Thursday, June 28, 2012

The War Is Not Over

Google Drive.


Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a problem.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Check It Out!

This is not my first painted mini, but it is the first painted mini I've had the guts to post to this blog. I hope you enjoy him. Painting him was a blast and a challenge. This was my first time painting in a darker skin tone (I've done pale humans, red and blue lizards, and grey-skinned abominations, but no dark skinned humans) - a process that (unsurprisingly) doesn't get as much attention or support in gaming circles. Also, he's an Infinity model, and as I've been known to say, these models are incredibly detailed and not for the faint of brush.

I am eager to hear your amazed praise and commentary.

Speech bubbles courtesy of Speechable, which is a truly hilarious website. I don't think it's the one the Abigail used to send me those amazing encouraging messages last summer, but it is similar.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Zeppelins

I guess the universe wanted to let me know that I was making the right choice. Within two days of deciding to drop this drabble-a-day business, I had a great idea for a new short story, and I was able to start it last night while the quiches were in the oven (long story - don't ask). I won't say anything else until the story is written, but for now suffice it to say that some day soon we will all be giving thanks to the God of Impossible Things...

In any case, that's not what I actually wanted to post about today. Today, I wanted to write a long-awaited (but oddly timely) review of a book I enjoyed hugely: Daughter of Smoke & Bone, by Laini Taylor. Daughter of Smoke & Bone will always have a special place in my heart as the first book I ever listened to as an audio book (available through Audible). The reading is brilliant in every possible way, and it's part of what sent me down the path of audiobooks.

Audiobooks are not what I'm hear to talk about, however. I'm here to talk about Karou.

Karou is an art student in Prague. Her hair grows in blue (not rainbows, but it'll do). Unbeknownst to her friends - including the Fierce and Tiny Zusana - Karou was raised by a very strange family of chimerical humanoids led by a bull-headed dragon-bodied wish-merchant named Brimstone. Karou is a daughter of three worlds: the human world that her body makes her a part of, the tiny world of her family and Brimstone's shop where he buys teeth and sells wishes, and a third, mysterious world - the world beyond the other door in Brimstone's shop - a world she has never visited, but feels drawn to nonetheless. Karou's desire to explore this other world - and that world's troubles, pursuing her - will draw her into... well, an adventure. There are also star-crossed romances, buried secrets, and a great many things that are not what they seem.

What I love most about Daughter of Smoke & Bone was the skillful way Taylor builds her story. This is an incredibly tight novel - barely a wasted letter, let alone a word - with a mystery that builds from the first page to an inevitable, almost Grecian tragedy. By the time the mystery breaks, it may not be a surprise to you - I guessed it, and so did the Abigail - but that's not the point. The point is the elegance of the structure, the beautiful and terrible shape of the doom that comes to Karou and... ah, but that would be telling.

Taylor creates some truly enchanting characters. I have already mentioned Karou the Blue-Haired and Zusana that Fierce and Tiny. There are others as well, all of them charming and odd, many of them lovable, and all of them very engaging. Taylor's talent for characterization also serves to aid the shape of her tragedy, with characters who you really can imagine falling in love and hate, keeping secrets, in just the wrong way.

Finally, the places. Ah, the places...

You should know - I spent four months in Prague when I was a high school student, thanks to the now-defunct Lauder Exchange Program. Prague sank its sooty tentacles deep into my soul, and even now when I imagine a city of Eastern European quirkiness, twisted streets and statuary, beautiful and bloody history strewn about like sea glass on a beach, where modern net-savvy kids tryst beneath the horse's tail1 and old men still sit in coffee houses and drink a truly epic amount of beer. I never went to Poison Kitchen (I don't think it's real, unfortunately), but I did once go to a nightclub built over a branch of the Vltava River so that the water rushed beneath us, visible through glass floors. And I once got drunk on awful Czech wine in a medieval basement with enormous kegs set into the wall, drunk enough that I sang Czech songs I didn't understand...

I went and had a Prague-gasm all over my blog, didn't I?

Well, then. I think you understand part of why I enjoyed the book so much. Taylor did a very good job of evoking Prague.

In any case, this is a book that you can't afford to miss, especially with the second book rumored to be appearing shortly (and apparently a movie deal, according to the book's Wikipedia page). I advise you to pick it up and read it as soon as possible.

Otherwise, what happens next... might not end well.

• • •

1. I looked all over the internet for a link to this, but I don't think there is one. Under communism, the Czechs would say "see you under the horse's tail," when they intended to meet each other in secret to discuss counter-revolutionary action. "Under the horse's tail" referred to Saint Wenceslas Square, where the rebels would frequently meet.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Blog Free Drabble

After a lot of deliberation, I've decided to stop writing drabbles on a daily basis for this blog.

There are three main reasons for this decision.

Firstly, drabbles bore the shit out of me. After writing quite a few - not as many as Nathan, but plenty - I can now say with confidence that I don't see the merit in them, at least for me. Drabbles have a very distinct meter that they all share, and it's getting repetitive. I don't even enjoy reading or listening to drabbles anymore.

Secondly, I am no longer convinced that drabbles have much to teach me. I'm already reasonably good at what I call "evocation" - implying the existence of a larger world or story in several very small brush strokes. I certainly know all the tricks of shaving off a word or two - I think every writer does, after a point. Drabbles can sell, though they don't sell for much, and they can be a fun way to get the dead leaves and squirrel skeletons out of the writing gutters, and I'm glad that I spent some time exploring the medium and expanding my repertoire. However, I don't think I can learn much more from them.

Finally... let me elucidate this point with a story. Recently, the ever-prescient Abigail Hilton wrote, in a comment to one of my posts about writing drabbles:

I kinda wish you'd write a novel instead of drabbles.

My response was "you and me both, sister."

That got me thinking. I haven't had a lot of time to work on my novel, or my other novel, or the short story I'm writing, or the other short story I'm writing, or any of the five short stories that I've gotten feedback on and need edits and rewrites. Why? Because I spend all of my (highly limited) writing time on these God-damned boring-ass drabbles!

So, I have come to a crossroads. Will I continue to write in a form that bores me, or will I break my oath and continue to search for a way to blog and write that inspires me?

Screw drabbles, man. I'm moving on.

I'm going to keep up the blogging momentum that I've developed here, so watch this space for more game material, reviews, links, and, yes, drabbles. I'm also going to keep up the writing momentum that this project has produced, though you will no longer see the results posted here every single (God-damned) day.

That's all for now. The future is bright and full of new and better ways to make stories happen. Till next time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I Thought He'd Live Forever

I saw Ray Bradbury speak once, you know.

I was twelve years old. It was at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan - where I also took Tai Kwon Do lessons - walking distance from my school. Bradbury was... ancient isn't quite the right word, though he seemed that way to my adolescent self. Bradbury was venerable. Wise. One. Something he said really summed up the sense of peace and acceptance that he carried like an aura: "Because I am afraid that I won't be able to read once I have died, I am rereading all of my favorite books so I can carry them with me." This is why although I am sad to live in a world without Ray Bradbury, I am certain that he is doing just fine.

The second thing he said during that talk has really stuck with me is actually something he didn't say. Bradbury was the first author who didn't feed me that old BS about how writing is such a terrible profession, and if you can find it in yourself to do something else, you should. He had war stories to tell - stories of slaving away at his typewriter on the kitchen counter while his children tried to get his attention, knowing that if daddy came out to play there wouldn't be anything for dinner next week - but he never presented writing as anything other than a profession, a career, and a choice.

The works of Ray Bradbury have meant a lot to me over the years.

Personally, I think I am still living in Bradbury's definition of good and evil:

"Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light. The seal-barker, the laugh-shouter, half the time he's covering up. He's had his fun and he's guilty. And men do love sin, Will, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors, and smells... On the other hand, that unhappy, pale, put-upon man walking by, who looks all guilt and sin, why, often that's your good man with a capital G, Will. For being good is a fearful occupation; men strain at it and sometimes break in two."

And good men? They're always concerned. Always careful. Always trying to do their best. This idea spoke to me, and I think it always will.

Professionally - creatively - Bradbury has had a greater impact on me than I can say. I learned about goodness from Something Wicked This Way Comes. I learned about sacrifice from The Halloween Tree. Nothing I have ever read about fear and madness has taught me more than The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl. I have never read anything sadder than The Fog Horn or There Will Come Soft Rains, or anything sharper-eyed than Fahrenheit 451 or All Summer in a Day. The Sound of Thunder will always send cold fingers up my spine, and no time travel story I've ever read has measured up to it. Not one.

I don't think my work will ever have Bradbury's poetry. I'm not that kind of writer. I like plots and settings too much, and I'm apt to hide my allegories behind more layers of gauze and trickery. But sometimes, in the moments when I stretch, I think I recall a little of how it feels to read Bradbury.

I'll miss him, but probably I shouldn't. After all, Bradbury has left so much of himself behind.

I should go soon. There are a few works of Bradbury's I haven't gotten to, yet. As I don't know if I'll be able to read once I'm dead, I should hop to it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Retractions and Reconsiderations

In my last post I bitched and moaned about The Moth and why I'm giving up on their podcast. Basically, it was this: for a podcast that claims to be about stories - and anyone can tell a story - most of their story-tellers are the famous, soon-to-be-famous, or wanna-be-famous, all with something to sell, and by contrast, few of their stories are from anyone else. It rubs me the wrong way and is starting to annoy me.

In conversation with the Abigail last night, however, something was made clearer to me: what I'm listening to is the podcast, not the entirety of The Moth. And, for that matter, the podcast is made with promoting the podcast in mind. Maybe The Moth thinks that most people are more interested in hearing the stories of media figures with things to sell. Maybe they're not even wrong. As for what actually goes on at a Moth show... I have no idea. I've never been.

So, I retract everything I said about The Moth itself being a sinisterly elitist organization. All I know is the Podcast. And while the Podcast has started to bore and annoy me a bit, there's only the flimsiest reason to expect that The actual Moth would do the same.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Moth-Eaten, Slightly Elitist

The Moth is starting to annoy me.

For those of you not in the know, the Moth is a combination open mic, traveling community theatre, and podcast. It is a place where people tell interesting stories from their lives. Some of them are depressing, some of them are uplifting, and some of them are hilarious. Recently, however, I've the Moth has started to bother me. My enjoyment wanes with every listen. I think the time draws nigh that I will drop if from my blogroll and iPod.

Here's the thing: the Moth is secretly incredibly elitist.

Most Moth stories start the same, with some pithy story of life in the sticks, dealing with a workaday job. Moth storytellers talk about being flight attendants and drug addicts, hikers on ordinary hikes. Weird and wonderful and horrible things happen to them, and then comes the conclusion... where smooth-voiced Dan Kennedy (author of Rock On, an office power ballad, learn more at sorry, I've heard that outro way too often) explains that so-and-so the all-night diner waitress is actually a film-making comedian with a book coming out in September.

Almost everyone on the Moth is secretly someone, telling the story of how once, a long, long time ago they used to be no one.

And that's not counting everyone who tells stories of working in fashion or publishing or journalism, straight up and from the beginning. I don't mind them as much. Honestly, I don't mind the stories of people who used to be nobody, either, but their stories cast the flaws in the Moth into sharper relief. As I wrote above, practically everyone on the Moth is a Someone - a rising star of some scene or another - with some brand new media product to shill. No one is nobody. No one is a waitress who's still a waitress, a flight attendant whose still a flight attendant, a drug dealer who's now doing his best to be a good dad.

That's not true.

Once in a while - once every few months or so - the Moth will deign to allow once of the participants of their community storytelling classes to tell a story on the stage. These are the people who are just people, without anything to sell, trying to get by and live their lives.

The thing that bugs me is that this situation - rising media starts telling stories and selling their newest creations is just fine - is in the context of an organization that claims... well, I'll let the Moth tell you what it is:

The Moth is an acclaimed not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. It is a celebration of both the raconteur, who breathes fire into true tales of ordinary life, and the storytelling novice, who has lived through something extraordinary and yearns to share it. At the center of each performance is, of course, the story – and The Moth’s directors work with each storyteller to find, shape and present it.

From the Moth's About page.

You see, nowhere does it say that this is a place where media authors, comedians, TV personalities, and politicians will tell their stories. This is supposed to be a place where people - and by that, I assumed they meant all kinds of people - tell their stories.

So, ultimately, the dishonesty and quiet elitism is starting to annoy me. And the condescension of "special story hour with the little people" is starting to anger me. And the repetitive themes of rising stars telling the tales of their inglory days in the trenches are starting to bore me.

In other words, the Moth is on its way out for me. Where is it for you?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Burning Contest Experience

So, it's started to bug me that I have no idea how popular this blog actually is. I mean, I know the Abigail reads it, even though she doesn't like Drabbles much. I know that Kindli reads it, because she comments. According to Blogger, I have 14 followers - according to Blogger's Google-tracking features, I have probably about 20 more.

But I'd like to know.

More importantly, I'd like to foster more of a sense of community and conversation at this blog. This is the Internet, after all. I don't want to shout into the ether - I want you to shout back!

In order to achieve this, I have an idea. A contest! Unfortunately, I can't offer you fabulous prizes - because unlike the miniatures wargaming blogs I'm stealing this from, I don't have any - but I can offer you a one to two hundred word story, written to your specifications.

What do you need to do to win? You need to comment on this post, and... recommend this blog to one friend. The first will be apparent here, and for the second I'll take you at your word. After a suitable period of time - I'm thinking a week - I'll randomly select a winner and get your specifications. Then I'll provide the story.

This should be fun... or at the very least, educational.

Friday, June 1, 2012

This Is the Place

Another story inspired by a photo today.

Yet again: I claim no ownership of this photo. I'm a very bad man for posting it. If it's yours, let me know, and I'll take it down.

In any case... I don't know what it is about necromancer protagonists that appeals to me. Is it the conquest of something I have always feared? Categorically magic turned to (potentially) noble ends? Or do I just think protagonists look good in black?

Either way, with this story I finally close the gap. We are at quits... at least until tomorrow.

This Is the Place
By Mark L. S. Stone

“We shouldn’t be here,” Sasha said, pulling his puffy coat tighter around his torso. It made him look like a nervous, punked-out version of the Michelin Man.

Sasha had a talent for pointing out the obvious.

I listened to the ravens circling overhead. Their croaking song was resolving into sense.

“We’re almost there,” I said, and broke into a jog.

“Are you listening to me?” Sasha panted after me. “Charlie…”

“This is the place.”

“People died here,” Sasha complained.

I opened my bag and removed my instruments: black candle, curved knife, jawbone.

“Yes, Sasha,” I snapped. “That’s the fucking point.”

The Forge

The Forge
By Mark L. S. Stone

She worked until she sweated. She worked until blisters rose, burst, and fell. She worked until the shock of cold night air was alien besides the heat of the forge.

“Is it completed?” her master asked.

She nodded.

“Show it to me.”

It was beautiful – her finest so far. He grunted, and cast it to the ground.

She cried out.

He shook his head and led her to a mirror. In the morning light she saw the fire burning in her eyes, the hard steel planes of her face. She touched herself, disbelieving.

It never mattered. Now you are completed.”

To Infinity!

So, I didn't manage to make up all those missing posts yesterday. Darn. I'll have to do a bunch posts today to make it up. Let's start with a post I've been meaning to make - and for Lizard's sake, not another drabble - a review of my newest obsession, Corvus Belli's miniatures game Infinity.

I first encountered Infinity through its minis. Gamescape SF has a healthy display of Infinity boxes and blisters, and a few painted models in their glass cabinet. The minis designed for use with Infinity are truly excellent: sleek and sometimes sexy, with evidence of a strong design bible. Unlike many other modern science fiction and fantasy wargames, Infinity is sculpted in true-scale (or "tru-scale," as some companies name it), which means that everything is perfectly proportioned, or as near to perfectly proportioned as Corvus Belli's sculptors can manage. By contrast, minis designed in "heroic scale" have squat bodies and exaggerated hands and faces, which also allows the sculptor to give them exaggerated weapons and gear. Although there's nothing wrong with heroic scale - thanks to their diminutive size, the models don't look weird until you actually put them alongside something in true-scale - heroic scale is a nice change of pace.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here's a short story:

You can find a couple more minis here, and of course on Corvus Belli's website, linked above.

There's a certain bias here towards factions played by myself and my friends, but I think you get the point. These minis are sleek and professional. They are exciting in a sci-fi action movie sort of way, but not absurd or over-the-top. These minis could be the art for a roleplaying game I would find stirring and take seriously.

From the miniatures themselves, I delved into the background - or "fluff" in gamer-speak - of Infinity.

Infinity is set in the not-so-distant future (about 200 years). This is a posthuman future, with cortical stacks cubes that allow individuals to be downloaded into new bodies after the death or infirmity of their original. With the discovery of stable wormholes, mankind has been rocketed into an interplanetary age. New powers have risen out of the ashes of the old nations. These new powers include:

  • Pan-Oceania, the technological and economic leader, descended from former oceanic states including Australia, New Zealand, as well as most of Europe. They are also one of the forces behind the O-12, which is basically the space UN.
  • Yu-Jing, a China-dominated combination of all the Asian states (and possibly parts of Russia) including Japan, which still attempts to resist total assimilation. Yu-Jing and Pan-O are trapped in an eternal rivalry.
  • The Nomads, a loose affiliation of nomadic space-ship-dwelling societies formerly composed of exiled criminals, political prisoners, malcontents, rebels, and weirdos. The Nomad economy is based almost entirely on selling things that are illegal everywhere else, whether it's information, technology, or "services."
  • Haqqislam, literally "The New Islam," a new liberal and humanist interpretation of Islam that has usurped the former (Muslim) middle eastern powers. Much like the Muslim countries of medieval Earth, they have a tradition of excellent medical science.
  • Ariadna; are you wondering what happened to the good old US of A? Wonder no longer. Their first colony ship - a joint effort with Russia, France, and Canada - went awry and wound up lost behind a collapsed wormhole. They survived, but their long isolation has cost them all of their once-vaunted technological superiority. These days, Ariadna has the worst tech, but they make up for it with a rugged independence.
  • Running everyone else's economy and transportation network (well, except the Nomads, who hate them) is ALEPH, humanity's one and only true AI. In times of danger, ALEPH can download aspects of itself into cloned or robotic bodies, which it uses to protect humanity's best interests, even when that means frustrating the ambitions of nations and individuals.
  • Lurking at the fringes is the Combined Army, an alien consortium intent on conquering human space, enslaving the humans, and chopping up ALEPH to feed it to their own Evolved Intelligence, an AI charged with unraveling the mystery of entropy.

As you can probably already see, this game trips several of my switches, including robots, transhumanism, and optimistic - or at least not completely bleak - science fiction.

Now, let's get onto the rules.

From a mechanical standpoint, Infinity is probably one of the best games I've ever played. This is largely thanks to attention to the fun factor, attention to balance, and a unique system called "ARO."

As I wrote of 4th Edition D&D some time ago, the fun factor is an important piece of game design, something too many designers ignore. The question is, how can we maximize the number of players having the most fun at any given time? This is hard in cooperative games, like RPGs, and even harder in competitive games. It's easy to write a game where one player has tons of fun on his or her turn. It's harder to write a game where I'm having fun on your turn, when it's my ass getting kicked.

Privateer Press's Warmachine and Hordes - which I also play and enjoy - are great examples of excellent games that don't do a super effective job of maximizing the fun factor. On your opponent's turn, you're going to get your teeth kicked in. He's going to activate his feat, boost his attacks, and tear your giant robots/monsters apart, or make his own dudes nigh-invulnerable, so you have to spend a turn maneuvering and hope it doesn't cost you too much. There are lots of powers that lock down, incapacitate, obviate, and otherwise screw all to hell an enemy's capabilities, which is lots of fun when you use them, not so much fun when they're used on you.

Although there's a strong hacking and infowar component in Infinity, this doesn't seem to be the place here. For one thing, you always get a defense. Your opponent might be able to hack your Tactical Armored Gear (TAG for short - basically a giant robot) and immobilize it, or even turn it against you, but you have a chance to resist. This can make all the difference to a gamer's mood and experience of gameplay. Infinity also lacks global shutdown abilities - which Warmachine and Hordes are altogether too fond of - nothing that renders your entire army all but useless for a turn. These are all deliberate and powerful choices.

Secondly, there is the matter of balance. Unlike some companies (whose games I also play...), Corvus Belli has no illusions about their place. They are a game design company and a miniatures company, and they put a lot of work into making sure that their game is balanced. This is not a game where a quirk of a new edition will put your entire army in the "lose" list until further notice, and should that happen, Corvus Belli will update the rules within months, rather than years.

Finally, the Automatic Reaction Order, or ARO for short, is a revolution in wargames. The principal behind the ARO is that models can react to things that are happening around them. When an enemy soldier saunters up and start shooting, your own soldiers don't sit their waiting for their turn. They shout warnings to their buddies, dive for cover, or shoot back. Although Infinity still follows the basic "I go you go" pattern, AROs, make playing Infinity a singularly engaging experience. I can't go around the corner for a soda on my opponent's turn, because I'm still playing, still making tactical choices, no matter whose turn it is.

The last thing I want to say about Infinity takes me back to my (brief) days in Internet marketing. This is a game about the information future, marketed for the information present. The rules, army lists, templates, and tokens are all available for free online. Everything you need to play, except the actual minis, you can get for free. Of course, you can also also buy the beautifully crafted, illustrated, an generally created products, but you don't have to.

This means you can try the game out with your other figures. You can email the rules to a friend to entice her. You can create a bookmarked pdf rewrite of the rules, incredibly useful in play, and then host it on your website.

In other words, instant community - just add people.

Which Corvus Belli has.

And I'm glad of it, because this is an excellent game that I enjoy, and will hopefully get to enjoy for a long time.

Anyway, I've got to go and dress up like a vegetable. The long and the short of it, though, is that this is an excellent game and I'm happy to be playing it. Hit me up in San Francisco if you want a demo game, or say hi to me on Corvus Belli's forums (I'm ElectricPaladin, as usual) if that's not necessary anymore.