Well? What’s it to be, punk!

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Espera...

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Esperanto: Patro Kristnasko kaj malgranda knabino Suomi: Joulupukki ja pieni tyttö (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As is traditional at this time of year, we took our nieces to see Santa Claus. The eldest enjoyed it and the youngest is just about over the trauma now. The elf at the front gate confessed to us that more children hated Santa than liked him. Thank Goodness we didn’t go to a Winter Wonderland attraction that recently had to shut down. The attraction sounded great in the promotional material. Reindeer, sleigh rides with real huskies and Santa’s grotto. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s as if the organisers had a checklist. Working to a tight immovable deadline (i.e. Christmas), they just about managed to tick everything off. But because they were running out of time, they had to cut corners. They only had two Reindeer and they managed to look suspiciously like cows with stuck on antlers. The sleigh rides had some real huskies (well 2 to be precise). For some reason, the Santas weren’t available until late in the day. Even when they did turn up, they were thin not fat and their outfits were the cheap see-through plastic kind you get from pound land. The ice rink had no ice. The magic tunnel of ice was a few fairy lights dangled among the trees.

A funny thing happens when you are running out of time and still try to squeeze everything in. Because there isn’t enough time, corners get cut and quality slowly starts its inexorable slide downhill. In this example, the collateral damage was mainly financial, but there will be many children out there for whom the magic of Christmas has been tainted somewhat. But when the same thing happens with software, it can be catastrophic.

When a software project starts to overrun, you have a number of choices. You can slip the deadline (i.e. just accept that delivery will take longer than originally thought). You can slip the budget by putting more people on the project but there is a point where this just makes things worse (read the mythical man month by Fred Brooks). You can slip function (by accepting that you won’t deliver as much). For those who think they can deliver despite the overrun by questioning every estimate and applying pressure, then you end up in Winter Wonderland with only one reindeer and an anorexic Santa.

The default option if you try not to slip anything is quality. And poor quality in software means bugs, glitches & crashes. It also means unhappy clients and unlike Winter Wonderland, most software is around for a very long time.

So what’s it to be?

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Roleplaying. It’s kind of like sex. Sort of. Except it isn’t…

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La ori...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no way anyone could get a good idea of what sex is like from reading a written description. I’m sure they could understand the mechanics of insert tab A into slot B, but I doubt they could understand the all consuming compulsion or the nuances of the experience.

I’ve never found a truly satisfying written description of roleplaying games either. The experience is very difficult to capture. It’s a bit like the childhood game “let’s pretend” with rules. Maybe it’s more like an interactive movie. But it’s not like a movie at all – because no-one knows beforehand what’s going to happen. It’s almost impossible to define.

Whatever it is – I like it.

The most satisfying way to play is in an extended campaign in which the story unfolds during many sessions over a long period. Everyone at the table contributes, but one more than the rest. Someone needs to have an idea of the general scheme of things. Preparing for such a campaign is almost all-consuming.

First you need to understand the game system you plan to use. They all have their own rules and milieu Then you need to think about the story. The best way to prepare is to immerse yourself into everything you can think of from the genre of the game you want to run; music, books, films etc.

I’ve run some really satisfying campaigns that lasted for a long time. I ran a fantasy game where all the gods were based on the periodic table (with heavy metals as the bad guys and precious metals as the good guys). Another involved the players as spirits in the afterlife investigating hauntings and releasing ghosts from the ties that bind so that they can move on.

We’ve played in World War II, the Wild West with Zombies, the nautical world of Patrick O’ Brien, the post apocalyptic world of Mad Max, the time travelling pulp world of caddish archeologists and many others.

Right now, I’m preparing a game of hard science fiction. The players will crew a starship around a far future cluster of systems, trying to make a few credits without getting blasted out of the cosmos. I’ve hungrily devoured as many science fiction novels as I can. My choice in films has driven my wife mad. I’ve filled my iPhone with Holst‘s Planets as well as a number of  favourite movie themes.

I do all this because the more you put in, the more enjoyable the campaign will be. The build up is like foreplay.

The Warsaw Anagrams

Warsaw Ghetto: Construction of Ghetto wall acr...

Warsaw Ghetto: Construction of Ghetto wall across Świętokrzyska street near intersection with Marszałkowska street. In the back “Magazyn Bławatny” store of Jan Tarnowski & Co. at Marszałkowska 133 street. This is not the final location of the wall on Świętokrzyska street, according to book “Getto Warszawskie” in 1941 the wall was a block farther between Zielona and Bagno streets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend the enormity of some of the stuff that happened during Word War II. The conflict itself was horrific in its scale with fighting taking place across much of the globe. Countries routinely sent dozens of aeroplanes filled to the brim with explosives across the sea to drop on population centres. But beyond the death and destruction at the front line, on the home front as we now know, something awful took place.

The Warsaw ghetto was the largest of all Jewish ghettos in Nazi occupied Europe during the war. The Nazis corralled 400,000 Jews into a tiny section of the city separated by huge barbed wire topped walls. There are various estimates as to how many of the ghetto dwellers lost their lives and how many survived. The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler tells the story of one those ghetto dwellers.

I don’t know what made me pick up this book. I played a game called Last Train Out of Warsaw, which follows a train full of Polish fleeing from the German invasion and I read a game book called Grey Ranks which portrays children of the resistance inside the ghetto walls. If you can ignore the inherent misery and despair, these games give a fascinating insight into the world of wartime Warsaw. Besides which, I fancied a change from my regular diet of science fiction.

At the start of the book, we know the protagonist is dead because he returns to Warsaw as a ghost. Once there, he relates his story to the only man who can see him and a fascinating tale unfolds. Erik is a psychologist. He can see the writing on the wall so he decides to move to the ghetto on his terms before everyone else is rounded up. He moves in with his sister and her 9-year-old son. Initially, he is resentful of the son as he has to share his bed. In time they become much closer as they come to terms with their forced confinement.

Unfortunately, just when they are getting close, Adam is murdered and Erik sets out to discover who killed him and dumped his mutilated body. Along the way he discovers things he didn’t know about Adam and other children who suffered the same fate. It is an easy read and a cracking mystery. I like the way that the essence of the Jewish culture is interwoven with the story. The odd Jewish word here and the odd reference to a Jewish custom really help to make the story authentic.

So is it miserable? Yes the despair is there, but there’s so much more. I can’t believe how much the ghetto is brought to life. There’s love, hope, ambition and people helping other people. There is smuggling, murder and suicide. There is coldness, hunger and disease. Read this if you want to know what happened and if you want to understand the pride of the people it happened to.