Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Audio Book Review, "The Haunting of Hill House"

Review in Brief
The book, "The Haunting of Hill House" is not good.

The Plot Goeth Thusly
            In order to study supernatural phenomenon a psychiatrist gathers a group of people for a study in a haunted house.  The main viewpoint character of Eleanor slowly goes mad in the house as supernatural shit keeps happening.

My First Complaint: Boring
The book is boring.  I cannot fault the prose of the work, as the words have a descriptive power and flow that is nice, the performer allows the words to trip off their tongue quite eloquently.  But the plot drags and there is just not enough meat to the story.  By "meat" I mean revelations, there are few if any twists or surprises, these people are in a haunted house with some architectural quirks (that I am sure are metaphors) and they get spooked by ghosts.
            I guess I was expecting more of a “And Then There Were None” type situation, where the characters clash with one another, all have secrets and ultimately they unravel as the situation spirals out of control.  But aside from several instances of ghosts causing noise and everyone being afraid the vast majority of the book is the main character, Eleanor’s internal monologue which vacillates between demure and bitchy.

My Next Complaint: The Main Character
Eleanor is such a hard protagonist to root for.  The implication in the novel is that she starts out as a good-natured shrinking violet who has had little love in her life and the house sort of twists her insecurities into general bitchiness and ultimately self-destruction.  But, her dialogue is boring, and she is a boring person. At some point you need the viewpoint character of your book to have more of a personality than feckless human chew toy.  I don’t know, I got no vibes of internal struggle, just a steady descent from pathetic to miserable, and ultimately back to pathetic.  Not so much a character arc as a character boomerang.
            How would I have fixed this?  Simple, I would have had more characters.
            For a book where the premise is, “Psychiatrist conducts a study,” the Doctor has a comically small pool of participants.  Seriously, there are two people involved in the study, demure Eleanor and the free-spirited Theodora.  There is another guy there, Luke who is a member of the family that owns the house, but he’s not part of the study.  Beyond that there are some extremely tertiary characters, the Doctor’s wife (who is a sort of proto Gwyneth Paltrow for her use of bullshit in the study) and her… bodyguard(?) Arthur who mostly serves as a gruff salt of the earth contrast to the rest of the cast.  And I guess the rude house help… But fuck’em, their whole personalities begin and end with them being curt to the guests.

Just to sidetrack a moment, I am not going to watch this show.
Calling this nonsense a "lab" is such horse shit that I feel insulted on behalf of science.
Netflix should be ashamed.

None of the other characters work.  The Doctor comes off to me as a doddering old fool with no real method to the study that forms the impetus for the story.  Theodora has traits but mostly exists as a foil for Eleanor, and her establishing section of the novel paints her as so flighty and detached that she effectively has no motivation.  Luke is just a swaggering dick and offers no conflict to the story (we are told he is a liar and a cad... But it never amounts to anything in the narrative.  How about having him act that way?), mostly he just spends all of his time pouring drinks and playing chess with the Doctor (seriously, that is how a large chunk of his time on page is spent).  Then the Doctor’s hen-pecking idiot wife shows up with her servant(?) Arthur, a dull-witted thug.  Give me someone to care about, and then have that person clash with characters who I also care about.
            Overall there is just a lack of inter character drama and a lack of layers for the cast.  Eleanor is the focus, sure it is good to have a core character, but there is no mystery element, no one is more/less/something other than they appear to be, at least not in a way that comes up in the story or impacts the plot.  It is odd to have characters that all have dimension and contrast with one another just fine… But nothing really comes of it.

Why I Got This Book
I got this on sale for Halloween and because the "Inspired by" limited series on Netflix was so good.  How such a great Netflix series was inspired by it is like the evolutionary steps that moved from especially smart monkeys up to Humans, you can see how it happened, but is such a significant change that you have to marvel at it.
"Hey, what if the Ghosts were metaphors for something and we could couple the aftermath of living in the house with the events as they happened to create a mystery that the audience will feel engaged unraveling?"  "That sounds like a great idea!"

Ultimate Conclusion
            I wouldn’t recommend this even for people interested in the horror canon.  There are just better books out there.  If you want supernatural horror, listen to “Dracula”, and if you are looking for an ensemble piece set in a spooky house then go with the previously mentioned, “And Then There Were None” (which is not perfect, but it is better than this).
            “The Haunting of Hill House” fails with the supreme kiss of death for any work of fiction, the 8 deadly words, “I don’t care what happens to these people.”

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, share on Twitter (click that link to follow me), Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Audio Book Review, "The Scribbly Man"

TLDR: It Sucks

            To start off this discussion I want to first talk about another book that is more interesting than this one, “Sheepfarmer's Daughter” by Elizabeth Moon, in her fantasy saga, “The Deed of Paksenarrion”.  I read that book ages ago and for all that time I was trying to get my thoughts about it down on paper.  I would start, get bogged down, start talking about the Hero’s Journey and how character arcs are supposed to work… Then I would stop and throw it all out.
            There was too much to talk about with “Sheepfarmer's Daughter”.  I wrote other massive book reviews for the other murderer’s row “Worst books I have managed to finish”, a strange subgenre of things I tell people to stay away from.  There was my review of “Year One” which I again mention “Sheepfarmer's Daughter”.  And my review of the boring as fuck “Genesis”, a review that I am kind of proud of.  But I was still not able to hammer out all the things I wanted to get into with the first “Deed of Paksenarrion” book.
            There are other things that I feel almost obligated to write about one day to explain in excruciating detail why I dislike them so much, but I don’t feel so bad about Elizabeth Moon’s book now, because something new has taken the laurel as the worst book I have ever managed to finish, Terry Goodkind’s “The Scribbly Man”.

I came into reading this aware of Terry Goodkind's status as a prolific writer who helped define the fantasy genre over the decades... I expected this to be good.
Let me start with the first of many complaints, this is not a "Book 1" it is the direct continuation of an earlier series, events from that previous series define the main view point characters, the world, and serve as the inciting action for this story.  I got this assuming it was the author building a new series from the ground up, it is not, and the lack of clear upfront explanation of things makes the material surprisingly obtuse.  What is more, and this only matters to fans of his work (and there is a horde, this thing is intensely well reviewed) the book is comically short, it would be a quarter of a typical fantasy novel, even one meant to start a series.
For reference, this book (which I still hate) is 15 hours and 48 minutes.
"Scribbly Man" is 3 hours and 50 minutes.
The Plot
            The King and his wife who is sort of the Pope of a fantasy world are confronted by someone telling them that a “Golden Goddess” is coming to conquer their planet.  This guy is carted off for interrogation and a Witch shows up to be a new character (her presence should be a big red flag to everyone else… and somehow they treat her like they’ve known her for years).
            Turns out the guy in the interrogation tried to kill the Pope with the help of the titular “Scribbly Man” a monster from another world as a herald of the Golden Goddess.  The Pope lives, and together with the other characters they later resolve to fight the bad guy… And that is it.  Shockingly short book, I would not have stuck it out if it were longer.

Some Complaints
My initial and core complaints about this title have to do with the comically bad writing.  Dialogue is so stilted that the voice actor seems to have no idea how to deliver the lines, halting, flat, and repetitive.  I swear to god, the number of times the word "Gift" or "Witch Woman" show up in some chapters the words start to lose all meaning.  And of course "Scribbly Man" and "Golden Goddess" which are repeated dozens of times to the point where you just want to shake them and say, call one of them "They" or "Gary" or something else so that I can stop rolling my eyes at how overly formal you are all being.
And everything has such boring nomenclature.  "War Wizard" "Sword of Truth" "Confessor" "Witch Woman", they all feel like place holders that you put into the script until you can think of something distinct or punchy to give the world flavor like "Fremen" in Dune, “Istari” in Lord of the Rings, or “Jedi” in Star Wars.  “Scribbly” lacks sophistication with the writing terminology and that makes it feel flat.  I don’t need a whole fictional language or whatever, but come up with something more interesting sounding that “War Wizard”.
Tank Mage would have at least been a cool visual.
But he is just the 10,000th fantasy jerk off with a sword.
Some More Complaints
The plotting makes little sense too, there is a part where the heroes all decide to interrogate a villain, so they walk into a cell and then they stop and have a 10-minute private conversation that they all could have had in another room.  It is like the chapter is in the wrong place.  Same goes for lots of cuts to the action.  A chapter ends with the Confessor in complete control of a situation, zero tension, and then when we come back the villain has stabbed her, and an unseen monster has viciously attacked her.  What?  You were fine?  Why didn’t the last chapter we saw you in end with a violent attack?
There is also just a lack of characters.  There are 2 main, 2 supporting, and 3 minor in a book about a fantasy kingdom being invaded by incorporeal mind controlling ghost monsters from the stars.  Where is the war council?  Where are prominent heroes, intellectuals, and advisers outside of the two heroes and the random "Witch Woman" who happens to show up the same day as the evil ghosts... and for some reason no one treats that as massively suspicious.
There is the real twist that needed to happen, the “Witch Woman” should have been concocting the whole alien invasion thing to put her in a position to harm the two main heroes… She even has motivation to do so… not that it makes any sense because it was the conclusion to the last series of books, but the Witch doesn’t seem to take, “Sorry I screwed up the source of one of your many super powers… But I literally was thwarting the end of life on this planet.  You should probably just get over it.”

"Sure, the dead would have walked the earth...
But you would have gotten to keep your ability to tell people's fortunes.  Idiot."

Some More Complaints
Also, the heroes are assholes.  One of them uses magic to completely enslave the will of a person who is already brainwashed by the villain and she is so pissed of at him for telling her that the bad guys are coming she kills him… Like he was a victim of the monsters.  And what is more that scene has another hero brutally and casually mutilate the guy to break the villain’s control over him, it is unpleasant and shocking… and the main heroes are just like, “Ha!  I’m starting to like her!”  Which is gross.
Another small thing, the title is stupid.  This is the start of the series and while “Scribbly Man” is said to the point where the words boarder on meaningless it is not technically the main threat, the “Golden Goddess” is.  And what is more there is some asinine argument between the two main characters about how one promised the other a “Golden Age” and she is mad at him because she is now conflating “Golden Age” and “Golden Goddess” in a train of logic I could not follow.  The book, which takes place as a SEQUEL to the past series should have been called “The Golden Age” to show the contrast between the promise of the main hero and the looming threat of the villain, you know, the parallel he was trying to establish and failed to.

A Backhanded Compliment
To switch gears, I will give it one credit.  The idea of the shimmering ghost like entity, the titular Scribbly Man is a good image.  The way its tracks are described, the idea that it has claws and venom, that it is especially alien and sees causing fear and killing akin to sexual pleasure.  They are a fitting threat to the protagonists who are the undisputed supreme monarchs of an entire planet with magic powers and seemingly limitless resources… Yeesh… way to write identifiable characters am I right?  Guess that isn’t a lot of credit there…

This is from the show... Which is... Shockingly bad.
Also, gotta love that old trope of superior bloodlines making them magically awesome
Note: I did not pay full price for this, I got it for $1.99 and still thought about returning it.  Overall, this is garbage.  The sort of flat clunky mess that I would expect as the first fantasy novel hacked out by a 15-year-old.  Made all the more disappointing because it is apparently the work of a rock star in the genre.  Baffling.

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, share on Twitter (click that link to follow me), Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Some Reviews of Several Audible Originals

            A Couple months ago I did 10 quick reviews for audio books I had been listening to on Audible.  But I specifically left out something else Audible offers, their original content.  Audible produces numerous books in their own studios and has moved into producing more and more podcast-like content.  To help showcase more of this material they allow audible members to get 2 titles in this category each month (mind you it is from a list of 6 showcased items, not the whole shebang).
            I see this content as standing apart from the audible books as they frequently have numerous cast members, sound effects, audio taken from news reports and other sources.  They are so different in execution and production (most of the time) that I wouldn’t call them audio books… more like audio productions.  So I am going to pull out a couple of these and say whether I liked them.

            A Native Alaskan man deeply troubled by alcohol and personal instability disappears into the wilderness after fleeing an escalating violent confrontation outside of his mother’s home.  His behavior and his explanation of where he was and what he was doing in the days that followed lead to questions about Native Alaskan Folklore.
This is exactly the sort of content I come to expect from Audible originals when it comes to the true crime genre.  A seemingly straight forward case that happens in a unique location with a colorful assortment of real people, with the additional twist of explaining/exploring something I was previously unaware of, in this case the Native Alaskan folklore of the Iñukuns.  For lack of a better explanation, the Iñukuns are the folktale of a lost tribe of small and strong people that still live in the wild… and fuck with people.  It is spooky.

If I have one complaint it is that I would have liked to learn more about the Native Folklore.  I am a mythology nerd and I will admit that Native American myths are blindspot for me.  And sadly this material is obscure enough that I couldn't really find too much else related to the Iñukuns after finishing.  Maybe that is a strength to this?  Leave them wanting more?
I see a lot of reviewers on the Audible site itself complaining about swearing... which is just so stupid.  Like, this is a violent crimes investigation taking place in a rural and blue-collar community... People say "fuck".  Grow up and get over it.
I gave it a 5/5.

            This series takes in massive amounts of interviews and oral history to look at the evolving social justice movements and economic realities of the Homefront during World War II.
            I will freely admit that I am Reeeeaaalllll tired of learning about World War II.  Along with Viet Nam it has been in the popular consciousness during the entirety of my life and I just do not want to know any more about the war itself.  When I saw this thing I mostly got it on the strength of, “I like Martin Sheen” and “well it is less about the war and instead about the Homefront” and “it isn’t just a rosy circle jerk for America”  These factors taken together switched my mood on the thing.

            It is a good original take on the subject matter.  It is cool to learn about how race, gender, and economics were shaped by the war in much stranger ways than would have been expected.  The idea that the government had to ask for companies to build them a tank and being told, “Sure we can do that, but just one thing, what is a tank?”  That is interesting.
            My real complaint is this: It is AGGRESSIVELY a series.  Each section starts with a recap and introduction and ends with preview and credits.  That is stupid.  The whole thing should have been reedited to make a comprehensive credits section at the end of the whole thing, no previews, no recaps, just get into it.  I should not be skipping dozens of minutes to get past these redundancies.  Major drag on the production.
            If not for the need of a reedit this would be a 5/5, as is, I gave it a 4/5

            The story of a woman whose children were stolen from her by their father and taken to who knows where and why she didn’t look for them.
            This is a sad and miserable exploration of a tragic family manipulated by a guy who in any just universe would have been murdered at a much younger age.
            I did not like this.  It is just sad and frustrating.  I don’t feel like I learned anything from going thru this and I would not recommend it.
            I guess if you like misery porn this would be for you.
            This is a 2/5.

            A man is in prison for the murder(?) of the woman he was having an affair with.  There is not a single piece of forensic evidence that he committed the crime… There isn’t even a body of the victim.  She is just gone.
            This is one of those real-life cases where they do the thing of, “Here is the case against him” portrayed as solid as possible, and then then in the second half they explain why all of that is basically junk.  And since I am all about the, “Show me the fingerprints and the blood splatter” I thought the first half was shockingly thin, so by the time they started laying out why he was innocent I mostly was nodding and going, “Yeah”.

            This is (to me) very much the story of some guy getting a crime pinned on him, and how the Scottish criminal justice system is deeply flawed.  But then I look at other reviewers and they seem to take the, “This is biased toward innocence” and I guess it is more up in the air than I thought.
            This is a 5/5 for me.

            A look at the scientist who championed Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, the dark horse method of space craft construction and operation that allowed a smaller craft and crew to visit the moon and return safely to earth before the end of the 1960’s.
            I was surprised how much I enjoyed this.  It is a good blend of history and science that I wouldn’t mind seeing in other similar historical instances (maybe the Manhattan Project or the creation of the Windows/Apple operating systems).
            If you like learning about the history of science, I cannot think of a reason why you would dislike listening to this.
            I put this at 4/5.

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, share on Twitter (click that link to follow me), Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Dungeons and Dragons' Boring Monsters: The Hill Giant

            As I have mentioned many times before in this blog, I play Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) most often as a Dungeon Master (DM).
            I have always been more of a story centric DM, getting most of my kicks by setting up complex story situations, “Do you fulfill the contract you made even if it means destroying something special?” or “Do we awaken this ancient evil sorcerer because he might be the only one with the knowledge to stop the even bigger evil on the horizon?” or “With how much impunity do we destroy the evil army?  Innocent people may get hurt.”
            Asking players to engage with the material I have written and have an impact on the world is where I get most of my fun.  BUT… I do like learning and using the rules of the game to have fun too.  Constructing an encounter that challenges the players to think about how to beat the bad guys is important rather than just having them slap their meat against the enemy’s meat until only one meat slab remains.
            Which is what I wanted to talk about in this series* I want to talk about monsters that I think do a poor job of being fun.  They are boring to use, and boring to fight.  They are Meatballs.  Just big balls of meat that you slap the players with.
            It is important that this is not just about complaining, this is about fixing flaws.  I want to try and create thematically appropriate ways of making monsters more interesting to run.  So let’s start out by looking at one of the most meaty of monsters, the Hill Giant.

            The Hill Giant is defined by 3 things to me, 1) low armor making him easy to hit, 2) Numerous hit points allowing him to stay on his feet even as he is being hit numerous times, and 3) having a ranged attack and a melee attack, each dealing a large amount of damage.  Big ball of meat that slaps.
            “What is the drawback here?” you might be asking.
            The issue is that the giant has no means of manipulating the battlefield, no way of working with or at cross purposes with allies, and there is no clever way to get around any of his defense.  On his turn he will attack, he will likely hit, and that is it.
            “Okay, so what would you suggest for a giant?” might be your follow up question.
            I want giants to have elemental powers, and I have talked about this concept before with my limited series on making monsters more exotic in lore.  Giving elemental powers to some giants makes sense, for instance Frost and Fire Giants, all one has to do is give them an attack that creates ice or fire and you are done, but Hill Giants are not as intuitive, hills are not that inherently hostile and they do not illicit thoughts in them beyond making sunrises prettier.

I think that having the Hill Giant be based around loose soil will work.  Which is a weird pick.  Here is what I mean.  First I want to give them a short-ranged area attack with a Strength based save, the giant will smack up loose soil, stone, and earth from the ground in a wave that might bury those caught in it.  This temporary burying will allow the giant to move up and pummel those opponents who are now at his mercy.  This ability will be called “Dirt Storm” and require the giant to be on unworked ground in order to use it.
Next, I want to give the Giant a means of recuperating to keep the players from simply playing hit and run with it, wearing the thing down.  The ability, “Rub Some Dirt on It” will allow the Giant to rub themselves down with soil to regain hit points and shore up their defenses.  Taking a minute to rub themselves down with loose soil allows them to cure up to a quarter of their full hit point total (26 for a typical Giant).  A quicker use of this ability in combat grants 10 hit points and a +2 to armor class for a round, picture the giant drawing up the earth around them to create a layer of soil skin (like a super-fast day at the spa) for rejuvenation.
Last thing to add is to make its rocks more interesting.  All giants in the Monster Manual throw and catch rocks as a sort of traditional thing, it is an okay thing, but I would like to start the tradition of making the rocks different from one another in a variety of ways.  Hill Giants should throw massive Dirt Clods.  When these hit they do less bludgeoning damage that a full-on rock, but they have the added benefit of shattering into a blinding torrent of soil.  In fact, a blinding effect for hitting people with soil would also work for the first ability, “Dirt Storm”.
This all combos together nicely, the Giant can blind people who are far away, so they can’t shoot at him, those who are a medium distance away might get buried and blinded allowing him plenty of advantage and closing with him means that you have to deal with his devastating club.  He is still a meatball in lots of ways.  The melee attacks are the most damaging and they are likely to hit.  But giving him alternate attacks will allow the DM to make decisions that have more impact on the game.

Here is a link to a PDF type thing.

Now to introduce one last aspect of dynamic monster action: Levels of Success/Failure.  The giants abilities have the potential to impose status effects on the players, and the players should have different levels of being hit by the attacks.  If a players fails a save by 10, they should be buried deeper and be blinded longer, a little less when missing by 5, only momentarily knocked down when you barely miss.  Here is a little chart to help, and I recommend making these for your own encounters to give some more dynamic outcomes to each save in an encounter.

The Blinding affect in the stat block lists 1d3 rounds of being blinded, with the gradient chart this 1 to 3 rounds is a reflection of how much the player failed the save.  Burying is a straightforward process in the stat block, here it can be debilitating, causing weapons to be lost in the soil!  Be careful with this level of punishment, as it makes the Earthen Hill Giant potentially much tougher.

Suggested Encounter
            The Earthen Giant’s key abilities of Dirt Storm and Rub Some Dirt on It, both require access to loose soil.  This means that the players gain a clear advantage drawing the monster into an area with a worked stone or paved floor.  If there is no dirt to throw then the Earthen Hill Giant is just a weaker Hill Giant.
            I picture a ruined city where there are large sections of paved road on which the Giant’s abilities would be blocked, while most of the city is just soil and ruined buildings.  Having the players have to taunt the giant into an area where the ground is impermeable ground cover would give them a smart way of limiting the monsters ability allowing a group of lower level characters to get a drop on the monster.
            They could even lay a trap by casting an illusion of soil over a paved area allowing the giant to waste a turn trying and failing to use one of its abilities. And then having to make a save to even figure out why the ability failed and if they fail to break the illusion they might try and fail again.

            What do you think?  Do these changes make the Hill Giant more interesting?  Or are they options and augmentation that you think are pointless?  Do you think the changes make the Earthen Hill Giant a good CR 6, or should it be higher?  Comment below if you think I did a good/bad job, and if you would like to see me do more monsters, or if you have a suggestion for another encounter environment.
            Regardless, I would like to point to Home Brewery for giving everyone the tools to make their own authentic looking stat blocks for 5e content.  If you would like to make monsters, check them out.

            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, share on Twitter (click that link to follow me), Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

*(I plan to make this a series, but I write entries in this blog so rarely these days… who knows?)

Friday, October 18, 2019

Dungeons and Dragons, "Bullshit"

            Hello, I am a Dungeons and Dragons player.   On this blog, more and more frequently I have been discussing Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) because I like to write and I often can spare time to write about one of my favorite hobbies.  While I am professionally qualified to talk about politics and world events… I do that professionally and need a break from that.
            Recently, I moved to Arlington, just south of the Pentagon.  This move, coupled with the change of career, has left me with little time to play DnD, so I suspect I will just be writing about it from time to time on here till I can find a group again.
            You might be wondering why I am telling you this when the title to this blog is so harsh.  “Bullshit?  Why that sounds rather derogatory.  What do you mean by that?”  Well, to be clear, I am not calling the game “Bullshit”.  In spite of it being a game and gigantic time sink, the fact is any and all downsides to playing the game are invariably off set by the educational, social, and creative benefit its players gain by learning the mechanics and making the most of their time playing it.  I know that I am better at math, writing, and history all as a result of playing DnD.
“Bullshit” in this instance, refers to something that shows up in the game that players complain about, but I have to tell them… it is not going to go anywhere, and they should be glad. 
This is going to be a bit rambling.  Hopefully it is entertaining enough to justify hanging in there and opening a dialogue. Let me get into this.

To listen to while reading maybe?

Players Versus the DM
DnD is a “game” in that you play it.  But much like a creative writing exercise there really is no “winning”.  You win by having fun.  Facing challenges, playing a character, learning about and influencing a fictional world, and spending time with fellow players.
Certainly there are instances in which “victory” can be achieved.  Getting past a puzzle, convincing a non-player character (NPC) to do something, beating a bad guy, and all the other tasks the players can do in order to progress the story.
Unfortunately, players come to see the DM, the person constructing these challenges as an adversary.  They are not the guy who takes hours each week to think up stories, traps, and encounters… they are the guy trying to kill the players.  In this mindset the DM is not the person dispensing fun, they are an obstacle to fun.
Conversely, DM’s often run into situations where they put in a lot of effort to make sure that the game is optimized when played a certain way.  Here is a fun combat encounter, here is a fun riddle, here is a cool NPC… They are trying to make a game world that is fun to play in, but the players are trying to defeat for the pleasure of ‘victory’.  Players might come up with an interesting way to bypass encounters, they might kill the cool NPC, they might not be interested in the story at all.  AND THAT IS FRUSTRATING.

Speaking as someone who has DM’ed many more times than he has been a player, the fun part is giving your players something fun to do… THAT IS THE GOAL OF DM’ING.  But when you put in a lot of work (or buy a supplement) that has well designed elements and the players do not encounter those elements you feel (for lack of a better word) betrayed.  That the fun of seeing this thing you spent time making or learning is going to waste.  That way leads to madness and to wanting to punish the players for behavior like creative problem solving… or discretion.
These two big elements “Players wanting to Win” and “DM’s wanting to Show Their Work” begin to bang into each other and that is where “Bullshit” starts to creep in.  The DM starts to push the players in a certain path.  NPC’s keep bringing up the same plot hooks, combat encounters outside of the “good” one become punishing, the bad guy always manages to get away before the killing blow can be struck.  It is nearly tantric in how it keeps the players from experiencing what they want from the game, to “beat” the DM.
And let me be clear, DM’s can be awful when it comes to hammering players into doing things the “right” way.  But there has to be some allowances for the DM to show off the cool thing he created otherwise the players are kind of cheating the DM out of a lot of the fun the DM gets out of DM’ing.  DM’ing is often hard.

“Beating” the DM
Beating the DM in the context of the game is impossible by the very nature of DnD.  Dungeons and Dragons is an asymmetrical game.  Players cannot “beat” the DM.. in the game.
The DM has infinite resources. They can create whatever trap or challenge that they want. Therefore, they will always "win" because they can create unwinnable scenarios.
The objective for the DM is to create scenarios that are fun to play, thru a combination of creativity, challenge, and story value. A confrontation with an NPC or group of NPC's that is in a unique area, with strange powers, and for a good reason is the ideal… and if the players are trying to “beat” the DM by just not engaging with the story, with the encounters, with the material that he is giving them… EVERYONE LOSES.
Conversely, DM’s who come to resent the players, and just keep hammering them with encounters that are too hard, NPC’s that are too stubborn, or environments that are too narrow and dull, then the DM is only defeating themselves.
DM's "win" when everyone, including themselves, is having fun. If you only have fun by utilizing your infinite power to slam the player’s, then you are not winning.  If you are trying to “win” by playing less, then you are defeating yourself.

What is Bullshit?
I am an intensely intelligent person.  I am not going to run down my credentials in the real world because having lots of degrees is not guarantee that someone is smart, and it just comes off as bragging.  But believe me when I say, “I am smart”.
That being said, I do not have a “20” in Intelligence.  I am not Doctor Doom.  I can only devout so much time and mental resources to a game, even a game I love like DnD.  I do not have every scenario planned out that Doctor Doom would have in an encounter with the heroes, let alone the wisdom of ages that an immortal multispatial cosmic power has.  If I am roleplaying as Baccob, god of Knowledge and Magic… Expect me to still be me, just more cryptic.
When players seek to thwart me with some clever use of the rules (and when it comes to 5e, I am still learning the rules… 3.X is still sitting heavy on my brain) I may end up with my 20 intelligence wizard being caught off guard by something that a super intelligent mad wizard would have planned for.
When that happens I have two options, 1) have the big bad taken out by something he would have seen coming, or 2) have the clever use of the rules get thwarted with the understanding that… it is a super-wizard, they would have had something prepared.

What is fun is, 5e knows this is a thing.  Legendary Resistance, the ability for boss monsters to automatically make saves is a stand in for DM’s inability to think of anything ahead of time.  This represents the Boss’ ability to have some unseen backup plan that keeps them from losing to something that would have taken out a less prepared individual.
But then, you are destined to hear the words, “That is such Bullshit.”
And it is.  It is bullshit.  It is the same thing that happens when you play a strategy game and turn up the difficulty settings, the game’s AI is not getting “smarter” it is just get stat boosts to give it an edge because creating a thinking computer capable of playing the “Civilization” series better than a person would be insanely complex.  The answer is giving the AI more money and production to make up for the game being pretty dumb.  It is bullshit.
But it is a necessary part of the game and DM’s might have to use bullshit more often than just Boss Fights.  They might have to give more clues or weaker clues, they might have to make the cliffs harder to climb or the river harder to fjord, they might have to make teleport or fly not work, or they might want to make it so your character is not pulverized immediately in the first round of combat… Because sometimes restrictions have to be put out into the world to keep one’s sanity.
I can’t plan for everything; therefore I might just say, “That doesn’t work and you can’t figure out why”.

The Problem
            The real thrust of this whole long diatribe comes here: if you are a good DM that is winning by doing what I mentioned above, “…to create scenarios that are fun to play, thru a combination of creativity, challenge, and story value…” then players will understand the Bullshit you have just utilized has a point and is not a cheat.
            If you have an adversarial relationship with your players, then they will see it as a cheat, and the game might very well enter a death spiral.  It will diminish people’s fun if you use your infinite resources to jerk the players around.  It will diminish your fun to have to do that.  You will “lose” Dungeons and Dragons.
Another way to lose at DnD is to be the only member of your friends who is really into it.
A Solution?

            I do not have a solid answer for this.
            The best thing I can offer is this: explain to your players that while DnD is an open ended game, that you (the DM) are a finite, mortal person who can only think of so many things and that sometimes the bad guy will have an escape plan that WILL WORK, because the bad guy did not get to be the bad guy without that kind of thing being in his repertoire.
            Tell them, “roll with it, it is part of the game.”
            Beyond trusting your players to forgive you fudging the numbers against them from time to time, I suggest the other kind of bullshit… Narrative Bullshit.
            Here is one I really like, “The villain has a dampening field for magic in his tower, but it is limited, it only blocks certain types of elements or schools and not others… But he keeps changing it.  There is a strong chance that if you go there, that resources you have come to rely on might not work at all or backfire and you won’t know till you get there.”
            It adds an inherently unfair advantage to the bad guy.  Just to be clear tho, don’t have him throw a fireball if you have already said, “no fireballs”.  Like, have a couple different lists of spells that you can jump between to keep things consistent… or just have the bad guy be a fighter who has found a magic do-dad that cancels magic and he is clever enough to use it like that.
            It is still bullshit, but it is bullshit with an explanation.  It feels less cheap.

            I don’t know.
            This kind of meandered around a lot more than I anticipated.  I mean, look at how long this blog entry is, and it is mostly just talking about how players should be more forgiving of DM’s and DM’s should be more willing to cheat because the standards of “Good DM” are just too high.  I am sure that will win me lots of friends from the “play what is rolled” crowd.
            What do you think?  If you have a blog of your own on the topic, by all means, link it.
            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, share on Twitter (click that link to follow me), Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

Monday, September 30, 2019

10 Short Audible Reviews

            Here are Ten short reviews of the last Ten books I have listened to with Audible.  That is to say, these are books, not the Audible originals I also received which are often more complex productions and good in their own way… But I am just going for books on this one.
            I should note that I only listed the authors and not the audio performers, this is my own bias because I am reviewing these first as books.  That being said, the audio performances were good in all of these and in some cases I would argue elevated the material.

Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell
            This is a less focused thesis statement than his previous books, but regardless it introduces numerous instances of communications theory and practice that have broken down in some keyway leading to trouble.  Recommended for those who like non-fiction having to do with communications and current events.

Outland” by Dennis E. Taylor
            This is the start to a new science fiction series by the author that appeals to the same part of my brain that really liked Gary Paulsen novels growing up.  I would most compare it to “Tunnel in the Sky” by Robert Heinlein.  If you like high concept science fiction I would recommend it, but I would recommend his “We Are Legion (We Are Bob)” series first, it is SO GOOD.

Blindspot” by Mahzarin R Banaji and Anthony G Greenwald
            This was reading for my new position as a student at George Washington University, as it details how hidden bias exists in ways that are often too subtle to detect.  It also explains how these things developed within society and how recognizing them can be useful.  If you like social science then I recommend it.  I talk about it more here.

This book series deserves a special commendation because it is legendarily good at being self published.
No Joke, this is an inspiration to all writers who want to be successful one day.
Age of Legend” by Michael J Sullivan
            This is the latest in a series that I like overall, but I actually think this is the weakest entry in the series.  I genuinely enjoy all of the work by Sullivan that I have listened to and have talked to him via email, where he complimented my solution to his use of the term “underscore” by a society that had no concept of written language (my solution was to say it referred to scoring the underside of a boot or shoe to give it traction and grip, rather than underlining a word).  I talked about more of his material here.

Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art” by Christopher Moore
            I am legitimately shocked that I have not mentioned this author before in this blog.  He does magical comedy and has written numerous titles I would recommend without hesitation.  This one I am hesitant to recommend because it is WEIRD.  I like the concept, that some mysterious supernatural being is responsible for the murder of Vincent van Gogh and it relates to a magical blue paint… but boy does it take a turn into crazy town.  I would only recommend it if you are okay with the sort of, “it is so weird that it makes it seem real” that you get from Joe Hill stories about a magical car that turns children into hook toothed monsters.

Siege Tactics” by Drew Hayes
            Another, “4th book in its series”.  I wrote a longer review for this one on Audible and I will share the thrust of it here: the series is getting bloated with too many characters and WAY TOO MUCH explanation of the world’s metaphysics.  I still like the books because they are creative, and adventurous, and the characters are good… but I kind of want there to be an epic final conclusion to the overall story soon.

I find pretty much all of the art surrounding this story to be just neat.

The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett
            No joke, this was part of a three book effort started in May of 2017 with “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, continued in May 2018 with “Silence”, and finished in April this year with this.  My goal was to try and read books whose CORE had to do with the Christian faith and how it is explored in various contexts.  “Canticle” was about a post apocalypse, “Silence” was a historical about the persecuted outsider, and “Pillars” is very much about it being a core and powerful player in day to day life.
            I genuinely consider “Pillars” to be one of my favorite books of all time.  As a civic planner, political scientist, and student of history the exploration of the technical, political, and social dynamics present in this book hit every part of my brain.
            I should definitely write more about my journey thru Christian (Catholic) fiction and my thoughts on the subject matter.  Probably juxtapose it with thoughts about my trip to Vatican City last year… I will have to think about it.

The Vexed Generation” by Scott Meyer
            This is the 6th book in its series, and it is also a soft reboot.  I consider this a return to form for the series’ writing in regard to humor and fresh characterization, especially after almost quitting the series in frustration after book 5 (which I consider the absolute nadir of the series).  What once was old is now new again as the children of the original protagonist have to step in, learn things, and then save the day.  It is neat.
I do have one big complaint: The book is trying to have things both ways on the topic of the reboot.  Either be a jumping on point, with fresh characters seeing things for the first time and having to learn it all from an outside perspective… Or start the book with a, “This is the premise” rundown.  Don’t do both.  Write the book as if no one has read the previous, and that means not putting that at the start and trusting the readers (even long-time readers) to appreciate the sense of discovery the rest of the book offers.
This story is just what you would expect from the cover.
Pawn of Prophecy” by David Eddings
            If you tried to write the most archetypal fantasy story ever… Well you would probably get something like a shitty “Lord of The Rings”… but if you tried to do such a task while aware of and avoiding comparisons to LotR then you might write “Dawn of Prophecy” and its series The Belgariad.
            It is a solid FINE.  I would consider it part of the “canon” of fantasy, as it was written with the idea of being a quintessential fantasy story in mind, but it will not give you anything you haven’t seen in other fantasy books.

14” by Peter Clines
            I like Peter Clines well enough… because he is kind of what I would see myself as were I to really go for broke writing a novel instead of just talking about it all the time.
            This book is well structured, has natural dialogue, has character arcs, fun and inventive set pieces, and stakes.  Sure I called certain things that would happen, but the way he visualizes certain things, the creepy elements being creepy, and the adventurous nature of the story all come together well.
            If you like science fiction mystery stories, dialogue driven humor, and cosmic horror I can recommend this.
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