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 ( 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 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 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 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 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 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.