Category Archives: History

Materiam superabat opus

This finding made it possible, three hundred years ago, to formulate a general theory of the Library and solve satisfactorily the problem which no conjecture had deciphered: the formless and chaotic nature of almost all the books. — Borges

Of the contributions made by the 2214 Nakamura-Kreitz expedition to the fields of manuscript archaeology and literary criticism, one find towers in significance above all others, and continues to cast a long shadow over the halls of academia. Much ink (along with, as survivors of the assorted semiotics conflicts of the latter 23rd century will grimly attest, actual blood) has been spilled in debating the meaning of its eight rhymed couplets.

I will not presume to add to the ongoing scholarly discussion, but with this humble essay hope to introduce a new generation of readers to one of the most puzzling manuscripts to survive the Neopacification War. The manuscript (see photograph below) was discovered in a plastic container that had been repurposed by a geneslicer mutant band to serve as part of a bunker wall. (Also in the container were five small robots of indeterminate/hybrid form; see Mullen’s Formless Masters: Optimus Prime and the Cult of Shape for a plausible, if somewhat overstated, hypothesis as to their significance).

Without further ado, the manuscript; followed by a brief set of notes on each line:


Computer Confusion by Andy Rau

Let us set aside the decades-long debate about the poem’s title and purported author’s identity and simply point out that the “confusion” cited here is not to be attributed to the computers in question (a Commodore 64 and a Mac Classic, if the rest of the poem can be trusted); but to the author and/or reader.

Folks as queer as they can be;

Steering clear of distasteful and salacious theories, I assert that everything we know about the author’s emotional maturity and understanding of gender relations at the time this poem was written suggests that this line was not intended as a sexual slur.

always saying unto me:

The unusual choice of phrasing here makes sense when one considers that Rau’s literary input at this stage of his life consisted almost entirely of The Lord of the Rings knockoffs and the Heidelberg Catechism.

“Let’s play this! Let’s load up that!”

The author here expresses frustration at the continual demands of his companions to “load up” games on his parent’s computers. While this may seem the very definition of privileged, narcissistic whining, consider that “loading up” a game from a floppy disk could take up to several minutes of the author’s precious time. (“And God help those who were ‘loading up’ from a tape drive,” Nieuwenhuizen observes in They Stayed Up Late: Concessions to Chronicity in the Lives of ‘Airborne Ranger’ Players.) See line 12ff below for a better understanding of the sacrifice Rau was being asked to make.

I wanna [sic] play Dark Castle!” Drat!

Crucially, this line provides us with a terminus post quem for “Computer Confusion”: AD 1986, the year that Dark Castle was released for the Macintosh. In 1986, Rau would have been at least eleven years of age; one shudders at the implications for his emotional maturity and social relationships were “Computer Confusion” composed much later than this date.

On the challenging presence of “Drat!” here, I cannot add to Pierce-Weyland’s groundbreaking 2314 analysis.

Whatever game I want to play,
it’s “Load this game up right away!”

Rau’s companions again pressure him to “load up” games he does not wish to play.

If I wanna [sic] play Spy vs. Spy,
they want to play Up and Down. Oh My!

Clear references to the Commodore 64 games Spy vs. Spy (1984) and Up’n Down (1983). Why Rau attempted to correct the grammar of the title Up’n Down is a mystery in light of his repeated use of the word “wanna” above.

First it’s Zork and Zorro — Oooooooo!

McCulray (2245, pp. 31-33) was the first to suggest that the frankly embarrassing Oooooooo! here is a clear sign of satirical intent; but as Franz (2247, p. 75) counters, that contrasts with the painful earnestness of the rest of the poem.

Then it’s Zaxxon, Sea Wolf too!

The selfish demands of Rau’s peers, unreasonable from the start, have at this point become unconscionable.

I don’t want to use the computer with you;
there are other things I’d rather do!

The tone of the poem sharpens uncomfortably here; Rau has been pushed to such emotional distress that he lashes out at his companions—and perhaps at the reader as well. Do we not, reading this poem hundreds of years after Rau’s “death” and assumption into the Callisto Singularity, continue to harass his memory by revisiting these baleful demands?

Sullivan (2286) asserts that in this line we see clear evidence for the Satire Theory; there is no historical evidence, he claims, that there were ever any “other things” that a youthful Rau would have prioritized over the playing of computer games. I leave it to the reader to weigh the argument.

Like make a model, take a hike,
bug my sister, ride a bike.

Although Rau reportedly took part in all of these activities, only the act of antagonizing his sibling is believed to have been preferred to playing computer games. In fact, there is some evidence that Rau was occasionally deprived of computer use privileges in parental retaliation for his constant and only occasionally provoked harassment of his sister. (Cheng’s [2293] claim that Rau’s sister “totally deserved it because she was being such a pain” is sycophantic.)

So don’t tell me what we should play;
I’ll tell you — and right away!

This bitter, challenging closing couplet has bedeviled scholars for centuries. What does Rau truly want to play? Just Spy vs. Spy? When, if ever, will he tell us? Who among us—even those who don’t subscribe to the frankly religious belief that Rau will one day return (“right away”) to name his choice of games—has not been kept awake at night by fearful mental wrestlings with the savage rejection and unfulfilled promise contained in these two lines?

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Scimitars and flying carpets: what "Arabian Nights"-style roleplaying games exist?

Prince of Persia classicLast week I saw Prince of Persia. While I wouldn’t call it a classic for the ages (it turns out that “the best video game adaptation to date!” is not especially high praise), it did get me wondering what sort of “1001 Arabian Nights”-inspired roleplaying games are out there. While I’m most interested in the “flying carpets, evil djinn, and sinister viziers” style of game, I wouldn’t mind a more historical game, either.

I was surprised to find that there isn’t a whole lot out there. Granted, it’s a niche genre within a niche hobby, but if samurai Japan and Arthurian Britain have managed have long-running roleplaying games, you’d think somebody would’ve kept the lamp of Arabian gaming burning over the years. At any rate, here’s what I’ve found; if you know of any I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments!

Al QadimThe Arabian Nights-style game that springs to mind immediately is Al-Qadim for the long-defunct AD&D 2nd edition. At one point I owned this rulebook and was impressed by it (it was lavishly illustrated in full color, I recall), but if I still own it, it’s buried in a box in my basement somewhere. This was pretty heavy on the fantasy ends of things, and to my knowledge did not attempt to tie itself into real-life history at all. Has anybody played it, and can you comment on the general quality of the line?

GURPS Arabian Nights (for 3rd edition) is available as a PDF, and I know nothing about it except what the product description lists—it looks like a nice combination of both fantastic and historical “Arabia.” Tempting to grab a copy purely on the strength of other GURPS historical supplements.

Paizo’s Legacy of Fire adventure path is set in the Arabia-analogue region of their published campaign setting for 3rd edition D&D. I actually ran the first few adventures in this series last year, and it was fun, although it didn’t quite evoke the flying-carpets feel of Prince of Persia. That may have been my failing as GM, but I also think Legacy of Fire is meant to be D&D first and Prince of Persia second. That said, there are a few supporting supplements that flesh out Paizo’s fantasy version of the Middle East, and one of them has a bonafide flying carpet on the cover. And hey, if all faux-Zoroastrian clerics looked as good as this, I’d convert in a heartbeat.

Tales of the Caliphate NightsPerhaps most promising-looking is Paradigm Concepts’ Tales of the Caliphate Nights. It looks grounded in semi-historical Arabia and appears to cover Islam in a somewhat serious manner—certainly one of the most intimidating parts of gaming in this genre.

Listing these out, it seems that there actually is a decent array of 1001 Nights-type games… they’re just spread across several different game systems (some of them defunct), so you’d need to be willing to loot from several sources and port the end results into the system of your choice.

What good books have I missed that support Prince of Persia-style gaming, or a more historical version thereof?

Update: I just remembered another one: Veil of Night for Vampire: the Dark Ages. I’m guessing this supplement does not have a lot in the way of light-hearted princess-rescuing flying-carpet action… but if I’m wrong, please oh please correct me, because, well, Prince of Persia where the titular prince is a vampire sounds kind of awesome, in a terrible sort of way.

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> There is a zorkmid here.

How’s this for a blast from the past: while cleaning house the other day, I came across a little piece of gaming history:

It’s a zorkmid, which as everybody knows is the currency of the Zork text adventure games. If you’ve never seen one yourself, it’s an actual metal coin, quite hefty and very atmospheric. This particular zorkmid was packaged with the Zork Trilogy box. This was Back In The Day when they actually packaged cool stuff along with your game—and Infocom was the king of cool game packaging.

This zorkmid is one of my prized possessions, and I can’t tell you how happy I was to find it again. I’d lost track of it, and assumed it got lost during a move several years ago. (Poking around the web, I see that I’m not the only one nostalgic for zorkmids: here’s an apparently abandoned project to mint zorkmids.)

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Tales of Gen Con

Here’s something interesting: a site devoted to the history of Gen Con, with a focus on personal stories from people who’ve attended during its 40-year history. It’s a cool idea. But how long must we wait before we get the sorts of stories we all really want to hear: the horror stories! It wouldn’t be a game convention if, in addition to all the fun stuff, you didn’t also have uncomfortably close encounters with guys dressed like Sailor Moon, or participate in roleplaying games with players whose grasp of the distinction between “player” and “character” is tenuous at best.

OK, I kid–actually, this little hobby could probably stand to focus a bit more on the many fun aspects of game conventions and a little less on the occasional scary parts. Either way, check out the Gen Con History site, and contribute a story of your own, if you’ve got one!

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Ground-breaking roleplaying games (with commentary by yours truly)

There’s a good rundown over at Gamasutra of ground-breaking electronic roleplaying games. A few quick comments on their list:

First, it does the heart good to see Planescape: Torment at #2 on the list; it’s certainly one of the most literary RPGs ever created. (I’d personally put it at #1, of course, but Fallout was so good I can’t really begrudge its place at the top of the list.) The time I spent playing PS:T ranks as one of my best gaming experiences. I’ll stop now before I’m reduced to blubbering fanboy praise….

Second: No System Shock 2? That seems an unusual oversight, given that game’s excellent fusion of roleplaying with the traditional FPS-style interface. I do note that Deus Ex, which seems to me to owe an awful lot to SS2, made the list. That said, I can see why Deus Ex might have surpassed SS2 as a roleplaying game–in DE, the player faces meaningful choices and interaction with others, whereas SS2 mostly kept you on the run from enemies who didn’t interact with you much outside of trying to kill you. I grudgingly submit to the wisdom of the list-compilers in this case, although SS2 remains a must-play game.

A really scary must-play game. A perfect choice for some Halloween gaming, but good luck tracking down a copy….

ThirdDragon Warrior! I sometimes wonder if anybody else played this game; it’s gratifying to see it on the list. It completely consumed my life for a period of months back in the NES days; it deserves more recognition than it gets for bridging the gap between Zelda-style exploration adventure games and the later Final Fantasy-style console RPG genre. I tried re-playing this recently and found its crude and repetitive console RPG gameplay to be almost unbearable; but back in The Day it was quite something to behold. Also, this game has an absolutely beautiful and haunting soundtrack (even if it did get annoying when looped repeatedly through the NES’ speakers for hours on end). It’s the sort of music you find yourself idly whistling 15 years after you beat the game and packed the cartridge away in storage with your NES.

This game had to be one of the only ones where, upon confronting the final Bad Guy, you were given the chance to abandon your quest and conquer the world at his side. And you could actually choose! (Of course, if you chose to side with the bad guy and betray everything you’ve been working to accomplish, the game ended and played some sad music, which was sort of boring. But hey, at least it was your choice, freely made!)

I used to have the Dragon Warrior world map set as my desktop background, but after a while it started making my eyes bleed, so I reluctantly changed it.

And finally, a general comment: it’s a downright shame that almost all of these games are completely unavailable outside eBay or sketchy ‘abandonware’ sites. Book publishers and movie studios don’t let their groundbreaking titles simply disappear from general availability after a few years–but most of the classics on this list are long gone from the market. While a few of these titles (like Dragon Warrior, as I note above) are too dated to be enjoyed by most gamers today, there’s no reason that the Ultima series or Fallout should be so hard to find. Come on, Game Industry–figure out a method by which you can keep classics like these alive and available for future generations to enjoy!

And now you’ll have to excuse me. I have a date with Shodan, and she doesn’t like to be kept waiting.

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On the Minus World and the death of mystery

Ah, the Minus World. What teenage boy during the NES years didn’t spend countless hours of his life trying to unlock the secret entrance to that legendary, and possibly imaginary, hidden level in Super Mario Bros?

The internet, in its all-seeing wisdom, has of course laid bare the secrets of the Minus World. Enjoy watching somebody do what you never could: find that elusive spot at which a simple jump would teleport you to the forbidden halls of the Holy Grail of 8-bit gaming.

The Minus World–which actually turned out to be a simple glitch in the game, not a carefully-planted Easter Egg–has to be one of the earliest and most potent Gaming Urban Legends. Nobody you talked to had ever actually been to the Minus World, but everybody had a cousin whose neighbor had stumbled upon it on accident and knew the precise sequence of moves required to access it. I myself spent more than a few hours in front of the Nintendo with my friend Derrick in search of the Minus World. Scrawled on a crumpled piece of paper in our possession were instructions that claimed to describe the twisting path to the Minus World–I think Derrick transcribed the instructions, scribbling them down as a cousin or friend or babysitter or some other vague authority revealed them in a conspiratorial whisper.

But the instructions never worked. We never found the Minus World, although viewing the video above, I swear we got really, really close. If only….

It seems to me that the golden age of video game myths is over. Back then, there were no strategy guides or incredibly exhaustive online walkthroughs to reveal to you every corner, every secret, every Easter Egg to be found in a given video game. No, back then these things were mysteries–you heard about them second- or third-hand, then rushed home to try and find them yourself. The myths were usually wild goose chases… but they were true just often enough to keep you coming back for more.

I think the day of the Game Urban Legend lasted up to about the release of Doom and its sister games. Doom and its ilk featured countless hidden spaces and Easter Eggs, and I’m guessing that you, like I, spent at least some of your adolescence running alongside the walls of Doom levels hitting the spacebar in hopes of finding a secret door. But that was about when strategy guides were hitting game store shelves, and about the time that people were compiling their collective Doom knowledge on the fledgling internet.

Those strategy guides and walkthroughs gave us the hidden knowledge we sought… and they stripped the veil of mystery away from the games we played and loved. Suddenly, we knew everything–and this gamer at least, gazing into that abyss, longed for the bliss of ignorance, forever lost. Was the price we paid for our encyclopedic knowledge too high?

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Remembering the Silver Princess

Here’s a fun bit of gaming history: the story of Palace of the Silver Princess, an old Dungeons and Dragons module that was recalled by the publisher on the very day of its release. (You can download the module in PDF format at the above link.) The module was recalled due to objectionable artwork. As the article above notes, the artwork sounds rather tame by today’s standards, but was considered inappropriate for a children’s game.

The module was revised rather heavily and re-released later in a much-altered form. But interestingly, the recall and revision of Palace of the Silver Princess may have saved the gaming community from more than just questionable artwork. Here’s a glimpse at some of the module’s actual content:

By revising the adventure, Moldvay spared us from some really, really lame monsters getting into the canon. There might be some adventurers who want to fight six-legged duckbill rats (“barics”) or go toe-to-toe with bubbles (they’re . . . bubbles), but the prize for true weirdness has to go to the ubues — three-headed, three-armed, oddly gendered creatures who feel as if they’ve somehow wandered out of Gamma World into D&D. Ironically only the decapus, the source of the illustration that caused all the trouble, survived (perhaps because it was featured on the color cover art!).

Duckbill rats? Bubbles? Maybe there’s a place for “oddly gendered” monsters in a roleplaying game somewhere, but I don’t think that place is in an old-school D&D dungeon-crawl.

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TSR, we hardly knew ye

Whatever happened to TSR? The company that was almost synonymous with Dungeons and Dragons, the company that sat atop the RPG industry for decades?

I’ve read lots of different online explanations over the years trying to pinpoint what exactly went wrong. Most of the rumors sound a bit too melodramatic to be entirely true, even if they have some basis in fact–there are reports that the company’s CEO actually hated gamers; that draconian copyright enforcement alienated its core customers; that nepotism and corruption were rampant.

Today I stumbled across an essay by Ryan Dancey (himself a bit of a controversial character) which gives as good an explanation for TSR’s failure as any. The bottom line: TSR had almost no understanding of their audience and put very little effort into maintaining a workable business model:

I walked again the long threads of decisions made by managers long gone; there are few roadmarks to tell us what was done and why in the years TSR did things like buy a needlepoint distributorship, or establish a west coast office at King Vedor’s mansion. Why had a moderate success in collectable dice triggered a million unit order? Why did I still have stacks and stacks of 1st edition rulebooks in the warehouse? Why did TSR create not once, not twice, but nearly a dozen times a variation on the same, Tolkien inspired, eurocentric fantasy theme? Why had it constantly tried to create different games, poured money into marketing those games, only to realize that nobody was buying those games?

And what was at the heart of that failed business plan? The real kiss of death for TSR was an absence of any real understanding of what their customers even wanted:

In all my research into TSR’s business, across all the ledgers, notebooks, computer files, and other sources of data, there was one thing I never found – one gaping hole in the mass of data we had available.

No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No “voice of the customer”. TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive. The management of the company made decisions based on instinct and gut feelings; not data. They didn’t know how to listen – as an institution, listening to customers was considered something that other companies had to do – TSR lead, everyone else followed.

In other words, TSR was full of people who loved their work and were passionate about the games they created–but who had little or no sense of running a serious business. I suspect this weakness isn’t limited to RPG publishers alone; several game and hobby stores in my area have gone out of business in recent years, and I’ve often wondered if the owners’ enthusiasm for gaming blinded them to the need to learn the basics of business and marketing.

TSR is gone, but the current top-tier RPG publishers seem to have learned the lesson of its failure–Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, and others are steaming along with no signs of faltering. Let’s hope that TSR’s demise will at least remind would-be RPG publishers today that business savvy and customer awareness are no less important than creative passion when it comes to success.

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Run out the guns

I’m currently reading about the naval aspect of the Revolutionary War, and am finding it incredibly interesting. The Revolutionary War is one of those periods in history about which I should know far more than I actually do; it’s marked by some truly larger-than-life people and events.
One such person is John Paul Jones, a name familiar to me since grade school, but about which I actually knew very little until now. I knew he was famous in regard to the colonial Navy in some way, but that’s about it. I just finished reading about the battle that made him a household name for generations to come–the fight between his ship the Bonhomme Richard and the HMS Serapis. Jones’ ship was outgunned and outclassed, but he stubbornly (or stupidly, I suppose) refused to surrender, shouting the famous “I have not yet begun to fight” (or a phrase along those lines; history is uncertain about the exact words–but they were Fightin’ Words, whatever they were).
Anyway, I thought it was a fun and inspiring story, so if you’re not familiar with it, you might enjoy reading a short recounting of the battle.
One aspect of the battle not mentioned in that brief version of events is that the French-captained frigate Alliance, a member of Jones’ squadron, showed up on the scene mid-battle and fired several broadsides… into the Bonhomme Richard. A bit of research on my part has not turned up a satisfactory explanation for this. The author of the book I’m reading believes that battlefield confusion on that scale is unlikely, and that the Alliance hoped to sink the Bonhomme Richard, finish off the badly damaged Serapis, and claim credit for the kill. (I’m sure there’s a joke about the French in there somewhere waiting to be told, but I’ll nobly refrain.)
Interesting stuff!
update: Here’s a much more detailed description of the battle, if you’re up for a longer read. It seems to chalk up the Alliance incident to incompetence, not treachery.

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Worth reading

A couple of quick notes again today.
If you’ve got some time to spare, you really ought to read Losing the War, about the general weirdness, horror, and confusion that was World War II. It’s incredibly lengthy, so if time is limited, I suggest starting in on the second half of the piece, which is where the most interesting discussion material surfaces.
I read this last week and have been pondering it ever since. (I may comment on parts of it at more length in the future if I can muster the will to do so.) At any rate, it has some terribly insightful perspectives on how and why the war was perceived as it was. Well worth the read.
On a different note, Kim and Jon have posted their much-anticipated dual-reviews of Left Behind and The Da Vinci Code, and the results are spectacular.
There, that’s two (three, if you count the book reviews as separate entities) items for you to read today, which should tide you over until I post some real content here one of these days.

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