Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Aug 31, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 35

“Now I know the Elan and remember the man
Who was born out of darkness and light.
Though the elf is a stranger I’ve long watched the ranger
And the cleric devoted to right.
That one loves a fiend with hands incarnadined
Who years to embrace all that’s good,
And yet little I know of poor Tulio
Though his village was close to my wood.
Last comes the soul who I broke to make whole
Whose life is now mine, sworn by pact.
He has called and I’ve come from the world growing numb
To help keep creation intact.”

“I remember now,” Mal said. “I once saw you, all of you, in Baltazo’s cellar. I wasn’t there, but I saw it all the same. You fought the dire lions, the effigies, but you lost. And Haden was killed.”

“Ah, well, no great loss then,” Haden said.

“Oh, but it was,” Mal said. “Without you, the others weren’t able to stop what Fearson had begun, and Plague-Mort fell into the Abyss, taking you with it. It wasn’t a dream or a story, it happened. I saw it all. The Lady knew—she knew you were the only ones who could stop what’s coming. So she sent me—my consciousness, I suppose would be the word for it—back to help you. Back through time. But first she stripped my memories from me.”

“You might have seen one possible outcome,” Sheen said, “but that doesn’t make it the only possible outcome.”

“Perhaps,” Mal replied. “But She believes it. Her reasons are not for me to question.”

“Like hell they aren’t,” Sheen snapped. “We are not pieces in some sort of game!”

Haden cleared his throat loudly. “Yes, but perhaps we should listen to what she has to say now that she’s here?”

“Why did the Lady take your memories?” Talan asked.

“To spare me the pain of the separation,” Mal said. “Stronger men than I have fallen on their swords from the sheer despair of it.” Sheen made a noise. “The problem was that my former consciousness wouldn’t yield, and both of us were confined to one mind. With no memory of why we were brought together, we were forced to rely on a vague sense of what was supposed to happen. I knew I had to call her before it was too late.”

“Too late for what?” Kal asked.

“Whether we are pieces in a game or not, the board is in danger of being tipped over.”

“What exactly do you mean?” Talan asked.

“Now villains you’ve caught, and devils you’ve fought,
But whose hand guides this deadly affair?
Now I must tell of the Lion of Hell,
The Duke known as dread Alocer.”

Kalisa nodded. “It’s true then. Yolette told me that Baltazo summoned a devil called Betzalel. He’s one of Alocer’s minions.”

“Alocer is a Duke under Dispater,” Haden said. “Not a truly major evil, but no joke, either. My infernal grandmother was one of his minions, actually.”

“Alocer’s been working on something for a long, long time. Now he’s racing to get it finished,” Mal said.

“He’s a devil,” Haden said. “They’re always plotting something. Usually several somethings at once.”

“He’s getting desperate now, trying to finish his grand work before he gets cut off.”

“Wonderful!” Kal declared. “I’m sold, what do we do?”

Sheen looked up at the Lady. “If you have some specific information that may help us, spit it out. We can handle things from there.”

The Lady gestured and they found themselves surrounded by dark buildings on an oddly glowing street. Devils and other creatures milled around, passing right through them. The street began to drop away, revealing a dull gray mountain in the distance—a mountain surmounted by a floating ring.

“Sigil?” Kalisa asked.

“The Lion of Hell has fashioned a cell,
An Iron Cage deep in Baator
But that Cage has no portals without an immortal
So the Lion still hungers for more.”

“Alocer is trying to make a Sigil knockoff?” Haden asked.

“Yes,” Mal said. “And has been for some time.”

Kalisa shook her head. “I heard that chant over a century ago, but I was sure it was just hot air.”

“What is he trying to accomplish?” Talan asked.

“And isn’t Alocer an immortal?” Haden asked. “Why can’t he run the place?”

“It makes sense,” Kal said. “From what I understand, Sigil is the key to the planes. To use it now, though, you’d have to fight the Lady of Pain.”

“Once, the baatezu thought that Sigil’s unique properties stemmed from its shape,” Mal explained. “Alocer volunteered to run the project, but now it’s almost finished and there still aren’t any portals. So he started thinking about the other two explanations for Sigil’s portals: its position at the center of the Outlands, and the Lady of Pain. He intended to use Illuminated spies to see if the factions knew the truth of the matter, but you put that fire out quickly enough.”

“So he just decided to gamble that one of the theories was actually correct?” Haden asked, disbelieving.

“Desperation,” Kalenthor said.

“What’s making him so desperate?”

“After all this time with no results,” Mal said, “The Dark Eight and the other lords want to redirect Alocer’s resources back to the Blood War itself.”

“Yeah, because they were getting such great results pouring their efforts into that particular drain,” Haden muttered. Kalisa laughed.

“If the portals are a matter of location, Alocer’s plans are doomed anyway. That’s why he wants to know how the Lady of Pain came into being. So he can become a Lord of Pain.” Mal explained.

“Even if his plans don’t work, that kind of knowledge in the hands of a devil won’t be good,” Haden said. “The Lady’s power comes from her mystery. No one knows how to fight her effectively, so they don’t try. If Alocer learns enough about her, he may not even need his Sigil knockoff.”

“This is true,” Mal affirmed. “That is why he wanted the Eye of the Dawn.”

“What is the Eye?” Sheen asked.

“Truthfully, I don’t really know,” Mal said. “It comes up here and there in the tales of oldest creation, the creation of the planes, the multiverse itself, before gods or immortals or anything else. I believe it’s a focus for bringing order out of chaos, or a reservoir for raw possibility. Or maybe both.”

“Can your Lady tell us anything more about it?” Talan asked hopefully.

“She can . . . but I don’t know that she will.”

Sheen held up a hand. “It doesn’t really matter. Alocer is going to try something else now that his efforts to get the Eye have been blocked. So we should worry about that.”

“Right. That is why I called the Lady here.”

“Alocer thought he won his Sigil a sun
When the Eye of the Dawn was in sight,
But it’s once again mine, so next in his design
Is to hunt for the Tear of the Night.”

“The what?” Joris asked.

“She’s not going to tell us what it is,” Sheen said. “We just need to know where it is.”

“You already know that,” Mal said. “Like me, you’ve merely forgotten.”

Sheen stared at the warlock for some time, perplexed. Then her mouth gradually formed an O of surprise. “That’s what Gyderic was trying to steal from the Elders!”

“Ah, so?” Mal asked.

“Good enough for me!” Kal said. “Let’s go!”

Mal bowed suddenly and stepped over to the Lady’s side. “In any case, I am returning home. Farewell, and good luck to you.” There was a blinding flash and they found themselves standing in Waterdeep’s Market.

“Well, that’s handy,” Kal said after a moment, brushing silvery dust from his robes.

Haden poked Sheen in the shoulder gently. “You’re the native. Where do we go?” Sheen stared around blankly for several moments.

“Kajmalari’s Exotics isn’t far from here,” she said slowly, pointing south down Silver Street.

“Kajmalari’s Exotic what?” Haden asked as they began walking. Sheen didn’t answer. She stoped at an otherwise unremarkable bronze gate in an ugly stucco wall. The only sign was a small, unremarkable placard glued to the stucco. The courtyard beyond the gate looked to have once been a garden, but the plants had gone feral and taken over. At the far end of the courtyard was a towering, ivy-covered building. Enormous diamond-paned windows peered out through the growth.

Sheen opened the gate and walked through, making for a small wooden door inset into larger gates that seemed anchored in place by the ivy. She opened that door as well and went through. Haden started to follow, then stopped short with an alarmed noise. An electric-blue snake as big around as his thigh was hanging from the ceiling just above the entrance.

“Don’t just stand there,” Sheen said, “it’ll thin you’re dinner arriving and drop on you.”

“I am welcoming you to Kajmalari’s Exotics,” a heavily-accented voice said from somewhere in the gloom.”

“Um, thanks,” Kal said, trying to make out who was speaking. “Are you Kajmalari?”

“No, he is being in Chult at the moment. I am being Ulli. Can I be helping you? Are you looking for watchspiders, perhaps? Our trainer has fresh batch ready for saleing.”

Sheen frowned. “We’re looking for a jubjub bird. Or possibly a frumious bandersnatch.”

“How exotic your specious must be, for them to be escaping my knowledges! Kajmalari though, has an EYE for all specious!”

“Look, no messing around,” Sheen growled. “This is important! I know they probably told you to keep me out, but let’s not pretend we don’t understand. I know all about the cellars, so open the door like a nice chap and we won’t bother you any more.”

“I am not knowing what you be meaning, madamy.”

“Try again.”

“Now, unless you had your EYE for some animals, please to be leaving.”

“He keeps emphasizing ‘eye’ very strangely,” Kal offered. Sheen crossed her arms and glared. Finally Ulli threw up his hands.

“If they ask, I was powdering my noses,” he said, and pushed aside a cage full f flaming bats, revealing a flight of stone steps. They descended for a surprisingly long time, into a torchlit room. A nine-headed barbed whip dangled from the ceiling above a woman wearing tight black leather and a bored expression. A man wearing a spiked collar crouched at her feet.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

Kal glanced at Haden. “What role to do the spikes serve, do you think?” The woman smiled slightly.

“I can show you, if you’d like,” she said, hauling on a chain. The man in the collar winced but did not make any sound.

“This isn’t . . .” Sheen said, startled.

“Are you here for the orgy?” the woman asked. Her smile broadened slightly. “You should have brought pets, we’re not equipped to supply you.”

“What orgy?” Sheen demanded.

“Well, I say orgy, but that’s probably not the term you would use.”

“This is a temple of Loviatar,” Joris whispered. “The goddess of agony. This woman is a priestess.”

“I think I may have made a . . . mistake.” Sheen said slowly. The priestess frowned.

“Have you now?”

“We’ll just be going.”

“As you like,” the priestess said, tugging on the chain again. “The Goddess does not forget. She is . . . patient.”

“So, if not there, where?” Kal asked when they had returned to the street.

“I don’t know,” Sheen said. “The Enclave operates . . . operated several fronts all over the city, but . . .hey!” Everyone jumped as Sheen abruptly rushed into the crowd. The dwarf she shouted at froze in midstep. He was emerging from an armorer’s across the street with a heavy bundle over one shoulder.

“I know you, you’re Riskin Flameback!”

“Sheen? Little Sheen! Moradin’s hammer, look at you!” The dwarf threw his arms around Sheen’s waist and lifted her off the ground. “How’s this blasted city treatin’ you? Hope it’s better than it’s been treatin’ US!!”

“Did something happen?” Sheen forced out, struggling to breathe.

“Oh, aye, Murkstones is in a STATE, girl.”

“Maybe I can help? I’m supposed to find Hoskuld if possible and give him a commission.”

“Maybe. These friends o’ yours?”

“Yes. Haden, Talan, Kalenthor, Joris and Tulio. Where’s Kalisa?”

“I sent her back home,” Joris said. “I figured it was safer.”

“I am Kalenthor Nailo of Silverymoon,” Kal added. “The Flameback work is highly spoken of, even in that far city.”

“My brother Hoskuld taught Sheen here all she knows!”

“Although not without some grumbling,” Sheen said.

“Aye. Yers and his. Anyhow, let’s take a walk. I’ll tell ye about it.” Riskin reclaimed his bundle, pausing in the doorway of the shop to shout, “INGRATES!!”

Cold Blood: Session 34

Haden looked up at the temple ceiling, to where the ornate pillars gave way to an elaborate fresco of the night sky. Mystra’s church in Silverymoon was not large, but it seemed that the faithful took their religion rather seriously just the same.

There was no service ongoing and the great hall echoed with emptiness. Near the altar, four humans were deeply engaged in discussion, two older men and two young women, all dressed in elaborate robes.

“Who’s this?” Haden asked, turning to Joris. From behind the cleric, the elf Kalenthor grinned.

“This should prove . . . interesting.”

“No, you see, these inscriptions use the modern syntax. I’ve seen enough fake Nether Scrolls to know one when I—“ one of the men said as they approached, gesturing with a golden scroll. His robes were blue and white, naming him as a senior cleric. He broke off mid-sentence and all four humans turned to regard the new arrivals.

“Joris!” one of the women yelled delightedly and rushed forward. She wore the robes of a junior cleric and had familiar facial features.

“Cyneley!” Joris said, returning her hug and patting her on the back. “Everyone, this is my sister, Cyneley.” Kalenthor bowed deeply.

“Joris?” the senior cleric demanded, tossing the scroll onto the altar with an annoyed gesture. His expression grew even more irritated when this failed to produce any reaction.

“Kalenthor, you rascal!” the other man, a truly elderly little academic, cried.

“Hello, Miresk, you old fossil! How have you been?” the elf said heartily.

“I thought I was doing well until I spent too much on that phony Nether Scroll.” Miresk sighed and adjusted his glasses. “Oh well, won’t be the first time, probably won’t be the last.”

Kalenthor chuckled urbanely. “Better research beats more research. I seem to recall SOMEONE telling me that, anyway.”

“Oh yes, that was me, wasn’t it?”

“JORIS!!” the elder cleric roared, silencing the elderly academic. “Where in the HELLS have you been?!”

Haden snorted. “Funny you should say that . . .”

“Oh, it is, hmm? And just who are you, then? Who are all of you people and what are you doing in MY temple?”

“Thought it was Mystra’s temple,” Cyneley muttered, earning herself a furious glare.

Haden leaned in closer to the senior cleric, grinning and displaying his overly-sharp teeth. “I am Haden, Lord of the Court of Stars. This is Sheen, my companion, with the ranger Talan and the eldritch enchanter Mal. I believe you are already familiar with Kalenthor. Joris has been assisting us in our adventures. Who might you be?”

“Prestin,” Sheen said. “Joris’ father.”

The cleric shied away from the teeth just a bit. “I . . . um . . . yes. Well met, all of you.” He leaned sideways to glare at his son. “What happened to your other . . . companions, Joris?” Haden stepped out of the way.

“Dead, sir,” Joris said stiffly.

“Ah,” Prestin said. “Well I am sorry for your loss, of course. I know Jerris and his woman were dear to you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Joris said.

“I met Joris in Redlarch, that’s a village not far from Waterdeep. They encountered an owlbear,” Sheen offered when no further conversation seemed forthcoming.

“Really? I thank you for saving my son, then, at least.”

Sheen blinked. “The owlbear was already dead by the time I arrived,” she corrected conscientiously. “Though it took Joris’ companions with it.”

“But you never made it to Waterdeep,” Prestin said accusingly. “Osryd went there and back and found no trace of you.”

“We were sidetracked searching for missing villagers. Together we explored the home of the wizard Morard, where we found an inter-planar portal that landed us in Avernus,” Sheen explained.

“Avernus? Truly?”

Sheen nodded. “We did eventually find a portal that let us leave the Hells, but it landed us in Sigil.”

“Sigil! Astonishing!” Miresk interrupted. “I haven’t seen the City of Doors since I was a young man!”

“You never told ME you went to Sigil,” Kalenthor complained.

“Didn’t I?” Miresk asked. “It was just for the one weekend . . .”

“Your mother was worried sick,” Prestin snapped. “None of our scrying turned up anything.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Joris said. “I wanted to send word.” Miresk glanced at Cyneley and took the young woman’s arm, drawing her away and out of the hall.

Prestin turned to look at Kalenthor. “Did you have any luck with Arviragus?”

“My Lord, I regret to report that for the time being the helm and Arviragus have eluded capture. Three days ago, the helm was in the possession of a frost giant near the Old Man Tor in the Evermoors.”

“A frost giant?” the other woman asked. “In the Evermoors?”

“Yes, Lady Alustriel,” Kalenthor said, bowing deeply. “He claimed to be a servant of Gerti Orelsdottr. And he wasn’t alone.”

“Yes,” Sheen said. “We were very lucky we didn’t have to fight them. Haden negotiated with them and got Joris back.”

“There was a dragon,” Kal added.

“The Scourge of the Spine of the World is sending giants all the way down here?” Prestin asked, scowling.

“It certainly explains why the trolls are leaving the Evermoors,” Lady Alustriel said. Her voice was soft and musical, but there was thunder in it. “This is precisely why the cities of the North must come together. I should act on this knowledge at once. I thank you, Kalenthor Nailo, for bringing this to my attention.

Kalenthor bowed again. “Thank you, my Lady.” Alustriel swept from the hall. When she had gone, Prestin turned to the elf again.

“This news is disappointing, but under the circumstances I can hardly blame you.” The hall filled with awkward silence yet again.

“You haven’t introduced Kalisa, Joris,” Haden said mildly.

“I’m so sorry,” Joris said, coming out of his trance. “Where are my manners? Father, this is Kalisa. She’s my . . . my lover.”

Prestin steepled his fingers together in front of his chest. “Truly.”

“Honored to finally meet you,” Kalisa said shortly.

“The honor is mine,” Prestin rattled off from sheer reflex. “You know, Joris, your mother was certain she’d found a match for you in Waterdeep . . .” Joris opened his mouth to retort, but Prestin raised his voice slightly. “I know you’ve been . . .diverted from your original course, but I would hope you’d be intelligent enough to at least consider all of your options before making any . . . snap decisions. Your family is here to help you, Joris. This . . . woman may be the best you can do on your own, but with your mother’s help I know that . . .”

Kalenthor, Talan, Mal, and Haden all stepped back simultaneously. Sheen’s hand shot up to her mouth, covering her gasp of horror. Kalisa nudged Joris aside gently and drew herself up to her full height.

"The best he can do?" she asked sweetly.

“Perhaps I misspoke,” Prestin said. “I’m speaking of Joris’ lmitations, not yours.”

“Please don’t!” Joris hissed to Kalisa.

“HIS limitations?! I crossed half this world to find him. I would have fought all three of those giants AND the sorcerer, by myself, to save him. Would you have done any of that? If you claim to love him—as I do—then look to your OWN limitations.”

Sheen was a bit startled to see Joris turn from looking at Kalisa to look at her, his face full of pleading. “Are you going to let her stand up for you all by herself?” Sheen asked quietly.

“You’re more than you seem to be, aren’t you?” Prestin asked Kalisa. “I think I see what’s going on here.”

“Shut up!” Joris shouted.

“WHAT did you say?”

“I said shut up! Father. I love Kalisa, she loves me, and I don’t give a DAMN what anyone else in all creation has to say about it!”

“No matter,” Prestin said. “I’ll be rid of her soon enough.”

“Hah!” Kalisa spat. “It won’t be that easy!”

“And why not?” Prestin asked.

“Because I’m having your son’s baby!”

“You’re . . .you’re what?” Joris asked after several seconds of stunned silence. Kalisa wilted a bit.

“I’m sorry, Joris, I was planning to tell you earlier, but now you know. Your daughter grows within me.”

“How can you know that already?” Prestin demanded. Kalisa gave a frustrated growl and abandoned her disguise, spreading dark wings and fixing red-glowing eyes on the senior cleric.

“Because a succubus always bears daughters!”

“You . . . seducer! You stole my son’s heart! Get out! All of you, GET OUT!!”

“Why do you have such little faith in your son’s abilities?” Talan demanded.

“You’re one of them too!” Prestin shouted, waving a finger in Talan’s face. “Fiend-blooded betrayers!”

“What?” Talan asked, baffled. “I’m half-elven. Joris is one of the most honorable and wise men I have met. You must have very little faith in your own abilities, as well.”

“It’s because he thinks I’m weak, Talan,” Joris said.

Talan snorted derisively. “What he takes for weakness is compassion. Which he is sorely lacking.”

“He still believes I can’t truly serve the Lady of Mysteries because I’m not a wizard. But he still clings to the old Mystra—the one who DIED eleven years ago. But my Mystra, Midnight, she’s a goddess of good. And he just can’t accept that his Mystra is gone. So he takes it out on me. Well I’ve had enough,” Joris announced. “I came here to tell you that I was all right, and that I’ve got a new life in Sigil. Now I’ve done that. Goodbye, Father.” Joris wrapped an arm around Kalisa’s shoulders and the two of them walked quickly from the hall. Haden bowed ironically and followed.

“Joris . . .” Prestin started. Kalenthor bowed, interrupting him.

“I think, Lord, that he has made his choice. It would seem that he has some strength in him after all.” The elf turned also to leave, followed by Talan, Mal, and Tulio, leaving only Sheen behind. Prestin looked at her for a while. Sheen waited patiently.

“You know, I didn’t follow in my father’s footsteps, but it was so important that my children follow in mine . . .”

“Wouldn’t be much of a world if things never changed,” Sheen said.

“You helped him in Avernus?”

“We helped each other.”

“Thank you for that,” Prestin said slowly. “I’d appreciate it if you’d keep an eye on him for me.”

“Of course.”

“Thank you. I’d like to be alone now, if you don’t mind.”

“He’ll get over being angry,” Sheen said, “and he still wants you to be proud of him. He’s still your son. He’s just walking in strange places you don’t understand.” She turned and left the hall, trotting through the street to catch up with the group. They had all stopped beside a fountain, where Kalisa was talking to Joris.

“I’m really sorry, but you know he would have found out anyway.”

“Don’t make the same mistakes I did,” Talan added.

“I won’t,” Joris said.

“You know, there’s a difference between being assertive and burning your bridges,” Sheen said.

“He started the fire,” Joris said. “I decided to let it run its course, since I couldn’t put it out.”

“Couldn’t or wouldn’t?” Sheen asked.

“What, you think I could have?” Joris demanded. His face was red and he was still breathing heavily. “He’s got to feel justified. Joris is only alive because of chance, and now he’s been seduced by a succubus! I was right all along!”

“I know you could have. You’ve been stewing on your anger for a long time, but how do you think he feels? How was he ever supposed to know what you wanted? Did you ever tell him?”

“I tried . . . I really did . . . I guess I never found the right words. Or maybe I never knew what I wanted. I just didn’t think it was fair that he should always decide.”

“It’s not entirely Prestin’s fault. Granted, it’s not entirely your fault, either.”

“You’re so lucky not to have a family,” Joris grumbled. Sheen blinked, startled.

“Yeah. Lucky.”

Kal glanced sideways at Talan. “You know, I actually get on fairly well with my family.”

“I’ve heard that’s possible,” the ranger said. “I’m not sure I believe it. Of course, it gets a little harder when they’re all dead.”

Kalisa harrumphed loudly. “I’ve had just about enough of this,” she said, and threw her arms around Joris, kissing him noisily.

“This calls for a celebration,” Haden said. “Kal, my friend, know any good taverns in these parts?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. Follow me,” Kalenthor said smoothly.

“So what is it that you do, exactly?” Haden asked the wizard while they walked.

“Well, I teach at Miresk’s school sometimes. Travel a fair bit. Meddle in sinister plots. Nothing too special.”

“I know we’ve just met, but you seem like a handy fellow to have around.”

“Aside from the elf part,” Sheen added.

“Hey,” Talan protested. “Not all elves are bad. I got the good half.”

“If you’re still interested in travel, you’d be welcome to come with us,” Haden said. “Although I think Sheen wants us to go to Waterdeep to see some dwarves first.”

“I would love to travel off-plane again,” Kal said, his eyes lighting up. “My research has led me to believe that one of my newer projects may require some extraplanar resources. And Waterdeep’s nice, too. For a port city.” He shivered and looked up at the sky. The winter wind was picking up, and a dark cloud passed in front of the sun. Then the cloud began to break up, revealing dozens of dark shapes that settled to roost in the branches of trees all around them. A deafening cacophony of hoarse cawing arose.

Mal threw up his hands delightedly, nearly knocking Tulio out. “She comes! At last she comes!”

“Who is ‘she’?” Kal asked.

“Ever wanted to meet a Fey lord?” Sheen asked. “Well, now’s your chance. The Lady of Mirrors cometh.”

The square around them flared with brilliant light. When the glow had died a lovely women with butterfly wings hovered above them, her complexion as pale as a statue. She wore a diaphanous white gown and held a glass sphere in one hand.

“To mortals unseen, to ravens a queen
The lady of Mirrors as well
But you can’t find your way to the mother of fey
Or the long-hidden grove where I dwell.
So now I have come from a world growing numb
Where the darkness has reigned now for years
But the time now has passed to gaze into the glass
And behold whatever appears.”

Aug 30, 2008

Stupid Guy Stunts II

So, there I was snoozing in bed and minding my own business this morning when I hear this almighty crash like someone (Adam) dropped an armload of dishes into the sink. Since Adam does occasionally make loud noises for no apparent reason, I didn't think much of it, however I decided to be conscientious and yell, "ARE YOU OKAY?!!"

Several seconds passed without a reply. Then Adam yells: "JEN?!"

Me: "WHAT?"

Adam: "C'MERE!"


Adam: "JUST C'MERE!!"

So I got out of bed and put some clothes on and walked out into the living room, where I find: No Adam. He's still yelling, however.




Sighing, I go put on some shoes and return to the living room. "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" (Please note that this is the FOURTH TIME I have asked him to tell me what the hell is going on.)


So I go *back* in the other room and get some shoes for him, too, and go into the kitchen to see what he wants. There, I find that a.) the door to the garage is open, b.) there is broken glass all over the place, and c.) a rather sheepish-looking Adam is standing out in the garage trying to figure out how to get back inside the house without seriously injuring himself.

Me: "What the hell?"

Some fifteen minutes later, AFTER I've given Adam the shoes and cleaned up his various cuts and scrapes AND picked up all the broken glass, he finally explains what happened. He went out to his car to get his laptop and when he tried to come back inside he missed the step or otherwise stumbled and PUT HIS ARM THROUGH THE GLASS DOOR. Amazingly, he escaped with only two small scratches and an almighty bruise on his elbow where he banged it on the door frame.

Then, THEN he has the gall to give me a hard time because I didn't come running when I heard the crash. "For all you knew," he said, "I was out there bleeding to death!"

Now I ask you, how was I supposed to know what happened? If he'd just said "I'm hurt!" or "I broke something!" when I asked him what was going on, I'd have been right there. But no, he answers my requests for information with "PUT SOME SHOES ON!!"

Next time I'm leaving him out there.

Aug 29, 2008

Babylon A.D.

My entire impression of this movie can be summed up in one word. Okay, not even a word. More a grunt.


Adam and I had to read the plot synopsis on IMdB before we could even guess what Babylon A.D. was supposed to be about. Whether that's what it's actually about is anyone's guess. A series of random events and vague indecipherable babble do not make a movie. Even the action scenes were pointless and lackluster.

See Death Race instead. Really.

Aug 28, 2008

Death Race

Adam (my housemate) loves him some action movies--not the kind of action movies I like, he will sit through anything that promises to have some decent fight scenes. He wanted to see Death Race and since I didn't really have anything to do (internet went KABOOM earlier today), I tagged along.

Well, I have to give this movie a cautious thumbs-up. It is not nearly as shallow and mindless as I was led to expect by the previews. That's not to say that the movie doesn't revolve around the explosions and guns and driving--it does, but there's an actual plot in there.

The director did a good job of not loading down a simple premise with more quasi-philosophical dreck than it could bear, too, so the result is a movie that's light but nevertheless enjoyable to watch.

It reminds me a lot, in fact, of the more recent Jet Li movies I've seen, where he combines high-flying martial arts action with a valid theme. I wonder if Jason Statham picked up some interest in that area when he worked with Mr. Li on War. Maybe they had a meeting of minds. In any case, if you were already considering seeing Death Race but weren't sure you could justify it to yourself, you don't have to worry.

Cold Blood: Session 33

Haden looked at Kalisa fingering her sword and surveyed the group. Talan was gripping his own swords, while Sheen was glowing slightly, ectoplasm sheeting off her skin. Only Mal appeared calm, but he didn’t seem too conscious of what was happening. “We need to try and negotiate with these giants,” Haden announced.

“What, have you lost your mind?” Sheen demanded instantly.

“The last person who tried to negotiate didn’t do very well,” Kalenthor commented. “He escaped, the fink, but just barely.”

“We should at least try,” Haden said, directing his words mostly at Kalisa. “We’ll have a devil of a time getting Joris out of here before the other giants show up.”

Talan shook his head. “We can try, but we should be prepared just in case.”

“Of course,” Haden said. He began casting a defensive spell. Kalenthor waved his hands in an arcane gesture, clearly intending to assist.

“Lead on, bold . . . sir,” the elf said. Haden raised a skeptical eyebrow at Kalenthor, then shrugged and started walking, a look of suave confidence settling onto his features. He stopped a good distance short of the giants, concentrating to amplify his voice.


“What, more little pinkskins?” the biggest and strongest giant demanded faintly. Even speaking under its breath, the voice was loud enough to be clearly heard.

“I am Haden, and I beg your indulgence for a moment.” Talan nervously eyed another giant who was rummaging in his sack for a throwing stone. The leader waved a hand and it stopped.


Haden’s grin was somewhat manic. “Truly I am awed, sir, for your renown is great!”


“Goodness, no!” Haden replied. “I am a . . . skald, I call no city home!” Talan shot Sheen a questioning look.

“Don’t ask me,” she whispered, “I have no idea what he’s doing.”

“Shh!” Haden hissed, then addressed the giants. "Once again, I am awed! I had thought the day a waste, yet here I am, speaking to a legend!"

"Playing to the brute's ego. Clever.” Kalenthor murmured.


"I had heard of a mighty wizard travelling in these parts, and I sought him out to witness his deeds." The giant issued booming belly laughter, glaring at his cronies until they joined in. Haden copped an astonished expression. “Whatever is so funny, Great Rognvald?”


“Incredible!” Haden gushed.

“Lackspell,” Kalenthor remarked. “I’ll have to remember that.”


“Tribute?” Haden asked. “Like this statue here?”

Rognvald paused and looked down at Joris. “HE SAID IT WAS VALUABLE TO SOMEONE IN SILVERYMOON. SEEMS RATHER ORDINARY TO ME.” Kalisa hissed through her teeth.

“Are you collecting figurines, oh Mighty Rognvald? A pursuit for old ladies, I believe.” Haden said mildly.


Haden cringed, a bit more than was strictly necessary, perhaps. “I beg your pardon, Mighty Rognvald! It hardly seems like tribute worthy of such a mighty warrior!”

Rognvald snorted, but subsided a bit. “TRULY, IT IS LITTLE ENOUGH WHEN COMAPRED WITH THE LIKES OF THIS!!” The giant hefted a shining mithral helmet with broad, sweeping wings. Haden made appreciative noises. “A FINE PRIZE FOR THE JARL. SHE WILL REWARD ME TWICE OVER FOR THIS!!”

“Perhaps I can do you a service, Mighty Rognvald!” The giant eyed Haden curiously. “Your lady Jarl needs adornments worthy of her station, this I can see!”

“AYE,” Rognvald said, a touch wistfully.

Haden nodded. “And I happen to know a collector of such ‘figurines’ who would offer me a fine price indeed.”


“Let us offer you a better tribute for your lady and take this awkward chunk of rock off your hands. You will be spared the trouble of dealing with it. Yea, your renown can only grow as you tell the tale of how you made foolish travelers carry the useless thing away.” One of the other giants bent and whispered in Rognvald’s ear. Haden looked back at the group. “Get ready to turn out your pockets, guys.”

Sheen glanced over her shoulder at Kalisa and cocked an ear for a second. “Oh dear,” she said. “The reinforcements are arriving.”

“LET’S SEE THE COLOR OF YOUR MONEY, THEN,” Rognvald interrupted.

“He’ll turn on us as soon as we pay him,” Kalenthor said quietly. “That’s what happened to Arivargus.”

“Then we fight,” Sheen said, “But I’ll bet that Haden is a good deal more convincing than your wizard.”

Haden dug a few items from his backpack and proceeded to sell them to the giants, along with a good helping of plain cash.


“Truly Rognvald is magnanimous beyond measure. I will spread word of his fame throughout the land!”

“All right,” Sheen said, “Everyone grab the statue and let’s see if wee can actually move it.” Rognvald gathered up his crones and started off toward the north. They hauled Joris out of the ground and began dragging him awkwardly, not turning around until they were out of sight behind a rock outcrop.

“Whew,” Kalenthor said. “I could teleport now. Back to Silverymoon, I mean. Then I can get a scroll to fix his condition.”

Kalisa scowled, then sighed. “All right. Please hurry.”

More Painting

So, here is painting #2. Same character, different angle, and I think this one is much better.

Aug 27, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 32

Yolette jumped to her feet as the door opened, admitting almost all the other occupants of the house. They were all filthy, covered in blood and slime and gluey bits of webbing.

“Kalisa said something happened to Joris, and then she ran out of here!” Yolette reported nervously.

“Yes,” Haden said. “Our first order of business is to find out what happened to Joris. If he’s in trouble, we have to go after him. Hells know the man can’t take care of himself for five minutes.”

Talan glanced at Haden, Hexla, and Mal. “I don’t suppose any of you can wave your arms and locate him?”

“Who?” Mal asked. “Oh, him. Not really, no.”

“I can try,” Haden said. “But I’ll need to go shopping first.”

Talan sighed. “It probably would have helped if we’d caught Kalisa before she left.”

“Don’t worry,” Haden said. “We’ll find him.”

“Also that dwarf, Eldgrim, he came by the shop looking for you,” Yolette told Sheen, who thus far had been silent.

“He did? What did he want?” Sheen asked.

“I dunno, he didn’t say.”

Sheen nodded. “Then I’d probably better go to Twelve Factols. What do you need to go shopping for?”

“I need a mirror,” Haden said. “For scrying.”

Talan rummaged around in his pack for a moment and pulled out a beautifully ornate glass. “I found this on Alantavra. Would it help?” Haden took it from the ranger’s hands and examined it thoughtfully for several moments.

“It should be all right.” He placed the mirror on the coffee table and sat cross-legged on the floor. “Do we have anything personal that belongs to Joris?” They searched the room quickly, coming up with a book of Mystran parables. “That’ll work,” Haden said, and began casting the spell. He watched the glass for a time, then shrugged. “Nothing.”

Talan frowned. “He may really be in trouble.”

“Maybe,” Haden said. “But the spell doesn’t always work perfectly. I can try again tomorrow, after I get some sleep.” He looked down at his clothes and grimaced, making an arcane gesture that vanished the filth. Mal made a similar gesture and everyone’s grooming was restored.

Haden awoke suddenly feeling that something was not quite right. It was still dark, but he could hear the sound of frantic conversation coming from below. He opened the door cautiously and peered down the stairs, encountering Talan in the hallway. The ranger was gripping a naked sword and looking alarmed.

A fire still burned in the living room grate, casting a dim reddish light into the room—just enough to foul Haden’s supernatural vision. All he could make out was a shadowy figure standing over another. He glanced at Talan and gestured for the half-elf to cover his eyes, then threw a light spell into the room.

“AAAH!” Mal shouted, wincing in the brilliant glow. Tulio threw himself back in his chair and groaned.

“Mal, what in blazes are you doing?” Haden demanded.

“Trying to find out where the portal to Thazia is, of course.”

“You know, I was having a particularly good dream,” Talan said, scowling. “Couldn’t this wait until morning?”

“I was trying to be quiet,” Mal said, “but he’s being . . . uncooperative.”

“Because you’re being a horse’s ass!” Tulio shouted.

“If you’d just tell me what I NEED to KNOW—“

“I would if you’d ASK ME NICELY!!”

“Keep it DOWN!” Hexla’s voice issued from above. Haden glanced back up the stairs to see Sheen also peering into the hall.

“False alarm, go back to bed,” he told her. Mal was opening his mouth to retort to Tulio. “Both of you SHUT UP!!” The elf’s mouth snapped closed as though he’d been slapped. Haden favored Talan with a long-suffering look.

“Well?” Mal asked when several seconds had passed in silence.

“Mal, Our first priority is to find Joris,” Haden said. “We can talk to Tulio about Thazia when he’s feeling better.” Haden shifted his gaze to the human thief. “As for you, Mal was partly responsible for saving your ass. It wouldn’t kill you to offer him some tolerance and respect. I’m going back to bed.”

Talan woke up for the second time when Hexla pulled the curtains back, admitting the glow that passed for sunlight in Sigil. He stretched and gave her a quick kiss, then trooped downstairs to let Ari out and scrounge up some dog food. Haden was sitting on the floor in the living room scrutinizing the mirror again.

“That’s not good,” the bard remarked in a virtually emotionless tone, his gaze far away.

“What’s not good?” Talan asked.

“Well, it looks like Joris has been turned to stone. And he’s being transported somewhere by what seems to be a wizard.”

“Definitely not good.”

“How well do you know the terrain in . . . uh . . . Faerun? All I can see are bleak rolling hills dotted with the occasional rocky outcrop. One looks like a big face.”

“That sounds a lot like the Evermoors. The face sounds like the Old Man. It’s crawling with trolls, or at least it was. They were becoming a serious problem.”

“What’s a troll?” Haden asked.

“Something we want to avoid if we can,” Talan said.

“It looks as though they’re heading toward the ruins of a big fortress.” Haden sighed and blinked, his eyes focusing on the room. “That’s it. Let’s go get Lissy and see what she can do for us.” He looked over at Tulio, who still hadn’t moved from the armchair. “Do you want to come with us? We have some armor and a Morningstar you can use.”

“I don’t know, maybe I better,” Tulio said dubiously. Hexla wrapped her arms around Talan’s chest and kissed him goodbye very thoroughly.

“Moping around here won’t help,” Haden said. “Let me go get that armor.”

While they were outfitting Tulio, the door banged open and Sheen entered, shaking snowflakes off her cloak. “I went to see Eldgrim. He just wants me to see if I can commission a suit of armor from one of the smiths at the clan where I grew up. Have you found Joris yet?”

“Maybe,” Haden said. “Talan thinks he might be in the Evermoors.”

“That’s not too far from Waterdeep,” Sheen said.

“It’s close to the High Forest, too,” Talan added. “Maybe you can explain about the trolls to Haden.”

“Trolls?” Sheen asked. “They’re big rubbery green humanoids that are always hungry. I think they’re a type of giant, actually.”


Lissandra was in Vander’s at her usual table, sitting hunched over a breakfast. “Hi, Lissy!” Haden bellowed, throwing his arms around her and planting a kiss on her cheek. Lissandra’s face twisted, but she didn’t quite flinch.

“G’morning, Haden,” she muttered.

“I hope we’re not interrupting your breakfast,” Talan said.

“Not at all. I don’t suppose any of you have seen Jazra?”

“She was at the Temple of the Abyss last night,” Sheen offered. Lissandra’s nose wrinkled.

“Visiting her sister, I bet. Oh, well, it isn’t the first time she didn’t make it home. I’m sure she’s fine.”

“You’ll notice she doesn’t ask why we were there,” Haden said aside to Talan. Talan snickered.

“She seemed fine when we saw her. We do need to ask you for another favor, though,” Sheen said carefully.

“Sure, sure, name it,” Lissandra said.

“We need to go back to Faerun, as close to the Evermoors as possible. Joris got . . . banished.”

“Really? I’ll be that was uncomfortable,” Lissandra said. “Lucky for you, I’ve got just the thing. There’s a portal just up the street, called the Gate of the Clueless. It’s a special type of portal. Different keys will take you to different Prime worlds. If you have something with the arcane mark of a wizard from Faerun, for instance, it’ll take you to a cave at the foot of the Lost Peaks.”

“But as long as we have the correct key, it won’t accidentally dump us in the wrong place, right?” Talan asked.

“Right. You may want to hold the key out in front of you, though, so it doesn’t open for something else you’re carrying.”

“Do we have something with the arcane mark of a wizard from Faerun, though?” Haden asked. Lissandra popped a last bite of bread in her mouth and flipped over her breakfast plate, then drew a glowing symbol with the tip of her finger.

“You do now,” she said, handing Haden the plate.

“Thanks, Lissy. You know we love you the most. No matter what anyone else says.”

Sheen poked him in the ribs. “She just ate. It’s rude to try and make her throw up.” Lissandra chuckled, then laughed at Talan’s pained expression.

“Just up the street, in the alley that runs behind the Tenth Pit.” It turned out to be an archway supporting a bridge between the Tenth Pit and another building across the alley. The air sizzled as Haden held up the plate. They emerged in the mouth of a damp and chilly cave. Winter had come. Fortunately the sky above was clear, and the sun shone down brightly. Talan took a moment to orient himself and then set off.

“If we meet any people,” Sheen remarked to Haden as they walked, following Talan, “you should keep a low profile.” Tulio pointed to Mal.

“Him too.”

“Mal’s an elf,” Sheen said. “There are lots of elves around here.”

“Yeah,” Haden said. “Just don’t let him talk to anyone.”

By midday they had reached a road, which Talan identified as the Silver Way after some casting around for a milestone. They crossed the road into the blasted countryside known as the Evermoors, reaching the immense face-shaped rock late in the afternoon.

“There’s prints here,” Talan said. “They lead off that direction.” They took a short break, then continued on, following the tracks. Sunset was rapidly approaching by the time a ruined fortress came into view. A trio of blue-skinned giants were barely visible, guarding the ancient gate.

“Uh,” Sheen grunted. “Frost Giants, I think.”

“Are those better or worse than trolls?” Haden asked.

“It depends on your perspective.”

“I think that’s Joris near the fortress entrance,” Talan said, squinting. Everyone strained their eyes, but no one could make out more than a small lumpy blur. Haden blinked and turned his head away, catching sight of movement on a nearby outcrop.

“We have other problems. Looks like an ambush,” he whispered, pointing with his chin. They all began moving toward the outcrop. Then Talan chuckled.

“It’s Kalisa. Well . . . Kalisa and someone else I don’t know. She’s in disguise.”

Haden waved. “Heya, Ridley!”

The other person peeked around the edge of the rock. “Um . . . friends of yours?”

“After a fashion,” Kalisa said. “This is Sheen, Talan, and Haden. And Here’s Mal. And . . .”

“Tulio,” Haden said quickly.

“And I am Kalenthor Nailo of Silverymoon.” He was an elf, dressed in elaborate blue and black robes. His glossy dark hair was held in a queue by two straight ebony sticks.

“There can’t be two of them,” Talan muttered.

“Two of what?” Mal asked.

“Nevermind,” Talan replied quickly.

“Joris is from Silverymoon,” Sheen announced.

“Yes,” Kalenthor replied. “I believe I’ve even met the man, but that was over a year ago.”

“So what are you doing here?” Sheen demanded.

“I was after a thief who fled here with a magical helm he pilfered from the temple of Mystra. I had no notion that he’d acquired a prior acquaintance as statuary.”

“Your thief did this to my Joris?” Kalisa demanded.

“I did not witness the act, but such a thing is not unknown,” Kalenthor said.

“We’re going to get him back,” Sheen said stoutly.

“Excellent,” Kalenthor replied. “I am certain his father will be pleased. You should act quickly, though. I’ve only seen the three Frost Giants, but when they spoke to the thief they intimated that more would be along shortly.”

Aug 24, 2008

Mass Effect

Shamus over at Twenty-Sided frequently writes long, involved, and very interesting reviews of video games that he's playing, but he has Issues with the DRM that comes along with Mass Effect, so I thought I'd do a similar review and save him the trouble. I think the game really does merit an in-depth analysis simply because it comes really, really close to being a truly excellent game in many areas.

(As an aside, although the DRM on the game appreciably sucks, you don't have to have the CD in the drive to play the game once you've got it all registered etc.)


The basis for the plot of Mass Effect is *spectacularly* unoriginal. Granted, this doesn't necessarily mean that the plot is *bad*. A lot of good stories are retreads of existing plots. However, in order for a retread to be good, it has to be told in an interesting and original way, or at least with some interesting and original flavor added. This is not what happened here.

We start off with a seemingly innocuous mission to go pick up an ancient alien artifact from a human colony world. It's supposedly an idyllic place with much to recommend it from a vacation standpoint. During the opening dialogs and cut scenes, we also discover that The Protagonist (I.e. You) is a Special Person who is being evaluated for inclusion in what later turns out to be a black ops organization approximately equivalent to the SS. I say SS and KGB in this post because it's made clear in Mass Effect that this particular agency enjoys no oversight and the governors are only interested in methods when it suits their agenda. Such an organization is benevolent only by accident.

When you arrive to pick up the alien artifact, however, it turns out that a rogue agent of this selfsame agency named Saren has landed with an army of sentient machines. He, too, wants this alien artifact. A nasty little fight ensues. I'd like to take a moment and point out here that Bioware seems to be having some kind of problem finding names for their villains. Changing the consonants does not make Saren distinct from, say, Malek. It doesn't help that Saren orders the explosive destruction of the human colony in much the same way that Malek bombed the shit out of Taris in KotOR. Then, you spend a large portion of the game shuttling around the galaxy (and visiting FOUR plot-related planets) looking for various clues that will enable you to find him and, hopefully, beat him like a red-headed stepchild.

Fortunately (whew!) the plot does gradually diverge from that of KotOR and you eventually discover that Saren is Not The Real Threat. In fact, I suspect this may have been intentional on the part of the developers. Yes, they're not telling a story, they're trying to see if they can psych you out. The real threat here is a "race" of sentient machines--in fact, it seems that sentient machines are, for some reason, inimical to organic life on principle. We've moved away from KotOR--by turning it into The Matrix. The Big Scary Boss Machine even looks remarkably like a giant squid. It's named Sovereign. Hmm. Saren. Sovereign. And there are supposed to be two more games in the same series. Let's just hope the next part of the plot doesn't involve them giving you a ring and telling you to chuck it in a volcano.


It's tempting here to just point to the Zero Punctuation review and say "I agree with Everything Yatzhee Said", especially since this post is already looking pretty freakin' long. However, I'd rather at least make an effort to contribute something useful, so here goes:

In my opinion the combat is actually reasonably good--for the first fifteen minutes of the game. That's when you're first trying out your various abilities and doing things like taking cover behind rocks to pop out and shoot at enemies. Unfortunately, it remains identical for the rest of the game. Every battle involves you threading your way through a maze of boxes or similar terrain features and shooting amazingly indistinct enemies until they fall over. The enemies are made even more indistinct by the fact that each has a huge red triangle superimposed over them, so you never actually get a chance to *see* most of them.

I can't really *complain* about the red triangles, though, because without them the enemies would be *invisible*. In an effort to make the game areas appear visually "big", the terrain gets smaller with distance VERY quickly. If the figures didn't shrink in proportion it would look EXTREMELY strange. Hence enemies that aren't all that far away are inexplicably tiny and impossible to see.

Your squad is still as dumb as ever, a fact that is not in the least mitigated by your ability to give them "commands". One of the commands--Attack--is pointless because they attack anything they can see regardless, and I never succeeded in getting my squad to stop attacking and Hold Position when I ordered them to. You can order them to move to a specific location if you really want to fiddle around with it, but half the time they can't figure out how to get there so it doesn't matter. I don't care if they attack the enemy I'm shooting or not (the only other command), as long as they kill SOMETHING. You can also tell them to use specific special abilities, but since the ability you want is almost always one that is currently cooling down because they've already used it, this is also somewhat lackluster. There is an option to prevent them from using abilities unless you give the order, but this turns into a micromanaging nightmare.

They could have gotten away with just three commands very easily and drastically increased the usefulness of this feature: Move Forward (in the direction I'm facing, that is), Fall Back, and Take Cover. As it stands, the fact that they won't run away when they get overwhelmed is probably the most limiting factor, because it means that fairly often your squad gets dropped and it's up to you to finish the combat by yourself.

The vehicle sections initially reminded me a lot of one of my favorite games ever: Drakan. I find it very enjoyable to switch between the big heavily-armed vehicle (or dragon) that can squish enemies without effort and the small individual with a great deal more mobility. However, it lacks one primary feature that made Drakan so much fun: ingenuity. The areas you drive through are just different-colored versions of the same randomish terrain. There aren't any interesting puzzles for you to complete in order to get your vehicle past obstacles. You can't upgrade or alter the vehicle in any way. So it rapidly becomes tedious.

In fact, you can pretty much say the same thing (tedious) about every aspect of the game. You have this cool awesome cutting-edge warship that never does anything except transport you from one location to another. That's not a warship, that's freakin' JetBlue. At least in Jade Empire and KotOR you occasionally got to shoot at things that were attacking your ship. There's an "unlocking" mini-game for accessing almost all of the "treasure chests" in the game, but it never varies so by the tenth time you really don't want to put up with it any more. They even included that tired old Towers of Hanoi puzzle that everyone really ought to know by now.

Heck, the six biggest (in terms of the amount of crap you have to go through to finish them) quests in the game are *scavenger hunts*. They aren't even scavenger hunts with a cool wrap up. No. You just find the minerals/asari writings/prothean data disks/salarian id tags/keepers/turian insignias and get some cash and XP. While that's nice enough for my character, I suppose, it has little entertainment value for me, the player. You're never even formally given five of the quests, they just show up in your journal when you stumble upon the first whatever-it-is and never go away, which leaves completest types with the nagging feeling that they really should be spending hours and hours finding every last damn polonium deposit just so they can finally clear their quest log.

The leveling system works pretty well but it's also incredibly bland. If you make an effort to finish EVERYTHING, you will probably level about 50 times, but at the end of the game you still have the same dozen knacks you had at the beginning. They're just More Better. Granted, since the enemies keep getting tougher it can be difficult to tell whether this is actually the case. I do want to point out that there is some value to maxing out your skills, however. Should the time come when you wish to replay the game (and I have, several times) you can take one of the skills you previously maxed as a "bonus skill" with your new character. I don't know if this only applies to the PC version, but I thought it was pretty cool. The add-on you can get online for registering your game is also pretty nice, if short.

Gear is incredibly tedious. There really aren't any tradeoffs to weigh when selecting your gear, you just wear whatever armor has the most damage absorption/shields and use whatever weapon does the most damage. The various Mods for weapons and armor pretty much just change these basic attributes in either a positive or negative direction. By the end of the game I had every single character in identical armor using identical weapons with identical mods. I also would have liked to have been able to un-equip the weapons my character didn't know how to use. What's the point of carrying an entire arsenal everywhere if you're only going to shoot the pistol?


Technically-speaking, I can't say very much about this. The raw *quality* of the graphics is *incredibly* high. However, my computer is brand-new so I can't even begin to tell you whether the game runs smoothly on a decent older system, which should be of primary importance to anyone talking about graphics. Also, they (mostly) fixed one of the things that annoys me horribly about modern graphics, i.e. the bloom lighting that makes ordinary objects glow like they're covered in ectoplasm.

I have MANY aesthetic quibbles with the game, however. I, personally, would have been much happier if Bioware had spent *less* time putting in the characters' various moles and skin lesions and *more* time making the areas interesting. While I understand that the game involves you flying around in a space ship, it does not therefore follow that every area should resemble an airport terminal or a loading dock. What's worse, the "side quest" areas all have that Diablo-like "random generation" feel to them. I don't care that this is a new heap of crates. It's still a heap of identical crates. After three or four side quests you start experiencing a horrible sensation of deja-vu every time you open a door.

The characters look awesome, which would be really neat if they weren't all a combination of the same basic features. The clothing is *worse* than the hideous lumpy armor from Neverwinter Nights. Everyone wears identical outfits in vicious, glaring colors. It kind of makes you wonder whether the civilians all work for Dilbert-like corporations with amazingly strict dress codes. Plus, everything is WAY TOO TIGHT. I'm sorry, but combat armor that shows butt cleavage cannot possibly be comfortable to wear for any length of time. Every time I saw my character executing some combat maneuver it prompted a wince of sympathy.

The sweet graphics plus the lack of variety combine to make the game visually very bland. Wandering around has about the same appeal as walking to the Post Office, which segues directly into my next section about the:


I'd say "game world" or "universe", but since it's persistently referred-to in the game as the galaxy that's what I'm calling it. Call it my attempt at continuity or some such. In my opinion, this is the area of the game that needs the most work, even though it's PAINFULLY obvious that Bioware ALREADY put AMAZING amounts of work into it. When I say "painfully" here, I'm specifically referring to the amount of eyestrain you will incur should you attempt to actually delve into the mountains of literature that the developers dump on you pretty much throughout the course of the entire game. The sad part is that while most of it is actually kind of interesting in an abstract sort of way, its inclusion in the game serves no purpose whatsoever.

In fact, the in-game "codex" (as distinct from your "journal", which contains the information you actually *need* to play the game, namely where the damn quests are) actually manages to be counter-productive in some instances. Very early on in the game you can acquire a four or five-paragraph summary of the "rachni wars" (which occurred roughly TWO THOUSAND YEARS before the time of the actual game). You get a very nice picture of what a "rachni" looks like (think The Bugs from Starship troopers and you won't be far wrong). During one of the main-plot missions you encounter several of the damn things and are required to shoot them a lot: the name "rachni warrior" appears helpfully at the top of the screen while you are blasting away at them. Yet, when the fight is over and it's time to talk about the mauling you just endured, everyone is utterly baffled and and you have to wait through several more scenes before someone finally tells you that these are, in fact, rachni. Then your group comes over all surprised.

Granted, this is only one incident (the one I NOTICED), but COME ON!!! It's like the person responsible for the writing in this particular case actually wanted to encourage the player NOT to pay attention so they could ENJOY the panorama of events unfolding before them. It's a CLASSIC case of World-Building For The Sake Of World-Building, which is a HUGE no-no in any plot-driven artistic form. This is basic stuff here, people. If something is not important to your story then don't put it in. I don't care HOW cool it is. And if it *is* important to your story, don't just slap down some documentation and call it a day. Integrate with the rest of your story so that the player learns about *your* world the same way they learn about the *real* one: by observing and making inferences and gradually adding new tidbits until a full picture is assembled. It's much more interesting and far more entertaining.

Sorry if I sound a bit crazed, but this issue is really annoying to me, particularly because they went so far as to give the protagonist (you) a voice and at least a little bit of a personality, yet left you as an ignoramus who must ask tedious questions of everyone you meet in order to find out What The Hell Is Going On Here. You're supposed to be a Marine Commander (approx. equivalent to a Colonel in Army ranks) but you don't know anything about anything!!

As an aside, I think the whole "military" aspect of the game was royally messed up. I'll give Bioware credit for NOT portraying the military as a bunch of mindless psychotic thugs, but this is not the same as portraying military discipline and organization in a reasonable fashion. The TO aboard your ship is AMAZINGLY officer-heavy, starting the game with a Captain (aka a General in the Army), a Commander (you), two lieutenants--they never tell you which of the three flavors of lieutenant these gentlemen are, either--and two guys who I guess are Lt. Commanders because they appear to outrank the regular lieutenants.

You have ONE sergeant, who you PICK UP during the first mission, and maybe fifteen crew making up all ranks below that. During the game you run into three admirals, two of whom are apparently so short of staff and authority that they have no choice but to ask YOU to help them out. Repeatedly. I won't even go into the fact that you, as the superior officer on the ship after the Captain gets the boot, run all the combat missions accompanied only by TWO GUYS. I realize this situation came about primarily because of the nature of the game, but they could have very easily ditched the Space Marine motif in favor of something that made sense in context.

It doesn't help that you DO wind up getting assigned to a KGB-like "special ops" group. This *should* mean that you're *no longer subject* to any of the military rules, regs, restrictions, etc. In fact, they tell you precisely that several times during the game. And then, when it's convenient, the Alliance Military treats you like a regular old soldier under its command--or at least, under the command of their Ambassador, who shouldn't be in the chain of command in the first place. In real life, this would be a huge mess, but the game just kind of glosses over it, the same way they gloss over many other things.

There is no need to make informing the player and informing the character an identical process. Bioware had a golden opportunity here to make *your character* a savvy, sophisticated, cosmopolitan person instead of a n00b who still, inexplicably, is the Leader and giving the orders. How much more awesome would the above rachni scenario have been if, when your squadmate demanded "What are those!?" you had replied: "Rachni. I've seen pictures." How much effort would it take for your character to say "It sounds like I need to do this" instead of constantly asking "what do I need to do?" A little thing can make such a big difference.

I find it more than a little distressing that a universe which contains the actual Earth and thus has the full breadth and depth of existing human culture available turns out as bland as oatmeal. KotOR was, for the most part, genuinely interesting even though Star Wars is made up from whole cloth.

Shorn of the "informational" verbiage the writing and voice acting in Mass Effect is actually quite good. Add some more variety and integrate the side-quests into the overall story a little better (a perennial problem in RPG's--possibly because it's not even widely recognized as a problem), and you've got a real winner here. I definitely recommend that the Mass Effect designers give games like Drakan or Gothic a try so they can get a feel for how much fun the intensive variety of swimming/climbing/jumping/fighting/flying can be.

Aug 18, 2008


So, I recently acquired a Wacom tablet and I've been trying to learn how to use the paint program that came with it. Here's my first try. I'll grant you that some of the proportions are off and the shading (particularly around the nose) needs work, but I think I did pretty well considering I was making it up as I went along. I may re-do this one once I have my skills ironed out a little more, in which case I'll post so you can see what I changed.

Aug 11, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 31

“Demonweb pits?” Joris asked, perplexed.

“What exactly does that mean?” Talan added. “Then again, maybe I don’t want you to tell me.”

“It’s the 66th layer of the Abyss, the domain of Lolth,” Haden said.

“66th?” Sheen asked. “How many layers of the Abyss are there?”

“No one knows,” Haden said. “It’s not called the Infinite Layers for nothing. There are as many layers as there are types of evil.”

“The Guvners stopped counting around seven hundred,” Hexla explained.

“If Tulio is here, he’s probably in trouble,” Sheen said grimly. They walked down a sticky tunnel that seemed to have been spun out of layer upon layer of thick webbing. The floor was vaguely tacky and stuck to their boots as they walked. Talan crouched and began examining the webs, gently nudging aside countless tiny spiders that seemed to inhabit them. He began to walk, slowly, the others following. A faint light from somewhere deep within the webbing illuminated the tunnel vaguely. Then it darkened abruptly as a large shape moved above them and vanished into the distance.

“So. Spiders.” Joris said quietly.

“Again,” Talan added.

“Big spiders,” Haden muttered. Sheen groped for his hand and he held on to her tightly. The tunnel soon opened into a vast chamber studded with immense crystal shards that gave it an almost subterranean character. A tower of purple crystal loomed over the path, emitting a low, eerie hum.

“Well, there’s our Crystal Tower,” Haden said. They climbed the short path to the base of the tower. Sheen scratched at the crystal, finding the faint outline of a door with the tips of her claws. She searched, but could not find a mechanism or other device for opening the door. Frustrated, Sheen pushed at the crystal. It gave slightly under her weight—very slightly.

Bracing her feet as best she could on the gooey floor, Sheen put her shoulder against the door. Talan and Joris scrambled to help, Joris’ armored shoulder rasping against Sheen’s cheek as the three of them struggled. Finally, out of breath, Sheen turned around to look at Haden. “Were you planning on helping here at all?”

“What, me?” Haden asked. He winced slightly at Sheen’s resulting expression. “All right, all right, I’m pushing.” Talan grinned as the aasling slammed his back against the crystal and all four of them heaved one more time. Very slowly, as though it begrudged each inch, the portal opened.

The inside of the tower was a single circular chamber, an open shaft that extended into a confusion of purple haze above. Balconies of strange construction hung precariously over the room. The tiled floor sloped gently downward, to where two drow females were leaning over a stone table. Behind them, a heavy rack held a variety of implements, all clearly designed for no other purpose than inflicting pain. The females looked up as the adventurers piled through the door but they did not seem surprised or perturbed. They left their task and moved forward, their movements casual and easy.

“I do not know how you came here,” one said, “but I’ll send you back all the same.” She gestured and darkness boiled from the folds of her clothing, surrounding her in a foul, seething nimbus. Joris swung his mace toward her head as she came into reach, but she simply leaned backward and the blow passed her completely.

Sheen gasped as a third drow appeared without warning and drove a dagger toward her face. She kicked out, spoiling the drow’s aim, and the assassin vanished again. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Talan engaging the drow priestess with sword and dagger. A lightning bolt ripped past Sheen’s shoulder and discharged into the tower wall, making the entire edifice ring like a bell.

“Sorry!” Hexla said. Sheen blinked the sparks out of her vision and dodged around Talan, to engage the other visible drow, her claws rending through chainmail and leaving bloody gashes.

The priestess snapped one of Talan’s blows aside and slammed her hand against Joris’ shoulder. “BEGONE!” she bellowed. Her black nimbus flared and Joris vanished in a cloud of smoke. She smirked in triumph for a brief moment, then her smirk turned into a look of shock as crystal shards impacted on her armor. She collapsed.

Sheen attempted to press her advantage but the drow rolled her eyes and dissolved into a cloud of oily green smoke. Sheen coughed as she breathed the foul stuff. Swords rang behind her while Talan struggled with the drow assassin. Magical missiles impacted the cloud all around Sheen, making it writhe with what might be pain.

Haden looked around the room, not certain what he should do. The drow assassin had vanished again, and the cloud of smoke looked to be invulnerable to his weapons. “Are you all right?” He asked Sheen. She nodded, still coughing. Skirting the edge of the fight, Haden fetched up against the table and looked down. Tulio stared up at him, wide-eyed with terror. The young man’s rib cage gaped, exposing his straining lungs and a hole where his heart should be. Haden found his gaze drawn along the table to where a lump of pulsating meat sat in a small dish.

“Shit,” he said. “What do I do about this? Hang in there, kid. I’ll figure something out.”

The cloud of smoke coalesced into what looked like a tower of half-molten wax with a single staring red eye. Thin tendrils whipped out to lash at Sheen, Talan, and Hexla. Sheen screamed, more in pain than in rage, and Haden’s head snapped up. “Look out!” he yelled as the assassin landed on Talan’s back, burying her knife in his shoulder.

Talan ducked his head and flipped the assassin over his body, nearly taking her arm off with his sword in the process. The assassin kicked him, hard, and sprang to her feet even while her arm sprayed blood. She seemed oblivious to the pain. Sheen attacked the demonic monstrosity, trying to find purchase in its glutinous shifting flesh.

Hexla sat up and pointed a finger at the assassin, unleashing another lightning bolt. This one found its target, launching the drow into the air. The corpse landed on the tiles in a smoldering heap.

Gritting his teeth, Haden picked up Tulio’s heart and tried to place it back in the human’s chest. A tendril whipped past him as the yochlol continued to fight, and he heard a thump as Hexla hit the ground. The heart seemed to writhe in his hands, nearly making him lose his grip, but once it was in position the various arteries and veins reattached themselves automatically. Haden snatched his hands back as Tulio’s ribcage began to retract, closing and sealing before his eyes.

Behind him, there was a terrible scream as Talan’s sword caught the yochlol just below the eye and cleaved it in half. “The goddess will come for you!” it keened. “Her ten thousand children will devour you!”

“Yeah, whatever, bite me,” Sheen muttered, reeling sideways until she fetched up against the side of the table. She was covered with lash wounds, but they were already closing themselves as she fed psionic power into her body. Talan picked up Hexla carefully.

“Is that Tulio?” Talan asked, breathing hard. “And what happened to Joris?”

“It’s Tulio,” Haden said, finding the straps that were holding the thief down and releasing them. “Joris was banished.”

“Banished?” Talan asked, perplexed. “But he’s not an extra-planar being.”

“He is here,” Haden said. “He’ll have reappeared in whatever Prime you folks come from.”

“That could be bad,” Sheen said.

“We have to worry about ourselves first,” Haden said. “We can’t stay here.”

“Can either one of you help Hexla?” Talan asked. Haden cast healing over the witch and she opened her eyes again. Then the bard picked up Tulio. Sheen gathered up a few loose items that might prove useful, and they left the tower as quickly as they could manage. Small spiders were already beginning to stream down the walls of the cavern, converging on the tower. They ran toward the passage as the chamber darkened with millions of tiny black bodies.

“Take Tulio!” Haden said and thrust the human into Sheen’s arms. He turned back to face the tower, the crystal now almost invisible beneath a living blanket. He concentrated—the ambient hum in the chamber began to change, rising in pitch and volume until it reached the point of pain. There was a tremendous cracking noise and the tower exploded into glittering dust, burying and crushing many of the spiders. “Hah!” Haden said. “If Lolth was angry before, let’s see her try this one on for size.”

Talan waved the key in front of the arch and they barreled through, landing in a heap in the Temple of the Abyss. Sheen pulled herself to her feet, looking down at Tulio.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to squash you. Are you . . . all right?”

“You . . . you saved me. I didn’t think anyone would come.”

“Heh, you’re lucky to be alive,” Haden said. “Because of you, one of our friends got banished to who-knows-where, the rest of us almost got eaten by a yochlol, and now a minor deity is mad as hell at the lot of us.”

“I’m s-sorry,” Tulio stammered. “It’s not worth much, I know, but I’m sorry.”

“Let’s go on home,” Sheen said.

Aug 8, 2008

Fighting Spirit

Via Geekpress I found this fascinating article about what I suppose you could call "fighting spirit". It's fascinating to me because I have the same kinds of psychological responses that the author talks about.

The evolutionary psychology stuff is bunk, of course (I can disprove it readily simply because I'm a girl and my mind works much the same way), and I can't say anything about the "exceptionally strong" or "gets in condition quickly" parts. I do have what *seems* to be an unusual level of physical strength (esp. in my legs) considering that I don't make ANY effort to improve and maintain it, and when I do some exercising I can ramp up the difficulty very quickly without suffering any apparent ill-effects. I'm not sure that counts. Also, I can't really verify the author's claims in that department, so we'll leave it aside. Anyway.

There may be a physiological component, but personally I would think that the main, underlying factor for the *mentality* aspects is probably philosophical, in particular, it's sense-of-life related. Besides, it is my understanding that you can actually change the way your body functions by actively pursuing certain emotional states. (You can even, to an extent, change the shape of your bones depending on how/when/what you do with them.) Hormones can be like drugs. When you have adrenalin coursing through your body regularly, you build up a tolerance. The things that you do often invisibly become the things that your body and mind are set up to do.

From introspection (which, I know, makes this anecdotal speculation, but bear with me) I suspect that the key mindset here is something I'd roughly term "against". I'm not happy with more pedestrian types of activities. Oh, I see the value in them. I'm not stupid. But the moments when I feel really, truly happy are when I've just sunk my teeth into something that ain't interested in being bit. To me, everything is a war--it has to be, in order to get me to pay attention to it! If I don't have an "enemy" to fight, I'll fight myself, or make up people to argue with.

Like the author of the article, I'm not a sadist. I'm not looking to hurt anyone (in fact, I don't much like people who are hurt by my cheerful bitey-ness--I want them to bite back so I can have a good rousing battle). I'm not a masochist, either, although like the author I at least appear to have a high pain tolerance. Granted, pain tolerance is somewhat subjective, but when I broke my arm it didn't really bug me much. The pains that bother me aren't sudden shocks or injuries, but constant, nagging, will-sapping, it-won't-go-away-no-matter-what-I-do chronic pains. My pain tolerance is certainly high enough that I'm not sure I actually believe that pain medication really *does* anything (at least, not the stuff that you can get over the counter).

It's simply that my mind is set up to relish good old-fashioned romantic sword-and-sorcery drama. I grew up on the stuff. It's indelibly set into my psycho-epistemology, if you will. The only trouble is finding some way to make use of it.