Channelling Gogol: Escape into fantasy…

It seems to have been a while since the internet was last graced with my long form musings about the ever changing ‘new normal’.  I suspect this may be because I have found a new outlet for my excess stupidity: a subject which I intend to form the meat of this post (only time will tell whether I prove capable of delivering on this threat).

I think we are well into month five of the lockdown, though I am starting to lose my belief in the reality of the before times and also seem to have increasing difficulty navigating verb tenses successfully.  Many years ago, there was a radio comedy called the Million Pound Radio Show and its most famous product was the pirate sketch.  This has much to recommend it but, relevant to our current situation, it did raise the issue that pirates only speaks in the present tense and that use of the pluperfect was a planking offence.  If this hypothesis is true, I am becoming increasingly piratical: though have yet to handle being home alone by acquiring a parrot companion or seeking to stockpile pieces of eight.

With the easing of lockdown, the pubs have re-opened and I have been to a pub.  The only pub I have visited since March is the Guide Dog (which, in no coincidence whatsoever, was the last pub I visited in the before times), though I have visited it on multiple occasions since 14 July.  It is a place that I still feel safe (and not just because it is my second home) and their systems around social distancing and the “plus” element of current guidance seem very well thought out. I’m sure other pubs are also excellent but I am focusing my economic and hepatic energies and increased risk profile on supporting my favourite.  On Wednesday, a couple of my diaspora of friends returned to the city and the Guide Dog and it was lovely to see them in the flesh, rather than via my (very decent) desktop screen at home, and a slight excess of support may have occurred.

Talking of the flesh, last weekend I managed to catch some live music, courtesy of the spacing and reduced contagion offered by the great outdoors, on each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  At one point, I did get quite wet but it was worth it to reclaim another little portion of my old life.  I am having to re-learn the etiquette of live music as, unlike a live stream, people can hear and see what you are doing and joining in is not always appropriate!

The main new novelty in my life, and the sponge which is absorbing most of my creative juices, is Generic Fantasy Landia™.  I feel that I have mentioned that in the run up to lock down, in addition to stacks of books I also bought a Dungeons and Dragons Starter Kit: I was fully aware of the dangers of being stuck with my own company for an extended period.  Sadly, this does not permit me to grow either my own dungeons or dragons: both of which would have been interesting projects in their own right.  What it does provide is five pre-baked characters, a set of dice with various numbers of faces, some basic instructions for play and a fully written adventure.

Using this Starter Kit and Zoom, I and three friends (recently increased to four) have been learning to play D&D.  I have taken the role of Dungeon Master and my friends are playing the part of itinerant adventurers who can, eventually, be tempted out of the virtual pub and onto a quest.

The first adventure, I ‘borrowed’ lock-stock-and-barrel from a YouTube video on how to be a Dungeon Master.  We had very little idea what we were doing, but had just enough of the rules broadly understood to make it work and establish that it was something we could have fun doing.  We also established some of the ‘features’ of our version of D&D which I’m fairly sure are not part of the traditional game and would horrify purists.  The subsequent two adventures, I have ‘written’ from scratch raiding my memories for ideas.  This means that our adventures are set in a somewhat generic fantasy world, based only loosely on the Forgotten Realms of the D&D 5e canon (I’m not sure the Forgotten Realms have an Ikea or a proto GoApe): it started out being called Generic Fantasy Land but this very quickly morphed to its enduring name of Generic Fantasy Landia.

D&D is a very open-ended form of game, which means that monsters and non-player characters (NPCs) are not stuck with a fixed range of activities but can do anything they (meaning I) want and I can convince myself is in character.  The adventurers can (and regularly do) go off piste in unexpected – often suicidal – ways: which can require some quick thinking on my part (which does not always occur quickly).  As time goes on, we are getting through fewer resurrection potions than at the start, though some monsters do have to pull their punches (and I may have to fake the odd low dice throw) from time to time to avoid an unplanned massacre.

Given that I am writing the adventures and given the nature of my friends, our version of D&D (named D and Franken D) has rather more of the Carry On! franchise about it than I suspect is wholly authentic.  When a new adventurer joined the party a couple of weeks ago, I was concerned that they might struggle to fit into the innuendo-ridden world of GFL and my sometimes creative interpretation of the rules: I needn’t have worried, they fitted right in!  They are not yet fully into expecting trapdoors everywhere  and vandalising everything in sight, but given the company they are now keeping this can only be a matter of time…

To counter some of the more reprehensible features of GFL, I am quite hot on geological accuracy and am trying to do some consistent world building.  All settlements in GFL are named after European power stations and the only mountain range (so far) is named after a painter (I am reminded that I need to name a river).  Early in the first adventure I wrote, the team find a notebook and I felt it wasn’t enough just to describe it: so I drew the necessary map and wrote some terrible riddle-based poetry to provide some clues as to how to proceed with the adventure.  I learned the important lesson not to create a map which requires drawing quite so many trees in future but really enjoyed the ‘art’ aspect of the project.  So, for later in the adventure I drew a geologically realistic limestone cavern and a room using single point perspective (casting my mind back to my last technical drawing lesson from 1979).  I now find myself regularly buying new art supplies to improve the quality (debatable) of the visual aids I’m providing to make each adventure more immersive.  I have since drawn a pub, a further map and a town surrounded by a wooden palisade with a castle above.  I am currently working on a town plan and have experimented with 2-point perspective: luckily standard D&D does have cubical monsters!

In the first couple of adventures, other than bar staff there were no NPCs for the team to talk to, just monsters to fight.  However, for the current adventure I am attempting to create a range of characters for people to interact with other than at sword, bow or wand-tip.  This is really pushing my very limited ability to produce viably different accents for different characters: as it is, characters’ accents wander very widely even within a sentence and I have a tendency to forget what accent they had last week (I need to take better notes!).  I am not (yet) able to draw the characters: another potential project to see me through lockdown!

The existence of GFL has really made Sunday nights something special, if exceedingly silly, and a highlight of my lockdown weeks.  It is also now giving me lots to do during the week and a reason to play with the visual arts for the first time since the 1970s.  I now understand loads of nerd-references from film and TV that somewhat passed me by at the time.  I do worry that I am becoming slightly obsessed and I am starting to un-ironically use such references: I did find myself bemoaning my -2 Dexterity when attempting to perform a task earlier in the week.

I feel I’ve rambled for long enough and GFL prep calls: NPCs won’t name themselves or prepare their own clues, so I must step into the breach…

 

Channelling Gogol: Lockdown Lessons from a Lunatic

As we enter week 5 (6? Some n∈N?) of the lockdown, I thought that, as an important influencer, it was incumbent on me to share the important pearls of wisdom that have accreted around the grit of my incarceration…

tumbleweed

OK, with that out of the way we can now resume normal GofaDM service.

I suspect I am not alone in finding being locked-down less easy to cope with as time goes by rather than familiarity breeding greater ease, if not downright contempt.  I do not seem to be adapting to the current situation as I’d hoped, despite modelling much of my personality on the Borg: well, my primary purpose has for some time been the attempt to assimilate everything.  I suppose I do form a somewhat stripped back, even minimal, Collective in my frustratingly singular state: though I suspect the existence of more of me would be far, far worse (for all of us).  While social media and video conferencing are splendid things, and I wouldn’t want to be without them, spending time with people in the flesh, or at the very least ‘near the flesh’, scratches a psychological itch that technology is unable to reach.

The lack of actual social contact seems to be having an increasing impact on my mental state, with it seeming (as viewed from the inside, or at least by “sources close to…”) to have become increasingly bipolar as the usual dampeners seem to have been lost.  The situation still appears manageable but I do feel I am becoming increasingly manic on these occasions when I’m participating in what currently passes for social contact.  I’m blaming this on my mental state but I suppose it could just be an attempt to bridge the gap between reality and desire by force of personality: a doomed project if ever there was one.

The locked-down world does offer up some modest benefits (to me, at least) in partial weregild for all the inconvenience, pain and suffering it is causing to so many.  In these quieter times, I am really noticing the birds singing and spring is a particularly good time of year for this as our feathered friends are all keen to be at it like knives as a prelude to bringing forth the next generation.  As a bonus, my current chronic insomnia does mean that I am regularly in the audience for the dawn (and pre-dawn) chorus which this morning appeared to include a duck: though I may have imagined that (une mallard imaginaire, as Molière might have put it).

In the before-times, I received much of my exercise by going about my business briskly on foot or using safety bicycle.  As this is no longer the case, I now found myself planning excursions to gain my State-authorised daily cardiovascular stimulation.  I have generally spent this on my bicycle (a) to take advantage of the much quieter roads and (b) to enjoy the much easier social distancing achievable when awheel.  If avoid popular parks and beauty spots, especially those proximate to car parking, it is much easier to keep well away from others on a bicycle than when riding Shanks’s pony.  To maintain interest in these outings, I have been exploring new areas of the city and its surroundings every few days and continue to be amazed at how green Southampton is (and how hilly!) and how short the distance one has to travel to be out in the countryside. I’ve mostly been heading north as that direction seems to take me away from traffic and people the quickest and have now visited the municipal golf course, the Lords wood, Chilworth, North Baddesley and Rownhams using only the power of my own limbs.  My mountain bike has finally been properly off-road: though often the surface off-road is superior to that provided by the local roads for which my bike was purchased.  It has only taken me almost seven years and a global pandemic to properly explore where I live and finally being to understand its geography and how suprisingly close to each other some places are.  I have had a lot of fun lowering the tone of some of the wealthiest, and leafiest, enclaves of the city as I pass through checking out how the ‘other half’ live and critiquing their taste in building, colour-choice and gardens.

Talking of my bicycle, yesterday was a very exciting day for me and my faithful stead.  On 15 January 2018, the bike store where it was stabled was temporarily closed as it had been discovered to be ‘unsafe’ in some unspecified way.  I liked to imagine it had been built over a hellmouth.  So, for the last two and a bit years, my bike has been housed in a rather distant bike store: far enough away that I can use a bus to get there (albeit only travelling one stop) but relatively safe from demonic assault.  As the lock-down began, workmen were finishing off complete replacement of the roof of the store – which it now seems may have been the cause of the safety issue, though I shall be keeping a Slayer on speed-dial just in case – and yesterday it finally re-opened!  Callooh!  Callay!

With normal live culture off-the-cards, I have been enjoying a wider range of culturing offerings with a great geographical spread than might normally be the case.  This definitely seems to work better in modest doses: I don’t seem to have the powers of concentration to sit through a 2+hour play at home but up to an hour or so seems to lie within my mental grasp for now.  I’ve really been enjoying a range of contemporary dance on-line, but my highlight is probably the translation to the miniature stage of the ‘Hat’ trilogy by Jon Klassen being produced for the Little Angel Theatre.  These incredible works of puppet theatre are being created in isolation, by a small group of people that I know a little (which is how I discovered their work) as they used to be based at the NST in Southampton.  They are an absolute joy to watch with so many brilliant little details and leave me quite astounded at what talented people can create at home using very limited materials.  They also serve to highlight the serious risks involved in pursuing a life of larceny directed towards the milliner’s art: don’t say you haven’t been warned!  Watching the latest instalment on Sunday, I found myself reminded of Smallfilms and I can think of few high accolades I could offer.

Otherwise, life continues in broadly the same rut and I continue to look for pretexts to bring friends together on-line.  The latest attempt was for four absolute beginners to attempt to simultaneously get to grips with both Dungeons and Dragons and Roll20: the latter as a way to play the game together while apart.  This was an almost total failure thanks, in large part, to the total impenetrability of the UI for Roll20: it is the least intuitive platform I have ever come into contact with.  We spent most of four hours just trying to start a pre-prepared game with very limited success and we are all intelligent IT-literate people (well the other three are).  Still, it worked in its role as pretext and we had some silly fun and learned a number of important lessons.  For our next session, I think we will use D&D in its off-line form with old-fashioned pen and paper: perhaps aided by a webcam so that all can see the relevant information.  We might also attempt a simpler adventure designed to test out the main elements of game play as I spent most of Sunday attempting to get to grips with even the basic rules (having already read them once to get an overview).  These made understanding the rules of the Belgian electricity market (written in French) look positively easy: my work skills proved less transferable than I’d hoped.  Still, in theory at least, I have plenty of time on my hands (despite the more frequent and intense washing they are being subjected to) if rather limited mental capacity…

Still, like Syd Rumpo, I’ve rambled enough and I should finish before I risk screeving my cordwangle…