Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

A very interesting world, slowly revealed and deeply complicated. It’s incomplete–the book creates great forces, reveals how intertwined they are… then runs out of pages. If you’re in for the trilogy, though, it’s a fascinating future– foreign feeling, with strange holdovers and tremendous differences from a “future” imagined from today’s society.

The ties of Mycroft to the beating heart of everything feel a little too neat and tidy… the world feels oddly constrained or contrived to be so subtly steerable by so few. Hopefully the next books will expand on why a bit.

I enjoyed it and can see why it bowled people over. I’m certainly interested in reading on.

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford

An interesting look at the advantages of resisting the urge to put things in order, to spend time on organizing instead of doing. It has 9 chapters loosely compartmentalizing broad categories of experiences that sometimes get better when they’re disorganized.

Creativity is largely focussed on the professional, among experts. If you’re good enough to react well to a random push (like experienced Jazz performers and other musicians), a random push or novel constraints can force you to pay attention to the world, or break unexamined habits, or just get you to strive in a new direction.

Collaboration is largely again about experts; Paul Erdos features strongly. He’s a brilliant mathematician who hops into novel mathematical subfields, learns enough to understand their current problem, and draws on his extensive experience with other subfields to see if they offer an approach or solution. It’s almost like Mandelian hybrid vigor.

Workplaces is about the folly of taking away resources–like desks, walls and chairs–and trying on ideal order. It’s also about (and parallel to) the life of buildings–an adaptable building, particularly one that doesn’t need permission to alter–gets altered to solve what needs solving. Perfectionists, particularly of the clean desk or no personal possession sort, often destroy morale and deprive their members of the tools they need to reach their tasks–or just to feel control of their space.

Improvisation, much like Creativity and Corroboration begin with highly skilled members who have honed their craft in controlled circumstances and meticulous effort, then throws them into situations without the time to prep. Their expertise is revealed, honed by the practice… with the bonus that they’re more responsive, since they’re reading the room, not reciting honed notes.

Winning is about taking advantage of your comfort with disorder to undo those who require order and sense. Rommel and Amazon both get laudatory treatment–taking advantage of the moment can be huge, if you’ve judged the moment correctly.

Incentives bring bureaucracy and human behavior into conflict. If you use simple measures, it’s easy to beat the measure but not improve the system. Great examples.

Automation is a warning; when we turn the routine over to machines and let machines smooth our experiences, we’re terribly out of practice when the machine fails. Amusing when it’s GPS and time to break out a paper map, deadly when airline pilots lose autopilot and fly-by-wire and the plane suddenly doesn’t respond as expected.

Resilience is about how much we want to believe that orderliness is good–broken windows and hoaxes along similar lines are believed because they mirror common sense.

Life is a hodge-podge, but mirrors roadway design and unmarked roundabouts. Even children respond well to cues–a dangerous playground is treated more cautiously than a foam mat. And creativity–like plywood forts–can blossom if they’re left unsupervised. Plus other interesting tangents about Franklin’s inability to conquer messiness, avoiding overcommitment, etc.

All in all a quick, if breezy book.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

This book is set in an interesting future; one with aliens and friendly compatibility, but also humans chasing profit and breeding children because they’re cheaper than machines.

The POV characters are great–very distinct windows into the world. The legal structure, the holes and “we can decide better than politicians” really comes through, but not in a libertarian dystopia way.

For most of the book, we’re navigating the current day with Lovelace, alternating with flashbacks to Jane’s childhood and teen past. It becomes apparent at some point that the Jane of the past is who Lovelace is crashing with… and just how much Jane must have gone through to get to the present that we see.

There’s a lot about picking your future, the nature of AI, thinking about the mind/body duality, friendship… it’s a book filled with interesting people making hard choices. I really liked it.

Evidently, this is book 2, parallel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, or at least somewhat overlapping. It was good enough that I’m going to seek out 1… and probably 3, if it’s in the pipeline.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

A great, fast reading book–I believe it won the 2016 Hugo for best novella.

It’s a book about children who step through portals to other worlds, and how they cope after returning.

Nancy is a great main character; in fact, my only real complaint is that the book introduces multiple POV… that don’t seem worth adding. The initial scene from Eleanor West’s POV made sense as a frame for the story, but the rest of the hopping didn’t seem worth the tradeoff–the information was staged so that Nancy soon discovered whatever the new POV character experienced.

Anyway, it’s a bit of a dark twist on returning home and finding that home falls short. Wonderfully written–it’s hard not to read it in one long gulp.

RPG-a-Day, Week 3, Days 15-21

15. Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?
I used to be a huge system tinkerer. I loved looking at games, figuring out which system I could steal from game A and plug into B. In high school, I clipped out Stormbringer’s skills, and brought them into D&D. It mostly killed any reason to be a thief… but also gave people not laughable chances of success at skills, unlike the poor thief.

Over the next 15 years, I enjoyed creating game systems, which lead me to the Forge, which taught me how narrow my experience in gaming was. While I still tinkered and created a few systems for home use, I mostly turned into a game consumer–shopping for indie games and their intriguing systems.

Jennifer brought TV back into my life, greatly reducing the time that I used to spend in the lonely fun of scenario and game design. Game design proved similar to my novel writing ambitions… I realized that with my limited free time, I’d rather read books and play games that others had sweated over, or spend my time creating a great scenario for my group, instead of a game for the world.

16. Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?
This is kind of the flip to #15. At the moment, I’m not much of an active game modifier—partially because I want to try out the game as designed before I begin twisting dials. Though… I really can’t resist, thinking further. Even Diaspora was drifted in a Fate Core +” the designers talk about it this way these days” direction.

PTA is great, particularly with the three-flip tension build and clear new examples. Similarly, Psi*Run is great right out of the box—while there’s some meeting of the minds components (scope of powers, etc.), it works perfectly as written.

An easy answer is D&D 5e. I run mostly AL content, so consistency with other tables is a big deal—and I’m happy to not adjust things too much for my table in specific. If you make a bunch of stompy people—great! You crush the foes without breaking a sweat and get to feel accomplished. If you talk your way out of the fights? Great, we can get to the next encounter instead. Trusting the system and running RAW seems to solve so much.

17. Which RPG have you owned the longest but not played?
This is a question with a dozen answers, depending on definitions of “owned” like do I only count “intentional buys” or does “picked up for inspiration”, and “it was on sale, so I thought ‘what the heck’ and picked it up just in case” count? (Or, worse… all the games that are hard drive clutter but never even looked at!) Similarly, there are too many games that got barely-tried… like, we made characters, but lost interest before the game started.

So, cutting an arbitrary swath, I’ll go with two. The first is Dust Devils; I picked it up relatively early in my hanging around the fringes of the forge. It sounded interesting, but I was in the middle of two long term games, so never made a serious pitch to play it. Similarly, while I may have borrowed it once for something, I’ve never really run or played The Questing Beast. It’s still on my want to play list, but never comes to mind. Maybe I’ll drag it along to an upcoming RPG meetup… or even Strategicon, for use in Games on Demand. Hmm…

18. Which RPG have you played the most in your life?
19. Which RPG features the best writing?
20. What is the best source for out of print RPGs?
21. What RPG does the most with the least words?

RPG-a-Day, Week 2, Days 8-14

So, between travel, sickness, and extra work, I didn’t follow along in real time. I don’t actually have a lot of good answers though… so I’ll write down the questions and see if the answers come. Otherwise, blanks may persist.

8. What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2-hours or less?
This one’s tricky; I don’t know that I have a good game at hand. Honestly, under 2-hours is a great length for so many board games that I’d lean that way. It’d also work great for creating a good PBeM post–as a player, at least!

9. What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions? Each of Bryan’s Star Wars Saga games worked well at this length, though the lower level game was slightly better from a game structure POV. I’d enjoy trying out a 9 session season of Primetime Adventures; I’ve only played 5 session seasons, and never 2 successive seasons (which would be its own perfect 10 session game).

10. Where do you go for RPG reviews?
Google often takes me to RPG.net, though less than it used to. I loved Shannon Appelcline’s reviews.

11. Which dead game would you like to see reborn?
There are a lot of 80s games that I loved, but not their system. If we get to assume significant modernization, Mechwarrior would be great. (Though I don’t know how you solve the fact that most of the combat fun occurs in a related system–Battletech, rather than Mechwarrior. I was vaguely interested in Mechaton back in the day, largely because the two halves, pilots and mechs, seemed more cohesive. And it wasn’t Rifts, which had its own way of merging the two…)

12. Which RPG has the best interior art?
You know how bad I said I felt last week about cover art? I pay even less attention to interior art. I mean, not in the moment–I do notice it when I first read the book, and it can be good for illustrating the world and setting. And I’m a sucker for maps. But art usually feels like it’s in the way when I’m looking up a rule, or flipping through character creation–I can’t really picture interior art when thinking about the games on my shelf.

13. Describe a game experience that changed how you play.
Nothing strong (with the exception of the answer to #7) comes to mind, though lots of little examples crop up. The disastrous Amber game where Pat and I made characters who got assigned a mission, got trounced by Shadow opposition, had to run home and cry for help (particularly in the form of a GMPC…) multiple times… that was bad. Ender Peskins, on the other hand, was a great example of how a “zany” character could work, instead of just being a showboating annoyance. Or Dad’s session of running a Xanth RPG off the cuff for my friends and I in high school… where the numbers faded to the background, until a cry of “you’re just a storyteller” burbled up from Scott Miller. (Such a cutting insult… or not.)

14. Which RPG do you prefer for open ended campaign play?
I don’t think I’ve really played in an open ended campaign in a long while–at least, not a campaign that really stands out as qualitatively different than a 10 session campaign.

Playing, long campaigns have almost always been D&D. It does a good job of having enough lures to keep it interesting–or to keep me grasping for power–as we level up. Dad’s Dragon’s Talons campaign to level 15 was one of the longest games I’ve played. As ever, the system got creaky as we got into double digits–but there was enough cool stuff to lust after that it didn’t feel like it was level 3 with bigger numbers. (Of course, his efforts in making the world feel detailed and rewarding deeper engagement helped a lot with that too.)

As a GM, I loved the Storyteller system, particularly Mage, for open ended play. It didn’t bog down quite as quickly as D&D (for prep, etc.) These days, though, I kind of crave defined endings and the idea of a character seeing a story through. I suppose, given the challenges of coordinating adult schedules, it comes down to not believing that long consistent games are really an option. Particularly not with the lesser prep that I strongly prefer…

RPG-a-Day, Week 1, Days 5-7

5. Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?
Man, I pay so little attention to art, I’m a terrible person to ask. Mouseguard is pretty good, with its putting warrior mice on the box cover. Super hero games often do well too, when they show an array of heroes that you can create. (I’m thinking of the cover to Infinite Heroes, mostly.)


Though, looking at that, an actual battle would probably be truer to the game. 5e did a good job with fantasy combat on the covers, which is truth in advertising.

6. You can game every day for a week. Describe what you do.
I was contemplating exactly this situation when my wife scheduled a solo trip home. I was going to have 2 weeks of evenings. My first thought was to schedule a 4-6 episode game and meet every other day or so with like-minded people eager to get in a game before the school year began (etc.)

Three games had been on my mind prior to thinking about filling the time, so the game debates followed along directly.

Option 1 was Wrath of the Autarch. I really liked the idea of well tuned Fate based game, one that wouldn’t dissolve into a pile of invocations and victory without tension. I also really liked the broad theme (a fantasy kingdom simulator, with an empire nearby distracted to start, but once they get their act together…)

The second option was Blue Rose, maybe in a West March style game. I’d enjoyed reading about Aldis and its history, and the sense of Valedemar with the serial numbers filed off was strong enough that my bedtime reading immediately pivoted to an overdue reread.

But the system is new to me–heck, it’s new altogether, so there’s no backlog of easy stolen scenarios and materials. It’s also a more directed setting–you’re agents of the crown–so “like West March” wouldn’t really be a static map that anyone who showed up could explore. It’d be more AL/PFS style “whoever shows up is on the mission”… actually, it’d be VERY like that, basically a serialized campaign. Which would be an immense amount of prep and adjustment; packing it into a week would mean that I’d be devoted to it totally [something like wake up & begin prep, guests come over after work, we eat dinner then adventure for the evening]. Hmm… that’d be awesome, but an immense amount of work, particularly given the traditional GM/player division in workload.

As much as I love facilitating a good game, I don’t know if a week of game-work would actually be a vacation for me.

The third option was Apocalypse World: 2e. I have a setting in mind, daydreamed a bit, but without character’s to respond to, that’s about the end of the prep. Still, presuming an excited group, I could definitely see getting together each night and seeing how they change the world. Hopefully the prep burden would be much less than the Blue Rose idea above, but I suspect that nightly games would shortchange my subconsciousness’s ability to weave coherence out of apparently the “random” action of the heroes. Fronts would likely be more direct, instead of weird and inspired, on that quick a time table.

7. What was your most impactful RPG session?
There are a number of them; for me as a GM, it was probably the feedback to the first session I ran for group of players I met in college. (Mike, Pat, and Rob.) For our rotating GMs D&D game, I’d created a bog-standard D&D adventure hook. As players, they gamely accepted it, and we had a pretty straight-forward adventure. It was also obvious that they were going on the adventure because it’s what was on offer–but that it didn’t fit their characters’ motivations half as well as the quests and experiences to date. That was a lightbulb moment… what, you have to think about the characters and WHY they’d risk life and limb?

An excellent teaching moment, particularly as they didn’t shut down the game to shit on my failure to engage their characters.

RPGaDay 2017, Questions 1-4

4. Which RPG have you played the most since August 2016?
I don’t track accurately, but… I think it’s the five or six sessions of Diaspora that I’ve run, despite scheduling difficulties. Actually, strike that—I’ve been running Hoard of the Dragon Queen weekly for the last couple of months for encounters—that must have leapt to first place, particularly when you add in other “pressed into service” sessions. Mouseguard was the game that I got to play a PC in the most over last year. Last August I was finishing up a great Dogs in the Vineyard game.

3. Where do you find out about new RPGs?
Kickstarter’s “a friend of yours backed” is surprisingly influential—it’s often enough to get me to glance at something. Similarly, the kickstarter newsletter is persuasive. Beyond that, it’s people in the game store talking about things that excite them, or my rare forays onto G+.

2. What is an RPG you would like to see published?
I’m not following much in development, and am not getting many games to the table right now. My backlog of want to play/run is getting pretty extensive…

1. What published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?
Fall of Magic was right up my alley; I’d love to get in another few sessions. Similarly, Masks and Epyllion were both great games as one shots, with a clear vision of what additional goodness would come from deeper play.

#RPGaday #RPGaDay2017

The Soft Room by Karen Heuler

This is the story of twin sisters, Meg and Abby. The relationship between the two feels authentic–the struggle between siblings, the definition of themselves in one another.

Abby is the eldest twin, a natural leader who’s often upstaged by her sister. Meg steals the attention because of a lack–she doesn’t feel pain.

The story gets going in suburbia, with Abby and Meg running around the neighborhood and nearby undeveloped lot with friends. Abby’s more cautious than most, having to keep an eye out for Meg’s wounds–after all, without feeling them, she could be grievously injured and not notice it. Meg’s bold–without pain, she can steamroll ahead directly and take risks others blanch at.

The characters are more than the keeper/immune to pain descriptor–I really enjoyed the story from both points of view. The divergence in personality and its roots make sense.

The break, where the book enters Part II, feels like a huge break, even though it only skips ahead a year or two.

In the end, I loved the characters and the development. The titled “soft room” only emerges in the final dozen or so pages, but really underscores the transformation that Meg undergoes.

The Inner City by Karen Heuler

It’s a collection of interesting, slightly surreal stories, often with great twists. The stories tend toward the dark–the weirdness is more magical realism than urban fantasy.

I enjoyed it, but the stories didn’t make a deep impression. Part of that was probably a defensive crouch, worried about the dark turn the story was going to take.