jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
(DISCLAIMER: As in all these posts, I speak here as an interested amateur, not an expert. This is my impression of the system, which may be way off base in certain places. Proceed with caution.)

In my last post, I covered the cognitive styles associated with the levels CP through ER in Clare W. Graves' Emergent-Cyclical theory of personality. I looked at how those centered at CP tend to be relatively unreflective, those centered at DQ tend to defer to authority, and those at ER employ a "multiplistic" thinking style: there are many ways to look at any issue, but only one right one.

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jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
(DISCLAIMER: As in all these posts, I speak here as an interested amateur, not an expert. This is my impression of the system, which may be way off base in certain places. Proceed with caution.)

Last time, I talked about the central themes of the various levels of Clare W. Graves' Emergent-Cyclic theory of personality. These themes emerged from response his psychology students gave to a challenge to describe their own conception of a mature, healthy personality. They touch on people's basic motivations.

In this post, I'm going to talk what may at first seem orthogonal to those concerns, but which turned out to be closely correlated according to Graves' research: the cognitive styles associated with each level. That is, the general way that a person dominated by that level of personality tends to think about the world. (Note that "tends to" does not mean "always does." Everyone is an amalgam of all the levels they have passed through, and earlier levels can be accessed at any time, or even brought to the foreground by certain stressors.)

As I'll be doing in many instances in this series, I'm going to pass over AN and BO in silence; these levels were not found among the original data set and are largely reconstructed through anthropological research of tribal societies. Long story short, they pretty much have to be there in order for the system to make sense, but they aren't as well understood as the other levels because they aren't as applicable in modern Western society.

With that said, let's move on to CP through ER. I'll cover FS through HU in the next post.

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jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
OK, no more dilly-dallying. It's time to start my series of posts on Clare W. Graves Emergent-Cyclical Levels of Existence (E-C) theory.

E-C is a theory of personality that Graves developed out of research performed originally on his psychology students in the 1950's and 1960's. He was teaching a class on The Normal Personality, and instead of starting off with professional theories, he decided to have his students develop their own conception of a mature personality, to see what that would be in the absence of bias from authorities.

He spent the first five weeks of a fifteen-week course giving them a sense of the sort of things a theory of a mature personality would cover. They were to write a paper giving their personal conception, without the benefit of consulting either the textbook or any other outside source. In the second five weeks, they were grouped up to compare notes, ending with either a defense or revision or their position. In the final five weeks, they were exposed to mainstream personality theories, such as those of Freud and Maslow.

At each phase, Graves had a group of assistants who were otherwise unconnected to the class review the papers and classify them in any way they saw fit. What emerged were six basic themes (CP through B'O'), to which two more were added later based on speculation and anthropological research. Each of these themes, or levels, centers on a basic imperative that, to a person at that level, represents the basic motivation and mode of living of a mature individual (I'm slightly rewording some of these for added clarity):
  • AN: Express self to fulfill immediate needs
  • BO: Sacrifice self to elders' traditions
  • CP: Express self impulsively, with little regard for consequences
  • DQ: Sacrifice self now for a reward later
  • ER: Express self in a way calculated to avoid repercussions
  • FS: Sacrifice self now for approval now
  • GT or A'N': Express self, with concern for others
  • HU or B'O': Adjust self to existential realities
(Note that the letters are not initialisms; they're just pairs of letters from the first and second halves of the alphabet; they do have meanings in Graves' system but those are not relevant to this post. Note also that the designations A'N' and B'O' are because of perceived similarities between them and the first two levels. I go back and forth on whether I agree with this, so I've included both letter-pairs that Graves used.)

The truly interesting part came from the second and third parts of the course: when a student changed his or her view, either from feedback from peers or from the opinion of mainstream authorities, it always changed to the next in the sequence: a DQ student changed to an ER perspective, an ER student changed to FS, FS became A'N', and a very few A'N' students changed to B'O'. (There is no word in any of the material I've read on whether any CP students changed to DQ, but that's the trend. It also makes sense: a change from an impulsive CP personality to a reserved DQ personality is the classic "sinner suddenly gets religion" story.)

The assertion that people change in-sequence is the true core of E-C. If that were debunked, it would degrade into yet another typology, similar to Myers-Briggs. If correct, it has a lot of implications, and a lot has been made of this hierarchy, both by Graves and by his students Christopher Cowen and Don Beck in their book Spiral Dynamics. (Let's not even start on what Ken Wilber did to it.)

I'll be discussing some of those implications as we go along, including where I think Graves et al. was flat wrong—in particular, the absurd notion that ER and FS are recent developments.

In the mean time, if you're intrigued by this tiny appetizer, I recommend starting with the book Clare W. Graves: Levels of Human Existence. It's available at the Spiral Dynamics Store.
jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
I've been reading The Never Ending Quest by Clare W. Graves. This is the definitive exposition of the Emergent-Cyclical levels of existence theory as Graves himself understood it. I'm a little over halfway through the book, into the detailed section on the ER stage.

The book has already changed my understanding of the theory in subtle but significant ways. In the past, I've made all the normal mistakes about the system, including:
  • regarding it as a personality type system (it can sort of be used that way when one stage dominates, but a person can have multiple competing stages active at any given time)
  • thinking of the stages in terms of simplistic stereotypes (they're actually broad tendencies of thought)
  • thinking that the stages correlate to levels of intelligence (they don't, although they can seem to since each stage has greater behavioral freedom than the one below it)
  • thinking that higher is better (it can be, if it addresses the salient life problems, but it can also be much worse if it frustrates other life problems)
  • thinking I must be at GT/A'N' (Yellow in the Spiral Dynamics version) or HU/B'O' (Turqoise) because I understand the overall system
I've also made some of my own mistakes, such as describing the central fear of CP as powerless — it's actually shame. This book is helping me overcome my various mistakes.

In regards to the last error in the list above, I suspect that anyone can grasp the system up to the stage they themselves are at, with some vague intuitions about the stages above themselves ("vague intuitions" are about the best that can be gotten about HU even by the people who did the research). From about ER, I suspect one has enough raw data internally to have a decent appreciation of the idea (although it will have a strong slant toward the "higher is better" error; a person dominated by ER can probably see that AN, BO, CP, and DQ all have a point, but they have a need to see their own perspective as superior).

I've been planning for a while now on writing on the E-C system with special application to select topics, but that will have to wait until I've finished this book. It shouldn't be too much longer for my first pass through, but I want to make sure I understand the topic, and I'll have to read some of the sections through multiple times.
jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
It's been too long since I posted anything here, so here's a taste of the sort of things I've been thinking about.

Psychologist Clare W. Graves outlined a personality theory involving eight "levels of existence" that he believed individuals progress through as circumstances permit. Those familiar with Spiral Dynamics or the work of Ken Wilber have encountered popularizations (and simplifications) of Graves' work.

Those who share my distrust of the narrative of Progress™ will be understandably suspicious the concept of levels of the personality (not to mention anything connected with Ken Wilber). I myself rejected it for some time after I finally gave up on that mythology. However, after reading Clare W. Graves: The Levels of Human Existance, a transcription of some of Graves' lectures edited by William R. Lee (available at the SD Store, linked), I've come to believe Graves' research is valid and that he was on to something important. More on that in a later post.

Briefly, Graves outlines eight levels labeled A-N to H-U. The first letter denotes the psychological attitudes and basic worldview of a person at that level, while the latter denotes the neurological subsystem associated with that level. My understanding is that these could theoretically be one step out of sync, but this seems to be of little significance; Spiral Dynamics and Wilber ignore it, and label each normal pair with a color.

The first two levels are more speculative, and were inferred from a combination of anthropological reports of hunter-gatherer societies and research into children's cognitive and moral development. The A-N level is the level of more-or-less automatic survival. B-O is a level associated with establishing and maintaining security through rigid adherence to tradition.

The more interesting levels are what we might call the "civilizational" levels, which account for nearly all members of developed civilizations. These are C-P, D-Q, E-R, and F-S. Some convenient stereotypes for these levels (as well as a mnemonic) are the Biker, the Believer, the Banker, and the Barista.

The C-P level was described as based on the ethic of "express self impulsively," and its stereotype is that of the Biker, the rough-and-tumble misfit who lives at the edge of the law. Warlords, gang members, and drug addicts are among the negative stereotypes.

Graves described the D-Q level's prerogative as "deny self for future reward." These are the Believers, who sacrifice for their family, for their country, for their gods. They look for a reward in the future, even after death. Police officers, patriotic soldiers (as opposed to C-P mercenaries), and religious fanatics are some of the stereotypes for this level.

The E-R level's motive is "express self cautiously." Like those at C-P, they are out for number one; unlike those at C-P, they mean to be smart about it. Go too far, and it just blows back in your face (not to say this never happens to people of this temperament). I've nicknamed this one the Banker, because the stereotypical business executives is a great example of this mindset.

Finally, the F-S level's motive is "deny self for approval now." People at this level are motivated by a need for approval from their peers. I've called this one the "Barista" to preserve the alliteration. You know the type: majored in liberal arts, goes to yoga classes, highly fashion conscious. (Again, this is a stereotype, meant to paint a picture of an extreme case. I'm not talking about real people. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Above these are still more complex levels, G-T and H-U, and possibly more. Those at G-T seek to, in Graves' words, "express self, but not at the expense of others," and those at H-U are motivated by a desire to "adapt self to existential realities." (I have some ideas on what that might mean, but that will have to wait for another time.) Graves noted that in his lifetime the dominant level of Western civilization had changed from E-R to F-S. Graves conjectured that modern Western society was on the verge of a leap to G-T.

For what it's worth, I think he was wrong. I think F-S is for all practical purposes the highest level that a society as a whole can reach. Again, more on this another time.

Anyway, I want to paint some pictures of these four types with superheroes from the various eras of DC Comics. I should mention that there are some very mild spoilers to follow if you haven't been reading comics in a couple of decades. Seriously, they're barely spoilers at all. Still, I'll place the rest of this post under a cut just in case.

Read more... )
jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
The question of why professed environmentalists rarely act upon their beliefs by changing their lifestyles has had a central place in last week's post on Ecosophia. One of the answers put forward is peer pressure: as Helix put it in the comments:
How to make one’s way in a world that one will be out of step with if one gets serious about living in a manner more harmonious with the Earth? When your peers are out of harmony any you aren’t, then you’re out of harmony with your peers. We’re an intensely social species and our infrastructure and physical environment have been shaped by humans operating under the beliefs you have so eloquently pointed out. This does create some vexatious issues for people trying to live in a more sustainable manner.
JMG replied:
Helix, of course peer pressure and social status are among the things that have to be bucked in order to make change. People pursuing social change buck them all the time, To return to my favorite example, peer pressure and social status didn’t keep same-sex couples from pursuing the right to marry. They were willing to make the required sacrifices; why aren’t people who claim to love the planet?
I think a partial answer to this question can be found in the research of Clare W. Graves.

Graves is perhaps best known through the work of Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, who together wrote the book Spiral Dynamics, originally published in 1996, and that of Ken Wilber, who adopted a modified version of the SD system. The SD system is based on Graves' work on the "levels of existence," a theory of personality that is based on a hierarchy of values that emerge as old values prove dissatisfying.

The SD system as presented by Beck and Cowan fits very neatly with the myth of progress. In fact, it's practically soaked in it, despite some effort by the authors to avoid portraying "higher" stages as "better." So for the last few years I found myself reflexively dismissing it on that basis, though thinking there is probably something to it.

What prompted a re-assessment was my recent reading of Graves: Levels of Human Existence, a transcription of a 1970 lecture series by Clare W. Graves. (You can get the book at the Spiral Dynamics Store.) In it, Graves sets out how he came up with the system. I won't go into detail here because I intend to do a more detailed treatment in a later post. For now I'll just mention that I found it utterly compelling. I had found the pearl of wisdom that I'd been looking for.

Back to the question at hand: how does this help answer why environmentalists have such a hard time acting on their convictions? The (again, partial) answer is that environmentalism has taken root among those for whom acceptance by their peers is nearly everything. This is what Graves calls the F-S level, and what the SD system calls the "Green vMeme" (the color, by the way, is a coincidence). According to Graves, those whose values are centered at the F-S level have a core value of "sacrifice now for acceptance now."

By contrast, anti-environmentalists are often operating at the E-R ("express self in a calculating fashion") or D-Q ("sacrifice now for reward later") levels. While it can happen, care for the environment has a much harder time finding root in the E-R level, since people at that stage are generally chiefly concerned about getting a share of success and pleasure in the present, with only a modest interest in the consequences in the future (though far more than those at C-P, "express self impulsively at all costs," have).

Those at the D-Q level would be the ideal place for environmental care to take root, since they tend to be hardworking and willing to make the necessary sacrifices. The problem is that that level of being is monopolized by conservative interpretations of Christianity that tend to downplay the significance of the Earth. This isn't universal, but it is very common among those at this level, and it makes environmentalism an almost lost cause among them.

That leaves the F-S level as the bastion of environmentalism. I've already mentioned the problem with F-S: they care too much with what their peers think. Social status is almost as important to them as it is to the E-R crowd, except the point isn't to be on top, but just to keep up with everyone else. So if you're at F-S, you may at first denigrate the latest technological goo-gahs, but if all your friends start getting Apple Watches, you're going to have a hard time resisting the urge to get one yourself. (As someone with a strong F-S component myself, I know this feeling first-hand; thankfully, I talked myself out of the Apple Watch.)

That leaves the question: why is environmentalism so different from the cause of same-sex marriage in this regard? Certainly, the F-S crowd were champions of same-sex marriage. But so were the E-R crowd. The E-R crowd by and large looked around and said, "Why not?" The message, "If you don't like gay marriage, don't get one," resonated with their practicality and anti-authoritarianism, and the opportunity for gay men and lesbians to express themselves and be happier doing so resonated with their individuality. The fact that the whole thing really upset the authoritarian D-Q crowd was the icing on the cake.

So that, I think, is a partial answer to the question of why the two causes have turned out so differently. Another part is, of course, what JMG has mentioned in the original post: anthropolatry, an inflated estimation of the importance of human beings. That estimation probably aided the campaign for same-sex marriage by emphasizing the value of all human beings, but it is inhibiting the cause of re-adapting ourselves to Nature.
jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
If you ask the Internet, the SI (metric) system is just obviously superior to the US customary (so-called Imperial) system of measures. After all, the rest of the world uses it; the US is the only real holdout. If us dumb Americans would just switch over, everything would be so much better! (I mean, didn't you hear about that multi-million dollar spacecraft we lost because part of it used Imperial and the other part used metric?)

You've probably guessed by now that I'm not convinced by this argument. Well, I'm not. Not only would a change from US customary system be impractical and costly at this point (an argument metric devotees scoff at), I don't think it would be a genuine improvement outside of certain scientific and technical fields where the metric system is already well-established.

First, let me say that it's amusing to me that in any other domain of culture, the replacement of indigenous systems with a standard invented by Europeans a would be seen as an absolute travesty these days, and usually rightly so. In addition, the last time I checked, the metric system has only ever come to replace older ways of measuring through government force, and often it hasn't even accomplished that completely (many people in officially-metricized countries still use older units of measure informally).

That's the basic problem I have: older units of measure evolved to meet the needs of the people using them, while the metric system is based on what's just about the most arbitrary unit of measure imaginable.

Let me expand on the first point first: the US customary system of measure, and other traditional system of measure, are meant to be practical, approximate measures. You can get a sense for the length of your living room in feet by actually stepping along it. You can get a sense for the length of a piece of string in inches by using your thumb from tip to knuckle. If you need more precise measurement than that, you can get it, but oftentimes these methods are good enough.

The metric system, by contrast, is ultimately based entirely on the meter. This is its strength: all the units, whether or length, volume, or mass, are defined in terms of the meter and are thus easily convertible. One kilogram is (or was) the weight of one cubic meter of water. A liter is the volume of that kilogram of water. So if you want to know how much water you need to fill your x by y by z meter pool, the answer is x * y * z liters. Brilliant! This ease of conversion between different types of units is what makes the metric system so useful in science. I get it.

The thing is, the meter is also the weakest link in the system. It is currently defined as the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second. If that seems like an incredibly arbitrary way to define a unit of measure, it's because it's not the original definition. The original definition of a meter is 1/10,000,000th of the mean distance between the equator and the North Pole. Now, that definition would be very useful for navigation, so why was it changed it to the weird light-based equation? Because the original calculation of the mean distance from the equator to the North Pole was wrong. It was off by 0.02%. That adds up when you're talking about 10 million of them. However, the original length was already in widespread use, and it was impractical to change it (ahem), so they kept the length but changed the way it was defined--several times, in fact.

So the metric system, which was designed with science rather than everyday use in mind, is founded upon an incorrect calculation that has since been replaced with an arbitrary definition. This is the "more rational" system that we're all supposed to use for measuring carpet.

Snark aside, I admit the metric system still has two major advantages over the US customary system: (1) unit conversion is extremely simple, and (2) everybody else uses it.  But these should both be kept in perspective.

First, advantage (1) could be fulfilled by any system based around a single unit. You could start with the US foot and built an easily-convertible system around it--or better yet, let's use the pint. A pint of water is just about one pound in weight, so let's redefine the pound to be the weight of one pint of water at one atmosphere of pressure (this redefinition would have still been possible in the 1800's, before the US government officially defined customary measures; prior to that, the units had no official definition and varied a bit from place to place). That settles volume and weight, so let's get length. A cubic pint of water is just about 3 inches to a side. Redefine the foot so that measure's exact, and we'll create a new unit, the quarter-foot, or qfoot (or preferably something nicer), as 3 inches.

We thus have a system where 1 pound = 1 pint = 1 qfoot^3. Measures that need to be exact can be done in megaqfeet, kilopints, centipounds, etc, while leaving the traditional conversions for "legacy units" like ounces, miles, etc. A decimalized, easily-convertible system that fits with the natural system that we're always using. 

Now that established the reasoning. In the last bit, we'll tie this into natural constants by working backwards. One foot is about the distance traversed by light in a vacuum in 1/1,000,000,000th of a second. Let's work backwards through the reasoning by first establishing 1 qfoot = distance traveled by light in a vaccuum in 1/4,000,000,000th of second. By establishing this length, we can then tweak the definition of pint and pound to keep the equation above, but now based on natural constants.

Now this system has all the theoretical advantages of the metric system without throwing the baby of traditional units out with the bathwater of poor convertibility. Of course, I have no hope of this system being adopted anywhere, especially outside of the US. It would be too impractical and costly to change now.

As for advantage (2), I would first point out that the world has gotten along OK dealing so far in its dealings with the US, and that trade got on well enough in the past when there was no international standard at all. There are and were problems, but they've been manageable. More to the point, this advantage is only an advantage given a globalized economy that at present is based on an unsustainable consumption of resources. As the Long Descent sets in, this economy is going to unwind and trade between distant nations will be minimal for quite some time. As the next technic societies begin to rise, a global economy might become an option again, but it'll be up to them to decide how to deal with it.

A deeper point for me is that metric advocacy seems to be a far more emotional topic than it needs to be. Some of it is simply a chance for non-Americans to score points against the juggernaut that is American culture and the American economy, I'm sure. But the connection of the metric system to science suggests to me that it has become a kind of shibboleth for the religion of progress; anyone who prefers a traditional system of measure to the rational, scientific metric system is an unintelligent troglodyte who is retarding Progress(tm).

As the religion of Progress, and industrial civilization, implodes-- the one in the face of broken promises, the other in the face of resource constraints and climate chaos--I suspect the cultures that succeed us will return to more pragmatic, informal units of measure. Not officially; just as the US customary system has its roots in the Roman Empire, the metric system may continue to be the system of a better time. But among the less-educated, less-literate folks, more immediately practical, approximate systems of measure could easily come to dominate. Time will tell.
jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
Imagine the following conversation:

Adam: I just heard how you helped the couple down the street. You're quite the gentleman!
Bob: Please. How stupid do you have to be to think I'm a gentleman? A "gentleman" is member of the aristocracy, someone who couldn't be bothered to give a poor couple like them the time of day. You're a gentleman, and you didn't do anything to help them, did you?

An odd response, to be sure. But now imagine that Adam did, in fact, mean "gentleman" as an insult, despite being a gentleman in the literal sense himself. The scenario doesn't seem plausible, does it?

Now try the following conversation, which you can find a version of in what seems like every other major news story's comment section:

Adam: Your ideology is a religion: it's illogical and you're all a bunch of fanatics.

: You have to be a moron to think that. A "religion" is an ancient set of superstitions, like how you believe some space zombie is going to take you to heaven after you die. My position is based on reason and science.
You see this played out again and again: someone, generally a conservative Christian but occasionally a liberal and/or an atheist, accuses someone else's political views of amounting to a religion: the religion of global warming, the religion of environmentalism, the religion of the free market, the religion of veganism, etc.

This is somewhat understandable when an atheist is making the accusation, but it's strange when a devoutly religious person uses "religion" as a pejorative. Yet that's such a common phenomenon that when [personal profile] ecosophia talks about the "religion of Progress" everyone tends to assume he's using "religion" as a snarl word. We did so even when he was the head of a religious organization!

What makes this bizarre state of affairs make sense is that America, despite appearances, is in fact an irreligious, if not anti-religious, society these days. Consider how Christians or Jews who refuse to work, play, or shop on the Sabbath are viewed not as admirable guardians of forgotten piety but as as quaint relics or even unreasonable fanatics -- and this by others Christians and Jews! And that's just one example. Genuine religiosity is generally distrusted as dangerous, antiquated, and unreasonable. (Not without some cause, but that's beside my point.)

Also consider how many Christian sermons nowadays are little more than political messages seasoned with mentions of Jesus and hell. Even among the nominally faithful, there's a sense that there are better things to do than cultivate a genuine relationship with their gods.

My suspicion, then, is that this distrust is not just among skeptics or the general population of "cafeteria Catholics" and other lukewarm believers, but among devout religious conservatives. I think religious conservatives often unconsciously hate their own religiosity.

I think this for two reasons: it explains much of the over-the-top and aggressive religiosity one often sees from such folks, and it explains why when they do leave their religion they often become some of the more aggressive atheists. (The joke is, "Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist.")

The over-the-top and aggressive religiosity -- from gaudy displays of faith to hostility toward atheists and those of other faiths -- can be understood as a kind of "doubling down" on their faith. Have you never been in a situation where some part of your life wasn't working, yet you weren't ready to give it up? There's a good chance you "doubled-down": rededicated yourself, spent more money, put more time and energy into forcing it to work. I know I've done that with various parts of my life.

The transformation from aggressive theist to aggressive atheist follows the even more familiar path: the return of the repressed. Having repressed the sense that their religiosity was a hindrance (because it wasn't working for them) and an embarrassment (because it separates them from feeling normal, something such folks tend to desperately want) to them for so long, when they finally express it they tend to overcompensate.

Our society's irreligiosity is something that will doubtless change as we go forward and Western civilization enters the period Oswald Spengler called the Second Religiosity. Until then, the unspoken conflict between our surface religiosity and our inner irreligion is likely to continue producing absurd consequences, and spiritual seekers trying to find a community where piety is genuinely appreciated are likely to find the problem fairly vexing.
jjensenii: Book and pen (story)

The tower stood lonely and desolate among the ruins of what once had been a great city. It alone had survived the centuries, its brethren having long since fallen and crumbled. Yet time had still taken its due: the panoply of great glass panes that had once gleamed upon the living city had but a few been shattered by vandals, or by the stresses of the building’s senescence. Every inch of exposed surface had been claimed by rust. It had even begun to lean noticeably, proclaiming that the fate of its compatriots was for it merely delayed, not averted.


Once, in a world long since gone, great numbers of people had visited the tower every day. Now, it was host to a lone figure, and he the first for many years. Called Jjosseh, son of Liia, he was just barely a man of sixteen, and he had come from a village some spans to the east, in the lands of the Horse Lords. His family were poor, with little land and no skills for trading. His sister had been wed to a wealthy merchant for a decent bride-price, but she had hated her fate and had run away. The merchant demanded the return of the bride-price, which his family could not pay. His father had been taken as a servant until the price was repaid. So he had come here, to the last tower, to seek a treasure with which to ransom his father.


Such places were said to hold treasures left over from an age of wonders, when people flew through the air like Ikku and could make the weather be whatever they wished. It was said they must have lived in close communion with the gods to have done such miracles, but others said they consorted with demons, for was it not for the ancients’ pride and wickedness that the gods overthrew the age and humbled humanity before them once more? Some said the old places were haunted by monsters, summoned from the shadow either by the gods to enact vengeance, or by ancient sorcerers in their folly.


If only I knew the trick of speaking with things, Jjosseh thought, of what wonders could this tower tell me?


The ancient stairways were at places blocked by rubble where the walls had ceded their will to remain standing. There were four such stairways, and with great patience and care Jjosseh had managed to climb to the eighth floor before he found all of them sealed to further ascent. No treasures had yet presented themselves, claimed as they must have been by time and robbers. But there were several more floors above, and perhaps previous treasure-hunters had been blocked as he now was, and had turned back. He weighed his options: he could attempt to climb further from the outside, a very risky venture given that he had no gear for climbing such a structure, or he could try to climb one of the empty shafts near the tower’s center.


The shafts had once been guarded by metal gates that slid into recesses within the walls, but those were now rusted or fallen. Beyond them lay great dark columns that run up and down the height of the building. What use these could be, Jjosseh could not fathom. But they had iron ladders bolted to the sides of the shaft, rusted but still seeming secure. Moving his knapsack behind his back, Jjosseh began his climb.


The shaft was completely dark except for glimpses of light streaming in through open gates on floors above and below, and it was eerily quiet except for the footfalls Jjosseh himself made. On his way up, he had seen no other living being. Perhaps the old world truly ran on a sort of foul necromancy that resonated even to this day. As he climbed, a numinous chill came over Jjosseh, and he felt that whatever spirits watched over him, they could no longer protect him if he continued. He summoned his courage and continued, pushing all thoughts from his mind except those of a reunion with his father.


I cannot abide my father in fetters, he thought. I will see him once more free or not at all.


Jjosseh had nearly made it to the ninth floor when, trying to pull himself upward, the rung he gripped came off in his hand, and he fell into the darkness below. He frantically tried to catch himself, but only earned bruises as his limbs slammed against the rungs of the ladder then slid helplessly off.


From below he heard a hideous growl unlike any he’d ever heard before. As the sound grew in magnitude it drowned out Jjosseh’s screams. Suddenly, his body was encircled as if by some great tongue reaching up from the dark below, and his last impressions were of his body being pulled downward into a beast’s gaping maw and pierced through by sharp teeth.

jjensenii: Two board game pieces and a die (board game)
Photo of box of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

I hate Pandemic. It is quite possibly my least favorite board game of all time. Whenever friends bring it out, I politely opt-out.

It's not a bad game; quite the opposite. It's a brilliant game that is clearly the work of top-notch game developers. My rejection of it is purely personal, not a judgment of the tastes of those who enjoy it. In fact, I'll go ahead and say that if you enjoy Pandemic, you probably have better tastes in board games than I do.

What I utterly loathe is how difficult it is even on the easiest difficulty level. There are nearly a half-dozen ways to lose the game, and the game is designed to ensure that every last one of them is hanging over you as a constant threat. It is so bad that my friends who own the game almost always play on the easiest difficulty, and when one is allowed to perform setup, he cheats by putting the epidemic cards (which cause large-scale outbreaks) on the bottoms of each of the four piles before recombining the deck. And even then failure is pretty common.

Playing the game for me feels like being cast in the role of Sisyphus, condemned to forever roll my boulder up the mountain only to see the project unravel at the very end. In no other games do little wooden cubes (I hear they're plastic in newer editions of the game) feel so much like they are mocking me.

All of which goes to make my love of the recently-released (2016) Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu a little bit surprising even to me, a long-time fan of Lovecraft-inspired art and games. Reign of Cthulhu is easily among my favorite board games.

Photo of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu game board

Anyone who has played Pandemic will find many of the rules quite familiar. You and your fellow players assume the role of an investigator attempting to stop the influx of ancient horrors being summoned by mad cultists. Each turn, you can take up to 4 actions, each of which can be moving to an adjacent location, defeating a cultist at your current location, sealing one of the four arcane gates through which the madness of the Great Old Ones is spilling into this world, etc. Depending on which type of investigator you are, you have different special abilities (ex: the Doctor can take 5 actions per turn, the Hunter can clear a location of all Cultists in a single action, etc.). The goal is to seal all four gates, and to do that you need to collect 5 color-coded clues corresponding to the city in which the gate is located.

The game is cooperative. If the gates are sealed before one of the nearly half-dozen losing conditions are met, everyone wins. If not, everyone loses. So far, I haven't won a single game.

The virus cubes of the regular Pandemic game are replaced with cultists and shoggoths. Taking the place of outbreaks and epidemics are "Awakening" events, where you turn over a new Great Old One, each of which has an effect on the game. For example, Ithaqua prevents players from moving from a location with 2 or 3 cultists unless they defeat one of them first, and Azathoth causes three cultist figures to be removed from the game's supply (when there are no more cultists left to place and you need to place one, you lose). The last Great Old One on the track is, of course, mighty Cthulhu, who when awoken bathes the world in madness. In other words, you lose. The action cards have been replaced with artifacts, which can be crucially important, but using them runs the risk of insanity (see the next paragraph).

In addition tweaked and re-themed rules, there are completely new rules, such as insanity. Each investigator starts with four sanity tokens, and these can be lost through various means. If an investigator loses all his or her sanity tokens, they go insane. The beauty of this system is that insane investigator is not out of play, but their abilities change, general for the worse. For example, and insane Hunter, whose specialty is normally removing cultists and shoggoths from the board, now has a chance to cause cultists to be placed on the board if she moves to an empty location. And of course, if all investigators go insane, you lose.

Given that I stated above how I hated the original Pandemic for the fact that the threat of losing hangs over your head at all times, why do I love Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu so much?

It comes down to theme and context. As I said, I love pretty much anything Lovecraft-inspired. And losing to cultists and horrors from beyond the domain of reason is a much more satisfying experience than losing to little wooden cubes. (Anyone who's familiar with Lovecraft's work knows how attempting to fight against the forces of madness usually turns out; even when the protagonists win, the cost to their physical and mental health is immense.) In addition, having the Great Old Ones alter the rules as you go is an immensely fun aspect of the game.

Overall, I highly recommend the game. Lovers of the original Pandemic and its expansions may be less enthused, as I imagine this can seem like the same old game with a little more than a new coat of paint, but for someone who liked the ideas of Pandemic but not necessarily the theme or execution, and who loves the Cthulhu Mythos, this could be exactly what you're looking for.

(Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu is published by Z-Man Games. The images above are my own work, taken of my own copy of the game. Neither Z-Man Games or anyone else has paid me for this review, unfortunately. I'm not a professional reviewer and am really not looking to be one. I just love this game so darn much that I had to share it with the world.
jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
When John Michael Greer ([personal profile] ecosophia) mentioned a few months ago that he might be switching to either LiveJournal or Dreamwidth for more casual updates, I had to smile.

I've been following JMG at The Archdruid Report and The Well of Galabes (as well as a couple of other sites along the way) for several years. His wisdom and wit have been an immense help to me in working through several issues I've been facing in my own life. A few months back, he announced that he was leaving Blogger for another platform and floated the idea of using LiveJournal or Dreamwidth for casual updates alongside a primary Wordpress-driven blog.

What made me smile is that LiveJournal was the first social network I ever joined, and arguably the only one I've ever enjoyed. My old LJ is still up at  [livejournal.com profile] priestofmemory, though most of the content has been private or friends-only for years. (Thank goodness; I'd be embarassed if some of my whiny teenage drama were to resurface.)

I've made this new account on Dreamwidth for two reasons: to follow JMG and to post the occasional thoughts, story, etc. I think I'll take a pass on whiny thirtysomething drama; there's a reason I left Facebook.

It's a nice coincidence that just as JMG is making substantial changes in his online and offline life, a page is starting to turn in my own life. Perhaps I'll share some of it as a go along. There may not be a brighter future ahead for us collectively, but maybe I can let a little more of my own light shine.


May. 22nd, 2017 10:18 am
jjensenii: South Park avatar (Default)
This post is just a test...
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