30 January 2005

January's Book Report

The Reed Book of Maori Mythology by A W Reed, revised by R Calman. Interesting material but a bit dry as the book is more about the structure and variations in the stories than the telling of them.

Innocents Aboard by Gene Wolfe. Short stories, mainly about ghosts and horrific things. A few really good ones, mostly just pretty good.

The Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Probably his worst (maybe I should say least good?) novel. Not because it's bad but because it's not that interesting. A study of drug dealers just isn't anywhere like as much fun as a study of, for example, book collectors and conspiracy (The Club Dumas), fencing and Spanish nationalism (The Fencing Master), odd Catholic plots (The Seville Communion) or treasure hunting (The Nautical Chart). Still well written, but very brutal in parts. The first few chapters are harrowing and I don't say that lightly.

How To Read A French Fry by Russ Parsons. Explanations of how some aspects of cooking work, at the level of the chemistry behind it all. Fascinating. Also, several small tips that are probably good to know, like 'never refridgerate tomatoes' and also why you should or should not do them. I think it might be worth actually buying this, as I am bound to forget all the important tips. Also has a bunch of recipes (illustrating the aspects of cooking he just explained), some of which look pretty tempting.

Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey. Travel book about a guy and his son visiting Japan to try and understand anime and other Japanese pop culture. Fun.

Underground London by Stephen Smith. A travel book about the odd stuff buried under London. Not really in depth, but a lot of neat stories. And he has managed to find some really weird things down there. Still, there are a lot of tangents in here and often the chapters promise more than is delivered. For example, his chapter on secret government tunnels under London ends up mainly being a lot of rumours because he couldn't actually get into any of them.

Rescuing The Spectacled Bear by Stephen Fry. Fun, coffee-table travel book to accompany a documentary he presented about helping out distressed Chilean bears. I particularly liked his thoughts roughing it, i.e. that he doesn't but instead likes to stay in five star hotels and drink cocktails. Unusually sensible attitude from a travel writer.

In The Earth Abides The Flame by Russell Kirkpatrick. Second volume of the "Fires of Heaven" trilogy and better than the first. He seems to be building up a bit of a Christian theological argument in there (characters discussing the argument from evil, treacherous secular characters, and so forth). A bit disturbing if he is, like C S Lewis, trying to be evangelical. Bleah. Still, treating it as pure fantasy, damn good. There's also some discussion of belief without evidence (faith) and why you should... which is a bit odd given that the Most High in that world is beginning to make his actual existence pretty obvious, if you ask me.

Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell. Very good. A bit odd, for him, as it is really a murder mystery. Of course, it's an adventure story as well. The one down side is a rather detailed (and thus gruesome) description of some hangings at Newgate in the very first chapter. But, once past that, a damn good story.

The Snow by Adam Roberts. Interesting, weird apocalypse novel. I can't say much about it without spoilage, unfortunately. Civilisation dies when it just starts snowing and doesn't stop for years. Told as a collection of documents mainly focussing on a particular character and the people she meets over the years during and following the snow. Fascinating.

The Roof of Voyaging by Garry Kilworth. Fantasy novel based on Polynesian mythology. A much easier read than the academic work on Maori mythology at the top of this list. Very good - it's nice to read a fantasy novel that draws so heavily on a less familiar set of stories. Good.

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra & Jr. Jose Marzan (Graphic novel, first book). Absolutely stunningly good comic, this one. Follows the story of the one man (and his monkey) who survive the sudden death of all male mammals in the world. This is my second time reading it through and it's at least as good as the first. It's a deeply layered comic with a lot of little things that are significant the second time. Vaughan's craftsmanship in this story is almost annoying, it's so good. But it never seems to get too pretentious or too implausible. Of course, the starting point is pretty implausible but the main characters are very believeable in their reactions to what happens. Some of the people they come up against are less so, but these are clearly there for the main people to react to. Read these comics.

Equal Rites and Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett. Rereading comic novels when ill is something I do. These two, I don't rate so high but all the ones I like more I have read too recently.

Raymond Chandler by Tom Hiney. A good biography. Chandler had a shitty life, it's no surprise that his books are so cynical. It was an interesting life, though, and Hiney does a good job of making plausible connections between Chandler's life and writing.

The Lightstone by David Zindell. Another re-read. This one due to running out of books, and also because the final one in the trilogy is due out in a few months. It's a complex book, and I can never remember what happened in it, so I expect not to understand number three at all if I haven't read them recently. Good enough to be worth that work.

14 January 2005

Dead Inside/Cold Hard World Review

This has been sitting on the back-burner for a while, so I thought I should finally write it.

Dead Inside and Cold Hard World are a roleplaying game and supplement from Atomic Sock Monkey, also known as Chad Underkoffler.

He says that he wanted to write a game in which people were nice to each other, rather than the theiving lawbreakers common in roleplaying generally. There is definitely a sad tendency for even the most well-intentioned characters in games to do a lot of questionable things along the way.

In any case, he has managed that much. The game's setting is a world much like the real one but with actual magic in the form of spirits and souls. The characters are expected to be 'dead inside'. That means they are people who have somehow lost their soul. This loss cuts them off from the normal people and also allows them to access various magic powers, particularly entering the spirit world.

The spirit world is centered around a city where most of the people (and things) live and this is the expected setting of most adventures. The characters are expected to be working to somehow restore their souls. The setting is good, but I found it a little to, well, nice for my liking. This kind of goes with Underkoffler's objective but I prefer my games to have a little more obvious evil to get into conflict with. Which is not to say that this doesn't exist in Dead Inside, but it is certainly de-emphasized. Also, the characters can learn lots of kewl powerz in the spirit world, which is fun. They can also be used in the real world, but not so easily or effectively.

The best part of the game is the mechanics for soul cultivation. Basically this is the measure of whether the character's soul is growing or shrivelling. This goes up or down based on what they do and why they do it. So people who do bad things eventually lose any trace of their soul and turn into all-devouring qlippoths (the biggest horror-creature in the game) and people who are good eventually grow a new soul. This all works just as intended but does lead to a kind of psychoanalysis occurring in game, as the GM needs to check on character intentions quite often.

Cold Hard World alters things a bit. It's supposed to be a real world sourcebook for the game for those who want to have less of the spirit world. Which includes me. I think the stuff here is mixed. There's a lot about how the kewl powerz work in the real world, and a few new ones. The general rule is they just don't work very well. There's some places, people and organisations to use in your game. These were, I thought, less inspired than those in Dead Inside. The groups, in particular, didn't really seem like groups that would exist to me. But that might just be my taste in things. The best of the supplement is the section on reworking the game, with several suggestions as to how to rebuild the same basic cosmology for different styles of game. I rather wish I had waited to play it until reading this, because they're much more my sort of thing than the default setting. Oh well, when I run or play a second game I can use one of those.

Overall? A really interesting experiment and a good game. Not quite a great game, due to choices about the setting. Then again, the setting was pretty much designed to be that way so my reservations are in line with 'But it's what it says on the label! I don't want that!'. Well, not quite. But at least implied by the label.

I guess I should say a little about the system. It's a simple little mechanic which Underkoffler calls PDQ and uses in some other games. It's also available for free download from the website. It works well and is simple. That appears to be what it was designed to do, so 100% success there.

And checking on that link, I am reminded that there are free demos of Dead Inside and Cold Hard World there too. You might as well try them out, then.

Also, Monkey Ninja Pirate Robot (bottom of that freebies page) is the best fighting to the death for sweet, sweet uranium game in the world. Better than many in wider categories, too.

04 January 2005

Half-life 2

The other thing I got for christmas that is taking up time is this one.

Absolutely brilliant. Definitely the best first-person shooter of the last few years - single player anyhow. Haven't had a chance to play the deathmatch yet. Basically does everything the first one does, but better. That includes making me think every few minutes "wow, this is awesome".

The facial animations and the realism of the buildings and terrain are really what makes this game work. It's really astonishing - I have long wondered when we're going to get to the point where computer games are like the holodeck on Star Trek, and this one makes me think that it is now on the horizon, rather than 'in a few decades'.

Also, the puzzles that use the physics engine are cool.

It's like I don't do anything but read books...

Okay, so there's not really too much about games being posted here at the moment. So it goes. Anyhow, it was suggested to me that maybe keeping track of every book read would be an interesting thing to do in a blog. Which seems so to me, even if just so that I can remember them all. So I'll do that. Every book I read will be noted and commented on, some extensively. I suspect in many cases I'll return and do a more detailed review later.

So, the books I got for Christmas and a couple from the library to start it all off.

The Penguin History Of New Zealand by Michael King. Okay, so as a New Zealander I ought to have read this already. Anyhow, a very good history. Not too much detail but not missing anything either.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe. An extremely silly book but quite good. The Pirate Captain and his crew rescue Darwin and FitzRoy from the Beagle and end up fighting Bishop Wilberforce in London. Doesn't actually deal with issues of religion and science, just pirates and Blackadder-style historical parody.

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell. First book in a new series in which we observe the reign of Alfred the Great. Like most of his books, the hero is set up to see things from both sides and be involved just enough to see everything important. Really good but mainly setting up the characters, so I'm eagerly looking forward to the second one.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Astoundingly good. English gentleman magicians during the Napoleonic Wars attempting to return magic to England. The England of the book is the one found in novels rather than history books, with the addition of the kingdom of the Raven King in the north in the middle ages.

Crucible by Nancy Kress. Second in a series of colonisation of another planet (after Crossfire). Better than the first, which was good. I especially like that, unlike most other authors writing such stories, the whole planet's ecosystem does not turn out to be the lifecycle of one organism or similarly interconnected.

The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams. First, a good fantasy novel. Second, what is it with Australian sf/fantasy authors called Sean?