Thursday, September 22, 2022

Failed Experiments, or, Slush Pile 09.22

Over the past year or two or three, I made and attempted to run a whole bucket of weird little experimental RPG projects. Most of them died. Here are some post-mortems.

#1: Harrowhame, aka "40-mile Dwarf Tunnel"

The pitch: I saw this old MERP map. Then I reread LOTR, which says that the Mines of Moria are about 40 miles long. You play the leaders of a dwarf expedition to reclaim Harrowhame, the totally-not-Mines-of-Moria. You start outside, work your way in, send out scouts, fight battles with the denizens, mine gold, build fortresses, and fix the train.

Sessions played: 4.

What went wrong: Two things: first, an overabundance of dungeon nodes. I was trying to run it like a huge pointcrawl megadungeon with hundreds of mundane nodes and a few spicy ones, when I should've taken a leaf from UVG's book and just had a few dozen really cool exciting nodes (some of which could be dungeons). Second, there was just too much management overhead from the players: they were tracking a dozen squads of 10 dwarves, their work assignments, resources (metal, gold, food, and fuel), and a bunch of other shit. It would be a sick videogame, but was basically untenable as a tabletop RPG.

What's worth salvaging: The pitch. That's about it, really. The idea's really cool but basically every mechanical angle I took with the project sucked.

#2: Ten Thousand Miles

The pitch: You play mailmen (of the "Special Mail Service") going on a 10,000-mile delivery most of the way across the world. Every month, me and kahva release another 500 × 500-mile topographical map (on patreon, maybe?), which knit together into one contiguous 500 × 10,000 mile map. (And then release it eventually on a fucking scroll, or something?)

Sessions played: 5.

What went wrong: Again, two things: first, it just took a lot of coordination and effort and work ahead of time for me and kahva, which is difficult to muster in the best of circumstances. Second, and possibly more damning, is that these were maps basically devoid of content. A big topograpical map is very fun and cool, but you gotta have things to do there besides just walking, and a big map (even with some weather and random encounter tables) just doesn't really provide that.

What's worth salvaging: The map-a-month subscription model. I also wrote a little language system that's kinda fun and will eventually go in its own post. Oh, also, I came up with this three-point Mail Service Code of Honor, which I love (as well as the idea of delivering the mail as a campaign pitch):
  1. The mail must go through.
  2. Never open the mail.
  3. Always hold yourself to highest standards of decency.

#3: Beowulf-3, aka "Mars Colony"

The pitch: An almost entirely rules-free (we used one basic PbtA-ish 2d6 resolution roll and nothing else) system set on an alternate-history '90s Martian colony (the mission you're on is called Beowulf-3). You're some of the first permanent colonists on Mars, and have to deal with the competing interests of NASA, the Clinton Administration, corporate executives, and the aftershocks of the Cold War. 

Sessions played: 1. 

What went wrong: Turns out that a lot of the problems Martian colonists face are extremely boring but also pretty relevant. Like, maintaining water filtration pipes is very necessary but hard to really grapple with in an engaging way without having a chemical engineering degree. You can kinda just skip from dramatic moment to dramatic moment, but we wanted more structural mechanisms for all the boring shit that's still important. 

What's worth salvaging: A very light core ruleset actually works super well for these kinds of community-drama focused games. With a little bit of tactical rules elision, I think this could really shine.

#4: PbtA Mutable Moves

The pitch: A Powered by the Apocalypse ruleset where every move follows the "10+: all three, 7-9: choose two, 6-: choose one" model (pioneered by moves like Read a Sitch). Every time you make a move, you cross out one of the options and replace it with one of your own design. Here's a version I made for a kind of Biblical-mythical Bronze Age-type setting.

Sessions played: 1.

What went wrong: Turns out game design is hard, kids. Even with a load of examples, coming up with new move options on the fly takes a lot of time and effort, so my players often ended up just resorting to shafting over other players or writing precisely what they wanted. Which was allowed and I sort of saw coming, but ended up being more an issue than I expected.

What's worth salvaging: Letting players modify existing moves—or write new ones—is an extremely potent tool. It's an amazing way to let them modify the game how they want, to literally rewrite the rules to better fit your game. I think as a playbook capstone, for example, or a once-every-5-sessions kind of move, it could work really well. 

#5: Downtime Grunge Heroes

The pitch: You play, like, a bunch of shitty college students living in a house together, but you also all have superpowers. Deal with your life. Here's the draft I started writing. One of my big-brain ideas for this was to reverse the downtime-mission emphasis: in lots of games, you play out the mission in detail, then roll to see what happens in downtime. What if it was the reverse here? You roll to see what happened on your mission ("ah fuck, I got blinded for two weeks by acid," "ah fuck, I totaled my car"), then play out what actually happens in the rest of your life in detail.

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: What do you actually do in this game? What happens? If I don't want to write a whole bunch of weird emotional-tracker systems (a la Masks), what mechanics are there actually? Do I really want to play a game where you say "yeah I spend 3 hours of my sleep tonight to finish my homework" ??

What's worth salvaging: I think basically everything in that draft is actually pretty okay. Like, it's reasonably good, reasonably-gameable content. I dunno.

#6: PbtA Communal Cyberpunk

The pitch: Apocalpyse World, the original Powered by the Apocalypse game, is really interesting in that you-the-PCs essentially play the pillars of a community. Not the leaders, necessarily, but certainly the important people. Gang bosses, cult icons, weird freaks, all the movers and shakers in a given apocalyptic commune. It's something almost no PbtA game since has managed to replicate. What if it was cyberpunk?

Sessions played: 1.

What went wrong: It's just... Apocalpyse World but cyberpunk. It's fine. It's bland. (Also, my players didn't really seem to get the cool things I was trying to do with rules-lite cybernetics because they were all poisoned by storygames, but that's okay.)

What's worth salvaging: This was the start of my "holy shit god fuck I never want to write a system again" arc. Here's the existing rules draft (NSFW?), it'd probably be playable with a good 3 hours of work to fill out the classes. 

#7: Maximalist Ritual Spells

The pitch: What if spells were actually complex things you needed to learn? What if they were serious rituals that required study and time and effort? What if a wizard was not somebody who has four 1st-level spells per day and a Spell Save DC of 17 and whatever else, but somebody who was actually wise and knowledgeable? The idea was to write a whole bunch of complex ritual spells that could be hugely powerful but had tons of complex requirements. A wizard who knew one spell would be dangerous; a wizard who knew five spells would be immensely powerful.

Sessions played: 4 (as part of another campaign).

What went wrong: It's kind of a pain in the ass, honestly. There's like a million things to keep track of as the GM, and I didn't have a good way to do that. It's also just a huge barrier to entry for the players. Turns out making magic really complicated means that magic is really complicated. It's also just an absolute fuckload of legwork on the part of the designer. 

What's worth salvaging: Here's what the Sleep spell might look like. Here's what a pyromancy spell list might look like (scroll down a bit). Despite the issues, I do think these might kind of work, and I may well return to them at some point. They're also just a fantastic way to do a lot of sneaky cool backdoor worldbuilding. In the meantime, check out Luke Gearing's much more usable version of basically this same idea (for the already-amazing Wolves Upon the Coast).

#8: Cyberpunk Lady Blackbird

The pitch: Lady Blackbird, John Harper's landmark focused-but-open narrative game, but done up in a cyberpunk style. The tentative name was "Blackbird Protocol," about escorting a revolutionary cell leader ("Blackbird") through the city to a corporate tower.

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: Turns out Lady Blackbird actually just kind of sucks? It's a very fun concept and pitch, but there's just... nothing there? It gives you one macro map and a bunch of vague hooks, then says "go." If there was an actual adventure to it, more maps and NPCs and challenges and details, I think it'd be great. As is, it's a complete ruleset and barebones adventure masquerading as an entire world. If you're willing to improv the entire thing it's pretty fun, but that's true of just about any game.

What's worth salvaging: The... pitch? Honestly I'm not sure.

#9: Back Alley Razor Gangs, aka "Blades in the Dark but actually good this time"

The pitch: Take Blades in the Dark, another landmark John Harper joint, but add some actual backbone and procedure and content to it. Blades, as is, has the weird storygame problem of saying "here's a whole woooorld" and then basically just assigning all of it as homework for the GM. BARG was an attempt to fix that by adding district-generation procedures and adding some structure, primarily by using Tim Denee's really excellent Doskvol Street Maps. At some point it also turned into a rewrite of Blades (lmao).

Session played: 15-20, ish? A lot.

What went wrong: It had a really rocky start—we found that trying to take over an entire neighborhood when you're a bunch of nobodies is really fucking hard. (Let's just say both me and my players really earned a lot of respect for the Sopranos and the Peaky Blinders.) After some soul-searching and a big ol' timeskip, I just gave my players an entire neighborhood to start with. From then, it was actually pretty smooth sailing.

What's worth salvaging: Honestly, this project was mostly a success, it just needs an absolute fuckload more legwork and prep and work on my end before it can really be called finished. Here's the draft, though (and some very incomplete tables). Maybe keep an eye out for this one sometime next year or two, if you're interested. 

#10: LANCER Hexcrawl

The pitch: Make a big ol' hexcrawl for LANCER. Four or five regions, a half-dozen dungeon-type locations, three-ish factions, a handful of quest lists/lines, maybe 100 keyed hexes total. A fat zine's worth of concise content. 

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: Turns out I really can't stand LANCER. It's far and away the game that I want to like the most, but the rules writing is just abysmal and the game offers absolutely zero guidance on how to actually balance it. While I really like weird mythic sci-fi mech about playing giant robots that fight each other, sitting through minimum one (more likely two-three) hours of really dense crunchy combat is my breaking point. It bores me as a player and taxes the hell out of me as a GM.

What's worth salvaging: The... pitch? What LANCER is really in dire need of is good old-fashioned content. (Or, at least, content that you can actually play, as opposed to whatever the hell Wallflower is doing.)

#11: Locks & Keys

The pitch: One of the cool things about Lady Blackbird is that characters all have these things called "Keys," like "Key of Secrecy: Hit your Key when you go undercover or lie to hide your identity." Hitting your key gets you XP and other stuff. Narrative triggers, basically. I made a bunch of these once for a classless-type OSR game: the keys are Keys, the associated perks you get are, hilariously, called Locks.

Sessions played: 3, I think (as part of another campaign).

What went wrong: On paper, nothing. These work as intended. In practice, though, it just feels pretty against the whole ethos to be incentivizing players like this. (We are against incentive here, after all.) 

What's worth salvaging: If you really love this idea, take it and go. This one basically works mechanically, I'm more just opposed to it on a, like, ideological level. 

#12: Forged in the Dark Scooby-Doo

The pitch: you play the Scooby Gang, pillars of the American mythos that they are. You go into a collection of places around town (the Abandoned Factory, the Seaside Cove, the Old High School) to solve mysteries. Here's the twist: when you go looking for clues (or otherwise touch the dice, really), there are two sets of clues per location-mystery to find:
  1. If you fail the roll (pretty common), your clumsy incompetence leads you to actually find evidence that it's Old Man Withers! Bank statements, machinery, human footprints, lost wills, etc. etc.
  2. If you succeed the roll (pretty rare), you find evidence that holy shit, Bigfoot is real. Once in a blue moon on a mystery, you actually see aliens, you actually talk to ghosts, etc. etc.
After finding all the clues from one set (regardless of how far you got on the other), you conclude the mystery.

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: Mysteries are hard, man. While Scooby-Doo offers the amazing affordance of not actually being about mysteries, really, it's still tricky. Is it too contrived? Is there any tension? Is it too weird to have the results of the mystery be based on fucking dice rolls? Isn't this whole twin-solution thing like way too meta anyways? All questions that vex me. 

There's also the issue of people trying to play as like, weird Scooby-Doo OC, which I am absolutely not here for—if we're playing the Scooby-Doo game, we're playing as Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby, goddamn it. (There's also the question of, you know, copyright? Unclear.)

What's worth salvaging: Thing is, I really, really love this one. Scooby-Doo is near and dear to my heart, and getting to kick off sessions by having the Fred-player say "Let's split up and look for clues, gang!" fills me with joy. God, maybe I need to make this game.


Okay. I think that's it. If you ever wonder why it's taking me so goddamn long to release Seas of Sand and Time After Time, it's because I keep getting distracted every five seconds with all of these (not to mention my projects that actually have released since starting, like Lowlife and The Big Wet). Ugh. A blessing and a curse, roleplaying games.

How I Fixed 5e

After trying and failing at a whole bunch of experimental shit over the past year-ish (which might become a slush pile at some point), my regular homegame players and I gave up. We went back to 5e, which we're all extremely familiar with and thus need to spend a minimal amount of time dicking around with.

Here's how I run it.

1. Use E5. 

E5, a variation of the venerable E6 from the 3.5 days, is a version of 5e that stops leveling at level 5. In E5, you stop leveling up at level 5, but every level thereafter gets you a new feat.

It's really good. It makes a lot of 5e's design decisions make a lot more sense. It makes all the random feats that seem kinda cool but you can never really afford suddenly viable. It makes all the "you get one 1st level and one 2nd level spell extra per day" feats useful. It makes Sharpshooter and GWM a lot costlier, since your proficiency bonus never really gets above +3. It allows for a smidgen of build-crafting but keeps a firm lid on power level.

It's good. If I could only make one change to 5e, I think this'd be it.

2. Use Extended Rests.

Extended Rests, aka "Gritty Realism," is a controversial-ish alternate rule from the DMG. It makes short rests 8 hours (one night's sleep) and makes long rests 3 days. 

Much ink has been spilled over this, but I think it's basically good. On a practical level, it effectively means that players can only reliably long rest in a safe place, and can only short rest outside the dungeon. It makes them more cautious, more wary. It's a really good way to preserve some of the light shows of 5e but slow down the timeline. It also makes feats and perks that let you heal more on short rests really good, and provides a (much-needed, imo) buff to the short-rest classes like Fighter, Monk, and Warlock. 

You'll also want to extend the duration on spells: anything that used to take 10 minutes or more gets kicked up one "time class." 10 minute spells become 1 hour, 1 hour spells become 8 hours, 8 hours becomes 1 day, 1 day becomes 1 week, and so on. 1 minute and instantaneous spells don't change, because those are "single-combat spells" and combat pace hasn't changed.

My players hated it at first but now have gotten used to it. It's good.

3. Cut damage cantrips from every class except Sorcerer.

No firebolt. No toll the dead. No vicious mockery. No fucking eldritch blast. 

Suddenly, all your casters suddenly have to use their brains in combat. Suddenly, all your casters might consider putting points into something other than their main stat. Suddenly, Sorcerers actually feel cool and unique and special because they get to shoot lightning out of their fucking hands whenever they want

My players almost rioted when I first dropped this on them, but from my view it's an extremely good change. They still get cantrips, they can even still use those cantrips in combat (minor illusion remains very good), but there's suddenly no default action for casters. 

It also helps make damage actually matter. A Fighter or Barbarian who can reliably get 20+ damage off per round is actually very, very helpful, because your casters will need to actually commit to get damage numbers that high. 

It makes your martials feel cooler, it makes Sorcerers feel cooler, it makes everybody actually think about combat a little more. It's the most controversial thing here but also very good.

4. A million other tiny tweaks that are basically unnecessary but I added anyways. 

Here's an incomplete list:
  1. Strip ASIs out of species and attach them to backgrounds instead. (Apparently 5.5 is doing this, but I thought of it first.)
  2. Use inventory slots. Most items take 1, big weapons take 2 or 3 or 4. Armor takes slots equal to AC - 10. You get slots equal to STR score + CON score.
  3. Add a dismemberment table they roll on whenever they reach 0HP. If they roll above a 10 (higher is deadlier), they automatically fail one death save.
  4. Every time they would take 1 exhaustion level, fill 1d6 inventory slots with "exhaustion slots" instead. You clear [HD roll] exhaustion slots per short rest, and all exhaustion slots on a long rest.
  5. Fuck the common tongue. Use my gigantic language chart instead. You start with languages equal to INT score / 5, rounding down. Backgrounds and classes still grant bonus languages, as normal. (Someday I'll make this into a flowchart poster that you can buy.)
  6. Replace all the non-resistance related stuff from the Barbarian's rage with a flat STR bonus, starting from +4 and ending at +8. 
  7. Let Barbarians spend one use of rage to negate 1d6 inventory slots of exhaustion.
  8. Give all Barbarians the features of the Berserker Path on top of whatever else they get. These features should be core Barbarian features.
  9. Give all Bards the features of the College of Lore on top of whatever else they get. These features should be core Bard features.
  10. Cut guidance.
  11. Cut the bit from Wild Shape that says "all your clothes and gear transform with you." Let your Druids be direwolves with their swords in the mouths, but then have to be naked afterwards.
  12. Let Land Druids change their chosen Land once every full moon.
  13. Let Fighters use Second Wind while they're unconscious.
  14. Give all Fighters the features of the Battlemaster. Figure out which subclasses get which maneuvers as you need them.
  15. Let Eldritch Knights and Arcane Tricksters choose two magic schools of four to get their spells from (EK: Abjuration, Conjuration, Evocation, Transmutation // AT: Divination, Enchantment, Illusion, Transmutation).
  16. Give all Monks the Open Hand Technique feature at level 2. 
  17. Give Open Hand monks a feature called "Thousand Steps" that lets them add their proficiency bonus to their AC against one attack as a reaction, then rename the subclass to "Way of the Mountaintop."
  18. Give Four Elements Monks control flame, gust, mold earth, and shape water at levels 3, 6, 11, and 17, in any order they choose.
  19. Make Divine Sense an always-on passive for Paladins.
  20. Use the revised rules from Tasha's for Rangers.
  21. Let Thief Rogues use DEX in place of STR to determine their inventory size.
  22. Give all Sorcerers the features of Wild Magic on top of whatever else they get. These features should be core Sorcerer features.
  23. Give Sorcerers an extra Metamagic at level 6.
  24. On the Wild Magic table, change basically any entry that says "1 minute" to "1d6 hours" or "1d6 days." Cut any line that says anything like "it [disappears/reverts to normal/returns] after 1 minute." Let Sorcerers actually be fucking weird.
  25. Give Sorcerers chaos bolt for free.
  26. Attach the Hexblade feature that allows you to use CHA for attacks with your sword to Pact of the Blade instead of Hexblade (they'll be fine without anything to compensate).
  27. Add an invocation called "Fell Legions" for Blade Pact Warlocks that gives proficiency in medium armor and shields.
  28. Any invocation that essentially expand your spell list (Bewitching Whispers, Dreadful Word, etc.) now provide one free casting of the spell per short rest. 
  29. Cut prepared spells from Wizards, they can just cast any spell from their spellbook. Only give them 1 free spell per level, rather than 2.
  30. Add a line to the Grappler feat that lets you grapple a target 1 size larger than normal, and you deal 1d4 bonus damage to targets you're grappling.
  31. Make light and dancing lights 1st level spells instead of cantrips.
  32. When combat starts, PCs roll initiative trying to beat [10 + enemy DEX mod]. If they succeed, they go first; if they fail, they go after the monsters.

5. Move fast and break things.

Stop caring about balance. Make lots of rulings. Tweak and modify the game rules even further. Use OSR monsters stat blocks. Play fast and loose. 


This is, obviously, just how I roll. There are lots of other ways to do it. But my players are now basically on board with basically all of these, and our game actually feels like D&D instead of... whatever 5e normally feels like. 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Some Book Reviews

I recently got myself a Kindle, so I've been doing a fair bit more reading than previously. Here are some reviews and thoughts on books I've been reading over the past few months. This post is kind of a mess (sorry).

The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet, The Thousandfold Thought // Bakker

Some pretty fun deep-lore fantasy with both a more historical and psychological bent. Bakker's got a knack for naming things really well. His battles and politics are tense and engaging. He's very willing to have weird fantasy elements you just have to accept—for example, most (but not all) characters' names are Surname -> Personal Name, so Ikurei Conphas is colloquially addressed as Conphas. There is a strong important between Anagogic and Gnostic sorcerers (which is never fully clarified but is cool anyways). There's a sprawling etymological language tree in one of the appendices. Bakker's got lots of weird fun fantasy ideas, and they run deep throughout the book.

The books are also just very obviously written by a white man 20-something years ago. Sexual assault is commonplace. The books depict a fantasy version of the First Crusade, and we have essentially zero perspective on what it's like for the non-Crusaders (oh, except for one chapter, where a character's internal monologue narrates how being a slave suits her). One character casually mentions that no women have ever been taught to read. Of the three major women in the book, one is a sex worker, one is a concubine, and one is an incestuous mother-empress. Of the two explicitly queer characters, one exclusively uses sex as a tool and the other despises himself (and is despised by his family) for loving a man. While this doesn't make the books uncompelling and these issues are (mostly) grappled with in a genuine way by the characters, it does make it just... tiring. I get that """realism""" is important, but it also weighs the book down—and I say this as a pretty basic white dude.

There's also a character, essentially the would-be protagonist, who in classic fantasy novel fashion is just superhumanly good at everything. He's the best fighter, the best wizard, the best tactician, the best friend. He's also regularly described as being super white, super blond, and super masculine. While Bakker is clearly doing the Dune thing of questioning heroism and our elevation of leaders as heroes, it's also just kind of tiring and discomforting. 

On the whole, the books have some good parts but also lots of questionable decisions that don't feel entirely earned. I doubt I'll weird the sequal-quadrilogy. Three stars.

Dune*, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune // Herbert

This was my first reread of Dune, and I enjoyed it far more after having seen the movie and watched some lore videos and read some thorough analyses. There are so many details and intricacies I missed on my first time that I found very gratifying on the reread. Dune remains basically undefeated.

I loved Dune Messiah. I'm a strong proponent of the "what happens in the aftermath?" question of storytelling, and Messiah is all aftermath. What does Paul's gargantuan galactic empire look like? How do the Fremen change after accepting Paul as the prophet? How does a society change after the fulfillment of its own zealot prophecies? All fascinating questions, ones that Messiah is very interested in exploring. I also love the ending—I genuinely think Herbert could've ended the books as a duology and they would've been basically perfect.

Children of Dune is fine. It's pretty good. It's got the classic sequel problem of needing to alter characters in order for there to be a plot, but for the ways it does alter those characters, it works reasonably well. My biggest issue is that it basically doesn't have anything new to say. In Messiah I think that worked, because Messiah is mostly tragic and that hammers home the original message about the dangers of heroism and zealotry. But Children needs new problems to face, and so it has to warp certain characters and elements to get where it needs to go. It's fine.

On the whole, very good. I can see why Dune is so foundational to '60s and '70s geek culture, and how it inspired so many works I love now. I'll read the second trilogy soon. Dune and Messiah get five stars, Children gets three, maybe four.

The Five Books of Jesus* // Goldberg

Imagine the Gospels, but they're told like a fairytale or a children's fable or an ancient myth—that's the Five Books. If you've never the Gospels before I'm not entirely sure what it would read like, but for me (somebody who has read the Gospels many times, both willingly and unwillingly), the Five Books are a deeply, deeply refreshing take. The book is strange, playful, funny, terrifying, approachable, and meaningful. I'm reminded of that old line about John—the book is shallow enough for a child to splash in, but deep enough to drown an elephant.

I've reread the Five Books several times, and I don't think this will be the last. Five stars.

Anatomy: A Love Story // Schwartz

Extremely charming historical YA about a young noblewoman who wants to be a surgeon in 19th-century Scotland and the impoverished orphan boy who works as a resurrection man. I saw basically every plot point coming, but it was still a very enjoyable read. It's got the exact right blend of drama, humor, romance, historical tidbits, gothic spookiness, and just a touch of horror. 

I can't wait for the sequel. Five stars. 

Gideon the Ninth // Muir

The currently-very-popular space-fantasy romance(?) drama. Imagine, like an episode of Scooby Doo playing out in Warhammer 40k, but also everyone is gay. It's pretty good. 

I really like the level of worldbuilding Muir landed on: it's a fun blend of real-world science and history combined with a shot of bonkers 40k fanatic theology and real spooky space-magic. There are clear references to things you'll be familiar with, but also a lot of weird unique sci fi elements and magic. It's good. 

The tone is a little... jarring. Gideon's internal narration is extremely irreverant: on the one hand, this works really well to balance out some of the self-seriousness of space necromancer cults; on the other, the phrase "gangbanged to death by skeletons" takes something away from a novel that wants me to care about it. 

It's also got some structural issues. The entire intro felt very off to me; I wasn't sure at all what was happening until about 20% of the way in, where the plot finally appears. Likewise, the final battle and answer to the mystery felt like they came a little out of nowhere, ones reliant on lore nobody had bothered to explain. Maybe it's better on a reread?

Still, it's pretty fun, and does a good job balancing both the familiar and the unexpected. Four stars. 

(I fell off halfway through Harrow, we'll see if I get back to it at some point.)

Hero of Two Worlds // Duncan

A sprawling biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, specifically focusing on his involvement in various revolutions, primarily American and French. You may know Duncan from creating and hosting two historical podcasts, The History of Rome and Revolutions, both of which I love.

HOTW is great. Duncan's always been a master of injecting human emotion and narrative into the historical timeline without compromising the facts or complexities of history, and HOTW takes it to the next level. Because Duncan has one singular focus, Lafayette, it allows him to constantly frame the historical events occurring through the lens of Lafayette not only as a force of history but as a human. The book delves pretty deeply into the man's feelings, thoughts, convictions, and motivations. It's a portrait not just of what Lafayette did, but who Lafayette actually was. 

It's really good. Five stars.

House of Leaves // Danielewski

The beast. 

My roommate left the book sitting on our kitchen table, and on a lark I decided to start reading it right before I went to bed, around 2am. I then proceeded to spend the next six hours straight doing nothing but read House of Leaves, and scared the absolute shit out of myself multiple times throughout that night. 

It's pretty good! I see why everyone lost (and continues to lose, to some extent) their mind over it. The multiple layers of narrative, the very entertaining (sometimes-)pseudo-academia, the bizarre layout, the layers of meaning in the appendices. I am sure that the book still holds some secrets that I've missed, but puzzling out the details I did find was very rewarding. It's weird to talk about a book like an ARG, but that's sort of what it is.

That said, I'm not sure the book really needs to be as long as it is. There are definitely chapters that feel like they're spinning their proverbial wheels. Sure, it being 700-plus pages is impressive, but I'm not wholly convinced Danielewski couldn't have pulled it off in 500, or even 300. And while I do find the core Zampano - Navidson story quite compelling, especially the house itself, I found Johnny's sections oftentimes a bit of a drag—very '90s, very Infinite Jest.

Still, I liked it quite a bit. I'll definitely have it on the mind for some time. Four stars.

The Martian // Weir

I saw the Matt Damon movie in theaters, but hadn't read the book before. It's fun! It's one of the most OSR-feeling books I've ever read, I think, in that so much of the book is a fairly-procedural movement (dare I say crawl?) through lots of scientific logistics problems, and much of the drama comes from how Watney solves those problems. It's got food rationing, long-range communications, hostile environments, overland travel, complicated teammate dynamics, the works. 

The last third falls off a bit, I think, once Watney's main survival is established and he finally connects to NASA. Granted, that third is basically Oregon Trail: Mars, which is understandably a bit dry, but I wish Weir injected a little more juice into it. 

Still, it's pretty good—got lots of little tidbits the movie had to gloss over. Four stars.


Should I do more reviews? Not sure.