Friday, September 30, 2011

Iceberg Lake

My greatest regret about my Glacier National Park trip was that we weren't there long enough, and the weather didn't cooperate very well all the time, making us unable to do some of the things that I would have loved to do before our time was up.  We really didn't get to see the Many Glacier area very well at all, because it was cool and rainy the whole time we were up that direction, and many of the trails were closed due to mud, flooding, or bear danger (i.e., an animal carcass on the trail.)

One of the hikes that I most wanted to do, with a trailhead up near Many Glacier Lodge, was the Iceberg Lake trail.  Behold:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Low Town

I just finished the novel Low Town by Daniel Polansky, a first time published novelist writing in that kind of dark fantasy noir mindset that seems to be sweeping the genre lately.  Curiously, his novel has also been published in the UK with a completely different title, The Straight Razor Cure although it still seems to be subtitlted Low Town, as if it were a series name or something.  And in German, it was published as Der Herr der Unterstadt--"The Lord of the Low Town" although I don't know of the phrase Unterstadt has any colloquial meanings like underworld or anything like that.  My German's way too weak for that.  I personally like the British title best, and it echoes a line of dialogue from near the end of the book.  The British book cover, on the other hand, has a generic looking wizard, hooded and cowled in a red robe with his face nearly completely concealed and his hand on fire.  I have no idea who he's supposed to represent, as no character in the book looks like that.  Then again, the art-less American cover isn't exactly setting my imagination on fire either.

Don't know much about Polansky, as this is his first published book, and his biographical info is pretty sparse, indicating merely that he's from Baltimore, this is his first novel, and he has a BA in philosophy, of all things.  The Wikipedia article on Low Town suggests that it is partly autobiographical, but that's probably patently absurd, as you'll probably see just from my quick summary below.  I also presume that Daniel Polansky is not related to Roman Polanski, but I caught myself almost typing the latter several times while composing this post.

Polansky and his critics have made a big deal out of his melding of fantasy and hardboiled crime novels--too much of a big deal, in my opinion.  There's been a strong trend that way for a long time, although exaclty how much and what kind of melding is, of course, variable by work.  I've blogged here already about stuff written by guys like Glen Cook, Simon R. Green, Alex Bledsoe, and even David Gross that happily takes a fair amount of noir or mystery novel influence and applies it to the fantasy genre.  Some of those guys have done what they were doing years ago.  But just because the innovativeness and novelty of Polansky's work is, perhaps, overstated in the buzz around his work doesn't mean that the book itself suffers, by any means.  Let's take a look at what we've got:

1) The voice.  Low Town was deliberately written to echo the voice made famous by writers like Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler.  First person, cynical, wise-cracking, and depressing, the voice is very much a noir voice.  Classically so, even.  As Polansky himself intimated, in the quick youtube snippet below, fantasy often has a tendency of being over-written, bloated and paced so that it can outrun your average glacier.  Barely.  Matching that with the hard-hitting pacing and terse, cynical voice of the noir novel is a good match in many ways.  Not that Polansky is the first (or only) fantasy writer to go that route, but he's one of the best at getting the voice to hit the right notes.  In fact, it's one of the most intriguing narrative voices I've read in some time.

2) Do any of you (two or three readers that may stumble across this) remember Bat Durston?  He used to appear as a semi-satirical character who could slip from one genre to the next without any substantive change; usually from a western to a space opera, with only cosmetic changes.  The American southwest became the Martian landscape, his horse became a speeder of some kind, the Apaches became Martians, the cattle rustlers became... I dunno, some other kind of bandit.  The point was, some stories can easily slip from genre to genre because they don't actually incorporate the narrative tropes and conventions of the genre that they appear in.  Low Town fits this description in many ways.  In many ways, it's an iconic noir novel.  There's little about it that makes it have to take place in a fantasy setting, and in fact, there's little about the fantasy setting that is unique or unusual, or even fantastic.  Maybe that's deliberate, because that would clash somewhat with the noir sensibilities, but it's true.  Heck, even the sorcery becomes more of a macguffin than an integral plot point.  Magic becomes the murder weapon, but it could easily have been something else.  The Warden, the protagonist of Low Town, is a Bat Durston.  He doesn't come from a Western, but the story, the characters, the voice, the plot--everything could have been a "regular" noir novel, and the fantasy is just a cosmetic overlay that gives Low Town a bit of a twist, and the opportunity to be read by a new audience who otherwise may not have discovered it.

Again; I'm not voicing that as a complaint.  In fact, I think that's a perfectly reasonable tack to take.  But it is what it is.  Low Town isn't really treading in some new, gee-whiz, innovative and uncharted territory.  It's an iconic, almost by-the-numbers, if I can say it, hardboiled detective novel that just happens to have some fantasy overlay, including a secondary world setting and a magical macguffin.

3) Being written as it is in a first person limited point of view, the protagonist slash narrator has to be a great character, and The Warden fits the bill.  He's also an iconic noir type character--a former hero of sorts; a war veteran, a spy slash detective career after that, a fall from grace and dishonorable discharge from service, and he's now a tough guy around town peddling drugs and running a reasonable successful criminal business.  Against his better judgement, he gets involved in an investigation of some grisly murders.  His past comes back to haunt him.  He gets stuck between the secret police and gang bosses and  unscrupulous noble murderers and more, and has to navigate an increasingly difficult, intrigue-laden plot to confront what ends up being  a dark secret with ties to his own past.  All fairly textbook noir tropes, frankly, with the exception of the vaguely Lovecraftian horrors from the spaces between the worlds that are being summoned to murder people.  But very well executed.  The main mystery wasn't quite as surprising as all that.  I've never been great at sussing out the riddle of who's guilty in mysteries ahead of time, really, but this time, Polansky really telegraphed somewhat transparently that there was something hinky going on with the villain, so when revealed, it's not a big shocker, it's more like, "y'know, I was wondering what was going on there.  That makes sense."  Good point or bad point?  I dunno.  I enjoy it.  Then again, I don't read a lot of pure mystery, because I don't necessarily enjoy the game between author and readers that the genre presupposes.  I'm OK with an author telling me what happens without me being expected to try and figure it out myself.

4) The Warden isn't the only great character, though, although he naturally gets top billing.  Several other characters, including the nobleman, his sorcerous henchman, the Warden's husband and wife landlord slash old war time friend, the bitter ex-partner from the force, the young kid who starts tagging along behind them, the benevolent father figure, even Yancey the medieval rap artist are all reasonably well developed and interesting characters who have  a part to play.  And the cryptic dialogue between the Warden and the leader of the Triad-like syndicate Ling Qi is just outright fun and hilarious while managing to also be surprisingly sinister to read.

5) Like dark fantasy everywhere, the ending is somewhat Pyrrhic and depressing; hard choices are made, and the protagonist (I can't really call him a hero in any sense of the word) is left with little more than a handful of ashes for his trouble.  Will there be a sequel?  I'm sure that depends on the sales of this book, which has only been out a little over a month now.  I strongly recommend it.  It was a great read.  Polansky has a great, polished voice, and the characters deserve more screen-time.  I've love to see the world of Low Town get a bit more development.  And as I've long been lauding the practice of merging some of the good features of other genres with fantasy, of course I'm a cheerleader for a book that does it and manages to be supremely well executed.

Next up, another book with a similar vibe--a fantasy crime type premise--by another first time author, Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick.  I'll be sure and review that one too.  It's got at least one advantage over Polansky's book--not counting the cover art, which I greatly prefer--it's been pimped a fair amount by Brent Weeks, who's a bit of a superstar in the fantasy genre of sorts right now, so Hulick's book comes with high expectations and lots of pre-release buzz.  Of course, I didn't exactly get it on release day or anything either; there's probably many reviews out by now, many of them several months old (I think the book was released in April?  Maybe May) but by my standards, it's still pretty new.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Editions of D&D

While participating in a discussion online about D&D, it occured to me that each "edition" of D&D could be reasonably well summed up in a few key points or words for what it was most "known for."  By this, I mean numbered editions; Original Brown and White Box D&D, or the Basic and Up lines were sidelines of D&D that had a lot of good points, but I don't believe anything that's particularly.... unique, for lack of a better word. 

Meanwhile, the numbered editions do.  So, without further ado, here's where I see each edition of D&D making its mark on the brand.

First edition AD&D is mostly known for being classic.  While wandering about through a type of product adolescence, D&D was gathering momentum and market and whantot until it became AD&D.  Then it was a mature product, a mature line, and it became, well the classic D&D that most people remember from the classic days of the game.  The classic PHB.  The classic Monster Manual.  The classic Gygaxian prose of the Dungeonmaster's Guide.  The classic modules.  Everything about it is classic, and in a sense, almost canonized by much of the D&D playing public.  Whatever AD&D did, it typically did it first.  The first Manual of the Planes.  The first Underdark (in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, or whatever it was exactly that that book was called.)  In many ways, it's fard to fault these early pioneers, because there wasn't anything to compare them too.

In all fairness, though, they weren't always that good.  The art and layout was often amateurish.  Gygax's prose stunk, and he needed a good editor, and someone with a better sense of organization to help him write that DMG.  So many of those classic monsters were laughably stupid.  So many of those classic modules were so poorly designed.  And the play paradigm was strongly rooted in Gygax's own miniatures wargaming background, despite the fact that much of the audience was not.

Second edition: what can you say?  Settings.  Second edition is most well-known for settings.  Some of them didn't actually launch during 2e--Forgotten Realms, for instance, started in the late 1e days--but this is the grand floruit of setting detail, setting development, and so many new settings.  Forgotten Realms was fairly mainstream, as was Mystara and a few others, but we also got a lot of really esoteric stuff like Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Planescape, Ravenloft, etc.

Second edition was also well known for increasingly bad mechanics.  Sure, it was mostly just 1e reorganized... at least until Skills and Powers and kits came out.  While not a bad idea--they needed to do something to alleviate the straight-jacket like class structure, this solution probably caused more problems than it solved.

Third edition: the OGL, clearly.  Hordes and hordes of third party stuff; some of it absolutely terrible, but some of it amongst the best stuff ever published for the game.  The setting search and Eberron.  The "half edition" update in 3.5.  Harmonized and synchronous mechanics.  It's curious to me that the mechanical simplicity that was lauded at 3e's launch was decried as a straight-jacket, as needlessly pedantic, as stifling by the time 3.5 was near the end of its product cycle.  Did the game itself actually change that much?  In my opinion, no, not really.  But somehow people's perception of it sure did.  Oh, and plastic, prepainted, randomly sorted mini packs.

Fourth edition: huge focus on miniatures and tactical combat.  Points of light.  The DDI.  Massive change to the mechanical fundamentals, many of which wooed those disenchanted with the "stifling" environment of third edition, but many of which alienated other long-time players who felt like this new game simply wasn't D&D anymore.  There was another mid-stream "half edition" of sorts, in the form of D&D Essentials.  Also well-known for having to compete with itself, in a way, in the form of Pathfinder.  Lots of internet rivalry between fans of the two editions.

Baix Pallars

Far to the southeast of the main Terrasan lands is the little country of Baix Pallars.  Nestled in the hilly land between the southerly cool lodgepole and cedar dominated Follà Forest, the Nijat River, the Azar Shahr mountains, and the Sahir savannah, Baix Pallars is an island of Terrasan colonial culture amidst pristine wilderness and encroaching Qazmiri interests.  Like Calça, the so-called "lost province", Baix Pallars has been abandoned by a Terrasan administration unable to cope with colonial holdings so far away from the center of gravity of an increasingly ponderous realm.  However, rather than being so remote as to be virtually unthreatened by any outside power, as Calça is, Baix Pallars is smack-dab in the path of expanding al-Qazmiri interests, and has it's back to a wilderness wall with al-Qazmir breathing right in its face as it is.  While jann are still rare in this area, culturally Qazmiri humans are common, and many of the names of local features are more commonly given in Qazmiri than in their Terrasan forms, and the bustling river town of Qaserun is nearby--and nearly as populous as all of the scattered villages and hamlets of Baix Pallars in their entirety.

Many of the Terrasans of Baix Pallars don't really care; Terrasa has abandoned them--mostly for the best--they add, and they're far enough away from any major Qazmiri administrative center that their is little expectation of a heavy hand if they decide to annex the hilly region.  But others find the very notion of a Qazmiri yoke intolerable, and these have increasingly been stirred up by radical and desperate elements.  Some of them have taken to preemptive guerilla strikes, ignoring the advice of others who suggest that their actions are more likely to cause the Qazmiri to pacify the region rather than prevent it.  Others are increasingly fleeing deeper into the mountains or the forest, as small groups of families or friends.

And others are turning to dark powers.  Entire hamlets and villages have turned to the worship of Hastur, Nergal, Iog-Sotôt or others, and frightening and disturbing occult activity has turned Baix Pallars into a hotbed of seething intrigue, sacrifices or worse.  Savvy travelers have started avoiding the area entirely, and lone travelers frequently go in but fail to come out.  This has hastened the flight of the decent and respectable members of the area into the picturesque mountains or forests, which hastens the fall of Baix Pallars itself into complete degeneracy.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Delay on Black Library fiction

I've really been struggling with reading lately.  I've had the Eisenhorn omnibus on my "What I'm Reading" list for months--although I've really only been seriously at it for a few weeks.  I put it on when I started, but was immediately distracted and set it aside for most of that time.

For my "On Deck" list, I had another Black Library series, the Nagash series by Mike Lee coming up.

However, I'm rearranging the schedule again slightly.  A book that I requested that the library buy came in.  I finished up the novel within the Eisenhorn omnibus that I was reading (2 of 3), set it aside again, and now I'm going to read two library books before I pick it back up.  After that... I'm not sure if I'll dive into Nagash right away after all, or if I'll have a look at some of the other stuff in my collection that isn't getting read.  Honestly, I'm kinda in the mood for some quick n dirty short fiction, and I have both some Robert E. Howard and some H. P. Lovecraft on my "To read" list, since I've bought the collections and not yet read them (although I have read many--maybe even most--of the individual stories in the collection in some other format.)

Because of the length of time it's taking me to sort out my reading the last few months, and the amount of blathering I've done about what I'm reading, I'd like to actually do full-fledged reviews of these few books.  One of them, Low Town by Daniel Polansky, is a freshman effort by a new author, which is kinda fun.

And I'll leave you with an image search result I picked up of Eisenhorn, which has really gotten the short end of the stick in my reading efforts lately.  Sadly, it's not well-deserved; I think it's a reasonably good book (or books, technically) that I've struggled to finish for reasons completely unrelated to its quality as a novel.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Romantic fantasy is everywhere

With regards to the post title, romantic fantasy--that is, fantasy books that intersect in their conventions, tropes and execution with the romance genre--has been around almost as long as I've been reading fantasy.  Stuff by Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, and others was always on the shelf, and frankly, stuff by Anne McCaffrey or Marion Zimmer Bradley didn't fall too far from that angle either, in regards to the market they were hoping to corner with their feminist or romantic-tendency books.  I actually think that that's probably a good thing for fantasy, and I've said many times before that I think fantasy tends to become too insular, and needs to be aware of and take advantage of trends in other genres.  Plus, hey, romance is the biggest genre of fiction out there, and crossing that into fantasy breeds a lot more fantasy readers, which in turn breeds a lot more fantasy getting published.

That said--I don't really have any interest in reading romantic fantasy.  Not too long ago, it wasn't hard to figure out which fantasy was going to go down that route.  There were visual cues in the cover art, there were relatively fewer authors, and the descriptions had a lot of key words that made it kinda obvious.  So, I could mostly avoid what I wasn't interested in, and read other stuff instead.

Now, however, I notice that it's not nearly as obvious as it once was.  I've been caught "off guard" a good half a dozen times recently with stuff that was very overtly romance genre fantasy, without any obvious clues beforehand that that's what I was going to be reading.  I suspect, perhaps, that some of the authors themselves would maybe dispute the label, and maybe that's why.  But I'm a bit of a purist; I don't mind watching romcoms with my wife (in fact, I usually enjoy them unless they're badly done--but that's true of any kind of movie) but a number of books I've read recently have an obvious target audience of women, not men in fantasy, and as part of that, they are heavily draped in conventions, character-types, and scenarios that are common to the romance genre.

Am I just really out of touch?  Has there been a major change?  Why am I getting "suckered" into checking out books from the library--and occasionally even buying--that clearly are not intending me as the target audience?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tazitta death cults

As one leaves the Garriga Mountains to the north of the Terrasan lands, and enters the high ground of the Shutruk plateau, one finds the massive, landlocked Indash Salt Sea, a kind of Lake Bonneville.  While the Indash Sea has a number of civilized city-states on its shores, including Tahrah and glittering Simashki, in many ways it is most well-known to outsiders of the Hamazi region as the homeland of the Tazitta tribes.  The Tazitta are nestled between the sea and the Dagan Mountains in a long, vertically oriented chimney.  Their homeland is rocky and hilly, but not nearly as dramatic as the carved and sculpted canyonlands to the north and west.  Pinyon-juniper woodlands cover much of the area, while more open territory is home to sagebruch, rabbitbrush, ephedra and golden bunchgrasses, forming a dry prairie.

While there are many interesting things to be said about the Tazitta tribes, their most memorable trait, at least to those from outside, is there devotion to what is usually referred to as a "death cult."  Visually striking, death cult fanatics paint themselves with white and black, to make themselves look like stylized representations of a human skeleton.  The beginnings of the cult date back to the heyday of the Baal Hamazi Empire, when the Tazitta tribes did not live free in the woodlands, but were either in hiding in the mountains, or enslaved by the hamazin on the high prairie.  The hamazin treated them a bit like game; hunting them for sport or pleasure, in those days.  The Shazada of Pnakot, a colonial holding of Baal Hamazi on the other side of the mountains, at the shores of Lake Kidin, in particular made use of the Tazitta for sport, and the city-state of Shushun was a small pit-stop at the time.  He was rumored to have had an advisor from the black land of Tarush Noptii--either a vampire or an expert on vampirism of some sorts.  Whether true or not, the Shazada was a notorious necromancer, and rather than utilize his own people for his dark experimentation--they were far too valuable--he rounded up Tazitta tribesmen as much as possible.  Thousands of the Tazitta were taken into horrible unlife.  And the Tazitta death-cults were formed as the remaining tribesmen swore fell oaths to never let themselves fall into the same trap; to die cleanly.  They celebrated a clean death.  They grew to revere, even to worship the force of death itself.

Of course, the Shazada didn't last forever.  Neither did the Baal Hamazi empire, and the rule of the hamazin over the area.  Pnakoth still exists, a shadow of its former self, a back-water mouldering fishing town on the shores of Lake Kidin, slowly falling into disrepair, decripitude and haunted empty buildings.  No longer are the Tazitta at threat from Pnakoth.  Yet, the death cults remain, evolved--or perhaps corrupted--from their former purpose into a fanatical obsession with death and dying.  Many Death Pilgrims wander the world, traveling far from their homelands to bring death to those who unnaturally cling to life--especially undead.  Despite this noble appearing mission, most Death Pilgrims are truly little more than brutal, psychotic killers for hire--mercenaries or assassins.

Despite the prominant role the death cults have in Tazitta culture, not all tribesmen belong to the cults, and many who do are just normal folks, of course, following their cultural traditions without the wild-eyed appearance or manners of a zealot.  In fact, Tazitta who do not use the body paint are often mistaken by outsiders as Untash or even Haltash tribesmen--they have the same look, accent, and manner of dressing.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Analyzing GM Merit Badges

Well, although I've been out of the loop of RPG related message boards for several months now, an unrelated Google search brought me back to ENWorld, and I ended up browsing the front page.  On a whim, I posted the merit badges, since I couldn't see any evidence that they'd been posted already.  In fact, I made it a poll so I could generate some data for discussion.  Two things:

1) The first reply (and several subsequent ones) confirmed quickly that I'd made the right call in distancing myself from places like this.  Pedantic nitpicking, and--to use the phrase from the thread I posted--the compulsive, nerdy need to over-analyze the whimsical--not to mention a moderator's (no less) self-righteous and sadly not at all ironic smug pontification on the folly of calling them "merit badges" when they didn't have enough correspondences to the actual Scouting program of the same name very quickly reminded me of why I abandoned such banal discussions long ago.  I doubt I'll be looking to increase my involvement again anytime soon, based on this disappointing experience.

2) I know that this isn't a scientific poll, but there shouldn't be too many self-selection biases or endogeneity problems other than those which possibly plague ENWorld as a whole.  In any case, I'm not going to be submitting the poll findings to The Quarterly Journal of Economics or anything, so I'm not going to be too concerned about a strictly rigorous scientific study.  I'll talk about the results that I have so far, and speculate on them, and they are what they are, warts and all.

First off, with 42 votes over the last... oh, about 20 hours... I've got enough responses to be interesting, but I might update this yet in a few days when I have more.  Here's the raw numbers.  This includes the original 24 badges from the post, as well as the two additional ones that were added to the Cafe Press store.  Italics are my own response, which you can see both on the side of the blog and in the last post.

I found it interesting that the Interesting Story badge got such high numbers.  Suck it, sandbox fundamentalists!  Although that number as a percentage went down a fair bit with more votes, it's still by far the strongest single response.  Rule 0 was fairly high and By the Book very low, as was Likely character death.  This didn't seem to jive with my totally unscientific impression of the results looking at OSR blogs, where posting of these badges seems to have been most prevalent.  Of course, a lot of gamers would say that their impression of the OSR is that it's got a strong vibe of fundamentalism and fetishization of what the OSR crowd perceives (arguably) as the "old school" way of gaming--so, if they're (we're, honestly) right, then that's to be expected.  I suspect that this being posted somewhere like Dragonsfoot, where OSR fans are a much larger percentage of the posters, might get a different pattern of responses.

I was also... well, not exactly surprised, but disappointed nonetheless to see that Scary, PvP and Gonzo were all fairly low--although frankly, the number of folks who picked Disturbing was higher than I expected.

Most of the other results were either not surprising, or didn't turn out particularly interesting, with kinda middling numbers.

Anyway, like I said, I thought the results were interesting.  I might post an update after I get 100 responses, assuming that I get that high.  Or maybe even more, depending on how fast responses come in.  At the least, I'll note if anything makes a dynamic change after more results come in.

Tactics are an important part of my games. 21 50.00%
My games will tell an interesting story. 36 85.71%
My games will be scary. 11 26.19%
My game focuses on exploration and mystery. 27 64.29%
There will be player vs player combat allowed in my game. 11 26.19%
My games are safe and you don't need to worry about content or character death. 4 9.52%
I will mirror back player ideas that I think are interesting in game. 31 73.81%
My games use a pre-made map and pre-scripted content. 15 35.71%
The GM is in charge in my games and rule zero is in effect. 28 66.67%
My games rely on improvisation rather than pre-scripted content. 16 38.10%
My games are gonzo and can include lots of strangeness. 5 11.90%
Characters in my game are destined for greatness, not random death. 19 45.24%
I roll dice in the open and don't fudge results. 18 42.86%
My games include disturbing content. 13 30.95%
My games focus on interesting characters and drama. 21 50.00%
Player character death is likely in my games. 16 38.10%
I play by the book and rule zero is not used to alter existing rules. 7 16.67%
My games are more of a social fun "beer and pretzels" style game. 9 21.43%
My game is primarily non-combat in nature. 5 11.90%
Players in my game should be prepared to run when odds are stacked against them. 29 69.05%
My game has shared GMing responsibilty with one or more of the other players. 3 7.14%
I frequently tinker with the rules of the game. 22 52.38%
My game focuses on player skill rather than character abilities. 5 11.90%
My game is more enjoyable when I keep my GMing style unknown. 2 4.76%
My game focuses on espionage and politics. 13 30.95%
My games contain sexy content. 10 23.81%