Monday, March 25, 2019

Legal Tender

I joined the crowd of RPG fans elated at the recent announcement in San Francisco about a new Vampire: The Masquerade game. I'd been loosely following the rumors swirling over the last couple of weeks, mostly driven by the ARG Tender app, and was curious about what was in store, but honestly was not expecting a proper sequel to Bloodlines. Very few games have made a sequel after 15+ years of silence. It's really thrilling to see this is actually happening: Bloodlines has been an underdog cult classic for so long, but continues to see good traction on the Steam and GoG charts, and has a vibrant and active modding community, so I think the corporate suits with money noticed that there's a legitimate opportunity here and funded it. And it surely doesn't hurt that the game is so beloved by so many.

I'm allowing myself be be somewhat optimistic... not exactly preorder-optimistic (though it is already up on the Steam storefront), but the early news seems very encouraging. Paradox has a terrific reputation: I've only played Europa Universalis, but I know Stellaris has been getting rave reviews, and Paradox has a great track record for supporting their games long into their lifespan. What's really selling me on Bloodlines 2 at the moment is the writing staff. Brian Mitsoda, the original lead writer, is back, which by itself would be hugely encouraging. He's joined by Cara Ellison, a smart and thoughtful critic and writer who most recently helped deliver Dishonored 2. And rounding out the trio is Chris Avellone, an RPG writing hall-of-famer.

I'm not super impressed by the one trailer we've seen so far; it's almost entirely combat-focused, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks fondly of the combat from VtMB1. But there's certainly room to improve the combat, so maybe that was the purpose; and action-heavy trailers definitely show better than long and nuanced dialogue trees. I am a little apprehensive that VtMB2 will be to VtMB1 as the new Deus Ex games are to the original: streamlined action/RPGs that honor the setting and tone but lose the vast, wide-open "anything goes" design that allows immense flexibility in solving problems, instead following a more slick and cinematic sneak-and-shoot approach.

We have about a year until the game comes out, and I'm confident we will learn a lot more about it by then!

The timing of the announcement is fortuitous in a couple of ways. A couple of weeks ago I downloaded and installed (but hadn't actually started playing) the Clan Quest Mod, a well-regarded fan-made expansion to the base game. My original (and so far only) playthrough was with the Unofficial Patch, and I'd initially been planning on doing a modded run with the Unofficial Patch Plus, but the CQM recently came out with a major new release and I wanted to check it out. It adds new quests for each of the seven clans, and the latest version also adds a new hub area, new voiced NPCs, the option to leave the Camarilla and join the Sabbat, and contains several new endings. It also functions as a mod-manager, pulling in an assortment of features from various other mods: most (not all) of the Patch Plus content, new weapons from the Arsenal Mod, gameplay changes from the Camarilla mod, thrall followers from the Companion Mod, and a few other odds and ends.

I finally fired it up after watching the trailer and getting all inspired. There are already some major differences from the character creation process: in addition to choosing a clan, you can also select a colorful background for your character, like Burnout, Dropped On Head As A Baby, Runaway, Completely Batshit, etc. These obviously impact your perception of your character, and also have mechanical impacts: for example, a Burnout is a mellow stoner who is more likely to resist Frenzy, but also has a -1 penalty to Wits. Completely Batshit is a unique background for Malkavians that gives makes their Dementation ability more potent, at the cost of more expensive Obfuscation powers.

I initially skipped the tutorial, then went back and did it anyways since it's been a while and I wanted to reacquaint myself with the controls. I've noticed a little bit of wonkiness so far: one door didn't want to open at first, and I occasionally have trouble where the third-person camera is perpendicular to my character's movement. Those have easily been fixed by exiting and restarting. I'll keep an eye open on those things going forward; mods can definitely make games less stable, but Bloodlines was a notoriously unstable game to begin with, so it's always difficult to establish the ultimate source of an error.

The other cool little bit of synchronicity was that my new LP from Chiasm arrived in the mail on the same day as the trailer. I first discovered Chiasm from her amazing track "Isolated," which plays inside the club The Asylum in the first game. Since then I've gone on to devour all of her other albums, and have really enjoyed hearing how her sound has evolved and grown over the years.

Her new album is Reset, re-establishing a naming theme from the predecessors Reform and Relapse. It's great! Several tracks on it have appeared an earlier LP, like "Mice on a Wheel," "World Left," and "Make Believe." "Make Believe" in particular was such a joy to hear for the first time, delightful and surprising. After several listens, I think my new favorite is "Locked In," a beautiful track that ambles through the depths before soaring into the sky. Given how many original contributors to VtMB are coming back for the sequel, I think it would be awesome to have one of Chiasm's newer tracks included in the new game as well. "Ella" or "Stumble" would work particularly well with the game's heavy industrial soundtrack.

And that gets me daydreaming about what a licensed VtMB soundtrack might look like in 2020. The Birthday Massacre seems like an obvious choice to get some great goth in there. Ayria would be a ton of fun, almost any of her tracks would work great for a new club; "Feed Her To The Wolves" and "Hunger" would be great thematic matches, while "Friends And Enemies" is particularly danceable even for Ayria. I:Scintilla would be an awesome addition, especially one of their heavier tracks like Melt. And of course hearing more from Lacuna Coil and other OG artists would be awesome.

So, yeah... lots of excitement over here, and I'm keeping my fingers tightly crossed that I'll be playing a fun game a year from now!

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Storm that Speaks

Despite my earlier predictions of a break, I dove (drove? chugged?) right back into Sunless Skies. This time I was pursuing one of the two "story-based" ambitions, The Martyr-King's Cup. (There is a good amount of story for Wealth, and a surprisingly large amount of story for Song of the Sky, but The Truth and TM-KC are primarily billed as story ambitions.) This is a somewhat unusual ambition in that it can be failed: if you lose at some specific challenges, the ambition terminates prematurely and you are forced to choose another. In some ways, this is worse than death: if you take too much damage or incur too much terror, you have the possibility of reloading or save-scumming, but if you fail in the ambition, there is no recovering.

Partly because of that, I opted to do TM-KC first, even though I suspect The Truth is intended as an easier/earlier challenge. Since I've already completed Wealth and SotS, I figured that if I did fail at TM-KC, I could fall back to The Truth and still get a good campaign out of it.

Fortunately, such scheming was unnecessary: I was able to successfully complete the ambition on my first try, woohoo! It was a very close call, though: at one point I faced a Veils check with only an 18% chance to pass, and was convinced that I was going to lose, only to be amazed when the RNG smiled on me for the first time in my life. Not wanting to push my luck, I passed on an 82% Iron chance that would have given me 8,000 sovereigns if I won, but ended the ambition if I lost.


Before getting into the content of this ambition, I should first correct the record from a few (mis-)statements I've made in previous posts:

I'd mentioned that I couldn't find the transit point to Eleutheria. That's because, despite me somehow being convinced that it was in Albion, it is, in fact, in The Reach. That did make sense in retrospect, and I now think of The Reach as being a kind of crossroads rather than the hinterlands. After all, you start your lineage outside the Blue Kingdom transit relay, and the Albion relay is there, so why not Eleutheria as well? It took me an embarassingly long time to figure this out; I finally realized my error after recruiting the Fortunate Navigator for, like, the third time, and noticed a small note at the bottom directing me to Hybras in order to locate the relay. Of course, that was the one area of the Reach that I had not thoroughly explored: in my game, Hybras is far from any sources of fuel or supplies, and I had no compelling reason to go there. Before now, at least.

Similarly, I had multiple Captains with the mistaken belief that Eagle's Empyrean was located in Albion, and that I was just terribly unlucky in never getting a Prospect for it. I have a better idea of where this idea came from: on my first visit to London, both the Fortunate Navigator and the Firebrand Conductor directed me to the Empyrean, so of course I assumed that it was in the region.

As a side note, the Empyrean just might be my favorite port in the game. Much of Eleutheria is ominous and forboding, and Pan is a rather unpleasant central hub (though more exciting than New Winchester), but the Empyrean is a (literal!) bright spot in that dark region. I absolutely love the music, too; that and the lore remind me of some of my favorite bits of Sunless Sea, and it's really nice to see that carried forward into this game.

I groused at length in my last post about my inability to secure a Captivating Treasure. After publishing that, I broke down and visited the wiki. I have a love/hate relationship with wikis and Failbetter games. I prefer going in blind and exploring stuff on my own, solving mysteries and being surprised. But many of their games have devastating punishments to seemingly inconsequential decisions, and after that happens a couple of times (losing 1CP of Dangerous while pursuing London's Sinew, anyone?), you get in the habit of obsessively checking the wiki before clicking on anything new. Sunless Skies is actually much, much better in this regard than in any of their previous games; I don't remember a scenario this time around where it felt like they were playing "Gotcha!" with me, which is great. (Well, I guess the stat losses in a few storylines do sting a little, but they're much less punishing than, say, losing your Scion or becoming an Admirer of Art.)

Anyways! Like I was saying, I looked it up and, sure enough, there are plenty of ways to get Captivating Treasures. The most easily repeatable way is to kill a Guest, who will often drop one as loot. I always "NOPE!"d out of there whenever I ran across a Guest, but now that I've built up my equipment, they're pretty easy and profitable to take down. I smacked myself in the head when I found an easy early-game way to get one: when turning the Spirifer over to the Presiding Deviless at Carillon, as for a substantial reward. That's the one outcome I haven't chosen in all my playthroughs, and it seems so obvious in retrospect that it would grant such a treasure.

Incidentally, the relative rarity, usefulness and value of each type of item is very inconsistent. Searing Enigmas are the most expensive Academic item, but I always end up with, like 8 or 10 of them by the end of the game without trying for any, and usually only find around 2 or so Condemned Experiments, which are only worth half as much. But on the Bohemian side, I get dozens of Moments of Inspiration, and few or no Captivating Treasures. Crimson Promises are valuable, but seem completely useless; I think they are options for some of the Fortune endings, and don't recall ever seeing another use for them. Searing Enigmas and Moments of Inspiration get tons of use, while Condemned Experiments and Captivating Treasures get very few. I dunno, it's strange.

One final correction/update for the record: as is my wont, I whined a bit about limited romance options. There are more than I'd initially thought; by my count three of the nine officers are romanceable. The ones who aren't romanceable include a gang of talking rats, a book, and your aunt, each of whom would be taboo for their own very distinct reason. What I really wanted to talk about, though, is that I hadn't initially grasped just how many of your officers are transgender or nonbinary. Failbetter consistently does a wonderful job at representation, and Skies is no exception; one of the coolest aspects is that there are multiple trans people in your crew, who have very distinct experiences. As a result they never feel like tokens or stand-ins, but as fully-realized people. I imagine that writing romances for these sorts of characters is potentially even more fraught than usual, and I'm impressed that they did include at least one, with the Felined Eccentric making a dramatic appearance in my most recent game.

On to the plot itself!


So, The Martyr-King's Cup is basically a Terry Gilliam movie in video-game form, and therefore it's one of my favorite things ever. It absolutely nails the wonderful slippery sense you get from his best movies, crossing between the mundane and the fantastical worlds, having a heightened sense of destiny and importance to what may actually be a delusion.

This builds and unfolds terrifically over time. You start out with the quest itself: investigating rumors of a chalice that grants immortality, finding a realm hidden beneath London, meeting the Unseen Queen and her retinue. As the story continues, you get a sense that something isn't quite right. Cleverly, this has a strong mechanical component: by passing a Mirrors check, you can discern that you are witnessing an illusion. You're standing in a decrepit sewer, not a subterranean castle. You're surrounded by rats, not retainers. The Queen is a filthy old portrait with its face slashed out, propped up on a broken chair, not a resplendent throne.

As you continue along the stages of this Arthurian quest, you can pivot back and forth between these perspectives. It's really fun! And useful! Like, you may be facing a vigorous knight wielding a broadsword in mortal combat; but by passing the Mirrors check, you realize that it's just a clerk waving a fountain pen at you, and that's much easier to beat up. On the other hand, you may be trying to cross a rickety narrow bridge strung between two towers and need to pass a daunting Iron check to avoid failing the quest... or you can slip into the moonlit world, convinced that you are a fearless knight, and confidently stride across without hesitation.

Like those movies I love, the sense of reality grows increasingly muddled. For quite a while there's a good working thesis that the mundane world is "real" and everything else you see is a hallucination or spell or other artifice; as time goes on, though, you start seeing snatches of those other visions even while you are supposedly in control of your senses. Scruffy robbers may briefly flicker into demonic forms, and that portrait is still speaking to you even when you see the rats. Over time, doubt begins to set in. Is it possible that the moonlit world is, in fact, the real one? After all, this is a video game I'm playing: why am I acting like the world with space choo-choo trains and exploding Correspondence sigils and sentient tea leaves is a "mundane" and "realistic" world? Isn't it at least possible that, within the world of the game, "reality" is a fantasy quest, and these visions of voyages between the stars are just dreams?

This wonderful duality carries through all the way to the very end. There is a huge and very satisfying lore dump near the end. Failbetter's style is typically to hint and allude to historical events and leave you to connect the dots yourself, but in this particular quest you are rewarded with a surprisingly detailed explanation of the Storm the Speaks, the death of the King of Hours, the Unseen Queen and various other major players and events in the game. At the very, very end, your available choices are shaped by how you have experienced the story thus far. Depending on how often you have experienced the moonlit world, versus how much you stay rooted in the world as it is, you can lock or unlock various choices. In my case, I was just barely enough on the fantastical side to embrace the world as it ought to be, and turn my sci-fi game into a fantasy game at the very end.

I don't think I've been writing much about my captains. On the whole I think the roguelike elements work far better in Skies than they did in Sea, but since I do restart captains semi-regularly I don't find myself getting as attached to them as I do to, say, my characters in RPGs. But I do really like the mechanical and flavor customization options, and that helps keep things feeling fresh. My main characters so far have been:
  • Intendant Lloyd, an Auditor with the Ministry of Public Decency who retired to a life of Wealth in London.
  • Lady Sybil, a Celestial Poet who wrote the Song of the Sky.
  • Professor Lydia, a Scholar of the Correspondence who went insane and found that Martyr-King's Cup.


All of my captains' builds have been fairly similar so far: I emphasize Hearts, with either Mirror or Iron close behind, then catch up the other once the other two are at 75. Veils is a persistent dump stat that maxes out around 20 or so at my max level. For a while I was feeling like the game incentivizes you to replicate builds like this, since you can inherit equipment that has a usage requirement, so if you want to outfit the gear you've already got you need to hit the same stat levels. But now that I've gone so far along on this lineage, I'm consistently passing down significant dowries on each new captain, so I think I can afford to, say, finally make a Veils-heavy guy and pick up the stuff I need. And finally check out how smuggling works!

That's still a ways off, though. In the meantime, here is my current end-game loadout.
  • Engine: Mandos, the Moloch-class liner. I love the built-in storage and many Bridge slots. My biggest gripe is how slowly it turns, which makes it poor in combat, but I don't fight much and can take decent punishment when I do.
  • Front weapon: The Wrath of Heaven, a powerful (Hearts-based!) missile that is very On Brand for my Scholar of the Correspondence. Does immense damage to enemies, but is also risky: it does burst damage, which makes it more harmful than good when enemies spawn at discoveries.
  • Rear weapon: Wit & Vinegar Zounderkite. A great mine. I think it has a wider trigger radius than the Sneeze-lurker. I rarely destroy enemies with this, but I'm pretty sure it staggers them, which is all I ask for when I'm trying to leave.
  • Plating: The Watchers in Azure, an Assaying device that also gives decent armor. This was the first level-75 upgrade I purchased, and maybe still my favorite, totally worth the early visit to the Blue Kingdom.
  • Scout: Cyclopean Owl. I feel really bad for players who didn't back the Kickstarter, I've tried out some of the other scouts and they all seem notably inferior.
  • Auxiliary 1: Osiris, a great Royal Society invention that gives Butchery and Hold. I love Hold! Having surplus Hold has been game-changing, and I squeeze it into every slot I can, as you will soon see.
  • Auxiliary 2: Canktankerous Boring Rig, another Royal Society invention, this one giving Mining and, yes, Hold. And even a little Hull as a bonus!
  • Bridge 1: Fitted Cupboards. Extra Hold at a reasonable Iron requirement.
  • Bridge 2: Fitted Cupboards. Keep 'em coming!
  • Bridge 3: In this screenshot it's an Adjustable Infirmary, for more Crew, but honestly I think I'm going to swap it out for more Fitted Cupboards on my next captain. Even without it, there's plenty of Crew space on the Moloch. There doesn't seem to be any benefit to keeping more than 12 crew, and even that is only occasionally useful, mostly in Pan; you'll "spend" some crew in The Reach while doing quests, but they're cheap and easy to replace and there's no need to stock up.
I haven't tried the other top-tier ships yet, so I may also try those on a future captain, but I have a really hard time imagining giving up all of my Hold. It's really changed the way I play the game. I just go wherever I want to go to pursue my Ambition stories, crew plotlines, etc. Along the way I buy up every Bargain I find. The next time I come to a central port I check my bank, deposit items if I'm running low on a particular stash, and otherwise liquidate everything I got. It isn't quite as profitable per-item as focusing on Prospects, but it makes the game feel a lot faster since you're just focusing on the main plot, and you can do enough volume to make up for lower margins.

Then again, if I do try a Veils captain in the future, I'll be focusing on trading of another kind. It'll be interesting to see how short-haul high-pressure opportunities compare to my current existence as a market maker.


That was a profoundly satisfying ending! I've been happy with all the conclusions so far, but this one is definitely my favorite. It makes me eager to check out The Truth and get another long-form plot set in this world. Again, I think I'll try and take a little break; there have been some very helpful bug-fix updates over recent weeks, and some allusions to upcoming content updates, so I might wait for a more substantial patch before my next thorough voyage. Then again, I wasn't expecting to dive in so soon on this ambition, and certainly do not regret having done so. We will see what the future holds! Hopefully more space trains!

Wednesday, March 06, 2019


I'm not that big of a biography guy. I've probably read fewer than a dozen in my entire life, vastly fewer than the number of, say, time-travel science-fiction stories or Wheel Of Time novels. But when I do pick up one, I usually end up enjoying it.

My most recent excursion was with Grant, the latest book from Ron Chernow. A disproportionate number of my biographies are of American presidents and statesmen, many from Chernow himself: I've previously devoured his Hamilton and Washington books. While reading Grant, though, I found myself most often thinking of a book from another author: David McCullough's Truman biography. Neither book even mentions the other person, but I thought the arcs of their lives were remarkably similar. Both led fairly mundane and unremarkable lives, then were propelled into greatness around their middle age and turned out to have enormous talents, unrevealed until a crisis thrust them into action.

Both men lived in the shadows of giants, with Truman succeeding FDR and Grant carrying out Lincoln's war and then winning the following election. Both are, perhaps in part because of their close association with superior men, somewhat underrated by history; however, both played crucial roles in cementing the achievements of their predecessors, turning goals into policy and controversial laws into settled reality. Interestingly, both men also incorporated racial justice into the military, with Grant raising the first black regiments and repeatedly proving their equal worth, and Truman integrating the armed forces across regiments.

Grant's life was very different from Hamilton's or Washington's, both of whom started achieving great things from very young ages. But one way that this book is similar to those is in Chernow's deep understanding of financial and economic matters. Chernow briefly but authoritatively covers a bunch of interesting topics over the course of the book. There's the transition from greenbacks to a gold standard, which was a foundation of Grant's Presidential policy as a "hard money" man. There's the "inflation bill" that was designed to combat a financial crisis; Chernow sketches out the advantages and disadvantages of the bill with aplomb, pointing out how modern economic theorists would consider the bill versus how Grant's contemporaries would. He spends a long time describing the Alabama claims, a long-forgotten but, in Chernow's view, critical disagreement between America and Britain over indirect support for the Confederacy. Chernow ultimately makes the point that settling these claims cleared the way for British capital to expand American infrastructure, just as railroads and factories were ascending, and thus directly led to the enormous expansion of the late nineteenth century and the rise of the United States as a global power.

Also like the earlier books, Chernow pays a lot of respectful attention to his subjects' wife and to specific valets, aides, and other people who have been invisible in many histories. He makes it clear how valuable these contributions were, with enormous respect paid in particular to John Rawlins, who was constantly by Grant's side throughout the Civil War and singlehandedly kept the general from descending into drunkenness over many, many, many long and stressful years.

The biography presents a sympathetic look at Grant's alcoholism. Chernow treats it as a disease Grant battles against and not as a moral weakness, reflecting a more modern understanding of alcoholism. Chernow spends a lot of time correcting the historical record on Grant's drinking, which gets a little tedious over time: it feels like he raises every single accusation of drinking in Grant's entire life, and each time thoroughly analyzes the account and offers judgment on the veracity. A few are likely true, particularly early accounts during his remote Army postings; some are likely exaggerated, making an incident that likely occurred seem to have more dire consequences than it probably did; and many, especially from later in life, were almost certainly fabricated. Chernow believes that Grant had a very specific pattern to his drinking: he would imbibe when he was traveling away from home, without his wife Julia or trusted friends looking over him. Only a few sips would be required for him to be strongly affected. When he got drunk, he would slur his speech, revert to childlike behavior, and act silly. You get the idea very early on, and I'm not sure if it needed quite as much repetition throughout the book.

Based on my own prior knowledge of Grant, I suspect the two things most casual history readers know about Grant are "He was a talented drunk general" and "He was a mediocre corrupt President". Roughly the first 2/3 of the book are addressing the first, and the last 1/3 addresses the second. The military sections are really thrilling; for some reason, I've tended to think of the Civil War as kind of boring, but accounts like the Vicksburg campaign are really thrilling and fantastically well-told. It's also very cool from a personal standpoint to see Grant's redemption from earlier failures: after being drummed out of the military for drinking, failing at farming, failing at wood-selling, and finally being forced to accept the charity of a low-status clerking job from his brother, the onset of the Civil War suddenly pulls this sad shell of a man into a milieu where he personally thrives, and also provides so much for his country, steadily winning the respect and love of Abraham Lincoln and the entire nation.

I'd expected a come-down in the long stretch of the book after Appomattox, as the glories of the war fade and the hard job of governing sets in. The book looks a lot at the scandals and corruption that swirl around Grant after he becomes the most powerful man in the country. Chernow is at pains to point out that Grant himself was unaware of these scandals before they erupted, and did not personally profit from them. On the other hand, though, Grant did openly and publicly benefit from the largesse of plutocrats who gave him houses and money, ostensibly for his service during the war. Grant didn't see anything wrong with accepting these gifts, viewing them as reasonable compensation for the sacrifices he'd made; nor does he have qualms later about implementing policies friendly to the same plutocrats who enriched him. Chernow presents this as evidence of Grant's naivete, but I imagine another author could make those same actions seem more sinister.

The book as a whole takes a similarly sympathetic look at Grant, both the man and his actions. You can tell that Chernow likes and admires him, and wants to raise him from the "mediocre president" label that has hung over him for 150 years. Chernow doesn't really present himself as unbiased, but I like his biases: Chernow and Grant are aligned on the morality of freeing African-Americans from slavery, recognizing and protecting their rights, and bringing them into American society as full citizens. Chernow sees the good Grant accomplished as so great that he should be forgiven for the mistakes he made, which impacted far fewer people for far less time.

Again, I've tended to view the Civil War era as relatively boring, and reading through this account in depth, I was kind of amazed at how contingent the legacy of the war was. I've tended to think of the Civil War as leading directly to suffrage, but it didn't: even after the Union victory, many northern Republican politicians were opposed to extending the vote to former slaves. There was an interesting period, lasting for years, during which the South, under what was effectively a military dictatorship, allowed black people to vote, while the North did not. I usually think of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments as being one package deal, but they weren't: each were fought for separately, required enormous political capital, and made powerful electoral enemies. Reading this account, it seems very likely that without Grant leading the way, the 15th amendment might not have passed, and the fruits of the war would have been much murkier.

Of course, though, history doesn't always progress forward, and it is very depressing to see how much is given back after the war. There's a brief period where black Republicans vote in large numbers across the South and we see representation, but that quickly gives way to domestic terrorism in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, Rifle Clubs, and White Leagues. These groups mercilessly torture and kill blacks across the south, not so much out of specific hatred as to enact a political outcome: make these people so frightened that they will not dare show their faces and vote. Those white-power groups carried out stunning coups, whether forcibly seizing statehouses or cold-bloodedly executing elected black sheriffs or flagrantly destroying ballot boxes from majority-black counties. Grant's great achievement was fighting back against this surge, using the newly-formed Department of Justice to enforce federal law over terrorism within the states, deploying the military to defend New Orleans and other cities against insurrections, and maintaining a visible presence of troops to ensure safe access to the polls. But there's an increasing weariness on the part of northern white Republicans to continue enforcing Reconstruction, and Grant is increasingly abandoned by much of his party. Everyone wants to return to normalcy and let the southern states govern themselves, but Grant is one of the few who is unwilling to do that if it means African-American effectively losing the franchise. While he was famously low-key and reserved, you can see his fury and despair at what's happening: what was the point of the years of war, hundreds of thousands of men slaughtered, vast wealth lost, suffering throughout the nation, if at the end of it all Americans are placed back into bondage under another form?

It's even sadder to see how this is all unwound further after Grant's presidency, with subsequent administrations withdrawing from Reconstruction, and it's absolutely infuriating to see the Supreme Court effectively strike down the 15th amendment. Again, when something so hard-fought-for is taken away, the blow is especially strong. I found myself thinking a lot about the recent repeal of the Voting Rights Act and the immediate push for disenfranchisement of African-Americans across the South, with many of the same states like South Carolina leading the charge for the very same reasons: the old establishment is wary of a large black population, and will use whatever tools it can acquire to keep them from the ballot box and keep their own power intact. 150 years later, things are definitely better, but they are certainly not solved, and I am reminded once again that we do not automatically progress towards greater justice.

The arguments about states' rights are, of course, eternal in the United States, and as those played out here I was reminded once again of a theme from Chernow's Washington biography. When I was younger, I tended to think of government and liberty as being opposed to one another: a stronger government implying fewer personal freedoms and vice versa. But episodes like Washington's Newport address paint a much more nuanced and interesting picture. A strong federal government helps protect individual rights against the tyranny of the majority. In an overwhelmingly white and Christian nation, minority communities and individuals can be shielded from local prejudices and violence by a disinterested and powerful federal force. Grant was very much of this same line of thought: where others saw him using federal power to bully weaker states, he saw himself as protecting the far weaker people who those same states were abusing. One of the joys of this book is seeing Grant's gradually dawning statesmanlike mind, as he transforms from a nonpolitical military professional into an empathetic and passionate promoter of racial justice and equality. It's a powerful legacy; in spite of all the disappointing setbacks and reversals after Reconstruction, we're still in a better place now than we would have been without him.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Seeking the Garden

While I'm writing about Failbetter: Hot on the heels of completing the Song of the Sky in Sunless Skies, I finally achieved the last major milestone I've been tracking in Fallen London. I am now the proud owner of a Firkin of Hesperidean Cider!

The game has grown significantly since I first started playing it about seven years ago, but Cider has been an end-game goal from the very beginning. The idea of ever obtaining it seemed ludicrous in those early days. The most expensive item in the Echo Bazaar, it cost a whopping 160,000 echoes, implying years of nonstop cash-grinding. It was always technically achievable - unlike many other elements of the game it was never locked behind content gates - which just made it the more tempting.

The first people to acquire it were folks who handed over real-world cash money; someone actually paid $500 American dollars as a special backer reward for the Silver Tree kickstarter to pick it up. (And, having played the Silver Tree and learning the Princess's story, I see that that's actually a very lore-appropriate place to distribute it.) I think that since then it may have been auctioned off once or twice for charity drives. More recently, people finally earned it through legitimate in-game actions; it has become less exclusive as the game has grown older and the available money grinds have gradually grown infinitesimally higher. (When I first started the most rewarding grind was the Affair of the Box at 1.64 echoes per action; in recent months, end-game players have been flocking to the Tomb of the Silken Thread, which over the long run may earn something closer to 2.24 echoes per action.)

So, what exactly does the Cider do? That leads to some lore:


The Cider makes you immortal. Both in the lore and mechanically within the game.

Story-wise, certain fruit elixirs can grant eternal life to those who imbibe. This is obviously evocative of the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, but the presentation in the game isn't specifically derivative of that. Interestingly, it seems that several different people have developed their own recipes over the years. The Capering Relicker came up with the original formula, drawing on Mesopotamian bounty. Millennia later, the Gracious Widow crafted her own version, a form of peach brandy with similar effects, enabling her to endure through the Khanate's exodus.

Obviously, immortality is very tempting to any person at any time. It holds a slightly different appeal to those in the Neath. Shielded from the Sun's light and the Judgement's laws, those who live below the surface are effectively immortal already: they can survive stabbings and shootings and drownings and all sorts of deaths, picking their bodies back up and continuing on their way. But after experiencing such a death, they can never again return to the surface. The first rays of the Sun's light will re-establish the Law, and their belated death will catch up to them.

My own character, Seberin Cirion, has always been a reluctant citizen of the Neath. There are marvels to see there, access to hidden wisdom that will fuel his goals. But he longs to feel the sunlight on his face again, to sit beneath the open sky, to lay on grass and see flowering plants once more. Because of this, during my seven-years stay in the Neath I've been very careful to avoid ever dying: I haven't paid any visits to the Slow Boat, and have relied on my Slavering Dream-Hound and other aids to keep my wounds in check.

That said: now that I hold Cider, I can finally cross that final frontier without fear. I can explore that undiscovered country while retaining the ability to return to the surface. Whether it is Paris in 1906 or some other excursion at some other date, I can confidently leave the Neath once I have claimed what I need from it.

Mechanically, the Cider is more complex and interesting than I would have imagined. I had vaguely thought that it might, like, give -8 Wounds when equipped, or let you drop wounds. It does the latter, and more, too. You can drink at any time by selecting it from your inventory. Doing so removes all of your Wounds in a single action... and also gives you 10 levels of a new quality, "A Taste of the Garden". Having these levels makes you eligible to draw new Dream opportunity cards. They are mechanically different from any other cards that I have seen: there is no "Perhaps Not" option to back out after clicking one. They behave like a mix between the red-bordered autofire dream cards and standard opportunity cards.

So far, all of the cards I've seen decrease "A Taste of the Garden" by 1, raise Nightmares by 1, and provide an Extraordinary Implication, worth 250 pence. I'm a bit surprised to see that owning Cider is itself profitable... but I guess that's how capitalism works! More seriously, this does lead to some genuinely interesting considerations for gameplay. You can drop Wounds on demand, but will effectively gain 10cp of Nightmares by doing so. You don't need to take those all at once, and they are fairly profitable to have, but you'll either need to spend future actions to manage them (and thus reduce the profitability of playing those cards), or else they effectively become menace cards.

So, yeah! I'm very pleased to have it. I haven't written much about Fallen London here for years; like many veteran players, I go through long stretches without playing, then dive back in for a seasonal festival or when some new content has been released. As I said before, Cider is the last milestone I'm currently really tracking. Here's a quick list of the various accomplishments Seberin Cirion has accomplished in recent years, most of which were added to the game long after Cider:
  • I am a Paramount Presence, fully overcapping all of my primary stats and achieving several distinctive goals.
  • I have acquired all the best-in-slot gear (with the sole exception of the best Shadowy Boots, which I can finally claim in safety from the Slow Boat now that I have the Cider).
  • I am the Poet Laureate of London.
  • I am the Courier's Footprint, the foremost authority on the Correspondence. (I believe I was also the first person to raise Scholar of the Correspondence to level 20.)
  • I have a Sealed Copy of the Crimson Book, which is clearly of enormous interest to the Bazaar.
  • I hold all of the rare Relicker items. (As far as I know, I was the first person to acquire a Rumourmonger's Network.)
  • I've raised all of my Renown as high as I want it to be. (40 for most factions, up to 50 for a few.)
  • I have 0 Renown: Hell. Especially proud of that one!
  • I am a Correspondent.
I think the only major goals left, which I don't plan to pursue, are:
  • Acquiring a Heptagoat.
  • Seeking Mr. Eaten's Name.
  • ... (I was going to say Knife-and-Candle, but I'm pretty sure that's defunct.)

So, yeah! I think I'll park my character for a while - it isn't the first time, and won't be the last. There are a few exciting things on the horizon, like the completion of the Ambitions and the fourth tier of Professions, which I'm looking forward to playing once they're available. But most of the updates in recent years have been complete surprises, whether unexpected destinations across the Zee or new archaeological sites to dig up or new works of literature to create. It's been really fun to see Failbetter expand into other regions and other modes of play in recent years, and it's also fun to still kind of have a home in Fallen London to which I can return now and then and enjoy the life I've built there.

Friday, March 01, 2019

No Stars, No Curators

It's been about two weeks since my first victory in Sunless Skies! At first I thought I would be writing this follow-up post very soon, as it seemed like I might achieve my second victory within a couple of days. But it ended up being a classic 80/20 situation, or here maybe closer to 95/5: That last little bit proved excruciatingly difficult to wrap up. That took the wind out of my sails a little (or perhaps the coal out of my boiler?); but for better or worse, I've played an enormous quantity of the game as I stretched towards the finish line, and have a better understanding than before of what makes it tick.

Before delving into my experience writing the Song of the Sky, here are some of the mildly exploity things I've noticed in the game. I'm not sure if they're considered cheating or not, but they may be worth considering if you're facing frustrations.

Most UI buttons are grayed out while you are in a complex storylet, so you cannot interact with your Hold or Officers or anything. However, if you already have one of those panes open before beginning a storylet, it remains accessible. This means that, for example, you can reassign Officers mid-story in order to raise your stats for a particular challenge. This won't take effect if you are already at the challenge point, but often you can see the odds, change your Officers, choose a branch that loops around, then pick the challenge you want with your better stats.

In Sunless Sea, enemies would drop aggro when you approached a port and would stop chasing you. Not so in Skies! They will gleefully follow you as you dock and continue firing weapons at you all the while. You won't actually take damage while in dock, but your hull will get hammered as soon as you leave. Fortunately, in Skies all enemies despawn when exiting the game, and the game autosaves while you are in the station. So: just dock, return to the main menu, then Continue. This incurs a brief loading time, and clears away those pesky enemies. This isn't often necessary, but I made extensive use of this in the Blue Kingdom.

The map is randomly generated in each game. I'd assumed that it was generated at the start of a new game. Not so! Undiscovered locations are reassigned each time you load a game, and only lock into place when you explore them for the first time. This is most obvious when you read the directions on a Prospect for a station you haven't yet discovered. For example, it may say that Lustrum is a far way to the north-northwest. After you exit and restart the game, it may say that Lustrum is a far way to the east-northeast. And, in that game, sailing east-northeast will, in fact, uncover Lustrum. There isn't much you can do with this on an initial Lineage, but I think it could be especially helpful on subsequent Lineages since you can coerce the map you want. For example, you may want to place Port Prosper near Hybras to speed up journeys between Albion and Eleutheria; or you may want to place Titania near Port Prosper if you're planning to do a lot of smuggling; or you may want to evenly space out the Stations selling both Fuel and Supplies to always have one at a reasonable distance from any point.


So: After becoming wealthy in the, er, Wealth ambition, I decided to try and become famous in the Song of the Sky. I believe this is a parallel to the Zong of the Zee ambition from Sunless Sea, which I don't think I ever did.

For the most part, I really loved the Song ambition. Mechanically, it is kind of inverted from Wealth. With Wealth, you had very specific early goals along the way (raise X Sovereigns, then raise Y Sovereigns), culminating with a wide array of possible goals for the very last step (one might focus on Searing Enigmas and Affiliation: Academe while another focused on Crimson Promises and Affiliation: Villainy). The Song ambition has a really nice cadence to it, alternating between possession-acquisition stages (acquire Visions of the Heaven and Savage Secrets, then a Cryptic Benefactor and a Moment of Inspiration, for example) and achievement stages. Those achievements were my favorite parts. Basically, you would need to do something noteworthy, and then write about that. You can see the whole list of possible options, which I think has over a dozen possibilities on it. Some of these are really intriguing, like having all three gods angry with you at once, or being subject to all four Well-rites. A lot of them were things that I had done on previous captains, which helped make this a relative breeze: for example, I could see that there was an option for sparking the revolutionary uprising in Brabazon, so I made sure to complete that storyline while I was in the area so it would be available for a future canto.

Like I noted up top, this part of the game cruised right along. I'd retained a good number of Possessions from my previous run, and could plan out what accomplishments to accomplish, so within a couple of real-world days I was the toast of the literary establishment, had made my publisher into a very wealthy man, and had decamped from New Winchester to London to achieve still greater heights. And then... it all came skidding to a halt. The freedom of advancement in the early stages ends with a daunting list of ingredients for the seventh and final canto. Specifically, a single item on that list: a Captivating Treasure. By that point I had been playing Sunless Skies for three weeks and hadn't seen a single Captivating Treasure. "Oh," I thought, "I'll just keep on doing stuff, I'm bound to stumble across one sooner or later."


In the two weeks since I set my goal, I've:
  • Fully upgraded every Officer
  • Discovered every Station and Platform
  • Completed dozens of long-running storylines, requiring crisscrossing and backtracking across all four regions
And still I haven't found a single "real" Captivating Treasure.  This kind of soured my experience a bit, since I was doing all this cool stuff for the first time in the game, but instead of going "Oh, this is neat!" I was going "You have got to be kidding me! I still don't have a Captivating Treasure?! After ALL THAT?!?!"

In the end, I gave up and chose the only option in the game I've seen to this day. It requires allying with the Revolutionaries in Elutheria, which was very out of character for this character, but I was so desperate to just finish: my quest log was almost empty, I'd bought almost all upgrades I wanted (including the top-tier train and many Level 75 modules), and was worried that I wouldn't have anything new to do for any future Ambitions. (That said: I did make sure to grab multiple Captivating Treasures once I decided to take that option, just so future Captains wouldn't need to endure that agony again.)

So, yeah! I was planning to press ahead with one of the two more story-oriented Ambitions next, but after the fruitless grinding of the last two weeks I think I'm going to take a break from the skies for a little while. When I do pick it back up again, I'll be happily starting from a very strong position with a large bank account, ample experience, an infernally powerful engine and a detailed mental map of how to navigate all of the various regions.

On to some more general reactions:

I spent an insane amount of time in Eleutheria for this game. Some random thoughts:
  • It is probably the coolest-looking region of the four. All four look great! But it probably looks the best, especially the mirrors-and-fire islands.
  • Scorn-Flukes are very rare, at least they were in my game. I'd read online about something cool you can do after defeating one, but went for more than a week of real-world time (over a year (!) of in-game time) flying around Eleutheria without ever encountering any. After asking for help online, someone advised me to focus on Langley House, which eventually proved fruitful for me.
  • This is the one part of the game that felt too text-heavy to me, at least with segments like Mignight's Favour in Achlys and the Well of Wonders. The writing is good, but it goes on for what feels like a very long time: lots of clicking and reading, some choices but no action. It made me retroactively grateful for how most of the content in the game is bite-sized, with voyages or battles or encounters breaking up the narrative. (But I'm sure there are people who feel the opposite, and loved reading through an entire story start-to-finish in a single sitting.)
  • The atmosphere is incredibly well-done. Not just the visuals, which are great, but the scene-setting in each station is very distinctive and almost viscerally powerful: whether the subdued wistful longing of the House of Rods and Chains or the body-horror tortures of Piranesi or the uncannily bright and bustling Langley House or the quiet and mysterious Caduceus... maybe even more so than the already-great stations elsewhere, the ones in Eleutheria really stood out to me.

Hm... maybe I'll write a bit about my current understanding of the backstory. I'm writing this off the top of my head as a long-time but relatively casual player of Fallen London and Sunless Sea, without consulting any online sources, so I've likely messed up a lot of this, but it's the framework currently in my head at this point of the game.


As we all know, stars are Judgments, and they make the law wherever their light shines. For many years London dwelt in the Neath and was free of the Sun's laws. While the Traitor Empress Victoria brooded on her family's fortunes, a rogue faction of her Admiralty started work on an ambitious project to construct their own artificial sun: the Dawn Machine, which would impose their own laws upon the Neath. Meanwhile, certain revolutionaries aimed for a grander strike: abolishing all natural law throughout the universe by destroying the stars.

Far to the NORTH of London lay Avid Horizon, a kind of wormhole. For years madmen from London, driven by dreams of Mr. Eaten, had flocked towards this gate. More recently, a Merchant Venturer from London recruited a captain of the Unterzee to embark on an expedition there. They arrived at Avid Horizon and opened the gate, finding their way into the heavens. (Which, remember, is a 19th-century envisioning of space: a strange place, but not a void.)

London allied with the Khanate, another powerful empire in the Neath, and together streamlined the technology to bring people through the Horizon and into a new star system, which they named Albion. Albion contained many wonders, including Hours: time frozen into minerals. Incorporating this into new technology, the newly spacefaring British Empire was able to, for example, create faster-than-light travel (by directly manipulating time). Much of this pioneering work was done by the team of Singh and Jenkins, who at considerable risk and effort discovered how to create Relays, which could connect distant star systems.

 A newly reinvigorated Empress Victoria led her people into Albion. She and the revolutionaries shared a common enemy: the Sun of Albion. With the revolutionaries' well-known aptitude for constructing explosives, they jointly developed an Unclear Bomb, a star-killing weapon. Albion's Sun was slain... but perhaps not by that bomb. Victoria had fashioned the Throne of Hours: with so many mined Hours, she can effectively turn back time after any setback, ensuring she always makes the best decision in any situation.

With Albion's Sun dead, the Admiralty's long-planned project came to fruition: the Clockwork Sun, building on the prototype of the Dawn Machine, now oversaw the law in Albion. It is a powerful tool, but still flawed: the Clockwork Sun is already decaying as entropy sets in. Still, by this point Victoria's ambitions and influence had vastly increased: no longer content with ruling a single star system, she began establishing colonies, outposts and embassies elsewhere. Now more a god than a human, she has largely transcended the petty concerns of her subjects and is dealing with powers higher up the Great Chain.

OK... I think those are the most immediately relevant parts of the timeline linking FL/SuSe to SuSk. There's a lot of other cool deep lore, like the Halved of Eleutheria and the Devils and all sorts of stuff... but those are more about existing, ancient stories into which humanity is now wandering, I may or may not write about those later.


This game has been occupying a lot of my mind lately! I'm going to take a little break to decompress and focus on some other stuff, but I'm sure I'll be back before much longer to uncover the mysteries of the other ambitions.