Just my Opinion: Homeland

So, I ended up reading Homeland, by R.A. Salvatore, instead of the Belisarius books. I’m not going to write a formal book review (heh – I’m not setting myself up to reviewing Ulysses, thank you very much), but I wanted to put a few of my thoughts down anyway.

First, a bit of background. Homeland is, chronologically, the first Drizzt Do’Urden novel, though not the first published. That matters because Drizzt is probably the most overexposed D&D character (perhaps only challenged by Raistlin from Dragonlance), and certainly inspired the most carbon-copies and barely disguised clones at gaming tables around the world. And that certainly colored my perception of the book.

In fairness, I can’t blame the author for creating such a popular character. I’m actually impressed in how well Salvatore read the late 80s, early 90s geek zeitgeist. The “loner misunderstood hero” stereotype was certainly something that connected with readers, and it’s certainly a lesson I’ll keep in mind when planning my future books.

Now… while I don’t hold Drizzt’s popularity against the book, and can certainly admit I would have found him really cool back in high school in the nineties, I can’t help but mention how irritating I found the character as a first-time, mid-thirties reader. It’s the not-quite-whiny, yet somehow holier-than-thou perception that really get me.

By contrast, the secondary characters look much better. Despite needing the drow elves to be mostly capital-E Evil (to comply with existing D&D rules and lore), Salvatore managed to write a genuinely diverse cast. Malice isn’t Vierna isn’t Maya isn’t SiNaFay.

Speaking of D&D rules and lore – the other big flaw of the book in my view is again not the author’s fault, or at least not entirely. Being stuck using the cookie-cutter magical abilities of low-level D&D wizards and the uninspired Underdark bestiary hurts the book a lot. Menzoberranzan should have felt alien, the Underdark wilds even more so, but instead we get rolled-on-a-chart monsters and generic fighters and wizards.

Final thoughts: I’m no longer the target market for this book/series… and that’s fine. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book (although as far as I’m concerned, the D&Disms alone probably drop the book into the “meh, read it if you need something to pass the time” category.) I’m not going to read another Drizzt book for sure, but I certainly might take a look at some of Salvatore’s other works.

 

I like Twilight…

… Imperium.

One of my other passions is boardgaming, and it’s one I can’t often indulge in due to my new father status. So when I get a chance to game, I try to make it count. And trying out Twilight Imperium, the legendary ultra-long space wargame by Fantasy Flight, certainly qualifies as “making it count.”

I thought about reviewing it, but with a single game under my belt that would be premature (besides, Boardgamegeek has reviews aplenty.) Instead, as a new player, I’m best qualified to talk about the rather daunting nature of the game, and to suggest a few tricks for people who want an easier learning experience.

This Game Takes Six Hours. And That’s if Everyone Knows the Rules:

Okay. Let’s tackle the elephant first. That 240-minute “max time” figure from BGG is a filthy, filthy lie. Maybe if you ignore setup and cleanup, and if everyone plays quickly and orderly, you’ll finish in four hours. But throw in the actual time to get the table ready, to decide on which versions of the strategy cards to use, to pick races and to build the galaxy, and to actually put everything back in the box in a remotely ordered fashion? Schedule an entire afternoon, and you’ll be having a late supper.

If you have a couple of new players at the table, accept that in all likelihood you won’t finish the game. And if you’re planning to host an all-newbie game with your brand new box? Accept that the first game will just be a two-turn tutorial.

So… what can you do to mitigate this?

1-Have the game set up (as much as possible, anyways) before the players arrive. By the same token, handle all necessary meta-negotiations (like picking rules variants, etc.) beforehand. As a player, trust the game-owner to not have stacked the decks or whatever (and if you can’t trust the guy, just don’t play with him.)

2-Use all the efficiency tricks I’ll describe below. Seriously, with a game this long, every bit of time saved helps.

This Game is Chaos:

I have one rule complaint about TI, and that’s the ever-changing order of play. It’s really a pain to constantly try to figure out who’s next. Add to that the endless juggling of cards and tokens, and you have a recipe for extreme confusion and wasted time.

Managing that chaos requires everyone’s cooperation. Next time I play, I’ll suggest we nominate one person to handle play order, another to handle card drawing and discarding, yet another to distribute tokens, and so on.

There’s Like, So Many Rules:

In retrospect, the hour-long rules exposé I listened to prior to playing was unnecessarily long and detailed. TI is surprisingly easy to play once you get down to it… if you can remember all the little details and modifiers in play.

A lot of those you’ll just learn over time, but there’s one horrific mess that just calls for some improvement: the horrific mess that are the various combat modifiers that apply. Luckily, there’s an app for that (and a free one at that.) The Twilight Imperium Companion is definitely something I’d recommend downloading for everyone.

So… that’s my other other hobby officially represented on the blog. Next time, however, it’s back to writing.

 

 

Bonus Creativity: We Were Promised Maps

Creating a setting map for a story-driven campaign is fairly straightforward. It can be a lot of work, but ultimately it comes down to figuring out the important locations, and then adding enough fluff around them to camouflage their importance.

(Funny how that also describes creating a setting for a fantasy novel, right?)

For a sandbox campaign, however, that approach won’t work. You need important locations, sure, but you have to accept that what you thought was fluff might turn out to be more important to the players than you expected. That minor town in the middle of the map could become the center of the characters’ spice-trading empire. Or it could remain unvisited.

There are many ways to deal with that conundrum. Given a huge amount time and motivation (or ghostwriters), we could design everything down to minute details. But that’s impractical for my purposes, and not really plausible besides.

Alternately, we could simply improvise everything as the game goes. That would allow the players to shape the world with their ideas and questions… but I know my players, and what will most likely happen is that they’ll fumble around aimlessly for a few sessions, then get bored of the game. Besides… it’d make for a fairly short post series.

Instead, I’ll go with a third option: a setting that’s reasonably constrained in size and scope, at least at first. There will be a manageable number of towns and settlements, and a limited number of landmarks, dungeons, and assorted adventure locations available to the players at first.

Of course… we still need a basic idea of what goes where – which means we need to at least write down a few facts about the game world.

(Warning… the following is a brainstorming summary. It’s not a good example of methodology. Future posts in this series will be more practical, but to get started I must make a few creative assumptions that aren’t really justified beyond “it’s what I want to do.”)

I want a relatively small number of towns and cities, some politics (but not enough that an inevitable world war is coming), and plenty of adventuring opportunities. To me, that screams “frontier-of-civilization setting.”

I also want an obvious delineation on what the setting is and what’s off-map. I can trust my players to work with me and stay within the areas I’ve prepared material for, but it’s best if they’re clearly marked. And the obvious way to do that is with natural barriers – in fact, an ocean would be ideal.

Bang – we’re adventuring in the New World. That gives me politics too – my various town and cities could be the colonies of Old World powers.

I want a twist too – just having not-Europeans colonizing not-America is perhaps too predictable. So instead… this is a “reclaim the Old World” frontier. There was a huge apocalyptic war that ended the Golden Age, and civilization only survived in the boonies. Now, eons later, the new countries are returning to the cradle of civilization (to find it populated by mutated beings, monsters out of myth, and so on and so forth.) This also opens the way for hex-crawling exploration of the world – the PCs could very well mount expeditions deep into the interior, looking for awesome loot.

That’s a pretty good start. Next time: maps. (maybe.)

 

 

 

 

2017 Reading List

As mentionned in my resolution post, I want to read ten books this year. I figure I might as well mention which books I’ve selected and why.

1-James Joyce, Ulysses. Because if you’re going to read one book by a specific author, might as well go with his most seminal work.

2-Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu. Same reason, only in French.

3-Undecided, Some Random Romance Novel. Because I’ve never read any romance novels, and I want to use this opportunity to broaden my horizons. I’ll need further research to decide which title I’ll actually read.

4-Ian Manook, Yeruldelgger. Mostly because I received it in a Christmas gift exchange, but I wanted some French books in this list, and I wanted to read at least one detective novel. Let’s kill an entire flock of birds with one stone, shall we?

5-Eric Flint, David Drake, The Tide of Victory. Because I read the first four books of the Belisarius series back when they were part of the Baen Free Library, and because someone can lend me books five and six.

6-Eric Flint, David Drake, The Dance of Time. Because obviously.

7-David Weber, At the Sign of Triumph. Because it’s one of the series I’m currently reading assiduously.

8-Richard Adams, Watership Down. Because I never read it and it’s been on my list of “you should read it someday” since basically forever.

9-R.A. Salvatore, Homeland. Because I’ve read more gaming fiction than I’ll ever admit to in polite company, yet I’ve never read the single one series that’s apparently any good.

10-Ian Bainks, Consider Phlebas. Because a streamer I follow keeps recommending the Culture series of books, and I want to see if it’s really worth reading or not.

First up are probably the two Belisarius books, then I’ll dive into Joyce I think. After that it’s up to chance.

Let It Be Resolved

So, time for my yearly resolutions. After all, you can’t very well fail if you don’t set yourself impossible goals, right?

Actually, joking aside, I do like setting myself goals. Well-defined, achievable goals. So, as far as writing goes, here’s what I want to accomplish this year.

1-Read ten (10) new books:

In my pre-fatherhood days, this would have been a trivial accomplishment. Nowadays… it’s daunting. But let’s make it tougher: at least two of those books have to be classics of the “books you must have read before you die” variety. I’m thinking Joyce and Proust, but we’ll see.

2-Write one blog post every week:

That’s pretty self-explanatory. Some slippage is probably inevitable, but I want to have 91 published posts by the end of the year. Yes, this post counts.

3-Be done with Book the First:

That means either finding an agent, or self-publishing the book. I have eleven more agents I want to query on my list (and I’m allowing myself a twelfth if I learn of someone I think is worth a shot.) If I find an agent, great, if not, well, the goal is to have the ebook out for next Christmas.

4-Finish and start shopping the short story I’m currently writing:

This is the next piece of writing I want to finish. I’m almost done with the first draft, and that’s really what I’m struggling to fit in my schedule. Editing can easily be done in small increments, but writing needs long stretches of free time.

5-Take this website to the next level:

This means learning WordPress better, and throwing some cash at the problem. Also, it means figuring out categories, tags, the works.

6-Finalize my plans and start work on the Next Series:

I sorta like my new project. But I need to do a lot of thinking and planning and worldbuilding for it. I want to end the year with that project well on its way.

So, that’s it for me this year. Let’s get cracking!