Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Looking back at the past year of Lord Admiral

First, warm wishes and happy holidays to everyone who reads my blog, whether you celebrate Lanimas like I do, or another one of the many wonderful holidays this time of year, or no holiday at all!

Secondly, some navel-gazing. I was looking back over the past year to see which of my posts were the most popular, and since I found the results pretty interesting, I thought I'd share!

My posts about Binwin Bronzebottom are my top sources of visitors, especially Binwin Bronzebottom T-Shirts and Binwin Bronzebottom and the Quest for More Money.

Perhaps because Binwin-related visits were spread out over a number of pages, my top landing page (after the home page, of course), was The Alternative Press Expo, or, Can My Camera Flash You? (which I have now adjusted so that I don't spent the whole post saying "nurds are cute hurr hurr"). Most people who have been finding that page lately are no doubt looking forward to the next Alternative Press Expo, as they are apparently arriving based on Google searches for Dylan Meconis (the talented comician behind Family Man) and Der-shing Helmer (the wizard behind my current favorite webcomic, The Meek). These searchers must be trying to discover how these skilled comicians look to prepare themselves for their own photo safari. I do apologize for my pictures being so unprofessional, unflattering, and, in Der-shing's case, incredibly fuzzy.

Also bringing in the visitors are my posts about my 2009 visit to Wondercon, my excitement about attending a Dungeons and Dragons Encounters game set in the Dark Sun universe, and my personal favorite, my nerdy thoughts on Wolverine.

Rounding out my top pages for the year are Fetch Me My Blade and Let the Music Begin, which is about my heavy metal album cover CD project (remember that?), The Coolest Video Game Box Art of All Time about Mechwarrior 2's box art, and my review of Last Exile, which was part of my short tenure at Brass Goggles.

Thank you all for reading, and hopefully next year I can continue to entertain the five loyal readers I have, both here and on Supervillainous (which now has content. Go check it out!)

Monday, December 6, 2010


My otherwise spooky wife loves things that are weird and cute, and thus, she recently introduced me to Mameshiba. Watch the videos: someone tries to eat a lunch involving some variety of the beans, but one of the beans turns into a bean-dog creature and tells them a trivia fact. And it's adorable.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Your New Crush

One of my friends recently told me about a group of history teachers in Hawaii who have a Youtube channel where they do covers of pop songs that change the words to history lessons.

This is the first song I saw, which is really good:

Now, setting a song about the French Revolution to the tune of "Bad Romance" is pretty good, but this is the video that sealed it for me:

Go on, tell me you don't have a crush on her now.

Added bonus: have some more awesome "Bad Romance" covers!

This one should be title Bäd Ro\m/ance:

And for my wife, for posting about crushes on other ladies (I wasn't being serious, honest). She's seen it before, but it's worth watching again:

(also, I apologize for Blogger cutting off the right side of all Youtube videos. Click through to Youtube to see them full-sized).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

November is over!


I actually finished Red Devil on the 26th, and spent the next few days rewarding myself by playing video games and reading comics. Looking back, it's a bit strange because I feel like the point where I ended my novel would be a great starting point for an even BETTER novel, but hey, there's always next November.

Congratulations to all other winners, whether you're a novelist or someone who did a spin-off project.

And if you didn't win this year, I hope you try again next year!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

2 Years ((**WARNING** Adorable post **WARNING**))

Today is the second anniversary of my wife and I seeing each other. What a two years it's been!

By the way, if you're thinking "Two years already holy crap where has the time gone," it's not our two year anniversary of being married, but two years since we started going out. Our one-year anniversary is coming up in January.

Happy other anniversary, my dear!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Red Devil has a tank full of ghosts and it's ready to punch some monsters!

My NaNoWriMo story, Red Devil, is moving along nicely. So far I've been able to meet my daily goal every day, and I feel like the characters are starting to fall into place. The story is about a suit of robot armor that runs on ghosts and punches monsters. No monsters have been punched yet, but we're getting there.

Meanwhile, while my evenings are spent writing Red Devil, other things aren't getting done. For my own amusement, here is a list of things I've temporarily put aside while working on the novel:
  • Writing a review of "Batman: Arkham Asylum" for Supervillainous
  • Finishing Psychonauts and writing a review of it
  • Getting Supervillainous off the ground
  • Finishing my re-read of The Lord of the Rings
  • An RPG project I've been mulling over
  • Other stories I've been meaning to write
But never mind all that. Toss in another ghost, there's monsters to punch! See you at the finish line!

Monday, November 1, 2010

It's that time of the year again is loading at a snail's pace, which can only mean one thing: that November is upon us again, and once more, millions of starry-eyed would-be novelists are setting forth on a crusade to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

I have tried NaNo twice, in '07 and '08. In '09, I decided not to try, because my November was swamped with too many other activities.

This year, it's time I dusted off my keyboard, put on my writing pants, and did it again.

My NaNo profile is here.

See you at the finish line.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


A while back, I bought a domain, because I thought it would be cool to have a domain, and also because I thought the domain name was clever:

I didn't have any plans for it, but I figured, why not? It was only ten bucks a year.

Then I recently noticed that Blogger will allow you to set up a blog on a domain of your choice for free! I figured, hey, I use Blogger, and I have a domain, so why not? I set up a new blog with Blogger and put it on my domain.

Those of you who are familiar with Blogger may be wondering why I didn't just change this existing blog to use the new URL. I have two answers to that:

1. This way, I can keep using both blogs. So far, Lord Admiral has been a weird mix of personal notes that are only of interest to my friends and family, and reviews that are meant for a larger audience (though probably still only read by my friends and family). Going forward, I will use Lord Admiral for the personal stuff, and post the more general (and more interesting) stuff on Supervillainous.

2. I didn't notice that I could have kept this blog until it was too late.

I also took this opportunity to change my Google screen name from Lord Admiral to Baron von Chop. I was never happy with Lord Admiral, because for one thing it sounds far too high-fallutin', and for another, it's not really a name, just a rank. Baron von Chop may include a rank, but somehow I don't think that anyone will get the impression that I'm full of myself from a name like that.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mike Mignola Writes and Draws Hellboy Again

About time I posted the link to the new Mignola-written, Mignola-illustrated Hellboy story, The Whittier Legacy.

I'll leave this entry short so that you don't waste time reading it, but go read Hellboy instead!

Friday, October 22, 2010

The DIY Dragon

Over the past weekend, my dear lady and I flew down to LA to attend the wedding of two very cool people. The bride looked lovely, the groom was dapper, the ceremony was heartfelt and the banquet afterward was staggering, including an estimated 11 courses of awesome Chinese food and a truly epic cake.

It was my first time in LA, so I also got to see some of the landmarks and tourist spots, such as the Hollywood sign, the Walk of Fame and Mann's Chinese Theater.

To celebrate the happy couple, I thought I'd write them a silly little story. Here goes.

The DIY Dragon
For the Eyeball Burpers

In a far-off kingdom there lived a kindly king and queen. They had a single daughter, the apple of their eye. As she grew older, all of the young men of the realm began to compete for her attention, and foremost among them was the king's youngest and bravest knight.

To prove his love, the knight sorted out a misunderstanding surrounding a black knight and a bridge, and he helped some farmers with an incursion of manticores. He was pretty badass.

The princess, meanwhile, sewed a tapestry. The subject of the tapestry was ogre wrestling, so the princess went out and wrestled the biggest ogres in the kingdom as research for her tapestry. When she ran out of ogres, she chopped up some gorgons, for the design on the tapestry's border. She was pretty badass, too.

The king looked with favor on the knight, knowing that the young man was a match for his formidable daughter. The king was something of a traditionalist, however, and he waited for a dragon to swing by and kidnap his daughter, so that he could offer her hand in marriage to whoever saved her. The king was sure the knight was more than up to the task, and he wasn't the slightest bit worried about his daughter, who could handle any dragon.

The knight and princess waited patiently. The princess even resolved to avoid suplexing the dragon before the knight arrived so that he could rescue her the old-fashioned way (though she reserved the right to soften the dragon up a bit). There was only one problem: no dragon appeared.

The king and his councilors were puzzled. The latest survey of the dragon population indicated that there were plenty of dragons about. What they had not realized was that the dragons had gotten wise to the situation and learned to steer clear of the knight, and no dragon in the kingdom was foolish enough to try to kidnap such a princess.

The lamentable lack of draconic abduction may have caused another couple to despair, but these two were undaunted. They found the royal engineer with the wispiest beard and the most cluttered workplace, and they commissioned a mighty work to their specifications. The knight visited a scheming alchemist with chemical-stained fingers, while the princess sought out an experienced ranger with eyes like a hawk. When these two creative souls set their minds to a task, nothing could stop them, and there was nothing they loved more than working on a project together.

On Saturday, October 16, the royal court was in an uproar. Courtiers ran hither and thither while ladies gossiped and men shouted. A great crowd gathered in the courtyard, and all faces looked up to the princess's tower, where a great wood-and-paper dragon beat its enormous wings slowly as it perched on the balcony. The dragon's eyes glowed red with the heat of its furnace as smoke poured from its smokestack nostrils.

The knight sad astride the clattering, puffing beast. He worked a complex control panel full of levers and knobs and beamed at his princess as she emerged from her room. She somersaulted into the empty chair next to the knight's and cranked a steering wheel, sending the dragon flapping mightily from the tower.

The beast roared and spat flame into the air as it flew over the courtyard, so low that the onlookers tumbled to the ground in surprise and delight. The dragon sped off, carrying the princess and the knight to their next adventure.

The king watched them go with a smile on his face. "Works for me," he said, and dabbed at his eye with a handkerchief.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Computer Game Review Supplement: Mass Effect Combat Supplement

Since my Mass Effect review was such a success (cricket cricket), I decided to post some more thoughts on the game. I'd like to talk some more about the combat system, because even though it's not the best thing about the game (the characters, story, and setting are what really make this game shine), it's still really fun, but it has some down sides you may want to know about before deciding about whether or not you'd like to play.

Combat will feel very familiar to gamers. You can hold the spacebar to pause the game and open up the squad command/special attack screen, above, which allows you to change weapons, change the squad AI's behavior, or use special attacks.

You will always have two squad members on your team. No more, no less. You can pick them at the start of each mission, or whenever you leave the Normandy.

Healing is very simple: press F to use a health pack. It will heal you and your squad. How much each health pack heals and how often you can use one depends on your squad's total First Aid skill.

You also have grenades, which you throw with R and detonate with another press of R. These can be very useful in certain situations and all but useless in others.

Combat is cover-based, meaning your character will hide behind cover if you walk up against it. You can pop up from behind cover by clicking the aim button (right clicking), which is very easy to get used to. Unfortunately, cover does not protect you from explosive attacks.

Mass Effect features very cool-looking bad guys rendered very well, but for all that, most of the time you're going to be shooting at the aiming reticles on your screen. These are drawn over all of your enemies, so you'll be watching for the red triangles rather than the cool-looking bad guy models. Also, when your enemies die, they disappear, so you can't even go inspect the fallen enemies to see how cool they look (or to finish the kill).

The squad AI is okay, but you'll have to get used to your squad mates spending a lot of time shooting at intervening terrain while trying to hit an enemy on the other side.

One great thing about the combat system is the way looting happens, or rather, they way it doesn't happen. Rather than having to end each fight by running around gathering up items from the fallen bad guys, you receive a notification every time you killed a bad guy and got an item, and the next time you open your inventory, it tells you all the items you found since the last time you opened your inventory.

As I mentioned in my main review, it's also nice that you don't have to worry about ammo, or about repairing the condition of your items. Your items heat up while firing, but you only have to let the heat dissipate before you keep firing again.

Biotic powers look really cool, and tech powers are interesting, too (though not as showy as biotic powers). Guns look like, well, guns, though one time I saw an NPC with a cold upgrade in his weapon shooting an enemy, and frost crystals formed on the enemy with each bullet hitting him. That was rad.

The combat system isn't the best thing about Mass Effect, but it's more than serviceable. The most important part of any combat system is that it makes sense and is easy to use, and in my book, Mass Effect succeeds.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Team Fortress 2 Got Better

I don't spend a lot of time talking about Team Fortress 2 on this blog, though it remains far and away one of my biggest hobbies. I love the game, the videos of the characters, the fan-made video of the characters dancing, some/most of the fan art... and I may or may not be working on a cosplay costume. If I were, and I'm not confirming anything, it might be of the RED Sniper.

Well, recently Valve took their already nearly pitch-perfect game and made it even better through a long-awaited update that finally allowed players to trade items between each other. I celebrated by giving my lovely wife some Jarate.

The update also allows players to buy items with real-life money, which I'm usually against, but in this case there aren't any items that can only be bought with money, which makes me feel better. After all, TF2 is such a great game, why shouldn't Valve make some more money off it? And why shouldn't the community members who contribute items to the game see some return on their investment of time and energy? If this encourages more people to create items, I'm for it.

 The one thing that I'm not so hot on is the crates. Apparently people can now randomly find crates while playing, but can only access them by buying keys for money. I realize that there's nothing forcing the player to buy the key, but creating an item that can only be accessed if you pay for it seems dubious to me. It's like when someone says, "You know, I had this really weird conversation with one of your friends today, but I probably shouldn't tell you about it."

I won't go into what makes TF2 such a great game. If you love team-based shooters with a cartoony style and near-perfect class and map balance, you already play it. If you can't stand playing games with spazzy adolescents and consistently stacked teams, I probably can't convince you to change your mind.

But if you already like the game, then this update will probably make you love it more. And if you haven't played in a while, maybe this will help change your mind. Let me know if you have any items you'd like. I'll check in the back. We might have just what you need.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Computer Game Review: Mass Effect

Mass Effect was the best computer game RPG I have ever played. It had its flaws, but I happily overlooked them and enjoyed the story, the world, and the characters from the beginning to the epic finale.
First off, Mass Effect was made by Bioware, the superstars of computer RPGs. Their past titles, like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic set the bar very high and were known for giving players a several ways to overcome every challenge, epic plotlines, great writing and memorable NPCs. In my opinion, Mass Effect surpasses all of those previous Bioware titles.

Mass Effect is set in its own universe, and the writers did a marvelous job filling out this world and making it every bit as immersive as the Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons properties that Bioware has worked with in the past. The game includes an in-game Codex that fills up as you play with interesting facts about the planets, races, monsters, factions, and technology you come across.

If I had to pick a favorite thing about Mass Effect, it would be the NPCs. As much as I loved seeing the cool settings and playing through the interesting and thought-provoking missions, hanging out with some of the coolest characters I've ever seen in a video game definitely made every part of the game even better.

I totally dug Garrus Vakarian, the turian renegade cop who quits the force to go after the game's bad guy, another turian named Saren.

I have to confess I developed quite a crush onTali'Zora nar Rayya, the quarian mechanic on a pilgrimage to find things to bring back to her people's fleet of aging starships.

But of course my favorite NPC was the krogan Battlemaster, Urdnot Wrex. The ancient, battle-scarred warrior is every bit as badass as he looks. His gruff exterior hides that he's genuinely worried about the krogan race, which is infected with a virus that has cut their fertility rate so badly that they're all dying out. It doesn't help that he often finds himself going up against other krogans, further lowering the numbers of his already endangered race.

I'll try not to say too much about the NPCs, because getting to know them is one of the coolest things about the game.

The main plot is suitably epic, and really hits the ground running. You don't waste any time killing rats and beetles in Mass Effect. The first enemies you fight are the minions of the main bad guy, Saren.

Saren is a Spectre, an agent of the Citadel Council who has special permissions to operate outside the bounds of ordinary justice. His motivations are mysterious, but his main goal is no big shocker: he wants to wipe out all life in the universe. And guess who gets to stop him?

As the player, you take the role of Commander Shepard. You can choose a first name for Shepard when you create the character, but everyone just refers to you as Commander and/or Shepard. You can choose to play as a male or female Shepard, and you also choose his or her appearance. I played as a male Shepard, so I'll refer to Shepard as "he." You also choose a role for Shepard, who can focus on firepower, technological attacks, or biotic powers (think of biotics as Mass Effect's version of the Force). You may choose to focus on two of these areas instead of just one, so I took a firepower/technological blend.

Your other choice with Shepard is to go either Paragon, Renegade, or a mixture of both. Unlike the normal good/bad choices that most RPGs offer, in which you can choose to either lie, steal, and kill your way through the plot or to stop and save every lost child and sick puppy you come across, Mass Effect gives you two ways to achieve the same goals: you can either go in guns blazing as a Renegade, sometimes sacrificing civilians to get the job done, or you can take the more careful approach of the Paragon, going out of your way to make sure only the bad guys get hurt. I appreciated that the game doesn't try to trick you about which choices are Paragon and which are Renegade.

To me, one of the best moments in Mass Effect was when I had the ability to choose, about halfway through a game, to either kill an NPC or allow it to live. I won't say any more, but even though I was playing a Paragon, I had a very hard time convincing myself to make the Paragon choice. It's when a game can make you pause and grapple with a decision that you know you're playing something golden.

That's not to say that the Paragon/Renegade system always works perfectly. A lot of times, the only difference between a Paragon and a Renegade is that the Paragon avoids civilian casualties, while the Renegade does not. This can be as simple as avoiding having civilians wander into the crossfire in a gunfight.

Soon after Shepard starts chasing after Saren, the Citadel Council makes him the first human Spectre. This allows you to choose your team and fly off in your new spaceship, the Normandy. Even though the Normandy's only purpose in the game is to ferry you from one quest to the next, I loved being able to run around inside my ship between missions, talking to NPCs and party members, and exploring my ship (which just happens to be the best ship in the human fleet).

After playing some  Fallout 3, it felt great to play a game where I did not have to worry about stocking up on ammo or repairing my gear. In Mass Effect, all weapons have unlimited ammo, but overheat if you fire too quickly. Also, weapons and armor do not degrade and never have to be repaired

One thing I could have done without, though, was the unnecessarily complicated inventory system (which I hear has been improved in the sequel). All weapons have many levels. The only thing this accomplishes is to ensure the you routinely need to switch out your weapon for another weapon of the same model but a better level. You also have to stick in upgrades to your weapons and armor, giving you extra damage or effects. Like the weapons, the individual upgrades also have levels, so you'll be switching them out throughout the game.

Another time-consuming aspect of the game is the amount of time you spend getting from place to place. This was my biggest gripe about the game. Almost every planet you land on is extremely mountainous, and you drive your all-terrain vehicle, known as the Mako, over endless hills and mountains to get from where you landed to where your mission is. This might not be so bad if there was more scenery along the way, but for the most part you don't even get trees or lakes to drive past.

Worse, if you come across some bad guys, you'll probably want to jump out and kill them on foot, because using the Mako's powerful guns to kill bad guys yields significantly fewer experience points than killing them on foot. This leads to the immersion-breaking realization that you can whittle down a big opponent's hit points with the Mako's guns, then jump out and finish it off with your regular weapons for the larger share of experience points.

The only point to driving from your landing point to your mission is that you sometimes come across a deposit of ore or a crashed probe or something. These do one of two things: give you items and experience, or give you money and experience. Helpful, but not worth boring, bumping driving to get to.

Whenever you interface with a rock deposit, crashed probe, beacon, locked box, or encrypted computer, you'll play a mini-game I think of as "circular Frogger." It's pretty intuitive and easy to get good at, and as far as hacking/lockpicking mini-games go, I actually quite liked it.

I'm sure I've left out some other things I should say, but this review is long enough now. I hope that those of you who haven't already played this excellent game will check it out. I, for one, have started a second play-through, this time as a female Shepard who will be going Renegade. I also look forward to importing my first Shepard into Mass Effect 2 as soon as I buy it. And Mass Effect 3 is coming out soon, too!

So, I'll end with this:


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What if you leveled up?

I was talking to my friend Kage about this, but I found it so fascinating that I decided to share it with the two other people who also read my blog. What if you were given points to distribute among your attributes, skills, and abilities?

I think this makes a fascinating question to ponder.

Would you improve on your strengths, maximizing your ability to do the things you already do well? This would probably move you toward fame and fortune, since chances are that your current occupation and interests use your strongest abilities.

Or would you take the opportunity to improve on some areas where you are currently lacking? In the long run, this might make you happier, as it gives you the opportunity to shore up the weaknesses that make you suffer.

Or you could put your points into something not practical at all. Maybe it's time you improved your ability to speak with cats. You could start working on your ability to breathe underwater, or open up a new multiclass in Telepath or Pyrokineticist.

In this scenario, you can improve anything, and it's up to you how to distribute your level up. You could dump it all into one stat, raising that one thing a lot while leaving everything else the same, or you could improve a number of things to a lesser degree.

Consider: what are some things about yourself that you would like to improve? This is your chance to get something you've been meaning to work on but haven't gotten to it. Want to work off some of that gut? Improve your DEX. Been meaning to go jogging to work on your cardio? Bump up your CON. Or if your significant other complains that your cooking is terrible, throw out the cookbook and dump all your points in Cooking. You can get all the improvement with none of the hard work!

Alternatively, when you consider that anything can potentially be improved, you could add to things that you could never get better at. Want to be taller? Improve your Height stat. Want to get rid of your glasses? Improve your Spot skill. After all, why would you improve something that you could work on anyway, when you can improve something you otherwise wouldn't be able to?

Personally, I'd probably dump everything* into Perception. I tend to be somewhat oblivious sometimes (sorry, dear), and I would love to be more aware of what's going on around me.

What about you?

* Well, maybe I'd save a point or two for the Chainsaw skill so that I can eventually qualify for Chainsaw Monk.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review: Perdido Street Station

When China Miéville set out to write Perdido Street Station, he deliberately wanted to do something different from most fantasy stories. Therefore, you won't find any medieval maidens riding beside silent champions on the cover of Perdido Street Station. No orcs, no elves, no dragons. In fact, the setting is not medieval at all, but industrial. If you can't remember the last time I talked about Steampunk on this supposedly Steampunk blog, here you go: Perdido Street Station is definitely Steampunk.

You won't see any gentlemen in top hats and waistcoats. There is no Victoriana in the city of New Crobuzon, which is where the novel takes place. The Steampunk elements are steam-powered trains, constructs with surprisingly advanced analog computer brains, and humans who have been Remade by fusing their bodies with steam-powered machines.

The Remade are one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Remaking is a form of punishment in New Crobuzon. The oppressive capitalist government (more on that later) sadistically combines people with machine or animal parts for transgressions against the state. Sometimes these punishments fit the crime, but often they are simply malicious ways to punish and cripple people.

Remade aren't the only interesting people you'll find walking the streets of New Crobuzon. There are also Cactacae, big cactus people who live in a domed ghetto called the Greenhouse. There are Khepri, beetle-headed women whose heads are actually whole beetles, complete with legs and everything. The third major non-human race of New Crobuzon are the Vodyanoi, froglike water dwellers who can shape water temporarily. Miéville loves spicing up his city with other creatures, too, so you'll hear about more exotic creatures from time to time. The most important of these are the Garuda, bird people who usually live far away in the Cymek desert, but also have a small immigrant population in the city.

The city of New Crobuzon itself is one of the best things about the novel. Based on what I've read of his work, Miéville loves architecture, and he has a talent for making his settings feel completely believable. One of the ways he does this is by describing the ways in which the various parts of the city relate to each other, for instance the way a blue-collar district turns into a slum, or the way a high-rent area has fallen into disrepair and become a series of tenements and squats. He then fills these areas with people of all sorts, who live fully realized, everyday lives of all kinds. And of course, squatting at the center of New Crobuzon, at the point where the train lines converge, is the massive Perdido Street Station, the hub and heart of the city.

There are a lot more unpleasant ghettos than posh neighborhoods in New Crobuzon, and that bleakness extends to whole novel. Miéville pulls no punches in populating his city with gangsters, thieves, whores, and homeless. The mayor and his cronies are more than happy to keep the populace living mostly in squalor, though there are nicer areas for the wealthy middle class, university students and faculty, and artists. Miéville is well known for his extreme left-wing politics, and he sometimes lays it on a bit thick as the mayor and his fascist militia crush the unions and keep the people living in fear.

The plot of the novel concerns a Garuda, Yagharek, who arrives in New Crobuzon to seek out a scientist, Isaac Dan Der Grimnebulin. Yagharek had his wings torn off by his tribe as punishment for a crime, and he has heard that Grimnebulin is his best and only hope to ever fly again. Isaac takes on the case, believing that his research into the near-legendary "crisis power" is the key to restoring Yagharek's flight. Meanwhile, Isaac's girlfriend Lin, a Khepri artist, takes on an enormous commission to create a statue of a man who turns out to be a prominent gangster. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, so I'll just stop right there.

Perdido Street Station is extremely well written. Reading it reminded me of the works of William Gibson and Neil Stephenson in the sense that I constantly felt like the author must be an absolute genius. Miéville's descriptions of analog computers, for instance, are completely believable and fascinating, and he gives each race a unique philosophy and mindset that is convincingly and mind-bogglingly inhuman.

I wouldn't recommend the novel to everyone, though. New Crobuzon can be a terrible place, and some atrocious things happen along the way that can be hard to read. It helps the setting feel more believable, but it also makes the book unsuitable to certain readers.

I have a few other complaints about the novel, mostly minor, that I can't get into for fear of spoilers. But despite all that, Perdido Street Station was an absolutely fascinating book that I highly recommend.

One last note: at one point late in the novel, the protagonists hire some adventurers to help them. These are clearly D&D characters, re-imagined for the setting. We even heard that they will do just about anything for "gold and experience." In interviews, China Miéville admits to having played RPGs as a kid, though he's quick to note that he hasn't played one in fifteen years. (It's nothing to be ashamed of, Mr. Miéville, sir!) Oh, and also, he collaborated with Wizards of the Coast to make a 3.5 ruleset for the world of Bas Lag where the novel is set, which is available in Dragon 352. Currently he's working closely with Adament Entertainment on an entirely new pen-and-paper RPG, called Tales of New Crobuzon.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Some Quick Updates

Hi everyone! I realize that I've been somewhat quiet lately, so here are a few brief updates.

* My replacement video card has arrived and is working beautifully. I no longer experience blue screens at startup, which is awesome.

* My birthday was a blast! Thanks to my lovely wife and my awesome friends who came by, and for everyone who couldn't make it but sent along birthday wishes. The day before my birthday, some friends came over and we played card games and had cake and ice cream. Then on the day of my birthday, my wife and I watched The Two Towers and I got to play a lot of video games.

* At work on Tuesday, the company will be having a mandatory picnic-type event where everyone will be going to a nearby historical farm. I don't know what to expect. It's a good thing so many of my friends work at the company. In fact, just about all of my friends in California do. Up the beloved company!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How Thoth ended up with Lovecraft's heart

Thoth's thinking to himself, "Seriously, you guys, who stole my freaking heart?"

Many of you know that I recently got a new computer, which I named Thoth. I bought the pieces separately, and with the help of my friends, I put it together for half the cost that it would have cost to buy a comparable computer from Dell or HP or something. This computer had with a lovely, super powerful video card, a Radeon HD 5850.

This video card ran all the modern games I own (aka the ones Steam had on sale) at high settings. But there was a problem: whenever I booted up my computer, it would get to the Windows logo, which would swirl in, pause, then half of it would disappear and a few moments later I would get a blue screen of death and a reboot. The computer would reboot okay, I would tell it to start normally, and everything would be fine. The only problem was, this would happen every time I turned on my computer.

After trying every possible software fix, I finally had to face the facts: it was a hardware problem, probably related to my memory. The error logs indicated that the crash happened when my computer tried to load the video driver. Unfortunately, trying different video drivers didn't help. The problem was with my video card.

So I sent it back for a replacement, and in the meantime, I'm using the video card I pulled out of my old computer, Lovecraft, a Radeon X600.

This was a fine card, back in its day. Sadly, its day was about five years ago. That means it can run TF2 okay, but more modern games are asking a bit much of it.

An artist's rendition of several Radeon X600 video cards around a Radeon HD 5850

I bought my card from Newegg, but the 30-day return window had passed by the time I'd narrowed down the problem, so I was forced to use the warranty provided by the card's manufacturer. It turns out that Sapphire's RMA policy requires me to send them my card (at my own expense) and wait 1-2 weeks while they process it before they'll send me a replacement.

As an added twist, my amazing wife bought me a copy of Starcraft II that arrived the day before I was going to ship back my card. I did not even install the game yet, because I knew that it would be too heartbreaking to have to give it up a day after installing it. It would be easier to wait the 1-2 weeks without having a clear idea of what I was missing.

The other downside is that, while I'm down to one video card, I can't play video games with my wife. Normally, I can play TF2 on Lovecraft, which runs it okay, while my wife plays it on Thoth. But with Thoth's video card in the mail and Lovecraft's video card in Thoth, now we only have one working PC.

It's a good thing I have China Miéville's brilliant novel Perdido Street Station to keep me distracted in the meantime. I'll definitely be posting a review when I finish!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Thinking Way Too Hard About: Adventurers

As you may have noticed, my friends and I are experiencing something of a Dungeons & Dragons Renaissance. All this gaming has got me thinking about the characters we play. I have been going on dungeon crawls since grade school, thanks to board games like Hero Quest, arcade games like Gauntlet II and Shadow Over Mystara, and computer games like Might and Magic II. I take for granted that a Warrior, a Thief, a Magician, and a Priest (and/or Dwarf and Elf) will tromp over to the dungeon outside of town to kill some goblins and skeletons. When I stop to think about it, there is a lot more going on here. Adventuring is not just something you do; an adventurer is something you are, and some common threads unite all such men and women.

There are many reasons to go adventuring: a lust for gold ranks highly among these, but there are also many who are trying to protect their people, to serve their lord or god, or to seek out hidden knowledge. These motivations are not enough to make a person an adventurer, however. A strong man can earn gold as a soldier or a thug, a priest can serve his god safe in a temple, and a scholar can learn much in libraries and laboratories. There are some whose blood calls out for more, men and women who are not content with an average, safe life. They know of the danger waiting for them outside civilization's walls, but they are willing to face the challenge. More risk, more reward.

Adventurers are brave.

Adventurers feel a draw to the uncivilized world where danger and reward wait, but there is a corresponding force pushing them away from the commonplace world of cities and civilization. Adventurers are a restless crowd, unable to sit still and accept a normal life. They have trouble relating to the blacksmith, the street sweeper, the carpenter or the farmer. Some adventurers were born to normal lives but could not accept the daily grind. Others never had the option of living a normal life. A large number of adventurers are exotic travelers from foreign kingdoms, elves and dwarves and more exotic races. Many are half-breeds who have trouble fitting in with either of their parents' races.

Adventurers are misfits.

Whether they started adventuring as the exiled vampire half-drow prince or as a gnome with a tambourine, all adventurers must fight constantly with the forces of evil. It's unavoidable: even if an adventurer is a paragon of good, that adventurer will see terrible things in the course of her adventures. No matter how strong her faith is, she must at some point grapple with that age-old question of why such evil can be allowed to exist.

Adventurers are troubled.

The victories an adventurer experiences are temporary. There is always a larger menace; when the orc raiding party has been dispatched, the main orc force must be dealt with. When one villian lies slain, there are many others hidden, scheming. Adventurers move on to the next fight because the righteous battle is never won, or because the adventurer wants to test himself against a stronger adversary, or because the next dragon has an even larger hoard. Inevitably, the battles that follow will be increasingly harder. The party that emerged battered and victorious from their fight with a giant will move on to face a larger, stronger giant the next day. This means that most adventurers eventually reach their limit, and therefore their doom. The ones who survive have to be able to rise to the challenge. As the monsters get stronger, the adventurers have to become stronger still.

Adventurers thrive on danger.

Above all, adventurers defy description. Every rule I can come up with has exceptions: there are adventurers who are cowards, or rooted in the community, or innocent, or who fear challenges. Perhaps the one thing that all adventurers must share in common is that they have answered the call to adventure, time and again.

Because they cannot hear about the grimoir hidden in the lost tomb without wanting to be the first mortal in a thousand years to learn its secrets.

Because they cannot allow the evil cult to spread without bringing upon them the judgment of the true gods.

Because no matter how much wealth they have acquired, the gem in someone else's stash gleams brighter.

Because somebody must slay the dragon. Where is my sword?

Fetch me my sword.

Friday, August 6, 2010

He Fought the Darkness. The Darkness Won.

Narrator: No one was left who could remember how it had happened,
how the world had fallen under darkness.
At least no one who would do anything.
No one who would oppose the robots.
No one who would challenge their power,
or so Dr. Wily believed...

Thus begins The Protomen, the self-titled debut of a band whose epic rock opera takes the Megaman story and turns it into a dystopian fable of hubris, compassion, vengeance, love, redemption, and hope. The songs rock hard and are full of Meat Loaf-esque emotion: everything is over the top, dramatic, and wonderful.

Somehow, the band takes a story about scientist who creates a robot boy to fight evil robots and turns it into a sprawling saga of a man trying to redeem himself by creating a robot who can stop the megalomaniac he inadvertently helped into power.

The story is complicated, though, because Megaman is the second robotic "son" Dr. Light creates. The first was Protoman, a tragic hero who fought to protect the people of the city but fell when the people of the city refused to help him in his fight.

Whereas Protoman was created as a warrior who could take down the evil Dr. Wily, Megaman was made to be a son and companion to Dr. Light in his misery and helplessness. Nevertheless, when Megaman learns of his brother's stand and noble death, he resolves to complete his brother's quest and rid the city of Wily's evil robots. Megaman rushes out while Dr. Light frantically pleads with him to reconsider and stay safe, saying, "You need to know! You are not him! His fight's not yours! You cannot win!"

Megaman goes into the city and sees how hopeless the people are. Loudspeakers constantly blare out reassuring and oppressive slogans, while the people shuffle around, dead to the world. Megaman is the one with hope. Despite what he sees, he still idealistically believes that he can fight the evil that grips the city. He stumbles across Protoman's grave and sees that someone has scrawled a message over the tombstone: "HOPE RIDES ALONE." Megaman takes it as his personal slogan, though he doesn't realize that Dr. Light himself wrote those words.

The heroic robot swears,
"And as I live
There is no evil that will stand
I will finish
What was started: the fight of Protoman!"

Megaman launches himself into the enemy robots, crowing,

"Send me the best you've got. Send me your strongest machines.
The fight my brother fought, here, now, will end with me."

As he progresses, littering the ground with the wreckage of robots, he sees the leader of the enemies up ahead. Though Megaman cannot see him clearly, there is something strangely familiar about his opponent's shape.

What happens next is tragic and epic and rocks very, very hard. I won't spoil it, (though you've probably already guessed part of it), but I should add that if you listen to the album, you're only getting half the story: you should read the Protomen lyrics and liner notes as you listen to the album to know who's talking and what they're doing.

I highly recommend giving The Protomen a listen. The music rocks, the story is epic, and you don't even have to be a fan of Megaman or SF to enjoy it (though it certainly doesn't hurt).

There is a second album that tells the story of how the city fell under Dr. Wily's control. All Protomen fans should check it out if they want to know the full arc. It also has some of the best songs on either album, so there's that, too!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Saga of the Time-Traveling FedEx Slips

Not pictured: H.G. Wells, Dr. Who, or Kathryn Janeway

About a week ago, I got a notice on my door from FedEx saying that this was my third and final notice, and I now had to go pick up my package from their delivery center way down in Emeryville. The thing is, that was the first I'd heard of it. I called them to complain, and they apologized, saying that their system showed two previous delivery attempts, but the delivery person should have left a slip at each attempt. They offered to send it again, but I said I'd just go pick it up.

So I biked down to Emeryville and picked up the package. It was my new phone, by the way, so send me an email if you'd like the new number. Anyway, I figured it was an inconvenience, but I'd live.

Then a weird thing happened: a few days later, I got a notice on my door saying it was the first delivery attempt. But that's not the weirdest part: the date on the notice was several days before the final notice's date (and about a week before the date the slip mysteriously appeared on my door). And sure enough, the next day I got the "second" notice, dated the day after the "first," both for an item I had already retrieved.

In an attempt to cause a rift in the space-time continuum, I looked up the number for the second slip on the FedEx website. The site found no such package.

There are only two possibilities I can think of:

* The delivery person found out that I was unhappy about not receiving the first two notices, and figured that I must really, really love notices. In this hypothetical delivery person's brain, the notices themselves must have some totemic quality, an intrinsic value separate from the package itself. Thus, the delivery person, out of the goodness of his/her heart, decided to grant me my beloved slips, and posted them on my door.

* The slips were posted on the days they were supposed to, but slipped through a rift in space-time and ended up on my door about a week later than they should have.

I honestly can't think of any other explanations. I've considered a few, but had to reject them:

* The slip was posted on time, but it fell off my door, and a helpful neighbor saw it a few days later and replaced it. But how do you explain the second slip also appearing, a day later?

* The two mysterious slips were actually for a second, unrelated package. So why were the dates off by several days, and why didn't anything come up when I looked them up on the website?

If you can think of any other explanation, please let me know. Just look for the guy in the tin-foil hat.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Legend of Korra

What you see above is a picture of Korra, a young woman from the Southern Water Tribe who becomes the Avatar after Aang. She will star in a new show on Nickelodeon, made by the team behind the original animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Only a few details have been released, on this site that has currently been brought down by the server load of countless squee'ing Avatar fans.

We do know these things:

  • Korra will be taught by Tenzin, who is Aang's son.

  • It will take place in a steampunk metropolis.

  • Part of the plot will deal with an anti-bending movement.

  • It takes place 70 years after the original show.

Some of you might be saying, "Aang's son?!" or "Steampunk in Avatar?!" (as if that's news), and I understand your nervousness. Those were my first reactions, too, but I've gotten over my initial shock and I'm currently in a state of extreme excitement bordering on squee. I remember what it was like watching the original show and wondering, worrying, if the creators would do something to mess it up along the way, but they always steered us right. Personally, I'd just like to know that the same animation studios will be doing the artwork, and I'll be set.

EDIT: A great interview with Mike and Brian here: 'Legend of Korra': The 'Avatar' Creators on the New Spinoff. This show sounds SO GOOD YOU GUYS!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fake Book Review: Sir Alec Byrd and the Queen of the Sky Pirates

(Note: there is no such book as Sir Alec Byrd and the Queen of the Sky Pirates. All of the names in this review are made up.)

In Sir Alec Byrd and the Queen of the Sky Pirates, B. B. Strauss (writing under the pseudonym Reginald Chestertham) begins what can be considered the golden age of Byrd stories, leaving behind the hackneyed plots of earlier tales while not yet devolving into the jingoism of the later stories.

The Queen of the Sky Pirates is perhaps best known for its thrilling climax, which depicts Sir Alec's dogfight with the sky pirates among the peaks of the Himalayas, and culminates in a one-on-one dogfight between Byrd and the Queen of the Sky Pirates deep within the ancient ruins hidden in the mountains.

Though she never gets a name, the character of the Queen makes the story interesting to scholars of Strauss's work, as she clearly shows how the author was maturing as a writer. Several commentators have focused on the fact that the Queen, a black woman, is one of the few characters in all of the Byrd stories to shoot down Byrd in a fair, one-on-one dogfight (the others being Baron Hell in The Pharaoh's Heart, Otto von Dietrich in Gorombaa, Island of Monsters and Lord Percy Fitzhugh in The Curse of the Maharajah's Gold). The dogfight itself, which takes place over a series of unnamed Mediterranean islands, is considered one of the most thrilling and realistic depictions of one-on-one air combat in the series.

Though it has received less attention from scholars, an equally important aspect of the Queen's character is that she is presented as an attractive woman. When Byrd first sees her in a secret aviators' bar in Greece, he asks Sophia, "Who is that beautiful woman who just came in?" In the ensuing scene, where Byrd and the Queen flirt from across the bar, Strauss shows that he has come a long way from earlier stories such as Sir Alec Byrd and the Cannibal Head-hunters of the Congo.

When Sophia is jealous of Byrd's flirtation with the Queen, we see that the co-owner of the Aurora is becoming a more well-rounded character, herself. In previous stories, Strauss uses Sophia as a plot device. Her secret island shop serves as a place for an injured Byrd to take the damaged Aurora to get them both patched up. Sophia passes on news and fusses over the damage to her plane, often with pages of description in which Strauss overindulges in his passion for amateur engine-building. In The Queen of the Sky Pirates, Strauss delves more deeply into the relationship between Sir Alec and Sophia, describing the plane they built together as their "child" and exploring issues of responsibility in the life of his brawling, devil-may-care hero.

While Sir Alec gets into a brawl in virtually every Byrd story, The Queen of the Sky Pirates is notably the first time he gets into trouble for it. During the opening scene, at a gala in a New York museum, the famous ace is insulted by an airplane racer. When Sir Alec begins to fight the dandy, the two are forcibly removed from the room, meaning that Sir Alec is not present when the Sky Pirates arrive and steal the a stone idol from the museum, setting off the chain of events that constitute the rest of the tale.

Much has been made of Strauss's fascination with weird fiction and his attempts to incorporate it into his stories, but the stone idols and the lost city in the Himalayas are one of the most effective examples found in the series. Strauss leaves both the idols and the city they guard shrouded in mystery, allowing the reader to guess "what hand might carve such grotesque features, and what mind might conceive such a horrid shape." When the city is revealed in the final scene, Strauss describes the "Cyclopean structures flashing by," lifting the most recognizable descriptions from his contemporary writers while focusing on the dogfight itself.

Some modern editors have chosen to begin Sir Alec Byrd collections with The Queen of the Sky Pirates, and there is evidence that Strauss himself considered the tale the first "true" Byrd story, as later stories stop referencing events of novels that preceded The Queen of the Sky Pirates.

Friday, July 2, 2010

I don't like sand

What's up with all these D&D posts lately? Well, I've been playing a lot of D&D, and I know that my audience (all four of you) is probably interested in hearing about D&D. So here you go, another D&D post.

I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.
--Anakin Skywalker

I agree, Anakin. But you left out one important detail about sand: it explodes, and it kills you! Shikirr and his clutch found this out the hard way on Wednesday, when we found ourselves fighting monsters that were living dust devils.

Before the monsters showed up, we met a dwarf who spoke with Jarvix and Castri while Yuka and Shikirr kept careful watch. The dwarf warned us that we were fighting someone called the Wastewalker, who apparently has a vendetta against the Veiled Alliance. Thanks for nothing, Jarvix and Barcan! I was happy being a bug-slave and now here I am, running from my life from people who aren't even out to get me. Well, they're my clutch-mates now, so I'll defend them with my life. The jerks.

The fact that we were fighting the Wastewalker didn't come as a surprise to the players, since the module is called Fury of the Wastewalker. It didn't mean much to the characters, either, as we had already gathered that the storm wasn't natural. We also learned that the Wastewalker's lieutenant, a siltrunner lizard, had a personal grudge against the dwarf, and was coming for him.

After the dwarf showed off his gnarly obsidian wounds, we got attacked by dust devils. One of them promptly exploded, dealing massive damage, including a critical hit on yours truly. I went from 33 HP to 11, then used my Speed of Thought ability to climb onto a rock to avoid the creatures, incurring an opportunity attack that dropped me to 6. Then the sand creature attacked, dealing 11 more damage and knocking me out before I even had a turn. GG, uninstall.

Two of our players were out for the day, so our DM let the first two people to go down play as their characters. I say the first two because, as you may have guessed, our party was soon literally biting the dust. The sand creatures made a mockery of our piecemeal armor and meager defenses. As Jarvix's player, who took over Phye, pointed out at one attack, the attack roll was over twice Phye's defense value. The DM was consistently rolling in the mid to high twenties on his attack rolls, which makes me wonder why he didn't just go straight to rolling damage. Oh that's right; in case he landed critical hits, which he got at least two of on Wednesday.

Shikirr was down, so I got to play Barcan, the human star-sorceror who has the survivability of a damp marshmallow. Because Barcan was late to the battle, he was the last one standing as the lizard-person lieutenant showed up. I couldn't do much about it as one of the dust devils picked up the dwarf, who was already having a seizure from the lieutenant's magical attacks. The lieutenant then cold-bloodedly stabbed him in the heart. Dag.

The dust devils turned to Barcan, and I knew they'd make short work of me. So I figured, heck, this isn't my regular character, we're all about to go down, and I'm not going to get a TPK with a daily power still remaining. So I flung out Barcan's daily power: Cosmos Call.

I focused the power of the unknowable void in my fragile human mind, just long enough to direct it into the skull of my enemy. The lizard man squealed as the power of the universe overwhelmed his brain and flat out killed him.

I like to think that Barcan had a little smirk on his face as the dust devils swung over and beat the tar out of him.

Then our DM dropped the bombshell: with the lizard person lieutenant dead, the dust devils would dissipate after a round. So basically, once they were done with me, they gently fell back into the desert, leaving a suddenly peaceful scene of a bunch of bodies and unconscious people.

I like to think that, when we wake up, we'll be spitting out sand and complaining sand getting into places we didn't even know we had, like Iago in Disney's Aladdin.

Anyone? Anyone?

*cricket, cricket*

Oh, well. See you in Athas!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

If I were to sum up my impression of Eberron in one word, that word would be "juicy"

In this post, I will talk about our "regular" D&D game, the one that we play at a friend's house with people we know rather than the pick-up Encounters games we play at the game store.

We started the campaign in Fallcrest, which is set in the default D&D setting (which may or may not still be called Greyhawk, I'm not totally clear on this). We fought some kobolds, slew a dragon, and got a magical sword as loot. It was all very straightforward D&D stuff. The next adventure we ran was set in Eberron, where things turned out to be somewhat more... juicy.

First, I should take a moment to talk about our campaign, and how we went from Greyhawk to Fallcrest. Our Dungeon Master (who plays Jarvix in my other campaign) has set up his world as a mix of every Dungeons and Dragons setting. People in various parts of the world believe in various pantheons, and depending on how people see the world, the world itself manifests in different ways. At least, that's the way I interpret it.

This feels a lot more real to me than the normal D&D approach, where a campaign setting has a strictly delineated pantheon of gods, who each have their distinct areas of influence. This feels too neat and tidy for my tastes. I like the idea that the gods are sort of trying to scratch out an area of influence while competing with similar gods from neighboring countries.

In any case, we got to Eberron and things seemed pretty normal. We had a bit of a laugh at the place names, as we were in the Darkswamp at the edge of the Blacktree Forest or something like that. The town we were investigating was populated mostly by humans, orcs, and half-orcs. That was a bit weird, but not totally unknown in a setting like Forgotten Realms.

But things got really weird when we entered the inevitable nearby monster-filled cave. We started things off by fighting cultists with eyes growing all over their bodies, who were led by an eyeless, psychic, tentacular horror. Meanwhile, an eye growing out of the wall tried to take over our minds.

Things got even weirder as we descended into Khyber, which is apparently Eberron's version of the underworld. Here we met monsters without heads but with two mouths, formed by evil wizards who had magically fused two goblins. At one point, the DM mentioned that the monsters' eyes were looking for us, and someone asked a question that you should probably avoid asking in Eberron: "But without a head, where are its eyes?" In this case, the DM deadpanned, "Oh, all over." (For those wondering about the mouths, they're on the shoulders.)

The deeper we get into the Khyber, the softer the walls get, and in our current room the walls are distinctly fleshy. I joked that, if we poked them, they'd probably bleed, but I'm in no hurry to test that. Let's just say that the floor has mouths.

I'm not one to get all squeamish, and part of me thinks that this stuff is pretty cool. I'm just glad that, when I run my Dark Sun, things are going to be decidedly drier.

Monday, June 28, 2010

We Killed It and Took Its Stuff

I have not one, but TWO D&D sessions to recount, as these seem to be fairly popular (meaning one person has commented asking for more). I'll discuss our D&D Encounter from last Wednesday in this post, then post later about the game I played on Sunday.

Our intrepid party found their way into a canyon, where we found a rare fruit tree, covered in ripe, juicy fruit. The non-kreen in the group assured me that the fruit was delicious and succulent. I naturally had little interest in something so repulsive, though I pointed out that, as my companions ate the fruit, their own nutritional value was increasing. I was just trying to make conversation, but apparently my comment made them nervous. I will never understand non-kreen.

Suddenly, we found ourselves under attack from some nearby boulders. Goblin-types bristled at the top of some twenty-foot rocks, peeking out from among the brambles. It soon became obvious that the creatures could happily dodge among the brambles, but when we climbed the rocks, we found ourselves getting slashed and entangled.

One of our party members, Phye, found a rope dangling from the cliff, attached to some provisions. She climbed the rope, only to find a drake tied to the other end. She was soon fighting for her life against the goblins, though the drake itself was too busy trying to break free of its bonds to fight Phye. Yuka climbed up the rock face to help her, but they both suffered a huge blow when, upon defeating one of the goblins, a curse-bleeder (or whatever they were called) made its dying body explode so that it badly damaged both Phye and Yuka.

The most dangerous creatures were spellcasters who threw their own blood at us to curse us, which hurt us and made us more vulnerable to attack. Meanwhile, two snipers with magical rocket boots flew from rock to rock, peppering us with arrows along the way. I half-jumped, half-climbed up after them, then used my natural Thri-Kreen jumping to try to keep up with them. Phye had succeeded in loosing the drake, but its wingbeats did not dislodge the goblins as she had hoped. She needed my help, so I jumped over to her rock as she was dropped by some goblins.

Jarvix, meanwhile, was so engrossed in his fruit that he was nearly taken down before he could put up a fight. Soon he, too, was down for the count, leaving me, the stalwart Yuka and a cowardly Barcan the only ones still fighting, as Castri was MIA. While Yuka held them off, I fed Phye the magical healing fruit I had picked up from the caravan in the first encounter, and she helped us fight off the goblins while the drake lazily flapped away.

Yuka flung several goblins from the rock, where Barcan cleaned them up with chicken-hearted efficiency. We then got Jarvix back on his feet as we took out the last goblin, expecting it to explode again. We were all rather disappointed when it just fell.

This was the second fight so far where closing to melee range meant taking ongoing damage. In the first fight, it was the sandstorm that dealt 5 points of damage to any player outside the tents. In the third fight, it was the brambles. This feels like lazy scenario design to me. The designers figured that the Defenders fight in close range and can soak up a lot of damage, so they design the fights so that close range fighters always have to take ongoing damage.

Another gripe I have is that the enemies keep coming from all sides, making it impossible to set up a unified battle line. I have several abilities that depend on getting several party members "stuck in" to fight the enemy in close combat, and so far I haven't been able to make good use of them.

I'm not trying to say that every fight has to be tailored to allow the player characters to shine, and I'm definitely still having a great time.

One thing I should make note of is that last Wednesday's session was the first D&D Encounter in which we got genuine loot. We had picked up some healing fruit in the first encounter, but in the third we got a magic weapon (which went to Yuka, who had recklessly broken his beloved rope-axe weapon in an earlier fight) and a shrunken head made of wood (made, we were told, from a slightly larger wooden head!)

It felt a bit weird so far to go through two encounters without seeing a single gold coin for our trouble, so it's nice to get some loot, finally... even if I didn't get any of it myself, and thri-kreen don't understand the way money works.

See you in Athas!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

O, to be a psychic, four-armed bug-man!

Our D&D Encounters group had our second game last week, and tomorrow's the next game. The second game was even more fun than the first, which is really saying something. The players seemed more relaxed, and the DM was really getting into it. He would take simple rolls and actions and describe them in epic terms.

In one particularly memorable moment, one of the characters, a Mul (half-dwarf) ex-gladiator was wrestling with a giant beetle that held him in its pincers. The beetle opened a secondary mouth and jabbed a needle-sharp proboscis into the Mul's chest, poisoning him. Not one to be taken down lightly, the Mul broke free of the beetle's grasp and used an ability that let him end the "poisoned" condition. The DM enthusiastically described how the character out-wrestled the beetle, then used his diaphragm to pump out the venom from his chest. If you can, try to picture someone holding an imaginary beetle's pincers in his hands while pantomiming pumping poison from your chest with your diaphragm. He had us in stitches, and the moment will probably live forever in my memories of D&D.

My character so far has been reliable and I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job of tanking (though I probably could be using my offensive abilities better). Still, I feel like I'm getting the hang on this character, and hopefully I'll be more on top of things in tomorrow's session. We'll see if maybe I can even get such a legendary moment of greatness!

If any of you are still wondering why I'm so stoked about playing a thri-kreen, check out this picture. Some thri-kreen art looks pretty terrible, as they can look like lumpy beetle-people, but this is the way I picture my guy:

Though my current character has a stone, three-bladed halberd, orangish markings, and a mangled arm.

See you in Athas!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Watch some awesome trailers for The Old Republic

I can guarantee that The Old Republic won't be as awesome as these cinematics. Plus it's an MMO, so in reality the Sith would be named Darth Bauls. So let's just watch the videos several times each and bask in awesome Star Wars action.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Watch this brutal Mortal Kombat reboot video

(WARNING: NSFW, contains violence and disturbing imagery)

I find the trend toward making comic book and video game stories more realistic to be fascinating, and one of the best examples I've seen is the Mortal Kombat: Rebirth trailer. According to Wikipedia, the video was used to pitch the concept of a Mortal Kombat reboot to see if the director could get a studio interested. Here's hoping somebody bites, because this project is way too awesome not to happen.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Let's Geek Out on Athas

Every week, Wizards of the Coast sponsors a night of Dungeons and Dragons at your local gaming store. They provide the the campaign and the characters, the store supplies the DM, and you bring your dice, some snacks, and all the enthusiasm you can cram into your exoskeleton. What's not to love?

I didn't play in the previous D&D Encounters "season," because the setting didn't feel sun-bleached and barbaric enough for me. Well, no worries there, because this current season is set in Dark Sun, D&D's barbaric sand world, with the look designed by none other than BROM:

I'd always been intrigued by the Dark Sun setting, but somehow the fact that my favorite fantasy artist was the principal designer of the look of the setting had escaped my notice until I started looking into it in preparation for D&D Encounters.

So my friend Kage and I headed over to Eudemonia, one of our local gaming stores, and sat down. I was almost late since I had to get dinner after work, so I ended up devouring my ramen at an alarming speed and leaving my wife at the ramen place to dash over to the game store.

I made it just in time, as in a few more minutes they would have given my spot to someone else. As it was, they had to turn away almost as many players as got to play. I heard that they were hoping to find a second DM for the next week so that more people could play.

I got to play my character of choice, Shikirr, a Thri-Kreen. Now I'm not going to say that I've wanted to play a Thri-Kreen since I saw a Thri-Kreen card in our collection of AD&D 2nd Edition trading cards, but if I did say that, it wouldn't be inaccurate.

I don't know how you spent your past Wednesday, but I spent it as a psionic, four-armed mantis-person. Kyle played as a Tiefling psionicist, while I was technically a Battlemind. This worked out very well, as I tanked the heavy hitters while Kyle brought the damage. Speaking of damage, our DM shone when it came time to describe the grisly deaths our enemies suffered. You'd think that psionic death would be pretty boring, as essentially you kill the other person's mind, but our DM described with relish how blood flowed from our surprised enemies' noses, mouths, and ears. Disgusting. I love it.

My dice rolling left something to be desired, as only one attack hit, but Kage seemingly could do no wrong. When the encounter started, none of our enemies had had their heads popped by psionics before. Kage made sure that, by the time the encounter ended, this was no longer the case. Though I only landed one attack, it was an amplified attack that both did a lot of damage and blinded my opponent. The DM described how I swung my weapon in front of my enemy's eyes, and the enemy just started laughing when the wind of my attack popped his eyeballs. Yuss.

I thought that Wizards did a great job of coming up with a scenario that threw together players who had never gamed before and got them to join up. Just like the players, some of the characters did not know each other and some did. The whole party got thrown together when we were the only survivors of a mysterious shower of obsidian boulders. The players all had name cards with their character's portrait and name, which made it easy to remember who was playing who and broke the ice. We had no choice but to rely on each other, and we found ourselves grabbing supplies as we came under attack from opportunistic lizard people.

The lizard people had the drop on us and were about to be reinforced, so we had to grab supplies as the fight soon went from "kill the lizard people" to "escape with our lives." To complicate things, we were in the middle of a vicious sandstorm that did not bother the lizard people but slowly chipped away at our health whenever we were out in the open, giving us another reason to escape as soon as possible.

The players were almost all completely chill and easy to play with, and the DM brought us all together with enthusiasm. He plowed right into things, minimizing the amount of social interaction we nerds had to do before we got down to doing what we do best: throwing dice and geeking out.

My only complaint was that Wizards of the Coast really dropped the ball on the character sheets. They were plagued with typos, the character art did not match the character descriptions, and from what I've read, the stats were also calculated wrong. But to be honest, these were small gripes and did not take away from my enjoyment of the evening.

In case you're not already insanely jealous, I got some cool loot.

It's a foam drink koozie, and reads as follows:

Athasian Sleeve of Refreshment Level 1
This obsidian-black sheath fits snugly around your favorite drink, shielding it from the warming effects common to the Sea of Silt, the Ivory Triangle, and your gaming table.

Wondrous ItemD&D Encounters
Property: When fitted around a standard can or bottle, this insulating koozie protects your hand from suffering any ill effects that may be caused by holding a frosty beverage, while keeping your drink refreshingly cold.
Special: You can probably get away with not using a coaster.
TM & © 2010 Wizards of the Coast, LLC.

Totally awesome. See you in Athas!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

RPG Item: Toss-Dog

The assassin paused beneath the low window, crouching in the shadows and listening to the guards talking within.

"He's only one man. Stay sharp. He won't get past us."

The black-garbed man knew that there was truth in the guards' words. The visiting duke was asleep in his room, but to get there, the assassin had to cross the guards' room. Not without a diversion.

He unslung the bundle he wore over his back. It was a complicated series of bars and gears on a wooden framework. He pulled a cord free and the thing began ticking. Taking a few deep breaths to steady himself, he hurled the bundle through the window into the room. A series of loud snaps and clangs came from the room, accompanied by the surprised shouts of the guards.

The assassin leaped over the windowsill as a shape unfolded in the room and began to bound around, snapping at the guards and causing enough confusion for the assassin to dart through the room and into the duke's chamber.

Image by nancynismo

A toss-dog is a device built to be easily transported in its deactivated state that turns into a vicious attack hound when activated. The device itself is built of metal and wood by the most skilled artificers. The toss-dog is about the size of a backpack when folded up, and the size of a medium-sized dog when active.

In its folded up state, the toss-dog is very resilient and can be hurled long distances onto hard surfaces. There have been occasions where toss-dogs were fired into enemy fortifications using catapults. When unfolded, the toss-dog is somewhat more fragile, as its delicate internal components are more exposed. Nevertheless, its high speed and agility ensure that a toss-dog often causes maximum mayhem before being disabled or running down.

A toss-dog can fight for about five minutes (one encounter) before its internal mechanisms wind down. At this point, the toss-dog must be folded up and re-wound, a process that takes about five minutes for a technically savvy user, or fifteen minutes for the average person. Someone who has no experience with machines is incapable of winding and folding a toss-dog at all.

The parts of a toss-dog are readily available, but they must be very carefully constructed. Some magic is required as well, and a jewel costing at least 3,000 gp must be imprinted with a living dog's mind in order to give the toss-dog life. This imprinting can be performed by any reasonably skilled ritualist, and it causes no harm to the living dog. Rich nobles often commission one or more toss-dogs to be imprinted with the mind of their favorite hunting hound, and a powerful monarch can have an entire hunting pack of toss-dogs modeled on their prize pooch. A necromancer can imprint a dead canine's mind onto a toss-dog.

Though they started out as pets to nobles, toss-dogs came into their own when they were picked up by underworld figures. They were first developed by Iovar Varagundsun, who envisioned them as caravan escorts that could be packed along with the goods and activated if the caravans came under attack. The toss-dogs never really caught on as caravan escorts, but they went through a period when they were extremely fashionable among the wealthy. On Iovar's death, the ownership of the toss-dog workshop was contested between Iovar's protege and his main financier. Both men hired shady characters to help them take over the company, but the cut-throats and thieves preferred to keep the toss-dogs for themselves, finding them incredibly useful for assassinations, burglaries, and jailbreaks.

Most modern toss-dogs are either patched-up originals created by Iovar Varagundsun or cheaper knockoffs commissioned by underworld bosses. A well-repaired Varagundsun original is worth a small fortune, while the cheaper ones are much more reasonable. You'll get what you pay for, though. Many cut-rate toss-dogs will fall apart or run down after activating, or fail to activate at all. Also be sure that the person selling you the toss-dog doesn't have any reason to harm you, or you may find your new "best friend" going for your throat instead of your enemy's.

Monday, May 17, 2010

RIP Ronnie James Dio

Ronnie James Dio died on Sunday. He was a legend in the rock world, fronting some of the best and most metal bands of all time. Starting out in Rainbow and Elf, he replaced Ozzy at the Black Sabbath frontman before moving on to his own band, Dio. Along the way, he popularized the 'horns' and made metal the dragon's lair that it is today.

Unlike many other rock stars (and other Black Sabbath frontmen), Dio was an articulate, intelligent man who seemed to know how silly a lot of rock is, and then embrace it anyway. He lived the rock and roll lifestyle - notoriously, he once drove a car into a hotel lobby - but he never overindulged to the point where he melted his brain. He gave some of the clearest interviews I have ever heard on the subject of rock music.

Where Ronnie is now, you can bet the locals are surprised at his choice of furnishings. They're probably used to fluffy clouds and maybe green meadows. Requests for spike-covered thrones, chains, and sharp weapons on the walls must be causing something of a stir.

Rock in peace, Dio.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

RPG Ability: Beard Armor

Have a seat, boy, and listen. Now, you're not in trouble, but you gave your ma and I quite a scare when we found that razor in your toolbelt. We're not mad, we're just worried that you might make a terrible mistake.

Don't shave your beard, son. No dwarf should ever shave his beard. I know you think you're stickin' it to your old man and all that, but maybe I can change your mind. I'd like to tell you the story of your great-great-great-great granddad, old Othar Beardhaverson.

Othar was stationed to an outpost on the frontier of our clan's territory, right at the edge of goblin territory. It was little more than a small guardhouse cut from the rock, with a storeroom and a watch tower, but it was crucial in watching for goblin incursions. Othar and three other dwarves kept watch day and night. It was boring work, sure, but crucial, lad, crucial.

You see, one day they spotted a mass goblins approaching across the valley. They tried to go for help, but the goblins had sent advanced scouts that engaged the dwarves and penned them up. The main force would arrive in a matter of hours, and the dwarves knew they had to get a message out to ready the defenses.

They made several attempts to push past the goblins, but the greenskin scouts had the dwarves outnumbered ten to one and kept pushing them back into the gatehouse. The dwarves were tough though, and they kept fighting despite their wounds.

After several hours of constant fighting, all of the dwarves were too wounded to run except your great-great-great-great granddad. After so much abuse, his proud armor was in sad shape, battered and broken, and he didn't have the time or tools necessary to mend it properly. Without his armor's protection, he wouldn't last ten seconds against the cunning gobbos.

Othar was a clever one, though, and he came up with a plan. He took his big, glorious beard, and he braided it over his body, using it to shore up the weak points in his armor and keep the plates in position. With his armor prepared like this, he downed the last of the ale and charged from the guardhouse. The goblins attacked as always, but their weapons couldn't get through Othar's beard armor. He fought his way through and ran as fast as his legs could carry him, bringing warning to his king and mobilizing the army.

The next day, the army came and relieved the guard house. They met the goblin army head-on and turned it back, with Othar Beardhaverson, still clad in his beard armor, personally leading the final charge that routed the goblins.

There, there. Don't cry, son. We forgive you. Just promise me you'll throw away that horrible razor, and not another word about shaving your beard. For your ma's sake.

Beard Armor is an ability that allows a bearded character to bolster his armor with his mighty beard. It was developed by the dwarves, and dwarves get bonuses as the race with the best beards, but it is available to any race capable of growing beards. Sorry, elves.

A character cannot simply tie his beard about his body and expect to receive the Beard Armor bonus. One must learn the secret of the Beardsmith's Art, which includes special techniques for knotting and braiding beards to give the best durability and protection.

Beard Armor gives its bonus in addition to any other armor that the character is wearing. It can be worn by any class, and does not impart any armor-related penalties to skills or spellcasting.

Only the character who grew the beard can wear the beard armor. You cannot cut off another character's beard armor and wear it as your own. Beard armor must consist entirely of your own beard, though you may include your mustache if you like. No weaves, wigs, or beard extensions can grant beard armor.

Legends say that some Beardsmiths grow their beard armor to the level of beardery where they become Beardmasters. Beardmasters weave weapons and tools into their beards so that they can both attack and defend with their formidable facial hair. If there is any interest in the Beardmaster paragon path, please let me know in the comments. If I get enough commenters clamoring for Beardmaster rules, I'll give it a shot to develop full rules for the paragon path.

EDIT: Kudos to my lovely (and beardless) wife for the idea.