Armagideon Time

After the initial horror over the election results subsided a little, I could feel the spark of indignant rage — the one that sustained Armagideon Time through its golden years — returning. I vowed to step up my game, get my shit in order, and get back to updating on a regular basis. As it turned out, fate had other plans in store for me.

There are writers who claim the best way thwart such creative lassitude is to power through it. If you really want it, you will keep at it even as your fingers turn as numb as your dispirited soul. I’ve found this approach to be utter bullshit.

If I’m not feeling it, I’m not going to force it. And, man, I have not been feeling it at all lately, as the day job has been bleeding out any urge to be witty or pithy before noon even rolls around. That pendulum will swing back eventually, but now the very thought of working longform causes an outbreak of hand tremors and a blinding headache.

Fortunately, I know some groovy folks out there doing amazing work that’s worthy of your attention and clickthroughs.

- Pal Tegan recently celebrated the 13th anniversary of her blog, The Hurting, and commemorated the event with a long and heartfelt post about her journey through those times. She also said some truly kind words about yours truly, the type of testimonial that makes me want to live up to the qualities she somehow sees in me.

- Daniel Butler, trusted Destiny wingman and cherished friend, has been following up on the outstanding work he did on our Boo! Halloween Stories entry with two — yes, TWO — year-long sketch galleries featuring funky skulls (something of his trademark) and a dedicated effort to make folks fall in love with one of the most hated characters in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Hopefully he’ll move both to a tumblr gallery soon, but for now you can browse them through his twitter feed.

- Shortly before the new year rolled around, I had a discussion about celebrity cameos in comics with some other comics blogging rapscallions. I mentioned that I wished I had the time to float a side project focused on the subject, not realizing that a certain little stuffed bull in the conversation was planning that very thing. He’s a wily little bovine, that Bully. My lack of energy was the world’s gain, because Bully (and his buddy John) have brought a level of charm, wit, and knowledge to the proceedings that I could never match.

- Finally, the new round of Ultimate Powers Jam entries have already started coming in and are looking quite nifty indeed. I’d still like a slightly deeper inventory before I start posting them, but I think things will be ready to go in a couple of weeks. If you’re still waiting for a requested assignment, I should have something for your shortly. (Blame the day job again.) If you’d like to add yourself to the list of participants as a writer, artist or both, just shoot me an email at bitter (dot) andrew (at) gmail (dot) com.

While Dragon Magazine broadened my exposure to the wider world of role-playing games, it couldn’t do much to overcome the two major obstacles keeping me from going all-in on the hobby — a profound shortage of cash and a dearth of local retailers who stocked more than the typical TSR fare.

Being an ambitious and industrious youth, I attempted an end run around the problem by crafting my own game systems. All were crude affairs, reverse-engineered from mechanics lifted from other games and scrawled hastily in the margins and blank pages of my notebook during study hall. These confusing and contradictory collections of hand-drawn tables and rules were specifically created for in-house use. I knew little and cared less about things like playtesting or game balance.

Only one of the three attempts I made at RPG design ever made it to a playable state. It was an attempt to create a modern military adventure system somewhere between the Rambo movies and a James Bond flick. I don’t recall if I bothered to actually give it a proper name. If I did, it was probably something pretentiously badass as would befit a fifteen year old hepped up on huffing the fumes of Reagan’s America.

Despite the “modern” and “realistic” setting, the game was just a pen-and-paper iteration of playing with GI Joe figures. Weapons and vehicles were heavily drawn from that toyetic well — alongside pyrotechnic action movies and random issues of Soldier of Fortune — and given stats based more on the perception of coolness than on real-world design capabilities. Ability scores and resolution mechanics were handled through percentage rolls, with little in the way of penalty modifiers or restraint in general.

It was a system where a pair of commandos lugging five tons of hardware on their backs could blast their way through an entire platoon of Red Army cannon fodder — which is exactly how the games one and only live play session went down.

Emboldened by that success, I turned my attention towards creating a superhero role playing game. I got as far as cataloging potential powers before realizing that the effort required exceeded both my interest in and ability to see the project through.

My final stab at whipping up a homebrew RPG took place during high school, after I had a little more insight and perspective into how game systems should function. It was an attempt to try something different in terms of setting and mechanics. The goal was to create something remotely publishable, that golden ticket into professional status so many fans dream about.

The concept was a far future Earth where a transhuman singularity triggered a mass migration of humanity. The players would be “Remnants” belonging to the hundred thousand or so people left behind to scavenge and survive in the slowly decaying ruins of continent-spanning arcologies filled with memory-rotted utility robots and mutated fauna. The goal was to be more entropic and apocalyptic, and it was heavily influenced by Blade Runner and J.G. Ballard’s short stories, as well as the “Rapture-ready” nonsense that filtered in from evangelical relatives and acquaintances.

Most of the time I spent on it involved world-building, for both the general setting and random generation tables for micro-environments within the superstructures. A good deal of effort also went into figuring out a basic and intuitive mechanic for handling a strictly barter economy, which doesn’t sound that exciting yet still occupied my attention for a surprising stretch of time. I never got around to working out the character creation and combat mechanics, apart from writing up a list of standard weapon archetypes to be fleshed out at a later date.

That date never came, for some reason. Like most of my creative endeavors, the flame of inspiration blazed white hot for a short while before guttering out completely once the initial novelty begins to feel like actual work. The physical records of all my homebrew efforts have long since vanished from this world, but I only regret not having the foresight to save my notes for “Remnants.” It wasn’t something I’d ever go back to or rework, but it would’ve been an interesting artifact of my teen years to examine.

My amateur hour forays into scratch-built game design ended for reasons I’ll be getting to in upcoming posts. When it came to creating campaigns in non-traditional or unsupported settings, I moved on to reworking existing rules systems to fit my needs. It was less work-intensive, and let me focus on the “fun” parts instead of trying to figure out vehicle combat rules or cover mechanics. (And, again, those efforts will be covered down the road.)

Dress back jump back

January 12th, 2017

As a young punk rocker living in only sorta-shitty times, I would get chills whenever my “NICE PRICE” cassette copy of the first Clash album spooled up “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.”

I knew fuck all about reggae or ska apart from some references to Madness I barely understood and the Caribbean phase of Eighties America’s commercial fetishization of “exotic” cultures. What I did know is the song possessed a power that exceeded anything in the repertoire of louder-faster-hardcore shit I wasted most of my time listening to in those days.

Over rocksteady beats and clanging guitars, Joe Strummer works through a series of emotional revelations, each in turn more crushing than the previous one. Disappointment about a music festival. Disbelief about the commercialization of punk. Doubt about the effectiveness direct action. Dread that all of it portends even greater horrors to come.

All over people changing their votes
Along with their overcoats
If Adolf Hitler flew in today
They’d send a limousine anyway

It’s not a protest song. It’s an elegy. A dirge. By the end of it, Strummer has been reduced to pleading for an out.

I’m only
Looking for fun

When I was sixteen, its sensations of despair were vicarious, despite my adolescent fantasies of living through “interesting times.”

Today, every phase and inflection carries a weight inconceivable to my younger self. I well and truly “get it” now, and desperately wish I didn’t.

My paternal grandmother had lived with my family for seven years before she finally decided to relocate to my aunt’s house. To celebrate our return to nuclear status, my parents decided to take Lil Bro and me on day trips every weekend. It was rarely anything elaborate, mostly drives in the family’s lemon yellow station wagon along the North Shore coast or out to the Berkshires before swinging back for dinner at Thackeray’s or the wet bar lounge in the back of the Woburn Mall’s Papa Ginos.

These outings were usually scheduled for Sunday afternoons, but one of the earliest ones was lined up for a Saturday, which conflicted with my weekly bike ride to local comics shop in Stoneham. My parents tended to have a “tough titty” stance towards these types of things, but on this occasion they decided to indulge my sullen whininess by swinging past the comic shop before trekking out towards Cape Ann.

The shop was a hole in the wall located on a tiny one-way street (which no longer exists) off Route 28. It was unusually crowded when I got there, packed full of fragrant bodies blocking access to every back issue longbox and new release shelf. Even though I can remember feeling like I spent too much money on that visit, I can only specifically recall two purchases I made that day — the debut issue of the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League and copy of Dragon Magazine #117.

The issue of Dragon was an impulse purchase, grabbed from a rack by the counter as I waited for the dude ahead of me to pay for his multiple copies of whatever book was currently heating up the speculator’s market. My experience with the mag until that point had been through Best Of collections and photocopies of cool shit passed onto me by friends. I was still pretty new to the role-playing hobby, and dropping almost four bucks for a gaming mag felt like crossing a Rubicon — a really fucking geeky and sad Rubicon.

As far as issues of Dragon went, #117 was pretty unremarkable. Its contents were a mishmash of magic items and campaign advice devoid of overarching themes or major rules additions or badass NPC classes. There was little in there of actual use to me at the time, and I felt strong pangs of buyer’s remorse while flipping through the pages in the backseat of the car. In the days and weeks that followed, however, my attitude began a subtle but important shift.

Up until I bought that issue of Dragon, the scope of my role-playing realm had been limited to a single game system, a small number of friends, and the remaindered inventory of a handful of toy, book, and hobby shops. With its rich gallery of ads and advice columns and reader input, Dragon #117 got me thinking beyond little niche and contemplating a wider scene. Discussions of meta mechanics got me to thinking about how game systems should be adaptive and living things while the plentiful pitches for products made me realize there was more to the hobby than swords ‘n’ spells ‘n’ dungeon crawls. The issue marked my first exposure to the Champions superhero game system and Games Workshop’s wide array of merchandise, both of which will loom large in entries to come.

It opened my eyes to the potential of the hobby, in terms of new systems and new ways of thinking about the roles of players, the DM, and the written frameworks that govern their interactions around the gaming table. Of course, digesting all that and putting it to practical use was another matter entirely as upcoming posts will painfully reveal.

It also started me on the long and lonely road of despising knuckle-dragging fanboys, too!

New jam from old jars

January 9th, 2017

One of my reasonably ambitious plans for Armagideon Time in this grim new year is to revive a few of the features that have fallen by the wayside for various reasons.

While Nobody’s Favorites is at the top of that list, I’ve also decided to bring back….

For those of you who’ve arrived here after its hiatus two years ago, the UPJ was a collaborative art jam. I’d roll up random collections of stats and abilities using the Ultimate Powers Book from TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG, and an awe-inspiring roster of creative talents would craft something weird and wonderful from the randomness.

You can check out the incredible results here.

It was a fun community experience that spotlighted the imaginative and artistic skills of a incredibly cool roster of folks, and enough time has passed to make it worth revisiting.

If you’re interested in participating in the Jam’s revival as a writer, artist, or strange combination of the two shoot me a message a bitter-dot-andrew-at-gmail-dot-com and we’ll get the dice a’rolling.

Goodbye, Big Red Dog

January 7th, 2017

That's our Big Red Dog.

In August 2004, a couple of days after we passed papers for the House on the Hillside, Maura and I were driving down I-93 South through the Middlesex Fells when she sat up in the passenger seat and shouted “There’s a puppy on the side of the road.”

I pulled my Lumina over and we walked back through the clouds of mosquitos and road dust to the spot where Maura thought she saw the dog. There was no sign of the creature.

I was convinced she’d just seen a wandering fox or coyote, but Maura insisted that she saw a puppy. We drove up the way for a bit to Maura’s parents’ house, where her sister offered to drive her back there and help her look.

Using some leftover chicken as a lure, Maura finally spotted the bony haunches of a the half-starved critter slinking through a gap in the underbrush. “Ha! Got you!” she shouted, even though the pup eluded her attempts to capture it.

She phoned the local branch of the Animal Rescue League with a description and exact location of the dog. She was told they there had been a number of sightings and calls about it, but couldn’t pinpoint where exactly the creature was.

Using the information Maura provided, an ARL officer managed to locate and trap the dog a few days later. The dog’s name was Addy. She was a beagle/boxer mix, rescued from a kill-shelter somewhere down South, and adopted by a local family.

While walking with them in the Fells, Addy had slipped her lead and run off into the woods. A search only turned up her collar, which led the family to assume she’d been taken in by someone else.

In the six weeks Addy had been roaming by the side of the highway, her original owners had decided to adopt another dog. Since they couldn’t or wouldn’t take Addy back, Maura asked if we could adopt her.

The hitch was that House on the Hillside was undergoing massive renovations from a garbage home into something inhabitable, and wouldn’t be ready until late October. The ARL folks were very obliging and willing to work with us, fostering Addy out to get her re-acclimated to living among humans again.

They soon discovered, she had developed a number of quirks. She was afraid of doors, afraid of men, and had severe separation anxiety. They asked if we still wanted to adopt in light of that, and Maura told them we could deal with it.

Maura and I got married on October 30, moved into the house on October 31, and brought Addy home from the shelter on November 2. Other pets would follow but Addy was the Original Child, and a part of this new phase of our lives right from the start.

She never fully shook off her eccentricities. She was stubborn and demanding and extremely vocal. There were times at the beginning I regretted adopting her, but eventually her quirks became just another part of the ritual tapestry of our lives.

Eat a slice of pizza? Addy got the last bit of crust. If Maura and I decided to go out together? We had to lay down plastic sheeting and paper in anticipation of her punishment tactics.

Generally, though, she was a cheerful and playful pal even as her limbs got stiffer and the hairs on her face got grayer. She survived a couple of facial tumors that added a certain Frankenstein quality to her slobbering mug and eventually stopped navigating the staircase after a couple of nasty falls. Yet she still remained the Big Red Dog at heart.

Last Sunday, after a pretty typical morning, Addy became unusually lethargic and whiny. We took her to the vet to get checked out on Monday morning, and then again in the afternoon when she proved too difficult to be examined without sedation.

(Vet visits with Addy, even for a nail trimming or booster shot, were ordeals that required more preparation than a moon landing.)

Even after mild sedation, Addy was still too ornery for the vet to conduct an intensive examination. He suggested we take her up to the emergency room at a nearby animal hospital.

We decided to wait a bit, so that Addy could shake off the meds and re-center herself in a familiar environment. I worked from home on Tuesday to keep an eye on her.

Over the course of the day it became clear something bad was going on with Addy. She could no longer stand, much less walk, with her hind legs, and refused to eat anything.

We agonized over taking her to the animal hospital, but decided against it. If this was the end, then we wanted it to happen at home among her devoted feline pals Carmie and CooCoo and Ollie the Rock Stupid Puppy.

Besides, just shifting her from the living room carpet to her bed caused Addy to lash out in aggressive panic that will likely leave a scar on my left thumb. (More meaningful than any tattooed reminder, as far as I’m concerned.)

Over the course of the week, Addy rallied, faded, fought, failed, and finally passed away early this morning.

Her parting marks the end of an era, and it will be a long while before we fully disentangle the countless little rituals and behaviors shaped by her behavioral quirks over the past twelve years.

I had big plans for this site in the new year, but the universe had other plans.

Normal service will be resumed shortly, I hope. Until then, here’s a GTA Online screencap that sums up my 2017 thus far.

Recommended listening:

Farewell to all that

December 31st, 2016

Blaming a year for being horrible is like blaming a glass for being full of piss, but it’s hard not to project some sort of malign influence on twelve months that took Princess Leia and Ziggy Stardust away and gave us a clot of racism with a bad comb-over as the next leader of the “Free World” in return.

I’ve already pontificated and over-analyzed the significance of these harrowing times in generational terms, so I’d like to spend the last few moments of 2016 cherishing the points of light in the darkness.

For all the grotesque and disheartening evil we’ve seen on display, there have been some positive moments. Friends and loved ones and allies who’ve stood defiant in the face of retrograde idiocy, who’ve reaffirmed their support and love and refusal to accept this wave of moral backsliding as normal.

It may not seem like much in light of the steady cascade of nightmares we continue to subjected to, but it does matter — if only to slightly mitigate the feelings of overwhelming dread.

These bonds of support are important, and will become even more so in the grimmer times ahead. These are ugly times. We need to look after each other, to assist the vulnerable and do everything in our power to deny the bastards that which they crave so desperately.

I honestly don’t know where this is going to lead, but I refuse to give into despair. Mainly because I won’t give these bigoted shits the satisfaction, but also because I can’t surrender the hope — no matter how distant — that humanity can be better than this despite all evidence to the contrary.

Peace and love,

- andrew

P.S. If you need a little something to see off 2016 in style, check the first comment on this post.

Fade to gray

December 27th, 2016

“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is one of the boundary markers I’ve used to differentiate the “low Eighties” from the “high Eighties” — the era of grimy futurist dread versus the era of pastel plastic poptimism. I can’t make it past the first “JITTERBUG” without flashing back to eighth grade homeroom, with all the weird anxieties associated with that nadir of my middle school experience.

I don’t particularly care for the song, but I don’t hate it, either. It’s not as insufferably irritating as a Howard Jones jam or as disappointing as Duran Duran’s post-Rio output, both of which I’ve also cited as indicators of that transitional period. Wham! was just sorta….there, ubiquitous but decidedly not for me and not worth dwelling upon. The same applies to George Michael’s solo career, which chugged along while my interests were occupied elsewhere.

That said, the man’s passing still affected me, the same way all of this year’s deaths of iconic figures have affected me.

Yes, I’m that statistical clusters happen and that death eventually comes for all of us, but there’s a bigger dimension to 2016 feeling like ill-omened meme fodder. I suspect the sentiment is especially acute among folks in my rough generational bracket.

I don’t want to get into Boomers versus X’ers versus Millennials here. That’s beside the point I’m trying to make. What’s happening is a bit more subtle and personal than that contrived trope, and involves a fair bit of inter-generational crossover on the lower end.

When it comes to the notion of “adulthood,” X’ers and Millennials have lived with a fair degree of impostor syndrome. The degree of it may vary from individual, and doesn’t necessarily signify a lack of maturity. It’s that economic uncertainty, cultural trends, and the large shadow cast by the Baby Boomers have muddied what exactly adulthood entails while placing its most traditional trappings out of reach for so many of us.

It’s the reason why “adulting” gained traction as a concept, describing activities and chores distinct from the default perception of muddling along like some perpetually slacking undergrad. Milestones — marriages, births, career changes — still happened, but spaced enough to maintain a sense of temporal stasis reinforced by a realm of media on demand and evergreen IP.

As sure as the sun will rise, Toy R Us will stock Star Wars merch and some band you liked in high school is going to announce a reunion tour shortly.

This notion of a universe of eternally fixed stars was always an illusion. Most of us knew it was, too. The passing of a loved one, the thinning or graying of one’s hair, the eradication of familiar landmarks — all capable of injecting a sobering does of reality, but rarely enough to pull back the curtain entirely. After all, shit happens and I don’t feel particularly different.

2016′s atypical cluster of tragedies, however, has managed to dispel the wishful thinking…or at least shine the harsh light of reality upon it. It’s not 1988 or 1993 or 2000 or whatever place the hands of your eternal clock happened to cease motion. That pain in my knee is real and isn’t going to be slept or walked off. My father is wasting away to nothing and my mother-in-law is not going to regain her clarity of thought. My critters are growing older, and some are getting sickly. My sideburns are never going to grow back ash-blonde again after I shave them.

Bowie and Prince and George Michael and Carrie Fisher aren’t out there shining their unique lights, as they’d been doing since my childhood. Each one a depressing loss, but also a generational reminder that this is how things are going to be from here on out.

The last Noel

December 23rd, 2016

The 1987 holiday season was the last one I spent with my mother, and gave every impression of becoming the worst Christmas ever.

My father was away at the time, sent up to a court-mandated stay at a rehab facility after a cop found him pulled over on a roadside. My dad was trying to change a tire while shitfaced. When the cop asked if he needed help, my dad told him to go fuck himself. He was hauled before a judge (who owned the local package store) and sentenced to a month in a substance abuse program (run by the judge’s wife).

His absence left my mother alone to deal with things, a task she was increasingly incapable of as her own mental instability began to enter its terminal stage. She grew increasingly agoraphobic and embattled, and it only got worse after a November incident where a fight with her mother led to my aunt’s husband smashing in our front door and him and me wrestling on the front steps as the cops arrived.

Given a choice, my mother wouldn’t have left the house at all, but that option was taken away from her by my father’s departure. Someone had to go downtown to pick up my dad’s veterans’ benefit check from City Hall, cash it at Woburn National Bank, and use the small stipend to buy the port wine and smokes that kept my mother going. She couldn’t or wouldn’t do it alone, so my brother and I would walk downtown with her each Friday afternoon.

These trips were quite…nice…in a weirdly dysfunctional way, once you got past the series of panic attacks my mom would undergo during the first leg of the journey. We’d trudge along and talk about Greek myths and Tolkien and impressionist art, her twitchiness would subside a bit and one could see flashes of person she used to be. Besides the requisite carton of Marlboro Reds and gallon of industrial-grade hooch, we’d also stop at small shops to pick up enough food to get us through another week. It also gave me a chance to check in at the local CVS to see if they had the latest issue of Iron Man — the only comic I was reading at the time and then in the middle of the “Armor Wars” storyline.

A family chatting and shopping in the center of an old New England town — it felt downright homey and traditional, despite the Bukowskian overtones of this particular experience. But the truth was any sense of normality was welcome in a world where such moments had been growing fewer and farther between.

We hadn’t thought much about Christmas at that point. Money was tight, my dad was away, and there were too many other things to be concerned about. No decorations were hung, no presents were bought, no holiday dinners were planned.

The idea of celebrating only came up after we walked past a florist’s place which had opened up in one of the storefronts we passed by on the route home. The place was new, but had already achieved the “dead retailer walking” vibe which affected most new downtown businesses after a couple of weeks. Im three months, the place would be boarded up or hosting some other doomed venture, but on that day they were selling miniature Christmas trees for a fiver.

“We should buy one” my mother said, and we did.

We set it up on the table by the living room window and decorated it with the best and most significant ornaments from our family’s stash. My mother was exceedingly proud of it, a small yet significant totem of the normalcy her troubled psyche had been seeking, too.

A couple of days later, my buddy Damian and I decided to hit up the Toys R Us across town to windowshop the latest videogame stock. Before we headed out, my mom gave me a twenty and told me to pick out some inexpensive gifts for Lil Bro. I picked up a half dozen Starcom figures from the clearance aisle and a VHS collection of Gumby shorts, and still had change left over. My mom and I wrapped them and placed them under the tree.

I wasn’t expecting anything, but a couple of wrapped gifts with my name on them mysteriously appeared after my dad was released a couple of days before the holiday. They turned out to be a pair of sturdy leather work gloves and a cut-out bin cassette compilation of Chuck Berry’s greatest hits.

The former made sense to me, because I needed a decent pair of gloves when I was out delivering papers or riding my bike to school in sub-freezing weather. I didn’t really understand the latter, though, until I tagged along with my dad on a discount cigarette run to New Hampshire a couple of years ago.

“This car has a hell of a stereo system,” he said as he simultaneously attempted to light up a smoke, fiddle with the stereo buttons, and weave his Mustang between a fleet of tractor-trailers.

“Hey, listen to this.” He jabbed a button on the steering wheel and “Johnny B. Goode” blasted from the speakers at an earshattering volume.

“DO YOU LIKE CHUCK BERRY? I LOVE THIS STUFF. USED TO LISTEN TO IT AS A KID ON WMEX.”

A quarter century of confusion gave way to perfect clarity. I wanted to say something, but nothing came to me. There was no point in spoiling the moment.

When my dad got out, he was sober. We spent our Christmas together at home, talking about history and listening to Christmas selections from my parents’ collection of 78 RPM records.

In my heart, I knew things weren’t really going to get better. My mom’s mental health would continue to deteriorate and my dad eventually would fall back into his dysfunctional habits.

At that moment, however, it didn’t matter. Despite everything, we had carved out a moment of peace and happiness for ourselves. It was ephemeral but it was real.

It was one of the worst periods of my life, but it was the best Christmas I’ve ever had. Even now, thirty years later, when I ponder what the holiday means to me, my answer is “a moment of peace amidst the madness.”

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