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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011



1 - You are a parent; and
2 - You are going to see at least one movie this year

That movie should be Courageous

It's amazing what the folks at Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia are doing. This is the most powerful yet of the four movies (Flywheel, Facing the Giants and Fireproof are the others) that they've made.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bob's Books - Conan the Valorous, by John Maddox Roberts

Tor #8/1985 
This is the first of the eight novels that John Maddox Roberts wrote in the fifty-book Tor Series, and the first not penned by Robert Jordan (later of The Wheel of Time fame).  In William Galen Gray’s chronology it is the thirtieth Conan tale, following Howard’s The Bloodstained God and taking place before Howard’s The Frost Giant’s Daughter. 

I commend Roberts for providing an excellent look at life in Cimmeria. I contrast this with the disappointing approach that Harry Turtledove used in Conan of Venarium.  The barbarians live in stone huts and put up hide tents; they don’t occupy what is basically a medieval village. The people are nomads and fierce warriors. They fight each other, only coming together when driven by exceptional circumstances. Maddox Roberts also depicts the enmity  between the Cimmerians and the Vanheim, which is an important characteristic of life in the north.

The tale begins with Conan hastily swearing to perform an errand for Hathor Ka, a Stygian sorceress. Conan blindly agrees to the task without getting the details first. Really, it’s hard to buy that he was so hard up for money that he just jumped into this deal. Apparently Maddox Roberts wanted to get the story moving so he skimped a bit on the Call to Adventure. Regardless, once he agrees, Conan is committed to visiting a sacred cave in his homeland and things get going.

As Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (a must read for any fantasy fan),

“The first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass. What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny.”

A wizened old man reads Conan’s future in the very first chapter.  He then sells Conan a protective amulet in chapter two. Drawing on Campbell’s Monomyth, strengthens sword and sorcery tales and Maddox Roberts is clearly familiar with Campbell’s work and works elements of the Hero’s Journey into the story.

Maddox Roberts weaves together Conan’s journey, the Cimmerians’ trouble with demon raids, a Vanheim invasion into Cimmeria and a complex plot involving three competing sorcerers on a quest for god-like power. This story has a lot going on and it’s all deftly handled.

The book is low on the sex scale, with Conan bedding a rescued chieftaness in the Border Kingdoms. This happens almost halfway through the book and he doesn’t sleep with any other females in this tale. Maddox Roberts gives us one of the most believable amorous conquests in the entire Conan saga. It doesn’t follow the usual “My, what huge muscles you have, take me, you savage!”

I very much enjoyed Conan the Valorous. Despite the flawed opening, it’s one of the better pastiches and its look at life in Cimmeria is very well done. The complex plot is more than weighty enough to carry the story forward to the very end.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Mount & Blade - a GREAT game

Adventure is the first action/adventure type game I remember playing, and that came out for the Atari 2600 in 1979. I spent hours drawing maps as I worked through Temple of Apshai and thought that 1987’s Dungeon Master was a graphical masterpiece. I used to meet a buddy at the OSU library to play Pool of Radiance, since neither of us had an IBM computer. Long after I stopped playing Dungeons and Dragons with dice and character sheets, I was still playing computer RPGs.  
And that's what computer games
used to look like
(Temple of Apshai)
Adventure's dreaded 'Duck Dragon!'

Mount and Blade, from Taleworlds, is one of the most enjoyable games I have played in those thirty-plus years. It isn't a fantasy based game, but a medieval combat one with some RPG aspects, so you're in the neighborhood. Now, right out of the gate, you have to accept that the graphics are not going to blow you away. If eye candy is important to your gaming experience, this isn't for you. But the graphics are good enough for game play.

On a micro level, WOW! Melee combat is excellent. I played countless hours of NeverWinter Nights and Diablo 1 and 2, so I enjoy point and click games. But you actually have to learn how to fight in M&B: and I don't mean memorizing button combos. Fighting with a weapon (and shield if you choose) actually takes some attention and a bit of thinking. And when your horse gets cut down from underneath you, leaving you surrounded by foes, you'd best have mastered some weapons skills beyond that lance you were using.

Not the face! Not the face!

More enjoyable is the bigger battle. You can separately instruct your cavalry, infantry and archers, so placing your archers on a hill to rain down arrows while the infantry protects them from the front can decide a battle. Your tactics will be significantly impacted by the faction you are drawing your followers from. For example, the Nords are fierce Vikings, the Khergits horse-riding Mongols and the Swadians medieval French with fully armored knights and the like. I've played with all horsemen and also with almost all archers. You have lots of options to mix and match or just be a 'purist' with one faction's troops.

The first time I laid siege to a castle and my troops poured through a gap in the defense, taking control of the ramparts, I knew I'd be hooked for a long time. You fight for the castle, foot by foot. And likewise you can stand atop the walls and repel invaders.

On a macro level: I've seen complaints about M&B being purely a 'sandbox' game: that is, an open-ended game with no storyline or specific quest/goal to achieve. As an avid computer RPGer, I love quest games: both linear and non-. But with a little creativity, M&B can be more than just a sandbox. Create your own goals. Build a company of certain characteristics (i.e. all Nord huscarls). Resolve to capture certain towns and castles, creating a sphere of influence for your faction. Achieve a certain goal with one faction and renounce your loyalty, join another faction and war upon your former liege! M&B gives you the opportunity to accomplish your own goals after you create them. This kind of player creativity is more common to pen and paper RPGs than video games and it's neat to see.

A big bonus is that the modding community is fantastic! I've played a couple different mods and found they can really enhance the basic, 'vanilla' game. It's entirely up to you whether you want to play with a minimal change (like adding additional siege ladders) or complete overhauls (like playing out The Hundred Years War).

If you want a graphically strong game with a well-developed story and clear goals (and I often do), you probably won't like Mount and Blade. But if you want excellent game play with a mix of personal combat and strategy, with the ability to set your own goals, this is the best game out there for you.

I have not yet tried the stand alone sequel, Warband, but I understand you can start your own faction in that game, which would further expand upon the 'set your own goals' aspect.

Dungeon Master skeletons: awesome!