Wednesday, January 10, 2018

None more brooding: Bective Abbey

Bective Abbey is a wonderful, Romantic (in the poetic sense) ruin in County Meath, Ireland. We made a brief visit there last week as we were staying nearby. Here it is in all its glory on a clear January day.









 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Top 10 posts of 2017

It's not been the noisiest year on the blog, but here are the top 10 posts of 2017 by page views.

I've decided to leave out the link round-up posts (the Health-Geekery series, mainly) as they don't involve any proper writing and it seems a little like cheating to include them.

1. Paul, the Liverpool South Parkway Cat
2. Notes from a divided kingdom, Part 1
3. The Fisher King of hitmen is back: John Wick, Chapter 2
4. The versatility of Chim Chim Cheree 
5. Sulk: Associates' intense little jewel 
6. 8 short notes on the poo emoji cushion
7. Cliff Richard led astray by sorcery! 
8. Was pop in crisis in 1976?
9. Wonder Woman: a sense of the superhuman 
10. Too good to leave to the critics: Can and I Want More

By category, that's:

Music - 5
Film - 2
Cats - 1
Horror (poo emoji cushions) - 1
Politics - 1

Friday, December 29, 2017

Top 5 films of 2017

Top 5 this year

1. Detroit
2. Wonder Woman
3. The Big Sick
4. God's Own Country
5. The Florida Project

Honourable mentions

Baby Driver
Call Me By Your Name
Dunkirk
Guardians Of The Galaxy, Volume 2 
Kong: Skull Island 
The Lego Batman Movie 
Logan
Pitch Perfect 3 
Star Wars - The Last Jedi
Their Finest
Thor: Ragnarok

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A technofix for a democratic problem: on e-voting

THREAD

As i believe all the cool kids are saying.





PS. Here is a link to summary findings from the Electoral Commission's evaluation of 2007 pilot schemes including e-voting. The EC doesn't have a remit to cover the big existential questions like the ones above, but the summary (not written by me, for the record) is still pretty insightful on the issues with the pilots, as well as what would need to happen if Scotland or anyone were determined to give e-voting a credible go.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Golden Age of Post-Modern Roleplaying Pt 1: Introduction and Rifts

Since role-playing is governed more by the Rule of Cool than a sense of appropriate genre boundaries, like computer games it arrived at the post-modern mash-up with more speed and less angst than any number of longer-standing arts.

Without any precedent to guide its creators, the original Dungeons and Dragons, though predominantly swords and sorcery fantasy, was reaching in all directions, bringing in psychics, martial arts and outer-planar horrors to sit alongside the usual warriors and wizards. 

But it was only as the hobby grew beyond a single system in the late 70's and 80's, as companies and creators began developing games for every genre - science-fiction, horror, espionage, superheroes et cetera et cetera - that these genre boundaries became more defined and to some extent more policed.

Inevitably, the desire to blur those edges awoke. Certainly by the time I had a few teenage years of ADnD under my belt, in the early 1990's I was hankering for something different, a little less predictable. A bit less level 8 half-elven wizard crawling the dungeon for loot, if you catch my meaning.

And as if it had divined my wishes, the gaming marketplace was rife at that time with with new settings and rules systems which smashed the three dominant types of RPG - fantasy, science-fction, modern - into each other to see what happened.

Here are some examples from this Golden Age of post-modern roleplaying of which I have (mostly) fond memories: Rifts, Shadowrun and Torg.

Rifts - infinite crises on Earth

What Rifts (Palladium Books, originally released 1990) resembled was nothing so much as one of those baroque, overly complicated attempts by Marvel or DC to accomodate their entire sprawling cast of characters and settings in a single crossover event.



The Stan Lee figure in the story of Rifts is Kevin Siembieda, largely responsible for Palladium's series of role-playing games since the early 80's, taking in fantasy (Palladium Fantasy) giant mecha (Robotech), modern horror (Beyond The Supernatural), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and much more besides. And funnily enough, if you put all of this in a post-apocalyptic blender, Rifts is pretty much what you get: the ultimate crossover story for the Palladium metaverse.

The jumping off point for this is - deep breath - a global nuclear war, which causes enough mass death and destruction to send a surge of power through Earth's ley-lines, reawakening its dormant magic and opening portals (them titular rifts) through which pour the scum and flotsam of a thousand universes.

Civilisation as we know it is over: three hundred years later humanity is clawing its way back from the brink amid new friends and foes, ranging from your classic elves/dwarves through power-suited space aliens to horrors from the Great Beyond. The Earth has changed beyond recognition - Atlantis, for example, returns as an interdimensional entrepรดt, slave station and purveyor of regrettable fanservice (check the spectacular but somewhat creepy original cover of the main rulebook for an example).

"Hans, are we the baddies?"

Rifts also took the interesting decision of having the surviving major human states be mainly authoritarian regimes and fascist dictatorships deeply hostile to aliens and magic. This is particularly pronounced in the US/Canadian Coalition States, whose military literally walk round in (lovingly illustrated) death's head uniforms. On special occasions, these thanatoic Nazi fanboys ride a freaking skull-walker on legs. Subtle, they are not.

While the players could play characters from the Coalition military, the setting steered them towards a 'Hans - are we the baddies?' moment where they reject their indoctrination and go AWOL. Alternatively, you could start as a crew of independents and renegades already aligned with friendly non-humans, pursuing a third way between 'Mega City One without the jokes' on the one hand and 'in hock to tentacled demi-gods' on the other. 

The Coalition States were only one of several great flourishes of original material that made Rifts potentially hugely interesting to play. The sourcebook for the Vampire Kingdoms of Mexico was another, hands down some of the best written, most thoughtful gaming fuel I've ever come across.

Two cheers for the post-modern druids 

Despite the global settings and the Japanese influences in the work, there was something essentially American about Rifts. Beyond the post-apocalyptic Western vibes on its home continent, its reliance on the rule of cool and a certain amount of cultural cliche meant the good stuff went hand-in-hand with the embarassing. The sourcebook for England, for example, put out some intriguing ideas about post-modern druids in the service of giant sentient Millenium Trees, only to spoil it with an kitschy interpretation of Arthurian myth. 

There was a fondness too, for page after page of lovingly drawn guns, armour and vehicles, far beyond what the system actually needed. This was a bit of a left-hand/right-hand problem given the effort the game put into critiquing the military-industrial complex, but it also filled up space that could have been spent on scenarios and usable NPCs.

And then there's the rules system. Granted, in the intervening 25 years Palladium may have ironed out some of the bugs, but if you've ever played one of their games you probably know what I'm talking about. It was a shotgun wedding of percentile and d20 mechanics for stats, skills and combat manoeuvres that didn't quite fit together, but more or less managed to be playable with some fudging from the GM.

Now, I don't mind that, because I've never met a rules system I couldn't happily ignore in favour of the story or at least bend until it breaks, but if you like a coherent, holistically designed system, Rifts was not your huckleberry.

Get me that bigger fish

What was finally likely to tip a rules purist over the edge was the sheer power imbalance between starting characters, as well as between those characters and typical NPCs. With cyborgs, warriors in mini-mecha suits, steroid abusers and young dragons to choose from as character or racial classes, pity the player with a wilderness scout or (ahem) 'rogue scholar' who had to mix it up with them. 

But Rifts NPCs had it still worse. Thanks to the system distinguishing betwen normal damage and 'mega damage' even a relatively weak player character with an energy pistol could destroy an unarmoured human with a single shot. Without some careful handling by the GM, Rifts created a world where no-one would risk taking their helmet off for fear of a called shot to the head, where violence was always the solution and where the only solution to rampaging player characters was to summon a bigger fish to keep them a line.

Palladium had sourcebooks full of bigger fish (those tentacled demi-gods again) but for me that's a symptom of the problem, not the cure.

Cosmic ambition

In spite of all of this, it's worth honouring the sheer cosmic ambition of Siembieda and his collaborators and their aspiration towards creating something bigger, more syncretic and certainly more wildly eclectic than had previously been attempted in a role-playing game.  

And Rifts is still going strong today with an updated edition available from Palladium. If you know the rules system will be a deal-breaker for you, you may also be interested to know it's been developed as a setting for Savage Worlds. Certainly I'm considering picking it up. 

[to be continued with a look at Torg and Shadowrun]

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Cigarettes After Sex: comfort listening

Not every album has to blow minds, to change the world.

Sometimes a set of songs can be the sonic equivalent of a much loved T-shirt, perfect for a Sunday morning sofa session. They can be comfortable and familiar and have so many good memories associated with them that you forgive them the fact that they have nothing new to say.

If this sounds like I'm trying to convince myself that this is enough, then it says a lot about how I feel about Cigarettes After Sex's self-titled debut album (listen on Bandcamp here).


It's an undeniably good record, especially if you've ever felt some kind of love for the quieter end of The Velvet Underground or their many, many indie and alt-country descendents.

Musicaly, it's all beautifully spindly guitar ballads as far as the ear can hear, with a dub-like tendency for all but the bass and drums to drop out behind the vocal, giving the songs a quiet-quiet-quiet dynamic. 

And boy, those songs are good! CAS have been going since 2008, and it feels like songwriter-in-chief Greg Gonzalez has waited until he'd accumulated a really good crop before dropping this debut. 

Lyrically we're in bohemian romance territory, of course, with the occasional startling shift like the Fitzcarraldo references of Opera House or the doomsday mutterings of Apocalypse to leaven the sweetness. 

The songs are almost good enough to save Cigarettes After Sex from its main weakness - that of being in thrall to a particular well-trodden post-Velvets style. As it happens, that's a style I love: many of my favourites down the years (Madder Rose, Orange Juice, Low) have built on it.

But this is comfort listening. And much though there's nothing wrong with that, and although this album's on heavy rotation round my way, I keep coming back to the idea that imitation - the reduction of music to an exercise in style is the end of any meaningful artistic progression. 

It doesn't matter if it's a style I like - which in the case of Cigarettes After Sex I very much do - the point still stands, pretentious though it may be. An lovable vintage T-shirt of a record it might be, but we need more than this if we're going to make it through.