Archive for January, 2012

Game Review: Black Crusade

Monday, January 30th, 2012

I love roleplaying games–I’ve played them ever since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in junior high, and today I’m involved in three different roleplaying campaigns (though one is on temporary hiatus). I’m getting my kids into it now that they’re older, and I have gone on record many times to say that if more parents understood what roleplaying games were really about, they’d actually push their kids into them. A cooperative storytelling activity that encourages imagination, social skills, communal problem solving, and reading? Sign me up!

Of course, the game I’m going to talk about today isn’t one I’ll be playing with my kids anytime soon, and is not going to win anyone over from the “RPGs are evil” side of the argument. It’s called Black Crusade, and it’s about playing the villains instead of the heroes.

Black Crusade is part of the Warhammer 40k RPG line from Fantasy Flight, a series of gorgeously over-produced hardback books steeped in one of the richest and most enormous settings you’ll ever see. “40k” is shorthand for “40,000,” ie, 38,000 years in the future when mankind has already gained and lost contact with more worlds than most other SF settings ever have in the first place. Half science and half dark fantasy, it’s a setting where FTL travel is made possible by magic portals that allow a ship to travel in and out of the Warp, which is basically hell. The setting’s been around forever, notably through the tabletop miniatures game and recent video games such as Dawn of War. In RPG form, the new line began in late 2007 with Dark Heresy, which focused on the Inquisitors who roam the intergalactic empire making sure nobody gets too friendly with the daemons in the Warp. It was a great game with a simple system and some very evocative options, and was followed by Rogue Trader (space pirates) and Deathwatch (space marines). That was intended to be the full trilogy, covering the three main archetypes of play in the setting, but last year they published a fourth book that turns the entire setting on its head: what if you want to play as the daemons in the Warp, seeking to corrupt and conquer the “real” world? Black Crusade won’t be for everybody, but those who like it are going to absolutely love it.

Villain campaigns are a tricky thing to handle, and many a game group has tried and failed to make them work. Usually they fall apart because one or more of the players interpret “I’m a bad guy” to mean “I can screw over the rest of the team if I want to.” Black Crusade addresses this directly by giving the players a common goal and different, often complimentary ways of achieving it. They have to work together if they want to get anything done.

The goal is simple: you are an acolyte of the Chaos Powers, and you want to gain in favor and strength to eventually become a Chaos Daemon. See what I said about being kind of dark? You track your progress towrd this goal with two tally charts: Infamy and Corruption. Everything you accomplish gives you Infamy, and everything you experience gives you Corruption. Choices you make, and situations you get yourself into, will raise your Corruption, and the more corrupted you get the more powers you’ll be granted by the Chaos Gods. Once you hit 100 Corruption your transformation will be complete, but what you transform into depends on your Infamy: with at least 100 Infamy you’ll become a Daemon Prince, but with anything less you’ll become a mindless Daemon Spawn. Your character arc is essentially a life-or-death balancing act, gaining enough Corruption to become hugely powerful without tipping over the edge and losing yourself completely. By working with other characters you have access to more abilities, more strings you can pull, and so on, so you can gain Infamy at a much faster rate. Screw the other players and you stand to lose a lot more than you gain.

Infamy is gained primarily through Compacts, which is an interesting adventure system that puts the players in a much more active role than normal–fitting, I think, for a game about villains. This is one of my favorite parts of the whole game. A Compact is a plan, more or less, where the players come together and say “We want to gain some infamy. What should we do?” This primary objective can be something small (assassinate an important leader, steal an artifact, etc.) or huge (conquer a planet, etc.) or anything in between; your goals are likely to be modest at first until you gain a little more leverage. Let’s say your group decides to raise an army–you can’t just do that out of the gate, so you need some secondary objectives to help get you there. Say there’s a penal colony in your sector of space, with an army of criminals just waiting to be freed and armed; your secondary objectives could involve killing the warden in charge, poisoning the guards, buying or stealing a bunch of weapons, and so on. The group defines the objectives based on the skills of its members: if one character is a traitorous Imperium official, he could position himself to replace the current warden through political machinations; if another character has connections to Nurgle, the Chaos God of disease and decay, he could put a mutagen into the water supply and corrupt the planet from within. Everyone has something to contribute, and step by step you conquer the galaxy. As your objectives are completed you gain Infamy, including a special boost for completing the Compact, and then it’s time to use your new resources (say, a shiny new army of mutated prisoners) to hatch a new plan and start a new Compact.

One of my favorite things about the Compact system are the personal objectives, an underhanded nod toward the “I’m evil so I can do whatever I want” mentality. You know some of the players are going to do it anyway, so why not make it part of the game? Personal objectives allow a player to do something selfish and unexpected without resorting to the obnoxious “steal all the loot” pattern that so many villain games fall into. Remember: the idea here is to be a villain for the helpless NPCs, not for the friends you hang out with to play the game. Let’s use our penal colony example: you’ve defined your main objective (raise an army of prisoners) and your secondary objectives (replace the current warden, mutate the prisoners and guards, and steal a shipment of weapons intended for a distant war). Each player now has the option of adding their own secret objective, in private discussion with the GM, which can gain them a bunch of infamy at the risk of complicating the job for everyone else. Let’s say your character is a follower of Khorne, the Chaos God of battle. You want to win his favor with a big fight, but your plan doesn’t really call for one. It does, on the other hand, call for a shipment of weapons to be delivered to a planet full of criminals. Your personal objective might be to deliver the weapons early, and distribute them before the guards have been incapacitated, thus resulting in a massive prison riot. The end results will be more or less the same–you’ll get your army, and the guards will be dealt with–but the path to get there will be a whole lot bloodier. Personal objectives get really interesting once you realize that everyone in the party probably has one, and many of them might conflict. It takes a very good GM to keep this house of cards intact, but the Compact system and the shared goals help keep the party together and each character (and player) personally invested in the group’s communal success. Like the Infamy/Corruption system, it’s a balancing act, but one with some very unique rewards you won’t find anywhere else.

The Corruption system, while we’re on the subject, has some cool features I want to be sure to mention, which go to the heart of character creation. The previous 40k RPGs have each had their own system for character class and progression, with varying degrees of success. The low-water mark for this might be Rogue Trader, which stratified the availability of certain skills and talents so tightly that many character types felt ridiculously constrictive; if you wanted to wield two guns at once, for instance, but you didn’t choose one of the few classes that had access to this ability, you were hosed no matter how strong your character concept might have been. Some strictures are important, naturally, but when they feel painful and arbitrary it gets to be too much. Black Crusade solves this problem beautifully, in a move that makes it, in my opinion, the hands-down best of the 40k RPGs: they did away with character class progression altogether, and base your progress instead on your actions in-game and your loyalty to the Chaos Powers. You start with an archetype, such as Apostate (a charismatic talker), Heretek (a corrupted cyber-mechanic), or the Sorcerer (a Chaos Space Marine with magic powers). As you play, you keep track of your actions and advances, which help determine your alignment, and your alignment will help determine how much you have to pay for new advances–anyone can get any skill or talent in the game, but your connection to a certain Chaos God (and, in conjunction with that, a certain playstyle) will determine how easy or hard it is to get. The Forbidden Lore skill, for example, belongs to Tzeentch, the Chaos God of sorcery and change, so taking it brings you closer in alignment to Tzeentch. Take enough Tzeentch-based advances and you become allied to Tzeentch, making similar advances cheaper and opposed advancements (anything aligned with Khorne or Nurgle) more expensive. Thus anyone can have Assassin Strike, for example, but followers of Slaanesh, the Chaos God of trickery and deception, can get it more easily.

Now: the Corruption thing I was talking about. You see, Corruption is not just a score in the corner of your character sheet, it’s an actual change, both physical and mental, that comes over your character. That change is marked with mutations and powers, some visible and some not, which add cool new options as your character grows. Just like skills and talents, the Corruption powers you have access to will change depending on which Chaos God you choose to follow. An unaligned character will still gain a mutation, but a character dedicated to, say, Nurgle will have a chance to gain a mutation specific to Nurgle, more powerful and thematic than the standard list (including such savory delights as Nurgle Rot and Corpulent Immensity). Closely aligned characters can also gain bonus Corruption points for doing things their patron approves of: killing a powerful foe is one thing, but if you want to please Nurgle you’ll do it with poison. Thus your actions throughout the game, and the rewards you reap for them, will be dripping with story (or in Nurgle’s case, oozing).

The game is not perfect, by any means. The options to include both humans and (ten-foot super-powered) Space Marines in the same party is problematic, not so much for balance (they’ve done a pretty good job) as for the difficulty of giving everyone equal opportunity to shine. I was also taken a bit aback by the lack of setting information inside the Warp–there’s some, to be fair about as much as the previous books had, but the Warp is such a weird place that I really felt like I needed more. I couldn’t assume that I knew what it was like, the way I did with the 40k games that take place in the “real” world of the Imperium. Another concern is the game’s focus on player-driven Compacts–I don’t consider this a failing of the game by any means, as I love the Compacts, but it is a bit of a barrier to entry for people expecting a more traditional campaign experience.

Perhaps most of all, villain campaigns are not for everyone. Maybe your group isn’t ready to work together as closely as a villain game (ironically) calls for, or maybe your players don’t want to be dastardly monsters who strive for daemonhood. If you don’t, that’s fine–play Dark Heresy, where you can root out corruption instead of sowing it. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a new perspective and an all-new playstyle, Black Crusade can be absolutely stellar. It’s the most unique and polished game set in one of the richest worlds in the industry, and I think you could have a lot of fun with it.

PARTIALS signing: Orem B&N

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Come join us at the Partials Launch Party signing in Orem!

6 pm at Barnes and Noble

330 East 1300 South, Orem

Check out the Partials book trailer here.

PARTIALS Launch Day!

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Come to the book launch at Sam Weller’s Books in Salt Lake City, in their awesome new location in Trolley Square.

7 pm at Sam Weller’s Books

665 E 600 S, SLC

Find out more about Sam Weller’s Book on their website: http://www.samwellers.com/

 

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Monday, January 30th, 2012

LTUE is at UVU this year, which is AOK IMHO. LOL!

Here’s my schedule

Thursday, February 9
2:00 pm – Making a Book Trailer
(Paul Genesse, Heather Monson (M), Dan Wells, Angela Corbett, Lani Woodland)
7:00 pm – 100 Story Ideas in an Hour. Come see how easy it is to come up with workable ideas.
(Lesli Muir Lytle (M), Nathan Shumate, Jaleta Clegg, Dan Wells)

Friday, February 10
9:00 am – Story Structure Workshop
Dan and Rob Wells put together a story outline based on cues from the audience. Part presentation, part improv routine.
(Dan Wells, Robison Wells)
10:00 am – Monsters and Mormons
(Nathan Shumate, Dan Wells (M), Eric James Stone, Jaleta Clegg, EC Buck, Steven Peck)
1:00 pm to 3:00 pm – Writing Excuses Podcast (2 hours)
(Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, James A. Owen (1-1:30), James Dashner (1:30-2:00), Larry Correia (2-2:30), Michael R. Collings (2:30-3:00))
8:00 pm to 10:00 pm – Mass Signing (2 hours)
(Everybody. I may or may not be there, almost certainly not for the whole time)

Saturday, February 11
5:00 pm – The End of the World: What is so fascinating about doom-and-gloom prophecies? How can you use them in your own storytelling by giving them a new and exciting slant?
(Robison Wells, Roger White, Aneeka Richins, Robert J Defendi, Dan Wells(M))
6:00 pm – Reading (50 minutes) (I will be reading from PARTIALS, and giving away a copy)

*(M) stand for moderator of the panel

Visual Migraines

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

I’ve had migraines since I was in high school, and while they’re bad, they’re never super bad–both of my siblings, for example, get far worse migraines than I do. (Both of my siblings are in far worse health than I am, in general, and both of my siblings make fun of me for eating wacky health food and using alternative medicine. I make no explicit connections between those two facts, I’m just mentioning them. No reason.) A migraine, for those blessed readers who don’t know, is a seriously horrible headache, going far beyond “my head is killing me” to reach such levels as “my head is hanging me upside down in a basement and mailing my toes one at a time to my loved ones.” Whereas most headaches are caused by pressure (blood or sinus), migraines are neurological, so the odds are that you either get them repeatedly or you don’t get them at all.

“Repeatedly,” for me, is usually about twice a year, and I can always tell one’s coming because it is preceded by an aura: a visual effect, basically a local, temporary degeneration. This takes different forms for different people, and for some it doesn’t happen at all; for me it manifests as a Scintillating Scotoma, which is an awesome way of saying that I see bright jagged lines interrupting my field of perception:

That’s not a perfect representation of mine; rather than a cross-hatch of color I see actual jagged lines, usually neon-bright, like a flickering explosion effect from an old video game. I used that image to show you how disruptive it is to my actual vision, getting in the way of things and blotting out words, objects, and faces. In terms of shape and color, they’re a lot more like this:

They don’t last long, maybe 40 or 50 minutes, about half that if I can drink some caffeine as soon as they appear. Drinking caffeine early will also usually scuttle the pain, but only if I can get to some in time. Since I don’t always drink a lot of Coke, this is sometimes harder than others.

Last night, and the reason for writing this post, I had the scariest migraine experience I’ve ever had, for two reasons. First, I was driving, which meant I didn’t have any caffeine near at hand–and since my kids were home alone under their older sister’s rapidly degrading supervision, I couldn’t really take the time to stop and get any. In hindsight, I should have, because what happened next was freaky as all hell: the scintillating scotoma stayed, but then I also started to get negative scotoma on top of it. Whereas a scintillating scotoma is just a patch of wacky colors, negative scotoma is a patch of nothing at all:

Again, this is not a perfect recreation of what I saw (or didn’t see). It’s kind of like there were patches of blurry vision, but it’s really more like there were patches of nothing. I wasn’t see black spots or anything, just places scattered here and there where my brain simply didn’t process anything. I could look at a fast food sign, for example, and while I was peripherally aware of the entire sign being there, I had to look at each part of it in turn to actually see the whole thing. The creepiest one was a car in front of me, where part of the roof was gone–it wasn’t actually missing, and it’s not like I perceived a giant hole in it or a deformed shape, I just couldn’t see part of it. It wasn’t there.

Yes, I should have gotten off the road, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. I knew I needed to get home to help my kids, and I knew that if I didn’t get home quickly and take some medicine the pain part of the equation would kick in and I might end up completely useless on the side of the road, waiting for my wife to finish her meeting and come pick me up, which wouldn’t happen for another hour. I should have done it anyway, because it’s stupid to drive under those conditions, but I didn’t. Looking back, I suspect that my judgment may have been fuzzed by the same effect, but I don’t know. It was just really freaky and weird, and you can tell it affected me because it’s a whole day later and I’m writing a blog about it, despite just having blogged yesterday. Two blog posts back to back? That’s crazytown.

I write a lot about mental disorders, and with THE HOLLOW CITY (coming out in July) I delved even deeper into the subject of neurological disorders, and the many, many, many ways your brain can just screw you up, sometimes for no reason at all. My little migraines and my little scotomas are a teeny tiny part of that, a bare taste of what people with schizophrenia or anxiety disorder or depression deal with on a daily basis. It opened my eyes a little bit to a subject I thought I already had a pretty good grip on; I understood the causes and the symptoms and the direct effects pretty well, but that drive made me realize the kind of helpless feeling that comes as a secondary effect, knowing that you’re essentially a prisoner to an perceptive and cognitive organ that nobody really understands. It shook me up, and at the end of the experience I’m kind of glad that it did.

Why I Like What I Like, Part 1

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

I don’t watch a ton of live TV, if any, but I watch a lot of shows on Netflix and DVD, usually at night when I’m painting miniatures (or, alternately, when I’m too lazy to do anything else). This gives me the chance to try out a lot different shows and characters and actors and writers, and because I am who I am I can’t help comparing them; I don’t just like or dislike something, I try to think long and hard about why I like or dislike it, and why other people might disagree with me.

One of the shows that I’m very lukewarm on–and I know this is going to get me pilloried in the geek community–is Doctor Who. What, you say? A sci-fi/fantasy geek who doesn’t like Doctor Who? Sort of. It’s not that I don’t like it, I just don’t love it. I can watch an episode and feel no compelling need to watch another. The ideas are invariably brilliant, some of them so much so that I’m still thinking about them weeks later: the episode “The Empty Child,” for example, was an alternate history horror story zombie apocalypse wonder, more original and clever than any similar story I’ve seen in ages. But something about it, like I said, just doesn’t drive me to come back. When I’m in the mood for an SF puzzle I’ll watch an episode, but the shows I really like are the ones that keep me up until early in the morning, watching one more episode and then one more episode until I have to force myself to stop. Why doesn’t Doctor Who do that to me?

My first guess was the lack of ongoing story. People tell me that Doctor Who eventually gets one, but I’m only 7 or 8 episodes in and haven’t seen it. I like ongoing stories because of the depth they can create, and television is uniquely equipped to provide that in a way that no other visual medium can. We’re in a golden age of TV right now, due in large part to creators’ willingness to serialize a long, detailed story, and I’m loving it. But the thing is, some of my very favorite shows aren’t serialized; the sitcom Community is one of the best things on TV, even being hiatus, and while that has some long-form emotional through-lines it doesn’t have a true long-form plot. Put more simply, it’s not a show you watch for the plot, you watch for the humor and the characters and the amazing writing. It’s less “I need to see what happens next,” and more “I wonder what they’ll think of next,” if that makes any sense. I watch serials to have my expectations fulfilled, and I watch Community to have my expectations subverted. Since this is essentially the same reason I watch Doctor Who–to see where they’ll go next and what new idea they’ll have to grapple with–I don’t think I can say that the lack of an ongoing story is the problem.

Comparing Doctor Who and Community points out a more striking difference that I think hits closer to the mark: the characters. The characters in Doctor Who are, to me, essentially blank slates; their job is to encounter a weird new thing, react to it, “solve” it, and move on. The weird new thing is the part that takes center stage, and the characters are defined only by their relationship to it. I understand that this changes later on, particularly with Amy Pond, who’s gotten more press than every previous companion combined–she and her husband are apparently very strong, interesting, complex characters. Please keep in mind here that while I haven’t watched a lot of the new Doctor Who, I watched the old one religiously, and they suffered from the same problem: the Doctor always has a distinct personality, but not a lot of depth. The characters in Community, on the other hand, are incredibly round, fully-realized people. They can do entire scenes that are screamingly funny and/or touching, not just for what the characters say, but for what we know about them. Their personalities and desires and flaws help not only to make them rich and interesting, but to make the subtle nuances more important.

Put more simply, Doctor Who is about what the characters do, and Community is about who the characters are. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other, I just happen to like the latter more.

I had intended to also talk about two other shows–they were, in fact, supposed to be the entire post, but my introduction got out of hand and, well, here we are. So next week I’ll come back and compare two more TV shows, probably my favorite two shows currently running, which have deep, interesting, wonderful characters and yet could not possibly be more different from each other if they tried: Breaking Bad and Parks & Recreation.

Game Review: Star Trek: Fleet Captains

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

I am a huge Star Trek nerd, as my love letter to DS9 last year can attest. I keep my pens in a Worf’s-head mug, I own seven Star Trek roleplaying books, I own a TNG script (“The Offspring,” which made me cry), and I have engaged in countless hours, if not years, of various forms of fan-wankery. I’m not the biggest Trekkie out there, but I’m a big one.

When I learned last year that WizKids had procured the gaming license for Star Trek I was pretty excited, though unsure what to expect. WizKids is one of my favorite gaming companies, thanks to the strength of HeroClix, but the Clix engine is pretty much the only thing they had going for them–their non-clix games were strained and short-lived, and even most of their clix games died. The best use of the engine was Mechwarrior, though the random distribution model totally didn’t work for it, and my favorite clix game was HorrorClix, which never took off at all thanks in large part to the lack of a recognizable license. Game after game, they proved that they had awesome ideas they couldn’t follow through on, and for an eager Star Trek fan that prospect was equal parts exciting and terrifying. And of course the main question through the whole process was the Clix engine itself: it’s primarily a combat system, and while Star Trek does have combat it’s nothing you’d call a major part of the IP. Could they branch out and do something new? Could they actually make it work? The answer is a resounding “kind of.”

Their first Star Trek game, called Expeditions, was pure Euro, and a fairly number-crunchy one at that. The components look Star Trek, but by all accounts the gameplay never actually feels like Star Trek, so I never bothered picking it up. If I’m wrong, please let me know. Their third game, due to release in the next month or so, is a straight Clix game of ship-to-ship combat, so similar to Heroclix it’s actually compatible with it (by which I mean compatible mechanically–thematically it’s a raging disaster for everyone who hasn’t dreamed about Spider-man punching the Enterprise in the face). The middle game, however, gets so much right. It’s called Fleet Captains, and it manages to include just about everything you could ever want a Star Trek game to include: you have ships, you can put crew on them, they fly around exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life, they can fight and talk and cloak and reroute power to the deflector shields and whatever else you can imagine. It’s a brilliant design with a great Star Trek feel, but it’s marred by some pretty serious flaws.

First there’s the production values, which wouldn’t be so problematic if you weren’t paying so much for them. For $100 you get a box full of flimsy cards, packed so poorly that they have an improbably high frequency of breaking loose during shipping and sliding all over the box, in the mildest cases looking messy and in the most serious cases actually breaking the plastic ships. The ships themselves are a mixed blessing: there’s a ton of them, and they look great, but they’re fragile, often poorly glued, not to scale with each other, and unpainted–which, again, wouldn’t be a problem except that you just paid $100 dollars for them. This from a company with almost 15 years’ experience producing cheap, prepainted minis. It is very hard to look at this game’s components and not feel like they were rushed to hit a street date, with little or no concern for quality assurance. Whatever portion of the $100 price tag was intended to pay for painting was used to pay for accelerated printing instead.

The game’s second big problem is thematic, and I haven’t actually convinced myself it’s really a problem a yet. Rather than focus on a specific series, or even a specific timeline, the game throws literally everything into the same pot: Kirk and Picard and Janeway can all be on the same crew, despite the fact that their stories took place in wildly different times and places. For the non-Trek nerds out there, imagine a historical wargame that allowed you to have George Washington, General Patton, and Napoleon all on the same team fighting ninjas. That makes for some good fan fiction, but it’s an inherently goofy idea that shows (dare I say it) a lack of respect for the IP. Now, there’s a lot to be said for the malleability of the Star Trek universe–there are enough temporal and spatial anomalies to explain pretty much anything you want, and I usually teach people the game by saying “just imagine Q did it.” But the crazy mixed-up timeline should be a scenario, not the baseline, and Trek fans shouldn’t have to house-rule their game just to play what most people would consider the default setting.

But then again…the game is just so good. Once you sort out your messed-up components and glue your ships back together and concoct an appropriate explanation for the narrative, all your concerns slip away and you’re playing the Star Trek game you’ve always wanted, boldly going where no one has gone before, matching wits with your Klingon opponents or scanning a sentient nebula or negotiating a peace treat between two alien species. And the possibilities for expansion are amazing: the game has Federation and Klingons, but nothing from DS9, the Borg, Romulans, Cardassians, or the Dominion. The rules are already set up to handle extra players, different modes (free-for-all, co-op, etc.), and more, all you need is the stuff (which is, admittedly, the hard part).

Do I recommend this game? Yes and no. It’s not worth $100, so I’ll tell you to buy it cheap somewhere, except then WizKids won’t make enough money to justify an expansion, so I’ll tell you to buy it full price. If we’re lucky, WizKids will fix some of the production problems and do a re-issue, but I don’t see that happening. How about this: find a copy you can rent/borrow/test, and give it a try. That will give you a really good idea of how much you like it and how much you’d be willing to pay for it. With games like this you have to remember the Boat Rule: if you want to go sailing you don’t need a boat, you need a friend with a boat. Find a Trekkie with more money than sense and start dropping hints.

How Far Are You Willing to Go?

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

As I prepare for the launch of PARTIALS next month (my new book, coming on February 28), I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and writing a lot of blog posts and, in general, looking back at my career as a writer; it’s not an especially long career, but it comprises 5 published novels, soon to be 6, and that’s not too shabby. What stood out to me recently was the running theme in all 6 of them, a theme I didn’t even realize was there until I saw it in my outline for FAILSAFE and started looking backward. I talk about a lot of things in my books, but one thread ties them all together:

How far are you willing to go to do what you think is right?

In the case of my ebook, A NIGHT OF BLACKER DARKNESS, it’s less about “doing what you think is right” than about “getting what you want.” The main character, Frederick Whithers, is trying to steal money and save his own life, and is forced into a series of ever-mounting dangers and relationships and compromises in the single-minded pursuit of that goal. It’s a classic farce structure, and the book is a comedy, but his need to say and do and become things who would never have considered before make it a very dark comedy. Every new obstacle that arises forces him to choose, however subtly: do I take the next step and push this even further, or do I walk away? That’s a choice that all of my characters, in all of my books, face again and again.

John Cleaver is a great example. In all three of his books (only three so far, at least) he finds himself facing terrible enemies that only he can stop–or at least he thinks he’s the only one who can stop them. There may be some self-delusion there. The first book makes this choice plain: a killer is dismembering my friends and neighbors; I can stop him, but doing so will make me a killer in the process. Is that worth it? Most of us, in a moment of extreme danger, would lash out at an attacker, and maybe even kill to protect our children and family, but what about other people? Would you kill a man to protect your neighbor? To protect a stranger? What if it’s not a moment of danger: you know that someone WILL kill someone else, and the law is not an option, and now in the dark and quiet is your only chance to stop him. If you kill him, you’re a killer; if you let him live, someone else dies. Would you be partly responsible for that death? Would you FEEL responsible, even if you weren’t? I don’t have a great answer to these question–I wrote three books about a character struggling with the issue, in part because I struggle with it myself. Maybe it’s easy for you; I suspect that the decision itself may be much easier than living with it afterward, no matter what you choose. John Cleaver faces permutations of this same problem over and over, sometimes going one way and sometimes another. “How far is he willing to go” is the question that drives the series.

My fifth book, THE HOLLOW CITY, isn’t even out yet in English–the US gets it in July–but it’s been on shelves in Germany since October, and it deals with the same issue plus an extra complication: how do you know you can trust yourself? The main character is Michael Shipman, and he is deeply schizophrenic, seeing monsters and manipulators behind every shadow. As the book progresses, however, he starts to realize that some of the monsters are real, and they have a very real connection to a series of grisly murders. No one believes him, so like John Cleaver he’s on his own, but can he even believe himself? If this threat is real, it must be stopped, but with his own mind broken he runs the serious risk of harming innocent people along the way. Should he back away? Should he take the risks? Can he live with himself if he’s wrong? The added uncertainty make Michael’s conflict different from John’s, but the core theme is still there: how far are you willing to go to do what you think is right?

All of this leads us to PARTIALS, an SF novel about the survivors of a world-killing plague as they try to rebuild human civilization. There are approximately forty thousand human beings left alive on the planet, and there are still many, many dangers that could reduce that number further. The stakes here are not just a murder or string of murders, but the utter extinction of the human race. How far would you be willing to go to save your own species? What would you do, what crimes would you commit, what morals would you compromise? There is a point at which NOT doing something “evil” could itself be considered wrong, if the evil act is the only way to preserve humanity. The sheer scale of the problem, in other words, warps the morality involved. The world of PARTIALS, and the outline of FAILSAFE, are filled with people who make difficult, questionable, often terrible decisions with nothing but the best of intentions. In some ways the books have no villains at all, just earnest people who define “good” in very different ways. Playing with the multitude of strategies people come up with to save the humans race is part of what makes the series so fascinating to write–and, I hope, to read.

In part, all of this is on my mind this morning because of our own world situation: this week marked the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Detention Facility, an off-shore prison where suspected terrorists are held without trial, tortured for confessions, and denied any semblance of human rights. My personal opinions on this are very strong, but I recognize that it’s a thorny issue with weight on each side. I’ve added a poll to the left sidebar here on my website, and I’d love to get your opinions. Given the complexity of the issue, I’ve made it so you can choose multiple answers. I’d also love to hear your responses in the comments, but remember: keep it polite.

Game Review: Ikusa

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Back in the day, when I was in…maybe junior high, but probably elementary school, I got into wargaming. Not the classic “hex and counter” games that hardcore historical wargamers consider to be the only games worthy of the category, but the big, over-the-top, “Risk to the extreme” kind of games, with big, colorful boards and handfuls of dice and piles and piles of little pieces. I wrote about this genre quite a bit in my review of Conquest of Nerath.

One of the pioneers of that gaming genre (today alternately referred to as ‘thematic games’ or just ‘Ameritrash’) was the Gamemaster series, which included Axis & Allies, Fortress America, and Shogun. Shogun was almost immediately renamed as Samurai Swords, but after a few years both it and Fortress America disappeared. It should come as no surprise that both games, now that the boardgame industry is bigger (and the kids who grew up on them are adults with greater purchasing power), are being reprinted. Fortress America will return this year under the same name, and Samurai Swords returned a few months ago with a new name–Ikusa–and a gorgeous new graphic design. I was very excited to try it out.

Ikusa is similar to Risk and other games like it in that it’s basically a big map full of territories, and you fight over them; you start the game by dealing out all the territory cards, putting a dude on each one, and then adding a few extra units where you want to concentrate your force. There are different units with different strengths, though none of them really have any special abilities aside from “melee” and “ranged.” Each territory has its own little garrison, usually peasant spearmen, but most of your forces are grouped into three giant armies that move and attack as single units. This is what really defines the game and makes it unique. Each army has a daimyo to lead it, and a special battle board showing exactly which kinds of samurai and other units are following him. The army’s position on the board is marked by a standard bearer to save you the trouble of moving twelve guys around in a pile on the board. What’s more, daimyos can actually “level up” as they win battles, gaining the ability to move and attack multiple times per turn. A high level daimyo can be devastating, marching across the board with a huge pile of samurai leaving only destruction in its wake, but this is balanced by the ninja, which you can hire to assassinate enemy daimyos and reduce the army back to level 1. It’s a slick system and a lot of fun.

The economic aspect of the game is more robust than you might expect. Each player gets a certain amount of money (called koku) each turn, based on how many territories they control, and then you allocate them to a series of slots in a tray; this is done in secret, as some of your purchases are blind bids against the other players. When everyone’s done you turn your trays around and reveal what you’ve bought–buying units, building castles, and hiring ronin are simple purchases, but jockeying for turn order and hiring the ninja are auction-based, and anything you spend there (whether or not you win) is lost.

The ronin are one of my favorite parts of the game. Instead of placing them like normal units, you place them on facedown territory cards so that no one else knows where you’ve hidden them. When someone attacks you, or when you decide to mount an attack, you simply flip over the card and place the ronin on the board (or on an army board under a daimyo; your choice). Ronin only stay with you for a turn, but they allow you to concentrate your force much more powerfully, so it’s a deep strategic tradeoff: do I want more power, and the element of surprise, right now, or do I want a unit that will stick around and give me less power over several turns? It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, and tough decisions like that are what makes gaming fun.

So yes, the game is great. It’s not my favorite wargame, but it’s a good one; if it didn’t involve direct player elimination I’d like it more, but that’s the breaks in an old-school game like this. I also really love the Japanese theme, and the art in the new edition is, like I said, very cool. You may essentially consider the review done at this point, because what follows is completely extraneous. You see, I’m an incurable tinkerer, and there was one aspect of the game that I really wanted to mess with–not for mechanical reasons, but for flavor. I’ve mentioned it a bit in the past, but I’m about a year and a half into an epic RPG campaign for Legend of the Five Rings, which stands for the moment as my favorite RPG setting. It’s basically a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world drawing on Asian history and mythology instead of European, and is hands down one of the richest and most interesting game worlds I’ve ever encountered. As cool as Ikusa was for me, I really felt like, if I was going to play a Japanese-themed wargame, I wanted it to be L5R. So I did a big mod and rethemed it.

The main kingdom of L5R is called Rokugan, and is split into several clans: the Lion Clan, the Scorpion Clan, and so on. Each clan has a unique personality and a bunch of cool characters that I wanted to represent in Ikusa, which seemed like a perfect fit for the daimyos–and since the daimyos can level up, it was a perfect match to a sort of pseudo-RPG feel. I made up ten or so character cards per clan and gave them each two powers: one you get right off the bat, and another that you unlock when you reach level 2. Every time you start a new Daimyo (either at the start of the game or when another daimyo is killed and replaced), you simply draw a card and place it next to your army board. The powers are interesting without really being overwhelming, because I made them weak on purpose–the goal wasn’t to change the game balance, just to add some personality to the daimyos and some L5R flavor to the game overall. I have a lot of printing contacts, so once the cards were written and designed I had a bunch of sets printed off and passed them out to my friends. They’ve become very popular. On the downside, I used actual L5R art for the cards, which means I can’t (for copyright reasons) distribute them or even display them–it’s just a goofy mod I made for my friends, using mostly our characters and NPCs from our RPG. So in some ways this paragraph has all been a big tease, but I prefer to think of it as an example of how you can (and often should) modify your games to fit your own group. House rules are like fan fiction, in a sense: we take what we love and we tell our own stories with it.

The PARTIALS book trailer is out!

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Book trailers are becoming hot stuff these days, which is surprising to anyone who’s ever seen one of the old ones: go back a couple of years and book trailer technology was basically “slow pans across still images while a breathless voice tries to make you think it’s a movie trailer.” They were goofy and weird and I’ve never met anyone who liked them, but the core concept behind them–a video promotion that can be shared on the Internet–was so strong that they kept doing it, and kept doing it, and now we’re starting to see some pretty good book trailers. A lot of old school authors and readers still don’t like them, but younger readers eat them up, which has helped (perhaps symbiotically) make them a staple of YA.

When the Balzer+Bray marketing team told us it was time to make a book trailer, my editor and I very staunchly didn’t want a cheesy, wannabe movie trailer, so we looked in other places for inspiration. We were in the middle of a fun project at the time, creating short “supplementary materials” for the ebook, sort of like the special features on a DVD. Our idea for those, rather than a series of short stories, was to do a series of in-world documents collected by a mysterious figure, chronicling the rise of biotechnology and the creation of the Partials. We thought the book trailer would be an awesome opportunity to do the same kind of thing, so we pitched the trailer as an investor video from ParaGen, the biotech company that created Partial technology. You can watch it here:

I love it, and I especially love how subtle it is: it doesn’t tell you anything about the book, really, or the story, and certainly not the characters. On the other hand, it does tell you what a Partial is, and it sets a slightly ominous tone of pride and greed–people who think they can do anything, especially if it will make them rich, will often overstep their bounds. They’ll push too hard and go too far and cause more problems than they know how to deal with. The happy, smiling people in the video are only happy and smiling because they think they have everything under control. They’ve accomplished a lot, and they’re justifiably proud.

But pride cometh before the fall….

On a completely different subject, we have new shirts in the store, including my favorite: “I Am Not A Serial Killer” t-shirts with glow in the dark words! Well, all except the word “not.” Sorry about that. Sure, it changes the meaning in the dark, but I’m sure your friends won’t mind. Why are they alone in the dark with you anyway? Serves them right. Also available in a hoodie.

Oh! And we also have a PARTIALS shirt. The first of many!