The Point of Smoking Lizard

Posted: November 14, 2017 in Uncategorized

Smoking Lizard is EVERYWHERE!

I do columns here on this blog that are a mix of my personal adventures concerning a subject and pieces that will help others interested in that subject. At the moment, I really only like five things…

WRITING (and the supporting READING): Behold! I give you the Scribbler’s Saga column. I will relate parts of my life as a writer, provide a review of properties I’ve read or seen and tools I’ve tested, post essays about writing and hopefully interview other writers.

MUSIC: I’ve been talking big about composing music for a decent while now. As I figure out how to fish or cut bait in this area, you, Dear Reader, will read all about it in the Composer’s Counterpoint column. Posts may include my Woody Allen-esque frustration with thinking I’m better at music than I am, reviews of music, tools and the presently rare live shows. Again, part of the mission is to interview other musicians.

TABLETOP RPGS: Yes, I play Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, I can go on for hours about the time I played a thief that hot-prowled the villain’s house and walked out with a suit of armor. But, that was a long time ago. It’s time to make new stories. It’s time to see if I can create adventures other players want to play. As with the other columns the content of the Dungeoneer’s Diary, will mix the personal and journalistic.

ILLUSTRATION and VISUAL ARTS: While I myself don’t draw, I do okay with a camera and certain apps. The Imager’s Impression column will probably be less frequently advanced, but will discuss my appreciation of pictures and the people who make them. And when I make more images with my script kid tools, the results will go here.

MOVIES: Yeah, I thought I would skip writing about movies. Start laughing now. So anyway if I’m bloviating about movies, it  goes here in the Filmgoer’s Flamethrower.

There will be times when columns will cross over, because working on a fun dungeon will spark a novel idea that may cause me to pull out the harmonica…

Lastly, if you came to the site for my older content click on one of the many pages that will provide links to nearby archive sites. Happy Reading.

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Just another unsuspecting adventure party…

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

In all my time dungeoneering or whining about not dungeoneering, I’ve noticed several related odd things about play in the traditional fantasy set roleplaying games that are specific to the genre. Most other RPG settings and genres along with fantasy RPG campaigns that allow guns seem to self-select away from these particular tropes, in favor of other clichés to be dissected in other posts. Good GM/DM types will work to avoid these head scratchers and/or a Guns OK fantasy campaign will take care of the rest. Stop me only if I don’t end up describing your last ten fantasy RPG adventures.

A party has just cleared a few rooms in that stereotypical dungeon shown in the illustrations in the rule books: walls made of quarried stone blocks, ten-foot wide corridors and doors made of oak planks banded together with cast iron. The dramatic progression of monsters intent on eating, protecting treasure, burying real and metaphorical hatchets in PC heads or just merely getting in out of the rain has been increasingly violent (the GM/DM has read the same screenwriting manuals as the rest of us). Each battle has made a lot of noise, almost musical noise that seems sure to reverberate through these ancient stone hallways and the party contemplates the next door.

Room One sheltered three orcs armed with Nordic hand axes and probably wasn’t too serious noise wise…maybe C 5 on the piano with all that clanking steel. Room Two probably contained two uber-skeletons (extra hit dice for extra difficulty) skilled enough to make Ray Harryhausen smile from Beyond; this fight might hit B-flat 6 or E-flat in the same octave (an allowance for real gamers do, in strict point of fact, scream. Why we are sometimes banished to the card table in the garage). Room Three might have a half-size ogre where the battle noise alerting the monster in the next room might peak at A-flat 7. And then the cruel, vicious DM sends the party into Room Four with a medusa-siren hybrid and this fight will go off the charts for both volume and high-pitched sound. Basically, I’m guessing this femme monster and/or the swordplay will hit A Over High C, just like the diva singing the lead in the Met’s current production of The Exterminating Angel.

This seems to be a lot of noise bouncing off those stone walls, sure to wake up or alert the next monster in the next room. Yet, invariably when the party approaches that next door (probably the smallest white dragon possible given the hypothetical progression), the party stops at the new door beginning the Door Procedure all over again. Listen. Browbeat the thief to test the lock and look for traps. Enter. Slaughter everything that looks like a monster. Assess results and heal damage, if possible. Bathe in ancient treasure before moving to the next door. A good life that avoids anything remotely like a pseudo-medieval day job.

There are good reasons for this odd rhythm of play in a straight up dungeon clearing adventure. Traps exist to keep the party from getting over confident in the same way that football teams run in order to making passing plays possible. And pausing at the next door can also play into the rules for magic and health recovery allowing the party to make it through to the dungeon’s exit.

And some of these tropes are inevitable, especially when we compare the trade of dungeoneering to the slightly related real world trade of clearing terrorists from bunkers. On the surface, the two careers are indistinguishable…a team enters, all the bad people inside get whacked and the team either then bathes in ancient treasure or they high five that they wiped out terrorists that threatened civilians from the home country. But, we have to look carefully at how anti-terrorism/S.W.A.T. raids are actually different from clearing dungeons to see the fine gradations of my point about how the traditional dungeon clear mission needs a savvy DM to avoid silliness that prevents Suspension of Disbelief.

When Delta Force goes through the door we can assume that the team has the blueprints to the structure before going inside. Even halfway civilized cities make a point of requiring new construction projects to file architect’s drawings with a city department that are either accessible through bribery or are online. This allows the team to build plywood replicas and train repeatedly, or to make a plan that adapts preexisting shoot house training to the new layout.

The adventuring party by contrast happens upon an ancient ruined structure for which no one alive has been inside for generations allowing ghost stories to develop about Dracula’s Castle, up yonder on that hill. Not having the plans has a way of naturally forcing most people to slow down and get the thief to deal with the door. Where the art of dungeoneering can go off the rails is when the inexperienced DM still rolls for Monster Surprise and/or Dragon Found Asleep on the fifth or sixth door in the dungeon, when the noise of all that fighting should wake up everybody between here and the sewers of Minas Tirith.

The one exception to this suggestion would come specifically after a team rest period where the heroes take four hours to get back a few hit points and have the next batch of spells memorized. You can sort of rationalize that monsters, like people, might be lulled back into complacency once they stop hearing scary fight noises for a long enough time. But, many monsters are depicted as having language skills implying a social order, learning and advanced thought suggesting that after the first few doors that the DM simply says, “look guys, you’ve made a lot of noise and the ogre in this room knows you were always coming in for the golden spoon it has treasured since birth causing him to set his ten-foot spear against you.”

Going back to the compare and contrast between dungeoneering and bunker clearing, having the plans and wanting to find Osama bin Laden in the back room has a way of driving the mission to go faster. If a colonel understands that there are twenty rooms to clear with a principal in an upper floor back room and twenty goons as protection, then he or she will block out thirty commandos from the unit.

Four to six will cover with sniper rifles and the rest will form four-man mini-teams each designated to leapfrog hitting doors. A team hits a door. Another team hits the room next door and the first team will move to the next unopened door down the hall. Stealth skills trained into everyone on the team and sound suppressors do have a way of hiding movement until just before entering and shooting all the bad guys in the room.

The adventure party is basically reconnoitering the dungeon going in blind hoping to find monsters to slay and treasure to liberate. The dungeon party is by definition smaller than the anti-terrorism team which means that fewer resources exist to clear out the structure in a quick and timely manner (besides treasure is on the line, expect adventuring parties to behave with the mutual suspicion of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). When 4-6 instead of 20-30 people go into a resisted interior space with no preconceived notions of saving the pretty Peace Corps volunteer with a gun to her head, the PCs don’t need to be all that rapid. The gold will still be there when we get to that particular door in thirty minutes…or tomorrow.

Hoping to close out the Delta Force comparison, the single most effective way for a DM to control his players’ behavior is the judicious use of booby traps. As said above, using traps serves to keep the party from treating dungeons like Delta Force raids. I have been in campaigns where after a while new rooms went like this… Listen. Test lock. Seek traps. Kick/pry open the door. Toss in the lit flask of magnesium infused oil (the fantasy RPG equivalent of either a flash-bang or an out and out fragmentation grenade). Slaughter everything that survives. I’m sure our DM hated us and just didn’t say it.

And we’ve seen enough modern rescue missions depicted to know that terrorists set up plenty of booby traps. But, there is a difference in the character of said traps that should be noted by the experienced DM in order to preserve Suspension of Disbelief. I’ve noticed that the traps in stereotypical fantasy RPG dungeons have a mechanical ingenuity/Rube Goldberg feel that real world booby traps aren’t likely to have. Basically, the fictional traps feel built by the same builders of the average pharaoh’s tomb with pressure plates in the floor leading to poison darts or an extra tumbler in the lock that has nothing to do with opening the door but might drop the thief into the oubliette on the floor below. Real world booby traps seem to have a character more prosaic, a tripwire leading to a crossbow or shotgun propped up to cover the door.

My thoughts here are rooted in the one area where the thinking of the people inside the dungeon might be identical, or at least should be treated as such by the DM. It seems a rarity that Delta Force will find a room that has both a trap and terrorists inside. Usually, it seems the bad guys will prop up the shotgun to cover the door because they’ve decided to retreat into a more defensible room with more friendlies or they just want to get out and hide among civilians until the next mission. Or they will stand and fight.

One very sound reason for this suggestion for either bad guys in the room or a trap, but not both is that if you set up a trap the mechanism can also work to kill members of the home team instead of the invaders. If the bad guys set up a claymore directional charge before escaping out the back door, those explosives might go off early. Similarly, the crossbow set up behind a dungeon door impedes the ability of the orcs in the room to do normal things, like going to the bathroom or seeking food. This creates a similar suggestion that most traps will be makeshift and defeated by plastering to the wall out of line of sight to the doorway.

And to beat these suggestions home so that they stick, I have heard of extremely devilish real world booby traps, but only after the opposing army evacuated the area and wanted to demolish the port, building or airfield to deny easy use to the advancing enemy. In World War Two, German engineers wired a building so that a GI peeing on a wall flattened the whole structure. I wouldn’t expect this behavior in a contested structure because saving your own guys for the next fight is a priority for nearly everyone.

By contrast, the Rube Goldberg traps favored by pharaonic tomb builders and punchy DMs seem to take on a character of something designed to protect loot many years, decades and centuries after the ancient users of the space have long since gone to dust. True, old and musty dungeons and haunted castles up on the hill are the bread and butter of fantasy RPGs, but the green DM will sometimes put a monster and trap behind the same door without thought leading to this question – “wouldn’t that ogre get hurt tripping the trapdoor into the oubliette the first time he needed to pee?”

Which leads us to another odd thing about inexperienced DM dungeons…a monster in every room. The progression I described above involves four different sentient or semi-sentient monster races all neatly tucked into their rooms in the dungeon that doesn’t consider lessons learned from how humans pack themselves into multi-family housing.

Do orcs like living next to an ogre? Do the skeletons make too much noise rattling their bones for the medusa-siren’s delicate diva sensibilities? And does the white dragon in Room Five imagine the day when the pins in his curse dolls representing his neighbors will pay off with painful deaths bringing peace? And will an invading party of adventurers bring them all together in common cause?

Basically, the DM who haphazardly throws such disparate monster races together would need to invent a backstory of residential politics worthy of shows like Melrose Place to explain why these disparate races that live together in the functional equivalent of a condo HOA association aren’t killing each other. You can argue that certain types of dungeons might exist as a training center for adventurers. A wizard of dubious character makes money throwing would be heroes who pay for the privilege through a trapdoor.

But, then the monsters in that dungeon suddenly have as much reason to escape as the player characters and we should expect the wizard running the dungeon/shoot house to enact certain cruelties upon his monsters to keep them there. For instance, you kick in the door to the medusa-siren-diva’s room and you should expect to find her chained to the wall with a piss bucket. Chained to the wall will almost always bring about pity on the party of the adventurers leading to all kinds of weirdness the DM didn’t plan…like freeing said diva that would otherwise turn them to stone or make their eardrums bleed hitting A Over High C at 150 decibels.

Otherwise, why aren’t the monsters also exploring the dungeon seeking nicer quarters as far away as possible from the smelly ogre in 3A? This suggests that adventure parties should blunder into monsters out and about stretching their legs in the hallways. Inexperienced DMs forget to do this along with other things.

In the interest of saving metaphorical ink, I will close this post letting my amusement at how we actually play fantasy RPGs wash over you with a tease for a later post about how to do sensible dungeons and adventures. A post for another day.

Practicing for November…

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

As if the average novelist (or screenwriter with an unofficial sister challenge) needs even more reasons to pull out our hair as we practice our craft whether it be fear, sloth, blockheads with wallets or family members yelling in our ears about doing something real, along comes November. Allegedly intended to help writers cut through the shit, the National Novel Writing Month sometimes just adds to the misery and coffee spilled all over our gear. And yet when you hear us talk, we really need to do it. Bucket list item, I think…as in – “I really wanted a novel and when I was done I would never want another.” 

Okay, stealing from Apocalypse Now doesn’t really contextually fit because we always want another novel.

The lure of blocking out the intense focus to write 50,000 words of fictional prose between November 1 and November 30 usually reaches out and twists things on the average writer that just shouldn’t be twisted. Largely because we hate the lack of follow through where we might get three, four, five books right up to the midpoint of the narrative, get bored and move on to the next shiny object. We know we can’t edit anything until we have a draft sitting on our desks laughing at us daring all comers to draw near with a red pen, so we agree to kill ourselves in November. The only job that inspires more maniacs must be firefighting.

When we speak amongst ourselves, we don’t speak about such things until about the middle of September. “Are you doing Nano this year?”

“Yeah, I crashed and burned three years ago about halfway through and I’m getting Ants in the Pants.”

Or “No, I’m already on a book and there’s no way I can block out the extra free time that drives my life to do both.”

And then we start talking about the cool moments from that book bulling through the rolled eyes when we reached a slow part in our narrative. Non-writers, I’ve just explained your writer relatives being weird in November, so please lay off. It would probably only get worse if said writer also is known for other things getting in his/her way: sloth, seasonal affective disorder or even just being a douche and a maniac. Trust me, lay off, throw food through the slot (except for Thanksgiving) and gently listen for the soft clack of keys (not so soft for those of us still on manual old school tools). Then you should run…

How does the challenge work? Pretty much you sign up at the website, the usual bit about giving them an email and making up a password (one of thousands by now). It helps to do this part before Halloween because they do want you to loudly blast that you are working on one specific novel (using up the word count on multiple first chapters of too many books will lose you the challenge and T-shirt). You crack your knuckles and start letting your fingers do the Fred Astaire thing across the keys to the tune of 1,667 words per day.

You brag about your results with a daily update of your word count on the site. About twenty days in, you start posting your actual pages as part of your daily brag. Once the plagiarism filters kick in agreeing that your novel didn’t previously exist under someone else’s byline, the site counts up your results and makes a determination as to whether you deserve the T-shirt (like most modern humans we writers will sometimes do massively crazy things just for the T-shirt). The shirt is the only difference between success and failure, because flaming out halfway through is seen as – “Well, that’s 25,000 words that didn’t exist before. Good job!”

The Nano community, the site, your writer friends and hopefully your non-writing relatives will shake your hand congratulating you on however many words you killed dead during this glorious Wabbit Season. Then they will hand you a bag of trash to take out, because life goes on until next year. Oh yeah, you’ll get emails throughout the year asking for money (Nano is a 501c3 nonprofit that needs to pay for shirts and other writer services) and gently reminding you to do it again next year.

The fact that I’m even posting anything about Nanowrimo should answer the question whether I’m doing it this year. Believe me, if I’m doing my usual “I’m doing Nano in spirit without getting too twisted up about the posting and bragging requirement,” I’ll stay silent. I’ve already worked up a novel idea just a few days ago and have linked up with one writing buddy (you get to trash mail each other to spur everybody on).

I picked an idea that starts from Page One even though plenty of people will fudge the start from the beginning suggestion because they’re hip deep in the alligators they already know. This part plays up the juxtaposition that 50,000 words is only a novel-length story in the sense of official classification (expect the books we actually read to come in between 90,000 and 120,000 words), but it is still 50,000 words that didn’t exist before.

At the moment, I’m breathing down my surprise that I done fucked up agreeing to a challenge that I last officially participated in during 2009. Back then, I busted out 25,000 words of a story about a hot assassinatrix (is there any other kind in fiction?) who realizes her long lost connection to a family of witches and steps in as The Good Stepmother. And then family members yelled at me to get a job making me so goddamn angry that I went into true honest to God writer’s block for 18 months. I didn’t get my T-shirt.

But, yeah, I really do want to scratch off this bucket list item, so let’s do it again eight years later. I hadn’t fully articulated doing Nano again this year, but a few friends posted that they were doing it and so I actually posted “I’m your huckleberry…” in the comments. Kind of like certain power grid infrastructure companies with no track record and three employees winning bids that must now build the pig.

But, I’m already on a book at the moment. Ahh, you might think. How about just using Nano to finish that one out? Well, I picked an epic series requiring at least 600,000 words on which to spend my months leading up to November and it won’t finish until a lot later. Thus, in classic coffee-fueled maniac fashion I’m basically swaggering like John Wayne and I’m going to do both (not to mention blogging). We’ll see how that works out.

I take a day or two to look at all my open projects. Most are shorter than the epic series that has my current attention, but I have a few chapters of everything. I’m operating on the assumption that the point is to start from Page One to prove you can do it, not that they would know if you don’t tell them. And then I hit on a project…Grudge Race (believe me I need a better title), basically Ben-Hur with fast cars re-written with Messala as a good guy.

This project counts as starting from Page One because while I’ve had this idea for some time and chapters do exist, the old version existed in a literary universe that I’ve since decided to blow up. I need new characters to fit what at the moment are extremely vivid archetypes. I nod my head and hunker down mentally just counting down the days to the start and it’s a convenient excuse to actually READ Ben-Hur. TICK-TICK-TICK-TICK! Four days and counting to the beginning my next mostly complete novel (or psychotic break, might be almost as entertaining). Care to join me?

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Somewhere in Los Angeles, lurks (really? The costumed gent in question wears orange! No one in orange lurks) a hero, or is he a thief? Who cares he’s Repo: Thief for Hire? Daniel Delgado, we are told on two expository pages one for each book, has two children ripped from him by an unfair family court judge. He also has considerable Kung Fu, probably taught in the same place as Quentin Tarantino’s Bride, The Cruel Tutelage of Pei Wei (not really but another crazy ass independent wushu instructor that didn’t get his ass kicked by the Chinese Government decades ago). He runs an impound, repossession and salvage business partly as cover. He still hasn’t got his papers despite going to college. Based in Los Angeles and supported by his brother-in-law, Daniel, a.k.a. Repo will steal anything for which you can pay…all to fund his mission to get his kids back. 

With two issues in the can from Do Everything Creator Daniel Ramirez, I found myself generally enjoying the forty-minutes it takes to read two comic book issues. But, I also took notes to see if there was some way to really make this one man A-Team kick ass and take names. We’ll see what we unpack.

First off, this series really shows the crunch that I just consider a crying shame among indie self-published comics, not enough budget despite Mr. Ramirez (another buddy from my creator scene…FYI) being generally able to write the script, pencil the pages, trace (ink, sorry inking is an art form deserving respect) said pages, color them and then put the paper together. Budget woes tend to mean the reader gets 12 pages of chop socky goodness per issue instead of 24. And reviewers with a tendency to get like the average Roman Emperor presiding over the games – “Yeah, Maximus, this one uses the throat slashing thumb, like, a lot, just sayin’.” – suddenly get cranky that these two issues don’t represent the expected total of 48 pages of full-color whammo. But, I shouldn’t complain short issues usually result in price breaks when you buy your indie comics at the con.

Mister Ramirez begins the first issue In Media Res with Repo listening to the Tom Arnold style help from his brother-in-law, Jax, in the earbuds. He drops into the warehouse in his full orange regalia hired by one Angelino crime boss to steal from another. Repo lays out several disposable thugs for which we hope their evil crime organization had dental and a generous Medicare Part B supplement plan. A bald thug with whom Repo has had dealings in the past sprays the area forcing Repo to escape with the box of rings just ahead of the hail of bullets.

In the second issue, we are introduced to the pair of cops that will recur every so often possibly as the last gasp of official civic virtue in the City of Los Angeles. We are introduced to the many conflicts and relationships between Repo and Baldy, Repo and Jax and the two crime bosses vying for the same box of rings. Oh, and we find out a young lady of dubious character that seems to like Repo is also the daughter of the female crime boss from whom Repo originally grabbed the rings. Duh-duh-duh-duhn!

What went well? Starting In Media Res (the action is already in progress) always warms me up. I’m a great believer the kind of writing that certain action oriented characters must always start successfully showing off whatever it is they do. Stuntmen jump (fall?) off tall buildings with descent rigs. Tier One commandos shoot up Baghdad or a shoot house. James Bond does a little bit of everything in the pre-credit sequence leading into the Emmy-bait title song (while I have your eyeballs, please convey to the Bond people that 007 has yet to skateboard through a major city complete with edge grinds down stairs. Never mind). And Repo steals shit like rings that look like counterfeit knock offs of the various Emotional Spectrum Lantern rings that DC sells whenever they want to move Green Lantern books.

Another really cool thing about this series is the Los Angeles scenery. Warehouses. The Downtown LA skyline. The Griffith Observatory. The Hollywood Sign. Mister Ramirez lives here as do I and we know when the movie hopes to confuse us by going up to Vancouver and then dropping in an LAPD picture car hoping we won’t notice. We get the Grand Tour, except for the beach or any place you’d go during the day, drawn highlighting the City by Night (LA needs the sunset magic hour to look her best, but dark is also cool).

In fact except for a few minor foibles, I couldn’t stop looking at the art as a general rule. The henchmen get beat up in interesting angles. The mysterious girl revealed to be possibly a crazy ex-girlfriend and occasional client wears an interesting black corset dress and boots, an Abbey Scuito-lite (NCIS) fashion choice. And it was all beautiful.

The writing came off a little mixed. I’ve written enough to usually guess the broad strokes of where a story in progress is going. A thief for hire trying to fund his campaign to get the kids back from whatever judge and richer relatives that lied about his unfitness as a parent is automatically a Robin Hood, Simon Templar or even Colonel Hannibal Smith (I did reference The A-Team above, an intentional act), who will do morally gray things for survival, but will discover the nefarious plans of all the villains who are worse than him becoming a hero. Mayhem will follow.

So for Repo we can expect that the box of rings will result in a lethal tussle for the very soul of Los Angeles about to be overrun in secret by crime lords. And someone somewhere will get the suicidal idea to put a gun to the heads of Repo’s kids (girlfriends, wives, children and pets are hostages-in-waiting). And it’s in the small details where we judge how successful the storytelling and writing were.

We are two half-issues in on this story and most of these books have been devoted to establishing the world and Repo’s place in it. But, I noticed a glaring omission…the fraternal Delgado Twins (a boy and a girl) have yet to appear on any panel in these issues. Kids may be hostages-in-waiting, but they are also metaphorical cats in the sense that Blake Synder meant writing his manual Save the Cat (trust me, my Love-Hate with Snyder’s work is so profound that I’m grinding my teeth even bringing up this book). Put another way, we shouldn’t be told on the extra pages (one in each book) providing Repo’s character profile that he has two estranged children. We should see him trying to call, email, or buy toys for his kids and be rebuffed by whomever it was that took his offspring. A literal Save the Cat Moment.

Even though I’m completely onboard with this story for which I’ve made obvious guesses about blundering into a tale of a rogue stepping up for the good of the city against villains who are far worse than he, another thing that makes the writing come off as mixed is the dialogue. Repo, Jax and literally everybody, but the cops who aren’t on page long enough for the reader to get a bead, seem to talk in a not so naturalistic way that comes very close to how Stan Lee used to write the words for the many Marvel comics during his legendary tenure. If this stilted, on the nose feel to the dialogue was intentional the way George Lucas created his words for Star Wars, then okay, I’ll shut up now.

Part of my concern about the dialogue is that this old-timey comic book feel to these words has a way of getting in the way of Repo’s strength as a college educated Hispanic character. The words in the bubbles neither present Los Angeles Hispanics in their native visage nor do they capture that Repo did go to college and studied martial arts in China (too bad the Bride can’t make the crossover). They come off like I’m reading Iron Man from 1972. The plot moves forward, but…

Going back to the art. The one super teeny-tiny concern is that Daniel and Jax pretty much share the same face, which if they were just brothers makes sense. But, confusing brothers-in-law for hermanos might need adjusting in future issues.

Wanting to close on the fun, I must say that I grooved on several minor details about Repo and Jax that really brought smiles. Look, the simple act of drawing Repo with the loudest orange costume possible is just awesome. Orange, we are told by Wikipedia and other purveyors of Internet pseudo-knowledge, is the single most visible color to the human eyeball explaining why hunters wear orange and life vests are also orange. So the act of drawing a thief for hire with a heart of gold in an orange costume that pretty much makes it impossible to hide in shadows says Repo is so good he can wear orange.

The thing that I liked about Jax was that he got his funny Tom Arnold on the Mic Moment. The spear-carrier goes for drive through tacos and hits on the young lady on the other side of the scratchy intercom. Meanwhile, Repo gets the shit kicked out of him, until the last moment possible. A cliché that remains in force because it’s funny nearly every time.

We have an urban Robin Hood with a funny/wise sidekick. We have a built-in campaign to rebuild his family and a McGuffin sure to light up the fictional Los Angeles. We just need to see what Mr. Ramirez is able to do with future issues. I’ll be reading.

A Wikimedia Commons image…

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Sometimes when creating new monsters for RPGs and books, it’s all about simply changing a name. A recent unpublished novel that doesn’t need naming here wanted orcs to run around the countryside laying waste to all travelers dumb enough to travel alone. Even though the plot revolved around me doing homage to Tolkien, specifically my version of what really went down during those Appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings…involving lawyers (won’t say more, unofficial NDA), I had an attack of – “Dude, everybody, like, drops orcs in as the massive Army of Regular Evil with stats ranging from one to three hit dice per orc. I should be able to come up with something else.” 

Interesting problem in that I need bad guys in my novel to behave exactly like Tolkien’s orcs: loud, mean, ready to stab each other at dinner over the mutton at the cook fire and pretty much angry at any other bipedal playable species. The veritable, probably untrue, stereotype of the 1-percent Motorcycle Club lifestyle. I want the behavior and social organization, such as it is, but because everybody coming after Tolkien simply dropped in orcs and called it a day, I need a new name.

I’m aware that when Dungeons & Dragons got rolling for real after a few years of play testing in Gary Gygax’s living room that the Tolkien Estate sent a few Cease and Desist Letters probably written in the slightly more polite British version of Legalese. To my understanding, they fought hard for the players among us to deemphasize hobbit in favor of halfling. It worked because no dungeoneer is going to piss off the estate for an author that gives nearly all of us a Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy!” feeling. But, the Tolkien Estate apparently didn’t fight so hard for orc, the next most used Middle Earth vicious beast in all of tabletop RPGs.

I’m not sure of the why. My limited reading of fantasy writing from before and generally contemporaneous to Tolkien’s work doesn’t seem to have any mention of orcs. C.S. Lewis (attending the same writers’ groups with Tolkien) just needed a White Queen, Tash and crappy people to make the Chronicles of Narnia work. Others just needed Lost Boys, Indians and pirates. Or White Rabbits, Mad Hatters, Playing Cards and Pissed Off Chess Pieces.

Even Tolkien started off with goblins in The Hobbit, later simply conflating the goblin of already extant European fairytale mythology with the orc of the later The Lord of the Rings. I think if pressed that Tolkien might have tap-danced as imaginative writers do when pressed with impertinent questions rooted in the minutia of our work, saying “goblins and orcs are kissing cousin species created in the dark times of Morgoth, the First Dark Lord.” But, if it’s true that my cursory reading of the body of literature before Tolkien suggests that he may have invented orcs as well as hobbits, then why did the estate only want to lean on D&D for hobbit and not orc?

And every fantasy-themed RPG system published since has a listing in the monster book for orc. Tusks. Pig snouts. Large muscles. Or not. They’re everywhere, largely because the Tolkien Estate didn’t want to or couldn’t fight for the word (more research needed). It is in this ubiquity that I cast about for another name for the species without wanting to change anything about the beasts themselves.

Creativity has a way of being something that only makes sense after the fact. I don’t really know why despite having a plot looted liberally from the Tolkien Appendices that I needed to rename the orcs in the first place. I also can’t really talk about how I landed on Vorgon, except after the fact when you realize that I’m one letter away from Douglas Adams’ vile poetry spewing race, the dreaded Vogons. Oooh! In order to unnecessarily avoid an unofficial Tolkien trademark that the estate didn’t even try to defend, I go one measly R away from going straight at Douglas Adams’ Vogons. I’m either a highly trained professional who knows what I’m doing or I’m going to make a big smear on the pavement.

Mind you, the Vorgons aren’t Vogons in any way. First off, my book was a fantasy story and the Vorgons wouldn’t muster up the starships, punctilio and low bids to fly around the galaxy blowing up defenseless planets to clear hyperspace lanes once the work order cleared review. But, I really had orcs in mind when I devised my story, a loud hard elbows kind of people. Orcs with subspecies that grow natural ice skates on their feet (probably tracks back to Alan Dean Foster’s Icerigger Trilogy). Orcs that stand over their eastern gate near a waterfall into the local equivalent of the Mines of Moria shouting rude insults (the French from Monty Python’s Holy Grail?).

I certain didn’t envision the Vorgons as wanting to take a moment before joining battle to recite earsplittingly bad poetry. Or showing up with a fake work order to see about knocking down the walls for the great city liberally copied from Minas Tirith. Or so I thought. Then I muddied the waters for the Vorgons as a new clean unstated trademark on the poetry front.

At the big battle of the Vorgon waterfall the beasts shout rude things about two missing women who are at the present moment making friends with a baby dragon deep in the dark of the mines. The King Aragorn analog taps the hilt of his blade demanding that his enemies in the recent war bring forth the ladies unhurt. He composes a Demand Poem in Vorgonate using the rudest words possible that fit into rhyming iambic hexameter (12 syllables per line).

Vorgons and poetry? Ooops! Well, more of an homage because there is no way a Vorgon Demand Poem serves to bore the shit out of the listener leaving him or her rolling on the ground holding ear and begging for mercy. Rather, the verse was more likely to make the Vorgon chief angry enough to attack abandoning the high ground among the falls. And then I had the ladies in question resolve the standoff from within the mines by bringing up the baby dragon willing to burn anybody if his new Mommy said so (did I get this relationship from Game of Thrones?). Fried Vorgon is the specialty of the house this week.

There you have it, Dear Reader, the progression of my thought process for monster creation trying to find inventive ways to travel places where literally everybody has been before. Take the familiar and rename it, because don’t reinvent the wheel. Spend a minute or two practicing the justification that your local languages represented in English for the reader’s convenience aren’t the same as Tolkien’s languages and some words like orcs won’t develop to describe the roving bands of foul-tempered beasts. Good, now you’re ready for the book fair or con.

Oh, if you’re really going to play Vorgons in your campaign simply take orcs from your monster book and rename them. Worked (almost) for me.

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

A story of two boys from diametrically opposed backgrounds (if Arlo the dinosaur counts as a boy) lost together far from home sharing the journey growing together as friends until they each find their respective families. So…I’m guessing Huck Finn meets The Lion King or The Long Walk Home. Pixar Animation Studios aimed high with this adventure about a dinosaur, the runt of the litter in his family, teaming up with a feral human/Neanderthal boy to find their way home after the big storm. Compared to the great movies from the studio, we land somewhere in the middle…good for distracting small children when it’s time to use the Rectangular Babysitter.  

However, I think adults will simply feel that the writing staff merely pulled out a screenwriting manual like Save the Cat, re-watched (read?) the required viewing for such journey stories, simply hit all fifteen beats and called it a day. Speaking true, Pixar doing an average movie can always dredge up good moments for people who need to feel something vicariously. This is why there is a Pixar Writing Manual floating around on Amazon (a possible future post when I block out the cash). Even average feels better when Pixar does it.

The plot. The asteroid that in our pre-history bonked near the Yucatan misses Earth by a razor thin margin. An unspecified few million years later, dinosaurs have evolved speech, agriculture, language and the thought that goes with language. Said dinosaurs have mostly not evolved the hands that human-centric assumptions about evolution and technological progression might assume is impossible.

In that world, a male dinosaur we’ll assume comes from the four-legged plant eater wing of the dinosaur gene pool (feels like a brachiosaur, but don’t quote me) tills his farm furrowing his field using the hard bone at the top of his head. He is called into the hut by his wife – “It’s time!” His three children, Buck, Libby and the small one, Arlo hatch from their eggs.

The children immediately go to work on the farm. Watering. Seeding. Feeding the chickens. Buck is the large firstborn, athlete of the family. Libby is the smart girl who can trick Buck into watering the fields for her by ambushing him with a water squirt causing him to retaliate with a bigger spray. Arlo is the scared little brother having trouble feeding the chickens in the coup because they sense his fear and chase him around the farm.

Papa tries to get Arlo to stand his ground with the chickens and the many other things in life. He points out the nearby mountain and the river that sustains their corn farm. But, nothing takes early on. Arlo of all the children has yet to put his muddy footprint on the rock silo built to store the corn for the winter.

Someone or something, referred to as a critter, is eating the corn from the silo. Papa details Arlo to deal with it. Trap the critter. Kill it because it’s stealing the food for winter. Arlo and Papa set up a deadfall trap.

Enter Spot, the feral human boy. Hungry and fending for himself the boy steals ears of corn. The first time Arlo being a sweet kid doesn’t kill Spot as instructed letting the critter go. Papa scolds Arlo and drags his son along trying to teach him to face his fears and follow through with things. The big storm rises and Papa dies saving Arlo from the flooding river. Grieving, Arlo resumes his life on the farm, until Spot returns for seconds from the silo. Angry, Arlo chases Spot into the wilds where they are both flushed far downriver by another big storm.

The rest is all about the journey home for both of the newfound friends. A journey filled with cattle driving tyrannosaurs, pterodactyls with a mean hungry streak and quite a bit of dangerous inclement weather. Arlo and Spot grow to depend on each other to where Arlo forgives his friend of blaming him for Papa’s death. Spot finds more people like him willing to take him in and Arlo goes home.

More so than any other Pixar movie Good Dinosaur goes for an animated look that really uses the proprietary 3D rendering technology to fully realize the illusion that the background landscapes could be real photography blended into the animated characters in the foreground. I had to look twice starting with the scene in the Asteroid Belt where the planet killer is knocked towards Earth only to miss by a hair. And the river, the water, the sky have all come the closest to looking real. I think the studio stepped back a bit for later movies because this much photo-real isn’t needed for a Cars movie or the still developing Toy Story 4.

Awesome visuals aside; the movie mostly lays flat when seen through adult eyes. As I write this, I’m having trouble calling up any themes or melodies from the score, which is a sign that the composer did a good job burying the music into the mood of the film. Or it’s a sign that I don’t expect soundtrack sales to be very significant. Time will tell.

As for the voice acting, it is solid and functional across the board in that I did feel the intended moments as directed, but nothing more. I didn’t feel all that surprised by the work, especially because the production put most of the bigger names a little further out from the main characters. I didn’t start recognizing actors until we met the cattle herding T-Rex family, with Sam Elliott as the patriarch. And I had trouble figuring out which role was played by John Ratzenberger.

My other concern was for the characterization of Spot. It took a moment to just going with it that Spot exhibited behavior more or less halfway between that of a wolf and a caveman. He covers up with leaves to protect his junk, but he spends more time on all fours like a great ape and howls like a wolf. He expresses great emotionality but never says a word of dialogue.

I’m sure that someone from Pixar will say something to the effect that Spot being an odd character depicted as being somewhere between a faithful human sidekick and a loyal dog was, in strict point of fact, an intentional act based on reading a few books about paleontology or something. All I’m saying on the subject is that I found it weird because either the sidekick is part of the conversation or he’s the growly but loyal dog (unless we’re watching A Boy and His Dog, where the sidekick is both).

The Good Dinosaur is simply the kind of fluff to foist on children until they become old enough to appreciate rapier duels or dogfights intended to blow up the Death Star. Could be worse.

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

My first reaction to reading the comic book mini-series Spencer & Locke (written by David Pepose, penciled and inked by Jorge Santiago Jr., colors by Jasen Smith and letters by Colin Bell) proved visceral to the extreme. When the first issue dropped into my lap at a signing event at my home break comic book store, my response emulated South Park from the early Kill Kenny years – “you killed Suzie! You bastard!” 

A step backward to explain who Suzie is in that emotional sentence; Mr. Pepose, a frequent flyer at events put on by the Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, frequently uses the Player Pitch – “imagine if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Frank Miller’s Sin City, becoming cops as adults.” – to explain his four issue series involving a tough ginger cop, Locke, and his imaginary friend, Spencer the talking Blue Panther. So on Page Four of Issue One when a young lady named Sophie is found slashed up in an alley, we completely understand that Mr. Pepose just eviscerated a character to whom Bill Waterston probably would’ve extended Script Immunity, Calvin’s Girl Next Door, Suzie. Let the Internet Troll Hatemongery commence. Or not, I don’t actually like very many Internet trolls and their slavish devotion to orthodoxy to any of their fandoms.

As you might guess, this review is positive. It must have caught me on a day when I wanted to read a story about Calvin…uh, Locke navigating the mean, bleak streets of Nameless Big City as a detective backed up by Spencer, the panther that only Locke can see and talk to. I suppose on any day when I wake up mean or eat a bad burrito my tolerance for a Film Noir style literary deconstruction of one of my favorite comic strips I might’ve really freaked. But, wow what a read!

Mr. Pepose and Mr. Santiago choosing to run up the Film Noir stylings of Frank Miller’s early Sin City is what does the heavy lifting for making this mini-series a brilliant read, the kind of thing where other writers might tip an imaginary hat, buy the man a beer and then privately trash the work, solely out of jealously. This is not a story that would ever take very much deductive reasoning or even Gil Grissom squinting at beetles typically named John, Paul, George and Ringo. Why? Film Noir is an emotional experience from jump and you can skip asking cops about real homicide investigations.

The ride begins with finding Sophie’s body facedown in a bleak alley. She has been slashed many times. The one nod to the Procedural tropes at the other end of the Crime story continuum, Spencer (probably Locke in a dissociative state) blows talcum powder and gets fingerprints. That and asking questions of Sophie’s employer and Calvin…uh, Locke’s old teacher, Principal Scabtree, constitute all that passes for procedure in a narrative that really doesn’t need any stinking DNA swabs collected, thank you very much.

Since the story revolves around Locke’s facing his dark past, the only real clue to solve the crime comes when Locke has coffee with Spencer at a diner. The blue panther with a button covering an eye relates to his friend that the weapon was an old-timey barber’s razor with smells of cigars, disinfectant and perhaps an aromatic wooden handle (Cedar? Sandalwood?). A server walks by and Spencer reverts back to his Other People are Watching Form, an eighteen-inch stuffed blue panther.

We then launch into three more issues of wild fun interspersed with the kind of heartbreak that we can only hope came forth simply because Mr. Pepose intentionally emulated Frank Miller’s bleak and emotionally raw body of work and not due to something a therapist wants to see on his or her couch. Issue Two involves chasing down kidnappers that put the snatch on Sophie and Locke’s daughter, Hero. In Issue Three, Locke gets a hit of some wacky designer narcotics reliving one of his childhood alter egos, Rocketman Reynolds (Spaceman Spiff), as he just barely stays alive. Issue Four brings everything to a close forcing Locke to face the un-killed demons of his past including his surviving family and what Sophie Jenkins had gotten herself into.

The four-issue arc begins in an alley and ends at the museum high above the dinosaur exhibit with Detective Locke wounded dangling above the tyrannosaur display forced to make a decision about pulling the trigger on his father, Augustus Locke. Sophie’s daughter, Hero, hides in a closet with Spencer with a gun. A thug opens the wrong door intentionally slightly muddying up the line that the original Calvin & Hobbes always kept clear: Calvin imagined Hobbes into being and probably grew out of his childlike point of view as a teenager.

This comic series does a brilliant job threading the needle between the disparate elements of the pitch: Calvin & Hobbes Meets Sin City. Calvin would likely grow out of needing Hobbes as the boy grew older because Calvin was just the smarty-pants six-year-old leaving a suburban life with an ultimately loving family. But, you can open up any psychology textbook and plug in the abuses survived by Locke in childhood and have an easy ah-ha moment for explaining why a grown thirty something man still had his imaginary friend close by.

Raped by a babysitter? Regularly beat up by his mother and a schoolyard bully? The knowledge that his father is a particularly violent citywide crime boss? The psychic damage of pulling the trigger to ward off his crazed mother advancing with a broken beer bottle? All of this happened to Locke in his past rendered in panels intentionally styled like Waterston’s old strips, so there’s no way this doesn’t force our hero into a place where Spencer sticks around as an eight-foot tall blue panther willing to do his part with much of the routine cop stuff: fingerprints, smell the room, wise counsel and opening up locked doors with his claws.

Mister Pepose and his art team cut back and forth between the comic strip style art presenting the demons of the past and a darker style that really only emulates Sin City in emotional content, proof that visually speaking there are 40 million roads to hell. But, you did hear the word brilliant describing the weaving of this dark tale? Not only does the back and forth reveal the relevant past for Locke to discuss in Noir Style voiceover, but these interjections also serve to explain the skillset and/or mindset that drives him through the story without getting killed at the end of Issue Two or at any point thereafter.

Locke’s childhood was filled with the same transmutation machines (a cardboard box) and wild downhill slalom wagon rides experienced by Calvin, but with the harder edged reality of trying to escape his shitbag life. So when Locke tries (in the meta-reality where Spencer is always a blue stuffed animal and Locke is nuts) to drive, shoot and not kill the little girl tied up in the back of the target car, a quick cut to the past in the comic strip style where Locke pulled the same kind of bootlegger turn in his wagon reminds us that Locke has trained all his life for this long night in the Unnamed Big City. I can’t say enough good things about how well the stylistic transitions and match cuts work.

When thinking about the characters in this love letter to Film Noir with a thin veneer of a favorite comic strip, I really think that Spencer & Locke is somewhat kinder to Spencer than Locke compared to Calvin or Hobbes. Partly, this is because with the crap in Locke’s past Spencer takes on far more of the collective psyche between the two friends. This forces the imaginary blue panther to grow into the more interesting half of the duo. He gets the philosophical moments, even in the meta-reality version where Locke really carries both sides of the conversation. This makes it highly noticeable that Spencer speaks about the jadedness, ennui and despair that we’ve come to expect from the hardboiled detective in Noir first. Locke only replies to these philosophical pronouncements after Spencer brings it up first. Interesting.

When we contemplate Locke, the story puts him in a darker place. In the meta-reality perspective he’s a nutbar with many longstanding chips on his shoulders against a variety of his outright enemies from childhood who has maintained his childhood imaginary friend well into adulthood. And somehow he passed the psych exam that police departments give new recruits. In the real world, he would be weeded out and spend life as a broken inconsequential man in a shitty apartment. Possibly as a professional killer.

Even allowing for one feature of the Noir subgenre of Crime stories is that the detective is broken and jaded as a means to find a small measure of redemption for the un-killable ghosts of the past, the reader needs to take a moment to wonder if the unnamed police department really wants this guy around. He’s damaged to the point of taking a bat to an early henchman working for his father. We can and will apply Suspension of Disbelief to Noir because the story form allows us to vicariously exorcise demons great and small, we still have to ask – “How far is this guy going to go from tuning up an obvious bad guy’s head with a Louisville Slugger to a total break where he shoots people for no discernable reason leaving behind a drop gun?” Things to explore in the sequels, if any.

I suspect that enjoying Spencer & Locke will come down to how the book catches you on the day you read it. I did lead with a pseudo-South Park reaction to the killing of Sophie Jenkins (the Suzie analogue). While I might be the kind to read this and enjoy the surprises inherent in mixing what I believe to be the Last Great Comic Strip and ball crunching Film Noir, your responses will vary possibly to the tune of hate mail. Please avoid the hate mail.