Thursday, June 30, 2016

Drawing the Farthest Shore: The Platypus Reads Part CCXCIV

The Farthest Shore concludes the original Earthsea Trilogy. Le Guin has come back and added a further two novels after a long hiatus, but I'm never sure how I feel about their incorporation into the original set. Even The Farthest Shore has differences in tone from A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. For one thing, it seems as if Le Guin had encountered the works of J.R.R. Tolkien by the time she wrote The Farthest Shore and that The Lord of the Rings exercised a subtle, pervasive influence on both language and content. I was waiting in the penultimate chapter for Sparrowhawk to say to Arren "I'm glad you're with me, Lebannen, here at the end of all things".

Whatever Tolkienian echoes there might be, however, The Farthest Shore is still firmly a work of Ursula K. Le Guin. The world is her own, and she is in full command of it as Sparrowhawk and Arren go in quest of the force that is destroying all of Earthsea. No where is this more evident than in Arren's (Son of Morred = Son of David) christological descent into hell and resurrection. In this event, Le Guin shows that her world possesses a life of its own, growing and moving through historical epochs. The advent of the prophesied King and his war with the Anti-King marks the close of the Ancient Earthsea that began with the "Bronze Age" Ereth-Akbe and ended with the Taoist-Stoic "Late Roman" Ged and begins a Middle Age with its own "Anno Domini".

So, here to pair with these thoughts is a drawing of the Anti-King, Cob, standing in the dry river bed beneath the Mountains of Pain (prismacolor pencils on black sketch-paper). We'll see if any more pleasant images occur to me as I continue to think about The Farthest Shore. If any do occur, you can be sure that I will post them here at Platypus of Truth.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mansions of Madness Minis: Creative Platypus

Never mind the Mi-Go...

My skills-of-a-photographer still leave something to be desired, but here is my first-draft of the miniatures from Fantasy Flight Games' Mansions of Madness. I've supplemented the base set with all sorts of do-dads from my Warhammer collection and some old museum souvenirs I had lying around the house. Points if you get the inside joke with the cultists (aside from the obvious Cthulhu reference).

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Platypus Summer Reading 2016: The Platypus Reads Part CCXCIII

June is usually the month when I get most of the year's blogging done. This June has been full of distractions, so here I am at the end of the month just putting together a post on Summer Reading.

Every summer I put together a prospective reading list. At the end of each summer, I award the best of those books the Seven Heavens of Summer Reading awards in honor of Michael Ward's Planet Narnia. So what's made the list so far?

First off, I finished up a little more reading on the Salem Witch Trials with Mary Beth Norton's In the Devil's Snare, a book I found excellent but ultimately unpersuasive (especially because I was uncertain of what exactly the author was trying to persuade me). A more satisfying read was Escaping Salem by Richard Godbeer about the witch trials in my own back yard (Fairfield County Connecticut) that I never knew about. Godbeer manages to treat his subjects as real people inhabiting a real time and place without the sanctimonious rush to judgement all too common in histories of witch trials (other notable exceptions are Charles Williams and John Putnam Demos).

Finally finished with witchcraft (for now), I decided to move back to my first scholarly love, the Ancient Greeks. This means wading through the published version of Christopher Matthew's doctoral thesis A Storm of Spears. If Matthews is right -and he looks right so far- then the mechanics of Hoplite warfare need some serious revaluation. You don't often get a game-changer like that in Ancient History, so although the book's a slog (a doctoral thesis has to be), it's also an absorbing read.

Next on the list has been a return to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (never far from my mind). I read Rice professor Jane Chance's Tolkien's Art earlier in the year and am in the process of following it up with her study of The Lord of the Rings, A Mythology of Power. I've always heard people talk about how popular Tolkien was with the counter-culture, but A Mythology of Power is the first attempt I've seen to explain why. Chance locates resonances between Tolkien, Third Wave Feminism, and Michel Foucault that are a salutary corrective to current portrayals of his thought as Crunchy-Conservative-Catholic.

Not all of this year's summer reading is non-fiction, however. My wife and I have been working through Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Series this year and we've just started The Farthest Shore. We also finished a massive slog through the Finnish Kalevala after reading Tolkien's Tale of Kullervo with accompanying essays by Verlyn Fleiger. This was my second read of The Kalevala, and I found it every bit as unique and amazing as it was when I first read it fourteen years ago (listening to all that Nightwish made it a bit of a surreal experience as well). Finally, we made a detour into speculative fiction with a friend's work Reboot, by Emmett Biffle. Having heard the manuscript read by the author during peer-group sessions I may be a little biased, but this is one of the few works of speculative fiction that I actually enjoyed and I look forward to reading the sequels when they appear.

So there you have it: the start of Summer Reading 20016. It won't end where it began, but it looks like it will be a fun ride along the way. Stay tuned mid-August to early September for the 2016 Seven Heavens of Summer Reading Awards here at Platypus of Truth!

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Platypus Mansion (Slightly Haunted): Table Top Games

Fantasy Flight has produced an entire line of games dedicated to a New England author who dedicated his life to the study and praise of New England -it's like a dream come true! So here is the newest iteration of Platypus Gaming, Mansions of Madness, a dungeon crawl based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

The first thing I noticed about the game, right from the moment I opened the box, is the high art production value. Every element of the game is beautiful and represents a united aesthetic. Tone is such an important element in Lovecraft's short stories and deft art direction creates a consistently lovecraftian tone from the get-go.

The second thing I noticed, while perusing the rule book, is that unlike many other dungeon crawls, Mansions of Madness is truly adversarial. The game is set up to evenly match investigators (protagonists) versus the Keeper (antagonist) and let them duke it out for the victory. There's no issue here of a capricious "game ordinance director" going for a "total party kill" while a more moderate one might hold back -going for a "total party kill" is the Keeper's job! This comes back to the issue of tone as an important aspect of Lovecraft's writing is that the heroes often lose. As in the writing, so in the game: there is a real sense of tension because we know that the heroes can lose.

Once I got down to playing, I also appreciated the simplicity of the game play. Looking at the myriad of pieces and rules made me worry that I'd never be able to play Mansions of Madness without a lengthy internet tutorial -never mind getting someone else to play with me. In fact, the game mechanics are functional and elegant making it easy to pick up and smooth in play. The second factor enhances the narrative elements of the game (it is about solving a mystery in a haunted house after all) giving it the feel of an actual short story. Even playing a starter game against myself gave me the creeps! (ok, the week long thunderstorm helped.)

All in all, I'm loving Mansions of Madness so far. There are two main expansions, neither of which I own, with numerous print-on-demand minor expansions, so as long as Fantasy Flight keeps the game in print, there's sure to be continued fun. My wife and I have enjoyed Fantasy Flights' other Lovecraftian mythos games (Elder Sign: Omens, Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror), so we're glad to see that this one measures up.