Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Great Tool for the Busy DM

StumbleUpon.  You kill me - I should be doing other STUFF.  I have Domain Game turns to work on, prep for my online After The Bomb game, work stuff that I really shouldn't be doing at home.  But yet I click, and click and click.

But.  But, but, but - the clicking finally pays off!  I found this little gem, by Wizards of the Coast, no less.  I haven't really looked at the adventure portion yet, but the little maps it creates are GREAT.  For small post-apocalyptic complexes and buildings, these maps look ideal.

In addition, I can save them right off the website and import them into Maptools with a few mouse clicks.  Super work, WotC, really super.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Discussing The Steel Remains

Over at The Silver Key and Dweomera Lagomorpha about some of the recent trends in fantasy literature.  This started as a post on Brian's website, but it outgrew that, so I moved it over here.

The thing that's really clarified this discussion to me is the comment by Richard Morgan that Brian quoted -  something along the lines of this not being fantasy for 13-year-olds.

I think that fundamentally what we see as "high fantasy": the Lord of the Rings, the Ranger's Apprentice, Harry Potter - this is a very 13-year-old view of the world.  The clear good/evil dichotomy, a heroes always win assumption, sexless "romance".  It's a very "immature" perspective. Of course, many of these books explore other things - the Lord of the Rings deals extensively with friendship, loyalty, leadership and honor - but the context, the world and it's assumptions - they're simplistic.

Lots of fantasy book reminds me of a terrible Arthurian movie from the early '90's called "First Knight".  It's medieval england, but everyone is clean, the good guys wear shiny armor and crisp blue uniforms, and the bad guys wear black furs.  It's flat - it leaves no lasting impression.  It's the middle ages as seen by the SCA.  Excalibur, on the other hand, is not clean, the heroes are not clear, good things don't always happen to the good guys.  It's more "adult" and a better movie for it.

As we get older, we realize things about the world: we realize that being a good person does not mean necessarily that good things happen to us, we learn that there are many perspectives on things, we hopefully learn about sex, and hopefully we don't learn too much about violence, but we know that there are lots of things in life that a 13-year-old has no awareness of.

So when Morgan talks about The Steel Remains as "adult" - he's right.  It depicts a world much more like the one we know as adults.  Sure - the violence is a bit much, and the sex scenes are maybe a bit gratuitous. In terms of the world that it presents - complete with grit, sex, religious extremism, selfishness and violence - it's a grown-up world.  It's not automatically better because of that, but it feels more tangible to me - the taste of it is clearer.  Yes, the Lord of the Rings is also very deep and powerful, with a clear and detailed world.  But The Steel Remains didn't take 12 years to write (or require 30 years of world-building).

The Burning Land IS a better example of how to create an adult fantasy (although you could easily argue that it's Historical Fiction, which is a bit of a different genre).   It's a bit less gratuitous, a bit more focussed, and with characters that I empathize with a bit more.  It uses the same ingredients, though - Morgan just likes more of the sex and violence and less of the finely-researched historical detail.  He's a better futurist, anyways, while Cornwell is a better historian.  They both write books that are more "adult" than a lot of fantasy, which is why I read and enjoy their work.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

New Fantasy Books

Glen Cook, I can't thank you enough.  The fantasy genre was a bland pretty place before you came along.  All that high fantasy was getting pretty old - sure there was the Thieves' World series, which was introducing a darker, grittier version of the fantasy genre to people, but it wasn't until Glen Cook's Black Company series that shit got real.

Well, not real - but different.  Darker.  The Black Company is the first fantasy series that I'm aware of that draws heavily on the military stories coming back from the Vietnam war.  Books like Chickenhawk, Fields of Fire and the excellently-titled Conduct to the Prejudice of Good Order deal with the experience of war in a way that previous fantasy fiction hadn't.  War, and the experience of making war and of living life as a soldier were brought to the fore by these books, and many of the themes started making the jump into fantasy around the start of the '80s.

That's not to say that they weren't around before that.  Much of REH's Conan stuff was pretty darn gritty, and actually holds up pretty well today.  Red Nails ain't no picnic, that's for sure.  So the darker themes have always been there, sometimes lighter, sometimes heavier.  We seem to be getting into a darker shade of dark phase here, though.

I just picked up Joe Abercrombie's "The Heroes" and "The Steel Remains" by Richard Morgan.  Just as a caveat - I like this kind of fantasy.  Eddings and his "indoor plumbing" fantasy worlds were fine when I was 13, but I frankly enjoy stuff with a little more hair on it's chest these days.  Hell, I read hours of board books to my 2-year-old, I don't need more kiddie stuff when I actually get some time to read myself.

I had slightly mixed feelings about Abercrombie's last novel - "Best Served Cold".  The only character that I really liked, Caul Shivers, turned into a total bastard by the end of it, and I never really came around to rooting for Mercatto.  She didn't really seem to learn much in the course of the novel.  But "The Heroes" is a much better story.  It actually reminded me a bit of Jeff Shaara's "The Killer Angels" in terms of categorizing the effects of war on various individuals involved, from new recruits to veterans on both sides.  It was a much more interesting novel, and the better of the two.

As for the Morgan, I really, really like the Takeshi Kovaks series and I'm reading 13 right now, with Market Forces queued up on the ebook reader - so I'm a fan.  I wasn't blown away by "The Steel Remains" though.  It was interesting - kept me entertained and turning pages right through to the end, but I can see how it wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea.  You don't see gay male characters much in fantasy - I can think of only 2 other series off the top of my head, so that might put some people off, and the violence is pretty Morgan-ish, but I've read his other stuff, so it wasn't that far off.  It just never really grabbed me like the Kovaks books did.  Looks like it's the first of a trilogy, though - so we'll see where it goes.

So good times in fantasy if you like yours with a bit more spit and a bit less polish.  If you want a decent middle road, the new Ian Esselmont, Stonewielder, might be a good pickup.  That guy has steadily improved since his underwhelming first book, and now I find I'm enjoying his stuff more than Erikson - which is quite a thing for me to say.