Weird Wargaming: Artificial Humans

Ok, this is one of the weirdest Weird Wargamings yet, and it depends entirely on what ruleset is being used. Basically, one of my loves is “artificial humans“. The boring thing to do would be to treat them as either normal humans or robots. But there was one attempt at going beyond that.

Now in Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade, the morphs are treated just like normal units with one exception-all of them, even the strongest, have zero luck. Zero luck means that they have lower hit and dodge rates mixed with massive opponent critical rates. That can definitely be incorporated into various tabletop rules.

Of course, it can make some sense to give them higher stats in other categories to compensate for that. It all depends on what the theme of these artificial humans are. They can be everything from super to expendable, as the Fire Emblem morphs are.

Review: Magic Ops

Magic Ops

The book Magic Ops by T.R. Cameron, Michael Anderle, and Martha Carr is a secret agent urban fantasy action thriller. If this sounds like a big jumble, it is. And it’s a lightweight book even by cheap thriller standards. But there’s nothing wrong with that.

The action works surprisingly well. There’s a few wince-inducing moments like agents “shooting to subdue”, but other than that it feels good and manages to integrate the supernatural elements in a non-jarring way. The non-action parts of this still flow well also.

This is sort of a “51%” book, but it’s a good kind of 51% book. It’s never really slow or dull, and even if it rarely goes above “adequate”, it also more importantly never goes below it either. This and how it succeeds at bringing its different genres together when it could have failed makes me recommend it.

Review: The Thran

The Thran

J. Robert King’s The Thran is meant as a backstory novel in the setting of Magic: The Gathering. It tells the story of the ancient civilization that only existed in ruins by the time of The Brothers War, and the rise to power of Yawgmoth and Phyrexia. This setting, with its fusion of magic and technology (of course there are airships), and especially the twisted technomagical nightmare of Phyrexia itself, is my favorite part of Magic.

The setting and premise is good, as is its antagonist’s/evil main character’s portrayal, but this book desperately needed a better author. Lynn Abbey did Phyrexia’s nightmare justice in Planeswalker. King does not. Not only is the depiction of the human Yawgmoth merging with the plane done in a very “straightforward” manner, but he even “unplugs” and returns to being normal throughout the book afterward, as if the author didn’t feel like writing cosmic-level fantasy.

Which is a shame because not only is the setting good, but the alternate possibilities are there too. The Thran Empire was not exactly a paradise, and Glacian, the withering master technologist, comes across as someone who’d make for a great blue mana-themed villain in his own right, obsessed with building the better mousetrap at any cost. It’s potential that King simply couldn’t realize. So this feels like something only lore completionists would really like, which I feel was probably always the case.

Review: The Ninja

The Ninja

Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja is a very fascinating book. On one hand, it played a big role in the 1980s “Western Ninja” craze. On the other, the book itself is… bad. To put it very mildly.

The actual substance of the first Nicholas Linnear novel consists of little more than sleaze, padding, and ridiculously purple prose. I mean, it makes Kenneth Bulmer at his worst look like a field manual in comparison. That’s how bad it is. What’s interesting is how it was successful.

While literary tastes can be very different, this still feels strange that what got a subgenre going was something like this. It’s as if The Hunt For Red October was a thousand-page impenetrable mess where the protagonists effortlessly sink the Northern Fleet. Or if War Against The Mafia was full of exclamation points! in weird spots and couldn’t even keep its main character’s name consistent. It’s something, but it’s not exactly something I’d recommend.

Review: Raider Brigade: Into A Time Warp

Raider Brigade: Into A Time Warp

With the premise of “1980s American armored brigade prepares for World War III, only to get timeshifted back to World War II”, I couldn’t not check out Daniel Gilbert’s Raider Brigade: Into A Time Warp when I saw it. While my reading experience is broad enough that this is strangely not new to me (the Kirov series timeshifted a modern brigade into the past twice), examining it was inevitable.

Unfortunately, this is rather lacking in execution, even compared to the Kirov series. The enthusiasm is there and the concept is still amazing, so I don’t want to sound too hard. But the prose is very rough and there’s as much time spent on the operations order given before the battles as there is on the (predictably one-sided) battles themselves. A too-large portion of the already short book is devoted to pictures and footnotes, giving this near-Richard Rohmer levels of “padding to substantive content”.

Even at the basics, this falls short. Descriptions are either too short or too long in that “I know what all the acronyms mean, and I’ll tell you in a footnote” way. The dialogue well, leaves something to be desired. And a lot of it is just well, incoherent. There’s no other way to put it. So, with a heavy heart, I’d say that this does not live up to its concept and is not recommended.

Review: The Wildered Quest

Throne of Eldraine: The Wildered Quest

Kate Elliot’s The Wildered Quest is a Magic: The Gathering tie-in ebook that reflects a dramatically different game from the last two I’ve reviewed on this blog.

Since I last looked at Planeswalker, a lot has changed in the lore of Magic: The Gathering. The Urza-vs-Phyrexia conflict concluded at the beginning of the 2000s, and then the wheels sort of spun until Wizards of the Coast made a massive change with the Great Mending, an event that reduced planeswalkers from near-divine immortal superbeings to considerably more “normal” people with the ability to teleport between dimensions.

Maybe this is just nostalgia, but I feel like the Mending has turned the setting from something offbeat and distinct into something more generic. It’s gone from two mad scientists-turned immortal monsters fighting a millenia-long war to superhero-wizards fighting some bland dragon-thingy. One effect of the Mending event was to actually make planeswalkers more prominent in spite of depowering by taking away third-party planar travel. So it’s either planeswalkers or having things take place entirely on one plane. Or, in this case, have planeswalkers drop in on what’s otherwise a one-dimension experience.

The Wildered Quest, taking place on the fairy-tale plane of Eldraine, has a lot going for it. It’s written by a successful author in her own right. It’s not too long. The prose is decent. The story of the Kenrith twins is interesting enough.

Yet it still feels like a merely adequate, phoned-in tie in. Of course, a lot of this might be my own biases-I tend to not be that into fantasy- but it still felt kind of just-good-enough. And that’s a type of book I’ve read a lot of. The glass-half-empty view is that it could have been better. The glass-half-full view is that MTG novels have had a sometimes-deserved reputation for being terrible and thus it could have been worse.

Review: Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic

It’s time to review another classic of science fiction, the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic. It’s famous for leading to the “Stalker” movie and video game series, as well as gaining extra prominence after the Chernobyl disaster. But how does the book itself hold up?

Sadly, my thought after reading it is “not the best”. Maybe this is just the translation, but I felt constantly felt like the concepts were far better than the execution. The execution felt like it was either dull or pretentious with nothing in between, while the concepts of both “ultra-advanced aliens nonchalantly passing by” and “weird zone full of weirdness” are more interesting.

Perhaps this kind of higher-brow science fiction just isn’t my genre. But I could see why the book was both influential (because adaptations could take advantage of the really, really good concepts) and at least in some places less prominent by itself (because the actual novel doesn’t work as well).

A Thousand Words: Undertale

Undertale

It’s the 5th anniversary of Undertale , the cult classic indie RPG/homage to Earthbound. It’s hard to really explain, because in some ways it’s a victim of its own success. There was a yo-yo of crazed fandom and understandable backlash. People know the plot twists now.

When I first played, I didn’t, and I could appreciate what it delivered, and what’s been lost. So yeah, I know it’s a five year old game now and has been successful, but I’m going to be spoilering it all.

You control a deliberately androgynous-looking child (I thought the sprite looked more feminine) as they fall, Alice-in-Wonderland style, into a sealed-off world of goofy monsters. The battle system is an action-RPG hybrid where you can move around on a screen to avoid attacks.

What works is how it works with the expectation of it being a normal RPG. Basically, I thought “You don’t have to destroy anything” was just a sardonic comment like Postal 2’s “only as violent as you are”. Flowey, the psychotic flower-beast, is basically a “lolmeta-lolgoofyIkillforfun”… at first. When I first battled Toriel, the overprotective monster-mother, I was convinced that reducing her to zero HP would just trigger some kind of cutscene, and that she’d be fine. (She wasn’t).

To date, one of my absolute best video game moments comes from fighting the dogs. Now, they’re portrayed as little more than normal enemies and not the most special, so I deal with them. Then I go into the town and they ask where the dogs were and how good they were and wonder what happened to them and I go…

“Oh.” (gulp)

That’s why I haven’t personally played the game since my one violent neutral route. In many way it’s still a short, cheap, simple indie game, and the magic just wouldn’t be there if I knew what was happening.

Even with the blind run, the game had some down parts. The Hotland area is execrably bad, being a combination of the same lame social media joke, an extremely annoying character, and puzzles just hard enough to annoying but not complex enough to be fun. I felt like I had to stagger through-then came the finale.

Even with full hindsight, I can say this-the finale, whatever route, is the highlight of the game. Part of this, I believe, is that it plays everything straight and goes for legitimate gravitas. The best fiction, even the kind that’s often silly, knows when to be earnest, and the conclusions of Undertale count as that.

It’s still good-the music and art are both excellent, and the mechanics, while simple, aren’t bad by any means. Undertale definitely deserves its success. It’s just that I think it was at its absolute best when you didn’t know what to expect-and I was fortunate enough to play it that way.

Review: I Jedi

I, Jedi

Michael Stackpole’s I, Jedi may be my favorite Star Wars novel ever. It’s also a book that has absolutely no business being as good as it is. After all, Stackpole is a writer who isn’t the best prose-wise and tends to take game mechanics literally. Corran Horn, his protagonist, is the ur-example of someone parachuting their own Mary Sue into an existing franchise. The first part of the book uses the same plot as a book by the infamously subpar Kevin J. Anderson.

And yet, it somehow works brilliantly. Part of it is that Stackpole’s writing is in better form than usual, in everything from starfighter battles where Corran fights his old teammates and can sense their thought processes to everyday life on a backwater world. Another part of it is that by being small-scale and comparably low-stakes, it manages to actually make the universe look bigger and more wondrous.

Stackpole’s epic might be helped along by the other books of the time, which tended to have a random ex-Imperial using the superweapon of the week and an inappropiately small number of Star Destroyers to threaten the entire galaxy. But even on its own, it works. It embodies the “distant vista” principle, restores a sense of awe, and just succeeds as a story in its own right.

Review: The Mongol

The Mongol

The final Casca book credited to Barry Sadler (regardless of its actual authorship-according to some stories I’ve heard, it was a manuscript found after his death), The Mongol is a 51% book in a 51% series. The “which period of history should we put Casca in a theme park version of” wheel stopped at “Genghis Khan” this time.

The good news is that compared to previous flops like The Trench Soldier and The Samurai, this book is significantly better. The bad news is that, like every other Casca book, it’s still melodramatic pulp historical fiction that does almost nothing with its supernatural premise. For a quick read, one could do a lot worse. Yet there isn’t really anything to recommend it ahead of the first two Cascas either.

Thus it’s perhaps fitting that a middling series ended (for a time) on such a middling note.