Categories
Tabletop RPGs

The Astralnauts roam the galaxy hunting alien ghosts

Thanks to a G+ post by Greg Gorgonmilk, I checked out the weird, colorful world of The Astralnauts over the weekend. Created by artists Alex Pardee and Matt Richie, the Astralnauts are a team of spacefaring ghost-hunters who track down extraterrestrial spooks.

If you read that and immediately thought “campaign setting!” then I like the cut of your jib. It sounds like Ghostbusters meets Star Trek, with a side order of Stargate SG-1, and I like all of those things a great deal.

It looks like this:

(Artwork by Alex Pardee, image from io9)

Ghosts . . . in . . . spaaaaace

A gallery show for Astralnauts artwork opened this past Friday, and I wish I was close enough to visit — their stuff is bananas. The concept behind the Astralnauts is equally bananas, and in such a good way.

(Artwork by Alex Pardee, image from io9)

Here’s the core of the Astralnauts concept as a campaign pitch, excerpted from the team’s origin story:

In 2116, NASA revealed that spirits and ghosts don’t ONLY exist in the usual organisms like plants and animals. Unforeseen by any theorists or astronomers, NASA made a shocking discovery after retrofitting their telescopes with similar lenses that ghosters have used for years. Through the eyes of the Earth’s most power telescope, they saw the angry spirit of the entire dead planet of Bewmer, and it was rapidly moving toward Earth, clearly threatening its existence. If this planet-sized-ghost wasn’t stopped, Earth could be destroyed. Military forces from almost every country united and called for volunteer ghosters to travel into space, where they would work together to destroy the spirit of the dead planet, Bewmer.

In October 2117, a small army of nearly 3000 ghosters from across the globe was deployed to the dead planet of Bewmer. Almost immediately upon their arrival, all communications were lost.

A fucking ghost planet!? Stick a fork in it, because that’s a campaign setting in its own right.

Ain’t afraid of no toons

But the other half of the concept is “tooning,” which at first sounded less intriguing to me from a gaming standpoint:

“Tooning” was the process of adding a specially–mixed gas to the ectoplasm of the ghost, which, when combined, shrunk and crystalized the ghost’s essence, freezing it in a pocket-sized enamel form that looked like a small cartoon pendant. In other words, “tooning” a ghost trapped it inside it’s own personal tomb. This “crystalized” representation of a spiritual form meant that physical evidence could then be provided whenever someone captured and exterminated a ghost.

That takes advantage of Matt Richie’s artwork, which involves producing stuff you can hold, in a cartoony style:

(Artwork by Matt Richie)

And I figured that was that, right? I mean, these are two artists with a cool idea and a desire to collaborate in a way that uniquely leverages their individual art styles, not two dudes setting out to design a game setting. Buuuuuuut:

Balek Parker utilized his new technology to create and patent “Toon Guns”. These toon guns simultaneously sprayed the gas on to the ghost while vacuuming its essence into an attached container where the crystallization took place.

And boom, right back to gaming.

I mean, a party of PCs zipping around the galaxy, tooning weird-ass alien ghosts with gas guns — where do I sign up? Because that’s a game I’d love to play.

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

2016 Hugo Awards: “So join. Read. Vote.”

I’ve been reading fantasy and sci-fi for as long as I can remember[1], but this is the first time I’ve ever become a member of the Hugo Awards voting pool. (A voting membership costs $50, and members also get to make nominations for the 2017 Hugo Awards.)

My faithful Kindle Paperwhite (paid link) is already getting a good workout, with plenty more to come!

I wish I had 10 heads and 20 hands

I’m a voracious reader, but rarely a focused reader. I usually have at least a dozen books — a mix of fiction, gaming, comics, and sometimes non-fiction — in various states of “on the go” at any given time. Right now I’m reading (all paid links) Seveneves, GURPS Time Travel, Playing at the World, The Colossal Conan, Stormbringer, Blood Rites, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, Blood Meridian, The Burning Land, and the Bible, and rereading Jonathan Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four.[2]

Right now, that means Seveneves and GURPS Time Travel. But I’ve got a bookmark, be it physical or virtual, in all of the titles on that list — although in some cases, I’ve been “in the middle of” them for a couple years or more.

This makes becoming an informed Hugo voter a task that’s both exciting, because I love fantasy and SF, and daunting, because holy shit there’s a lot of reading that has to happen before the July 31 deadline.

Just the novels, ma’am

Considering only the five nominees for Best Novel, which are (all paid links):

. . . and using only the rough metric of “how many pages Amazon lists for the edition I looked at,” that’s 2,864 pages of reading I need to do. Granted, Best Novel is the category I expect to involve the most reading, but there are oodles of other categories in addition to this one.

The only category for which I rode in fully prepared is Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form, because I’ve already watched all of the nominated films. (Choosing one, though? That’s going to be tough!)

Still, no complaints here. “Oh no, I have to read a bunch of interesting books!” doesn’t carry a lot of water, as complaints go. I’ve ready plenty of Butcher and Stephenson, but Leckie, Jemisin, and Novik are all new to me. I’m excited to read their work — and many other nominated works, as well.

Time, horseshit, and Rabid Puppies

Will I be able to read 100% of the Hugo nominees? Realistically, probably not. I’ll do my best in the time I have, though.

I vote in the ENnie Awards every year, and I don’t even attempt to read/play every nominated work — doing so would entail giving up too much of my time. Instead, I play/read the stuff that interests me, and vote for stuff I feel familiar with. Unlike the Hugos, the ENnies don’t offer up a voter packet, but I make a point of visiting nominated blogs and checking out nominated free products.

I also don’t feel obligated to read every Hugo-nominated work, because fuck the Rabid Puppy agenda. I have a horseshit filter, and you know what? It didn’t stop working when I became a Hugo voter.

If a nominated work stands on its own merits, like Seveneves does, I don’t care if it also appears on the Rabid slate. If a slated work doesn’t stand on its own, or if it advances or supports Rabid Puppy horseshit, it’s going below No Award on my ballot.

I like, and agree with, John Scalzi‘s take on this topic:

If you vote your own conscience, there is no wrong way to vote for the Hugos. There is, simply, your vote. It’s your own choice. Think about it, take your vote seriously — and then vote. No one can or should ask you to do anything otherwise.

I have no stake in how anyone else votes; I’ll be voting my interests and conscience.

The bigger picture

I’ve learned a lot by reading different takes on slates, Puppies, Hugo voting, and all things Hugo-related over the past couple of months.

File 770‘s list cross-referencing nominees with the Rabid Puppy slate is going to come in handy, and the site’s ongoing Hugo commentary and links have been a great read. Gay dinosaur erotica-author Chuck Tingle, nominated by the Rabid Puppies to troll the awards, is a fucking national treasure, and he’s doing a delightful job of trolling them right back.

At least one other “troll nominee,” My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, is an excellent nominee in its own right, and I’ll be fascinated to see how it does. Chuck Wendig said some excellent things about last year’s Hugo mess that are pertinent this year, too. Ditto Brandon Sanderson, in his post about this year’s awards.

“So join. Read. Vote.”

The quote in the title of this post is George R.R. Martin‘s advice to potential Hugo voters, drawn from an excellent blog post he made after the nominations were announced, The Puppy Wars Resume.

It’s good advice, and I’m taking it.

I wish it didn’t cost $50 to take, though. $50 is a lot depending on one’s circumstances, and I bet there are plenty of folks interested in the Hugos for whom that $50 is a barrier to entry. But the sentiment is sound.

I’m still reading, listening, and finding my feet as a Hugo Awards voter, but it’s a responsibility I take seriously — and no matter what happens, I’ll get to read some good books, and the awards themselves will be interesting.

[1] The two earliest fantasy and SF books that I read were, respectively, The Hobbit (paid link) in second grade and Tunnel in the Sky (paid link) in fourth grade. I might be forgetting something earlier in either case (or both), but I have “time stamps” for those two.

[2] My to-read stack, physical and virtual, is hovering around 130-150 books, and has for at least the past five years. I try to spread my unread books across multiple shelves so that they can’t gang up on me.

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.

Categories
Books

The Dark Forest

I finished Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest (paid link) today, and it blew me away.

I wasn’t sure he could follow The Three-Body Problem (paid link),and the first 80% of the book was a solid four stars — I thought that was about the best I could hope for, given how amazing and surprising and wonderdul TTBP was.

That last 20% was a complete surprise, a nuclear fireball of pure jaw-hanging-open whoa that kept me reading in the bath for much longer than I’d planned. I couldn’t stop until I’d finished it.

It’s different than the first book, especially in its structure. More straightforward, with less of an undercurrent. But so good. I can’t wait for the final volume, but I’ll have to as it’s not out in translation until April 2016.

Categories
Books

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem (paid link) was amazing.

The hook is great. The story it promises puts a twist on a premise I’ve seen before, but it’s solid.

But underneath that story, unfolding throughout the book, is a story that went nowhere I expected it to, in the best way possible.

Reading it reminded me of watching The Wire (paid link). I came for an excellent cop show, but every season I got so much more. The Wire peels back layers as it goes, and The Three-Body Problem is like a delicious motherfucking layer cake of wonders.

Its Hugo is well-deserved.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

My favorite gaming books published in 2014 (so far)

I picked up 188 RPG products in 2014 (plus a few more than arent in RPGGeek’s database yet), 43 of which were published in 2014. Of those 43, I’ve spent enough time with enough of them to tease out a partial list of 12 favorites — partial because there are books I expect to love which aren’t included here simply because I haven’t had a chance to read them.

  • The Chained Coffin – Michael Curtis (Stonehell + DCC RPG + a setting inspired by one of the least-known authors in Appendix N, Manly Wade Wellman + a fabulously run Kickstarter that turned out a beautiful product = win. There’s a ton of stuff in this boxed set, including a killer spinning prop.
  • The Clay That Woke – From the concept to the execution, this is a fabulous book. It oozes mood, and the system — which uses tokens, not dice, drawn from the krater of lots and compared to an oracle — is fascinating. This is one of my favorite things I backed on Kickstarter in 2014.
  • Cosmic Patrol – This oddball improv game marries a genre I don’t care about (Golden Age sci-fi, robots and rayguns) and a publisher I don’t associate with weird little games (Catalyst), and the marriage is groovy. I liked the core book so much that I bought the whole line.
  • Cthonic Codex – This hand-assembled, limited edition boxed set is a buffet of peculiar, evocative goodness for any fantasy game. It’s a setting unto itself, presented in incredibly appealing . . . fragments, I guess? It’s hard to describe, but superb.
  • Dead Names: Lost Races and Forgotten Ruins – Like other Sine Nomine books (e.g., Red Tide, which is awesome), while this is a Stars Without Number supplement it’s really a toolkit for generating weird places and species that works just as well for other games and genres, and a good one at that.
  • The Dungeon Dozen – This is in my top three for the year — it’s superb. I liked it so much that I reviewed it on Gnome Stew. If you’re a fan of old school games, old school art, and/or random tables, buy it.
  • Dwimmermount – After the most painful crowdfunding roller coaster I’ve ever been involved with as a backer, I crossed my fingers that Dwimmermount would be as good as 2012 Martin hoped it would be. And it is! It’s a weird, wonderful monster of a dungeon that begs to be explored.
  • Guide to Glorantha – Moon Design’s two-volume doorstop dominates any shelf it sits on, and both books are simply stellar. I have no idea if I’ll ever need or use this much information on Glorantha, but I’m glad I own them.
  • Obscene Serpent Religion – Need a freaky serpent cult for your game? Of course you do! This is a toolkit for creating one, and for doing so cleverly with a minimum of effort and a lot of flavorful inspiration.

Despite trying to be thorough I’ve probably forgotten something, and I’m confident more favorites will emerge as I make my way through my to-read pile mountain. Happy gaming!

Categories
Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Gaming books on Lulu.com that I enjoy

I often see posts asking for Lulu RPG recommendations, and Lulu’s search functionality is pretty lacking, so rather than type mine up every time I wrote this post for easy reference. It’s up to several dozen recommendations, mostly old school products and story games, and I keep it more or less up to date with new purchases (latest update: May 29, 2018).

If you just want one recommendation, you should buy ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which I liked so much that I bought Brian Thomas’ original art for the sasquatron (seen above, as yet unframed). The sasquatron, a robo-yeti with a crab claw, is just the tip of ASE’s iceberg of gonzo awesomeness.

Lulu runs coupons so regularly that I never order without Googling “Lulu coupon code” first. Coupon discounts come out of Lulu’s end, not the publisher’s end.

Notes about the list

Some of the links below are to specific versions (like softcover or standard paper), so you might want to check for other versions.

If I loved something and want to have little game babies with it, I *ed it. (To be clear, I like everything on this list.) If you’re curious what I think about a book in more detail, I eventually rate and comment on every gaming book I own: Here are my RPGGeek ratings.

Looking for tabletop RPG products on Lulu? Try these!

Here are a whole mess of gaming books I’ve bought on Lulu that I would recommend, in alphabetical order with links:

  1. * Advanced Edition Companion
  2. * Adventures on Dungeon Planet
  3. Adventures on Gothic Earth
  4. Agon
  5. * ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment
  6. * ASE2-3: Anomalous Subsurface Environment
  7. * Augmented Reality
  8. * Barbarians of Lemuria: Legendary Edition
  9. The Barrow Mound of Gravemoor
  10. Dark Dungeons
  11. * DCC RPG Reference Booklet
  12. * Delving Deeper Reference Rules Compendium
  13. DemonSpore
  14. diaspora
  15. A Dirty World
  16. * Dodecahedron 2015 Cartographic Review
  17. d30 DM Companion
  18. * d30 Sandbox Companion
  19. Drowning & Falling
  20. * The Dungeon Dozen
  21. Dyson’s Delves
  22. * Elysium Flare
  23. Encounter Critical
  24. * Fight On! Compiled Compilation +4
  25. * Fight On! Foliated Folio +8
  26. 43 AD
  27. * 44: A Game of Automatic Fear
  28. Grey Ranks
  29. The Hell House Beckons
  30. Hollowpoint
  31. * The Hyqueous Vaults
  32. * KEFITZAT HADERECH – Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals
  33. Knives in the Dark
  34. Knockspell 1-3
  35. * Labyrinth Lord: Revised Edition
  36. Lair of the Unknown
  37. Last Train Out of Warsaw
  38. * The Lazy Dungeon Master
  39. * Love in the Time of Seið
  40. * METAL SHOWCASE 11PM
  41. * The Metamorphica
  42. NOD Magazine (link is to issue 1, but there are many more after that one)
  43. * Norwegian Style
  44. Original Edition Characters
  45. OSRIC
  46. * Petty Gods: Revised & Expanded Edition
  47. Planet Motherfucker
  48. * Play Unsafe
  49. * A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (direct link to free PDF)
  50. Realms of Crawling Chaos
  51. REIGN
  52. Santicore 2011
  53. * Santicore 2013
  54. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume One
  55. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Two
  56. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Three
  57. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Four
  58. * Shadowbrook Manor
  59. * The Shadow of Yesterday
  60. SlaughterGrid
  61. * Stalker RPG
  62. * Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls
  63. Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell
  64. * Super Mission Force[1]
  65. Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox Rules
  66. * Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque
  67. * Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque II
  68. Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque III
  69. Teratic Tome
  70. 3d6 Supers!
  71. * Tomb of the Iron God
  72. * Transylvanian Adventures
  73. Ulverland
  74. * Uresia: Grave of Heaven
  75. Warriors of the Red Planet
  76. * Whitehack
  77. * Wizards Mutants Laser Pistols! Volume One Compilation
  78. ZeFRS

I apologize to your wallet in advance. Happy gaming!

[1] Super Mission Force is a skirmish miniatures game, but it supports campaign play, features characters with skills useful outside of combat, and deliberately straddles a the fuzzy line that separates RPGs from wargames, so I included it here.

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Signal Lost, my Game Chef 2013 submission

I’ve done a bit of design work in the tabletop RPG industry, and like most gamers I’ve started and abandoned game designs over the years, but today marks only the second time I’ve designed a complete RPG and shared it with others.

After enjoying my experience with RPG Geek’s 24-hour RPG design contest in 2012, during which I designed my first complete RPG, Eaten Away, I was intrigued when I heard about Game Chef 2013. I also hoped I wouldn’t get an idea for a game, because I didn’t think I’d be able to finish anything, but that’s not how ideas work, is it? Of course I got an idea I couldn’t ignore.

Signal Lost is a story game about exploring the Distant Star, a deep-space survey vessel that has gone dark, and facing an alien terror. Here’s a direct download link: Signal Lost RTF file.

Here’s the cover: