Thursday, January 27, 2011

DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS

The great thing about Dungeons and Dragons is that it's not just a game, it's a lifestyle. To really commit, you gather a shelf of source books and bags of dice that look like gems and/or candy. You have trays of tiny monsters and painted miniatures, and maps that spread out across a kitchen table, which then get saved in tattered stacks into perpetuity. You speak a new language with other gamers. Phrases like "critical hit", "marching order" and "save versus death magic" all become coded references you share with a select few. Names like "Mordencainan", "Vecna", and "Bigby" bring to mind important historical figures, looming larger than many past presidents (and let's be honest, Garl Glittergold is much more interesting than Millard Fillmore).

The books that guide you into this other world are evocative and exciting; the Fiend Folio, the Tome of Magic, The Manual of the Planes. Creatures with strange names (like Beholders, and Drow) have entirely new biologies and cultures to discover. Arcane rules and complicated charts guide you. You know that this is a Special Game because it has it's own dice. Unlike Monopoly* or Sorry**, you can't just use plain old six-sided dice (or "chance cubes", as George Lucas calls them). You need a new variety of polyhedrons that have to be tracked down in specialty stores, often hidden under sales-counters like pornography. The term "D12" has meaning now. You only use that dice for one thing***, but still you will need it.

Dungeons and Dragons is a Fantasy Role-Playing game, which means that you will want to be a fantasy fiction fan to truly appreciate it. That is a world unto itself, that should be explored even before the first character sheet is scribbled on with the requisite number 2 pencil. Where and when the standard, modern fantasy tropes began is hard to pin down. Folklore, Nothern European mythology, and fairy tales all played a part, and the idea of supernatural, humanoid creatures like dwarves and elves likely threads back to our earliest stories as a race with a shared narrative. Dragons and heroic quests and magic are concepts that exist in every culture, but the current and typified genre we call "fantasy", and corral into a ghetto on the bookstore shelves, probably begins in earnest with an amateur boxer named Robert Howard, and was codified by Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He is, as they say, the line of division.

There was certainly fantasy fiction before these fellows, but the common signifiers we know today all came together in the pages of CONAN and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The ideas of a medieval world where magic lives alongside armored cavaliers on horseback, and hooded rangers fight goblins in dark forests, are not new. These existed in folklore, but the wholesale packaging of them in literature, with maps of fictional worlds and histories that could be memorized and studied, came to us in the last century. Wagner updated the Ring Cycles of the Vikings, but he was just retelling existing myths. Howard and Tolkien were creating their own mythology, and this is the key difference.

Dungeons and Dragons started as a supplement to a tabletop strategy game, created on the fly by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. The initial game was historical in nature, but when they decided to add a fantasy element, the lure of Middle-earth stared at them like Sauron's eye. Dungeons and Dragons owes almost everything to Tolkien, and even in the earliest days of its creation this influence was worn right on the sleeve. "Halflings" are a non-copyrighted version of Hobbits, and the versions of Elves, dwarves, and orcs the game presents us with are straight out of Numenor. But where Dungeons and Dragons becomes genius is the next step. It adds more. It adds Lovecraft. It adds Howard and his world of Barbarians and thieves. It adds Fritz Leiber, throws in some Lord Dunsany, and peppers it all with liberal doses of Arthur myths, history, Jack Vance, and Robin Hood. Thorin Oakenshield joins Kull the Conqueror to destroy Shoggoths alongside a yeoman fighting the French at Agincourt. Then it gets even crazier, as Gary Gygax starts to make shit up.

Many of the early monsters in D&D were simply weird things Gygax created because he had small toys that looked funky, and needed names. There is no "rust monster" in the Prose Edda. It came from a vending machine full of cheap Japanese toys. A whole universe of monsters, gods, spells, and races came to exist on the whims of Gary Gygax trying to come up with new ways to kill the characters of his players. And now they are memorized by the devoted few who worship at the altar of Greyhawk.

Everyone who has ever played Dungeons and Dragons has a character with a history as rich and as amazing as any from fiction. Usually more than one. Every time they sit down to roll dice, there is an epic about to take place. I have a character that has been around since I was fifteen. I have known him longer than most of my friends. He his older than my niece. I know his history, his dreams, his wants, and his tragedies. When he goes on an adventure, his life gets richer, and I am there for it. On paper, he's just an elf archer with a silly name****, but in a larger sense, he is a connection to that first gaming table I sat at, one I got to by bumming a ride with my buddy Tommy because I was too young to drive. I created him while drawing next to Tony, and trading sketches. (Both of those guys also work in comics, proving something, although I'm not sure what.) This elf was there while I was bonding with people I am still friends with today, shooting monsters with a magic bow while we laughed and ate junk food and quoted BEASTMASTER.

Dungeons and Dragons, for all the stereotypes and jokes about nerds in basements, is a social activity. It encourages creativity and puts you eyeball deep in a mix of clever problem-solving and the luck of the dice. It brings people together, and requires genuine interaction and shared experience. The variety of people that play runs the gamut from truly awful geeks to perfectly cool and normal people. All ages and backgrounds can sit down and be equals. Everyone is the same at the wrong end of an ogre's axe.



This ridiculous game has given me escape, entertainment, chances to create, and friends I would not have known otherwise. It has introduced me to fiction I would not have found, and taught me the difference between a "geas" and a "guisarme". Most importantly, it let me roll the dice while Tarkas Polo and his magic bastard sword Gutcleaver killed a Red Dragon in the mountains of Taltosia. That is awesome.



* a game for jerks
** a game for stupids
*** Barbarian hit points. Respect.
**** Ruprecht Redwine. Don't judge.

Extra Credit: Patton Oswalt's amazing new book ZOMBIE SPACESHIP WASTELAND has an essay on D&D. Here is an excerpt.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

SUN DROP



I assume that most people's childhoods were fueled with chocolate milk, or Tang, or those little plastic barrels with the foil tops filled with grody sugar water. Not mine; I have no nostalgia for these things.

The flavor that takes me back to the days of yore is a regional poison that looks like Mountain Dew and tastes like heaven. Anyone from middle Tennessee, north Alabama, and parts of western North Carolina will know the nectar of which I speak. In these areas, it flows like salt water in the mighty Pacific. It is called Sun Drop, and it tastes like lemon pie baked in a lime cake covered with cane sugar pudding.*

There were many legends and rumors about the soft drink known as Sun Drop. We heard that it had more caffeine than eight cups of coffee,** and it was said that Sun Drop was illegal in most states because of the obscene and criminal amounts of that same devil-stimulant. Sun Drop had been around since my parents were young, and it was unique at one point for having bits of pulp floating in it, like real fruit juice. Those were long gone by the time I was in High School, and knowing that they got rid of them makes me wonder what they were, and also afraid to find out.

Our addiction was such that a good deal of our social time was spent simply getting a fix, or on a "Sun Drop run". Back and forth to gas station convenience stores for translucent green 20 ounce bottles. We needed that stuff. It was common for the floorboards of our cars to be ankle deep in empty Sun Drop bottles. This was a thing that we were accustomed to, despite the low breeding of having a filthy automobile. We forgave Sun Drop bottles. It fueled marathon Dungeons and Dragons games and was mixed with vodka (or moonshine) in more insane party binges. It was in our blood. Probably literally.

They say that antifreeze is dangerous because it is terribly poisonous but also terribly delicious. A domesticated animal will lap up that horrible stuff because it tastes so wonderful. This is the curse of Sun Drop; it tastes as good as anything ever bottled by the white devil's machines, but as far as sodas go, it is as close to arsenic as you can get. In retrospect, it's a miracle I'm not chubbier than I am. In fact, its a miracle I'm not downright obese, moving slowly down the sidewalk in a rascal scooter and wearing jeans with elastic at the waist. The amount of sugar I ingested from Sun Drop alone, from birth to age 18, was probably something along the lines of several wheelbarrows-full. If the world was fair, and metabolisms were even-stevens, everyone in "Sun Drop country" would be living with adult-onset diabetes by age fifteen, as opposed to the forty percent or so that it strikes currently.

Yet for all the cane sugar and caffeine and artificial food coloring and other assorted toxins and lab-rat killing chemicals, there is nothing I crave like a Sun Drop when I get off the plane in god's country, middle Tennessee. It is displayed in coolers in solid rows, glowing green in a neon ziggurat like the front doors of Emerald City. You see that display, and all the folly of youth races back into the reptile part of your brain. The craving begins. That sweet, syrupy, fake citrus calls to you like a carbonated siren song. You walk slowly under the fluorescent lights, past the corn-nuts and pork rinds, ignoring the beer coozies and NASCAR ball caps. Despite watching your diet and spending hours at the gym, that nasty stuff has triggered something in you, like the Manchurian Candidate. You are powerless.

Everyone I know that has emigrated out of that particular stretch of the southern United States harbors a deep-seated longing for Sun Drop. Cases shipped from home are treated like fine wine, broken out only on special occasions. It seems people still in the south take Sun Drop for granted. They laugh at the desperation with which we expats chug our first bottle, after being away for months at a time. But when you ask, "I'm getting a sun drop... Do you want one?", they will always, always, always respond with a thirsty "yessss".

Because Sun Drop is awesome.


* does such a thing exist? It should.
** why eight? That's kind of an arbitrary figure for a weird rumor...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

COLLECTING THINGS



My friend Garry, as a teenager, had a bedroom decorated with gas masks. I'm not sure how that particular assortment began, but for whatever reason, by the time he graduated High School, he had gas masks from every major conflict since WWI, from several nations and armies.

My brother had a bunch of vintage bottles he had dug out of the dirt in various woods, and my dad had a cedar chest full of pocketknives. Other folks had beer steins or records, antique books, mandolins, geodes, or photos signed by all the actors who played James Bond's villains. These were all amazing assortments that reveal a passing interests and fiery obsessions. Personally, over the years, I've collected star wars figures, comic books, Peanuts merchandise, vintage Boy Scout gear, Green Lantern stuff, rocks, coins, arrowheads, first aid kits, original comic art, presidential campaign buttons, D&D miniatures, and old maps. Some I still have, some I've gotten rid of, some are long forgotten. (I have found, in my elderly years, that the keeping is not as satisfying as the finding.)

In this golden age of the World Wide Internerd, collecting things is as easy as checking eBay over coffee every morning, which is equal parts miracle and bummer. As an example, for years and years, all I wanted in the world was this guy:



The 1984 Kenner DC Comics SUPER POWERS Collection GREEN LANTERN Action Figure. This was my Holy Grail. As a kid, Green Lantern was my favorite super-hero (Aside from Spider-Man, which is a story for another day). Aliens, magic ring, test pilot, blah blah blah. He was great. The Super Powers figures were a terrific line of toys that debuted when I was eight years old, so I was exactly the target audience.


The ads were in every comic book and they could not have been more directly designed for me, specifically, at age eight. The designers of these ads had clearly watched and studied me. They knew what I needed. They were taunting me.

I would religiously inspect every toy aisle, in every store, everywhere we went, looking for this toy. I wanted the Green Lantern so badly that I flipped right by the Supermans and the Batmans and all the A list guys without a second thought. I was on a mission, focused like the most intense of lasers.

The end of this story is as predictable as it is pathetic. I never found a Green Lantern figure as a child, and it plagued me into adulthood. I was still digging through junk stores and comic book conventions in my twenties,whenever the chance arose, looking for that one missing piece of my misspent youth.

Then one day I found him. A little beat up, overpriced, and missing his lantern accessory, but there he was. On a table at a small New York Comic Con, wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer. He was mine now. My heart stopped and tears welled in my eyes. This was my Road to Damascus. I proudly turned, and showed him to showed him off to my friend Pat, who said, "Oh sure, I've got one of those. You want it?"

My jaw dropped. Suddenly, I had two. Before long, I was compulsively buying this same figure every time I found one. Identical toys, lined up on a shelf. It was beyond idiotic. My quest was now upgraded to finding one "Mint in Box", as they say. I was mentally ill.

Then came eBay, and the world was our oyster forever. Suddenly, these figures I had scoured the earth for were readily available, and the open market had decreased demand and dropped the price. I could have as many 1984 Kenner DC Comics SUPER POWERS Collection GREEN LANTERN Action Figures as I wanted, and suddenly they weren't nearly as exciting. I sold all of mine (but one) on eBay.

(Who didn't see that coming?)

EBay has changed the nature of collecting, making it simultaneously less exciting and more fun. Things that I never knew existed are now available, and prices are no longer dictated by the whims of weirdos at flea markets. It has made the hunt less difficult, but there is much more game on the savannah. I still dig through antique stores whenever possible; there's nothing like that particular tactile experience, and online shopping can never replicate it. A few years ago I was collecting vintage Super 8 cameras, and while they are all over eBay, actually being able to open one up and inspect it for yourself is unbeatable. And of course, the thrill of finding something like that, unexpectedly sitting on a shelf in a store, is always better than winning a bidding war with darth_snake_eyes1988.

The thrill of finding (whether it be online or hidden behind a Hummel Figurine on a dusty table) is always a little intoxicating. Adding one more piece to a well-loved menagerie is always a small victory in life, and small victories can be rare. Collecting things is awesome.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

DOC BRONNER'S MAGIC SOAP



When I was a kid, and just starting to get serious about camping and backpacking, most of the supplies and equipment used by my friends and I came from the CAMPMOR catalog; a small, newsprint affair with smudgy text and poor images of tents and boots and socks made of wool.

In these current, more sophisticated days, everyone has had a subscription to the CAMPMOR catalog, and they fill the recycling baskets of Our Fair Union alongside so many stacks of THE NEW YORKER and THE PARIS REVIEW. But when you live in Bumble-fuuuuudge County Tennessee, a catalog that sells the things you need to traverse glaciers is a magical thing. We would scour every page, wondering which anorak would be the most durable, and debating the merits of different waterproofing techniques. Between BACKPACKER magazine and the CAMPMOR catalog, we were in constant preparation to trade blankets and beads with the Hurons before setting off into untamed wilderness.

Most importantly, inside the pages of the CAMPMOR catalog, you could find a strange elixir that existed no where else in the world (that we knew of). This was DR. BRONNER'S MAGIC ALL-IN-ONE PEPPERMINT SOAP. It came in small, simple bottles, with amazing labels covered in unreadable text. It was apparently the greatest liquid ever made by the hands of man.

DR. BRONNER'S MAGIC ALL-IN-ONE PEPPERMINT SOAP was allegedly useful for:

* washing
* shampooing
* brushing your teeth
* cleaning dishes
* cleaning clothes
* condition your skin
* lubricate gears
* soften leather
* scrub wounds
* deoderize your smelly armpits
* Freshen your breath
* Invigorate the senses

... and dozens of other applications, all the while smelling (and possibly TASTING) like peppermint. It was soap, detergent, and toothpaste all rolled into one bottle. It was organic (although that was a vague term; it sounded great but had we were unsure what exactly it meant), biodegradable, and best of all, it was made by A CRAZY PERSON.


My friends and I were obsessive weirdos, constantly digging for the strange and esoteric. At age 13, there was very little cooler in the world than THE ILLUMINATI! trilogy, the stretch in CEREBUS where the title character becomes the Pope of a fictional church, or finding French science-fiction comics buried in the backs of dusty used bookstores. We memorized entries from old copies of the FIEND FOLIO and DUNE, debated Sindarin versus Noldor in the Second Age, and dog-eared pages H.P. Lovecraft's texts at mentions of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred and his Necronomicon. (Of course, thanks to a rise in Geek Culture and the World Wide Internerd, all of this stuff is readily available and used as a punchline on sitcoms. You better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone...)

The rantings and writings of Doctor Bronner became shorthand crazytalk among my Scout Troop for years. Shouts of "DILUTE! DILUTE!" were a battle-cry, and with wild eyes and dirty fingers we were always ready to "help teach the whole Human race the Moral ABC of All-One-God-Faith!". The labels of every bottle of Magic Peppermint Soap were coated, every quarter-inch, with bizarre text that was the perfect combination of biblical ranting, awesome product design, and obsessive, full-throttle CRAZY. It was the perfect prop for our blossoming geekery. We had no idea who Dr. Bronner was, nor did we care. It didn't matter. (In fact, reading an article about him at age 17 kid of ruined the whole thing. It became sad and I felt like a jerk for making fun of what were the sincere beliefs of someone struggling with mental illness.)

I don't think I've ever been without a bottle of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap in twenty years. Luckily, it's available now in most every supermarket, drugstore, and deli. I've used for dozens of purposes, and I've tried all the new flavors. At this point, it's beyond just buying a useful product. Now, when I get hit with a whiff of that strong Peppermint (or almond) odor, it takes me back to happy times. Early mornings in empty shower-houses at Camp Stahlman, washing my face in a Blue Ridge Mountain creek after a long day on the trail, and taking bubble-baths with my first real girlfriend in a tiny East Village apartment. A mural of amazing memories the size of Canada's buttocks, without a negative moment among them.

All that, and it smells good.

DR. BRONNER'S MAGIC ALL-IN-ONE PEPPERMINT SOAP is awesome.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

KING KONG



This is what we know about Kong:

1. He is worshiped and feared by a tribe of natives who regularly sacrifice women to him.
2. He lives in a mountain that looks like a skull.
3. He fights and kills dinosaurs. The mighty Tyrannosaur is nothing to Kong. Kong will fight him and kill him. Kong takes no shit from Tyrannosaur.
4. Kong is the Eighth Wonder... of the Woooorld!
5. When Kong strips a woman naked, he pauses to sniff her clothes before discarding them.
6. The top of the Empire State Building is just a place to hang out. Kong takes no shit from acrophobia.
7. Kong is neither man nor beast.
8. When Kong goes on a rampage, he bites peoples' heads off. And stomps them into the mud. Kong takes no shit from pacifism.
9. He wins in a one-on-one tango versus a military biplane.
10. More than one military biplane, however, and he is in trouble.

This is what we don't know about Kong:

1. Everything else.

There have been many iterations of Kong, but none beat the original. Willis O'Brien created a stop-motion puppet in 1932 that is arguably the best special effect in motion picture history. Every Kong since has either been a guy in a monkey suit or a computer generated gorilla that makes you sad with his emotions.

I don't need emotions with my giant monsters. All I need is carnage, and terror, and dead dinosaurs. That's what you get with the King Kong of 1933. He takes no shit from emotions.

King Kong is awesome.