Thursday, June 30, 2016

Burnt Black Suns

Burnt Black SunsBurnt Black Suns by Simon Strantzas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm all about the creepy, not so much about the gory. Give me The Twilight Zone and X-Files over "Saw" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" any day of the week. It's not about the blood or guts, necessarily, but about the feeling. I'm not a fan of being grossed out, but am a fan of that lingering feeling in the back of my head that things just aren't right. Perhaps this has to do with my love of existentialism, the thrilling notion that terror and death loom just around the corner, but aren't quite in your face . . . yet.

So when I tell people I like to read horror . . . well, I've been given some recommendations that I really, really hated. Part of it is that, all told, the quality of horror writing in general is . . . well, not that great. There are a number of reason for this, not the least of which was a sort of nepotism which Paula Guran referred to as "tribalism" at one point - the incestuous practice of editors who were also authors and authors who were also editors patting each other on the back and frankly looking the other way when bad writing came through from someone they liked.

Those days may be behind us. At least I hope so. But because I had seen this happen first hand back in the early 2000's, I approached Strantzas' collection Burnt Black Suns with a touch of caution. Not because I though Strantzas had been caught up in all of that, but because I hadn't, frankly, read a Strantzas story before, at least not to my recollection. Plus there was the possibility that this was not the kind of dark fiction I most enjoy. But I read some very positive reviews and I positively loved the cover, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm so glad I did!

Let's start with the first story, "On Ice," because no one reads intros, even when they are written by the talented Laird Barron. Okay, I admit it, I read the introduction. But like most other introductions it was forgettable. "On Ice," though, was not as forgettable. I had expected something along the lines of Lovecraft, but was pleasantly surprised (though I like Lovecraft's work a great deal) that Strantzas didn't just fall into the tropes that one might expect in an arctic horror story. Yes, there is a sense of desperation and fear like you might expect, but it's a slow burn, like holding your hand on the frozen juice freezer at the grocery store too long; mesmerizing and painful, but not so scary as to make you simply close the cover. "This," I thought, "is a solid four star story".

I was not quite as impressed with "Dwelling on the Past," which I felt didn't really get off the ground and, once it did, meandered around a bit too much. Not a terrible story, but not terribly impressive, either. I felt that this might have been one of the "filler" stories in the volume.

I was, however, very impressed with the third story, "Strong as a Rock". I liked everything about "Strong As a Rock". It seethes with the dread of that-which-is-not-seen. The evocative character reactions to "off camera" events carry the horror in this, yes, I'll say it, "Ligotti-esque" tale. This story of two brothers, one full of confidence, one utterly lacking in it, starts blue and clear as the sky, and ends saturated in darkness. You may never look at rock climbing or hospitals in the same way again. Five stars!

"By Invisible Hands" was the weakest story so far, which surprised me, since it appeared in a Ligotti tribute anthology. Maybe it was just trying too hard. The right words were there, but the cadence was not, like a singer off beat. It also missed the emotional "oomph" I get from Ligotti, et al. Still not a bad story. Three stars. No more. No less.

"One Last Bloom" is an interesting title for that story. It took a little while to "grow," to be honest, but once it flowered . . . well, it was really gross and horrific. I was surprised by how well I accepted that fact. Maybe I've become desensitized? Extreme social awkwardness, combined with narcissism, make for some very uncomfortable moments. Strantzas has captured this perfectly, and, boy, is it painful to read! Painful in a way that drew me, begrudgingly, into the story. For a while, the main character's lack of touch with reality had me wondering who was real and who was not. It's an insane fugue of a story, as a result, and in the end, I liked the effect it had on me.

Furthermore, there was a phrase in "One Last Bloom" that caught my attention: "[I] knew the way one knows things in the middle of the night . . ." I love that turn of phrase. In the context of the story it totally makes sense and is one of the most clever articulations I've ever heard of that strange phenomenon of certainty at three in the morning. I've felt that. I know that feeling.

I wish I had thought of that seemingly simple phrase myself. You've earned yourself another star, mister Strantzas! Four total, in this case.

"Thistle's Find" is a good story, well told, of science gone wrong. Not spectacular or groundbreaking, but it still makes it into four-star territory.

Take Carcosa, The King in Yellow, a mysterious bookstore containing an even more mysterious manuscript, a restrained rivalry between two brilliant musicians, and the revelation of the "lesser" musician's grand opus, all wrapped in an emotionally-satisfying tale, and you've got yourself a five-star story in "Beyond the Banks of the River Seine". This one resonated in my mind for a long time afterward. I could see this being made into an indie movie by the same people who did the silent movie version of "Call of Cthulhu". It would definitely not work as a silent movie, per-se . . . well, maybe it would . . . hmm . . . interesting . . .

"Emotional Dues" is more hit than miss, but I thought that it slipped from its emotional footing at the end, favoring monster-horror, when it could have delivered a more compelling punch in the form of leveraged angst. Still the central conceit of the monster was interesting and "new," sort of a twist on Dorian Gray. Four stars, but just barely. Oh, and this is another one that would make a good silent movie. I think I'm sensing a pattern here. I wonder what Strantzas thinks of Nosferatu? He seems to stage some things in a theatrical way. Or maybe that's just my brain setting things up that way in my theater of the mind.

The titular story was as bizarre and horrifying as I like. Surreal and creepy. Though I found the protagonist annoying and narcissistic, I see why Strantzas made him so. This story was all the more horrific because I have a friend who was in a very nasty custody case who idealized his son in the same way Noah did in the story. Kinda hits home. This one also stuck with me, all five stars of it.

Overall, then, four stars, when each story is looked at individually. I felt, however, that the sum was greater than the parts. This really was an exceptional collection of short dark fiction with a weird bent to it. So I'm bumping it up to five. It looks like Dark Regions press has seen the genius, too and is doing a signed, limited, leather-bound edition. Hey, my birthday is next month. Anyone feeling generous?


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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Preamble

The beginning of a little RPG something I'm working on. I'm intentionally not giving context, so some things will remain unexplained for now. In time, all will be revealed. In time . . .

Your party looks out on the ruins of a city that once was, but no longer is, the same city you left behind, you think. There is a hint of familiarity to the twisted, atomically-charred remains of buildings and vehicles that surround you. At your feet is the bullet-hole-riddled corpse of one of the alien invaders. Its bug eyes stare out blankly from beneath the bloated brain. A serrated scimitar is grasped in its rigid hand. The half-buried remains of the flying saucer loom above, casting a shadow on the party and the body. It stands on-edge, as if cutting into the very Earth beneath.

Beyond the derelict spaceship, the girders of once-mighty buildings reach feebly for the sky with blackened skeletal fingers limned with the rust of ages. A few unfamiliar structures, which can be seen at a distance, remain at least partially intact. Twisted metal and strange, wild plants - some of enormous size - create patches of steel and leaf jungle, while other stretches remain free of everything but litter, crushed glass, and a few small weeds growing through cracks in the pavement, just as you remember them from your youth.

Some things never change.

Some things are of little consolation.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Experimental RPGing: Help, opinions, and insights needed! Part II

A continuation of an experimental piece I began in an earlier post. Thanks to those (especially of the G+ gaming community) that have offered encouragement and thanks to those who supplied me with a list of directors whose work might fit in this "ouvre". For those who were not privy to that initial conversation, I asked people to complete the following list with directors whose works closely match those already in the list:


  1. Brothers Quay
  2. Jan Svankmajer
  3. David Lynch
  4. ????
One obvious one I missed (and shouldn't have) is Guy Maddin. Two of the entries in this segment are stolen from influenced by his movies. Oh, and there's an item shanghaied wholesale from inspired by one of Don Hertzfeldt's brilliant short films, as well (see if you can spot it. Hint: it's red). Again, I am hoping to put together a system-agnostic, stats-free campaign . . . thingy . . . that DMs can use for their own dark purposes. I might throw it together into a loosely-organized world-book, I might not. Tempting. Sorely tempting. But I have other projects pressing right now.

At some point, I should name this thing, this project, book, whatever; though I've already determined that the world in which this is set will only be known as "This Place" by its inhabitants. But that seems like an awfully generic title for an RPG supplement.

Anyway, here we go again:

The Lurker in the Bell-tower (Denizen):

We all know it is there, but no one talks about it. No one even looks up, let alone raises hopes so high as to think we will ever escape. It will smother us with its bumpy, slick mass, rubbery buboes oozing a cold, acidic slime that sloughs skin from muscle, meat from bone. There is no escape. it sees all beneath it from the laced needle-spire of the bell-tower, a black dagger stabbing the sky. It will find us, smother us, consume us. Maybe it already has. 

Scale Mail (Item):

What little protection it does offer - the bony skull, the thin scales as proof against lesser weapons, the spined dorsal over shoulders and neck - is offset by the stench of fish. Still, the immense pale eyes, each the size of a dinner plate, have been known to dissuade would be attackers . . . or perhaps it was the army of cats that trailed behind the wearer.

The Blazing Chrome Sickle-Mantis Scorpion, aka "Scipio" (NPC):

She emerged from the sloughed-off frame of the now-ruined Flower Queen, slicing her way out in an explosion of petticoats and skirt hoops. She has not stopped cutting since. Yet there is no method to her madness. She is without motive, casually wandering, sickle-clawed arms and scything tail waving, flailing at . . . nothing in particular, but whatever may be in the way. Once, she spent five years scoring her way through a castle wall, night and day, battering herself against the stones, never thinking to turn to the left or to the right or to give up altogether. She is relentless, but completely without purpose, Most just avoid her. Thus, there is always a void around her.

The Heart of the World (Location):

You cannot imagine The Heart of the World as it pulsates beneath the skin of the Earth. It is bigger than you can possibly comprehend. Capillaries are mountain ranges, the aorta a continent. If the world was stripped of its skin and viewed from afar, The Heart of the World would appear smooth and glistening. But come in close and you'll see folds the size of entire countries, creases more vast than borders, caves bigger than the largest craters of the moon. But the fiercely-pumping heart is not alone. It crawls with phosphorescent life, of a sort, an infection of blind crawlers, climbers, and spelunkers that skitter across the pulsating bulbs and creases of The Heart of the World. Serpent-limbed moles, venomous glowing yellow sentient slimes, and armies of misshapen and inappropriately-named "star people" plague the ever-changing landscape. ?They are not overly fond of the residual photons carried in, however inadvertently, by outsiders.

Billy's Balloon (Item):

A red helium balloon possessed by an inimical spirit that delights in enticing young children to hold its string, then viciously attacking the child, buffeting the youngling's face with a a rubber staccato assault, trying to strangle the child with its string, then hoisting the hapless youth into the sky by an arm or leg, then dropping it to the ground. It often drops the child one to six times from ten to forty feat in the air, each time, then grows bored and flies off to find another plaything.

The Whispering Grove, the Screaming Oak(Location):

SILENCE! you that enter the Whispering Grove. Here, even the trees make no sound, save one. Their branches silently strain, leaves wave in the unheard breeze, letting mottled patches of milky skylight through, but all is dead quiet. You move your mouth to speak, but cannot. You rap your lantern with your knuckles, but no response. Then you shout at the top of your lungs . .  . and hear a whisper. Listen intently: there are others. You scream until your throat is raw and hear your words trail away, barely audible. 

You feel a hand on your shoulder and turn to see a stranger, also screaming, by her strained expression, her furrowed brows, her jaw agape. But her voice comes across a whispered sussuration, the sound that the trees' leaves should be making, but are not. In time, you both realize that it is your focused thoughts, not your physical voice, which whispers. Shouting forces singleness of thought. Thought here is sound. Any distraction strangles the thought, silences the words.

Then you hear more whispers, like wind through a wheat-field or the fading, dying wishes of the wounded in a blood-spattered sanatorium. There, a large clearing, and in the midst the thick trunk of a gargantuan gnarled oak, limbs as thick as a mammoth and acorns as large as a fist blocking out any hope of skylight. Around the base, figures lay prone, face-down in the crisp, stunted grass or sitting with their backs against the trunk, staring out at the Whispering Grove beyond the clearing.

Voices whisper, thousands-strong, far more than the score or so people present. They are coming from the tree itself.

You touch the tree and instantly recoil, clasping your hands over your now nearly-deafened ears. ?The howling, screeching of thousands in emotional agony echoes in your head. your hearing slowly returns and you recognize the whispered voices as those that invaded your quiet skull box when you touched the tree.

Do you dare touch it again?

And why, why are those others reaching out, yearning for, even resting against, intentionally touching the Screaming Oak's rough and scratchy bark, clinging to its roots?

Do you really want to know their secret desires?

Electra Chair (NPC):

Shockingly beautiful, short blond curls over navy-blue eyes under a wire-coiled metal cap above the face of innocence itself. She was pronounced dead so long ago that her crimes have all been forgotten, her death certificate worn to illegibility by time. Hers is a face to die for, the martyr's price too cheap to honor such transcendent beauty. Many men would die (and have died) for her. But they would not be blessed with her supernatural stamina. Something in that execution left her better, stronger. She was also shot-through with ambition and she works tirelessly (she has already awoken from the eternal sleep) to increase her influence in the criminal underworld, where she is a legend in her own (borrowed) time. She is possessed of a wicked intelligence, belied by the quirky expressions that suddenly seize her face, along with the sparks that shoot from her eyes and ears when she is seized by a stroke of genius. She still wears the burnt coverall and manacles (wrist, ankle, and neck) that she wore to her own execution. No one is quite sure why. It goes without saying that she possesses a sparkling personality, with which she lures in her lovers and directs her minions (all of whom can be readily identified by the lightning-bolt-shaped brand on their left wrist). One would surmise that she is electrifying behind closed doors, though none of her erstwhile lovers could tell you.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Experimental RPGing: Help, opinions, and insights needed!

Below are some experiments. I've just handwritten them and will type them into this post without editing. Here's what I'm wondering: Is this something you could actually use at the gaming table? Yes, they are descriptive and baroque (that's my schtick, I guess), but could you actually put these elements together and run a role-playing session with them? If not, how much in the way of stats and mechanics would you need? I want this to be completely system agnostic, allowing the judge to interpret the implementation of these . . . things . . . in whatever way seems right. So there is no "right" or "wrong" answer, I just need to know, could you, as a judge, take this and apply it at the table and run a game with it, applying mechanics as needed (and as implied, but not revealed outright, in the segments below). Granted, you'll have to put the pieces together to form some sort of arc or narrative motive. I'm not giving a story, just the pieces. I suppose it could be sandboxed, too. Can you make it work?

Note: I'm not asking you to do it, only asking if you can and if it would be worth your while.

I freely admit to be under the influence of the Brothers Quay, David Lynch, and Jan Svankmajer.

Here goes nothing:

King Leer (NPC):

A lecherous codger whose pinprick of a mind is focused on stripping and overpowering the meekest and most virtuous; a devotee to despoiling the purest of virgin minds and bodies, though incapable of physical consumation. Still, he is consumed with the notion of it all. An empty heart that seeks to empty hearts. His crown is bent, dented, and broken; his scepter is sullied (but which rod of lordly might?); robes ripped apart. He is a charlatan with a silver tongue, fast hands, and eyes that lie in wait to deceive. Money holds no charm for him, but hte lack of it in others does. His current queen hates him.

Sepia Lantern (Artifact/Object):

A porcelain lacework of pearlescent beauty gleams with a bright light, until lit. Enflamed, its ruddy brown glow casts those in its fitful shadows into a flickering series of mod-shifts. It can be doused, if one is in the right state of mind, and if the will provides a way.

How strong is your will this round? Enfeebled? Then how?


  1. Lust: for all at once. Jealous. Possessive. Violent.
  2. Despair: All-consuming, debilitating, unavoidable.
  3. Overjoy: Laughing, shouting for joy, maniacal. You don't need a reason. Reason has fled.
  4. Fear: Of everyone, of every shadow. They all want to hurt you. Scram or scream!
  5. Pride: You are so much better than every one of them. Tell them how!
  6. Jealousy: You need their attention. They cannot, they must not, turn their attention to another. Otherwise, they hate you.
  7. Petulence: You can't be told what to do. And you know they want you to do something, even if they aren't saying so. Rebel! Defy!
  8. Jollity: Everyone is joking. Life is a joke. Death is a joke. Everything is funny!
The Cloud Chamber (Location):

The most holy of holies; the wisp of the will; aether, ether, and the tendrils in-between. Nirvana or numbness? Apotheosis-inducing balm or the introduction of abject boredome?

Only the very wise may discern the shapes of the clouds and predict the winds. But only the very foolish trust in what they see. Mists of potential? Billowing possibility?

Or just one more illusion?

Ride the currents and witness the future. Or what you think it might be.

The Sympathetic Hare (NPC):

The Sympathetic Hare's ears have the wigglies! Or are those Delerium Tremens? The Sympathetic Hare is in tune with you, wants what is best for you. Until he doesn't. You always want him to be on your side, and he wants to be on your side . . . for a time. It's all dependent on your personality. When luck is on your side, he will be your most dependable listener - look at those wiggly ears! He'll help you to hear whatever you want to hear, then, he will tell you what to want to hear. Then, when your luck runs out, you will hear nothing for a stretch. You will want him back. You will yearn for him, crave his presence, but once he's gone, he won't come back. Eventually, you will hear for yourself again, but always with the distant sound of lucky feet thumping a hollow log, and the hollow log is your heart, ever beating in rhythm with the friend you will never, ever see again.

Occam's Razorio (Item):

Straitedge damascus steel with a baroque bone handle betraying its purpose: to betray. Cuts to the truth: physically, on its victim's neck; literally by the incontrovertible truth spoken by the victim about the wielder. The cutter is cut by revelatory truths that she may not want revealed. But Occam's Razorio never lies, and it doesn't care who is listening; only that an absolute truth - previously hidden to all but the wielder - is revealedto everyone not the wielder. The truth hurts.

The Sheet That Will Not Melt (Location):

Parched air over the rust mounds, and in the midst of the tinkling red hills, a blue eye, ice, cold to the touch and carven with curlicues of shaved ice under departed blades. There is no relief from the eye-crusting dryness, despite the  clear (so clear!) presence of water solid. No matter how you try, it cannot melt. Not a drop of it. And you are so thirsty. Beneath the surface, past skaters stare back: Those curious who stared too long at those curious who stared too long. How long is too long? The ignorant need not query. And the only danger is in asking. It is the intelligent found most foolish here; the inquisitive trapped by their own insatiable need to know: Who? Why? When? By what power?

The Butcher Bride (NPC):

Beauty incarnate, carniverous. Crinolene dress, corset, and cutting. Wields a makeup kit, a smooth voice, hazel eyes, and a pair of meat cleavers. She does not take kindly to those that bleed on her dress, hence its incarnadine flush and stiffness. She was once King Leer's queen, until the regicide. After his slaughter, but before his resurrection (and subsequent remarriage to another, then another, then . . .), she left him. On the rare occasion that he sees her, he shrinks. She does not see him. She only sees her unknowable motives. She only sees red.

The Confessional Booth (Artifact):

Here, lies are transparent, the truth a foregone conclusion. Half-truths and half-lies find the greatest possible reward. But the pale gray of twilight, the sickly indigo pre-dawn are both treacherous. Still, maybe, only maybe, but maybe!

Lies bind the tongue for days,
Truths blind the eyes as long,
The middle path of sullied candor:
  1. The tongue hath never been so large a member. Eat not, drink not, speak not: the healthier you are, the longer the tongue lives. You can spare it.
  2. I cannot hear near, but afar, so far afield that infant's breathing is as the sound of a a mighty rushing wind.
  3. I understand your speech, dear stranger, but my eyes are strangers to your words. Speak, I pray you, whatever language and I will hear. Write, and I shall not comprehend, not even my own script, for a fortnight.
  4. I see the unseeable, but to my own kind I am blind. Ethereal boundaries are drawn and known, material boundaries forgotten, for a day and a night.
  5. Silver have I none: All that I have is turned to gold, in truth.
  6. My half-truth giveth the weight of veracity to my next three lies.
_________________

If you dare venture further: Part II.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vol. 1

Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vol. 1Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a child back in the '70s, I couldn't get enough Doctor Strange. Steve Ditko's psychedelic dimensions, along with the restrained majesty of the doctor himself, enwrapped me in imaginary worlds that my child-mind had never even considered before. My life since then has been a series of attempts, through various means, to kick my perception of reality into other, more interesting realms, whether through writing, roleplaying, or (earlier in life) psychoactive substances. I gave up the drugs and alcohol a long, long time ago, but I admit to hanging upside down to get a different view of a place, or spinning around in circles until I'm dizzy, then watching the sky as my senses try to catch up again, to real-time. Yes, even now.

So I was hoping for the same thing, the same sense-reeling sweet confusion that had so effectively introduced me to meta-realities as a youth. But I forgot that when I entered the fray of understanding, in the early to mid-70s, Doctor Strange had been around for ten years already. The story, the character, and the comic had already evolved for ten years from the earliest works.

And those early stories really, really sucked.

It's only about halfway through this volume that Stan Lee does anything of substance, and even then it's a hackneyed, derivative work based on pulp sorcery fantasies of earlier decades, but without the nuance and panache of, say, Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance. That said, though the story is awful, the visuals, while restrained, at first, by the very nature of their setting, become something spectacular once we are introduced to the bizarre dimensions of Strange's enemies: Nightmare, Tiboro and The Dread Dormammu. Then we see what I remember: Alternate realities that have little to do with our own, which became a hallmark of subsequent appearances of Doctor Strange.

Now I think I need to read the later volumes and leave the origin story to the movies. I sincerely hope they can do a better job in that medium. I have high hopes!

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ritualized Magic in RPGs: Danger versus Reward

This is how I picture summoning magic: Dangerous, rewarding, and a lot like real work. I'd like to see more ritualized magic of this sort in gaming. DCC has a good outline of how such magic might be undertaken, but the Lamentations of the Flame Princess' spell, "Summon", most clearly signifies for me the possible consequences, intended or unintended, of such a risky practice. I'm from the old school of Howard and Leiber, where only the desperate or the insane practice magic and such rites can, and most likely will, go horribly wrong. It's a far cry from "I cast magic missile" . . . 

I'll admit that I like "gritty" settings better than "heroic" settings, but only if the gritty setting has a risk/reward differential where the stakes and consequences are potentially devastating and SUPERnatural: Succeed, and you win big, fail, and you fail utterly. I also prefer low-magic environments, for the most part (of course, there are exceptions I rather enjoy - give me a dose of old Arduin Grimoire once in a while, for an example of ridiculous high magic). Magic should be uncommon, if not rare, thus preserving its, well, magical nature. It shouldn't just be a cheap substitute for technology, in my humble, Luddite-esque opinion. I'm also a fan of making characters work for their bread, really puzzling things out and making them happen, thinking their way around issues and having to do some investigation, some study, and some investment to get around problems. Since magic is another way of bypassing problems, it should not be without cost. Mess with the laws of reality, and expect to be messed with, says I. What systems have you played in or game mastered that reflected the difficulty, cost (monetary or otherwise), and danger of ritualized magic like this? What did you like or dislike about the system itself?


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Unflattening

UnflatteningUnflattening by Nick Sousanis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sousanis' syncretic work, while not as paradigm-shifting as he likely hopes it will be, is still a fantastic example of what can be done with the comic/graphic form, which is sort of the whole point of the book: to point out the potential of the comic as philosophical map. It is a meta-example of itself, and it is very, very well done.

Here, text and image flows and flows intentionally, with both words and pictures pointing the way for readers - and see-ers - through a sometimes (and again, sometimes intentionally) meandering argument for the primacy of comics over mere texts. While much of the information is, or should be, covered in a college general education curriculum, Sousanis has a gentle, yet insistent way of directing one's eyes and thoughts along his pedagogical paths. I would love to see more involved texts constructed in this way, allowing the student to absorb the entirety of ideas through pictorial forms, then "crunching" the details through text. The two can work together, even in separate volumes.

This is not the most profound philosophical treatise I've read. Not by a long shot. But the arguments presented are "good enough". What's truly eye-opening here is the use of the graphic form as a sort of thought map. I can't think of another graphic novel that has done it better than this. When I read this book, I am inspired and want to leverage this carto-graphic technique, despite my meager skills as an artist. Well, that's what collaboration is for.

Anybody want to collaborate? I've got ideas; lots and lots of ideas. And I can draw on a napkin as well as the next guy. But don't ask me to draw on anything more permanent. I'm just not up for it.

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