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Tabletop RPGs

Post-apocalyptic setting details via NUKEMAP

Via private G+ share, I followed a link to Alex Wellerstein‘s NUKEMAP — disturbing and depressing as a real-world visualization tool, but in gaming terms, perfect for nuking the Earth as part of post-apocalyptic setting creation.

NUKEMAP lets you choose a place on the map, the yield of the weapon, and whether it’s a surface strike or an airburst, and then click to see the radii of destruction, fallout, casualty estimates, and more. I nuked Seattle with a W-78 delivered via a Minuteman III missile, ticked the boxes for surface burst, casualties, and fallout, and got this result:

Making a custom Zone map for Mutant: Year Zero? NUKEMAP seems like it’d be a great place to start. Rolling up on one of the cities that got nuked in the original Twilight: 2000 timeline? Pick a yield, NUKEMAP it, and think about how it would look in the game.

As a person, I’m both repelled and fascinated by nuclear weapons. The circumstances of their testing, the reasons they exist, and their effects on real people are profoundly disturbing.

In one of my college film classes, I got to watch Bruce Conner’s Crossroads. It was a life-altering experience. Which sounds so clichéd, right? But for me, in this instance, it was true. Almost 20 years later, I can still remember how I felt watching Crossroads: I felt like the bottom had dropped out of the world. (As far as I can tell, it’s only available online in excerpt form, but imagine watching 37 minutes of that, on a full-size movie screen.)

But as a gamer[1], I’m equally fascinated with post-apocalyptic settings, nuking things until they glow, and seeing what happens next. There’s something deeply appealing about apocalypses of all kinds in game form.

NUKEMAP sits at the intersection of thoughtful consideration of the real-world devastation caused by nuclear weapons and the escapist fun of romping through post-apocalyptic worlds. It’s a nifty tool.

[1] And movie lover, TV viewer, avid reader, etc.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Day After Ragnarok has a stellar words:awesomeness ratio

Day After Ragnarok (paid link), by Kenneth Hite, packs an amazing amount of crazy-good stuff into a teeny-tiny itty-bitty package.

Word for word, Ken Hite sticks more gameable, immediately usable, inspirational shit in everything he writes than most folks in the industry, and this book may be the best example of that that I’ve ever read.

I have the Savage Worlds edition (paid link), but DAR also comes in Fate Core flavor (paid link) and a HERO 6th Edition version (paid link), and I assume it’s basically the same setting book with different mechanics.

10/10

DAR’s concept is so gonzo and batshit that it immediately commands attention. In just the first couple of pages, Ken gives us a setting like no other. The time is 1944, and the Nazis have succeeded in bringing about Ragnarök:

And then it happened; the whole world heard the howl of Garm, and the moon was eclipsed in blood. The head of Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, 350 miles across, breached the surface of the Arabian Sea and rose up into the troposphere.

The Americans, naturally, figure out a way to nuke Jörmungandr in the eye.

(No individual artist credits in the book, unfortunately.)

Which turns out to be a great idea, but also a really terrible idea:

Dark crimson rain fell from Dublin to Denver. Where it struck, the seas boiled and the earth drank poison. And things engendered, mutated horrors born of dragon’s blood and broken strontium atoms. […] But it hardly mattered, no at first, because the fall of the Serpent’s body back into the Atlantic sent up a wall of water a hundred miles high that smashed into the coast from Halifax to Havana.

The Serpent is really fucking big:

The head finally crashed to earth in Egypt–or rather, on Egypt. Its body followed it down, thunderously settling across Europe in a 300-mile wide swath from Scotland to Sicily, and setting off earthquakes 100 miles across on both sides of its fallen body.

All the fallout from the Serpent’s death doesn’t trigger a complete, worldwide apocalypse, though. It wipes out some entire countries, and scars all the rest, but large chunks of humanity survive — and all of this happens smack in the middle of World War II.

It’s an entirely different kind of post-apocalyptic game.

And it fucking delivers

Not only does Ken set up a setting like no other in just a few pages: he then delivers on all of the promises those early pages made.

My group is 9 sessions into our Savage Worlds DAR campaign, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the setting has to offer. And unlike a lot of settings, exploring a new place doesn’t involve reading a massive tome — Ken covers the whole setting in 27 pages.

This setting is so rich, and so well-conveyed, that all we need to explore some new corner of it is a couple of paragraphs from DAR, access to Wikipedia, and a few minutes of collaborative spitballing. That’s a perfect balance of inspiration and freedom — something I love in a good setting book.

I won’t veer into spoilers about the setting (everything I’ve shared above is in the intro, and is common knowledge in the setting), so suffice to say that Day After Ragnarok (paid link) is one of my all-time favorite campaign settings. It’s a superb book in every way.

Categories
Books

The Fifth Season’s recurrent apocalypse

I wrapped up my second 2016 Hugo Awards finalist novel, N.K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season (paid link), yesterday, and it was awesome.

The Fifth Season is post-apocalyptic fantasy, which is unusual enough to pique my interest, but it’s doubly unusual: Its setting, The Stillness, experiences recurring apocalypses — Seasons — that can be decades or centuries apart. Which means its inhabitants are fucked about eight different ways.

(This post is spoiler-free.)

On the heels of Seveneves

After Seveneves (paid link), which blew my mind (here’s that post, and all of my 2016 Hugo Awards posts), I figured a shift to fantasy would be a good idea. I’d never heard of N.K. Jemisin, and I was excited to check out her work.

The fact that The Fifth Season wasn’t on the Rabid Puppies slate — arriving on the list of finalists solely based on merit, rather than vote-fuckery[1] — and that the Rabid-in-Chief called Jemisin, an African-American woman, a “half-savage,” only made me more interested, because fuck the Rabid agenda.

But I also worried about following up Seveneves with anything; it wasn’t going to be an easy act to follow. And for the first 25% of The Fifth Season, I wasn’t feeling it.

There was too much “worldbuilding through terminology” (introducing made-up words and not fully explaining them, at least initially), and I wasn’t sold on the opening character or the use of second-person narrative . . . but there was something about it that kept me reading.

Cue the fireworks at 26%

At 26%[2], though, it took off like a rocket. I devoured the balance of the book in a mad rush, reading at times when — and in places where — I don’t normally read.

It plays with form. The second-person narrative, which is only for one viewpoint character, grew on me. (It plays with form in other ways, too, but I won’t veer into spoilers.)

The worldbuilding gathers steam, too, and the more I learned about The Stillness, the more I liked it. Jemisin fully explores just how weird a world with a reset button for human progress and civilization would be, and it’s marvelous. If you’d told me to design a world where apocalypses happen all the time, it wouldn’t look anything like The Stillness — and I love that.

It’s not all apocalypses, all the time, either. There are living statues (and, until I read TFS, I’d never stopped to consider how fucking creepy those would actually be), giant floating obelisks, seismic “superpowers” — all sorts of cool stuff. It builds a big, broad foundation for the rest of the trilogy, while also delivering a gripping story in its own right.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t label it squarely as fantasy — or sci-fi. It’s got both, though not in equal measure; the balance goes to fantasy, for me. It’s a unique mix.

A big middle finger to bigots everywhere

It’s also unique in its treatment of LGBT folks, sexuality, and skin color.

One of the secondary main characters is a trans woman, and that’s no big deal in The Stillness — which is awesome in a social justice sense, but also in a worldbuilding sense. There’s also a prominent three-party relationship, the dynamics of which are interesting, and two equally prominent bisexual characters.

The Stillness is a muddle of ethnicities and skin colors, and the three main characters all have brown skin. They’re not defined by it, and thinking back I can’t recall any racism in the setting. (There’s plenty of bigotry, though: The main characters are all hated and feared, just not for the color of their skin.)

We need more fiction like this. It’s not preachy, and it doesn’t put message ahead of quality. It’s a great read that also happens to be a great example of why racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry and hatred are fucked, as ideologies go.

It’s a testament to how much I enjoyed The Fifth Season (paid link) that, rather than racing on to my next Hugo-finalist novel (so much to read! so little time!), I went to see if the second book of this trilogy was available. It’s called The Obelisk Gate (paid link), and it doesn’t come out until August 2016. I know what I’ll be doing in August!

[1] Or vote-fuckery AND merit (e.g., Seveneves).

[2] One of my favorite unexpected benefits of reading on my Kindle (paid link) is how easy it makes it to think about books, and their rhythms, in terms of percentages. It’s a handy tool.

Categories
Books

Seveneves is roaring through my brain

I’m currently reading Neal Stephenson‘s Seveneves (paid link), and it’s blowing my mind.

(This post is spoiler-free.)

The larch

Stephenson is one of my favorite authors, and Cryptnomicon (paid link) is both my favorite Stephenson book and one of my favorite books period. Quite apart from “just” being fucking amazing in every way, it sparked my interest in cryptography, convinced me I could learn enough HTML and CSS to be dangerous, and deepened my interest in WWII history.

When Crypto came out, I was already fully aboard the Stephenson train — at that point, I’d buy whatever he wrote, sight and reviews unseen. But Quicksilver (paid link) brought me to a screeching halt. I made it a little ways in and gave up, which was rare for me a decade ago.[1]

The rest of the Baroque Cycle looked like more of the same, so I figured Stephenson had stopped writing books I liked, and hey, no worries. More power to him for following his heart.

But then Reamde (paid link) came along, and it looked different. I sampled it, and it was different. I read it, and dug it, and although I didn’t love it as much as Crypto — a high standard! — but it was a fun ride.

Seveneves, though? It looked overlong and overly complex — like another Quicksilver — and I passed on it. Until a few days ago, when a friend recommended it to me.

I mentioned hating Quicksilver, and my friend said he’d hated it too — but that Seveneves wasn’t anything like the Baroque Cycle. He knows I hate spoilers, but he dropped an intriguing hint that put some of the bad press I’d heard about the book in perspective. I put a lot of stock in his recommendations, so I picked it up.

And now for something completely different

Seveneves is amazing.

If, like me, you took an extended “Stephenson break,” come back for this one.

It does more in the first 50 pages than lesser books do in their entirety. It’s teaching me all sorts of stuff about space and orbital mechanics, and at every turn it’s surprising me. I love being surprised, particularly by books.

Seveneves reminds me a lot of Cryptonomicon. Different, obviously, but there’s a common spark. It’s written from one geek to another, but accessibly enough that my fuzzy memories of physics and childhood dream of being an astronaut are getting a workout and a fresh coat of paint. It’s full of big ideas, expressed adroitly, and even when I can see something coming it doesn’t arrive in the way I expected.

It’s got me in its grip, and it’s not letting go. I’m not done reading it yet, but I’m so excited about it that I wanted to share that excitement here. Give Seveneves (paid link) a look, especially if you haven’t read any Stephenson in a while.

Update: all finished now

I finished Seveneves today (May 29), and holy shit. I heard mixed things about the second “portion,” including advice to stop before that point. I couldn’t disagree more.

Staying well clear of spoilers, Seveneves stayed 100% gob-smackingly awesome the whole way through for me. If I read no other Hugo nominees, I’d vote for it in a heartbeat.

So good.

[1] It’s less rare now, but Kindle samples make it easier for me to avoid stuff that I might likely stop reading, so it probably balances out. Life’s too short to read books I don’t enjoy.