Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

May 28, 2012

The Devil and the Three Granaries

(Note:  In a lot of post-Christian folklore, the Trickster figure is referred to as "the Devil".  I've kept that for this story.)

One day, the Devil was passing through the farms at harvest-time, when he happened upon a farmer who was so well-to-do that he had three full barns full of grain, all waiting to be offloaded to merchants and sold in the market.  As you can imagine, the sight of so much prosperity made the Devil furious, and he immediately resolved to play a trick on the rich farmer.

The next day, when a merchant came with his wagon to buy grain, the farmer discovered that the first silo was full of nothing but the most disgusting manure imaginable.  The merchant was much dismayed, and had to be given a drink and sent away with a silver coin to settle his nerves, but the farmer spent the rest of the day going around to all of his neighbors and selling them quantities of the fine fertilizer now in his possession.  By the end of the day, he had a tidy profit that more than made up for the expense of having the barn thoroughly cleaned.

The Devil observed this and thought to himself, "ah, my lad, you made a mistake, farmers are earthy folks and not to be deterred by a little pig shit.  Now come up with a better plan!"

The next day, the merchant again returned with his wagon, hoping to buy a load of grain for sale in the city.  However, when the second granary was opened, it was discovered to contain nothing but thousands of spiders, snakes, scorpions, and other noxious beasts.  They burst out in a great wave of biting and scratching and stinging, and it was only luck that the farmer and the merchant managed to make it to the farmhouse before they were overcome and devoured alive.  The merchant was obliged to spend the night in the farmhouse, and it was only with a great deal of whiskey and soothing and offers of coin that he was convinced to give over his hysterics.

In the morning, it was discovered that the noxious creatures had all perished, but not before they had eaten up every mosquito, slug, tick, and rabbit for miles around, all the pests and annoyances that plague the farmer's life.  So, once again, the farmer pronounced this a good result, and, in fact, he estimated that it might be several years before the local population of pests recovered.

The Devil was terribly frustrated.  "Now, lad, you'd better think hard this time and come up with something really useless!"

On the next day, the merchant very timidly approached the farm.  This time, instead of accompanying the farmer, he insisted on staying at the house while the farmer went out alone and ascertained that everything was well.  When the barn was opened, at first, nothing appeared to be amiss, but then the farmer realized that instead of grain his granary was full to the brim with seeds of every type and description, most of which he couldn't identify.  The farmer stood there, scratching his head, and finally, the Devil, unable to stand the suspense, appeared in front of him.

"Hah, I've really got you this time!" said the Devil.

"I take it I have you to thank for this series of transformations, then?" the farmer said.

"Indeed!  I made a mistake the first two times, but there's no way you're getting any use out of this!"

"Well, what is it?"

"You mean you don't know?  I turned all your valuable grain into seeds that only grow into the most horrible weeds imaginable!  Thistles and dandelions and poison ivy!  Now, aren't you upset?"

The farmer thought for a moment, and then said, loudly, "But this is terrible!  I am undone!  Whatever will I do now!"  He tore at his hair and beat his breast and cried aloud in a paroxysm of grief.  The Devil burst into delighted laughter, did an obscene little dance, and then vanished.

Composing himself and straightening his clothing, the farmer returned to the house, where he found the merchant peeping carefully out of a window.  "I'm afraid I don't have any grain to sell you," the farmer said gravely.

"Three whole days without a purchase!" the merchant replied.  "This is terrible for my profits."

"Yes, I know, but you won't go back empty-handed today.  Instead of grain, I have all sorts of seeds with a variety of medicinal uses for you."

"But that's even better!" cried the merchant.

"I know!" said the farmer, grinning.  "It's a good thing for us that devil wasn't too bright!"

May 27, 2012

How the Baboons Hunted the Leopard

(Note: I've been reading several compilations of folktales and fairy stories, so I thought it would be fun to try writing a few myself.  It seems like a good way to practice writing stories that are a.) short, and b.) are focused more on plot than style.)

Now, it happened once that on the edge of the savannah there was a very beautiful leopard.  Her fur was brighter than gold, her spots blacker than obsidian, and her teeth and claws like polished ivory.  Her eyes, like citrines, glowed with cunning and ferocity.  She hunted as and when she would and when she dragged away the young, tender zebra or water buffalo, the elders of the herd would sigh and say, "well, that is life on the savannah" and go about their grazing.  The tribes of jackals and hyenas would gaze longingly on the tall trees where she stuffed her many kills, but they never attempted to trouble the leopard or interfere with her business.

Now, it also happened that a tribe of baboons arrived and decided to settle on this part of the savannah.  They were a large and prosperous tribe because their ancient grandfather was wise and cunning and always led them to the best water, forage, and hunting.  They never suffered from the depredations of lions, jackals, or hyenas, for the wise grandfather was always alert and could present such a fearsome aspect, hooting and jumping and hurling stones and sticks, that even the fearsome she-lions would slink away.

The wise grandfather baboon was resting one day on his favorite rock, when up ran his great-great niece shrieking and hurling herself about in a frenzy.  "A leopard took my child!" she cried over and over in great distress.  The wise grandfather was enraged, for he had seen no leopard slinking across the savannah, and yet here it had stolen away with one of his relations.  He wasted no time, but ordered one of his women to groom the distressed mother.  Then he gathered the rest of the tribe and said, "we must hunt this leopard, so it will not steal any more of our children".  The tribe was silent, because even though the grandfather was old and wise, it did not seem possible that they could ever succeed in hunting a leopard. 

Straightaway, the grandfather set the tribe to digging a pit.  They dug and they dug, until the pit was as large as they could make it, and then they covered it over with tree branches and grasses until you could not tell that it was any different from any other part of the savannah.  Then the grandfather set his tribe to relaxing and playing, to wait for the leopard to return in search of a meal.

Sure enough, the next day, here came the leopard, stalking up so slow and so quiet that no one could see her until she was ready to pounce.  She lowered her head, and her tail lashed, and she sprang forward, only to fall right through the ground into a pit.  The baboons were delighted, and rushed to the side of the pit, only to see the leopard spring straight up and land back on the ground.  She was so disgusted that she grabbed two of the youngest baboons and instantly made off with them.

Now the whole tribe took to wailing and shrieking and cursing the leopard, who was too mighty to be caught in the largest pit they could dig.  One or two of them even made so bold as to curse the wise grandfather whose plan had failed.  So he pretended to fly into a rage, hooting and hurling stones and sticks and cuffing his relations until they obeyed him once again and fell silent.  He then sent the tribe to procure a great heavy log, which they propped up with a stick to create a deadfall.  Once again, the grandfather set the tribe to playing and relaxing, and here came the leopard to get another tasty morsel.  When she ran in, striking with her ivory claws and biting with her ivory teeth, the baboon tribe leaped up all in a panic, and one of them ran right into the propped-up log.  Crash! the log came hurtling down on top of the baboon tribe, squashing six of them in one moment.  The leopard took the advantage, seized three of their children, and made off with them.

The entire tribe of baboons now gave themselves over to hysteria, and no amount of cuffing or hooting from the grandfather could calm them.  At last, so outraged were they, that they attacked him with sticks and stones and drove him entirely from the camp.  Bruised and exhausted, he wandered all day and all night until he could go on no longer.  When he was just about to lay down and die, he realized that he was on the edge of a small pool, and thought that a drink of water might restore him.  But when he approached the pool, he realized that the leopard was lying overhead on a great branch, waiting for any incautious animal to approach.

"Well," the grandfather baboon said to the leopard, "it seems you are too clever for me.  If I don't get a drink I will die, but if I do, you will fall upon me and kill me."

"That is the way of the savannah," agreed the leopard.  "It was silly of you, the prey, to try to hunt me, the predator."

"Baboons are hunters, too," said the grandfather.

"Only of small, weak animals they can seize with their hands and beat to death.  You are not fit to hunt anything larger and more dangerous than yourself.  Just look at me.  Look at my sleek fur and muscles and ivory claws.  No creature with a crooked tail and pink bottom could ever defeat me."

"But you have a pink bottom, too," said the grandfather baboon.

"What?!" cried the leopard.  "I certainly do not!"

"Yes you do!  You must have gone bald behind while you weren't looking!"

The leopard craned her neck, trying to get a look at her own bottom, but it was useless.  She thrashed and writhed and made such a fuss that the branch she was lying on broke and she fell onto the rocks below, where she lay still, knocked senseless.  The grandfather seized on a rock and beat her head once, twice, three times.  Then he ran off and called for his tribe, and they tore the leopard into a thousand pieces.  

May 4, 2012

Another WoW-killer?

So, Bethesda has announced  that their next Elder Scrolls game is going to be an MMO.  I wonder how long it's going to be until somebody starts touting it as the "potential WoW-killer".

It'll probably be interesting, but I expect it'll be as much of a WoW-killer as Star Wars: The Old Republic turned out to be, i.e. not very much.  Here's why:

Bethesda is not a gameplay master.

Bioware has the same problem, and when they made an MMO, they tried to take the thing they're good at (writing) and put that in the MMO "genre" somehow.  And, yeah, SW:TOR has vastly superior writing for an MMO.  However, it has mediocre, derivative gameplay.  And the exploration isn't all that, either.

Where does Bethesda really shine?  Exploration.  So I kind of expect that ESOnline (Grr, I can't call it ES:O because that'd be confusing with Oblivion) will have utterly awesome exploration aspects.  The writing and gameplay will probably be mediocre and derivative, though.  Heck, the Molag Bal thing hinted about in the Escapist article was basically the main plot of ES: Oblivion.  They borrow even off their OWN stories. Bethesda is the exploration master.  Oh, even SW:TOR has pretty scenery (at least, for Imperials it does once you get off the horrible Planet of Mustard Yellow, i.e. Hutta), and they have speeders to get around and codex entries to find and datacrons to seek out, but once you've been round the block these become a chore that must be accomplished to fill out your character.  I expect that ESOnline will have umpteen bazillion more opportunities of this kind, better designed, better thought-out, and rewarding in a way that will keep people engaged in exploration even after they've capped their first toon.

MMO's, though, when you get right down to it, are about GAMEPLAY.  That's what ultimately keeps people playing for years on end.  Not the story.  Not the running around poking into things.  The fact that the core game mechanic, whatever it is (generally, murdering tons of dudes), is FUN.

That is where Blizzard shines, and always has, since Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.  If anything is going to be a WoW-killer, it'll be whatever new MMO Blizzard is working on, because, whatever else, you can bet that they won't have mediocre, derivative gameplay.  Heck, Diablo III will probably be a better WoW-killer than anything Bethesda is likely to work up.

I grant you, gameplay ALONE a WoW-killer doth not make.  I think Dungeons and Dragons Online has really fun gameplay (and has been making Turbine money for over six years as a result), it just doesn't have quite the breadth of appeal to aspire to WoW-killer status.  I think it's pretty safe to say that nearly their entire user base consists of two groups: kids who try it because it's free, and adults who liked 3rd or earlier edition D&D.  This is not a large group of people.  WoW appeals to many, many more people than "people who liked Warcraft".  However, the appeal of Star Wars is enormous, but that didn't make SW:TOR a WoW-killer.

In the end, gameplay is king of MMO's.  Get that right, and you at least have the potential to aspire to WoW-killer-hood.  Get it wrong, and you will never make it there no matter how much you have going for you in other areas.