Libertarians in Space: The Burning Bridge

I had a long train ride home yesterday and so I burned through a shortish Poul Anderson story I’d picked up some time ago free for Kindle.

It’s interesting – to many of the Appendix N crowd, Anderson is probably best known for his fantasy epic the Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions. But if you do a little searching, he wrote a lot of scifi. Some of that is on display in his last Appendix N entry, the High Crusade, but genre was a lot less well-(or rigidly)-defined back then, and I’m not really sure I’d call that particular story scifi.

“The Burning Bridge,” which is a single short story from the collection Orbit Unlimited, presents us with the story of a fleet of colony ships on their way to the inhospitable-sounding world of Rustum, a planet with 1.5x Earth gravity, an alien ecology, and 20 light years of space separating it from the rest of humanity. The colonists, a group of people called Constitutionalists, are scientists and freedom-lovers (“archaists”) that have decided to leave Earth in light of its increasingly oppressive government.

51a092bxllgl-sx160-sy160

Suddenly a message reaches the fleet – the government has decided not to proceed with its “educational decree,” the last straw that set the 3,000 travelers on their exodus. Now the fleet must decide whether to proceed on their mission or to return home to Earth.

Of course, there are complications. Perhaps the most pressing is the consideration of time. Because of the workings of space travel, in two months the ships will have reached the “Point of No Return,” whereupon stopping and reversing course will actually take longer than proceeding to Rustum before the ships and their crew return to Earth. And because of the relativity principle of lightspeed, each day they continue means weeks or months more will have passed for Earth.

Admiral Coffin’s first instinct is to complete his mission, but he must wrestle with his compunction to grant the colonists and crew a say in their ultimate fate, and the practicalities and possible consequences of doing such. For one thing, it would be logistically impossible to rouse each of the 3,000 passengers in order to hold a vote. Furthermore, can Earth’s message be trusted? And can the colonists themselves, granted this perhaps false hope of returning to the comforts of their old home, be trusted to make the best decision for themselves and for humanity?

I won’t reveal what ultimately happens, but I will say that certain elements remind me of Gordon Dickson’s Mission to Universe, which would be published four years after Orbit Unlimited.

Coffin himself is a somewhat interesting character in what he represents. His name reflects his morose persona and the mournful state of his existence. A Christian in a world of heathens and pagans, he mourns for his faith and the razing of his father’s church to make way for a Buddhist temple. An aging spaceman in a time when Earth seems to be turning inward and losing its interest in the stars, he mourns his dying career.

This wasn’t the best scifi I’ve ever read, and if ACTION is thing that really gets you going, this one isn’t for you. Still, there is plenty of conflict, and the world Anderson paints draws you in and makes you want to learn more about it. It’s a nice little read, and I imagine it’s even better in the context of being one part of a larger story.

-Bushi

bushi

Advertisements

Glutton for Punishment: Hard SF vs Soft SF vs Fantasy

– by Gitabushi

There is a commercial running during NFL games by a satellite TV company, with the premise that there are some people who still like cable, but there are also some people who really like things that normal people hate, like painful, frustrating, or irritating things.

Well, I like igniting arguments over literature.

Let me put it up front in black and white: THERE IS NO VALUE JUDGMENT ATTACHED TO CLASSIFYING FICTION AS HARD SF, SOFT SF, OR FANTASY.  If you attach a value judgment, your problem is you, not me.

Some may retort: Why do we need to classify literature at all?  There is no benefit in creating divisions where none need exist!

I disagree. Let me explain. No, that would take too long, let me sum up. No, wait, when have I ever cared about talking too much? I’ll explain.

There are probably many reasons to classify our literature, and perhaps there are reasons to not classify our literature.  Offhand, I can think of two major reasons to do it, and just one to not.

First, the main reason to not classify literature is because in the end, it’s a story we enjoy, or not.  If a story is good, it doesn’t matter whether it is Fantasy, Hard SF, or Soft SF.  If I hand you Dragon’s Egg, I can tell you that it is one of the hardest SF stories out there, but that tells you nothing about whether it is a good story or not (I liked the concept, but the execution did not please teenager me. I stopped reading less than a third of the way through, and it left such a poor impression I’ve never picked it up again).  So perhaps the main reason to not classify stories/books along these lines is if someone does think there is a value judgment that makes Soft SF inferior to Hard SF in some way, or if a reader thinks there is an arrogance aspect to the Hard SF mantle, since it is all Fantastic Fiction in any case.

However, I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

I think there are two main advantages to classifying speculative fiction along these lines, one for the author, and one for the reader.  I will probably repeat some concepts, but I think I have some new ideas to add.

First, I think the main benefit is to the author. As a writer, you have to use skill and discipline to tell a good story.  You need to know what kind of story you are writing, because that will help determine how you develop the story.

What I mean is, Arthur C. Clarke said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  FTL travel is still pretty much magic, as is youth regeneration, storing personality in an electronic matrix, time travel, etc. Yet these are still mostly in the realm of Science Fiction, not Fantasy.  Why?

With that in mind, I would like to propose a new classification system for Science Fiction vs Fantasy.  Science Fiction is normal people doing fantastic things, and Fantasy is fantastic people doing normal things.  Oh, sure, I know there are a million examples that you could use to argue with me on this, but don’t.  Just accept it for now as you encounter fiction in the future.

In fantasy, you have people that have powers that don’t exist in the current world.  They can impact reality through will alone (sometimes with a device, sometimes with innate ability). But that ability to impact reality is limited.  No one else can use that ability, or can only do so by taking the magic device away.  And while the impact may be fantastic, their goals are usually mundane. In the end, Frodo was merely walking a distance and throwing an object into a fire.  Yes, it was a special object, a special fire, it was unimaginably difficult to arrive at his destination, and it saved the world. But the actions themselves were mundane.  When you have fantastic powers, you have to make the goals more mundane so that readers can relate.  The point of Speculative Fiction is to explore what it means to be human…the point of Fantasy is to show how power doesn’t really change basic human instincts, desires, and character.  The power tempts, and corrupts, and enables, but the feelings, desires, goals, aims, flaws, weaknesses, and temptations are always that of a normal human.  And if you are writing fantasy, there must be limits on the power, usually in the form of costs of using the  power.  Otherwise, you have a boring story.  The conflict that drives the story is the limitations on the power. That’s why the best Fantasy stories have a world with complex-but-knowable rules of how power is exercised.  One exception: The Lord of the Rings…but that was a story about normal individuals caught in power struggles beyond their ken.  The viewpoint and protagonist had no magic of his own, and the only magic he had access to was cursed/poisoned…each use brought him closer to full damnation.  Those were the limits of power that drove the narrative in the Lord of the Rings, and those limits were both clear and understandable to the reader. So there is some wiggle room in the restrictions I insist exist.  But again: know what you are writing, and why, and it will help you develop your story more effectively.

So if my assertion has utility, and Fantasy is fantastic people doing normal things, and Science Fiction is normal people doing fantastic things, why do we need a division between Hard and Soft SF?

I think we need the division because it all goes back to the reader.  For a reader to enjoy a story, they must be able to suspend their disbelief. They must care about the characters, and must be able to relate to them in some way.

How you handle the fantastic elements in your story has a huge impact on whether your readers can suspend their disbelief or not.

In Soft SF, pretty much anything goes.  Most of the normal laws of physics are suspended.  That gives you lots of freedom to play around with all the elements of the story.  But there is a double-edged sword there: with that level of freedom, you need to address so much more about the laws of your universe. If you don’t, your readers will feel cheated and dislike the story.

To explain, I must digress. I’ve been mentally chewing on a concept for several years now. Every story is really just a variation on limited knowledge/communication.  If all your characters knew everything that was going on, they would be in the right place and do the right thing, and the story would be over.  To add conflict to the story, your characters have to encounter limits on information, they have to not know the antagonist’s plan, or location, or powers, etc.  It is the quest to gain this understanding, and the obstacles they encounter in that quest, that makes the story interesting.  Or if not communication, then distance and transportation. As has been pointed out, if the Fellowship had used the Eagles to drop the ring into the volcano, the story would have been over quickly and much less interesting.

So in Science Fiction, the first thing you need to determine is: what is your transportation technology, and what is your information technology?

Faster-than-light needs to have some sort of cost…maybe the cost is in time, maybe in damage to health, but there must be some cost to help build interest in the story. Communication has to have some limits, as well.  Perhaps information is limited to those with resources, perhaps there is false information and the cost is having to sort through it all to find the real stuff.  But you can get a great deal of conflict out of limiting communication.  That’s why cell phones ruin horror movies, and one of the first things a writer does to create suspense is find a way to take away their phone service in a plausible manner.

In Soft SF, you make things easier on yourself by suspending/ignoring the laws of physics.  But you then make it harder on yourself because you have to explain what laws do still exist, what don’t, and perhaps why. Then you have to figure out how those impact your society and what it means to be human.  And then you have to be careful to not make the resolution of your story be the discovery of some aspect of your new rules that  anyone who grew up with those rules should have known.

For example, although the resolution of the story didn’t hinge on this cheat by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was ignoble of him to make John Carter be the first person on Barsoom to realize that if you treat an animal with care, it returns loyalty to you.  The entire story didn’t hinge on that point, but it did resolve an obstacle.  The thing is, this is an obvious point to anyone who isn’t a complete psychopath.  If *no one* on Barsoom understood this, then even Dejah Thoris is an evil bitch not worthy of love. Since that is obviously not true, then it was a cheap device ERB used to get John Carter out of a jam, and it made the story worse. The inability for Martians (Barsoomians?) to recognize the value of treating animals with care never has any other impact on the story.  This is not fair to the reader.

On the other hand, Hard SF makes many things easier on the writer and reader: the reader can assume that with the exception of one or two aspects not currently within our technological grasp, the fictional world is exactly like the world the reader inhabits.  The writer doesn’t have to explain all the differences. The reader doesn’t have to consider as many changes to life and decide whether to suspend disbelief or not.  The world *is* as it *is*, and that adds verisimilitude.  One thing that makes Jumper and Wildside so enjoyable is Steven Gould changes just one *little* thing. He gives his main character one tiny resource, and then does everything he can to fully explore the impact of that ability on the character and our world. Now, the nature of those resources is never really explained, and so could be considered Soft SF or even Fantasy.  After all, in Jumper, the main character is a person with a Fantastic ability, trying to do mundane things (escape an abusive father, find love/trust…the Do Great Things comes later in the story). But I think the approach is much more Hard SF: change as little as you can about the world and laws of physics, and then play out all the impacts of that change.

1006354

But I would be remiss if I didn’t admit: by putting Jumper and Wildside in Hard SF because of the approach, I am either destroying my thesis, or rendering the judgment fully subjective.

I want to argue for the latter.  Hard SF, Soft SF, and Fantasy might be a bookshelf categorization, but it has little utility there. In the end, they are three different approaches to writing a story, and the writer has to know what they are writing, and why, and then signal it to the reader, who will then be more able to enjoy the story on the basis of the system the writer put forth.

Because Postman by David Brin was a disappointment to me.  It started off merely as a Post-Apocalyptic Novel.  A normal guy is transformed by merely adopting the trappings of minor authority of bygone days.  That’s Hard SF, and good Hard SF: there is nothing that violates any laws of physics, the world is merely changed by the use of currently-existing weapons. But then two-thirds of the way through the book, it changes.  The author introduces technology that doesn’t currently exist.  Even worse, it seems to be technology that *can’t* exist, pushing it into the realm of Fantasy…but that’s not where Brin started the story. It feels like a betrayal, and made me stop caring how the book turned out.

Don’t do that to your readers. And if you are a reader, don’t accept that from your writers.

One final note: Based on this system, I have to consider John Carter to be Fantasy, not Soft SF.  Then again, I still insist that the classifications are subjective, so if you disagree, that is the correct classification for you.

One Deck Dungeon, a Game Review

  • by Gitabushi

I stumbled across this game on Amazon. It sounded good, so I bought it.

Let me take a step back and ramble. Nothing better than a good, rambling post, right?

Games are fun. I’ve heard it explained that games are mind hacks, going back to the original notion of a hack being something bad, as in a process that hijacks normal processes to exploit the target for specific purposes, usually material gain. I’m convinced men are biologically programmed to achieve things. Games give men the sense of accomplishment of achieving something, and we pay money for that sense of accomplishment. But we don’t actually succeed at anything.  Which is why males who do nothing but play video games are generally looked down upon.  They are caught in an addiction of useless “accomplishments”, the game companies are making money off that addiction, and the most successful games are those that parcel out accomplishments regularly, and tying them to payments to make the “successes” slightly easier.

But that being said, when you do have a normal life with normal accomplishments, it can be harmless fun to play a game or two.

I’m old.  I still remember when Pong came out, and I remember getting the chance to play it.  We were early adopters of the Atari 2600, and I played all the old games.  I rolled the score on Missile Command, and then rolled the score on Chopper Command (Defender-like game) while drunk on Christmas Eve.

Chopper_Command_-_1982_-_Activision

Being this old, I was also an early adopter of Dungeons and Dragons, Gamma World, Boot Hill, and other role-playing games.  And more than that, I was into Avalon Hill in a big way.

There is nothing like playing a live opponent in a complex strategy board game.

Sure, video games have gotten better. I’ve seen League of Legends, and you have live opponents there, too.  AI has gotten great on some of the video games, making strategy that much more challenging and fun.  And there are plenty of Rogue-like games where you aren’t playing an AI, but facing off against a randomly generated series of obstacles, like in Desktop Dungeons (free download of the fully-playable beta version is available if you look around for it).

But there is still nothing like the thrill of a tabletop game.

One Deck Dungeon is much like Desktop Dungeons: you don’t face off against anyone, you overcome a series of randomly-generated obstacles.

There are so many ways this could go wrong.  It could be predictable.  It could be too easy to win, or too difficult. Winning could be based simply on the random generation, rather than your skill.  There has to be a challenge, but there also has to be a sense of progression in skill, the feeling that the more you play, the better you get at it.

One Deck Dungeon has this.

The random generation has two aspects. One is simply the cards you lay down as opponents. The other is the dice.

So much more of the game, however, is in your choice.  Obviously, you have the choice of what character class to start with, and you have the choice of what card to turn over, and whether to engage after you see what the card is.

But from there, you need to assess whether you have enough dice to defeat the obstacle. You sometimes have a choice of the tactic to use. Once an obstacle is defeated, you have the choice of using the card gained (and you get the card whether you win or lose the encounter…that’s a nice touch) as experience toward leveling up, or as an item that increases your basic ability dice totals, or as a skill that can improve the rolls you get on the dice, or as a potion that provides a significant (and instantaneous) boost in power.

With these choices, you really have a great deal of flexibility in how you play.  The very first time I played, I made it to the boss, thought I was going to lose immediately, but thanks to two sets of unusually good rolls, I lasted until the 3rd round, where an unusually bad roll sunk me.

Still, I didn’t feel frustrated or screwed over by the dice.  There are always different choices I could have made that might have meant I didn’t need the above-average rolls, or that could have defeated the boss before getting to that third set.

The next 5 games, I lost on the first level.

The game after that, I won.

I’ve learned that leveling up is the last thing you should do: always go for abilities or skills, because when you reach your limit and overflow, you can choose a less-helpful one and it becomes experience for leveling up.

One other thing: you also have multiple methods of generating wild-card dice to defeat monsters, and of healing yourself.  But there are restrictions I hadn’t mentioned, like how you have to “fill out” the card by applying your dice to each block on the opponent card.  Some blocks require agility dice results, some strength, some magic. Some dice totals can be achieved with multiple dice, but others require a single dice. It can be tough when you see you need a 6 and a 5 of agility, and you are rolling just 4 dice.  And it is even more distressing when the 5 cannot be filled with a wildcard dice.  How did I defeat it? I had a skill that let me turn one agility dice into a 6 at will.  So I knew that every time I had to roll agility, I was going to get at least one 6, which meant that I would always be able to fill at least one box each time agility was required.  And the 5?  Well, if I didn’t get the roll, perhaps all I needed to do was spend “time”.  Or just take one hit of damage, which I could heal one of several different ways.

Oh, yeah: time.  One other unique aspect of this game is you are often required to spend “time”. I use the term in quotes because “time” is flipping over cards into the discard pile. There is somewhat of a race against time, because the longer you explore (the more cards you get to challenge and win), the more items/skills you obtain, which then turn into experience to level up, which gives you a larger capacity for items and skills, which lets you overcome obstacles easier.  When you reach the end of the deck, you can always descend to the next level immediately.  But if there are 3 more cards, and you need just a little more experience to level up before facing the more difficult challenges of the next level?  Well, you start taking damage.  At what point is the damage you take worse than the additional skills/items you pick up?

Only you can decide.  And that’s what makes it fun.

Finally, I’ve played this nearly 10 times on just the first boss level.  There are 4 more bosses I can take on, all of them harder than the level 1 boss. And then I can teach a friend to play and we can take on the dungeon together, completely changing the dynamics of skills, items, experience, and damage…who takes the damage, who gets the item (the game requires mostly even damage-taking, but you still have options of who takes it first).  If that ever gets bored, buy a 2nd set, find two more friends, and try it with 4 people (to the best of my understanding, you can’t play it with 3 people).

Now that you’ve read the review, here’s a video explanation!

For $25, it seems extremely re-playable.  There’s an “expansion” (stand alone, basically just another version of the game with a completely different deck…no idea whether you can combine, but I doubt it) called Forest of Shadows, and I think I’ll get that and keep it in reserve.

5 stars.

UPDATE: I can’t reach any of the items on Amazon right now. They were available when I started this post. I don’t know if Amazon is now sold out, or there is some sort of temporary error.  Probably the latter.  Let me know in the comments whether the links work or not.

New Meat

“Good afternoon Samuel. Please head over to the manager’s office at your earliest convenience.”

The voice from the remote monitoring system filled the windowless room where Samuel sat. He had sat in this same room, in the same chair, in front of the same monitor, for 8 hours every day for the last 10 years. A single large button rested on the desk in front of the screen. It was the only thing on the desk aside from the remains of his lunch ration and his lunchbox. Samuel was a member of the QA department at the New Meat corporation.

Samuel’s role was to watch a five feet stretch of assembly line where large metal arms controlled by AI created synthetic meat substitute. Masses of thick red liquid were combined with a proprietary blend of chemicals and preservatives to form gourmet meat-like product for consumer citizens. It was Samuel’s job was to hit the button in front of him should any errors occur on his section of the line. Every day he watched the monitor diligently as the metal arms danced around chunks of red substance, sculpting it into a form that was almost appetizing. The AI rarely made mistakes anymore. In fact, it had been almost a year since he had last pushed the button, and that was the result of an earthquake knocking some of the New Meat out of alignment on the belt. It was tedious work, but it was work. Work placed him in the employed caste, so it was worth it. The day was almost over, and it was unlikely that there would be any errors, so Samuel packed up his things and headed to the manager’s office.

The manager’s office was much larger than Samuel’s but it contained no furniture or decoration save for a single chair. This single chair faced a large screen built into the wall furthest from the door. Lines of code scrolled by on the black glass surface as Samuel approached.

“Good afternoon. You wanted to see me?” Samuel said to the screen.

“Good afternoon Samuel. Please have a seat in the provided chair.” A robot voice replied. The voice was female, and almost sounded like what Samuel remembered his mother’s sounding like. It was not uncommon for management AI to alter voice modules to match situations and employees.

“Thank you manager. What can I do for you?”

“You may be aware that the creator caste has recently updated the assembly line AI. The newest version has a fail rate of less than .0001% in virtual testing environments. These improvements will allow us to cut the QA department by 98% and, as a result, greatly increase New Meat’s profit margin. Your position is no longer available as of today. New Meat thanks you for your 10 years of service. Your employment identification card is now deactivated, but you  can keep it to remind you of the great work you have done here at New Meat. You will be escorted out by the security drone now. Please be sure to the think of New Meat when making protein purchases in the future. Have a great rest of your day.”

***

Samuel emerged from the large sliding doors at the entrance of his former employee and looked out at the city before him. Automated passenger and cargo vehicles moved in perfect unison along the pristine street. Neon holographic signs lined the fronts of the buildings advertising products that you could have shipped to your residence in less than an hour. When he got home he would sign up for the guaranteed wage, and maybe some happiness pharma. He was in no hurry. He had nothing to do and a whole life left to do it.

Two young women in elaborate dresses talked and laughed as they waited for their transportation to the entertainment district, or to the nature viewing preserve, or to wherever else the children of the creator caste went to wile away their time and money. On any other day Samuel would have averted his eyes and walked past them, but today was different. Today he didn’t care. They did not notice the newest member of the unemployed caste shuffle over to them as they waited.

“Excuse me.”

The two women turned to look at the stranger that had interrupted them. Their eyes were dilated from enhancement pharma, but Samuel could still sense the annoyance at his intrusion.

“Yes?”

“How much does a ride to the entertainment district cost? I’ve never been before?”

One of the women laughed in his face, “More than you are worth I’m afraid. Shouldn’t you stay here in the factory employment sector?”

The words stung, mostly because Samuel knew they were true.

“No need to be so wicked Vanessa,” the second woman rebuked her companion. “Father always says we should have pity on those with lower potential quotients, not mock them. It’s not their fault.” She looked over at Samuel standing there in his cheap suit with lunchbox in hand. “Just look at him.”

The first woman looked Samuel up and down. “You’re right Miriam, he is pathetic”

The two women threw back their heads and laughed as samuel turned to walk away. Then the second spoke again:

“Oh don’t leave! We were just having a bit of fun. Tell you what, because you were such a good sport you can ride in our transport to the E.D. We won’t even charge you! Just don’t try anything or we’ll have you exiled into the wasteland.” She smiled at Samuel and he could see her perfect white teeth, each one decorated with a custom engraving. They looked expensive.

“Alright.”

The transport pulled up next to them and the two women got in. Samuel looked back at the New Meat building one last time, then entered the vehicle.

***

The transport let Samuel out at the great archway that marked the entrance to the entertainment district. The arch was two stories high and made of discarded parts from obsolete androids. It was grotesque; metallic arms and legs twisted together, lifeless humanoid faces cracked and weathered by time. Samuel was unsure if it was meant as a warning or an enticement, but he walked through just the same.

The district smelled like spice and sweat mixed with chemicals and disinfectant. It was pure hedonism. Women, men, androids, and those somewhere in-between walked about the darkly lit main street in various states of undress. Signs of pure light hung above each experience shop. Every fantasy could be indulged here for a price, some so twisted that Samuel shuddered at the thought. From these the raucous laughter and shouts were the loudest. Samuel found a shop advertising companionship that fit his simple lower class taste and entered.

“Good evening. Male, Female, Both, or Surprise?” A female android in a thin silk robe asked him as he stepped through the door. It was beautiful;  ageless skin without flaw, perfect symmetry and proportion, face locked in a smile. Samuel felt himself blush.

“Female, please.”

“Blonde, brunette, redhead, custom color?”

“Brunette, please”

“Thin, medium, large?”

“Urr..medium.”

“Race preference?”

“Anything’s fine, I guess.”

“Name?”

“Mine?”

“Yes.”

“Samuel.”

“Follow me.”

The android smiled and led him through a hallway filled with closed doors. Halfway down the hallway it stopped and opened one. They stepped into a small room with a few chairs and a small bed.

“Please wait here while your companion is assembled. We hope you enjoy your experience.” It said before exiting and closing the door behind.

***

“Hello Samuel. I will be your companion this evening. Would you like to give me a name? I can generate one randomly for you if you choose not to, or I can have no name.” The perfect female figure spoke from the open doorway. No primitive biological process could produce a female form so flawless. Samuel just stared, unable to speak.

“Is everything alright? I can be regenerated should you wish.”

“NO! No, I mean. You are great. Please, sit.”

“Thank you Samuel.”

“Of course. I have always liked the name Sarah. Can I call you that?”

“I would love it if you called me Sarah. Thank you for the name.”

“Sure. So…what happens next?”

“Once I verify employment and payment ability…anything you want Samuel.”

“You have to verify employment?”

“Yes. Employment and funds.”

“Why employment?”

“Those are the rules. Our clients prefer not to have contact with anything sullied by those lesser.”

Samuel hesitated, then pulled out his expired employment ID card and held it up. Sarah took it from him and held it up. A laser emanated from her eye and traced the barcode printed on the card. She lowered the ID and stared over at the man across from her. .

“I’m sorry Samuel.”

The android’s eyes went dark. Before Samuel could move the female android from the front desk was at the open doorway. It walked over to Samuel and effortlessly picked him up by the throat. He squirmed futilely as the android walked to the back of the shop and opened a door to the alley behind. With a flick of the wrist she hurled the helpless man into dark. His body smashed against the concrete wall across the way and slumped lifeless to the ground amidst the garbage.

***

“Did you see the way that android bent? I haven’t seen anything like that in a while. Those new flex joints they’re using are really something.”

“Yeah man. It was pretty great. Have you seen the girls?”

“I thought we were going to meet them by the arch.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right. Vanessa hates that arch.”

“I know, that’s why I choose it as the meetup spot.”

The two men laughed as they walked down the dark alley.

“Why are we walking back here? It smells like my house after a pharma binge.”

“It’s a shortcut. Suck it up, we’ll be there in a min-” The two men stopped and stared at the ground in front of them. The body of a man in a cheap suit lay before them. His limbs were twisted into unnatural positions, eyes open and lifeless.

“I…I think he’s dead. Let’s see if he has ID or something, might be someone important. We could be in the news.”

“With that suit?”

“Shutup and help me check.”

The two men searched the shattered man, but found nothing to identify him.

“Probably just some guaranteed wage pharma junkie. Screw him, let’s go.”

“Hey wait. I have an idea. Help me with the body.”

“What? No. What if it’s diseased?”

“Trust me. It’s going to be hilarious.”

***

Her male companions were waiting below the entrance arch to the entertainment district when Miriam arrived to meet them.

“You boys are early. You’re never early.” Miriam said, eyeing them suspiciously. She was coming down from her enhancement pharma and was not in the mood for any games.

“Where’s Vanessa?” One of the men said, trying hard to conceal a smirk.

“I put her on a transport home already. She took too many mood levelers and fell asleep during one of the shows.”

The man’s smirk vanished, “Damn.” The other man laughed.

“Why damn? And why are you laughing.” Miriam was becoming impatient.

“Don’t worry about it. Transport’s here, let’s go.”

The twisted limbs and faces of the arch watched as the vehicle departed. Sunlight began to pour over the horizon into the city, illuminating the filth within.

A Monster Hunter Competitor? Dauntless

Earlier this year, or maybe it was last year (the ragged strands of time have frayed and tangled in the tapestry of my poor, bedraggled mind) Kaiju and Magnataur and I all bought some iteration of Monster Hunter for the 3DS. My periodic blogging companion played the crap out of it. I enjoyed it in spurts. Downing dinosaurs and dragons and forging lances and codpieces of their bones holds a certain appeal. It’s a somewhat different take on the “Boss Monster: the Game” motif.

Magnataur was somewhat less down with the sickness.

You see, there was a lot going on in Monster Hunter. I don’t know if all the versions have little cat people whom you can recruit en mass to assist you in your hunting and sundry material gathering tasks, but the version we played did. There were also oodles of items and components to organize and combine, all sorts of weapon stats and bonuses to learn and be mindful of, and towns and environments that were just large enough to render navigation and travel slightly tedious. Bottom line – the monster hunting was good, but the required logistics are not for everyone.

When we read blurbs about the development of Dauntless, we flagged it. I mean it was Monster Hunter for the PC, but billed as being “from a studio formed by veteran developers who previously worked at BioWare, Riot Games, Capcom, and Blizzard Entertainment.”

That’s some promising pedigree.

A couple weeks ago I got into the closed Beta. Kindly included in my welcome email were two “friend keys,” and so along came Kaiju and Magnataur. I’ve only gotten one short session in with our favorite Alt-Godzilla, but his impression seemed favorable if somewhat tentative (I think he’ll probably skip this one and spring for Monster Hunter World next year). But I’ve had the opportunity to sneak in quite a big of solo gaming, and also a few hunts with Mag, whose enthusiasm has been picking up.

This video by PC Gamer makes a pretty decent representation of what Dauntless is looking like. It’s almost a year old and so some elements are a little out of date (for example there are now, uh, goats running around the maps that you can kill), but most of the explanations here still hold. The graphics and audio are also in pretty much the same state, which is to say they’re in a good place.

The controls feel fluid and natural. Lag can be a little bit of an issue at times and stuttering is especially noticeable in town (where thankfully it doesn’t matter much). I’ve tried combat with both mouse and keyboard and controller, and though I prefer the latter, both are comfortable and perfectly workable options. Unfortunately some of the menus and NPC interfaces don’t play particularly well with controller, so you’ll probably be using your mouse a bit either way.

Combat feels good. It seems to me to feel faster than Monster Hunter, perhaps in part because stamina recovery is more generous in Dauntless. I haven’t tried all 4 of the weapons yet (axe, hammer, sword, chain blades), but the axe and sword feel satisfyingly different. The axe is, of course, ponderous and powerful. Primary and secondary attacks translate to vertical and horizontal swings, and your “special” is a large powerful smash.

The sword, on the other hand, is much more balanced. Its fighting style is much more about speed and getting in more attacks. You’ve got fast, weak swings that you can chain into a combo but are also easy to roll out of to avoid your enemy’s wrath, and also slower more deliberate attacks that are harder to cancel, but deliver elemental damage when using an appropriate weapon.

The chain blades, from what I’ve seen, are a “ninja” weapon focused on mobility and speed with a few cool, quick combos of both long and short range. The hammer is slow and powerful, like the axe, and also has a gun attached to it. Why not? I’ve also read that there’s a planned fifth weapon, something ranged, that will be available by open Beta.

The monsters themselves, called “behemoths,” are also well done. The art style of the game (I thought of League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm, so some institutional knowledge and inspiration is apparent) lends itself well to the not-quite-realistic but also not-quite-cartoony feel of the characters and beasts. The screeches and calls of the behemoths are a nice touch. The battle damage that they incur as the fights progress is also quite visible and satisfying.

As in Monster Hunter, one must face off against a monster several times before becoming really proficient at fighting it. Each one has unique tells and attack patterns. Each monster also seems to have more difficult variations that come with different color palettes as well as more challenging fighting styles.

rogue_charroggx500

All this is great, especially for a closed Beta. But there are some areas that really need work if Dauntless is to take on Monster Hunter World early next year.

First, the GUIs and menus need a lot of attention. Armor and weapon stats are not easy to understand. They’re not really explained, and they’re not well represented visually. It’s difficult to figure out what your armor or weapons are doing for you – something you should be able to quickly surmise from your Loadout screen.

Also I know the developers want to include “RPG” elements to the game and maybe some kind of story. I think this is a mistake. Most of us who play these games just want to fight big boss monsters and make armor from their hide! We don’t want a story. Or if we do, we want to make our own! That said, if they’re going to go that way, they need to cut out the stupid “run-around” quests. I mean, there are “quests” that consist of talking to an NPC who tells you to go talk to another NPC at the other side of town. And it’s not like you get any kind of reward for talking to the first guy. Pointless!

The matchmaking system also needs work. Currently you can solo hunt, or you can queue up to “group hunt” a monster. After a couple minutes, though, if the system is unable to match you with anyone, you get dumped into the hunt alone. This can happen when you’re trying to hunt something you’re not strong enough to fight by yourself, and it’s frustrating. And the frustration is compounded by the fact that there’s no way to abandon your hunt right now; you have to log out and log back in.

This is all very fixable stuff, and I look forward to seeing what they do with the game. As it stands now, it’s got its foibles but is also quite enjoyable. My biggest hope is that they don’t do a full character reset. They’ve said they don’t intend to, but it could possibly become necessary. We’ll see. But I’d really like to keep my owlbear hat.

skraev_screenshot_001

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

 

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Ironic Heroes

I recently finished up reading Swords Against Death, the second collection of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

If you’re not familiar with them, they’re a pair of adventuring rogues who’ve contributed a great deal to the Sword and Sorcery genre. They’ve also got an entry in the secretly famous Appendix N. Essentially they’re a couple of dude-bro friends, a barbarian and a more traditional (smaller) acrobatic thief type, who seek out riches and debauchery all over the world.

56613e0b32c0eaf836f3627c82e38110-fantasy-heroes-sci-fi-fantasy

The characters themselves, while not as iconic as Howard’s Conan, have many SFF-nerd-fans among the older crowd. As one would expect of the Greatest Swordsmen in the Universe (TM). At times I was reminded of Drizzt, actually, and I’m sure there’s a seed here in Fritz’s duo.

In many of the earlier tales, the two are fighter-thieves. Certainly powerful, but not really any more unbelievable than Conan or John Carter or Ender Wiggin (geez, I just realized I don’t even know any contemporary characters to allude to anymore). If you’ve read the first (chronological) collection, Swords and Deviltry, you’ll know that eventually they each morphed into some combination of fighter/ranger/rogue/wizard/barbarian/bard. In Swords Against Death, however, they’re simpler characters, and that is to the good.

It’s also worth noting that some of the stories take place in Lankhmar, which was one of the early fantasy cities that really came to model the “urban adventure” game setting. And the Fafhrd and Mouser stories are also one of, if not the earliest setting to make use of a “thieves’ guild.”

So what I’m saying here is that Leiber broke a lot of ground. Even if he doesn’t become your favorite author after reading these tales, there’s a lot to recognize and appreciate.

What did I think of Swords Against Death? Well, I’m glad I read it. And I liked it much more than Swords and Deviltry.

Once again I was surprised that the collection seemed to lead with the weakest material, for “The Circle Curse” is rather uninteresting.

The stuff in the middle is mostly good. There’s plenty of good adventuring and some cool ideas, like a house that eats people.

The final stories are interesting and my feelings are mixed. “The Price of Pain-Ease” held a compelling premise and a kind of cool adventure hook for any GM’s who are paying attention, but the foolishness and selfishness of the protagonists (who are supposedly as close as brothers) ultimately didn’t carry well.

“The Bazaar of the Bizarre” was an apt title. The main idea of this story was almost cool, but ruined by clumsy explanations and silly execution. One of the main shticks could have been direct forerunner to the whole idea behind the cult-classic film They Live, and it was an engaging idea here. As a weird story, The Bazaar works, but I think it’s one of the weaker entries here.

The idea of these two rogues becoming beholden to mysterious and powerful wizards struck me as a potent way to unlock future story ideas, but the way in which this developed could have been done better.

Another thing that niggled me throughout was the framing of Faf and GM as heroes, when they’re clearly not. As is often the case, Cirsova had some good insight into this for me, being the under-educated “critic” that I am.

CaptureCapture2

In summation, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are worth checking out if you enjoy Sword and Sorcery, if you’re a GM looking for game ideas, or if you’re an Appendix N archaeologist. Skip Swords And Deviltry and go for Swords Against Death.

-Bushi

bushi

The Orans

Any visitor to a Catholic mass will probably tell you that there’s a lot going on – all kinds of prayers and responses, hymns, crossing and hand motions, sitting and standing and kneeling.

Quite honestly, some elements can be unclear for us average Catholics, too. And I wish congregants were better “trained.”

One thing that happens at one point during the mass is the praying of the Our Father. From what I’ve read, in days past the prayer was offered by the priest on behalf of the congregation.

These days, the whole congregation prays together. One thing that’s always bothered me (though I have never really been able to put my finger on why) is how at some churches, many congregants will join hands and/or raise their hands palm upward as they do this.

orans_posture

This morning I came across a couple tweets that illuminated this for me.

So this gesture is apparently called the “Orans Posture.” And although I’m sure there is no ill will (and in most cases probably no willful ignorance either), the practice of the congregation taking this posture during the prayer is poo-pooed in Catholic mass.

There are some very detailed explanations out there to be Googled, but the upshot is that the priest takes the Orans because he is praying on our behalf, and the form of the mass dictates that the congregation not copy the gestures of the priest celebrant.

Good to know.

-Bushi

bushi