A Production Plan for “The Watchfire”

“The Watchfire” is a deep time science fiction screenplay that plays as symbolist fantasy/horror, in the mode of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, or films like EvolutionInnocence, and Sauna. Two 10-year-old girls guard a flaming beacon alone on a hill by the sea. One day a third child appears.

Concept art on the blog here.

At barely six pages, “The Watchfire” can be filmed on a modest budget with a small crew. This is a breakdown of how.

Three young actors are needed. The two “sisters” (the Dawn Girl and the Dusk Girl, age 10-12) will need matching long blonde wigs, and simple handmade-looking dresses matching their hair. One will need to memorize two long-ish blocks of text–to be recited as stories, not performed as lines–the other only one recital. They should be rehearsed together in the weeks prior to filming, with a focus on being comfortable and engaged with one other. The third (the Golden Boy, 10-12) will need a simple handmade “castaway” outfit of canvas and rope. He should be rehearsed separately. The childrens’ parents/guardians will need to sign off on some violence in the film, though very little that’s apparent to the actors on set. I won’t pretend to be an expert on directing children, but per Lenore DeKoven it’s best if the children are minded on set by someone other than a parent; children tend to have trouble focusing with a parent present. (Think home vs. school.) Limitations on shooting hours will have to be researched and planned for.

Filming will take place over a weekend. As I’m currently based in Boston, coastal Maine will be the most accessible shooting location, although northern California (near my sister) or the Swedish coast (near Denmark) would also work. The requirement is a temperate wooded area where the hills meet the sea. Shooting in Maine would allow me to save on accommodations by using the visitors’ apartment at my mother’s house. (Two of the kids even get bunk beds!)

Three filming locations will be needed:

  1. The Beacon. An overgrown field bordered by trees.
  2. The Hillside. A wooded clearing overlooking the ocean.
  3. The Seashore. An uninhabited beach.

The Beacon

The primary shooting location will need to be built in situ beforehand. It consists of a central object (the beacon) resembling a dead tree turned to stone, with eternal flames playing across its branches. Beside it sit two small pools of indeterminate depth. A ring of stones surrounds the beacon. The surrounding tall grass is trampled into a crop circle about 40 feet in diameter, with a second ring of stones marking its outer boundary.

A property owner’s back field would be ideal. The house can be quite close by, as long as it’s out of the shot. (A friendly house is also helpful for costume changes, bathroom breaks, emergency battery charges, craft services, etc.) Sync sound would be needed on this set, so proximity to a busy road is a no-go.

The beacon itself will be only partially built, to a height about a foot taller than the actors. The upper branches and flames will be created digitally in post-production. Practical lights will be hung from booms atop the beacon, to be covered over with CGI. Although the sisters enter and exit the pools in story, this can be largely faked with staging and cutting. Mylar sheets under a few inches of water may work to simulate much deeper pools. (The bottoms are never seen.) Tutorials for creating a crop circle with planks and ropes are easy to find online.

For the effects work, a chrome ball must be filmed with bracketed exposures at each setup on the beacon set, to generate an Image Based Lighting model. Instances where the actors move in front of the CGI tree elements will have to be hand rotoscoped.

The Hillside

A couple of brief scenes take place just outside the beacon’s crop circle. They’ll almost certainly need to be filmed elsewhere. No build. Sync sound won’t be needed. The scenes can probably be shot guerilla style near a public lookout.

The effects work here is largely subtractive: Removing any trace of civilization from the background. Towns, ships, square fields, vapor trails, roads, etc. will need to be painted out in a tracked travel matte. Elements the actors pass in front of will have to be rotoscoped out.

The Seashore

A single, relatively brief scene. No build. No sync sound.

The trick here is that Maine’s inshore waters are littered with brightly-colored lobster buoys. The best option may be to film near high tide in a cove with extensive mudflats. (Traps are set below the intertidal zone; the farther out the low tide line, the smaller and more distant the buoys, making them easier to paint out.)

Pickup Shots

Establishing shots will present the same civilization problems. These will tend to be fairly static, and can be constructed as matte collages.

Post Production

Special effects will be done by me in Fusion, which was our primary tool on “The Garden, 1910.” Unless I can secure some kind of residency, they’re likely to take a couple months to complete on evenings and weekend.

In All…

The project can be accomplished in about 3-4 months, start to finish.

Required personnel:

  • Director (me)
  • Producer
  • DP
  • Dawn Girl actor
  • Dusk Girl actor
  • Golden Boy actor
  • At least one guardian/parent for the above
  • Hair/Makeup
  • Sound
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Fire Brothers

One of the germs of “The Watchfire” was a partial mishearing of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1971 song “Fire Brothers.” The mondegreen method seems about right, as no one can seem to agree on the exact lyrics to this song. Here’s my best attempt:

In the valley where the loons and lovers play
Lived two children who were born on Saturday
One was dark, one was fair
Fathered by the hawk, mothered by the mare

Stranger children you will never see;
Brothers of the forest and the sea
One was land, one was air
And they kept the fires burning there

In a golden vessel and silver vase
Kept them burning in that strange enchanted place
Kept them burning to the sky
For they knew someday the sun would die

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Concept Art for “The Watchfire”

Her bare feet linger just within a crop circle bounded with a ring of stones. A second ring of stones lies closer to the center. In the middle, flanked by two small mirrored pools, looms the BEACON itself–taller than her, topped with a flame that isn’t fire.

A lone BEACON of light shines from the wooded hills above a shore untouched by man.

The DAWN GIRL (10) looks down from the hill, wringing her hands as the GLOW of the explosion below touches her face. She is fair with extremely long blonde hair, draped in a shapeless garment of the same color.

Dusk carries the body to the sea’s edge. She’s about to drop it into the tidal mud when, brow knitting, she leans in. A faint, regular CHIRP-like sound eminates from the golden boy’s mouth, like a ticking counter.

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The Definitive Collection of Narnia Book Orderings

At some point well into my lifetime, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books were re-numbered into a sort of faux-story-chonology order. My own 1987 Scholastic trade box set numbers them correctly–in the order they were written–but modern editions (including my Gyldendal library-bound Danish editions) adopt the new order.

As we learned with the Star Wars movies, there’s no such thing as a “prequel” to an already released story. There can be sequels that take place earlier, but the structure of reveal, suspense and surprise–that is, storytelling–can’t be reorganized once it’s fixed. Watch the long, suspenseful introduction of Darth Vader at the beginning of Star Wars [*sigh* Episode IV: A New Hope] again. Silence. Sudden violence. Billowing smoke. Then the music… It’s a masterclass in villain reveals. Can one really believe that explaining and humanizing this character beforehand would enhance the scene? I feel bad for any kid who watches the Star Wars movies for the first time in “episode” order.

With the Narnia books there’s something more insidious: The implication that children can’t understand a flashback. Yes, as both explain quite clearly, The Horse and His Boy and The Magician’s Nephew take place before the events of The Silver Chair. Lewis himself took a bright view of children’s comprehension abilities. He was writing for 9-11 year olds, but even much younger children get “because this happened earlier.” They understand out of order storytelling, because that’s how humans communicate. All stories are flashbacks. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the moment of sublime wonder created by the lit lamppost in the snowy forest is in no way enhanced by knowing that, in the Creation era of this world, a villain briefly made it into our world, caused some trouble, tore off a piece of lamppost, lost it in Archean!Narnia, and because the Narnia Inflationary Field was still in play, it grew into a sort of natural lamppost tree thing. It’s a fun moment, when it comes, but that’s because we get to go back into our memory and connect something in an unexpected and fun way, not because we were confused and frustrated by it.

The modern Narnia book order is a mess, but there are alternatives. Below, I’ve attempted to compile is the most definitive list to date of Narnia series orderings.

By Order of Current Publication (Faux-Chronological Order)

1. The Magician’s Nephew
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
3. The Horse and His Boy

4. Prince Caspian
5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
6. The Silver Chair
7. The Last Battle

By Actual Story Order

1. The Magician’s Nephew
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
~ 2.5. The Horse and His Boy 
(The Horse and His Boy takes place during The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)
3. Prince Caspian
4. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
5. The Silver Chair
6. The Last Battle

By Length

1. The Silver Chair
2. The Horse and His Boy
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
4. Prince Caspian
5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

6. The Last Battle
7. The Magician’s Nephew

By How Long They Feel

1. The Last Battle (God what a slog…)
2. The Silver Chair
(Only kind of a slog)
3. The Magician’s Nephew
(Plenty of cool stuff for your time, at least)
2. The Horse and His Boy
(Moves right along, but mostly you’re still fagged out from 
The Silver Chair)
4. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
(Moar!)

4. Prince Caspian
5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
(That was it?)

By Obviously Out of Place Christian Symbolism

1. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (WTF’s up with the lamb?)
2. The Last Battle
(Wait, desert demon Tash of the MusselCalormen is real?)
3. Prince Caspian
(“You must learn to know me by another name-” “Baphomet?” “No you stupid prig.”)
4. The Magician’s Nephew
(Yeah yeah, wizards are all horrible…)
5. The Silver Chair
(Stung by a serpent, blah blah…)
6. The Horse and His Boy
(Same as the lashes of your servant, that’s fine.)
7. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

By Order I Read Them In

1. Prince Caspian
2. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
3. The Silver Chair
4. The Horse and His Boy
5. The Magician’s Nephew

6. The Last Battle
7. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
(My mom found the missing book from my box set at a library book sale when I was in college!)

By Current Danish Publisher’s Order

1. Troldmandens Nevø (Yes, the Danish word for magician is “troll man.”)
2. Løven, Heksen og Garderodeskabet (The definite article is usually a suffix in Danish.)
3. Hesten og Drengen (Shouldn’t it be
Hesten og hans Dreng?)
4. Prins Caspian 
(Free square!)
5. Morgenvandrerens Rejse (Now that is an impressive Germanic compound.)
6. Sølvstolen (Sounds a bit like a French person saving “seulv-.”)
7. Det Sidste Slag (At least the Danes admit it’s a slag.)

By Order I Bought Them in Danish

1. Løven, Heksen og Garderodeskabet (Saxo.com)
1. Prins Caspian 
(Saxo.com)
1. Morgenvandrerens Rejse (Saxo. The bank’s computer froze my credit card.)
2. Sølvstolen (Copenhagen bookshop)
2. Hesten og Drengen (The same Copenhagen bookshop)
3. Det Sidste Slag (I looked all over the damn city for this one.)
4. Troldmandens Nevø
 (Didn’t find it until I was studying in Ringkøbing this year.)

By Quality

1. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (What adventure!)
2. Prince Caspian
(What mystery!)
3. The Magician’s Nephew
(What magic!)
4. The Horse and His Boy
(What a yarn!)
5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
(What a children’s book!)
6. The Silver Chair
(What… grayness)
7. The Last Battle (What a slog)

By Order of Writing

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
2. Prince Caspian
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
4. The Silver Chair
5. The Horse and His Boy
6. The Magician’s Nephew

7. The Last Battle

By Correct Order

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
2. Prince Caspian
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
4. The Silver Chair
5. The Horse and His Boy
6. The Magician’s Nephew

7. The Last Battle

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Twitter users! Did you know I twit? Follow @EpithetADay for your daily epithet, courtesy of Matt Rasmussen.

Amazon Should Privatize Our Oceans

Amazon should control the oceans off all local communities. They can replace local beaches and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock.

There was a time seasides offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money. They would bring sun, sea, and sand to the masses. Residents could visit any time they wanted, swim, and enjoy an ice cream.

They also provided residents with a comfortable place they could enjoy nature. They provided people with a place they could swim in peace with the oversight of friendly lifeguards. Oceans served as a place where residents could hold their outdoor events, but this was a function they shared with parks. There’s no shortage of places to hold outdoor events. Also, the parks should be privatized.

The sea slowly began to service the local community more. Seas served up fish, and allowed the free movement of goods. The modern ocean still provides these services, but they don’t have the same value they used to. The reasons why are obvious.

One such reason is the rise of “third places” such as private pools. They provide residents with a comfortable place to swim, sunbathe, meet their friends and associates, and enjoy a great picnic. This is why some people have started using their towel card more than they use their National Parks card. (I realize that “some people” means literally nothing, but work with me here. Also, the National Parks should be privatized.)

On top of this, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have replaced the need to go outside. They provide nature content to the masses at an affordable rate. Actual natural places, like Martin’s Beach in California, have all but disappeared.

Then there’s the rise of plastic technology. Plastic has turned seashells into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for beachcombing.

Of course, there’s Amazon Shore to consider. Amazon has created their own online ocean that has made it easy for the masses to access both physical and digital artefacts of the world’s seas. Amazon Shore is a chain of stores that does what Amazon originally intended to do; replace the local. It improves on the beach model by adding salt water and ice cream. Amazon Shore basically combines a shoreline with an ice cream stand.

At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local ocean without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local beaches. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.

Above all, if the wobbly rhetoric and (nearly) fifth grade writing level of this piece haven’t convinced you, take comfort in knowing that it’s still marginally less stupid than this since-deleted Forbes piece.

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The Garden, 1910: Faking It Right

Currently, our challenge with The Garden, 1910 is finding film festivals willing to program a 30 minute “short” film–never mind one with extensive (non-sexual) nudity. Private screenings both in the US and Denmark have been extremely positive, but we’re not exactly teabagging the zeitgeist.

Our challenge in making it was one of bringing across a big-budget 1910s fantasy film on a 2010s microbudget. As the production designer and cinematographer, I wanted to know what it was like sitting in a smoky cinematograph watching a new, hand-colored print of a film like ours.

We came up with some terminology: The illusion vs. the effect. The effect was how we would actually achieve the shot: greenscreened footage of actors, puppets and miniatures (filmed on an iPhone 6s with Filmic Pro) composited in Blackmagic Fusion, Final Cut Pro X and Motion, with additional elements from still images, Animation:Master and Photoshop. The illusion was how our magician-turned-filmmaker would have created the shot using period techniques: sets with sometimes elaborate stage mechanisms, multiple photographic exposures, splices, color-tints, pyro, forced perspective, piano wire, Pepper’s ghost, and so forth.

The subconscious effect of frame rate, and how variable frame rates can be used artistically, is something I’ve been exploring. The Garden, 1910 actually runs at 60fps; a blurred three-blade shutter fades each frame in and out, running the “film” at the slightly unsteady 17-19fps of a hand-cranked projector. As the camera would also have been hand-cranked (at a slightly lower 13-14fps for a better exposure) each frame of the fully-composited footage also has a slightly randomized gain adjustment, to simulate variability in exposure. (Filmic Pro will record footage at an arbitrary frame rate like 14fps, but from working with the footage my impression is that the iPhone hardware itself will only capture at certain fixed frame rates, and Filmic merely discards the unwanted frames.)

Obviously, we weren’t content to slap an “olde timey film” filter onto the composited footage and call it good. Each composite in Fusion was piped through a battery of patches to extract and then imperfectly add back in false color, to simulate hand-coloring. (This was a nightmare, but probably an instructive one. I’ll drill down into it, with some downloadable material for Fusion tinkerers, in an upcoming blog post.) The completed “film” frames from each sequence (one frame per frame) were edited in Final Cut, with glue splices added as a custom FCP transition from Motion. (Don’t look down on Motion; it’s a real Swiss army knife, and incredibly fast.) The footage then made a round trip to Fusion, where it received unsteady re-timing to 17-19fps, shutter flicker, gate jumping, vignetting, emulsion dust and scratches, exiting as 60fps finished footage–and making a round-round-trip to Final Cut for final editing.

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So I Wrote a Star Wars Fan Film…

1. EXT. COTTAGE – NIGHT

A single dim, warm LIGHT above the front door struggles into the soaking mist, revealing the front of a MODEST REED-WALLED COTTAGE, round and set over the water.

A REBEL slips by. Dark, ragged fabric from head to toe divulges only parts of a helmet and utility vest. We can’t see their face — and we never will.

MATCH DISSOLVE TO:

2. EXT. COTTAGE – DAY

Morning finds us at the marshy edge of a pleasant lake.

Three STORM TROOPERS march toward the door, their white armor Endor-style, and era. The FIRST TROOPER stoops, blaster sweeping the short crawlspace between the cottage subfloor and the lake. A few machines hang down, nothing big enough to hide a person.

FIRST TROOPER

Clear, sir.

SECOND TROOPER

Sub droid’s found nothing in the water.

LIEUTENANT

Send it away.

3. INT. COTTAGE, CONT.

A familiar, visibly ageing Gungan answers the door.

JAR-JAR

Oh! Me’sa got officers coming here!? What can dis’sa be happening?

LIEUTENANT

A rebel against the Empire has been tracked —

Jar-Jar’s foot catches unluckily on a set of ceremonial spears near the entrance, which go CLATTERING to the floor, nearly gutting the first trooper.

FIRST TROOPER

Watch it!

LIEUTENANT

Step aside, Gungan.

JAR-JAR

Oh no! Rebels in meesa house? No no no! Find them!

The interior is spartan. Tidy. One room. Aside from the (many) mementos of state hung around the perimeter, it contains only a small kitchenette and a few sleeping cushions strewn about the floor.

The lieutenant gestures toward the ice box — the only space large enough to hide a person.

SECOND TROOPER

Sir.

FIRST TROOPER

In position…

The troopers push past the hapless Gungan with levelled blasters.

JAR-JAR

Rebels in meesa ice box?! Oh no! This-a terrible!

With interlocking fire, the troopers approach. At a signal, one THROWS THE LID!

LIEUTENANT

Report?

Both look in, nonplussed.

FIRST TROOPER

Half a sculptrin fish, sir. And, maybe, some cake.

JAR-JAR

Ooh! Meesa be saving that cake.

They lower their blasters, look around.

LIEUTENANT

(into a comlink)

Clear.

They leave.

After a moment Jar-Jar quite calmly scoops up the spears, setting them upright and closing the door.

His little pot-bellied kettle WHISTLES.

JAR-JAR

Muy bad business. Muy muy…

He pushes the window open, cocking an ear.

Jar-Jar pours water and a sprinkling of plant grounds into not one — but two cups.

JAR-JAR

(cont’d)

They’sa gone now. Is’a safe.

Two cushions, not touching, stir on the floor. The rebel pushes them aside, one from their legs and one from their upper body, hips sunk into a pit crossed by a bit of flooring — no doubt hidden by a domestic machine below.

REBEL

(whispered)

I didn’t cover my tracks very well.

In sotto voce, we still can’t even tell the faceless rebel’s gender.

JAR-JAR

They’sa droid spying under the lake gone too.

(points reassuringly to his big ears)

You’sa Rebel, eh? You’sa fight the Empire? You’sa make war, so you’sa
spawn make houses, so you’sa spawn’s spawn make poems. Yes?

REBEL

I — Senator?

Jar-Jar sits. In the bright sunlight streaming in from the lakeside window, his every wrinkle seems in sharp relief.

JAR-JAR

I’sa not a Senator no more. Never really was. Shouldn’t have been.
It’s not for making pretty up the past now; just living small life of
the old Gungan. My skin, it’sa not keep good water in or out, that’sa
how Gungans say it.

REBEL

They said you might be able to help me get off-planet.

A swell of displaced water creeps stealthily toward the cottage. A ROBOTIC EYE — not dissimilar to the one at Jabba’s palace — rises to the surface, cleaving the water periscope-style. The rebel scrambles for the false cushions.

JAR-JAR

Ahh! Me’sa lunch here.

Underwater delivery droid EL-ZED disappears beneath the cottage. A manhole-sized iris HISSES open in the floor. The wet metal eye pops up through an appropriately-sized hatch to the side as a BATTERED METAL RACK rises into the room — atop it a metal, but unmistakeable, TAKEOUT CONTAINER.

JAR-JAR

(cont’d)

Mmm-mmm! Smell’sa that good seaweed.

(He takes it with relish)

Thought I said no fish flakes…

EL-ZED BEEPS his inculpability.

JAR-JAR

(cont’d)

Here, you’sa meet a good friend. Meet El-Zed Vee-Three. She’sa being
your ride out of here.

The rebel steps to the iris, gingerly testing the ladder-like delivery rack, and taking a peek down into the cramped, rusty delivery bay. The eye watches interestedly.

REBEL

First class.

JAR-JAR

She’sa take you to the big kitchens at the seaweed factory. There a
slow freighter at the pad, leaving at noon. Just tell the captain an
old froggy sends you. Here —

(takes a small object off the shelf and tosses it to the rebel)

Very slow freighter. You’sa be wanting a book. This’a by a friend,
dear departed long time ago.

At a CLICK, a page of alien text momentarily appears in the air with a portrait of AMIDALA.

JAR-JAR

(cont’d)

She’sa teach you muy thing about rebelling. Now go go. Time not
a’waiting.

REBEL

Thanks for this. I won’t forget you.

The rebel finds room inside the droid’s tiny hull, as the rack CLATTERINGLY retracts.

JAR-JAR

Not forget me? You’sa never met me!

The iris closes.

CUT

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Forest Fire: A Game for Kids

Forest Fire is a simple Pandemic-like (or Pandemic-lite) game for 4-6 kids, age 6 and up. The players work together to put out the fires in a forest. Encourage them to talk over their moves, and strategize as a team.

Make a 6×6 grid. Number the columns 1-6 and the rows A-F. These are the Forest Squares. Place a player piece for each kid around the outer edge of the grid, next to any square they choose.

To add Fires (counters) to the board, you will roll two dice. Announce the roll to the players as: The number from the first die, and the letter corresponding to the second die: A=1, B=2, C=3, etc. Have the players add a Fire counter to the square you call out. Now explain that when there’s a non-burning (empty) square between a new Fire and an existing Fire, the Fire spreads to the square inbetween–horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. (This is like Go, only Fire can only “flip” a single square.) Repeat once for each player, then have the players begin the round.

If at the end of a round anyone is still on a square with a Fire, they’re out of the game. Disaster! If all forest squares are burning, it’s game over. When the kids put out all the Fires, they win!

Difficulty: A Firebreak is a clearing (natural or artificial) in the forest that fire can’t easily cross. With a second type of counter, you may at the beginning of the game roll to add Firebreaks to the board. Players can move onto Firebreak squares, but if a Fire is rolled on a Firebreak square, nothing happens. For an easier game, roll one Firebreak per player. Roll fewer or none for a challenge game. (Remember, the players still lose if every non-Firebreak square is ablaze at the same time!)

Introduce the types of player characters one game at a time:

Hotshot

Have the kids mime holding a firehose. Explain that a Hotshot Team are the firefighters on the ground with hoses and shovels who work to put out forest fires.  (This is where the term comes from!)

A Hotshot gets 2 moves per round. Each move can be either: 1) Putting out a Fire (removing a counter) from their own or an adjacent square (N, S, E, W or diagonally), or 2) Moving one square N, S, E or W. Moving one square off the board, like at the beginning, is allowed. No square can have more than one player on it at a time.

To begin the game, explain that it takes time to get Hotshot Teams to a forest fire. Because of this, the fire has time to spread. Add 2 rounds’ worth of fires to the board (one roll for each player) then have the players begin.

Smoke Jumpers

Have the kids mime holding onto the straps of their parachute. Explain that a Fire Jumper parachutes into the forest near a fire. Because of this, they can’t carry as much, but once they hike out they can jump in again anywhere they’re needed.

A Smoke Jumper gets 2 moves per round. Like the Hotshot, each move can be either: 1) Putting out a fire (removing a counter) from their own or an adjacent square (N, S, E, W or diagonally), or 2) Moving one square N, S, E or W. Because they have less gear, however, Fire Jumpers can only put out 1 fire per square. They also have a special ability: Upon moving off the board, they can “jump” to any square on the board. (Moving off the board and jumping count as one action.)

Add 2 rounds’ worth of Fires to the board, then have the players begin.

Pilots

Have the kids make an airplane with they hand (palm flat, index and ring finger together under the middle finger, pinky and thumb out to the sides). (If this is too hard, just pretend to be holding the flying yoke.) Explain that Pilots fly modified seaplanes which land on a body of water, fill a large tank, and then dump the water directly onto a fire.

Movement-wise, the pilot works a little differently. Every other turn, they must leave the board to refill their water tanks. (The players each pick their piece up and hold it in their hand.) The next turn, however, they can put out all the fire on any 3 squares in a row (N, S, E, W or diagonally).

Add 2 rounds’ worth of fires to the board. When the kids begin, remind them that they must first leave the board to fill up–so there’s actually three rounds of Fires added before they can begin putting them out!

Mixed Game

Now we put the pieces together. Let the kids decide (and encourage them to discuss strategically) what each would like to be: a Hotshot, a Smoke Jumper, or a Pilot. Explain how fighting forest fires is a team effort, with people in different specialties doing different jobs. (Now we understand the pantomiming; it’s to keep everyone’s role straight!)

Add 2 rounds’ worth of fires to the board, and have the kids begin!

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New Robert Aickman Anthology Coming in 2018

New York Review Books has announced Compulsory Games, a new collection of Robert Aickman stories scheduled for May 8, 2018. The publisher has separately leaked its table of contents, and its a revelation of hard to obtain material. I’ve updated my table of Aickman’s published works to include Compulsory Games (as well as a very limited 2015 Tartarus anthology).

View the PDF (153k)

Robert Aickman (1914-1981) was the most significant horror writer since H. P. Lovecraft. I can say that with certainty. As an epithet, he was the Last Symbolist (though Fritz Leiber’s “Weatherman of the Subconscious” is also fitting). Beyond that, I can’t tell you much, despite having spent the last two years reading and rereading as much of his work as practical. Leiber admired him, but didn’t understand him. Peter Straub admires him, but doesn’t understand him. Neil Gaiman admires him, but doesn’t understand him. This is not criticism, but praise. Perhaps a ghost is that which you can’t understand.

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The Most Generic iOS Games That Don’t Exist (Yet!)

Some call it originality. I call it being the first loser.

The iOS gaming space is crowded. Metacritic lists 10,934. Doing a word frequency analysis on their titles, we can come up with the ultimate must-hit games. I’m expecting a 20% cut when these become reality, on top of whatever Apple’s charging.

War Game Man — It is only a game, isn’t it? Man?

These are the first three nouns on our list. In order. War (349), Game (332), and Man (308), have almost a thousand hits between them, when you exclude two-letter combinations and common hyphen-ation frag-ments. More importantly, they’re three things hardcore gamers crave: Wars, games and men. So I’m told. Felch out literally anything with a tank, a guy in a helmet, and this title, and sit back until you hear the backup beep of the money truck.

Ace Ball Age: Bat Hero — The fate of Baseballalandia teeters on the edge, in this exciting sports/RPG hybrid!

Next up–still in order, without skipping any words–is a guaranteed money spigot. Ace (246) Ball (212) Age (210) Bat (207) Hero (198). “Oh gee, we don’t have any assets for a baseball title or an RPG,” SAID NO ONE EVER! You’ll launch the project Tuesday and be on the app store by Friday. Buy some Sponsored Content (“This Baseball RPG Will Make You Blot Out the Sun With Jizz–Especially If You’re a Woman!”) and start looking like a hoarder’s house but with money stacks.

Tar/Ash Ant Art — Navigate your half-poisoned ants through a ruined canvas factory–then sell your canvases on the fickle, tasteless modern art speculation market!

Sure, Tar (198) Ash (197) Ant (193) Art (188) is probably 90% pieces of other words, but it’s also in order, and also (while a little dark) the sort of strange-sounding, boring-to-play game that smartphone gamers love to hype. Start the train early, with forum posts, concept art, and “first looks.” Maybe put out an unplayable alpha to presale backers (basically the game with a broken start button), an almost-playable beta (a working start button, no levels, and a “crash app after 80 seconds” timer), and finally–finally–the big release (the alpha, with a better splash screen). Go Free to Play after three months. Charge $10 to stop the app from filling your Notification Center with achievement trophies and dead ants.

Maybe not a sure hit now, but they’ll clamor for a VR remake in 12 years.

You want longer words? How about this:

King Venture Adventure — The game that we reskinned with baseball assets to make Ace Ball Age: Bat Hero.

Two for one! King (187) doesn’t even come up in that many other words, and while Venture (184) technically is included in every instance of Adventure (179), they’re still the next three nouns on our list–and still in order, with no gaps. Adventure ho, Your Majesty! Ho I say!

Don’t want to use any more three-letter words at all? Fine. We can still play:

Star Zombie — Star. Zombie. It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. We just gave it a name.

You got chocolate in my edible body paint, peanut! Star (177) Zombie (170) finally brings together two things the market isn’t at all sick of: Zombies, zombies, zombies, and games with vague generic sci-fi backdrops. Oh no please. Keep some of your money. I have so much…

Battle World: Super Land — Only one can dominate something, somewhere. Presumably!

They said it couldn’t be done in an iPhone game, but we made a game about war! And we made it with the next few words, in order, with no gaps. In Battle (165) World (152) Super (149) Land (147) you decide how to wage peace across the ill-fitting board, in the only game to include square, hexagonal, pentagonal, and rhomboid tiles in the same otherwise largely undifferentiated levels.

Aw hell, just give me $1MM now and I’ll throw in the next 21 (in-order, four or more letter, without gaps, guaranteed hit titles) for 10% off the top:

Word Puzzle Monster — (146, 139, 133) More puzzles! More monsters! Less attention span! HEYYY-AAAH!

Space Quest: Drag Night — (128, 123, 116, 113) Not all space heroes wear capes, but when they do, they’re velour.

Dragon Cape — (108, 104) Not all dragons wear velour, but…

Edition Edit — (97, 97) It’s 1933. You’re William Allan Neilson and Thomas A. Knott. Can you finish the Webster’s New International Dictionary?

Dead Escape Time: Episode Legend — (95, 94, 90, 88, 88) Not only is this probably edgy in some way, but say “episode” and your DLC levels become full-priced sequels.

Last Rush Defense — (87, 87, 80) Tower defense has never been this towery, or defensive!

Fight Racing: Tiny Story (Mini) — (80, 78, 77, 74, 74) Kart man, do!

Dark Jump — (74, 74) You’ll fall. A lot. The paincore hit of the month of Maying.

Light Race Soccer — (68, 68, 68) All Soccer Players Matter.

Pocket Craft Fish — (67, 63, 62) Maybe crafting has nothing to do with fishing, but maybe shut the hell up.

Rock Rain Tale — (61, 61, 61) “Sit here by the fire, promising indigenous youth, and I’ll tell you the tale of the day the rocks rained down…”

Dash Knight Ventures — (61, 60, 58) Sadly, nostalgia-buying an even worse knockoff of Rocket Knight Adventures probably won’t be the worst life decision your customers will have made.

Little Plan: Lost Robot Adventures — (58, 58, 58, 58, 57) So cute it won’t matter that the game is 90% walking across different backdrops.

Kingdom Port — (56, 56) Build your… port! In the kingdom! Kingdom Port!

Fantasy Magic: Kill Less — (55, 55, 55, 54) Really, you’ve been going a bit mad with power lately. We’re all concerned about you.

Part — (54) Spread things and stick other things into places in this puzzling–and completely non-erotic–puzzle game.

Ever Fall — (54, 54) Messianic sci-fi, surreal action puzzler, or primetime WB drama? Yes!

Block Tower Island — (53, 53, 51) The sequel to Last Rush Defense! Virtually indistinguishable.

Bird Ride: Blast Legends — (51, 51, 51, 50) I’ll give you something to be angry about.

Road Shoot — (50, 50) Finally! Mayhem involving roads.

Sword Pixel Runner: Monsters Down! — (50, 50, 50, 49, 49) Save the things from the other things, in the ultimate pulse-pounding ironic hipster 8-bit whatever.

Make cheques payable to the management.

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Board Game: Fair Verona (v0.1)

If you have a chess board, you can play chess or checkers. If you have a deck of cards, you can play any number of games. But if you have a Carcassonne set, you can only play Carcassonne. As every modern geek has one, I thought we needed another game to play with it.

You play the aunts and uncles of the polymath Verona in the dangerous and romantic city states of classical Italy. Verona is brilliant, scatter-brained, obsessive, creative, charming, a magnet for trouble–and all of 17 years old. Having promised her dearly-departed parents to look after her, it’s up to you to do the legwork of the latest mystery she’s stumbled upon.

Objective

Four players cooperate to build a board of Carcassonne tiles while trying to locate and return Clue Tokens to the starting tile. Card value based Encounters hinder you and advance the game.

You Will Need

  • A Carcassonne Game (including the standard River expansion)
  • A standard deck of playing cards

Setup

Shuffle the deck of cards, including the two jokers. Find the “all city” Carcassonne tile–the Old Town, where Verona lives–and place it in the center of your play surface. Deal each player an Identity card face up. Each player selects a meeple color, placing one of that color on the starting tile, and one on their Identity card. Deal one additional card–the Clue Card–face-up beside the deck, and put a meeple of the unused color atop it as a Clue Token. Randomize the remainder of the normal Carcassonne tiles and set them aside. Randomize the River tiles, and prepare to start with them.

  • Easy Game: Put out 5 more Clue Tokens, for a total of 6. Deal each player 2 more cards, sight-unseen, to be placed beneath their Identity Card–these are their first two Friend cards. (Explained below.)
  • Medium Game: Put out 6 more Clue Tokens, for a total of 7. Deal each player 1 Friend card.
  • Hard Game: Put out 7 more Clue Tokens, for a total of 8. Deal no starting Friend cards.

The Identity Card

Each card in play represents a unique person. Your Identity card is your player character. The face value represents a person’s role in the social hierarchy, from the cutpurse and con artist (2-3) through the city leaders and geniuses (J, Q, K, A).

Card suits represent specialties:

  • Spades: Alchemy, painting, invention, dance, poetry.
  • Clubs: The sword, the lance, the grapple, the fist.
  • Diamonds: Gold, debt, silver, ships at sea.
  • Hearts: Love, family, desire, comradery.

Play

Play proceeds clockwise from the dealer. Each turn has three phases:

  1. Tile Placement
  2. Encounter Clearing
  3. Movement

Tile Placement

At the beginning of a turn, the player always attempts to place a tile–either a face down tile, or an unplayed (face-up) tile. Tile placement rules are identical to normal Carcassonne (including the need to start with the River tiles) except for one major change: A tile must be placed on a space adjacent to the one your meeple currently occupies, horizontally, vertically, or along a diagonal.

If you place a tile with a shield (pennant), or complete a city, you have made a Friend. Draw a card from the deck and place it beneath your Identity card, sight-unseen. (Note that you don’t make a Friend from drawing a shield tile, only from playing it!)

If a tile can be played, it must be. You may not select a face-up tile that can not be played, but nothing requires you to select a playable tile if face-down tiles remain.

If a tile can not be played, it is placed face-up beside your Identity card, and an Encounter is triggered for the next player: Draw a card from the deck and hand it to the next player.


Encounters

Danger and intrigue are ever present! Clearing Encounters is the second phase of a turn. When dealt an Encounter card, place it above your Identity card. You may not move until all your Encounters have been cleared. If you are on the same tile as a player with an Encounter card, you may help clear one of theirs. You clear an Encounter by bringing to bear a higher total value than the Encounter card itself.

You determine your total strength (value) in an Encounter as follows:

  • Your Identity card’s face value
    • Plus or minus any Distance Bonus
    • Times any Suit Multiplier
  • Plus any other player on the same tile’s face value
    • Plus or minus any Distance Bonus of theirs
    • Times any Suit Multiplier of theirs
  • Plus the face value of a Friend card, if you choose to play one
Distance Bonus

The wealthy and famous are at their strongest in the Old Town, while the lower classes are better out in the hinterlands. To find your Distance Bonus, count your current distance from Verona, either horizontally or vertically (whichever is greater).

  • Face Cards and Aces: Your value drops by 1 per tile away from Verona. For example:
    • A Queen 3 tiles north [and 1 tile east] of Verona is worth 9.
      • Queen minus 3 = J… 10… 9.
    • An Ace [2 tiles south and] 6 tiles east of Verona is worth 8.
      • Ace minus 6 = K… Q… J… 10… 9… 8.
  • Number Cards: Your value grows by 1 per tile away from Verona beyond your face value–in practice, this means your value is the greater of your face value or your distance from Verona. For example:
    • A Two 7 tiles south [and 6 tiles east] of Verona is worth 7.
    • An Eight [3 tiles south and] 9 tiles east of Verona is worth 9.
    • A Five 2 tiles north [and 1 tile west] of Verona is still worth 5.
Suit Multiplier

Your Identity card’s suit is your specialty. In an Encounter against the same suit, your face value (plus or minus any Distance Bonus) is doubled. For example:

  • A 7♦ can not clear an Encounter with a Q♠.
    • 7 (♦) is not greater than Q (♠).
  • A 10♥ can not clear an Encounter with a 10♣.
    • 10 (♥) is not greater than 10 (♣).
  • A 4♠ can clear an encounter with a 7♠.
    • 4♠ times 2 = 8(♠). 8 (♠) is greater than 7 (♠).
Friends

In an Encounter, you may optionally call on a Friend if you have one available. Turn one of your Friend cards over, and add its value to your Encounter. (Your friend gets no Bonuses or Multipliers). Regardless of whether it helps you clear the Encounter or not, the Friend card is then discarded.

Clues

Some Encounters include a Clue Token, which goes to you after the Encounter is cleared, and must then be returned to Verona.

At the start of the game, the first Clue Card was turned over, and a Clue Token (meeple of the unused color) was placed atop it. The Clue Card is what Verona knows about the person who holds the next piece of the puzzle. She’s never quite right.

When an Encounter is triggered with a Clue Card in play, the suit and value of the Encounter card and Clue Card are compared. If either the suit or face match, the Clue Token becomes the prize of the Encounter. Discard the current Clue Card and move the Clue Token onto the Encounter card. When you clear this Encounter, move the Clue Token onto your Identity Card. Your objective is now to return it to Verona.

Clue Tokens may be handed off from one player to another on the same tile at any time. When the Clue Token is returned to Verona’s tile, stack it atop the others, draw a new Clue Card, and place a Clue Token on it. Having received the clue and figured out what it means, Verona dispatches you to find the next piece of the puzzle. You (and Verona) win the game by collecting all of the Clue Tokens in play.

Cleared Encounters

On clearing an Encounter, discard the Encounter card. If you have no more Encounter cards, you may proceed to the Movement phase. If you still have Encounters uncleared, your turn is over.


Movement

In the third and final phase of a turn, the player may move their meeple from tile to tile (horizontally or vertically) by one of the three methods below. The player may elect to start from any terrain feature (road, city or field) on their starting tile.

  • Any Terrain: Up to 2 Tiles
  • Through City: Up to 4 Tiles
  • Along Road: Up to 6 tiles

In city or road movement, terrain barriers may not be crossed. Thus, you may not “jump” from one city to another across a stretch of farmland, even if both city walls lie on the same tile. Rivers, likewise, may only be crossed at a bridge or at a River’s beginning or end tile. (Be sure to place your meeple on the correct bank.)


Jokers

If at any time in play a Joker is drawn, all Clue hunting halts. Cover any Clue Card in play with the Joker. Young Verona has fallen head over heels for some flashy young fool, losing track of everything else, and one of the players must return to talk her out of it. The Clue Card is out of play until a player returns to the starting tile, at which point the Joker is discarded, and normal play resumes.

End Game

The conspirators are trying to box you in. Thus you lose if:

  • Every player is mired in an Encounter they can’t clear
    • or
  • Every player has 2 or more unused tiles.

Verona must put together all the pieces of the mystery–with a little help from her family. Thus you win when:

  • You return the final Clue Token to Verona.

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I swear, this is just research…

Umberto Eco on Fascism

It’s worth now revisiting 1995 when Umberto Eco–child of Italian Fascism–explained to us the 14 hallmarks of fascism, be it Italian, German, Spanish, Russian or otherwise: Ur-Fascism. Here’s a gloss in reverse order; ellipses mine, emphasis his.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak… All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights… For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will… Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction… There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People… Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death… The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians. In fact, the Leader, knowing that his power was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler…

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies… However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak…

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia…

6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups…

5. …Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

4. No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism… The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. Both Fascists and Nazis worshiped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden)… The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition… As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message….

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