Sunday, February 28, 2010

On The Road - Jack Kerouac

I am back from my vacation in Punta Cana and just finished Jack Kerouac's classic On The Road.  Sometimes when I am on vacation I choose to read a classic rather than some entertaining fiction; this was one of those times.  I have always wondered about Kerouac.  He is portrayed as an icon of the Beat generation and its primary spokesman.  I spent three semesters during my college years at what is know called University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Kerouac's birth place.  At the time I was attending classes there was a small sandwich shop, named Astro's, just across the street.  They proudly displayed pictures of Kerouac on the grungy walls cheerily smiling and drinking with folks who I assumed were associated with Astro's.  I could not guess how many degrees of separation that would be.

Most people know little or nothing about the Beat generation.  I would say I knew little prior to reading the book other than the stereotypes that litter literature, television and movies.  Anyone remember Bob Denver's silly portrayal of Maynard G. Krebbs from Dobbie Gillis?  So devoid of knowledge of Beat's, intrigued by the myth of the man in the sandwich shop, and having available time on commercial airlines and beach chairs I went forward to experience the Beat's via their most famous spokesman. 

On The Road has a unique writing style that might be described as stream of consciousness.  At times it can be distracting but it seems to fit the story and message Kerouac is attempting to lay before you.  The tone and tempo of the book is as chaotic and unpredictable as the Beat's themselves, and that is the point.  I get the feeling that Kerouac wanted this to be groundbreaking, and judging by the amount of Kerouac and Beat scholars that analyze this and other similar books some agree.  I will merely say it is the appropriate style for this book.  There is an attempt to paint many of the experiences as more amazing, a pinnacle over other experiences.  Kerouac fails at that.  Kerouac also fails to make you feel the incredible attraction to Dean Moriarty that many of the characters in the book find irresistible.

Much like the Lost Generation before him, this book paints a portrait in time of a lost generation.  While Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck painted with words the post World War I lost souls, Kerouac does so for the post World War II lost souls.  Though I think the comparison is apt, I believe he would have bristled over it.  There is a sense of him attempting to distance and differentiate his generation's search for the meaning of IT from those that came before them.  Amid their feeling of confusion in the search for kicks and spirituality there is also a sense of hubris; the Beats approach is superior than those that came before because no one that was come before them has understood IT.

The Beats reject consumerism and prefer experience; they reject authority and embrace personal freedom.  If the book is an accurate portrayal then I suggest that the beats are superior to the Lost Generation in being self centered and petty.  The Beats search ever faster and more frantic for kicks via alcohol, drugs, sex and moving from place to place.  There is a search for spirituality, but that search is easily and quickly put aside for the pleasures of the flesh.  Get your kicks.

The beats are another lost generation, a pale imitation of The Lost Generation.  I much prefer the struggles and character of those in the novels by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck over those portrayed by Kerouac.  The story and the writing style are a place in time, not to be repeated.  Echoes of the fringe of a generation that came to believe their struggles and insight was unique, but instead I come to see them as just another lost generation.  It was an interesting read, I would recommend it for the experience if not for the literary style.

A side note: I read the Penguin Classic version of the book.  There is an interesting forward by Proffessor Ann Charters, a Beat scholar.  I recommend you skip the forward and read the book without it.  Instead read it as a post script.  This book was not written to be analyzed before it was read, it was written to be experienced.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Gates Of Fire

I finally finished Steven Pressfield's Gates Of Fire.  I say finally because I would read some and put it down for a while before taking it up again.  In the last few years I have not managed to read very many books which is in stark contrast to most of the years prior; I was always a voracious reader.  There are a number of reasons for this behavior on my part, none of which are part of this post.  So why did I put this critically acclaimed book down repeatedly?  I struggled with that question as well.

You may wish to read a nicely written, spot on review of the book here at TheSilverKey.

I agree that the book is well written, the material appears well researched, and the picture painted is one of grim reality of extraordinary men.  I should have been a target audience for this book.  I am interested in history, battles and adventure stories.  I do not easily find fault with this book, however it never grabbed me.  I suppose it is that simple.  I was not on the edge of my seat wondering how it would end; we all know how one of the most famous historical battles of all times ends.  Perhaps more importantly I could not identify with any of the characters.  Yes, they are human enough but somehow they were foreign to me.  Without a connection to one or more of the characters it was easy to put the book down, and once down it was not calling to me.

You may have a different experience, and judging by others reviews of this book I am likely in the minority.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Creation of Urth

The creator spoke to Eukko and bade him seek his brother Pasalad and the two should go to a place called Urth.  There they found Hyeshea and Eukko knew immediately that here was the mate he had long sought.  The place called Urth was barren and cold so each of them began giving it something of themselves.  First Eukko took the azure color of his skin and spread it overhead. Then the pure white of his hair and beard floated against the perfect blue background.  Lastly the bright burning orange of his eye became the light for all to see.  His brother followed and created the sea, deep green like his ruddy skin with its surface like his hair, pale green turning to white at its ends and he finished by making it like his eyes, clear one moment and grey and stormy the next.  Finally Eukko's new mate added her portion, the land.  Its contours both smooth and striking like her shapely form, its colors the many brown hues of her flawless complexion, the many yellows of her hair, and the greens of her eyes.  Then each populated their creation with creatures suitable to live in that dominion.

When they had finished the creator came to them and bade them make beings of their own image to tend this new paradise for them, for it was not fitting that they do this for themselves. The creator bade Pasalad create the life and give them skills, bade Hyeshea to give them strength and purpose, and bade Eukko finish them as he saw fit.  Then the creator bade them tend their flock and left them.

Joyfully Pasalad began his task, "I will model them after my beloved brother and his new wife as my gift to their mating". And when he had finished a score of scores of men and women stood before them, bright with life and full of skill.  All in the image of Eukko and Hyeshea save for color.  All three were pleased with the people and praises were given to Pasalad.

Seeing the joy of accomplishment on Pasalads face Hyeshea knew what gifts she would bestow upon the new guardians of Urth. Strength and purpose you will get for yourselves and be proud, so I give you death and birth and freewill, the tools you need for this growth.

Pasalad became outraged, "You would mock my gifts with flaws".  He threatened to destroy them but Eukko would not allow it because the creator had bade them.  So instead Pasalad took the sea from their realm, always will they yearn for the sea, the place of their creation but never can they truly return.  And then he made his brother do the same for the sky.  "Let them be prisoners of the realm of she who ruined them".  He them returned to the sea vowing never to return to land, and began the ceaseless pounding of the surf on the shore.

Hyeshea wanted to exact some revenge on Pasalad for his indignation upon her but Eukko forbade it.  "He will regret his actions yet not undo them for what is done is done.  Even though he bade me banish them from the sky they are still all of our children for did not the creator command us to this task?  I still have my gifts to bestow."  Eukko then gathered the children and gave them faith, hope, charity and wisdom. Eukko did not command they use them for Hyeshea had given them freewill and what is done is done.

The above is the beginning of the creation legend of my campaign world.  Next is a short clip of each god mentioned above

Eukko is a major god, head of pantheon and mate to Hyeshea.  Often called the "All Father", "Lord of the Air" or "Sun God".  He is LG and his domains are air, good, law, protection, strength, sun.  

Hyeshea is a major goddess, mother of pantheon and mate to Eukko.  Often called the "Dark Mother" or "Queen of the Underworld".  She is LE and her domains are death, earth, evil, law, and strength.

Pasalad is a major god and brother to Eukko.  He is often called "The Sea God" and "Storm King".  He is CG and his domains are chaos, good, strength, travel, water.

I feel that a creation legend is critical for the flavor of a campaign (at least one, there can certainly be more than one - in fact this is the human creation legend other humanoids have their own).  More than just color, I use mine to telegraph my spin on good vs. evil as you many note the seeds in the legend above.  

What do you think?  Is a creation legend useful to players or just the DM exersizing creative juices that no one reads more than once and never considers again?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Near death experience or how did you like the purple worm?

Thirty years of DMing and I finally used a purple worm on a party.  There is nothing else like using one of the iconic monsters.  It swallowed a character and got within one round of sending him to the great beyond.  The party did very well on the attack and damage and it was a good thing for their elven archer who nearly expired.  Seems to be a trend, this character was eaten by a huge frog some adventures ago.  I guess elves just have a reputation for being tasty.

Not that I am gloating or anything about keeping them on the edge of their seats.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Giving rewards for the adventure

I have seen a number of blog posts lately talking about XP award systems. There is certainly no harm in tailoring the awards to fit your groups gaming style. I have read a number of interesting and clever ideas on those blogs, and in days gone by I would have cheerfully borrowed a number of them. However in the last few years I have come to a different conclusion that better fits my game; throw all those systems out. I do not get enough value for the time spent from them. I still hand out experience points, I just do not spend so much time doing it. I try to focus on two concepts in rewards:
  1. You reward the behavior you want to see. Rusty Battle Axe and the others are right on regarding this point. No matter what system or lack of system, keep to this truth. In all my experience as a senior manager, parent and DM there is no better way of saying this.
  2. Reward the characters in game. Let that sink in a minute. Please note I did not say players. Let the world react and reward the characters for what they do, or what they do not do. I find that the in game gratification is far more powerful and important than the out of game XP award.
OK, so I hear from some of you, "Duh, of course I reward the characters in the game. Tell me something I don't know." But do you really? I submit that you can get the behavior you want from players by rewarding it in game. Do your players not take enough risks? Do your players not role play enough? Are they not following alignment? Whatever you want more of, reward it in game. Now be certain to not use only coin and magic items as rewards, that grows old quickly. Honor, reputation, titles, friends, information, land, or even the attentions of a NPC of the opposite sex might all be just the ticket to get the behaviors you are seeking. Naturally the opposite is true, that penalties for behavior can be any of those opposites. So, how do I simplify XP awards? I eyeball it. I figure I want about 25 average encounters before a character levels up. So for every average encounter I give 1/25 of the XP need to move up a level and adjust it based on how tough it really was and if the characters were particularly clever in resolving. I never give rewards or penalties any more on role playing or alignment; I let the game world handle that. I use the extra time I used to spend on figuring the XP awards to make the next adventure better. What do you think, am I a raving heretic for abandoning complex XP reward systems (believe me I have been there and had copious formulas that allowed me to assign XP), or just maybe am I on to something?
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