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Monday, December 17, 2012

Deadly Selfishness: An American Epidemic

People wonder just what's wrong with America, why we have such a disproportionate number of mass killers. It's not just the presence of guns here, as some countries have gun laws and distributions similar to ours with far, far fewer gun deaths. Guns are murder facilitators, they are not the instigators. What is the toxic element driving so many of our people to senseless violence?

I have a theory about what's wrong with our country. It has a lot to do with how we're raised by our parents and outside societal factors those parents fail to filter. It may be controversial, as it may hit a little too close to home.

Our culture of ego cultivation and urge indulgence is, if not ultimately to blame, at least a huge element in What Is Wrong With Us. We're told all our lives that we're entitled to what we want, and encouraged to pursue those desires at all costs. Think about that for a minute: Everyone is told they should have their way, despite the fact only a few of us ever will. Meanwhile, things like empathy, reason and critical self-analysis seem to be less emphasized. The word "responsibility" is bandied about, but typically applied to people the speaker doesn't like, much less often discussed as a personal quality one should cultivate. So often, people don't consider their desires in the light of reality and how they might affect others.

Building self-esteem is a worthy goal, in fact it's clearly essential to a happy and successful life. But when you feed a child's sense of importance, and keep indulging it without applying any sane checks to its growth, there's a point past which it stops being self-esteem and becomes a cult of ego -- an edifice in which a monsters can quietly grow. When this line is crossed, that person's selfishness and feelings of entitlement eclipse all other concerns. I can pretty clearly see this at work in politics, in religion, in the business world, in the media, and in how many people conduct themselves as individuals. We have millions of emperors and would-be gods out there, with no kingdoms for them to inherit... and more are bred and inflicted on us every day by indulgent parents unwilling to curtail their special snowflakes in any way.

The end result is an invariable conflict between the real world and our own overindulged desires. And the real world tends to win such battles handily.

If we're not properly prepared for this disillusionment, something has to give. Sometimes we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and adapt to reality well enough. Even if not given the tools to do this by responsible parents, we can develop them on our own later in life. And this is the ideal result. But many results are not ideal. Sometimes our dreams are crushed and we retreat into self-destruction -- either an abrupt death or slow erosion of the self through drugs, abuse and self-scourging. And sometimes, if our egos are too strong and we snap a certain way, we can't handle the dissonance between the way things are and the way we insist they must be. And we lash out at the world for not bending to our egos. Nothing is is important beyond how it supports our Empire of Self, after all, and anything that does not serve that function must be excised or punished.

In short: Along with a lot of good and selfless people who would never think of hurting someone, much less raise monsters that would do so, America is also full of spoiled children of all ages that can't deal with losing. And sometimes their tantrums sometimes take the form of mass shootings, hate crimes, fundamentalism, and countless other social ills. And it seems these malignant people are growing in number, and have fewer effective checks on their destructive behavior. They are either inadvertently cultivated by parents that are weak, overly indulgent, or inattentive, or are purposely crafted by ego-worshiping parents who feel this is the proper way to ensure the success of their young. This must stop or everything will continue to get worse.

My theory, anyway.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review of the Mermaid Adventures Roleplaying Game

Okay, seriously, hear me out. This is a good game!

Yeah, sometimes it is safe to judge a book by its cover. This is one of those cases. This looks like a kid's game, and it very much is. And as a kid's game it rocks. But for the reasons it excels as a kid's game, it has great potential for us older gamers too.

Premise and Setting: You play some type of merfolk, an intelligent aquatic creature that swims around and does... stuff. What stuff? All kinds of stuff. There's not much of a firm setting here, really. No overarching metaplot or storyline, no war you're drafted into or anything. You have a history and society section for the merfolk, and list of enemies like sea witches and (my favorite) the Kraken, but it's up to you to do something with it. And this is a strength, I think, as kids probably ain't having all that anyway. You're free to do whatever. The Navigator (GM) can choose the adventure or roll randomly for it, easy enough that kids can run this game as well as play it. Big selling point.

Character Options: You have a range of interesting and appealing "folk" racial types, each a hybrid of humanoid and a species of sea animal -- fishfolk, octofolk, sharkfolk, even jellyfolk and urchinfolk -- with unique strengths and weaknesses. You have no class setup, though each player picks four unique qualities (in addition the ones granted by type) to customize their characters. This way, you can play a warrior-type, magic-user or pretty much whatever suits your fancy.

Rules: Mermaid Adventures uses the PIP System. It's simple, as you might expect, but good. You need a number of six-sided dice of two colors; the book refers to white dice and black dice, but there's no good reason you can't use other colors as long as you designate which ones function as "white" or "black." You form a dice pool from the white dice based on your character's attributes (Body, Charm, Luck and Mind); one die in a stat is poor while five dice is awesome, not unlike White Wolf in this regard. As you roll your white dice pool, you simultaneously roll a number of black dice based on the difficulty of the task, with more black dice indicating greater difficulty. (This means all the rolls are made by the player when she has her character act, instead of rolling against the Navigator.) Each result of 4, 5 or 6 on any die is a success. Now you compare successes: More white successes means you succeed, more black successes mean you fail. The more (white) successes fr you the better. Easy-peasy.

Conflicts are interesting. When two characters face off, the attacker/acting character rolls her attribute dice (white) against the defender's attribute dice (black), per the rules above. The attacker determines what attribute she rolls based on the sort of conflict she's initiating, while the defender usually (though not always) defends with the same attribute:

Body: Hit you (attacking)/dodge you (defending)
Charm: Persuade you (attacking)/assert will (defending)
Mental: Trick or outsmart you (attacking or defending)
Luck: Use magic (attacking)/resist magic (defending)

Rather than a general health/hit point pool, characters take "hits" to the defending attribute. Falling to zero hits can result in different things, depending on the attribute: Stun (Body), headaches (Mental), lose voice (Charm), or bad luck (Luck). This I like a lot.

Aesthetics: Mermaid adventures is a small and compact 6" X 9" book, its rules and three adventures fitting in under 100 pages. An easy fit on any shelf. I have the color version of Mermaid Adventures, and the book is a delight to look at. The artwork is beautiful; the colors are bright and crisp, and there are several full-page pieces. You get a very clear idea of what the various merfolk types look like. The tables throughout the book are a nice shade of cyan, though I think are a bit blocky and plain-looking and could probably be prettier. But they serve their function.

Flaws: None to speak of, really. I mean, there is the occasional editing snafu, but nothing egregious enough for me to drop my Style assessment from a 5. The simplicity of the Mermaid Adventures system, and its fanciful tone and premise, may not be everyone's cup of tea. It is aimed at a younger audience after all. So if you're extremely serious and grimdark then this isn't the game for you I'm afraid. But if you're not afraid to loosen up have some casual fun, then you will like this game.

In Closing: While Mermaid Adventures is a game you can enjoy with young family members when you're not playing with your normal group, I reiterate how the game has fun potential for us adults too. The rules are "lite" and quick, and are transparent enough that you can add your own rules and stuff with little fuss. Want to add new merfolk types, like dolphinfolk or crabfolk? New equipment? New magic spells? Not difficult at all.

I've actually considered more extensive mods, roughing up the game and making it more serious. I have a skill system in mind to plug into the game, even ideas for implants, rules for mutations/evolution, and psionics. (Yes, this is bad and awful and kills its happy, but if I'm running it for adults I'm allowed to do that.) The PIP System can be adapted to low-level supers setting or serious fantasy, whether you want to keep the mermaid elements or not. The game author doubtlessly has other settings in mind for this system.

So yeah, buy Mermaid Adventures. Your kids will love you for it, and even if you don't have any, I'm confident you'll like the game unless you're just [i]trying[/i] to be a curmudgeon.

Monday, January 30, 2012

An Awful Day

Mtumbu and I had been traveling to the Ma'at city of Riverspire with his trade goods when the path took us into the territory of a leopard. Mtumbu's sharp hearing saved us from a clawed death, and we swam a nearby river to escape the hunting cat. However, that part of the river was the dwelling of hippos, and while they didn't attack us -- they were too busy chasing the leopard -- we dare not go back that way to retrieve the goods and clothes we lost in the river. Now we're wandering the jungle in a strange land, wet and hungry and dressed only in loincloths, with no food or possessions. The heavy clouds and rumble of thunder above us promise heavy rain, making it pointless to even dry off. What an awful day!

Why could I have not been apprenticed to a hunter, or a soldier? Why a tailor of all things? I ask Mtumbu what we should do as we wander about, but he hushes me with a dismissive gesture. He is intently looking for something, I do not know what. When we crest a hill I see signs of a village not far from here, and I excitedly point it out. Food and shelter! Mtumbu does not answer me, and instead leads us further into the jungle. I begin to tell him what I think of him, but I bite my lip. He is my elder, and more importantly, I don't want to be stuck out here by myself. I swat at mosquito bites and curse my miserable fate.

We come to a clearing and stop. Mtumbu seems to have found what he was searching for, which are... some inedible plants and some branches. What is this? He is walking around and picking up branches and sticks now! Does he plan to build a fire when the rain is just going to put it out? What about finding food? I thought adults were supposed to be wise!

Mtumbu chants something, a prayer to the goddess Adire, and suddenly by magic the sticks start to change shape. My master fashions this collection of raw branches and pieces of wood into a frame. He then pulls some strips of fabric from his loincloth, and continuing his orisha prayer, expands them and uses them to reinforce his invention. He creates a loom right before my eyes! Another prayer transforms a stone into a knife and sturdy roots into knitting tools. He points to the wild cotton plants around us -- I didn't notice them before he pointed them out -- and tells me to harvest the cotton and bring it to him. As he weaves with his magical loom, he also has me fetch him other plants for fibers and dyes. The press of humid air and my empty stomach make me tired, but I am curious to see what Mtumbu is doing, and being busy keeps me from dwelling on my hunger and situation too much. And when I am not fetching, I am helping Mtumbu, and watching his masterful weaving and stitching techniques.

Within an hour or so, Mtumbu has woven new dry clothes for the both of us and several other garments; in truth, my new dashiki is very nice, suitable for a noble and better than what I was wearing before. We bring the extra clothes to a farm on the outskirts of the village nearby, and we trade those clothes for food and beeswax. We return to the loom and Mtumbu creates a small tent with a canopy, waterproofed with the wax, and some soft bedding. The clouds finally break and rain pours down, but we sleep dry with full bellies this night. The orisha magic made Mtumbu's loom and tools, but his weaving was an even greater creative act.

I have decided being apprenticed to a tailor is not such a bad thing after all. Especially one such as Mtumbu.