An Old Fashioned Love Nerd

[Thanks and apologies to Paul Williams]
[The following is to enjoyed/read/sang to the tune of the immortal original]

I’m just an old fashioned love nerd
Roleplaying at the table
And wrapped around the dice is the
Sound of someone promising
They’ll never blow a roll
You swear you’ve heard it before
As the DM slowly rambles on and on
No need to give ’em slack
Cause the session’s gone really long

Just an old fashioned love nerd
Coming down in six part APs
I’m just an old fashioned love nerd
Oh, I’m sure we’ll play some RPGS

To weave our dreams into
Each rp sess each evening
When the lights are low
To underscore our dice affair
With dungeon crawls and shouting
When we get to roll
You’ll swear you’ve played this game before
As we slowly ramble on and on
No need in bringing dead PCs back
Just make a new one to be

Just an old fashioned love nerd
Coming out with indie RPGs
I’m just an old fashioned love nerd
We have a open slot in our party

Just an old fashioned love nerd
Playing roles I always love to be
I’m just an old fashioned love nerd
Oh, I’m sure we’ll play some good ol’ RPGs

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Shoot from the Hip, Aim for the Heart

There’s nothing scary about writing.

Only there is. And I’ve been suffering under it’s weight for some time. My own stupid, stubborn, self-inflicted weight. It’s not the writing. It’s the failure. Or the idea of failure. That you’re gonna sit down, maybe bang out a few hundred words and they just stare back at you, haunting and ugly and bad. Bad. Just… the worst words.

I really hated my creative writing courses during my undergrad. They never filled me with confidence or inspiration. My classmates didn’t seem like my peers. Either too young or too sloppy or too anything. I always stood out as cutting in my commentary. Never cruel, but confident and constructive. I always tried to think Big Picture and dissect each piece to its fundamental elements while comparing and illuminating each.

I think the last day, when all the graduates went out drinking with the head of the creative writing department, it summarized my outward relationships perfectly. One of my classmates sloshing his beer remarked aloud, “Whenever Graham talks about your story, everything he says– it’s always so right. But like. Do you have to say it?”

I’m not a dick. I’m not. I have deep compassion and sensitivity towards everyone. I’d say, over the years, I’ve learned to listen more than to talk. And I remember what people say, especially when they tell me things about their lives. Apparently, this is uncommon. Seems normal to me. I’ve taught myself under much difficulty the invaluable skill of Shutting The Fuck Up. If that’s not an achievement, I don’t know what is.

I’ve been gone. I’ve been away for a while. I’ve been chained to my past, reliving my mistakes and humiliations. I’ve been paralyzed by a present I hated. And I could not see my future. Life looked bleak and predatory, and existentially the dehumanization of capitalism left me defeated and hopeless.

But then I went to Gen Con for the first time.

Good god, why did no one tell me. I know it was supposed to be fun and nerdy. But no one described the nirvana. No one ever told me I would be overwhelmed by endorphins at every turn and feel so completely alive again. I couldn’t possibly write about it all here in this post. But I listened to seminars, I marveled at board games, I played roleplaying games, I made amazing friends,  I played in a goddamn megagame, I met Jason MORNINGstar. Even walked 40 miles.

But people saw me there. When I was there, people noticed. I was shiny. It was purpose, it was meaning. It was a future. And it felt amazing.

So don’t be scared. Do it to it. Shoot from the hip, aim for the heart. Keep writing. Everyday. Write what you WANT TO WRITE. Fuel your passion. Feed that creativity. You feel it. You trust it. You know it.

Ready? Let’s go.

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The Truth about Board Gaming

So board games have entered into a “golden age.”

Perhaps you’ve noticed. Perhaps one of your friends has insisted to play “Settlers of Catan,” “Cards against Humanity,” or something even odder.

Seem strange, right? In the age of smartphones and apps and Facebook games riddled with predatory microtransactions, cardboard and dice are somehow blooming.

But maybe that’s it. Maybe some romantic notion of anti-technology, a mighty blowback against the very everyday institutions that divide, as much as they unite, us people.

Well, no. It’s a nice thought. But that’s not quite it.

My family played a fair amount of games together as a family. My older brother always beat me at strategy games, like Stratego or Chess, being four full years my senior. I started Magic: the Gathering when I was seven, but my brother was the only person to play against and I lost constantly. My family owned the standard “roll and move” games, like Monopoly and Life, as well as Careers. My father was fond of Risk, but play of it was uncommon. More so were the many games of Racko or Chronology Jr. My mother loved Aggregation, though a family joke was generated that she cheated do to her prodigious ability to roll the all-powerful 6’s. We also had Quinto, a very enjoyable Scrabble-but-with-numbers. On our many family camping trips, we’d play Zilch.

In middle school, I discovered D&D and began my lifelong obsession with pen and paper story and gaming. I kept playing Magic as a minor distraction and felt somewhat vindicated from my years against my brother by never losing at the hands of my peers. When I got to college, I encountered more “gamey” board games, like Axis and Allies or Risk 2210 A.D. I was always excited to take part, but more as an intellectual competition against my friends and less for any deep enjoyment of the game.

There is one type of video gaming I have enjoyed more than any other: it’s called “couch co-op,” which is to say sitting in the same room as your friends and then either competing against them or teaming up to progress through the game. It seems odd to me now to need to specify this, but when I was young, internet multiplayer was immensely rare. Now it’s a household staple. And while the possibilities of MMOs and online teamplay initially excited and fascinated me, they’ve long grown banal. I never gloated and strutted so haughtily or howled in bloody defeat and screamed for revenge as loudly as I did when I was gripping a sweaty controller side-by-side with the people I loved.

But I can tell you now, I am thoroughly consumed by board gaming. It has utterly eclipsed my interest in video games, which usually sat as second to pen and paper as my nerdy preoccupations.

So how? Why?

Well. It was the internet.

Wil Wheaton’s Youtube show Tabletop, reviews by Quintin Smith and Paul Dean of Shut Up & Sit Down, and the Dice Tower of Tom Vasel suddenly exploded across my browser in recent years as I watched slack-jawed in utter disbelief. Passion for the industry, love for ideas and systems, and the ingenuity of the physical objects that were board games dominated seemingly everything. There was no question at all. This was magicial in a way I had never realized. Why didn’t I know it was this goddamned incredible?

Board gaming has long simply been a very niche industry. Printings from the gaming companies that produced them were physically limited. People could only purchase these games from small, specialized shops. There was little migration from other hobbies. The only advertising for them were the goofy TV commercials largely indistinguishable from ones selling children’s cereal.

But the fuel for this veritable forest fire comes in two forms: information and access, two things the internets happens to do better than any tool in human history.

“Internet!” you can shout at practically any reflective surface in your house. “Tell what the good board games are.” Only to follow up with a: “Internet! Get me those board games!” And in a flash, they’re at your front stoop. What could be easier?

These days I have a little over 50 board games stacked up in my linen closet. They’re all shapes and sizes and genres. I rabidly research them all before purchase. Some retail for around $100, so you gotta be careful. I’ve only spent as much as $60 once or twice. And the only ones I really regret buying are some on the cheaper end.

I’ve always been something of a “nerd evangelist.” I’ll rave about media in the form of music, movies, TV, anime, video games, novels, or comic books I love and convince other people to experience it to: Neil Gaiman, Deltron 3030, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, etc. Now I’m part of board gaming, and looking to spread the passion of their magic there, too (Top Five? Probably Cosmic Encounter, Tales of Arabian Nights, Descent: Journeys in the Dark [Second Edition], Pandemic, and Love Letter).

My name is Graham Gentz. And I goddamn love board games. If you just humor me a little bit, I’ll even teach you some of them. And I promise, at the very least, you won’t be bored in the slightest.

After all, there’s a golden age out there.

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Planetary Romance

I love planetary romance.

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No, not like that.

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Yeah. That’s more like it.

So why then?

Planetary romance is about daring high adventure set amongst exotism both interstellar and alien. What it is not, however, is anything remotely scientific. It gives it a noble dreaminess that hard-nosed sci-fi tends to not. There’s crossover with pulp action and Heroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. But the little dash of foreign planets and mythical technology and genre blending gives it a unique kind of appeal. For straight fantasy fans, you have Tolkien-eque-High-Fantasy-D&D-Warcraft-Elves-and-Dwarves influences. But that seems so well traveled. But for the pulpier stuff, I always liked John Carter more than Conan. Some impossible Mars built from dreamy wonderment was just too charming to pass up.

So what to do with it. “Swords and Planets” has been described as a static genre with consciously borrows from itself. This seems to be true with so many sorts of fiction. How do you give the audience what they want in a way they don’t expect? Noir suffers from this as well, unfortunately. What it gets by on is just how dang cool it is.

Everybody always looks so awesome in it:

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But then how do you keep it fresh? “Chinatown” is just better written than anything like it. “Dark City” plunges straight into convention with a bit of genre-blending. “Insomnia,” I would argue, does the best at playing with expectations of the genre as a whole– by setting a neonoir north of the Arctic Circle, it goes against the tradition of noir always being set at night (again, see: “Dark City”) to match the bleak moral tone of the genre, but the disorientation and fatigue it provides the protagonist is both moral and physical.

Can I do something something similar with Planetary Romance?

Or pulp for that matter? Or do I just embrace the genre for what it is and assume that if it’s written by me, it’ll naturally start to mutate according to my own personal tastes.

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Playing Pretend

I’ve been telling stories a long time.

When I was little, I imagined worlds to exist in. “Pretend.” Didn’t everyone?

I was captured by adventure. By heroics. By victory. By power and death and evil and life. I’d flip over my bed and land crouched on the floor, poised for action. I was a creature of battle and bliss, merely existing as a spirit of freedom.

Messy room

My room was constantly a mess. Not because I was particularly grungy, but because it was my canvass for storytelling. They were wastelands, junkyards, metropolises, battlegrounds, asteroid fields, even baseball diamonds.

My superhero toys liked to play baseball. The Thing batted cleanup.

Quite simply, I just loved playing with sticks. Mostly they were swords. Very occasionally guns. But swords were always more satisfying. More romantic.

Where’d I get these ideas from? Robin Hood? Peter Pan? Lego? I struggle to remember where I first got the idea to grab a fallen branch straight enough to capture my imagination and transform me utterly.

That is the nature of “Pretend.” Transformation. It wasn’t a stick. I wasn’t Graham, a human boy. I had utterly become something else.

As a tiny child– or as I like to say, “In The Time Before I Could Read,” I’d watch movies endlessly. I’d memorize all the lines, I’d rewind parts over and over. I’d delve into these worlds, breath in the characters and colors of it all.

But what I wanted was adventure. My own adventure.

I have to assume it was a movie the first time I saw a sword fight. The Disney “Robin Hood” seems the most conspicuous culprit. I don’t think I ever saw the famous 1938 Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone duel from “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” But it was paid homage to in “The Rocketeer,” which I watched endlessly.

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It was “Hook.” Oh, it had to have been. That Hero Shot of Robin Williams appearing to Hook fully for the first time. And the swordfight that followed. Robin flying around almost haphazardly fencing incidental pirates while occasionally actually getting face-to-face with Hook.

And his sword.

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Holy god, I loved Peter Pan’s sword in this movie. Was this the first time I ever truly fetishized a sword? How cool they looked. How cool it was to strike a blade against another. The crashing, clanking back-and-forth of two swords clashing.

What could be better?

I remember for my 4th Christmas, after my 4th birthday party which had been Peter Pan themed, my family traveled from Corvallis, Oregon to my grandmother’s house in faraway Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the one-and-only time I’d spend on an airplane until I was 20, when I decided to fly off to have an adventure of my own.

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It was easily one of my most memorable Christmases. Christmas was one of my favorite holidays, and not just because you got free stuff. It was just fun. I liked the spirit of it. Music and lights and laughter and fires while it was dark and cold. My family had books we would read every year, breaking them out of boxes packed away til December. Books like “Polar Express.” I loved what it was about: imagination, wonderment, magic.

Though this Christmas, I received this:

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Kinda looks like shit now, doesn’t it? I remember most being excited about his sword. The sword! He had his sword! I have no memory of playing with the toy other than that Christmas, bouncing him up and down the big stairwell in my grandmother’s house. Did he get left behind? Did I lose him back home? He certainly didn’t survive move after move my family took over the years of my childhood.

We’d move state to state from Oregon to Kansas to upstate New York all within three years. We also took trips, camping and hiking and exploring the country. We never had a lot of money. But we spent a lot of time time together riding in the car.

On long trips my mother apparently would tell my older brother and I stories about two mice, named Fred and Oscar, who would go on adventures together. Although I have no memory of these stories. What I do remember, however, is my grandfather purchasing my family’s first ever computer from the Best Buy in Topeka, Kansas, some 50-odd miles away from where we lived. My mother took two weeks of classes from the local community center and was suddenly armed mightily with knowledge of the Windows 3.1 operating system.

It seemed to be called “Windows” for a good reason. There were always so many of them open at once, like piles of fallen gunmetal leaves. My brother and I would play DOS games through some overly complicated framing program called KidDesk:

I remember it being ugly and bold, with plenty of primary colors and fat icons. Mostly I think we played “The Castle of–“, or alternatively “The Island of”, “–Dr. Brain.”

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That’s the stuff.

But what most shocked and overjoyed me about the presence of the new computer and my mother’s expertise was her promise that she could print and make my own books.

So I suppose I went with a subject I was familiar with:

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I was 5. I’d pace back and forth and dictate aloud to my mother, then would produce for each page in MS Paint choppy illustrations composed of black straight lines, ovals, and rectangles sometimes filled in with color in places.

Telling the story seemed easy. I was just playing Pretend.

Write As If No One’s Reading

There’s that platitude that tells us to dance like no one’s watching.

I write as if no one’s reading.

This is not to say that I write without consequence or responsibility. On the contrary, integrity as a writer is the single most important thing to me. It means that my thoughts or voice can be trusted. If not, you really have nothing.

What I mean is that there is only one person by whom my writing can be held to a standard: me.

Mostly, though, I’m still surprised anyone ever gives a shit about what I write. I am continually surprised anyone ever reads anything I write. From my perspective, it would be easy to simply ignore it. And now I think I’ve been doing it long enough now that I can talk about it in a larger sense.

I try to write about bad acting, not ‘bad actors,’ if there is something that needs to be addressed. Acting is an intensely personal craft, in part due to its emotional and public nature. That makes people sensitive. I’m an actor, too. You never forget that.

At the same time, I feel that my written critiques ultimately fall back to integrity.

Actors usually know if they’re in an awful play. Most of the time, people know when they’ve seen an awful play. Usually, it’s people active and passionate about theatre — and local theatre — that get upset when quality is lacking. The audience members want more because they believe in what they’re seeing.

So if I see a play that suffers, for one reason or another, it is my job to write about it. If that blow doesn’t come, I think that it’s far worse than softening the impact. If I’m suddenly not writing truthfully, then it’ll be obvious and everyone suffers for it. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be sensitive. And it’s up to all of us to judge.

The only time I ever hear feedback is when people are upset about something I’ve written. Of course this only happens if I’m negative about a show. Sometimes anonymous counter critics flare to life on the Daily Lobo website. It’s gratifying to see the misspelled comments of people foaming at the mouth hiding behind internet aliases. At this point it’s not a conversation, it’s angry peasants with pitchforks and torches banging at the gate.

Certainly, no one ever writes when I’m positive about a show, or if they agree with me.

I get asked sometimes what it means to be a reviewer. I get asked what the role of the reviewers is in theatre. Honestly, I never think about these things. They don’t make me a better writer or a better thinker. I try to write with integrity and it never occurs to me someone else other than me might care. I like having conversations about shows and theatre. I am very rarely given the opportunity to talk openly.

Kevin Elder, formerly of Tricklock, once emailed me after I reviewed one of their shows to very nicely tell me I was completely wrong about what I had written. It was great. Alan Hudson, one of the classiest men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, has often approached me over the years to talk about something I have written, good or bad.

Largely, I get ignored. But I don’t mind.

Because I express my opinion publicly, doesn’t mean I think my point of view is paramount or unshakable. Exactly the opposite. I am continually fascinated by things I do not know. I toss my hat into the ring hoping someone will pick it up and toss it back. I’m hungry, practically desperate to see new things, to realize new perspectives that I never could or would have thought of.

When I throw my chips into the center of the room, I’m laying my cards flat. With the best 700 words I can muster. I’m saying:

“Well, that’s it for me. So. What you got?”

 

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