Archive for October 2009
I got together with an old friend last night and did something new. It was Frank Denton (and his gracious wife Anna Jo) who were in Phoenix the last few days to enjoy some horse racing, some art at the Heard Museum and the Phoenix Art Museum and some dog racing. I’ve known Frank since 1968 when he was the first to ever publish any St. Andre fiction in his fanzine–Ashwing. (Ashwing was an owl, and owls have always been Frank’s totem.)
He lives in Seattle, and I live in Phoenix, and the chance to see him and talk to him doesn’t come very often, so I was happy to go out to supper with him on Tuesday night. I introduced him to one of my favorite dives (I mean restaurants)–the Knock-Kneed Lobster at 32nd Street and Washington. It was either that or the Big Apple, but I craved sea food instead of hamburger. Frank and Anna ate catfish, something they apparently can’t get in the Pacific northwest. I just had cod and shrimp. (and deep-fried zucchini–yum) It was a jumbo shrimp, roughly the length of my forearm. We ate. We talked. Life was good.
After supper we went over to Phoenix’s own greyhound racing park–oddly enough called Greyhound Park. It has been at 38th Street and Washington for all my life, and although I’ve been in the parking lot–which doubles as Arizona’s biggest flea market on weekends–dozens of times, I had never gone into the actual dog-racing stadium. Tonight was the first time I’ve ever entered there.
Something about me–I have no heritage of horse racing, dog racing, auto racing, gold, football, baseball, etc. My family never went to any kind of sporting events when I was a kid. When I grew up, I never went to any sporting events either. I attended maybe 4 football games while I was in college. Arizona has had the Cardinals NFL football team for about 20 years now. I have never gone to a professional game. I just don’t go to sports very often.
So this was something new for me, and as such, a bit of an adventure. It turned out to be easier than I thought. Parking was free. Admission was free. Apparently they make all their money on gambling and on food and drink concessions. Great! I like to go places that are free. There aren’t that many such places around any more.
The stadium was/is beautiful–clean, spacious, comfortable. There were only about 20 cars in the parking lot, and I doubt if there were more than 30 people inside it. There was seating for a couple hundred people, each with its own television monitor. If you couldn’t see the track, you could watch the whole race on tv. In fact, I did. Being near-sighted as a bat, I couldn’t really tell how the dogs were doing a quarter of a mile away on the racetrack.
Anna Jo got programs for us. What a marvelous thing those programs are–packed with information about every dog , every race. That was when I learned that greyhounds aren’t grey. I saw brown dogs, white dogs, black dogs, brindled dogs–didn’t see a single grey dog.
In case you know as much about greyhound racing as I did when we showed up, let me tell you something about how it works. There’s a dirt track just like the one around your high school football field. There is a set of gates, really just little boxes that the dogs start in. There’s a rail around the inside of the track, and attached to that rail is a mechanical rabbit that can zoom around the track at speeds no real rabbit ever attained. The dogs run about 550 yards–just over 1/4 of a mile. They do it in about 35 seconds or less. Each race consists of eight dogs, numbered 1 through 8. Each wears a light blanket of a different color.
The dogs are rated by class. AA is the best, and I think C is the worst. Dogs only run against other dogs in the same class. If a dog does well, it moves up to higher classes; if it does poorly, it moves down. Thus, it’s always a “fair” race. Handicappers rate the dogs and try to predict the winners. As far as I could tell, they had no more clue than the spectators did. In fact, I wondered if the handicapper picks weren’t there to mislead you into betting on the wrong dogs.
During the course of the evening I came up with half a dozen theories on how to pick winners. I got lucky at the very beginning. Frank and I liked the same dogs–I was judging by names and blanket colors–he went by the numbers in the program, which I didn’t yet understand. But we got lucky right at the start–picked winning exacta bids for the first 2 races, and won about 40 dollars–20 for him, 20 for me. Pure beginner’s luck. After that, my luck ran out, and my picks all quit happening. Before all my money was gone, I quite betting–that’s why i came away with a profit. I managed to pick one more race correctly, the penultimate one, but by that time I wasn’t betting. Frank won another $20 on that one–all I got was moral satisfaction.
All in all, it was a very satisfactory evening all around. Frank bought me supper–yum. We won at the racetrack–which doesn’t happen all that often according to him–and we got to talk for another couple of hours. I regaled them with my youthful misadventures in Tahiti; they told me about walking around the coast of Britain. We talked about books we’ve read, and authors we know in common (like Bob Vardeman) and other topics like medicine, health, Buddhism, family. I told them a little bit about Tunnels and Trolls, my adventures and exploits as a gamer and author. It was almost 1 a.m. before I said good night and went home.
When I mentioned I’d be going to the dog races, everyone was quick to tell me that Greyhound Park was closing this year–probably in December. I could see why. A place designed for hundreds of fans had a couple dozen people in it. They had to be losing money by just having the lights on. Dog racing does not appear to be a big money business. The winning dog might make $300 for its stable. That’s a shame. Perhaps our culture has moved on. Perhaps having Las Vegas style gambling at Indian casinos just outside of town has stolen away all the gamblers that used to make dog racing big business. Whatever the cause, it’s obviously a dying sport–at least here in Phoenix.
I was glad to see my friend again, and glad to get the chance to experience dog racing. I barely scratched the surface of that subculture, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot.
Epilog: greyhound racing is a business–racing dogs are young and strong. When they start to lose their speed, they are sold, given away, or put to sleep (and by that I mean killed). The deaths of so many beautiful animals is a real crime that the dog stables practice–and they do it not because they like killing dogs, but simply because it’s a business and dogs need to pay their way to stay in it. There are greyhound rescue services, and many big-hearted dog lovers adopt greyhounds once they are past their racing prime. I’d like to do that myself (and I’d like a black one please), but there is no room in my house for a dog right now. As dogs go, greyhounds are friendly, intelligent, and very fast. They make great pets. And they do love to run.
I played my first game of D & D Pathfinder yesterday. And, I had a good time, but that was probably more because I was roleplaying an outrageous barbarian than because the rules or setting were anything special.
Some of you may know that I don’t normally play Dungeons and Dragons, or normally have anything to do with the game. That’s not because I really have anything against D & D. It’s just because the game is so damn slow. And it was slow yesterday too. At 2:30 Corencio and I said we’d play. At 4;30 we finally had characters that were ready to go. Partly that was because Jake, our GM, was so enthusiastic about the game that he went off into D & D stories on practically every attribute and skill, and partly it was because there’s just a heckuva lotta stuff to look up and write down. The players’ manual was a 400 page book, and a lot of it was in small print. And everybody took it so seriously–you’d think the world might come to an end if I didn’t have the right defense bonus. I’m an old roleplayer, and I do mean old. The older I get, the less important the numbers are, and the more important the roleplaying. To some extent I was able to speed things up by joking and force of personality, but it still took 2 hours to get ready to play.
By the time the game started I was running short of time. Jake, bless his heart, was running this game on the fly just for my son and I, altho his regular gaming group was also meeting and joining in. You could almost hear his mental cogwheels grinding as he tried to come up with a good introductory adventure for us. In a short time the seven of us set off to capture a bandit chieftain, alive or dead. Halfway to the destination, we ran into a group of dragons. I could see everybody gearing up for an epic fight. But, I didn’t have time for an hour-long battle with dragons. We could see they were brass dragons, supposedly good, so we recruited them. We had a pretty high level party–7th level and up, and two guys could speak dragon. With some high sounding phrases like justice and outlaws, we soon had them on our side.
On to the town. The bad guys had dragons too. Oh good! Something for our dragons to do. We had a magical tank with adamantium armor–told you it was a high level game. We crashed the front gates with it. My barbarian stood on top of it, and the used the momentum to catapult himself up onto the walls. It took an acrobatics feat. I made it. Once there i found myself being rushed by three orcish barbarians. Being outnumbered is a good way to get killed, so I decided to recruit them as well. Tried intimidation. Failed. Cut that orc in half with my battleaxe. Tried intimidation again on the next two. That worked just fine. They turned to fight for me, and Kennan the barbarian was soon clearing the walls of defenders with a combination of recruiting and slaughter that seemed to be working very well indeed.
And then I ran out of time and had to go. We turned in our characters and left them to be run as npcs by the GM. Jake’s a friend of mine–even if he is 42 years younger than me–who lives 2 houses over. I’ll find out what happened to Kennan and Corencio the Pathfinder characters later this week.
I’ve always maintained that it is the GM and the players that make any roleplaying game fun. We had a good group of players at Samurai Comics in Phoenix Wednesday afternoon. It wasn’t the worst D & D session I’ve ever been in. I’d play again if I got a chance.
But, I tell you now, there’s a market out there for pre-generated characters. Taking 2 hours to get the characters ready to play is almost always going to be a deal-breaker for me.
And advice to GMs who are trying to run quick adventures on the fly–advice straight from John Wick, mi amigo. Let the players help you with the creative work. You don’t have to invent things for us players. Given half a chance the players will make your game deeper, richer, and more fun than you can. Jake rolled a random encounter and came up with dragons. After a bit of bluster on my part, they turned into good dragons, and gave him an excuse for the bad guys to have dragons also. GMs you can use your players’ imaginations if you just give them a hint and let them roll with it. And everyone will have a good time.
I have a good weekend every once in a while. I had one on the 10th and 11th of October, when I left the trollcave in Phoenix behind, and traveled with my son Corencio to the remote southern city of Tucson to attend the second annual RinCon game convention.
S.A.G.A., the Southern Arizona Gamers Association, hosted RinCon. I didn’t attend the first one last year, but I thought this might be a good opportunity to go down, meet some gamers, and have some fun. I packed a bag full of T & T stuff that would allow me to run several games if I got the chance, gassed up the car, and was on the road by 7:30 Saturday morning.
My plan was to meet up with Head Buffalo, Rick Loomis, who would be flying the flag as a vendor down there. We could share a hotel room, at the Arizona Hotel, and I’d be there to help him with the Flying Buffalo booth if it got busy, or he needed a break. In fact, I did help with the booth, once on Saturday when I guarded it for about 15 minutes while he went out to the lobby to buy some lunch, and again on Sunday afternoon when he had to go get his car to pack up his goods and go back to his Buffalo Castle in Scottsdale. Let me go on record now as saying that if you ever want to attend a gaming convention as a game company minion, Rick is a fine patron. He has often paid my air fare and hotel bills and has supported my efforts to promote Tunnels and Trolls in all parts of the country. He sometimes needs help–there’s a lot of work involved in running a booth at a game convention–and I can’t always be there for him, but it’s always a good deal to be his minion.
RinCon had 6 large rooms available for the convention, and took up the first floor of the Tucson Convention Center. It was close to the freeway, and only about a block from the Con Hotel. I parked in the hotel garage and walked back and forth between the two locations many times over the two days. The rooms available were: an open gaming lobby, a panel/seminar room, a meeting place for Larpers, a computer gaming room, and two programmed gaming rooms, one for board games, and the other for role-playing and miniatures. Rick’s table was in the board games room.
Rick had dealer badges for himself and me, but I had to buy an attendee’s badge for Corencio. That was $20, and that’s a very good price for full membership in a convention these days. SAGA was so organized that they had the ticket seller who worked for the convention center selling admissions and badges–thus no hassle with a registration table and volunteers. Slick. But it wouldn’t have worked for a larger gathering.
Our room at the Arizona Hotel was 1118–a nice enough room, but very small. The two queen-sized beds were really about princess-sized. Rick did ok with a whole bed to himself, but son and I shared the other bed and there was barely room to turn over. Still, you don’t want to spend that much time at a convention sleeping, and if you’re tired enough, you could sleep on the floor. (Thank God I’m well past the stage of sleeping on floors!) There was parking in the hotel garage, and the car stayed in one place for the two days I was there.
The gaming action started with a demo game of Castle Panic–a fun little board game where goblins, orcs, and trolls try to rush out of the forest and destroy the castle with its human defenders. It’s a cooperative game where all the players work together to beat the monsters. It’s a well-balanced game with elements of luck, strategy, and diplomacy all intermingled. A good fun party game! It got played a lot at the Con, and I played it again Sunday afternoon.
At 2 p.m. it was time for a Mutants and Masterminds session of Adventures into Darkness. What if H.P. Lovecraft had lived and become a comic book writer? Then he might have created stories like the one Corencio and I played Saturday afternoon. For 4 hours Berin Kinsman put 6 of us through our paces as we faced ghouls, deep ones, night gaunts and ungodly wizards. Still, the forces of good triumphed, as the brainpower of Dream Master Randolph Carter, and the superhuman might of Captain Future were more than enough to defeat the forces of Darkness. Let me just throw in a word of praise–Berin is an uncommonly good-natured and flexible G.M., and he made the adventure fun and memorable for all of us.
From 6 to 10 p.m. it was my turn to run a Tunnels and Trolls adventure for about 5 players. I did my favorite for quick con adventuresg. I sent a Hunting Party into the wilderness to find and slay monsters. I randomly chose monsters from the Monstrum Codex volume 1 to send against them. First, they found a colony of bapomoz, small dog-headed, rat-tailed, goblin-like creatures who lived underground in sizeable colonies–like nests of rats. The Bapomoz, however, have level one magic users, and that proved to be enough to take Berin’s character to the edge of death, and to drive away all the others. The hunt guide healed Berin once they dragged him back out of the caves. That evening they were attacked by a giant 3-headed ettin, but Corencio, playing a wizard, was able to stop it cold with Hold that pose spells while the fighters cut it down to nothing. Took them 4 combat turns to dispatch a monster that couldn’t fight back. Lastly, they ran into some peaceful but hideous farmers, and one of them fought when she should have run. ugh. Dwarf puree. However, four of them did survive and get back to town, with enough reward money to pay their debts and throw a good party in honor of their deceased comrade.
By the time the game ended it was late. No way was I gonna start another game at 10 p.m. Corencio and I made our way back to the hotel. I phoned out for pizza, and got a good one for $12. We watched the end of Men in Black with Rick and finally went to bed around midnight.
Sunday wasn’t quite as interesting. I played another game of Castle Panic. Corencio won it. He won a lot, including a dozen games of Magic against me. I listened to Mike Stackpole explain his favorite subject, how to make it in the internet world–and he’s right. There are things that can be done. Podcasting, books on Kindle, internet store on your web page, plenty of things one can do to make money on the internet. I just can’t do them. Corencio spent a lot of time Sunday in the video room, bouncing around to
Dance Dance Revolution, and playing in a Rock Band. I drifted around aimlessly watching 5 minutes of game here, and 5 minutes there. I never did find Will Wheaton’s Dwarf Delve for D & D 4.0. He was the big star at the convention, and I don’t think I even saw him.
In the afternoon I ducked into John Wick’s seminar on how to be a good game master. He gives good advice, including the advice to “train your players.” The idea, according to John, is to work with the players to produce a fascinating story where the characters look good. He talked about using style points in larps. He talked about not letting the dice control all the action. I got in a few comments of my own. It was a good talk, and the game masters in the room seemed to enjoy it.
After that it was time to go. I came within a foot of Jess Hartley at one time, but I was playing a game, and I didn’t know it was her until she walked away. So, I never met her. I saw James Ernest, and the Steve Jackson crew, but didn’t game with them. I chatted with quite a few people, and signed a few autographs (5). And I was back home in Phoenix by 6:30 p.m.
Verdict: it was a fun weekend, but the highpoint was the 8 hours I spent gaming with Berin Kinsman. I’m not sure I’d make the effort to go back down to Tucson again.
There is not very much entertainment to report on this week. Today I read a copy of Tangent: Superman’s Reign–it’s about half a graphic novel featuring a crossover between Tangent Earth and DC Earth superheroes. Many years ago DC had a brief fling of publishing an alternate set of superheroes and villains–same names, different appearance and origins. Thus, the Flash is neither Barry Allen nor Wally West, it’s Lia Nelson, and she’s hot. That series of books went over like a lead balloon and vanished in less than a year, but nothing is ever really dead in comics. Somehow, the latest multi-universal crises has connected our mainstream heroes with their forgotten heroes. The story is weak, rushed, and unlikely in the extreme, but it is a good excuse to redraw all the old Tangent characters again.
I have finished THE RETURN OF THE BLACK COMPANY. The second book SHE IS THE DARKNESS leaves our heroes in a very bad place, magically imprisoned for eternity. Of course I expect them to get out of that by the time WATER SLEEPS gets started. That reminds me–I should look up the last two Black Company books and see if they’re available here at the library. I don’t have to wait for Tor Books to send me freebies.
I have finished reading ENEMIES & ALLIES by Kevin J. Anderson. This is a tale of Superman, Batman, and Lex Luthor, set in 1958. It seems strange to see Anderson writing such a book. Superman and Batman are still popular, but who wants to read about their adventures in the 50s at the beginning of their careers. D.C. has completely changed the universe at least 3 times since them. Also, Anderson has chosen to write the whole book at about the 6th grade reading level, but it was published as an adult novel. It wasn’t very adult at all. It wasn’t a bad story. Anderson is a terrific writer, but I have to wonder what they were thinking, or who they were writing for.
WotC has released a new expansion set for Magic ™ called Zendikar. On Friday my son and I each bought an expansion deck for it and tried them out. He got the Vampires, and I got some blue/green Sphynx deck. Needless to say, the Vampires just eat me up. With a few additions and changes he has made it into a very good deck. He has a 2 card combination that is an automatic win. You have to pray you have a counterspell in your hand when the first of those two cards comes out–if you don’t, you lose. I’ve built a deck with plenty of counterspells, but I’m still losing.
Sunday, James and I went to see Woody Harrelson’s new movie ZOMBIELAND. The movie is played for laughs, and it succeeds at that. It’s also a coming-of-age for a teenage nerd movie. Teenage nerds are easy to laugh at and with–so many of us went through that stage ourselves that we identify with the poor shmoe. Bill Murray has a terrific cameo appearance as himself. Best part of the movie is the 32 Rules for Survival in Zombieland. Number 1: cardio–you had better be able to run when there are zombies around. Number 2: stay out of bathrooms–too easy to be trapped in there. Rule 3: get a gun, learn how to use it. Rule 32: Enjoy the Little Things. All 32 rules are not given, so you can make up a few of your own. My rule: Always carry an axe. I have to say, I think ZOMBIELAND is the best zombie move I’ve ever seen. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was the scariest. SHAWN OF THE DEAD was the campiest. This is the funniest. It could have been a better movie if the film makers didn’t try so hard to make you throw up between laughs.
I’m looking forward to going off to RinCon in Tucson this weekend, selling some T & T and maybe playing a few games.