Beyond the Pool of Stars

One of the high points of Gen Con for me was meeting and chatting with Howard Andrew Jones. I’ve known Howard for quite some time since he generously offered a couple of stories for Sword’s Edge when it was an e-zine. He’s since published a handful of novels – two of creator-owned content – and a collection of short stories. I always pick up his stuff because no one does sword & sorcery like Howard.

I’m also a fan of his RPG tie-in fiction. There is actually a lot of really good gaming fiction out there, including Howard and Dave Gross for Pathfinder, and William King & Nathan Long who write for Warhammer. Howard’s sword & sorcery sensibilities really inform his game fiction. I don’t want to denigrate RPG tie-in fiction, but I know that there is a perception out there that it is crap. Some of it is. Some of all fantasy fiction is. Some of all literature is.

Okay, that’s been said.

So, anyway, Howard’s new book is a Pathfinder novel. Beyond the Pool of Stars has so much that is different, I really forgot this wasn’t creator-owned. The story centres on Mirian, an ex-salvager – diving to recover items or treasure from sunk ships – from a family of salvagers, now an adventurer with the Pathfinder Society. She returns home after her father’s death and gets caught up in his legacy, and an attempt by her homeland to maintain its independence, if not exactly its freedom.

Did I mention Mirian is a black woman? And the other main character is a gay man? And that it really doesn’t matter at all?

Well, I guess it does matter because I think it’s awesome to expand our definition of heroes. I’m always looking for stories for my daughters that feature strong, capable female lead characters – just ordered a copy of Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett for my eldest – so I can only applaud anyone’s attempts at inclusion.

And I know there are people out there – probably not reading my blog, because I’ve made my thoughts on this known many, many times – who feel fiction suffers from inclusion, that it is a negative impact from “political correctness.” I dare them to read this story and tell me how it could be improved by changing these characters.

Okay, so semi-rant over.

What’s important is that this is a gripping story with really great and vibrant characters. Even the secondary characters are given vivid lives that allow us to identify with them and provides even more colour to the scenes. There is so much pulp – in a good sense – in this story it was a real joy to read. They travel through swamps and jungles to find a lost city of the lizard people. I could see this happening in South America or Sub-Saharan Africa, places that don’t get enough love in mass market fantasy.

Further, the society of Mirian’s homeland is strained by the stresses between natives and colonials. It’s honestly welcome to see the very real outcomes of cultural friction reflected in a tie-in story. This is not a book about that issue, but it informs the characters and their perceptions as well as their choices.

This is all gushing. Am I saying it’s a perfect book? Well, I don’t think it rises to Howard’s two creator-owned efforts, but it is my favourite of his tie-in fiction. And, unfortunately, that link to the Pathfinder RPG sometimes created a problem for me as a reader. Specifically, I was kind of taken out of the story every time the wand came out. Mirian has a wand of acid – along with a pair of magical rings that allow her to breathe underwater and move through water as if through air – that is a family heirloom. These magic items from the RPG play significant roles in the story. The rings don’t remind that this is tie-in fiction (not sure why, maybe because magic rings hearken me back to the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings so seem natural to second worlds) but the wand definitely does.

Is this a problem? Not a big one. It kind of drew me out of the story because I was always thinking “game component,” and so for me, it seemed unnatural. It fits well with the story, but it was the main indicator of the book’s tie-in nature – along with certain monsters I could identify – and it caused a small bump each time I read it.

There is also a point in the story where I could see it ending, but it was really just shifting settings. It also seemed to be a second story because there was a minor denouement that led to another rise in tension. It seemed a very clear division between two parts of the story, and the clarity of that divide caused me to move out of the story and think of it as a book – if that makes sense. I was completely invested in these characters and their stories, but the divide reminded me it was a construct, then the fiction had to work to draw me back in.

These were the two problems I had with the book. I tend to think these are idiosyncratic, and that they won’t affect others, but the things I love about the book might be the same.

I give Beyond the Pool of Stars 4.5 lizard person songs out of 5. This is a really solid, exciting adventure story with amazing characters in a great setting.

You can find out more about Howard Andrew Jones here.

You can pre-order (or purchase, if it’s after 6 Oct 2015) Beyond the Pool of Stars here.

Posted in Review | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Sneferu

For the second episode/lecture in the Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt series from the Great Courses, Dr. Bob Brier takes us to c. 2600 BCE and the reign of Sneferu, the first pharaoh with a real pyramid as a tomb.

The lecture is as much about the evolution of the pyramid and Sneferu’s efforts to build his grand tomb as it is about the pharaoh himself. The failures are as enlightening – perhaps even moreso – than the final success, as Egypt moves from building step pyramids to the smooth sided shapes we now know. A nice little piece of trivia is that the name of the original architect for the step pyramid is the same as the villain in the 1932 and 1999 movies the Mummy – Imhotep.

For those not interested in the evolution of the pyramid – what is wrong with you? – Dr. Brier also discusses Sneferu’s role in Egypt’s expanding international influence, sending trade missions both to Lebanon for cedars and the Sinai for turquoise. This leads to a quick discussion of the reason for Egyptians’ general lack of nautical skills – the Nile spoiled them. The Nile flowed north while the prevailing winds blow south, meaning you can coast if you want to go north or use sails if you want to go south. No need for navigation, no need to tacking with the wind. So when Egyptians sailed “the Great Green” of the Mediterranean, they generally needed foreign sailors.

This struck my fancy. I actually quite like the ideas of trade missions leading to adventures. I was planning a game based on this set in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, and that would fit nicely with Sneferu’s missions. I have no idea about the population of the Sinai during the period, but the Egyptians apparently reported barbarians. I’d do more research were I writing something historical, but for a game I’d be happy calling them the Monitu, the name an unreferenced article on the internet says the Egyptians used.

For Lebanon, we’ve got Byblos, which was occupied from well before Egypt’s first dynasty and may have become a kind of Egyptian colony – or at least dependent on Egyptian trade. For me, the idea of a cosmopolitan, Bronze Age port linking Egypt to Mesopotamia is awesome. Sure, it would actually be tiny by our standards, but it would be a metropolis for those at the time. You could easily have political intrigue, factional fighting, even a bit of the unknown as trade missions go farther afield in search of materials or new cultures with which to trade.

Finally, Dr. Brier describes to us Sneferu as a possibly “approachable” pharaoh, kind of like Vespasian as an emperor. I like the thought that the leader who both revolutionized Egyptian architecture and international status was a humble, kind individual that cared for his subjects. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

This lecture is especially useful if you are interested in how the pyramids evolved into what we recognize today, and it has some very interesting asides about Egyptian expansion early in the Old Kingdom. There is a fun little tangent about Dr. Briers’ visit to one of the turquoise mines in the Sinai and the miner he found, and this adds to the charm of the episode.

Up next? We jump about 1,000 years, over the first two intermediate periods and the Middle Kingdom, to get to Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh. That should be interesting.

You can find more about the Bronze Age Mesopotamia game on which I was working here



Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Terminator: Salvation

So I finally got a chance to see Terminator: Salvation when it came to Canadian Netflix. I liked the looks of it, but I very rarely see movies in the theatre and had no real motivation to hunt this down when it came out on DVD. You can guess that my expectations were low.

This should have been a movie that got me excited: it’s got Michael Ironside, Moon Bloodgood, special ops types doing direct action-y stuff, huge killer robots, Christian Bale, and A-mudderfuggin-10s!

But the problem was that while the actors all did respectable jobs (even Sam Worthington, who is not an actor that motivates me to see a movie), they had a mess with which to work. A lot of this movie made no sense to me. Right at the outset, the special ops types undertake a raid and they’re cruising in with helos and A-10s are pulverizing ground targets. It felt really wrong to me. Wasn’t Skynet supposed to be all over the defence network? I mean, didn’t it take over pretty much everything? But here’s a “Resistance” with airbases using radio communications and flying around in helos. I would have expected the Hunter-Killers to track them down.

In the movie it’s kind of intimated that you have to do something like blow something up to gain Skynet’s attention. That also doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Skynet should be actively seeking out this Resistance, and if it has even half of the satellite force now employed by the US, it shouldn’t have been a problem to find their bases – which are conveniently well-lit at night. It shouldn’t have been a problem to note when these raids launched in their helos and with their A-10s. The H-Ks should have intercepted the raids before they got anywhere near the target, if they didn’t just cruise in when the base was identified and eliminate it.

That’s just one example from numerous WTF? moments in this movie. Characters act in ways that are incomprehensible except in order to move the plot forward. I really don’t think anyone gets outside of their stereotype – which is fine in some ways because I want to see Michael Ironside be gruff! Logic and the laws of physics are generally flexible in a good action movie, but there’s flexibility and then there is being tied into a knot. I really didn’t expect much and I was let down.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t some cool action scenes – though some of those are also filled with WTF moments – and great special effects, but that really doesn’t cut it. It’s not enough.

I give Terminator: Salvation 2.5 killer robots with miniguns out of 5. If you are going to try for style over substance, you better have some amazing style and try to avoid discussion of substance. This science fiction got the science and the fiction wrong.

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Narmer, Part Two

This is part of a Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt listen through. You can find this lecture series at The Great Courses. As of 7 Sep 2015, it’s on sale for $15.95 USD.

In Part One of this episode’s listen through, I kind of laid the groundwork for discussing this course – mentioned Dr. Brier’s delivery and his stated intent for the lecture series. So let’s get into the meat of the episode.

We begin looking at these leaders with Narmer, the first king of a united Egypt. The discussion focuses on the Narmer Palette, a board Dr. Brier asserts was used to mix cosmetics for the statues of deities held in each temple’s holy of holies. In Nefertiti Overdrive, part of the MacGuffin is the icon of Amun-Ra. It is supposed to be much smaller than the statues referred to in this episode, which are about a metre in height, but the idea is the same. I imagined the icons before I heard about the statues, but it’s nice that it gives the game a little bit of verisimilitude while also being incredibly wrong.

What was more interesting to me, from a simple background idea, was the statement that all Egyptians wore cosmetics. Specifically, Dr. Brier mentions everyone wearing eye makeup, mostly dark cosmetics under their eyes to help manage the glare of the sun. This really informs how one would describe NPCs in a game or characters in fiction, but I wonder if it was literally all Egyptians or only those with a certain amount of wealth. Can you imagine the labourers working on the pyramids with their dark eye cosmetics? I honestly can’t.

Dr. Brier also engages in an interesting discussion regarding the crowns of Egypt – the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt were joined to make the crown of united Egypt, but an example of the crown has never been found. Dr. Brier points to Tutankhamen’s tomb, which was found intact, yet no crown. His thesis on this really works both for gamers and writers – the crown was magical. Now, Dr. Brier doesn’t mean it in a literal sense, but more in the sense of the consecration of kings in medieval Europe – the contemporaries considered it something magical.

I got thinking of game applications, in which each crown as a specific power, and linked together they become even more powerful. In a game set in the Roman period (unsurprising from the guy who wrote Centurion: Legionaries of Rome), Augustus might have sent out a crew of trusted people – legionaries and bureaucrats, Roman and provincials – to find the crowns he believes could help him piece together the fractured Empire – a Republic no longer. Or even better, this could be Aurelian or Diocletian following the Crisis of the Third Century.

Hey, you got your Roman history in my Egyptian. Wait, these are two tastes and that taste great together!

In the end, Dr. Brier focuses on the scenes on the Narmer Palette, including observations about the crown, because we don’t have much definitive information on Egypt at this time. Still, the discussions of the imagery on the palette provide a relatively wide-ranging discussion of early Egypt. It definitely got me invested and has me excited for episode two, “Sneferu, The Pyramid Builder.”

One last quick note, the series that I have purchased all come with a PDF course book, which is really helpful for both prep and recall, and generally provides references for further reading and research.

You can find out more about Nefertiti Overdrive: High Octane Action in Ancient Egypt here.

You can find Centurions: Legionaries of Rome at Amazon and Drive Thru RPG.


Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Narmer, Part One

This is part of a Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt listen through. You can find this lecture series at The Great Courses. As of 7 Sep 2015, it’s on sale for $15.95 USD.

If you’ve been around here for any length of time you know about Nefertiti Overdrive. It’s a role-playing game I successfully Kickstarted set at the fall of 25th Dynasty Egypt. One of the reasons I chose Great Pharaohs as a listen through was because of its importance when I was writing. This course provided a jumping off point for researching the Nubian pharaohs. So as I go through this, I’m going to be making references to ideas and inspiration I drew from these episodes for both RPGs and fiction writing.

In the telling, this listen-through kind of grew, so I’m going to break it into two. I’ll post the second on Wednesday (9 Sep 2015). This might become the norm, considering the richness of these episodes.

As with all Great Courses, this one starts off with about three minutes of an announcer telling us all about the professor who will be delivering the lecture series. In this case, that’s Dr. Bob Brier. You can read about him on the page for the series, but I think his credentials show him to be more that suitable to deliver this lecture.

So let’s start with a word about Dr. Brier. I find him very engaging as a speaker. In general, I’ve found every series I’ve purchased – and I did purchase Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, it’s not a review copy – has been amazing in its content. What separates the courses for me is the delivery. There are probably fans of every professor on the site, but some I have found less engaging. Dr. Brier is someone I’d buy more lectures from – and spoiler alert, I picked up History of Ancient Egypt soon after finishing this series.

Dr. Brier has an idiosyncratic delivery style, but I think his enthusiasm and passion shine through on that. I imagine that he has a list of topics to cover rather than a script – although considering his history as a lecturer, there are probably lots of items about which he has an ingrained response, which is kind of like an internal script. I think your level of satisfaction with one of the Great Courses is going to be based on the lecturer, and if you are like me and enjoy Dr. Brier, I’m certain you’ll enjoy this course.

In the course opening, Dr. Brier explains why he has chosen this topic. He says he is breaking with common understanding of 2,500 years, which kind of amused me when I first heard it considering we have only recently broken with the “great man” version of history, and that sounds like what Dr. Brier is about to deliver. But, no, he’s not talking about the history of great men, he is talking about Herodotus. Back around 450 B.C., the Greek historian remarked “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” Dr. Brier doesn’t see it that way. His thesis is that Egypt is great because of its great leaders.

Now this is a survey course, meaning he’s not getting into the nuance of history, but this is where Dr. Brier almost lost me. I have a huge problem with his thesis because if it were true, Egypt would fail when it had bad rulers, and it – like all autocracies – had plenty of bad rulers. It’s also ridiculous to credit one feature with the success of a state that lasted for around 3,000 years.

Anyway, I found this easy to overlook because I believe Dr. Brier’s purpose is to engage his audience. This is a good way of doing it. Provide a simple thesis, a throughline the non-historian can follow. There is no doubt the great leaders Egypt had helped to define its own greatness, so as one of many causes for Egypt’s success, it is not wrong.

So that’s kind of all preparatory to a discussion of the episode itself.

You can find out more about Nefertiti Overdrive: High Octane Action in Ancient Egypt here.

Posted in Review | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Labour Day

I hope everyone is enjoying their time off . . . actually, given job requirements these days, I hope everyone has time off this Labour Day.

Now, where do I sign the petition to make this Labour Week?

Posted in Personal | Tagged | Leave a comment

Mad Max, the computer game

Originally posted by Chris Groff on Google Plus.

I’m about 10 hrs into Mad Max now, so while I’m not even close to completion I’ve seen and done enough to have a pretty good take on it.

You play the titular character of Mad Max. He is the haunted wasteland survivor that we saw a bit of in Road Warrior but they really tried to emphasize it in Fury Road. This game, like the movies, doesn’t really fit into a specific time line, it’s really another story in the Mad Max verse.

We are introduced to Mad Max after his run in with Scrotus. Stripped of his car and his clothes he is once again thrust into this world tasked with surviving and regaining his place in the wasteland. Along the way you’ll meet a variety of characters, key is your side kick Chumbucket who is a blackfinger. He’ll be your companion for the journey, a mechanical zealot who’ll keep your car running and offer helpful advice along the way.

Your goal is to survive and in order to do that you’ll end up helping other survivors against Scrotus and his legions. This is where the core game play and story comes in. The game is broken into story missions and free roaming action. The map is scattered with bases and encampments for the various warlords and you’ll be taking them out to weaken Scrotus’s grip on this area of the Wasteland. This is done with a combination of specific story goals as well as just free roaming action.

In addition to working towards Scrotus there are random things to do like exploring the vast area for precious scrap (currency), collectibles and components to upgrade your character, vehicles and strongholds you are working out of. There are also races to enter and general havoc you can cause by taking out convoys and other forms of destruction. Max is definitely on a mission in this game.

The action is broken up into car racing/combat and melee combat. The controls for driving took me a little bit to get used to but once I did driving hasn’t been a problem and is really fun. The cars feel distinctive and upgrades to your Magnum Opus are noticeable in how the car handles. So it’s not a case of just throw the best stuff on. Because as you add components there are trade offs between acceleration, handling, weight and damage. You can really tailor the car to your style.

Crashing into cars is met with a satisfying impact as chunks fly off metal crunches, bodies go flying and vehicles explode. This is accomplished by ramming vehicles, side swiping them, ripping chunks off with your harpoon or simply shooting at them. Destroying a car will reward you with a bit of salvage, but if you can take a car out and leave it drive-able returning it to your Stronghold (once you get that far) will give you access to use that vehicle as well as a much larger salvage value.

Melee combat I’m finding equally satisfying. It uses the same kind of combo mechanic that WB started in Batman and continued in Shadow of Mordor. Impacts feel solid and meaty. You break bones, slam people into walls, curb stomp them, shiv them and bash them with clubs. Max is pretty bad ass and in 10 hrs beating the piss out of the various warboys and other factions is only getting more fun as I unlock new skills in the game.

There is a bit of formula to the whole play, not dissimilar to Shadow of Mordor. The area is broken up into territories and they are under the control of various bosses and factions with bases. You need to break down those bases and weaken their control. This is done by taking out watch towers and taking over pumping stations. The stations are all unique, but like the fortresses in Mordor there are some similarities to the approach and the action in. You fight your way in and blow it up. There are optional goals inside, which you’ll certainly want to do and are generally easy to accomplish on the way.

I personally like that these optional goals are fairly easy to do because it lets you keep the action flowing, other people may find it too easy. But my idea of fun is not search a field of haystacks for the right haystack and the needle in it YMMV. Because this is the formula of the game your long term enjoyment will be determined on how much you get into the general action elements. If you want a ton of variety of things to do, this may grow a little thin during the games typical 40-50 hour run time. This is the common approach that most open world games have. It’s a large world populated with similar actions and goals. Fortunately this formula is broken up with story moments and cut scenes that really help bring this world to life.

I’ve always enjoyed playing a specific character in open world games much more then random guy. I feel much more connected to the world because I know I’m supposed to be Mad Max and the story plays out like I’m Mad Max. Counter this to a game like Skyrim where you can play whatever you want, but regardless if you want to be Conan, the Grey Mouser, Robin Hood or Merlin the narrative really doesn’t change – this though is one of those YMMV things too.

Graphically the game is impressive there is a very consistent look to the setting, people and places. This game truly captures the look of the Mad Max franchise and there have been many times I’ve just stopped to appreciate the view. The frame rate has been pretty constant and I haven’t noticed any glitches along the way. However I’m also having fun playing the game and not stopping constantly to check for them.

There are a couple outlying issues. First is the fact that jumping/climbing is a little stunted. I wasn’t expecting to move around like in Batman or Shadow of Mordor. But the game has some semi-artificial fences that if you could only climb that ledge…. It’s not crippling and doesn’t really ruin the game but it’s just one of those niggling issues that always bugs me.

The next is one I actually applaud but thought I should mention. This is a game that runs on auto saves which means you can’t do the save/re-load thing. You can save at anytime but that will only update your accomplishments. When you die any thing you’ve collected will be retained but you don’t pop up right at the place you last saved. Instead you re-start at the last check point location. Basically the same as Batman, Shadow of Mordor and Borderlands. I personally like this method as you can’t try and rinse/replay your way through but other people hate that.

There are online play elements coming but they currently aren’t available so I can’t comment on them. But I suspect they’ll be similar to the random challenges that are in Shadow of Mordor and Batman given that it’s by the WB.

The screen shots below are taken from my TV. Very much if you can see it in the game you can get to it. Outside of the core ‘known’ area is the unforgiving wastes which you can explore at your peril. You may get lucky and find some paradise or swept away in a sand storm.

Overall I’d give this game 8.5 out of 10. I generally like all aspects of the game I’ve encountered but think it could benefit from a little more variety and a bit more polish in the little details along the way.

Because it’s been asked between this and Shadow of Mordor I’d pick Mad Max hands down. Not because the game play is so much better but because I’m enjoying the story more and I prefer the setting.

You can find out more about the computer game Mad Max here.

Posted in Review | Tagged , , | Leave a comment