Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tourney the First

First, the background.

I’ve talked many times about one of my favorite games: Heroscape.  I have even mentioned, in passing, the existence of National Heroscape Day.  Now, obviously this is just an excuse for us gaming geeks to play our favorite game even more competitively than usual, and we all just pulled the whole “holiday” out of our collective butts, but, still, it’s a big day for us Heroscape geeks.  I’ve also mentioned the fact that Heroscape has been discontinued, and that makes keeping things like NHSD alive a bit tougher.  Finally, I have discussed the fact that my middle child, who I sometimes refer to as the Smaller Animal, is also interested in the game, despite his tender age.  He was in the waning days of five years old, at the time of that post.  Now, of course, he’s a much wiser six-and-a-half.

Of course, all these things must converge at some point.  And so they did, a week ago yesterday, at my younger son’s first National Heroscape Day tournament.

Secondly, the preparation.

Now, I didn’t imagine for a second that my son, precocious as he may be, was actually going to be able to handle a real tournament all on his own.  This may be just a wargame where (mostly) adult geeks push around plastic toy soldiers, and my fellow members of the SoCal Heroscape League may be extremely tolerant of playing with young children (which they are, and I’m so thankful for them all), but a tourney is still a tourney, and we take it seriously.  Nobody was going to let him win because he was cute, so I had to prepare for teary losses.  Nobody was going to take it easy on him because he was playing an army that he liked as opposed to something that was truly competitive, so I had to help him shore up his ideas of what a good army consisted of.  And no one was going to let him break the rules just ’cause he was young and inexperienced, so I had to work on getting him to adhere to even those rules that he generally found annoying.

Basically, that meant practice, practice, practice.  And I didn’t have enough time to do it all myself, so I set my eldest to work on it.  He had decided he would go ahead and enter the tourney himself this year (he’s done so before, but he’s also sat out and waited for the after-tournament festivities, when other games that he likes even more can be tackled, like Munchkin, which is his current favorite), so he had to work on his army anyway.  The Larger Animal (natch) is also not prone to taking it easy on his little bro, so there were some useful lessons there as well.  This also helped the apprentice see where his army wasn’t necessarily as powerful as he might think, just from having spanked his father with it a few times (see descriptions of previous battle reports for why he tends to beat me).  He favors elementals, for some reason: I remember when those packs first arrived, and he was just fascinated by them from the get-go.  So his idea of a “good” army is one with as many elementals in it as I will let him field.  It took a while for me to even convince him he needed the elementalist (without whom the elementals aren’t really even an army; they’re more like a pack of disconnected brawlers).

But, the thing is: all elementals aren’t created equal.  Fire elementals kick some major ass, if played right.  Water elementals can be pretty devastating too, plus you really need them for their “water bomb” power, because they’re the only ranged elemental unit in the game.  Air elementals, on the other hand, are just “meh,” and earth elementals are hardly worth their cost.  And don’t even get me started on the huge ice elemental: he’s pretty to look at it, but no way is he worth it unless you know you’re going to be playing on a snow map (which you don’t, in a tournament setting, where you generally play on a different map every round).  So, what I needed to convince the Smaller Animal was that he needed to beef up the fires and waters, scale back the airs, drop the earths and the ice entirely, and bring in some protection for the elementalist, who, being the only thing holding the entire force together, naturally has a giant bullseye painted on his back.

Next we looked at the “backup army.”  Now, each group that holds Heroscape tourneys gets to do things a little differently, and our group (mainly because of my lobbying) adopted a plan last year where you could switch armies in the middle of the tourney if your primary army looked like it was getting its butt kicked a little too often.  We decided to do the same this year as well.  After some discussion, he decided to go with a “dragon army” as a backup.  Which presented another problem: another thing our group has decided on is to use a “restricted list,” which is a common thing for Heroscape groups to have.  The issue is that, as much as Heroscape units are supposed to be balanced, there are a few units which are just plain better than the rest.  These are what we sometimes call “A units” (or even “A+ units”), and, the thing is, if you bring an army composed of nothing but A units, your army is really tough to beat.  But not because you’re a better player, if you see what I mean.  So the point of a restricted list is to level the playing field a bit, and your army is not allowed to contain any more than one unit on the restricted list.  But dragons, being pretty kick-ass units (as you could well imagine) are quite often A units.  In fact, of the 5 big dragons in the game, 3 are on the restricted list, which makes an “all dragon army” a bit of a challenge, not to mention that they’re expensive (in terms of points), and you can’t afford but so many dragons in your army.  But, in the end, we picked one big dragon off the restricted list, one not, and then took one each of the baby dragons (called “wyrmlings”), which are fun little guys to play, to keep the dragon theme going.  An army like this has a fair amount of power, but it also means that, if either of the big guys goes down, you’re essentially only fighting with half an army at that point, so it can be tricky to play well.

Finally, I decided that my son and I would play as a team.  I needed to keep an eye on him, so there’s no way I was going to be able to play my own games anyway.  And this way, if his attention flagged, I could keep him on track, or, in the worst case, just take over entirely for him.

Finally, the tournament.

As you might expect with a discontinued game, turnout is getting lighter.  We only had 8 entrants in the tournament this year, and I brought 3 of them with me.  Which is somewhat disappointing, but I think it just goes to show that I need to put more effort into building some excitement (this year I was too distracted by other stuff to put much work into it).  Also, we’d decided not to allow our new community-supported customs (against my pleadings), which may or may not have contributed to the low turnout (my own theory is that keeping the options open to new figures keeps the game from growing stale).  But 8 people is enough for 4 games per round, and we decided that we could play 3 rounds and then have enough to decide the final standings.

So the 8 were: our host and the Larger Animal, both of whom have a tendency to come in lower in the standings, one guy who typically comes in second or third in tourneys, two guys I knew of but hadn’t seen play in tourneys before, two newbies (one who had only been playing for a few months and one, my eldest’s friend, who we literally taught how to play that day), and the Smaller Animal, who, with me on his team advising and possibly taking over at some point, should be at roughly the same level as I, who am basically very average.  In fact, I’ve come in just below dead center at every Heroscape tourney I’ve ever played in, except one (when I had a bad day and came in very near the bottom).  So, overall, it didn’t seem like a crowded field, and most of the historical heavy hitters were absent.  I was feeling good about our chances.

First game was against our host.  Luckily, he’s one of the most patient players with the kids, and the fact that my little one takes forever to make up his mind about what to do (even if I’m trying to advise him about best plans of action), and even takes forever just to roll dice, does require an opponent with patience.  The elementals were a good counter against vikings and protectors (a squad of winged “kyrie,” or angel-like beings).  Protectors are a great squad—one of the few squads that can both fly and shoot from range—but expensive, which means you can’t put very many of them in your army.  It was a close battle, but the kid and I prevailed.

In the second round, we had the unfortunate luck to go up against the person I considered the biggest threat.  He brought several squads worth of redcoats and a hydra.  By this time, another kid around my son’s age had come and he found he had other things to do than mess around with silly Heroscape games.  So I was all alone against a fellow who had not only beaten me before, but had beaten plenty of other people who had also beaten me.  I didn’t do too bad for all that: I managed to whittle down most of the redcoats, but by that point I had practically no elementals left, and he still had the hydra, which had never even had to enter the battle.  He won on points by a wide margin.

In the final game, after consultation with my son, we decided to switch to the dragons.  We drew one of the unknown quantitiess, and I had to play most of this game alone as well, although my son and his newfound friend joined us toward the end, mostly to roll the dice for our team.  In this game, it was more him advising me than the other way around.  This was a pretty close game too—our big red dragon was uniquely poised to wipe out most of his army, but he also had brought a hydra, and I made the mistake of letting him get a few too many licks in on our green dragon before trying to close in for the kill.  In the end, the dragons took out nearly everything but the hydra, but the hydra took out our whole team.

In the final standings, one of the newbies (not my other son’s friend) came in first, surprising us all.  The fellow who had beaten us in the second game came in second, which gave us a boost in the “strength of schedule” category.  We came in 5th, once again (for me) just south of center.  But pretty decent for my kid’s first time out, even if he did only play about half the time.

So that was the story of my younger son’s first Heroscape tourney.  He had a blast and is already planning out his armies for next year.  I hope we can keep the game alive long enough for next year to be a viable option for him.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

National Heroscape Day Fallout

Yesterday was the Smaller Animal‘s first Heroscape tournament, and I would love to tell you all about it.  In fact, I will ... but next week.  We’re all wiped out, plus behind on chores, plus I’m on call this weekend and I still have more work to do.  Next week, I promise.

It’s a good story.  Not that you should care.  But apparently you do, ’cause you keep coming back.  So stay tuned: it’ll be worth the wait.  Or, if it’s not, I’ll remind of the name of the blog, yet again.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Arcing in Chicago: the Dresden Files

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading the Dresden Files, and it’s getting really, really good.  I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly why it’s such a good series, and I think I’ve finally got it.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of very obvious reasons why it’s very good.  First of all, it’s an example of a fairly new subgenre called ”urban fantasy,” which is a moderately cool thing in and of itself.  The standard definition includes the urban setting (natch), plus the supernatural elements, which are typically varied and often unusual.  Oh, sure: there are often your standard vampires and werewolves, but usually an urban fantasy goes far beyond those.  The central idea behind urban fantasy seems to be all the monsters that we’ve ever imagined are out there, somewhere, living amongst us in the modern world, and where better than the crowded, dirty cities, the sprawling metropolises (metropoles?) for the monsters to hide?  If you’ve ever seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, if not, why not? it’s excellent early Whedon), you’ve probably already got the picture.

But a lot of urban fantasy is more about private investigator-type characters, which means it combines the best of horror fiction with detective stories, usually of the hard-bitten crime drama / film noir type.  Although Harry Dresden is not technically a PI, his status as Chicago’s only openly practicing wizard puts him in the position of finding lost people and items, and helping the Chicago police department on their weirder cases.  So he might as well be.  This is of course a great recipe, but let’s face it: it isn’t substantially different from any of the other urban fantasy series I’ve read.  Well, there’s only two of them, really—Greywalker and Kate Daniels—but they’re both pretty darn cool, at least in terms of concept.  In fact, strictly based on premise potential, Dresden isn’t the big dog in this pack.  And yet he leads it.

Part of that is because Jim Butcher is a stellar writer.  Now, Kat Richardson is no slouch either, although the husband-and-wife team known as Ilona Andrews is a definite step down (repeated consistency errors tell me that they need a better editor, at the very least).  But Butcher is a real cut above the rest: not only does he have a wry, witty style that endears him to the reader, and personally reminds me of first falling in love with horror, reading King and Koontz, but his pacing is insane.  You know how practically every paperback you pick up has, somewhere in amongst all the blurbs proclaiming it to be the best book ever, at least one which calls it a “roller coaster ride of thrills” or somesuch twaddle?  Yeah, well, they never are.  But the Dresden Files is the real deal: after tearing through seven books at breakneck speed, I’ve practically got whiplash.  As a would-be writer, I’ve of course analyzed this to see just how the hell he does it ... my personal pace is pretty deliberate, being acquired primarily from reading folks like King, Straub, and Barker, folks who like to take their time.  I think I’m a bit north of Rice and Jordan, certainly, but no one will ever accuse me of being fast-paced.  Butcher, on the other hand, is practically dizzying.  He does it by starting off the first few chapters—perhaps anywhere from a tenth to no more than a quarter of the book—as normal chapters, regular pacing, nothing special.  But then he picks it up, and he does it by ending every chapter on a little mini-cliffhanger.  I’ve literally taken to choosing my stopping points in the middles of his chapter, because I know if I get to the end, I won’t be able to stop.  It’s almost exhausting.  But exhilirating, too.

And of course the characters are interesting as well.  The central characters, Harry Dresden and head of Chicago “Special Investigations” Karrin Murphy, are well-drawn, with interesting backgrounds.  They have some of those plot-demanded misunderstandings towards the beginning of the series, which I find very frustrating, but those get resolved and then we can move on.  The other characters we meet—Michael Carpenter, Thomas Raith, Billy the werewolf, Warden Morgan, and many others—are likewise interesting, and only a few of them (notably Morgan) are one-note stereotypes.  But, again, that’s not particularly unusual: lots of series have very interesting characters.

No, I’ve finally figured out why this series is so damn good.  Allow me, if you will, a brief tangent.

Let’s think in terms of television series (it’s a bit easier than starting with books).  We can divide the world of television series into two basic camps: episodic, and story-arc.  An episodic series is a series of disconnected stories.  Each episode has little to do with the others.  In fact, you can watch them pretty much in any order and it wouldn’t make much difference.  Almost all sitcoms are like this.  Most of the Star Trek series are like this too, as are almost all crime dramas, and doctor shows (all the CSI’s, all the Law & Order’s, ER, House, etc etc).  In fact, once upon a time, nearly all shows were like this.

But lately there’s been a tendency to try to make the other type of shows: the story-arc shows.  These are the shows where every episode is just part of one giant story.  Now, if you have to worry about your show getting cancelled constantly, you can see why this is a dangerous road to start down.  For just two examples of the cruelty this can engender, we could mention the decent Invasion and the excellent Carnivàle.  But, then again, if your show survives the caprice of network executives, you can end up with a fantastic story.  Six Feet Under, Babylon 5, Twin Peaks ... these are all excellent story-arc shows.  Few other shows are, particularly in television history, but all soap operas are, including prime-time soaps such as Dallas.  The best way to identify a story-arc show is to miss an episode and then see if you’re completely lost.  If you are, that’s a story-arc show.  Of course, that’s a disadvantage too: especially for a long-running show, if it’s difficult for people to jump in in the middle, how are you supposed to attract new viewers?

Now, I say there are two kinds of shows, but you guys know me: I don’t actually believe in binary descriptions of anything.  This, like most everything in life, is a spectrum, and there are all kinds of attempts to blend the two or come up with something in the middle.  It could be something simple, like just trying to apply some basic continuity to an episodic show: actions should have consequences, after all, even in a fictional world.  One technique I see becoming popular these days is shows like True Blood or Dexter, where each season is a story-arc, but the seasons themselves are episodic: with perhaps the exception of the first season, you could pretty much watch the seasons out-of-order and not notice much in the way of oddities.  A slightly better technique is to let most of the shows be episodic, but weave in some story-arc episodes to tie things together.  Monk is a good example of this, as are early seasons of Fringe, before it devolved into the sort of insanity vortex that J.J. Abrams is seemingly inexorably sucked into.

Or, what you could do is make every episode like that.

The only example that springs to mind is the quite excellent Burn Notice.  The vast majority of episodes have a pretty simple basic structure:  The main plot is an episodic one, where Michael Weston helps out the victim-of-the-week with their problem-they-can’t-go-to-the-cops-with.  And then there’s the secondary plot, which advances the overall story-arc of the series, which is about Michael trying to find out who framed him.  So the subplots of the episodes are the main plot of the story-arc.  Every single episode advances the story-arc, but usually only a little, so if you were to miss one, you wouldn’t be lost.  And nearly every single episode is also a stand-alone story, so it’s fairly easy to jump in, even without knowing the whole history, and still enjoy the episode.  It’s quite brilliant, if you think about it.  Best of both worlds.

Now let’s hop back over to books.  Most book series, particularly fantasy series, are story-arc series.  They’re actually one giant book, just broken up for your convenience, so you won’t break your back carrying it around in your school backpack.  In fact, the Lord of the Rings, which is generally considered the original fantasy series, was actually written as a single book, but Tolkien’s publishers made him break it up.  Thus, the modern fantasy trilogy.  But, no matter how many volumes, most fantasy series are one giant story.  Narnia, Amber, the Wheel of Time, a Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter, the Dark Tower: all story-arc series.

But of course there are exceptions.  The Conan stories, for instance, are so episodic that they weren’t even published in the “right” order.  There are a few other notable fantasy series like that (the Vlad Taltos novels and I believe the Black Company books as well), and a few that are chronological but still basically episodic: the Xanth books, the MythAdventures series, and some others.  Also, the urban fantasy series that I’m familiar with tend to fall into this category as well.  For instance, at least as far as I’ve gotten in the Greywalker series, the stories are very self-contained; the Kate Daniels book has a little more of a story-arc, but it’s still moderately episodic.

Then there’s the Dresden Files.

It starts out with a very episodic feel to it.  Oh, sure, there’s some background info on Harry dropped in the first book, but it feels like just that: background info.  Filling out the backstory.  Just some interesting tidbits to keep us interested in our erstwhile hero.  Even the second book, which fills out a bit more of our understanding of Harry’s past and his family situation, still feels like just another episode in a show about a paranormal PI.

Then it starts to pick up.  More and more info about who Harry really is and what his past has been like comes out.  Then Harry starts to learn stuff about his past that even he didn’t know.  As I say, I’m only on book 8, and there are 14 (so far!), so for all I know it gets even better as you get even deeper in.  And it seems like Butcher intends to keep on going ... one of the advantages of an episodic series is that you can keep writing it forever, if you like.  Of course, you may not like, and then it can be difficult to stop, as luminaries such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have discovered.  But the Dresden Files feels to me like it has enough of a story-arc basis that there will probably be a natural end somewhere down the line.

I’m looking forward to seeing where this one is going.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Things We Lose in the Timestream

Well, as it turns out, I’m swamped with doing stuff this weekend, so there’s no blog post for you.  Not that you should care anyway, of course.

You know, it occurs to me that occasionally I come along and tell you I’m busy with stuff, but I never actually tell you what the stuff is.  In retrospect, this seems unfair.  You come along (despite repeated warnings to the contrary, even), expecting to see some blather you can kill some time with, and here I am telling you there’s nothing to be read and not even bothering to say why.  Well, fear not, gentle reader: today I shall regale you fully with tales of my goings-on.  And this shall, hopefully, convince you never to wonder again.

So, firstly: often people mention what they’re reading, or listening to, and all that sort of thing.  Right now I am currently working on book 7 of the Dresden Files, and determined to push all the way through to the end.  It’s just getting really good (it was good before, but now it’s really good, if you follow me).  Musically, I recently picked up a digital copy of Extractions by Dif Juz, which is one of the 4AD bands that I somehow missed all this time.  I knew Richie Thomas’ fine saxophone work from Victorialand, of course, but I’d never heard this album before, and it’s quite good.  You should give it a listen if you’re into dream or ambient or that sort of thing.  Visually, I just picked up my Blu-ray of The Avengers, which of course I had seen in the theater, but it was just as good the second time around.  That Joss Whedon really knows what he’s doing behind a camera; I hope he does more of the superhero movies.

Now, of course, all of that is not really keeping me from writing.  There must be other stuff going on around here ...

Well, I do still have a few hours to put in for $work.  I would tell you a bit about my work, but I’ve had to sign so many things at this point saying that I will not ever “disparage” the company that I feel a bit like Stephen Colbert talking about Islam: my company is a great and true company and Blessings and Peace be upon my corporate overlords.  Don’t point, even.  You’ve seen enough of that one.

So, tomorrow I have to do a presentation for my new co-workers (of which there are quite a few), plus I have a meeting about my current project, which I just started, and I’d really like to learn a bit more about it before I have to start explaining it to other people.  But mainly I want to prepare a bit more for the presentation.  I could just wing it, and I’d probably do fairly well, but the more prepared I am, the better I’ll do (most likely), and one does want to make a good impression on people that you’ve just hired.

Let’s see ... what else ... well, there are still some weekend chores left, despite the fact that I generally try to knock those out before Saturday night, or else I find I have no time to myself.  I’ve still got to go to the grocery store, and direct my older children to clean the den so that you can actually walk in there again.  (The youngest is excused from such things, although I’m sure she’d like the floor to be cleared as well, as right now there are a lot of things blocking her from getting to the catfood, which just pisses her off.  Nothing feels quite the same rolling around inside your mouth as a big ol’ handful of catfood.)

In hobby news, the things which are supposed to be my relaxation from other parts of my life occasionally have the power to provide their own sources of stress.  For instance, in my role as a CPAN author, right now I’m about three issues behind in taking care of some issues for the Method::Signatures module I work on, and one of them is for a guy who’s fairly well-known in the Perl world (and, even if you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, the fact that the guy has his own Wikipedia page should give you a clue).  And, in my work to keep my favorite game going, we’ve been working hard to address a number of issues with one of our recent releases.

So, there’s lots to do, and (as always), little time to get it all done.  It seems that, the older I get, the less likely I am to have one big excuse for not doing what I should.  I mean, remember, back in college, when the reason you didn’t finish your essay for class was because of a party (or the resulting hangover), or one of your friends broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend and you were up all night with them, or you were helping someone move?  But nowadays it’s never one big thing; it’s a million little things, that peck away at your time jot by jot, frittering away your ability to focus in dribs and drabs.  It’s death by a thousand cuts.  But such is the way of life.  The older you get, the more you take on, I suppose, and the more people you meet, the more that end up depending you for one thing or another, in large ways or in small.

Which is all a very roundabout way of saying to you, my oh so persistent blog connoisseur: no cookie for you!  Not this week, in any event.