Am I Blogging Now?

A blog about writing, reading, art, and history

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

Holiday Seasons

In general I manage to keep my stress levels down and just take it easy over the holidays. There are people who hate me for this. A couple simple gifts for my brothers, something a little nicer for my folks, and something for my godson and my holiday shopping is done. I don’t have to host any parties, though I do tend to go over to the folks’ and help clean for whatever parties they end up hosting (though I think it’s just the one this year, with Dad’s family). My brother and I tend to host a couple of my cousins for a few days out at our place, but about all this costs us is a little more food over those days. All around, the holidays aren’t cause of much concern for me.

(If it’s any consolation, I don’t expect it to last. One of these days I’ll find the right someone, settle down, and have a litter of screaming rug-rats. Which I’m sure will change my entire existence more than I can even begin to imagine. Weirder stuff has happened.)

I think it helps, too, that I’m not much of a partier in the first place. I’d rather hang out and talk with friends and family than hang out and drink. (I’ve never actually been drunk, to be honest, and seldom have more than two drinks. I’ve been a little buzzed on occasion when one of the two drinks was stronger than I expected. But I figure I make enough stupid, potentially disastrous mistakes when I’m sober that I don’t need any help from the alcohol.) I think the key reason I’m not a wild partier lies in that both sides of my family tend to hold fairly low-key parties. I say “low key” in the sense that no one gets stupidly drunk, no one’s property gets seriously damaged, and they are generally safe for the younger kids. This isn’t to say that they don’t get loud. My mom’s family in particular is quite large, and thus tends to feature a lot of noisy laughing, joking around, and storytelling.

I expect this year will be quite different on Dad’s side of the family. We lost Grandma Marilyn back in July, who, up until around five or six years ago hosted all of our Christmas parties. Grandpa Don still seems to be taking things in stride, but mostly this is because he is very good at keeping himself busy. I have to wonder just how different his first Christmas without her will be for him. I have to wonder how it will be for all of us.

Anyway, a joyous holiday season to everyone. For your viewing enjoyment, I give you Santa’s Dark Elves.

Kind of a whimsical picture I drew last Christmas.

Kind of a whimsical picture I drew last Christmas.


Tabletop Dungeon Crawl

I had the opportunity this past spring and summer to try out Dungeons and Dragons for the first time. My cousin invited my brother and me to join in a couple tabletop campaigns with him and three of his buddies. I played Neverwinter Nights I & II pretty extensively, as well as Icewind Dale II and one of the Baldur’s Gate games a little bit, so I felt I had a decent understanding of the game and it’s mechanics. Both campaigns used the D&D 3.5 rules, which I’m more used to through NWN II anyway. The campaigns were set up alternate weekends. My brother played a barbarian in the first and a dwarf fighter in the second. I played a rogue in the first and an archer in the second.

The first campaign was more story-driven. The characters were all sailors on a ship in a world where sailing is powered by magic. Clerics use divine spells to control the wind, thus propelling the boats. My rogue carried a rapier, but since I had little familiarity with how to set up the skill points, I ended up being fairly mediocre at my trade. In particular, as Spot and Listen checks are pretty much useless in games like Neverwinter Nights, I didn’t put any points into them. After suffering the embarrassment of constant failed checks, I put all of my points into Spot at next level and made hearing problems part of his character from there on out in the story. Our characters were quickly built and so not thoroughly researched or thought out. But it was fun. I got kudos from the more experienced gamers in the group by using a fishing net to catch an enemy with Greater Invisibility who’d been tearing us up pretty bad.

The second campaign had minimal plot or story, but was set up as an excuse to play around with level 20 characters. My brother built a dwarf fighter with a spiked chain as a weapon, who had the ability to ‘attack of opportunity’ enemies twice before they could reach him in melee combat. Mine was a combat sniper using a fighter, rather than the traditional ranger build. (It was kind of funny when I had to assure the party’s paladin that I was a combat sniper rather than an assassin. He admitted that it was an important distinction.) I gave my sniper all of the fighter-exclusive longbow and ranged-combat feats that I could find as well as feats to increase stealthiness and awareness. Interestingly, none of the more experienced players had ever experimented with a fighter-archer build. I think I created a certain respect for the build when I wiped out a third of a group of mid-level NPCs in the surprise round.

Both campaigns broke up after a little over five months, due to my cousin needing to get ready for his upcoming wedding and personnel conflicts between a couple of the other players. It was fun, though, and I’d do it again given the opportunity. The strategy in character builds as well as the combat held the most appeal for both my brother and me. I think my brother’s only real issue was the role-playing aspect of it. I think he felt silly trying to get into character. Having had experience in drama and theater, however, I had a lot more fun getting into my character—even adopting a pseudo-Aussie accent for my sniper.

(I’ve looked at some of the rules to D&D 4.0, and I honestly didn’t like it. The combat in particular fees like it caters too much to MMO fans in how it breaks classes down into tank, support, and damage rolls. A: I feel like this limits the scope of how battles can and should function. B: Not having one or more of these rolls filled shouldn’t cripple your ability to function as a party.)

Misrepresented History

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

I had someone ask me what it felt like, since I’d turned 30, to know that I’ve officially lived longer than the majority of people from the middle ages. I this struck me as funny since technically I did that when I turned two years old. The statistic that 30 was the average age prior to the Renaissance is probably the most misrepresented stat ever. Technically speaking, the statistic is true, but what it doesn’t take into account is the massive infant mortality rate during ancient times through the middle ages. When as much as two-thirds of a population dies before they get to be even two years old, it tends to skew the bell curve significantly. Just do a quick Google search on any number of medieval or ancient historical figures. Charlemagne and Augustus Caesar lived into their seventies, Alexander the Great died in his thirties, and every text ever written about him assures us that he died young.

A lot of people don’t seem to catch on to that discrepancy.

A better example is the belief that vikings had horns on their helmets. (Because that was such a practical accessory.) I’m not sure where the misrepresentation originated, but I know that it was popularized by Wagnerian operas. (Not that I place any of the blame on Wagner.) And movie producers of the twentieth century grabbed onto this idea and ran with it. I recall one god-awful b/w movie where the viking men get captured by some sorcerer and the viking women have to go rescue them. Not only did the vikes have the lame, horned helms, they were played by a bunch of pretty boys with no facial or chest hair. (I want to say that I saw the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys riff on it.) The trouble was that horns, antlers, wings, etc were a stupid addition to a helmet—useless accessories that would have given their foe leverage to knock off or pull off their helmet. I once made the argument that the most aesthetically accurate portrayal of the vikings might actually be the Riders of Rohan in Two Towers. (A friend of mine argued 13th Warrior, but I haven’t seen it to know if he was being sarcastic or not.)

Another historical misrepresentation that bugs me here in the States is the assumption that the way the Redcoats fought during the American Revolution was obsolete way to fight, that the Brits essentially lost due to incompetence and tactical sterility. The example I think of is Bill Cosby’s standup bit about the coin toss at the beginning of every war, where the colonials win the toss and tell the Brits that they have to “wear bright red and march in a straight line.” What our history courses in this country don’t seem to cover is the fact that the British took over almost half the world using these same tactics, and continued to do so long after their defeat by the colonies. Their formations and command structure were based directly on those perfected by the Romans and then applied to mass-fire situations. And it worked amazingly well, turning battalions of men into walls of concentrated musket fire.

Or the myth that Christopher Columbus had to convince the King and Queen of Spain that the world was round in order to get funding for his expedition to the new world. I remember in grade school being taught that prior to Columbus’s day, pretty much everyone believed the world was flat. This is really kind of a stupid belief because the Earth’s spherical nature gets proven every time a ship sails over the horizon. Ancient and Medieval people may not have been as advanced in some ways as those of Columbus’s time, but they weren’t so stupid as to have not noticed. The discrepancy was actually over how big the world was, not over how it was shaped. The model Columbus was going off of actually measured the world at significantly smaller than it’s actual size. I’ve done research on peoples from many eras of history from many parts of the world; the only ones who I know for certain actually believed the world was flat was Medieval Christian Europe.

One of the things that interests me most about historical studies is how fluid our understanding of it is. New discoveries are constantly being made that change our perceptions of the past. New evidence pops up to discredit long-held beliefs—or to revive beliefs that had long been considered disproven.

Anyway, here is a Youtube video someone showed me while I was working on this that covers a couple of these pet peeves and then some:

Recommended Reading:
Patriots: the Men who Started the American Revolution by A.J. Langguth

Character creation, part 1: Luka

So, I’m going to toss this out there and see what kind of feedback and interest I get. The working title of the novel I submitted for NaNoWriMo is First Empress. It’s a fantasy novel that takes place in a Bronze Age world. Queen Viarraluca Tolles (Luka), the title character, has been kind of an interesting challenge to write. I’ve essentially tried to combine qualities from every great leader and ruler I’ve ever studied. I like to think there’s a bit of both Julius and Augustus Caesar, as well as Philip and Alexander of Macedon. Figures like Pericles, Xenophon, Charlemagne, Trajan, Marius, and Constantine are others I tried to pay attention to. But I think most of all I tried to combine traits of various strong, women leaders, notably Theodora I, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, and maybe a little of Queen Victoria.

I paid particular attention to Caesar, Alexander, Marius, and Joan’s respective abilities to gain unwavering loyalty from their soldiers and lieutenants. In all four cases, I believe the biggest factor was their willingness to pass themselves off as common soldiers. Their willingness to share in the same trials and dangers as the men fighting for them. In the following excerpt from my current draft of chapter 1, told from the point of view of one of the yeoman archers, her majesty shoots a quiver of arrows at the practice range, allowing her to fraternize with the foot archers. The scene occurs while the queen’s island city-state is preparing for an upcoming invasion by a hostile foreign power.

Berran had never seen her in the flesh, but the famous copper hair and jade eyes identified the approaching woman as Queen Viarraluca. She wore an archer’s linen cuirass and bracers and carried a standard-issue short bow. She had a full quiver slung over her right shoulder and a short sword on her right hip. The queen was flanked by a pair of handmaidens of some sort. Both were rather skinny, the one on her right looked to be late teens while the girl on her left was eleven or twelve. The handmaidens wore long dresses but carried short swords on their belts.

“As you were, archers,” the queen announced. The other groups of archers slowly returned to their practice and conversation. “May I join your group, yeomen?” the queen asked as she approached Berran and his colleagues.

“I… by all means, your majesty,” Berran answered, bowing.

The queen drew and notched an arrow. “Call it,” she requested.

“Ah… heart,” one of the other archers suggested.

Thwack, the bronze-tipped arrow struck where the dummy’s heart should be. Someone whistled and several archers clapped.

Once their group had each taken their turns, the queen notched and aimed another arrow. “Call it,” she said again.

“Head shot,” Berran said.

Thwack, the arrow pierced the dummy’s forehead. “Higher than I wanted,” they heard the queen mutter.

“Call it,” her majesty said when her turn came around again.

“Nuts!” the younger handmaiden piped up.

Thwack, every man watching winced as the arrow hit where the dummy’s testicles should be.

Some of the archers not practicing started to gather around as the queen continued taking calls. Berran heard a few bets being taken.

She’d hit her mark eleven times in a row when someone called “left elbow.” A handful of bystanders chuckled at the joke, given that the dummy’s entire left arm was covered by its shield.

Unperturbed, her majesty studied the target for a moment. She took two steps to the right, aimed, and let fly. The shot looked like a clean miss, going low and to the dummy’s left. The arrow ricocheted off a rock behind the target and bounced back to strike the dummy’s left elbow from behind.

A number of laughs and a round of applause went up at the queen’s impossible shot. “Is that legal?” Berran heard Temmis mutter.

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