So Much For “The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play”

Twilight Struggle is considered by Board Game Geek to be one of the greatest board games of all time. It has a computer version, so I picked it up in order to play the AI, because my social life remains utterly devastated by my professional GMing gig. I’ve played a couple of games as both the USA and USSR, and so far I have lost every time by my opponent triggering a nuclear war that was technically my fault. Granted, this speaks to a serious weakness in my strategy, but really, the rules should consider that situation a much lesser victory and maybe even a stalemate compared to winning through victory points, and the AI should thus be less eager to take it.

Mythos: The Terrible Old Man, The Tree, and the Cats of Ulthar

The Terrible Old Man

It was the design of Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva to call on the Terrible Old Man.

They’ve got foreign names, though, so the safe bet is that these three are actually the villains and the Terrible Old Man is either misunderstood or else (more likely) brings well-deserved suffering on those who dare be Italian, Polish, and (according to Barnes and Noble) Portugese.

The inhabitants of Kingsport say and think many things about the Terrible Old Man

There’s more to this sentence, but what matters here is that Kingsport is now a thing. This shows up in a couple of other Lovecraft stories and also in Arkham Horror. Honestly, if you wanted to condense the Cthulhu Mythos down such that Kingsport and Arkham were the same town, that’d be defensible. They’re both New England towns and the only things that really distinguish Kingsport from Arkham are which specific stories and landmarks happen to be placed in one location or another. If you wanted to combine them, you could.

The Terrible Old Man, not otherwise named, is super creepy and weird. He lives in a creepy old house, he talks to bottles with little bits of lead suspended in them, and the lead moves, apparently in response. The people of Kingsport mostly leave him alone on account of how spooky he is, but our protagonists are immigrants, and therefore evil/stupid:

Those who have watched the tall, lean, Terrible Old Man in these peculiar conversations, do not watch him again. But Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva were not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions, and they saw in the Terrible Old Man merely a tottering, almost helpless greybeard, who could not walk without the aid of his knotted cane, and whose thin, weak hands shook pitifully. They were really quite sorry in their way for the lonely, unpopular old fellow, whom everybody shunned, and at whom all the dogs barked singularly. But business is business, and to a robber whose soul is in his profession, there is a lure and a challenge about a very old and very feeble man who has no account at the bank, and who pays for his few necessities at the village store with Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago.

The plan is for two of the robbers to break into the house and torture the Terrible Old Man until he reveals the location of his hidden pirate treasure, whereupon the third robber will be waiting outside in the getaway car. Things do not go according to plan, in an ambiguous but spooky way:

Little things make considerable excitement in little towns, which is the reason that Kingsport people talked all that spring and summer about the three unidentifiable bodies, horribly slashed as with many cutlasses, and horribly mangled as by the tread of many cruel boot-heels, which the tide washed in. And some people even spoke of things as trivial as the deserted motor-car found in Ship Street, or certain especially inhuman cries, probably of a stray animal or migratory bird, heard in the night by wakeful citizens. But in this idle village gossip the Terrible Old Man took no interest at all. He was by nature reserved, and when one is aged and feeble one’s reserve is doubly strong. Besides, so ancient a sea-captain must have witnessed scores of things much more stirring in the far-off days of his unremembered youth.

Intriguingly spooky, but also possessed of strong undertones of racism. This story is pretty much Lovecraft in a nutshell, and it’s basically a replacement level Lovecraft story in terms of quality. If you picked a Lovecraft story at random, you’d probably get something about as good as this.

Continue reading “Mythos: The Terrible Old Man, The Tree, and the Cats of Ulthar”

Mythos: The Street, the Doom That Came to Sarnath, and the Statement of Randolph Carter

The Street

This is the fictional biography of a New England road. Lovecraft describes how it was made by Puritan settlers, expanded in the colonial days, got industrialized, and was then ruined when all those immigrants came, because Lovecraft.

Then came days of evil, when many who had known The Street of old knew it no more; and many knew it, who had not known it before. And those who came were never as those who went away; for their accents were coarse and strident, and their mien and faces unpleasing.

 

New kinds of faces appeared in The Street; swarthy, sinister faces with furtive eyes and odd features, whose owners spoke unfamiliar words and placed signs in known and unknown characters upon most of the musty houses. Push-carts crowded the gutters. A sordid, undefinable stench settled over the place, and the ancient spirit slept.

But Lovecraft doesn’t just hate immigrants. He also hates Communists!

 Swarthy and sinister were most of the strangers, yet among them one might find a few faces like those who fashioned The Street and moulded its spirit. Like and yet unlike, for there was in the eyes of all a weird, unhealthy glitter as of greed, ambition, vindictiveness, or misguided zeal. Unrest and treason were abroad amongst an evil few who plotted to strike the Western Land its death-blow, that they might mount to power over its ruins; even as assassins had mounted in that unhappy, frozen land from whence most of them had come. And the heart of that plotting was in The Street, whose crumbling houses teemed with alien makers of discord and echoed with the plans and speeches of those who yearned for the appointed day of blood, flame, and crime.

I say he hates Communists. Really, it’s more that he hates Russians, and would probably have been perfectly okay with Communism had it ever become popular in New England.

Continue reading “Mythos: The Street, the Doom That Came to Sarnath, and the Statement of Randolph Carter”

HP Lovecraft Does Not Write Like HP Lovecraft, Apparently

I have noticed my writing becoming slightly more Lovecraftian as I have been reading his work. Is this a real thing, I asked myself, or am I just seeing tics I always had but only noticed now because Lovecraft is on my mind? There’s plenty of Lovecraft in sci-fi/fantasy, after all, plenty of vectors for me to have osmosed the ideas continuously long before I started reading multiple Lovecraft stories in a row. Plus, five-ish years ago when I read a few of the famous ones, it’s always possible that they permanently lodged something in my writing style that I just didn’t notice until now.

And hey, I thought to myself, wasn’t there an online tool that analyzes what famous author your writing style most resembles? My recollections were accurate, but I still wondered if the tool itself was accurate. I pasted in the thousand-ish words I had written the previous day, and apparently I write like Agatha Christie. “Neat,” I thought, “but how reliable is that, really? Does this tool accurately categorize writing style at all, or is it basically just noise?” I decided to test it by pasting in bits of the same story written considerably earlier. This website’s consistent opinion is that I write like Agatha Christie. “Seems solid,” I thought, but ever the skeptic, it also occurred to me: “What if this thing is just weighted strongly towards Agatha Christie for some reason?” So I dug up some of the writings that occasional commenter Longes had sent me, and the algorithm pretty consistently says that he writes like JK Rowling. I don’t really get that vibe from Longes’ writing, but while the algorithm may be picking up on different elements than humans care about, it does at least seem to consistently sort writers into different buckets.

So then I thought, “let’s see if this algorithm can correctly sort writings by the others in its own database.” So I confirmed that Lovecraft was in the database, copy/pasted Lovecraft’s Old Bugs into the page, since that’s the story I was reading and I had it open for quotation, and then double checked by also analyzing a few thousand words of the Shadow Over Innsmouth, just in case there was a style shift that would confuse the algorithm.

HP Lovecraft does not write like HP Lovecraft, apparently.

He writes like Agatha Christie.

Mythos: The White Ship

I keep finding myself writing so late in the night that I discover I have no time left for a blog post before I need to sleep, so then I shuffle the blog post somewhere else and it ends up on the wrong day or at a weird time. I’m not even writing especially quickly, only about 1,000 to 1,500 words a day, which is good but not great and definitely not indicative of spending 3-4 hours a day on the work. I only hope that the extra time is coming through in the quality of the writing.

That has more connection than today’s story than just an explanation for why it’s being posted alongside a Tuesday article instead of on Monday where it belongs. The White Ship was written by HP Lovecraft after being inspired by Lord Dunsany, whose work he had recently been reading (we don’t even have to resort to guesswork on this one, as we often do, because Lovecraft conveniently says as much in one of his letters – that, or Barnes and Noble is lying to me). My current writing distraction was inspired by my recent study of Lovecraft.

Our hero today is Basil Elton, the latest in a long line of lighthouse keepers, because all lighthouse keepers without exception are grizzled old men in sailor’s coats with salty white beards whose father kept the same lighthouse, and his father’s father before that. Hereafter referred to as Lighthouse Guy, because this story is like five pages long and no way is that enough time to lodge the protagonist’s name in my head.

Past that beacon for a century have swept the majestic barques of the seven seas. In the days of my grandfather there were many; in the days of my father not so many; and now there are so few that I sometimes feel strangely alone, as though I were the last man on our planet.

As my past and current literary investigations suggest, I tend to wander back through the history of media, paying relatively little attention to the big new thing and instead examining the past to see what has not crumbled. It’s an easy way to make sure I read mostly good literature. In fact, if you dig through my readings more randomly selected, like from the LitRPG genre where people largely directed me to whatever was popular right now or when I selected short stories almost at random from a Humble Bundle by a specific publisher, you’ll notice that I tend to be surprised and alarmed at how common certain shitty tropes or hacks are, because I’m used to reading the greatest fiction of any given decade, and that’s obviously a Hell of a yardstick to be measured against (I like to imagine that my focus on the greatest books improves my writing, but there’s no way it’s been improved to that level).

All this being a long walk towards saying that I feel a kinship with Lighthouse Guy here, whenever I wander into a multiplayer game whose time has come and gone. Like Lighthouse Guy, I didn’t personally see the golden age. I just hear about it from the greybeards left behind. Once, they say, there were so many players here that every town and quest hub, no matter how obscure, had at least a half-dozen other people visiting. Now? Now you see fellow travelers in the newbie zones leveling their latest alt, and you’ll see the main toons gathering in the designated last bastion of player interaction, but the rest of the game may as well be single player.

I feel for you, Lighthouse Guy. We did not see the golden age. We just live in its aftermath. Not ruined, but empty.

Continue reading “Mythos: The White Ship”

Mythos: Old Bugs and Juan Romero

It’s another double feature! A lot of Lovecraft’s short stories are seriously only like eight pages long, so unless they require a lot of commentary, they can frequently be crammed two to a single blog post. Really, 15-20 pages of story per 2,000 words of commentary is a pretty bad ratio, but the problem with short story collections is that the constant gear shifting to new characters, concepts, and situations tends to thwart summary.

Old Bugs

This is Lovecraft’s second (published) comedy. That sounds like the setup for a joke, but the dude did have a bit of range.

Sheehan’s Pool Room, which adorns one of the lesser alleys in the heart of Chicago’s stockyard district, is not a nice place. Its air, freighted with a thousand odours such as Coleridge may have found at Cologne, too seldom knows the purifying rays of the sun; but fights for space with the acrid fumes of unnumbered cheap cigars and cigarettes which dangle from the coarse lips of unnumbered human animals that haunt the place day and night.

I said a bit.

Probably the most interesting part of this story gets dropped on us at the end of the first paragraph:

Over and above the fumes and sickening closeness rises an aroma once familiar throughout the land, but now happily banished to the back streets of life by the edict of a benevolent government—the aroma of strong, wicked whiskey—a precious kind of forbidden fruit indeed in this year of grace 1950.

Funny enough, this story was written in 1919 (probably, it wasn’t published until 1959, when Lovecraft was sufficiently well-regarded that you could dig through his back-catalogue and pick stories written on a lark for publication), which is very nearly the same year as when the King in Yellow takes place. Written in 1895, the stories (or at least some of them – I haven’t read them in a while) take place in 1920, although it’s not clear how much of the changes are real and how many are the fevered delusions of an insane protagonist.

In this story, Lovecraft imagines a future after thirty years of prohibition, not yet signed into law from when he was writing in 1919 (or perhaps very recently made law, if we’re wrong about the date and he actually wrote it sometime in or after 1920). Or at least, I think prohibition is supposed to be in effect? The eponymous Old Bugs is an alcoholic employee (paid mainly in booze) at a drug den where the chief items sold appear to be liquor and hashish, with emphasis on the liquor. On the other hand, a young patron of the establishment is said to have been part of a mock fraternity in college called “Tappa Tappa Keg,” which strongly suggests that some kind of alcohol consumption is legal? Back on the first hand, Tappa Tappa Keg is an unofficial fraternity and may be engaged in illegal but widely known and quietly tolerated alcohol use, like marijuana use is rampant on college campuses today and basically no one cares even though it’s still illegal in like 47 states.

Continue reading “Mythos: Old Bugs and Juan Romero”

Learning Board Games Is Hard

I love to play board games, but despite being able to buy new games for like $10 off of Tabletop Simulator on top of practically unlimited free mods in the Steam workshop, I find myself only playing occasionally. A major contributor to this is undoubtedly that I would rather be playing with people, but rarely get to, because my evenings are busy with my professional D&D, but that’s certainly not all of it. I love a good solitaire board game. Partly this is because I don’t like playing the same game over and over again after I’ve already beaten it, nor do I find it easy to muster up the willpower to try again soon after a defeat. But given the number of new (in the sense that I, personally, haven’t played them) games available, shouldn’t that just lead me to trying out new games, failing, rotating other new games in, and eventually coming back to the failed games for another crack at them until they are finally rotated into my “won” pile?

The reason why this doesn’t happen is because learning board games is hard. And I am undecided as to whether this is because rulebooks and YouTube channels are bad at explaining them or because I am bad at learning them. Rulebooks might be chained to some bad habits from the stone age of board games, sure, a poor rulebook will impact sales almost not at all because by the time someone even has the rulebook they’ve already spent $50 on the game and will undoubtedly take the trouble to learn how to play, even if the rulebook isn’t very clear. Fine. Why aren’t “how to play” explainer videos rapidly optimizing? That begs the question, of course, as to whether there are optimizations to make.

And I think there are. The best method of opening a board game explanation I’ve ever heard came from a board game group I was part of back when I wasn’t doing the D&D gig, and it went like this: “Start every explanation by explaining who the players are, what their goal is, and how they’ll accomplish it.” Arkham Horror LCG? “You are an investigator in 1920s Arkham, you’re trying to solve a Mythos mystery, and you do that by collecting enough clue tokens to advance through the act deck before enough doom tokens accumulate to advance through the doom deck.” Castaways? “You are stranded on a deserted island, you must signal a ship for rescue, and you do that by reaching the headland after retrieving and constructing enough items to successfully signal a ship.” Nemo’s War? “You are Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, you’re trying to accomplish one of the four objectives of exploring beneath the ocean, making scientific inventions, liberating oppressed people around the globe, or destroying shipping for revenge on the imperialist powers, and you do that by allocating actions that advance your chosen objective while managing limited resources in an ocean constantly filling up with more and more hostile ships.”

For some reason, these summaries never seem to appear in rules explanations. The premise is often explained to hook an audience, y’know, the whole “this is who you are, this is what you’re trying to accomplish” thing, but rarely do they make it to “and you do that by [insert actual mechanical method of measuring win condition here].” Diving into the mechanics of set up and lists of actions you can take on your turn without establishing what the mechanical end goal is makes it difficult to see why various actions are relevant to victory, doubly so if the game is even slightly abstract.

Mythos: Beyond the Wall of Sleep

After a paragraph of preamble about how dreams may actually be a transport to some other life, no less real than the one we live in the material world, our protagonist gets around to the actual plot:

It was from a youthful reverie filled with speculations of this sort that I arose one afternoon in the winter of 1900–1901, when to the state psychopathic institution in which I served as an interne was brought the man whose case has ever since haunted me so unceasingly. His name, as given on the records, was Joe Slater, or Slaader, and his appearance was that of the typical denizen of the Catskill Mountain region; one of those strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts. Among these odd folk, who correspond exactly to the decadent element of “white trash” in the South, law and morals are non-existent; and their general mental status is probably below that of any other section of the native American people.

Just in case you were worried that Lovecraft was only racist against black people. Have no fear: Lovecraft’s racism contains multitudes. Seriously, though, Lovecraft really wants you to know how sub-humanly incompetent he thinks Appalachian people are:

Though well above the middle stature, and of somewhat brawny frame, he was given an absurd appearance of harmless stupidity by the pale, sleepy blueness of his small watery eyes, the scantiness of his neglected and never-shaven growth of yellow beard, and the listless drooping of his heavy nether lip. His age was unknown, since among his kind neither family records nor permanent family ties exist; but from the baldness of his head in front, and from the decayed condition of his teeth, the head surgeon wrote him down as a man of about forty.

Lovecraft then moves on to describe the manner in which this Slaader fellow (I find the misspelling offered more compelling than the more common Slater, so Slaader it is) sometimes tells of “the unknown” in a way that frightens those who listen, and always soon after waking (presumably because of a venture into some terrifying dream world). But even now he’s not done insisting upon the stupidity of Appalachians:

He himself was generally as terrified and baffled as his auditors, and within an hour after awakening would forget all that he had said, or at least all that had caused him to say what he did; relapsing into a bovine, half-amiable normality like that of the other hill-dwellers.

Show me on the doll where the redneck hurt you, Lovecraft.

Continue reading “Mythos: Beyond the Wall of Sleep”

Mythos: Double Feature

A Reminisce of Dr. Samuel Johnson

According to the intro given by the eldritch entity that is Barnes and Noble, this story is Lovecraft writing a send-up of 18th century literature. As part of that tradition, Lovecraft attempts to pass the fiction bit off as being a truthful report, in the way of eighteenth century literature where everything is allegedly true despite it being very obvious that in fact it is total fabrication.

Tho’ many of my readers have at times observ’d and remark’d a Sort of antique Flow in my Stile of Writing, it hath pleased me to pass amongst the Members of this Generation as a young Man, giving out the Fiction that I was born in 1890, in America.

Oh, also, Words are capitalized at Random and all proper nouns are italicized, though I should imagine that the fictional 200-year old Lovecraft in this story would regardless put emphasis on how scandalous it would be to actually have been born in America. In the style of the eighteenth century, the entire piece is a meander through random vignettes, some of which have practically nothing to do with the nominal subject of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and some of which are just a list of people who attended a certain club that Johnson was a member of, punctuated by a random vignette concerning one of the club members dropped into the middle of the list apparently just because the author recalled it at exactly that moment and wanted to write it down before finishing the list. And it’s not clear why the list was even included.

Lovecraft knows exactly what he’s doing, though:

It wou’d afford me Gratification to tell more of my Experiences with Dr. Johnson and his circle of Wits; but I am an old Man, and easily fatigued. I seem to ramble along without much Logick or Continuity when I endeavour to recall the Past; and fear I light upon but few Incidents which others have not before discuss’d.

The whole piece is humorously self-aware of how flawed the 18th century style was, in a way that seems accurate to me (Barnes and Noble agrees), though I read very little of that time precisely because it’s so unrefined as to be almost painful to read.

This story is only like five pages long (and thank God, because it was starting to drag even then – which is the point and all, but still), so we’re doing a double feature by also covering the next story in the book, which is Polaris. Funny enough, it’s even shorter.

Continue reading “Mythos: Double Feature”

Fighting in Five Foot Squares

Some HEMA types got together and made a gallery of fighters sparring in adjacent 5-foot squares: https://imgur.com/gallery/sT0EVJi

I think there’s two main takeaways from this:

#1: The average sword fight should expect to take place across at least a 2×2 area, and 3×3 is probably most reasonable. A five-foot square is a perfectly reasonable space for a single combatant to occupy. It’s small enough that they can easily prevent an enemy from passing through (unless that enemy is especially nimble, and there are class features and feats for this), but big enough that a friend can easily run through when no one’s trying to stop them, yet also too small for two people to stand in the same space and fight effectively, either with each other or with foes outside (with an exception for fighting back-to-back, which you can make a special rule for if you really feel it’s necessary).

But although a five-foot square is a reasonable amount of space for a combatant to occupy, it’s not nearly big enough for two of them to represent the space that a sword fight takes place in. The solution here is pretty straightforward: D&D really should have some more positioning mechanics built straight into its combat rules, not locked away in class powers.

#2: When you are five feet away from an opponent, you are not just squaring off with them. That happens 10 feet away. At five feet, you are actively in melee with them. I think D&D rules do a perfectly good job modeling this by having combatants who are adjacent to each other be unable to move away without provoking an attack of opportunity, but people often visualize this as one combatant turning to run and the other lunging for their unguarded back as they do so. The actual attack of opportunity comes because an enemy is disentangling themselves from a clash to get out, and you could make a strong argument that daggers (just like ranged weapons) shouldn’t get one.