Tekumel!

Tsolyani

At last! I have decided to revive this blog, at least temporarily, to get myself writing again. Much has occurred since my most recent post, nearly a year ago. I have finished a grad program, and I nearly have my license to teach elementary school in Massachusetts. My wife and I are also expecting our first child in a few weeks. Indeed, many great changes are occurring!

But in the midst of all this, I finally have more time to devote to other things I love. Namely, writing, and immersing myself in other worlds. While I was in grad school, I didn’t have much time for escapism (although I did wrap up a long-running D&D campaign). In recent months I’ve gotten back into Jack Vance, and now, the works of M.A.R. Barker, which will be the primary focus of this post.

Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (born Phillip Barker, and known as “Phil” by friends and family) is the creator of the world of Tekumel. It is an exotic science-fantasy setting that the Professor has been developing for most of his life. He was a friend of the original designers of Dungeons and Dragons, including Dave Arneson, who was an occasional player in his games. The D&D crowd at TSR decided to publish Barker’s setting, along with an original RPG rule set, in the “Empire of the Petal Throne” box set in 1975. This original edition of the game was one of the earliest tabletop RPG’s ever published, and featured the first complete setting paired with rules.

TekumelBoxSet

(The original 1975 boxed set)

Barker was a fascinating guy. He passed away in 2012 unfortunately, but he left behind quite a legacy as a writer, linguist, gamer, and builder of worlds. Much like the revered J.R.R. Tolkien, he was a linguist, and created numerous constructed languages to go along with his setting. The most developed of these is Tsolyani, the language spoken within the default starting region for Tekumel games. Unlike Tolkien, Barker studied South Asian and Native American languages rather than European ones, and his setting is an interesting amalgamation of the cultures and histories of those places. Tsolyanu, the Empire of the Petal Throne itself, feels like equal parts Indian, Aztec/Mayan, and Persian/Arabic. Rather than settle for a pseudo-European fantasy world, or a sword-and-sorcery pastiche, Tekumel features rich, ancient cultures steeped in history and hoary tradition.

Barker as a worldbuilder is also strongly influenced by the trends in fiction that came before him. He was an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy, drawing inspiration from Jack Vance and corresponding with writers like Lin Carter. I tend to think of Tolkien as fitting into a category of “mythic fantasy,” given that his world and invented cultures are based on a tradition of mythological storytelling, with gods creating the world and so forth. Tekumel is based on the science fictional premise of a futuristic world populated by humans, and many other alien species, which is then cut off from the rest of the universe by a mysterious cataclysm. Related to that disaster are actual god-like beings, and actual magic which flows from another dimension. Tens of millennia after this event, humans and other species now live at a level of roughly bronze-age technology, with ancient sprawling empires, magic, gods, and a general sense of unchanging tradition and ritual.

I have been aware of Tekumel since my college days, although I don’t remember how I stumbled across it exactly. I used to actually trawl through lists of published RPG’s on Wikipedia, to get a more complete picture of the hobby, so that could be it. I remember thinking the world was interesting, but also somewhat inaccessible. The odd-sounding names and constructed languages seemed off-putting I guess. Also, there wasn’t a lot of easily available material out there, except for the recently published version of the game in 2005 by Guardians of Order, which I wasn’t willing to buy. More recently however, there has been a small Tekumel revival, coinciding with the “Old-School Renaissance” for D&D inspired games. First off, the Tekumel Foundation which manages Barker’s intellectual property has started publishing the old books on DrivethruRPG. A new RPG called Bethorm was also recently published, with an old-school feel meant to evoke the original game.

Choice of Games, which I have written of in earlier posts on this blog, also released a game set in Tekumel a few years ago. It was this that got me interested in Tekumel again more recently. The game didn’t get amazing reviews, but I thought it would be a good way to re-introduce myself into the setting. “Choice of the Petal Throne” does indeed have issues, namely some flat characters and a rushed ending, but got me excited about the world again as I had hoped.

From there, I purchased “Swords and Glory, Vol. 1” from Drivethru, which is considered to this day to be the Professor’s most comprehensive sourcebook on his fictional world. The book is fascinating and immersive, but also challenging in some ways. Written in the early days of the hobby, the text is dense, with very few illustrations, and an odd sense of organization. It covers dozens of cultures across a continent the size of Asia, and details everything from histories and religion, down to the minutiae of silverware etiquette. There are no maps, and until the new PDF’s were released, there was no index. It took me weeks to read through it in small bites, but I feel like it was worth it. Anyone looking to really dive into Tekumel should check out this book.

Swords and Glory

Another good way to get a feel for the setting is to read some of Professor Barker’s own fiction. He published five novels over the course of his life, which were set in Tekumel. I recently finished the first two, “The Man of Gold” in 1984, and “Flamesong” in 1985. I enjoyed them both thoroughly, and was pleasantly surprised at Barker’s ability to tell an intriguing, complex story, and create some sympathetic characters as well. Fair warning though, Barker’s style can be just as dense as his gaming material, and the frequent exposition drops can get a little ridiculous. He wrote the other three novels later in life, and they are apparently not as good as the first two. They are also out of print and difficult to find, but hopefully will be released in PDF by the Tekumel Foundation sometime soon. I plan to read them if I can find them, mainly for the descriptions of other parts of Tekumel.

Man of Gold

You would be hard-pressed to find a setting more deep and fully-realized than Tekumel. I’m looking forward to trying it out as a role-playing game (I got my copy of Bethorm a few weeks ago). Perhaps that will be the subject of a future post, if I can actually get a group together!

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Iberian Honeymoon Part 1

Greetings! I’ve decided to take a break from posting fiction-in-progress, and reminisce about some of our recent adventures in Portugal and Spain. For those of you who don’t know, I recently tied the knot with my amazing wife Abi Nighthill. Months earlier we planned a honeymoon to the Iberian Peninsula. We chose Portugal to fly in and out of, because it was inexpensive, and were told by multiple people that it’s a very underappreciated vacation spot. We were both really curious about Spain as well, so we sandwiched it in.

The trip lasted around 10 days, and consisted of three major portions.

  • Lisbon (Lisboa) – Lovely capitol of Portugal.
  • Bilbao (Bilbo) – The largest city in the Basque Country of Spain.
  • Porto (Oporto) – Portugal’s second largest city, home of Port wine.

We flew in and out of Madrid, and then connected to Portugal

I’m hoping to write a few posts about each leg of our journey, and cover the highlights. My purpose here is more to recount our experiences, and not necessarily to make recommendations or paint an accurate picture of what these places are like. We tried to go off the beaten path whenever possible, and we skipped some of the usual “must-see” attractions in each place.

To start with, here are some cool things we did in and around Lisbon.

Lisboan Fado

fado

The traditional music of Portugal is called fado. It contains the “soul of the Portuguese,” embodied in the Portuguese word “saudade.” There is no direct English translation of this word, but basically it means “longing,” or the feeling that follows after one has experienced great loss. It is definitely very sad, but quite beautiful music. Traditionally it is performed with a vocalist (male or female), and two musicians on classical and Portuguese guitar.

Abi and I went to two different fado shows in Lisbon. Our first night there (after sleeping the better part of a day), we went to a hip sort of bar that attracted a younger crowd. The interior was loaded with local artwork, and even our place mats were creatively styled. Our singer for the evening was male, and his performance seemed to be geared toward easing tourists into what can be, for some, a challenging style of music. He was actually pretty funny, and didn’t fit my image of what a fado singer was. Still, it was a great introduction to the culture, and the excellent wine and Portuguese tapas didn’t hurt either.

Our second fado show was a little more traditional. The space was small, dark and intimate. We were right up front for the performance, and this time we had a female singer (a fadista). She had the shawl, the saudade vibe, and really belted those sorrowful tunes.

Sintra (Quinta da Regaleira)

At one point we took a day trip out to a neighboring town, Sintra, which is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. The trip was easy enough, since there’s a commuter rail line that connects with the city. Sintra is located west of Lisbon, in a range of hills not far from the coast. It was a popular place for the royal family of Portugal to spend their leisure time, as well as an assortment of aristocrats, rich capitalists, and so on.

There’s a lot to see in this seemingly small town. The royal family had two summer palaces here, there’s a ruined castle dating back to the time of the Arabs in Portugal, and more summer homes and palaces than anyone could see in a day. We hit the Pena Palace, and the Moorish Castle, and that managed to take up much of the morning and the afternoon. These were fascinating in their own way, but in the middle of August, they were packed with both local and foreign tourists.

But the true highlight of that visit was the strange and mysterious Quinta da Regaleira. This mansion and the surrounding gardens were bought in the 19th century by an eccentric millionaire who was obsessed with the occult. He hired an Italian architect to transform his whole estate into a bizarre work of esoteric symbolism. The grounds feature twisting pathways, carved figures from mythology and different religious traditions, underground tunnels, and an “initiation well” that has a winding staircase built into it, allowing visitors to venture underground and explore secret caves.

Abi and I were most excited about the well, and our journey through the grounds was built around the goal of finding it. Even with a map, we got hopelessly lost, and we ended up visiting nearly every strange place in the estate before we found it. After descending and wandering through dimly lit caves, we found another, unfinished well, that we could climb up and return to the surface. As she put it, we were “initiated,” then “uninitiated.”

We also found, inexplicably, a field full of cats.

Displaying P8250432.jpg

Literary Lights of Portugal

While we were visiting Portugal (and before we left), I tried to immerse myself in the local literary tradition. I didn’t know much about Portuguese literature, and I find reading the great works can add another layer of fun onto seeing the sights. I sampled Jose Saramago, probably the best known name because of his novel Blindness. Eca de Quieros is a 19th century novelist who wrote in a realist style, and his work is both insightful and sometimes really funny. Luis de Camoes is the Shakespeare or Cervantes of Portuguese letters. He wrote an epic poem in the style of the Odyssey called the Lusiads. He also had possibly the craziest life of any writer I can think of, complete with battles, doomed love affairs, and shipwrecks.

Image result for luis camoes

But the writer I chose to read throughout most of the trip was Fernando Pessoa. He is associated with the Modernist tradition, and did most of his writing in the early twentieth century. He is most famous for inventing dozens of alternate writing personas, or “heteronyms” for himself. More than simple pen names, these people he wrote as had complete fictional histories and identities, and sometimes expressed very different opinions from one another. His longest work is the “Book of Disquiet,” which I am still currently reading.

Abi and I visited the cafe that Pessoa was known to spend time at. The Cafe a Brasileira was a hot spot for artists and bohemians in the olden days. I also found out from reading signs that the word “pessoa” in Portuguese means “person,” which is kind of ironic. His name sounded like “Fernando Person,” but he was really lots of people!

Pastel de Nata

We tried some decent food in Lisbon, but my favorite culinary experience was the pastries. One kind in particular is incredibly popular all over the country, the Pastel de Nata. These are little tarts filled with sweet egg custard, baked in the oven. I must have tried these at 8 different restaurants throughout Portugal. The best ones I had were at La Brasilieira, but supposedly the best of all are located in the neighborhood of Belem, where the Pastels were invented by monks. I heard there were crazy long lines, so we avoided them. These tarts are so popular that there’s even a chain of bakery/restaurants called “I Love Nata.” I’ll have to find a place that makes them stateside…

Anyway, those are my personal highlights for Lisbon. My next post will be for Basque Country and Bilbao!

Conan, What is Best in Life?

Positive image from a scan of a Powerhouse Museum, Philipps Collection, glass plate negative
2008/165/1-192

Good news everyone! My days of toil and suffering have paid off handsomely, and my first written work as a freelancer has been published! WOOHOO! It is available currently on DrivethruRPG. Now that it’s released, I can talk a little bit about what I was actually working on. Months ago, I responded to an open call for writers that I found while trolling the forums of RPGNet. Soon after I signed a contract to adapt a short story by Menagerie Press’s artistic director, and thus, the Masks of Tzanti was created.

It’s supposed to be a full-on sword-and-sorcery adventure, complete with cultists, murderous barbarians, and skeezy rogues. I haven’t actually read much Robert E. Howard, but I like lots of other writers that are considered imitators, or part of the same family (Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock). It took me about two months of solid writing to complete, although I took occasional breaks from writing due to my intense work schedule. Here is the cover art, by the very talented Steven Catizone (who does all of Menagerie’s illustrations) –

Masks of Tzanti Cover

(This cover would make Frank Frazetta run off for a cold shower)

It’s a happy day indeed, and I hope friends, family, and the very few followers I have will spread the word (among RPG players at least). I will likely be working with Menagerie Press again in the future, as they are a young company looking to expand their list of products. I am also writing a conversion to 5th edition D&D for this adventure, so you can look for that in the next few months or so.

(Here are a few notes on RPG’s and D&D for the uninitiated. I wrote the story for the Pathfinder RPG. This is continuation of the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, published in 2000. When the 4th edition of the rules was released in 2007, it split the gaming community, and a lot of people rallied behind the company Paizo Publishing, who continued to release products for the game that used a modified version of the old rules (this was called the Pathfinder RPG). The company that owns D&D, Wizards of the Coast, recently published the 5th edition of the rules, in the hopes that they would unite the community again. I prefer Pathfinder to 4th edition, but I prefer 5th ed to Pathfinder. The rules are fun, and a lot more streamlined and easy. Wizards recently opened an online marketplace for PDF products called Dungeon Master’s Guild, and it’s really taking off. People can now write and sell their own 5th ed material under an open-gaming license. It was my idea to write “Masks” in 5th edition rules, since I think it’s just the right time. I may continue to do so if I write more stuff for Menagerie Press.)

So, what’s next for me you might ask? Well, if you’ve read any of my other posts on the blog, you know that I’m a big fan of interactive fiction games. One of the companies that remains consistently popular with that genre is Choice of Games, and I’m thinking that I should try my hand at penning some IF. I’ve dabbled in it before, and I got a good ways into a storynexus game about the Byzantine Empire. But this would be a bigger project, roughly the length of a short novel. To prepare, I’ve been devouring Choicescript games by the bundle, including Choice of Robots and Hollywood Visionary, both excellent stories in their own right. I don’t want to share too many of my ideas just yet, as I have a tendency to spew out thoughts and then not use them, or get bored with them. Once I get a bit more done, I’ll drop some details.

In the snippets of free time I’ve had (and March has provided more than usual) I’ve been enjoying some media that I wanted to gush about briefly. First is an excellent fantasy novel that needs to get more attention –

Baru Cormorant

This is the first novel by Seth Dickinson, and it brought me low with it’s sheer awesomeness. It’s about a girl from an isolated island community, living in a fairly traditional way. Then they get colonized by a powerful empire that controls the world through cunning, ruthless diplomacy and economic superiority (aptly named the Masquerade). She grows up in their schools, learns their twisted philosophy, and becomes a bureaucratic prodigy. She is then sent to the rebellious province of Aurdwynn to bring it under heel as the Imperial Accountant. Most of the story takes place there, and concerns the unraveling of conspiracies among the nobility of a strange and foreign people. The main character Baru Cormorant of course has many divided loyalties, and she has to lie to nearly everyone she encounters (especially herself). You wouldn’t think that a story about an accountant could be so totally riveting, but I couldn’t put this book down. I blasted through it, and I’m normally a pretty slow reader. It had excellent pacing, interesting mysteries and intrigue, and incredibly well-drawn characters. I really felt for Baru, and when she got hurt (and she gets hurt a lot), I cringed as I compulsively turned each page. Read this book if you find any of the following interesting –

  • It’s a “hard fantasy,” without magic or fantastical beings. The focus is on politics,  intrigue, and economics (!?) yet it still features a fascinating world with well-designed fictional cultures and people.
  • It deals with important issues that are usually shied away from in fantasy: colonialism, racism, feminism, queerness, crappy economic practices.
  • It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s an entertaining story, but it’s also brutal. The main character is a closeted lesbian working as a double (or triple?) agent for an evil empire that would imprison or torture her under any number of circumstances. She has a lot to lose, and you’ll worry for her.
  • Wonderfully realized, flawed characters. The story has a pretty big cast, and I feel like I’ll always remember each person clearly for who they are. There’s no glossary, and you won’t really need one.
  • If you like  – Ursula Le Guin (especially Left Hand of Darkness), Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, or Frank Herbert, you will go for this in a big way.

Seth Dickinson has a blog, and he wrote some really cool stuff about his design process for the book. It’s clear that he’s an intelligent guy who puts a lot of thought into his work. This post in particular is great, although it may spoil some things about the story. I also feel the need to mention that even though I compared Dickinson to G.R.R. Martin, there is one important difference. Seth doesn’t go for blood, guts, and sexual violence. I found this a relief honestly, as I’m no great fan of gruesome depictions of the latter myself. He explains it a bit more in that post, and my feelings on the subject are basically the same. It’s important, it needs to be acknowledged, but in fiction (especially fantasy) there’s no need to be gratuitous about it.

Anyway, check it out! And check out the thing I wrote! Until the next time when I have time and enough coffee!

Featured image courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum, no known copyright restrictions

On Loftier Notions

Moonlady

Golly! It’s been a long time since I posted. This has been a busy winter, much as expected. I’ve been scrambling to finish certain projects before deadlines, and February has also been full of memorable events. Recently, the kids at work went through February Vacation, something which I guess is particular to Massachusetts (although we’re probably not the only state that does it). My after-school program ran a day camp, so I’ve been in full overdrive mode. We put on a fun skit for the rest of our group at the end of the week, basically it was a staged slasher movie. Elementary schoolers can be very morbid these days, but who am I to deny their creative sensibilities? We designed the story collaboratively, and then I filled in the gaps as a narrator, like usual. We were able to work in sound effects, creepy lighting, and I borrowed a microphone from the computer lab, allowing me to use my best Vincent Price voice to full effect.

Some other crap that I did recently –

  • Went on a long-weekend journey to New York City, and experienced biting cold and wind, terrifying cab drivers, lewd puppets, and pretty good beer.
  • Applied to grad school for elementary teaching after several years of crippling indecision.
  • Wasted a lot of time on a brutally addictive game.
  • Started a Fifth Edition D&D campaign with fiancee and friends. It’s going really well, and I’ll have to post about it soon.

The subject of my post today is a bit random, in that it has little to do with anything else I’m currently working on, or even thinking about very much. But I’m always thinking about this to some extent: going into space. We should totally go into space. This is actually a pretty big part of my philosophy in life, and I love discussing it with both friends and strangers alike. I also want to talk about/review some of the science fiction that got me excited about the subject.

So, of course, I’m a fan of people like Carl Sagan, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Stephen Hawking, all of whom have said at various points that not only should we go into space because it’s cool, it would also be a really great way to survive and thrive as a species. Keep in mind that when I discuss things like philosophy and science, I’m no academic, and in my opinion I’m not even that well-read on these subjects. But what I have read has only confirmed and strengthened these beliefs. Still, I’m always eager to hear other people’s take on this stuff. since I also believe that personal philosophy should be a changing, growing thing that is continually challenged. ANYWAY, here are some key points to what I think –

(Edit: I won’t expound on these points too much. I feel like they speak for themselves, and after an earlier draft I felt that I was being too preachy and apocalyptic. While I’ve been told that I look like a crazy street preacher, it’s not how I like to think of myself)

  • It’s reasonable to have some degree of pessimism about the human race’s overall chances of success if we stay on Earth, living like we do “Success” here means our continued growth and rise to complexity, without a bunch of people dying needlessly or living terrible lives.
  • Space colonization solves a bunch of our problems: It potentially relieves population pressure, it allows us to create new homes for our species without screwing over other people or living things (which is what I usually think of when someone says “colonization”), it reduces the chances of succumbing to an extinction event (comets anyone?), it makes it easier to create new societies that are intentionally designed (we currently have a better understanding of how to make sustainable communities, so I think that’s a good thing).
  • Spreading complex life throughout the universe is also probably a good thing Freeman Dyson calls it “beauty,” to me beauty is complexity. Allowing life to flourish in different places creates more complexity, more diversity, and more ways to understand being and existing.
  • It allows us to give entropy the finger The human race is its own living archive of how people can exist. Some humans live on the bleeding edge of the hi-tech lifestyle, and some people herd reindeer, and those are both fine. What’s great is that we become better when we can exist with our past and our future at the same time. Being spread across the stars allows for enough free space and resources for people to continue existing in traditional ways, while others can pursue their own thing.

Stuff I Haven’t Figured Out Yet

There are some legit problems with these ideas that I continue to struggle with, and I thought I should list them, and maybe answer them.

  • Going into space is expensive Yep, it’s true. When I talk about this with people, I often get asked, “shouldn’t we be focusing our resources on other things, like medicine, improving the economy, international aid, etc.?” Yes, we should. But Neil pointed out that right now, in the USA, we’re only paying something like half a penny to fund NASA. And that gets us the ISS, the Mars Rovers, crews of astronauts, and so on. Even if, in a perfect world, our country wasn’t sinking ridiculous amounts of money into defense, we could still probably help a lot of people and advance the dream of space travel at the same time.
  • Living in space is implausible Right now, it kind of is. Especially living without gravity. It seems like the ISS crew is always discovering new, unpleasant things about being in space. And living on other planets, the more feasible option, has it’s own share of obstacles. Bad atmosphere, radiation, having to live in sealed environments, and so on. To me, none of this stuff is a deal breaker, although traveling in space would probably trigger a panic attack for me (I’m not a good flyer 0:43). I have faith that technology and experience will provide better answers to this, especially transhuman tech. I’m not a transhumanist (not yet anyway), but I’m on board with changing our bodies if it means we can adapt better to new environments.
  • Do we have to leave people behind? Here’s a humanist dilemma that’s ties in with lots of things I’ve already touched on. Does colonizing space, and by extension, seeking new places to live in general, mean that we have to leave behind people struggling with poverty and other issues that keep them stuck on the ground. I feel like it depends a lot on what form the means of transportation will take in the years to come. Space travel is still just a dream for the vast majority of human beings, and I wonder how people in power will bring that dream to the people, or if, in the years to come, we just won’t have dealt with our class issues yet. Elon Musk’s SpaceX currently builds the world’s cheapest space shuttles, and they give me hope for what space travel could look like in a few decades. Then again, that guy kinda sketches me out.

So, in summary, I want to go into space. Or at the very least, I want more people to go into space, eventually. If there’s a direction I think our species should be moving in, it’s up.

I’ve sort of always felt that way, but since college I’ve expanded my science-fiction reading list, and gotten generally better acquainted with the ideas behind the philosophy. Here are some good reads that I recommend first because they’re beautiful, well-written books, and second because they’re thought-provoking.

Schismatrix Plus

Strange, wonderful, and sad, this is a transhuman masterpiece by Bruce Sterling. He’s considered to be one of the big “Cyberpunk” founding fathers of the 80’s, along with William Gibson. Schismatrix (which is the novel, the “Plus” refers to the short stories set in the same universe) is about humanity living out in the wider solar system, and the life of one particular man, Abelard Lindsay. The novel follows Abelard from passionate, idealistic youth to old age as he travels between different space habitats, and gets involved in system politics. Humanity has split into different transhuman factions, divided along their chosen form of enhancement technology. Foremost among them are the “Shapers,” who prefer genetic modification, and the “Mechanists,” who favor cybernetic mods. I love this book, mainly because it’s just so weird. The future society he envisions is filled with eccentrics, fanatics, and murderous space hermits. He also manages to cram a million great ideas into one book, and still write a hell of a story with a real human core.

Red Mars

Oh, this book. It was quite a bestseller back in the day, and I remember being curious about it as a young lad in the 90’s (I didn’t actually get around to reading it until recently). It’s an epic future history of the human colonization of Mars, focusing on the “First Hundred,” the original mission crew who became the leaders of the planet’s settlement. I love the characters, I love the science (if you like geology, you’ll be all over this), and I love the politics (which I admit are not for everyone, but I would totally be a Martian pinko commie). It feels a little dense at times, but I blasted my way through it. Diaspora

This book blew my mind when I read it. Greg Egan has a reputation for being challenging, and it is well-deserved, but this story is like nothing else I’ve read before. It’s about a community of posthumans who live almost entirely as sentient computer programs. The first part of the book focuses on their interactions with other human groups inhabiting the physical world, and a mysterious natural disaster. From there it follows the characters on a journey across space, and eventually across other universes. The scope of their journey is incredible, and despite all the ruminations on computer science and physics, there is still a beautiful and very human story underneath it all. Egan really does go off on some ridiculous tangents, but it’s easy to tell where they start and end. They usually have little to do with the story, and you could probably just skip them to enjoy the rest of the story.

WHOA, long post, sorry, but I think I needed that! I feel ready to tackle some other projects now, so until next time!

Cover image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Image’s Photostream, no known copyright restrictions

November’s Cold Chain

Bonesy

Greetings all,

I have taken sort of a month off, and there are a number of reasons why. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, I was hired for two different freelancing gigs! Hurrah! I would rather not share the details of these projects until they are (hopefully) on their way to being published, but I will tease out a few details. For one of them, I am one of several contributors working on a sort of “monster manual” for a house-made RPG. The deadline for this came up a lot sooner than I expected, so I’ve spent the last few weeks hammering away at it. The other project is an adventure module for the Pathfinder RPG, to be published by a third party company. I’m excited to be working in Pathfinder again, and this will be a less daunting project than last time (in that I don’t have to write a novella-sized adventure).

So I had the rather unrealistic notion that I would work on these two projects, maintain a writers blog, and lots of other things besides –

  1. Familial obligations around the holidays
  2. Assist in the planning of my wedding (I proposed to my partner before I started writing this blog, but still, YAY!)
  3. Apply to Grad School (I am an educator/childcare specialist by trade, I want to join the big leagues as a public school teacher)
  4. Work two jobs (after-school and substitute teaching, sometimes I work 50 hours a week!)

Yeah, no, I can’t do all that stuff at once, and as much as I love working on Castle Mordrigault, it’s kind of low-priority compared to these other things, BUT, I’m not giving up on it. I just recognize that I need to slow down the new posts, probably to once a month. Once we arrive at spring, I imagine I’ll have more free time.

But as long as I’m taking the time to hang out at my favorite coffee shop and write, I thought I’d share some thoughts on what I’m consuming these days. I also realize that I promised some recommendations based on great world-building, so I’ll get to that too.

80Days

  • 80 Days – How have I had time to play games this month!? I’ll tell you how! I take the bus everywhere, and I get a lot of reading/gaming done in transit. I decided to check this one out because I heard the lead script writer was amazing, the very talented Meg Jayanth. I was familiar with her work from Sunless Sea (she wrote some of my favorite islands in that game), and her other Storynexus project, Samsara. After playing 80 Days, I now consider myself a full-blown Jayanth fan, and I’ll be following her work closely. This game is so good, SO GOOD! It’s a post-colonial, steampunk alternate-history retelling of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. It’s probably the most replayable, addictive text adventure I’ve ever played (although it’s not strictly text). And I love the world-building, of course. As a woman, and person of color, she brings a fresh, interesting, and thought-provoking look on what what the world could have been (or maybe should have been).

FlintPart2

  • Flint – I know, I know, Niall needs to shut up about Fallen London. But this is a very special time in the Neath, and I must spread the word. One of the games lead writers, Alexis Kennedy, has written a massive, two-part “Exceptional Story” for those players with a certain subscription. It’s all about exploring one of the settings most mysterious locales, the Elder Continent. The subscription is $7, and if you buy it in the middle of the month, you’ll get to play both parts of Flint (nearly the length of a Choicescript game), AND whatever special story they write next month. And of course, the rest of Fallen London, which is amazing and totally free. I just finished playing Flint and it was really, REALLY good. Like, after playing through it for 20 minutes, I felt kind of drunk on great stories. The ending was slightly anti-climactic (maybe I just made the wrong choices) but I feel like they’re going to continue the story later anyway. So, if I haven’t convinced you to try FL yet, this is the time!

And to close, here is a reading/viewing/playing/listening list that I composed for the last post, with the intention of reviewing each one. I’m just gonna list them here, but you should assume that because they’re here, they are objectively amazing and you should check them out. I tried to include something from a different medium each time.

  • The Scar – Novel by China Mieville
  • Finder – Comics/Graphic Novel series by Carla Speed McNeil
  • Grim Fandango – PC adventure game by Lucasarts and Tim Schafer
  • Eclipse Phase – Role-playing game by Posthuman Studios
  • Welcome to Night Vale – Radio Show Podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum, no known copyright restrictions. The phrase “November’s Cold Chain” is borrowed from the Tom Waits song, “November.”

Topatocon!

PotatoDerby

I went to an awesome con this weekend! Topatocon took place for the first time in Easthampton, right in my backyard. My wonderful fiancee talked me into going, and it sounded like my kind of thing anyway. The focus was mostly on comics, although there was an excellent “Labyrinth of Games” to check out, featuring awesome work by local indie game designers. I may as well give them a shout-out, since they’re friends of mine, and they are currently putting out new material!

I bought some older stuff by Emily Care-Boss, who is quite prolific and always coming up with new classics in indie games. She is probably most famous for her “Romance Trilogy,” a group of games that create stories about dating, relationships, and the fun complications that arise from these. I know her as one of the best GM’s I’ve ever had the pleasure of gaming with, an excellent moderator, and master of the social space of gaming.

Also present and tabling their work were Hannah Shaffer and Joshua A.C. Newman, talented game designers and two of the most fascinating people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Hannah is the creator of Questlandia, a game about characters struggling to change their fantasy-world society as it collapses around them. Joshua is the mastermind behind Shock, the game of social science fiction, and a neat miniatures war game that uses Legos.

They are both now experimenting with what could be called “nanogames,” usually meaning a set of rules printed on a folding card, small enough to fit in your wallet. The first iteration I’ve seen of this is Epidiah Ravachol’s Vast and Starlit, and the concept has apparently blown up from there. Joshua’s new micro-game is Lover of Jet and Gold. It’s meant to create adventure stories in the vein of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series, and it’s a bit thicker than the average wallet-book (it has pages!). He has incidentally called this his favorite work, so check it out! Hannah’s game is called Birds are Amazing (they are amazing). It is fun and hilarious, and once begun, it never ends! So be careful, it’s a bit of a commitment, but the kind I am okay with making.

Anyway, so Topatocon was great, and my game designer friends are awesome. I came in contact with many cool people, artists, writers, leaders of movements and budding schools of philosophy, that sort of thing. I guess the main attraction was the presence of many contributors (including the editor) of the Smut Peddler anthology. This is a collection of woman-centric porn comics, many of them written by women. The editor is C. Spike Trotman, otherwise known as Spike. She’s the creator of the weird and wonderful Templar, Arizona, and a fantastic editor. I talked with her briefly about her anthologies, and watched an excellent talk that she took part in. The subject was women and gender issues in comics, I don’t think the recording has been posted yet, but when and if I can find it, I’ll post that stuff for sure.

Other highlights!

  • Meeting Jess Fink (again) – Smut Peddler contributor, creator of Chester 5000, and master of erotic comics, she’s also really nice and approachable!
  • Listening to Kate Leth‘s Live Podcast – She’s a comics creator who has worked on Bravest Warriors and Adventure Time comics. She is really funny, and also has lots of insightful things to say about comics and other things. Her live podcast featured Erica Henderson, the artist working with Ryan North on Squirrel Girl (she’s pretty great too).
  • Panel on World-building with Evan Dahm – This was so cool, SO COOL. First of all, meeting Evan Dahm was great, he’s such a nice, humble person. His talk was excellent, well thought-out and well presented. It got me thinking about the world-building process, how fantasy literature has changed over the years, and how to engage critically with your own fantasy work. I am working on several projects that could be described as fantasy, so it was all very relevant. I enjoyed this so much that I’m probably going to do my next post about world-building.

I had a good weekend, I learned a lot, and spent way too much money on comics. A lot of the guests at Topatocon will also be appearing at the Cambridge-based MICE (Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo), including Evan Dahm. If you missed out this weekend, check that out!

That is all for today methinks. Adieu!

Image courtesy of the Galt Museum and Archives on the Common’s Photostream, no known copyright restrictions. I chose it because Topatocon kind of reminds me of potatoes.