Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Wargaming Wednesday: Nine Novels, Zero RPGs

Old Cover Draft from Wayyyy Back When
Going to cut and paste in a series of posts from Twitter that I wrote this weekend. Every year or so, I get this notion of "finally" finishing a small role-playing game product that I can let out into the wild. I don't think I'd sell it, just create a PDF that's available for download, perhaps put a print-on-demand version on Amazon for as cheaply as they'll let me. But year after year, it doesn't happen, and I got thinking about why recently:
I've blogged about it in the past, but it is very strange for me to face that I have written nine novels and many shorter works of fiction, but the thought of putting out a short role-playing game product is vastly more nerve-wracking. 

I've been gaming since '93 and writing for profit since 2011. I ran campaigns with several homebrew RPG systems over the years, and tinkered with probably a dozen more system ideas. Yet, I have never had the nerve to finish a gaming product, package it, and put it out there.

At first I thought it was fear of criticism, but being a novelist beats that out of you pretty quickly. Maybe it's knowing that most readers just consume your product and move on, but so many gamers I know are system-tinkerers. It's like running a restaurant where half your customers are also running their own restaurants. Every single person who buys it is going to be deciding whether they could have done this better than you, and how.

Because that's the nature of RPGs. And that's fine, except that means not just criticism, but active, in-depth critique. No 4* reviews on Amazon "Fun read but the action was a little confusing". You have to defend every rule and every wording against everyone who reads it.

And to have that level of exhausting engagement, and so much of my time dedicated to a project that'd probably earn me 1% of what a novel would (if I even put it out at a price, which I probably wouldn't) just seems...not worth it.

Which kind if sucks, because I love role-playing games, and I have been a tinkering game designer for 25+ years. But the meat grinder which is that middle-aged person's algorithm of time, money, and energy vs reward is difficult to overcome.
I wrote a post about this back in 2015 on my Tankards and Broadswords blog (click to go there and read it, it's still relevant). It's funny that in the last four years, despite continued tinkering, I still don't have any kind of RPG product to share. I'm fully aware that the skill set of "Game Designer" and "Novelist" only partially overlap, but I think that is only a small portion of the problem. So, we shall see. I've got a few ideas, and I feel like if I can start small enough, I can build on a little idea incrementally. Only time will tell.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Media Monday: Rambo V - Last Blood

There's no good way to approach a review of this without sinking neck-deep into the current socio-political quagmire. There just isn't. I'm going to do my best to talk about it without engaging this, but I will fail. I'm just putting it out there that this review isn't meant to be a discussion of racism and politics in film, but rather, how to handle such issues in a way that doesn't make you look like a pack of morons.

Rambo: Last Blood is a garbage movie. There, I said it. Bring on the hate. I grew up watching the Rambo movies on VHS and (edited) television channels, so if someone wants to accuse me of not loving mindless action movies, come at me, bro. I saw Rambo 4 in the theater and left absolutely thrumming with adrenaline because I thought it was, if not a masterpiece, certainly leagues better than Rambo 3, and felt like they at least put some effort into addressing the complexities of the issues at hand with how outsiders view violent civil conflicts, and the futility of "helping" in regions where such help is marginal at best, and bloodily counter-productive at worst.

Last Blood, on the other hand, appears to have been conceived for the sole purpose of getting to the last 20 minutes of the film, and no one gave any real thought or care as to how the film got there. In order to talk about this, I'm going to have to deal with some extensive plot spoilers, so now is your chance to bail now if you don't want this.

Keep scrolling.

Almost there.

A little more.

Last chance.

Okay then, don't blame me if you're reading this and don't want spoilers.

The long and the short of it is that Rambo is now living on a horse ranch in Arizona with Maria, a woman who is at least approximate to his age, and Gabriela, a young girl who is graduating from high school and going off to college. The first big problem here is that Rambo's relationship to these two women is never actually explained. At the end of Rambo 4, you see Rambo going to a place that you assume is his family farm, but in this movie, you don't really know who is related to whom. Rambo isn't Gabriela's father, or even her grandfather. There's mention of her mother, and a deadbeat dad, whom Rambo stopped apparently at one point from beating up the mother. I'm not even sure of the relationship between Maria and the younger girl - I think she might be an aunt, but I can't say for sure. Seeing as the film spends at least its first 20-25 minutes establishing the family dynamic, the fact that I couldn't figure out the relationships makes this just sloppy writing. This is especially annoying, because the entire reason Rambo goes so batshit later on is that the girl is so emotionally important to him, the "one good thing in his life".

OK, according to Wikipedia, Rambo has no relationship to any of these people. The horse ranch belonged to his dead father, and Maria is the grandmother to Gabriela, and Maria just...runs the household? That at least makes sense, but this relationship isn't really ever laid out clearly, which shouldn't be that hard. You at least know that Gabriela's mother died of cancer when she was little, and after that, her father - who was apparently always an asshole - leaves her with Maria and goes off to Mexico. Fast forward to now, when Maria is 18. A childhood friend of hers - Gizelle, who is referred to as a "bad girl" by Maria - is now living in Mexico, and she has found Gabriela's father, who apparently lives in the same Mexican town. Despite Rambo and Maria repeatedly telling her that her dad Miguel was a violent asshole and she shouldn't have anything to do with him, and Rambo even telling her that she should maybe let her urge to visit her father simmer a little before she makes the decision to visit him, Gabriela almost immediately ducks out and drives down to Mexico to go find Gizelle and her father.

I've already spent two long paragraphs here, so I'll keep this short. Dad is an asshole (surprise) and tells Gabriela to beat it. Gabriela is sad, Gizelle takes her to a club, where she sells (!!!!!!) Gabriela to some sex traffickers, who then drug and kidnap Gabriela. Gizelle then calls back to Maria, tells her she lost Gabriela, and Rambo goes full batshit mode and drives down to Mexico, where he finds Gizelle, realizes she sold out Gabriela, and gets her to point out one of the bad guys. Stuff happens, Rambo fails, and gets beat up by the rest of the bad guys, who decide not to kill Rambo, a guy who just tortured one of their own, and showed up with a pistol and a knife.

Gabriela gets doped up, gets her face slashed, and is put to work as a forced prostitute. Eventually Rambo learns from an "independent journalist" (who just happens to watch him torture one of the bad guys and saves him after his beating) where to find Gabriela, but alas, after he saves her, she dies in his car as they're just...I don't know, driving around in the dark. Yes it makes no sense. He finally drives over the border and brings her body home, then buries her on the farm. Maria just packs up and leaves. Rambo tells her he's going to leave too, but that's a lie. He goes back to Mexico and kills one of the two lead bad guys in a way so that they know it was him. He then comes back home, preps his murder maze, and in the last 20 minutes of the film, kills everyone. The end.

You might be thinking, "Hey, this actually sounds awesome, what's the problem?" but honestly, everything is just so stupid. It's not that the characters make stupid decisions - although there is some of that - but that every time the story reaches a point where something could be done in an interesting, intelligent, nuanced fashion, the car screeches off the road and goes into the ditch. By the time you get to the climactic battle at the end, it is boorishly obvious that the entire reason the film was made was to show Rambo running around an underground death maze, murdering bad guys with knives, punji sticks, old-timey guns, booby traps, and other assorted ordnance (claymore mines and hand grenades???). There isn't even any strategy or cleverness to any of it - bad guys just die, over and over, running flat-out into death and screaming in blood and pain.

I'm sure many of you are STILL shaking your heads and saying, hey, what's the problem? The problem is, it is stupid, sloppy work. This movie could have been a really good reflection on the plight of old soldiers who never really left the war behind. On PTSD and re-integration, on wanting to be left alone, only to find violence at one's doorstep again. And while you might think there's some of this, the movie only ever skims the surface, like a stone skipping across the water, but never sinking, just bouncing back out on the other side of the river. What was the point of the movie? What themes does it dig into? What message does it send? You could get the same thrill just firing up your XBox and killing dudes in some FPS game for a couple of hours.

And yes, I am skirting the whole "Mexico" issue. The only thing I'll say about that is, you could have told the exact same kind of story, even with most of the major plot elements relatively intact - and not use Mexico as this sort of Hades-esque underworld that you only venture into at your own risk. It is, again, sloppy, tone-deaf plotting that so obviously doesn't care how it is going to be received, and in fact is probably counting on "snowflakes" hating the movie to stir up buzz and get defensive butts in seats in support of the movie. I don't know, and that's not something I want to engage with, but again - there were many directions the movie-makers could have taken this story and at the same time, left its bones intact. They picked a route through some really, really questionable waters, and at the same time, made a film so sloppy and superficial that there's no real substance to back up the choices they made, except to get us to the finale with extreme prejudice.

Honestly, I am really disappointed.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Fiction Friday: The Stonehaven League LitRPG Series

The "LitRPG" genre of fiction is...a weird one. It's not actually that new, however. The premise is that these stories revolve around characters who exist within a "game world", i.e., a world that is artificial and created as part of a game. The degree of artificiality in LitRPG stories can be very obvious, or the world can feel completely real, but still exist only as a result of some kind of game.

The first novel that I know of which seems to fall into this kind of genre, although it wasn't called LitRPG at the time, was Andre Norton's 1978 novel Quag Keep, a story about a bunch of adventurers in a medieval-type world who are actually people from Earth who were playing a role-playing game. Given that Dungeons and Dragons was roughly four years old at the time Quag Keep was published, Norton got on the bandwagon fairly early. Many others have followed over the years, one of the most notable being Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series, which started in 1983 with The Sleeping Dragon. Beyond the written word, one would consider the '80s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series to be a form of this kind of genre, as would, I feel, the movie TRON.

But the modern form of the LitRPG novel is more commonly based around computer games, and more specifically, not people transported to worlds, but rather, immersed in them through play. As virtual reality is more common these days in gaming (and is growing bigger every day), the idea of putting on VR gear and submerging yourself as your character in a game world is very real. In fact, Ready Player One  is a perfect example of this.

Enough background, though. Author and former (?) game developer Carrie Summers has written an engaging series of LitRPG / GameLit novels, which in the "real world" are set a few decades in the future, where virtual reality gaming has extended all the way to cybernetic implants that dump the virtual reality of the game right into our brain's perception of reality. In her first book, Temple of Sorrows, a young woman named Devon leaves her crappy job to work as a kind of "super-tester" for a gaming company, Relic Online, in order to push the game and it's artificial intelligence to the limits of what a capable, creative player can do.

Devon logs into the game, stunned at how the direct neural connection to the game world seems so incredibly real - she can feel the wind and the sun, the grass under her feet and the cloth of her clothing. Yet, the world still acts as a Computer Role-Playing Game. She has skills and abilities and she gains experience and levels up. When she kills a monster, the touch of a blade turns the monster's body into "loot" that can be used for other things. Anyone who has played a computer RPG in the last...twenty years or so will be familiar with the tropes of the world and its setting.

I don't want to give the plot away, but suffice to say, there is plenty going on in both the real world and the in-game world. This leads to dangers on both sides for Devon, something that I found interesting as it kept the story from being completely about her adventures in-game, and raised the stakes a little. And while this book is probably perfectly fine for a YA audience, there is a good deal of violence going on, so those who want action will get that, while those who like the puzzle-solving and "game-ness" of a game world will also have something to look forward to.

Overall, this is an enjoyable series. If I remember right, I've read the first three books, and I am just starting the fourth. with six books currently in the series. These books are all available in Kindle (for purchase or Kindle Unlimited) and paperback, and the first four are currently available as audiobooks. If this seems in any way interesting to you, I definitely recommend checking them out.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Wargaming Wednesday: eBay Miniature Rescues

Today I just wanted to spotlight a great YouTube channel, eBay Miniature Rescues. Casey is a talented painter and a very nice hobbyist (I've exchanged emails with him before and he was polite and very helpful), who specializes on - you guessed it - finding used and often ill-treated miniatures on eBay, buying them, and then doing a paint-stripping and repainting project with them. His channel appears relatively new, with only a couple dozen videos, but the quality has progressed enormously over time, and the production value of his video work is now absolutely fantastic.

Here's a recent video where Casey strips and repaints an older Warhammer Fantasy Battles model.

As you can see, pretty darn cool. Although he tends towards the fantasy side of the miniature spectrum, Casey will also do Warhammer 40,000 rescues, such as this squad of Chaos Marines:

Although Casey's painting talents far exceed my own, he's given me some of the confidence I needed to begin my own eBay rescue projects. If you are interested in going out onto eBay and finding your own miniatures, as I talked about in a previous blog post, Casey even has a video on some good searching techniques:

So, if you have any interest in the second-hand miniatures market, you absolutely should check out eBay Miniature Rescues.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Media Monday: Enjoy Entertainment For What It Is

Another short but hopefully thought-provoking post today.

First, I know this has the potential to draw in issues of social justice and other real-world problems that we are all struggling with in one way or another, and I get that. Entertainment is there, first and foremost, to entertain us, and that usually means some element of escapism. That kind of escapism is different for everyone, and while there are certainly some issues that should always be addressed, there are a lot of people for whom escapism means being able to step away from those issues. I am not going to say this is a good or a bad thing, just that it is a sentiment often expressed, and for those people, that sentiment is real. I guess that is my wishy-washy way of saying that I am trying to not directly address social issues here, but instead a more all-encompassing philosophy of entertainment.

For me, that philosophy breaks down to "Enjoy entertaining things for what they are, don't hate them for what they are not". No body of entertainment is perfect, nor can any one body of entertainment media address perfectly all aspects of itself that all consumers may find entertaining. If your go-to for entertainment is gross-out comedy movies, clearly that is not going to appeal to people whose go-to entertainment excludes gross-out humor. I see no point in anyone who dislikes gross-out humor watching such films and then complaining about them. This holds true for almost any form of entertainment, and while we might all be forgiven decades ago for going to movies or watching television shows that we were ignorant of, now that we have the Internet, that is a lack of due diligence on the part of the viewer.

I first started (recently) thinking about this when I saw the fan-rage over the teaser trailer to the latest Star Wars movie, Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker. There's a moment with a folding lightsaber - yes, that moment, I can see you folks in the back already twitching in your seats - and within hours, never mind days of that trailer going live, the internet was flooded with people screaming and foaming at the mouth over how stupid a gimmick this was and so on. One particular YouTube channel had a 23-minute long video complaining about the lightsaber. Do you know how long it takes to produce a reasonably professional 23-minute long YouTube video? With props and everything? This person likely invested days worth of work to make it, all to complain about something in five seconds of a trailer for a move about laser swords and space magic.

And you know why? Because the video got tens of thousands of monetized views. But that's a whole other article for another day.

People like to get outraged about things. Yes, there are issues worth getting outraged about, but the shape of a science fiction laser sword isn't one of them. This obsessive, fandom-ish need to explain and legitimize and pick apart and deconstruct every single aspect of our entertainment media is not only exhaustive, it's honestly annoying. It becomes this battleground where people spend more time arguing over their entertainment than actually enjoying anything. This is one of the reasons I don't visit Facebook groups around WW2 films or books - everyone in there is a rivet-counting asshole, and if they aren't, they get shouted down by the rivet-counting assholes. Every single movie you bring up in such a group, there's going to be someone who hates it because some aspect of it was displeasing to them.

I remember someone complaining about the end of Saving Private Ryan because when the Tiger tank is destroyed by the airplane, the plane didn't have empty bomb or rocket racks attached to its lower fuselage. I also remember someone complaining about the movie Fury, and how "laughably stupid" it was that the Tiger in that movie - in real life the only operational Tiger 1 in the entire world, acquired from the Bovington Tank Museum for use in the film - was in its 1943 Tunisian camouflage paint pattern, and not what one would see on a Tiger in mid-1945. Yeah I am sure the staff at Bovington are just going to paint over and then painstakingly strip and re-paint the only operational Tiger tank in the world just for some asshole in a movie theater. I mean, yeah, this is a bit silly.

I guess my overall point here is, be honest about what you want from entertainment, seek that out, and don't complain about what was never intended to be there. Don't watch Wizards in Space for realistic engineering and physics demonstrations. Don't watch war movies if you'll have an aneurysm over the smallest historical inaccuracy. Don't watch horror movies if you're not prepared to see stupid horror movie tropes in action. Don't watch stupid raunchy sex comedies if you're not prepared to see cringe-worthy sex and gender stereotyping. For a large percentage of the population - for good or for ill - humor is about that which causes discomfort. The Office was all about "cringe humor". America's Funniest Home Videos was all about dads getting whacked in the crotch by whiffle bats. There is no getting away from this - it is at the heart of what is entertaining for some people.

Now, to circle back to my opening statement, you can be justified in being upset at something when it tries to do that thing, but actively fails to do so. If your entertainment is about female empowerment, but you fall back on cringy, decades-old stereotypes, or if your message is that female empowerment is in some way bad and you're trying to be edgy by subverting this...than people should call you out for what you are, because you are trying to do that thing and doing it badly. This also doesn't mean you can be left off the hook for obvious racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on just by saying "well this movie was never intended to address that". We live in too-aware a society for that to be a legitimate excuse anymore. I sort of look at it like the old doctor's premise, "First, do no harm". As long as you can avoid being actively racist, sexist, and so forth, I feel you are not required to actively address those and other social issues if that is not the nature and theme of your entertainment.

At the end of the day, as I mentioned in a recent post about modern reading habits and sources of entertainment, we only have so many hours in the day in which to consume entertainment, so why would we purposefully seek out entertainment that doesn't fit with our entertainment comfort zone? Life is too short and blood pressure too high already for us to do that to ourselves.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Fiction Friday: THE LAST WISH: Introducing the Witcher

If you follow video gaming at all, you've likely heard of The Witcher series of open-world RPG video games. They feature the monster-hunting Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, wandering the world and killing that which goes bump in the night. The world of the Witcher is based around Slavic folklore, a flavor of Western monster mythology that is a little removed from what most of us are used to unless you are really into the subject of bestiary folklore.

But fewer people realize that the Witcher and his world started out as a series of short stories and novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Most of the stories were written in the 1990s, but it wasn't until the mid-oughts and later that they were given English translations. Coming at the end of this year, Netflix is releasing a television series based around the stories, and of course both fans of the books and the video games are howling over how the details shown in the trailer don't do the series justice.

Curious about both such a popular video game character and what might drive Netflix to pick up the IP, I grabbed the first (chronologically) anthology of short stories, THE LAST WISH. I was immediately hooked. For a book translated from a different language, the prose is evocative and pulls you right into the world, a very dark, late medieval-era feeling fantasy realm, very similar to the Ravenloft setting of Dungeons & Dragons. If you aren't familiar with Slavic folklore, some of the creatures might seem unusual to you, but that slightly alien nature just adds to the creepiness of the setting - this isn't some adventurer going after your usual orcs and goblins, this is a true monster hunter, for whom a blend of swords, sorcery, and dark knowledge is needed to take on the evils lurking in the deep forests and crumbling towers.

So if you like dark fairy-tale fantasy with an Eastern European bent to it, do yourself a favor and check out Sapkowski's fiction. I'll definitely find time this fall to work my way through more of Geralt's adventures.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Wargaming Wednesday: Don't Feel Guilt Buying on eBay

Maybe this is a more controversial topic than I believe it is, but I find weird the pressure people feel against buying second-hand or portioned out miniatures on eBay. To be clear, I am not talking about buying re-casted (aka, illegally copied) miniatures - that's a no-no and should never happen. I'm talking about buying out-of-production miniatures, or second-hand miniatures owned previously by someone else, even if that person just bought a large boxed set (like Games Workshop's Dark Imperium boxed set) and is selling the individual miniatures a few at a time.

These out-of-production models were purchased like this on eBay

There can be a lot of reasons why you'd want to do this. For the out-of-production miniatures, you might just like a particular sculpt of a miniature, but it isn't made anymore. For me, I want to eventually buy and paint one of every GW Space Marine Chaplain, but there are only a handful still being made, while plenty of models with perfectly viable equipment loadouts are still usable in the current version of the game. Another reason might be that you're building, for example, a small display army using older, "retro" models. A lot of people these days are making small Rogue Trader-era forces more for the fun of rediscovering the models than anything else.

Some of the above, now stripped of paint and ready for rebirth!

Another aspect to buying online might be to find a model you want that's not available on its own. For Primaris Space Marines, for example, you cannot buy a Primaris Ancient (aka, Standard Bearer) as its own model anywhere except eBay, since it only comes in the Dark Imperium boxed set. The same goes for the Gravis Captain. In the past, this was likewise the case with other armies. The first official generic Ork Warboss to come with a power klaw didn't arrive until the Assault on Black Reach boxed set for 40K's 5th edition, along with Ork Deffkoptas mounted with rokkits (and the old Deffkopta model is absolutely hideous and ancient).

Tactical marines from the 1993 (!!!) 2nd Edition 40K boxed set.
And of course, another reason might be that you want that ONE particular bit for a model you're making. Maybe you like the look of a certain helmet or sword or gun. Maybe it fits with a theme, maybe the normal kit the part comes in only has 1 per box, and you need five. Sure, you're going to pay more money for it, but this is a leisure hobby, and eBay bits sellers are working from a sellers' market. I've bought plenty of little bits over time in order to build units of a certain theme, and while you're paying a premium for having that degree of choice, I never once felt cheated by the prices.

This Chaplain model has long been OOP. His gun is also an eBay bit purchase.
The biggest criticism or worry I've seen from people who don't want to buy on eBay is that you're not giving money to your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS). Sure, that's true, but the same reasons you'd be buying on eBay are the same reasons you're not buying at your FLGS - the models and bits are either out of production, or they come in a larger boxed set and aren't sold individually. No one should feel guilty you're not buying a $160 boxed set from your FLGS when all you want is a handful of miniatures you can get on eBay for a fraction of that cost. And as for the idea that Games Workshop isn't getting your money - well, that's bullshit. They got their money for that particular model when that model was first purchased. It doesn't matter if the miniature is 30 years old - at some point, someone gave the company money for that object, and that's that. I hear this as an argument against used book stores pretty frequently - that it keeps the money from the hands of the author - but that's just a guilt trip. A paperback novel is an object, and there's no reason to not sell or give away an object when you are done with it. Conversely, there's no reason you should feel guilt buying it second-hand.

So, with that in mind, if you're looking to build a miniatures army, and you're willing to give older miniatures a little TLC, go onto eBay and do a little investigating. You might be surprised at what you find!

For the Emperor!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Media Monday: The Kindle eBook Reader

I'm not sure when I bought my first eBook. It was probably around 2010, and I think I would have bought it using the Kindle app on a work-provided iPad. Not much later, or perhaps around the same time, I had the app on an iPod Touch (I didn't have a smartphone). This was around the time that I was starting to connect with other authors, and I was beginning work on my first novel, as well as tinkering with short story concepts. Many of the older authors I was talking to were reclaiming rights to their backlists, while newer authors were experimenting with self-publishing, so I bought a few eBooks and began to read.

Reading on an iPod Touch was OK, especially since the device was small and easy to carry around. Reading on a 1st Generation iPad was more cumbersome, since the tablet is large and comparatively heavy. It is also quite bright if the screen is turned up, but when the brightness is lowered, it is much harder to use. The irritation of having a bright screen shining in my face at close range made reading for extended periods of time rather uncomfortable. Still, I liked the various features the Kindle app provided - the ability to "whispersync" your place in an eBook across multiple devices, and of course, the ability to instantly buy and download a new book. It did not take long for me to see the many benefits in eBook technology.

My 2011 Kindle (left) and 2013 Kindle Paperwhite (right)

Shortly after publishing my first pieces of short fiction in 2011, I decided it was time to get a Kindle. I bought it in December of 2011, and was immediately impressed. While the keyboard might make it a little intimidating or "retro" at first, and the e-ink contrast isn't as sharp as later models, I immediately found the e-ink technology extremely comfortable to read. There was no light shining directly into my face, the side buttons turning the page allowed one to keep reading with a brief twitch of my thumb, and the ability to adjust font size, line spacing, and character density made reading very easy on my eyes, which is especially important for me, as my eyesight isn't great, and paperback fonts tend to be small and cramped.

A little more than a year later, I did buy a 7" Samsung tablet, and while it was so much better to read on than my tiny smartphone or the large, cumbersome iPad, it still shined a bright light in my face, and once I purchased a larger LG smartphone, I found the tablet redundant. A few months later, addressing the one major flaw in my Kindle (the lack of a reading light), I bought a Kindle Paperwhite in 2013. While I missed the buttons - and it was harder to take notes with the touch keyboard vs the actual physical button keyboard - the Paperwhite was smaller, lighter, and the adjustable light, which shown across the page, rather than out from behind it, made reading in low light extremely easy.

Way to be an elitist shitbag!
There are a lot of people out there who speak derisively of eBooks and Kindles. Some complain that Amazon doesn't use the EPUB file format, which means Amazon eBooks don't work on other e-readers. They complain that eBooks purchased on other platforms don't work on the Kindle. Neither of these arguments really bother me, since the only two e-ink competitors are the Nook and the Kobo, and frankly, if you tied your line to either of those brands, I'm sorry to say, you've got problems. Beyond that, apps from other booksellers can install on most phones and mobile devices, regardless of file type. Other people complain about DRM (Digital Rights Management - aka, anti-piracy technology), but frankly, that's put in place at the request of the publisher, not the distributor, so if you have a problem with an Amazon eBook having DRM, write the publisher, not Mr. Bezos.

And of course, there's the "I just love books" argument. People love the feel of a book, the smell of paper, the act of turning pages, blah blah blah. Look, no one is forcing a Kindle into your hands and dragging your books out of your house to throw into the back of a dump truck. Contrary to popular opinion, Marie Kondo isn't telling you to ONLY keep 30 books in your house (I have her book - in paper no less - and she says no such thing). For some reason, people seem to think that proponents of eBooks live some weird minimalist, digital-only lifestyle. I own two e-readers, and I've got sixteen bookcases filled to the damn brim with books. There's books everywhere you turn in my home, and you know what - that's one of the reasons I like the Kindle. I don't have to go digging through piles and bookcases looking for a book, it's right there in the Kindle inventory. I don't need to worry about packing "backup" books when I go on a trip, because I've already got several hundred right there with me.

Mmmm, smells like mold, cigarette smoke, and cat piss.
Does it need to be recharged? Sure, maybe every couple of weeks it needs to be plugged in for a couple of hours. My phone needs to be recharged every day, sometimes twice a day depending on how much I use it. A laptop might need to be recharged every few hours. Compared to most of the electronic devices you use every day, the Kindle, comparatively, lasts an order of magnitude longer. Both of mine are 6+ years old, and I can still read 2-3 novels on them before the battery runs out. It takes the barest minimum of device power management to make this a non-issue. And, other than that, I don't see many drawbacks to these devices. The Paperwhite weights about the same as a paperback novel, and the newer versions of the Kindle line are even lighter.

In conclusion, eBooks and the e-reader have completely changed the way I buy and read books, making it a much more immediate experience. I still buy used, vintage paperbacks for my collections, and I still buy paper books for research because it is easier to find a specific page or diagram in a paper book, but for casual, leisure reading, it's almost exclusively done via eBooks.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Fiction Friday: The Original Dragonlance Chronicles Trilogy

Just a quick post today as I wrap up a busy work week. I cribbed this off of my Facebook feed in response to a Tor Books post about the original "Chronicles" Dragonlance tie-in novels, and how formative those novels were to a generation of role-playing gamers and fantasy enthusiasts. For many folks (myself included) we read these books before Conan or Lord of the Rings.

You can read the article here.

No joke, I think the author stole the memories of my early teenage years and used them to write this piece. Until maybe my sophomore year of high school, I'd always eschewed fantasy and science fiction in favor of shoot 'em up men's adventure and espionage thrillers, until one day a classmate of mine loaned me these three books. This was at least a year before I first played Dungeons & Dragons, and long before I tried reading The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. I still have my original three paperbacks, bought after reading this for the first time almost 30 years ago.

After getting into D&D, I did buy the second edition "Tales of the Lance" boxed set, although I never did play it. Frankly, I feel like it isn't really superior to the Dragonlance Adventures hardcover for 1E that came out in the '80s. I remember seeing this advertised in the back of comic books, before I got into D&D or really understood what it was or how it played. I remember staring at this all the time, thinking it seemed like the most badass thing I could imagine. When I got into D&D later on, I did buy the 2nd edition Tales of the Lance boxed set, but just didn't appreciate it as much as the 1E Dragonlance Adventures hardcover, which I acquired in a used book store my freshman year of college.

It has been years since I re-read the original trilogy. I started re-reading Kindle editions, and while it didn't disappoint, I had read them so many times, knowing what was about to happen meant I eventually started reading something else and didn't get back to it, but yeah, I do want to give 'em another go, although I am a little nervous as to whether they'll hold up or not. It is simply a matter of remembering that they represent fantasy and RPGs at a certain particular point in time, and appreciate them for what they are, instead of criticizing them for what they are not.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Wargaming Wednesday: Not Just Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons was the first pen-and-paper tabletop role-playing game I ever encountered. I started playing in the summer of '93, when two of my friends had the "Big Black Box" edition of the DnD Basic Rules set. For those of you who know what the BBB version is...well I don't need to tell you anything. For all you newbies out there, this was a really big intro boxed set that had a ton of "rules cards", a big map adventure, tiny cardboard monsters and PCs...basically everything you'd need to play the first few levels of your characters - which is not unusual for the D&D boxed sets - but in a larger format, with full-color maps and cardboard counters.

Up until this point, I really hadn't been into "Fantasy", but I had read the first three Dragonlance books (that's a post for another day), and so I had some idea of what I was getting into. Needless to say, I was immediately hooked - in fact, far more than the two other people I was gaming with. I quickly bought the 2nd Edition Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual, and the over the next few years, I bought EVERYTHING that TSR produced - settings, Class handbooks, DM's guides...the works. The biggest problem, unfortunately, was lack of players, since I was living in a fairly rural small town in Maine, and my high school peers, for the most part, weren't interested in gaming.

When I moved off to college in 1995, I brought most of my gaming materials with me, certain that I'd be able to find a DnD group at a large urban university. But of course, as soon as I found some nerdy brethren and asked who played D&D, I received mocking laughter. "We don't play that game, you dork. We play White Wolf games. Those are real role-playing games".

I got sucked into a Werewolf: the Apocalypse game, and really enjoyed it, and I played a little Vampire and a little Mage as well. My RPG tastes began to grow, and I started buying other games, surprised that there were dozens of games put out by a wide variety of publishers in any genre you could think of. And of course, this was the late '90s, when the Internet gave us the ability to communicate around the world and share documents online with each other, enabling the explosion of what is commonly known as the "indie gaming" revolution. New voices emerged in the industry, edgy people with games that strayed far from the staid boundaries of D&D, GURPS, Rifts, World of Darkness, and other, more established platforms.

Fast-forward twenty years, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. Dungeons and Dragons is now well into its fifth - and most popular - edition, and most of the old guard are still around in one form or another. But smaller, indie presses and self-published games continue to arrive on the scene almost daily. In addition, the disdain most D&D folks had for the 4th edition rules, coupled with the death of D&D co-creator Gary Gygax back in 2008 sparked the "Old School Renaissance", where many gamers went back to the old editions of the game, breathing life back into them and using the bones of their rules sets to create a huge variety of different games.

Over the decades, I've collected a lot of role-playing games. Far more than I ever have, or ever could, play. I don't know what the current number is, but it is probably creeping up towards a hundred different RPGs and/or editions. And yet, that barely scratches the surface of what's out there, even from larger game companies, never mind "indie" developers. It's interesting that Dungeons and Dragons is more popular and more mainstream than it has ever been, and yet, most people have no idea of the immense variety of games out there - settings, play styles, rules types - whatever your interests might be, there is likely a game for you. And, just to give a minuscule taste, here's a YouTube video I watched last night, which dips a toe into the fathomless pool of games out there:

Yes, the video is a bit long, but if you have any curiosity about role-playing games, it is definitely worth your time to watch, and certainly better than me trying to pitch a bunch of different games. Oh, and it is worth noting that of the ten games they mention, I only own one of these - Call of Cthulhu - and it's an old edition. So if I own nearly a hundred RPGs, and only 1 of them is on this list, that gives you some idea of the variety out there.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Media Monday: People Read Less - So What?

Now that we've gotten that no doubt controversial post title out of the way - yes, according to this article on The Passive Voice Blog, a recent study on how Americans use their leisure time showed that in the last fifteen years, the amount of time we spend in leisure reading has dropped about 30 percent.

Now, before you run off and claim this is a sign of the fall of Western civilization, feel free to head over to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and take a look at the Time Use Survey data. Unless there's a more select breakdown of this data, their categories are pretty broad, and if I may say so, kind of antiquated. They refer to "computer use", but don't seem to indicate if that also includes mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. They also list "socializing and communicating", but I'm not sure if that includes communicating digitally via messaging or other social media. Further, they refer to "watching TV", but as there are so many people these days who almost exclusively stream their TV content via a computer, what if I am watching television via my laptop? Or I'm watching YouTube or Twitch, but on my television?

The crux of the worry here, for this blog post at least, is that people are reading less. And I think the above paragraph might shed a little light on why. Although claims have been made that we've been reading less since the 1980s, I would wager the decline has been more rapid in the last 10-15 years, and for obvious reasons. People these days simply have more ways in which to spend their leisure time, and although I don't know if people have more or less leisure time these days, We all have only so many hours in the day, period. Looking back at the 1980s as the starting point for this decline, we have the arrival of cable television and computer video gaming as two major time sinks. Cable is especially important when you look at that time use survey and see that by far, "watching TV" is still considered the largest leisure activity. Once the average person's TV content went from a handful of channels to dozens, including channels that showed theatrical movies, there was a lot more content for the TV viewer to consume. Also consider that this would have been a boom time for cassette tapes, VHS tapes, and then as time went on, CDs and DVDs. "Home entertainment" exploded in the '80s and '90s, even if you set aside home computing and console gaming, which you really can't.

But what about the books? Someone on the Internet told me that Men stopped reading because [insert awkward and sexist bullshit here]. Well, it is true that a lot of "Men's Fiction" dried up during this time period, but I believe it had less to do with the lack of testosterone in the Publishing World, and more to do with a lack of profit, both for the authors and for the publishers. Most of the serial fiction writing was done on a write-for-hire basis, without any royalty structure, which meant you got one paycheck for your novel, regardless of how good or bad it was. This, along with rapid turnaround times for getting books out the door, and the steady merge-merge-merge of smaller houses being bought up by larger ones, and little imprints being abandoned because they weren't profitable enough, caused a lot of venues for "Men's fiction" to simply dry up. Why should a major publishing house pump out skinny little dimestore novels when it could put out a doorstopper hardcover, then sell the same book six months to a year later as a mass market paperback?

This article about veteran novelist David Morrell is pretty telling in this regard. His iconic character, John Rambo, first came to live in a novel where (spoiler alert) he's killed off at the end. But Morrell was lucky enough to sell the rights to the novel as a movie deal, and in that film, FIRST BLOOD, Rambo doesn't die in the end. In fact, he goes on to make multiple blockbuster movies, including one coming out this very month. Even the author himself notices that he has a moment of disconnect when he sees his character in its screen persona, so far removed from that character he penned decades ago. Morrell lived through this transformation in the publishing business, where the question stopped being whether it was a good book that would sell, into just how marketable is the book - how far can you carry it into possible TV or film options. What about streaming venues? Video games? A book is no longer just a good story, it is precious intellectual property that can be branded and milked for every possible drop of profit.

And to circle back to advancements in media for a moment, while traditional publishing houses might have failed not only their authors but their readers, leaving their leisure time to be consumed by TV and video game entertainment, now multimedia entertainment means anyone carrying a smartphone has in their pocket access to whatever form of entertainment they desire - from books, to music, to movies and television, to video games and instructional videos, newspapers, magazine articles, interpersonal and social media communication channels, and much more.

We have access to more information - reference and entertainment - right now in our pockets than anyone before us in the history of the world. It is only natural that we make use of that access, and such use eats into time that, in decades past, was used to read a novel. And you know what? That's okay. I have always been an avid reader, and I would never tell anyone to not read for pleasure, but there are so many other venues for entertainment these days, and there's nothing wrong with partaking in them, because at the end of the day, if you gain enjoyment out of doing it, that's what's most important.

Now, does not reading mean we are negatively impacting our vocabulary, our own literacy, our very imagination? Maybe yes, maybe no. I know a lot of early Gen-Xers and Boomers who bemoan that "kids these days" are illiterate and can't write a proper sentence or spelling...and then you see these people post on Facebook, and in my mind, their arguments become invalid. If someone wants to better their vocabulary or educate themselves, the online and digital resources available to them now make the resources available to me when I was growing up pale in comparison. I regularly turn to YouTube or some other online resource for information on a wide variety of topics, and these digital resources can provide information in a way that no written text ever could.

So at the end of the day, yes, people might be reading less, but does that mean they are learning less? Are they using their imaginations less? Are we simply shifting where we are dedicating our time and changing the way we learn? Is watching a YouTube channel on history worse than reading a history book? Is watching a Netflix series about bank robbers worse than reading a series of novels about bank robbers? Is watching someone stream a video game over Twitch really that different from going to an arcade and watching someone play Pac-Man?