Archive for December, 2013

Choose Your Own Adventure 118: Not What We Wanted

2013/12/31 4 comments

The previous post in this series is here.

From last time, your choice was to take the man currently disguised as you as a prisoner, and thence, play along for information and access.

Part 118

The man doesn’t weigh much more than you actually do, so if someone decides to help, it won’t be too unbelievable.  You lift him up onto one shoulder, and walk out, accompanied by the lieutenant and the other guards.

You glance at them.  “Can I get a hand here?”

The lieutenant gives one of his subordinates a close look, and the younger man joins you in hauling your unconscious prisoner.

You walk out of the inn as a group, with the older woman tending the front counter staring at you the whole time.  “Who’s going to pay the tab for that room?”

The lieutenant hangs back, saying something conciliatory before handing her a few large coins, courtesy of the Emperor, with a request to not spread word of the events here too widely.

“For this?  It’s been a very quiet, boring morning.”

You leave, and follow the others into a nearby alley, where a cart and horses stand waiting.  This was the ride the group used to go through town so rapidly, along with a couple of additional horses to round out their numbers and, most likely, to prevent any crowd from gathering.

Behind you, you can hear the lieutenant discussing something, quietly, with one of the other guards.  You dare not turn to get a look at him — you might lose your grip on your prisoner, and it would look suspicious besides.

The only words you make out are those that occur a minute or so after the conversation stops, from just behind you.

“Orders were dead, not alive.”

Then, you feel a fierce pain in your chest.  Looking down, you see a blade protruding from it.  Then it twists… and the world darkens.


Oops!  That was a Death Scene ™.  Time to go back a step, and try again:

The Choices

Option 117: This is more people with more skills than you can manage at once, and you doubt that you can successfully bluff them for long.  Use your flash spell, and get out of there.

Option 119: Kill “Severel Mazurek.”  Then play along as long as you can to get information, and perhaps entry to the palace.


Fantasy Round 22.3: Even More Dresden Files

2013/12/26 Leave a comment

There are even more books in this series, so let’s keep at it!

This time, we have Dead Beat, Proven Guilty, and White Night.  As ever, spoilers follow — right from the very beginning.


This is one of the few covers where the background isn't black.  Also, no, Dresden doesn't actually have a hat in the book.  He hates hats.  There's apparently a running joke between the illustrator and the author...

This is one of the few covers where the background isn’t black. Also, no, Dresden doesn’t actually have a hat in the book. He hates hats. There’s apparently a running joke between the illustrator and the author…

Best Scene Ever

In Dead Beat, we get a zombie T-Rex charging down the streets of Chicago on Halloween, being ridden by a wizard and a guy in a one-man-polka-band outfit.

Yes, this is epically cool all by itself.

What’s really fun is the setup.  Early in the story, we learn about how zombies work.  It require remains, obviously.  To maintain your magic zombies, they must be supplied with a constant beat, to replace the non-existent heartbeat of the zombie — which is why necromancers often work with a partner called a drummer.  (Magic will fry your stereo, unless you take countermeasures.)  The bad guys, obviously, are all using zombies.  Older zombies are more powerful, so they’ve been doing things like stealing Native American remains from a museum.

But, raising humans from the dead is forbidden by the laws of magic.  So, good guys like Harry Dresden won’t do it.

Solution?  Raise a 67-million-year-old T. Rex from the Field Museum in Chicago, and have your friend with the polka outfit (including drum) help you out.

But what happened to the Masquerade?  I mean, in addition to the little zombies and the T. Rex, there was a tornado. That mix of things is weird enough that it’s really, really impressive that nobody got even a little suspicious about those silly prankster college students leaving the bones of Sue the T. Rex in the park…

Waldo Butters is Awesome


Waldo Butters is the polka guy I mentioned in the last section.

He is, in essence, a representation of how the scientific establishment should (and probably would) respond to the revelation of magic.

His first problem is that he’s honest.  He works as a medical examiner — and claiming that remains from a fire he was examining were humanoid but “clearly non-human” got him thrown in a psychiatric hospital for a few months.  He barely kept his job, and somebody made off with the evidence.  (The Masquerade is annoying like that.)

But, critically, he’s always asking about how things work.  While traumatized by the fighting, he helps out with his medical expertise (with appropriate complaints about not being a real doctor).  During the series, he X-rays Dresden, and realizes that wizards heal more completely than normal humans do, and theorizes about how magic works.  He happily discusses magic with Bob, the spirit of intellect, and is very interested in the theory.

If magic were real, this is one of the reasons why it wouldn’t stay secret or mysterious for very long — there are a lot of well-trained and very curious people out there who would want to know how it works.

The Trouble With Mind Magic

Oh, Molly.  In Proven Guilty, in amongst all the fear-munching monsters, we also have Molly Carpenter, who is the kid of one of Dresden’s friends (Michael Carpenter.  He killed a dragon once).  She’s gone a bit down the wild I’m-a-teenager path, though, with serious consequences given that she actually has the talent to be a wizard.

She has a particular talent for delicate, precise magic that Dresden has trouble with — including mind magic.  There’s a Law of Magic about that.  Specifically, “Thou shalt not invade the mind of another.”  Molly broke this law.

This is, in a sense, an interesting ethical conundrum.  Molly was trying to help her friends who had problems with drug addiction, by making them feel afraid of the drugs.  The one friend was likely to be fine in the long run.  But Molly was mad at the other one, who had been her boyfriend, but was cheating on her.  I don’t think his final status was detailed, but it looked like he might have been driven into a very bad place, mentally speaking.  Constant paranoia.


And thus, we get a discussion of when mind magic could be okay.  Does it require consent?  (That alone, Molly violated.)  What if the person has, say, a serious mental disorder, like depression?  Does making them feel more cheerful (even if they don’t consent) count as a good thing? (No, it doesn’t.  Depression isn’t just “not being cheerful” – MWB).  Merely sensing someone’s feelings doesn’t require probing their brains, and is considered acceptable practice; where do you draw the line?  Is running through the brains of recently dead people okay?  What about prisoners, criminals, terrorists?

On the other hand, the ethical conundrum is blunted.  The White Council is very draconian about its Laws of Magic. If you violate one, it’s off with your head, unless somebody talks them into giving you a closely monitored probation instead.  (And if you violate it, off with your head and the head of your parole officer.)  This prevents further exploration of the morality of messing with someone else’s mind.

Mysterious Machinations

There’s some intrigue things that aren’t well explained in these particular novels, which make more sense later.  One of the big ones is the series of events at the end of Proven Guilty, particularly in Arctis Tor, when Dresden and company rescue Molly from the Winter Court.

At the end of Proven Guilty, Dresden and his mentor Ebenezar McCoy discuss the possibility of a traitor on the White Council of wizards — someone who is feeding information to the Red Court of vampires, and generally helping to cause mayhem.  In White Night, the villain Cowl from Dead Beat reappears, isn’t dead, and is apparently busily encouraging the White Court of vampires to continue fighting against the White Council… to precisely what end, we do not yet know.  More of this mysterious plot is unraveled as the series progresses, bit by bit.  It’s one of the parts that starts making the later books better — the long term plot that slowly unfolds, linking together what would otherwise seem to be strange, unrelated disasters.

One of the biggest hints is given at the end of White Night.  Specifically, one of the Fallen informs Harry that his birth was specifically orchestrated to give him power over Outsiders.  Outsiders, the epically evil entities who are not native to our reality, which can only be summoned by normal humans… and which have been aiding the Red Court… dun dun DUN…

Choose Your Own Adventure 114a: The Old Switcheroo

2013/12/24 4 comments

The previous post in this series is here.

From the last post, you chose to set and bait a trap for your prisoner’s handlers… with the addendum that you should do so using a disguise spell, swapping your appearance for that of your prisoner.

Part 114a

The first step, of course, is to knock out your unhelpful captive.  Then you arrange the scene, using an absolute minimum of magic.  Your drop your prisoner on the floor in an ungainly sprawl, untied from his chair.  Then you knock the chair over and break it, leaving the ropes coiled around it.  You add scratches here and there, and put your small room into a general state of disarray.

Then, the spells.  You do yourself first, with the aid of the room’s small mirror.  Modeling your imitation features and clothing after his is not terribly difficult, given that you have the model lying in front of you.  Covering your prisoner is no harder, given that you know your own features.

You know neither spell will last long, or stand up to more serious scrutiny.  But it should be good enough for “help” to arrive, and for you to learn something more.

You also prepare a more aggressive spell, carefully inscribing the relevant runes onto paper as your say them aloud.  Tearing the paper will trigger it, and should cause enough damage to allow you to escape a confrontation if you are outnumbered.  The spell will flare brightly in the vision of all present except yourself, echoing with a human scream.  It should be sufficiently distracting.

Then, you have a final touch to add.  You take one of your own daggers, and bash yourself in the nose with the pommel.  You obtain a satisfactory trickle of blood, hopefully a convincing hint that there was a fight here.  You’re not sure that you could get the smell quite right with a spell.  You flick a couple of drops onto the floor, then break the wooden warning token.

You do not wait long.

No more than fifteen minutes later — an impressive response time, for a barracks halfway across the crowded capital — a group of six Black Hands stomps their way up the stairs to your room, where you are examining the unconscious body of “Mazurek” and managing a bloody nose with your other hand.

The leader of the group is a pale lieutenant, freckles making him seem younger than he probably is.  He walks in openly wielding a sword, but sheathes it as soon as he sees you.  “Eggard… well, it looks like you got everything in hand.  What happened?”

You tell the truth, more or less — about being knocked out in the prison, and then being caught and saying nothing.  You add a tidbit about Mazurek going out for something, and taking the opportunity to knock her out and reclaim the warning token as soon as she returned.

“A bit sloppy on her part.”

“She’s been on the run a while.”

“True.”  The lieutenant nudges the unconscious form, and nods.  “Everything else has been quiet, although that fire she set was pretty bad.  Barely kept it from engulfing the building next door.”

You take someone’s offered cloth, for your nose, and make an educated guess.  “Lehhev is still in the palace gaol?”

“Yes.  All quiet there.”

You breathe a sigh of relief, as if concerned about Mazurek’s activities.  “Good.”

“Back to business.  We need to get this,” he kicks the real Eggard, “back to the palace.  Since you caught her, you should do the honors.”

Uh-oh.  You’re not entirely sure what he means.  You do know that, as of yesterday, the guards were not planning on to capture you alive.  But that may have changed.

The Choices

Option 117: This is more people with more skills than you can manage at once, and you doubt that you can successfully bluff them for long.  Use your flash spell, and get out of there.

Option 118: Pick up your captive, to “take her into custody.”  Then play along as long as you can to get information, and perhaps entry to the palace.

Option 119: Kill “Severel Mazurek.”  And then play along as above.

Fiction In General 2: Dueling Fandoms

I’m trying to decide which currently-popular franchise has the most devoted fanbase.  Since an overall comparison of this would be impossible, let’s do a pairwise comparison.  Which of these two has the most devoted fans?  Discuss.

Case 1: Tolkien

Master of mythology and codifier of conlanging.  Creator of Middle Earth and all of the associated Legendarium.  Illustrations of a devoted fanbase: First, the movies, all of the work that went into making them, and all of the arguments about how they could have been better.  Second, this research paper:

"The Climate of Middle-Earth", supposedly submitted to the J. Hobbitlore by Radagast the Brown.

“The Climate of Middle-Earth”, supposedly submitted to the J. Hobbitlore by Radagast the Brown.  In reality, written by a fan.

Translation into Elvish.

Translation into Elvish (Quenya?).  At least I take it to be a translation – I do not readily parse Tengwar script.  It may actually be English, transliterated into Tengwar from Roman.  If it is Quenya or one of the other Elvish languages Tolkien invented,  then it will have a lot of English loan words.

Translation into Dwarfish.

Translation into Dwarfish.  Again, this may actually be a transliteration using the Cirth runes to represent English rather than a complete translation into Khuzdul.

Case 2: Star Trek

Codifier of space opera television.  Series.  Movies.  Reboots (which were lousy).  Fan-made live-action TV showsLots and lots and lots of spin-off media.  And plays and operas and music videos done in the languages invented for the show.

Some of you may have already seen the Klingon Hamlet.  So I submit for your consideration the Klingon epic opera ‘u’:

Superheroes Round 9: Man of Steel

2013/12/18 Leave a comment

I admit, I like superheroes.  And I’m something of a fan of the old Lois & Clark television show.  Superman is a difficult hero to portray, since he’s been around long enough to experience very serious power creep.  A large part of the reason why I liked that show was that superpowers were not the solution to every problem – and could, indeed, make it worse.  “More brute force” was rarely the answer.  I also liked it because while, as is standard for the character, Superman is portrayed as taking the moral high ground, he isn’t absolutely perfect.  He makes mistakes, and asks other people for help and advice.  (I also liked Lex Luthor in the earlier seasons of the show, but that’s another matter.)

For related reasons, I absolutely hated the next-most-recent film, Superman Returns.  Lois never figures out who Clark Kent actually is under the glasses, she had a kid with him out of wedlock just before he decides to fly off to check out the wreckage of Krypton for a few years (and she lies about who the kid’s father is to everyone including her current boyfriend).  The constant lies and utter lack of responsibility, along with the absolute absurdity of the plot and the version of Lex Luthor (think Bond villain) completely ruined it for me.

Man of Steel?  Well… it’s better than the last film.  It deals with the issue of power imbalance by bringing in a bunch of Kryptonians for Clark Kent/Superman/Kal-El to punch.  Whee.

Lois Lane Catch Count

I only remember two Lois Lane catches from this film, which, for Superman, is doing pretty good.  He also catches a soldier falling out of a helicopter.  Still, the constant rescues of Lois Lane bother me (see this link for a discussion of the general phenomenon).

These are always pretty annoying, but at least it wasn’t always Lois playing damsel this time.  Of course, all the usual comments about falling damage still apply here.

For bonus points, one of the Lois-catches was from an escape pod coming from the Kryptonian ship.  Which was falling to the planet below.  Given that this is an escape pod… from a super-advanced ship… was it really necessary to pull Lois out of it before it hit the ground?  I would have thought that escape pods should be designed for that sort of contingency.  Speaking of problems inherent in the design…

Keeping It Secret

This is just awful.  Clark’s (human) dad is… misguided at best.  He strongly pushes Clark to keep his developing powers to himself.  Keep it secret, keep it safe, kind of a thing.  When Clark rescues a bunch of kids when his school bus crashes, his dad is annoyed that he showed off his powers.  Clark asks if he should have just let them all die.  “Maybe.”


This is utterly repugnant and horrifying.

Then again, he does go through with that view all the way.  At one point, there’s a tornado.  Clark and his mom get to safety, but his dad goes back to get the dog.  The dog gets to safety, but Clark’s dad injures his leg and gets sucked up by the tornado.  He waves Clark off, to prevent Clark from having to show off his skills to a bunch of witnesses.

First problem: If you’re in a disaster situation, people outrank pets.  You may be sad about losing Fluffy, but it’s worse to lose you.

Second problem:  Is keeping your son’s extraordinary gifts secret worth your life and the grief it will case your family?  I don’t think so.

I just can’t give this version of Clark’s dad much credit.  Ugh.

Super Power Adjustment Period

On the plus side, having the superpowers, X-ray vision and super-hearing come with a need to adjust to using them makes perfect sense.  They start to phase in when Clark’s a kid, and he has some entirely reasonable adjustment issues.

When the Kryptonians visit Earth, they have the same kind of issues with the super-senses.  I appreciate the consistency.  That said…

General Zod and Krypton

There’s so much wrong with the science in the film that I’m not going to bother going into much detail.  It’s Superman; science goes bye-bye.  But, I do have some thoughts about Krypton and its (former) inhabitants:

What were you people thinking?!

Okay, so you’ve gotten to the point where you no longer have natural childbirth.  Cool!  Pregnancy, while a normal process, carries significant risks for mother and child.  Modern medicine has made matters much better, but growing your kid in a healthy, comfy sphere somewhere safe sounds like a great idea.  Oh, you’re doing genetic construction, too?  Awesome!  No more genetic diseases.  I like it.

Next, you’re determining what role the kid is going to have in society before birth?

That… well, doesn’t work so well.  The creators of this story seemed to be missing out on the massive impact of the nurture side of the nature-vs-nurture argument.  Early childhood environment, and everything thereafter, counts for a lot.  Assuming Kryptonians are anything like humans, anyway.  A significant part of Jor-El’s motivation is “returning the element of chance” – i.e., natural birth, complete with birth-scene for Clark/Kal-El – to allow the kid a choice in what he wants to be.

You know… there’s a happy medium, here.  You have awesome super-tech.  Why not make sure the kid is healthy, and avoid the pregnancy and childbirth risks, while at the same time not restricting any of the kid’s attributes?  And, seriously guys, nurture.  Big impact.  Huge.  The fact that you culturally restrict what kids get to grow up to be is probably a bigger factor than your genetic tweaking.

Meanwhile, you store all the genetic data you use in a single codex?  Seriously?  I mean, backups, anyone?

Meanwhile, our lead villain General Zod appears to count as a well-intentioned extremist.  His only excuse seems to be that he was genetically set up to be a warrior, a defender of Krypton to the end.  I don’t know about that… but I would bet that his training combined with his (probably learned) obsession with protecting Krypton at all costs had something to do with it.

Terraforming 101

Ooh, World Engine.  Sounds nifty.  What does it do?  Well, it increases the gravity and changes the atmosphere to match that of Krypton.  It’s like the devices you drop onto planets in the game Spore to speed-terraform a planet.  Definitely nifty.  Except for the drawback where you kill all life on Earth while you’re terraforming it.  Oops.

Given that we’ve already got FTL, let’s not worry about how this works.  (Aside to say that changing a planet’s surface gravity requires changing its mass or radius, which this device is clearly not doing.)

Instead, let’s ask the question, what happens after you’re done fixing the gravity and the atmosphere?  Earth’s biosphere is actually critical to maintaining its habitability.  Even ignoring the fact that everything we eat is something that needs to breathe the air here, killing all the plants that help maintain the oxygen in the atmosphere seems like a really bad idea.  I can only assume that there’s a phase two to the World Engine which provides the basis for a stable Kryptonian biosphere.

Then again, these are the people who drained so much energy out of their planet’s core that it exploded.  So maybe they’re not so good with the planning.  (And about Krypton… I’d expected it to implode a little, if anything.  The amount of energy you need to do the exploding of a planet is pretty large.)

Finally, the World Engine essentially has two ends.  One is in the ocean somewhere, and the other end is dumped in Metropolis to prove to the humans how pointless fighting is.  Or something.  Anyway, they are on opposite sides so they can play pong with power going through the Earth’s core.  Which means… it should be night-time in at least one location.  Or dawn at one and dusk at the other.  Maybe there’s something else funny going on, since it looks like daytime for both.

How’s Your Insurance?

So… who insures satellites?  Because, seriously man, you just threw General Zod into a fricking satellite.  Um.  I guess “Superman” must be in there in between war, acts of God, and alien invasions.  Holy how, they blew up a lot of stuff.

Zod does at least do a good job of pushing Superman’s buttons.  Can’t hurt the hero?  Threaten everyone else.  It’s a classic, but it’s reasonable.  For someone willing to take hostages, anyway.

On the other hand, Superman has some problems with this.  There’s a crap ton of collateral damage from all the fighting.  I was really, truly hoping to have at least one scene where he tries to draw Zod or the other Kryptonians away from the target-rich environment of Metropolis.  But, no.  And, at the end, he gets into something like one of those classic moral quandaries – the train with busted brakes that will run over a hundred people if you do nothing, and three people if you switch tracks.  When Superman finally gets Zod down, Zod turns on the old eyebeams and starts pointing them at some innocent bystanders.  If Superman kills him, the motion will move the eyebeams onto the bystanders before Zod dies.

Zod dies.  Ouch.  And you didn’t even try to juggle him around so they didn’t have to die?  Or maybe poke his eyes out?  Maybe Superman thought it was too great a risk, given all the collateral damage that must have come in from their fighting in and around skyscrapers, and Zod’s stated interest in killing everyone on Earth in vengeance for Krypton.  Regardless: yikes.

Glasses Are A Great Mask

Yup, at the end of the film, it’s glasses time.  Good job, Clark, that has got to be one of the worst disguises ever.  I mean, if it were at all a good disguise, no one would recognize me when I put my glasses on.  Which nobody has an issue with, oddly enough.

One of the reasons I liked Lois & Clark is that prior to when Lois figures it all out, the whole issue is epically lampshaded.  It’s hilarious.

This version of Lois sees through the glasses thing entirely.  She’d better – she spent a good chunk of the film doing the research to track Clark Kent down!  When he finally gets his job as a journalist, she says, “Welcome to the Planet.”  Nice touch.

NSA vs Superman

Okay, so it’s not the NSA, but somebody at the army wants to find out where Superman hangs out.  So… they send a spy drone after him.

He notices and crashes it.  In an empty plain, which is good.  When the army guy shows up to complain, he basically says that he’d like to be left alone.

“That was a $12 million piece of hardware!”

“It was.”

Just this once, the property destruction was hilarious.

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