Tuesday, December 29, 2009

RIP: 2009

I have to admit, while 2009 sucked for a lot of people, it was great for me. On a professional level I've really taken off. A couple years ago, when folks started speaking of the dreaded "recession" in the US I told people that it'll be a time for freelancers to really shine.

Layoffs will dump lots of good talented people in to the "freelance pool" but being used to simply drawing/ painting daily and taking coffee breaks and getting paid days off...they have to do it all: self-marketing, hunting for gigs, and working ridiculous hours with no net to speak of. Most folks are NOT cut out to be a FT freelancer or simply cannot do it due to circumstances beyond their control.

Honestly, the first couple years of being a FT freelancer is the hardest because "art" is such a small percentage of the day. You'll bust your hump to eeek out minimum wage and still live a subsidized life via food stamps or just living extremely lean (no cable tv, no outings, no dinners out, lots of ramen noodles and the bare necessities). After a year or two you should have something of a reputation built and a regular lineup of people to work for (or to avoid). I got lucky: I'm married so I get to pay half the bills instead of all of them. Still...I had (have) to pony up the cash in order to survive.

It's easy to give it all up. Serious. Just go back to being an IT nerd or Customer Service Technician, or whatever you did before your nice in-house art gig. Live off unemployment for a while.

Surviving a "recession" as a freelancer is hard. I said up front that the guys who are already FT freelancers will have a HUGE edge in surviving this strongly because they are already doing it, used to the suckitude, the lean times and the hustle of day-to-day work where the guys coming from in-house gigs have to (re)learn to survive by doing more for less and hustling for it. Companies don't have the money to throw around like before so they want more for less and won't put up with an artistic diva. That's where the Professional Full-Time Freelancer comes in and really shines.

Well...it worked. 2009 was a stellar year for me. I've been booked up approximately 4-5 months in advance since January or February. I'm not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I haven't needed to look for work in almost a year now. People know me, my work and that I do a good job and that I'm dependable. I like to think that my overall skill-level has improved as well.

I did end up skipping out on several conventions which I regret now.

I expanded my footprint to include reviews in a more serious fashion. Previously I did a review of a book or game here and there, but now I'm signed on with several publishers to review material and it's been fun. Granted, I only have so much time, so I'm doing as much time juggling now as before.

On the fun side I've enjoyed my Xbox 360 greatly. I pretty much use it for all my video and music needs. No need for cable TV now. Netflix via Xbox Live handles that nicely. Played some great games this year on the x360: Fallout 3, Bioshock, Fable 2, Call of Duty: World at War, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Dragon Age: Origins.

Played tabletop games too. Played some D&D 4th Ed. Several times in fact. Really didn't blow my skirt up. Ran a Dark Heresy game and a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign. Both were short but fun. Played some D&D 3.5 Ed which was more to my liking and some Vampire: The Requiem which was fun. Played Warhammer Fantasy once and 40k three or four times. Sad really, I like this edition of 40k. Apocalypse especially suits me (go fast, move figs, roll dice and have fun doing really epic stuff rather than the ultra competitive sort of play many of the locals seem to prefer).

I've reconnected with several friends from the long-lost past as well as made some new ones. Overall I'm REALLY looking forward to 2010. Conventions, seeing my peeps from far away and sharing a drink and a "no shit there I was" story or three with them.

Well...that's it for now. I've got work to get done!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

DragonArt: Review

Available at DriveThruComics.com

DragonArt: How to Draw Fantastic Dragons and Fantasy Creatures.
By Jessica “NeonDragon” Peffer.
2009 PDF Version (Advance Review Copy)
130 Pages.

Since my day-job is that of an illustrator I have a lot of “How to Draw…” books. Some of my favorites are Impact Books. Mechanicka (Doug Chang), John Howe: Fantasy Art Workshop and Bold Visions, the Digital Painting Bible by Gary Tonge. Impact has a good lineup of art books available. Some better than others: I thought the art in Fantastic Realms was horrid, and in general I’m not a fan of the heavily stylized Manga-style art (artbooks). For people in to the Manga style, Impact certainly has it covered.

DragonArt is geared for the young adult reader/ artist. That’s ok. Just because it is a “young adult” book doesn’t mean an adult like me couldn’t get good use of it. Actually I find some of the young adult art books do a wonderful job at breaking things down in a manner anyone can understand. Trust me, while I love my more adult Doug Chang/ Mechanika…it’s far FAR more complicated. The young adult books aren’t “for dummies” but they certainly can work that way which is awesome.If you have ever read/ used How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (which as an illustrator it has a permanent place on my reference shelf. It’s where I started back in the 80’s) some bits will look familiar.

DragonArt covers all the nuts and bolts of basic critter illustration from what is functionally a stick figure, to basic shapes like cylinders/ tubes, boxes, etc. It gets in to anatomy in comparison to real animals (which is crucial in “selling” the image to viewers) as well as perspective and scale. Basic shading (stippling, hatching, cross-hatching, etc) as well as Ink and Color are touched on.

Not only is the basic “western dragon” covered from almost every angle, but so are other varieties. A sizeable portion is given to “other fantasy creatures” such as gargoyles, gryphons, pegasi and unicorns, etc. All of the foundations used previously apply here as well…stick figures, shapes, detailing, pencils, ink, and color.

Overall it’s a fun book with a wealth of good info for new as well as experienced illustrators who are interested in drawing fantasy critters. It definitely has a place on my shelf. The writing is solid and clear. Layout nice and crisp. Artwork is also good.

This isn’t Todd Lockwood-style illustration…it’s not that sort of book. I say the word “Basic” here a lot and it applies. This is a basic book geared for the young adult and beginner artist…and as such it does a perfect job at nailing down the subject matter in a clear, concise manner.

Overall I give it 5 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Twilight: a review

In recent months there has been an uproar over sparkly vampires and teen angst in Twilight and the rest of the series by Stephanie Meyer. Since I'm a reviewer and have a pretty good rep for making my own decisions as well as reading/ seeing the whole thing through instead of basing an opinion/ review on less than the whole picture, I decided to tackle this one.

This is regarding the film only. I haven't read the book, so I can't/ won't give an opinion on something I'm not educated on. I have however seen the film and am ready to render my opinionated judgment.

It's a vampire movie.

Yep, no shit. The story is of a teenage girl who toddles off to the Pacific Northwest to give her mom and Step-dad a break at some privacy and a life together by staying with Dad (who is Town Sheriff up in the PNW). Sounds feasible. She's a bit of a martyr about it, but hey, whatever, she's a teen.

Getting to the beautiful and disproportionately gray/wet PNW (I'm sorry, I lived in Washington State for most of my adult life, it's not THAT gray/ wet, but it works as far as stereotypes go. People everywhere believe Seattle and the sound are rainy almost all year anyhow, so might as well roll with it...right? My guess is that this is supposed to be set NW of Port Angeles, up in the Olympics somewhere. Gorgeous country and admittedly the wettest part of the state.

The camera work is good. The scenery beautiful.

Getting to the little town in the woods, life is pretty good. You have some weirdness between Bela and Dad. Dad tries but it's clear he's got some emotional comfort issues to work through. Pretty typical really. I bought it. He's trying. He got her a hooptie truck so she has a set of wheels. So far all is pretty well. Bela is still riding the angst wave but it's okay.

So she goes to school. It's High School. High School sucks. Amazingly, largely because Bela is fit, and unbelieveably hot, everyone and their hamster is falling over themselves to be friends with her. Boys drool all over themselves, girls want to be pals, it's disgusting. No problem, it's a movie, not reality. Bela's response is to be aloof and angsty about it. "Oh woe is me". It's starting to get old at this point.

There is one elite clique at the school. The Cullen's. A family with money and they stick to themselves. There are two "couples" and one "badboy loner-type...Edward. All of them are absolutely beautiful, but everyone stays away from them because they have a bit of an air of weird standoffishness about them.

As part of the plot, Bela is of course smitten by Edward from the start. Of course, he's in her Biology class. There's a neat scene where she comes in to class for the first time, walking by the rotating fan, blowing her hair and looking all "voila" like something out of a movie, slo-mo style. Of course, Edward apparently gets a whiff of her and his inner beast is obviously raging. Totally good. Add to this he's trying so hard to remain calm, but really comes off as loathing Bela, eventually looking nauseated and storming out...and not coming back for several days. I though Edward's performance there was spot on. I can't imagine the resolve necessary to endure that, but the actor pulled it off nicely.

Bela, being smitten gets really pissed at Edward's performance. I can imagine that. You got the hots for a beautiful person and they act out, seeming nauseated at your presence? Yeah, I'd be pissed.

The movie rolls on, and there are furtive glances back and forth. Enter the SUV losing control screwing around in the parking lot and suddenly Edward is between the vehicles, protecting Bela from becoming Teen-Jelly. OOOH! Hrm, that was FAST! How'd he stop the SUV? He plays it off nicely, adrenaline and all that, not seeing what she thought, fuzzy memory and all that. Good stuff.

Bela doesn't buy it, and goes on doing some research on the Cullen family. Around the same time Bela hangs out with friends at the beach, including her Native American buddy and some light is shown on the Cullen's. All of this is pretty well done. It's not fast paced, but it works. It's all building up nicely. I think it was a bit easy for her to jump to the conclusions she did, but overall it worked.

So Bela is dreaming about Edward, Edward is following around Bela, she's researching his family, eventually she corners him on what he is: a Vampire. Now you have to realize that so far Edward, is protective of her, but standoffish. Why?

Edward can read minds, but not hers. She's unique. Add to this the obvious...she's hot and she's obsessed with him. He REALLY wants to keep her away, because he realizes that she is functionally FOOD. She likes her, doesn't want to hurt her, but as any Vampire story goes, he has a beast inside him that he keeps chained up via willpower. One slip and she's an entree. He knows this and portrays it admirably.

Bela will not be put off by this. No, even though he explains this in detail, she won't be denied. She wants some Edward steak! He's the bad boy, and the good guy...all wrapped in one. Again, a pretty typical desire for anyone. On one hand, everyone wants that hot hunkalicious bad boy/ girl but they also know deep down that they need the loving caretaker too and usually it's hard to get both. Flirting with danger is a common premise in teen stories.

I think the only difference is that Bela is SO angsty, and SO emo it is distracting, and her willingness to throw herself at someone who can't really make it any clearer that she's petting a viper is just awkward. It's beyond any sort of reason and firmly in the realm of obsession.

Eventually she "meets the family" which is a bit weird but cool. It works. Neat to meet the characters that will be a part of the saga. They have an outing and meet other Vampires, including a super-hunter/ tracker guy who decides he wants Bela. No problem. This all turns nasty and ends up with the family secreting Bela away and trying to cover her trail. All this culminates in the capture of Bela and a big climactic fight between Edward and the hunter. Great fight. Awesome effects. Great vampire stuff.

While I would have preferred a stronger female lead or that lead acting more strongly...she's a teen. Actually as a teen she embodies everything I loathe about emo, wailing martyr teenagers. Sweet Zombie Jesus, shut up about how bad you have it. Serious. All the character Bela did was keep me from relating to her character at all. I hated her from the get-go. I really tried not too. I wanted to like the characters. Edward was understandable, I think his character was portrayed nicely. Totally worked. Bela I wanted to get crushed by an SUV...repeatedly.

Who cares about glitter? It worked. It fit the story as portrayed. Vampires are in every single way designed to look desirable. It's a trap. It works.

Yes, I see parallels to Mormonism. Who cares? I mean really. Who gives a shit. It was far less obvious than Neo-Jesus in The Matrix films...by FAR. People need to get over themselves.

I don't like a female character who needs a man to save her. I don't like a female character or any character who is so obsessed that she is drawn in to danger and it is shown as a positive thing. That's not good. Obsession=Bad. I can see teenagers getting Bela. I'm not a teen, but I can certainly see teens understanding and relating to Bela, which is fine. Teens don't have the experience to balance obsession with reality. When I see grown adults "totally relating" to Bela...I see people who need to check in with a Psych STAT!

It's a Vampire film, with money behind it and good effects. The story isn't bad. Everyone is played admirably (except for Bela). It's a good film.

I think if obsession was seen in a negative light instead of rewarded I would have enjoyed it more. If I could have related to Bela's excessively emo portrayal I wouldn't have wanted her to die...repeatedly.

Overall though, I enjoyed the film. It had some serious negatives, so I give it 3 stars out of 5.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Online Forums, opinions and time.

People who know me in person tend to acknowledge that I am the same in-person as online. Personally I count that as a blessing and a compliment. Working in the gaming industry for the past eight years I've been to a number of conventions all over the US and many of my "online friends" have become more like "real friends" because of it.

That said, I have met a great number of people online and in-person that drive me absolutely batty.

A bit of background.
I grew up in a very strict household in Texas. There was no such thing as arguments, excuses, debates, explanations or anything of the sort. Not for me. Between parents maybe...while they were married...but never with me. Speak when spoken to and "No excuses" was it. There was never a good explanation...those were just excuses.

When I grew older I rebelled and went my own way. Honestly I don't know how I still have any friends from the 80's and 90's. I was an argumentative asshole. After two tours in the military (two separate branches) I learned to handle things a bit better...but I was still very much not a person who would be silenced. By GOD I WILL be heard! Nobody will shut me up! I also learned an appreciation for other people that I didn't have before.

While I had been silenced and now refused to be set aside, shut up or dismissed...I wouldn't allow it to happen to others either...least of all by my doing.

Opinions became more and less important. Good conversation, good debate with people with open minds or at least not entirely closed ones became important.

In the gaming industry there are a number of forums. Online you can find a forum for everything. Several usually. I used to subscribe to several and fought battles with trolls regularly. Now I don't.

I guess at some point I just ran out of interest. Not in my hobbies, work or things I'm interested in (I still have difficulty admitting any "fandom" as it has such a negative connotation.)

I'm a busy guy. I'm also a selfish motherfucker when it comes to my time. I work a lot. Freelancers usually do. At least the ones that do it full-time. I work a regular work day on contracted work, and squeeze in additional work for nights and weekends. That leaves me little time for what I love: games. I try and get in a weekly RPG session and maybe play on the Xbox360 a couple nights a week after work. My weekends are usually tied up with either work or X360 or painting miniatures. That's about it.

What I have little time for is online forums.

Often the forums are filled to the brim with eager fans with strong opinions who have no other venue to be heard. Forums are a haven for Trolls, who have nothing better to do than make trouble and argue. They have sad little lives with no personal power, so they take it from others by being a cockbag to others online. In "the old days" you would simply come home, holler at the wife and kids, kick the dog and drink a beer and watch Monday Night Football. In the internet era, they go online and beat up on other fans.

You get these people who have shitty jobs where they are told what to do and they have no say-so, no power and they chafe at it. Their lives are going nowhere and they can't get away with arguing with their boss/ spouse/ kids or people in-person...so they go to the internet where they are anonymous and act like a complete twat to whoever crosses their path. Sad really.

This of course is a complete over-generalization.
You also have people with an agenda to push, or an opinion to validate. You also have what I call the silent majority who come and go who I think just come along to see what's up, get some info, and are never heard from again. If you look at any forum the ratio of "members" to "active members" is almost always skewed. I always feel bad for the poor bastard who comes online to ask a question or post an opinion on something he's excited about...to be curb-stomped by some "active member" asshole who needed someone new to shit on. I digress.

To be honest, most people don't want to have to think. Especially they don't want to have to RE-think a position/ opinion/ agenda. They want validation. A pat on the head and an agreement. Yes-men. Oh they rarely admit it, but in this age of doing more with less, budget crunches, stress, short attention spans, as well as a changing culture of political correctness and social softness...people are still getting chewed out but not able to handle it.


20 years ago it was far more common to get an ass-chewing at work and we were inured to it. Now we have this feeling of oppression. "They can't talk to me like that, I'll call HR and complain. This is a Hostile Work Environment!" What happens? People come home and pass their feelings of oppression on to others.

It's human nature to complain. I was an Infantryman. I don't think anyone bitches as much about their job as Infantrymen. There is this deep seated need to vent. Your job/ marriage/ life sucks...you want to vent. Many people feel hurt by how their days (lives) have turned out. Unfortunately many pass this on to others. Not only to they complain, but they form defensive opinions and theories to justify themselves. Misery loves company. Misery creates many bullies...especially online.

You know what? I'm not that kind of guy. I love my job. I'm not oppressed. I go (well...went) on forums to chit chat with other fans and be helpful. On forums such as RPGnet...I have no place. Honestly it is SO overflowing with loud opinionated assholes with no interest other than giving grief, arguing, pushing an agenda or otherwise spreading negative shite that I really just don't have the time for it. Same is true with many RPG sites.

Hobby sites (minis stuff) tend to be a little better as long as you stick to hobby-related stuff. Stay the hell away from any sort of rules discussion (where the rules lawyers reign supreme and can argue to their black little heart's content) or fluff discussion (where everyone has a set opinion and will never flex from it).

Pretty slim pickens, huh?

I'm an opinionated guy, just like anyone else. I think what sets me apart is that I try exceedingly hard to be objective, listen as much as I speak and remain respectful of the opinions of others. What sets me on fire is the guys who are completely disrespectful of the opinions of others. I have a happy life and I like to share it. I get tired of miserable people and their negative crap...and their willingness to spread it in order to make themselves feel better.

Opinions are like assholes...everyone has one and they are all equally stinky.
When it comes down to it, your opinion is no more, or no less important and or valid than mine (and vice versa).

Facts are different, but most folks seem to pose their opinions like facts. Blegh. Whatever.

Like I said, I'm a busy guy. My time is limited and I'm very selfish about it. I simply have no time or patience for online tom-foolery. RPG forums just have little to offer. Occasionally some good material comes up (like on RPGnet regarding stolen/ "used without permission" artwork for publications. Very important for someone like me! Unfortunately I had to dig through 20+ pages of ranty arguments and legalese over whether the subject could be brought up and arguing over who can tell whom to shut up.

Yes, I read the whole thing. I'm also a reviewer. I ALWAYS read the whole thing. I can't stand the idea of writing or even worse...commenting about something I haven't fully absorbed.

The point is, 20+ pages of thread for maybe one page of real data. The meat. I got one page of good material, one headache, and an urge for whiskey and cola...at 6:30 AM.

Now tell me that is worth it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2- Review

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Activision/ Infinity Ward
Basic/ Hardened Edition for the Xbox360

This version of the COD franchise picks up where Modern Warfare left off. Five years after the events of COD4 we see the next batch of elite soldiers hunting the uber-terrorist for hire Makarov. "Soap" McTavish returns in the mentor role that Captain Price held in COD4.

The single player campaign is as before...simply brilliant. Infinity Ward really pulled out all the stops on it. My only complaint is that it is so short. The SP Campaign is well written. It has a few plot twists that I didn't see coming, which always counts as a win in my book.

At the beginning of the game there is a disclaimer and warning about one of the scenes and you are given the option to skip the questionable scene with no negative repercussions. The scene in question gave me a moment of pause, but it certainly fit the story. I had no real problem with its inclusion, though I'm sure some will.

Moving on to what the COD series is all about: Multiplayer!
Things have been tuned up for MW2 in a way that I wholly approve of.
First off...it's lethal. I've always preferred Hardcore play and thought Core play on COD4 was a bit silly: you could hose on people and they could shrug it off, ESPECIALLY with perks like Juggernaut. Now it seems that the Core game is fast and lethal. The weapons hit pretty hard, and Hardcore isn't all that different from Core (excepting friendly fire and lack of HUD).

Weapons: Wow, what a stunning array of glorious killy death. Available at the beginning of the game even! There are a lot more guns available in this version and nifty ways to upgrade them, including "Bling" versions with multiple (2) add-ons. I'm fining some weapons and scopes in this version considerably easier to use effectively. For example the ACOG scope in COD4 was always a pain for me. I always got tunnel vision and lost peripheral awareness. Not so now, very nice. Add to this thermal sights and heartbeat sensors. GEEKGASM!

Perks: This system has many of the old standby goodies we're used to, and many MANY more. It's not simply overload (as I feared). They really revamped how the perk system works. Perks now become enhanced with play and affect multiple things when enhanced. For example "Stopping Power" is one I usually use (as I'm a horrible shot...I need each one to count). Stopping Power when enhanced gives a bonus against vehicles. This is just the tip of the iceberg kids!

Maps: Good solid maps. None are seemingly "broken" in the respect for favoring one style of play overwhelmingly. That rat bastard sniper may have some advantages in "Quarry" but there are always several ways to skin that cat. Of course they are all beautiful. There are several good maps to choose from and so far the rotation seems excellent. Even after playing for days now I get on a map and say "have we played this one before".

I think the best descriptor for MW2 is simply "More". More goodness. More weapons, more perks, more killstreaks (and deathstreaks), more player options (callsign, symbol, banners). Drones, UAVs that can be shot down, Harrier Jump Jets, Sentry Guns, more, More, MORE!

Thing is, it's not just more...it's BETTER! They were really smart about how things were added. They took their time, and really playtested the hell out of this. I'll be the first to admit that while I LOVE FPS games, I suck at them. MW2 has helped me bring up my game through smooth gameplay, deathstreaks and just an enhanced way of getting in the fight and being effective. For example when you get a killstreak, and call in say a C-130 Gunship (shudder) those kills don't count towards your next streak (something in COD4 that was certainly unbalancing. The guys who were better got more and more powerful and it was almost impossible to catch up to them. )

Overall it's a very exciting game. It stands up easily next to the rest of the COD series and as far as gameplay goes, it's unparalleled. It's really that good. Unlike some releases this year, this game is worth the pricetag. You will most certainly get hours of entertainment out of this and see a good return on the $60 you drop to get it.

Get the basic version. I got the Hardened edition and you get a cheap metal DVD/ CD case and a $5 thin book; totally not worth the extra $20.

Awesome gameplay, great story, tremendous value are all a big plus.
Short story (campaign was only 5 hrs of play) and chintzy goodies in the Hardened edition are a small minus.
4 out of 5 Stars for the Hardened Edition.
5 out of 5 Stars for the Basic Edtion.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Marvel Encyclopedia- Review

The Marvel Encyclopedia- 70th Anniversary

2009 Revised Edition (Advanced Review Copy)
by Tom DeFalco, Peter Sanderson, Tom Brevoort, Michael Teitelbaum, Daniel Wallace, Andrew Darling and Matt Forbeck.

Celebrate 70 years of Marvel Comics with The Marvel Encyclopedia! Fully updated with new images and text, this one-volume encyclopedia contains more than 1,000 of Marvel's greatest-from well-known characters such as Spider-Man, the Hulk and Wolverine to lesser known heroes and villains. An essential book both for new fans and for those who grew up loving the comics, The Marvel Encyclopedia is full of artwork, stats, and history for every character in the Marvel Universe. Updates on characters include information from the story arcs of Civil War and Annihilation, and brings fans up to date with the aftermath of Secret Invasion.

This is a massive tome of all things Marvel. Seriously. It’s a 50 pound hardcover of comic book awesome! Ok, maybe not 50 pounds, but it’s a bullet stopper for sure!

I’ve been a fan of Marvel Comics since I was a kid and the comics took a massive jump to a whopping 35 Cents! Comics have changed so much over the years. More than I knew before delving in to the Marvel Encyclopedia. Holy CRAP! This book delves in to every character, major and minor That I have ever heard of and many I hadn’t. It gives all kinds of details on origins, secret identities, story arcs and issues they are showcased in.

As always, the artwork is stunning. There are several large entries for special groups and events like The Avengers, The Death of Captain America, Civil War, The Gods of Asgard and the many variations of The Hulk.

One of the nicest things about the Marvel Encyclopedia is that you can catch up on a lot of the important story arcs. For example the X-Men entry explains several of the more convoluted plots and ties them together nicely (Story A ties also to House of M and Story B dovetails in to The Illuminati and then in to Civil War). I’ll be honest…I haven’t been able to keep up with all the titles Marvel produces for many years. Actually I only ever kept up with a few at a time and then picked up tie-in issues where I could. I usually missed out on several awesome stories until the graphic novels came out. One thing that’s extra nice is that with the Marvel Encyclopedia you know how and where to find all the best parts of each series like the Mutant Massacre, Coming of Apocalypse and the Secret Wars.

This is a fantastic collection of Marvel Comics lore. As awesome as this tome of knowledge is, I think it is the art that makes it really pop. Every single page is heavily laden with art from the respective series’; easily over a thousand images of heroes, villains, sidekicks and monsters. This is a fantastic book.

How do I rate it? 400 Pages of hardbound Marvel Comics goodness! ‘Nuff Said.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Ghost King-Review

The Ghost King: Transitions Book III, By R.A. Salvatore
(Advance Copy)
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast (October 6, 2009)

“When the Spellplague ravages Faerûn, Drizzt and his companions are caught in the chaos. Seeking out the help of the priest Cadderly–the hero of the recently reissued series The Cleric Quintet–Drizzt finds himself facing his most powerful and elusive foe, the twisted Crenshinibon, the demonic crystal shard he believed had been destroyed years ago.”

I think one of the coolest parts of writing reviews is not only getting to read a lot of material, but to really get in to the nuts and bolts of how that material is “assembled”. In this case I have been fortunate to read a LOT of Forgotten Realms novel by R.A. Salvatore as well as others such as Paul Kemp. Having read all the “Drizzt Novels” to date, I can say with certainty that the author has improved his craft greatly over the years.

R.A. Salvatore, like any writer clearly has a deep relationship with many of his characters. While some writers are able to outline and crank out material in a mechanical fashion more often then not they go through a sort of adventure of their own; discovering the world and characters as they write. It’s like a journey for the characters as well as the writer. In doing so the author learns to love and hate characters and tries to share it with us…the readers.

I think it is a measure of success when the author is able to manipulate the heart-strings of the reader, and R.A. Salvatore has done a masterful job at this over the years. Some times more than others, I admit it. I don’t expect a baseball player to hit a home run every time at the plate. I don’t expect a writer to write “the perfect novel” every time either. Stephen King is a good example of this.

R.A. Salvatore has been building up steam throughout this whole series. Transitions. In the Transitions series we are seeing the tale of how Faerun is going through some massive changes. Much of the face of The Forgotten Realms will be different afterward. At the heart of this are changes in direction and flavor of D&D 4th Edition and the 4e Forgotten Realms setting.

Like it or not, love it or hate it, Wizards of the Coast owns D&D and the setting that these novels reside in, and they have mandated change.

Our intrepid author is responsible for writing novels explaining how we get from the Forgotten Realms we have all known for the past 25 years…to this new setting.

What does that mean for the author? It means that in the jump in time that occurs the vast majority of humans and short-lived races will have died and left some sort of legacy (or not). Many of the characters which have been so lovingly crafted will die. That means core protagonists (and antagonists) will be no more.

R.A. Salvatore in this series has been building this up, and I have to say, he has most certainly delivered.

Without spoiling the story for you, I’ll say that all the protagonists and antagonists have a rough ride through the story. The Spellplague is up-close and personal in this novel. Actually, previous to this novel I thought the Spellplague to be a little trite. A game designer’s tool to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Salvatore put a “human” face on it, made it personal. Now I get it. Now I understand it and accept it and in the process understand how we can leave the previous edition’s Faerun for the new future.

I can’t help to feel sorry for the author in this. You can certainly feel the pain. You know something is coming. It’s like watching a train wreck…you just can’t look away. This is a book of heroism in the face of impossible odds. Acceptance of fate as well as stoic denial of it. It’s about loss…and hope.

There is only so much I can say about it. Usually I can drone on and on about this or that in a novel. Not this time. You have to read it for yourself. It’s good. Seriously. Probably R.A. Salvatore’s best work. I cried like a baby. It took several tries to get through the last dozen pages.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reviews, the internet, anonymity and being a prick

Among other things I am a reviewer. I review novels and games for a variety of websites...including my own (I need to have some content of my own too).

As a reviewer I have a kind of oath with myself that I will fully read the material and review the material honestly. I will focus on what is written. I will NOT delve in to the author as a person as really that's none of my business. The author's skill at telling a tale or a game developer's skill at crafting a plot (or lack therof) is fair game, but calling out an author as a douchebag is strictly verboten.

1. Respect. I am a professional at what I do, and the author or developer is as well. I respect what they do and the efforts they make. Sometimes we excel at what we do and sometimes we fall short. Not every novel is going to be a Best Seller nor is every game going to be a hit. It's just the nature of things. There is no malice involved in any of my reviews. I review products as objectively as possible. PRODUCTS...not the people who made it. I put my own bias, expectations and fandoms aside and judge the book/ game as it is.

2. When I look for a product to buy, I look for reviews that are as objective and complete as possible. I want someone who has read the book fully and can comment honestly about their opinion of it. Now you must realize that I don't take one review as gospel. I read several. The best reviews I can find. From those I decide whether the novel/ game is worth my time. We all have limited time these days. I find the fanboy ranty hater reviews (as well as the fanboy OMFG I LOVE IT-reviews) absolutely worthless. Those reviewers have an agenda and the material either agreed or disagreed with it and they now rant/ rave about it. Total rubbish IMO.

3. The internet is an amazing thing. We have the ability to do almost anything. If I want to go online and call out every douchebag in the world from behind a wall of anonymity, I can do that. If an author shits on my favorite character or writes a game that changes canon as it has always been, throwing the IP under the bus, I can write a review saying that Gav Johnson is a total fucktard! You betcha!
But why?
Just because you CAN do something doesn't mean you should.
I can't speak for everyone, but I'm not so ego-centric that I believe MY opinion is anymore (in)valid than anyone else's. For every person who hates that dastardly Gav Johnson guy, there is another one who is pleased as punch at the changes made. Besides, authors/ designers don't operate in a vacuum, they are given overall direction (well...at least on shared-world fiction). People need to understand that there are many things going on, decisions made behind the scenes before anything is written.

I tend to review a lot of game fiction. These are based on shared-worlds. For example Wizards of the Coast's Forgotten Realms setting is one I tend to review fairly often. I have reviewed a lot of R.A Salvatore's Novels. I would like to believe that I have given Mr. Salvatore an honest, forthright and fair review of his novels. I think he's an exceptional writer. I have given some of his novels less-than-stellar reviews due to superheroic characters that are nigh-impossible to challenge. I believe that Mr. Salvatore has improved his craft over time (and he was never a bad author at any time) and I also firmly believe that there are likely dictates from on-high that he is given regarding what he writes.

I think shared-world fiction writers in some ways write with one hand tied behind their back. The publisher has a direction for the setting and the writer writes within those boundaries. Some things they can fiddle with, some things not. These things change over time. Once upon a time the Black Library would have never published a book with a Xenos protagonist. Not so today. When games are developed, the publisher has a direction they are going. This is true whether the publisher is Wizards of the Coast or Games Workshop. The writers often have the overall course plotted for them and they get to write within those boundaries. Depending on the publisher those boundaries may be written in sand or blocked in with stone.

When I write a review I have to take all this in to consideration.
While I may dislike the overall direction of D&D 4E and the changes to the Forgotten Realms in order to bring the timeline current to the newest edition of the game world (spellplague, death of many gods and characters, re-shaping the lands) I'm not about to hide behind a facade of anonymity and say that Cam Kemp is a douchebag because he killed off my favorite character. These guys are mandated to a certain degree to advance the timeline and many things will happen: characters WILL die. "You can either write them a nice death, or you can write for someone else"

I think it is a western civilization-thing and an American-thing in particular, but we tend to want someone to blame. We are also completely ego-centric and tend to think only of what WE like, OUR favorite characters, MY favorite codex or special character and really give less than a shit about anyone else. Authors and Game Devlopers tend to catch the brunt of this in the teeth, which is really sad. Honestly I think it wouldn't be anywhere NEAR as bad if people could treat others with a modicum of respect...regardless of internet distance.

There is no excuse for being an internet arse-hole.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Pirate King by R. A. Salvatore, a Review

The Pirate King is the Second novel of the Transitions series by R.A. Salvatore. The hardcover edition was released in the US on July 2009 (reprint edition).

“Captain Deudermont has sailed to the pirate city of Luskan on a mission--a mission to once and for all defeat the true power behind the corrupt city: a wicked lich and his cabal of evil wizards from the Host Tower of the Arcane. But the Host Tower has some tricks up its sleeve, as do the pirate captains who would like to see both sides fail.”

As many know, the Forgotten Realms is changing. With the advent of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition the FR timeline is being advanced approximately 100 years. The various "Drizzt Novels" so far have been set earlier in the timeline (corresponding with 2nd Edition AD&D and D&D 3rd Edition/ 3.5). The "Transitions Series" is an attempt to reconcile the two converging timelines, bridging the gap between the setting we all know (and love) and the new setting which has MANY stark differences.

"When we last left off" Drizzt and Regis were heading to Luskan on the way North to Icewind Dale to visit Wulfgar, who had left some months prior.

Arriving in Luskan they find strange plots afoot. Captain Deudermont was in Luskan with a small army to topple the Host Tower of the Arcane.

Ironically when I started reading this I had just started running a Luskan-centric campaign so I was anxious to get the nitty-gritty on the Who's Who of Luskan. This book as absolutely essential for this. It breaks down how the city really works: alliances, attitudes, who controls what amongst the Five High Captains as well as all the major players in the Host Tower as well as Mirabar etc. You can easily see which Captains are stronger/ weaker which ones are allied, which ones are back-stabbing the others. Overall it’s a complicated web of deceit, but the novel breaks it all down. If you were even considering running a campaign set in Luskan prior to the Spellplague, this novel is absolutely essential.

The Pirate King is an interesting story in a number of ways. Aside from really illustrating how an important city in Faerun is changed it is good because you see major characters get in to trouble that they cannot get out of.

Now, you may be asking whether I hate the Forgotten Realms or its characters since I like to see them in helpless situations. I would answer no. I actually love the setting as well as the characters, but I do like drama and when I read a book, I want to have my heart-strings pulled by the author. To that, often I believe the author needs to respect his characters enough to give them depth and sometimes to hurt (or even kill) them if the story requires it.

R.A. Salvatore usually does a good job of this with tertiary characters: build them up, get you to like them…then do horrible things to them. With the primary characters...not as much. They get depth on occasion, and with every story the author has done a wonderful job in really giving Drizzt, Regis, Enteri, Jarlaxle etc. additional bits of depth. However I have to admit that they rarely seem in REAL danger. Occasionally they are, but in most cases the protagonists tend to far outclass the antagonists; whether by skill, luck, the will of the gods or magical trinkets.

In the last several novels R. A. Salvatore has produced though the stakes have gotten higher in many ways. This novel: The Pirate King is an excellent example of that. I would recommend The Sellswords Series as well.

Without giving away the whole story, the author weaves a fine tale about how Luskan is changed. The protagonists are faced with a very complicated situation and in my opinion they handle it in the expected manner yet that method is insufficient. The result is a very good tale of how good intentions can go very wrong.

There were only a couple sections that I found implausible or didn't understand what happened and had to re-read it. I was greatly amused at how easily Greeth, the Lich deals with Drizzt. Absolutely priceless.

Some parts of the overall plot are drawn out in a manner to make it a surprise in the end. Regular readers should easily see the end coming but it was still done very well. It was good to see characters like Morik the Rogue make a return. God I feel bad for that poor fool: he is a tool of powers far greater than him and he'll likely never escape.

Overall, I think this "Drizzt Story" does a very find job of putting every character in peril. Protagonists and Antagonists alike, making judgmental mistakes occasionally being easily turned out or defeated due to poor planning, error and bad luck.

I like my "heroes" fallible. I like them to learn from mistakes and have to dust them off after taking a fall. I think in many cases Drizzt and his band of super-heroes haven't done this but have Forrest Gump'd their way through adversity to success. I also think that the author is getting better and better with each novel in delivering deeper characters and stories and allowing the prize characters to get a little dirty...which I applaud!

I'm now really looking forward to The Ghost King: Transitions Book III!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


It seems I have become a cartographer. Over the years I've done a LOT of maps. I just finished some work for Crafty Games on their Fantasy Craft line and am starting on a half-dozen more for Rogue Games and their Colonial Gothic line (which I do a lot of work for anyhow).

I think it all started when I was 17 and joined the Navy. I was a quartermaster which deals with navigation and charts. I was always fascinated by maps and charts but it really sunk in when I worked on them regularly. Later when I was in the Army as an Infantryman I dealt with land navigation and maps a LOT as well. Add my gamer-geekery and I was soon making maps for everything. I think the original maps in The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings had a huge impact as well.

Anyhow, I dig maps. Hand drawn LOTR-type maps the most but with my Photoshop skills I can do all sorts of maps now. It's a pretty cool way of taking something you love and making it a day-job.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Entitlement, good business and opinions...

Starting off I'd like to reference a brilliant article by Neil Gaiman regarding entitlement issues.
In summary it says the author is not the bitch of the consumer. The author writes a stunning novel or a series of them, and while the fans may love the work and cry for more, they aren't really entitled to anything more. They bought a book and they enjoyed it. Great!

I think this applies to the game industry as well.

Publishers make a product. They pour months and sometimes years of work in to that nifty game you play with your friends on Tuesday nights. It's theirs to do with as they choose. If they decide to change it...that is their decision.

Case in point: Wizards of the Coast has ownership of the D&D intellectual property. They have been developing it for years and the game has changed a lot since they got a hold of it. Now while people can cry all day long about which version of D&D is the "Truest Version" ultimately it means nothing. WotC isn't the bitch of the consumer.

Now before you get your knickers in a knot...I'm not saying that there aren't repercussions to business decisions. not at all. Bear with me a moment please.

I am a publisher: I made Dorks and Donkeys the RPG. I have fans. People love my game. I decide to change the rules to better fit my IP. I publish Dorks and Donkeys Ver 2.0. People complain that it is different and not as close to the original. They say I twinked X and nerfed Y. My purposes? Honestly it doesn't matter but as a publisher...a business, my primary goal is to A. stay in business and b. create something cool. I believe an assumption can be made here that every business will try and expand their customers while trying to retain the current ones as much as possible.

You are a consumer. You bought Dorks and Donkeys. You love it. When Ver 2.0 came out...you bought it too. You're dissatisfied with the direction the game took. "It's just not Dorks and Donkeys!"

Does the publisher owe the consumer anything more? Not really. They made a game. Some people love it. Some people hate it. The publisher hopes to net more lovers of it than haters. What option does the consumer have? Play the version you liked. Don't buy the new version you loathe so much. Play something else.

There is, has been, and always will be an extremely vocal minority (thank you internet) who will wail like lost sheep about anything they don't like. Many of these are the same ones who complained about the previous version...one before that, as well as claim how the publisher is an evil empire out to throw their baby under the bus. Some people you can't please regardless of what you do.

This is the reality of business. Like it or hate it...it is what it is. Deal.

I do have an opinion on how creative businesses should run. I believe the IP holder should be faithful to the IP as much as possible. Intellectual Property is like gold. If you make something cool with it...it becomes richer and more valuable. If you squander it, it becomes worthless. Pretty simple.
That's my opinion. Publishers are under no need to adhere to MY vision of good business practices.

A great example here is Games Workshop. While their games are cool and all, I'm really indifferent about them. If a new version of the rules/ codex/ supplement comes out I'm not too concerned about it. I know for a fact that they value their IP like it was a goose laying solid gold eggs. Everything in their business model boils down to selling little toy soldiers. The minis games are a part of this, but so are several other factors (novels, video games, RPGs, swag, etc).

People complain regularly and loudly about this or that developer (Jervis Johnson catches a lot of flack but so do several others) and how they are ruining their game. Honestly, I think that the developers do their job. A corporation (especially publicly traded ones) are answerable to their shareholders. The top echelons decide the overall business direction...which I can guarantee includes staying in business and polishing their golden eggs. Developers are driven to do the very best they can to grow the game, make it fun for the largest common denominator while retaining as many of the old-school die-hards as they can. Developers make stuff that is cool. Not every idea works, but that's why there tend to be several developers as well as teams of play-testers for a reality check.

My opinion is that as long as the publishers protect/ encourage/ develop their IP while trying to capture a larger market share, while retaining as many of the existing fanbase...then they are doing the right thing.

Here's where things get messy...
In trying to expand/ develop the IP it is possible to alienate more people than expected/ capture less of the market share than expected. There are so many factors involved here it is ridiculous. From marketing, to developent to the economy to unforeseen occurances in the media, even "acts of god" can affect this.

So what about the consumer and their entitlement?
Essentially, they have none. They buy a book, they get a book. They buy a game...that's it.
I can cry all day long about how D&D 4E "just isn't D&D" but at the end of the day, when they count the till...it IS D&D. If I don't like it, I don't need to buy it. They don't owe me anything. They don't answer to me as far as the direction of their development. While I think Vancian Magic as well as a dozen other weird, quirky oddities of game system were what made Dungeons and Dragons what it is...WotC decided otherwise. Time will tell if their business and development decisions will enhance or devalue the D&D IP or not.

It's my opinion that player feedback and development is a never-ending cycle and good/ smart publishers listen to feedback, that's not necessarily a requirement nor is there any reasonable expectation that my whiny voice will be heard among the masses. Game forums (and blogs) are filled to the brim with amateur critics and vocal reviewers crying to the heavens for their voice to be heard. Largely I avoid these like the plague because they end up being the same old story of 'OMG LISTEN TO ME' monologues and negativity wedged between trolls and power-trippers. It's pretty rare when anyone looks at the big picture.

If your favorite author writes a book, buy it, enjoy it, hope they write another one. Support that author. Hope they don't die falling off the roof making shingle repairs and don't begrudge them a moment's peace to play Nazi Zombies.

If your favorite game changes, you can either accept the change and roll with it, or play the previous version you loved/ play something else. If you love it, support it. If you don't, then move on.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

LFNE: Little Fears Nightmare Edition

I am very happy to announce that Little Fears Nightmare Edition will be released in Print and PDF on Monday, October 19th 2009!

Pre-orders are scheduled to start next Wednesday, September 16th. Information on pricing and pre-order bundles will be announced then as well.


Friday, July 24, 2009


I can't believe that a few of the products I worked on, have been a participant of, contributed to have been nominated for Ennies.
That alone is the high point of my career.
Seriously. EVER.

38 years old, don't a lot of things.
THIS is the high water mark.

I am unbelievably stoked.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Courage and Honour by Graham McNeill: Review

By Graham McNeill
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Black Library

The noble Ultramarines epitomize the Space Marines, the genetically enhanced warriors who protect the Imperium from its foes. Newly returned from the Eye of Terror, Captain Uriel Ventris must redeem himself in the eyes of his battle–brothers, who fear he may have been tainted by Chaos. When the planet Pavonis is invaded by tau, what better opportunity could Uriel have to join his Chapter in combat and prove that his honour is beyond reproach?

Courage and Honour is the fifth book in the hugely successful Ultramarines series featuring the Courageous Captain Uriel Ventris and his Veteran Sergeant Pasanius.

This book is in many ways like coming full circle in the series. Uriel Ventris’ first mission as captain was to put down a rebellion on the Imperial world, Pavonis and this novel has the 4th company returning to the same troubled planet.

Following shortly after the events of The Killing Ground, we are shown flashback scenes of the testing of Ventris and Pasanius. Testing them both for purity: Mind and Body. After all, these two Astartes have been alone and fighting their way back from the Eye of Terror, a mission which should have most likely claimed his life (and possibly his soul).

For those not familiar, Uriel Ventris and Pasanius were found guilty of heretical deviations from the Codex Astartes, the penalty for which is death. In lieu of death they were bound by a Death Oath and exiled from the Chapter. Tasked to hunt down daemons by Marneus Calgar they embarked on a long series of adventures in the Eye of Terror, only barely surviving to tell the tale. For these stories see the Ultramarines Omnibus and The Killing Ground, same publisher, same author.

Upon arriving on Pavonis things are awkward. The remaining characters from the previous time the Ultramarines were on Pavonis are still here, albeit much older. Not everything has gone as planned. Also present are a number of new characters which are rich and colorful. Thankfully Graham McNeill has done a wonderful job of giving each of the characters some “camera time” in order to really flesh them out. When reading any book I really want to have some connection to the characters. I don’t have to necessarily relate to them, but I have to at least care a little about them otherwise they are just names on a page, which is almost pointless. McNeill is a pro when it comes to this.

In addition to being “An Ultramarines Novel” you get to see several other things which some may love, and others may hate. There are two allied forces on Pavonis as well: the Planetary Defense Forces and a Regiment of Imperial Guard. Both are led by interesting characters who contribute in very cool ways to the plot.

The antagonists to the story are The Tau Empire. The insight in to the methodology of this Xenos race is fantastic. McNeill really nailed it. On one hand he makes the “Greater Good” of the Tau seem totally preferable to the (honestly) heinously fascist Imperium of Man…Yet on the other you see an insidious side that says “Join us…OR ELSE”.

Anyone who knows anything of the Warhammer 40,000 universe knows that it is DARK. It is a GRIM future where Humanity is beset on all sides by Chaos and Xenos races out to destroy it. The Imperium of Man is also of the mindset of “KILL THEM ALL” in order to insure the manifest destiny of the supremacy of mankind. The Imperium is a horrific place, without a doubt. It’s against this oppressive backdrop that the colorful characters, great deeds of selflessness, honor and courage are illuminated.

Graham McNeill does a wonderful job of peeking under the hood of the almost “altruistically good” seeming Xenos and showing both sides of that face.

As far as the battle scenes, they were good. Some were better than others. With any war novel it can seem like battle scenes take almost too long. Ironically many of the battle scenes could have been lifted from Team-Yankee by Harold Coyle or Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy. The smell of promethium or cordite, the taste of gravel, dust and muck. The blinding flash of tank rounds impacting and the destruction of buildings and bridges easily could have been from World War 2 or Vietnam. The scenes fit the setting, and were “real enough” to have come from actual reports of battle.

The novel definitely has a message. It goes over why Uriel Ventris’ decision to deviate from the Codex Astartes was ultimately wrong. It identifies this and in the end re-hashes it repeatedly. It’s kind of like being beaned in the head with the Codex Astartes. Now I realize that this is a story coming full circle. While the Ultramarines seem hidebound and rigid in adherence to the very letter of the law/ codex this novel reinforces the WHY of it in spades. My take on it is that it’s a little overdone, but I can understand why. In some ways it seems like it illustrates throughout the novel “Adhere to the codex= Success, Deviate from the codex =Fail”.

There ARE some interesting lessons learned. Hubris is possible in anyone. We see it in the antagonists, but we can also see it in the heroes. Self-Belief is good, but at some point it can turn in to arrogance…and we get to see that in some of the characters in the novel. It’s good to see how characters you admire or kind of like, can turn on you and go down a path that you feel awkward with and see that slippery slope down in to “evil”. Again Graham McNeill tells a story that has little snippets that can easily apply today. Issues that could easily be pulled from today’s newspaper. I can’t speak for everyone but I love that. It reminds me of TV shows and Movies that have stories that are fictional, yet speak volumes about the issues of the day.

Overall it’s a good novel. I burned through it in one sitting and only had one moment where I was lost (I had apparently skipped a page). I think Ultramarines fans will get more out of this than your general reader. It’s a good war novel, but in many ways it the standard Space Marine fare; a little less memorable than Graham McNeill’s other efforts. This is hard to grade because I’ve read books by this author that literally blew me away; knocked my socks off. So judging honestly, this novel on it’s own versus other novels (and a hint of what I know the author can do) I’m grading this one 3 out of 5 Stars.

Monday, June 8, 2009

You ever have one of those days...

...where it seems that everything you do sucks?
Yeah, me too.
Sometimes I look at my work and all I see are my mistakes, stuff that is wrong, off or otherwise out of whack.
I tend to be my own worst critic. I think part of this has to do with being a creative person and knowing every single stroke of the pen or pencil intimately. I KNOW where all the mess ups are, even if the AD doesn't see it.

It's pretty rare when I submit a piece of work and am actually satisfied with the result. Usually I reach a point in the work where I have to draw a line and call it complete, like it or not due to my level of ability weighed against time constraints. I haven't had an AD come back yet that was unhappy with my work...or at least they haven't said so. I still work with all the ADs I've done work for in the past, so my assumption is that i must be doing okay.

That said, OKAY isn't good enough. I know I can do better. I draw every single day, and some parts get easier...some parts I still struggle with.

I think that the problem is just me: I'm never satisfied with my work. It really doesn't matter how well I do...I still see the flaws. I think that's why I do depend on outside critique (and kudos). I have a hard time patting myself on the back.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A couple orthos...

Subject matter is copyright Games Workshop. No threat to their IP is intended.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sketchy Bits:

*Fan Art all:

Space Marine vs Eldar

The land of Ulthuan

Swordmaster versus Blackguard

*Fan Art. Subject Matter is Copyright Games Workshop. No infringement of their IP is intended.

Note all are WiPs and none are completed. Unfortunately I'm driven by a number of deadlines and have little time for drawing for ME and what I want to draw. Of course, fan art doesn't pay. Still...I could draw GW stuff all day long and I'd do it for FREE (well...or almost free). I just don't have the chops to make it to THAT level.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Online Publishing for Hacks?

March of the Illiterati in E Flat

May 27, 2009

Written by Karen D. Swim

Original article is HERE.

Two weeks ago, my Grandmother retired her old school TV Antenna for a digital converter box. If the FCC had not mandated that the US switch to digital on June 12th, my Gran would have kept using the rabbit ears.

In the world of early adopters one might say my Gran is a no bloomer. Yet, her diehard dedication to “rabbit ears” is not unlike those who hopelessly cling to the notion that social media is worthless and digital media is solely for the illiterati.

In a recent conversation with an erudite writer, I listened to what has become a familiar litany:

People who publish on the internet are not real writers. I am a noted journalist/writer/editor and accustomed to spending 6 weeks, writing 15 drafts before publishing.

My crowd is very literate and will not possibly be on Twitter. ( I pull up Twitter screen) Oh, look there’s Bill /Jane/ Buffy, they’re on Twiter?

I do not have time to waste engaging in urbane conversations with plebian strangers.

Internet publishing is for hacks.

Overlooking the fact that I had just been called a moronic hack who spends time on inane platforms talking to a motely bunch of idiots, I patiently explained this new world that has “killed newspapers” and made superstars out of the unknown. I politely declined to point out that a truly impressive insult would have described “my people” as having brains as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage.

Alas, we no longer use insults such as: “Away!, Thou art poison to my blood.” Yet, in spite of the evolution of the English language we have managed to make amazing discoveries, and advances. Who’da thunk it? (See what fun online writing can be?)

Those who view online writing as a dumbing down of provocative thoughts and ideas are missing the point entirely. It is an expansion of creative thought, discussion and collective collaboration. While other forms of publishing aim to “talk at” digital publishers “talk to.” It’s the sharing and exchange of ideas and information in real time.

Literature, and great writing are not dying, we are simply evolving in the way we communicate. Many will hold on until the bitter end, until change has steamrolled over them leaving no other choice but the truly erudite will not only embrace the change but lead the way.

What do you think? Are we diminishing the art of writing with online publishing?

My Reply:

I’m an illustrator as my day job. I draw pictures. Do I have a problem with the millions of people on Deviantart, Flickr or who have themselves published via online zine or small press?

Not At ALL.
I can’t stand “gatekeepers” who feel they have some privilege of doing what they do; whether art, writing or basket weaving.

I see it that I nave absolutely NO right to tell anyone what they can or can’t do. I can however encourage people to do what they love…whatever that is. Please…show off your stuff! Get critiques, Improve! Keep doing it every day.

Does this in any way cheapen the work of a creative? Not one bit. Actually it’s the bunghole gatekeepers who ruin it for many.

Honestly, what is the difference between published writer/ artist/ basket weaver and the home published zine person? Honestly, I give less than a damn whether you’re published or not. That doesn’t mean you’re any good. It means absolutely nothing. There’s tons of really GOOD folks out there who aren’t published or are diamonds in the rough who should be ENCOURAGED and included instead of derided as “pft, unpublished” and excluded.

1. Who gives anyone the right to deride or dismiss anyone?
2. What is the difference between published and unpublished creatives?

Seriously…I think there is a sliding scale of skill and everyone is on the road (or should be) of improvement, regardless of whether or how something is put out for the world to see.

Honestly my own scale is dependent on skill, effort, natural talent and people who are willing to learn, listen as well as be frank about what they do. Let the work speak for itself and leave the ego at the door.

“Being Published” is largely a matter of “right place and right time” multiplied by “who you know”, plus an ounce of ability, a little bit of luck, and often a lot of hustling. Note that “skill” is the smallest factor here.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Warhammer: Age of Reckoning

A review from a self-avowed non-PVP guy.

I occasionally play MMOs. I've tried several now and PVP has always been something I've loathed. Usually it ends up being players griefing players and there's no balance to it. You go out in to an unsafe area and if you're flagged for PVP, some guy way more powerful than you (or a band of players) mugs you for your lunch money. That or some high level dude wanders in to your safe zone and starts killing off all the safe area NPCs just waiting for someone dumb enough to heal an NPC (which flags you for PVP) or attacks the offending PC.

This week I got to finally (after almost a year of putting it off) try out WAR.

I admit, I was hesitant. It's just another MMO. Yes, it's Warhammer: my baby. My favorite setting of all time. It's also geared towards something called RvR: Realm vs Realm. That tells me it is Players fighting Players.


So I jumped in, created a few characters and got in to the spirit of it.

My assessment?


I get it now.
I play a lot of FPS multiplayer games like Call of Duty Modern Warfare and World at War.

RvR takes the best of the PVE MMO and the Multiplayer FPS and combines it in to something that REALLY works.

Think of it like this:
You have a Multiplayer RPG, with all the nifty trappings of the Warhammer world, then add a sort of zone combat that has clearly delineated RvR areas. In those areas you have stuff to capture and hold. Think of Headquarters or Capture the Flag games in FPS games. You take the objective and hold it.

If you die...no problem. You resurrect a safe distance away (something the Call of Duty games haven't sorted out yet) and run back in to the fray. You get a lot of XP for RvR as well as goodies. There are separate tracks for XP. Regular XP for levelling etc. and Renown. Renown gets you better gear and stuff. It's truly amazing.

I can't believe it was so hesitant about it. I think part of the difference is that RvR is divided up in to Tiers, so your newbies can fight newbies and Uber Characters can fight Uber Characters.

As far as the PVE stuff...it's pretty typical fare. If you've played WOW it's more or less the same except the setting and the look of it. WAR looks FAR better. Where WOW is very cartoony-looking, WAR has the gritty look of the Warhammer World (appropriately so). The nice thing is that PVE and RvR nicely dovetail in together. They complement each other in a way that WOW can't reproduce.

WOW does some things better. Some basic gameplay elements like collision *you tend to get hung up a bit more on enviromentals in WAR but not so much in WOW. Critter and NPC respawn times are far shorter in WAR so you can't camp an area as easily because they bad guys do come back quickly. The crafting and all that in WAR is a little unclear and some of the loot you get is not readily disposable, making it a little awkward to find out what it's actually for. WOW has a LOT of built in crafting and grinding bits (which really turned me off). WAR has a bit, but that's not what it's about at all.

WOW does PVE well. WAR does it almost as good, albeit a little differently (which is fine IMO). Crafty/ Grindy bits WOW does far better...but really I care less about that in game. PVP in WOW sucks and there's no RvR. WAR pulls far ahead in PVP/ RvR as that is a core focus in the game.

Essentially, what I see is that the developers at EA/ Mythic made a choice: stick to what you want to be important in-game, and let the rest slide. It ends up being a focused game, good at what it does (where WOW is good at some things but tries IMO to do them all.) I dig the focus.

Overall, so far I have three toons: A White Lion, a Swordmaster and a Witch Hunter. They are bad-ass. RvR rocks. To me WAR does the things right that I really disliked in WOW (and CoH/ CoV, etc). My wife is playing and she's digging it as well.

Friday, May 22, 2009


One thing I love about what I do for a living that is somewhat unconventional is being able to work with awesome people, collaborate (vs compete) and pimp out those cool people to other cool people that need talent.

What am I talking about?
Freelancing is to a certain degree very competitive. I think it's somewhat ingrained in to the community that you have to hustle and undercut the competition in order to get gigs. I disagree with that.

I think in order to succeed as a freelancer you need to be yourself, be cool, be professional and the work will come. Maybe not as fast as the uber-competitive guys, but the work will be more solid and you'll build a long-term relationship with the folks you work with.

It's kind of like the "nice guys finish last" thing. I dig being the "nice guy". I think it goes more like this "Nice guys finish after the not-nice-guys...but have better, more solid relationships and in the end are far happier."

That's how I work. I'm no superstar artist. I have a bit of a niche (which I'm trying to expand out of) and I'm nice and I'm more than anything professional. My shit is always done on time. I don't take shortcuts. I always do what I'm asked to do without the "Artiste' Drama".

Art directors just want the job done. They want what they want with a minimum of drama. They want it right and on time. They want artists they can bank on. This makes their job easy. I'm down with that.

I've worked with some great ones, and it's wonderful to pimp out my brothers (sisters) when they need a good solid artist. Hey, if I'm unavailable, I know others who can do that job! I gladly pimp out my friends who are also looking for gigs. Even if they are better than me, or anything like that. Am I worried that they'll become my favorite art director's pet artist? Not at all.

I think the best thing an artist, or any creative for that matter can do is let their work and reputation as a cool professional speak for itself. Definitely help out your buddies. Word of mouth recommendations are worth their weight in GOLD. You get those by being a collaborator instead of a competitor.

Just be yourself. Be cool. Be professional.

Reputation: If you build it...they will come.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Knockspell Magazine #2 Released!

I did the art direction on this and you won't believe the bullpen of artists I got!

The Swords & Wizardry Storefront: http://stores.lulu.com/mythmere

Knockspell Magazine Issue #2 is now on sale at the Swords & Wizardry storefront, http://stores.lulu.com/mythmere. This issue contains dungeon design advice from both Allan Grohe and Philotomy Jurament, an adventure by Gabor Lux, and all kinds of other articles from jousting to monsters and all points in between! The art in this issue is phenomenal: artists include Jim Holloway, Liz Danforth, and others. The cover piece is "Dungeoneer," by Peter Fitzpatrick. Games covered include 0e, 1e, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, and other retro-clones. 86 pages.

DURING MAY the prices of Knockspell #2, Spire of Iron and Crystal (module), The S&W/0e Monster Book, and Eldritch Weirdness Compilation Books Three to One are all reduced, because we're in the middle of another lulu sales competition.

Table of Contents:
3 Editor’s Note, Matt Finch
4 Art Director’s Note, Jeff Preston
4 From Kuroth’s Quill, Allan T. Grohe, Jr.
8 The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld, Jason “Philotomy Jurament” Cone
14 The Trouble with Thieves, James Maliszewski
16 WhiteBox Thief (1): The Treasure Seeker, Rob Ragas
17 WhiteBox Thief (2): The “Standard” Thief, Salvatore Macri
18 Core Rules Thief (1): The Skillful Shadow, Salvatore Macri
20 Core Rules Thief (2), James Maliszewski
21 Thieves and Tasks, Akrasia
24 Isles on an Emerald Sea 2, Gabor Lux
31 Retro-Clones: Interviews with the Authors
36 Jousting (Optional Rules), Brendan Falconer
37 Dungeon Oddities, Michael Curtis
45 The Zocchi Experience, Matt Finch
46 The Claws of Ssur-Sparih, James Carl Boney
47 Random City Lair Generator, Sean Wills
48 Random Thieves Guild Generator, Robert Lionheart
51 The Fantasy Marketplace: Looking at Merchants Differently, Michael Shorten
55 Spell Complexity (Optional Rules), Brendan Falconer
57 Thoughts on Arnesonian Alchemy in the Original Dungeon Game, Jason Vasche
60 When is a Spell Book Much More than a Spell Book?, Brendan Falconer
62 Random Pits & Occupants, Mike Davison
63 Magic Swords & Treasure Maps, Jason “Philotomy Jurament” Cone
67 Leprechauns, David (“Sham”) Bowman
69 Why White Box?, Jim Adams
71 Surviving Old-School Dungeons, Sean Ahmed
72 Three Sorcerous Creations, James Carl Boney
77 Magic Items
78 Review: On the Road of Knives, Matt Finch
79 Masterminds & Minions, bat
82 The Bestiary
86 Classified Ads

Tales of Heresy- Review

Tales of Heresy
Edited by Nick Kyme and Lindsey Priestley

Preface: I usually shy away from anthologies. Not that anthologies are inherently “bad” or anything…but it seems to me that the stories either grab you and then drop you off at the next corner, anxiously wanting MORE…or really just fail to snag you in the first place. Anthologies tend to cater to a wider variety of subjects/ interests and I know my own tastes tend to be more focused.

In spite of this, Tales of Heresy is focused enough to be fun for anyone interested in delving more in to the extremely popular Horus Heresy series.

Since each of the stories is independent, not really tying to one another in any way, I’m going to break down each short story within independently as well.

Buckle up!

Blood Games by Dan Abnett.
Here we get a good taste of what the Custodes are all about. Color me impressed! Yes, as expected…the Custodes are BAD ASS. Compare an Astartes to an Imperial Guardsman. No contest, the Astartes is far superior in every way. I think the same can be said of a comparison of a Custodes to your average Astartes. Bold bastards they are! I don’t want to give away too much here, but think of a warrior so confidant in their abilities, and so much apart from the rank and file that even Primarchs are simply “Dorn” or “Horus” instead of the reverent “Lord Primarch” or something of that nature. (Perhaps this is partly due to the hypno-training and gene-seed of Astartes as well as being the almost genetic offspring of their respective Primarchs that instills that sort of reverence in Space Marines. Hard to say as the “mere mortals” of the series also tend to be of the same reverent mindset. I digress…)

It’s nice to see politics and scheming on Holy Terra itself amid this whole saga. Imagine the massive brass of someone willing to play politics on Terra while the Emperor himself is present.

Overall…good story! I did get a little lost toward the end when things shifted a bit; I was left wondering “what the hell just happened?” and had to go back and re-read a bit in order to grasp the plot shift.
Rating: 3 of 5

Wolf at the Door by Mike Lee.
Buveye, Wolf Lord of the Space Wolves’ Thirteenth Great Company and Commander of the 954th Expeditionary Fleet, descended the ramp of the lead Stormbird with his senior lieutenants and the champions of his Wolf Guard in tow.”

That alone should be enough to get your blood pumping. It’s really great to see these guys in action in this period. This is one of the stories I’d love to see much more of. Honestly, I’m not a fan of the Space Puppies at all (a big Thousand Sons fan myself) but Mike Lee really has them DOWN!
I can’t WAIT for Prospero Burns.

This is a brilliant little tale of unconventional warfare, Astartes-Style! I loved “seeing” the Space Wolves covered in mud and grime. Mike Lee gets the Space Marines down and dirty and fighting a hit and run battle and shows that even Astartes are breakable. It’s a very gritty tale that finishes strong and true to the “Grim Future” we all love and expect.
Rating: 4 of 5

Scions of the Storm by Anthony Reynolds
A Word Bearers tale that starts a little slow, but finishes strong. The slowness at the beginning is forgivable as the author is setting the tone for what was to come, and the events preceding the story (The Emperor pimp-slapping Lorgar for his continued religiosity) are HUGE.

We get to see the exact shift from absolutely fanatic loyalist to dire traitor in one short story and it’s beautiful to see. You really get the depth of emotion and a feeling of dread from the actions and reactions of the Primarch Lorgar and those around him (Note: the BL team has done a wonderful job in demonizing First Captain Erebus. You can’t help but hate that guy.) Overall it’s good, a little battle-heavy but still a fun read.
Rating: 3 of 5

The Voice by James Swallow
I was very pleased to see the return of the Sisters of Silence and Amendera Kendel. This is a sneaky and solid piece that really catches you unaware. In my opinion it’s one of the strongest pieces of the anthology.
Swallow captures the creepy Ghost Ship feel as well as illustrating the animosity between two powerful women as well as their zeal in dealing with “Heresy”. Actually at this period, the very term “Heresy” carries religious overtones that would almost seem out of place…but knowing a bit of the pre-history of the Sisters of Battle, Ecclesiarchy and Ordo Hereticus…you can somewhat see this coming (and it’s a beautiful/ terrible thing to behold). I won’t spoil it for you…just read it.
Rating: 4 of 5

Call of the Lion by Gav Thorpe
This tale does a fine job of illuminating the tragedy of the First Legion and most of the other Legio Astartes to a greater or lesser degree: The Legions were formed up on Terra and later united with their Primarchs, creating a divide between the Old School and the often favored New Breed of Astartes. This is an underlying theme that bridges almost all the Horus Heresy Space Marine novels and it is played out rather clearly here. I think part of the reason the contracts between Old and New Astartes is so stark in the First Legion: Dark Angels is due to a bit of paranoia within their Primarch Lion El’Jonson.

Of course there is more than a bit of arrogance and hubris on the part of the Calibanite Captain Belath and a bit of almost mamby-pamby softness to the Terran Captain Astelan which wouldn’t feel as such if the story were longer and detailed more of the hard-earned temperance of the latter.

It’s easy to see where all this is leading (and while Descent of Angels is my least favorite of the series so far, I still enjoyed it, and am now looking forward to Fallen Angels.)
Rating: 3 of 5

The Last Church by Graham McNeill
You can’t help but feel for Uriah Olathaire in this short story. The entire thing is like watching a train wreck. To a certain degree you know what’s coming, but you are still affixed to the scene, unable to break away, drawn in to the emotional web of the author.

I cannot express the power of this short tale. I will tell you that not one bolter round is expended. Still the message is gripping (as a matter of fact I just got stuck re-reading it yet again as I was writing this) and the argument so relevant to the series (and in my opinion almost as relevant today as well) you can't put it down.
Rating: 5 of 5

After Desh’ea by Matthew Farrer
Kharn and the War Hounds (World Eaters) meet Angron, their Primarch. Honestly, it seemed like a tale of HULK SMASH versus Kharn “You are my Primarch, I won’t fight you”. Fans of the World Eaters will likely love it. I couldn’t get the image of a bat-shit crazy Incredible Hulk/ Angron out of my head. It fits: I can’t deny that.
Rating: 2 of 5

Overall, I enjoyed the anthology. It was a good smattering of tales from all over the Warhammer 40,000 universe, set in the period of epic civil strife known forever as the Horus Heresy.
Overall Rating: 3.4 of 5

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


by Paul S Kemp
Book III of the Twilight War
Wizards of the Coast

Terror lives in its eyes, and death in its hands. The Shadowstorm descends on Sembia, and leaves nothing but horror in its wake. We must kill Kesson Rel to stop the Shadowstorm, but we cannot afford to elevate Erevis Cale in his place. There is a way. There must be. Find it. No war can be fought without loss, but in a war against an enemy with souls as black as the darkest shadows, sometimes the only way to win is to die with your spirit intact.

To start, this was my first exposure to the character of Erevis Cale. I took my time in getting to this novel because I generally avoid jumping in to the middle or end of a story, but with much game fiction and some writers you can get away with it. I took a gamble and started in on Shadowrealm last night.

By the end of the night…well, early morning I was finished and I was literally blown away. Put it this way, I have books I and II of the Twilight War on order right now…so I’ll be revisiting Cale, Riven, Magadon etc. again shortly.

SHOULD YOU READ BOOKS I & II FIRST? I’d recommend it, but it’s not REALLY necessary to have a wonderful romp between the pages.

So what is it about?
War, Sacrifice and Faith.
The scale of the novel is certainly LARGE. We’re talking about characters fighting demigods here. Par for the course for Forgotten Realms.

Ultimately Kesson Rel is a Half-God bent on destroying Toril by way of the Shadowstorm…and foiling the Netharese(Shadovar) takeover of Sembia. Opposite him is a motley crew of powerful characters: Erevis Cale and Drasek Riven, Chosen of Mask, the assassin Rivalen, etc.

Ironically, the characters aren’t four-color at all. Actually, Kemp does an amazing job of bringing real depth to all of them. You can’t help but feel for them all in one way or another. This is a huge change in my opinion as far as a lot of genre fiction goes. These characters are DEEP. There are some excellent discussions and debates here. Consider that Mask is a god of Thieves, yet her First Chosen is really a good man, simply trying to do the best he can in the world. The assassin has a heart and has to deal with the paradox of his heart and his profession.

I can’t explain to you how much is going on in this book. It’s “busy”. Some authors handle this better than others. Kemp handles this masterfully. While the story bounces around from place to place, character to character (shifting perspectives from first to third)... all of this is deftly handled and makes sense as you read it. Usually I cringe when authors shift POV like that but this works, which really has me re-thinking my own views on writing. Each character’s “voice” is clearly defined and easy to tell from the others, which is always a bit of a challenge (often forcing a bit of a step back in pages to re-read). I didn’t have to with Shadowrealm at all.

One little side note: Abelar is an awesomely cool and deep character which I will totally be using as the basis for a PC in the near future.

The climatic showdown between Cale and Kesson Rel is nothing short of epic. Actually, the final “battle” is huge in scale as well as page count: I swear that climax is almost one-fifth of the book.

I wasn’t going to compare and contrast, but I can’t help it. It just has to be said.

Many folks look to R.A. Salvatore as the pinnacle of Forgotten Realms fiction. I think for nostalgia sake, I enjoy it as well. Paul S. Kemp blows all of Salvatore’s FR work out of the water. Seriously. Better storytelling. Better characters. Deeper, more meaningful, thought-provoking stories and conversations, etc.

Of course, on both counts they deal with characters that are bigger than life: extremely powerful beings wielding enormous powers that ultimately impact the lives of everyone in Faerun…and to a certain degree Toril as a whole.

The difference?
Drizzt, Artemis Enteri and Jarlaxle for example are nothing short of gods. They can’t seemingly be challenged. The characters are always able to slide out of any real trouble. They don’t make any real mistakes, or if they do, they Forrest Gump their way out of them. They walk between the raindrops.

Paul S. Kemp’s characters make mistakes and even fail. They cope. They deal with it. They struggle through it and we feel for them because they are really…human. Cale almost literally makes a deal with the devil. If this were a Salvatore Novel, the protagonists would kill the devil and have the “Oooh, I’m gonna get you one day!” visage of a banished devil hanging over their heads. Bummer. Not much of the threat and really, they always get off easy. Cale on the other hand… Paul S Kemp is not afraid to break his characters.

I can’t recommend Paul S Kemp’s writing enough. In MY book, he’s the new king of Forgotten Realms fiction. If you haven’t read him yet, drop what you’re doing and pick up the Erevis Cale Trilogy as well as The Twilight War. You won’t be disappointed.