Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Halcyon and On and On

I felt like I was doing entirely too many of these random posts on the topic of "Here are some shows or games that I am enjoying!", but I see that I haven't done one of those for, like, THREE whole posts, so I won't feel so bad if I indulge yet again. In no particular order:

Fallen London continues to impress and amuse. I'm growing ever closer to the end of major content, and the last few storylines have been most impressive (more details below the spoiler block). That timing is somewhat fortuitous: very little new content has been added to Fallen London recently, while Failbetter has been working hard on building their Story Nexus platform and other projects like Cabinet Noir and The Silver Tree. So I've basically avoided the long drought, since it's all new to me anyways. (The feeling it not entirely unlike someone reading through A Song of Ice and Fire now - they skip over the pain of waiting years for a new installment.) And, with The Silver Tree due to arrive before the end of the month, we should be getting a few of the associated Fallen London rewards that were promised during the Kickstarter campaign.

The first of those rewards actually arrived on Monday, in the form of a delightful roleplaying chat conducted on Twitter between several Fallen London luminaries and backers of the project.

MINI SPOILERS for Fallen London

The forum was quite cozy and spirited: Mr. Pages officiated the conversation, with Mr. Wines and the Gracious Widow as guests. The Gracious Widow's presence was much to be expected: she is one of the survivors of the Fourth City, where The Silver Tree will be set, and thus provides a useful bridge between the two cities. Mr. Wines is almost certainly the most favorite among all Master of the Bazaar: he engages quite cheerfully with humanity, and seems much more vibrant and upbeat than his often-menacing associates.

Most of the hour was given over to answering questions from backers, with welcome lengthy digressions included. This included some intriguing tidbits of information, and some confirmations of matters long-suspected. (For example: the Masters are not equipped to enjoy the services of Sinning Jenny.) For the most part, it was an enjoyable ramble over familiar ground: for example, in response to a question as to whether the Masters have emotions, Mr. Wines replied, "We have a wide variety of emotions, exactly like those of humans. The cellars of our spire are full of them."

I was happy to have my own question answered… or at least addressed. (One of the benefits of an intimate group was that I'm pretty sure everyone who wanted to participate, was able to do so.) I had just recently concluded the Affair of the Box (more details below in mega-spoilers), which raised some intriguing and chilling questions. So, I put a form of those questions to the speakers: Is the Fifth City worth keeping? Do you look forward to the Sixth?

A rather long silence ensued. Mr. Pages broke it, assuring us all that, while all things must eventually end, they would certainly mourn London once it passes. Mr. Wines contradicted him, stating that there had always been and would always be five cities: "London endures." That contradiction is, of course, wonderful, since… well, I'll get into why below.

Some of my favorite exchanges follow:

Mr Pages
By the voids! Can it be true,@Mr_Wines? A bottle of the Hesperidean? Loose in London? I am gastroflabberated!

The Gracious Widow
This is UNFATHOMABLE. What were you thinking,@Mr_Wines

Mr Wines
We were thinking of rolling around in a bath of money, which is also filled with money.


Mr Pages
"Rumours tell me when one dies in London, they find themselves unable to leave. What exactly happens if I try to return to Belfast?"

Mr Pages
I answer the question with a question. Why on *earth* would you want to return to *Belfast*?

Mr Wines
Returning to Belfast from London is much like putting on a pair of shoes filled with hedgehogs.


Quite wonderful!

Anyways. The Silver Tree fast approaches, and apparently new cards have begun to appear in Fallen London in the last few days. I hope to soon make the acquaintance of a Bitter Saker Falcon, and perhaps visit the Temple Club.

MEGA SPOILERS for Fallen London

The two plots that have been occupying me most since my last update were the Affair of the Box, and my investigation of the Jack-of-Smiles case.

The Affair of the Box has been going on for so long that I only vaguely remember how it started… something about a stuttering fence? Most recently, I was approached by Jasper and Frank, Clay Men who serve the Masters, who wanted the box, or the key to the box. This set me on the trail of the Kashmiri Princess, the most celebrated performer at Mahogany Hall. I renewed my acquaintance with Glass, the society of illusionists, and pulled off a spectacular illusion of my own while preparing for Sunday's performance. I avoided or lied to Jasper and Frank, came clean to the Kashmiri Princess(es!), and was given the key. Which… did nothing.

It turns out that the Box's locks are merely for show. I ultimately had to enlist the help of the Drownies to open it. And found… a CREATURE, inside the box, who creates glim, and seemingly cannot survive outside the box.

This discovery led to others, eventually pointing towards an epic conflict that could decide the fate of London itself. Namely: there have been four cities before London. And, I now learned, in each case, the previous city was destroyed when the following city descended. Hence, for example, the ruins of the Fourth City than can be found in the Forgotten Quarter today. This raises a rather alarming question: do the Masters plan on bringing down a Sixth City? If so, the death toll will be calamitous.

As it turns out, the Masters are actually debating this amongst themselves. That was quite startling to hear; this may be the first time that I had heard of actual disagreement between two Masters. Mr. Stones and Mr. Fires lead the two opposing factions, one which wishes to hasten the arrival of the Sixth (and destruction of the Fifth), the other which rather enjoys the Fifth and would like to see it linger for some time.

The Affair of the Box ends with a very delicious choice. Will you cast your lot with Mr. Fires, to act as the savior of London? Will you follow the path of nihilism, supporting Mr. Stones and annihilating London? Well… to be entirely frank, I've had quite enough of the Masters by this point. I've found them exceedingly difficult to work with, and singularly stingy in their recompense. So, I happily followed the third path: the path of truth, the path of muckraking, the path of infamy. I fired up the presses, and produced the most shocking exposé ever issued by the Fourth Estate. The chink in the Masters' armor has now been revealed, and, given time, it may grow into a crack that brings down the whole endeavor.

I'm very close to finishing the Jack-of-Smiles case, too. I'd spent some time early in the game hunting Jack around Watchmaker's Hill, during which time I'd learned that there are, in fact, several Jacks. The more recent phase has you digging more deeply into Jack's activities, through your new position on the Velocipede Squad. This was quite enjoyable: both Jack and the Affair of the Box eventually open up some new options on some very old Opportunity cards, the faction-related ones, so there was a nice bit of variety while pursuing the cases. I chased all sorts of Jacks: male and female, young and old, rich and poor, corrupted Constables, etc. In all cases, the people seemed entirely normal, until one day they seemingly went insane and started stabbing.

Without any discernible similarities between the people, I eventually gravitated to the true commonality: their knives. Many were cheap, some expensive, some elaborate, but they all shared a common characteristic: a maker's mark from a forge in Polythreme.

Along the way, I was granted the opportunity to become Jack in order to continue my investigation. This offer was accompanied by a very thoughtful warning, that the content would be significantly more violent and gory than typical for Fallen London. I was grateful for the warning, and decided to pass, instead taking the more pedestrian (and cheaper) approach of traditional detective work.

Once the Polythreme connection was made, I embarked on a (hopefully final) voyage to the Sea of Voices and its distant shore. Along the way, I stopped to acquire yet another Plated Seal, having lost the offspring of my first two seals when making a Bifurcated Owl. I think I'll make this one a Hound of Heaven; I didn't have much chance to play with my previous one. Anyways… I'm a trifle bored of voyaging, and hope to make this my last visit to Polythreme. Once there, I realized that, though I had not completed my guidebook before departing last time, it still remained unwritten, and so I was regularly met by Zailors. I quickly wrapped up that tale, singing the praises of Polythreme, then started my investigation, once again making the acquaintance of a stream of Fractious Furniture. I easily tracked down the workshop where the knives came from, only to find that its owner is entirely ignorant of the harm they cause. A consultation with the Clay Priest revealed that the problems all started some time ago, when the shop's human owner was led astray in his dreams, leading him to murder his family and set the shop ablaze, thus touching off the spirit of malice that would manifest itself across the Zee.

I'll be heading back soon to London and Veilgarden to hopefully track down the true culprit once and for all. As long as I'm in Polythreme, though, I'm spending some time making a small fortune in Stolen Kisses and Romantic Notions, just so the (long!) voyage doesn't feel wasted. I'm also contemplating a return to London via the Tramp Steamer rather than my own far superior vessel… it would take much longer, but would offer some variety.

Once I do arrive in London… well, that will be about it! Wrapping up the Jack case, and enjoying whatever Silver Tree-related content arrives. I suppose I might finally brace myself to explore the Mystery of the Plaster Face, though I'm not exactly looking forward to that; that particular storyline has managed to annoy me greatly even during the very small amount of time I've spent with it thus far.

END SPOILERS for Fallen London

In other gaming news: I'm increasingly getting into Skyrim, so it's now moved from a roughly-weekly activity to a roughly-daily one. My level is in the low-to-mid 30's. I recently maxed out my first stat, Stealth, which unlocked a particularly enjoyable Perk that lets me briefly turn myself invisible even mid-combat by exiting and re-entering Stealth. I also raised Smithing high enough to improve my magical gear, which is useful, but also leading to some dashed difficult decisions. Example: I currently have three sets of armor to choose from. One is an assortment of Gilded Elven and Scaled armor that I crafted and improved myself. It has the highest armor rating, but no special abilities. Next is a set of Nightingale Armor, which has some nice bonuses, but also some useless ones (like a hood that boosts Illusion), and is a little weaker. Finally is a set of Shrouded Armor, which includes my single favorite piece of armor so far, the Shrouded Gloves, which double my backstab multiplier… but is also a weak set of armor, and most of the other pieces aren't incredibly useful (like a bonus to Frost Resistance).

I'd LIKE to stick to one set, so I could use the set bonus and look snazzy, but as it stands I have a mishmash between the three… plus, I worry I'll need the other pieces sometime, so I'm currently carting those around with me, which is eating up some much-desired carry weight.

Eh. Too much good armor is a nice problem to have, I suppose.

I did decide to try experimenting with dual-wielding, and so far I'm really liking it. The only major downside so far is that I no longer get that awesome animation when I backstab someone with a dagger. Instead, there's this complicated thing that involves flipping around daggers, yelling, and stabbing. It's a bit less creepy-looking, but WAY more effective… I don't have actual numbers, but considering that I'm doing a dual-wielding power attack with a 30x multiplier, it must be a LOT of damage. Everyone I've tried it on so far has gone down in a single shot, even the boss creature I fought. At the moment I'm just wielding two Flawless Elven Daggers that I crafted, but I'm about to reforge Mehrunes' Razor, which I'm certain will be more impressive.

I still am not doing anything at all related to the main plot. I suppose I should sometime, just so I can make use of some of the Shouts / Words of Power that I've been stumbling across. I'm having a blast with everything else, though… I'm almost finished with the main Thieves Guild questline, and just recently started the Dark Brotherhood one.

For the most part I'm enjoying the game. The thing that's irritating me most at the moment is the journal. It's much better than the abysmal Mass Effect 3 journal, but I really wish it would provide more context. Most items in the journal are only a few words describing the immediate task you need to do, like "Kill the bandit leader in Haveron Cave." Now that I have scores of tasks in my journal, it's impossible for me to remember what's significant about more than a handful of them. What's frustrating is, I know that some of the quests are more important than others. In particular, certain quests were given to me directly from a Jarl or his/her steward. I'd like to focus on these, since these are probably the quests that would help me become a Thane, and thus purchase more property. However, it's been long enough since I accepted those quests that I can't remember which ones are Jarl quests, and which ones are from random people I've encountered, and thus probably would only reward a couple of hundred gold on completion. I'm guessing that Bethesda did this deliberately, to keep the journal simple and keep people from feeling overwhelmed by copious amounts of text, but it really takes away from my sense of immersion in the game… it makes me feel like I'm just pushing buttons, not questing.

The other thing that bugs me: sometimes I'll leave my horse while I go do something, only to find out that he managed to get himself killed. I won't figure this out until MUCH later, and will need to reload a very old game. This is infuriating. At the very least, the game should say "Your horse is dead," so I know then to reload. Far better: don't kill my horse if I'm out of earshot!

Those complaints aside, though, it's a good game. The graphics are absolutely gorgeous; some of the best screens I've seen from any game are when I'm standing on a mountaintop, watching the sun come up over a valley, while some snow swirls around nearby, and a dragon wings gracefully in the distance. The controls feel much better than earlier Elder Scrolls games. I'm delighted to finally be able to play as a pure rogue without penalty for ignoring magic. Level designs are good and keep getting better. Voice acting, while not as good as a Bioware title, is far better than any of the previous Elder Scrolls games. I do have subtitles turned on and will skip through most conversations, just reading the text, but a few actors are so good that I listen to every word they say. Karliah jumps to mind as one of the best.

On to television…

I'm thoroughly addicted (hah!) to Breaking Bad, and am now plunging ahead into the third season. It's been really good so far, though I suspect it will get even better… fans talk about the third season with hushed, reverent tones, and while the first few episodes have been good, they haven't come close to touching the highlights of the second season.

Hm, I think that's it for now! The election is consuming entirely too much of my attention, which I look forward to regaining after it's complete.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Ballot Ballet

In keeping with my tradition of shrugging off the sacred secrecy of the ballot, here is how I filled out my voluminous official ballot.

President: Obama, natch
Senator: Feinstein
Congress: Jackie Speier
State Senator: Jerry Hill. (I'm really happy for this one - he's been one of the best assemblymembers, and I think he'll do great in the Senate. I can see him going on to a successful statewide office, if he wants it.)
Assembly: Kevin Mullin
County: Warren Slocum
School Board: Joe Ross
Harbor District: Will Holsinger, Sabrina Brennan, Pietro Parravano. (This race has the best names!)
Prop 30 (Taxes): YES! (The most important thing on the ballot!)
Prop 31 (Budget): Yes. I think we've actually made drastic improvements to our state budget process in recent years, and this will extend that further.
Prop 32 (Gut Unions): No.
Prop 33 (Auto Insurance): No.
Prop 34 (Repeal Death Penalty): Yes. It won't pass, though.
Prop 35 (Human Trafficking): No. (Of COURSE this is a laudable goal, but not something that should be done through an initiative proposition! Geez!)
Prop 36 (Repeal Three Strikes): Yes. (We've had two decades to see its effects. They're bad. It's past time to fix it.)
Prop 37 (Label Genetically Engineered Foods): Yes. (I'm pretty torn on this one, but ultimately came down on the side of "More information is good.")
Prop 38 (Education Tax): No.
Prop 39 (Multistate Business Tax): No. (I didn't know much about this one; the Chronicle pointed out that the Legislature would be better equipped to fix this, and that way we can fund the general budget, instead of continuing California's insane love affair with special-purpose taxes.)
Prop 40 (Redistricting Senate): Yes. (I'm a HUGE fan of the citizens commission!)
Measure A (Tax): Yes. (It's well-designed and will help plug our structural deficit.)
Measure B (District Elections): No. (I actually think our county is governed quite well in the current system... I understand the arguments for switching systems, but I think it could make things worse.)
Measure C (Appointed Controller): Yes. (It's a technical role, we should select the most qualified individual, and not the best campaigner.)

As usual, my vote is mostly driven by my personal political philosophy and values, but I do rely on local newspapers and endorsements to help with the down-ballot offices and initiatives that are relatively unfamiliar to me.

If nothing else, publishing this stuff is an exercise in humility for me. Looking back through my previous posts, I'm reminded that I voted for Cindy Chavez instead of Chuck Reed for San Jose mayor. At the time, I was still suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome from my extended stay in Chicago, and fervently believed that endemic corruption was the path to a vibrant city. For the record, I was wrong on that election: Chuck Reed has done a really impressive job with the city, during an incredibly difficult recession. Which is another way of saying that I make no particular claims as to the correctness of any of my votes.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Movie Madness

Lists are fun! They provoke discussion and thought (often in that order). The AV Club recently compiled their list of the Top 50 films of the 1990's. The thing that surprises me most about this list is just how good it is: I have relatively few quibbles with items on there or ones that were omitted. It isn't perfect, of course, but much closer to perfect than most such lists.

It also made me realize that I'm WAY more familiar with the 90's than I am with movies from the past decade. Partly that's because I rarely go to the movies these days; partly it's because movies that have been around for longer have presented more viewing opportunities. I probably saw most of these movies in college or shortly thereafter, but I'm gradually catching up on old movies thanks to DVDs and online streaming.

I don't have the energy or knowledge to compile my own top 50, but here's my crack at a top 15. This is mostly defined by how much I enjoyed movies, not necessarily their importance or objective quality. Rankings are very tentative.

15. Dark City
14. Last of the Mohicans
13. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
12. Fight Club
11. Hamlet (Kenneth Brannagh, not Mel Gibson)
10. Silence of the Lambs
9. Groundhog Day
8. Pulp Fiction
7. The Big Lebowski
6. The Matrix
5. Fargo
4. Princess Mononoke
3. Office Space
2. Run Lola Run
1. 12 Monkeys

Several of these didn't make the AV Club's list, or even their "Orphans, Outliers, and Personal Favorites" list. I can understand some of the omissions, but the absence of "Run Lola Run" absolutely astonishes.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012


I'd like to introduce you to Poria!

Poria is a character in a project I've been kicking around for a while now with the working title "Skal." Skal is a fantasy land I created in high school, forgot about for over a decade, and recently started playing around with again. I'm not sure if its current incarnation will ever be released, but it's been incredibly fun to work on.

Poria lives in Ettan, the capital of House Hansa, on the eastern shores of the Tanalga river. Her husband is an agent for Patriarch Hansa, charged with traveling throughout the land to find any enemies of their people. Poria grows increasingly important over time, gradually coming into her own as a collector and analyzer of information, kind of a medieval equivalent of the NSA. She may be the only person who can uncover the threat against Hansa before it's too late....

I'm indebted to the very talented artist Isbjorg for drawing this portrait. This is the first time I've ever commissioned anything, and I was very pleased with how well everything turned out, both artistically and in terms of process.

It's kind of funny... I've enjoyed writing and programming ever since I was young, but I've always been horrible at art. For years I've felt like that's been a handicap that has kept me from doing something like creating my own game. This seems like a very late point to be making the realization: "Oh, I don't need to do everything myself! There are other talented people out there, who possess skills that I lack. Maybe we could work together on something!"

Like I said, I don't know if anything will actually come of Skal or not. But regardless, it's been a very good exercise for me, and stuff like this helps make it seem a little more real.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Fus Ro... Oh, You Know Where This Is Going

Media Roundup Time!

Let me get the title out of the way: yup, I'm finally getting into Skyrim. As I do so, I'm belatedly remembering that all of my previous Elder Scrolls experiences have started the same way. I always start the game a bit late, after the mod community has had a head start on new content. The beginning (after a tutorial-ish opener) feels simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming: you can go literally anywhere, and do literally anything, but the main plot won't kick into gear for some time, and so there isn't the sense of urgency that you normally get with something like a Bioware title.

So I'll poke away at it with short play sessions, maybe thirty minutes or so at a time. The structure of the game actually lends itself really well to this kind of approach, since that's roughly how long it takes to clear an area of enemies. (As with Morrowind and Oblivion, these areas are a mixture of caves, ruined forts, ancient Dwemer ruins, and other cool, large explorable locations.) Gradually, over time, I come more wrapped up in one of the game's through-plots. Amusingly enough, this is rarely the actual ur-plot; instead, I'm usually more motivated by one of the faction questlines. In Morrowind, my favorite part of the game was the House Hlaalu quests. In Oblivion, I actually had the most fun with the Mages Guild quests, which is interesting since I was playing much more of a thief-type character. In Skyrim... well, it's still far too early to know what my favorite will end up being, but the game started clicking for me once I made contact with the Thieves Guild and started running their quests.

Elder Scrolls games are purposely designed to encourage tangents and diversions. At any given time, you'll probably have 20 or more quests in your journal. You'll decide to accomplish one of them. You'll start walking or riding towards a new destination. Along the way, you'll stumble across, say, a fort full of bad guys shooting at you. You might just skirt around it... or maybe you'll fight back and kill them. Then, as long as the guys outside are dead, you'll poke your head inside. Then you'll clear out all of those people. Then maybe you'll find an artifact or something that will start off yet ANOTHER quest.

On the whole, I like Skyrim much more than its predecessors. It improves many aspects of the previous games. Some highlights include:
  • Fast Travel is much more sensible and fun. Previously they limited fast travel to places where it made logical sense (along a Silt Strider route, or between Mages Guild teleportation rooms). Now, Fast Travel is clearly about convenience to you, the player of the game, and not about convenience to your character. You can fast travel between any two places on the map that you've previously visited; it will take however much time it would have taken your character to have traveled, you just don't need to watch every step you take. (There are two downsides which are worth noting but not really complaining about: first, a few landmarks don't get fast travel spots, most importantly the standing stones. I wish these would at least get marked on your map; as it stands, it's impossible to remember where they are, so you need to resort to online resources. Secondly, I do kinda miss Mark and Recall... but again, with the other improvements they've made, it doesn't really matter since you can fast-travel to a spot very close to where you want to be.)
  • Along the same theme of "minimizing time spend in drudgery," I love what they've done with level designs. Levels are still fairly long and complex - a cavern might include several loadable regions and many stairways that lead you farther down - but when you "beat" the area (often this means defeating a particularly powerful foe and taking a great treasure), you don't need to turn around and retrace your steps all the way back to the service. Instead, there's usually some fresh exit from the very end that lets you quickly get back outside. This varies a lot from place to place (another thing I appreciate) - in an ancient Dwemer ruin you might ride a mighty elevator back up to the top; in a cave you might find a small opening you can exit that will drop you back in Skyrim a ways from your original entry; other times you'll raise a portcullis or unlock a secret door that will close a loop that lets you easily access the entry. The bottom line: more time spent doing fun stuff, less time walking.
  • Yet another welcome improvement: smithing. In the earlier Elder Scrolls games, this skill was used to avert a negative. Your weapons and armor would decay over time through use, losing effectiveness with each combat; you would need to repair these at a smith, or use a whetstone and a skill to fix them yourself. Now, you no longer need to worry about decay: a dagger will always be as strong as when it started. Instead, smithing is now a crafting skill, joining the ranks of alchemy and enchanting. You collect raw materials (animal hides, iron ore, steel ingots), and at a blacksmith's forge you can create new weapons and armor from scratch, and improve these items or others that you find on your journeys. Weirdly enough, the analogy I find myself thinking of most is with the Civilization series' treatment of pollution. In the early Civ games, pollution was a negative: it carried a risk of polluting a nearby terrain square and reducing yields, so you would spend a large part of the endgame carrying out the annoying work of having settlers/engineers mop up the detritus of your industrial civilization. In Civ IV, they flipped the system around: instead of Pollution, now we had Health. Health was a positive, something you could act to increase: build an aqueduct, install a sewer system, etc., and watch  your health flourish. Higher health meant full growth potential. If you let "pollution" get out of control, it became a macro issue (growth gradually slows to a halt), but it's something you can treat strategically ("I need to discover new technology to improve my health") instead of an endless series of rote tactical judgment ("Clean THIS pollution up HERE, then clean THAT pollution over THERE..."). Aaaaaanyways... the elation I felt at Civ IV's update to pollution is similar to the elation I feel about Skryim's smithing. It's more fun now.
  • They fixed leveling! This was by far the most-complained-about aspect of Oblivion: the game brutally penalized you for improving your character, and even more so if, like me, you were foolish enough to spend time improving your Speechcraft or picking pockets or sneaking. Skyrim still levels enemies, but in a far more sensible manner now: they roughly track your progression, and are nicely varied (I just cleared out a cave where there were many low-level brigands, a couple of other challenging ones, and a chief who would have been rather deadly if not for my poisonous hidden blade). No more encountering random bandits wearing glass armor and daedric wakizashis!
  • The economy is a bit better in Skyrim... still worse than any Bioware game, but loads better than Morrowind or Oblivion. The fundamental problems still remain: there's too much valuable stuff in the game, it's too hard to sell it all, and there's very little reason to ever buy anything. Each of those individual points are a bit better than in previous iterations, though. I still haven't seen price scaling at the highest level (i.e., I haven't yet seen Glass or Daedric weapons and armor), but it feels like any given item you can find should be worth little enough that a decent merchant can buy it from you. Secondly, there are more merchants who have around 1000 gold or more, so you don't need to camp out as much to empty your inventory. Finally, the houses are a pretty decent money sink, which helps make up for the fact that you'll probably never, ever, ever buy a single weapon or piece of armor from anyone. I hope that they'll continue to improve this in the next game; I would highly value a more streamlined way to convert the loot I acquire into usable coin.
In any RPG, I enjoy playing as a thief-type character.  This has been hard to do in previous Elder Scrolls games... I can mainly focus on thief skills, but since Elder Scrolls are so focused on single-player (as opposed to party-based) gameplay, you basically need to combine thief, magic, and fighting skills in a single character. In the past I've usually gotten away with just focusing on one or two schools of magic, a single weapon and armor skill, and otherwise trying to optimize my thief skills. Now, for the first time, I'm trying to create a character with no magic whatsoever: he's purely a rogue, with minimal fighting skills to supplement his thieving talents. It's actually going OK so far.

Well, let me back up a little: here are the skills I'm taking my perks in. (I also am leveling Speech and Lockpicking a lot, but those perks don't seem terribly useful and so I'm not perk-ing those.)
  • Sneak. Probably the single most important skill I have. It's currently at 80, the highest of any skill by a pretty wide margin. I'm pretty much always undetectable, unless I'm running right in front of someone in strong light.
  • Pickpocketing. This skill is crazily easy to level, so much so that I've had to cut down on it to avoid building a skewed character. This tree has some fun extra perks, especially one that dramatically improves your carrying capacity, and another that lets you silently poison people by giving them potions.
  • Alchemy. One of my two crafting skills. This is plugging a lot of the potential gaps from skipping any actual magic skills. It's also a lot of fun... I enjoy the discovery that goes into both finding ingredients and learning new recipes.
  • Smithing. My other crafting skill. It's very practical. Weirdly, I spend most of my time, and get most of my profit, from making jewelry, but the armor I do craft is better than anything I've found in-game so far, including the enchanted stuff I find. 
  • One-handed. I actually haven't put that many perks into this: the biggest benefit I've gotten is a 15x damage multiplier from the Sneak tree, by attacking via dagger from stealth. This has an incredibly sick and fun animation when you attack a humanoid from behind: you grab the top of their head, pull it back, and drag the dagger across. Ewwww. Most of the perks in this tree are useless to me, but I did grab one for improving my power attack. I may or may not invest in the dual wielding perks at some point; currently I'm holding a shield for the armor bonus but not investing in Blocking perks at all.
  • Light Armor. Cuz, y'know, I don't want to die. This is leveling very slowly, due to my incredible sneaking skills.
I am enjoying the perks system. It slightly decouples the level advancement process, the skill advancement process, and special ability acquisition. You now level up by gaining points in any skill; there's no longer a classification of "major" and "minor" skills for your character. And, you can spend your perk in any skill you want, but most perks do have minimum skill requirements. So, I still can't get that top point in the Sneak tree until my skill reaches high enough for it; but I also don't need to spend any perks in Lockpicking or Speech, despite the fact that they factor into my leveling up.

My play style has been really fun so far. I'm a very stealthy character. In towns, I'll generally just walk around and talk to everyone, but when night falls, I break into houses and steal everything valuable. Pickpocketing is fun too, though I confine myself to just one or two items from everyone. (A surprisingly large percentage of Skyrim's upstanding citizens are walking around with lockpicks in their pockets. Can you imagine?!) In lairs (forts, caves, temples, etc.), I stay in stealth the whole time, carefully watch for enemies and light sources, and try to maneuver so I can one-shot everyone from stealth. It's high-pressure, exhilarating fun. It's most effective against humanoid opponents like brigands. It works OK against undead; they're a bit slower, which is good, but they're also immune to many powers. So far it's been hardest against dwemer constructs, especially those spherical guys who move around very quickly in well-lighted areas.

When my stealth fails me, I'm only a mediocre fighter, but that's where my alchemy comes in very handy. I carry around a variety of poisons and "restore health" potions, so I can heal myself pretty much indefinitely while whittling down my opponents' resistances. I've been pleased with how often I'm able to stick to stealth, though... there are even a few "bosses" who I've been able to ambush, with good results.

In the open countryside, I'm a bit weaker and more exposed, but I also don't feel the same compulsion to defeat everyone. I got (well, okay, kinda stole) a horse relatively early on, and ride it any time I'm traveling to a new place. If I run across a pack of wolves or a bear or some other baddie, I can always outrun it.

The one enemy type I've had most trouble with so far is dragons. As a stealthy character with a backup of melee weaponry, I'm an extremely poor match for a gigantic flying fire-spewing beast. I'm very vulnerable to its unblockable aerial flame assaults. When it lands, I can rush in and whack it and account for myself rather well, but then it will take back off again. I can still win, eventually, thanks to all my potions, but it's a long and annoying process. I'm not totally sure what to do... I don't really want to pick up archery just so I can handle one enemy type, but I may need to.

Oh, I should mention mods. I'm playing with a pretty light set at the moment. One is absolutely essential for playing on the PC: Sky UI, which makes the game's menus actually usable and useful. The Elder Scrolls has been targeting consoles for a while, which makes sense from a market-share perspective, but also sucks since the PC controls and UIs tend to get dumbed down to something that can be controlled with a thumbstick and viewed on a low-resolution screen. Trying to scroll through a list of 50 potion ingredients and only being able to see 8 at a time is pure pain. Sky UI drastically fixes this by completely reworking the menus: they fit the color scheme of Skyrim perfectly, but are (finally!) designed with a mouse in mind, and take advantage of text that's perfectly readable from two feet away instead of across a living room.

Other mods I'm happily using: a World Map upgrade, a water-enhancement mod, the wonderfully-named "No More Blocky Faces," and a tiny patch that improves the way Transmute Ore works. (Remember when I said my character uses no magic? That was technically a lie. I do cast Transmute Ore. It's infinitely more usable with this patch, which (1) affects all the Iron One in your inventory at once, instead of requiring a separate cast for each unit, and (2) doesn't force you to transmute all your Silver to Gold before you can transmute more Iron.)

I haven't tried any NPC or quest mods yet. I may roll some in if and when I start running out of stuff to do in the main game.

Speaking of NPCs... it looks like there are more followers here than in the earlier games, but they still don't really have personalities, and feel pretty cookie-cutter. In each town, there's one mercenary drinking in the inn who you can hire for 500 gold. In each town, after you become famous and get a house, you get a "housecarl" who you can ask to follow you. They seem to all be fighters; I haven't found any mage or thief followers yet. And since I'm a thief, followers are useless: they're no good at sneaking and would just give me away.

It sounds like romance is possible for the first time in an Elder Scrolls game. I haven't explored that avenue yet; I won't get my hopes up, but I look forward to seeing what Bethesda is doing there.

So, that's all been fun!

Let's see... I haven't tried out Leviathan for Mass Effect 3 yet. I peeked at the reviews, they look good-but-not-great. I suspect (but haven't yet bothered to research) that it adds content earlier in the game, so I would need to reload an old save to do it. I do occasionally jump in to Mass Effect 3 multiplayer; if there's a weekend challenge that I'm capable of doing (e.g., not requiring perfect extraction from Reapers on Gold while only using melee attacks), I'll play to beat the challenge, and typically stick around for a few more matches. I'm pleasantly surprised at how easily I can slide back into the game, even if it's been over two weeks since I last played. I think that's a testament to the awesomeness of cooperative multiplayer, and also how well multiplayer matches are constructed, with gradually increasing waves of difficulty.

Regarding Fallen London:

I'm currently on Polythreme. It's very strange here! I've made some new friends. My new friends used to be my clothes. It's... it's rather confusing.

I came to Polythreme to fulfill my Ambition, and finally got to dispose of that bottle of Fourth City Airag that I'd been carting around for ages. It was a little frustrating at first, but I consulted the ever-helpful-and-brilliant community, and now I have a system down that works beautifully. It's based around deck management and opportunity cards. I did all the special stuff, and lately I've been acquiring bazaar permits by becoming fascinating. It's quite lucrative! I'll eventually travel back to London, and probably pick up a Plated Seal along the way to I can complete my menagerie.

I do think that I'm nearing the end of currently available content, though... I need a Hound of Heaven, and to finish the Affair of the Box, and do the Jack's Back story. Which will take a little while, but the end is finally in sight. Well, the "end"... I'm sure Failbetter will roll out some new content for the game later (probably after StoryNexus is available and the Silver Tree comes out). I'm very close to capping my first stat: Persuasive is at 129, and I believe that it's the lowest cap at 130. (As far as I know, the other stats all cap at 140; other than Watchful, I'm pretty far away from those caps.)

I might try some other fate-locked storylines then, or just park my character and wait for another wave of updates. The alternative is grinding, which I don't think I want to do... some of the hard-core completists in the community set goals for themselves like gaining the highest rank in Master Thief, or becoming the most Hedonistic. The most popular goal is gaining an Overgoat, which costs a staggering 11,712 echoes (and some change). Many players are taking advantage of the stomach-churning but highly lucrative Fidgeting Writer roulette wheel to raise that cash. I... I don't see myself doing that. At most, I'll improve my wardrobe so I'm ready for the next content wave.

Hrm... I really want to talk more about the plot, at least a little. Let's drop into

MEGA SPOILERS for Fallen London

On Polythreme, I spoke with Hundreds, the king and ruler of the city. A LOT of pieces of various puzzles fell into place here, thanks to some astonishing flashbacks all the way to the First City. Let me try and piece these together:
  • As we suspected before, the Manager of the Royal Bethlehem Hotel was the ruler of the First City. In flashback, he appears as a Priest-King, with bronze raiment (a wonderful evocation of the brass buttons on his modern jacket!)
  • The priest-king fell in love with Hundreds, back when Hundreds was a man, who traveled from the orient. 
  • Hundreds fell ill, and the priest-king bargained with the Masters of the Bazaar to take his city in exchange for his lover's life. And so the first city descended.
  • (What is the First City? It's clearly in the Middle East. We know that "Even the First City was young when Babylon fell," which disqualifies my first choice of Kish.)
  • This seems to match our understanding of the fall of the Fifth City: Queen Victoria made the deal with the Masters in order to save the life of her own lover, Prince Albert. Presumably, variations on this same deal were done for the second-through-fourth cities as well. 
All very exciting. Also, I'm pretty sure that the Rubbery Men are totally disconnected from the masters... I don't want to get into Flute Street too much, but based on what I saw there, I'm pretty sure they're pursuing an entirely separate, though not necessarily antagonistic, agenda.

Oh, oh oh! I also finished the Diocesan Intrigues storyline. Well, at least as much as there is so far. I was INCREDIBLY nervous about the last choice. I kept that opportunity card in my hand for, um, I think about three days while I warily weighed the pros and the cons of a frontal assault on Hell. At last I gulped and threw in my strength fully behind the Bishop. I may not always approve of his methods, but I'm in complete agreement with his goals. It looks like the end of that story hasn't yet been written. I can't wait to see what happens!


Let's talk about TV!

I was extremely disappointed in the previous two seasons of Dexter, and had promised myself that I was done: no more of that show. I was surprised to see a fairly decent review of the season premiere on the AV Club, though, and browsing the comments I saw a lot of variations of "Wow, I was convinced this was going to be awful, but it's actually pretty good!" So, I broke my promise and am watching it. It's definitely way better than it's been in a long time, but I still maintain my skepticism: Dexter has a pattern of creating seasons that start off extremely promising, only to peter out and get super-dumb near the end. We'll see how it goes. I reserve the right to bail at any moment if it starts to slide. (Oh, and if it does turn out, I think it will be yet another argument in favor of setting hard dates on TV shows to end. It gets good results!) (Heh, wow... reading my previous posts on Dexter is pretty amusing. I seem to always post a few episodes into the season, when I'm really optimistic about what the show is doing, before it goes of the rails and becomes unbelievably stupid and annoying. I... I may be continuing that trend here.)

I've been watching old Monty Python's Flying Circus episodes. Man, those things are absolutely hilarious. Even forty years later, when they've inspired multiple generations of imitators, their weirdness remains fully intact. Of course I grin when I see something like the Ministry of Silly Walks, despite having seen it dozens of times before; but I'm also amazed at how much of this show I haven't previously seen, or had completely forgotten about. There's a lot of Gumby material there that I don't think I've seen before, and it's as funny as the operation sketch. Also, for the first time in my life, I'm finally able to identify each individual Python immediately, as soon as they appear on screen, and I think that's helping me get an even deeper appreciation for their talents.

And... did I mention that I'd also re-watched Chappelle's Show's entire run? (Well, except for the third season, which I'm deliberately avoiding.) I was kinda-inspired by an AV Club tour of the series, but I'd have gladly done it without any prompting. What impresses me most is how well that show has aged. Even stuff that seemed extremely topical at the time, like one about how Dave's life is just like Grand Theft Auto, and a brilliant piece that compares the Internet (remember when that was a thing?) to a skeezy shopping mall, still feel fresh and valuable today. I'm impressed all over again at Dave's incredible comic brilliance. What a huge shame that he's not sharing his gift with as many people these days. I really need to catch him the next time he makes a commando appearance at a show here in the city.

Parks & Recreation is back, and is wonderful. I'm curious to see if they come up with any major arcs for this season. Well, I guess we're kind of on an arc now, just based on where the characters are located. And it seems like Ron may be embarking on something new. Yay! 30 Rock just came back too, and had a nice, appropriately meta premiere. I'm a little sad that show is going away, but at the same time I feel like now is a great time to end it... I still love that program, but it feels like they're finally starting to reach the end of what they can get out of characters like Kenneth and Jenna. That show has never been nervous about shaking things up, and I'm curious to see what they do for the rest of the season, now that they no longer need to worry about the future at all.

Speaking of shaking things up... I'm very belatedly jumping on the bandwagon for Breaking Bad, and just started watching the first season. No spoilers, please! I'm already completely engrossed, and will probably blow through the rest of the series in short order. I can already see why everyone likes this show so much. Wow, Cranston is just incredible.

Robot Chicken's pretty strong as well... I wasn't super-impressed with last season, which may have just been my own problem, but I loved their DC Comics special, and the first "regular" episode also hit me right. They have a new title sequence now. Maybe that's helping?

Oh, man, Louie! Such a good show. Such a good, good show. It doesn't even need to be funny, it just needs to be good. It sure goes to some unexpected places; I defy you to find anyone who predicted where the season finale would end up. Lots of great guest performances this season, too, both from comedians and non-comedians. I'm impressed at what that show can do: get really famous and well-respected comedians to play parts that make them look awful; and almost single-handedly rehabilitate the reputations of comedians that the cool have long since written off.

Speaking of comedy... I saw an awesome show last Friday at Cobb's. Patton Oswalt was the headliner, and was incredibly funny, as I've come to expect from him. I was really impressed by how strong the openers were across the board, though. Typically you'll get a mediocre local MC who opens up, then some decent-to-good comedians, then a great performance from the headliner. Here, though, everyone was just great. Next to Patton, the very first guy may have been the funniest. Argh... I'm trying to find his name online and I can't. I think he's local. He's Cuban, maybe? He had some phenomenal material: starting a Mariachi band in the Mission, describing his experiences at Outside Lands last year, the contagiousness of nervousness, and so on. There was a former Muslim from Los Angeles who had a short but really funny set that included some autobiographical material (the process of getting US citizenship) and some outright lies (a very resourceful cat). Right before Patton was Mike Drucker, a really funny guy who I follow on Twitter and had no idea did stand-up comedy. Drucker's comedy was very much aligned with my sensibilities: very focused on geek culture, male insecurity, and so on. Patton killed. Absolutely killed. I think this is the third time I've seen him in a bit over three years, and I don't think I've ever heard any repeated material (well, unless you count his Magical Black Man bit that was on the AV Club's Stand Down series) (man, this is turning into the "plugging the AV Club" post!).  Aaanyways... it's interesting. In some ways, Patton seems like the same guy who we all fell in love with years ago: he complains about his weight, and is broadly self-deprecating, and also launches really funny, scathing, yet surprisingly good-hearted assaults on things he dislikes. (One highlight of his set was a quasi-justification for Nickelback's horrible music.) But, he's also a dad now, and part of his routine is incorporating those sets of experiences. It's great! I look forward to many more years of great comedy from that talented guy.

And, Louis CK in just a tad over a month! I am truly blessed.

On the book front: I've been coasting for a bit since finishing Cloud Atlas, just catching up on my New Yorker issues and some political stuff. But I have made it about a hundred pages into Telegraph Avenue and am really enjoying it so far. Great characters, fun sense of humor, really interesting atmosphere. It's hitting a lot of, um, thematic beats that I should probably expect from Chabon, but that's good.