City at the Top of the World – Preview

Aeryn’s stomach turned and knotted as her room shook.  Nearly a week had passed since she had been taken by those strange pale men and placed upon the sky sail, but she still found herself unadjusted to the traumatic and unnatural sensations of flight.  No one who was taken by the slavers of the north was ever seen again…

 

Music – Xinombra, Till Annie

//media.myspace.com/play/video/till-annie-103161726-103900823 Sorry that you will probably have to click the link to this one.

Totally dug these guys back in 07/08 when Myspace was still a thing.  Unfortunately, Xinombra’s web footprint is tiny.  Fortunately, there’s still something left, and it’s more than the 4 track EP I downloaded back 7 or 8 years ago.

Betcha thought I was going to post Xasthur for X, didn’tcha?

Also, they have an 11 minute version of Rind now (or within the last 6 years)?  Freakin’ badass!

Hugo Awards Best Fan Writer Category

Even after all this time, I’m still trying to nail down a definition in my mind of what “Best Fan Writer” really means. So today, I’m going to try to define it for myself, and if that definition helps others, so be it!

Wikipedia says “The Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer is the Hugo Award given each year for writers of works related to science fiction or fantasy which appeared in low- or non-paying publications such as semiprozines or fanzines or in generally available electronic media during the previous calendar year. There is no restriction that the writer is not also a professional author, and several such authors have won the award for their non-paying works. The award was first presented in 1967 and has been awarded annually.”

The Hugo Awards official webpage simply says: “This is another person category. Note that it does not just apply to writing done in fanzines. Work published in semiprozines, and even on mailing lists, blogs, BBSs, and similar electronic fora, can be including when judging people for this Award. Only work in professional publications should not be considered.”

Sadly, neither of these definitions really convey what it means to be a fan writer beyond the barest qualifications. While it would be nice to see a few pieces try to objectively define what it means to be a fan writer, most of what I’ve seen have been Phillipics or Jeremiads in the Hugo Blogosphere decrying Mixon for even having the audacity to be nominated in the same year that the Puppies dominated the categories.

So, in this post, I will try to define what “Fan Writer” means and use it to justify my support of Jeffro Johnson in this year’s Best Fan Writer category.

On the face of it, a Fan Writer is just that. A fan who writes. They are a fan of something in the realm of fantasy and science fiction, and they write about fantasy and science fiction from the perspective of someone who is a fan to an audience of fellow or potential fans. A good fanwriter is like an evangelical minister of fantasy and science fiction; they give sermons to the believers to help them better understand the texts they know and love and they take the good word to those who have not heard it. You’ve been missing something in your life, and you don’t quite know what it is, but I think I can help you; here’s this story by Lord Dunsany!

To me, Jeffro Johnson has provided a treasure trove of knowledge and insight into a wide range of games and fiction, some of which I have only had a passing familiarity with others which I knew and loved but still gained new insight into. First and foremost, Jeffro Johnson is a fan. Not an elitist hipster fan who only likes that band because no one has heard of them and those who have can’t stand them, but a true and loving fan who wants to share the joy he has found in games and fiction with others. “Look at this awesome thing! Share in its awesomeness with me!” Of course like any devout, Jeffro has his shares of quirks. Monopoly orthodoxy, for instance, is as passionate a subject for Jeffro as politics and religion for most. But that’s part of why we love him, right? He has passion for the things he enjoys! Plus, his Google feed is like Drudge Report for nerds.

The hardest task for me this Hugo voting season is going to be ranking the Mad Genius Club Writers. They’re all amazing, and I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve read by them. The catch is, I know about the Mad Genius Club writers BECAUSE of Jeffro. I’m not going to attempt to rank any of them here, because I still have no idea which one is my favorite (but I suggest you check them all out, because they’re all great).

Mixon’s post on Requires Hate stands out like a sore thumb among the rest of the fan writing nominees. While I’m sure her piece is an excellent and important TL;DR (sorry, I really wasn’t interested enough to read all of it. The word count: it’s OVER 9000!!!) piece of serious journalism, I’m hesitant to call it Fan Writing. I’m sure that Mixon is a Fan, but her piece is not about fantasy/sci-fi written to the fandom or in an effort to expand the fandom in an effort to proselytize the genres further. It targets and pertains to very particular groups within the community in relation to the adverse actions of an individual -who sounds like an absolute reprobate-, but to me it does little of what the best sorts of Fan Writing ought to do.

Compare and contrast
Baird Searles’ now all-but-forgotten blurb from F&SF 1977:
“Probably the best reason [why the show works] is that Wonder Woman, by its very nature, doesn’t take itself at all seriously. And therefore, by a curious paradox, becomes much easier to take seriously, on its own level.”

“Keeping that blank naievete(sic) without coming across as stupid and boring is very difficult, and [Linda] Carter manages it beautifully”…”Besides, she fills those golden breast cups without looking grotesque, which is no small feat (take a look at some 40s s/f pulp covers and you’ll see what I mean).”

Laura J. Mixon’s Hugo Nominated Blog Post from 2014:
“Benjanun Sriduangkaew has established herself over the past two years as a well-liked and talented newer writer. As a lesbian Thai woman, she identifies as a member of a highly marginalized community, and there has been quite a bit of excitement in progressive circles around her rise in popularity as a short story writer.”

“I think of what happened this last August in Ferguson, Missouri. As a mother of two young adults around Mike Brown’s age, I break into a cold sweat when I think what his mother must be going through. I feel deeply angry, that in my own country today an unarmed young person can be shot on the street by a uniformed police officer, and months later there is no indictment, no criminal charges, against that man.”

“Between 37 and 40% of [Benjanun Sriduangkaew] targets, or nearly two-fifths, were people of color. Given that the field has been, and still is, predominantly white, this is disproportionately high. In other words, POC are much more likely to be a target of her attacks than whites.”

That Linda Carter sounds hot and that Benjanun Srimalamadingdong sounds like bad news. Requires Hate, from what I’ve gathered, is a far left radical progressive who pissed off a lot of people by harassing other far left radical progressives while ignoring the ‘rules’ set by the progressive stack. Linda Carter, from what I’ve gathered, is a hot lady who is staring in an awesome sci-fi show based on an old comic book, and all three sound like they’re worth checking out, amirite?

I’m not trying to minimize the work that Mixon did on her write-up on Requires Hate; that would take editing skills far beyond my own (wakka wakka!). But seriously, this might have belonged more in the Related Work category than Fan Writer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to spit shine the dust jackets of those Jack Vance books Jeffro convinced me were worth checking out!

Vox Day Xanatos Gambit Update

Before, Vox Day’s opponents were spending a lot of effort to convince me that Vox Day was evil genius mastermind.  Today, Vox Day confirms they were right.

Pictured: Vox & Space Bunny Day celebrate things coming together as planned.

Pictured: Vox & Space Bunny Day celebrate things coming together as planned.

Later this week, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the Fan Writers Category (expect some shilling), posting a partial review of the BFRPG module Zombraire’s Estate (Shadow Over Alfheim), and more Short Reviews.

I don’t know if I’ll really review Red Dragon Inn, but I will go ahead and say “I love this game, I want it and I want all of the decks and I wish it wouldn’t cost me close to $200 to get all of the decks.”

It’ll be a little while longer before I can continue my Bar-Lev series; I got my dad Ogre as an early birthday present, and we played it 4 times, leaving no time to set up another round of Bar-Lev.  He said it was the coolest new board game he’d played in years.  Considering his tastes in board games, that’s saying something.  The only thing that’s a surprise to me was that he’d somehow missed it in the first place.

Review – Kagai!

Disclosure: I have previously received a promotional copy of Postmortem Studio’s Project (reviewed here). I purchased a pdf copy of Kagai! to review.  

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Kagai! is an over-the-top violent gonzo RPG meant to bring the madcap antics of Japanese extreme monster horror to your gaming table.  And if that’s your sort of thing, this simple system does a pretty good job of it!

One thing I’d like to give particular kudos for is that Kagai! admits right off the bat that it’s a niche product and will probably be played by people who game so doesn’t waste time on a lengthy “What is Role Playing and what are Role Playing Game?” section.  Those have a place, but 99 times out of 100, any independently released game product is going to be purchased by someone with a huge stack of games who knows what RPGs are.

The basic premise of Kagai! involves a post-apocalyptic future in which monsters have overrun the entire world save for an overcrowded self-sustaining city enclave in Japan.  A decadent consumerist culture is forced upon the surviving populace to distract them from the horrors of the outside world.  While the enclave is supposedly “safe”, monsters are still able to get in sometimes and wreak havoc. Players are expected to play as high-school girls who have decided to rebel against the system and take up their own fight against the monsters who are killing their friends and families.  While players may play as male characters, there are heavy restrictions/penalties and should be considered something of an exception.  The in-game rationale for this is the enclave’s population is 95% female; unless they are able to evade service by means of wealth, influence or corruption, all males are pressed into service at age 12 and sent off to the front to keep monsters and demons at bay.  As such, any men left in the city are either horribly and disfiguringly injured, cowards or rich kids whose parents managed to keep them from being conscripted.

It’s good that the conventions of the genre are stated up-front: characters will die and it will be gruesome.  People who like games that mollycoddle their characters (newschool D&D for instance) will suffer the butthurt and will suffer it hard.  That person who threw a fit when their Paladin got its eyes gouged out and arm melted off before being impaled on spikes?  Don’t play this game with that guy.  In fact, just don’t play with that guy.  But really, don’t play this with that guy.

Character generation is the really the meat of this game; the rest of the system is potatoes with some butter and maybe some salt, but character generation is steak with all the trimmings.  While the whole of Kagai! itself could only be lifted from the explicit setting to varying degrees, the character generation system could be used across multiple systems/settings to create characters and a party dynamic.  It’s pretty neat!

Name Generator – It’s a nice idea, but the sort of person playing this can probably come up with 20+ female Japanese names on the fly quicker than I can roll 3d6 6 times and look up base saving throws.

Boys Trauma Table – The setting-based restrictions on male characters actually offers some interesting opportunities for nuanced characters.  It’s a two tiered table where you determine the type and specifics of the various injuries (or class-related reasons) the male character might have that explains why they aren’t off at the front.

Sexuality – Interesting choice to possibly force players out of their norm by having to roll for their characters’ sexuality.  While the probability renders the likelihood of a gender-queer identity higher than we see in the real world, given the setting, I’d actually expect a much higher prevalence of opportunistic bi-sexuality.  I’m reminded a bit of how in the womanless world of Saber Marionette, dudes would rather have robot women than be gay and the one actual gay guy who was in love with the protagonist was seen as kind of an outlier.

Relationships- One of the cool bits that could be borrowed for creating ad hoc party dynamics with slightly more depth than “you all just happen to know each other” is the Best Friend/Don’t Like component. Players roll to see who their best friend is and who they are at odds with.  These will either be other players, an NPC or oneself.  In the last case, friendship with oneself means you’re a loner and disliking oneself would be indicative of a character with depression.  For good measure, disliking the character your best friends with could indicate a fairly troubled relationship (think every anime with the two girls who are always yelling at each other and fighting, then someone tells the main character “They’ve known each other since kindergarten; they’re best friends, but you wouldn’t know it.”)

There are a few other tables which determine a character’s family background (mother, father, family business, siblings) and the character’s motivation.  The character’s main weapon is also randomly selected from a two tiered 2d6 table.  Kagai! features a pretty impressive list of weapons (even if it is missing the Jo), each with unique abilities.

I’m bad at maths, so don’t hold me to this, but for female characters there are roughly 2.4 million background variations this generator can come up with, discounting anything requiring re-rolls and party relationship options.  Yowzah!

The rest of character creation is point-buy stats.  Physical stats are pretty straight-forward, but a novel idea is having the character’s school course load, including elective credits, make up a part of the character’s fundamental knowledge/ability base.  So, going to Gym Class would be akin to investing in a thief’s ‘acrobatics’ skill, only more interesting because it’s actually relevant to the character, story and setting.

Gameplay is simple success-based dice-rolling mechanic similar to what White Wolf uses, only Kagai! uses d6s instead of d10s.  Tasks are on a 5 point scale with difficulty determining the number of successes needed to accomplish tasks.  Players can act cooperatively by pushing and pulling dice to a pool for other players to use later or to hold for following turns with the pools lasting for the duration of a scene.  It took me a minute to wrap my head around how the push/pull worked, but helpful examples of gameplay are included:

“Ami is trying to hotwire a mechanical door. She has Smarts 3 and Design & Technology 3 for a total of six dice. She rolls six dice and gets two successes, a five and a six. The door is a tricky prospect, needing three successes to be opened. Ami carries the five over (pull) and pushes the six into the middle. Nezuko is trying to pry open the door while Ami works on it. She has Power 3, Gym 2 and the pry-bar gives her an extra two dice for a total of 7. She also grabs the pushed dice from the pool – for a total of 8 dice, but still only gets two successes, it’s still not open.”

In combat this translates more to setting up combos against baddies, where extra successes can be carried over or passed to other players.

Unlike a lot of games, including ones with similar systems, Kagai! offers the opportunity to target stat damage instead of HP by doing horrific and disfiguring attacks.  Bonus points for gruesome descriptions.  Of course this works both ways.  And in-line with the genre Kagai! is modeled after, one can get some stats back by means of sewing and supergluing one’s appendages back on and the like.

Monsters are created on point based systems similar to characters, with some examples and suggested lists of how many points different degrees of monsters should have.  The “Monster Machine” section offers a lot of different abilities and attributes beyond simple stats that monsters might have, like being boneless or having acid blood… you could make an incorporeal vampire made of sticky razor blades!

There is a large section of Kagai! dedicated to outlining and describing the city’s locations and amenities so that a GM can make their own maps or just wing it to fit their story.  But what’s impressive is that the descriptions really go into the visceral details, such as sounds, smells and even the taste of the air, stuff that you don’t usually get or expect from most game content that adds a lot to immersion.

One of the few places Kagai! is a bit of a letdown is the Art.  The cover art is great, and the chibi art is pretty good, but the rest of the art, which is made of black and white altered photo cut-ups, while not bad does not really jibe with the expected aesthetic.  It just seems out of place, and I think it detracts from the product a bit.  I don’t think anyone would miss it if it were gone; as Kagai! is a pdf, there’s no need for it as filler, especially since between the cover, the handful of chibis and well-written content the feel is well enough established without having to up the page count.  I know that James Desborough has said he would’ve liked to take things artistically in “a more explicitly sexual and ero-guro” direction, but I think that the more cutesy chibi-horror stuff works really well for it too, especially considering that I could almost (a few explicit illustrations in the cut-up style aside) call Kagai! a mixed company game.  But his game, his call.

One other aesthetic gripe I have: I get the manga stylization on the Char sheet, but a clean sheet would be nice on one’s printer ink supply.  Still, always great to have char sheets that fit on a page.  It’s an especially minor complaint given that you could fit your character’s relevant information onto an index card, so you don’t really NEED to print off a sheet.  But a clean sheet would be nice.

There’s a lot of good here, but unless you know you’re going to be playing this, the price point ($3.99) is just on the cusp of being a little high for the curious. I’d really like to have an appendix of a few pages that reduces character creation to its base tables and a table with weapons; in that form, most of the info you needed to get everyone started on the game could be printed on maybe 3 pages. That said, if a subsequent edition (print?) has more art like Ben Rodriguez’s cover, it would be certainly be worth paying print prices for.  Maybe James could look into it as a joint venture game-system/art portfolio?

All said, there’s a lot worth checking out here if you’re into pooled dice games, anime-esque games, or if you’re just looking for something different to try out.  It’s not for everybody.  But I can honestly say that my biggest complaint is actually not really a complaint but more my saying “If there was enough interest behind this and James had some money, he could make the second edition really shiny and nice.”

Short Reviews – The Star Eel, Robert F. Young

This was the cover story for the June 1977 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s an okay-ish cover for an okay-ish story.

Magazine-Of-Fantasy-Science-Fiction-June-1977
The Star Eel is a story with a lot of interesting ideas that are marred a bit by sci-fi cheese and a lot by half-hearted storytelling. Back in 1977, one could have a character named “Starfinder” and not be met with muffled snorts of laughter that eventually burst into guffaws, but really that’s the only part of this story that you can say didn’t age well.  The rest is on the story itself.  Why do I say half-hearted? Because of all of the lazy twists Young uses to extricate himself when he’s written himself into corners.  Things work out simply because he’s got to get to the end of the story somehow to mail it off to Fantasy and Science Fiction.  My reaction was pretty much the opposite of the Jennings story; everything was there to make me want to like this story but it just never quite came together.

The story’s premise is that the main character is the lone pilot/captain of a giant time-travelling Space Whale that gets attacked by a parasitic Star Eel. In this universe, Space Whales are hunted and their brains burned out by “Jonahs” because it’s easier to kill and gut one and fill it with space ship stuff than to build a space ship of equal tonnage. The same is also the case for Star Eels. Anyway, Starfinder’s Whale was unique in that it was double ganglioned, so Starfinder made a deal with the Whale that he would ‘save’ it by sparing its second ganglion and the whale would take him anywhere he wanted to go.

It turns out that Starfinder’s attacker is another intelligent ship that has been “liberated” by a little girl. Starfinder tries to convince the girl to detach the Star Eel, then unsuccessfully tries to trick the girl so that he can manually force the Eel to detach, and ultimately begs for the life of his Space Whale. The girl orders the Star Eel to stand down, but by now the Space Whale has lost it, isn’t going to listen to Starfinder or the promise he made to the girl that nothing bad would happen, and totally goes berserk on the Star Eel. Little girl bursts into tears as gobs of her space friend drift into deep space. Afterwards, the Whale feels really bad about what it did and promises to be the little girl’s friend so she’ll stop crying.

As a stand-alone, this was kind of a bad story. The concept of the living ships was cool, and some of the discussion on the relationships between ships and their pilots when ships are living things, but as a whole, the story was a disappointment. Starfinder was kind of a lame-o who screwed up in his ‘heroic’ attempt and only really got out of his predicament by grovelling to a 12 year old girl.  I know it makes me a monster, but he would’ve been a more interesting/compelling character if he laughed in her face, all “Space Whale 1, Star Eel 0!”  At least then you could be all “Wow, what a bastard!” and have a genuinely emotional response to one of the characters.  The Space Whale’s ‘let’s all be friends’ seemed like too much of an easy-out for the story; Young didn’t know how to deal with the crying 12 year old any more than Starfinder did.  The Star Eel might work if it were actually the first chapter of a longer story that better fleshed out the ideas and the characters, provided it doesn’t go into Piers Anthony territory. Otherwise it would be better rewritten as a pilot for a sci-fi reimagining of “The Misadventures of Flapjack”.

"But you promised you wouldn't hurt him!"

“But you promised you wouldn’t hurt him!”

“Bubby’s sorry she killed your Star Eel, Flapjack.  C’mere, n give Bubby a hug.”