I did some traveling over July and that meant a lot of time spent on planes, trains, buses, and even a boat for a few hours. Also a lot of time sitting in airport lounges and awake at odd hours from jetlag.
Long story short this meant I read a lot.
A Coffin For Dimitrios by Eric Ambler: I am a sucker for thrillers that involve little more than a nebbish protagonist traveling around the world so they can listen to various weirdoes monologue at length. Here a mystery writer gets fascinated by a death told to him by a Turkish police captain and out of nothing more than idle curiosity starts to investigate the dead man’s life. This promptly opens open a can of worms as the dead man had ties to international terrorism, human trafficking, and drug smuggling. Also fascinating glimpse into the 1930s.
We Are Never Meeting In Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby: This is a collection of self-scathing essays by someone who got their start by being funny online. Cringe-worthy much of the time, but also very funny almost all the time. If you see this and you enjoy the David Sedaris/Roxanne Gay wry confessional style, read this.
Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett: No one ever talks about how Chine Mieville’s Bas Lag is just grimdark Discworld. For me Pratchett’s a bit like Agatha Christie. Each of them has lots of books that my friends adore and which I’ve read a little by, but have never done a deep dive into. Their books are also more or less ubiquitous and one of the easier things to score second hand, so their a bit easy to take for granted. ANYWAY, I read this and The Colour of Magic and enjoyed them both immensely..
Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin: You ever notice how almost all Le Guin’s SF novels have titles that sound a bit like Spaghetti Westerns? I don’t know what to make of that, but I think it’s kind of cool. I also like how she swears in her books and writes characters who are quietly and respectfully down to fuck. This novel is a series of linked novellas taking place on a pair of planets, Werel and Yeowe, where the populations were once sorted into “owners” and “assets”, but then a revolution occurred. The characters have either lived through that revolution or have arrived in its aftermath as a new society emerges. Harrowing stuff at times, and in another writer’s hands I’d be worried, but Le Guin does a great job here. (I also reread The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu from the Earthsea series and can still say I adore them.)
The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce: I adored this book! I want to call this folk horror, but it’s not quite horrific enough. I’ll call it instead folk horror adjacent contemporary fantasy. It’s the 1960s and Fern Cullen is the teenaged assistant to mammy, the local wise woman in a small English village. Most of their work is herblore and midwifery, but they also provide abortions where required. And it’s this that lands them in trouble. As the world changes around them and Mammy ends up hospitalized, Fern must decide whether she is willing to continue the work Mammy has taught her or adapt and change with the times. Like I said, I adored this book and wholeheartedly recommend it.
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) by Martha Wells: When we left Murderbot at the end of All Systems Red, they’d saved their humans but fled from their offer of sanctuary, choosing instead to learn the truth of their own past. And so that’s where we pick up here with Murderbot stowing away onboard ART, an Assholish Research Transport vessel, and returning to the site of the massacre they believe they committed. Of course this puts Murderbot in danger, bot only from humans but from other robots that see Murderbot as something of a role model. If you want fun, SF action entertainment these books deliver.
I’ve run a few sessions of Blades in the Dark (BitD) now and am going to outline some of the problems I’ve encountered trying to teach D&D players a new game. Your mileage may vary, but seeing the potholes I’m hitting might clue you in to what pitfalls to expect when leaving behind “the world’s most popular roleplaying game”.
One big problem is that my players don’t have a common language for RPGs like they do for board games.
Now I don’t think Blades is any more difficult to learn than D&D. But when I sit down to play a board game I’ve never played, my pal can employ a language I can quickly understand. She can say, “this uses a dice mechanic or an auction mechanic or a bidding mechanic” and I’ll know a good bit about how to approach the game. RPGs have less of that. And while you can suss out a board game’s mechanics over the course of a game, roleplaying games require more time and personal investment to learn, especially for inexperienced players. Yes, there’s talk about system mechanics (you use a d20, 2d6, prehensile dice), along with the more esoteric talk about Theory you need to be clued into, but when I sit down to play/learn a new RPG the ways those Theory and mechanics operate and mesh together aren’t often readily apparent. And D&D does you no favors here because its system mechanics (getting good at killing stuff) are at odds with what it claims to be about (creating stories).
One thing a friend suggested as a good way to show D&D players the wider range of game mechanics is to use either The Quiet Year or Fiasco to teach other play styles and things like narrative driven mechanics. All so’s to get away from the sword and sorcery style play. That makes sense. Next time around I’ll do that.
On to the problems. . .
Solid Crunch vs. Memory Foam
- An example: ghost punching versus Attunement: It takes a bit to wrap your head around the agency you as a player are given in BitD. In D&D you’re a ghost hunter and get a +5 whenever you punch a ghost. In Blades you’re a Whisper and get a bonus to attunement and have a special link to the ghost field and when you’re like “Cool! What does that mean?” your GM will look at you and say, “Well, you tell me?” Some folks will have their eyes light up here. Other folks will stare blankly at the GM and gulp audibly.
Organic development vs. Mechanic development.
- In Blades advancement triggers arise from play and not from killing monsters.
- No builds. If you’re used to a game having the level of crunch where you can go online and find an optimized build, Blades is not that game. Even outside whether or not it’s easy, being a Cutter that rolls 5D6 take-the-highest skirmish is a lot less satisfying then optimizing a guy to do 10D8+10 damage every time he hits someone with a sword.
- On a side note, I hate builds. Sure if the game’s super crunchy and I don’t want to deal with learning rules I’ll hop online and follow a build if that means I get to play the game comfortably. But simultaneously if I’m in a game where a player builds the best killing machine possible, I will intentionally Nerf my character. “What you’re optimizing your thief to be an elite killing machine using some tactical progression you read on an online forum? Fuck you, my barbarian’s now multiclassing as a wizard.” (This raises the question of whether I’m the problem. I can be a shit person at times.) But I hold by the notion that RPG characters should grow organically through play and not be optimized like the Terminator. I also recognize that this very optimization might be someone else’s jam, so I don’t know. Hopefully we get along, because otherwise maybe the best thing would be that we never play games together.
- Players looking around for the boss monster.
- This is likely more about my own bad habits when it comes to adventure design and trying to get out of the habit of encounter-based adventures and more towards heists, but there needs to be a comparable change in player mind-set. If D&D fosters one kind of play style and gives you the tools to play that way, you might see all games as having the same style.
- The heist mindset as opposed to the party exploring mindset. An example: The score is to break into the soul vault beneath the temple of the Empty Vessel and destroy the soul of a cruel factory boss. You hear the high priest has a fondness for blood sports. So PC 1 sets up as a fight promoter causing a distraction, while PC2, a sniper, finds a spot on a nearby rooftop, while PC3, the whisper, breaks into the vault. Except the Whisper PC played D&D and knows you never split the party and go off alone, so he sticks to PC1 and sits at the table checking his phone while the decoy fight goes on instead of being a daring scoundrel.
Hit points and Healing
- Hitpoints vs. Harm-Armor-Resistance-Stress asset management. Hit points are straightforward. You have 30 hit points. It’s right there on your character sheet. The orc hit you with an arrow. It did 5 points of damage. You now have 25 hit points. When you reach 0 hit points you are dead/unconscious. This is simple. BitD does this instead: Harm-Resistance-Armor-Stress-Asset Management. You’re stabbed through the lung and take 3 Harm. Your armor can reduce that to 2 harm, cracked ribs, but you can reduce that to 1 harm, bloodied, by rolling your prowess and taking stress, which from the looks of it might mean you end up traumatized. GM says “What do you want to do?” Player says, “ Can’t I just take 5 hit points damage?”
- I like Blades’s healing mechanics. The rolls and the de-stress mechanics, they add to the gritty, grinding feeling the setting is designed to create, but also it feels gritty and grinding, and if your players aren’t ready for that they’re not going to be happy. Especially if they’re used to short-rest/long-rest, have a healing spell/potion, start the next adventure at max HP. This means their initial reaction to Blades’s healing mechanic is not going to be a favorable one.
The Crew Game in a reactive setting
- My players are having a hard time wrapping their head around the crew game and how that puts them in the setting. No one’s really excited about it. Partially my fault, I suggested they play as vigilantes and everyone agreed to that without having much knowledge of what that meant. But overall the crew game is viewed as an accounting chore and not as a way to generate story momentum.
- With 5e the setting dial is very loose. How much the Forgotten Realms reacts to the characters can be dialed way down or way up without too much change to at table play. If players are used to a game style where they can stomp around a make believe land without too much push back or even organic impact, then the whole faction game is going to be alien.
- So when the setting reacts to players in ways that should be obvious to them, and the players aren’t aware of or picking up on how they could shore against those setting reactions, it can start to look like the setting is out to get the players. If your players aren’t picking up on how reactive Duskwall is to their actions, and how they can be impacting other factions, Blades gives the impression of being out to get the PCs. This is part of its design and why I like it, but my players aren’t used to such a reactive setting and I think this leads to paralysis on their part. “We can’t do anything without pissing off somebody and I’m uncomfortable taking risks.”
- Solution: have the players make characters but hold off crew creation until after a few sessions. For players unfamiliar with how the game operates the crew level game might be the advanced game or the goal of the entire first season. At least give the inexperienced player time to get their feet under themselves. I definitely think the Crew game is 3rd level, expert blue book kind of stuff. Once the players get a feel for the setting, they’ll be in a better space to start an enterprise.
A last point about buy-ins and touchstones
- Your friends will lie to you. You’ll say, “It’s like Penny Dreadful meets Watchmen.” And they’ll say, “Cool.” But when you get to the table and two adventures in it’s not that they’ve never watched Penny Dreadful or read Watchmen. It’s that their default game style is Teen Titans Go! And they’re not going to change that. This is fine, I guess. My player pool is not deep. The other option is that we don’t play a game.
- But what do you do? The players said they’re into what the game’s about, but two three sessions in you can see they’re not really onboard. Part of that is my fault. I could’ve done a better job in the early adventures showcasing the series from the start. I tried, but feel like I failed.
- Also a bit about theme songs… no matter what ambient acoustic ethereal blues crunk you say your game’s theme song is, when you sit down you have to work hard to prevent your theme song from becoming Yakety Sax.
Yo. Here’s some of what I read and liked over the month of June.
The Ipcress File by Len Deighton: I like the spy novels that tumbled in on the wake of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and which positioned themselves as being distinctly anti-Bond. The nebbish cuckold of John Le Carre’s George Smiley and Len Deighton’s working class paycheck and expense account obsessed Harry Palmer. This is the first in Deighton’s Palmer series (which isn’t even the character’s name but the one Michael Caine gave him in the film version) and it’s an enjoyable spy romp involving nuclear tests, brain washing, and the international trafficking in prominent scientists. Sure, the scheming is topsy-turvy and the plot exhausting after a bit, but the voice carries you to the end. Dry, acerbic, and bemusedly aloof is my jam.
Armed in Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield: It’s 1328 and the Chatelaine of Hell has besieged the city of Bruges with her army of chimeras and the widow Margriet de Vos is mad at Hell and not going to take it any more. Also her husband won’t stay dead and still puts claims on the property Margriet sees as her inheritance, an ill-gained hoard of riches and a magic weapon that just happens to be the key to Hell. This forces her to flee Bruges with an assortment of companions, nearly all of whom are wronged women like Margriet herself. For such a small book there’s a lot going on in Armed in Her Fashion and while there were a few moments where I wished Heartfield zigged instead of zagged, I overall enjoyed the ride. Novels based on Brueghel paintings are my jam. Check out Dulle Griet.
Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley: I am a huge fan of Hurley’s Bel Dame series and this book is a collection of short stories that serve as something of a tangential prequel to that series. Former Bel Dame, turned mercenary Nyx is still a battered and rebuilt veteran of the ongoing brutal war on her world, and here she’s putting together the team she’ll have around her in God’s War. If there’s something of a through line to the book’s stories, it’s Nyx’s struggle to be slightly less awful than the default awfulness of her surroundings. She might not have a completely functioning moral compass, but it works from time to time. Violent bug-fueled science-fantasy is my jam.
Close Your Eyes is a hallucinatory space opera, well, a nominal space opera at least. It reprints the 2009 novella Open Your Eyes and adds a continuation on to it as the misfit salvage crew find themselves in an alien world.
In this book language is a virus, but you likely heard that one before. What might be news is love is a virus too. It consumes and destroys as efficiently as any microbe-borne fever could.
A woman impregnated by a supernova, a man obsessed with an imaginary woman, a woman held captive by her love for her abuser, and another woman trying to resurrect her dead lover. These individuals compose the ship’s love-doomed crew as they scavenge across the stars and ultimately encounter an apocalyptic brain-melting alien language virus.
Things happen. Events spiral into chaos. Dooms are averted or not to catastrophic results.
One trope of space opera is that there are galaxy spanning hegemonies or polities, Federations, Empires, Cultures, and what not. In Close Your Eyes there’s none of that. There’s no there there. The galaxy is so big and the populations so distant that it’s like no one lives there at all. The technology too is at once familiar and incomprehensible. Characters walk the ship’s eiga armed with betadurs while their patueks back-up their brains in case of emergencies. None of these get described, but a lever on the wall does.
It’s jarring, but it also might be the point.
When setting is more atmosphere and mood than concrete details, the reader’s invited to take an active part in the story’s creation and fill in the gaps. But this also means the reader might make some leaps the author wouldn’t intend. The world depicted in Close Your Eyes is a world where predation abounds. The big fish always eats the little fish. And this applies to AI computer systems, alien language viruses, as well as simple interpersonal relationships.
And while all this is recognizable as space opera, the latter portions of Close Your Mouth are straight from Lewis Carroll. Just when you think you’ve figured out the rules, the novel pulls the rug out from under you and changes the rules, and we the reader emerge from one hallucinatory setting to another with suddenly different rules and different relationships. Where before you were on an awful space ship now you’re in a malevolent wonderland where the predation continues but events remain just as incomprehensible.
Is that a problem? I don’t know. Maybe for some, but others might find the weird, jarring imagistic stuff refreshing. I did. You might too.
Close Your Eyes is available from Apex Books and your usual monolithic internet retailers.
Hey chingoos, summer time’s here.
Hopefully you have your beach reading sorted by now.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: My third or fourth read, but my first in a decade or so. No lie, I love this book. The older I get the more I enjoy it. Schmendrick and Molly Grue are fantastic. And I love the meta weird anachronistic bits.
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard: A Watson and Holmes style space opera detective story with a damaged sentient spaceship taking the Watson role. The ship’s hired by an eccentric if brilliant scientist who wants to observe the effects of a space anomaly on corpses, but of course the two uncover a murder. A very fun read in a neat setting. One of these days I might use this as part of a longer post about world building.
Gun Machine by Warren Ellis: Imagine if the first season of True Detective riffed more on William Gibson than Thomas Ligotti. A cop thriller set in modern New York City, but one for people who know what a data broker is and spell magic with a “k”.
The Sorceress and the Cygnet by Patricia McKillip: Early 80s/90s science fantasy novel that explains nothing about its setting or how its magic works, but which I enjoyed all the same, because I don’t mind incomprehensible if it’s plotty and short.
Close Your Eyes by Paul Jessup: Hallucinatory space opera. I liked it and will be posting a longer review of it later this week.
A manuscript hidden away for decades in a bottom drawer discovered after its author’s death.
Another manuscript lost when the suitcase it was stored in gets stolen from a train compartment.
Or another manuscript destroyed to protect the author’s associates and families from scandal. Not to mention the other, other manuscripts destroyed by their authors for not being good enough. Or even no manuscripts at all, just the rumors of them. Books that may or may not have ever existed but which still manage to haunt readers because they might have.
Giorgio van Straten hunts for these books here, exploring eight of their stories and the mysteries that surround them. From certainty to speculation, from the lost manuscript Van Straten read but later learned was destroyed, to those he wonders if they’ve ever existed at all. There’s the Hemingway manuscript lost when his then wife had her suitcase stolen. There’s Lord Byron’s memoirs burnt by his associates to spare them from scandal. There’s Gogol burning the later parts of Dead Souls because they weren’t “good enough”, and then there’s Walter Benjamin, Sylvia Plath, Bruno Schulz, Malcolm Lowery, all of them with rumored “lost” manuscripts out there.
We start in Italy and the manuscript that in many ways typifies them all. This one written by Van Straten’s mentor, the Italian writer Romano Bilenchi. Here he knows the book existed. He saw it and read a copy, only to learn years later that Bilenchi’s wife destroyed the manuscript to protect her husband’s legacy. The second has Lord Byron’s associates meeting with his agent to burn his memoirs and keep them from publication to silence any possible accounts of homosexuality (less Byron’s and more their own). Then there’s the famous Hemingway’s lost suitcase and Walter Benjamin’s lost suitcase too, although maybe his was empty. We read of Gogol’s and Lowry’s self-destructive perfectionism and how this as much as any thing destroyed their work. Last, are the tantalizing ones: Bruno Schulz’s novel The Messiah lost in the chaos of World War Two (even now hints of its possible discovery can generate plots that resemble spy thrillers), and the potential books by Sylvia Plath kept out of the public sphere by Ted Hughes’s control of her estate.
Overall this is a very enjoyable set of essays about an author’s obsession with an obsession-worthy subject, and the bug that’s as much fool’s quest as the object of wishful thinking on what might have been. If you can track down a copy, and are the kind who enjoys a good fool’s quest, this is definitely worth a read.
Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob: Schwob’s one of those decadent fin-de-siecle French fellows I’m crazy about. Here he plays with biography by writing a short set of in-depth profiles of various ne’er-do-wells, nobodies, and the corrupt. While the profiles aren’t absolutely accurate, they dig deep into the mundane and dredge up moods and ideas that resemble truths.
A fun little book, it’s easy to read this and see how its influence on later writers such as Borges.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland: Zombies rise in the middle of the Battle of Gettysburg and pretty much put a stop to the American Civil War. Now years after the War’s end some semblance of society has returned. In the wake of the Native and Negro Reeducation Act certain children get combat training so they might serve the wealthy as attendants, protecting them from zombies and other threats. Jane McKeene is one such woman studying at Miss Preston’s Combat School in the walled enclave of Baltimore where she ends up stumbling upon a conspiracy that soon puts her life and those of her friends in jeopardy.
While the larger setting here feels vague and put in with broad strokes, it’s the day to day stuff and the picture of Jane and her friendships that I found most endearing.
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente: This is one of those books that has a buy in. So if the notion of a washed-up glamrock act having to compete in an intergalactic “Eurovision” style contest to prove humanity’s worth a damn sounds like something you might want to read, then yeah, this is that book. This is that book in spades. Part Ziggy Stardust, part Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s fun and funny, and even when it’s not you only have to read a few more pages for the funny fun to return. And if David Bowie Douglas Adams, doesn’t sound fun at least the book didn’t try to fool you by pretending to be anything other than what it was.
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks: Hooks as always is insightful and unflinching, but there’s a lot of love and kindness in her words as she attempts to provide a frame work for men whom she feels have been either maligned or left behind in a lot of feminist theory. What she creates then is a call to action for men that instead of prioritizing patriarchal dominance and hierarchies challenges us to the heroic task of creating lives of integrity as nurturing presences within our communities.
Jade City by Fonda Lee: Wow. This book takes Game of Thrones and Hong Kong action movies, mixes them together, and makes a Kung Fu gangster epic around dueling families of magical jade-fueled warriors as they vie for dominance in the imaginary island nation of Kekon. This is secondary world fantasy, but set in a time period that feel like the 1970s/80s in a place somewhere like South East Asia. Whether the city of Janloon is Hong Kong, Saigon, or Singapore doesn’t really matter so much as the world Lee creates there is unique, vivid, and masterfully executed, so that by the end when she pulls back some to depict the brewing Cold War elsewhere in the world we have a clear understanding of what’s at stake.
If you ever wished John Woo put more magic in his gangster films, then this is the book for you. For serious.