Saturday, June 29, 2013

A LotRO 'Eureka' Moment

Many a year ago, LotRO brought about the gear-farming innovation of so-called 'legendary' items - single items which require at least as much farming/grinding to build up to their full potential as gathering an entire set of normal gear. Improving such uber-lewt as it levelled up (yes, they have their own leveling treadmill for the player to run) was done at a new sort of NPC, item-masters. I use the plural form because there were two kinds: forge-master and relic-mster. Never mind the difference between them. It doesn't really matter. They were always, always placed together, right next to each other in every town.
Two NPCs. Serving the same overall function. Standing next to each other. In every town.
It took several years, but the latest zone finally made an unthinkable breakthrough: a combination relic/forge-master!
Well good job you worthless idiots, finally. Got left behind in school much?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Invisible Man

The old 1930s adaptation came on television a few weeks ago, which prompted me to re-read the novel as well. I'm actually not sure to what extent the book and movie should be considered classics. Are these true Science Fiction stepping stones or only mass-market ScieFie successes, fondly remembered only by those to whom they were an early exposure to such ideas?

Well, the movie, at least, safely falls into the second category. It was Hollywoodized. I myself saw it when i was very young, sort of a treat my parents allowed me, a child-safe "horror" movie (and their concern was not entirely unfounded, i never confessed it to them but i had nightmares about bleeding eyeballs for weeks after somehow getting them to let me watch Horror Express) and seeing it now as an adult, it is laughable. Most of the movie is just a big-budget Hollywood money-sink of special effects which look ridiculously gratuitous in retrospect. We're meant to spend our time in slack-jawed awe at seeing a cigarette case float in mid-air and then the cigarette lights itself!!! OMGWTFBBQ
And then there's this bike riding itself down the street oh wonder of wonders when will it end!?!
There's very little of the tone of the novel left in the film.

But then, the tone of the novel is somewhat unique in itself. It's rather less dramatic than Dr. Moreau, The Time Machine or War of the Worlds. I wholeheartedly classify it as science fiction, but i'm also aware that Wells probably didn't take it as seriously as his other ideas. It's mostly a constant deprecation of English country life, a nonstop barrage of quaint backwoods simpletons, none of which have anything relevant to say other than... well, staring in slack-jawed awe at floating objects and empty coat-sleeves. The first half of the book is chapter after chapter of "yes, there is this man in your town and he is invisible, what is so hard to get about that you inbred yokels?" It barely lets up after the real action starts.

I don't think this is a third-person narrative. I think much of it was Wells himself observing his own frustration with his readers' stupidity. I give you the concept of invisibility and you're worried about coat-sleeves, really? Wells is the invisible man, the undetected idea at the core of sensationalism. Yo, it's gettin' recursive up in here. Isn't it hilarious to think of Wells writing a novel with such a bitter intellectual as a protagonist, ridiculing the backwards masses in their stupidity... only to have the novel get dumbed down even further thirty years later?

Herb old man, i love ya, don't ever change.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Observations brought about by a NWN campaign

Instead of playing Baldur's Gate like i'd planned to after giving up on Icewind Dale, i'm indulging my nostalgia and replaying my very first exposure to Dungeons and Dragons, and one of the first RPGs i ever played: Neverwinter Nights.

So, random thoughts.

Aribeth's voice acting is as annoyingly over-the-top as i remember it, but the rest of the game is actually not too painful to read and listen to. It is inescapably basic though. NWN 1 and 2 both took advantage of being "the" D&D computer adaptations in order to tap audiences which don't necessarily play computer games, or RPGs, or D&D, etc. Unfortunately this gives them (especially the initial releases) as a reviewer said about NWN2's original campaign, a "my first roleplaying session" feel to them. There's a lot of emphasis on clearly defining game concepts and not much on nuance or originality.

As an introduction to D&D, NWN1 is actually slightly better than NWN2. The second game's main campaign revolved largely around the alignment system, which is nice because it seems a great part of the spirit of the game system. However, when you're first introduced to a new system, you're much less worried about the spirit as about the letter of the law, and here NWN1 does a much better job of intuitively showing combat rounds, attacks per round, damage ranges, saves, etc. Learning a new system is less about creating a deep and well-rounded character as about figuring out just how to get your club to impact that goblin's head.
This is not to say NWN2 was not an overall improvement. It was more expansive, complex, a bit more interesting in pretty much every way. In between 2002 and 2006, WoW broke onto the mass market, and NWN2 could count on an audience which was already familiar with class-based, level-based third-person gameplay. It didn't need to be a perfect introduction to game mechanics anymore.

I generally play spellcasters or other support classes in any class-based game, largely because of my own personal conceit but also because autoattacking is boring. This time around, i made an exception. I'm playing a Barbarian/Ranger. And it's boring.
I think this is something game developers didn't really expect when adapting tabletop RPGs for computers. Hack'n'slasher classes are probably much less boring when you're sitting with others around a table. You declare verbally what you're attacking, you roll dice every time you do so, you crunch the numbers, you still engage in as much actual character-growth role-playing as any other player. However, character growth is minimal in a computer game with a fixed storyline and all your attacks' results are easily automated by the machine, so all that's left is choosing your targets, which is itself reduced to clicking instead of talking. Many of the logical expansions of the hack'n'slasher archetype like hitting specific body parts or angling your shield to protect an ally from an incoming arrow, while they could easily be handled by a flesh and blood GM, are difficult to implement in an entirely automated system. There's an overall reduction in complexity from the tabletop to the desktop, but it hits the fighter archetype the hardest.

Though my character is dull to play in terms of game mechanics, i find that i really like him as a concept. I didn't want to just do the whole "big beefy guy with one big beefy weapon" routine. He's an elf , started out as barbarian, chose ranger as a secondary class. I wanted to be able to cast just one or two magic spells without these being too much a part of my raison d'etre. 14 intel, dexterity higher than strength and only 12 constitution to start, livin' on tha wild side. 14 wisdom with ranger spellcasting in mind (turned out to be overkill, but i didn't want to plan this guy out too thoroughly.) My spellcaster nerd conceit is shining through. Sacrifice charisma as always, who needs that junk, i'm a vagrant anyway. Also i wanted to dual-wield, so i don't get to be a barbarian with a bow... this time around.
Specifically i wanted to dual-wield some type of weapon which normally gets ignored, neither a basic shortsword or longsword nor an "exotic" like a katana or dual axe. I settled on the light flail. I forgot that my off-hand weapon has to be small, not medium, but if NWN1 has the "monkey grip" feat, i'm golden. I'm also sticking to the "enemy of civilization" theme by picking humans and constructs as my favored enemies.

So basically i wanted something with a barbarian's reckless offense, soaking up wounds instead of avoiding them, high attacks per round and ranger damage bonuses, a raving, nimble whirling dervish dual-wielding flails. Quick, clever, self-destructively aggressive, close-up and personal and not afraid to bleed. He's like something out of a Tarantino movie.
Largely by accident, i ended up picking the character voice that yells out "die.. DIE... DIEEEEEEEEE!"

Why's it so timelessly fashionable to be hatin' on bards? Every mention i see of D&D bards in people's comments online, in webcomics, on forums, seems desperate to characterize them as "useless." I mean, largely it's shortsightedness. The average idiot never sees secondary causes. He sees himself hitting an orc for twenty damage and thinks "i did twenty damage" instead of "if that bard behind me hadn't buffed me i wouldn't even have landed the hit, much less dodged the orc's attack." Hm, i guess this is going to turn into a whole post of its own.

Anyway, i vaguely remember using the cleric and half-orc henchmen a decade ago so this time around i'm bringing Sharwyn the bard along, and i'm as happy with her performance as with any other's. Pun intended. The bard song is the difference between making a reflex save on a trap or not, between being able to crack open a chest or not, between getting incapacitated by mind spells or not. Then there's the simple joy of beating down ogres stunned by her endless sound bursts. I've always insisted that as a support class i'm a lifesaver whether the morons i'm saving realize it or not, but it's nice being on the receiving end for once.
Soldier on, Sharwyn.
Just please, please stop trying to cast spells while surrounded by half a dozen trolls. NWN1's AI is incredibly rudimentary.

I've never been happy with the way the "taunt" skill works in both NWN games. I'm not sure how functional it is in actual D&D, but i'm putting a lot of effort into using it as a barbarian ("yo momma!") in NWN and it's still iffy.
I shouldn't need to be in melee for it (NWN2 did away with this flaw as i remember it).
I shouldn't have to be in combat with the target for it to work - seriously, shouldn't taunt actually function more effectively if you take the target by surprise? It should initiate combat. Isn't this the action-movie routine of the comic relief character jumping out from behind cover and yelling "hey you big ugly so-and-so" to distract the monster into acting rashly? The only conflict i see is rogues exploiting it with sneak attacks from stealth, but that would easily be fixed by making the taunt action drop your stealth.
The DC for it is usually fairly high for the high-armor boss-type monsters which you'd logically use it on, requiring a heavy skill point investment to ever make attempting a taunt worth the combat action. It was especially annoying in NWN2- why exactly would everything from giant spiders to bloodthirsty ghouls and ogres have such high concentration?
It doesn't interrupt spellcasting for some reason... even though it's an attack. Honestly, this is too logical not to be implemented, the action of taunting itself should have a chance to break concentration.
This should be a free action with a cooldown timer of sorts, not a full-round combat action (usually two rounds because of NWN's combat mechanics, but that's a specific game flaw). At higher levels, you're giving up at least two or three attacks for a minor chance to land your attacks in the next 5 rounds. Also, leaving you flatfooted while you do it? Giving myself -4 armor for 1-2 rounds is a pretty hefty penalty, though i suppose that'd be less of an issue if i weren't a high-dex artful dodger type. Still, where's the logic behind making taunt so much less viable for barbarians, rangers, rogues, etc. than for fighters and paladins? Are lawful good stick-up-the-ass paladins just better at calling people names?

Well, that's enough for now. Time to listen to Aribeth chew some more scenery.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Buck Godot

Zap Gun for Hire !

It seems ass-backward trying to talk about Buck Godot, because I only reached it after reading another one of the author's works. Then again, chronologically... When discussing serialized works, there's a vague impulse to serialize the series themselves, even if they're completely unrelated. Or am I just crazy? Anyway, more about Girl Genius some other time.

Buck! Oh grand savior of the human race and probably about half the galaxy. May you always live in interesting times. Buck Godot is a finished series composed of episodes of varying length. I always find it easier to talk about completed works. I always feel as though the author of an ongoing work of fiction is just waiting around the corner for me to display lack of foresight so he can crank out a sequel full of surprise plot twists to show me up. This is probably why i haven't gotten around to talking about any print comic-books yet. I mean, what if my favorite childhood comic-book hero, a confirmed bachelor all his long career, were to suddenly get married? It's happened before.

Where were we? Ah, yes, Buck never got married. Buck is a rough'n'tough hard-boiled sardonic space-age detective. Buck is large and in-charge. Buck gets the job done, and the job is always interesting. One curiousity about the Buck Godot stories is that they seem to have been intended as neither finite nor infinite. Sequential they may be, but they were not created to be milked for decades. The first story starts out short'n'sweet, a simple bodyguard job that runs about a dozen pages. Then they start to ramp up in complexity and scope from the fate of one person to that of a bar, to the city, planet, etc. The last story is several chapters long, comparable to the rest put together, and concerns a galactic crisis. However it becomes apparent that this progression did not occur in the usual way.

It's all too common for comic-book heroes to burn out, much like other serialized works. The authors get carried away and constantly up the ante until the hero's saving the planet (or universe or city) on every page. Often enough a particular storyline gets so overblown that even if the series hasn't exactly "jumped the shark" there's simply nowhere for the characters to go from there. I mean, what would've happened if Hawkeye Pierce had brought about an end to the Korean War in the second season? Or if Captain Picard had beaten the Borg, Klingons and Romulans all at once? Or if the very first Superman Movie showed him travelling back in time to... jump sharks. Ok, bad example.
But that's not what seems to have happened with Buck Godot. Unlike most good webcartoonists, who latch onto the freedom of the internet and whose whims make their works both delightfully unpredictable and frustratingly unreliable, Foglio is a true professional. The Buck Godot stories were in fact not originally posted online (they date back to the 80s and 90s) but were good old dime-a-dozen wood-pulp decorations. So as the story expands and Buck Godot's role becomes more and more overblown, it's done with the end always in sight, in a calculated way which reveals more and more of the quirky space-age society which provides all true content. It's not a series about character growth, and though plots can be interesting and relatively complex, it's more of a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy styled parody of the seriousness of space operas. The real interest is in finding out exactly what a sentient law-enforcement robot does on a lawless planet, how to get a godlike alien being to pay attention to what you're saying, or just how important ice-cream can be in galactic politics.

And it's all built quite cold-bloodedly from humble beginnings to grand finale. Oh, I'm sure the author left himself plenty of wiggle room. There could have been a couple more or fewer stories depending on the popularity of the series. Something tells me though that Buck Godot got milked just exactly as long as it paid off. Beginners should pay heed: that's how the pros do it, for better or worse.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Webcomics... in spaaaaaaace!

It's sort of a given that within the major speculative fiction split of Scifi vs. Fantasy, science fiction is usually just a tad more cerebral. I mean, it's got the word "science" in it and everything. Authors who choose a technology-driven setting tend to also put more effort into providing logical explanations, past the convenient "it's magic" of fantasy.

But what kind of science fiction setting and story would suit a serialized medium? The genre in genreal tends toward finite storylines. Technological precepts are only good for so long before they're tapped out, unlike the more visceral fascination which keeps us coming back to the supernatural. Many of the best Science Fiction stories are also morality plays in disguise and often enough revolve around one or two dramatic speeches which outline a certain human failing. Think of Montag's discourse with the captain in Fahrenheit 451 or the time traveller's moment of realization of the Eloi's plight in The Time Machine. Science Fiction is an idea-driven genre, much less suited to lengthy narratives than character-driven, relatable "classic" literature. Comics on the other hand, much like sitcoms and soap-operas, are made to be dragged out episode after episode.

There is one subcategory however which does seem better suited to serialization: space operas. Think Star Trek and Star Wars: expansive, up-beat adventures which simply stretch recognizable human cultural tropes to interstellar dimensions. Galactic empires, spaceships that work just like sea-going vessels, "aliens" that look no less human than your average human with acne or bed-head and bite-sized morsels of shallow, idiot-friendly morality in each episode. The rebel alliance is the good guys cuz they fightin for freedomz! Huzzah! And lasers, lotsa lasers.

There are very few Science Fiction webcomics. When SciFi elements pop up in comics, it's usually in addition to more fantastic themes. To quote a hilarious Futurama moment: "it's got a vampire and an explosion" - comics are a visual medium, and authors are more worried about cramming visual attention-grabbers into their stories than about coherence.

These, at least, are the explanations i can find for the split in science fiction webcomics. The earth-bound ones with sciencey elements tend to also include demons, vampires and witches with pointy hats. Shooting lasers. The space-faring ones tend to be operatic in nature. Oddly enough, this doesn't always spell utter disaster.

So Long League of Legends

Greetings Werwolfe,
Certain in-game activity on your account was found to be in repeat violation of the Summoner's Code by the Tribunal. Consistent with the League of Legends ToS, your account and forum posting privileges have been PERMANENTLY SUSPENDED. 

I've basically been banned from LoL for calling idiots idiots. This is what democracy gets you. Can't say i'll particularly miss it. Playing LoL was always an exercise in self-punishment. The game itself was a watered-down version of the AoS concept, but it would've been workable. The problem is that the development team decided to market to and encourage players in their early teens. The game's customer base rapidly became incapable of any behavior more thoroughly thought out than a junior-high recess sports match. 

It's a population whose definition of teamwork is "every man for himself", a team game in which everyone compares e-peen size based only on the number of killing blows they steal from each other, where players are so scared of being the scapegoat for a loss that they'd rather cause their whole team a loss through inaction than risk racking up a negative k/d ratio. The developers have refused to police actual gameplay in any way and instead punish anyone willing to get trolled into swearing at the worthless brain-dead little saboteurs ruining a match. 
I am quite willing to rise to that challenge. If your community has no other morality than punishing those who speak out against deliberate parasitism and sabotage, it's not a community i care to be a part of.

The only problem is that this is not League of Legends behavior. It's human behavior. I can uninstall LoL easily enough. I can't uninstall all seven billion of you.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

There's no OSHA in middle-earth

I just realized something. Of the rings of power in Tolkien's mythos, the elves had three: the rings of air, water and fire. These were handed out to three leaders of elvish enclaves in middle-earth. Two make sense. I can buy that Rivendell was up in the mountains and had an airy atmosphere; Lothlorien's surrounded by rivers and Galadriel's got the whole water-divination thing going on.

But the third ring, Narya? Before handing it over to Mithrandir to aid in the coming struggles, the ring of fire was in the possession of a character which only appears for a couple of lines at the very end of  The Return of the King, Cirdan.
That's right, Cirdan the shipwright. The lord of Mithlond, the Grey Havens, from whence all elves who want to return to Valinor would need to sail out. The biggest repository of dead wood in the world.

How many thousands of years do those pointy-eared knuckleheads need to live before they learn not to put themselves in the dictionary under the definition of 'safety hazard'?

Monday, June 10, 2013


I'm taking a detour in between old RPGs to try out some old adventure games. Well, not quite so old. Ok, they just look old.

I lack sufficient experience with adventure games at large to really rank them. The Blackwell series is at least as good as Syberia, not nearly as good as The Longest Journey, definitely better than the adventure games i tried last decade for five minutes at a time and don't even remember. I understand that this outdated game format has been relegated to the computer equivalent of dime mystery novels. Piecing together various clues and puzzles is after all its forte.

The Blackwell series itself isn't really much of a series. It's one game presented in several chapters. Each release is about a tenth to a fifth the length of a normal adventure, FPS or RPG campaign. Altogether, the Blackwell Bundle scrapes together enough content to just barely be worth its $15 regular price: four quaint little stories about sending ghosts to the afterlife by tracking down their murderers.

True to detective-story form, Blackwell is less about puzzle-solving than other adventure games and more about chasing down leads through conversations. The one main gameplay innovation seems to be that the main character doesn't always instantly figure out solutions to verbal problems once the clues are all gathered. The player must demonstrate an understanding of the issue by pairing clues together in the main character's notebook just as items are paired together in more puzzle-centered games. So, even if you've found out about the "shoe" and the "box" you sometimes have to put them together to prod your character to think of a "shoebox". This is used sparingly and turns out less aggravating than it first sounds, and Blackwell steers clear of the common adventure game pitfall of straining so hard for originality that it would shoot past it straight into nonsense.
Still, it's less MacGyver, more Miss Marple. 

Before getting into other specifics, there is one stylistic choice which grates: New York. That's the game's setting, and for one i am sick of the hollywoodized pop-culture assumption that everything happens in New York, except on the rare occasions when it happens in L.A. - and Blackwell's characters show the same grating, self-absorbed New-Yorker conceit that comes through in every sitcom and movie, right down to true NY historical character references. This would not be a flaw in itself if it were not such a prevalent cultural trope.

My main complaint about the games is, for once, the lack of filler. There is a central over-arching story to the series, a ghost story involving the "Blackwell" family itself, and the plot of the games dives right into it, devoting the bulk of each chapter to advancing it. It would have been nice for the sake of contrast to take it slower, spend more time showing the detectives at work, portray a few more days of their life as ghost-rescuers which is only hinted at through references to the amount of time elapsed or number of cases solved. I suppose the lack of such filler, the lack of "side quests" can reasonably be attributed to the low budget of the games (and even within its low-budget genre, Blackwell is relatively low on production values.)

My other complaint is not a complaint. It's admittedly a matter of preference. Three of the four games have the same protagonist, a well-meaning, mousy modern-day failed writer named Rosangela, while the second installment is set in the past and revolves around her aunt, a bitter, sardonic, chainsmoking film-noir throwback. Everything about the grittier 70s heroine and setting seemed better: dialogue, voice, music... dark, grungy alleys. It just seems to have so much more character and should have received more attention, though i'll concede that my tastes in this are already skewed toward that particular style.

However, the most interesting part of the Blackwell series not just as an entertainment product but as a case-study in game design is its progression. Since chapters are produced and released a year or two apart (the fifth comes out this fall) they show various degrees of amateurish uncertainty or unnecessary concessions to genre staples, in addition to gradual refinement in style. This makes the Blackwell bundle as a whole a nice reference point when looking at other adventure games.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

My dog's dead

This past Saturday, a fourteen-year-old beagle named Artie fell asleep for the last time. The world is just a little worse for his absence.

My family never had a large enough place while i was growing up for any pets bigger than a hamster or parakeet. I had always wanted a dog. I was sixteen years old by the time i finally got one of my greatest childhood wishes. It had to be something small and manageable, as we were still living in a rented apartment. We decided on a beagle, nothing too aggressive but still dog-shaped, not a toy breed. We visited various pet shops and breeders and i finally chose the most inquisitive, playful but good-natured seven-week-old pup i could find.
Nervously cowering in fear in an old t-shirt in my arms, he farted all the way home. It was even odds whether we'd take him back right then and there for fear of asphyxiation.

He got so anxious in his new home that we had to bribe him with scrambled eggs (careful not to burn them, use minimal oil) to get him to start eating. He'd get so scared of sleeping alone before he was completely housebroken that i'd have to shut myself in the room with his cage and cradle him in my arms to get him to calm down enough to get to sleep. We neutered him at six months, too early by my reckoning. When he started teething he tore the house apart. He chewed apart his plastic toys, his bedding, wooden furniture, even the corners of walls. He could riddle tin cans with canine holes.

He was the terror of every rabbit in the neighbourhood, tracking and chasing them until i was out of breath trying to keep up with him. The one time he actually caught a young one, he stopped dead with it in his mouth, unsure of what to do next, then obeyed my commands to 'drop it'; unharmed, 'it' scurried back into its hole. He'd run with me as dogs do, for the sheer joy of movement, rolling along the ground almost as fast as i could sprint, a seemingly unstoppable thirty-pound little pack of muscle. When we tried using plastic fences as psychological barriers to keep him in one room of the house, he proved there was no such thing as a psychological barrier to him. First he jumped over it. The second time, he simply smashed it down with his chest, then trotted toward us victoriously.

He never got along with other dogs. It's not that he was aggressive. On the contrary, whether because of innate hormone levels, lack of canine etiquette or more likely the young age at which he was castrated, he was always a punching bag, the target of aggression for most dogs he met. We gave up on trying to get him socialized at dog runs; he only cowered behind our legs. The most miserable i ever saw him before his age-related illnesses caught up with him during his last month or so of life was when he got sprayed by a skunk, a pitiful look of shame, fear, confusion and disgust.
Wheels were always a threat. Regardless of the type, they were an unnatural, incomprehensible sign of alarm: skateboards, bikes, baby strollers, wheelbarrows... everything but cars, which he never learned to avoid. The first time i took him outside without a leash, he dashed out into the street where a car ran over him... over him, i said. He emerged from beneath the exhaust pipe somewhat confused, but wagging his tail at me as if nothing had happened.

His joy was always in exploration. Every relatively uncrowded park, every forest preserve, were his domain. He'd sniff every blade of grass, tracking every bug, sparrow and chipmunk which had visited the area in the past week until we dragged him back to the car, happily exhausted. Whether through listening to our heartbeats or smelling the change in our exhalations, he always knew when a member of the family was about to wake up, and would show up at the closed door, starting to scratch to be let in just as we opened our eyes. He would gladly track down my parents or me when asked to do so by our names.

He was never the smartest little degenerate wolf, but he was eerily gifted at communicating with us, his pet apes, his pack. Unlike most dogs, he gladly looked any humans straight in the eyes without the slightest trace of aggression. He had absolute faith in our abilities to fix anything and everything: his ailments, closed doors, toys locked in closets, an empty water bottle. He'd just signal what he wanted, then sit back and watch us perform our mystical "opposable thumbs" routine.
We had a devil of a time keeping him out of our food, and during his life he managed to make himself sick eating half a box a brownies on three separate occasions. With implacable canine logic, he cogitated that even though food that's on a table is off-limits and only what we place on the floor is his, anything that should just happen to accidentally fall off a table was also fair game - and would gradually nudge plates and trays with his nose trying to make them fall without actually grabbing them with his mouth.
He'd ask to be picked up whenever thunder or fireworks went off outside and would bury his head into my chest like a toddler. Bellyrubs always turned into lengthy scratching sessions as he would turn his body his way and that, flexing himself and stretching each limb to show us where to apply our gifted primate fingernails. He would occasionally have nightmares and wake up howling plaintively until one of us came over to his bed to comfort him, at which point he'd lie back down, whimpering as he accepted our reassurances. To this day i wonder what animals were chasing him in those nightmares, or if it was only the emotion of fear itself which grew in his sleeping mind?
He never learned many commands, not because he couldn't, but because obedience simply didn't suit him. "Sit" and "lie down" were a fun enough game, but "stay?" Are you kidding me? Just throw the damn tennis ball you overgrown monkey! Despite this, when leaving on a trip, seeing his anxiety grow because he had already learned the meaning of luggage, i sat down with him and explained that i was going away and he would have to be a good boy and "stay home." As i got up, he shambled off and lay down on the other side of the room and watched me leave, dejected but resigned. 

He lived most of his life with the aftermath of a herniated, then partly ossified intervertebral disc, a common affliction of long-bodied dogs. His hind knees would pop out of joint often enough that he had even learned to come to me whining to fix it for him. He developed lipomas during his last years, but didn't seem to suffer any pain from them despite their size. His sense of smell weakened, along with his hearing, and he developed cataracts. During the last couple of years he had become increasingly incontinent, making scrubbing the floor a daily event. It was only during the last six months or so that all his problems began to catch up with him. The incontinence worsened, he began to lose his teeth, the stiffness in his hind legs became severe and he became unable to climb stairs or walk uphill, and he lost more and more muscle mass in his hindquarters, a problem we'd staved off through exercise so far. During the last month he could no longer go for long walks. He couldn't even scratch himself. Worse, there were indications that the lipomas were no longer entirely benign. He would often wake up in pain and trembling with muscle weakness. At one point a couple of months ago he refused to eat, or even take water, and only clung to us, peacefully lying at our feet. Touchingly, he finally accepted a bit of water from my hands, more as a matter of pack social protocol than joie de vivre. He still had faith in his monkeys. We nursed him back to health but it was apparent that this was his final year.

He had passed the point where life was worth living, and he knew it. When a dog can no longer run and chase and explore, you can't tell him to go read a book. We were no longer able to alleviate his pain. He lived a good, happy life. His final moments were peaceful. He was slightly anxious in the confines of a vet's back room, but he had two members of his pack with him, and just as when he was young and terrified to be left alone, i cradled his head as the barbiturates hit him and he dropped off.

So here he is. When we got him he was almost entirely black when seen from above, white paws and belly and only a bit of tan at his muzzle, lower legs and tail. By the end only his back was still dark, and the white had almost completely covered his head. Here he is at around eight or nine years of age, a tad miffed at being woken up while sleeping next to my mother's bed. He never was the most respectful or obedient pooch. He didn't need to be. He was just naturally a nice, pleasant, cooperative fellow.

I'm keeping his collar as a memento. He never saw it as oppressive. His chains never chafed. He loved his pack, even if we were a bunch of crazy monkeys. My parents will be using his ashes to fertilize a tree my father and i planted behind our new family home. Rest in peace, Artie.