Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Finds for Game Resources

This weekend we went into Chicago, and ate beyond my stomach's means. Describing that would be a post in itself. Gene and Lisa are incredibly hosts-- able to move us through an amazing number of things in an organized way while still feeling like a nice, relaxing weekend.

Still reeling from an Ethiopian meal we went to Powell's Bookstore which is apparently close by Loyola. I'd forgotten what a really good used bookstore is like. As always I keep my GM's lens on when out searching for various things.

In and among the sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks I found a couple of Dave Duncan books I was missing, Book Three and Four of “A Man of His Word”. Now I just have to find volume two and I'll be set. Well, close-- I still have a number of other Duncan books I want to track down. I think he's an underrated genre author-- everything he does is solid and interesting, but perhaps not as flashy as some more modern approaches. Still he can be beaten for really thorough world building which he lays out clearly and plays with inventively. I found a copy of John Brunner's The Sleep Look Up to replace the one I lost and Richard Cowper's The Road to Corlay. That latter book I think I remember starting to read, but not finishing. It has a Colin Murray cover which I love so I picked it up for a buck.

The best find among the paperback fiction was Trevor Hoyle's Through the Eye of Time. That's the second volume of a trilogy I read years ago that was tremendously strange in a Stanislaw Lem kind of way. I've had the first volume for years but haven't tracked down the other two. Now I just need the third. I suppose I could go and find them on Amazon, but I like having some stuff I hunt for in places like this. So a good haul-- though no Norman Spinrad, Tim Powers or Howard Waldrop.

For game resource books I found a number of nice and cheap volumes. Oxford University Press has a series of handbooks for various mythologies in nice trad paper format. I picked up the volumes on Hindu and Chinese mythology new for $5 apiece. They aren't deep, but will be useful both for the wushu game and if I get around to running Scion again. Each volume has a 'chronology' of mythic events, a general overview, encyclopedia entries on gods and topic and a list of other resources for investigating the mythos in more depth (including electronic resources). So a very good buy for that price.

Sherri found a great illustrated book on ballroom dancing as well. That might seem a stretch for gaming, but it has a purpose. She's been thinking about activities for her character in the Changeling campaign which would give her a better opportunity to interact with non-Changelings. The PCs have been told by the freehold that they need to find a group or place to join to maintain their ties to the real world. So this will be a nice resource for me if I do scenes there-- since I really have no idea of what is involved. I love these kinds of things and being able to spin out deeper background color at the table.

I'm not sure exactly how I'll use it but the weirdest find was Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film. It is an academic film criticism and analysis book, which means some slogging through. It has been a few years since I've read this find of film analysis and I have to reorient myself. But the gist of the volume is that some recent films (obviously The Matrix and Donnie Darko, but also Dead Man and American Beauty) have a deep undercurrent of Gnostic philosophy (or Cabbalistic or Alchemical which he directly ties in, though I'm not sure he entirely makes his historical case there). Amusingly he references Flicker right away in the footnotes to the introduction. I want to read through this and see if I can replicate his analysis as applied to perhaps anime or even rpgs-- not for anything scholarly, but just to see how loose the theoretical construct is. More importantly I'm curious about how he defines Gnostic themes-- and if some of what he talks about can serve as an undercurrent in a campaign.

The best find at Powell's was another copy of Robert Turcan's The Cults of the Roman Empire. I'd lost my other copy in the fire. For the longest time you could only find a copy for over $100 on Amazon, but it now seems to be back in print. Still the copy I found is in great condition and only cost a little over $10. I still want to do an Ancient Rome game one day-- perhaps the Hellboy Rome game I mentioned before. This book looks at the various foreign cults of the period and how they existed or got integrated into Roman life and culture. It is a nice model for syncretism for that setting or perhaps for other fantasy campaigns. It has lots of great color and detail, with less on the theoretical analysis of the religious shifts. I suspect that will prove useful at some point in the future.

Finally we went to the Art Institute on Monday, which reinforced my general skepticism of a lot of modern art, particularly installations. They had a new exhibit on the Arts & Crafts movement which frankly seemed weak and badly staged. Still out of that I discovered the name Kitaro Shirayamadani. So far as I can tell Shirayamadani was apparently worked at Rookwood Pottery from 1885 to just after WW2. He was Japanese and helped bring or at least worked with “Japanism” in the Arts & Crafts movement. I don't know much about him, but that has to be an interesting story-- being an art and Japanese in Cincinnati during that time. The vase of his they had on display was a strange mix of Japanese color and design with a sort of Midwestern style images of flying geese I believe. The note on the item suggested he went back home for several years in 1915, so I'm curious about that as well. There seems I be a dissertation on him available which I want to track down. It is these kinds of characters that fascinate me-- great for use in games later.

But probably the most interesting thing about the trip this time was getting to see the Thorne Rooms. I don't believe I'd ever seen these before. I've been going to the Art Institute since I was a kid so they either had them put away or I missed them. The Thorne Rooms are exquisitely crafted dioramas of rooms from various periods, fully furnished and decorated. I've done some miniatures and worked with a miniaturist for a while, but these things we unbelievable. The level of presentation, detail and craftsmanship was amazing. On that level they are brilliant inspiration for the table-top gamer. However what prompted me to pick up the book with photos of each of the rooms was something else. I try to read historical source material with an eye to finding visual details I can throw into scenes. I made a bunch of notes about interior decorations and design in the Regency period to use in the Steambuckler campaign. This book has great examples and images of those rooms and rooms of many differing periods and places. That should be great for future travels in the Libri Vidicos campaign, especially if they go to mansions or country estates. Plus the book itself is lovely.

South Bend
Have to thank Rob for pointing out the New Year's Day sale at the local remaindered bookstore. I found some interesting things there-- some real surprises and treats. In and among the comics and graphic novels section I found significant runs of the Doc Savage and The Shadow reprints recently done by Nostalgia Ventures. Each volume collects two stories from the old pulp novels. They aren't done in chronological order, but do have some nice notes and background material in them (including classic illustrations). The first volume of The Shadow anthology, for example, includes a Lester Dent (the creator of Doc Savage) Shadow story. I'd read about that story in the Duende History of the Shadow and it was great to finally be able to read it. I grew up reading from my sister's collection of Doc Savage novels and even reading them now, they hold up as goofy, two dimensional but ultimately interesting. I picked up the first two volumes for each line; the store had about the first dozen of each and maybe in the future I'll pick up some more if they're still there. A great resource for doing pulp adventure games.

I found a good and cheap copy of Jo Clayton's final unfinished novel-- Drum into Silence. It is the final volume of a trilogy I'd avoided picking up before because I wasn't sure if it would ever be completed. Now I have to hunt down the first two. I've mentioned before that Clayton's one of my top ten for fantasy/sci-fi writers. I'm hoping when I finally get to reading the series as a whole it will be worth it. I also picked up a really nice and cheap copy of Umberto Eco's Baudolino. I hadn't cared for The Island of the Day Before and thought Foucault's Pendulum was less original than people gave him credit for. However mention of Prester John on the back of the book made me pick it up. I'd mentioned that legendary figure in my City of Ocean game (another thread which traces back to Ken Hite's Suppressed Transmission).

Finally I picked up Chinese Calligraphy: From Pictograph to Ideogram: The History of 214 Essential Chinese/Japanese Characters. It has a historical look at the evolution of individual characters, but examples. More importantly it presents a nice overview of central cultural concepts and ideas in Chinese society. I hope that will be useful for providing color and background details for my wushu game. I don't necessarily need to be historically accurate, but I want to be able to impart the flavor of the setting.


On a related note, my niece asked for suggestions for her research project for the semester, so I threw her a number of ideas which appealed to me. Whether she'll like them or find them doable is another question:

1. Japanese History: the impact of weapons control and disarmament. See for example the laws requiring the peasants to turn in weapons in order to be melted down for religious statues-- use of these rules to maintain control over the populace. Also see parallel with the period when the Japanese gave up gunpower weapons. Considerations of the impact of that development on later encounters with the West.

2. Marco Polo from the Other Side: A consideration of how other cultures saw Europe when they first met them (China, Japan, etc).

3. Prelude to Star Wars: An examination of literature of the fantastic in the 19th Century-- its prevalence, impact and how that affected later writers.

4. The First Police: British dislike of social control meets the needs of a growing metropolis in London-- how several major cases there led to the creation of the first real police force. Alternately: forensic and crime detection systems in the late 19th and early 20th century: photographic systems, cataloging and so on.

5. How history gets told: a look at a single major event (like the fall of Constantinople or Rome) and how historians in three different eras told the story and defined the causes. A case study in historiography.

6. Music and War: A consideration of the impact of WW2 on classical music: displaced composers, destroyed orchestras, the Nazi purge of Jewish composers and musicians, the soviets use of music as a propaganda tool.

7. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Novel: A look at genre fiction in China-- most of what we take for granted as martial arts movies actually come out of books, both historical (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and more recent (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuxia) interesting to consider how a culture can have a whole genre of literature that doesn't really get translated outside the country but has a tremendous impact. For America that would be westerns.

8. Puritanical Backlash: A look at the shift in cultural ideals from the Regency Period in England to the Victorian Moral Codes. The former we associate with a kind of permissiveness, but the latter ends up being so strict even today we think of Victorian as kind of restrictive and uptight. Is there a parallel with the modern conservative movement.

9. Paints and Pigments: Historically the secrets of how paints and colors we mixed were tightly controlled by artists. Those chemical secrets allowed them to create certain kinds of effects. Might look at that and how the rise of the chemical industry allowed anyone access to those secrets.

10. Sir Francis Walsingham: the Great British Spymaster of the 1500's.

11. Ready Access to Information: how the advent of the cheap printing press-- allowing broadsheets, flyers and newspapers-- parallels the impact of modern technologies for the dissemination of technology.

12. Any god will do: A look at how the Roman Empire dealt with foreign gods-- integrating them into the culture and adding them to the fashionable trends. The practical means to which the Romans put the gods as a mean of civil unity and control.

13. Corporations as Persons: A look at the Supreme Court decision which granted personhood to corporations in the United States. How that decision came about and how is affected later legal decisions in the US and the development of the American Economy.