The Influence of Dune

I was thinking about Dune recently.

Dune is one of my favourite books (also movies, even though they are so different). It is one of the few great works of genre fiction that so many subsequent authors draw from that somehow manages to seem cohesive and powerful even today.

Dune remains an unfinished series for me. I loved Dune Messiah, but was disappointed by Children of Dune. I have not had the heart to continue on into the series, despite most people saying it gets better.

Even as a standalone book, Frank Herbert’s Dune is impressive, dealing with topics that we are grappling with even now, in grand fashion.

  • Extractivism: Dune has strong overtones of the age of industry, with the primary driver of conflict in the book being a resource of incredible scarcity and potence: spice. Control of the planet is vital to the Emperor and all of humanity since the spice is the basis of interstellar travel.
  • Fanaticism: In Dune and Dune Messiah, the religious, tribal fanaticism of the Fremen is presented as a potent force. Despite everything man has learned and accomplished, it is the power of his irrational impulses and prejudices that produces the greatest fears. Sound familiar?
  • Automation and AI: In Dune you read in passing of the Butlerian Jihad, a great religious upheaval against thinking machines and robots of all kinds. The Jihad rids known space of AI and sentient machines, but also sets humanity back into a kind of dark age. While Herbert’s view of automation and machines was often repeated in later scifi, his replacements for machinery in the genetic coding of the Bene Gesserit and things like the human computers known as mentats were very inventive. Star Wars has sentient robots but they fight wars like they are in the 1970’s and seems to indicate that they change very little of everyday life, Dune tackles these changes head on and builds a more cohesive universe.
  • Transhumanism: Cloning, genetic modification, and outright shedding of one’s humanity figure deeply into Dune from the beginning. Herbert toys with the idea of prophecy heralding a certain needed sequence of genetics in Paul (or Leto II) and muses on the idea of clones and a human being becoming something else through technology or symbiosis. This is a surprisingly modern idea.

This along with the culture clashes, the philosophy and the deep politics of the series have made it stand out in my mind.

Idea: Focus Crystals

This is an idea for a book series that I will likely start writing in 2018, after my third Shadow Wolf Book (The Whore’s War) comes out.

I have gone on about industrial age fantasy before. My current favourite book series that fits the idea is Brian McClellan’s flintlock fantasy which begins with Promise of Blood. I believe that we will see more and more industrial age settings as the genre branches out. I can even see it becoming one of the dominant forms of the the fantasy genre. Steampunk has done well, but the industrial age is larger than victoriana.

The Focus Crystal

The idea behind the Focus Crystal is to combine the industrial age with fantasy magic. The crystal is a specially treated mineral that converts concentration into magical energy that can be used to power magical effects, or as a mundane source of energy.

Key Points

  • The Focus Crystal works better for people with stronger will and better concentration.
  • The Focus Crystal can store energy for a limited period of time. Small crystals lose half their stored energy every 15 minutes while the largest and most elaborately made have a storage half-life of 24 hours.
  • The energy from a focus crystal can power a spell. Originally they were used by hereditary sorcerers to supplement their magical abilities, but it was eventually discovered that the energy could be used for more mundane uses like electricity in the real world. Eventually it was discovered that it could be used by a non-sorcerer to power a magical effect when combined with a spell plate.
  • Focus Crystals can be mass produced from materials extracted from the earth.

In the setting I am considering Focus Crystals undermine the nobility, who claim power through hereditary sorcerous power, by making magic more accessible.

The working title for the series is End of Kings.

Review: Path of Exile

This week, after a long hiatus I returned to Path of Exile. My main computer gaming pastime of late, Total War: Warhammer, is still building up to a major and I am content to give it a rest until then.

path_of_exile_logo

Path of Exile is a free to play action rpg that has been out for several years. The game that most people would compare it to is Diablo (more like 2 than 3). Regular updates and a strong community keep it fresh.

Path of Exile plays like a typical isometric action RPG. Your character will fight hordes of enemies and nasty bosses for levels and loot. Compared to Diablo 3 the graphics are less impressive, but also less gaudy, and when the action starts much, much easier to follow than the explosion of special effects that define a high level confrontation in Diablo 3. It is much easier to follow what is going on in Path of Exile and the no nonsense approach to graphics means that special touches like an impressive boss or unusual item stand out. I also like that the combat is more tactical, with nods to positioning and ability use and less about dodging ground effects.

Path of Exile is a game that does not hold your hand. It is possible to make characters that are far better than others. The game’s skill web makes the skill trees of Diablo 2 look like shrubs and the skill choices of Diablo 3 seem like preschool.

poe-skill-tree-example

Each of those tiny nodes is a single skill point. Most are small bonuses, but can radically change your character over time, while some nodes can completely change the style of play. There are also ascendancy classes.

While the sheer variety may seem daunting, it is fairly intuitive once you understand how to read it ad the community are always, always talking about builds. The endless theorycrafting helps promote the game.

Melee (STR/Marauder) is supposedly among the weaker built types, but I have no trouble in single player on the first such character I made.

Not that anyone who likes the game would ever stop at just one character, the possibilities of that skill tree are a great lure.

At first glance the item system in Path of Exile is nothing special. The usual rares and artifacts make their appearances. Slots are in as well, though in Path of Exile this is where you get your active abilities from. In is interesting to note, however, that none of the shops use currency, but rather trade in useful commodities like identify scrolls and orbs that reroll the properties of magic weapons. There is real depth in the item system and it certainly holds the game together.

The dungeons and environments are well designed. My favourite is the labyrinth where you get your ascendancy class; a randomized set of trials with challenging traps and interesting, varying mechanics in the boss fights, all with a tight story about an emperor with no heir trying to find someone worthy.

Speaking of story, the world building in Path of Exile is unlike any of its competitors, steeped with western archetypes and what seems to be some sort of Maori warrior lore and crazy ruined empires than run on blood, gems, and the dreams of gods (and men of infinite ambition). If the story of Diablo is Dante’s Inferno cross with a world war, Path of Exile is more comparable to Vance, Moorcock, and the Malazan series. It is dark and brooding, but teeming with life and ambition. All of that grandness though is brought down to earth by interesting characters and a simple motivation: you have been cast out, exiled and left for dead, but you lived and now it is time for revenge.

Best part is the micro-transactions are not prohibitive at all. No pay to win, or pay to remove obstacles to play here.

Good game.

RPG Building: On Dice Mechanics and Consistency.

I was actually referencing this post for a project I am fiddling with, when I realized that it was better than what I was working on and switched over. That got me to thinking about dice mechanics in general again.

I am also reading Ready Player One, which has a lot of D&D references, so that helps as well.

The player should always know what dice they are rolling. It speeds up play and increases confidence in novice players. It seems like a stupid point, but so many games are bogged down in dice pools (older) or fancy, custom dice (newer) or finicky mechanics.

D&D is a good example of this in action, especially after 3rd edition. Most rolls are resolved with a single toss of a d20. It becomes reflexive at the table. I feel 5th edition actually stumbles a bit with this since you must figure out advantage before rolling, you cant just drop the d20 and be certain that it holds. Minor quibble, but I do think it holds.

Some of the player’s rolls in a d20 game are other dice, but these are fewer and tend to be damage rolls or percentile rolls that the player has control of and are very easy to keep track of. After 3e it is also important to note that all high rolls were positive rolls for whoever was acting. This mean that seeing high numbers on your dice always made you feel good, even before the final resolution.

Contrast this with another of my favourite game systems, Champions. This game dominated my youth, since you could play almost any genre and make very interesting characters if you were familiar with the system.I still have my 5th edition Champions in my book-case, and while the game is complex, it opens up universes of play with amazing depth.

Champions used six sided dice exclusively. The problem is that they vary both in number rolled, how they are counted, and even whether high rolls or low rolls are desired. This is a flaw in an otherwise superb game, it introduces needless complexity for simple dice mechanics in an already demanding system and really does not gain anything for it. Mutants and Masterminds recognized this, snivved some of the ideas and added a simpler dice mechanic, and it does quite well.

Then again, sometime you can simplify too much. The old White Wolf dice pool systems had a variable number to get a hit on each die. The newer ones count a 7+ as a hit, which cuts out a lot of the flexibility in the earlier systems in favour of a trivial gain in ease of use. It is not hard for a player to count successes from different numbers, especially if high rolls are always good, and the number of dice rolled is consistent.

Anyways, I was thinking about this and then I realized how awesome a Yahtzee style dice mechanic would be for an RPG. I’ll be in my bunk.

Tuesday Teaser

This week’s teaser comes from Bloodlust: Red Glory, the fourth book in the Domains of the Chosen.

Red_Glory_5_Final

This week I’d like to introduce Melia, a businesswoman who lives in the Capitol with her Husband, Darius, and her Daughter Rose. Melia originated in The Great Games, my short story about a night at the games.

To us Melia seems normal and reasonable. Her attitudes are modern and having been raised in a place with no Arena, she sees the games as violent and degenerate, an attitude that most of us would share. In the Domains, however, Melia’s views on the Games are considered odd and unpatriotic, almost insane.

Melia watched as the miniature Gladiatrix jerked to a halt. The idea of a woman the size of her little girl competing against some of the monstrosities that she had seen today turned her stomach. The Ogress with the filed teeth and the leering man with the shadow tricks were somehow even more disturbing than the two fighters strutting through the streets naked.

 And yet Melia was filling her purse to the brim, and more, with gold Krassics, all because of the Great Games. Ancestors curse her, Melia was a hypocrite. She wondered if she had sold some vital part of her spirit today, to secure a better future for her family or even just to watch people enjoying her wares.

“Are you alright, love?” asked Darius from beside the food cart.

“I’m tired from all of the running around, Darius,” said Melia, forcing a smile, skirting the truth. I don’t want to ruin this day for my husband and daughter too, she thought. What is wrong with me?

Darius looked at Melia with knowing eyes, but did not call her out. Melia felt a stab of guilt: Darius was a good man, grounded in the realities of the Empire and not given to railing against what he could not change.

<>

Then she saw Sapphire Kiss talking to Rose while Darius fumbled with a piece of fish. The woman was fully exposed like some brazen whore. Her ‘armour’ was a joke. Anger shot through Melia and she pushed forward.

“Get away from her you skank!” growled Melia, pushing through the crowd, her triumph forgotten.

The Gladiatrix straightened up. Melia was not a small woman, but Sapphire Kiss towered over her. The Gladiatrix’s strange weapons were peace-bonded, but those restraints looked rather pathetic up close. Nonetheless Melia steeled herself and stepped between her and Rose. The crowded street was suddenly silent. Two Grey-Robes were nearby, thank the ancestors.

“How dare you dress like that and talk to my child!” said Melia. “Prostitutes and dancers at least have the decency to cover themselves in public places. Have you no shame?”

“I’m sorry,” said Sapphire Kiss, hanging her head for just a moment.

“Sorry?” said Melia, stepping closer to the woman. “Is it an accident that you are strutting around naked? Did you forget to put on clothes? Did you not notice the breeze between your legs?”

I like the juxtaposition between the two in this obligatory Godiva scene and also between the very moral Melia, and the immoral people she encounters.

Battle Tactics: The Battle of the Bastards (TV version)

(SPOILERS for Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire)

I am not a huge fan of the later books in GRRM’s A song of ice and fire, so I have not really delved into the TV show, with the exception of when there is a major battle to watch. This most recent season had the famous battle of the Bastards which was one of the most visually spectacular and exciting battles out there. I loved it.

Mostly.

I have a serious problem with the way that Bolton’s spear wall is portrayed. Take a look at the following pictures:

BoB 1

Big shields and a wall of spears… a strong shield wall ha turned back many a barbarian horde hasn’t it? Note that men can easily fit between the spears and despite the length of the weapon it is only braced by two men.

BoB 3

Some unlucky Wilding gets too close to the shield wall and gets an ugly surprise. Note the long length of exposed wood on these spears.

BoB 2

The size of the forces involved. What happens if all of the Wildlings, fearing death, push in one direction?

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BoB 4

Another view showing the relative size of the forces involved. The reaction of any force being squeezed like this is to push back at some point in a desperate attempt to survive.

So the Bolton Spearwall is an odd duck.

  • The shields are enormous individually, but do not gain the strength that a smaller shield overlapping with a neighbors shield would.
  • The spears are a long as some pikes but only have one set of extra hands bracing them and absolutely no support from spears further back in the formation. The main deterrent from pushing into a phalanx is that one is always exposed to more rows of spears, there is no safe channel for men to flow through to get to the shields.
  • Several of the Wildlings are shown making it to the shields. One opens up and delivers a swords thrust to keep the man back. This is great TV, but terrible tactics for a spearwall where it would be far better to ward the front rank with more spears. The sword thrust appears to come from the man in the second rank, which is a pretty long lunge, and that oversize shield looks awful clumsyand hard to get back into place.

I would argue that the Wildlinsg would push back against the shields of the Bolton men. The spear density is just too sparse to stop them and the enemy ranks are too thin to prevent a breakout. Once the mass of bodies is pushing against the shields (which is inevitable, one way or another) it is very hard for the front man to move his shield aside for the man behind him to thrust with a blade. The Romans used shorter, wider shields that they could thrust over.

Some would argue that the Bolton spearwall bears some similarities to medieval spear units, the Roman Legion, or even that the Bolton men are so good or the Wildlings are so unused to formation fighting that they could not get up to the shields to push back.

Fine. What then stops the Wildlings from doing exactly the first thing that leaps to mind when I look at that spearwall: What stops the Wildings from grabbing the spears or hacing the points off? In a true Phalanx the secondary spears could thrust out to prevent this. Nothing at all prevents it in the battle of the bastards. No matter how stupid and fearful the Wildlings are eventually someone is going to hack the head off of one of those spears, or, worse yet, grab them and pull. It would only take three men pulling to overpower the two men holding the spear in the Bolton formation.

The Macedonian Phalanx

The Macedonean Phalanx. One of the pinnacles of formation warfare. The pikes are braced by numerous men and defended by row after row of spear tips that could thrust forward to ward off anyone pushing into the formation. 

Even then a true fanboy could argue that I am wrong and it does not have to turn out that way. A particularly cynical chap might say that they were overawed or low on morale, ready to be slaughtered like animals.

Ok. So what then happens when those spears start pushing into the mass of men and getting weighed down by bodies. Each of those spears would rapidly become useless as it pushes into the packed Wildlings. After it impales a few it becomes a liability as the rest can easily surge over the encumbered weapon and get into the Bolton line before it reforms. In a true spearwall the additional spears could be used to push bodies off, but more importantly they provide immediate replacements when the front spear gets broken, pulled away, or becomes unwieldy due to impaled bodies, there are immediate replacements already in place.

I admit I am being picky. Fans loved the Battle of the Bastards. The problem is many of those fans, like my own stepson, will go on to write their own fantasy tales/shows/games and I do not want to see them compound on this error.

Teaser Tuesday

This weekend I am releasing Bloodlust: The Seeds of Ruin (Domains of the Chosen #6)

For those who have not seen it, here is the cover.

SeedsOfRuin-Front-Y

No link yet… 🙂

And here is a teaser from the book itself.

“I don’t have time for this,” Gavin muttered. He channelled all of his desperate fear and anger into a powerful spell, hoisting a pair of broken waggons into the air. “I AM THE MINDRIPPER, SHOW YOURSELVES IF YOU WISH TO RECKON WITH ME!”

His voice roared through the storm. They waited, tense and ready. Then the very air seemed to change.

“They’re gone,” said Silver Rose.

“Cowards,” muttered Green Sting.

Gavin turned and kept walking. He cast his mind back through the bond to Sadira, but she resisted him. Whatever she was doing, the level of concentration required prevented him from deeper communion.

“Let’s wait here,” Gavin said, pointing to a sheltered area under a bridge. “Whatever is happening is coming to a head now.”

Just a little taste…