Archive for February 3, 2018

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

On the subject of heroically surviving grievous injury whether for movies or RPGs, Sergeant Frank Rock will always come up. When discussing the DC war comics character at the store, I said this, “if I had a dollar for every time I read an issue where Sgt. Rock took a sucking chest wound that the medic wrapped up in mummy bandages only to have the Rock check himself out of Battalion Aid 36 hours later to lead Easy to victory, I could pay off your school debt.”

Hyperbole alert, the man behind the second person pronoun owed $100,000 and Sgt. Rock only appeared a total of 339 distinct times before being ported to the regular DC spandex narrative (usually associated with Suicide Squad), or used as a rarely published nostalgia bait for old farts bemoaning that our wars don’t have nearly as much romance to them. Let’s just say Sergeant Rock took a lot of grave chest wounds that were promptly shrugged off enough times for exaggeration to set in.

Now why talk about the Rock in an RPG column? Have you seen the whole bit about Gain a Level Gain Hit Dice and therefore more hit points that has consistently existed in Dungeons & Dragons since the beginning? Depending on rules version, a fighter (assumed to be a trains outdoors sort of person) gets D10 or D8 with each level. Wizards get D4. Thieves get D6. Clerics get either D8 or D6.

Wisdom and experience do count for something, like Mr. Miyagi reminding Daniel, “best defense, don’t get hit.” And willpower and drive might increase with a warrior’s increased experience. This may explain why the Rock had the mummy bandage visuals land on his Script Immunity and not any of the other Combat Happy Joes of Easy Company. He does have the stripes and rockers of a Master Sergeant denoting a presumption of greater experience.

I suppose we need a real world example. In the same conversation where I spooled up the college debt brag, my friend told me that he didn’t read Sgt. Rock because it was too similar to his scary grandfather. This man I never met reportedly said on many occasions, “bullets are merely an impediment to forward progress.” I was later told after the man’s passing that the pathologist opening him up found upwards of 30 bullets or fragments spanning a nearly 40-year career in mostly covert service. In RPG terms this warrior is an upper level fighter that rolled high on hit dice gained and milked every Constitution bonus available.

So the RPG/film trope of the unstoppable tank-man slashing/shooting/scorching his way through armies of bad guys might be thing some of the time. Another way to look at the situation is that at about 4th Level most characters gain the ability to survive a single grave wound of the sort likely to disembowel a rookie, because the damage from the common weapons don’t increase to match. There are a few general and class-specific rules to provide at least some balance upon the tank-man trope in this bloodthirsty arms race being hit points and weapons.

A character or non-player character on the attack that rolls a natural 20 that survives all negative modifiers gets a critical hit where damage is multiplied by a lot. A thief could get similar multipliers using the Thief Backstab rules. An assassin in the early rules could circumvent the regular combat rules rolling a percentile dice for an instant killing, possibly bending all logic of an assassination by using this rule in a regular melee. My characters have helped wipe out several examples of large monsters using both the critical hit rules and backstab (never liked assassins as a class), most vividly a giant pretty much lost his spine under my blade.

When pushed various Dungeons & Dragons authors, playtesters and rules gurus have generally stated their belief that most of an upper level character’s extra hit dice represent a metaphor experience making a character being harder to hit. They asserted extra hit points to be a measure of exhaustion, parrying, blocking with some damage to the body. A 10th Level character might have nine dice of metaphor and one die of potential damage to the meat suit.

Okay, so they’re trying to capture the swirling roil of an Errol Flynn style cinematic fencing match while still having a turn-based combat system, aka “only one good strike per turn, everything else is feint and misdirection to be role-played.” But, even in this system declaring that all hit dice and hit points gained since first level are metaphors of exhaustion and driving through defenses belies the fact that they’re called hit dice in the first place. The complexity increases when you realize that optional rules allow for parrying, blocking, riposte, counterstrike and avoidance that are separate from the roleplaying section of the combat turn. All I know, the giant in the above example bled all over me.

The need for clarification increases when you port the killing machine trope back into the movies whence it spawned. Conan never got hit in any battle taking place past the midpoint in the story, unless the writer decreed a truly inconsequential slash much like a shaving scar. Closer to the end of the story, the Cimmerian doesn’t feel much exhaustion either. All those years in gladiator pits paid off and Arnold Schwarzenegger designed a regimen to match.

Other RPG systems have tackled the tricky balance between the desire to get ripped enough to fight dragons, Vermicious Knids or even the average Klingon and the truth of “don’t get hit” in many different ways. Some average various statistics like Strength and Constitution. Some DM/GMs add bleeding rules intended to keep players in an honest fear of death when slashed across the belly.

For instance, a friend currently experiments with a Marvel characters campaign using the Open Game License D20 (aka Dungeons & Dragons 3.0) rules. His solution is to give only one or two hit points per character development level after the first. He said he wanted to do what he could to convey that the human gains 90-percent of all damage resistance upfront and that all other gains represent small amounts built from experience. One way to go for a meet in the middle compromise between the dream of the tank and something that appears real. I wonder if I should drop an average Sgt. Rock issue on my friend or tell him the story of my other friend’s grandfather.

Regardless, please don’t confuse observation with critique. I can be riding in on the proverbial white horse when it has been some time since I played any serious games. Put me at the table with my blue and green dice and watch me chant, “come on, Baby, gimme at least a seven!” Yeah, I sometimes play RPGs like I did that one time shooting craps…go figure.

Anyway, there isn’t much else to say about the oddity that is hit points…get back to your literary mayhem!

The current setup…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

In my quest for just the right tools, I’ve chewed through a lot of stuff that I know the social media gods and monsters that like nanny shaming people over all kinds of things will get a-yellin’ over. Things like the right way to write (or rather type in this case) that maximizes for several possibly mutually exclusive factors. Portability. Connectivity to my Dropbox account. Assists editing. Size of screen and angle of display. Connectivity between keyboard and the rest of my gear. Size and feel of the keyboard.

Frankly in building up the small pile of old but still functional gear that I will soon have to clear out making them someone else’s problem through the Salvation Army, I’ve jumped on at least one grenade in each category. And I have gone back to an older solution with some twists, which says new ain’t always better.

Portability. Sounds self explanatory; buy the smallest object that does the job. Luckily, Microsoft finally built-in quite a bit of useful to the mobile version of Office that they sell to Apple users that circumvents the near automatic subscription shill for Office 365 found elsewhere. That means you can use a late-model iPhone for most of your writing…if you bring the right supporting gear.

For years, people didn’t want to write on phones because the screen proved too small and finger-tapping revealed as too slow. Emergency use only. Phones got a little bigger pushing up against the lower limit of tablets. The whiny became more strident if someone tried to write with the touchscreen keyboard. Enter the Bluetooth connection which allowed the user to add a keyboard in order to type normally-ish.

Bluetooth gave, Bluetooth took. The connection gave the ability to mate a keyboard to whatever tech you wanted while generally making the same small screen seem larger removing the visual obstruction of the finger tap keyboard. And Bluetooth doesn’t always work…the take.

Most of these observations result from also having a couple variations on the iPad that were never as portable as a phone, even the Plus size. Once I had my iPad Mini, the game was to try to find a keyboard that fit the size of the tech that I liked typing on and that also didn’t cause more problems with the connection. I’m batting .500 at best.

Small keyboards are more portable, but sometimes too small for typing. Small tablets are maybe eight inches across and my hands stuck index finger to index finger like for a fingernail inspection are also about that wide. I was taught to type on larger keyboards where the raised parts on the F and J keys help keep each hand safely on its own side. It feels miserable to type with a small keyboard, possible like fighting with a spear in a phone booth.

Initially, I had solved the problem with a full size Apple wireless keyboard to go with the iPad and now my iPhone that I’m admitting that maybe I should stop experimenting when something actually works. I wanted to maximize portability. The keyboard is as light as it gets given that Apple can’t make a regular size keyboard smaller, but at the time the wires and cables and protective cases still seemed too heavy in my bag.

Concurrent with the above, I went with a bunch of mini-sized Bluetooth clamshells that mimic notebook computers. Tried at least two by Logitech and the latest one by Brydge. They were for the iPad Mini creating the ugly typing feel, but only some of the time did the Bluetooth connection even talk to the devices properly. And guessing when something would work had no rhyme or reason.

Oftentimes, the connections would seem to work. Tap the buttons on both phone and keyboard and wait out the microsecond long handshake before working. But, the iOS mobile version of Word still has many secondary features that make use of the touchscreen to provide information. Word count. Bold. Italics. Underline. If you’ve guessed wrong with a cheap Bluetooth, these features might not work causing the need to shut down the connection and reset the phone to restore functions.

The Apple to Apple Bluetooth connection always scored high on working. Presumably, Apple employees drank much coffee whining in meetings about playing ‘Tooth Roulette and did what they could to make sure that they sold you the phone and the keyboard to go with it. But, it was a little bit bigger despite being the lightest possible for its size.

The Brydge clamshell works pretty well but it only seems like it maximizes portability adding weight to my bag that made me still want to go lighter. Moving me towards my Plus-size iPhone.

Unfortunately, more design effort has gone towards making a tablet like a notebook computer than has gone to doing the same for a large phone. The problem with phones used like this is that while the clamshell keyboard case will stand a tablet up so we can type with an approximation of good sitting posture, no one has thought to do that with phones. And a clamshell for a phone will be even smaller.

People do try to fill these market needs and helpfully blast the adds into my Facebook feed. I recently bought a keyboard (see second picture) that should work with my phone or a small tablet. The keyboard feel is okay for being about the same size. They got me selling the fold up keyboard that goes even lighter in my bag and has a shelf on which to place the phone. Oooh! Light and not too bad trying to type!

Too bad the Bluetooth connection proved cheap returning me to the old tricks first learned on the iPad Mini. Tapping the button that leads to the secondary features like Word Count got me a blue screen where the tap keyboard usually goes, jammed. I cleared this several times by turning off the Bluetooth connection and resetting the phone. Doing these things several times within a few minutes because you’re just stupid enough to repeat what didn’t work the first time, just to be sure, is angry making.

What is the current result of my experimentation? I went back to the Apple Wireless Keyboard that I hadn’t thrown away when I pulled out the batteries. I made the connection that requires a typed code which many barely functional Bluetooth objects don’t. I needed something to prop up the phone improvising putting my phone up against two lights I already have in my bag (see top photo). The keyboard is as light as it’s ever going to get knowing my typing requirements. More importantly, the Bluetooth functions first time every time.

And this is my process of trial, error and stupidity in stepping away from something that worked but wasn’t small enough and then ended up either not working or being too small. And I realize that none of this has more than a 15-percent bearing on your search for your writing tools. I hope you recognize Good For Now sooner than I did.

An old pizzicato theme likely to recycle elsewhere and a bit of random inspiration…

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Hey, doing an opera here! Yeah, you heard me; I’m going to create operas (libretto and score)! Announcing for the Met’s 2028 season, the comic opera Just Another Drunken Dwarf. Now, there’s a good way to burn the ships behind me on the Trojan beach.

I either write the opera to thunderous applause, write the opera to – “Huh? Most atonal crap I’ve ever heard!” – or just never do this and slink out of town before the laughter gets too loud. I have other creative outlets; so all three outcomes are okay with me (especially if I bust out a good book…lots of books). It’s not like I haven’t previously flopped on the floor for other peoples’ entertainment. However, you’ll notice the specific use of the still soft 10-year deadline? I need the time.

Why an opera? This question more or less drops along these lines – storyteller who also likes music, duh! Get me drunk and…no, even loaded my enjoyment of opera doesn’t publicly go beyond a writer simply wanting to punch up a scene with an aria for strings and brassy soprano. Besides, to wax that craptological about What Opera Means (almost as ridiculous as the original Point Break explaining What Surfing Means) I actually need tickets to a show (on my To Do List, I swear). For now, I like the music and the plots pop off Wikipedia.

So why Just Another Drunken Dwarf? I’m going to weasel here and explain the why not of another opera concept briefly included as a Go Project in an earlier version of this post. Provide contrast with a rejected idea first – Tales of the Angel Association, which is no longer a proposed opera. This year, at least.

What is Angel Association? A pack of mostly twenty-something spandex-heroes set up shop in Los Angeles to fight the villains of the Legion of Chaos and learn to grow as people. Yes, Folks, a superhero opera.

I got the idea about six hours after the one for Just Another Drunken Dwarf rubbing my hands with glee. I’ve periodically wondered why neither Time Warner nor Disney-Marvel (they paid for a concert hall in LA) have commissioned operas to flog the products of their respective IP mills to the opera going segment of the public, stereotypically a different bunch than superhero movie fans. Apologies to my fellow crossover people.

Imagine Batman: the Opera. Bruce Wayne stands brooding atop Gotham Cathedral and rips off his cowl to sing – Don’t Cry For Me, Gotham City (Really? I can do better than Andrew Lloyd Webber as a source). A hit in the making once you figure out that Batman is the single most Wagnerian character in a mythos that probably lands on Wagner’s head being a stark Gods and Monsters franchise.

By contrast, Marvel operas would run all over the style map. The Wagner clone from above could pull off The Avengers, but so too could a composer doing Verdi, Berlioz or Mozart, with a different feel to each. But, many of the other characters would need other giants on whose shoulders to stand.

No way does Spider-man land on the opera stage for anyone but Gilbert & Sullivan. All you have to do is repeat With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility while grooving on the joke about these Brits that all their work is about Duty. Besides, Peter Parker spends so much time comically stepping into it with Gwen Stacey and later Mary Jane Watson. Fits the funny edge to Gilbert & Sullivan.

Of course, all of this ran through my head contemplating my spandex opera. But, without either a commission or permission for doing it on spec, what follows is essentially fan fiction with good music. I’ll save that itch for actual fan fiction gifted as a loss leader for increasing readership, thank you very much.

I thus needed to cast about for other similar concepts. Angel Association is a set of characters that might out Wagner the DC mythos, just knowing from where I grabbed inspiration, especially Night Fury (a heroine for Me Too times from before the hashtag). Pretty much, I knew I needed to acquire Richard Wagner’s sheet music to reverse engineer the style and tone without devolving into outright plagiarism.

At this point, Angel Association is a go. I hear the themes that I suspect many librettists might hum while setting down the story, especially since the characters will brood from the spire of the Library Tower (brooding in high places is union-mandated at this point). Luckily, the beauty of doing both Book and Score is that I can’t piss off a composer (unless I go full MPD, a post for another day).

At this point in my narrative about my mouth writing checks my musical ear can’t yet cash, I’m also thinking about the state of spandex genre across all media. I’ve commented on Facebook how limiting it is that we have an IP duopoly, which until things shake loose with characters from other smaller publishers, will eat up all the big bucks in our culture. Marvel and DC feed directly to their in-house production studios and no one else in Hollywood wants to take a risk developing/buying characters from other sources.

Part of the wild, now time wasting, tangent about my desire to port over these characters from the fragments of prose, comic scripts, screenplays and, most recently, and old-timey radio script relates to this concern. Maybe if I do an opera with these characters I can force the issue of cultural relevance, I thought. Which isn’t the purest motive for doing anything, akin to “write a screenplay to make money.” But, something somewhere has to give to expand things beyond Batsie and Spidey, over and over again…until the end of time.

All of the above runs through my head. So why is Tales of the Angel Association now officially off my proposed opera plate? I have four words for you split down the middle. The first two: Wagnerian Scale.

I’m sure that the underlying darkness of characters like Night Fury (Wonder Woman meets The Hulk), Night Fury (Batman as a young record executive) and Funnyman (outright theft of the Joker archetype) would naturally find a home emulating the style of that crazy German bastard we only tolerate for the amazing music and being safely dead at least a hundred years. But, Angel Association is a spandex team story with at least twenty characters plugged into different modular stories. I might want the style to the exclusion of the scale especially since I’m just starting out; basically here’s an SAT analogy for you Tales of the Angel Association equals The Ring of the Niebelungen. Yipe!

However, believe it or not it was the other two words that really killed this spandex opera…for now. Stagecraft fail. An opera is first and foremost a stage play and I can’t port these characters to the opera stage without at least one bit of this has never been done before forced on that poor director. Yes, I’m aware that big budget stage and opera productions have solved most of the common effects problems: flight, fire, swinging, lightning and probably both water and ice. And then I created a character that will need a tandem flight rig.

Metal Goddess is a dual character that would need two singers to play, a young teenager tall enough to play volleyball and an alien armor symbiote. Pretty much, she’s femme Iron Man meets Firestorm. Unless the production decides to cover the Artemis (the symbiote) character by having her stay offstage on a headset until visibly called on stage, the soprano I imagined for Tullia (the girl) and the mezzo for Artemis will be joined at the hip. And Metal Goddess is pretty much the Dr. Watson narrator of the franchise so she’s in every scene!

I basically don’t need the bad karma from strapping two singers together and flying them around and having the rig blow up on stage. Hubris of this scale might have gone into Spider-man: The Unlucky Musical. Pity, I hear some interesting debate duets in my ears. Well, I can still pull off the radio drama.

And so we now come back full circle to Just Another Drunken Dwarf. When asked the real reason I buried the lead for the loaded dwarf idea, truthfully it comes down to…dude, I was just rolling my story dice and the pink image of a dwarf holding pick and stein kept coming up. I did sixteen rolls with twelve dice each and the dwarf came up six times.

No, I don’t get to wax craptological about getting the same result multiple times without it being a common result of probability juxtaposed with unconscious/semi-conscious behavior that diminishes the randomness. I keep my dice in a Ziploc bag and some sit higher on top of others and if the person picking the cubes doesn’t shake them flush beforehand, I freely admit that I might pull the same dice repeatedly. The rest is covered by the fact that when tossing coins true random probability says that long strings of Heads or Tails are possible results that will even out over time. So I had the die with the dwarf in hand at least six times and it came up six times.

I’ve wanted to do music and operas for a while trying to fight through the naysayers external and internal. Fighting against the laughter that knows I stopped the clarinet and the earlier flute going into middle school. Fighting against throwing some kind of fit at the age of four in some kind of preschool piano class and not really going back. And also fighting the disappointment from not trying the things I say I want to do.

It is in this emotional firestorm where all it takes to burn boats on the beach is two things, a loaded dwarf image seemingly coming up more than it should and the right interesting opera on the radio. What you listen to when you get your ideas will shape the idea.

In this case, the Met rocked and rolled with The Merry Widow on a Sunday morning as I’m going out to see a movie. Presented in English for the linguistically impaired, I’m just having fun listening to a comic tale of diplomats, their wives and the many “bargirls” (if you want a polite word for it) at Maxim’s in Paris scheming to get the wealthy widow properly married to a hometown suitor to keep her bank account at home. Halfway through the live presentation I get the idea for Just Another Drunken Dwarf and I’m laughing.

Comic operas and the classic plays on which many are based are typically “comic” if they end with a marriage, the Old World definition of Happy Ending. The tenor sniffing after the soprano singing the widow says and does the right things to create real love and everybody gets what they want. By contrast, if I’d been listening to my usual fare of Verdi, Wagner and others…my dwarf might just kill everybody in the room in the Fifth Act.

Right now, all I know is that I’ve pitched to myself that I’m doing an opera about a drunken dwarf and his adventures. I got the idea while listening to a comic opera, which guides the style of my idea. Which guides answering key questions about the basic plot.

Is Drunken Dwarf a story about the one fantasy/fairytale dwarf who is a teetotaler and angrily overcomes the diminished expectations of those around him? What composers would have gravitated to this version of the story? Wagner? Verdi? Berlioz? Basically, if the story is about overcoming others’ low expectations I might as well bid for the rights to do Martin Luther King Jr. from his estate.

Is Drunken Dwarf a story about a nobody that overcomes the alcoholism believed endemic to dwarves by getting clean to win the day? Right, Rocky meets Lost Weekend. If I’d been listening to any other opera that morning, maybe. Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t need me to add to their outreach, so pass.

Or do I go with the Drunken Dwarf that must realize that getting loaded is a cultural imperative for dwarves and that our hero must embrace being a dwarf in order to win? Rocky meets Drunken Master if you will. Given that Jackie Chan did a funny movie learning to get loose as he fought and I was listening to a comic opera, I think you’ll understand if I land the concept here.

Of course, this means that I need to acquire the right kinds of scores as part of the research and reverse engineering parts of going from “An opera? Are you high?” to “Wow! You did it!” I’ll need The Merry Widow. I’ll probably need to read more Shakespeare comedies. And if I’m really going after the underlying duty of a dwarf that gets drunk and wins for his people, I’m going to become more intimately familiar with the whole of Gilbert & Sullivan. And start making notes. That would help.

Did I bring enough gasoline for the boats? Time will tell.