Tony Stark is right, this time, but her personal loyalties are to the other side; Peter Parker has never met Stark before this film and is just trusting what Stark told him; T'challa has entirely separate motives and goals and is there purely as an alliance of convenience. In a way, this is consistent with the political theme of each: Rogers is all about individual choices, whereas the Vision, another of Team Stark, explicitly tells Rogers that he should be concerned for the collective good (not even "the common good" or "the general welfare").

I noticed that the design for the virtual box for this film has Captain America's shield with a red side and a blue side—and it's Captain America who's on the blue side. That may be intended to telescope that Stark is in the wrong, but it's an odd choice. In American terms, it's Rogers who's a conservative—the very name "Captain America" suggests a patriotism that's alien to progressives; conservatives talk about individual rights and only progressives think that "collective" means anything good; and the theory that superpowers should be used only under government supervision, versus the theory that those with powers should make their own choices and take responsibility for them, has obvious analogies to the debates over gun ownership. I'd also note that both Stark and Rogers want to "protect" Maximoff—but Stark wants to protect her by keeping her in confinement, and stopping her from leaving; Rogers wants to protect her freedom to choose for herself. If there's an analogy to be made there, I think it's in the other direction from what that image might seem to suggest.

Political allegory aside, though, the attention to relationships is one of the big strengths of Marvel films. I won't say they never forget that superheroes are people, but they do keep coming back to that. DC hasn't been nearly as good at this; other than the latest Batman trilogy, their recent films have focused on action, combat, and danger and not had a clear focus on motives or relationships.

It's also a mark of progress in filmmaking that though the special effects for superpowers are really impressive in this film, they aren't what the film is about. Yes, we believe a man can fly, but what the directors are asking us to come and watch is a film about Steve Rogers, his relationships, and his moral choices. I suppose in a way this carries forward the innovation in comics writing that Marvel made in the 1960s, and that DC took a long time to figure out.

GURPS again

After months away from GMing, I went down to San Diego county to run a session of my GURPS campaign Tapestry. This is a fantasy campaign set in an early Bronze Age world with multiple humanoid races, where magic is based on dealings with the spirit world. In this campaign, the player characters, who had been on a long voyage seeking new trading partners, turned around and sailed back toward home as winter drew near.

We had a sequence with a brief visit to an elven community in an environment similar to the Pacific Northwest, and one with sailing around the northern end of the continent of Occasia through winter storms. But the roleplaying high point of the session came as the ship approached Dumetum Furtum, the homeland of one of the player characters, Onofrio.

Onofrio announced that, since the voyage had been a success, and he was expecting to establish further trade relations with the ship's home city, Portus Argenti, he had decided that it was time that he and his half-sister got married, for the sake of respectability. And that led one of the other PCs, Kenbash Nergul, a ghoul woman, to announce that she wanted to make a wedding gift for the half-sister, Livia: A clitoral sheath such as Nergul herself wore. So she wanted to know what dimensions to make it.

Somewhat flummoxed, Onofrio explained that nixie women weren't really anatonomically capable of supporting such an article. Nergul refused to believe him, and eventually stalked away, went up to the ship's girl, Elissa, and demanded that she raise her skirt. Elissa said, "Out here? For that you come into my enclosure, in private, and you pay me! That's how it works." And Nergul eventually agreed, stared at what was revealed between Elissa's fingers, and proclaimed her pity for all nixie women for how the gods had cheated them.

Somewhat later, after some more roleplaying, including Onofrio asking Nergul if she could make some elaborately carved ivory combs and jewelry, I had a further thought, and told Onofrio's player that Elissa took him aside, and said that as her own wedding gift to Livia, she wanted to take Onofrio in hand, and show him step by step what gave pleasure to nixie women—and to do so as a freebie, since she would be showing him how to give her pleasure instead of focusing on Onofrio's pleasure. Onofrio's player accepted gratefully, and I proclaimed the descent of a curtain of asterisks.

(It may add to the amusement that both Nergul and Onofrio are played by women.)

I found it interesting to wonder how my three new players might have reacted to such a scene—not that I would give them one, at least not in the first campaign! This really brought it home to me how far my campaigns often depart from the general run.

the right stuff

Earlier this week I paid a visit to the Riverside County Library to pick up a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, whose books I'm in the process of reading. But I dislike making the trip for just one book, so I also requested Charles Stross's The Nightmare Stacks. I had read it once before, but I remembered enjoying it enough so that I thought it might repay a second reading.

This is volume seven of the Laundry Files, and that series has being going through a transition. It started out as spy thrillers about the intensely bureaucratic secret British government agency that keeps track of monsters, sorcerers, evil cultists, and impending apocalypses. But spies are part of the same range of government functions as armed forces: Their job is either to prevent a war, to detect one before it starts, or to help win it. In the last few novels, the series has been moving closer to being war stories, with events taking place that are harder to conceal from the public. In this one, it goes over the edge.

The war scenes make up the last third of The Nightmare Stacks, and they involve an attack from a direction no one in the Laundry was anticipating: an invasion of Leeds by the Fair Folk. Neither side in the conflict is remotely prepared to deal with the other, and the situation is a total mess—and, to my mind, a plausibly portrayed one.

But what struck me about it, on this reading, was an aspect of characterization.

One of my very favorite superhero movies in The Incredibles. But when I watch it, the single scene that grabs me hardest doesn't involve any form of superpowers. It's the one where Helen Parr is flying to the tropical island where her husband is a captive, and has found that her older children have stowed away on her plane—and as she approaches the island, two missiles are filed at her. And we see her taking evasive maneuvers, and trying to think of a way for them not to get killed—but also talking on the radio in a totally calm, level voice, explaining the situation and trying to get help. This is obvious a terrifying situation, but she panics to self-control. And that's a trope that gets me every time.

Well, okay, Stross has it in this book, multiple times, not just and not primarily with the main characters, but with supporting characters and even with walk-on characters:

* The guy in British army HQ who gets a call telling him that Plan Red Rabbit is in effect—that being a detailed plan for what to do if Britain is invaded from Middle-Earth—and just says, "let me confirm and get back to you," and after doing so calls out the armed forces
* The commander of a tank force who sees a dragon flying overhead—the mere sight of which gives him a migraine, and incapacitates much of his force, in one case fatally—but manages to give the order to shoot
* The civilian pilot whose plane is hit with a basilisk attack that explodes his co-pilot's head, but who manages an emergency landing before collapsing
* The two senior Laundry personnel who go up onto the roof of their new and inadequately warded building to hold off the elven armies, expecting to die in the process
* The Laundry technical staff member who shoots a pair of dinosaur-sized basilisks with a machine gun, and then calmly tells his driver to take over navigating, as the resulting flash has blinded him

Possibly the best summary is

Yup, he thinks we're going to die now, Pete tells himself, trying the idea on for size; it's a bad fit, but they don't have time for dramatics, so he dismisses it.

Now, you could think that this would get to be too much, but it doesn't have that effect, at least for me. This may be partly because it's inherent in the trope that it has to be understated. But I think Stross is also making the point that the ability to think like that is a resource that a military force has to have to be effective; it can't be a rare exception in a functioning army. In any case, as I say, it's a narrative effect that I find compelling; I've liked it ever since the scene in Starman Jones where Max's friend Sam sends Max and Ellie up into the starship and stays behind to hold off the attacking aliens.

I'd also note a couple of other things that worked for me:

The scenes that make the point that First of Spies and Liars, one of the elves, who as a race are characteristically murderous psychopaths, has the ability to empathize—and in her culture this is not like being homosexual in the 1950s US or Victorian England; it's like being homosexual in the Middle Ages, when it carried the death penalty, and not an easy death.

The scene at the end when the mode of action changes from war to law, with First of Spies and Liars reciting legal formulae that are at least as powerful as magic, and that dramatize the victory of law over violence.

research

I decided to make the new campaign a steampunk one involving travel to Mars. And this is going to be Lowellian Mars, the world that Wells, Burroughs, Lewis, Heinlein, and Zelazny all used as a setting, with Burroughs-style humanoid aliens. GURPS Mars has a chapter on "Dying Mars" that perfectly fits this, with five different races (which look curiously like elves, men, hobbits, dwarves, and orcs, but the relics are rayguns rather than magic swords).

And then I started looking closely at the map, and I realized that one of the surviving Martian civilizations was called Valles Marineris.

I'm okay with the geography of Mars being that of the actual planet, modified by having a surface pressure of 0.34 atmospheres, rather more water, and consequent erosion; Schiaparelli and Lowell's maps were based on the actual planet within the limits of their telescopic resolution. And I'm okay with using names in Earth's classical languages, rather than making up Martian names in Martian languages. But Valles Marineris was named for the interplanetary probe that discovered it; it doesn't come from a 19th-century name. So what was that region called in the 19th century?

After two or three searches, I found a really beautiful map that seems to have only Schiaparellian features and that has classical names. Matching it up with modern maps such as the ones in GURPS Mars is a bit tricky, even though they both have lines of latitude and longitude. But it looks as if that region wasn't given a specific name; Valles Marineris, despite being incredibly huge, was too small to be seen from 90 million kilometers away. However, the names Ophir and Candor both appear on the map, and GURPS Mars uses them as names for two cities; so I may call the culture area the Ophir culture. Or it could be the Agathodemon culture, as there's a dark streak that runs parallel to Valles Marineris that has that name. . . .

two-part invention

I woke up this morning, not long ago, and realized I had been dreaming that I had discovered a nativity hymn by Arthur Rimbaud. In fact I had found both the French original and an English translation, and I was looking at the first verses and thinking about whether the translation looked accurate. I'm not sure if I dreamed actual words in French (or English) and they faded, or if my brain had just done FRENCH TEXT HERE.

developments

One of the hard things about moving out of San Diego was leaving my established roleplaying gaming circle behind. I planned to travel down some months to run sessions for one group of players (I'm hoping to actually do it at the end of this month!), but I was hoping to find roleplayers up here. For some months, though, I wasn't getting anywhere.

Earlier this month, I heard from a GURPS player who had seen my post on a newsgroup for people looking for games or players; he had moved to Riverside and was hoping to find other GURPS players. We got together earlier this week, and he told me about a gaming site he'd discovered—an office space set up for hosting rpgs and board games, for a modest fee. I went up with him to sit in on a game. When I mentioned that I was interested in running GURPS, one of the other players expressed an interest, so I got his name and e-mail, and this morning I wrote to him about what I had in mind.

At this point it looks as if I have a set of possible times and two definitely interested players, both of whom want to try to recruit more people. I've suggested some ideas for campaigns, with the hope of settling on one and having a first session in March.

I'm going to have to adjust my GMing style a bit, I think, since my campaigns have often been high on roleplaying and low on action, and in any case I'll have to figure out what works for these players. But it looks like I might have a local gaming circle if all goes well.

Låt den rätte komma in

On Friday evening, I actually began to see the end of my current work queue. So C and I took a couple of hours for video. Last year I had acquired a copy of the Swedish film Låt den rätte komma in (I wanted to see the original; I mistrust American remakes of European films), and had been wanting to watch it ever since, so we picked that one.

The premise of the film is vampirism, and actually fairly conventional vampirism: People bitten by vampires, if they don't die, become infected and turn; vampires find sunlight painful and if exposed more than very briefly burst into flame. There's also a clever twist on another old formula: A vampire can enter a place without invitation (this apparently must be spoken invitation), but shortly afterward they begin to hemorrhage massively all over their bodies. But this vampire, Eli, is unusual in being twelve years old ("about" and "I've been twelve for a long time").

But that's not what the film is about, and that's what we both found amazing about it. What Låt den rätte komma in is about is love.

The film starts off with a socially isolated twelve-year-old boy, Oscar, who's a target for school bullies. He observes a girl his own age and an older man (apparently her father) moving into the apartment next to his. Then at night, while he's outside muttering things the bullies have said to him and stabbing a tree with a knife, clearly wishing it were one of the bullies, Eli approaches him. They're cautious with each other at first, but over the course of the film we see them coming increasingly to care for each other, even while Oscar slowly figures out Eli's true nature, and even more slowly admits it to himself. The relationship was both convincing and moving to watch.

But that's not the only portrayal of love. There's also the story of Eli's seeming father's willingness to take appalling risks for her, and to pay any price to keep her safe. And there's a subplot about two men, very close friends, one of whom encounters a desperately hungry Eli, and dies—after which the other shows prolonged grief for him.

So though this is about a classic horror motif, this isn't a horror film, or not straightforwardly so. There are things in it that are creepy and disturbing, but in watching it, I felt much less terror or horror than sympathy. Though I suppose it could be said that in persuading the viewer to be sympathetic to someone who is, ultimately, a serial killer, it's horror at a meta-level.

I was also impressed by how intelligently the plot was developed, and how many things that were planted early on came back in later scenes to be important. I found the whole film to be unusually rewarding.

work statistics

So the work is continuing to come in:

I have two nonfiction books in my work queue, one of them soon to be completed and turned into production, the other due to go to the author for review in a couple of weeks.

I'm working on the second volume of a novel, which I'd like to return in early to mid February.

I'm halfway through one journal from a university press, and I've done nearly all the articles for another journal, but there are more articles to come.

Another university press has just sent me my first assignment, a batch of articles for a journal, due in about a month, and I've just sent them a short list of queries about the details of journal style.

My longest established journal client (I've been with them since I first started freelancing) has some articles that are supposed to reach me for editing in the near future.

Oh, and Steve Jackson Games is interested in a couple of my proposals for short articles for their online magazine, and they have a book manuscript waiting for one of their editors to have time to review it.

All in all, this is setting out to be a busy year. I'm hoping it continues!
My work comes to me over the Internet, and often includes tens of megabytes of files. E-mail providers often block anything that large, so some of my clients use a service called WeTransfer, which will send up to two gigabytes, free.

Recently, though, I've started having a problem: I get a download from them, which is zipped; I click to unzip; I get a file in a format called ".cpgz"; I click that; I get back a new copy of the original zipped file. Apparently the process just cycles, and never yields a readable file.

I don't usually find online help archives helpful; finding exactly the entry that addresses my problem is tedious and unreliable. But I was having this problem again today, so I decided it was time for desperate measures. And there in the first entry was an explanation: Both Windows and Mac provide decompression utilities as part of their operating systems, but those can't handle the compressed files WeTransfer produces. And whenever someone wants to send two or more files, they're automatically compressed, for efficient. It's a curious notion of efficiency that involves using a format that neither of the big two operating systems can work with. . . .

WeTransfer pointed me at what seems to be an actual solution: There's a utility called The Unarchiver that can work with their zipped files. It turned out to be available from the Apple Store as a free download. It worked on the first download I tried it on.

But really, couldn't they have just come up with a compression algorithm that works with the "out of the box" OSs?