The Last Threshold (serious spoiler alert)

Monday, April 15, 2013
      So, I've been reading R.A. Salvatore's books for about two decades now. I've raced across the tundras of Icewind Dale side by side with Drizzt Do'Urden, delved into the decadent Underdark city of Menzoberranzan and come back to tell the tale. I've faced goblins and orcs, ogres and giants, trolls, dragons, undead, devils, demons, you name it. And as I've walked side by side with Drizzt and the Companions of the Hall, I've watched them grow, mature, and recently, I've begun to watch them die.
I said it in the title, but I'm going to give anyone who isn't caught up on the story one last chance to back away before I ruin something for you forever.


     Is it just us initiated adventurers left, those who know the tale? Good.
    When Deudermont died trying to save Luskan from itself, a small piece of my heart was chipped. That iconic sea-faring captain, a paladin of the seas, dying at a pirates blade while trying to do the right thing shattered my protective bubble of high fantasy, dragging an all-to-real and painful real-world perspective into the lives of the heroes I'd called my friends for so long, tearing down a wall already weakened by the tragic kidnapping and torture of Wulfgar. When Catti-brie and Regis died in "The Ghost King" I cried. Catti-brie was like the girl next door who my best friend was meant to be with, even when he didn't see it, and Regis was that mischievous friend who always knows how to get into exactly enough trouble to have a great time, but still slip away afterwards (usually a little less battered and bruised than the friends you dragged in with you). For a kid who grew up getting moved away to a new place every time he started to feel settled, their loss was as painful and heart-rending as the loss of a real world friend would have been.

     That downward emotional spiral hit an angelic high note at Bruenor's death in Gauntlgrym though. That was how a hero should go out! A three hundred year (plus!) long life, followed by a courageous battle going man to devil with a pit fiend before heaving the beast over his head into the destructive maw of a volcanic primordial. That was a fitting death for an old dwarf king, and the sorrow at the lives of Catti-brie and Regis, cut painfully and tragically short, was alleviated substantially when they were joined in that magical grove between worlds by the gruff old dwarf who was their father and best friend.

      I've heard people say really great things about Salvatore's writing (it is a fact that few authors can portray a fantasy fight scene quite like he can!) and I've heard people note that he isn't much of an author, he just has a formula that works (I don't associate much with these people). Regardless of your thoughts though, Salvatore owns his characters. It is obvious to see that to him, they are as much good friends and old acquaintances as they are to any of the devotees who read his works.

      And so "The Last Threshold" came as something of a surprise, when, at the end, Drizzt appears to quietly die on Bruenor's Climb after being knocked down a cliff by a woman he refused to fight, and nearly being saved by the man who'd tried to kill him a dozen times over twice as many years. My good friend, another avid reader of the series, was furious at the death, something that to him seemed senseless and silly for a hero who'd overcome so many other obstacles. But to me, Drizzt's death (if such it really was) on the slopes of Kelvin's Cairn marked the culmination of Salvatore's gifts as an author. There was a certain subtle metaphor wrapped up in the deaths of the previous characters. Deudermont's death marked that disillusionment that symbolizes the final transition from childhood into adulthood, that cutting moment when we first realize that life isn't always fair.

      The loss of Catti-brie and Regis struck the next chord in the series. Drizzt's near-crazed battle against the dracolich, when he pulls out all stops and throws every ounce of his being into winning a fight that was never destined to save those he fought for. At the time I was reading this book, my cousin was dying of cancer, and I couldn't help but note the marked similarities between his loss and the loss of my other two childhood friends. There comes that moment in life when we realize that sometimes, we just can't change the world. It finds us in a way that's much different than the earlier realization of the unfairness of life, much more personal. Because despite that acknowledgement that life isn't fair, we retain that spark deep down inside that believes that while life may not be fair, we can be the exception, we can somehow hew what is deserved out of the dross by strength of arm, or wit, or whatever gifts we're given. Ultimately, however, that spark meets a darkness it cannot penetrate, a wind that blows to fierce, and we learn the truth. No matter who you are, eventually, you find the fight you can't win.

      Depressing, isn't it? That pervading hopelessness, that knowledge that death inevitably reaps his grim harvest. That's why we needed Bruenor's death. To remind us that the inevitable can still be faced with strength and dignity, that life isn't about living and dying, but about how you live, and how you die. In Bruenor's death I was reminded of the tragic losses of men I'd known and served with during my time in the military, men who knew the meaning of sacrifice, and who knew that sometimes, the legacy you leave is the true victory.

      All of that brought us to Drizzt, alone again, free, but with no desire to be either. Drizzt was always Salvatore's voice in the story, asking the questions that must have troubled Salvatore's own heart from time to time, walking in literary synchronicity with his own trials. How but fitting then that Drizzt should die in a matter so suited to his nature. Because, like all of us, Drizzt was confused. Confused about the meaning of life, our role in it when the people who gave our life meaning are gone, or no longer need us. Drizzt was ever reaching, always searching for that higher road, that nobler purpose. So when he stood on the peak refusing to hurt a friend who, ultimately, was even more afraid and confused than he was, Drizzt found that final victory, walked that higher road and fell with the only assurance any of us hope for: that someone who cares will be waiting when we fall.

The Breathless Infinite

Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Bioshock Infinite is on the lips of many a gamer these days. Site after site sings it's praises, from exciting gameplay to enticing narrative. Having recently completed it myself, allow me to add my voice to the chorus. I loved Bioshock Infinite; From the beautiful artistic design to the exemplary voice acting, the haunting score to the exciting combat.

Of all the aspects I enjoyed while playing Infinite, the pace and structure of the story is what I enjoyed the most. Bioshock is already well known for it's story. Infinite has managed to fill the gigantic clanking shoes of it's predecessor.

The original Bioshock offered a puzzle-piece styled story; each small piece of information built up a picture of what was going on, and while the player could guess at the whole, those last pieces turned the whole image on it's head. Those stunning "oh shit" moments made the first playthrough something really special.

Infinite handles things a little differently. While still packed with plenty of revelations, the player is able to glean a basic idea of what is happening fairly early in the game. Each other piece of exposition- be it told by characters, kinetiscope or voxophone- adds more depth and clarity. If Bioshock is a puzzle, Bioshock Infinite is an out of focus picture. By the last moments of the game, things are clear - or clearer depending on who you ask- and you can sit back and stare, breathless at what you behold.

By the end of my nine hour journey through Columbia, I could scarcely articulate what I had seen. While Infinite has only one ending, the way you get there is as important as any cutscene or set piece. It's different from Bioshock's pivotal, revelatory moment, but unlike some of my colleagues, I don't think it's any less a masterpiece.

I will be revisiting Infinite soon. A second playthrough is nigh on necessary to really grasp the depth of the story. By the time I have finished it, I hope to have more to say about the game as a whole. Until then, even if you don't particularly care for the genre, Bioshock Infinite is an FPS well worth stepping outside your comfort zone. 

Atop The Table

Thursday, April 4, 2013
Tabletop gaming means a lot to me. It is a fixture in my life to play tabletop games with family and friends. Nearly every weekend I play some form of tabletop RPG with close friends (Pathfinder, D&D, Star Wars, Marvel, etc). Every other day I usually have one of my two girls approaching me with a worn box in hand asking to play games such as Candy Land, Minotaurus, Shoots and Ladders, and Zombie Dice. Closets, cabinets, and shelves are crammed with boxes, books, and other paraphernalia supporting the tabletop habit. As an anniversary gift last year, I even made my husband a gaming table with my own two hands. Though we are steeped in video games, the tabletop variety have a health grip on our household.

As you can imagine, I am a big fan of Geek & Sundry's Tabletop series. While there are more than enough sites and blogs giving attention to the world of video games there seems to be a media blind spot where tabletop is concerned. I was further delighted when Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day announced their International Tabletop Day event for March 30th. It also seemed rather fortuitous that the chosen day actually fell on our regularly scheduled game night with friends.

Gaming often gets a bad wrap as a pursuit for loners with no more social skills than a rock. This view is unfortunately persistent and in my personal experience (severely anecdotal, I know) very untrue. Those I have met over the table are usually charming, creative, and engaging folk. Several valued friendships have begun by extending an invitation for an impromptu game. I often feel that my quality time with my children is enhanced by our shared love of games and imaginary play.

Hasbro has promoted "Family Game Night" for years and though I feel that their motivations are more profit based than anything, I am a big supporter of regular gaming with family and the important face time that naturally comes with it. My hope is that Geek & Sundry's International Tabletop Day becomes a force to be reckoned with and can build more on the success of their initial year. Whether or not that comes to fruition, Tabletop gaming will continue to be an important facet in my home.

Star Wars... wars (Or "Old School vs. New School")

Monday, April 1, 2013

I'm going to start this with a disclaimer. I like Star Wars, but I in no way qualify as any kind of expert. I'm as familiar with Star Wars as anyone who's played a couple pencil and paper RPGs, both of the XBOX Knights of the Old Republic games, and read about a dozen of the books can be. Which sounds like a lot but in practice doesn't ever seem to be.
We're getting ready to launch a new pencil and paper game and it has been unanimously decided that this game shall take place in the Star Wars universe. This is not a first for our gaming group, though I definitely hope it ends on a better note than our last ill-fated excursion aboard the trusty "Aluminum Pigeon".... The weird part isn't that we named the ship that; it's that it was the best of several proposals put forth... And a huge step above the ignominious "Emperor's Bedpan".

To the point- Which system do we play? I'm a huge fan of the ever popular Saga Edition, but we recently played Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, and there's a lot to be said of this emerging game system. There's a certain intuitive flow that comes from the game, though I kind of suspect that part of that comes from the fact that the Edge of the Empire system, which utilizes a kind of soft rules, cooperative role-playing system similar to the Cortex system in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game. That same soft rules system has had positive and negative results for us however. When we played the aforementioned MHR, the rules light nature of the system required an extremely high level of cooperation and understanding between the Watcher (I'm like 90% sure that that's what they call the Gamemaster in that system) and the players. It can be hard to adjudicate fairly when the system has a certain (fairly large) amount of arbitrariness about it.

The Saga Edition, on the other hand, while lacking the organic flow of EotE, has a definite structure to it. While there's more rules overall to keep track of, they give you a strong framework for everyone to build from. Plus, they feature a pretty sweet d20 system that was born during the transitional period between 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons and the tragically short-lived 4th Edition, incorporating the best of the rules system that was, and the rules system that was to come.

The biggest problem with Saga Edition is the same problem that plagues many Star Wars games: Everybody wants to use the Force. I mean, no duh, right? Force using mystics with laser-bladed swords is pretty much the epitome of all that is iconic about Star Wars. But it just isn't much of a game without Scoundrels, Nobles, Scouts, and Droids. Sure, a party full of Skywalker's seems like it'd be awesome, but without Han Solo and Chewie, Luke would've just been some kid killed by Stormtroopers outside a seedy bar in Tatooine (literary license has been liberally taken with the prior sentence).

So, Saga Edition would require a certain compromise on the parts of all involved parties. A gentleman(or woman)'s agreement, that, despite how totally cool it would be if your carbine wielding bounty hunter also knew how to throw Force Lightning, you will quietly take Rapid Shot and allow someone else a chance to be the Jedi this time around. Edge of the Empire, which exists in a time when the Jedi have been more or less urged from the galaxy, doesn't seem to currently contain a Force-wielding element, which helps us avoid the issue altogether.

I'm just not sure where to go with this one... Ah, well, it shall be as the Force wills.