January 29, 2013

Watching Out for 0 AD

Tried out Wildfire Games’ open source RTS game 0 AD yesterday, and came out with mixed feelings. 0 AD is a quasi-historical RTS, with gameplay modeled after the blockbuster Age of Empires and Age of Mythology series, with some major improvements.

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First improvement to appeal to me: more playable factions! 0 AD is set in the Classical era of history, and lets you play as the Romans, splits the Greeks into Athenians and Spartans, Carthaginians, Britons, Gauls, Persians (Achaemenid I believe), Iberians, even the Mauryan Empire. Woot! 

0ad mauryans

Second improvement: tough AI. Since I play in short bursts and at odd, unpredictable hours, I’m not one for online play (In other words, I play to take a break, when I want a break).  A fun AI opponent is thus a nice bonus. Along with this I have to cite the cool gameplay improvements. Among them, the idea of citizen-soldiers. 

All civilizations have worker-only units, but most infantry units can also do gathering and construction work.  This not only feels more realistic – many of Rome’s mightiest engineering feats were built by the legions – but also adds a nice fillip to your strategizing. You can have a bigger army by making less workers and more soldiers, assigning the soldiers to economic tasks, but with two disadvantages – your forces get scattered, and when you’re at war production takes a drastic drop. If you rely on citizen-soldiers for your economy, you can’t campaign for too long with concentrated forces.

Again, it’s a better simulation, but yowch. I’ve partly gotten around by doing as the Romans did, assigning tasks to command groups so at least I can quickly rally and direct the troops when they’re needed.

0ad 1

Third improvement: oh gawd, the graphics! I really have to hand it to the development team, this game is gorgeous. But don’t let me tell you – take a gander at the screenshots and decide for yourself!

0ad 2

The good: this is a game you can definitely spend hours on. The bad: it’s still in alpha development stage, and on my Dell XPS it keeps crashing. But the game is so promising, I’m keeping an eye on its development so I can get the  next stable release.

January 27, 2013

The Chinese Druss?

I just randomly found, while doing historical research, a manga whose main character reminds me very strongly of David Gemmell’s Druss  -- and if you know me, you know I think that resemblance is a good thing!  I’m talking about Bokko, Hideki Mori’s adaptation of a novel by Ken’ichi Sakemi.

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The manga follows the exploits of Kakuri, a man of the Bokk Clan of siege and strategy experts who saves a city from conquest during the close of China’s Warring States period.  What’s so cool about this? The Bokk Clan is actually the school of Mozi, or Mo Tzu, known to the West as the Mohists.  A bunch of philosophers turned siege engineers

As with Gemmell’s novel, the story opens with Kakuri travelling to a fortress that is ill-prepared to resist an imminent and massive attack.  Kakuri’s quickly established as one tough bastard, a quick-witted strategist and deadly fighter who’s almost always one step ahead of his enemy.  He takes over leadership of the city of Ryo, demanding that even its king and court officials obey his every command, quickly creating enemies for himself.  The enmity only gets worse as Kakuri’s training and organization of the defenders favors the peasants above the royalty and court officials.

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Kakuri’s leadership and teaching are really needed, for their foe the General Koentchu is every bit as wily and ruthless as Kakuri himself.  Koentchu assaults the city with every trick he knows, from tunneling under the walls to driving hungry wolves up the assault ramps, to slipping in assassins and commando teams to wreak havoc among the civilians, even to using catapult-launched paratroopers! Kakuri fights back with equal cunning, and one of the most delightfully ingenious moments in the manga is when he uses a very simple prearranged trick to expose infiltrators.

The manga is beautifully drawn by Mori, who apparently was also chosen by Kazuo Koike, creator of the epic Lone Wolf and Cub to illustrate the continuation of the series after Goseki Kojima died. Bokko has very much the same sensitive grittiness in its approach to violence and themes of humanity and heroism.  Not surprisingly, it won the Shogakukan Manga Award, in 1995, and got a (Hong Kong) movie adaptation in 2006 as A Battle of Wits. You’ll also notice that the names seem overwhelmingly Japanese; I suspect it’s because the translators used the Japanese readings of the Kanji characters used in the manga.

This manga doesn’t seem to have any English edition out yet, so it’s only available to English speakers by online scanlation sites. I hope Dark Horse or some other publishing house remedies that soon. 

January 26, 2013

Pacing with yWriter

Taking a short break from writing a new short story, and taking the opportunity to sing the praises again of yWriter, the freeware fiction-writing program from Spacejock Software. Why am I loving yWriter so much? Because it plays to my strengths as a writer, at the same time it covers my a** – er, weaknesses, most of which have to do with planning. 

I’m very much what writing circles call a ‘pantser,’ one who does things very much by seat-of-the pants navigation. But as more things call on my attention, it’s easy to lose that thread of thought, so it’s very useful to make notes.  Paradoxically, making too many notes can kill a a story for me.  I’m very much of Gemmell’s ‘put a character on a horse and see where he goes’ school.  Taking my character off that horse long enough to explain the story to me tends to end up with said character wandering off and out of my brainscape!

Enter yWriter.  With yWriter, I can whip up my first scene or three to establish the story’s main points – setting, characters, conflicts, etc.  Then as I slow down, I stop writing scene content and refocus on making new scenes, each with a single-sentence description of what I want to happen there, plus additional notes that will help in the later polishing.

I still don’t use all of yWriter’s available tools, but the very simple tree structure of Story > Chapters > Scenes is already very powerful for my methods, along with scene and chapter word counts.  When I’m writing, and I know the characters well enough, or the setting well enough, the story plays out as a movie in my head.  I see each scene as  a shot, or a sequence of shots, playing in my head. Writing it exactly that way, though, sometimes leads me to do too much description.

This is where the word count breakdowns really help.  They’re a pacing tool.  The proportion of words in each scene and chapter to each other tells me where I’m dilating time to focus more on something, and if the proportions start to get too lopsided I know I’ve gotten wordy, or inserted too much detail, which I easily do when I have the momentum. And good pacing for me is a big part, a really big part, of what keeps the reader reading.

January 19, 2013

Tribes of Bronze Map, Take 2

Kharzond map (C) Dariel Quiogue 2013

Got a hankering to work on Tribes of Bronze again yesterday, stayed up doing it until late in the night. There comes a point when, to keep writing consistently I need a map, so that’s what I did.

Again, Tribes of Bronze revolves around barbarian tribes migrating into the civilized lands due to an Ice Age.  I toyed around with other ideas, including magical blights, demon infestations, etc., but the Ice Age angle just kept coming back.  Then I realized something: what do oceans do during an Ice Age? They recede.  And receding oceans reveal things that may have been better hidden!

The light gray areas on the map indicate exposed sea bottoms. Kharzond is a supercontinent formed from the linkage of the continents of Alzond and Kharadzir, with the sea between them now forming the Great Salt Waste.  The icons dotted across the Salt Waste indicate known Elder ruin sites.  There are more, of course, yet to be discovered. Since the dead sea bottoms are also the land bridges to the warmer, richer southern continent, expect to have some hairy Elder encounters on the way to the Promised Land!

And while sea bottoms are being revealed, lands once inhabited or even civilized are being covered by the Marching Ice. The High Tundra was once a cold but rich hunting ground, but it’s now almost totally under ice.  Climate fluctuates during an ice age, though, so locations that are under ice may suddenly become accessible again for a while when the glaciers temporarily retreat.

January 15, 2013

Galleys Ancient and Medieval

I’ve been re-reading my copy of John F. Guilmartin’s Galleons and Galleys, which has made me realize some FRPG tropes could use clarification: chief among them, galley rams and galley slaves.
The heavier galleys of antiquity had a waterline ram at the bow, meant for springing open the planking of an enemy ship. The ram gave the galley a unique profile, with the lower bow jutting out:
Trieme with waterline ram
The waterline ram was abandoned sometime before or in the early Middle Ages, and came to be replaced by a spur on the bow, the arrumbada, which was designed to ride over the gunwales of a smaller or equal-sized ship so boarding parties could run over it and jump down into the enemy ship’s deck.  It was not designed for doing hull damage, which wouldn’t have been much good anyway since the spur was well above the waterline as you can see in the pic below:
Venetial galley with spur
As for slave rowers, I’m afraid I’ll have to lose one of the sword-and-sandal genre’s beloved tropes: the Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians didn’t use them.  Military galleys used free-born rowers, who were also soldiers.  In Athens during the Pelopponesian War, the rowers were influential in getting the citizenship laws amended in their favor, as many of them were not eligible to vote at the time – that’s how important they were. We can blame Hollywood for giving us the wrong idea, thanks specially to Ben Hur.
Sorry folks, it wasn't like this under Rome
The iconic image of Charlton Heston above properly belonged to the Late Middle Ages/Renaissance, specially the Mediterranean  wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.  While some powers like the Venetians initially preferred free rowers, who could add their swords to the fighting power of the ship, manpower or money shortages eventually turned them like the Spanish and the Turks to using slave rowers. 
Author Arturo Perez-Reverte also points out one reason the Spanish may have preferred slave rowers: social convention.  The Spanish soldiery of the time considered themselves hidalgos, ‘sons of somebody,’ members of the nobility to whom manual labor was abhorrently declasse.  In the climactic scene of Pirates of the Levant, Captain Alatriste gets stuck in a desperate battle against terrible odds because the soldiers vote not to row.
Speaking of Spain, here’s a historical note that may be of interest to fellow-Filipino gamers:  Because galleons  couldn’t effectively deal with the karakoa and other fast, shallow-drafted Malay vessels in Philippine waters, the Spanish built galleys in Cavite. 
The galley and the karakoa are ‘evolutionary parallels’ of each other so to speak, both able to move independently of the wind and able to negotiate the shallow, coral reef-strewn waters of the archipelago.  The shipbuilders of Sulu seem to have later copied the Spanish galley, which could hold more men and was more solidly built than the karakoa, though likely slower.  The lanong below looks very much like a Mediterranean galley:
Lanong from Sulu: artist unknown
I can’t be 100% sure, but this photo above looks more like a photograph than a drawing or painting – which would date it to the late 19th or early 20th century, likely during the American occupation of the archipelago. Galleys didn’t fare very well against steam gunboats, though, so they disappeared :-)

January 13, 2013

Hari Ragat: Flea-Hopping Combat

One of the classic tropes of a cinematic monster fight is the hero leaping onto or clambering up the monster to get at its head, throat, heart, etc. It’s often the only way to damage a very large monster with melee weapons.

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In a Vivid game, this ‘flea-hopping’ tactic is resolved like a Chase. You must win a stated number of Victory Points, based on the monster’s size, to reach a vulnerable spot.

This could be 1 VP for something like fully grown saltwater crocodile, to 3 for a big Raksasa giant, to 4 or 5 if you take on something really big like the Mameleu sea dragon.

If you reach the required number of Victory Points, your subsequent Victories wound the monster normally.

If the monster wins a Victory at any time you were ‘flea-hopping’ onto it, or while you’re attacking it while perched on the monster, you are dislodged in addition to taking injury unless you can pay the Save Cost.

Hari Ragat: More Secrets

Happy New Year! Am now back in Davao after spending the holidays with the family in Manila, and settling back into the writing rhythm after getting all our stuff unpacked and stowed.  Hari Ragat is now well underway with both the Vivid and FATE versions being worked on, Vivid version is now about 80% complete.  Here’s a preview of some new martial arts Secrets I added:

Secret of the Living Hand
This Secret is usable with any kind of sword, so long as the off-hand is free. You gain Advantage whenever you try to punch your opponent, or parry his attacks, or seize his weapon from him with your free hand, so long as your opponent doesn’t have a shield.

Secret of the Cloaked Blade
This Secret may be used with kris or barong, and requires a shield. By hiding most of the weapon behind the shield, you render your opponent unable to tell where the next deadly thrust will come from. You may claim Advantage when using this technique in melee combat.

Secret of the Fighting Scabbard
This Secret teaches the use of a reinforced sword scabbard as a parrying weapon, substituting it for a shield. The scabbard acts as a 3-point shield vs. melee attacks (but not ranged attacks), and negates the disadvantage of fighting shieldless vs. shielded opponents.

This is useful as an emergency fighting technique, for occasions when caught by surprise or when a fight breaks out during social occasions. It works with any kind of sword, so long as the scabbard has been reinforced for this purpose. If you roll all 1’s, however, the scabbard is broken and rendered useless for parrying.

Secret of the Horned Shield
This Secret, used with the pronged type of kalasag tall shield, teaches the aggressive use of the shield’s ‘horns’ to trap the opponent’s arm or weapons. You may claim Advantage when using this technique in melee combat, but on a Flubbed roll your shield is torn from your grip and cannot be used to soak damage.

January 8, 2013

Far over misty mountains cold …

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Passed over the cloud-wreathed mountains of Bukidnon on the way home earlier today (flying from Manila to Davao).  So I sang to wifey, ‘Far over the misty mountains cold …’ – unfortunately with far less tunefulness than Neil Finn.  But.

It’s Good to be Home! Now, back to writing!

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