Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Review: Fiasco by Stanislaw Lem

I recently read Solaris by Polish science fiction master Stanislaw Lem. It, and the two movies that were based on it (directed by Steven Soderberg and Andrei Tarkovsky) are some of the best science fiction I've ever seen (or read). I highly recommend all of them: they are not the watered down Star Wars space opera, but hard sci fi at its very best: a dual commentary on science and religion in light of the limits of human knowledge.

Interested in reading more of Lem, I picked up Fiasco at the Chicago Public Library because it looked interesting. The plot, essentially, is that a star ship is sent from earth to a distant sun, where evidence of civilization has been detected. The mission is to make contact with the alien civilization and to exchange information with it, in a congenial neighborly sort of way.

Unfortunately, things don't go according to plan.

The POV character of the novel is, for the most part, a "dare-devil" pilot who is killed in the first chapter and then brought back from his cryogenic tomb four hundred or so years later. He has amnesia, and eventually takes to calling himself Mark Tempe, since he can't remember his real name.

The ship makes it to the planet, but complications arise. First, the aliens ("Quintans", since the planet is the fifth from its sun) don't seem to want contact nearly as much as the humans do. They've created a wall of radio static around the planet, which makes any attempts at communication difficult. Furthermore, in the area of space surrounding the planet they've established what may be a web of automatic defenses. Of course, since the Earth crew has no idea what the aliens are like, every single enigmatic facet of the solar system is an enigma that must be solved and interpreted, then (when more evidence becomes available) solved again and reinterpreted.

Eventually it becomes clear that there are at least two superpowers on the Quintan planet, who have been in continuous conflict with each other for many centuries. The war has been pushed off planet and into space, where it has also become essentially automated. Competing and intertwining defense grids now keep vigil beyond the atmosphere, while on the ground an uneasy ceasefire is maintained. Further attacks on the Terran ship and rebuffs of its attempts at contact frustrate the crew, who surmise that centuries of war and mistrust have left the two powers paranoid and unwilling to make contact. In their own defense, the crew decides to put on a show of power -- a show which may or may not lead to an interstellar war. I'm not saying.

Overall, I thought Fiasco was very intelligent, as well as being a fun read if you're into science fiction and speculation about contact with alien civilizations. Most of the book is spent attempting to figure out what is going on down on the planet, and what the Quintans are thinking -- as Mark says toward the end of the book, we make a model of the other person, which contains their own model of the situation, which we must answer with another model of a model, and so on ad infinitum. Making my own guesses about how the book would end was part of the whole fun.

The book isn't quite as good as Solaris, however; and part of the problem is that it isn't quite as timeless. Fiasco (as you will probably have guessed from the above synopses) was written during the Cold War. (Published in 1987). It's very much a child of that time, and so those particular themes didn't resonate with me quite so well as they would have back in the day. However, despite this, Lem's continuation of his pessimistic view of the chances of Contact with other races (as seen also in Solaris). I would recommend reading Solaris instead of this if you have to choose or are not otherwise a fan of science fiction, but if you read a lot of science fiction, and don't require the presence of space princesses or space pirates, this is good hard science fiction.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Pop Quiz Time!

Who wrote the following passage?

"Physics...is a narrow path drawn across a gulf that the human imagination cannot grasp. It is a set of answers to certain questions that we put to the world, and the world supplies the answers on the condition that we will not then ask it other questions, questions shouted out by common sense. And common sense? It is that which is understood by an intelligence using senses no different from those of a baboon. Such an intelligence wishes to know the world in terms that apply to its terrestrial, biological niche. But the world--outside that niche, that incubator of sapient apes--has properties that one cannot take in hand, see, sniff, gnaw, listen to, and in this way appropriate."

Is it...?

a) C. S. Lewis
b) Stanislaw Lem
c) H. P. Lovecraft
d) Michael Crichton

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Friday, August 15, 2008

Oh, it's on!

So, a while back a friend of mine wrote a facebook note about how he, as an atheist, has been discussing the bible with his family, and trying to show them alternate ways of viewing the bible (other than the fundamentalist literal infallible interpretation thing). I wrote a comment saying that I liked his post, and offering the literary objections to the literal interpretation business:

Being a lit major, I come at this question from a completely different angle than you do, I'm sure: when I'm talking to those of the more fundamentalist persuasion, I often mention that I object to a literal interpretation of Genesis (as well as several other books of the bible) not for scientific reasons, but for literary reasons. When we accept that the various books of the bible are not all written as History in the sense that we 21st Century Americans think of it, we can see that Truth doesn't always come to us in the form of historical narrative, or even in the form of non-fiction prose. (The Psalms are a good example of this.)

Often enough, it doesn't matter much to a Christian faith whether or not certain biblical stories were historically accurate in the sense that they actually occurred in reality: whether or not the book of Job is based on actual events, or the book of Esther actually occurred that way, doesn't matter to us nearly so much as what the stories they tell mean; the messages they convey. I would argue that the same is true of Genesis. Rather than being a scientific document or a historical document, it a creation myth; but to me, that makes it no less valuable a work, and no less indicative (to a Christian) of humankind's relationship with God.


Well, time went by, and I almost forgot about the comment; but then yesterday I got an e-mail saying that someone else had posted a comment, and found that it was a response to mine:

Michael,

If you'll allow me an analysis of your view...

If these stories are just stories, but their true value lies in the lessons we can adduce from them, what would those lessons be? For instance, what useful understanding can we glean from the creation stories in Genesis? What knowledge can we take home from the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son at god's nod or from the command to kill those who break the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)? It's fine to say they're allegories, but allegories to what? Surely nothing praiseworthy.

The apologist here will likely try to explain why the bible offers such seemingly inaccurate claims historically, morally, and scientifically, but the fact that they must do so, and that they can apparently do so with more clarity than the book itself, should lead somebody to conclude that the book is muddled and unnecessary, given that we have human reason with which to acquire actual understanding.

Additionally, one thing the bible has that other stories, such as Goldilocks or The Illiad do not, is several claims to the books literal and unchanging truth (these claims lead us into very murky waters, with 33% of the world taking the stories as the book instructs - literally). Again, perhaps it's an allegory, but if so, it's an allegory that could be usurped in clarity by virtually any man, woman, or child on this planet (and an allegory, if you're approach is correct, that has only been grasped by a handful of people - making it a very poor allegory indeed). Both god and humanity could easily do better.


It's been a while since I've engaged in an internet debate, but I thought I'd pick this one up and play with it for a bit. Here's my first response:

Thanks for the analysis. I'd be loathe to derail Jonathan's comment section, so we might need to take this elsewhere if it leads anywhere.

I find your frequent use of the word "Allegory" intriguing, because allegory is exactly the genre of literature that can be best deciphered in the sort of rational, logical way that you are talking about. In the symbolism of allegory, there is generally a one-for-one correspondence between the symbols and the things symbolized. In Bunyan, the character of Christian represents your average Christian, while the Slough of Despondency represents...being despondent. It's also exactly the sort of symbolism that myth doesn't do.

This is why I disagree so heartily with your statement that apologists can explain (well, you said the bible, but I was talking about Genesis so as to not step into other genres) with greater clarity than it can itself, and further, that because something is unclear or difficult to read that it is therefore unnecessary. "We have human reason with which to acquire actual understanding," you say. This makes my eyelid twitch. Are not myths (and stories in general) ways that human knowledge and understanding find expression? A prominent fantasy author once wrote an essay entitled "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to be Said." Another author once wrote, "[Aspiring authors trained in over-rational interpretation] still do not realize that a symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically. They mistake symbol (living meaning) for allegory (dead equivalence)." This is, in fact, why some people write fiction instead of nonfiction in the first place, and why many authors, asked what their works are about, will often say that they want the piece to speak for itself.

Now, it's possible that you're trying to say that given the traditional Christian view of God and his authorship of the books of the bible, it would have been more effective to communicate what he wanted through other means: actual historical and scientific treatises, perhaps, or at least a point-by-point credo and/or list of rules and regulations. Well that would open an entirely different can of worms, and I'd say if we want to continue we should probably find somewheres other than Jonathan's comments to do it. The space limits here are a bit constraining, anyway. If you want, I can send you a friend invitation and we can work something out.


We'll see where it leads.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Review: The X-Files opening titles.

I've started watching the X-Files recently, and am enjoying the first season. This was prompted by hearing about the new movie coming out, and figuring if the movie was good it might make up for what I've heard the last couple seasons were, I decided to go back and start the series.

Well, apparently the new movie isn't all that great; but I'm enjoying the series for now, so I'll keep watching for a while.

However, after four episodes, I can't keep silent about the opening titles.

They are atrocious.

First of all, the music. I'm sure the wavy synth was creepy back in the early nineties, but now it just sounds *cute*. And you don't want people subconsciously associating your paranormal thriller show with *cute*. Then there are the images. The first series of still images with a hazy UFO in the sky -- that's great, that's fine. The second, of some anonymous person drawing...something...okay, that's mysterious at least. Then we have an electro-globe. Not scary or mysterious. Sure, back in the sixties movie mad-scientists always had them in their labs, but nowadays they're about as creepy as a lava lamp. Then comes a twisty head of a guy opening his mouth, ostensibly in anguish, except you just *know* that it's the janitor of the studio where they put together the titles. "This could be my big break!" and all that. Next we have what appears to be a mirror image of a seed sprouting, superimposed by the words "Paranormal Activity." Seeds sprouting are about as paranormal as *wet rain*. Wait, I get it -- maybe the plant itself is paranormal?

In any case, the font they use for the words Paranormal Activity, along with the shadow beneath and the way the words fade into the picture...it all screams "Power Point Presentation." And that's it really -- this whole opening sequence is like a bad power-point presentation, and one that doesn't have a coherent structure to it.

Immediately following the paranormal seed, we get a zoom in on Mulder's badge with (in a new font) "Starting David Duchovny". That's all fine, I guess. But the next shot is a...blue...something...with a person's shadow, and the words "Government denies knowledge". The image isn't even interesting, let alone creepy or mysterious, and the words...well, I mean, I don't get where the words are supposed to be coming from, you know? If they were cut out from a newspaper, that would be something. But these words are just floating there. They're outside the fiction, like "The show, a new genre unto itself, would be called..." Except they seem to fit *in* the fiction. The effect is rather odd.

Then we get Scully's badge, which, fine. Whatever. But then comes the best/worst part of the opening sequence. It's a darkened room. Maybe a warehouse or something. Except, it's all foggy and misty. And there's agents Mulder and Scully; Scully's got a flashlight out, and Mulder's drawn his gun, and they're both looking concerned and intense. And we zoom in on their faces, except we don't just *zoom in* on their faces, we zoom in increments, so the effect is like four still camera shots, each a little closer than the last. Like the first part of the sequence, with the flying saucer. Then, we fade to white. I don't think that my description here can properly convey how cheesy this shot is. But trust me, it's way on over the top. Because they look so darn serious, and the cute widdle warbly music is playing in the background, and the standard screen composition of the shot, and the 90s television film quality....one simply cannot help but love this part.

So, then we have a falling white misshapen silhouette, which tumbles into the neon-blue outline of a handprint, er, except that one of the sections of the pointer finger is red instead of blue. Despite looking like a flash animation, this title is actually somewhat intriguing. Is the blue/red hand supposed to be infrared? I'm sad that the white silhouette is falling.

Then, in quick succession, we have an eye blinking and then a stock time-lapse shot of clouds rushing past. These images are at least mysterious; as in, it's a mystery what the people who put this sequence together were *thinking*. Okay, the clouds at least get explained: there's a flash of lightning, and the words "The Truth is Out There" appear on the screen, in the same thin sans-serif font (which is so boring as to be effectively an absence of font) that they used in the titles for Silence of the Lambs (if you don't remember it, that's okay -- I only remember it because I was surprised at how unremarkable it was the first time I saw the film). So, the wide expanse that the clouds are rushing past is supposed to reinforce the idea that the Truth (of which the Government is perhaps denying knowledge, probably about Paranormal Activity of some sort) is "Out There". This doesn't explain the blinking eye -- unless it's Chris Carter's eye, since the "Created by Chris Carter" title appears alongside the blinging eye.

You know what they could have done? Maybe, after the the teaser, they could have had the words "The X-Files" sort of angle their way towards the camera, while this weird sound plays, half growl and half howl. Then cut right to the show, and give us the "Starring" and the "Created by" as titles at the bottom of the screen during the real show.

Or maybe they could have had images of Mulder and Scully wandering around on their journeys, while some Hindu chant plays, and they could overlay (in the same font each time, mind), "Two Federal Agents. Searching for The Truth. On Earth." and then halfway through the titles the music gets all dramatic, and shots from later in the episode are played. Oh, and I forgot! At the beginning it goes, "The conspiracies were created by the government. They keep the aliens secret. There are many layers. And they have a plan!"

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Michael's Guide to Comic Books that I Have Liked, Part One

So, in the interest of proving that there is more to my life than reviewing Dungeons and Dragons (keen-eyed readers will note that *of course* there is more to my life than Dungeons and Dragons: just look how long it took me to read the darn book), I am introducing a periodic series here for the blog. A number of you have recently asked me about graphic novels and comic books; and which ones are good to read and so forth. So, every so often I'll highlight a good comic book that I enjoyed, and tell you a bit about it.

First up is "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud. I'm highlighting this first, because if you're going to read comic books it helps to be literate within the context of the medium. And Scott's book can help you with that. He's written a couple more books along this like, "Reinventing Comics" and "Making Comics", but 'Understanding Comics" is the bedrock, and I recommend it highly. It gives you the lowdown on the form and theory of comic books. Check it out.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I was reading a collection of essays by Ursula K. Leguin the other day, and found this quote, which I liked a lot:

"In many college English courses the words 'myth' and 'symbol' are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain't no good unless you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing courses the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them. What does this Mean? What does that Symbolize? What is the Underlying Mythos? Kids come lurching out of such courses with a brain full of gerbils. And they sit down and write a lot of empty pomposity, under the impression that that's how Melville did it.
"Even when they begin to realize that art is not something produced for critics, but for other human beings, some of them retain the overintellectualizing bent. They still do not realize that a symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically. They mistake symbol (living meaning) for allegory (dead equivalence)."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Review: D&D 4e Pt 10 - DMG 3-4 - "Combat Encounters", "Building Encounters"

Book Two: Dungeon Master's Guide
Part the Third: Combat Encounters

1. When I saw all the additional rules in this section, I got worried; but mostly they're just good guidelines. In fact, the sense of the section is that they're here only if you really need them, and not as hard and fast rules of the land. Rules lawyers may disagree, but for me, I think if a situation from here came up and no one at the table knew the rule off hand, I wouldn't feel bad about improvising on the spot. The cool thing about these rules is that an improvisation probably wouldn't be too far off -- they're pretty common sense.

2. The disease and poison rules are always fun things to have in the DMG. I love all of the made-up diseases they list off, like Mummy Rot and Slimy Doom. (Both were in earlier versions of D&D, but I still like them, even though as of yet I haven't found a place for them in my campaigns.)

Part the Fourth: Building Encounters

1. Just as the roles for party members is handy when creating the player characters, so too the Monster Roles is going to be helpful in making encounters. I can't wait to get to the Monster Manual! That's always my favorite part of D&D anyway.

2. There's a big change here from the way encounters were constructed in 3.5. "CR" stats are gone, and the sliding scale of XP is also gone, and that's probably a good thing. Now monsters give a set amount of XP. Creating an encounter is as easy as taking the average monster XP for the characters' level, multiplying it by the number of characters, and then filling in threats until you have an amount of XP to match.

3. And Encounter Templates make it even easier! They give example scenarios, and you just plug in monsters of the appropriate level and role. Ka-pow! Mischief managed.
Same with traps, minions, and bosses.

4. One of the things I'm actually excited about for this version of D&D is the battle grid. Why is this the case, when back in 3.5 I never, ever used a grid (and probably missed out because of it, really -- 3.5 probably would have been a greatly improved experience for me if I had, in retrospect). But with 3.5 the problem was that the rules were really trying to do everything: in 4e they've narrowed the focus down, and encounters just make a lot of sense with a battle grid. That's why sections like "Encounter Settings" get me excited about running the game.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review: D&D 4e Pt 9 - DMG 2 - "Running the Game"

Book Two: Dungeon Master's Guide
Part the Second: Running the Game

1. I'd heard before about the "Preparation Guide", which is the first part of this section. It gives you tips on how to prepare for a game if you have Four hours, Three, Two, One or No Time to prepare for your game. I thought it sounded great! I often go into games with little time to prepare, and having tips for when I don't have a lot of time sounded pretty sweet.

But the preparation guide assumes that, unless you have four or more hours, you'll be using a published adventure. True, it gives you a short side-bar about "If you don't want to use a published adventure...", but doesn't tell you how that changes based on preparation time - just that you should choose a dungeon map, and use the sample encounter groups from the MM. Sometime I should explain how much better my adventures are when they aren't published. (Although we did have an awful lot of fun with the Iron Kingdoms' published adventures a while back.)

2. Most of this chapter is for beginners, but it is good advice for the most part. The GM/Player relationship is a wee bit conventional for my taste, but things like Delegation and the afore-mentioned ability for players to suggest Quests does help out.

3. The Information Imperative is wonderful: Essentially, it states that if the characters need a piece of information for the adventure to continue, the DM should not hide it behind a skill roll or otherwise make it possible for them to not acquire the information.

4. Passive skill checks are cool, but a lot of paperwork for the DM.

5. The section on Improvising -- pure gold! From "Saying Yes" to the "Tips from the Pros" sidebar in which the writer learns that letting players have authority can be cool, this is one of the best parts of the book so far.

6. The troubleshooting section reads like a condensed version of the best advice one sees on the rpg.net forums for problem groups. Good stuff here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Matrix is Unrealistic

Talking with Sam yesterday, I realized that, despite all the realism that went into making the movie "The Matrix", there was one detail about the movie that breaks my otherwise intact suspension of disbelief.

No, it's not the sequels: it's the character names. Let's take the three main characters. Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity. What's wrong with this picture?

That's right: they're all supposed to be the world's greatest hackers. But none of them utilize leet-speak in their names! Come on, movie! Who do you think you're fooling? The proper names for the three main characters are:

n30
m0r4h3u5
and
7r1n17y

See? Just a little adjustment like that, and the whole movie becomes a startlingly believable tale of a man kung-fu-fighting AI programs in his head while flying in some sort of hovering submarine thing being chased by killer squid-robots.

The same thing goes for the conversation on N30's computer early in the film:

"w4k3 up, n30."
"w7f! wh0 4r3 y0u?"
"t3h m47r1x pwn5 y0u, n00b!"
"0h n035!"
"f0110w t3h wh173 r4bb17, kk?"
"101 wu7?"
"kn0(k kn0(k, n30."

Man, they could've really made something with the concept, if they'd just taken the time to get it right. Sad, really.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Review: D&D 4e Pt 8 - DMG 1 - "How to be a DM"

Book Two: Dungeon Master's Guide
Part the First: "How to be a DM"

1. There's a list of Player Types, how to engage them, and potential trouble spots to watch out for. This will be of help to players not all that familiar with Gamer culture, and it might be a helpful reminder to people who have been playing the game for a while. The "Types" are rather stereotypical, but I suppose they may be for a reason.

2. The next section covers how you can fill in gaps if you're missing certain character roles in your party. I should have mentioned this earlier, but making Healing part of the Leader role was a very good idea, and I'm glad they did it -- few people play this game so they can go around healing their buddies; but it's an important character to have in a group.

3. The "Kinds of Games" section lists various styles of play, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. For example, "One DM" vs. rotating DMs, Ongoing vs. One-shot, etc. I think it's a good summary, and helpful for beginners; as is the Table Rules section that comes next.

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4e (Part Seven)

Book One: Player's Handbook
Part the Last: Rituals

Some of you are probably quite sick of all this nerdy stuff by now. No fear! We're finished with the first book as of the end of this post, and then we only have *two more books* to talk about: the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual.

Thus far, as I was telling Jonathan last night, my impression is that a lot of the changes in 4e are steps in the right direction, but that they probably don't step quite far enough to get me to play the game regularly. Still, it's early to tell for certain; much will depend on the DMG (and not much will depend on the Monster Manual, but I like creature catalogs anyway -- they're fun).

Okay, so Rituals.

Rituals are essentially spells that take a little time to perform, and that are always read off of a scroll or out of a book. "Spells" in traditional sense are now mostly offensive or combat-based. Most of the magical effects that aren't specifically combat-oriented are now Rituals.

This makes sense for a couple reasons. The first is, as all the classes now have their own at-will, encounter, and daily powers that work mechanically like spells do, and since all those powers are combat based, it makes sense to let the magic-users focus on spells that will be useful in combat as well. This is very much borrow from MMOGs.

Secondly, in previous editions of D&D, where all the non-combat spells existed side by side with combat spells, choosing a spell like "Knock", which unlocks doors, meant that you couldn't choose something like "Magic Missile", which kills things. Which meant that hardly anyone bothered with Knock.

Rituals are a fairly elegant fix to both of those problems, and in addition it appears (at first reading) that they are not limited to magic-using characters. As long as you train a Ritual skill, you can use them.

As Will pointed out the other evening, the fact that Rituals take some time to complete also means that they can provide some tension, with several characters having to fend off attacking beasties as the other characters try to finish up the ceremony. Cool.

...And that pretty much wraps up the PHB. Next up we'll start on the Dungeon Master's Guide, which is of great importance to me, since 90% of the time I'm the one running the game anyway.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4e (Part Six)

Book One: Player's Handbook
Part The Eighth: Adventuring

1. Before we get into adventuring, I should point out something about Skills that missed on the first read-through: Skills no longer have a numerical value. You're either trained in a skill, or not. That simplifies things a *lot*, but it's also going to effect the game quite a bit in ways that won't be obvious until we play it.

2. At last, on page 256, we get to the rules about playing the actual game. Fourth Edition DnD has a focus on Quests that goes beyond older versions of the game, and probably stems (again) from MMOs. Regardless, Quests in a tabletop RPG can be a lot more flexible than Quests in World of Warcraft, as can the definition of "completing" them. The rules also allow for players to create their own quests, which obviously a computer game can't allow. As much as I have mixed feelings about the amount to which 4e follows MMOs, its strengths lie in the places where it makes itself recognizable to the MMO crowd, but then uses that to focus on the things it can do that MMOs cannot. That's what we see here in the Quests.

3. Action Points are something new to this edition. You get them for reaching "milestones", which apparently means that you survive two encounters in a row without taking an extended rest in between. You can use them to take an extra action on your turn, or to activate certain feats, or to use certain other powers. They also seem like a great place to house-rule; I can think of a dozen other uses that one could implement to change the atmosphere of the game. (And another dozen ways they could be rewarded, too -- this Milestones concept is a bit odd.)

4. The rules for travel times, light and vision, and rest are all fine, and don't really merit mention. The light and vision section makes me look forward to reading the DMG,'cause I'll be interested in the advice they give about dungeon making.

Part The Ninth: Combat

1. This section is the heart and soul of Dungeons and Dragons. It will be another make-or-break point for me; if combat feels like the equivalent of filling out my tax form, I will lose interest after the first couple rounds, and probably never play 4e except out of social politeness again. I'm also interested to see what they've done with the rules for grappling, which was something in 3e that everyone hated. I've had many players in 3e games go way out of their way just to avoid initiating a grapple check.

2. Minis are a must. The 4e rules assume that you use them, and the mechanics make abstraction difficult. There's a lot wailing about this from the internet; I don't think it really matters all that much to me; I don't think requiring visualization is necessarily a bad thing. Certainly it might make the game more difficult for a beginner, but at the moment the minis market is larger than the RPG market, and WoW of course beats D&D on visuals already. It isn't impossible to play without visualization, but it would be difficult. It is what it is, at least, and i don't fault it for it. Too many of my abstracted battles in 3e just became pounding-on-each-other contests, anyway. Also, it's not like you have to have Wizards of the Coast Official Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures to play -- use coins, use dice, use whatever.

3. Initiative is only rolled at the beginning of the encounter, not every round. I can't remember which way was in the 3e rules -- I've played it both ways before, and they both have advantages and disadvantages. This way means less rolling; the other way means that turn order strategies must be more fluid.

4. Attacks of opportunity, which I am notorious for forgetting about, still exist.

5. Of course, the proof of these rules will be in the pudding, that is, the playing. When will *that* take place? ....I'm trying to work that out. :) Soonish.

6. Grappling looks a lot easier. Thank the gods. Make a STR attack vs REF. If you hit, the enemy is immobilized until it escapes or you end the grab. While grabbing someone, you can move them with a strength vs fortitude roll. If you're grabbed on your turn, you can escape by making a successful Acrobatics check vs. Ref or Athletics vs. Fortitude.

7. Shifting (a move action where you simply move one adjacent square) does not allow for an attack of opportunity. That's pretty damn useful. Also, when you escape from a grab, you can shift as a free action.

Next Up: Rituals - What the heck are those??

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4e (Part Five)

Book One: Player's Handbook
Part the Sixth: Feats

1. Okay. I'm really not going to have much to say about Feats, because there're still a lot of them, and they're in a list that I'm not going to read just now. Plus, knowing whether or not their implementation has improved will depend a lot on how they are played in the game (and not on how they look on the sheet). So a quick read-through of the game isn't going to answer that question for me. As Will pointed out to me earlier, the game has spent an enormous amount of effort on standardization. That's a good thing, and will no doubt go a ways toward helping me out.

2. The other thing that I absolutely have to talk about is Multiclassing, which in 4e is completely tied in to Feats. By taking Multiclass feats, you are able to integrate the abilities of another class with your own class. You are, however, limited to one extra class at most: No Wizard/Warlord/Rogue/Barbarian/Druid hybrids here. (Although you could probably use Retraining to switch out if it came to it -- I'll have to check on that.)

Basically, you spend one feat to get a Multiclass, which usually comes with some small bonus or ability. Then you can use Multiclass Swap feats, which allow you to give up the ability you would get at this level for the ability you would get at this level from your secondary class. Any time you gain a level, you can choose that level's class power to swap, reversing your previous swap. You can buy another swap at level 8 and another at level 10.

If you buy all three multiclass swaps, at level 11 you can choose to continue to train in your multiclassing rather than take a Paragon Path. In 3e terms, this would basically mean that you were creating your prestige class incorporating the powers of two of the basic classes. It's a pretty elegant solution, I think, if you really feel it necessary to have classes in the first place.

Part the Seventh: Equipment
I'm skipping the Equipment chapter, since it's a long list of the Equipment you can buy.

Which means next up is Adventuring.

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4e (Part Four)

Book One: The Player's Handbook
Part the Fourth: Epic Destinies

So, as a game D&D 4e is split into three different segments. In Levels 1-10, your character develops its base class. In levels 11-20, your character receives their Paragon Path, which is a powerful specialization within the base class. Levels 21-30 are about preparing for the end game, and that's where you decide your Epic Destiny. An Epic Destiny is about paving the way toward character retirement. Epic Destinies aren't based on your base class; they're based on what you want the end of your character's story to be. Does your wizard become an Archmage and start his own school of magic? Does your character join the ranks of some Pantheon or another? Does your character simply become a wanderer? That's what choosing an Epic Destiny is about. Your choice, at level 21, will guide your character toward the end of his chosen path, aiding him with powerful abilities.

As the game points out, not every player group is going to play this thing to an end point. A lot of people are going to want to just perpetually keep going, leavin their character available for high-powered adventures. And that's fine; but it's also cool that the rules allow for a certain amount of mechanical help in bringing the game to an end. I approve.

The available Epic Destinies, in the PHB at least, are:

Archmage
Deadly Trickster
Demigod
Eternal Seeker

Does that seem like a small amount to you? I kind of think so, too; but I assume this is yet another area where future volumes will allow some growth.

Part the Fifth: Skills
First, the number of skills has been scaled down quite a bit. For example, Search and Spot are now simply Perception. In general, I like how they're handling the skills. I like Passive Skill use, and I like the Knowledge skills, particularly the Monster Knowledge checks, which let you know if your character recognizes the monster, knows something about it, and possibly knows its weakness. That's a handy bit of mechanics, there. Most of this chapter is a list of the skills and what they do: that's not something I'm going to read in this particular form.

Next up will be Feats, which I'm particularly interested in as they were always my least favorite part of 3e character creation.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4e (Part Three)

I was talking to Aaron just now and realized the enormous effect that World of Warcraft has had on the new D&D edition. It seems to me that nearly every design decision that went into this game was consciously moving either toward or away from World of Warcraft. Let's see. The artwork? A step towards. The absence of Gnomes? A step away. The class "roles"? Definitely a step toward. Choosing Tieflings as a character race instead of Orcs? Definitely a step away. Certainly, this whole game is Dungeons and Dragons informed by the experience of MMOs like WoW -- and that's not a bad thing, necessarily. WoW (like all other MMOs) exists as a direct descendant of earlier editions of D&D; so obviously there is some overlap. There are things that WoW can do that D&D can't; things that computer games can do that table-top RPGs can't (or at least can't do as well). But there are also things that table-top RPGs can do that computer games like WoW cannot -- and table-top RPGs will survive by carving out a niche in those places.

That doesn't mean that traditional RPGs can't learn a thing or two from MMOs. For example, the "Dungeonpunk" aesthetic familiar from World of Warcraft is definitely present in 4e. (And yes, I know it all really started with Warhammer and Planescape, but it was totally hijacked and made insanely popular via Warcraft). It's what kids these days want in a game, particularly in a pos-World of Warcraft age, and D&D would be silly, really, to try and use a more realistic Medieval aesthetic at this point.

Okay, but I'm reading about classes now.

1. As far as the classes themselves go, there aren't a lot of big surprises. There's a new class called "Warlords", and "Sorcerers" seem to have been replaced by "Warlocks." (Warlocks, by the way, are totally a WoW thing.) Barbarians, Bards, Druids and Monks are are gone (at least for this volume of the PHB).

2. Each class has a certain Role in the group, for easier party creation. Classes with the same Role are interchangeable: Warlords and Clerics are both Leader classes, although they go about their roles in different ways. Likewise, Fighters and Paladins both have high defensive capabilities, and so they're both intended to get up close to the enemy. When constructing a party, class roles will make it easy to keep track of what you have and what you might need. (They also stem from MMO experience, I believe.)

3. Here we get some more information about Paragon paths and Epic destinies. Paragon paths seem to be the 4e version of Prestige Classes. Epic destinies, I'm not quite clear on yet. But as far as Paragons, essentially when you reach level 10 you're able to choose a specialized extension of your base class, which grants you cool powers and so forth. For example, a level 10 Wizard can choose from the following Paragon Paths: Battle Mage; Blood Mage; Spellstorm mage; and Wizard of the Spiral Tower. You can bet that there will be other Paragon Paths in books to follow (probably there are more in the DMG, even). (Actually, the PHB promises us that in later volumes of the PHB (huh??) there will be more base classes; one would assume these new base classes will require new Paragon Paths to go with them.) Epic destinies, BTW, aren't simply extensions of the base-class; they're different somehow.

4. There are three types of powers: At-Will, Encounter, and Daily. At-Will powers can be used any time you like; Encounter can be used once per Encounter, and Daily can be used once every third saturday of the month. No, wait -- they can be used once per day, as one would assume from their moniker.

5. I have read nothing about Multiclassing yet; I seem to recall hearing something about it being rather different in 4e. More news as events warrant.

6. Each class now receives new fiddly-bits at the same rate as all the rest of the classes. The fiddly bits are organized well in each class's section (and color-coded, even!), but I am not going to read them until I have an actual copy of the book in front of me. My friend's advanced copy is not built for reading long lists like that. I will say, though, that the powers are just begging to have someone put them onto cards, which would make organizing and playing them even easier. I expect Wizards has something like that in mind; I seem to recall White Wolf has done it for Exalted (another game where such a thing would be a blessing). If I were to purchase and regularly run this game, I would want such an accessory at my table.

Next Up: Epic Destinies!

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (RPG) Part 2

Book One: Player Handbook
Part The Second: Player Character Races

Up to now, the player character races have been as follows:

Human
Elf
Half-Elf
Halfing
Dwarf
Gnome
Half-Orc

With D&D 4e, they've switched some stuff up, as follows:

Dragonborn - Humanoid dragon-folk
Dwarf
Eladrin (Think "High Elves")
Elf (Think "Wood Elves")
Half-Elf
Halfling
Human
Tiefling (Half-Fiend)

Just a few thoughts. Before I realized they'd split Elves into "Eladrin" and "Elf", I wondered why they had two elf-like races. But apparently they've decided to focus the Elves on their woodland nature-y side, and came up with Eladrin as the more Fey focus. That's fine. Were I to run the game, I'd have the collective slang for Eladrin and Elves be "Elves", and maybe have some people distinguish the High from the Wood Elves, and Eladrin be what the High Elves insist on calling themselves.
Obviously, another reason Elves have been split up so that Eladrin can be the Tieflings' foil. That's all well and good, except Tieflings already have a foil: they're called Aasimar, half-celestials. The foil of Elves are the Dwarves, and the Orcs.

Which brings us to the missing Half-Orc class. I've heard that one reason the Half-Orcs were scrapped was because it was assumed that they were the product of ravaging bands of human women forcing themselves upon orc males. The designers didn't really like the idea of one of their core races being implicitly the product of rape, so they replaced it with Tiefling. Sure; and Half-Orcs were never really my favorite of races; but why not replace them with, say, plain old Orcs? Bahamut knows they're more iconic in fantasy than Tieflings are.

Perhaps one reason is that Tieflings are intended to have that "TrollBabe" effect, where they're trapped in two societies but don't really fit in either. But they're not necessarily big and dumb like half-orcs usually were. Well...fine. I guess.

But let's talk about the Dragonborn for a minute. I...really don't like them for some reason. I think they look ridiculous; I think they're intended to fill a hole that didn't exist beforehand. They should be in the Monster Manual, not the Player's Handbook.

And Gnomes have been gotten rid of because they were never all that popular to begin with, and World of Warcraft has focused so much on the Gnome tinkering side that Wizards didn't want a part of it (much like Family Guy focused so much on Non Sequiturs that The Simpsons eventually stopped using them). That left the woody side of the Gnomes, which the Elves had already moved in on. So Gnomes have been sent to the Monster Manual, and probably not too many will miss them much.

Review: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (RPG)

So, a friend let me have a look at his advance copy of Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, and I'm reading through the core books. Here are my thoughts on them, in real time.

Book One: The Player's Guide
Part the First: Character Generation

1. By default, Attributes are no longer generated randomly. Random generation remains an option, but the default is assigning each attribute one number in a spread between 10 and 16 (with the number 15 being conspicuously absent). (A third option allows for a slightly more complicated point-buy system, where all the attributes start at 10 (save for one which starts at 8), and each point you buy increases the cost for the next point in that attribute, a la White Wolf.)

2. Alignments have been overhauled, to the point where even choosing an alignment at all is optional. This is long overdue. "Chaotic Good" and "Lawful Evil" have been replaced with simply "Good" and "Evil", while "Lawful Good" and "Chaotic Evil" seem to be specializations of the other two. While it might be a little confusing, and a little asymmetrical (sorry, Planescape!), Lawful Evil especially (and to some extent Chaotic Good) always seemed to exist just to balance out the cosmology. Also, neutral alignments (Neutral good, neutral evil, and lawful, true, and chaotic neutral) are gone and done.

3. There is still going to be a heck of a lot of math in this game; that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just an observation. The main part of the game strategy is still going to be working out the special-case rule exceptions that your character's powers grant you. That's what ends up making the game line collectible, and it's what eventually turned me off to D&D 3.5e -- because it means a lot of rule-exception hunting, and a deep familiarity with the exceptions available; for which I don't really have time or patience. Whatever improvements the new edition has, (and so far I'm liking all the changes I've seen), the handling of the fiddly bits and exceptions will make or break this system for me.

4. Gaining hit points at character advancement is no longer random, either. Not that anyone really used the random rules from the previous editions of the game anyway.

5. PHB characters now go to level 30 instead of 20. This is basically making the amp go to eleven.

6. Retraining means that if you don't like something you chose for your character previously (a feat or a power or whatever) you can retrain and change one feat or power per character advancement. This is good: it means you don't need to plan your character's future quite so carefully and in detail as in previous editions, where I always seemed to know what I thought was cool *now*, but maybe didn't know what prerequisites I would need to get the cool stuff I wanted *later*.

7. There are a lot of fiddly bit-type stuff listed here that I don't understand yet: Paragon and Epic destinies? What's the difference between a Power and a Feat? Hopefully these are all differentiations to make it easier to keep track of things, and not extra stuff that I'm going to have to keep track of in addition to all the stuff in 3e.

8. Oh wow. Those class-specific character advancement tables are out, replaced by a single universal table. Heck yes. Simplify, simplify!

Next: Impressions of Character Races

Friday, May 23, 2008

Video Game Review: Sherlock Holmes - The Awakened

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Peanut butter and Chocolate. Two great tastes that go well together? That is essentially the question asked by this recent computer game, which mashes up the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft; combining the mythos of Sherlock Holmes with that of Cthulhu.

This is not the first time such a mixture has been attempted. There is an anthology entitled "Shadows over Baker Street" that was based on the same premise. From the reviews, the book is a rather mixed bag, which seldom scares the reade, nor delights them with clever reasonings and deductions. A pity.

The Awakened is also a mixed bag, as have been most Cthulhu-based video games,(for example, Call of Cthulhu: The Dark Corners of the Earth, which, despite what the title might seem to imply, did *not* try to combine Lovecraft with Patrick O'Brien.) Certainly, the graphics were not as polished as Dark Corners; but where that game's protagonist lacked any personality, this game has the familiar duo of Holmes and Watson. And what is the point of the horror genre if it is not the invasion of the familiar by something dreadful?

The other flaw of Dark Corners, I felt, was that it was based on one of Lovecraft's most famous stories ("The Shadow Over Innsmouth"). I already knew all the paces of the game beforehand. The Awakened is an original story, (albeit with certain necessary resemblances to "The Call of Cthulhu").

Does this make The Awakened a great game? No. Granted, the storyline itself was all right, and had some fairly creepy moments (my favorite is fairly early in the game, when you come across your first human sacrifice. You're in a dim and musty basement, and your lantern only shines so far into the gloom, and walking forward the scene emerges from the darkness: a tentacled stone idol, a blood-stained altar, and a corpse left in a bad way. The game is afoot!). But these aren't enough to save it for anyone who is not either a Sherlock Holmes fan, a Cthulhu-mythos fan, or both.

The game was released in 2007, but the graphics look as though they're from 2003. The camera work in the cinematics is all of that slow, meaningless panning and zooming that CGI is fond of, which causes unnatural pauses in the dialog as we wait for the shot to end(see early Veggie Tales videos if you're not sure what I mean). The character movements are stiff and stilted, although admittedly that may have something to do with the fact that the game takes place in England. Furthermore, there are *dozens* of clipping problems throughout the game and even (most damnably) in the cinematics! Sometimes, this can be creepy. Strange green lights hover in the corners of some of the buildings. Holmes, threatening a hoodlum with a sword in a cinematic near the end of the game, actually passes the blade through the man's head two or three times. Is the man a ghost? No, just a clipping problem.

The game is essentially an Inventory Puzzle game, which means that you go around picking things up and then finding places to use them later: this is not a genre that has seen a fresh use since before the turn of the century, and the Awakened does not revolutionize the mechanics whatsoever. This leads to some frustrating times; for example, at one point in the game you must fill a bucket with water to put out some flames. Unfortunately, despite the fact that you are right next to the ocean, and also near several pools of water, the game wants you to fill the bucket with the water in a specific barrel, which you have to find. No other water will do, apparently.

There are other problems with the game's implementation of its central mechanic: many of the puzzles, even if you have all of the ingredients in your inventory, the game will simply not allow you to solve if you are trying to solve them out of the order it desires. For example, in the New Orleans section of the game, going out into the swamp results in Holmes and Watson being attacked by thousands of mosquitoes. They retreat. On a piece of paper somewhere you find that lemon juice is a good deterrent for mosquitoes. So then, when I found a lemon tree sitting on a nearby balcony, it seemed reasonable enough to assume that I could just pick the lemons and head out into the swamp. But, no. The game won't let me pick the lemons until later on -- Holmes gives me some line about "I have no use for that now." Despite the fact that we were just down in the swamp, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. In several parts of the game I ended up having to use an online walkthrough just because *I* knew how to solve a puzzle, but I didn't know what hoops the *game* wanted me to jump through before it would let me beat it. (Another example: one of the inmates at an asylum you visit keeps talking about how they've taken away her "Matilda". Seeing a doll on a table in another room, it seemed elementary to me that the doll was Matilda, so I tried to pick up the doll and take it to the woman. Alas! The game would not let me until I had spoken to several other people, and accomplished several other unrelated tasks.)

That is, of course, another problem with the game. Sherlock Holmes is not, and never has been, MacGuyver; but from the way the game has you constantly jury-rigging solutions to your problems using everyday household items, you'd think he was. The game is rarely a whodunnit, and mostly a "combine this thigh bone with that strip of sail and the alcohol from the bootlegger's still to make a rudimentary torch. Now how can I make some fire?" ordeal. Inventory Puzzle games are notorious for this sort of thing, and Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened falls into the same rut for...well, for most of the game.

All of this I pretty much expected when I got the game in the first place. Quite obviously, I did not acquire the game for its mechanics, but for its novelty and subject matter. I don't expect anyone who is not a fanboy of either Lovecraft or Doyle to either play or, doing so, to enjoy Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened. My friend Sam will admit to enduring countless hours of terrible game play in the name of Star Trek, and so I myself must admit that the appeal of this game probably extends to no one else but me (in my group of friends). Still, like me, you're probably happy just knowing that such a game exists. To stay happy, I'd recommend the rest of you avoid playing it.

Bottom Line: **1/2

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Speaking of Alice Cooper and Things Marilyn Manson Wouldn't Do...

Part One:


Part Two:


Part Three:

Saturday, April 26, 2008

So, my siblings are visiting me for the weekend, and they report the following: You know those little machines that flatten pennies and imprint some little design (usually connected to the theme of the establishment) on them? Like, for example, we went to the Shedd Aquarium on Thursday, and we got a flattened penny with a fish on it.

Well, apparently on their way up to visit me, my younger siblings stopped off at the Abraham Lincoln museum, where they had the dubious honor and pleasure of paying 51 cents to get a penny imprinted with a picture of Abraham Lincoln.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Poor Alice Cooper

So, for purposes inexplicable, I happened by chance to go into a local pharmacy/convenience store the other day for some reason or another. We'll call the store...ummmm...CVS. Yeah. So, while I was there, the music was generally a directionless potpourri of songs from bygone eras, stretching from the 40s and 50s bubblegum music to synthed 80s pop, with some crossover country hits like "Heard it in a Love Song" mixed in. (I was there for a while, mind -- CVS sure takes its time filling prescriptions).

But one song jumped out at me. This was "School's Out for the Summer" by Mr. Alice Cooper. And suddenly, something in my heart just broke for poor Alice. I mean, here he is, the veritable Marilyn Manson of his generation, and what's he been reduced to? Background music in a CVS. I mean, what's this mean for the future, when the satanic of yesteryear becomes the elevator music of today?

Correct me if I'm wrong on this, oh ye few readers who were around when Mr. Cooper was still shocking. Was he relatively as notorious as Manson was in his heyday? Should I expect to hear "The Beautiful People" or "I don't like the drugs (but the drugs like me)" in the Wal-VS of the future?

No doubt it will be directly followed by "Down on Main Street". By Mr. Bob Seger.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Disillusionment and Disappointment.

Yesterday, April 9 of 2008, Wikipedia finally revealed to me the awful truth about the universe.

Apparently, there is a show called Torchwood, and another show called Deadwood. These are two different shows with no connection to each other aside from the deceptive "wood" that both shows have at the end of their titles.

There is, in other words, no western-themed spin-off of Dr. Who. Only a western (Deadwood), and an unrelated Dr. Who spin-off (Torchwood).

I go on with my life a little sadder, but a little wiser.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

How Many CDs I've Bought This Year

So, since the music industry's attacks on its customers began, and since they've made it more and more difficult to download music on the internet, that probably means I've bought a lot more of their CDs recently, right?

Well, except for no. I haven't bought any CDs this year. And I'll tell you why.

I haven't been able to "borrow" as many "cds" from my close "friend" this year. So I haven't been able to find music that I care about nearly so much. Back in the day, when I was borrowing cds left and right? I was also *buying* cds left and right, more than I ever had before, and more than I have since. If the RIAA wants my money? They should give me back my AudioGalaxy (or rather, return the manhood they so callously neutered from it). Or at least give me back my Demonoid.

Of course, I was never really one to buy the latest Back Street Boys or the new Eminem or whatever is that people who listen to the radio are forced to listen to nowadays. So probably the RIAA doesn't care about my money. Which is fine. Because they won't be getting it. So there.

Addendum: I actually remembered that I did indeed buy one album this year: at Christmas, I got an itunes gift certificate, and bought an album by the Warsaw Village Band. I don't know whether or not the RIAA made any money from the purchase, but I rather hope not. Also. Care to guess how I found out about the Warsaw Village Band?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I'm sure you understand.

Of the two things that I don't blog about part-time, one of them ended today. It wasn't my fault really; it's just that, when I applied to not blog about it full-time, the powers that be decided that maybe I wasn't as experienced at not blogging about certain aspects pf it as someone else. So now I can blog about it. Except that now there's nothing to blog about. This is all a bit disappointing, and I'm really not looking forward to the long process of finding other things to not blog about.

So. Sorry for being such a raincloud; I just felt like I needed to blog about this, you know?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

PodCasts

Here is a list of podcasts that I have caught up with recently while slaving away at that workplace I never seem to talk about. So far I've split my time between RPG casts and Sci-Fi/Fantasy casts, but of course I'm open to branching out if someone knows of anything worthwhile.

1. Sons of Kryos (RPG) - This was the first podcast to which I subscribed. I got interested in it because in a later episode they interview Vincent Baker, who wrote some of my favorite RPGs (Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age, and Kill Puppies for Satan. Okay, that last one isn't one of my favorites, but it's fun to bring the name out now and again.) The cast was started by Jeff and Judd, and later joined by another member, Storn, and they basically talk about RPG techniques, tips, what have you, in a positive way. Sometimes they interview It's not specific to any mode of play ("traditional" vs. "independent"), though it does lean a little toward the small-press games (which is okay for me). They have, however, interviewed Ed Greenwood, who created the Forgotten Realms, and Monte Cook, who wrote the current incarnation of D&D, and...I'm forgetting the guy's name, but he created Rifts. So it's not exclusively small-press stuff. Listening to the 'cast at work, I would come home every afternoon excited about RPGs and wanting to play. That's probably the best praise I can give it.

Er...wow, this will be a long post if I describe all of these at this length. Hmm. Moving on...

2. Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing (SF/F) - There just aren't that many good sci-fi literature pod casts out there; and even less fantasy ones, it would seem. Most sci-fi 'casts include all this stuff about movies and comic books and video games; and while I like that stuff I wanted something condensed, something that would make me as excited about books and writing when I got home as Sons of Kryos had made me about RPGs. AiSFP is the podcast I settled on. The show is highly focused on interviews with sci-fi authors (with a few fantasy authors thrown in for good measure). They've had people like Dan Simmons, Michael Moorcock, Larry Niven, Jacqueline Carey...Names that you may have heard of, if you're into the genre much. I highly recommend this one.

3. The Independent Insurgency (RPG) - This one was easy to catch up with, because there's only six episodes to it so far. It's essentially recordings of game designer-to-game designer conversations; and so far they've all been fascinating and worth listening to. In fact, since it was so easy to catch up with, I hadn't had time to find another sci-fi/fantasy lit podcast to listen to, so I went with another RPG podcast, which is inexplicably easier to find.

4. The Durham Three - As seen in my previous post, where they mentioned a quick game that I had written. The Durham three is actually *four* people now; and they're basically a group of people, most of whom write indie rpgs (including the Shab Al-Hiri Roach), who play RPGs together every monday, and have started recording their conversations before and after the game in the form of a podcast. They're a lively bunch, to say the least, and the episodes are also relatively short (10-20 minutes).

That brings us to today. I'm currently listening to these podcasts:

Escape Pod-A sci-fi short story podcast. Every episode is another story, and there are some really great ones in here.
The Voice of the Revolution-The podcast to go along with the Indie Press Revolution website, where I buy all of my small-press RPGs. It's hosted by Paul Tevis, who does another podcast about tabletop games in general, and Brennan Taylor, who wrote a diceless RPG called Mortal Coil (which I own).

The following podcasts are on my to listen list:
Pseudopod (the horror version of Escape Pod and PodCastle)
Theory from the Closet (RPG)
Writers Talking (SF/F)
DragonHearth (SF/F)
SF Site Podcast (SF/F)
PulpGamer: Out of Character (RPG)
Virtual Play (RPG)

PodCastle, the fantasy short-story sister-site to EscapePod, hasn't started yet, but it's slated to begin in April. We'll see what I'm doing for a living then to see if I have time to follow podcasts still.

I'm sure there are more and better podcasts out there, and on other topics as well. There are also podcasts that I've been pretty much "meh" about, but I didn't think there was a need to mention them.

I should also mention, again, Podiobooks.com, which has a bunch of audiobooks in mp3 format that you can download for free.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

An RPG Podcast, and My 15 Seconds (more like 2 seconds) of fame.

So, I need to tell you about some of the podcasts I listen to; but before I list out all of them, I need to highlight this one in particular. It's called "The Durham Three", and it's an RPG podcast involving a couple of my favorite game designers: Jason Morningstar, who wrote (among other things) The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach, and Clinton R. Nixon, who wrote The Shadow of Yesterday and The Princes' Kingdom. Yeah, sure, none of you readers have ever heard of them before (though I know a couple of you have played the Roach with me). That's not the important thing here.

They've been doing this podcast for a couple years now, though I only started listening a couple weeks ago. So in episode 21, way back in October of 2006, they're talking about 24 Hour RPGs, which is this site where anyone can write an RPG within a 24 hour period and post it to the site. There's all sorts of weird half-baked games there; mostly unplayable, but often with interesting fixes to problems, or sometimes they're just a way for the author to have written something and got it under their belt, y'know.

Anyway, so they're talking about the site and one of them says "Hey, recently someone wrote one of those based on As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner!" and the other guys are like "No way!" and he's all, "Yeah, there's totally an As I Lay Dying: The RPG!" and one of the guys says, "Hey, my turn [to GM] is coming up!" and they all laugh.

And of course, listening to the podcast, I was like YES!!!, because that As I Lay Dying RPG? It's called Lord Knows I Don't Begrudge Her It, and I was the one that wrote it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Book Review: "Grey" by Jon Armstrong

I came across Jon Armstrong via an interview on a sci-fi/fantasy podcast that I listen to, Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing. (Oh, that's right! I need to talk about my podcasts sometime. Well, it'll have to wait.) Anyway, Jon has written a book entitled "Grey", which is available in audiobook form for free at Podiobooks.com. It is also hilarious.

Grey is more than just the title of the book: it's also a way of life. The main character, Michael Rivers, is a part of the Grey movement, who are all believers in the virtues of the quiet, the plain, and the serene. Michael is also part of one of the Corporate Families, one of the aristocratic elite. His family, RiverGroup, is involved in security and identity. At the beginning of the novel, RiverGroup is preparing for a merger with another Family, in the form of a marriage to Nora, the daughter of the other company's president. Nora and Michael are both Grey, and are deeply in love.

But then tragedy strikes! Michael is attacked just after their fourth and final Publicity date, and his father blames Nora's family for the attack. Michael's Father, Hiro Bruce Rivers, subscribes to the Ultra movement, which is what you get if you take Heavy Metal culture and turn it to eleven. It is the fashion of the Loud, of the Obnoxious, of the Crude. Naturally enough, Michael and his father hate each other. Hiro forbids Michael to see Nora, and sets up another corporate merger wedding with another family, RiboCool.

That's essentially the set-up for the story. Will Michael and Nora get together in the end? Who attacked Michael, and why? Will Michael choose between his love for Nora or his duties as a son of one of the aristocratic families? Will he be forced to marry the daughter of RiboCool, who pretentiously combines four separate and contradictory fashion styles?

I thought Grey was a wonderful piece of satire, and an amusingly original concept for a sci-fi novel. Armstrong's writing is excellent, and his reading voice is perfect for the pod-cast. The relationship between Hiro and Michael reminded me of this Calvin and Hobbes comic, with the difference being that Michael's preferred style of music involves dropping feathers lightly onto the keys of a piano.

Perhaps the coolest thing about the novel is that you can hear it for free from Podiobooks -- try it before you buy it and all that. Give it a shot! I think you'll enjoy it.

Oh, and...disclaimer. Violence, sex, and foul language. Mostly from Michael's father and his friends, as you might expect.

Bottom line: ***1/2 stars out of five.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Book Recommendation: "Shriek: An Afterword" by Jeff Vandermeer

I recently went through a harvest of Listmania lists on Amazon, from those I found on the page for China Meiville's "Perdido Street Station". It seemed like a promising way to break into reading the current "New Weird" fantasy sub-genre movement, uh, thing. (New Weird. It's a fairly ambiguous term, but generally, think Fantasy (often dark fantasy) with a more "modern" viewpoint and usually an urban (modern or pseudo-steampunk) setting, that sidesteps Tolkien's legacy when tracing its lineage (which manifests itself, in the books I've read at least, in attempting to include an element of psychological realism despite the fantastic setting and events, as opposed to the more archetypal characterizations one finds in Tolkien and other writers of Epic Fantasy.)

All of the above is true of the first book from the Amazon lists that I've gotten from the library, "Shriek: An Afterword" by Jeff Vandermeer. Shriek takes place in the fictional city of Ambergris, in an unnamed fictional world. It is ostensibly an Afterword to another work (which does not exist in real life), written by the sister of the other work's author (who has gone missing). The brother and sister duo are named Duncan and Janice Shriek (thus the title), and the story involves Duncan's two obsessions: first, his obsession with the mysterious fungus-filled world of tunnels beneath the city, and second his obsessive love for a girl named Mary Sabon, who is at first his student and, in the end, the person who discredits and ruins his name in the public mind. But of course all of these are almost secondary characters compared to the city itself, its history, its current state of politics and turmoil, and the tensions with and fear of the original inhabitants of the area, the Gray Caps: beings who live in the world Underground, having been driven there by the first human colonists, who may or may not secretly control the minds of the human populace of the city (this is where Mary and Duncan differ in their theories), and who are never given concrete physical description within the course of the novel.

One of the critiques leveled at the New Weird from the more traditional fantasy is that the New Weird is Ugly. This is the same critique that I have heard one of my favorite authors, John C. Wright, level against the "traditional" "literary" genre (you know, the one that claims not to be a genre). Novels concerned with psychological realism tend to include a lot of psychological baggage, which in turn means not flinching away from the faults (and underlying reason for the faults) of their characters. Which means that essentially a lot of dirty laundry is aired, even on the part of the protagonists. This is certainly the case in Shriek, where certainly none of the characters are treated as being blameless in their actions. There are no "good guys" or "bad guys" in the novel; and sometimes just when you expect someone to be a caricature (such as the supposedly narrow-minded religious leader that tries to ban one of Duncan's early books), Vandermeer surprises you (as when the religious leader, himself having suffered a scandal, becomes one of Duncan's closest friends, though no less a religious man). I'm not going to fall on either side of this argument: I can see both sides of the argument, and enjoy books written by those on both sides. (Which side I would rather write like myself remains to be seen.)

(The other "ugly" aspect of the New Weird is that it often draws on influences from the horror genre. There are some disturbing or shocking images in Shriek, which you may want to watch out for if you're not a fan of being disturbed or shocked. Mostly it is more dark than gruesome, though there are a couple violent images at certain points.

Literarily, Shriek exists in that lovely world of "suggesting" meaning, where the metaphorical (or mythopoeic?) elements are there to "wake" a meaning rather than to "convey" a meaning, as George MacDonald once said. Shriek is an excellent example of this. The Underground, perhaps the most powerful metaphoric image in the novel, can be seen from any number of potent angles. It's exactly the sort of technique that I want my own work to employ.

In all, then, I would heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in works of the fantastical, but who aren't necessarily looking for mere escapism. This is a tough, complex, and ultimately rewarding book, and one that I devoured with much excitement. I'll be reading more of Vandermeer in the future.

Monday, February 18, 2008

March: First Draft '08?

Hey All,

Last year around this time I was frantically working on the first draft of a novel, for National Create The First Draft of Some Form of Creative Project In a Month Month, or whatever the blessed acronym was. Well, this year February wouldn't really work for me, and besides, it's the shortest month in the year. This year, I think March would make a really good month to write the first draft of some form of creative project -- and also, I think that making the name a bit shorter might be handy as well. So, I am proclaiming March as the second annual First Draft month. The goal of it, as you may recall, is to create the first draft of some form of creative project in a month. Last year my goal was to write the first draft of a novel. I may very well go with that again. In any case, if you want to participate, simply contact me in any of the following ways:

1. E-mail me, if you know my e-mail address. (Hint: my first name dot my last name at the google web-mail domain.)

2. Send me a message via facebook. This can be a note, or a post on my wall.

3. Leave a comment on my blog. This will no doubt prove the least popular of the options, as I doubt anyone reads my blog any more anyway.

It might be helpful to include what you are planning to create in the text of your message.

More details on First Draft Month to come.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tolkien vs. Jackson, Pt 2

The Tolkien estate is suing New Line Cinema, claiming that New Line has not paid them a cent, other than the initial upfront payment of $62,000. They claim that New Line owes them 7.5% on all three films' process. Apparently, they have been trying to negotiate a settlement with New Line since the release of the films, but have been unable to settle out of court. New Line has also prevented them from auditing the receipts of the last two films.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080211/ap_en_mo/tolkien_lawsuit

If successful, the suit would effectively cancel the upcoming two Hobbit movies.

(So, it's not really Tolkien vs. Jackson, per se, but you get the picture.)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Tolkien vs. Jackson

I know a lot of people are posting this, but I thought I'd go ahead and mention it too, as I agree with it whole-heartedly. Even more than Aragorn making out with a horse, it was the thematic changes in Peter Jackson's films that were problematic to me.

"The age of man is over. The age of the orc has begun!" Ha-rumph.

Engel, Pt 2

The characters, of course, were the first thing to set up when Bekka and I started playing. Even though Bekka was the only (consistent) player in the group, I felt it was important that there actually be a group of characters traveling with her: her character wasn't some lone inquisitor out on her own, but was part of a team of some sort. Also, we figured that if other people from our Planescape campaign wanted to join later, they could take the parts of the other members of her staff.

To that end, we gave her another full-fledged Inquisitor partner, and three specially trained body guards. So the Inquisitional team looked as follows:

1. Naimah (Bekka's Character) - Bekka envisioned Naimah as a sort of liberal, laid-back type, who was interested more in solving issues peacefully than with purging heresy. She comes from a Romani family, but was taken into the church by the Grim Riders when she was young.

Name: Naimah
Background: Complicated History

Stats
Acuity: 6
Body: 5
Heart: 5
Will: 3

Traits:
Understands Scriptures 2d8
Curious 3d4
I am a Gypsy 2d10
Easygoing 3d10
I am an Inquisitor 4d6

Relationships:
Inquisition 2d6
Vlad 2d6

Belongings:
Horse 2d8
Copy of the Scriptures 1d6
Jar of Earth 1d6
Long Dagger 1d4
Bow 2d6
Rope 1d6
Cooking Utensils 1d6
Backpack 1d8
Holy Symbol 2d6
Gold Jewelry 2d6
Notes 1d6
Cloak 2d6
Armor 2d6

Naimah's first conflict involved

2. Vladimir (or Vlad) - We created Vlad to be Naimah's foil, and so made him a hard-nosed, devout heretic-stomper specializing in interrogation. The game is set in Spain, but I wanted the Inquisitional characters to have been assigned there from somewhere else. Vlad is from russia, and we tend to give him a horribly stereotypical russian accent (originally his name was going to be Boris, you see). He's sort of an action hero, as he sees everything in black and white, and can tend to spout one-liners. Vlad is also something of an oddity as far as character-control: Bekka and I "share" him, and either of us can dictate what he does or says in a given situation.

3. Finneas - The first of our three body-guards, Finneas was going to be my friend Lauren's character if she ever played with us. (Thus the vaguely male name for a female character, which Lauren seems to enjoy doing). Finneas is a bit naive in the ways of the world, but excels at personal combat. Lauren later on gave her a special defensive fighting technique involving two short swords. She is specially assigned to Naimah.

4. Josef and Johannan - The other two body guards started out fairly generic, and in fact I wasn't sure how long they were going to last, being the expendable extras and all. Josef and Finneas have since then begun something of a romantic relationship, and Johannan and Josef have had a falling out. (Johannan remains the most expendable character of the group, and bad things tend to happen to him. Bekka and I have decided that this tendency towards bad luck makes him a little paranoid, and a little twitchy.)

The Towns

Town 1 -
One of the reasons that Engel worked so well early on is that I didn't know how long we would be playing it -- it might be one session, it might be a long time -- and so I didn't hold back any ideas for later. Town one, though, was an experiment, a pilot episode, where we started figuring out who everyone was and what the world was like, so it was largely a new idea.

The Inquisitors came to the town and presented themselves to the local priest (or Padre). "Oh, thank God you've come," he said, and explained that one of the local men, an uneducated farmer, had lately begun receiving visions of an apocalyptic nature, and had actually predicted that the end of the world would come within a few months. The other townsfolk were wary of him at first, but his descriptions were so vivid, and his manner so certain, that they began to believe him. The upshot of this was that many of them had ceased to work their fields, because they didn't see any point in it if the world was going to end soon.

Naimah saw the problem as two-fold. First, they needed to get the townsfolk working again, and second, they needed to investigate the farmer to see what was behind his visions -- insanity, deception, or a true gift from God. The priest had the villagers assemble, and Naimah spoke to them, telling them that as the emissary from the Pontifex Maximus, she would be investigating the claims with all the respect and diligence it deserved, but that in the meantime the villagers should get back to work. After a lengthy discussion, she managed to convince the town to split its time between working and prayer. A few of the people, fanatical in their belief, walked out angrily.

The inquisitors immediately set out for the farm. The farmer ended up being a fairly humble, illiterate man, quite frightened, who didn't understand what was happening but who felt that God must surely have given him a great gift in the form of the visions. Though Vlad wanted to take him in for questioning, Naimah simply pointed out that if the Pontifex Maximus hadn't received any news about the impending apocalypse, it seemed odd that the message should be sent to a farmer with a limited audience instead.

Through the conversation, it was revealed that the farmer had begun to receive the visions after meeting a mysterious glowing figure in the hills outside the town. He agreed to take the inquisitors to the place where the meeting had occurred.

After searching around the hillside for a little while, the Inquisitors found a hidden entrance on the side of a hill near the area where the farmer had indicated. Inside was a ladder leading into a pit, and at the bottom of the pit they found a hiding spot with a bedroll and several items of technology from the Time Before; the source of power was unclear. Near the bedroll was a book, with scraps of writing about a "God Machine", with several vague allusions to a broader cult deifying technology. (The cult was mentioned in the Engel sourcebook, but I mixed it with the cult of the God Machine described in the nWoD core book.)

Underneath the bedroll, they found several syringes filled with a green liquid, and one empty syringe. Deducing that this was the source of the farmer's visions, they confronted him with the evidence. His reaction was almost relief, and he accepted that his visions were probably the result of having been drugged. Naimah suspected that he might be bluffing; that perhaps he'd been making up the whole story. She told Vlad to see if he could collect samples of the farmer's handwriting when they returned to the house so as to compare with the writing found in the bunker. As they approached the town, however, they saw smoke: and running, they found it was the farmer's house, on fire. Apparently the fanatical group of people who had stalked away from Naimah's speech had lit his house on fire in an attempt to ensure that the farmer would not "waver" in his faith. As the inquisitors arrived, they had the farmer's wife at knife point. Vlad wanted to attack straight out, but Naimah ordered him down, calling rank as the senior inquisitor. Instead, while she and the farmer tried to talk the small group of people into letting the farmer's wife go, Vlad bashed in the door of the house to see if there was any evidence to be found inside.

For a moment, it looked as though Naimah's arguments were calming down the crowd, but the negotiations soon failed, and the leader of the group slit the throat of the farmer's wife, there in front of everybody. Naimah called for Vlad, who came crashing out of a window of the burning building, papers in his hand, and before he'd even reached the ground he threw a knife into the ringleader's heart.

The rest of the mob settled down at that point.

The papers that Vlad had found proved the farmer's innocence, by was of displaying that he was illiterate (like all good laymen of the Angelitic church). Naimah told Josef to fetch the priest, and as an after-thought sent Johannan as well, to see if he could sneak a peek at the priest's handwriting while the padre himself was out. Josef and the priest arrived moments later, and everything was explained to the priest, who seemed to get more and more nervous as the events were laid out. Finally, Johannan arrived with papers, and it was shown that the priest's handwriting matched the heretical writing in the bunker.

Vlad wanted to interrogate the priest immediately, but Naimah was reluctant to allow this, detesting torture. When it was discovered that the priest had burns on his arms suggesting training to resist torture, they tied him up securely and sent him and one of the full syringes (for analysis) with Johannan to the regional Inquisition office in another city.

After the session, Bekka used one of Naimah's Free Relationship points on the farmer.