Thursday, December 2, 2010

Creative Prompt Me This, Batman!

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Actually, this post has nothing to do with Batman and everything to do with awesome.

Comment me (or, you know, if you're Nathan, you'll probably up and drabble all over me) with something inspired by the article, either it's actual subject or some of the weird stuff said by the clearly elated scientists.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NaNoWriMo//oMirWoNaN

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And you thought I was done with obscure titles...

In case you couldn't guess, the theme for today is reflecting on National Novel Writing Month. As I off-handedly predicted some time ago, I didn't win. The Fool's Errand came in at 18,307 words. Distant and no cigar. I mean, in theory, I could have pulled an all-nighter last night (and an all-dayer, followed by an until-midnighter) and maybe managed it, but it wouldn't have been any fun and it wouldn't have been fair to my kids, colleagues, or principal (the Abigail would probably have been ok with it). However, as always, I come away with some important lessons.

Most strikingly, I have realized that I can't write a novel that I don't believe in. Weird, huh? I wonder if there's anyone else in the world suffering from this bizarre disability.

Facetiousness aside, I have also realized, in light of the last three years of NaNo, that the best way to tell if I really believe in a novel is whether or not I have passed through five or six versions, dicked around with several kinds of notes and setting bibles, and switched beginnings and point of view schemes several times. In 2008, I didn't finish Ghostly Tam Lin, because I didn't really believe in it and it was a brand new project. In 2009, I finished What Sacred Games One: Heaven and Earth, which was the newest version of an idea I'd been kicking around for about five years and for which I had exhaustive mental notes and an abortive first draft. And now, in 2010, I didn't finish The Fool's Errand, another brand new project which I think is neat but - in retrospect - don't really believe in either (though, as the Abigail pointed out, I definitely had more faith in The Fool's Errand than I ever did in Ghostly Tam Lin). Stepping outside of NaNo, I was finally able to finish Knights of the Land under similar circumstances.

I hear you asking yourself: "So, what's the big deal? Mark is good at finishing stuff that he's dicked around with for years? But seriously, who isn't? I mean, finishing stuff is admirable, but how is that really useful?" Clearly I have magic powers, since I can read your thoughts in such detail.

What's useful about this realization is the secondary realization: I am much less of a discovery writer than I thought I was. Discovery writers make it up as they go along. That's how I write... the first time. The second time I attack a project, however, I'm building off the ruins of the first attempt. And the third time, I'm building off the ruins of the second. Periodically I break the structure down and build something only vaguely similar out of the same bricks, and then build on the new structure with subsequent iterations. And so on, until completion.

Essentially (and this is the Cliff's Notes version), I am using drafts as outlines. Which means that I'm more of an outliner than I thought I was. More importantly, this means that maybe if I try actually writing an outline with my ideas, rather than a series of abortive drafts, I could shave many drafts - and possibly many years - off my creative process.

Of course, I still need a way to figure out which ideas I am sufficiently passionate about to make them worth my while... but I'll tackle this one problem at a time.

So, I don't win a NaNo crown this year. Instead, I take home the good start to a novel that I might finish some day and some hard earned lessons. While victory would have been nice, I can't really ask for more.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Show Me...

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Weapons-grade nonsense.

This phrase just popped into my head last night, and I'm curious to hear what you make of it.

Go.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Zeppelin at Avadon Hill

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Another not-a-NaNoWriMo-post. Isn't this fun? It has nothing to do with the fact that I'm probably not going to in NaNo this year... nothing at all.

After Mur Lafferty's interview with P.G. Holyfield, I decided that I should finally suck it up and check out Murder at Avedon Hill. The news that Murder at Avadon Hill was published as a real live book (much like Shadowmagic, which I reviewed last time I posted) I just finished listening to the podcast version of the novel, and my final impression is of a deeply fascinating, deeply flawed book, one that I am very glad I got the chance to experience and you should definitely consider checking out.

First of all, the basics. Murder at Avedon Hill takes place in the world of Caern, a fantasy world distinguished by one of its pantheon's unique habits. The world's gods - the Children of Az, a paternal creator-deity - are periodically born into mortal bodies, to live out mortal lives and die mortal deaths. This is pretty much the Children of Az's only way of influencing events in Caern, as Az has (say that ten times fast) forbidden them from visiting the world in person, ever since the after-effects of divine tourism turned the walls between the worlds into swiss cheese and nearly destroyed Caern. Most of the world's supernatural stuff can be traced back to either something that crept into the world through one of these holes or the after-effects of a Child of Az's life as a mortal.

Against this backdrop, we have Avedon Hill, a small town that survives by guarding  pass between two of Caern's major nations: Yew and Grozh (Dragon snot? Yew, Grozh!). We also have Gretta Platt, Lord Avedon's beautiful house-mistress (that's a secretary and bookkeeper, you filthy-minded weirdo). Unfortunately for Gretta (and everyone else), Gretta is killed in the prologue and her body nearly drained of blood, throwing Avedon Hill into all kinds of chaos.

Into this Cuisinart of greed, lust, and deception walk Arames Kragen, a martial-arts-wielding psychic advisor, and his valet, Arrin, who is actually a prince of the nation of Yew. All Arames and Arrin want is to use the pass that Avedon Hill guards to continue into Grozh for a conference, but what they get is a murder mystery.

In tone, Murder at Avedon Hill resembles the medieval monk mysteries of Ellis Peters and the like, with the addition of familiar fantasy elements like elves, dwarves, magic-wielding priests, shapechangers, glowing rocks, and magic potions made of moths (your guess is as good as mine).

I really enjoyed Murder at Avedon Hill  - and I'll get to the good stuff soon - but I think it's flaws bear closer scrutiny. Murder at Avedon Hill is based on notes from P.G. Holyfield's attempt to create a module for BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, an interactive D&D-based game that was, for its time, incredibly versatile. Murder at Avedon Hill's characters have all weathered the transition from D&D clone to novel fairly well, but I don't think the same can be said for the world of Caern. As I've said before, translating roleplaying into writing isn't always easy.

My problem with Caern is, ultimately, that the world has a lot of unnecessary nods to the D&D basics. There are dwarves and elves and monks and magic and even half-orcs, and it all behaves more or less as you'd expect it to. There are no surprises in the setting, just things that Holyfield doesn't bother to tell you upfront. Worse, many of these things don't really matter to the story. Elves and dwarves exist - and we hear all about them - but we don't actually get to meet any (well, one character is a half-dwarf, but it doesn't end up mattering to the story). The story's half-orc could just as easily have been a big, bluff dude known for a short temper. The setting's one truly unique and fascinating setting element - the gods and the aftereffects of their lives as mortals - gets buried in a wave of business-as-usual fantasy.

The writing itself has a few notable flaws as well. Perhaps its a side-effect of the story's past in D&D and video games - and perhaps it's not - but Holyfield's lovingly detailed blow-by-blow narrations of the story's combats are a little too much for me. I love a good battle, but I don't need fight scenes that stretch on for entire chapters. The mystery itself is also a little bit clumsy. I enjoy mysteries that come down to human motivations, and I get frustrated by mysteries that fall back on madness and irrationality. Unfortunately, Murder at Avedon Hill proves to be the latter. There were also a few awkward and frequently repeated constructions - "he shook his head from side to side," for example (as if anyone ever shook their head up and down as opposed to simply "nodding") - but I'm sure Holyfield or his editor caught those before the creation of the print edition.

Finally, Holyfield doesn't write the mystery as tightly as he should. Mysteries are hard to write because they must written so tightly. Magic, on the other hand, is usually quite sloppy. Unless you're Brandon Sanderson, magic can easily become an excuse for stuff to happen, and stuff just happening is the antithesis of a tightly written mystery. Alas, I don't feel that Holyfield rises to the challenge of mixing magic and mystery in Murder at Avedon Hill. The final solution of the mystery depends upon unique and unforeshadowed magical phenomenon, making the final explication a bit of a cheat.

But I did say that I ultimately enjoyed the novel, didn't I? Enough of the negative, let's get positive!

First of all, as I mentioned above, I really enjoyed the Children of Az and their earthly (Caernly?) day-tripping. I like the themes of ordinary humans (and dwarves and elves and half-orcs, I guess...) struggling against vast, uncaring, and disruptive powers. Although it wasn't as strong a theme as I would have liked, I enjoyed that a great deal of Caern's supernatural stuff came from the Children and their misadventures. Also in the world of setting, I enjoyed the well-done and realistic blending of religion and politics in Holyfield's portrayal of Caern's various organizations and how they have dealt with the legacy of the Children of Az.

More importantly, I enjoyed Holyfield's characters and their relationships. Murder at Avedon Hill hits a few personal high notes of mine: complex love triangles, smug mentors and eager students, complex antiheroes, and characters who want something done or a secret revealed but can't bring themselves to do it themselves thanks to their prior commitments and are forced to manipulate others to do it for them.I found the love triangle particularly fascinating, for all that it was merely a footnote in the larger story. The relationship between Arames (smug mentor) and Arrin was much more central and equally enjoyable.

In closing, I think that Murder at Avedon Hill is something you should check out for all its flaws. I also recommend considering checking out the print edition - I know I am. I'm curious to see which of the traits I believed to be flaws Holyfield and his editors chose to change and which they chose to leave alone.

Until next time, remember: the tunnels beneath your city are always more extensive than you think they are, monk!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Shadowzeppelin

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Yeah, I know I said a NaNoWriMo update was coming next. I lied.

Back when I was first getting into podcasts, the Abigail recommended I check out Shadowmagic by John Lenahan, a magician and comedian as well as a novelist. The podcast, by the way, is still available here and here. Lenahan's website describes Shadowmagic as "a rip roaring fun fantasy adventure," but really the book is much more. It's a story of facing the wonder and peril of magic, which is really the magic and peril of adulthood. Shadowmagic is a coming of age novel set against a backdrop of misunderstood prophecies, immortal feuds and dudes getting their hands hacked off.

Really, what's not to love?

Anyway, I am delighted to let you know that John Lenahan has grasped the golden ring of real life publication. Shadowmagic is now available in print! You can buy it at John Lenahan's website. And because John Lenahan is awesome, he has made certain that the ebook editions of Shadowmagic are actually cheaper than the real-life versions (a revolutionary idea, I know). The kindle version is only about $3, and a variety of ebook platforms from outside the U.S. are supported, off a link from Lenahan's website.

I really cannot recommend Shadowmagic enough. We are talking about top-notch plotting, pacing, character development, and world building here. Lenahan has a firm grasp of how to weave character defining events and choices together with the story's fantastic elements. Those fantastic elements are also incredibly well-chosen. Lenahan's Tir na Nog is lush and evocative, but there's no fat to cut. Every detail is relevant - necessary, even - and feeds back into those same character defining events and choices that make the book so compelling.

But wait, there's one last thing you should know! Although I don't want to take any (paying) business away from Lenahan, I also recommend his podcast readings. Lenahan is an excellent reader for his work and is part of why I enjoyed his books so much.

Well, what are you waiting for? Go buy Shadowmagic!

We'll be back next week with some reflections on NaNo. Promise. Honest.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sanderson, In Person

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The Abigail and I just got back from a Brandon Sanderson signing at Borderlands Books. The occasion? The release of The Way of Kings, the first book in Sanderson's new Stormlight Archive series. And boy. Are my legs. Tired.

Actually, that's from our epic quest for Dynamo Donuts. We must have walked for almost an hour. But I digress.

Anyway, I was struck by several things about Brandon Sanderson. Firstly, he's awesome, extremely intelligent, and filled to the brim with geek-charisma and artistic integrity. I know I am verging on dangerous levels of fanboyism here, but I really do think that he and I would be friends, if the circumstances of our lives made that even remotely possible. Secondly, he is a great speaker, and did a good job entertaining his audience (especially once the lemonade showed up - Borderlands in-joke). Finally, Sanderson is a really good writer.

I know it's odd for me to say this after hearing Sanderson speak, as opposed to after, say, reading his books. Sanderson, however, is a rare find, a writer who can talk about his process without sounding pompous, incomprehensible, or both (I'm one of the last, I'm afraid).

Sanderson turns out to be somewhere between a discovery writer and an outliner. For the uninitiated, discovery writers (like myself) are those who prefer to begin with some characters, a premise, and see where things go. Outliners, on the other hand, like to know where they're going before they set out, something they accomplish with (you guessed it) outlines. Also for the uninitiated, discovery writers and outliners are sometimes quite argumentative, as though there were a "right" way to write.

Also for the uninitiated: go. The secrets of Hatanku are not for you. Come back when the elders have judged you a woman grown, and not before.

Anyway, Sanderson says that what he likes to do is start with a rough outline and character notes, but keep an open mind about how his understanding of the story might change. Sanderson's approach really drove home for me that there are very few "pure" discovery writers or outliners. Most of us are somewhere along a continuum, outlining and note writing a little, letting creativity take us here it will a lot (or vice versa).

I was also (possibly most) impressed by Sanderson's dedication to research and verisimilitude in character. The Abigail says that she read somewhere that Sanderson is a Mormon (oh, look, there's confirmation), but when he writes atheists (as he did in Mistborn), he does extensive research about atheist point of views, up to and including spending time on atheist message boards. He goes on similar question quests when writing anyone whose point of view differs significantly from his own. You've got to respect someone who goes to that much trouble to make sure his characters have valid points of view. Love or hate Sanderson's characterizations, there are no straw men in his worlds.

But most of all, I liked Sanderson's style. He's clearly smart, creative, and likes engaging with his fans. I will definitely keep an eye out for more opportunities to meet him in person.

Hopefully by then I'll have finished Sanderson's new book, the one the Abigail and I bought at Borderlands. I mean, seriously, have you seen this thing? Hatanku's hoary hemipenes, it's a doorstop!

Tune in next time for reflections on NaNoWriMo and 100% less hemipenes.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

One Shot Kill II: The Collective

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I don't think I've spent a lot of time bitching about how little I get to play. If I did, this blog wouldn't be "a fantasist's blog," it'd be "a fantasist's unending stream of bile." And nobody wants to read that. However, suffice it to say that I don't get to play much and it does bug me.

I've decided to do something about it.

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area and within the sound of my blog, come check out my newest project, the One Shot Collective. The goal is to create a community of grown-up roleplayers who contribute time and resources to helping each other get their game on, in the form of monthly (specifically the first Sunday of every month) one shots.

I'm open to the possibility of a longer term campaign emerging out of this, but... let's just say I'm not holding my breath.

Come play.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lady Burn

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Ah... the Creative Prompt Post. It's the new Lame-Ass Link Post. Fun to make and quick to write. The only reason I'm still able to post on school days, even now that it is autumn. Oh, how I love thee.

Today's post is inspired by this and this (these entries are clean, but the blog is not always safe for work - be forewarned), posts deconstructing the trope of the  iconic super hero costume by re-imagining Dazzler as a Lady Gaga-esque woman of many daring costumes.

And, you know, super powers.

Riff off that, my faithful reader(s). Comment with your tales of super heroes who wear many odd costumes and not just the one.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Gutters & Goblins, Zeppelins & Zombies

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I don't know where this is coming from, but I've been thinking about how some fantasy settings - especially D&D clones and subsettings - like to orbit some central monster. The most famous such game is Tunnels & Trolls, in which, at least at the time that I played it, trolls really were the big, scary monster. There's also Ravenloft, which is sometimes described as "D&D with vampires."

So, amuse me. Take a fantasy setting, wrap it around a less common monster, and tell me what you get. I'm looking for something that, like Ravenloft, is thematically coherent. That means no fair just saying "it's like bog-standard D&D fantasy except everyone's really scared of owlbears." You've got to write about why the thing you pick is important and the consequences of that choice.

Alliterating titles are purely optional.

Go.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Burning Down Town

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Upon receiving a kindle (review post to come) as a wedding present (thanks Uncle Steve!), I immediately began downloading every free things I could get my cheap-ass paws on (Mrs. The Abigail, on the other hand, has proven more inclined to use her kindle to download a huge number of free first chapters). This (of course) led me to the work of the illustrious (and prolific) Cory Doctorow.

(I like parentheses - don't you?)

Anyway, I've been wanting to read Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town for a long time, but I am cursed with two conflicting traits: poverty and an inability to read extendedly off computer screens without causing tiny, but surprisingly heavy, gnomes slam-dancing drunkenly in my temples. A pdf version of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town has languished unread on my hard drive for about two years. But no more! With the kindle, both my poverty and my inability to read pdfs extendedly have been conquered, and the experience of reading Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is mine at last!

Honestly, it was kind of an anti-climax.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town isn't a bad book. It begins well enough, with classically Doctorowian descriptions of mesh networks and house renovation that left me feeling like the book had made me smarter already, an entirely pleasant experience. The main character, A - he answers to any male name beginning with that letter - is the son of a mountain and a washing machine. His brothers B, C, D, E, F, and G are, respectively, a precognitive, an island (he takes after their father), a murderous little shit, and a set of nesting humans. That last is about as gross as it sounds, but the characters themselves are kind of endearing. As A struggles to integrate himself in normalcy, start writing his story, help a neighborhood punk named Kurt blanket the neighborhood in free wireless, and get to know his neighbors - including an attractively plump girl called Mimi who has wings and her sadistic boyfriend - the novel's themes emerge. We have the healing and life-enhancing power of community versus the modern trend towards stagnation and the appealing idea that information technology can be a part of the solution. We have geeks and freaks - Alan and his family, Mimi and her wings - struggling to be a part of everybody else's world. We have a post-cyberpunk universe in which middle aged computer dudes are struggling to maintain relevancy and realize the punkish dreams of their youth and big business is less a looming villain and more just another bunch of people trying to do their best to get by and make things better. It's a promising start.

The only critique I will level at the main body of the book is that A's strangeness is a bit content-free. His family includes a washing machine and her husband the mountain, a man who can see the future, an immortal zombie sociopath, an island, and three guys who live one inside the other, he was raised by golems and talks  his father by spelunking. As for A himself... he grows back lost body parts like a lizard and is a bit of a nerd. Nearer to the end, when another character tells A that he's the weirdest person she's ever met and she'd rather take her chances with her teenager-seducing girlfriend beating room-mate, it falls a bit flat. She's never even seen him regenerate lost bits.

Things fall apart near the end, however [SPOILER ALERT], when A's confrontation with his murderous brother comes to a head. The plot's coherency begins to disintegrate under pressure, with scenes that seem oddly out of place and some strange pacing decisions. Doctorow starts experimenting with interesting (or at least unobjectionable) narrative techniques, such as a neat little poetic repetitions/parentheses thing and metafictional tangents that parallel real life. These ideas would be great... except that they're entirely out of place and dangerously jarring in a novel that up till then has followed a pretty basic plot/flashback counterplot structure.

The ending is the biggest betrayal of the beginning's promise. I don't know which pit of Doctorow's soul still holds the geek self-hatred we all grapple with, but the damned thing crawls up and poops all over the final chapter. The book closes with A fleeing alongside his winged girlfriend, leaving his two remaining brothers to kill each other, leaving his house and all his possessions in flames, and leaving his friend Kurt to continue their free wireless project, alone. The last scene is A and Mimi living in pseudo-marital bliss on A's brother the island, recreating the isolation of A's youth. Even more than the closing chapters' general incoherence, this conclusion was extremely disappointing. It's no use trying to live in the real world if you're a weirdo, kids. The best you can do is try, suffer, screw up, and eventually flee back to your crazy family, abandoning your projects and friends. If you're lucky, you'll bring your cute winged girlfriend home with you.

It's better than Joss Whedon, who keeps his self-hatred on a leash and regularly lets it poop on entire seasons of his television shows, but it's still really frustrating.

This is not to say that Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town isn't worth reading. I enjoyed the journey a great deal, even if the destination was a bit of a downer. I was particularly fascinated by Mimi's relationship with her former boyriend, an abusive whack-job named Krishnah. In order to maintain her life as a run-of-the-mill club-goer, she regularly lets him cut off her endlessly-growing, endlessly-regenerating wings. The parallel to extraordinary people who let themselves be trapped in relationships with the ordinary and spiteful, who continually push them back and tie them down, make them safe and "normal," and abuse them whenever their true selves break through, is heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, the book isn't really about Mimi and Krishnah, or Alan and his family, or free wireless meshworks. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town isn't really about any coherent thing. For all the beautiful novels it could have been, it remains merely the entertaining but mediocre novel that it actually is.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Burning Matrimony Experience

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As of this moment - this very instant 4:00 PM on August 15th - my wedding is starting. That's right, soon the Abigail will be Mrs. The Abigail (you can expect me to use this from time to time, like a dork). The Abigail and I are going to stand under the chuppah and promise to always play with each other, to always support each other in the things we do out in the world, and to never imagine that we know each other fully, so that we are always open to each others' endless mystery.

Heavy stuff, I know.

We've been living together for a long time (five years!) and dating for about a year longer than that. In a sense, nothing is going to change. Life will go on, much the same, only with prettier rings.

And also, everything is going to change.

The biggest thing is, I just can't believe my luck. I get to marry a hot gamer chick! Me! And she'll sleep in my bed every night and let me run her Exalted (among other things).

Today is the day. Now is the moment. Wish me luck.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Burning Creation Experience

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As the zeppelin takes a gentle left, you will see that we are now flying over Creation. Never a particularly stable place, Creation has recently taken a turn for the worse. As you can see, the East is burning, the North is practically lifeless, the Southern deserts have been replaced by fields of ash, and the Western Islands have been rearranged into a geometrically pleasing configuration. That, I think, is really the best touch. In the center we have the once-Blessed Isle, now surmounted by a cloud of nigh-impenetrable darkness. Try not to look too closely - we get complaints.

The newest Exalted supplement, Return of the Scarlet Empress, details the rise of Creation's demon empress and the fall of everyone else. In it, White Wolf's Exalted line continues to surprise me - first they made me like location books, and now they have convinced me to buy and like a bundle of adventure paths. What's next?

Ok, first a quick summary. If you know anything about Exalted, you know that the core of the setting begins with the disappearance of the Scarlet Empress. Big Red has been holding the fractious Realm of the Dragon-Blooded together with cunning, brutality, and singular dedication ever since the fall of the last Dragon-Blooded empire, the Shogunate. The Dragon-Blooded of the Shogunate - also known as Terrestrial Exalted - were the ones to overthrow their rightful masters, the Solar and Lunar Exalted, at the urging of their secretive viziers, the Sidereal Exalted. The Exalted are humans elevated to demigod status by the gods so that they could, at the dawn of time, help the gods overthrow their makers, the Primordials. Some Primordials died in the fighting, and their slowly dissolving ghosts have created the Underworld, the powerful ghostly monarchs called the Deathlords, and their servants, corrupted Exalts called the Abyssal Exalted. Other Primordials surrendered, becoming the twisted and vicious Yozis, and have since snagged their own servants, also corrupted exalts, called the Infernal Exalted.

Next time, on backwards histories: Japan surrendered on August 14th, 1945...

Anyway, it has been long-suggested that the reason the Scarlet Empress disappeared is that she finally reached too far in her quest for power and got herself kidnapped by the Ebon Dragon, one of the more unpleasant Yozis. Return of the Scarlet Empress takes that implication and runs with it, providing plot possibilities for the eventuality of the Empress's return. Her goal: to turn Creation into hell so that her masters can escape back into the world. To this end, she really tears shit up.

The book itself is divided into seven chapters detailing the progress of the Reclamation (of Creation, by the Yozis) in the Blessed Isle, each of the four outer regions of Creation, and other realms of existence (heaven, hell, the underworld, etc.), and a final chapter that details the final showdown between the Ebon Dragon and the forces of good, assuming that the players haven't thwarted his plans long ago.

In general, the supplement is very good, though somewhat uneven. Chapter One: The Cursed Isle, for example, is extremely well-done. The writer takes a very high-level approach, explaining in broad strokes how the Ebon Dragon's plans are likely to proceed given the most probable eventualities. For details, like Storyteller character game statistics and details about how various military and political organizations function, the book references other Exalted supplements and leaves it at that. The end result feels like an essay on the destruction of the Realm, which a knowledgeable Storyteller could easily detail where necessary to create a compelling chronicle. The second chapter, which details the same process in the Eastern sector of Creation, is similarly written.

Unfortunately, the chapters on the North and South aren't quite as good. Both of these chapters read more like minutely detailed adventure paths. Creative players and character-driven Storytellers will quickly go "off the map" or simply find the plot ideas inapplicable. This doesn't mean that the chapters are useless, but the useful ideas are buried in paragraphs of much chancier stuff.

Let me give you a practical example. In the chapter on the Blessed Isle, we are given a section about the final stages of the Reclamation, in which the Empress corrupts the Sword of Creation (enormous feng-shui powered cannon) so that her infernal masters can use it. This section gives a variety of options for character involvement, explaining how any kind of character might get involved, and then gives us several options for the speed at which the corruption proceeds. On the other hand, we have a section in the chapter on the South entitled "The Akuma Who Loved Me" (I don't know why, but many of the section headings are riffs off the titles of spy and heist movies) which introduces the character of Raia, a hopelessly enslaved Terrestrial Exalt who seduces one of the characters and uses the connection to manipulate the player's characters.

The former is a broad treatment of a series of events that anyone could get involved in, but the individual characters' hooks are up to the Storyteller. The latter is a narrow plot thread that only applies to characters whose players who are willing to roleplay romantic (or at least sexual) situations, are willing to fall for Raia's story and aren't already exclusively romantically involved, and for whom a romance with a secret villain would be an interesting challenge. I can tell you right off the bat that for the various Exalted characters I've played, this storyline would only be interesting - maybe interesting - for one of them.

The final chapters, however, pick up the pace and become much more interesting. Chapter Six: Other Realms of Existence provides a wide variety of plot ideas for characters who are primarily involved in one of Creation's other settings: Heaven, Hell, the Underworld, or the outer chaos of the Wyld. Some of these suggestions are merely interesting (I can take or leave the Empress as the 14th Deathlord) while others are brilliant (go on, tell me that the section on the Righteous Dead didn't send shivers up your spine). Chapter seven makes an excellent capstone on the book and lives up to its title: Endgame. I don't want to spoil this chapter for you, so that's all I'm going to say.

All in all, I would recommend the purchase, with the caveat that it doesn't do your chronicle-building work for you. The relevant sections for your chronicle are going to be either well-writtenly vague or overly specific, and you're going to have to do a lot of the statting, writing, and narrative shuffling yourself. What the book does do a good job of is providing interesting ideas for where to go and what to do, as well as a realistic treatment of how a divided and chaotic Creation would fare against the relatively organized might of Hell.

Finally, I'm going to add that I would love to see similar books for Creation's other Enemies. Return of the Scarlet Empress is good, but I'd also buy Rise of the Deathlords (for the forces of death) and The Second Crusade (for the forces of chaos).

And if any White Wolf dudes are reading this... I work cheap.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Menace Mechanic Madness

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It's been a while since I've created a straight-up roleplaying post, hasn't it? Well, here's a thought I had today at the gym that I think some of you might find useful.

In pretty much every game, the developers find it useful to present your character with a trait that goes up or down to reflect how much and what kind of shit your character is in. Whether it's Hit Points, Health, Sanity, or Humanity (which go down) or Stress Tracks, Damage, or Banality (which go up), the idea is to create a sense of tension by making real, on the character sheet, the fact that BAD THINGS ARE HAPPENING TO YOU.

I even once played a game that used marbles.

This is in all ways laudable. I don't know about you, but the act of erasing or filling in a dot or a box or a number on my character sheet does in fact drive home that things are changing. Watching that number rise or fall, those boxes or dots show up or go away, can be very tense.

I'm going to call this idea a Menace Mechanic. That is, it's a mechanic for tracking threats to your character's continued health, sanity, or existence: menaces.

The only problem is that most menace mechanics don't provide a lot of room for customization. The game decides what menaces to measure, whether it's how close your character is to dying, how long it will be before he betrays his people to the crude sun-worshipers overrunning the land, or how close she is to forgetting her beautiful secret faerie nature. There's rarely any room for you to formally determine exactly where the fault-lines in your character's personality are. The Abigail and I often find ourselves discussing her characters' weaknesses, where and how they could go bad, and then leaving it at that. I get to incorporate these personality problems into the story, but I rarely get any mechanical support (unless, of course, I find a way to incorporate the character's issues into an existing menace mechanic).

Now, this isn't always a problem. I'm not the kind of designer who thinks that you always need to write a system for every thing that's going to happen in your game. That said, if you don't write a system for it it's not definitely going to happen, and sometimes that's sad.

So, what follows is a customizable Menace Mechanic that can probably be adapted to any system that tracks mental and spiritual menaces.

* * *

The first thing you need to do is give your character's Menace a name that sums up what it is, what it means, and why it's bad. Some ideas that spring to mind: Anger Management Issues, Cold-Hearted, Desire to Give Up Human Foibles and Become a Robot Chick (actually ran a game for one of those once).

Then you need to pick a number of intermediary steps - we'll call them Milestones - that lie between a theoretical ideal state (I embrace my human flaws and love my meaty flesh!) and some kind of theoretical fallen state (Love is illogical). The number of steps probably varies based on the kind of game you're already playing and how you want the Custom Menace system to fit in with everything else. If you're using Custom Menace in place of Humanity or Morality, for example, you probably want to identify ten states (Menace 1 through 10). In other systems you might be happier with five, or even three.

Two probably won't work, though.

You should also figure out if Menace is going to rise or fall. Again, you should probably make this compatible with the rest of the game. If Menace is replacing or coexisting with White Wolf's Morality, for example, you probably want Menace 10 to be good and Menace 0 to be bad.

For each Menace Milestone, you need to pick one or two acts that could constitute a breaking point. In other words, something the character could do that might cause them to slip further down that slope towards robot-hood (or whatever). If a character performs an act that would be unacceptable for her current level of Menace, some kind of dice roll is in order to see if the character loses (or gains) Menace. The exact kind of dice roll is, again, a choice you need to make based on the rules of the game you're adding this system to.

So, for example:

Menace: Become a Robot-Chick.
  • 10: Make any decision based on logic rather than emotion, sacrifice a relationship for any reason.
  • 9: Damage a relationship for any reason, pass up an opportunity for physical gratification
  • 8: Add or implant technological devices to your body
  • 7: Damage a relationship because it is logically expedient
  • 6: Sacrifice a relationship because it is logically expedient
  • 5: Harm another human being because it is logically expedient, replace a damaged body part with a technological prosthesis
  • 4: Sacrifice (end) a relationship because it is logically expedient, break your sworn word because it is logically expedient
  • 3: Betray a close friendship because it is logically expedient, replace a perfectly good body part with a technological prosthesis
  • 2: Alter your body with technology in such a way that you can no longer enjoy a common form of physical gratification
  • 1: Sacrifice your essential humanity for robot-hood

This example is for a character that the Abigail played in White Wolf's Exalted. In keeping with the general themes of the system, I have chosen to have this Menace run from 10 to 1.

* * *

I'm unlikely to ever get to actually use this system, since the Abigail gets grumpy when I add system to games (she prefers to subtract system from game), but I'm curious to hear what you may think of it, and what you may some day make of it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Burning Update Experience: Solid Suck

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So, it turns out that I won't be attending the podcaster pub night. The Abigail and I double-scheduled the evening with celebrating her last client. If you were looking forward to seeing me, I'm sorry to disappoint, but probably I'm the most disappointed of the lot.

Anyway, it'll happen again. Next time, hopefully.

Comic Depression

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For the longest time - about as long as I can remember being aware of the art form - I have wanted to be a part of the team that writes a webcomic. The first reason is pure arrogance: I often want to do things right that I see done wrong. Actually, this can get really frustrating when I experience something that has maybe, the smallest seed of quality and I find myself obsessing over how I'd do it, and how I'd make it good. A lot of webcomics... well, they're clearly written by artists who think they can write, rather than writers who think they can draw (the latter, when I have to choose between the two, is the one that I prefer).

The second reason is that I love dialog, I love character development, and I love plots. While I have a good visual imagination and like deciding on the appearances of things, it isn't my favorite thing to do. Frankly, I get stressed out trying to figure out how often to reincorporate so-and-so's appearance, such-and-such's smell, the fact that what's-her-bucket has a pet weasel-hawk.

So basically, writing a webcomic means that I get to do just all the fun stuff and none of the less fun stuff? And also it's serialized, long-running, and full of potential? What's not to love? You'll notice that I don't want to get a job in the comics industry, and that' because I do like writing descriptions. I'd feel incomplete if all I did was plot character arcs and write dialog. But, as a project, as something to do (along with everything else I do) it'd be... glorious.

Despite my rather arrogant and cynical description of the webcomicist's art above, I do read a number of truly wonderful webcomics:

  • Collar6: It's ridiculous, it's absurdly kinky, and the setting seems like an absurd mix of a modern version of Exalted and a bondage fantasy... but I like it. Take from that what you may.
  • Digger: The comic's own tagline says it best: "a wombat, a dead god, a most peculiar epic." I remember wanting to read this one back when it was on a pay site, and how happy I was when it finally went free.
  • Drowtales: I've been meaning to write a longer ode to this comic, which actually has done a great deal to cure my elf rage. Seriously.
  • Girl Genius: Does anyone not read Girl Genius? Really?
  • Keychain of Creation: Like ORder of the Stick, but younger and for Exalted.
  • MythAdventures: The team behind Girl Genius, bringing Robert Aspirin's creation to the screen. Top quality stuff.
  • Order of the Stick: Rich Burlew's gently mocking presentation of a D&D-themed fantasy world is practically required reading for fantasy gamers everywhere. This story manages to oscillate perfectly between humor and drama, with real characters, really developing, in a hillarious and absurd world.

Unfortunately, I have never made the acquaintance of my opposite number - an artist with lots of time on his or her hands, eager to bring my mindchilds to life.

But some day. Someday...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Burning Update Experience: Clearing Out the Bullpen

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My browser has a folder labeled "BZE Bullpen." This is where I keep all the links I want to eventually pass on to you. Well, the BZE Bullpen is too damned full, and it's time to pass those links that can be passed on without lengthy comment (that is, an entire post), all at once, so I can finally be free of them.

Here goes nothing.

* * *

Check out this horrifying new bastardization of our art: personalized teen books. Actually, I'm probably being unfair here. I had a book like that when I was younger, and I cherished it for years. I think my dad made it with the printer at home and had it bound somewhere. My imaginary friends were even in it!

I think I was seven at the time.

Enough said.

Oh, I guess if it gets kids reading it's all to the good. I guess.

* * *

Also in the world of vague outrage, if you want to buy anything from Peter S. Beagle do it from here. Apparently some kind of publishing SNAFU means that he isn't getting money from some of his work published through other channels. And besides, authors almost always make more money when they sell their stuff directly, and we all want Mr. Beagle to be rich, don't we?

* * *

In more awesome news, check out this (in no particular order): 

* * *

That just about does it. The BZE Bullpen is now a little slimmer, and everything that doesn't really demand a longer post is cleaned out. Enjoy the links.

And last but not least, I'll be going to the podcaster pub night this Thursday (August 5th) to meet Chris Lester, Abigail Hilton, J. Daniel Sawyer, and Kitty Nic'Iaian. Well, actually just Chris Lester and Abigail Hilton. I mean, I'm going to meat Sawyer and Nic'Iaian, but I've never read their works and don't know them from trolls. That'll probably change after the pub night.

Anyway, you should go, too, to also meet these wonderful people who make podcasts. Not to meet me, though. If anyone there has heard of little old blog-writing me - except Abigail Hilton, whose written a guest post here - I'll probably pass out from shock. The event details are here, on the Metamor City blog.

That's it for now. Burn on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Burning Guest Post Experience: Abbie Hilton and Persistent Worldbuilding

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It is my great pleasure to introduce Abbie Hilton, author of The Guild of the Cowry Catchers. Abbie does such a great job introducing herself, that I'm going to leave it at that, save for linkifying a few of her words.


Read on. Enjoy.


* * *


Hi! I'm Abbie Hilton from The Guild of the Cowry Catchers podcast, and Mark asked me to do a guest post for Burning Zeppelin. My current podcast is a dark, nautical fantasy about pirates and banned books and unusual interpersonal relationships. I try to do some interesting things with gender roles and sexuality as well as ship fights and blood in the scuppers. The books are set in a pre-industrial world called Panamindorah, populated with creatures called shelts, as well as some species of talking animal. Shelts are derivatives of fauns. They have the two legs and tail of some type of animal and look like humans from the waist up. In addition, they share certain traits with their animal counterparts. In some cases, shelts and their animals have diverged in their lifestyles and evolution, while in other cases they live in symbiotic (or parasitic) relationships. In some instances, a shelt or animal species is extinct, leaving the surviving half with no counterpart. The only human-looking creatures in Panamindorah are shape shifters whose true form is a dragon. They were so powerful and long-lived that they became a menace. In the distant past, the shelts and animals of Panamindorah rallied and killed nearly all of them. The few that remain keep a low profile. There is magic in Panamindorah, but it appears so rarely that the reader may forget it exists. 

I've podcast another, unrelated series set in this world called The Prophet of Panamindorah. I've got a third series, Walk Upon High, that I've not yet released.
 
Mark wanted me to talk about the phenomena of a persistent fantasy world in which an author continues to work through multiple stories over multiple years. I created Panamindorah when I was about 16 and I'm now 33, so it's been around for over half my life. It was my second created world. For each new series, I move to a different part of the world at a different point in time, and I've written a number of short stories in addition to the epics. I'm the sort of writer who doesn't know what happened until she writes it. Consequently, creating all these stories gives the world a sense of history and texture that it might lack if I'd only outlined the surrounding story-scape. I also like to use ideas from actual human history in my books, and since I haven't published anything, I'm able to go back into the stories and tweak minor details so that everything remains consistent. This is changing now that I've podcast them. I've yet to decide whether that's a good thing.

Writing in the same world does have disadvantages. I've grown over time, and my world has grown with me. Prophet had a more simplistic world view than Cowry Catchers because Prophet is the work of my adolescence and Cowry Catchers is the work of my adulthood. However, it's still the same world with connecting storylines and overlapping character timelines. Walk Upon High is the story that connects Cowry Catchers and Prophet. I need to re-write it, since its plot and that of Cowry Catchers are currently mutually exclusive.

These are tangles you run into when you keep writing in the same world, but for me the benefits are worth the trade-ff. I'm more interested in plot and character than in world-building. With Panamindorah, the hard part is done, and it has been test-driven for basic flaws of logic. If I want something a little alien, I can easily find a remote corner of the world or a distant point in time where everything feels new again. It's fun and interesting to imagine how the events in the stories might be passed down in the world itself - how they might be embellished into legends or myths or even deformed out of all recognition. Staying in the same world allows me to build that kind of scaffolding.

As much as I love Panamindorah, I did not make conscious plans to camp in it forever. If I find a story I can't tell there, I'll go tell it somewhere else. However, Panamindorah has a lot of elasticity. I'm sure I'll wander to other places, but I suspect I'll still be returning to this world and its stories decades from now. As fun as a new friend can be, there's no substitute for someone who's known you your whole life.


* * *


As I said when I first asked Abbie to do this guest post, I find the idea of writing in a persistent world a little alien. I'm the fantasy worldbuilding equivalent of Pa Ingalls, always driven to discover what new world lies beyond the next wrinkle of my gray matter. I hope Abbie's writing has helped you see a little of the other side.


And, in case I haven't said it enough, check out Abbie's stuff! Of all the many, many podcasts in my stable right now, The Guild of the Cowry Catchers is the one I look forward to most, and I listen to a lot of great podcasts, so that's saying a lot.


So, thanks again, Abbie Hilton. And the rest of you...


You know, I really need a sendoff that doesn't make me want to throw up. A topic for another day. Goodnight, folks.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

And In This Corner

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According to the New York Times, there are forces at work to make jousting the next extreme sport.

Jousting.

The world is a strange, strange place. I love it. Also, I desperately need to get myself to one of these jousting tournaments. It doesn't sounds like my scene - partly severed penises and all - but I've got to go, if only so I can say I've been.

Jousting. Wow.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Riki Tiki Byakhee

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I don't often write about the Drabblecast because... well... I have no reason. I just don't. Probably I should.

Today, I listened to Episode 170, Part One of Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear's Mongoose. And, woah. Woah woah woah woah woah.


Woah.


Let me break it down for you: in a grim and gritty space opera future, monsters with the common names of Lewis Carroll creatures  (and the scientific names of scientific garbledy-gook) will plague our space ships and space stations. Only with tamed monsters called Cheshires - for their ability to selective phase their bodies in and out of our universe to varying degrees - can heroic exterminators hunt these things down. You see, it starts with small ones, but then the bigger ones come to get them, and then come the biggest... It's Lovecraft meets Carroll (with a bit of Kipling thrown in for good measure) meets Star Trek, plus grit. It's beautiful.

I love it. It's got grit and fancy in equal measure, just like real life. I firmly believe that if we lived under the constant threat of being eaten by terrible creatures from beyond space and time, the first thing we'd do is make up silly nicknames for them. It's the human way.

If everything I've said isn't enough to get you to listen to the episode, consider this: I listened to it twice. In a row. Just 'cause. I can't wait for the second half.

Check it out.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In and Out of Whack

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It's not often that I abandon a book part way through. I am the sort of reader who develops a deep connection to characters and a need to know what comes next, and it takes a truly bad book-match to shake me off.

That's why I was surprised when The Wayfarer Redemption (by Australian author Sara Douglass) and I didn't work out. I'd been admiring the series for a long time before finally beginning the to read it; Sara Douglass really lucked out with some gorgeous cover art. The Wayfarer Redemption also came highly recommended by my father, an inveterate connoisseur of fantasy literature. To be fair, my dad did eventually note some of the series' flaws. He was able to finish the first trilogy, however, while I find myself fleeing without quite finishing the first book.

The Wayfarer Redemption is the first book of a trilogy, which is itself the first trilogy in a series of two trilogies. The series is plagued by some globetrotting weirdness. In Australia the first trilogy is called The Axis Trilogy and the first book is called BattleAxe, but in America the two trilogies are combined into a six-book series called The Wayfarer Redemption (actually the name of the second trilogy in the series), and BattleAxe loses its name.

Anyway.

The Wayfarer Redemption orbits a man named Axis, the BattleAxe (general) of an organization called the Axe-Wielders, the military arm of the Seneschal, the leadership organization of the Way of Axe and Plough, the dominant religion of a region called Achar (in one breath!). The Way of Axe and Plough follows the dictates of a god called Artor, who teaches that all forests are home to dark and unnatural creatures, called the Forbidden, and that the only good nature is subjugated nature. Forests must be cut into fields and the fields ploughed to produce grain, and the grain fed to humans, so they can produce more humans, who can cut down more forests, plough more fields, and plant more grain. Etcetera. Axis is the bastard son of Rivkah, the king's sister. As far as anyone knows, Rivkah died giving birth to Axis, which is part of why Axis's trueborn half brother Borneheld resents him. The other part of the reason is that Borneheld has a parallel post as the WarLord of the secular army.

Also coming into the story is Faraday, a beautiful young noblewoman, and a few other people, but those are details you don't need right now.

Anyway, this trio starts a tragic trajectory towards.... uh... doom. Axis and Faraday fall instantly in love, shortly after Faraday is betrothed to Borneheld. Axis discovers that he is a magic destiny baby and the Forbidden aren't so bad, Faraday discovers that she has to marry Borneheld to keep him off Axis's back. In some ways, it's a rather typical fantasy plot, but that doesn't bother me much.

What bothers me is the sense that the narrator's moral sense is totally out of sync with mine to the point that I don't feel I can trust her to do justice by the characters I've grown fond of. This story has a very involved narrator, clearly expressing an idea of who is right and who's wrong, who's justified and who's not. For example(s):

  • Borneheld is destined to die at Axis's hand, in a fight over Faraday, who only married him to keep him from venting his frustration on Axis, the younger half-brother whose birth killed their mother. Let me repeat this: Farady knows that she loves Axis and is only marrying Borneheld, and is lying to him about how satisfied she is with their marriage, in order to manipulate him. You know, if that was my life, I'd have frustration to vent, too.
  • Borneheld is considered culpable for his father's personality. Faraday is told by a magical being - basically a goddess - that Borneheld's line deserves to die with him, as far as I can tell, because his father was a jerk.
  • I have no problem with Rivkah cheating on her husband - it was an arranged and pretty dysfunctional relationship - but it bothers me that Rivkah's preoccupation with her second son at the expense of any real concern for her first son is treated as normal and laudable. It's certainly a realistic character choice for Rivkah to have more affection for the child born of love than the child born of circumstance, but this is not the trait of a good, loving individual. It's a flaw.
  • The big villain is the result of an ill-omened union between an Avar and an Icarii, the magical horned and winged people who the humans pushed out to make way for their own civilization. Despite the fact that they are aware of this possibility in prophecy, the Avar and the Icarii regularly hold Beltaine-style free love parties and expect the women to abort any children conceived this way. And it's the Acharites (humans) who are viewed as foolish and selfish.

Ultimately, The Wayfarer Redemption is an ecofantasy (something I really ought to write a post about some day), but not one that I can really appreciate. It's simply too morally flat. In Knights of the Land (see what I did there: the title changed) I focus on the difficulty of living in harmony with nature. The Knights are vilified for what they demand, and in the past they have alienated potential allies by demanding too much. In The Wayfarer Redemption, ordinary humans are the worst monsters of all, while the two races who do live in harmony can do no wrong.

That's not to say that there's nothing good about The Wayfarer Redemption. Axis's gradual realization that he's on the wrong side is well done, with the character's gradual slide out of one faith and into another portrayed realistically and interestingly. Farady has a similar arc. This particular storyline reminds me of some of the best parts of The Guild of the Cowry Catchers. Despite its moral flatness, the setting is interesting and detailed, with a great deal of history and possibility.

In the end, however, it's not a book I can finish. It's not personal, but I just don't trust Sara Douglass enough to continue to let her occupy any of my headspace. She's written a very involved narrator, one with clear ideas of right and wrong, and those ideas are so at odds with mine that I just can't continue. It's not that I don't like to see good people making bad choices and bad things happening to good people; that is the meat and bread of storytelling. It's just that I don't want to continue reading a story where the narrator's sense of right and wrong - of who's a victim, who's a hero, who's a villain, and who deserves what's coming to them - is so at odds with mine.

It makes me too angry, and it makes me too sad.

* * *

Today I just have the one question: am I a wimp or a crazy person, or has this ever happened to you?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Zeppelin... Zeppelin... Zeppelin...

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It's an echo. Get it?

Well, they can't all be winners.

My friend Rebecca recently introduced me to a wonderful new online phenomenon, Echo Bazaar! For the uninitiated, Echo Bazaar is a twitter-linked, browser-based online game. It's structured like a limited MMO. You go on missions, improve your character's capabilities, acquire items that you need to achieve your goals, and so on. There are things you want - money, admiration, contacts within various organizations - and there are things to avoid - getting wounded, going crazy from nightmares, scandal - and the game is quite typical in many ways. It's limited in that you don't run into other characters while exploring the setting - the interface is too primitive for that. There are certain advantages you can't get without engaging in various social activities with other players.

Two things, however, set Echo Bazaar apart from anything else I've experienced before: style and substance.

Echo Bazaar is more than just another fantasy adventure story, it's a surreal, mysterious, comedy-horror Victoriana explosion. Echo Bazaar is set in the world of Fallen London. It's like this: at some point in the mid 1800s, London is stolen by bats and dragged underground, where it still exists as Fallen London, in close proximity to Hell (which has an embassy to the city) and a mysterious entity/location called the Bazaar, a place where anything and everything is for sale. Mysteries abound: why was London stolen? What were the four cities to precede it and what happened to them? Where are all the foxes, anyway?

The second part is touched on in these three posts on the Failbetter Games blog. Basically, Echo Bazaar is remarkably freeform for a browser game. The writers of this piece of fiction designed it to have many and multiple branching paths and places where you can define your character's personality and backstory. How you define your character - the choices you make - influence which stories you have access to, which continue to define your character, and so on.

Basically, this thing runs itself the same way I run tabletop RPGs, and that's awesome.

I recommend this game with no reservations. It's based on Twitter, and a Twitter account is all you need to play. You're automatically connected to anyone you follow. Friend me at ElectricPaladin and I'll give you a tour.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Politics, Politics, and Politics

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I'm currently engaged in a fascinating discussion of art, politics, and horror over here on the Pseudopod section of the Escape Artists forums. In case you didn't already know, I'm the erudite (and handsome!) ElectricPaladin.

The discussion gyrates madly around a recent Pseudopod story, Set Down This, by Lavie Tidhar. Set Down This is the testament of an ordinary person who finds that he has become obsessed with the brief encounter between two men, an unnamed American pilot who fires a missile at and kills a group of Iraqis, and one of those Iraqis. The horror comes from the narrator's inability to escape his obsession and the terrifying ease with which human lives can be erased by modern technology. The creepiness of the "hillarious military YouTube videos" culture - the narrator's brother is a part of this world, which is how the narrator was exposed to the video in the first place - is an added bit of surreal and disturbing.

In a lot of ways, Set Down This isn't a great story. It's kind of a non-story, in that nothing happens, characters do not develop, and the world does not change. It's more a reflection or a character study than a story. If you like that kind of thing, you'll probably just think Set Down This is pure brilliance; if you don't, you'll probably find it a little frustrating. The story is redeemed, however, by excellent craft and a truly disturbing exploration of the subject matter. I'm not a big fan of non-stories, and I found Set Down This striking and interesting.

Anyway, the discussion: what I find really disturbing about the discussion is that Set Down This is being called political.

Political!

What is political about pointing out that war is bad? How is it political to acknowledge that the people who die in war are people, not faceless foreign devils? Is it particularly leftist of me to feel sorry for the people who get blown up, maimed, mangled, and killed across the sea? Since when is it political to say that war has consequences for everyone from soldiers to civilians, from the families of those who are killed to those who just watch the deaths on YouTube?

Now, in order to favor the war, do you have to pretend that it's a good thing? Do you have to imagine that the people who die don't exist, or that they aren't people? Is it now impossible for us to acknowledge that we sometimes do things that are bad in pursuit of a greater good?

I'm not in favor of the war in Iraq, but that's neither here nor there. I'm definitely a leftist - in fact, I'm kind of a Communist - but that's also neither here nor there. Do the people who favor this war really believe that admitting that war is bad is a leftist political statement?

Because that scares the crap out of me.

More to the point, the story is being criticized by a forumite who complains that he comes to Pseudopod to be "entertained."

I'd argue that the power of literature - especially fantastic literature - is it's ability to simultaneously entertain and do so much more. When you read, watch, and/or listen to a story you are entertained and transported. You live another life and learn how to emphasize with someone completely different. This expands you, enhances you, and has the power to change the world.

... I feel better now.

Anyway, if you want to join in the discussion, I'd be glad to have you. Otherwise, stay tuned. Up next, an intro to the craze that's sweeping the internet, Echo Bazaar, and then a guest post by the brilliant brain behind The Guild of the Cowry Catchers and The Prophet of Panamindorah (I can never seem to spell that right on the first try), Abigail Hilton.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Robots, Sex, and Rock n' Roll

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This tidbit comes to me from a neat blog that I follow, The Githyanki Diaspora, an exploration of gaming and fantasy that parallels my own. The author is Judd (the librarian), once one of the terrifying trio called the Sons of Kryos (now, alas, defunct).

Anyway, it's a music video, and it's also science fiction. I'd say it fails to establish a Burning Zeppelin Experience, mostly because narrative-wise, it's all style and no substance. That said, it illustrates a fascinating little world. I wish there were more to it.

Enjoy:



Well, the question is, what would you have done to add more narrative - more burn - to this bit of fic? And does it really need more narrative after all, or is it something beautiful and compelling just the way it is?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Zeppelins in the Mist(born)

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That's neat, but I'm still not one hundred percent happy with it. Maybe I should move on over to Wordpress or something. Hm...

Anyway, I didn't crack open Blogger today to bitch about the new formats. I did what I did for one purpose and one purpose alone: to write about Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy, which I recently (finally) finished.

I was introduced to Mistborn 1: The Final Empire by one of my colleagues at a school semisecret santa event (he gave me the first book of the Mistborn Trilogy and Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, I gave him noise-cancelling headphones to help deal with his new baby). Of course, being a first year teacher, I took the book home and didn't touch it for weeks.

When I finally did crack the cover, I was instantly enchanted. The Final Empire does an excellent job of immediately pulling the reader into the world with compelling characters, an immediately dynamic story, and a unique setting. I finished The Final Empire in about a month. The Abigail picked it up shortly thereafter and devoured it, finishing The Final Empire before I had made much headway in The Well of Ascension, stole it from me, and then went on to finish The Hero of Ages, the last book of the series, while I was still working on book two.

The Abigail is almost as busy as I was, so this is definitely a mark of approval. She's also finished Sanderson's Elantris and is currently working on Warbreaker.

The series gets even better as it goes on. Sanderson is a master of the reveal. He uses no cheap tricks ("and then he told them his plan") and no content-free revelations (*ahem* Lost *ahem*). Every revelation is a moment of perfectly broken tension, advancing the story and challenging the characters and their relationships. Sanderson is also good at creating characters who are very real, very three-dimensional, and nonetheless interact interestingly with larger themes and archetypes. Vin grapples with her role as a knife in the dark while her lover struggles to balance Elend the man with Elend the king.

I also need to praise Sanderson for the most creative use of what Diana Wynne Jones called "Gnomic Utterances" (see The Tough Guide to Fantasyland). Every chapter in the Mistborn Trilogy begins with an in-character writing by someone in the setting. In many fantasy novels (including at least one that I wrote) these chapter headers are mostly a waste of space, but not so in the Mistborn Trilogy. Each chapter header adds something to the story. In some cases, the big reveal of the novel is who, exactly, these writings come from in the first place.

What's most interesting about the Mistborn Trilogy is that we get to see Sanderson developing as a writer. The Final Empire was the first novel he wrote (though not the first he got published), and it suffers in places. After reading the first book, I was willing to class Sanderson as an apt inheritor of Robert Jordan's legacy: a talented writer who crafts good stories and adequate characters. By the time I finished The Hero of Ages I knew Sanderson was something much more: a truly brilliant author I have a lot to learn from, and one of my new favorites.

What's this? All style and no substance? What kind of blog review is this?

The Mistborn Trilogy tells the story of Vin, a thief on the streets of Luthadel, the capital city of the Final Empire, which sits astride a dying world of ash-choked skies and brutal monarchy. The ruler of the world is, aptly enough, the Lord Ruler, an immortal and (apparently) indestructible incarnate god. A class of lords and ladies, descended from the Lord Ruler's allies, hold dominion over the skaa, a slave class descended from the Lord Ruler's enemies. While a significant community of skaa thieves survive in the big cities, only one man dares oppose the Lord Ruler: Kelsier, the Survivor of Hathsin, the only man to ever escape the Lord Ruler's brutal mining operation.

As the plot is an unnatural (but awesome) hybrid of epic fantasy, urban heist, and kung-fu, the setting is a weird mix of Victoriana, epic fantasy, and alchemy. The people of the Final Empire carry pocket-watches and wear waistcoats or gowns. They have an understanding of industry, economy, and political theory that resembles 1800s Europe. At the same time, they carry swords and dueling canes and the Lord Ruler's military, the mysterious koloss, are monsters out of fantasy.

The setting's magic (which I've written of before) is a mix of all the elements above, and then some. Allomancy relies on ingesting and burning metals to produce a set of very specific effects, which combines alchemy and industrialization. Feruchemy, on the other hand... ah, but that would be telling.

In any case, I recommend the Mistborn Trilogy on all cylinders. Go forth and read.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Burning Service Announcement

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Blogger has recently enhanced its platform with a number of fascinating features. There's only one problem: the format used by the Burning Zeppelin Experience is so old that it doesn't have access to any of these features.

Lame.

So, there are going to be some changes here. The nightmare-inducing header will remain the same until I can hire an artist to create a burning zeppelin that is somehow cute, but the colors, fonts, and arrangement of the gadgets may fluctuate wildly in the coming week or so while I settle on a new theme, new layout, and tweak the colors.

Thanks for your patience. Keep on burning.

White Wolf Through the Decades

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This is a post for the White Wolf fans out there. The rest of you can probably just ditch. Tomorrow's post, I promise, will have nothing to do with White Wolf.

If you've been following White Wolf's new lines, you've probably already heard about New Wave Requiem, A Vampire: the Requiem supplement that takes on the blood, sex, glitz, and corruption of America's 1980s. Well, a couple of days ago, the Abigail and I decided to pass the time by deciding when in the last few decades to set the rest of the new White Wolf canon.

The rules were simple; each game gets a decade and no game can share a decade. This has a resulted in a few less-than-perfect pairings, but I think we did a good job optimizing. By the way, I can't recall which ideas were the Abigail's and which were mine, so I'm going to just present the whole thing as our idea.

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1920s - Werewolf: the Howling 20s

This one is almost a joke, but there's something to be said for werewolves, with their overwhelming dark and violent passions, attempting to navigate the postwar enthusiasm of the 1920s. This was an era of mixed mores, with a high society that combined some conservative values with growing social liberalism. All those passions, barely contained, are going to spawn lots of spirits, and for the Uratha, more spirits means more problems.

For other values of "spirits," the 1920s were also the decades of prohibition. With prohibition came organized crime, which is a world I imagine the werewolves would take to very well, Iron Masters, Storm Lords, and Ivory Claws especially.

In the meantime, America was significantly less urbanized in the 1920s, with numerous small towns and rural communities for the less citified tribes to play in.

There are definitely other good matches for Werewolf: the Forsaken. Werewolves and the noir 50s, for example, would match pretty well. However, only the 1920s provide the fascinating mix of propriety, passion, crime, and abundant rural settings

1930s - Promethean: Wasteland

In my opinion, the 1930s are the perfect historical setting for Promethean: the Created. The entirety of America was infected, sick unto death with depression and drought. Promethean drifters would find themselves entirely at home among the numerous ordinary humans forced to leave homes that don't belong to them anymore and farms reduced to so much dust. In fact, a great deal of the hobo culture that the writers of Promethean drew on to create promethean culture was born at this time, which leads us to ask another fascinating question: what were the prometheans like before they adopted hobo culture?

There are clues in the books, of course, but it would be neat to see it laid out.

The 1930s force prometheans to answer difficult questions as they search for humanity. What's the point of becoming human in a place and time when humans survive by living like animals or sitting, inhumanly aloof, with their surviving fortunes? What is the best way to use your promethean powers to help the people around you without turning them against you, and should you even try? Is the dustbowl all your fault?

1940s - Geist: Ghosts of Europe

World War II is a great setting for Geist: the Sin Eaters. The 1940s were an era of death for the whole world. Young men (and some young women) left home to fight and die on foreign soil. Living humans made themselves into monsters, and - the metaphysics of the World of Darkness dictate - made monsters of the ghosts of their victims. Whole peoples were wiped out by a madman's vision. And war has secondary victims as well: many die of disease, industrial accident, and heartbreak.

All that passion, all those principles, mingling with the spirits of the unjustly dead, spawning a generation of geists eager for hosts, eager to return to the world before it's too late to stop - or encourage - the slaughter.

I know this is a good pairing because I already have character concepts. One of the Bound's geist is a waterlogged shade of a sailor who died and was never recovered. He travels back and forth between the killing fields of Europe and the cities and towns of America, bringing ghosts home to their families so they can have a chance of moving on. A Jewish partisan, escaped from a death camp, is haunted by a black cloud that smells of burning human flesh, speaks in a cacophony of screaming voices, and urges him to find men and women wearing the twisted cross of the Nazi regime and hurt them. He's not sure he wants to resist.

It sends chills up and down my spine. I want to run this so bad I can taste it.

1950s - Hunter: Noir

The paranoia and conservativeness of the 1950s are make it fertile ground for Hunter: the Reckoning stories. This was an era of intrigue and shameful secrets. Hunters can be loyal Americans hunting down red spies who are also vampires and witches... or red spies, eager to do their best for the Motherland, who stumble into a conspiracy of monsters in the government they are supposed to be infiltrating. Private detectives ply their trade on rain slicked streets - and somehow, it's always night - and enter the vigil when they discover that a client's daughter isn't dead, but she isn't alive, either.

As you can see, I think applying a noir feel - not just a neo-noir feel, which you can do quite easily in any World of Darkness game, but a real, genuine, temporally accurate noir feel - would be great.

This is also an interesting time in Hunter's secret histories. This is when the scattered scholars who accidentally helped create the Nazi party would gather to become the Loyalists of Thule. This is when Null Mysteriis were only a decade old, still feeling their way into the World of Darkness. We'd also get to see compacts and conspiracies to replace the Long Night, Network Zero, and the Union, who either didn't exist yet or weren't formally organized... and we'd get hints of why these organizations don't exist in the modern World of Darkness.

It would be awesome. I'd set it in D.C.

1960s - Awakening Aquarius

The 1960s in America would be a fascinating time to be a mage. The humans thought they were close to achieving universal enlightenment... and maybe they were right. The Free Council would revel in an environment of psychodelic experimentation and social exploration. The Guardians of the Veil and the Seers of the Throne would find this time period very challenging, though for different reasons. All the other orders would have to deal with an influx of new recruits with a very different idea of what magic means and what they should do with. How would the Mysterium deal with undisciplined hippies who come to their order with a genuine love of learning and no respect for authority? Would the Silver Ladder find itself divided between reactionary social conservatives and serious but reform-minded young politicians? Would some Guardians break away, certain that the Age of Aquarius means the advent of the Hieromagus and the end of the Fallen World? Mages aren't immune to racism, so how does their society react to the civil rights struggles of the 60s?

I don't know, but I'd love to find out.

The 60s were a time of social upheaval and cultural transformation. It's a time when many segments of humanity started reaching towards Truth - towards the Supernal - and I can see great stories coming from mages finding themselves caught up in that rush.

1970s - Changeling Nights

And to bring us full circle, we're back to another pairing that's almost a joke. Changelings often come back from Arcadia looking ridiculous and frightening... and disco is ridiculous and frightening. It's a match made in Philadelphia.

More seriously, I see a lot of opportunities in the drug, dance, and club cultures of the 1970s for changelings to explore, discover, and destroy themselves. The fey have always loved music, and the 1970s were an area defined by its music. It's all the more fitting that it be an aggressively modern form of music. Between the Watergate scandal and the Jim Jones mass suicide, the 70s were an era of corruption and madness. It was also an era of economic and scientific growth and opportunity. Corrruption, madness, and opportunity - that's Changeling, right there.

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I hope you enjoyed my efforts to shoehorn White Wolf's games into the last few decades. Please feel free to comment.

And if you happen to be a White Wolf developer, well... I've worked for you before, and I could always use more work. You know where to find me.