26 March 2024

The Lieutenant

The best tabletop roleplaying actual play story I have ever heard.

When the original d20 Star Wars RPG was being released, Wizards of the Coast had a launch party for it at a local Planet Hollywood. Jake Lloyd and Peter Mayhew were there, as were some other Star Wars people of import, and I and several other designers ran intro games for them and anyone else who came along and was interested.

I ran the intro scenario several times, and most of those sessions are a blur. We used Star Wars action figures rather than miniatures, and most groups barely got through one encounter. It was fun, but most people did more laughing and movie quotes than gaming.

But one elderly couple with brilliant British accents came along and said they were on vacation and had just wanted to eat at a Planet Hollywood, but had been told there was a game launch. There knew they were welcome, and had grabbed some food from the buffet, but if there was a game they were interested in trying it. But they had no idea what “Star Wars” was.

So I showed them the good guy figures, and told them these were members of the Rebel Alliance, who fought for freedom and fairness against the tyrannical bad guys.

“Ah,” said the elderly gentlemen. His face was a lean angular shape covered in tiny wrinkles, he walked with a cane, his hair was sheet white, but his eyes seemed bright and alert. “So they’re the French Resistance, are they?”

Well I admitted, yeah basically.

Then he picked up an Imperial officer figure, and looked it over.

“And this is a Space Nazi?”

Ah… yes. Their troops are even called Stormtroopers.

“Oh!” said his wife. “It’s like The War.”

“Right,” said he sitting. “How do we play?”

I had those two wonderful people, with decades of experience and clearly a strong idea of what military work is actually like, and three teen fanboys. The elderly gentleman took charge, got the mission objective out of me, and …

And ran the PC team like real commandos. Scouts. Ambushes. Covering fire. Raiding enemy gear. Firing from cover. Sticking to the objective. I was making stuff up to cover some of the things he wanted to do, because I didn’t know the rules that well. And I was up front about it, and made it clear that was part of the fun. You can try anything in an RPG. The GM just works out what dice to roll.

The teens just started calling his character “The Lieutenant,” and hung on his every word. And unlike every other group I ran that night, they got through the whole short introductory adventure. And won. Without Jedi.

Everyone smiled and clapped when they were done. And the couple decided they’d pick up a copy back home, and introduce the game to their friends. I’m pretty sure they were both in their mid 80s back when this happened, in 2000. But I like to think they are still playing some RPG, with their group of friends in England, merrily making commando raids to this day.

A video telling the tale:

14 March 2024

Book of Job

The Book Of Job is very strange.

Job calls Ha’Shem to account for the injustice of the world, and the Voice From The Whirlwind delivers a glorious rant that spans all of space and time, which starts off like this:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements? Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone
When the morning stars sang together
And all the Sons Of Elohim shouted for joy?

That’s not an answer, Dad.

But the King James translation has Job respond with goveling humility:

I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes

I fell in love with the Book Of Job through a different translation by Stephen Mitchell, a Jewish and Zen Buddhist scholar of Hebrew. He said he was inspired to do his new transation by then-recent scholarship which suggested that the Hebrew word נחם was better understood not as I repent but as I take consolation, which unlocked for him a whole other side of the book. In the introduction to his translation, Mitchell says:

This is partly a matter of translation. The King James and most other versions present us with a Job who, in his last words, “abhor[s] [him]self / and repent[s] in dust and ashes.” They do this on the shakiest of philological grounds; though understandably, because they are thinking with orthodox Christian ideas and expecting to find penitence and self-abasement as the appropriate response to the righteous, ill-tempered god they expect to find. Nor is this only a Christian mind-set. (For example, the joke about the rabbi who on Yom Kippur walks to the front of his congregation, pounds his chest, and shouts, “I am worthless, Lord, I am worthless.” Then the president of the synagogue walks to the front, pounds his chest, and shouts, “I am worthless, Lord, I am worthless.” Next, to the surprise and scandal of everyone, the wimpy little beadle walks to the front, pounds his chest, and shouts, “I am worthless, Lord, I am worthless.” The rabbi turns to the president and sneers, “Look who’s saying he’s worthless!”)

But self-abasement is just inverted egoism. Anyone who acts with genuine humility will be as far from humiliation as from arrogance. Wherefore I abhor myself indeed! How could this poet, after a venture of unprecedented daring, end with a hero merely beaten into submission? Thereby proving that the friends’ degraded opinion is correct after all, since Job, by acknowledging that he is a vermin among vermin, acknowledges the god who mistrusts his angels and in whose nose heaven stinks.

Job’s response will not accommodate such whimpering. He has received his answer, and can only remain awe-stricken in the face of overwhelming beauty and dread. At Alamogordo on July 16, 1945, Robert Oppenheimer responded to another kind of vision by remembering a verse from the Bhagavad Gita: “I [God] am death, the shatterer of worlds.” And indeed, the only scriptural analogy to God’s answer (the other Biblical examples, except for the biting bush, are of a lesser god) is the vision granted to Arjuna in chapter 11 of the Gita, in which that prince experiences, down to the marrow of his bones, the glory and the terror of the universe, all creation and all destruction, embraced in the blissful play of the Supreme Lord. The manifestations there are more cosmic than in Job and the realization of God as “the Self seated in the heart of all creatures” is far clearer. But Job’s vision is the more vivid, I think, because its imagination is so deeply rooted in the things of this world. Reading the two together, we are likely to feel even more powerfully the earthliness that moved the author of Job to write in such magnificent, loving detail of the lioness and the wild ass and the horse, those creatures as radiant in their pure being as the light that is “brighter than a thousand suns.”

Job’s final words issue from surrender; not from submission, which even at its purest, in the “Naked I came…” of the prologue, is a gesture in a power transaction, between slave and master or defeated and conqueror, and is always a mode of spiritual depression. Surrender, on the contrary, means the wholehearted giving-up of oneself. It is both the ultimate generosity and the ultimate poverty, because in it the giver becomes the gift. When Job says, “I had heard of you with my ears; / but now my eyes have seen you,” he is no longer a servant, who fears god and avoids evil. He has faced evil, has looked straight into its face and through it, into a vast wonder and love.

Instead of bursting into fervid adoration as Arjuna does, Job remains a hairsbreadth away from silence. His words are a miracle of tact. We are not told the details of his realization; that isn’t necessary; everything is present in the serenity of his tone. All we know is that his grief and accusations, his ideas about God and pity for man, arose from utter ignorance. But we can intuit more than that. A man who hungers and thirsts after justice is not satisfied with a menu. It is not enough for him to hope or believe or know that there is absolute justice in the universe: he must taste and see it. It is not enough that there may be justice someday in the golden haze of the future: it must be now; must always have been now.

So in his rendering, Mitchell gives Job’s response as:

I had heard of you with my ears;
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I will be quiet,
comforted that I am dust.

A while back, I found myself musing on the Voice From The Whirlwind asking Job, “Where were you?”

I had always taken this as Ha’Shem pulling rank as a Cranky Old Timer: “What do you know? Back when I was setting Planck’s Constant with my Divine Calipers, just to get to work I had to create snow before walking through it barefoot because I had not yet created shoes.”

But decades after I read Mitchell’s translation and commentary, it finally occurred to me to take the question directly. Where was Job when Ha’Shem laid the foundations of the world?

And I thought of the Zen kōan which asks, “What was your face before you were born?” And then the one which asks, “Who is the Master who makes the grass green?” Or if that is too oblique, consider Dan Bern’s American folk kōan “God Said No”.

Invitations to finding the root of suffering. With that, one might feel comforted that one is dust.

Or perhaps Job was fed up.

12 March 2024

The Absurd Pier

The US has announced plans to build a pier to deliver aid to Palestinians in Gaza. A friend on my feed shared a comment calling this is a ploy to secure a permanent US military presence in Gaza.

This is the kind of paranoid, dumb advocacy for Palestinian liberation which frustrates me, attributing not just malice to opponents of Palestinian liberation but every possible malice, defying logic.

To President Biden, the horrors in Gaza are a distraction from domestic concerns and the upcoming election. He wants an end to criticism of ongoing US support to Israel despite the brutality of their attack on Gaza, but also wants to keep the alliance with Israel, because most Democrats still support Israel and US military strategy depends on Israel as a place where we can land planes.

Biden wants the Gaza crisis off of his desk as soon as possible; creating a permanent military presence in Gaza is a nightmare for him, not a goal. The Absurd Pier goes out of its way to be both materially & theatrically not-permanent. It keeps US troops’ literal boots off of the literal ground.

The US has a moral obligation as not just a major power but as a longtime ally of Israel to support Palestinian liberation, and I will not pretend that the Absurd Pier meets that obligation. But it is good on the merits, and given the constraints that Biden imagines he faces, a very clever move.

It allows the US to provide material support to the people of Gaza — more than the US has ever done for Palestinians before — without sacrificing the alliance with Israel we insist on retaining.

Doing this as a military operation deters interference which has thus far curtailed bringing aid. The Egyptians and other Arab states do not want to tangle with the US over it; they will not go that far out of their way. If Israel interferes with the aid effort, it undercuts American voters’ support for Israel, giving Biden cover to put more pressure on them or even sever the alliance. If Hamas interferes — as they could, being more interested in glory than the wellbeing of the Palestinian people — US would then have a stake in the conduct of the “war on Hamas”, enabling pressure on Israel to stop doing brutal stupid things to the people of Gaza which put Americans in danger. It even signals that a return to the status quo ante of Israel’s blockade of Gaza is unacceptable.

Take the modest win.

01 March 2024


I need to write something proper about Timnit Gebru & Émile P. Torres’ coinage “TESCREAL” to describe the weirdnerd ideological cluster of transhumanism, Extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism and longtermism. I find the acronym very useful in registering how these ideologies are entangled and reflect a shared lineage, though I think Torres’ conclusion that these are Just All One Thing is a misleading overstatement. If we are going to confront this and neighboring movemements like neoreaction and Gray Tribe et cetera, it is important to make distinctions.

In the meantime, a few commentaries I find useful: