Thursday
Jan222015

A Historian Talks About Assassin's Creed Unity

Just came across this video (via Kotaku), which is pretty interesting. I especially like what he says at the end about the kind of game he would have made.

 

Friday
Jan162015

Napoleonic Era Trivia of the Day: Chicken on Demand

Continuing my culling of trivial tidbits from Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts, I've been on the lookout for anything to do with food. Why food? I have my reasons. I have plans. Ambitious, food and Napoleon related plans!

Napoleon himself was no foodie. He ate fast and easy and wasn't much of a drinker. He generally spent about ten minutes at the dinner table, half an hour at most if it was Sunday dinner. 

In the interest of not wasting time on something boring like food, when at one of palaces, the kitchens would have:

"Dozens of chickens were put on spits throughout the day so that one would always be ready for him."

So, we can safely assume modren-day Napoleon would love him some Boston Market.

Apparently he also drank no wine but Chambertin. I'm not sure how rare or expensive it was back then when fancy wine was a relatively new concept, but it's a red Burgundy that's not super cheap these days

Wednesday
Jan142015

I'm Learning French: Duolingo is Pretty Cool

I’m learning French.

Slowly but surely, I’m learning French. My goal is to get better at French than any language I’ve studied besides English. In my life I’ve studied Latin, Ancient Greek, Spanish, German, and Italian. In the case of Latin, I studied for several years at a college level. I was never much good at Latin. I lived in Germany for months at a time and never got beyond simple travel and shopping phrases. Same for Italian. I’ve always thought that I’m not very good at learning languages.

But now I’m learning French, and I can continue to confirm that I’m not particularly good at learning languages. I don’t ever seem to get around to spending serious time memorizing vocabulary lists or looking at flash cards. I don’t have an especially good ear for the nuances of language. Picking up a new tongue does not come second nature.

Yet I remain optimistic this time around. Why? Let’s take my reasons for hope in mostly chronological order:

Time Served: All those other languages do, for the most part, inform my study of French. The snippets of Spanish and Italian and the years of Latin all have come in handy. The Greek and German a little less so, but still, I think they help.

Wider Interest: I wanted to know how to speak German a lot each time I spent months in Berlin. I wanted to read things in Latin and Greek when I was studying to be a historian. Now that I want to both travel to France for lengthy stays and read 18th century texts in French, I have twice the incentive I ever had before.

Free Will Classes: Unlike with German I’m taking French classes. Unlike with Latin, I’m just taking them for fun and not because there’s a masters degree I’m never going to get on the line. I have a great teacher through the local Adult Community & Enrichment center. She makes the classes fun, is a native speaker, and an accomplished teacher.

Duolingo: It’s right there in the title, so you knew it was coming. Duolingo is a free app for Android and IOS that helps you learn languages. It’s pretty slick, and amazing for something that’s free. I started using it before I started classes, which was, I think, a mistake.

I imagine there might be more committed or gifted students than I who could learn a language just by using Duolingo. It includes pronunciation, translation into English from French and vice versa. It has questions where you just listen to a recording and have to type in what the person’s saying. It covers all the bases, turns them into a game, and adjusts difficulty to match your ability.

But it doesn’t teach grammar. You don’t sit down and show how verbs conjugate or why a sentence is put together that way. In French, as in any language, there are lots of little quirks and rules that you just have to memorize them. With just Duolingo, you’re left to maybe intuit those rules. Or maybe they expect you to look it up in a book. Or ask a teacher.

I’d given up on it a month or so before I started classes. I was getting confused and frustrated and didn’t understand. But now I’m back to using it every day. It’s the perfect accompaniment to my classes. There I’m getting weekly, in-person instruction that not only explains how the language works, but gives me great feedback on pronunciation.

And so I’m learning French. Someday, just maybe, I’ll be able to say without lying, that I know it.


 

Monday
Jan122015

I Played: Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

I played Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition last night, and I liked it.

That’s not new. My friends and I have been playing D&D 5th since it came out several months back, and we’ve been enjoying it the whole time. It’s really too early to say how much of that is down to the new edition’s quality and how much is about our group, but I will say that this is a high-quality game with a lot of thoughtful design in it.

Playing the newest version of Dungeons & Dragons has become a ritual for me. I started all the way back in the early 80s, when I was in second or third grade. I played Basic, Advanced, and Second Edition through childhood and into high school. I don’t have any clear memories of 2nd Edition being a big deal, but I know I bought it and played it. It came out in 1989, my senior year of high school. At that time we were way into Call of Cthulhu and, weirdly enough, TORG. Vampire: The Masquerade was just around the corner, and throughout the first half of the 90s I was more World of Darkness than anything else. So much so that my first paid writing gig was for Wraith: The Oblivion in 1995, which marked the transition from hobbyist to profesionalist.

Third Edition D&D came out in 2000, when I was living in California and just starting up Cryptic Studios. The group of us there decided it would be fun to jump back into D&D after all these years. Aside from a single playtest session when I interviewed for a job with Wizards of the Coast I hadn’t played in forever. It was one of the few games going I didn’t do freelance writing for. So, we bought all the books, made the characters, and played for a while. Not that long if I recall, but not for any reason other than people were busy.

When I moved back to Florida, I ran or played in a number of Third Edition games, including an attempt to run the World’s Largest Dungeon. History repeated itself, and interest wore away, replaced this time mostly by board games and other RPGs. But lo and behold, when 2008 brought D&D Fourth Edition, that same excitement rose again. We bought all the books, and played a campaign for quite a while until the game ran out of steam and ground to a halt under the weight of all those power and spell cards. Still, we had a good time for a good long while.

And here we are in 2015, and D&D 5th Edition has once again supplanted other RPGs in my group. Although I’m damn sure going to make these guys play Dreamhounds of Paris with me at some point in the not too distant future, right now we’re all a flutter with the new new D&D. I’m playing a bard who cooks instead of sings and is supposed to be based on Gordon Ramsay. As it turns out, I can’t keep up his level of vitriol, but I do say, “Fresh, local ingredients” a lot. We’re all having a lot of fun.

System wise, it’s stripped down from the baroque wonders of 4th Edition, or the mechanistic min-maxing of 3rd. The one system that strikes me as really elegant is the Advantage/Disadvantage ruleset. When you have advantage, roll two dice and take the higher. When you’re at a disadvantage, roll two and take the lower. It’s so simple and flexible and just works well. I also like that they squashed the range of to hit bonuses and difficulties. And they made bards a solid character class, which seems crazy, but I swear is true.

So far, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition gets my nod of approval. It’s totally D&D, and a good one to boot. We’ll see how long it holds my interest and attention. At some point I’m going to need to start playtesting my Napoleonic Dinner Party RPG, and when that happens, I’ll have no patience for dungeons or dragons.

 

Friday
Jan092015

Napoleonic Era Trivia of the Day: Friedrich Hegel and Napoleon

In the course of the French invastion of Prussia in 1806, philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel spotted Napoleon riding through the streets of Jena. At the time he was finishing up the last pages of The Phenomenology of Spirit.

As quoted in Andrew Roberts' Napoleon: A Life, Hegel told a friend that he had seen "the Emperor, this Welseele [world-soul] ride out of town...Truly it is a remarkable sensation to see suh an individual on horseback, raising his arm over the world and ruling it." 

Wikipedia has the quote a little different, but the same gist: 

"I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it . . . this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire."

Roberts goes on to note that Napoleon rather well exemplified the Hegelian idea of a 'beautiful soul', a force that acts autonomously in disregard of convention and others' interests" 

Having not read Hegel, I'll take his word on the definition of beautiful soul, and note that it doesn't seem very beautiful to me. He's probably using it in some fancy philosopher way. It is a good description of Napoleon's character, which I wouldn't call beautiful either, but which is certainly compelling. Also, unlike Hegel, I think it's entirely possible to not admire Napoleon, although to be fair some (not all) of his bigger errors and crimes lie in Hegel's future when he wrote that.