Of Vikings and PAXes

PAX East began with our jaws on the bus’ floor. I will attempt to explain what we saw with a modicum of justice… and fail miserably to convey the experience.

The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (sized at roughly six city blocks long by four wide) was located at the heart of the city, surrounded on three sides by channels. One could see the flashing demos of various games across a huge screen from the outside, and hordes of colorfully dressed fans lined up, waiting to get in. Between the center and the hotel, several sports cars rested inside the parking circle; Twin Lamborghini of an orange-turned-yellow color, two pink three-wheeled Polaris models and a few massive trucks. All of these wore markings of Blizzard’s Overwatch.

After perhaps 30 minutes of checking in, the skywalk between the hotel and convention center was traversed. I was permitted inside before the opening time thanks to a special Exhibitor’s badge furbished by Versus Evil, and was eager to check in with the booth. But once inside, the scale of the convention made navigation challenging. The upper two floors consisted of a handful of large theaters for hosting the panels, easy enough to understand.

The ground level was something else entirely.

PAX East

This photo captures perhaps 20% tops of the sheer size of the show floor. The aisles were packed to the gills with flashing monitors, colorful displays, merchandise and posters, game demos and videos, manikins and hardware. Within not five minutes of the chimes sounding the show’s opening, the alleys and walkways were flooded with thousands upon thousands of fans, cosplayers, exhibitors, media personae and personnel, staff, crews and enforcers. Human traffic clustered and congested everywhere. Even the merchandise stores required fifteen minute lines to get in, although everyone around was excited and in high spirits so the time went fast. The fans were easy enough to talk to.

The GuardFor Friday, the Versus Evil guys cut me loose to play. The first order of business was to hit up the Bethesda Store and score some gifts for friends and family, followed by the demo for Total War: Warhammer. Sega’s vision proved excellent, truly capturing the feel and appropriate scale of the conflict while remaining true to the themes and aesthetic… perhaps better than anyone else who has ever attempted it. The battle was perhaps twenty minutes long and perfectly eluded the sense of desperation and grimdark that is the hallmark of the Games Workshop’s fantasy universe.

If the treatment of this game is anything to go by, then Dawn of War III will be faith rewarded for long time fans indeed. To probable delight of these guys.

Time was spent trying Zombie Vikings, the game that that Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal helped produce. Guild of Dungeoneering and Let Them Come were also sampled and enjoyed. Still, there was simply too much to see, so the board and card games were briefly toured, the vintage video game vendors browsed and the props and demos admired. Time is the most valuable of currencies and there’s never enough to spend.

For Saturday was the big day.

Arriving at the panel a tad too late to get a front row seat, the opportunity was not wasted to snap several photos of the Stoic Studio guys on stage. In order from left to right was Technical Director John Watson, Art Director Arnie Jorgensen, Technical Designer Matt Rhoades, Lead Writer Drew McGee and Composer Austin Wintory. After a comical trailer by Kris Straub (contains spoilers), they spoke about the challenges and efforts of their latest title.

Stoic Studio

Their conversations sparked intriguing lessons, particularly how Austin wrote music based on Drew’s story, which in turn prompted changes to Austin’s tunes. Considering this, if two elements of a game are “speaking” to each other, then there was probably reactionary work done on the technical and artistic side as well. This could have meant a four-factor (art, music, story, tech) feedback loop of on-going innovations.

Another point of interest was Austin’s discussions regarding the music of series. Not just a composer but a full musical scholar, he explained how there was little historical understanding of exactly what Viking music sounded like exactly. And how this permitted a degree of freedom to craft based around discovered instruments without any clear instructions or reliable knowledge of their application.

After fan questions came the cosplay provided by the talented Danica Rockwood, Lady Devaan and especially the Dredge costume of Jackie Craft.

11 am was my time to shine, and I hurried down to the booth for the first novel signing of my career; 200 printed copies to be given out to promote the game. Waiting at the booth for the set up, I thought back about the few other book signings I attended in the past. Which authors made me feel awesome about reading their stuff? Who were the writers whom I remember the most fondly meeting?

There was Gav Thorpe, who listened to me explain how much I loved his 13th Legion trilogy enough to carry it over the Atlantic Ocean for his autograph. Clint Lee Werner, who had intriguing discussion points about where he gets his ideas. Chris Wraight, who was the nicest guy I had ever met. And Sarah Cawkwell, who encouraged me to keep writing.

I hadn’t realized it until that moment, but they had taught me how to handle visitors of book signings. I did my absolute best to keep smiling and finding points to engage people, and to always start with asking their names and writing it down in order to remember and use it when parting. This made it easier to remember people, like the friendly PAX Enforcer Malachi who dropped by again on Sunday to shake my hand.

Whenever possible, points of shared interest were discovered; the recent season of Daredevil, the games we enjoy, our favorite things about the Banner Saga. I knew there was a line of waiting people, but I also really wanted to try and give anyone kind enough to drop by an experience that would (hopefully) keep them coming back.

Signing

Whenever there was nothing to go by, discussion arouse regarding the book (“It’s a prequel– No spoilers. You don’t have to have played the first game but I highly recommend you do!”), or encourage them to play the demo (“It’s around the corner, try it! You’ll get a free pin!”) If nothing else, there was PAX East itself and what we hoped to see. Whenever met, encouragement was given to other writers, artists and hoping-to-be game creators to keep at their craft. And keeping tabs on KickStarter video for the Banner Saga: Warbands board game proved wise, as answers were rendered basic questions about it. It helped to be as excited for the game as anyone else who inquired.

Although four hours were set aside for the signing, I decided to remain an additional 30 minutes so any last minute folks could have a chance to grab a copy. By the end of Saturday, more than half of the books were gone. Checking back the following morning to see how well we did, there were perhaps 40 or so copies left to hand out before 11 am.

In the end, the event was a real taste of what it was to promote and market side of the writing business. The experience was actually fun and something I’d relish doing again someday.

Journal, February 22nd

It’s Monday. A calmer weekend has passed, with no all-encompassing plans. We watched both Bridge of Spies and the laugh-riot that was Deadpool. If you can stomach slightly over the top violence, catch it– it’s as hilarious as people say. I also finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows wrapping the series which, yes, I had never read before.

On the writer’s front, I have a manuscript that’s about 90% complete, over 7,500 words. The story kept growing, as the spy games and world building became more interesting and worth telling. This new piece is being crafted alongside another that Andrew is composing, as part of an ongoing challenge between us to try and submit to short story openings together. Our stories will be loosely connected yet independent enough of one another to stand alone if only one of us makes it.

Paired writing is something I really enjoy when teamed writers are on the same page. My experiences on fan fiction boards of the past tended to be somewhat… flaky, about this. But Andrew is a fantastic partner with regard to dependency and punctuality.

The challenge is also important to me; I’ve noticed that there’s a huge gap in my publishing schedules fast approaching. Fox Spirit’s recent releases have left only two short stories in my “soon to be published” queue, due to a combination of larger works (a novel and a few novellas) and a few rejected or unfinished manuscripts. Although I’m glad for larger works going on, I’m making an effort to keep smaller pieces in circulation.

Next month marks four years since my first paid piece was published. Four years of trying to expand the bibliography, trying to move up and on to do more as a writer. Despite a major success, the rest of last year has been full of hard knocks. My output has been dropping partially because of the aforementioned projects, but also due to the remarkable amount of research going into the latest submissions. The hardcore efforts have stung however, because despite twice the effort the results have been horrid disappointments. Promising ideas and concepts, even encouragement and interest from the editors… only to be rejected anyway.

The words have been flowing more slowly as of late. I believe the reason is because I’m looking to be concise, more efficient with what is said. With every section I find myself weighing the value of what is told. On one hand, it makes it easier to avoid the Stieg Larrson approach, where he gives too much information and details about the most utterly mundane things. On the flip side, some of those details are worth sharing, painting an image of fictional person’s preferences and aspects of the setting.

Sometimes it feels like proper character development and world-building is less in the appearance of something and more in the tale of why it exists in the first place. My latest piece feels like a solid example of that, in that it’s not so much a short story but rather a dozen historical vignettes that paint the portrait of the city in question. I’m not a vested history buff or anything. It’s just that if you stare at a city without digging into its past, they often look the same. People can be much the same, rather visually bland within crowds until you get to know them.

Perhaps that’s all many novels really are. A composite of a thousand micro-stories, with the main plot just the latest tally to be added to that list…

Golden Bowie Land

DBBSI’m frustrated and angry. Not a single word of literary concern was written this weekend. Instead, a heavy chunk of my time was invested trying to deploy a new website. The efforts left me too mentally exhausted to really write, although I did go through and accept a number of edits for a completed novella. And what I learned about Linux administration will be valuable for my career, despite my intentions to apply these skills in a publishing capacity.

These late night efforts have left me in the surreal half-asleep trance even while I sit at work, listening to “Blackstar” by David Bowie. Likely due to my sleepless state, my mind simply rejected news of Bowie’s death this morning. I don’t mean skeptical, wait-until-the-internet-corrects-itself stoicism, but firm refusal to believe the facts. My obstinate reaction shocked me.

I considered why I felt as I did. In my twenties, I purchased his album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Yet after listening, I did not understand him. His music and art were always unique and comprehension wasn’t always automatic. So many bands and singers try to find a particular sound that takes them to success, reproducing it with appealing variations for consumer consumption. But Bowie seemed impossible to emulate, even by himself. For all the music he concocted over the years, how often did any piece sound like the others?

The realization stopped me cold in my words. Even when unrecognized, David Bowie was always there.

Always.

subterreaneanThere were the overt hits and singles. In ’69 came “Space Oddity.” The year before I was born, Bowie teamed up with Queen to sing “Under Pressure.” And he changed and evolved over the years, such as when he teamed up with Trent Reznor for “I’m Afraid of Americans.” These are merely examples that readily come to mind, but the sheer body of work is staggering; 27 studio albums, 111 singles, 46 compilation albums.

When future generations of musical scholars study his discography, “Where should I begin?” is a philosophical debate of which few, if any, could be prepared.

But even when not present in body or voice, his music was felt, such as the acoustic versions sung in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. His influences trickling into the acts and lyrics of dozens of artists, perhaps Lady Gaga the most. It all illustrates the sheer importance of the departed; David Bowie was not so much a person as he was, and still is, a pillar of human civilization. A column upon which rests our perceptions of the modern world.

Guys like me took him for granted.

And Bowie’s influence was never limited to music. While most people best remember him for his role as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, I was more attuned to his unique portrayal of Nikola Tesla in The Prestige. Christopher Nolan was so determined to have Bowie for that role, the director flew out to New York to pitch it to him in person. The act moved the singer to accept Nolan’s offer, even after initially declining.

ZiggyStardustThere are very, very few who could claim to know all the phases and periods of the Bowie era, from his beginnings in the early 60’s to Blackstar, his final album. The shifting costumes, various masks and rotating personas required listeners of the most eclectic tastes and hunger for the nouveau. Yet simultaneously, it is impossible to be oblivious of his importance, nor to admire at least one decade of his time. Some have called him a chameleon and the comparison fits… at least until one examines the sheer scope of what he accomplished. Then you know he was more than that.

He was elemental.

Like water, always taking new shape. The rain that makes the storm, the flurries of the blizzard and the endurance of the ocean. Beneath the madness of garish colors and the ripples of his psychological depths was something ever evolving, ever growing for 54 years. There will be no acts that are quite what he is — not was, for he has earned an immortality reserved solely for the artist.

After him comes only the note of silence, for none could fill his spot. And his death conjures chagrin, for the world he sold is now a far less interesting place.

Things in the Dark, Out Now!

Things in the DarkAnother short by yours truly is available in Fox Spirit’s latest release, Things in the Dark, now available in print at Amazon.

There’s a bit of history behind “Selachiamorpha Caesar,” my addition to this anthology. Originally, I wrote a fairly different story to submit to Fox Spirit’s Under the Waves. That tale was a simple one about a boy who enjoys diving, having learned from his now-missing aunt. Originally I envisioned a two or three part mystery for inclusion in a few of the themed Fox Pocket anthologies.

That idea first came about more than two years ago, just before a trip to Australia. During that vacation, I (as an American) had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. The experience was my first time diving, overwhelming as I tried to take pictures, learn the art of breathing carefully, maneuver in a rubber suit and try not to touch anything.

All of this at the same time. It was quite a juggling act.

Before I boarded the plane however, I did a fair amount of research into scuba diving to get a grasp of the basics and the theory. That knowledge formed the basis of “Bottom Dwellers” which I submitted to Under the Waves.

Even as I clicked the send button to deliver that submission to Fox Spirit, I doubted it. Ultimately, there’s a point where knowing a good story from an uninteresting one becomes rather instinctive (although being able to explain why is an incredibly valuable skill). Despite knowing this, I submitted “Bottom Dwellers” anyway, in order to tell myself that I truly tried and failed rather than didn’t try.

The plot of “Bottom Dwellers” started by establishing the boy’s love of diving, then flows into a trip to Sydney to celebrate his birthday. His mother helps him dive in an area his aunt loved to explore, where he finds a long decomposed body. The police autopsy confirms the corpse is not his aunt, but was meant to add an element of mystery to be unraveled later.

Though I trusted that the technical details were there, I suspected the plot just didn’t have as much punch as I’d hope. It was one of those situations where the ending was probably the most interesting part, and everything that led to the climax seemed… perhaps a bit cookie cutter. If I rewrote it, I might have begun with the discovery of the body, filled in the emotions and details after the fact, and concluded by definitively connecting the corpse to the aunt in some way.

However, it was not a wasted exercise. The story itself was excellent practice. And I took the research and combined it with two different ideas into a completely new and unrelated tale which found its way into this anthology.

Spoilers follow. 

Continue reading

Journal, December 10th

Working on a few drafts for posting later this year, non-fiction research pieces of interest.

The first is an article clarifying who Marvel’s Moon Knight is, after I finish reading the first three Essential volumes on the protagonist (I’m roughly halfway.) This is coming in reaction to rumors that MK is getting his own television series courtesy of Netflix. Speaking of, I also started etching out a review of Jessica Jones first season. I have to admit that the further away Marvel gets from the original “core four,” the better their work generally becomes.

BaphometAnother article in the pipe is a research piece on real world magic and its history, including its secular and religious branches. I honestly cannot guess how large this piece may grow and it may be delayed all the way until March of next year, as I’ve been trying to do reading outside of Wikipedia to prepare.

Magic can quickly become a fringe subject because certain topics aren’t really magic per say, or even necessarily religious. After reading Robert Lake-Thom’s Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories and Ceremonies, valid questions can be raised as to whether certain views are more philosophical over theological– if not even protoscientific, as he encouraged observation of nature for clues, hints and warnings.

On the fictional writing front, the second novella for Outliers has been dusted off and is back on track at more than 50% complete. And new, original novel is in the planning stages and will be shopped around to literary agents. The words won’t hit the paper until later next year as I’d rather front-load my research to prevent extensive refactoring against later facts. Magic being one needed subject, as well as the histories of certain European countries.

With regard to input, I’ve finished watching the aforementioned Jessica Jones as well as the latest season of The Leftovers. I won’t be doing a review of the latter, but I will say that I sincerely hope HBO agrees to produce more to enjoy the third and final season that was just (and I mean just) announced. I’ve heard the number of viewers is down, but those who do watch have become cultists for the show and the critics who are applauding this season.

the Leftovers

On the reading front, I took a break from my non-fiction to totally absorb Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow. Despite the power of the first four stories, the themes drifted away from their horror origins to become pure Parisian romance pieces. The cultural importance of the work cannot be denied; aside from the first season of True Detective, there are many other references to the city of Carcosa in The King in Yellow, such as in A Song of Ice and Fire and many, many other forms. It’s quite possible that reading the opening story, “The Repairer of Reputations” maybe some kind of unspoken litmus test for genre authors.

I’m honestly not sure why I decided to keep going after the fourth or fifth tale, but I felt it necessary to finish it just to ensure there wasn’t something I was missing. Other than Chambers’ love for all things French, it seems I did not. With this classic piece under my belt, I’ve decided to read Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger.

I may also take advantage of the holiday season to go ahead and wrap up several Oscar winning movies from years back. Recently I sat down to watch the rather long Once Upon a Time in the West and still need to sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odysseus. Older movies can be a little tiring because of Hollywood’s tendency to remake them. Thus the ideas are often already familiar and, sometimes, are even better than the original such as Al Pacino’s Scarface over its 1930s forefather.

The Story’s The Thing!

ScholarSome ideas die hard.

That is the ailment of the month. A document keeps expanding whenever innovation strikes, as elements of a new novel are jotted down. It’s a yarn built upon twin short stories, both pitched to various publishers but rejected with encouraging remarks. A lack of depth is the usual problem, and that is the much sought solution.

The background for SFF novels often times becomes a double-trap for young authors. Fledgling word-smiths frequently fly by the seat of their pants, relying on strictly their imagination to fill in the blanks. At worst, the results are derivative of that writer’s most recent literary conquest. At best, their concoction is remarkably original but devoid of particulars and technicalities which audiences crave– with proper delivery.

Likewise, the note-taking developer types with their pseudo God-complexes can become so involved with research into each organization, country and character that production slows to a crawl. However should the effort avoid the pitfall of becoming a textbook of fiction, the outcome is often an achievement.

Such truths could sour hopes for the junior scribe. Yet the most memorable books often borrow strongest from true life. Robert E. Howard is said to have once stated, “There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as rewriting history in the guise of fiction.” J.R.R. Tolkien drew heavy inspiration from Norse mythology including Elves, Dwarves and Der Ring des Nibelungen. And George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire draws inspiration from the War of Roses and, some believe, a few other sources.

Admittedly these facts are a deterrent. There is little pleasure to be derived from the crestfallen countenances of dreamers-turned-skjalds for whom this is the lesson du jour. The fusion of economics, history, politics, culture, religion, psychology and science and/or the occult into a tale is no trick. Such intellectual pack-rats authors can become, for no esoteric knowledge is worthless.

The cynicism is due to timing. National Novel Writing Month has nearly arrived. An event that floods publishers and book delivery platforms with thousands of manuscripts. An event sponsored and encouraged by various groups who financially benefit from the stoked competition that spawns the deluge. An event that sparks the yin and yang of ambivalent emotions; a desire to be encouraged and see folks succeed, yet fearing the earnest zeal of effort that shall be futilely deflected against an uncaring public.

There is the rest of the year to be a scrivener who needs no crutch. For now, the innovations shall brew and storm, a time of rest from the inferno that serves others and not the creator. And December shall be the month when the ink touches the page.

Battletech Memories and Favorites

AtlasThe Battletech Kickstarter is doing very well, so it seems a good time to discuss the nostalgia consuming my psyche. I admire how Harebrained Schemes has been stirring fan conversations, either to gather metrics for game design (preferred mechs, ideas for mission designs) or just to generate PR buzz or maybe just for fun. But it’s effective and has gotten fans stoked.

I guess the best way to kick off is by telling a secret. Battletech played a major role in inspiring me to become a writer.

I’m serious. My first introduction to the Battletech Universe was through Mechwarrior 2. I procured the game on a whim, after having scored a fine report card and earning a reward from my parents.

While browsing PC games, a tough decision was laid before me. I very nearly took home a copy of Crusader: No Remorse. In the end, the classic mech sim won out. That very night I installed and played through a training mission. At first, I couldn’t figure out how to walk. However, I discovered that by shifting left and right, I inched forward just a little bit.

You read that correctly. I penguin walked my mech to my very first objective.

Two minutes of studying the instruction manual later I discovered this nifty thing called “throttle.” Before I knew it, my Firemoth was rushing from Alpha to Bravo, actually completing the laundry list of goals to accomplish. Everything after that was smooth sailing.

Until I accidentally fired a potshot at my training commander.

One violent death later and I was hooked. The game had no play timer that I knew about, but hundreds of hours of my childhood were invested playing and replaying trial missions and beating both campaigns inside and out.

Decision at Thunder RiftAs I progressed, I spent some time trying to understand the greater conflict between Clans Wolf and Jade Falcon and the universe as a whole. Later, while at the local bookstore, I noticed a connection between Mechwarrior and Battletech. That’s when I received my first Battletech novel, Decision at Thunder Rift.

For the audience members who haven’t read it, the book revolves around young Grayson Death Carlyle, son of the leader of Carlyle’s Commandos. While stationed on the desert planet of Trellwan, a bandit ambush cost Grayson his father, his unit and his inheritance.

Grayson survives, but is left stranded on a planet that has become hostile. However, after jumping into a battle between the bandits and the local militia, Grayson manages to turn his luck around and convince Trellwan’s government to set up their own Battlemech lance. Yet before he can finish off the bandits, Grayson is plunged into a greater political plot that threatens his home nation.

As a thirteen year old kid, this novel blew my mind. William H. Keith Jr did an amazing job of grabbing the reader’s attention regardless of their age and throwing them into the adventures, political intrigue and battles of the 31st century.

And as if it wasn’t awesome enough, the sequel Mercenary’s Star was even better. The kind of perfect guerrilla war story that was rife with conflict, challenges and betrayals. These tales helped set me down the path of trying to polish my writing craft on online message boards. Sometimes I produced fan fiction, and sometimes it was original pieces. Mechwarrior was a ton of fun, but it was Keith’s awesome novels that made me want to become a scribe in my own right. 

Back to the games themselves. Not long after Mechwarrior 2 came the Ghost Bear’s Legacy expansion, followed by my absolute favorite entry of the entire franchise, Mechwarrior Mercenaries. It was in this title that I developed a preference for medium battlemechs. They possess very good speed, can absorb some punishment and usually provide just enough firepower to legitimately threaten far-end heavies and assault mechs.

And as Mercenaries taught me, they’re a good price. Everything I thought I learned about being a Mechwarrior was turned upon its head once I learned to manage the flow of C-Bills. Before, the only punishment for using missiles and ballistic weapons was simply a little less ammunition with which to complete that mission. But the addition of financial considerations make me consider the price of every shot and every expenditure. And rewarded me with savings for preferring energy weapons.

For that reason, I have to give two mechs which I consider my favorites.

CenturionThe first is the Crab. I first piloted this mech during a campaign between rebel forces and House Kurita during Mechwarrior Mercenaries. The Crab’s exclusive focus on energy weapons, including two useful large lasers, helped me to outlast the competition and saved money in the long run. For the attrition-minded, you just can’t beat the value of a Crab piloted by a skilled mechwarrior.

The second must be the classic Centurion. Sure, I could easily list the Shadow Hawk, Wolverine or Griffin, all respected for their well-rounded designs. But while the trio were jack-of-all-trade types, the Centurion knew its role; peppering foes from afar and preferring to outgun over outrun the competition. When paired with other mechs, it did a great job at fire support. On its own, a strong raider.

The further along the Kickstarter gets, the more convinced I am that it’s the game I didn’t even know I wanted until now. All the elements of Mechwarrior Mercenaries with the tactical considerations of Mech Commander. A persistent lance, missions throughout the entire Inner Sphere and hopefully multiplayer arena battles, all set in the era of classic Battletech. 2017 never seemed so far away.

High Fantasy to Inspire

Generally, high fantasy is not so much to my taste. The standard was primarily set by The Lord of the Rings, and everything else since then has often paid homage to that trilogy in some shape or form, often reusing many similar tropes. But sometimes, the reuse of familiar material doesn’t matter. Sometimes its just the quality of what or how the story is told that keeps the audience in their seats.

So here are five high fantasy games, books and television series that maybe more esoteric, but are definitely worth checking out…


Record of Lodoss War, by Group SNE

Once, Manuel mentioned Record of Lodoss War as an anime that inspired him. The series is quite Tolkienesque in nature, with many races and elements akin to Dungeons and Dragons. You may find the tropes very familiar.

For many fantasy franchises, there’s a kind of chicken-vs-egg origin question. Sometimes it’s a story that inspires a game, which tries to relive or create new scenarios to expand those adventures. Other times, the game is weaved around the gaming system itself. Record of Lodoss War is the latter of these two, coming from a looser role-playing system called Forcelia. From this, Ryo Mizuno wrote several novels, which expanded into a few games and three separate anime series of varying quality.

Of these anime series, I’ve enjoyed watching the very first. And I have seen elements of the second OVA series called Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight, whose opening can be viewed below.

The first series really did create a traditional RPG party. The main characters were a knight, a dwarven fighter, an elven shaman, a priest, a magician and a thief. No, really. The one-hundred percent traditional, balanced party you would otherwise only see in video games was in fact the main cast of a 13-episode television series.

Record of Lodoss War went back and forth from lighthearted to dark. You had tender scenes where naive knight Parn hit it off with Deedlit on the dance floor. In another scene, you see a man killed by… I don’t even know how to describe it. He turned purple and collapsed violently. Magic? Vicious poison? Who knows. But there are other high fantasy elements such as prophecies and enormous dragons. I suppose if you like traditional high fantasy and don’t mind large anime eyes, Record of Lodoss War is your thing.


The Secret of Mana, by Squaresoft

Secret of ManaBack in the days of the SNES, Squaresoft came up with a stellar idea for a Legend of Zelda-like action/adventure/RPG. Their concept? A three-player game, more about the collusion of magic and nature against technology and industrism, aging traditions clashing against expanding imperial powers. The past against the future. If you’ve ever seen Ralph Bakshi’s unusual film Wizards then probably have a some idea.

The story surrounded a boy who accidentally drew a sword from the waterfall near his home, acting on “Chosen One” trope. This otherwise innocent act unleashes a series of monsters and problems throughout the land. The boy is banished from his village and sent to solve the world’s dilemma.

Along the way he is joined by a girl trying to save a warrior she loves (a nice flip on the “Save the Princess” trope) and a sprite. By sealing eight seeds of Mana, they will be able to restore balance to the world. Unfortunately, the (Evil) Empire seeks the secrets of Mana for themselves to unlock the Mana Fortress.

The Secret of Mana shined as a fantastic game, a rewarding experience that was more about the joys of playing with a friend or two, discovery and teamwork. The environment was highly colorful and diverse. And the music was soft, haunting and unforgettable. The story of the game was nothing groundbreaking then or now, but moderately well told. Here’s the opening theme, and as Youtube user elrandohorse correctly asserted, it will result in “Manly tears.”


Tactics Ogre: The March of the Black Queen, by Enix

Ogre BattleI’ve only played one of the Tactics Ogre games, but it was good. Damn good. That particular game was Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen by Enix. The game oddly mixed RTS elements with traditional RPG details, but did so simply and quite well. The game’s plot focuses on a rebellion to overthrow an Empress who took control of the continent some 25 years earlier, but thickens a little bit after they succeed. An intriguing point mentioned on the Wikipedia is that the game was partially inspired by the Yugoslav Wars of the 90s.

The gameplay of the series was relatively simple. You organize multiple parties of up to five ordinary soldiers. They can be moved about the map, and when they come into contact with a foe they will engage. Battle was simply a set of rounds, with each character fighting pretty much on autopilot. Units cost money, which is raised every day based on the number of liberated towns and temples. Given the mouse-like user interface, I’m actually surprised it has not yet been ported to mobile devices.

There was considerable depth to the SNES game. As soldiers survive, they can be promoted to other classes and gain interesting new abilities. There were some 75 different classes they could become. Tarot cards were collected throughout the campaign, each possessing unusual, powerful properties that could alter the course of battle. Characters could also become evil or good on a scale from 0 to 100. This effects battle, as good characters fight better during the day while evil ones during the night.

Between this morality scale and several choices in the game, there were 13 different endings. These features were somewhat ahead of their time, making Tactics Ogre: March of the Black Queen easily one of the most interesting approaches to the RTS genre.


The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

The Book of ThreeWhen you say old school fantasy, you usually cannot get more traditional than Lloyd Alexander’s five-book series, The Chronicles of Prydain. In truth the series is a hybrid, blending elements of high and dark fantasy with Welsh mythology, yet staying at the Young Adult reading range. Folks may be somewhat familiar with the series thanks to Disney’s movie The Black Cauldron, based on the first and second books and named after the latter.

Taran is a pig boy who dreams of a bigger life, yet is charged with the care of an oracle pig named Hen Wen who escapes after a frightening vision. Taran pursues his charge and is accidentally thrust into the conflict between the House of Dôn and the Horned King, followed by his master Arawn. Over the series, Taran grows into a man, particularly during the fourth book during which he travels with only the man-beast Gurgi.

The Chronicles of Prydain is one of the earliest dark fantasy series I’ve ever read, and what turned me onto the genre long before Berserk or the Diablo series ever came to my attention. The brilliance of course is that it’s still made for a younger audience, so the quintology manages to possess many thrills and foreboding sense of dread while never becoming so terrifying as to offset its readers.


The Pirates of Dark Water, by Hanna-Barbera

The Pirates of Dark WaterAdmittedly, The Last Unicorn almost made this spot. The reason it didn’t was due to the release of a new edition, which returned the movie to the public’s eye yet again.

Created by Hanna-Barbera, The Pirates of Dark Water take place on the ocean-covered world of Mer (French for sea.) The planet is suffering from a black substance that leaves whatever it touches barren and dead. Yet scattered throughout the world are thirteen treasures which can dispel this toxic mass.

Ren, a boy raised as a lighthouse keeper, is charged with finding and reuniting these treasures. Joined by a few unusual allies, Ren is opposed by Bloth, a rival pirate captain who seek the treasures in order to control the dark water for his own gains.

Although the series lasted but 21 episodes and ended before the story’s completion, the show must be praised for its daring and bold vision. Its influences fly against the orthodox medieval European settings common in most fantasy series. Rather, The Pirates of Dark Water feels like a cultural creole of many Asian countries. The clothing, weapons and even character designs all borrow historical hints from Korea, China, Thailand, Japan and several other countries. It’s a shame that it was cancelled before its time.

Pop General

“Showtime’s series tend to hinge around their central player and frequently risk fizzling when that character runs out of yarn or when the audience fatigues of them…”

Been catching Homeland and The Leftovers on television, finished reading The Black Company: The Book of the North and completed watching the last episodes of The Wire as well as the sixth season of The League.

CarrieThis season of Homeland has been pretty good. It’s too early to say if I’m enjoying it more than the fourth season, but the writers took a bold risk in trying to divorce Carrie of the CIA, after the unexpected high of having the “good guys” effectively lose. I used to cheer for the CIA in the earlier seasons when its mission was more defensive. But as of late the agency feels too Machiavellian. There has been some shocking contrasts in how certain characters have remained true to form while others have become increasingly…

Villainous.

I don’t know whether this is just the plot du jour, or if Showtime is preparing for a final story arc and the series climax in the following season (maybe two.) Admittedly I hope for the latter, as Showtime has a tendency to drag on after the ecstasy of a great tale has worn off.

Like Breaking Bad, shows of this caliber should end with an exclamation point, kill their darlings and never look back.

But HBO’s The Leftovers has managed to enthrall me, and even overtake my excitement for Homeland in just two episodes (I intend to see the third tonight.) After some comparisons of how HBO and Showtime manage their television, I’ve come to realize that Showtimes tends to be very protagonist centered, while HBO breaks up their story among various characters. The LeftoversGame of Thrones, The Wire… HBO does a great job of never being too dependent on anyone cast member. But with Showtime, series like DexterUnited States of Tara, and Nurse Jackie tend to hinge around their central player and frequently risk fizzling when that character runs out of yarn or when the audience fatigues of them.

Meanwhile, The League has definitely ground down. In many ways, the show can be compared to Seinfeld; the plot tends to pick up themes early and circles around to connect them (often ironically) at the end, while the characters are deserving snobs for whom we get a schadenfreude kick from seeing punished. Unlike the show about nothing however, The League has begun to recycle its humor and isn’t really adding anything new to the formula. Sure, there were a few moments of gold in the sixth season, such as when Andre was psychologically tricked into “punishing himself” for cheating. But the completionist in me is glad the series is ending.

As if this all wasn’t enough of a mistake in the consumption of my spare time, I decided to begin another game of Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

It’s not like I don’t have enough to do as of late. Three drafts await completion as it is; a military sci-fi piece, a post-apocalyptic story and a unique historical fantasy piece that I’d been researching for a few months. There’s also a novella that will be due before the year’s end and several technical projects that need my attention.

But I’ve been pretty stressed. An hour set aside to finish anything is never enough. Sometimes people need to be reminded of what’s fun to remember why the labor is worth the effort.

Shadowrun4AI actually finished my first campaign about a month ago, with an Italian elf shaman by the name of Bianca “Luna” Panzavecchia. With an emphasis of conjuring over spirit summoning and a focus on pistols, Luna was a great work-horse character. Her conjuring aspects surprised me greatly, particularly the barrier spells which I used to powerful effect… even going so far as to cheese the final boss. However, I put my first replay aside while I waited for a few patches to reduce the sheer of bugs.

Manuel and I had been swapping some build ideas for new characters for a while. About a month ago I had a vision of a troll adept (think monk) because of a natural synergy for Strength, Body and Willpower, and an emphasis in barehanded fighting. I jokingly shook my fist at Manuel for running ahead to try my idea first, but I finally got around to trying the theory myself.

A little karma distribution later and Charlie Shen, better known as Mó Chuí (magic hammer) was born. Shen hits like a semi-truck and can soak a fair amount of damage too. Downside to most melee characters remains consistent though; he’s frequently out of cover and tends to soak up a lot of damage. 50 then 60 HP and good armor will go far towards keeping him alive, but it would be best to keep a few emergency health kits on hand.

One thing I have to respect about this title was the removal of… what we’ll call “paragon” dialogue. Basically, Mass Effect set a standard for characters where as you can be the ultimately goodie-two shoe or evil incarnate. Dragonfall offered dialogue choices which were much more “cool grey” in nature, but did give the player the option of being a total @#$hole whenever they felt like it. Hong Kong tends to be a little more mellow about that, though you can push buttons if you try hard enough. And that’s the road I’m taking Mó Chuí down.

Spinal Troubles Again & Friday the 13th KickStarter

fridaythe13ththegameA new KickStarter is available for none other than Friday the 13th, an officially licensed multi-player game with 1 vs 7 asymmetrical slasher action!

The game is due out for the XBox One, Playstation 4 and PC. Funding is already nearing 50% after only two days. Horror fans unite!

As usual, once one starts getting ahead, life knocks them down again.

For two nights in a row, I stayed up late trying to get a handle around Spring programming, a framework used primarily with Java to develop web servers. I had to explain to the misses that the reason for burning the midnight oil was due to a condition called “nerd raging.” That is, persistent study and trial-and-error to achieve deserved results, sometimes beyond what’s healthy.

Well, between reduced sleep and generally avoiding the gym, I have managed to again pinch a nerve. My guess is T9, which differs from the previous incident near my neck.

dancing skeletonThe first night I spent primarily in bed, reading for a few hours before going to sleep around 10 p.m. But sleep was difficult due to pain. Remaining on my back or belly is fine, but I usually shift to my side at night, and the pain flares. I woke up and took a very hot bath to reduce the agony.

The worst part about herniated discs has to be trying to block out the pain during the day to day. Sometimes you’re fine and feel nothing. Other times, the slightest motion is all it takes to set off the scratching of unseen hooks throughout one’s entire back. The resulting grouchiness* and anti-social tendencies are just an attempt to preserve relationships lest others think the frustration of enduring is meant towards them.

According to the Mayo Clinic, 9 out of 10 herniated discs usually heal on their own with conservative treatment. However, a caveat is that while bed rest is ideal for the first day or so, those inflicted should actually try to increase their exercise and movements to return to normal.

I used this as an excuse to try something I believe would be ideal to my condition. Tai Chi.

I’d been wanting to get back into martial arts for a while. I took some forms of Karate in college and then some classes of Tae Kwon Do during the summers. Tai Chi is remarkably different. The interesting thing about the style is that the health and exercise components seem to have outpaced the self-defense traits. To most people, the application of Tai Chi as a martial art is secondary aspect. Furthermore, Tai Chi’s slow movements make it accessible even to the infirm.

There are actually a few videos available on Youtube with beginner lessons worth exploring. During the introduction of the lesson I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder if many of the movements the instructor used were designed more towards helping him combat his arthritis, which he explained he developed not long after medical school. Because of Tai Chi’s modern application towards health, I couldn’t help but ponder about instructors who researched techniques and movements to help combat spinal stress.

Now that I think about it, I wonder if there might not be some kind of Tai Chi service or database that could help people custom tailor their workouts to help alleviate particular health issues. To be effective however, I’d suppose that research would need to be performed to determine which forms, movements and motions are proven to have an impact against certain conditions. Getting my head around how to measure such metrics is a considerable task.

I keep wanting to add more about this but also constantly shove my foot in my mouth. Maybe I’ll check Netflix for a series on Tai Chi tomorrow…

*–This applies to regular folks. I however, am always grouchy.