Friday, October 11, 2002

WISH 17: PROPS

Here is presented Ginger's Game WISH question #17, for your delectation and enjoyment:

How do you use props in your game? Give three examples, and discuss why you use them. What do they bring to the game? Are there any downsides to using them? For those who do convention games, are there differences between the props you use in campaigns and the props you use for con rounds?

I like to buy bloody carcasses from the butcher and flop them wetly on the gaming table to graphically illustrate the nasty business of hack-n-slash.

No, I don't. I'm not a hugely prop-intensive person as a general rule. I've written about Eop the Raven and the use of a bat puppet to bring him to life, so writing about that would be cheating. So, something else, something else....

I'm a big fan of maps. I love to draw full-color game world maps and present them for the players' use. I also like to draw sketchy maps and update them as the players explore the world. It's fun to do, and it's a reasonably useful tool, especially if the group needs to do a lot of travel planning and logistics. I also use AutoCAD to plot out custom battlemats for 3E D&D fights and other encounters.

In my most recent round of DUDE I used two props to good effect. In this game, I was playing the executive producer, and the players were playing action movie actors. After an initial phase of wrangling over the direction of the picture we were about to shoot, one of the players was designated the 'Actor/Director'. I had bought a black beret for that individual's use. The Actor/Director would then artily lay out how the forthcoming scene would be shot. Meanwhile, I had bought a prop for my own use: a novelty cigar, as large as a cucumber, that really blew smoke without being lit (although a tiny LED lit up at the end when it was puffed on). I think these props added a bit of ambience to the proceedings.

It's not really a prop, but it was a definite artifact in use during games: when I ran my long-running AD&D game in college, we had the rattiest comfy chair you can possibly imagine. It was a scum-green armchair with the stuffing spilling out of numerous rips in the fabric; also, for some reason that was never quite clear to me, the legs had been entirely sawed off. My freshman year this chair was rescued from a dumpster and brought to our room. During gaming it was used as the DM's chair; despite its low stature and gnarly appearance, it was really quite comfortable. This chair was dubbed the Chair of Power and remained in use for quite some time, despite horrifying substances spilled on it and its increasingly moldy stench. I can't say that the Chair of Power actually added much to the games, except that it was so low that I could sit in it and scootch it backwards under our quasi-bar table, thereby lurking in shadow while governing the proceedings.

The coolest prop I think I've ever seen in a game had to be some papers painstakingly penned by Jason Modisette. Our characters were in a library researching old crime scene records which had been handwritten with poorly blotted penmanship. The record we were really interested in was missing; the bad guys had spirited it away. However, we shortly realized that the poor blotting of the ink had led the missing record to leave a backwards imprint on the piece of paper that had lain on top of it; by taking that page and looking at it in a mirror, we were just barely able to make out the information we needed. Jason had worked quite a long time on getting the writing to read right backwards, and making it faint enough to not be terribly obvious.

I really like illustrations. I don't generally do a lot of research to procure them for my own games, but I always enjoy games more when there are pictures to look at. I still fondly recall that first heady experience of playing in AD&D adventure S3, which contained an illustration booklet with quite a number of gorgeous pictures of bizarre encounters (S3 is set inside an alien spaceship). Nowadays Kenzer and Company has brought back the illustration booklet for their Kalamar d20 adventures, which makes their adventures worth a look, if not an actual purchase.

For my games, the prop that sees the most use must be the whiteboard and pens. There is always some need to explain the situation the players find themselves in graphically. I make a lot of use out of sketching and doodling.

Thursday, October 10, 2002

WISH 4: SYSTEMS

Catching up! [pant pant] Only fifty miles to go! [pant pant]

Ginger's Game WISH question #4 is posed thusly:

Describe three systems you have gamed under: one you thought was good, one you thought was all right, and one you didn't care for. What were the good points and the bad points of each system? Did the systems support their genre? Were they complex or simple? How easy were they to GM and play? Is there a system you'd really like to try that you haven't? Which ones wouldn't you try based on reading them?

Hey! that's not one question! that's, like, ten million questions! mutter, mutter....

I think the best game system I have played is Paranoia. Here the definition of 'best' is limited to mean the system that appropriately matches the mechanics of play with the flavor of the game, and thereby causes the minimum of disruption by dint of its mere existence. Here's what I mean: the way you generate characters in Paranoia is fairly arbitrary. You randomly generate your stats; you randomly pick your secret society and your mutation; you get the barest minimum of flexibility in choosing your skills and equipment. This arbitrariness really sets you up well for the arbitrariness of the game universe. In Paranoia you don't have a lot of real choices, and at any time the whim of [essentially] God could smack you down. In other games lack of choices would be annoying and wrong, but in Paranoia it's just perfect. Other than character generation, Paranoia doesn't lug around a lot of rules; it pretty much shuts up and gets out of the way of the action. This frees up characters to try pretty much anything, as it says right there in the rules that just about anything is possible if you roll high enough, and showing a lot of brass should be rewarded by the GM. If you want to encourage fearless, thoughtly, quick-tempo play, this is exactly the sort of system you want. For slower, more methodical play, you can play a system with rules for everything like D&D. If you want a fast game, D&D is not for you.

My feelings are mixed on Torg / Masterbook. This system is not terribly rules-intensive either; the largest part of the Torg rulebook was source material. The game has a neat mechanic in its deck of cards. Players and GM alike receive special cards which give bonuses for certain types of actions. Every round of action in a conflict there is an approved action; performing said action allows one to get more cards. This is a good thing because it encourages players to do something other than shoot the enemy all the time; often the approved action is something like Bluff, or Trick. With respect to the people I game with, this mechanic succeeded in keeping a combat-oriented group from automatically shooting anything that moves. However, the cards became just another mechanic that could be abused. This abuse earned the name of 'card-mongering', which is the practice of performing the approved actions in such a way that one maximizes one's cards and thereby accumulates personal power. If a mechanic can be manipulated in such a way that the pursuit of such an effort eclipses the non-systemic parts of the game, it has failed. Rules fail as soon as they enter the radar screen of your conscious mind. I liked the several games I played within the Torg and Masterbook rules sets, but this was probably more a function of playing in a properly set up game than playing a good system.

I just absolutely can't stand the World of Darkness rules. I know a lot of people just love those games, and I'm sure Rein-splot-Hagen is a genius, but the system makes my skin crawl. Here's my beef: WoD counts as a system that has a fair number of rules. There are a lot of powers, a lot of different tallies to keep track of, a lot of lookups on skills to see how well you did, etc. Any system that has a lot of rules needs to have good balance -- ie no matter what choices you make during character creation, you can create a character with a reasonable expectation of having capabilities of a level similar to your fellow players. If you don't do this, you wind up with 1st edition AD&D: a broken system that can be abused by those who know how to abuse it. Now, mind you, not all systems need to have lots of rules. Games that are all about atmosphere and not all about kicking ass shouldn't need a lot of rules. I should think that [Critter]: The [Gerund] would want to be more atmospheric and dispense with all the roll this and compare that nonsense. But it doesn't, and it's poorly balanced, and it's arbitrary (what's my difficulty number?), and is therefore quite a bit like 1e AD&D -- EXCEPT that 1e AD&D doesn't make any pretenses about being an atmospheric roleplaying game. Advanced D&D was pretty much about looting and killing, and no bones were made of it, so I can't complain too much. But I just loathe the World of Darkness system now, even though I've played a few games using it, and I don't intend to play in any more. I actually hate two systems worse than World of Darkness (Ysgarth and Aftermath), but those are sufficiently obscure that I'll just leave it at that.

I've never gotten to run or play in Over The Edge, although it looks like fun. Angelo recommended Deadlands to me, so I'll want to check that out someday soon. I'd like to try the d20 modern system for something like James Bond or Car Wars, although I would emphatically not like to try it for something like Call of Cthulhu.

I read RuneQuest and never opened the box again -- it looks too goofy for words. I've heard nothing but badness from MERP, although some of their source material is pretty good. Rolemaster sounds pretty bad. The revised Traveller looks sufficiently overcomplicated that I shouldn't touch it.

In the category of less mainstream games: people who haven't tried it should try Skyrealms of Jorune. It's lightweight and has a richly developed world. Reading the rules to HOL is probably better than actually playing it, but read 'em anyway. Similarly, read All Flesh Must be Eaten.

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

WISH 3: SETTINGS

Ginger's Game WISH question #3 reads as follows:

Discuss three setting ideas or ideas for elements of settings that you got from movies/books/TV/etc. that you have read or seen recently. These do not need to be full-fledged settings, but can be single elements that could be incorporated into existing games.

Do I hafta do just three? no, I don't think I do. If this offends anybody, quit reading after the first three. Everything afterwards is just gibberish. Fnord.

Item: a while back the BBC did a pretty good show called Star Cops. The setting was a moonbase in the middle of the next century. Humanity has expanded pretty fast out into the solar system, and there's a lot of lawlessness and uncertain jurisdiction out there. Those nominally in charge of upholding the law are the International Space Police Force, led by a terrestrial cop who really doesn't want to be out of the gravity well but doesn't have a choice in the matter. The ISPF, given the derogatory name 'Star Cops', find that ordinary base human nature is alive and well beyond the earth's atmosphere. The show is much like an ordinary police drama, but set against the background of space. I think this would make a cool game, especially if somehow combined with Buck Rogers: near-future scientists and cosmonauts work a liquid oxygen farm on a moonbase, there is a disaster and they fall into the LOx reservoir; their bodies quickly freeze and they are left in suspended animation. They are revived a century later in the moonbase that has mushroomed up and through the old pod-style base. They are put to work doing special missions for the moonbase law enforcement because they aren't a part of the system and are therefore effectively invisible. The big corporations have built their own little enclaves where the law barely reaches, so the good guys have to be sneaky and diplomatic. Then there's a nuclear war on earth, and moonbase needs to deal with a flood of refugee ships....

Item: while we're on the topic of cool BBC series, there was a cool show in the 70's called Survivors. (No, not that show.) It was sort of like Stephen King's The Stand, minus the supernatural stuff and the frothing. The world's population is decimated by a plague, and the survivors must somehow go on living. The show is amazingly muted when it comes to ick and gore, and instead focuses on small but important stuff, like how people deal with the loss of the comforts we take for granted. It also has a strong theme of the danger of power implemented by force -- when there's not many people in the world, a handful of thugs with rifles is a scary thing indeed. I think this would make a great game just the way it is.

Item: I recently reread LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea series. I think it would be fun to run a game with a bunch of neophyte wizards at the School of Magic. There is lots of opportunity for conflict and intrigue -- something like a Hogwarts situation, but the students are older and the struggles are rather more dire. I think I would enjoy playing a Namer, or a wizard who learns the true names of things, which gives one power over those things provided the names are used carefully and sparingly.

Item: For a long time now I have wanted to run a Mission: Impossible game. I'm not talking about M:I as implemented by Tom Cruise, as that was an abomination and cannot really be talked about by me without my face turning purple and my friends getting spittle on their faces. I'm talking about the old TV show, where the good guys planned and snuck and spoofed and spied, and if somebody swung a fist (or, egad, shot a gun) it meant something had gone SERIOUSLY WRONG. I really like caper games, especially in PBeM where you can do the planning and the execution justice. It's often kind of a let-down in FTF gaming where, after hours of planning, the GM just says 'Okay, it works perfectly!'

Item: I'm perverse along peculiar axes of oddity. I think it would be fun to run one-shot games where the chief thrill was the irony of it all. Things that would be amusing in this vein: you could roleplay The Hardy Boys and their various pals and chums, quipping their way across Bayport on their sleuthing missions. You could play a game called something like 'It Came From Beyond', which would be the roleplaying game of 60's drive-in scifi/horror movies starring Steve McQueen. (female characters would have to scream a lot. male characters would have to wear button-up sweaters. everybody would have to pepper their conversation with 'keen!' and 'swell!') I really think it would be amusing to play a game that attempted to model Cannonball Run, with wacky hijinks and cleavage aplenty. And wouldn't you be amused for at least a *second* if you got to play in a Thundarr the Barbarian game? Demon Dogs!

Item: I don't know why I have never seen or heard of a Raymond Chandler style mystery PBeM. I've seen plenty of CoC, but a good old-fashioned gumshoe story? I'd love to have a good group of writers each take the part of a good guy, a bad guy, or a neutral contact, and just play it out. This would also work pretty well as an online Host-a-Mystery thing. You know, all of you are suspects trapped in the mansion / boat / island / whatever, and one of you did it; you have to piece together the clues that each person has in their possession....

Item: I know lots of people who like to play superheroes. I know lots of people who like to be funny. But it's rare that you see people playing funny superheroes. That's why there should be a Tick rpg, or a Mystery Men rpg. You develop your character strictly for yuks, then see who can make everybody else laugh the hardest. Probably would only work in FTF gaming, and then only with the right crowd.

Item: Speaking of supers -- I have been rereading Wild Cards and would like to play in a Wild Cards game. I know that Gurps put out a Wild Cards sourcebook, but honestly, I'm not a Gurps fan, and I don't think Gurps is well suited to supers play anyhow. It really should be done with Villains and Vigilantes, or some sort of rules-light / diceless system.

Item: I forget who wrote it -- perhaps it was Fritz Leiber -- but there was a really neat short story out there about a guy who comes unstuck from reality. The people around him kept having conversations with him, but they were obviously hearing things different from what he was saying, or they were talking to him in a different part of the room. Eventually the guy becomes something like a ghost, drifting unglued and out of phase with the world we know. Then he discovers there are other entities there with him, and they don't mean any good for our world. I did a bit of brainstorming a game a while back that I was calling Up the Down Escalator that works along the same lines as that story. The people who are out of phase gather together to see what they can do about the strange horrors that are fiddling with the underpinnings of reality, and try to get back into sync with the real world in the bargain.

Item: I like the world of Blade Runner. And my inner Cheez-head likes the world of Escape from New York. So why not combine the two? Earth is a hellhole, and the only people who are left here are the undesirables. You try to leave the atmosphere, they shoot you down. Of course, they try to keep people from developing launch capabilities in the first place; that's where the androids come in. No sane person would infiltrate earth, so they have robots do it. The good guys want to kill the robots. Or maybe they are the robots? Maybe both! maybe neither! I don't know! Maybe we're not supposed to know! what the fuck is that unicorn? where's Donald Pleasance? anybody seen my electric sheep? I'm SO CONFOOOOZED!

Item: okay, so riffing on Escape from New York. At the end of the last movie (which sucked, but stay with me), the doomsday device is detonated that frags all high technology on the planet, right? So, time for the sequel: Escape from Galveston. Lots of people have gone just completely nutso from the overnight fall of civilization into the Dark Ages. They can't build a sanitarium big enough to hold 'em, so they stick 'em on Galveston Island and block off the causeway. Anybody trying to cross the intracoastal highway gets an 8-pound ball smack dab in the gunwhales. The PC's are sent in -- their mission: find and kill Snake Plisskin! (you've heard he's dead, but no matter.) It turns out that Snake is in charge of the nuthouse; he's got a plan to (brace yourself) recommission the USS Cavalla (a defunct WWII sub at Seawolf Park) and live a jolly life of piracy on the high seas! should we kill him or join him? decisions, decisions....

Enough! I have many game ideas! I can't think of them all right now. Many of them suck, but some are good. Someday I will run one or more of them, provided my petition to increase a day's length to 30 hours goes through.

Monday, October 07, 2002

WISH 2: ROMANCE

Could I please skip around some more? Ginger Stampley's Game WISH question #2 is:

Describe two romantic relationships involving a PC you've seen in a game. One should be a romance that worked for the participants and the other should be one that failed, died, or came to an end. What was good and bad about these relationships from the point of view of plot and character development? How did the GM make the romance appealing to the players?

[CUE FAINT STRAINS OF ACCORDION MUSIC]

Ah!....l'amour.

Un moment, s'il vous plait....

[SUDDEN STACCATO SOUNDS OF WHACKING PUNCTUATED BY AGONIZED ACCORDION SQUEALS. THE INSTRUMENT EXPIRES WITH ONE FINAL PATHETIC WHEEZE]

There. Much better. Where were we?

The question asks for one successful romance and one not so successful. Well, sorry kids, but I seem to only play in games where love goes horribly wrong. I game in universes where cruel fate, foul curses, perfidious villainy and bad timing conspire to condemn aspiring lovers to loneliness, and loving lovers to torment. Hey, it's not like I'm doing it on purpose! it's just that I'm unlucky when it comes to game-karma for LUUUURVE.

Back in 1992, when the earth's crust had only recently cooled and the web was only known or thought about by complete eggheads, I helped found alt.pub.dragons-inn on USENET. This was a shared-fiction newsgroup set in the fantasy city of Generica, where anybody could post to introduce a character, interact with other characters, and have whatever adventures one chose. A group of good writers emerged who wrote quite a number of interesting and intricately interwoven stories. My main character was T.E. Kron, a middle-aged Sergeant of the Watch, who wound up being something of the Generican Batman.

Over the years Kron did a lot of running around with Jameson Walker, a professional wanderer, storyteller, and occasional whacker-of-evil. The relationship between the two started out professionally, but eventually stray looks and comments bled into the narrative, and before we knew it they were going on what one would have to call a date. At that point things went horribly wrong. Kron got turned into an anthropomorphic plant, and Walker had her own issues she was running down. The romance went nowhere, in part because the characters were on diverging paths, but also because I was feeling increasingly weird about my character having a relationship with a character belonging to a single female. I'm a lot less uptight about such things now, but that was my first PBeM experience, and I wasn't dealing well. If you happen to read this, Kelly -- my bad.

I am currently playing in the Bohavia PBeM game, one of the longer running examples of such games that I know about (started in November '97). This game is one of the stranger D&D games I've been associated with; it's set in a pseudohistorical analog of Czechoslovakia, but nevertheless the characters have managed to run into the cast of the Wizard of Oz and, well, a giant nose. You had to be there. Anyway, my character fits right in -- he plays a paladin of the God of Thieves and a confidence man; he makes his living pretending to be Yiri of Podyebrad, the legendary savior of the nation. One dark stormy night my character weathered a storm in a ruined chapel of the Goddess of Justice, and woke up the next morning cursed with a conscience. He still worships his dark God and serves him as best as he can, but he also tries to live his life as Yiri, doing good deeds and liberating the nation. My character has had a very thin line to walk to please both elements of his personality, and that line got even thinner when he met Kist, an actual real-live paladin.

Of course they fell in love. That's how it is with these stories. So they actually had a decent romance going, with the hand-holding and the questioning-of-the-value-of-chastity thing going on. Then, the HWRNMNBSOL curse fell: Kist's player got pregnant, delivered her child, and ran out of energy to game. Argh! danged reproductive system -- we hates it, precious, we hates it FOREVER! Anyway, the DM hasn't been wild about continuing the romance with Kist as an NPC, and he's recently hinted that her character is Tragically Doomed. Of course, playing tragic loss is perfectly fine too, but romance it ain't. Feh.

I've seen quite a bit of romance over PBeM, but much less so in face-to-face gaming. I think that whole physical detachment thing really helps us introvert-types get into the roles we want to play without the paralysis associated with making the smoochie-face noises at the hairy guy across the table.

Sunday, October 06, 2002

GAME WORLD #1: FIRE FIGHTERS

The fire fighters trudged out of the smoke still blanketing
Hill 19. They were clearly exhausted; theirs had been largely
a holding action this day, keeping the fire from jumping the
breaks and spreading into the fields of parched grass beyond.
There were a dozen of Charlie Squad trooping wearily down to
base camp, sweat blazing trails across soot-smeared foreheads,
respirator masks swinging crazily, open coats flapping in the
hot breeze.

Cranston, the lieutenant, met them grimly at the bottom. "Lost
Reffert today," he said matter-of-factly.

Hurd took a swig from his canteen, then spat the water out to
get the taste of ash out of his mouth. "How?"

"Got trapped in a canyon." Cranston offered a stick of gum,
thoughtfully flown in by the USO. "Thought he had it beat
back with the water cannon. He went in to try to wet down
a stand of mesquite, but an arm snuck in behind him." Charlie
Squad winced in unison; Cranston shrugged. "We couldn't get
to him in time."

"Shit." Hurd scuffed at the ground with a heavy boot, cracked
and blackened from weeks of tromping across baked ground. "He
was a good kid; family in Galveston."

"Galveston's got its own problems," replied Cranston. "Just
came over the wire; the fire jumped the Bay. It hid on a
barge full of old tires, banked really low; then it flared
up and jumped to the saltgrass. Town's on fire."

Hurd squinted at Cranston. "Goddamn fire is a step ahead of
us every damned day. Any more bad news?"

"I guess." The lieutenant looked like he was going to be
sick. "They dropped the bomb on the ruins of Albuquerque,
hoping the shock wave would blunt the spearhead of the
southwestern front. Didn't work. Fire actually seemed to
gain energy." He gulped. "It seemed to *like* it."

Hurd's nasty reply was interrupted; Mazurczek ran up.

"CO says come quick. Got a chunk of fire boxed in and
isolated. He wants to ask some questions."

"Fuckin' A," replied Hurd, cocking the lever on his cold-
thrower. The CO2 tank was still half full. "We gonna
have ourselves a little interrogation."

- * -

The canebreak was on fire. Tongues of flame licked twenty
feet into the air, wafting smoke and cinders onto the updraft.
Water hoses sent a constant intercepting curtain of water
vapor above the fire, mopping up the runaway ash. There would
be no escaping.

The ground around the canebreak was cleared for fifty yards in
every direction. Members of the 12th Airborne Firefighting
regiment stood watchfully around the prisoner, ready to
direct spray hoses and CO2 bombs at the slightest sign of
trouble. Hurd and Charlie Squad came in behind to watch as
the CO addressed the fire using a bullhorn:

"The situation in Kansas City: is it true that you are
holding hostages to be exchanged for dry timbers and plastics?"
At a gesture, an aide nervously stepped forwards with a pane
of heat-sensitive paper the size of a posterboard. The flame
licked out in a surly fashion within a yard of the aide, and
the paper blackened to spell out crude words:

D O N ' T K N O W

"Give it a half-dose," barked the CO. A gas cannister was
launched into the break and exploded with a dull *krump*.
The fire immediately shrank down to knee height, entirely
extinguished in places, writhing in obvious pain in others.
Then, as the CO2 dissipated, it slowly rose back to its
original height.

"Mean one," commented Hurd quietly. Cranston agreed.

"Another question," continued the CO. "In Missoula you
waited to press the attack until the last of the water
stores were depleted. How did you know? where are you
getting your information?" The aide stepped forwards again.
The tendril of flame did not come forth.

"Answer!" demanded the CO.

All at once the fire reared itself up. Twisting in on itself
like a giant serpent, the inferno roiled and roared, sending
a directed burst of blazing chaff and superheated air directly
at the unlucky communications aide. The man screamed, falling
to the ground and flailing as the lining of his surcoat
ignited, a human ball of flame.

"Fog it! fog it now!" the CO shouted. The generators kicked
on and a cloud of mist engulfed the canebreak. Hurd and
others charged in behind the leading edge of the water vapor.

"Die, you fucker! die!" hissed Hurd through his mouthpiece,
throwing halon grenades into the heart of the conflagration
and stamping on the blazing grass with his asbestos-lined
boots. The stuff might give him cancer in twenty years, but
in the here-and-now, nothing kept the fire off better. Hurd
cursed and stomped and extinguished and cursed some more, and
when he looked around, the fire was out. Where a stand of
wild grasses had once been, only a churned plain of mud and
steaming straw remained.

The communication aide was swaddled in fire blankets. The
medics were injecting him with heroin and spraying antiseptic
foam onto the charred remains of his face. If he was unlucky,
he might just make it. Hurd spat on the ground.

"I'm done playing with fire today," he snarled, thrusting his
largely empty canteen into Cranston's hands. The lieutenant
stared wildly at Hurd's form for a few moments as it retreated
through the smoke in the direction of Charlie squad's picket.
Then, looking around self-consciously, he swigged down the
last of the water and followed.

- * -

Cranston drew the flaps of his tent closed. The rest of the
squad had gulped down their rations and hit the sack; they
were headed for Hill 23 tomorrow, and it would be a tough
fight. Fires seemed to draw character from the lands they
burned; out here in West Texas they were just plain ornery.
Cranston turned off his electric lamp and listened to the
heavy breathing of the fire fighters under his command. Then
he reached into his duffel bag.

The lighter was a fancy affair, all gold encrusted with
diamonds. He had found it in a burned-out limousine in Dallas.
Something about it had spoken to him. He had kept it even
though such things were forbidden. Cranston flicked the top
open and spun the wheel.

The tiny flame sprung to life. It was faintly green and
shimmered. As he looked inside it, Cranston could see
smaller flames dancing within the larger one, following some
pattern that he couldn't immediately decipher. It was, he was
certain, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Long ago, when our species was still more ape than man,
instincts of no known origin forced our ancestors to love
and care for that which reason dictated they should only fear.
So it was that humanity formed a partnership with fire, with
a basis in the hypnotic effect that dancing flames can have
on the mind. These same instincts governed Cranston's gape-
mouthed adoration of the flame, and his sudden anxiety when
it began to gutter and shrink.

"No! wait! stop!" he muttered. "I'll....I'll tell what I know!"
Relief flooded over him as the fire, coyly, hopefully, began
to stabilize and rise once more.

"In Biloxi," Cranston began, "they're out of nitrogen. They're
expecting a new shipment soon...." The flame of the lighter
rose high and capered a new dance Cranston had never seen
before, twisting and mincing and making love to itself,
holding him spellbound as he spoke.

Meanwhile, the moon rose high overhead, a dim disc barely
visible through the omnipresent smoke. There would be no
rain for some time.