Stuffed Crocodile

Mazes, Martians, Mead

Re-evaluating Magic: The Gathering

Image.ashxLately I reconsidered my disdain for Magic: The Gathering; I even spent a lot of money buying new cards, and found my old cards back at my parents’ place. I bought Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 for my tablet and had a blast playing it. Despite all the misgivings about the game in the community it has a rather nice structure for new players, or those that haven’t played it for close to 20 years.

Did anyone notice that Magic turned 20 in 2013? How is time going by so quickly?

I originally gave up on Magic in about ’97 or ’98. I think I was one of the first people in my region to even know what a trading card game was, and most likely one of the first ones to buy the game at all (the German 3rd edition starter set, and the Renaissance reprint set). I weathered the Homelands expansion (still widely maligned to be one of the worst ever, but with a lot of flavor and amazing art), had a lot of fun with Mirage and Visions (which had an amazing Africa inspired theme that has not been repeated since), and then hit a roadblock during the Weatherlight saga.

Image.ashx2It was Serra Avatar that killed it for me back then. I had not graduated to buying large amounts of boosters and starter sets, and when my neighbour managed to get a card collection multiple times the size of my own, just a month after I introduced him to the game, I knew I was in trouble. And then he played Serra Avatar (a creature with toughness and power equal to the life of its controller) and I knew I wouldn’t manage to compete.

Well, I guess I could have. If I spent more of my money on trying to catch up.

The problem was that I didn’t want to. I already was deeply into RPGs, and I decided that I’d rather spend more money buying books and other supplements than  cards. So there was that.

I sometimes would buy a few boosters afterwards, but around ’02 or ’03 the art direction became so grating that I stopped doing even that.

Then a few months ago El Goonish Shive had an arc set during the equivalent of a Magic tournament. El Goonish Shive is a webcomic that has been running for a long time now. There is shapechanging squirrel hybrids and anime style martial artists in there. There is a lot of weird sexual fetish stuff without anything really overt in there. And then at one point an arc with lots of important plot development was set at a Magical Gatherings tournament. One of the characters works in a comic shop, and they have a weekly tournament.

And while reading this I was thinking: hey, that reminds me, that game wasn’t actually so bad.

And it has gotten better in the time I was away. I only noticed it after starting the computer game, but the rules have been straightened out a bit, card design has been changed, the art has matured a bit, etc.

Mana burn is gone for example. No more damage points if you miscount how many lands you tapped. Interrupts are gone, folded into instants. Creatures have become stronger to make them a feasible choice against spells.

Mulligans have changed as well and created an even deeper tactical part. Instead of just doing the Mulligan when one has either no or only lands, now everyone is allowed to reshuffle and draw again (minus one card) if the initial draw is not good enough.

The game has sped up. Stuff is happening in the game. There is constant action instead of a slow slugging of cards against each other. I guess this is what happens when you actually try to learn from your mistakes and try to improve a game over the course of 20 years. Not everything is perfect, but I dig the current version of Magic much more than the one I used to play.

The Wilderlands are a strange place

Ready Ref Sheets, page 49:

Somehow Anchovies are fruits in the Wilderlands

Ready Ref Sheets, pg. 49

By the way, apples show up only as rare crab apples and as the unique Golden Apple. This means that in any given hex you have a 1/400 chance of finding coffee or rubber, but only a 1/8000 chance of finding sour apples. And a 1/16000 chance of finding a non-sour apple that gives immortality.

Have I mentioned I love the old JG stuff?

Terry Pratchett is dead

Terry Pratchett is dead.
I don’t think there is a single other author who had such an influence on me and my view of the world.
Scribner once said “Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” and so I think that he will live on, in a way, in all of us who spent part of their life in his books. And his books remain.

I hope that he will continue to change the people of this world for the better.

[Shadowrun] A Night’s Work (1990 Shadowrun Promo)

Action! Magic! Matrix! Cheesy CGI! Improbable 80s hairstyles! This one has it all!

[Shadowrun] Run 1.1: Speakeasies, Devil Rats, and lots of Pizza

So, we had our first session of Shadowrun 5th edition today. It was a bit of a surprise for me. I had the rules beforehand (only as a pdf though, which was hard to read from), but I did not actually plan to do anything with it. Then my players actually asked if we could play some. It seems they didn’t play the pen and paper game yet, but they did play Shadowrun Returns.
It went ok, I guess.

We did not actually get far, despite the fact that I consciously had my players choose archetypes from the books instead of creating characters by the priority system. But then it turned out that one of us had to go on a spontaneous business trip in the morning, and another had to be home earlier. So, we managed to get the meeting with the fixer, the meeting with the Johnson, a single fight, and some legwork in.
On the other hand we want to meet next week again, which would be a record for our group.
The group consisted of a Chinese Ork gunslinger with triad ties (the archetype from 4th edition), a covert ops specialist (also from 4th), a black dwarfish decker with an online persona modeled on the Ms. Marple novel (the archetype from 5th ed.), and an occult investigator with an alcohol problem (also from 5th). I considered properly converting the archetypes from 4th edition to 5th, and then realized that the ones from 5th edition are wrong anyway, so I just did some basic conversion stuff to be able to get going and left it at that (well, I calculated the limits for the characters). If they get hooked on the game I might be able to create proper characters with them, so far those were mostly just so I could show them what was possible.
I also made pizza and salad, and one of my players brought tiramisu brownies, so that should have helped keeping the mood up.
I should have studied the combat rules more intently. I wanted to do some test fights against some opponents, but in the end I did not have the time for that. And that was after I had a week more to grok everything. Basically I only grokked most of the rules on Thursday. We were supposed to play last Saturday but had to reschedule, so that was not possible. So, after another week I now felt able to do it properly. It was a partial success. The Shadowrun 5 rulebook is slightly obtuse.
The characters met up (the decker only as an icon) in a dingy pizza place in Seattle Downtown, some dive that mostly was kept alive as a front for the owner’s fixer business. In a sort of emergent gameplay the characters all ordered a pizza and demanded to see the manager, which we established was the way to get an audience with the fixer. We soon came to the conclusion that that this also was the only reason why this place made any money to begin with.
The owner, a huge ogre called Mario, told them about a job. They were to meet their Johnson in The Speakeasy, a 1920s styled bar with some period-appropriate backrooms, and some less period-appropriate jukeboxes in the entrance hall. Hey, its all 20th century, ain’t it?
The Johnson was a mousy type who clearly was nervous. The job was simple: a datasteal from a small soda factory in Tacoma. The runners even managed to fret out the guys motivation, which either means I was playing the role really well, or just way too transparent.
After a few initial investigations the runners met at some dive bar in Redmond (The Crash) the occult investigator knew. She knew the bartender and asked if they could use the attic. Sure, the bartender said, if you don’t mind the rats. They did, but they agreed to take care of the rat problem, found out that the Ms. Marple-like icon they met at their fixer was actually a tough black dwarf, and then tried to take care of the rat problem.
And here I encountered the problem that I A) underestimated how tough devil rats are and B) did not completely figure out the combat system until 3 rounds in.
The combat took longer than expected, especially because I had to revise the rules constantly.
It took me nearly the first round before I noticed that yes, devil rats have a physical limit of 3, so they actually can’t have more than three successes in unarmed combat and defense rolls, even though I nearly burned a hole into the table with my successes.
The players on the other hand rolled mud. Most rolls they had did not even hit enough to start hurting the rats, and the ones that did glitched out at the same time. In the end it took 3 rounds until the decker finally managed to hit one of them by sheer luck. Two of the rats were finally killed by a spirit the occult investigator summoned, and that more because I couldn’t find the rules for spirits and did not want to bog down the game too much. Also I wanted to get on with things and at least I did roll successes for the spirit.
So then they had some planning and some legwork. After a short planning session one of them went out again to investigate further, he broke into an nearly abandoned property next to the factory and did some reconnaissance.
And then we had to stop.

Lets see what next week brings.

I remembered again what I liked about the game back when I played it more often, around 2000. The adventures are easy to do, the system is maybe not intuitive but easy to understand, and the background allows people to do a lot with their character. The world is just close enough for them to get into their roles properly, but far enough to have some really great worldbuilding in the game.

25. Lodz International Festival of Comics and Games

So yesterday my wife[1] and me went to the International Festival of Comics and Games in Lodz (Międzynarodowy Festiwal Komiksu w Łodzi).

Yes, there is an international comics and games con in Lodz, but don’t get your hopes up, it wasn’t really that international. Actually, the most international thing about it was that Alan Grant was there, and he was the only guest who wasn’t from Poland itself. Oh, and I myself was skulking through the trade floor, so I guess I count as well.

I was in one of the earlier editions of the con a few years ago (2009?) and actually liked it back then. Since then they moved to a new, bigger location and got themselves an additional focus on games. It used to be only a comic con. The focus on games? Mostly video games. It was rather impressive actually. It now is held in the Atlas Arena in Lodz and the whole floor was full with computers and consoles, while the panels were in conference rooms underneath.

There was more than just comics and video games there though, Lego had displays, and there were a few board game companies that had their stalls. Most of the traders dealt in comics though, both used and new, and of course in the usual fan paraphernalia.

One particular shop had really good rates on American comics, basically giving them away for 2/3rds of what they normally cost (they had a 1$=2pln exchange rate). Unfortunately it was, as so often, kind of hard to still find something after the whole of Lodzian comic fans already went through their stock.

I did not actually get to any of the panels, but some of my friends who did were not really that impressed. Although they did get free comics out of that, so there is that. (this one among others actually, which is a mix-up of The Shadow with Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth; cheeky).

One thing that surprised me was the amount of Polish comic publishers. There were a lot of them there, selling their stuff, and sometimes rather obscure stuff as well. My wife found herself some mangas and some Polish indie comic, while I managed to get what was most likely the only German RPG product in the whole building. I actually wonder how that particular book made it there considering that the product line isn’t even so popular in Germany (it’s a monster book for the high fantasy setting for Das Schwarze Auge, written as a travelogue). Now of course I have to find the rest of the more recent Myranor stuff somewhere. My collection is lagging behind.

All in all a nice change of scenery, but it lacked focus. It would have been better if it was just comics, or just games, but like that it was a bit bland.

[1] if you were wondering why I didn’t post in ages: I got married, and Jesus Christ the amount of stuff and things to do and documents to get for an international couple is just crazy. I felt like going mad sometimes. It actually reminded me of this classic movie scene.

Review: Whose Body?

Whose Body?
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nervous architect Mr. Thipps had the unpleasant surprise of finding a dead gentleman wearing nothing but a pince-nez in his bathtub. At the same time a famous financier of roughly the same description has been found to have disappeared from his own bedroom.
Could this be the same person? As it turns out: no.
Still, there are some very curious elements in these cases that seem to overlap in strange ways. The first case is investigated by Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocrat with the rather unbecoming hobby of investigating crime, the latter by his friend Inspector Parker. They soon come to the conclusion that both cases are somehow linked, and start investigating a dastardly crime.

This is the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and it is evident why there would be sequels. It is without a doubt a strong story, quite gruesome in parts, and in others oddly whimsical [hehe]. The novels have been written during the 20s and 30s, and so actually by now are a sort of historical document of criminology (or at least mystery novels) in addition to being good yarns. Wimsey himself is more fleshed out as a character than other, similar copycats would later be. A shellshocked veteran of WWI, Cambridge graduate, gourmet and bibliophile, he easily puts on a mask of an aristocratic buffon whenever he finds it necessary to further his goals. Not that his natural state is so much less of an ass. Sometimes you just want to hit him in the face. I guess it is the sign of a good author that she can create a character that one can both despise and root for at the same time.
Later books developed his character further, and into more positive directions, but this book is already rather enjoyable. If there is one thing that bugs me it is the ending. Without spoiling too much, it was just too neat, too easy in the end. There is absolutely no doubt who did it, because the police caught the perpetrator just as he was writing a detailed explanation of what he had done and how.

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Review: The Chinese Maze Murders

The Chinese Maze Murders
The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert van Gulik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Judge Dee novels by Robert van Gulik are a strange beast. The author was in the Dutch diplomatic service in Asia during WWII and decided to translate an old Chinese mystery novel based on stories of the historical Judge Dee Renjie. (the Tang-era personality still is well-known in China, there have been two high-end movies and multiple TV series based on the same character within the last decade or so).
The original book, the Dee Gong An, was written by an anonymous author in 17th century Ming-dynasty China, and recounted three cases as they were solved by the main character and his assistants.
After this translation saw some success on the market van Gulik decided to try his hand on writing mysteries in the same style as the original book, which makes this book, and all of the 14 or so that followed, basically fanfiction.
Rather good fanfiction though, and some that captures ancient China in a way that it hardly has been before or after in the west. Robert van Gulik was a noted Sinologist, and he seemed to go out of his way to let his knowledge shine through, even if the structure of the novel was slightly westernized. (traditional Chinese mysteries had a Columbo-style reverse Whodunit format, where the murderer is known from the beginning).

The Chinese Maze Murders is one of the earlier books in the series, and very closely follows the model set by the original book, but allows for some deviations. One of these is the framing narrative which has a Ming-dynasty gentleman writing down a story related by someone he met in a wineshop. Which explains why this story has the social conventions of the Ming Dynasty instead of the Tang Dynasty, and all other historical inaccuracies. (cute, but a bit bothersome; van Gulik would later fade out this part of his narrative structure, after it became more and more bothersome to use it).
It also has a slightly cumbersome beige prose format, which takes getting used to. This is a direct holdover from the original novel, which tried to related things like a true crime account/court document than a western novel. This also would be abandoned in later novels.

Judge Dee has just been assigned to the far off border province of Fan Lan when he already has to deal with a few mysteries and a political powder keg: a local strongman has taken over the city by bribery and force and killed at least one previous magistrate, a widow relates the story of a weird testament to him, a girl has disappeared, and a retired general has been murdered in his own locked study. The judge and his assistants go on doing their jobs trying to unravel these mysteries at the same time.

It is this interconnectedness of the cases which makes these novels so interesting. A judge/magistrate in ancient China often had his hands full with things and could not just leave one case lie around while he cared about the others.
And so one case might be solved, but in it’s wake leave an even bigger mystery.

In my opinion this is a perfect little gem of a book. Later books in the series varied the formula towards a more westernized form of storytelling, but in this book we have something that both provides a look at normal life in ancient China, and a good mystery story.

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Review: Starfighters of Adumar

Starfighters of Adumar
Starfighters of Adumar by Aaron Allston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One thing that is very noticeable is that the situation the protagonists get thrown in in this book is suspiciously specific for their skillsets. Adumar is a slightly backwards world that has just contacted the New Republic and would be open for negotiations. There is one small problem though: they don’t want to negotiate with career politicians, they only will accept starfighter pilots as negotiators.
And so Wedge Antilles and a few others from Rogue Squadron end up on Adumar and have to deal with a lot of culture clash and cloak and dagger espionage business. It turns out that Adumar is actually a balkanised world and that they only were contacted by the most powerful nation there, that the Imperials were contacted at the same time and now are competing with them, and that the Adumari are not only fond of starfighter pilots, they are obsessed with them. And with honor. And with honorable feuds to the death. In one of the funniest sequences in the book our heroes are on a stake out when someone else sneaks in and wants to use the same hiding place.

At one point during the later part of the novel our pilot heroes are so fed up with this world and their idea of honorable combat that they’d like to tell them to screw themselves and just go home. But they are our heroes, and so of course they don’t and save the day instead.

The novel is not exactly Shakespeare, but it is definitely one of the better Star Wars novels out there. It is fun to read, the worldbuilding is impressive for Star Wars (remember, this is the franchise that gave us such interesting locales as a desert planet, a swamp planet, a city planet, and a Northern Italy planet), and it works as a coherent story on its own.

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Review: The Compleat Traveller in Black

The Compleat Traveller in Black
The Compleat Traveller in Black by John Brunner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Somehow I expected a bit more of this one. It was enjoyable, yes, and the setting was something not seen too often (King later used a similar setting for his Dark Tower series), but all in all it was a bit too flowery in its’ prose and too skimpy on actual plot.
Well, technically it is a collection of short stories, although the way they are presented makes them appear more like an actual novel. There is a sense of continuity between different stories. One element from one story will for sure appear in the next, and stories harken back to earlier ones without explanation. Also there is a continuing exploration of the main character’s quest.
So, more of a novel then.
It follows the travels of the Traveller in Black who has many names but only one nature, as he travels through a surreal world that seems to be neither here nor there and definitely not really our past or future, trying to bring order to chaos.
His gimmick is that he grants wishes and will do so in the most unexpected and ironic ways possible, sometimes to his own deep regret
It might be interesting to note that this book, similar to The Lord of the Rings, is about the loss of magic. The continuing quest of the Traveller is one that causes the magic to go away and slowly transforms the brutish world he inhabits into something rational, but ultimately more survivable. Where the early stories are very much in the vein of Sword and Sorcery, with gory human sacrifices and questionable morals, later stories more and more evoke a more civilized society.

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