Friday, 15 November 2019

Review: The Outer Worlds (PS4)


I finished my first playthrough of this game a few days ago, playing as a high intellect sniper type of character.

I’ve got to say my expectations were pretty high, and they were met. This is a great sci-fi game, with a range of options in main and side-quests, as well as varying combat playstyles and a lot of freedom (you can kill a lot of characters, maybe everyone, whereas other games in this genre might make them ‘essential’).

Downsides: it is shorter than some comparable games. However, it still clocks in at something like 30-40 hours, and Obsidian were totally up front about this. They never claimed it was a 200 hour game. Textures on an old, fat PS4 can take a second or two to show up. And if you do the vast majority of quests, as I did, you’ll end up feeling overpowered relatively quickly (which suited me as I have the combat skills of tortoise stuck in a bucket).

Dialogue is an area where the excellent character creator (in terms of setting up strengths and weaknesses) really shines. You get special dialogue options for lots of skills, such as Engineer prowess, and the Dumb option if you make your character a little bit dim.

In combat you can go for a melee approach, sniping, guns blazing, and I’d guess full stealth would work too (I have zero experience of the latter, the others all work fine). Be sure to get the tinkering skill (Engineer 20, I think) to improve your weapons/armour, as this’ll help out quite a bit. Enemies come in the form of automechanicals, mischievous people, and rabid creatures (alien apes, dogs, and insects). The variety could be a little better but it works fine.

The world-building is another especial strength, creating a plausible corporate dystopia in which perfectly reasonable people are constrained by the bounds of a hyper-capitalist society. It does a great job of making the inhabitants of the Halcyon system credible, rather than 2D cardboard cut-outs, and nowhere does this work better than with the character of Parvati, who was my ever-present companion in the first campaign.

Genuine moral (and personal) dilemmas are presented, with legitimate choices either way, and often scope to be pretty evil if you want to be (not that I was).

During my first run I didn’t encounter a single serious bug, no hangs, freezes, crashes, or offers to pay $100 a year for a game I’d already bought.

Although not the longest RPG in the world the decisions with consequences plus varying play styles in combat and dialogue means it’s easy to envisage multiple playthroughs (I’ve just started a ‘dumb’ run).

The Outer Worlds a very good game.

Thaddeus

Saturday, 26 October 2019

The Outer Worlds – Early Thoughts (PS4)


Yes, yes, pre-ordering games is generally a bad thing. But this game, by Obsidian (makers of Fallout New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity) looked very good indeed. And, so far, I’m not regretting the decision at all.

At the time of writing I’ve played about six or seven hours or so, and have left the starting area.

The Outer Worlds is set in a new alternate reality future, in a distant star system which is run by corporations in a rather dystopian way. You play a chap or lady thawed out from a ship where hundreds of people ended up as popsicles rather than colonists.

There’s a lot I like about the game, and a few minor gripes, so I’ll outline the downsides first. The subtitles are too small. Doesn’t affect me personally but if you rely on them I can see that being frustrating. Textures take a little while to load in. It does make the fat PS4 scream a bit, although this is a console rather than game problem, and the inventory menu helps it to calm down.

The plus side is that all the big stuff, so far, is good. Sometimes very good. The setting, the story, the dialogue, all are great. The combat is fine (this isn’t my area, really, but it’s fine on the standard difficulty setting). The cold, bureaucratic nature of a corporate dystopia contrasts brilliantly with the exotic and vibrant alien worlds. When you leave the office of the first bigwig you meet, having been invited to do him a dubious favour, you can look up and see the dazzling sky of another world.

The whole colony is run by a few major companies (with only one space station excepted), where people are seen as biological components in a corporate machine. But despite this, the members of corporations often come across sympathetically, as decent people stuck in a difficult place (not unlike the real world, where perfectly good people can get lumbered with less than lovely work). This adds depth and plausibility to the world, and is enhanced by the humour. This brings another dose of realism, without being over-egged.

I’ve kept stuff story-light because I don’t want to spoil anything, so all I’ll say is that the early stages are promising. Side quests and main story missions often have varying potential outcomes, and you can screw up tasks entirely (I believe you can kill anyone, but I’m playing as a nice ex-elevator technician so I haven’t tested it myself). The companions seem to be quite diverse in their personality (when it comes to combat you can mould them as you wish, so only personality matters when picking who to take).

In short, it’s really rather good.

Thaddeus

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Sir Edric and the Corpse Lord – out 22 October


Yes, kids, two books in one year. Veering dangerously close to looking productive (as an aside, things will be quieter afterwards).

In the latest volume of the eponymous knight’s biography, Sir Edric Greenlock, the Hero of Hornska, takes advantage of opportunity to leave the city and avoid getting murdered for a recent bout of adultery. Aided by his trusty manservant Dog and annoyed by squabbling mages Drusilla and Cecil, Sir Edric heads south to Lake Longsoul. Caught between the undying lord of countless walking corpses and the vengeful attention of an elven prince, Sir Edric will need all his cunning just to survive. And if he fails, the whole world could turn to a twilight of undead…

So, it’s the usual fun and games, but with added dialogue from William Shakespeare, and some old faces making appearances too.

I’ve tried something a bit different with the Smashwords page, where readers can pay what they like. Hoping it encourage more downloads, and if people like that, they have other books to pick up too.

In the long term one thing I’m toying with is a hardback anthology of all Sir Edric’s nonsense, with some pencil sketches (either by proper artists or perhaps drawn by me if I can get to a sufficient level). But that’s very much off in the future, if it happens at all.

For now, buy Sir Edric and the Corpse Lord. The Dread Nine-Horned Goat of Pung-Fek commands it.

Linkery:


Thaddeus

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Review: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, by Michael Psellus


This book, also known by the more pleasing title of The Chronographia, charts the history of the Eastern Roman Empire (or, more accurately, its leaders) from the formidable Basil II to the rather less impressive Michael VII.

The edition I read was from Penguin, with translation and introduction by ERA Sewter.

As an aside, the end dovetails almost perfectly with the start of Anna Komnene’s The Alexiad.

I found this to be an engaging read, with Psellus’ little anecdotes helping to bring the distant past alive. Psellus had significant roles in government with many of the emperors of whom he writes, and this does colour his judgement (he apologises repeatedly for writing honestly and pointing out flaws with Constantine IX, to whom about a third or a quarter of the book is dedicated).

The emperors, and a few empresses, are mostly described as flawed creatures, particularly those who squandered the vast treasure amassed by Basil II. Aided by an engaging and easy-to-read translation, Psellus’ thoughts help to paint a picture of the virtues and vices of Byzantium’s rulers. There’s very much a focus on biography rather than wider military or political history. It’s somewhat akin to Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars.

Occasionally Psellus meanders into self-regarding waffle (during the reign of Constantine IX, for example) wittering about what he’s said and is going to say, slightly repetitively.

The footnotes (and huzzah for those over endnotes) are extremely useful as they point out when Psellus might have a particular bias (although this can be obvious at times) and when he’s plain wrong. Not overused, they provide very helpful context for the reader.

The book ends suddenly. Not mid-sentence, but it’s abrupt, and Psellus’ fate and what prevented him finishing it is uncertain.

Overall, an interesting and engaging book about the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire from the late 10th to late 11th centuries.

Thaddeus

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Ramble: The Great Immersion Overhaul (Skyrim mod, PS4)


It’s been a while since I tried out mods on Skyrim, but one I already had, but hadn’t tried, was The Great Immersion Overhaul (TGIO). In common with many other PS4 mods, it’s probably lacking things available on Xbox and PC due to the platform’s restrictions. But is it worth having? What’s it like?

Quick Summary

TGIO alters a lot of things substantially. Almost all skills are 1 to start with (I think my Khajiit had two or three that were marginally higher). Races have their own particular pros and cons (Khajiit can use Silent Paws to be extra sneaky). The skill trees for the warrior and rogue sections have been completely rejigged. Combat is radically different, more damage is both received and given, and you can’t alter direction when you’re attacking, making it easier to dodge. The weight of items has been changed and carrying capacity nerfed so unless you fluke a lot of hauling-enchanted gear (I did) it’s really difficult deciding what to take. Similarly, the economy has been drastically altered, with higher prices for most goods and the limiting factor instead being the weight. Last but not least, fast travel is disabled.

It’s worth noting that the mod does not affect DLC. The only time this appeared to be a problem for me is when I had to steal X amount of stuff from Solstheim, but even though I was sure I achieved it (I nicked an emerald, amongst other things) it didn’t register as completed.

That’s a lot of stuff to consider. I should stress I’ve played for probably a few dozen hours at this point, with a thieving, bloodthirsty, stealthy chap called Murdercat. At the time of writing I’ve completed the first quest or two in the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves Guild lines, and just received the final part of the Fus Ro Dah shout. The weapons I’m using are the bow and the dagger.


Combat

Often with stealth builds I don’t have a companion. In TGIO, I do. Not only does this slightly ease the carry weight situation, companions are super valuable in combat, taking the pressure off when facing multiple opponents and pinning enemies down when you’re just facing one (especially handy for an archer/stealthy stabber build). On the downside, combat now rewards skill (I have the combat prowess of a drunk trapped in a cat flap). Because you can’t shift direction when attacking, side-stepping is eminently possible. The swifter dagger attack means you can get in, attack, and get out whilst Brainless McMuscleboy is still swinging his Compensatingforsomething Megahammer. I had a great run for about eight stabs against one guy then buggered it up at the end and had my head smashed in. It’s a good system, provided you have more martial instinct than a baked potato.

I didn’t play much with magic, but a few scrolls proved how useful conjuration in particular could be. A storm atronach’s ranged damage was very handy when I was in a tight spot.


Crime and Stealth

Murdercat, as you might guess, is not a law-abiding citizen. Indeed, his happiest moment was randomly stealing from a house in Whiterun and discovering Nazeem. Murdercat: “Nazeem was asleep when I arrived. When I left, he was dead.” Bounties are rejigged, with murder now carrying a fine of 10,000 gold. That’s a lot. But it does fit the crime.

Stealth has been reworked to operate more along line of sight. Also, if you alert someone a little so they start searching, they won’t just stop six seconds later. This adds to realism, especially when you’ve just shot them in the chest with an arrow (ahem). It’s very easy, and satisfying, to sneak up behind someone and slit their throat, although I had a little Twitter chat with the mod creator and he mentioned he was going to make that a bit more difficult (it probably is overpowered, but I like it).

Backstabbing bonuses come from the weapons trees, not from sneak, I believe. It’ll take a while to earn them (I have one for daggers and none for bows, after 20-30 hours, probably, of playing). However, because damage is generally increased, backstabbing is powerful. With Mehrunes’ Razor and Dark Brotherhood gauntlets, I’m able to one-shot a snow bear by backstabbing.


Crafting

Crafting in the vanilla game is easy. And overpowered. It’s much trickier with TGIO (tip: get yourself a blacksmith’s hammer. You should be able to buy one from Lucius in Riverwood). Weight of materials is one thing (ingots weigh about 5 each and leather 4), and you won’t be able to smith most things off the bat. If you want to power level, the easiest way is probably to make arrows. As I’m playing an archer (mostly) that dovetailed nicely.

Side note: the armour/weapons stats have been rejigged to make more sense (Orcish gear is pretty good now).

Alchemy ingredients weigh more. Some, like antlers, weigh a lot more. Potions are also worth less money so you can’t just spam potions and get your skill up superfast. One thing that’s a clear improvement on the vanilla version is that rarer ingredients give better results. When I was making poisons a couple of slightly rarer ingredients gave me a boost to either damage per second or longevity. Like smithing, alchemy takes a while to level.

I haven’t done much enchanting, excepting dismantling magical goods to learn the effects.

Crafting also includes cooking bonuses (the original set of recipes has been changed), though I haven’t experimented with this. Also for instruments and tailoring (although tailoring hasn’t been implemented at the time of writing).


Money, Economy, Travel, and Weight

I’ve bracketed these together because they’re all related to one another. The absence of fast travel and altered weight of goods (they make more sense, so antlers might weigh 6) are obviously connected, and the altered weight affects what you can sell. However, prices for most things are higher, and this enables and encourages more trading. For example, you might not have enough for some swanky armour, but if you’ve got some gemstones or old armour, you can likely flog that to make up the difference. Although I think the starting carry capacity is a bit rough (it’s perhaps 100), the system is well-balance and really does make trading more dynamic. Travel is aided by the cart system and by the ferries that link Windhelm, Solitude, and Dawnstar (especially good for the latter as it doesn’t have a cart). Another change which helps travel is the improvement in sprinting from stamina, which now lasts much longer than in the vanilla game (perhaps about five times as long). An important note, given all that, is that money remains weightless.


Bugs and Other Problems

I have had a couple of crashes whilst playing, but I also have crashes whilst playing the base game, so I don’t think that can be chalked up to the mod. The stealing problem in DLC-land outlined at the start is the only real problem I’ve encountered, and I just cancelled the quest (which can be done simply by telling Delvin). Not ideal but certainly not a game-breaker.

On compatibility, the mod’s description has links indicating load order (essentially, have the mod and four sub-mods, with the main mod itself at the bottom) and what kind of other mods work or clash with TGIO. Stuff that alter combat and economics are likely to clash. Weather and lighting mods are likely to be fine. The mod doesn’t work with survival mode, but another modder made one that apparently fixes that (I haven’t checked as I think having survival mode as well, with all the other restrictions, might be overdoing things).

All in all, I’ve had fun with this mod.

Thaddeus

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Guest Blog: Anthologising – Not Just Spinning A Line, by Damaris Browne



I’m getting excited. On 15th August the SF anthology Distaff is released – which makes it sound like a long-term prisoner finally getting out of jail, but I’m pretty sure that’s just coincidence. (Though do insert here your own puns about both being penned, and the price of the anthology making it a complete steal.) Then on 23rd August there’s the formal launch. And that makes it sound like an ocean-going liner which needs to be sped on its way with a magnum of champagne, though since the launch is taking place at Titancon in Belfast, it’s perhaps more likely to be floated on a sea of Bushmills and Guinness.

Why the excitement? It’s not simply because my story The Colour of Silence is included, though if you want to read about a ship being launched – albeit without champagne or Guinness – there it is. It’s because the anthology is something of a rarity. An all-new (no reprints) all-SF (no fantasy) all-female (yep, no stories from men) anthology, and – which surely makes it unique – wholly devised, organised, written, edited and produced by women. From concept to cover, through beta-reading, formatting, and beyond to the launch eats and promotional give-aways, it’s women all the way.

Which is where the title comes in. For a distaff is the rod on which raw fibres are wound prior to spinning, a task which was invariably carried out by women, and women were often buried with their distaffs in the same way a man might be buried with the tools of his trade or his sword. As a result “distaff” also came to signify women’s work and their sphere of influence. And if in the past it also carried the weight of male condescension and a whiff of insult – when the church was drumming up support for the Third Crusade, those men who didn’t take up the cross were given distaffs and wool, the implication being they might as well be women and sit at home spinning – well, SF hasn’t exactly been free of that scorn for women, their worth and their writing, so we’re taking back control of that narrative, too.


With our Distaff, we’re spinning tales rather than wool or flax. And those tales cover the full cloth of Science Fiction, for we might be women but we haven’t written just for women – the stories are for everyone who likes a good yarn. (See what I did there?)

Past mistakes, present concerns, future prospects – these are the threads which wind through the anthology, making one whole from nine very different tales. Stories set on Earth, on spaceships, on orbitals and on alien planets. And if you want alien creatures we have friendly aliens, curious aliens, rocky aliens and mutant-humans more alien than all the others.

In this nine-ply skein there are twists of all kinds, with aspects of comedy, horror, romance, tragedy and everything in between. We have Nordic police and Nordic myth, environmental messages and examinations of grief, icy inventors, lovelorn ships, planet-saving AIs, rainbow ponies, staring chickens, plagues and immortality, guilt and nowhere-near-enough guilt, clever children and dead children, art and actors, a degraded Earth and an Earth being reborn.

Above all we’ve spun stories full of hope, determination, resilience and love. What more could any SF lover – male, female, both, neither, Earthling or otherwise – want?

Come on. Pick up a Distaff and take a spin with us!

Links:


Damaris

Monday, 22 July 2019

Review: Blood of Elves, by Andrzej Sapkowski


I really need to stop buying these books. I just don’t have any shelf space.

Which is a shame, because I enjoyed The Last Wish, and Sword of Destiny, but Blood of Elves felt quite a bit better.

We return to Sapkowski’s grim fantasy land, full of monsters and scheming, witchers and wizards. Once again the approach is of short stories with differing focal characters, but this time there’s a more central theme, revolving around a certain young girl.

The variety of stories is really interesting, ranging from lords contemplating ‘affairs of state’ and grand wars, to a bard who finds himself in a spot of bother. And, of course, we encounter everyone’s favourite witcher. All of the tales, however, hang together to tell a larger underlying story which is more than the sum of its parts. The differing styles also helps to make the world feel fleshed out and immersive, adding depth to the plot and characters alike.

I really enjoyed it. To be honest, I read a lot more slowly than I used to. Limited time and that sort of thing. But I rattled through Blood of Elves far faster than expected. If you liked The Last Wish/Sword of Destiny, you’ll like Blood of Elves even more.

Thaddeus

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Review: Flight From The Dark (Lone Wolf book 1), by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk


Disclaimer: I played these books as a child, so my reviews will likely be laced with nostalgia.

Flight From The Dark is the first of dozens of gamebooks that Joe Dever (initially with Gary Chalk, later solo) wrote. For those unaware, a gamebook is approximately halfway between a videogame or tabletop RPG and a book. The reader/player makes decisions to determine how they try and solve problems, win fights, and so on. It’s eminently possible to end up dead and have to restart.

Flight From The Dark is a thinnish volume but has 350 sections. The premise is simple: you are Lone Wolf, a lowly member of the Order of the Kai, hero-warriors who protect the good from the evil of the nearby Darklords. Unfortunately, you’re a slacker and have to miss a celebratory feast to go gather firewood as punishment. This saves your life as the Darklords roll up and kill everyone who attends, wiping out the entire order.

Except for you.

You must flee to Holmgard, the capital, to warn and help the king, evading or fighting the Drakkarim, giaks, kraan, and other monstrous servants of the Darklords.

Character creation is mostly about picking the Kai disciplines you have, everything from healing to animal kinship, psychic defence (or attack) to hunting. Choosing wisely is critical, and getting lucky when you ‘roll’ (you could use a d10 but there’s also a sort of random number generator by way of a grid of numbers at the back, from which you can pick blindly) for combat skill and endurance.

Smart choices also matter. Being heroic sounds good, but I only survived one entirely voluntary encounter by fluking a couple of great combat results. By rights I should’ve been killed. At other times my cunning strategy helped me evade fights that would’ve occurred, if I didn’t have the right skills.

It’s a fun introduction to Lone Wolf, Magnamund (the wider LW world), and gamebooks, and only takes an hour or two after you’ve created your own Lone Wolf.

I discovered shortly after writing the above review that Joe Dever died a few years ago. RIP. His Lone Wolf books were (along with books written by Bernard Cornwell) what I read the most in my early teens. Sad to hear of his passing.

For those interested, there are plenty of second hand paperbacks floating around, and I know he gave his blessing for Project Aon, a website which enables you to play the books for free. There’s also (though I’m unsure of availability) some hardback reprints from a decade or so ago, if you prefer physical books.

Thaddeus


Saturday, 8 June 2019

Review: The Hundred Years War, by Alan Lloyd


Written in the 1970s, this book is about 170 pages and covers the entirety of the war. Naturally, that means it has to skimp on detail in places (although the battles are well-described and I did learn some interesting facts I didn’t know previously, such as France’s population at the time being roughly three or four times that of England).

There’s plenty of medieval artwork (although the Henry IV portrait actually isn’t him, according to a much more recent biography of said monarch by Ian Mortimer) and maps, which are clear and helpful, are peppered throughout the pages.

The general ebb and flow of this prolonged contest, which was as much down to who happened to be king of either side as anything that happened on the battlefield, is well-described, and I’m glad the relatively low number of battles was gotten across, as was the development of siege weaponry and varying martial habits (from brutalising the peasantry to trying to win them over through restrained behaviour).

I liked reading the book, though it should be stressed this isn’t an exhaustive account (or, indeed, an attempt at one) so it’s perhaps best as an overview or introduction. Other general books of that nature, with more detail, include Philippe Contamine’s War in the Middle Ages (reviewed here), and Christopher Allmand’s The Hundred Years War (reviewed here).

There’s also Ian Mortimer’s excellent biography of Edward III (The Perfect King, reviewed here), which covers about half the conflict.

Thaddeus

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Review: After the Ice, by Steven Mithen


After the Ice covers human prehistory from 20,000 BC to 5,000 BC. This extends from the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), covers the initial warming after the end of the Ice Age, the cold spike of the Younger Dryas, and the return of the warming trend.

Beyond the obvious warming and a vague fuzzy awareness of hunter-gathering giving way to farming, my knowledge of this sort of period was minimal at best.

It’s a global book, looking at every continent on Earth and charting, in some cases, the arrival of mankind (in the Americas), and the development of man, which varied quite a lot. It’s intriguing to see the differing advance of technology and the earliest establishment of towns (in the Middle East/Mesopotamia), and the intermediate phase between hunter-gathering and Neolithic farming that happened in Europe and elsewhere (the Mesolithic).

As interesting were common features, particularly cave art and the use of stone (mostly flint and obsidian).

The author’s approach was to combine a straightforward archaeological summary with the practical implications, telling these through plausible vignettes of an unseen time traveller, John Lubbock (named after a Victorian who wrote a related book), as he visits various places and times to see how people lived.

The book is quite large, just over 500 pages (beyond which lies the index etc), and later on some of the less distinctive places/locations do blend into one another somewhat.

The epilogue was very interesting, and I liked the credible alternative perspectives on GM crops (essentially, it could bugger biodiversity and cause extinctions, or cure world hunger) and other matters. Throughout the book there’s a general open-minded approach that avoids imposing a single view when there are plausible options or a lack of evidence.

Thaddeus

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Review: The Blue Book of the War, edited by Herbert Strang


The edition I read was reprinted in 1917, and I think originally came out late 1916 (preceding the revolution in Russia and collapse of the Eastern Front). I believe this book was aimed at older children (it’s a little similar in style to The Wonder Book of Aircraft). The mindset is fascinating and the writing engaging.

Most books about The Great War nowadays tend to conjure images of terrible grind, both in terms of trench warfare not moving very much, and in terms of immense grimness. And those things are not wrong. But they’re also not the complete story.

In the Middle East and Africa, things moved with greater pace, and the middle of the book is dedicated to stories of naval exploits, many of which I had no idea about (British submarines getting up to mischief in the Bosphorus, for example).

The mentality of the book is of another age, with the start of a battle described as an adventure beginning. There’s both a recognition of how terrible war is (quoted below) and a celebration of the human spirit that can arise in conflict.

Early on, the book is poignant (a letter home from a soldier the day before he got killed in one of the many large battles standing out in the memory). But the overriding sense is of a quite alien attitude to both Britain and war, the latter perhaps closer to Livy’s Romanesque glory than today’s immense reluctance. I was wondering if it would be a parochial book, yet one of the examples of heroism cited was of a priest who gave the last rites to an enemy soldier, and whilst there is some German-bashing there’s also praise for Turkish manoeuvres around Suez, Von Mackensen’s Eastern shenanigans, and the final chapter is dedicated to heroism from British allies (Frenchmen, Russians, and Italians singled out, with kudos also given to the Sikhs, Maoris, and others).

Must admit, I found the book to have a lively writing style, and yet was perhaps even more interesting from a psychological perspective. The differing topics of the various aspects of the naval conflict and doings further afield ensured that, whilst the focus is on Britain and her Empire, there is plenty about other arenas where our involvement was either minimal or non-existent.

I shall end this review with a few excerpts that I made note of as I read:
War is a terrible, hideous thing.” [A short time later in the same paragraph]. “Yet there is something even more terrible than war, and that is the weak and cowardly acceptance of what we believe to be evil for the sake of saving our skins.”

We shall not, therefore, be surprised when we learn that by far the greater part of British naval strength and resources has in the Great War been devoted to the efficient maintenance of its patrol services: and we may well wonder at the weakness of human nature which impels us to esteem a dashing exploit, carried through in, perhaps, a few minutes, more highly than we regard the faithful endurance of hardship and the vigilant discharge of duty continued for long, weary months amid the stress and perils of the northern seas.”

Their brigade was lying in front of Gorizia and was much inconvenienced by the enemy’s fire from a particular hill that dominated their position – a hill so craggy, in fact, as to seem quite inaccessible.”

Thaddeus

Monday, 6 May 2019

Musing on RPG Morality Mechanics


RPG videogames have a range of approaches to morality. Mass Effect and Fallout 3 went for straight good and evil with paragon/renegade and good/bad karma respectively. More recently, faction-based approval/disapproval, such as in Pillars of Eternity, has become more popular, perhaps as it offers a more nuanced take on things.

I think there are a couple of interesting other ways that morality could function in RPGs, (focusing on a more medieval/fantastical world rather than a sci-fi universe).

The old medieval medicine system (if we can call it that) involved four humours. There was blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. That could easily be translated into morality/behaviour, with blood and phlegm good, bile bad, and blood/yellow bile action-oriented and phlegm/black bile more thoughtful.

A sanguine (bloody) character would be your bold hero, diving into the fray, keen for action and leading from the front. A choleric (yellow bile) would be aggressive beyond morality, eager for bloodshed and more concerned with self-interest than public esteem.

I think that’d be an interesting approach because it has overlap between a thoughtful/action-oriented approach and good/bad. If certain options are only open to good/bad characters or thoughtful/action-oriented characters then in a given playthrough you’ll have a set of options that (unless you copy your playstyle) will differ when you replay the game. It’d also mean your actions matter.

Another way to go about such things would be to make gods more than window dressing. I’m not a vegetarian, but it’d be interesting if you had to pick gods/a god and live according to their precepts, and that could include a nature-based vegetarian style. Similarly, you could have a pacifist religion (perhaps excepting saving your own life), a god who demands his followers drink alcohol daily, one whose acolytes swear poverty, another whose worshippers must regularly participate in frisky time (making brothels part-business, part-temple), and so on.

The price for contravening your god’s whims would be divine punishment, including gameplay penalties, and a quest to restore you to the god’s favour. Or you could jump spiritual ship, which would make you loathed by your former co-religionists. As for advantages, you could start off with minor bonuses and have the opportunity through side-quests to climb the spiritual ladder to enhance them.

This is slightly similar to the faction-approval approach mentioned near the the start, but there are some significant differences. Not least is the limitation on approval (you can’t join the Lovely Peaceful God’s cause *and* worship Angor the Intensely Violent). Another is that it’d be largely (maybe entirely) optional, whereas faction interaction, at least to an extent, is usually a requirement in games that have them.

And it could easily co-exist with a faction system. Maybe you need to persuade leader X to help you. Sure, you can do that via the old approval system, but if you’re the High Priest of his religion (through prolific questing) it’d be cool to just order him to help on pain of excommunication.

Charitable works is another area that could work. Not only would, say, setting up an orphanage boost your reputation, it could also help get beggar children off the streets, improving your relations with businesses who don’t want half-starved urchins cadging coin next to their stalls.

Thaddeus

Friday, 19 April 2019

The Three-Inch Fool part 1


One of the Shakespeare plays that ages the worst is The Taming of the Shrew, the central message of which is that the key to a happy marriage is for a husband to psychologically crush his wife until she’s mindlessly obedient to him.

It does, however, have some cracking jests, perhaps my favourite of which is “Away, you three-inch fool!”

I’ve used that as the basis for a daft character name in Skyrim, and edited some videos into short episodes (I’ve got more in progress). It’s vanilla gameplay footage plus the internal monologue [via text] of The Three-Inch Fool, a morally dubious Argonian with a fondness for cheese and murder.



Anyway, if you enjoy Sir Edric’s internal monologues and self-absorbed comedic style, you might like this. I have limited experience editing, so any insightful feedback is welcome (is the volume fine, captions up too long/not long enough etc).

Thaddeus

Thursday, 18 April 2019

XCOM 2 DLC Review (PS4)


I hardly ever buy DLC, but I really liked XCOM 2 and happened to see there was quite the sale on (the original three pieces of DLC reduced by 50% and War of the Chosen, the later, larger, expansion reduced by 62%). For the record, I played on an old, fat PS4.

The bundle of three include some new cosmetic options for customising your cannon fodder, ahem, beloved soldiers, the Shen DLC that adds the Spark class, and the Bradford DLC that adds some swanky one-off weapons and three tough bosses (I did a playthrough of the original XCOM 2 base game plus these DLC, and almost my only losses [I played on normal difficulty] were due to these bosses).


DLC Bundle of Three

The cosmetic options offer a nice range, but, despite how splendid midriffs are, this isn’t something I’d buy by itself. The Shen/Bradford DLC each includes an extra mission with some story background I won’t spoil (both refer back to characters from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the previous entry in the series.

The Shen DLC adds the Spark class (think Johnny-5 meets Terminator). I quite like the class, as it comes preloaded with the very useful shred ability, and overdrive, allowing multiple moves/shots in one turn.

The Bradford DLC has some unique weapons you acquire through scanning, and three bosses that have multiple turns, (the normal one and reactions to everything your soldiers do, even reloading). The multiple turns appear toned down a bit in War of the Chosen. These bosses are variants of the usual enemies, and come with a bucketload of hp and a penchant for running away (which is handy, to be honest, as they’re pretty damned tough).

These are good additions to the base game, which blend in seamlessly and add a little more variety. They’re nice to have without being fantastic.

War of the Chosen

There are a huge number of additions, some large, some small, with the War of the Chosen DLC. A quick summary of my view is that I like it a lot.

The Chosen are three high-powered individuals that you may randomly encounter when you perform missions in their territory. There’s an Assassin, a Hunter, and a Warlock, each with specific strengths and weaknesses. Taking them down is challenging (they’re easier than the bosses from Bradford’s DLC but effectively immortal and thus come back unless you complete the story missions to kill them permanently) and if they show up during a tricky mission they can make it a lot harder.

There are also three semi-independent new resistance factions who co-operate with XCOM: Skirmishers, who are ex-Advent, Reapers, who are sneaky scouts, and Templars, who are slightly nutty psionic enthusiasts. Each one provides a soldier for XCOM with unique skills (personally, I like Mox, the Skirmisher who can fire twice in a turn, and has a voice a bit like Todd from Stargate Atlantis). The factions also offer missions via the Ring facility, which involves sending off soldiers to act outside your control (although if they’re ambushed you’ll get an extraction mission). Each faction can also fulfil orders which offer you bonuses for a month (like recruits who go through training becoming sergeants rather than squaddies).


Pairs of soldiers can now form bonds that offer bonuses when they’re on the same mission, with this can be levelled up to increase the advantages. Propaganda posters are automatically generated and can also be manually created to celebrate promotions, victorious missions, or midriffs.

Some facilities are new, and with the right one you can select extra abilities outside the usual class options for soldiers (from options randomised for each soldier). This is very useful, perhaps to the point of being a little excessive.

There’s also the Lost. The Lost are effectively a horde of zombies (independent of alien control so they’ll attack the aliens almost as much as you). They’re very weak but there are tons of them. Killing them with ranged weaponry refunds your actions and their attacks are weak. I’m less fond of the Lost than other new aspects of the game as their whole shtick is high numbers, which can make missions something of a lengthy meatgrinder. (One time I had almost my whole squad in a great, elevated position, but it still took me forty odd minutes to effortlessly slay the shambling fools).

Research has two additions: breakthroughs and inspirations. One means research takes far less time for a particular subject, the other offers a rare (some can be acquired through faction missions as well/instead) new bonus like cut-price facility construction or extra damage to a specific weapon type but only if the research is conducted immediately.


A word on the older DLC Bundle: that’s included here. As mentioned above, the bosses are mildly nerfed, but that’s fair enough as they were perhaps overpowered in the original version. Neither Shen nor Bradford get their story mission, though, as the bosses have been repurposed as facility guards rather than appearing randomly, as that would coincide with the Chosen and open up the possibility of encountering both in a single mission, which might be too much (although it does sound quite cool).

I like the War of the Chosen expansion a lot. But there is at least one downside. I had two crashes, both around the end (one just before, one just after) a long mission involving the Lost. It was quite frustrating, especially as the first one cost me a soldier’s promotion which I needed to complete a certain action.


I don’t buy DLC often, but I’ve got to say I enjoyed this extra content. Would I recommend it at full price? Only if you’re Captain Moneybags. At a discount, give it a look, particularly War of the Chosen.

Thaddeus

Monday, 15 April 2019

Review: Oathbringer (Stormlight Archive book 3), by Brandon Sanderson


This has been out a little while but I only recently got my hands on it (literally, unlike the first two entries which I read as e-books).

Like its predecessors, this book is enormous, a little over 1,200 pages, and is just part 3 of a planned 10 or so in the series. (I know some are wary of taking on unfinished mega-series, but Brandon Sanderson does write pretty quickly).

The story resumes shortly after the events of Words of Radiance, and, though it may be obvious, I have to warn of spoilers from this point forth (major for previous entries, any spoilers for Oathbringer will be kept to the minimal possible level, focusing on premise).


The Everstorm, a new phenomenon heading in the opposite direction to the expected highstorm, batters the world, wrecking ships, destroying buildings, and catching most people off-guard. Just as the kingdoms are struggling to recover, some of them are in for a military confrontation.

The forces of Odium are gathering, but things are more complicated than they first seem. It’s nice to see ‘the enemy’ portrayed in a somewhat sympathetic light, rather than purely as fodder. Likewise, we learn some more background, to plot-twisting effect, of the old Knights Radiant and the Heralds, which alters things quite significantly.

Dalinar’s storyline (the central plot) is the attempt to create a grand coalition to fight back against the forces of Odium, a task made quite tricky when his nation (Alethkar) is renowned for its conquering tendencies, and he’s best known as a talented general. There’s a good portrayal of the varying national outlooks (bureaucratic Azish types, the moneyed naval Thaylen people etc) which both makes the world feel more real, and slots in nicely with the challenge Dalinar and those around him face when it comes to forging an alliance.

Shallan’s story arc is intriguing, and I liked the way her splitting personality was portrayed. I can’t go into much more detail than that without spoilers, but it suited the story and herself.

Adolin has plenty of action, but less character development than other major protagonists. Kaladin is miles away from the others at the book’s opening, trying to find his family.

Besides the big names we have occasional smaller POVs, sometimes as interludes, and these work nicely as little breaks in the enormo-book as well as fleshing out the world even more.

An interesting difference, for me, was having an actual physical copy. It made the artwork better, particularly the map early on, which I referred back to several times during the story. Otherwise, it’s just nice to have a tangible book, although it does take up infinitely more space than an e-book, so swings and roundabouts.

Overall, I enjoyed the book a lot. I like the author’s world-building style and lore, and there’s a number of significant plot twists. Pace later on is faster, perhaps a little could’ve been cut from the first half, but maybe I’m just nitpicking. I have no idea when the fourth entry in the Stormlight Archive will be out, but I’m looking forward to reading it.

Thaddeus

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Trilogy-writing: Pros and Cons


With Crown of Blood out early next month (6 April), I thought it might be interesting to consider the pros and cons of writing a trilogy, compared to writing stand-alone novels or a loose series, which has plots contained entirely within one novel but a recurring cast and world.

Pros:
Tell a bigger story
Allows more detail for secondary characters
Readers perhaps likelier to buy books 2 and 3 of a trilogy than books B and C of a loose series

Cons:
More complicated which means more planning is required and writing takes longer
Telling story arcs that work both within each novel and across the trilogy is difficult to balance
Readers often don’t want to start an unfinished series


People do like series, whether the traditional trilogy or larger scale mega-series (I’m reading the third entry in the Stormlight Archives myself right now). From a writing perspective, if someone likes book 1, they’re likelier to get books 2 and 3 of a tight series (with a single ongoing storyline) than books B and C in a loose series (with recurring characters but self-contained plots). Obviously, writers like selling books, as it gives them a warm, fuzzy feeling as well as the means to afford little luxuries, like food and rent.

Naturally, a tight series enables a larger, more complex/intricate story to be told than a single volume self-contained novel. Some stories are just too big to cram into one normal sized book (there is the enormo-book option, but some people are put off by a page count measured in the thousands). When I think about The Bloody Crown plot and trying to cut that down to one ordinary-sized book, it’s difficult to think what I’d discard to make it fit.

This brings us to the start of the cons list. A bigger story means it’s more complicated, and splitting the plot between three (or more) books means more planning is required. All that takes time. On top of getting that right, the division also means you need ongoing plot threads that are tied up in books 2 and 3, whilst also having self-contained and completed plot arcs within each individual book, otherwise a book, whilst having a place within the series, feels a bit under-cooked. That’s a tricky thing to get right.

Another problem for writers is that, particularly with larger series, later entries can be delayed. And some readers are reluctant to start series that aren’t finished. Which makes them being finished less likely if the first instalment is released before the others are ready to go, because fewer people buy them and the author sees little interest. Of course, you can finish the whole thing and release them with 2-3 week intervals, but that means writing, redrafting, editing, and proofing the entire trilogy/series before seeing any return at all.

Personally, my favourite approach is to have a loose series, as most of the pros of a tight series are present, but the significant drawbacks are not. It makes books quicker and easier to write (along with, for the Sir Edric series, fewer POV characters and being comedic rather than serious in nature).

For those wondering, my next move will be to sort out the release of Sir Edric and the Corpse Lord (Hero of Hornska book 4), which I’m hoping to release in the latter half of 2019.

Crown of Blood purchase links

Amazon UK:



Thaddeus

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Crown of Blood – out 6 April


Good news!

Crown of Blood, the final part of the cunningly entitled The Bloody Crown Trilogy, is coming out on 6 April (paperback to follow).

The fate of the crown will be determined, as the rival Houses of Penmere and Esden find themselves faced with a dilemma: unite to fight off the King of Felaria’s sudden invasion, or risk losing the entire kingdom to the invader.

It’s the fifth book I’ve written that takes part in the Bane of Souls world (the others being stand-alones Bane of Souls and Journey to Altmortis, and earlier trilogy entries Kingdom Asunder and Traitor’s Prize).

As well as the splendid cover, by Autumn Sky, there’s a map, by me.



For the pre-order period and first fortnight of release, Crown of Blood will be just $2.99, after which the price will go up a bit. So, buy it, and tell your friends to buy it too.

You can pre-order it on Amazon or Smashwords, and it’ll shortly be up on other retailer sites too.



Thaddeus




Sunday, 24 February 2019

Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day, by Philip Matyszak


This is a short book, about 140 pages, set in 200 AD and covering what a visitor to Rome might see and do. Beginning with arrival nearby and travelling into the city itself, there’s a wealth of practical advice, from where to stay to how dinner parties work, as well as religion and shopping.

It’s an engaging book, with interesting snippets of information and the sort of approach to history that makes it very easy to imagine what it would’ve been like to visit Rome, climbing its hills and descending into its valleys. Details such as how much wine might cost, or the widespread dislike of the Praetorian Guard, add to the immersion.

The writing style is light-hearted, occasionally humorous, and easy to read.

I’ve read quite a lot of Thames and Hudson books of this nature, but all my previous ones were hardback. I must say I prefer those to the paperback. However, if your shelf space is limited the thickness is about halved by going for the paperback.

Weirdly, there’s a page numbering error, for maybe a dozen pages preceding the first set of plates. The standard numbering is fine, but the Latin numbering (which is correct both earlier and later) starts showing the incorrect numbers. Not a huge thing, but clearly wrong.

The plates are entirely CGI. A spot of real world photography for still extant architecture would’ve been nice (the Egyptian edition in this series had some creative modern drawings, but also ancient Egyptian artwork too). The map at the back is a double page spread, with some detail swallowed by the spine (bit of a pet hate).

Overall, a good book, with one or two minor things that could’ve been done a bit better, none of which relate to the actual text itself.

Thaddeus

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Snapshots – pick of the bunch


Blogging’s been a little light lately, due to me being busy with other stuff (Crown of Blood should be out later March/April, incidentally).

Time for a look back at the best samples of the last four Snapshot reviews, in which I single out the books I might actually end up buying. Links at the end of the post lead to the sample reviews (I’ve picked at least one from each post. The first snapshots post was written separately, some time earlier).

I’ll start with the mega-sampled The Chronicles of the Black Gate (books 1-3), by Phil Tucker, from the most recent post. To be honest, the only reasons I didn’t immediately buy this (I read the whole circa 40,000 word sample and really enjoyed it) was because I already have a comically large to-read pile, and I use my Kindle for proofreading (which I did immediately after finishing the sample). Highly likely I’ll buy this book.

Perhaps the most unexpected delight was Storm Glass (Harbinger book 1), by Jeff Wheeler. I selected books without reading descriptions and this one has plenty of stuff I wouldn’t normally consider. Child protagonist, ghost story, orphan. Not my cup of tea. Usually. But it’s very well-written and genuinely intriguing.










The Copper Promise (Copper Cat Trilogy), by Jen Williams, is a lot more my usual cup of tea. Fantastical doings, a spot of torture, multiple POV characters on a quest for treasure. The sample was entertaining and piqued my interest.











One of the samples I liked the most was Kingshold (Wildfire Cycle book 1), by DP Woolliscroft, (at the time of writing, this is an #SPFBO finalist, with the ultimate winner of the current contest undecided). Multiple engaging POVs, an intriguing world, and a major city about to make the transition from monarchy to democracy. Another one I’m very likely to end up buying.










I liked the daft comedy of Space Team (Volume 1), by Barry J Hutchison, (with the caveat that bodily fluid stuff generally isn’t my thing). Otherwise, fun, fast-paced, and amusing (which is helpful, for a comedy).


And so we move to the weird collection of excellence I accidentally threw together for the earliest (of the most recent batch) snapshot review. By chance, this included two #SPFBO winners and practically every damned sample was excellent. So, I’ve set myself the challenge of picking only two. Which I already know is going to be difficult because I can remember three off the top of my head, and want all of them.


In the end, I went for The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids (Amra Thetys Series book 1), by Michael McClung, and Dangerous to Know (Chronicles of Breed, book 1), by KT Davies, both of which feature thief-type protagonists. Both have engaging lead characters and interesting worlds, and both set up intriguing premises within the scope of the sample.








Anyway, that’ll be the last bit of sample reviewing for a little while. I think there are some real gems in there, as well as some books I never would’ve checked out if it weren’t for the slightly random approach I took. Hope you found something interesting to read too.

Sample review links:

Thaddeus

Friday, 1 February 2019

Review: Repulse, by Chris James


This is an interesting book. It’s a sci-fi ‘history’ of a war to be fought in Europe, 2062-64, written in a style not dissimilar to some general overview histories I read last year about the World Wars.

The war in question features a sprawling Middle Eastern/North African Caliphate which suddenly attacks Europe, using technological advantage to conquer the whole continental landmass. Will Britain manage to defy the odds and survive? Will the Caliphate be pushed back?

The tech level is an order of magnitude beyond current possibilities, with tanks and soldiers making appearances but battles and war dominated by autonomous aircraft guided by AI. There’s shielding, lasers, and so forth. I thought the tech level was fairly realistic, whilst still, of course, being futuristic and interesting.

It’s an odd book. I did take a while to get into it, although I do read sci-fi sometimes, and military history. Near future and modern history are less interesting to me than either older history or more advanced sci-fi, which may be why it took a while for me to get into it, although I did end up reading the last third much more rapidly.

The writing style echoes those of genuine modern histories and does a good job of imitating them, with sources (diaries, other histories, papers released under the 30 year rule etc) being utilised. It’s an interesting approach and works well.

However, that same approach, with some exceptions (eyewitness testimony, diaries), does necessarily increase the distance between reader and brutality of war, which would not have been the case had a more traditional first/third person perspective been adopted. Obviously, this is a choice that’s been made, and the historical approach does enable a more neutral view, allowing for consideration of battlefield moral dilemmas rather than either justifying or decrying harsh measures in war.

Overall, I thought it was interesting and quite liked it. I’d suggest checking the sample before buying to see if it’s your cup of tea.

Thaddeus