Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player's Handbook - First Impressions

After all the waiting and anticipation of a new Dungeons and Dragons edition coming out, I'd completely forgotten that yesterday was the official release date. I'd intended to pick it up via Amazon for 40% off the cover price next month, but found myself near the local hobby store, and made the impulse decision to pick up the book at full price.

I'd only intended to give the book a cursory look last night, but I sat down with it about 6:30 or so, and didn't put it down until after 11:00.

I'm pretty impressed with the production values overall. I like the color of the paper, finding it a lot easier to read than the stark white of 4E, and not as dark (although I have to check) as 3E. The font is nice and readable even for me, and I like the use of Serif and Sans Serif fonts in certain places. A lot of thought was put into the overall typography and layout of the book, and it shows.

It took a bit, but I'm now completely sold on the artwork. I was never a fan of the 3E/4E art direction, finding it way too cartoonish and/or comic-bookish. There's nothing wrong with that on its own, but for a game that's supposed to be highly universal in the tones and settings it is applied towards, I think the overall look was too specific. The new art, on the other hand, does a good job of looking ahistorical, while at the same time, grounded in a "fantastical reality" - people actually look like people, creatures like actual creatures, and so forth. Art is terribly subjective and many will disagree with me, but I think it fits a perfect balance of the fantastical and the realistic, reminding me of some of the better 1E and 2E color art from back in the day (which, nostalgia aside, varied WIDELY in quality). Also, it was really great to see a lack of cheesecake art - no chain-mail bikinis or exaggerated "boob-plate" armor. All depictions of the female form were tasteful and again, grounded in a balance of fantasy and reality. This was a big win for me, as I feel it gives a very positive view of female PCs as something other than Black Widow-esque sexy femme fatales or nearly nude magical pixie maidens.

After a single skim through the whole rulebook, I spent most of my time reading the character creation material. I like the balance of the races and classes, some minor quibbles aside. Halflings are now much disengaged from their Hobbit origins, which is I suppose smart, but may alienate some purists. The Dragonborn and Tiefling races don't interest me at all, but since they are carry-overs from more recent editions, and I suppose were middilingly popular, I have no strong feelings either way. I suppose after 40 years, there's room for some original races! I also like that there's a lot of callbacks to how different D&D settings handled differences in the races, as well as discussions on how each race sees itself and other races interacting within the generic campaign setting framework.

As for classes, it was interesting to see how many and to how much of a degree characters have access to spells. Three different "arcane" classes, as well as Bards, Paladins, and Rangers getting much beefier spellcasting abilities (at least, as compared to what I remember). I might go so far as to say the pendulum has swung too far in giving too much access to spellcasting, but as so many multiclass combinations had to do with adding magic to a class, I suppose it makes sense.

I do feel as if the career paths start a little early at 3rd level, but in earlier editions by that point players already had a pretty firm grasp of what they wanted for their character. For the most part, I feel the paths are most reminiscent of 2E class kits, and while some of those back in the day were a little lame, others were really colorful and added a lot to the build. I've seen people complain that the paths are too binding, i.e., "Why can't I play just a plain old vanilla Fighter?", and I'm going to go out on a limb and guess the answers for this question - and many more - are to be found in the DMG.

There's a bunch more to comment on, but overall I'm definitely liking what I see. I felt 3E was too crunchy and bean-county for "Dungeons & Dragons", although I liked the move to a unified mechanic and a more modern (for the time) RPG design approach. I had little love for 4E, finding its attempt to make a tabletop RPG into a weird board game / video game just unappealing to my own personal sensibilities. 5E actually feels a lot like a blend of Castles & Crusades and Pathfinder, two games that were very well received, and I think overall that was a smart design choice. This game FEELS like "Dungeons & Dragons" should feel to me, after 40 years of game evolution.

Monday, August 4, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I'm not a huge comic book fan. Not because I dislike the medium - I think comics can tell some amazing stories - but because they can hook you into an obligation to buy more and more as your understanding and interest in the universe grows. Marvel has a huge line of comic titles stretching back decades, and it is really easy to lose track of what is going on with your favorite characters.

Because of this, I think Marvel Studios took a calculated risk when they decided on Guardians of the Galaxy to be their grand introduction to the greater, off-Terra setting that is the Marvel (Cinematic) Universe (aka, the MCU). Would the non-geeks understand what was going on? Would they have interest in the characters? Would it tie together with the previous movies in a meaningful way? Would audiences accept a talking raccoon with a machine gun and a walking plant-man as heroes?

Thankfully, I think the answer to all of the above is a resounding "Yes!".

This was an extremely well-crafted film, carefully designed to ease an unfamiliar audience into the vast, epic scale of the MCU. Starting on Earth in 1988, we meet the young Peter Quill on the night his mother dies of cancer, and Peter is abducted by aliens. We then fast-forward 26 years, to a dead planet, where we find Quill, now an artifact-hunting thief who (unsuccessfully) goes by the moniker of "Starlord". Smartly, the filmmakers tie the young boy to the man he's now become with one simple connection - the Walkman he had with him when he was abducted. Even if you were completely oblivious to the pre-screening promotions and knew nothing about Quill, the simple act of him putting on the headphones ties us back to that young boy on Earth, and we know just what's going on.

As an aside, the Walkman also serves as the instrument through which one of the movie's best features is presented - the soundtrack. For the last 26 years, Quill has been listening to "Awesome Mix Vol. 1", the cassette in the Walkman when he was abducted. It's full of great music and these tracks are used perfectly throughout the film, also providing a diegetic source for the soundtrack (a trick I usually really enjoy when done in a clever manner).

The plot of the story is actually pretty simple. Quill steals The Orb from the dead planet, and it turns out Ronan (the Big Bad Guy) wants it to do Bad Stuff. Ronan chases Quill and his ragtag band of unexpected allies across the galaxy. Will the Guardians figure out how to stop Ronan before he blows up the planet Xandar? Take a guess, hotshot. But while the plot is very basic, I think it serves as a good means of introducing the vastness of the MCU. You don't have to worry much about following a twisty-turny plot with complex character arcs, in addition to trying to figure out what the Kree Empire is, or who the Ravagers are. The information is delivered in succinct, bite-sized pieces, easily digestible by folks such as myself who couldn't tell you the difference between the Kree Empire and the Nova Empire if we tried.

This is probably a good time to mention another really strong aspect of this film - its great sense of humor. There are funny moments in all of the Marvel films, but GotG is the first to come across as a borderline comedy. There are moments which are laugh-out-loud funny, mostly orchestrated by Chris Pratt in his role as Peter Quill, but also Rocket Raccoon, the all-too-literal responses from Drax, and even the straight-man comments from many of the other characters. I don't think any of the other Marvel movies would have been able to get away with dropping "turd blossom" in the middle of a deadly serious moment and have it work, but GotG pulls it off in a way that feels natural to the spirit of the film; it is a rollicking adventure ride through space, filled with gun battles, spaceship fights, fisticuffs, madcap hijinks, and more than anything else, a great sense of fun. I've seen every film in the MCU lineup multiple times now, and Guardians of the Galaxy is easily the most "fun" film of the lot. I think that was a deliberate choice by Marvel (given a film with a trigger-happy raccoon, this makes sense), but it would have been all too easy for the fun-factor to come off gimmicky or forced.Thankfully here, that is not the case at all.

In conclusion, if you like fun, fast-paced sci-fi adventures, and/or you're a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think you'll enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chasing the Rabbit of Success

Believe me, he's faster than he looks.
Yesterday, I had conversations with three writer friends of mine. We discussed pricing, promotions, writing our product descriptions, cover art and design, tracking sales, royalties, and other writing business minutia. Some good discussions with nice guys, talented writers all of them.

It wasn't until this morning that I realized, the one thing we didn't really discuss was the writing itself. We didn't talk about plot hooks, or character concepts, or cool scenes we were working out in our heads. We didn't bounce ideas for new stories off each other, or ask questions about the progress of current projects. In short, all we focused on was the business side of writing, and we all but ignored the writing itself.

In the movie Pacific Rim, a new Jaeger pilot can find themselves caught up in the memories that flood their minds when they enter "the drift" and join consciousnesses with their co-pilot. The pilot "chases the rabbit" and pursues a fleeting memory, getting lost in the conjoined memories and becoming distracted, disoriented, helpless, or even a danger to themselves and others. When I realized this morning how much time and energy I spend on scrutinizing and micro-managing the business side of writing and publishing, I know part of it is because I can see that rabbit ahead of me, that dream of becoming financially self-sufficient off of my royalties, quitting my day job (which, by the way, I loathe) and becoming a Full-Time Writer. I want to catch that rabbit more than I care to admit, and there are times when that feeling of wanting becomes akin to desperation.

When a new title goes live, I'm checking the sales page fifty times a day. When it starts to sell, I'm still checking the page while thinking of what I can do to spread the word and all but click the "buy" button for people. When a title flops, I look at it like a houseplant that's slowly withering and dying, no matter how much water and light and plant food I give it. Tweaking the cover, re-writing the description, playing with pricing, hitting the social media marketing pavement, launching promos - I'll do anything I can think of to get the word out there and sell sell sell. The only thing that keeps my promotional drum-beating in check is the fear of being "that guy" - the jerk on Twitter or Facebook who does nothing but spam followers with links to buy their books over and over again.

And the problem is, of course, that the rabbit is real. Becoming a financially successful author isn't some fantasy no one achieves except the luckiest of a lucky few. This post over at the Passive Voice Blog is filled with people who've either gone full-time or are anticipating doing so in the foreseeable future. The new publishing paradigms of the last few years have made it possible for more people than ever before to make a living - or at least, create an appreciable second income stream - from their writing. And the harsh reality of it is, you do have to pay attention to things like your cover design, your pricing strategies, your marketing, your product description, and so forth. If you don't, even the best book will languish in the doldrums, and you'll get discouraged, perhaps giving up the idea that you're any good, that you should keep at it despite a poor start.

What makes matters worse, of course, is seeing the real A-listers crushing it time and time again, and hearing the "Coffee is for Closers Only!" speeches they throw around. This Passive Voice Blog post discussing an article by powerhouse author Russell Blake became so incendiary, the blog owner had to turn off comments, because once Blake showed up and began kicking people in the junk over their own wishy-washy definitions of "effectiveness" and 'success", the knives came out. That's not the only example of such advice, of course - plenty of the more successful indie authors have thrown down the gauntlet, inadvertently or not, and made less successful writers question everything they're doing. Can't write for two hours every single day? You're a slacker. Can't get a new "book" out every month? Slacker. Your book can't stay above the "dreaded" 10,000 marker on the Amazon best-sellers list? It's a failure. Not willing to pay out $500+ for a book cover? You're just not taking this seriously, go wade in the kiddie pool with the other wannabes. And, oh, by the way - this business is only getting more cut-throat by the minute as the "tsunami of swill" covers the world, so if you're not selling a hundred copies a day right now, just give up, because the next new dino-porn craze will mean your novel will go unnoticed forever.

Chuckle at that last paragraph if you will, but I've seen all of those statements, and many more, over the last year or two, and no matter how hard you try to ignore the negativity, it's going to eat into your soul a little bit every day. You're going to start thinking to yourself, "Hmmm...maybe writing Bigfoot erotica isn't that hard...I can just use another pen name...", or paying out to professional marketers in the hopes that your poorly-selling book will finally find its audience, and some journalist will be interviewing you to ask about the secret of your success, and your story will cause other writers to furiously jot down notes, because hey - you caught that rabbit! That means it's possible after all!

Ultimately, I have to come to terms with the fact that I may never become a Full-Time Writer. Right now, my royalty stream is roughly equivalent to working a part-time job for 20 or so hours a week at a coffee shop or grocery store. It is definitely a solid, substantial source of income, and I appreciate every dollar. Over time, as I write and publish more, I hope that income stream grows, but there's no guarantee. My latest book has pretty much performed a face-plant a yard from the starting line, And I can already feel the first twinges of despair over it joining the pile of "failures" in my portfolio. That despair, of course, fuels the drive to figure out what I can do next to write something more profitable - the rabbit has gained more of a lead, and I'm pushing myself harder trying to catch up.

But what about the joys of writing? I actually love writing my Commando novels. Hanging out with Lynch, Bowen, McTeague, and the rest is a blast for me. I had a great deal of fun writing Renegade's Revenge, as well, and despite its abysmal performance over the years, I do want to write another Nanok short because I had a ton of fun writing the first story, and I want to get back to that goofy pastiche-y world I created. And of course, there's the sequel to Killer Instincts, which I do, in fact, want to write, but so many other projects come along and push themselves to the front of the line because I've decided to put success first.

This article on writing has gone on so long, it's becoming a book in its own right, so I'll conclude by saying that although someday I hope to write for a living, I never want to care more about promotions and marketing and price points than I do about my characters and their stories. Those two forces - the urge to create something I love to write, and the urge to create something I hope will make me money - will need to find a point of balance if I'm going to continue down this road without driving myself (and everyone around me) crazy.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Click the Cover to Visit on Amazon
The first book in this series of hard fantasy novels (no magic, elves, dragons, etc.), The Pirates of Alnari, was an excellent debut effort on the part author Dan Eldredge. A long-time fan of fantasy fiction as well as the maritime novels of Patrick O'Brien, Eldredge's first book was a blend of swashbuckling, seafaring adventure with the kind of cutthroat political intrigue that fans of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series have come to enjoy. There was also a buffet-sized portion of grim, brutal violence, displaying the author's keen understanding of medieval hand-to-hand combat.

Now, Eldredge has just released the second book in the series, The Grand Masquerade, and while there are a few seafaring chapters, the bulk of the story takes place on land. This story is, if anything, even more reminiscent of GRRM's storytelling, but in all the ways in which GRRM's books make for great, highly engaging reads. An assassination during a masquerade ball, coupled with the fallout from the events of the first book, results in nobles and generals maneuvering against each other for the fate of four nations. Knights charge home with lances couched and blades held high, as warships hurl deadly incendiaries and flights of arrows at each other in massive fleet actions ending the lives of thousands. War on a grand scale is always difficult to get right, but in this book, Eldredge has done an excellent job of making the narrative thrilling and fast-paced, but at the same time, delivered with great attention to detail.

Of course, trapped between the crushing jaws of nation-states locked in mortal combat, protagonists Martyn, Arycke, and Starissa try to stay alive and one step ahead of their foes, no mean feat in a world where no good deed goes unpunished, and death can come at any time, in any form, and from any direction. A number of major and minor characters get ground into mince-meat by the wheels of war and politics during this novel, and I found myself turning the pages as quickly as I could during the most intense moments, hoping that characters I enjoyed would make it through a particularly perilous scene. More often than hopes were dashed to bits, like a skull shattered by a warhammer.

If you like grim, hard-hitting fantasy fiction that doesn't need to rely on elves, dragons, and fireballs to get the job done, I think you'll really enjoy The Grand Masquerade. Although it can be read on its own, you're better off reading The Pirates of Alnari first, as the events of the first book lead directly into the second, and if you're not up to speed, it might be a little overwhelming.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Len Levinson's THE SERGEANT - Great D-Day Weekend Reading
Click the Cover to See This on Amazon
I am a huge fan of Len Levinson's THE SERGEANT, as well as his Pacific Theater series THE RAT BASTARDS, and the folks at Piccadilly Publishing were kind enough to work with Levinson and bring the former series to the Kindle. The WW2 European Theater exploits of Master Sergeant CJ Mahoney make for great, pulpy, Men's Adventure wartime action reading, at a price that just can't be beat.

So if this D-Day has you reflecting on those historic events from 70 years ago, instead of popping Saving Private Ryan in the DVD player for the umpteenth time, give THE SERGEANT a try. The first few volumes are available now, with more to come as time goes on.

Monday, June 2, 2014

HANGMAN #1: San Francisco Slaughter - Available Now
Click the Cover to See on Amazon
My '70s-era Men's Adventure novel SAN FRANCISCO SLAUGHTER is now available on Amazon for the Kindle, with a trade paperback format to follow later this month. I'm copying the Amazon product description below. Thank you again to everyone who gave feedback and support to this project - I couldn't have done it without you!

Amazon Book Description:

California, 1973. Back home after three years in the jungles of Southeast Asia, former Green Beret Jamie “Hangman” Lynch is enjoying the good life, drinking beer and chasing skirts along San Diego’s Mission Beach. But Lynch finds himself growing increasingly restless, and dreaming of getting back into the fight again.
Lynch asks his former commanding officer for guidance, and is offered a chance at some excitement: a private sector job working for the CEO of a San Francisco tech company in need of a man who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. The assignment? Hunt down a man named Roth, a whiz-kid engineer in debt to the Vegas mob. Roth has stolen an advanced military prototype and is looking to sell it to the highest bidder.

Lynch accepts the job and finds himself working with Richard, an enigmatic Texan mercenary, and Blake, the company’s head of security. The three men face off against Cranston, a murderous ex-cop turned enforcer-for-hire, who’s got an army of ruthless thugs turning San Francisco upside down looking for Roth. If Cranston gets to Roth before Lynch and his partners do, Roth can kiss the prototype - and his life - goodbye.

SAN FRANCISCO SLAUGHTER is a hard-edged action-adventure novel. There's drinking, profanity, and sex. There's fast cars and big guns, sharp knives and loose women. Arson, torture, and murder are just tools in the hands of men who’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done. And while the good guys aren't so great, the bad guys are even worse.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pulp Fiction is a McDonald's Cheeseburger

I almost never eat traditional "fast food". In a city with over 300 pubs, bars, and taverns, the most common fast food is really pub food, but I've noticed over the years that traditional chains like McDonald's and Burger King are becoming increasingly rare. About the only time I'm ever inclined to eat from one of those chains is when I'm on the road, because they are the kings of interstate rest stop food establishments.

This past weekend, while stopping at one such rest stop, I had a terrible craving for a McDonald's cheeseburger. I eat one maybe once a year, so I figured now was as good a time as ever. I bought it (it cost me $1.19) and scarfed it down in about two minutes, mostly because I was taking the time to check my email on my phone.

Back on the road, I began to think about what makes those crappy little cheeseburgers so appealing. I won't say "so good", because they're not "good" in any real sense of the word, but there is something that draws you to them. I came up with a few reasons:
  • They're cheap (under two bucks)
  • You can eat them fast and on-the-go
  • The bulk of their ingredients aren't terribly special, but there's a them that makes them tasty. For the McDonald's cheeseburger, the ketchup and mustard combined with those little chopped onions and the pickles, contrasted with the sweetness of the sugar-laded bun, makes for an interesting flavor combination.
  • They're bad for you, but in moderation, they can be a "guilty pleasure".
It occurred to me that the qualities that make these little bundles of joy attractive are the same things that make pulp fiction attractive. They're cheap, fast reads that you can take and consume anywhere. The basic ingredients (overall writing proficiency, characters, plots) might not be that dazzling, but they're always something special in each series that makes them appealing. I mean, even a series as often disturbing as the Death Merchant wouldn't have lasted over 70 volumes if people didn't read it, right?

And just as there are a myriad number of different fast food burger joints, there are a bunch of different pulp fiction types and styles, from edgy hard-boiled crime to flashy swords & sorcery, to action-packed men's adventure fiction, and within each of these, different series and authors lend their own special flavors that some people find better than others. And, while I wouldn't recommend a steady diet of nothing but pulp, they can make a great break from some door-stopper of a history book, or never-ending epic fantasy collection.

As for me, although I've had my McDonald's cheeseburger for the year, I'll keep snacking on pulp fiction - at least it doesn't increase the waistline!