Quick update on the Tomb of Horrors 4E campaign I mentioned in my first blog. The party just got through the first half of the tomb, and now they’re figuring out how to open the secret door to the second, and far more dangerous, half. Some statistics:
Times party paralyzed with fear because DM drew a painstakingly intricate mosaic pattern on a map of a completely harmless hallway: 2
Sex changes: 1 (I had forgotten the classic D&D penchant for sex change curses; becoming a girl is apparently a fate worse than death)
Character Deaths: 0!
The character death part is a minor miracle. In the Perilous Hallway, the fighter and cleric, both dwarven, were on fire, unconscious and sliding toward an elemental vent while the goblin sorcerer and changeling psion struggled to pull them up by rope. Luckily storm sorcerers have a lot of attacks that blow targets around. No one can complain about an ally ripping you apart with a maelstrom if said maelstrom blows you out of the jaws of certain death.
Though it certainly could have, my 4E campaign did not inspire the title of this blog. I got to have a fatherly conversation I’d never prepared for with my stepson the other day. He’s an eight-year-old named Joseph, and I have a daughter nicknamed Kali arriving this Thanksgiving.
Joseph asked how Kali would be related to his biological dad’s wife. Earlier he had asked if Kali would go with him to his dad’s every other weekend, so I should have seen this question coming. But put on the spot, I answered that Kali wouldn’t be related to Joseph’s stepmom.
You see, I think logically. I use logic and data to justify my positions. It’s part of my introverted analytical nature. When Joseph followed up with “Why Not?”, I of course brought up biology, blood relations and marriage bonds, and how his stepmom had none of those connections to Kali.
However, Joseph is emotional. REALLY emotional. He insisted Kali was related through him to his dad’s family. At that point I got defensive (okay, sometimes I’m emotional too) and reiterated all the logical reasons that wasn’t true. We were probably within seconds of me drawing a Punnett Square.
Before I knew it Joseph was in tears, claiming that family could be by choice. Kali could CHOOSE to be related to his dad, stepmom and his whole paternal side, and nothing I said could stop that. Shocked by the strength of his reaction, I backed off and said he was right. People could choose to feel like others are part of their family, even without blood or marital relations. If she chose, Kali could consider Joseph’s dad and stepmom to be family.
I reacted the way I did because Kali is my daughter. I don’t have to – or WANT to – share Kali like I have to with Joseph. Joseph was uncertain about his place in the family. I know he worries about how that affects his standing with me and his mom, and I have to pay attention to that. Kali is my daughter, but Joseph is my son, even if the connection isn’t biology.
Well, that was a bit of a digression. Hopefully I haven’t lost you. So let’s get to talking about the WPN!
Friday Night Magic is one of the most popular programs the WPN offers. It is in my opinion our best named program; not only does the name tell you what it is, but when as well. You know that if you want to play Magic, you show up on Friday night at your local Core-level hobby store and voila. Magic!
However, many stores complain that it’s too competitive for new players. No matter how we position or tweak it, stores say the sharks show up to nab the promos and scare new players away. Some of this is a bad perception; FNM continues to be the program that generates the biggest influx of new players for stores, better even than Prereleases. Perceptions come to be perceptions for a reason, however.
We want all players, from new ones to those who’ve been playing for years, to have fun when they show up for Friday Night Magic. Here are some tips for you to make Friday the best night of the week for all levels of players.
First, if your store is Advanced level, you can take advantage of the double FNM events you get to speak to both crowds. Typically competitive players enjoy Standard-format FNM, while more casual players enjoy Limited. So run one of each format each Friday! That way, players can self-select which event they want to play in.
If you’re not Advanced level yet, you still have ways to cater to new players. You can alternate the formats from week to week as described above to have your FNMs speak to a different crowd. Also, you can make your own “amateur prize” for your FNM. However you identify an amateur FNM player in your store (someone that hasn’t won an FNM card before, for example), you can have a small booster award for the top amateur finishers. Awarding boosters to your casual players, even if they don’t win an FNM card, goes a long way to ensure that they’ll come back next week.
Another great suggestions is to have a free pizza party once a month for players that attend your FNM. Pizza is an inexpensive way to award players, and they love it. You can even take it a step further and make it a competition; tell your players that each FNM that gets over a certain attendance means that the next week's FNM is a pizza party. That will keep players coming back every week for pizza.
Anyone else have good suggestions for how to draw players of all types to your store’s FNM? We’d love to hear them!
Until next time, I’ll keep working on the WPN, and maybe I’ll have experiences to talk about that aren’t quite so weighty.
So a stock broker, a teacher, a video game designer and a Paizo kid walk into a bar….
Sorry, I’m at a bit of a loss to how one starts up a blog. First I guess I should tackle why you should read this in the first place. My name is Reid Schmadeka, and I’m the Corporate Programs Manager for Organized Play at Wizards of the Coast. That means I pretty much eat and breathe the Wizards Play Network while at work. The purpose of this blog is to give stores, organizers and players a peek at all the awesome stuff the WPN is doing. But every successful blog I know of talks about all kinds of things other than the things they’re supposed to talk about… to a frustrating degree at times. I go to your blog to find out about A Dance with Dragons, George, not football!
I’m the DM for a pretty interesting 4E group, so why not start there? Don’t worry, I do plan to include pertinent WPN information every time I post. But you will occasionally read diatribes on my latest D&D campaign, on what I cooked last night, on my latest novel submissions or my adventures in fatherhood.
The first line of this blog is true; the players in my twice-monthly 4E game are a stock broker, a middle school teacher, a video game designer for Warner Brothers and a high school friend who now works for Paizo. I hand-picked this group out of all the people I’ve played with over the years. My wife (who just won the “D&D Den Mother of the Year” award, as voted on by my group) has standards of hygiene, politeness and respectability that are not typical prerequisites for joining a D&D group.
I started the adventure with a skill challenge in a Skull City inn. I love skill challenges. I also love the game Mass Effect 2. I stole this challenge idea from one of the loyalty missions in ME2. To gain entrance to the Tomb, the party had to impress the Bleak Academy with its ability to resolve issues without resorting to violence. The party made perception checks to spot issues they could resolve, then needed two successes using two different skills to resolve each issue. They needed 10 total successes before five failures to succeed in the challenge. The key to a good skill challenge is asking for a broad array of skill opportunities so that every player can contribute. The party got their first eight successes using six different skills.
However, a one will ruin anyone’s day. Especially on a DC 19 endurance check from a character with a +17 endurance. Luckily, even an ultimately failed skill challenge is still fun to play, and got everyone quickly into character. Next time they will be storming the Bleak Academy gates, forcing their way into the Tomb.
To avoid a Martinian (yes, it’s a verb-ized author name AND a bad blog style!) move on my part, I better get into the purpose of this blog. That’s to talk about the WPN!
Our announcement on August 10th detailed a lot of changes to the WPN. One I’m particularly excited about is the change to Magic Game Day. I originally designed Game Day as an Advanced-level program that let players try out the new set in a global Standard event. But now we have made Game Day a Core-level offering, which more than doubles the potential stores that can run one. Woot! And now Game Day is a true celebration of the new set; the very format of Game Day changes with each expansion to showcase the new setting.
For the Scars of Mirrodin Game Day, players can build Standard decks affiliated with one of the factions in the set. If they are one of the top two decks in their faction, then they can win one of the coolest prizes we’ve ever given away: a preview card from their faction (there’s a different card for each one) from the February set, Mirrodin Besieged! That’s three whole months before the next set comes out.
Game Day will always be a Standard-format event, and players can participate with any Standard-legal deck they want. I really like that bit; player participation in the storyline part of the event is completely optional. If somebody doesn’t care whether Sorin Markov and Chandra break down and date, or when Jace is finally going to join Fall Out Boy, they don’t have to. But if players choose to affiliate, they have a chance to win a pretty awesome prize.
For our Advanced-level stores, we’ve also added the WPN Premium Tournament program. Our stores have seen players clamoring for big marquee events and have set up their own tournaments to fill that need. Some are running whole series of events feeding their big tournaments. The WPN is making an extra effort to recognize those events, calling them out in our tournament locator and giving enhanced K-value for the players!
Stores are already doing things like this on their own. To make the Premium Tournament program, we talked to organizers like Dequan Watson in Texas (early iterations of the program were internally named the “Dequan proposal”) and Pete Hoefling, and looked at series being driven by Steve Port and Tom Shea. We’re listening to our retail partners, and we’re adapting the WPN with you to make sure we serve your needs. The big Prerelease changes from a couple years ago were based on store feedback, and WPN Premium Tournaments are no different.
Hopefully you’ve found Community Property helpful, enlightening and maybe a bit entertaining. I don’t know how regularly I’ll have updates, but see this space for news on future WPN developments. Let’s get your game going!
A few weeks ago, I was asked to be part of the DM Hotline that Wizards set up for DMs with questions to call up and get answers. I was at first skeptical of 1) how successful the hotline itself would be (answer: surprisingly successful) and 2) how helpful I would be (answer: adequately, I think). By no stretch do I consider myself an expert DM. But I have GMed many adventures for many different systems, and have had my share of TPKs and hard player issues (most of which I can lay squarely at the feet of Red Hand of Doom - one of the best campaigns ever written, but damn is it lethal). Though there are many a DM who are just flat-out better than me, I can say that I've amassed enough experience that I do have some good, and probably some bad, advice.
The most common questions I got were regarding one of the coolest additions to the game that 4E brought: the skill challenge. Skill challenges are usable for almost any non-combat situation, and for many in-combat situations as well. They can represent solving a puzzle, negotiating a treaty, breaking out of captivity, evading capture, tracking a fugitive or disarming a trap. The possibilities are nearly endless. And it's that versatility that generates a lot of questions from DMs. It took having Chris Tulach run my playtest group through a skill challenge for me to really grok them. Unfortunately, most DMs will never get that kind of hands-on experience.
The questions I got on skill challenges came mainly in two flavors.
Flavor 1: My players are in a skill challenge, and I have a player that rocked his roleplaying for one of the tests. I gave him a +2 bonus for good roleplaying and everything, but he rolled a 1. What do I do?
Answer: First, the +2/-2 is the secret weapon of all DMs. I use it all the time. You do something good? +2. Have an advantage? +2. Do something stupid? -2. I use it to influence battles, as well, mainly to make them more cinematic; if the PCs are getting slaughtered, mysteriously all the baddies get a -2, or conversely a +2 if the PCs are smoking them.
But the +2/-2 doesn't always work, namely when the PCs roll badly. I picture it as the PC giving the equivalent of the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V, then rolling a one for the check. So here's how I handle that situation:
Don't make them roll.
That's right. If a PC does a stellar roleplaying job for a skill challenge check, they say exactly the right things and make exactly the right impassioned speech, leave the dice on the table. They already made their success. This gives the roleplayers their glory, and lets the non-roleplayers still cop out with a roll.
That was good roleplaying, but you rolled a 1. Your army deserts en masse. Sorry.
Flavor 2: I have a player in a skill challenge who is making checks and roleplaying, but the roleplaying and checks are not in character for his character. What do I do?
Answer: Ah, yes. The dreaded "I play an uncouth, illiterate barbarian but I roleplay as the master politico diplomatic savant when I need to" player. We've all had one of those.
These are harder to deal with, as I don't approve of giving them an auto-fail like I do an auto-success. The -2 rule is of course in effect here; despite his roll, he is, after all, an uncouth barbarian. And I would never let him get an auto-success if it's egregiously against character. I picture this as the barbarian visualizing his stirring speech in his head, but in the end it comes out "Ugh. Thog think you wrong. You be nice."
The guy still may roll a natural 20. Dice do that sometimes. (In fact, they do it 5% of the time.) Even an uncouth barbarian can sometimes string two diplomatic paragraphs together in the correct order without dropping too many conjunctions. But that PC is still going to have a -2 to the roll, and he can never get an auto-success. He should really stick to the checks he's good at, such as drinking the king under the table or the roast-behir-leg-eating contest at the feast afterward. Or maybe he could INTIMIDATE the king more effectively...
Hope this is helpful for you DMs out there. Next time, more of the greatest hits from the DM hotline!
Joseph heads bravely toward the castle ahead of him, Darby yipping in Spanish at his heels. He sees the ninja cat Li’l Buddy darting across the path ahead as he and Darby cross the drawbridge.
Two armored knights stand next to the closed doors. Their helmets obscure their faces.
“Excuse me,” Joseph says, “can I go inside?”
“You must be Joseph!” One of the knights says, his voice sounding like it comes from the bottom of a barrel. “Your mother is expecting you. Go on in!”
Joseph cheers and runs through the doors into the castle. Inside, he finds a beautiful gold and marble ballroom lit by stunning stained-glass windows. Two golden thrones are at the head of the room, and a crystal shard floats between the two. It glimmers with blue light, and there is a beautiful princess encased inside it. She wears a glittering tiara that holds back her blonde hair, and a light blue gown. Her ears are noticeably pointed. She looks frozen in time in the crystal.
In front of the crystal stands Heidi, Joseph’s mom.
“Mom!” Joseph cries out, and runs to her. Heidi catches him in her arms and hugs him tight.
“I’m glad you made it this far!” Heidi says. “The fairy princess here is held by magic spells that are hurting her. I could figure out the magic enough to give your pets voices, but I can’t free the princess without your help. I need you to visit the centaurs in the forest and the leprechaun in the mountains. One has the element of air, and the other the element of water. I need you to get those for me and bring them back.”
“The other two paths!” Joseph says. “I’ll be right back!”
Joseph leaves the castle and first goes left, down the path into the forest. He hears buzzing insects and running water, smells trees and ferns and damp earth, and quickly comes upon a clearing where stands a centaur.
Joseph needed some help here. He wasn’t sure what a centaur was, and had trouble visualizing it when I described it. Like an idiot, I’d forgotten that there had been centaurs in both Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. Once he realized that, things got a lot easier.
“I need the element of water from you!” Joseph announces boldly.
The centaur laughs. “And you may have it… if first you answer my riddle.” And the centaur recites it in a clear, deep voice:
“A boy your age named Samuel has to walk home through the rain. His clothes are soaked because he has no coat or umbrella or hat. But not a single hair on top of his head gets wet. How is this possible?”
Joseph groans in dismay at the riddle. Darby jumps eagerly next to him.
“Oh, yo se yo se!” The cockapoo says. “No tiene pelo!”
“In English!” Joseph begs again, with the same non-result, so gives up on listening to him.
Normally Darby is as dumb as a box of hammers. But as this serves also as Joseph’s crash course in Spanish, Darby could be a rocket scientist for all he would know.
“Maybe we can help,” Cleo’s voice says over the tin-can telephone. “Well, maybe I can help. Frass has no idea. Do you have any thoughts?”
“How is it possible! His clothes get soaked, but none of his hair gets wet!”
Maybe it is because he doesn’t have much hair.”
Joseph gasps, and screams, “I know, centaur! Because he’s bald!”
The centaur smiles and hands Joseph a vial of sparkling clear water.
I let the pets speak for precisely this reason. This way I can help Joseph along if he’s stumped. Later he manages to bypass even this help, but for awhile it works!
Then Joseph runs to the right-hand path that winds up a mountain. Flakes of snow drift down from the sky, and the trees become evergreens. He walks up to a small cottage at the summit and knocks on the door. A friendly Irish voice tells him to come in.
A leprechaun sits in a cushioned chair next to the fire. He’s wearing a green suit and green shoes and a green buckled hat, and is smoking a long pipe.
“What can I do for ye?” He asks cheerily. “Yer not after me lucky charms, are ye?”
Joseph laughs and says no. “I’m here for the element of air!”
“Ah, is that all? Well, I’ll give it to ye if ye can answer my riddle! What are the two things you can never have for breakfast?”
“Ice cream and chocolate!” Joseph says, without even thinking.
The leprechaun laughs. “Ye be new here, so I’ll give ye a second chance. Those are things ye aren’t supposed to eat for breakfast, but ye could if ye had permission. The two things I’m looking for are things ye can never eat for breakfast.”
This upsets Joseph, but he and the pets (with Darby, who is yelping the answer in Spanish the whole time) eventually hammer out the answer.
“Lunch and dinner! You can never have lunch or dinner for breakfast!”
The original riddle was what you can never have for dinner. But as Joseph knows quite well, you can often have breakfast for dinner.
“That’s right, me boy!” He takes out a vial and captures a gust of wind as it whirls from his chimney, then hands the vial to Joseph.
With both elements in hand, Joseph victoriously runs back to the castle. Heidi takes the vials and slides them into compartments in the ground below the crystal. Joseph feels… something… ripple through the air, and it looks like more life returns to the fairy princess. But she remains encased in crystal.
“Now I know what you need to do,” Heidi says. “I’ll watch over the princess here. You go back to the house and go down the tunnel. Find Reid. See if he knows what our next step is.”
Joseph agrees, hugs his mom again, and takes the chicken-drawn cart back to the stairs to the house. He takes a deep breath and heads down the mysterious hole dug into darkness beside the stairs.
My seven-year-old stepson Joseph and I have continued our storytelling and roleplaying adventures the last few nights. You can see the backstory and first session here. We’re both having a lot of fun with it; I didn’t begin with a firm plot in mind, but it has solidified the more I’ve thought about it during the most recent sessions. His ideas and choices have been innovative and oftentimes downright hilarious for us both. And Joseph begs me to continue each night, even after we reach the decision point at the nightly cliffhanger. An unexpected (and welcome!) side effect is that he now asks if it’s time to go to bed, sometimes an hour before bedtime, where in the past bedtime was a nightly struggle. That alone makes storytime worth it!
When we last left our hero, he had come home to find his mom and I mysteriously gone, but the pets talking! After a brief conversation with the newly-lingual pets, he had decided, rather than taking advantage of being unsupervised, he would go out and find his missing parents.
With Frass and Cleo at his heels, Joseph heads downstairs. Darby, our mentally challenged Cockapoo, is still bouncing at the bottom of the stairs.
“Joseph!” He cries with glee. “Vamanos! Tenemos que jugar! Por favor!”
More backstory. Darby is an idiot, as I have mentioned. Darby also speaks only in Spanish, even though no one in the house besides me speaks it (and I'm pretty rusty). He talks like a hyper Speedy Gonzalez. Joseph takes endless joy in trying to figure out what he’s saying.
Joseph groans. “Darby, you still only speak in Spanish?”
“Si! Si! Solamente en espanol!”
Joseph slaps his head and puts Darby in the cottage so the dog doesn’t get into any trouble. He goes to the Imac to try to find where I work when Cleo, wandering down the hall toward the office, says “What happened back here? Praise Buddha.”
Joseph looks back and sees mist curling along the floor out of the office door. He creeps up to the door and finds an astonishing site. To the left, a dark hole has been dug through the floor, tunneling into darkness. To the right, a marble staircase stretches up into a cloudy haze. Mist tumbles down the steps and spills out the office door.
“Wow,” Joseph says, then runs back to Darby in the cottage. “Darby! Did you hear whether my parents went up the stairs or down the hole?”
“Ambos!” Darby barks. "Usan ambos las escaleras y el tunel!"
"Can you say that in English?"
"Oh, si! En ingles! No hay problema. Ambos! Usan ambos!"
Joseph groans again, then says: “Ambos? Does that mean both?”
“Si, si! Ambos!”
I’m going to teach Joseph Spanish if it kills me, just through his interactions with Darby.
“They split up!” Joseph cries, then runs to his school bag. He leaves his lunch in there – he has a leftover apple and string cheese to eat – and puts in a bottle of water and the bowl of cat food. He slings it over his shoulder and dashes back to the office.
“Okay, Cleo, I want you to take Frass and go down the hole to see who’s down there,” he says. He takes the cat food out of the pack and gives it to Frass, who obediently starts head-butting it toward the hole. “I’m going to go up the stairs. Let me know if you find anything!”
Cleo frowns, as much as a cat can frown. “How are we supposed to communicate?”
Joseph thinks for a moment, then grabs the biggest ball of yarn his mom has from her craft supplies. With two soup cans he finds in the recycling, he fashions a tin-can telephone and gives one of the cans to Cleo. “I hope this will reach,” he says.
Cleo grumbles and wraps the yarn around her foot. “Do I have to take Frass with me? Or can I leave him down there?”
“I am General Rassa McFrassa!” Frass cries defiantly. “I am the leader!”
“But Joseph put me in charge, and I am clearly the more intelligent of-“
“I AM THE LAW!”
Frass considers this the end of the argument and continues pushing the food down the hole. Cleo growls and continues after him; Joseph hears the rhythmic clatter of the tin can as the two cats disappear into the darkness.
Hitching his pack up on his shoulders, he starts up the stairs toward the misty light ahead.
This is where we left off that night. I knew it was successful when Joseph begged me to continue; “You’re leaving me right on the very edge of the hugest cliff ever!” He begged me for just three more words, which I gave him: “You see the....” He cried out in anguish, but there was nothing else he could do. Like I said, father of the year right here.
We continued the next night.
The mist around Joseph thickens as he climbs. He can see nothing, hear nothing but his feet falling on the marble stairs under him. Then the mist clears, and he finds himself on a dirt road running through an idyllic forest, green and lush with birds singing and a clear blue sky above.In front of him waits a carriage with an older, portly gentleman asleep on the driver’s bench and hitched to a horse-sized…
The chicken pauses in his pecking at the ground to look at Joseph, give a loud “Bckack!”, and go back to pecking.
This sends Joseph into titters. He abandons his initial idea to cut the chicken open – not only does he have nothing to cut it with, but it looks like a real chickenand not ashe originally suspected some person wearing a chicken costume.
As he approaches the carriage, the driver snorts awake. He looks blearily at Joseph, and speaks to him in my own bastardized Irish/Scottish brogue:
“Is your name Joseph?”
Joseph grins and says he is. “How did you know?”
“Your mom told me to pick you up if you came here. Hop in!”
Joseph jumps in and the carriage begins rolling along, pulled by the massive chicken. At that moment, Darby bursts through the mist and hops into the carriage next to him.
“How did you get out of your cottage?” Joseph asks.
“Amigo Pequeno me solto!” Darby nods his head toward the forest. Joseph looks that way and sees the black form of L’il Buddy darting in and out of the trees. Darby smiles his big dopey smile.
“El es NINJA!”
Joseph then notices that the string still trails off into the mist from his can. He picks it up and asks if he’s pulling Cleo back.
“This is General Rassa McFrassa,” the answer comes back. “I am in charge!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Joseph says. “Am I pulling you?”
“Um, no,” Frass says hesitantly. “Cleo, um, well, she found something we’re, uh, following….”
There is the sound of a brief struggle, then Cleo’s voice comes on.
“Frass is too dumb. We are following a trail of blueberries. Praise Buddha.”
Joseph cheers, knowing blueberries are my favorite food. “Cleo, put the can down and stand away from it. This is going to be loud.”
“Okay,” Cleo says doubtfully. “It’s on the ground.”
“REID!” Joseph yells into the can, and hears it echo through the tunnels below.
“We have tried that,” Cleo answers. “But we’ll let you know when we find something.”
Then the carriage pulls to a halt at a crossroads. Three branches shoot off from the main road they are on. One leads into a thicker part of the forest; Joseph can hear the gurgling of water from that direction. Another leads up to the mountains, toward a cottage with smoke curling from the chimney. And the third leads to a Disneyland-style castle with towers and flags and a moat.
“I think I know which one mom would go to,” Joseph says. He hitches his bag higher on his shoulder, beckons for Darby to follow him, and with tin can phone in hand proceeds up the cobbled steps toward the castle.
Last night I began my first forays into roleplaying with my seven-year-old stepson Joseph. My blog for the next few, well, however long it takes will chart our adventures together and hopefully give some of you gamers with kids out there ideas on how to engage your own children.
I didn’t start Joseph out with anything hard-core. Heck, I didn’t even start out with D&D, which my fiancée might have taken exception to. There were no miniatures or dice or maps involved. There were no character sheets or stats. There weren’t even any rules. If anything, it bore more in similarity with a choose-your-own-adventure book (which I loved as a kid) than a standard roleplaying game.
Baby steps, baby steps. Build it, and the D&D will come.
So last night when I tucked Joseph in at 8:30 for bed, I sat down next to him and told him we were going to play a game. I’d tell him a story that he was going to star in, and he could interact however he wanted in the story. At the end of each night (about five minutes or so), he would be offered a major choice or have to make a major decision. He’d decide which he wanted to take, and we’d see the consequences… THE NEXT NIGHT! (Du-duh-DUH!)
The scenario began with the end of his day at school. Joseph goes outside and sees than neither his mom nor I are there to pick him up. He asks his teacher, Mrs. Nicholson, what he should do, and she offers to drive him home herself.
She drops him off at home – he didn’t say anything when she just left him there, very un-Mrs. Nicholson – and he goes inside. The door is unlocked, which is weird, and the house appears to be empty, which is even weirder. He calls for his mom and me, and his voice echoes unanswered through the house.
I had planned for him to try calling us on the phone to see where we were. He knows our phone numbers by heart. He didn’t think of that, so no dealing with that possible outcome. I chalk that omissionup to getting used to the game.
Our very adorable and very stupid Cockapoo Darby runs up and greets him, licking his face and yipping at his feet. However, our much smarter, much bigger Standard Poodle, Ella, is nowhere to be found.
Joseph also failed to ask why Darby was not in his cottage. We have to pen him up while we’re gone because Darby goes a little insane when left home alone. The only time I left Darby out by accident, he mauled my full-glove potholders for no clear reason. But Joseph didn’t ask about Darby being loose, either. It would have just been one more mysterious thing about the situation if he had.
Joseph heads upstairs to investigate the bedrooms. He peeks into the main bedroom, also empty of his parents, but our black Persian cat Cleo watches him from the cat tree, cleaning herself nonchalantly. He is about to leave when Cleo straightens up.
“What are you doing home?” She asks. “Have you gotten rid of those accursed dogs yet? Praise Buddha.”
A little backstory here. I have taken the liberty, in our daily life, to give our pets voices and personalities. Cleo talks like Apu from the Simpsons, and is endlessly disdainful of us all. It’s her house, and she lives for the day that the dogs are removed from her premises. She ends most statements with “Praise Buddha.”
Appropriately, Joseph’s eyes go as wide as dinner plates when the cat actually starts talking to him.
“Um, It’s 3:30,” Joseph says, very surprised his cat is addressing him in English, and with an Indian accent. “I get off school now. Where is mom and Reid?”
“I do not know. Hopefully getting rid of those heathen dogs. I have packed their bags, they are ready to go.”
At that moment, our black-and-white cat Frass rubs against Joseph’s leg. “Hey, what’s going on? That Cleo, she’s kind of annoying, huh?”
Frass – short for Rassafrassa, or what Yosemite Sam says when he gets mad – is colored like a cow and talks like Gilbert Gottfried. He is not the sharpest tack in the box; it’s a running debate whether Darby or Frass is dumber. However, Frass has occasional delusions he was in ‘Nam and that he’s General Rassa McFrassa.
Joseph thinks it’s old hat that the pets are talking to him now. He looks under the bed. “Where’s Li’l Buddy? Does he talk too?”
Li’l Buddy peers silently out of the shadows under the bed, remaining quiet and watching Joseph as he runs around the room.
“He doesn’t talk,” Cleo says. “He just hides under the bed all day.”
Li’l Buddy is our black medium-hair cat. He’s very shy and has never had a voice. Joseph has yet to find out about his silent – almost ninja-like, maybe? – qualities in this story.
Frass gets down to business, as Frass is wont to do. “Come on, Joseph, we have to find your parents! No one knows where they went?”
“No we don’t,” Cleo says coolly. “If they’re not here, we can do whatever we want. Besides letting the dogs out to play – I’ve told them how fun it is to play in the street – we can have as much dessert as we want! You can play Rock Band and Wii whenever you please. Let’s go play!”
Faced with this crucial choice, Joseph makes up his mind quickly. “We’ve gotta find my parents!”
Cleo harrumphs and starts cleaning herself, but Frass bounces beside him. “Great! Let’s get moving and find your parents!”
And thus ends installment one! Next time: Darby’s voice, and the weird portals in the office!
I was light on interaction and crucial decisions this first time. I figured it would take him a bit to get into things. The next sessions will have more interaction.
After I hugged him good-night, Joseph said “You knew I would pick to find you guys?”
I told him yes I did, because he’s a good son. I did assume that would be his choice, but I didn’t admit that I figured there was only about a sixty percent chance he’d look for us. He underestimates the power of having whatever dessert he wants, whenever he wants.
I’ll reinforce the consequences of that choice when he asks for dessert tonight. Because I’m father of the year.
Rating: Four bipedal mutating DNA insect aliens (out of five)
I held off on seeing District 9 at first. The trailer intrigued me right away. A documentary-style first contact movie about mysterious bug aliens with a ship parked over Johannesburg? Yes, it was inevitable I would eventually see it. The question was whether to see it in the theater for ten bucks, or wait and get it on Netflix. Was this a movie I really needed to see on the big screen?
Turns out the answer is a big yes.
District 9 is about a ship full of insect-like aliens whose ship parks over Johannesburg and stays there. For twenty years. The world governments fly up to the ship, find a bunch of aliens starving on board, and evacuate them to the surface, putting them in a slum called District 9. The aliens turn out to all be “worker aliens” who are quickly dubbed as stupid. Local humans abuse them for profit, try to steal their technology or simply want them gone. Humans start relocating the aliens to District 10 hundreds of miles away when one of the agents in charge of the relocation is infected with alien DNA and begins to transform.
Get off our lawn! This is your only warning.
I’ve already spent more time on the backstory than the movie itself does, which is a good thing. It’s a pretty unique set-up, all told. But even a unique set-up (maybe even especially a unique set-up) needs to follow up with good execution. Was District 9 able to execute?
First, the things I had problems with. The movie sticks to the documentary setup for only the first ten minutes or so, and it is jarring when it moves away from that. The camera work remains in documentary style, but the actual narrative phases in an out of being a documentary and being a movie (in other words, showing scenes that clearly no documentary crew could shoot). I know many viewers that saw no problem with this, but I found it distracting when the transitions happened.
I have a second (and bigger) problem with the movie, which I will illustrate in the following abbreviated translation of one of the movie plots. I’ve taken liberties with the story only in that I’ve changed the aliens into cows.
Human Agent (Bob): We must relocate the cows to a new farm, far away from here. They stink. And they’re just dumb cows.
Dumb Cow: Moo.
Smart Cow: Find pieces of our technology! All our technology has fluid with our DNA in it, because our technology is based on cow DNA and the fluid will power our ships so we can go home.
Bob: What is this mysterious cylinder with cow marking on itGAH! I just sprayed myself in the face with cow DNA by accident. And now my hand is a hoof.
Smart Cow: Oh, no. You’ll turn in to a cow now, because cow DNA will overwrite your own DNA and make you into a cow. The vector is conveniently by skin contact or inhalation. But never fear, if we get the cow DNA back, it’s also our rocket fuel and I can get to my ship and cure you.
There’s, uh, I mean, you have something in your eye.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve consumed a lot of DNA from other species. I have yet to transform into any of those species.
Okay, so those things irked my sensibilities some during this movie. But the items the movie does right far outweigh those concerns.
It was a stroke of genius to have the alien ship park over Johannesburg. Not Beijing or New York or London or Tokyo or Paris. Johannesburg. It’s one of the symbols of Aparteid and racism, and its slums are some of the worst examples of humanity’s civilization. Yet when the aliens show up, they are immediately treated to the same racism and xenophobia we’ve fought against for our entire existence. Everyone hates the aliens: whites, blacks, rich, poor, men, women, everyone. The strongest force that transcends the things that divide us is something even more different that we can turn our anger against.
Yeah, people keep calling me a mind flayer. That’s so racist.
The scariest part about this movie, though, is how much more likely it is that we’ll react like this – with fear and prejudice and xenophobia – in a first-contact situation than in any way previously depicted. We won’t be diplomatic. It won’t be clean or peaceful or intellectual. It will be emotional and visceral. It will be governed by fear, not understanding.
Even though I felt the transformation angle was weak, the actor Copley made it realistic and impactful. At first I thought he was way too annoying to pull it off. But the more you see him transform, both emotionally and physically, the more you feel for him. Copley does an excellent job connecting you with a guy that starts out completely unlikeable, but soon becomes a nexus for your sympathy.
In short, as the four out of five rating shows you, this movie is well worth seeing. Despite its flaws, it uses science fiction to show our own flaws, and takes a new and refreshing look at how humanity would deal with first contact. It’s worth your ten bucks to see.
I couldn't resist. First, I hate Jane Austen. Anything that makes fun of her gets automatic bonus points. Second, I love zombies. Third, something that combines those two things is by definition so cool it defies description.
It was the cover that grabbed me at Barnes and Noble, but I ultimately downloaded it instead to my Kindle. I heart my Kindle hard. Sure, I miss books sometimes - especially the smell, is that weird? - but the advantages of the Kindle far outweigh the sacrifices. I have numerous friends that have told me I'm killing the publishing industry by using an e-reader, but I love the thing. Where I used to lug around three or four books when traveling, I now have just my Kindle, with thousands of books available at the touch of a button.
Anyway, on to the book. P&P&Z had me at the first line:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
Take that, Austen. In want of a husband indeed!
I'll be doing a full Reid's Reads review when I'm done with the book. I was openly skeptical that the author could keep up the premise for an entire novel. But so far it's servicing all my zombie needs, which hasn't been done since I read World War Z.
It's true that zombies are currently the "it" subgenre. No, it's not sparkly vampires or hot-blooded werewolves, it's zombies. And I'm sure there is plenty of bad zombie material out there as a result. The only other "it" subgenre right now is Steampunk, which I saw plenty of floating around at Gen Con. (Dude, EVERYONE was wearing goggles this year, creepy.) In fact, probably the "double it" subgenre right now would be zombie steampunk. In double fact, it would be such the double it subgenre that I am confident it's already been done.
Anyhow, I'm off to finish my pillaging of Jane Austen. And so far I'm enjoying every minute of it.