Thursday, August 23, 2007


A GenCon Review: Steve Thomas

posted by barsoomcore

I spent a fair amount of time wandering the dealer hall at GenCon -- full of booths large and small where folks sell books, games, swords, t-shirts and all sorts of loony stuff.

High on my list was checking out the various artists' booths. And top of the artists I encountered at GenCon had to be Steve Thomas.

You know, at a fantasy-themed event, you pretty much know the kinds of paintings you're going to get. Dragons, chicks with heaving bosoms, stern lads with swords and bulging muscles. These days you get a lot more samurai than you used, but it's pretty much all the same stuff.

Mr Thomas, though, brought something very fresh and new: check this out:

I just love the Art Deco travel poster look combined with the Gernsback-style sci-fi details. They're evocative without being sentimental or corny. Some of Mr. Thomas' work might have been criticized for lacking crucial details, but here his clean style really shows off those recognizable forms in their new context.

One of the great surprises of the con that DIDN'T involve gaming insanity.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Back, Baby!

posted by barsoomcore

The only bad thing about going to GenCon 2007 is that it makes me wish I'd gone to GenCon 2006.

Holy fun.

I think I continuously giggled for five whole days. Them's funny peeps.

Crying out "GOD OF JENGA!" at the assembled guests of the Embassy Suites was definitely a highlight.

As was assassinating not one, but TWO toads in Talisman, and taking their stuff. Toads = good times.

There was the drunken game of "Kobolds Ate My Baby" at midnight on Thursday. THAT didn't end well.

And I totally stood right beside Phil Foglio. I did that. He was RIGHT THERE.

Apparently I surprise others with my great tallness.

And sometimes, it turns out that people who seem cool online are really and truly even cooler in person. I met so many great people on this trip. It seems weird I hadn't already known them for years.

And I discovered if your players are killer, it doesn't matter how unplanned your game is. I realised I have been extraordinarily blessed with great players pretty much as long as I've been running games. Everyone at GenCon was absolutely amazing. Pretty much like the old gang back in Vancouver, and Stuart's crew here in TO.

There will be another DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND campaign, that much is certain.

The SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY met another gruesome end. I think I need to toughen her up a little.

And the MONKEY WARRIORS OF THE WALKING SWORD did their best a couple of times but beyond headshotting over-confident ninjae, they were reliably unable to prevent our heroes from saving the day.

Good times.

Next year's adventures are already named:




The latter will of course incorporate our forthcoming comprehensive Lava Rules PDF. Stay tuned!


Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Off To GenCon!

posted by barsoomcore

Tomorrow's the day! W007! I'm going to GenCon. I'll be running three instances of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, and playing a whole pile of awesome games run by folks I'm dying to meet, and generally I'm just stupid with excitement over the whole thing.

It's been stressful getting prepared (HOURS in the Passport Office. HOURS!) but at last I have everything I need. One more round of printing off a bazillion pages and I am good to go. Whee!

In 36 hours I'll be playing Original D&D "Assault on the Temple of Elemental Evil". That's pretty close to my definition of "fun".



Monday, August 13, 2007


Meat And Bones

posted by barsoomcore

It has been ten years since I left Japan, and left Sugino Dojo in Kawasaki. Though I took very little knowledge away from that place, I still miss the experience of going there and practicing with the many skilled swordsmen (and women) who gathered every Sunday morning to share their knowledge and craft.

Sozen Kusano Sensei was of course one such practitioner. I would have certainly learned even less from my limited time at Sugino Dojo without him, for my hapless efforts at Japanese bore little fruit, and Sozen Sensei's ease with both Japanese and English (all the more embarrassing to me since neither are his native tongue) helped clear up many mysteries surrounding the practice of Katori Shinto Ryu. And his constant good humour and gentle wisdom only emphasized the general atmosphere of good company and tolerance I always felt at Sugino Dojo.

Tong-sensei arranged for Sozen-sensei to join us this summer for a special weekend seminar, and despite a bout of food poisoning as intense as any sickness I've endured, I did manage to drag myself down to St. Catharines to join the final session.

(First I need to rave about the Tokumeikan facility in St. Catharines. Set out in the countryside west of the town itself, the dojo is a lovely long building set next to hundreds of acres of cornfield. Boasting a polished hardwood floor, high ceilings, washroom, changeroom, Instructors’ private room, and even a recessed Kamiza, it is truly one of the most beautiful dojos I have ever seen outside of Japan.)

Sozen-sensei's lesson this day focused on the difference between what he termed the "bones" and the "meat" of the forms. Performing the movements correctly, with proper stances and angles carefully measured, he called the "bones". One must have good bones as a foundation for good health, of course. But bones are nothing without meat to move them and give them life. For Sozen-sensei, the "meat" of Katori Shinto Ryu’s two-person kata is the interchange between the two swordsmen, the energy that flows between them and transforms these ancient patterns into something alive and thrilling.

When swords cross, as they often do in the Katori kata, there must be energy in that contact. Not violence, or brute strength, but a sort of “communication”, which requires presence on the part of the practitioners. When one acts, the other must react. Without thought or premeditation; just as the natural flow of the energy in the movements.

A cut downwards is met by a block in ko-gasumi. The blades press against one another, and when uke-tachi (the receiver) breaks the contact and raises the weapon to strike, kiri-komi’s (the attacker) sword naturally bounces up in response from the release of pressure, exposing the left side for uke-tachi to cut do-giri. Without kiri-komi's reaction, the opening is not provided for uke-tachi to exploit. And part of the wisdom of Katori is found in that no effort is made by kiri-komi to block the opening; it MUST happen. But knowing that it must happen enables kiri-komi to survive and even take advantage of the opening.

Katori is an endless spiral formed by two figures opening and anticipating and re-opening. There is no end to its depths, no point at which a swordsman can sigh in contentment and say, "That's it, I'm done."

I also saw “meat and bones” when I witnessed Sozen-sensei entertaining questions from the audience. Watching Sozen-sensei handle difficult questions and alternative theories on the interpretation of the kata made it clear how much richness Katori can truly express. When so confronted, he in his uniquely Zen Buddhist way welcomed all theories, never shutting down any possibility.

"That's fun. Yes. That's very interesting."

He responded with energy and an honest presence to all incoming challenges. His natural flow brought all possibilities back to the center of all practice.

"Here's how I was taught. Here's what I was shown."

When two minds meet, the individuals can focus on the bones of their communication -- ensuring that all the formalities are met, that a veneer of politeness is maintained -- and still experience no meat in that communication.

It is only when the meat is engaged, when there is true presence in those minds, that an energizing, transforming interaction and a real understanding can take place.

Ten years ago, Sozen-sensei gave me a beautiful painting of the characters "mu-shin" -- "No Mind". I finally got around to framing it this summer, and he gave me a new one, with the character "ken" -- "Sword". I know there is a reason he gave it to me. Perhaps The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts might provide a clue to the reasons why he gave it to me:

"Swordsmanship is also like this. Facing your opponent, you forget about life, forget about death, forget about your opponent, and forget about yourself. Your thoughts do not move and you create no intentions. When you are in a state of No-Mind and leave everything to your natural perceptions, metamorphosis and change will be conducted with absolute freedom, and practical application will have no obstacles."

Witnessing Sozen-sensei handle questions and challenges was witnessing the same "meat" that his practice with the katana demonstrated. He offers the possibility of communication beyond the mere bones of politeness. His honest presence and accepting nature make conversation a source of transformation. It is a true communication, if only those of us on the other side can respond in like fashion.

Thank you, Sozen-sensei, for the sword and for No-Mind. For a wonderful weekend and the good times. For the joy of practice and the words of wisdom.


Saturday, August 11, 2007


Spartans! Prepare For FUDGE!

posted by barsoomcore

So Steph and I are watching 300 last night (MUCH less impressive not in a big theatre but still plenty of good stuff), and at some point I was unable to remain silent about the intense homoeroticism of it all.

I MEANT to say, "This is kind of a movie for wanna-be fudgepackers." Instead, I said, "This is kind of a movie about fudge."

We both cracked up, and thence was invented the "300 Fudge Game"

Replace words in 300 dialogue with "fudge." Hilarity ensues. I took this show over to the lunatics at Circvs Maximvs and wow. Behold:

"Spartans! Prepare for FUDGE!"

"Spartans! Tonight we dine on FUDGE!"

"Ephialtes, how high can you raise your fudge?"

"Madness? THIS IS FUDGE!!!!"

"Theron, I need your fudge."

"Fudge must be hard. It must be strong. Fudge must be hard and strong."

"A thousand nations of the Persian empire descend upon you. Our fudge will blot out the sun!"
-- "Then we will fight in the fudge."

"You have many slaves, Xerxes. But few warriors. It won't be long before they fear my spears more than your whips."
-- "It's not the lash they fear. It is my fudge. "

"My heart is broken for your loss."
-- "Heart? I have filled my heart with fudge."

"It seems I brought more fudge than you."

"Come back with your fudge, or on it."

"Choose your next fudge very carefully, Leonidas."

"It is not a question of what a Spartan citizen should do, nor a husband, nor a king. Instead, ask yourself, my dearest love, what should a fudge-packer do?"

"Unless I miss my fudge, we're in for one wild night."

"No retreat. No surrender. No fudge."

"You threaten my people with slavery and fudge!"

"Our ancestors built this wall. Using ancient stones from the bosom of Greece herself. And with a little Spartan help, your Persian scouts supplied the fudge."

"His helmet was stifling, it narrowed his vision. And he must see far. His shield was heavy. It threw him off balance. And his fudge is far away."

"Freedom is not free, it requires great sacrifice. The price is paid in fudge."

"Perhaps you haven't noticed, but we've been sharing our fudge with you all morning."

"Give them nothing! But take from them FUDGE!"


Monday, August 06, 2007


The Queen. Mother.

posted by barsoomcore

Queen Elizabeth II was always a presence in our house. I can recall my mother's tales of how her mother would teach them proper tables manners with the admonition that they needed to know how to eat properly with the Queen.

Should the occasion arise, I have no doubt my mother would comport herself with her usual dignity.

I on the other hand have become fatally fond of slurping hot beverages. I doubt I'd survive tea.

Of course, my mother's tales formed their own admonitions for us kids. Unspoken behind the story of how SHE was taught lay the assumption that, as unlikely as it sounded, being prepared for royal dinners was pretty much the foundation upon which Western Civilization rested.

Somehow, to an eight-year-old in Prince George, it never actually sounded all that unlikely. My mom can be awfully convincing.

Steph has accused me of radical monarchism. I deny the charge, of course, but I do admit that I am awfully fond of the Queen. I think she's just great. Respectable. Strong. Really, everything the Commonwealth needed over the last 55 years in a head of state. Maybe not the greatest mother ever (if one judges a parent by the children, as one inevitably must), but well, "great", "respectable", and "strong" don't mean "perfect", now do they?

No they do not.

You know her coronation took place just two months after her grandmother dropped dead? Good old Queen Mary insisted the ceremony not be delayed on account of her death. No sense making a fuss over what you can do nothing about.

I may be getting ahead of myself here. But we watched Helen Mirren's astonishing performance in Stephen Frears' The Queen last night, and such viewing naturally leads to speculation on things royal.

As Steph said, you have to respect a film that can make you feel at least a little sorry for Prince Charles.

It's okay, the feeling passes quickly enough.

The feeling that remains, however, is "I bet my mom LOVED this. I bet she ate it up."

Of course the film is primarily about the astounding performance from Mirren. At one point the Queen has to get out of a vehicle into a reasonably inconvenient amount of water. Steph stopped the film to turn to me and say, "I'm just now realising that that's not ACTUALLY the Queen."

In fact, for just a second, in my mind, I was thinking, "Man, I'm glad I'm not the AD who had to tell the Queen they needed another take of her stepping into that cold water."

And then, once we'd settled down, I thought, "You know, I bet the Queen would be a trouper about it."

Everyone knows it's a tremendous performance. There would have been riots if Mirren hadn't won the Oscar for that performance.

Well-mannered, stoical sorts of riots, of course, but still. Riotish.

But the film itself is likewise tremendous. You MIGHT say the bit with the stag teetered on the edge of overwrought, but I'm more than willing to give that to Frears. It is more than made up for by the moment when the Queen at last confronts her grieving, hysterical public. I'm not ashamed to say I misted up then.

Why? Helen Mirren manages a stiff Queen smile and folks curtsey to her. The music doesn't swell up all grandiose and stuff. Nobody's crying out in unabashed agony. It's a small, private moment. And yet, in that moment I felt the story touched on a notion, a feeling of necessity that was at once beautiful and tragic. That a woman can devote her life to something with no expectation of personal satisfaction (beyond being the richest woman in the world, of course -- THAT must be rough), and unexpectedly receive a quiet kindness from a small group of strangers. What Mirren really accomplishes here is to show us how much that little, little thing MEANT to her character, without needing to resort to any clumsy tricks. Just that stiff yet warm smile.

To see that reached inside me.

I believe in stoicism. That will surprise (and most likely amuse) folks of my casual acquaintance -- I know I come across as pretty much a loud-mouthed goofball, and perhaps this is a case where I'm just not capable of practicing what I preach. But I really truly believe that standing firm in the face of pain and enduring is morally healthy. Plain and simple: quiet, unobserved, unshared suffering builds character.

My mom is the queen (ha) of such thinking. Her suffering has all her life been quiet, unobserved and unshared. And so when Elizabeth managed that smile, I felt I knew what it cost her. To not rail against the unfairness that had stolen her people's hearts from her. To not give vent to the ugliest feelings inside her.

There's something about watching people making the compassionate choice, when you can see they have solid reasons to be selfish, that always gets me. People being strong for others, and discovering inside them more strength than they knew they had.

My mom has done that for me more times than I could possibly count or repay. She is the strongest person I know.

And if I ever chance to sit down for dinner with Queen Elizabeth II, I will most certainly inform Her Majesty why I seem so non-nonplussed at the occasion.

"My mom taught me what to do."

Thanks, mom.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Doo-Dah News

posted by barsoomcore

Everything about this is awesome:

If you're unfamiliar with the concept -- read each headline scrolling by to the tune of "Camptown Races". Say "Doo-dah, doo-dah" after each, if you like.


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