My Head (Canon) Exploded! The Mental Discomfort of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

NOTE: There are spoilers for The Last Jedi in this article. Please stop reading if you have not seen the movie yet.

The Last Jedi posterWhen I started writing this article, the first paragraph detailed my excitement for Star Wars: The Last Jedi and how the only expectations I had were that it would be a good movie. At one point in the original article I wrote, “I was happily absent of expectations before the film.” It felt true when I wrote it; it really did. As I kept writing, I realized it was not true. It was actually far from true! I had many expectations for the film beyond it being good. I was just unaware of them all.

There is a moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda warns Luke not to take his weapons into the cave. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda responds, “Only what you take with you.”

The Last Jedi is a Rorschach test of a film.

Consciously and subconsciously, we all have expectations about what Star Wars should be. And when The Last Jedi challenges those expectations – or openly subverts them – it triggers an anxiety reaction. How we monitor and process that reaction likely goes a long way to determining if we thought The Last Jedi was a “good” movie or not.

I’m not here to tell you how to react to The Last Jedi. What I am suggesting is to review the expectations you had about the film and franchise because I was unaware of many of my own expectations. Overall, I thought the film was brilliant, and I would like to harness the nervous energy I experienced during those two-and-a-half hours while watching the movie on opening night.

Because that feeling of plunging into the unknown was pure electricity.

My response to the Rorschach test of The Last Jedi is below.

Continue reading “My Head (Canon) Exploded! The Mental Discomfort of Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Iddy Approved: Monsters & Heroes of the Realms: A Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Book

Monster Coloring Book
“Color Me Badd!”

Many moons ago, I was given a free copy of both Dungeonology and the Monsters & Heroes of the Realms: A Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Book. (Thank you, Wizards of the Coast and Greg Tito!) Since there are already a bounty of useful reviews about Dungeonolgy, which is a nifty book to be sure, I decided to write an article about the later while incorporating some psychological concepts.

It’s what I do.

The adult coloring book industry has mushroomed in recent years and many book stores have entire sections devoted to this activity. Coloring is often marketed as a relaxation device to adults, which seems intuitively accurate. Engaging in a hobby that requires attention – anything form woodworking to knitting to painting miniatures – forces us to tune out extraneous variables and lock in to one thing.

Save Versus Multitasking

Multitasking is a bane of my existence. Earlier in life, I thought I was truly proficient in multitasking. I doodled in notebooks in high school while taking notes and listening to the teacher during classes. I achieved good grades (except for that one Biology class), and figured this was evidence that I could juggle multiple cognitive tasks well. As recently as this week, I get up before work to walk on the treadmill while watching a hockey game on the television AND playing Hearthstone on my cell phone. The good news is this never ended in an injury. The bad news is I probably do all of those things poorly.

I miss a lot of details from the hockey game.

I make countless misplays in Hearthstone.

And my posture is likely terrible because I look down at my phone for the better part of 30-45 minutes while walking.

One could say that I was multitasking well because I combined exercise with my enjoyment of professional ice hockey and video games. Another point of view is that I’m doing a disservice to all three activities because I’m not focused on any of them.

Now that I have a newborn in the house, multitasking is even less effective. I’ve tried to balance feeding him while doing other things.

It doesn’t go well!

Coloring as Stress Management?

Coloring is an activity that is difficult to combine with something else. Perhaps one can listen to music or have a show or movie on in the background, but coloring requires you to stay in one place and focus on filling in spaces with different pens or pencils. Many of the coloring pages have intricate shapes and tiny details that encourage the artist to concentrate on his or her coloring efforts. This level of strict concentration on one activity can be soothing.

Continue reading “Iddy Approved: Monsters & Heroes of the Realms: A Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Book”

A New Hope In the Post-Rogue One Galaxy

Rogue One is wonderful addition to the Star Wars film library, which is now eight films spanning five decades. My enjoyment of all things Star Wars is well-documented, and I was happy to see Rogue One twice over the past week. If you can find a theater with the 70mm IMAX print, then go out of your way to see that; it’s an amazing experience! While I loved the new addition to Star Wars lore, there are several things about the ending of Rogue One that continue to itch my brain days later. And I feel the need to externalize those thoughts!

The rest of the article contains details about the plot and conclusion of Rogue One. If you have already seen the movie and wish to indulge in my nerd-brain madness, then please continue!

Rogue One Rocked

Before dissecting continuity concerns, I want to clearly state the things I enjoyed about Rogue One. The characters – and the actors portraying those characters – were excellent. There is not a weak link among the ensemble cast, and I appreciated the performances more on the second viewing. Riz Ahmed especially does great work infusing Bodhi with tortured nuance, and Diego Luna presents Cassian as a conflicted soldier who has been involved in too many traumatic situations. It seems clear the character of Jyn went through some revisions between the trailers and release of the film, and Felicity Jones puts herself up their with Carrie Fischer and Daisey Ridley as strong women in the Star Wars universe. K-2SO is voiced by the “fonging” wonderful Alan Tudyk, and channeled one of the greatest droids in Star Wars history, HK-47. The crew members of Rogue One all serve a purpose, and it reminded me of the unique personalities in the strike team in Predator.

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They’ve gone rogue!

The visual and sound effects were stunning, and this includes the computer-generated performance of Grand Moff Tarkin. When Tarkin first appeared in the movie, I assumed it was a brief cameo. I was incorrect because Tarkin is a major character in the film. The scenes with him certainly passed the uncanny valley for me though his complexion seemed too dark and sickly. The computer-generated Leia at the conclusion of the film felt more unnatural to me, though it was still a cool moment. I am guessing the brightness of the room and the whiteness of her clothing made that a tremendously difficult shot to execute well. The sound in the IMAX version of the film was a delight, and the soundtrack felt like Star Wars.

Continue reading “A New Hope In the Post-Rogue One Galaxy”

The Slow Regard of Silent Things and Bringing Anxiety to Vibrant Life

slow-regard-coverAs I read through Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, I found myself thinking about many of the patients that I have worked with over the years in my role as a psychologist. Some of those individuals I have seen in an office setting, and others I have met in their homes. The patients have ranged in ages, shapes, and sizes – and they all presented with unique mental health concerns. I remembered many of them while reading through the thoughts, behaviors, and emotions of Auri – a character that brilliantly illustrates and humanizes the qualities and struggles of those coping with anxieties, compulsions, and symptoms along the autism spectrum.

I also thought of my personal mental health challenges while reading.

If I taught a class in psychology, then I would have students read and process the material. As it stands, I encourage everyone to read the book – even if you haven’t read The Name of the Wind or The Wise Man’s Fear. Those books provide some context for Auri’s story, but they are not required reading to benefit from the content in The Slow Regard of Silent Things that struck me on such a personal level.

Mental health, and by extension mental illness, is unfortunately stigmatized. Going to a therapist is viewed by too many as a sign of weakness. I discovered at age 16 that I wanted to be a counselor, and I was fortunate enough to start down that path early in college and never really look back. I have also been in therapy as a patient at times in my life and consistently during the past two years, primarily getting assistance with symptoms of anxiety.

Anxiety about life. Anxiety about death.

Continue reading “The Slow Regard of Silent Things and Bringing Anxiety to Vibrant Life”

Guns N’ Roses: Use Your Illusion – The Phantom Edit

The purpose of this article is narrow the 30 tracks from Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II into a single, 12-track, classic rock album. But before we get there, some background . . .

The first concert I ever attended was on December 17, 1991 at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, PA – close to 25 years ago. I had turned 15 years-old earlier in the Fall and was a few months into my sophomore year of high school. At that time in my life, music was important. Of course music remains meaningful to me now, though it does not match the passion and enthusiasm of the 15 year-old version of myself scrawling lyrics in the margins of notebooks during class and eagerly going to the mall to buy new albums at Sam Goody each week. The internet as we know it today did not exist, so being a music fan was a completely different experience back then. The only form of streaming music was taping your favorite songs while they played on the radio. It was a time when MTV still mattered; viewers actually learned about new music through that channel, and video premeires from popular artists were appointment television. I recall making sure I was by a television when Riki Rachtman on a special episode of Headbangers Ball introduced the video for November Rain, an epic, 9-minute power ballad from one of the biggest and baddest musical artists on the planet at the time, Guns N’ Roses.

Watch the video, and soak in the excess. To a teenage boy in the early 1990s, Axl, Slash, Duff, and the gang seemed like aliens from another world. They were unashamed rock stars that were larger than life. Of course Axl is dating Stephanie Seymour from the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, which was the closest thing to pornography readily available to me outside of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. And of course she appears in the video portraying his bride. And of course Slash walks out of a church in the middle of a desert and rips off a soaring guitar solo while being filmed from a helicopter. It made perfect sense at the time, and it was all so epic and f***king glorious!

So on December 17, 1991, I tagged along with my older brother and his friends to see Guns N’ Roses with Faith No More and Soundgarden. To this day, I am salty with my brother because we missed Faith No More’s set. My brother and his crew had no interest in the opening bands, and I lacked the confidence to leave them and enter the concert on my own. So I waited in the parking lot while they tailgated and tossed a Nerf football around. I finally convinced them to go inside the building and we caught a few songs from Soundgarden, which had just released their second album, Badmotorfinger. Soundgarden did not fit into the rock or metal category, and the term “alternative” was becoming a musical genre. In the months leading up to my first concert in December 1991, the following albums were released:

  • Pearl Jam, Ten – August 27, 1991
  • Nirvana, Nevermind – September 24, 1991
  • Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger – October 8, 1991

Three Seattle bands were about to change the world, and the 1991-version of me was rather unaware. Even though I really wanted to hear the opening acts, including Soundgarden, I was most excited about seeing Axl in person. The Use Your Illusion albums were released a week before Nirvana’s Nevermind. We now know how the story unfolded; the bloated excess of Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II foreshadowed the band’s demise. Axl fell from Rock-God status to caricature, and the band flamed out. Slash and others went on to different projects and they only recently got back together to tour. Guns N’ Roses ruled the world for about five years from 1987 through 1992, and I caught them live before it was torn asunder.

The concert that night was unlike anything I experienced in my young life. Of course they did not take the stage until close to 11:30PM, which left the historically docile Philly fans to alcohol and their own devices for several hours. When they finally did take the stage, Axl was a tornado. He ran around the stage, belted out lyrics with his impropable voice, and performed as if he was the baddest man on the planet. At one point while talking to the crowd, he exclaimed, “Get me a piano.” A piano rose up from a hole in the stage; he calmly sat down, took a moment to gather his thoughts, free-styled for a bit, and then started pounding out November Rain on the keys. The concert concluded somewhere around the 2AM mark, and the entire experience was amazing.

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Didn’t we almost have it all?

I continued to listen to Guns N’ Roses along with other artists I was getting into at the time. I do not recall reading reviews about the Use Your Illusion albums; I only recall consuming them day and night. Several tracks seemed out of place, but I found most of the songs enjoyable. Many of the songs felt EPIC, and the video for November Rain and my experience of seeing them in concert only bolstered that opinion. Nothing in my mind could top their work on Appetite for Destruction, but I had the thought – even back then – that had the band limited themselves to one, 12-track Use Your Illusion album, it might hold up as a worthy successor to their debut masterpiece.

I have written the following article in my mind countless times in the intervening 25 years. I mentioned this to Ed Grabianowski on Twitter last week while I was defending the Use Your Illusion albums. He responded that it might be a challenge to even come up with 12 tracks from the two albums to make a decent follow-up effort to  Appetite for Destruction. We agreed to compose our thoughts within a week and post them on our respective sites; his thoughts are now posted as well. It was finally time for me to externalize my decades of thought on this matter.

Below is my thought process on selecting the 12 best songs from the Use Your Illusion albums into one sophomore-slump defying Use Your Illusion slice of brilliance. And, no, the watered-down, no-swearing version that sold in stores like Wal-Mart does not count.

Continue reading “Guns N’ Roses: Use Your Illusion – The Phantom Edit”

Iddy Approved: As You Wish by Cary Elwes

As You WishI’m breathing life into the Iddy Approved series, which until this week had been mostly dead for far too long. Each Iddy Approved article has highlighted a game, book, or product that I find delightful and interesting. Today, I am strongly recommending that (after you finish reading this article, of course) you stop what you’re doing and pick up the audiobook of As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes. If you for some strange reason have not seen The Princess Bride before, then stop everything (including reading this article), and correct that immediately. The film released in 1987 and is quickly approaching 30 years of being a timeless classic. It’s a laugh-out-loud hilarious, touchingly sweet movie that truly never gets old.

I had the good fortune of seeing The Princess Bride several weeks ago in a small theater in town, which was showing films featuring performances by professional wrestlers; the same theater where I recently watched Predator for the first time in many years. Watching The Princess Bride on the big screen reminded me that I should finally seek out the book by Mr. Elwes, as I’ve heard nothing but good things from those that have consumed it. My thoughts on Mr. Elwes’ book follow.

Continue reading “Iddy Approved: As You Wish by Cary Elwes”

Iddy Approved: Darkest Dungeon

Another game has broken the stranglehold Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has on me in recent months. That game is Darkest Dungeon, and you can download it right now for an affordable $25 on PC or Mac.

You should do that right now – or at least after you read the rest of this article.

Darkest Dungeon features many elements of a successful roleplaying game. The RPG formula works so well because it is based on the backbone of behavioral psychology. When a player is rewarded for a certain behavior, then they are more likely to engage in that behavior again – and again – and again. Whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, Diablo, or the endless variety of mobile games that are Skinner boxes in disguise (I’m looking at you, Mola! Mola!), the formula of taking a character and leveling that character up through repeated quests and objectives is brutally effective. It works amazingly well! Darkest Dungeon takes those successful RPG elements and blends them into a system that constantly asks the player, “Is the potential risk worth the possible reward?”

DD_logo.png

The heightened tension created by these, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” moments is palpable. Darkest Dungeon is relentless as it even turns the RPG troupe of finding items in crates, cabinets, and bookcases into a risk/reward dilemma. For example, searching through a bookcase could yield valuable treasure, which can be used to upgrade heroes. But it could also result in the hero reading a book that contains a disturbing passage, which imposes an ongoing penalty that requires treatment to cure back in town.

The game forces the player to re-evaluate how he or she typically approaches RPGs. If the player simply searches through every crate, cabinet, and altar they find without any care for consequences, then they are left with heroes that are riddled with problematic quirks. Those quirks cost gold to treat, and gold is a precious commodity used to upgrade heroes, services in town, and is also needed to buy gear such as food and torches before each adventure. The player must balance managing the needs of their hero roster while also looking ahead to the next challenge in the dungeons.

Yes, there is quite a bit of middle management in the game and the reviewer from Wired offered, “Darkest Dungeon is a mean, capricious game. Success is a gambler’s thrill, addictive and illicit. It comes rarely.” Below I outline the reasons why I find Darkest Dungeon so enjoyable because “each expedition is a slowly unravelling disaster.” I conclude with tips on enhancing your Darkest Dungeon experience based on my time playing the game thus far.

Continue reading “Iddy Approved: Darkest Dungeon”

Iddy Approved: SolForge

My health is quickly draining away as fallen heroes on both sides of the conflict litter the battlefield. My trusted ally, Tarsus Deathweaver, who has been providing bonuses to attack and health to my party, was vanquished by the relentless Zimus, The Undying, a powerful undead soldier who earlier dispatched my female cleric in flowing white robes. The tension mounts as I know Zimus will be the death of me soon. I shift my attention to the diminutive Arboris Dragon, who has been quietly accompanying my party. He plots his next move and sends a Glowhive Siren to block Zimus’ next charge. The crafty Arboris knows her death will not be in vain. As Zimus splits the Siren in two with his mighty battle axe, her life force grants me and the party new life. Arboris absorbs this life and swells to enormous size and now towers over the battlefield. My pulse rises as I cast the perfect spell for such a moment, and it grants the mighty dragon the power to breakthrough all defenses. Even the legendary champion, Oros, the Chosen with his majestic two-handed sword is not enough to fight off the dragon’s onslaught. Arboris unleashes a devastating attack to vanquish my foes. I take in the outcome of the battle, and exhale. It was a close call for this group of adventurers but more glory awaits. There is always another foe to conquer.

Forge-&-DragonAt the moment, I’m not sitting around a table playing Dungeons & Dragons with a group of friends. I’m in the passenger seat of my wife’s car as she is driving us to a family gathering, and she is quite annoyed with the fact that I’m buried knuckles-deep in my iPhone playing a deck building game against a stranger.

Welcome to SolForge.

SolForge first came to my attention around the time I interviewed Justin Gary about his previous brainchild, Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. I had gushed about that game after playing it at Gen Con in 2011, so when I heard Mr. Gary was working on another game – I totally dropped the ball and did not back the Kickstarter.

I was a fool!

Considering I have been playing SolForge on a daily basis for the past few months, the magnitude of regret I have for missing out on the Kickstarter is considerable. Let me explain why.

Continue reading “Iddy Approved: SolForge”

Iddy Approved: Sly Flourish’s The Lazy Dungeon Master

I have not been behind a DM screen since my group’s final session a few months ago. There are certainly aspects of gaming on a regular basis that I miss. Creating a world and watching players inhabit that domain and make it their own is a great source of joy. On the other hand – I must be honest and say I do not miss the hours of mental and physical preparation to run each new session, which was often fueled by a combination of desperation and anxiety!

Bask in the laziness!
Bask in the laziness!

Writing this blog over the past two years has been a method of teaching myself to be a better DM. By organizing my thoughts on any given topic, it forces me to think about how and why I am doing any given thing while sitting at the table with the players. If my thoughts have helped someone else as they go along their journey as a DM, then that makes me happy. But I never set out to create a comprehensive tome to instruct DMs on how to run gaming sessions without investing tireless hours on preparation.

Mike Shea has done such a thing with Sly Flourish’s The Lazy Dungeon Master.

As the name implies, Mike instructs DMs on how to become lazier.   Below, I review his book and discuss why his strategies and guidelines for game preparation and management are worthy of your time. I end with a brief interview with Mike Shea and Jimi Bonogofsky, the talented artist who created the cover art and one of the winners of this year’s Iddy The Lich Art Contest.

The Lazy Dungeon Master

For those unfamiliar with Mike Shea (who are you people?), he has been posting tips for D&D 4th Edition through his blog, Sly Flourish, and publishing official articles for Wizards of the Coast. He is also hosting approximately 37 podcasts (rough estimate) including Critical Hits and The Tome Show. He has played, written and spoken about D&D a great deal. His book is not simply shaped by his personal opinions; it is informed by communication with game designers and other experienced DMs and something near and dear to my heart – data.
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1st Annual Iddy the Lich Art Contest Results

Thank you to each artist who submitted an entry for what I plan to become an annual feature of my blog – The Iddy the Lich Art Contest. I was pleasantly surprised to have eight great entries!

The contest features three prizes – one decided by me, a second by the readers of the site and a third by the artists who submitted an entry. One artist swept all three categories!

Winner – Jimi Bonogofsky

Congratulations to Jimi Bonogofsky!

I found Jimi’s submission to be a fantastic mixed-media representation of Iddy the Lich. The text background was unique and the painting captured the original, slightly whimsical design for Iddy. The image also makes me wonder, “Who’s skeletal hand he is holding?” Perhaps Iddy has a long-lost love interest, which drove him to the dark arts to bring back his true love? Or perhaps it’s just the last person he melted with his vile magic in pursuit of unholy goals? What do you think?

It was a tough decision as each entry was wonderful, but she earned my vote. She was also voted as the readers’ choice and the favorite of the other participating artists. A clean sweep!

Visit Jimi’s website to learn more about her and view galleries of her work and offer your congratulations on Twitter. She provides the following description of herself:

I am an illustrator and animator, with a passion for storytelling. I am a proud geek, and spend much of my spare time playing video games or Dungeons and Dragons. I love to write fiction stories in the first person and nerdy or angsty folk songs.

I learned that these three key words describe me: Purple. Earth. Domestic cat.

Sounds like a wonderful person to game with; once again, congratulations!

Winner – Jesse Pyne

I previously considered that the same artist might win the votes of myself, the readers and the artist. To break the tie to award the other two Dragon Chow dice bags, I relied on the voting completed by the readers. The other winners – as voted by the readers – are Jesse Pyne and Melissa Johansson. Congratulations!

Jesse created an image that I immediately thought could be used as a wallpaper for my laptop computer. The design takes the cartoonish look of Iddy and morphs him into a realistic lich with a Spawn-like flowing cape. I have a soft spot in my heart for those early Image Comics and I always thought Spawn was an interesting character, although I lost track of the series around issue #50. It is a very cool side view of Iddy, and the purple background adds to his overall regalness.

Winner – Melissa Johansson

Meanwhile, Melissa remained close to the cartoonish Iddy design but created a slightly menacing look for him. His pose also suggests that he is beckoning the viewer to come closer if they dare. The expression on his face is rather taunting, and it adds up to a great image.

Each winner will receive a custom-made Iddy the Lich dice bag created by Dragon Chow. I wish I could give something to the other five entries in the contest. I enjoyed all of them and will certainly feature them in future articles throughout the year (if the artists find that acceptable).

Thank you one final time for each entry and for all of the voters who placed votes over the past week. Let me know if you’d like to see this as a yearly feature.