Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Depeche Mode B-sides

I don't use the MUSIC tag all that much (because I have another blog that's more specifically all about music) but this post doesn't exactly fit with that blog, so I'm posting it here.  I've been a bit excited about Depeche Mode lately (which has nothing to do with the fact that a new album just got released yesterday and tour dates for later in the year are coming up.  Honestly!)  I'm kind of a "classic line-up" Depeche Mode fan, and wish that they could somehow do a reunion line-up with Alan Wilder back in the saddle, but I'm not holding my breath.  Although one never knows--Wilder's open departure letter obviously speaks to great personal dissatisfaction with the working relationships within the band--but he's done a few friendly get-togethers with them, and remixed a few of their newer tracks. 

The earliest album, led by Vince Clark's vision, is almost a completely different band altogether, and the second album was a strange bybrid of Martin Gore starting to do his own thing while also still trying to imitate Clark to some degree.  The albums after Wilder left have (almost) all been universally disappointing to me (although Playing the Angel was as good as Songs of Faith and Devotion or Violator--both albums that were good, but not my favorites.)  So of the six albums released under the "classic line-up" of the band, it's kind of the middle-set that I see as the best albums by the band, and indeed, amongst the best albums in modern music altogether--Some Great Reward, Black Celebration and Music for the Masses.

Depeche Mode, however, always had a fair bit of non-album singles, b-sides and other non-album tracks, many of which were stylistic variations on directions that their "mainstream" songs were doing at the same time.  I remember being particularly shocked when I heard "Set Me Free (Remotivate Me)" for example--as a lightweight, poppy song as the b-side to "Master and Servant" at the time of Some Great Reward where Depeche Mode arguably hit their lowest, darkest point ever with "Blasphemous Rumours"?  At other times, the b-sides and non-album singles were really good and fit well with the albums thematically that they were closest associated with chronologically, which made me wonder why they were missed (particularly in albums that had a short track-list.  Why didn't "Dangerous" and "Sea of Sin" appear on the 9-track Violator?  If they had, the album still would have been relatively shortish, and they would have been among the best tracks on the album.)  "Martyr" was recorded along with the rest of Playing the Angel and was almost included along with it; almost released as the first single from the album, even--then at the last minute, it didn't make it and got a release as a non-album single.  "Oh Well", the B-side from "Wrong" is among the very best of the songs from the Sounds of the Universe time-frame, and the fact that it didn't show up on the album is significantly to its detriment.

Then again, I was disappointed enough in SotU that I haven't listened to it in a long time.  I probably need to let it percolate and try again really badly.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Lies of Solace

Just finished Lies of Solace last night, a rather shortish (300 page) book of the Arkham Horror line, which is second in the so-called Lord of Nightmares trilogy (although I'm seeing few if any ties to the first novel in the series--although granted, its been many months since I read it, and my memory of the details is hazy.  That will be a problem going forward too, since the third book in the trilogy isn't even announced yet, as near as I can tell, much less available for sale.)  Different author, but similar feel to the earlier novel in the series.

There was quite a bit less of the noirish feel than in the earlier book, and more of a traditional Cthulhu-ish vibe, although "updated" to a slightly more action/pulpish feel.  Like the prior novel, it bounces back and forth chapter to chapter between different points of view; in this case, we have Dr. Fields, a man of science (and an elderly guy who feels much like a Lovecraftian "hero" in many cases, since he's skeptical of any weirdness or supernatural, and is hardly a man of any kind of action.)  Raker (no first name given) is a man who's fallen on hard time--to afford the lifestyle he feels he needs to for his fiance, a woman of some means from Arkham, he's given in to crime and bootlegging, but has now found himself on the wrong side of the mob.  And Jacqueline Fine is the fiance of another man of means and station, although she is a fraud, who's faking her own family ties, and lives with the fear of discovery over her at all times.

Under-cutting all of this is a cult called the Hand of Solace, where a body-hopping immortal is manipulating the grief of others to summon some kind of Lovecraftian entity for reasons that are not really very clear (until the end of the novel.)  Like the prior novel, it ends on a cliff-hangerish finale, the main characters are broken, killed or corrupted, and... well, in many respects it feels much more like a Call of Cthulhu game than an actual Lovecraft story.  That's not a point against it--in fact, I'd argue that it's a point in its favor in most respects, but there you have it.

Of course, it isn't technically Call of Cthulhu fiction, it's Arkham Horror fiction, although the difference is strictly academic and technical--it makes no difference to the content of the novel itself, and only minor difference to the trade dress of the novel's cover.  It doesn't necessarily feel like mainstream horror; it feels like tie-in fiction for a game that's loosely based on really old horror--which it is.  So, when I call this a horror novel (a claim that the book cover makes, by the way, although in my bookstore it was filed with the rest of the sci-fi/fantasy tie-in fiction) I mean that in a somewhat loose way.

Like many horror novels, however, it's a little slow getting moving.  Not so slow that it's boring, but definately so that when finished you can see momentum gathering until a point roughly two-thirds of the way through, at which point time kind of compresses and the last third is a non-stop, panicked run through a gallery of Lovecraftian nightmare.  Or rather; pastiche nightmare.  It is maybe much less subtle than an actual Lovecraftian stories, but I've often thought that the brilliance of the philosophy and approach of Lovecraft is maybe somewhat overstated--or at least his execution of it--so that although this feels different than Lovecraft, I hesitate to call it worse of inferior.

I quite enjoyed it, although again--I'm scratching my head a bit trying to figure out how this trilogy is anything other than unrelated stories with a handful of recurring ancillary characters (a woman in the Miskatonic University library comes to mind) and similar setting.  Maybe the third book will bring that together more?  Because of the disconnectedness of this "trilogy", I thought about picking up the second trilogy, Dark Waters, that FFG has published under the Arkham Horror name (which also has only two books so far) but I've got a library book from ILL that I have to read while I have it, and after that, frankly, I'll have lost my Cthulhu momentum... I'll probably turn to the Warhammer Nagash trilogy or something.  Either that or continue my Dave Gross Pathfiner books (I've got two more in my possession still that I need to read.)  Or start the Abyssal Plague trilogy for "generic" 4th edition D&D tie-in fiction.  Or maybe I'll finally read my copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

In support of paraphyly

Quoting from Wikipedia, since it was readily available:
With the rise of phylogenetic nomenclature, the use of evolutionary grades as formal taxa has come under debate. Under a strict phylogenetic approach, only monophyletic taxa are recognized. This differs from the more traditional approach of evolutionary taxonomy. The difference in approach has led to a vigorous debate between proponents of the two approaches to taxonomy, particularly in well established fields like vertebrate palaeontology and botany. The difference between the statement "B is part of A" (phylogenetic approach) and "B has evolved from A" (evolutionary approach) is, however, one of semantics rather than of phylogeny. Both express the same phylogeny, but the former emphasizes the phylogenetic continuum while the latter emphasizes a distinct shift in anatomy or ecology in B relative to A.
As it says, the use of paraphyletic groups doesn't really change the meaning of anything, but rather the emphasis.  It's kinda out of fashion amongst professional paleontologists, but in going that route, they've made things extremely inconvenient, not only for themselves but especially for non-specialists.  Phylogenetic nomenclature, and the insistence on only monophyletic groups lacks a certain common sense.

Let me give an example.  Dinosaurs.  One of my first loves.  Dinosaurs, as commonly understood and referred to by both specialists and non-specialists alike is actually a paraphyletic group.  Because birds are descended from dinosaurs, according to phylogenetic nomenclature, birds are dinosaurs.  Therefore any discussion of dinosaurs includes birds, and references to the extinction of dinosaurs are somewhat nonsensical, since there are somewhere around 10,000 species of birds today; more than any other type of tetrapod.  Dinosaurs are kinda the big elephant in the room that proponents of phylogenetic nomenclature seem to ignore.  I've never really heard anyone say the word dinosaur in the monophyletic sense.  Everyone uses the word in a paraphyletic sense, i.e., dinosaurs excluding birds.  The only exception is when the discussion is specifically about bird-like dinosaurs or the specific transition from dinosaurs into birds.  When in that very narrow gray area, the distinct shift in anatomy/ecology is maybe not quite as distinct, but again--that gray area is very narrow, and otherwise, emphasizing the change from dinosaurs into birds--an evolutionary approach--is not unusual.

There's a few other paraphyletic groups that paleontology enthusiasts are likely to use because they're simply too convenient, and it's really unwieldy to use the correct terms according to the rules of phylogenetic nomenclature.  Pelycosaurs, for example.  Or their descendents, therapsids.  There's a lot of reasons to talk about pelycosaurs exclusive of therapsids, or therapsids exclusive of mammals.  Amongst dinosaurs, prosauropods, hypsilophodonts and igunodonts, exclusive of their descendents, are also incredibly convenient and I see them used all the time (frequently with an unwieldy caveat that the user "shouldn't" be using it.)  Thecodonts is another one.  Non-dinosaurian and non-crocodylian basal archosaurimorphs, archosauroforms and archosaurs is just ridiculous.

I feel a bit justified in learning, however, that a few years ago over 150 biologists of various stripes wrote a joint letter to the academic publication Taxon in defense of the idea of paraphyletic taxa.  I don't know how significant that is compared to the numbers of working, academic biologists, but keep in mind that less than 5% of working astronomers voted on the definition of a planet question--a definition that is certainly not without controversy.  For the better part of 15 years--or maybe even longer--I've seen phylogenetic nomenclature presented as if it were a done deal in the academic, scientific community, and that the use of paraphyletic taxa was only the result of legacy or imprecision used informally.  Although, frankly, even if that were the case, those aren't necessarily bad things.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Feathered crocodiles?!

Although it’s not new, I just became aware of a study published some years ago on embryonic development and gene-mapping of the alligator which posits that the genes for feathers are present in alligators, but at an early point in embryonic development, feathers are suppressed and instead we get typical archosaurian scales.

Woah. Really? Granted, that’s a bit tantalizing and circumstantial, but the obvious implications are fascinating. Alligators and birds are about as far from each other on the archosaur family tree as you can get. In fact, since Archosauria is a crown group, by definition, it’s all animals related to crocodylians and birds back to their last common ancestor. Finding features associated with birds on a crocodilian suggests that all archosaurs had it.

We’ve had a lot of tantalizing evidence of this already. Lots of dinosaurs have been discovered with feathers. Although most of them are from therapod lineages close to the ancestry of birds, a few tantalizing ones are not—including (possibly) two ornithischians. Therapods and ornithischians sharing a feature suggests that all dinosaurs had it.

Of course, pterosaurs are also closely related to dinosaurs (there was a bunch of noise for a few years that they might be prolacertiform relatives, mostly propagated by David Peters, who’s work has gone increasingly off the reservation—to the point where it’s difficult to take seriously anymore. The hypothesis was intriguing for a while, but most folks now see it as solidly refuted.) Pterosaurs were “hairy”—they are known, at least in many species, to have had “pycnofibers”—hair-like body coverings that may (or may not) have been homologous with feathers or proto-feathers. If they are homologous (i.e., the same thing, evolved once rather than similar things evolved independently) then that pushes the original of proto-featherish structures further back down the ornithodiran family tree. But it doesn’t push it all the way to the base of the archosaurian family tree. The alligator gene suggests that, however, that's exactly where it belongs.

In addition to that, there is other evidence that circumstantially purports to show evidence of warm-bloodedness in “crocodile line archosaurs”—and warm-bloodedness and feathers go together (feather or any other fibrous coating would be maladaptive without warm-bloodedness. Similarly, warm-bloodedness along with small body size would probably be maladaptive without some kind of fibrous integument, like hair or feathers.) In addition to 4-chambered hearts, a diaphragm, secondary palate, erect limbs, active terrestrial lifestyle, and hepatic pistons, a number of “crocodile line archosaurs” appear to have lots of features associated with warm-bloodedness. It’s been suggested, and embryonic ontogeny seems to support this, that crocodilians themselves were initially warm-blooded, and as an adaptation to the aquatic ambush predatory role, they reverted to a cold-blooded physiology to better and more efficiently operate in that role.

But crocodile-like archosaurs with feathers? That’s a staggering idea. Even really progressive dino-guys, like Greg Paul who’s been illustrating feathered protodinosaurs like Lagosuchus for years never thought of making Terrestrisuchus or Hesperosuchus with feathers.

And, of course, it's the possibility of homology that makes it all the more intriguing.  If warm-bloodedness (and a filamentous integument that went along with it) evolved independently more than once amongst the saurians, well that's interesting, but that doesn't necessarily push the features back anywhere interesting on the family tree; after all, the development was independent and position on the family tree is irrelevant to that. Image (from Wikipedia) is of Poposaurus gracilis, a poposaur (from the crocodile-line radiation of archosaurs) that bears a striking convergence to later-appearing therapod dinosaurs.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Legacy of Dhakaan

Last night, whilst en route to the mall so my teenaged son could spend his birthday money on new shoes and clothes at a variety of stores that were literally painful after a time for me to be standing around in (Abercrombie & Fitch in particular makes me feel more stupid and shallow just for walking in) I finished the last book of Don Bassingthwaite’s Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy, a trilogy of relatively slim (about 300 or so pages each) novels set in Darguun, a country in the Eberron campaign setting. (And because I finished it before we even got to the mall, I had nothing to do for the better part of three or four hours except stand around listening to really crappy music, smelling lots of excessive cologne, and trying to keep my younger boys, who were just as bored as I was but who handled it less gracefully, from running all over the place making a nuisance of themselves. I haven’t yet decided if that was a welcome respite from boredom or a frustrating thing in its own right.)

Er… anyway. Don Bassingthwaite’s a pretty good writer. He’s much better than most who write “game fiction” and the equal to most who write any normal genre fiction in the fantasy mold, at least. I was initially drawn to The Legacy of Dhakaan because it 1) featured a shifter protagonist (although it turned out that it’s really an ensemble cast of protagonists with a rotating point of view from section to section), 2) was written by Don Bassingthwaite, and not one of the other authors who dabbles in Eberron fiction, and 3) most especially, it focuses on the goblinoid (mostly hobgoblin) nation of Darguun and treated them in a way that was more than simply a lowish level humanoid antagonist from the Monster Manual. In fact, in general, I’d say that one of the strongest aspects of the series was the exploration—done in passing rather than as info dumps that intrude on the narrative—of goblinoid culture in Eberron. See, ever since I saw Claudio Pozas’ old “Pax Hobgoblinica” image on the old ENWorld image galleries, I’ve been drawn to the notion that as a lawful and militaristic race, the hobgoblins should honestly have empires and kingdoms to equal that of any of the other races, with high cultural levels of achievement and whatnot. The fact that they didn’t was clearly a failure of “Gygaxian naturalism”—the notion that the mechanics of the game should inform the setting (rather than the other way around), or at least that the mechanics and the setting should “match” and be in harmony. When Eberron first came out, I was intrigued by the notion of Darguun, the goblinoid nation, which seemed at first glance to match my own delving into the concept. I later became a bit disillusioned with Darguun, thinking that it failed to really rise above the notion the hobgoblins were crude and savage humanoids after all.

I later became more enamored of the Skorne Empire from Iron Kingdoms. While Skorne are not exactly hobgoblins per se, they really aren’t any different conceptually (or visually, for that matter) and to me, it was a great example of what Darguun should have been. Later, I spent some time on my original conception of my modular campaign setting working up my own hobgoblin-led empire, Kurushat, that incorporated a few of the better ideas from the Skorne, some stuff from the history of the rise of the Roman Empire, the way succession worked in later Mongol or Turkic khaganates, and some Gygaxian naturalism of my own, with my attempt to find an appropriate role for various goblinoid related things from the D&D source material, etc. Later, my concept changed a bit; my modules became tightly integrated into just being another campaign setting after all, and I decided that goblinoids didn’t have a place in my setting—I still used everything about Kurushat but made them just an ethnicity of humans. But, my fascination with the concept of a goblinoid empire, ruled by militaristic hobgoblins, first inspired by Claudio’s picture, remained. And to date, the only work I know that caters to this particular fascination is the Legacy of Dhakaan series. So, when it came out, I hurriedly picked it up. I did not, however, hurriedly read it—it took me quite a while to get through a heavy backlog of books and distractions to finally focus on it. I believe the last book in the series was released in 2010.

One thing that fantasy writers often struggle with is making an exotic culture that doesn’t feel like a familiar Earth culture warmed over, or devolve into over-the-top stereotypes and caricatures of “national character and personality.” The first “problem” isn’t necessarily one; I’ve long been an on the record fan of the so-called Hyborian Model of making your fantasy cultures transparent analogs of real Earth cultures as a shorthand that allows you to focus quickly on other elements instead, like plot or character. But Bassingthwaite’s Darguun is much more than that; it truly presents an exotic culture that feels “realistic” and robust, rather than flimsy and lazy. I found that quite interesting, and in fact one of the series’ strongest qualities.  It also greatly expanded on culture and traditions of the goblinoids beyond what any sourcebook to the game ever did, and I suspect that that is all Bassingthwaite's own invention.

I also like the plot. This is a classic intrigue and power grab story, with murder, spies, and political machination and maneuvering. There’s a bit of a somewhat unfortunate tendency to “send everyone looking for the MacGuffin”—first the Rod of Kings, and then the next MacGuffin that will counter the Rod of Kings. Here it moves quickly, but always with interest, some nice twists and turns (although not too many; it’s mostly straightforward). There’s even a mystery from the end of the first book that takes us on numerous red herrings before finally resolving itself late in the second book.

However, I didn’t really fall in love with the characters. They weren’t bad or unlikeable—they just didn’t ever become really likeable either. I also think they suffered from another problem; we were expected to already be familiar with them, due to the fact that most of them starred in another earlier appearing trilogy which—needless to say—I haven’t read. There are three main point of view characters (as well as several other main characters who we rarely or never see from point of view) Ekhaas, the hobgoblin duur’kala (a bard), Ashi, the fighter and scion of House Deneith, and Geth the shifter (of vague D&D class—although it seems mostly fighter too; maybe a level or two of rogue or ranger rounds him out. Maybe. I actually think it’s to the novel’s credit that the Gygaxian naturalism isn’t so strong that it’s easy to pinpoint everyone’s character class and game stats.) All three of them have a bit too much of the same vibe; they’re all reluctant heroes thrust into a role that they’re fighting against the entire time. Despite this reluctance about their obvious role, there’s not really enough interpersonal conflict either, which reduces the level of interest somewhat.

That minor complaint is what makes this series one that I’m happy to have read and recommend, but one that I’m unlikely to keep on my shelf and re-read again sometime, though. My expectation is that I’ll give these to the Friends of the Public Library bookstore as a donation, so someone else can enjoy them.

Now that I’m done, I just started another tie-in novel, Lies of Solace, which is in the Arkham Horror line. It could also be Call of Cthulhu fiction, of course, since both Call of Cthulhu and Arkham Horror draw on the exact same corpus of public domain stories by Lovecraft and Co. And, no sooner did I start that, then an ILL request for Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough came in. I’ll have to read them both quickly, but they’re both short. Assuming that they’re light and easy to read, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Eberron Remixed

I’ve been reading Don Bassingthwaite’s excellent Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy, set in the Eberron campaign setting. It really is one of the better game fiction trilogies I’ve read, and one of the things that it really does a great job with specifically is highlighting some of the aspects that make its setting really unique. I’ve always kinda liked Eberron anyway, but I’ve also thought for a long time that it struggled with fitting “D&Disms” into the setting, when it really was striving and pushing and trying to be something else entirely. In other words, it’s a bit dragged down by the dead-weight of needing to fit in elements that are quintessentially D&D because… well, it’s a D&D setting. But it didn’t always accept all of those elements as gracefully as it could have, and in some ways, those D&Disms diluted and “bastardized” the vision of the setting to a noticeable degree. And keep in mind, that by D&Disms I’m referring to stuff that was specifically kicking around in the edition in which Eberron was first released. Very early D&D would have probably fit the setting better, before D&D accreted so many things that later came to be D&Disms.

On the other hand, some specific D&Disms were made into iconic elements of the setting. Some of these D&Disms, on the other hand, never fit very comfortably in D&D itself, notably psionics.

In any case, Eberron strikes me as a fascinating and interesting (and obviously quite likeable) vision for a fantasy setting that both inspired me with its scope while disappointing me with its failure to completely live up to its promise. Eberron is, therefore, a setting ripe for “remixing” by a GM who likes the vision of the setting, and wants to utilize as much of it as possible, but feels the need to tweak it a bit to make it workable. Here’s what I’d do, in high level. I may (possibly) expand upon this notion with future posts that dive further into details. Maybe.

  • First off, Eberron struggles with the mechanical premise of D&D. D&D (at least in the third and fourth editions, when Eberron was in print) is all about careful, tactical combat. Eberron posits a more swashbuckling and cinematic flair approach. Action points, honestly, don’t really cut it to change this focus of the rules, although that’s their stated purpose. I’ve had to both ignore some aspects of the game in my personal d20 games, as well as house-rule Action Points to be much more useful than they already are to try and get there—but for Eberron, I’d actually recommend switching to a different system entirely. Savage Worlds plus the Fantasy Companion seems to be tailor made for the Eberron paradigm. Old School Hack would be a great choice. For that matter, Eberron would fit surprisingly well with old school games too: I could easily see B/X being used to run a great Eberron game. And if you can use B/X, then something like Labyrinth Lord would be a great fit too. The only easily spotted problem is the stuff that Eberron includes which isn’t in those systems and which would, therefore, require some minor house-rules to introduce them. But speaking of which…
  • There’s too much stuff in Eberron. A lot of it was crammed in because, hey, it’s D&D and this has to have a place. But that doesn’t mean that it fit well, or comfortably. Eberron could stand some aesthetic pruning, frankly. What are some things in particular I’d look at cutting? First, the monsters. Monsters, as per D&D, are too commonplace and run of the mill. The monster nation of Droaam is especially egregious in being a “trashcan” where anything that didn’t fit anywhere else was thrown in indiscriminately. I’d greatly reduce the appearance and impact of monsters. A vampire ruling as king in Karrnath? Sure, that’s great. The rulers of Droaam are a coven of hags? I can dig it. But Droaam itself needs to change from a land populated by a bunch of random monsters to one of savage clans of mostly people, while monsters themselves become more individual and special. By the way, the same thing needs to be done to Xen’drik. The land of savage giants doesn’t work as well as giants being rare and kind of individualized threats. This goes along with my argument of “making monsters monstrous”—but in particular, I think Eberron has been poorly served by the D&D paradigm on monsters in particular, and it has struggled to find a way to justify and rationalize all the monsters that are kicking around just because it’s D&D.
  • The same is true to a lesser extent about races. A common complaint about D&D is that it’s “like the Star Wars cantina scene” with a million types of people in funny rubber masks. Eberron has a few that are “signature”—shifters, kalashtar, changelings and war-forged. You probably need to have them, both because they’re mostly all pretty cool, and mostly because—like I said—they’re signature to the setting. Eberron also has a bunch of generic D&D fantasy races. Mostly these are well-integrated and interesting, but sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle. Dinosaur riding plains Indians-like halflings? Interesting, or trying too hard? Gnomes as spies and gangsters? Freeport did the same with halflings. Are they really different? Do they need to be? Why not have them be different cultures of the same race? The same is true for the “savage” humanoids—D&D has struggled with finding separate places for goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, half-orcs and whatnot since, in reality, they all stem from the same source. Some judicious consolidation and replacement, giving preference to races that your mechanical sourcebooks already have, should work fine.
  • That said, one of the unusual nations that works very well is Darguun. This is especially true if you read the expanded treatment of the culture of the area as presented in Bassingthwaite’s Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy (my review to come shortly—I’ve only got a few pages left to read of the final volume and I hope to finish it later this evening.) Although it seems kinda natural to have a hobgoblin nation, if the hobgoblins are supposed to be orderly and militaristic, for some reason few settings have opted to go that way. The hobgoblins actually are the heirs of a much more noble and grand culture, that of the lost empire of Dhakaan, while their upstart nation of Darguun has a long ways to go; it remains a rather squalid and barbaric place, in many ways. But the novel series goes a long way towards showing this more noble past, and the echoes of it that remain, as well as the nation’s attempt to advance to parity with the other nations of Khorvaire.  I've in the past said that I would want Darguun to be more of a civilized nation, if harsh and militaristic (more like the Skorne Empire of Iron Kingdoms, actually) but again; Bassingthwaite's novels made me more of a believer in Darguun as written.
  • The “story of D&D” is primarily that of exploring dungeons for profit and experience. The story of Eberron is a more pulp-noir hybrid, with intrigue, mystery, and adventure of a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of vibe. This has more to do with how the game is run and what PCs are doing than it does with actual elements of setting design, except at quite a micro, tactical level (i.e., you don’t need to populate your setting with a bunch of dungeons and stuff.) Still, it’s an important and in fact crucial difference to keep in mind when remixing Eberron, because it’s one of the main points of distinction in remixing Eberron to better fit my perception of what its vision really was vs. what D&D kinda drives it to become.
  • Along those lines, Xen’drik, as the “continent of dungeons” probably needs some work. There’s supposedly only one civilized city and the rest of it is made up of monsters, ruins, and jungles and whatnot. I think having it more like the situation in colonial Africa or the East Indies makes it more entertaining… which means both expanding the influence and presence of the nations of Khorvaire and their people, and integrating them more with cultures and societies that are native to Xen’drik. Reference the old Bruce Boxleitner show Bring ‘Em Back Alive (if you can find it) or borrow a bunch of crap from the Golarion setting by Paizo, especially the Sargava and Mwangi stuff, adapted to be more “Eberronish”—which mostly just means changing some names. Some pirates floating all around the area—and maybe even the insertion of Green Ronin’s Freeport would be good around here (but let’s face it; I’m always looking to add Freeport.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Freeport Kickstarter

I've long been a fan of Green Ronin's Freeport setting, and I have both the original d20 sourcebook, and the systemless sourcebook on my shelf.  I also have pdfs of numerous other items, including the Freeport Trilogy (an anthology of the original adventures updated to 3.5) and numerous setting books (Cults of Freeport, Buccaneers of Freeport, etc.)  I also have their d20 guide, which offers a number of mechanics to the 3.5 system.  They produced other guides for other systems, including Savage Worlds, Castles & Crusades, True20, and Pathfinder (and maybe others that I'm forgetting--although I think not.)

Anyway, I just discovered that Chris Pramas, the man behind Green Ronin, is launching a kickstarter for a third edition "deluxe", re-written, updated, and super-duper version of Freeport, to be compatible with the Pathfinder rules.

I pass that along as a dutiful Freeport fan.  Here's the link to the kickstarter.

Although I'm not necessarily a big fan of Pathfinder, and I already have all the Freeport info that I "need"--I like to see more, and I'd like to see it in print again.  I'll probably end up supporting it.  I've got a few weeks to decide.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cosmology of RPGs

I kinda like JB, Mr. B/X Blackrazor himself. Sure, he’s excessively long-winded and opinionated, but I actually identify with that aspect of him. And while yeah, I disagree (strongly, even) with many of the details on how to approach the fantasy role-playing game hobby, at a high level, I find myself oddly in sync with him quite a bit. I’ve referenced some of his posts before, and probably will again. (i.e.,

Here’s what I think is curious, though. Reading those posts a few things are clear to me: 1) JB is the kind of guy who highly values consistency and common sense when it comes to his gaming. He demands it from his settings, and he wants to have his rules reflect that. The very premise of D&D, as mentioned above, is something that he doesn’t like. 2) He highly values the D&D system, or a subtle variant on it, in spite of the fact that many things about D&D are arbitrary, nonsensical, done for game (rather than IN game reasons) and many other ways in which the system actively fights against point #1.

Where I’m with him is on point #1. Where I’m scratching my head is on point #2. Why not just use a different system, then? One that better delivers what goals you want because of your taste issue identified in point #1? I understand that system choice is sometimes not exactly logical—and sometimes people want systems for reasons that are not necessarily related to how well it matches their other goals from gaming. But, it seems to me quite clear that JB is fighting against his system for one main reason—because although he doesn’t admit it, he doesn’t really want to be playing D&D. He wants to be playing some other fantasy game that resembles D&D… sort of… but which does so in a way that facilitates the very non-D&D type game that he actually wants to be in. Not to suggest that he’s on a similar course as me but further behind (because he likely is not on the same course as me at all) but I went through that journey already and finally decided that no, continuing to modify D&D to the point where it was a useful tool in the kinds of games I want to run was too much trouble when I could already find a related and similar system that did the job for me without much in the way of house-rules at all.

Today, I’d actually like to point out a related, although not identical issue—one again, where I disagree with JB even as I find myself applauding his basic idea. I think his approach is wrong, however, and rooted in an inability or unwillingness to abandon D&Disms that he seems to not actually want—but can’t bring himself to get rid of. Now, I don’t mean to do this as a rebuttal or slam on his post; I really only mention this because reading one of his recent posts is what brought the notion to my attention in the first place, and why I’m posting about it myself.

JB says (in this post for the curious) that he can’t be satisfied with a campaign setting (even one only implied by the system, as opposed to one deliberately fashioned as a setting per se) that doesn’t answer the following four questions in game satisfactorily:

1) Where do monsters come from?

2) Where does magic come from?

3) Where does the world come from (i.e. the nature of God or the gods)?

4) What part of the world’s history provides the adventuring environment, i.e. the dungeon?

In light of his earlier posts about the silliness of the premise of D&D, I’m going to assume that he’s only including the fourth as a theoretical question rather than one that’s relevant to his game—and in fact, in the post linked above he seems to be alluding to that fact a bit.

I’ve actually decided, and I’ve done some just in the last few years, that that is incorrect. You don’t need to know the answers to those questions. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. That doesn’t mean, as JB also alludes to, that “because the rules say so” or “because that’s just the way it is” is an acceptable answer, because it’s not. But there doesn’t need to be an in-game answer to give to your players. There doesn’t even need to be one that you, as the GM, know. It could be something that simply isn’t known.

In this regard, the fantasy setting can resemble the real world somewhat. There are many questions to which there are competing theories as to what the actual anwer is. Despite generations of inquiry, by and large these questions remain unanswered and unanswerable to the satisfaction of many people.

How does one go about this? Let’s take the first question as an example. If a player (or his character) wants to know where monsters come from (or where a specific monster comes from) how can you answer him? My response to him would be something like the following: “That’s a good question. Where do you believe that they come from? Here’s a few sample answers from folks in the setting that you may be familiar with: 1) they are leftovers from creation; things that the gods didn’t know where to place, couldn’t get rid of from before creation, or things that they couldn’t agree to place in the first place. 2) Monsters come from “outside” creation. They are extra-dimensional creatures that leak through in weak spots or tears in the fabric of reality. Or, perhaps they are natural creatures who are corrupted by some kind of extra-dimensional energy that leaks through. Either way, their provenance is “outside.” 3) Placed here by the gods to punish the infidels. 4) The accidental creation of dark sorcerers meddling with powers that man was not meant to have or wield, and cannot understand. Echoes of the themes of Frankenstein here. Anyway, pick any of those to believe, or make up your own justification.”

What does this do for a player who demands consistency and coherency from his campaign setting? Well, you haven’t given him an answer that’s patently nonsensical. But you haven’t given him an answer at all of any kind, either. What you’ve done is present him with a situation not unlike that in the real world where there are a number of “cosmological” questions that don’t have a definitive answer, and individuals need to choose what to believe, for their own reasons. This actually gives more of a sense of verisimilitude than having an answer in your back pocket. In fact, unless it’s an ongoing theme of the campaign itself, there really isn’t a need to ever answer those questions. The fact that there are competing theories out there, or competing belief systems, can even be a strong driver for conflict and/or role playing. If, on the other hand, that is a theme of the campaign, what you’ve done is set out a mystery for the players to potentially solve or delve into—again a major driver for conflict and/or role playing.

If, on the other hand, you’ve got a player that demands that no, you must answer the question to him, you’ve got a player with control issues and should probably look at recruiting someone else to play your game.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Theft of Swords

After some delay, I finished Theft of Swords by Michael Sullivan yesterday afternoon.  I had had about 75 pages left to read--but I'd been "stuck" exactly right there for probably a good two weeks already.  I checked the book out at the library, and renewed it twice to finish it.  I believe two times is still the limit on how many times you can renew a book (assuming nobody else has a hold on it) so I was nearing the end of the period in which I could read the book.  The last 75 pages took me about half an hour to forty-five minutes to read, so I could (and probably should) have finished this some time ago, but I got distracted by reading some hiking books, watching movies, and generally being busier than normal.

Theft of Swords is book one of the Riyria Revelations trilogy--which is only a trilogy in the sense that its current publication format is a large trilogy of books.  In it's original format, it's actually six books long, and each book of the trilogy is actually an omnibus of two books of the original series.  So, in a sense, I've read two books by reading Theft and feel a bit invested in the series.

Theft is the story of two men, Royce and Hadrian, who form a typical buddy-cop movie--except that instead of cops, they're the "honorable thieves" archetype, meaning that this is caper fantasy.  There's a level of political intrigue and politics that plays a strong role, especially in the second book.  The story takes place in the human kingdoms, a balkanized area that was once a single Empire.  There are three basic political leanings; the imperialists, who favor the finding of the Heir and restoring the Empire, the royalists, who favor the balkanized kindgoms and their own nobility, and the populists, who favor a rule by the people.  The imperialists seem to be (so far) almost comically, moustache-twirlingly evil, with the exception of one character, who is actually a crippled wizard who remains from the time of the Empire 900 years ago, trapped in a time bubble.  The driving force of the imperialists seems to be the Church of Novron, who has engaged in a number of blatantly false schemes to proclaim an heir, re-establish the Empire, and the church's preeimince within it (although the Church is already pretty preeminent in the lives of most; apparently there's no such thing as too much power for it to grab for.)

The series seems to have a lot of fans, and there's a lot to recommend it.  The concept of a buddy movie is always fun, and the main characters here are both archetypical and yet charming and interesting in most regards.  I also am a big fan of caper and intrigue type stories, and they seem to be competently played out here.  It's pretty good swashbuckling stuff, with interesting action and scenarios, and mostly intriguing characters.  The author seems like a nice guy who's engaged with his fans online as well; in fact, when I updated my status on Goodreads to show I was reading this, I actually got a message from him, thanking me for reading it and inviting me to continue the series and comment to him directly.  I probably won't (other than here) but man, that's a nice bit of personal marketing.  Because of this, the series seems to be fairly popular.

And although this is hardly a real seller, I really like the covers of the books.

I have some serious reservations about it, however.  The prose really needs a serious level of polish.  It often feels quite hoaky and clunky--especially the dialogue and description of action scenes.  The novels were originally self-published as e-books, and it still feels like that's the case (even though these copies are published by Orbit.)  I've said it before and I'll say it again; where are the careers in editing in the fantasy genre?  In this case (unlike in so many others) cutting fat isn't the problem, it's polishing the prose.  There's a certain kind of amateurish feel to these books that makes them--in spite of their selling points--a bit difficult to read.

Our library does have the next two volumes, but I'm not sure that I want to continue, especially when I've got plenty of other items on my To-Read list.  Certainly I won't do so immediately; I've in fact, already started on the third book of Don Bassingthwaite's Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy, which will complete the trilogy and close it out for me.  I bought those (because it looked like they wouldn't be readily available from either my library or anyone else that I could Interlibrary Load it from) but I probably won't keep them when I'm done.  They've been pretty good--but not so good that I have confidence that I'll re-read them anytime soon.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Planet Dinosaur

I’ve been a little out of the loop on this type of release, but when looking for the latest news on the anticipated remake of Walking With Dinosaurs, I discovered that there was a newer, similar documentary released by BBC about a year and a half ago called Planet Dinosaur. I was surprised that our public library didn’t have a copy, but I requested one, and they bought it, and after a few weeks of processing, I finally now have it in my hot little hands. It took about three days to watch all of the half-hour episodes (because my free time to do so in the evenings is greatly reduced lately) but last night I finally finished watching the movie.

As some of you may (or more likely not) know, I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with these types of documentaries. Walking With Dinosaurs, as the first, had a number of issues, including really ugly art direction and creature design, fairly primitive CGI, and a lot of sensationalist and inaccurate reportage (especially related to the vastly inflated sizes of Liopleurodon and Ornithocheirus.) But, all in all, I liked the show a lot, and just wish that it looked better.

When Dinosaurs Roamed America, the Discovery Channels answer to the BBC hit, had exactly the opposite problem—by and large it looked better (although the CGI was still primitive, and many creatures looked too “plastic.”) The narration, on the other hand, is so incredibly bone-numbingly stupid, that it makes the program difficult to watch. Dinosaur Planet was a follow-up that did little to fix the issues with its predecessor, and sadly kinda crapped out on the design of the dinosaurs themselves, with ridiculous looking titanosaurs with squashed flat torsos and Daspletosaurus and Maiasaura models that are just incredibly ugly, covered with all kinds of ornamentation and weird shapes that make it difficult to see how the skeleton could be put inside the computer model. And the appearance of an attempt to tell dramatic narratives with cheesily named characters was not really very welcome, because—again, really stupid.

BBC continued to try and one-up their original production, with an add-on about Allosaurus, and then the two series with a time-traveling naturalist Nigel Marvin giving the whole thing some cohesion. Chased by Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Park had their problems (the former had slightly improved, but still ugly computer models; the latter used real cut-rate animation and lots of repeated sequences, but at least generally looked better.) A handful of other documentaries with CGI dinosaurs continued to come out, including Clash of the Dinosaurs, which is also quite good (although infamous for using quote-mining to make experts appear to state things that they don’t, in fact, believe.) This one had really good CGI, but rather little of it, including lots of interspersions with talking heads and lots of repeats of the same sequences, sometimes with filters on them to change the color or lighting slightly.

It was overdue that another longish, multi-episode, “living” presentation of dinosaurs, focused more on showing the animals in their environments rather than talking heads, was done. It had been a while since one had come out, and all of the ones in existence were old and dated, both in terms of their CGI and art direction, and in terms of their paleontology. Rumors of a remake of Walking With Dinosaurs seemed like it might fill the gap, but that got delayed and then transformed into a 3D theatrical release (and it still isn’t out yet, by the way.) So, discovering that Planet Dinosaur slots into that gap is a nice find.

And in general, I like this one. It tends to look quite a bit better than most of the previous efforts. In fact, to date, it’s probably the best looking of the bunch (which the possible exception of Clash of the Dinosaurs, which had too little CGI to really count, sadly.) It also had a lot of new discoveries and finds integrated into the narrative. And, it focused less on trying to be sensational, and more on trying to be accurate and interesting. In fact, although I think the earliest two episodes are probably the weakest, it managed to turn out to be possibly my favorite dinosaur documentary to date.

It did have some problems, though. Like the earliest of its predecessors, the producers decided that having someone famous narrate was important (here we have John Hurt.) Much like John Goodman in When Dinosaurs Roamed America, John Hurt doesn’t know how to pronounce dinosaur names and got quite a few of them wrong, or at least unusual. Pronouncing Diplodocus with the accent on Dock rather than Plod is perhaps not wrong, merely strange, but pronouncing Daspletosaurus as if it were Desplatosaurus is not (and after a while, that SPLAT started to really annoy me.)

I’m still looking forward to the updated Walking With Dinosaurs, but in the meantime, this nicely sates my appetite for good CGI dinosaurs. I was also relatively happy with the science of the program. They obviously took some efforts to base their “narratives” on actual, specific, fossil finds, which is really cool. And they didn’t take short-cuts—it’s common to put Giganotosaurus and Argentinasaurus together, for instance, but they did not (they correctly paired Argentinasaurus with Mapusaurus, the large carnosaur that would have lived in the same time and place.)

It seems that they went out of their way to avoid showing old standbys T. rex and Triceratops, which was perhaps a little surprising, but then again; maybe they decided that both were a bit overplayed by now. And having a Morrison formation segment, but leaving out all of the sauropods and instead focusing on Camptosaurus, of all critters, also seemed unusual.  I also would really have enjoyed seeing some Triassic stuff—in fact, with all the discoveries of stuff going on in the Triassic, there’s an awful lot of interesting things that could have been done there about the roots and origins of dinosaurs. A missed opportunity, for sure.