Bridge of Birds, A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was by Barry Hughart.

I really liked this book. It is a world that could almost be our own, with some exaggeration. The two heroes, Number Ten Ox and Master Kao Li are vividly drawn do have some stereotypical attributes but vivid personalities.

The quest is grandly heroic, and the characters are vastly overmatched in every way. Watching them persevere and overcome, their cunning and unique problem solving, and the unique challenges they face are all engrossing.

Around the middle of the book, it becomes clear that the first grand quest is actually only one of two quests that they’re committed to–no matter how little they understand or care about the second. But the scope continues to grow and they’re tackling truly legendary challenges by the end.

It’s big and bold and very well done. Very enjoyable.

Simple World, a purpose built Apocalypse World hack for one-shots.

FAE con “pregens” — an excellent technique. I can’t get no…

Making characters was fun. I didn’t want to do full char gen at the Con, even with a simple game like FAE. Too long, or more likely, choice paralysis. Nor did I want to do full pregens as a big part of Fate’s fun is the group making the decisions. So I mooted a card based idea, and ran with it in the end. I wrote 6 high concepts onto cards and let the players pick.

This got great buy in straight away. None of this is set in stone and I deliberately wrote Aspects with flex in them. Then, Troubles, on another six cards, and again with plenty of flex and some obvious conflicts written in.

At this point the players were brainstorming away and looking at each other’s picks. This was a big plus for me. Usually with pregens, players are so intent studying their own paper that they don’t pick up on the other PCs. With this, everyone was super aware of the party, all of it.

Then I put out some rules in the form of some pre picked Approach numbers, written on cards, taken straight from the FAE book. (see page 10). Easy. Then I killed the entire party.

Dangerous Women is a mixed anthology, with several very good stories, many interesting and good, and a few “meh”. Interestingly, Martin’s story that’s boldly advertised is in the last category. The Princess and the Queen, or, the Blacks and the Greens describes an interesting time, but the POV selected is a historian who confines himself to the broad sweep… which means that there’s no personality; other than that the world is fiction, it’s almost as dry as a real world history book.

A Queen in Exile by Sharon Kay Penman, was a fascinating look into real history, with a solid look at Queen Constance. It’s interesting, and features a strong protagonist–despite her not matching current fantasy fiction, picking up a sword an leading her men. There is a lot of enduring and being moved by outside forces… I really liked it.

Joe Abercrombie’s Some Desperado kicks off the book. It has a very western flavor (despite a lack of sixguns); it’s tense and gritty, well handled.

Rather than going story by story, I’ll just note that there’s a wide range of stories. For a very broad range of action, adventure, noir, fantasy, or sci-fi, there’s at least an interesting story or two for you.

22. November 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Books, FATE Games, Roleplaying · Tags: ,

I wish I was more familiar with the source comics… but so far I’ve been good about resisting reading them during work.

It’s Fate, but they have an interesting character creation system using “Modes” that somewhat streamlines character generation by having you pick three of four modes and ranking them +3, +2, +1. The modes have associated skills, and where they overlap (a skill is on both lists), they auto-bump up, so the overlap isn’t wasted. Plus they have weird modes beyond the standard 4, to model specific concepts from the comic (like being an Automaton or dinosaur).

Something I really want to see in play is brainstorming–a structured way to bring science and similar “background” skills into prominence, by letting you influence the problem you’re trying to solve. Plus brainstorming is a competitive/cooperative thing… you’re all working together, but if you win by the most, your idea is true and the other players have to work their ideas around it.

I haven’t played it yet, but I’d like to.

22. November 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: DnD, Games, Roleplaying · Tags:

Ten Copper has wargaming and roleplaying news.

Quick monster conversion 1st and 3rd edition monsters to 5e: http://brentnewhall.com/games/1e5e.html

Sagan Diary by John Scalzi. I liked the idea of this, but didn’t enjoy the novella much separated from the remainder of the series. It’s an interesting experiment, and it’s so positive in outlook that it stands apart. Writing positively about love seems much tougher than hate, vengeance, and action-y revenge. So for a story on the skew, it’s well done. I want to read it alongside a reread of the series–I bet it works better when the characters are fresh in our minds.

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley. This is as large and bold as everyone’s been saying. It’s fantasy world building that explicitly turns away from medieval European influences, and it’s vibrant for it.

There are a lot of protagonists; sometimes the queue for transitioning to a new character left me a little confused, getting up to speed over the first page of the chapter. That’s probably due to the sprawling cast and many POV characters.

I’m very much looking forward to rereading this. I suspect that having paid the price to adjust to the world (and fight off my default assumptions), the next read will allow me to focus more on the characters, their story arcs and adventures.

Randall Munroe’s What If is culled from his excellent What If? website. I really like the way that he approaches the questions, and there’s enough science transmitted to me that it checks some of my gut-feeling level assumption. (The rocket fuel/exhaust velocity relationship from the golfing to propel a ship question really illustrated something I’d never thought much about.)

Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising is a great near future adventure. It’s a bit fish-out-of-water, in that Anika is a pilot, but her challenges are up close and personal. It builds into a mystery that coheres (until it reaches peak Bond Villain, where it’s suddenly quite fantastic). The world building in the background feels all too realistic–particularly the competing powers in the arctic waters, the need of the navies to justify themselves, and so on.

All in all, it was well written and interesting. I’ll be checking out the sequel, Hurricane Fever, soon.

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercombie. This is a great low-fantasy world, very divided–much like Renaissance Italy, with neighboring powers influencing the local situation, shifting alliances, and mercenary bands.

Monza’s a driven anti-hero, well drawn, engaging, and I could identify with her despite her villainy and willingness to embrace horrific practices in her revenge. The book balances a number of things; Monza’s gather allies are each unique and have a healthy regard for themselves.

One of the great, very subtle things that emerges as the story advances is that Benna gains real heft. We see Monza encounter person after person who challenges her “avenging my innocent brother” story, and we see her flashback to the past with a new read, changing how we see both Monza and her brother.

I just finished Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey. I wasn’t a huge fan, mostly for subject and attitude, but did appreciate the pacing and world building. Ironically, as I sat down to write this below Best Served Cold, I realized how similar the plots are. (In each, the protagonist swears to kill their betrayers one-by-one.)

Stark didn’t click for me as well; I suspect looking deeper would be valuable. Quickly thinking about it: Monza begins hale, is broken, and we endure her painful recovery. Stark is better than ever, cocky and confident.

Stark is also consciously posing, almost from the first moment he steps on stage. As the book progresses, we figure out that his pose conceals pain, but it’s a heavy load of snark before it starts coming through. While there’s more to it, that’s what quickly comes to mind. (Though: his magic making things “too easy” might play into the same difference in feel between the Sandman versus Monza.)

Long story short: it was well written and kept me engaged. I read it quickly and mostly enjoyed it. But I’m not going to hunt for its sequels.

22. November 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Books

I’m behind on my notes/reviews of books. The last full reviews were for Ammonite by Nicola Griffith and Lock In by John Scalzi. http://www.scottrpg.com/llamafodder/ammonite-and-lock-in/

More recently, I’ve read (but haven’t written about yet): Sagan Diary (John Scalzi), The Mirror Empire (by Kameron Hurley), Evil Hat’s Atomic Robo, Randall Munroe’s What If, Tobias Buckell’s Arctic Rising, and Best Served Cold by Joe Abercombie. (The last was actually a reread… it’s excellent, but I’d forgotten that I’d read it before by title. The beginning’s pretty unmistakable and it was great, again.)

I just finished Sandman Slim. (I wasn’t a huge fan, mostly for subject and attitude, but did appreciate the pacing and world building.)

I’m currently reading a collection of short stories, Dangerous Women. The first stories have been very good.

29. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Roleplaying

An encounter with ISS Auerbach.

1. Normally a navigator of your skill would not be assigned to this sort of ship. Why are you here?
Not many people have been to Aleph-Seven. I got to know the sector well back when I served in the Navy—they were running lots of supplies to clandestine bases out here at the time. Since then, no one’s really bothered with the sector—the markets aren’t ripe here. I don’t know why our company is suddenly interested, but my familiarity with the sector was important enough for them to ask me about it when I interviewed.

2. Where did you get that scar?
When I was twelve, my family and I were riding horses in the outback. My horse shied when it saw a snake and tossed me from my saddle. I fell on a sharp rock and gashed my leg to the bone. I was panicked, but my parents didn’t call a medivac. They tore an old shirt into strips and wrapped it tightly, had me smoke some herb that numbed the pain a bit, and we continued with our vacation. I was miserable for the rest of the trip, but my parents wouldn’t bend. One more thing to set me apart, I guess.

3. Why don’t you like being the age you are?
I’m out of step with my peers, whose youth-boost has them looking twenty five well into their fifties. I look old, much older than my peers; it makes socialization hard. I worry that I’m being picked up because I’m a freak, because they’re cruising for an exotic.

4. You are normally very close to your family, but recently have fallen out of touch. Why?
Mom… I love her dearly, but she’s cutting herself off from the universe. She kept the faith, stayed orthodox and skeptical of the modern corrupting world. Recently she’s been sick and needs treatments that her faith doesn’t allow; she’s tired of fighting me over it, but I can’t just let her die for no good reason.
Dad hears me, but says he has to support her one-hundred percent. My sisters Becky, Marie, and Kesha have all turned inward, to their children and families. I love being an uncle, but space is large… it’s hard to keep up when I’m absent for such long stretches.

5. What piece of contraband have you smuggled aboard? Who else knows about it?

I have the embargoed communications of Tau Ceti Prime hidden on a memory crystal. It’s a six month log of the world’s communications—so many people so desperate to get their message out. I couldn’t resist the humanitarian cry, despite the black mark of the Junta in charge.

6. When do you feel most alone?
At 5:45 am, after my alarm has gone off and I need to rise for morning readings… but the chill of the corridor and the unpleasant sonics of the shower encourage me to huddle warm a few minutes longer.

7. Which member of the crew don’t you trust (i.e. the captain, the medic, the technician)? Why?

I don’t trust the doctor; it’s a hangover from my anti-medicine upbringing. I know that I’m a freak, thanks to my parent’s choices—who would voluntarily set their children up for the indignities of age when they are so easily prevented? But I’m old enough, and the treatment is so prevalent, that everyone—even the doctor—treats me like it was my choice.

8. Why are you also in charge of the inventory?

The navigator is a ship’s officer, but works in small groups or alone most of the time. They’re important, but no one wants to pay for the 90% of the trip when they’re not doing much, so they get assigned additional roles. Because they’re not leaders of men, they typically get assigned tracking and spreadsheet tasks and a crew that runs the day to day with little interference. Thus, I’m also the inventory control officer. I’m just happy they also didn’t also make me the trade accountant!

9. What hobby do you have that occasionally comes in handy?
I’m a rock climber and wilderness enthusiast. Most people look at my gray hair and wonder, but I really do enjoy getting back to nature and breathing non-canned air. You’d be amazed at how many navigators are the same way—people think we’re all about ship life, because that’s how they see us professionally, but given a chance, we get together and whitewater raft or hike alien worlds.

10. What disease do you fear most and why?
Alzheimer’s; so much of what I do is tied to remembering places and their connections. I don’t know if I’d still be me if I was unable to do my job, or remember all the fine details that make life, life.

11. What did you do during your last shore leave?
Sherri and I took in the cliffs of Manichego and hiked the eastern rim. The 0.85g made the exercise feel easy, and the atmosphere made the sunsets vibrant. The warm green sunsets were unreal—you couldn’t tell where the local grass analog stopped and the sky began.

12. What is your name?

I’m Deputy Commander Oriel, at your service.

27. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Roleplaying · Tags:

It’s such a good game. I’m still thinking about and being unsettled by it a week later.

In fact, I’d say it’s probably the best game I never want to play again.

That’s the close to a great review from Shut Up & Sit Down.

It sounds like one to pick up and try with the Indie RPG group, after we’re well gelled and comfortable. Dog Eat Dog.

07. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Books · Tags: ,

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith. I liked this book; it felt very LeGuin, in that our heroine is an anthropologist. Interestingly, she dives into the local culture, which happens to destabilize the overall situation (inadvertently). It’s a richly realized world, filled with interesting cultures.

Lock In by John Scalzi. It’s a good book; a thriller with a strong corruption/ politics/ wealth angle that feels very like today–or even more like a future today imagined by Piketty. At times it feels very like an extrapolation of today, and when it deviates (as it does dramatically with regards to remote operation) it’s a big deal. It was enjoyable, though I wanted a chance to get a little deeper with the characters. Chris has a lot of nuance by the end (as does his father, surprisingly), and Vann has some explanation, but most of the other characters aren’t on screen enough to reveal lots of depth.

It’s a good police procedural, made better with threeps and sci-fi generally.