December 4th, 2010


Our Jack. (101 & ½)

Slasher by White Wolf.

The isty-bitsy... where are you at?
Peek-a-boo! See you!

I don't think Geist: The Sin-Eaters really worked. Not from a story perspective & not from a sales prospective either, I'm guessing, since the first book meant to support it was rebranded as just plain "World of Darkness" & nothing further came out. Now-- I like Geist, but I had some serious problems with it. The powers were neat but not well-playtested enough, & not compliant with other games-- that was one thing. The biggest concern I had was...what the heck is a Geist? I mean, vampires-- check. Werewolves, check. Those are two big archetypes. Then White Wolf came out with Promethean: The Created, which was not only their Frankenstein's monster book, but also their mummy book, with an alchemy kicker? Bravo-- I really think that was the high point of the New World of Darkness. Heck, that was the moment when I decided to stop clinging to the d20 system & just start using a modified version of the World of Darkness. Geist didn't do enough to nab the Wraith: the Oblivion die-hard fans, & its mission statement wasn't entirely clear.

I think Slasher is a better book. I bring up Geist because I think the two could have been combined-- should have been combined. A "Geist" is a ghost that has gone beyond being just a mortal soul, that has become a big enough idea, through urban legend & what-not, to being something else, something more. The Sin-Eater is a person who, through a near-death experience, bonds with the geist. Bingo. So the soul could be like "The Old Man with a Hook Hand" or "Bloody Mary" & then you'd be bound to them. In Slasher you cut out the middle-man-- you are the Slasher; or more likely, you are posed as the Slasher's antagonist. Do you see how I think they could have been combined? Slashers are a cultural touchstone. Maybe they aren't quite to the vampire or werewolf level yet, but they are on their way, & they are real. Mixing that mythology up with some of the ideas in Geist might have worked. It is too hard to say, now, but these were my first thoughts when I read Slasher.

The book is pretty great. Again, branded just a World of Darkness book, when really it reads & feels like a Hunter: the Vigil sourcebook. That is fine; using marketing & branding to position your book is part of the game. Besides, there is no reason for people who aren't using Hunter to skip this book. It is full of ideas-- heck, I'm crawling with them. If in the old Oubliette campaign with toughlad, martak, Bernie & Gerd I had decided to use the World of Darkness rules? There would have been a ton of Slashers. The Beekeeper would have been a Mask-- that is such a perfect fit, Kaval Ants might have been an Avenger, the witches would have been Charmers & Geniuses. I've got new ideas for the current campaign, not least of all since Tracey defined her father as a cross between Bluebeard & Shahryar from One Thousand & One Nights. Heck, I've even got ideas on running a Castle Ravenloft classic monsters pastiche campaign with the World of Darkness, where Strahd is a Vampire: the Requiem bloodsucker, the hillsides are thick with gypsies & Werewolf: the Foresaken lycanthropes, where Strahd has a golem of flesh in his laboratory that is a Promethean: The Created Frankenstein, & where Igor is a Freak Slasher. Or! A retelling of the X-Files where instead of Mulder & Scully chasing their tales for season after season, there is an arc-- first season of skeptic Scully & spooky Mulder, second season where Scully changes her tune, & then third season where they join the VASCU-- the Vanguard Serial Crimes Unit, the FBI Hunter: The Vigil cell. Then in the fourth season maybe Mulder joins Task Force: VALKYRIE, becoming one of the Men in Black himself.

See? Rife with ideas. Lets talk nuts & bolts. There are ten types of Slashers here, & really they cover the gamut. If you look at in a different light? There are five types of Slashers, really-- the non-supernatural "Ripper" version, & then the supernatural "Scourge" version. You know, the way Jason Voorhees isn't even the killer in the first Friday the 13th film, but then in the second one is just a scary guy, but by the subsequent films is an unstoppable juggernaut? Yeah, you could have that without any struggle. Or how Hannibal Lecter sits in his cage, messing with Agent Starling's head? Right there. The rules are simple-- only a couple of tweaks set the Slasher apart from humanity. Maybe they are very subtle & mild, like the Avenger not loosing defense against multiple opponents; maybe they are more potent, like the Mask only taking one point of damage from any attack, no matter how nasty it might be. The only downside to the book for me personally is the crunch. I don't care about Hunter: The Vigil style tactics. I don't run my game that way, that rule heavy. No judgments, they just don't appeal to me. There also aren't any Dread Powers, which was a shame. The generic, stripped down power system is what I think all World of Darkness powers should be-- free, loose, adaptable. Still, the story in this book is strong. I think it is curious that it mostly focuses on them as "bad guys," given that...well, characters in Vampire kill far more than any petty serial killer or even the most vicious Slasher. Just funny how morals work; they aren't rational. Hence the superiority of ethics. Anyway.

White Wolf also electronically published the Vampire Translation Guide, which contains the rules for switching back & forth from Vampire: The Masquerade & Vampire: The Requiem. I've wanted this for a long time, & thought that this should have been a part of or sequel to Mirrors. I think that White Wolf has really shot themselves in the foot, here. They seem to be going forward with electronic publishing, & I feel like my concerns are being validated. The plus side of the Vampire Translation Guide is that it is only 99¢. The downside of it is that you get what you pay for. This is mostly just a brute force translation guide-- it boils down to "well, just re-imagine your character entirely." Thanks, I came up with that on my own. There are "conversion" rules for the various disciplines, but again, they are just some math adjusted rules. No mention of balance or a deeper rebuild of something like the very volatile Vicissitude. Part of the reason I like Vampire: The Requiem so much is because the rules make sense-- it is a well balanced game, Disciplines & all. Similarly, there are glaring holes-- no mention of the V:tR Khaibit & their Obtenebration in the discussion of V:tM Lasombra & their Obtenebration? This sort of stuff is what drives me nuts. The Vampire Translation Guide shouldn't be a fifty page download. It should be a glorious three hundred page hardcover in the green marble of Masquerade; it would have brought old fans & new fans out of the woodwork, & could have made tons of Storytellers very happy. Instead, we get what we pay for. I don't think author Matt McFarland did anything wrong, except not doing enough-- which really is on the publisher, not him. This should have been an event, & this should have happened five years ago. It isn't too late-- they could make it happen, tie it in to the release of the MMO.

Colour out of Space. (102)

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher.

Lord Blackblood, demon.
The Kahuna of Mirrors,
called the King in Red.

Well this book is wonderful. I'd been meaning to read it for ages-- I spotted it long ago & grabbed it, but somehow things just kept getting in the way. kingtycoon read it & recommended it to me, & I said "yeah!" because I had planned on read it, but still I put it off. Then in October I decided to read it in a mini book club with comeuppances, which was going swell-- I was about a third of the way through when NaNoWriMo struck. Finally that came to a close, & I finally finished reading Through the Language Glass this week. It was awesome-- I knew it was awesome when I started it, & it kept up the pace all the way through.

The book starts with some of the poetic anecdotes, such as Charles the V's statement that he spoke "Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to Men, & German to [his] horse," which are of course all bunk, but charming none the less (1). Deutscher throws off some kerfluffle about language instinct, Chomskyian universal grammar, which I still think it poppycock-- I still adhere to my pet theory linking language to the Great Leap Forward to behavioral modernity (6). I think language caused neural reorganization 50,000 years ago, so sue me; I also think that is we are going to quibble over definitions of culture, I should through my hat in the ring (8). Culture is any non-physical technology. I think that is a useful summary.

The first real movement of Through the Language Glass concerns colour. More to the point, it starts with a discussion of what the hell "wine-dark sea" means (31). The sea is most certainly not wine coloured, by any stretch of the imagination, so why does Homer say it is? Well, it took a soon-to-be Prime Minister Ewart Gladstone, who in his free time as a member of Parliament has been writing an epic 1,700 page study of Homer, & was generally active in the academic field even after his eventual retirement (26, 49). The best sort of fellow. What concerns us is a tucked away little chapter about "Homer's perception & use of color," where he discusses Homer famously calling the sea the colour of wine, & also the colour of violets, & also sheep & oxen the colour of violets...& iron...& calls honey green...(33). He summarizes Homer's use of colour thus: about 170 cases of "black," about 100 cases of "white," then "red" 13 times, "yellow" ten times, "violet" six times (35). Gladstone concludes that the Ancient Greeks were colour blind, & that humans didn't evolve the use of colour vision until after they invented the range of coloured dyes (39). This of course isn't the case, but it is a cute direction to go. & it sparks a whole chain of events, leading up to the modern day-- these experiments are on-going. Deutscher has an interesting analogy with food-cubes that really drives the point home (73).

Now, I'm really interested in this stuff; the divisions of colours, the over-lap & the spinning out of new ones. When I read The Ice-Shirt I gobbled up Vollmann's canny use of blue & black-- words that the old Norse didn't have. They considered the colours the same-- blue was just a very light black, or rather more likely black was just a very dark blue. The same thing holds for a lot of other languages-- there is a lovecraftian demon in my Oubliette setting that is colloquially called the Crimson King, but in digging deeper into his name with Tom it came up that the Avestan word "vohu-gaona" better sums it up. It means black, but also red-- it means, blood coloured. Well, literally it means "the good colour," & it means the black of blood. This isn't uncommon-- a lot of languages are this way with black & red (44). That stuff, I eat it up, as well as stuff like the drink Chartreuse giving its name to the colour chartreuse. So neat. Etymology at its pinnacle.

The book switches gears with a list of quotes on the "nothing new under the sun" cliche, starting with Ancient Sumeria, moving to Ancient Egypt, Ecclesiastes, & the end of the BCEs & the early CEs (78). They are pretty cute. Here the book actually moves into synthesis, on the redemption of early colour studies & the incorporation into modern research. That done, Deutscher goes on to slam a lot of the casual axioms of linguistics, like the sacred cow of "equal complexity." It is done in a way that holds a great deal of humor, while still hitting the point home. On a side note, there is a bit on plurals that makes me think of some neat writing tricks-- having a tribe of people that plural on the article, like French-- so instead of "the dogs" it would be "thes dog" (111). I thought it was a neat idea, what can I tell you; I think about things through the logic of my worldbuilding, like how the languages on one of the continent mirror Greek, Latin, & Sanskrit-- their relationship to classical studies is brought up by Deutscher, even if it is mostly colonialist bullshit (132).

Part two really gets into the idea of language influencing thought. Deutscher rightly condemns Sapir-Whorf adherants as "mystical philosophers, fantasists, & post-modern charlatans[,]" which is alright with me, as a fantasist (131). Still, he pulls out of that nose dive & salvages some of the ideas of relativity in language-- & calls it the Boas-Jakobson theory (150). Franz Boas is a hero of mine from my college days-- he's one of those anthropologists that you can point at & say "there is a guy who had it figured out." He busted racist rackets & set the tone for modern anthropology-- he isn't someone who you have to understand in the context of their position in history-- he is out of that context, he breaks the mold. In the next bit, Deutscher talks about the Guugu Yimithirr, the guys who don't use egocentric directions like "left" or "right" ever, but always describe things as "north" or "south" or so forth (157). I can't remember where I'd read about them before (maybe Adam's Tongue?), but they are interesting, & really do provide strong arguments for the Boas-Jakobson school of "what must be expressed." You know, I also never realized that the part of (Western) child development where they learn their left & right is also when they stop writing letters backward-- it makes sense (191).

Deutscher doesn't stop with colour & space; he moves on to gender-- as in kind, including male & female but also inanimate, or other odder categories (197). I didn't know about the wide gulf between the linguistic definition & the sociological one-- it was interesting to me, & the disclaimer was well noted. Speaking of gender, quickly-- I thought Deutscher was a woman while I was reading this. It wasn't until I was writing this review that I say "Guy" was his first name. Jenny has Deutschers in her family tree-- somehow that must have trickled in. I'm quite charmed by Mark Twain's "Tale of the Fishwife & Its Sad Fate," which is reproduced in full, though I can see Deutscher is charmed by gendered nouns (202). & did you know that serious sailing periodicals, like Lloyd's List, have stopped using the pronoun "she" for boats (208)? Shocking. All in all, it wraps up with Deustcher returning to colour, hitting home his point with the trifecta he's laid out. It sells it; I'll happily call myself a Boas-Jakobsonian. There is an appendix on the biology of the eye, which as one last thing mentions that the primate eye is speculated to have evolved the ability to see yellow in order to find fruit better (247). Angiosperms-- plants are having sex with you, all the time. Dang it.