Monday, February 28, 2022

Let's Write an Adventure Site (part 2) - What Went Wrong Before?

In my first post in this series, I introduced an adventure that I tried and failed to write a few years ago - "The Night Garden at the Vanishing Oasis" - and I talked about some of the materials that provided me with inspiration the first time around.

This time I want to talk about what went wrong the first time I tried writing this adventure. Part of what went wrong, of course, were various personal failings on my part - procrastination, distraction, moving on to a new thing before the old thing is finished, etc, etc. But I also think I was stymied by some of the  decisions I made early on about how to go about structuring an adventure, decisions that made the design process harder than it needed to be and possibly contributed to me feeling like I didn't know how to finish it.

When I sat down to try to write this adventure the first time, I was drawing on the models I had available then for what an adventure in old-school D&D should look like. (Remember, I wasn't trying to invent a totally new thing. I was trying to make a new example of an existing type of thing. So it still makes sense that I would look to other examples to see what that kind of thing is supposed to look like.) 

While I was probably drawing on the collective teachings of the OSR blogosphere of the time, I know that I was also intentionally basing the structure on the 10 minute outdoor hexcrawl from Lesserton & Mor, the advice about strict time records and strict movement records from The God That Crawls, and some of the ideas about what "weirdness" in an adventure looks like from The Monolith Beyond Space and Time.

One reason that I feel more better able to attempt this project again today is that I now have a lot more models, a lot more existing examples, to draw from when deciding what an outdoor adventure site ought to look like. Instead of hoping that the handful of things I know about are the best or only way to do things, I can think about my goals, compare several options, and decide what I think will work best for my purposes.

Today, I don't think the models I picked back then were really the right choice. I still like Lesserton & Mor, but it's meant to involve pretty open-ended ruin crawling over the course of multiple expeditions. It's way too big and way too sparse compared to what a superbloom oasis should probably be like. The other two titles I was critical of even at the time, but it's obvious to me now that back then I was influenced by their claims about the "right" way to measure space and time in a game, and the techniques available to show that a place is both unreal and dangerous.

(Something interesting can happen when people, perhaps especially kids, try to create something by following a model when they don't actually have enough information about the model. Most often, you get something incomplete, what you might call a cargo cult game if you were feeling uncharitable. But presumably, you sometimes get something innovative, if the game maker can recognize the gaps in their existing knowledge and fill them in with invention and creativity, something like Calvinball, except, you know, real.)

(As a kid, I knew that D&D and other games like it existed and had combat, but I had no idea how it should work. I assumed combatants should have roughly 60 to 100 hit points - in retrospect, I'd guess my kid self unconsciously picked a number range that was familiar from the grades you get at school. I also thought combat should somehow involve hit locations. Beyond that I didn't know what to do though, so I was left with something partial and nonfunctional.)

Here was the adventure I'd planned - a giant team of zero-level characters is assigned to go pick flowers that only appear at a certain oasis after a super heavy rainfall, and only bloom at night. You have three set encounters on the road to the oasis, then run into bandits waiting to ambush you just as you arrive, then finally get to an oasis made up of 120-yard hexes (aka, 10-minute hexes). You arrive at noon, unless you spent too long on the earlier encounters, and have until 9pm to explore until nightfall. The flowers bloom at midnight and can be harvested until 6am. 

Also the very first encounter is a different garden with a big "Do Not Enter" sign out front, where magical gun-flowers are growing, and if you take them, the GM should track everything you kill, because their ghosts will come back to haunt and attack you at 1am, the "Witching Hour". The GM is also of course tracking the time in 10-minute increments from, at a minimum, noon on the first day to 6am on the second. Also the GM should track and impose penalties for lack of sleep and dehydration. Also also, you have to harvest the flowers, because the guy back in town who "assigned" you to go pick them "knows" how many to expect you to bring back, lest you get tempted to do something between midnight and 6am besides say "I harvest a flower" over and over whenever you're not fighting something that's ambushed you.

The oasis is divided into four main sections, plus the Central Basin. You enter via the Wildflower Garden. To one side is the Succulent Garden, which has friendly plants but more dangerous wildlife, and the other side has the Cactus Garden, with dangerous plants but basically harmless animals. The back, which is more optional, since you don't need to pass through it to get to any of your goals, has the Rock Garden.

I was aiming for a mix of prosaic reality and outrageous unreality, but in terms of what I actually wrote, there was probably a bit too much of the mundane, and not enough variation in tone. Worse, the "unreal" things I wrote seem less like real interactive encounters and more like exercises in frustration. There's the giant unkillable sandworm. The unkillable and ever-multiplying puppy snails. The unkillable ghost who wants to steal your stuff. The mirage that lets you find whatever you want, but it vanishes as soon as you leave the hex. Plus the mandatory ambush by bandits, and the likely overwhelming mandatory ambush by ghosts if you were foolish enough to dare kill anything with the super cool magic guns in a game whose goal is to kill things and take their stuff.
Too Much Simulationism, Not Enough Gameism

At the risk of oversimplifying a rather elaborate of game design preferences, let me loosely define simulationsim as a preference for game mechanics that at least appear to recreate real-world conditions within the game world. Gameism is a preference for mechanics that are more abstracted. So measuring distance in feet or miles, counting time in minutes and hours is more simulationy, measuring distance in hexes or point-crawl-nodes, counting time in turns or "watches" is more gamey

We can imagine two archetypal endpoints, and a continuum of mechanics between them. I tend to think of mechanics that are more "zoomed-out" and more indivisible, that is, focused on bigger distances and longer units of time, without allowing for incomplete travel or partial distances, as being more game-like. Mechanics that measure things on a smaller scale, that break out the rulers and the pocket calculators for partial measurements, that are more "zoomed in" and more granular, I think of those as being more simulation-like

Importantly, I would say that Gygaxian strict records, for time or anything else, are more simulationy. My own preference, personally, is for things to be more gamey. So when I look back on my previous plan, to track time of day in 10-minute turns, with specific weather effects at specific hour markers, that now strikes me as being too simulationist. I want to unshackle the adventure from a strict one-day time frame, allow more fictional time to pass, and reinforce the desired dreamlike or hallucinatory aesthetic by making the passage of time more abstract and less tied to a precise clock.

Likewise, my map with its hundred-plus hexes, most of which were empty, both because I hadn't finished keying them, and because I think I thought each interesting hex ought to have a buffer around it, now seems to me like it would benefit from becoming more gameist. A point crawl map would allow for the desired "travel time" between each site, it would allow each site to be interesting, and it would almost certainly reduce the total number of sites that need to be numbered and keyed. And again, by zooming out from strict, small hexes to larger, indeterminately sized point-crawl-nodes, I can allow the fictional space to expand a bit, rather than feeling so cramped and claustrophobic. 

Too Much Railroad, Not Enough Sandbox

While my original plan for this adventure was not strictly linear, there were some major guardrails thrown up to keep players "on track." There was a small linear section leading to the oasis, and a couple unavoidable encounters at the beginning and end of that section. But the biggest obstacle to player freedom was framing the whole thing as a mission on a very tight time schedule. Because the characters came to the oasis with a specific objective that they could only achieve at a specific time, the whole adventure was set up so that there was a "right" thing for the players to do - namely to go straight to the flowers they were after and camp out until nightfall - and plenty of punishments if they chose to do the "wrong" thing and actually explore the big, interesting environment surrounding the one little patch of ground they were "supposed" to care about.

So like, obviously actually playing the game of D&D in a way that's any fun whatsoever requires the players to act with less than military precision and discipline. March in, secure the perimeter of the site, gather the resources, march out - tactically smart, I guess, but deadly boring, and it provides no real opportunity for players to make meaningful choices, except to follow orders like a soldier and succeed, or act like you're playing a game and get punished for it. I'll say more about this in the next section, but for whatever reason, at the time, I felt like I was following a zeitgeist that said that adventuring should be a choice, and it should be the wrong choice, because it's dangerous and irrational, and therefore adventures should be set up to reinforce to players that they're making a mistake by adventuring.

To my mind, one of the best ways to make meaningful choices is when there's no obviously right answer. There are alternatives, each with benefits and drawbacks. But if there's one option that's just objectively better than the others, selecting that option is a choice, maybe, but it's not a meaningful choice. Recognizing that option for what it is might require skill and good judgement, but once you know it and see it, doing the thing that's right and easy is more like a foregone conclusion than an actual decision. (Note that I think this is as true of character "building" options as it is of the choices you make once the game begins.) 

So in revising the adventure, I want to give the players more choices to make, and I want the those choices to be about how to explore the site, not whether to explore it or stay on-mission. Instead of set pathway leading to the entrance, there will just be an entrance, and there will be no high-stakes mandatory encounters at that entrance. I might still like to have some effects that are tied to the weather and time of day - but those can be random encounters rather than something the GM needs to devote a lot of effort to tracking. There will still be a special garden at the heart of the oasis, but no extremely strict schedule the players need to follow in order to reach it without arriving too early or too late. And the garden will only be one reason, out several to explore the site. There should be plenty more to see.
Too Much Negadungeon, Not Enough Fun Dungeon

There's a strain of Foucauldian discipline to the way that a lot of mid-OSR scenesters talked about "the right way to play" on their blogs and on Google Plus. It was all about going slow and steady, always checking for traps, always pausing to listen at doors, always searching for secret passages and hidden treasures, constantly checking and re-checking for any sign of danger, producing a map at least as accurate as the GM's while eking a slow path through the dungeon. I don't know how often people actually played like that, but enough people were vocal enough to make it sound like it was an expectation. This was dungeoneering as a player skill, and the apotheosis of this mindset, I think, is the so-called negadungeon, the dungeon that forces you to play in the preferred style, because if you don't, it will kill your character.

I don't think I was consciously trying to make this adventure site into a negadungeon when I first started writing it, but I was consciously influenced by the conversation around negadungeons and the way that they (according to some people, anyway) represented the absolute pinnacle of correct design for an adventure meant to challenge the players rather than the characters. I've made a small reading list of my favorite posts on the topic, which I'm not going to individually summarize, but you can read if you'd like. Essentially a negadungeon is a place that's not for you - everything is dangerous, the rewards aren't worth it, and every mistake you make compounds to make the further sections even harder than the previous.
There can potentially be interesting choices between something that's right and difficult and something that's wrong and easy, but usually only if you're talking about a moral dilemma. It might be better to call those options good and difficult and bad and easy, instead. That dilemma is a great motivator in literature, everything from Felicity Learns a Lesson to "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omalas". But stripped of its moral dimension, I would say that this dilemma becomes less compelling as the basis for making decisions in a roleplaying game. Right and difficult has its place even when right just means correct and not virtuous - we admire artists, athletes, and craftspeople who can do things well that are difficult to do at all, and games like chess have correct strategies that are hard to learn but result in winning the game because you've played it well.

If you as the GM adopt a strict, mid-OSR mindset that players should choose between playing the game in a way that's right and boring or wrong and fun, first, you can expect your players to dispute your definitions of right and wrong in this context, (roleplaying is not that kind of game, or at least not indisputably so) and second, you can expect almost everyone involved to get very frustrated very quickly. Even Gary hated how Gary's GMing taught Gary's players to play. 

There's a reason why Old School authors beg you to bring along as many mercenaries and baggage carriers as you can afford, why Dungeon Crawl Classics sends you in with three back-up characters trailing behind you, and why every official edition since 2e has given starting characters the maximum hit point from their starting Hit Dice - it's because people want to play the game in a way that's fun without having to stop to make up new characters every 15 minutes. They're different solutions, but they all accept the same basic premise, people want to have fun more than they want to be painstakingly cautious.

Here's the thing. When I was talking about decision-making, earlier, I noted that if there's just one obviously right choice and a bunch of obviously wrong ones, then it's not a very meaningful decision at all. It doesn't actually require a lot of skill to run through a rote laundry list of standard precautions before taking each new 10' movement - just a willingness to endure hours of tedium. And if everything in the dungeon is a deadly trap, if everything you interact with punishes you for interacting with it, then it doesn't take much skill to just not touch anything - again, just a willingness to hear a lot of room descriptions and never ask for more detail or engage with the environment except to wander through it like a museum where everything is protected by velvet ropes.

So when I remake this adventure, I want it to be less negadungeony. I want players to explore the oasis, and I want them to be glad they explored it. In addition to not having a "script" of instructions from a patron, exhorting them to go straight to the MacGuffin Garden without poking around off the beaten path, I don't want the rest of the oasis to so dangerous and so unrewarding that you wish you hadn't bothered investigating anything. Obviously it's a balancing act, because there need to be monsters, hazards, and other dangers, but there should be worthwhile treasures and rewards as well, and the mix needs to be weighted enough toward the good stuff that the players want to continue trying to figure things out, even though their characters sometimes suffer for it. The gardens should be full of wonders, and while those should sometimes be deadly too, they should remain enticing rather than forbidding.
The point of all this critique isn't to beat myself up about what I wrote before, it's to take stock of my mistakes so that I can do a better job the next time. So next time, in part 3, let's start writing!

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

American Power Elite Factions in CRAWL-thulhu

My vision for the world of CRAWL-thulhu, is that it resembles our world in the 1920s and 30s, though obviously with some more menacing elements.

I imagine a world that never had a Great War, but is still roiled by factionalism and the looming threat of mass violence. There are sensitive people, I think, who can detect psychic vibrations or spiritual echoes or astral resonances, who know that their world is overdue for catastrophe and rebirth. This is a world of dreamers, and everyone's dream is to remake the world with their philosophy, their ideology ascendant, and all their competitors ground to dust. A thousand dystopian futures wait just beyond the horizon. Too few people want peace, too few appreciate the benefits of stability. Everyone wants the apocalypse to happen so that their preferred post-apocalyptic scenario can be the one to become reality.

Factions in CRAWL-thulhu serve two purposes, one pragmatic, the other thematic. At a practical level, I want adventures in CRAWL-thulhu to revolve around solving mysteries, and factions provide a gameable way to supply suspects. Each suspect represents a group, a faction, and it is their membership in the faction that makes them suspicious. I'm not interested - in this game at least - in mysteries that revolve around family relationships or inheritance or romantic infidelity. I don't want mysteries that are solved by blood or love or money. I want mysteries that revolve around a conflict between irreconcilable ideas and incompatible goals, and factions provide a way to make those conflicts larger than just the individual combatants. If everyone is a representative, everyone is an agent, then the personal becomes political, and solving the mystery, resolving the conflict, becomes a way to influence the future of the setting.

That is the thematic purpose of factions, as I see it. They provide a bridge that links the grandiose ideas, the apocalyptic plans, the dystopian ambitions that define the setting, on the one hand, and the player characters as individuals who are mostly interacting with a handful of NPCs in a relatively constrained space, on the other. Factions mean that the suspects are suspicious because of what they think, what they want to do, what they would do if they could, and catching the culprit means pushing doomsday a few minutes further off into the future.

The guilty faction in CRAWL-thulhu mysteries should, I think, be chosen randomly. A lot of people are both players and referees, and I want them to be able to have fun too. If I picked a single guilty party and wrote that down, then it would be possible to spoil the mystery. Either someone played this one before, or someone saw it when they were leafing through their copy of the zine, or some reviewer gave the solution away on the blog, or whatever. If I picked the answer, it would be possible for the players to know it without actually solving the mystery. But if the answer is selected at random from a list of possibilities, then it must be a surprise, and something that has to be solved.

One mystery I'm working on involves a series of lavish, luxurious house parties that span America. I know I want one in Gotham (my stand-in for Chicago) and another in Metropolis (my replacement for New York). I'm still deciding on some of the others. The house parties are mostly full of the rich, the famous, the people who control America's military and political and cultural power.

There should be obvious factions among them. Hollywood, Wall Street, the Ivory Tower. I also want there to be secret societies. These aren't announced. To recognize them, you have to talk to people, hear about the terrible, beautiful things they would do to the world if their faction were ascendant over all the others, and recognize an eerie sense of deja vu that tells you that in addition to whoever they say they're working for, they also serve another master. That seems more difficult for me to accomplish as a writer, and more difficult for the players to determine as part of their investigation, but hopefully more rewarding as well.

As an example, imagine a spy organization, mirroring the real world CIA, who has successfully bought the loyalties of Abstract Expressionist painters and Literary Fiction writers, who have a plan remake the ideology of the middle and upper classes by smuggling it to them via their most vaunted and elite artists and authors. That would be quite a thing to uncover, if you could recognize what you were seeing, if you could remember where you heard that turn of phrase before, if you could sus out the true loyalty of the people who say they belong to one group, but really owe their allegiance to another.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

My Brilliant Friends - A Conversation with WFS of Prismatic Wastelands and Barkeep on the Borderlands

My friend and Bones of Contention coauthor WFS is kickstarting a pointcrawl adventure called Barkeep on the Borderlands. I got added as a coauthor thanks to a successful stretch goal, and most of the Skeleton Crew will also be writing bars for the crawl, along with OSR luminaries like Chris McDowall and (potentially!) Luka Rejec.

As the final weekend of crowdfunding approaches, I chatted with WFS to ask him some of his inspirations and his feelings about real-world barcrawling.
Anne - So Barkeep on the Borderlands and the Raves of Chaos are obviously inspired by the widely owned, widely played, and widely criticized D&D adventure, The Keep on the Borderlands, and the Caves of Chaos adventure site. There have been a couple of interesting responses to the original Keep in the last few years. Alex Damaceno's Beyond the Borderlands zine and Greg Gillespie's Forbidden Caverns of Archaia spring to mind immediately.

You've actually written before about your thoughts on Keep, but if you'll indulge me, why did you decide to make your barcrawling adventure a kind of response to this classic?

WFS - Many of my best ideas begin their lives as puns, which was the case with Barkeep on the Borderlands. I typically have a few score ideas swirling around in my head at any given time, and in this instance two of those combined. On the one hand, I had been rereading some classic modules and found The Keep on the Borderlands very interesting - as evidenced by my blog post you referenced. On the other, I was nostalgic for a simple pre-pandemic pleasure that I had taken for granted, which is hopping from bar to bar with a band of friends. Somehow the two ideas slammed into each other and I thought of two puns, both the title “Barkeep on the Borderlands” and the more descriptive subtitle “a Pubcrawl Pointcrawl.” From the title alone, I felt like I had a lot to work with. 

I think combining two disparate elements into a cohesive whole is a really helpful creative exercise. It’s why the spark tables in Electric Bastionland are so genius. You have to figure out how the two ideas fit together and come up with something totally unique. For Barkeep, I had to figure out how a pubcrawl fit into the world presented by Keep on the Borderlands.

Anne - And why do you think it's such a popular adventure for people to respond to? Is it just that it was included in Holmes' Basic Set at a key time? Or is there more to it than that?

WFS - I don’t think one can discount its inclusion in the Basic Set, the gateway for so many into the hobby, but there does seem to be something special about the adventure itself. After all, they replaced In Search of the Unknown with The Keep on the Borderlands for a reason. And I think it is because the adventure is itself so basic that made it so useful to early gamemasters and so beloved. It has all you need for the core game loops of D&D: a starting town, a surrounding wilderness and a dungeon filled with monsters. 

But just as important as what it includes is what it doesn’t include. There are no proper names in the module: people are just called the Priest, the Castellan or the Taverner. The political environment is just a sketch: the Keep exists on the border of some civilized land to the west and untamed wilderness to the east (which sounds like the classic West Marches in reverse), but there are no details you might get in later products that tied themselves to Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, etc. The motivations of the monsters and cultists in the module are also hazy at best. And all of this blank space allows for the gamemaster and player to project their own ideas onto it! After I wrote that post on the module, I heard back from a lot of people how they interpreted it differently, like viewing the chaotic bandits as a scouting party of some evil human empire to the east, or deciding to raid the Keep instead of the Caves of Chaos, or playing the adventure straight as Gygax seems to have intended. The Keep on the Borderlands’ flexibility to contain all of these competing narratives and motivations is its abiding strength.

Anne - I'm curious to know your thoughts on a recent drinking trend. How do you feel about amaro? I know that Brad Thomas Parsons is not single-handedly responsible for the rise of bitter Italian liqueurs, but he is more or less single-handedly responsible for getting me into them. I read his books, Bitters and Amaro, and that convinced me to try them, and from there I've just kept trying new bitter flavors.

WFS - I am really not up on any of the latest drinking trends; I prefer to stick more to the classics, old fashioneds, negronis, whiskey sours and the like. I have had a few amaro spritzes, but didn't find them particularly revolutionary. 

In terms of trends, I am of course aware of seemingly every brand getting into the hard seltzer business, but I'm not too keen on them. Something in that vein that I have enjoyed, however, are the Finnish Long Drinks, which to my understanding actually contains gin. It's no gin & tonic with a splash of St. Germain, but if I'm at a tailgate and everyone is chugging beers, it's probably my canned drink of choice. Any amaro drinks you'd recommend?

Anne - I actually would say the negroni is a good starting point! It's pretty easy to experiment with y swapping out one ingredient to see how you like the taste with a different spirit, or another liqueur instead of vermouth. Campari was my first amaro, then Aperol, then I discovered you can mix them, and by now, I've tried maybe a half dozen others.

I actually thought of White Claw and its cousins as a trend, but I almost never drink them, myself. Somehow almost all the ones I've tried have had a metallic aftertaste. That might just be a quirk of my palette though.

WFS - That’s exposes my ignorance - I didn’t know Campari was a type of amaro. I need to get on your level.

Anne - Admittedly, until I read the Amaro book, I didn't know the word, let alone any examples! I think bitter flavors have become more enjoyable for me as I've gotten older.

Okay, last question. Looking beyond Barkeep on the Borderlands, you named your blog for a campaign setting, the Prismatic Wasteland. You've mentioned before that Luka Rejec's Ultraviolet Grasslands was one of your inspirations. But could I ask you to pop the hood for a moment, and ask you to talk about another inspiration? What's something I could read or watch or listen to that would help me understand a part of the Prismatic Wasteland? And how does the source relate to the final product?

WFS - I’ll give you three, one being a science fantasy book old enough to be on the original Appendix N, the second being a children’s TV show, and the third is another classic D&D module - I have range. 

So the first (and potentially somewhat obvious) answer is Dying Earth by Jack Vance. The stories of the Dying Earth take place amidst the decay of an untold number of decadent civilizations but the stories are about wizards, and monsters and magic. However, what is understood as magic is really the ritual tinkering with ancient sciences and technologies that are no longer understood. This all rings true for the Prismatic Wasteland setting as well.

But the Prismatic Wasteland is bit less dark than the Dying Earth, which while light at times is not always so. I describe the Prismatic Wasteland as whimsical post-post-apocalyptic in genre, which aligns more with my second influence, Adventure Time. Adventure Time was a show that ran on Cartoon Network but garnered a following of adults due to its sense of humor. While it can read as just pure gonzo fantasy at first (with talking animals and a kingdom full of candy people), over the course of the series, it is revealed that the world is the way it is due to a series of apocalypses, and the remnants of the older civilizations, humanity included, are scattered and scarce.

For the third inspiration, we’ll move away from science fantasy and the Dying Earth genre entirely. The Isle of Dread is an adventure for B/X D&D and is only a few years younger than The Keep on the Borderlands. It is also one of the first adventures I ever ran. I have always preferred its flora and fauna (which includes dinosaurs) to the typical pseudo-medieval stock in most D&D settings and adventures. The Prismatic Wasteland setting is similar, but with a more science fiction spin: it takes place across an entire continent, which was terraformed by an advanced civilization to be the ideal vacation resort for an intergalactic populace. But now the island’s many spas, mega-malls, amusement parks, high-end dining and other amenities are unrecognizable, derelict versions of their former selves. And the AI-enabled robotic animals that were designed to be capable of reproduction run wild from the amusement parks in which they were once contained. I call these creatures “animaltronics” and they do include dinosaurs. So I guess I would be remiss in not also listing a fourth inspiration: Jurassic Park.

A book, a TV show, a TTRPG adventure and a movie. How’s that for a variety of sources!

cover art by Sam Mameli


Thursday, February 10, 2022

My 2021 in Review

I've decided to "borrow" another idea from Jack Shear and write about my favorite things I read, watched, and listened to in 2021. Every month, Jack writes a Total Skull post on Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, and every year, he and Tenebrous Kate records a Best Of episode of Bad Books for Bad People. (Readers with photographic memories may recall that I previously copied Jack's Unholy Misc format for my own Miscellany series.)

The Best Things I Read

Genre Fiction (tie) - The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders & Fire Time by Poul Anderson

I really love the worldbuilding in City in the Middle of the Night. We're on a small, tidally locked alien world with human two cities built at the cusp of Day and Night, Xiosphant, the clockwork city, and Argelo, the city that never sleeps. Anders describes their cultures and languages in a way that makes them feel distinctive, real, and alive. The world is hostile. Whatever star they're orbiting is deadly bright, so the Day side of the planet is utterly off-limits. The Night side is dangerous, but human tech can function there briefly, and there are some interesting aliens living in the dark. The early history of the human colonies are very gameable, with the mothership sending "treasure asteroids" to crash on the surface, where teams of explorers, kitted out in environmental suits and snow-crawlers raced into the Night to recover the mineral wealth.

City must be, I think, an example of what critics derisively refer to as "squeecore". There are two protagonists. One is a working class girl, Sophie, with an obvious crush on her upper class friend. They play at political revolution, and Sophie ends up taking the fall when the police come looking for someone to execute. She only survives because she discovers how to communicate with some of the Night side aliens. The experience is traumatic, and for the rest of the book that trauma is never far from the surface. The other protagonist, mouth, is the lone survivor of tribe of nomadic people who traveled the entire length of the small globe. Now she runs with some daring black market traders who sell contraband back and forth between the feuding cities. Sophie and mouth start only peripherally connected, but the actions of one inevitable affect the other. None of the book's tentative romances are ever consummated, but several characters go to rather extreme extremes to enact their political beliefs, or empower themselves, or just do what they think is right.

Fire Time has another weird ecology. The planet Ishtar is in a trinary system, with one star like our sun, one inconsequential dwarf, and one red giant on an extreme elliptical orbit that exposes Ishtar to a century of much hotter weather once every millennium. Humans have a small colony on Ishtar and are trying to use their technology to help the native civilization survive the titular "fire time" - in every previous era, nomadic peoples from the planet's hottest regions migrate and sack the cities, which alongside predictable flooding and agricultural failures has always led to the collapse of the sedentary governments. At the outset of the book, the humans on Ishtar are forbidden by Earth to continue their plan so they can make ready in case they get pulled into a conflict started by humans on another alien planet, one with no indigenous life, where the human colony's conflict with the colony belonging to a second alien species has metastasized to the point where both homeworlds are involved, in what feels like an analogy to the actual Cold War. The plot is essentially a tragedy - a conflict on Ishtar that could be averted isn't because of politics on Earth.

I'm impressed by how many ideas Anderson manages to pack into a 200-ish page novel (compared to the 300-400 that's standard today). We get at least two factions of humans, two of the Soviet-analog aliens, two very well developed groups of Ishtarans, a half-dozen viewpoint characters, great worldbuilding around the ecological and cultural effects of the trinary stars, and especially great worldbuilding around the biology and ecology of Ishtar. The handfuls of Terran crops are the only food on Ishtar the humans can eat, and soil that grows one planet's native plants can't grow the other's. The most common Ishtaran plant is called "lia", which I imagine looking like sansevieria. There's also a third type of life on Ishtar, one that only lives in the otherwise uninhabitable regions, except during the fire time. Tauran life originally came from a planet that orbited the red giant before it got too big and too hot. Their astronauts came to Ishtar a billion years earlier and all died out. But their gut bacteria survived, and from those evolved new multicellular life, and eventually new sentience. The Tauran's are essentially made up of "left handed" molecules compared to both humans and Ishtarans; what nourishes one is basically indigestible to the others. Anderson's world is mind-expanding to imagine.

Literary Fiction - Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess

I mentioned before that I wanted to read this one, and last year I finally did. Famous Men Who Never Lived tells about the 100,000 refugees who come to our world from a parallel Earth that diverged around 1910 and experienced a different 20th century. We closely follow Hel, short for Helen, and some of her friends. Hel is obsessed with the science fiction novel The Pyronauts, which tells a story like a reversed War of the Worlds mixed with Fahrenheit 451. In it, Martians come to Earth in peace, bearing gifts of wonderous technology, but by accident, they also bring infectious microorganisms that lay waste to our plantlife, including our crops. The titular pyronauts, of this book within a book, are men dressed in environment suits, armed with flamethrowers, who burn away the infected plants to prevent the alien spores from spreading. Chess gives us Hel's summaries, rather than raw text from the fictional Pyronauts, but she's invented a book that feels like it should exist, and could have been written in a slightly different 1920.

While trying to find support to build a museum to the lost culture of the dead world the refugees escaped from, Hel either loses the book or it's stolen from her, and the lost book becomes a symbol of everything she left behind and had to give up. The perspectives of the other characters help to fill out the strangeness of the other 20th century, and the magnitude of the loss of an entire world. This was one I read knowing that it would confront me with my own grief about the pandemic.

Poetry - Eunoia by Christian Bok

The heart of Eunoia is a series of five prose poems, each written using only words that contain only a single vowel. So there's an A poem, an E poem, etc. Each poem is packed with as much assonance and alliteration as Bok could fit into them, and each includes, among other things, a feast, a drug trip, and a sex scene. Even moreso than other poems, these deserve to be read aloud, and I found the entire exercise to be a real delight.

Here's the merest sample: "Hassan gnaws at a calf flank and chaws at a lamb shank, as a charman chars a black bass and salts a bland carp. Hassan scarfs back gravlax and sprats, crawdads and prawns, balks at a Parma ham, and has, as a snack, canard a l'ananas sans safran." So good!

Nonfiction - A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin

A book about the secret history and forgotten contributions of women doing classified work during WWII, somewhat akin to Hidden FiguresGame of Birds and Wolves tells the story of the women in the British navy who got recruited to design and run a wargame that would first discover tactics to prevent the German U-boats from sinking so many cargo ships, and second teach those tactics to the commanders of the British fleet. You learn an awful lot about the navy, women in the navy, and submarine combat along the way. 

One pleasurable discovery for me was realizing that the somewhat arcane rules followed by Romulan Warbirds and Klingon Birds of Prey in the original Star Trek series, when they use their cloaking devices, rules that don't really make sense if there's just a forcefield that turns them invisible, are the rules that govern how submarines engage in combat. Underwater they're invisible and too deep for torpedoes to touch, but move incredibly slowly, can't fire their own weapons, and are vulnerable to correctly aimed depth charges.

The Best Things I Watched

Animated Television (tie) - My Hero Academia & Avatar: The Last Airbender

I started watching more anime this year primarily because it fits neatly into my lunchbreak at work, but I've enjoyed the opportunity. My Hero Academia is basically a Harry Potter story with superheroes instead of wizards. It's also a lot of fun. It's set in a world where about ¾ of the population has some kind of superpower, or "quirk". These range from classic superhero powers to some real oddities, like having tape dispenser elbows or headphone jack earlobes. The main character, Deku, is born without a quirk, but wants to be a hero, and idolizes All Might, who's a Superman / Dumbeldore figure in this story. He gets a power, gets into school, and begins his journey, and by the end of season 5 the story has nearly reached the second year of high school. (The first year is, uh, eventful!) I especially like the way the world outside the school has started to open up in the last couple seasons, and am looking forward to catching season 6 in the fall.

After finishing My Hero Academia, one of my coworkers recommended I try Avatar, and I'm glad she did! If I had known how much I'd like Avatar earlier, I too might have contributed to the wildly successful Kickstarter. The world here is divided into a continent that's home to the Earth Kingdom, a major archipelago that houses the Fire Nation, the north and south poles where the Water Tribes live, and assorted mountainous islands that used to be occupied by the Air Nomads. Oh yeah, and each society has a significant and elite minority of "benders" who can control one of the elements.

The story opens after a century of war waged by the Fire Nation on all the others. Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka discover an magic iceberg, containing Aang, the current reincarnation of the Avatar, who disappeared just before the war started. They travel the world learning magic, initially pursued just by the disgraced Fire Nation prince, Zuko, and later by other agents of the Fire Nation. As our heroes travel, we see the cost of war, but also the reasons one might fight to retain autonomy, the importance of a peace based on coexistence rather than conquest. There are a lot of likable characters, but to my mind, Zuko is the most compelling. He's a deeply flawed person, but also the one who I cared most about what he did, and who I knew least whether he would do what I hoped. I also have to mention how much I love the animals on this show. They're all combinations, bat-lemurs and vulture-wasps and turtle-ducks and the like. They're really delightful!

Live Action Television Television - Counterpart

My only ambition in watching Counterpart was to watch a scifi spy thriller, and to see JK Simmons playing two characters in the same show. It's fair to say I got more than I bargained for! In this show, there are two Earths, one essentially like ours, and one harsher and more mysterious, for reasons that are initially unclear. The two worlds are connected by a single doorway in East Berlin, with an embassy on either side, with very tightly controlled travel and communication between the two worlds. The existence of the doorway is a secret, and so there are lots of spies on both sides trying to learn about one another and steal technology.

The show opens because someone hired an assassin on the other side to come to our world and kill certain people. Simmons' character, Howard, a minor bureaucrat who doesn't even know the nature of the secretive organization he works for, gets recruited to help out because his comatose wife is one of the targets. The assassin, Baldwin, was the first element to draw me deeper into the show than I expected. I found I couldn't take my eyes off of her; the actress's performance is electric. The other element I couldn't resist was learning more about the secrets of the two worlds, how they came to be connected, and the global flu pandemic in the 1990s that made the other world so harsh and cruel in its dealings with ours. I didn't expect how important that fictional pandemic would be to the show, or how much it would engage my emotions.

Documentary Television - Alien Worlds

If I were to add a couple more to this category, I'd recommend the glass arts competition Blown Away, or the ceramic competition The Great Pottery Throw Down, but the show that really exceeded my expectations was Alien Worlds. I'm a big fan of speculative biology, and this show doesn't disappoint, but what I especially liked was how much it was all grounded in extrapolating from the biology of Earth. The very first interview in the first episode is with the man who discovered the first exoplanet! I was also deeply impressed by the tour of the Danakil Depression.

There are only four episodes, but we see the airborne life that thrives in the thick atmosphere of a planet with twice the mass of Earth, the adaptive radiation of the same genus into different species on the night and day sides of a tidally locked world, the overflowing fecundity and complexity of the food chain on a world with a binary star, and the possible long-term future of an intelligent species on an Earth-like planet around about to become a red giant.

Film - The Night is Short, Walk on Girl

I probably watched more television than movies last year, but The Night is Short, Walk on Girl leapt to the front of my mind when I thought of things I'd enjoyed. We follow an unnamed and very charismatic young woman, a college student, as she enjoys a very long night of drinking, book fairs, and street theater. She quickly collects a group of fellow bon vivants, and a luckless grad student with an unrequited crush on her. This film really captures the joy of the night life, and reminded me how much I miss it, how much fun it used to be to go out on the town.

I have two reservations worth mentioning. First is that in the final act, a rather nasty common cold spreads among all the revelers in the film, sending all of them home to bed, and leaving the streets eerily empty in a way that looked too much like the first lockdown. One character even rhapsodizes about the rapid spread of communicable diseases as a manifestation of human camaraderie. It was impossible for me to watch that and not think about the possibility of people spreading something worse than a simple cold. 

My second reservation is that I don't really like stories about men pursuing romance with women who don't know them; the chases always feel sinister to me and the happy endings almost always feel false. By the end, the grad student guy learns how to stop acting like a stalker and start acting like a friend, and the "end" of his chase is simply that they make a tentative start at dating. But neither set of qualms is enough to knock this from its spot as my favorite movie I watched last year.