Arts & Entertainment

Initiative

Castle Ravenloft
Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never played Dungeons & Dragons. I’d done a couple one-time-only sessions of other role-playing games, and I’d played a couple of the computer games that use the “official” rule set, but I’d never played through the real thing. That kind of puts you at a disadvantage when you work in games, when you have to smile and nod and pretend to understand when somebody’s talking about THAC0.

Over New Year’s Eve and then later, I was in a local game store, and I found myself strangely drawn to the shelf with the Castle Ravenloft board game. It’s like a gateway to the real Dungeons & Dragons game: you can get a simplified and streamlined dungeon crawl without having to set up characters, do all the prep work for the campaign, and get a big group of friends together.

Plus it comes with a whole bunch of figures, including a huge skeleton dragon monster thing. And it’s got my first-ever 20-sided die. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t factor into my buying the game.

(Incidentally, as soon as the cat saw the 20-sided die, he just went apeshit. He knocked it off the table, chased it all around the living room, kept rolling it over and over. I’ll never know if the cat was already a nerd when I got him from the shelter, or if I turned him into one).

The way the game works is that you choose a (pre-generated) character, pick some starting powers, and then lay down randomly-drawn tiles as your characters explore the dungeon. With each new tile, you draw cards that spawn horrible monsters that try to kill you, or random events that try to kill you. Each move makes more and more terrible stuff happen to you, until you finish whatever adventure you’re playing or you die.

It’s pretty tough. I can’t tell if I just needed to get used to how the game worked, or if I’m just too used to videogames that are obsessively balanced, but I got slaughtered the first couple of times I tried it out. In theory, any character you choose in WoW or Diablo is equally capable of finishing the game; in Castle Ravenloft, you’re doomed if you don’t have the cleric. We were finally able to beat the game with a party of three characters, and eventually, tonight, I managed to win solo.

I do realize it’s nothing like a real game of D&D, but occasionally I just get the urge to go through a dungeon and lob some magic missiles at skeletons. And there’s something undeniably appealing about the board game version that you can’t get from Neverwinter Nights and the like. Sometimes laying the cards out, moving the little dudes around, and rolling a die are more appealing than any number of particle effects.

There’s another board game called Wrath of Ashardalon that’s due out next month. I’m not sure how it’s different except that it comes with a big red dragon and presumably different “stories.” Hmm, I wonder if I’ve just hit upon the entire Dungeons & Dragons business model….

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Politics

Chicken and Waffling

holy_cow.jpgOver a year ago I wrote a post about a videogame being sold under the name of virulent homophobe Orson Scott Card, and why I thought an informal boycott of the game was justified. I thought it raised some pretty interesting questions, and a couple of interesting responses in addition to the predictable BS drive-by comments. In particular: where are the lines drawn? What constitutes making a stand, and what’s just a petty attempt to punish people for having different beliefs from you?

Lately, there’s been something of a campaign against Chick-fil-a restaurants because of the restaurant’s ties to groups that campaign against same-sex marriage. It’s been a question for years, how closely the restaurant and/or its founders are associated with the National Organization of Marriage and Focus on the Family, if they’re associated at all. Most recently, the issue was a contribution to an event by anti-gay marriage group called the Pennsylvania Family Institute, an association that Chick-fil-A finally responded to with a cover-your-ass PR video which, unfortunately, didn’t say much of anything.

But it’s always been a case of guilt by association. Providing free food for an event by this group, members of the board also being members of this other group, that sort of thing. The blog posts always start out with righteous fury, and then fizzle out once the link turns out to be tenuous at best.

Now the blog Good As You is insisting there’s a clear link between the restaurant and anti-gay rights groups, and they have an e-mail exchange that will prove all of Chick-fil-A’s apologists have been wrong! A-ha! Finally, a smoking gun! Another blog, change.org, picked up the story with the headline Yes, Chick-fil-A Says, We Explicitly Do Not Like Same-Sex Couples.

Except they don’t say that.

The actual situation is this: the restaurant chain has a charitable arm called the WinShape Foundation. One focus of WinShape is WinShape Marriage, which sponsors retreats and “adventures” for “enrichment” of relationships. The writer of the blog (presumably) sent an e-mail to WinShape asking if its programs were open to homosexual couples. The answer was that they are not, because “WinShape Retreat defines marriage from the Biblical standard as being between one man and one woman.”

Granted, “The Charitable Arm of Chick-fil-A Admits It Does Not Admit Same-Sex Couples to Its Marriage Enrichment Retreats” isn’t quite as shocking a headline as “Chick-fil-A Says We Do Not Like Same-Sex Couples,” and it’d be less likely to get people clamoring to sign up for your facebook petition. But even on the internet, don’t we have some kind of obligation to accuracy?

I have little doubt that the Cathys (the family that founded and still runs Chick-fil-A) are in opposition to same-sex marriage. They’re publicly religious, the restaurant has been closed on Sunday since its founding, and thousands of religious people in Georgia still believe that Christianity and homosexuality are incompatible. It wouldn’t even surprise me to learn that they’ve made personal donations to NOM or other anti-gay rights groups, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they voted for the same-sex marriage ban in Georgia.

But isn’t that their right? When we campaign for marriage equality, aren’t we campaigning for the right to believe things that other people may find abhorrent? Isn’t the entire campaign based on the principle that we all deserve equal freedoms as long as we don’t infringe on the rights of other people? Isn’t the promise that individuals will be free to choose for themselves what to believe, but the government can’t make such a distinction? That churches will remain free to hold ceremonies only for couples who hold their beliefs, just as they are now?

I couldn’t get married in a synagogue, because I’m not Jewish. And I couldn’t get married in most southern Baptist churches, because I’m gay. I don’t see that as grounds for activism. It doesn’t infringe on my rights until they start actively campaigning to deny me the right to marry. Being closed to me is not the same thing as being against me. And the restaurants are still not closed to me.

WinShape’s e-mail response, and their policy, may be enough grounds for some people to stage a boycott of Chick-fil-A. And that, of course, is their right. But it’s definitely not enough for me. In the case of the video game, Card didn’t just say that he doesn’t like homosexuals — he actively campaigns against gay marriage and in support of homosexual “rehabilitation.” Ties between Chick-fil-A and anti-gay rights activist groups are still a lot more tenuous.

If Good As You can present a genuine link between Chick-fil-A’s revenue and a group that campaigns against same-sex marriage, then I’ll be glad to join in a boycott. Until then, I resent their implication that anybody who’s not outraged by their accusations is being in denial, or somehow complicit with marriage bans. And I resent their continued practice of guilt-by-association, which just gives more fodder to the “slippery slope” arguments. I’m tired of people giving bigots and homophobes the opportunity to go on the defensive — to institute bans on equal rights while insisting they’re the ones whose freedom is being threatened.

No doubt I’ll be accused of making an exception just because I’m an unabashed fan of Chick-fil-A’s food, but I’ll just point out that they’re still impossible to get here in the Bay Area.

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Spectre Collie

Hate and Nudity

searchterms.pngI started writing this blog almost seven years ago, with the goals of improving my writing, reducing my tendency to write dissertations on message boards, and making sure the internet was aware of my favorite movies and television shows. In my wildest dreams, though, I never imagined it’d become the go-to spot for hate and the prurient interest.

Based on my search term results (pictured here), this post about Return to the Blue Lagoon has been hands-down (well, one hand, anyway) the most viewed entry on the site. Fair enough. I wrote it before I understood the concept of search engine optimization — not that I understand it now, but I know enough to recognize that I unwittingly hit on a perfect storm of page-view bait terms.

Less fortunate is that a post about Mad Men and one about my home state have attracted so much attention. I’d thought I was being fairly reasonable about both topics, but apparently many people on the internet have a lot of rage to work out in regards to the south and dramas about infidelity and advertising.

But it’s all worth it to check out my site stats today and see that somebody found my site just by opening up a browser and typing “I hate.” I really like the thought of Sinistar or Dr. Doom going on the web for his daily browsing ritual and indirectly learning a little bit more about Lost and videogames.

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Personal

Collective Chocolateness

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Tonight out of curiosity I bought my first jar of Nutella. I’m sure I’ve had it before in pastries or some such, but never had my own supply. It was never in the house while I was growing up, and I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before I visited San Francisco and its baffling abundance of crepe restaurants.

So let me see if I’ve got this right: at some point during World War II, some Italian guy decided to put cake frosting in a jar and sell it as something a reasonable person would eat for breakfast. And everybody in Europe said, “What the crap how come we didn’t think of this earlier?” All they had to do was take the picture of a big-ass chocolate cake off the jar, replace it with a picture of a sandwich, call it a “spread,” and then move it a couple of aisles over, next to the peanut butter.

They can even claim it’s part of a “balanced breakfast,” as long as everybody plays it cool and doesn’t ruin it for everyone by pointing out you’re giving kids chocolate cake icing for breakfast. They don’t even have to jump through the marketing hoops that Cookie Crisp had to go through.

My favorite concept from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and plenty of games inspired by them, is the idea that gods are actually created and powered by faith. I love the idea that if enough believe in something hard enough, it will actually become reality. And I love the idea that if you say “a hint of cocoa” enough times and talk about breakfast, people all over the world will smile and nod and absolve themselves of any guilt over eating the stuff.

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Movies

Two Dental Mirrors and a Bottle of Expectorant

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I don’t have a lot to say about True Grit other than that it’s more evidence that Joel and Ethan Coen are the greatest living filmmakers.

I don’t like it quite as much as Miller’s Crossing — I doubt that’d even be possible, since Miller’s Crossing was as close to a transformative experience I’ve ever had watching a movie — but the two films have a good bit in common.

They’re both filled with a love of dialogue: not just language, and not even the interplay of two interesting characters, but the energy that the heightened unreality of film dialogue makes as the words bounce around a scene. They both have moments of inexplicable eccentricity that spin the story out of complacent realism and back into fantasy.

They both have scenes that seem like the Coens are just showing off with their ability to handle drastic changes in tone — a straightforward bit of plot development, or even comedy, that quickly becomes absolutely horrific. And they both have images so striking it’s as if they’ve been seared into your mind, like an implanted memory — the most notable for me in True Grit was a patch of trees arched like the crumbling walls of a cathedral, with a dead body hanging from the highest branch.

The performances are all excellent to outstanding, even for the Coen Brothers, who routinely have everyone giving the best performances of their careers. The standout is Hailee Steinfeld who’s the real co-star of the film along with Jeff Bridges. She repeatedly tells characters that she’s fourteen years old, and I would’ve naturally assumed she was an actress in her mid-20s playing younger until I got back to IMDB and learned that she was thirteen when the movie was filmed.

I’ve got to confess that, much like my reaction to Miller’s Crossing, I’m not sure that I entirely get True Grit, assuming that there’s something to get in the first place. I’d seen a small bit of discussion about the epilogue online — some people complaining that it served no purpose, other people saying that it made the whole film. I can’t say I agree with either. Unless I’m missing some deeper meaning, the epilogue doesn’t really establish anything that isn’t already adequately said by the rest of the film. Of course I’m glad that no one says anything like, “It’s been you all along, Mattie Ross, who has True Grit,” but I still kind of wish I’d been able to reach some kind of epiphany that tied it all together.

I like Andrew O’Hehir’s review on Salon.com, even though I don’t entirely agree with it. He says that the Coens are formalists above all else, essentially that the Coens aren’t “saying” anything with True Grit other than “We’ve made a Western.” All the meaning is encapsulated by the genre itself.

That ignores the consistency and uniqueness of their body of work, not quite reducing them to parodists but implying that there’s nothing inherent to their films other than their references to other films. But apart from The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and parts of O Brother Where Art Thou?, their movies aren’t just homages or even interpretations. True Grit is a western only so much as Miller’s Crossing is a gangster movie: they’re primarily Coen Brothers movies, and they have more to say about the characters and the Coens’ individual outlook than they do about a genre or some self-reflexive ode to cinema. Even towards the end of the Western’s popularity, when all the films got more navel-gazing, it was rare to see one in which the most exciting moments weren’t shoot-outs or scenes on horseback, but two characters arguing with each other in a bedroom.

I have yet to read the original novel, so I can’t tell exactly how much of the dialogue and how many of the situations were invented in the Coens’ adaptation and how much were part of the original. If the new film is as faithful as the reports I’ve read make it sound, then I’m amazed that it’s taken the Coens this long to make an adaptation. Because it never feels like an adaptation, but a story written specifically for them to interpret. Seeing “an old one-eyed fat man” and a young girl confronted in the snow by a man in a bear suit offering to trade them a dead body from which he’d already removed the teeth — that seems perfectly “Coenesque.”

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