17 December 2012

A Quick Crazy Web Series Update

This has been an awesome autumn for web series. So much happening right now, it's just unbelievable.

First of all, the new season of The Guild has been going on for a while now, and it is, as usual, hilarious. And it's now on Felicia Day's Geek & Sundry channel on YouTube. So no more putting up with that MSN crap! Yay!

Geek & Sundry is also playing host to a hilarious show called Space Janitors. It's basically a Star Wars parody about personnel on a Death Star-ish huge space station. And it is, as I said, hilarious. (Here's a playlist.)

And there's new stuff coming at Geek & Sundry all the time. Recently they've been advertising a puppet thingy called Learning Town that looks potentially funny.

And speaking of puppets, another great new show is Neil's Puppet Dreams, featuring the awesome Neil Patrick Harris and, you guessed it, puppets. It is also very hilarious. (Here's a playlist, over at the Nerdist channel.)

Then there's the Battlestar Galactica prequel, Blood & Chrome. I haven't actually gotten around to watching it yet, but being a big fan of BSG I surely will. (Playlist at the Machinima Prime channel.)

I'm quite sure there's plenty more entertaining, and entirely free, stuff out there that I'm not even aware of, but this'll do for now.

16 December 2012

Addendum to Mass Effect Post, Plus Whatever Came of Locke and Co.

A quick note to my previous post. In addition to playing Mass Effect, I've also recently been re-watching Babylon 5. It occurs to me that the two share a rather similar space, genre-wise. Both are space operas set in our own galaxy with a multitude of exotic alien species. Both focus on the rise of an ancient, mysterious and sinister alien threat. Both deal with the role of humanity in a multi-species world, and the inevitable issue of intolerance. Obviously there's much difference as well, but if asked to compare Mass Effect to any other work of science fiction, I think B5 would be pretty high on my list.

Onwards, then. As I mentioned in an earlier post, before I got the Mass Effect Trilogy I was playing Final Fantasy VI for a while. I got pretty far into it, farther than I played on my first try years ago, but never quite beat it (yet, anyway). Partly out of laziness, but partly the structure of the game was to blame, I think.

I enjoyed the first half of the game a lot. It was a lot of fun to play good, old-fashioned Final Fantasy again, and the game has a decent plot and characters. The second half, however... feels very unstructured and lacking a sense of direction. You get separated from your party members and have to travel all over the world to regain them, which is just tedious. There's plenty of stuff to do, but little guidance. I found myself reading walkthroughs a lot more than I usually do with games like this. Overall it just failed to motivate me to play on, which is a shame.

Another thing about the game... While the plot itself isn't bad, seriously, what's up with the dialogue? A lot of it just... doesn't flow particularly well, or on occasion is downright confusing. I suspect this may be largely a translation issue, although of course I haven't played the original Japanese version.

Well, I guess that wraps it up for tonight. Be seeing you.

15 December 2012

The Mass Effect Post

For some time now Mass Effect has been on my radar. First only vaguely. (For years I'd almost exclusively played Japanese video games, only in the last couple years or so have I been opening up more to western productions.) Then last year I stumbled upon g33kWatch.com's charity Mass Effect marathon. I watched more because of the great team doing the event, though, than the game, which I knew very little about.

Since then I kept running into the game more and gradually my interest grew. However, one simple thing kept me from trying it out for myself: the first game of the series was only out for Xbox and Windows. As some of you may know, I wouldn't touch a Microsoft product with a proverbial ten foot pole. And, since I knew the series was pretty story-oriented, I wasn't too keen on jumping in in the middle, so I let it be.

One week ago, however, this changed at last. A box collecting all three games was released for the PlayStation 3. I got it... not actually on release day, but the day after, because no stores around here had apparently stocked it in time. Anyway, over the week I played through the first game, and I'm now a few hours into the second.

So, yeah, on to the actual review part. A couple hours into the first game I thought... well, it's an OK game with some interesting elements. But it didn't take long for me to get totally hooked. I think some of the game's appeal is due to the fact that it has a little of everything. It's not just action. It's not just exploration. It's not just story.

For the uninitiated, Mass Effect is basically a space opera action RPG. You play commander Shepard, a special operative investigating a threat posed by ancient sentient machines known as Reapers. The game has a pretty rich setting with many alien races and lots of background information. Although combat is a big part of the game, dialogue with various NPC's, and the choices you make during dialogue, plays a large role as well.

There's the main storyline, which is pretty cool, and lots of side quests. Almost too much, one could say. I ended up skipping much of them, 'cause few of them were anywhere near as interesting as the main story. You can also explore various planets in the galaxy, but this, like the side quests, can get a little tedious after a while. Doing at least some optional stuff is helpful, though, as it gets you more experience and better equipment.

Combat is presented in third person shooter style, with an 'over the shoulder' view and controls basically similar to FPS games. You're supported by two computer controlled teammates, and as you level up, you can unlock various powers you (and your teammates) can use in combat. It's pretty fun to play. You need to think a little, utilize cover etc., rather than blindly rushing in. While I usually tend to play action games on easier settings, I decided to go with 'normal' this time. And it proved a suitable setting for me. There were a few tough fights early on that required a bunch of retries, but once I levelled up a little it wasn't too bad.

Technically the game was... a little buggy, I must say. There were glitches with sound in dialogue, with whole lines skipped or sometimes played on repeat (luckily subtitles ensured I didn't miss anything), as well as minor glitches in animation, camera etc. Nothing that really detracted from the experience, though. I don't know how much of these issues were due to the PS3 port or whether they exist in the original. Other than that, being a five year old game already, it naturally looked a little dated by modern standards, but not too bad (I'm easy to please, graphics-wise). Music... wasn't bad, but much of the time it was pretty subtle, not so heavy on memorable themes and stuff.

So yeah, overall, if you like space opera, shooter action and RPG's, Mass Effect is definitely a title to consider. I'll undoubtedly return with thoughts on the other games in the trilogy once I've played through them...


21 November 2012

Follow-Up to the Follow-Up to the RPG Setting Post (With Less Settings but More Free Stuff)

In yesterday's blog post I mentioned a couple RPG's that are available for free out there. Today, on a whim, I spent a little time browsing free products at DriveThruRPG. The ease of digital publication these days means that there are myriad small, independent publishers releasing material. Trying to find actually worthwhile games can be a challenge, but here are a couple that caught my attention.

Atomic Highway is a post-apocalyptic game in the vein of Mad Max or Fallout. The book is of fairly decent quality for an indie game, with a tongue-in-cheek tone (I imagine it may have been released in print as well, although I'm too lazy to find out). The setting info is pretty light, mostly generic genre stuff that the GM can customise. The rules are pretty lightweight too, using a die pool based system with d6's. Included are rules for vehicles, mutations and some very simple psionics. All in all a fairly entertaining read.

Stars Without Number is a science fiction, space opera game with a fairly simple D&D style system. There is a commercial version with some extra content, but the free version is still a complete game, with over 200 pages. The premise is fairly open-ended, allowing GM's to design planets and societies of their own. I participated in a game earlier this year, and it was fun, although I'm not sure the rules were quite to my taste, in all respects.

I should also mention that the last incarnation of West End Games' D6 System is also available for free download, comprising three rulebooks for different genres: D6 Fantasy, D6 Space and D6 Adventure. These are generic rulebooks with little setting material, but they merit a special mention since this is basically the same system used in WEG's Star Wars RPG, one of the first games my group played extensively (besides AD&D). A variant of the system was also used in the Hercules & Xena RPG, which I also ran at one point. It's a fairly light and flexible system, although its one flaw involves the basic roll mechanic, which can require adding up a large number of d6's, which is, perhaps, a little more cumbersome than what I generally look for in RPG rules these days. Still, I do have fond memories of the system.

Right. That's enough for today.

20 November 2012

RPG Setting Follow-Up Post (With Free Stuff)

A quick follow-up to yesterday's post about RPG settings.

I spent a little time browsing Wikipedia, looking at some of the RPG settings out there. One game I thought I should mention is Talislanta, particularly for the reason that it is currently available for free. This is a fantasy RPG with a long history, originally published in the 80's, with the latest (5th) edition released in 2007. I haven't had a chance to really look into yet, but it seems to be a very large and varied world with a nigh ridiculous number of player character races to choose from (but, as they like to emphasise, no elves). Most of the various editions (including a d20 conversion) can be downloaded at talislanta.com.

Speaking of free RPG's, Eden Studios' WitchCraft can also be downloaded for free (I believe you need an account at DriveThruRPG, though). This is a modern day supernatural game, with a setting somewhat reminiscent of White Wolf's World of Darkness titles.

Turning back to commercially available games and settings, one aspect I neglected to mention in the previous post is... 'production values', for lack of a better word.. Call me shallow or materialistic but I really do prefer to hold, and read, a high quality, hardback, colour printed, beautifully illustrated volume. Naturally the content is what really counts in the end, but there's no reason why a game book shouldn't be an aesthetic object in addition to being a source of inspiration. The visual aspect is, after all, an important part of many fantasy and sci-fi games. (Also, I do much prefer to have an actual physical book than stare at PDF's on a screen.)

That being said, games these days can be bloody expensive. I've rarely been in a position to buy games just because I liked the way they looked, or was intrigued by the concept. (There are a few impulse-bought books on my shelf, of course, but they've invariably been bought at greatly reduced prices.) Rather I've tried to buy books that I've thought I might actually have a use for in the foreseeable future (though of course that hasn't always turned out to be the case).

Finally, since I've already been looking into White Wolf's games lately, I figured I should spend a moment reading about their fantasy title, Exalted, as well. Seems like a fairly interesting game, a little different from the typical D&D fare. But yeah, again we run into the same old refrain: so many games, so little time (and/or money).

19 November 2012

Setting vs. Creativity (More RPG Musings)

As a side note to my previous blog post, questioning an example of Latin usage in Vampire: The Requiem, it is actually noteworthy that I'm actually reading, and getting actual kicks from, actual RPG setting material.

I begun my RPG career using settings created by other people. Being a real Tolkien nut as a kid, the first game I bought was I.C.E.'s classic Middle-earth Role Playing. One of the first longer campaigns I ran was a Dragonlance game. Star Wars was also a big thing for us back in those days. At some point this changed, however. For many years I felt that using ready made settings was a bit of a cop out, the refuge of lazy or unoriginal Game Masters. I felt that my time would be best spent creating something truly original and unique.

That is, of course, pure bullshit. Stories are stories, regardless of where they come from.

The turning point for me was perhaps the Pathfinder game I begun running last year. Admittedly, opting to use the official setting was, to begin with, largely a matter of convenience. It just didn't make sense to spend lots of time and energy designing a setting for a game so heavily based on clichés of the fantasy genre.

Lately, though, I've begun to feel the same might apply to other, less clichéd types of games as well. World building can be lots of fun and quite rewarding, but ready settings have many benefits as well. You might have more time and energy to spend on the details of the story and characters. The details of the setting might be a good source of inspiration for your stories. Also, seeing as how the setting has already been worked on for a considerable length of time, probably by several people, it is likely to be much more detailed and complete than anything you're going to come up with on your own.

Of course, as with any thing, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. I'm sure there are many settings out there that are far from perfect, whether incomplete, broken some way, or just plain boring and unoriginal. But there are real gems out there, I'm sure, both among traditional genres and the more exotic.

There are two distinct types of setting material out there, though. There are those settings particularly designed for RPG's, and those originating from other media. Regardless of my formative years spent in love with Middle-earth and Star Wars, right now I'm inclined to think that the settings best suited for gaming are those designed for the purpose. For one thing, it is nigh impossible to really recreate the mood of your favourite novel or movie. Also you might be more wary about changing things and stepping on canon's toes, which isn't necessarily good for your storytelling.

So much for the general. But what about specific settings? I must say, I don't really have all that many cool, original games in my collection, nor am I particularly familiar with many of the settings out there, having for a long time favoured generic rules over specific settings (and, you know, being too poor and shit to buy tons of games). The majority of settings in my collection are actually licensed games, I think, which I'll skip for now.

Pathfinder I have already mentioned on several occasions. As for other D&D-ish worlds, if I wasn't already so invested in Pathfinder, DragonMech could be worth a closer look, and of the official Wizards of the Coast stuff, Eberron is likely among the more interesting. I think I'm also growing to like World of Darkness. I don't own any of the books yet, but I might eventually have to get some. (I think the current, rebooted version may actually be more to my liking than the classic version.) I'd certainly be interested in discovering some more exotic and original fantasy and sci-fi settings, I don't have too much in that vein in my selection. Although variety is a double-edged sword: one never has time to play all the games one would want!

15 November 2012

Of Latin and White Wolf Products

I recently spent a little time reading up on the White Wolf's (new) World of Darkness setting, particularly Vampire: The Requiem. One of the vampire factions in that game is called the Lancea Sanctum. Being a bit of a language geek, this phrase caught my eye.

At first glance, it looks like a noun followed by an adjective. I don't actually know Latin, but I've read a little about the basics and there are some handy online tools to look up words and stuff. So... 'lancea' is a word for a type of lance or spear. It is a feminine noun. 'Sanctum', naturally, means sacred (as in sanctified). But here's the snag: '-um' is the usual ending for an adjective's neuter form, not the feminine.

As Wikipedia states: 'In Latin, adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in case and number and gender.' This means that when you have a feminine noun, any adjective describing it should also be in the feminine form. So, as far as I, with my admittedly limited language skills, can tell, the phrase should actually be 'Lancea Sancta'.

OK, so before publishing this comment, I decided to still dig around a little in case I was mistaken somehow. On White Wolf's wiki I found a statement that the faction would have originally been called 'Lancea et Sanctum', i.e. the 'lance and sanctum'. The modern English meaning of 'sanctum' is a sacred (or private) place, which (as far as I can tell) is derived from ecclesiastic Latin. Grammatically this phrase then seems more justifiable.

However, removing one small word makes a world of difference. As I said at the start, it looks like a noun and an adjective, not like two nouns. There is just no good reason for omitting the 'et'. You wouldn't shorten the English translation to 'lance sanctum'. It simply wouldn't make any sense. I can't help thinking that the 'Lancea et Sanctum' version is someone's retrospective (and less than successful) attempt to fix a grammatical error. (Though I don't know the source of this version. I haven't read any publications beyond the main Vampire rulebook, and if that book offers a translation for the covenant's name, I've missed it.)

EDIT: I did a little more digging around and apparently the Lancea Sanctum sourcebook itself translates the name as 'sanctuary of the lance'. But this is still wrong. 'Lancea' is the nominative form, not the genitive. It is also normal (though not strictly necessary) to place defining words after the main word. So the correct translation for 'sanctuary of the lance' should probably be 'Sanctum Lanceae'.

Whatever the case is, there's one important piece of advice I would like to give to anyone working in the world of fiction: if you want to make use of a foreign language, please, take the effort to get it right!

8 November 2012

Two Haikus, No Explanations

1.

I should not count the
years, for those are the moments
I feel like screaming

2.

No autumn has been
complete without the warmth of
lips to thaw the soul

6 November 2012

A Brief Interlude on the Beauty of Art and Meaninglessness of Genre

A brief moment from my life:

I was just browsing music on my computer, trying to decide what to put on. I realised that Cat Stevens and Cradle of Filth were both equally valid options, and the absurdity of this struck me.

This is why I love music, and art in general. Genre means so very little, in the end. The places where we find pleasure and wonder can be so diverse, and frequently surprising. And this, basically, is what makes life worth living.

So in the end I put on Teaser and the Firecat. And after that, it'll be Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder.

1 November 2012

People That Puzzle Me (Being a Brief and Slightly Silly List)

In a recent blog post about horror I said that people unable to watch horror movies puzzled me. And this is true, although by no means does it mean that I'd wish to force horror movies on anyone, but simply expressing that when your brain is wired a certain way, it can be hard to relate to people whose brains work differently. Anyway, this got me thinking a little about all the weird ways we people differ from each other.

So, for fun and procrastination, here's a little list of some things, off the top of my head, that puzzle me:

  • Milk drinkers. (Don't you people have taste buds? That stuff is vile...)
  • People capable of eating with a mismatched knife and fork. (Well, I guess I'm technically capable. I'll eat with what I'm given, I don't want to seem rude. But I'll never set mismatched utensils myself.) (Same applies to cups and saucers.)
  • Pets. (Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against animals, but I don't really get anything out of them either, meat notwithstanding, and could never cope with the expense and responsibility.)
  • People who didn't like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (but liked the first movie). (Seriously? One of the most amazingly epic productions in movie history!) (Same applies to Matrix sequels.)
  • People who like the Star Trek reboot. (No comment should be necessary.)
  • People who watch movies in theatres. (Apparently everyone else but me has bottomless pockets and infinite toleration towards morons?)
  • People who watch movies (or shows) on TV. (Seriously, how do you cope with the disruptive commercials and general lack of control?)
  • People who keep on talking about movies all the time. (This is not an actual point, but a self-ironic comment looking back at the last few entries.)
  • Pop music. (To clarify, since that's a pretty vague term, any blatantly commercial and artificially produced music. As a rule of thumb, if the performers didn't write the music they're performing, that's generally a bad sign.)
  • Rap music. (Actually, I think a lot of rap music is probably worth more respect than average pop music. I just can't stand the sound of most of it...)
  • People who habitually use the term Dungeon Master instead of Game Master. (Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the history, and diversity, of RPG's should understand why.)
  • People who eat cheese on its own. (It belongs in a sandwich, damnit!)
  • People who eat 'lunch' at midday, as opposed to 'dinner'. (How do you people stay on your feet without a big meal early on? And if your noon meal actually happens to be your main meal of the day, why the f*** would you call it 'lunch'?)
  • People who eat at restaurants. (To repeat, apparently everyone else but me has bottomless pockets? Even junk food seems ridiculously expensive these days...)
And... obviously this list only scratches the surface, but I'm having trouble thinking of more just now. I may edit this post if I think of good additions later...

Differences make us human. They are something to be celebrated, and the purpose of this list is by no means to criticise anyone. Although these things may puzzle me, I accept that people have different tastes.

That being said, there are of course things that are not matters of taste or opinion. Bigotry and violence should never be accepted. (Or beetroots. The sooner that plague is exterminated from the face of this planet, the better. That is not a matter of taste or in any way negotiable. Even though much of the population seems to, unfathomably, have a differing, and, in my mind, utterly insane, view on this.)

30 October 2012

An Unscary Post

Since it's nearly Hallowe'en, I thought I'd take a moment to discuss horror and being scared.

Not too long ago in an article at BBC, Tim Burton said he'd never made a scary movie. The writer may perhaps seem slightly sceptical about this, but I totally agree. Very few of Burton's movies even qualify as 'horror', in my mind, they inhabit a dark, but beautiful, region of their own. But that's beside the point. Mostly I don't think they're scary because I simply don't find fiction scary. And this applies equally to actual horror movies.

I love the horror genre. However, I don't watch/read/play horror to be scared. Because I never really am. Like any sub-genre of fantasy, I enjoy it for interesting stories and 'flights of fancy'. The use of imagination is one of the things I appreciate most in life, and the horror genre often features some of the most imaginative creatures around.

A well written, psychological tale of horror can be quite suspenseful, of course, but that's not the same as being scared. I really enjoy surprising plot twists and feeling slightly mystified, but an action thriller might well cause similar feelings. The genre is simply a question of aesthetics.

Sudden shock effects are a matter of their own. They can give you a delightful jolt of adrenaline, but again I don't think being surprised is the same as being scared. And once the moment is over, things soon get back to normal.

Excessive violence or gore can likewise cause a momentary 'ick' reaction, but again that quickly passes. Gore rarely bothers me much, and the more over-the-top it is, the less it does (gore movies tend to be more comedy than real horror, anyway). It's very realistic violence that probably affects me most, but that's not really the stuff of horror stories, in my mind.

So, whether suspense, shocks or gore, afterwards I have no problem switching the lights off and going to sleep. I almost never have nightmares (as I've written before), and while real life problems might occasionally keep me awake, I don't think fiction has ever done so.

There are some things that can make me feel... uncomfortable, for lack of a better word, but these are not the stuff of horror. Bigotry and totalitarian regimes, for one. Or illness and disease, for another. Essentially, real threats, not the stuff of imagination. And though the realms of fact and fiction do occasionally mingle (you can't write a story without it having some roots in the real world, nor would the real world be worth much if it didn't have so many glorious stories in it), there is a divide between the two.

To be perfectly honest, people who say they're unable to watch horror movies puzzle me. I guess many people's brains are just wired differently from mine. Occasionally I wonder what it would be like to actually be scared by a story. It's like I'm almost missing out on a whole aspect of the genre. But I'm willing to take what I can, and continue to appreciate a good horror story.

So, whether you're a fan of horror or not, have yourself a happy Hallowe'en!

28 October 2012

Addendum to Previous Post, Concerning the World Just Destroyed

I just wrote a blog post about how the party in my Pathfinder game just destroyed the world. One or two more thoughts just came to my mind that I thought were worthy of their own post rather than a quick edit.

I set my game in Paizo's official Pathfinder setting, a world called Golarion. In the beginning this was, perhaps, largely a matter of convenience, seeing as the source books were naturally fully compatible with the rules (which wasn't necessarily the case with other D&D 3.5 products I considered, like Eberron) and I wasn't keen on going through the trouble of creating an original world for a game which was, admittedly, very much based on clichés. I've grown quite fond of the setting since then, though.

I call Golarion the 'land of a thousand clichés'. Because it is, really. I think the design philosophy at Paizo has been, more or less, 'Let's throw in everything we can possible think of!' And this is exactly what makes it such a great RPG setting. There is a little bit of everything in there, and possibilities for very different styles of adventure. But throughout there's something of an air of pulp adventure, which is also much to my liking. The geography and cultures are largely influenced by our own world (the setting of most adventures, the so-called 'Inner Sea Region', being basically equivalent to Europe and Africa), which is actually quite convenient. And there are literally dozens of nations and regions introduced in the setting book, from northern Viking lands to southern jungles...

So it is actually a slight shame to destroy the world at this point. We've really only scratched its surface so far. But of course we may yet return to it. It might not be the exact same world, but it may yet be rediscovered, in some way or other...

How to Destroy the World with a 5th Level Party

So, here's something that I, as Game Master, don't get to say very often: I think my players just destroyed the world.

This is my Pathfinder campaign I'm talking about. We've been playing for a little over a year now (though intervening Real Life made a longish break there recently).

The details of the destruction remain to be revealed, we ended today's session in a cliffhanger. But something big will definitely happen, that much I can say without it being a huge spoiler for my players. Some of you may wonder, though, how the protagonists of a roleplaying game end up destroying the world, anyway? Well, let's see... It all actually comes down to a couple little coincidences that happened early on.

Firstly, there was our character creation session. I basically gave the players free hands with regards to their character builds. So they opted for (mostly) evil alignments. I figured, what the hell, this could be an interesting change of pace. And it was, and is. Though it is also quite difficult for a GM, since the players' actions are even more difficult to predict than usual...

Secondly, for the first few sessions I decided to use ready adventures, because we were all new to Pathfinder (both the rules and the setting). As it happened, one of these adventures sent the characters on a quest for one piece of an ancient artefact. An artefact, which, if all pieces were brought together, as the characters would discover during the adventure, was capable of destroying the world.

Given the fact that the party was essentially lead by a chaotic evil wizard, it is perhaps not so surprising that the idea of destroying the world was taken not so much as a threat than an intriguing proposition. So they kept the piece of the artefact for themselves, and decided to keep an eye out for the rest.

I'm pretty sure this was not actually the intent of the original adventure's writer. But as GM I figured there was actually some interesting potential in the characters' endeavours. Once I moved from ready adventures to original material, I started dropping hints about the possible location of other pieces of the artefact, until today the last one was actually in their hands... I wasn't 100% sure if they would, in the end, actually activate the thing. But it came as no surprise when they did.

Did I make it too easy for them to actually destroy the world? Possible slightly, yes. They're still relatively low level, after all. But there have also been hints of some other, unknown power pushing them towards their objective... The campaign won't end here, of course. The end of the world is by no means a problem, but an opportunity. I have some ideas already about where we might be heading in future sessions. It is a multiverse, after all...

20 October 2012

Figaro Castle or Bust

So I begun playing Final Fantasy VI. Again. With emphasis on 'begun'.

I first played it sometime near the end of the 90's, I think, on a PC SNES emulator. (I never owned an actual SNES, alas.) I got relatively far in the game, as I recall, but then got sidetracked by something else, and eventually lost the save files and, well, that was that.

When a port of the game came out for the PlayStation, I naturally bought it right away. Over the years I've started playing it again at least a couple times. But I've never got more than a few hours into the game, for whatever reasons.

It really is a game I want to play, and finally beat, though. It is the pinnacle of pre-PlayStation console RPG's (whereas Final Fantasy VII is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the PlayStation era, and still stands unrivalled by later games). The graphics in the game are close to as good as the SNES could do, and Nobuo Uematsu's classic soundtrack is top notch. The story and setting are also quite cool, and pretty original for the era. Where previous titles in the series had taken a somewhat more straightforward fantasy approach, FFVI took a step towards steampunk and science fiction, stylistic elements that would continue in later games. Throw in a large selection of characters and some of the most elaborate gameplay mechanics the series had seen thus far, and what you have is a true classic of the genre.

So yeah, I hope I can actually stick with it this time and not be too distracted by other games. Maybe that's one reason I wrote this little post; it's a little easier to stick with things once you've announced them in public.

One final thought: I miss the analogue sticks! How did people cope with just the directional pad in the old days?!

19 October 2012

The Long Overdue Skyrim Review Post

It's getting close to a year already since The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released. I got it, and begun playing, on release day. I always intended to write a review for my website, but wanted to at least beat the main story of the game first. Well, it took a little time, and I've had some long breaks in playing, but I'm finally at a point where I can sit down and write about the game. In the meantime, I've discontinued my review section, so it'll just be in the form of a rambling blog post.

In case someone doesn't already know, The Elder Scrolls is a series of first person 'open world' fantasy action roleplaying games. All the titles in the series have been set in the same world, but in different regions. Skyrim is the continent's northernmost province, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) has taken much of its influence from Viking culture. You can freely explore the game's world and find quests to take on by talking to its people. There's a main storyline, and side stories based around various factions, plus numerous independent side quests.

(I should mention at this point that, while I played a little of the previous title, Oblivion, I never got very far in it. This was largely due to the fact that by the time I discovered the series, having focused more on Japanese games for many years, Skyrim's release was already drawing near, and I didn't wish to sate myself too much playing a similar game.)

So last night I finally finished the main story. At this point I had been playing for nearly 120 hours, according to the game's clock. This is easily the longest I've ever spent on a single playthrough in any game. (I think the longest before have been some JRPG's, in the vicinity of 70 hours or so.) And there's still entire questlines I haven't played.

This is perhaps the most important thing to say about Skyrim. There is just so much to do! There's tons of quests to complete. And new, intriguing quests have a habit of falling in your lap even when you're not looking for any, sidetracking you from the ones you were already on. The world is pretty big, with many towns and villages with plentiful inhabitants, and dozens of dungeons to explore. OK, so after 120 hours naturally there's some repetitiveness. A lot of the gameplay involves venturing into a dungeon (most frequently inhabited by undead creatures) to retrieve some item. But there's still enough variety in quests, encounters and locations to keep me entertained.

There are glitches. There are crashes. There are load times. But given the sheer scale of this game all that just fades away. The world looks very pretty, in my opinion (and probably would look even prettier on a state-of-the-art PC than it does on my PS3, but I have no complaints). The views from the high mountains are inspiring, there is a nice variety of terrains ranging from harsh tundra to beautiful forests, and each of the major cities has unique, and frequently impressive, architecture.

Oh, and did I mention dragons? Dragons! They look cool. They are cool to fight. Watching a dragon swoop down on a village and perch on a rooftop, breathing fire, while the villagers react, is just an... experience, for lack of better word. That being said, I would have liked to see a little more variety in the game's monsters. One of the main causes of repetitiveness in dungeon exploring is the fact that they tend to be inhabited by a relatively small selection of different creature archetypes.

A word about voice acting. There's a lot of dialogue in the game, and a large number of actors (a few big names as well). And a lot of it is pretty good. However, there are also voices that apparently are trying to do a Scandinavian accent, but instead end up sounding like a bad Schwarzenegger parody... The guards (ubiquitous in every city) are often among the more annoying examples, and their lines also soon get very repetitive. (Need I mention knees and arrows?)

Game mechanics have been streamlined a little from the previous title, which I think is good. Some pesky stuff, like having to repair equipment and the stupid persuasion system, has been removed entirely, and you have even more freedom in regards to character development, with no class selection to limit you. And there's many ways you can play, focusing on melee, archery, magic, stealth, crafting etc.

So, yeah, overall, Skyrim is, honestly, one of the most impressive and immersive games I've ever played. It's easy to forget yourself for hours just exploring the world and doing quests. In many ways I think the province of Skyrim feels like the closest thing to a living, breathing fantasy world that I've encountered in video games to date. It's not the most original fantasy world I've encountered, with its heavy Viking influence and somewhat clichéd, D&D-ish feel, but it's a fun world to spend some time in, anyway.

I'm unsure whether I should continue with the remaining quests using the same character, or save them for trying out a different character build sometime. Now, however, I think I'm in the mood for something completely different again. I've had a slight itch for some classic Final Fantasy, but we'll see...

28 September 2012

The Theatre Is Evil Post

OK, so last Monday I finally got my first ever Kickstarter purchase in the post: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra's album Theatre Is Evil. (It took nearly three weeks to reach me after I was notified of it being shipped. But I'm not complaining, just glad to finally have it.)

I've listened to it a bunch of times since then. More than I initially expected, I must say. Some of the songs I've loved since the day I first heard them (like both the songs that have gotten music videos so far, 'The Killing Type' and 'Want It Back'), while others have grown on me more gradually, I think. There's some beautiful moments on the album, as well as many catchy, danceable moments. I can't say I fully understand every song, but even the ones I don't sound lovely (and the language is very poetic).

The version of the CD is the 'Limited Backer Edition', made exclusively for the album's Kickstarter backers. It came in a lovely book type format (about 18cm tall). The cover is black, with elegant silver coloured lettering, while inside there's plenty of nice artwork in addition to the song lyrics. In a nutshell, I like it. I like owning (physical) albums, and their aesthetic value is one of the main reasons for it. I love it when artists make an effort to make their releases look nice and original. The CD itself contains no bonus material (likely because the album is over 70 minutes long to begin with), although the 'deluxe' download version (included in the deal for all who bought the CD through Kickstarter) contains lots of bonus tracks (which are pretty good, too).

Included was a cool thank you card featuring a stereoscopic 3D image of the band. (With Amanda topless. She's not a shy person.)

So, bottom line, yes, I'm glad I participated in the Kickstarter, and glad I decided to get the CD version (originally I was going to just pledge a few bucks for the download).

I've been following AFP on Twitter for a while now, and she seems like a lovely person who really cares about art more than anything. Of course I doubt she'd be married to Neil Gaiman if she wasn't. And I'd probably have never gotten this album if it wasn't for Neil promoting her in his own posts. So he deserves a little credit too.

And as I've mentioned before, the download version of the album is being offered on a 'pay what you want' basis (free, even, if you're skint) at AFP's website.

27 September 2012

Nameless Anniversary Anxiety (Being a Poem About Life, or Semblance Thereof)

I still have the ticket, you know
tucked away with
miscellaneous memorabilia

I've hung onto others
for various reasons
but that was the first

the theatre's gone now
swallowed up by the
multiplex revolution

(and that is a
disturbing thought in
its own right)

the movie was OK
(I like Jeff Goldblum)
but it's the parting

I remember
sitting at the bus stop
not wanting the night to end

not 'like it was yesterday'
more like a distant dream
fifteen years ago

fif-
teen
years

gods it sounds like a
long time said
out loud

but it's not old scars
I mourn, I think
(if ever scars there were)

no, not the fifteen
but the fourteen
scarless years

26 September 2012

An Infamous Review Thingy

Having thought about it for some time, I think I probably won't be writing any more video game reviews for the review section of my website. Bottom line is, they don't really serve any purpose, since my readership is hardly huge and the games I play tend to not be the newest thing anyway, and (perhaps most importantly) for a while already writing those reviews has felt more like a chore than something I really enjoy. But I'll probably blog about games I play, in a somewhat simpler fashion.

So just now I beat Infamous (or inFamous or inFAMOUS, however you wish to spell it). I'd had it on my PS3's hard drive ever since the PSN outage last year (I got it free as part of the welcome back package), and finally got around to playing it. It turned out to be a pretty fun action adventure, with a superhero twist.

In a nutshell, the protagonist, Cole MacGrath, is at the centre of a mysterious explosion. He survives and finds he has gained powers to manipulate electricity. Meanwhile, the city is placed under quarantine, and gangs of mutated people are wreaking havoc. An FBI agent recruits Cole to find the 'Ray Sphere', the cause of all the trouble... The storytelling in the game was OK, though I sometimes felt there would have been some room for improvement.

So basically you have a whole city to explore, in a fairly free fashion (outside areas only, though). One of the main themes of the game is agility. You can easily climb buildings and run around rooftops, or 'grind' power lines to move fast from rooftop to rooftop. It's a lot of fun. Story missions proceed in a relatively linear fashion, but there's also plenty of side quests and exploration to do. Frankly, the side quests soon get a little repetitive, though, and in later parts I couldn't really be bothered to do many.

The game also makes a big point of morality, and periodically makes you choose a good or evil course of action. However, most of these decisions felt essentially pointless, because once you've chosen your path you basically have to stick with it, as unlocking many power upgrades requires a high level of either good or bad 'karma'.

Still, despite these limitations, it was a pretty entertaining game. Not too long for repetitiveness to really be a problem, not too short either. The challenge level also seemed appropriate for me (playing on easy difficulty, since I'm generally pretty bad at action games). I'll probably pick up the sequel some day, when I run into it cheap enough and actually have a little money... But now, I think, I want something different. Just don't know what yet...

20 September 2012

When Life Gives You Lemons, Ignore Them and Play Video Games

(This post may contain strong language.)

So yeah. Shit decided to hit the fan computer-wise, as it is wont to do every so often. In a nutshell, I ran an update for my Debian Wheezy system, which included a new version of AMD's video card drivers. And it turns out the new version doesn't want to play with my card... I spent a stressful evening battling with this, and none of my ideas for workarounds seemed to work (the open source Radeon driver actually started up the first time I tried it... but ever since has resulted in a segmentation fault, for reasons that are totally beyond me). So in the end I just went: 'Fuck it. I don't want to deal with this shit now.'

So I dug up my old crappy MacBook for basic internet use, and spent the next day playing video games. (Not necessarily meant to imply that the MacBook is crappy just because it's old. It may also be crappy because it's a fucking Apple product. But that is neither here nor there.)

The game I picked was Infamous. I'd had it on my PS3's hard drive for over a year now (got it free as part of the welcome back package after the PSN outage), but hadn't got around to playing yet. And I ended up playing it for a significant portion of the day. Which probably means it's not a bad game.

I think this change of pace was really needed. It's been a little while again since I last really got into a new game. It's always refreshing and exciting. The computer issue remains, a huge looming black cloud over my life, 'cause I'm really no guru who can fix such things just like that. But life goes on...

17 September 2012

Monday Night Ramblings, with Music, Ponies and Whatnot

There's a handful of websites I routinely check. Normally I just open a new tab, punch in the first letter or two of the URL and hit enter. It's a very fast operation, happens almost on reflex. Sometimes, if I'm bored, I might accidentally check sites I've checked only minutes ago, just punching in the address on reflex, not really thinking. And sometimes I seem to punch in an address that makes no sense for me to visit. Like Blogger. This has happened several times over the past few days, even though I haven't had anything in mind to blog about. Maybe my brain's trying to tell me something? So, like, whatever. Here I am, then, rambling about nothing in particular.

Item 1:

Music. Last spring I backed the Kickstarter for Amanda Palmer's new album, Theatre Is Evil. Well, the album was finally released last week. I'm still waiting for my CD (I wasn't expecting it to arrive very fast, seeing as it's coming all the way from the States), but I got the download version (with tons of bonus tracks for Kickstarter backers, yay) and have listened to it a few times, and yes, it's pretty darn good.

And of course you don't need to be a Kickstarter backer to listen to it. She's offering the album on a 'pay what you want' basis. Free, if you want. Here's a statement from her website:
'i firmly believe in music being as free as possible. unlocked. shared and spread.
i believe that in order for artists to survive and create, their audiences need to step up and directly support them.
honor system.
no judgment.
if you’re broke – take it. if you love it, come back and kick in later when you have the money.
if you’re rich, think about who you might be karmically covering if you really love this record.
the store below has two versions of the record. one is totally free, and one has a minimum price of $1.00 so that i can cover the cost of covering other artists’ songs.
once you have it, SHARE SHARE SHARE!  COPY COPY COPY! SPREAD THE EVIL!!!
we are the media.
LOVE, afp'
I only have one thing to say about that: respect. (I'll probably write more once I actually get the physical album.)

Item 2:

Gaming. I don't think I've actually properly blogged about my My Little Pony RPG, have I? Yes, you read that right. After (half jokingly, perhaps) suggesting one last year, it received a very enthusiastic welcome from some of my friends, and I finally begun running it this spring. We've played a handful of sessions over the summer, the latest being yesterday. It's been a fun experiment. An opportunity for some fairly simple, light-hearted, a little zany adventures. (Which, of course, may not be all that different from most of my RPG's. Just a little more... innocent, perhaps.) (And for those wondering about a grown man being into My Little Pony... Well, Friendship Is Magic really is a pretty good, and frequently hilarious, show. And, in my mind, suitable for all ages.)

So this last session I ran. I basically drew most of the inspiration for it from Portal. And, basically, all I can say is, I just love being a Game Master. I can cook up some amazing, sometimes borderline ludicrous, tributes to things I enjoy, and make a group of people smile and laugh while playing them. What more could a person wish for?

I've got some more serious games coming up soon as well, though. My long-running fantasy steampunk airship pirate game Tales from the Teya'o Iva is still going on, with some interesting twists happening of late. And it looks like I'll soon be running some Pathfinder again after a break of several months. Yay for that! I love Pathfinder. Plus I've promised to run a vampire themed one shot adventure around Hallowe'en, which should hopefully be pretty cool. Lately I've been itching to try something new and exciting. Something with lots of big plot twists and stuff. (Not that my current games are unexciting or without big plot twists, but, like, whatever...)

So yeah, keeping myself busy GMwise.

Item 3:

Current events. I'm... just not even going to say anything about it. The way this world is still wrapped in such cycles of hate and violence is just... so depressing. But I want to go on record saying I believe in religious freedom, and I believe in freedom of speech. Mocking another's faith is stupid and distasteful, however there is no such thing as blasphemy. What others say or do should not matter. If you let it... well, basically, I guess it means they win.

OK, I think that wraps it up for today. More ramblings when I have something worthwhile to ramble about.

7 September 2012

Unboxing the Bestiary Box

I just picked up a parcel at my post office and figured it was blog-worthy.

So yeah, I play a lot of tabletop roleplaying games, as any reader of my blog is likely to know. The majority of the games I play are heavy on narrative and light on rules, meaning we mostly don't mess about too much with stuff like grid maps and miniatures. But we have played some with miniatures too, at times. And, as you may know, last year I got back into more oldschool gaming with Pathfinder, a game whose combat system is very much based on the concept of miniatures and grids.

Miniatures, however, have always been the source of some angst for me. Firstly, they're not free. I've bought a handful of figures for specific needs over the years, but most of the miniatures I've used in my games have actually been 'borrowed' from various boardgames, like good ol' HeroQuest. (For one game I used printed paper miniatures, but the quality obviously didn't quite compare to proper ones.) Secondly, to get the most out miniatures one really should paint them, and I really suck at that.

So, the parcel mentioned above. It contained the brand new Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Bestiary Box. This box contains a collection of cardboard miniatures for use in tabletop gaming. Not just any collection, but basically most of the creatures featured in the first Pathfinder Bestiary volume. (Which, of course, contains much of the same material as the 3rd edition D&D Monster Manual, so tons of classic D&D monsters are covered.) With multiple copies of some of the most common enemies. That's a total of over 300 miniatures, and over 250 different creatures.

So, basically, the moment I heard about this product I knew I would have to buy it. I seemed like the perfect solution for a financially limited, paint-hating GM.

OK, finally hands on, opening the parcel. The box is nice and sturdy, printed with quality artwork (as usual for Paizo products). The pawns (as Paizo calls these cardboard minis) are printed in colour (naturally) on fairly sturdy cardboard (about 1mm thick). The artwork, I believe, is mostly the same as is featured in the Bestiary (though I think some may have been redrawn to better fit the dimensions). Included is a more than adequate number of plastic bases for creatures of all size categories (except gargantuan and colossal – these creatures have been, understandably, omitted).

All in all feels like good value for the 35€ I paid for the box. How good they actually look on the table remains to be seen, of course (I imagine some of the images may be a little hard to make out from a distance, especially if lighting is less than perfect). But I'm pretty sure I'll be stressing less about obtaining and painting decent miniatures for my games in the foreseeable future.

22 August 2012

Gloomy Night, Somewhat Gloomy Musings

It's kind of a gloomy, drizzly evening. I'm sitting here alone in a dark room. And Facebook is acting really buggy (even by Facebook standards), preventing me from having any semblance of a social life. So maybe I'll just sit here and write down some random thoughts.

Last weekend I was forced to spend time cut off from the internet. I don't know where the fault was, exactly, but apparently my ISP didn't deem it important enough to repair during the weekend. (Lazy sods.) So I ended up having an impromptu Buffy marathon (picking up from where I left off after starting a re-watch some time last spring), and ended up watching all of season 4 during that one weekend. Actually, on Sunday alone I watched a total of 16 episodes (basically doing nothing else that day). Which is pretty much a record for me, for any show. I had crisps. And dip. And Dr Pepper. It was fun.

And there's basically no real reason for sharing that, other than recording it for posterity... But speaking of spending time alone, well, that's a thing I do, a fair amount of, in fact, being a fairly introverted person by nature, and of the single persuasion. And I've been mostly fine with that for many, many years. I need me plenty of 'me time'. Can't live without it. But lately I've been thinking about this being alone stuff... maybe a little more than I'd like. For one thing, I'm getting to be at an age where, everywhere you turn, it's just couples and couples, starting families and stuff. And yes, I admit, I'm a little jealous sometimes. Not so much of the family stuff (that's really not for me), but of the simple fact of being able to reach out and touch someone, to share some kind of connection... Although perhaps more than actually being alone, it may be the powerlessness to do anything about it that's getting to me. It's been years since I've held any kind of hope of ever meeting someone, after all. What can I say. I'm a realist.

It's been a little while since I've had a drink, and I wasn't planning on drinking in the near future (among other reasons because I've got better use for the little money I have), but right at this moment, thinking about all this stuff, if I had any booze around... yeah, I'd get soddin' plastered.

It's not just this state of solitary existence that's darkening my thoughts, though. There's the regular aesthetic, arty stuff too, that tends to fill my day to day existence. (And that kind of darkness I view only as positive, although I guess the real life stuff and imaginary stuff might in some ways feed each other...) In particular my thoughts of late have often dwelled on vampires. This was mostly brought on by the latest storyline of Weregeek (have I ever even blogged about that? it's a pretty neat webcomic), dealing with a World of Darkness themed vampire larp. I've never actually played any WoD games, so I spent some time reading about them. And inspired by this I spent some time planning a vampire society for my own fantasy setting, Va'ita. And then I got to watching Buffy and we loop back to the beginning of this blog post and... um, yeah, right.

Add to the mix some spiritual musings I won't bore you with and a preference for dark music lately (I've been listening to Cradle of Filth a lot, for instance), it's a wonder I still have any colour at all in my wardrobe. (Yeah, well, I have neither the funds, skills or face to pull off a proper Gothic look, even if I wanted to...)

And that, I think, was more or less that. I seem to have veered from mere gloom and loneliness to ever darker (though mostly in an aesthetic way) realms, but, like, whatever... Sweet dreams. And remember, the Dark Side is powerful... ;-)

Escape from Lowresia: The Soundtrack

If just a little over a year ago someone would have suggested that I'd someday be writing a year's worth of regular comic strips, I'd probably have scoffed, and said: 'Yeah, right...' But somehow it happened. No, the comic has not made any major breakthroughs, frankly I'm lucky if I even have a dozen readers (that I know of), but still, it's been fun.

To celebrate Escape from Lowresia's first birthday, I have a special treat for you: Escape from Lowresia: The Soundtrack! Yes, a staggering 76 minutes of music inspired by video games!

As you may know, EfL is based on sprites I created a long, long time ago as part of a game programming project, which was never completed. I have also mentioned before that I composed a bunch of music as well for that project. Some of those tracks have been available on my website for years; some of the original Impulse Tracker files since, basically, the beginning, and later MP3 versions collected as the album Games That Could Have Been. However, I still had a lot of material lying around that had never been released.

Already soon after I started writing EfL, I considered the option of releasing some of the music, seeing as the graphics used in the comic and the music was created hand in hand, back in the day. Then last spring I finally decided to go through my old archives and dig up these old tunes. I first released the album Demon Armour Mamori, which basically contained most of the old tracker compositions not related to that RPG project that I deemed worthwhile.

Now at last here is the second volume, the most complete collection of music composed for that ill-fated game with the working title Rain to date. Since the graphics found new life as Escape from Lowresia, I am using that title for the album as well, although the tone is of course somewhat more serious than that of the comic's. Imagine it as the soundtrack to the game Raine and his companions were intended for, before being abandoned in Sprite Limbo. Which, of course, it is, quite literally.

Not only does the album contain a lot of music not found on the earlier Games That Could Have Been collection, all the music has been touched up, remastered, and encoded at 320 kbps, so it should sound better than ever. (The tweaking and mastering process took two whole days of hard work. And that's not including uploading the music to various places, converting to video files for YouTube and stuff, which together counts for probably another day or two. So I hope you folks appreciate it. :-p)

This album and Demon Armour Mamori together make up the definitive compilation of my tracker years. I doubt I'll be releasing more music from that era, or, for that matter, returning to that type of technology in the foreseeable future. This, I think, is basically all the decent material from that time I have. It was an important chapter in my development as a musician, and listening to the tracks on these two albums years later, I'm quite impressed by many of the compositions. It's obvious that a lot of work went into creating them. I hope someone out there will enjoy them.

And, as usual, you will find the MP3 bundle, stream links, and more info over at the music section.

20 August 2012

The Call of Flesh (A Poem)

So, uh, yeah... I guess this sort of thing happens when you're planning vampire related stuff for an RPG setting whilst feeling a little lonely... Not perhaps meant to be taken entirely literally. Perhaps... :-p

For darkest nights and stormy days
are best left the matters of spirit, I say
but of course the same is equally true
of flesh.
For does not that spark of lust
burn brightest in the dark of night
within each Man-child
so that we have died, many times over
thrust upon that deadly pyre?
They dance, the Children of Darkness
they dance around that pyre
calling out to me
and I long to dance with them
make one the spirit and the flesh.

Should I bare fangs at the sun
snarl and curse the bright, cruel world?
Or should I howl for the beauty of night
and the alabaster curves of flesh?
For surely the two go hand in hand
no night without moon
whether hidden or seen
paraded in that darksome cabaret
jewel of the Night Lord's harem.

Yet she is cold
and I long for warmth
a laying of hands
a panting breath.
What can it feel like
the beating of a heart
beneath the soft touch of a palm?
And from touch to grip
the dance begins
the tearing of cloth
the baring of skin.
How does that heart beat now
pressed against the cold stone wall
between the rock and the hard... place?

Answered then, the call of flesh
the siren song of blood.
Why should not a little of that warmth
be mine?
If only for a fleeting moment...

But into the night I slink away
lovelorn freak
alone in the dark.
Even if my heart could beat
who would be there to hear its call?

15 August 2012

In Memoriam: Harry Harrison

Famous people keep kicking the bucket all the time, but Harry Harrison is one I actually thought I should sit down and write a few words about.

I first read The Stainless Steel Rat sometime in my teen years. Like several other sci-fi/fantasy books I read during those years, it was something I found in my dad's bookshelf (which I'm sure played a large part in shaping my tastes for years to come, a fact I'm very grateful for). Besides Pratchett's Discworld series, the Rat books are among those I remember with most fondness from my late teens.

Perhaps more than anything else, 'Slippery Jim' DiGriz is the main reason for my love of scoundrels and con artist characters. I just love a good tongue-in-cheek con story. There are too few of them in the world of sci-fi and fantasy, I think.

Rest in peace, Harry. Here's to crime!

11 August 2012

D20fying Classic D&D

Although I've basically switched over from classic Dungeons & Dragons versions to Pathfinder, I spent a few moments earlier this summer browsing some old D&D materials, and the classic D&D clone Labyrinth Lord.

One of the best changes made in 3rd edition and later versions of D&D is undoubtedly the simplified attack rolls. All those tables of target numbers and THAC0 calculations and stuff in classic D&D feel so cumbersome now. So I started thinking about how hard it would be to convert the classic D&D combat system to use the simpler d20 System mechanism. And while examining this I realised both systems are actually based on the same underlying principles.

The only difference is in the way data is represented. In 3rd edition the AC is the target number for an attack roll, while in classic D&D it is an index number used to look up the actual target number from a table. Classic D&D also calculates level advancements directly into this target number, while in 3rd edition it is presented as an individual attack bonus.

Converting AC into a target number and calculating a character's attack bonus can actually be done with pretty simple formulae. So I set out to do so, not for any real current need, but just in case I ever wanted to run a game using classic D&D rules. And I also wrote down the formulae and made tables of each class's attack bonuses in an article in my RPG section, should anyone else be interested.

I considered doing the same for stuff like saving throws, but realised it wouldn't have much real benefit aside from superficially unifying roll mechanisms (whereas converting AC to target number does actually make combat easier when you don't need to keep track of different target numbers and players only require an easily memorised attack bonus for their rolls).

Of course I wouldn't be surprised if someone has already done something like this, I was just too lazy to search for it...

9 August 2012

Just Venting

OK, so I'm here
there's a deep pool
and a big friggin' fish monster
and fences, and fences
can't go forward
can't go back
a little tunnel
with...
whatever the hell that rotating thing is
can't go forward
can't go back
and did I kill all those alien bastards for this?
I just want out
I'm no hero, I just want out
but I can't go forward
can't go back
and my mind wanders
and somehow finds nothing
(trapped in a maze of its own)
nothing but years of solitude
my life
running on Valve Time
'cause I can't go forward
can't go back
and I killed the fish monster
killed it dead
but no
still no
can't go forward
can't go back

12 July 2012

On Half-Life 2 and Review Writing

So I finally got around to beating Half-Life 2. I actually begun playing it about a year ago already, but got sidetracked by something. It was fairly easy to jump back in, though, once the mood struck me.

Apart from one or two cheap downloadable or Free Software games, this was probably the first major FPS title I've really played since, well, Doom... And, in a nutshell, I liked it. As usual, I wrote a brief review.

Which brings us to my other topic, my video game reviews. I started writing them years ago, for reasons that I've since forgotten. I don't write them very often (I'm still being much too lazy at playing games). They are rarely very current, and have little depth. I'm not sure anyone actually reads them. Or cares.

So the question arises, why do I bother? And I'm not sure I can actually answer that. Which is not a good sign. I'll have to reconsider whether writing those reviews is actually worth the time and effort. Just writing little blog posts about games I'm playing might make more sense these days...

2 July 2012

On Nightmares

I practically never have nightmares. Oh, my dreams may contain all sorts of action and monsters and whatnot (though mostly my memories of dreams tend to be very vague), but I'm not affected by them, in any negative way. (Actually, I think the dreams most likely to have any kind of negative effect on me are those that touch upon the topic of relationships, or the lack of them. Sometimes a mild melancholy may linger after such dreams – but I would not call them nightmares.)

I sometimes feel this is almost a flaw in my being, although I'm sure people who truly suffer from nightmares will be quick to disagree. The trouble is, when I hear people complain about sleeping badly due to nightmares, I simply have no way of relating to the situation.

I only have memories of two dreams that I'd class as actual nightmares. I guess I should record them here for posterity.

In the first one I felt a strange tickling in my throat. Probing in my mouth with my fingers I found the end of a strange tube. I started pulling it out, and yard after yard of this tube came out. Then suddenly I realised it was my own intestines I was pulling out. At the shock of that realisation I awoke.

In the second dream I was watching Sarah Michelle Gellar perform live on a stage. Suddenly, out of the blue, she turned into a pile of dust, just like a staked vampire from Buffy. I realised that she was dead, and the shock awoke me. Once awake the whole thing seemed remarkably silly, of course, but in the dream the tragedy had been intense enough to actually wake me up.

And that's about it. Sweet dreams. ;-)

21 June 2012

One Solstice Night, Pt 3

Last couple years on the night of the summer solstice I've stayed up till dawn, blogging my activities. It's already become something of a tradition for me, so no reason to stop now. For company this time I have a bottle of cheap red wine and (once again) some Pringles.

22:51 - Sunset. I begun the evening by playing a couple hours of Skyrim. I recently got back to it after a longish break. It's still fun. But I think I'll go with movies for tonight's main entertainment. I've already had a couple glasses of wine, and feel great. ;-) Just recently Troma Entertainment (known for such classics as Toxic Avenger) released a whole bunch of their old movies for free on YouTube. So what better opportunity to check out a turkey of two?

23:18 - My first movie choice is Wizards of the Demon Sword. Simply based on the cool name. And just ten minutes into it... wow, have I ever seen such a cheesy, cheap production? The costumes, the sets, the writing... words don't suffice... I'm loving it!

23:28 - Let's hear it for gratuitous nudity! (Edit after movie: one topless scene was the extent of it for this movie.)

0:30 - Brewed a cup of coffee. Still a long way to go till dawn, and the wine's affecting me... perhaps a little more than I'd care to admit.

0:54 - Movie's over. And yeah, that was so bad, I loved every minute of it. The 'sword' of the title was apparently just a dagger. And was this really made in 1990? Looked, like, twenty years older, easily... And in case you're wondering, its score at IMDb is a magnificent 1.9!

2:04 - Went for a little walk, something I rarely have the motivation to do at night. Which is a shame, really, since the nights really are the best part of summer – so cool, so quiet, so fragrant. Hardly a soul around. The sky, though, was so light I could hardly see a single star, even in the dead of night. Which is kinda spooky.

2:10 - The actual moment of the solstice, being an 'astronomical event that happens twice each year when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky as seen from the North or South Pole' (according to Wikipedia).

2:20 - I still have time for another movie, so I'll pick... dramatic drumroll... A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell! The title itself simply boggles the mind.

2:38 - First surprise: it's a post-apocalyptic setting, rather than prehistoric. Second surprise: despite the name, the protagonist isn't blond, nor does she have large breasts. Other than that, as cheesy and cheaply produced as the previous one!

2:47 - Just finished off the wine. Not that a glass more at this point makes a lot of difference. The walk probably sobered me up some, and general tiredness is gradually taking over from tipsiness.

3:50 - Finished the movie. And wow, I hardly expected it to be worse than the previous one. Even less plot, and rather few dinosaur scenes in the end, too. (On the plus side, it wasn't really as sexist as I feared it might be, based on the title.) IMDb rating equals the first one, at 1.9!

3:55 - Sunrise! And I'm off to bed. Goodnight, world.

19 June 2012

Have Moogle, Will Time-Travel

So last week I finally got around to finishing Final Fantasy XIII-2. Like its predecessor, it was a reasonably interesting and entertaining game, though aspects of it again gave rise to mixed feelings.

My main complaints about FFXIII (here's the blog post from when I played it) were its linearity and lack of content other than successive battles. They obviously tried to change this in XIII-2. There are much more NPC's to talk with, optional locations to explore, and side quests. Almost too many, one could say. When I beat the game there was still a lot of content I could've explored.

They give you the option to keep exploring after you've beaten the game, of course, even unlocking additional stuff. However, having seen the main storyline through, the game could provide me with absolutely no motivation to do so. This seems to be a problem with many games these days that offer lots of 'post-game' content. I simply don't get the point of it...

One thing I really disliked about the game was that it only has two protagonists. Yes, two! The third slot in battles is filled by monsters you obtain along the way. Really, this is supposed to be Final Fantasy, not freakin' Pokémon! You need to spend a lot of time in menus levelling up those monsters, too, which is just boring. I'd much rather have had a full cast of regular characters. Summons, an old staple of the series, are also absent, replaced by special attacks of the monsters (which mostly seemed neither very effective nor impressive). The battle system itself is more or less the same as in XIII. And it is still pretty interesting and original. I don't think I prefer it to the classic turn based battles, but it is kinda fun.

Visually I found the game quite pleasing to look at. And the music wasn't half bad, either, even though it was no Uematsu soundtrack. I found the use of vocals in many tracks particularly interesting, and different from most game soundtracks. These mostly consisted of soft female vocals, mixed fairly low so they weren't too distracting.

So, uh, the story, then. Frankly, I'm not quite sure how to feel about it. It involves travelling back and forth in time, so it can get a little confusing. I'm not sure the writing is always the strongest it could have been. As with XIII there probably would've been potential for something a little more. But the world itself and its mythology are relatively interesting. (Knowledge of the first game's story is probably recommended, since it is often referred to.)

I beat the game in just over 40 hours (according to the game's clock), so it's a little shorter perhaps than many other Final Fantasy games. It wasn't particularly hard, either, and I did very little intentional grinding. (The game also offers an 'easy' mode, but I have trouble seeing the point of this. Easier modes make sense in action games, but less so in an RPG, particularly one that isn't especially hard to begin with...)


Warning: The last part of this post may contain mild spoilers


And then there's the ending. I'd managed to somehow not read anything about it, and was truly surprised. It basically ends in a cliffhanger, making way for another sequel. I'll say this much, it was a pretty efficient ending, got my adrenaline pumping. Cliffhangers can be both infuriating and exhilarating at the same time. I'm not aware if a sequel has been officially announced yet (I could find nothing about one at Wikipedia, anyway)...

18 June 2012

Player vs GM (An Introspection)

Last week was pretty fun and RPG-rich. I played in a couple of games and game mastered one, all very different. (Also finally beat FFXIII-2. It was a fairly interesting experience, and I may or may not get around to writing a blog post about that later.)

Somehow, though, I got to thinking about my own shortcomings again. You see, I've always felt more comfortable in the game master's chair than as a player. But why exactly is this, I wonder?

Well, for one thing, I've always been very bad at making decisions and coming up with ideas on the spot. This is probably my biggest shortcoming as a game master as well (in addition to my relatively poor articulatory skills), but since I'm then dealing with worlds and stories I created myself, and know fairly well how they're supposed to function, this slightly mitigates the problem.

I'm also more a 'big picture' than a 'little picture' person. I tend to be interested in the overarching story more than little details. I find it challenging to view the story from just one character's viewpoint, or, for that matter, really 'relate' to any particular character. I'm a pretty bad actor, too (like I mentioned above, I'm not a great articulator), which makes really getting 'into character' even more difficult. As a game master my NPC performances may not always be the most convincing due to these reasons, but the 'big picture' mentality probably mostly works in my favour. (And I guess I'd rather act an NPC badly for a moment than a player character continuously...)

I've never been great at team work. Probably largely because I am, by nature, fairly shy and quiet. In a heated discussion I often have difficulty communicating my ideas (when I even have them – like I said, I'm not good at coming up with ideas on the spot). When you're the game master, people have to listen (or suffer the consequences :-p). Then again, just being quiet sometimes and allowing the players to talk amongst themselves for a while can be a good strategy. You can often glean some good ideas from the discussions, and get a feel for where the events are heading.

I'm very self-centred. It's not something I'm particularly proud of, of course, but it's a personality trait I fully acknowledge. Despite my shyness, I love being at the centre of attention (yeah, kind of a paradox, I know). This mostly isn't a problem in RPG's. Challenges often affect each of the characters equally, and even if someone else happens to be more in the limelight than me, I'm quite capable of enjoying just listening to the story unfold (though if it happens constantly, it can become a little disturbing – not out of jealousy, but insecurity about my own lack of ideas and assertiveness). It may, however, be one more thing that makes me enjoy game mastering even more.

There are probably many other reasons as well, but I'll leave it here for now. The human psyche is a strange thing indeed, and getting to grips with even your own (or especially your own?) is by no means an easy task...

13 June 2012

No Place for Old Bens

(Yeah yeah, one of those late night angsty poetry-ish things. Just found myself feeling vaguely uncomfortable tonight, and a little lonely, which is weird 'cause this is actually one of the most socially active weeks I've had in a while. I'm not sure why exactly I feel a need to express this stuff in words, but for some reason I do, so bear with me...)

One of those days
hot and oppressive
though the meter's hardly touching record highs
so I wonder
is there any clime I'd feel at home in?
all I ever know is 'too hot', 'too cold'
and isn't it just the story of my life
an ill fit
the puzzle's not missing a piece
there's a piece too many
no place for old Bens in this world
no careers
no significant others
even faiths elude me
so I suppose pleasant weather as well is too much to ask for
and "I wish I had an angel"
I hear my headphones serenade me
"For one moment of love"
and wouldn't that be just the thing
to rest
just a moment
in the cool shade of her wings
on a hot and oppressive one-of-those-days day

11 June 2012

I've Got a Potato and I'm Not Afraid to Use It

So I finally got around to playing Portal 2. And I liked it a lot. I wrote a brief review. (My first this year, apparently. I really don't play enough games these days.) In a nutshell it says it's a lot like the first Portal, only bigger, and that I liked it a lot. And, uh, yeah, that's basically it.

I haven't played the co-op part of the game. And I'm not sure I will, any time soon. Mostly because I just don't play games online. I feel like I need to be able to communicate more directly, particularly when it comes to a co-operative game. (I don't even have the technology for playing online, like headsets and stuff, 'cause I've never been interested in it.) Of course local multiplayer is a possibility, but then we're into logistics territory and finding a mate to play with etc... Also a problem with this sort of game is that both players need to be on the same level, and if one has already played the game and the other hasn't I imagine it basically ruins it. So yeah, I can't say I really get the online gaming phenomenon in general. Just give me quality single player games, please, and I'll be happy.

4 June 2012

Things I Really Hate About Twitter

Just a quick rant, for a change.

While Twitter is mostly OK (I don't use it as much as Facebook for connecting with IRL friends, but I've got a handful of online acquaintances I mostly connect with on Twitter, plus celebrities I follow), there are a few things about it that sometimes drive me nuts. These are (mostly) related to the users more than the technology, though (unlike on Facebook, where the occasional buggy behaviour is usually the worst annoyance).

Firstly, there's the 'replace X with Y' hashtag memes, where X is usually something like songs by a certain artist or movie titles, and Y is some random, silly word. The problem is that the wording of the hashtag is, semantically, completely wrong. If you replace X with Y, it becomes Y, and nothing but Y, and not some (supposedly) funny hybrid of the two! Yet these hashtags pop up in the trending topics often enough to drive me absolutely crazy. Seriously, language matters, people!

Slightly less annoying, perhaps, but still annoying, are the frequently trending 'national something or other day' memes. Seriously, people. Which nation? Why only them? Why am I left out? News flash: the net is global, folks!

Lastly, the one major technical flaw in Twitter is the fact that they allow animated profile images. This is something I really hate. Any unnecessary movement on a web page is an instant turn-off for me.

None of the people I follow participate (actively, at least) in these faux pas, I'm happy to say.

3 June 2012

I Don't Seem to Write as Many Poems These Days

'I don't seem to write as many poems these days'
I ponder
as the beauty of the night goes on around me
does it not touch me like it used to?
are emotions in me
at long last
calling it a day?
'dead end, fellas
turn back
someone else needs us more than this bloke does'
jaded
museless
where's the verse now to shout
'get off your soddin' arse
you lazy bastard
write me!'
and I would
if I found you
but you're lost, in the darkness
and I'd gladly be lost as well
in that beautiful night
if I hadn't forgotten how

30 May 2012

Nor Your Kind of People and Other Musings on Music

I guess I really should blog about this too, seeing as how I'm a pretty big Garbage fan.

I think, if my memory serves me, I originally got interested in Garbage when I heard the song 'Temptation Waits' on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer album, and liked it enough to dig up some more of their music to check it out. I've since bought all of their albums. Not necessarily the most typical example of bands I like. Well, at least back when I was first getting into them. These days I seem to listen to so many types of music, it's hard to define anything really as untypical...

And finally this May, after a long hiatus, they released their fifth album, Not Your Kind of People. I've had a chance now to listen to it a bunch of times. And my overall feeling about it is pretty positive. I think the more I listen to it, and get more familiar with the tunes, the more I enjoy it.

It's a pretty varied album, ranging from energetic dance numbers to melodic anthems. And they do all manage to sound like Garbage, always with a bit of edge and a healthy dollop of melancholy. Yet it is by no means identical to earlier albums. Although I find it impossible really to compare it with earlier Garbage albums. It's still too fresh.

Speaking of music and Buffy, I finally got around to actually purchasing the soundtrack to one of my favourite musicals of all time, the Buffy episode 'Once More, With Feeling'. It's brilliant. And that's about all I need to say about that.

I've also just bought a CD that won't be out until around September (well, technically it won't be billed until a couple days from now, but whatever). Say what? Yup, that's right, and it's also my first time backing a Kickstarter project. The album in question is of course Amanda Palmer's new one, which has today raised a million dollars in funding.

I don't actually know her prior works particularly well, but what I've heard of hers has by no means left a negative impression. And I greatly respect the way she's approaching her fans and handling this album release independently. I'm also sure the physical CD will be a cool, artistic object (the Kickstarter backer version will be a unique limited edition, too). And I still really love the physical album as a medium. So what the hell, I figured, and decided to toss in my $25 this one time. (If you want in on the action, the Kickstarter is running until the end of May. You can get the digital download of the album for as little as one dollar!)

29 May 2012

Conquering YouTube and Jamendo

Haven't been blogging much lately. Shame on me. Anyway, a quick update: in an effort to reach as many people as possible, and because free accounts on SoundCloud have a limited amount of storage space, I've recently uploaded some of my music on two new services.

Firstly, for quick and easy streaming, there's the mother of all streaming services, YouTube. I've uploaded both my recent albums there, the fantasy symphonic rock/metal experiment Winged and the instrumental work Demon Armour Mamori. (The links will take you to the relevant playlists.)

Secondly, Winged is also now available on Jamendo, one of the leading websites for distributing free indie music. (Just so you know, Jamendo allows people to make donations to artists, assuming I've set up my account properly to receive them, of course. However, they don't transfer the money to the artist until the total reaches $100. Which for an unknown amateur artist like me may take, basically, forever. I'm just saying this so that you know, should you wish to donate, the money may actually never reach me...)

And as always, more information about the albums is available at the website's music section, alongside links to all the streams and downloads.

Enjoy! ;-)

7 May 2012

Skullgirls: First Impression

Skullgirls was finally released for the PS3 in Europe last week. I had to buy it, of course (15€ was a reasonably fair price, even), 'cause what I'd seen of it looked pretty cool, and I've been playing a little over the last few days.

In case you don't know, Skullgirls is a traditional 2D fighting game title, looking back to the golden age of the genre in the 90's, but utilising modern technology with quality HD graphics. The franchises it can probably be best likened to are Guilty Gear and Darkstalkers, featuring a cast of crazy, if not silly, anime-inspired characters, and a fairly original setting with sci-fi and fantasy elements.

Now, when I first heard about this game, I was a little concerned about the fact that it was being made by Americans. This is a genre that, in my mind, is very much associated with the Japanese game industry. But its creators are passionate about the genre, and have been very faithful to all its trappings.

So, what have we got? Eight cool, weird female characters. (While eight doesn't necessarily sound like a lot by modern standards, for newcomers it's probably better to have fewer characters, makes them easier to learn. They intend to release more characters over time, though.) Some pretty good looking graphics (they boast about having the "most frames of animation per character of any fighting game"). Fairly fast gameplay, with a system that should be easy to learn for fighting game veterans (it uses the Capcom-style three punches and three kicks controls, and fairly standard motions for special attacks).

One of the most interesting features of the game is that it's basically a tag team game, but gives you the option of choosing one to three characters, balancing different sized teams against each other. I've mostly disliked team based games before, they tend to be less approachable since you need to learn to play several characters right from the start, but the option to play with one character and gradually expand (if you wish) makes the game much easier to get into.

The modes are fairly basic. You've got your single player arcade and story modes, local and online versus modes (you won't see me playing online, though, I suck too bad to even consider it), training mode, and some decent tutorials too (although there probably could be more of those for complete newbies, or scrubs like me). No fancy gimmick modes here, but that's probably expected from a relatively low price downloadable game (then again, there have been full priced fighting games out there with not much more content). The story mode for each character is pretty short, but the story and setting are fairly interesting by fighting game standards (not a genre generally associated with a lot of story depth).

There's a decent variety of difficulty settings. On easiest setting the single player modes should probably be beatable for anyone with any knowledge of fighting game basics. I played through the story modes on easiest difficulty without practising the game much at all, and the challenge level was pretty good for me (i.e. I could beat them all, but not without dying a few times). Of course I can't say how the game will be for real fighting game veterans (though of course they'll be more interested in playing against human opponents, anyway).

Music's the one thing I haven't talked about yet, mostly because... well, I can't say I've really paid that much attention to it (which of course isn't a great compliment to it). It's by no means bad, it's just not as memorable as, say, the kick-arse rock tunes of the Guilty Gear series...

Well, this 'first impression' seems to have turned into an almost full length review. But I really don't have enough experience with the game yet to call it that. Anyway, my current feeling is that Skullgirls is probably the most fun of its genre that I've played for the current console generation. Its cool characters and setting, and appealing hand drawn graphics, make it much more interesting to me than the likes of Street Fighter IV.

29 April 2012

From the Musician's Archives: Demon Armour Mamori

Didn't I just release an album of brand new songs? Why yes, I did. (See here for info, in case you missed it.) So what's this, new music again?

Well, not exactly new. I was looking through old archives and came upon some old experiments, some of which have never seen the proverbial light of day, and figured they actually might deserve to.

First, a bit of background. In the late 90's I was introduced to a classic piece of software called Impulse Tracker. 'Trackers', according to Wikipedia, are 'music sequencer software used to create and edit module files; they allow the user to arrange notes (pitch-shifted sound samples from the module) stepwise on a timeline across several monophonic channels.' I messed around with the technology a fair amount in those days, both for the fun of it, and as part of game programming projects I was working on around that time (none of which were ever completed).

Since these pieces were made out of samples, which back in those days tended to be small and low grade, due to limitations in file size and storage space, the sound quality isn't very amazing. But of course this does not mean the compositions themselves are uninteresting.

So, back to the album at hand. It's titled Demon Armour Mamori. This was the title of an anime influenced sci-fi tabletop roleplaying game I was planning sometime in the early 21st century. I never actually got round to running the game, and it seems unlikely now that I will, since I'm much more invested in several other gaming projects. Back then, however, I started work on what was to be a soundtrack album, of sorts, inspired by the game. It was never finished, but I had composed half an hour's worth of music. Which I then all but forgot about for years.

The first six of the eight tracks on the album are from that project. Tracks 3 and 5 are actually composed of short segments of songs that were never finished. My notes for the game are a little sketchy in some parts, and I could find no notes concerning the music project, but I tried to write up the main points of the story for the album's web page (it's not necessarily identical in all aspects to what I had in mind back in those days, but that doesn't really matter). A couple tracks had incomplete titles, so I basically had to make up new names for them...

Another old project was a horror computer game concept called Beyond the Bridge. It was abandoned long ago (although I've since used the setting for tabletop RPG's), but I did manage to compose a handful of music for it. Since these were mostly fairly short pieces, I decided to combine them into a single track for this album, titled 'Beyond the Bridge Suite'. I was very much inspired by the Silent Hill games at the time I composed these, and this track, as well as the game concept, could essentially be seen as a tribute to them, and composer Akira Yamaoka.

The last track, called 'Adamant', has no specific context that I can remember. I don't even know why I picked that particular title for it, but saw no reason to change it (anyway, coming up with good names for instrumental pieces is hard)...

I'm not sure how to classify this album. There's a wide range of influences, from ambient and industrial sounds to rock and video games... I touched the tracks up just a little bit (adding a bit of reverb etc.). They could certainly benefit from some more work still, but, frankly, I can't really be bothered. These are a part of my past, not the future.

This one won't go up on SoundCloud, because free accounts there have a limited amount of space, and I don't consider this a very high a priority, or representative of my current musical endeavours. You can grab the MP3's from my website, and they should eventually be up at Last.fm (though as I'm writing this there seems to be some technical problem with uploading). EDIT: You can now also stream the tracks at YouTube!

I've also divided the discography page of my music section into two parts, one for more current works, and the other for these 'oldies' (stuff that differs from my more recent endeavours either stylistically or in terms of quality).