20 December 2013

On Re-Visiting a Beloved Universe, and the Lasting Repercussions of a Console Breakdown

This is mostly a test to see if this post goes through to Facebook without problems. 'Cause my previous one didn't. I use twitterfeed.com to automate posting new blog posts to social networks. Apparently, however, Facebook has recently changed so that connections with apps are only valid for a couple months and must then be manually reconnected. Which is obviously a pain in the arse. And also impossible to remember to do. You don't remember such a thing until your latest post suddenly fails to show up in your news feed as expected... Yeah yeah, Facebook sucks, so what else is new?

Maybe I'll take this opportunity to write a quick update about my gaming. Earlier this autumn I wrote about the tragic death of my PS3. Some time ago I finally got my hands on a replacement, albeit a used one. (Probably almost as old my broken console. But I got it pretty cheap.) I was still playing FFX then on PS2 so it took me a little time to start gaming with it, but here I am again.

Last summer I'd begun replaying the Mass Effect trilogy and had worked my way through the first part before being sidetracked by holidays and other games. Now I was finally getting anxious to get back to the series again. Only trouble was, my old save files were (and still are) on the broken PS3. Which means that they are basically inaccessible without getting the console repaired. Yeah, maybe I should have done backups occasionally...

Anyone who's played the trilogy will know that decisions you make in one game can affect events in later games. Now, I could have begun ME2 with the 'default' options. In fact I did. However, almost the first sentence spoken was contrary to my experience in the first game. My brain just couldn't cope with that. So I quit, and popped in the first game and have now been playing it over the last couple weeks. Again.

I'm getting pretty far into the game now, and even though this is my third playthrough in just a little over a year, I'm still enjoying it a lot. And I can't wait to replay the other two parts. They should feel pretty new and exciting after a couple playthroughs of the first game. All in all, these games should keep me busy for a good while yet.

Assuming this PS3 holds up, that is...

Why a Witch in the 21st Century? (A Few Yuletide Thoughts on Faith)

Tomorrow is the day of the winter solstice, and the Wiccan sabbat commonly known as Yule. Yule is about the rebirth of the sun, the first step of the long journey towards spring and summer. It's about the cycles of nature, the seasons, birth and death. These are fairly universal ideas associated with midwinter celebrations in many cultures.

Naturally this has me thinking about spiritual matters again. And I've also been sharing my thoughts a little more openly, for anyone who might find such things interesting. Living life out of the 'broom cupboard'. Below is a little more about my personal history and feelings on religion. If such matters don't interest you, that's fine. I wish you a good midwinter, however you choose to mark it!

Earlier this year I wrote at some length about my religious background and current feelings on the topic. But obviously there are many questions that remain unanswered, and many viewpoints one could discuss the topic from. (I mean, we are talking about religion, probably the most written about and debated topic of the entire history of mankind...)

The big questions are the whys. Why any religion in general? Why Wicca in particular?

I tried to go a little way towards answering that in the previous post, but basically my answer boiled down to 'I happened to read about it and it appealed to me'. Let's see if I can go into this with just a little more depth.

First of all, how it happened. This was many years ago, so I don't really remember all the details perfectly. I think it sort of began with buying my first tarot deck. I believe I was contemplating some RPG rules at the time and thought tarot cards might make an interesting alternative to dice (the rules were never really completed, though, and I soon abandoned them). This, however, naturally led to wanting to learn a little more about tarot, which eventually led to the local library's occult section. That is where I also encountered books on Wicca. On a whim I decided to check them out.

By this time I was already a big fan of Buffy. And there were many other things with witches and so-called Wiccans in popular culture. I think that pop culture image of witchcraft actually had made me somewhat wary of the topic. I didn't want to look like I was getting into something just because cool shows were referring to it. But once I actually started reading about Wicca, I soon discovered it had pretty much nothing to do with its pop culture counterparts. Shows like Buffy have basically used the word simply as a synonym for 'witch', and usually have very little if anything to do with the religion of the same name. (Nothing really wrong with that, just an important distinction to be aware of.)

Which leads us to another important topic. Throughout my life, if there has been one thing that I really am, that I really identify as, it is a geek. Above all else, I love fantasy. From Tolkien to Buffy to Final Fantasy to... a myriad works of imagination, many of them drawing upon the myths of ages past. Now, we all know there are certain religious fundamentalists out there preaching the evil of fantasy. Frequently books are blamed as gateways to witchcraft. Of course to these people witchcraft is synonymous with evil and Satan, a stance I obviously strongly disagree with. But is there a kernel of truth there about the connection of fantasy and witchcraft?

Naturally I'd like to think my religion is about just me and my relationship with the universe. But I think it would be naive to claim my decades of love for fantasy hadn't made me more inclined to find interest in a religion laced with mythology, mysticism and the occult. I'm obviously not saying you need to like fantasy in order to be Wiccan, or vice versa, but I suspect there is likely a little more overlap in these two fields than between many other genres and religions.

Even if when starting out popular culture might have made me a little wary, I think in more recent years I've come to embrace it as an inspiration rather than hindrance. So many works of popular culture are among the things I love most in this world, it would be foolish not to draw inspiration from them. So what if they're not always historically accurate or even remotely realistic? That's really not the point. It's about the emotions they instil. These are things that are much more present in most our lives than any ancient deities. It's inevitable that influence should bleed into many other aspects of life, including spirituality. There certainly should be no shame in it.

But why Wicca in particular among all neopagan, occult and other alternative religion movements? Perhaps partly because Wicca is a melting pot, of sorts. It's right there at the centre of the modern neopagan and occult world, drawing influence from many directions. Particularly the way it combines nature oriented pagan sensibilities with western occult tradition has always appealed to me. As I wrote in that earlier post, I found much of traditional occultism a little too complex and abstract, while Wicca's more down-to-earth nature appealed to me. Compared to many other neopagan faiths it is also more general and neutral in nature, not being focused on any particular ancient pantheon.

One of the most difficult questions I've had to tackle over the years, however, is why practise religion at all, when I am, at heart, a naturalistic, empirical person? It has occurred to me that in many ways religion is like a hobby to me. There is nothing forcing me to do it. No culture or tradition coercing me. No promise of an afterlife. No one listening to my prayers. (At least as far as can be confirmed by current scientific evidence—which is plenty enough for me not to waste too much time contemplating such things.) The only real reason I can come up with for practising religion is that I enjoy it. It fascinates me and entertains me. I get to play with beautiful objects and recite lofty, mystic words. It adds a little variety to my life.

But enough of this for now. I wish everyone a great holiday season, whatever their chosen traditions or lack of them!

6 December 2013

Bringing the Calm to Spira (a Decade Late)

Final Fantasy X was released in 2001 for the PlayStation 2. I was by then a huge fan of the series, but I recall not being entirely impressed by the adverts I saw, with their colourful, sunny imagery (give me doom and gloom, please), and (gasp!) sports themes. Of course I eventually bought the game anyway (not really an option not to), although second hand. I played it about halfway through, and then... it crashed. And it crashed over and over again at the same point. I'm guessing a scratch on the disc was to blame. (I must say, though, I've bought plenty of second hand games over the years, and this is the only one I recall ever having problems with.)

Eventually I bought another copy, when the game had a 'Platinum' re-release and was pretty cheap. But of course then I was deep into other games, and the years dragged on... I actually even played the direct sequel, Final Fantasy X-2, a couple years ago (I'm not sure why I picked that instead of the original back then, I guess I was just in the mood for something new, rather than replaying something I still vaguely remembered from a few years ago). Until this autumn when my PS3 broke down and I decided it was a good opportunity to look back at some neglected PS2 titles.

So I begun again, from the beginning, and last night, with close to 60 hours on the game's clock, I finally beat it. And I enjoyed it a lot.

Going into an in-depth analysis of a decade-old game that fans of the series are likely already familiar with probably wouldn't be very worthwhile, but of course I'll have to briefly write about some main points. In a nutshell, it's no Final Fantasy VII, but the story and characters are reasonably interesting and imaginative. One thing of note is the highly linear nature of the game. Unlike previous titles, there's no 'overworld' to explore between 'dungeons', but a steady progression of environments. This bothered me less than I thought it might, I must say. Close to the end you get the option to visit earlier locations again, but I felt little need to do so.

When the series moved from the SNES to the PS1 it took great leaps in technological advancements, featuring 3D polygon characters and detailed pre-rendered backgrounds. Since this was the first title on the PS2, there were naturally new steps forward. Most obviously 3D environments instead of static backgrounds (although you can't control camera angles yourself) and voice acting. The latter is fairly decent for a game of its age. Judging the graphics more than a decade later would be pretty pointless, but lets just say, even if it looks a mite crude and fuzzy today, I had few complaints.

Music has always been a big part of the Final Fantasy franchise, and the music in FFX was... pretty decent, though perhaps not always quite as memorable as many earlier titles. This marked the first time that Nobuo Uematsu was not the sole composer for the game. There are some nice tunes in there, but some bits were... kinda simple and repetitive, I'm afraid.

When I played FFX-2, I was a little disappointed about how easy the game was. I didn't really get that feeling with this game. It was by no means hard, but I did spend some time occasionally levelling up, and some opponents did need at least a little tactical thinking. Speaking of which, the combat system is pretty heavily geared towards tactics. They removed the real-time element of most 90s titles and made it strictly turn-based, and you can also switch party members on the fly at any time. As you have all the time you need to think about your next move, it's all about which character's abilities work best in the situation. The unfortunate side effect of this is that, because only characters who participate in battles gain experience, the strategy of typical battles becomes less about how to best defeat enemies and more about how to involve as many characters as possible. Which can soon get a little tedious.

And yeah, there's a brand new system for levelling up and many other differences from previous titles that would be pointless to delve into now. But Final Fantasy games have always been unique, each one trying out some vastly different systems and settings. There are enough familiar elements to make it a real Final Fantasy, I think.

And though I said I wouldn't go into it very deeply, this post probably ended up just as long as most of my blog video game reviews... Bottom line, I found Final Fantasy X entertaining enough to play through. Like its predecessors, it's a quality JRPG with many innovations, even if it probably won't quite take the place of certain 90s titles in my heart. There's also an HD re-release coming soon for the PS3, but I was happy enough to play the original (and doubt I'll have any need for the new version in the foreseeable future).

4 December 2013

Dark Wings of Steel (Album Review)

My followers might know I'm something of a Rhapsody of Fire fan. Their epic, symphonic sound and multi-album-spanning fantasy saga rather captured my imagination when I was first discovering the world of metal, several years ago.

A couple years ago, however, they wrapped up the story they'd been writing since the band's debut (ten albums in all), and soon after announced the band was splitting in two, with lead guitarist Luca Turilli founding his own band called Luca Turilli's Rhapsody.

I must admit my interest in the band(s) has somewhat waned after these events. But I've still been buying their new albums. I wrote about Luca Turilli's Rhapsody's debut Ascending to Infinity earlier this year. It was an... interesting album, if not quite what I might have hoped for in all ways. And now the remaining members of Rhapsody of Fire have released their first studio work since the split, titled Dark Wings of Steel.

Long-time members Fabio Lione (vocals), Alex Staropoli (keyboards) and Alex Holzwarth (drums) remain in Rhapsody of Fire, while bass duties were taken over by Alex Holzwarth's brother Oliver, and guitars by Roby De Micheli (following Patrice Guers and Luca Turilli's departure). Perhaps largely due to Lione's familiar vocals this still feels like the 'real' Rhapsody to me, so I was particularly interested in what direction they would take. Turilli's skilled guitar playing was of course a major part of the original Rhapsody's sound, but De Micheli does a competent job, I think. There might be less emphasis on neo-classical shredding and a little more focus on heavier riffs, but it's still decent metal.

One of my first impressions when listening to the album was that there seem to be many relatively slow numbers. While there are a few tracks more reminiscent of the fast paced power metal of Rhapsody's early works (like 'Silver Lake of Tears', which is probably one of my favourites off the album), the overall atmosphere seems perhaps a little more atmospheric, even sombre, which is also reflected in the lyrics, now written by singer Lione. Alas, there's no new epic fantasy saga here, but rather more abstract, poetic explorations often dealing with sorrow and melancholy. But the work still remains pretty 'epic' in nature, of course, with its choirs and orchestral arrangements.

Comparing the works of the two Rhapsodies isn't really fair, but can't really be helped, I suppose. Overall, I think Dark Wings of Steel feels like a somewhat more straightforward and cohesive metal album. It's not trying too hard, which maybe works in its favour, although Ascending to Infinity's sometimes over-the-top pomposity is entertaining in its own way, as well... It's interesting really how different these two albums feel while both still clearly displaying their roots.

So yeah, although I rather miss the storytelling of the classic Rhapsody of Fire albums, Dark Wings of Steel isn't a bad little album. I had very little expectations when I bought this album, but I can't really say I'm disappointed. It's obviously not going to live up to the first few albums of the band, and there's certainly room for improvement (particularly in the lyrics, which, alas, failed to make a deep impression on me), but I find myself enjoying listening to the music, which is of course what really counts.

22 November 2013

Going Overboard: Backing The Strange

Over this past year I've blogged about Monte Cook's tabletop RPG Numenera several times. It's a very cool product. (Alas, I still haven't had the chance to play it, though. We have plans for a campaign, but scheduling has proven a little difficult so far.)

One thing I've been a little sorry about was missing the original Kickstarter campaign for that game. People who backed it got some pretty cool stuff, I gather, and probably a pretty fair price for the entire line of books (many of them still upcoming). (Alas, RPG rulebooks these days aren't exactly cheap.)

So cut to last October. Monte Cook Games announced a Kickstarter campaign for a new game, called The Strange, co-developed by Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell, another industry veteran. The game uses the same original system as Numenera, but features an entirely new, and pretty imaginative setting.

For a while I wasn't entirely sure whether I wanted it or not. For one thing, I still hadn't gotten to play Numenera, something I really want to do. And I wasn't entirely sure about whether the setting was quite my thing, in the same way that Numenera was, and is. But of course owning both takes nothing away from the other. And The Strange won't be out until late summer, plenty of time to get that Numenera game finally off the ground. And at best the products can support each other, being based on the same system.

So I decided yeah, actually, I kinda do want in on this. And the more I read about the game, the more interesting it seemed. (Just like browsing the Numenera website last spring really made me want the game.) But then the question remaining was: how much do I want to spend on it? Like all Kickstarters, there's a ton of different backer levels. I spent days mulling over this question.

Because oh my gosh, they are putting out some cool sh*t! Through the many unlocked stretch goals the game line now features, like, eight books, plus additional loot, from dice to t-shirts. So my options were pretty much to get the core rulebook (plus maybe the rest as PDFs—a pretty good, economical option), or to go totally nuts and go for the full experience.

Perhaps it was partly missing out on the Numenera Kickstarter, and the fact that I've never really gone much beyond the more basic backer levels in any past crowdfunding campaigns I've backed (and also the fact that the people at MCG are really great folks who do things like this), that in the end made me go stark raving bonkers.

What I've purchased (or will have purchased when the campaign ends in a little while) is what they're calling the 'MCG Superfan' package. Which includes all the currently announced books in the game line, in print and PDF, including a motherfrakking Kickstarter exclusive leather-bound deluxe version of the corebook, and tons of additional play aids and merchandise (like dice, t-shirt, signed bookplate and art, even a bookbag, and more). Not only that, but it also includes most Monte Cook Games products scheduled for release between now and The Strange's launch next August, including several Numenera sourcebooks, which I'd already considered buying anyway! So yeah, I'm paying a lot of money for this, but I think I'm easily getting my money's worth of stuff.

And one great thing about this is that, since the products are rolled out over a period of time, I should be getting cool stuff periodically over the next year or two! (If the release schedule is anything like Numenera's, probably well into 2015.)

Does it sound like I'm bragging a bit? Maybe just a little. But remember I am actually paying plenty of money for all this stuff, probably a little more than I really should.

As I'm writing this, the campaign has only nine hours to go. Of course, when you read this, it's likely to be less—or you might be years too late. So anyone interested in The Strange better hurry. Of course the game will eventually be available for retail, but Kickstarters only come once. Anyway, I'm looking forward to what should be an interesting couple of years in tabletop gaming...

16 November 2013

A Quickie Trekkie Postie

I'm currently struck by a cold and bored out of my skull, so here's some procrastinatory blogging.

Since last summer I've been watching Star Trek: The Animated Series, at a leisurely pace. Now I'm almost through, with just a couple episodes left. It's a pretty fun show, though kinda campy in many ways.

The series, made in the early 70s, largely follows the original show's premise and style. All the main cast are included and voiced by the original actors. (The only notable exception being the absence of Chekov, who's been replaced by a silly looking alien with an even sillier voice.)

Not being restricted by the special effects constraints of the time, a lot of the stories and creatures are perhaps a little more imaginative than what was seen in TOS. Unfortunately, a lot of the ideas are also a little... far-fetched, scientifically implausible, or just plain dated. (The canon status of the show has been apparently somewhat debated, according to Wikipedia.) But they episodes are still entertaining enough.

The animation... is not the greatest I've seen. Even by 70s standards. There's a lot of clumsy looking movement, and 'cheap' still shots. But hey, it's the stories and dialogue that matter.

So yeah, I think TAS is obviously a must for any Trekkie, but possibly might require a certain... sense of humour and appreciation for camp value to really enjoy.

And I really do need to get some of the other Star Trek series and finally watch them in full one of these days. But money and time are limited... Although I've seen all the movies many times, my knowledge of the shows is, alas, far more spotty. (And it's a shame they haven't made any new Trek content since the early 2000s... Yes, I stand by that statement.)

12 November 2013

The Theory of Everything (Album Review)

Arjen Lucassen's new Ayreon album, The Theory of Everything, was released a couple weeks ago. This was probably the album I'd been most looking forward to for the past year or so, ever since it was announced. So, some very high expectations riding on this one. Does it hold up to the Ayreon name? I think... it probably does.

A double CD, about 90 minutes of music. There's a lot to digest here. And, like all Ayreon albums, it's a concept album, a work you really need to immerse yourself in. So it's perhaps not one of the most approachable works out there.

Getting into the music itself, the first observation: it sounds like Ayreon. No doubt about it. All the familiar elements of the sound are there. But of course each Ayreon album has also been a unique work in many ways, musically and thematically, and The Theory of Everything is no exception. The most obvious way it differs from its predecessors is in structure. The album is made up of four long suits, composed of relatively short segments. There's very little in the way of repeated choruses or the like. It's all very... well, progressive. Listening for the first time, I kinda found the short segments just a little jarring. You need to relax and let the music flow together, form a larger whole, as intended. And there are some awesome moments in there, ranging from serene beauty to thrilling, fast-paced riffs. This is pure prog rock at its best.

There are 'only' seven singers on The Theory of Everything (which is a small number compared to the previous Ayreon album). The performances are, of course, top notch, as per usual. (Arjen Lucassen himself doesn't have a singing role on the album this time.)

Which brings us to the story. The Theory of Everything isn't directly related to any of the previous Ayreon albums. It tells the story of a young man who is exceptionally gifted, but emotionally and socially crippled. It's about his relationships with the people closest to him, and also about the dangers of psychoactive medication. And science, of course. There's a bit of a twist ending, too, that almost gives the story the air of a Gothic mystery, with its isolated location, and... well, no spoilers. Like something from Poe, or something, if he'd lived in the modern world and, like, been into quantum physics and stuff...

To be perfectly honest, I think I might have preferred another epic sci-fi adventure like Into the Electric Castle or 01011001, exploring the universe established in the previous Ayreon albums. But the story's still entertaining, and I particularly liked the ending, which, in some ways, was the real clincher for me, making the story something more than mere relationship drama.

Ayreon albums have always been described as 'rock operas', and this one is no different, perhaps even pushing a little more towards an operatic approach to lyrics. There are virtually no rhymes, very little in the way of what could be called choruses. It's practically entirely composed of the characters' dialogue. The booklet features short prose segments before each segment, explaining what's going on in the scene. This is a good thing, I think, and makes the story easier to follow.

I got the limited edition mediabook version of the album, which also features a bonus DVD with a making of documentary and extended interviews of Arjen and other participants. Which is a great bit of added value. Ayreon is such a unique music project in many ways, it's quite interesting to get a little peek behind the scenes.

So, all in all, The Theory of Everything is another epic, impressive creation from the very talented Arjen Lucassen. It's a big, complex work, that will require many listens to really appreciate, I think. It's not an album of catchy hooks and choruses, but it has lots of depth. I'll refrain from trying to rank it against other Ayreon albums, there would really be no point. But I expect to listen to this album plenty of times in the future.

11 November 2013

A Quickie Webcomic Update (Featuring Gunnerkrigg Court)

I've written about webcomics I read several times in the past. Having just added one new comic to my reading roster, I thought I'd write a quick update about some of my favourites from the comics I follow.

First of all, the new one: Gunnerkrigg Court. This comic has been going for a while already, with some 1200 pages of archives (which I devoured in a few evenings last week, as tends to be the case whenever I discover a new webcomic I like). It's about kids in a strange school. A comparison with Harry Potter naturally arises, and yes, it might be slightly like Harry Potter, if Harry Potter had been, you know, actually cool and original! With robots and stuff! It's a pretty imaginative story, with plenty of humour, although it also has more serious, even tragic elements.

OK, so onwards to a few other comics I really enjoy, and think others might as well. Not in any particular order. (Most of these I've probably mentioned before in my blog.)

Girl Genius, the ultimate steampunk science fantasy tale.

Looking for Group, a frequently hilarious high fantasy adventure.

Weregeek, a comic about geeks, mixing up both their lives and the roleplaying games they play.

Questionable Content, a comic about, well, people, and relationships, and stuff. With a bit of sci-fi thrown in, occasionally. And any description I write can't really do it justice.

Goblins, a comic that started out as a fairly simple D&D parody, but has featured some very cool and original (and occasionally gory) storylines. (Alas, the release schedule lately has been a little scarce, and the published pages haven't always been quite finished, but it's still a great comic.)

You'll notice these are mostly comics that tell ongoing stories. And mostly fantasy. Which says a lot about my taste. There's a handful of other stuff I follow, including classic strips like xkcd or Dork Tower, but what I really appreciate is a good, imaginative story.

Sadly, my own comic, Escape from Lowresia, has now been on hiatus for more than a year. I always meant to get back to it, but I just haven't found the energy or motivation for it (it's not like I made any money out of it or anything, and during its first year I didn't exactly manage to get a huge following). Never say never, but I don't see it happening in the very near future. The archives are still up for all to read, though.

4 November 2013

Of Dark Novembers and Lonely Milestones

I thought a long time about whether this blog post is something I actually want to write. The topic is deeply personal, I doubt it's of much interest to anyone, and it's also largely about things I have little power over, so whingeing is really of little use. But this particular anniversary has been weighing on my mind, on and off, as the autumn has progressed, and writing is one way to process thoughts and feelings. Be warned, though—personal, gloomy thoughts lie ahead...

I don't remember the exact date, but I recall it was sometime in mid-November when she told me she wanted a break. Or, at least, that's the word that was used at the time—a 'break', never a 'break up'. But the break grew longer and eventually we just drifted apart. I took it pretty hard at the time, but in hindsight it was doomed to happen, sooner or later. Things hadn't been perfect for a while, and we were obviously both too young for a committed relationship.

That was fifteen years ago. Fifteen. F*cking. Years. Which, in itself, is a frightening thought. Where has the time gone?

Those events long ago aren't the reason I'm writing this, though. It's those fifteen years and what's happened during them. Or more precisely, what hasn't happened. The fact is, I'm still single, and have been for all those long years.

Let me share another memory. Several years ago (I really don't remember when exactly), a friend on Facebook announced she was in a relationship. There's no reason that should have affected me much. It's life. People's relationship statuses change all the time. It wasn't like I had any real interest in the matter. Sure, I'd always thought the person in question was pretty, and at some time there could have been the slightest of crushes, but never anything serious. But I remember that reading that update was like an epiphany. It just hit me at that moment, and I knew it with absolute certainty: it would never be me. I'd never be more than a friend. Simple as that.

The years since have done nothing to convince me otherwise. Some might call me pessimistic. But I think most of those are people who are in relationships, or at least have been in a relationship at some point during the last fifteen years. Because at this stage in my life, the majority of the people I know actually are in relationships (which doesn't make being alone any easier, or increase the odds of ever not being alone). I do think I speak from some experience when I state my doubts about future romantic prospects.

Why is it then that I'm alone? That's a complicated question. It's obviously not any one reason. I guess you can sum up a lot of it in the good old 'haven't met the right person' platitude. I have for a long time identified myself as an introvert. I don't meet a lot of people, in general, and I certainly have no interest in meeting people just for the sake of it. I have a reasonably steady circle of friends I share activities with, and that's pretty much all I need, or want.

I've certainly grown more cynical over the years. But I have to wonder whether I've always been this introverted or whether those tendencies as well have increased with time. I think I tend to steer away from social situations more than I did, say, in my early twenties. But perhaps that's simply because experience has taught me what things I actually enjoy in life, and I avoid things that are less interesting?

There are many other factors as well, of course. I'm well aware of my many shortcomings. I'm hardly what you'd call a looker. Shaggy appearance, awkward demeanour, lousy articulation. (And there's my less than flattering life situation as a 30-something student, still living with his parents, with almost no income. I don't want to use the word 'loser', but...) Some might be quick to point out such things don't really matter, but I think that's a little naive. At the very least they matter when making first impressions. And, like it or not, first impressions are important.

Then there's also the question of whether I actually want to be in a relationship. Often I'm not at all convinced. I need a lot of space and time on my own (again, the introvert thing). I find the idea of planning my life always (or even occasionally) having to take someone else into consideration... extremely troubling, to say the least. (I'm quite selfish in some ways. That's a trait I fully admit.) But then again there are of course things I miss. A lot. Living a life utterly void of intimacy, either emotional or physical, can be pretty f*cking (no pun intended) hard, at times.

Some of my most treasured memories from that period of my life beyond fifteen years ago are of walks, holding hands, on dark, cold, damp autumn nights. Much like this night, in fact. I still think autumn is the most romantic season. There's nothing quite like cold and gloom to make you feel and appreciate another person's warmth. And it's most likely in the autumn that I most miss that feeling.

It's a bittersweet time of the year, in many ways. I do find a kind of pleasure in nostalgia and melancholy. 'Better to have love and lost', they say, and sometimes I agree, wholeheartedly, but sometimes I curse those memories of things I can't have. Like a tantalizing, half-remembered dream, they haunt me...

And there you have it. This tragedy of mine, which, in the greater scheme of things, really isn't that great a tragedy at all. I'm used to being on my own, and often, like I indicated, I might actually prefer it. Often, but not always... My friends can continue to expect the occasional wistful, gloomy poems and status updates, the sharing of melancholy songs, etc. 'Cause sometimes you need to vent, and the options, alas, are somewhat limited...

27 October 2013

Remembering Smokey and the Bandit

A lot of death in the news today. A lot of people are obviously clamouring about Lou Reed. I must say I know very little about him, or his music. It's OK, I guess, but I never really got into it. Some are mentioning Marcia Wallace. Now her work I do know, though the person behind it not so much. I'm a huge fan of The Simpsons. It's a tragic loss for the show.

But far fewer, I think, in my circles at least, are mentioning Hal Needham.

Now, I must admit, I know even less about this guy than Reed. Without context I wouldn't have recognised the name or paid it any attention. Apparently he was a prolific stuntman back in the day. But he was also a director. Back in the 70s he directed a little film called Smokey and the Bandit.

And man, it's been ages since I saw that movie. But I remember loving it, way back when.

While ostensibly set in the real world, I always felt it was kind of a fantasy movie. It seemed to build this magical world all of its own, a world of cool truckers and their cool radio handles and chatter and moving, living, spontaneous communities. (I don't know how much of it is based on actual trucker life in that era, but I expect it must be greatly exaggerated and romanticised.)

It is a movie of good, simple fun. A real, honest-to-goodness romp.

It's a movie about cars and driving. Several of the movies Needham directed seem to be about cars. I'm honestly not a car person. I don't have a driver's license. I've never had any interest in driving. (Well, not since I was a little kid, anyway.) So it seems pretty weird how some car movies just capture the imagination and pull you along for a thrilling ride.

I can't really think of a fitting ending to this post, so I'll just say goodnight. I'd raise a beer to the Bandit, and Mr Needham, if I had one. But I don't.

24 October 2013

How Do Demons Possess Me? Let Me Count the Ways

There's a picture of a supposed fundamentalist tract listing a bunch of ridiculous (and many of them geeky) things that are supposedly 'doorways to demonic possession', which has been doing the social media rounds over the last year or so. You can see the picture for example in this Huffington Post article.

First of all, it is a fake. It's part of a parody pamphlet printed to promote a short film called Ivy League Exorcist: The Bobby Jindal Story. (You can watch it on YouTube. It's kinda funny. And you can also see the full pamphlet here.)

Even as a fake, it's pretty hilarious. Friends on social media have had fun counting all the various evils they've committed. It would be even more hilarious if it were actually genuine. Well, kinda funny and not funny at the same time. But of course it is inspired by the very real garbage that fundamentalist groups spew out all the time...

So, just for kicks, I thought I'd analyse all my past and present endeavours that have left me vulnerable to demonic possession.

Things from the list I consider I have practised, or 'taken part in', at some point, whether briefly or extensively:
  1. New Age religions (kinda borderline, but I think things like Wicca qualify)
  2. Church of Satan (not the organisation itself, but Anton LaVey's writings should be of interest to anyone interested in the occult, even if one doesn't agree with all he says—oh, and for the record, I have actually in the past, in my more chaotic period, tried out rituals loosely based on material from the Satanic Bible, so I'm counting this one, even if it's not a path I ended up choosing)
  3. Astrology
  4. Tarot cards
  5. Earth Worship (again rather ambiguous, but I think Wicca qualifies)
  6. Wicca (yes, as I wrote in a blog post not too long ago, I identify as Wiccan, and basically all other spiritual topics in this list are variations and branchings out of that interest) 
  7. Divination (well duh, since astrology and tarot were already mentioned)
  8. Meditation (I'm really much too impatient for it, but I try)
  9. Postmodernism (to be honest, I've never been entirely sure what postmodernism even really is, but then again, I'm not sure anyone else really understands it either)
  10. Kabbalah
  11. LOTR (dudes, at one time in my life I was the friggin' president of the Finnish Tolkien Society—that must make me, like, the king of evil)
  12. Alt "comix" (um, don't know what's up with the spelling and quotes, but I'm assuming reading any so-called alternative comics counts—it's a pretty wide field)
  13. Video games
  14. Harry Potter (I've only seen the movies, but I guess that counts)
  15. Dungeons & Dragons
  16. Halloween (my favourite holiday!)
  17. Fornication (yeah, I, too, was young once)
  18. Rock music
  19. Heavy metal (hell yeah, and I regularly make the sign of the horns with my fingers, too—that must make me truly demonic, right?)

Which makes a total of 19 doorways for demonic possession. There's actually a lot of overlap there, particularly in the various spiritual practices, but since they're listed individually, I'm counting them all.

Then there are things that I've been interested in at times, and read a reasonable amount about, but wouldn't say I've actually practised, so I'm not sure about counting them. Some are things I encounter frequently in fiction, role-playing games and the like, but since the list doesn't specify fiction I'm putting them in this category. (This would include things like vampirism or lycanthropy, which unsurprisingly enough I haven't actually taken part in IRL.) Some of these borderline things would include at least:
  1. Eastern religions (I've been interested in stuff like Zen Buddhism for, like, forever, but neopaganism proved much more suited to my nature)
  2. Cyberpunk culture (I love cyberpunk as a genre, but I wouldn't say I'm part of any cyberpunk culture)
  3. Lycanthropy (gotta love werewolves—but no, I'm not actually one)
  4. Vampirism (nope, I've never drunk blood, or bitten anyone—in earnest, anyway)
  5. Goth culture (I like dark aesthetics, I wear a lot of black, even paint my nails—but still I wouldn't exactly call myself a goth, even on my best days I probably look more like a hippie)

Which makes another five things that while perhaps not open doorways to demonic possession, are at least slightly ajar. And many other topics I've obviously also read about, though not perhaps with quite so much interest. And there are some just too ambiguous. Like I'm not sure if Skull & Bones refers to the Yale secret society, the Cypress Hill album or actual decorations (skull designs I've worn on clothing and stuff, but since it's capitalised, I'm assuming one of the former, neither of which I know much about).

Boy, it must be really crowded in my head with all those demons in there...

23 October 2013

October's Rest (A Poem)

it begins in the morning
with grey skies, laden with sighs
and a sigh escapes
in counted syllables:

'The greyness takes me
To darker depths, and mem'ries.
And don't I love it...'

yes, October
is falling heavy on me
smothering, slowly
with its darksome love
that scrapes like bare branches
and cushions your fall with leaves
but leaves you there
to rot

and I look up
to see the trees
so many already leafless
and isn't it just like
the love in my soul?

so I lie
not dead
not sleeping
not lazy
just...
resting

12 October 2013

A Word on Boardgames and a Related Web Series

Not too long ago I wrote a blog post dealing with my love-hate relationship with things like collectible card games and eSports. In a nutshell, I said I tend to find them fascinating as geek phenomena—and interesting to watch, for moderate periods of time—but much too boring, repetitive or stressful to actually participate in. Here's a little addendum, regarding more recent activities.

I only very briefly alluded to boardgames, but everything I said applies equally to them. I just do not like to play boardgames. Or, as I believe the word should actually be spelled, 'bored games'. I tend to find them either really boring, repetitive or limited in scope, or competitive and/or stressful in a way that I really don't like. I think there was a time in my youth when I was more open toward different types of gaming, but as I grow older I seem to steer more and more clear from that type of thing. I've got better things to do with my time, like playing a cool video game or roleplaying game.

Cut to the present. Apparently I managed to acquire some slight cold symptoms, so I decided to have a couple lazy, unproductive days (as opposed to the unintentionally unproductive days that take up most of my time). I'm not sure exactly how it happened, but looking on YouTube for something to kill time with, I ended up watching an episode of Wil Wheaton's show Tabletop. I've watched, and enjoyed, a bunch of stuff from the Geek & Sundry channel, but, believe it or not, had never watched a single episode of Tabletop. Mostly for the reasons outlined above, i.e. how I really don't like boardgames. But somehow over the course of a few days I ended up watching the Entire. Friggin'. Series. That's, like, thirty episodes to date.

Um, yeah, if you don't, for some reason, know what Tabletop is, it's a show, on YouTube, where in each episode Wil Wheaton plays a board game (or card game or occasionally a tabletop RPG) with a bunch of guests. It's a surprisingly fun thing to watch. The guests are cool. The banter is funny. The games are... well, some are more interesting than others, but the people make even the ones I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole in real life fun to watch.

And no, the experience has not made me, even remotely, want to play boardgames any more than before. Like I said, some things are interesting as phenomena, and cool to watch, in moderate doses.

And... I guess that's about all I had to say about that. Now I gotta think of something to do the rest of the weekend...

7 October 2013

A Game within a Game: Kingdom Building in Pathfinder

Today's turning out to be a headachy, unproductive kinda day, so maybe I'll procrastinate a moment writing about my RPG experience last weekend. (It's not that rare for me to get a headache after an RPG session, dunno if it's caused by stress or what. This one turned out to be a real whopper, lasting into the next day as well. But I digress.)

This was the first session of my Pathfinder campaign in several months. In the previous session, the party got their hands on a Deck of Many Things, which is a pretty hilarious thing to unleash on unsuspecting players. As a result the party's wizard suddenly had a brand new castle at his disposal. We decided that it might actually be pretty interesting to skip several levels—none of us had previously played a D&D style game at very high levels—and the new castle was a perfect excuse to fast-forward a few years of game time, as the party settled down and focused on building their own realm.

As it happens, last spring Paizo released the Pathfinder sourcebook Ultimate Campaign, which, among other things, contained rules for running player led kingdoms and mass combat. (I haven't actually managed to purchase this book yet, but, like all the core Pathfinder rules, the content, under the Open Game License, can be read for free at Paizo's website, and other sources.)

I hadn't originally thought of utilising these rules, as I generally abhor overly complicating games with various systems, but in the days preceding Sunday's session I decided to read through them anyway, and thought it might be fun to try them out. So I spent Saturday putting together a simple realm for the players. Normally this would be something the players start from scratch, but I felt this would take up too much time in the current circumstances, and we'd agreed on fast-forwarding several years, so I opted to give them a kingdom that already had a decent amount of resources at its disposal.

Kingdom building using these rules is basically an entire game of its own, not entirely unlike certain computer strategy games. It's played in turns of one month of game time. Each turn you can claim new hexes on a map and build things like mines, farms and settlements in those hexes to provide income. A kingdom has three basic attributes—Economy, Loyalty and Stability—which are used in rolls in various circumstances. These attributes increase primarily by constructing new buildings in your settlements, which you place on a district grid of six by six 'lots'. (For instance, you could build a bank, which adds 4 to your Economy attribute.) Each turn there's also a chance of a random event taking place. Each player character takes on a particular role in the kingdom's leadership—ruler, general, spymaster or whatever—which grants bonuses to the kingdom's attributes based on the characters' ability modifiers.

Naturally the system is meant to be interspersed with more traditional adventuring, whether exploring new lands to claim, engaging in diplomacy or dealing with threats to the kingdom. We didn't actually get around to anything like that this time—the session was more about getting to grips with the new system, and also doing some finishing touches on the updated characters, which took up some time. This should change in the future, though. I hope. Running the kingdom for the first time was pretty fun, but I think on its own it would get pretty repetitive fairly soon.

An aspect of the system we didn't have a chance to try out yet were the mass combat rules. I had prepared stats for a few army units recruited by the players' kingdom—and some potential enemies that they know little about as of yet—but the timing wasn't opportune this time. I'm sure this will be a feature in future sessions, though. I've dreaded the idea of running combat in a situation where the characters would realistically have a large number of NPC allies fighting with them. Running such scenes as mass combat would certainly simplify things a lot. The system is quite simple and abstract, compared to regular Pathfinder combat. Army units are defined by just offence and defence values (and HP, of course), determined by the unit's size and the Challenge Rating of the creatures it's made up of. (There are special abilities and tactics to spice things up, of course, but overall it's still a pretty simple and straightforward system.)

Of course I still want to have the characters engage in traditional combat as well. That is, after all, the heart of Pathfinder. But getting them into suitable situations at this stage of the campaign is something of a challenge...

So, in a nutshell, for a more tactical experience, the kingdom rules from Ultimate Campaign are certainly an interesting thing to try out. Finding the right balance between a more game-like experience and a storytelling experience can prove to be something of a challenge, however. Only time will tell how I manage to work it out in this campaign.

(Oh, as a side note, Sunday's experience inspired me to create a spreadsheet in Google Drive to keep track of our kingdom's attributes. After just a few turns of running the kingdom, it was clear that there was enough erasing and recalculating to make keeping track of things on the paper sheet provided by Paizo bloody annoying. Strangely enough, despite being something of a lifelong computer geek, I have no recollection of actually ever making a spreadsheet before. It just hasn't been something I've ever had a need for in my day-to-day existence. But you live and learn...)

2 October 2013

Numenera Second Impression, or, the Dead Trees vs the Electric Pixels

Today, at long last, I received my print copy of Monte Cook's new roleplaying game Numenera!

This was about two months after I got the PDF version (here's the blog of my first impressions). I must admit that was a good deal longer than I expected or hoped, considering I pre-ordered the game back in May and they had the release slated for August. But then again, pre-orderers (and Kickstarter backers) got access to the PDF for no additional cost and before the game's general release, so I guess that does somewhat balance it out. And I know this has been a very busy autumn for Monte Cook Games, which is still a relatively small company, what with the hugely successful Kickstarter campaign for this game and all.

But on to the book itself. I've written in the past about how I love good looking, sturdy RPG volumes. This is definitely one of those.

Browsing the PDF over the past couple months, I thought the game looked pretty good. Then I finally had the book in my hands, flipped through a few pages, and... there is just no comparison. I was actually quite surprised by how different the experience felt. These are all pages I've seen before, yet the pictures and decorations, even the text itself, seem to come alive in a way they never can on a cold, electronic screen. Oh, and there's even that new book smell!

I'm not saying it's, like, the best looking game of all time or anything. The aesthetic quality of RPG rulebooks these days is, by and large, pretty strong, I have to say. High end releases, as a rule, tend to be quality full colour hardback volumes. Game publishers put a lot of work in making their products look appealing (though of course there's also a lot of cheaper indie stuff out there, whose creators simply don't have the resources). Numenera, however, does not pale in comparison to my other favourite games, not by any means. The aesthetics coupled with a great setting and an innovative system definitely make it the book of the year for me. Of the decade? Time will tell...

There are purely practical considerations, as well, when thinking about print versus ebook. Being able to take in a whole two page spread at once, rather than scrolling through pages in a typical PDF viewer. Being able to quickly flip from one part to another. I just find it a much more pleasant experience, overall, and obviously less stressful for my eyes.

Bottom line, when it comes to RPG books—or almost any books, come to think of it—I still think print beats ebooks any day.

Now, I still haven't actually played the game, but preparation for a campaign has been under way for a little while. I expect I'll write more once I actually have some experience with it.

29 September 2013

Card Hunter First Impressions

Being currently without a PS3, I've had to turn elsewhere for my gaming needs. I'd heard about the free browser (Flash) game Card Hunter a few times, so I decided to give it a go. It turned out surprisingly addicting, and I've played it a whole bunch over the past couple days.

It's a pretty weird concept—basically, a collectible card game that emulates oldschool tabletop roleplaying games. You've got a party of three adventurers, represented as figures on a board. Each character has a hand of cards, and you play the cards, one at a time, to move, attack etc. You build the decks of each character by equipping items, mostly earned as loot by winning battles. Each item you equip adds a few cards to the character's deck. It's a pretty interesting and original system.

Battles are presented as adventure modules. The stories have about as much depth as you'd expect—mostly your basic 'go kill the monsters terrorising the village' type fare. There's also a 'meta' element to the storytelling, with the GM of the fictional RPG you're playing, called Gary, commenting on things. Naturally there's a multiplayer mode, too, but I haven't really tried that out—online multiplayer not really my thing, as I've frequently stated in my blog posts.

It's very much a tactical game. Being a card based game, every battle is unique, depending on the luck of the draw. It's all about making the best of the cards at your disposal. This makes even repeating adventures for more experience a little more interesting.

As I said, Card Hunter is free to play. Naturally, like many free to play games, it uses a micro-transaction model. They say they strive to keep the game interesting for both paying and un-paying customers alike, though, and at least thus far I've been happy enough with the free content.

I've tried a few free CCG type video games in the past, mostly on my Android phone. Mostly these turned out to be really boring, with minimalistic gameplay, and obviously geared towards getting people to pay for additional content. Card Hunter seems to be quite different from those games, with a much more in-depth game system and plenty of free content. Well, at least for now.

I've only been playing for a few days, so it's impossible to say how long the appeal of this game will last. But even if I were to quit tomorrow, any game that keeps you entertained for several days for free is a good thing in my book.

25 September 2013

The Passing of an Old Friend (Another Sh*t, Another Fan)

Yesterday was a Bad Day. One of the things I most dread happened. My PlayStation 3 broke down.

I'd finished Brütal Legend the previous day, but was still excited enough about the game to go and buy some DLC and was going to start the game again. I'd barely gotten started when suddenly the screen froze for a moment, and then the console just shut down. Now when I try to start it, it just beeps and begins flashing a red light.

From googling it sounds like this could be the 'Yellow Light of Death' problem (which, from what I understand, could be caused by any number of general hardware failure, but is apparently often caused by deterioration of thermal paste). There's not much I can do about it myself. I'm no electrician. There are some quick fix guides around that have you heat the console with a hair dryer, but this appears to be unreliable at best and often only a temporary fix, so I'm not overly keen to try it.

I can't afford a replacement or repairs for a few months at least. So basically I'm screwed.

I guess I'll just have to dust off the old PS2 for the time being. I mean, there's a bunch of games I could be playing on it. Old favourites long overdue a revisit, and games I've bought over the years but never got around to playing. It's just that having recently played almost exclusively on the PS3 (OK, so I played some Mario on the Wii recently, but that's an exception to the rule), I expect the transition to be rather jarring. The low resolution, the 4:3 aspect ratio, the noise (really, the fan on the older model PS2 is bloody loud)...

The PS3 also functioned as my primary DVD player. The PS2 can play DVDs, of course, but I expect the quality of the experience to be poorer (largely for the same reasons that the gaming experience is likely to be poorer).

Of course with the luck I'm having the PS2 might just... explode or whatever.

While I do have a bunch of PC games waiting to be played (mostly stuff from the Humble Indie Bundles), gaming on my current PC isn't really an option. I've had way too many problems, particularly with graphics drivers, to even consider it right now...

Tonight, though, I'm just killing time blogging and stuff. And listening to sad music. And having a couple drinks. I think I deserve it. Here's to the passing of an old friend!

24 September 2013

Brütal Legend

When I first heard about Brütal Legend a few years back, I was pretty intrigued. However, the demo wasn't quite impressive enough for me to pay a lot of money for the game when it came out. But I eventually picked it up for the PS3, when I ran into it at a bargain price. It's been lying around waiting for quite some time, until a few days ago I finally decided to give it a try. (It was also included in the latest Humble Indie Bundle, so I actually own it twice, now. But the console is always the first choice for me.)

Brütal Legend is a game for metal fans. The story is about Eddie Riggs, the world's greatest roadie, who after an accident on stage finds himself in a strange, post-apocalyptic-ish world filled with heavy metal clichés, where a small group of humans is fighting a rebellion against their demon overlords. Eddie, with his knack for organising and building things, quickly finds himself in a leading role in the coming war, and it turns out music has special power in this world... There are of course tons of references and tributes to metal bands and culture, some of which I'm sure went over my head, as I'm not that familiar with oldschool heavy metal.

The game itself is a rather eccentric mix of hack and slash, real time strategy, driving and open world exploration. You can roam the world freely, either by foot or in your fancy hotrod. There's the typical plot and secondary missions, typically involving getting from point A to B while killing stuff in your way, escorting a character or vehicle, or whatever. You'll earn points to buy upgrades, search for hidden items that tell you some backstory or provide new abilities, etc. Pretty standard hack and slash fare. However, many of the most important missions are what are called 'stage battles'. You square off against an enemy over a battlefield, with a 'stage' at each end. You'll have to buy and command units to fight enemy units, capture energy sources, which allow you to buy more units, upgrade your stage to get better units etc. You can still fight yourself, in the usual way, and also team up with your units for unique special attacks...

It's a pretty interesting system, with a surprising amount of depth, for a game which at first glance may appear like just another hack and slash title. And, for someone like me with very little RTS experience, it can also be a little overwhelming. I played the game on the easiest setting, and for most of it I had very little trouble (in fact some parts felt almost too easy, but I never got around to changing difficulty). However, the last couple stage battles turned out to be pretty tough, and just wiped me out first time I tried them. I must admit I succumbed to reading hints from a walkthrough, something that always hurts my pride. Dying a few times would be no problem, it's to be expected (and you don't want a game to be too easy), but when you're wiped out after the end of a long, intense battle and have to start all over again, it can be pretty stressful...

So, you have an open world to explore, but this certainly ain't no Skyrim. You can beat the single player campaign in less than ten hours. Maybe a few more if you spend a lot of time exploring. However, with the relatively robust real time strategy system, it comes as no surprise that there's also a multiplayer mode that allows you to play these stage battles online against other players, or practise against an AI opponent. You can choose from three factions (one of them being the one you control in the single player game, the other two enemies from the game). I don't see myself spending too much time playing that, though, since RTS has never really been my thing, and I have little interest in playing online...

The game is a few years old already, and visually it's probably not the most detailed around. The graphics do the job well enough, though, and the environments look pretty unique and interesting. However, on the sound side, as might expected, Brütal Legend, well, rocks... There's a soundtrack made up of dozens of classic metal songs, from a variety of sub-genres. And talk about a star-studded cast. Eddie himself is voiced by Jack Black, while the demon emperor is none other than Tim Curry. And several metal stars make an appearance, including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmister, Rob Halford and Lita Ford.

Both as a metal fan and a gamer I found Brütal Legend quite fun and interesting, despite the slight stressfulness of the final battles. The variety of different gameplay elements was quite interesting, and, though I'm still no huge fan of RTS games, I'm kinda glad this game 'made' me try out that style of playing, for a change. (Interestingly, this comes just after my previous blog post where I wrote about how I find eSports style games boring.) The only real complaint would be the short length of the game. But then again you can probably get it pretty cheap these days. (Actually, as I write this, you've still got a day or so to get the PC version really cheap at Humble Bundle, and support charity while doing so.)

20 September 2013

On Card Games and eSports: A Love-Hate Story

The Geek & Sundry channel on YouTube hosts a lot of pretty cool web shows. (Currently ongoing shows of note include the hilarious sci-fi animation Outlands, and Co-Optitude, where Felicia Day and her brother Ryon play retro video games). They recently premiered a new show called Spellslingers where people play Magic: The Gathering. It seems like a fun enough way to kill 20 minutes, even if you're not really into the game (though obviously knowing the basics makes it easier to follow).

I played a little Magic back in the 90s. Still have some cards around somewhere, though I never had a huge collection. I haven't played it in years, and honestly I didn't play much even back in the early days. Never really got, like, really into it.

Still, watching a show like Spellslingers, I can't help thinking that this all looks pretty cool. It's kinda similar to when I watch certain eSports. Like earlier this year I happened to catch a live stream of the final of some League of Legends tournament. I'd never played any MOBA game, so I actually got inspired enough to download Heroes of Newerth, 'cause it was free and worked in GNU/Linux. I think I managed to just about play through the tutorial before I remembered why I don't, in fact, play these sort of games.

Mostly because they're #¤%&ing boring, that's why.

No disrespect meant towards people who like those type of games. But competitive gaming just isn't my thing. Even casually, for fun.

When I play video games, I prefer games that tell great stories and/or provide interesting, and varied, challenges suited to my own skills.

When I play with other people, I prefer roleplaying games, where people work together rather than against each other and each session is something new, because they are actually stories more than they are games.

Games like Magic: The Gathering (and really any card games, miniature games, board games etc.) or League of Legends (and any eSports) are based on repeating the same basic formula, ad infinitum. They're about mastering the variables within that restricted formula. And I can see how that can appeal to some people. But I've always been a big picture person more than a detail person, and a game that's all about the details will soon bore me.

Oh yeah, and there's also the fact that I'm crap at any games that require actual skill. And I really hate to lose. It makes me feel all... talentless and inadequate.

So, in summation, some things can be fascinating as concepts and phenomena, even fun to watch, in limited doses, but not necessarily something I'd personally want to be involved in. Over the years I've been forced to realise that, even though I think of myself as a gamer, a not insignificant portion of gaming culture actually belongs to this category. A part of me is a little sorry I can't find more joy in these things. But in the end I think it's more important to find the things that you do enjoy and focus on them.

10 September 2013

Me and the Black

Some mostly procrastinatory meanderings on music (and stuff) follow...

Black metal... It's still kind of a bogeyman on the fringes of the metal world, isn't it?

I wouldn't say I actually listen to black metal. At least not what hardcore black metal fans would call black metal. But I do enjoy some bands that have roots in black metal or have been influenced by the sound. Some, like Cradle of Filth and Bal-Sagoth, are among my very favourite bands these days—but I certainly wouldn't classify either of them as black metal, they're pretty far removed from it both musically and lyrically.

There are probably many reasons why I haven't listened to much 'true' black metal. Perhaps most importantly, I listen to artists that, for some reason or other, appeal to me. I mean, well... duh, what else would I listen to? But there's no clear explanation for why one does and another doesn't appeal. It's not about genre. I enjoy artists from many different genres (and also many that are hard to classify). I don't listen to any genre simply for the sake of it, each artist is an entity of its own. Most artists I really love have a rather unique sound, something that no one else quite replicates. (This applies to both Cradle of Filth and Bal-Sagoth I named above.)

When it comes to black metal specifically, I must admit I'm also a little bothered by the negativity often associated with the scene, especially in the early days. The history section of the Wikipedia article on the genre is pretty grim reading. Church burnings, murders, Nazism etc. Satanism, in and of itself, doesn't bother me—I actually think it can be a positive force, like almost any other faith, if approached intelligently—but if it's only used as an excuse to attack others, I have a problem with it (just as much as I have a problem with people using Christianity as an excuse for hatred). I generally believe it is more productive to be pro one thing than anti something else. And I strongly believe in an individual's right to be what they choose—as long as they cause no harm to others—whether that's a Christian, Satanist or anything else.

(Then there's also the negative sentiment some hardcore black metal fans seem to have towards other genres, criticising artists they view as 'commercial' and the like. Which is obviously just bollocks, neither genre or success can ever define something's worth.)

Of course it can be argued that music (or any art) is independent of the people who made it. And a lot of people, I'm sure, perhaps even the majority of black metal fans, probably take it as simple shock value, rather than serious ideology (not that all black metal bands, even from the early days, necessarily have truly negative ideologies). And that's absolutely fine. Still, I can't help contemplating such things, and tend to steer away from artists that seem to display genuine hatred or aggression towards things I don't necessarily believe deserve it. It's just not my thing.

These days, of course, it's a much more diverse field than, say, in the early 90s. There are a lot of bands out there that have been influenced by the sound and energy of black metal, but not necessarily the culture or values. It's mostly these artists that I've been looking into recently, as, for whatever reason, I found myself in the mood for black-ish metal once again. One band that's piqued my interest is Wolves in the Throne Room, an American band with values (as I understand it) rooted mainly in environmentalism (though their lyrics can be fairly obscure), and a sound that is at once hypnotic and intense. There seems to be some overlap with these newer bands and the post-rock/post-metal genres, which I find quite interesting.

As black metal still remains a fairly underground phenomenon, it can be hard to find actually interesting artists. Like in any genre, there's a lot of rubbish out there, and bands that sound very alike. Like I said, I need my favourites to have something unique about them. However, there are gems to be found in almost any genre, and it never hurts to look at (and listen to) new things.

I'm not sure what the point of this blog post was, exactly. I guess it boils down to two things. One, listen to what you bloody well please, and two, be nice to people, regardless of different tastes.

5 September 2013

DOOMed (on the PS3)

I just finished playing through Doom and Doom II on my PS3. The port, titled Doom Classic Complete, has been out for a while now, but I'd been waiting for it to come on sale before purchasing it. Which, a little while back, it did.

I've never been a huge first person shooter fan, but Doom is something of a timeless classic. I played it some in the 90s, and I've returned to it every now and then, trying various ports for modern platforms. I was never any good at it, and often I'd just play one episode (on a relatively easy setting) and move on to other games. But it's always been there, since I was a teenager. There aren't too many games that can really claim that.

I never had any of the sequels and expansions back in the day. Doom Classic Complete, however, as the name suggests, collects all the first generation Doom games (Doom, Doom II: Hell on Earth, Doom II: Master Levels, Doom II: No Rest for the Living, and Final Doom). So I figured it was about time to try them out. That's a lot of Doom to play. Not gonna run out of levels any time soon. (After wrapping up Doom II, though, I'm gonna take a break for a while and play other stuff. But I expect I'll return, sooner or later.)

As far as the PS3 port itself goes, it's pretty faithful to the original DOS games. There are no updates to graphics that I can see. It's even in 4:3 aspect ratio, which, in this day and age, is mildly annoying. The controls are pretty intuitive to anyone who's played first person games on a modern console. The inability to look up or down can be slightly frustrating at times, but on the other hand it makes aiming a little simpler.

I haven't tried out multiplayer yet, but I checked out the menus enough to discover that playing split screen apparently requires multiple user accounts on the console. This seems very unnecessary and annoying, as I'm the only user of this console and I very rarely have other people over playing with it. No local multiplayer game I've played on PS3 in the past has had such a requirement.

I played the games on the easiest setting. 'Cause I'm a wuss. And, you know, generally crap at anything requiring reflexes and precision. Plus I was playing Doom II for the first time, and it's not like I know a lot of the original Doom levels by heart either (with the exception of the first few levels of the first episode, of course). Even so, some levels turned out pretty challenging. Not necessarily because of the monsters (although some of the new enemies in Doom II are pretty darn tough, and can do a lot of damage if you're careless), but simply because of the level design.  Often that key or switch or door you need to complete the level can be annoyingly hard to spot. Or, like, after dozens of levels of opening doors with the action button they suddenly, out of the blue, expect you to shoot at it. I admit I pretty much rage quitted once or twice, and resorted to checking a walkthrough a few times.

Occasional moments of frustration aside, Doom is still a lot of fun to play. Surprisingly so, since it was, after all, one of the earliest FPS games. It'll be 20 years since the original Doom's release next December. I'm not sure some later FPS games have stood the test of time quite as well.

If you have the original games around and play games on PC I think it may be more interesting (and cheaper) to check out some of the free (but entirely legal, since Doom's engine is now open source) ports that are available online. Some of them have made considerable improvements to the engine (improving graphics and adding features of more modern FPS games, like jumping and free aiming), though in many cases these are optional, should you want an experience closer to the original. But if you don't have the games, the PS3 version does offer a lot to play for a fairly reasonable price.

24 August 2013

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Yeah, I just gave Bowser another thrashing!

Earlier this summer I blogged about my experiences playing Wii's Super Mario Galaxy, my first time playing a Mario game since the days of the NES. (Check out the Mario label for those posts.) It was a fun enough experience to make me buy the sequel.

It's the night of the Star Festival, an event that takes place once every 100 years. Princess Peach has invited Mario to the castle, but suddenly Bowser attacks and kidnaps the princess, planning to use stolen Power Stars to create a new empire in the centre of the universe. Mario has to search for Power Stars on various planets so he can follow Bowser, and... and... hang on, isn't this the story of the first Super Mario Galaxy? I mean, almost word to word... Honestly, they could have put at least a little effort into creating something even slightly original. If anything, the story elements in the game are even lighter than in the predecessor.

But, as I wrote back when I was playing the original Galaxy, Mario games aren't really about the story. They're about beating the levels. So, when it comes to gameplay, anyone who's played the original should be right at home. The controls are exactly the same. The appearance of both games is pretty much the same. A lot of elements have been imported more or less directly from the original. But as you proceed, you'll notice that they have, indeed, added a whole bunch of new gimmicks to the levels. There are several new power-ups, perhaps most notably the addition of Yoshi, and all manner of weird stuff, like switches that slow down time.

I've currently got 89 out of 120 stars. Except of course when you get those 120 stars, you unlock another 120 stars, hidden in the levels, and one final level after you get all those... So I'm really nowhere close to actually completing the game. And, as with the first Galaxy, I'm not sure I ever will be. A lot of these additional challenges are pretty tough. And there's a very fine line between challenge and frustration...

They've made level progression a little more linear this time, akin to many earlier Mario games. You have to beat a level before progressing to the next one—although there are some forks in the paths, giving you a little choice. (You can freely return to any unlocked level, of course, to get additional stars.) This didn't bother me until now, once I 'beat' the game, as this unlocks an additional 'Special' world to play. The levels in this world are getting to be pretty hard, so it would have been nice to try out different ones, but I can only access one to begin with (and my first crack at it was... not exactly successful).

But even if you only play the regular levels, working your way up to the final boss fight with Bowser, there's still plenty of fun to be had, and a lot of variety. The level design is still highly original, unique and often downright crazy.

So, in summation, even though there was a slight feel of being 'more of the same', Super Mario Galaxy 2 was a pretty entertaining, fun, and challenging experience, just like its predecessor. In their genre (which, admittedly, is not one I've played very extensively) I think they're among the very best. I doubt I'll be getting other Mario games in the near future, though. Next up will be something completely different...

22 August 2013

A Witch at Heart (The Story of a New Year's Resolution)

I don't write that much openly about religion or spirituality, mostly because they are very personal topics that are very difficult to communicate. But on the other hand, writing is a great way to process thoughts. Trying to shape them into actual, intelligible words and sentences forces us to look at them from different viewpoints, and sometimes we may even learn new things in the process. So, for a change, I'll write a little about me and my relationship with religion.

I have mentioned my interest in spirituality and occultism before in this blog, though. A theme of those posts has often been change and instability. I have had great difficulty in the past settling on a particular approach that would satisfy my spiritual needs. (Or perhaps I should say settling on particular details; a lot of the really big issues have remained more or less the same through the years.)

A lot of my problems with this stem from a basic dilemma in my make-up. I am, by nature, a child of the modern, scientific age—a naturalistic, empirical person. I've seen no convincing evidence of conscious entities controlling our world, or of life after death, or any other 'supernatural' phenomena. Yet, regardless of all this, I seem to have a deep-seated yearning for spiritual experiences. How does one satisfy a yearning for something that one doesn't, at least in literal terms, actually believe in?

It's largely a question of psychology, of course. Religion, in one form or another, has been a part of our lives since... well, basically since mankind has existed. Our cultures have been shaped by religion, so it should hardly be surprising to feel its pull. On the other hand, I believe religion (and ritual) can have a real beneficial psychological effect on individuals. However, to do so religion must be able adapt to a changing world. Sticking to age-old tenets that clearly go against scientific evidence and common sense can be quite harmful, even deadly in extreme cases.

I hope that clarifies my stance on religion at least a little. But what does this all mean in practise then? As I said, my spiritual path has been one fraught with change and instability. I was basically raised Christian, like the majority of Finns still are (though in an increasingly secular atmosphere), but by early adulthood I'd grown to feel that wasn't my path. For many years in my early twenties I'd have described myself primarily as an 'agnostic'.

The crucial turning point came when I was in my mid-20s (I don't remember the exact year now, I'd guess sometime between 2005 and 2007). On a whim I borrowed a couple books on Wicca from the local library. What I found within intrigued me. I'd always been fond of nature, and had flirted with neopagan ideas as a teenager, though I'd never delved very deep into the subject back then.

Wicca, in a nutshell, is a neopagan religion largely created by Gerald Gardner in the early 20th century based on theories—popular at the time, but now disputed—about ancient matriarchal religion focused on Goddess, rather than God, worship, and a witch cult carrying on these traditions. (Gardner claimed to have been himself initiated into this tradition, but there is little concrete evidence of this. Whatever the origins, it's clear that he wrote at least part of the early material himself, and borrowed much from Victorian occult tradition. In any case, the origin of the religion isn't really what matters.) 'Wicca', derived from an Old English word for 'witch', is a slightly more modern term—originally the tradition was referred to simply as 'witchcraft'. (Oh, and the word 'witch', in Wiccan use, refers to both male and female practitioners.) Wiccans traditionally revere a Goddess and a God, though interpretations of them vary widely. The Goddess is frequently associated with the earth, the moon, birth (and death) etc., the God (often pictured with antlers or horns) with animals, the sun etc. Together they often represent the basic rhythms of nature—the seasons, fertility and the harvest, and so forth.

Originally Wicca was a communal movement, focused on 'covens' of initiated members. In recent decades, however, as material has become more freely available, the number of solitary practitioners has increased dramatically. There may still be some traditionalists out there who'll say you can't be a Wiccan unless you're initiated by another Wiccan, but they are likely a minority these days. I don't believe in such sentiments. In matters of the spirit, you are what you feel you are. Religion shouldn't be about strict rules and definitions. It should be about the feeling it invokes, nothing more, nothing less.

Anyway, as I was saying, what I read about Wicca intrigued me. I soon came to the conclusion that this could be the faith for me. I decided to be Wiccan. It was as simple as that. Even back then I was probably not the most stereotypical Wiccan, though. There have always been aspects I don't agree with, a more 'new agey' side to the religion in many authors' writings. Many talk about reincarnation, for example, but, as I already wrote, I've seen little convincing evidence concerning any kind of afterlife. But being an 'eclectic, solitary Wiccan', I could pick the parts that appealed to me. I think I espoused enough of the core ideas, the spirit of the tradition, to justifiably identify myself as Wiccan. The deities I would interpret less as literal entities, but rather as symbolising forces of nature and/or psychological constructs. (This, I think, is a relatively common approach among modern neopagans.)

I would celebrate the full moons and the eight 'sabbats' with simple rituals, and experiment with magic—though I've always been much too lazy in that respect and can't boast much success (I should perhaps emphasise that I view such things as primarily psychological exercises, meant to interact more with the subconscious than the world around as, not as actual supernatural forces).

However, as Wicca was obviously influenced by a long tradition of Western occultism (even if the existence of a long-standing 'witch cult' it was supposedly derived from is somewhat doubtful), I eventually begun to read more widely about occultism. I got carried away with Hermetic traditions and Qabalah and begun to incorporate elements from these into my philosophy and rituals. This let to a lot of experimentation with different influences, at times returning to more traditional Wiccan ideas, at other times going in very different directions. While this was all quite fascinating, the downside was that I eventually became more confused than ever about what my religion was. No path seemed to fit any longer.

Last Christmas I spent a couple weeks at my grandparents' old house, where I've spent most of my holidays since I can remember. With limited internet access and all, I had time there to think about things, and as often in such circumstances, my mind turned to spiritual matters again. I thought particularly about Wicca again, about how it had been my starting point on my spiritual quest, a foundation for all my later experiments, and how I always kept returning to Wiccan ideas. I made a New Year's resolution then. I decided I would try to be 'just' Wiccan again, for a whole year (or a 'year and a day', which has a more Wiccan ring to it). Practise simple rituals like I did in the early days, and focus on (re)discovering the Goddess and the God. Some eight months later, I'm still feeling good about it. I'm not saying it's gone perfectly—as usual I've been much too lazy with my rituals, and my ideas still aren't exactly stable, but it's more fine print stuff than major questions—but I've felt more at home with my spiritual side than I have in a good while.

It's been a long, roundabout journey that has now, in a way, come 'full circle' again. I regret none of the, shall we say, 'detours' I've take over the last few years. My explorations of other traditions have given me a lot of insight and new perspectives. My experience with Qabalah and ceremonial magic has taught me to beware overly complex structures and symbols. They have a habit of getting in the way, the proverbial trees keeping me from seeing the forest. I need a simple, more down-to-earth spirituality, and Wicca is a perfect fit there. On the other hand, more modern philosophies like Chaos Magic and Discordianism have taught me not to take everything too seriously, and to seek inspiration in less conventional places, such as popular culture.

What this blog post boils down to is a simple statement, for public record, that I identify as Wiccan. I have done so for the past half a dozen or so years (with varying levels of enthusiasm). Whether I will still identify as Wiccan next year this time, I cannot say. But to me spirituality is about living in the moment. This is part of who I am. This is my statement of pagan pride. A sort of 'coming out of the broom closet', I might say, except of course I have actually written about a lot of this stuff before—though I don't actively or publicly speak about it much, it's never been a big secret.

To round up this long post, some readers may well be asking what it is exactly that I believe in, what this whole being Wiccan thing actually means.

To put it simply, I believe that this universe is an amazing, wonderful thing; an intricate web of endless cause and effect; an infinite dance of unnumbered, unseen particles. It is something to be seen with awe and respect—and reverence. So much so, in fact, that I choose to call the universe a Goddess, a cosmic being of untold beauty. But I also believe that each unique living being is just as wonderful in its own right. We are all individuals with our own drives and desires, our own strengths and weaknesses. This 'life force', for lack of a better term, to me represents the Wiccan God, pictured as a horned man—a primal figure part man and part animal.

(These are by no means the only interpretations of the Wiccan gods—not even the only ones in my mind—nor necessarily any kind of standard views held by other Wiccans. But they are the most powerful images I currently associate with them. They are, of course, symbols created by human beings, but they are also something more, as they represent primal forces of nature and human consciousness. Not conscious forces, of course. Except for the tiny parts of them that are, in fact, our minds, since the gods, in a very real sense, are us. Should I pray to these gods, it is my own conscious and subconscious mind I'm really speaking to.)

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, since ideas in the end mean little without practical applications, I believe that ritual is always a worthwhile endeavour, whether a simple moment of meditation or prayer, or a full-blown celebration of the full moon or changing seasons. It is a way of relaxing, of escaping the hubbub of the modern world for a short time. It can be therapeutic, exhilarating, or just plain fun. And that, to me, is what religion ought to be about: making you feel good, while appreciating the world, and people, around you.

15 August 2013

Saga, Vol. 2

Last spring I wrote about reading the first collected volume of Brian K. Vaughan's comic book series Saga. (Here's the blog post.)

Now I finally got my hands on the second trade paperback and read it tonight. And it was great.

It's actually pretty hard to write anything much, really, about this series. It's a unique, original, crazy space fantasy epic. It's brimming with violence and sex, yet somehow it manages to be one of the most heart-warming comics I've ever read. The characters are brilliant, the twists of the story great, and the art top notch.

I'm sure it's not quite everyone's cup of tea. If you're squeamish about blood or nudity, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it (but then again I prefer not to recommend anything much to anyone, 'cause people's tastes are so different). But as for myself, I've rather loved both volumes thus far.

Of course the second volume, like the first, ends with a cliff-hanger. And now I have a long wait ahead of me. Being a little late to pick up the first TPB, I only had a few months to wait for the second volume. But now the issues of the next story arc are only just beginning their release, so I expect it'll be well into next year before the next TPB comes out... *sigh*

DuckTales: Remastered

I should be in bed, but I'm still kinda wired. So I might as well write this while it's still fresh in my mind...

DuckTales: Remastered was released today for PS3 (and other platforms). I bought it, downloaded it, and just played through it (on the easiest setting). And it was fun.

Let's not kid ourselves; this game is all about the nostalgia. The original DuckTales game for the NES is a classic. I played it a bunch as a kid. It was one of the few NES games I could actually 'beat' back then (though I mostly played on the 'easy' setting—and of course the game actually having a difficulty setting was pretty progressive for its time). So I've been waiting for this game pretty impatiently ever since it was announced last spring.

Remastered brings the game to the 21st century. We're talking hand drawn, high definition sprites, re-arranged music, voice acting by the cast of the original animated show—the whole shebang. The game looks and sounds great. And the gameplay is, of course, the same as it was, all those years ago. Except, of course, now you have modern comforts, like saving progress between levels, a map screen etc.

The level designs are, for the most part, true to the original, though I think there are some small differences (I cannot remember the original game that well—it's been, like, a couple decades since I've really played it, after all). The levels have new added objectives, mostly involving retrieving some items spread through the level, which means you'll need to visit more areas of a level in order to beat it. There is also a whole new final level leading to the final boss (instead of returning to Transylvania), and a new tutorial level. Oh, and speaking of boss fights, they've been expanded and made tougher. Money you collect actually has a use now; it's used to unlock bonus content (concept art etc.).

I mentioned voice acting, and indeed, dialogue plays a much larger part than in the original. They've attempted to add an actual story to the game. It's pretty simple treasure hunting stuff, of course, but it works well enough in the context. Some reviewers have even criticised the game for having too much dialogue, disrupting the flow of the game. I didn't find it a problem first time around, but when re-playing it some of it may, of course, seem unnecessary...

Some downsides as well, of course. During this single session the game crashed twice. And I actually had to replay most of the final level (including the boss) since progress is saved only between levels. Some points in the game were also pretty darn tough, even on the easy setting. I had most trouble with segments involving hanging from ropes. I discovered that for some reason these were easier using the left stick for control rather than the directional pad, even though mostly I favoured the pad for this game. Thankfully you have infinite retries, and checkpoints are fairly frequent.

The price, at 15€, might seem a mite high for a game you can play through in one sitting. But it's obvious that a fair amount of effort has gone into making DuckTales: Remastered, what with the animated sprites and voice acting and all. For those with golden memories of the original NES game it is, of course, a blast from the past. It's hardly perfect, and of course it's pretty simple and short by modern standards, but it's still a whole lotta fun, at least in my humble opinion. For those not familiar with the original... well, it's still a decent, fun, oldschool platformer, although it probably won't make quite the same impression as it will on fans.

7 August 2013

Numenera First Impressions

Monte Cook's new game Numenera has been one of the most awaited RPGs this year. Last week the PDF version of the rulebook was finally released to Kickstarter backers and pre-orderers, while print versions should be shipping soon.

I've had a chance to browse the PDF for a few days now, and yes, I quite like it. It features a pretty interesting science fantasy setting and original, fairly lightweight rules. The game's website introduces the concepts of the game pretty well, but in a nutshell, the game's set in a far future world, with one of the core ideas being Arthur C. Clarke's statement: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' The society is superficially medieval, but relics from great civilisations of the past are everywhere, both assisting the world's inhabitants and creating great dangers. It's a world of small, isolated communities, where almost anything can happen and every location has a unique flair created by the wonders (and dangers) of the past active in the region.

Discovery is a major theme in the game. It's primarily about exploration and encountering the weird and wonderful relics of past civilisations. Which, in my mind, is a wonderful premise for an RPG. Even the guidelines for awarding experience points emphasise making discoveries, rather than, say, killing things.

The rules are quite fascinating, and not exactly like any RPG I've played before. The system is basically class based, but instead of a single class characters are defined by three basic elements, a character type, a descriptor, and a focus, each of which grant particular abilities to the character. These are described as a noun, adjective and verb, respectively. A core idea of character creation is that the character can be described with the sentence: 'I am an adjective noun who verbs.' For example, a character could be a 'Rugged Glaive who Controls Beasts' or a 'Charming Nano who Focuses Mind Over Matter' ('glaive' being the game's warrior class, and 'nano' a kind of tech wizard).

There are many combinations to choose from (with three character types, a dozen descriptors and close to 30 foci). But you do still need to create characters within the framework provided by the rules; this is no GURPS with infinite character options but a game with a fairly specific scope and theme (which, personally, I think I might even prefer, in the end, to universal systems). Of course creating characters for the first time might be a little daunting, when one's not familiar with the options, which can have exotic names like 'Rides the Lightning' or 'Howls at the Moon' or 'Bears a Halo of Fire'...

The system is based around three basic stats: Might, Speed and Intellect. Unlike most systems, however, these aren't hard numbers that directly affect dice rolls, but pools, from which you spend points to boost rolls and use special abilities. Damage is also taken from these same pools, so the more damage a character takes, the less he or she can do, and vice versa. It's a pretty interesting idea, and should be interesting to try out, although I expect it may take a little time to get used to. Not because the game is complicated, but because it's a little different from most games we've played.

The book's over 400 pages, full colour and quite pretty, although I can't really fully judge the aesthetics until I get the print version. I do much prefer reading RPG rules in book form...

I don't know when I'll get the chance to actually play the game. Seems like there are plenty of games already going on in my social circle right now. Hopefully it won't take too long, 'cause this game is right up my proverbial alley...