Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Watcher

There is a spirit that comes from before the foundation of the world of DARK•HERITAGE, but which lingers still nonetheless.  This spirit is sometimes called Grigori, the Watcher, and it is primarily known as being a spirit of hunger.  No one knows for sure how Grigori came to be such a near-personification of appetite, but it is so today.

Grigori is often disembodied.  Some ancient rumors amongst the Tarushan gypsies say that Grigori was once a powerful servitor of the Old Ones who rule in Kadath, long before mortal man lived in the area.  He watched and observed the arrival of men, with characteristic lack of emotion, and cataloged their many comings, goings and doings.  For reasons that are unknown, Grigori lost his spiritual, otherworldly disinterested facade and came down among men, passing his time in riotous living with their fair daughters and wives.  For this Grigori was cursed and forever cast out of Kadath.  But also cursed with insubstantiality, so that the appetites and temptations which beset him would be forever denied him as well.  Driven insane by being constantly exposed to mortal temptations and unable to act on them, Grigori gradually devolved into little more than a cannibal spirit.

Now, Grigori comes shrieking and howling from the highlands in the mountains when winter thunderstorms rage throughout the peaks.  If he finds a person, alone and unprotected, he can possess that person, and reshape his body into a fearsome form, full of muscles, sinews, teeth and claws.  He's often been described as centaur-like, and with gigantic antlers, although other descriptions have, at times, been given as well.

When this happens, all who live in the area need beware, for Grigori, now embodied, goes on an orgy of rape, violence and hunger, killing all in the area before his host body dies from the strain (this usually only takes a few days, luckily.)  It is possible, although extremely difficult, to kill Grigori's host body, which expels the spirit and banishes it back to its frozen mountain haunts again for a time, but Grigori is immortal and immune to any weapon or magic that men can wield--only his possessed body is vulnerable, and even then, not very.  While possessed, a mortal body becomes terrifyingly potent--strong, nearly invincible and horrible.  An entire squadron of tough mercenaries was known to have been killed by The Watcher, their desecrated and violated bodies and body parts strewn across a snow-covered landscape to be found several days later by another patrol.  This took place in the Caurs Mountains during the reign of King Guilhem Huc des Peyrasmortas, during one of the interminable border squabbles between nobles in the area.  The incident raised awareness of the Watcher amongst the members of the King's Inquisition--which was a slightly different organization than the one formed later by Huc des Peyrasmortas descendant following the scandal of the only public performance of "The King in Yellow" and the King's only brother revealed as a demoniac heretic.  Secretive scholars have tracked incidents that match the modus operandi of Grigori, and cataloged them, although such records are kept under lock and key at the Academies at Razina and Terassa.  Rumored copies in the hands of private collectors, and floating around somewhere in Porto Liure also abound.

Reports of Grigori's activities range rather widely in the circum-Mezzovian region, but always come from high in the mountains, and fierce thunderstorms and the advent of cold weather seem to be a common correlating theme.   Professor Alfons Gombal of Razina believes that Grigori goes into long periods of torpor where he attempts to rejoin his brothers in the mountains, or at least replicate the conditions that he enjoyed in Kadath before his exile.  He cannot return to Kadath, or even come near it, so he languishes in what mountains he can climb.

Although not meant to be a reflection of such, Grigori can best be represented in d20 by the Lord of the Feast, a creature detailed in Privateer Press's Monsternomicon II.  For other systems, such as m20, you will have to convert as best you can, based on the detail given here--although, of course, one of the main attractions of m20 is that you can use d20 material more or less as is.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

World Cup Follow Up

Well, I'm thinking Brazil doesn't look as strong as I had thought.  They are visibly flustered if they don't score quickly, and that can be manipulated against them.  Mexico played fairly well (heck, the goalie needs to be knighted when he gets home, or whatever they do for national heroes in Mexico.  Make a statue of him in his home town?)

They're good still, but the best in the Cup?  I don't think so.  I'm leaning more and more towards Germany now.  Not that I've seen every national side play yet, but still.

Americans are encouraged by the win over Ghana, but we still have Portugal and Germany to deal with.  Let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Of the three, Ghana was the only one we had a good shot at beating.  I agree that Portugal's terrible trashing by Germany makes them look a little weaker than they did previously, but I would be surprised if the USA can eke out a tie against them, much less a win.  Our chances of making second place in the group and advancing are better than they were... but they're still not all that good.  My prediction had Portugal winning the group and Germany in second.  I think I need to reverse that now, but it doesn't really change who advances and who doesn't--just who they will play in the next rounds.

I'd like to see a big upset of the US over Portugal.  I just don't think it's likely.  And almost as much, I'd like to see Portugal and Argentina get matched up against each other later down the line.

Also; did anyone notice this bizarre crowd-shot of the witch doctor?  Right before Ghana's equalizer goal?  It almost looks photoshopped.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Horror themes in gaming

I think I'm going to order up a digital A/V adaptor and another, longer HDMI cable so I can plug the iPad into the big TV.  But in the meantime, I spent a little bit of time the other day playing Slender Rising and Slender Rising 2 on the iPad down in the basement with all of the lights off and a good set of earbuds in.  The experience was... surprisingly kind of creepy.

I don't know that the Slender Rising series is the best iteration of the Slenderman game or not, but I quite like it.  I think it's very atmospheric, I like the controls and the graphics, and the details of what you can do worked better for me than the original Slender: The Eight Pages did on the PC, at least.  More options, more atmosphere, and better playability.

I'm not sure how many readers may be familiar with the Slenderman games and the Slender Rising series in particular.  To start, you pick a landscape (from four).  The "classic" Slenderman landscape is a forest, but there's some great ghost towns, abandoned houses, and others as well.  You pick an ambiance--a really foggy daytime, night, night-vision, and a thunderstorm in the dark (my favorite.)  You might also have the opportunity to pick a type of light (flashlight with unlimited battery; flashlight with a risk of battery loss, or lantern, etc.)  Then you wander around the landscape looking for seven pages with cryptic and sinister clues written on them in blood.  Once you find all seven, you unlock the escape, and--if you can find it--you can escape the level.  The whole time, Slenderman, a teleporting ghost or some other such other supernatural entity, tries to hunt you.

This is where a comparison--or perhaps contrast--to RPGs as they are usually played, came to my mind.  In D&D, for instance, you could have a scenario where you wander around a haunted forest looking for MacGuffins, while pursued by a supernatural creature or creatures.  This could even be a successful D&D scenario, with a real touch-and-go feel to it, and the obvious nods to the horror genre would be evident.  But... you'd be fighting the monsters.  It would be more thrilling rather than terrifying.

In Slender Rising, you can't fight Slenderman.  You don't even have any weapons at all (well in number 2, you might get a shotgun, which you can fire once to chase him off for a moment.  But it's not likely that you will find it, really, anyway.)  You're only recourse when Slenderman appears is to run away as quick as you can in the opposite direction.  If you go into a blind alley and find yourself blocked in, you're screwed.  If you can't run away fast enough, you're screwed.  The game ends, and you die.

Actually, the case of the shotgun in Slender Rising 2 is kind of interesting.  You can get a weapon (that would be deadly in most cases) but it's only effect is to chase Slenderman off for a moment.  You can't actually defeat Slenderman at all.  The only thing you can hope to accomplish is to escape.

While not all horror stories end this way (in Dracula, for instance, Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker and Lucy's three suitors manage to chase the Undead down in the mountains of Transylvannia and kill him.  Sure, Lucy and Quincy pay with their lives, and Mina and Jonathan are scarred as well, but that's not really a bad ending, all things considered.  But in many, there is no real victory, and at best only escape.  In The Ring, for instance, in the end [SPOILER ALERTS] the main characters escape but leaving the menace lurking in the dark for others to find still.  In fact, if anything, the menace is somewhat enhanced by the method that the main actors used to escape.  In the movie from a year or two ago, Woman in Black, the protagonist and his son are killed by the titular ghost.  In The Grudge, similarly, the protagonist makes--maybe--a temporary escape at best, but is left at the end still haunted.

In Slender Rising you can, if you're lucky, escape the ghost (I'll be honest; I've never done so.  It's too hard.  And I don't play all that often to get better at it either.) But you can't defeat it.

Is that an acceptable outcome for RPGs, I wonder?  I think many players would say so, especially if they buy into the concept of playing a horror game in the first place.  But I think many players would feel frustrated by this paradigm, too--the notion that you can only escape, not defeat, the Bad Guys™ or whatever.  As always, knowing your "audience" is key to a successful game experience.  But I'm curious if anyone has adopted this paradigm before; a very overtly horror paradigm, in your gaming?  In my experience, most overtly horror games don't even do so frequently, but sometimes it works out that way.  I've had good experience using this for a Dread game, for instance.  I know it can work with the right players, and it can work very well and be a very powerful experience, even.  But trying to pull it off when the players show up with a typical D&D paradigm in mind is likely to be frustrating for everyone.

I originally included a trailer for Slender Rising, but decided that a slightly longer gameplay video would be better instead.  You don't need to watch the entire thing to see that even in the daylight, the atmosphere is just incredibly creepy and ominous.  The first attempt the player makes is in the Lost Souls mode, where instead of finding seven signs posted on the walls, you need to find seven ghosts and set them free.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

World Cup predictions

What the heck.  I'll make some brackets.  There are eight groups of four teams each.  Two from each group advance.

Group A: Brazil and Mexico
Group B: Spain and the Netherlands
Group C: Columbia and... Greece, I guess (this is a tough one to pick a winner)
Group D: Italy and... England or Uruguay?  I'll go with England.
Group E: Switzerland and France
Group F: Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina
Group G: Germany and Portugal.  I'd like to see the US advance, but this is a tough bracket.
Group H: Belgium and Russia

I'll go out on a limb and predict the next round too.  The brackets, if I'm correct (and I've put winner first and runner up second in each of these proposals) would be as follows:

  • Brazil vs. the Netherlands.  Winner, Brazil.
  • Columbia vs. England.  Winner, Columbia
  • Switzerland vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Winner Switzerland (because it's easier to keep typing.)
  • Germany vs. Russia.  Winner, Germany
  • Spain vs. Mexico.  Winner, Spain
  • Italy vs. Greece.  Winner, Italy.
  • Argentina vs. France.  Winner, Argentina
  • Belgium vs. Portugal.  Winner, Portugal
Quarter finals?

  • Brazil vs. Columbia.  Winner, Brazil
  • Switzerland vs. Germany.  Winner, Germany
  • Spain vs. Italy.  Winner, Italy
  • Argentina vs. Portugal.  Winner, Argentina

  • Brazil vs. Germany.  Winner, Brazil.
  • Argentina vs. Italy.  Winner, Argentina.
Finals: Brazil vs. Argentina.  Winner, Brazil.
Third place game: Germany vs. Italy, winter Italy.

How's that?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mile... mile and a half


Web page for The Muir Project, a crowd-funded (at least partially) documentary of a few artistic folks who hiked the John Muir trail, and made a documentary about it.  The "core" hiking team were a married couple one of whom is a professional photographer (although she admits that she mostly does portrait work and stuff like that, so this landscape and still life work was a major change of pace), and a videographer/film guy.  Along with another good friend who's also into film and a fourth who's a sound guy, they hit the John Muir trail, moving slowly, and documenting the experience.

It's a fun movie.  In general, I'm always a little skeptical of hiking movies, because they're made by an art-house crowd who tend to focus on the strange, bohemian aspect of the hiking lifestyle rather than something that a regular guy like me who likes backpacking could relate to.  This one--perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given the film-makers--does not do so.  It's just plain old good film-making, part reality show, part documentary, about what it's like to hike in the North American mountains.  (Specifically the Sierra Nevada.  If they'd done it in the Rockies, I think they wouldn't have made such a big deal about the very little rain that they got.)

I saw a trailer for this movie a long time ago; back when it was a recently funded kickstarter, actually, and I've been keeping my eye on it for some time.  I thought about buying the DVD, but never quite got around to it.  Now, it's available to stream on Netflix (in HD, even!) so I suppose I'm glad that I didn't, but it's too bad that I didn't see this a year or two ago when it was newer.  It's a fun movie, and the principles are fun and charismatic, and generally interesting to see.  Plus, they really know their stuff when it comes to highlighting the spectacular scenery, and they do a good job of highlighting some of the experience of a long backpacking trip--the hard days when you climb thousands of feet over a pass only to lose it all again on the other side, blisters, sometimes loneliness (the married couple does mention missing their daughter a few times, who was staying with her grandmother while they were hiking), pack weight issues (granted; exacerbated by the heavy film and sound equipment that they had to bring with them), and a challenge that they may not have anticipated and you won't see every year--hiking the trail on a July on a year when the snowfall was 200% of average.  Kick-stepping, glissading, route-finding, and just the plain extra exertion of walking through snowpack when you expect to be walking on a well-groomed trail, crossing extremely swollen "creeks", etc.  This made it interesting and scenic in a way that it isn't always, by definition.

Here's the trailer that I saw two years or so ago, which piqued my interest, and which I still like.  Love the music, love the movie, highly recommend it for anyone who likes the outdoors at all, and I still recommend it to anyone else who likes a nice, reality-show format movie without all the drama.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Book reviews and The Last Witchking

I haven't reviewed a lot of books lately.  I haven't even put books that I'm reading on my blog very well.  And frankly, I haven't done a great job reading books lately.  I've been way too busy.  I dived into Mistborn and quite enjoyed it so far before getting so bogged down with things to do that I now haven't picked it up in at least a week or two.  I don't intend to abandon it, of course, but it may be another week or two before I can really pick it up.

It may seem odd to readers that someone who claims to be a huge fan of Lovecraft has his collections on my To Read list, and not showing as re-reads.  This is true, but also misleading.  I haven't read those collections.  Each collection has at least one piece that I've never read before.  So, I called the whole thing unread, even though I've read the majority of the pieces in each collection, many of them many times over.  This is kind of a moot point as well, as I'm now also reading a nearly complete collection of Lovecraft stories on my Kindle.  This Kindle collection does not, however, feature any of the collaborations or ghost-written stories.  At some point, when I'm done with the Kindle collection, I'll go through each of the books on my shelf and make sure that nothing is in them that I haven't read, and if it is not, I'll remove them from the to-read list.  I'll probably still have to read the ghost-written collection, or at least parts of it.  I know for a fact that I haven't read all of them, because I haven't even read Horror in the Museum, the story for which the entire collection is named.

However I also won't be reviewing any of this Lovecraft stuff.  Not only is it very old and very familiar. but it's also more difficult to review short-story and novella collections anyway.

I will, however, offer a brief review of a collection of three novellas that I recently read: The Last Witchking.  I got this for free a number of months ago when it went through one of those periodic free giveaway days which Amazon occasionally does with Kindle books (albeit I believe in this case at the behest of the author.)  I didn't read it until very recently however.  Now, reading the book with a completely open mind is a little bit challenging given all the noise surrounding the nomination of the third and final novella in the collection for a Hugo award.

For those not paying attention, the Hugo awards nominations are extremely controversial to a number of people, and a great panoply of authors and writers, industry professionals, and assorted hangers-on have made a great deal of noise--mostly ghastly wailing and gnashing of teeth--at some of the works nominated, including the story included in this collection.  The reason for this is that this collection is written by one Vox Day (which, as you probably can guess, is a pen name and a pun), an individual who has managed to score a fair bit of hate from the self-proclaimed literati of the science fiction and fantasy world, particularly those who belong to the SFWA, or Science Fiction Writers Association.

Of course, if you've been paying any attention to the SFWA lately, you'd also notice that they've made of themselves a laughing stock and an embarrassment repeatedly in the last year or two, which may mean that you'd take the object of their hate with some skepticism.  I certainly did so, but then again, I get most of my news about what's happening in the SF publishing world from the blogs of Larry Correia, John C. Wright, Sarah Hoyt, and yes, that of Vox Day himself.  So it was no surprise that the accusations drummed up against Vox Day and the reason that his nomination for a Hugo is causing so much heartburn amongst the self-proclaimed sci-fi literati is pretty trumped up in most cases, and outright false in others.

That doesn't mean that I think Mr. Day is a nice guy, by any means.  Frankly, I think he's kinda a jerk.  He's arrogant, extremely pedantic, and polemic, which means that he is perfectly happy simply messing with people for no reason other than to mess with them.  The charges of him being a hateful racist, on the other hand, are largely based simply a single comment describing a single person--a person who is a demonstrable racist, by the way--whom he called an "ignorant half-savage."  Because the sci-fi literati don't like him anyway, they've latched on to this, attached to it meaning that is well beyond the intent with which it was delivered, and used it to go for their favorite tactic; outgrouping by calling on a racist.

Of course, that tactic only works on people who desperately want to remain in-grouped, and I don't think he much cares (or at least, I see little evidence that he does on his blog, other than an interest in the decline of the genre overall.)  It also would require that the Left in America had not diluted the value of calling someone a racist.  That boy's called wolf way too many times for anyone of even marginal intelligence to really take it seriously in our society anymore.

And besides, what does that have to do with the quality of his writing anyway?  In a world in which writers can openly proclaim their bigotry and misandry by gloating and crowing that no men won a single Nebula Award this year without censure, then Larry Correia's point has largely been proven--the awards are meaningless.  What they amount to is a bunch of ideological propagandists patting themselves on the back for sticking to the narrative while both their work and the awards that they give have become completely irrelevant to any actual readers of the genre.  Personally, I thought this was so self-evident that there wasn't any need to attempt to prove it, but Larry's "Sad Puppies" campaign to get himself (and some others) nominated has demonstrated it pretty conclusively to all but the predictably obtuse.

And this is why reviewing this work based purely on its own merits is so difficult.  Most people who are aware of the story at all are either following the entire brouhaha because 1) they are appalled that any type of non-Marxist, groupthinking tedious message-fiction writer could possibly have cracked into the hallowed halls of Hugo nomination, or 2) they're on the other team, and are cheerleading the dismantling of the power and influence of the ideological gatekeepers of the industry.

You may probably infer from my tone that I belong to the latter group much moreso than to the former.  You'd be correct.  I not only find the fascist bullies and would be censors that dominate the dialog on the Left today (and in most creative/artistic industries in the West, for that matter) disturbing and even frightening, if they really are able to get their way on pretty much any issue, but I also find their messages tedious in the extreme.  That said, as always, any work, no matter who wrote it, should be judged on its own merits, not on the alleged political or social opinions of the author (unless said opinions are part and parcel of the work--one reason I will never read anything by Samuel Delaney, for instance.)  It may be hard to separate the art from the artist sometimes, but anything else is unfair to the work and frankly, kinda beside the point anyway.

So, that long introduction out of the way, what did I think of The Last Witchking, and in particular, the last story which was nominated for the Hugo?

The first, titular story was a bit of deep backstory to the setting; the Witchkings, I'm to gather, were a force for evil in the distant past, and their defeat was relatively recent in the setting of this story.  The story also offers a magical ethnogenesis story for a race of werewolf-like creatures which (again, I gather--I haven't read any of it myself) feature more prominently in other work by the same author.  As such, it's interesting enough, but it feels like merely a piece of something larger which I lack context to perceive properly, which it is.  I can't say that I loved it.  But I liked it well enough.

"The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro" was, by the author's own admission in an author's note, inspired by the treatment of Jews by the Italians during the Nazi invasion of Italy near the end of the Second World War, but told with analogs of what are obviously Warhammer orcs, goblins and hobgoblins (with the orcs in the place of the Nazis, the goblins in the place of the Italians, and the hobgoblins standing in metaphorically for the Jews.)  By his own admission, it's an old piece, and it feels somewhat crude.  I've never been much of a fan of Warhammer's attempt to speak in orkish regional dialects, and this piece does something very similar as well.  Not a bad story, but not a stand-out one either.

The final novella, "Opera Vita Aeterna" is the one nominated for a Hugo.  It's a pretty nifty story, again from a historical perspective, about an elf who comes and lives for many years in a monastery and becomes good friends with the head of the monastery.  There's a coda at the end that refers to the work he did there in near legendary terms.  It's an interesting story that addresses the question of friendship across vast gulfs of culture and xenobiological differences.  It's also somewhat subtle; where I expected a slightly more ham-handed end to the story, it didn't come, and some of the questions broached in the story--do elves have souls as do mortal men, did the elf sorcerer actually come to appreciate the theological implications of the monk's religion, etc. are left somewhat unresolved.  In the end, while I would probably have personally preferred a tighter conclusion that delivered more closure, I appreciate the subtlety of the story all the more for its lack.

The real question is, is the novella worthy of a Hugo?  I dunno.  I don't pay attention to what wins awards in sci-fi literature these days, and I haven't read anything against which its matched up.  Certainly compared to some of the works which have won Nebulas, this story fares very well indeed.  And the ultimate judgement of any work of fiction is, of course, whether it encourages me to seek out other works by the same author, or to check him off as "tried it, whatever" and move on to something else.  In this case, The Last Witchking collection was certainly of sufficient quality to encourage me to look for more.

As it turns out, I don't have far to look, because when I picked that one up for free on my Kindle, there were also in close succession (or maybe even the same day; I don't remember) two other collections available; A Magic Broken and Wardog's Coin, so I have those waiting on my Kindle too.  That leaves me the actual novels (which I would have to buy) A Throne of Bones and Summa Elvetica left.  And I'm tempted to do so, even though my stack of racked up novels that I own but haven't read is fairly daunting.  I suppose at the end, that's the best thing I can say about this story--did it make me want to read more?  The answer is yes.