Thursday, September 27, 2018

Dreadnought: Nemesis by April Daniels


This is a book that is likely to save someone's life. By having an openly trans heroine and her origin story, I can't help but compare it to the impact that X-men had on a lot of kids in the early days, that they could be outcasts from society or considered freaks and yet still be heroes or find acceptance for who they are. There are others who can and no doubt have delved into representation and why it matters with much more eloquence and insight than I ever could, so I don't want to focus solely on that, but it is an essential part of the protagonist's conflict.

We've all seen superhero origin stories before, and this one follows a similar pattern, but Daniels does it well enough and with enough empathy that I wasn't bothered by that. I couldn't help but feel for Danny as their home and social life collapsed around them due to a lack of acceptance and understanding. If you've ever seen the image of a survey saying essentially, "I want to protect it, I want to see it grow up and be healthy," that's the feeling that gripped me as I read through it. At some points things may have lacked subtlety, but with from the point of view of the protagonist, a relatively young outsider who is still trying to figure out how to express their true self, it's valid and feels like it fits in well in the four colored worlds of superheroes. It reminds me of the roleplaying game MASKS, in which even though the players are superpowered individuals that could jump buildings or bend steel, because they are young their personalities and characters are still in flux and in fact being heavily influenced by the adult presence in their lives.

There is a bit of freshness injected into the tried and true origin story with some discussions about legacies and essentially using child soldiers on the superpowered war on crime, and I would have liked to have spent a little more time on that. There were a few other places where things felt a little rushed, such as establishing the relationship with Danny's best friend, I don't feel like we spend enough time with them to have the impact that we should have by their behavior later on in the story. The other super characters besides Calamity and Doc Impossible end up not being explored much either. There are glimpses of deeper characterization for the side characters, but we simply don't get  time with them before things come to a head.

In the end though, there's a reason that there's a formula to superhero origin stories, and using a trope isn't a bad thing if it's done well and lets us make those cognitive shortcuts to understanding a situation without needing additional pages of explanation. Dreadnought does it well, and the focus on Danny's emotional state makes her relatable as a character even if you don't share her exact struggles. And if this lacks anything in innovation of plot, it more than makes up for it in characterization for the protagonist and strong action scenes that I could easily see as straight out of a comic. So while not perfect, it's an exciting read and with its representation of a trans superheroine, as I said earlier, it's a book that could probably save someone's life.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

 


The Poppy War is a book that continued to surprise and delight me. First off, you don't need to have an understanding of Chinese history to enjoy this, but if you do, you will likely be jumping for joy every time you notice one of the people or incidents that this book draws from. A heavy dash of Eastern martial arts mixed with magic and exciting action scenes with an impressive outsider heroine in Rin that you can't help but root for mean that it can be enjoyed by its own, but the shadows of history loom large over this.

Perhaps at first, like me, you will read the beginning chapters and think to yourself, 'Aha! This is a gifted child at a School from Hell, there, I see the noble rival, and over there the smart bookish ally, and of course there is the eccentric teacher.' Perhaps you will think that this is that type of story, with that type of stakes, perhaps at the end they will graduate from this safe space, but for now-no. No, this is not that type of book, and the stakes raise from the fate of children to the fate of nations, characters fail and characters die and we learn very quickly that nobody is really safe, because the shadows of history are there and hungry.

This is a world heavily based on pre-WWII China, albeit with the things slightly adjusted, and the stand-in for Japan looms large over the story. Even as we explore the world and find the parallels to our own China, from the echos of the Opium Wars, Sun Yat Sen and the last Dowager Empress, to the Terra Cotta Army and others, both far too many to recite here, and many that I've no doubt missed. But the most important and most impactful of course is the Rape of Nanking. A pivotal moment that holds special meaning to me, as my paternal grandfather was involved in the recovery there after the war.

The book pulls no punches, and isn't afraid to show the horrors of war. The equivalent of gas attacks and military massacres are described in visceral detail, and the emotional impact on the characters, especially Rin is felt like a weight as she is pushed to the breaking point. I mentioned that characters fail and die, but they also grow, far beyond my expectations, especially in her classmates that at first I almost dismissed as schoolyard archetypes. And if the scenes described in the book are horrifying even on paper, I know that history, reality, was far worse. In another fantasy setting someone might say, 'no, this is too far, too dark, too evil even for villains' and yet, we know that these deeds were done, that there are records of Japanese soldiers laughing as they committed atrocities almost beyond comprehension. In the end, it helps us to sympathize with the cold choices that define our heroine, this is not the story where light will find some bloodless way to prevail over evil, there will be blood and sacrifice and hardship, and in the end a tough decision that in another story would alienate one from the protagonist, but here it doesn't, because the roots in reality and in history mean that people made similar choices.

It isn't perfect, the first half of the book is a bit slow, establishing characters and the school from hell. Well, we've seen this dance before many times and the the tonal shift once we leave the school can be a bit jarring. In addition, we're seeing things from a certain perspective, while it does a good job embodying a viewpoint, sometimes the nuance is lost. A final point, which is not a criticism, is that this is a book that may be difficult for some people to read, not because of its complexities or anything like that, but simply because it delves into topics that for a lot of people could be very traumatic. Abuse, trauma and atrocities are a recurring theme and one should be prepared to deal with that.

Overall though, I'm very happy to have read this book. There a vast richness of history around China and especially that period which western readers rarely encounter. There are plenty of books out there that will gleefully retell the King Arthur myth or the fall of the Roman Empire with a fantasy veneer, but there are precious few that will delve into the Opium Wars or the Rape of Nanking. The action scenes are top notch and I found the magic system quite fascinating to learn about, with mysteries still to uncover. I would recommend this as an excellent and refreshing change of pace, as long as you are okay with the content, because it doesn't pull punches.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Reboot!

Yes, I am indeed alive. After several years of general neglect and pondering over whether to reboot this blog or simply move on, I've decided it's worth saving. So....what can you expect from the new and improved(hopefully) Maniacal Laughter. Well, more book reviews to start with. I've found the best way to motivate me to write, is to read more, and this is going to be a way for me to hold myself up to some sort of accountability. Also, my micro reviews on twitter are just not cutting it in terms of letting me fully show these books the appreciation they deserve.

While I will still occasionally have some wargaming items, I honestly don't have that much time to actually play. Same with RPG advice and stories, though I will be highlighting some games or supplements that I find especially innovative or interesting, the time and energy I have left in a week to actually play is generally lacking.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Lenkova Campaign - Mission 2

Pre-Mission Setup
I roll a rescue mission. If I had any troops that had been captured by the enemy it would allow me to liberate them, but since I don't, it's going to be an 'allies in trouble' mission. I roll up the forces that are being rescued and come up with 4 unarmed civilians. A news crew in trouble.

Since I had a major victory in the last battle, I have a few extra assets that I can spend for this month. I request a sniper team, a VTOL Gunship and a Medivac Airship in case things get hairy. I'm would have liked a Forward Observer team and heavy artillery as well, but it's probably best that I'm not throwing around heavy artillery danger close to unarmed civilians. Hopefully the sniper team can make up for it.

I decide to bring Second and Third squads, as well as the Lt. and Mechanical Mule. I debate about bringing the medic on this one, but I don't want to over fatigue him, the Medivac airship should keep me covered for any mass casualty event, and I'll be relying on overwhelming force of numbers to sweep the field.

Of course, all this planning can go out the window in a heartbeat, and as I roll an ambush, it does.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lenkova Campaign - Mission 1


Pre-Mission Setup

So for the first mission of the campaign I roll up a Terminate mission. Pretty straightforward, I also roll a 2 on the monthly assets, not much since it's still the first round, but enough to purchase a UAV that can identify some unknown contacts.

I select one of my squads to go on the mission, with the Platoon Sgt.in command and the medic attached in case of casualties. No need to fatigue everyone in the first round, if they run into anything that they can't handle then I can send reinforcements in the form of the Quick Reaction Force. What bothers me is that I won't have any air or heavy artillery support for this operation, although I should be able to call on the company mortars if things get hairy. Anticipating the possibility of close quarters, I also rearm one of the riflemen with a combat shotgun.

Now comes the part where I need to cross fingers, rolling for ambush. One of the features of the Year in the Valley system is that based on your Popular Opinion you have a chance to be ambushed or even attacked at your base of operations. Fortunately for me, I rolled low and avoided that for this turn. 

Next I roll up the location according to the Terminate scenario. 
Hills - Water - Water
Hills - Building - Hills
Rough - Open - Hills

So it's a small valley opening up on one side to a water source, possibly a lake house that has been converted to a command center. Or the vacation mansion of a crime lord. I imagine that there's probably a roadway on that one open sector, and with this much water and hills, I'm going to say that the rough area is covered with trees and thickets. (Note: each grid square translates to about 2 inches across on table)



A Year In The Valley Colonies - Lenkova Campaign Prelude

This new series is going to be a log of a campaign that I'm going to be running using my Year in the Valley campaign system, adapted slightly to a sci-fi setting as a little preview of the sci-fi supplement that I've been working on for the Fireteam to Fireforce system. The counter-insurgency aspect won't show off all of the cool things I've been working on, but there are a few cool items that I've tried to include and it's going to be in the back of my mind to try and include more teasers for what the still to be named sci-fi expansion will have in store.

I've also used the excellent free nation generator by Nordic Weasel Games with a few slight adaptations to add a little background to the conflict. 

Planetary Intelligence Report
Lenkova IV

Large Colony: 12 Million
Class M Planet
Limited Heavy Industry
Overwhelmingly Urban
Single Large continent dominated by a large mountain range. Most of the population lives on the coast in one of the spaceport cities or in the foothills where farming and mining are predominant pastimes.
Former colony of the Russian led 'Red Star' Alliance, it has a relatively homogenous cultural makeup, however is a melting pot of political ideals as it was used as political dissidents were often shipped off to serve out their time there. Lenkova IV declared its independence during the Sanur War under President Anton Kirov. Early on Kirov was seen as the popular choice, however massive purges quickly followed and he declared himself as Czar for Life. Widespread corruption and graft from organized crime quickly followed, and as a second wave of immigration arrived from in the form of refugees from the Sanur war, stories filtered out of extensive human rights abuses. 

As the Libra-Vega trade route rose to prominence, the lack of security at the Lenkova stop forced the major powers to action. The Red Star Alliance had lost heavily in the war, required extensive logistical assistance, the price however was that once freed, the colony would be administered by an interim coalition government with coalition members providing security for a handover to a democratically elected leadership. 

Coalition troops, many of them veterans of the Sanur War, swiftly deposed Czar Kirov and his army of Internal Security forces. The majority were recalled within three months of operations leaving a much reduced Peacekeeping force augmented by Private Contractors working to train a new Lenkova police force. 

It quickly became apparent that significant segments of the old Internal Security forces and organized criminal elements had escaped the initial sweep and began a guerrilla campaign to influence the coming the elections and resume business as usual. Multiple warlords and cartels have entered into conflict with the Peacekeeping forces. Although they only had access to weapons and equipment about a decade behind the times, they made significant gains, including the assassination of the Interim Minister of the Interior and destruction of the capital city's main courthouse. 

The Terran Treaty Organization authorized additional peacekeeping troops in response and one of the first units to arrive, 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company of the 1st Vega Light Infantry has just arrived on planet. General Kassel in command of the Peacekeeping force has planned a series of attacks aimed at destroying the rebel's safe havens. Operation Greyhound is about to begin.


3rd Platoon, 'Tramplers' - Lt. Valle commanding, Sgt. Sanchez 2ic
Organized into 3 squads of 12 men in 3 fireteams each, along with an HQ element which includes the LT. the Platoon Sgt, and a Mechanical Mule. In addition, a medic has been attached directly to the platoon(bought with asset points) for the duration of their rotation on Lenkova.

Platoon Armory
In addition to the standard assault rifles, LMGs and Under-slung grenade launchers the Armory holds 3 light AT weapons and are normally not distributed, and enough SMGs and combat shotguns to equip one to each fireteam.

Mechanical Mule
Nicknamed 'Wingnut' by the troops, the mechanical mule provides additional combat resupply, offers a small degree of portable cover and can be used to steady the aim of machine gunners. (Follows the team it is attached to, carries 10 points of resupply, can be used either as cover for 1 unit of the team it is with, or allows an MG to fire as if it hadn't moved that turn.)

Campaign Notes
I start at a Popular Opinion of 4, which is brought down to 3 by my inclusion of a medic for the platoon. One of the cheapest improvements and possibly the best bang for your buck. Keeping your men in the fight, especially as casualties mount is going to be important. The Vega platoon organization is built around the 4 man fireteam, with the general triangular idea that ideally any leader should only have 3 direct subordinates to keep track of at a time. The Vega military isn't that of a first rate power, more of the equivalent of a regional power in the modern world.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Faster Than Light and Let's Play



You are the Captain, your ship has been recalled from mothballs; underpowered, undergunned, and with limited supplies you are on the run from an ever encroaching armada with information vital to the war. And yet you and the few officers you could scrape up into your crew are all that stands between victory and defeat. This is Faster Than Light.

If you want to watch my continuing adventures as Captain, I've included a Let's Play video to go along with this review. This is the first in the series so check out the channel as I upload the rest of the playthrough.



Faster Than Light or FTL is a space simulation by Subset Games, and the closest I think anyone has come to giving you the feel of actually commanding a starship in battle. Now it is definitely an indie game, funded by kickstarter in fact, and is defined by this fact. The graphics are pretty, but there's no 3D or photorealism, FTL is more reminiscent of X-Com than a modern space game(e.g. Star Trek Online or even Descent: Freespace). One of the great joys of these types of games is in customizing your ship, replacing weapons and upgrading systems, and FTL has a very clean and very intuitive method for that. But really, the core of being a Captain in the vein of Star Trek is being able to yell "More power to shields!" or "Divert power from Life Support to the Engines!" This is the game that lets you do that, without the dogfighting that is rather inherent in many of the other games of the genre. The music is again, reminiscent of games of yesteryear, but surprisingly well done.

The various weapon systems all have a unique feel, and there are vastly different strategies one can take, for instance focusing on missiles, or drones, or ion cannons, or even starting boarding actions, but all these must be weighed against their costs and weaknesses. You'll often find yourself weighing the options of upgrading various subsystems versus the possibility of needing the scrap for repairs or fuel down the line. And there's nothing more heartbreaking than having to make the decision on who to send to try and repair your life support systems while there's a hull breach. To lock them in to almost surely suffocate, or risk the whole crew by opening the airlocks and hoping they repair it before everyone dies.

Highlights
-Intuitive Energy control and weapon system
-Really captures the feel of being the Captain of a Starship
-Lots of tactical options for how you want to play your ship
-You will become attached to your crew...and their inevitable heroic sacrifices
-Randomly generated universe means a different experience every time

Weaknesses
-Not all of the tactical options are viable
-You probably won't live long enough to see all of them
-Crew positions are limited(if you have more than 4 crew, the rest are simply relegated to damage control/security)
-Limited events
-Randomly generated universe can screw you over

All in all it's an excellent game for the price, as long as one manages their expectations. The game is a roguelike, and one should expect to die, a lot. Do not expect it to be easy, death is death, and you'll be right back at the start if you encounter it.  It was an indie game and they accomplished what they set out to do, making for a very enjoyable product. But it feels like it could have been so much more, I couldn't help but think that with a basic trading module this could have become a wonderful sandbox game as well akin to Freelancer, or implemented more uses for large crews. And after a few playthroughs one gets used to the same sets of events to know what to avoid.

Friday, September 14, 2012

I read from Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey brings the over the top action and grit to the urban fantasy stage, with a healthy dollop of noir right on top. James Stark has spent a decade in hell fighting in the gladiator pits after being betrayed by those he thought of as his friends, taking on whatever demon or monstrosity that they could throw at him, and coming out stronger for it. Now he's back, with a key that opens any door and a knife stolen from a Prince of hell, and he's ready to take revenge on the people who sent him there. Now he has a new name, Sandman Slim, the Monster who kills Monsters.

So, we would be remiss if we didn't compare our anti-hero to his peers in the genre. Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, and Simon R. Green's John Taylor are the ones that come to the forefront. Well, here's what you do, kill their loves ones, send them to hell for 11 years, and release them when they're good and angry and just don't have any more fucks to give. Sandman Slim is the over the top, bloody adventure that reads as if Hunter S. Thompson and Robert E. Howard got together to write the most badass urban fantasy hero they could imagine.

While I try not to spoil much, it's pretty indicative that some of the first actions our protagonist takes on his return include mugging a druggie and cutting the head off one of his old friends. The drugged up streets of LA make for a fitting background for this revenge romp, and Sandman Slim does not disappoint. Our protagonist does not hesitate to brawl with angels and demons, all the while tearing up the streets and giving the finger to the magical oversight committee. 

On the other hand, it's certainly not a perfect novel, or anywhere near that. It feels a more than a bit unpolished, perhaps a result of the book seeming partly written in the middle of a drugged up rage. And although the side characters are interesting, they sometimes only get a little bit of the reflected limelight. We end up with barely sketched caricatures, when we really are rooting for these characters to step out and become three dimensional. Because the premise for so many of these are so promising, angels and devils and monsters all. There are loose ends galore and it almost feels as if we miss out of parts of the story that should be there. For example where the name Sandman Slim actually came from. The other issue is that for some, James Stark may simply not be a likeable protagonist. He does some pretty crummy things while learning to be a hero.

In the end, the best way that I can describe Sandman Slim is a gritty romp. As long as you don't expect a masterpiece, or a very original plot, then dive on in and enjoy this vulgar, bloody tale of revenge and ass kicking.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Growing up Geek: The Hermit Crab Races

So I figured that I'd add some of that maniacal laughter back into this blog, these stories may only be tangentially related to gaming, but they will definitely be funny. Because not only was I a geeky little kid, I was a geeky little kid in Florida, Dave Barry said it best in calling South Florida a magnet for weird.

There were of course, the hermit crab races. A game played in sailors bars, and best enjoyed, or perhaps only enjoyed after a copious amount of alcohol consumption. I recall that my mother, of infinite patience and no small amount of courage would take me as a treat. I had seen it once while on vacation and now requested it quite often. It was an open air bar along the docks, one where the sun and salt sea air mingled with the aroma of diesel fuel. Which makes the most wonderful rainbow patterns in water, although I don’t recommend trying it at home.
Perhaps I’m painting it as worse than it really was. This wasn’t exactly the dingy tavern where people outnumber teeth. It was filled with generally two types of people, the ones who actually worked the seas, usually on charter fishing boats or as yacht staff. And then the ones who had the money to pretend that they did while listening to Jimmy Buffet(a word to the wise, Thou shalt not take his name in vain) and getting drunk; the sea was their calling, the ocean their mistress, the waves mother to all, well, on the weekends at least. On the weekdays those Hawaiian print shirts were exchanged for much less exciting suits and ties. Still, it must have been a strange sight for them to see a five year old bellying up to the counter and demanding to see the hermit crabs. I can only be thankful that I was such a cute kid, otherwise I’m sure we’d have been tossed overboard.
Now, a hermit crab is not a very smart animal, nor is it easy to train(at least not by drunk sailors). Thus the hermit crabs, happy in their little shells, were plucked up, had a number painted on their backs, and were dumped in a bucket. There was of course no actual linear track, no, they were rather unceremoniously dumped out of the bucket into the approximate center of the table before they started their great escape to the false freedom of the edge of the table. In fact, their speed could be clocked at somewhere between snail and brain damaged sloth. But despite all of this, I was fascinated. Yeah, I think my mother caught on by then that I was a bit of a weird kid, as I faithfully cheered my hermit crab on to the finish edge, where if it was lucky, a slightly inebriated patron would catch it before it fell off entirely.
The slow and unlucky hermit crabs. Well, let us not talk about what happened to the slow and unlucky hermit crabs whilst amongst a bunch of drunken sailors. 

A small hermit crab
Less Sonic the Hedgehog than, 
Earthworm Jim sans suit.