Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett

The Geography of Thought
How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why
Richard E. Nisbett
Free Press
Published by Simon & Schuster New York
$12.19 from Amazon:

As someone who's been a gamer master and tinkered with writing, the idea of HOW people think and what makes them think that way fascinates me. When I heard of the Geography of Thought, I figured “Hey, now I can know why that dude from Legend of the Five Rings thinks differently than that Paladin in 5th edition D&D.”

Let me start by saying that I don’t know if I agree with everything that Richard E. Nisbett puts forward. And that’s okay because he makes a lot of allowances. He points out that NOT everyone in the different regions thinks this way. He points out that “Asians” is a huge umbrella and that there are differences within that vast branch, just as there are with Westerners.

Nisbett also points out that things are changing more and more as the world continues to become flat. As more cultures cross pollinate, there are more and more examples of each one’s thinking on the other side.

To get the ball rolling, chapter one, The Syllogism and the Tao, breaks down some of the historical roots as follows:

Westerners: “The Greeks, more than any other ancient peoples, and in fact more tha most people on the planet today, had a remarkable sense of personal agency – the sense that they were in charge of their own lives and free to act as they chose.”

Asians: “The Chinese counterpart to Greek agency was harmony. Every Chinese was first and foremost a member of a collective, or rather of several collectives – the clan, the village, and especially the family. The individual was not, as for the Greeks, an encapsulated unit who maintained a unique identify across social settings. “

Nisbett goes into several more differences and his thinking as to why those are vital to understanding and he tries to make his case for it with illustrations, examples, modern testing, and other fun bits over the course of the next few chapters.

For example, comparing Greece and its city states, it’s maritime trading, it’s piracy, it’s connectivity to a greater world, it’s desire to prove something right, to China and it’s huge centrally located empire, it’s farming, it’s connectivity to itself, and its desire to compromise between two opposite.

The good news is that the book is written so that anyone should be able to understand it. The illustrations as testing are a quick way to see which path of thinking you may fall under. The ideas presented testable.

If you’re a fan of creating cultures, the Geography of Thought can force you to think about why those cultures act the way they do and what causes them to evolve.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Usagi Yojimbo: Two Hundred Jizo

Two Hundred Jizo brings the Ronin Rabbit Usagi Yojimbo to his 29th collection of adventures by writer and artist Stan Sakai.

This volume includes the usual assortment of heroics and villains with those who live in this version of Feudal Japan trying their best to get by.

If you haven't read any Usagi Yojimbo in the past, the good news is this volume, like many, is relatively self contained and doesn't rely on following any long standing plot lines or resolutions. While not necessarily "done in one", many of the stores are quickly told.

In some aspects, that is very much like the old Marvel Comics "Conan" where the barbarian would wander from one adventure to the next with the whole issue of continuity becoming more embraced when years later Dark Horse would take over.

The black and white artwork of Stan Sakai is solid. His ability to use minimal amounts of line work does not hold back the flow of action on the page. And let me try to clarify, when I say minimal amount of line work, I'm noting that on the characters, not necessarily on the designs. Some of the clothing he draws has intense amount of detail to it.

If you want to read about samurai fighting bandits and playing detective, this collection has you covered. If your curious but want to know more, Dark Horse Comics has a multi-page preview over here:

But what if you're hear for some Appendix N musings?

The Artist: This collection starts off with Usagi meeting  Yoshi, a young man who has had teachings of art styles outside of Japan. Because Japan is very traditional at this time, the artist's own father has decided to have his son killed as opposed to allowing those teachings to spread.

This 'clash of cultures' is not one that occurs with guns and bombs. It is not an exchange of arrows and swords. It is a divergence of styles, teachings, and culture. Perhaps something far more insidious in it's reach.

How far would people go to keep things separate? Sometimes this is used by marketers as a ploy to push merchandise. I can't be the only one who remembers "Freedom Fries".

Other times it can be used to justify murder.

Buntori: Despite the focus on historical accuracy, Stan Sakai has used elements of the supernatural many times. In this instance, Usagi falls asleep outside and has a dream of two samurai fighting, one falling and suffering an unkind fate. When Usagi awakens, he takes care of that business. Stan's use of dreams to convey information is solid.

This isn't just a small time independent publisher thing though. The recent movie Batman v Superman uses several dream sequences to suggest things and to push the characters. Dreams allow the game access to locations that the characters may not physically have access too.

Murder At The Inn: Inspector Ishida makes a pleasant return visit here, fighting against bandits and is assisted by Usagi, who he meets by chance! The two take shelter in an Inn with the bandit leader their prisoner. After exchanging some pleasantries with some of the customers of the Inn, murder happens overnight!

I recently played in a game of Legend of the Five Rings with a similar incident, murder with a group of suspects.

When dealing with multiple non-player characters, it's vital to draw those characters clearly in the player's mind. Just having a name isn't necessarily going to be enough unless there has been some extensive role playing done to determine the nature of the NPC's character.

Cheat sheets of portrait cards can be vital here. Find an image from the vast horde of the Internet and print it out on some nice paper and use it to represent those characters. The visual cues will be a lot more memorable than some hastily done verbal description.

Two Hundred Jizo: Feudal Japan is a land with its own religion and its own mythology. That of Jizo is no exception to the rule. This time period of Japan also seems to be teeming over with bandits.

Despite the vitriol that it received, one of the things 4th edition did well was the "fallen" kingdoms, the "points of light" idea where society as a whole was not empire spanning but rather small clusters of civilization which easily lends itself to having a setting overrun with bandits.

If your setting has a lot of bandits, why? Are they a culture whose homeland is destroyed? Has the warrior class being displaced through peace? Has some calamity befallen a part of the setting creating waves of mass migration?

Ice Runners: Usagi becomes involved in situations by accident. He is often wandering onto a scene of some ongoing action.

In this case, some runners are bringing ice as a tribute to a lord to showcase how great their own lord is. These runners are under attack by "bandits" who are suspected of being hired by another lord who wishes to see the first lord fail and lose honor.

When showcasing the abilities of an organization, there are often those who seek to take the glory away from such an effort and cover themselves with it. When designing an adventure seed, keep in mind those that may not want characters to succeed if it casts themselves in a better light.

Shoyu:  Sometimes you read something that makes you want to share that knowledge. Sometimes you want to incorporate this cool thing you've learned. Stan does this often with his writing. In this case, it's the creation of soy sauce and a feud between two crafters of the seasoning. Stan does so in a way that's organic and grows out of the situation and it works well.

A good way to 'feed' such information into a game is to have an NPC whose passionate about the subject matter and eager to show it off. They want to talk about the thing they love. They want to share that knowledge.

If you're running a Legend of the Five Rings game or an older game like the original Oriental Adventurers, Usagi Yojimbo continues to provide entertainment and inspiration.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Avengers: Age of Ultron

In addition to renting Jurassic World the other day, I also managed to pick up Age of Ultron.

Entertaining but...

To me, Age of Ultron is some well written character drama filled with long fights that probably would've looked better on paper as opposed to the long drawn out mess they were. Sometimes a fight scene is just TOO long.

Now I'm not a purist. In the comics, Hank Pym, the original Ant Man, is the creator of Ultron. Here, it's a combination of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. In the comics, the Vision is purely the creation of Ultron. Here it's a cross between Ultron, a mad scientist, Bruce and Tony.

Do I think they missed some moments that would have come across fantastic in the movie? Like Thor telling Ultron, "We would have words with thee?" (From Avengers Vol 3 by Kurt and George)

Yup. Understandable though. Ultron has been around for decades.

It's not that the movie lacks and 'quip' moments. Captain America and his whole "language" bit has already been made into numerous memes including a great one with Dead Pool.

And it's not that Ultron voiced by James Spader isn't highly entertaining. He almost steals the show, much like Loki has in whatever movie he's appeared in. He's funny and crass, seemingly hyper intelligent yet way overconfident and unsure how he fits into things.

Perhaps it's just that there are too many characters? Hard to say.

Now for gaming purposes though? Fantastic movie. Hell, I can't tell you how many times a long drawn out fight saved my bacon in Champions using 4th Edition Hero back in the day. The rolling of dice, the calculation of damage, all time sucks that I could then use to hope I did a better job of prepping for the next game.

So what can you steal from the movie for your game? Well, if you've playing a superhero game and it doesn't already have a version of Ultron, there's Ultron. He's a robot who in this version at least, wants mankind to 'evolve' or die. Kind of like a real mean version of the older comic character, the High Evolutionary.

In the comic though? Ultron is all about eliminating mankind. All about the end of organic life. All about being the ultimate bad ass. In Champions, that would be Mechanon. Pretty much a straight motif take save for his origin.

For other bits?

There's the whole "don't show a gun if you're not going to use it." In this instance, Hawkeye is injured early on and is healed with some amazing technology. That technology is then the showcase of how the Vision gets built.

Then there's give the players enough rope. For instance, the Scarlet Witch goes around messing with people's minds in this movie. Thor in particular suffers a bad vision. But in this instance, he seeks out further guidance on that vision. If a player has a background that allows him to incorporate it into his character and into the ongoing game? Take it and run! One of the potential problems with a 'group' session is that the 'group' is too much in the spotlight.

The villains turn! One of the bits this movie has, is actually rooted in the comics. When first introduced as mutants way back in the day, The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were minions of Magneto! They later joined the Avengers.

Here, the duo have a hate for Stark because Stark technology was being used to bomb their country and they hold Tony personally responsible for the death of their parents, undergoing intense treatments to become augmented enough to fight against the Avengers.

Their quest is personal. When it turns out Ultron wants an extinction level event... well, they are less than pleased with it.

Minions! One of the things that Mutants & Masterminds did well was the one hit villains and their minions. Sure, you could do the same in Champions if you wanted to really low ball the point creation and character ability and in Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, they never really used it effectively, but it's can be mighty satisfying to have a lot of villains around that everyone can take out. This can allow characters like Hawkeye, Black Widow and Captain America to be useful while the big guns such as Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk do the heavy lifting.

I enjoyed Age of Ultron more than Jurassic World. It's a bigger setting, it has more characters, it has more going on. It has a feel of continuity that Jurassic World acknowledges was there, but is self contained overall.

Age of Ultron works better when you're familiar with the rest of the characters and their franchises and all of that is going to lead into bigger movies down the road. It's an interesting way of making movies and I'll be curious to see how well it plays out and hopefully continue to mine it for ideas.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Jurassic World

I'm way behind on so much entertainment that it's not even funny.

Take Jurassic World.

Some interesting ideas here that role playing games have been stealing since before the first Jurassic Park book was written. If you need any proof  hunt down a copy of Isle of Dread by TSR from way back in the day.

Gamers have known since day one that dinosaurs are cool even if they have no special abilities.

As far as movies go, it's terrible. It has a few saving graces, most of those being the ever improving amount of technology in the movies that create the world that the dinosaurs are living in.

The people? Utterly stupid. The scenarios they wind up in? Equally stupid. The lack of injury? Amazing.

I'd strongly suggest the guys writing and making future Jurassic Park-World movies watch Die Hard again and take notes on how bloody, injured, and battered the main hero is at the end. It shouldn't be a "Man, I sure did sweat a lot!, I'm going to need a new shirt!"

Outside of things like, you know, heels not breaking regardless of the circumstances. I was surprised she didn't use of of her shoes to smash a raptor's head in, Shoe survived every other catastrophe known to man.

There are many many issues.

It's a semi-futuristic world and the phone service stucks? No one knows how to text?

Military specialists don't realize the time and training needed to enable a small group of semi-trained raptors as opposed to a grand scale?

I could go on and have already gone on too much to not talk about the "fun" parts.

1. Monsters are smarter than you think they are: Jurassic Park made the raptors so smart that it became a running gag cartoon shows like Family Guy. While it's good to have a lot of dumb monsters that are there only to get the beat down, have a few of them be capable of surprising the good guys.

2. Mad Science! Fantasy games already have the owl bear and actual classics of fantasy like the griffon and other beasts that mix multiple animals into one type of animal. When you start throwing dinosaurs and other fantasy monsters into the mix, fun things can happen! 3.5 and Pathfinder with their use of templates can get a lot of the mechanical work done in such instances.

3. Island Mix: One of the fun things about say Jurassic Park, is that it all takes place on an island. Imagine though if you start to mix things up. The characters get home and find out there's some talk of a plague or that over in Europe people are coming down with a 'rage' virus? That monkeys are taking over the cities? Hell, the island might be the last place that's safe from the other stuff out in the wider world at that point. Some versions of the Isle of Dread have it 'float' through various dimensions although it's been pinpointed to both Mystara and Greyhawk and I'm sure that some have pegged it into the Forgotten Realms because you know, why not?

Jurassic World has a lot of things going for it in terms of visuals. In terms of sound. In terms of representation of action. It's not going to win any consistency awards or any awards for best actor but if you want to see a gene spliced super raptor tearing it up across an island of people and prey, or people who are prey, it's a solid movie and can get the 'adventure' blood flowing.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

I've frequently heard Cormac McCarthy placed very high in terms of writing prowess. I've been trying to branch out more from my traditional fields of historical adventure, fantasy, historical research, science fiction, and horror.

Part of that has been classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Johnny Got His Gun, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. All solid books, well worth reading, very rewarding works.

And then there's Child of God.

The first portion of the novel was nearly incomprehensible to me. I'm reading and reading going, "Okay, a few more pages, a few more pages before I put it down." But I don't.

And I get to the second portion of the book, which is so much better written, it encourages me to finish it.

But it's a book whose purpose I couldn't quite fathom. It's like, "Here's some vile individual with no redeeming qualities but hey, bad stuff!" That worked okay in The Road with it's bleak outlook and horrific setting but here it fell flat on its face.

I'm sure there are some that love it but I just couldn't get into it.

Having said that, even though I find the main character, Lester Ballard, a horrid character, he could make a great antagonist in a fantasy RPG.

Imagine a ranger or wilderness survivor who doesn't deal with civilized folks. His own house, which isn't his, is rumored to have burned down and within it's confines, rumors persist that things.... unwholesome things were found in the burnt ruins.

Living in a series of caves now, Lester interacts with horrific sub-humanoids that leave him alone.... in exchange for flesh!

Imagine if you took the monsters from the movie the Descent, took the hinted at nature of the sequel where people were helping to feed the monsters, and had Lester, a survivor who doesn't care what he's dealing with, providing the monsters with people as meet and other things.

Imagine further that Lester's horrors don't end there and that he's favored by foul deities who reward him with undead followers.  Imagine heroes entering a room that has zombies covered in adipocere, "a pale gray cheesy mold common to corpses in damp places, and scallops of light fungus grew among them as they do on logs rotting in the forest. The chamber... filled with a sour smell, a faint reek of ammonia." Lester could have his own brand of zombies who guard their slayer.

The description of the caverns has merit and it's a quick read. If you've got a knack for mashing genres and ideas up like I tend to have, you can pull some interesting bits from it for your own games. But on it's own? Thumbs down!

Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe's Tiger pits a young Richard Sharpe against the Muslim ruler, the Tippoo, of Mysore. It's another strong entry in the series and for me, was a bit different in that this Sharpe is a little more raw, a little more untested, a little more friendless. While his skill set isn't in question, his lack of fine allies like the giant Harper in later volumes, does set the stage differently.

Bernard Cornwell makes India a fascinating and terrifying place. A land of different religions which the British use to their own advantage. In this it is different than other entries in the Sharpe's series as most often, the British are seen fighting fellow Christians.

Hero, the Tippo is a Muslim ruling over an Indian country. But he is a 'bad' Muslim in the novel in that he still pays heed to dreams and has soothsayers on staff in order to provide meanings to signs and portents.

As chronologically, this novel is set before ever other Sharpe novel I read, it was interesting to see Richard evolve. He's seen at heart as a 'good' person, but has a ruthlessness at his core that enables him to act in ways that the 'proper' officers and other individuals would not.

Colorful characters abound in the story. One of Shapre's foes, Hakeswell, had the honor of not dying from being hung and claims that he cannot die! He's also described as 'twitchy' from a disease that was cured with mercury. He's also always claiming "It's in the Scriptures!" for his foul behaviors.

These distinguishing features allow the cast to be more than just backdrops that Sharpe interacts with. They help give him direction and even when in opposition, help set the direction of the tale.

If you're looking for action filled historical adventure, Sharpe's Tiger hits the spot.

Now onto the ramblings!

One of the reasons I'm always advocating reading more, is that it increases your baseline of information. It allows you to enjoy connections that other people simply aren't going to see.

For example, the Tippo employees jetti. "The jettis were Hindus, and their strength, which was remarkable, was devoted to their religion."In the manga Berserk, there is a fantasy analog to parts of the middle east, like India, called Kushan. Among those in the ranks? Individuals that would be the jetti under any other name.

Having that reference allowed me to get an idea of what the jetti were capable of, and the Tippo here uses them as executioners in a horrific manner including breaking the necks of people like chicken's and driving nails into skulls and brains.

It's why, even as life gets busier and things at work get more hectic, I try to keep reading and try to keep reading a bit of a variety of materials. The larger your circle of reference points, the more interconnected things can be in your own mind if nowhere else.

The Tippo is also a 'tiger' man in motif and theme. Take for example, his unclaimed throne, the tiger throne. "...his throne, which was a canopied platform eight feet wide, five foot deep, and held four feet above the tiled floor by a model of a snarling tiger that supported the platform's center and was flanked on each side by four carved tiger legs. Two silver gilt ladders gave access to the throne's platform which was made of ebony wood on which a sheet of gold, thick as a prayer mat, had been fixed with silver nails. The edge of the platform was carved with quotations form the Koran, the Arabic letters picked out in gold, which above each of the throne's eight legs was a finial in the form of a tiger's head. The tiger heads were each the size of a pineapple, cast from solid gold and studded with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds...."

It's a long and glorious description of a truly masterwork of a throne. As a symbol, it's a powerful image. Much like George R. R. Martin and his now famed Game of Thrones and it's bladed throne. The imagery of tigers prevades the novel and gives this particular foe a specific theme.

When building enemies in your own games, or when making characters, think about having a particular motif. Is there a visual cue that your characters rely on that goes along with a name? Unique weapons and items?

Sharpe's Tiger also bring a different type of goal into the picture: Rescuing a well placed individual and delivering information back to the army.

In many ways, such a rescue is as old as a fairy tale: Rescuing a princess. Change the princess to a specific character with their own goals, motivations and other high end utility and well, you've got Sharpe's mission.

Having to recon the area and gather information is another part of the game.

Having goals that might be different than the standard, and having the opportunity to act on that information, can provide a bit more variety to a campaign that going into a dungeon and killing off all the monsters. You can go into the dungeon and kill off all the monsters for a specific cause!

Sharpe's Tiger is a solid historical adventure book and well worth a read if you're looking for something other than Sharpe fighting the French.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sharpe's Eagles by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe's Eagles by Bernard Cornwell is listed as the second book in the series. As I've been buying the books from various sources, I've never read them in the correct order.

I can say that those looking for a quick book review, that Bernard Cornwell knows his era. He's able to pull language and scenery that the reader could easily imagine being accurate. His voice for Richard Sharpe and the rest of the cast ring sincere and the pages quickly turn in order to find out what the end result of Sharpe's latest adventure will be.

Sharpe is very much in a 'Conan' or other adventurer in that he is called on for a wide variety of missions, called on to be better than his station should permit, but not quite so good that he easily rises in their ranks. He often finds himself at odds with his 'civilized' superiors and in many aspects, would be much better off in an older world that only rewarded cunning and physical prowess.

Sharpe is in fine shape in this novel. His unusual weapon in play, a saber, among his regular riflemen. It helps him stand out form the regular soldiers. His friend and ally, Harper is also unusual in that he's an Irishman fighting in a English army.  Not to mention Harper's massive size and skill with archaic weapons...

Sharpe also knows how to read. Something that many soldiers in the time do not know how to do.

There are others that have little things about them. Sharpe notes an American... a young lad notable for his very youth, a few others who are notorious pickpockets or other little characteristics that allow the author to quickly ping the character.

These little unusual details help the characters stand out and it's always a good thing to nick for characters in your own game. Imagine if you're playing a group of Chaos Warriors in a Warhammer Fantasy setting and you go against type with a White Blade that never bears any stains? There are others who fall into the 'beautiful' campaign, but they are often on the side of a specific chaos god as opposed to Chaos Undivided.

Sharpe's numerous tales are also filled with a variety of characters who both help and hinder him.

In terms of both, as Sharpe is a soldier, these often include his superior officers.

There is contrast drawn in how promotions are handled. In the British military, payment is often the single greatest indicator of advancement.

Sharpe being an ordinary soldier, often doesn't have that type of money.

On the other hand, looting is a real thing and Sharpe does okay for himself.

But looking again at those promotions, when they are handed out for wealth, this is not an indicator for skill. It is this lack of skill, that puts Sharpe against his superior, a superior officer who does so poorly that to cover his own mistakes, he writes a letter condemning Sharpe for Sharpe's failure in an attack against the French.

So Sharpe has to do something spectacular to overcome this damnation.

This gets to another potential plot point.


The British lose their one of their flags.

Flags are powerful symbols.

Look at war games.

Look at America and the rules and regulations on how flags must be handled.

Think about what losing such a symbol might mean to an army, a nation, or even the characters themselves.

Sharpe resolves that if he can't get his country's flag back, the better thing to do, is to steal an 'Eagle', which is what the French often use as Flags.

If anyone's seen the old show Rome, you might remember there was an episode with an Eagle involved. Again, symbols, and their place, perhaps even if they are not financially valuable, are things of great significance.

In a fantasy setting, such flags may actually have power. They may embolden men against fear (allow people to reroll a failed saving throw) or even make them immune to magical fear. They may protect against mind control or mind reading. The options are limitless.

In a more standard setting, one that might take itself too seriously, characters could be tasked with recovering a flag or making sure it doesn't fall into enemy hands. The value of their pay depending on which option they succeed at.

Of course there's always the opposite. Taking away a flag from an enemy. If the enemy is known to have great reverence for a specific flag, perhaps one flown in the capital city, it may fall to the players as renowned murder hobos, to take this flag from the enemy and teach them their place!