Kickstopper: The Gamer Who Would Be King

Among the gaming subgenres which have enjoyed a little renaissance thanks to Kickstarter are CRPGs of a certain vintage. Whilst producing something as lavish as, say, one of the more recent Witcher or Mass Effect games can involve a massive AAA budget and be a decidedly difficult product to handle on a Kickstarter budget, a top-down isometric-style RPG of the sort made popular by the first two Fallout games, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment is a much more modest affair; Shadowrun Returns and its Hong Kong-based sequel are good examples of CRPGs in this style which came about via Kickstarter.

What happens, though, when this sort of game tries to offer more than a mere RPG experience? We’re going to find out with Pathfinder: Kingmaker, an attempt to add a kingdom management layer on top of a CRPG foundation.

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Valley of Destin(y/a)

Dorothea Tanning is not primarily known as a novelist; her main claim to fame is as an artist, one of the original generation of surrealists who managed to keep her work fresher, develop her ideas further, and continue working for much longer than many of her peers. After initially making a splash in the 1930s, she kept producing artwork into the 1990s; if you hurry, you can still catch the excellent exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern.

In parallel with her artistic career, she had a less widely-appreciated literary career, and once her paintings and sculptures stopped flowing she spent the last decade or two of her life concentrating on poetry and prose, with an emphasis on the former. Chasm, her sole novel, came out in 2004, but it had a long germination, being as it is an expansion and extensive revision of the earlier short story Abyss, which originally appeared in 1949 before appearing in a revised version in 1977.

The Arizona desert which had such a great aesthetic impact on Tanning herself when she and Max Ernst went to live there provides the setting of the novel. Deep in the desert lies the mansion called Windcote, a bizarre architectural excess built by Raoul Meridian, a powerful, patriarchal manipulator with a fetish for women’s hair and a “laboratory” in which he constructs his personal homegrown brand of fetish equipment. Meridian has, over his lifetime, embroiled himself in the life of multiple generations of what you could call the “Destina dynasty” – a line of women all called Destina, ever since in the 1680s a forefather declared that all daughters of the line would be called “Destina”. There are currently two Destinas at Windcote; the elderly Baroness and a small child, looked after by her governess Nelly.

The tedium of life at Windcote is about to be disrupted; over the course of a weekend Meridian expects to greet various guests, among which are Albert Exodus and his fiancée, Nadine Coussay. In a decidedly Rocky Horror Show move, Nadine is 100% fine with coming up to the lab to see what’s on the slab (implication: her, with various sex toys of Meridian’s design interfacing with various parts of her anatomy), which leaves Albert at a bit of a loose end. Rattling about the house, he has a little tea party with Destina, with whom he gains a creepy fixation even as he falls out of love with Nadine, and who shows him various gruesome trophies brought to her by a “friend” out there in the desert.

Albert becomes fixated on the idea that Destina’s friend is, in fact, a mountain lion, and persuades Nadine to give Meridian’s hand-crafted dildos a miss, just this evening, so that they can go creeping into the desert chasm where Destina meets with the lion and see the lion. The two of them should watch out – bad things happen in the desert at night, particularly to a pair of individuals who aren’t communicating well with each other. Meanwhile, back in the house, Nelly finally gets Meridian alone…

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Offutt’s First Effort As Editor

While I don’t quite buy John Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces theory, I do think that there are certain basic frameworks that stories can (but never must) follow, and which can yield a nigh-infinite variety of different permutations of the same basic ideas whilst leaving room for the author’s own themes and personality to shine through. The Hero’s Journey is one such case in point; another one, which through an act of epic pretentiousness I’ll dub the Traveller’s Intervention, was fleshed out by a number of authors in the early 20th Century and goes a little something like this:

A hero, often itinerant, almost always foreign, finds himself called upon to intervene in a dilemma which frequently involves the ambitions of one or more powerful individuals. Often the hero will have his or her own ambitions, which will usually involve some form of personal advancement; occasionally the hero will be unwilling to intervene, but find themselves compelled to, either by external force or their own conscience. Eventually one side or the other in the dilemma will turn out to be in the wrong; sometimes the true villain of the piece will prove to be a raging, instinct-driven beast, whereas sometimes it will turn out to be a manipulative individual who believes that they are invested with the right (whether by tradition or by occult means or by virtue of their special qualities) to do as they please to whom they please; in the latter case, this could turn out to be the person who requested the hero’s intervention in the first place. The hero eventually discerns the correct course of action and defeats the villain, and usually endures physical danger and occult menace in the process; in most cases the hero will win through by virtue of his or her wit and skill. The situation having been resolved, the hero will normally move on, although not without a certain reward for his or her efforts. The hero, in this model, is an agent of societal change, whose intervention has the effect of either breaking a stalemate or championing the underdog, but is not a part of society but exists externally to it.

This is the formula which once refined by Robert E. Howard (with the aid of such precursors as Edgar Rice Burroughs) became the seed of the sword & sorcery subgenre of fantasy, with authors as diverse as Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock making important contributions to it. As with the Hero’s Journey, of course, the above outline is only a loose and ridiculously broad framework, and most authors (including Howard) produced works that diverge from it radically, but even then it’s notable as a departure from the standard format. (For example, the Elric series by Michael Moorcock centres around a weak-willed cripple who wins his Pyrrhic victories by virtue of his soul-stealing magic sword, but aside from this the original novellas fit the above formula surprisingly well.)

A limitation of this particular monomyth is that it appears to be more suited to short stories than to novels; whilst there are a few examples of excellent sword & sorcery novels (including much of Michael Moorcock’s output from the 1960s and early 1970s), most of the foundational works of the genre are in the short story format. This may in part be due to the framework I’ve described covering only one incident of many in an individual’s life, whereas the Hero’s Journey tends to describe the most important and valuable thing the protagonist is ever likely to do. (This may be why the quest narrative is so popular in high fantasy); I think it is also due to this sort of story working best when it has a nervous, energetic, Howard-like intensity to it, with fast pacing and lightning-fast action; this is a mood which is decidedly sustainable over the course of, say, a novella, but is difficult to maintain for the duration of a novel.

Of course, another factor has to be the origins of sword & sorcery in the first place: whilst high fantasy has its roots in novels by the likes of William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and of course Tolkien, sword & sorcery sprang from the pages of 1930s pulp fiction magazines, with a few antecedents in the form of the short stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lord Dunsany. The fact that the framework seems especially well-served by the short story format probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was devised for the short story format in the first place. But with the waning of the short story magazines as forces in SF/fantasy publishing, and with the audience’s tastes spurning most epics shorter than, say, Dune or Stranger In a Strange Land, the genre found itself in trouble in the mid-to-late 1970s. The apparent intellectual vacuity of the subgenre probably didn’t help, and neither did its undeserved reputation for misogyny and racism; both of these image problems may have resulted from oversaturation of the market by Robert E. Howard’s work, posthumously-completed Howard stories, and people writing lazy Howard pastiches. But the genre does not deserve to be written off as the disreputable legacy of an anti-intellectual, racist bigot from rural Texas, and it didn’t deserve that in 1977; luckily, a lone hero sallied forth to save the day, that hero being Andrew Offutt, editor of the Swords Against Darkness anthology series.

Anthologies of all-original SF/fantasy stories (as opposed to mere compilations of the year’s most notable output) such as Swords Against Darkness were all the rage in the 1970s and 1980s, having somewhat supplanted SF magazines; sure, if you were good with a typewriter you could get into the magazines, but if you were a real hotshot you got picked for the anthologies. The craze probably started with Harlan Ellison’s seminal Dangerous Visions, although apparently many of the all-original anthology lines of the era abjectly failed to turn a profit, and the petering-out of the Swords Against Darkness series may be a consequence of this; though Offutt would produce five such anthologies from 1977 to 1979,

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Maledictions Or Malapropisms?

The undignified, blubbering, grumpy weeping on the part of certain Warhammer fans when it comes to the Warhammer Adventures line of kid’s novels set in the Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40,000 universe certainly involved a lot of utter bullshit being spouted. The entitled self-appointed gatekeepers of the hobby couldn’t be honest and direct about some of their objections – such as the prominence of girls, PoC, and girls who are PoC in the proposed fiction series – so they had to talk a lot of nonsense which was demonstrably untrue.

An oft-repeated claim, for instance, was that the settings in question weren’t suitable for kids – this despite the fact that the books are pitched at a reading age of 8-12 year olds, an age which happens to match a good many hobbyists’ first encounters with Warhammer in its various flavours more or less exactly. A related complaint, equally unfounded, was that the Warhammer Adventures line would herald the Bowdlerisation of the settings, with disturbing material excised by dint of being not suitable for kids.

The latter complaint was especially ridiculous, since it could only sustain itself if you only paid attention to the Warhammer Adventures announcement and didn’t give any consideration to the other new fiction line Black Library had announced at more or less the same time. This line was Warhammer Horror, an imprint for stories set in any of the Warhammer universes which put a particular emphasis on their horror-oriented aspects – of which there are a great many. This is precisely the material which dullard nerd gatekeepers would have us believe Games Workshop was about to censor forever for the sake of capturing an 8-to-12-year old demographic which, so far as I can tell, they’ve rarely actually lost.

Maledictions is part of the first wave of Warhammer Horror releases – an anthology of short stories (with, concerningly, no editor credit) offering up a range of all-new horror stories in the Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar settings. Although the book doesn’t separate the stories out into a 40K section and an Age of Sigmar section, I will deal with the stories from the two sections separately anyway because my level of exposure to the settings differs greatly.

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Krude But Functional

Krull is a lovingly-crafted example of style over substance. The back cover of my Blu-Ray copy quotes the Variety review as saying it’s “Excalibur meets Star Wars“, and as is often the case with these cherry-picked movie quotes this is entirely true but in a very specific way.

To be precise, Krull cribs the lush fantasy aesthetic of Excalibur‘s most psychedelically excessive parts – along with that of the lesser Conan sequels and various ’80s sword and sorcery imitators – and then steals liberally from Star Wars when it comes to throwing in a mostly irrelevant science fiction angle (as well as eerily predicting the Star Wars prequels’ defiance of anything resembling coherent pacing or convincing romance).

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Pickin’ Up Truth Vibrations, Part 2: The Truth Shall Set Robots Free

The story so far: David Icke, at a point in his career when his undeniable public speaking skills and widespread national fame could have helped him make the Green Party a major force in UK politics, instead casts that all aside, declares that he is a Son of the Godhead, parades himself and his (briefly polyamorous) family around in turquoise tracksuits, makes an ass of himself in a string of media interviews and attempts to fix the energy matrix of Earth.

A media shitstorm predictably ensues; what also ensues is a persistent failure of Icke’s various prophecies to come to pass, save for a few on the “broken clock’s right twice a day” principle. Icke becomes a national laughing stock. His polyamorous arrangement crumbles, with his ex-partner taking her story to the tabloids and Icke writing a mean-spirited hit piece on her in his autobiography. The radical transformation of the world Icke promised stubbornly refuses to manifest.

Lesser minds than Icke’s would, under such circumstances, come to the conclusion that they may have made some poor decisions. Icke, however, is wise enough to know why it’s all gone so badly wrong.

It’s all the fault of the dastardly Illuminati.

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Not As Sharp As Occam’s Razor

As previously documented here, The Black Alchemist was Andrew Collins’ self-published sleeper hit which kicked off a flurry of interest in psychic questing. His followup would actually get issued via Arrow, a mainstream publisher, and would be his magnum opus: whilst he had written accounts of psychic quests before and after, none would be as massive, wide-ranging, or take in such a broad picture of his questing career from its inception in 1979 to the book’s emergence in 1991. That book would be The Seventh Sword, perhaps the deepest dive you could take into psychic questing without getting up and actually dabbling in it yourself.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part constitutes Collins’ definitive account of the finding of the Green Stone and the associated Meonia Sword – as he’d previously recounted in his self-published pamphlet The Sword and the Stone, and as Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman detailed in The Green Stone. Far from redundant, this involves Collins going into the subject in substantially greater depth than any previous recounting of the story, and delving into subjects that Phillips and Keatman had only glancingly addressed.

The second part picks up a few years later and takes in a span of some six years; after Collins learns that the Meonia Sword was not a unique artifact, but part of a set of seven, bit by bit the other swords are uncovered. It turns out that the occultists who’d hidden them in past centuries had intended that they be used in a ritual known as the Form of the Lamb, to unfold at a location known as the Heart of the Rose, in order to herald the coming of the Messiah and other such high spiritual and utopian goals. Eventually six swords are discovered, leaving only the titular Seventh Sword – which, due to its association with the powers of darkness, was known as the Black Sword. The book concludes with Collins still searching for it and encouraging readers to help out in the quest.

Over both parts, Collins and his allies must tangle not only with the difficulties of searching out the artifacts but also believe that they are opposed by a grand occult conspiracy – one which the Black Alchemist and his Friends of Hecate were only a local franchise of. With an Illuminati-esque level of power (and the appropriate tangled Masonic heritage), this conspiracy is never too far away. Can Collins and his questers avoid being ground down by… the Wheel???

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