Sunday, July 08, 2007

100 Years of RAH!

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth or Robert A. Heinlein, one of the Trollsmyth’s favorite authors. I first came across his work in Boy’s Life magazine, where they serialized his novel, Between Planets as a comic. Unfortunately, these were old issues I was reading, so I never got to finish the story there. But I did pick up the book later. Before that, however, my father bought me Have Spacesuit, Will Travel on the recommendation of a friend. I loved the book, and buying a new Heinlein novel became a weekly thing for me. I still remember reading Starship Troopers by flashlight on a Boy Scout campout while my tentmate read one of the Dragonlance novels.

My favorite Heinlein story is still “Green Hills of Earth”. I’m a sucker for the Horatius-on-the-bridge sort of story, and that one has everything I love about them in spades. I've cruised the web a little bit for blog posts about Heinlein, and this has been my favorite post honoring the event of RAH’s birthday. If you haven’t read any Heinlein yet, do so.

If you’re feeling poor, however, or too lazy to get out, you may be interested to learn that much of H. Beam Piper’s work is now on Gutenberg. If you like RAH, you’ll probably also like Piper. I recommend Space Viking, Little Fuzzy, and Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen. For something a bit shorter, but still a great read, try Omnilingual.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Walrus Porn!

Um, ok, maybe not. But it is one of the cutest things I’ve seen in a while. Seriously, if naked breasts don’t cause you to blow a gasket, this not-safe-for-work pic by Fredrik K.T. Andersson will probably put a smile on your face. There are six new pics on that page, ranging from the charming to the disturbing. It’s all what we’ve come to expect from Mr. Andersson. While some of the pieces look a touch sketchy, they’re all infused with the character and expressiveness we’ve come to expect from his work. There's also the sense of continuing story, of lives actually being lived. I continue to look forward to his updates.

Håkan Ackergård has also updated his Playelf Gallery. Again, not safe for work, but rather sweet. And again, no surprise. In fact, this is classic Ackergård, with a cute, scantily-clad girl in nature. The clothing is especially daring in this one, and a touch bondagy. (Are those roses around her right ankle? With thorns? OUCH!) But there’s a touch of the whimsical and the mystical about it. The expression is great. And Mr. Ackergård proves once again you can be sexy without screaming SEX!

One thing I find interesting is my reaction to Mr. Ackergård’s more anachronistic pieces. They really rub me the wrong way. The Underdark sketch series is a good example of what I’m talking about. At first, I was thrilled to see the title, as it promised a fun romp through traditional D&D territory. And while the drow babe’s armour was silly, it was an excellent display of talent, juxtaposing the hardness of the metal with the softness of her flesh. I even appreciated the pieces with Syline, though I’m not really in to piercings.

But “Orc Leatherboy” really rubbed me the wrong way. Why? Because the anachronism really blindsided me. If you go back to my review of Larry Elmore’s work, you’ll notice that one of the things I really appreciate about his art is the sense of verisimilitude. The people look real, the clothing looks real, even the monsters look like they could be real. The landscapes, the rigorous anatomy, and the equipment in Mr. Elmore’s art all look like they belong to a real world, a place you could actually visit. It’s the same thing that really helped to set the LotR movies apart from most fantasy film.

Mr. Ackergård usually delivers this in spades. His anatomy may not be as exacting as Mr. Elmore’s, but it rarely offends or looks completely wacky. It often has a softer, more cartoon-like feel, but that only heightens the sense of the fantastic in his work, and it’s exacting enough to draw you in, rather than shutting you out of his art. As I’ve mentioned before, the clothing, backgrounds, and characters all have a sense of the real to them. You could wear that clothing, fight with those weapons, sit on the chairs and drink ale in the taverns. But that only makes things like “Orc Leatherboy” or “Hell – Moe’s Tavern” (NSFW either) feel more like a smack in the face. It would be like Mr. Elmore slipping Prince Valiant into the background of the Inn of the Last Home, or seeing one of the puppet Feebles characters at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Which in the end, I think, says more about me, as a viewer, than it does about Mr. Ackergård or his art. Mr. Ackergård has an appreciation for the absurd, for juxtaposing our expectations of the “high” fantastic with the coarser, more commercial fantastic of store-brand fetish and prime time television. I turn to the “high” fantastic to escape such things, which is why my reaction to their inclusion is so strong. Very much a “you got your peanut butter on my chocolate” thing.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Return of the LGS?

The Troll Family is blessed with a number of great gaming stores, like this one, within easy drive of where we live. We don’t frequent them as often as we’d like to, but we enjoying stopping by when we can, even if we can’t buy anything. Each visit is like a mini-convention, hanging out with like-minded nerds, chatting about games, anime, comic books, and cool movies. Where else can you find people who think “The Chronicles of Riddick” is an underrated movie?

It has long been a perceived truth that gaming stores are dying. Their ranks have been dwindling for some time now, and even cash cows like "Magic: the Gathering", "Pokemon", and D&D’s 3rd edition have done little to stem the tide of store closings, at least in the US.

But something you might have missed has happened in the US Supreme Court. Luckily, Ryan Dancey had his ear to the ground, and has this to say on his blog:

Luke Peterschmidt & I in our consulting practice, have considered the full-service hobby game store model to be unsustainable, and have long believed that such stores were doomed. We have been advising our clients to pursue as many diverse retailing strategies as they can, to avoid being “trapped” in a failing business model. At the heart of our analysis was the knowledge that discounting, especially e-commerce discounting, was a clearly superior business model to full-service retail store support, and that given enough time, the e-commerce discounters would eliminate most full-price retailers.

Leegin changes everything. EVERYTHING. Suddenly, the fate of the retail tier is in the hands of the publishers. And the publishers already know that the full-service retail model is the best way to grow their businesses. Given the chance to “save the retailers”, the manufacturers are almost compelled by the logic of the situation to do so.

This is pretty exciting stuff, and ought to have significant impact on the RPG and other gaming hobbies. What Mr. Dancey is predicting is the end of online discounts. (Notice I don’t say online discounters. They’ll still have a place as dealers to folks who don’t live near a gaming store. But the price difference between brick-and-mortar stores and online stores will vanish, which means there’s less incentive for you to buy online what you can get at your local store.)

Read the whole thing. Mr. Dancey discusses the common objections and doomsaying in the article, as well as in the reader comments following. Since he’s done a great job of dealing with those issues already, I’ll jump off what he wrote to other topics.

Assuming Mr. Dancey is correct, and assuming we do see a rebirth of the local gaming store, what does that mean for the hobby? At first, I thought this would accelerate the trend towards more Ptolus-like products. Listen to this special interview on “Have Games, Will Travel”. Without the discounters, will customers be more open to spending a lot more money for higher quality or more expansive products? Doesn’t this encourage the return of the boxed set?

I think it does, but that’s only half the picture. The big thing browsing through a store does is encourage impulse buying. You go to the grocery store for a dozen eggs and milk, and end up coming home with a box of donuts and a bag of chips as well. Gaming stores are the same way. You go to pick up the latest expansion of your favorite game, and you end up buying something else too that caught your eye. This is a huge boon for folks that make small, fun games. Things like “Kobolds Ate My Baby”, “Munchkin”, or pretty much the entire “Cheapass Games” line, are the sorts of things that could really benefit from this sort of phenomenon. This could be the shot in the arm that the independent game publishers really need to push the current small-press revolution to the next level.

Things could be on the verge of getting very exciting again for the gaming industry.

Update: For those of you thinking that this is an excuse for the manufacturers to hold retailers and customers over a barrel while they rifle through their pockets for loose change, read this thread over at Ryan Johnson explains how Guild of Blades is taking advantage of this situation. Notice that there’s a sunset provision, after which discounting is permitted, and even before that kicks in, the price floor isn’t SRP, but a percentage of that, allowing retailers to offer loyal customer discounts and the like. There are also provisions for returns as well. This isn’t manufacturers twirling their mustaches and cackling with avaristic glee. This is manufacturers telling retailers that if the retailers will take a chance on new products, the manufacturers will have their back, and not let them get screwed by deep discounters.

Seriously, people, the manufacturers we’re talking about make games for a living. You think they don’t know how to min-max? ;)

Painful Dragonlance Update

Haven’t said much about this movie lately. There hasn’t been much to say, honestly. And now, what I have to say is disheartening.

There are four new pics up. These are labeled as “production shots”. I’m not entirely certain what that means, but there appears to be some confusion. Ms. Weis is quoted as saying the stills are over a year old. But it seems odd that they’re releasing year-old pics, and as I understand it, production shots are supposed to be from the actual, working production of the film, as close to final as you can get. So there may be some hope here that these are, for reasons I can’t even begin to guess, very incomplete and not very representative of what the final film will look like.

God, I hope so!

Let’s start with the pic of draconians on the march. Not bad, nice and atmospheric. But look closely. Notice that the two scuffed-up shields that we get a good look at are identical in every detail. That seems to hold true for every detail of the draconians in this picture. If you just see a flash of it, a few mere seconds, I suppose that will fly, but it is worrisome.

Even more worrisome, this is the best picture of the new quartet. Much has already been made of the fact that all of Takhisis heads are breathing flame in the still labeled “Takhisis vs. Paladine”. The juxtaposition of 2d and 3d elements is annoying, but not a deal-breaker for me. I’m afraid lots of that sort of thing handled with varying degrees of success in anime has already inured me to it. But take a look at Takhisis. Look at the shape of her chest and belly, or how her right arm attaches to her body, and the angle it’s being held at. She looks misshapen, like she was put together by someone who has a poor grasp of anatomy. She almost, kinda-sort, looks like an alligator. Sorta. But that is one ugly looking dragon.

Look at the close-up of Pyros. This is supposed to be a villain? Does he look sinister or comical to you? Notice the lack of texture, the lack of bump-mapping, the lack of shadow. Also notice the lack of teeth. I guess he lost his dentures somewhere?

Finally, and most horribly, we have Pyros in flight. Again, notice the arms. It appears the artist started with a snake and then tacked very human arms onto the sides, without consideration for or inclusion of such details as shoulders. Look how the limbs are splayed all akimbo, feet and arms going every which way, making the dragon look about as aerodynamic as a brick. This awkward pose is only exacerbated by the duck-like feet, hanging straight down rather than tucked up close to the body. Also notice that Pyros has apparently found his dentures, and now has fanglike canines. These are very ugly dragons that wouldn’t pass muster in your average MMOG, forget a movie.

There is a ray of sunshine in all of this. Karl Preusser’s Q&A has some very heartening things to say. In addition to a live orchestra, female choir, and female vocalists, he’s also drawing on the talents of a medieval instrument ensemble. He talks about building themes around characters as well, themes that take into account action from later books. If nothing else, we might get another cool and inspirational soundtrack to play at the gaming table.