Thursday, May 29, 2008

Orcs and Half-orcs

Three posts today; I'm on a bit of a roll! I'm a very visually minded person and when I added orcs, goblins and vazhar to Dark•Heritage, I had a very definite look in mind for them. Unfortunately, the word 'orc' comes with a visual connontation now that's difficult to shed and it doesn't work for me. I've toyed with the idea of giving them a new name; Tolkien got the word from a kenning in Beowulf that referred to orc-Þyrs and orcneas—if Tolkien can coopt orc, I can coopt Þyrs, modernize the spelling to thurse and use that. But I'm undecided.

In any case, orcs always start with Tolkien and his descriptions aren't exactly comprehensive. He refers to swart, black and sallow skin, fangs, red eyes, squint eyes, being short, being hairy, having long ape-like arms (at least on some individuals) and a few other adjectives that occasionally point to a contradictory—or more likely varied and diverse—description. In general, the Lord of the Rings movies did a reasonably credible job of depicting them; not exactly what I would have done, but I can't really fault them in general and I actually like the look. Warhammer and Warcraft, on the other hand, have cemented the orc look as a kind of parody with physiques like hairless gorillas with kelly green skin ("Faith and begora! Yer after me Lucky Charms!"), gigantic lower jaws and chins that look so heavy its a marvel that they can even close their mouths at all, an in general a lot of campiness. D&D has varied over the years, from orange-skinned men with pigs-heads to today's situation where many of the core illustrations don't even match the description of them. The Monster Manual, the Dungeonmaster's Guide and Savage Species all have Warhammer-esque orcs with green skin and heads bigger than watermelons, 75% of which is pure jaw. The thought of these monstrosities mating with humans—even as the product of rape—to produce half-orcs is frankly too vile to consider.

Some of the more recent illustrations are better, and for my money the best orc illustrations out there are on some fo the Freeport covers by Wayne Reynolds. The Pirate's Guide to Freeport and the Freeport Trilogy covers are the best, showing orcs that are stocky and robust with a thicker skeleto-muscular system than humans, coarse hair, wide, spreading, flat noses (and faces), prominent tusks in the lower jaw, large pointed ears, and grayish skin. They don't look human, but they also don't really look like monsters. They're humanoids—or demihumans if you prefer—with a tendency towards savagery and lack of high culture, but no more monstrous really than an elf or a dwarf. I tend to think of orcs as if they were hold-out populations of Neanderthal men in the Middle Ages rather than monsters or bogeymen.




Here's a few great pictures (also from WAR's online gallery) of what I think half-orcs should look like as well.






Hobgoblins are another race that sadly suffers from poor illustration. I tend to think of them as looking more like the illustrations of githyanki really, except without the crazy hair, spots, and pathological emaciation.

Pirates

Perhaps the inspiration for the changes mentioned in my last post is how much fun I'm having running the "Mezzovian Main" game. Maybe its because for that game I whipped up a CD-R of mp3 soundtracks including all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, all three Indiana Jones movies, both Mummy movies and Van Helsing (I realise a fourth Indy sountrack is now available—in fact I already have it—and that a third Mummy will be out before summer's over, but I made this CD-R at least six months ago) and I've been listening to it frequently while reading or otherwise puttering about the house. This in turn has prompted me to reread my systemless Pirates' Guide to Freeport book by Green Ronin which is an absolutely fantastic book, and very cleverly done. It also removes some of the campiness of the original d20 Freeport book for the 3e rules. A number of companion books have also been released providing rules support, further mechanical options, and in every way simply more detail period for d20 (D&D 3.5), True20 and Savage Worlds, with a Castles & Crusades companion on the way and a blog post by Chris "Famous Pramas" for adapting it into Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying.

Despite all these mechanical options, it's obvious where the settings roots lie: it's traditional D&D with a heavy flavor overlay of the "Golden Age" of Caribbean piracy and with roots digging deeply into Lovecraftiana. It's somewhat campy, melodramatic and fun, but not too campy or melodramatic meaning that it can be played pretty straight.

I literally just finished rereading it last night and have immediately plowed into Five Fingers: Port of Deceit, and interesting comparison to the Freeport line because it uses very similar themes and imagery but it does so in a more serious fashion and despite the fact that its not systemless (being in fact a D&D book via that d20 license), the setting feels much less D&D-like than Freeport does. D&D and I have an interesting love-hate relationship; although I often scoff at obvious D&Disms and profess to eschew them, I find myself drawn back to many of them time and time again (hence the on again off again orcs in Dark•Heritage, although orcs are bigger than D&D certainly.) Right now, the fickle vagaries of my taste are much more tolerant of the D&Disms which leads to a slight favoring of Freeport over Five Fingers (previously I've said the opposite although it's always a photo finish between them.) I even kinda like the occasional campiness, something Five Fingers doesn't bother with. Five Fingers is like Charles Dickens—but without the plucky, curiously virtuous protagonists who always manage to rise above the dark, sooty nastiness that surrounds them; Five Fingers oozes dark sooty nastiness.

In any case, I've always thought of Dark•Heritage as more of a setting for fiction than for gaming, although the various fiction attempts I'vemade have been short and abortive, while the gaming iterations have gone through a few successful versions now. Luckily, this change will not require me to make any changes to my novel outline, although I will have to go back and rework everything currently written to accomodate the changed details. Le sigh.

Dark•Heritage Mk. III

I thought about changing the name yet again as I now have some additional interesting things going on—specifically that Dark•Heritage has marched on from Mk. II to Mk. III. The rules haven't changed much (for the roleplaying aspect of the setting anyway) with the exception that I'm thinking of slapping an E6 or E8 style ceiling on level advancement—but I've made a few fairly significant changes to the setting.

Most significantly, I've hybridized Dark•Heritage Mk. II with the "Mezzovian Main" pirate setting I'm using for my D&D game right now. The Strachina Basin is no longer a vast desert like the Taklamakan and Razina an important Silk Road stop like Kucha; the Strachina is now a peninsula like Italy or the Peloponnesse with Razina an important maritime city-state like Carthage, Knossos or early Republican era Rome. Although, honestly, its my intention to make it as much like Tortuga or Port Royale from the "Golden Age of Piracy"—these are more geographical similarities rather than cultural.

I've toned down the exotica just a bit; the main human culture around Razina is cosmopolitan, but not unlike what you'd expect to see in any American or European (or Canadian, or Australian, etc.) city. Familiarity breeds characters the audience can relate to, after all. There are a few desert-dwelling races of humans that look exotic still, though, as well as the chalky white inhabitants of my "Valles Marineris". I've also returned to an older idea that had been kicking around in my earlier notes but which I had abandoned of bringing orcs into the setting. I'm also going to bring a few more guys too—dimorphic goblins with a goblin and hobgoblin caste, and maybe even the "vazher"; mortal descendents of otherworldly afrit.

A core conceit of Dark•Heritage has always been that humanity is not native to Kael; a group of refugees fleeing the Deluge on earth ended up here. I'm now saying that the Deluge w2as but part of a "Multiversal Catastrophe" that struck inhabited worlds all over the place, flinging groups of refugees across the cosmos in a multi-front diaspora. I have to admit that this broadening of the catastrophe that brought people to Kael (and now also orcs, goblins and vazher too) was probably influenced by the scene in Magican: Master where Pug (Milamber) sees teh inhabitants of Kelewan enter the world, fleeing the depredations of "the Enemy." But hey; I never claimed to be original here, and in fact I'll be the first to say that I'm doing nothing but recombining elements that I've stolen from other sources that I like.

One interesting side effect of this change just occured to me while finishing up this post is that the geography of the circum-Mezzovian setting will now fairly closely resemble that of my friend Corey's Barsoom setting (I'd give you a link, but it actually just vanished a few weeks ago in one of the vagaries of the Internet; I believe the server it was housed on crashed and the data was lost or something like that.) I don't see that as a bad thing however; despite the fact that it's unintentional the two of us have long noticed a surprising convergence of tastes and ideas about this kind of thing, and if a change I make to my setting inadvertently causes a chance even closer resemblance to the setting that he's used so successfully before, then I've probably stumbled upon a good thing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

M.Y.T.H.ing You

I somehow missed Thieves' World for years. I knew about it, of course. In the mid-80s, I even briefly owned a volume (the fourth, I believe) in the series. Maybe it was bad timing or something, though—at the time I was very interested in multivolume epic high fantasy and Thieves' World was sword & sorcery short stories. Maybe it was nothing more complicated than the fact that I had the fourth volume of the series and the first, second and third were nowhere to be found at my local public library and used bookstores. Don't know. In any case, it didn't click with me and I only read a few stories, sold the book back to the used bookstore and didn't think much about Thieves' World anymore after that.

As it so happens, I was hanging around some used bookstores just a few weeks ago and saw the first volume, and decided to try it out. My tastes had changed since then, and I am much more interestedin sword & sorcery short story anthologies than multivolume epic high fantasy at the moment, or maybe just because it was the first of its kind, but I really enjoyed this book and plowed through it in very short order.

Seeing Robert Asprin's name on the front cover of that made me want to dig out my old M.Y.T.H. Adventures novels; very entertaining and fun novels that he wrote that I've loved for years. In fact, I did dig them out (although I haven't started reading them yet.)

Imagine my surprise, right as all this is happening, to find out that Robert Asprin passed away just a few days ago, unexpectedly, at a relatively young age (he was in his early sixties, I believe.) He was also a neighbor of mine (sorta; living in nearby Ann Arbor) although I hadn't remembered that. I've read a bit of his bio recently and been a bit surprised; I doubt that if we knew each other we'd have gotten along well, ofr instance. Oh, well. Now I'll never get the chance, remote though it always no doubt was, to find out. Although all of his main work was in series that carried on long after they should have been retired gracefully (sadly) I still have a very fond spot in my memory for the first times I read Another Fine Myth.

So, Robert Lynn Asprin: here's M.Y.T.H.ing you. :(

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Diarrhea Silverhands

There's a really annoying little guy who showed up on ENWorld recently who calls himself Aria Silverhands. He's mostly annoying in that he clearly believes that his tastes, preferences and opinions are self-evident "truths." This isn't so bad by itself except that he feels compelled to post comment after self-righteous comment about how wrong people are for, say, liking Eberron. Which he claims to know all about even though clearly he's never read it.

There was some good to come out of Aria's diatribes, though. At one location that has a tradition of finding and pointing out the posts of exactly these kinds of losers, we all had a pretty good laugh at his expense. He also prompted me to give at least a little thought to what I like my fantasy to be like and why.

Now, I like Eberron quite well, and in the interest of full disclosure I should say that up front. It appeals to me much more than, say, Greyhawk which is almost the anti-setting, simply being the D&D baseline, or Forgotten Realms which started out as a weak liberal utopian version of Tolkien that has since accreted various and sundry D&Disms like a magnet grabbing up iron filings.

In contrast, Eberron shows consistency and a strong focus. The "Indiana Jones meets the Maltese Falcon... in D&D" theme is quite strong and carries through from the setting material, to the adventures, to the art. Interestingly (again, highlighting Arai's lack of familiarity with the setting, notwithstanding his vociferous claims otherwise) I think Eberron has the strongest and best developed theme of any of the current settings, and it is as consistent and well-developed as any of the 2e era "themed" settings like Spelljammer, Birthright, Planescape, Dark Sun, etc. Its simply a more subtle theme than some of those—closer to the themeless settings like Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms in "feel" at least, even if only superficially.

I prefer a theme like this. "Generic" high fantasy bores me these days, frankly. When I was in junior high I used to enjoy dabbling in warmed over Tolkien rip-offs, but no more. Now, my first question about a setting is, "what sets it apart and makes it unique?" and if there isn't something significant that can be articulated in just a few sentences, my interest tends to plummet.

Another dubious claim Aria makes about Eberron is its verisimilitude-breaking inclusiveness. Although I can't really argue that point directly, I can make two counter points: Eberron is not designed to include everything in D&D, as Aria claims, it's designed so that individual DMs have a logical place that they can fit any given D&D element, if they so desire. The distinction is significant. Also, Eberron is not, at least, any worse in terms of inclusiveness than Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms, and in fact is considerably less problematic than either of those, in my opinion.

A frequent complaint I hear from folks that is along this same train of thought is the "D&D has become as kooky as the Star Wars cantina scene, with all its crazy races." I say: it hasn't become that way, it's always been that way, and that's a strength of the game, not a weakness. If I want something more limited in theme, I've got better choices already: Decipher's Lord of the Rings game, Mongoose's Conan game, Green Ronin's Black Company or Thieves' World or even Hârn. D&D from the get-go was designed as a fantasy melting pot that took Tolkien, Howard, Leiber, Vance, fairytales, Arthurian romance, Greek mythology, Norse mythology... and any other source that caught Gygax's eye and mixed it all together. Sure; after nearly 35 years, its become even more diverse, but it always has been and that's always been a consistent theme with D&D anyway.

Anyway, there's more to Aria's ranting. He also holds it against Eberron that it was created specifically to be sold via the setting search, but since even he admits that's not rational, I won't argue with it.

At the end of the day, I like Eberron. It's not my favorite published setting for D&D (that would be Iron Kingdoms) nor my favorite game setting to use (since one of the things I like best about DMing is building the setting, nothing ever beats a good homebrew.) But it's good because it provides a strong and compelling theme, and it has some neat twists and stand out from generic fantasy Greyhawkiana. I like fantasy settings to feel exotic, not run of the mill. New races and strange cultures are a plus, not a negative. A sense of lurking danger, intrigue and horror is a plus. A bit of moral realism rather than "black hats" and "white hats" is a good thing.

I like Eberron because it does all these things.

Monday, May 19, 2008

4e

As the time until 4e's release is now better counted in days rather than weeks or months, I thought it appropriate to ramble a bit more about it again. Even if I have very little to say that's new.

4e—or Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition I should say—still fills absolutely zero need for me. I'm reasonably happy with Third Edition still, and don't exactly feel that starting my rather extensive collection all over again from scratch is a good use of my time and resources. Luckily, my gaming group seems to think the same way; if anything, I may be more curious about the new edition than any of us, although my feelings are best described as curiousity only.

That said, I'm going to talk a bit more about the "implied setting" which is where I think the 4e team really got it right. That said; they got it right by doing things that I'm already doing, or at least can easily do myself regardless of ruleset. For the most part, I see what they've done as taking a few somewhat hesitant steps in the same directions I've already gone. Not suggesting for a moment that they copied from me; I see rather a small, subcultural zeitgeist away from "traditional" high fantasy tropes and more towards the often older sword & sorcery conventions and traditions.

Here's a few 4e "innovations" in "implied setting" that match some fairly consistent homebrew things that I do already:
  1. Emphasis on "exotic" races; downplay of "standard" races. The addition of the dragonborn, tiefling and eladrin as standard new races (as well as the elimination of the gnome) is seen as a huge change in focus by most gamers. Whenever possible, I eliminate elves, dwarves, halflings and gnomes and replace them with something else. I'm also a big fan of the idea of tieflings, although I'm a little unsure of the 4e execution.
  2. Magic is a dark and dangerous art, most often practiced by the power hungry and unscrupulous. Although the new warlock class isn't nearly as strong with this vibe as the dangerous and unsettling magic I like to use. I actually prefer a much lower (and more dangerous) type of magic than the D&D default.
  3. Although its still unknown how well this will work, a stated design goal of 4e is to extend the "sweet spot" of gameplay. I've done this by adopting the E6 houserules, which keeps gameplay much more firmly in the realm of what you tend to read in fantasy fiction.
  4. Outsiders and their realms have been reorganized to make them eaiser and more natural to use, while redundant critters have been eliminated. Although I still believe they hold too firmly on to sacred cows as it is here, too. I prefer to lump all hostile outsiders together and assume that they could come from one of many varied—and relatively easily reached—Hellish courts.

Supernatural

In addition to the movies that I saw over the weekend, I checked the DVR and was suprised to find that I had six episodes of Supernatural saved up through the season finale, which aired last Thursday. This post will have a few major spoilers.

Even more suprising than the number that racked up without me paying attention was the fact that I actually managed to watch all six of them this weekend. I was a little surprised by the "sudden" rise of Lilith as a major villain—kinda outta the blue for me, although maybe watching them in closer succession on DVD later that'll prove not to be the case. Old yellow-eyes seemed much more developed and entrenched whereas Lilith's rise seems like a flash in the pan comparatively.

A few other suprises; Bela down like a chump, Ruby apparently down off camera and Dean dead with his soul in Hell. The hint that Sam's psychic powers weren't really gone, just dormant, on the other hand doesn't surprise me at all.

Its always a bummer when they end a season on a cliffhanger, but I daresay the writers know what they're doing with that. Its a good move, no matter how much I may not like it. In my case, I wasn't likely to drop out of watching this show, though. Its my favorite show on TV and I haven't missed a single episode. Heck; I've bought seasons One and Two on DVD already. I have no doubt I'll do the same with Season Three and almost certainly beyond as well.

I don't yet know if I prefer the first season with its urban legends and ghost stories or the more demonic focused subsequent seasons; I do know that the episode with the "crocuta" made me roll my eyes, though. A soul-eating scavenger? OK, the idea's fine, but once you know that the scientific name of the spotted hyena is Crocuta crocuta the charm kinda wears off.

Then again, I suspect few people happen to know off the top of their heads that crocuta is the scientific name of the hyena...

Weekend movies

This last weekend was relatively relaxed for me, and characterized by long stretches of sitting and watching stuff. We watched (as a family) 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on Friday night and then went and saw Prince Caspian early Saturday afternoon. I think I liked the newer movie slightly better. Not only was it darker in tone, it also had more swashbuckling action and more intrigue. My younger son Alex agreed with me; the increased fighting and sense of danger (relative to the first movie in the series) made it an obvious improvement. My oldest son Spencer thought—if you'll forgive me for trotting out an ENWorld in-joke—that it lost its sense of wonder. He prefers the first movie, particularly when they first arrive in Narnia and explore around without understanding what's going on.

If you've read much of my blog, you could probably guess that I was fascinated by the Telmarines. The movie's producers decided to make them very Mediterranean in look and dress, as well as casting almost all Spanish and Italian actors (with accents) to play them. Prince Caspian himself, although played by a British actor, had a relatively thick accent which was specifically modelled on Mandy Patinkin's Inigo Montoya—according to the actor. Near the end when the Telmarine army is on the march, they appear to be equal parts samurai, conquistadores, and Roman legionnaires.

To anyone who likes fantasy, I recommend the flim as a great adaptation of a great chapter of a classic series. Supposedly, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is already underway. That book in particular was always a favorite of mine.

Speaking of movies—I don't know how this snuck up on me, but apparently in July there is a big budget new adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth starring Brendan Frasier. We saw the trailer for that and it looks good. Of course—it's got dinosarus. Knowing me, they'd have had to really screw things up for me not to like it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Novel

I mentioned abyssmal progress on a novel recently. Abyssmal is right. I've had the setting and characters in mind for at least four years and the core conceits of the setting go back further than that. Early draft plot outlines exist from almost four years ago too.

I've really wrestled with the outline since, and I have something that I think is pretty strong. I've got two or three abortive attempts to write the thing under my belt too. My problem, I've decided, is that I'm daunted and intimidated by the prospect of writing this thing. From prior experience, I expect that if I can power through to 30,000 words or so that that feeling will go away. Of course, then I'll have to deal with fatigue and attention span issues about the project, so maybe I just can't win. I don't have a specific goal for wordcount, but I'd be surprised if I could do the story justice in less than 90,000 words. I'd also be surprised if I could sell it unless it's over 100,000.

Movies

Speaking of seeing movies, we've seen a fair amount recently. Two weeks ago we caught Iron Man which is possibly the best comic book movie made to date. Robert Downey, Jr. is perfectly cast as Tony Stark, and it manages to avoid bogging down in exposition—a common theme with the first superhero movies in a series. It still didn't have quite as much superhero action as I'd like, but now that all the setup is done, they can jump right to it for Iron Man 2. That same evening, we saw Baby Momma, a movie for which I had literally no expectations. It was reasonably funny and entertaining.

Speed Racer was more disappointing. Don't get me wrong; I chuckled a few times and enjoyed bits of it, but the movie is really a mess. The plot is riddled with incoherent details which—surprisingly—have little impact on the movie as a whole. One reviewer called the movie "Hot Wheels on acid" which seemed pretty appropriate. Not that I have any idea what an acid trip is like.

The Wachowski Brothers have an annoying tendency to derail their movies with pretentious, ham-handed, self-righteous preachiness, and Speed Racer is no exception. It's simply that it's so absurd here that it feels almost satirical rather than serious (which who knows? Maybe it is.) All in all, it wasn't as tedious as turgid as the Matrix sequels or V for Vendetta but it still rates as a thumbs down—with the caveat that there are some things about it that are interesting.

This looks like a good summer for movies. This weekend Prince Caspian starts, next weekend the new Indiana Jones with still a new Hulk, a new Mummy, a new Batman, a new Pixar flick, Hancock, and more still on the way.

Paper Blog

For the moment, I no longer have the capability to access my blog as easily and frequently as I used to, so I'm keeping a few notes in good old-fashioned hand-written journal style that I can transfer to the blog later. This is the first entry recorded that way. Plus, new title!

I've been reading a lot again. Sometimes I find it difficult to read because my time available for such pursuits is low and so many competing activities vie for my time. Specifically: I've been trying to watch a number of movies lately, and making very little progress. I've been trying to write a novel and making an embarrassingly little amount of headway. I've been trying to play through Jade Empire and had to quit again (I somehow screwed up the romance with Silk Fox again, though, so that's not just about time.) Of course, those are the things that just compete for my free time, which with all the things going on in the evenings is already a vanishingly small commodity as it is.

But at the moment, more things are suffering because I've been in the mood to read. I just read Thieves' World, the first short story anthology by Robert Aspring in the infamous shared world sword & sorcery mileu. After a fitful start, I plowed through Book I of the Lord of the Rings in short order. I've been really anxious to read Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga again, but over the years it appears that I've lost my copies of the first three books, so I'm waiting to get my hands on them again.

I can afford to wait; I've still got plenty of the Lord of the Rings to read and the first Malazan Book of the Fallen book by Erikson to read, and some Leigh Brackett to read, and... and more, of course. As always, my queue of books to read is quite long. But that's the way I like it. I like to have plenty of things waiting in the wings to read. Speaking of which, I want to pick up some Jim Butcher and Brandon Sanderson soon too—I've heard great things about both. And, as always, since I have some friends who rave constantly about the merits of Brust (Corey and Scott, mostly) I want to see exactly what it is that I'm missing. Finally, I enjoyed the first three Black Company books by Glen Cook well enough (alhough the writing style wasn't exactly to my taste) so I want to go on and read the rest of them. I've even—Heaven help me—been seized by a desire to reread the Belgariad. Clearly my hunger for fantasy fiction, which had been slumbering for some time, has awaken with a vengeance.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

New dinosaurs

I've always quite liked Todd Marshall's paleo-illustrations, so I was very pleased when—after hearing about the description of two new abelisaur and carcharadontosaurid dinosaurs from Niger (by Paul Serreno—who else)—I did a GIS and found out that he had whipped up some nifty B&W illustrations of the guys. Both are from the Elrhaz formation, which straddles the Aptian-Albian boundary at roughly 112 Million Years Ago. Both are very basal members of their clades as well.

I have to say that finding out about the diverse—and different—dinosaur faunas of Cretaceous India, Africa and South America is one of the most exciting things to happen to dinosaurs in the last 10-15 years or so. Not that I don't love T. rex and Triceratops and all those fellas as much as the next guy, or that I thought the North American and Asian correspondences weren't pretty interesting, but it's fascinating to see that the "global" late Jurassic fauna went entirely different directions in the former Gondwana continents than it did in the northern hemisphere.

Anyway, I mentioned art, so I should post it. Here's Kryptops palaios, the basal abelisaur.





And here is the basal carcharadontosaur Eocarcharia dinops, described as very similar to Acrocanthosaurus but without the vertebral spines:



Dino-adventures

Some of my personal tastes and predilections are probably well known to anyone who's read more than a post or two of my blog, so here's another rather predictable post. About art.

I've been on a hunt for some time now to get as much cool fantasy art in digital format as I can. The best way to do this is to raid the online galleries of fantasy artists, I've found, and here's two of my favorite pictures. The first is the cover to H.E.X.—a roleplaying game set in a Pellucidar-like hollow earth. This won an ENnies Award for best cover art in 2007, by the way. Very much deserved. The artist is Stephen Daniele.



The next is by Daryl Mandryk, who did a bunch of concept art for Turok, so he knows a thing or two about guys shooting dinosaurs. This one is unrelated to Turok, though—as near as I can tell—it's just a really cool image.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Ignore this post

This post is just for my own benefit. I'm trying to make a list of Ray Feist books in the order in which I believe they should be read. Although I say that I like him, I've actually only read a few of his books; I'm thinking of expanding my Ray Feist repertoire. The ones in bold are ones that I've already read while ones in italics are announced but not yet released. I'm skipping a few that aren't part of the "main chronology" although I am adding in the adjunct tangent set on Kelewan because they are so highly regarded. Switching from blue to black and vice versa indicates moving to a new sub-series within the greater series.

  • Magician: Apprentice
  • Magician: Master
  • Silverthorn
  • A Darkness at Sethanon
  • Daughter of the Empire
  • Servant of the Empire
  • Mistress of the Empire
  • Prince of the Blood
  • King's Buccaneer
  • Shadow of a Dark Queen
  • Rise of a Merchant Prince
  • Rage of a Demon King
  • Shards of a Broken Crown
  • Talon of the Silver Hawk
  • King of Foxes
  • Exile's Return
  • Flight of the Nighthawks
  • Into a Dark Realm
  • Wrath of a Mad God
  • Rides a Dread Legion
  • Return of the Demon King
  • A Kingdom Beseiged
  • A Crown Imperiled
  • Magician's End

More fantasy hackery

Thinking of the blog post I wrote yesterday, it's not surprising that I've become a bit disenchanted with High Fantasy as a genre. J. R. R. Tolkien is probably my favorite single writer ever, and remains so, and I have a fond nostalgia for C. S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander as well. Ray Feist is another one that I like quite a bit.

But once you go beyond that, you get to writers like R. A. Salvatore, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Ursula LeGuin, Stephen R. Donaldson, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan—all writers that inspire in me reactions somewhere between polite disinterest to active hatred. Not a fan of most of their stuff.

So the last few years, I've wandered a bit away from High Fantasy, and am only cooly curious about what's going on in the field.

Because I have a friend who continually raves about them, I'll try out some Brust and Erikson eventually too. Maybe when George R. R. Martin finally finishes his work, I'll have a look at that.
Otherwise, I'm finding myself more and more turning back to older, sword & sorcery style authors and enjoying the vibe of that much more vibrant, pulpy kind of writing quite a bit. I've also enjoyed some Glen Cook, but I don't know exactly what kind of fantasy I'd call his work.

Plate tectonics

I've recently become mildly annoyed with some sources on plate tectonics that I've looked at, because they treat the "Eurasian plate" as if it were, in fact, a single plate, which it is not. If it were, there would be no explanation at all for all the mountains that are smack-dab in the middle of the plate, and we'd only be able to explain the Alps (as the boundary between Europe and Africa) and the Himalayas (where the Indian plate has charged into the flank of Eurasia.) Where then did all the other mountains come from, including the Urals, the Caucasus, the Zagros, etc.?

The fact is, that Eurasia has a much more interesting history than simply being the Eurasian plate forever. Siberia was once a unique continent, and the Urals formed when Baltica charged into them. Baltica then split along what become the Mid-Atlantic rift, separating Europe from North America. Khazakstania was a separate plate as well, and China is largely made up of the Amur plate. Smaller plates, such as Okhotsk plate, the Anatolian plate the Sunda plate, etc. also contributed to what it today called the Eurasian plate. Some of these have been stuck together (and moved together) for so long that at the moment they are behaving as a single plate, but others are not—the Amur and Anatolian plates are both slowly rotated, for instance, in place.

When you've got all that interest, why simply simplify and say, "it's all the Eurasian plate?" Not only is it inaccurate, but it's boring.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Fantasy hackery

When I was a kid, I benefitted a lot from living in a place that had nearly year-long clement weather. I also benefitted from living before the age of paranoia in which we live now; so my parents didn't worry overly much that I galivanted all over town as a child. I also happened to live in a town that was the perfect size; small enough to have that small town feel; large enough to have just about everything I could want to go see.

I can't remember if I started this in kindergarten or not, but certainly by 1st grade, I was riding my bike to school. With the benefit of Yahoo! Maps, I could chart how far that as, and it was about three quarters of a mile through residential streets. I get about two and a half miles to the public library, which by the time I was twelve, I was doing almost weekly, especially during the summer. There also was a used bookstore, Half Price Books, that wasn't very far from me either, and I used to make regular forays in that direction as well. I had a couple of decent new books stores within easy striking distance as well.

As you can probably guess based on the above, I was a rather voracious reader as a kid. I typically tell people that I used to read books by the truckload. And I very rarely gave up on books; even ones that were particularly bad. This was before the "paper crisis" that made prices increase dramatically in the early 90s; relatively slim novels still cost $1.99 at the time, and even large, thicker ones were rarely more than $3.99 or $4.99 for the absolute largest ones. Not that I had a ready source of cash before I turned 16 and got a regular job, but books were cheap enough that I between the library, the new bookstores and the used bookstores (where I'd also turn in books I was done with and didn't figure I'd ever read again) I had a pretty steady flow of books coming into the house. Good thing, too, given the rate at which I could read them.

Although my reading interests were fairly diverse, in the fiction department I certainly read much more science fiction and fantasy than anything else. I read a few westerns, a few other adventure tales, some modern thriller/bestseller types, and even on slow days I'd pick up a handful of my sisters romances, but I usually read fantasy and sci-fi, and a lot of non-fiction.

There's a lot of fairly bad science fiction and fantasy, too—but like I said, as a kid I usually perservered and read them anyway. There's a lot of good stuff out there too, after all. One of my favorite discoveries from this time was Edgar Rice Burroughs. I used to watch a Filmation Tarzan series as a kid that I really liked (and which was surprisingly faithful to the tone of ERB's Tarzan) and I had heard of the John Carter of Mars books, so I readily dove into both of those and started a long-lived love affair that continues to this day. I also read, at a friend's recommendation, the Chronicles of Prydain, which was my first High Fantasy series. The next year I finally (and belatedly) discovered Tolkien at the age of 12.

As a curious coincidence, not long after I discovered fantasy and read most of what I could get my hands on at the libraries and bookstores, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman published the first Dragonlance books. I remember seeing the small section of the shelf rather rapidly balloon out as novels were published four or five a year, and calendars (with cool Larry Elmore art) popped up and obviously a minor little craze was going on around the property. So by 1987 or 1988 or so, I found a copy of the three Dragonlance original trilogy novels (including one signed by Margaret Weis) at my used bookstore and picked them up. They were better than I expected, and remain one of the very few game-related fiction pieces that I thought was good enough to keep (other than that, I think the original three R. A. Salvatore Forgotten Realms novels are the only ones. And I've had second thoughts about those from time to time.)

One series I discovered and like quite a bit was by Raymond Feist; the original Riftwar Saga. Although not technically game fiction, as it turns out, the setting of Midkemia on which the action takes place, was in fact a roleplaying game setting that Feist and his friends used. He set the first book 500 years before his game (which means that all the books he's published for Midkemia take place way before his game; I'm a little curious what the setting looked like at the time of his game, actually.) There's also the possibility that Kelewan and the Tsurani Empire—the other major world described in the Riftwar Saga—was heavily influenced by Tekumel and their own Tsolyáni Empire.

The reason I bring this up is that I recently (finally) moved all my fantasy books from the boxes in the basement, where they were a real pain to get to, to a large bookcase that I have in my bedroom. In doing so, I discovered that I am missing some of my books—and among them are the first three Riftwar books, which I consider a high priority to recover.

I like the Riftwar. I like Midkemia. I like Kelewan. Sure; none of them are terribly original; Midkemia feels like a D&D world (and for all intents and purposes, it is—although Feist and the other creators do acknowledge that they very early became dissatisfied with D&D as a system and created their own, the feel is still very similar). However, unlike the farmed out game fiction novels, Feist actually really loves his setting and cares about it, which helps his novels immensely. He's also a skilled enough writer to write what he wants rather than be simply a "novelist for hire." Despite my disdain for "game fiction" however, I do have to admit that a lot of it—maybe most of it—is still the equal to other fantasy "hack" writers; folks like David Eddings or Terry Brooks.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Leng Calling

That's Falco's "Vienna Calling." While I was trying to think of a better name for my "DarkDnD" site I had the idea "Leng Calling." It got that song stuck in my head.

Despite that, I do kinda like it. The URL hasn't changed, but the title has. Plus, I get to hear some cheesy 80s Austrian dance music in my head the rest of the morning. It doesn't get much better than that.