Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Campaign setting

I love to homebrew and tinker with fantasy settings. To me, it's half the fun of the hobby, and of running a game. However, that's exactly what I do: tinker. Rather than really just creating something robust and detailing it really well, I work in broad strokes, and move on quickly from one project to another, flightly as a hummingbird.

One thing I've noticed, though, was that I was recycling various ideas over and over again. That's what led to the development of my "Modular Campaign Setting Elements" wiki. Which, granted, is in a perpetual state of "Coming soon" in a lot of areas. But it's also got a fair bit of content there; certainly enough to get up and running with some of the better developed ideas.

This, in theory, would give me the flexibility to still tinker, create new campaign settings, yet still slot reasonably complete modules in without much work.

But I found that even then I was recycling so much that it was a bit silly. So, I've come full circle and am now putting my modular setting elements into a framework that... well, it's just a regular ole campaign setting now. Or at least it will be when I'm done with it. The big map I mentioned in my last post is going to be the key element that ties it all together. Because it's the result of testing, retesting, and filtering through numerous ideas, it's got the advantage of being something that is reasonably tried and true; i.e., I won't need to tinker with it much because I've done enough tinkering with the major elements that they're ready to stand on their own.

Here's a few of the elements that the setting will contain.

--~--~--~--~--~--~--
The Terrassan Empire: The default, major element of the setting, and the one that will feature most prominantly. The Terrassan Empire is like a Rome Decadent; its territory is the Mezzovian Main. However, its reach has faded considerably. Far flung territories are completely abandoned by any official imperial office, army, tax-collector or any other official. It is reduced to about half a dozen semi-autonomous city-states that still report to, at least nominally, an Emperor who sits in Terrassa. Important trade considerations keep them more or less in line and more or less cooperative, but some city-states have gone to war against their brother city-states in the past, and could very well do so again. Foederati style armies of foreign mercenaries have settled within the borders, and have mixed success at patroling the lands of the empire; in many cases they are little more than brigands who hold off from major depredations just barely due to the payments that the empire continues to make to them to buy them off.
--~--~--~--~--~--~--
Kurushat: Originally concieved as an expanionist, militaristic hobgoblin khaganate, it's now been given a human option as well. This is a dictatorial regime that couldn't survive without aggressively pushing against its neighbors to distract its populace, so it's always causing trouble.
--~--~--~--~--~--~--
Tarush Noptii: A kingdom ruled by vampires. In the capital, deep under the ground, lies a fallen charnel god of some kind, the source of all vampirism. The original heroes who went to investigate the falling of the god knew that they needed to keep it contained, so they set up a vigil. Sadly, they were gradually corrupted into the Primogenitors, truly monstrous creatures that are as beyond the ken of the rest of the vampires as gods are from mortals. However, they remain quiescent, slumbering or patrolling their vast underground complex.
The shadow of the fallen god casts a pall over the entire landscape, and the capital city and its surroundings are constantly bathed in the darkness of night. Their Untouchables, a caste of highly prized and cared for servants and soldiers, do their will during the day throughout the rest of the kingdom, and the rest of the populace live lives of fear... yet they live yet, and prosper, after a fashion.
--~--~--~--~--~--~--
Baal Hamazi: I loved the idea from the "implied setting" of Fourth Edition D&D, and the tiefling empire of Bael Turath. But I couldn't just copy the idea completely, just the concept, and do my own thing with it. Baal Hamazi is the past empire, where the ruling caste are hellkin, a true-breeding human variant that has the blood of fiends running through their veins. Today, Baal Hamazi is more a concept than a reality; a patchwork of tiny kingdoms that make up the corpse of the former empire still claim to keep the glory alive, but few of them can even imagine the grandeur of their ancestors, or agree with each other on how best to encapsulate that ideal. As a consequence, expatriate hellkin are relatively common in the surrounding lands; fleeing the chaos and turmoil and petty guerilla wars that plague their formerly great nation, they now make a new life for themselves in new lands.
--~--~--~--~--~--~--
Qizmir: Speaking of ideas I loved, the Freeport expanded setting included a nation with a name very similar to this that was made up of the azhar, a transparently reskinned version of fire genasi, humans with the blood of the efreet in their veins. Like the hellkin, the jann, as I call them now, breed true and constitute a ruling caste over a much larger human population. Qizmir is a new and vibrant country, founded when a marine legion of the army of the grand Yazicid Empire were cut off from their fellows and decided to make a go of it alone, settling a new territory after first politically imposing themselves on the autochthonous inhabitants. Today, the jann are a proud and ascendent people, but they don't forget that their ancestors were, whether willing or no, deserters from the Yazicid Empire. Part of their drive to grow their kingdom is to make themselves impervious to attack should their former brethren ever return and seek to bring them back into the fold. After several generations, the Qizmiri find they have a taste for independence.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Maps

I love a good map. Certainly maps of some kind were not necessarily unusual in fantasy, but when Tolkien got published, maps became the standard. Christopher Tolkien made some of what are, to me anyway, still the best fantasy maps around, illustrating the setting of his father's work.

In roleplaying games, maps are even more important. You can follow the thread of a decently written novel without a map if you need to, but it becomes an essential and practical tool to facilitate play in a roleplaying game. So today, most of the best maps for fantasy settings seem to be coming out of that arena.

Even then, though, you've gotta be careful. Some maps lean a bit too far into the "avenue for artistic expression" direction, and become, therefore, less useful and practical. For my money, some of the best recent maps are done by Paizo, and I've included a small thumbnail of their big Golarion map. This map in "full" size comes as an attached poster in the back of the campaign setting hardback and magified portions of it are included in all of the regional sourcebooks to date (that I have; I'd be surprised if this pattern changes anytime soon, though.) The Paizo map does a great job balancing the need to be a practical tool and the need to be an attractive work of art in its own right.

I'm thinking about this, because I've finally turned some of my attention to making a large, hopefully attractive map for my upcoming forays into fantasyland, be it via fiction writing, which I'm doing a lot more of again, or via running homebrew games. For years and years, I've sketched out maps on paper with pencil, relatively quickly. Although when I was motivated, I could take a bit more time and make it somewhat attractive, usually by copying the stylistic isometric black and white direction of Tolkien's maps, mostly I didn't bother because a sketchy, hastily scrawled map did the job and took less time.

But, if for no other reason than because I like them, I've been desirous to come up with a really attractive map or two. I doodled around with a copy of Campaign Cartographer that I inherited from some neighbors when they moved, but I never really got the hang of it. I really wanted a more drag and drop software, like map-making software that comes with computer games like Heroes of Might and Magic III, my personal favorite mapping software. Maybe newer version of CC will give me what I want without me having to undergo a steep learning curve to master the software, but I'm not anxious to spend the money nor the time to get to that point. So I'm back to doing it by hand.

Lately, I've been redrawing some of my scrawled maps with much more care and attention to detail on a posterboard. In pencil. Once I'm done drawing all of the features, I intend to use thinned down acrylic craft paints to give it a water-color-like coloring. This should allow the pencil to show through, but not very well. Then I can turn to redrawing it with a heavy pen; not ball-point, but an almost felt-tipped or rollerball type pen. I'll use the same pen to label the features.

When it's done, I anticipate that it'll be an attractive map. I'd like to scan or photograph it and post it here, but I'm not quite sure how, to be honest with you. I don't have a big scanner, and I've had bad luck trying to photograph posters and have them look nice. Maybe I'll swing by Kinko's (now FedEx Office; I guess they dropped the Kinko's name at some point after the merger) and see if they've got big scanners, maybe.

Anyway, stay tuned. I'm excited about the prospects, so at some point after I'm done, I'll most likely want to share my work. The map itself is a conglomeration of some of my modular campaign elements, many of which, I must admit, are not complete enough to really have detailed work about them done yet. But I'll keep chugging along. I can fill in spaces on the map without having to add too much detail to them yet, of course.

It'd be great if I could open up my modular campaign wiki to supervised editing, not unlike the DINO PIRATES wiki, but honestly, I don't know that I want it to be too collaborative. Even in the case where I don't have a clear idea of what kinds of details to put into the setting elements, I've still got a clear idea of what kind of tone, feel, and general direction I want to go. My control freak nature is clashing with my procrastination.

Oh, well.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Confined

Here's one of my favorite Mesh songs. Not one of the newer ones, by any means... In This Place Forever has a mid-90s vintage if I recall correctly off hand.

And this isn't an official video; someone just took the song and added an image montage to it. Still... Gotta love it.

Pluto or Bust

Just a few days ago--almost exactly a week ago, actually--the New Horizons spacecraft crossed the orbit of Uranus on its voyage to the Pluto system.

For my money, this is about the most exciting thing NASA is doing these days. The spacecraft has been in flight since mid 2006, and won't reach Pluto until 2015. It's a really long trip. In the meantime, even the very best Hubble generated image we have of Pluto right now is a blobby, pixelated extremely low resolution mess. There's a lot to discover here. This is on par with the pioneering craft of the 50s, 60s and 70s that were really breaking entirely new frontiers in the solar system.

The Pluto system has been in the news a lot the last few years. Of course, most famously, the definition of a planet was finally established by the IAU, and that definition excluded Pluto. In less dramatic news (politically; from a scientific standpoint this was pretty exciting) Pluto was discovered to have two moons (apart from Charon, I mean. The Pluto/Charon relationship is more akin to a double planet pairing rather than Charon being a true moon of Pluto.) Nix and Hydra. The artwork provided here is a view from Nix (or Hydra) with the rest of the Pluto system in the sky.

Perhaps most importantly of all, and entire population of Pluto-like objects (called plutinos, unsurprisingly) has come to light in the last, oh, slightly less than twenty years, and an entire massive structure, the Kuiper Belt has gone from being an obscure hypothesis to being an accepted fact even more recently. The anti-Pluto was discovered (named Orcus which is appropriate... although I'd have loved to see it called Yuggoth. Oh, well. Missed opportunity for an esoteric in-joke.)

So anyway... there won't be a lot to report on about New Horizons for quite some time, obviously, but I've already eagerly been looking forward to the results of that mission for years, and I'll continue to work myself up with interest in the next few years as well until it finally starts to send in results.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Perfect Solution

A Perfect Solution, or as it's literally written on the album cover, A P3RF£CT 5OLUT1ON, is the latest album by British synthpop (now) duo Mesh. I just picked it up via Amazon's mp3 downloader the other day, and have listened to it all the way through a grand total of 1 time. So not enough to give it a proper review, but enough to converse on a few points.

Mesh themselves commented in an interview with Side-Line that folks who had heard pre-release recordings of the songs found them, "'it is definitely Mesh, but is Grittier and more Rockier than before."

My first thought is that I disagree. I think the sound is very similar to what Mesh gave us on We Collide. Back in the not so distant days when Mesh released Who Watches Over Me? or even The Point At Which It Falls Apart they were basically out-Depeche Moding Depeche Mode themselves. If anything, it was the period before that, In This Place Forever and Fragile that sounded grittier; a fusion of Depeche Mode from the late 80s and Pretty Hate Machine-era NIN. With We Collide Mesh introduced a "rockier" sound, although that's an ambiguous description. What do they mean by rockier?

Mesh did up the quota of guitars, but they're not usually hard-edged guitars. In fact, they're often acoustic. Perhaps it refers to the bass guitar sounding bass lines and analog drums. I don't know that they actually used a bass guitar (in fact I'm quite certain that it's sampled and played via synthesizer, but it sounds often like it could be a bass guitar. And this does give a sound that can probably best be described as "Rockier" relative to the overt synthpop. But if A Perfect Solution sounds like this, it's just a continuation of what they were already doing on We Collide. I also don't know that I'd say its grittier, except that We Collide actually had a couple of tracks that were upbeat and almost happy. A Perfect Solution doesn't. And I guess they use a few mild curse words more frequently, but I don't think a few "damns" and "hells" qualify them as gritty exactly.

In any case, those are not meant to be criticisms, just musing about the description, which I don't think I agree with. It's still a brilliant album. I'm reminded that I was going to do a series of posts about Depeche Mode imitators, and then I only ended up doing one, talking about Camouflage's Sensor. My next one up was going to be Mesh's Who Watches Over Me? But maybe I'll just do this one instead, after I've given it enough listens to be qualified to actually write a review of it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Conquerer's Shadow

Keen-eyed observers may have noted the arrival of an unexpected book on my "what I'm reading" sidebar. This is a new book by a guy that--while I don't really know him, I know of him, and have communicated with him in various online venues over quite some time--Ari Marmell.

It just got released, and on a whim I asked my library to buy a copy of it. It just got processed yesterday, and I saw it sitting there waiting for me to pick up while I was turning in some other stuff.

So, surprise! A new addition to the list. It won't really change my immediate plans overly, however. I'll still read it, The Reavers of Skaith, and Changes (as soon as that's available), and whatever else I decide to read in there will still follow as planned.

Right now I'm leaning towards The Drowning City.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I'm getting old...

I had a few blog topics I was tempted to cover today, but before I actually started typing them I did a search of my past blog posts and discovered that I've actually already talked about both of them in depth. The first was the concept of a "sandbox" in roleplaying games, and the second was the E6 houserule set which is designed to keep D&D 3.5 (or any d20 game, for that matter) stuck forever in the "sweet spot" of 5th to 10th level in terms of power, but without just arbitrarily stopping the game (the method I've used previously.) My E6 experience to date is all hypothetical; the only two E6 games I've run didn't actually get above 6th level anyway before we moved on to something else. But I've had more experience with sandboxes.

See, I started a thread at ENWorld not long ago about the concept, and it quickly got derailed into rather silly bickering. Then I got swamped with some things at work, and I didn't have time to get caught back up with the thread. Then I decided that I didn't really care to get caught up again anyway, since the thread had long ago ceased to be any kind of fun to talk about.

One point that I thought was worth noting, which seemed to be causing my "opposition" all kinds of grief, was that no game can be called a "sandbox game." Several posters kept saying that my discussion of sandbox in a theoretical sense was pointless and tried to point out specific games (OD&D game up more than once, but given the fixated obsession of the guy who brought it up, that was hardly surprising.)

The thing is; no game can be a sandbox. There's no such thing as a game that's a sandbox. "Sandbox" as a label is an artifact of play not of game design. While its true that certain products can encourage or facilitate a sandbox experience much more easily than others, a ruleset by itself certainly doesn't. It's a style choice if the person running the game. Two people running OD&D for two different groups could have a completely different experience with regard to how sandboxy the game is, depending on how the GMs run the game.

That said, I still think that sandbox as a term also loses any real utility when folks run around calling any game that's not a railroad a "sandbox." It's not. That just makes it... not a railroad. If the definition of sandbox is so inclusive as to be "not a railroad" then what's the point of using the label at all? Similarly, if its fans are trying to saddle the term with a bunch of qualifiers that are simply artifacts of a well-run game, then it also loses any utility as a term; it just becomes a synonym for a well-run game.

In fact, I've noticed this before in similar discussions; people who seem to be on complete opposite spectrums of this debate end up describing their games... and they sound very, very similar. A well-run game tends to have certain similarities, and trying to pass exclusive labels off as onto your games, when really all you're talking about is a well-run game, isn't a very useful pass-time.

Plus, as a pet peeve, "non linear" was already a perfectly viable term that was used quite a bit in the biz and by fans. "Sandbox" in comparison, sounds trendy, faddish, and juvenile.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Hounds of Skaith

I ended up reading The Hounds of Skaith more quickly than I thought I would, and I finished it last night. Not that it was difficult to read; the text isn't impenetrable by any means, and there's only 182 pages of it. Now that it's over, I've immediately picked up The Reavers of Skaith, although I haven't yet actually started it. As before, I'm using the new Paizo covers to illustrate, because they're the best covers ever for these novels, but the copies I have are the much older Steranko covers. Although my copy is not a first printing; the novel was first released in the mid-70s, but my copy is recent enough to refer to Brackett as having died already as well as having penned the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. I believe the date on the inside cover is 1981.

I talked a bit about Leigh Brackett and the Skaith series in my earlier entry for The Ginger Star, and I don't want to repeat that here. Hounds improves on Star in at least one major aspect; the protagonist, Erick John Stark, is actually much more in control of his destiny this time around than he is in Star, where he spends most of the book a prisoner being dragged travelogue style across the landscape.

He still ranges all over the landscape, from the Citadel of the Lords Protector far in the north to the city of Ged Darod in the tropics. Along the way, he encounters many of the cliches of a sword & planet story (not that all these are unique to that subgenre.) Let me name a few of them.

1) He's the best at everything. Nobody on Skaith can compete with Stark. Because he was born on another planet, he has abilities and attributes that literally no one else around him does.

2) Everywhere he goes, he's made the chief, king or at least takes a natural leadership role, usually just half a dozen pages or so in from being introduced to the group that he becomes the leader of. For example: a) The Northounds. b) the tribes of the Lesser Hearths, c) the city of Tregad. d) The city of Irnan.

3) He can't seem to stay in one place for more than a few days before needing to go traveloguing across the planet again.

4) Women fall for him very easily. Actually, this is somewhat downplayed in Eric John Stark's case. At least on Skaith. He's had a few girlfriends on Mars and Venus, but only Gerrith, the Wise Woman of Irnan really hits it off with him here.

5) He picks up a collection of friendships with alien rulers and drags them along with him.

Despite the fact that in many ways, Hounds is a typical story of this type, as I said with The Ginger Star, in many other ways it isn't. Stark traveled to Skaith by spaceship, and he's not necessarily stranded on Skaith. In fact, later in the book, he flies around in a gunship of some kind, and sends a bunch of his friends off world as passengers of the Antarean Penkawr-Che.

While Barsoom may be a dying world, that's really just for fluff; in actuality, it's a vibrant world ripe with adventure. Skaith's dying, though, infuses the entire tale with a great sense of melancholy, of inevitability, of darkness. Brackett really writes with a much different tone than any of the other authors in this particular subgenre.

Hounds has some notable battle scenes, although they are also alien battle scenes, utilizing tactics that wouldn't be possible in the real world. In many cases, though, everything seems a little too easy for Stark. Why exactly is he this brooding melancholy individual when everything goes his way so relatively easily? I'm not sure.

Anyway, now that I'm done with Hounds, I get to move into territory that's genuinely new for me. I've read the first two Skaith books before, several years ago, but I've never read the third one. It's virgin wilderness for me. It's also a little bit longer than the others, but not much. It still just breaches 200 pages. With any luck, I'll be done by early next week. At that point, I may need to decide if I'm going to wait for the library to process one of the two books that they've ordered for me, or launch on ahead into another one of my books first.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What to read next?

Actually, the next three books are fairly easily decided for me: I've got two more Skaith books to read, The Hounds of Skaith, which I've already started, and Reavers of Skaith. By that time, my copy of Changes, the next Dresden Files book, should be processed at the library and ready for me to pick up.

But what after that?

I think I've narrowed it down to one of the following three options

Guards of Haven, the next omnibus edition of books 4-6 of the Hawk & Fisher series. It'd be nice to finish that one off.

Drowning City, a new book by a new author in a new series. It looked interesting. I'm a bit of an impulse buyer at bookstores, what can I say?


Eisenhorn, the omnibus edition of Dan Abnett's Inquisitor novels, which are consistently held out as the best shared world fiction by a lot of folks.

Any comments?

Turn Coat

My flaws as a writer are pretty obvious. Even just from looking at this blog. I write long, rambly sentences. I'm overly fond of parenthetical clauses, which make my already too long sentences torturous to read. My writing often has a scatter-brained stream of consciousness feel to it.

Reading my review of The Ginger Star, I find it almost unreadable. And I'm the one who wrote it! As an excuse, I can only offer up that I had stayed up way too late the night before finishing it, so that I could write that review. Plus, I was interrupted a lot while writing it. Not the best environment.

Of course, if that's all true, then this review will probably be completely incoherent. After having Jim Butcher's Turn Coat in the house for the better part of five weeks now, I finally started reading it yesterday. Now, about 24 hours later, I'm done. Turn Coat is over 400 pages. You do the math. I got about three hours of sleep last night. I'm cruising on fumes and Mt. Dew right now.

When I embarked on this project of re-reading all of the Dresden Files books in preparation for the release of Changes in a couple of weeks, I decided I'd write reviews of all of the books as I did so, since the first time around I hadn't reviewed any of them. What I didn't foresee, although I absolutely should have, was that by the time I was at the 11th review, I would have said almost everything critically that I could possibly scrounge up to pass muster as a meaningful comment about the series.

So, what can I add at this point about Turn Coat itself? I had said that at the end of the last volume, Small Favor, the series had taken a much darker turn and been left in a bit of a cliffhanger. I compared the tone to that at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Butcher manages to stretch that tone out a bit further. The main problem confronting Harry this time around is the conspiracy and traitor(s) within the White Council itself. Despite this lack of overt supernatural threat (well, wizards are supernatural, but less so than, say, a fallen angel or a vampire) the situation in which Harry finds himself is about as bad as its ever gotten for him. I remember reading in a "How to Write a Bestseller" type book once that the key to great structure for a novel is to put the protagonist in a dark, terrible place... and then keep piling it on repeatedly, making it worse and worse for him as the novel progresses. Butcher also manages to hold to this advice on a macro-level; from book to book Harry's situation gets worse. He has small victories--the resolution of the specific plot of each novel--but overall the world get much more dangerous every time the series advances.

This is also true for the personal relationships in Harry's life. Another theme of this novel could be Harry's increased isolation, in some ways. Two supporting characters, who had a major role in his personal life, take a serious turn for the worse by the end of the novel, raising the question of how much Harry can continue to count on them.

However, I think one thing Butcher did in this one didn't quite work. As cats-paws of the shadowy conspiracy, Butcher introduces a small team of supernatural bad-guys. They're not the main villains of the piece, but they end up being the main villain's "muscle" if you will. This includes Binder, a kind of wizard who only does one spell (although he does it very well), another White Court succubus, and the naagloshii, or skinwalker (turns out the actual Navajo word is yee naaldlooshii, not naagloshii, but I can forgive Butcher simplifying that spelling.)

I think the concept of the skinwalker is fine, but Butcher really built the skinwalker up, and then it turned out to be a bit of a let-down in reality. It's not nearly as scary as even Finn the werewolf from way back in Fool Moon. Anyway, that particular critter made a clean escape, so I've no doubt it'll make a return visit. But in general, I found its big reveal underwhelming.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Ginger Star

Many years ago--in fact, so many years ago that it predates this blog, and belongs to the archive section of my other, older blog--I decided to embark on an "academic" exploration of the sword & planet genre. At the time, I was really just discovering that there were guys out there other than Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was just for the first time introduced to some of Lin Carter's writing, or Otis Adelbert Kline, and Alan Burt Akers, and others. Read some pastiche work by authors who've since gone on to bigger and better things, like Mike Resnick, Michael Moorcock, and Gardner F. Fox.

Actually, some of that experiment is still lingering, technically. I've had a few books from my rash of purchases that have still hung around unread until now. It wasn't that many months ago that I reviewed Thief of Llarn for example, and I've still got a copy of Transit to Scorpio on my to-read list.

Part of the reason--in fact, the main reason--that "academic" project fizzled was because practically none of the sword & planet books I was reading were really any good at all. In fact, several of them were so bad that they're strong contenders for the worst genre fiction I've ever read. You know you're in bad company when you're rubbing shoulders with Rose Estes' infamous Greyhawk fiction, or the exploration of Piers Anthony's bizarre fetishes through science fiction.

Of course, there were a few that stood out from that pack. Many times, this was because they did something truly unusual, or at least felt comfortable enough to break from the strict subgenre conventions. One such writer, and the character with which she did so, was Leigh Brackett, and the character was Erik John Stark.

Leigh Brackett is famous today largely for her screenplay work. She co-wrote The Big Sleep for instance (with William Faulkner, of all people) and the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back (she wrote the first draft, and then died (she was quite old at the time), Lawrence Kasdan took over from there). She also wrote the screenplay to another of my personal favorite movies, Hatari!, which is a Howard Hawks film starring John Wayne and Elsa Martinelli. Mrowr on Elsa Martinelli, by the way. Or at least on Elsa Martinella circa 1961 when she was filming this movie. They don't make movie stars like they used to. Up and coming (at the time) German actor Hardy Krüger, Red Buttons, Gérard Blain, and Bruce Cabot (of the original King Kong fame; much older in this movie, obviously) also starred. It probably would have been rude not to invite Krüger to take a role, since the movie was largely filmed on a ranch that he owned near Arusha in what was the country that changed its name from German East Africa to Tanganyika during filming.

Anyway... despite Leigh Brackett's career as a writer for film, of which obviously I'm a fan of (Empire Strikes Back was my "favorite" movie for years before I finally decided to let Raiders of the Lost Ark pass it up. None of which would matter much if I didn't have kids always trying to get me to define my favorites) she's also very famous as the writer of a bunch of pulp era science fiction, largely from the 40s, and her magazine of choice was Planet Stories. Her mileu was a typical one, in many ways, for 40s science fiction. She supposed that human life was common, and in fact native, on Venus, Mars, Calliso and Ganymede, and non-human life is also common on Mercury, Io, Europa, Titan and Tethys.

Eric John Stark was probably her most enduring character, to come from this pulpy mileu. A kind of spacefaring Tarzan or Mowgli, Stark was orphaned as a child and raised by rock-apes on Mercury. His adoptive family was later killed by Earthmen miners who wanted the land that the rock-apes live in, and Stark himself was kept as a kind of curio in a cage until he was rescued and re-raised as a human by Simon Ashton, a kind of planetary sheriff. Because of his unique background, Stark's animalistic upbringing is an incredibly important part of his character, and his bestial "alter-ego" if you will, N'Chaka, the Man-With-No-Tribe, comes to the forefront many times.

Stark figured in some important stories, including short stories that were later lengthened and adapted into novellas, named The Secret of Sinharat and The People of the Talisman as well as several other short stories: "Enchantress of Venus", "The Road to Sinharat" and probably a few others that I'm forgetting.

Although his character, on the surface, seems like a planet-hopping Tarzan, in reality he's a very different kind of character, and Brackett cultivates a very different kind of tone. Her husband, Edmond Hamilton (himself a pulp writer of space opera) said of her ouvre that she frequently wrote of strong men who pursued lofty goals only to have the story end unexpectedly, the plots transform into something darker and more serious, and the "heroes" left with nothing but a handful of ashes for their goals.
This is certainly true of The Ginger Star, the book that I'm reviewing in this post, now that I've finally gotten around to it. The picture I'm using here is from Paizo's Planet Stories line, but that's not the copy that I have. Prior to Paizo republishing this story, I had found and read the first two Skaith books from the library via interlibrary loan. I may have also read them as a kid, although I'm not 100% certain. I never did read the third and final novel in the series, so when I saw all three of them in a used bookstore for, I think, $2 each with the original Steranko covers, I didn't mind picking them all up again (not to get distracted again, but Steranko also did the pre-production artwork for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Good stuff.) This was now several years ago, and when I made my list of "books that I own but have not yet read" so I could make sure I actually did read them all, I added The Ginger Star and The Hounds of Skaith to the list, even though technically it wasn't true. I had read them, just not the copy that I own now.

Anyway, after that extremely lengthy background and introduction, I'm not sure that I've got a lot to say about The Ginger Star itself. It's a short novel, and was on the tail-end of that style of science fiction novels--less than 200 pages and roaring along at a good clip without enough in the way of character development or description, with a focus instead on plot. This, of course, means that almost all of the characters are in fact poorly developed, thin, and often uninteresting. Other than Stark himself, most of them feel like patsies, thrown up to meet the needs of the plot, and little else.

Plotwise, the story is also often frustrating in that Stark spends almost the entire book a passive character, prisoner to no fewer than four characters, who drag him along in an attempt to make him meet some prophecy or other. Tarzan never played such a passive role.

Despite that, the novel has some obvious attractions. The setting is very interesting. I tried to find confirmation for it online, and I couldn't, but I believe these might have originally been short stories, or at least set in the regular Brackett solar system setting, even if they were never published as short stories. The rumor goes that the Skaith stories were originally set on, respectively, Mercury, Mars and Venus, and were adapted into a single world, Skaith, when planetary science advanced to the point where the optimistic 40s type space opera proved that there was no way in the world that life could exist on any of those planets. Skaith as a setting also has strong elements of the Dying Earth subgenre, at least thematically, although Brackett approached those themes from a darker perspective than Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance ever did.

All in all, I found the approach to be interesting from an artistic perspective. Although the Skaith books may not be the most rollicking of adventures (despite what the cover blurbs said, Eric John Stark is not a swashbuckling space hero, he's an altogether different kind of character appearing in altogether different kinds of stories), the bleak and melancholic approach to space opera, or sword & planet (although I think this falls just shy of meeting the subgenre criteria there) is an unusual one. Besides Brackett herself, the only author I know who approached that type of setting with a similar mindframe was C. L. Moore, another atypically female early pulp writer of space opera. Her character Northwest Smith could almost be a contemporary of Stark, and although some of the details of the settings are not exactly the same, in broad strokes, they're so similar that I could almost see the two of them interacting; Stark as a mercenary for aboriginal peoples against colonial Earth corporations, and Smith smuggling them the arms they need for their dirty guerilla war.

In addition, the flaws of the Skaith books are not so crippling as to make the books unreadable, and given the short nature of them (all three of them together are still only a moderately long fantasy novel in today's terms, and would only be little more than half the length of a Robert Jordan or Steven Erikson novel) means that they're easy to check out for what they offer, and it's equally easy to overlook the flat characters and somewhat passive, cliched plot to see what Brackett brings that's unusual to the genre in terms of setting, tone and themes.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Races and D&D

There seems to be a lot of discussion going on at various places on the internet about races in D&D right now, so I thought I'd weigh in with my opinion. Reference my header graphic: I am, after all, the most opinionated guy on the internet.

There's a couple of issues first, that need to be put to bed. 1) Races in D&D are offensive stereotypes. I don't get this one. I hear it a lot. But who in the world is supposed to be offended by the notion that, say, elves are tree-loving hippies? There aren't any actual elves to be offended. It's a quick and dirty shorthand to give players a potential roleplaying hook on which to hang their character. That's it.

2) Races in D&D aren't really very alien. No, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing. The races in D&D were originally mythological or folkloric creatures, filtered, largely, through the lens of Tolkien. And as such, they represent almost caricaturized versions of a single slice of what it means to be human. This begs the question; if elves, dwarves, and whatever else are really just caricatures of a single aspect of human nature, why do we need them at all? Why not just have humans? The answer being, of course, that we don't need them. It's just fun to have them. Variety and color is fun for its own sake, even if it doesn't actually do anything else for the game.

3) There's too many races in D&D. It makes it feel like the Star Wars cantina scene. This is certainly true. Especially if you consider the monster races. It's bad enough that you've got humans, dwarves, elves, half-elves, halflings, gnomes and half-orcs... and subraces of many of those, but of course, you've also got orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, gnolls, and many, many, many more.

Then again, I kinda like the Mos Eisley cantina effect. Look at it this way; having the options in print doesn't obligate you to use them all, but it's better to have them and not need them than it is to need them and not have them, right? Also, for some campaigns, the Mos Eisley cantina effect is fun. This is a fantasy game, not a historical simulation. A lot of weird, colorful races can go a long way to demonstrate that fact repeatedly; "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto."

That's my take on fantasy races, then. They add color and flavor and variety, and that's it. I don't require that they be played by method actors who are exploring what it's like to not be human. I don't require that they stick to (or avoid) any stereotypes that the game has built up around them. Although I do find many of those stereotypes boring, poorly concieved and generally kinda half-arsed, to be honest with you. And that's sufficient reason to jettison those stereotypes and either not use that race, or use it differently. I like lots of races, and I like unusual races. Because to me, that means color, flavor and variety. It means fun.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Mathias Thulmann: Witch Hunter

Not long ago, I stumbled across a blog post by a Forgotten Realms author named Paul S. Kemp (who's kinda sorta a neighbor of mine... in a way. Not that I know him personally or anything.) In this post, he mounted a defense of the concept of "shared world" fiction. Basically, the kind of stuff he writes; Forgotten Realms fiction that sells under the Dungeons & Dragons brand name.

And there's a reason he does this; there's a perception amongst a lot of folks that shared world fiction is bad. So bad, in fact, that it's almost guaranteed to be bad. I'm not quite that pessimistic. Plus, I don't mind a bad book as long as it's somewhat entertaining. I don't need great literature to be entertained. I've blogged about it before, and am in fact a staunch supporter of disposible mass market types of entertainment. Pulp writing, as it were. I think there's a lot of untapped and unappreciated value in a lot of stuff that's not meant to be taken too seriously; if nothing else, it's a mirror on our society and those who make this kind of material popular.

That said, even I was prone to suspect that shared world fiction had the deck stacked against it when it came to quality. I went on to post a bit on some messageboards about Kemp's blog post, and even prompted him to show up and offer his defense in his own words a bit. The discussion followed some interesting routes. I started off the discussion saying that his basic premise, that shared world fiction doesn't, of course, have to be worse than "regular" fiction, but that for whatever reason it sure seemed like that was the case more often than not. So I speculated on what in the environment of shared world fiction might cause that to happen.

Kemp's response is that msot of the possible problems I identified weren't common in that environment anymore. People weren't doing write for hire stuff, with editors who stipulated in exactly detail what they could and couldn't do in their stories, and deadlines weren't any more draconian in that environment than they were in the "real" fiction world. This lead to the hypothesis that much of the paradigm of crappy shared world fiction could have been based on outdated practices and older books. I think Kemp may have had a point there. Certainly I haven't read much shared world fiction in the last few years, with the exception of a handful of Predator novels and a handful of Eberron novels. The Predator novels were over fifteen years old, so are perhaps outside of scope for the idea under consideration, and the Eberron novels, which I've reviewed on this blog, were extremely poor to mediocre in quality. But I allowed for the fact that my selection sample wasn't very big, and maybe he's got a point. Maybe shared world licensed, branded fiction is as good as anything else out there. Certainly, it's not likely to be much worse than stuff Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan or Piers Anthony, Steven Erikson, or... well, or any number of "real" fantasy authors who's writing craft is suspect.

Maybe I'm taking a leap of faith here, but I've actually picked up a bunch of shared world books to read in recent months, including several by Black Library and several by Wizards of the Coast (including Paul S. Kemp's latest Forgotten Realms trilogy, by the way.) Three of the four Black Library books I have are actually omnibus format trade paperbacks that combine three complete novels plus a bit of other material in them. And of these, I just finished the first one, C. L. Werner's Mathias Thulmann: Witch Hunter. This omnibus starts off with three linked short stories that flow neatly into three linked novels. The entire six-part arc is really one continuous story of sorts covering the chase Mathias Thulmann (the titular witch hunter) makes of a mad scientist Herr Doktor Weichs, and the other problems he encounters along the way.

These other problems are considerable, including no less than three vampires, necromancers, corrupted wizards, two greater demons, zombies, mutants, insidious cults, and the skaven, underground-dwelling hateful rat-people that are a staple of the Warhammer setting. To say nothing of his supposed compatriots; several other witch hunters feature in the story, and to a man, they are scum; either brutal fanatics, or brutal scheming social climbers. Not a one of them isn't almost as much a villain as the dark forces of Old Night, as the monsters, cults and supernatural are called. In fact, they do a credible job of making Thulmann's hired torturer Streng and Eckhardt, the grim templar of the god of death, seem sympathetic and friendly in comparison.

Overall, as you'd expect in a book about a witch-hunter, the tone tries to approach that of a horror story. The Warhammer setting is already a pretty grim place (I like to quote the following, although I don't know who originally said it, "When you play Warhammer, you start off thinking that you're playing D&D. You very quickly realize that you're actually playing Call of Cthulhu.") But Werner doesn't quite manage to make it a horror story, most of the time. The horror he has is pretty classic, gothic even, but the immediacy of a good horror novel doesn't quite ever seem to materialize. Instead, it feels like a dark fantasy sword & sorcery, and frankly, that may have been more what he was aiming for after all. It wasn't until the last 150 pages or so of a 760+ page omnibus that I feel like Thulmann and Streng are really paying any price for a career of facing the worst of the terrors of Old Night; otherwise, they seem to glide through life rather heroically, and being witch hunters is just a job not unlike any other for them. Suddenly in what would originally have been the third book, Thulmann develops an interesting back story and some depth of personality.

That's too late, in my opinion, but mostly what I mean by that is that it sabotages the tone of horror somewhat. When we find out Thulmann's (of course tragic) backstory, then the book takes on more urgency, and the horror seems to become a bit more real. But, it's too little too late by that point, because the tone of the prior novels had clearly been set as a horror-imitating sword & sorcery as opposed to a truly horror-steeped sword & sorcery. Perhaps the difference is marginal, but I think it's an important one.

A couple of other minor quibbles with the book. It stops more than it ends. I wonder if Werner was planning on continuing it via additional volumes? The ending was pretty underwhelming and it ended on a minor cliffhanger. Also, the middle section of the book is a bit confused. Werner experiments with using lots of different points of view, bouncing from Thulmann to Streng to each of the (many) villains, to other supporting characters... it feels like a very Tom Clancy-esque technique in a way, but I think it got a little bit away from him. The middle section sub-climax, what would have been the climax of the second novel in its original form, was just a bit too ambitious, and as such, it isn't able to completely deliver on its promise. And a lingering problem with the multiple character experiment was that Thulmann was then saddled with several new supporting characters who were not as well developed as they should have been; they were just there as walking plot devices, really.

And an extremely banal complaint; the original titles were underwhelming. One of the short stories was named "Meat Wagon" for example, and the three novels were Witch Hunter, Witch Finder and Witch Killer. Huh?

Anyway, despite these complaints, I have to admit that Werner convinced me. This is a major trilogy (plus a few add-on short stories) by a major shared world licensed publishing house that publishes fiction as an adjunct to games, miniatures and (now) computer games. The Black Library section has very quickly engulfed massive amounts of shelf space at my local bookstores, and if this is any indication, the reason for that is that they manage to put out shared world fiction that's just as good as any "real" fiction out there on average.

Which is good; I've made a semi-major investment into Black Library; I've got two more omnibus trilogies on my shelf as well as the first volume of a brand new trilogy about the "historical" Warhammer setting. I hope to be able to report that the rest of the stuff I read by them will live up to the reasonably high standard that Mathias Thulmann: Witch Hunter has set.

Cityscape

It's perhaps a bit unusual, that I like a game called Dungeons & Dragons, probably more than (or at least as much as) any other roleplaying game, and yet I have no interest whatsoever in dungeons or dragons. My taste in fantasy is strongly influenced by the type of fantasy I was reading as a kid when I came across D&D, and that means stuff like that covered in Cityscape. The urban environment as a dangerous place of adventure, as opposed to a stop-off between adventures, is a key component of much of the early fantasy that I read. With the exception of Tolkien, of course. When Conan is in a city, he's sneaking into some wizard's tower, fighting organized crime in the Maul, stealing into a nobleman's keep to steal his riches and the love of his bored and unsatisfied wives. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are perhaps the most iconic city-fantasy protagonists, and their taking on of thieves guilds, were-rats, zombies and more in the streets of Lankhmar, are iconic fantasy moments. So, to me, gaming in a city always felt natural. Felt more natural, frankly, than going to some out of the way "dungeon" and exploring it just because it was there and might have treasure and bizarre nonsensical monsters in it.

This shouldn't be surprising to anyone who's read my blog in the past. I've blogged about, among other things, how much I enjoy the Freeport setting, which is an urban wretched hive of scum and villainy. My reviews of city-related products, like Paizo's Absalom or Katapesh books, or Wizards' Sharn book, or Privateer's Five Fingers book, etc. show that not only do I have a lot of city-related sourcebooks, but that I tend to like them and find good material to steal in all of them. So, my expectation for an environmental book dedicated to the city was high.

Sadly, the first thing one notices is that this book is only about 70% of the size of earlier environment books like Sandstorm, Frostburn or Stormwrack. I'm not sure why this change in format, but I think that the city environment, if anything, needed more coverage than those earlier books got, and given the often lackluster material found in Sandstorm and Frostburn, I hoped it would be good stuff.

What I should have anticipated is that for someone (like me) who's already quite used to running and playing in urban campaigns, the advice in Cityscape is often fairly shallow and obvious. I think this would be a better book to someone who's never done that kind of campaign and is rooted in the "classic" D&D paradigm, but that's not me. The first section of the book is given over to describing several kinds of cities and city neighborhoods, but as I said, most of it was fairly obvious. The best thing about this section, probably, is the fact that it includes at least half a dozen good city maps that you can use as needed. I like a good city map as a play aid, and between this, the Paizo Cities of Golarion, and the Wheel of Time book I have, not to mention several stand-alone products, I've got dozens to choose from when I want to whip out a map and model a city. The descriptions of the cities themselves and their neighborhoods were, on the other hand, fairly prosaic and easily anticipated. I.e., I could easily have come up with this stuff myself without putting too much effort into it.

The authors rightly point out that one way to make the game more interesting and take advantage of the environment, is to have a lot of intrigue. To facilitate this, they talked in general terms about a bunch of different organizations that cities could sport, from evil cults to domineering religions, to friendly religions, to thieves guilds, to slavers guilds, to craft and trades guilds, to royal houses, to... well, there's a lot of them. Organizations that PCs might want to belong to, organizations that the PCs might want to oppose and organizations that just add color.

However... the book talks about them in general terms. It would have been really nice had the book been the same length as the previous environmental books, and actually fleshed out some of these groups as examples. I really like the organization "stat block" that a lot of the 3.5 books have, and some of those specific organizations are really interesting and useable. Having the guilds described in general terms, and then frankly making many of them kinda boring, like craft guilds and stuff, was not nearly as useful as having a list of sample ready-to-roll organizations would have been. That was one of (the few) things that I really liked about the Urban Arcana sourcebook for d20 Modern; it came with dozens of organizations ready to go. Here, we only get them in general terms.

Then there's some discussion about how to run city games, or the "urban crawl" as it's called. This advice is less than spectacular; it feels like baby-steps away from dungeon-crawling as opposed to really embracing the potential of an urban themed campaign. In fact, in general, I thought that was the major weakness of the book; overall it really struggled to break away from what the authors assume to be the "classic" D&D paradigm. To point to another example that I was amused by repeatedly, slavers were repeatedly painted as the ultimate evil; whereas assassins guilds only got a brief mention. D&D isn't always "heroic" high fantasy dungeoncrawling. I've made a career of shades of gray sword & sorcery intrigue games in my GMing days. This book really failed to take advantage of exactly the kind of source material, tone and themes that fantasy was built on back in the days of the pulp magazines, which is perhaps a commentary on how disassociated from our fantasy roots modern fantasy fans have grown.

At the end, I'm left (again) a little bit underwhelmed with this, the third now, environmental book that I've read. I've also got Stormwrack and I'll be reading and reviewing it soon, but I have no interest in picking up Dungeonscape, so I'll probably give that one a miss. In general for all of them, though, the content has been generic, uninspired, and frankly kinda obvious. I pine, I guess, for the D&D products that push the boundaries a little bit, that come up with ideas that I couldn't (or at least didn't) already come up with on my own. Cityscape really isn't that product, and to be fair to it, I don't think it was ever meant to be. It was meant to be, as I said earlier, baby-steps away from the "classic" dungeoncrawling paradigm, and in that regard it succeeds. It just so happens that I wish it could have been so much more.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Modular D&D Setting

You may notice, over there on the side where I've got some links, a bunch of wikis related to fantasy settings. Mostly for gaming. Most of these wikis are dreadfully incomplete; in fact, many of them have practically no content whatsoever. I created them in a fit of creative zeal, and then never came back to them to populate them with anything of value. I kept the links here, as much as for any other reason, so I can remember where they are when I finally (if I finally) get around to doing anything with them.

That said, at least one of my sites there is moving along at a relatively steady pace. The Modular Fantasy Setting wiki is one that's designed to have "plug and play" elements, kingdoms, languages, a pantheon of deities to worship, and a consistent set of houserules that I like and could feel comfortable applying to any game I run.

So far, I've only got a few of the modules complete: the house rules, the languages, the pantheon, the races, and the ascendent hobgoblin khaganate of Kurushat.

Coming soon (or well, at least sometime, if not necessarily soon) is the "vampire kingdom" Tarush Noptii, as well as other kingdoms with various racial heritages: the human dominated, fading Terrassan Empire, which will feel a bit like a late era Roman Empire, the hellkin (tiefling) ruled Baal Ta Netjer and the djinn (fire genasi) ruled Qizmir.

This isn't meant to be a complete setting in and of itself, even when it's complete. These are meant to be plug in modules. That said, I am giving some thought to at least one configuration of the modules where they are laid out next to each other in a semblance of an actual setting. I don't know that I'll post that there, or not yet, though. In fact, I might even just buy a posterboard, draw and paint the map, and keep it handy for my own use.

Anyway, just a heads-up. I'm quite happy with the (admittedly, still rather sparse) content that's there right now.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Watch out for my body rolls

Sometimes something is so stupid that it laps all the way back around to being awesome again.


Monday, March 01, 2010

The "Hyborian Model" of setting design

Robert E. Howard was, in many ways, an unappreciated genius. He's appreciated more now, but I think one aspect of this genius is still frequently unappreciated, and that's his unique (at the time) approach to the setting design for his most famous stories, the Conan tales, set in the so-called Hyborian Age. In fact, part of what I now consider to be pure genius was criticized by friend and fellow Weird Tales pulpster H. P. Lovecraft. See, Lovecraft thought that Howard's use of "real" names was troubling; in a fantasy setting, the names should be made up. Otherwise, it's not fantasy, it's "real life" intruding.

Of course, Lovecraft was wrong on this. Much of fantasy, including plenty of what he himself wrote, takes place in the "real" world with fantasy elements tacked on. And there's no cultural resonance with these fantasy cultures. What does it mean to be visiting Karnathes, king of Celephais? I have no idea. Those names don't mean anything to me. They don't bring to mind any hint of background.

What does it mean, however, to be operating in Nordheim with an Æsir war-party who call on Ymir as their god? Well, clearly that brings to mind a host of viking-like associations... without having to actually be real vikings. One of the things Howard was specifically trying to do was recreate that cultural resonance that came with using real cultures, while simultaneously freeing himself from the shackles that are associated with historical fiction. See, Howard himself wrote that he loved writing historical fiction, however, he found the research associated with it to be a major time sink, and a frustrating side effect of having to do so. If he got the name or dates associated with some historical figure or stage wrong, he'd feel terrible when he found out, and his fans would also (at least some of them) notice it.

But... what if he created a setting that could have the best of both worlds? Like I said, the Æsir instead of the Norwegians? The Corinthians instead of the Greeks? The Aquiloneans instead of the Romans? The Stygians instead of the Egyptians? The Turanians instead of the Turks?

This was a convenient short-hand, allowing for highly fantastic stories that had, in many cases, a mythological or "Arabian Nights" like effect, where the cultures, names and locations were a convenient shorthand for the readers, but the author had freedom to take things his own direction. What if you wanted to have Romans and Vikings in the same setting? Well, historically you couldn't; they didn't overlap temporally. But in the Hyborian Age, this "calque" of real cultures into a fantasy setting does in fact, render the best of both worlds.

Here's an example of two "modern" settings that have done the same thing: Games Workshop's Warhammer setting of "The Old World" and neighboring countries, bears extremely transparently calqued real-world countries. Or, well, like Howard, they are sometimes a combination of "real" world and "legendary" world. Bretonnia, for example, is not just high medieval France, it's also the birthplace of the Arthur legends, and bears a strong overlap of Arthurian romance in addition to whatever historical elements were borrowed. The Empire is quickly identifiable as a kind of melange of the Holy Roman Empire and possibly also the Hanseatic League; yet very recognizably medieval German throughout. The Kislevites are the Cossacks. Araby is, unsurprisingly, Arabia, Nehekhara is ancient Egypt, Sylvannia is the Transylvannia of Stoker-esque literature. Norsca is Scandinavia. And so on and so forth.

Paizo's Golarion setting does the same thing. Taldor is the Byzantine Empire. Ossirion is Egypt. The Land of the Linnorm Kings are the Vikings. Ustalav is the Stoker-esque Transylvannia. Qadira is a combination of the Arabian caliphates and the Persian empire. And so on and so forth.

I've been fascinated with the ease with which this kind of setting design flows. It makes it extremely easy to engage players (of roleplaying games) or readers (of fiction) in a setting that feels familiar like this, and yet they are forgiving, and in fact demanding, of you putting your own stamp on it.

I'm equally fascinated with guys like Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Barsoom setting, who specifically set out to create societies of alien humans; people who had no link with any Earth civilization, and so wouldn't be expected to closely resemble any such civilization either. But I admit to being fascinated with them for completely different reasons. And I think that, especially for games, the former type, the "Hyborian Model" is the easier one to implement and get up and running.