One Goblin to Rule Them All

One of my friends has this annoying (but not really) habit of suggesting really great books for me to read. She’s single-handedly responsible for introducing me to some of my favorite recent (published in the last decade or so) books and authors. The Dresden Files, The Kingkiller Chronicles, finally convincing me to read Terry Pratchett, and so many others. A lot of the time, I’ve heard of the books she recommends and never got around to buying them. Interestingly, the books she gives me as gifts are almost always books I’ve never heard of that I wind up loving. My current favorite of these books is “The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison (the pseudonym of Sarah Monette).

The book follows the story of a young member of the ruling family of an Elven empire as he, Maia, is suddenly thrust from obscurity directly into the throne when everyone in line before him was killed in an explosion. Complicating his ascension is the fact that his mother was a Goblin princess who married the Elven emperor as part of a peace agreement with the Goblin King. Maia faced the rejection of his father who fulfilled the terms of his political marriage in only the strictest sense before sending them both into exile in the countryside and then by a cousin who abused him since the politically ambitious cousin was forced to act as the guardian of a politically unimportant half-goblin. You can probably see the beginnings of the themes in the book.

I love intrigue and character novels. Anything that explores people, the ways in which they build relationships, and how people come to understand or wield power can be incredibly interesting if written well. The Goblin Emperor does an amazing job of exploring political intrigue and the burden of power in a very complex world filled with people who, for the most part, just want to do their jobs. Despite the fact that there are no Humans in the story, everyone feels incredibly Human and real. Even the villains grow from caricatures into full characters with both positive and negative qualities as the reader is shown more of them, mirroring Maia’s understanding. Even the tone of the writing changes as Maia becomes more confident and knowledgeable, constantly reflecting his developing sense of the people around him.

While he is growing and just learning to function in the court, Maia has to face off against a few savvy political opponents who are trying to usurp his power in one way or another. The wife of the deceased heir and the lord chancellor both test him, doing small things to grow their personal power, but he manages to keep ahead of them. Most of the time, he figures out the right move to make using practical wisdom born of being a social outcast or by relying on the people around him who simply want to do their jobs as best as they can rather than get tangled up in political upheavals. A lot of the time, it is these less “important” people, who just want to do their best to support the kingdom, who make the difference in Maia’s life. Even as she shows them being subservient and deferential, Addison does them justice as fully “human” people in their own rights.

Despite being a mixture of Goblin and Elven blood, the only person who truly complicates Maia’s life for not being fully Elven is Maia himself. That isn’t to say there isn’t some degree of racism going on, as most of the political opponents he faces would likely not have been so clearly mutinous if he was wholly Elven. Addison shows it most clearly in the social and societal roles held by Goblins in the Elflands. Goblins who are accepted into royal service in the Elflands are often somewhat separated from their culture and heritage, and most of them are poor or doing menial work. They are shown as being rather drab and superfluous by many of the Elves who also encourage Maia to avoid exploring his Goblin heritage beyond what his mother taught him before she died. Eventually, Maia meets members his family from the Goblin kingdom and gets a clearer picture of their culture, along with many promises for more information on his heritage and family in the future. Since it furthers the peaceful coexistence of these two large nations, everyone switches to genuinely supporting Maia’s desire to learn more about Goblin culture and, most importantly, Maia begins to embrace his identity as a Goblin and an Elf more fully.

I don’t want to go into too much more of what goes on in the book because I’m already certain I’ve said too much. There’s so much I love about this book that it’s hard to hold back from gushing about it. If you read it and like it (I think you should and I hope you do), you should message me about it so we can discuss and dissect it.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 2

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


When I next saw Lucas, it took everything in my power not to throw my gun to the ground. He jogged up to the group while we were taking our noon break, waving his way past the sentries. He wore his usual beaming smile, but I can see the worry in his eyes when he stopped in front of me. Behind him, and the reason for my urge to angrily throw my weapon, I could see a large group of people moving on the horizon.

“What did you find?”

“Hold on, Mar.” Lucas held up a hand gestured to a bit of clear space away from the sentries and the resting laborers. “Let’s step over here, quick. Officers only.”

I nodded and beckoned to Camille and Jonathan, our second-in-commands. Once we were a far enough away from everyone to have a whispered conference without being overhead, I took a deep breath and gestured for Lucas to speak.

“It was a group of nomads. Seven families for a total of thirty-one people. Twenty-three of them are combat capable and they have the firearms and ammunition to arm them, but two of them are currently pregnant and five of the rest are under the age of eighteen.” Camille shook her head at that, but I cut off the argument that Lucas was about to start.

“We can discuss child soldiers later, right now just keep giving me your report.”

Lucas grimaced but continued. “They had a semi-permanent residence on the periphery of Chicago, traveling through the old suburbs and living off the supplies they could find in old superstores. They moved out a couple of months ago when a large group of bandits moved into the area and the Chicago enclave decided they were too much trouble to chase off but not enough trouble to worry about.”

“That stacks with the last reports we have from the Wayfinder net.” Jonathan mimed swiping through a touch-screen display. “They’re on the fourth page of the Chicago report, so even the Wayfinders agreed they weren’t a big deal.”

“Makes sense. Those ruins are too picked-over to support anything larger than a few dozen people.”

“That’s what the leaders of this nomad group said, Mar.” Lucas wiped at his eyes, a nervous tic he’d had since we were college students together. “They were doing fine until they headed west. They ran into some bandit scouts, well-armed ones, so they’ve been on the move toward the plains ever since, trying to make themselves more trouble than they’re worth.”

“Any clashes?”

“A few, and only technically. No casualties on either side and only a few rounds shot by the nomads each time they see bandits catching up to them or sneaking up on their camp.”

“They’re trying to figure out their gear.” Camille crossed her arms and growled. “Shitlicking bandits are trying to get them to waste all their ammo on scaring them off so they can sweep in and clean up. We’ve seen tactics like that in the more militarized bandits. They’ve probably got a base they’re operating out of and they’re waiting for their main forces to show up before attacking the nomads.”

“Thanks, Camille.” I nodded toward the horizon, where the large group was growing slowly closer. “So you brought them back with you.”

“Yessir. I couldn’t leave them to die to a bandit attack like that.”

“So you brought them to join us so we could also die in a bandit attack?”

“No, sir.”

I took my goggles off and pinched the bridge of my nose as I squinted through the glare. Without my goggles to cut the sunlight from this unusually bright day, I couldn’t see the nomads on the horizon anymore. As I put my goggles back on, I spent a moment wishing this decision wasn’t in my hands. Once I’d adjusted the strap again, I cracked my knuckles through my gloves and started issuing orders.

“Lucas, you’re officially in trouble for this. It is against Wayfinder policy to pick up groups of nomads and offer protection to additional people while escorting a group that has paid us. We’ll worry about your punishment later because we can’t risk Mr. Eidetic Memory here when there’s someone else qualified.”

I turned to Jonathan. “Go with Lucas.  Start cataloguing their gear and make a note of everything that either is a weapon, can be used as a weapon, or can be made into a weapon. When we make camp, I’ll need you to assess their abilities. Take a few hunting to augment our supplies and see how they stack up. Tell Natalie I’ve given you the run of our supplies outside of basic essentials.”

I turned back to Lucas. “Once you’ve brought them up and introduced me to whoever their leaders are, you are to backtrack until you find traces of bandits or an excellent ambush spot. Take all the scouts and whatever guns you need. Don’t worry about silencers. The more of them that know they’re facing a real force, the fewer we’ll have to shoot.”

“Camille, get this group moving. While I’m dealing with the nomads, you’re in charge of these people. We don’t want them mixing right away. Start figuring out if any of them have skills we can use or if any of them can fight. I don’t want it to come to that, but we need to be ready.”

Once I stopped, I looked each of them in the eyes and nodded. They saluted and hurried off to take care of their tasks. I had a while before the nomads caught up to where I was, so I started getting ready. A few small adjustments to my gear and I looked like the figure on the posters of Wayfinders they post in the hiring offices. I returned to my backpack, finished my meal, and started going through the pockets of my pack. Once I found the notebook and pencil, I flipped through it until I fought a blank page.

Suitably armed for my upcoming encounter, I slung my pack up on my back and started out toward the nomads. By now, they were close enough to make out distinct figures, but I lowered my head and focused on crossing the snowy landscape. Even with the goggles, the glare from the sun made the distance hard to judge. Every few minutes, I’d look up again until I could start to make out distinct features and spot the Wayfinders Lucas had taken that morning, who were scattered around the periphery of the nomads.

When they were a quarter of a mile away, I stopped moving and looked them over. They moved sensibly, the large people out front and the smallest ones in back, with a couple of adults back there to keep an eye on the children and function as a rear guard. They had good coats and packs, so they clearly knew what they were doing, but I could tell from the way they weren’t constantly looking around that they hadn’t fully adjusted to living in the wilder parts of the midwest.

Once they reached me, everyone stopped and started the process of having a quick meal. Three of the people from the front of the group moved over to me and one, a tall woman with a runner’s build, held out a hand.

“I’m Brianna. Your scout told me you were the famous Captain Marshall. I couldn’t believe our luck.”

I took her hand and shook it perfunctorily. “I wouldn’t count yourselves lucky, yet. You’ve got bandits trailing you and I hope you know that your tactics so far haven’t done much.”

“Shooting in their general direction has chased them off. That’s been good enough for me.”

“Well, if you want protection from my Wayfinders, you’re going to need the permission of the group that hired us to guide them and to agree to do everything I tell you without question.”

Brianna nodded. “We will ask and you will have our complete obedience. I know how effective you Wayfinders are and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my people safe.”

“Good.” I counted the heads of the nomads and watched as Jonathan moved the camp, talking to the people who were eating. “We’re officially too big to have any chance of hiding from any group we run into, so there’s going to be a lot of fighting before we get to Des Moines.”

The woman and her two companions nodded. I gestured for them to get back to their meal and went to talk to the closest Wayfinder. After leaving instructions for her to make sure they set a pace to catch up to the other group by nightfall, I started out, heading back toward my company using the trail I’d made getting there. I caught up a couple of hours later and, as the sun was just touching the horizon, the nomads caught up to us. Luckily, the laborers were good sports and, when presented with the results of their hunters, were more than happy to share our guidance and protection.

While the nomads and laborers made friends over their fresh meat, I called all of the Wayfinders together and we made our plans for the first signs of a bandit attack. There was the usual amount of joking and banter among the veterans, but that quickly faded as everyone focused on their roles for the next few nights. Being a Wayfinder might be a prestigious position and one of the few things you could still do in the post-collapse world if you wanted to live freely, but it also had a high mortality rate. Now, we would begin the most dangerous part of our job.

Tabletop Highlights: D&D 3.5 Versus Pathfinder

To be entirely fair, there isn’t a big difference between these two rule sets at a macro level. Pathfinder was intended as the next step of D&D 3.5, trimming down the rules to remove complications and re-balancing the game’s power so the often under-powered martial classes could stay relevant during higher levels. As a result, it is fairly common to adapt things from one version to the other. For instance, most of my D&D games incorporate the character sheets and skills of Pathfinder, along with a few other rules–such as cantrips (the most basic, lowest-leveled spells) can be cast without limitation and all combat maneuvers are performed using the rules from Pathfinder rather than 3.5.

I find that combat runs a little more smoothly, skill allocation is easier, and general player satisfaction is higher when I incorporate these rules. It allows me to bring in a bit more power to skill-based characters without running into what I believe is the biggest problem of bringing Pathfinder rules and character stuff into 3.5. As a whole, the core components (character classes and racial abilities, mostly) of Pathfinder achieved a state of balance by increasing everything’s power. There are exceptions, of course, but it can be frustrating to try to balance a character built using 3.5 rules with a character built using Pathfinder rules.

3.5 can also be hard to adapt to Pathfinder because it has a similar problem. The core components may be weaker, but 3.5 has a wonderful array of extra feats, class variations, racial features, and poorly balanced errata that make breaking the game much easier. I can build character with limitless power in 3.5 and I’ve yet to find a way to even break the game on the same scale with Pathfinder. I can make a character that can easily move a mile every two minutes (and I know I can get it higher if I try) in 3.5 and that’s just silly. I can create cell towers and rail guns. I can do pretty much anything, if my GM doesn’t know to stop me and I’m feeling perverse. The only thing that redeems 3.5 is that it takes very specific knowledge (which anyone can now find online) to build those things and your average player doesn’t want to break the game.

When it comes down to determining which variation you want to play, 3.5 or Pathfinder, I find it breaks down fairly well. Either works great for role-playing and story-telling, but 3.5 works really well for players who want complex builds or have more experience. Pathfinder is great for people with less experience or if you want to keep your campaign simpler and more focused. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to remind a player in one of my 3.5 campaigns that, just because he found it in a rule book, doesn’t mean his character knows about it or would even be able to obtain it. This has been happening a lot in my weekly campaign, which can be frustrating at times because he keeps accidentally trying to min-max his character. If we were playing this campaign using Pathfinder, I doubt he’d be able to get up to even a quarter as much crap as he does.

The few times I’ve played Pathfinder, it worked really well for introducing new players. The abilities were much more clear and I didn’t feel like I needed to spend a few days browsing books, PDFs, and forums to figure out how I wanted to build my character. Every time I’ve gone and done a pick-up-and-play campaign at a game store, it has been a Pathfinder campaign. I’m certain the latest edition of D&D (5.0) would be just as easy to pick up and play, but I feel like Pathfinder has more depth to it for the people who want it. You can still get multipliers to your power level instead of just adding to it.

I really want to play more Pathfinder, mostly to learn more about it. I don’t own any of the books and everything I’ve read about it has been what they released online as part of their System Reference Document (search the version you want to learn about and “SRD” and you should wind up with all the rules you need to play). I’d like more experience, both as a player and as a GM. It can be fun to experiment with different rules and see how far you can go, but there’s also strong appeal to playing without all of the crazy extra stuff. Just like when I want to play Skyrim without any mods sometimes, despite loving what the mods do to the game.

My Dream Car

Lee stood at the window, folding laundry as he waited for his girlfriend. As he moved deeper into a pile of shirts, he saw a car pull up. A moment of excitement, the car pulled away and he remembered Amy was still too far away.

He took a pile of shirts and put them away. When Lee turned around, he noticed a car pull up to the curb, pause for a moment, and then drive away. Curious, he absently picked up another shirts and kept folding. On the fifth, the car pulled up to the curb, hesitated for a moment, and then drove off again.

Gone were thoughts of shirts and his girlfriend. Lee tossed his laundry aside and moved to the downstairs window. A couple minutes later, the car pulled up to the curb, hesitated, and then drove away.

While he contemplated this pattern, it came by again. The interval between the car’s disappeared and reappearance began to shrink until it came into sight as soon as it vanished. After a minute, he noticed the car creeping closer to his window. He jumped back from the window. He couldn’t see the car past the blinds in any of the windows, but he could hear it zipping around.

Just as it sounded like it was about to tear his house apart, he found himself sitting on his bed next to a pile of laundry, phone buzzing in his pocket. Still listening for the rush of air that was the car, he saw his girlfriend’s picture.

“Hello?”

“I’m outside.”

“Sorry.” Lee hurried toward the door. “I dozed off.”

“Really?” Lee unlocked the door and hung up his phone. Amy’s worried face greeted his.“It looks like a bunch of cars drove over your lawn. How could you have slept through that?”

Saturday Morning Musing

I have a tendency to get distracted while I’m doing things and then see something move out of the corner of my eye. This happens to a lot of people, usually as the result of some small shift in something our brain chooses to ignore, like a hair that’s out-of-place or a shadow in the background somewhere. It’s super creepy. Countless horror stories have been written about creatures that lurk just outside the scope of our vision; something that can only be glimpsed out of the corner of our eye when we aren’t looking for it. I  know of only a few examples of positive things with similar abilities and most of these are more purposely ridiculous than positive.

After I graduated college, while I was still working the area, I stopped having this rather common occurrence and started seeing something in front of my eyes as well as off to the sides. I spent a lot of time talking it over with my friends, both skeptics and believers, and even started called it “The Apparition” because it was consistently the same thing. The more I talked about it, the more detail I was able to notice about it, and and the longer it would stick around. I was under a lot of stress at the time and my imagination was at its most active, so I’m not sure if I even really believe what I think I saw. Despite being so positive this was happening four years ago, looking back on it now makes me doubt it ever really happened.

I don’t really have any proof that ghosts are real, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are. Science can only be used to explain what we can perceive and make educated guesses about what we can’t, so it is entirely possible ghosts are real and we just don’t have the means of detecting them yet. It’s also possible that what we call “ghosts” are just the result of some easily explained phenomenon that escapes us simply because we haven’t figured out how to perceive things correctly. There’s a lot of support for them in the general population, in part as a vague interest and sometimes as a serious belief, which includes a number of people you wouldn’t expect. One of my mother’s church friends claimed to be able to see or feel spirits and also firmly believed that a number of my anxiety, OCD, and depression problems were actually qualities of this spirit that had attached itself to me. According to her, it was likely my great-grandfather. Which is super creepy to think about. Who tells a twelve-year-old that they’ve got a ghost attached to them?

There are, of course, the countless rumors of buildings or places being haunted. After seeing some of the stuff I did in the theater I worked in most days, along with the stuff I felt, I find it hard to believe that there wasn’t something there. Maybe it was a figment of my imagination, maybe it wasn’t. The further I get in life, the harder it is to maintain anything more than a perfunctory skepticism about a lot of things. Maybe I am haunted by the ghost of a deceased relative. Maybe I’ve got some kind of otherworldly being who hung out around me for a while. Maybe they’re the same thing and my spirit’s brief appearance in my vision was a mark of my transition to full adulthood. Maybe they’re not real at all and I’ve got an imagination that just wants to tell stories, even if only to itself.

Who knows? I don’t think it really matters, either way. Sure, it could change some of the way I live my life, but only the micro details. Nothing major. All I know is that thinking about something like this is like lighting a fire in my mind. Open-ended questions that require me to build stories just to think about them are a lot of fun. As a result of these mental exercises, I think I can see where stories for things like Cthulhu or Mind Flayers came from. Additionally, seeing unknown things out of the corner of your eye has given me an idea for a story I would like to write. It would be different from any of the variants I’ve encountered and the prologue I’ve written so far, to solidify the idea, makes use of a few characters who had been homeless for a long while now.

Now, hopefully I haven’t creeped myself out too much to be able to go into my basement to do some laundry. All those memories and thoughts of the stuff I encountered at the theater have given me the heebie-jeebies. I’m going to go spend some time in a well-lit room with many light sources so as to minimize the amount of darkness and shadows near me.

Lost Connection

Dancing dots spin and whirl
As I fret and watch the screen.
Seconds tick and minutes pass
As I mourn what might have been.
Passcodes take too long to type
As I start to make a scene.
Why’d my phone have to shut off
As you started to come clean?

I swear I want to hear you out
As I quickly make my case,
But anger soon fills up your voice
Knocking patience out of place.
My words become lost in yours
And then vanish without a trace
Because your pain and questioning
Hast left my answers with no space.

I sit and listen for a while,
Until I can take it no more,
Then I gently set my phone down
And think back to moments before.
That sudden sound of silence
As my stomach dropped through the floor:
I felt relieved that I’d not need
To put up with you anymore.

I thought I was Overwatch-ing Sports on TV

I’ve never really been one for watching sports. Sure, I’ll keep up with the big-deal games and news, but more as a desire to participate in society than from actual interest. I’ve got nothing against sports or people who enjoy watching them, I just only really enjoy them as a way to interact with people. Watching the game with some friends is fun, but mostly because I’m with my friends. This has held true during the rise of e-sports, which have captured the attention of many of my friends who generally shared my apathy toward professional sports. Only this year has that changed. With the advent of the Overwatch League, I’ve finally started taking an interest in a professional sport.

Which it totally is at this point. There’s a league, a code of conduct, privately owned teams, merchandise, specialty merchandise, and publicly broadcast matches you can watch. Heck, you can ever get into twitter arguments about whether or not you think a team should have won. Thankfully, there are fewer moments where a loss can be blamed on a referee since software is the final arbiter of truth and anything you disagree with is a result of the tiny bit of lag between the server and your computer/display. The players make a bunch of money and the popular ones make even more, there are licensing deals in the works, and we’ve already had a few scandals that temporarily disqualified people. Finally, the most important part of determining whether or not something is a sport, ridiculously young people have already aged out of the professional scene. For e-sports, that seems to be somewhere in the early to mid twenties.

Every time I go to watch an Overwatch League match on Twitch, I remark to my roommate (who watches them all with me) that the players are all babies. I mean, sure, they’re required to be at least 18, but that’s still practically baby age. I recognize that I’m getting older and I don’t have to go back that far in my Facebook photos to find pictures of me looking like a baby, but it still feels ridiculous to see how young they all look as they sit on top of the world. Well, as they sit on top of this particular portion of the world. I feel kind of bad for them, honestly. They spend their teenage years getting good enough to qualify, lose their early adult years to professional gaming, and then age out by the time most people are graduating from college. That’s gotta be rough, you know? I don’t envy them their positions or problems. I doubt I’d do that even for the amount of money they’re making from streaming and merchandise. I want to enjoy my gaming.

Honestly, though, even for a first-year sports league, Overwatch is a lot of fun to watch. I’m a good enough player to recognize the flow of the game, key tipping points, and what a player did that resulted in their death or a big kill-streak. It is a lot of fun to sit on my couch with my roommate and discuss the matches as they’re going. I’ll admit I still maintain a certain degree of apathy, but I prefer to watch and dissect when I can. My roommate watches all of the old matches on YouTube once they’re over, if he misses a broadcast, but I’m content to just look for highlights and cool plays. I don’t have a favorite team yet, since I don’t really follow any of the streamers, but it has been really cool to see how much some of the strong solo-players have shined. I prefer my tanks, and really enjoy seeing a good tank play, but those are relatively rare given the current accepted strategy for the professional scene. I’ve still gotten to watch a few nice tank plays, though.

The popularity of the Overwatch League has brought a lot of players back to the game and I’ve enjoyed the wider variety of players. I’ve also enjoyed that pretty much everyone is trying to emulate the professional team compositions and play styles, because it makes it easy for me to work around them or take them down. Professional-style play only really works if you’ve got the skills to back it up. One person who knows what they’re doing can easily disrupt an entire group of people who are trying to emulate something they saw on Twitch and don’t have the skills to do. I was able to place in the top 45% of players, world-wide, for the current competitive season by almost solely playing to counter professional team compositions. Backup from a group of competent players who knew what I was doing was integral, of course, since it was up to them to actually do something with a disrupted and disorganized team.

I think I enjoy the professional e-sports league so much because I enjoy playing Overwatch. I don’t really enjoy playing most sports and most other games in e-sports, so I’ve never really had the chance to see something I’m good at and enjoy on my TV like this. I’m looking forward to how the Overwatch League grows and develops over the next few years. Maybe we’ll even start to see our first e-sports bars pop up around town! I’m willing to bet one already exists somewhere. An Overwatch-themed one would be a lot of fun!

The Future Looks Bright

I like to experience anything new with an open mind. However, that’s a lot easier said than done when that new thing has been shoved in your face for a year (plus or minus a year) without you ever getting a chance to actually experience it. That’s why I avoid movie trailers and most video game news sites. Keeps me calm and unbiased when I finally sit down to something new. At the same time, I’ve only got so much time on this planet, so I try to get recommendations from people whose judgment I trust so I can do my best to avoid wasting my time on something. Which is why, against several recommendations and what felt like my better judgment, I sat down to watch the Netflix original movie, Bright, with an open mind.

The recommendations I solicited and the ones I encountered on the internet were all heavy with criticism for this Netflix original movie, but I think a lot of it is unwarranted. Sure, there is plenty of room left in the story for there to be sequels, but no part of the movie felt like it was specifically left in to shoehorn in a few more loose threads for potential sequels. There were a few moments that dragged along, sure, but they were relatively short and in the two-to-five range, depending on your preferences. The story set up the world and its politics succinctly and quickly, it developed the characters and the story very well, and it had just enough ambiguity at the end to leave you wondering if there was going to be a sequel. Which means there will be one because that’s what Netflix is in the business of doing nowadays. I think a lot of people overlooked the context of the movie when they commented on it: everything has a sequel these days, even things that shouldn’t, so of course you’re going to feel like they built one in.

The world’s magic and technology were delightful and just unexplained enough to be interesting without being too vague to feel real or too powerful to feel like anything other than a deus ex machina. The magic is a central feature of the movie, but they do a good job of not addressing exactly how it works until near to the end without making it feel like they left a gaping hole in the world. When you do finally get to see it in action, you finally get to see a world whose magic is truly above and beyond what any normal person could handle. Hell, there are some Elves who may or may not be using magic to fight people and their individual power level is ridiculous even without a magic wand. It was like watching a bunch of 20th level player characters walk into a town with nothing but level 1 guards who tried to apprehend them. Ridiculous, credibility-stretching slaughter right up until the protagonists started fighting them. To be entirely fair, they do a good job of establishing just how stupid-strong the protagonists are through some excellent background shots (Orcs are super strong and tough), and a really bad-ass slow-motion scene (with a magical “all the bullets I need” gun).

Since it is a fantasy story (probably urban fantasy), I’m willing to give it some leeway when it comes to what we usually call “realism.” Some of the characters made thinly veiled references to being in a story and one such reference was even the justification for a character to do something that had an extreme (1,000,000 to 1) chance of killing him. I want to believe that was a Terry Pratchett reference, as he often had characters reference the fact that million-to-one odds basically guaranteed it was going to work out. I don’t really think it is, though. The story is too different and there are much more accessible homages to Terry Pratchett that could have been included without breaking the fourth wall, such making a few obvious links between the police and the night watch in Ankh-Morpork.

If you like fantasy, want to encourage more well-made fantasy movies, want to encourage the trend of new urban-fantasy media, or just want to tell Netflix to keep it up in general, I suggest watching Bright. You’ll never get that two and a half hours of your life back, but I definitely don’t regret spending my time watching this movie. I might even watch it again with some new people who won’t talk during the whole thing. I love my roommates and all, but c’mon.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 1

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I never liked guiding young men. The worst were always the laborers, young guys who traveled from city to city, shoring up what infrastructure they could and scrapping everything they couldn’t. They’re always drinking smuggled whiskey, forgetting to fill their canteens with snowmelt, and there’s always a few who make passes at some of my Wayfinders. A little over half my team is women and these young men are used to what we once called “Rockstar treatment” since they’re given pretty much whatever they want while working on an enclave in the hopes of getting a skilled metalworker or net tech to settle down.

Normally, I’d refuse and save everyone the hassle, but we’d dropped off the families we’d picked up in the wreckage of Chicago and the only group ready to go and capable of paying had been two dozen men in their twenties. The city’s net connection had been saved by two of the men in this group, and the rest had managed to fix up the shelters so they’d be properly insulated again. I had a soft spot in my heart for the Madison, Wisconsin enclave, having lived there before the collapse, and agreed to take this group as a whole at their request.

Between cities, the Order of Wayfinders is the law. If the people we’re escorting try to report us for anything, the enclaves simply tell them they’re welcome to request a refund and then never be escorted anywhere ever again. We are judge, jury, and executioner outside of the enclaves. There’s no room for arguing or anything but iron-clad authority in the otherwise lawless tundras. We police ourselves, so most Wayfinders who abuse their power wind up as bandits or dead.

We were ten days out of the city, heading southwest toward the great plains of Iowa the first time I had to assert my authority. Generally speaking, my Wayfinders aren’t shy about turning people down if they don’t want someone’s attention. Unfortunately, the amount of self-assurance it takes to brush off a drunk young man who desires you is a skill that often takes time to learn and one of my trainees was struggling. Once she asked for my help, I gave it. I reminded the man bothering her that he was to respect her wishes and, if he ignored her again, I was going to beat him until I was certain he’d learned his lesson.

He was drunk enough to take me seriously at that point, but a couple of nights later, as the full moon peeked between the heavy, grey clouds, he decided I was full of it. He was, after all, six and a half feet of trim muscle while I was only a middle-aged man, beard already showing the first signs of grey around my mouth, of modest stature and height. Once I’d dropped his unconscious ass back into his insulated sleeping bag, I left their shelter and found Laura in the shelter she shared with four of the other trainees.

“He’s out. If he troubles you again tomorrow, punch him squarely in the ribs. I cracked a couple of them, so he should go down easily enough.”

“Thanks, Marshall.” Laura rolled onto her back in her sleeping bag and laced her hands behind her head. “And, after that, I can just shoot him?”

I nodded. “Stabbing would be better. You’re decent at quick kills, so you should be able to do that easily enough. It’d be a lot quieter and you’d save yourself a bullet.”

“Silence Is Paramount.” Laura saluted me from her sleeping bag. “As you wish it, so shall it be.”

I smiled down at her, my beard hiding everything but the crinkle at the corners of my eyes. “Sleep.”

Laura saluted again and I walked out of her shelter, waving my hand dismissively. A few steps away, I found the night-sentry already buried in the snow. “Hicks, keep an eye on the tents tonight, too. If you see any shadows trying to get into a Wayfinder shelter and it doesn’t belong to a Wayfinder, make it dead.”

A thumb poked itself out of the snow and then quickly disappeared again. Satisfied, I walked around the rest of the perimeter, that everyone was either in their shelters or preparing for the morning. After that was done, I retreated to my shelter. Lucas was already asleep, but Camille and Natalie were still awake, huddled around the campfire.

“How’s Laura?” Camille handed me a bowl of thick soup.

“She’s fine.” I started eating.

“And the other guy?”

“Alive and capable of keeping up the pace, but unlikely to do more than that for a few weeks.”

“Pay up, Nat.” Camille held out her hand and took the twenty from Natalie with a look of triumph on her face.

“Sorry for having faith in the newbies, Millie.”

“Who else was in the pool?” I chewed at a tough bit of meat and wiped steam from my beard as I looked at the pile of cash Natalie was rifling through.

“Well, cap, it’s all the vets but you and while I was the only one to bet on the newbie, the safe bet was you beating the young groper so badly he would need a couple of days of rest before he willingly went anywhere. Technically, that still remains to be seen, but I doubt it. We’ve got two other bets on you killing the guy because he fought back well enough to need it.”

I nodded as I swallowed the gristly piece of meat. “Sounds about right. Luke didn’t want to wait up to see how it turned out?”

“He’s got second guard shift tonight, Marshall, as do you. Finish eating and let me take care of cleaning up so you can get some sleep.” Natalie stuffed the money away and started picking up the cookware and food. I finished my bowl of soup and snatched another out of the pot before Camille sealed it up for the night. After finishing my food and cleaning myself up as best as I could with the last bits of my tube of toothpaste, I wrapped myself in my sleeping back and lost track of time until I was shaken away by Lucas.

“C’mon, cap. Second watch starts in a few minutes. Captain’s orders. You wouldn’t want to disobey an order from yourself now, would you, Captain?” I was still too asleep to see properly, but I’d seen the goofy grin plastered across his face often enough that I didn’t need to see it to know it was there.

Grumbling, I slipped my insulated gear back on and clambered out of my sleeping bag. Lucas disappeared out of the door in a flurry of cold that set the embers to snapping on their logs while I cleaned up my gear. A few minutes later, I’d traded spots with one of the sentries and concealed myself in the snowdrift. The only thing peeking out of the snow was my camouflaged night-vision goggles and the end of my gun’s barrel. Even with my night vision goggles, there was nothing to see but the empty hills we’d camped near.

When the sun and the movement in the camp started to make hiding pointless, I gave in to my desire to move around and creakily pushed myself to my feet. I wasn’t old yet, but lying around in the snow for four hours sure made me feel like I was. As I took stock of the area around the camp and the camp itself, I noticed one of the laborers standing a few paces away. He was friends with the one I had educated the day before.

When I pushed my goggles up and locked eyes with him, he smiled uneasily and stepped forward. “Captain Marshall. I’d like to apologize on behalf of our group and especially Mitch. He’s an asshole and deserved everything you gave him. We’ll do a better job of keeping an eye on him.”

“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.” I shouldered my gun and let my face settle into its natural glare.

The man took half a step back and held up his hands. “You’re absolutely right, sir. Mitch and I already apologized to Wayfinder Laura. I just wanted to apologize for the inconvenience of needing to police my group. It will not happen again, Captain Marshall, sir.”

I smoothed the glare from my face and nodded. “See that it doesn’t. Next one gets killed.” I watched him quickly walk away and turned my attention to the rest of the camp. The tension that had started building after I beat the assaulter seemed to have seeped away. While I was looking around, Luke walked up. When he saluted, I nodded.

“Captain, there’s signs of tracks behind one of the hills to the southeast.”

“What was someone doing out there?”

“As the sun rose, I saw it glinting off of something and took a look through my scope. Empty food wrappers, sir. Curious, I walked over after having my post covered by one of the trainees. There’s a whole trail, sir.”

“They got that close and we didn’t see them?”

“No, sir. Basic camouflage would have concealed them at that range, given they were moving at night.”

“Right, the snow.” I shifted my gun and nodded to a small crowd of Wayfinders that had gathered when they saw the captain talking to the lead scout. “Take a small crew and see what you can find. We’ll continue course as we’ve set it, so meet us at our midday stop with whatever you’ve found.”

“Yessir.” Luke saluted again and jogged off to the group of Wayfinders. I watched them gear up and head off before heading to the cookpot for breakfast. It was either nomads or bandits. Neither was good news for us. As the sun shone down through a break in the clouds and I helped myself to a bowl of oatmeal with dried fruit, I wasn’t sure which would be worse.

Tabletop Highlights: Exploding Kittens

I’m a huge fan of The Oatmeal. His comics are wonderful, he tackles some very difficult ideas in his stories, and he helps create wonderful games. I’ve been following him for a few years and have really enjoyed most of what he’s created. When I heard that he was doing the art for a tabletop game and had helped create it, I immediately ran to Kickstarter to check it out. True to form, the Kickstarter for Exploding Kittens was chock full of The Oatmeal’s particular art, wonderfully depicting all kinds of ways cats could accidentally blow you up through cat-like behavior.

Eventually, I backed it. I got the full edition of the game along with the hilarious (and very) NSFW version of the game. Since then, I’ve stayed up to date on the game. They eventually created an expansion called “Imploding Kittens” and another game called “Bears vs. Babies” which was not quite as fun and charming as Exploding Kittens.

In Exploding Kittens, the object of the game is to be the last player left alive. There is a deck of cards that everyone draws from at the end of their turn. If they draw an exploding kitten, they die unless they can play a diffuse card (like a laser pointer or kitten therapy). Before you draw, you can plan any number of other cards to do things like skip your turn, give your turn to another player (forcing them to take two turns), steal another player’s cards, or look at the top three cards on the deck.

Once you’re out of usable cards and you draw an exploding kitten, you’re out. Don’t worry, though, it wasn’t personal. The cat was just walking on a computer console that just happened to have a nuclear launch button on it or they were playing with a hand grenade and accidentally pulled the pin while tossing it around. I’m going to avoid going into the NSFW cards because that’s not something I want to write about on this blog, but I encourage the interested parties to check it out.

The game is a ton of fun when you’re having a game night with your friends and it only gets more fun if you’re drinking a little. Don’t drink too much, though. The game is a little more complicated and strategic than you’d expect, so too much alcohol is just going to make it easier for your friends to set you up for an explosion. Which is exactly what you should be trying to do, since you can place the exploding kitten wherever you like in the deck if you play your cards right.

The biggest downside to the game is that it can really drag on for a long time if there aren’t very many players. The game has instructions on how to tailor the game to the number of players, but I’ve followed the instructions with a small group before and wound up sitting around for almost half an hour while the last two players tried to end the game. Even in larger groups, where people get eliminated faster, the first player out can wind up spending a lot of time waiting if they were just incredibly unlucky. You can always cut the deck down for smaller groups, of course, but that can be difficult to get right as some cards only work when paired with similar cards.

Either way, as long as everyone’s relaxed and participating, the game is ridiculous amounts of fun. If you want a new game that will last around an average of 15 minutes per game, I suggest picking up Exploding Kittens.