A creativity blog - including reviews, photographs and discussion on a variety of things; such as dragons and other things almost but not quite completely entirely unlike tea.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

New cross stitch charts!

So, there was a sale on HAED, and I got three new charts. I probably won't be able to begin them in the longest time, but well, I guess they aren't going anywhere.

This is the biggest chart I bought - Trapped by Melanie Delon. It is 80 pages and has 90 colours, so it's going to be one heck of a project. Unlike Asiria though, it has a load of stuff in the background, so I'm imagining it will be fun to stitch.

This is Zen Garden by Ciro Marchetti, which I bought as a mini. Pretty, isn't it? Large chunks of single colour to stitch. Ciro seems to have some Tarot card drawings as well, now, I wonder if any of those are available in HAED...

And finally, this lovely black and white is One by Zindy Nielsen. Also a mini. Now, just to get some time for stitching...

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Deadhouse Gates

A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen continues with its second novel, entitled Deadhouse Gates. Here the story moves from the continent of Genabackis to that of Seven Cities - the backstory is that this was the Malazan Empire's bloodiest conquest to date, with high cost in both foot soldiers' and leaders' lives. From Gardens of the Moon we continue to follow the journey of Kalam, Fiddler, Crokus and Apsalar, who endeavour to both bring Apsalar back to her home as well as, as far as the two Bridgeburners go, to confront the Empress about her unjust policy against the Bridgeburners. The story begins, however, with the introduction of new characters: Felisin of House Paran and sister to Captain Ganoes Paran familiar from the previous novel, who together with historian Heboric Light-Touch and a ruthless thug by the name of Baudin is sent to a prison island off the coast of the main continent of Seven Cities - this being due to noble houses being stripped of power in the Empress' name, to control the masses of the people by giving them someone to blame for their hardships. Watched on by her sister, Tavore, newly risen to the position of Adjunct to the Empress, Felisin gets on board the slave ships and begins her own journey of deprivation, deterioration and finally, of growth. At the same time, the holy desert Raraku is being traversed by two mysterious companions: Icarium, who searches for something that even he doesn't know is there, and his companion Mappo; who meet up with the band of Fiddler and the children in the midst of the desert. And finally, the Malazan garrison in Hissar welcomes its new Fist: Coltaine of the Crow Clan, a former enemy and now subject of the Empire, who has been sent there to do what he can in the face of an upcoming rebellion of the Seven Cities populace against the Malazan rule.

So, to begin with there are four major groups of characters, each with their own goals and and plots to follow. Coltaine's chain of events is followed mostly through the eyes of Duiker, an imperial historian, who also sends for help for his colleague Heboric, who together with Felisin and Baudin eventually escapes the prison and ends up on a journey through the magical warrens and finally, the desert Raraku. Kalam splits of from the rest of his party early on, reasoning to make a better time to the capital on his own, being a Seven Cities native and taking an indirect part into the rebellion as he travels. Fiddler is left to travel with the children Crokus and Apsalar and they meet up with Icarium and Mappo in a temple to Shadow, tended to by a psychotic madman of a High Priest, Iskalar Pust. Together the group join up to follow the Path of Hands, a prophesied event of Ascendancy sought by many creatures and humans alike. The House of Azath which stands at the end of the Path of Hands is Fiddler's group's key to travelling to another Azath house: the Deadhouse on Malaz Island, the roots of the Empire. Meanwhile, as the uprising begins, Coltaine leads a march across the continent to reach the capital of Seven Cities with their train of refugees constantly assailed both from the outside by the rebellion army and from the inside by the disgruntled nobility.

The tale of Felisin reminds one of the journey Frodo leaves on from the Shire. She is stripped from her noble status and made a slave, which she copes with by falling into decay in the form of drugs and abuse. At first she is traumatized by the sexual abuse she is subjected to and tries to escape it with the drugs - this, however, affects her mentality so, that she begins to accept the abuse as a price for the drugs and the reasonable comfort provided to her by her abuser on the prison island - when she escapes with Heboric and Baudin, partly against her will, she blames them for removing her from her safety within the prison. It is as if she feels the physical abuse as a continuation for the mental trauma of having been betrayed by her own sister, who sent her on the slave ships. Her nature changes from a timid young girl to an selfish, rude and intolerant little brat, who is cruel to all those who would show her any kindness. This pushing others away from her becomes almost like self-torture to Felisin; when there's no one to harm her physically, she resorts to harming others and also herself by isolating herself from everyone else. Her path through the warrens and the desert changes even that, however, as she comes to terms with the pain and hatred in her heart and in the middle of the desert, is transformed into a woman.

Coltaine comes to Hissar as a former enemy of the Malazan Empire and this is how he is viewed through the eyes of his Malazan garrison. The story of Coltaine is always told from the viewpoint of Duiker, who interviews both the Malazan soldiers and the members of Coltaine's own Crow Clan and thus records the events of Coltaine's Chain of Dogs. The deep distrust which is at the heart of everyone at the arrival of Coltaine does not alleviate in the minds of the common folk until the very end - in the eyes of the Malazan infantry it happens much sooner as they become to appreciate Coltaine's leadership and the loyalty his own clan accords to him. The storyline raises up difficult questions about allies and enemies, race and nationality as well as class and status, as the train of refugees seeks to reach the garrison in Aren while the country around them is in flames with the uprising. In the end, the refugee train reaches Aren and watches from the battlement as their saviour is overwhelmed, unable to help him.

It is harder to pinpoint themes for the rest of the plot lines - Icarium's and Mappo's mysterious search, Kalam's quest for revenge and Fiddler's desperate gamble on a hunch that Quick-Ben had about the Houses of Azath. In a way, apart from Icarium and Mappo, these plots continue the story from the Gardens of the Moon and are thus interesting to the reader - they are after all the only familiar characters in the book and as such are immediately identifiable with. Icarium and Mappo's storyline explain a bit more about the workings of magics and mystics in the world of Malazan Book of the Fallen, and also pave the way for the continuation of their search in the later novels of the series. With all of these characters too, there is growth and development, as each and everyone of them is somehow affected by the Holy Desert Raraku.

In the course of this post about the Deadhouse Gates it seems fitting to talk about the kind of women Erikson writes. So far, we've had the characters of Adjunct Lorn and Tattersail in Gardens of the Moon and Felisin in Deadhouse Gates who get a voice in the story, as well as several minor female characters. What characterizes much of Erikson's writing in general is, that you hardly ever get the viewpoint of characters in leading positions, such as the Empress, or the Fists, but you get an account of their command through the eyes of people under them. This is no different when it comes to the female characters - the highest ranking female whose viewpoint the novels adopt is Adjunct Lorn, but that lasts only for a short period of  novel time in the Gardens of the Moon. (Of course there are others than Malazans to take into account as well as the novels progress, but for now, let's focus on the Malazans.) The women come from all walks of life and the three I've already mentioned give a good representation of them as well: Lorn is high ranking personal aide to the Empress, Tattersail is a High Mage and Felisin a noble-born young girl imprisoned and sent to slavery. Apart from them, there are a lot of women in the ranks of the Malazan military, who fight equally alongside the men. 

While reading the Malazan series, I have never been caught by surprise by the occurrence of the female characters. They are represented as a natural part of the other characters and being a woman seems to make no difference in the way they are described or behaved towards. In fact, in the company of the lewd and sex-hungry soldiers there are also lewd and sex-hungry women. It is not as though the women are invisible in the novels, it's just that no special attention is given to the fact that this or that character is a woman and not a man. There are cultures within the world that have different views about gender, but for the part of the Malazan Empire, what you are capable of is more important than which sexual organs you possess. Partly my blindness to people's sex can also be cause by the fact that I'm a Finnish reader and as a Finn I've always been rather blind to all sorts of genderism occurring in the world - when you grow up making no distinction between men and women, it's sometimes difficult to see why other people bother to do so.

To quote George R. R. Martin, Erikson's women are people. They may do some things differently from men, but it is never raised as a crucial point in the stories. They are not glorified any more than the men are, and there is also weakness and self-deterioration among them, just as there are men who are badass soldiers, evil sorcerers or self-important noblemen. I especially like the character of Felisin, whom you both love and feel sorry for but equally also hate and think of as a stupid teenager in the course of her story - it illuminates well both the troubles of being young as well as the troubles of becoming a woman in your own right, faced by the problems of betrayal, loneliness and cruelty, and growing eventually into the independence she gains.

Deadhouse Gates works well as a novel by itself - the only points of continuation from Gardens of the Moon are really the reasons why Kalam and the others came to Seven Cities, and everything else is new and elaborated. The storylines intertwine somewhat, but for most part tell of events occurring on opposites sides of the continent and of the ramifications actions here have on actions there. The novel is written in a way that leaves the reader thirsting to know more about the events when it moves to talk of different characters and by the time you get to return to the first plot line you are already completely engrossed with the second and third ones. This is, I believe, because of the believable characters - it is easier to identify with them and thus become interested in what is going to happen to them in the course of the story. Also, as each and every character faces some sort of hardship along their way, the reader is likely to become empathetic to their respective causes, which makes you want to turn a page after page in order to find out what eventually happens. What I also like about the novels is that not every ending is sugar-coated in happiness and joy - sad things occur, people you've come to know as a reader die and even some of the victories leave a bitter taste in your mouth. The thing that really matters in the end is, I believe, that you become involved with the growth of the characters and immerse yourself with the intricate world that is described in Malazan Book of the Fallen. And it is those things that keep you wanting to come back for more.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Mouse Guard RPG experience - with the Burning Wheel system

Let me begin by stating, that it's not important what you fight, but what you fight for. In Mouse Guard you most often fight the natural enemies of the mice, such as snakes or weasels, or you fight more abstract things like corruption or bad weather, but in the end, you should fight in order to protect the Mouse Territories, the order of Mouse Guard and your fellow guard mice. Because when you're all small and weak, the best way to survive is to stay together.

Mouse Guard is an original comic series imagined by author/illustrator David Petersen who has converted the comics to the Burning Wheel role play game system, published by Archaia, together with Luke Crane, the designer behind the BW system. I have yet to acquaint myself with the original comics, though I have them lying  around somewhere. Also, I've only played MG two times, once as a player and once as a game master. Even though I've seen the game from both sides of the same coin, I have hardly the experience to give a definitive analysis of it; nevertheless, I will attempt a review of the game. This I do mostly for my own pleasure as well as an incentive for future players of MG.

I myself have played with, oh, dozens of role playing game systems, I suppose. But BW has so far remained a mystery to me, even though I've glanced through some of the books occasionally. MG RPG I received as a Christmas present (or was it birthday? can't remember...) a couple of years ago, but my busy schedule with other games has so far discouraged me from trying it out. I was finally able to play a one-off session of it when I visited the Conklaavi gaming event in Turku, organized by the Turku University roleplayers, Tyrmä ry and this summer, in Oulu University roleplayers' gaming event, Maracon, I was able to host a game of it. I used one of the ready-made adventures from the book and the characters from the original comics - in Turku we played a completely home-made scenario with pre-made characters the GM had designed specifically for our adventure. Both times I enjoyed the game very much and both times I found that the game worked even when both the GM and the players were a little lost at the general rules and concentrated rather on the storytelling and throwing the dice when a conflict arouse. 

The system is pretty straightforward - if there's a need for a die roll, you roll. This can happen for instance to check how well something works out, or how much time doing it takes. What happens is always decided after the actual die roll. And even if the die roll is not good, the character can incur penalties to make their action succeed, or to work out. So failing can be pretty rare in this game; although the costs can rack up pretty quickly. Say for instance, that you're looking for something out in the wilderness, a place to rest, another guard mouse, a stream with fresh water. You see your mouse's stats and skills and choose which ones to use and if you have any wises that can help with your throw, or if your party members will cooperate in this action. You then get the amount of d6 dice that your stats and skills show, as well as possible bonus dice from wises and friends. You try to roll fours or better - these are successes - and to get as many successes as possible. If you fail, you can negotiate with the GM. Possibly your mice find the stream, but it takes them such a long time that they are tired, or angry, by the time they get there. The conditions always give you negative effects and steal away the dice you can use on checks and can only be healed during the Players' Turn.

If there is no need to a check, you just tell the story. Here GM and players can cooperate to advance the plot, the players can ask questions or even suggest things to happen - but the main role is on the GM's shoulders at this point. Whenever a more dire situation occurs, the players begin to resolve a conflict, usually against the GM, but they can sometimes occur among the players themselves as well. Before a conflict, the target disposition will be calculated for both parties - this is the number which you will then start to play against. The difference between the enemy and the party successes either increases or decreases their respective dispositions; so for instance if a guard mouse attacks with five successes and a weasel defends with two successes, the weasel loses three disposition. Beside attack and defend there are also feint and maneuver actions, which either give you an edge in your next roll or force the enemy to forfeit their defence completely - these are all better understandable when playing the actual game. In a conflict you need to decide three actions in advance and in secret - these are then revealed one by one and resolved against your opponent's actions. Here one is required to consult a table to see what effects each action has when combined with another one; it is difficult at first, but once you get the hang of it, playing the conflicts will get a lot smoother. The conflict ends when either of the target dispositions reach zero - the one to get there first is seen to have lost the conflict.

Once the main conflict of a given session is completed, the players get some time-off. During this time-off (called the Players' Turn in the actual rules) the characters can heal up, keep up their contacts, get new equipment, level up and so on and so forth. Use their free time whatever way they please.

So that's pretty much the actual game play, with a few simplifications here and there. I myself like it for its simplicity and how its not overdependent on die rolls. But then again, I like it when there's room to maneuver between what the character can do and they may do. The skills and wises can be expanded a lot to cover this and that aspect of the game, and if you don't have a skill that would fit, you can always roll your Nature which functions as a basic die pool, as well as gives a notion of how mouse-like your character is. Your Nature may, as per other abilities and skills, go up as you play, but it can also go down. If it goes to zero, your mouse leaves play, as it becomes no more than an ordinary field mouse, having lost the human-like aspect of itself that made it able to be a guard mouse.

Apart from abilities, traits, skills and wises, which all affect in your game play mechanically, each character also has three other important plot devices: their individual Goal, Instinct and Belief. Goal is written up before each adventure and must somehow apply to the current mission the guard mice are on - it need not be exactly the same as the mission outline, at least not with all of the mice. Accomplishing a goal generates a Persona Point, which you can use to add one die to your pool or to tap Nature to any one roll. Doing this Nature tap, however, lowers your Nature score if the roll is outside your Nature (meaning, does not directly relate to it somehow) or if the roll fails. Instinct is exactly what it sounds like - what are you likely do to in a given circumstance. For instance, Saxon, a mouse from the original comics, has the Instinct: "I always draw my sword at the first sign of trouble", while Lieam's is "Always offer help when needed". Playing an Instinct earns a Fate Point, which allows you to reroll any sixes as new dice, meaning more successes. Instinct is a more permanent trait with each mouse, although it can of course be changed over time. Belief is a little more complicated. It is like a world view, or agenda, or general attitude to life, that your mouse follows in most, if not all aspects of its life. Changing a Belief requires serious character development to happen (if you follow the rules rigidly) and playing it earns you Fate points, as was with Instinct. All of these points are earned at the end of the session, to be used in game next time. Why I like these three guidelines, is that they give you a sort of a 101 course on your mouse first, and a mechanical advantage second. Not to mention, they can also have disadvantageous effects, in certain circumstances.

When you begin to play a new scenario, one of the players should recap what happened last time. This allows for everyone to catch up, but it also shifts from of the responsibility off the GM - and also, the storyteller may remove one of his effecting conditions or recover a point of Nature he has taxed in previous session.
So that's it for the mechanics. I like the mechanics, even though the dice pool system is sometimes taxing, in that there are times when you get no successes and times when you roll all sixes - and sometimes you roll right according to the probability curves and all mathematicians squeal with joy. The main point is that the mechanics are simple, easy to learn and fun to use. Even the conflicts are fun, when you get used to them. Also, I like the character sheets provided by the game - they're big enough for your handwriting and also contain the most important tables and die information, so you don't need to flip through the book all the time during play. 

Most of all, though, I like the world. I won't go into it too much, as I don't know so much about it myself. It is one of the rare games that I've played as other than human - not that it's so rare, just that I haven't done it so much. It's interesting to try and relate to problems a couple of mice might have, such as high grass, badger's nest or lack of berries due to dry season - all the while keeping in mind that what you're doing is for the protection of everyone else. So I guess, as we come around the circle, what you fight for depends a whole lot on what you are. Maybe some day I'll create characters for the game from scratch - because that's always my favourite part - and I'll get to really enjoy and appreciate all the possibilities the world has to offer.

Asiria update #1

My cross stitch has not progressed as fast as I'd like, but I guess it can't be helped, with me moving to a different city and all that since I started it. Some progress is visible though, and I will still have a few days of stitching time before I start in my new job for real.

Here's where I'm now, few more colours since last time and the whole of left side of the first page is finished. There are still big areas to be stitched with just one colour, but an arch is also coming up that has lots of different colours inside it. I'll probably need to start stitching those square by square when I get there.

I went and bought some new needles today, as I had misplaced my old ones during the moving. Here's what's happened to my first needle, although I must say a part of it happened because I had to use the same one to repair one of my shoes - because I couldn't find the other ones. Disregard my ugly fingernails.

I'd also like to thank my dog Peppi, who has been of tremendous help in my cross stitching project by not having eaten, drooled or in any other way damaged my fabric or flosses. Yet...

Also, as my friend Heli added me to the HAED Facebook group and I've been seeing other people working on their charts, of course I went to see some new charts, by accident. Here's one I like a lot, maybe I'll get it after the ten years or so it'll take me to finish Asiria.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The witching hour - me playing Bayonetta

Bayonetta was among the first three games I bought when I got PS3 last year. Others were Devil May Cry 4 and Final Fantasy XIII, about which I might write sometime later, but for now, let's concentrate on Bayonetta.

Bayonetta at first reminded me of a mixture of the Devil May Cry and Dead Or Alive series - DMC came to mind mostly of the cheesy subject matter, posy cut scenes and the action-adventure genre, while learning the moves for the different weaponry reminded me a lot about DOA, which is basically the only fighting game I've ever played more or less seriously. Bayonetta came out in 2009-2010 for both PS3 and Xbox 360, and its director Hideki Kamiya has worked with titles such as DMC before; all of these interesting facts you can also learn from the game's wiki pages. A sequel, Bayonetta 2, has been announced, but sadly it also seems to be exclusive for the Wii U platform. Maybe I could borrow the one my brother has for the duration of playing through the game...

Back to the first game. The main story in Bayonetta involves finding out about the title character's past - apparently she just woke up one day with no memory of anything, except the knowledge that she is a witch and must battle the forces of good, so as to not be dragged down to hell, where she gets her powers. This means basically killing angels and collecting their halos for currency. You'll have several different weapons to use (once you find and/or buy them) to aid you on your journey. You can equip weapons to both your hands and feet, and the move lists differ according to what you've got equipped and where. Kicks and punches are pretty straightforward, in addition to which you'll have guns, ice skates, fire/electricity claws, a sword and a whip to choose between, to name a few. 

In addition to just smashing and bashing, in combat you take advantage of your witch skills - you can slow down time by dodging, use torture attacks to finish off (or seriously wound) enemies and use your hair (yes, your HAIR) to make powerful Wicked Weave attacks (yes, they are called exactly that) when punching in the right combos. And that's not all, for the enemies drop weapons too, which you can use. The Angelic weapons only last for a limited time though, but they are the best damage accruers you can get. 

The plot is organized in chapters, of which you get a rating and bonus halos if you do good. Between chapters you can save and shop, much like in the DMC series. Whenever the game is loading, you also get to train with Bayonetta - and you can stop the loading and stay in the training mode if you wish to try out your new toys, but as you cannot change equipment except between the two sets you've chosen, one rarely spends exceedingly long times just training. Within each chapter there are also hidden quests, Alfheim portals, where you get goodies for completing missions in a given time - much like the secret missions in DMC. And naturally, there are some hidden treasures within the chapters, with which you can get new weapons and other goodies from your pal Rodin, the barkeep.

Bayonetta is the best action game I have ever played. The story line could be better, but the actual game play is superb. It is easy and challenging at the same time and there are even some puzzles you need to work your way around, which, although not very difficult, are a nice breather in-between battles. Even the tiniest angels are annoying and the bosses are badass, so if you haven't got skills to play, you're not going to make any progress. I started to play straight away with the Normal difficulty, there are also Easy and Hard to choose in the beginning and after Hard, you can unlock the Umbra Witch difficulty. You get to save your game and take all of your achievements and candy and weaponry for the rerun, so learning to play with Easy/Normal and using your experience and equipment to trudge through Hard is really the way to go here. What I've seen of the different difficulty levels is that you get more difficult enemies earlier on, and you get more of them at one go when you up the difficulty - I'm not sure if the enemies are simpler or harder to kill on any given difficulty, but I'd guess so.

I've been thinking whether or not I should talk about sex in the course of this post: when it comes to Bayonetta, you sort of think you should mention it, but then again, when it comes to Bayonetta, it's so given, that you maybe want to skip all that and talk about something else. I'm going to write something brief about it though. Sexuality is very much slammed to your face when playing Bayonetta. She dances, has tight clothes, fights cat fights with another witch, eats lollipops, loses her clothes regularly and well, makes references to pole dancing in her dialogue. So she's a witch. I personally don't mind the overplaying with sex in Bayonetta just because it is so overplayed - and to me, sex is also an important part of Bayonetta as a character. It could be argued that Bayonetta is a game made by men for other men on the one hand, but on the other hand here we have a female character, who is openly very sexual, independent and dangerous - and I cannot really say that portrayal is degrading for women in general. And of course, there is the obligatory compassionate and caring aspect in her too, but I don't see how that could be avoided either. Or if it should be.

So, the game is good-looking, fun to learn and play, there's versatility and interesting characters, the plot is a little silly but manageable, the music is awesome, you have a few mini games to play beside the actual game and there's content beyond the actual story line. I guess the end note here could be that the writing in this game is extremely witty. And not only because the main character speaks with a British accent, although it doesn't hurt, either. I thoroughly enjoyed watching all the cut scenes and listening to all the conversations and hearing random voice actor comments in the middle of the fights, because they were all just so very well written. All of the characters are individuals in their own right and though evolving occurs, it is not to say that the beginning was somehow less involving as the end product. There is humor, sarcasm, references and even down-to-hell conviction to look forward to in the dialogue. It is rarely that you really enjoy "being" in your characters' presence for hours on end, but this happens when playing Bayonetta. In the end, the game is meant to entertain first and pierce the dark abyss of its' players' souls second; and it does both of them in abundance.