South

It’s been a long and difficult week: I got a fucking car, which I am ambivalent about (since I paid/will be paying too much for it). We finished up a bunch of Christmas shit early because this week, my girlfriend and I are down in Colombia. That photo is her candid shot of me last as we finally sat down with my stalwart companion Álvaro. We’re staying in Jamundí with Pacho and Orlando in the same apartment where I lived with my father.

It’s not the same without him here. Pacho claims he can feel his “energy.” I can’t really, but it is odd not having him there. It’s going to be a long week of trying to show my girlfriend the fun parts of this corner of the country, hopefully with some time to finally relax.

The Dungeon Jog – How to keep a D&D session moving along

Hey guys, got a year to clear one floor of a dungeon? | Made with tools at donjon.bin.sh

The new D&D campaign I’m running has wiped out all the DM burnout I was feeling, and it’s incredibly refreshing. In addition to taking some pressure off me by setting it in the historical Viking Age and populating it with Norse mythology – all of which requires basically no modification from 5th edition rules where things like monsters or magic is concerned – I’m also using this as an opportunity to try running the game in a way that is faster and gets to the fun stuff more quickly. One of the things I’ve found as a player in recent campaigns is that sessions just take too damn long. Time commitment, more and more, is what stands between players and having some fun. What I’ve found, in the last two sessions, is that I can encourage the game to move more quickly while still keeping player choice and exploration central to the experience, and we can get an adventure done in two sessions of two hours. Rather than a dungeon crawl, we’ll call it a “dungeon jog.” (more…)

Bad Movie Diaries: Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home (1981)

Paste Magazine | Bad Movie Diaries: Home Sweet Home

Again, Jim has introduced me to a horrific crime against cinema. Having to watch this while on vacation should qualify me for some kind of hazard pay. It’s the unbelievably inept story of several horny couples, one obnoxious cockblock of a KISS-makeup guitarist whose literal name is “Mistake,” and the attempt of a guy known as a bodybuilding program pitchman trying his hand at becoming a Jason- or Michael Myers-style killer. (I goofed, attributing the former to John Carpenter before Jim justifiably chided me.)

I hope you enjoy our conversation on this, one of a vanishingly few horror movies centered on the Thanksgiving Day holiday.

The dice give a dark gift

From “The Secret of Kells”

I took a long hiatus from running my D&D campaign, and pitched a new idea to my players (among several): Set that shit in the 8th Century AD, the actual historical age of the Viking, but mythology is real. It removed a lot of the pressure on me to come up with some grand over-arching world-building and it also allows for tons of adventures with interesting angles.

I threw way more time and effort into designing modified rules for it, and then I warned my players that the world was going to be cruel, life short and sharp, and that they should have at least a couple extra characters on deck in case disaster befell them. Turns out that warning was valid: In our inaugural session this past Monday, one player died to a one-shot from a cultist (a very basic enemy) in the very first fight. He had rolled an Irish monk – that is, a scriptorium monk who learned Kung Fu from his Irish monastery, which as we all know is 100% historically accurate. I was looking forward to good times with this character, whose player really is a delight to have in the group because he really just puts his all into coming up with mannerisms and hang-ups for his characters. But no: his fightin’ monk bit the dust.

Fortunately, he had a new character ready to go, and as soon as the fight resolved, the party was astounded to witness a pooka (a child-sized rabbit fairy creature from Celtic myth) poof into being nearby, introducing himself as Sprinkle Honeystone (courtesy of a fantasy name generator program my group swears by).

Play needed to stop for like, five minutes for us all to laugh our reproductive organs off at this turn of events, and Sprinkle went on to spear a zombie to death and unleash a cloud of poison gas that annihilated a small group of enemies. It really is part of the black comedy of a D&D campaign run with maximum brutality and a group of players who are game to bury a player character or two. I’m hoping for such positive energy as we continue. I’m already altogether more excited about it than I have been in quite a while.

You meet the nicest cacti in your dreams

Katharine got a candid moment of me selecting hats for the trail. None of them fit that well.

I’m back in Illinois, and the snow is back here, too. I was glad to go see my cousin and her bouncy little toddler, but I’d be lying if I said the primary motivation wasn’t to take my pretty gf to introduce her to the saguaros, who were all delighted to meet her.

We went hiking up a trail I hadn’t been to the end of the first time I went – that one was the source of the last post’s charming flora. Funnily enough, it was the site where she messaged me – before we were dating – teasing me about not being in the office. I was able to respond with a photo of the sweeping desert at dawn.

The Sonoran is a unique place – greener than you’d think if you’ve never been there. I could really get used to it, I think, especially when the winters are no cooler than an overnight low of 40 or so.

The other major thing I discovered this time was that every video game designer and fantasy author should really go on a horseback ride. It’s pretty revealing how difficult and tiring the activity is, even for the dumb sap sitting on top of the horse doing none of the heavy lifting.

Hitting the trail.

The saguaro stood perfectly still. Maybe the tiny mammals would just skitter away from her if she didn’t move.

The chollas ambled up the hill, hooting and hollering into the noonday sun.

The saguaro was certain he was well-hidden. Besides, he thought, human sight is movement-based.

“This is saguaro turf, motherfucker! Barrelheads don’t come up here!”

“Uuugh,” came a cry, in unison, from the saguaros. “Turn the light off!!!!”

Among the saguaros once more

 

The hills near Cave Creek. | Kenneth Lowe 2016

 

I’m visiting family in the Phoenix area for Thanksgiving, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the country. People who aren’t from here tend to think it’s a flat and featureless stretch of desert, but it’s a mountainous and majestic one in reality. There are all sorts of flora unique to the area, including the strange and mighty saguaro. These guys are probably my favorite plant in North America (the South American Samán tree, which I don’t know if that’s what it’s really called, is my Other America favorite).

“Let me tell you why you should vote libertarian!!!”

Saguaros seem as if they have deep, idiosyncratic personalities. They are outwardly prickly, but can’t hide their expressiveness. They seem as if they are trying to tell us something, but that it just takes them a century or two to say it. It would be something, to stay here for a long stretch of time and bend an ear to them.

These photos are all from my trip two years ago, but I’ll see about posting some more after my hike today.

“Everybody have enough shade?”

The old lecturing the young.

Chollas, creeching real horrorshow as they go rolling into the night in search of the old ultraviolence.

All Quiet

Paste Magazine | Two Views of All Quiet on the Western Front

My latest from Paste Magazine is a look at the two major adaptations of All Quiet on the Western Front, in honor of the century that now separates us from World War I.

The Great War is a kind of subject of fascination for me, because it really is the height of folly. It’s everything we all hate about humanity, and the terrible people who we agree to allow to lead us. It was so bad that we don’t tolerate any kind of true monarchy anymore. It made the heads of state realize that if we didn’t agree to specifically pull our punches, we could end humanity. I think those of us who ponder these things really look back at it and feel afraid that we didn’t truly learn anything from it. This was a difficult viewing for me, especially the 1930 version I detail in the article, blissfully ignorant as it is of just how terrifying the scenes of dumb, eager white boys gleefully signing up to wear fancy uniforms for no real reason would look a scant six or seven years later.

A really great video series on the debacle that led up to the war comes to us courtesy of Extra Credits, and you should totally watch the whole four-part series.

Death Bed is a thing

Paste Magazine: Bad Movie Diaries, by Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe | Death Bed: The Bed That Eats

Jim Vorel is a good friend and now a year-long collaborator with me at Paste Magazine, where he was kind enough to help me get a foot in the door way back in 2015. Since last year, we’ve been working together on “Bad Movie Diaries,” in which we chat back and forth about truly terrible films.

Jim is a true connoisseur of bad movies, with an encyclopedic knowledge of them I’ll never be able to match. Our combined film knowledge is hopefully edifying and entertaining to folks. I’ll start posting more of these here. This one is a particular doozy: Strange Gothic trappings, ridiculous scenarios, incompetent camera work, and an utter failure even to capitalize on the exploitation they were clearly going for, maybe. Also the bed gets indigestion and drinks Pepto Bismol at one point. I’m not even making that up.

We are the dead

Soldats Inconnus. | Promotional image courtesy of Ubisoft.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae at poetryfoundation.org

I don’t cry very often. This isn’t a brag or anything, I just don’t. But, as I prepare an article on All Quiet on the Western Front‘s cinematic adaptations, I think about the century that has passed since the Great War ended November 11, 1918, and I made the mistake of remembering and seeking out “In Flanders Fields,” the poem by John McCrae that has been set to music.

It gets me every time.

You should be reading Pete Nickeas

The Foundation: 006 | Blessed Are The Peacemakers

My friend Peter Nickeas, a stalwart reporter at the Chicago Tribune, has been covering crime and violence in the city for years. I won’t say he’s tireless because I think he’d dispute that he is. Among one of the many reasons he inspires the admiration of most people he meets is that he’s candid about the toll his work takes on him. Besides admiring his work, I attest to him being an all-around good guy. You should check out his writing.