Friday, January 31, 2014

I attack the Sacred Cow! Huzzah!

After casting my disparaging eye on the concepts of alignment and the notion that we need all these rules in order to play D&D, I'm feeling like I'm on top of the world, ready to take on yet another sacred cow!  After all, sacred beef is still beef, and I love a good hamburger.  Although what I tackled so far might be more like slaughtering a Brahman bull, and what I'm going to tackle today might be more like taking on the khalkotauroi.   Even so, into the breach!  Plus, that gives me an opportunity to post this image of Percy Jackson fighting one of the Colchis bulls.  And as an aside, the Wikipedia page for the Colchis bulls references to the gorgon of D&D fame.  So, full circle, or something.

I'm not a fan of levels.  I think that the reward for playing D&D is the experience itself.  It's fun!  I don't need levels to encourage me to play.  Rather, levels allow for character customization and evolution through play--but as a system of modeling the arc of an adventurer's career, it's a poor way to do it.  The jumps in capability are too clumpy, and therefore arbitrary.

What this leads to is the fact that D&D essentially plays like several different games, in many ways, emulating several different subgenres within the broader umbrella of "fantasy" depending on the level of play.  The first few levels play like a kind of gritty low fantasy, but as you get a few levels in, it turns into a more traditional sword & sorcery or high fantasy.

These levels emulate the type of fantasy that is most familiar to players of D&D from source material like movies and novels.  And while there's a difference between the feel of them, they're still similar.  Sure, a 4th or 5th level character can breathe a little easier and wade into a combat a bit more confidently than a 1st or 2nd level one, but still.

At some point, though, this starts to change.  High fantasy and sword & sorcery can start to edge towards larger than life, and before you know it--usually around 9th or 10th level in d20-style D&D (when the fly spell is readily available, plus the rest of the package that comes with levels that high) the game isn't just larger than life sword & sorcery--it's actually over-the-top mythology.  Characters may start out as Croaker, edge into Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and pass through Conan, but by this stage, they're Achilles, or Beowulf, or Gilgamesh.  What exactly they have in common with their lower level versions of themselves is hard to see; and for that matter, the world has to change with them, or it becomes ridiculous.  Goblins and orcs are scary at 1st or 2nd level, but at 12th or 13th level?  You don't even notice them.  The "canonical" example is when your fighter gets to the point that fifty armed guardsmen with crossbows trained on you doesn't give you much pause from insulting the king, because heck; you've got an AC of 28 and 150 hit points!  You can mow through the entire company of guards without breaking much of a sweat.

By the time the game is getting into really high levels (15+ in a d20 type environment) you've gone even beyond this.  Your adventuring party is now the Justice League.  While it may make sense for a low-to mid level group of heroes to more or less represent Abraham Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, and the three suitors for Lucy, it doesn't make any sense for an 18th level character to worry about vampires in the city.  The only interesting challenge for them to deal with is stopping Galactus from eating the planet.

Obviously, this has major implications--although they are often implied, and frankly, I think shoved under the rug and not frequently examined by gamers--for the setting.  And it explains the unearthly prevalence of "save the whole world" game elements--because if you really get into the higher levels, no other stakes are worth bothering with.

Of course, this doesn't even get into the fact that it's almost universally agreed that higher level play is extraordinarily complex, difficult, and fiddly in most versions of D&D compared to low level play.  Or that there's all kinds of weird mathematical implications of system (such as the bonus being bigger by a factor of two or more than the entire range of the d20 roll.)

All that said, I'm not really here to condemn the very practice of levels.  I think levels are so part and parcel of the system of D&D, that D&D without them doesn't feel like D&D anymore.  It can be done, certainly--and other game systems like GURPS, or Storyteller or BRP don't use them.  Even other systems originally designed by TSR (fond memories of playing Top Secret come to mind.)  It does mean, however, that the implementation of levels has always been problematic in D&D.  And that rather than fixing it, as editions have advanced, the problem has gotten worse.

Some market research that Ryan Dancey waved around back in the day suggested that most gamers rarely (if ever) actually played in higher level games.  This may be because it was too difficult to just get a campaign there, even if the players all wanted to play from level 1-20, or whatever.  But I also think it's true that higher level play has been actively avoided by many players of D&D, because of percieved problems with higher level play, and because of preference for the sword & sorcery or high fantasy of the lower to mid levels rather than the overt superheroism of the top two quartiles.  I know that in my own games, I do specifically just plan on running campaigns that are never meant to get above about 8th or 9th level or so tops.  The E6 system also specifically addresses this, by allowing ad nauseum play with the same characters without ever genre-hopping.  Back in the very early days of the OGL, Ken Hood's Grim N Gritty Hit Point system was a modular add-on that curbed the runaway power curve of D&D as presented.

Ideally, a version of D&D would flatten the power curve considerably and make a concerted effort to keep the entire game more handily in the same genre, except for unusual corner cases.  But I don't think that getting rid of levels entirely is the way to go.

I should point out then when running d20, I specifically add the E6 tophat to it to address this problem, or I just run shorter campaigns.  When running m20, I've decided that instead of there arbitrarily being 20 levels of play, there's arbitrarily only 10.

Next up--another sacred cow: XP?! 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ebberon Remixed: System part 2, Races

While I'm still feeling magnaminous towards D&D, I thought I'd continue with some D&D related topics, including my EBERRON REMIXED.

In last post on the topic I recommended specifically using Microlite--the Core + the Expert rules, or Microlite Purest Essence.  I also recommended pulling in the Microlite Psionics package (there's two available; pick whichever one you prefer) and wrote up the Eberron specific races as Microlite races.  If you choose to use a different system, you may need to do this work yourself (if, for example, you use Savage Worlds or B/X--two of my other recommendations.  If you use a d20 system or 4e, well you've already got what you want.)  While my recommendation for Microlite is just that--a recommendation--I'm going to assume it for most of this post.

The Microlite Core gives us four basic races--Human, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling. Since all of these races are in Eberron, and the Microlite system is designed to feel like rules-lite D&D, you should probably use them as is.

The Microlite Expert gives us four additional races--Gnome, Half-orc, Half-elf and Lizardmen.  Along with the four Eberron specific races I've mentioned, that now makes 12 races.  This should be plenty.  Sure, Eberron posits that there are, in fact, more races than that wandering around the setting.  Some of them are specifically meant to be monsters (not possibly PC races) of course.  Eberron is a little bit unusual, though, in allowing for orcs, goblins and hobgoblins to be "peers" with PCs, according to setting doctrine (even if even in the D&D books, they're not really set up for play that way exactly.)  Lizardmen also exist in Eberron, but are really only mentioned in a small corner of the setting.

Here's my recommendation.  Mechanics are mechanics.  Roleplaying is roleplaying.  You don't need to have specific, unique mechanics for every role-playing opportunity, i.e., the same mechanics can be coopted for more than one race.  I'd recommend using the lizardmen stats for hobgoblins.  Make half-orcs and orcs mechanically exactly the same.  Use the halfling stats for both halflings and goblins, and the difference between them is one of roleplaying, not of mechanics-playing. 

There really are too many races in D&D anyway.  I think 12 is fine in terms of mechanics.  You end up with 13 in terms of actual, meaningful choices, as described below.
  • Human: +1 to all skill rolls
  • Elves: +2 to MND
  • Dwarves: +2 to STR
  • Halflings: +2 to DEX
  • Gnomes: +1 DEX, +1 MND
  • Half-orcs and Orcs: +4 STR, -2 MIND
  • Half-elves: +1 DEX, +1 to 2 skills
  • Hobgoblins: +2 STR, +2 DEX, -2 MND
  • Goblin: same as halfling
  • Changeling: see last post, as noted above
  • Shifter: see last post, as noted above
  • Kalashtar: see last post as noted above
  • Warforged: see last post as noted above.
I'm also considering adding the Expert class (along with affinities) and the Race Builder a la carte option which I used in my m20 Star Wars, to be able to create even more mechanical options for those who desire it.  I love the flexibility of those two additions to create anything.  To go along with the whole "anything in D&D has a place in Eberron" vibe, this can be used to create emulations of anything in D&D, really (within reason.)  Heck; I consider it a great basic tool for anyone playing any kind of Microlite.  Here are the rules.  I've removed some of the Star Wars specific lanugage that I included as part of my own m20 Star Wars--although keep in mind that although I rewrote those rules in my own language, I didn't create them on my own.  I don't deserve that much credit.

Expert: Experts get one Affinity and +3 to their Knowledge skill. An affinity is a broad area of expertise, and any task (subject to GM approval) that falls under the heading of this affinity can be re-rolled if it fails the first time. A number of sample Affinities is listed here: Trap-setting (and disabling), Horsemanship, Healing, Investigation, Nobility, Deception, Stealth, Wilderness Survival, Acrobatics. Others could be devised too, as needed, but keep in mind the need to not be too broad nor too narrow.  I'd do so very carefully.

Races: Pick a race for your character. Because in Eberron (and most fantasy settings, frankly), all races tend (mostly) to be just regular people in funny masks, any characteristic can apply to any race if desired (subject to GM approval.) But feel free to try and play your race to type, or at least to construct it to type. Picking a race is an a la carte option with this system. Rather than picking a race and applying preset bonuses, you can decide exactly what being a member of a given race means. The system for constructing race bonus is to use two Racial Template Points (RTP) and add them to your character at creation. The same RTP can be taken, if desired, more than once. One RTP is equal to either:
  • A +1 Stat bonus (requires taking twice to get a for sure +1 to the bonus, of course. While this could be considered subject to "abuse"; I personally don't believe that this type of abuse of the chargen system is serious enough to try and worry about alternatives to "fix" it.) This could also include a +1 to AC as natural armor, even though AC isn't a "stat" per se.
  • Two skill points (i.e., +2 to one skill of your choice, or +1 to two skill bonuses of your choice.)
  • A special trait or ability (usually an affinity, as described above in the Expert class. If a character has the same affinity for both race and class, allow them to reroll twice! They clearly really want to be good in that area, and are spending character generation capital to do so at the expense of something else.)
Subject to GM approval, some races may give up the equivalent of a negative RTP to gain an effective third RTP, but I wouldn't do much of this. Otherwise, however, players are strongly encouraged to play around with this race system to create the customized version of their character that they want.

In fact, you could use this system entirely instead of the races presented above, but I don't recommend it; I recommend it only for unusual circumstances, or where the player wants to emulate a race that is known from Eberron source material but not listed above (like a tiefling or drow or something.)

Next up on EBERRON REMIXED: I'll actually start talking about setting elements and how I'd do them differently than presented in the book!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mandalorian knights

Apropos of nothing, this is about the coolest image I've seen in a long, long time.  Holy crap.

Eberron Remixed: System

Although in many ways, I'm doing my own thing apart from the directions D&D is going, lately I've been on  bit of a D&D kick, and am more sympathetic to D&Disms than I sometimes am.  For that reason, I've also been reviewing some older posts of mine, and I found the EBERRON REMIXED tag, where I talked about ways to make Eberron seem to conform better to its vision (at least as I understand and view it.)  In a nutshell, although Eberron was designed specifically to be a setting for D&D 3.5, I feel that it always struggled a bit with the system; it really wasn't the system for Eberron.  d20 is very tactical and static, whereas Eberron is a setting that emphasizes pulpish, swashbucklery action and noir-like intrigue.  D&D as seen through a lens filter of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Raymond Chandler, if you will (not steampunk D&D, as many often assert.  That's ridiculous; there's no steam whatsoever and very little of anything that could even generously be fit into a -punk aesthetic.)

One of the things I asserted was that, in spite of the fact that it was developed specifically to be a D&D setting, it feels more like a Savage Worlds setting.  Then again, I'm not all that familiar with Savage Worlds--I've played it a bit here and there in one-shots, but I'm hardly fluent in its idiom.  The setting would also work reasonably well with some older versions of D&D, or retro-style fusions of older D&D plus some simplified and stripped down d20.  These wouldn't necessarily encourage the swashbuckling style of combat, but it also certainly doesn't hinder it--something like B/X D&D often had quite creative, swashbuckling combat, in my experience.  Or, at least it could.

Because it's free and very, very varied, I'm going to recommend Microlite as the system of choice for Eberron Remixed. (Surprising, right?  I'm really into Microlite right now, so I'm recommending it for pretty much everything.) It's got the advantage that you can use (with very little or almost no conversion) your d20 material with it too.  Get the basic Microlite document and the Expert Microlite document; or better yet, Microlite Purest Essense, which already combines the two of them.  You can supplement with other Microlite supplements to your heart's desire (spells, equipment, etc.)  Microlite Psionics would be a good one to add.

I'm not, however, aware of any microlite conversions of the Eberron specific races, other than some I found in a forum post a long time ago.  I'm adding them to the game pretty much as they were originally listed in that post.  There was also an Eberron specific class, the artificier, but given the collapsed and simplified nature of Microlite compared to d20, I think that treating the artificier as simply a subset of existing m20 mage class is sufficient.

I've got some other, and perhaps more dramatic "remixing" to do, much of it previewed in my previous post on the subject (see the tag for more info) that actually change certain elements of the setting itself.

But I think first of all, you need to get the system right, and I've never thought D&D--at least not d20 D&D--really fit the vision of the Eberron setting very well.
—Warforged: +4 to resisting poison, disease, sleep, and anything else that wouldn't normally affect a construct. (Normally warforged are immune to all these things,but a +4 is enough of a bonus to shield them against any level-appropriate attack.)

—Shifters: All shifters have +1 Survival, +1 Physical, and a bonus that triggers when the shifter "shifts"--1/day per every three character levels.
-Longtooth/Gorebrute: 1d6 damage bite/gore, +2 Str
-Razorclaw: 1d4 damage claws (on hands and feet), +2 Dex
-Cliffwalk: Climb at half speed, +2 Dex
-Beasthide: +2 Natural Armour, +2 Str

—Changelings: Change form as move action, +1 Subterfuge, +1 Communication

—Kalashtar: Can spend 1HP to establish a two-way mindlink with a creature it can see, +1 Communication, +1 Knowledge

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Alignment, huh. What is it good for?

That does it.  I'm done with ENWorld again.  Seriously.  I have better things to do than waste my time on the kind of childishness that is not only prevalent, but seemingly actively encouraged by the moderation there.  ENWorld becomes a microcosm for exactly why gamers have a reputation as socially illiterate jerks that nobody wants to spend any time with.

In any case, as a parting shot, if you will, the thread that broke my desire to try and make a comeback was one on alignment.  The question posed was: does alignment add anything to the gaming experience?  Here's my position, in bullet point format.
  • Alignment actually detracts from my gaming experience.
  • Alignment has been kicking around for 40 years now.  What exactly it means is still the subject of intense debate among D&D players.  Nobody has ever managed to clarify how it is meant to be used, and interpretations of it are problematic.
  • In many, many years of hanging out in RPG related forums, I've noticed that there is almost always an alignment related thread on the first page of any forum.  It's a constant source if strife; or at least disagreement.  The attempts to assign alignment to fictional characters is another great example of how it is too shallow and too restrictive to actually accurately exemplify any kind of rational person's philosophy, even given the relatively shallow expectations placed on D&D characters.
  • Alignment as a predictive model, or roleplaying guide for characters, is too shallow and superficial to be very helpful.  For the most part, falling back on alignment descriptions as a guide to roleplaying is a step backwards in roleplaying from the assumptions of even the most novice of roleplayers.
  • Alignment is frequently used as a preemptive bludgeon to control or constrain bad player behavior, or at least to punish it.  It could be useful for gamers who's groups include disagreeable player behavior, but for groups composed entirely of reasonable people, it's at best superfluous, and at worst, a potential source of conflict of interpretations.  The constant referral to LG characters and paladins in particular who run around slitting people's throats, killing orc babies, or torturing prisoners in game leads me to believe that either players are picking the class without buying into the archetype, which is problematic, or are simply incapable of behaving appropriately with their characters.  These kinds of things don't happen in my games (or at least, if they do, the players don't try to pretend that their characters are good.)
  • For people with this problem, my first response would be seek out better players, but my second response is that yeah, I can see how alignment would be useful to you.  But surely you can see how it is an active detriment to gamers who don't need to police bad player behavior? 
  • Other than in truncated form in the Elric books, alignment is not something that really features in any of the fantasy fiction source material that makes up the foundation on which D&D is based.  It's a very specific and unique artifact to D&D itself.
  • Alignment isn't really a major issue for most characters even so; where it really becomes problematic is with the paladin class (and to a somewhat lesser extent, the cleric class.)  Most alignment issues can be avoided if those classes are avoided.
  • The reason that it is so problematic with the paladin class in particular is that it gives a great deal of power over character resources and character decisions into the hands of the GM.  For the most part, this is not desirable, and in fact, the implicit social contract between gamers is that this is the GM meddling ham-fistedly into player sovereign territory.
  • Sure, there are differences of opinion on where the line between player sovereign territory and GM sovereign territory actually lie.  If it were not so, there wouldn't be any such thing as debate over sandbox style play, or railroads. 
  • Now, you may be doing something entirely different with alignment.  If that works for you: great!  I'm talking about a pattern that I've observed over many, many gamers over many, many years.  I make no claim to the universality of this pattern.  Neither do a handful of anecdotal exceptions prove sufficient to convince me to change my mind that this pattern of alignment usage and misusage is rampant amongst D&D players.
  • I've looked at various alternatives to alignment.  4e's reduction of alignment to fewer alignments—as well as the assignment of most individuals in any given setting as completely unaligned, is probably the best compromise.  It gives something to people who want (or need) alignment, but also removes it as a factor for those who don't really care for it, while still retaining a nod to the classic expression of alignment.  In other words, it keeps a fairly traditional D&D alignment for those who want it, while removing it as a factor that is significant for those who don't.  I'm also somewhat in favor of a system more like d20 Modern's allegiances as a substitute for alignment.
  • That said; I'd still prefer no alternative to alignment at all.  I think that the entire concept was initially meant to be no more than "team jersey" for the overtly wargaming slant of the earliest version of the game.  As the game evolved into a roleplaying game "for real" the continued use of alignment, and the attempts to shoe-horn it into a roleplaying mileu were flawed from the get-go, and the whole concept should have been done away with sometime in the late 70s.  The fact that they managed to survive past the Holmes edition of BD&D (which was really meant to be nothing so much as a reorganization and representation of OD&D anyway) is somewhat surprising.
  • If you disagree with me on the use of alignment, neither you nor I are bad people with wrong-headed thinking that needs to be excoriated.  Rational people can disagree over things, and the discussion of such is at the heart of any interesting conversation.
  • If, on the other hand, you feel the need to constantly drive home the error of my ways, I can see why alignment appeals to you.  You should also see quite clearly why I will never game with you, you control freak.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Happy 40th, D&D!

Although I don't really hang on news of D&Diana and whatnot, I did just happen to see that researcher Jon Peterson determined that, as nearly as can be determined, the actual anniversary of the release of D&D--the world's first role-playing game, happened forty years ago yesterday (for what it's worth, I myself turned 42 about a week and a half ago.  Funny to think that the hobby is nearly as old as I am.

Although D&D isn't really my game of choice these days, a retrospective of some sort is in order.  I can't even remember when I first played D&D, but it was with the brown boxes, and it was prior to the release of The Empire Strikes Back.  My guess is sometime in late 1979 or early 1980.  It didn't take.  I didn't really get the whole point of this weird talky game that my friend was trying to subject me to, when clearly the whole reason I had come over was to play with his Kenner Star Wars toys collection with him.  In fact, I remember being a little bit irritated that he was trying to do something else, contrary to our regular habit.

Of course, later, I got it.  By about 1982 or so, I was playing a bit of the Moldvay B/X game, and even dabbled in AD&D.  For the next three or four years, I continually dabbled in the wonders of D&D, and other games by TSR (it either didn't occur to me, or at least I didn't realize that there might be other companies doing other things.)  Played a bit of Top Secret, and Star Frontiers, mostly, in addition to our D&D.  By about the mid-80s, I had mostly wandered out of the hobby altogether; I wasn't really playing it anymore, and I certainly wasn't a paying consumer; I played with my friends and mostly used their books (and even their dice.)  My parents weren't big fans--but not for the reason you might think.  Their concern was largely that I'd be distracted and waste too much time in a hobbyist endeavor when I had more productive things I could be doing.  What can you say?  They were almost certainly right in that regard.

Through high school (and college) I was mostly out of the hobby, although I still paid attention to what was going on, at least to some degree, by flipping through stuff at the bookstore and the comic/games store (where I became aware of more games by other companies and stuff.)  I also flirted with Warhammer and Warhammer 40k; based on doubt on the fact that I'd bought and painted a few Grenadier and later Ral Partha D&D minis back in the day, and had reasonably enjoyed that (today I have no interest in any miniatures combat game of any kind, except for a lingering love for Blood Bowl.  Although I no longer have anyone I can play that with, except via the online game from Steam.)  I finally got dragged back into the hobby in the later 90s by White Wolf.  I found their concept of "storytelling", held up in stark contrast to hack-and-slash dungeoneering, to be right up my alley, and certainly a major part of my prior dissatisfaction with D&D in the first place.  Of course, I later found White Wolf to be pretentious and hypocritical; since they are hardly rules-light or anti-hack and slash.  Plus, their political and social moralizing got to be extremely tiresome after a while.

By the time 2000 came around, I was recently done with grad school, and working full time, and flush with enough disposible cash that buying into the release of 3e seemed like a good idea.  I really enjoyed the flexibility of the system, and the fact that in spite of the "back to the dungeon" mantra, it easily supported the kinds of games that I wanted to play (which did not feature dungeons at all.)  This state of affairs lasted for quite a long time, and I see 3e (or 3.5, to be specific, since I somewhat reluctantly made the switch to it.)  d20 won me over with its elegant and consistent mechanical basis, its abundance of interesting character options to define my character, and its ability (proven conclusively, in my opinion, with the release of d20 Call of Cthulhu) to span multiple genres and styles of play reasonably successfully.  I tired of many of the D&Disms in D&D before 2008--mostly--but I was still going strong with my embrace of d20 at least. 

4e was part of what changed that for me.  4e and Pathfinder.  Naturally, I was more interested in following Pathfinder than 4e, but Pathfinder went too far in turning up the complexity.  By then, I was already struggling with a lot of issues with 3.5 as it was--high level play is terrible, I had to swap out most of the classes and the magic system with something else to get what I wanted, etc.  I could still play some d20 + E6 and enjoy it, but more and more I'm thinking that it's not my ideal after all anyway.

But the siren song of D&D still calls.  Given the recent anniversary, I'm tempted to propose to my gaming group that once we finish our current campaign (presuambly within the next few weeks) that we do a one-shot--or at least short-shot mini campaign, using the Moldvay rules.  Which you can download as pdfs for really cheap from WotC these days.  I think that'd be an appropriate celebration.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Rules-light vs. rules-heavy

A round-up of a few discussions that happened at ENWorld in the last few days.  I may be done; I'm more interested in making blog posts than in following up already today, but we'll see.  These couple of topics touch on common themes, so I'm going to group a few points made in more than one thread, and then comment myself.  I am, after all, one of the most opinionated guys on the internet, and somewhat narcissistic, so I'm more interested in commenting myself and reading my own words than otherwise.  Uh... yeah, right.  Anyway...

The biggest games on the market today are considered to be pretty rules-heavy.  D&D 3e was a fairly rules-heavy game, albeit one that was mostly quite elegant in its design, and therefore enabled a fair bit of play without requiring rules look-ups in many cases--the exceptions being some feats, spells, and the always problematic "odd" combat moves like grappling, bull-rushing, etc.  Especially grappling.  4e is arguably "lighter", although not by a ton.  As far as I'm concerned, any game that requires three hardback books to give you the basic rules to play is never going to qualify as rules light.  But much of that material was optional--you didn't really need all those monsters or all those spells, for instance.  Other d20 games, such as d20 Modern or d20 Star Wars (or d20 Wheel of Time, or d20 Call of Cthulhu, etc.) were all perfectly capable of appearing in a single, albeit large, book.

By this criteria, the biggest games in the industry have almost always been rules-heavy games.  From AD&D 1e through to today with 4e and even moreso Pathfinder, these are games that have a lot of rules, and which focus on being extremely codified.  A few other games are also very rules-heavy (Rolemaster and HERO come to mind as the classic examples), but by and large, I believe other games have tried to distinguish themselves from the big games, and one very common way to do so is to be much more rules-light.  BRP, the system of Chaosium, is fairly fast and light in comparison.  FUDGE, FATE, Unisystem--heck, even the Storyteller system of White Wolf, were built in part on the premise that players just want to tell stories, not fiddle with rules so much.  One guy on ENWorld even asked specifically if there was a growing trend in rules-light.

I don't think so; I think there's always been that trend, and it's sparked by an attempt to stand apart from the leading games, which are not so.  And keep in mind that the leading games have always been rules-heavy, indicating that the market appears to prefer that, for whatever reason.  The rules-light trend has always been, relatively speaking, on the fringe.  Although when Storyteller was at its peak, it was big enough to make TSR sit up and take notice.  Then again, Storyteller arguably wasn't as rules-light as all that anyway.

My preference has always been for rules-lighter games, although I've occasionally been seduced by the siren song of well-defined character generation options.  That's my favorite thing about d20--the ability to really well define your character mechanically, which requires, of course, quite a few rules around chargen.

Another guy made an interesting claim.  As the average gamer age increases, it means that the average gamer probably has less free time than he might once have.  Rules-heavy games, which require a certain amount of system mastery done away from the game session itself, and which often bog down an actual session in rules look-up, or in overly detailed task or conflict resolution that takes a long time, seem to be what gamers want but not what they need.  Leading to a strange dichotomy where expressions of frustration amongst gamers with the complication of systems is common, and the exodus of gamers from D&D and/or Pathfinder to lighter games, as in the OSR or elsewhere seems to be common.

I think this is not exactly true, although somewhat insightful.  First off, I think the people who make that claim self-select and are vocal about it, so they appear to be more numerous than they actually are.  The biggest games actually being played still remain rules-heavy games, and most of the gamers that play them, if they are unhappy with the rules-heaviness, they still manage to tolerate it anyway (technically, that's even me--I'd much rather be playing the current Star Wars game I'm in using something like the m20 Star Wars houserule set I came up with instead of d20, but I'm not running, so I'm stuck with the game as it is.  And I don't mean to complain overly much; it's a fun game.  I don't think it's the right system for the game, though.)

I also think that as gamers get busier, they actually spend more of their hobby time reading games and tinkering with game related things between sessions, rather than playing them.  Not to say that they're not playing, just that the hobby is as much defined by reading books and thinking about how to use them than it is with playing.  My group plays about twice a month, on average--although sometimes we dip below that as we get busier.  Our sessions can last 5-6 hours on a Saturday night.  That's a total of maybe 10-12 hours a month.  Clearly, if I'm involved in the hobby as a gamer, I'm spending more time writing blog posts, reading other peoples thoughts on the internet, and going through my game books reading stuff about gaming than I am playing.  And in that scenario, rules-heavy games again have the advantage.  Sure, I may have embranced m20 as a great paradigm for what I want to play, but c'mon.  Even my somewhat lengthy m20 documents, one for Star Wars and one for DARK•HERITAGE, are less than thirty pages, and that includes art, a fair bit of setting info, rambling by me on the nature of good gaming and good GMing, etc.  Rules light games may be easier to play (assuming, of course, that your personality and gaming group can accomodate that playstyle, of course) but they don't offer much in the way of hobbyist activity when you're not playing. 

Pathfinder, on the other hand, is releasing a small handful of new books every month.  Sure, many of them are modules, or are primarily setting books, but they also have significant system books come out with pretty good regularity.  And you can do a lot with those books even when you're not playing.  Heck, I really enjoy reading, particularly the setting books, even though I don't play Pathfinder and am not even interested in doing so.  And I even enjoy browsing through system books from time to time.  I like a number of system innovations that they've made, particularly with regards to CMB/CMD and the archetypes.  Those can even be ported easily back into 3.5 when I'm playing or running that.  And although I don't need modules and don't even necessarily love modules, I do on occasion get a hankering to do something with them.

Because frankly, the rules-heavy systems, the games that put out a lot of content, offer me a lot more hobbyist activity than the rules-light alternatives.  Rules-light may be more my speed in most respects, but only when I'm actually playing.  Which isn't nearly as often as I'd like.

Planet Dinosaur redux

I haven't made a post with the PALEONTOLOGY tag in a long time.  It's probably overdue!  After the incredible disappointment that was the theatrical release of Walking With Dinosaurs, I went back to nurse my bitterness with more documentaries.  There's a lot of dinosaur documentaries out these days; enough so that even I'm not really trying to keep up with them all.  I don't know how many times I see some new one on Netflix that I hadn't heard of before.  Sadly, many of them are kind of difficult to watch, even if they have good CGI (and that's a big "even if" because many of them do not.)  Dinosaur Revolution seems like a good one, but we only have half of it available on Netflix, and instead have to deal with the reshuffled and odd little Dinotasia, which is surprisingly difficult to watch, for whatever reason.  So, I've retreated again to my favorite of recent dinosaur CGI documentaries, Planet Dinosaur.  I've watched it before, and even reviewed it here.  The penultimate episode, "New Giants" is my favorite.  I've long said that I'm a huge fan of the classic carnosaur vs. big sauropod action, after really becoming aware of the pattern in Tom Holtz's book.  This episode also highlights this pattern, referring briefly to the pattern as appearing in various formations all over the globe over a span of many tens of millions of years.

Curiously, though, it's of course not quite so simple.  It's interesting, for example, that the "large" sauropods actually come from a variety of not very closely related families.  It's also interesting that the "large" sauropods may not have been particularly common relative to the medium sized sauropods in many of the formations in which they appear.  The Morrison is the classic example, with modest sized Camarasaurus and Apatasaurus and Diplodocus outnumbering much larger Brachiosaurus or Amphicoelas.  Although as the Morrison aged (i.e., got younger--or more recent, in terms of rock layers) the animals got bigger.  Earlier, smaller species of Camarasaurus or Apatosaurus are replaced by larger species.  The Morrison is famous for its diplodocids, which were not the norm in other formations.  Macronarians, including the more highly derived titanosaurs, were much more common in later formations such as Hiuncul or the Kem Kem.

The Morrison is also famous for not really spilling the beans well on relationships between various contenders for apex predator.  Smaller predators abound, and mid-sized predators like Ceratosaurus are also found.  Allosaurus is clearly the most common large predator, yet it's not nearly as large as other large predators from other formations.  Or was it?  With an average length of just under 30 feet, it doesn't seem to be, but what exactly is the deal with reports of Epanterias and the more southerly (and very late appearing) Saurophaganax?  Are they actually new species, or just large individuals of Allosaurus?  The consensus, such as it is, is that Saurophaganax is probably a valid genus, while Epanterias is possibly? probably? not.  Is it a new genus, a new species, or just a really big Allosaurus fragilis?  Unsure.

Prior to the arrival of giant allosaurs, the largest predators in the area seem to be megalosaurs: Torvosaurus tanneri and the somewhat dubios Edmarka rex, which may just have been a large individual of the former.  But they are also quite rarely appearing, and are not carnosaurs.  All in all, the Morrison raises an awful lot of questions about exactly who the apex predators were in faunal assemblages of this type, as well as who preyed on whom.  This is probably due to the fact that the formation is quite well known and more dinosaurs have come out of the Morrison than out of most formations.  If the Huincul, Kem Kem, Shasximiao, Cedar Mountain, Clovery, Twin Mountains, Tendaguru, etc. formations were as well known as the Morrison, we'd probably see similar challenges to the simplistic view that large allosauroid dinosaurs preyed on large sauropods, and that when the super-sized sauropods went extinct, to be replaced by more modest saltasaurs and others, that the carnosaurs went with them, to be replaced in Laurasia by tyrannosaurs and in Gondwana by abelisaurs.

But... hold the phone!  This view is also challenged.  Puertasaurus is a very large sauropod; a rival with Argentinasaurus, in fact, for the largest dinosaur ever.  And... it's from the quite late Cretaceous--Campanian-Maastrichtian boundary at about 70 million years ago or so.  Who preyed on this bad boy?  If anyone?  Totally unknown.  Although, teeth that appear to be carcharodontosaurid in nature also appear at about that same time in Brazil (very far away; Puertasaurus was found in Patagonia).  Did the carnosaur-large sauropod relationship continue in Gondwana locations after all, just somewhat invisible to us in the fossil record as of right now?  Unknown.  And was the relationship really all that pronounced in the first place?  What did Allosaurus hunt, for instance?  Another episode of this very documentary talks exclusively about Allosaurus (and Saurophaganax) chasing after small-medium sized ornithopod Camptosaurus and Stegosaurus.  The Morrison episode of this documentary doesn't even make any reference to sauropods existing in the faunal assemblage at all!

It's also true that throughout the faunal assemblages in which large sauropods and large carnosaurs appear, there would be plenty of other potential prey animals, including fairly large and fairly common ornithopods.  While Planet Dinosaur refers to the proposed sauropod-carnosaur relationship in Africa in the "New Giants" episode, it also refers to Carcharodontosaurus in the first episode, where it's chasing Ouranosaurus sail-backed iguanodonts, and interacting (on occasion) with Spinosaurus. Clearly the story as presented is just a bit too tidy.

For that matter; the carnosaurs do have some diversity amongst them, after all.  Most of the largest ones are carcharodontosaurids, but not all of them.  The largest Morrison allosaurs were not, nor were whatever was going on in China.  And very recently, we've had Siats described from the Cedar Mountain formation.  As large as Acrocanthosaurus (and thereby a rival for "biggest dinosaur predator ever"--a title that gets lots of attention, but which seems pretty dubious considering our sample size for most of the contenders), but while A. was a carcharodontosaurid, Siats was a neovenatorid--a family not otherwise known for large predators, and not otherwise known from North America at all.  Where it came from, how it replaced (which, presumably it did, although this is based on pretty scanty evidence) Acrocanthosaurus, is a big mystery.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Great D&D Schism

In spite of my better judgement, I've been posting a bit the last few weeks over on ENWorld again.  I may quit soon; I'm running into a number of the same issues that caused me to leave in the first place all over again, but in the meantime, I'm also coming up on a handful of interesting discussion topics.  My own interest in D&D is a bit low at the moment, since I'm using a house-ruled m20 ruleset to represent a setting that is avowedly non-D&D-like in a number of ways, and I'm also totally OK with that.  But as D&D Next, or 5e, or whatever they're calling it these days, approaches, I admit to an at least academic curiousity about the whole affair. 

One topic that came up, which I thought was kind of interesting, was the notion of "The Great Schism" of D&D players.  The assertion here is multipronged.  To wit:
  • At one point, almost all gamers played D&D, and the game was very similar--either OD&D, BD&D or AD&D, but the differences between them were more subtle than not, and the vast majority settled on AD&D anyway.  The 2e revision rankled a few people, but as compatability remained high, it wasn't a big deal, and most people played it anyway.
  • Late in 2e's life-cycle, a number of folks had left the D&D fold, and either weren't gaming anymore at all, or were playing other games (World of Darkness, for instance, or something else.)
  • In 2000, when 3e came out, everyone was again pulled up into the same big tent, and 3e was, again, an edition that everyone had in common, and was at least somewhat fluent in talking about, if not actively playing.
  • A combination of factors, most of which had to do with the bungling of PR at the 4e launch, dissatisfaction with 4e and all of the many changes it made to the system, and the fact that the OGL enabled the flowering of both the OSR and Pathfinder led to a schism of D&D players.  Due to the rancor and factionalism of the time, many players were drawn more or less permanently into their camps, and no longer had any significant common ground with the other factions.
  • D&D Next is meant to be another big tent unifier, but the factionalism is now so firmly entrenched that the notion of pulling OSRians, or Pathfinder players back to D&D is dubious at best.
  • This is a sad state of affairs, and we should all be one community and one game to rule them all, or some such.  Blah-blah-blah.
You can (and probably should) quibble with many of the points in this thesis (I'm paraphrasing it; it's not my thesis, certainly) but I do think the notion that the D&D player base is somewhat factionalized, and well-served by existing product, and therefore unwilling or unlikely to reassemble back into a common big tent game again is--I believe--more or less true.

Of course, where I disagree most ardently with this thesis is in the notion that this is a bad thing!  Frankly, I don't care about "the community" and I derive no satisfaction from knowing that some guy in Seattle and some guy in Germany and some guy in Uruguay are all playing the same game that I'm playing.  I don't care about that; the factionalist and relative freedom with which strikingly narrow niche products can be developed, produced, sold, or simply house-ruled is much more valuable to me than a vague sense of satisfaction that I'm doing the same thing as everyone else.  Where's the tradition of the Rugged Individualist who goes off and does his own thing?  I'd much rather be very specifically served exactly to my tastes than have to compromise just for the same of community.

Plus, this diversity means that I have a lot of rules and paradigms to draw from.  I've been well served by adopting the concept of mooks and healing surges into d20 games, for instance.  I've been well-served by attempts to streamline d20--either to appeal to OSR-themed tastes, or simply streamlining for its own sake.

There are, however, a few drawbacks to this new state of affairs.
  • If  you're Wizards of the Coast, your ability to market your products to the entire market of D&D gamers is significantly reduced.  Therefore less revenue.  Oh, well.
  • Recruiting new gamers into the fold is no longer quite as simple; which version of D&D (if any) are you playing, and if your new players are also D&D players, they may well have their own tastes and quirks and desires.  This means that finding new players might be harder.
  • Although, I'll point out that the ones you do find are much more likely to be on the same page as you in terms of what the game should be like.
All in all, I found the complaint a little hollow.  So what if we're not all playing the same thing, and aren't exactly speaking the "same language" about the same shared experience?  How was that a good and desirable thing anyway?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

House rules redux

This last weekend, we had one of the last sessions of our d20 Homebrew Star Wars campaign, which has graced the "what I'm playing" sidebar over there for many months.  It's always a little tricky to estimate exactly, but there are probably two or three more sessions before we're done.  We have, in fact, already agreed to revisit Cthulhu next, a somewhat surprising turn of events given the failure of our last Cthulhoid venture, so I'm excited to once again play one of my favorite games.  Even if we do have to use the BRP ruleset.  Then again, it's probably not likely that I'd expect everyone (or even anyone) in my group to fall in love with m20 like I have.  We'll see what, if anything, I do with my m20 in the next few months or so.

Be that as it may, I've adapted my Star Wars m20 wiki into a pdf document, which is available right here for you to download.  It's marginally more convenient than in wiki form, at least for some purposes, and I fixed a few typos.  Embarrassingly, I'd mispelled Millennium Falcon repeatedly--I was only using one 'n' in millennium!  I have high hopes of running a game, albeit probably a shortish one rather than an extended campaign, for my younger boys using that system.  I actually think an adaptation of Star Wars, even a fan adaptation, as in my case, is probably a better gateway than anything in the D&D idiom. 

I've also had reaffirmed my repeated frustration--although it's a mild one that I can certainly live with--of trying to adapt d20, D&D paradigm and all, to the Star Wars idiom.  I've had further issues with trying to do some basic Jedi-ish, should be non-challenging stuff, and had it totally not really work as advertised.  Again--I think part of it, a big part even, is my GM's inability to wrap his head around a different interpretation of the rules than he grew up with playing D&D (which is somewhat ironic, given that it's basically his own alternate adaptation of the OGL to Star Wars which he wrote himself).  But an also not insignificant part of the problem is the ruleset itself.  m20 manages to mostly sidestep these issues, and certainly the specifically Star Wars interpretation of them that I've got here will do so.

Don't forget; two versions of the character sheet are also available, and include details for your characters ship (if he has one.)  The big version is here, which serves as a slightly clunkier first draft.  I actually prefer the slimmed-down alternative here instead.

I've also made some minor modifications to my DARK•HERITAGE ruleset while I was at it, available here.  I was quite happy with the result of what I had, but I had forgotten to add a minor detail to magic use, actually, in which sorcerers can use sacrifices and covens (or whatever plural group word best applies to sorcerers--I kinda like murder myself, although I'm sure I'm alone in that regard) to mitigate somewhat the cost in hit points and sanity that they would otherwise endure to work their craft.  If my "gating" of my kids into gaming via Star Wars is successful, I might also consider trying to do something with this system for them as well. 

Free kindle books

I finished my Kindle copy of A Princess of Mars, which of course I've read many times before (and which I also own in paperback...)  For a variety of reasons, I'm struggling to make progress on my paperbacks (I've got a long list of books that I've bought but haven't read) but I do a bit better on my Kindle app on my phone.  Probably because I always have a phone with me, and I can pull it out of my pocket and read a few pages when I have a few minutes, which means I can make progress--however slow and interrupted--on books for that platform.

But... I'm really cheap.  And I don't really like buying Kindle books, which I still think are often over-priced.  So, I've been trawling for free Kindle books.  That's part of the reason I've been reading Burroughs again; he's in the public domain, so finding free Kindle titles of his is easy.

I also picked up a number of other titles, most of which are free copies of the first books in a series, by self-published authors.  My "hit rate" of books that were good enough that I'd actually finish reading them has been fairly low so far--I've given up a fair bit of books that I did not like and couldn't find myself sinking my teeth into. 

I've done pretty well this weekend so far, though, with some Jonathan Moeller books--specifically Demonsouled, which is the first book of a nearly 10-book series called the Demonsouled series.  Pretty good medieval fantasy, with an emphasis on more medieval-like tropes and conventions, which I'm enjoying.  He also has I believe three other free ebooks--also the first books in series.  It's nice to find an ebook that I'm really enjoying, for the first time in a long time.

It also gives me some hope for my belief that the future of the fantasy genre--and of genre publishing altogether--is in self-publishing.  Get rid of the middle-men publishers.  This is even more exciting for would-be writers than it is for readers, but still, it's good news for everyone, if it can work out.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Beware of false equivalencies!

I like watching nature documentaries, and last night I watched one that I checked out from the library about wolves and buffalo, which originally aired as an episode of the venerable PBS show Nature.  In it, they made a claim that I have to take a little bit of exception to.

They said that the Wood Buffalo National Park (in, mostly, northern Alberta) was five times the size of Yellowstone National Park.  This is very nearly true (I got 4.98 times, to be very specific.)  However, the clear implication was that the Yellowstone ecosystem was not nearly as large a protected area as the Wood Buffalo area.  This is not true, since Yellowstone is surrounded by additional wilderness areas.  Being extremely conservative, I'm not counting National Forests as protected (because they do allow mixed use) except in the case of National Parks and federally designated Wilderness areas.  This isn't exactly fair, though, because there are also Wilderness Study areas and Roadless areas, that behave exactly like Wilderness Areas in terms of land management and level of protection, except that it was not specifically done so through an act of Congress.

Adding the square mileage of Yellowstone National Park, plus neighboring Grand Teton National Park, the Teton Wilderness, the Washakie Wilderness, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the North Absaroka Wilderness, the Popo Agie Wilderness, the Bridger Wilderness, the Fitzpatrick Wilderness, the Gros Ventre Wilderness, the Jededia Smith Wilderness and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, we get nearly 11,000 square miles of contiguous, or nearly contiquous protected area, compared to 17,300 of Wood Buffalo.  It's still smaller, but now it's comparable.  And, like I said, if you add in the Wilderness Study Areas and Roadless areas that are part of the same ecosystem, now you're talking about a protected area that rivals the world's second largest national park in size, if not exceeding it. 

And sure, there's a few tony little towns like Jackson, WY, and lonely two-lane highways that bisect this area.  Then again, that's true of National Parks in Canada (and the US, not to pick on our northern neighbors) as well.

So, the claim was accurate, but at the same time, quite misleading.  The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is like a smaller and more accessible slice of Alaska in the lower 48, and it's directly comparable to the Wood Buffalo National Park in size.  Blows it away in terms of scenery, though.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Star Wars and canon going forward

Neither surprising, nor unwelcome.  Actually, for me it doesn't really matter anyway, as I've always ignored everything in the EU that I wasn't specifically interested in.  This makes it marginally easier to talk about my own Star Wars setting design to big-time Star Wars fans, I guess.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

A new paradigm on GNS labels

Many years ago--probably in the late 90s or very early 2000s, I became familiar with the GNS model, popularized by The Forge folks.  This model, for those few gamers who don't already know it, posits that there are basically three "creative agendas" amongst gamers.  The G stands for gamist, the N for narrativst, and the S for simulationist.

Because these words are, aside from their use in game design theory, in common circulation in the English language, many people (including myself) have used them in a manner that The Forge folks, who defined them in GNS theory, did not intend.  This occasionally leaves one in confusion when discussing the finer points of game approach.  Usually, context is sufficient to parse whether one means something in a particular Forgish sense, or in a more common English sense, but occasionally, it's frustrating.  I saw an attempt one guy made to propogate some alternate terminology.  I think that might have been a bit too much, but it wasn't necessarily a bad idea.  For the sake of rambling, and because I haven't actually talked about gaming nearly as much as I used to, I thought I'd highlight the differences between how I often see GNS applied by those who are only sorta interested in the notion vs. those who are deeply immersed in the theory, and suggest some possible alternate terminology that you can use if and only if someone is confused and seems to struggle get your point.  Well, on the other hand, there's no reason why you couldn't used the alternate terminology from the get-go if you like it better, although there shouldn't be any need to most of the time.  But for those occasional times when you do need it...

Mostly, it's to talk about my own perspective on GNS, I suppose.  I'm not really a Forge adherent.  I'm not terribly interested in The Forge or GNS theory for its own sake, although I do quite like the notion of GNS as a kind of quick and dirty way to "bin" tastes or proclivities into various buckets.  Because I tend not to use the GNS labels myself "properly"--or at least according to The Forge's usage, this might be a useful post to refer back to from time to time.  And I can remember that I came up with alternative terminology if needed.  If I'm talking about a simulationist tendency and someone takes issue with my use of the word simulationist, I can, for instance, say, "yeah, I'm using that term casually, rather than in a Forge specific sense.  If it helps, maybe you can substitute the word 'emulationist' instead."

G - Gamist:  A gamist element in The Forge refers to an element in which a player steps up and takes some kind of risk.  Any time a player rolls a dice, for instance, that is a gamist element.  Most gamers already assume some ambient level of gamism of this sort in their game (well, duh) so when they refer to gamist, they refer to elements that are too gamist.  In other words, mechanics that are too "naked" and abstract, and therefore abrasive, and antithetical to game immersion.  In other words (again) it feels like putting aside the game to play a completely separate mini-game within the game, which for many (myself included) find uninviting and undesirable.  In this sense, "gamist" is a pejorative (unless, of course, you highly favor that specific style of game in your RPG) because almost by definition, at least as it's used, it refers to "too much gamism."  If there's confusion, you could use the word gamey here instead of gamist.  Gamey (to me, at least) usually is used in reference to meat.  So, last week I made some chili with ground venison.  I simmered the meat in a mixture of vinegar and lemon juice before adding it to the chili to reduce the gamey flavor in the meat, because for the most part, gamey meat is considered undesireable as a flavor.  The same sentiment refers to RPGs that are too gamey.  One could point to, for instance, the way spells work in D&D, or the way combat was handled in 3e and 4e, and call those elements gamey.

Exactly what is too gamey and what is not is a matter of taste, of course, but at least this way, it's not unclear what you mean if you call an element of a game gamist or gamey, or if you refer to a specific game as too gamey or gamist for your taste.  Even using my alternative terminology--gamey instead of gamist, the word still starts with G, so the acronym doesn't change (yet.)

N - Narrativist. Narrativist in The Forge talk refers to the goal of allowing the players are more powerful role in the development of the game; mechanics that allow sharing of the "director stance" rather than the allowing the director stance to be exclusive to the GM, and the players acting in a more "improvisational theatre style actor stance" or somewhat.  Very few people, when discussing the N in GNS actually mean this.  What they usually mean is something much more in line with the latter; a stance in which a fun storyline, in which the characters themselves feature prominantly, and their decisions have meaning, and where in-game rewards might be subsumed to simply fun happenstance and whatnot, is prominent.  Games that lack narrativism, in this regard, are games in which character background, motivation, and whatnot play no meaningful role, and stuff that happens in the game isn't meant to connect to any kind of narrative arc--either one pre-planned, or one that evolves natively as it happens.

In this sense, I'm highly narrativist (although I don't preplan narratives very much) but in the Forge sense, I'm not at all.  A possible alternative terminology is Storytelling, which would change the GNS acronym to GSS (at this point.)

S - Simulationist. There is a slight difference between how The Forge and Everyone Else uses this term, although the difference isn't as stark, and there are few points of confusion around it.  Whereas The Forge talks about simulationism as an ideology or game ideal in which all actions in game make sense from an in-game perspective, most folks use simulationism to refer to rules and mechanics that emulate a certain genre or approach.  So, perhaps emulationist is a better word here.  As an example--the monk class in D&D has a number of features that emulate wuxia kung fu movies.  It emulates poorly, however, a grittier, traditional Eurofantasy environment.  For this reason, many gamers find the monk to be a poor fit from a simulatist standpoint in D&D. 

Does this mean that I've changed GNS to GSE?  Maybe.  Mostly, again, I'm just clarifying what I mean, and what I think  most gamers mean when they use these terms, which aren't exactly the same thing that The Forge meant when they first coined them.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Free Kindle titles

I've ditched yet another book, this one City of Rogues which is part one of a trilogy, and made available for free as a Kindle download.  Indie, or even self-published, the book is part of a larger group of works by the same author, one Ty Johnston.

I have high hopes for the world of indie and self-published novels, to be honest with you.  I don't really believe in the claim anymore than editors and folks who select books for publication by publishing firms offer any kind of meaningful quality control other than the most remedial.  And the fact that they've "allowed" my favorite genres, science fiction and fantasy, to be thoroughly infected by soap-opera paranormal romance/porn in fact hints that in fact the publishing world is actively trying to keep good material from me rather than provide it to me.  I've struggled to find quality fiction in the marketplace, unless by quality you mean a very basic level of polish to the grammer.  Frankly, I'd rather read a few typos in content that excites me than flawless prose of content that doesn't.

However, there remains a serious problem with this model--it's still challenging to find what is worth reading and what isn't.  And possibly, I'm actually shooting myself in the foot, metaphorically speaking, by picking up (so far, at least) only titles that are free.  Ty Johnston's City of Rogues wasn't bad, but it just really didn't excite me much.  The plot seemed rather pedestrian, and the characters rather forgetable.  At about 39% in (have no idea what the page-count would be in a traditional book format, so that's what I've got) I decided to throw in the towel and look for something I actually want to read.  Since the only time (so far) that I've gotten excited about reading an ebook on my Kindle app was when I read the first two books of the Tarzan series (and because I watched much of the John Carter movie over the holidays with my in-laws) I'll probably actually read the first three novels of the Barsoom series, also by Edgar Rice Burroughs next.  But reading books that I already own, have already read, and already know that I like kinda defeats the purpose a little bit.  I'm not quite sure where to go with this.  I've started and abandoned permanently now three different titles on the Kindle.  While I have several more to go before I've exhausted my store of readily available free titles that are first books in a series, I have to admit that I don't necessarily expect that anything else I have will be much better.  I'll probably have to venture into the world of paid-for titles.  But I'm too risk averse to spend even a buck or two on titles that I'm iffy on.  Puts me in quite the catch-22.

So, if anyone has any recommendations for self-published or indie-published ebooks at a low price, feel free to send them my way.

Welcome back!

Well, Merry belated Christmas, everyone!  I had a nice holiday, and I will presume any potential readers to stumble across this post did too.  Needless to say, I was busy with things other than updating my blog, which has not had a new post in about two weeks.  For most of that time, I was out of town.

A few things.  Rather belatedly, I finally saw The Hobbit part 2.  I liked it well enough.  I still think, as I expected to think, that the whole Tauriel angle was kinda silly.  While many people will say that movie-makers must use some discretion to make changes to successfully adapt a printed work into a movie format--and I don't disagree with that concept--I believe that many such changes are based on arrogance or committee rather than any need to successfully adapt the work from one medium to another.  Many of the changes Peter Jackson's team have made to all of the (so far) five Tolkien movies fall into this unfortunate category.

That said, I continue to mostly find the adaptation of The Hobbit to be preferable to the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  Possibly this is because after seeing the latter, my expectations for the former were substantially reduced.  Possibly, it's because The Lord of the Rings is, to me, a much more serious volume of work, and I take liberties with it much more seriously in turn.  Probably, a major portion of that is that Bilbo is simply a much more charismatic main character than is Frodo, and Martin Freeman is a similarly much more charismatic actor than Elijah Wood.  Between the two big jumps in charisma (as well as a greater focus on a single protagonist character) this combines to create a significant increase in how enjoyable it is to watch the movie.  Also, The Hobbit being largely much more whimsical in tone than The Lord of the Rings anyway, requires less gratuitous and grating comic relief.  This was very irritating in The Lord of the Rings, especially the portrayal of Gimli, whereas in The Hobbit, it's mostly the cozy kind of Bilbo-comic relief that was inherent in the source material to begin with--although some ridiculous dwarf-as-juvenile-boys jokes continue to make their way into the movies here and there.

I also quite liked a few small touches.  Gandalf (and later Radagast) exploring the broken open prisons where the Ringwraiths had been entombed was a very cool moment, and one that I'm not really familiar with at all from the work of Tolkien himself (and I'm pretty familiar with the work of Tolkien.  Not to pull of the expert opinion card or anything.)

So, I enjoyed the movie.  I continue to not buy the first one, operating under the assumption that once all three are released, there'll be extended editions out on DVD (as there were with the previous trilogy) that I'll want to own instead.  So, when I feel the need, I rent the first Hobbit and when available, will do so with this one too, and I continue to anticipate the third and final movie in the series.  Although I continue to remain skeptical of the need to split The Hobbit into three movies, and am convinced that the desire to do so was more based on anticipation of greater revenue by doing so rather than on any artistic need or belief that the movies would be better because of it, I have to admit that so far Peter Jackson's team have not quite yet made me regret their decision to do so.

Not really fond of Bolg as depicted in the newer movie.  I presumed that with Azog being presented as the Pale Orc and main villain of part I that they had simply coopted his name instead of Bolg's (although I wondered at why they would do that.)  Now, seeing that they're attempting to use them both, I'm still scratching my head a bit as to why that's necessary, and Bolg looks pretty ridiculous--like the ugliest S&M leather bar patron ever in a leather thong.  Azog at least looked kinda cool, most of the time.  I also wasn't thrilled with the depiction of Beorn as a rather rangy fellow rather than a big, broad, manly fellow, like I had imagined him (and how he's described.)  Loved the look of him as a were-bear, though.  That was right on.  Can't wait to see if they keep to the source material and have him show up at the last moment and kill Azog (or Bolg) in personal combat.

Anyway, enough about The Hobbit and on to a DARK•HERITAGE related topic.  It occured to me this Christmas season, as I had time to sit and think about it, that my view on the source material for the setting had changed slightly.  I didn't so much see the setting as influenced by the Western genre as I see it influenced by the pre-Western... which, sadly, is not a genre, but which is a historical reality.  The Voyageurs, cours-de-bois, mountain men, and other explorers, trappers, and such of a time before the West was largely settled by western civilization, and the period in which it was still a post-apocalyptic wilderness, recovering from the decimation of various European diseases which caused the collapse of major civilizations such as the Mound Builders and the Anasazi.

This analogy isn't meant to be taken too far.  The post-apocalyptic state of the Baal Hamazi territories owes more to political collapse and the sweeping invasion of barbarians that have as much in common with the Huns or the Mongols as they do the Plains Indians, for instance, rather than societal changes and adoption of nomadism due to societal collapse at the hand of changing climate and spread of communicable diseases.  But the feel of the area is similar.  Folks from hamazi, Terrasan or other cultures traveling through the area will be more like Daniel Boone, Kit Carson and Lewis and Clark, in some ways, rather than cowboys, ranchers, or the Pony Express.

This may seem a bit odd, given the history of the region.  But in reality, I'm attempting to posit a post-Imperial world, in which the shells of former empires are islands under siege, surrounded by wilderness, either relatively uninhabited altogether, or inhabited by bandits, brigands, highwaymen and barbarians.  That's not quite the Old West, but the period that immediately preceded it is a bit more my speed.

Plus, the Old West is as much defined by the six-shooter and gunfighters than it is anything else, and I'm still going with single-shot muzzle-loading firearms as the default for this setting.  I don't imagine any type of repeating firearm is going to make any kind of appearance in my setting until some point in the future that I have no intention of developing.

With a more fur-trapper like feel in the interior, and a more Golden Age of Piracy feeling in the sea-going areas, I've homed in a bit more on the exact feel of DARK•HERITAGE as I envision it.