In which I rant about Tieflings for no good reason

Yeah, okay, of all the dumb rants there are in the world this is one of the dumbest and worse it is several years out of date but it’s one of those things boiling over into nerdrage and the entire point of this blog is to have a place for nerdrage so it is serving its purpose.

So.

Tieflings.

Back in the wild world of AD&D 2nd Edition we had a thing called Planescape and it was good. Well, it wasn’t good. But it was better than most. And Planescape introduced a nice place called Sigil that was full of kind people who liked to stab — each other, other people, you know, in general, stab. Stabbing was a thing in Sigil. In Sigil were these people called Tieflings. Since Sigil was the center of all the Planes all based on the 9 D&D alignments it made sense that the occasional Demon or Devil or Fiend would wander on through, leave a couple of babies with the local whores and barmaids, and wander on their way. Could the demons help it if they were good looking? No, probably not.

Tieflings were the closest thing that Sigil had to a native population. Each one was weird in their own way. Grandpa was a Cambian and Mom was some sort of nasty half-fiend so you’re just this freak with giant bulging red eyeballs and vestigial wings that go fwip fwip fwip and your poker buddy has 6 foot tall curving horns and hooves. But no one cared because over infinite time in Sigil everyone was a damned Tiefling. One assumed any Tiefling sorcerer who fell through a Door and ended up in someone’s campaign was only adventuring to get back to their goddamn poker game where they had a full flush high they swear and they leaned back in their chair and now here they are fighting goddamn orcs what the hell is this garbage. Old Tieflings were guys who had fireballs in one hand and cigarettes in the other and weren’t interested in that sword in that magical horde because they could do a thing. They were cool guys.

I was one of those people who liked Tieflings. And yes, I know they are lame.

Tieflings were like this in 3rd edition and survived that way through the patch but then were watered down into non-existence. Instead of an interesting background of some demon passing through town now it is a Mysterious Ancestor who Tainted a Bloodline and now all Tieflings are Generically the Same. They were gutted of all their interestingness into bland sameness with a Spooky and Mysterious Past that was Spooky and Mysterious. And they are all weird in the exact same way and have absolutely no knowledge about plains or Evil Grandpa George the Demon or extra-planar games of chance.

And because not everything can be awesome, in D&D 5th Edition Tieflings are still a race with a mysterious tainted bloodline with a tail and flamey eyes all in the same way.

So screw that. I have declared an Official House Rule that all Tieflings are Different, Dammit. They might not be from Sigil — a summoning could have gone wrong, someone hung around with Great Evil too long, who knows. Something interesting. Something interesting happened that was more than a vague and unspoken spooky evil that is strange and spooky. Something awesome happened. And that’s the whole point of Backgrounds. Something. Awesome. Happened. And I have declared it So for all Tieflings.

Life is too short for boring bland evil backgrounds.

On the D&D5e Starter Set

Yesterday, we got together, went through character generation, and played several hours of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set.  To paraphrase: I wasn’t a huge fan of 4th Edition because I am a habitual minis player and 4th Edition felt like a minis game.   I did love the board games – Wrath of Ashardalon and the like – because I love roguelikes and those games felt like the right balance between a roguelike and a ridiculous dungeon run.  4th Edition needed grids, minis, rulers, and careful measurements to play and combat bogged down.  It wasn’t the D&D I remembered so the books went largely unread and the game went unplayed.

D&D5e is not D&D4e. 

Character generation is good old fashioned D&D character generation.  Pick a race, pick a class, apply some bonuses, pick some weapons, fill out a form, and rock & roll.  I picked a Mountain Dwarf Fighter because smashing imaginary goblins with a two-handed maul is fun and because I love Violet from Rat Queens.  We all filled out our character sheets wrong in the same way – it’s the bonuses from the stats which count, not the stats themselves but because we were all trained by AD&D 2nd Ed we are still thinking the Fighter needs an 18/00 strength to be effective and, well…

Backgrounds shone.  We didn’t have many to pick from, this being the Starter Set, but I see a glorious future of entire splat books dedicated to backgrounds alone.  Two of us picked Soldier and one picked Criminal and we came up with some tenuous relationships between us.  Rolling randomized on tables to create character personalities came up with some mixed results but the concept of backgrounds works.

Combat is what we all care about.  Gone are the 5’ steps, the grid requirements, and the trappings of a minis game that starter in 3 and exploded in 4.  Combat was fluid and fast – we managed to get through 5 combats in less than three hours which might be a world speed record for D&D.  Granted, these are 1st level characters with 1st level character combats so they’re expected to be fast.  Goblins squish.  But there was a good balance of risk, reward, tension, and fast play to keep combat fun.  

The Advantage/Disadvantage system is a bit of genius.  It forces the players to think more tactically without the need of physical tactics.  Players want to get the drop on monsters to get those Advantages so they’ll work harder, think more, and work together to get those pluses while trying to stay away from situations which give them Disadvantages.  (For those not yet exposed to it, Advantages are when you can roll 2 d20s and take the best, and Disadvantages work the same way to the enemy’s benefit.)  This gives the combats more color and encourages teamwork. 

To understand the general tone of game play, go back to D&D 3rd edition and instead of shooting off into 3.5/Pathfinder, pull out everything that feels extraneous – most of the mechanics around Feats, measurements – and put in a more fluid saving throw, skill and combat system.  It is not AD&D 2nd Ed like people have claimed – there is no THAC0, the d20 is still king, it is still all rolling and adding – but there’s an essential AD&Dness mixed with the enormous improvements found in 3rd Ed to make 5th Edition.  It feels like Dungeons and Dragons.

It’s a super good game if you are in the mood for the kind of cheesy, ridiculous fun playing D&D brings.  And it has all the feel of murder hoboing without the overhead.

Will play again and will acquire the core books when they come out.

A Single Issue Roads Voter

It’s election ramp-up time!  We’re mumble months out and the commercials have begun.  So let’s talk about politics!  Yay!

I can’t much care about politics on a Federal level in the Midterm elections because the Federal Government has turned into an Insurance company protected by a large and well-funded standing army.  I cannot vote to get the US Government to represent my views on Basic Research or Climate Change or anything so I’ve just sort of table flipped there.  On the local level, though, my vote still carries a teeny tiny bit of weight.

In my old age, on the state level, I’ve become a single issue voter.  I used to pay attention to the postures and positions of the various candidates and vote liberal anyway.  But now a days, I only care about one issue: roads

Here’s what I want out of my representatives and government who take my state and county taxes:

  • Build roads
  • Fix bridges
  • Fix potholes
  • Maintain roads
  • Employ our friends, Civil Engineers

Here’s what I don’t want out of my representatives and government on the state level: much anything else.

My thinking works like this:

… if you’re super into building and maintaining roads …

… you’re probably super into building roads that go useful places or get people to useful places

so you might even be interested in those useful places and the people who work there

… so you might like, oh, say, schools and hospitals and ambulances and the ability for police to answer 911s …

… you might even be interested in some more interesting things like electric car charging stations or running municipal fiber at the outside …

… so, in general, you like modern human civilization.

And thus, I will vote for you.  A vote for roads is a vote for a city, county, and state that is not a crumbling heap of post-dystopian life.

I’m getting to the point where I actually send campaigns emails asking about the candidate’s stance on roads.  Do you like roads?  How do you feel about roads?

As far as I can tell:

Libertarians are morally opposed to roads in any form.  They never leave their homes and teleport from place to place in Ayn Randian teleportation devices.

Republicans, who used to be very pro-road — after all Eisenhower built the freeway system — have crammed their heads up the butts of the abortion/contraceptive/rapey rape caucus.  They no longer have time to stop their moral umbrage to fix a road.  Besides, roads cost money and they no longer pay for things when that money could be going to their buddies.

Greens never build roads.  Why aren’t you walking or riding a bike?  You don’t need a road for a bike.  You can use a mountain bike.   Roads destroy the environment.  Just stop using roads entirely.

This leaves me with the occasional Democrat since we don’t get Independents.   Even they are weak sauce on roads but they do fix an occasional pot hole or fix a bridge.  That’s something.  But if the Democrat won’t fix roads either…

On the local level, I offer my hands in the great greeting of also becoming a single issue voters.  I could care less where a candidate stands on gay marriage or abortion.  All I care about is this: if I elect you, will you ensure that some hole in the freeway won’t destroy my suspension?  That’s what I want to know.

On Learning French On The Cheap

Off and on the last ten years I have tried learning French and not gotten far – except for this time, when I might have hit upon a winning combination that, if anything else, is working for me. 

First, Duolingo is an on-the-go free application that teaches Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and German in a manner quite like Rosette Stone.  It costs nothing and its coverage of a language is quite comprehensive.  However:

  • It tells you when you get something wrong but it never tells you why you got something wrong often leading to frustration.
  • It never teaches you any reasons behind the grammar it introduces.   It just introduces grammar complexity and laughs at you as you fail lessons.
  • Sometimes the translations are colloquialisms or verb tense changes without any warning.
  • It nags.  Meh.

Duolingo is terrible for learning a language from scratch since it leads to frustration and confusion but it’s fantastic for vocabulary drill.  Since vocabulary drill is the name of the game, it’s worth doing the minimum 10-15 minutes a day with the app – with something else.

Second, the podcast Coffee Break French is really good.  It’s really good.  I thought the JapanesePod 101 stuff was good but no, this is really good.  Instead of drilling vocabulary I get what Duolingo doesn’t cover:

  • Clear pronunciation instruction to get pronunciation correct.  Man, I sound like a horrific Canadian trying to speak French.  It’s sad.
  • Grammar instruction and explanation.  For example, Duolingo’s pronouns lessons became much easier once I heard a Coffee Break French lesson. 
  • Build block learning of vocabulary to build up full sentences.
  • Listening practice at full speed to full conversations. 

If you get super interested you can buy the supplementary materials but I have all the volcab drilling in the world from Duolingo.  It can be sucked down via iTunes.

Third, I bought a cheap, used French High School Textbook off Amazon for $13 (Vis-a-Vis Beginning French 4th Edition).  There comes a time, I found, when one needs to give it up and just look up the grammar rule in question and get a written explanation with examples.    

The last bit is just diligence.  I try to get ~20-30 minutes of French instruction shoehorned in every day.

So there you go!  Try it and have fun!

A Few More Upgrades

Still upgrading the blog and trying to drag it until the next year so I can just send blog posts to it via the Surface Pro.  

  • Removed the Social plugin in favor of the Jetpack equivalent, Publicize.  Slowly downgrading all old plugins in favor of Jetpack equivalents.  This hopefully removes the twitter double-post.
  • Installed Disqus comments.  I know they’re annoying but after years of trying to deal with commenting systems that weren’t actually horrible moved to something cloud hosted.  The thinking here is I can blame the cloud provider instead of myself.  If it turns out terrible I’ll go back to the regular WordPress commenting system.  It should have guest commenting turned on so it shouldn’t force anyone to make a Disqus account.

Nothing to see here.  Just move along.

Also, ha ha ha I have the proofreader plugin turned on so it smacks my fingers with a ruler whenever I use a passive tense verb conjugation.

On the Surface Pro 2

Hey look!  A return to blogging!  The blog is getting a slow but certain face lift.  But this isn’t about blogging, but about my new blogging device, a 128GB Surface Pro 2, which showed up under the tree on Christmas.  After 48 hours of heavy use of the device I’ve come to some nuanced conclusions about it and how it fits into the technological niche.  The tl;dr is that I am terribly fond of the device but it comes with some caveats.

This is also my first time blogging or writing of any sort on the device.  Let’s see how this goes!

The Good

  • Steam!

Steam runs.  Steam plays.  Steam downloads games.  Game run!  Games run well.  Unless your gaming tastes run to high performance FPS then Surface makes a surprisingly nice portable steambox.  I’ve downloaded and tested several games and they have all run flawlessly.

  • Windows Live Writer

Microsoft offers Windows Live Writer, a piece of fully featured WYSIWYG blogging software with tools to embed images, movies, maps, etc., for free.  It hooks to WordPress sites and has an enormous list of tools for formatting and laying out blog posts.  It runs without issue on the Surface Pro 2, turning the ultrabook into a portable blogging machine.  Who knew?

  • The Pen and Manga Studio 5

Easily the most impressive piece of software on the Surface Pro 2 so far has been Smith Micro’s Manga Studio 5.  The pen interface works perfectly with the art studio software turning the ultrabook into a full featured drawing tablet with velocity and pressure support.  It is no wonder web comic artists swear by Surface and drawing software.  The first time running the software with the pen is the first time I realized this little box was something completely unexpected. 

  • Netflix

Netflix is everywhere, on everything.  It’s embedded in my DVD player.  Today, Netflix players come with socks from Target.  But between the touch interface and the aspect ratio, Netflix feels natural on the Surface.  Not many other pieces of natively built in software stands out but Netflix did a nice job on their conversion of the client for Surface-oriented clients.

  • The Kickstand

The kickstand keeps the Surface Pro propped up at a comfortable writing height, especially on a table, a tray or a writing desk (full disclosure: it is currently on a writing desk).  It isn’t neck-crane difficult to see and it isn’t lying flat.  It sits at a natural height for doing serious work, and then collapses down again to be a lap or portable device.

  • The Type Keyboard

The type keyboard (not the touch keyboard) plugs into the bottom of the Surface, disconnects, acts as a cover, folds backward, and has highly accurate and responsive keys.  Although it is an expensive add-on, the type keyboard is worth it – it turns the Surface Pro into a device that both can be used for media and for actual Word/Excel work.

  • Flash

And it plays Flash.  If, say, your favorite web comic is loaded with flash files….

The Bad

  • Windows 8 is pretty terrible

As every technology magazine and blog has pointed out over the last year, Windows 8 is pretty terrible.  And it is pretty terrible.  It’s a well meaning mess that has no direction, no clear sense of self, and gets in the way between people and their computer.  Metro can be bludgeoned into shape by someone with the patience to read blog pages on usability but if you’re expecting it to be usable out of the box, it’s not usable out of the box.  It’s 8-12 hours of use to set up the hacks around the roadblocks it throws up to get it to work.

Don’t get me started on the insane security requirements and the “run as administrator” button.

  • The Touch Keyboard is also pretty terrible

The clicky-clicky type keyboard is superior in every way (see above).  The touch keyboard is garbage.   It rarely registers clicks, it slides around, and it feels cheap.  Avoid at all costs.  Get a type keyboard.

  • The Windows Store is sad

The Windows Store is full of sad widgety software which hardly works.  The store itself has hardly any pieces of software of note.  Most of the software doesn’t work right.  Windows has tons – TONS – of software.  Pretty much every piece of software available on WIndows 7 runs on Windows 8.  Steam games run.  Word and Excel runs.  Skip the store.

  • The inexplicably terrible experience with Youtube

I’m still not sure what is going on here, but Youtube hates the Surface Pro 2.  The apps in the Windows Store are worse than useless so one needs to run Youtube in the browser.  That’s not a dealbreaker by any stretch but I am so used to the super slick Google Youtube and Jasmine apps available on the iPad that not having a nice Youtube app feels like a travesty, especially in the face of the extremely well-done Netflix app.  Very strange.

  • Browsers

Well… the good news is, after several hours of cajoling, Google Chrome does work on the Surface Pro… kind of.  It’s support of touch controls are schizophrenic.  It has no idea how to draw the screen half the time.  Firefox does not work at all.  Don’t even think about Firefox.  I have not tried Opera. 

IE10 is not horrible and has terrific touch support but it is Bing centric.      

  • Windows Live Accounts

Yep.  You have to hook yourself into the Microsoft microcosm to use the Surface.  It did take my Gmail account so I didn’t need to suddenly manage yet another email account.  But having to create yet more accounts in yet more systems to do yet more things is annoying.

Overall

Microsoft sells the Surface Pro 2 as a tablet designed to compete with the iPad but the Surface Pro 2 is not a tablet, it’s an ultrabook.  One does not lie in bed and read a book with the Surface Pro 2.  It is too heavy to hold comfortably one-handed.  But it does everything a performant PC does and more.  If the expectation is one of a nice ultrabook with a touchable screen and an 8 hour battery life, it delivers.  If one is expecting an iPad or Galaxy Tab-like experience… it’s an ultrabook.

It’s filling a blogging/Steam playing/on the couch using niche in my life.  It’s been given a mouse, it runs twitter and social networking apps, it plays the Stanley Parable.  I can see how it isn’t for everyone and I can see how an iPad/Galaxy Tab is plenty for most people.  But like the XBox 360, Microsoft occasionally puts on an excellent piece of hardware laden with some terrible software – and if you can get through the software barriers there’s a gem inside.

Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one point in David Mitchell’s amazing Buddhist science fiction novel “Cloud Atlas,” a character in the past comments on a character in the future he might or might not reincarnate into which you, the reader, knows is true (the action and the reincarnation) because you already read that passage about the character in the future because you’re reading from the future to the past and your brain explodes all over the wall in a big greasy lumpy mess you say “Maybe this is a good book.”

Six sections all written in the style of the section’s time period (the Canticle for Lebowitz section is arguably the strangest to read);

Six different stories from a South Pacific Travelogue to the transcript of a futuristic TV show all referring back to the events in the stories backward _and forward_ in time;

At least four character reincarnating with one ascending to Buddhahood and returning to suffering to help usher in a new era;

Big themes of the novel hidden in the structure of the novel itself;

A big puzzle of nesting stories where actions in one story impacts the others;

And an awesome science fiction novel for 33% of the story.

You might not bother to see the movie but you should read the book.



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Review: Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a difficult time slogging through Debt. It shares a similar problem with Niall Fergeson’s completely unreadable “the Ascent of Money:” it mixes in the author’s politics and political leanings with history to give everything this weird political sheen (in this case left to Fergeson’s right.) In this case, Graeber’s book covers more facts than political lecturing but it’s bumped several stars for being overt.

However, Debt is a worthy read for anyone interested in the span of history from early Sumerian – Middle Ages. The sections on Babylonian debt-based society and the Roman slave society are especially strong; the entire chapter on the Axial Age and the move to coinage over debt to pay for mercenaries is good and solid read full of meaty “stuff.” The effect of the fall of the Roman Empire on the coinage left in circulation and how that contributed to the Dark Ages while the smaller communities returned to earlier debt and borrow strategies is also good. I liked the breakdown on how debt goes back to wife trading and wife purchasing with cows as demonstrated in Africa and moving from that to a more generalized market — the first people to ever price physical objects were, of course, thieves who needed to sell them for other things. And the most precious commodity is a human being.

Debt falls down in the Islam chapter and the China chapter, both which feel thin and full of conjecture. China has a big piece to play in the Cortez-dumping-silver-on-the-European-economy section but otherwise, it’s glossed over. The chapter on the rise of Islam and the role it plays is dry and nearly unreadable.

What I want to say about Debt is to skip the boring parts and read the interesting ones. Skipping to halfway through the book to the Axial Age chapter is a good strategy. Skip everything after the Middle Ages — Graeber hardly has interest in things like 18th century stock bubbles (although mentioned) and the rise of the East India Company. Saying, “Yeah this is a great book on ROME!” is good. Saying, “This is a great book on the history of monetary policy!” is not. It’s an okay introduction to the genesis of debt, a great discussion about ancient and near-ancient monetary policy, and a fairly terrible one on the modern day.

Not a waste of time, but not 5 stars either. A good 3.5 star book.



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Review: The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I have a weekend to read!” I thought. “And Pynchon’s novels are all now on the kindle! What better than to spend a few hours reading an Official Classic of 20th Century American Literature ™!”

I have learned that:

- I’ll finally get off my butt and read Pynchon’s longer novels.
- A continuum of exists from Nabokov -> Pynchon/Vonnegut -> Davis Foster Wallace that neatly explains my reading habits.
- I will spend the next week looking for loops and horns.

Greatly enjoyed the quick, short read although it leeched all sanity out of my mind. Was a bit shocked how much it read like /Infinite Jest/ in tone and style as, for some unexplained reason, I was not expecting that at all. It’s a classic of literature! It’s on the kindle so it’s trivial to acquire. You should read it, too.



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Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic 2/3rds of a book and a flat 1/3rd of a book. If you quit at the 2/3rds mark, I’m fine with that because the last third falls flat.

Swerve is about the re-discovery of Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,” an Epicurian poem extolling an early Roman atheist worldview of a universe made of atoms descended directly from the Greek Epicurians. For the first third, Swerve dives into the literature movement of the Roman Empire, the nature and industry of hand-written books on scrolls, libraries, and a world of literacy in a time of hegemony. And then Rome fell apart bit by bit and the books were lost to mold, moisture, Christians with torches, and monks who didn’t care to make copies. The early Christian Saints clutched their chests and fell on their fainting couches about how Roman Literature in its beautiful literate manicured Latin, so much better than the crude Greek or Hebrew of the Levant, destroyed their souls and should never be read — wink wink — really don’t read it except you should. To no one’s surprise, people took the Saints seriously and it went from oh no we’re not reading that to NO WE REALLY AREN’T READING THAT and thus, books get lost and destroyed and neglected and used for kindling. Some of the books were copied and recopied in rotation in forgotten mountainous monasteries. On the Nature of Things was one of those.

The second third of the book is about the academics of early Renaissance Florence who fought precisely like academics do. Nothing is better than threats and slander and lies and assassination attempts over translations of Latin. Some of the books crept out, some of the books stayed in collections, but fundamentally these crazy academics established fonts and notation and procedure and pedantic lexicography and everything the modern world needs to analyze literature. These are good people, the crazy ones who go to the Alps to steal books from monasteries. It’s like an Umberto Eco novel except it all really happened.

So thus the book about the atoms and the atheism is returned to circulation.

This is all well and good. But the last third of the book stretches to make Lucretius’s poem important in the course of history. The arguments are tenuous at best. Galileo! Thomas Jefferson! Newton! I think there was a Kant reference stuffed in there. The argument isn’t very good because it was an whole body of literature, not just one poem, entering the literary market once again (histories, plays, philosophy, huge books of maps) that helped kick things along. Sure a book talking about atoms had some impact but wow, it felt overblown. This is unlike Fourth Corner of the World where the return of Ptolemy’s Geography had noticeable and traceable effect — before Geography, no maps; after Geography, maps — it’s unclear what the return of Lucretius’s poem actually had.

Again! Absolutely fantastic first two thirds of a book. Worth reading. Perfect in its awesomeness. Last third — merely good and sometimes bordering on okay. Recommend for the first two thirds, which is more than I can say for 90% of the history books I’ve ever read.



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Review: Sarum: The Novel of England

Sarum: The Novel of England
Sarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I greatly enjoyed Sarum. All 1033 pages of it.

Sarum is the first Edward Rutherford book I tackled, although his New York book has stared at me with longing on a shelf for years. Starting at the end of the last Ice Age, Sarum follows the generational paths of five families through time to the modern day. The book hits all the strong beats: the building of Stonehenge, the Roman Invasion of Britain and their colonization, the Dark Ages, Saxon Britain, the Norman Invasion, the War of the Roses, the High Middle Ages and the Black Death, the coming of Protestantism and Queen Elizabeth II, the English Civil War, the conquest of India and the American Revolution, Trafalgar and Waterloo, the Great Wars of the 20th Century. Sarum left me with a great sense of breadth and time and gave me an appreciation for age and the passing of time. Everything starts and everything ends — cultures, religions, industry and business, technology, reigns great and small. That which felt eternal at the time it happened passed and soon became someone else’s archeology.

The highlights of the book are the grisly Stonehenge chapter (nearly a novella in itself), the building of the Salisbury Cathedral and the horrible chapter on the Black Death, followed by the Revolution and the Cavaliers in the Civil War. Of the five families, two are the main focus of the book: the horrible decedents of Tep, the river man who has always been there since before the Ice Age ended, and the Shockleys, decedents of a Saxon Thane whose fortunes rise and fall with England’s. For 1500 years those two families have back and forths, constantly crossing paths until finally joining in the 20th century. The other families (Caius Porteus’s decedents, the family of Nooma the Mason, and the Godefrei’s) play second fiddle — save in the Cathedral chapter — to the others.

Sometimes the chapters felt a little too short and that generation ended too soon but, generally, I read this book with Wikipedia and my (nonfiction) history of England open to flesh out some of the details where the book glossed over. Overall, I enjoyed the rich detail Rutherford supplies in with the every day lives of his inhabitants of Sarum to give grounding in the time period. No politics get injected in the background of historical period detail — it is told, straight, to help couch the feelings and motivations of the characters.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read some meaty historical fiction or to get an entertaining grounding in the history of Britain. Although some of the archeology in the early part of the book is a little wobbly now (book came out in 1987), the rest is solid and was backed by my reference books.

Five stars.



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Review: Miskatonic School for Girls

We picked up Miskatonic School for Girls at PAX East 2012 and we’ve since sat down and played several hands of the two-player variant of the game.  Here’s my specific feedback in Exciting Bullet Point Form.

- The packaging and game pieces are professionally done.  Nothing about this game feels cheap due to being kickstarted.  The play boards are sturdy.  The cards have attractive art on front and back.  The instructions are bright and clear.  Pieces return to the box with relative ease.  

- The game itself takes about five minutes to set up for a 2 player hand.  Decks sort into their respective piles.  What goes where is clear after a quick look at the instructions.

- The art for the monsters is top notch and the monster names are adorably Lovecraftian and clever.  The girl cards were bland in art and name, making it hard to tell what was a real “key buy.”  

- We were up and playing a first hand quickly.  The instructions are easy to understand to anyone who has played a Dominion-like deck-building game in the past.  By the way, folks: if you have not played Dominion and you want to play any of the new card-and-board games on the market, find someone who has Dominion and play several hands.  Every hot new game uses some “twist” on the Dominion deck building mechanics.

- Every turn in the “buy” phase, a player buys a girl for their House (ala Harry Potter) and a new member of the faculty of the school who is, naturally, some horrible abomination from beyond the stars.  These go into the purchase pile and always come out next turn.  Like Ascension, Miskatonic provides stock “buys” of transfer students and substitute abominations should a player not be able to buy a student or a faculty that turn.  

- Miskatonic School for Girls has a nice twist on Dominion-like play: when buying a horrible member of the faculty, one plays it into one’s opponent’s deck and, like any “buy,” must come out next turn.  So you, the player, has incentive to buy the biggest, nastiest monster on the board and send it into your opponent’s deck knowing well they must deal with it immediately while at the same time buying the most amount of “fight” into one’s house to defend against whatever is being sent into your deck.  This sets up a nice bit of tension and competition over cards on the board and strategic buys.

- And as a second twist, whenever a monster ends up in a player’s hand from drawing a hand, at the end of the buying phase, the player has to fight the Cthuloid horror with students in the house.  Should the students fail to hold off the horrid Lunch Lady from Beyond, the House as a whole takes sanity damage.  When sanity hits 0, the player is out of the game.

- Faculty and students get shuffled into the deck after buy-and-fight phases ala any deck building game so faculty can pop out of the deck at any time to gnaw on the student’s heads.  Near the end of the game, a player can draw an entire hand of pure faculty which is, as we discovered, bad.

- The game has a built in “sanity death spiral.”  As the decks grow, more faculty come out.  As more faculty come out, more students lose sanity.  As more students lose sanity… It’s a nice mechanic.

- Cards do have different effects on them — both girls and monsters.  They were a bit forgettable, though.  For an expansion: punchier effects!  

- The game does have generators the same way Ascension has constructs.  They felt a little undercosted and overpowered but still… generators are good.

- The game’s play is considerably more Ascension-like than Dominion-like, although the games are close in play and composition.  If you like Ascension, you will certainly like Miskatonic School for Girls.  If you believe Ascension is an abomination upon the Earth and a blight on all deck building games you should stick with Dominion and its 10,000 expansion packs.

- An entire game takes 30-40 minutes, tops. 

We enjoyed it.  I would gladly play it again.  I would lug the game over to a friend’s house to play several hands.  What struck me during play was how well expansions of monsters and students would fit into the gameplay seamlessly so I have some expectation of expansions in the future.  For Fun to 11′s first stab at a commercial product, it’s a success.

Recommended buy for the deck building card-and-board gamer in your life.

Review: Old Man’s War

Old Man's War
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have exactly one essential issue with “Old Man’s War:”

The book ends so well and succinctly I feel no compulsion to read the sequels.

Otherwise, this book is fantastic. So many cool science fiction themes to ponder: the corporatization of space exploration and settlement, “We are the invaders,” the incredible diversity in life and the further diversity in how it tries to kill us, the bizarreness of space battle, and the future of humanity, all packed into one little thin tome. The presentation of the various aliens is fantastic, and so are the ways humans die in space — some great, some terrible.

I can gush about Old Man’s War all day. It’s like an evil Star Trek.

The nut of the book is this: Earth offers its old people a chance at a new life when they reach 75. If you so live that long, you can join up with the CDF, the Colonization Defense Forces, which promises a new life and a Fountain of Youth. Only hitch: you don’t ever come back to Earth. Earth marks you as dead and you are gone into space forever. This is clever — instead of poaching the breeding population, needed for colonization, it poaches the old and infirm who only drain terrestrial resources and have a full life experience. And the CDF makes good on its promise……. in a way.

Ah space, full of aliens to meet, greet and shoot in the face. Humans have a skip drive which allows them to get around in the galaxy and there, the entire cast of Star Control II awaits them. Those things that look like HR Giger’s nightmares? Peaceful underwater mathematicians who want to bond and share with humanity. The wise deer-headed mammalian animals out of Star Trek? They love the taste of human flesh and set up human farms whenever they take out a colony. So be aware, recruit! What you think is huggable thinks you are tasty on rye.

In the CDF you aren’t going to last long because everything in the galaxy wants to chew on your head. So here’s your gun! Here’s your BrainPal(tm) and your body full of SmartBlood(tm). Know that humanity needs to be genetically enhanced on the fly to survive in the harsh and crazy conditions of space. You’re enhanced, now! Go shoot some aliens for the good of mankind!

I have special love for the super intelligent bugs with the shield around their entire solar system to keep out invaders and their religious purity and their weird war games. For should any of these aliens interact with dirty humans they will be pulverized and their molecules shot into the nearest black hole unless it is under the onus of war. Then there will be death! And rebirth! It will be glorious! Woo!

5 stars. Great book and a great look on what humanity being the alien invaders in a galaxy full of intelligent species is like and how the stupidity of life isn’t confined to just Earth. Go read it.




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Review: Mockingjay

Mockingjay
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review containers spoilers for Mockingjay.

At one point in the book, Joanna Mason, one of the victors from Catching Fire, has this exchange with Katniss:

“Is that why you hate me?” I ask.
“Partly,” she admits. “Jealousy is certainly involved. I also think you’re a little hard to swallow. With your tacky romantic drama and your defender-of-the-helpless act. Only it isn’t an act, which make you more unbearable. Please feel free to take this personally.”

I like Joanna because she sums up why I only give Mockinjay, the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy, a 3.5 — although Goodreads only allows me to give full stars. About half of the book is Katniss moping around or mooning or complaining or whining or otherwise not moving the plot along much at all. Entire chapters devolve into “and Katniss feels bad.” I get she feels bad and she’s had some unbelievably bad life experiences at the hands of the Capital that defy belief but she’s also the main viewpoint character and the complaining got old.

The other half of the book is full of action sequences, one more implausible than the next. And here are some of my bigger plot gripes:

- Anyone notice Katniss gets turned into Hawkeye? Anyone? I couldn’t decide if this was good or bad, honestly. On one hand, thumbs up Avengers! On the other hand… isn’t Hawkeye in the Avengers? It turns out I like the character of Beetee and I did like District 13s crazy cache of technology and weaponry but this felt silly.

- The bombing of District 12 which, on any level of examination, makes no sense. If District 12 is mining, and the military uses coal to run its generators for the mountain military base for the scene with District 2, doesn’t blowing up District 12… shoot the Capital in the foot? Or, as everything seems to run on nuclear — those hovercraft ain’t steampunk — what was the point of District 12 the whole time? A buffer to District 13?

- Everyone forgets Peeta is missing a leg. The whole book forgets Peeta is missing a leg. I suppose the new leg is so awesome it no longer needs mention? And why does Peeta, who, I should mention, is missing a leg sent on a military mission for District 13 after they made such a hoopty-do about military training and people going on military missions being in military fit condition? Why is Peeta thrown in with their squad? This makes no sense whatsoever.

- Why is the entire military of the Capital housed under one mountain in District 12? Can they not… find two mountains? A mountain and a big sprawling fort? I dunno, a mountain and a freaking castle? Who designs their military to have one massive point of failure?

- And my biggest gripe: why the hell did the Capital trap the entire city where normal people live like the Arena? I was completely down with the Arena-like mobile pods of death. Those rocked hard. But when streets opened up into whirring meatwheels of death, I was like… okay, shark? You have been jumped.

I can go on and on. The whole book doesn’t work.

It sounds and feels like sour grapes for a kid’s book that never made the slightest pretension of sci-fi worldbuilding. I rolled with it in Hunger Games and Catching Fire because the centerpiece, Katniss, and what happened to her was gripping and awful enough to keep the book rolling. Here, in Mockingjay, the actual rebellion is abstracted out as big events unfold offscreen (notably Peeta’s rescue). The whole world is in flames and we see Katniss curled up in a corner. Good sequences, like the bombing of District 13 and the firefight in District 8, are overshadowed by strings of “buh” moments. For a big global rebellion, the book is missing some essential meat. I can’t see it. Even the news updates aren’t enough. Like Katniss, I can only know about it in the abstract, and it makes the first 70% of the book unsatisfying.

The final end is good. Mockingjay gets back a star for the final pages.

I wanted more. I didn’t get more. The book is the weakest of the three. Of course read it to finish off the series, but no reason to re-read a second time.



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PAX East 2012

I am blogging from the road! This is a unique experience but I wanted to type up our yearly PAX roundup before forgetting the details. Hopefully my formatting doesn’t suck.

The Good:

  • Diablo III – The console free play area this year not only was enormous – necessary for the huge League of Legends tournament going on – but for showing games in beta. We never did get to play Torchlight II but we did play Diablo III. My complaints about the game are still the same with the dumbed down skill tree and the always on DRM. But man. Blizzard, shut up and take my money.
  • XCOM – I was worried 2K would turn XCOM into some first person shooter. Nope, it’s a squad combat tactical RPG vs. aliens. Now with exploding environments! And on XBox! All good.
  • MC Frontalot – I thought my knee was going to disintegrate after standing for hours to get to the last act of the concert but powering through to MC Frontalot was worth it. The dude has so much energy on stage he might have exploded. The song ‘It is Pitch Dark’ is awesome live. Sure, Jonathan Coulton was fun but Frontalot was better.
  • Lords of Waterdeep – Yeah, okay WotC just take my money. Game is great board gamey fun. Just a well designed game.
  • Cards Against Humanity – With great embarrassment I admit I was introduced to this horrible game by WotC reps. Where they got it from who knows. It’s Apples to Apples for adults. And hilarious. The Cards Against Humanity guys sold out completely. At one time we walked past the tables in the Westin Mezzanine and there were 3 games going.
  • Rob’s Cortex Plus Tactics Hack – In which we had fun playing the Marvel Heroic Role Playing system as base classes from Final Fantasy Tactics with a bit of Two Guys With Swords.
  • Soul Caliber V – Bought and en route to the house.
  • Gazillions of friends – Holy crap PEOPLE! HI PEOPLE! I think I got to everyone!
  • The End of the Omegathon – They played…. Crokinole. It’s Canadian bar shuffleboard. At first we were like… What the hell is this? Then we got into it. We started cheering and commenting on the turns. The match went for an hour and a half! I was so happy Eric suggested we watch it from a theater instead of standing in the grand ballroom. YAY CROKINOLE. It was epic.
  • Bastion – The guys who made Bastion were manning the booth including the composer for the soundtrack and the kid (!!!) who did the VoiceOver. I felt the need to give them more money but I have the soundtrack so I bought a Bastion bandanna.
  • Playtesting Race to Adventure – It’s a super fun game and you will love it when it comes out. Trust me.
  • Celebrity Pictures – Rumor is that I made some squeeing noise on meeting Margaret Weis. That might be true. I have good pictures of Eric with MC Frontalot and Jonathan Coulton.
  • The Boston Westin – We will never stay anywhere else. They set up the Mezzanine for continuous overflow tabletop play. Service was great. Attached to the Conference Center. Only ~ $10 a night more expensive than the Marriott.
  • Getting Mark to play Magic – Rumor is this happened. Sadly no photographic evidence.

The Meh

  • Rock Band Blitz – It hurt my hands.
  • Nintendo 3DS – Finally played the 3DS and I had to turn off the 3D because the game was so fuzzy. I’ll stick with my XL.
  • Torchlight II – I got a good look at it in the PC Freeplay area and it’s Torchlight with multiplayer. Yeah I know it’s what we want…
  • Eminent Domain – Card game that is a cross between Dominion and Race for the Galaxy. Two games I like very much, yeah, but Eminent Domain lacked a personality of it’s own.
  • Zillions of MMORPGs – EVERYONE has an MMO and they all look the same. the SWTOR booth was so big it had its own lounge.

The Bad

  • Guy at Battlefield Booth – Felt the need to explain D&D to the girls. Note, I had no such issues with the WotC reps, who were infinitely cooler.
  • Missing all the Panels – Went to a convention and went to no talks. Sigh.
  • Too many people! I did not get to everyone. :( Sorry peeps. Also, I am super bad with names… As many people learned.
  • PC Freeplay shutting down Dungeon Defenders. Meh.
  • Worn Out – We overdid it a bit and now we are trashed.
  • Expensive Boston food – Christ, I felt fleeced.
  • Bizarre survey guy in the Nintendo booth – He felt the need to take a survey about the 3DS before I had a chance to play it.

So that’s my roundup! Bye PAX East 2012 – you were awesome.

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