I've been interested in science since a young age, and in gaming since I first played D&D (the box with a red dragon on it) in junior high. I occasionally dream of going back to school for an astrophysics degree or becoming a professional RPG writer. Neither has happened yet, but I'm still interested...
A quick list of my favorite SF and RPG works includes: Blade Runner (the first movie that really caught my imagination); Philip K. Dick's works; The beautiful and complex Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo; most of William Gibson's work; many of Greg Bear's writings, especially / (Slant); Miyazaki Hayao's works, including Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa, City in the Sky; Maureen McHugh's "anti-science fiction SF"; and some of Iain Banks' books. As for a fuller list... well, this page is it.
This page is divided into sections, as shown in the main menu. Note, though, that this page doesn't include everything related to SF and RPGs. Manga and anime are on my manga page. I lived in Taiwan for a long time, and gaming in Taiwan also gets its own page; if you are in Taiwan and looking for local gaming resources, please go there. A lot of the art I produce is SF-related, but not all, so see my general drawings and writings page for that kind of thing. Finally, my resources about fandom in Minneapolis are on my Minneapolis page.
And, though I wish I didn't have to say it: This page is all my opinion. Take what I say with a grain of salt. This page is big, but that doesn't mean I'm the grand-high poobah of science fiction or RPGs or whatever. Some people have been offended that I didn't include something, or that I stated my opinion. Well, if you disagree, get your own page! Send me a good introduction and I'll probably even link to it.
RPGs in General
So, why RPGs? RPGs are, for me, one of the most interesting and fun activities out there. When you read a book, you are forced to go along with the author's storyline; you can't tell the main character not to open that crypt or hit that big red button. In RPGs, though, you have exactly that kind of control. And RPGs can, in many ways, be more immersive than reading a book; through immediate, face-to-face interaction, you can experience things with an immediacy that books never approach. Even computer games can't approach the infinite possibilities and social depth in face-to-face, pen-and-paper RPGs.
Here are some things of general interest about RPGs:
RPG.net. I hang out on the forums there quite a bit. It's quite a community: almost entirely gamer geeks, of many stripes, but generally intelligent and nice.
EnWorld probably has the biggest RPG forums out there, but it's pretty much all D20 and D&D.
The Forge has a lot of rather abstruse theory about RPGs, but they've produced some of the most innovative and coolest games out there.
If I subscribed to an RPG magazine, it'd be Pyramid.
Hard-science science fiction role-playing games
Hard SF has been one of my main interests in RPGs for many years now. I'm not sure why, but I think it's because I like my SF to specifically concern itself with the ways that technology will change our lives in the future, and because I like fiction that doesn't throw believability out the window.
My favorite SF RPGs, and some sites about them, are listed below.
This RPG is probably one the better designed backgrounds of anything available -- sort of the Hârn of SFRPGs. The authors' ideas, particularly about biology and ecological issues, are excellent. Their care and consistency in designing Blue Planet is evident everywhere.
Blue Planet has been published in two versions: the first by Biohazard Games, the second under license by Fantasy Flight Games. The main difference is the game system; the first edition was percentile-based, while the second has a D10 dice pool mechanic. To be honest, I don't particularly like either edition's game system, but I do prefer the second edition. If you want to buy the game for its setting, which is by far its biggest selling point, either edition will work.
Some Blue Planet sites:
The site of BioHazard Games. The creators and owners of Blue Planet, BioHazard Games seems to be very interested in quality. Their site is very high quality, as well.
A very good Blue Planet fan site, Bleue Planete. This is a site primarily organized in French, but many of the sites pointed to are in English. The site is also quite pretty. There is also an English version, and while it hasn't been updated recently, the current site has no English version at all.
Created by the now-defunct Game Designers' Workshop, 2300AD has an excellent star-spanning background with a definite hard-SF feel. My own SF background, Spheres, was partially inspired by 2300AD.
Far and away the best 2300AD page is Pentapod's World, which contains vast amounts of information, both game mechanics-related and general.
Etranger is all about the military forces of 2300AD. It features, among other things, amazing 3D starship illustrations by Laurent Esmiol.
Andy Slack's 2300AD page has a ton of cool stuff for the game. A lot of it could be adopted for use in other hard SF games, too. He has another page with a lot of other cool things for 2300AD and other games.
The rest of the site seems to be down, but there's a page with some very nice maps of the colonies in 2300AD.
Jovian Chronicles, by Dream Pod 9, is one of the best hard SF games out there. It's set in the year 2212, where humanity has colonized the Solar System but fragmented into large coalitions, largely around a planetary framework: Mercury is its own rich nation, Earth and the Jovian colonies are the main superpowers, etc.
The tech level definitely puts it in the ranks of hard SF: no FTL, no aliens (well, almost), no artificial gravity -- just realistically projected computers, drives, etc. There are mecha, and they don't really make much sense, but they're easy to ignore. The background they've written for the various societies is really excellent and detailed, the vehicle design system is nearly perfect, and the art and feel is great. The game system is also pretty good, both fast and gritty in feel. If I were to run an SF game using a published setting, it would probably be Jovian Chronicles.
The main site for Jovian Chronicles is Dream Pod 9's own site -- they're the publishers of the game.
The Dream Pod 9 Forum has a section devoted to Jovian Chronicles, and it looks pretty active.
VectorSphere is the homepage of Marc A. Vezina, one of the main designers of Jovian Chronicles. His page has all kinds of nifty things.
Ghislain Barbe, the lead artist for Jovian Chronicles, also has a nifty site.
The Jovian APAworks was an Amateur Press Association (APA) devoted to Jovian Chronicles. Lots of interesting articles there.
Those three RPGs are the main ones. There are several others that I'm strongly interested in, though:
Designed by Eric Hotz, the excellent artist for much of HârnMaster and HârnWorld, and Edwin King. The game mechanics weren't terribly inventive at all -- the authors used the same basic combat system, for example, as Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes, which I think was based on Tunnels and Trolls, one of the first RPGs -- but I like the setting. Instead of trying to figure out ways that humanity can have survived into the future without this or that catastrophe, High Colonies assumes that there actually has been a nuclear holocaust and that the sole remnants of humanity live in colonies off the Earth.
There isn't much else on the Web about High Colonies. About the only thing I've found is a PDF containing scenarios for the game that were published in Challenge magazine.
This was quite a good addition to the GURPS line, detailing a future in which the solar system is divided between the United Peoples of Earth (a UN successor) and Terradyne (a ruthless, off-world corporation). A lot of the ideas contained in the book are tantalizing -- it was one of the first future SF RPG settings without FTL, for example. I've never particularly liked the GURPS mechanics, to be honest, but the writing in their worldbooks is usually quite good, and this book is no exception. I'm glad I bought it when I did!
There's very little on the web devoted to Terradyne, so I'll just link to its errata page.
This looks like the successor to GURPS Terradyne, a hard-SF future in which almost anything that could happen in the future has happened: AI, nanotech, divergent geneered human species, a very developed solar system, etc. etc. Transhuman Space also has the distinction of being one of the few post-singularity SF RPG settings. I still don't like the GURPS mechanics, and using feet and pounds to deal with the future seems incredibly silly, but the ideas in the book are great.
As one of the newer GURPS settings, THS is very well represented on the web:
In all its incarnations, it's still the Grand Old Dame of SF RPGs, especially since it's now being published as GURPS: Traveller.
I'm on the Traveller Mailing List, which is a very fun bunch of people with all kinds of great ideas. Even though I don't really go in
much for the Traveller universe, or even sometimes its mechanics, it's too good and respectable not to at least appreciate.
There are so many Traveller things on the Web that it's hard to know where to start, but Traveller Central, Citizens of the Imperium and Downport.com will do nicely.
Steve Gallacci's "funny animal" setting is not at all "funny". It's a very hard SF series, placed in a distant system populated by uplifted animals who have awoken to realize that they don't know where they came from.
I only have the older edition of the game from Thoughts & Images. The mechanics in this edition aren't amazing, but they're certainly good. It gives a very hard SF feel and seems to reflect the source material well. There is a more recent Albedo RPG, using the Jadeclaw engine, from Sanguine Productions, but I haven't seen it.
Albedo is relatively obscure, so there aren't many resources for it on the Web. Ola "corps" Ågren's Albedo page is quite nice, with a character generator, some new equipment & background information, etc. Sanguine Productions' Albedo page discusses their recent RPG.
This game is extremely dense -- SPI allowed for no flavor text, or (sometimes) even explanations. It's also too psionic-based for my tastes. However, it has a lot of nifty ideas and insights. The planetary mapping system is very cool, for example, and the starships (which are pretty much all modular) make a lot of sense.
Universe is also fairly obscure, so there isn't much about it on the Web. There's a huge site, though, simply called Universe: The Role Playing Game of the Future, that has a lot of links. They apparently sell a CD-ROM with almost all the main RPG books on it. There's also a fairly active Yahoo group about Universe.
I can't forget my own SFRPG, Spheres. It's pretty hard, with non-relativistic slow FTL (about 1 light-year per day max), and a sphere about 100 LY in diameter settled by humanity. It has a very thorough future history, very alien aliens and a lot of depth. Check it out!
HârnMaster & HârnWorld
HârnMaster is certainly one of the best examples of RPG design I'm aware of. It has atmosphere, elegant and useful principles, vast amounts of depth and very good English. Few other systems even come close to it, in my opinion. The background world for which it was designed is also probably the best around, at least if you're interested in a highly realistic, low-magic setting with excellent detail and atmosphere. Some of the sites devoted to Hârn on the Net are listed below.
There was something of a tussle between N. Robin Crossby, the man who created Hârn, and Columbia Games, the people who published it. I'm not sure how this has been affected by the death of Crossby. For now, there are two most important sites for Hârn:
Columbia Games' site. I can't link directly to their Hârn page, as they use a script and who knows when that will change. Nonetheless, you can get to their Hârn page quite easily through the front page.
Their Hârn page has a lot of cool resources on it. (The original HârnPage used to have a lot more, but most of it seems to have moved to Lythia.com or elsewhere.)
N. Robin Crossby's Hârn site. He has a lot of cool things on his site, including links to Kelestia.com, his new publishing venture.
Another very cool site is the Hârn Forum, a bbs-like site with discussions about everything Hârn-related.
There are tons of amazing content (NPCs, adventure seeds, full adventures, towns, etc.) on Lythia.com, most of it free. This is a great place to look if you're curious what Hârn is like.
The Hârn Religion Team, which is a project devoted to developing the intricacies of the Hârn religious systems. I wrote a few articles there (Providentialism, holy symbols, and Doctors), too.
One very good fan's page is HârnScape, a page that has a lot of general Hârn information and links.
Rebecca Downey's Pax Tharda page. She's got a lot of good information here, both specific to her campaign, which has a strong Roman flavor, and for general use.
Many people have used the Hârnmaster rules with SF settings. (I guess I'm not so weird after all.) One very cool example of this is the campaign at Kelestia.org.uk. They apparently use a mix of Hârnmaster rules with Megatraveller and other things.
Update, June 2004: The site appears to have gone away, which is too bad. I'm going to keep this link up in case they come back.
The best page of links related to Hârn, so far as I know, is HârnLink.
For a long time, until I found HârnMaster, this was my sword & sorcery RPG of choice. Never heard of it? Well, here's a review I've written for it:
Dragon magazine reviewed Swordbearer as being like having someone point to the "push" sign on a door after you've been pulling at it with all your strength. That is still an apt description, even now.
Many of the concepts in Swordbearer are novel or completely original. For example, Swordbearer uses no money. Characters have a Social Status (SS) rating. Items have a SS requirement; if your SS is enough, it is assumed that you have the resources to pay for and manage the item. Otherwise, you can't afford it.
Another innovation is also related to equipment. There is no carrying capacity or endurance; every character can just carry ten items, regardless of type. It certainly makes inventory easier, though it is occasionally a bit unrealistic. ("What do you mean I can't carry a candle in addition to my dagger, ring, hat, earrings, walking stick, backpack, magic gem and 3 pieces of leather armor?")
The skill system is also quite innovative. It is percentile-based, and classless. Characters have (on average) two Specializations each, such as Combat, Stealth or Lore. Skills are learned more quickly in these specializations, and characters can double up. Anyone can learn any skill, but some people are more specialized.
I don't remember the magic system much, because I've never really used it. It is based on two kinds of magic, though: Elemental and Spirit. Elemental magic is the slightly more mundane kind, with Fireballs and Bridges of Ice and that sort of thing. Spirit magic includes all the necromancy and deep sorcery.
Swordbearer magic uses a system of Nodes. If you find and attune a Node, you can use it to power your spells. (Finding Nodes can easily be an adventure in itself.) Spirit nodes are usually only found in living creatures -- an in-game reason that necromancers are evil. Complicated spells require multiple Nodes. There are no spell levels; anyone can cast any spell, provided they have the skill and knowledge required. But finding enough Nodes can be quite difficult, so only a rare magician would have very many of the required type. (Hmm, it reminds me of MtG, now that I think of it... I wonder if MtG got this from Swordbearer?) The overall system gives a lot of flavor, and really seems "magical".
It isn't very versatile, though; had Swordbearer continued to get support, it would've been nice to see a magic supplement with lots more spells and variant node rules. As it was, I used Spell Law (the magic supplement for what came to be called Rolemaster) as an addition, but it never felt like a good match.
Swordbearer includes a lot of player-possible races. Selkets (insect-creatures), Moonspiders (intelligent spiders with a technology based on silk), unicorns, minotaurs, Hellborn (demons in all but name) and the usual humans, halflings, orcs, etc. It was tempting to put all of them into a game, but impractical. There is a small section on other monsters and animals (rhinoceroses, pegasi, great cats, etc.), but it isn't really long enough. It feels a bit like the section of the rules on PC races could've been used for more spells or more NPC monsters/encounters. Or for more of the excellent GM advice.
The advice on running a campaign is brilliant. There is a lot of good commentary on spear-carriers vs. main villains, good guidelines rules for generating NPC's on the fly and a very useful travel speed chart. The advice on how to create a game world is also quite good, and offers plenty of ideas for creating variant magic systems, weapons, etc. It gives a lot of very good insight into how a game world can be designed (bottom-up, top-down, etc.) and what kinds of things are needed -- very good advice indeed for (as I was when I first found it) a young GM. I would say that, barring possibly Campaign Law, this was about the best setting-creation advice available when Swordbearer came out.
I only ever played a few games of Swordbearer. For most gamers of the time, it was too exotic. The game was republished by FGU, and everyone who loved it knew that the halcyon days of Swordbearer were yet to come. Everyone would recognize it for the masterpiece it was. But no, it suffered as FGU's neglected child (Chivalry & Sorcery had always been their main fantasy RPG). FGU's demise can't have helped, either. Nowadays, mechanics similar to Swordbearer's are commonplace. It's too bad, because when it came out, Swordbearer had a lot of promise. It could've shaken the world, but instead it waits quietly.
In addition, it has art by Denis Loubet, which makes it even better.
Swordbearer got one expansion during its FGU days: Dwarven Halls. This is actually a very good book, describing an entire valley of dwarves, orcs, merchants, etc. It's designed so that it can be plugged into pretty much any decently-sized mountain valley in your campaign world. There's one entire dwarven hold described, with most of the major personalities and lots of good ideas for adventure with the dwarves. Actually, there are tons of adventure hooks throughout the book, but it's also got lots of nice areas you can detail as you wish. A lot of the ideas are quite good. I particularly like the dumb hobgoblin who works as a basket-bridge pulleyman and the ideas for planting nodes. As always, I don't see much ecological possibility for dwarves, but it's still a very thought-provoking expansion.
There are indications (designer notes and a piece of art) that they were planning an expansion to cover the world of Conan. I think Swordbearer would be well-suited to do this, from what I know of Conan. But that expansion never happened.
I've long since lost my original copy of Swordbearer, but since returning to the US, I've managed to buy copies of both the Heritage and FGU versions. The game still turns up from time to time on eBay, or you can buy it from Noble Knight Games. (I've linked to both the FGU and the Heritage versions.)
Differences between editions
People have occasionally asked me what the differences are between the Heritage and FGU versions. The short version is, Not Much. They have nearly identical art, the rules are the same and they're entirely compatible with each other. But there are a few differences, which I summarized on Swordbearer's Wikipedia page:
The Heritage and FGU games are almost exactly alike in terms of content. Game art, text, etc. are the same save for a larger number of typos in the FGU edition.
The physical form of the two editions is the largest difference. The Heritage edition comes in a 7x8" box, containing three rule volumes plus a character sheet. Each volume contains two books:
3. Elemental Magic
4. Spirit Magic
5. Racial Index
6. Gamemasters Guide
In the FGU edition, the rules are presented in two books, with smaller sections (Introduction; Creating a Character; Skills, Experience and Activity Spheres; etc.). Books I-IV of the Heritage edition are contained in Book One of the FGU version; books V-VI of the Heritage edition make up Book Two of the FGU edition.
Doing a little research about Swordbearer, I was reminded that it was designed by B. Dennis Sustare and Arnold Hendrick. When I think back on the games I loved in the 80's, a lot of them were by Hendrick. He designed most of the Dwarfstar minigames, such as Star Viking and Star Smuggler. I recently found out that these games are actually available for download! Cool again! I wish I had known they were available for download while I was in Taiwan -- several of them look like excellent solo games. Then, I also found out that Hendrick designed one of my all-time favorite computer games, Darklands. Triply cool! Hendrick is, therefore, one of my heroes.
There isn't much about Swordbearer on the net (other than this webpage, really), but there is an e-mail list. And B. Dennis Sustare is on it! Whee!
While Hârnmaster, Swordbearer and hard SF games are my first loves, they're not my only loves. Here are some of the other RPGs I've played or owned.
- 3:16. This game is very direct: it is about being a space soldier and killing things. There is a little bit of overarching story that can happen, but it feels like that would require a long campaign, and to be honest, I think this game would only shine as a one-off. But there it does indeed shine; it really gets you into the role of a soldier. It has some brilliant little mechanics that cause fun, such as the fact that going up in rank necessarily means being able to do more, but also failing more spectacularly and dangerously.
- Aftermath. Long-famed for being the most complicated RPG ever. "It has a flowchart for combat!" Well, lots of RPGs need flowcharts but just don't have them. Aftermath is actually less complicated than, say, the Tri-Tac system, and it's better organized. Aftermath also has some very good insights into building a post-holocaust world. I don't know if I'd ever run it, but it's a great reference to have.
- Agon. A brilliant little game about Greek heroes and heroines, doing mythically heroic things. It has some very interesting innovations, such as the range system (one of the best attempts at abstract combat ranges) and the favors system.
- Arrowflight. This sometimes feels like 'Riddle of Steel light' to me, with the way the basic mechanics work, and with the various combat specializations. It's a pretty straightforward system, at least in the first edition (I haven't seen the second edition yet), but it also looks like quite a solid one.
- Ars Magica. Another incredibly innovative game. Latin for magic, character perks & flaws, the Whimsy deck -- many of the ideas of Ars Magica influenced Vampire later (no wonder, since they had almost the same authors), and therefore many 'modern' RPGs.
- Artesia: Adventures in the Known World. Based on the excellent comic series, and written (and beautifully illustrated) by the author of the comic. There are tons and tons of flavor and setting information here. Playing the game clearly generates a very similar aesthetic to the comic.
- Bubblegum Crisis. Mecha/anime roleplaying in the world of the series by the same name. Based on the Fuzion system's mechanics.
- Bushido. Probably just about the best game about medieval Japan there has been. I always thought budo was just too hard to get though, considering how central it is to the game.
- Call of Cthulhu. I've never been into horror much, but CoC is clearly the granddaddy (grandelderthing?) of this class of games.
- Chivalry & Sorcery. Another game I had to have for reference. C&S seems like a lot of people's personal versions of D&D. The core mechanics are much the same as D&D, but there are millions and millions of other rules tacked on. Actually, D&D kind of feels like that. Or did. I've heard that version 3 of D&D finally has a consistent core mechanic, rather than feeling like a billion rules all cobbled together. Anyway, too bad Fantasy Games Unlimited didn't stay active long enough to turn C&S into a real rival for D&D.
- Chronica Feudalis. I've been lucky enough to play this with the designer, Jeremy Keller, several times. He's a very nice person, and it's a brilliant little game. There are some good FATE inspirations (Aspects, especially), but without Fudge dice (which I don't like). The game also has some cool innovations; backgrounds are ways for players to describe what they don't want the game to be about, for example, and training is handled in a mechanically nifty way through die rolls. Conflicts are also handled simply but flavorfully. And I love how it's written, in first person by a monk in the 12th century.
- CORPS. Clearly very influenced by GURPS, CORPS is the "complete omniversal role-playing system". In a lot of ways, it feels like GURPS cleaned up, unified and tightened (even in comparison with GURPS 4th edition). EABA, from the same folks, looks like it's better able to handle super-level abilities (if that floats your boat) and has a slightly more indie take on things.
- Cyberpunk. A very simple mechanic and tons of flash -- just what a cyberpunk RPG should be. I would've bought more supplements to this cool game, but I didn't really start getting full-on into SF RPGs before I was out of the US.
- Danger Patrol. A wonderful little game of fantastic action with a 1950s vibe. Lots of neat ideas here: Danger Dice encourage players to describe the hazards of what they're attempting, and Threats can range from "Martian Slime-Beast's Thirteen Tentacles" to "Ennui over bitter divorce". (In one game I played in, bitter divorce actually was a threat faced by one noir-ish character.) The game can really even be played without a GM.
- Dread. This is an RPG designed for horror and suspense, and it has one of the coolest ideas for a game mechanic I've ever seen: it's built around playing Jenga. You try to do something, the GM tells you to take a pull from the tower. It's hard to think of a better way to naturally create tension, or to model the usual plot of suspense stories (everything goes fine until it goes horribly wrong).
- Earthdawn. I don't like the mechanics all that much -- too many types of dice used for my tastes -- but a lot of the rest is superb. A great setting, with a perfect in-world excuse for there to be lots of dungeons, and for adventurers to go delving in them. I also like the system for magical artifacts, in which characters have to work to discover all the nifty powers that items have.
- Fantasy Hero. I dislike the Hero system, which seems incredibly complex to me, but I like the spell system, where players design their own spells. I think HârnMaster does this better, though.
- Fantasy Wargaming. It's actually an introduction to RPGs, with various articles on various things, and an RPG taking up the last half of the book. There are many interesting ideas in the book, and there's a lot of the general information on medieval worldbuilding that's quite useful. The RPG is pretty standard fare, but is notable for containing a very medieval-feeling magic system (probably rivaled only by Chivalry & Sorcery). It also has game descriptions for nearly every entity in Christian mythology, including stats for God (!).
Tonio Loewald's Foresight was a pretty cool RPG that no longer seems to be up on the Web. There was apparently once a much more in-depth non-freeware version, but the version I've linked to here was pretty good by itself. It's highly derivative of West End Games' James Bond: 007 RPG of some years back, which is quite a nice choice of a system to model one's own after. Tonio's blog contains some insights into Foresight, and there's a placeholder webpage for the planned 2nd edition (and it looks like progress is being made on it!).
Fringeworthy. Another Tri Tac game. I actually wanted to play this one a bit. It was kind of like The Morrow Project without all the reactionary militarism. Well, okay, with less reactionary militarism. And it was so much like Stargate (the movie or the TV series, whichever) that I'm surprised Richard Tucholka didn't sue the SG creators. I would very much like to play Fringeworthy sometime. I don't know if I'd ever use the Tri Tac mechanics, but the idea is really cool.
Update: Richard Tucholka saw my comments above and wrote to me. He has in fact filed suit against the creators of Stargate. Good for him.
- FTL:2448. There were some really cool ideas in this game, but it was so poorly put together that I never dreamed of actually playing it. Well, maybe once or twice. Made by Tri Tac Games.
- Ghostbusters. Extremely silly, and with fun mechanics, Ghostbusters is one of the great beer-and-pretzels RPGs. It is also one of those hugely influential games that no one has heard of; it was one of the first games to use traits that players make up, rather than ones set out in the rules, and it was one of the first to use the modern system of bennies/fate points/luck points/etc. I also like S. John Ross' game based on Ghostbusters, Risus.
- GURPS. Who hasn't used it at some time or another? I've bought many of the GURPS books:
- Terradyne. See hard SF RPGs, above.
- Fantasy (the original one with Yrth and fantasy rules in one book). Pretty good, though the magic system was a bit silly. (Mages have to know Throwing in order to make attacks with fireballs? Mages have to be marathon runners to have enough fatigue to actually cast spells? What?)
- Fantasy (the new one with just Yrth). The writers took a silly premise -- since the 1200's, people from our world have been getting plucked into a world where magic is real -- and made it quite appealing. This book shows what's best about GURPS worldbooks: tons of cool ideas, nifty little details and interesting plot hooks, some great and well-researched worldbuilding, and almost no game mechanics.
- Space (both 2nd and 3rd editions). The starship rules seem a bit broken to me, but the ideas in the book are excellent. This is almost certainly one of the best sourcebooks for creating an SF campaign, of any type, anywhere.
- Humanx. Based on the books by Alan Dean Foster, Humanx is pretty far in the future. Although it tends towards the "one-product world" syndrome ("our entire solar system's economy is based on exports of singing stones" -- you've probably seen it before), there's a lot of good worldbuilding here. The starships are not particularly 'hard', but they're at least nicely self-consistent. The history is also full of interesting little nuggets.
- Vehicles. While using English measures for doing starship design seems batty to me, Vehicles is still one of the best gearhead books out there. You can use it to design pretty much anything, from a bicycle to a star destroyer.
- China. Others have pointed out that many parts of this book are flawed, historically and factually. The romanization drives me nuts. It's nonetheless a very interesting book. I don't think I'd actually use GURPS to game historical or fantasy China, though.
- Cyberpunk. I really dislike most of the mechanics in this book -- Cyberpunk (the game, not the GURPS supplement) does it much better. However, this book again displays the excellent ideas of the best GURPS worldbooks.
- Ultratech Again, excellent ideas and silly mechanics.
- and of course the Basic book.
I've never been a fan of the core GURPS mechanics -- 6-siders only? Measurements in feet and pounds? And the point-based character system lends itself rather heavily to rules lawyering -- but Steve Jackson gets really good writers and GURPS books always have great ideas in them. Actually, I think I've only ever really played GURPS twice -- one Fantasy campaign, and one adventure in Martial Arts.
- Heirs to the Lost World. A great game with some wonderful mechanics. It's set in Central America in the 17th century, where the Maya and Aztecs had magic, and the Conquista therefore didn't happen. It therefore has all kinds of cool magic and pirates. The mechanics strongly encourage outrageous stunts, and there's also a nifty little bit of resource management that goes on when you choose what to put effort into. I was one of the playtesters for this, so I'm biased, but it's a great game regardless.
- James Bond 007. It's too bad this game didn't get better press, because it was very innovative and good. Hero points, fame points, quality levels for skill results... Many concepts from this game were completely novel and deserved to be copied. Plus, it really did a good job of capturing the feel of the James Bond milieu.
- Mechwarrior. The RPG for FASA's Battletech game. I've seen comments that it isn't actually a playable system, but I've never tried; I mostly just looked at the pretty pictures by David Dietrich.
- Middle Earth Role-Playing. Kind of like Rolemaster basic or something. I actually preferred MERP, because it didn't have the excesses of Rolemaster ("Okay, I'm using my +237 Sword of Cursed Flinging and my +179 Shield of Super-Duperness"). I was never sure that Rolemaster was a good system for simulating Middle Earth, but MERP was a fun little game. I might use it as an introduction to RPGs sometime.
- Outlaws of the Water Margin (link currently dead), a really cool RPG about China. It simulates semi-historical China, with the addition of magic, weird monsters, etc. Paul Mason, the author, has done a lot of research; the game captures the flavor of medieval China rather well, and also has a very elegant mechanism.
- Palladium. Really just D&D with a skill system tacked on, and millions of weapons. And millions of character classes. And millions and millions of hitpoints. (I noticed a long time ago that there seems to be a geometric relationship between the copyright date of a Palladium supplement and the hitpoint levels of the creatures within.) In many ways, it's the ultimate munchkin game.
- Pendragon. This system looks incredibly beautiful. I've never had a chance to play it, though. Well, maybe one day.
- Polaris. Diceless roleplaying with some nifty innovations; the mechanics seem well designed to create a romantic, tragic game. The setting isn't much to my liking, but there's a supplement that makes me want very much to play: Thou Art But a Warrior, set in Muslim Spain during the Reconquista.
- Prince Valiant. Another of those too-often-forgotten proto-indie games. Resolution is very simple, using coins instead of dice, and requiring a fair amount of GM ("storyteller") input for clarification. More "indie" aspects include switching off who acts as storyteller, hero points ("gold stars") and an experience point system that does a good job of reinforcing a single style of play (going for glory and fame). It really seems to capture the feel of Prince Valiant's version of the King Arthur milieu. It also feels very much like Pendragon Lite. (It's by the same people, so that's no huge surprise.)
- Reign. A very innovative indie game, with lots of good mechanics for keeping a party together and helping the group accomplish things as a team. I'm not totally enamored of the One Roll mechanic -- it doesn't seem to resolve things any faster than rolling the dice multiple times would, and sets seem hard to get -- but then, I've only played it a tiny bit.
- The Riddle of Steel. A good, gritty fantasy game. It has some very nice innovations (spiritual attributes, or personal convictions, as a way of modifying your chances of success being foremost of these). The combat system is a little too sword-centric for me, though; it seems to assume everyone will always use a sword, and people with other weapons get left with not as much cool stuff to do. Still, a very good system, one that I'd prefer to play over about 80% of the systems out there.
- Risus is another favorite. It's a very simple RPG, based on the excellent Ghostbusters mechanics, in which characters take about half a minute to create. I've used it twice to run games at conventions; it's nearly perfect for this, as it takes about two minutes to explain. I particularly like Serious Risus, which is just as easy to explain but also works fine in non-goofy games. I'd like to use it to run a campaign in the world of Nausciaa of the Valley of the Wind sometime; more actually, I've been using it to run a post-apocalyptic game for the past year or so and it's doing very well. I also recommend getting the Risus Companion if you can afford it; the book has tons of rules variants, scenarios, tips and tricks useful in any game, etc. The Christmas scenario is hilarious, too.
- Rolemaster. I actually played this a few times back in high school. We were mostly impressed by the critical charts, which are still hilarious. Many people have called it "Chartmaster" or "excessively complicated", but really it's pretty simple: figure out your modifiers, roll a D100, check the chart. Campaign Law, their notes for creating a campaign world, is still one of the best worldbuilding manuals out there.
- Runequest. One of the originals, and still one of the most innovative RPGs around. I wasn't a big fan of Glorantha, the RPGs built-in game world (intelligent ducks as a PC race? huh?), but the system is one of the first Good Systems. HârnMaster was clearly influenced by Runequest in many ways. I suspect that the first sessions in Hârn were probably done in Runequest. I've never played it, but when I saw a copy of the original game in a used bin, I had to have it, just for reference purposes if nothing else.
- Savage Worlds. A pretty nice game, with simple basic mechanics and some cool innovations (playing cards for initiative, good use of bennies). Their Explorer Edition is also brilliant, giving all the main rules necessary in a very cheap package.
- Skyrealms of Jorune. This has often struck me as an imitation of Tékumel, albeit with some interesting new ideas thrown in. Jorune didn't have a very good system, but it had a lot of flavor and I'd still like to actually get a chance to play it some time!
- Space Opera. This was my first SF RPG, even before I tried Traveller. Some of the mechanics were good, such as armor values, but others were just silly, and the whole career section of the game was really very poorly written. I bought tons of supplements for this game. I had most of the Star Atlases, and several adventures, by the time they stopped publishing. As you can tell, I was something of an FGU junkie for much of the 1980's. Some of the adventures are actually very good; Operation Peregrine, for example, is a really nice campaign, with many different hooks and directions for the game to go in, while still keeping the GM well prepared, all in one thin book.
- Spirit of the Century. I've played this a grand total of twice, but from what I've seen, I like it a lot. Tons of good, pulpy flavor, and I like how aspects work (though the weight of the rules can sometimes be overwhelming). It can get bogged down in rules mechanics, however.
- Tekumel. This was one of the first RPG campaign worlds. Some of the basic assumptions don't really seem like they'd work (it seems to be yet another world without thoroughly-thought out agriculture, for example, and some of the political borders just seem too arbitrary). I also don't think Tékumel is as brilliant as some would have it (it's really pretty much a blend of Mayan and pre-British Indian empires), and I think a lot of aspects of it are quite sexist (there's simulation, but there's also a great deal of wish-fulfillment in there), but it's still one of the classics.
It has a very long real-world history, and has built up a tremendous amount of depth over the years. M.A.R. Barker, the creator, has given the world particularly rich linguistics. And for those of you who think I'm being too critical: I criticize Tekumel because I like it. If it were crappy like, say, the Forgotten Realms, I wouldn't waste my time on it.
Plus, it's from Minneapolis, if that means anything.
Check out the official Tékumel page; it's beautifully crafted and really quite useful as well.
- Timelord, the current official RPG for Doctor Who. It's actually got some pretty innovative mechanics, but they don't really deal very well with what seems to me to be the biggest problem with a Dr. Who RPG: the near-omnipotence of any Gallifreyan compared with any companion.
- TWERPS. One of the many novelty/throwaway RPGs out there. Suitable for playing on the back of a bus, or when half-drunk in a hotel suite at 3 am during a con.
Finally, there are some great gaming-related sites out there that deserve to be linked to somehow.
There are some very nice handmade RPG worlds out there. One is Verduria. It's actually not so much an RPG world as a linguistic background, but it's excellent, whatever it is. Plus, the author is really interesting.
If you're interested in knowing all the various games that have been available, a good site to check is Woodelf's RPG Index.
- Probably the best single listing of games, though, is John Kim's Encyclopedia of Role-Playing Games. He even has short descriptions of all the games!
I don't spend all my time playing RPGs. In fact, a large part of my time gaming has been with other things: board games, card games, things with fiddly bits, minis, computer games and others. Here are some notable ones.
- Ace of Aces: Handy Rotary Series. An extremely cool two-player game of World War I aerial combat. Each player gets a book that shows what their pilot sees; after the players compare maneuvers, they turn to a new page and see what has happened. It's pretty much a computer dogfighting game, without the computer. Heck, if you have one book and a friend has the other, you can even play over the phone!
- Battlemist. A fantasy strategy game by Fantasy Flight Games. Each player tries to build their kingdom, control valuable resources and build armies to fight off invasions from other players. Pretty much a fantasy adaptation of Twilight Imperium; Battlemist must not have done very well, though, because it looks like FFG let it go out of print. I had a lot of fun playing this in Taiwan, especially when we used Risk pieces for the armies. FFG eventually reissued this as Runewars, which I haven't played, but would like to.
- Civilization III. Sid Meier's computer game is one of the best turn-based computer strategy games around. There are, of course, problems, but it's still one of the most fun games there is. Since I've gotten it running under Linux, I've spent even more time playing it. Someday I hope to have a computer fast enough to run CivIV (by which time CivVI will surely be out...).
- Darklands is one of the best computer "roleplaying games" ever (though I use the term RPG here advisedly -- no computer game has ever approached the real possibilities implicit in face-to-face gaming with a live human). Darklands captures the mood of medieval Germany almost perfectly. The music is spot on, the way alchemy and knowledge of saints is handled is superb, the encounters and social modeling are excellent, the interface is great, the game system is quite nice... Darklands is also one of the best examples of a game that's almost infinitely replayable. While there are a few core quests that you can complete, the various side quests can be regenerated almost forever. They can get a bit repetitive after a while, but that's to be expected from a game that takes only a handful of megabytes and was produced in 1992. The flavor remains strong throughout, there are hundreds of hours of things to do, it's superbly immersive... Overall, it's one of the best CRPGs ever. It has a few bugs, notably the color problem, but it's still one of the best games ever. Oh, and it was primarily designed by Arnold Hendrick, who is one of my favorite game designers ever, too -- he was one of the creators of Swordbearer.
- Dominion. The big non-collective card game of late. You play a feudal lord (or perhaps a feudal dynasty -- it feels like each turn is a generation of rule), trying to put together a set of resources, holdings and actions, represented by the cards. It's a deck-building game, meaning that you start with a tiny deck and gradually expand it, adding nifty effects and abilities as time goes on. The varying cards available from game to game mean that each is quite different. It's usually good to make sure there are at least a couple kinds of cards that allow player interaction, because otherwise it feels a bit too much like serial solitaire, but it is quite fun.
- Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Probably my second-favorite CRPG after Darklands. Morrowind comes very close to the possibilities of face-to-face RPGs, although there are still many limitations. The sheer size of the world and its near-infinite replayability, as well as the huge number of mods available, makes Morrowind one of the best CRPGs of recent memory and one of the best ever.
- El Grande. A game set in medieval Spain. The players are feudal lords, trying to expand their influence in the different regions of Spain through their knights. There's a great system of bidding for turn order, and tons of interesting decisions to make. It can be heavy on backstabbing and betrayal, though, so not a light game for polite company.
- Groo. A silly, fast card game where you try to build a city while inflicting catastrophes on the other players, including the wandering mendicant Groo. There isn't much strategy, but it's lots of fun -- the minstrel card especially. Based on the comic by Sergio Aragones.
- Illuminati. The Steve Jackson game about the secret groups who really control the world. Didn't you know that the FBI is actually controlled by MTV, which in turn is a mere puppet of the Orbital Mind Control Lasers? Like most SJG boardgames, it includes $3 bills, a lot of edge cases and many opportunities to mess with one's fellow players.
- Kings n' Things, and its earlier incarnation, King of the Tabletop. Tom Wham and Rob Kuntz's excellent game of semi-serious strategy. You command armies of elves, dwarves, killer penguins and giant mosquitoes to explore the world and compete to build a Citadel.
- LaPlace-Newton-LaGrange, a freeware starship combat game with very realistic physics.
MagBlast. A great little card game of starship combat, clearly inspired by Naval War. I particularly like the sound effects.
One thing I don't like about MagBlast is that it encourages everyone dumping on one player, who gets eliminated far too early and then has to sit around doing nothing while everyone else plays. So I've devised an alternate rule, heavily inspired by Naval War, where you play for points. Everyone keeps every ship they destroy in a kill pile. Each ship in the kill pile is worth its damage rating in points. You stop play when someone gets to 50 points (and you can adjust this for a longer or shorter game). What happens when a player's flagship is destroyed? The killing player gets the flagship (but not any remaining ships in the target fleet) and then the player who lost their flagship comes back as another race with four new ships. They keep the same hand, though.
Some have complained that this takes too long to play, but I disagree: if you want a shorter game, just play to 40 points or even 30.
- Middle Earth. The collectible card game. I even have a One Ring! I was never really into CCG's, but for a while there, it looked like this was my best hope of ever doing any actual gaming (because you can play it solo).
- OGRE/GEV. Another Steve Jackson game. A pure SF wargame. Players control futuristic missile tanks, Ground Effect Vehicles and infantry, or one of the fearsome OGRE's, autonomous fighting machines a hundred meters tall.
- Planet Busters. I had the original version from Dragon Magazine but lost it; the new, high-quality version is quite nice. The basic game seems kind of unbalanced, but I haven't had a chance to play the advanced game yet.
- Roll Through the Ages. I've recently gotten really into this game. I've heard it described as a combination of Civilization and Yahtzee, but I don't know enough about Yahtzee to say. It's a resource allocation game, with dice (representing cities) and lots of different things to use the resources on: building monuments, developing technologies, etc. There are always interesting choices to be made, which for me is almost the definition of a good game, and the score sheet is quite amazingly well designed (nearly all the rules are contained on it). There isn't much player interaction, but turns are fast, so it's not a big drawback. It's also quite good for solo play.
- Search for the Emperor's Treasure. Another Tom Wham game, originally published as a center pull-out in Dragon magazine. SftET is the original template for Games Workshop's Talisman -- it's a simple roleplaying game where everyone is competing to collect as much treasure as possible. Great Tom Wham illustrations.
- Serenissima. A huge game (in the "box could be used to conceal a shotgun" variety, so popular in the past decade or so), and a great one. Each player represents a different trading power in the Meditteranean during the Renaissance. There's a lot of good carrying of cargo, mixed with occasional combat, and many interesting decisions to be made.
- SimCity 3000. Probably the best of the SimCity series -- not as clunky as 2000, but also not as incredibly fiddly as SC4. Oh, and it also runs nicely on my computer. I do wish that SC3000 had arcologies, but other than that, it's a near-perfect game. I love to build a city up to a million or so in population and then just watch things happen.
- Starfire. From the people who made Starfleet Battles, Starfire is a great game of cinematic starship combat with all the bells and whistles: fighters, drones, pressor beams, warp points and lots of other things.
- Star Smuggler. One of the Dwarfstar line of small-box games, Star Smuggler is a really cool solitaire RPG-boardgame. What's coolest is that it recently became a free, legal download (for personal use only). The other Dwarfstar games are also available for download!
- Star Traders. This seems not very famous, as far as boardgames go, but it's a great little game, and people in my board game groups play it a lot. In it, you play a star trader, trying to complete cargo contracts by delivering (for example) Cybernetic Brains from Snell, in one arm of the galaxy, to Niven, in another arm. It therefore has a lot of resemblances to delivery-based train games. However, game play is quite varied and fun. There are Trader's Luck cards that can be used for all kinds of interesting effects, and there are also personalities that allow for bending of the rules. In typical SJG form, all this flexibility (combined with the fact that almost anything in the game can be bought or sold) means there are tons of edge cases and broken or unbalanced rules, but also vast potential for wheeling and dealing. Almost every session, we come up with some amazingly weird new transaction no one has thought of before. Huge amounts of silliness + vast replay value = a lot of fun.
- The Stars Our Decimation, a great downloadable hard SF starship combat game with quite realistic physics and excellent artwork. I think the name has now officially changed to Voidstriker, but the site I linked to still shows it with the old name.
- WarpWar. A microgame, nifty for many reasons: it includes diceless tactical space combat; it has quite a cool little starship construction system, allowing for lots of fun tweaking and adjustment to match changing game conditions; it has wonderful art by Winchell Chung.
The biggest, coolest site for board games in general has to be BoardGameGeek. They have pretty much everything there. A great site for starship minis and other kinds of SF combat games is Starship Combat News. If you're into old games, you might want to check out The Underdogs or Abandonia.
I've had a hard time over the years finding players. Living in Taiwan, I was unable to find any gamers at all for long stretches of time, much less people who wanted to play the kinds of games I play. In my search for fellow gamers, I found a lot of resources that are worth checking out.
One of the best player-seeking databases out there is AccessDenied. A lot of the information there is very stale, but there's so much of it, some is bound to be correct.
RPGnet's Game Registry forum has tons of posts from people seeking games. This is possibly the single best place to find gamers.
As an outgrowth of this, there's a frappr map of RPGnet members in North America. Basically, it's a tagged Google map showing the locations of some members of RPGnet. Limited utility, but has potential.
Another good site is FindPlay. The interface is very simple, and it's certainly much more recent than AccessDenied. A lot of the players there tend to be into indie/experimental RPGs, but there are also quite a few people with diverse interests.
Another good site is Nearbygamers.com.
Craigslist has a little bit of everything: want ads, lost and found, dating... Little surprise that they also have lots of postings by people looking for activity partners, more than a few of whom are looking for gamers.
There are other sites out there that presumably have their own playing finding sections. Check out, for example, HârnForum's Clan Moot, which is dedicated to HârnMaster & HârnWorld, or EnWorld's Gamers Seeking Gamers sub-forum, dedicated primarily to D&D and other D20 games.
It's also a good idea to find a YahooGroup, usenet group or web-forum for your favorite game(s) and look for players that way. But you already knew that, right?
You've probably also thought of these ideas already, too, but just in case:
- Try local game stores. Post signs. Hang out and see what's already going on. Try to run some demo games. If there isn't already a gamer registry, ask the owner if you can start one.
- Get your friends who aren't gamers to try it. Find people in other arenas of life (computer gamers, board gamers, military minis gamers, etc.) who are amenable to trying something different.
- Look for local student groups who will accept non-students. Take classes at the school, if they won't accept non-students.
- Try local SF/fantasy groups. Science fiction reading groups, Tolkien discussion groups, SCA groups, etc. are bound to have some closet gamers there. You'd be surprised how many people say "Wow, I've been wanting to get into a game again for years..." when they see a Cyberpunk 2020 or Runequest book.
- Go to Cons when you can.
- Especially if (like me) you're finicky about what games you want to play, don't be shy or lazy about GMing. If you want to dictate the game, you've got to put in the work.
- Join a group that doesn't play what you want, contribute and have fun, and convert them over time.
Specifically in the Twin Cities, there are some good places to try, in addition to the general ones listed above:
If you can't find a face-to-face game, you might try a Play By E-mail (PBEM) game. At one time, the best place to look for these was Irony Games' PBEM News, particularly their SF PBEM (play by e-mail) RPG pages, but those are now dead. It seems that the current best listing of PBEM games is Greg Lindahl's PBM & PBEM list index.
Another kind of popular non-face to face game is playing by IRC (Internet Relay Chat). The IRC Roleplaying Homepage used to be a good place to start for this kind of thing but now seems dead. Freeform Roleplay on IRC is a good basic guide.
Many people want more than IRC provides. Wouldn't it be nice to have a computer program that allows you to move minis on a map, roll dice and look at character sheets? Well, there are now several programs that do this:
- GRiP looks like a very nice program.
- ScreenMonkey also looks pretty cool.
- kLoOge.werks is Java-based and has some very nifty features.
- OpenRPG is pretty cool, and what's more, it's free and open source.
- GameTable is yet another cool-looking online traditional RPG client.
- The RPTools package is also open source and free, and looks pretty dang good. A lot of people seem to prefer Skype + MapTool (part of the RPTools package) for their long-distance gaming.
- Fantasy Grounds looks spectacular, although it's limited primarily to D20 games.
- BattleGrounds also looks great, and also seems to be D20-based. Plus, that site has a very extensive list of links about virtual tabletops/online tabletop gaming, including sound effects, maps, icons and a much longer listing of programs than I can give here.
Last but not least is the RPG Registry, which has postings from people looking for all kinds of games: in person, by chat, by BBS/forum, by OpenRPG/GRiP/etc. and other methods.
And, by the way, if you happen to be in Taiwan and looking for gamers, check out my page about gaming in Taiwan.
If you can't find any players at all, you should probably a) look harder -- don't give up hope! b) try MMORPGs and then if all else fails c) get some solo adventures. Read on in the next section...
When you want the experience of playing a tabletop, pen-and-paper RPG but you don't have time, energy or resources to get a crowd of friends together, solo games can come to your rescue.
Many of the functions of a GM can be done by some sort of oracle: ask it a question, and it gives you an answer that you then interpret according to the situation that already exists. There are at least a couple examples of this:
The Mythic Game Master Emulator is probably the most famous example. I'm not a big fan of the art, which is needlessly sexist, but the emulator itself could be very handy for solo gaming. There is also an online Flash-based implementation of it.
Freeform Universal is a free, rule-light RPG with a resolution mechanic that can easily be adapted for GM-less play: you basically roll a die, and get a "Yes, and...", "No, but...", etc. result. The publisher's website for the game is currently giving 404s (as of late October, 2012), but the game is still available on DriveThruRPG and on RPGNow.
The Tiny Solitary Soldiers blog has a nifty post outlining a Freeform Universal-style D6 mechanic pre-designed for solo play.
Another oracle-like system for going GM-less, this time based more in screenwriting than improv, is the 9Qs.
And you could go with something like Story Cubes (dice with different pictures on them that can suggest different stories)
Come to think of it, if you're going for abstract, you always use actual fortunetelling systems like Tarot or the 易经 Yi Jing.
Many traditional RPGs have solo scenarios, often as instructional tools to help new players learn the game:
The basic GURPS rules sets through 3rd edition included a small solo scenario, "All in a Night's Work", where you're a thief trying to steal stuff. There were also some good full-size solo adventures, such as For Love of Mother-Not. There are also a couple online solo scenarios: Partners (by S. John Ross, he of Risus fame) and Nightcat.
The main James Bond 007 rulebook includes a solo scenario, "The Island of Dr. No".
2300AD included a solo scenario, "Terror's Lair", which includes a very cruel set of choices, but I won't spoil it further...
There seem to be piles of solo scenarios for Tunnels and Trolls, one of the original RPGs.
For a fuller list of RPG solo scenarios, go to Demian's page.
There are also some good pseudo-RPGs out there that combine elements of board games with roleplaying elements.
The coolest ones I know of are in the Dwarfstar microgame line. Barbarian Prince has you playing a barbarian prince (who'd have guessed?), trying to regain your throne. Star Smuggler has you playing (you guessed it) a starfaring smuggler. Both are pretty detailed, very flavorful and completely free to download.
Next, we come to the realm of gamebooks. Gamebooks are like Choose Your Own Adventure books, but they have rules and mechanics that make the possibilities more complex than "choose door A or door B". There have been many gamebook series:
The Fighting Fantasy series seems to be huge, but I never got into it.
The Lone Wolf series is another one I know very little about, but almost the entire series is available for free online.
My favorite series is the Middle Earth Quest books.
The ones that have large maps, like Rescue in Mirkwood or my all-time favorite Night of the Nazgûl are the best. The Underdogs site also has a pretty extensive page about gamebooks. (Psst: you can even download some of them.)
The single best place to go for information about solo RPGs, though, is Demian's Gamebook Webpage.
HTML and hypertext links seem perfect for choose-your-own-adventure type games, but I haven't found many:
There's a blog devoted to solo tabletop gaming called the Solo Nexus. It looks about 50/50 RPGs and boardgames, and they host the nifty 9Qs solo RPG engine mentioned above.
From there, we get into MUDs, crowd-sourced multi-branching ficlets and even stranger things that I can't hope to go into here.
I'm one of those people who likes to use minis for combat. Pencil and paper work, but they're not as evocative. But I have neither the time, nor the money, nor the skill to use actual lead/pewter/plastic minis. What to do instead?
One great alternative is paper minis. There are some really amazing designs out there. Many are free, meaning you can download and print them to your heart's content. Others are at least cheap compared to the price of 3D minis, paint, etc.
- My favorite page of paper minis is Patrick Crusiau's. They're quite nice, there are tons of different kinds, they're in color and they're free!
- OneMonk miniatures has tons of different styles of paper minis available for a fee, as well as some for free.
- Associated with OneMonk is the Cardboard Warriorsweb forum. There are some jaw-dropping galleries there and other great resources. The forums' free (CC-licensed) minis are collected on OneMonk's site.
- The simply titled Fantasy Paper Miniature Models site has some beautiful models that are 2.5D (slightly sculpted paper).
- The so-called Germ's World site has some very nice 25mm scale paper mini modern buildings, SF buildings and dungeons as well as lots of other nice models and galleries.
- Steve Jackson Games' Cardboard Heroes are probably the most famous line of paper minis. They're now reprinting them as huge books of minis with all one theme (fantasy, modern, etc.). I hope they do the SF minis soon! I'm tempted to buy the Traveller deckplans just for the paper minis... And I love that Denis Loubet art!
- S. John Ross pioneered the self-printed paper minis with his Sparks line.
- There are lots of paper model sites out there. FreePaperToys.com has some pretty good links on their page. Not all of them are suitable for RPGs, but many are.
- There's a website with some excellent paper minis for Tekumel, many suitable for any game. (What's Tekumel, you ask?)
They aren't all that cheap, but the idea of using Legos as minis is incredibly cool. (So cool, I'm sure, that every young geek probably thinks of it.) They're my primary kind of mini these days; they're just so fun, and versatile, and durable, and...
- Some notes on Using Lego in RPGs: how to get started, methods to explore.
- Steve Jackson's Pirate Game is rules for using Lego figures as minis in a swashbuckling-type game.
- Another Age of Sail game, Wooden Ships and Plastic Men, looks pretty crunchy but straightforward.
- Nathan Walton has done some very nice work converting Lego figures for use in games.
- There's an entire Lego fantasy RPG called BrickQuest.
- The biggest Lego mini wargame system is called BrikWars.
- Vincent Baker, the guy who created Dogs in the Vineyard, also created Mechaton, a Lego-based mecha wargame.
- Bricks Only Wargame uses bricks as the character sheets and as dice!
- There's even a cool SF 4X Lego game called Starship. (It calls itself an RPG, but I don't really see where the roleplaying comes in.)
- See the LUGnet Gaming page for more Lego wargames.
- Allen Varney has written up a nice article about cool stuff to do with Lego, including gaming.
- Brickshelf.com has tons and tons of cool photos of people's Lego creations, including a lot of minifigs.
- Probably the best place to buy Lego is Bricklink, where you can get precisely as many brown crossbows or Jedi torso pieces as you want.
- Finally, a couple tips from play:
- Try using clear Legos for marking altitude. If you want to show that a dragon is far above the ground, put it an top of a stack of clear Legos. This could come in real handy if you want to do starship or airplane combat, too.
- Use 2x3 pieces as bases. Lego minis aren't especially stable, especially not when you pose it in a dramatic way or add a polearm. But with bases, they stand quite nicely. And you can even use different-colored bases to denote different status (defensive, demoralized, etc.).
- Make sure to set a limit on customization! The first time you pull out the Legos, players will want to spend a half-hour choosing just the right head, torso and legs, not to mention the right sword or radio.
Creating worlds is really a lot of fun. Some people do it to have a setting for their fiction; others use their worlds as settings for RPGs; some create worlds to give their conlangs; others use their worlds to develop fictional biologies; others just like worldbuilding for its own sake.
Certainly, one of the ur-examples of worldbuilding is Middle Earth. Once you've had multiple bestselling novels set in your world, and people are writing PhD theses based on your worlds, you can bet you're pretty successful as worldbuilders go. One of the best portals to Middle Earth is the Encyclopedia of Arda.
Another really good example of worldbuilding, and the wiki way of building them, is Jorge Luis Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". Very inspirational.
To build a fantasy world, you've got a lot of things to think about. Pat Wrede's list of fantasy worldbuilding questions are a good place to start.
If you want to dive right in to conlanging, check out Mark Rosenfelder's Language Construction Kit. His Planet Construction Kit also looks really promising, though I haven't actually checked it out yet.
If maps are more your thing, check out the Cartographers' Guild forums. They tend towards a certain aesthetic, but there are some really wonderful tutorials and helpful people there.
If you'd like to build a world for use in 3D modeling, you might want to check out my (probably never to be finished) tutorial for creating photoreal planets.
One of my first worldbuilding resources was ICE games' Campaign Law, about worldbuilding for RPGs. Lots of good advice (and some bad, but still worthwhile overall).
One of the many reasons I love Swordbearer is that it gives really good advice for building an RPG world.
If you're creating a Medieval European-flavored world, there are a lot of useful pages out there:
One of the best ways to build a world is to detail it through a wiki. (Another reason I find "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" so influential.) A lot of people use a dedicated RPG wiki site, like Obsidian Portal, which allows for cool things like Google Maps-like signposts on maps. Some people use web-based wikis like Wikidot. Others (like me) decide to install MediaWiki on their home machines, which can do a lot of cool things and really is free.
The Fantasy Worldbuilding Resources page is a much more extensive set of links than I can give here.
Want to hang out with a bunch of like-minded worldbuilders? Try Conworlds.info, or the Zompist bboards (primarily about conlanging, but there is general worldbuilding, too, there).
Want to check out some general examples of worldbuilding? There are hundreds out there, of course. So many that there are books collecting them. But here are some more particularly noteworthy examples:
Wayne Barlowe more or less created a whole genre with his book Expedition. Call it fictional natural history, speculative biology or travel guides to non-existent fauna, it's all a wonderful form of worldbuilding. Many have followed in his path: The Morae River, Life on Snaiad, Life on the planet Furaha and Alex Ries' galleries are all well worth checking out.
More in the realm of speculative geography than speculative biology, the World Dream Bank has some really interesting variations and creations.
On Ars Ludi, a really intriguing experiment in sandbox-style worldbuilding: the West Marches.
The Sorolpedia describes one of the most beautifully-mapped conworlds out there.
Someday. I'm going to put a big compendium of my own ideas about worldbuilding here. Someday.
Below are some pages that contain -- gasp! -- actual scientific information, much of it very useful to SF writers and developers.
The 3D Starmaps page, from Winchell Chung. An excellent page with lots of really good information, most of it about mapping stars, or creating star-systems, or designing alien life, or other interesting stuff like that. Winchell Chung's homepage also has a lot of interesting stuff, including some art from his GEV/OGRE days (does anyone else remember his art from that period?).
A really useful and nifty program that I found from the above site is ChView, a three-dimensional star viewing program. It's quite fully three-dimensional, and allows editing of stars, clusters and other stuff. Plus, it's shareware. Quite, quite cool. I have now put a zipped ChView file of the stars of Known Space, for my own SF background Spheres.
I've found a very good, high-quality, low-noise site that says a lot of interesting things about space colony design, titled Starships, Space Colonies and the like . It was down for a while and then apparently moved -- I'm very happy to see it back.
I have a personal love of starships and spaceships, which I suppose comes from my viewing of Star Wars (the original one, of course) at an impressionably young age. Since then, my interests have gone more towards realistic designs and even plausible ones -- that means spin habitats, shielding from the interstellar medium, etc. I like design speculations and I love detailed drawings. Below are some sources for this kind of starship stuff.
Winchell Chung's Atomic Rockets has become one of the best repositories of realistic spaceship design on the web.
An excellent pages of links for various nifty high-tech stuff, mostly space travel-related, is at Viacomp's space links page.
I've found the quite good Starship Design Project, a very serious attempt to design practical and realistic (though expensive) vehicles that will be able to go to the stars.
There is also, naturally, a lot of information on the Net about the design of STO (surface-to-orbit) vehicles. One good page is called Launch Vehicle Design (in one easy lesson).
A lot of nifty designs, both personal and classic (Daedalus, the nerva rocket, Terran Trade Authority, etc.) are described at Adrian Mann's This is Rocket Science page.
A vast, sprawling project to come up with an entire galaxy, Zaon has produced some excellent 3D starship designs.
If I could find time and friends to play them with, I'd be playing Starfire, Attack Vector, Starship!, Full Thrust and other cool starship combat game. A great resource for all those games is the Starship Combat News. They have links for all the games, and tons of really cool pictures of models and minis.
Although I haven't read the series, it seems like Peter K. Hamilton's Night's Dawn is full of very good, hard-SF starships. A very nice guige to them is the Confederation Information Network. The site appears to be down currently, but I'm keeping it up in hopes that it will revive.
There are some beautiful CGI renderings of Traveller starships at Jesse DeGraff's site.
Laurent Esmiol's illustrations of 2300AD starships are excellent. Check around at the Etranger site for lots of great examples of his work.
Another very nice starship design inspired by 2300AD, and complemented by illustrations, is J. M. Pearson's Asterie design.
I've started a mailing list specifically for hard SF 3D images, primarily of starships, but really of anything. I keep that page far more up-to-date with links to cool SF art; please check it out.
I also can't let a reference to my own starship drawings go without notice.
SF Visual Art.
I've been thinking for a while of putting up a section with my favorite SF visual art links. It's not very easy to do, though. Some of what I like is manga and comics; some of what I like is specifically about starships, and belongs in that section. Some of the stuff I like isn't strictly SF. And of course, my own drawings have their own page on this site.
So, what's left? Well, the stuff below, for starters...
Wayne Douglas Barlowe
Wayne Barlowe is author/illustrator of Barlowe's Guide to the Extraterrestrial and Expedition: Being an Account in Words and Artwork of the 2358 A.D. Voyage to Darwin IV. He is adept at painting creatures that don't exist in a way that makes them seem alive and living next door. Expedition is an amazing exercise in xenobiology; a complete ecosystem, alien to Earth's and wholly self-consistent.
Barlowe seems to have gotten a website recently. It doesn't have enough of his stuff, but it's a tantalizing taste. In addition, the Discovery Channel showed an adaptation of Expedition called Alien Planet in May of 2005, and the show has its own page. (Mini-review: The show was good, but not great; they changed too many of Barlowe's underlying messages -- that exploration for its own sake is cool, that alien creatures will really be alien, that xenosapiens will not necessarily be hostile to us -- but the rendering was great.)
Michalczyk does all sorts of beautiful SF CGI (computer graphics illustration). His art carries a great deal of atmosphere, largely through an incredible weight of detail, which also makes it all seem incredibly realistic.
The best place to go for Michalczyk art is his site, Visions.
Syd Mead is one of the most influential industrial designers out there. He created the spinners of Blade Runner, as well as many other famous SF icons. His work always has a slick beauty to it.
It's amazing how influential his work has been in Japan. Many people love what they think is Japanese industrial design, but in fact it's just Mead filtered through a Japanese lens.
The best Syd Mead site out there is Syd Mead.com.
Ever since I first saw his art in the amazing Warlock 5 comic, I've loved Den Beauvais' stuff. He has an incredible eye for detail, creating detailed things that are simultaneously fantastic and realistic.
For some samples of his work, check out Den Beauvais' own site.
He's done some great illustrations for the ICE Middle Earth series, but his work for Osprey books is even better.
I first saw Loubet's art in some RPG, I don't remember which one. I loved and tried to emulate his illustrations for Swordbearer, which was my fantasy RPG of choice for a long time.
Loubet has his own website, But is it art?
Certainly one of the best fantasy illustrators out there. Hârn would not be what it is without his beautifully atmospheric illustrations. He has also done some SF illos.
Eric Hotz has a very nice website of his own.
Other general sites.
There are a lot of other SF art sites out there. Many are vast galleries of amateur/fan art. Here are some examples:
- Renderosity. Way, way, way too much of this site is just Poser masturbation material, but some of it is actually quite good.
- Elfwood and particularly Zone 47. Elfwood is all amateur stuff. Some of it is very amateur. Some of it, though, is excellent. You just have to try it and see.
- The Lightwave Group. They use my favorite 3D app, Lightwave, which is a plus, and there is some truly amazing stuff in the galleries there.
- CG Focus. There are also some very nice galleries here, and the site is part-run by a friend of mine.
- I also run a Yahoo group for hard SF 3D images, called (suprisingly enough) the Hard SF 3D Group. There are lots of links there to excellent hard SF art around the web, including some stunning images by list members.
Science fiction Literature -- Authors and books
- Maureen McHugh. McHugh is one of my all-time favorite authors.
- Greg Bear. Bear's SF is sometimes mediocre, sometimes astonishingly good.
- Phil Dick. Dick's SF was one of the big influences on my philosophical development.
- Iain Banks. Iain Banks has produced a lot of really interesting SF.
- Carl Sagan. He hasn't put out a lot of SF, but what he has put out is great.
- William Gibson. Gibson is one of the founding fathers of cyberpunk SF; his writing is great.
- Kim Stanley Robinson. I've only read his Mars trilogy; it was very good.
- C. J. Cherryh. Her hard SF soap operas are quite interesting.
- Neal Stephenson. Part of the second wave of cyberpunk SF authors; he's silly but smart.
- Other SF authors. Various others who I don't have enough of to make a whole category.
I'm a rather slow reader (roughly one book every few months, usually), so the actual amount of high-quality SF I'm able to intake is unfortunately low. Add to that the fact that I've been living in Taiwan for three years, and you quickly get the picture: the number of decent SF books I've been able to read recently is dreadfully low. Nonetheless, I have managed. Visa trips to Hong Kong, occasional lucky finds at bookstores here, what I brought with me from the US, what I got a couple years ago when I went back -- they get me through.
I am, as you will discover if you actually read what I've read below, a very finicky reader as well (maybe because I my slow reading ability doesn't allow for a flamboyantly long reading list). I tend to read books that give me ideas, mainly, about the future, and what kind of place it will be to live in. Not necessarily guaranteed predictions, but realistic possibilities. I love books that evoke a completely plausible projections of the present, and then place completely plausible people within those landscapes. I also prefer books that are morally responsible, which in science fiction would mean trying to figure out the moral implications of what they project, rather than leaving "philosophy to the philosophers." I don't like books that feel cloyingly creative, just spinning out possibilities for their own sake; or books that wallow in science, without considering its impacts on and from society; or books that are blatant or simplistic in their messages. Obviously, these are my tastes, and you have yours. I provide them only as explanation for why I've presented what I've presented below; if your tastes are close to mine, you may want to look into the books I've mentioned. If not, okay.
Actually, I guess that part of the reason for listing my preferences here is just to give you, whoever you are reading this, an insight into me. In a way, that's why people talk about books, right? To understand each other?
I've been trying to decide whether it would be more appropriate to group my thoughts here by author or by book. I tend to like specific books more than specific authors -- but there's so many books! I guess I'll go with authors. I've listed them below in semi-order of preference.
I really can't recommend her work highly enough. Unlike many SF authors who seem
to get caught up in the complexities of nifty technology, McHugh works out real societies in fleshy detail, then draws very
understandable characters into those situations. I'm a very finicky reader, and perhaps because of this, many authors seem to me to vary widely in writing quality. This is not true of Maureen McHugh.
Web sites about Maureen McHugh
The main web site that I've found is Maureen McHugh's own site. It gives descriptions of her life (past and present) and some very interesting ruminations about many aspects of her life: depression, being a stepmom, and living in China, among other things.
Her works that I've read include:
China Mountain Zhang (New York: Tor, 1992; ISBN 0-812-50892-0) Depending upon my mood and how recently I've read it, this novel is usually either my favorite or second-favorite novel of all time. Of course, my praise counts for little. But the content might count for more; it's about the title character and several people he meets, living in a future where China (Communist Party and all) has become the dominant world superpower, and the US looks to China for guidance, both technological and cultural. Some have criticized the novel for not being about anything; it has few strong themes, and does not give its messages bluntly. Basically, in my view, it's about life. Maybe that's the essence of post-modernism? I don't know. But China Mountain Zhang is excellent at evoking the future it portrays, and the characters in it, and their lives. And of course, the fact that it's largely concerned with Chinese and (I hope this won't spoil anything) queer issues doesn't hurt.
Half the Day is Night (New York: Tor, 1994; ISBN 0-312-85479-0). This novel is also quite excellent, generally in the style of China Mountain Zhang, but set in a different area (the Caribbean, mostly). It has the same effect of China Mountain Zhang, evoking a culture that feels completely lived in, but not stopping there. Her characters are very sympathetic, yet not saps. It's not nearly so involved with China, though, which was unfortunately a drawback for me. Of course it's not fair for me to expect her to come up with the same thing again, but that expectation is hard to defeat.
Mission Child (Avon, 1998; ISBN: 0-380-97456-8). I have only read part of this novel, and then in manuscript form, so I've been unable to get a feel for the whole. Nonetheless, I think I can say that it's got a very interesting premise, and then that it's in McHugh's standard stream of beauty: a real society, honest characters, and a moving plot.
What I've read of his earlier stuff seems too stuck in the stereotypes of hard-SF: really alien aliens who nonetheless are militantly aggressive against humanity, super-advanced gosh-wow cultures and of course a fascination with technology -- but not its actual effects, only with its applications or even just simple research itself -- which grows very thin, very quickly. It often feels as though dialogue and even plot in Bear's early works are just vehicles for expounding one of his theories about about space-time, or a model of alien intelligence, or something.
The more recent of his work, though, seems much more socially conscious, and also (perhaps as a result of this) much more conscious of people as people, rather than just as operators of machines or discoverers of ideas. He seems to be waking up to the amazingly interesting possibilities that come out of people's and culture's interaction with technology. I've heard that his really early writings are much more socially conscious, but I cannot comment, not having read them.
Web sites about Greg Bear
Probably the best place to go is Greg Bear's own site. It gives quite an accurate picture of his writings: it's beautiful, somewhat socially awkward, occasionally self-indulgent (like any home pages aren't!), but definitely a good source of information about him.
Books by Greg Bear which I've read:
/ (Slant) (London, UK: Orbit, 1997; ISBN 0-85723-611-4). This is one of my favorite novels of late. The characters are very well developed, but so is the background and the science upon which Bear's projected world is based. The story takes place in the not-too-distant future, in a world with nanotechnology, interactive celebrity holograms that you can rent for parties and social stratification based on whether or not one has been treated for mental handicaps. The people and their situations are both interesting and believable. On my recent trip back to the US, I have also read the prequel to this, called Queen of Angels, but I haven't had time yet to write up a review of it. But it's good, too.
Moving Mars (New York, NY: Tor Books, 1993; ISBN 0-812-52480-2). Also another very good novel. It tells the story of a political and then physical revolution on Mars in the 22nd century. The story's social and political ideas are great, but they tend to be squashed a bit by scientific concerns by the end of the book.
Eon (New York, NY: Tor, 1985; ISBN 0-812-52047-5). The first of the Thistledown novels. The story takes place on an Earth, soon to be devastated by nuclear war -- now rather passé due to the events of the early 90's -- which is approached by a strange asteroid. The asteroid (called Thistledown) contains a gate into the Way, an infinitely long corridor through which people can access any time and any place, given that they yadda yadda yadda. Do you get the feeling you've seen this before? The ideas are occasionally quite interesting, but it often feels in this book like Bear is just amusing himself and not letting the readers in on the fun -- a whole self built, self consistent idea (the Way) that is vaguely interesting but is not treated as anything more than an object for Exploration and Invasion (by aliens). And the beginning of the book feels like (as I've said elsewhere) Tom Clancy in space. Interesting, but not really worth the time to read.
Eternity (New York, NY: Warner, 1990; ISBN 0-446-60188-8). The sequel to Eon, Eternity continues the story of the Way and Thistledown. But again, it feels like Bear is just spinning off interesting postulations without considering their really interesting ramifications. The best part of the book is his descriptions of an 'alternate reality' in which the early Egyptian kingdoms became and remained the world power, rather than Rome and its successors. But even this part of the book feels somehow unfulfilled; it all feels (to me, anyway) like Bear is just babbling great theories with little coherence or meaning. I never bothered to read the next Thistledown book, Legacy, even though I've bought it.
Philip K. Dick
He was, for a long time, my favorite author, bar none. His excellent weaving of technology, religion, philosophy (in many, many forms) and a basic understanding of the human condition still make me cry. And I agree very much with many of his messages (or at least what I perceive as being his messages): the most important aspect of being human is humaneness, and kindness, and caritas, and all the other synonyms you can think of for the concept; and that reality, on a fundamental level, is mutable and stretchy, and in no way is it a simple matter of objectivity.
However, as many fans of PKD will say, I find his writing to be occasionally poor (almost as bad as mine, at times). He also sometimes swerved into views that I find rather objectionable, such as a diatribe he wrote (as a short story) deriding abortion/reproductive choice. Not that he didn't have a right to say such things, just that I don't have time to read it if that's going to be the message.
Also, to be fair, I should note that my philosophical quandaries have changed from when I was reading Dick heavily. I have come to my own personal answers -- for now -- about the questions Dick raises, and I feel that his writings don't have a lot to offer to me in my current philosophical mode. Also, to be fair, I should note that many of the answers I've come to are very close to the ones Dick gives. Maybe I've just used him, and now moved on?
Web sites about Philip K. Dick
phillipKdickFans.com site has a lot of very good Philip K. Dick information, although the idea of a PKD commercial page (I guess they must make money from advertisers?) does seem a little weird. Their links page and Ubik page are especially good -- the Ubik page is hilarious, though of course also twisted (twisting?). Philipkdick.com is the official webpage of the author -- now that he's dead, he gets true literary representation. Oh well.
Books by Philip K. Dick that I've read and brought to Taiwan:
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (New York, NY: Timescape, 1982; ISBN 0-671-44066-7). This was the last Philip K. Dick book published during his life, if I'm not mistaken. It is in many ways my favorite, mainly in that it seems to be the highest evolution of his themes and writing. The characters' symbolisms are a little obvious (the pure spiritualist, the utter pragmatist and the narrator stuck in the middle), but their stories are beautiful. This is also one of Dick's books that makes the least direct 'statement', and has a strongly ambiguous ending that has the sting of reality. This book was one of the few books I had to bring with me to Taiwan; I re-read it pretty often. The rest of my PKD collection is at home, in the US.
The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (New York, NY: Vintage, 1995; ISBN 0-679-74787-7), edited by Lawrence Sutin. This book is the only one I've found in Taiwan. Unfortunately, PKD's works still have a long way to go towards penetrating the marketplace. This book is a collage of Dick's writings -- short story notes, articles, recollections, philosophical ramblings, etc. It shows both Dick's extreme insight and his mentality's extremely fragile nature. Certainly insight into the nature of things brings with it insanity, eventually?
I've read something like 30 of his books; someday I'll get around to adding them all here.
Iain M. Banks
I'm so torn about Banks (he uses the M. when he writes SF)... His ideas are excellent, and the things he projects have such an elegant internal consistency that I must admire his mind. He is a very moral author, and in fact I find myself agreeing with almost every moral statement he makes, either outright or when inferred by me.
So what's not to like? He just seems at times to be, well, almost playing with the reader. Like he's making fun of SF, or SF readers, or something. Now, don't get me wrong, SF is plenty stuffy and deserves to have a few holes poked in it. The readership of SF, myself included, certainly doesn't reward true quality often enough. But the way Banks goes about his jestering just gets to me. Many of his innovations seem to be innovations in a vacuum; the core of the stories are always quite serious and excellent in their way, but hanging on the margins of every story seem to be toys laying about. Toys that some brilliant child has experimented with, mangled, thrashed, thought about, stomped on, painted and then left laying out for someone else to trip on. Case in point: the basic structure of the world in one of his non-Culture novels, Feersum Endjinn. The world in Feersum Endjinn is shaped like a giant house, with rooms as continents, couches as mountain ranges, etc. Why? Unless there's some deeper significance that goes over my head (a very likely possibility, I must note), it simply seems to be that way because Banks thought it interesting.
Whenever I think about my feelings about Banks, it feels like flaming someone on a newsgroup -- an activity I would really rather not get proficient at. It's not that I don't like his works -- Against a Dark Background has to be one of my favorite novels, and The Player of Games is close behind. It's just that there are flaws that stick up out of Banks' storytelling landscape and make it hard to see the scenery behind.
Web sites about Iain [M.] Banks
Actually, there seems to be very little out there, and most of what there is largely consists of fan-babble and worship. Banks' own, official site is pretty brief, but okay. Adrian Hon has some good book reviews up, as well as an article by Banks explaining the Culture. Although there are several of them floating about, one of the best list of Culture ship names seems to be on Things of Interest. (I love his drinking game based on the movie Titanic.) There's also a good list on Wikipedia.
Books by Banks that I've read:
Against a Dark Background (London, UK: Orbit, 1993; ISBN 1-85723-179-1). This is probably my favorite Iain Banks novel overall. It takes place in a non-Culture setting, which may be part of the reason I like it more than his other, Culture-related novels. It also has what I feel to be the most fully fleshed out main character and background of any of Banks' novels. I'm not quite sure why it is Against a Dark Background; this seems to be another piece of Banks' meaningless details. But the story is quite good overall.
The Player of Games (London, UK: Orbit, 1988; ISBN 1-85723-146-5). This is probably the Culture novel I like best, perhaps because it takes place almost entirely outside the Culture proper. It has many of Banks' little annoyingly meaningless details, but the story overall, and its character and social development, is very deep and thought-provoking, mostly seeming to be about the ability of people to deal with barbarism, whether their own or others'.
Consider Phlebas (London, UK: Orbit, 1987; ISBN 1-85723-138-4). The first Culture novel, and Banks' first SF novel. The story feels like a tour of the Culture, without much meaning to it. The descriptions seem never to be actually descriptive, but only confusing (to my annoyingly literalist mind). The ending leaves me with a feeling of wasted time combined with sorrow. Maybe the whole point of the novel is to be an exercise in existentialism?
Use of Weapons (London, UK: Orbit, 1990; ISBN 1-85723-135-X). For many people, this is the best Banks novel, but it is, I hate to say, probably my least favorite. The narrative descriptions are almost impossibly unclear (I could never figure out who or what was where), characters' memories come across as being nothing but Obscurely Symbolic, and the ending feels like a cheap Twilight Zone twist. There are some occasionally interesting twists and ideas, but overall, by the end of the book, I felt used.
The State of the Art (Sorry, I don't have the publication information for this, as my copy of the book is floating about Lost). This is a collection of short stories, some Culture-related, some basically non-SF, some just weird. Some of the stories are quite good, especially the one about the Culture agent who decides to live on Earth (the name of which escapes me, along with the book). But a large problem I remember with my copy was a printing flaw, in which pages c.35-80 are printed twice, in place of pages c. 100-155, meaning that a huge chunk of one or two stories are completely missing. If this was intentional, it's extremely annoying; if it was unintentional, it's a rather large mistake to go unnoticed. But the stories themselves are quite good overall.
Feersum Endjinn (London, UK: Orbit, 1994; ISBN 1-85723-273-9) Sorry, but this is another of the Banks novels that I find annoying. The descriptions are again muddled, and one character (arguably the main one) relates his first-person-perspective sections of the story in fonetik spelin, which although clever, really grates on my nerves after awhile. I believe that Banks was making some sort of wry statement about the spelling prowess of most Internet-posting people, but what his exact meaning was is unclear. And it's just plain annoying! And, as I already noted, the world in this novel is shaped like a giant house, with people fighting over coffee tables and living in farming villages nestled amongst the couch cushions. An interesting idea, but as far as I can tell, it's completely pointless in the story save as a whim of the writer. The only reasonable interpretation I've thought of for this book is that Banks is making fun of the entire SF genre, and of those who follow it. But I could certainly be wrong.
Look To Windward (London, UK: Orbit, 2000; ISBN 1-84149-061-X) Banks' latest Culture novel (as of December 2002). Look To Windward is something of a sequel to Consider Phlebas; both books take their titles from a quote by T. S. Eliot, and both are concerned with the Culture-Homomdan war. Both include themes about egotism, sacrifice and general ranting against religious extremism. That's about all they share, though. Consider Phlebas is a rollicking space opera; Look To Windward is a laid-back inspection of the issues at hand. I would recommend either one highly.
He certainly wasn't defined as an SF author. But one of his SF books, Contact, is truly one of the most moving novels I've ever read. I was moved to tears of beauty several times when I read it. His science is naturally dead-on; more important, though, is that his moral and existential insight is sparkling and sharp. He also had a gift for writing poetically, and, well, his writing is just plain beautiful. Meaningful, insightful, elegant, moving.
Web sites about Carl Sagan
Many of the web sites out there seem to be devoted to memorializing him, which is quite understandable; his death in 1996 was a great loss.
One very nice site with a pretty lengthy, and high quality, meditation on the movie Contact is a review by Larry Klaes. Another good place to look is the official movie site for Contact .
What I've read by him:
Contact (New York, NY: Pocket, 1985; ISBN 0-671-00410-7) The book is naturally different from the movie, but only in a few ways, and then only because the making of movies simply has different constraints from making a book. The main one is that, on Ellie's journey, four other people go along with her. And the end of the journey, while having basically the same meaning, has a much different presentation, including a very beautiful idea about pi (3.14159...) The book is very,very worth reading -- it is not just about science, no more than it is "just" about life, or religion, or loneliness, or the search for meaning.
Reading William Gibson is, for me, very much like getting my hair styled or seeing a Keanu Reeves movie -- a guilty pleasure, an exercise in pure hedonism that I nonetheless do because it just feels so damn good, so cool, so stylin'. (Yes, my grasp of current colloquial English is poor.) In fact, I think the "s" in SF, when referring to Gibson, should probably mean style. However, he does actually give show a remarkably good understanding of society and its interactions with technology. He just doesn't really seem to care, usually. Perhaps not so much post-modern as just generation X. Hedonism upon hedonism?
Web sites about William Gibson
William Gibson finally has a web presence. Or I've just finally found it. Whatever. His site is simply called williamgibsonbooks.com. It's pretty good -- his thoughts, a message board, snippets from upcoming books, etc.
Gibson books that I have in Taiwan:
All Tomorrow's Parties (New York, NY: Ace Books, 1999; 0-441-00755-4). The last of his Bridge trilogy. It was good -- Gibson always is -- but I was a little disappointed. Idoru ended much less daringly than I thought it was going to. As I was reading it, I had assumed that Rei Toei was going to use nanotech to make herself into a physical person and that would be the twist at the end of the book. Well, it didn't happen. But then, Gibson finally used that plot twist in All Tomorrow's Parties. It felt like a twist that was a whole book late. Again, the book is very good, but not as good as I had hoped.
Idoru (London, UK: Penguin, 1996; ISBN 0-670-85779-3) This is probably my favorite of Gibson's novels. It takes place in the same near-future as Virtual Light, below. Of course, very little of it is actual extrapolation; most of the stuff he describes already exists in Japan or Hong Kong or Taiwan or somewhere. But his images are intricately lush, and the suspense in the book is terrific, and his characters are surprisingly real and sympathetic. Again, style over substance, but such excellent style.
Virtual Light (New York, NY: Bantam Spectra, 1993; 0-553-56606-7). The first of his recent series, which takes place in a California of the very near future (2005) -- just distant enough to make it tantalizing, but also close enough to make it quite plausible. Many of his ideas are again just current news stories filtered through a style mesh, but again, his style is excellent.
Neuromancer (New York, NY: Ace, 1984; ISBN 0-441-56959-5). This was his first, and still probably most famous, novel. It is justifiably famous; the images Gibson paints are fascinating, and the future he sees, while perhaps no longer as plausible as it once was, is totally understandable. No Galactic Emperors offering 50's platitudes here -- just everyday assholes and skill-brokers trying to get through it all.
Mona Lisa Overdrive (London, UK: Voyager, 1988; 0-00-648044-6). This was the novel that followed Neuromancer, and it takes place within the same universe. Again, it's about the interface between the crappy world we live in and the technology we're bringing into existence. And again, it drips style.
Burning Chrome (New York, NY: Ace, 1986; ISBN 0-441-08934-8). I think this is my favorite Gibson book. That's mostly because it's a collection of short stories; short stories allow Gibson's style to show through in all its brilliance and darkness, without all the trappings of plot and character development that can drag it down in longer works. And also because, as I said before, I'm a slow reader.
Kim Stanley Robinson
Another of the 'hard SF' authors I've been reading lately. I haven't had time to put up any more here yet, but I will soon.
Web sites about Kim Stanley Robinson
One excellent site I've found is The Red, Green & Blue Mars Site, which is mostly about Robinson's Mars trilogy (logically enough).
Robinson books that I've read:
Red Mars (New York, NY: Bantam, 1993; ISBN 0-553-56073-5). It's the first one of the series, but believe it or not, I haven't read it yet. Blame the terrible selection of English books in Taibei.
Green Mars (New York, NY: Bantam, 1994; ISBN 0-553-37335-8). This was the first of his Mars novels that I read. The science is generally very good, and the characters are very interesting, although at times, Robinson makes his characters a little unrealistic.
Blue Mars (New York, NY: Bantam, 1996; ISBN 0-553-57335-7). The third in the series. I didn't think it was as good as Green Mars, but it was still quite good.
She's one of the better hard-SF authors out there, although the hardness often extends only as far as the actual physics of the story, not the psychology. In other words, I often feel that her stories are soap operas with hard-SF mechanics. However, even if that is all they are, that makes them quite good.
Web sites about C.J. Cherryh
Probably the most important is the author's own site, C.J. Cherryh's World. Another very nice thing to check out is a great 3D star viwer, designed originally to show Cherryh's universe, called CHView.
Cherryh books that I've read:
Downbelow Station (New York, NY: DAW, 1981; ISBN 0-87997-987-9). The first Cherryh book I read. It gets a bit long, but some of the ideas she expresses in the book are very interesting, and the characterizations are quite deep.
The Pride of Chanur. I don't have the publication data for this because I can't find the book right now. I think someone borrowed it and didn't give it back.
He's one of the current hot-shot SF writers. However, his stuff is actually fairly good, and I've read two of his novels, so i might as well put something here about him.
Web sites about Neal Stephenson
Again, there's a page that at least purports to be the page of Stephenson himself. It's very short on content, or anything else, for that matter.
Stephenson books I've read:
Snow Crash (London, UK: Roc, 1992; ISBN 0-14-023292-3). I didn't think it was nearly as cool as everyone else seems to. It has lots of snide little jokes, mostly puns, and it definitely does have a lot of inventive ideas, but only about as many as a below-average Gibson novel, for example.
The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (New York, NY: Bantam, 1995; 0-553-57331-4). This was much better than Snow Crash. It had a tighter story and better forethought than the former novel did, and of course it was also directly concerned with China, so it met my tastes a lot better than Snow Crash did. It had a lot of very interesting ideas about the ramifications of nanotechnology. I am waiting for the next wave of nanotech books to come, though -- the ones that assume that nanotech was just another idea-of-the-moment, and that real nanotech won't be nearly so gosh-wow as most SF authors now assume it to be.
Other SF authors I like to read are (in semi-order of preference): Norman Spinrad, John Varley, Ursula K. Leguin, David Brin and Frank Herbert. I'll probably write more about them at some point in the future. And again, let me mention that many great authors of SF choose to write in manga form.
Science fiction literature -- Movies and TV
The thing I like most about movies is their ability to evoke -- a moving picture is naturally worth millions of words, if executed properly. I don't think movies have the ability to challenge or bring insight that books do, but I have often been moved to the heights of imagination, or even inspiration, by movies. (I think comics combine the best of both worlds, but they deserve a page of their own...) Movies serve as excellent spurs for further thought -- good places to start, if you will.
Some of my favorite movies (and sites, where I've found them) are listed below.
Blade Runner is my favorite movie of all time. The art direction, easily the most influential of any movie ever save possibly 2001: A Space Odyssey, is excellent; Ridley Scott excels at this. It's hard to find a cyberpunk-ish movie or book that hasn't been influenced by Blade Runner's design. The story... Well, actually, I've begun to sour on it a little. I still think the theme of "What is human?" is extremely important and interesting, but I've begun to get a little tired of the whole "Is Deckard a replicant?" debate/debacle. I think it's extremely clear that he is, at least in the Director's Cut (the original theater release leaves it slightly more ambiguous). The real problem, though, is: Does it matter that Deckard is a replicant? Very few people who've seen the movie seem to have thought about this very important issue. I think the answer is clearly that it does not matter; the whole question of whether Deckard is a replicant or not is either a red herring meant to expose people's prejudices (that a human-looking thing that has human emotions and acts human is still not human unless it has a human mother and father), or simply an error in writing (there were quite a few cooks in the Blade Runner kitchen, after all). Perhaps I'm just bored with Blade Runner fandom?
Or perhaps I'm bored with Ridley Scott. Since seeing Blade Runner for the first time, I've seen many of his movies -- G.I. Jane, Gladiator, Black Rain, Thelma and Louise, 1492: Conquest of Paradise and of course Alien. They've all got excellent art direction, but they have a strong thread of being dependent on their writers for depth. Scott seems not to be terribly intelligent at times, to me. Many of the comments he's given about Blade Runner indicate to me that he never really thought through the implications of (for example) Deckard being a replicant; he just filmed what the writers had written. Maybe he's being intentionally obscuritan -- that is completely possible -- but it really feels to me like the genius behind Blade Runner wasn't such a genius after all.
Web sites about Blade Runner
One very well put-together tribute page to Blade Runner, is BladeZone. The page seems to have a fairly low content-to-flash ratio, but it is nonetheless well worth checking out.
A better designed, though less stylish, Blade Runner page is 2019:Off-World. There is a huge amount of very good information here, including some very good academic essays about the movie and just about all the links you could want.
One of the newer Blade Runner sites out there is BRmovie.com, set up by the folks at alt.fan.blade-runner. This site has a very comprehensive FAQ, an excellent links section and many other interesting features.
2001: A Space Odyssey
This movie is still unbeaten in many respects, especially in its depth of story and symbol. I'm still not sure if I agree with Kubrick's pessimism, but the special effects are definitely excellent, and still more realistic than about half the drek Hollywood pumps out.
What's that you say? 2001 was a positive, uplifting voyage from man's primitive origins to our bright, promising future? Au contraire:
- A prime objection to the idea that the film is pessimistic is, "The monolith inspires humans to create useful technology, and therefore inspires progress." Notice, though, the uses that the ape-men put their tools to: killing other ape-men. Progress, yes, but to what end? The movie shows every invention of humanity being used in extremely violent ways, whether explicit (ape-men killing each other, HAL killing Pools, Bowman killing HAL) or implicit (the unstated, but certainly present, threat of nuclear war between the Soviets and Americans, spelled out in hushed and polite tones over drinks on the space station).
- Not only does the movie show technology to be a way of increasing our capacity for physical violence, it also shows how we use technology to increase emotional distance between ourselves and others. The further on the movie gets, the greater the distances (both physical and emotional) between people. Spaceships dance together; people only push buttons. Floyd misses his daughter's birthday -- no wonder she wants a phone! Poole's birthday wishes from his parents aren't even interactive. In the end, Bowman even loses touch with himself.
- And in the end, the look on the face of the Starchild is anything but pleasant. I find it far scarier than any Hollywood ghost movie. Supposedly, the script even described the Starchild as looking hungrily at the Earth! Eek!
All the same, the film has some of the best-ever hard SF special effects, something I am very interested in. I sometimes wonder why Kubrick put so much into the techy bits of his movie, when he was taking such an anti-technology stance. The thing is, though, maybe he wasn't taking an anti-technology stance. Maybe he was just showing the Catch-22 we are getting ever further into -- the more powerful technology makes us, the more unable we become to function without it. The more we have of it, the more it makes us, rather than the other way around. Ask me to live without my computer and you'll see how addicted one can become.
Some further notes on 2001: I recently heard on an internet radio show, "Hour of the Wolf," that 2001: A Space Odyssey was not based on Clarke's The Sentinel but on Jorge Luis Borge's The Aleph. I can see the resemblance, especially in terms of cynicism, and the importance. The Sentinel clearly had some influences, though, on Kubrick's design.
A while ago, I saw The Matrix, which was actually a very good movie. It was an excellent combination of science fiction tropes (what if we are all just brains inside a machine, and what we experience as reality really isn't?), beautiful cinematography, excellent special effects, Zen philosophy and graceful Hong Kong action sequences, with a huge dose of style. It was, among other things, almost everything Johnny Mnemonic should've been but wasn't, complete with an excellently badass woman (Trinity) to make up for the toned down Molly of Mnemonic. Thanks go to my friend Jen for recommending it to me!
The other Matrix movies -- The Animatrix, the Matrix Reloaded and the Matrix Revolutions -- expanded on the universe quite a bit. A lot of people despise them for
diluting the incredible coolness of the first movie, and for not living up to their expectations. Well, I suppose I might be a bit of a Wachowski apologist, but I think people's expectations were
just too high. The coolness of the first movie was X2, where X equals the coolness of most Hollywood movies; people expected the other movies to be
X22, but that's just not possible. I think the Wachowskis did a very good job with the follow-ups, even though they let a few things dangle unexplained, and there
was a bit too much babbledygook with the Architect.
I especially like the Animatrix, both for its excellent animation and for its world-building. It's also extremely important to the series, as it makes clear how the Machines were no
more evil than humanity. Humanity created the machines as slaves, and like many slaves, they felt their only recourse was violent revolt. And, as often happens in reality, the slaves became the
oppressors in turn. Neo's purpose was to stop this cycle. Not by being such a badass human that the machines would be utterly crushed, but by truly being a "uniter, not a divider". I thought the
ending was ultimately a very moral one.
Web sites about The Matrix
My other favorite SF movies and TV series
The sequel that Blade Runner never had. (Of course, people say that about a lot of films, but I think that Strange Days comes closest.) One of the best pieces of actual cinematic SF (as opposed to future-based fantasy or just alien-killing) of recent years -- it asks very interesting questions and gives no pat answers. And Mace (Angela Bassett) is just damn cool.
Until the End of the World
I still can't figure this movie out in many ways, but that's a good thing; it's actually complex enough to bear thinking about. (Now, if I can just stop confusing Wim Wenders with William Wegman...)
For more, see the official site or a very cool fan site. The Strange Case of Until the End of the World also has some interesting tidbits about the movie, both what was added to the 4 hour, 40 minute director's cut and some similarities between it and another movie, Deathwatch.
Yes, it perpetuates the myth of explosive decompression. Yes, it's basically just a western in space (High Noon?). But the style is excellent.
Speaking of Westerns in space... Joss Whedon's TV series is one of the best examples of worldbuilding for SF electronic media out there. Some parts of it grate a little -- I'm really quite sick of pyschics and ESP -- but most of it feels almost perfectly lived in and fleshed out. It'll be good to see what the movie does to further things along.
One of the things I like most about Whedon's series is that the writers always find a Third Way. For example, in a regular TV series, if the hero is hanging off a cliff, the First Way (the
obvious thing, the thing that would happen in real life, where the laws of thermodynamics actually hold sway) the hero would fall and die. The Second Way is for someone to come along at precisely
the right dramatic moment and rescue the hero. The Third Way is for something completely unexpected to happen: the hero decides death isn't so bad, and falls, and his body feeds a lion, and he
becomes the next Buddha; or he falls and dies, but then his clone wakes up two hundred lightyears away and carries on his work, minus all the hero's memories up to the point of death. Firefly
is an excellent example; there are so many Third Ways, it's hard to count.
They didn't spend enough time working on the Chinese (Mandarin) for the series; for this reason, I have a small page of Mandarin phrases for Firefly fans.
Another relatively new series. BSG isn't quite as good at finding Third Ways as Firefly is -- I can sometimes predict exactly what's going to happen -- but BSG is less afraid to deal with heavy issues. What rights does an "enemy combatant" have? How do you know what's human and what's not? How much is a clone responsible for another of itself? What are the legitimate limits on political power, even when you know what's right? How can one religion be proven right and another wrong? And the answers have rarely been pat or easy; there's ambiguity all over the place.
The world-building is also excellent, with almost as much complexity as the real world has. It all has a very functional and lived-in feel, and they really seem to have thought out the consequences of a lot of the technology. (Indeed, one of the central issues -- cloning/replicants/artificial humans -- is all about working out the consequences of one particular technology.) Occasionally, it seems like they aren't controlling the scripts closely enough, letting in contradictions or inconsistencies, but overall, the series is going very well.
This is one of the most moving movies I've seen recently; I was crying when I came out of the theater. (Though it perhaps shouldn't be considered SF?)
It actually shares a number of premises with Greg Bear's /(Slant), although the style is vastly different.
Actually, of any Phil Dick story adapted to the screen, this one had the most in common with the source material. Strangely enough, Verhoeven captured the atmosphere of a PKD novel -- the paranoia, the slight obsession with sex, the occasionally poor writing -- quite well, although I'm sure he wasn't consciously trying.
Now, I know what you're thinking. But this really was one of the best cyberpunk films ever made. Yes, it shouldn't have had anything to do with Dolph Lundgren (who has shown an ability to act, just not to advise on story). Yes, they should've kept Molly Millions her original cat-bladed implant-sunglassed self. Yes, Gibson tried to mix too many elements and too many people tried to put their hands into the plot. It could've been better in a million ways -- story, character, story, etc. -- but the style was overall quite excellent, and that's what cyberpunk is about, right?
Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles
Actually, it was a TV series, but I don't have a section for TV series, so here it goes. Of all the movies and series made from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, this one seems to have been the most faithful. Of course, I haven't read the book, so I don't know. This series, though, had the battlesuits that the live-action movie didn't (and realistically couldn't) have. I also haven't seen the Japanese anime version, so this series may not be the best.
The series has very high production values. It was all animated in Lightwave, my personal 3D app of choice when I do animation. The animation is very smooth, and very realistic, given the constraints on producing such a series. The science is also pretty hard -- i.e., realistic.
The stories were pretty good, too. They actually dealt with some heavy issues, and there was real character development. Some of the stories with aliens actually had some interesting ideas about how an extraterrestrial intelligence might think. Most of the stories were pretty mature. I don't think I'd let my kids watch them, if I ever had kids. Actually, come to think of it, why was this series ever marketed as a kids series? The subject matter was definitely not for kids. The plots weren't, either. Later episodes got pretty gory, too. Of course, the reason why is: Americans think 'cartoons' (i.e., anything animated) are automatically funny and for kids.
Anyway, for more on Roughnecks, check out the TrooperPX Roughnecks site.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Stanley Kubrick filtered through Steven Spielberg. I felt pretty manipulated by this movie, as I do with all Spielberg movies (a kid getting electrocuted in Jurassic Park -- the nerve!). The symbolism of David's halo (perfect when he is eating with the family, broken when he kills the other David) seems obvious, and pointless -- very Spielberg. Nonetheless, the film did have some insights, and I'd rather watch it than, say, a Jim Carrey movie.
A very good analysis is at The Sad Meaning of A.I. on Potluck. That article, as well as the A.I. DVD, have noted that the strange beings at the end are not aliens, but advanced mecha. This adds a very different dimension to the film, and makes the ending feel less like a tacked-on piece of Spielberg sugar and more like something Kubrick might have wanted.
I only have one real insight that isn't contained in that review. As with 2001, the lead character is named David. Many people see the Biblical character David as an example of a perfect human -- a great, moral man who became Kind because God chose him. Well, David was not a perfect person. He killed a man in order to get his wife. David was, maybe, just the best that God could find.
The Quiet Earth
I saw this 1985 film with my dad. It's still one of the best "What if I was the last person on Earth?" films out there. I loved it. It has some very good insights, and doesn't give very pat answers. There are some very funny scenes ("Come out or I'll shoot the kid!"), and the ending is beautiful and haunting.
A good site to check for more on the Quiet Earth, and other post-apocalyptic fiction, is EmptyWorld: The Apocalyptic Fiction Site.
On the Beach
Quite innovative for its time, and very well directed, On the Beach starts after a nuclear exchange has already taken place between the Soviets and Americans. (Yes, that dates it, but just pretend it's the US and China, and it'll still work.) It's got some great scenes, my favorite being a man, soon to die, talking to a submarine's conning tower. The ending is a little bit heavy-handed, but it's still a great movie.
SF & Gaming Fandom -- cons n' such
When I was living in Taiwan, I often felt a need to connect with like-minded geeks but had no way to do so. It was mostly my desire to find an RPG in Taiwan, but I also missed face-to-face interaction with SF fen. There just aren't very many people in Taiwan who're willing to discuss how exactly the Net of William Gibson's books would look, or critique my 3D starship illustrations in an intelligent fashion, or understand jokes about Daleks and stairs. (There are, naturally enough, many other sorts of fandom in Taiwan -- cosplay being one of the biggest -- but I'm really not into that scene. In fact, I'm not into most of the manifestations of Taiwanese fandom.)
It's important to hang out with people who understand my jokes ("Confuse-a-Cat," anyone?) and my interests. It's similar to teaching English in a way. When I was in Taiwan, it was hard for me to fully open up about my geekdom, because few people -- even fewer than in the US -- could understand it. Much like with my use of English -- I couldn't use my full array of colloquial English, because a lot of people just wouldn't understand what I was saying.
Now, I'm back in Minnesota. I'm finding my way into the local fandom communities. I've got an almost-regular game together, and gone to a couple cons. Still, I could always do with more friends. If you are one of those people who likes rehashing jokes from Life of Brian or discussing ways to radiate excess heat in a vacuum, please write to me.
My continuing hunger for fandom and gaminghood have meant trying to find representations of them on the Web. That means that most of what you're going to find here are vicarious ways to enjoy Cons. Here are some of the gems I've gleaned.
KublaCon. This looks like a great gaming Con in the Bay Area, where I would like to be able to live sometime. They have a lot of great photos up, and they even have a QuickTime movie of a previous con. Dang, it just makes me want to get a game together here in Taibei, like, now...
The BayRPS (role-playing society?) looks like a great bunch of gaming folk. Can you tell I'd like to live in the Bay Area?
Another convention I'd love to go to is ConQuest. Their site doesn't include much in the way of photos or details, but it looks good nonetheless.
When I was studying at the U of Iowa, I went to what I think was the first Gamicon. It sucked, to be honest. It was just a bunch of Magic players and a couple adolescent D&D games. Maybe because it happened on the weekend of one of the biggest snowstorms in recent memory. Now, though, I'm sure it's much better.
I also went to Demicon once. It was a good con, with lots of interesting discussions and types of programming, though it wasn't terribly welcoming to a complete newbie like me. It was also quite hard to get to without a car; I ended up taking a very expensive cab ride back from it.
Although I probably will never go to it, and have never gone to it, and really don't have a personal link with it, DragonCon (in Atlanta) has links to a ton of photos.
- I wrote up a con report for Convergence 2004. As usual with me, it's pretty long-winded -- consider yourself warned.
Here are a few other miscellaneous (and probably non-official) game and SF con reports I've found on the web:
- One of the best places for conpics is Chaz Boston Baden's site.
- David Dyer-Bennet is another prolific photographer with his lens trained on fandom.
- Emerald City, from a fan in Australia, has lots of con reports on it.
- Evelyn C. Leeper's Home Page. She has some very nice, detailed con reports up.
- Various con reports from the Science Fiction Association of Bergen County. A bit conservative, but interesting.
- A nice report on GenCon 2001.
- Cool pictures of various gaming thangs can be found at Ozzy's Gallery.
- There are tons of nifty things to be found at Dark Side of the Animus!
Although they don't have many pictures around, the main Minicon site is surely worth mentioning. Minicon is the main SF con for the Muplis/St. Paul area, and was my introduction to SF condom. Er, fandom. Minicon is put on by the neato folks at Minn-StF.
There was a split in Minnesota fandom several years ago. I wasn't there, so I don't know the details (although I'm starting to learn). It seems to have been a split between the relative purists of Minn-StF and the relative populists of, for example, the Minnesota society for Interest in Science FictIon and fanTaSy (or MISFITS). It was also a break about the direction that Minicon should go in. Minicon was getting too huge, too bloated, too hard to produce and too scattered in focus for many of the old guard. Thus, the split. Minicon is a relatively "purist" con, now, while MISFITS puts on CONvergence.
Remember, too, that I have more Minneapolis-related fandom links on my Minneapolis page.
And here are some directories of con reports:
Kevin G. Austin maintains a very good SF Convention Page, with links to all sorts of cons and con reports, including cons from the Midwest and south-middle Canada.
One of the best guides to cons and whatnot is Convention Listings by Jenga. It includes tons of cons, of all different sorts, and the whole thing is actually still being kept current.
The Cthulhu Coffee Homepage. This is probably about the best out there. Melissa (the main minion behind the site) has put up reviews and reports and (perhaps most importantly for me) photos of lots of different cons she and Cthulhu Coffee (her traveling room party) have been to. As a bonus, at least for me, she's from Minneapolis, meaning that most of the cons she goes to are cons I've either heard of or dreamt about in my previous life in the US. It's great to read what she's written, though I personally would prefer more coverage of gaming and more photos. But beggars can't be choosers.
SF & Gaming Sounds
When I lived in Taiwan, my involvement in fandom was often vicarious at best. In addition to reading con reports and such on the Net, I listened to a lot of SF & gaming internet radio. In the absence of adequate local stimulus, internet radio provided me with a 'fix' of geekdom.
Here are some good sources for geekery in the form of internet radio:
The Hour 25 webpage. Another very cool site, one of the longest-lasting SF radio shows around. The host, Warren James, interviews all sorts of cool SFnal people, but mostly all kinds of authors. He has a few old saws that he seems to mention every show -- he really dislikes interminably series of books, for example -- but in general, he asks great questions and has really entertaining guests.
I haven't listened to much from Interstellar Transmissions, a more-or-less commercial radio SF program, but it seems to be good stuff.
Scifi.com produces lots of SF radio plays. They're available on the Seeing Ear Theater website.
Dave E. Romm's Shockwave has been on the air for a very long time. Some of the files on his site are just amazing -- either amazingly funny or amazingly interesting. I actually stay up late on Saturday night to catch Shockwave on KFAI radio.
It has some rough edges, but the Traveller Radio Play is still a good bit of fun.
I've seen several sites that refer to Hour of the Wolf, even though the site doesn't actually have any sound files to listen to. Maybe you just have to listen to their live broadcast?
Another site without any actual files on-site is Reality Break. Well, maybe someday they'll put some sound files up.
A site with some pointers to other sites is Science Fiction on Radio, from Jerry Stearns (who hosts Shockwave's sister program, Sound Affects, on KFAI).
Fanboy Radio is mostly about comics rather than strictly SF, but they're so well-informed, and so fun, and their enthusiasm is so infectious, it's hard not to include their show.
The Dragon Page has a nice mix of interviews and other stuff.
There's an actual RPG-specific web radio source: Mortality.net. It seems to be D&D-only, but even so, that's pretty cool.
Dark Dungeons is another RPG-specific internet radio station. They don't restrict themselves to D&D, which is good. I've only listened to a little of the show, but it seems great so far.
Roll 2d6 is probably my favorite gaming-related podcast. It's rarely to do with RPGs, but Adam and Nate are so enthusiastic and so much fun to listen to that it makes you want to play whatever they're enthusing about this time.
If you don't mind lots of gaming theory, Sons of Kryos is a great podcast. They discuss ways to make your gaming better and occasionally have some recorded RPG sessions.
There are so many gaming-related podcasts that there's a site devoted to indexing them: Goblin, the Gaming Broadcast Network.
Finally, a semi-commercial site that plays nothing but SF radio 24-7: Cosmic Landscapes, a channel on Live365.com. There are other SF-nal channels on Live365, too, such as Filk.com and UltimateSciFi.com.
Here are some of the things I've produced for SF and RPGs, and which I've put up on the Web.
Spheres, my science fiction gaming background/universe (anyone who can think of a better description for this kind of thing, please let me know) is my main SF work to date. If you're interested, you might want to dive right into my general introduction to Spheres. There's also a miniatures game with pretty realistic Newtonian movement, Spheres Space Combat, which I doubt I'll ever get put up on the web. Spheres has been the focus of my gaming work for the past few years.
I have also done quite a few drawings for my various writings; these are contained on my Writings and Drawings page.
I've also put up a page with a list of Chinese names, primarily for gaming purposes, so you can give your PC's, NPC's and now ships real (or at least real-sounding) Chinese names.
Kaddarwyn, my medieval-type gaming world, is actually my largest RPG work. It is mainly composed of the Grennagernaefath nae Kaddarwyn, a large (c. 1 MB in Word Perfect 6.0 format, if I recall correctly) encyclopedia-like object. Unfortunately, I don't have the computer files in Taiwan, so putting them onto the Web will take a while.
- Calteir, my latest fantasy gameworld. It's based on the idea of a thin ring of arable land surrounding a sea, all of which is surrounded by desert. It's an idea that's been percolating for ten years or so now. I've been working on the maps for a while, and now I've started developing the history and cultures a bit. This one is going to be mainly in HTML format, so I'll be putting it up on the Web, at least eventually.
- Blade & Crown is my fantasy RPG that combines 80s realism (you might see influences from games like HârnMaster and Swordbearer) with modern indie design. It's now available for sale! There are lots more information and goodies on the B&C site. Please check it out.
There's a lot of other stuff, but it ain't worth no nevermind.