Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fourth Age

While reading "Children of Hurin" I found myself frequently daydreaming over my several decades of Tolkien fandom.  "The Hobbit" was the first book I really fell in love with, after seeing a production based on it at the Children's Theater in the Twin Cities.  We had a beautiful illustrated version at home, and I took incredible pride at reading it "on my own."  After that, I found out about the Lord of the Rings.  On my first pass through, I struggled through the book, loving it while frequently feeling exhausted.  I'd set it aside and daydream, visualizing the deep Fangorn forests, the bleak surfaces of Mordor, the bustling metropolis of Minas Tirith, the foggy barrow downs... few things since have affected me as strongly.  I committed a cardinal sin on that first read-through: I finished "The Two Towers," with its incredibly dramatic cliffhanger ending, and couldn't stand to wait to find out what happened next, so - gulp - I SKIPPED the first half of "Return of the King" to pick up their story and find out what happened next.

I eventually re-read the trilogy, this time going all the way through and not even skipping the poems and songs.  Then I re-read it again.  I eventually tracked down The Silmarillion and read that as well.  I found "The Atlas of Middle-earth" at the Burnsville library and spent hours poring over the maps it showed.  I started drawing my own maps of the areas beyond the borders of Tolkien's maps.

In middle school, one day I was at Barnes and Noble and found something intriguing: a box labeled "Middle Earth Role Playing."  The cover showed a wizard, some hobbits, and others standing under a tree; they were clearly Middle-earth characters.  According to the text on the back, this box included a book providing instructions on how to play a fantasy game with friends set in Middle-earth, and came with two ten-sided dice, character sheets, and a sample adventure set in the Trollshaws.  I had to have this.  I saved up some money and bought it.

Even though I didn't yet have anyone to play it with, I spent days reading and re-reading the contents.  I was vaguely aware of role-playing games, but had never actually played any of them - "Dungeons and Dragons," by far the leader, was faintly associated with the occult in my household.  Still, this was something different.  It wasn't just D&D with Tolkien characters bolted on; it had been thoughtfully designed from the ground up to reflect Tolkien's world and philosophy.  Unlike the high-magic worlds of D&D, in Tolkien magic is more subtle and rare.  For example, MERP contained two magic systems.  "Channeling" is a form of magic that derives influence from that Valar.  An animist establishes a relationship with a particular Vala, who will occasionally intervene in small ways on their behalf.  An evil animist will appeal to Melkor while a good one might petition Manwe or Ulmo.  By contrast, "Essence" is a form of magic that derives its influence directly from the Song, from Arda itself... it taps into the energies of creation that shaped Middle-earth.

Beyond magic, there were many other nods to Tolkienism which made this feel extremely faithful.  Death in Middle-earth is permanent; there's no resurrection spell.  (Perhaps to partly compensate for this, the rules describe how characters get "knocked out" and put into a coma when hit points reach 0; they permanently die at a certain negative level, or when explicitly dispatched by the opponents.  They honor Tolkien's descriptions of the races, meaning that unlike many systems, Elves are superior to Humans in every way - more intelligent, stronger, more attractive.  To compensate for this disparity, MERP invented the idea of "background points" - when creating characters, human players can select special abilities, family heirlooms, etc. that help offset their lower stats.

The nerd in me was delighted with the pages and pages of tables, showing combat results and spell lists.  The most intriguing aspect was the critical hit tables, which described exactly what could happen if you landed a particularly effective blow.  These were surprisingly descriptive, including outcomes like stabbing yourself with a sword, cleaving off a specific limb, being trampled by a horse, etc.  I don't think I've laughed as much at a rulebook before or since.

It took over a year, but I eventually collected together a small group of people to adventure together.  I took my job as the GM very seriously, and while I started them off with that early Trollshaws adventure, I also created an elaborate world-spanning backstory.  Here's what I recall of it - it's possible that I've misremembered certain details, and I'm sure that I've forgotten some over the years.

I wanted to have the freedom to let the PCs eventually go on world-changing quests with permanent repercussions.  If I was to remain faithful to Tolkien's mythology, this would require one of two things: either they would need to be set outside Eriador (the northwestern part of the continent where all the stories after the Fall of Numenor take place), or else I would need to set the story in the period after Lord of the Rings.  I decided on the latter approach, since all the existing source material dealt with the familiar lands from the Gray Havens to Mordor. 

So that was set - I could re-use the geography from the books while forging my own history.  I decided that, in order to make a truly enjoyable experience, I would treat everything up until the end of "Lord of the Rings" as canon, and the brief passages on the Fourth Age in The Silmarillion as non-canon.  The reason was simple: I wanted to have a campaign with elves and magic, and both supposedly disappeared from Middle-earth after the end of the Third Age.  I had in mind a more gradual fading away, with increasing levels of technological sophistication gradually taking the place of magic.

And so, here follows the history of Middle-earth after the fall of Sauron.

All of the Noldor Elves have boarded the ships and returned to Valinor.  The remaining elves are divided on how to proceed - having never experienced the Light themselves, they still feel the pull westward, but have an abiding connection with Middle-earth.  Most of the Silvan elves decide to remain, even though this means giving up any hope of ever reaching Valinor.  The Sindar elves split, with some joining the Noldor, and others remaining behind to help take the lead in repairing the damage done by Morgoth and Sauron.

The remaining Sindar elves, now diminished in number, mostly gather in Rivendell.  (Elrond has returned to Valinor, but his sons stay behind.)  They embark on a number of ambitious projects; no living human will ever see their fruition, but the elves hope to accomplish them before they fade away forever.

The first of these is repairing the blight of Mordor.  Working together with Aragorn (more on him later), they seek to coax life back into that wasteland.  Using subtle magic and transplanting loam from Lorien, they encourage the first tentative shoots of life to grow around the edges.  It will take generations to complete, but without the active will of Sauron suppressing life, they hope that one day such growth will spread throughout that land.

A second project is far more ambitious and controversial.  The Orcs were created long ago as a twisted parody of the Elves.  They have always been considered pure evil, and as long as they were held in thrall to the Dark Lord, that was arguably true.  Now, the orcs are left with a legacy of pure suffering and strife, but the elves hope that they can eventually be reformed.  The elves reach out to younger orcs, not corrupted by their barbaric initiations, and patiently try to teach them independence.

The vast majority of orcs are still violently opposed to the free peoples, but out of this small core is born the Free Orc Movement, or FOM.  The FOM isn't exactly good - in D&D terms they would probably be termed Chaotic Neutral.  The FOM declare their independence from the existing Orc hierarchy and from the elves, and seek to establish an independent racial identity of their own.  The elves support them when they can.  To the elves, this is a great work; to the other free peoples, it is a source of extreme nervousness.

Throughout Middle-earth, the forces of darkness are in decline, but certainly not gone.  Most of the remnants of Sauron's armies have retreated to Mordor.  The vast majority of Mordor remains a wasteland, and despite regular patrols from Gondor into its territory, it remains the safest place for the enemies of Arda to gather.  For many years they appear to be leaderless, until one day the Mouth of Sauron announces himself.  He has escaped the defeat of Barad-dur, and stepped into the vacuum left by Sauron's death.  The Mouth is certainly not as powerful as Sauron himself, but he speaks with authority, and the hierarchy-oriented orcs, trolls, and other opponents heed his instructions.  He proves to be crafty, recognizing that it is pointless to waste Mordor's remaining strength against the West, and instead harries the countryside where it is weak, and avoids any direct conflict with Gondor.

Speaking of which: Aragorn II is and remains the King of the united kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor.  Arnor is still little more than a wildland filled with independent hamlets.  Aragorn is gradually building up a federal infrastructure in the north.  The Elves of Rivendell assist him with this, providing information and support to his officials, although both the elves and the Shire are technically independent of his rule.  Bree is acting as a rough provincial capital; there are eventual plans to rebuild Annuminas, although this will not happen for many years.

Following the example set by Cirion, Aragorn does not seek to rule all that he can; instead, where possible, he seeks to find loyal allies who can maintain peace and then support them.  He honors the Oath of Eorl, maintaining an independent Rohan.  He sets up a similar agreement to cover the land north of Gondor.  Here, the Dorwinians around the Sea of Rhun have long lived as nomads and villagers, for the most part untouched by the major wars due to their non-involvement.  With the fall of Sauron, they embark on a massive and ambitious project of their own: they will build seven great cities in the land around Rhun.  From these cities, they will be able to cut down on the endemic banditry in the region, and establish a channel of safety between Gondor and the eastern lands.  For millennia these regions have been cut off from one another due to constant war and lawlessness, but the Dorwinians see opportunity for a flowering of trade and exchange of culture.  They will build these cities, collect modest tolls from merchants, and use that money to fund patrols to keep the roads free of bandits.

The main theme in these early years of the Fourth Age, in case you haven't detected it yet, is rapprochement.  There is tremendous optimism that Middle-earth can put war behind it, redeem former enemies, and build a better future after millennia of decay.  In keeping with the tone of the times, the Dorwinians reach out to the Easterlings.  These humans were part of Sauron's armies, and were vicious opponents during the War of the Ring, but they are still human, and were among the first to flee once Sauron fell.  The Dorwinians make an offer to the Easterling chieftains: If they will use their armies to defend the Dorwinians as they build the cities, they will be rewarded with permanent titles and authority in a united Rhunland federation.  The two factions will be mutually dependent and supportive: the Dorwinians will handle the building, administration, and various city jobs, while the Easterlings will oversee all the land beyond the city walls.

The Easterling chieftains agree, and keep the lands safe during the construction of the great cities.  Eventually, around the 70th year of the fourth age, the project is complete, and the Great Road is in place and protected.  Then comes the Great Easterling Treachery.  Acting in concert, they slaughter all the leaders of the Dorwinians, and establish themselves as rulers, with each chieftain claiming a city for himself.  The surviving Dorwinians are stripped of their weapons and forced into servitude.  The overall division of labor remains roughly the same as before, with the Dorwinians acting as scribes and clerks, but the Easterlings hold all power and authority, and swiftly grow ever richer.  They collect enormous tolls on merchants passing through, and plunder all who seek to avoid payment.

Aragorn is furious at this development, but his hands are tied.  He cannot bring his army against the northern threat, because the Mouth of Sauron is growing stronger and increasingly bold; only the presence of the Gondoran forces keeps him in check behind the mountains of Mordor.  And while the Easterlings are violent and untrustworthy, they have shown no designs on actually attacking Gondor itself; they have learned from the Dorwinians how trade can be even more profitable than raids, and are content to keep the peace in exchange for their cut.  Aragorn reluctantly accepts the status quo for the time being.

And what of the dwarves?  They are delighted by the possibility of reclaiming the Mines of Moria.  Along with Mordor, Moria is another place where the remnants of Sauron's forces have fled, so it remains extremely dangerous.  The dwarves come up with an ingenious idea: they will recruit adventurers to Moria by offering a bounty as they help clear the mines.  Adventurers can keep a share of any treasure they find (excepting certain dwarven artifacts of special significance), and will be paid a certain number of bronze or silver coins for each orc, troll, etc., that they kill.  This program has been running for decades now and proven very effective.  The upper levels of Moria have been completely cleared, and dwarves have moved back in, re-establishing a domestic way of life including families, taverns, and smithing. 

Other dwarven mines in the Last Mountain, the Iron Hills, and Ered Luthien remain active, but increasingly the younger dwarves are drawn to Moria.  Elder dwarves are uneasy.  No further sign of the Balrog has been seen, and some hope that his power was destroyed along with Sauron, but the Elves have warned that the Balrog predates the Ring, and is is likely biding its time in the very lowest depths of the mines.

Aaaaand... I think that's about it!  At least the major geo-political currents.  From this point forward, the world was wide open and flexible.  We only got through a couple of campaigns together, but I have to admit I continued to daydream about how the future might continue to evolve.  I'm still impressed at Tolkien's incredibly rich imagination and depth of meaning that he gave to Middle-earth so that it could support my rambling thoughts. 

A possible future post: the back-stories of the player characters, which were tied to this history in ways that the characters themselves had not yet realized.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lost Required Reading

A friend was recently flabbergasted when she discovered that I've never read "To Kill A Mockingbird."  I assured her that I was familiar with its general outline, having seen several stage productions as well as the film.  I couldn't deny that this was a bit unusual.  TKAM is unquestionably part of the secondary school canon, and is something I should have come across during my long journey towards a degree in English Literature.

She foisted her paperback copy on me, and I read through it during a few days of train rides.  I must admit that it really is a good book.... not an all-time favorite, but better than some other canon books.  It manages to convey important moral messages without coming across as being self-righteous, largely thanks to its depiction of Atticus Finch, the saintly father who is the real hero of the novel.  Atticus gently keeps his children from ever identifying someone as being bad; even if they commit despicable acts, the person themself is usually doing it for some reason.  He encourages empathy, putting yourself in the other person's shoes, a skill that would make our society far better if it became widely adopted.

It's been a while since I've seen the dramatizations, but from what I recall, they are very faithful to the book.  There don't seem to be any major plot threads here that were not also in the play, though certain scenes and characters were probably dropped.

One thing did irritate me about the book, which is more a failing of my own than of the text: I strongly dislike dialect.  It's been present in American literature, off and on, since Mark Twain, but I still cringe when I read characters saying "Nome, ain't tere."  I get why it's there... it does make it "sound" more Southern, and without dialect you'd lose a significant insight into the characters' experiences, but visually it's very jarring for me.

Anyways... I'm sure there's nothing useful I can say about this book that hasn't been written before millions of times by eager young five-paragraph-essay-writers.  It is a bit encouraging to see that I can enjoy going back and reading the important books that I somehow missed during my formal education.  I'm not going to go crazy seeking them out - one of the best parts of being grown-up is getting to choose what you want to read - but I can certainly imagine eventually revisiting all the stories that "everybody" has read which I have not.  Towards the top of that list has to be reading Dickens, any Dickens at all... I'm still not totally clear on how I managed to dodge that bullet.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Abu Laugh At You

How on earth could I have gone this long without reading "Foucault's Pendulum?"  I would have LOVED this book when I was in high school!  I mean, I love it now, but high school was the height of my craze with the Illuminati and secret societies in general.  And Foucault's Pendulum is even denser in secret societies than, say, Illuminatus!  Unlike Illuminatus!, FP is unquestionably Good Literature, and it probably would have done me a lot of good.

My head is still kind of spinning, which I believe is sort of the point of this book.  It's positively dizzying.  Let me recap with some


So... plot summary time.

The narrator and main character, Casaubon, is a university student in Italy.  He is writing his graduate thesis on the Templars, and runs into a man named Belbo, who edits books for a small press.  Casaubon complains about how difficult it is to do research on the Templars, because there are so many crazy theories out there about them: for centuries, people have been convinced that the Templars were plotting to overthrow the state, and/or worshipping Satan, and/or protecting the Grail, and a whole host of other wild theories.

Belbo asks Casaubon to listen in on a person who is pitching a new book on the Templars to the publisher.  This man has found an ancient text, decoded it, and found in it the rough outlines of a grand Templar plot.  Spanning centuries, the note speaks of meetings to be held every 120 years, culminating in the 1940s, at which point they will rule the world.  The man is hoping to publish the information he has in the hopes of flushing out others who may be able to supply other pieces of the puzzle.  They decide that he's nuts and politely let him down.

Later that night, the man is found strangled in his hotel room.  By the time the police arrive, the body has disappeared.  Belbo and Casaubon are brought in for questioning, and they cooperate, although they don't discuss the details of the man's Templar plot.  Also questioned is another employee of the publisher named Diotavelli, an Italian who's convinced that he's Jewish; he is obsessed with cabala.  The three of them (Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotavelli) make an unspoken pact to not get further involved, and let it lie.

Casaubon graduates and follows a girlfriend to Brazil, where he encounters a variety of mystical cults and rituals.  Introducing him to this supernatural world is a man named Aglie, who claims to be the Comte Saint-German, a character hundreds of years old.  Casaubon is fascinated by this magical aspect of existence, though he doesn't feel a part of it.  His girlfriend does feel involved, and is repulsed by it, and they eventually separate.

Casaubon returns to Italy, where his prodigious researching ability lands him a job with Garamond, the publishing house where Belbo and Diotavelli work.  In addition to their scholarly work, Garamond also runs a vanity self-publishing operation that's essentially a scam - gullible people pay to print thousands of copies of their books, when only a couple hundred are actually printed to impress their friends.  Garamond hits upon a grand idea: start a scholarly series on the history of magic and rituals, which will surely sell well in the burgeoning occult market.  Because this will bring all the crazies (henceafter known as Diabolicals) out of the woodwork, it will also provide Garamond with a slew of victims for the self-publishing scam.

The three friends are soon working full-time on the magic books, and become increasingly obsessed with the complicated world of conspiracy theories.  They learn an incredible amount about the history and speculation regarding the Templars, Rosicrucians, Knights of the Gartar, Bavarian Illuminati, Alumbrados, Freemasons, the Scottish Rite, the Golden Dawn, Assassins, and more.  They recruit Aglie, now living in Italy as well, who is connected with secret societies of all sorts, although he doesn't profess to actually believe any of them.  Aglie takes them to see an initiation rite and various other occult practices.

Eventually, the three friends decide to start a game.  They've noticed that all the Diabolicals' ideas are essentially the same.  Nobody ever thinks of anything new, they just re-combine the same elements over and over in different configurations.  Some will write that the Rosicrucians were secretly the heirs of the Knights Templar; others will write that similarities between the two groups prove that the Rosicrucians actually predate the Templars, and that the Templars were carrying out a more ancient plot. 

Belbo has bought a computer, which he named Abulafia in honor of the cabalist.  He writes a program which will combine random nouns from a set of existing theories that they feed it, and come up with conspiracy theories of its own.  They call this evolving super-theory "The Plan," and enthusiastically document a fake history that "proves" their theory.

As the book goes on, they grow increasingly obsessed with The Plan.  Eventually they even tie it in to the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, and other major historic events.  Diotavelli grows ill.


Finally, The Plan is complete.  They have succeeded in unifying every crazy theory they have ever come across, along with one they invented on their own, the Tres.  In its full form, The Plan is roughly the following:
Telluric currents span the earth, and are responsible for storms, rain, earthquakes, and more.  The Templars discovered the one location on Earth where all these currents converge, the Navel of the World.  From this one spot, in theory, one could literally control the world - by manipulating the currents, they can cause land masses to rise and fall, cause famine or plenty, generally act like a god.
However, the Templars were not able to take advantage of this - the technology was not in place, and they had too many enemies.  So they agreed to dissolve, and split into six sections, scattered from Portugal to Persia.  Each group possessed a piece of information about a map to the Navel of the World.  By placing this map underneath a pendulum, and watching the lines that the pendulum traces, they would re-discover the Navel at a time when they could take advantage of it.
However, something went wrong.  The first meeting between the Portuguese and the English went fine, but before the meeting between the English and the French, the Gregorian calendar was introduced.  France had adopted it, but England had not yet, at the time of the second meeting.  In the resulting confusion, the meeting was missed.
At this point, The Plan seemed stuck.  There was no back-up plan, and outside of the specified time and location, each group had no way of contacting the other.  They decided to try and coax out the other side by releasing coded manifestos; these would appear to say one thing to ordinary readers, but true heirs of the Templars could read and understand what was meant.  Thus were the Rosicrucians born.
Eventually, with The Plan interrupted, each faction began to try to gain advantage for itself.  By directly stealing from the other factions, they hoped to get the map for themselves.  Against this backdrop, all history for the last 500 years can be explained.  Assassinations, wars, scientific advancements, everything is the result of a shadowy power struggle with the goal of reclaiming the telluric currents.

Belbo plays with Aglie by sharing the Plan and revealing that he, Belbo, saw the Map in a document from an anonymous contributor.  Belbo claims to have memorized the Map, and then destroyed it, not believing its contents.  Aglie not only believes - he REALLY believes, and embarks on a breathtaking plot of his own to force Belbo to share the secret.

This is actually where the novel begins - the bulk of it is told as sort of an extremely long flashback.  The world has now turned upside down.  The Plan, an entirely fictitious creation, has become real.  By providing a grand unified theory that ties together every crazy belief, they have inadvertently united all the crazies together, for the first time providing them all with a single goal, a coherent story that explains their place in the universe.  All they need is the map - something that does not exist.

Chilling.  Wonderful.  The climax is an incredible gothic piece of paranoia and dread.  When I read the first two chapters, I thought they were way too over the top and overwrought.  By the time the story returns to that point, and you have crawled inside the head of Casaubon, you completely understand why he thinks and behaves the way he does.  The final effect is a mixture of horror, pity, dread, and a touch of humor.  It's like little else that I've read.


Now, the comparisons...

This book is about secret conspiracies, but doesn't read like any other novels on the topic.  The others that immediately spring to mind are Illuminatus! and Crying of Lot 49 (not coincidentally one of my favorite books).  Illuminatus! takes the plot seriously, at least within the text.  "Crying" is so effective because it maintains a perfect edge of uncertainty through the entire book - there's never quite enough to convince Oedipa that it is true, but there's far too much to just dismiss it.  FP believes that the plots themselves aren't real, but the act of believing them or imagining them contains a power of their own. 

FP is also more explicitly mystical than the other books.  This is most explicit in the Brazil passages and the satanist sections, but the whole book is filled with similar details, from Baphomet to the mediums.  The Illuminati has a kind of subtle magic behind it, but is primarily manifested in political actions.  The Tristero have no magic, and have a sort of chilly technical sheen to their actions.

What I liked:

Abulafia was an excellent component in this book; I can't think of another book that has introduced a computer like this, and certainly not that's done it as well.  I cried out for joy when I saw that Eco actually included a BASIC program within the text of the book - so cool!  He perfectly captured the joy of creation and tinkering that I remember feeling when I first started playing with computers.  I feel like this is something that we've lost now.  In our current society, computers are so commonplace that they've become background... we often just notice them when they're irritating us.  Early on, computers were mysterious, arcane objects that were only accessible by the elite in specialized buildings.  FP is set during a brief and exciting cusp in history, after computers became common but before they became ubiquitous, and I love how he captures their fascinating appeal.

The overall sense of play in the book felt very invigorating.  I enjoyed the constant tinkering of the protagonists, and their dry sense of humor as they proposed ever more bizarre scenarios for each other's amusement.  The window into Belbo's writing career was similarly touching.  I have to say, when he tries, Eco makes a very convincing mediocre writer.  By far my favorite Belbo piece was the rambling piece that posited he wrote Shakespeare's plays, Shakespeare wrote Bacon's texts, Bacon wrote Spenser's poem, and on and on.  I've indulged in these sort of free-form exercises on my own sometimes, and his treatment was very convincing, especially the sudden and obvious anachronisms (from the Elizabethan Tower of London to Lorenza's pinball playing technique).

The overall cast of characters felt just about perfect - it was a good mix, with a few that you got to know extremely well, enough side characters to feel like they were living in a full world, but not so many that I ever got confused about who anyone was.  That last point is especially important for a book this long and this dense.  You ain't going to finish it in a single day, and fortunately Eco doesn't scatter around many minor characters who you're expected to remember when they pop back up weeks later.


I probably should have waited longer before writing this one up - my head is still kind of spinning - but in the moment, my response is that this is just an excellent book.  The subject matter fits a long-standing fascination of mine, and the excellent writing fits my highest standards.  It certainly isn't for everyone, but if you dig complex and funny works like Gravity's Rainbow, and especially if you enjoy mystery and history, this might be up your alley.  A dark alley full of cultists looking to sacrifice you, sure, but an alley nonetheless.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Return of the Myth

My geek credentials have been put on probation.  Somehow, I made it for over a year without realizing that "The Children of Hurin," written by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher, was an actual novel.  I was vaguely aware that it had been released, and surprised to see that it hit the New York Times Best-Seller list, but had assumed that it was the latest entry in Christopher's "History of Middle-earth" series, an ongoing scholarly walk through the mountainous text that the elder Tolkien left unfinished at his death.

I said my absolutions, then put the book on hold.  A new novel is a very, very big deal.  Tolkien is my first and greatest love in fantasy, and I've devoured not only The Lord of the Rings but also The Silmarillion, the Book of Lost Tales, and a couple of the Histories.  These are all very different experiences.  I usually explain it to others by saying that TLotR is a story told in the present tense, describing what's happening; The Silmarillion and the others are histories told in the past tense.  You might be able to apply the word "dry" to them.  The actual contents of the stories are simply amazing, in my opinion surpassing TLotR in their scope and grandeur and complexity and sheer power.  Yet, physically reading them can feel like a chore at times.  Maybe this is why I have a hard time listening to people who complain that TLotR is slow or unfocused; compared to other Tolkien lore, the trilogy positively gallops, carrying you along on its incredible journey.

I was hoping for something more like TLotR and less like the Histories.  It turns out that I got something else entirely: not a novel or a history, this is a mythology.  Reading this reminded me of nothing else so much as a Greek myth.  Like a myth it is firmly set in the past, and has an inbuilt sense of distance from the reader.  It is also like a myth in that it tells an exciting story that resonates with you, and has grand larger-than-life characters who succeed and fail, live and die for reasons much like the way we mere mortals do.


The Children of Hurin is also Greek in that it is a full-on tragedy.  People who have read The Silmarillion will be well acquainted with the dramatic style that seems to be applied to all tales from the First Age... a long, slow, steady decline from the joy of Arda's creation through the unstoppable corruption by Morgoth through the eventual annihilation of Bereliand.  There are moments of victory and joy, but they are just flashes of hope set against the backdrop of a steady march towards oblivion.

The Children of Hurin is mainly focused on the character Turin Turambar, almost certainly the most tragic of the dozens of heroes from the First Age.  In an extremely well-written foreword to the book, Christopher explains a crucial point about the nature of the tragedy of Turin.  Early on, Morgoth curses Turin's father Hurin, proclaiming that evil will befall all his descendants.  We're used to thinking of curses as invoking a higher power to accomplish an evil end - a witch calling on spirits, a dark priest calling for a dark god's aid.  In this case, though, Evil ITSELF is cursing Hurin.  The actual God of Evil (though Tolkien doesn't use those terms), one with his own agency, lays down the curse.  It isn't a request, or a statement, but an active willing on the part of Morgoth to bring ruin to Hurin's line.  In this context, all the bad things which occur to Turin and his sister Nienor are not unfortunate luck.  There is a huge sense of horror as you realize all the ways in which the Dark Lord, who helped weave together the very fabric of the world itself, is crushing these souls into despair.

Um... in case you haven't gotten the message yet, this book is dark.  Very dark.  There are individual scenes that show lighter aspects of Middle-earth, and moments of great victory for Turin, but the overall trajectory is downward.


It's been a while since I read The Silmarillion, and I have to admit that I had confused his story with that of Earendil.  Earendil has a much happier story than Turin's, but Turin's is more powerful and moving.

Many years ago, I ran a pen-and-paper role-playing game set in the Fourth Age of Middle-earth.  Extending the Tolkien mythology to this time was incredible fun; I ought to write a post on it sometime!  Anyways, because the PCs were lowly Level 1 characters about to venture into the dangerous Trollshaws, I whipped together a couple of NPCs to swell their numbers and give them a better chance.  They were Erestor the Dorwinian, Thexter the Uruk-hai (hey, the Fourth Age is a more open-minded time!)... and Turin Turambar, a bard.  That Turin had nothing in common with this one other than the name.  I've ever been a thief of names, and on a purely musical level, Turin Turambar is one of the most lyrical that Tolkien ever invented.  Which is saying something.

So, all together... I can't recommend this book to people who are looking for another Lord of the Rings, but I can unhesitatingly recommend it to people who love Middle-earth and want to explore it more deeply.  I also hope that this book will help put to death the canard that Tolkien was a moral absolutist... he does portray ultimate Evil (in the form of Morgoth) and ultimate Good (in the form of Eru), but I defy anyone who claims that Turin belongs firmly to one side or the other.  Tolkien portrays a world where mortals must struggle between good actions and bad, which feels a great deal like the world we all inhabit here.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Shivering Good Fun

It took me a year to build up my courage, but I finally returned to the realm of Oblivion.  I think that I had spent so much time and effort on the main part of the game that I was a bit afraid of what would happen to the remainder of my schedule if I plunged onward.  And I had a feeling that the prices would continue to fall if I waited longer.  I was right on both counts.  While the expanded content doesn't take up as much time as the main game, it is longer than, say, the main quest by itself.  It is good, a bit less focused than I would ordinarily like, but sprawl has always been a significant part of the appeal of The Elder Scrolls.

These days, you typically get the add-ons in two parts.  First up is a package that contains the Knights of the Nine and a whole host of tiny mods.  The mods have very little quest content, but do add some cool new parts to the game.  Many of these are related to strongholds - each associated with a particular character type (a pirate ship for thieving, a mystic citadel for mages, a cultish crypt for assassins, etc.), each requiring very little quest work to obtain, and costing a whole lot of money to buy all the upgrades.  The production quality is excellent - the art and design feels top-notch for all of these.  Once you have them, they're interesting but not essential... it's good to have another place to stash your stuff, and the mage tower is particularly useful, but for the most part you need to visit every week or so in order to get the maximum benefit, and as a result most players probably won't get a whole lot out of it.

That does bring up a good point: while most people will be playing (who am I kidding?  have played) these after the main quest, they can be installed and accessed at any time.  The strongholds in particular are probably most useful if you can do them at the very beginning of the game; you won't be able to fully unlock them until you get a lot more cash much later on, but that will still happen in plenty of time to take fuller advantage of them.

The main quest in this first add-on is the actual Knights of the Nine quest.  It isn't directly related to the Oblivion story, but is connected to the same mythological background.  It has a holy grail-ish aspect to it, and several interesting interleaving quests, nothing groundbreaking but all pretty solid.


I did like the way the story of the Knights slowly reveals itself as you continue.  The treacherous knight in particular was an interesting character; I liked the way they handled him and the final resolution.  The overall arc did feel just a little bit silly, though I think I may be getting jaded and this was one too many iterations of "An Ancient and Unstoppable Evil Is Awakening And Only You Can Stop It" for me.  I did love the final set of battle sequences... the first time I was in the underground part near the end, I kept on killing the enemies, and getting increasingly desperate while the knights died one by one.  I eventually went stealth, scooted forward, and found the crystal.  Then I reloaded, ran past all the enemies, touched it and froze time.  Very cool effect.


Mehrunes Razor is a cool weapon you can get.  Mehrunes Dagon has always struck me as one of the most menacing Daedra, so anything connected with him immediately fascinates me.  For a long time I stashed the Razor in Bruma with all the rest of my magic stuff.  I may have complained about this before, but since I didn't take Armorer as a primary skill, it took me FOREVER to get it up to 50, which sucks since you can't repair magic gear until it's that high.  So, even though I had tons and tons of cool magic stuff, I just wasn't able to take advantage of them... instead I would use the best generic armor I had (eventually elven), while salivating at the thought of one day being able to cart around my arsenal.

Anyways.  After I FINALLY got up to 50, a long long time after I beat the game itself, I went on a shopping binge in my own Bruma closet.  I ended up picking the Razor as my blade, as much for its extreme light weight as for anything else.  I think that by the time I beat the game I had only claimed, like, five souls or so.  It did make me curious if there's any advantage to claiming souls, if it actually grows stronger in power like, say, the cool day/night blade you can get in Shivering Isles.  Oh, if only there was some sort of Internet where I could gather information on these kinds of things!

All in all, Knights of the Nine is worth checking out at its now extremely discounted price.  If you get the game of the year pack, you'll get everything with it, which is nice.

The big add-on, though, is Shivering Isles.  This actually has a new binary and, much to my anger, strong copy protection.  It didn't want to play with Wine, so I had to take drastic measures to make it run.  Darn you, publishers!  Why must you make it so difficult for people to play their legally purchased content!


I've been fascinated by Shivering Isles ever since I heard the premise, and it largely lived up to its promise.  The Shivering Isles are the realm of Sheogorath, the Daedric lord of madness.  The entire realm is one of madness, filled with crazy people, bizarre monsters, the Fork of Horripilation, incredibly colorful terrain, oddities of all sorts.  Best of all, you get to interact with Sheogorath himself, and gradually take on more and more of the attributes of Madness yourself.

The game felt kind of like a mini-Oblivion without any guild quests.  There's still a massive map, with lots of places to explore, and content that you won't cross unless you happen to wander.  The main quest is interesting, and every village you cross has a couple of fun things to do inside it.  There's even a new set of lore to absorb - besides classics like "The Madness of Pelegasius" (sp?) they have many more books on insane topics, steeping you in the contradictory history of the realm.

Most of the voice acting is kind of annoying, but Sheogorath himself is fun.  He slips in and out of a Scottish accent, changes mood halfway through a sentence, sends you on missions and then mocks you when you return.  I also liked his chamberlain, Haskill, whose dryness and drollness is a perfect counterpart to the manic character of Sheogorath.  In contrast to most of the rest of the game, I usually let their dialog play out fully instead of clicking through.


The actual rewards at the end are fun, though I will almost certainly never take advantage of them.  You become the God of Madness yourself, and while this does almost nothing in other realms, you can wield considerable power within the Shivering Isles.  The niftiest power is the ability to change the weather on your whim.  You can also summon a dancer to perform for you.  She... well, I guess she's as good as a 3D rendered RPG dancer can be.  OK, maybe not, but still - YOU try programming someone to dance, it ain't easy.  There's also a "defend your realm" thing going on, which I haven't had to do yet and probably never will.

Oh, yeah, the Graymarch.  The resolution was pretty cool, except that it was obvious way too early what was going to happen... it was clear pretty early on that Sheogorath and Jyggalag were the same person.  I wasn't disappointed or anything, but not exactly excited either.  It WAS kind of funny that Mehrunes Razor worked on Jyggalag - I just had to stab him a few times to make him fall.


Besides the two official expansions, I also tried to run the most popular user-created mod, The Lost Spires.  This sounds fascinating, but unfortunately, I could never get it to work - I could do the first few sections, where you can join the Guild of Archaeologists and meet the other members, but the game would always crash when I tried to enter a particular dungeon.  Seems like a Wine compatibility thing.  I don't think it's the engine itself that's a problem - I actually was surprised by how stable everything else ran under Wine - and I continued to have problems even if I unloaded or re-ordered my other mods, so it looked like some specific interaction that was causing problems.

Which is a shame - I've gotten so much pleasure out of Fall from Heaven 2, and had hoped that the Lost Spires would offer a similar expansively awesome experience.  On the other hand, considering how much time I've already devoted to Oblivion and FfH2, they are probably doing me a favor!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Chronic Herb

I fear that I may pass from a wannabe San Franciscan to a wannabe San Franciscan without passing through the period of ever, technically, BEING a San Franciscan.  That would be a shame, since I love this city, and it was a huge part of what brought me out West in the first place.  I grow increasingly fascinated with the city, its history and lore, its past splendors and future dreams, the longer I spend there.  From day to day, I typically only see the relatively bleak streetscape of SOMA, but every time I venture further out I feel like I've discovered something new and valuable, and my love is rekindled.

As part of my continuing exploration of the city, I recently picked up "The Best of Herb Caen 1960-1975."  Herb Caen was a legend, a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle for most of the last century, and arguably did more than any single other person to define The City and preach its virtues.  He coined the phrase "Baghdad by the Bay," and wrote soaring odes to the city's cable cars, glittering waters, and indomitable spirit.

I discovered while reading that he was also a devoted sentimentalist.  Even in 1960 he was already bemoaning the loss of the city that was, worried by the recent arrival of skyscrapers, and the relentless march of Redevelopment.  To his credit, history has largely proven him right.  The Embarcadero Freeway that he argued against so strongly was eventually struck down by the Hand of God Himself, and the people took the opportunity to leave that monstrosity dead.  The blocks around Geary are still around, and not as painful, but one can still mourn the vibrant communities that were town apart by that upheaval.  On the skyline itself I have mixed feelings - it's been there as long as I've known the city, and does seem a crucial part of The City's character, and yet, anyone who has walked down the Financial District streets on nights or weekends will instantly recognize Caen's verdict: it is a moonscape, a place where humans are not meant to live.

And yet, while he seems to endlessly mourn the passing of the city that was (not without some self-awareness - as he cheerfully admits, he himself is a transplant, arriving in The City from Sacramento), he is hardly a reactionary.  It's surprising and encouraging to read the gentle descriptions that he writes about the hippies and other counter-cultural flowering within San Francisco.  He doesn't claim to be one of them or even completely understand them, but neither does he indulge in the nativist tendency to decry the "outsider," to claim that they're ruining "our" city.  He recognizes in them a kindred spirit, manifesting in different form but of a similar type to what has drawn people to San Francisco throughout generations.  They arrive wide-eyed, loving The City, optimistic, driven to change the world for the better.

The book is a collection of newspaper columns, and some are unquestionably better than others.  I found the early writing to be borderline intolerable, far too reliant on puns and arch comments.  It slips into a more natural tone as the years go on and becomes more readable.  A surprisingly large number of columns are basically prose obituaries, devoted to particular socialites or "characters" who lived and died in The City.  These are kind of interesting in the local flavor they give, but it does seem a bit odd to have them so widely represented... the dead often seem far more interesting than the living, which certainly fits with Caen's general outlook on the world.

Beyond the local culture, the book is also extremely moving as an eyewitness to history.  This turbulent period includes the shocking assassinations and the escalation of war in Vietnam, and JFK's death as written that very day moved me in a way that it never has before.  Caen captures rawness, shock, grief that people all over the country must have been feeling.

All together, a fine read.  Probably of limited utility to people who don't already love it here, but who knows - maybe the book can help kindle some hearts to love it for the first time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

You Lack Grace

I'm now plunging onward into the Fall from Heaven 2 Scenarios.  Wow!  If the game itself is massive, the scenarios are even more huge.  Even an individual one can run nearly as long as a regular game, and there are around 20 of them.  Fortunately there is a great deal of variety to keep things interesting.

I've just run through a couple of them, and wanted to jot down my thoughts.  I'm not sure if I'll complete the set or not.

First, some housekeeping.  They seem to run pretty well under Wine.  FfH2 proper runs great; the first couple of Falamar mods ran great.  The Barbarian Assault one (where you need to defeat Sheelba) used to crash for me when I launched the scenario or, if not, when I loaded a save; but since upgrading to their June release, even that one has been running fine.  Every once in a while I will get a freeze, but it's been pretty rare, maybe one for every few hours of gameplay.

Now, the scenarios proper:

It looks like there are several sets.  Each set is run as a sequence, and tells a story.  The first set features Falamar, and the first scenario, The Grand Menagerie, is possibly the easiest thing you will ever do in FfH2.  It actually is a good introduction for total newbies - no hordes of barbarians, no hostile civs, just some animals to fight and capture, and good tutorial text that explains more about them.  I actually learned more here than I had known before about some details behind the way animals spawn and form packs.

It's impossible to lose this scenario.  One annoying factor - the very last animal you need to capture is a griffin.  I don't know if griffins just take forever to spawn, or if it spawned early and spent all its time in the ocean, but either way, I spent more time just waiting for the griffin to show up than I did in the entire rest of the scenario.  Kind of annoying.  Time-consuming, but not hard.

In contrast, the second scenario, The Momus, was one of the hardest things I've ever played.  It's a fun concept - you and a bunch of other civs are on a giant island, and the insane king of the Balseraphs decides at a whim who should attack who.  It's either "everyone declare war on X" or "everyone declare war on everyone else."  But it isn't pure military - you start off with two settlers, found cities, start off with all of the first round of tech, and basically play an incredibly high-stress game of FfH2.

The first time I played this, I TOTALLY screwed up.  I had built a city next to an inland lake without realizing it, then built the Black Wind there by accident, where it was totally useless throughout the whole game.  I fell behind everyone else and couldn't defend myself when they eventually came after me.

The second time was a bit better, and I made a good showing at first, but the Duke of Dis became incredibly powerful, and I knew there was just no way I could stand against him.  So, I started over again.

The third game, I kept an eye on the Duke the whole time.  I nearly played into his hands as it was - for some reason I decided to join the Ashen Veil when it became available.  I think my reasoning was that most of the other players were Evil (almost everyone had converted to Ashen Veil or Octopus Overlords), and I wanted the diplomacy bonus, but that's nuts, since you have no meaningful control over diplomacy anyways.  You can and should exchange maps with everyone in the beginning, but after the first few rounds everyone is mad at everyone else for declaring war on them - even though it's not out fault!

Anyways, Ashen Veil was an especially bad choice since when my characters died, or killed off other Ashen Veil units, they were reborn as Manes for the Duke.  He was INSANELY powerful.

I recognized it this time, though, and was able to set up a city as a chokehold at the top of a peninsula between the two of us.  Er, substitute "capture" for "set up".  I got an archer promoted to City Garrison III and gave him some support, and held off the Duke when he came calling.  Even this got to be too much after a while - my jaw dropped when I saw a stack of more than twenty (!!!) units heading my way.  I did learn more about tactics, though.  It proved invaluable to keep a catapult or two in the city; they could barrage the enemies outside our gates, weakening them to the point where my archer (and his two backup archers, and  the boarding party, and whoever else I could grab) could hold off the Wave From Hell.

With that flank more or less secure, I could focus my offensive operations on the rest of the map.  In this particular game Perpentach early on went to the "everyone against everyone" mode, and largely kept it there for the rest of the game.  I basically swept counterclockwise around the map.  I was on a military footing for the whole game - Military State, God King, etc.  Didn't do Conquest, since I wanted to keep growing.  Anyways, as usual the key to the game was specialization.  My capital churned out archers, my second city did the Black Wind and then a Training Yard for swordsmen, and later on a Siege Workshop for Catapults.  Lots and lots of catapults.  I don't think I've ever built so many before, and they were all useful.  I was surprised that the AI never built any - the entire point of this scenario requires you to take every city on the map, which demands a huge supply of these things.

Once my military engine was up and running, it rolled like clockwork.  My archers would guard the catapults up to the city walls.  Swordsmen would defeat any vulnerable threats in the field.  We would pound the city walls down to 0%, then on the next turn barrage the city with all the catapults again.  Finally the highest promoted swordsmen would lead the charge, followed by the stragglers.  It would fall.  I held on to the cities near my start, all of which were near a large inland lake.  Anything farther away was destroyed.

A few minor notes:
  • I got a special event that I've seen before where you find a group of people and have various choices (equip as settlers, train as swordsmen, train as adept, etc.).  I think I've always been short on cash before, but this time I got an Adept.  I never advanced him, but he did get to learn to use water mana, which proved INCREDIBLY useful.  Your starting position is pretty crummy and is mainly desert with just a few resources.  Once you learn Spring, you can transform those deserts into plains - and what's really cool is that the existing resources all remain.  This is even true of the Oasis, which I loved.  Terraforming is one of the many fascinating aspects of FfH2 which doesn't even happen in most of my games.
  • It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that I could build pirate coves.  I think I had just forgotten about this - I KNEW they existed, just didn't remember.  I'd built work boats for pearls and fish and never noticed the pirate cove option.  I finally started building these close to the end of the game and, wow, are they ever cool!  Definitely doing these early on in the next real game I play as Falamar.  I'm increasingly thinking that the Lanun are a seriously overpowered civ, especially in the hands of a human intelligence.
  • This particular scenario is especially confusing because many of the minor civs are labeled as Balseraph, just with different leaders.  As a result, it wasn't always clear just where I was supposed to be attacking.

Once I had cleared out most of the remaining opponents except for Beeri and the Duke, I switched to the Order (hail Junil!) and became Good.  I was delighted when Crusaders started popping up all over.  You can get a Crusader for converting a city, which is a really good trade.  I also built a Confessor - it wasn't until now that I realized you need to actually have a state religion to build high-level religious units.  The main reason why I switched was actually to get those Confessors and Crusaders - I was nervous about taking on Dis, and they have some great Holy powers, which the demons are weak to.

The end game was a lot of fun.  I suspect that the tech system is accelerated in this scenario, because I was chomping at the leaves of the tech tree.  I picked up Assassins, which I've never gotten before.  They're special purpose, but incredibly useful - since they attack the LEAST powerful unit in a stack, they're perfect for taking out mages, siege weapons, and other weak-yet-important units.  They didn't exactly tip the balance for me, but were a huge help.

In the end, I was able to catch Dis in a pincher.  I exploded north from my chokepoint city with a holy army, while my insanely highly promoted veterans (some of whom were pushing 200XP) marched westward over dwarven corpses.  He threw some huge waves at me, but I fought them off, and the cities themselves fell pretty easily once I reached their walls.  Finally Dis itself collapsed, and I continued onward.

My recommendation to you?  Play this scenario - it is fun - but it was nuts to try it on Noble.  I think luck had a lot to do with me winning this time around, even little things like being able to pick of Raseir The Fallen early on when the Duke left him isolated.  Anyways, play this game, but do it on Chieftan or something, and just have fun with it.

I forgot to mention this before, but there is a real story to all of these - the beginning and end of each scenario features some frankly gorgeous fantasy art and some decently-written prose.  It could have used one more pass of editing, but I'm a lit snob, and the stories are quite cool.

I took a break from the Falamar plotline to attempt the barbarian one.  As noted before, the latest version of Wine can play it fine, and I set to it with great gusto.  It was frankly a relief after the prior scenario - not exactly easy, but a cakewalk in comparison.

I eventually decided on Hippus.  First, because they are such a strongly combat-oriented civ, it seemed like the best match for this particular goal of defeating Shelba.  Second, I wouldn't ordinarily pick them for a standard FfH2 game, so this seemed like a good chance to experience them without requiring a large time commitment.

I'd wondered in the previous game why Hippus was able to create mounted units when there were no Horses on the entire island, and had wondered if this was some intrinsic ability they have.  Turns out that I was right!  Most Palaces provide three types of mana, but the Hippus palace instead provides two mana and a Horse resource.  I didn't have the requisite techs to build mounted units, but I could have once I discovered them.

The game starts you out in a little glade, surrounded by jungle, with a scary barbarian city right in the center.  I had a settler, but I was leery about building right next to the enemy, and there was absolutely nothing promising in the thick jungle.  Besides the settler I had a warrior, a scout, and - hooray! - a horseman.  The Hippus horse units have an EXTRA +1 movement, for a grand total of 4.  I had good odds to attack the enemy city, so I did.  Got a promotion, took it to heal, then attacked again.  The barbarian city is just size 1, so it was gone.

Where to plant my own city?  It would have made the most sense to put it around where the barbarian city was, in the middle of the glade - not many resources, and too few hammers, but at least it would provide ample room to grow.  Instead, I decided to build on the edge of the jungle, so I could eventually maximize my resources and get some banana.

HUGE mistake!  I had no rivers, no fresh water, and no forests - and a ton of jungles.  Right off the bat, I had massive unhealthiness in my capital, and 0 growth.  Throughout the entire game, my pop never passed one.  I eventually created a worker to clean up the mess, then realized that I didn't have the requisite techs for chopping down jungles.  Curses!

In the meantime, though, I had three military units and an entire world to explore.  I made contact with two other friendly civs, and found a huge number of goody huts, as well as a couple of lairs.  One hut provided another warrior, and then I stumbled across Sheelba's homeland.  I noted that she just had warriors in her city.  I had a highly promoted Horseman.  Could it be....?

I brought my entire army of four units down.  She kept creating goblins to send after me, which was awesome, since it provided more XP for my warrior and scout while they were waiting on the horseman racing southwest.  Finally, once everything was in position, I stacked them all up, and easily attacked with the horseman.  He needed to heal a bit, we absorbed some reprisals, and then I took the city.

At least at first.  I mean, my capital was crap, and I wanted a place to heal, so why not grab a new city?  Well, an ENORMOUS SCARY GORILLA spawned right next to me.  It was named Gurid, but all I could see was the strength of 23.  "Maybe it will go away," I told myself.  It didn't.  It destroyed my army.  "Maybe I don't need this city after all," I told myself.  Reload!

This time I destroyed the city.  King Kong still spawned, but this time not right next door to me.  We licked our wounds, then pressed on to... I want to say Barak the Burning, but I think that's the name of my president.  Let's call it Burntown.  This was unique in that it was defended by a Champion, strength 6, which usually isn't available until much later with Iron Working.  The Champion is Held, so he can't move - a nice touch for this scenario, since it makes the final objective quite challenging, without raising the specter of Shelba conquering the world in the first 50 turns.  By now, my Horseman had tons of combat promotions, and slew the Champion in a fair fight.  The rest of my units charged in after him, and - happy day - we had defeated the Clan of Embers and bought ourselves respite from the barbarians!

One very cool aspect about the scenarios is that, in addition to certain scenarios unlocking others, winning some will give you rewards in others.  Supposedly, by beating this scenario, I'll be decreasing the strength of the barbarians in all other scenarios.  I can live with that.

I'm now playing through the third Falamar scenario, which again is a lot of fun and totally unlike anything else.  You don't have any cities in this one; you've been hired as mercenaries to defend a city that's building the Mercurian Gate.  You have a wide variety of mid-level units positioned between the good city and the hordes of the Infernals, and need to stop them from reaching there.  You can win the scenario by killing 100 of the enemies, and I'm about halfway there.  So far it hasn't been too hard - your forces mainly consists of Archers, Radiant Guards, Hunters, Mages, Arcane Barges, and Swordsmen, plus one each of Arqubus, Ranger, Longbowman, Boarding Party, Ratha, Guybrush Threepwood, Ship of the Line, and Archmage.  The opponents seem to be steadily increasing in difficulty - at first it was all scouts, then some hellhounds, now horsemen, specters, and axemen, pit beasts, and I'm just starting to see my first ritualists and succubus.  The rules say that Dis gets free units in his city every turn, so there will definitely be a great supply to play with.  I'm having a blast with the arcane units, literally... I almost never get to play with offensive magic against a worthy opponent.  I'm definitely doing the most with Fireball, but the Archmage knows some third-level summoning spells that are very cool.  Early on the Floating Eyes were invaluable for figuring out what was going on.  I zapped my own guys with Maelstrom before I realized what the risks were - whoops!  All in all, a great collection of tricks to play.

The scenario is continuing to evolve, which I love.  I stumbled across Capria, who has a score of 0 and just a single ship.  We exchanged maps, making me notice that he had none.  A few turns later, he suggested that if I capture a particular Infernal city so he could join in the fight.  That's my current objective.  Unfortunately, most of my powerful units are deployed too far north, but I do have two mages and two arcane barges in range, and I do love me some fireballs. 

The one thing that is making me nervous is what happens if enemies slip through.  I'm not totally clear on what the AI is set up to do here - he does occasionally attack me, but more often he seems to try and maneuver west, which makes me think he's focusing on taking the city.  I didn't leave behind any guards or anything, I'm advancing my line forward, trying to destroy everyone I can, but the map is so tall that he has probably slipped some things past me.  Anyways, I really hope that they're capable of defending themselves, because I seem to have abdicated that responsibility and it's too late to turn back now.

So, early impressions of the FfH2 scenarios are extremely positive.  I'll check back in again if and when I finish the rest, or however many I decide to do.  Wheee!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Hat tip to Jack, who recommended AND lent me the "Lilith's Brood" trilogy.  It's one of his favorite sci-fi series, and I can see why.  It presents a fascinating scenario, and is unique in the way that it presents uncomfortable moral situations without allowing for any easy answers.  It demands that you think, without demanding what you think.

My one-sentence review: "If you've been waiting for a sci fi book that combines literary merit and creepy alien tentacle sex, look no further!"


The books were written in the 80's, as I verified once I got to the part where I read how the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (remember them?) had finally launched nukes at one another.  All life on Earth larger than a gerbil is dying.  The northern hemisphere is a pure wasteland, and while the southern hemisphere wasn't affected as badly, that just means it suffers longer.

In a coincidence, though, an alien ship has just moved within range of Earth.  On board live the Oankali, an advanced intelligent form of life.  They are relieved, not just because they can save Humanity, but because Humanity can save them.  The Oankali are experts at creating, acquiring, and manipulating forms of life.  Their need to heal is built in to them in the same way humans need to acquire and dominate.  They rescue the survivors, and start examining them, and find a fatal flaw.  Humans are intelligent, the most intelligent species the Oankali have ever run across.  But that intelligence is new, and laid on top of ancient hierarchical tendencies inherited from their animal ancestors.  Seen in this light, the nuclear war wasn't an accident or a tragedy.  It was the inevitable result of the human genetic code.

The Oankali are driven to acqurie new forms of life, mix with it, interbreed, and improve, sort of a genetic version of the Borg.  Ordinarily, they would announce their presence, help the native species, and patiently wait hundreds of years or more for the other species to willingly join them.  Now, though, they have arrived in the midst of crisis, and they decide that drastic measures are necessary.  Humanity is put on an accelerated time schedule, and the rest of the series deals with the repercussions of that decision.

The Oankali are about as far as you can get from the typical, Star Trek-ish vision of aliens as being basically humans with different foreheads.  In their original form, they weren't even bipedal.  Since discovering Earth, they have been breeding themselves into a more human-ish form so they can better interact (and, eventually, breed) with them, but it still doesn't look very human.  They have no eyes, nose, or ears.  Instead, they rely on "sensory tentacles," which can cover the entire body, to detect their environment.  And, in the most drastic difference yet, they actually have three genders.  Two are for convenience called "male" and "female".  Males tend to be wanderers.  Females are enormous, quiet, and strong.  The third, generally referred to by the pronoun "it," is the Ooloi.  In the Oankali reproductive system, the Ooloi is necessary for a successful mating.  Males and females never actually touch one another; the ooloi is responsible for linking the two of them, gathering materiel from both, then mixing it together, examining the DNA, and reconstructing it to shape the child that is necessary.  The ooloi are masters at this type of manipulation, and can also reprogram other oankali and other species.  And so, as the book begins, all the human's genetic defects have been repaired, injuries cured, and their lifespan extended to hundreds of years. 

(During the third book, the narrator starts mentioning how Spanish speakers tend to think of ooloi as hermaphroditic instead of sexless, because there is no neuter pronoun in Spanish.  I kind of suspect that this was put in after Octavia Butler discovered that critical fact during translation of the first book.  Just a hunch.)

Reading this series is a very odd experience.  Naturally, we are inclined to empathize with the human perspective.  At the same time, we can immediately acknowledge that humanity screwed up - not just in the book, but that it's screwing up in the real world as well.  The Oankali seem superior to us, but they're far from perfect.  As the book goes along and you learn more about them, you become increasingly sympathetic towards them, but at the same time, your sense of horror and revulsion grows.  It's impossible to pick a specific side, or even a particular character, and say "They are doing the right thing."  Really, it seems to ultimately come down to a question of the common good versus individual freedom, taken to enormous extremes in both directions.  Do you have the right to kill another person?  Most of us would say "no."  What if we could put a chip in your brain that kept you from being able to kill?  We may start to feel a bit queasy at the thought.  What if it wasn't another person who put in that chip, but a tentacled alien invading the earth?  All of a sudden freedom is looking much more like a good thing in its own right, even if that freedom might cause problems.

Each of the three books has a different main character, and they depict the evolving relationship between humanity and Oankali.  Lilith, the aptly named protagonist of the first novel, is sort of the first woman of the new Human species.  She lived before the war, has memories of the old Human way of doing things, but is responsible for orienting other Humans and helping them accept the new order.  She is helped by the Oankali, and also betrayed and damaged by them.  The other two books feature offspring of Lilith who inherit the new world order and can begin to act in order to change the original Oankali plan.


All in all, a fascinating series.  I really don't read all that much science fiction these days - it used to be a staple of mine, and I still often enjoy sci-fi television and movies, but for whatever reason I don't read that many books, and the ones I do read tend to be very soft sci-fi like Vonnegut.  This was a great change of pace, and a reminder of what the best science fiction can do: provoke you, make you think, and restore a sense of wonder.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Found It!

This past year, I've fallen way behind in my television viewing.  I've been distracted by life, and The Wire, and books, so the only thing I really kept current with was the amazing final season of BSG.  I did continue to DVR my favorite shows, though, and finally am starting to get caught up on some of these.  Right now I'm about halfway through the 13-episode season of "Lost," and if time permits I may also go through the remainder of "House."

For a long while, I've had a hard time putting my finger on how I feel about Lost's writing.  I think I finally have it.  "Lost" is quite good at writing interesting stories, and generally awful at writing dialog.  I mean "dialog" in the literal sense of two people exchanging sentences with one another.  Lost has always been pretty good at one-liners (see: Sawyer), as well as monologues (see: Ben, Daniel).  But nearly any time that two people get together, it turns into a cringe-fest.

Person 1: "I'm really angry!  I demand answers!"
Person 2: "Look at me ignore your question while I tell you that you need to travel to Point B."
Person 1: "I shall continue to scowl and yell, but not acknowledge that what you said makes no sense."

I think I'll start viewing all Lost dialog as camp, and the rest of the show as drama.  This could increase my enjoyment of it.

Speaking of which, I AM enjoying the current (rather, last) season.  Here are some


I'm pleased with Locke's current arc.  I nearly stopped watching Lost when they took him, the most interesting character in the first season, and turned him into a whiny brat.  Not totally sure where he's going, but so far signs look good.

Current favorite characters:

Most intriguing characters:
Lt. Daniels


The rant above about dialog was actually prompted by the scenes where the Oceanic Six meet with Ms. Hawking and when Locke meets with Whitmore.  These are HUGE events, people - the best chance they may ever get to figure out what the hell is going on.  And it just... argh!  I don't care that they don't explain everything, I just hate the stilted way they talk past each other.  Even when the individual characters are awesome, in company they just don't work together.

The scene with Locke's attempted suicide in the hotel room?  AMAZING.  I dug that hard.


Interesting to speculate on where the rest of the season will go.  In general, though, I'm fairly optimistic that the writers will be able to bring this show to a satisfying conclusion.  As long as there's no dialog in the final episode.