Ringworld and Rimworld

Rejoice, dear readers – I live!

What have I been up to of late? My discovery of the Last Kingdom and first reading of EE “Doc” Smith are chronicled over at the Castalia House blog. But what else have I been up to? Certainly not writing blog posts, right?

Well, I’m nearly done with my first “Known Space” book. I read the Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle some years back and remember being impressed. Since then I’ve read one of Pournelle’s solo works and it was pretty solid. Time for Niven, right?

One of the challenges with going back to read these older series is sorting through the various collections that pop up, along with conflicting or sparse information on proper reading orders. I don’t think you can ever really go wrong following stories in publication order, but for some reason I settled on this order, starting with Neutron Star.

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It isn’t exactly publication order, but close enough. Neutron Star is a collection of short stories taking place in the Known Space universe. Once I’m finished I intend to proceed as chronologically as I can, though I’m eager to get to the famed Ringworld.

So far I’m really digging the setting and Niven’s writing. Stylistically his sense of humor and sarcasm come through without crossing over into silliness (a ‘la Douglas Adams). In my Doc Smith post at Castalia House, I noted my enjoyment of Smith’s aliens. Incidentally I’m also really liking that about Niven’s Known Space. Rather than space elves and dwarves (which I suppose you could argue some of the variant non-terran humans resemble), you’ve got space-faring cat folk, intelligent and honest yet cowardly monstrosities like the gentleman pictured in the above cover art, and physically weak, bizarre-looking yet honorable squid people. Then there’s the grog.

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So far most of the human protagonists blend together, but there’s a lot of cool technology, intriguing plots (especially if you’re into “hard”ish SF) and at least one rad alien character.

In gaming news, I recently powered through XCom 2, which was a flawed but ultimately fun preoccupation. Now I’m on to Rimworld, and oh boy this is a time sink.

If you’re unfamiliar with this title, it’s a scifi colony sim/survival game. There are several modes and difficulty variations to toy with. And holy crap is it detailed. When your colonists are injured, you can see exactly where – they might get a bruise to their torso or lose a pinky or toe. They can get scars and health conditions like asthma and infections and diseases.

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There’s crafting, of course. There are pets and animal taming. There’s hunting, cooking, and growing crops for food and medicine. You can build defenses like sandbags and turrets to help you ward off raiders and hostile animals.

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of Rimworld is the storytelling AI. You can pick from among three AIs with different personalities and tendencies, and they basically generate events at certain intervals. The base AI, Cassandra, tries to ramp up the difficulty over time and keep your number of colonists at levels she likes (so if you have too many she won’t give you chances to get more or she’ll try to kill someone off).

The stories that can develop are nuts. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re sad.

For example, in my first game I wound up incapacitating one of the raiders who attacked me. I remember she was a doddering old fat woman named Delgado. She had dementia and was a pyromaniac. Still, people are resources and I lacked manpower. So I captured her and treated her wounds, and kept her locked up until she agreed to join me.

Eventually she did, and she ran around naked and unhappy until I was able to craft some garments for her. Things went well for a while. She could cook, and that was a skill my people sorely wanted for. One day, however, she snapped. She started wondering around and setting fires on the outskirts of my base. I had to send someone to beat her down and throw her in the clink to cool down.

Shortly after that we suffered a heat wave that I was woefully unprepared for. My colonists all collapsed into unconsciousness in the 50 degree (C) weather before I could figure out how to treat their heatstroke. With no one to rescue them, they all died. The end.

Another time in a succeeding game, I was hunting muffalos for meat. Usually they just try to run away. But this time they decided (or Cassandra decided) not to stand for that shit. They got mad and I wound up with a couple dozen alien buffalos chasing my colonist back to base. I was able to draft everyone and ward them off without any deaths, but damn.

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Meat for the meat god.

One of the saddest things to have happened thus far, though, involves one of the colony pets. Stupid me had no problem letting them all sleep outside despite the bears and wolves and crap wandering around. After one raid, one of my dogs was pretty badly wounded. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when a lynx attacked him. I was able to get the dick cat in time, but damn. Only a couple minutes later, a BEAR showed up for an easy meal. I was able to kill the bear before my dog kicked the bucket. But the damage was done, and the dog was down to two good legs.

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There was another raid, and the dog went in to help its master. I mowed down the invaders, all except one, and this guy was tagged and about to go down. So the piece of crap raider stops advancing on my entrenched colonists, turns to the dog, and slices its leg off right before he bites the dust.

It was a while before I noticed the dog wasn’t moving from the spot where my colonists had carried him to treat the wound. He would just lay there, periodically sleeping and being fed. I checked his stats, and…

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Yup. Down to one leg, and zero mobility. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.

It was just a virtual dog in a stupid little game, but it took me a good few minutes of inner deliberation before I euthanized it. Damn game.

But man if Rimworld hasn’t got its hooks in me. There’s already so much content packed into this thing, but I can’t wait to see what’ll be added next.

-Bushi

bushi

Are your peasants men or mice?

A couple weeks ago, I was reflecting on the role of the peasantry in fiction. This is in the context of having just watched a couple of Scandinavian films, I suppose. In The Salvation, a Dane in America’s wild west finds himself up against a ruthless gang lead by Negan. Really.

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I don’t want to get spoiler heavy, but you’ve got two types of villagers here. The sniveling coward appeasers, who refuse to stand up to the lawless cowboys, and the real common men. I think this is a common motif in Western stories. Sometimes it takes a leader to marshal the townfolk into fighting back against the bad guys. The protagonist and his brother were once soldiers, so we are told, so I suppose they don’t count as “peasants” in this musing.

The other film I watched, The Last King, tells the story of a Norse king who is assassinated so that those close to him can seize the throne. It is soon discovered that he had an illegitimate son – an infant who is being protected and hidden away by babe’s mother and some men loyal to the king.

Ultimately, a showdown between the usurpers and those truly loyal to the rightful king becomes inevitable. The two soldiers guarding the royal baby wind up marshaling a gang of farmers to arms.

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Though they know the odds are stacked against them, the Dane peasants ski in YOLO -style to kick some ass.

This is what got me thinking. I’m going to make a big generalization here – different cultures have wildly different perceptions and portrayals of their villagers. Specifically I was thinking of most of the Japanese films I’ve seen.

Part of this, I’m sure, if explained by the histories of the different countries we’re talking about. In feudal Japan, peasants would have maybe had pitchforks and other farming implements. They were forbidden to own swords for a good chunk of time. And I guess the strict class structure of Japan would have been another strike against badass fighting peasants.

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I don’t really have any solid explanations here. Just my half-baked thoughts. Still, this is an interesting element for DMs and writers to consider. Can PCs and baddies just come waltzing into town and expect everyone to lay down for them? Or is the populace going to fight back if pushed? This could be a neat way to draw a distinction between different peoples and cultures, too.

-Bushi

bushi

Hunters and Horrors

Things are frantic right now – just finished with wedding festivities and the in-laws have returned home. I’m gearing up for some long work days, as we’re moving to a new office and there’s lots of IT work to be done in preparation.

Still, nerd’s gonna nerd.

Kaiju, the Great Troll Lord, has done it again. The dude who once got me into World of Warcraft (“Merry Christmas – here’s a free month of crack”) has dragged me kicking and half-heartedly protesting into Monster Hunter Generations.

 

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This is my first foray into the series, though when I lived in Japan I saw kids hunting beasts all over the damn place. That land of trains and banker box apartments lends itself to local handheld play. Also there are terrible, giant monstrosities, so naturally kids would want to hunt them.

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The single player action is solid, though the gathering quests are kind of bland. As you might imagine, multiplayer is where the game really shines. I haven’t joined any public games yet, but I’ve killed a giant armored toad among other things with a buddy. I also joined in killing a dragon. By “joined in” I mean I stood a screen away so as not to get one-shotted. Coordinating attacks, laying traps, chucking bombs of various kinds – it’s all good stuff.

The crafting is ok. I find that there’s a lot of junk armor. I mean, it’s cool that pig-cows can be skinned, but who needs crappy pig-cow armor when the discerning hunter gets access to lizard-raptor parts almost immediately?

Most of the weapons are large and ponderous or else weird. Of course I went with one that’s both. The gunlance, aerial style, baby. So like FF VIII, I guess, but with a giant lance and shield instead of a gunblade? Trust me, I am a cool dude.

What free time I can scrounge has mostly been going to Darkest Dungeon, though.

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Ok, now I had seen the glowing reviews in passing. But I wasn’t prepared for how good this one is. I honestly just thought I’d try it for an hour or so and check off a box.

What we’ve got here is a dark, tactical, turn-based, rogue-like dungeon crawler. Artistically, it reminds me of a comic book. I’m not really a big comics guy, so I’ll say a Dark Horse comic. Dark Horse is a brand, right?

Stylistically and tonally, it’s got that weird tales feel. Lovecraftian, for sure. I mean, heroes build up stress, which if unmanaged can progress into various manias and general madness. The manor (the main setting of the game, divided up into various areas) is populated with all kinds of eldritch horrors, beasts, and nasty humans. It’s got as many cultists as you’d expect in an HPL or Clark Ashton Smith tale.

The battles make me think of the third member of the Weird Trinity. It’s tactical, for sure. Positioning and party composition matter big time. But the way it plays out is Howardian. It’s visceral and action-packed. You can feel the swishes and whomps and splatters. The suspense mounts and plays out both in combat (things can go downhill fast; they can also turn around quickly on a few (un)lucky hits) and out of it as you explore the dungeon, hoping you’ve brought enough torches and food.

I’m really enjoying it a lot. So far my most satisfying moment was defeating the Collector – this low-encounter-rate spectral mini-boss who collects the heads of dead heroes and then summons them to kick your ass.

 

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I’ll be at these two games for a while.

-Bushi

bushi

3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

Not too long ago I expressed my ambivalence regarding Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever stories. The guy is a heel, and as such he’s not always fun to follow for me. Still, the tales are demonstrative of Vance’s cleverness, if not always that of their titular protagonist.

I already suggested this, but it’s worth expanding upon: for those DMs and GMs and writers out there, much can be gleaned!

There are indeed ransomware-inspiring ratmen to be found in Vance’s Dying Earth, as well as an enchanted, slumbering giant ever-ready to destroy the town at its feet should the villagers slacken their vigilance. Those are but two examples. Here are three more you might want to filch for your game or else draw inspiration from in some form or other:

1. Gems are boring

Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, zzzzzzzzzzz. It’s fun to loot precious stones from baddies, that’s true. But when your players are just picking’em up and basically auto-selling them in the first city they come to, eventually the jewels cease to sparkle.

Why not spice things up, then? At one point, Cugel briefly joins the employ of a small company that sends divers into a slime pit to retrieve the scales of a godly denizen of the Overworld. These scales, depending on the body region they originated from and their condition, are worth hefty sums to a wizard who is buying them up as artifacts. You may not need the weird slime-diving or vague origin story of said scales. They don’t even need to be scales (though they can be fun as they may be shiny and colorful and can vary greatly in value) – you may use ivory or monster bones, rare crafting materials like ironwood or mithril (which is overdone but people recognize what it is), or some other artifacts or uncommon goods.

 

2. Do the Worm

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Another job Cugel takes up at one point is that of “worminger” for a vessel upon which he wishes to procure passage. What is a worminger? Well, this ship is carried forth by great sea worms. They must be carefully tended to and managed by wormingers, who clean them, feed them, bait them, and steer them among other things. Maybe the winds have died in your campaign world, or maybe you just want a cool boat that’s towed by worms or some other giant aquatic creatures.

 

3. Geas some palms

One popular way to coerce players or NPCs into undertaking quests or tasks they normally wouldn’t is by means of a geas. This is basically a high level charm spell that forces the target to do or not do something.

But how about spicing that up a little bit and building a little character or adding some roleplaying options (besides a boring wisdom saving throw) into the equation?

In Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel is burdened with an alien parasite named Firx. Basically, Firx’s job is to make sure Cugel does the job he was sent out to do. There are times when the creature suspects Cugel is shirking his assignment or dawdling. When this happens, the little beast flexes its barbs, which are wrapped around Cugel’s guts. At these times, the protagonist either has to give in to Firx’s wishes in order to stop the pain, or else convince it that he’s pursuing the best (or only) course of action available.

And so I’ve come to find this – that even if you don’t like Cugel and don’t particularly find his stories fun, there’s still a lot to draw from them and a lot of good ideas and quality storytelling to appreciate.

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-Bushi

bushi

The Overworld and the Undertale

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As I make my way through the Dying Earth stories, Jack Vance remains one of my newly discovered favorite authors. And yet, I didn’t enjoy Eyes of the Overworld overmuch, and I find Cugel’s Saga thus far to be the same. Still, there are multiple layers to this.

First off, why am I not a big fan of Vance’s Cugel stories? Jesse (in a separate conversation) puts it nicely:

Cugel is a dick. And not one of those guys who’s a dick but then actually has a heart of gold, a ‘la Han Solo. For example, in one incident, Cugel is interacting with some clam-men (yes, they’re dudes who live in clams). They play a trick on Cugel by “gifting” a shirt made of water, which holds together initially, and then…falls apart and drenches him. He retaliates by killing one of the clam guys, who places a curse upon Cugel with his dying breath.

Cugel also abandons smoking hot babes to servitude and death, and murders (or arranges accidents) for various wayfarers he encounters when he can profit by doing so. And he is remorseless for all of these misdeeds.

Now admittedly there is some good fun in some of this. It’s satisfying to see Cugel outsmart even bigger heels than himself. But it does get tiresome to follow the adventures of a d-bag. He often gets some form of comeuppance, but I’d be happy to see him finally bite the dust. Vance’s first Dying Earth book contained several interesting and heroic (or at least sympathetic) characters. I’d have preferred to read more about them. Cugel is all well and good for a few tales, but two novels all about him just feels excessive.

Why do I keep trudging through, then? Well, why did I make myself read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series? Maybe I’m an idiot.

Actually, there’s still a lot to appreciate in the Cugel books, even without really liking the protagonist. Vance’s writing style and technique remain masterful throughout, and I love reading through his descriptions and dialogues. I haven’t learned so many new words in ages! Furthermore, the Dying Earth itself remains a fascinating setting, full of wondrous and memorable characters, artifacts, and situations.

For any DMs out there, these books are just overflowing with ideas ripe for the plucking. How about Magnatz, for example? A small town sits beside a mountain range and a lake. Long ago, a wizard cast an enchantment to protect the town from the terrible giant Magnatz : so long as a Watchman is posted to look out for the return of monster, the town will be safe. The townspeople don’t realize, but Magnatz is actually asleep at the bottom of the lake. You can probably guess what happens after Cugel (thinking he is being Clever) accepts the role of Watchman.

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This is just one interesting situation of many. And so I’ll keep reading. But I’m looking forward to being done with Cugel.

In other news, I was able to breeze through Undertale pretty quickly the past ~week. In case you aren’t familiar with this one:

The creator is a big Earthbound fan, and it shows. The music, graphics, and tone of the game are largely reminiscent of the SNES SMAAAASH-hit. It may not look it, but Undertale is able to adeptly hit alternatingly silly, serious, and creepy notes and that really makes nailing it down a challenge. On the surface I suppose I’d call it an RPG, but many of the traditional RPG elements are stripped away or turned on their heads. I don’t want to give away too much here, as I think the discovery involved in this one is a big part of the fun, but I got through it without gaining any EXP or LVLs. Also there are a lot of dogs, if you’re into that.

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The bottom line is that Steam and the opening up of the indie game market has been a tremendous boon for gamers. If you’ve got any interest, I highly recommend Undertale.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Video games, SFF, politics, and contempt!

Yesterday Rod Walker posted about our little conversation on Harry Potter, political ideology, and SFF. I think Rod hit upon a key point, which I want to highlight here.

Generally, the best books are written by writers who appreciate human nature for its foibles without being contemptuous of them, and RW thinks that is hard for hyper-political people to do.

Indeed. He added in the comment section in reply to me:

Agreed! Contempt is a dangerous vice in which to indulge, because it distorts one’s thinking and causes one to make decisions based on incorrect premises.

Bingo. Perhaps this is the word or idea that I needed to complete my thoughts in the Harry Potter post. Contempt is a nasty thing. While it can galvanize a particular group against another, it can just as easily destroy one’s chances of conversion, repulse those who aren’t hardcore believers one way or another, or distance allies who feel it to be an unworthy or unfair expression of disagreement.

I myself do some shit-posting and trolling of Leftist or PC activities. And I comment on politics and culture. What’s the difference? Well, first off I’ve got to be careful not to elevate myself here. Perhaps I’ve been guilty of the very thing I’m complaining about. If so, feel free to call me out on it any time. But if you follow me on Twitter or scroll through some of our post titles, you can pretty easily guess what our shtick is here. So first off, we’ve got a target audience. If someone else wants to engage and tell me I’m a cuck or rightwing nutjob, feel free to drop a comment. Your level of reasonableness and civility may determine whether we actually interact, but there you go.

When it comes to entertainment, I may criticize the statements or actions of creators, but I try to keep that separate from the quality of a given work.

Increasingly my beef has become with sites that bill themselves as focused on something like, oh, I don’t know, video games, and then start injecting politics. And you can guess what kind of politics they’re usually foisting. Even that is forgivable in and of itself, though it is tiresome to the max. Writers have opinions on politics, sure. And sometimes they absolutely can’t help themselves and must talk about how phallically-shaped swords are another oppressive tool of the Patriarchy, or why the new GOP-headed FCC is going to destroy the internet. People who get tired of that crap can either push back in comments or stop reading. That’s why I don’t follow many gaming websites anymore.

The latest – Touch Arcade. I used to check in pretty regularly to keep an eye on interesting-looking iOS games. Their reviews were always timely and of decent quality.

But now we’re starting to see stuff like this gem:

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So now that we’ve got a temporary moratorium on foreigners from 7 high-risk terrorist countries, the US is really becoming like an oppressive, corrupt superstate. And Touch Arcade felt this was an interesting thing to talk about.

Well, not all gamers are liberals, and not all gamers are interested in being sermonized to on political topics.

After Kaiju messaged me about this article, I gave it a quick look to see if there was any pushback. Well, the comments have bravely been disabled. How about on Twitter? Why yes:

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Touch Arcade, as you might imagine, is respectful of its readers and prepared to dialogue.

I followed up, but it was about as productive as you might guess.

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There you go. And so we circle back to “contempt.” If you want to start a discussion with your readers, that’s one thing. But if you want to spoon-feed them your ideology and spurn any opportunity for divergent opinion or dialogue, that’s another. So yes, TA may have only gotten two or three people voicing their dissatisfaction with this kind of behavior from a gaming website. It’s possible they picked up a few regular readers who thought to themselves “Hey I too hate Donald Trump and like mobile games – let me bookmark this site.” But there are also plenty of folk who clicked (there’s your stats), couldn’t comment, and didn’t feel like trying to find you on Twitter. If you don’t care whether or not you alienate these readers, then come what may. Some people don’t want to frequent sites that make them feel like they’re being held in contempt.

As you said Touch Arcade – seeya!

-Bushi

bushi