Saying goodbye to Reading Rainbow

August 28, 2009

The news on the radio this morning told me that today is the final day for Reading Rainbow. This makes me incredibly sad. It is the 3rd longest running show on PBS, after only Sesame Street and Mister Rogers. I am only 3 years older than this show, so it has effectively been around for my entire life. I found myself spontaneously singing the theme song just this past weekend when I spotted a butterfly in the yard. In elementary school, when we were waiting for our parents to come pick us up, tapes of Reading Rainbow episodes were among the few approved things we could watch once outside time was over. (Episodes of Square One were also approved. Man, now I miss Mathnet.)

I loved Reading Rainbow. I loved the illustrations from the books. I loved hearing the new stories and seeing them present ones I’d already read. I loved Levar Burton and the strangeness of seeing him in both that show and Star Trek, which was, of course, another childhood television mainstay. But the show has been on for 26 years now, so I think I could more happily let it go, if it weren’t for this explanation of why the show is ending:

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My experience in the 2009 ICFP Programming Contest (part 1 of 2)

August 18, 2009

How hard of a problem could you solve in only three days? Who would you choose to help you do it?

The ICFP Programming Contest is an international programming competition organized in conjunction with the International Conference on Functional Programming, which is an annual academic conference about programming languages. Each year, teams from around the world compete in the ICFP contest to demonstrate the supremacy of their favorite programming language by solving a challenging problem over a 72-hour period.

The contest is organized by a different institution every time, typically a university, and the organizers work well in advance and sometimes take years to prepare the contest problem, which is kept secret until it’s time for the contest to begin. On the appointed day, which is usually a Friday in June or July, the organizers unveil an elaborate problem description on the Internet. When the problem is released — at a time that may be convenient or wildly inconvenient, depending on the difference between the organizers’ time zone and the time zone one’s team happens to be in — the teams go to work, using whatever tools they like to solve the task at hand. Past contests have challenged competitors to control a Mars rover that has to get to a home base while avoiding hostile aliens, design an ant colony capable of defending itself from invaders, and decode a string of letters resembling DNA (not coincidentally, the letters chosen for the bases were “I”, “C”, “F”, and “P”) and “resequence” it to draw a picture. The problems often include strange and hilarious twists, and the problem descriptions may be filled with in-jokes and cute asides.

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Ahoy There! An Excellent Swashbuckling RPG!

August 8, 2009
A fanciful new RPG from the people who brought us Spirit of the Century

A fanciful new RPG from the people who brought us Spirit of the Century

Opening Salvo

“Air pirates? AIR PIRATES!” I shouted with glee as I seized the Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies from the “Indie Press Role-Playing Games” section of my local comics/gaming store. Completely un-phased by the $30 I was about ready to fork over for a softcover, I ran to the cashier and exclaimed with elation: “You know you’ve finally got a tabletop RPG about air pirates?” He shot me a look back.
“Well, there was always Skyrealms of Jorune, Castle Falkenstein,” he said, tallying them on his fingers. “And we just got a new steampunk book in: Victoriana.” The wind still billowing my sails, I laid it down on the counter and said in my most gallant voice: “Avast! my good sir, for this one appears to be good.” And he took my money.

Preface

A few words of explanation are warranted before I dive into a thorough review of said book purchase.  First of all, why the heck was I looking for a book in the “Indie Press Role-Playing Games” section of the store anyway?  Well, it just so happens that I A) live in western Massachusetts, a kind of mini-Mecca for the budding independent role-playing game designer (give the proximity of New York and Boston and number of nerdly college grads in the area), and B) regularly run these people’s RPGs at local and national gaming conventions.  Having been a convention gamemaster (GM) for 16 years and counting, I’ve discovered that this is where all the action is happening these days. These games (by which I mean my Top 11: Primetime Adventures, InSpectres, Mist-Robed Gate, 1,001 Nights, Dread, Dogs in the Vineyard, Shock, Annalise, Misspent Youth, Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife, Shooting the Moon) are the best in system design, the most conscious of social exigencies involved in the role-playing hobby, and the most academically cross-referenced and critiqued.  Many are designed by women, and most by graduates of small liberal arts colleges.  All I have to say is: check them out.  They are the future.

Furthermore, I’d like to say for the record that I’m not really a pirates fan per se (otherwise I’d be reviewing 7th Sea here), but for some reason I really dig the idea of air pirates.  I attribute it to an unhealthy amount of Skies of Arcadia played and Last Exile viewed while I was in college, as well as a desperate urge to see a kind of Star Wars-style epic played out in skyships – as opposed to space in a galaxy far, far away controlled by an indifferent, bearded Lucas-man.

A Brief Summary

Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (S7S), written by Chad Underkoffler (whom I think I met at Dreamation 2008, and who wrote some great Unknown Armies supplements), is a game of fast-paced, swashbuckling action set in a world where islands float in a vast sky over a mysterious substance called the Blue.  Players create characters intended to accomplish great feats of derring-do and, without much ado, dive headlong into dangerous situations for a chance at eternal glory.  The system is designed on the Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) model, which is synonymous with quick task resolution and immediate character empowerment (as opposed to waiting sessions and sessions to become effective against the big, bad mega-villain, characters in S7S tend to be ready to take him on right out the gate).

It’s a Big Sky Out There

A full four chapters of this book are devoted to the dense setting of the 7 Skies, which ironically serves the primary purpose of catapulting characters into the action without bogging them down with too much back-story.  A kind of fantastical pseudo-18th Century world order is established among 6 primary sky islands and a plethora of secondary islands.  There are the intrigue-obsessed Barathi (more like 16th Century Italy under the Borges — noble houses and poison, etc.), the resolute Viridese (Nordic/Scandinavian-type folks), the passionate Colronan Royalty (France), their neighbors the aloof Colronan Zultanistas (Ottoman Turks), the cosmopolitan Crailese (think 19th Century New York with some religious nutjobs outside the city limits), the ascetic Sha Ka Ruq (a cross between the Congo and Japan — Orientalism meets Token Fetishism, but I digress), the rebellious Ilwuzi (a pirate isle in the Caribbean) and the lost island of Kroy (Atlantis… or Laputa).  Each nationality is basically an excuse to have a different flavor of sword-wielding badass, from a weapon-snapping, fur-wearing Viridese to a tough-talking, cutlass-bearing Ilwuzi and so forth.  Magic and skyships are smoothly integrated into a world system that is believable as a fantasy setting – Underkoffler did a great job of creating a world that’s basically one giant opportunity for adventure where one nevertheless knows what to expect in each port, so to speak.  Read enough of his Bibliography – with entries from Wu Ch’eng-en to Alexandre Dumas, from Neil Gaiman (Stardust, of course!) to Rafael Sabatini – and you will understand that the world exists to put crazily passionate people with swords at odds with each other in dangerous, exotic, and breathtakingly beautiful locales.

System, Shmystem

The PDQ system is also particularly well-executed in this book.  I played Spirit of the Century – another Evil Hat production and an RPG-geneaological predecessor to S7S that has you generate pulp characters who are starring in a number of cross-overs – and found it to be surprisingly difficult to master at first.  S7S, however, seems to have struck an enviably perfect balance between – using the terms of Ron Edwards’ Big Model theory – Setting Simulationism, Style Simulationism, and Narrativism.  “Whoa!” you say, reaching for your musket.  “Where’d all these landlubber ‘-isms’ blow into port from?”  In simpler terms, the game does a good job of A) giving players a deep and enriching established world to explore, B) allowing stylistic tropes from swashbuckling books/movies to become game mechanics (i.e., you can have your cape flapping in the wind give you game benefits), and C) encouraging creativity in the storytelling realm, as opposed to that of maximizing personal player power.  In S7S, if you succeed with your dice roll, you may narrate how you succeed.  If you fail, you get points toward giving your character an extra oomph in the future and can choose to narrate how they botched this job.  It allows for and encourages Princess Bride-style antics in the way that games like 7th Sea only vaguely dreamed about.

One of the nicer bits of the system is a comprehensive ship combat system that revolves around teamwork – a captain giving orders to a crew in the heat of battle – while preserving a dueling system that emphasizes the primacy of individual coolness.  Another is the Style Dice mechanic:  players get handed dice to use in their favor if the GM decides to screw them over rather nastily.  There is an economy established that notably resembles the narrative economy one witnesses in swashbuckling fiction.  All suffering becomes more pleasurable when the hero can take the sweeter reward in the end.

Why You Should Get This Game in Great Haste

Actually, you should be checking out all the RPGs I mentioned in my Preface:  they’re the games so many of us were waiting for as we hunkered down in our mediocre games of D&D and Shadowrun, waiting for some narrative control to be handed back to us.  Why you should go pick up a copy of S7S is simple:  few games are as accessible, intuitive and richly devoted to players’ creative well-being as this one.  Now I’m off to liberate a Crailese freighter of its most burdensome cargo!