On Reading

Now that school is over with I am slowly (ever so slowly) starting to have a life again. Part of that untangling is getting back into reading and tabletop gaming. This post is about where I’m at with the former.

I’m trying to explore the modern supernatural genre, surely inspired by my acquisition of the Dresden Files RPG at Origins earlier this month. And I’d already read Storm Front, the first of the Harry Dresden books, a couple of years ago (it’s not like I got no reading done while I was in school). I stalled out on Fool Moon, which is the second volume, but the crowd seems to agree that the series doesn’t even start accelerating up to full speed until book 3. So with the RPG books at hand I muscled my way through book two, and went farther.

I’d agree with the general notion that the Dresden books start really rolling in book three; Fool Moon is chiefly interesting for continuing the novel world-building Butcher began in Storm Front, and it plants seeds that begin to sprout in Grave Peril. By book four, while the narrative is self-contained, a full-blown inter-volume arc is in place, with elements streaming in from the preceding three books.

The Dresden Files books (now numbering sixteen) are grim and moody with a splattering of whimsy and humor. Some might consider them an ideal mix in this regard; they’re dark but not relentlessly so. And they’re light, breezy reads. In that context I can’t help but compare them to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Although I think Rowling is the superior proseweaver and storyteller out of the gate, Butcher does get better with each book at least through the fourth volume, Summer Knight, which contains his best writing to the point I’ve read — even though the convoluted plot makes no goddamn sense at all. The next book in the series, Death Masks, is on deck, but after crushing out three Dresden books in half a week, I’m trying to mark out some additional territory as well.

With that in mind I set upon Stephen King’s On Writing, which has lingered on my to-read list for quite a while. It’s very engaging, less a book about writing than about King as a writer, and his process. This was very illuminating, because I’m not really that big a reader of King’s books, in part because of his choice of subject matter — I’m not really a horror fan. I acknowledge King’s mastery of the craft and did very much enjoy The Stand… but I felt The Gunslinger was an interminable turd and am still staggering clubfooted through The Shining. On Writing showed me why King’s work sometimes seems to me to meander plotless through a featureless landscape, and at other times, when the characters are human and crisply drawn, to be extraordinarily compelling despite that. I therefore took On Writing as incisive criticism of King’s own work, in the best sense of what criticism is supposed to be: not to tell you what to like but to shine a light on some of the machinery and therefore on your own interaction with the work.

Next up, again in an effort to read in a number of different areas, was Leviathan Wakes, the first in a series credited to James S. A. Corey. “Corey” is actually the nom de plume of two writers: well-regarded veteran Daniel Abraham and (at the time of its publication) newcomer Ty Franck. The book is written in alternating chapters with their own viewpoint characters, with Abraham taking one set and Franck the other. I could tell who was writing who even before confirming it; early on the Holden chapters, penned by Franck, are less fluid than the Miller sections authored by Abraham, even though Franck’s part of the story is closer to the central narrative and he gets a number of the choicest scenes for himself. Holden himself is less interesting than the tortured, half-insane Miller, but Franck grows in ability even through the course of the novel and by its end the story seems nearly seamless.

Now I’ve moved on to Charles Hazen’s hoary old The French Revolution and Napoleon. Written during the throes of World War I, it was not the definitive work on the subject even in its day, but it’s a good short treatment of the period written in a dense but unscholarly style. I’m about 15% through it and France has barely received a mention except in relation to Prussia or England; Hazen spends lots of time on Frederich and Peter the Greats. But that’ll change as La Révolution unfolds and Napoléon emerges. I figure that the book will be a nice warm-up to an eventual reading of David Chandler’s massive and definitive The Campaigns of Napoleon.

Next on the nightstand will be, I think, finishing The Shining, followed by Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path, an epic fantasy and also first in a series. I have the next Dresden book, Charlie Stross’ The Atrocity Archives and Benedict Jacka’s Fated on deck as well, but I’m going to try to mix the order up a bit, so I’ll toss the next Expanse novel in along with some other dusty old history book.

Origins 2014 Wrapup

The 2015 iteration of the Origins Game Fair has concluded. So here’s my big rundown of the whole event, sans pictures because WordPress is unhappy today. But if you want ’em, they are HERE.

On Wednesday, I spun down to the con early after work to get the registration thing done and but tickets for events. Which was good strategy, because there was a snafu whereby they didn’t have me in their system — even though I was in their system. There had been some crosstalk about this over on G+, so I kind of saw it coming, and the onsite staff bent over backwards to make things work out. A bunch of my events were, predictably, sold out, but I managed to schedule stuff for that evening and the following day, with the intention of doing Games on Demand on Friday and spending the day in the Board Room on Saturday.

The first game was a fine little World War II game called Quartermaster General. This is a very high-level grand strategic game aimed at six players. We had three, which was only slightly awkward. But I enjoyed it and am contemplating picking it up at some point. This is not by any means a game for the hardcore grognard, but it was sufficently wargamey to be suited to my tastes. Had the opportunity arisen I’d happily have played it again.

The second game was supposed to have been Traveller: The New Era, but I misread the start time and missed it, alas. I’ve always felt that TNE is a bit under-appreciated, and would have liked to have fired it up again. So instead, I hit up the Board Room but didn’t find anything of interest that wasn’t already full.

Thursday was going to be the first big play day for me. In the morning I got to play HârnMaster, a game I like a lot but haven’t had the chance to play in several years. Together, shipwrecked Ivinians Kjartan and Bork used their wits to navigate an ancient cavern and rescue the local lord’s bastard boy — and save him from being killed by his conniving stepmother as well, making friends with an alcoholic Nolah along the way. Despite having only two players (plus the GM) it went very well, ending with a promise from the GM to continue the saga next year, which I’m totally up for.

Between games I again cruised the Board Room with no luck at actually gaming, although I did swing a trade for Avalon Hill’s Fortress Europa, yet another game I once owned but foolishly sold off years ago. Afterwards I headed over to the dealer’s hall to buy some dice and the latest issue of C3i, GMT’s house wargame magazine. I don’t normally buy them, but this one had the errata counters for The Dark Valley, which I own and would like to have accurate counters for. As a bonus, the mag came with a complete wargame: Unconditional Surrender: Case Blue, a mingame about the Case Blue and Operation Uranus campaigns in southern Russia in 1942-43. It’s a micro-version of Sal Vasta’s much larger Unconditional Surrender, which covers the whole of World War II in Europe. This will be a great way to feel out the system to see if I like it, and it’s also a good target for a future wargaming video, since it’s small and can be played to completion in a couple of hours.

In the evening I tried, for the first time, one of those events that I think about doing every year: the National Security Decision Making Game. This is very much a LARP, although there seems to be a general reluctance to call it that, in which you play as segments of some real-world historical faction. In our case we played various internal factions within the USSR at the height of the Cold War. It was a ton of fun, and I did end up as the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, kind of by accident. It was very worthwhile and I got the chance to talk a lot of Soviet history before and after the game with some folks very knowledgeable on the subject, which was almost worth the price of admission by itself.

I would absolutely play it again, with one caveat: the game I played was the “short form”, four-hour version of the game, and I was pretty wrung out by the end of it. I’m not sure I could take the full eight-hour game. I wore bad shoes that day, a bush move that I have no excuse for (this was my 19th Origins,) which may have contributed to my discomfort. Also the room was approximately the same temperature as an actual Siberian gulag. The game was enjoyable enough to get me through it, but I’m still leery of an eight-hour marathon.

On Friday I arrived at the convention relatively late; there were some real-life things that needed to get done that day. Nevertheless, I did arrive in time for the 2 PM slot of Games On Demand. I landed in a session of Ken Hite’s Night’s Black Agents, sort of a vampire thriller game powered by Robin Laws’ Gumshoe system. The seesion itself was very enjoyable but I have reservations about the themes of NBA in particular; I like vampire stuff but the corporate espionage thing leaves me a little cold… but I’d like to read it to be sure.

In any event, when I spun down to the dealer’s room between events, I did my earnest shopping of the con. I picked up Crown of Roses, a block game and GMT’s answer to the classic Avalon Hill Kingmaker and Caesar’s War, a minigame from Decision Games that I’ve heard positive buzz about, and something else that’ll make a nice video at some point.

On the RPG front, I picked up the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, which I’ve had my eye on for a bit. To my surprise the massive hardcover was substantially cheaper than I expected, so it didn’t take much convincing. And I picked up Torchbearer and its accessories; it’s a dngeon crawling game based on Mouse Guard, which is in turn derived from Burning Wheel, a game I like a lot and consider a major inspiration.

Afterwards I hiked back up to the Hyatt for the 8 PM Games on Demand slot, where I got into… Dungeon Crawl Classics! It was great to see the game in action so quickly, and I had a great time; of our fourteen zero-level characters, about two-thirds of them died due to a single fire trap. It was glorious, and surprisingly, nobody else died for the rest of the session. DCC is a game I may do a separate post on once I’ve had the chance to digest the rules a little better; offhand it does some really nice things to baseline D&D, but I do retain some leeriness over the funky d14s and such.

Saturday was my #2 big gaming day, and started bright and early despite me oversleeping a bit. I started out again in Games on Demand, playing Microscope, an interactive Worldbuilding game that was a riot to play. The setting we came up with was a weird Meso-Polynesian society where the young spoke a different language than the old and ended up dying out, before the whole place was conquered by an Alexander-like foreigner who came in and settled the nearly depopulated islands.

After that: dealer’s room again, to pick up Trail of Cthulhu and the Dresden Files RPG, along with a couple more odds and ends. Both are fantastic reads, and my experience playing Night’s Black Agents earlier in the con sold me on the Gumshoe system, while Dresden was yet another piece in my Fate collection.

That night, again at Games on Demand, I got into a playtest of Wrath of the Autarch, run by its designer Phil Lewis. This is a Fate-powered kingdom building game, something that is incredibly up my alley, and it works wonderfully, although It does depart considerably from Fate Core. It was a joy to play, and probably my game of the whole con.

And that was Origins 2015. There was Sunday stuff happening, but I typically elect to go Wednesday and save Sunday for a day of cooldown before returning to the real life grind. And thus it was. Now, on Monday, I’m still tired.

Notes for Next Year

  1. I think this is my last go-round with the Board Room. It’s a great way to go for folks who want to play general-interest boardgames all con, but I have access to all I could ever want to play of those kinds of games (through CABS) and the kinds of things I’d want to get into at Origins tend to just not happen there. So barring something set up specifically in advance, I think that I’m just going to stick with roleplaying events from now on.
  2. On that subject, every year I tell myself that I should run games next year, but this year it feels a litte different. If there’s something I would specifically like to see, I should probably just run it myself, whether that’s some particular wargame or the kind of under-represented RPG that I like to get into at cons. Games on Demand can be a good vehicle for this, depending on the game — and even old school stuff like Classic Traveller and Dungeon Crawl Classics saw play there this year.
  3. My immediate thoughts on what to run would be old (but not OSR) stuff like Classic Traveller or Rolemaster. Or maybe have something of my own design ready to go by then, but we’ll see. It’s not like there aren’t several things in the pipeline.
  4. In a similar vein, I think that most of my RPG play will happen in the context of Games on Demand, which I felt was a huge, huge success this year. As this effort has grown the people running it have done a bangup job of keeping things organized, and even the last folks in the incredibly long lines tended to get into something cool.
  5. Wear good walking shoes every day. Dumbass. Also, maybe invest in some kind of wheely thing to carry stuff around. That damned messenger bag gets heavy after carrying it around for several hours.
  6. Socialize more. Gaming-wise I think my Origins was wildly successful despite considerable idle time. But I didn’t get to hobnob nearly as much as I’d like, or hang out with some of the people I wanted to hang out with. This is my own social anxiety aggravated by the logistics of having to drive in every day, so I had a reason to bolt promptly before midnight when my parking expired. Next year I’d like things to work out so I can stay later at least on Friday and Saturday.
  7. More and better forward planning. I was particularly bad about it this year, not even looking over the events listing until the day before the show. I’d also like to plan meal times better; I did make it to Bareburger, but otherwise made do at the Hyatt food court, which, aside from Subway, is about the same price as eating at North Market and not nearly as good. The issue is that RPG stuff happens in the Hyatt, which is at one end of the whole convention, and the High Street places like Barley’s and North Market are just past
  8. Since the amount of cosplay at Origins grows every year, I’m thinking of checking out the costume contest next year. I myself am very unlikely to cosplay (I have enough hobbies, thanks) but it might be fun to check out.
  9. Sunday will probably remain a stay-home day unless I take the following Monday off, which is probably not happening. I like to have a day to cool off after all the hustling of four days of con, so even if I have the extra day I’m more likely to blow it on Wednesday, where there is now plenty of quality gaming to get involved in.

Tips for Recording Gameplay (re: Distant Worlds: Universe, w/Let’s Play)

In trying to record my Distant Worlds: Universe game, I hit a number of snags, so I figured I’d put my experience up here to help out anyone else who may have similar issues. For that matter, I may as well mention some other tips for folks wanting to record video for YouTube.

First and most important: get away from using Fraps. It’s not the only game in town anymore. In DW:U’s case it doesn’t work because the game natively renders multiple desktop windows; Fraps will only pick up the main one, so your video will be missing key panels, popups and so forth, and it won’t capture any of the game setup screens at all. I am now using Open Broadcaster, a free and open-source alternative that is also much more powerful and useful for reasons I’ll describe below.

Specifically for Distant Worlds: Universe, you’ll want to set Open Broadcaster to record your desktop, not the game window, for the reason described above. I also tested it with DOTA2, where recording the game windows works fine, but you have an option here that Fraps does not provide. Which you can also use to record non-game video, if you want to do something like programming tutorials or games that only run in a window, like Aurora. It will also capture output for streaming.

Other alternatives to Fraps also exist. Nvidia’s Shadowplay looks somewhat promising, if limited — I have friends who swear by it — but not every video card supports it. There are of course also paid alternatives; the one I looked at was XSplit, but that throws a watermark on your video, which I find unacceptable, and I think it has other limitations as well, only resolvable by paying a subscription fee. Which I think is preposterous; at least Fraps and Bandicam only have to be paid for once.

Open Broadcaster also has other advantages. It can save your video in a single, compact .flv file. Fraps saves in multiple files that then have to be stitched together using a video editor like Windows Movie Maker. For me, this is a huge timesink and adds a lot of overhead to the whole video-making process, even though I normally don’t do much if any actual editing to my video. An hour of recording could take 2-3 hours of editing and rendering even if WMM doesn’t choke on the source files — and for longer videos it often does.

My typical process under Fraps: Record the video. Fraps, to its credit, does make this very easy, and the onscreen FPS counter does show whether you are recording or not. Once finished, I have a pile of video files that are each roughly two minutes long, and add up to about 1GB per minute of video. This caps my ability to record, as I only have about 600GB free for storing raw video. I then stitch these files together using Windows Movie Maker. The resulting output is much more compact than what I put in, so I delete the source files.

On my system, rendering the finished video takes longer than the total runtime. So a half-hour video might take 45-60 minutes to render. This is time not spent playing or recording, and doing other things on the PC at the same time will slow it down — especially anything that’s also heavily using the video card. Uploading the video to YouTube takes potentially many hours; figure maybe 2 hours per 20 minutes of video at my upstream speeds.

The new process under Open Broadcaster: Record the video. You might have to fool with the video sources a little bit, and there’s no onscreen recording indicator. But at the end you have a single .flv file that can be directly uploaded to YouTube if you don’t want to edit it. Uploading is significantly faster because the compressed .flv file size is much smaller. The time savings is enormous, literally tripling the available time I have to actually play and record.

One final tip, again for Distant Worlds: Universe specifically: disable the music. First of all because it’s kind of terrible. And second because, if you’re going to upload your video to YouTube, YouTube will automatically scan it for recognizable copyrighted music, and get hits because DW:U’s music is cloned from a bunch of different stuff. While these are technically false positives, they are in my judgement not worth fighting over.

Now, one thing I have not done yet is to sit down and compare the video quality between Fraps and OBS… but at a glance I don’t see any notable issues with the latter, and YouTube degrades video quality anyway, so I’m not sure it would matter even if Open Broadcaster video was slightly lower quality.

Galactic Civilizations III Impressions

Galactic Civilizations III is the latest incarnation of Stardock’s venerable turn-based space 4X franchise. You can buy it through Steam and you don’t need to bother with Impulse. But mind the system requirements, which include 64-bit Windows 7 at least. Me, I was a bit concerned how well it would perform on my aging system, but it turns out to run just fine, aside from a nagging memory leak that’s likely to get patched out fairly soon.

There’s a lot to like about GalCivIII. It’s visually attractive, boasting not just good graphics but excellent art direction as well. Race and ship design are quite robust, especially the latter, which you can easily sink hours into. The addition of Ideology is welcome; it gives your empire some personality. And as advertised, the largest map sizes are indeed enormous. They way I see it, space is big and playing space 4X games on tiny maps feels wrong and lacks the appropriate grandeur. While GalCivIII does give you small map options, it also lets you play on truly vast maps; in one of the games I have rolling right now on an Insane map, I’m 350+ turns in and have yet to meet another civilization. Which probably means that I should have opted for more during game setup.

On the con side, I’d have liked to see more options for customizing the physical layout of the play space. As it stands the available choices are kind of shallow. Also, the diplomacy system, in the grand tradition of Civilization-style games, is almost game-bustingly terrible. Non-player factions have two diplomatic modes; pay them tribute or they’ll declare war, or accept shitty trade deals or they’ll declare war. Similar offers by players are of course impossible — not even laughed off by the NPCs, but disallowed by the interface. You can disable tech trading when you set up your game, but all that does it take options off the table, and it’s very difficult to get a decent relationship with another empire without granting concessions and payola that you really don’t want to part with. This may be by design but it feels gamey and unnatural to me.

The UI is very intuitive if you’re familiar with this genre, although the tooltips aren’t all they could be, in a couple of places.

I’m also finding the tech trees a bit too heavily pruned; I’m close to topping out more than one in my 350+ turn game, and, while that’s a lot of turns, I don’t feel I should be that close unless I have a very narrow tech focus, which I don’t. I also dislike only being able to work on one technology at a time, but that’s more a quibble with this particular subgenre, where that’s very common.

This is stuff that might well be fixed in an expansion — and indeed largely was fixed over GalCivII’s development lifetime, but that’s part of the issue with this kind of iteration: steps forward are taken, but so are steps back toward some nebulous default un-expanded state. Features that we grew to see as necessities end up cut as superfluous in the crunch of getting the sequel out.

In general, too, I see GalCivIII’s current state as a couple of steps down in depth from the very mature Paradox grand strategy titles like Crusader Kings II or Europa Universalis IV. But it’s also way easier to get started playing because of the conventions of the space 4X genre at this level of abstraction; you start with one planet and a very small handful of other assets and it’s natural to learn as you go.

Despite these complaints I think GalCivIII is quite solid overall and a great deal of fun, and even my biggest problem with it (diplomacy,) can be alleviated by making adjustments in game setup to minimize the issues, by choosing the right map size and opposing empires. That it’s not a hardcore strategy sandbox in the vein of the Paradox titles isn’t a fault but a stylistic choice that many gamers will probably prefer. It’s a game I can see playing a lot of when I’m feeling a lack of patience for those richer games.

All that said, feeling the space 4X bug of late, I also picked up Distant Worlds: Universe at 50% off yesterday, and that’s more the Paradox speed, with enormous depth, a daunting interface and map sizes that are a match for GalCivIII’s largest — and with far more detail in each star system. So I expect to have a report on that at some point in the near future as well.

Crusader Kings II: The Charlemagne Campaign

Having more or less gotten the hang of Hearts of Iron III over a series of games in 2014, this month I returned to Crusader Kings II. Like all of the Paradox grand strategy games, it’s challenging to get into, with a complicated interface, brain-melting depth and vast scope both geographical and temporal. They demand patience and diligence and a willingness to roll with misfortune and play the long game. These are not so much my strong points.

I began the current game playing as Karl Karling, King of East Francia, in 769. This is the current earliest available start date, and Karl is, of course, the man known to history as Charlemagne and the subject of the titular expansion.

Big Chuck has it very easy in the early game. His brother Karloman, King of Middle Francia, will almost certainly die young, leaving that kingdom to Karl as well. I don’t know if this is scripted or not, but it’s happened in every game I’ve seen unless the player is playing Karloman himself. The two titles together are most of what one needs to found an empire, but to declare the Holy Roman Empire in particular you also need Papal approval and the throne of Lombardy, neither of which I managed to grab before Charlemagne’s well-ahead-of-schedule death in 795. But the Empire of Francia was founded, providing a top-tier title that cannot, in theory, be split by gavelkind succession.


His only legitimate son and heir, Otto (the bastard Pepin the Hunchback never having been legitimized,) found that theory translates very imperfectly into practice, as he was forced to put down a series of rebellions that threatened to break the newborn Empire into its constituent Kingdoms. At the same time the powerful Moors of Iberia declared a Holy War even as heathen Northmen began raiding the coasts of Francia in large numbers. Killed in battle against the Saracens at age 54, Otto lived only a year longer than his father, and left the Imperial crown to a six year old heir.

Thankfully young Charles II’s regency was capable enough to win the last wave of wars, and Charles eventually grew into a marginally competent leader. An able strategist but personally craven in battle, he set about on a series of wars to conquer the lands that had been lost in the wake of his grandfather’s death. But the great challenge, of keeping Charlemagne’s empire together after his death, has been met so far.

Now, in 839, Charles the Just is only 38 and looks forward to many years of rule — but his dynasty does not have a reputation for longevity, and he has been stricken by illness several times. He has reconquered much of what was lost but Bavaria, Pomerania and Denmark yet elude his grasp, and on his borders both Islam and nascent Sweden are in ascendance. Of partial Lombard heritage himself, he eyes their Kingdom in Italy jealously, but a major war at the wrong time could be disastrous.

So yeah, good times. I hope to finish this game this week, but at the current pace, with over 600 years before mandatory endgame, this doesn’t appear likely. I could, arbitrarily declare the game over at any point, but I’m unlikely to do that while Francia holds together. The next game, I’m thinking, with either be with the pagan Norse or the Byzantines, with whom I will attempt to re-establish the full glory of the Roman Empire. Or maybe I’ll play, for the first time, as a vassal count somewhere, maybe Lombardy. The cool thing is that all of these are just the tip of the Crusader Kings II iceberg; even after that there’s Republics to play, and Muslims, and Indian Rajas and Mongols and Zoroastrians…

New Projects

Not much work has been done on Velastreon for the last week or two. Yet I have not been idle. When the worldbuilding bug grew quiet I pivoted into full-throated Fantasy Heartbreaker mode and am revisiting my long-in-development fantasy rules system. I don’t have a name for it anymore — a recently Kickstarted project tread a little too heavily on the title I’d been using. So for now it’s just A2d10S: Ardwulf’s 2d10 System.

As is usual for me, I am totally rebuilding the character creation system, although a lot of the rest of the guts of it will stay the same. It’s retro but not OSR, and is as much inspired by RuneQuest and Rolemaster, among others, as it is D&D.

It’s not commercial, but I don’t care. It’s the game I’ve had it in me to create for decades. Maybe once it’s done and played I’ll take on something more contemporary or salable.

More as I’m ready to reveal it.

Pillars of Eternity Continues

For those keeping up with the YouTube Channel, I continue to play Pillars of Eternity. Here’s three more gameplay videos for the time being. There’s more to come, plus a return to a couple of old favorites.