Thursday, December 31, 2009

Seekers of Secrets

I've made no bones about the fact that I often dislike the overt D&Disms that are rife throughout D&D related products, and D&D gaming in general. One bizarre D&Dism that, if you stop and think about it, makes very little sense whatsoever, is the idea of an "Adventurer's Guild." The idea that professional "dungeon delvers" would join together into a Guild for any reason whatsoever is just as ludicrous as the idea of all those dungeons to be delved in the first place.

So, with those initial personal reservations, I go into the Pathfinder Chronicles book, Seekers of Secrets which details the Pathfinder Society, the biggest, most organized Adventurer's Guild ever concieved (to my knowledge) for any D&D campaign setting.

I can't say that Paizo completely removed all my reservations about the concept; quite often, the stuff this book described felt very artificial and contrived to me; clearly game artifacts rather than something that actually makes some sense to exist in a typical fantasy setting. There couldn't be anything like these Adventurer's Guilds in Hyboria or Newhon, for example. And yet, Paizo did manage to make an Adventurer's Guild that felt sufficiently well detailed and explained that I could at least justify it.

The Pathfinder Society is, in a way, Paizo's eponymous organization in Golarion, their world, the society that's named after the entire gameline itself. And it's sufficiently broad in scope, that it makes some sense. One thing that I've really liked about Golarion is that it manages to bring back to D&D that tone and feel of the old pulp stories. Doc Savage, Tarzan, John Carter, Conan and Kull, and the rest of them... they clearly feature echoes all throughout the setting. The opening up of Osirion to treasure hunters is another hint: this is a world of pulp action of the type that could take place in the early twentieth century of our world. And in that vein, the Pathfinder Society is largely made up of folks who bear a resemblance to Indiana Jones and his rival Rene Belloq, or Rick O'Connell of The Mummy, with more studious types perhaps being more like Rick's love interest, Evelyn "Evy" Carnahan. This is actually a model that works to some extent. And the organization itself is full of plenty of adventure hooks to potentially allow players to pursue. Like Indiana Jones, the implication is that Society members aren't heroes; they resemble the real life prototypes that Indiana Jones might have been based on; the Roy Chapman Andrews and Heinrich Schliemanns of the world, adventuring, exploring, treasure-hunting... and hopefully doing at least a little bit to advance the cause of human knowledge in the world while they're at it. Evil, selfish characters who engage in all kinds of shady dealings make up a large percentage of Society members---as long as they bring stuff in for the Society, catalog new places, and generally contribute to the mission statement of the society; the advancement and dissemination of knowledge.

So, although I thought I wouldn't really have much use for this book based solely on the scope of it (I bought it as much for the cover art as for any other reason), I found that it actually did detail an organization that could potentially be very useful to me, even if I dislike the idea of "adventurer's guilds" on principle.

One thing that I was surprised, and a bit disappointed at in the book, though, was that it spent page after page after page talking about ioun stones. I guess I somehow had not picked up from my prior readings of setting material, that ioun stones were supposed to be strongly associated with the society. To me, ioun stones were these very weird magic items that were very flashy in appearance, and screamed "not really sword & sorcery" to me. I've never been a big fan. So, after I while, I found myself starting to skim just a bit... the ioun stones got way more coverage than they deserved here.

Otherwise, though... it detailed a lot of interesting NPCs the PCs could interact with, some interesting locations, lots of potential plot hooks, and an organization that actually takes a nonsensical idea and attempts to make it make some sense. Not a bad investment at all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Five Fingers: Port of Deceit

Well, I finished re-reading Five Fingers: Port of Deceit. I'm not going to give a full-on review of the product, but in continued the same impression I had of it vs. Freeport; I like the darker vibe of it. I also quite liked the organization of the book itself; the GM only chapter, the narrated player info chapters with incomplete info, and some very handy appendixes.

I should confess: I skipped over the few pages of mechanics. Feats, prestige classes, etc. I also only skimmed the mechanical gray boxes in text.

In any case, for my ongoing Freeport game, I'm going to incorporate a fair bit of Five Fingers flavor; in many cases, specific NPCs, plots and premises. The more I've tossed the two of them about together, the more of I've come to the conclusion that a fusion of them (plus any other fantasy WHoS&C--Wretched Hive of Scum & Villainy--I can manage to work in) is my best bet, rather than worrying too much about the specifics of each individual one.

So, what are some of those other fantasy WHoS&Vs that I'm working in? From literature, I've got Sanctuary of the Thieves World series, Haven of the Hawk & Fisher series (see the What I'm Reading sidebar) and of course the prototype for all of them, Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar. From gaming products, I've got obviously these two, but I'm also brushing up on some Paizo stuff; my Absalom and Katapesh sourcebooks in particular, some of the Riddleport and Korvasa material, and the new Cities of Golarion book, which I just picked up.

I can't at the moment predict what (if anything) I'll take from where, but it's nice to have a full barrel of ideas and concepts, so when I reach into the barrel because I need something, there's always something there for me to find. If nothing else, spending a few weeks steeping myself in WHoS&Viana lately has been kinda fun in its own right.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Freeportiana

I took The Pirate's Guide to Freeport, Buccaneers of Freeport and Cults of Freeport off my "What I'm Reading" list off there to the side. I actually finished reading The Pirate's Guide for the third (?) time cover to cover; the other two I read sections of, but for the time being I'm done. I'm not going to review them, because I've talked about them plenty in the past.

I will say, however, that my needle is tipping slightly away from Freeport again. Slightly. I really like the map, and the set-up, and the basic layout of the setting. This time around, though, I found the general tone to be too campy for my taste.

Even the Lovecraftian horror came across more as an esoteric in-joke or Easter egg rather than something truly horrific.

What I've decided to do with my Freeport for the game I'm in now is to take the geography, many of the names and many of the locations (as needed) but otherwise import a lot of elements from Five Fingers that will bring the darker tone of that pirate city to Freeport. I think Five Fingers suffers a bit from overly complicated geography, and too many ties specific to the Iron Kingdoms campaign setting. At least, those are problematic given how I would want to use the material. So hybridizing Freeport and Five Fingers, getting mostly the geography from Freeport, and mostly the tone from Five Fingers seems like a great idea.

While I'm at it, I think I'll probably re-read my Absalom book from Paizo, and maybe portions of my Katapesh book too. There's no harm in scouring sourcebooks for wretched hives of fantasy scum and villainy for material I can import. But first, I'm re-reading the Five Fingers book, and quite enjoying it. In fact, I'm going to import the gang-stuff wholesale; Mr. Wednesday has been mentioned, but isn't currently around (which is part of the initial mystery the PCs will have to resolve) and Finn never even existed at all. I'm all about Waernuk, Kilbride, Riordan and Hurley from Five Fingers.

I'll probably also import the cult activity from Five Fingers almost wholesale too, although I might switch a few names around. It helps that I've envisioned Freeport's rival, Mazin, as Cryx, so they can jus slot into each other's places easy-peasy.

Game concepts

Sometimes game concepts can come from all kinds of unexpected places.

Watch the trailer below, for the hit movie of this last summer, The Hangover. Now, imagine if you will, taking that same concept... a group of PCs waking up with no memory of where they are or how they got there (but lots of other people sure seem to remember them!), translate that to a seedy fantasy city like Freeport, and imagine what can happen...

Friday, December 11, 2009

New books

I'm adding a lot of stuff to my "what I'm reading" list. That's all hurried research for my pending Freeport game.

I'll report more on my Freeport game soon. I actually started an ENWorld blog specifically to talk about it, but I'm considering moving that discussion here instead, or at least crossposting it.

Monday, December 07, 2009

What is Freeport?

From Patrick O'Duffy, one of the main writers of the book on Freeport:

"What is Freeport? It’s a place of grubby action and desperate adventure, where the supernatural is real but not easily controlled, where crime and greed have more sway than curses and spells, where pirates may be more dangerous than monsters, and where you live on rum and sea biscuits, not waybread and nectar. It’s horror. It’s fantasy. It’s high adventure. It’s low comedy. It’s piracy and black magic and sunken cities and mad alchemists and thievery and evil cults and political corruption and gang warfare and suspicious lumps in your fish pie.

It’s the City of Adventure. No lie."

My local gaming has dried up, at least for the time being. I'm jonesin' for a game. So, I'm going to start another Pbp, with a dependable crew that gives me the types of games I love. And I'm going to set it in Freeport. My own Freeport, but I'm not going to deviate too much from the one written by O'Duffy, Schwalb, Pramas, and the rest of the Green Ronin crew. Because, frankly, those guys are pretty bright. No need to mess with success.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Ready.... Fight! Again!

I suspect that when I diverge from my RPG or fantasy literature related posts, I lose a bit of my audience. After all, just because I happen to like fighting video games and dinosaurs as much as I like Dungeons & Dragons doesn't mean that anyone else shares that particular subset of interests.

Be that as it may, this is my blog, and therefore my forum to ramble on about whatever I feel like rambling on about. You noticed the "most opinionated guy on the Internet" tagline, right?

I promised that after picking my "best of" from the fighting game genre, I'd do a few runners-up and then also a few "not runners-up" and why those games in particular didn't get picked when a lot of other fans of the genre probably would have included them.

Without further ado; here's a list of games that I also like quite a bit, but don't quite make the cut as "best of the best".

King of Fighters XI. This game is notable for several things: 1) very impressive character selection (although some notable and popular characters are missing, and a few others were only added back in on the console version as unlockable "secret" characters, 2) refined and polished gameplay based around the equally impressive King of Fighters 2003 game engine with tag-team fighting, 3) a continuation of what is possibly the most ambitious storyline the KoF franchise has attempted yet, although as normal this is often difficult to see for all the noise around how it comes out.

This one doesn't quite make the cut because I find the tag-team gamestyle a little too hyper for my taste. Much of that can be mitigated by playing in 3 on 3 team mode or single player mode (instead of arcade mode) but it still feels like it could take a Ritalin and be improved by the experience.

Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves. Sadly, none of the recent Fatal Fury compilations for the Playstation 2 included this, the last Fatal Fury game. Luckily for me, I've had a copy for my Dreamcast for years now. This is a beautiful game; well rendered, and with extremely engaging gameplay. It's considered one of the best fighting games ever by many fans of the genre, and I don't disagree with them.

For me, it doesn't quite make the cut because many of the characters aren't quite as engaging as the ones we're already familiar with, or they feel like rehashes of other characters on whom they're loosely based. I don't find the protagonist (Rock Howard; Geese's orphaned son, raised by Terry) very compelling. In fact, the character select in general is what brings it down. Apparently work on a sequal was underway when SNK went bankrupt. It was over 70% done. That might have improved the game significantly; at the very least, one presumes it would have bulked up the very Spartan line-up of selectable characters, which was sorely needed. Still; this one came very close.

Street Fighter 3: Third Strike. The final iteration of Street Fighter III was the best that that subseries got. It's got a fairly back to basics gameplay engine; almost as if the Alpha games never happened and this evolved down its own path from the final Street Fighter 2 game. It added a few more technical things as well; the parrying feature in particular.

What brought this game down was its character selection and its presentation. While the redrawn sprites were fairly attractive compared to the Alpha sprites, and the improved framerate made their movements very fluid, more than half of the characters, quite frankly, I had no interest in seeing. Interesting character design was not something that Capcom had on its mind when this was developed. Word on the street is that they almost didn't even include Ryu or Ken; what a disaster that would have been! They were among the only characters I was interested in trying for some time as it was. Although marginally prettier than the Alpha games, the Alpha games are much more fun to play, for me. I also have a pet peeve about some of the jazzy drum n bass songs in the soundtrack. There's a few good tracks, but at least half of them are almost painful to listen to. Plus, the boss, Gill, was just a dumb idea to begin with.

Darkstalkers 3. This is the final iteration of another series that was concurrent with (and similar to) Street Fighter Alpha, except with movie monster type characters, including a vampire, a frankenstein monster, a werewolf, a zombie, a creature from the Black Lagoon, etc., all seen through a sharply anime-styled lens. It's a pretty fun game, with gameplay not too unlike Street Fighter Alpha in many ways, but it also suffers a bit from too much silliness.

Real Bout Fatal Fury Special, King of Fighters 2002, Street Fighter Alpha 2. These games are very solid games, but just barely are edged out by other games in the same subseries that I picked instead. For example, Real Bout Special is almost as good as Real Bout 2... but not quite. Same thing with the Alpha title. King of Fighters 2002 is a dream match, not unlike King of Fighters '98. It's also a very fine game, but I think '98 manages to edge it out ever so slightly. The "Ultimate Match" version helps with that (although an ultimate match version of 2002 will come out in 2010 for Xbox Live download) but only a bit. Probably nostalgia makes up the rest of the difference.

A major not runner up is Marvel vs. Capcom 2, which I have on the Dreamcast, but which has also recently been re-released for current gen consoles and which was also released long ago for the old Xbox and PS2 for that matter. I found this game to be way too hyper and way too silly for my taste. Many of the characters are just plain bizarre. The ridiculous lounge lizard music is insult to injury. I also dislike that there is no option for single player, which I greatly prefer to lengthy team player games.

It's too bad; the Marvel characters are fun, and I really enjoyed the older Marvel Superheroes game. I wish they would take all the Marvel characters out of this game and put them in their own Marvel Superheroes 2. I'd have played that in a heartbeat, and it would possibly even have made my top games list. Ah, well. Wishful thinking.

I also did not include any of the Street Fighter 2 titles. While many of them are indeed still pretty fun to play, and they deserve a lot of credit for almost single-handedly creating the genre in the first place, to me they feel like they haven't aged well. The presentation is lacking in those games, and the options for play are limited. Possibly it's just worn out its welcome due to over-exposure. I have no idea how many hours and hours and hours I've put into SF2 games... but I'm mostly done with them now. I play them on occasion, but I feel like it's just nostalgia when I do. For engaging gameplay, I prefer newer games with more going on.

Fatal Fury Special is another game I considered adding to the runners-up list, but it's got the same issues as Street Fighter 2, and in addition is saddled with slightly less iconic characters overall, and much more fiddly controls. I can't in any honesty include it unless I include the best of SF2 first, and I've decided not to do that. So this one misses out too.

Blue Mary Blues

A sadly under-rated game from the Japanese 2-D fighting game genre is Real Bout Fatal Fury Special. One character from that game, Blue Mary, has a tragic backstory in which she's a police officer on the trail of the killer of her partner and boyfriend?/fiance? from before the games started. That story isn't well reflected in her mannerisms, though, except in this "music video" that SNK obviously spent a lot of time on, and included in the Neo*Geo CD version of the game. This is her in-game theme music, expanded and now with lyrics (sung in Japanese, of course). This really highlights the pathos of her character, in my opinion, much more than anything in game could ever have done.

It's still a little cheesy; very anime in feel, and heck, the hardware that supported this video was debuted in the late 80s fer cryin' out loud, but given those limitations, it's surprisingly well done.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Ready.... Fight!

I'm going through another "Street Fighter" phase. I use Street Fighter loosely; I really mean the entire genre of Japanese, anime-inspired, super-hero, cartoon-like two-dimensional fighting games. I'm not really a fan of anything anime (despite having tried plenty) but for some reason, this little niche subgenre appeals to me. Capcom's Street Fighter is probably the best known representative series of video games that I consider topical here, but there are others, including Street Fighter's rivals King of Fighters and Fatal Fury by SNK.

Here's what I consider the best the genre has to offer... minus the newest offerings, because I don't have either an Xbox 360 or a Playstation 3, so I can't play the very newest games. I had actually thought that it wouldn't matter because the entire genre was peetering out, but some new life has shown up in the form of hi-def Street Fighter IV and King of Fighters XII. I'll get around to those. Eventually. When I get a system from the current generation. Anyway, yeah. Best in the genre. The ones you really want to make sure and sample. There's a lot of other good games out there, but I'm going on the assumption that most people who are interested in this genre aren't going to be obsessive collectors, and are instead curious about what I think the best ones are. Because my opinion matters so much to everyone out there, right? Right? Ahem... Anyway, as it turns out, my picks seem to cover about one per major series, which works out really well, although the fact that it does so is actually coincidental.

Street Fighter Alpha 3. As far as I'm concerned this is the epitome of Street Fighter design. It had all the characters from every version of Street Fighter 2, a lot of characters from Street Fighter 1, a lot of characters from the Final Fight side-scrolling beat-em-up (firmly establishing that the two series take place in the same continuity, among other things) and had the best gameplay, most options, and yet still pretty intuitive and easy to pick up play. The graphics weren't literally the best technically (Street Fighter 3 had a higher frame rate, and some of the sprites were kinda clunky looking compared to those that were on other Capcom fighters from more or less the same vintage) but they were still quite nice and pleasing aesthetically. This game, quite frankly, has it all. It even has one of my favorite BGM soundtracks from the genre.

There's a few nitpicky complaints I could make about it; there are too many characters that are too similar, for instance. Ryu, Evil Ryu, Ken, Akuma and Shin Akuma are all at best slight variations on the same theme. For that matter they were variations on the same sprite. You could maybe add Dan to that list too. Maybe. But there was enough selection otherwise that that didn't matter too much. The announcer could use a Ritalin. And although he was clearly a native English speaker, whoever wrote the script for him wasn't; there's a few things he shouts out that are clearly mistranslated. "What a terrible fighter!" either means terrific or terrifying, for instance, but not terrible. That's an understandable mistake, I suppose. In regular play, some of the characters almost never come up as antagonists, while others almost always do. I wish the opponent select was a bit more truly random. But all in all, this game delivers for both single player and competitive play.

How best to get it: Probably the easiest way to get a hold of this game today is through the Playstation 2 collection Street Fighter Alpha Anthology. Not only do you get this game, but you also get the rest of the Alpha titles as well as the Puzzle Fighter game, which is good for a laugh.

Capcom vs. SNK 2. This gem of a game also has it all. Not only does it have most of the Street Fighter characters, but it's also got tons of your favorite Fatal Fury and King of Fighters characters thrown in to boot, drawn by the Capcom artists in a more or less Street Fighter style. The sheer size of the character roster is a big draw, the gameplay is phenomenal, and the most exciting part of the whole affair, of course, is putting the rival Capcom and SNK characters together in the same game so they can fight against each other. There's a lot of gameplay options; you can set it up as a single player type game, a la Street Fighter or Fatal Fury, or you can create teams that fight against other teams, not too unlike King of Fighters (in fact, there's specifically a 3 on 3 option that is almost exactly like classic King of Fighters play.) You can change other settings that make the game play like various other games in terms of super meters and other ancillary features like rolls, dodges, etc. In practice, I find that this is less of a draw than it sounds, because I found which system I like best and tend to stick with it, but at least I have enough choices to get the system I like.

I have a few nitpicks from this game too. There's a few characters that just don't fit, but they were thrown in there anyway. In some cases, this is because they come from games that are too dissimilar (like Samurai Shodown or Last Blade) and in other cases its because the sprites are so antiquated and clunky looking that they just look terrible (Morrigan, I'm lookin' at you.) The music and backgrounds are pretty forgettable, making the presentation of the game as a whole feel subpar. Luckily, it makes up for that with great gameplay.

How best to get it. This game was released for the original Xbox, the Playstation 2 and even the Nintendo Gamecube. I have it for the Xbox, and most folks will tell you that that release along with the Gamecube are the best ones. I don't think that there's sufficient differences to go out of your way to buy a new system, though, if you've already got a PS2. You can do most of what you need to in this genre with a PS2 these days.

Real Bout Fatal Fury 2. Arguably, this is where the Fatal Fury series made it's best showing. Some folks would instead claim Mark of the Wolves and while I'll certainly admit that that's a good game, this one is much more iconic. All of the Fatal Fury characters (to date) appear in this game. It's got the best graphics of the series, and the best sprites, and the best movelist. The two-plane fighting system feels much less gimmicky in this game; in some Fatal Fury games you spend so much time jumping from plane to plane that you don't actually bother with any regular attacks it feels like. Here the 2-plane system is handy and fun, but it doesn't overpower other options tactically. I find this game the most fun to play of all the Fatal Fury games, and like the characters' presentation best of all the Fatal Fury games.

Of course, it comes with a few nitpicks too. The button layout is different for a lot of the Fatal Fury games than it is for the other series, whereas with the other series, they feel more familiar. This is a very minor nitpick, but it serves to cause the game to stand out a bit, and not necessarily in a good way. There are some minor presentation issues; the game doesn't really have any endings to speak of except for a handful of images for each character. Some people will hotly argue that Real Bout 2 is a "canon" game, whereas the Wikipedia entry said for a long time that it was a "dream match." I don't think it really matters, since nothing of import happens anyway. The game also reuses a lot of its backgrounds instead of giving every character a unique one, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

How best to get it. The easiest way to get a hold of this game today is to get the Playstation 2 collection Fatal Fury Battle Archive 2 which comes with all three Real Bout titles. Despite the 2 in the title of this one, it's really the third and final in the subseries, and the best of the Fatal Fury greater series overall.

King of Fighters '98. This is a perennial fan favorite. King of Fighters was a great idea; combining characters from a whole bunch of different video games that SNK made (including, obviously, fighters like Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury, but also including others as well.) By the time '98 came out, it had been chugging along for five years, and '98 was technically the 5th entry. It was also meant to be a "greatest hits" within the already greatest hits framework of King of Fighters; it had the most refined gameplay and largest character roster of any of the games to date, and purposefully brought back a lot of fan favorites that had otherwise quietly never made another appearance. And frankly, five years of polishing had made the series excellent by this point. The characters are a joy to play and experiment with, and there's a lot of them to play around with. The gameplay is spot on; one of the best and most responsive in the entire genre, and very varied and tight. With only a few exceptions, the characters are very well balanced as well. This game is in many respects, a great answer to Capcom's Street Fighter Alpha 3; a game about which I said it has it all. This one definately does as well.

A few minor nitpicks, as I did with the others so far. Presentation-wise, this game could use a bit more polish. In fact, in the most recent release, it finally got it, but for years I played the Dreamcast version, and the menus and a few other items were surprisingly ugly and clunky looking. Other than that... well, I guess there were a few notable misses in the roster; folks who didn't show up despite having appeared in King of Fighters games before and being reasonably popular characters. That's since been addressed too. So... really, not much here on the nitpicks side at all, is there? Hmmm... I might have to bump this up to most polished game in the entire genre. It deserves it, if I do make that move. It's arguably SNK's best fighter.

How best to get it. Lately, it's been relatively easy to get this for the PS2. The Orochi Saga collection has it, in its original arcade version. The best option, though, is the PS2 King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match version, which went ahead and added all the missing characters into the roster, made some very slight tweaks to gameplay and balance, added a few new stages and gameplay elements, and which also includes the original arcade mode as well.

Next up! The runners up, and the notable not-runners up. By which I mean games that I didn't pick that you may have expected that I should and why.

Winner Takes All

I finished the second Hawk & Fisher novel (included in the omnibus edition I'm reading). Winner Takes All. This one isn't a mystery; it's more of a thriller. In a vague way, I was reminded of Frederick Forsyth's book about the Jackal, in that the point of view bounced around from one side of the conflict to the other so you could see what was going on at each end.

The premise of this one is that a controversial political figure needs protecting in the lead-up to an election, and Hawk and Fisher are assigned bodyguard duty (again.) This leads to a more straightforward plot than the mystery-influenced earlier book, but it's still an interesting one. There are some intriguing supporting characters, including a confirmed psychopathic mercenary woman with a fetish for setting things on fire, the two political candidates themselves, and their respective sorcerous assistants. One of whom starts the story dead, yet still active.

Without spoiling the plot, I can say that the action is very interesting; I really enjoyed the plot development. The characters were intriguing, yet not deep. They only go so far, which is fine because the book isn't really that long anyway (less than 200 pages in this trade paperback printing. If I hadn't been away and busy for the holidays, I would have read it very quickly.) The setting is explored a little bit, and the raw city of Haven proves itself again to be a character of its own nearly as interesting as the actual characters. Simon Green does manage to avoid the travelog approach though; setting elements come up when their relevent to the plot, and not otherwise. Much of the setting appears to be handwaved away; there's the Low Kingdoms, the Forest Kingdoms, the Northern Kingdoms, etc. And of course, Haven itself, which is in many ways a remarkably modern city. Or perhaps an exaggerated stereotype, in many ways. Haven is, however, a great model for what an urban roleplaying game setting could be like; there's tons of opportunity for adventure right within the city-walls, or as this novel shows, within even a single neighborhood of the city.

Because I came at Simon Green through RPGs (usually I'm the other way around; my interest in Dungeons & Dragons when I was younger was sparked by my interest in fantasy literature) I find that an interesting take. drnuncheon's Freeport story hour (which I've mentioned here before) was set in Freeport and featured two player characters, a man and a woman, both of whom were members of the Freeport Watch. The idea was, drnuncheon himself admitted, borrowed from the Hawk & Fisher books, and the broad similarities in tone and theme between Haven and Freeport made porting the idea all the easier. So, once again, I'm recomending this novel and the series in general as a great model for someone who would like to run an urban D&D campaign but isn't exactly sure how to go about it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Southtown

I actually wanted to do this myself at one point; take a screenshot of the Fatal Fury 3 map and label it. I should have known that a little looking would have shown me that someone else had already done it, and it would have taken me a lot less work.

Here's a few maps of Southtown, from various games. In most respects, the geography is pretty consistent. Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves is apparently set on a different peninsula/island a little to the East of the rest of the action. I never knew that. Huh.

Here's the original Fatal Fury map. Because the game (and the story) were still so primitive, I don't take this one all that seriously. But it paved the way for what was to come. Note: the subtitle of the original Fatal Fury was The King of Fighters. No relation to the game to come with that same name. Or, well, little relation, anyway.

I didn't look up the release dates, but I think Art of Fighting 2 was the next one, at least of the labeled maps that I have. This takes the original Fatal Fury map, rotates it a bit, and then attaches it to the mainland for a much fuller picture of Southtown.

Here's the map from Fatal Fury 3 which is very similar to the previous one, although turned into an isometric view and made slightly more stylized. This is the one I was working with when I wanted to label my Southtown geography. It was more work than I thought, because I didn't actually know what all the locations were without playing through the game.

Finally, here's a map from Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves. You can just see the eastern edge of the past maps over on the western edge of this map, so you can tell that all of these locations are new ones to the franchise(s).

Anyway, there's my Southtown geography lesson for the day. I'm actually kinda interested in that because I find weird esoteric details about my hobbies interesting. Plus, some of the Fatal Fury games are among the best in the genre (Mark of the Wolves and Real Bout 2 are the ones in particular I'm thinking of, and lots of other folks would also put Fatal Fury Special on that list) and because Southtown plays such an important role in the King of Fighters franchise, it's interesting to know.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Summer Knight

Jim Butcher's fourth Dresden Files book, Summer Knight, goes in a slightly different direction than the previous ones, and most of those that follow too, for that matter. There's a strong horror vibe going through most of the novels, and the antagonists: warlocks, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, etc. support that. Now, however, the antagonists are fairies, and the feel is much more fantasy than horror.

Not that the faeries aren't some pretty mean SOBs; because they are. A combination of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and traditional Gaelic folklore about the sidhe give us elves and faeries that are twisted, alien, mercurial and cruel at the best of times; downright destructive, spiteful and murderous the rest of the time. Dungeons & Dragons could take a page outta this playbook, and maybe a few less out of Tolkiens, and be vastly improved in my opinion. If I've gotta deal with elves, this is how I want them. Against the sidhe conflict, in to which Dresden is inexorably dragged, we also have the backdrop of his continued tension with the White Council (of wizards) and the Wardens, as well as the still freshly declared war against the Red Court of vampires.

Butcher likes his sidhe and the rest of the fairies, apparently. Not only have they at least made some kind of appearance (even if only a cameo) in all of the books so far, they continue to do so. While this book is the only one (to date) to treat them as the major antagonist, they continue to occasionally play significant roles in the books to come, especially Mab, the Winter Queen (a name coined by Shakespeare, it appears, in Romeo and Juliet instead of A Midsummer Night's Dream like you might expect (although her Summer Queen counterpart, Titania, comes from there) where she's just an off-hand reference).

Otherwise, the book is a little light on recurring characters; Michael Carpenter and Thomas Raith aren't even mentioned, and Karrin Murphy makes little more than a cameo herself. However, some important characters are introduced, like Mab, the Merlin, Ebenezar McCoy and the rest of the Senior Council of wizards. There's a surprise appearance by another character, but I won't spoil that here. It's big news. Plus, Dresden finally tells Murphy the way things really are, and brings her into the loop. The Alphas, specifically Billy Borden, also feature a bit, and are shown to have matured significantly since they appeared in Fool Moon.

This book's fun because it departs just a bit from the tone and feel of the others. Like I said, it's got a bit more of a fantasy feel, but not too much. There's still a mystery to be solved at the heart of the book, and Dresden does his usual routine to solve it. There's a climactic showdown in the lands of Faerie itself, that betray Butcher's ambition (still unfulfilled at the time) to write High Fantasy. Well, he had written it; to sell high fantasy is probably a more accurate a phrase.

In other words, Summer Knight is a very competently done iteration of the Dresden formula, and one that deviates a little bit in tone, but not much in form. It lays the foundations for much of the Dresden activity that follows without being groundbreaking in and of itself.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Backup

While at the library yesterday afternoon, I saw this quick little book by Jim Butcher; a kind of spin-off of the Dresden Files in novella form, from the point of view of Thomas Raith, an intriguing character who's not... obviously... Harry Dresden himself.

Because it's only a 12,000 word novella (about 70 pages) I grabbed it and read it in about an hour yesterday evening. It takes place at an undetermined point in the series, but it must be fairly late due to a few details that are made clear in this narrative. It also shows that there's quite a bit more going on in the supernatural world of Chicago than Dresden himself knows about.

This one is an interesting concept. Apparently Thomas Raith belongs to a secret society called the Venatori, and their goal is to weaken or break the power of the "old gods" and other cthonian entities by causing them to become forgotten. Because various gods gain power through the worship of mortals, this essentially makes them relatively powerless over mortals. Of course, Thomas is first introduced to us as a White Court vampire, and that's still true, naturally. He's not doing it necessarily because he's a hero. Well, possibly he is, but the rest of his organization certainly isn't.

There's not a lot to say about the narrative, because it's so short. The concept behind it works. Thomas is a readable character, although he comes off as not too different from Dresden himself in most respects. Also, surprisingly, the roll-out of the plot was not unlike that of a Dresden-helmed novel. Thomas keeps saying that he's not that good at magic, and yet that's a big part of what he uses to resolve the conflict.

In fact, if I have any complaint at all about this book it's that; it was an opportunity to see the universe through fresh eyes, and yet it felt pretty much the same. It's well done, it's recommended, but ultimately, if you miss it, you aren't missing much.

Oh, yeah... that is a Mike Mignola piece, in case you were wondering. There's two or three other black and white pieces of his throughout the book too.

Hawk & Fisher

Although I'm reading an omnibus edition, I'll be reviewing each novel of the Hawk & Fisher series individually. The first novel is called, simply enough, Hawk & Fisher.

I've been preaching for some time now that fantasy fans who only read fantasy are really missing out. A lot of other genres have a lot to offer, and as a player of fantasy roleplaying games, that's even more true. If I can take conventions, tropes, and ideas from other genres and work them into my fantasy gaming, that will only make it all the stronger. But, as long as I've been saying that, I haven't been saying that as long as some people have been doing it, and Simon R. Green's 1991 novel Hawk & Fisher is a mystery novel in a fantasy setting. Not only is it a mystery novel, it's almost a cliched, tired, stereotypical mystery novel... except that that fantasy setting makes it fresh again.

Hawk and Fisher---the main characters as well as the title of the novel, are a husband and wife team; the supposedly only honest guardsmen in the entire "police" force of the corrupt port of Haven. (I found it odd that a totally corrupt city is called haven, when the Thieves World guys used the synonym Sanctuary for their own totally corrupt city. For that matter, Green Ronin's Freeport setting as a pirate capital is kinda playing on the same riff.) We get treated to an early display of their competence when they have to put down a vampire in a tough neighborhood as the opening scene, but quickly they get invited into the classic mystery set-up.

They are assigned as bodyguards for an important reform-minded Councilman, and he's going to a small, private party at the sorcerer Gaunt's house that evening, along with his wife and a little more than half a dozen other folks. There's a murder, and it's clear very quickly that one of the guests must be the murderer. The sorcerer magically locks down his house until morning; no one can enter or leave. Hawk & Fisher need to discover the murderer before that time.

Of course, it's not simple. As they start interviewing the guests, all kinds of things don't add up about their stories. Everyone becomes a suspect; everyone's got things to hide. And before long, more people start getting murdered.

If you have any interest in the way a classic murder mystery novel is set up, this is an interesting case study, because like I said, this book is by the numbers murder mystery. The fantasy setting, though, adds some unique elements. Vampires, werewolves, demons, magic spells; all of it becomes important as the story goes on. It's not very long; in omnibus form, it came in at less than 180 pages, but I read it fairly quickly, so I think that even in standalone format this book would have been fairly short. But I recommend it. The title characters are interesting, the setting is interesting, and for me, I was especially delighted to read a mystery novel with the trappings of a fantasy novel.

Because it's an omnibus, I'm going to continue on into the next one before reading anything else (I think---unless my interlibrary loan shows up and I need to read it right away), so I'll probably have three Hawk and Fisher novels reviewed in relatively short order.

Friday, November 13, 2009

No Elak of Atlantis

Well, apparently I will not actually be getting Elak of Atlantis after all. Some local patron checked it out from under me and the Inter Library Loan request was rejected.

I'll try again in a few weeks. Or maybe I'll just buy it. I saw several copies for less than $5 on Amazon.

I'm also considering possibly reviewing the Hawk & Fisher novels individually, even though I have them collected to two three-novel omnibus editions. Stay tuned. If I decide to do that, the first one should be done fairly quickly; it's not that long and I made some decent progress last night. Part of the reason for this is so I can "pause" and read my ILL request of Northwest of Earth when it comes without having to worry about timing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Grave Peril

Last night I finished Jim Butcher's third Dresden Files novel, Grave Peril. Of course, I've read it before, but I've never specifically reviewed it, and I'm also going through the entire series again so I'm a bit fresh before the new novel comes out this spring. I won't do that every time a new novel comes out (Butcher seems to set a brisk one a year pace) but for most of the novels, it's only my second time through them. Plus, they're quick and easy reads, and pretty fun.

I've already discussed at length my reservations about the series overall, so I won't rehash that here. Rather, I'll focus on the specifics of this novel.

I quite like it, as I like all of the Dresden Files books, especially the second and beyond. However, it wasn't the strongest of them. There's a lot of good stuff around character development. Harry Dresden himself is put through a real wringer, and emerges a much richer character. He undergoes a number of really life-defining moments in this book. His girlfriend, Susan Rodriguez, does as well.

Also, this book introduces recurring character Michael, the Fist of God. Michael is the wielder of Amoracchius (always written in italics) which the books hint might be the actual real sword with is the legend of Excalibur. Michael isn't a magician in the strictest sense of any kind, but as a highly favored of the Lord righteous man with a magic sword, his "faith magic" is actually quite powerful. Butcher took a slightly more difficult road here, and I applaud him for it. Given his probable audience, it would have been easy for him to cast the Catholic Church and anyone associated with it in a bad light. Dresden himself states that although he believes in God, "he doesn't exactly see eye to eye with him." However, in contrast to that, we get repeated exposure to the character of Michael, which is everything that a member of the Church should be and hopefully aspires to. He's a great character, and no less interesting for his squeeky clean image. Anyway, Michael recurs frequently throughout the series, and his oldest daughter actually ends up becoming Harry's apprentice later on, so the impact of Michael (and his family) is substantial. I'd say other than Karrin Murphy and possibly Thomas Raith, he's the most important non-protagonist character to appear in the series. Thomas Raith is also introduced in this novel, by the way, although his future importance is barely hinted at. Murphy, on the other hand, gets very little screentime.

Anyway, the line-up of characters who appear, and what they will do later sounds more fanboyish than helpful, so I will point out that plot-wise, this one probably has a little too much going on, frankly. Who's the bad guys here? The ghosts? The vampires? The sidhe? All of the above? The lack of focus means that they aren't really given their due. Butcher instead focused on setting up important plot arcs that would take him through much of the rest of the series, and character development. While this isn't exactly problematic, in some of the other books (Fool Moon for example, which came right before this) the horrific nature of the "monster of the year" is more fully explored, and creates a much more dramatic effect.

I suppose that's the challenge of writing a series of mostly self-contained, yet loosely connected novels; the self-contained aspect tends to create friction against the connected aspect. In this case, the connections with other novels (future novels, mostly) are stronger while the self-contained aspect is a bit weaker. That makes the novel itself a bit weaker, but the series itself stronger.

But, I'm really not trying to gripe. It's not that big a deal; the novel is still plenty of fun, the bad guys are still scary enough, the characters are still charming, and the plot is still engaging. Everything that makes a Dresden Files novel fun to read is still here, and there's plenty of it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

New books to read

I'm demonstrating a continuation of my astounding lack of discipline about my stated reading schedule. On a whim, I've requested Henry Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis and C. L. Moore's Northwest of Earth (both in the recent Paizo Planet Stories imprint) from Inter library Loan, so when they arrive, I'll have to put my own reading on hold and have a go at them.

As with most of the Planet Stories line, these are "forgotten classics" of the pulp era. Henry Kuttner created the character of Elak to fill the void left by Howard's death---his Conan stories were a huge hit with the readership of Weird Tales. C. L. Moore, otherwise famous for writing the character Jirel of Joiry, often touted as the first female sword & sorcery hero.

Northwest Smith, on the other hand, is a kind of Han Solo or Indiana Jones like character in a setting not unlike Leigh Brackett's solar system. All of the planets, or at least the inner planets, are able to support life, and there are native humans on Mars, Venus and elsewhere that in many ways are analogous to the relationships of Western countries in the nineteenth century with various indigenous peoples in their far-flung colonies.

Anyway, this will probably mean another delay in reading my Simon Green Hawk and Fisher books... unless I can get that going really fast and read a significant portion of the omnibus before these ILL's show up. So, in case you were really excited to see my thoughts on that (something I'm sure nobody was), well... sorry.

I'm also not quite sure how to review these yet; they're both short story collections, not novels. So I guess I'll have a go at it as best as I can.
One thing that's interesting, is that both of them supposedly sport a "Lovecraftian" vibe. Northwest Smith (the character in Northwest of Earth, naturally) is maybe like Han Solo or Indiana Jones, and the setting bears some resemblances to a Leigh Brackett or Edmond Hamilton solar system setting (common to sci-fi pulps of the time) but the antagonists are often things that you'd expect to see in a Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith story.
Anyway, I don't have any direct experience with either writer, so I'm excited to uncover some "forgotten classics" of the golden age of pulp.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Thief of Llarn

Garder Fox's follow-up to Warrior of Llarn was Thief of Llarn, the further adventures of earthman Alan Morgan on the Barsoom-esque planet of ...unsurprisingly, Llarn. This was a short little book, published in 1966, and is only 158 pages long. My oldest son, who's a little shy of 14 years old, saw the cover while I was reading it the other day, and remarked that it looked like a cool book. I'm not so sure I agree (based on the cover anyway); the cover art by Gray Morrow is replacing Frank Frazetta from 1964's Warrior of Llarn. Gray Morrow had a decent career of his own doing covers in the 60s and 70s (he's the iconic Perry Rhodan illustrator) as well as in the comic book industry, but let's face it; he was a major step down from Frazetta. Even though the Frazetta piece in question is certainly one of his lesser works.

Despite this short length, a lot happens. As was typical for science fiction stories of that era, particularly science fiction stories that were purposefully retreading the ground of science fiction from 50 years earlier, the plot zips forward at lightning speed. Major setbacks are set up, identified, worried about, and then resolved again in less than a dozen pages. Fox makes liberal use of deus ex machina to advance the plot; sometimes stuff happens for no good reason than because he said so.

The gist of it is that a certain type of bizarre jewel is being stolen across Llarn. Alan Morgan is called on to find out why, so he infiltrates the Thieves Guild, impersonating a famous thief Uthian the Unmatched. At this point, we get treated to the "sword & planet" M.O., that is, Fox has his character travel all over the place, visiting exotic locales. There's a kind of travelogue vibe to these types of stories; the action is interrupted occasionally for several paragraphs at a time as some item of local culture or technology or even history is explained, as if by a tour guide. This isn't necessarily meant to be a bad thing, though... as much as I almost hesitate to use the phrase, the point of this is to stroke our "sense of wonder" by showing us cheap exotica and thrills. Burroughs did it frequently, and most of his imitators do as well.

Fox has a little bit more rounded characters than is normal for this genre. Alan Morgan isn't just an everyman hero, he's kinda a dumb jock in a lot of ways, in over his head but for the author's intervention due to spectacular good luck. The women of Llarn are fairly interesting, showing hints of color and personality.

All in all, if you like this genre at all, I think you'll like the Llarn books. They have most of the same weaknesses that all of this genre seems to sport like a badge of honor, but luckily, the Llarn books also seem to have most of their strengths. And Fox has a bit of genuine cleverness here and there in how he exploits the formula. At times, I almost wonder if he's writing a subtle parody of the genre, but at other times I think that the parody is too subtle; more likely he's playing it straight.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Sandboxes vs. Railroads

Some of the buzzwords that seem to be flying around fast and furious in RPG theoretical discussions these days include sandboxes and railroads. Railroads has been a term that's been in play for years and years, whereas sandbox as a term, seems a little bit faddish. I've only heard that recently, and I think it's an import from the world of computer game design theory. Let me define them right quick, as I understand them at least.

A sandbox gaming paradigm is one in which the setting or mileu in which the game takes place is static, and only shows signs of life when the player characters interact with it. The classic example is a completely open-ended site-based game design in which the characters can choose to go do anything they want to, pretty much, and as they interact with the sites on the site-based design, things that are waiting in those sites occur, whether it be a monster that attacks them, a treasure they (can) find or something along those lines. Site-based and sandbox go hand-in-hand (although that's not the only way to do a sandbox, it's probably the simplest and most direct.) Because of this, "old school" and sandboxes also go hand in hand. In fact, in some old-school discussions, I've seen folks nearly fetishize the sandbox.

In essense, they've created an ideal that never really existed, where in "the Golden Age" of roleplaying, the proscribed, accepted, and E. Gary Gygax-approved method of gaming was the sandbox, and everything that's come since is a dangerous heresy. I didn't start playing D&D back in 1974 in Wisconsin with the first group, or anything, but I think that attitude is a bit of hogswallop at best. For one thing, it appears that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax differed in playstyle preferences, making the call of "original" playstyle difficult to ascertain at best. For another thing; who really cares who Gary did it? I'm much more interested in what works for my group. In my experience, which does go back to 1980 or so (although it was a few years later before I became a bit more integrated into the D&D hobby) people didn't always play pure sandboxes. In fact, I think a pure sandbox game would be rather boring, personally. The important thing to remember is that a pure sandbox is a theoretical endpoint on a spectrum... not necessarily a desireable goal in its own sake. Some sandboxish campaign design is certainly good in any roleplaying game, but it's not, and wasn't ever meant to be, held forth as an ideal to strive for so much as an extreme to avoid. Running a sandbox game either requires that a great deal of material is prepared ahead of time, or that the gamemaster have a highly developed skill at making stuff up on the fly.

A railroad on the other hand, is something that's never enjoyed a faddish adulation of idealised game design. For the most part, everyone recognizes that a railroad is a bad game situation. As you'd expect from the opposite of a sandbox, a railroad is a game in which the players have little choice to make; they can't go anywhere they want, and in fact they can only really do what the gamemaster wants them to do. Railroadish GMs are often would-be writers, who find themselves uncomfortable with "winging it" when a player character does something unexpected, so their goal is to cause the unexpected action to fail, get the player back on course, and have the game again proceed according to his predetermined plans for the game. The advantage of a bit of railroading is that you can present very interesting and complex scenarios to the PCs... because that's what you've spent your time preparing, instead of a bunch of other things that the PCs may or may not interact with, according to their choices. Of course, the downside is very obvious; few players enjoy having the GM's story read to them; they want to be creating the story themselves through their actions.

The kind of game I like to run utilizes some very limited railroading, and then a non-site-based sandbox idea. Here's what I like to do. The model is called narrow-wide-narrow (and I can't take credit for the name or the expression of the model; I was doing it kinda intuitively, but a much better GM than I had actually quantified this). In the beginning of a game; either a campaign or a one-shot either one, the players probably don't have strong ties to anything. They don't yet "stick" to the setting, or have any reason to get engaged with it. You need to be a bit forceful up front, giving the players more direction to get the game going.

While you do this, you also throw out a lot of potential plot hooks. See what the players are biting on. Let them gradually take control of the game. This is the transition from narrow to wide. The players want to set the agenda for the game, and pursue the things that they find interesting, not what you do (so make sure that the plot hooks are going to be just as engaging for you to run as it is for them to play.)

As you near the end of the game, there's probably going to be a lot of dangling threads, unresolved and un-followed issues. This is where you need to start narrowing it again. As you see that a potential end is in sight for the game, start bringing these back together. This is best accomplished if you don't plan very far ahead. Elements can be linked after the fact, and players can't tell the difference. You don't need to be a conspiracy mastermind to make it look like you are; you just need to keep track of what they've done, what they've discovered, and what your reaction as the arbiter of the setting has been to that. Start bringing all this stuff to a head, so the game can end on a high note, with a satisfying conclusion that leaves things resolved and done.

And that's my narrow-wide-narrow strategy. I find that games that veer too much into pure sandbox or pure railroad territory are equally unengaging, uninteresting, and ultimately, not very fun to run or to play either one.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Camouflage - Sensor

The last two nights I've pulled out my copy of Camouflage's Sensor CD. This was released in 2003. I didn't remember that it was that old, really, but like I said earlier, all the post-early 90s synthpop stuff kinda blends together to me.

Camouflage is one of those bands that's been around for a while. They actually released their first CD (in America) in 1987 ("The Great Commandment" single; the follow-up album came out in '88) but they'd been kicking around in Germany together as a band for a good three years or so before that. They had some early success ("The Great Commandment" and the single from their next album, "Love is a Shield") but then struggled to find a market. The trio went down to a duo, changed their sound, released a disappointing studio album (that nonetheless has the brilliant song "Heaven (I Want You)" on it), stumbled around failing to find follow-up commercial success and label support and almost leaving the music business altogether.

Happily, that didn't happen; in 1999 the trio reunited (the band member who left remained good friends with the two who stayed) and they recorded the single "Thief." However, due to label stuff, it took an additional four years for the album that it was supposed to lead off from to get released. FOUR YEARS! However, that album is Sensor and for my money, it's the best Camouflage CD ever made.

Camouflage recognized that a return to their roots was going to be important for this album, so it's a good, German, dark, melancholy and bleak synthpop CD. Unlike a lot of more recent synthpop, it's not full of overt club anthems with pounding pseudo-industrial or trance beats; in fact, it's rather slow-paced and introspective in nature overall. It's got some guitars (mostly acoustic, which is anathema to some synthpop purists, but isn't really uncommon the genre).

The nice thing about it (if you want to call it that) is the thematic unity and focus. The entire album is pretty grim in tone, but it's got an awful of lot beauty to it nonetheless. Camouflage of the past often struggled a bit with English lyrics, but these sound smooth written, smoothly delivered, and work very well.

I've attached a few Youtube clips. First up is an unplugged rendition of the song "Can't Feel You" which isn't too different from the album version. The album version is obviously more synthesizer driven and lush in comparison. Second is the song "Lost" which is my personal favorite. And I've topped it off with the single version of "Thief" although it's important to note that the album version is quite different from this one.








Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Music and Me

I came into my "musical maturity" at about the same time that incipient synthpop was becoming highly mainstream in America. So right about the time that Depeche Mode, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Information Society, New Order, Book of Love and others were regularly filling the charts with successes in America, I was looking for a musical identity of my own. For a variety of reasons, most of which I have no interest in going into here, that's the kind of music that I latched onto.

A few things happened after that. I was in Argentina, a bit disconnected from pop culture, when that all came crashing down and the mainstream success of synthpop evaporated in America. So to me, there are two "eras" of synthpop. The 80s, which culminated in the high levels of mainstream success, and "everything since then." For me, all synthpop of the last five, ten, or even fifteen years is all "new" because it postdates the popularity crash of the early nineties. I call these two eras the "Golden Age" and the "Silver Age" of synthpop respectively. They're a bit misnomered, though... for the most part, the Silver Age beats the pants off the Golden Age.

Anyway, Depeche Mode was always my favorite during the "Golden Age" of synthpop. Something about the bleak, pessimistic viewpoint they espoused struck a chord with me (even though I'm not exactly a bleak, emo type guy) and I think that their themes and sounds are kinda timeless. Either that or I simply haven't matured at all from being a teenager twenty to twenty five years ago. Both could equally be true. But the "heyday" of Depeche Mode's sound, in my opinion, were from their mature but not yet post-synthpop sound, Some Great Reward, Black Celebration and Music For the Masses. Most people will praise Violator, but to me, that CD was always a disappointment. Sure, "Enjoy the Silence" is a classic; probably the most iconic Depeche Mode song ever, but the CD overall was a step downhill from their previous heights.

Anyway, not that I want to lock Depeche Mode in a studio and force them to recreate that same sound, but a lot of bands subsequently (many of them of my "Silver Age" of synthpop, which is still ongoing) made a lot of hay out of mining the same territory as Depeche Mode did in the middle and late 80s. Red Flag, Seven Red Seven, Cause and Effect and Camouflage were early imitators, who were able to cash in with some significant Billboard success of their own before the 80s synthpop boom ended. De/vision and Mesh are two of the most successful groups to come out after the synthpop fall. Given that Depeche Mode themselves have largely abandoned the sound, tone and themes that made them famous (arguably) the fact that some of these bands out-Depeche Mode Depeche Mode themselves is interesting. In fact, I'm not even sure that I'd call much newer Depeche Mode synthpop; it's almost become another genre altogether. Now, I'm not going to say that essentially replicating the sound of someone else is artistically very compelling, but rather, I'd say that these bands mine the same territory, without being outright copies.

I'm going to start a small series of posts wherein I talk specifically about some of the CDs that "out-Depeche Mode Depeche Mode." Most of them will post-date the synthpop crash, and Violator too for that matter, and all of them have some clear ties in sound, theme, tone and feel to the Depeche Mode of the later 80s.

So, heads-up. It's coming. The first CD I'll cover is Camouflage's 2003 effort, Sensor, which sadly is not available via mp3 from Amazon (although much of the rest of Camouflage's catalog is) and the CDs don't sell for cheap. Not to steal my own thunder, but this is a great CD, though. I'm already excited about the prospect of touching on this little CD review, so stay tuned.

Also, check out this Depeche Mode image. I used to have that t-shirt; it was part of their "101 tour" from 1988.

Change in reading order...

Last night, after reading about 40 pages of The Many-Colored Land by Julian May, I quit. I got the book via Interlibrary Loan, and it was going to be due in two weeks. Not only is The Many-Colored Land itself a relatively lengthy novel, but it was actually an omnibus with that and The Golden Torc. I decided that at this time in my life, I really don't want to set myself up with pointless stress; trying to read a very long book by a deadline is not something I need right now.

And, frankly, I just wasn't feeling it in those first 40 pages. I think the concept is still really interesting, and I want to revisit the Saga of the Pliocene Exile sometime... but I want to do it on my terms, not feel rushed.

So, I've removed it from my reading list and I'm sending it back to the library. Instead, I picked up the really short Thief of Llarn, the sequel to Warrior of Llarn that arguably I should have read months ago. I've got enough of my own books to read that I probably won't pick anything up at the library for a while with the probable exception of the next Dresden Files book.

Anyway...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Fool Moon

Finally, just today at lunch, I finished re-reading Jim Butcher's Fool Moon, the second book in the Dresden Files saga. My plan was to now skip on to some other stuff, but frankly, I'm in the mood for more Dresden already, so my plan may see a bit of revising to work in book 3.

In my earlier review of Storm Front I rather candidly (I think) pointed out that Butcher's Dresden Files books are pretty formulaic. However, with this one, he gets a better handle on the formula. Fool Moon doesn't feel forced, it's not trying too hard, and it comes naturally. It also seems to up the ante quite a bit. The villains are scarier, their villainy is actually disturbing, and the series as a whole gets both more serious, more comic, darker, and more fun all at once.

There's a scene in particular, where a werewolf is arrested, the full moon hits, and he makes the Terminator's stop at a police station look like a picnic, that is quite moving. Characters that I had thought were going to be recurring are literally torn to shreds. This scene, probably more than any other, typifies for me the escalation of things in general that Fool Moon manages to pull off over Storm Front.

There's also some quite early hints of the "metastory" that Butcher has been dangling in front of us for some time now. What? His parents "natural" deaths may not have been natural after all? Dresden's past is examined a bit more thoroughly, as are his weaknesses and foibles; the things that make him an interesting narrative character to read about.

All in all, Fool Moon is a clear improvement in Butcher's technique, his craft, his plotting, and his artistry. My concern about the series isn't that he hasn't managed (mostly) to keep that up over eleven books and counting and mostly improve as time goes on; my concern is that he's only about halfway through his planned arc. Already I'm starting to feel like he's dragging his heels on resolving "metastory" plot threads, while instead giving us the monster of the week (or of the year, as the case may be) with just a few crumbs thrown in to whet our appetite for the bigger picture story going on in the background.

We'll see. My worries aside, Butcher hasn't let me down yet, and Fool Moon is the first really good Dresden Files book; the one that took a decent but ultimately not that memorable concept, and turned it into a powerhouse.

Princes of Darkness

This weekend, I also finished the latest Paizo Chronicles book, Princes of Darkness which is supposedly Book of the Damned: vol. 1. Presumably subsequent volumes will treat some of the other fiends, the demons and the daemons, and whatnot. This book treats the devils, and Hell.

I don't know how long Hell has been an integral part of D&D, but certainly it was with the first edition Monster Manual, which had a catalog of greater and lesser devils, and the archdevils Asmodeus, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, etc. Hell in D&D, no matter who's treated it, has been strongly influenced by Dante's Inferno and every iteration of Hell published has nine "circles" of Hell, many of them bearing the exact names and descriptions of Dante's own, with others changed to be more suitable to the D&D cosmology.

This is true also of this book; unsurprisingly. One thing that Hell and the devils have not managed to do, is eclipse the demons. I guess the variety of demons makes them more attractive, perhaps. Their more independent nature. Maybe plain ole destruction is just an easier motivation for folks to latch onto than enslavement and damnation. Lots of folks have tried to take the devils and make them really interesting. Chris Pramas did a great job of it in Legions of Hell, although that was more a catalog of monsters with only a very short section on the diabolical cosmology itself. Robert Schwalb and Co. took on the Fiendish Codex 2: Tyrants of the Nine Hells where they made Hell into, basically, an analog of corporate America's cubicle culture. A cute idea, but probably one destined to ultimately fail.

Paizo's Wes Schneider gives the devils an almost Lovecraftian spin. According to the doctrine of the Church of Asmodeus (although plenty of hints here and there suggest that this isn't just one of his heresies), the Archdevil himself is the most primal god in the entire multiverse, and the rigid tyranny of Hell is the natural state of the universe. With a bit of secret history, with a bit of blasphemous meddling, terrible books that attack your sanity just to read, and with a few pages that look like they took their inspiration from Black Library's brilliant Liber Chaotica series (I only own the Khorne one, but I saw some clear parallels), the devil is finally given his due.

Most of the book is fluff; there's a lot of stuff about the arrangement and cosmology of Hell itself which is an interesting read, although not necessarily something you'd use in your everyday game. There is an interesting and challenging prestige class, that I'd love to see get some play in a game (it would sure put to bed such notions as D&D being a high fantasy only vehicle; this class has a very sword & sorcery feel to it.) It's got some spells, some monster entries, a few magic items... pretty much what you'd expect. But really, it's the cosmology that makes it interesting. The fact that it really takes devils, gives them an agenda that you feel you can work with, and some legs that you can use to get some real traction for a slightly different type of villainy in your campaigns.

Of course, this is also coming out at the same time (more or less) as the latest adventure path, which is set in a devil-worshipping city in Cheliax, and at the same time as the Cheliax book in the Pathfinder Companion series... so it's greater than just what's here in this book alone. Combining the three together gives you something that's greater than merely the sum of the parts.

Anyway, recommended. Paizo continues to impress me with their setting stuff. I'd often said that vanilla D&D didn't hold any more attraction for me, but somehow Paizo have managed to pull it off. With their Golarion setting, they've managed to make the old, tired, cliched even, feel fresh again. This book is the latest chapter in that same success story.

Best Served Cold

This weekend, I finished Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, an unusual fantasy novel that reads a bit like one third The Count of Monte Cristo, one third The Magnificent Seven, and one third Abercrombie's own stuff. It's an interesting book. It's got a fast, engaging, and weighty plot, complete with a lot of twists and turns. Some of these twists are telescoped way in advance and don't surprise at all, but a few others caught me off-guard. The gist of the story is that mercenary general Monzcarro Murcatto and her brother are betrayed and murdered by their mentor and patron, Grand Duke Orso, who's making an impressive run on becoming king of all Styria, a kind of fantasy analog to the medieval Italian city-state landscape (the prevalence of Italian sounding names also helps there.) Except that she doesn't quite die, and someone comes along to patch her up and restore her to a semblance of functionality. Naturally, her first thought is revenge. She starts gathering a group of unlikely hirelings, starting with northman Caul Shivers who's attempting to turn over a new leaf and become "a good man" instead of just an instrument of violence. She also ends up with an autistic mass murderer, the very same mercencary general that she herself betrayed (who's now a raging alcoholic), a tag-team of finicky and treacherous poisoners, and more, and goes about her bloody work. Collateral damage tends to be high as she has her first few successes, comes to the attention of Orso, and the plot really gets into high gear.

Not only do you have the sneaky assasination "capers" thoughout the book, but the politics involved start to take center stage before long. Styria is wedged between two "superpowers", the Gurkhish empire, and the Union. Both of these superpowers are revealed almost right away to be patsies for the real powers behind the thrones; Valint and Balk's banking house, and The Prophet's religious movement.

In addition to the well-paced plot, most of these characters were really quite interesting, and were kinda fun to read about. Sadly, the two least interesting to me were Shivers and Murcatto, and those were the point of view characters nine times out of ten. But still; the characters, the dialogue, and the plot were clearly this novel's strong suit.

I read Best Served Cold without reading the preceding First Law Trilogy. Although this novel references a few events and characters from the earlier trilogy, it's not really a sequel, just a stand-alone novel set in the same setting. I'm not that thrilled to go back and read more Abercrombie just yet, though. The work had some flaws, or at least things that I personally didn't like. I'll start with the least offensive and work up from there.

First off, I suspect that many fans like a good fantasy setting. I know I do. Now, let's be honest; a setting doesn't make or break a novel, and some novels are in fact sunk by the writer's inability to stop doting on his setting (China Miéville, I'm lookin' at you) but a setting that generates at least some interest is better than one that doesn't. And in this novel, the setting just doesn't do it. It's odd, really, because the action jumps from one city-state to another several times, but never at any point does it seem to matter where they are. They're all the same. They blend together into a rather bland whole. It's also not really very fantastic. There's very little reason why it couldn't have been told in medieval Italy. One character seems able to come and go and will without being seen. Magic? Probably. She may also have cast a firestorm spell of some kind. Maybe. She might have been using their version of Greek fire, too. It's not 100% clear. Another character seems to have been imported from Shaolin Soccer and comes equipped with wuxia style super powers. Other than that, the fantasy is extremely low key. In fact, it's nonexistent.

Secondly, Abercrombie cheated a bit. It's one thing to withold important information from the readers so it can be revealed at the dramatically appropriate time. But this should be done by also withholding the information from the key point of view characters. If key point of view characters know something important and the writer just doesn't bring it up to create a false dramatic tension when he finally does, all I feel is, "uh... why didn't we know this before now when there was no reason not to tell us?" I don't want to get too into the details to avoid spoilers, but two characters have relationships with family members that really are important to the plot... but which we simply aren't told the details of and led to believe that they are something other than what they are. Cheating, in my book.

The third problem with the book is that it's too much. I like a grim and gritty fantasy. At first, my perception of this was that it was "deliciously nasty". But after a while, it was way too much. It wallows in nastiness. It's gratuitously nasty. Hardly a single sentence in the entire book doesn't hammer home the point. Good Heavens, Joe Abercrombie. We get it already. A little bit of subtlety would have gone a long way here. And ultimately, this is what turned me off a bit from the book. The gratuitous nature of the grim and gritty aspects of this fantasy just became too much after a while. The repetitive, incessant nature of it. Literally everything that is described is made tawdry, false and mean. As an example, someone we already know to be a nasty customer, is shown cutting off a cadaver's leg, thinking of all the ways he can cook it. It's never brought up again, and it has no bearing on his character in any way; why did we need to be treated to a page and a half long internal monologue of a cannibal on how to cook this person's leg?

Anyway, I'm a self-professed fan of grim and gritty (the actual term used in some discussion circles that I'm a part of) but as always, moderation is key to success. This lays the grim and gritty on so thick that Abercrombie's work is almost a parody of itself before it even begins.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The OSR

This is going to be a controversial post. I'll get that out of the way up front.

OSR, or "Old School Rennaissance" is a newish trend (ironically) in roleplaying games that's quite the rage in certain circles on the Internet these days. The OGL (Open Game License) enabled it; after running under the OGL for some time, someone got the bright idea of "reverse engineering" Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition) out of the open content. The result was OSRIC, (Old School Reference & Index Compendium). OSRIC is basically 1e, but open. Because of it, anyone could publish material compatible for 1e by making it compatible with OSRIC.

Prior to OSRIC, there were other games that had a bit of "Old School" flavor under the OGL; Castles & Crusades, for example, was a kind of hybrid of some older rulesets and the 3e SRD. But for my purposes, the "OSR" really starts with OSRIC. Because the OGC is utilized to make a "clone" if you will of the older ruleset, OSRIC is often called the first "retro-clone." For a time, it was questionable whether or not what OSRIC attempted to do was legal, but after it became apparent that they were in the clear, other retro-clones popped up on the marketplace. Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game and Labyrinth Lord are both slightly different takes on the Moldvay B/X ruleset. Swords & Wizardry is an attempt to retroclone the original D&D ruleset; before the bifurcation into AD&D and B/XD&D even happened. Because of broad similarities in the rules of all those original rulesets, material for one is mostly compatible with material for the other, and elements can kinda be mixed and matched as desired.

The interesting thing about this is that some other publishers have since put out material that's compatible with these products. OSRIC compatible modules. S&W compatible settings. Etc. There's even several magazines that are kinda like very old school Dragon magazines in some ways; dedicated to promoting these old school games and products.

Now; it's probably obvious from many posts in the past on this topic; I'm not really all that keen on playing any of these games myself. I don't like old school D&D. I left old school D&D for greener pastures and only the "modernization" of the rules that happened at 3e tempted me back. Since then, I've made RPGs one of my main hobbies again, and D&D is the game I play most often. 3e+, that is.

However, I have a keen interest in the development of the OSR, since with the advent of 4e, I'm kinda in a similar situation; looking for material that's compatible with an out of print version of the game. And sadly, this is where my problems with the OSR start. It's not with the idea of it, which I actually quite like. It's with some of the personalities associated with it. I've read a lot of OSR blogs, I've seen a lot of posts from OSR fans on places like ENWorld and even Circvs Maximvs, and frankly, these guys are a bunch of jerks more often than not.

Now, I get that a few loudmouths can spoil the fun for everyone. Most OSR players and fans are probably fine people. But a lot of the vocal ones, have a real problem. There's a strong vibe in OSR themed discussions online of smugness and fundamentalism. They reject anything that postdates the early 80s as wrong, mistaken, foolish, and occasionally treat it as if it's heretical. They're an insular, clannish group that is not interested in reaching out to the broader RPG fan community, and in fact often doesn't acknowledge their existance, other than with a teeth-gritting railing against them for somehow "ruining" the hobby.

I've been somewhat appalled to see otherwise even the reasonable and polite OSRers frequently make allusions to trying to recreate a "pure" Gygaxian playstyle; doing things for no other reason than because they believe that's how Gary did it. Gary was not a prophet, and the first edition D&D was not holy writ. There's nothing wrong with liking what you like (and not what you don't) but the outright dismissive and often contemptuous treatment of any other roleplaying paradigm or ruleset is a real turnoff at times.

Anyway, I guess my point is that my academic interest in the OSR movement has been considerably blunted by many of the people who are part of it, which is a real shame. It doesn't invalidate the movement for those who like it, nor is it meant to be a condemnation of those people who are merely enthusiastic for out of print games without being insulting, but sadly, I've found that sifting the wheat from the chaff in this regard isn't worth the effort to me personally.

If the OSR truly is interested in recruiting into their ranks, expanding their movement, and otherwise contributing meaningful to the hobby (which, honestly, I'm not sure if they do want that, or even if they should care) then they need to present a more accomodating front. The smug, self-satisfied, and dismissive tone of too many of the OSR people that I've encountered online has ensured that I will never develop enough curiousity to try out one of these games. Not even for a mere nostalgic temporary thrill-ride.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Books on deck

Just as a curiousity, here's the books I have on deck to read once I'm done with Abercrombie's Best Served Cold. Probably in this order.



Fool Moon by Jim Butcher



The Many-coloured Land and The Golden Torc by Julian May


Thief of Llarn by Gardner F. Fox



Swords of Haven by Simon R. Green


The Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Editions of Dungeons & Dragons

I'm on record (repeatedly, as a matter of fact) as having a kind of love/hate relationship with Dungeons & Dragons. While there are a lot of things that I like about it, there are a lot of "D&Disms" that I really don't like also. That said, I still play D&D more than any other roleplaying game, and frankly, that's probably how I want it.

So it's fair to say that despite my reservations, I've come to terms in one way or another with the various D&Disms, and want to use the system again. But at this point, more than at any other point in the history of D&D, which edition do you play is an interesting and relevent question.

The reason for this is, first of all, the OGL. The OGL has inadvertently opened the doors back to every single edition of D&D that's ever been in print. The third edition is, of course, expressly open and therefore impossible to stamp out, but by utilizing the OGL, gamers have managed to reverse engineer "retro clones" of various older editions.

And, of course, 4e is available as well.

Here's my personal opinion on each of the various editions of D&D, including a few that are technically not D&D at all. The attached graphic is kinda preview of what's to come, but let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet...

OD&D - Original D&D, retro-cloned via Swords & Wizardry. Honestly, I've never played this, except once as a kid before I considered myself a gamer in any fashion whatsoever. But… I also wouldn't. It's primitive. The roots as a tactical wargame are very apparent. It lacks something that I think is crucial to a good game today; rules to define characters. The simplicity of actually running the game is to be applauded, but it's mostly just simple because it's so primitive that it hadn't occurred to the designers to define things yet. The game was very poorly written, assumed that you owned other products (including products produced by a competitor!) and simply lacked options overall. The retro-clone version of it cleans some of that up, but this edition still offers me too little of what I want, and what it does offer can be had elsewhere in better form.

AD&D (1e) - Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, first edition, retro-cloned via OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation). I actually have bad memories of this game. While many D&Ders see this as the golden age of D&D, this is the edition of the game that eventually made me throw up my hands and give up on D&D. A fair amount of complexity was added to the game, although the complexity didn't address the issues that I personally thought were important. The game still suffered from a very high degree of arbitrariness, poor organization, poorly thought out add-ons and subsystems, and (although this is a minor annoyance) poor presentation and graphic design.

BD&D (all versions) - Basic Dungeons & Dragons up through Rules Cyclopedia, retro-cloned via Labyrinth Lord. I'm not honestly familiar with all of the many iterations of this "edition", which properly should probably be split out into several editions of very similar but not identical games. Basic was a bit of a misnomer, though---in no way was the game basic. It evolved almost as much complexity as AD&D (although much of its complexity had a different focus), it was in no way simpler to run, and it wasn't really less limited than AD&D either, for that matter. It was merely a concurrent game that was similar to AD&D, but… not. For my money, of all the TSR editions of the game, this is the one I'd be most likely to be willing to return to, but that doesn't mean that I'd be very excited about it. It was a continuation, if you will, of the tone of the OD&D game, but without the AD&D like mechanics. Therefore, I like and dislike mostly the same things about it; the ease and simplicity of running the game is good, the arbitrariness and lack of good definition around character abilities and traits is poor.

AD&D (2e) There is no retro-clone of 2e, because basically all 2e was was a re-write of 1e, a reorganization of 1e, and a removal of some of the stuff that made 1e good. Other than the organization aspect of the change, these were all "Bad Things"™ in my opinion; they didn't fix any of the problems I did have with the game other than the organization of the core books, and instead we got a watered down, "politically correct" version that had notably caved to pressure from some non-customers about what the game should and shouldn't include. There's little to recommend this version of the game at least until it became significantly revamped with kits, skills and powers, and other mechanical add-ons that made the game more robust. And even then, a lot of those add-ons created more problems than they solved anyway. 2e was also an era of innovative and unique settings. Not all of these were successes (I never could get past the fundamentally stupid high concept of Spelljammer for instance. And the execution, which had ideas like generalissimo space hippos, didn't help) but many of them are still well-loved. Looking at some of them that I've since picked up (I didn't actually play D&D during the 2e era myself) it's painfully apparent to me that many of these novel and interesting ideas were significantly held back by a clunky rules system at its core that was in drastic need of overhaul.

D&D (3e) The split between AD&D and D&D (or BD&D) was finally brought to an end after TSR went backrupt and was acquired by Wizards of the Coast. They released D&D 3e in 2000. This edition fixed many of my lingering problems and concerns about D&D as a game, but sadly, it left many others unaddressed, and in fact got worse in a few others. What I liked; 1) much of the arbitrariness was gone. There were now few mechanical subsystems that operated differently than the core rules, the core rules themselves operated under a very streamlined and consistent paradigm, and player options were brought to the fore. 2) character definition was significantly improved via a robust skill and feat system. You also were able to define your character many different ways via multiclassing and prestige classes. The classes no longer felt like bland straightjackets. 3) Subsequent games based on the same "engine" showed that it could be easily modded to allow for various different feels. D20 Star Wars, d20 Wheel of Time, d20 Modern and d20 Call of Cthulhu were all reasonably good games. 4) The OGL allowed for "third party" publishers to produce their own material for the game. At first, this was mostly just add-ons for D&D itself; adventures, new monster books, settings, etc. but as the movement matured, it paved the way for all new games, like Castles & Crusades, True20, and for that matter the retro-clones themselves.
However, 3e came with its share of the bad, too. 1) the combat system made it difficult to run combat without a graphical representation of the characters and their environment. Realistically, this means minis and a battlemap. While I like minis for their own sake, and I don't mind playing a tactical minis combat game, I'd rather not have my roleplaying game practically demand minis. 2) The game gets increasingly complex and difficult to run, especially at higher level. Higher level games, I've noticed, include an awful lot of flipping back and forth through rulebooks to see how exactly did that rule work again? 3) It didn't really address a lot of D&Disms. Levels in particular and the incredible difference between a low and high level version of the same character, don't model anything I know from fantasy fiction at all. 4) this isn't a problem for me per se, but it's one that I've heard a lot and I can see where it comes from. I took seriously the motto "Tools, not rules" and it fitted the GMing style I'd been accustomed to anyway. So, to me, the fact that there are a lot of rules covering a lot of situations was a nifty toolbox that I could dig into as I saw fit. Other players, however, saw it as a straightjacket and a complexity inducing nightmare, as they felt duty-bound to accurately reflect every single rule. As an example, calculating Jump skill Difficulty Classes: I saw the examples as just that---examples that gave me an idea what an appropriate DC should be to get the effect I wanted. Others spent all kinds of time actually calculating all of the inputs into a DC for each and every Jump check. So, although it's not a problem for me, I can see how this is a problematic aspect of this edition.

D&D (3.5) To be perfectly honest, I'm still pretty ticked off about 3.5. 3.5 was written, allegedly, to fix some problems that had come up with 3e. It did do that. A bit. It also "broke" as much as it fixed. And mostly, it just changed stuff that was fine to something else that was fine, so that you got no improvement, but you got a lot of confusion. Then to cap it all off, you were supposed to buy all the books over again that you'd already bought. Or at least a great deal of them; the three core books were re-released with minor changes, and the original run of class-based splatbooks was also all re-released. I've grudgingly made my peace with the changes, since it's easier to find 3.5 players and books than 3e these days, since there is a small improvement, and since backwards compatibility and online SRDs means that you don't really have to rebuy the books if you don't want to and you can still play just fine. The subsequent splatbooks are a significant improvement, too, which went a long way towards convincing me. But the entire deal left a sour taste in my mouth.

D&D (4e) I've never played 4e. I have no interest in 4e. As far as I'm concerned, it came about at a time that I had no interest in migrating to a new system. Also, whatever lingering problems I have with the system don't seem to be the ones that 4e addressed; in fact, if anything they made some of my personal concerns worse rather than better. I'm not a hater; I don't have a personal beef against 4e like many people on the Internet. I just have no interest in it.

Pathfinder. While not strictly a version of D&D, Pathfinder could be considered an "alt.4e; what 4e could have been like if it were more like 3.5." Or, you could call it 3.75 maybe. It's not published by Wizards of the Coast, nor is it published under the D&D brand, but this, clearly, is an edition of D&D nonetheless. The reasons it came about were Paizo being put over a barrel somewhat in terms of their business model. Wizards of the Coast dithered on the OGL for 4e, and even sent out some hints that there may not be one or that it could be crippled by restrictions. Paizo needed to keep publishing stuff, but couldn't get distributors to sell it if it was support for an out of print game. So, they needed to put 3.5 back in print somehow. Since 3.5, as a complete game, is open content under the OGL, in theory, all they had to do was package the SRD and print it, and sell it. Of course, if they were going to go to all that trouble, why not see about tweaking it and making a few improvements? This is what lead to the Pathfinder RPG. While I applaud Paizo for acting decisively to protect their business and make sure that the edition that they (and I) prefer is still in print, in terms of what the game actually offers, Pathfinder is plagued by the same problems that 3.5 was… it doesn't fix enough to justify rebuying all my stuff. The good news here is that Paizo suspected that might be true, and offered it, in addition to a hefty and expensive full color book with beautiful artwork that really pretty much justifies the price by itself, as a $10 pdf. The Bestiary (i.e. Monster Manual) is available as another $10 pdf. At that price, like I said, even if you ignore everything except the art, you've got a pretty good deal.