Thursday, February 26, 2015

#RaggisRejects Magic Items

A pair of magic items rejected for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess referee book project. Use as you like in your home campaign . . . but be careful! Please contact me directly if you wish to use either of these in a publication for which you are being paid or might be paid. Proper attribution is appreciated. Critiques are welcome. Enjoy! No, that's not really the word, now, is it???

Crown of Thought

Overview: Historically, nothing is known about the manufacture of the so called "Crown of Thought" or who first wore it. Some scholars have noted that portrayals of the crown appear in tapestries and manuscripts throughout history, but these so-called scholars are of the garden variety, with little or no academic training. Their writings on the crown, which describe it as an "artifact of great renown and terror" and "an uncontrollable vice," should be viewed with caution. Though it is true that some historical representations of the crown generally pre-date a certain eccentricity on the part of the wearer, the chronological appearance of the artifact and subsequent neuroses of the wearer does not guarantee causation, as the data are of a small scale and quite obscure. More research is required.

Physical Appearance: The Crown of Thought appears to be a poorly wrought crown made of dark iron. It is composed of a series of sharp spikes that ascend in height on either side as one rounds the crown toward the front, where a single spike, 12" in height, surmounts the piece. Some of these spikes are bent, as if the crown had been dropped form a height or thrown against a wall. Indeed, dents, gouges, and scratches are plentiful and its dark patina give the object the air of something of little worth. The inside of the crown is worn smooth and shiny, ostensibly from previous owners having worn it. Two initials, "HB" are stamped on the rear, inside face, where the crown would touch the back of the wearer's head. The provenience of the initials are unknown.

Effects: When the Crown of Thought is first donned, the wearer feels a sense of clarity of thought, an awakeness and awareness beyond that of the everyday. If the wearer continues to keep the crown on, he or she will feel his or her thoughts "reach out" after a few hours of wearing the crown. Within a day, the wearer will gain the ability, once per day, to use an effect equivalent to that of an ESP spell. After a number of uses equal to the wearer's intelligence ability score, the crown, if used again, will reveal to the target the thoughts of the wearer - i.e., the wearer's intent in reading the target's thoughts. The target will know that the wearer is trying to read his or her thoughts. Reactions toward the wearer will be based on the target's personality. 

If the wearer insists on using the crown again, it will "reach out" to two different people's thoughts at once: the desired target's, and another person or creature within range, as randomly determined by the referee. The sudden input of two sets of thoughts will affect the wearer as if affected by a Confusion spell. If the wearer persists in using the crown a third time, the next instance of use will result in his or her being affected by Feeblemind. If the wearer successfully saves versus magic, the ESP will succeed, as normal. At this point, the wearer will develop a powerful addiction to using the crown's powers for the most trivial of matters. Each time the wearer does use the Crown of Thought, he or she must save versus magic. Again, if the save is successful, the wearer can continue to scrye the thoughts of those within range. But any failure to save results in the effects of a Feeblemind spell.

Green Drink

This item appears as a thick, bright green liquid in a glass flask to which a tag is attached. The tag reads "Green Drink".

Anyone imbibing the Green Drink (even a sip will do) immediately feels very thirsty. Within one turn, the drinker's skin will have turned green and harder, as if calloused. The drinker will feel not only an insatiable thirst, but the need for water all over his or her body and the need for sunlight. If the drinker fails to be entirely doused in water twice a day, he or she will suffer as if he or she had gone without water for one full day. Furthermore, the drinker must also get 5 full hours of sunlight per day or suffer starvation effects (save versus Poison or lose 1 point of constitution). These effects are cumulative and last until the next autumn, regardless of when the effect began. When autumn arrives, the spellcaster sheds all of his or her hair and several layers of skin, with the skin color returning to normal at that time. After the green skin is shed, there is no further need to be doused or receive the 5 hours of sunlight, though any constitution loss is permanent.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Library: A World History

The Library: A World HistoryThe Library: A World History by James W.P. Campbell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It would be easy, yet criminally dismissive, to merely tell you about how gorgeous the pictures are in this book. Don't get me wrong, they are gorgeous, and those who are addicted to "book porn" will need a lifetime of therapy to get unhooked, but this book is so much more than pretty pictures.

A simple chronology doesn't do it justice, either. Yes, Campbell outlines the history and evolution of libraries from the earliest antecedents in Mesopotamia to the most modern libraries of both hemispheres (with the notable exception of the University of Chicago's Joe and RIka Mansueto Library - I guess you can't cover them all in one book). But this book is much more than a simple history.

Really, the core of the book is the manner in which mankind goes about collecting, protecting, and cataloging knowledge in written form. It is not comprehensive, and the underlying themes are presented in such a subtle way as to go almost un-noticed amongst all the data that is presented. But make no mistake about it, Campbell's work here is not a mere recounting of the many buildings that make up the libraries of history. It is a map through the maze of the ever-changing ideas of privilege, egalitarianism, the interface between civilization and nature, the interplay between trust in the good of mankind and the fear of man's greed, and the monumental (I use the word literally) expression of the human race's physical interaction with the texts of its intellectual achievements and struggles.

There are intriguing tidbits that point the way through this maze, but they are never obvious or pedantic. For instance, the earliest monastic libraries housed the collected knowledge of much of Christian civilization to that point, but it was in these same libraries that books were chained to desk-mounted rods in order to prevent theft or, more likely, the temptation for an enterprising monk to sell books to an outsider (It took the skins of 250 sheep to make enough parchment for a copy of the Bible), spurning his vows of poverty. Here, we don't just have a clinical recounting of methods of theft-prevention, we have an emblem of the internal struggle between religiosity and human nature. And though libraries were open to the "public" (read: "good" citizens) back in the Renaissance, it wasn't until the 1890's that library patrons were routinely allowed to browse books. Both of these factors (chained books and controlled patronage) had profound effects on the physical building itself.

Campbell's specialty is architecture, not information science. I was fascinated by his take on the building of libraries, but a little disappointed at the lack of emphasis on the collections themselves. Still, without buildings, you have no library. The skin and bones are important, as they contain the other organs and protect them from the outside environment, as well as providing a chassis in which the engine can operate.

But my metaphors are getting away from me. Forgive me. I'm slipping into metaphorical usage because I want to highlight the danger of reading this work as a straight data set, which would confine it to beautiful banalities. And, again, it is so much more than that.

This book is a treasure-chest (it better be, for what I paid for it!). This became apparent before I even received it, as it was backordered through University of Chicago press not more than a month after it was published. Apparently there was a greater demand than the press anticipated, probably based largely on the lovely photographs contained therein. The beauty of the artifact itself is obvious. But the hidden beauty, what I would term the "deep knowledge" hidden between the interstices of the text, that, THAT is where the real treasure lies!

And there's plenty to go around . . .

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We

WeWe by Yevgeny Zamyatin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

George Orwell, you poser. You punk. You . . . thief! I heard that you had read this before writing 1984. But I didn't expect Zamyatin's writing to be so superior to yours. And it is. It is so much more intriguing than your sterile work. D-503 is so much the better character than Winston. And you rob I-333 of her power and respect by demoting Julia to the role of a sexual object that stirs Winston to action. Yes, D-503 is stirred to action by I-333, but she's the political activist, the intelligent one in this revolution. Besides, Zamyatin had the guts to apply a letter and a name to his characters, while your very English "Winston" makes your work smack of parochialism and, frankly, condescension. D-503 is the universal toadie and I-333 the universal revolutionary.

"Winston"? Really? Were you trying to evoke Churchill? Somehow I sense . . .

Regardless of this, Zamyatin's prose is far better than yours. It never seems hackneyed, and rarely pedantic, though I suppose any novel that portrays rebellion against totalitarianism has to be somewhat pedantic. But because Zamyatin actually lived under a totalitarian state - TWO, actually! - and you only imagined what the Socialists would do in your imaginary world, he avoids much of the rhetoric that you seem to embrace, even while lampooning the imagined society of Big Brother.

You see, despite his impersonal name, D-503 is so much more human than Winston. Yes, Winston is a revolutionary like D-503, but when I read him in comparison with the protagonist of We, Winston comes off as disingenuous. D-503 is the real deal, because Zamyatin was the real deal. The man was exiled by both the Tsar and the Communists for his free-thinking while you were worried about threats from within your country that never materialized. Maybe that's why 1984 feels so forced (remember that awful middle section outlining the world's politics - BORING!), while We feels so much more natural and easy to read.

Furthermore, Zamyatin's prose is beautiful. Yes, you have the occasional turn of phrase that came out well, iconic, even, but Zamyatin's writing is beautiful throughout, even in its stochasticity. It's the writing of a poet who actually lived under totalitarianism, not a vested academic who feared a potential threat. You were fighting despotism, Zamyatin was living with it. You surmised, he knew.

And for these reasons, I am doing the unprecedented (for me, at least): I am taking one of your stars and giving it to Zamyatin. Because, while his work isn't perfect, one must give credit where credit is due. Censorship, along with the the Cold War, gave you your day in the sun of America's high school classrooms, when, all along, those kids, myself included, should have been reading Zamyatin's work.

That's an injustice. Maybe you're not totally to blame. Maybe Western society has to shoulder some of the guilt here. But . . . but . . . you copycat!

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Loki

No, not the Norse god. The ferret. Loki. Our ferret.

It's been about three weeks now since we had to put Loki to sleep. I'm finally in a place where I can wipe away enough tears to actually write a little about Loki. He was a part of our family for about 8 years. Now, I don't have a lot of photos of Loki - my kids were way better about taking pictures of him than I was, and my facebook stalking skills aren't that great, so I can't just snatch up the images from my kid's FB pages. But this graphic helps illustrate, quite nicely, exactly what Ferrets are:


Yes, ferrets are members of the weasel family. In their wild state, they kill and eat rabbits and other small game. They are related to the mongoose, as well, famous for fighting cobras. Though we were tempted to see what Loki could do against a garden snake, it's probably a good thing we never put him in the ring. He was pretty tame, as far as animals go.

Ferrets, by nature, are playful, lazy, and at turns incredibly bright and incredibly stupid. I've heard them described as "kittens that never grow up," and I think that's a pretty apt description.

As a child, I had only one pet: my dog, Rusty. We owned Rusty when we lived in the Philippines, and when we moved back to the States, we gave Rusty to a friend of ours, a guy named Vern. I think I was about four at the time. My fondest memories of Rusty were riding his back through a foot of water during monsoon season after watching the Lone Ranger. Poor, dumb Rusty. Rusty was apparently eaten by someone not long after we moved away. This happens in a country as poor as the Philippines. Being four, I wasn't really capable of understanding such things, so it hasn't left any kind of emotional scar.

Fast forward many years to a time when my wife and I talked about getting a pet. We can't have cats or dogs, since there are too many allergies in the family. The kids had proven that they can kill a carnival goldfish in a matter of hours. We had a couple of hamsters, but, honestly, I hate those things. They love to bite, are not very cuddly, and don't bond at all. Yes, one of my kids cried when "Legolas" died, and I felt really sorry for my son, but as for Legolas' passing I didn't really bat an eye.

So we did some research and learned from some friends about ferrets. As I said before, they are playful and fun, they sleep a LOT (like almost 20 hours a day), and, as I did not say before, they litter train very well. They are pretty clean critters.

We went to the Humane Society to see if they had any ferrets and found that we had just missed a pair of them a day earlier. We let them know that we might be interested and asked if they could call us when the next ferret came in so we could meet it and see what we thought. It wasn't long after that, maybe a week or so(?) that we got a call. There was a ferret in, and he was up for adoption. We dropped everything to go check it out. Keep in mind that we were trying very hard to keep this a secret from the kids. They knew that we were planning on getting a ferret, since we bought a ferret cage and un-veiled it at Christmas, promising to get one as soon as we could. But they didn't know what the timetable was. We wanted to surprise them!

As we arrived, we asked about the Ferret and were told that someone was playing with him right at that moment - a "try before you buy" get-acquainted thing that the Humane Society likes to do with potential pet owners. Still, they took us to the room with the understanding that the couple in front of us had "dibs" on the animal, if they chose to take it home. We peeked into the room to see a young couple and a very active young ferret. After letting the animal have a little break for food, water, bathroom, it was our turn next.

I'll tell you, I fell in love. I had played with a ferret before, when I lived in Pennsylvania, but this guy was different. First of all, he was gimpy. We were told that he had the limp because he had fallen off a stair landing and broken his leg, at one point. He seemed to get along fine, but he had a funny little waddle to his walk and when he ran, he bounded sideways a bit. It was cute, to be honest, and a little endearing. I like rooting for the underdog or, in this case, the under-ferret. We played with him for about 15 minutes and realized that if we got a ferret, we'd have to be careful to train it not to bite so darned much. Some of that had to do with youth - this one, who the previous owners had named "Samson" was not even a year old. Still a pup, or at least a young child, in ferret years.

We expressed our interest in having "Samson" come be a part of our home and family, and the Humane Society told us that they'd get back with us as soon as they had word from the other family. I don't recall how long it was, no more than a day, that we got our answer. The other couple had "passed" - we had our ferret! We drove over and, after filling out a lot of paperwork and getting some instruction on how to take care of his needs, we brought him home.

The kids were giddy.

The first order of business was to get this guy a new name. "Samson" wouldn't do. And since ferrets don't have very good hearing, anyway, we figured we could rename him and he wouldn't even know the difference. After a long and complicated series of blind voting and a runoff, we finally settled on "Loki". For those who want to know, the second choice (and it was very close) was "Felix".

The second order of business was assigning who would do what in taking care of Loki. Someone had to clean his litter box and feed the little guy, and though he had a fairly sizeable cage, we needed to take him out of his cage a couple times a day and play with him. Of course, that chore was not difficult.

All was not bliss. We had to teach Loki not to bite, which wasn't helped by the fact that one of my sons actually liked the fat that Loki bit and would entice him to bit people's feet (including my son's own feet - I still don't understand the attraction there). And there were the inevitable disagreements about whose turn it was to clean his cage and litterbox. I don't know that that fight ever went away.

Still, we had many good times. We taught him not to bite (so much), but let him play rough when he wanted to. He learned just how hard he could bite and get away with it. The only exception was this strange, blue brain made of foam that he would latch onto and not let go. Ferrets don't make many sounds, but when he clamped his jaws down on that blue brain, he would make the strangest noises and we had to prise him off the darned thing. He would NOT let go. I think that, in some alternate dimension, ferrets fight an alien race of floating blue brains. I'm pretty sure of it, in fact.

From time to time, Loki would get sick, usually from eating something he shouldn't have in the yard. Oh, yes, we would take him outside from time-to-time and, later in life, he would actually walk over to the front door and beg to be let out. After taking him outside on a couple of winter days, though, he learned that when we opened the door, he might not want to go out after all. We couldn't let him out for too long - not that he could really get away. He was too slow for that. But for fear of birds of prey snatching him up (we have owls and eagles that sometimes frequent the neighborhood). He could hold his own against most other animals, I'm guessing. I always wondered who would win in a fight between Loki and a cat. If his instinct kicked in, I'd put my money on Loki, hands down. But he was so tame that he probably wouldn't know what hit him until it was too late.

Needless to say, we bonded. It didn't dawn on me until after he was gone, but for about three years, I was working a 4:10 shift at work, which meant that every Friday, Loki and I were alone, together, at the house. I took care of him a lot in that time, and had some great time playing with him and helping him explore the house. That was one of his favorite things to do, just to burrow under anything he could and investigate every nook and cranny of the house. He was particularly fond of laying down by my closed bedroom door and scratching at it, trying to get inside. I think he thought that Shangri-la was on the other side.

As happens, Loki grew old. A few months ago, he was looking really run down and he wasn't eating properly. So we took him to the vet and discovered that his blood sugars were all out of whack. This is fairly typical for older ferrets. They develop insulinoma, in which their body produces too much insulin, which does bad things to blood sugars. He stayed in the animal hospital for a week, and we got him regulated with twice daily doses of prednisone. The picture I am including below was from the time right after he came home. He was feeling cuddly and I had just given him his meds and I thought I'd snap a picture of him.

It's good that I did. About three weeks after he came home, I got home from work and discovered that he was in a bad way. He had bloody stool and was shaking almost uncontrollably. The meds didn't pull him out of the situation and he couldn't even walk properly. We had suspected for some time that his eyesight might be going, and it was apparent, that day, that he was completely blind. I bathed him and called my wife. We knew it was time. This would be our last trip to the vet.

I took Lokin around, because he couldn't walk himself, for one last exploration of the house. I was careful to take him into my old bedroom, which had now become my youngest son's bedroom, that Shangri-la behind the forbidden door. I wanted him to see it before we had to let him go. He seemed as thrilled as a very sick, very old ferret could be. I like to think that it was a bit of a "treat" for him.

So we called the kids that were in town and let them know that it was time to say goodbye. Unfortunately, we had just taken our oldest son to college in Iowa, and he couldn't be here. This was particularly painful because he, above all the rest, really did the most to take care of Loki, especially when Loki was entering the elderly stage. That's my one regret about having to put Loki to sleep when we did. Loki was in a lot of pain and discomfort and was definitely ready to go. But I wish Kaiser could have seen him one last time.

I cried for days. I almost called in to work, but somehow made it through the first day by staying at my desk and not talking to anyone. A few days later, as I was getting ready to take a shower, I remembered giving Loki that last bath and I cried like a baby. I haven't cried like that in a long, long time. Tears well spent, though.

I'm so glad that Loki could be a part of our lives. I had heard of people having a hard time losing pets before, but I never expected it to be so difficult. I'm wiping away tears as I write this, but overall, things are getting better. Time heals all wounds, and we will do our best to remember all the good, fun times we had together. We had a pawprint cast taken as a reminder of him, which is on our kitchen wall. He always loved the kitchen, usually because he could snatch up some tidbit from the floor before we could grab it from him. Little rascal!

We miss you, buddy . . .




Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Birth of Tragedy/The Case of Wagner

The Birth of Tragedy/The Case of WagnerThe Birth of Tragedy/The Case of Wagner by Friedrich Nietzsche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You say “Tomayto”
I say “Tomahto”
You say “Potayto”
I say “Potahto”
Tomayto, Tomahto, Potayto, Potahto
Let’s call the whole thing off

You spell “Apollonian”
I spell “Apollinian”
You say “Dio-nice-ian”
I say “Dio-niss-ian”
Apollinian, Dionysian, Hegelian Dialectic
Let’s call the whole thing off

You say “Wagnerian”
Nietzsche says “Wankerian”
You say “Romantic”
Nietszche says “Pedantic”
Romantic, pedantic, whatever, Wagner was a wanker
Let’s call the whole thing off


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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Web of the Chozen

The Web of the ChozenThe Web of the Chozen by Jack L. Chalker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First off, a special thanks to the anonymous Goodreader who sent me this book. It arrived right before Christmas, and I didn't open the package until Christmas day, thinking that one of my kids had ordered it and had it shipped directly to my place (we had all the kids home for Christmas). But when I opened the envelope on Christmas day and asked who got me the book, I was rewarded by confusion and blank stares. So someone who is not my child or my wife sent this to me. I had a few conversations with a different people about this book, so I can't chase it down *exactly*. But someone was generous, and I thank you!

Now, on to the text.

The Web of the Chozen is, above all, a novel of ideas, like any well-behaved science fiction book is. It was well-written, by and large, and I really enjoyed the narrative voice of Bar Holliday, the narrator. Bar is a star scout, sent to explore new worlds. He's different from most of humanity, who have now become mind-numbed cattle whose only ambition is to return to their Creatovision. The interstellar civilization, sponsored by a group of corporations, is just too boring for Bar Holliday. So he was assigned to be a scout, the one way out of the malaise-stricken utopia of humankind.

But Bar is in for some surprises.

And so are you. I'm not going to give away any spoilers. Suffice it to say that Bar stumbles on a world named Patmos where his entire conception of himself and of humanity is . . . turned inside out, I guess, is the best way to put it. The book is full of transformations and begs the question, what does it really mean to be human? For that matter, what does it really mean to be at all?

The book isn't without its problems, and the primary issue I had with the book, unfortunately, repeated itself several times - Chalker threw me out of my willing suspension of disbelief not once, but several times. Bar Holliday simply knew too much about what was happening to himself and the world around him, and I couldn't make that leap, not in the first-person narrative voice, anyway. This shaking of my walls of unreality happened again and again. I suppose I was inured to it by the end of the book, but I found it quite jarring, which lessened my enjoyment of the book a great deal.

One thing that this discomfort did for me, though, was caused me to think about what is it exactly that allows us to suspend disbelief or prevents us from doing so? And why is it different for each person? I'm certain that other readers might not have been bothered by Holliday's borderline omniscience as I was. But what makes the difference? A more subtle approach would have worked better for me, even if Chalker had interspersed a few pages of transition at key spots in the novel. It would have added a few thousand words to the whole text, but it would have felt much more natural, as a result. Maybe this is the fault of an overly zealous editor or a publisher that wanted to keep the word count under a certain number for production purposes, I don't know. In any case, I need to think about this whole subject a bit more carefully. What would an "acceptable" leap have looked like to me? Would I take an even larger leap and be okay with it if the tone or voice was different? Was it the presentation or the logic itself that I found fault with subconsciously?

So many questions . . .

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