Saturday, April 30, 2016

Wild One

For the second year, I'm temporarily switching out streaming services. The timing worked out pretty perfectly: I blew through Season 2 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, caught Patton Oswalt's new special on Friday, then canceled Netflix and signed up for HBO Now in time for Sunday's Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones.

I'm primarily motivated by the original series on each service, but the biggest side-perk of switching to HBO is their vastly superior library of movies. At any given time Netflix will have a couple of decent films, but the days when you could reliably find a movie you were interested in have long since passed. HBO, on the other hand, has a ton of movies, and many more recent blockbusters. I've already lined up about a dozen that I want to watch, and more will be arriving in the upcoming months.

I think the system actually encourages switching between services: I'll likely continue paying for HBO Now for the next 3 months, covering the duration of Game of Thrones. This comes at a 50% premium over Netflix, but in absolute dollars it isn't bad at all - $15 a month versus $9. And, once I switch back to Netflix, it will have accumulated 3 months' worth of new movies, increasing the odds that there will be something on there that I'll actually want to watch.

Streaming movies has a few different advantages. It can be a great chance to catch up on gaps in my pop culture resume - it's a little surprising that I haven't seen "Knocked Up" before, and that was one of the first things I watched. It's also perfect for watching movies that came out in the last year or two that had interested me at the time but I'd never managed to see. High on that list: "Wild," which came out recently and stars Reese Witherspoon as a woman who hikes the Pacific Coast Trail.

Through-hiking the PCT has been a long-standing dream of one, albeit one that I perpetually delay. I love backpacking; it's been far too long since my last trip, but my journeys through Henry Coe Park, Yosemite, and The Lost Coast have been some of the happiest times of my life.

From very early on, I was impressed at just how well the movie gets the experience of hiking. Not just the physical aspect, but the mental one as well. I smiled when, shortly after Cheryl gets on the trail, she starts thinking to herself "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck." That's fairly common for me as well in my own hikes: not that I'm upset or in pain, but it's a rhythmic phrase that helps me maintain a certain pace.

The way that Cheryl's mind wanders and focuses on her journey rang very true for me. I think that might be my favorite aspect of hiking and why I try to do it so often. As your body is occupied on the trail, your mind begins to wander, jumping back and forth in time. I'll often replay entire scenes from my past, thinking about what they meant and whether I should have done anything differently. And, much like Cheryl, I sometimes manage to find closure and peace about things that have been bothering me.


Early on, I varied between thinking "Wow, the filmmakers really know a lot about backpacking!" and "Eh, this isn't very realistic." I loved the scene where she empties her food into baggies, reseals them, rolls them, and packs them. That probably doesn't mean a whole lot to non-hikers, but it's a crucial aspect to packing for long trips, letting you efficiently fit a lot more calories into a smaller space.

On the other hand, the pack itself was ludicrous - way too large, way too heavy (albeit with great comic relief when she tries to strap in), and with poor weight distribution, most notably with her canteen and stuff hanging off the back. However, much later in the movie, I finally realized that this was all deliberate: the whole point was that she wasn't packing very well, and one significant step of her evolution on the trail is a scene where she casts off all the things that had been bugging me and gets to a more reasonable weight.

For a while the combination of those things bothered me: why was Cheryl so smart about packing food, and so dumb about bringing paperback books? It finally made sense much later in the movie when she stumbles across a tribute to Jerry Garcia, who has just died. All along I'd been assuming that this was a fairly contemporary movie, perhaps set around 2010; but it's actually set all the way back in '95. The ultralight movement hadn't really come to dominate backpacking yet, and there wasn't yet the huge wealth of online resources and travelogues that we have today. (Heck, Cheryl probably helped get that ball rolling!) If Cheryl was mostly motivated by the paperback books with pretty pictures of the trail, then yeah, of course her knowledge would be spotty. And any books that she read would probably still be influenced from the old-school, 70s-era backpacking ethos, which really was much more about bringing along everything you wanted, as opposed to the minimum necessary to support your adventure.

Once that piece of it clicked, I was able to enjoy absolutely everything about the the movie's portrayal of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of hiking the trail. For example, I absolutely loved one scene where she encounters a massive boulder that has fallen onto the trail, along a steep cliff's face, and needs to figure out how to get around it. In a Hollywood movie, we would expect there to be a rockslide, a desperate leap to safety, clinging for dear life. What actually happens is much more realistic and much more powerful: she swears, stops, evaluates the situation, comes up with a plan, cautiously executes it, and then happily continues on her way. Those moments aren't all that common on the trail, but they're the things that personally give me the greatest satisfaction: those moments of puzzle-solving, where we figure out how to overcome obstacles and achieve our goals.

Patience and calm are the greatest virtues a hiker can have. When something starts to go wrong, keeping your cool will allow you to quickly recover. However, if you react with anger, fear, or frustration, then you'll almost inevitably make things far worse. Whether it's a problem with your equipment, or your path, it's almost best to stop what you're doing, take a deep breath, and think things through before taking any actions.

We see Cheryl in a variety of tense situations. Sometimes she makes mistakes - wasting the last of her water, angrily chucking a fuel canister. But more often we see her overcoming adversity: dealing with unwanted attention, collecting an alpaca, properly treating impure water rather than immediately satisfying her thirst.

The scene that most struck me, though, was the very first scene in the movie. It starts in media res: we see Cheryl at a beautiful spot on top of a mountain, but also in pain, wrenching off her boots and examining the bloody mess beneath. Something goes wrong (a boot falls down the slope), and she makes it worse (she chucks the other one after it), then bellows her rage at the world. When I initially saw that scene, I winced and thought, "Man, she's being really emotional and irrational."

Afterwards, we go back to the start of the hike, and follow Cheryl along the way. By the time we finally catch back up to that starting scene and see it again, my understanding of it had totally changed. First of all, I now understood Cheryl's mental state. She wasn't upset because her hike was hard: she was upset because her mother had died. Secondly, throwing the footwear wasn't nearly as irrational as it had seemed. Those boots were practically killing her, and, furthermore, she had already lined up a replacement pair for her next stop. I ended up admiring her cleverness with her improvised solution of sandals and duct-tape: they don't offer as much support, but would be much kinder to her toes than the boots.

Heh... in all of my writing above, I've almost completely ignored the real point of the movie, which of course isn't about the minutiae of backpacking on the PCT but about Cheryl's personal story. Artistry and realism combine perfectly to tell this story: the flashbacks aren't just an authorial device to reveal information, but are what Cheryl is actually thinking about at those points in her hike. We gradually come to know the full picture more and more as we watch the movie, but Cheryl is also coming to terms with her history, assimilating her memories and finding meaning in them.


Much like the scene with the boots, I found my understanding reshaped and reformed as the movie provides more context. Early on, most flashbacks are very short and emotional, just a few seconds long: it's like Cheryl's mind is too skittish to dwell on painful memories, so she quickly forces herself to move on. In one, we see her riding in the passenger seat of a car driven by her ex-husband, who is yelling at her. We think that it's a scene of an abusive relationship, perhaps leading up to the divorce. Perhaps he is the reason she has fled to the wilderness. By the end of the hike, though, we now know what led up to that scene: Cheryl running away, having sex with a parade of anonymous men, becoming pregnant, having an abortion, becoming addicted to heroin. Now, watching that scene the second time, we can't help but feel sympathy for this man, who came all the way from Minneapolis to Portland to get his ex-wife out of a drug-infested squat and into therapy. His anger now seems protective, rather than dangerous.

The part that touched me the most is, of course, Cheryl's mother. There's a lot going on there, but the part that most struck me is a recalled conversation when Cheryl was a teenager. She gets annoyed at her mom, who persists in being happy and goofy, finally snapping with something like "We're both poor, we work as waitresses, we'll never get out of debt, and you were married to an abusive alcoholic asshole. Why are you so happy?" The mother becomes just a little bit more serious, and explains her philosophy (if we can't change our circumstances, we can still control our attitude), before ending with something like, "Yes, I married an abusive, alcoholic man. If I had it to do all over again, would I do anything differently? Absolutely not. Because of that awful man, I now have you."

That's really sweet and powerful on its own, but it also presages Cheryl's epiphany at the end of her journey. Yes, horrible things have happened in her life, and yes, she has made some horrible choices. But, ultimately, those things have all led her to this moment. She wouldn't be on the trail now if she hadn't become addicted to heroin. She wouldn't have met her husband if her own mother's death hadn't driven her to do something new.

It's a radical new way of looking at life and history. Replaying your memories can seem like an act of penance, punishing yourself for past mistakes. Or, it can be a way to understand who you are. Love all the parts of yourself, even the bad parts, because they're all necessary. When things go wrong, trust that they're a step on the way to something good happening. That can be a religious belief, or a secular belief, but either way it's a very powerful mindset to have.


Of course, Wild is actually leaving HBO Now today, so this probably won't be relevant to anyone who hasn't already seen it. If you get the chance, though, I highly recommend it. It's a terrific story on its own, and also a great glimpse into the physical and mental states that we backpackers love so dearly.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Battle of Wyvernsword

I usually cite Baldur’s Gate 2 as my all-time favorite game. It’s a little hard to define exactly what that means. Was it the original story I played back in 2001? The heavily-modded versions I’ve played since then, which add their own variations to the original’s backbone? Am I giving it partial credit for the other games that followed in its wake, ushering in an era of character-centric narrative RPGs?

As with many experiences in life, it’s interesting to look back at it now across a span of MANY years and wonder how much of what I like is inherent in the thing itself; how much is due to my memories of the first time I played it (which is loosely but inextricably bound up with memories of college and young adulthood); and how much is due to the significance I’ve given it over the years (giving it credit for video-game romances, etc.). That’s part of why it’s such a gift to get to play something that’s of a piece with the original game, but still wholly original and surprising to me. I experienced that back when I played the Ascension mod for the first time, and experienced an even longer version of it over the last two weeks as I played Siege of Dragonspear.

SoD is a new expansion created by Beamdog, the company that created the EE versions of the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games, which bridges the gap between the end of Baldur’s Gate and the start of Shadows of Amn. In their previous games, they have added new scenes and characters to the older games, weaving them into something new. In SoD, virtually everything is completely new: the entire main plot, all new maps, and major new NPCs.

What I was most surprised and gratified by, though, wasn’t the new: it was the old. Beamdog managed to hire back many of the original voice actors from the original games, playing their old characters in new situations. That means that, for the first time in 15 years, we have new dialogue from Minsc and Boo, Dynaheir (Jennifer Hale!), and many others who I will talk about in spoilerville down below. I never expected to get to spend more time with these characters, and felt surprisingly emotional at the extension of our journeys.

So, how is the game itself? As with every time before when I’ve returned to the Infinity Engine, it takes some time for me to re-acclimate to the old-school interface and design. Many of my biggest pet peeves are still around, and will forever be an inherent part of these games. Spending ages in inventory screens, shuffling around items, dodging encumbrance limits and trying to decide whether an item with THAC0+2 and +2 damage is better than one with THAC0+1 and +1D6 damage. Needing to guess in advance which spells will be useful for upcoming fights. Getting ambushed and wiped out, then reloading and buffing and floorstomping your opponents.

The latter especially stands out for SoD: for people who have replayed the originals so many times, we already know in advance what’s going to happen, and so don’t think much about the preparations we’re taking with our foreknowledge of the battles to come. SoD puts us back into the shoes we wore in 2000, and the same shoes that new players to those games need to wear. They can be frustrating shoes! AD&D 2nd edition is fairly notorious for its brittle difficulty, where mistakes get brutally punished and small setbacks snowball into large disasters. I’ll always love these games, but I have to concede that, if I hadn’t played them so long ago, I would almost certainly find them intolerable today.

Again, much of that trouble is inherent in the underlying mechanics and will never be able to be changed. However, Beamdog has done a fantastic job at updating the user interface and certain aspects of the ruleset, significantly improving quality of life. Here are some of my favorite upgrades; I think some of these may have been previously added to the EE versions, but at least some are brand-new for SoD (though my understanding is that they’re also being added to BGEE and BG2EE).

You can equip weapon sets! This is HUGE. That means a character can wield both a 2-handed sword, and a longsword plus a shield, and easily switch between the two in combat. Previously, you would need to unequip your shield to pick up a two-hander and vice versa, which in practice was such a pain that characters would exclusively stay in a single style even if they had the proficiency points available to switch it up.

Spells are still remembered even when you lose their slot! This almost drove me to quit back when I played BG2: if you suffer level drain, then are restored, you need to remember all of the spells you had memorized and manually add them back in, only to have them wiped back out again after the next vampire attack. Now, you still lose the slot, but not your spell selections; once you get your Lesser Restoration, you’ll immediately be back in business.

When you drag items around, party portraits highlight to indicate who can use the item. If they show up in yellow, it’s better than their current equipment; if it’s lit up, they can equip it but it’s equal to or worse than their current loadout; if it’s dim, they can’t equip it.

Active actions are shown on the party portraits. I think this might have been added before, but it was extremely useful in the bigger and more complex battles of SoD. You can see at a glance what ammunition people are using, whether they’re about to chug a potion, which spell they’re preparing; more importantly, you can see when they’ve finished doing what they’ve done and are ready for their next orders.

Several game mode options have been decoupled from difficulty settings. I prefer playing on Core Rules, but will totally abuse save and reload to get the HP I want on level-up. Now, “Max HP on Level Up” is a separate setting that you can toggle in Options, independently of the overall difficulty settings. Hooray! (Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent toggle for “Spell scribing always succeeds”, which is the one remaining case where I still abuse save/reload.)

The NPC AI scripts are much improved. They aren’t as detailed as the Tactics slots in Origins and Dragon Age 2, but are much better than the stock “Archer”, “Defender”, etc. options. You can now toggle individual abilities on and off depending on the character’s needs. For most of my companions, I leave selected “Attack nearest enemy”; this is nice since, once an enemy dies, party members will automatically select a new target without me needing to select them. However, I’ve disabled this for my cleric, since she sometimes needs to keep Turn Undead active. The nicest thing might be the way that Detect Traps automatically turns on as soon as my thief exits combat.

Changes in combat stats are now surfaced early on when comparing equipment. Instead of putting on the new item, than flipping over to the Character Record to see what happened, you can now easily see the delta in your THAC0, damage per hit, etc. right on the inventory screen.

I’m sure there are a lot more that I’m overlooking. These are all great updates, and make the game more usable and enjoyable than ever before. Ever since the old Ease of Use mod first allowed arrows to stack up to 80 per slot, players have been looking for ways to make the game more playable without affecting its underlying difficulty, and the latest EE updates feel like a culmination to those enhancements.

Let’s see… before I get into semi-spoilery plot stuff, here are a few mechanical notes that may be of interest to players, especially munchkins. No spoilers here, but you still may want to skip if you want to be completely surprised.

You can either create a new character in SoD, or import a save from BG1EE. If you create a new character, you’ll start off at a decent XP level and receive an initial party based on your alignment. If you import, you’ll get your PC and everyone who was in your party in your save.

In my case, I imported my post-game save from the end of BG1; in that game, two of my party members died in the final battle. They imported correctly, but since they had dropped all of their gear when they died, they arrived without any equipment. It wasn’t a huge deal, since I was able to re-equip them in the tutorial dungeon; but if I had to do it over again, I probably would have just imported the save BEFORE the final battle and kept their gear. As far as I can tell, the game doesn’t import any plot flags (other than maybe the BG1EE NPC quests), so there isn’t any particular significance to selecting the post-game save.

After the tutorial dungeon is complete, your party will leave you. Some of the party members can rejoin later, in which case they will keep all of their equipment and have the same items when they come back. Everything in their inventory gets dumped into a common storage chest, which is accessible throughout the rest of the game, so you don’t need to worry about handing everything to your PC prior to exiting the dungeon. However, I think that equipment which people are WEARING will go with them; so if there are any enchanted items that you especially want, you should strip them off before ending the intro. (You get plenty of advance notice before this happens.)

And, final mechanical note to super-munchkins: you lose all of your gold after the tutorial dungeon, so feel free to stock up on any healing or stuff you want.

Okay! Let’s get into the story!


The overall game design also feels like a bridge between BG1 and BG2. You tend to progress linearly through chapters, gaining access to new areas and losing access to older ones, just like in BG2. However, individual map exploration feels a lot more like in BG1. There are large areas of wilderness to explore, lots of random quests scattered around, plenty of stuff to find and plenty of stuff to miss. There’s a meta-plot driving you forwards, but I spent a majority of my time on (fun) side-quests.

They do a good job at making your character feel powerful and significant; honestly much better than the big reset button at the start of Shadows of Amn. Crowds gather to cheer you as you leave the city, powerful nobles courteously ask your opinion, military leaders look to you for direction. There’s still good narrative justification for you heading into the wilderness with your party - you hold no official rank, you’re just an incredibly powerful individual who people want on their side.

I’d mentioned before that they bring back many of the original voice actors for the NPCs. There aren’t as many available party members as for BG1, but I think the overall selection is better: less redundancy (seven thieves?!), while still offering choice for each major party role and much more content for each individual. People become available throughout the game, with narratively-distinct reasons for joining. My final party was:

Raenir: My Cavalier PC. She specializes in two-handed swords. She’s Lawful Good, but as I’ll address below, she gained some additional nuances and layers throughout the story.

Corwin: Human archer, and a new NPC. She’s a member of, uh, either the city guard or the Flaming Fist, I forget which. Her bare stats are mediocre, but with the proper equipment she’s an absolute beast on the field.

M’Khiin: Goblin shaman, a new NPC and new class for SoD. Shamans are to druids what sorcerers are to mages: they don’t need to memorize individual spells. She has a fantastic personality, with a mixture of resignation and stubbornness and taciturnity that I absolutely love.

Viconia: Drow priestess, fortunately much closer to her BG2 persona than her minimal BG1 presentation. In BG2 she can become a decent frontline fighter; in SoD she’s still squishy enough that I kept her on the back line, but she’s still very useful and has a compelling story.

Safana: Human thief. Not really my favorite, but one of the few thieves available in the expansion. She’s a decent archer and has good thief skills, but otherwise isn’t too remarkable.

Neera: Human wild mage. The last addition to my party, she was added in BG1 as a new NPC and has her story extended here. Not as strong as a PC-designed arcane caster would be, but still extremely useful to have around. I already liked her in BG1, and I think she’s even better here, with terrific dialogue and voice acting.

Other people I had in my party at various times include:

Minsc! Human “ranger” who plays like a berserker. One of the most beloved NPCs of all time, and a true joy to have back.

Dynaheir: Human Invoker, voiced by the terrific Jennifer Hale. A solid all-around spellcaster; I kept her around until picking up Neera later in the game.

Jaheira: Half-elven fighter/druid. The longest-serving companion in the BG franchise, she has a notoriously prickly personality and a complex, fully-developed personal arc. She’s extremely useful and I would have loved to keep her if I had one more slot, but I eventually and reluctantly dropped her so I could fit in the new NPCs.

And some others who I ran across but never traveled with:

Khalid: Half-elven fighter. As usual, a nervous but very decent man, who in SoD gets thrust into a new position of responsibility.

Rasaad: Human monk. Another new NPC from BG1EE. I enjoyed his quest in the earlier game, but, well, no room this time around, especially for a squishy melee fighter.

Dorn: Half-orc blackguard. The final new NPC from BG1EE. I actually wanted to get rid of him, but missed the earlier dialogue choice to tell him to get lost, and so he hung out at camp and glowered.

Edwin: Human conjurer. One day I’ll play an evil party! Maybe!

Baeloth: Drow Sorcerer. Apparently he’s a returning character, although I don’t remember meeting him in BG1.

Glint Gardnersonson: Gnome thief/cleric. Interesting multiclass! I actually really liked the little I heard from him, and will likely pick him up if and when I replay the game.

Voghlin: Human skald. When we first met, he was like “Hey, you saucy wench!” and I was like NOPE! Apparently he’s actually a good character, but I wasn’t inclined to give him a chance.

There are a bunch more cameos and such from older NPCs. Imoen doesn’t journey with you after the opening dungeon, but is a major part of the story, as is Skie. Tiax gets a great, if much shorter (heh), cameo. And there’s one particular returning voice actor who just FLOORED me. I'll avoid spoiling it, even though it's revealed early on.

The new voice actors are really good. My favorite is definitely M’Khiin, followed closely by Caelar Argent. I wasn’t initially a fan of Corwin’s voice, but it really grew on me and I ended up loving it. Weirdly, the weakest voice of the entire cast belongs to the final boss, even though he/it is supposed to be the most powerful of all the characters. I suspect that they had intended to put a filter on it but neglected to do so.

Overall build strategy for party composition and loadouts will be very intuitive for anyone who has played the other games. Missile weapons are still very useful, as they were in BG1; as you may have noted, my final party consisted of a single melee fighter and a whopping five ranged fighters; it isn’t ideal, but worked perfectly fine for most fights. Turn Undead comes in very handy on a couple of maps. Having a thief is very handy. Traps tend to be clustered in logical places, so if you find yourself thinking “There might be traps here”, you’re probably right and should focus on scouting. That said, many traps can be stepped around, so you could probably survive with a Detect Traps spell and occasional tanking.

There are quite a few battles against large numbers of enemies with low HP, so having AOE options comes in very useful; I still had some Wands of Fire left over from BG1, and picked up a couple more throughout this game, and used them fairly liberally as the situation demanded. You finally get the Raise Dead spell at the new XP levels available in SoD; before that, don’t forget (as I did) that you can get Scrolls of Resurrection for pretty cheap; there’s no Rod of Resurrection, sadly, so you should probably have at least two divine casters available for post-battle raising. Must-buys for me included the Bag of Holding and lots of +2 ammo and fire arrows. Pretty much everything else can be found through drops. I thought the money curve was handled really well. I only bothered looting and selling magical equipment (including precious stones but excluding un-enchanted weapons and armor); I kept a close eye on my money for the first couple of chapters, but felt free to spend recklessly nearer the end, and finished the game with well over 100,000 pieces of gold.

There’s a lot of nice equipment that you can pick up. Here are a handful of highlights; this is just based off of what I had equipped on my party near the end, I remember selling a lot of other great stuff that we couldn’t use.
  • The Sword of Ruin: +2 THAC0, adds 50% or 100% to your crit chance, deals an extra 1D6 on a crit.
  • Sundermaul. +3 Warhammer, 15% chance of inflicting -1 AC on the target... but wielder has a 2% risk of triggering a quake centered on themself.
  • Daeros’s Full Plate: Ridiculously low AC, plus an extra 40% fire resistance and bonuses to Breath saving throws. 
  • Ring of Wizardry: Doubles the number of first-level arcane spells you can memorize. This stacks with Evermemory, with a multiplicative effect! You now have more Identify and Magic Missile spells than you’ll ever need!
  • Cloak of Minor Arcana: +1 to caster level for mages.
  • There are a lot of pieces that give boosts to stats (like +1 to WIS, +1 to CON, etc.). Other than strength belts and one or two dex items, I don’t remember seeing many other attribute-boosting items before.
  • There are quite a few items that can be worn by many classes, but have additional bonuses for a specific kit. For example, Stalker Gauntlets give a boost to everyone, but also increase a Stalker's backstab multiplier.
  • Many items that are unique to particular characters; especially M’Khiin (which makes sense, given goblin physiology), but Corwin also has several.
  • Multiple summoning items: no longer just monsters, but also ankhegs and stone golems and more! I often forgot I had these, and they turned the tide whenever I deployed them.

Let’s talk about plot now!


I’ve been playing as a Lawful Good paladin. For the most part, this had made things very simple from a role-playing perspective: never lie, never cut deals with evil forces, always do good, and always uphold the law when it does not interfere with the above. This bypasses the moral judgment I usually struggle with when playing my more typical Neutral Good alignment, which can sometimes make things a little boring.

In Siege of Dragonspear, though, I found myself periodically questioning myself in-character, even from the Lawful Good angle, which made things much more interesting. One early example: the crusaders (your putative enemies) have seized control of a bridge that you need to cross, and have laid siege to an adjacent fort that has some of your sympathetic forces trapped inside (led by Khalid). The defenders are outnumbered, but now that you have arrived with the Flaming Fist, you have a chance at breaking the siege.

After I finally gained access to the fort, I talked to everyone, and was surprised to see multiple lines of dialogue that dealt with the possibility of surrender. I was reassured that surrender would not be a disaster: they could destroy the supplies before exiting, which would deprive Caelar’s forces of their primary goal. I made sure to disavow any chance of surrender: I was a holy warrior, fearless in the face of adversity, and would defeat the enemies no matter what.

But… as the time for a decision grew nearer, I found myself second-guessing my course. Yes, I could fight off Caelar’s forces, but what would be the gain? This was not our main objective; we only needed to secure crossing, and then would immediately proceed to Dragonspear. Caelar’s army was my enemy, but the more I learned about them, the more convinced I became that they weren’t “evil”. They were misguided, and had caused a great deal of harm, but were ultimately fighting in the service of what they believed to be the greater good.

And, furthermore, what would the cost be? I was confident in my own ability to survive, thanks to my mastery of the meta-spells of Save and Reload. But the defenders were another story. If I negotiated a surrender, they would all join the coalition army and be of use in the final battle. If we fought, then many of them would die, and for what? My pride, I realized. There was no strategic reason for this battle, and no moral reason, so its only purpose would be to prove my own power. Not the best reason in the best of circumstances, and definitely not the best reason for a child of Bhaal, the God of Murder.

So, I was astonished to find myself doing the thing I was so certain I would not, and negotiating a surrender of Bridgefort. Much like the British soldiers in Last of the Mohicans, we marched off, holding our weapons and carrying our colors with pride. It was a supremely satisfying moment.

The next point where I questioned my actions came during the titular Siege of Dragonspear. The plot requires you to plant some explosives underneath the castle walls (the wonderfully-named Barrel of BWOOSH!). There’s an optional additional objective: to poison the defenders’ supplies. I instantly turned down that mission, and didn’t really second-guess it. But, once I reached the castle, I started to wonder just how far I should go.

As a Paladin, I made it a point to say “Hi, I’m Raenir!” whenever I met someone, even if they were a Crusader. Most of the peons aren’t too aware of larger issues, and won’t turn hostile. Later on, I saved some crusaders who were afflicted by a fungal infection, and in return I received a crest that identified me as a crusader myself.

This, then, posed a quandary. By presenting the crest, I could gain peaceful access to the castle basement. This would allow me to carry out virtuous missions (freeing a captured ogre, rescuing hostages, etc.), without causing additional loss of life. However, it would mean mis-representing who I was. What’s a Lawful Good paladin to do?

I ended up turning into a scrupulous lawyer. I avoided lying outright, while also allowing others to make erroneous assumptions about my identity. This allowed me further access to carry out my work. I’m somewhat happy with this, while still feeling conflicted; it felt a bit like “the ends justify the means,” which is not the most Lawful Good policy, and also felt dangerously similar to Caelar’s rhetoric. I got as far as I could without bloodshed, then reloaded to the point just before and headed back to camp. (In addition to my moral qualms, I also had practical considerations: the whole purpose of this venture was to secretly plant a bomb, and if the Crusaders discovered that the Hero of Baldur’s Gate had popped up in their basement, surely they would have searched my route of entrance and discovered the explosive?)

This stuff was good for roleplaying; I’m looking forward to playing again as a Chaotic (or at least Neutral) alignment, since it seems like there are a lot of opportunities for espionage and manipulation and backstabbing and such. There are some trees where you’re allowed to cut deals with enemies, only to turn around and trick them. That stuff is really fun, and will make for a nice change of pace on my next replay.

Roleplaying decisions are good on their own, and I was happy to see that it seems to have some ultimate impact on the end of the game. One of the very last scenes sees you put on trial for a crime, and in your defense you can cite instances of your moral character. It felt great to be able to say “Hey, I didn’t poison that stuff, even when YOUR commander asked me to! Poison is a murderer’s tool, and I’m no murderer!”

I’m a little unclear on exactly what impact the trial has, but looking back at it, I suspect that it affects the circumstances of your departure from Baldur’s Gate. As it was, the Grand Dukes banished me from the city, but I was allowed to leave with my own equipment; I imagine that, if you “fail” the trial, you instead escape from prison (perhaps with the assistance of the same sympathetic guard, perhaps with Imoen).

And, as a sidebar, it was a little funny/weird/odd to see that transition into Shadows of Amn, since both Minsc and Khalid had died in this game. So we were just a foursome heading out, but I’m pretty sure that this will not carry over to the start of BG2. Anyways, that’s definitely not a new problem, just interesting to see it again.

The plot of the game as a whole was really enjoyable. I found myself frequently thinking of Mask of the Betrayer, one of my favorite RPGs; there are many similarities between Kaelyn the Dove and Caelar Argent, and Caelar’s crusade to rescue the unjust dead of the Dragonspear Wars reminded me of Kaelyn’s crusade against the Wall of the Faithless. The final assault on Avernus kind of reminded me of the climax to Hordes of the Underdark, the final expansion to the original Neverwinter Nights.

Some of the specific plot developments didn't make a lot of sense to me. I particularly had trouble understanding the tactical situation at Dragonspear. Caelar's forces are under "siege" by, apparently, 450 soldiers, until your additional 100 soldiers swell the ranks to 550. When negotiations fail, SHE attacks YOUR camp. You beat her back, and then assault the castle. I mean... I guess it may make a slight amount of sense if her main goal is to capture you, but since you're going to attack her anyways, why on earth would she not just wait for your assault? And if she really just wants to capture you, why not send some spies/assassins to do the work instead of foot soldiers? This would all make more sense if you had chosen to poison her supplies, since that would put more time pressure on her plans, but as it stood in my game it seemed like a rare illogical development.

My biggest disappointment in the game was the romance, or more specifically, my lack of one. I’d deliberately avoided researching available options, which ended up thwarting my ability to pursue one… I didn’t recruit Corwin until Chapter 9, and temporarily kicked her out of my party while shuffling members, which may have broken the kickoff. Alternately, it MIGHT have been because I imported a character who had used the “Neera Expansion” mod to romance Neera in BG:EE; that romance didn’t continue either, so I’m guessing that it re-checks your eligibility instead of just relying on the romance flag.

As is usually the case, I ended up fiddling around in CLUAConsole and save game editors to try and get things back on track, but this time around did not have luck, mostly because the expansion is so new and there isn’t much info out there yet about how the new romances work. I’ll probably come back to this in a couple of months to reload my old saves and cheat my way back into one. My tentative plan is to look for an updated Neera mod so Raenir can continue that romance. Beamdog has indicated that, if SoD does really well, they may make updates to BG2EE to continue some of the new companions’ storylines as well; if they bring Corwin forward, I’ll probably start a fresh character at the start of SoD and then do a Corwin romance through SoD, SoA and ToB.

All right, there’s a ton more to say but I’ll do it in my album as usual. In the meantime, some summing-up:


Significant UI/UX improvements. It’s still the same fundamental game, just with a lot of unnecessary annoyances removed.

Fantastic voice acting across the board.

New stories with beloved old characters.

Strong tactical challenges.

Varied combat, including major fights alongside allied factions and against enemy armies.

Gorgeous maps.

Decent money curve.

Terrific music! (Composed by Sam Hulick, the same guy who created the Mass Effect score! This is seriously some of the best fantasty music I’ve heard.)

Player choice. There are the expected “good or evil” choices we’re used to in this series, and also some good nuanced options for reaching your goals.

New goodies. The Shaman class is a great addition (one I’d be tempted to pick for a new PC thanks to the ease of casting), and the new items are useful without feeling ridiculously overpowered.

Sense of humor. It feels like Baldur’s Gate always has: against the macabre and dark backdrop, there’s a lot of silliness and terrific quips. Neera’s banter in particular stands out, as does CHARNAME’s dialogue options.

NPCs. Again, it feels like Baldur’s Gate. It’s not as nuanced as, say, Dragon Age, but these are still interesting people with unique backgrounds and unique perspectives on the world, who can be fun to love or to hate.


Some bugs. I only ran into one that really affected me, where Khalid died during the magical attack on the fort. Apparently that’s already been fixed in a new patch, and I was able to CLUAConsole my way back on track without too much trouble.

Graphics. The new environments look gorgeous, and animations are still attractive, but the character sprites look increasingly dated.


Inherited game quirks. We still need to live with encumbrances, spell memorization, and other things that felt fine back in 2000 but seem archaic now.

Pathfinding is still awful. Get used to watching the party member with Boots of Speed eternally bumping into the person in front of them.

Difficulty. This is probably my own fault for playing on Core Rules without reading any guides, but there are massive difficulty spikes at a few points. I’ll be able to prepare for them in the future, but it annoys me when games require foreknowledge. (Again, this is more of an inherent issue with BG that I’m freshly reminded of.)


This was a lot of fun! I wasn’t necessarily expecting to pick this up so soon; my standard MO for new RPGs is to wait a few months for the initial round of patches to come out and the most essential mods to be created before picking it up. Given the ridiculous harassment that this game has received, though, I wanted to show my support for people carrying the torch, and am glad I did. For all my frustrations about the romance, I’m really glad that I went into this cold with no expectations of the plot or characters. I haven’t experienced a “new” Baldur’s Gate in 15 years, and I’ll treasure the memories of this new journey.

As is my wont, I have assembled an album of only the finest screenshots from my playthrough of this game. It is approximately 180 photos long. A majority of those photos were selected due to the text in the dialogue, which is small to begin with and rendered unreadable when viewed on the web: for this I apologize. The vast majority of photos are annotated with my pedantic, rambling thoughts about the game. So, uh… enjoy!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Will I Am

I’d forgotten that I had previously started on Kill Shakespeare. I recently picked it back up again, this time in a wonderfully-bound volume collecting the entire arc along with some supplemental material.

This is a really fun story, and quite infuriating at times. The authors have an unabashed love for Shakespeare and a ton of enthusiasm in constructing their story; however, there’s also a lot of messiness, things that most readers will blissfully overlook but that doom English Lit majors like me to periodically sigh in frustration.

One addition to this volume that wasn’t present in the earlier one I read was a set of annotations. After each issue, a professor will go through all of its references, pointing out which plays different dialogue was drawn from, what Shakespearean scenes inspired various moments in Kill Shakespeare, etc. Their writing is very game, but you can sometimes practically hear them rolling their eyes: “No, this dialogue isn’t correct: it should be ‘thou’ instead of ‘thee’.”


I remain slightly baffled at the intended audience for the book. My initial assumption had been that it would help modernize the dusty old stories and make them relatable for contemporary audiences. Perhaps it would be something that a middle-school reader could devour, gaining some basic understanding of a few major personalities and plots from the canon. That really isn’t the case, though. Kill Shakespeare takes a rather cavalier approach towards everything: not just Elizabethan language, but in its treatment of the source material. Some elements seem to be carried over fairly directly: Othello’s nobility and temper, Richard III’s scheming. Others are intentionally subverted: Juliet is reimagined as a brave leader of a rebellion. And other changes seem completely random: we learn late in the book that King Hamlet, rather than the kindly ruler depicted in his play, was actually a paranoid tyrant. Why the change? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It doesn’t seem to have any impact on the story of Kill Shakespeare, and doesn’t seem to be making any particular comment on the source material. Any middle-schooler who relies on this comic will probably be hurt more than helped.

And that’s totally okay! Comic books don’t need to be educational, they’re meant to be fun, and I think that if you can turn off the part of your brain that analyzes things for correctness, you’ll have a lot more fun with this story. It’s ultimately just mining Shakespeare for material, using it for inspiration but not bound by its constraints.

The art is exceptionally well-drawn, and every page looks gorgeous (or macabre, as the situation demands). It’s both cartoony and detailed, with bright colors and terrific layouts. I thought that the supernatural scenes were the best; in particular, the scenes with the ghost King Hamlet have some absolutely astonishing sword iconography that creates a tableau filled with menace and dread.

Once again, this is a comic book, and there are some conventions it hews to more closely than I would like. I shouldn’t complain about its goriness, considering how bloody source plays like Titus Andronicus and King Lear can be, but I personally had trouble with the bloody close-ups of mutilation and torture. It also predictably leers at the ample bosoms of its female characters, notably Lady Macbeth. Again, nothing out of the ordinary here, but something that made me occasionally roll my eyes and mutter “Oh, come ON!”

Lady Macbeth, and the Macbeths in general, fall on the far extreme of modifications from the original play to their portrayal here. Of course, one recurring question in studying and putting on the Scottish play is what level of responsibility and guilt Macbeth has for the actions he takes: has he been manipulated by supernatural forces, or do they merely give affirmation to desires he already held? In the play, Lady Macbeth initially prods her husband towards greater ambition, but ends up mad, unable to follow him all the way towards his final bloody moments. In KS, though, Lady Macbeth isn’t a co-conspirator or a power behind the throne: she’s out for herself, seeking to achieve her own power. Oh, and she’s also now one of the Three Weird Sisters.

Intellectually, I actually kind of like those changes - it gives women more agency than they typically have in Shakespeare. But it’s kind of hard to focus on that aspect of it when she’s SUCH a femme fatale, sleeping with every man who can aid her, and manipulating and backstabbing all of them.

I was kind of surprised when Lady Macbeth kills off Macbeth early on. How does she do it? By bricking him up behind a wall, like in The Cask of Amontillado. Why? Because screw you, that’s why! There are zero other references to Poe in the rest of the series, and very few references to non-Shakespearean literature, so it’s not like it’s part of a theme of mixing up Shakespeare with later works. There’s also no shortage of unusual and creative deaths within Shakespeare that they could have drawn upon for this. It just feels kind of weird and out of place. But, again, this is just me as an english lit nerd speaking; I instinctively demand a level of formal discipline to my stories that’s probably not very realistic nor fun.

Once Macbeth is out of the way, Lady Macbeth gains control of the Black Guard, before Richard in turn eventually manipulates it away from her, and… it kind of doesn’t seem to matter? There are frequent references to the Black Guard throughout the story, and everyone seems intimidated by its power; even Richard, who appears to rule with an iron fist, covets the strength of this elite unit. When they finally are deployed, though, it feels a bit anti-climactic. They’re scary-looking dudes; but Richard’s forces alone already felt like more than a match for the rabble of barely-trained peasants opposing them. There are some interesting beats in the internal storyline, notably the commanders in the Guard who yearn for action and glory, but it never had the kind of payoff I expected.

For all of my periodic frustrations with the story, the core of it is a really cool idea. Shakespeare is a real person, and also, within the context of his stories, a god. He’s the one who created all of these characters, and shaped them by putting words in their mouths; however, once he did so, they took on a life of their own. He’s frequently referred to as a god, and he holds some but not all of the attributes we associate with that. He is a creator, and can reshape reality according to his will; but he’s also mortal, flawed, and unsure of himself.

The heart of the crisis is that Shakespeare feels guilt for the harm he has caused: his characters are real to him, and he’s the one who created the villains, so he’s ultimately to blame for their actions. He withdraws from the world, causing even more suffering as his creations run amok.

Given the rest of this comic book, I’m not sure how deeply I’m supposed to read into this. Is Shakespeare an allegory for the creators themselves? Is he a Tolkienian sub-creator; or is he God, and his characters responsible for their own sub-creation? Are we meant to remember that Shakespeare himself is a creation of this book’s authors? Are they, themselves, gods? Interesting questions. If this was a book by Gaiman or Moore, I’d be convinced there was an answer and spend a lot of time trying to suss it out. As it stands, I think it’s just entertainment, and won’t lose too much sleep over it.

Another element which I think it really interesting to think about, but may or may not be a deliberate theme, is that of fate versus choice. This, again, is one of those things that 9th graders across the country are asked to grapple with when they write five-paragraph essays on the topic of Macbeth. The different characters this story focuses on, though, represent very different aspects of this continuum. Hamlet is notoriously obsessed with his choices, a fact that was at the heart of the awesome To Be Or Not To Be choose-your-own-adventure book. That legacy from his play carries through to the action here, as he grapples with the incomplete information he’s gleaned about his world and weighs the advantages and risks of different actions he could take.

On another extreme, the story of Romeo and Juliet is pretty notoriously fate-oriented; the plot tends to advance through coincidences and things that the characters don’t have much direct control over. Juliet in Kill Shakespeare has more agency than her namesake, but she also lacks Hamlet’s introspection. She’s chosen this role for herself, and doesn’t second-guess it. In fact, that’s true of pretty most characters here. Othello is the other one I can think of who seems to genuinely reflect and reconsider his actions and choices.

The book is nicely ambiguous when it comes to Shakespeare’s own position in all this. Did he grant free will to his subjects? Does he even have free will himself? He’s a god, but seems more constrained by his powers than any of his subjects. There’s more here than the book explores, but it’s something fun to chew on.


I realize this write-up was mostly complaints, but I did enjoy this story more than not. Between the gorgeous artwork and the fun representations of some of my favorite characters, there’s a lot to recommend within here. I still personally prefer Ryan North’s epic To Be or Not To Be, which does a lot more to engage with the source material and provide interesting literary/social commentary on it. I’m REALLY looking forward to Romeo and/or Juliet, the upcoming sequel, which will similarly illuminate the other major character featured in Kill Shakespeare. But, for someone who wants a bloody, sexy good time, Kill Shakespeare has a lot to recommend itself.

Monday, April 18, 2016


Yeesh! I don't have any excuse for why Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal took me longer to read than Ulysses, The Baroque Cycle, 2666, or any of the other massive tomes I've read throughout the years. It's a bit on the long side, but like most of Chris Moore's work, it's an easy and generally fun read. I think I've just been getting too distracted by video games and television shows and browsing the Internet to actually sit down and finish the thing.

It's a good, fun book. I didn't love it as much as I'd hoped, but that might be because of my choppy reading habits. On an intellectual level, I appreciated what it was doing; however, it ended up being a bit like Fluke in that many specific elements of the story ended up annoying me.

As you might expect from the title, this work occupies territory similar to that of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, or, more applicably, Monty Python's The Life of Brian. It's well-researched, drawing on both the biblical and independent historical records, but is primarily a work of entertainment, telling its own story that's inspired by but not limited to the Gospels. In Moore's case, he was mostly curious about one question: what happened during the eighteen years between Jesus's childhood and the start of his ministry at the age of 30?


The shortest and best answer that Moore gives is that Christ learned kung-fu. Joshua (the name always used in the book) and the narrator Biff (a terrifically-written asshole) spend the bulk of the book on a pilgrimage visiting each of the three wise men who attended Joshua's birth. Each is an expert in a separate Eastern spiritual tradition, and each spends several years training the pair (but mainly Joshua) in the philosophy and practice of their specialty. In each case, Joshua ends up surpassing the master, but realizing that he still does not have the answer, and moving on. The phrase "divine spark" is frequently invoked to establish the bridge between Eastern and Western thought.

This is a fairly common gloss given to Christ-centric Christianity: that it's essentially a variation on the same core truths revealed in Eastern mysticism, re-interpreted in the West. Key principals such as the Golden Rule, the eternal spirit, equality of humans, the emptiness of human possessions, etc., appear across a range of different religions.

One of the things I liked best about this book, and that kind of surprised me, is that Moore doesn't completely make this argument. His Joshua isn't a good man with good teachings. He really is the Son of God, really does perform miracles, and offers the sole path to salvation. He gives the Sermon on the Mount, and also declares that no one may come to the Father except through him. There are different aspects of the Bible that liberals and conservatives like to focus on, and I appreciated that Moore doesn't just present one side, but the full range of his teachings.

So, wherefore Asia? Good question! Honestly, this was the part of the book that dragged on the most for me. This seems to be where Moore indulges the most in some of the more questionable stuff in the book. Biff is obsessed with sex, which is funny and relatable in Galilee; but it turns into a weird sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy in the middle section, with long passages recounting all of the different kinds of sex Biff has with many exotic women. This is tangentially related to the plot, specifically Joshua's necessary virginity, and is one of the best ways to reinforce the "Biff is an asshole" storyline, but it gets old pretty fast.

For the most part, Moore avoids cliched orientalism; but when it does crop up, it's very distracting. The section that struck me most was a long scene about the Cult of Kali, where barbaric Hindus kidnap and slaughter children while copulating to honor their goddess. In the text, this provides Joshua with the motivation to take direct action, and reinforces his idea that all lives have equal value. That said, it felt really gratuitous, and muddled the message a bit... it's hard to convey that all humans are equal when you have a huge anonymous population of absolute villains. (Moore does specifically address this scene in his afterward, noting that all of the details were drawn from historical sources and not exaggerated for the book. It's arguably justified, but felt like yet another side-story that padded out the middle section for little benefit.)

Oh, and the puns! So many puns. Moore is right up there with Pratchett in his mastery of them, making me giggle with rage. The most egregious is probably when the two are learning martial arts at a mountain monastery. Biff is a quick student of the brisk, fast-paced fighting style; but Joshua is reluctant to cause harm to his opponents. Instead, he develops his own style, using his opponents' strengths against them while avoiding harm himself. The impressed monks name this new technique jew-do in honor of Joshua's heritage. I nearly set the book on fire with my impressed glare.

Apart from the Eastern section, though, I really enjoyed the story. The framing device for the story is set in the present day: Raziel (the stupidest angel, who appears in several other Moore books) resurrects Biff, then takes him to a hotel room where they watch daytime soap operas while Biff writes his own account of the Gospels. Those were some of my favorite parts of the book. There's a bit of the expected fish-out-of-water experience as Biff comes to terms with the 2000 years of progress between his time and ours; the joke, though, is that Biff quickly figures out how the new world works, while Raziel is as dumb as ever.

The bigger issue is the difference between the canonical Gospels and Biff's own. This, too, is interesting: Biff's criticism isn't that the gospels get stuff wrong or invent things, but that they omit from the story. He's a little shaken by this, but mostly upset, and the narration is always fun to read. Unfortunately, the present-day stuff disappears around the time we need it most, only returning at the end.

Overall, the book is extremely well-researched. Many events from the gospels appear here, including famous scenes like turning water into wine and raising Lazarus. However, they often have interesting twists that add another angle to these familiar stories. For example, when Joshua is baptized by his cousin John, he's underwater when God speaks and says "This is my son," so he doesn't actually hear it even though everyone else does. Stuff like that provides good fodder for comedy, and also makes Joshua human and interesting. He knows what he has to do, but is sometimes frustrated at the task ahead of him and the intermittent support of his father.

And also the stupidity of his followers! While a lot of this book is sacrilegious or worse, there is more than sufficient evidence for Joshua being annoyed at how thick-headed his disciples were. We see him trying, over and over, to come up with different parables in the hope that one of them will finally sink in to them. As usual, Biff is the ice-breaker here, basically saying, "Hey, if people still don't get it, then maybe these analogies aren't very good."

Biff is a terrific foil for Joshua, both narratively and as a collaborator. He'll sometimes prod Joshua into action, or present him with a problem to solve. They have very different temperaments, and while Joshua is clearly the superior of the two, Biff does contribute to Joshua's effectiveness. There's a great scene where they are writing the outline for the Sermon on the Mount, running through all of the Beatitudes, trying to figure out who gets what. Some of their ideas, uh, don't make the final cut. It's really fun to see them struggle to build something together, with us knowing the final outcome but seeing all of the effort it takes to get there.

The rest of the cast is much more sketchily drawn. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joshua get a lot of development, but we mostly see them through the lens of Biff's carnal desires.  The nature of the story makes it difficult to do much more: when you're introducing twelve disciples, you can't spend all that much time establishing unique personalities for each of them, so each person gets one thing that defines them and is referenced whenever they show up. This typically isn't what you would expect! You would think, for example, that Thomas would be the skeptic of the group; instead, his whole deal is that he has an imaginary twin brother, Thomas Two, who only he can see. Peter is a bit more traditional of a portrayal - he's unimaginative but loyal. The disciple John is gay; I actually kind of like this idea, but unfortunately it's just done to line up a gay-panic joke. Judas gets a fairly accurate portrayal that's also more or less in line with his most common contemporary interpretation in works like Jesus Christ Superstar: he is a Zealot, most committed out of all of the disciples to the idea of a Messiah and salvation from the Romans, who is horrified as Joshua's waste of money and seeming neglect of his people and the necessary instrument of God's ultimate plan.


The book ends on a very abrupt note, with an out-of-nowhere chase scene as Biff pursues Judas after the crucifixion, then both dying. It's odd in a couple of ways. Unlike much of the rest of the book, it directly contradicts the New Testament; then again, the scriptures are a little unclear themselves. (One account has Judas paying back the silver and hanging himself, the other has him buying a field and disemboweling himself). This may be a subtle and implicit reference to a long-running idea in this novel, that the other disciples were jealous of how close Biff was to Joshua, and were upset that he left them by committing suicide in his grief, and so systematically erased him from their stories. If they couldn't say what really happened to Judas without invoking Biff, they may have created new stories instead.

We get a nice little coda after that, finally back in the modern timeline and with Biff reunited at last with his longstanding love Maggie. Which I honestly wasn't expecting - an earlier scene in which Biff eavesdrops on Raziel had me think that the angel was planning on killing Biff after his task was done. In retrospect, Raziel might have just been taking the long view - from the perspective of an immortal angel, dying after forty years would still seem like a death sentence. Especially to an angel as unpunctual and easily distracted as Raziel.


It's been way too long since the last Moore book I read, and hopefully I won't need to wait as long to read my next one. He may end up becoming my replacement Pratchett, releasing a great new book every year or two, plus a backlog that I haven't yet exhausted. I doubt that there will be too many other books like Lamb in his oeuvre - most secular creators get a maximum of one shot at a twist on the Bible - but it's an impressive accomplishment alongside his more purely lighthearted fare.