Friday, January 29, 2010

Cities of Golarion

I went ahead and created another blog, SFKOFFF, which is a very clunky acronym, but it refers to my love of games like Street Fighter, King of Fighters and Fatal Fury, and the rest of their ilk. I've actually been rather active over there this week, posting up a storm of new posts so I can have enough critical mass to actually call that blog something. Next up on my agenda, although it's proving much more difficult than I'd hoped: a much better name for the blog. Anyway...

I also came across a topic that is undeniably on topic for this blog, and by coming across a topic, I mean that I finished reading a game book that needs a quick capsule review, as is my fashion. The book in question is the Pathfinder Chronicles volume Cities of Golarion.

This is an interesting style for a book; after a behind the screen type short introduction and discussion of, among other things, the evolution of the art used in the book (for what it's worth, I like the unused drafts better than what did get used... but that's neither here nor there), it launches into a summary of about half a dozen cities scattered throughout Golarion. As the name implies. Each city comprises a separate small chapter, and each has a separate author. You can tell, too; although obviously all of them followed a formatting template, the writing style was significantly different from chapter to chapter as well. This made the book kinda interesting, though; almost as if it were six much smaller folios all put together in one volume. This is appropriate, because the cities are widely separated by geography, culture, feel, and presumably role in your putative campaign.

Two of the cities are nominally "good guy" cities, and could concievably make a good "homebase" for a typical, standard D&D game (or Pathfinder game; same difference) where adventurers go out into the wilderness to find trouble, but otherwise like a safehouse to return to. Vigil, which is a military stronghold for crusading good guys, and Cassomir, which is an outpost of the fading Taldoran civilization both qualify as that kind of city, and both have lots of trouble to deal with within easy striking distance, which is no doubt part of the design purpose behind them.

The other four cities presented are all a bit more sinister or dangerous in some form or another. Corentyn is an important hub of trade and the navy of Cheliax, and as such reflects that devil-worshipping culture that maintains it. Despite that, in many ways it's the most familiar and tame of the "dangerous" cities. Ilizmagorti is made up of nothing but pirates and a secret fellowship of assassins stuck on a tropical island that feels like a naturally occuring Jurassic Park. Whitethrone is the domain of the strange and alien human descendents of Baba Yaga, and is largely populated by monsters, both human and otherwise, where one wrong word can get you killed in a flash. Nisroch was the one that actually honestly gave me a bit of the heebie-jeebies to read about, in the sidebar that detailed torture techniques, for instance, or just the callous cruelty of the culture overall. The little detail of parents sewing the mouths of their kids shut if they talked too much certainly stuck with me. And that city claims to be soft because of it's association with foreign traders! This certainly made Nidal come alive for me in a way that the campaign setting book didn't.

The book is a little light on art, but it has a very nice map of each of the six cities discussed, which take up a lot of the same space art would. To keep their wordcount acceptible, the art probably had to be sacrificed a bit. I really enjoyed the maps. The text on each city was a nice little capsule, but for most of them, I wish I could have had more. A complete Pathfinder Companion volume on some of those cities would be most welcome.

I suppose I should trawl through the adventures for more details, too. I'm not sure if that's part of the brilliance, or a big problem with the Golarion themed material: it's widely scattered, and there's a ton of it out there. Getting your hands on all of it, and having it handy when you need it, is getting more and more difficult each month, with each new release. I certainly don't envy whomevers job it is to maintain continuity and consistency through all the products. That'll probably only become more difficult still when the fiction line comes out sometime soon. Soonish, anyway.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Blog this?

I'm considering possibly splitting my blog into several blogs. I actually "retired" one in order to start this one, and then this became a catch-all blog that differed very little from my original one except in the look. I could keep this one as my roleplaying game blog (as I originally intended it to be) and maybe revive my older blog as a fiction and movie review blog. I also have to decide where the line between my personal blog and the stuff I talk about occasionally on Scratch Factory lies, which has also been tricky for me.

Other topics that I cover sometimes include paleontology (especially dinosaurs) and Japanese fighting video games. Another topic that I occasionally feel tempted to blog about but refrain from, is politics. Very occasionally I also think about blogging about family or personal issues, but my wife has a blog for that, and then there's my facebook page, so I think I'm set there. If I had separate blogs for these topics, I could keep my various interests separate.

Of course, the question I have to ask myself at that point is; do I have enough content to make these blogs actually work, or are some of them going to go months without updates? The focus on a narrower topic makes it easier to do more with a given blog, but I still have to have time and content to make these posts.

Anyway, I'm just thinking out loud. The somewhat schizophrenic nature of this blog and the half dozen or so interests that bounce back and forth around is a bit frustrating to me, and I'm trying to decide if I'm sufficiently frustrated enough to do something about it or not.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I've always been fascinated by roots. If something is interesting in its own right, where it came from is usually even more interesting to me. This probably explains my fascination with archeology and linguistics; I don't really think that they're all that exciting in their own right, but the idea that our culture, plus plenty of others, came from an Eneolithic culture on the steppes of the Ukraine and spread throughout much of Europe and Asia from there to have a profound impact on the history of the world, is fascinating. Tracing the rise and spread of this ur-culture, and its subsequent dispersal and dissolution into various descendent cultures is endlessly fascinating to me because of my obsession with roots, not because I think language drift and pottery sherds are really interesting all on their own.

The same reason probably underlies with fascination with paleontology, as well as my love of the Triassic in particular. Dinosaurs are really cool. I've always thought so, literally as far back as I can remember. My first memory of ever going to the public library in the town I grew up in, before I'd even started kindergarten or anything, was picking out a book on dinosaurs. Illustrated by Rod Ruth. The first book that I remember clearly owning, that my parents bought just for me, and not for "the kids" generically, was the Little Golden Book of Dinosaurs, illustrated by William Rutherfoord.

In any case, knowing my predilection, you can imagine that it T. rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurs, Diplodocus and all the rest are cool, then I'd be fascinated with the arrival and rise of dinosaurs in the Triassic. And indeed, I am. The Triassic is a wonderful time for roots. Following immediately on the heels of the greatest mass extinction the world has ever known, it was a time when life was doing all kinds of interesting things and all kinds of roots were laid down in the Triassic that are still with us today.
I talked a bit about it a few days ago when I blogged about Tawa hallae, but we've actually been discovering a lot of stuff about the Triassic just recently, and finding that our picture of that landscape was incomplete and inadequate. Five years ago, we had no idea what a revueltosaur or a silesaur was, but now we're finding that both were hugely important faunal components of the landscape all over the world.

Perhaps most importantly, in the last two decades or so, our knowledge of the very earliest dinosaurs, as well as the closest relatives; the "almost but not quite" dinosaurs has increased by leaps and bounds. Nobody much had heard of Herrerrasaurus or Lagosuchus, in part because their remains were too scant and too incomplete to mean a heckuva whole lot. Paul Sereno partly filled that gap by recovering new, much more complete Herrerrasaurus remains, as well as discovering little Eoraptor.

Interestingly enough, although Eoraptor and Lagosuchus are on opposite sides of the great divide; i.e., one is a dinosaur and the other not, in practical terms, you or I seeing them side by side running around in the fern brush, or in a paleontological zoo, probably wouldn't be able to tell them apart.

The images below are not the most cutting edge, but they give you a good idea of what I'm talking about. See if you can tell which is which. Well, see if you could without the label on the one, anyway.

I also listened recently to part of a webcast by the National Science Foundation where Sterling Nesbitt (one of the co-describors of Tawa) talked about the find, and he was asked specifically about the feathered appearance that they chose for the reconstruction. He went with the very sensible (in my opinion) tack that if some therapods were known to have feathers, and a heterodontosaur appears to have had something like a feather fringe, then most likely some kind of dermal or epidermal integuement (a fancy way of saying, "we don't want to stick our necks all the way out and say that they're actually feathers, but they look like feathers") was ancestral to the dinosaurian condition. Therefore, Eoraptor and even proto-dinosaurs like Lagosuchus may well have had them too.

Too bad I couldn't find the older Greg Paul illustrations of feathered Lagosuchus scanned online somewhere, but I can't so...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Birthday PS2 games

Well, for my birthday I finally got a PS2 and a memory card. As I'd mentioned earlier, I already had a number of games, most of which I'd played quite a bit of in the past, that I was just waiting on a system so I could really play them for real. Since I also had a three day weekend with the Monday holiday, I got to play quite a bit already... although I do admit to feeling a bit swamped with too much to play. Since many of the six games I bought were compilations, I actually have a great deal more new games than just six... depending on how you count them, at least 18, and possibly as many as twenty one.

Of course, not all of them are really new either; I had some versions of some of those games already on older systems. What I've spent most of my time playing so far this weekend has been Street Fighter Alpha 3 Upper from the Street Fighter Alpha Anthology and King of Fighters XI, although I've also played around with King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match a bit too.

The first thing that became readily apparent was that I significantly underestimated the quality of XI with the few plays I had made of it previously. This game is really good, and is quickly rising to a place of extreme prominence in my "best of" lists. I like the character selection a great deal. Although it's missing a few key favorites (Joe Higashi, you'll be missed!) some of them are available as unlockables, and the missing ones are more than made up for with all the new and retrofitted characters that it has instead anyway. The console version does a lot to make it interesting, by adding a lot of unlockable characters, new stages, and even some new music. In general, I'm not a fan of unlocking phases... it's more tedious and frustrating than it is fun, but once it's done, it's done and then you can enjoy the characters from then on. So far, I've unlocked all of the extra characters except one, Geese Howard. Who I'll get around to after I've managed to play with some of the other new ones I have first.

The Ultimate Match version of '98 is a significant improvement over the Dreamcast version that I already had. It also comes with the "Neo Geo" mode, which basically means, "not Ultimate... the original version." Which is also on my Orochi Saga compilation. It turns out I have four versions of this game, if you count the Ultimate Version as separate... and frankly, now that I do, this one is so much an improvement that it makes all the others obsolete. The graphics are significantly improved... the backgrounds are redone again in 3D, but unlike the terrible looking Dreamcast 3D graphics, these look really nice and smooth. In addition, a ton of new backgrounds have been added, although I'm not sure if most of them will actually turn up in regular single player play or not. They're there for practice and vs. mode games, I suppose. The really ugly, clunky menus are also improved, although the fairly ugly character art on the select screen remains the same, as does the victory screen artwork. Which is also terrible.

Several characters are brought back; mostly ones who were in the '94-'97 games but which hadn't been in the prior editions of the game (Eiji, the Boss team, Goenitz, Orochi, and a handful of others) and all of the characters have new pallettes and a few tweaks to their gameplay. I've said as much before, but actually having the game and being able to play it have brought home to me even further how much of an improvement this is.

The Street Fighter Alpha Anthology is one that I may question the wisdom of buying, except that it wasn't really much money. The best game on it by far is Street Fighter Alpha 3 Upper (a slightly more robust variant of the regular Street Fighter Alpha 3 which you can access after you've beaten it once with any character. Upper adds about eight characters to the roster.) Of course... I already had that game, for the PS1, and I only notice a handful of very minor improvements. In fact, given that this version lacks the World Tour mode, in theory this may be a downgrade from the PS1 game in some respects... although I haven't really gone back and played that again anymore after unlocking everyone. Anyway... Street Fighter Alpha 2 Gold is also a nice edition of a nice game, and I'll probably play that from time to time as well.

The minor improvements are probably not important to most people, but they actually make a big deal to me, though. I like being able to pick the stage and music I want while in Training Mode, for example, and the graphics are slightly improved; frames have been restored, a few backgrounds are added, etc. It's a small deal, but given that this is one of my favorite games in this genre already, getting the best version of it that I can is fun.

Anyway, I don't know that I'll spend a lot of effort blogging about these games, other than to point out that clearly for the next several weeks while they're still new, I'll be excited to play them

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tawa hallae

Tawa hallae is a newly discovered basal therapod from one of the quarries on Ghost Ranch in New Mexico's Late Triassic Chinle beds, from about 213-215 million years ago. He's an interesting little critter, because he really makes a case for a more complex scene in dinosaur evolution and dispersal than was previously thought. Frankly, the entire Late Triassic has been growing in complexity over the last few years, with the discovery of the revueltosaurs, the silesaurs, and others.

Tawa has some features that are similar to slightly earlier Herrerasaurus, and others that are more similar to neighboring Coelophysis, who is the poster child of both the Ghost Ranch quarries, and early dinosaurian radiation in general. The unusual thing is that Tawa wasn't particularly closely related to its neighbors, which means the diversification of early dinosaurs must have happened really early, and to some extent, before they spread geographically very far from northwestern Argentina where they first appeared.

Anyway, I've attached the image of Tawa that seems to be ubuiquitous across the web. Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dead Beat

I recently finished another Jim Butcher novel... I've actually suddenly been gripped by an unexpected Jim Butcher fever and I've read more of them in the last few weeks than I initially planned. I've just started Proven Guilty now and I have the next one, White Night, on hold at the library. Although I'll probably have time between them to squeeze out the third (and last) novel in my omnibus collection of the first three Hawk & Fisher novels.

Dead Beat is the one I just finished. This is one of my favorite books. Not just in this series, but in general. Jim Butcher really pulled out all the stops, and went just enough over the top to be awesome, yet not so far as to get me to roll my eyes. A handful of necromancer and rivals, the last apprentices of the arch-necromancer Heinrich Kemmler (a name that Butcher shamelessly borrows from the Warhammer world) are in town looking for the mysterious Word of Kemmler, a book with the master's final treatise on necromancy, and a rite that gives the user nearly god-like power. Mavra, the Black Court vampire from prior books, shows up blackmailing Dresden to get it to her. Harry's pal Waldo Butters from the coroner's office is targeted by the necromancers, and ends up under Harry's protection.

In another confluence of plot threads, the Denarians make an appearance, notably Lasciel, who's coin Harry picked up a book or two ago, and Quintus Cassius, the one from whom Harry, Sanya and Michael stripped his coin.

Necromancers have always been one of my favorite supernatural bad-guys. There's something that's just plain wrong and creepy about the undead, which is why most horror folklore boils down to ghost stories of one stripe or another. Butcher's always been pretty good about wringing a disturbing aura out of his books, in spite of the sarcastic tone that they're narrated in. In another book, he makes the Billy Goats Gruff really scary, for instance. But it's easy with necromancers, fallen angels, and the worst kinds of monsters that humankind has managed to come up with, all of which feature strongly in Dead Beat.

In addition, much of the action takes place near the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. A permanent display at the Field Museum is FMNH PR 2081, the technical designation of "Sue", the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton unearthed (so far.) And there's necromancers. You do the math.

The interesting thing about this book, and many of the Dresden Files books in particular, is the balance that Butcher strikes between being "episodic" and "serial." That is, is the Dresden Files really a single story that needs to be read in order, or is each episode a separate story that stands completely on its own? Well, none of the books, except the first one, stand completely on their own, and all of them make some references to stuff that happened in prior books. However, Butcher does ensure that you can catch up quickly; if you picked up any Dresden Files book, you'd do OK. Dead Beat, perhaps more than most, draws on several of the open plot threads, refers to past characters (Murphy, Mavra, and even Thomas make little more than cameos, really, for instance), and feels more integrated into the series as a whole. Maybe that's another reason why it's one of my favorites.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Blood Rites

I finished the next Butcher novel already, Blood Rites. This puts me right about halfway through my re-read of the series. Exactly halfway through, actually, if I count the new one coming out in a few months, which will be #12.

By this point in the series, Butcher is starting (more) to repeat antagonists. Mavra makes another appearance, and it's certainly not her last (actually, she plays a significant role in the next book, Dead Beat too.) But what makes this book stand out most is the sex.

I don't mean actual sex scenes (so far, the only one I remember that even kinda sorta actually was on screen was with Susan several books ago.) Rather, this one focuses on the previously only hinted at White Court of vampires. While they are vampires, they really don't conform to any vampiric folklore the same way that the Black Court vampires do. Nor are they a slightly new twist on previous vampiric folklore the way the Red Court vampires are. Rather, the White Court is heavily based on folklore about succubi and incubi. They're the ultimate sexual predators, consuming the "life force" of their victims, and sometimes even killing them. They are the ultimate masters of Machiavellian manipulation and underhanded political intrigue, which makes them kinda fun.

Of course, they're also explicitly sexual predators, so the whole thing starts off when Harry is hired to protect the production team of a porn movie shoot that seems to be the target of a wave of curses. Despite this rather lurid set-up, Butcher doesn't really dwell on the sexuality; in fact, it's not really an element of the novel at all, except as a plot point, not something that's featured "on screen", so to speak.

In addition, Butcher takes pains to differentiate between the lust that the White Court vampires can inspire in their victims and love, which is anathema to them; something that can literally kill them in the same way that garlic or holy water is anathema to the more traditional, Stokerian Black Court vampires.

Sadly, no hint yet that we'll see what's the deal with the Jade Court; which Harry himself mentions that he didn't even know anything about before Shiro mentioned it offhand in Death Masks. Then again, there's a lot more territory to cover before Butcher finishes this series, so maybe they'll come up yet.

Some major plot points are introduced, which have long-lasting effects on the series beyond this point, but I won't get into them here just in case you haven't read this far yet. Needless to say, they're interesting. In particular what I find intriguing about the Dresden novels is their curious blend of episodic and serial nature. Each book is self-contained, and could stand on its own. The story arc of each novel is closed off. However, a number of other things carry forward serial-like. They're never (or at least haven't been so far) the main plot, or "metaplot" of the series as a whole, but taken together, one does start to gradually and dimly emerge.

One of these days soon, I'll blog (probably on Scratch Factory) about the concept of serialized vs. episodic RPG play.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Death Masks

I continue my devouring of the Dresden Files books (for the second time around; I'm trying to get them all fresh in my mind again before the new one comes out this April.) Death Masks, the fifth one in the series, is the latest to fall to my literary appetite.

I've tried to make a point of reviewing each of these novels as I've re-read them, but frankly, I feel like I'm getting repetitive. The novels are almost formulaic (a complaint Butcher himself made even as he started writing the series.) That doesn't actually make them any less fun... but it means that it's harder to find something unique to say about them as I go further into the series. Protagonist Harry Dresden finds himself put out more each and every volume. A friend of mine complained recently about how mad it made her to see the stuff Butcher puts Dresden through. She hadn't read very far into the series, though... much worse is still to come. In Death Masks the toll Dresden takes is more emotional than anything else, but it's significant.

As with all the Dresden books, part of the fun is the unraveling of setting stuff that he continues to do. For this installment, we find out that Michael Carpenter isn't a unique character exactly; he belongs to an order of two other Knights of the Cross. All three of them spend a fair amount of time in this book, working with Harry against the Denarians, fallen angels associated with the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas for betraying Christ. The fallen angels tempt and then possess mortals, effectively becoming embodied demons with staggering supernatural power and staggering supernatural evil. Their leader, Nicodemus, is the most human-like of them, but then again he's the most evil. So evil, in fact, that he's not possessed in the traditional sense; he's a willing partner with the fallen angel. There's a plot involving the shroud of Turin, which has been stolen and which Dresden is hired to recover.

In addition, the war between the Red Court of the Vampires and the White Council of the wizards (not to be confused with the White Court of Vampires, which features heavily in the next book) ramps up and a warlord, Duke Ortega, of the vampires, comes to Chicago to kill Harry.

All in all a fun book, and like all of them, the setting is as much a character as anything else. The Carpenters are further defined. Harry's difficult relationship with estranged erstwhile flame Susan Rodriguez is dealth with in depth. Ebeneezer McCoy starts to move into the orbit as a "more significant character" who gets more screentime.

As always, I recommend it. It took me a little while to get started, because I was really busy, but as soon as I really got going, I devoured it in just a few hours and started immediately on the next one. It got me that excited.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Walking with Tetrapods

A new discovery of tetrapod tracks, 18 million years before the first tetrapods were supposed to have taken their first steps (from the Middle Devonian, about 395 million years ago) is shaking up the paleontological community. These tracks take place earlier than any skeletal remains we have of creatures that could have made them; in fact the very earliest tetrapodomorphs couldn't even have made them, making the time depth all very confusing. These tracks were found, depending on which estimate, up to 50 million years earlier than they should have been. That's when skeletal fossils of creatures that could have moved using that locomotive pattern are first known. In addition, they're also completely in the wrong environment. It was believed that tetrapods developed in freshwater environments; deltas, rivers, swamps, etc. These tracks take place in what was a very shallow marine environment; tidal flats, essentially.

Skeptics wonder if they were actually made by some splinter group that converged with tetrapods, but then went extinct without giving rise to actual tetrapods.

Monday, January 04, 2010


After many years, I'm finally getting a PS2. I actually have a number of PS2 games already bought, that I've been stockpiling for a while now when I found them really cheap. Mostly (well, in fact all of them) are of the Japanese 2-D superhero martial arts variety, and are made by either Capcom or SNK. Big shocker, I know.

Anyway, technically I don't know that I'm getting a PS2; it's coming for my birthday. However, I know because I told Julie I was buying one, at the latest when we get our tax refund this year, and she asked me to hold out for my birthday so at least the kids could give me something, watch me open it, and I could pretend to be surprised.

Anyway, the games I've already run down are:

King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match
King of Fighters Orochi Saga
King of Fighters XI
Fatal Fury Battle Archives 1
Fatal Fury Battle Archives 2
Street Fighter Alpha Anthology.

Once I find a decently priced copy of King of Fighters 2000/2001 (also for the PS2) I'll have completed my collection. With the exception of the games coming out on newer systems, of course.

Some stuff...

Well, I had to take the Northwest Smith book off my reading list. I didn't get around to reading more than a few stories, because of extended family being in town, and then it was due at the library, and I couldn't renew it because it was an interlibrary loan. So, I took it back mostly unread. Sad.

Anyway, I'm moving fowards with more Jim Butcher, another new Pathfinder Chronicles book, and then I'm back to reading my own backlog of books I own, including finishing up the Hawk & Fisher stuff.

Also... I just signed up for Facebook yesterday. However, I logged off and when I tried to log back on, there was some weird error and it created a new account with the same email address. So, I have this blank new account I can access, and my original account which I can't access, even though I keep getting emails all the time that there's activity on it; friend requests confirmed, and stuff like that.

Really frustrating.