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talk23-Nov-2015: Back From Brazil!

At last! I don't know if you've realized this but Brazil is far away. To add insult to injury, to get to Joao Pessoa, you must first fly past the damn city and all the way down to Rio or Sao Paulo. Then you board a domestic flight into Joao Pessoa. But since the distance between Sao Paolo and Joao Pessoa is roughly the same as the distance between Helsinki and London, it is a nearly three-hour flight back the way you came! On our way out there, watching the intercontinental flight I was on pass Joao Pessoa once more, I almost lost my cool. Now I am home, my nose full of dried blood and I am coughing up the atomized lining of British Airways passenger seats. But I also have a pretty good tan.

Joao Pessoa is right at the eastern tip of Brazil and roughly 1000 kilometers south of the equator. Although it is the third oldest city in the country, it is now mainly a tourist attraction with its 40 kilometers of beach. The rest of the city is a jumble of shiny new high-rises, a really nice beach boulevard and what matches Dresden after a visit from Sir Arthur Harris (look it up). Like all Internet Governance Forum conference sites, Joao Pessoa is something of a shopping window for what is otherwise a third-world country. Unlike the previous IGF sites, though, the tourism here is mostly domestic and nobody speaks English. Nevertheless, between Leena's smidgen of Italian and my smidgen of Spanish, we somehow managed to get by. 

There is really nothing there but the beach. If they had put some effort into their old city (Centro Historico), they might actually have something really cool to show you but for now, they are leeching off one of the world's natural wonders and filling the coastline with hotels and tower blocks. With that said, it is truly an amazing beach. Easily the best I've been on. I thought Nusa Dua Beach on Bali was nice but Joao Pessoa takes the cake. It is not coral or volcanic sand but river sand brought in by Paraibo River. It is stone hard when compacted, airy and soft when not and when you are walking at the waterline, it feels like velvet under your feet. Really, really nice, although some people think the brownish water close to the shore is dirty. It is not, it is just "smoky" from all the loose sand.

On top of the perfect sand, the water has just the right temperature, it is relatively clean because the river doesn't have much industry along it, the waves are perfect, the ocean is turquoise, the palm trees are swaying in the gentle breeze and unlike in Bali, the wind brisk and dry enough to save you from the 30+ degree heat. In short, Joao Pessoa's beach is a natural marvel and easily the best I've been to. The beach boulevard isn't bad by any definition and whatever horrible things I am going to say next, I did learn to love caipirinhas. And even beer, because these people are masters in serving it cold.


Brazilians are brave, hard-working, innovative and so on. However, use them singly. As a group, they can't organize their way out of a wet paper bag. Nothing works right, no arrangements hold up and there is something off about everything. Finally, being Latin American, Silence is the baby brother of Death and therefore they must have noise everywhere, including ear-splitting beats at networking events where you are supposed to talk to people. Instead, you find yourself shouting at each other until your throats are shot and then nodding with smiles as you pretend you actually heard what the other guy was saying. From speaking events to air travel, if you find yourself depending on their scheduling on absolutely anything, you're fucked. 

Second, the Argentinians are right about Brazilian cuisine. It is fucking horrible. Really, Silvio Berlusconi should have sampled some of this before he badmouthed Finnish food. Then again, he might not have survived it and it was touch and go with some of the conference guests. The Brazilian Kitchen is based on the idea of having a mountain of lukewarm starch and some really badly prepared meat or fish to go alongside it. They have no idea of seasoning and their sauces are few and far between. They don't really grasp the concept of hot food either and therefore lukewarm portions with pockets of cold fluids trapped inside is completely normal. This is a recipe for disaster, especially with seafood.

I appeased the Cod Spirits with a formal apology and they let me off with a warning (several, in fact, but they were all short). It was a lucky escape. And when the Brazilian chefs do cook some protein, they aim for a hardness of 8.7 on the Mohs scale (slightly under Corundum). This is the first time when I've actually felt like going into the restaurant kitchen myself and cooking my own food. Because I can do it better than these people who are paid to do it (or paid to kill me, which would explain a lot). They have a particularly vile dish called "Carne De Sol", which is what happens if I overcook and over-salt a steak and then leave it on the kitchen table overnight. They are very proud of it and have even named restaurants by it.

On the way back, I had Chinese chicken wings in Bridge Pub on Heathrow airport in London. And I could have sworn it was the best chicken I've ever eaten. But it wasn't. It was just the first piece of chicken in almost three weeks that had a sauce, seasoning and hardness below 5.0 on Mohs scale.

I must give credit where it is due: In my books, Fina Fatia deli is right up there with the International Red Cross. This humble establishment has taken upon itself to save dying foreigners in Joao Pessoa with their savory sandwiches and delicious cakes. It must be a charitable organization because the prices are so low. This is the place that will keep you alive if you find yourself lost in the Brazilian Zone of Culinary Anomalies. Your second option, albeit a pricey one, is Ageda De Alfredo. On the surface, this fancier but homely restaurant claims to specialize in Portuguese food. Personally, I think it is a cover story. They are really a secret operation by the government of Portugal, attempting to re-establish sovereignty over Brazil by reminding the locals that all their chefs have fled back into old country.

If I ever return to Joao Pessoa, it will be for the beach and Fina Fatia. There is nothing else there. But the next place I am about to visit is Tampere. At least they have Tracon Hitpoint next weekend.

talk01-Nov-2015: Revisiting Snakedancer

On July 27th, I closed the completed alpha manuscript for Snakedancer, my brick-sized fantasy novel set in Jaconia, the world of Praedor comics by Petri Hiltunen and the RPG by yours truly. Three months later, on October 27th, I reopened the file to do my own edits and a second round of proofreading. Apparently three months is enough to reset my word blindness because it is working pretty well. My fellow Praedor-author Erkka Leppänen asked to see Snakedancer when I thought it was good enough. That's the goal I am aiming for, at a rate of 1-2 chapters per day. There are 21 chapters in all, so it is going to take a while, especially with me disappearing to Brazil for a couple of weeks soon. But still, it'll get done and Erkka will be the first outsider apart from alpha test readers to see this. Whether it will be a Christmas gift or a curse is for him to decide. 

Reading my own text now three months later, I have to say that for the most part I like what I see. The Impostor Syndrome usually hits me pretty hard when talking about my own stuff but once I reworked chapters 1 and 2, I have had no major complaints. Sure, there is a tweak needed here and a rewording needed there, while opaque references and word repetitions abound. But that was to be expected. Beyond those, this is exactly the kind of stuff I really wanted to write. It's me on paper, warts and all. Having a superb editor could still kick it up a notch but for the most part, if you ask me to write fantasy, this is what you'll get. I am a pulp writer, plain and simple.  

So, what is Snakedancer?

It is a fantasy novel written by a roleplayer for a roleplaying audience. Anyone interested in pulp fantasy or or Grimdark will get a kick out of it (damn, it is difficult to keep up with all these new sub-genres). I've never written a novel with a female protagonist before but in Snakedancer it happened. I just couldn't imagine the story without a 14-year old girl at the heart of it all (eat shit, Sad Puppies!). Actually, the idea to do that was born long before the Hugo controversy. The original inspiration was a character made by the young daughter of one of my Verivartio players. For some reason, I found her somewhat girly idea of an "adventuring princess" intriguing and ended up sort of using her character idea, although "praedorized" to a frankly brutal extent. There is also another old player character in the main cast, all the way back from LootEm (2001-2003). I left him almost untouched and asked for the player's permission to use him for my own narrative ends. Finally, there are hints and subtle references to all my Praedor RPG experiences over the past 15 years.

I remember how in the beginning I thought my choice of protagonist would force me to write teen- or YA (Young Adult) -fantasy. Back then, everybody and their cousin was either making RPGs for children and beginners, or at the very least talking about it, so I guess it felt appropriate. Naturally, as soon as my virtual pen hit the paper, my pulp and grimdark instincts reasserted themselves. I managed to fool myself for quite a while by thinking that Tarzan of the Apes is also considered youth fiction. And it is, hands-down, the most brutal book I've ever read.

It's been three months since the completion of the alpha manuscript and I am all out of excuses. Snakedancer is very, very violent, with borderline fetishistic portrayals of battle injuries. Nor does it shy away from human sexuality, although my distaste for writing explicit sex scenes (see Juhana's works for that) applies here. The story digs deep into the dirty laundry of city state politics and intrigue and whoever ends up being the editor, I hope he lets me keep most of the exposition. I love depicting how religion and society are intertwined and the societal models of Renaissance are emerging from the religion-ordained feodalism of post-civil war Jaconia. I love using the supernatural or fantastical elements at first as if I was writing horror and then push the whole thing into self-destructive overdrive. I LOVE it when things spiral out of control on an epic scale. I just can't help it.

As you can tell, I really like Snakedancer. I hope you will find it as fun and interesting to read as I did to write. On the downside, The Book of Secrets  now pales in comparison with this tome. Snakedancer contains more information on its respective corner of Jaconia than I could fit in a shelf-meter of RPG supplements. It may lack the rules and algorithms but those are dime a dozen anyway. Unless Petri uses his veto and Snakedancer is canned at the last moment, it will officially rewrite a bunch of location-specific stuff in the rulebook. I regard world comic as sacrosanct but everything else and in this case the location texts later in the same chapter, is fair game. Now some of it is about to get an expiration date.

In Facebook, someone in the Finnish roleplayers' group asked for roleplaying games with emphasis on non-violent challenges and solutions. Stalker RPG fits the bill. Praedor RPG does not. And I am proud!


talk23-Oct-2015: Taiga V2 Road Atlas, part 1

Before we start, I ask that you rise for the Anthem of Taiga! The original RPG was typed to this soundtrack. Looking at the world today, it has aged very well.

All done? Right. Welcome to a tour inside my head.

This is the world, or more specifically, the Nordics. Just a few years from now. It's not all Wildland but a million square kliks of it is still plenty. Down south, Wildlands tend to be islands left in the eyes of a web of centrals and free zones stretching along autobahns. Here, the centrals and free zones are themselves islands in the sea of violence and anarchy that's Taiga. It covers most of the Fennoscandinavia and all of Karelia and Kola. The two notable exceptions are Sweden south of the Stockholm Moat, everything across the Baltic and the Kingdom of Norway, which are usually not counted to be part of Taiga. Gulf of Bothnia almost cuts the whole thing in two but there is still that one million squares of dry land to muck about. Assuming you ignore quite a few lakes and marshes in that count.

Even after the collapse and the pre-quarantine exodus to the south, most estimates put the headcount at 21 million or more. Most of them live in big heaps we now call Free Zones and that have population densities approaching pre-collapse Hong Kong. Hell, the Stockholm Moat alone has like 2 million respectable citizens who are all doing their best not to notice the roughly 9 million units of "demographic surplus" glaring at them through the fences. But no matter how you slice it, there is like four or five million heads unaccounted for. The dark woods outside the windows are the best bet and while maps might seem empty, the terrain certainly isn't.

Drawing lines is always a bad idea in the Wildlands but to get a grip on Taiga, I've split it into choice cuts like it was a slab of beef. Each region has its own color, peculiarities, opportunities and hazards. But before we go on, I need more inspiration from the original Taiga soundtrack.

Welcome to the Stockholm Moat! The southernmost corner is also the most populous. Stockholm Moat is the name for the city of Stockholm and then a series of bases, smaller centrals, walls and watchtowers stretching westward along the Mälaren Lake and whatever other suitably wet and deep waters it comes across. It ends only at the Norwegian border and south of it lies a cruel mockery of the Sverige Folkhemmet. Whether or not the EU/EG retained so many of the old rituals of Swedish democracy out of spite is anybody's guess. They would also love to extend the Baltic Quarantine right along the Stockholm Moat but don't have a boot big enough to put down such an eye-wateringly large metropolis like Stockholm and all its Free Zones. And while  lands south of here are not considered to be part of Taiga, Gothenburg isn't exactly smelling like a rose either. There aren't any centrals north of the Moat on this side of the Gulf but settlements close to the moat usually cooperate with the local authorities in some shape, way or form. Standards of living decrease towards the north but so does population density, unless you hug the coastline.

Western Coast Road doesn't say much. It is actually the E4 road, running along the coast to the north and is a lifeline of trade, politics and technology. The biggest towns on the coast are almost like Free Zones, albeit without centrals and the effect of the road extends deep inland along the many east-west sideroads. Unfortunately, it also also feeds powerful bandit tribes hiding in the interior. While the coastal towns have militias big enough to defend themselves, the interior is split into poorly defined and often hotly contest gang turfs, with armies of motorized thugs living off loot and tribute extracted from smaller settlements along the E16 and E45. The town of Mora has become neutral (or even holy) ground for the tribes and simultaneously the largest, wildest bartertown anywhere in the southwest. Tribal leaders meet here and sometimes hold a ting, a conclave of tribes called to resolve big disputes or external issues. Occasionally, even representatives from the coastal towns are invited. And the reason for that is...

Neosalem! Fittingly, the very first neo-state to be born in the post-collapse power vacuum is a basket case! Founded by radical religious sects and armed to the teeth by former army officers, the former autonomous region of Jämtland is now a crackpot extreme theocracy, officially governed by Archangel Michael himself! Real power rests with the Council of Prophets but their religious ceremonies with esoteric and hysterical qualities lead to frequent mob rule. Neosalem is pushing towards the Gulf and exacts a tribute of supplies and slaves from defeated settlements along the way. Its geopolitical ambitions are contained to the Slave Coast for now, but preachers from Neosalem can be encountered anywhere in Taiga. They are trying to entice people to come serve them on their own volition, while murdering preachers and priests from rival faiths and sects. This may all sound insane but on the other hand, the Neosalem nuts have built the most stable and orderly post-collapse society in all of Taiga. The EU/EG has considered moving against it but so far Neosalem acts as the most potent counter to any other power centers that might be emerging.

And now it is time for another blast from the past.

Slave Coast extends to the east and north from Neosalem. It is basically a medley of subservient settlements, defiant coastal towns with strong militias, anti-Neosalem guerrilla groups doubling as bandits, slave camps for the mines and factories, hideouts for escaped slaves and so on. There are also isolated strongholds and Bunker Nut sanctuaries, whose founders often hail from the same sects that now make up Neosalem, but who either did not accept or fell out with the rule of Archangel Michael. All this serves to make it an even more dangerous territory than the south, as a pass from one  faction quite often means suspicion or hostility from others. There are ugly scenes as settlements abduct travelers so they would not have to hand their own people over to Neosalem. The chaos of the Slave Coast continues north for over two hundred kilometers, all the way up to a barrier even Neosalem does not dare to cross.

Firewall is the new name for E10 highway and the parallel railroad running from Narvik to the end of the Gulf and the base of the Northern Axis. It is a vital supply route to the Corporate war effort in the Arctic and runs via Kiruna, the largest and only stand-alone Corporate Colony in all of Taiga. There is a lot of traffic, much of it military and anyone messing with this route or the corporate outposts along it can expect a swift and merciless response. The local settlements got the message and many of them have some sort of dealings with the corporate states, much the same way as settlements close to Stockholm Moat have with the authorities down south. Local settlements are also a source of cheap labor, which has been further swelled by escaped slaves from Neosalem. The Corporate States detest Neosalem but the theocracy is careful to avoid provocations. Still, the Firewall marks the upper limit of Neosalem's military influence in the north.

North of Firewall lies huge stretch of howling wilderness and windswept fjells known as the Wolfcorner. It is thought to be uninhabited apart from some nomadic Sámi who've returned to the old ways, but given the size of the area and the lack of roads (the old dirt tracks are being swallowed up by nature) who can tell? The locals who sometimes visit trading posts along the Firewall or the Salute speak in whispers about black helicopters, steel doors hidden into cliff sides and pockets of Scourge. The mutation-inducing ailment wreaks havoc on flora and fauna alike. While most creatures chimerized by the Scourge are too strange to live, there are exception and these are taking a heavy toll on reindeer herds and the occasional hunter. Here be monsters. Even the wolves fear them.

And this concludes part 1 of the Taiga V2 Road Atlas. We've covered the western side of the Gulf of Bothnia (yeah, I know, Sweden). I am skipping Norway for now because King Haakon's forces have closed the mountain passes and the kingdom has flipped the bird to EU/EG, while chumming it up with the Corporate States. The royal house is a significant shareholder in many of those. Norwegians are suspicious of EU/EG and actively hostile towards Taiga, so while there is some smuggling, it's less common  than you might think. We conclude with a beautiful ballad that depicts my complicated relationship with Taiga. It wasn't part of the original soundtrack, though. This is way too modern for that. 


talk04-Oct-2015: On Taiga V2 Design

No, I am not promising I will ever publish the damn thing. Much depends on Chthonian Highways (which actually means "underground highways" but apparently Miska's road warriors prefer driving above ground), the Mad Max meets Cthulhu Mythos RPG that Ironspine is about to release. While there are certainly enough room two non-selling post-holocaust RPGs in Finland (he is doing CH in English so he might get good hits from abroad), there is no point in having two games of the same genre unless they are so distinctly different it'd be like comparing Praedor and Myrskyn Sankarit (both are Fantasy RPGs but that's where the similarities end).

As a side note, now that OSR has hijacked the "Old School" -label, what the heck am I going to call the non-level-based games of the late 80's and early 90's I am so fond of? You know, stuff like the original Runequest, Stormbringer, CP2020, Shatterzone, Legionnaire... These are the games I found my groove with. I have nothing against the OSR scene and I do applaud their enthusiasm, but let's face it: the original D&D was crap. It is beyond me why anyone would want to recreate that "look&feel" but maybe it is a phase that all roleplayers have to go through. Or  maybe this shit is cyclical just like trouser width, so if I suffer through this for a few years, my kind of games are going to have a  renaissance of their own.

That said, I am not actually making those kinds of games anymore. Praedor RPG was one and I love it to bits, but as Stalker RPG and the Verivartio campaign for Praedor show, I've grown lazy in my old days. In FLOW, I abandoned my old school of thought in RPG design in the favor of what I was actually doing when running a game. In short, if I was going to have these house rules and abstractions anyway, why not make them the game system instead? On top of that, getting the player personally involved, invested and immersed in problem solving was such an important part of the Stalker RPG gameplay that I maintain that a dice-based system would killed much of the appeal. Still, I wish I hadn't called it a diceless game on principle. Dice have their uses, even if the challenge resolution system would have been without them. Not using dice in random anomaly and artifact generation was just stupid of me.   

Despite all my abstractions, I do use dice when running the Praedor RPG and never felt the game was less immersive or involving for it. Dice make the job of the Gamemaster a lot easier in action-heavy sequences with lots of random or just plain uncontrollable variables, such as combat. In Stalker RPG, killing someone is a big deal and carries all the emotional impact of a murder. Praedor RPG is a pulp-fantasy roleplaying game with plenty of casual combat (read: remorseless killing without deep moral or dramatic implications). I expect  Taiga V2 to be just as violent, in and outside vehicles. State your strategy and the GM gives you some dice to roll. Roll them and hope it is your enemy that dies in the flaming wreck instead of you. 

Stalker RPG has the best character creation system in the history of roleplaying games and I want to keep it. Basically, I still want a system so close to FLOW that I can switch back and forth between diced and diceless resolution on the fly. Hence, FLOW/EBB. Maybe I should include that dual resolution system into the actual rules as well: Actions are resolved with EBB, Problems are resolved with FLOW... and players would be going insane trying to draw a definite line between the two.

Speaking of players going insane, post-holocaust is one of those number-crunching genres where most games expect you to count fuel consumption, food, water etc. This usually means managing a dozen constantly variable stats. Fair enough, but I'm too old for that shit. So, with apologies to genre purists, Taiga V2 is going to take the abstractions of FLOW even further. After all, while times are bad, Taiga is not a desert and has way more people in it than your average post-holocaust hellscape. Sure enough, people are starving to death out there but it is an unlikely fate for our nomads. And finding water isn't really an issue. There is usually more than enough around and it takes years for toxin build-up to have an effect.   

For me, tabletop RPGs are an interactive extension of literature. I want to focus on immersion, story and whatever else used to be the good stuff because all the terminology got scrambled by the theory discussions. So to skip the tedium and bookkeeping, there are three resource-based stats for each character: Loot, Ammo and Fuel.

Loot is your basic cash. Virtually all trade in Taiga is barter but the closest thing to cash are the immediately useful but hard-to-get small luxuries of the modern world: painkillers, condoms, bars of soap, razor blades, rubber bands, wet wipes, make-ups, wound plasters, cue tips and so on. It is stuff we take for granted but yhat is actually pretty hard to come by in a failed post-industrial state (and already in many developing countries). The basic unit is one plastic bag of the stuff (one large item if you are lugging it around yourself).

Using one Loot per month keeps you fed and watered. Use another and you can afford a roof over your head wherever you go. Add a third and you can afford to drink, gamble and do casual cash purchases to your heart's content. A fourth makes all this as luxurious as can be in the admittedly harsh circumstances of Taiga. On top of all that, you can use Loot as cash to buy real gear or weapons, or to trade it into points in other resource categories with the right kind of merchant. Basically, you hoard this stuff in your trunk, then cross it off at a certain rate and neither the player nor the GM has to worry about living expenses and small fry ever again. Of course, if you don't have enough, you better find some or give up some of the benefits. You can usually trade your ammo and fuel back into loot at a halved rate, assuming you find the right kind of merchant.   

Ammo is... well, I thought long and hard about this one. The original Taiga had an ammo-based economy just like in Metro 2033. That's what you still get in the Facebook version. However, the sad truth is that except for some very specific circumstances, neither FLOW nor EBB measures the expenditure of ammunition in any way. All the rules I could have given on ammo consumption were completely arbitrary (something like # of enemies + 1D10). So instead, this resource covers anything non-explosive and smaller than spears. You have a fight with guns or bows, or anything using small-caliber projectiles, cross off one point of ammo. Two, if you are using an automatic weapon (not using automatic fire is an option and makes an assault rifle just a rifle with bad range and less penetration). And taking an extra handicap for conserving ammunition can actually make 1 point of ammo last indefinitely, even if it's for arrows. Ammo weight is negligible (within reason).

Fuel equals one Jerry-can of flammable liquid. Each is a large item and can go off like a bomb, so you usually don't carry them on your person. Driving around town costs nothing but if you really need to move and/or fight on wheels, fuel consumption for that game session is equal to your vehicle's Thirst (family car 2, big lorry 5). Pour in that much and you don't have to worry about it. Skimp on it and you'll have a sidequest trying to find more to get wherever it is you are going. I know this is a gross over-simplification, like a point cost for having the use of a vehicle during the game session. But after writing that ammo stat it doesn't feel so bad anymore.

I feel like a Forge author, but narratively the resource stats give me everything I want. Supplies are an element in the game, they do have immediately obvious applications, their commercial value is easy to appreciate and they are important enough for players to keep an eye on them. They act as rewards and finding more in a pinch generates additional gameplay. Besides, when your wheels crash and burn, all that loot and fuel goes up with it. If your nomad manages to jump clear, I'll let him keep his ammo and whatever great was on his person. But it is a major, possibly devastating economic hit.

It all depends on what I find in the Chthonian Highways demo pdf. If I deem the games to be too similar to each other, I am still going to make Taiga V2, pictures and all. But the only people in the world who are going to get one are myself, Leena Romppainen, Jaana Wessman, Mikko Matvejeff, Markus Drake and Juha Kangas. And the artist, of course :)

talk24-Sep-2015: Zen Max Review

I played Witcher 3 with the "new game plus" option right up to the point where the main plot began to overtake the open-world aspects of the game. I was very happy with the story I created on my first playthrough. Now that the exploration part of the game was more or less over, didn't feel any need to revisit that. Until the DLC comes out, I'm afraid my total on Witcher 3 will remain at a quite respectable 150 hours. That is a lot of mileage out of a single game and it was good stuff, I assure you. However, I needed something new to play, felt a little post-holocausty and was bitterly disappointed by Bedlam, which I had supported in Kickstarter. Mad Max -game had been pretty much panned by critics but it did score well with the users, so I thought what the hell and bought it.

It has been a strange drive so far.

I should loathe this game. The story is not so much bad as it is completely non-existent and functionally irrelevant. The bad guy, Scabrous Scrotus (I kid you not) stole my car and beat me up. In return, I sank a chainsaw blade into his skull and have killed hundreds of his goons and wrecked dozens of his cars since then. I kind of feel that we are even. Everybody else in this completely dysfunctional setting is either badly written or dramatically irrelevant. Having really loved the towns in Rage, I was hoping to get a little of that same vibe here. Instead, friendly outposts are boring and uninspired as hell! This doesn't really feel like a world that is lived in or has a history. Nobody can look at this place and call it "home". Such things are usually deal-breakers for me when it comes to Open World games. For heaven's sake, I was willing to put up with Far Cry 4's travesty of a story only because I felt sympathetic towards the civilians and interested in their culture. Here, there are neither real civilians nor a real culture to speak of. The movie had both, so I wonder what went wrong?

Then something strange happened. I couldn't stop playing and was constantly looking forward to playing it some more. After failing everything I traditionally care about in open world games, Avalanche Studios has nailed something else. It took a while for me to put my finger on it but then it clicked. This is not a game! This is a stress tool! This is the perfect combination of popping bubble wrap and relaxing in a Japanese stone garden.

For gameplay, the game lets you do two things. One, go into locations and beat up bad guys. Two, take on enemy vehicles and destroy them. There are variations of these themes like taking out enemy bases Far Cry-style, or chasing down convoys or scrap transports. The rhythm-based melee combat is very repetitive, but I like it more than the disorganized chaos in Shadows of Mordor, for example. In short, it is simple enough system for me and if Witcher 3 had the same kind of dodge, I'd play it two difficulty levels higher.

Driving and car combat tie the whole thing together. You drive across a vast desert (it really looks like a desert but again, the desert in the movie had more variety and color). You can ram stuff, hit them with your shotgun (ammo is *very* limited), harpoon stuff and pull them apart with your car. You can also outfit flamethrowers to the sides and explosive-tipped spears. The game world is vast but so barren it is easy to render, giving excellent framerates across the board. The world also has this strange soothing quality to it. Like looking at a gigantic Japanese stone garden and perfecting it by removing blemishes, such as your enemies. Any changes you make persist, so it doesn't really feel like a bullshit world game, even if I know it to be one.

I have to say the level of repetition here is almost hypnotic. It is all about staring at a Japanese stone garden whipping past the cockpit and popping bubble wrap, repeating an essentially pleasurable physical and sensory task over and over again, until you no longer care about the task, but only the uninterrupted flow of it. Stone garden, bubble wrap, you. Stone garden, bubble wrap, you. There is nothing else. Nothing to care about. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to plan. Nothing to expect. Just a stone garden, some bubble wrap and you. This is not Mad Max. This is Meditation Max. Or better yet, Zen Max.

Mad Max is not a great game by any means. It is also really poorly documented and you have to look plenty of things up on the Internet. Like where to open the fucking map (it is TAB, actually). And could someone tell me why I interact with everything using E (or NUM8 in my case) but then there is a completely different button for entering my vehicle even though I must be pressing my forehead to the side window when doing it? The game looks competent enough but compared to the visuals of the movie, the art design must have gone wrong at some point. There are also some bugs and the overuse of mini-animations for simple tasks makes everything feel slow.

The story really is completely vaporous and the protagonist is the most boring person ever. While this is also true of Max in the movies, I think the game would have been better served if it just told somebody else's story from the same world. Just like Fury Road did, in fact. Finally, I know some people love the storms but while they are fancy, I still prefer to drop by some conquered base and wait for it to pass. They are stunning when approaching you but visually boring when you are inside. They also last way too long and the bonus scrap flying around inside them is... oh, just give me emissions from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. any day.  

On the plus side, "popping the bubble wrap" is nice, the world is large enough for meaningful vehicle use (looking at you, Auto Assault) and the graphics are a Japanese stone garden. I know the melee combat has been panned by critics. I kind of like it but would still have preferred shooting. Bonus points for the harpoon. Penny Arcade got it right when they said Mad Max was the best fishing game ever. It is really fun to use the harpoon in unorthodox ways, like pulling snipers off their towers or enemy fighters off the fortress walls. Also, fist impacts and car crashes have a nice visceral feel to them. Yet, the difficulty curve is uneven and Juhana warns of two major difficulty spikes ahead. That's a pity, especially since the game doesn't have any difficulty settings. Tsk tsk.

Final Rating: +2

I liked Mad Max a lot more than I thought I would. However, it is controversial and even the publisher doesn't seem to have too much faith in it (using it to advertise an energy drink). For me, Mad Max will help in contemplating contemplate Taiga V2 and it tides me over until Fallout 4 arrives (I will be in Brazil then, damn it all to hell!)

If you are a big fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, and especially if you have missed the car battles, this game is for you. It is nowhere near perfect but has no rivals in this regard. The rest of you should wait until it hits the bargain bins. Unless you are really stressed and need Zen Max, the almost hypnotic digital stress drug from Avalanche Studios!

talk17-Sep-2015: On Praedor RPG...

You expected me to blog about the prime minister's speech, didn't you? The problem is that I don't subscribe to the same reality as he does and besides, what was he going to say? That his policy was all bullshit and chips and he is now sorry? Economics are an article of faith and I've chosen to follow different prophets. Besides, I am not an economist myself, so I have to take my Priests of Mammon at face value, tempered with the oh-so-reliable gut feeling. So there. I don't think the situation is what he thinks it is and I don't think the best means of recovery are what he is suggesting. But then again, he is the prime minister and I am a disgruntled voter. Not of him or his party, thank the elder gods. Time will tell who was right. Or probably won't, because there will be just as much dissent over the reality of the results, even when everybody has the same statistics.

Okay, enough! The Finnish econopolitics are giving me a headache.

I've done quite a bit of stuff with Praedor RPG lately. My long-running Verivartio campaign is slowly approaching its end (or would be, if a certain player would deign to partake in the next session date selection...). I also finished the first draft of Käärmetanssija manuscript in July and have been sitting on it ever since, waiting for further test reader feedback. Unfortunately, my test readers have shit to do, so I'll start my own editing round soonish. But it definitely needs a harsh editor from the outside or I'll drown the lot of you in unnecessary exposition. Also, I want to remove all references to saints from the Artantean Church and replace it with a cult of martyrdom since that is more in keeping with what actually happened to the cult during the Jaconian pre-history.

Then there is the Book of Secrets. It was originally going to be a witchcraft supplement but I've reduced the role of witches and added a whole bunch of other secret skills, talents and tricks, sometimes bordering but not quite crossing into the supernatural. I've been told Praedor RPG is not fantastic enough but the Book of Secrets should go a long way in fixing that. I am hoping... no, I am certain that it will come out next year as well, as part of the great Praedor bonanza.

There is a lot of other Praedor-related stuff going through my mind right now but I want to save most of it for the Tracon Hitpoint presentation. However, there is one thing I am not going to cover there. Petri Hiltunen owns Praedor and everything happens with his permission and license. He gets half of the RPG sales profits and has creative veto over the other stuff. That has never been an issue, though. What does make me feel strange is that there are other licensees working Praedor properties as well and since Petri has long insisted on there not being a strict canon (not unheard of; for example, the canon for Donald Duck comics is surprisingly loose in many respects, while extremely tight in some), everybody is kind of doing their own version of Jaconia. They are not worlds apart because the source material is the same and I try to make sure my works don't explicitly conflict with those of Erkka Leppänen. Still, it feels weird that even on the production side, Jaconia can be pretty much whatever you want it to be.

Well, this one is mine.

Venturing into the territory of my upcoming presentation, compared to the wave of Finnish roleplaying games Praedor RPG inspired, it still stands out. Also, looking at the games those authors wrote after learning their craft, nothing has changed. There isn't anything quite like it in the Finnish RPG scene. The closest competitor would have been the Finnish translation of Chaosium's Stormbringer from Ace Pelit but that has been long out of print. And now everybody is making OSR titles or games for children. Nothing wrong with that but in a scene full of Sunday morning cartoons, Pixar science fiction and OSR heartbreakers, Praedor RPG stands out more than ever before. Somehow, that makes me even more proud. It is a roleplaying game of blood, sex, guts, and mud. It is the Game of Thrones, the Elric Saga, the early Conan stories and the Witcher novels all in one. It is a roleplaying game for adults and makes absolutely no bones about it. Brutal! Lethal! Sinful!

And that is my fantasy.

talk11-Sep-2015: The World Is Burning...

Well, everything seems to have gone to hell lately, doesn't it? Taiga V2 is practically writing itself out before my very eyes. My apocalypse was never nuclear. It was an erosion of society and more importantly, trust in the society. Population broke up into competing fragments under the combined pressure of overpopulation, climate change and a financial crisis. That's the new holocaust. In reality, overpopulation and climate change are not immediately solvable problems either but financial crisis exists first and foremost in the mind. It is marketed as an objective reality by the government and as a purpose-built fiction by prominent economists in the anti-austerity camp. I don't know what the truth is and I doubt anyone does. What I do know is that these issues are dividing people like never before. We are questioning each others' subjective realities and it is getting every bit as vicious as the atheist-fundie arguments used to be. For me, the model of the Nordic Welfare State is the best of all possible societies. I don't really care where the money for it comes from. If we really can't increase the taxes on the rich, I recommend we invade Norway. The Finnish Self-Defence Force could use the exercise.  

Yes, I have ideological leanings based on what I believe to be fair and just.  Those have usually lead me to defend the welfare state (the greatest human achievement in history) and many (if not all) leftist policies in general. For example, I do believe that unions are both necessary and have earned their tax-exempt status as non-profitable civic organizations (even if the use their wealth can sometimes be questioned), and just like any society, to justify their existence they have to protect and advance the interests of their members. After all, this is what the other side is doing and even compelled by law ("the goal of a corporation is to make profit for its shareholders"). On the other hand, unions are not responsible for, or to, the society as a whole. That's what we have the parliament, and by extension, the government for. So stop complaining when (and if) the unions are finally doing their fucking job! It's about time and however much you might want to deny history, they exist for a reason.

On a related note, we entrepreneurs ought to stop whining! It's true that we don't have the same benefits and protections as employees. However, the trade-off is that we stand to make more money. It was always a risk and if we are unlucky or shit at what we do, we struggle and then the lack of protections bites us in the ass. However, we took this chance knowingly and shouldn't expect the rest of the society to take pity on us or make sacrifices for us. We dug this pit in the hope of finding gold on the bottom. It is not anybody's fault if it fills up with mud every time it rains. As holes in the ground go, it is not a bug. It's a feature.

While half the nation is doubting the sanity of the other half, Europe has become the object of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands predominantly Muslim refugees. And suddenly it has become A) morally reprehensible to flee from multiple armies of deranged killers (including those supposedly protecting you) and B) necessary to defend our way of life against threats, both real and imagined.

As for A, we have created a system where those reaching us are probably the most cunning, ruthless and well-off of the bunch. It is like in those movies where you have people killing each other for sport. Now the winner gets to apply for an asylum and we are surprised they are all killers? Also, I fail to see how drone strikes against boats moored in the ports of North Africa will change this. Even assholes are innocent until proven otherwise and we ought to help those we can, including the thousands of infiltrators ISIS has promised to send along with them. We are not ISIS, are we? Will there be problems because of this influx of desperate, traumatized and rootless people? Yes! More crime? Yes! Volatile elements within the society? Yes! Should we pay more attention to the integration of migrants? Yes! But the consequences of not helping them are something I am not prepared to live with. I write pulpish villains into my stories. I have no interest in becoming one.

In fact, I am fed up with this Winter War -induced bullshit of defending your homeland against all odds. For the record, we lost the Winter War and God (of any denomination) does not grant victory based on good or evil. Our national myth about a "defensive victory" in Winter War was born out of relief of "not having the shit kicked out of us quite as badly as it could have been". I wish the veterans were still around in larger numbers to talk some sense into these fuckers. Or maybe it is the fate of all such lessons to be forgotten and we really need a new war and new generations of broken minds and bodies. I don't know what the proponents of the desperate defense expect to happen? Syrians are caught between the hammer of ISIS and the anvil of their own murderous government, and don't even get me started on the splinter groups. I cannot fault them for leaving since they are pretty much escaping from Mordor.   

By the way, one thing I like about ISIS is that not since the Nazis (and possibly Khmer Rouge) has there been a group that so completely deserves  all the hatred, contempt and dehumanization we can dish out. They are the orcs of the 21st century! They are Isis-hai!

As for B, our way of life, it takes six beers and the rugged wisdom of a gas station bar drunk to explain what our way of life is. Besides, our own government is doing more to kick that house over than a million refugees could. But my interest in history also makes me look at these events in a wider context. Did we really expect our way of life to survive indefinitely? Did we expect history to end with us? That the human civilization, or even the Finnish Nation, would suddenly become frozen in time? The world was very different when I was a kid and watched alarmist documentaries about nuclear war on TV. It was again very different when the Soviet Union fell and I was in high school. Now we are entering the post-Internet Era and everything is different again. It is not going to end there. It is not going to end, period! Future historians will see the current crisis as the opening shot of the Global Water Wars and the greatest migration of people in history as certain climate belts become inhospitable and are depopulated. Up here there will be a multicultural society whether we like it or not. What we can do is to try to make it look more like Star Trek than Taiga.

Whew, that's enough politics for now. I wrote this text to sum up my frustrations over all the crap I've had to read on Facebook over the past few weeks. Not everybody in my circle of friends shares my views and usually that's a non-issue. However, our differences tend to become more marked during hard times such as these. Fortunately, my blog doesn't have a comment section so there will be no endless and ultimately fruitless arguments. You know where I stand. Don't agree with me? Feel offended? Well eat shit and die! I am over forty and just as entitled to my entrenched biases as you are. That said, fuck Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States. Fuck them all sideways.

Curiously, the increasingly nightmarish reality has worked wonders for my brutal escapist fiction, namely the Praedor RPG. The manuscript of Snake Dancer is now complete, waiting for the pens and axes of proofreaders and editors. The Book of Secrets is making good progress and I just need to secure the last few deals for art. It really looks like we'll have a Praedor RPG supplement as part of the great Praedor Bonanza of 2016 (new comic book, two novels).

To conclude on a happy note, Tracon X was great. Of course, roleplaying games remain a small sideshow compared to the anime hulabalooza but it was well organized, vibrant and served a fair number of people. I ran two sessions of Praedor and ended up running the first half of the adventure to the first party and the second half to the other. I still plan them way too long. Anyway, Tracon was such a pleasant experience that I've decided to attend Tracon Hitpoint as well. I am planning to run both a session of Praedor and a session Stalker there, and give a Praedor-themed presentation called "15 years of Jaconian adventurers". After all, Tracon Hitpoint is on November 28th and 29th. Praedor RPG turns 15 just a week later, on December 8th. Three more years and the game can legally drink.



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