Monday, May 18, 2015

Space races

In the setting of AD ASTRA, as in most space-opera comic book settings, the science fiction isn't meant to be rigorous, and to a purist, it isn't even science fiction at all.  Alien species in particular, are more notable assuming that they are interesting antagonists to fight rather than interesting alien societies to explore via fictional ethnography.

So, to explore this space a bit, I'm going to go through some of the major space-based Marvel alien races and what they are and why they're either important or interesting.  I'm using a very loose definition of "space" in this regard: the Negative Zone would count as well, since it provides a number of characters and races that are pretty much indistinguishable from aliens from regular space.  And for the heck of it, why not add the Microverse into the mix as well?

  • The Badoon: a sexually segregated reptilian race that has often been seen as the butt of many jokes by other cosmic races.  Despite this, the Badoon control a large percentage of the Milky Way Galaxy, and are frequent antagonists for various superhero teams.  Major Victory, the original leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy team (which doesn't very closely resemble the more familiar Guardians of the Galaxy team in the movie) is a time-traveling character who warns us that the Badoon should be taken more seriously as they will end up being the major military threat in the galaxy in the future.
  • The Brood: from X-Men comics, this race is basically wise-cracking Aliens; they look like aliens and they reproduce parasitically, like Aliens.  They fly around in space in giant starsharks; bio-engineered sharks that fly through space and have Aliens living in them (yes, you actually read that right.)  Like other Alien-inspired races (such as Warhammer 40k's Tyrannids) they have weird, gigantic heads, chitinous bodies, and are vaguely insectile.
  • The Celestials: gigantic and inscrutible robots(?) from the stars that show up--sometimes--on planets and judge their inhabitants.  If they are found wanting, they are exterminated.  The run-up to Thor #400 (back in early 1988) was one of the first places that I really read much about them (although I was vaguely familiar with them from some earlier Eternals and What If? comics) and show clearly that they are pretty far beyond the ken of even the mightiest superheroes.  They have an interesting Erich von Daniken like vibe to them, especially in their role as medlers in the DNA of the Eternals and Deviants.
  • The Dire Wraiths are an offshoot of the Skrulls, apparently, but that doesn't matter much because they are really kind of their own thing for the most part.  As the primary antagonists of Rom the Space-Knight (I actually had some of these back in the early to mid-80s) they'd have been pretty obscure, but they've also managed to make appearances in X-Men and the Avengers from time to time, and even Dr. Strange has tangled with them.  They are weird shape-shifting sorcerous aliens; in their natural form, red-clawed and beaked creatures with a long, barbed tongue.
  • The Eternals are supposedly Celestial-made experiments with Earth DNA; basically, humans turned into gods, with superhero like powers and long-life.  While the Titanians and Uranians were originally unrelated, it was later decided--and they were retconned as such--that they were also Eternals.  The Eternals was an odd creation by Jack Kirby, who was experimenting (he did the same thing with New Gods by DC, which is basically the same idea) with van Daniken style science fiction with comic book superheroes and mythology.  As an aside, the Eternal character, identified much later as such, that has probably made the most rounds in the Marvel universe if Hyperion, who as originally created as a ersatz Superman.  This gives some idea of the level of power that the Eternals are meant to wield; if they were more mainstream, they'd be among the most powerful superheroes we'd see.
  • The Inhumans actually have a very similar back-story to the Eternals, except the Kree rather than the Celestials are behind their genetic tampering.  This is the result of the Eternals originally having been meant to be independent rather than a canonical part of the Marvel Universe.  Now that they both are in it, they kind of overlap conceptually.  The Inhumans are often given the short end of various deals throughout their history.  Finally, when it's revealed that their king Black Bolt (Blackagar Boltagon is his real name.  I wish I were kidding about that, but I'm not) was replaced by a shape-shifting skrull spy, they decide that they've had enough, they take their entire civilization into space to the Kree homeworld, where they conquer the Kree Empire, and Black Bolt becomes the king of the Kree.  He later appears to be killed while fighting Emperor Vulcan, who is Emperor of the Shi'ar at the time, but since the only comic book character who reliably stays dead is Uncle Ben, of course he eventually comes back.  They also tussle with Thanos, which destroys their home city, but as a side effect of which, the Terrigenisis Bomb turns all kinds of sleeper half-inhumans on earth into either monsters or superheroes.  There's a movie coming out in 2019 about these guys, and the second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuts them officially in the Cinematic Universe.
  • The Kree: originally debuted in the Fantastic Four (it's a real shame; these aren't really the most interesting characters in the Marvel universe, but they always seem to have the best villains).  Nominally blue-skinned, although regular human-looking Kree are also shown; the Kree are technologically advanced, super-strong and super-fast, making them basic shock-troops for superheroes to face, and with "name level" characters are leaders, captains, etc.  Some notable Kree characters include Captain Marvel, Marvel Boy, and Ronan the Accuser, the last well-known from the recent Guardians of the Galaxy movie, although of course he was already well-known in comics prior to that.  They are usually ruled by the Supreme Intelligence, a kind of post-humous conglomeration of the greatest minds of Kree society all turned into a hive-mind like entity.  A notable element of Kree appearances is their constant attempts to jump-start their evolution, which has supposedly been stagnant for millions of years, thanks to a curse by the Crystal of Ultimate Vision.  Hey, I told you that this isn't real science fiction, right?
  • The Phalanx is another parasitic race; a hivemind of those infected with the transmode virus, which basically makes them into weird robotic/cybernetic creatures, who turn organic material into technology (whatever exactly that means) and then drain it of energy in order to feed.  In this, they are actually mimicking their "fathers" the Technarchs, who are--unlike the Phalanx--strictly and fiercely individualistic.  Phalanx can also shape-shift and quickly regenerate damage via absorbing techno-organic life force and then converting that into new techno-organic "tissue."
  • The Shi'ar are one of the three superpowers of Marvel Intersteller, being a human-like race (with feathers instead of hair) with a war-like culture who have managed to put together a multi-ethnic empire of largely conquered peoples.  They feature prominently in X-Men stories, and have had a major impact on the Summers family in particular, since they kidnapped Ma and Pa Summers (Pa Summers became Corsair, the leader of the Starjammers until that role was taken by his son Alex Summers, also known as Havoc) and the Empire was even ruled briefly by Alex's younger brother Gabriel Summers, the "Omega level" mutant Vulcan.  Marvel editor Ed Brubacker specifically likened the Shi'ar to the Romulans; mean, war-like, and aggressive.  As an interesting aside, the champions and royal bodyguard of the Emperor D'Ken is the Imperial Guard, a bunch of non-Shi'ar citizens of the Empire who are transparently modeled on rival DC's Legion of Superheroes, including Gladiator, a kind of purple-skinned mohawk sporting Superman.
  • The Skrulls are another Fantastic Four antagonist, which have since gone far beyond that in terms of scope.  A reptilian shape-shifter race, they were one of three superpowers in space--along with the Shi'ar and the Kree--for many years.  This has changed in recent years, their fleet and homeworld were destroyed by Galactus.  The balkanized remnants of the Empire were easy pickings for Shi'ar and Kree forces alike.  The Inhumans annihilate what's left of the Skrull Armada.  The Annihilation Wave destroys much of what is left of the Skrull inhabited planets.  Queen-Prophetess Veranke leads the Secret Invasion in a desperate attempt to reclaim Skrull power by taking over the Earth (not sure if that's really ever explained) which fails, putting the Skrulls even further behind.  While they're still guys who show up a fair bit in the comics, we're clearly meant to infer that their days as a intergalactic superpower are over.
  • Xandar and the Nova Corps are a kind of answer to the Green Lantern Corps of DC, although their powers are much more modest.  Poor Xander, which is threatened with being blown up in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie was actually blown up no fewer than three times in the comic books.  Xandarians appear to be human physically, but since most of the ones we meet are members of the Nova Corps or are heralds of Galactus, empowered with the Power Cosmic, we never seem to meet one that isn't a powerful superhero of some sort or another.
Anyway, I could go through a similar exercise with DC or Wildstorm or any other imprint (although I admit to not being nearly as familiar with them as I am with Marvel) but from the above, you get the idea of what I'm looking for.  There isn't (in my experience) any reason to go beyond the Milky Way and maybe it's satellites within the Local Group, but when you do so, and you want basically aliens that are aggressive, sometimes monstrous, but often anthropomorphic to various degrees, including fully human appearing, and with high techno-babble equipment and often with superpowers that make them more than a match for regular folks, but peers with your average superheroes.
A collection of many of the space-themed characters of the Marvel Universe.  If you don't recognize Thanos and Galactus, at the very least, you simply can't call yourself a comic book fan, in my opinion.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Ad Astra

Keep that link in the back of your head for a minute.  We'll come back to it.  I've long been a fan of space opera.  And honestly, besides Star Wars, some of the best space opera in the last few decades has been in the comics.  I'm thinking specifically about the cosmic Marvel stuff; the Starjammers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Inhumans, etc.  Thanos.  Galactus.  The Shi'ar Empire.  The Skrulls.  The Kree.  Silver Freaking Surfer, even.  In fact, after watching Age of Ultron on opening Friday, my parents blew through town.  They mentioned that they had not ever seen the Guardians of the Galaxy movie.  I whipped it out on blu-ray and we watched it right then and there.

So, I'm feeling it again.  Time to dust one of my incipient setting designs off the shelf and see what life I can prompt into it.

My setting design goals are really more like the old Polyhedron mini-games; not really fully fledged games, but seeds that someone motivated enough to do so could take and turn into a fun game.  Not meant to be fleshed out enough to be publishable either; more like an executive summary of a game that a creative person can use, however.

(Seriously, check out those Polyhedron mini-games.  They were really quite brilliant.  I'll include a list and brief summary as an appendix to this post.)

I've decided that my Microlite minigame is going to be space opera, but comic book style, so its basically superheroes in space.

The link above is to the Microlite system, which is now at least, apparently only available as a big collection.  You'll have to browse through the Table of Contents, but here's a teaser--starting on page 741 through pages 751 you'll have the rules for Superlite; an m20 superhero system that is sufficiently light and handwavey to meet my needs and yet flexible and powerful enough to do pretty much anything.  Go ahead, and read (or at least skim) through the rules--they're only 11 pages after all, and one of those is an entire page of an easy chart.  I'll wait right here.

Got it?  Now, assuming that you've read it, I'm going to make some allusions to those rules, so if you haven't, you might want to go back and do it now.

Let's make some adjustments to the ranks.  I don't see the need for having any superpowers with 0 or below ranks.  If that's what you have, then you effectively don't have any superpowers.  So Feeble, Poor, and Typical are completely excised.  I'm also going to eliminate any ranks about Unearthly as simply too far beyond what I'm interested in to be available.  Also, I'm going to rename the ranks, because frankly the ranks as listed, with their cute little two-letter abbreviations don't mean anything to me.  They're too esoteric or vague to be useful.  Here's the new list of Beginning Ranks, as modified by me for this application.  (I imagine I'll eventually refit the entire rule set into what I need, rewriting and/or reprinting under the OGL so it's all in one place, combined with some setting info, as I've done for Star Wars.  Until then, this is just a note.)

Original Rank New Rank Bonus Examples
Typical None 0 Normal characters with no powers
Good Pulp +5 Dick Tracy, Rocketeer, Flash Gordon
Excellent Street +10 Daredevil, Rorschach
Remarkable Sidekick +15 Robin, Bucky, Speedy
Incredible Typical +20 Spider-man, Iron Fist, Flash
Amazing Advanced +25 Batman, Captain America
Monstrous Superior +30 Thor, Iron Man
Unearthly Godlike +35 Superman, Green Lantern, Thanos
Various ranks Supervillainous NPCs +40+ Galactus, the Celestials

Note 1: The first rank isn't really meant to be used.  If you're going to do that, stick with a system that doesn't have superheroes, because that's the rank for non-superhero NPCs.

Note 2: The final rank is also not meant to be used; it's a catch-all for anything more powerful than the starting level of Godlike, and would really only apply to threats that are meant to be faced by a full team, or even a team-up of multiple teams; kind of like how the Avengers and the Fantastic Four have to team up to take on Galactus or something like that.

Note 3: My examples aren't necessarily space-based superheroes, but rather commonly known and recognized superheroes.  Frankly, this system isn't necessarily geared towards reproducing space-based superheroes specifically; it's geared towards simplifying and constraining the superhero rules already in place in SuperLite.  If you want to use them with another setting, it'd be easy to do so.  I'm developing them sepcifically for use with my AD ASTRA setting, however, and I won't be presenting any other alternatives.  At least... not at this time.

Note 4: The rules don't include any provision for space ships, which is unfortunate, since I'll definitely need them.  Luckily, I've already got them available via my Star Wars m20 rules.  I'll just borrow them exactly as written there and apply them here.  All the more reason to create my all in one reorganization and collating of the rules at some point.  But first, let's design this thing, then we can make it pretty.

GMs playing an AD ASTRA game can pick the starting power level that they wish to, but clearly "Typical" is meant to be... well, "Typical" and probably the default.  Characters can, of course, advance over the course of their careers into more powerful characters.  I'd also redo the characterization of the teams as such:

Justice League: one broad power at Godlike, and 2 broad powers at Superior would be typical for a team member.

Avengers: slightly lower than Justice League; Godlike powers would be extremely rare and only for advanced characters; starting characters would most likely have one broad Superior power or two broad powers at Advanced.

X-Men: slightly lower yet; very rare Superior or higher characters, perhaps limited to NPC mentor roles (as in Professor X), while typical starting characters would have a broad power at Advanced with two broad powers at Typical.

Heroes for Hire: And slightly lower yet; starting characters would have two typical powers, or one typical power and two sidekick powers.

Power Pack: Sure, the game would work at even lower levels, but this is as far down as I'll go in describing; in the real world these guys would be amazing, but in a world of superheroes, these guys are rank beginners and not necessarily very impressive.  A broad sidekick level power, or two broader street level powers.

Characters can then use the rules for Buying Powers to tweak the characters; sometimes its fun to have characters that have more powers, even at a lower level.  I would suggest that the "default" mode for AD ASTRA would be X-men level, but that that could be tweaked to taste.

Next, we'll get started on the setting itself!

Appendix: As promised, here are the minigames and a brief summary of what each was about.

  • Pulp Heroes; as expected, it is Doc Savage and Raiders of the Lost Ark kinda stuff.
  • Shadow Chasers; Buffy the Vampire Slayer for d20 Modern.  This was later adapted into a campaign element for d20 Modern officially.
  • Spelljammer - an adaptation of the old 2e AD&D setting.
  • Thunderball Rallly - Every Which Way But Loose and Cannonball Run and The Dukes of Hazard.
  • Omega World - a riff on the Gamma World game by TSR, which wasn't in print at the time.
  • Mecha Crusade - Japanese anime giant robot pilots stuff. 
  • GeneTech - the "lost" d20 Modern campaign element; a kind of near-future Island of Dr. Moreau with spies and stuff.
  • V for Victory - WW2
  • Hi-Jinx - 70s teenage kids; Josie and the Pussycats, Scooby and the Gang, etc.
  • Knights of the Lich-Queen - a mini-setting that is modular and integratable into a D&D game.  Properly belongs in Greyhawk/Planescape, though.
  • Iron Lords of Jupiter - planetary Romance, not unlike the various Barsoom ripoffs that spread through 60 pulp novels.
  • Pulp Heroes - an update of the earlier version.
Lots of fun in there, but as you'll see if you look at them, they're not really fully fledged campaigns.  For one thing, few of them are more than about twenty pages or so long.  They've got a few house-rules, a high concept, and some description of how to bring that high concept to ground.  That's what I've done so far with ODD D&D and what I'll do with AD ASTRA as well.

Year of the RPG

To show how out of touch with the hobby mainstream I have been, it literally never occurred to me throughout the entirety of 2014 that it was the 40th anniversary of D&D and therefore of the hobby itself.  D'oh!  And this as I had a friend named Dave who always signed off internet posts, on hobby related topics, with a tagline proclaiming that OD&D (1974) is the One True Game.  All others are a pale imitation.  For years, I saw that, and yet it still never occurred to me that naturally 2014-1974 is 40 years.  Man.  Facepalm, and all that.

However, considering that my attachment to D&D specifically is rather tenuous--I'm playing, on the very rare occasions when we do play (I think it's well over six months since a session has been held) a home-brewed d20 Star Wars, and my own efforts in design and general tom-foolery with RPGs have been focused on Microlite for some time now--maybe it's not terribly surprising that the whole year came and went without me thinking about it.

That said, even I'm not immune from the occasional trip into sentimentality and nostalgia.  I've had a lot of fun with D&D over the years, and would not at all be averse to playing it again with a good group, especially if it's one of the rulesets that's either flexible or light or both.  Which ones would I be willing to play?  Interesting question.
  • Some time ago, I proposed to my gaming group a one-shot--or at least few-shots game of B/X D&D--the original Basic/Expert Moldvay series from 1981, which was based on the earlier Holmes Basic set.  The Holmes set was meant to be a revision and clean-up of the original OD&D rules, while the Moldvay set reflected a schism at TSR over the direction of D&D as a whole; the Basic set, while substantially revised and changed by Moldvay meant to emulate the original "spirit" of the game, if you will, while Gygax himself went on to AD&D which was an increasingly arcane and complicated ruleset with a much greater preponderance of rules to follow.  I have no interest in playing AD&D (1st or 2nd edition) but I could go for some B/X D&D.  Especially if we played the original modules that came with the game--B2 Keep on the Borderlands and X1 Isle of Dread as a prelude to doing something original.  Actually, come to think of it, I'd probably prefer this ruleset to be used almost exclusively to be used in a retrospective of classic modules.
  • I'd still play some Third Edition.  Or more likely, 3.5.  It's more rules than I want anymore, but I know the system well, and I know how to get the experience I want out of it.  I've had tons of fun playing this, and am sure that I could do so again.  It's not my first choice anymore, since discovering Microlite, but I wouldn't complain if this is what ended up in front of me.  If I were to run it myself, I'd incorporate a few houserules, many of which I've talked about ad nauseum  on this blog already, a few of which are from Pathfinder, but in general I think Pathfinder took the parts of 3rd Edition that weren't good an amplified them rather than fixing them.  I'd much rather play 3rd Edition than Pathfinder.  If I were running, I'd even consider a pared down and heavily edited (and somewhat redacted) Pathfinder Adventure Path.
  • Although I have no interest whatsoever in 4th edition, 5th Edition seems to be a well-designed game that purports to play more like what I want D&D to play like.  Does it really?  I have no idea!  I've never played it; I've never even read it.  But I'd be willing to give it a go.
  • Although not technically D&D per se, I'd be willing--surprise, surprise--to play one of the Microlite games that's specifically set up to play like D&D, such as regular ole original Microlite, or some variation on the Microlite74 family.
Any version of AD&D is right out; not interested, and the same is true for 4th Edition.  I got bronchitis, ain't nobody got time for dat. Now get me a cold pop!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

An eclectic mix of books

Just some random thoughts... I brought in three books I'm reading today to the office, because I'm not sure which of the three I'm going to feel like cracking open during lunch.  Actually, considering that I'm also reading two on my Kindle app on my phone, I'm actually reading five... and I might pick up any of the five.  I also have jury duty tomorrow, so I'll most likely read plenty of... something... tomorrow too.

Sabertooth: My love of paleontology can't be a mystery to any readers of my blog.  I even have another blog dedicated specifically to paleontology--although I admit that I don't update it very often.  Sabertooths--specifically Smilodon fatalis, the North American sabertooth cat famous from Rancho La Brea tar pits, is probably my favorite animal over the entire range of life on earth (although big carnosaurs and tyrannosaurids have to give it a run for its money in that regard.)  It ranged all over the North American continent south of the glacial advance, throughout Central America and in the northwesternmost corner of South America north and west of the Andes.  On the other side of the Andes was its larger cousin, Smilodon populator, which is honestly a more impressive animal, but because it's part of a weirder and (in my opinion) less impressive faunal assemblage overall, I prefer the North American species.  Plus--cooler name.  And it's a local, homegrown animal.  Mauricio Antón, the author of this book, is actually an artist, who is self-taught about the systematics and biology of sabertooths, and is now probably the world's leading expert, for whatever that's worth.

The book doesn't just talk about felid sabertooths, though--it talks about the entire gamut of mammalian or even proto-mammalian terrestrial sabertoothed carnivores.  This includes felid sabertooths, dirk-tooths, scimitar-tooths, etc. of course, but it also delves into the barbourofelids and nimravids, completely different (and extinct) carnivoran families, as well as creodonts and even gorgonopsids--that last of which may seem like an odd addition, but hey, why not?

The South Was Right:  I've also come to really question the received wisdom of my formal education, having found that much of it is actually quite literally cultural Marxist indoctrination.  Because I am open-minded, however, instead of locked into accepting what I've been taught without thought, I've long struggled with some narratives that didn't quite make sense.  And, of course, growing up in the South, I struggled with the concept of how the ancestors of these people, who's cultural heritage still lingers strongly in the area, could be the terrible people that Northern propaganda has taught us that they are.

This book isn't terribly academically written, and it occasionally struggles from very open bias and a kind of wide-eyed outrage that most readers will struggle to identify with, even me as a sympathetic one.  However, it is a fairly nice and thorough treatise on, among other things, 1) the true economic causes of the war (hint; the North actually had no intention of freeing the slaves, it was a by-product of the war, and the North didn't even free the slaves that lived in it's own territory with the Emancipation Proclamation; that came afterwards with the Amendment to the Constitution several years after the war was over), 2) racial attitudes in the South and the North (hint; in the South, racial harmony and integration was commonplace in spite of the limited practice of race-based slavery, while in the north hostile racism was commonplace), 3) northern war crimes against the Southerners, and much more.

It's important to continue the process of deprogramming the indoctrination that we've been given.  I've got a small list that is a good place to start on my What I'm Reading tab.  This book may or may not make the cut, but even if it doesn't, it's an interesting read.

The Eye of the Chained God: I still read a fair bit of tie-in fiction, even though my experience with it is sometimes painful.  In the world of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® tie-in fiction (like that?  WotC likes to print it that way) Don Bassingthwaite is one of the better authors that they've got who regularly writes for them.  Plus, this is a trilogy; this is actually the third and final act, and the series as a whole is named The Abyssal Plague.  It's a little old now, although I bought it while new, but since I've read the first two in the series and they weren't actively bad, and I actually bought them, I figured it was worth it to finish it off.  This will probably be what I spend most of my time doing tomorrow when not having to actively listen to a bunch of boring attorneys going through jury selection procedures.  I've really only barely cracked it open so far.

I doubt that I'll keep this series once I finish it (or the earlier Bassingthwaite series on the hobgoblin empire that I bought and read.)  I think I'll make some room on my bookshelf by donating all six of those books from two trilogies to the public library.  Still, I don't regret the money or time spent.  They weren't bad at all.

After I finish this one, I'll probably continue tie-in fiction reading.  I've only read, so far, the first of three in a series about the rise of Nagash, the Supreme Lord of the Undead in the Warhammer world.  I want to read this "historical" series and the two later yet still "ancient history" novels about the Undead before reading The Return of Nagash, which I also have, which is the first book in the End Times series where Games Workshop decided--somewhat inexplicably, in my opinion--to blow up their established setting.

Reassessing the Presidency: a much more scholarly book that will probably make my permanent "deprogramming" reading list.  Published as a series of essays by several authors by the Von Mises Institute as a Kindle book, the subtitle is The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom, and that's an accurate assessment of the conclusions reached and the evidence to suggest why it happened.  After reading books like that, it really changes your perspective on voting in America, especially when Presidential candidates start to talk.  It's amazing to me what Presidential candidates say now that causes me to cringe, when only a few years ago I would have not batted an eye.

Understanding what has happened to spoil the party that the Founding Fathers started, and if possible even reverse the decline and degeneration, is crucial to the very survival of our country.  I've become rather pessimistic in the last few years about our chances, since the will of the electorate is gone; we resemble far to much late stage Roman Empire, or even the sad world of Brave New World where voters are bribed and drugged with ease--bread and circuses style.  But not entirely pessimistic.  We may yet have a chance to halt the rot, excise the cancer, and stand tall--ready to welcome the Savior as free men when he returns with open arms.  Likely?  No.  Impossible?  Also no.  We do what we can.  And the first step is to properly educate ourselves, which means undoing much of the damage that the education industry in America has inflicted on us and on the truth.

This book is one of several helpful tools in that regard.

The Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft:  Despite the title, this isn't actually quite complete.  The compiler was just a little hesitant about the legal status of his ghost-written and "co-authored" works, so they are not included.  However, literally everything written under his own name is public domain, and collated into this handy little Kindle file (which isn't little at all) sorted chronologically.  This is a bit challenging in its own right, actually--sorting it that way means that you have to read his earlier stuff first, and he had a lot of duds early in his career.  I've been plodding my way methodically through this for months now, though, and I'm somewhat near the end (granted; most of what remains are longish novellas, however.)  Currently I'm about ¾ of the way through "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"--truly one of the classics in his oeuvre, although oddly hearkening back in many ways to some of his earlier work, since it reads more like a Cthulhu-esque horror story than like a science fiction story, where much of his later work treads.  Of course, the overlap in genre in his work is notable, which is why "Weird Tale" is often used specifically to describe Lovecraftian horror/scifi hybrids, and they really don't quite resemble anything other than themselves.

Many of these stories, especially all of the "important" ones I've read before, often multiple time, of course.  But many of the poorer and smaller works actually were new to me as I went through them.  Of what remains in the ebook are mostly his more classic stories, but there are two works that I haven't ever read before, "The Evil Clergyman" and "The Book", both from 1933.  After I finish this, I'll still need to open up my hard-copy of his ghost-written and co-authored stories collected in The Horror in the Museum omnibus, republished by Del Rey, before I can truly say that I've read all of Lovecraft's work.  Once I've done so... I dunno.  I may find that being able to make that claim is of dubious value, since I'd already read most of what was actually worth reading long ago.

What I'd like to continue doing, however, is finding good collections of authors who have written Lovecraftian stories and expanded the Yog-Sothothery concept in new and interesting ways.  Always more to do, right?

Monday, May 04, 2015

Evolving the setting

Sorry, Brandon Sanderson!  After having the first Mistborn novel on my "What I'm Reading" list for months, I gave up.  200+ pages in, and I still just couldn't get into the book at all.  I give up and quit trying.  I donated the book to the public library's second hand book shop.  I'm still on the look-out from among my collection of what to read next.  Because I have a lot of tie-in fiction, I'm almost certainly going to go that way.  In fact, what I probably most want to do is finish off the Abyssal Plague series (and then probably donate the entire series to the library again; I doubt I'll enjoy it so much that I'll want to keep it and dust it off to read again anytime soon.)  I also want to finish the Nagash trilogy that I started; I've only read the first of three novels there.  I also want to keep going on the Arkham Horror tie-in novels; I've read two of three novels in the Lord of Nightmares trilogy and one of three in the Dark Waters trilogy.  I actually only own the first two of each trilogy, because that's all that was out when I bought them, so I also need to buy book three in both trilogies in order to proceed--with the exception of the one book, Bones of the Yopasi, which I own but haven't read yet.  And of course, I also have many other options in print.  And my Kindle book list is almost as long as my print book list, although it contains a lot of first books in series (because they were free) and I'm also less picky about giving up and moving on from Kindle books.  I still haven't mentally made the jump of equating physical and Kindle books as equals.


One trend in the Black Library of Warhammer fiction that I'm watching with a little bit of curiosity is the End Times series.  Shared universe tie-in fiction usually has one important caveat; status quo.  Changes to the setting are limited to very local or even the personal level, so that the "sandbox" is reset to the same status quo at the end of it.  This policy has ruled in Warhammer for pretty much forever, and it is widely applicable across franchises as well.  Series like Forgotten Realms don't always do that, but fans tend to dislike the tendency to "blow up" the Realms, for instance.  And yet, that is exactly what is happening to the Warhammer world.  I'm a little curious to see how it turns out.  I've had pretty good luck with Black Library fiction in general--I tend to like it as well as I like most other fiction in the genre, unlike the situation with Dungeons & Dragons fiction where I've only liked the very best of what's on offer and have found most of the rest of it to be mediocre at best--and often quite a bit worse.

I've got a similar situation brewing in my own setting, which isn't a shared world, of course, so I can adopt whatever process I feel like.  With Hutran Kutir, the Hex-King, recently raised and poised to start reconquering the fractured Baal Hamazi empire that was his legacy (assuming of course that the Hex-King truly is Hutran Kutir) the status quo of my setting could change quite a bit.

That is... once I start doing something with it.

Sigh again.

Gaming and fiction writing still tend to be pursuits that elude me, as I find my time very constrained and when I could make time, I find my energy and enthusiasm to be missing.  My earlier ventures in fiction writing in the setting have been completely abandoned; I'm not sure, at least right now, what outline I would follow for a potential novel, or even what characters I would use.  I'm completely back to the drawing board.  My gaming potential has pretty much dried up; I could probably recruit some of my old gaming buddies back into the fold, but to do so, I'd have to put myself in competition with the game that we're currently nominally playing--although which we haven't actually played much of in months.

With any luck, the advent of the summer will win me some potential free time in the evenings.  If I can devote half an hour a day, at least four days a week to writing, I could bang out a draft in a single season of a novel.  Then I could allow myself some time to clean it up, attach some sort of cover image on it, convert it into a .mobi file and sell it on Amazon.  We'll see.  That's what I'd like to do, anyway.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Happy San Jacinto day

A day late and a dollar short, but nonetheless; happy San Jacinto Day!

I've always felt a great sense of belonging to the culture and nationality of Texas. Made of up Appalachian borderlanders, mostly, who had come to America after fighting along the Scottish-English border and in northern Ireland, these borderlanders hated the elitist plantation owners of the south and the totalitarian Yankee busy-bodies of the north equally, they continued west in an attempt to find a place where neither would tell them what to do. Finally ending up in Texas, where they were sandwiched between hostile Mexican forces that shot them on sight, and even more hostile Comanche forces that would raid, kill, torture and enslave on sight, the Texans developed a bellicose "Don't Tread on Me" personality that is unmatched by any other subcultural unit within the US. I am the proud heir of that tradition. As I said earlier, San Jacinto Day marks the day, on paper, that Texas gained its independence, but the reality was that it was a much more prolonged process.

Quoting some stuff that I posted years ago, actually authored by my fathers, who is a doctored US historian, adds a bit more nuance to that short summary above:

On a hot and dusty 6 August 1843, Jacob Snively disbanded his punitive expedition at Fort Bird on the Trinity River, northeast of present-day Fort Worth, Texas. With the cooperation and collusion of the Texas national government, Snively had formed his expedition to punish Mexico for a series of depredations including the debacle of the Mier Expedition, the Mexican sack of San Antonio (the Mexicans did this twice), and other raids. Snively’s 150 Texans roamed around the Santa Fe Trail looking for Mexican soldiers or traders upon whom they could reap retribution. You see, Texas had won its independence from Mexico, but Mexico did not recognize the new republic or its borders. In fact, Mexico belligerently refused to recognize them—hence the raids and a pernicious “shoot on sight” policy. Seven years had passed, and if anything, relations between Mexico and Texas had worsened. Mexican soldiers killed Texans on sight. Texans reciprocated. Snively’s expedition was part of the response. 
The Snively Expedition was symptomatic of a series of problems that faced Texas, and ultimately the USA in the wake of the successful Texas Revolution of 1836. Sam Houston, Mirabeau Lamar, Stephen Austin and others all believed that once they had defeated the Mexicans, then “these United States” (as they were then called) would welcome Texas as the newest candidate to unite with the other states.  
Unfortunately, political and military realities precluded the US from annexing Texas. Slavery snarled the political process. Since the Compromise of 1820, there was something of an uneasy truce between slave and free states, and Texas would have unquestioningly come into the Union as a slave state. Only the German immigrants, Sam Houston, and some scattered free thinkers were opposed to slavery, and they hardly constituted a majority or even a political force—Houston was drummed out of the governor’s office shortly after the revolution. 
Militarily, the US was totally unprepared for war with Mexico or anyone else in the 1830s. While the US recognized Texas independence, and a majority of Americans favored Texas annexation, the government did not and would not recommend annexation—filibusters by John Quincy Adams and others effectively stalled the process. The inevitable result was that Texas’ time as an independent nation lasted over ten years. It remained a hot topic for more than a decade. 
Of course, Mexico did not recognize Texas and nurtured hard feelings about the Texan’s victories. Bitterness prevailed, and lethal Mexican depredations resulted. Any Texans caught by Mexico were summarily executed, and there developed an animosity and fear all along the Texas frontier, roughly where I-35 runs today. Jacob Snively and his expedition were to punish Mexico for their “lawless murders,” unremitting raiding, and theft. Neither the Texans nor the Mexicans would submit nor would they surrender. There was no immediate solution to the bloodshed. 
But that was not the only knife held against the throats of the Texans. On the north and the west was an even more implacable enemy, the Comanche. Warfare with the Comanche had always been one-sided in favor of the Comanche for the simple reason that they possessed all of the advantages: They rode the fastest horses. They were probably the best horsemen in history, or at least they tied the Mongols. They also possessed the only repeating weapon until the 1840s: Writing in 1834, Colonel Henry Dodge observed that while galloping, young Comanche warriors could drop down on either side of the horse and loose arrows under the horse’s neck, rapidly launching 5-6 arrows before the first arrow hit the ground. Anglo-Europeans had single-shot pistols and muskets. Try shooting a six-foot long musket from a galloping horse. Try reloading a musket or pistol from a galloping horse. 
The Comanche owned no goods, built no towns or villages. Thus, hunters could not easily find them to engage or destroy them. Comanche wealth consisted of horses; a successful warrior could have over 1,500 horses and 8-10 wives. They fought to the death; there was no Comanche word for the concept of surrender. Nevertheless, they were not “stand and fight” warriors. They hit, destroyed, captured or killed, and rode away. But if you cornered one, watch out! Comanche leisure recreation consisted of torturing captives and they were very ingenious at inflicting maximum pain without inflicting death. Scalps were the means of keeping score. Captive women were gang-raped before being enslaved or murdered. Men were tortured on the way to being killed. Captive babies were routinely drug behind galloping horses until dead. Only small children were saved, usually to be brought up either as slaves or, rarely, as members of the tribe. These were not people you would invite to your house for dinner. The Comanche defeated the Apache, the Tonkawa, the Blackfoot, and every other surrounding Indian tribe—additionally, they also defeated the Spaniards. Alone among Native American tribes, they rolled back the advancing white frontier. One easily runs out of superlatives when describing their warrior prowess and their cruelty. The Ute word for Comanche meant: “those people who like to kill us.” 
Between the Mexicans who killed them on sight and the Comanche who killed them on sight, there was no breathing space for diplomacy, no capability for alternatives--in fact, no alternatives, period. So what’s the upshot of all of this for the Texans? They had to fight. A Texan, who wasn’t instantly capable or willing to become lethal, did not survive. The legacy of these decades of strife finds reflection in Texas attitudes for generations. Texans like Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, viewed themselves as loyal to whatever cause they were in. The Texas Brigade in the Civil War was one of the most tested and violent units of that sanguinary and violent conflict. The Texas National Guard, called up in World War II as the 36th Division, participated in Salerno, Anzio, Monte Lungo, San Pietro and the Rapido River campaigns. The division garnered 107 Medals of Honor, 2,354 Silver Stars, and 5,407 Bronze Stars—all at a truly horrendous loss: 3,131 KIA and 13, 191 WIA. In other words, the entire division succumbed to casualties. However, it did not shun the fight. They did not discourage. The Texans would die, but they would not surrender. 
This decades-long series of confrontations created other effects, as well. The Goodnight-Loving cattle trail, which snaked from Texas to Colorado and Montana, detoured way south and west into New Mexico before traveling north—why? To avoid the Comanche. Lubbock and most of West Texas was not seriously settled until the Comanche defeat was complete and the Comanche was on the verge of extinction. There was no living with the Comanche. 
This three-sided struggle, Mexicans and Comanche against Texans, went on for years and created, in part, some of the popular cultural themes we associate with Texas. Hard-fighting, quick to take offense, quick to make friends (you needed them on the frontier); Texans became what they had to become to survive. That way of life was forged in combat. 
The Mexican threat largely went away with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War in 1848. But the Comanche continued butchering settlers and soldiers well into the 1890s. 
The beginnings of change in the struggle between Texan and Comanche occurred with the creation of a novel institution and the characters that populated the institution. The institution?—the Texas Rangers. 
After the Texas Revolution, settlers from the east and south came to Texas. The land had to be surveyed before it could be sold. The Comanche, while utterly not understanding anything about surveying, knew that the surveyors were forerunners of more settlers. Therefore, the Comanche routinely hunted and killed all surveyors. In response, young ne’er-do-wells were hired by the Texas government to protect the surveyors. Most of them were also killed, but these men, the rangers” who tried to protect the surveyors became the beginnings of the Texas Rangers. The survivors, by a sort of natural selection, became as determined as their enemies. The initial average life-span of a Ranger was something on the order of six months--if that long, until one of their number, John Coffee Hays, realized that the Comanche could be beaten by using the Indians’ own relentless tactics. 
“Jack” Hays, who had been in some hair-raising defensive battles with the Comanche, recognized that on defense against the Comanche, you had little if any choice but to die. He was one of the lucky ones—he did not. But he learned from the experience. He realized that only by attacking was there any chance at all. His small band of Rangers drilled repeatedly, charging, firing two pistols and a musket (3 shots) and then galloping away before anyone could give chase. It worked. 
Hays came to Texas from Tennessee in 1838 and began surveying, then protecting surveyors. He made a name for himself because he could protect his men. Almost motherly to his own command (he dressed all of their wounds himself), he was ice-cold unflappable in combat. Unconcerned about what the enemy could do to him, he thought only of how to take the fight to his enemy—it was all about offense. By 1840, Hays was captain of the San Antonio station of the Rangers, which was now officially recognized by the Texas government (although there is no record that the government initially ever paying them). Regardless, Hays created a new kind of Ranger who was well-mounted, super aggressive and skilled at warfare of any kind. Utilizing Apache or Tonkawa scouts as trackers (both tribes hated the Comanche, as did the Blackfeet, Utes, Kiowas, etc.). Hays’ Rangers became the guerrilla fighting force that Special Forces and the Marines developed well over a century later. They never made fires but always cold-camped. They traveled light and during moonlight. They never bathed nor took off their clothes; they were always ready to fight. Hays’ elaborate drills took 3-4 months of daily practice in riding and shooting before his new recruits were ready—an unprecedented effort. However, the results were impressive. In the fall of 1840, Hays and 20 Rangers encountered over 200 Comanche. Hays led his Rangers in a furious charge; each discharged his 3 shots (two pistols and a rifle). Unnerved, the Comanche fled, its leader shot dead. 
Summer of 1841, Hays pursued a band of Comanche that were raiding and killing near San Antonio. He tracked them for over 70 miles then attacked them. Near present-day Uvalde, about a dozen took cover near in a very dense thicket. Realizing that the thicket precluded bow and arrow fighting, Hays and two of his rangers entered the thicket with knives and pistols. One by one they killed the Indian warriors mostly hand-to-hand, while keeping the rest of the company outside to prevent Comanche escape. Only two Comanche did escape. Hays and his partner killed the other ten, mano a mano. The Mexicans put a huge price on Hays’ head; the Comanche feared him more than any enemy. 
Always outnumbered and outgunned, but never outwitted or out fought, Hays, in his ten ears as a Ranger, lost men, but he never lost a fight. Although some were pretty close.
He and his Rangers joined with Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War. They made a huge impression on all and sundry—they wore no uniforms, equipped themselves (by this time the Texas Rangers had discovered bankrupt Samuel Colt’s revolver, the Anglo repeating weapon), and rode everywhere. They didn’t like taking orders from the Army. Rangers didn’t dismount and they didn’t walk. 
Seventy-five Rangers charged 1,500 Mexican cavalry and drove them from the field. The Texas Rangers became legends. The Colt revolver was discovered by the rest of the world after the Texans demonstrated its violent power. 
After the Mexican War, Jack Hays left Texas for the gold fields of California where he became one of the first sheriffs of San Francisco County (hanging many a criminal), founded Oakland, California, ranched in San Mateo County for awhile, and died a ripe old age.

Monday, April 20, 2015

RPG Mysteries

Here's a great article on playstyle.  Specifically, it talks about how to successfully run a mystery game, which is often believed by many RPGers to be unrunable as an RPG scenario.  It is my experience that that is not true; you can have great mystery scenarios, but you need to be a good GM who understands how to run one.  If your experience is more "traditional"-which unfortunately tends to run towards "railroad," then mystery scenario success will probably elude you, and your attempts to do so will probably crash and burn with frustration on both sides of the GM screen.

This article is better than my own ruminations on the subject, because I developed the ability to run them more as an art rather than as a skill; i.e., I never really consciously thought too much about how what I did worked.  This article spells it out in greater detail than I could, because it talks about things that I did more subconsciously rather than consciously, and it develops steps for success that I didn't always necessarily think of.  Although I've had a good time running and playing mysteries in the past, and feel like it's something that I'm capable of well enough, this article even gives me a bunch of great pointers that I can apply to make my mystery scenarios even better.

Due to the choice of source material that I choose to emulate, I actually am much more likely to run this types of thing than any other type of scenario, actually.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Of Hugos and Puppies

While I haven't been posting here much, I've actually been quite active online the last few weeks.  Much of that has been following (and commenting) on the ongoing drama associated with the Hugo awards this year.

Read that article.  It's a pretty good summary of the situation.  I haven't wanted to make a big summary here, because it's a lot of work, frankly, to retype all of that information in my own words, so I'll just link to that as the gist of it.

There's more, of course, and I may weigh in from time to time between now and the actual announcement of the awards.

To be fair, I'm finding my own sympathies starting to lean more and more towards the Rabid Puppy agenda rather than the Sad Puppy agenda.  I'm not sure that the Hugos can be saved via Reconquista, and I'm not sure that it's even worth it to do so.