Prince of Outcasts, by S.M. Stirling

prince_of_outcasts_cover

I want to finish this book. I do. But I’m struggling with it, in a rather painful fashion, for the best possible reasons.

I’ve struggled with Stirling before, and found my way through. Yet even taking into consideration the thoughts I had about milieu and Stirling’s fiction, and how that helped me with previous entries in this ever-expanding series, I’m still having trouble. And it’s all because my friend Caroline ran one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns I’ve ever had the pleasure to to play, and Stirling is trying to make use of the same material.

I played Caroline’s game, her modified version of Tatters of the King, more than seven years ago. I still think fondly of the characters in that game (yes, mine, but also those of my friends), but more to the point I think of Caroline’s campaign as a benchmark for slow-growth horror games. Her storytelling, the way in which she introduced us so gradually to the madness that is The King in Yellow, and the way in which she carefully cultivated our own personal experiences of horror until we felt enmeshed in our characters’ insanity, has stood for me as a constant reminder of what good horror storytelling feels like.

Some of this must be the glow of nostalgia. But I know I loved it at the time, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have kept so many pages of notes in my tiny, cramped handwriting. I wouldn’t have so obsessively catalogued events such that Caroline agreed that my investigator had created his own occult tome.

And for me that intensity, that devouring mystery and too-late dismay, is what it means to traffic with The King in Yellow.

Stirling can’t touch that. For someone else, someone who has not experienced this particular branch of horror mythos in the same way, Prince of Outcasts may be just fine. But for me, Caroline got there first.

Sorry Stirling. I read your book and instead think of that campaign.

I don’t think I’m going to finish this book. Not any time soon at least.

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Fear and the Uncanny in Children’s Literature

This post’s delay brought to you by homework… and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Between the two, I entirely forgot about posting here yesterday.

My homework, by the way, involves rereading Parable of the Sower (and The Girl Who Owned A City, and The Summer Prince). My short end-of-term paper this semester is on the way in which fear and the uncanny are used to replicate the home-away-home structure of a children’s story (discussed by many people, though I’m mostly sourcing from Reimer in Keywords for Children’s Literature and Nodelman and Reimer in The Pleasures of Children’s Literature), without requiring a spatial journey. Essentially, I hypothesize that by using fear and the uncanny to create emotional distance from a space, the departure and return inherent in a home-away-home story can be emotional instead of spatial. Plus, you get some interesting dynamics where the protagonist tries to make an un-homelike space homelike (again, or maybe for the first time) instead of returning to a safe space that has remained safe the entire time. Oh, and I know that Parable of the Sower isn’t exactly a kids’ book, but it’s sometimes cross-shelved in YA and has a teenaged protagonist. So.

On the storytelling side of things, I’ve come up with an excellent conceit for an adventuring setting that allows you to go on dungeon crawls without having to twist yourself into pretzels trying to justify why there are so many monster-filled ruins all over the place. I won’t go into more detail here at present, because I want to write it up and submit it to Worlds Without Master. Maybe if I can’t get it published there I’ll put it up here.

Whoops: November Update

Sorry, I’ve been a little busy. I just submitted another three chapters of Barium Deep to my mentor for review (she’s awesome, by the way) and getting that material out the door has kept me occupied.

Another thing stealing my time, creeping in around the edges of my schedule? Tales of Maj’Eyal (ToME). It’s a roguelike (but actually like the game Rogue, not just part of the modern fad of calling your game roguelike because it’s cool), and I’ve been enjoying it a great deal. I grew up playing the significantly less noob-friendly ADOM, aka Ancient Domains of Mystery, so ToME feels a good deal more forgiving. At least, it’s forgiving when you can hide behind your magical golem while hurling explosive gems at your foes.

Oddly enough, like ToME, ADOM now sports optional fancy tiled graphics that look nothing like my memories. It may sound like I’m grumping, but I’m actually quite happy to see ADOM continue development. I should admit, I’m okay with the new tiles mostly because they’re optional. I just wish we could see more progress on JADE (which I guess is now called ADOM II), another roguelike by the creator of ADOM. I liked the open world with randomly generated stories more than ADOM’s (by now) familiar quests.

Oh, I guess this is the new site for ADOM? Whatever. It’s a cool game, worth checking out.

Exemplars & Eidolons: Post-Mortem

It turns out that Exemplars & Eidolons was almost exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. It also turns out that I failed to sufficiently anticipate the bottleneck that I would create by not printing out more materials for my players to use while making their characters. So much for “less than half an hour.”

To be fair, most of character creation was finished faster than that. The dice-rolling and number generating side of things, and the decisions that people had to make about equipment and such, were really quick. Choosing their gifts, with the limited information that I gave them, was really quick too.

What took time was copying information about their gifts onto their character sheets, and coming up with facts about their characters. The first of those has a pretty obvious solution; I can give out more pre-printed materials after people have chosen their gifts, instead of being the only person with access to the full text of the gift entries in the book. The second seems a little trickier.

The game suggests that players write three facts about their characters. As the text puts it in the one page cheat sheet, “One fact should be about their past life and how they obtained their skills. Another should be about the family or social ties they have, and the third should be about some special trait or personal quality.” It took a little convincing from me for them to say ridiculous and awesome things about themselves. I also had to tell them that these were intended to give them more hooks or ways to interface with the world, instead of being intended to shut them away from it.

Maybe it’s because first level characters in Exemplars & Eidolons don’t look like all that much on paper, but I don’t think they really believed how badass I was encouraging them to be. The truth is, if I were only looking at the numbers on the sheet without having read the rule book, I might think that most E&E characters were doomed to suffer ignominious deaths at the hand of a few goblins with pointy sticks. In point of fact, I think just about any E&E character would totally wreck those goblins, probably on their own… but it’s tough to embrace that when you look at your character and don’t *believe* it.

So how am I going to make that side of things go faster? To some extent there’s no way for me to rush the creativity of my players. If they can’t come up with anything they like, they can’t come up with anything they like. I’ve certainly had that problem today, getting 720 and 530 words into two different tries for a flash fiction piece and liking neither of them. But I think I should write three examples of different kinds of facts for each of the prompts and include them in the additional materials that I print up. I can also include my little reminders about how people should make their facts more badass than not, and how they should create further engagement with the world if at all possible. Maybe I’m deviating from the original intent, but I don’t want players to hobble themselves because they decided to make their fact about “some special trait” be ‘dies their hair green’ when other people are throwing around things like ‘walked barefoot through the Valley of Knives both ways, in the middle of winter.’

And, if all else fails, they can write their facts while we play. Heck, that might be the best possible option. If I prep some adventures right now so that I can start game the moment people have the relevant numbers, and start with the characters already undertaking some task, I’m pretty sure a bunch of improv trained LARP campers can come up with some personal character details.

Oh, yeah, the session was awesome. I’ll probably talk more about it later, but suffice to say that improvising and flying by the seat of your pants is really easy in this system. It’s great, and fighting spooky snake sorcerers in a dark and creepy space is scary.

Exemplars & Eidolons: Quick + Dirty OSR

There’s a tradition at the overnight LARP camp where I work, one that has been carefully nurtured by my friend Zach, of playing RPGs when you’re not busy LARPing. Zach has run a wide variety of games at camp, but in the past few years he’s used Old School Renaissance games almost exclusively. I think I’ve finally discovered why.

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Commence Radio Silence

I will be busy this week, running a larp at The Wayfinder Experience’s staff week. I’m afraid that this means that I’m unlikely to post anything this week. I know I’d only just gotten back into the rhythm of posting twice a week, but don’t worry. I’ll be back. Until then, enjoy yourselves, and maybe check out the beautiful cyberpunk hack of Lady BlackbirdAlways/Never/Now.

Good News & Current Projects

I’m settling back in to the East coast, my body is on the mend, and I’m waiting to find out whether or not I’m about to get sick again.  So far so good!

I don’t have a new fiction post for you today, or a new review, but I can tell you all about a fun thing that I’m doing for The Wayfinder Experience (a large scale improv theater summer camp… aka LARP camp for kids). I wrote a game at the beginning of this year that loosely uses the setting of the stories Trouble Close Behind, Bloody Expanse, and Hot Mess, and which follows the events of Bloody Expanse by seeing what happens to the town of Shepherd’s Brook many years later. Read on for more details!

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Depth-Based Adventure Sites

This gallery contains 4 photos.

Originally posted on Monster Darlings:
Many of us know the joy of describing a complex dungeon and watching our friends studiously attempt to chart it out on graph paper, in many cases distorted by the “picture-telephone effect.”  And mapping out a dungeon can be serious fun for a DM.  But sometimes, adventurers want to explore…

Why David Weber, Why?

Reading about flat characters in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, I have just been reminded of one of the things that routinely frustrates me in David Weber’s work.  Weber likes trying to make characters who should essentially be flat, more or less caricatures intended to draw up conflict or drama or comedy (or maybe they should be comic but he refuses to use them in that way, making them painfully comic instead… more on that later).  But instead of accepting that these characters should be flat, he tries to flesh them out.  He tries to make them round, and make me care about them.  Nine times out of ten, he fails.

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Zombies in the Vineyard: a DitV hack

Dogs in the Vineyard is an indie RPG created by Vincent Baker; it has an unusual set of dice mechanics for its conflict resolution, and as part of that it encourages players to take turns shaping the game’s narrative.  While it certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I have had a lot of fun with it.

It’s also highly moddable, much like other Vincent Baker games (Apocalypse World being a prime example).  While the DitV sourcebook describes a Wild West setting full of civil and religious strife, I’ve heard or seen others using the system to play in mafia-based story lines, Star Wars settings, feudal Japan, or even The Matrix.  And Baker hacked his own system to tell horror stories, in Afraid in the Vineyard.

So of course someone decided to modify things a little further to turn it into a storytelling system that would allow you to play in a classic zombie movie.  Sadly, while they’ve playtested their zombie hack, the ruleset that I was able to find online is nowhere near final.

I’m going to cobble something together from those notes as best as I can, and when I’ve done that I’ll share the result with you.  If you’re already familiar with DitV and Afraid, maybe you’ll enjoy taking a look too?