Bob the man with a screwdriver

In the circles in which I run, Stranger Things for most people seems to fit into one of two views: (1) Hey it’s got 80’s nostalgia and creepy fun! (2) All entertainment products of the last 20 years are garbage.

While I certainly sympathize with the latter characterization of modern media and find myself avoiding most books written pre-90’s these days, I am a fan of the show. Not die-hard or anything, but I’ve had fun watching both seasons.

Kaiju really enjoyed season 1, too. Season 2…well, let’s just say he and I don’t see eye to eye. It was inferior to the first, I agree in that. But despite its failings, I still enjoyed it on the whole.

*Spoilers ahead!*

There were superfluous characters in Season 2. Many, I would even say. But the best addition was Bob, played by Sean Astin. Bob is the love interest to Winona Ryder’s character – an old high school classmate who at the time had only an icicle’s chance in hell at getting the girl, he’s now what a more mature woman would look for in a mate: responsible, stable, intelligent, good with kids. And courageous. See, Bob is the scifi man with a screwdriver (he’s not really that big, though).

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Bob demonstrates relatively early on in the shit-show that eventually unfolds in Season 2 that he can be trusted with all the insane shizola that’s going down. When he’s enlisted by Will and Joyce to make sense of some seriously creepy map that’s taken over their house, he is resistant at first. Hey, if I was dating a woman with a weird kid and I showed up one day to find the house wallpapered in black tube-like crayon sketches and they started pushing on me to help them figure out what it all means…

But he eventually plays along. Then once he realizes it’s a map and they say they’ve gotta go, he goes with. When they find a weird black hole into hell in a rotten field, he goes down into the hole. He helps save Hopper, the alpha.

Bob may not be the toughest son of a bitch on the block, but he’s no pansy.

As more of this weirdness unfolds, does he say “fuck this” and peace out? I wouldn’t blame the guy if he did, but no. Never. He sticks by Joyce and tries to be of help to her and Will. Because that’s what a real man does.

Later on when shit hits the fan at the facility, Bob is the only one who knows how to reboot the power system using BASIC. So like a man, he does what needs to be done.

In the end, Bob doesn’t make it. He almost does, but he winds up as a sacrifice. The others are able to escape and survive because of him. This pissed off some fans, I think, because the show killed off a decent guy. But I’d say his death had meaning because he was a decent guy. If he had been less of a hero, just another incompetent male, no one would have cared. Well, maybe the Samwise Gamgee fanboys.

There are some pretty good characters in Stranger Things, but Bob has been my favorite so far. It’s a shame he didn’t survive for Season 3, but he went out like a champ.

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Here’s to you, Bob!

-Bushi

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C.L. Moore’s Tree of Life

C.L. Moore is one of those unfairly obscurified SFF writers of decades past. This summer I did a little gushing about Jirel of Joiry, a terribly great series of short stories, but since then I’ve been sampling different fare. Until the other day, when I was looking for some quick train reading and remembered that I’d downloaded an e-book version of “The Tree of Life” (available for free on Amazon and at Gutenburg).

I wasn’t quite as impressed with this one, but there’s still a lot to admire and enjoy about it. First off, it makes a case that Moore was another author skilled at writing diversely.

“The Tree of Life” belongs to Moore’s Northwest Smith series of short stories. Along with Jirel, Smith was one of her trademark characters and probably represents her most recognized foray into scifi. Although we don’t learn overly much about the protagonist in this tale, we see that he’s on the run and that he’s cut from the same cloth as Conan and Eric John Stark – namely that though he’s intelligent, there’s something primal and barbarian about him.

While we’re talking about Conan, I don’t consider that note about intellect to be of small significance. The mainstream perception of our favorite barbarian has come to envision him as a dumb, muscly brute, but in fact he was no dullard. For one, Conan spoke a number of different languages, and if you’ve ever tried to pick up a second or third, you’ll know this is not an easy feat. That struck me about Northwest Smith, actually – in this story Moore flat-out tells us that our protagonist is familiar with a number of different languages, and he’s able to brokenly communicate with some alien creatures that speak a language similar to one he’s picked up to a small degree. This commonality between Smith and Conan is no surprise, really, as we know Moore and Howard were at least friendly (if not friends) and enjoyed each other’s work.

As in her Jirel stories, Moore blends in a generous dose of semi-Lovecraftian horror. Combined with the somewhat romantic science fantasy of the Smith setting, we’ve got a nice, refreshing blend of elements going here.

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Moore’s way with language is characteristically impressive:

“It was no ordinary danger. A nameless, choking, paralyzed panic was swelling in his throat as he gazed upon the perilous beauty of the Tree. Somehow the arches and curves of its branches seemed to limn a pattern so dreadful that his heart beat faster as he gazed upon it. But he could not guess why, though somehow the answer was hovering just out of reach of his conscious mind. From that first glimpse of it his instincts shuddered like a shying stallion, yet reason still looked in vain for an answer.”

Though I was put off at a certain point in the story when she reuses the word “dynamo” a little too often for my liking…

I’m loathe to really say much about the story’s plot, as it’s not really very long and the buildup is part of the fun. So if any of this sounds enticing, go check it out!.

In summation, this is a great, free little SFF romp. It might not be my suggested entry point into her works, but it works as a standalone, it’s quick, and it’s imaginative, quality writing by a top-notch old great.

-Bushi

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Dume

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A beginning is a delicate time. The most delicate and so special. To begin your study of the life of the Emperor, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 1946th year of the Christ-God, Jesus I. And take the most special care that you locate the Emperor in his place: the Union of States. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born in the province of New York and lived his first seventy years there. Washington DC, the place now known as Dume, is forever his place.

– from “Manual of the Emperor” by the Princess Ivanulan

-Bushi

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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-Bushi

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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