Monday, November 30, 2009

Return to the Dungeons

On November 21st, my friend Stephen Fitzpatrick hosted the first round of Dungeons & Dragons any of us had enjoyed in years. Excepting the one-off "Nerdieth Anniversary" event about five years ago, it's been close to two decades since the last time I rolled up a D&D character.

For those unfamiliar with the game, D&D is a special sort of amusement, part boardgame, part storytelling. Each player creates a character with a set of mental and physical attributes and personality quirks, and the referee of the game, or "Dungeon Master," facilitates a kind of collective storytelling session, with each player taking on the role of his or her character. Dice rolls to determine whether or not any given action is successful add an element of chance to the game.

Stephen happens to be a wonderful painter of the pewter miniatures used to represent player characters in the game, and in the photo above you can see some of his work. I apologize for not having written down the character names, but from the left we have Audrey's paladin; my bard, Timbre Wavecrest; Jeff's elf ranger; and Mike's gnome spellcaster. Minatures for Pete and Scott are missing, since theirs haven't arrived yet. (They used temporary placeholder miniatures, seen in some of the shots below.)

When I told Sylvia that I was going to start playing D&D again, she asked me what sort of character I was going to be.

"A bard," I said.

"What's that?" she said.

"Well, it's sort of like a travelling musician. I have a lute and I sing and play music to inspire the other characters to greater heights of heroism. And I wear this cool poofy shirt."

"Oh, you're the gay guy," she said.

"I'm not the gay guy," I said, flustered, "Not that you couldn't play a gay character if you wanted to, but I happen not to be gay - I mean, the character isn't gay. Neither am I, of course. Anyway, just because you have artistic ability in the game doesn't mean your character is gay, just like in real life."

"Mmm hmmm," Sylvia said.

I thought I had a sort of 70s rocker thing going...

Our story began at the sort of quaint little town familiar to any seasoned roleplayer, with an assortment of colourful supporting characters and a plot hook to get us started. In this case, our merry band, looking for work, took on the task of tracking down the kobolds (think miniature wannabe dragons) who'd been raiding a supply caravan.

We followed the trail of the kobolds to a dungon and blundered our way into combat. Note that my character has cleverly placed himself at the rear of the party, in relative safety. The monster to the right is a kobold weilding a sling. The green rectangle with squiggly lines represents a pit full of some kind of nasty fluid. Stephen hinted that we probably didn't want to fall into that pit.

We waded into battle with a will, dispatching the first group of monsters with relative ease. I actually mocked one of them to death with the power of my mighty charisma. Note the bloodstain on the floor leading into the pit - Mike's gnome used telekinesis to squish and drag one of the poor creatures to his death.

Audrey and Pete just before a roll of the dice.

Having slain all the monsters on the first floor, we boldly made our way down the stairs to the next level. Once again I bravely led from the rear, strumming my lute and chanting inspirationally, safely out of range of projectile weapons. We came across another group of kobolds, this time playing some kind of macabre game called "skulls," using a heavy wrecking ball hung from the ceiling to knock over piles of skulls, carnival-style.

Unfortunately the wrecking ball also made a handy weapon, bowling a couple of us over. Poor Jeff's ranger was nearly overcome by vicious dogs, bleeding all over the rank dungeon floor before we were able to rescue him. Fortunately the healing powers of Audrey's paladin were enough to sustain his life force. A close call! (As in real life, Jeff winds up the most badly injured of anyone in our little group! He's had a bit of bad luck with pratfalls.) In the end we prevailed and pressed onward until the late hour forced our middle-aged real-life bodies back into bed. To be continued whenever we can all get back together again - probably not until January, real life being what it is, brashly intruding upon our geeky pastimes.

Dungeons & Dragons, or any of the hundreds of other role-playing games, are great for anyone who loves storytelling, improv, and the theatre of the absurd. I'm grateful that Stephen offered to escort us down those hallowed dungeon halls again, and I look forward to the next exciting episode.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bill 50, Brought to You By...

It's not my intentention to turn this blog into merely another outlet for the work of the Official Opposition, but for those who are interested, here's the latest video from the Alberta Liberal Caucus.

Back to writing about Star Trek and comic books soon enough, I promise.


For some reason, certain YouTube videos look off-centre when embedded in my blog. If this annoys you,watch it here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Official Opposition Podcasts

After posting an Official Opposition attack ad, I did promise the commenters who objected to the ad that more positive content was coming. While there is criticism of the Alberta government to be found in these two podcasts - one from Official Opposition Leader David Swann, one from Health critic Kevin Taft - I think they're pretty rational, reasonable interviews, particularly David's.

Listen here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Paranoid Productions Presents: Generous Nature

I've had a passion for narrative since I was a very small boy, so as soon as I had the resources I started writing my own stories and making my own movies. Of course, as an amateur, my efforts have been somewhat uneven, to put it kindly. But the point (I rationalize) is to have fun, and have fun I did. I hope my collaborators did too.

Generous Nature was shot on video by members of the University of Alberta Star Trek Club sometime between 1988 and 1990 in Tony Longworth's apartment. (Tony stars as "The Boss" here.) We shot this, if I recall, after participating in "An Evening of Murder" party game. Not wanting the costumes to go to waste, we decided to ad lib this brief film noir (film mauve?) feature. Film noir is one of my favourite genres and it was a pleasure to submerge myself in the reassuring conventions of formula.

Perhaps the only genius of my brief film career is that I rarely allowed myself to appear on screen, saving that indignity for my long-suffering friends. Instead, I usually barked orders from the metaphorical director's chair and handled the camerawork.

No matter how slapdash the final product, I'm always happiest when I start and finish some kind of creative work. I have hundreds of half-finished, abandoned projects, so I feel deeply satisfied whenever I actually complete a work - even something as cheesy as Generous Nature.

I'm very grateful to my friends for going along with my silly projects. Risking their dignity, they always stepped forward (if sometimes reluctantly) whenever I proposed some harebrained scheme.

And on that note, if any of the actors in this film don't wish this short movie to remain public, please let me know and I'll take it down forthwith without complaint. My intent is not to embarrass anyone (save perhaps myself). Not that I think there's anything embarrassing here - just a bunch of twentysomethings stretching their creative muscles and having fun.

That's what it's all about, isn't it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

USS Encounter Bridge Displays

In the comments a couple of posts ago, Jeff alluded to some work he'd done on older-model computers back in the day. Believe it or not, I actually saved some of that work by pointing a video camera at a monitor and filming the results. While the image quality is poor, I think you can still get a sense of the amazing work Jeff did with the computer technology of the day. Jeff also composed the music in this video - it's named "Coda," after the villain of the Star Trek fan film we were working on back when we were members of the University of Alberta Star Trek club. I was most impressed with the meticulously modelled USS Encounter, our imaginary ship back in the day - not just a plain old Miranda class, but a unique class of its own, as evidenced by the sensor pod replacing the Miranda's weapons pod. Talk about attention to detail!

Jeff came up with several displays for the abandoned film. In order, they are:

Red Alert signal
Damage control readout (note that the display itself also has a "damaged" setting)
Environmental control
Deflector control
Power readout
Klingon tactical view (Encounter under attack!)
Klingon power readout
Captain Woods' email/alarm clock

It's too bad that the resolution is so bad. Jeff put a lot of work into these, and the little details are really impressive.

Even then - perhaps especially then - computers were wonderful creative tools. I'm glad I took the time nearly twenty years ago to capture at least a fuzzy glimpse of Jeff's work.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bloomin' Great Garden

Click to embiggen for a better view of Mom and Dad's award-nominated yard!

My parents just found out that their yard has been nominated for a Communities in Bloom award. They deserve the recognition; as the years have passed, Mom and Dad have gotten more ambitious and experimental with their gardens, gradually whittling down the lawn grass and replacing it with flowerbeds, vegetable gardens and trees and shrubs.

I first found out about the Communities in Bloom program when I started working for Hole's Publishing. The awards encourage individual gardners and municipalities to beautify their yards, streets and parks through gardening, and Edmonton has won the major city award several times, including this year. It's a great program that rewards people for sprucing up their communities, getting active and staying in touch with the soil.

While I'm no gardener (somewhat ironically, since I've written books on the subject), I have great admiration for people who pursue this virtuous hobby. Hopefully Mom and Dad will come home with an award next week when they return from Leduc City Hall.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Our First Computer - The Amazing Atari 400

Way back in 1980, Mom and Dad presented the family with a very special Christmas gift: an Atari 400 computer! Sean and I hooked it up to the television immediately and played Galaxian and Pac-Man for hours. For the era, these were excellent recreations of the actual arcade games, with graphics and sound far superior to the home video game systems that were popular at the time. We picked up games at a pretty steady clip: Donkey Kong, Shamus, the infamous Claim Jumper, Jungle Hunt, and one of my favourites, Caverns of Kafka, a sort of Indiana Jones-style maze game with fiendish puzzles, lakes of lava, traps and so on. This game had to be loaded into the computer's memory via the Atari 410 tape drive; the software came on a cassette tape, and it took about a half hour or more before you could actually play the game. During the loading process, the computer would make horrific gasping and screeching noises as the data was read into the machine. The real fun was guessing whether or not the software would load successfully at all; it failed about half the time, usually right before completion.

A little later on we delved into the kit that came with the computer: "The Programmer," which included an Atari BASIC cartridge and a couple of reference books. I wrote a couple of simple Infocom-style adventure games and some graphics software to generate moire patterns.

The Atari 400 (and the other Atari 8-bit computers) used the familiar joysticks and paddles from the Atari 2600 video game system. The joysticks were nigh indestructible, but we did eventually wear them out thanks to hundreds of hours blasting asteroids, exploring labyrinths, shooting cowboys and so on. The replacement controllers we purchased were never quite as satisfying.

Later on I upgraded to an Atari 130XE, the last of the 8-bit Ataris, and by the time I was halfway through university I picked up a used 1040 ST, the latest and greatest Atari at the time, and the last truly successful Atari computer.

I wrote a lot of papers on those two machines, printing them on the Atari's letter-quality printer, which created a terrific cacophany whenever you needed to use it. BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG, BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG, BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG said the printer, vibrating my desk with the violence of its efforts. The end results looked very professional, though!

I also picked up my first modem when I started university - an Atari-branded 300 baud model that download plain text so slowly that it couldn't keep up with my reading speed. I used it to connect to local electronic bulletin board systems, such as the one run by the Edmonton Star Trek Club (USS Bonaventure) and Freedom BBS, operated by Ron Briscoe out of the Ron Room in the Bleak House of Blahs. Divided into virtual rooms, the bulletin boards gave geeks of the 80s and 90s places to write collaborative stories, argue over politics, share jokes, and even communicate via "private message," a primitive form of email. Most BBSes supported only one user connection at a time; I remember dialing BBSes and sometimes waiting hours for my chance to connect.

All of our Ataris still exist in Mom and Dad's basement, and they worked the last time Sean and I dug them out - probably ten years ago or so. The 400, at least, was insanely durable, working even after we ripped off the cartridge door.

I'm very grateful to Mom and Dad for introducing me to the world of computers, and I'm sure Sean feels the same way. The Ataris weren't as powerful as the Windows machines we use today, but they had charm in spades.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

H1N1: The Next Generation

The on-again, off-again H1N1 vaccination story here in Alberta reminds me an awful lot of this early Star Trek: The Next Generation episode: poorly timed, bad plot, broadly-drawn stereotypes, arrogant antagonist, gratuitous catfight, heated rhetoric...the only thing missing are the long lineups and immunized hockey players. It's easy to imagine Health Minister Ron Liepert barking "There will be NO VACCINE!"

Monday, November 02, 2009

Dinner at the Bees-tro

Panel from a "Hard to Believe, But..!" feature, Green Lantern #5, 1961.

According to this prognostication, we'd better enjoy our beef while it lasts - there won't be enough around to feed all of us by 2011! While that forecast may be a little tough to swallow - like bees - I find it interesting that the waiter seems to be using a notebook computer to take the happy couple's order. Just think, a couple of years from now we'll be wearing Flash Gordon clothes and dining on Vitamin Bee.