Thursday, January 15, 2009

Expand, Contract (1)

Anyone with a bizarre urge to follow my career might presumably like to know that I've recently signed a contract to provide 10,000 words of fiction for a new hard SF RPG on a fairly tight timescale, while working on a significant editing job for another RPG line (contract still awaited, strictly speaking, but I've started the work anyway). And I've got two other writing projects (or five, depending how you count them) in varying stages of completeness and contractedness, which may descend on me as more work at any time in the fairly near future.

All of which is good, I guess. But those who merely have to talk to me from time to time may recognise a tendency to distraction, pensiveness, and heaping curses on displacement activities.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hmm. I put Google Ads on here, and it decides that people reading this blog will be interested in student self-storage and a church in Norwich. What does it know about me that I don't?

(Of course, from now on it'll know that I've mentioned these things here. Oops.)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Recent Reading: Game Night

by Jonny Nexus

Game Night came out a year or so ago, and I've just got around to reading it. (So, as the saying goes, sue ... someone.) I'll assume that most people reading this already own a copy, or can forgive mild spoilers. It turns out to be, I guess, a B-minus or thereabouts.

The central conceit is pretty well known by now; the book tells a roleplaying campaign plot in the form of a piece of actual fiction, while swapping back and forth between that and the players responsible for these events. The extra twist in this case is that the players in this case are literally gods of the game world - but, being plausible polytheistic gods, they're still as idiotic and egomaniacal as any other RPG players, and indeed behave just like, well, roleplayers.

(Both the "players and PCs in parallel stories" and the "gods as roleplayers" ideas have been used before, of course, but I think that this novel is the first thing to make both central to a plot simultaneously.)

To get the obvious out of the way first - yes, this book is indeed sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, at least to a gamer reader. As anyone who's seen his various columns and online zines will know, Jonny Nexus can perfectly nail that ranty, exasperated, more-affectionate-than-is-deserved tone one gets from gamers trading tales of disastrous sessions, bad decisions, and poor rules design. If anyone ever took Cyborg Commando seriously, they'll surely see why they're in a minority after seeing Jonny's both-barrels treatment of the game and how badly he and his group played it. There's a lot of that in this book, and I giggled quite a lot. Non-gamers will probably stare in numbed incomprehension, although there's a bit of universal human failure involved - but anyway, it's not meant for them.

But this is one joke and one conceit, and they can't really support a whole novel, even a fairly short one. Nor does the conceit really hold together; these gods aren't in any way godlike - they're just roleplayers with funny furniture in their games room. The Dead Gentlemen managed the dual-narrative joke a bit better, twice, but they didn't load themselves down with the gods thing, and they only had to keep things going for the duration of a film; similar comment might apply to DM of the Rings and the sadly truncated Chainmail Bikini. I was still giggling late in the book, but then, the raw slapstick value of a the determined meathead munchkin-minimaxer is frustratingly eternal.

The meathead in this case is "the Warrior", playing "Draag", a single-minded anti-paladin, and I guess that one of the reasons why I couldn't find Game Night as funny as some of its fans clearly do is that I long since managed to get away from the sort of group where a bunch of "good" characters and their players will put up with his sort of crap indefinitely. But the Warrior and his playing piece, being table-hogs, dominate the book as they dominate the session (despite honourable attempts at subversion by the Jester and his stereotyped thief character). The joke still works, but it's a joke about mercifully distant memories for me, and there are no other strong jokes to hand to vary the flavour. I just ended up empathising with the GM'ing AllFather; sure, he's an insufficiently experienced railroader, but at least he's trying to do something, and he's putting in the work for the usual negligible thanks from his players.

Which may be why I found the rather truncated ending of the novel distinctly depressing as well as anticlimactic. It's clearly meant to show the AllFather recovering his spirit and even achieving a kind of GM heroism - I had a bad feeling that the author might even be aiming for some kind of significance - and I'm actually all in favour of the principle that real heroism sometimes means that you have to just walk away, but this makes for a sad commentary on roleplaying. It also leaves a bunch of loose plot threads, because that's what the AllFather has to do. And what does it say for a universe that the pantheon eventually has to fall apart like a bad roleplaying group?

Icons and Relics

The last day of the year, and back to London for some more exhibition-catching-up.

(And passing posters which reminded me that I'll almost certainly miss the V&A show about post-war design completely. Darn. But... Is that a topic I can overly regret missing?)

Anyway - morning was Darwin at the Natural History Museum. Yep, good stuff - starting with "one of the most important samples in the history of science" (not that I can tell the difference between two slightly dissimilar dead mockingbirds, but Darwin could, which is why he's probably the greatest naturalist in history - everything else ultimately came from that). There wasn't a lot here that any acceptably well-read person wouldn't already know, by the definition of "acceptably", but there was a lot to see nonetheless. The fully furnished study from Down House was a nice touch, though there wasn't a lot else to give a feel for the man's life, apart from a lot of letters. Just one warning; low light levels (no doubt for good reasons), and a lot of casing structural bars throwing shadows over the labels.

Byzantium at the Royal Academy was better presented from that point of view, despite having much stuff that requires at least as much gentle care. That's the big thing about this show; it's kind of necessary to visit, because it includes a variety of things that you'd otherwise have to travel several thousand miles across three or more continents (and a war zone or two) to see, sometimes in obscure museums, sometimes to ancient monasteries tucked away up biblical mountains. I gather much of this material may never travel again, and I think one room held about 10% of the world's supply of Byzantine micromosaics. Very once-in-a-lifetime.

So... Right. For a thousand years, there was a rich pocket civilisation in the eastern Mediterranean which drew on classical influences and in turn demonstrably influenced the Renaissance. But, honestly, it still feels as alien to me as medieval Japan or India - maybe more so. The exhibition does its best to show that not all icons are they same, that the classical influence was important, that some Byzantine art was secular; but in the end, there's only some much exquisitely carved ivory and lustrous gold leaf that a person surely needs.

Still, a good end to the year. (And the Royal Academy cafe does a mean cream scone, too.)