If Not Now, Then When? If Not You, Then Who?

Unknown Armies

THE TIME IS NOW. One of my favorite RPG’s, the occult horror classic Unknown Armies, is on Kickstarter, and there’s only 4 days left! I should probably mention that it’s hit 500% of it’s original funding goal, so y’know, it’s doing fine. But I want to geek out about it because it is such a good game, and I’m unspeakably happy that it’s getting more attention and love right now.

The Kickstarter is for the 3rd edition of the game. It was originally released in 1998, and now it’s experiencing a revival. The new edition will be released as 3 core books, with an additional two setting books released as stretch goals. I’m feeling slightly grumbly about the multiple books (cuz I’m poor), but also excited that fans will be getting so much material. The project is currently being helmed by Greg Stolze, an incredibly talented writer and game designer who was one of the two geniuses behind the original game. He has since gone on to create the One-Roll Engine, and several awesome story games.

This man is, in my opinion, the finest writer to ever work in tabletop games, period. He writes excellent fiction and fluff, but his real (and subtle) talent lies in writing text for the rules. Reading the rules for an RPG can sometimes be a slog. They’re often dry and abstract, but unfortunately they’re the most important part to study if you’re the GM. Stolze writes rules in a clear, conversational style that is always easy to grok, and often as much fun as learning about the world. Reading a rule book by Greg Stolze actually makes me excited.

So, one may ask, what makes this particular game so special? What is it even about!? The setting is the modern era, mainly in the USA. It focuses on a loose, disorganized “Occult Underground,” made up of weirdos and outcasts who compete for power and influence. Some of the Underground is represented by cabals of mystically aware people, or sometimes by crazy loners known as “Dukes.” In a typical game, you have a group of people who are exploring their own personal paths to power (and usually, corruption and insanity), and also coming into conflict with others who want the same thing.

It’s special because of it’s themes and influences, and it also features well-designed rules combined with a fun and unique system for magick (note the “k”).

  • While most urban fantasy or occult horror settings feature traditional vampires, werewolves, and hermetic-style mages, UA draws influence from different genres. David Lynch, James Ellroy, and Tim Powers have all been sited as influences. While Grant Morrison or Robert Anton Wilson have not been specifically mentioned by the authors, those writers also do a good job of evoking the weirdness of the setting.
  • A central theme is human responsibility. There are no ancient alien gods, no shadowy monster societies that secretly rule the world. It’s all just humans. We are the monsters, we are the ones responsible for the world we live in, and we’re the only ones who can change it. I like the freedom and power this gives to players in the narrative, and the way it affects world-building.
  • The game runs on a pared-down percentile dice system. Think Call of Cthulhu, but much easier to learn and play with.
  • Magick comes in several different forms, but it follows a “postmodern” theme (syncretic, self-conscious, rebellious, deliberately different). My favorite are the “adepts,” who are so obsessed with a particular worldview that they can change reality. Every adept has a school, like Entropomancy (chaos magick), or Dipsomancy (alcohol magick), a set of ritual behaviors that help them gather power (for the above examples, taking crazy risks and getting drunk), and taboos that they must avoid to hold on to their power. These are built around the idea of risk and consequence. On the quest for power, you are going to take risks, and most likely lose a part of yourself along the way.
  • There are lots of other things that make the game unique and well-recommended, including a very influential system for representing and roleplaying stress and mental illness, brutal and realistic combat, and fast-and-loose character creation.

I can’t recommend this game enough, and if you’re interested in the Kickstarter, jump on board while you can. Better late than never after all!

(He said, writing this post at the absolute last second).

 

Forays into Weird Fiction

Weirdness1

A few months back, I started working on a short story. I have since stopped working on said story, and I’m so busy with other things lately that it’s taken the back-burner by necessity. But rather than let it languish in the lightless dungeons of my documents folder, I thought I would share the current version here. It’s origins are strange and difficult to explain.

Sometimes I enjoy drawing fantasy maps, just for fun. Years ago, when I lived in Portland, OR, I was very lonely and isolated, and a little crazy. Over the course of one rainy evening, I made a large, complex map on a poster sheet, which was in turn inspired by a fake deck of illustrated cards I had made, which was in turn inspired by Edward Gorey’s Fantod Pack. By the time I was finished, I had made a strange and gruesome world that was fertile ground for storytelling. Here’s the map –

Weird Map

THEN, a few years later, I finally got up the gumption to start writing a story that was set in this world. I had pretty clear ideas from the get-go what I wanted the overarching plot to be about (this may grow into a novel), and I had an idea of the general structure (epistolary, travelogue). I struggled, however, to create a protagonist that I would be invested in, and who could carry the story along, so I think that’s why it took me so long to use this material. Before I post the story, I should also explain the title for this post, Weird Fiction. It’s a term that’s been bandied around a lot, and I’m not really using it correctly. It usually refers to horror fiction from the late 1800’s, early 1900’s like Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and later H.P. Lovecraft. There’s also the New Weird, which is more fantasy and science fiction, like Jeff Vandermeer or China Mieville. I’m drawing way more influence from the latter group, and at the time I created the map, I was also reading a lot of Walter Moers and Edward Gorey. So anyway, here’s the first part of the story, tentatively titled “The Terratologue.”

Entry the first, the 4th day of Poldoure, 738th year of the Sanguine Reckoning

I begin this account at the urging of my creator, Dr. Aldona Swantopelk. If my Great Work is to begin in a timely manner, I must grow accustomed to the habit of writing, sharing my thoughts and observations. This journal will in time become an integral part of my mission in this world, and to ignore it would be to ignore that very same mission. The doctor has also encouraged me to make use of the Demiurge Deck before writing an entry, that I may contemplate the draw’s possible meanings. Today I have drawn the Egress. How appropriate.

Still, I was uncertain where exactly to begin. The good doctor has taught me letters and the arts of expression, but not yet how to spin a good yarn. She has explained that I need only cover the events of my life as they have occurred thus far, embellishments being unnecessary. It shouldn’t be hard, I haven’t been alive for very long compared to her. I may as well start with her initial experiments.

She desired a being who could look upon the world with fresh, innocent eyes, and thus understand it differently. I came to discover that her intentions were more complex, and far more specific, than that. But for the first few years, that’s the explanation I was given. My body was grown from various exotic fungal cultures, and the flesh of cadavers acquired from the Harrowgate Institute. Through Dr. Swantopelk’s ingenious understanding of anatomy, biology, and the cutting edge of industrial sorcery, I came into the world.

At first I was but a head. A “seed,” as the doctor was fond of saying. I was made to observe, and so I should learn how to do that first without any distractions, or so the reasoning went. I personally believe my creator was impatient to start my life, but I have never told her as such. When I tell visitors to the doctor’s estate about this early phase, they are quite horrified, but without any history of enjoying the use of limbs or torso, I did not miss them. Eventually, I was grown organs and lungs, contained within a rubbery sack of fluid. I resembled a sort of sad worm, at least in the doctor’s photographs, but still with a very human head.

At this point I was taught to speak, and I enjoyed many thrilling conversations with the doctor about the nature of my existence, and hers. Upon request, I was grown arms, and with those in place I got up to all sorts of mischief. While I didn’t miss having limbs, I was determined to enjoy my new ones. When the doctor found me crawling legless out of the laboratory into the middle of one of her parties, trailing viscous slime, gasping, and causing a terrified stampede, it was decided that I would stay confined to quarters for the ascertainable future.

Still, in spite of my youthful indiscretions, Dr. Swantopelk and I got along famously. I was a quick pupil, and she an inexhaustible teacher. In some tales of creator and created, such as the natural philosopher Destregus and his Marvelous Meat Woman, there develops a sort of parent-child relationship, or even romantic love. There were no such inappropriate definitions between us, though there was, and is, love of a sort. I love the doctor as much as I am fascinated by her, and fascinating she is. Her tireless manner, her keen mind, and her somewhat inhuman quirks.

Ha! What jocularity! Me calling her inhuman I mean. I look now like any other man does, but human I am not, and I have no wish to be. Humans have no purpose that anyone is aware of, whereas I have a distinct reason for being.

So, eventually the doctor instructed me on how to make better use of my fresh body, after allowing me to grow into a fully-developed, adult form. My fungal components worked in concert with my more meaty parts to allow me to make “adjustments”. In other words, I could change my physical form, within a reasonable set of limits. Cosmetic changes are fairly simple. With a modicum of effort and a little time I found I could flush my skin to a darker or lighter hue, grow or drop hair, and even change the shape of my face a bit. More complex changes require considerable time and quite a lot of calories (not to mention a mirror). I once ate three roasted mud hens and a mountain of toasted grains to make myself look like a 3-meter tall bearded woman. Poor Albadore the butler missed his dinner that night.

I had always been vaguely aware of these abilities, as they were present in the form of a tingling, or tickling sensation in my skin. If I concentrate, this tickling can be turned into a warm feeling (darker skin), or a prickling (hair), and if I “push,” it becomes a pleasant sort of pain that penetrates my innards, and that pain can be “steered” to mold my actual flesh. I hope anyone reading this account will forgive my crude choice of words, I do my best within a limited human vocabulary.

My creator found my emerging masculine traits to be rather curious. She had not discussed gender or sex with me to any great length, and I suppose she expected me to discard the idea of being one thing or another. I can see where she is coming from. She herself is something of an asexual anomaly among her species, having little interest in either persuasion. Even to look at her, it can be hard to tell where she stands in the dichotomy. She has always looked like a tall skeleton to me, with great staring eyes. Her ribs are more pronounced than her breasts. Still, I find her beautiful in her own way. In fact, I find skeletons beautiful in their own way.

As for the matter of my manhood, it is rather hard to explain. I suppose it is simply “me”. Perhaps the source material for much of my body came from male samples, and there was some kind of “echo” of manliness in my cells. Perhaps I was simply fascinated by what I didn’t know. Whatever the reason, by the time I had been alive and under the doctor’s tutelage for three years, I had settled on a nice growth of body hair and a masculine chassis. I even grew genitals, although they still don’t function quite the way they’re supposed to. In spite of that, I can be a convincing woman, or anything else if need be.

Over the years, I cultivated myself into quite the specimen, with the doctor’s careful guidance. I learned a number of languages, studied art, philosophy and science. I dabbled a little in the esoteric arts, but the doctor did not seem to think this was important in my education. I was voracious when it came to learning, always asking questions, always burning my way through every book and document she brought me. There was little else I could do after all, Dr. Swantopelk only took me outside her estate on short excursions. Her gardens were strange and lovely. The hanging lavendias and the perfumed mince-caps crowding her walkway were enchanting. The sky suggested infinite possibilities to me, of limitless explorations under the sun. But I would soon be ushered inside to return to my lessons.

My understanding of the outside world came from my readings, and the few times I was allowed to interact with the doctor’s guests at her soirees. I was desperate for real experience of the world, but the doctor insisted that I become fully “socialized” before we attempted a trip to Harrowgate. She underestimated the strength of my desire, or so I thought at the time. I made ready to perform an escape from the laboratory, although with the full intention of coming back, one must understand. Albadore, the butler, was at a certain point permitted to bring me meals. The poor man never got quite used to me, being of peasant stock and rather superstitious in outlook. I engaged him in a discussion one evening about horse husbandry, and while he was distracted I clonked him on the head with a weighty bunsen burner, and stole his clothes. I strapped him into my bed-gurney (this wasn’t my first attempt at escape, and the doctor had felt it necessary to start strapping me in before bed) and made off into the night.

I had studied geography, history, and current events. I knew that Doctor Swantopelk’s ancestral manse lay to the north of Harrowgate, overlooking the Yawning Bay. I also knew that in the Gateway Principalities, one had to have proper identification if traveling between cities, or at least someone to act as your guardian. I had neither, so I kept to the shadows.

I grow weary now of relating this history. I must rest before I launch into the tale of my first excursion into the outside world, unaccompanied. As I look out the laboratory window, a brownish fog drifts in over the Bay. If I could, I would let it drift into my brain as well, so that I could lose myself in unconsciousness all the more quick;y. Clarity and memory must take their rest, so that they may take their place again when next I seize the quill.

I may post more of the Creature’s adventures after his escape from the laboratory, but that’s a long enough word count for one post I believe!

Featured image courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Image’s photostream, no known copyright restrictions

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

The Breath of December

Iceface

I thought I’d post a few more game reviews before the end of the Winter sales. After that I need to buckle down and get working on some of these freelance projects! Since I work at a public elementary school, I have a whole week of vacation going on. That means plenty of time to write, since we didn’t plan on going anywhere (my fiancee has to work). The weather has taken a turn for the bleak and horrifying, as a thin layer of wet ice coats all and everything. We had snow yesterday, and it seems, in spite of 60 degree weather around the holidays, Winter is here at last.

Thankfully Haymarket Coffee and Juice Bar is a short walk from my very cold apartment, and now that I have a cozy working atmosphere, and a nuclear-strength cup of coffee, I feel better-equipped to laugh in the face of the season.

So here are the promised reviews. I’ve already posted some in-depth coverage of the grand strategy titles from Paradox Interactive. Deep games deserve deeper reviews. These are some other titles that I fell in love with in 2014 and 2015, and I would be pleased if they received some more attention. Here we go –

BannerSaga

This was my favorite game of 2014, and if you haven’t tried it yet, I would heartily recommend it. It’s an absolutely beautiful game, with hand-drawn graphics and gameplay that could be described as a mix of Oregon Trail and Final Fantasy Tactics. It also features a mind-blowing soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory, the genius behind the music in Journey. Here are some bullet points for you –

  • The game features an epic story about love, loss, war, community-in-exile, all taking place in a Norse mythology-inspired world. Think of big, apocalyptic narratives like Battlestar Galactica, Watership Down, the Odyssey, or the Book of Exodus.
  • The battles are very challenging, but tied together with simple, addictive mechanics. Unlike FF Tactics you don’t have a million classes and special abilities to parse through. Each character has one or two very useful, simple abilities.
  • You also are responsible for keeping a caravan of innocent villagers alive as you travel across the known world, balancing the needs of your warriors with those of your friends and neighbors.

It’s an intense, emotional experience playing this game. It’s not perfect of course, the combat system can feel non-intuitive, and there aren’t many serious consequences for letting your caravan die (unless you count sobbing uncontrollably). But it’s something special, and if you haven’t tried it, it’s only $5 on Steam this week! There’s also a sequel coming out in February, so there’s never been a better time.

SunlessSea

I’ve mentioned this one a couple of times already on the blog. Let’s assume that you don’t already know that I’m obsessed with the browser game that this is based on. Sunless Sea takes place in the same fictional world, and it’s probably a better experience all around, just because you aren’t limited by turn actions. You play the captain of a steamship, given free reign to explore a massive, underground ocean. You will discover strange locales, interact with even stranger people and… things with tentacles.

  • It’s very difficult at first, but very rewarding, as you get the hang of surviving voyages and pursuing profit.
  • The writing is unparalleled. Seriously, the strangeness and mood of this world will infect you after you’ve played for a little while.
  • It’s highly replayable. There are some storylines that you simply can’t pursue until you have crafted a lineage of captains, with inherited money and resources. I’ve gone through about 8 of these captains.

I really can’t think of anything wrong with this game, but one possible turn-off for people is the pacing. Your ship moves very slowly, and the designers did this intentionally so you’ll feel lonely and contemplative whilst you are exploring the Unterzee. I like it that way myself, and if you don’t, I think there’s a speed mod in the works.

LISA

Now for something very, very weird. Did you ever play Earthbound, back in the day? Do you remember its many quirks: the pop culture references, the weird characters, the New Age Retro Hippies? Most of all, do you remember its strong emotional impact? What if there was a game that had all of that, plus a really intense story that dealt with mature subject matter, and a classic post-apocalypse setting? That’s sort of what you get with LISA, the Painful RPG. It’s the masterpiece creation of one man, crafted on the now-ancient RPGMaker 2000 engine.

  • The story is brutal, and heart-breaking. One of the taglines describes the game as “the miserable journey of a broken man.” That’s pretty accurate, but the game is also hilarious. The jokes and the dialogue had me laughing out loud at times. When I was supposed to smile. I did, and when I was supposed to feel things, they were felt, hard.
  • The gameplay is real old-school, a lot like Earthbound’s turn-based combat. It’s just as hard, but just as fun too. You also have fresh new innovations like button-dial combos, and several different “magic” type abilities.
  • LISA is loaded with secrets and Easter eggs, and you’ll be addicted trying to find them all. Most notably there are something like 30+ characters for you to recruit and build a team from. Trying different combinations of characters is part of the joy.

There’s now an “epilogue” DLC called LISA the Joyful. I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the story by telling you about it, but it’s a great ending to the series. It’s more serious in tone than the base game, but if you liked that, you’ll definitely want to try the Joyful.

Pillars

A lot of these games I’ve posted about are kind of weird, and “niche.” But this one has gotten a lot of positive buzz. I just wanted to chime in and say it really is worth checking out. It was created by Obsidian Entertainment, and it’s one of the big Kickstarter success stories. It’s meant to evoke the feeling of classic old RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, or my personal favorite, Planescape: Torment. BE AWARE that I haven’t actually finished playing it yet, but I’ve immersed myself enough to get a good feel for it.

  • The story and characters are well-written and interesting. It’s not really the cliched “save the world” type of adventure. You’re mostly just trying to learn about this curse your character is afflicted with.
  • The gameplay takes the best from old and new. Most of the classes and RPG tropes are quite familiar, but the designers do really interesting things with them. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about Bards before!
  • It’s difficult, in a fun, strategic kind of way. It reminds me of my Baldur’s Gate II days, when I would die in almost every fight. How else are you supposed to learn your enemy?

Pillars of Eternity is part of a family of old school renaissance games like Wasteland 2, and the much anticipated Torment: Tides of Numenera. These are equally worth your time and attention.

That is all! I’ve been reviewing a lot of games lately, and when I return from the writer’s fugue that is surely approaching, I hope I’ll be able to share more about my freelance work. Until then…

Header image from State Library of New South Wales

 

 

Screwing with History for Fun and Profit

Ironclads

Here’s the next part of my Xmas game reviews. Last time I covered the marvelous complexities of Crusader Kings II, and now on to the sequel, Europa Universalis IV. I’ll also cover Victoria II, which is sort of the grand finale to a trilogy of awesome games (even though it’s the oldest of the three). Quickly though, I must address the question: why is this a good time to try these games out? They’ve been available for years after all, so what’s the deal?

First of all, they’re wicked cheap right now, duh. But also, many of Paradox’s titles are continuous works in progress. With each new DLC comes free patches and changes to the basic mechanics. They are always tinkering with their product, always rebuilding. And they listen to their customers (usually) and respond to what they like and don’t like. A Paradox game is a living, breathing experiment in game design where something interesting is always happening.

ALSO, if you’re not sold on the base games, the modding community is HUGE for each entry in the series, and they have done some stellar work. I wish I had mentioned it for CK2, but there are some mods out there that are arguably better than the basic experience. I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones mod. That’s true for EUIV and Vicky 2 as well, speaking of which-

EUIV

This one came out in 2013, I tried it out in 2014. This is kind of like Paradox’s big name game, or at least it was before Crusader Kings created so much buzz. It focuses on the time period from 1444 to 1820, a time of empire-building, exploration, the shaping of the modern world, and so on. It’s a grand strategy game like CK2 (real-time with pausing, lots of menus, a map composed of provinces). Here are some of the big attractions (for me) when it comes to EUIV.

  • It’s the most accessible of the different Paradox games. It has a great tutorial, and it’s usually pretty forgiving as long as you don’t pick a tough starting nation (in this case, DON’T start with Ireland). Hardest thing to pick up on are the battles. My tips, don’t lag on technology, and numbers aren’t everything.
  • The mechanics are very deep, mostly easy to learn but hard to master. I would say EUIV has the most interesting and detailed system for diplomacy that’s out there.
  • In spite of the title, this is a well-researched historical setting where you can play almost any country in the world from that time period. Sure the Europeans make for a rich and interesting play-through, but have you ever wondered what might have happened if the Native North  Americans had banded together and drove back the European colonists (successfully that is)? You can play to find out.
  • You can convert games from Crusader Kings II, making for an epic 1000+ years of alternate history.
  • If you try some of the DLC’s, you can create your own custom maps and civilizations, although they still play out on our familiar planet Earth.

EUIV also has, at this point, quite a bit of downloadable content to choose from. Here’s what I think of each of them, using the three-star system I employed last time.

  • Conquest of Paradise (***) – Maybe it’s my American background, but this one just speaks to me. The added content and flavor for the Native Americans alone makes this one worth it. It also comes with expanded options for Colonial Nations (start your own Revolutionary War!) and a “New World Randomizer” which replaces the Americas with a collection of new continents and islands.
  • Wealth of Nations (**) – The expansion that focuses on trade. It’s pretty good, all around. The new features are fun, and are worth it if you’re planning on a mercantile sort of game. The basics of trading are already pretty fun though, in my opinion, and you aren’t missing that much if you skip this one.
  • Res Publica (**) – I kind of wavered with this one between one or two stars. It adds a lot of cool options if you’re playing the Dutch. There’s also a new government type and some national ideas, but that’s about it. If you’re into the Dutch, go for it, otherwise there ain’t much to it.
  • Art of War (**) – It is as it sounds, the war DLC. Honestly, all of the best features for this came with the free patch. The rest is all about stream-lining the process of building armies and giving you more diplomatic options to start shit with people. In terms of content, it expands the 30 Years War and the Napoleonic Wars to a greater degree, so that’s fun. But like with Wealth of Nations, warfare is already fun, and this expansion doesn’t improve on it that much.
  • El Dorado (***) – It’s kind of like Conquest of Paradise, but for Central and South America. It expands the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas, and lets you do some fun things with them. It also comes with the Nation Designer, which alone makes it worth the purchase.
  • Common Sense and The Cossacks (?) – These are the more recent 2015 releases, and I haven’t tried ’em yet. They haven’t gotten great reviews unfortunately, although a lot of that seems to stem from a misunderstanding about new mechanics. Time will tell if they are worth your moolah.

Vicky2

Oh yeah! Look at Beefy Otto von Bismarck leading the way to victory! Victoria II is the timeline-sequel to EUIV, although it was released in 2010. It covers a span of history from 1842 (I think?) to 1939. You can play through the Industrial Revolution, and eventually get wrapped up in the World Wars. The graphics are a little more flat, but they also feel appropriate to the old-timey historical setting. Vicky 2 plays more like Europa Universalis, with a stronger emphasis on managing a complex economy (this is when Capitalism and Marxism both became a thing after all).

It’s a lot of fun, and you can pick up the basic game right now for $5. There are only two DLC’s, focusing on the American Civil War and the colonization of Africa. They both enhance the game is numerous ways, and I would recommend picking them up. Steam (and Humble Bundle, among others) will frequently release all of this content as a bundle, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Vicky 2 is, in some ways, the most complex of all the Paradox titles. But it’s also the most forgiving. It features an incredibly complicated system that simulates a world market, your country’s economy, and the political system that drives it all. But many of these systems are automated, so you can kind of let the game run itself, and then take over gradually as you learn more about how it all works. Even when you have (inevitably) pissed off your populace to such a degree that they rebel against you, it doesn’t result in much more than a changed form of government (socialism and communism, unfortunately, kinda suck). The warfare and diplomacy is a little more clunky compared to EUIV, understandably. But there are also some exciting possibilities that are specific to this time period, like the concept of Great Powers, spheres of influence, and global crises. And you get to build trains, SO MANY TRAINS!

So check it out, it’s not that much of a time commitment (although I would play the tutorial), and like the others, it makes for a rich playing experience. There is one other Paradox game in this “family” that I haven’t mentioned, and that is the Hearts of Iron series. This focuses on World War II, and it’s kind of all about… war. I tried the most recent one, Hearts of Iron III, and I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. There’s a new one coming out, and who knows? Maybe that one will be awesome. I will probably let you know if that’s the case.

Before the big winter sale closes up on Steam, I hope to post more mini-reviews of my favorite games of 2015, so my readers can have some recommendations for 2016. Until then.

Deus Vult!

Dunluce

Guess what? There’s a big sale on Steam right now. For those of you who are not familiar, Steam is an online marketplace for DRM-free games, and it has some unbelievable sales right around this time of the year. So I feel compelled to do some more mini-reviews of PC games, to better guide friends and canny bargain-hunters this holiday season. In particular, I’ll be focusing on two of my all-time favorite strategy games, Crusader Kings II, and Europa Universalis IV. These games are some of the flagship titles of Paradox Interactive, a Swedish group of developers and publishers who are devoted to making deep, complex, interesting games, the kind that you can devote hours and hours to playing. But I realized something as I looked over the Steam page for both of them: there’s so much downloadable content, that even on sale at 75% off, they’re a bit pricey. So not only will I be addressing the worth of the base games, but I’ll touch on each DLC, and let you know which ones really enhance the experience.

Crusader Kings 2

CK2

Crusader Kings II is a grand strategy game set in the Early to Late Middle Ages (the base game covers 1066 to 1453). Unlike most strategy games, you play the head of a dynasty with medieval holdings, anywhere from a small county to a huge empire. You play out your initial characters remaining lifespan, and then move on to their descendants. I picked up CK2 a few years ago around this time, because I was intrigued by the mix of strategy and role-playing elements. My first attempts at learning the game were… frustrating. It seemed really slow and the mechanics were totally obtuse. But I stuck with it, and once I adapted to the pacing and learned the rules, I was completely addicted. Here are some general tips for those who are thinking of trying this game out –

  • Accept the pacing– Sometimes you have to wait for things to play out: your kids won’t come of age until their 16th birthdays, that peace treaty won’t expire for another 5 years, my character just won’t die, etc. Play the game on the fastest setting, and familiarize yourself with the different characters and countries who live around you, and it’ll feel a lot faster.
  • Start with Ireland – That little island where my ancestors came from is a good place for beginners. It’s isolated, safe, and sort of its own little microcosm with almost every county being ruled independently. If you only have one county to start with, the game might feel even more slow, but just save up your resources for mercenaries, and things will start happening quickly. Good goals for an Irish game are to create the a-historical Kingdom of Ireland, and maybe even dominate the British Isles.
  • Accept and Enjoy Failures – This game has a tendency to generate wonderfully random and ridiculous stories, and a lot of these rise out of failure. I don’t mean the kind of failure where you lose a battle, and thus your entire kingdom (I find that kind of failure stressful). More the failure to grasp the subtler points of mechanics. My first game took place in Ireland. By the end I had really screwed Ireland up, and I didn’t really understand how or why, but it was awesome. My ruling dynasty was Norwegian-East African, half the island had converted to Greek Orthodoxy, and as a result I had a dozen factions forming that were divided on ethnic and religious lines. I also inherited about half of Spain at one point, don’t remember why, but I gave it up to my vassals.

So it’s a crazy game, and if you give it a chance, you’ll love it like no other. Now I’ll go over the DLC, because unless you have cash to burn, you don’t really need all of it. I’ll give each expansion a rating based on one-to-three stars. One (*)means skip it, two (**) means buy it if you don’t mind spending the money, and three (***) means it’s necessary for full enjoyment of the game.

  • Sword of Islam (**) – This is the Muslim expansion for the game. It opens up more than half the map for choosing characters, and it adds a ton of options for playing Muslims. It’s a good expansion, but it doesn’t really affect the game outside of the Muslim sphere, so if you’re not interested in playing those characters, skip it.
  • Legacy of Rome (***) – The Byzantine Empire expansion. This one wins three stars because of all the great features that enhance the base game. Retinues are a standing army that you can build up over the course of the game, very useful. The Faction System makes for more intrigue and plotting, always fun for everyone. Also, the Byzantine features are pretty sweet.
  • The Republic (*) – Play or create merchant republics, a la Venice or Pisa. This one just isn’t that great, the mechanics for a republic are not as much fun, and there isn’t really anything added outside of the republican play-through.
  • Sunset Invasion (*) – Adds a big event in which the east coast of Europe gets invaded by the Aztecs. I would skip this one, it’s pretty lame, and it makes playing Ireland a lot more frustrating (guess where the Aztecs land first).
  • The Old Gods (***) – A huge expansion that extends the timeline back to 867 AD, adding nearly another 200 years to a play-through. This is the best DLC, hands-down, and the reason that a lot of my friends have gotten hooked on the game. It’s the vikings, they’re too much fun. You can raid, get wrapped up in tribal feuds, and sacrifice enemies to Odin (including the Pope, if you’re lucky). It also opens up other pagan groups for play, and the remnants of the Zoroastrian faith hiding out in Central Asia. Don’t miss this one.
  • Sons of Abraham (**) – Adds a bunch of options for the Abrahamic religions, and introduces Jewish characters to the game. I really liked this one for the opportunity to play the Jewish Khazars, and the chance to create a medieval Kingdom of Israel (this was my favorite play-through). Still, it’s not essential by any means.
  • Rajas of India (**) – This one is kind of like Sword of Islam, but bigger. It opens up the Indian subcontinent, and allows you to play Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain dynasties. I didn’t find it to be mind-blowing, and is very India-focused.
  • Charlemagne (**) – Another giant DLC in the fashion of the Old Gods. It pushes the start date back roughly another 100 years to 769. It’s not quite as good as Old Gods, the time period is less interesting, and there aren’t as many new mechanics overall. An extra 100 years of gameplay might seem tempting, but trust me, the basic 400 years is plenty.
  • Way of Life (***) – This one gets 3 stars because it’s cheap, and fun. It adds some new lifestyle mechanics where you can have a “focus,” which means your character can pursue personal projects, seduce people, fight duels, and so on. It makes the slower parts of the game less slow, so that can only be a good thing.
  • The Horse Lords – I haven’t tried it yet! This one is about steppe nomads (the mongols for example). It adds a lot of new mechanics, expands the map, and you can try to control the Silk Road! It’s gotten great reviews, but it’s also not on sale, due to its recent release date.

Okay! I guess EUIV will have to wait for another post. In summary for CK2, the only expansions you really need, if you’re buying any at all, are Legacy of Rome, the Old Gods, and Way of Life. The Horse Lords looks good, but I plan to wait until the Spring when it will likely be on sale.

Image by Carlos ZGZ, no known copyright restrictions