Category Archives: Art and the arts

It’s quiet in the church library

It’s quiet in the church library
All around the sounds of the people of God
moving
talking
hurrying

But in here, the silence
of a tired mother napping
of a toddler who refused her class
of a father unsure of the next move

The clock’s ticking
breaks the silence
which reforms around us

This was not my plan
But maybe it’s what we needed
To sit in quiet
And hear the silence

together


Dubstep and Bass Music

INTRODUCTION

So, a week or two ago, my sister Adiel did a brave thing. On Facebook, she admitted that she liked dubstep. So, I did the only reasonable thing.

I welcomed her to the dark side.

Some of you may not know that I’ve taken up DJing in my spare time. (Spare time, heh.) No, I’m not playing gigs to stadiums of thousands or anything like that. Mostly, I play little house parties that we put on at my house once a quarter. It started with just the family. Then, um, it expanded a bit. I think there were probably thirty people at the last party.

Dubstep is one of my favorite genres. I don’t get to play it as much as I’d like, because it seems to be a specialized taste. But dubstep is some of my favorite music, and I wish I could convince more people to give it a go.

So, when Adiel made her confession, I told her that I’d offer some recommendations of artists. And then, since I was going to have to write it up anyways, I figured that I’d share with all of you.

A couple of notes before I begin. First, although these links are to Youtube, I own every single one of the tracks that I’m going to mention, and I like all of them. If it’s here, I think it’s worth hearing. Also, there are a lot of debates about what is and isn’t dubstep. I honestly don’t care. Genres mutate over time and influence new genres. In my collection, honestly, I label all these tracks as “Bass”, because it’s really how I think of them. So, if you know more about the genre than I do, that’s cool! Let’s all share our enjoyment of this music and not waste our time complaining about whether or not a given track is dubstep, glitch, bass, two-step, or whatever. Cool? Then let’s get started.

SOME DEFINITIONS

When discussing dubstep, a term that comes up a lot is “bass wobble”. This is the characteristic “wah wah” sound that ends up in a lot of dubstep. Check out these samples, starting at 0:30. That sound assaulting you? Those are bass wobbles.

Though, some of you might be wondering, “Yeah, but what is dubstep?” Well, here’s the Wikipedia article on the matter, but I generally prefer Ellaskin’s definition, which you’ll find here. You don’t have to watch the whole thing. Just start at 1:15 and play to 2:04. I laugh every time I hear this description. Alternately, you can check out this video of Elders react to dubstep. Which brings us to…

SKRILLEX

Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Skrillex is dubstep. He represents a certain branch of dubstep known as “brostep”, which is pretty much what most people think about when they hear “dubstep”. Brostep tends to be fairly aggressive music, highly discordant with the bleeps and bass wobbles and the like. In a lot of ways, brostep is the heavy metal of the dance music world. Given that Skrillex comes from a metal background, it makes sense that he would gravitate towards brostep.

Skrillex is something of a polarizing topic. He’s been successful in the mainstream, even winning a couple of Grammys. Therefore, to some people, he is dubstep, and to others, he is the destroyer of dubstep. My opinion: as I read somewhere, you don’t get to pick your emissary to the mainstream. Skrillex is who we got, and we may as well embrace it and work with it. Also, after having listened to the Bangarang EP, I rather enjoyed it. It was surprisingly melodic, which is unlike much of the brostep I’ve heard.

The best intro to Skrillex is the title track off his current EP, “Bangarang”. I’ve provided a link to the music video, which is kinda nifty, actually.

It’s a distinct sound. Pretty upbeat, hip hop influenced, with a hook that’s hard to forget. It’s quite a ways from where dubstep started….

CLASSIC DUBSTEP

If I try to recite the history of dubstep, I’ll just butcher it. So I’ll point you to that Wikipedia article instead. Here’s the important thing to note: dubstep comes from experimentation with dark music. More brooding music from an industrial core than party music. It was originally the kind of music that you’d expect to hear in a dystopian urban science fiction music.

For example, here’s the track “Memories of 3rd Base” by Skream. This is a great example of the classic dubstep sound. Brooding, unsettling, dark. And, did you notice what’s missing? That’s right. Bass wobbles. There’s definitely a bass line, but the now-ubiquitous bass wobble is completely absent. In fact, a lot of classic dubstep has a lot to do with creating those open spaces in the music. You can hear the same kind of space in “The Gift (Tek-One Remix)” and “Could This Be Real (Joker Remix)”, with the slower kick drum on the half beats. “Could This Be Real” makes for an excellent case study. Listen here to the original track and compare to the remix that I linked above. Bass wobbles are present in both, but the dubstep remix is slower, more deliberate, darker, with more space.

As an aside, I really like “The Gift” remix that I linked to. It’s probably my second favorite “classic” dubstep track that I own. What’s my favorite? Well, I’ll tell you later. But since we’re talking about things I like….

DUBSTEP AS METAL

As I mentioned earlier, certain forms of dubstep are kinda like the metal of dance music. So, it makes sense that the kinds of things I like in my metal, I’d also like in my dubstep. In this case: female vocals and intense strings.

“Rain” by Klaypex (featuring Sara Kay) is one of my “play loudly in the car and sing along” tracks. It definitely has that aggressive brostep sound to it, but the female vocals well up from within the track and, in time, soar above it. I love it!

Between Two Points” by the Glitch Mob (featuring Swan) lives at the downtempo end of the world. I’d say that this is my favorite track off their album Drink the Sea, but I’d be lying. They’re pretty much all my favorite. If I’m looking for background music, Drink the Sea is frequently my go-to album. (As a bonus, this link includes the music video!)

“Burning” by Ashes & Dialect is another example of female vocals in dubstep. And, in this case, the female vocals are Imogen Heap! (Sampled from “Just for Now”.)

As I was prepping for this post, I tripped over a video that I’d forgotten about and realized that I didn’t own the track. That’s been remedied so that I could follow my rule about owning all the music I referenced in this post. Because, well, I really wanted to share “Crystallize” by Lindsey Stirling with all of you. (The linkage includes the music video!) The music is great all by itself, with the beautiful violin soaring over the bassline, but the video is also lyrical and worth watching.

So, apparently dubstep can mix well with other forms of music….

DUBSTEP MEETS THE WORLD

Okay, so let’s be honest. “World music” is a terrible label. It means that the music doesn’t originate in white European musical styles. Well, that’s nice but it doesn’t really narrow it down, does it? So, if I said that dubstep mixes well with world music, it might not be as descriptive as we’d like.

So, how about I say that dubstep mixes well with Indian drumming (“Koli Stance (David Starfire remix)” by Sub Swara), Bollywood (“Eastern Jam” by Chase and Status), and bellydancing (“Spiderbite” by Beats Antique)? Does that work better? I think it does.

By the way, “Eastern Jam” is my favorite “classic” dubstep track. The video that I linked was my introduction to that track, and it contains some amazing dancing, which is worth your time to watch.

So that’s all well and good, but how well does dubstep mix with pop music? Well, it depends on what kind of pop music….

DUBSTEP REMIXES POP MUSIC

I really enjoyed the video game Mirror’s Edge, warts and all. But, even more than the game, I loved the soundtrack, especially the theme track, “Still Alive” by Lisa Miskovsky. (No, not the Portal song. It’s a completely different thing.) In fact, I’d have to say that this song have been my theme song for the past couple of years.

So, when I discovered a dubstep remix of “Still Alive” by Mt. Eden Dubstep, I was all over it. And somehow, it captures the intensity of the original without sacrificing the melodic nature of the track. Awesome!

Or, to be honest, I first encountered Ellie Goulding through Bassnectar’s remix of “Lights”. (You’ll notice that I didn’t link to the original. It’s because I don’t own it. Following the rules!)

Earlier I mentioned Imogen Heap. How about a dubstep remix of “Hide and Seek”? Probably didn’t think it was possible, eh?

But one of the weirdest, coolest, most fantastic dubstep discoveries I’ve made is this one: a dubstep remix of “Come Together” by the Beatles!!! No, seriously, this is the most respectful remix I’ve ever heard, and the breakdown and drop starting at 1:40 is simply incredible. Instead of guitar solos, bass wobbles!

And if that doesn’t prove the flexibility of the genre, I don’t know what will. Well, maybe this….

DOWNTEMPO DUBSTEP

In all fairness, we may be out past the strict boundaries of dubstep at this point. But no one here cares, right? Good!

I was reading an academic paper on bass-heavy dance music (no, I’m not making this up), and it made a fascinating point. Our first exposure to sounds consist of bass. No, not at birth. Before. In the womb. Higher pitched sounds are filtered out by our mothers’ bodies. Only bass would pass through to intermingle with the steady kick drum of our mothers’ hearts.

There’s something very comforting about bass. So it’s not really surprising that there’s chillout music centered around bass.

Of the tracks I’m going to discuss in this section, “Only Fair” by Ill-Esha (off the Elusive History is the most upbeat, which isn’t saying much. Again, the female vocals. (What can I say? I’m a romantic at heart.)

For the truly downtempo, check out “Speaker Box” by Nico Luminous (featuring Reva DeVito). This isn’t dance music for an upbeat crowd. This is music for chilling. Slow, seductive, groovy, to be enjoyed with a beverage in a martini glass.

And I’ll wrap up with Thriftworks. When I’m not listening to Drink the Sea by The Glitch Mob, I’m listening to Raki Taki or Rainmaker by Thriftworks. (I like these albums so much I’ll actually link to them for you.) Here are just a couple of my favorite tracks: “Mother Raki” and “Pillow in the Woods”, which gets an honorable mention for best use of a koto sample in an electronic track.

And here we’ve come so far from Skrillex that we can barely see him from where we’re standing.

But why do I like this music so much?

WHY, SETH, WHY?

Beats me.

No, really, I haven’t actually thought about it until right now. So, I’m going to give this a shot, but I reserve the right to change my mind later.

I think that it’s music that suits my personality. There’s strength and passion and tenderness and power all rolled into one. It’s music that I can lose myself in. It’s music that I can feel literally. It absorbs and embraces me when I listen to it. It makes me happy.

And it gives me a reason to turn up the sub-woofer.

P.S. Adiel, hope that this was helpful.

P.P.S. Also, dubstep gave us this incredible thing.


Refusing a blessing

A few weeks ago, I finally watched The Mission. Yep, my parents told me years ago that I’d like this movie, and they were right. Though, in a way, I feel like I needed to be at this place in my life to truly appreciate the power of this film.

So, spoilers, right? But, given that the movie came out in 1986, well, you should just deal, you know? 🙂

The two main characters are Father Gabriel, a Jesuit missionary to the primitives of South America, and Rodrigo, a mercenary/slaver turned Jesuit novice. (As an aside, seeing Rodrigo’s conversion experience is a big deal in the movie and a major part of the film.)

Politics has moved against the mission to the Indians headed up by Father Gabriel, and soldiers are coming to “liquidate” the mission. Rodridgo sees the injustice and renounces his vows of obedience to take up the sword once again to defend the Indians. This brings him into conflict with Father Gabriel, who is a pacifist.

One of the many powerful scenes of the movie is set on the eve of battle. The soldiers will arrive the next day, and Rodrigo comes to Father Gabriel to seek his blessing. Now, you need to understand that Gabriel and Rodrigo have argued bitterly over this issue, and we know what Father Gabriel thinks of what Rodrigo is doing.

And yet, Rodrigo seeks Gabriel’s blessing.

And here, Father Gabriel demonstrates his wisdom.

He rises and refuses to bless Rodrigo. His conscience will not permit it. And yet, he tells Rodrigo that, if he is in the right, that God will bless Rodrigo.

Did you catch that?

On the eve of battle, on the last night of their lives, Gabriel stands by his pacifism, but he is still humble enough to admit that he may be wrong and appeals to God on behalf of Rodrigo. That night, they part as friends. Their disagreement is not enough to divide them. They each go their own ways to their own methods of resistance (and they both die), yet they die reconciled and at peace with each other.

I wish that more Christians would comprehend and embrace this understanding of Christian brotherhood.


On brooms, screw drivers, DJs, and voided warranties

There’s been some discussion about game design and play on Twitter recently, and my name was briefly invoked. So, as a public service to all, I figured I’d write up this blog post to discuss my views. Also, I’ve not really written here much of late, and it’s nice to have something to say.

So, I’m going to talk about design. Not game design per se, but general principles of design. Or, rather, general principles about the relationship between the designer and the user, as mediated by the thing that the designer has made.

Here’s a simple example. A designer creates a broom to fulfill the purpose “enable the user to sweep the floor”. He selects a shape for the broom, chooses the materials, and lays out how to assemble the materials into the broom. I buy the broom and use it to sweep my floor. Voila! I’m using the broom in a way that matches the intentions of the designer of enabling the user (me!) to sweep the floor.

But then (to pick a totally hypothetical example) something falls behind the stove. Because of the way that it’s wedged into the counter, I can’t really pull out the stove. So I grab a couple of brooms and use their handles like giant chopsticks to retrieve the item that is behind the stove. In this case, I’m still using the broom, but it’s safe to say that I’m not exactly in accord with the intentions of the designer.

What happened in the second example? It’s simple, really. While designing the broom, the designer gave it certain attributes (such as “a long handle”) with the intent that these attributes would allow the broom to fulfill the purpose for the broom (“enable the user to sweep the floor”). However, many of those attributes can also be applied to other purposes (like the “enable the user to retrieve a stuffed animal from behind the stove” purpose).

This isn’t controversial. Repurposing is something that we do all the time.[1] If you’ve ever pried open a can of paint with a screw driver, scratched your back on the edge of a wall, used a newspaper to kill a fly, or stood on a chair to reach a high shelf, then you’ve repurposed a designed item.

In fact, this sort of repurposing is simply an act of design. Usually it’s improvisational, but that doesn’t make it any less an act of design.

So, where does the original designer fit into all this?

This is where my concept of a “voided warranty” comes into play.[2] When I repurpose something, I am moving away from the design work done by the original designer. That’s all well and good. However, it is unfair to then hold the original designer responsible for my design work. After all, he was designing with a different purpose in mind. By tinkering with his design, I’ve “voided the warranty” of the design. The responsibility for making it work now rests with me.

For example, I really struggled to use the two broom handles to retrieve the stuffed animal from behind the stove. But it never occurred to me to blame the original designer of the two brooms I was using. When I repurposed the brooms, they temporarily ceased to be instances of broom design and became an instance of man-sized chopstick design by myself. At that point, any blame for the poor quality of the tool rested squarely on myself. After all, it was my design that was being used at this point, not our distant industrial designer.

And this is how I approach game design. There is nothing holy in the received rules of a game. If you want to tinker, go ahead! The rules of a game are ultimately whatever the group agrees to. Consider all the house rules for Monopoly (and despair). Or, for that matter, all the potential optional rules for Dungeons & Dragons. There’s plenty of room for individual acts of design within a given gaming group.

However, once you begin to tinker, the game that you are playing is now your design, not the original designer’s. As such, you are responsible for making it work. And, if that makes you happy, then far be it from me to stop you. Enjoy your designing career![3]

[1] In fact, being the postmodern kinda guy that I am, I’ll note that the act of making the broom in the first place is itself an example of repurposing. After all, isn’t the designer selecting materials that have pre-existing attributes and then utilizing those attributes in new ways?

[2] As an aside, I’m pretty sure that I picked up on this phrasing from someone else, but I don’t remember who.

[3] There’s a related debate in RPG circles on “playing the game as written” versus “making the game your own”. I see these as two different design philosophies, similar to the portrayed philosophies of Apple vs. Linux. The design aesthetic of Apple is that “everything just works”. The user is sheltered from as many of the details as possible, in order to allow for an elegant experience. In contrast, the design aesthetic of Linux seems to be “make everything open” to allow for maximum hackage. Is either correct? Can’t they both be correct?


A Review of “Happy Birthday, Robot!”

Over the last year or so, I’ve heard rumblings about Happy Birthday, Robot! by Daniel Solis. The game proper was getting a lot of buzz. A storytelling game, designed to be played with children…. I was intrigued. The method which Daniel used to fund the project (collecting pledges through Kickstarter.com) was generating discussion as well. And then, when Fred Hicks announced that Evil Hat was going to fund a larger print run, I really started to pay attention. I had missed the sponsorship period on Kickstarter.com, and now I’d have a chance to buy it! [1]

But, really, should I? I’ve been conscious of the fact that my roleplaying time has been constrained of late. Did I really need to add another book to the gaming shelf that I might never play? And so, reluctantly, I let the game sit.

One moral of this story is that it pays to follow Fred Hicks on Twitter (@fredhicks). A couple of months ago, he put out a call for reviewers for Happy Birthday, Robot! who would be able to play with children and review from that perspective.

I write about games. I have children. I wanted a comp copy of Happy Birthday, Robot! It seemed like a perfect match to me. So I put my name forward.

Fred agreed, and early last week, I received my copy of Happy Birthday, Robot! in the mail. For free!

In other words, yes, this is a comped review.

However, as I hope I’ve made clear, I was interested in this game long before Fred put out a call for reviewers. Also, receiving this game for free will not sway my judgment of the game. [2]

It doesn’t have to. This is a great game that stands on its own merits.

How the game is played

Happy Birthday, Robot! is a collaborative storytelling game. By following the rules of the game, the players write a little story about a robot named Robot.

Because the game is collaborative, no one wins or loses. In fact, as you’ll see in a moment, the game actively encourages cooperation between the players.

When it’s my turn, I’m the Storyteller. The players to my right and left are my Neighbors. Together, we will write the next sentence in Robot’s story.

The first thing that I do as the Storyteller is roll up to three dice. Some of these I keep and some I give to my Neighbors, depending on what I roll. I can keep doing this until one of my Neighbors has four dice or more.

At this point, I get to start writing the sentence. Each die that I have gives me one word for the sentence. Plus, I can use Robot’s name for free (like “Robot” or “Robot’s”). Then the Neighbor to my right gets to add words to the sentence equal to the number of dice that he has. He also gets a free word: “and”. Finally, the Neighbor to my left gets to add words to the sentence based on the number of dice that he got. His free word is “but”.

I’m going to cheat and steal an example from the book. Let’s say that I got three dice. I could write this as my sentence:

    Robot sees a flower.

See? I used three words plus my free word “Robot”.

Then, the “And” Neighbor goes. Let’s say he has two dice. So he changes the sentence like so:

    Robot sees a flower and a starship.

Two words added, plus his free word.

Finally, the “But” Neighbor goes. If he had three dice, he might adjust the sentence like so:

    Robot sees a flower and a starship that is crashing.

Three more words, and he chose not to use his free word.

Then, I would get a coin for each die that I got (in this case, three), and then it’s the next player’s turn.

Pretty simple, huh?

Those coins are pretty clever, too. They don’t actually help the person who earned them. Instead, the player who earned them can give them to a different player, who then gets one extra word for each coin that he was given.

You keep playing until someone ends up with ten coins. At the end of that round, you do a special Epilogue round to end the story. Then you’re done!

A little about the book

First, you just have to check out the art for Happy Birthday, Robot!. Probably the simplest way to do this is to check out this trailer for the game on Youtube. Isn’t it adorable?

And that’s what the book looks like. Bright and cheerful, with lots of happy colors, cute animals, happy children and, of course, adorable robots.

Moreover, the book is made to look very similar to a children’s storybook. It would look more comfortable on a shelf next to Dr. Seuss than next to Grey Ranks or Hero’s Banner. (Yes, that’s where it lives on my gaming shelf. Alphabetization does funny things sometimes.)

I will admit that I chuckled a bit to see the toothy maw of the Evil Hat on the back amidst all the cuteness, but that doesn’t affect the aesthetics in the slightest. Happy Birthday, Robot! could easily take up residence in a children’s library or a homeschooling bookshelf and be perfectly at home.

I mention libraries and schooling for a reason. The book is filled with tips and hints addressed to teachers using the game as part of schooling. Many of these thoughts are written by Cassie Krause, a fourth-grade teacher who playtested the game with her class.

Also, the book is full of pictures and diagrams, showing exactly how the game is to be played. In fact, the rules summary for the game fits onto one page, but an entire chapter is dedicated to an extended example of play, which does a fine job of showing how to apply the rules in various circumstances. By the time I was finished reading the game, I felt confident that I could easily teach the game to my children.

And so I did.

A little discussion of our actual play

Quotable: “We don’t have enough words for [Roger] to die.”–Isaac, age 10

On Sunday, I sat down to play Happy Birthday, Robot! with my children and my sister Gabrielle. Originally I was going to play with the three older children, but Noah and Justice ended up being a part of the action. Noah played on Gabrielle’s team, and Justice helped me roll my dice.

I started by showing the book to the children and waving the pictures at them. My hope was that the artistic style would rub off and influence the game play. I wasn’t opposed to death-dealing robots of doom, but I wanted the kids to understand that this was primarily a cute game about children’s stories. I think that it worked fairly well.

The game assumes that you will be making special Robot dice, with two BLANK sides, two AND sides, and two BUT sides. This is one area where the small press nature of the game shows itself. I’d love to have custom dice for this game, but I know that there’s no way that Daniel Solis or Evil Hat would be able to pull that off. And, at least right now, I couldn’t be bothered to print little stickers and put them on my dice.

To his credit, Daniel includes simple instructions on how to play with regular six-sided dice. Basically, ones and twos count as BLANKS, threes and fours count as AND, and fives and sixes count as BUT. It works, but it wasn’t quite as intuitive as I would have liked. Oh well. Fudge dice would probably work as Robot dice, too.

I also decided that I didn’t want to use actual pennies for the coins. The game says to keep them on heads until you give them away, at which point you flip them to tails. My children are infamous for fiddling with game bits, and I figured that they would likely flip some of them over and then not remember if they were on heads or tails. Instead, I dug into my game design closet and got out some red and green glass beads. When you earned coins, you took red glass beads. Then, to give someone else a coin, you spent a red bead to give the other player a green bead. This worked out quite well.

Teaching the game was a snap. The kids grasped the rules quickly and were quickly caught up in the joy of rolling dice and earning words. The first hurdle arrived when one of the children didn’t have enough words to complete the full thought that he was wanting to express. Suddenly, the idea of “creative constraints” became apparent to the children. On the whole, though, I thought that they did quite well with the experience. In fact, I think that it was good for them. Constraints breed creativity, and the children rose to the occasion.

Over the next hour, we worked together to tell the story of Robot’s birthday. For your amusement, here’s the story we created.[3]


Our
Happy Birthday, Robot! story
by Seth, Gabrielle, Arianna, Isaac, and Samuel
with assistance from Noah and Justice

Happy birthday, Robot!

Robosapien was happy it was Robot’s birthday, and so was Emily, but Roger was angry and jealous.

Roger left the treehouse, but more robots came for cake, and so did Emily.

But there was no cake, because Roger had smashed the cake into pieces.

Robot cried, and Robosapien offered to help.

Emily had a good idea–“Get more cake!”–but Roger destroyed the treehouse.

Robosapien got mad, and so did Emily, but Roger just laughed at them.

Robot punched Roger in the head, and Robosapien shot him with lasers, but Roger had a mech.

Roger destroyed the cake store with missiles and set Emily on fire.

Robot angrily kicked the mech, and it blew up, but Emily was badly hurt.

Robot knew that the only way to save Emily was cake, but there was no cake.

Robot got Emily chocolate cake from China, and Roger fixed the treehouse.

Roger said he was sorry, and they forgave him.

They all ate cake.

Robot was very happy.

And so was Emily.

Everyone was engaged from start to finish, and I think that they would all happily play again. I know I would.

Thoughts on the game design

While this game is designed to be played with children, I think that it definitely benefits from an adult player or facilitator. I almost want to say that an adult is necessary, but I don’t know your children. I do know that competition comes easily to people, but collaboration can be hard. Having someone at the table with the social “juice” to insist that the players work together and to set a positive example of how to do that is important.

At the same time, the game provides numerous opportunities for these lessons of cooperation and collaboration to be taught. The coins provide hard mechanical opportunity to help out the other players. Beyond that, there’s the give-and-take of ideas at the table. Gabrielle talked about the game requiring a “generosity of creative space”, where players need to be willing to offer their suggestions while remembering that there needs to be room for everyone’s ideas. This is a good skill for life, not just games, and few people learn it. So, in this way, I think playing Happy Birthday, Robot! is good for its players.

I do think that it’s important to note that Happy Birthday, Robot! isn’t a roleplaying game as such. The players do not adopt any alternate personas or engage with the developing fiction as a participant. The game is very much about a shared authoring experience, making it more of a storytelling game. Additionally, the game is focused almost exclusively on process, unlike most roleplaying games, which are usually more fluid in nature. In this way, Happy Birthday, Robot! joins games like 1001 Nights, A Penny for my Thoughts, and maybe even my own Showdown, where the processes of play are focused more on the authorial experience than the immersive experience of a character.[4]

I have to admit: I’m really digging these sorts of games. Unlike most roleplaying games, which tend to require extensive setup and pre-game prep, these sorts of games are closer to being boardgames or parlor games. You can pull one off the shelf without any previous preparation, play for an hour or two, and then be done without any further commitment.

This style of game is definitely a better choice for children. I’ve tried playing roleplaying games with my children, and, as a rule, they do not yet have the attention span or desire to play in a continuous game over multiple sessions. On the other hand, Happy Birthday, Robot! was simple, engaging, and then, it was over. This is a big deal, particularly to my children, who want to know what we’re going to play next.

At the same time, I think that children who have spent time playing Happy Birthday, Robot! will be better roleplayers.[5] The skills required to play this game well are easily transferred to a full-blown roleplaying experience, and this can only be a good thing.

I should offer a word of caution. The game says that it is for players ages 10 and up. I’d say that’s about right. Players do need to have a basic grasp of sentence structure and the like. So, while Noah (age 6) enjoyed being involved in the game, I don’t think that he’s quite ready to be on his own yet.

Final thoughts

I hope it’s clear that I really enjoyed this game. It’s the kind of game that I can play with my children, and I could even see getting it out to play with non-gamers some evening over drinks. I might even incorporate it into our homeschooling. I know that there are a lot of games out there demanding attention, but this one is definitely worth a second look.

I’ll put it like this: if you are a gamer with children, you should buy this game to play with them. If you are a gamer without children, I still think that you will enjoy this game. It’s light, frivolous, and highly entertaining.

You can buy Happy Birthday, Robot! at the Evil Hat webstore or Indie Press Revolution.

Footnotes

[1] I’ve noticed that footnotes are totally the “in” thing these days, so I’m going to use some. HT: Rob Donoghue.

[2] On the other hand, it does cement my opinion that Fred Hicks is a pretty cool guy.

[3] Yes, I know that “tree house” is actually two words. Well, I know now, since spellcheck informed me of that fact. Oops.

[4] Look, I know that the whole issue of defining what is and isn’t a roleplaying game is somewhat complex. I also know that this analysis is somewhat incomplete, fairly broad, and full of holes and exceptions. Nonetheless, I think my general point stands. The fact that Happy Birthday, Robot! calls itself a storytelling game supports my point. Also, of the game I named, I’m aware that 1001 Nights is something of an edge case, since you’re roleplaying characters who are telling stories.

[5] This point applies to improv theater or other form of collaborative expression.


Rooksbridge

Or, perhaps I should say, Rooksbridge!

Um, so, a little backstory. First, let’s talk about me.

I am not an early adopter. It’s true. I am the person who reads reviews, contemplates options, weighs variables, and finally makes an informed decision. Also, for most of my life, I’ve not really had lots of money to spend on experimental purchases. So I’m fairly conservative when it comes to investing money or time into something new.

Now, a little about Josh Roby. I first really interacted with Josh when he was working on his game Sons of Liberty, which I playtested at GenCon 2007 and proceeded to blab about a lot.

Since then, I had the opportunity to meet Josh and Meghann at GenCon 2008. My only regret about that meeting is that they live in Los Angeles. I wish they lived closer. Say, in Peoria. Then we’d have more opportunities to get together and hang out. Josh and I would argue religion and politics loudly over a beer while Meghann and Crystal hovered in the other room, making sure we didn’t kill each other. And, of course, Prudence and Hope would be playing in the other room, watched by my other children. It would be good times.

(Consider that an invitation, guys! Moving to Peoria is a great idea!)

So, last July, Josh announces a new project: Rooksbridge. This isn’t a game project; instead, it’s a serial fiction project. I look at it and even downloaded the free installment (“Dirty Work”). But, I never quite had the time to read it, and it slipped off my radar. Occasionally I’d see Josh talking about Rooksbridge on Twitter, but (not being an early adopter), I didn’t want to spend the money on something that I didn’t know about.

Then something wonderful happened.

Josh emailed me (among other folks) and offered me a copy of all five of the Rooksbridge stores that he has written so far. He said that he was needing to spread the word about Rooksbridge and that he was sending out these free copies to people he knew that might like Rooksbridge and would then be effective in talking about it. He was very clear that he wasn’t trying to buy good press or anything. He was just hoping that we’d like what he wrote and then talk about it.

Well, an appeal like that, coupled with free stuff, is hard to resist. So I figured I’d finally give Rooksbridge a chance. The price was right, and I was having a hard time focusing on longer works. And, as I say, I like Josh, and this was a chance to help him out.

So I read “Dirty Work”, the first chapbook of Rooksbridge.

I loved it.

Rooksbridge fits into the darker, grittier style of fantasy that has become popular over the last few years, such as A Song of Ice and Fire or The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone. Rooksbridge has a significant advantage over these works: it’s much shorter. Josh says, “Each chapbook tells its own story, but together, the chapbooks tell a much bigger story set in a place called Rooksbridge. It’s not unlike a television series that you can read.” Actually, a better comparison is to an issue of a comic book, such as Fell. And it’s true. Each story does stand alone, but I can’t imagine reading just one. “Dirty Work” is probably the best as a stand-alone, but that’s simply because there’s no prior story to refer to.

I’m also impressed by Josh’s choice of format for releasing these stories. In short, he’s chosen all of them. Want to read these stories on your smartphone or computer? He has a PDF format for that. Want an actual hardcopy? He can do that for you. More into audiobooks? Yep, he has that, too.

And they’re cheap! The electronic copies are just $2.

Now, personally, I’d love to see Josh release periodic collections of these stories in print. Say, one per year or something like that. After all, I prefer reading my comics in trade paperback collections, not month by month. But, you know what? I finished the latest chapbook “Where There Is Smoke” a couple nights ago. And now I want more. Now!

Because of my bad experience with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, I made myself a rule that I never start a series that isn’t already finished. Whenever I’ve violated this rule, I’ve regretted it.

For Rooksbridge, though, I think I’m going to break my rule.


A quick thought on hip-hop culture

This is one of those thoughts that has been kicking around in my head for a while that hopefully won’t get me in trouble.

So, since I was exposed to Christian hip-hop recently, I’ve been thinking about hip-hop culture. Folks like Lecrae, Trip Lee, or Thi’sl are always decrying the state of the black community, especially the glorification of sin that is a part of hip-hop culture. Just think about the stereotypical rap video: barely-dressed women draped over some rapper who is dripping with gold chains and giant jewelry, maybe driving down the street in a car with shiny rims, maybe smoking a joint or drinking from a champagne bottle. (Now, perhaps I’m a bit out of touch with the current scene, though, honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to go poking around too much for music videos to illustrate my point.)

And so, we look at this sort of thing and shake our heads in disgust. The filth! The depravity! The degradation of women! And, yeah, it’s all true.

Ah yes, the hip-hop dream: money, sex, and power, all on display. But then I ask myself, “How is this really different than rest of America?” Look at the mainstream culture. Think about the movies, the music, the magazines. Maybe the skin color is lighter, but aren’t there the same trends? Barely-dressed women, offering themselves? Fast cars? Pompous displays of wealth and power?

When you stop and think about it, we’re all chasing the same paper and lusting after the same things. Hip-hop culture is just more honest about it. (Well, it’s also gaudier in its pursuit, but that’s not really relevant.)

So, once again, the problem isn’t race or class or wealth. The problem is sin. And the answer, for both black and white, rich or poor, is repentance and faith in Jesus.


We started The Wire

Last night, Hope wasn’t settling. So Crystal and I fired up Season 1 of The Wire. I hadn’t realized exactly how much I was looking forward to watching this show again.

So, once again, through the dirty streets of a broken city. And this time, I’m taking notes for Major Crimes.


Literary criticism of Showdown

Offered without comment.

Colin Creitz saith:

A fortiori, then, Seth Ben-Ezra’s forthcoming game Showdown must be understood as a very postmodern deconstruction of sociopathic violence tropes in traditional games. “Rendering problematic the relationship between the act of playing and the fiction” is what it does best. Not only does it undermine the “heroic” traits of the protagonists in the fiction as we experience it, it undermines those same traits in the characters’ self-images. In the best games, we’re left with the hollow husks of the characters we thought we created, losers who resort to deadly violence because they have nothing left. It’s like playing D&D and Power Kill at the exact same time.


The Wire PSA

Crystal and I are two episodes out from the end of The Shield. You know what that means, right?

We’re going to start watching my very own copy of The Wire!

I’m toying with the idea of doing a series of discussion blog posts, where all my loyal readers could babble at each other about the show. After all, I know there are others of you who are just looking for an excuse to watch this again. If I do, you’ll see it here.