Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Thief and the Chalice (Frayed Knights Fiction), Part 3

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 4, 2016

This is part three of a four-part short story of one of Dirk’s adventures shortly before he met Chloe and Arianna and formed the Frayed Knights.  Parts 4 will be posted tomorrow. If you haven’t read them already,  start at Part 1:

The Thief and the Chalice, Part 1


The Thief and the Chalice, Part 3
by Jay Barnson

Dirk stood up. There was no point in trying to stay hidden anymore, and standing made it easier to run. He didn’t know how to fight an armor-plated undead thing that might not even be killable. If he could dodge and outrun the creature, perhaps he might find something on the upper floors that would give him some ideas.

First, he had to get past the creature. When all else fails, bluff like a madwoman, his mentor had always told him. His mentor, Samantha the Lame, didn’t bother altering the gender of her personal advice for his benefit. It surprised Dirk how often that advice paid off. Not that it was likely to work on an undead guardian, but in cases like this, it was best to seize the initiative. A bad idea was better than none.

“Hi there. We’re looking for your master, the sorcerer Sontex. Is he upstairs?”

The sword flared again, an even darker shade of red. The sudden light illuminated an amulet draped across the thing’s shriveled neck. Dirk couldn’t get a better look at it before the light faded and the guardian strode towards him. If the creature understood him, it didn’t like what he said.

As it stepped away from the pedestal, Taigan seized the chalice, and began screaming. The white pearls radiated crimson, a shade not too different from the sword, and all color fled from Taigan’s hair and skin. His eyes sank back into his head and his skin shriveled, bathed in the crimson glow.

Dirk leaped behind shelves as the guardian attacked. It didn’t move quickly, but it attacked like a trained swordsman, with more speed than Dirk had assumed. Dirk dodged and weaved behind furniture, but there weren’t many places to flee. He vaulted a table and raced past the pedestal. On the floor, Taigan’s shriveled corpse still clutched the glowing red chalice. Dirk gave it a wide berth. Only once he’d mounted the stairs did he dare to look back. The guardian halted at Taigan’s corpse. Dirk silently thanked whichever gods were responsible for extending his lead as he dashed up the stairs.

The next level, like the second floor, was littered with bones and skeletons. The scattered garments, sometimes loosely hanging from skeletal bones, seemed far less aged than the skeletons they were draped over.

What had Taigan said on the cart? The guards had arrested half the thieves in the city over the last year? Was this where they’d been taken, to be sacrificed to the chalice?

Dirk raced to the next set of stairs, expecting to hear the heavy armored footfalls of the guardian behind him at any moment. At some point, he might find a window or trap door large enough to make an egress… assuming he learned to fly in the meantime.

The next floor was a laboratory. Equipment and ingredients of all kinds filled shelves and tables. Tools, fasteners, and bits of wire sat in neat stacks organized by some unfathomable scheme. Dusty tomes sat open on the tables, and papers were fastened to the walls by spring-loaded clips. One of the papers caught his attention. It held a drawing of the amulet adorning the guardian’s neck, accompanied by writing. Dirk was proud of his literacy, but the words were of an arcane script that only sorcerers fully understood. He recognized a few runes, including a frequently-appearing one that Dirk recognized that meant “control.”

Other papers and open book pages held runes for “life”, “death,” “mirror,” “destruction,” and “sacrifice.” Three out of five were runes he’d taught himself to avoid. He was disappointed that none of the open writings contained the rune for “sex,” the first rune he’d learned as a boy. It had amused him endlessly that the mighty sorcerers still talked about sex in their arcane, supernatural writings.

A locked metal box sat on a desk. Finding a thin metal pin and a tiny mounting bracket to serve as lock picks, Dirk set to work. The lock popped open in seconds, and he opened the box.

The viper within hissed at him and pulled back, ready to strike.

A number of thoughts flashed through Dirk’s mind at this moment, such as how the viper had managed to stay alive within the case, but chief among these was how to avoid getting bit by the venomous creature, and how to get the shiny dagger underneath it.

Dirk waved his free hand in front of the snake. The serpent struck. At that moment, Dirk yanked his hand away while slamming the lid back down, pinning the snake inches behind its head. Maintaining pressure on the lid, he reached around with his free hand and took a firm grip on the serpent behind the head, and pulled it free of the case.

Holding it away from him with one hand, he reached back into the container and retrieved the dagger with the other, shaking it  free of its sheath.  The straight blade was smaller and thinner than he hoped, but etched with runes and held a keen edge on both sides. Was it an enchanted blade, or just used in ceremonies? Either way, he had a weapon.

He considered killing the snake, but he couldn’t help but feel bad for it. It was just a prisoner here, as was he… with a significant and confusing difference in that someone was still feeding and caring for it. That didn’t sound like a duty for the skeletal guardian.

With his best underhand throw, Dirk slung the creature down the stairs. It could find plenty of places to hide among the dead bodies. It landed with a thump, and slithered away.

The noise attracted attention. From two floors below, he heard the voice of the baron. “Someone’s upstairs. It sounds like one of our guests is still alive. Let’s remedy that.”

[ Concluded in Part 4! ]


Filed Under: Frayed Knights, Short Fiction - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

The Thief and the Chalice (Frayed Knights Fiction) Part 2

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 3, 2016

This is the second of a four-part short story of one of Dirk’s adventures shortly before he met Chloe and Arianna and formed the Frayed Knights. You can read part 1 here.

The Thief and the Chalice, Part 2
by Jay Barnson

The baron slammed and locked the door behind them. It took a moment for Dirk’s eyes to adjust to the dim lighting provided by magical glowstones set throughout the walls. Glowstones weren’t cheap illumination, and were markers of a wealthy home. Not that Dirk expected a sorcerer’s tower in the heart of the city to belong to a pauper.

They stood in a hall, surrounded by open doors to mundane living quarters. The hall terminated at a curved stairway leading up. Dirk ignored the small rooms, and headed immediately for the stairs.

Taigan spoke up. “Do we have a truce until we find the chalice?”

Dirk stopped. “I don’t think I want to be the one delivering the chalice, if that’s what you are worried about.”

“You don’t think the baron will keep his word?”

“Was there anything about him that suggests he would?”

“What other choice do we have?”

Dirk shrugged. “I don’t know yet. Let’s find out.”

Ascending the stairs, they discovered sources of the terrible stench. Human bodies littered the floor. Some were only a few weeks dead. Many had been hewn down by a blade, but others showed marks of several different murder methods. Stranger still were skeletons that appeared decades old, scattered among the more recent dead.

Taigan crossed to one of the skeletons, bent down, and touched the clothes it still wore. He tugged at the clothing, and the bones rolled over, falling apart as the aged shreds of attached tissue crumbled. “This is strange,” he said. “This skeleton seems many years old, but the clothes are new.”

“Magic,” suggested Dirk. “Maybe the sorcerer was a necromancer who summoned the skeletons to attack these intruders. Or maybe he had a weapon that turned them to dust and left their clothes. My guess is that most of these people were killed by their partners over the chalice.”

Taigan shuddered, and stood up, fists clenched. “I don’t want either of us to end up like this. I agree with you now. Let’s escape together. Deal?”

Dirk nodded. “Deal. I don’t see anything chalice-shaped on this floor.” In fact, except for the bodies, there wasn’t much of anything on this floor, including any kind of clue as to what danger they’d be facing aside from each other. There was magic involved, and something with a blade, and it had been the end of more than a score of men. As much as Dirk would like to believe he was cleverer than them all, he had to admit that unless he realized how they all failed, he was likely to end up just another corpse on the floor for the next pair of prisoners to stumble across.

“Let’s be extra careful going up,” Dirk added, not really sure what that meant. But Taigan nodded.

They crept up the next set of stairs, keeping to the shadows as best as they could. Fortunately, the next floor was cluttered with tables and shelves, making it easy to conceal themselves as they explored.

The chalice sat upon an ornate pedestal in the center of the floor. Encrusted pearls encompassed the lip and base of the rune-etched silver cup, gleaming even in the half-light of the glowstones.

A nightmarish creature stood by the pedestal, facing away from them. The cadaverous parody of humanity bore no helmet, but was otherwise encased in the steel plate armor of a wealthy knight or trusted champion. The thin husk-like skin wrapping its skull and vertebrae bore little resemblance to anything still alive. In one mail-covered fist, the guardian clasped the bejeweled hilt of a sword. The blade glimmered with a faint, baleful red glow.

“Never mind the chalice,” Dirk whispered, “I want that sword! That looks awesome!”

Dirk calculated three possible routes to reach the chalice without being seen by the guardian, assuming it possessed the undead equivalent to eyes. If all he wanted to do was grab the chalice and escape, that would be easy. But one did not gain glory by doing the minimum! Especially when he had the entire tower of a dead sorcerer to explore. Who knew what incredible treasures lay hidden within these walls? Even if the chalice was the most valuable of them all, why must it go to the baron? For both thieves to go free, they had to find some other way of escaping the tower anyway. Dirk smiled to himself, realizing what a tactical error the baron had made by threatening that only one of them could go free.

“There are more stairs past the bad guy,” Dirk whispered to his companion, without taking his eyes off the undead warrior. “We should find out what’s there first. Can you see a path to the stairs behind its field of view?”

His companion was silent. Very silent. Dirk glanced over his shoulder, but Taigan was gone. Scanning the room, he spotted Taigan crawling towards the pedestal opposite the guardian. Dirk had to admit that the young man was stealthy. And fast. He gave Taigan a thumbs-up sign.

Taigan pulled himself to a crouch behind the pedestal. He glanced up at Dirk and stared for several seconds, then smirked. With an underhand toss, he flicked a small bone at Dirk, taken from the skeleton on the floor below. The bone bounced off the floor inches away from Dirk’s hiding place with a sharp clack.

The guardian whirled to stare at him. The sword flared an angry scarlet glow, matching the evil sparks inside hollow, black eye sockets of the guardian’s skull.

Dirk was the diversion. Taigan had planned to betray him all along.


[ Continued in Part 3 ]


Filed Under: Frayed Knights, Short Fiction - Comments: Read the First Comment

The Thief and the Chalice (Frayed Knights Fiction) Part 1

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 2, 2016

This is the first of a four-part short story of one of Dirk’s adventures shortly before he met Chloe and Arianna and formed the Frayed Knights. I really enjoyed combining my obsessions for both writing and game development on this. The rest of the story appear later this week. Let me know if you enjoyed the story!

Part 2 is now available.  As is Part 3. And the conclusion in Part 4.


The Thief and the Chalice, Part 1
by Jay Barnson

Getting arrested embarrassed Dirk more than anything else. Sure, spending the rest of his probably abbreviated life rotting and miserable in the baron’s dungeon was an unpleasant prospect. But his main concern, as the guardsmen dragged him from his inn room and took him into custody, was that he hadn’t yet made a name for himself. Nobody would mourn the loss of Dirk C. Kuldare, the greatest thief the world had ever known!

Or would have known, if he hadn’t been pinched while in possession of the Lady Gorsava’s formal necklace. Some might say that holding onto it as long as he had was a rookie mistake. But if some might have said that, Dirk might have politely corrected them. If gaining credibility was the goal, showing off the pilfered prize was of much more value than a few dozen gold coins from the local fence.

Not that any of that mattered anymore. After spending the rest of the night in a holding cell, Dirk was taken to the magistrate at dawn. The hooded judge read the charge against Dirk in a monotone: “Offense against the nobility and high theft, to wit: the theft of Lady Emile Gorsava’s necklace, appraised at a sum of at least fifty gold coins.” The judge turned his apathetic eyes to Dirk. “Have you anything to say in your defense?”

Dirk straightened his shoulders. “Your honor, fifty gold is absolutely incorrect. I could get half again as much as that from a fence in North Umberland. The necklace would get at least three times that on the open market.”

The judge glanced over to the three jurors at the side of the chamber, who nodded. He signed the document containing the charge. Without looking back at Dirk, he announced, “This court finds the accused guilty, and sentences him to the Baron’s own dungeons until the end of his days. Next!”

The guard laughed as he shackled Dirk to the wagon to be transported to the Baron’s dungeon. “What a stupid thing to say to the judge!” the guard said as he fastened the bolt, locking Dirk to the cart with his hands behind him.

“Why?” asked Dirk. “Was there anything I could have said that would have changed his verdict?”

“After they found you with the necklace? Not a chance.”

Dirk shrugged. “Then it didn’t matter what I said, did it? If I’m going to rot over the thing, I may as well make sure people knew that it was worth it.”

The guard shook his head. “You’ll take what you can with you to the dungeon, I suppose.”

As the guard moved to the front of the cart, Dirk felt at the lock chaining his hands to a mounted metal ring. The lock was heavy–which didn’t bode well–but not well-made. With his hands free and a proper set of tools, he could have picked it in seconds. Under the circumstances… he’d have a much more interesting story to tell once he escaped. He worked at both thumbnails until he held a sliver in each hand.

He paused while another guard arrived with a second prisoner, chaining him to the cart opposite Dirk. The two guards mounted the driver’s bench and with a snap of the horses’ reins set off through the city.

If the cart had any springs, they no longer worked. The cart bounced and jostled along every bone-shaking irregularity in the road. Dirk wasn’t certain if he was sitting on a bench or being spanked by it as he tried to use the crescent-shaped thumbnail slivers to pick his lock. The cart went over a larger bump, jostling the lock loudly against the chain, undoing his negligible progress.

The second guard looked over his shoulder at the noise. Dirk tried to look as glum as his fellow prisoner. Satisfied, the guard turned back, and Dirk resumed his work on the lock. To mask any further sounds from his efforts, Dirk started a conversation with the other prisoner. “I’m Dirk Kuldare. Who are you?”

The other man looked up, his face defeated. “Taigan. Not that it really matters.”

“Why wouldn’t it matter?”

“Who’s going to care? They’ve rounded up half the thieves in the city over the last year, and nobody has ever been freed from the baron’s dungeon. We’re as good as dead, and nobody will mourn us.”

Dirk maintained tension on the lock with one thumbnail sliver, requiring an awkward angle of his left thumb and forefinger to prevent the severed piece of thumbnail from bending. He manipulated the lock’s mechanisms with the sliver in his right hand. He felt the first pin stick in place. “Half the thieves? The dungeons must be overflowing!”

The brown-haired young man shrugged.

The cart jolted on another bump. This time, the sliver in Dirk’s left hand sprang from his grasp, landing somewhere on the road behind them. A hundred expletives formed in Dirk’s mind, but all he said was, “Oops.”

Taigan looked at him strangely, but said nothing.

Five minutes later, the cart came to a halt near an ominous, squat tower. Four guards approached the cart, two aiming crossbows at the captives. The guard who had secured Dirk’s chains said to his companion, “What’s going on? We ain’t at the dungeons.”

The second guard said, “Good observation. Now you’d best forget you made it.”

To Dirk, anything short of a headsman’s axe was an improvement over the dungeons. The guards unchained the prisoners and took them from the cart. The court guards rode away. Dirk briefly considered making a run for it, but falling to crossbow bolts was a boring way to die.

A nobleman approached them. The man looked like he’d spent hours before dawn getting dressed and groomed. His dark hair held only touches of gray at his temples and the tips of his perfectly-waxed mustache to suggest his age, and he bore himself with strength and vigor. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.

Taigan gasped. “Baron Hargrave!” The nobleman nodded.

Dirk’s gaze shifted between the two men. “You can’t be the baron himself. He’s over sixty years old.”

“Ah, flattery. I’ve aged well,” the nobleman said. “And if you are very cooperative and clever, perhaps you will live to see such an age. I want you to know who I am, and know that my offer has authority.”

“What offer?” asked Dirk and Taigan simultaneously.

“This is the tower of the sorcerer Sontex. It’s not common knowledge yet, but he died a short while ago, and he left behind an artifact I want. It’s a silver chalice decorated with pearls. I need someone of both skill and discretion to retrieve it for me. Whoever brings it to me will be granted a full pardon and their freedom.”

Taigan immediately agreed. “I will do this for you, m’lord!”

Dirk couldn’t fault Taigan’s eagerness, as neither of them had anything to lose. But while some… or many… or pretty much everyone might accuse Dirk of being foolhardy, he wasn’t a complete idiot. He liked to know what he was getting into. “So why not send your men in to get it?” he asked.

The baron’s grin was genuine, but in a “genuinely likes twisting the knife” kind of way. “Sontex probably left behind lethal traps and guardians. My men aren’t disposable.”

“And you are sending both of us because…?”

“I want to improve the odds that one of you will make it out alive.”

“What if we both return with your prize?”

Now the baron’s grin broke into a broad, toothy smile. “Then whoever holds the chalice goes free, and the other goes into my dungeon to rot.”

The baron produced the key, and unlocked the tower door with a familiar ease that suggested that Dirk and Taigan were far from the first that he’d sent on this errand. The charnel stench wafting through the open doorway reinforced that suspicion. Dirk stepped forward with genuine eagerness. Taigan followed, looking less enthusiastic but determined.

[ Continue to Part 2 ]

[ Or skip over to Part 3 ]

[ Were you looking for the conclusion in Part 4? Here]



Filed Under: Frayed Knights, Short Fiction - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

John Romero Returning to FPS… Just Not As Soon As Thought

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 29, 2016

So… in case you missed it, there was a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a new venture by id Software alumni John Romero and Adrian Carmack. Their new company (brand) is Night Work Games, and their project is kind of a catch-all genre (!!!???) First-Person Shooter called Blackroom. They launched with a really cool parody video teaser announcement.

Sadly (?), the campaign didn’t gain enough traction over the first week. So they’ve suspended it to spend some time developing the playable demo.

So… what’s this mean? Presumably not much, although it does suggest that star power, a couple of cool new Doom levels, a cool teaser video, and an early concept pitch video aren’t enough to launch a project in a somewhat crowded field. It perhaps also calls into question what kind of star power these two bring more than 20 years after the release of their most famous game, but that’s another story.

I suspect that the crowdfunding thing is maturing a little bit. Even when big names are involved, potential backers want to see some recent track records as well as the developers putting some serious skin in the game.  I also think they may be wary of too much of an open-ended, “everything but the kitchen sink” design that Blackroom seems to be.

Of course, there may be the shadow of the Ion Storm debacle, which was a long time ago but may still bring doubts to the minds of the old-school fans. The much lower profile things he’s done since then and some very challenging old-school game levels should allay some fears there, but is that enough to convince 20,000+ people to shell out $30 – $60 for a vague game idea that they won’t see for at least 2.5 years, and would require some additional funding from unknown investors to really move into full production? I wouldn’t think so, and it looks like they were on track to get somewhere around 1/3 to 1/2 of the way there.  Respectable.

Personally, while I’m not a major FPS fan, I’m looking forward to seeing this happening, and wish them good luck. Hopefully they’ll get a more solid campaign together for their next go, and have more than just a couple of Doom levels to show what they are talking about. In the modern era, with something like Unreal 4 which by all accounts is a dream engine for a hardcore FPS developer, it shouldn’t be that challenging to put together a decent proof-of-concept. I can’t wait to check it out.

Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

The Awards are Dead. Long Live the Awards.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 27, 2016

So… um… the Hugo finalists were announced. Apparently they were announced early and secretly to certain people so they could get a news article out doing spin control ahead of the public announcement.

It’s… bad.

But first, the good. This was a year for Retro-Hugos, to back-fill for a year when the Hugos were not awarded. The rules allow that on 25-year anniversaries, and 1941 was a year much of the world was embroiled in a major armed conflict (one which sadly destroyed some budding writers of the era).

So…. the 1941 Retro-Hugo Nominees.

With smaller participation (and participation only by those who really seem to care), this list seems pretty solid. In particular, I’m excited to see Leigh Brackett on the list. Now, I don’t know if her first published short story, Martian Quest, is anywhere near as worthy as some of the other short stories, but I’m glad that the “Queen of Space Opera” has a nomination. Although technically, since she wrote the original screenplay for Hugo award-winning Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, she’s already at least associated there.

Sadly, the whole “Hugo Nominee” thing is… well, if it wasn’t trashed before, it is now. So… there’s the 2016 Hugo Award nominees.

Basically, the whole thing got trolled. Badly. On multiple levels – some subtle. Some REALLY not subtle (like “Space Raptor Butt Invasion”). Which is exactly what the “Rabid Puppies” promised would happen if the Hugos did what they did last year: Burned to the ground.

While I doubt “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” or “If you were an award, my love” will win the final award, the grade-school antics that we saw last year (with the “ass-terisk” award, etc.) are continuing and escalating. This year will be a repeat of last year, and there’s a better-than-even chance that even with rules changes, it’s going to keep getting gamed into irrelevance.

Which really, really tempers my cheer over Leigh Brackett getting a nomination.

Now, this sort of thing can happen to ANY award, not just the Hugos. If there’s one thing MMOs and working for a network marketing company taught me, it’s that ANY system can and will be gamed to hell and back again if there is sufficient motivation to do so. That explains U.S. politics in a nutshell.

However, while the preceding statement may be pessimistic towards any award, I do believe a competitive marketplace at least makes it more expensive for an entrenched interest to guarantee that they back the winning horse. So… with that in mind, there’s the new DRAGON CON AWARDS!

I’ve mentioned these before, and while I don’t think it’s “the answer” to the current problems besieging the formerly prestigious (like, until 10-20 years ago) Hugo awards, it’s at least an interesting alternative. The larger voter base may make it harder for a small group to game, but it also means a lot of voters aren’t going to be particularly well-read and will only vote for the best-sellers they are familiar with.

I just wish they had a “short fiction” category. Hopefully next year. I don’t think it needs to be broken down into Novella / Novelette / Short Fiction categories (that’s an artifact of an older fiction marketplace), just room for stuff smaller than novels.

But… while my personal jury is still out, I think the Hugos may be dead to me. I hope not. While science fiction and fantasy have always been a marketplace for ideas, I have not enjoyed the politicization of the award, something that I feel isn’t all that recent. But if the adults in the room (on both sides of the divide) are getting shouted down and the award is just being turned into little more than an ideological football, my interest is zero.

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GOG.COM Bundle Sale

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 26, 2016

GOG.COM is having a “Bundleopolis” sale – several bundles on sale, with new bundles added every six hours.

Right now – there’s a bunch of LucasArts adventures (already got ’em all…),  id Software classic first-person shooters, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. / Metro series, the Fallout series, and the X series available for sale in a bundle. Still great stuff, if some of it is a little dated. (Although for many of us, that’s not much of a detriment.)

There are some unofficial updates I’ve used recently for Doom and Quake to bring them more up to the modern era. The Doomsday Engine, with a few add-ons, really makes a difference for Doom. It’s still a very fun game.

Anyway, it’s going for a week, so it’ll be worth checking out.

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Book Impressions: Caretaker, by Josi Russell

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 25, 2016

CaretakerCaretaker, by Josi Russell, is an unusual science fiction book. The story is about Ethan Bryant, a man designated to the sole conscious person – the “caretaker” on a very lonely 50+ year colony ship. He was the last of the passengers to be put into hibernation stasis, but before that could happen, the actual caretaker – the human in charge of maintaining the ship in case of problems during the voyage – died quite suddenly and unexpectedly. The computer then designated him the replacement, even though he has no idea what he is doing. So with his pregnant wife already in stasis, he’s forced to live his entire life patrolling the corridors of a ship, making sure the other 3999 passengers make it to their destination in safety, at which time he’ll be a very old man.

Then one day, five years into his lonely vigil, one of the stasis pods activates, and Kaia emerges – a beautiful engineer who had been secretly married to the original caretaker.

The first half of the book is fairly slow paced development of the two characters and an emerging mystery on the ship. Ethan is a specialist in a “useless” field – an expert in a long-dead alien language. Kaia is a brilliant engineer who had designed parts of the class of colony ships like the one in which they are traveling. It’s clear that Ethan desperately needs the companionship, but as their relationship continues it threatens his intention to remain faithful to his wife.

And then there are some anomalous readings on the ship, and things that don’t make sense… especially when they conflict with Kaia’s understanding of how things should be laid out. And was the original caretaker’s sudden death natural, or was it murder? And what is Kaia actually up to?

As they have a 50 year voyage ahead of them, they don’t feel particularly pressured to solve everything all at once, which further slows down the pace of the first half of the book.  It feels leisurely, and while very interesting and character-building, it’s not really action-driven or plot-driven. And there are times where the science is kinda questionable. I guess Star Wars and Star Trek got it a lot worse, but still…

Anyway, the mystery heats up, but as soon as our two heroes figure out what’s really going on… well, all hell breaks loose. And suddenly our slower-paced sci-fi drama / mystery turns into a hell-bent-for-leather full-on epic pulp SF. I don’t want to spoil anything any more than I have (although that much is strongly suggested on the back cover). This was good ol’ action-adventure SF that left me wondering how they were possibly going to get out of the current fix. It’s good ol’ fashioned planetary romance and a lot of fun, with the addition of more detailed characters developed in the earlier stage of the story.

Now… the only big issue here is that the change of pace is so jarring that it’s almost like two different books. Same characters, same story, but even with the ramp-up in the mystery in the first half, it’s still a little jarring. That may be a major irritant for some readers, as may the bit of hand-waviness on the science side.  But while a little bit rough in those respects, I thought it was a good freshman novel from Russell, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Guardians, released earlier this year.

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Games as Art: Communication Required?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 22, 2016

Mona_Lisa_originalI recently read an old essay (we’re talking pre-WWW!) discussing what makes art, and the author suggested that for a work to be art it has to engage the audience in a conversation… inviting them to mentally and / or emotionally contribute, interpret, and invest something of themselves into the work to derive meaning from it. This was a powerful thought that left me thinking about it for a while afterwards. Which, I guess, might nominate the essay as art? (Note to self: inviting audience contribution might be necessary, but probably not sufficient, criteria).

I’ve always valued the media that encouraged me to invest a bit of myself into it, but I never thought of it being the difference being that which separates ‘art’ from ‘non-art.’ This definition would probably preclude any work in any medium that is too literal, too “preachy” (leaving little or no room for audience participation & interpretation), or … on the flip side … too abstract or minimalist, which “contributes little to the discussion.” Note that the audience simply refusing to invest of themselves and contribute (because they don’t like the subject matter, or what have you) doesn’t impact the artistic quality of the work. It just means that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

This has a lot of ramifications. It also suggests a spectrum rather than a dividing line.  Photography requires a great deal of the photographer to push it up the capital-A Art side of the spectrum… but really, that’s true of all media. Your average crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster would probably come out on the low end, which is sadly appropriate even to this fan of big summer blockbuster films. It would also mean a lot of the horrible preachy books that some folks like to elevate with awards would also not score very high on this particular Art-meter, which tickles me a bit. It tends to naturally elevate science fiction (and speculative fiction in general, to a lesser degree) because of the ease in which that kind of fiction raises questions about the human condition and the future of our species and role in the universe, without having to provide the answers.

It’s not a forgiving criterion for most video games, however. Video games, particularly those that address the mass market (similar to the Hollywood blockbuster films), tend to be pretty literal. What you see is often what you get. While the audience is certainly welcome to inject their own ideas about the world of Super Mario Brothers, what’s on the screen is pretty straightforward. For me, I don’t see much of an invitation to contribute.

More exploratory games, however, probably get bonus points, simply because the invitation to explore may also be an invitation to engage the imagination. Sometimes.

BraidStartFor video games as a whole, I don’t think the literalness (that really is a word; I looked it up!) is a requirement for video games, or necessarily a restriction on their potential. I think a lot of games have done that. I think a lot of games have tried, and failed. It takes a lot more than just throwing in a controversial or politically charged element. I think some games that might rate higher on this measure of the artistic scale have done so almost by accident. Some great examples (for me) of games that I’d rate higher (given my own subjectivity of what really invites my participation) would be: Braid, The Sims, Shadow of the Colossus, Emily Short’s Galatea (or pretty much anything by Emily Short), and Jason Rohrer’s Passage. Ultima 4 and 5 would, for me, be moved along to a comfortable spot on the artistic spectrum. While I can’t say it inspired truly “deep thoughts” from me, Minecraft would score pretty well here, and I know it has inspired amazing creativity from tons of players. Spec Ops: The Line at least attempted this as well, and I’ll give them points for effort even if execution was (for me) a bit lacking.

A few RPGs could probably fit this description, but I think some of the more modern ones try too hard to appear relevant without allowing the player a (figurative) word in edgewise. Games with multiple endings based on player choice is a great idea in theory (and not limited to RPGs), but too often it’s one-good-ending plus two or three variations of suck. If this was a conversation, this is the equivalent of yelling “BZZZT! WRONG ANSWER!” and pretentiously dropping the mic.

While I don’t necessarily care about “games as art,” I do like the idea of more games serving up more intellectually and emotionally stimulating content that challenge and inspire players. Heavy-handed “message” games or games that depend on shock value need not apply … not that they are necessarily bad, only that these techniques don’t inspire much contribution from a player. But with subtlety (yes, not something that usually works well in video games), the interactivity of games could really act as a mirror to the player’s own values and engage in a “conversation” far better than any static medium.

Stuff to consider.

Filed Under: Art, Geek Life - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

Extreme Guitar…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 20, 2016

I’ve been waiting for this song to his Rocksmith since launch. If you need me anytime in the next three months, I’ll be learning to play it… holed away in some monastery of rock up in the mountains…

Rocksmith may be pretty good, but it can’t work miracles, especially when my average lately has probably only been about 20 minutes a day. But hey, aspirations and lofty goals. One day I’ll be awesome at guitar, have a couple of best-selling book series out, and make the indie game that outsells Minecraft. Then I’ll have to figure out what to do next.


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Game Dev Employees vs. Hobbyists vs. Entrepreneurs vs. Old-Schoolers vs. Everybody Else

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 19, 2016

A few days ago, Alex St. John enraged the game development community with an extremely tone-deaf post about game development working conditions. A gazillion articles have been written lambasting this article, so I’ll actually sidestep that pile-on just a smidgen. I’m not going to defend him, because he’s wrong, but I would suggest there’s a middle ground we’ve got to reach.

I have a friend who worked at an independent game studio and was in charge of developing the expansion (back in the day when they were called expansions and not DLC) for a major hit game. The project manager from the publisher/studio that had made the original game was pretty much camping at the door of the office, and was super-excited, super-committed, and everything. Well, my friend wanted to go home and see his family once in a while. So he was “only” working 60-hour weeks on this expansion.

At one point, the project manager asked my friend the lead programmer why he wasn’t more committed and putting in more hours. After all, this expansion was going to make a fortune!

“Not for me,” my friend said. I don’t remember if he was expecting any kind of minor bonus for hitting his milestones, but otherwise he was only getting paid his standard salary.

The project manager was baffled. He started to say how much they were paying the independent studio to develop the expansion, but stopped himself. He hinted that it was a LOT of money, however. Plus a piece of the royalty action. Enough to really motivate a team to pull out all the stops and make an incredible expansion to a best-selling title. But it wasn’t going to the team… at least not directly. It was going to the company coffers to help keep the medium-sized studio afloat during all the upcoming times that might not be quite as lucrative.

Reasonable? Sure. But not personally motivating. Why would I want to nuke my health and jeopardize my family and work my butt off just so my bosses could get really good bonuses, my co-workers who aren’t directly working on my project could keep getting paid, and that I might see an extra four months of employment at some future point rather than taking another job elsewhere?

This is the challenge and contradiction of the video games biz. The industry has matured wonderfully in some areas from its crazy, heady early days, yet is woefully immature in others. While the big hits generate amazing revenue, everything else does poorly. We’re talking not even breaking even, considering the cost of development. Do a REALLY good job, and maybe you don’t get laid off.

The guys who have survived the industry for a long time remember the crazy early days. Then, a handful of people with an idea, passion, and an apartment they could use as an office could live on Top Ramen for a few months and crank out a commercially viable game that would at least generate enough royalty payments that they could graduate to real ramen and occasionally pizza when developing the next game. And if they had a genuine hit, the back-end royalties would make everyone on the team rich. Maybe not fly-yellow-Ferrari-and-a-penthouse-rich, but maybe pay-off-the-mortgage rich. But of course, these guys are the survivors. There were a lot who didn’t. They never upgraded from Top Ramen, and had to eventually call it quits. They aren’t in the industry or guiding things anymore.

Things are even rougher now. The industry is far more crowded than it used to be. Supply has grown much faster than demand, especially during the indie revolution. This is part of the whole “industry maturing” thing. For the biggest games, the team size is huge, and one person’s creative contribution is relatively minor. Their stake in the project is also relatively small. It’s work. It’s like any other profession.

And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work, after a point.

You can be an employee. You can trade your chance at a big gain for relative stability and a steady paycheck and 9-to-5 hours. And that’s fine. That’s awesome, actually. And you can still be awesome and passionate about it, do excellent work (you should!), and be very proud of what you’ve accomplished. Put it on your resume. Just don’t complain when, as a result of your steady and stable work that you’ve put in, your employer or the other stakeholders get rich, and you get nothing special. That’s your choice. And as an employer, that’s great too – you get a huge gain for relatively low, steady costs. Win-win all the way around, at least when starting out and the future is hazy.

You can be an entrepreneur.  You can take the big risks, work the crazy hours, for very little more than a gamble… a stake in the prize if your team can defy the odds and be really successful. And that’s awesome, too. Especially if the whole team is that way. Everybody shares in the risk, everybody shares in the reward. Either way, it’s fair. And since there’s a higher sense of ownership and real stakes involved, sure, people may tend to work the psycho hours. Win-win for everyone, at least if the project is successful.

You can work as a contracted gun-for-hire. That’s awesome, too. You stay independent. You chart your own course. You do your work, you get paid your cash, and you are only peripherally interested in how the project fares after you are done. Sure, a hit game means a resume point and hopefully continued contracts with that developer, but it’s not about you. It’s great for the employer too, because you represent fixed, one-off costs for them. Win-win!

You can work on a project as a hobbyist. People do it out of pure passion, with little thought of the big bucks on the other side. It’s a resume-builder, a learning experience, a marketing tool, and maybe worth a little bit of cash on the side.  Mainly, it’s an investment in the future. Nobody expects to make minimum wage on the thing. Naturally, it takes a lower priority when Life Happens. Everybody expects that. People gotta do other things to pay the bills. They work on this project out of passion (and maybe token payments). This is fine and good and fair, and everything is cool here, too, so long as everyone’s on pretty close to the same page. Win-win all the way around.

All four of these approaches are fair and awesome and will absolutely work today. No problem. In fact, these aren’t the only options – you can work out some kind of balance, maybe sacrificing a some salary for a bigger piece of the reward, or vice versa.

The problem is when someone tries to mix-and-match requirements and expectations to the detriment of someone else. You can’t alternately treat someone as an employee, a contractor, a hobbyist, and an entrepreneur when it benefits YOU. This is exactly the problem that disgusted me with the mainstream games industry. There’s this legacy of entrepreneurship that is AWESOME, but companies want to treat employees like entrepreneurs who don’t actually get to participate in the rewards of entrepreneurship. When someone is asked to shoulder much of the risk without a significant portion of the reward. And that’s exactly what pushing employees to work 80 hour weeks, destroying their health, possibly wrecking their families, for nothing but a token reward at the end is doing.

It goes both ways, though. I hear some very unreasonable demands from employees, too. If you are doing work for someone else, you can’t demand everything … regular hours, high pay, great benefits, AND as big a stake in the company or project as people taking much bigger risk. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

Fortunately, it’s a free economy (at least where I live). In theory, at least … regulations really make things more complicated.  In spite of screeds about passion and privilege and artistry, I’m absolutely free to tell to go tell someone demanding that I bleed for their benefit to go screw themselves. That’s how it should work. Which is why I’m totally happy about people dumping on Alex St. John right now. This is not a black-and-white issue, and there are tons of variations on what is acceptable and what isn’t, and I don’t think one size fits all, or even many. But there’s a weird attitude in the games industry (and probably similar industries, like music and Hollywood) that should be stamped out now.

Look, you want me to be passionate about develop games? You want me to just create for the joy of creation? To enjoy the privilege of making games? YOU GOT IT! But then I’m not making games for you. I’ve gone indie, I’m working a 9-5 job, and I’m making my own games in my spare time and loving it (most of the time). Or getting together with friends to do something great together! Awesome. All that and maintain a balance in life that allows me to be happy and not just a starving, depressed, overworked artist.

Do you want me to make a game for you and help you make lots of money? Cool, I’m happy to do that too, but you need to offer me something significantly more than just the joy of making games. I’ve already got that one covered.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

Thoughts on Vive VR

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 18, 2016

I had the chance to play with the HTC Vive VR, the product of Valve’s partnering into the wild, wonderful world of virtual reality. While the experience wasn’t quite up there with The Void, it was still a pretty cool experience.

The person giving me the demo was Bryan Livingston of Legend Studio, maker of A Legend of Luca, a room-scale VR action-roguelike game. First, I played around with a few other demos, including the tremendously awesome Portal-world demo where you try and repair one one of the robots. There was also a game where you sliced fruit, fruit-ninja style, as it launched at you. The amazing thing with this one was how natural it all felt with the wand controller. There wasn’t much training your body to do things. Tapping the fruit (or bombs) to move them off to the side, or bouncing something something on the flat of the blade, was a piece of cake.

Google’s Tilt Brush is also kind of amazing.

Playing these kinds of games in VR is a different experience than sitting down and using a controller. It’s a much more active experience, but they didn’t make me motion sick. It was really like I was just entering another world. A world constrained to about fifteen feet by fifteen feet for practical reasons, but it was effective.

A Legend of Luca has a very interesting scheme. In order to make movement and room sizes from traditional games work for the game, the world is scaled down. When the game launches, you set the height of the floor to about your waist. Once you do that, you move around and shoot like a first-person shooter / slasher. The effect feels like you are constantly leaning over (or walking through) a miniatures table in a wargame of some kind. It requires a bit of jumping and dodging.

One of the interesting ideas from this game is that the UI is located above you, so you have to glance up to see the map, etc.

Part of the discussion we had with Bryan was how VR changes the language of video games. So many standards that have evolved when presenting experiences on the screen, with a controller or the keyboard in front of you, are completely turned on their head in virtual reality. When the brain is convinced that it’s “in” a place, it expects the virtual world to conform to many real-world expectations. Anything else, and weird – often bad – things start happening.

I think we’re still in the ‘early adopter’ stages of this technology. It is really amazing,  but it’s not a case of where everything belongs in VR. It’s not a place you’d “port” a game. It demands a special kind of game, and I’m excited to see what kinds of experiences evolve over time… and how the technology itself evolves.

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Book Impressions: Pwned

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 15, 2016

pwned_bookPwned, by Shannen Crane Camp, is a story about Reagan West, the co-captain of the high school cheerleaders. She’s beautiful. She’s popular. She can be kind of mean. But this is all to conceal her terrible secret… her secret identity:

Reagan is a gamer. A full-on uber-geek and MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) addict. If that secret were to get out… well, she knows her crowd. She knows her best friend and co-captain of the cheerleading squad. She knows that no geek or social outcast has ever suffered as she will if she if her double life is exposed.

So far, she’s been able to keep her two lives separate. But now, her two worlds are about to collide, and she may have to finally pick a side.

So… this is not my usual reading fare (contemporary young adult romance), but obviously the subject matter is a hook for me. The fictional MMO in the story sounds suspiciously like World of Warcraft, but if you’ve put any time into any MMORPG, you’ll find yourself at home. In fact, if you aren’t a gamer, you might have a little trouble with some of the terminology, although the author does a pretty good job of explaining anything that’s not obvious from the context.

I have no idea about the life of a high school cheerleader, but Shannen Crane Camp gets the MMO / gamer side right. I met her at FanX and at a party during LTUE this year, and this is no surprise. She is very much a geek, a hardcore MMORPG fanatic, and a confessed “alt-aholic,” just like her character. Naturally, that side of things comes across as pretty authentic.

Overall, it’s a cute story. Reagan is a very interesting character. Her cheerleader persona can be mean, but she’s never irredeemably bad. The characters are well-drawn and interesting. The cute nerdy guy is smart but appropriately clueless in certain areas. Some of the twists are a little on the predictable side, and the ending felt a bit forced to me. It’s YA, which will be great for some readers, and not-so-great for others. I enjoyed the references to real-world people and events by gaming terms, since I do that all the time. 🙂 Flaws aside, it was a fun story and I enjoyed it.

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Why Do We Bother?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 13, 2016

Frayed_cover_finalSometimes, the whole authoring gig & indie game dev thing gets me down. The hours are long. I’m rarely current on any television shows. My list of unplayed games and unread books grows. I get stressed. There’s a crapload of work. We have deadlines to meet which are rarely convenient. I’m not getting rich or famous from doing it. I face plenty of rejection and criticism. I see how far I am from being great at this stuff, and it’s daunting.

It can get rough and demoralizing. Why do we bother creating stuff in the first place?

But then, I have the good nights. A manuscript is completed. A level is done. A new game system is completed. I get positive feedback on a beta. I get an acceptance or… a game release. My stuff actually *entertains* someone. I can see myself getting better at what I do. These kinds of experiences are help make everything else feel worthwhile.

There are other things, too. A positive review. An award. A halfway decent check or deposit. These definitely big motivators. But not enough to keep me going if I didn’t love it.

Ultimately, in spite of the times where you just have to knuckle down and get the less sexy stuff done, it really comes down to having the creative desire in your blood. When it just comes down to the fact that you are taking these worlds in your head (or heads, if you are collaborating) and converting them into a form that can be shared with others. And then once you start going down that path, it’s hard to stop.

Ultimately, that’s why I’m still an “indie evangelist.” It’s not that I love the flood of crappy entertainment clogging the pipelines. Or that every indie work is some kind of special snowflakey gem. It’s just that I love living in a world where anybody who has a passion for this kind of thing can make it their gig. They don’t need anyone’s permission but their own.

Filed Under: General, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

Unity Asset Store Community Sale: ProBuilder Advanced On Sale

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 12, 2016

Unity’s community sale is going on for the next 3 days (as of this post). One of the assets on sale is ProBuilder. I have high recommendations for this one. We’re using it in Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath (actually, we’re taking advantage of much of the ProCore Bundle Package… which sadly isn’t part of the sale) and it’s been awesome. We started out using it just for prototyping levels, and we’re using it to produce final levels. Mainly because Nick Lives is becoming a god at ProBuilder. A mad, bloodthirsty god, but we can live with that.

Unity Asset Store Community Sale



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League of Utah Writers Spring Conference

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 11, 2016

LUW_Schedule_Spring2016Over the weekend I attended the League of Utah Writers Spring Conference (Workshop) held in Taylorsville, Utah. My friend John Olsen went into more detail (and took way more pictures – my two didn’t turn out well), and has a write-up of his experiences here.

With so many different classes packed into a little under six hours, there were several classes I wanted to attend but couldn’t. But here’s a quick run-down of what I did see!

I started out by hitting Ali Cross’s class on writing action scenes. Her focus was mainly on fight scenes, but she did use a chase scene as an example. The bulk of the seminar was on keeping it real… or at least within the realm of believability.  This covered a range of topics.

One suggestion: Don’t make your protagonist suddenly turn into a martial arts legend able to defeat trained special forces agents all of the sudden if that’s not their background. However, they can be given one good trick that they believably picked up from somewhere which allows them to fight back enough to escape. She used Melissa McCarthy’s character in Identity Thief as an example… I never saw the movie, but the character was good at punching people in the throat.

Another point was to keep things grounded, and remember the terrain and the character’s entire body. Even if it’s fighting a dragon. People need room to fight, and remember how much of their body needs to go into a move for it to be effective.

Finally, we discussed writing techniques, and how a lot of it depends on whether it’s a plot-focused action scene or a character-focused action scene. Plot-focused scenes tend to be more blow-by-blow, and character-focused tend to omit more of the details and focus on what’s going on inside the character’s head. Remember point-of-view, avoid passive voice, and try to keep the sentences quick and punchy. Another trick is to keep the verb and direct object as close to together as possible. An action scene that goes longer than a page will fatigue and bore the reader, and that’s a really, really bad thing in any scene, but especially an action scene.

Callie_LUW_Spring20165Next I attended editor Callie Stoker’s workshop on voice. She covered both character voice, and authorial voice. She started by having people describing Mr. Darcy, Harry Dresden, and Jay Gatsby’s big party… then read how they were introduced in the books. Interestingly enough (and I’d totally forgotten this), in The Great Gatsby it was almost entirely in the head of the narrator… how it all felt, rather than a physical description. She involved the audience for practice changing words in sentences to give them more of a “voice” – first character, then authorial, then transitioning between the two in the same sentence. It’s a tricky balancing act, and I thought the workshop was extremely useful. I also came to realize how much I suck at this.

Lisa Mangum, author and  editor for Shadow Mountain Publishing, ran a workshop on creating pitches for books… emphasizing the ability to sell a book in 30 seconds (or less). While that was the hook, the workshop was a bit more comprehensive than that, covering everything from composing tweet-sized pitches to writing a full synopsis for an editor. The idea was to use the smaller pitch to engage enough interest and attention to share the next bigger, more information-packed pitch. Some tidbits (especially when working with editors): Really know what genre and story type you are working with. While we may resent being put into those boxes, it’s a shorthand to communicates a lot of information in very few words. Another point she made is to think about our favorite book, and think about how we tell our friends about it. THAT is how we should talk to other people about our own books. That feeling, if not wording.

Michael Bacera’s session on creating a social media campaign was a LOT more useful and information-dense than I anticipated. John has some good stuff in his write-up on this one, but I seriously couldn’t keep up with the notetaking. His focus was on creating engaging content that invited action, rather that “trying to sell to your followers,” which doesn’t do so well and tends to piss off your audience, and creating a full-on campaign plan with measurable results.

Finally, Paul Genesse – always an entertaining speaker – talked about writing short stories. He spoke on the whys and the hows of writing short stories – with a lot of emphasis on the whys. Of course, the days are long past when an author could make a living writing short stories (not that it was ever super-lucrative). But there are still reasons to make short stories, not the least of which is that it allows authors to experiment, hone their craft, and get some ideas out there really quickly.

I felt the conference was valuable. My wife asked how it compared to LTUE a couple of months ago. LTUE definitely drew in the bigger names with more experience and more established credentials. However,  a lot of the presenters at this conference. were the same people on panels at LTUE, but who now had the stage to themselves to get into a lot more details with a smaller crowd, rather than it being a survey of advice. There were panels as well, but I didn’t attend any. I think given my current experience level (still sucking but sucking a lot less than when I started), I am definitely in the position to learn a lot from both.

And now I totally want to see a similar, local conference focused on game development!

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What Am I Playing / Reading? That’s a Complicated Question!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 8, 2016

When people ask me what video game I’m playing or book I am reading, I tend to stammer a lot. I mean, if they are pointing to the screen or the book in my hand, then sure. No problem. But if someone asks it as a more generalized question, like “What have you been reading / playing lately?”, then… it gets weird.

I worry that I have some kind of ADD thing going on with my entertainment media. But I guess an analogy might be a television show. At least, back in the days of network TV when we didn’t binge-watch. And when I used to, like, watch television regularly. It’s that thing people who aren’t gamers / game developers / writers do. I have to think waaay back.

But back then, it was expected that people were watching shows, plural. What shows are you watching? What shows do you watch?

I have well over 100 role-playing games installed on my desktop. ONE HUNDRED. And that’s just role-playing games. How many of them have I played? How many do I expect to continue playing? (Hint: If I haven’t uninstalled them, that means something). How many do I consider “actively playing?”

Maybe I have a focus problem.

Books – same deal. Mostly. I’m reading a lot of anthologies and magazines of short stories right now, so it’s a little haphazard. There’s no need to read them in any order. Short stories work really well with my schedule. But then I’ve got books. I’m usually in the middle of reading two nonfiction books, at least one paper novel, and at least one digital novel. That often comes down to “what do I have at hand when I find myself with time to read.” I often have my tablet with me when I find I’m stuck waiting somewhere, so I have time to get a couple chapters of reading done with an ebook.

At least my currently reading / currently playing list isn’t as big as my to-be-read/to-play list.

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