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Talk28-Feb-2015: Personal Hacking

Thus endeth the winter of 2015. It was a mild winter with very little snow. There none of the deep freezes of its last two predecessors and I don't think the quicksilver ever dipped below -15 centigrade. A warm winter has its perks but I am a bit sad it ruined what I typically consider the best part: right now, at the end of February and the beginning of March. Typically you have the brightest days, the whitest snows and the spring Sun is working its magic making everything sparkle like crazy. And even if it's below freezing, it isn't too cold for walks and with a dark coat, you can feel the Sun warming you up... None of that this year. Just grey sky and wet misery. Judging by the news, the damn Americans have stolen our winter!

Damn you, CIA!

What have we done to deserve this?

I am learning programming on a web-course. I did do the Java basics in the University back in 2002 but couldn't have programmed my way out of a wet paper bag anymore. This time it's all about Python. While doing the exercises, I've been applying the things I learned on a challenge resolution system for a hypothetical Praedor-themed videogame. So far, I have a system that asks for your combat skill and the enemy's corresponding toughness. It then runs a series of 10 combat resolutions and lists me the results. In truth, the only thing I really copied from Praedor RPG is the damage rolling mechanic, with open-ended dice and all. But as you all know, for me the setting is the game. Rules are only a tool set and can be changed as the medium and gameplay methodology require.

Still, there is a real programmer looking into the possibility of an actual Praedor-themed computer game as we speak. He would probably laugh his ass off if he saw my code but I need a narrative framework to practice something on my own. Despite being crap at coding, I find it surprisingly enjoyable. It is like a game of detail memorization and logic puzzles, with my narrative framework and personal goals giving it the required backstory and victory condition. Is it like this for everybody? Do the real programmers feel an addictive pang of pleasure when they get their code to work, just as if they had defeated a vicious enemy or solved a wicked puzzle in a videogame? The downside is that when it doesn't work out, the frustration is driving me crazy!

In other news, Käärmetanssija is progressing well, thank you very much for (never) asking. At 230K characters it is already well past the magical 150K character limit, which is where a book is born. I hope to have the script finished before or during summer and the book out in the fall. Maybe self-published, I don't know yet. Despite this being my sixth book, I've never approached publishers with a manuscript before. Anyway, submitting it to an editor, amateur or otherwise, will be an interesting experiment. I've written it as if it had been a continuing story in a magazine, which has certainly delighted my test readers. I wonder if the editor will feel the same. The individual chapters are not really miniature stories on their own but they do have their own drama arcs. The body of work as a whole has two overlapping arcs to it: one of character growth and another one of the actual adventure. I am also shamelessly (well, not really, I did ask for permissions) using characters from my old players and people who have shown their characters to me for whatever reason.

Käärmetanssija also contains a shitload of exposition about certain parts of Jaconia, so I have to run it past Hiltunen before it is published. I really want his stamp of approval on everything I do there. Petri has allowed me a pretty free reign in the past but make no mistake; when he does get involved, what he says, goes. You all are free to have your Jaconias all to yourself. I am not and that's final.

I am having trouble pushing my weight below 140 (yes, despite dropping, well, 15-17 kilos, my belly is still so big it bends light). However, thanks to my diet and frequent exercise, I feel better than in ages. Also my blood pressure (high pulse, though) is going back down, which is great because I really screwed it up this winter with long bouts of illness and overmedication. Now, if I can't have my beautiful early March, we should just skip into the full Spring. Then I could fill in the gaps between my gym days with my bicycle. And maybe do some BBQ out in the sun!
Here it was, the last entry for winter 2015! See you in the spring!

Talk17-Feb-2015: My Personal Jaconia

It suddenly occurred to me that I am not just using some house rules in my Praedor sessions. There are also these "house assumptions" about the world that nobody outside my gaming group really knows. Some of them were touched upon in my vaunted "Gamemaster's Jaconia" presentation back in the paleolithic stone age. But it's been over 10 years since then. Petri has always insisted that there is no canon to Praedor, that everybody is free to make what they will of it (as long as he is accredited for the original idea, or at least I insist on that). However, as the author of the RPG and an upcoming second novel, I try to avoid overt conflicts with the already published material. Now, this blog entry has not been checked with Petri or anyone else. It is just about things I've sort of accepted as the state of things when running the game.

"In Oft, should three meet, two will ally against the third."

- Old Jaconian proverb

I've treated the city-states as sovereign realms, perhaps more than they should have been. In my games, even lowly peasants have a clear idea of what nation they are part of. Nation-states are actually a pretty recent way of looking at things but it has made things easier to relate, for both me and my players. I have also tried to find something unique and distinct about every city-state. Selfia is famous for its wines and feuds between powerful families using the increasingly senile king as their pawn. Oft is in a low-simmer civil war, between the King west of Franfar and the rebellious counts east of the river. Because of a such clear geographical lineation between them (the river is a mile wide in places) there are few actual conflicts but plenty of snarling and intrigue on both sides. Justia is a major producer of spices (hence the joke about mustard), Sunia's guild of thieves is branching out into neighboring states and so forth.

"Unlike most Farrignian high nobility, the Black Marquis eschews traditional courtly robes and prefers embroidered tunics, leggings and cloaks cut in a style most foreign to my eyes."

- From the notes of a Farrignian court chronicler 

I've also made the assumption that while the city-states began with fairly identical cultures (apart from Holrus), they've began to diverge since then. The Sorcerer King -era structures are all tall and gothic, with impossibly long vertical lines and narrow arches, with an iconic art-style that has transferred the sorcerers' robes into statues, ceremonial court dresses and so on. As you move away from Farrignia, the influence of this "conservative style" decreases. Also, Farrignia is like Imperial China, with heavily centralized government akin to many  oriental states, while Galth, for example, is my London. Although ruled by a king, the city itself is in the hands of powerful guilds and eventually the tug-of-war between the court and the guilds will either result in a civil war or the formation of a parliament (or possibly both, as happened in England).

"The sea of rooftops stretched all the way to the misty horizon, broken only by the odd tower or spire."

- Loosely translated from Snakedancer, a bawdy fable from Galth

Cities are huge, especially up north. A city-state is defined as a state where a specific hub of population, commerce and politics completely overshadows all others. I've gone for Imperial China-level population. Farrignia pushes one million, the other major capitals half of that. The next largest center will be half of the population of the capital, the third largest quarter of that and so on. Still, the state of Farrignia is so large, about the size of modern Germany, that it could easily have multiple hubs. The authority of the queen does not permit this to happen.

"The statues lining the inside of the wall were so massive that the tallest tents in the market barely reached their ankle. Like the wall itself, they hailed from ancient times, even if their faces had since then been recut into the stiff likeness of the first mortal kings."

- Traveller's journal from Piperia 

Although it has been five centuries since the demise of the Sorcerer Kings, their legacy is very strong. This has been brought into focus by my interest in writing rules for witchcraft, i.e. supernatural powers acquired through demonic possession. Actually, demonic possession is my go-to explanation for pretty much all the usual fantasy creatures, like vampires, werewolves etc. There are also fictitious beasts but monsters with supernatural powers are demon-based creations, even if the actual sorcery happened ages ago. Different Sorcerer Kings had different interests and this colors the supernatural horrors my adventurers may encounter in different parts of Jaconia.

"The tower had once been guarded by a mighty golem. Today, all that remained was its brass hand. Still, it was the size of a bear and as it stood up on the tips of its fingers and then charged us over the tilted floor, I could not help but marvel how ferocious the whole being must have been."

- From the memoirs of Corin Barleyhead, an adventuring priest

Remus Thesioporus was a master on the theory of magic and the science of the supernatural. Hencem he had the know-how to make and manage the great crystal in Tulath. Kirel Curarim was a master of conjuring demons, opening gates and making human-demon hybrids with varying degrees of success. Arel Hiramon first turned to monsters, then to undead and finally magically-powered machines in his increasingly ferocious war against the Mountain Tribes of the west. Palak Velador researched the secrets of life itself and the extremes to which naturally occurring biological forces could be pushed, and so forth.

"It has been reported to us that the Count of Girdon has broken Valiar's Law and sold some of our subjects as slaves to mines somewhere in our southwestern borderlands. If this turns out to be true, he shall pay for it with his head, name and title."

- Queen Liala Mada of Farrignia

All city-states save Holrus worship the memory of Valiar Mada, the first mortal king ("Ensikuningas Valiar") and rulers seek to trace their lineage to him and his generals. As a direct descendant of lately somewhat convoluted lineage, Farrignia's sovereign Liala Mada retains at least ceremonial authority over other dynastic lines and can intervene or judge in disputes over succession. She avoids this, though, since it tends to create more enemies than friends. Her emblem and the coat of arms for Farrignia is the dragon ouroboros, also used as the logo of Praedor franchise as a whole. It is based on the original battle standard of Valiar Mada himself, one of the most sacred relics of her realm. Other realms use variations of the same black-and-white theme.       

"The God of Kings is mighty indeed but there are no kings here."

- A beggar defends his faith in Tiraman 

The Church of Artante is my Catholic Church (with an East Orthodox split regarding Holrus) but there is an important twist. It represents social stability and a predetermined hierarchy of power. Mortal kings are merely the mortal top of a power pyramid that continues into the afterlife. Favored by knights, nobles and monarchs, Artante is often referred as the "God of Kings". Commoners would not dispute his authority anymore than the tangible authority of their mortal lords but will happily commit everyday heresies such as trusting in Artante in questions of law, fate and afterlife, while trying to appease the elemental forces of nature personified by Twin Mother. In short, a peasant woman prays to Artante that her husband returns from war and to Twin Mother that her cows stay healthy. And she does not give a rat's ass that Artantean faith is supposedly monotheistic. Ditto for the urban poor and thieves who worship Tiraman. To them, Artante always seems to side with the rich and powerful. Barbarian nations build their mythologies around Twin Mother and various ancestral heroes or spirits (The Lords of the Grey Realm...). Mountain Tribes in particular despise Artante and all it stands for. Twin Mother has no coherent dogma, so there is an enormous variety of local animistic interpretations.

"I am Bodocar, the grandmaster and elder inquisitor of Artante's Templars. I have neither predecessors nor successors, for a Templar never dies. My flesh may wither and be replaced but my name and vigil are eternal."

- Grandmaster Bodocar of Artante's Templars

The largest city-states have both lay and religious chivalric orders which sometimes transcend city-state boundaries. The oldest of them hail from brotherhoods of rebels dating back to the followers of Valiar Mada. For example, I have kind of "Templars" in Farrignia, who got started as a fanatical Artantean sect specialising in suicidal assassinations of sorcerers during the Civil War. Now they are an ancient order of holy warriors with many weird customs and a mission to rid the world of demonic/sorcerous influence. They do not attack present-day sorcerers due to the Peace of Valiar between Farrignia and Circol, but they would very much like to. The Demon Knights are keeping an eye on them because they are extremely good fighters with lot of experience of dealing with supernatural threats and possibly relics stolen from dead sorcerers that are every bit as powerful as those carted off behind the walls of Circol. Other examples of holy martial orders exist.

What else?     

"Since water always flowed downhill, she decided to head upstream. She was already deep enough to be under the river and the last thing she wanted was to go even deeper." 

- Loosely translated from Snakedancer, a bawdy fable from Galth

All the largest cities rely on ancient sewers, aqueducts and various other marvels of a bygone age. If the ancient infrastructure, built by the Sorcerer Kings and poorly understood by the mortals who now rule in their stead, failed, the population of the north would quarter in a year (this is kind of what happened in the east). However, the infrastructure goes deeper. Jaconia is an artificial creation, a purpose-built sanctuary amidst the ruins and horror of Borvaria. Mountains and rivers are where they were planned to be. The great forests of the south defy the overpopulation of the north by magic; the trees can be cut or burned but grains wont take root. Instead, new saplings soon break ground and for the most part the local flora and fauna are too hostile for logging. There is a network of tunnels and pipes running underneath the whole world, including the Inland Sea. If the players encounter or even venture into these deadly places, I often describe them as if they were inside a great, incomprehensible machine, parts of which are still running with steam leaking out of brass pipes and liquids of every color and variety running back and forth in an endless, insane maze of tunnels that leads ever deeper into the bowels of the Earth.

"Although the ruins of Warth were barely a day's ride away from the walls Farrignia, few dared to disturb them."

- Mark of Vengeance (comic album)

I must have come up with volumes of worth of "instant history", basically coming up with reasons why things are where they are and the way they are. Farrignia grew out of a trading town between the realms of Warth and Tulath, where the more restricted subjects of Remus could gawp at the unearthly realm of Kirel Curarim and traded with his subjects for items from other worlds. Thus the city was already huge and had gigantic palaces when Warth fell. Later, the early praedors carried the treasures of Warth into Farrignia since it was only a stone's throw away and places like the Street of Wonders came to be. This is why Farrignia has always been friendly to praedors, even though it is most distant from the borders of Jaconia in almost every direction. And Holrus, with its back against Borvaria up north, has failed to develop a similar marketplace for otherworldly goods and praedors are considered scum of the earth.

Whew. Long entry. Quick to write, though.  

"With that, he leapt from the tower window, still clutching his false crown in his fist. It was a long fall and when he finally struck the square below, the crown shattered into a million glimmering shards."

- Bloodguard, a bawdy tale from an unknown realm

For Farrignia and most other Valiar-worshipping city-states I am using a two-tier feudal system where only the nobility can own land. Lower nobility consists of knights and barons. Knights are basically recognized warriors and vassals who are either unlanded ("errant", in which case their title ceases to be hereditary), or landed, which means they manage some part of a noble's estate. The eldest son inherits the status a landed knight, while other male descendants (and with the blessing of the local noble even female descendants) inherit a knight errant status. Their land is actually owned landed nobility, most commonly barons, who also act as caretakers, magistrates and whatever over what little piece of countryside they have. While barons are subjects of the king, their immediate fealty is to their local lord, a member of the higher nobility assigned to be governor or steward of that part of the realm. 

"You would defy the queen's command? Leave me out of your schemes before our heads bump together in the headsman's basket!"  

- Black Marquis tells the royal spymaster off

The higher nobility from counts to dukes are not just land-owners but representatives of the king itself, taking active part in the politics of the realm and enforcing the king's will and decrees. They own land directly and usually have barons and landed knights as their vassals. Their titles do have an order of nobility but fluctuations of political power and royal favor often mix things up. The highest rank of nobility is that of duke, often blood-relatives of the ruling family and with special privileges, such as the right to raise an army. In some city-states dukes and even lower ranks of upper nobility have considerable independence but in Farrignia the executioner's axe has curtailed the worst excesses. All members of the upper nobility are obliged to maintain at least a representative (often a son) in the royal court. Dukes and trusted lower-ranking nobles are often invited into the king's council. Largest city-states can have several types of council and memberships and invitations are an important element in court intrigue.

"He wants your death, Katerine. And as Count Mardin he will get it. By switching the axe to a whip he'll make it look like an accident so that no one can accuse him of murdering a child."

- Manos of Gorfar about to make an offer that can't be refused

Now, just like in Renaissance Europe and to a lesser extent in the Orient, the vast size and importance of cities throws a wrench into the works. Since peasants usually do not own the land they till, they are often little better than serfs even though actual slavery, the ownership of persons as property, is prohibited or at least severely frowned upon in most realms. But the air of a city is the air of freedom and one reason why many of the cities are so huge and tightly packed is that the agrarian overpopulation flows into the cities to work as cheap labor. Cities have special privileges concerning taxes and while they always have a noble to act as sheriff, the direct representative of the king and the head of the local administrative and judicial bureaucracy, true power is sliding to artisan guilds, merchant houses and families etc. The nobility is having hard time understanding this on-going change where land loses value and they are increasingly often indebted to city guilds, bankers and rich merchants. One city-state, Tod, was actually founded by rich merchants and to this day it has no king, only a council of elders.      

I guess that is enough trivia for one night. Now, this is just how things work in my Praedor campaigns and what their intrigue-laden adventure plots are built on. Just remember that I did fantasy intrigue long before Game of Thrones made it fashionable. My approach to Jaconia reflects this. 

Talk25-Jan-2015: Boardgame Musings

I am a supporter of the new Conan boardgame on Kickstarter and it has turned out to be a sweet deal. With the current pledges amounting to almost $1.2M against an initial request of $80K, so many stretch goals have been trounced that Monolith is running out of ideas for things to add. With 17 days to go I expect even more stuff to be added. Hint: Add more playing boards and scenarios, Monolith!


Contrary to popular expectations, I am not a big fan of boardgames. I own some, I have played some and I have liked some. But frankly, if you have that kind of time and manage to invite that many friends over, it feels like a waste of time compared to playing roleplaying games. Another thing about them that gets to me is the sense non-achievement. Winning or otherwise completing the game scenario doesn't get you anything. That said, I like most digital boardgames much better because they usually incorporate some form of progression or persistent rewards in the mechanics, or at least have strings of successively more difficult scenarios for you to resolve, creating a story for me to experience while playing. That is the key thing for me. A game need not to have a plot but if playing it does not form or contribute to a "story" I can relate to, I am not interested.

I have no idea if Conan the Boardgame does that. What caught my eye, apart from my long-standing devotion to R.E. Howard's barbarian hero, was that this game reminded me of my old plans for a Praedor-themed boardgame. It is a miniatures/boardgame hybrid, with very simplified movement and action rules, pitting individual hero characters against lone opponents or very small groups of opponents. For example, instead of hexes or measuring distances by ruler, the playing board is divided into "zones". Your hero can move a certain number of zones (and more, if he pushes it with stamina gems). Doors, ladders, ropes etc. count as a zone, so entering a street, going through a door and then entering the inside of a building counts as three moves. If you are in the same space with enemies, usable items or treasure chests, you can spend stamina points to act on them and so forth. I suspect the rules aren't quite finalized yet but here is a description of the Conan boardgame rules as they were in the prototype. There are more videos on the Kickstarter page itself.      

Looking back my old plans for a Praedor boardgame, the most obvious differences were using cards instead of miniatures and a stack of smaller, changeable map tiles to create the board. As praedors moved through the ruins of Borvaria, old tiles would be removed and new ones added in, creating a randomly changing and potentially endless ruinscape. Just like Borvaria. These tiles would have movement zones much like in the Conan boardgame, as well as entry points from the previous world tiles and exit points to the next. There would also be event slots and on these slots the player chosen as the dealer would place event cards, upside down and from a shuffled stack. Whenever a hero would enter the same space, the card would be flipped and the resulting encounter resolved. Any damage and/rewards would be noted down in the hero sheet and then it would be somebody else's turn. Unlike in Conan boardgame, there would be no "enemy player" or "foe actions". You can add finesse to these systems: certain spaces would modify the power of enemies and/or the value of rewards.

The game would last for 12 rounds (or until every player has had 12 turns to act). Then the players can either choose to "return home", which means cashing in their treasure and ending the session, or "strike camp" which allows some healing, equipment changes etc. There are XP and reward bonuses based on the number of map tiles they've gone through, which is the incentive to keep adventuring. I never got around to deciding the rules on fleeing or "returning home" in mid-session but whatever.

All this happened in the very early 2000s and my first reason for never pursuing this any further was that I got mired in trying to make the boardgame and roleplaying game compatible. They have different objectives for the player experience and I am not happy with RPG-level of detail and tinkering when applied to a boardgame scenario. Being a veteran of Legionnaire RPG (which sort-of inspired the game system of Praedor RPG), I've seen more than my fair share of half-assed RPG/boardgame rule conversions and didn't really want to do one more. Praedor boardgame would have had to be a separate, stand-alone product under the same franchise and I had no idea how to get such a thing printed. Also, during that time the Finnish RPG/boardgame scene was undergoing a revival (some of them say it was inspired by me, tee-hee) and it actually included people who cared deeply about boardgames and I didn't want to compete with them.         

Today, I am just as thin-skinned as ever and known as the most irritable old hippopotamus in the whole Finnish RPG scene. But I am thin-skinned about slightly different things and might actually throw together a prototype for testing one of these days. I'd really like to do the whole thing in a digital format, enabling both solo and group play while automatically keeping tabs on map tile progression and the resulting bonuses to enemies and rewards. Add some art from maestro Hiltunen himself, perhaps presenting in-game actions as comic strips rather than animations and voilá! :D

Now, all I have to learn is how to code...

Talk22-Jan-2015: Snakedancer

Inspiration is an itch that can only be scratched by writing it out. It is a surge of the creative pressure inside my head, so strong that I feel my skull bursting if it can't find a proper outlet. I also tend to lose interest in other forms of leisure; don't feel like playing any of my bajillion games, don't feel like keeping up with the TV series, no nothing. I just turn on the music and start typing. Let the protagonist take me into the otherwhere. And then have my little perfectionist ego kick me back into the real-world so I can do all the edits and rewrites before it relinquishes its stranglehold just a little and I can move on to the next chapter.

In truth, it all started out as a joke. The concept for the protagonist was first proposed by the arch-troll Niilo himself. Later, the daughter of one of my players rolled up her first character (Praedor is the perfect game for children, obviously) and developed a quite interesting backstory for her. She showed it to me and it fit the concept like a glove, sending sparks of inspiration flying inside my head. Then there was another player, another character and another tragic fate, this time from LootEm, my very first Praedor-megacampaign (2000-2003). LootEm is one of those things I'll be able to take with me when I depart from this world. But I digress. The sparks met powder and there was a flash. Now, all of a sudden, I am 31 sheets into a 100+ sheet story and fast approaching the magical 150000 character limit. That is where a book is born. I might as well admit to myself that there is no stopping it now. The Dance of Serpents (although I strongly suspect it will end up being called Snakedancer) will be my next full-length novel.

I never thought I could actually write a full-length novel without having a publisher contract already in the bag. Never done it before, actually. So, what can I say about Snakedancer without sounding insufferably smug? Well, I originally toyed with the idea of writing young adult/teen fantasy. That went out of the window with all the political intrigue and child marriages. I am genuinely happy with my blend of epic fantasy and the mundane and personal themes, tragedies and goals. The bodycount is still less than in Häirikkötehdas, but I expect that to be fixed soonish. Finally, I am also making a fool of myself by writing touchy-feely crap and including scenes of people overrun with emotion. That is pretty much what I was trying to avoid with characters like Vanha Koira and Jacob Moncke. Emotionally-driven people make really stupid decisions, or end up making the right decisions but usually for really stupid and illogical reasons.

With Snakedancer, I have ventured so far outside my comfort zone I can't even see it anymore. Sure, it is a terrible risk but mainly because we authors have such brittle egos. Really, what's the worst thing that could happen? Mike, Mikki or Sami telling me how to do it better? Oh, the horror, the horror! It's a good thing I still have an aversion to overtly explicit sex scenes though. I could never match Juhana in that department. And Snakedancer is not that kind of fantasy, even if the name can be interpreted in multiple ways.  
Some people consider being an author is its own reward. However, it has certainly been made easier by the fact that my business sucks right now. It always sucks in the first quarter but even the prospects are looking a bit iffy this year. Last year, TEKES made some pretty controversial decisions about  funding game industry start-ups and many of my potential clients were left high and dry. That, plus some old projects drawing to a close have left me with a lot of times on my hands. Maybe one of those prospects will eventually find funding, I don't know. I have my favorites but it is going to be first-come-first-served pretty soon. I know I have talked about finding a real job but there are commitments that although thus far unpaid, provide a convenient excuse to postpone the job hunt a little further. In short, this year may turn out to be a financial failure. On the other hand, as long as I get a Praedor novel out of it, this year won't be a total loss. 

Talk07-Jan-2015: A Postcard From Death

When I was 18 years old, the head doctor of Parolannummi military clinic, Lt.Col. Tikkinen, told me that my bad left lung would kill me in about 15 years. Back then, Tikkinen had a really bad reputation for mismanaging his patients (and I've personally witnessed two cases I could best describe as "criminal") and later my friends in the medical profession told me not to pay any heed to his ramblings. True enough, by reaching a ripe old of age of 41 I have beaten his estimate by eight years. Still, I have a creeping suspicion he might have been onto something because these Postcards From Death are becoming harder and harder to take. It's gotten so bad it might actually be an impediment if I went back to being an employee rather than a freelancer. This is my third postcard in six months. Despite working and writing, I never really got well in between. The cold of winter isn't helping.

So what does it feel like? It is like you were trying to draw breath around an obstacle and with less air per breath, even small movements would exhaust you. Breathing out, there is a curious tingling or bubbling sensation in the left lung, often accompanied by a whistling sound. Sometimes this is so loud that other people can hear it. Occasionally coughing helps to unplug it for a while: at other times the urge to cough becomes so great you start convulsing and it feels like your lungs were vomiting. That is the kind of coughing that kills people. Old people die when their hearts can't take the powerful upper chest convulsions. Little children with pertussis die by asphyxiation because they can't draw breath between the coughs (vaccinate your offspring, for fuck's sake!). And in WW1, soldiers afflicted by chlorine gas died because every breath they managed to draw filled their lungs with even more fluid, reducing oxygen intake and triggering even more coughing.

Of course, I still live, surrounded by computers, games, chocolate and TV entertainment. The twelve victims of an Islamist atrocity in Paris do not. It puts my problems into perspective. 

Talk31-Dec-2014: Witchcraft, 2nd Attempt

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everybody! (Yes, even atheists can celebrate Christmas without renaming the bloody thing).

I've been using my Christmas break and respiratory-infection-enforced rest into figuring out the demonic magic rules, or "witchcraft", for Praedor RPG. The vanilla game has no player magic beyond some borderline supernatural abilities purchased with Edges and the whole alchemy system. Petri wanted to keep the immortal sorcerers as godlike NPCs, preserving both their mystery and his creative freedom regarding magic and cosmology (yes, we keep drumming that Praedor has no canon but nobody believes us). I agreed back then and so did most of the fans, even if calls for player-controlled magic never entirely ceased.

Fast forward twelve years.

Praedor RPG may not be the most sold Finnish roleplaying game of all time but it is certainly the most played. During that time I have also made a new roleplaying game, in many ways a sister title to it, since the Strugatskys were a powerful inspiration for both games. Stalker RPG was in many ways an amalgamation of my house rules, unofficial practices and gamemastering tricks. Fresh off it, I cast a critical eye on the Praedor RPG canon and the existing "Praedor mythos", as it was in comics and short stories. The hybridization of humans and otherworldly beings is one of the key themes in the Praedor Mythos. Supernatural abilities gained from such union would be powerful enough to be useful, yet wild and uncontrolled enough to be both limited and ruthlessly dangerous, as befits the Praedor universe. In my campaigns, mortal magic-users are usually corrupted mutants who both lust for supernatural power and are consumed by it. "Lord of Beasts" in Vanha Koira is a perfect example. So, I presented my idea of witchcraft via demonic possession to Petri and he approved it.

My first attempt at Praedor witchcraft rules was an epic failure. I wanted to steer away from the ever-so-popular "mechanic + element" model because I thought it was overdone. As a result, my first attempt consisted of spell lists split into eight tiers. I had an idea of some kind of combination of the magics in Call of Cthulhu, D&D and new Stormbringer. What I got was a tangled mess that worked differently in million places and would be impossible for A) the player to remember and B) the gamemaster improvise on. Whatever my feelings towards the element+method system, for supernatural powers as natural abilities it works best.

So, I am writing my second go at witchcraft. This time the character is possessed by a demon but survives it without A) becoming an enslaved vessel to its alien will and B) fusing his body and soul with it and becoming an entirely new hybrid creature (Nameless One). Instead, the demonic being lives on inside him, caged by his Willpower. To wield supernatural powers, the witch only needs to open the cage a little. Now, while the demon's properties determine his magical powers, all witches share three magical abilities: Counterspell to overcome magical effects from other sources, including sorcerers, Witch's Eye to detect magical energies and supernatural beings (including other witches unless they are using Counterspell to hide their demonic souls) and Shapeshift, enabling the witch to assume the physical form of his demonic soul, in whole or in part, with specific effects determined by logic and Gamemaster.

A sorcerer, defended by his minions, starts casting a spell. The witch sees it coming and knows he can't get at the Sorcerer to stop it. He also knows that sorcery spells never fail, even if they are not always used wisely. So, he unleashes Counterspell and knowing that he needs all his power and skill to defeat a sorcery spell, makes no secret of his demonic powers. The sorcerer needs the entire combat round to cast his spell. The witch only raises his hand and growls his defiance with a demonic voice, while human and demonic features dance on his face. Then the sorcerer sends a blast of fiery wind at him, knocking over men and furniture, sending debris flying and setting fire to everything that will burn.

But the witch succeeded and is left standing amidst the burning rubble, his hand still outstretched. His cloak did not even twitch from the firestorm that just raged all around it. He countered the spell's power and in doing so, also all its physical effects. Those of his companions who managed to leap behind him now peer over his shoulders, slightly singed but otherwise okay. For them, the witch counted as a solid obstacle when avoiding the spell effects. The witch has now exposed himself but since the sorcerer already tried to kill him, the time for subterfuge is clearly over.

Sounds wonderful. Powerful, even. But a sorcerer always succeeds in spellcasting and can study any kind of magic he wants. For the witch, defeating the spell was a close-run thing, carrying a significant risk of failure, or worse. Much, much worse.

Demon has Might. Even when imprisoned inside the witch, its Might can grow, or be grown like any other attribute with no upper cap. The amount of Might determines the number of specific demonic powers it has but most witches have three powers, based on the properties of their demon. Let's assume the demon's true form was a robotic spider wreathed flame and hailing from an alien realm where past, present and future are one. The witch would gain the powers of Flame, Mechanics and Time. As a rule of thumb, he can Research, Alter, Destroy and Create and Invoke them, in that order of difficulty and potency. There are other modifiers; can you do it as a four-hour ritual with all the bells and whistles of a demonic cult, or do you have to do it silently, without gestures and right fucking now? Have you rested properly since you last wielded magic? Are you in the sphere of some other power, helpful or hindering? Do you have talismans of suitable properties, or have you done this before and used Experience points to make it a spell so you can easily repeat it when necessary? And finally, does the Gamemaster agree on your assessment on the power and method being used?

The ruins of Warth are silent now, with both the monsters and the treasure-seekers long gone. Only whispering echoes of ancient magic greet the witch as he walks amongst the blackened columns. Yet there are treasures here that could not be carried away, dating back to the days of Kirel Curarim, an ancient Sorcerer King believed to have invented demonic magic and then forced it upon his subjects. Few know what really happened here and those who do hold their peace. The witch has been exploring the ruins for days now, using a map so old its edges crumble in his grasp.

Nothing much remains of a sorcerer's tower that once held a gate to a foreign world. Just a round pedestal of its foundations, with piece of wall left standing on the north side. There are markings on the wall, scratches so worn out by fire and time they are impossible to make out. But it matters not. The witch passes his hand over them and speaks out in a voice that is not his. His eyes turn grey and strange mists follow in the wake of his fingers. The demon inside him looks back through the shroud of time and before his very eyes the wall is suddenly restored. The ancient carvings deepen and sharpen, until they stand out clear and crisp. They had also been painted with gold ink, even though not a fleck of it remains today. It is a simple trick for someone whose demonic soul knows the flow and ebb of time, uet one even the mightiest sorcerers alive today would be hard pressed to match. 

(Yes. Sorcerers have many advantages over witches but there are reasons why even some sorcerers are tempted to dabble with demonic magic.) 

No mortal mind can comprehend the writing but there is a loophole. The witch uses his power of Witch's Eye and his demon reads the glyphs aloud inside his mind. It is as if the stone wall was speaking to him in an inhuman voice brimming with bitterness and malevolence. The writing is a clue, pointing him towards his next objective. However, the witch must be more cautious now. He has unlocked the gate of his soul twice already and can feel the demon growing stronger. It is no longer safe to wield magic so casually, so he'd better stick to spells and cantrips he has amulets and tools for. Or better yet, face the hazards of Warth with steel and courage until he finds a place to rest and unburden his soul.       

To cast a demonic magic spell, you must roll equal or under the Might of your demonic soul. Many other things are also figured out from Might: ranges, durations, damages and/or resistance rolls against the target's attributes. But whatever the result, it is also compared against the witch's own Willpower. If it exceeds that, the demon starts consuming him. He loses Blood to invisible wounds only time can heal and gains Corruption points that can never be erased. When total Corruption overtakes his characteristics, he develops horrible mutations, disgusting habits, the need to consume human flesh to preserve his own humanity and so on. Even if not caught by the authorities, sorcerers or the witch hunters of the Church of Artante, he is forced to become a recluse, a horribly misshapen hermit who has to resort to shapeshifting just to appear human again. And once Corruption exceeds Willpower, it is all over. The barriers of mind and soul break down. The human and the demon fuse into an insane, raving mutant, a Nameless One.

The mutant can be slain, of course. Perhaps even by the witch's former friends and associates. The human dies but the demon often survives, lingering on in the corpse and eventually its bones, just waiting for someone with enough agency in the world to touch them and the cycle of possession, power and corruption begins anew. Not all witches became what they are willingly and this is why the bodies of suspected witches are to be burned. It is debatable if even that will kill the demon or if the demon can truly be killed at all. Yet so far no one has been possessed from smoke and ashes, so the Church of Artante has deemed burning good enough.

(Note: suspected witches are usually killed by beheading and only then the bodies are burned. Trying to burn alive a witch with the power of Flame or a fire-proof demonic shape can get... interesting...)

Talk17-Dec-2014: This Is A Twist

Well, this is a twist!

The idea of translating Praedor RPG into English has come up before but I've always rejected it on the grounds that A) someone needs to do the boring bit of actually translating the bloody thing and B) the source material (Praedor comics) exists only in Finnish. Now it looks like "A" might be resolved by someone I know and trust and certainly has the mad skillz to get it done. And once that is over, doing something about "B" is no longer out of the question. After all, the amount of text in all the Praedor comics is miniscule compared to the roleplaying game. I don't need anybody's permission to have the game translated and any profits will still be split between me and Petri Hiltunen. But when and if we have a translated script of the RPG on the table, expect some serious negotiations on the fate and future of the comics.

For the record, I've already said yes to the translation. Whether it really happens or not is still to be seen but I do trust this guy.

There is another problem. Not a showstopper by any means but a dilemma I have to resolve. By now, the roleplaying game is 14 years old (almost to the day) and there are a few things I'd really like to change about it. I am just worried that if I do that, the English and Finnish versions will be out of sync and... well, cue all the issues resulting from that. Finnish roleplayers are canon-conscious to a fault. They also know their English, so for them, this would be like putting out a 3rd edition of the game. On the other hand, leaving these changes out wouldn't really work either. I had been thinking about including these in a future Praedor RPG supplement, but translating that is highly unlikely.

Here is a quick run-down of the changes:

Dodging no longer adds penalty dice to further reactions. It exists completely outside the action/reaction dialogue. I've used this house-rule since forever and I am pretty sure this is how I originally envisioned it. It is THE benefit of fighting skyclad (naked) compared to the armored tanks that are the usual Praedor warriors. A skilled fighter with two weapons and a high dodge skill is a wicked opponent, although the statistics still favor heavy armor and shield, especially at lower skill levels.

Alchemy is a substitute to player magic and needs more accessible and structured approach to it. You can buy 1D3 potions (double that in certain places) of Capra at 5-10 gold each from wherever there are Sorcerers. Actual alchemical potions up to 3D complexity can be bought, although damaging concoctions are illegal in most places. The base cost of 10 gold per potion doubles with every additional die of complexity. Higher-level products are sometimes available in places like Farrignia's Street of Wonders, or the riverport of Circol (the actual city is off-limits) but at much higher cost. If an alchemist character wants to set up shop making potions, he can do that after placating the local guild and obtaining a permission from the ruler, but then he ceases to be a praedor and is removed from play. Adventuring alchemists are rare (and sometimes suspected of witchcraft).

Progression codifies another of my current house-rules. Rather than deciding beforehand how much XP you are going to bet on a skill increase roll, you can just roll 1D per 100 XP and keep burning more XP to roll more dice until your total exceeds the current skill level. It greatly reduces the risks and gives more bang for the buck as far as your XP is concerned.

Sorcerers are not a well-written chapter to begin with and the NPC-based sorcery rules are an alternate game mechanic that is both shitty and unique to that specific circumstance. If I wrote that now, I'd take a page out of Stalker RPG. Rather than rolling the sorcerer's power, I'd simply have rules for avoiding sorcerous effects, whether they are elemental or psychic. Sorcerers cannot be played in Praedor RPG, so it is only fitting that the challenges are presented from the player's perspective and fit the rest of the rules.

Stats for a few demonic familiars would not hurt either.

Healing and especially what can or cannot be achieved with specific alchemical products must be clarified.   

Beasts and monsters are way too nerfed, due to early playtesting mishaps. Rather than Dodging, they will have Defence which does not stack up penalty dice from previously avoided attacks and reduces the degree of the incoming attack just like a parry with a weapon would do (except it can also be used against missiles). Some types of natural armor may also boost Defence (think sloped armor, or aggressive spikes making it difficult to close in with the creature). Finally, they get more attacks. A monster with really quick attacks (or multiple heads etc.) would get to attack in I, II and III. Your average predator would get to attack on II and III. Your herbivores would only attack on III. Finally, all beasts with Deep Wound of 10+ would get a higher damage value than they do now.  

Borvaria section could use tables for random finds and encounters.

There are more and the city-state descriptions could use some work, but for the main rulebook those changes would do. Of course, compared to Stalker RPG, the gamemastering instructions in Praedor RPG are a fucking disgrace. Finally, I'd love to rip off the Treasure Point system in One Ring and apply some iteration of it to Praedor RPG. But that might be a step too far.

Talk10-Dec-2014: Vanha eKoira

Vanha Koira

Well, it is out now, in both epub and PDF formats. Almost all of the art is there too, with just the image of Aric first arriving to the inn gone missing due to my haphazard attitude towards housekeeping. Ten years since the  release, I am still really happy with the art and Petri's depiction of Vanha Koira (lit. "Old Dog") himself is masterful. Really, even looking at the old adventurer and praedor is inspiring. Note how he is still wearing a Forest Folk garb in the picture above. Unfortunately, both the novel, the roleplaying game and ultimately the comics they draw on are available only in Finnish. I have sometimes been asked why haven't I translated the Praedor RPG into English. I would, if somebody translated the comics as well. Maybe they could all be published together in single massive a leather-bound tome that just says PRAEDOR on the cover in gold leaf. X-D

Oh well, we'd better wait for the next Praedor comic album to come out first. Btw, should the plural of "album" be "albii" or something like that? 

Vanha Koira was my first long novel and it was published by Jalava in 2004, a period already covered in this blog. To make the long story short, before I became a game developer I was out of job and tried to get into Jalava as a fiction translator. I sent them a translation of their sample text and a short story called "Vanha Koira" as an example of my writing style. They responded that the translator job was gone but if I expanded the short-story into a full-length novel, they'd publish it. So, I did and they did. The original short story covers the second and third stories in the novel. I personally dislike the first story, Vihreä Kuu, which was insisted on by the publisher because for some reason they wanted to highlight Aric rather than Old Dog as a major character. It has its fans and they vehemently disagree but I see it more as a filler, even though I did my best to mix my own descriptive style with Howard-like narrative.

Back in the day the novel was well received by critics (the rating of three stars in Goodreads is curiously low in that regard) but for me it will always be The First Novel. Reading it always makes me want to re-write everything. I wrote it ten years, four other books and one commercial RPG release ago. That's a long time and a lot of text. Nobody survives something like that unchanged. Still, old-school Praedor fans argue that Vanha Koira is just fine as it is. Maybe so. This much later I can't really tell if the version published now is really identical to the print version. It was the version I had, so I am hoping for the best. I did go over it, sorting a few mistakes but the laws of proofreading state that some must have still gotten through. If you run into any of those, please accept my pre-emptive apology.

It is a public secret that I have the plot layout and the few first chapters of a second Praedor novel in the desk drawer. Actually, third one too, but it is shelved until the next Praedor comic album comes out. I've drawn a line in sand, one hundred downloads of Vanha Koira ebook. If or when that goal is reached, my next Praedor-themed novel will come out within a year. One hundred downloads is still pitifully little but that's Finnish speculative fiction for you. Maybe I'll get lucky with grants or something. My other writing project for 2015 is The Green Room, a sequel to The Hollow Pilgrim. By the way, it is funny that while The Hollow Pilgrim has been read only by few, those who did do love or at least like it a lot. Just like the Stalker RPG itself.

It has been a barren year, both professionally and financially. My plans for 2015 are in flux. I am seriously contemplating quitting freelancing and finding an honest job again. Of course, if that fails, maybe I'll go full-time desperate author instead. I've certainly got the desperate part down. ;)

Big thanks to Mikko Rautalahti for pointing me to Herp Derp. This application was probably intended as a joke but for someone who likes watching documentaries and historical warfare stuff on Youtube, it actually improves the experience quite a bit. For some reason, those videos always seem to attract the worst pond scum into the comments section. 

Talk08-Dec-2014: Good Things

It is cold, wet and dark outside. Everybody is talking about the Independence Day Riot in Helsinki (a couple of dozen idiots taking part in a social equality demonstration went apeshit and vandalized their surroundings). I am slowly crawling back from a lung inflammation. So fuck it, this time I am going to focus on positives things that are or happen around me. The Good Things.

For an armchair historian interested in World War One, The Great War video podcast series in Youtube is solid gold. It's been 100 years since the start of the war and they've been going over the events week by week and thrown in couple of additional episodes per month on important figures or features. Although the episodes are less than 10 minutes each, there is already a couple of hours of grade-A material here and if they go through with the project, all the way up to November in 2018, this will be the definitive documentary series on the topic for the foreseeable future. To top it of, the series also comes out in German, Polish and Turkish.

Krabak, we are going to watch this all the way through one day.

My another favorite Youtube armchair historian series, Extra History, has also knocked the ball out of the park with their latest entry: Sengoku Jidai, a cartoon-style presentation series on the events that finally ended the Warring States era in Japan and brought about the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603 (it is the setting of pretty much every Samurai film ever). Now, this is a topic I know very little about, so I can just lean back and enjoy it without getting stuck in the details. Normally these people do Extra Credits, a cartoon-style video podcast about game design, but their first historical series on Punic Wars was absolutely stellar and their second series WW1: The Seminal Tragedy on the causes and events leading to World War One was a doozy. There are currently three episodes of Sengoku Jidai out there and I really like what I am seeing.     

Now that I know what I am doing, Far Cry 3 has really been a much better experience than the first time around, but I have already rated my revisit to The Rook Islands a +3. But that's not the positive thing I want to talk about. The real positive thing is that as I went diving for some underwater relics for their XP bonus, I realized, for the first time, how vivid their underwater landscape really was. Previously, I had been so scared of sharks I hadn't paid much attention to anything else. Now that I had blown them out of the water first and had time to look around, I saw all the glowing jellyfish, schools of small minnows of whatever... and then this guy showed up, making me almost choke on my Lidl Freeway 0% Cola.


It's huge! It 's realistic! It is awesome! It's the biggest critter in the game! It is completely harmless! It is a fucking manta ray! The only thing coming even close to that level of coolness in Far Cry 4 is riding an elephant. Why oh why did I rate FC4 so highly again (I know: because the gameplay is very, very solid)? Rook Islands are easily twice the size of Kyrat and man, the writing kicks serious ass even  second time around. And there are cutscenes and story/characterization bits that you are just not going to see unless you go looking for them. Also, after FC4's melodramatic 80's B-class action-flick plot (maybe they were a little too impressed by the success of Blood Dragon DLC, come to think of it?), it is great to have a plot written by adults for adults. Now, if only they got rid of the Bullshit World Gaming thing and gave me a Bethesda-style reason to live in this world...  

Vanha Koira is getting the ebook treatment. Jalava released all her rights to publishing it and thus the epub version is already... why am I writing this in English?

Vanha Koira on lopultakin ilmestynyt e-kirjana! Jalava/Art House vapautti sen julkaisuoikeudet ja epub-versio on jo saatavilla Burger Gamesin nerokkaasta nettikaupasta. PDF-versio ilmestynee lähipäivinä. Hintaa on kuusi euroa, mutta muista, että mukana tulee toistakymmentä upeaa Petri Hiltusen tekemää piirrosta. Ja jos kauppa käy, Vanha Koira seikkailee lisää! Tämä oli lupaus.

And finally, AC/DC has come out with a new album, Rock or Bust. Some purists out there are lamenting that it is not one of their best but these same people have been whining about AC/DC being sell-outs since the death of Bon Scott in 1980. I am happy to have any AC/DC material at all
since I had already written the band off when Malcolm Young became too ill with dementia to play the guitar. Now, also their long-time drummer Phil Rudd (was he one of the founding members?) has been carted off into jail for plotting a murder. Still the band survives, even with Angus Young as the sole original member and I'll happily throw some money at them. So, what's my favorite AC/DC album, you ask? Flick of the Switch, motherfuckers! And Guns for Hire is my favorite song (although the competition is tough). There is more epic and technically demanding music out there but that song never fails to put a smile on my face. :)    

Talk05-Dec-2014: Far Cry 3 Retrospective

Having enjoyed Far Cry 4 much more than I thought I would (the ending is a letdown, though), I was puzzled why my play experience of it was so much better than in Far Cry 3 had been. So I booted up Far Cry 3 and gave it a spin. Partly because I was curious and partly because I wanted more of the same. And they are practically the same game to a disturbing extent. In a just world, FC4 would have been a DLC to FC3 and then its few improvements would have applied onto the original game as well.

Far Cry 4 added... yeah, what did it add, exactly? The opportunity to use grappling hook at pre-scripted points on the map with rope swinging physics. The game-breaking gyrocopter. The autopilot mode that made driving from one place to another easier. Elephants! Fuck yeah, elephants! The whole elephant riding mechanic was great. That and the autodrive are the two stand-out features that improve upon the original. Far Cry 4 also has better menus, which is to say they are awful but unlike in FC3, they still work. FC3's user interface is a cruel and unusual punishment.

What did it lose? As much as I like the way Kyrat looks and feels with its more varied terrain (no weather effects though, what the hell, Ubi?), comparing the two games side by side makes it is obvious that Far Cry 3 was way more ambitious. In Far Cry 4, the plot is ”okay” (for a shooter) and there are a couple of characters who stand out. By contrast, Far Cry 3's plot is superb by any action game standard and its characters are perhaps some of the best found in any game anywhere ever. Honestly, the writing is better by orders of magnitude. I wonder what happened to that writer?

Here is an interesting point on character writing; your average cannon-fodder enemy henchman. The Royal Army of Kyrat in Far Cry 4 must be the ideal soldiers that North Korea is aiming for. They are loyal unto death because of fuck all and have no motivation beyond patriotic servitude to a guy who makes Ceausescu look like the poster boy of mental health. Watching them in that one scene when they were drunk and celebrating made my brain hurt. And don't get me started on those hunter-ninjas with their mystical powers over animals.

Your average opposing thug in Far Cry 3 is more like a Somali pirate. They use colorful language, drown their sorrows with drugs and make no secret they are in it for the money. Although this is a video game and they do fight to the death, the community they have created around their leaders and slavery operations is quite believable. Hell, it is probably happening right now in Dagestan, although with less tropical sunshine. This also makes it morally easier to kill them since they are assholes by choice and targets by necessity.

Far Cry 3 stumbles on Bullshit World Gaming issues, although in retrospect they are nothing compared to Shadows of Mordor. Killing off wildlife to upgrade your gear has become a trademark of this franchise, although the crafting demands in FC3 are actually less outlandish than in FC4. For example, there are things in FC4 that take two rhino hides to complete. Do the developers have any idea how big a rhino is? What am I making, an upholstery for a bus? FC3 pushes it with two bull shark hides but never goes completely off the rails. Four dingo hides... yeah, I can live with that one. But I digress.

My pet peeve with bullshit gaming world mission design is arbitrary spatial and/or weapon limitations. Respond to a bulletin board mission about a pack of rabid dogs? No, the kills don't count unless you use a specific weapon. Assassination mission? Again, it doesn't count unless you kill the bad guy with the specified soda straw. Unlike in FC4, there are no random missions or more complex encounter you can run into, so apart from encounters due to randomized mob pathfinding, nothing seems to happen in the world unless you do it yourself.

And the habit of failing missions by leaving the mission area irks me to no end, especially since at one point it happens on a storyline mission. You are asked to go to a distant location since the bad guys are preparing to attack but if you take the fast travel option there (you do have the marker), the whole mission fails and you have to it all over again. I bet every single player of the game ever failed the Medusa Radio mission the first time just because of that.

Finally, the incentive to explore isn't really there. The economy is broken and there is nothing significant you can find (even if collecting relics is fun at first), nor do you have any personal tie-in to the lost war diaries or whatever collectibles there are. Once you have the crucial things crafted and a solid supply of herbs for syringes, the only remaining reason to explore is to find hang-gliders to fly just for kicks. Far Cry 4 wins a point here, even if its exploration incentives don't carry all the way to the end either. And while the main storyline is superb, there are no multi-mission side-quests as in FC4. All the side missions in FC3 are one-time events. Another point for FC4.

Still, now that I know to avoid the trouble spots, FC3 with its vastly superior storyline is giving me a great gameplay experience. Unfortunately, those trouble spots are like 50% of the game and 80% of its open world content. I am having fun but the sad truth is that FC3 would work best as a Far Cry 1 -style ultra-wide-pipe and should drop this open-world nonsense. On the other hand, leveling up in FC3 is more fun because the perks feel more powerful, there are more of them and I love that idea that they show up as a tattoo on your arm. FC4 has fewer perks, some of them are painfully irrelevant and the whole thing is just a single double-sided skill tree with little ambition or atmosphere. I remember seeing a marketing picture of glyphs being carved into a Kukri knife but I guess that was dropped.

Point to Far Cry 3.

I rated Far Cry 4 as +2, a sort of ”game I would play and recommend to fans of the genre”. How, in comparison, would I now rate Far Cry 3? Well, if you can play it like I am doing right now, consciously avoiding the dog droppings of its bullshit world gaming and immersing myself into the main storyline and characters (plus some jungle warfare), it is a solid +3 (and if I didn't have to make an effort to keep it this good, I'd consider +4 because of the stellar writing).

But out of the box, as a bullshit world game extraordinaire with a boring oversized world where you have to slog through crap to get to the few diamonds, it is a +1. I'll play it, for better or worse.

Talk01-Dec-2014: Zone Russia, part 2

Scourged by anomalies and scorched by quasi-chemicals, most Zones are barren wastelands of danger and ruin. If any life survives at all, it is limited to isolated pockets or underground caves and sewers. For all intentions and purposes, Zones are deserts and the effect extends to micro-organisms. Particularly active anomalous areas can be virtually sterile.

The Forest. The Eternal Forest. The Forest Outside Time. The Witchwood. Whatever you call it, Zone Russia is the exception that makes the rule.

From the coastal lowlands outside Derbent to the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, Zone Russia is an ocean of misty green that covers deep valleys and climbs up tall ridges and hillsides. Only the mountaintops rising above 2000 meters punch through the canopy of green and they are often battered by anomalous storms. The Forest does more than defy biology and physics. It is an aberration of space-time and wreaks havoc with causality. Time flows differently in here and there are spaces, spatial pockets that are not part of the geometry of Earth and thus cannot even be observed from outside. Anyone venturing into the woods is subjected to the pull several different temporal streams, eventually getting out of sync with the world outside the Zone. Days in the Forest can be just hours for the outside world, or a brief trip via the woods can last for weeks for those observing across the border. 

Accelerated time is thought to be the reason why man-made materials and constructs deteriorate so rapidly in the Zone. This also applies to any equipment carried by stalkers. Batteries to electrical devices run out very quickly and metals start to oxidize after just a day (intensive maintenance and greasing slows this down quite a bit). After a few days even polymer-based clothes are starting to disintegrate, which can be life-threatening in cold conditions. Glass and ceramics weather this quite well, though, explaining why many brick and stone structures in the Zone are still standing while steel crumbles to dust. This is most noticeable in the abandoned auls, traditional fortified hilltop villages built almost entirely out of stone.

It's all peace and quiet down on the forest floor and the Zone can present some beautiful. scenes. Seasons or even the time of day rarely have an effect here, neither through temperature fluctuations nor the amount of light trickling through the canopy of trees. The trees themselves can be more than 30 meters tall in the deepest vales but are smaller and spaces farther apart in higher altitudes. Many trees are supersized versions of terrestrial species but others are either too mutated to be recognized, or they resemble species thought to have become extinct millions of years ago. And it doesn't stop there. Any trees cut down or otherwise destroyed soon reappear, while wood taken out of the Zone soon crumbles into nothingness, as if the matter itself never existed. There is simply no way to remove the wood from the Zone. 

There is a school of thought arguing that the trees of Zone Russia are not biological entities at all. Instead, they are physical ghosts and reconstructions by naturally occurring nanite clusters, much like the Replicants encountered in other Zones. Whatever the case, they are majestic and unchanging, completely immune to the needs and processes associated with living flora and very rarely harmed by Zone phenomena. Being so massive, their roots tend to dam up streams and small rivers running along valley floors, creating impromptu bogs and marshes to slow progress. The added humidity could also explain why the Forest is so frequently shrouded in mists and fog.

Even if the trees were inorganic and hailed from different streams of time, a lush undergrowth of biological plants thrives in their shadow. Vines and lichens cling onto tree trunks and hang on the lower branches. Flowers, both familiar and alien, bloom and bear fruit in the twilight, apparently ignoring the complete lack of light or pollinating insects. Many of them are difficult or even dangerous to handle but have amazing medicinal or anomalous properties. Miracle cures brewed in the back-alley labs of Derbent are all the craze in Central Asia and Far East. Sometimes they even work. Since artefacts are scarce, local stalkers have taken to picking flowers and scraping lichens as their primary source of income. Some artefacts have been found, though, and telling the difference between an organic-looking artefact and a particularly alien flower can be a problem.

Don't let the unearthly beauty of the Forest fool you; Zone Russia is every bit as lethal and strange as the other Zones. Anomalies abound and the trees respond to static anomalies by growing into strange and often beautiful shapes and structures around them. The trees themselves are usually not affected or they may even be an integral part of the anomalies. The undergrowth is more fragile, although it too recovers quickly and apart from the high peaks there are no real barren areas within the Zone. The undergrowth also reacts to the vicinity of dynamic anomalies, bending away from them or acquiring even more unusual characteristics in their vicinity. In the twilight of the forest floor this can be pretty much the only way to detect dynamic anomalies. There are also reports of quasi-chemicals, usually in liquid or semi-liquid form. They tend occur close to the remains of man-made structures. Witches' Jelly is a relatively common hazard in the ruined auls.

One feature unique to Zone Russia are Spatial Seasons. The passage of time in the outside world may have no effect on the Forest but parts of it appear to be locked into different seasons, complete with the angle of the Sun and the overall weather. There are hillsides locked in the bitter embrace of winter all year round, while some peaks and valleys bask in the sweltering heat of summer even when it is January across the border. Trees reflect whatever the spatial season they are in but the effects on undergrowth are varied. You would think the harsh mountain winters would destroy biological plants but there are species specifically adapted to their spatial seasons, as well as plants with strong anomalous properties that can ignore or at least defy the elements. While spatial seasons sometimes pose an obstacle, they are often godsent for stalkers as they provide reliable points of reference in an otherwise trackless and shifting anomalous wilderness.

Any visitor to the Forest will immediately be struck by the silence. There are no singing birds or buzzing insects. At first glance you might think it is completely devoid of animal life. If only that were the case. The Forest is home to vicious mutated predators the locals call uburs, after a malignant spirit that can posses animals. Very little is known about them but apparently any creature can mutate into an ubur, including normally docile or timid herbivors. Uburs are typically solitary ambush predators but there are reports of them acting in pairs or chasing their prey in packs like wolves. Nothing is known of their origin or life cycle, nor has anyone been able to draw up a working model of the Zone Russia ecosystem. There are also human-based uburs and more disturbingly, uburs from people lost to the Zone long after the Visitation. Have they've been somehow mutated by exposure to the Zone? Or are uburs actually twisted physical ghosts of creatures lost to the Zone, much like Replicants, or even the trees? No one knows.

Not all humanoid mutants in Zone Russia are uburs, however. Tens of thousands of people were trapped in Zone Russia during the Visitation. There were some thousands of Refugees whose present fate is largely unknown but tribes of mutants are still thought to be living in or around some of the auls. Known mostly by their tracks and cultural artifacts hinting at stone-age technology, these mutants are thought to be the Changed found in some other Zones (including Zone France). How they survive in the Forest alongside with the uburs is anyone's guess but some locals believe they are either the young of uburs, or worship uburs as cannibalistic gods. Most people are not that superstitious but still, the local population is deeply distrustful of Refugees and openly hostile to anyone exhibiting visible signs of mutation. Unfortunately, this sentiment often spills over into acts of violence and oppression against those with natural birth defects or retardation.

Some of the plant life in the undergrowth is also hazardous to stalkers and explorers. Popular fiction would have you believe that Zone Russia has man-eating plant monsters but while this is false, some plants have powerful and damaging anomalous properties, release venomous pollen or vapors, irradiate their surroundings or exhibit dangerous psychic properties akin to rageweed found in Zone France. Naturally, these very same plants are often the ones most prized by the clandestine xenomedicine laboratories. While they would be easier to avoid than mutant monsters, many stalkers go looking for trouble and suffer accordingly.

Last but not least there are... <transmission interrupted due to campaign spoilers>

P.S. Apparently some people missed the Google Earth bookmark to Zone Russia last month. Here you go!
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