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...