Friday, July 25, 2008

Dresden Files

The DVDs that I talked about a few months ago suckered me into trying the novels. I finished reading the nine that are out in paperback a few months ago as well, but didn't get around to posting my comments until now. I understand why people like these novels. They're good escapist fiction, if a bit formulaic at times.

Before I go on about the novels, I want to say a couple more things about the DVDs. I mentioned that there was one hanging plot thread left at the end of the DVDs. I assumed that it was something that you could probably find out about by reading the books. You can't. The plot was one of the ways that the DVDs differ significantly from the books. The hanging thread still isn't much of a cliffhanger, but I felt I should clarify it.

Now, for the books themselves. I enjoyed reading them. I don't have so much free time that I would have read nine of them if I didn't. The dialog is witty. The action is well written. The plots are well planned and have enough twists and turns to keep my interest. If you are a fan of modern fantasy then you should probably read these books.

The major complaint I had, and it's one that I had with most of the books after reading the first couple, is that there is definitely a formula that the books follow that is ripe for parody. I think I can go into it without spoiling things, but if you are really against any spoilers whatsoever, then you may want to just stop reading now until you've had a chance to read the books for yourself.

The formula goes like this: Harry gets tired, Harry gets beat up, Harry can barely channel his magic, Harry somehow manages to come up with the biggest most powerful spell yet seen despite being tired, beat up and out of magic. Now, the author always has some sort of explanation for this, although sometimes the explanation is better than it is at other times, but every single book uses this formula. To me it started sticking out like a sore thumb around the third book and was something that kept me from enjoying the next few books as much as I should have.

Fortunately, the author starts introducing some more interesting metaplots shortly after I started getting tired of the formula. These kept me interested in spite of my beginning to roll my eyes every time Harry "ran out of magic" at the climax of the book, knowing full well that he'd pull out the biggest spell yet in the next few pages.

Mind you, the author seems at least partly aware of his formula, at least to the extent that he's gone to some pains to explain how Harry manages to recover from all the beatings he keeps taking (and some of the more serious injuries do linger from one book to the next). I'd still like to see him come up with an interesting story that didn't fit the standard formula quite so much.

That's my biggest gripe. Now for something that I have to really give him kudos for: the way he handles the bad guys. Generally there are three kinds of bad guys in most continuing series: the ones that get killed, the ones that turn into a recurring villain, and the ones that turn into the hero's ally. Most authors screw up the last kind. They fall into what I like to call "Eddings Syndrome" after David Eddings, who is the absolute worst offender at turning any villain that survives his or her initial appearance into a good guy. Even gods of evil end up cracking wise and serving good by the next trilogy in Eddings' work. Jim Butcher doesn't fall into this trap. There are several villains that have ended up being allies of Harry, but the author does a very good job of pointing out that they are still bad guys. They may sometimes be the lesser of two evils, but that doesn't make them good.

He does also have a couple of villains turn good, but he handles it well.

Further, his bad guys aren't all carbon copies of each other. Motivation, strategy, and tactics all differ from villain to villain. This is a great strength of the books. Unfortunately, this feeds back into my major gripe. Despite the differences in the villains, the hero often seems to go through the exact same process in facing them.

Overall, the series is a good read, and if I'm a bit critical of parts of it, it's only because I like the overall series. If I didn't like it, I wouldn't spend the time to analyze the bits that bothered me.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mongoose Traveller: The Spinward Marches

The Spinward Marches is the original setting for Traveller, and has gotten more attention over the years than any other setting for the game. From its first appearance (I think) in Adventure 1: Kinunir, to the original Spinward Marches little black book (LBB) supplement, to Behind the Claw for GURPS Traveller, to the pdf only New Era 1248 Spinward States sourcebook, this setting has gotten a lot of attention over the years. Probably more than any other sci-fi setting created for gaming.

Now, with the release of Mongoose Traveller, we return for yet another look at the Imperial frontier. It's appropriate that with the new rules being an update to the original rules, that the new The Spinward Marches sourcebook returns to Imperial Year 1105, the beginning date for material originally published by GDW back in the late seventies.

Unlike most other more recent looks at the region, there is an evident attempt to keep the secrets of the Traveller Universe secret. It's often assumed that most readers are fully aware of such things, which has the unfortunate effect of spoiling them for new players who might otherwise have been able to enjoy playing through the original adventures. This new supplement doesn't make that mistake. With a few minor exceptions, the information available in the book is information that would be readily available to any traveller living in the Spinward Marches in 1105. Those of us who know what happens in the next few years according to classic canon can see hints of what is to come, but those hints won't spoil things for people new to the setting.

This lack of "inside information" doesn't make it any less useful to gamemasters new to the setting. There's a solid bedrock of information here as to how the Imperium in general works, with enough specific details concerning the Spinward Marches, that should allow them to take their campaign in whatever direction they choose. If they do want to follow the classic canon, then they can purchase The classic Traveller compilations from Far Future Enterprises that include the adventures and articles that developed the original timeline. They don't have to do that though, as there's plenty of information here to allow them to take things in their own direction.

In any case, this is a useful setting book that players can read without actually spoiling things. That's rare in any game.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What I'm Up To

I'm still playing World of Warcraft. I've got my main character up to level 60, and have started an alt. Whenever I get addicted to a MMOG my other hobbies get ignored. In this case I haven't been doing any other gaming. I have been doing some reading, but only some of it game related.

What I've been reading the most is The Complete Hammer's Slammers by David Drake, volumes 1 to 3. As a kid I loved these stories, having picked up the first book (a compilation of short stories) when it came out just based on the cover art. Very gritty military sci fi from a Viet Nam veteran. As a kid I thought they were pro-military books, but I realize now that I was reading into them some stuff that just wasn't there. A lot of military fiction comes across with the attitude that only soldiers know how to get things done, and that if the civilians would just get out of the way and let them do their jobs then everything would be a lot better.

I used to read that attitude into the Slammers, but it's not really there. What's there is the attitude that good soldiers know how to do their job, and their job is to kill and destroy. What's also there, although mostly implied rather than stated, is that unless you specifically want people killed and things destroyed, then maybe you should come up with a way of doing things that doesn't involve soldiers. In other words, war is a last resort, and will either not get you what you wanted, or get it with consequences that aren't acceptable to you.

Overall it's good war fiction from a trooper's point of view, by a combat veteran who also has a very good knowledge of history.

The other stuff I've been reading is mostly 4th Edition D&D. I finally got my DMG and MM a couple of weeks ago. Overall I'm favorably impressed. I'm still reading the DMG, and when I'm done I'll probably post a review. I've also got the first two adventures. I've already commented on the first one, and I plan on commenting on the second once I've finished reading it.

The only thing I'll say now is that they need to rethink the art direction. The covers are just terrible. I've got nothing particular against the artists, but with lots of dark brown in both the art and the layout the covers are incredibly "muddy". I'm not sure what they're going for here, but it doesn't work. They don't catch the eye. I've seen them on the shelf next to a bunch of 3rd edition product, and they fade into the background.