Monday, November 30, 2009

Recent Events

Lately, I've been pretty busy with other things that keep me from writing in my blog. Mainly, my preparations for my Master's degree exam have been keeping me away from any serious contemplation of gaming - which is, of course, my true love in life.

I have managed to find some time to read through some decent fantasy recently, namely the fantasy series by Jim Butcher, the Codex Alera. The sixth book of the Codex Alera came out last week, and in preparation I read through the previous five books over the Thanksgiving week. I loved Butcher's other series, the Dresden Files, and his fantasy series hasn't disappointed. It does fall victim to some of the big cliches of fantasy - namely, the farmboy who discovers unknown talents and rises to greatness - but other than that, it's a very solid series, with some very interesting fantasy ideas.

I love to read a good book, fantasy or otherwise, though fantasy and science fiction are what I prefer to read for fun - don't get me wrong, I love educational reading, and I want to get my PhD in English and teach college students, but for fun, fantasy is what I prefer. I wish I could find a way to get some fantasy discussion into a classroom, but it's hard to work something that new into the study of English - and I shouldn't talk, since my interest is in Medieval Studies, the earliest forms of English.

In any case, for the next week or two, I'll still be busy with my MA exam, but some part of my mind will be on fantasy, gaming, video games, and the like.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Heroes

What is it precisely that makes a hero? Heroes are one of the staples of our culture, those stories we are told at bedtime as children, the stories we will later grow to enjoy in books and movies and other media. Heroes are the people who choose good over evil, who take a stand and say “This far, and no further.” For whatever reason, they are people who have decided to stand in the way of what they believe is wrong and work for good rather than evil, and we immortalize them for it. That seems to be the basic premise of a hero; most heroes have little else in common. Achilles in the Iliad, for example, is a near-psychopathic killer who flies into a rage when a friend is killed, yet in the end he has mercy on the king of Troy. It seems unreasonable to compare him to more contemporary heroes such as Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, as Aragorn seems to be a paragon of virtue – he is a master swordsman and archer, he is courteous and kind, he is loved by those who are his subjects and respected by others.

So why is the study of the hero important, if they are so varied? Can characters like Odysseus be compared to characters like King Arthur? Is a person’s heroism greater or lesser because of how he goes about it? It seems there are different types of heroism, and each involves different things, though all seem to tie back to the general concept. First, the hero searching for redemption. This seems to be a fairly common heroic ideal, especially recently, with characters like Angel, or the lesser-known Skilgannon the Damned, from David Gemmell’s book White Wolf. Both of these characters have horrible deeds in their past; mostly, they seem to involve large amounts of murder, whether they felt sorry about it at the time they did it or not. Somewhere along the line, things changed and they decided to walk another path; for Angel, it was when he was given his soul, and for Skilgannon it was when he realized that his queen, who ordered the massacre of an entire city, told him that she would do it again for victory.

These sorts of heroes have a lot they want to atone for, and they try as hard as they can to do so, whether it is possible for them to accomplish this goal or not. Often these heroes are the most utilitarian, killing those who work for evil rather than trying to rehabilitate them, because they see things differently – sometimes, though, these heroes become the strongest proponents of rehabilitation, because they are trying for redemption – why can’t others? They often recognize real evil when they see it, for they have a great deal of experience, and they can be the most extreme heroes in many situations. They are probably the heroes most likely to see things in terms of shades of grey, as they have seen true evil and they know that not all bad things are Evil with a capital E.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Holiday Reading

Like I said in my last post, I've been reading a lot of David Gemmell books lately. I can read through them very quickly, as they tend to be pretty straightforward, which is part of what I like about them. I like the idea of a main hero who knows what his faults are, and doesn't tend to be arrogant about most things. Granted, most of Gemmell's books are about great warriors, but they are self-aware, to a point; they know that they are good at what they do, and also that they may not have the most complicated way of looking at life. His most popular character, Druss, has a very simple, black and white way of looking at things; he knows when something is good or evil, and will always try to choose good, even if it means pain or suffering for himself. I've even been looking into a game to try and express the kind of setting Gemmell's books take place in, and found one that seems to fit well called Barbarians of Lemuria, which lists as some of its inspirations things like Robert E. howard's Conan and Kull stories.

I'm also looking into re-reading Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which is the polar opposite of Gemmell's books in the fantasy world. Far from being fantasy pulp books, where one can be read independantly of the others, this series is intricate and long, with a complicated design and story that are sure to keep the mind working. Even in paperback, the shortest book in this series is over 700 pages, and there are dozens of characters and numerous storylines to keep track of. The setting is gloriously high magic, but is also not ahsamed to let major characters die, sometimes nobly, somtimes ignobly. Most of the main characters don't have a great deal of time for self-analyzation, and those that do are often confused by what they find.

These two series, along with my newfound addiciton to Bioware's new videogame Dragon Age: Origins, will likely keep me occupied for much of my holidays season. I'm already on my second playthrough of Dragon Age, and have put in close to 80 hours of play - and I still haven't managed to do all I want to, and accoridng to the game's logs, I have completed only about 65% of what is possible to do in the game. I love Bioware for their games, but sometimes I wish they weren't so addictive - every game of theirs I have bought, and I have bought most of their games, has cost me a significant part of a month, if not more. So while this is not technically holiday reading, I do spend a lot of time reading things in this game, particularly the entries that are found throughtout the game that explain more of the setting's history and cultures.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Swords & Sorcery

One of my favorite authors of all time is David Gemmell, who died in 2006. I started reading his books with Legend, and after that I was driven; I managed to collect every book he published in one form or another, and I read through most, if not all, of them about once a year. I'm currently in the middle of this year's read-through.

I think one of the things that attracts me to his books is that they tend to take place in fantasy worlds, but they are generally fantasy worlds that don't have the overwhelming amount of magic that some other fantasy worlds have. There are no super-powerful wizards or direct channels to deities in most of his books; there are a few mystics and psychics, and a couple shamans, and maybe a couple wizards or sorcerors, but these are magic-users who have to prepare to use their magic, and using their magic costs them personally. They don't lob fireballs at all their problems; mostly, they pay mercenaries or assassins to take care of things. Mostly, magic is treated as somethign the other guys, or the bad guys, have, and is something to be avoided or overcome.

then there are the characters. Sometimes they aren't very deep, but I find the way he describes them fascinating. The grizzled old legend wielding his famous two-handed axe; the eagle-eyed bowman; the soldier who will throw himself into combat in a berserk rage; the deadly weaponsmaster who moves like a dancer; the practical fighter who has no problems with dirty tricks if they help him win; the heavily armored warrior who takes blows so his companions will not. These are people whose problems aren't often solved by magic, and they have to fight to make their way in the world. They live in a world that is constantly struggling, and even if one nation declares peace, another will start a war.

I know these books and stories aren't the deepest literature around. I know that some of them owe a great deal to previous characters like Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Something about them calls to me, though; maybe it is the way in which the mqin characters have to solve their problems, or the fact that many of the best characters live by a simple, ironclad code to do no evil, and stick to this code in the face of everythign they must fight. It would be fun to try and run a game in a setting like this, where magic is rare or a thing for the bad guys; I wonder how players would handle it, and I'd love to play in something like this.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Greek Geekery

As I have probably mentioned in other posts, I have a fondness for Greek myth and legend, as well as actual history. I'm actually the go-to guy for my mother, who is currently teaching her 5th grade class about mythology. So occasionally I get ideas to play a game in this kind of environment.

I've thought about using D&D for this before, but at times I feel that the D&D system is too limiting - even with all the classes, there are times when you can't get the kind of spread of abilities and such that you want in a character. So what I have planned in the past is to use the Cinematic Unisystem. Cinematic Unisystem is a variant on the Unisystem used by Eden Studios, who used to hold the licenses for the Buffy and Angel RPGs.

Unisystem is a points-based system, and at times it can get pretty complex; this is why for games like this, where the characters play Greek heroes, demigods, and the like, I prefer the Cinematic version, as it simplifies certain elements of the system to make things flow more smoothly - in a cinematic fashion, if you will.

I have visions of a group of characters traveling through Greece, armed with spear and shield, doing great and terrible things for themselves and for the gods, because the Greek idea of a hero is not the same as our modern idea - for ancient Greeks, heroes were simply those who did great things,whether they were good or evil. Achilles was a hero, even though he was a bastard, and so was Hector, even if he was a Trojan. Groups of heroes are even in-theme for Greeks, if you ever read about Jason and the Argonauts or Hercules and his companions.

I also would imagine the characters would follow, in some manner, the typical path of a Greek hero - they start out well, and then go on to perform a series of great deeds, each one greater than the one before. As they do so, they begin to think that they are on a plane with the gods, and that they should be one of them, and for their arrogance, the gods cause them to fall. It would be an interesting path to tread. I have at least two other games that use Greek myth as a basis, Hellas and AGON, but I would like to try my idea.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A-Gaming We Shall Go

After my last post about Dragon Age, I began to think once more about tabletop (or, in most recent cases, internet) gaming, and what I could do to get in on it, hopefully with any of my friends still willing to humor me. This has been brought to the forefront both by the experience of playing Dragon Age, which had a compelling story, and also by the release of a few products that have really made me rethink the way I look at a certain game, that being Exalted.

I first bought Exalted back in 2001, when the 1st Edition was released; I have the Collector's Edition, slipcover and all, and I really thought the ideas behind the game were cool. As time went on, the products printed for the game began to drift into an area that I wasn't too thrilled with, but then a 2nd Edition came out, and for a while, I was happy with it again - until the same drift started, and I stopped buying Exalted books. Recently, though, since I am in a somewhat oddly-timed Exalted game (once every couple months or so), and since a number of prominent Exalted freelancers post to a board I frequent (, my interest has been rekindled.

My experience with online games has been mostly good, but also rather limited; the last time I ran a game online, or participated in one, we all played in chatrooms provided by the AOL Instant Messenger service. Since my computer no longer seems to like that program, I'm looking to move on, and at the same time pick a program that won't scare prospective players (or GM, who knows) away. Currently, I'm thinking of using Gametable, a fairly simple, easy-to-use, non-graphically intensive program.

I've heard good things about Google Wave for use with gaming, but since I don't have any access to the program, I can't say much about it. Gametable is nice, but ideally I want something that can deal with two open chat windows at a time - one for in-character action, one for out-of-character stuff like rolling dice and rules discussion. If 4th Edition D&D is the game on the table, then I'd need something with a map and the ability for all the players to move their own icons, or at least see the map so they can tell me where to move them.

Mostly what I need, though, are willing players who can actually show up at a given time. This has been a problem for me in the past, and it tends to discourage me pretty easily. This is a problem because, as someone recovering from severe clinical depression, being discouraged can cause me to give up on an idea pretty quickly, and though I've been told I have good ideas, they never see play if I can't get myself to start the game. I can run a number of games and the program we use doesn't matter much, but it's no good without players - otherwise I'm just playing with myself, and our mothers all have something to say about too much of that.

(Seriously, if you know of any players crazy enough to put up with me, let me know.)

Monday, November 9, 2009


I'm one of those people who tends to go full-bore at things I enjoy. So, when I got the World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, last year, I played it like crazy - I managed to hit the new level cap before all but one person in my guild, and I was also working on several 20+ page papers at the time. This really tends to happen when the game is something that has a really cool premise, or a great story.

Most recently, this happened with a game released last Tuesday, Bioware's newest game, Dragon Age: Origins. Between Tuesday evening and Sunday night, I managed to burn through the game, earning about half of the game's achievements and spending about 40-45 hours playing the game. Yes, this is why I didn't write any blog posts last week. I'm thinking of playing it through again, too, partially because I am intrigued by the possibilities that will be opened up through the other character origins.

I am also frustrated, because while I like the game a great deal, my zeal in working through it has ensured that it is hard to discuss the game with my friends who have the game, as they are not as far into it and don't want me to ruin anything. I don't want to spoil their experiences, but it means I don't have anyone to talk about the game with. So, in an attempt to avoid spoilign the game but to talk about it nonetheless, I have the following to offer.

If you're looking into getting this game, then there are some things you should know. I bought the PC version, which is very graphics-intensive, so extended periods of play resulted in longer load-times and more skipping and pausing in play. The PC version is apparently slightly harder than the Xbox 360 version, due to the 360 not being able to render as many opponents as the PC. The combat system is fun, as it combines the best parts of the old Baldur's Gate combat, and something similar to the gambit from Final Fantasy 12 - you can give your computer-run party members instructions about what to do in certain situations, and they can be pretty specific.

There are a lot of decisions to make in the game, and many of them will have long-lasting consequences. As with previous bioware games like Mass Effect, there are options for romance, though these can be tricky - every party member you can get will have a personal sidequest, and you can't begin a romance without doing those. Pay attention to dialogue options, because they can be very important, not justslight variations on the same thing as in some games. And if you like to find out more about the game world, look at every book, scroll, and scrap of paper you see - you get a wealth of information about the world you are adventuring in, and while it may not all be useful, it can be fun to read.

Oh, and pay attention to the way your party members talk to each other. Their interactions generally don't have any long-lasting effect, but they can be very cool and/or amusing.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Thar Be Treasure!

So after a couple entries of personal stuff, I thought I'd write something about gaming again. From the very start of my gaming career, one of the best parts of gaming has been the treasure. What new kind of magical item will we get from another adventure? What strange and wondrous things will the dragon have in its hoard?

My first experience with D&D and the treasures it gave out was fascinating. The items that came out of 2nd Edition AD&D were unique and encouraged a sense of wonder; the Vorpal Sword that could decapitate enemies, the Deck of Many Things, where a draw of a card could save or damn you; the mythical Rod of Seven Parts, an artifact of incredible power that grew in power the more parts you acquired. There are so many that I don't remember, but I remember the random treasure tables, and how amazed I was every time we acquired new treasure - would it be an item that could help our group, or would it be something we would have to destroy to save others?

Things changed with 3rd Edition; the system was changed to try and make for a more balanced experience. And with those changes, came some things that went for the worse. The treasures became less wondrous, and more about what bonuses or penalties the magic items gave. With those changes, something I loved about the game was lost. The great items that were part of why I enjoyed D&D so much had become simply a pile of numbers.

With 4th Edition, magic items have changed again, though I'm not sure they've become any closer to the items I used to love so much. I think, though, that a part of the solution is something that DMs have to handle, and that is the description of the items that players get. If your average player has their character receive a +1 sword, it's nothing special, nothing magical. If, however, you give them a sword and describe the blade as 'carefully stained, giving it a fiery hue accented with coiling ribbons of black', they're going to be more interested. More show, less tell, and maybe some of the magic will come back into the game.

If you want to know what inspired me to write about this, it is an entry on a blog called ars ludi: 'Treasure Tells A Story'.