Ty Johnston: life on the written page

Home to fantasy, horror and literary fiction author Ty Johnston

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 37 -- Player's Handbook: Dungeons & Dragons

by Wizards of the Coast

Started: August 28
Finished: August 31

Notes: This is the new Player's Handbook for the latest (ie., fifth) version of the Dungeons & Dragons game. I've been a gamer off and on for most of my life, and though I don't currently have any opportunities to break out the dice, I still enjoy reading the material from time to time. This version of the game is of interest because I want to see what the publisher has done with the game after the fourth edition brought about something of a tumult among the game's fans. Personally, I didn't care for the direction taken by fourth edition, but then I never got a chance to actually play, only to read about the rules, so my opinion might have been otherwise if I'd been able to play. This new version looks more like some of the earlier versions, at least from my quick scanning of the pages before actually reading. Also, this version was playtested by nearly 200,000 gamers during the creation process, so that should have an influence.

Mini review: Every player has their own likes and dislikes, their own reasons for playing a game, and with a tabletop RPG like D&D in which a new version comes out about every decade or so (sometimes sooner, sometimes later), there are always going to be changes, things to like and dislike. Here, there are things I like and there are things I dislike. Unfortunately, the dislikes outweigh the likes. That does not mean this is a bad game, only that it is not for me, and I am unlikely to play nor am I likely to purchase any further books for the game, though I might give the Dungeon Master's Guide a try just to see how some particulars are handled.

So, what do I like? I like how a lot of the magical spells have been reworked to be more powerful for higher-level casters. Though I think it's overly simplified, I actually do like the new advantage/disadvantage dice rolls because it clears away a whole bunch of conditional rules concerning combat. I like the fact that combat has ostensibly been sped up. I like the move away from using maps so much. I also quite like the fact that magical items will likely no longer hold as much importance to characters as before, that characters can be more dependent upon themselves than what they've got stuffed in their backpack. I especially like how saving throws have been simplified. And I like that the rules are basic enough that this would be a good version of the game for beginners. As for the book itself, I find the editing superb, the writing mostly solid, the artwork good, and the general layout and design pretty good.

What don't I like? I don't like all the additional abilities and archetypes that have been laid over the various classes; it over complicates practically everything, in my opinion, and might possibly slow down game play so that the gains from the advantage/disadvantage system will be moot. This version of the game itself is not to blame for the mentality behind this, because it is a trend that has been brewing at least since version 3.0, and perhaps before (one could argue maybe even all the way back to First Edition's Unearthed Arcana). I also feel spellcasters have been made exorbitantly powerful, and at a big loss to the non-spellcasting classes; as far as I can tell, because of the now-standard to-hit ratio, Fighters and their like have been neutered down to a bunch of special abilities that, in my opinion, no way make up for the main job these classes are supposed to be doing, fighting. I miss my skills and my Feats, but that's just me; I felt skills and Feats gave each character an individuality which has now been done away with for archetypes and other rules that brand the characters upon certain paths. For some of my complaints, one always hears the argument, "Well, it's an optional rule." My answer: It's an RPG, all the rules are optional, so that doesn't mean I suddenly have to like something because it's only "optional." Why have rules at all in that case? But maybe I've missed something and need to re-read the rules. Also, I realize there are rules for Feats and skills in this version, but those rules have been so watered down that they might as well not be there.

All this being said, this latest edition of D&D was test played by tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of gamers. So, the gamers got what they wanted, I suppose. What this reveals to me is a disconnect between myself and the majority of modern tabletop gamers. I don't want everything to be easy, my characters to never face a real chance of death, my wizards to be ultra powerful at low levels, my fighters to be nothing more than cannon fodder to shield the spellcasters. I want character, which is built by diversity and adversity. What I do not want is the easiest route to making my character a bad ass, the video game route.

From what I've seen, this version of D&D is receiving mostly rave reviews. I wish the game and the company plenty of luck. Truly, I do. But this product is not for me. To be fair, I've not had much of an opportunity to actually play the game, and base most of my opinions upon the reading of this book and a few skirmish sessions. Perhaps I will change my mind with time.

To add, one good thing about D&D is that if one does not enjoy a particular edition of the game, there are always the older editions, and eventually there will be a new edition to test out.

Also, I would like to add that, though I'm not interested in playing this game, that does not mean I hate the game nor that I think it is the worst tabletop RPG of all time. It also does not mean I would absolutely never play it. If I was with a group of gamers who wanted to play this version of D&D, I'd gladly give it a whirl. More than once I've been surprised and enjoyed a game with rules for which I did not initially care.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 36 -- Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast

by Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake

Started: August 25
Finished: August 28

Notes: This book is the fourth in the legendary Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake. Sort of. Actually, Peake had only written a handful of notes for this book when he fell ill and passed away in the 1960s. During the '70s, his widow, Maeve Gilmore, took it upon herself to make use of his notes to complete the book. Unfortunately, though printed, the general Gormenghast fan base never became too aware of Titus Awakes, at least not until a few years ago when Peake's children re-discovered his notes and those of his wife. The novel was published again in 2011. Though it can be tedious reading, I thorougly enjoyed the first Gormenghast book, a little less the second book, and the third book ... well, I didn't care for it. To be honest, I don't have high hopes for this one, but perhaps I will be wrong.

Mini review: This is not for the light fantasy reader. Really, it's not for even hardcore fans of the epic. As with Peake's works, this is more literary than most fantasy literature, more so by far than even the likes of Tolkien or Lord Dunsany. The writing here is not as dense as Peake's, and has a little more of a lyrical turn to it. Gormenghast fans might enjoy this for a sense of completion, and those who like to read heavier literary works might enjoy the sense of being intentionally lost within the world that the Titus character thrives upon. For the most of this book, Titus continues his random wanderings as he has done since leaving Gormenghast, but the ending comes with change, and it comes rather abruptly. Did I like this? Yes and no. It's not exactly fun or exciting reading, but there is some interesting prose and situations, and here and there was a turn of phrase I enjoyed. Those seeking adventure would probably be served better elsewhere, but readers who enjoy language for itself and who like character studies could find this worth their while.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ruger 10/22 rifle with Mannlicher stock


Recently I decided to treat myself, so I purchased this Ruger 10/22 rifle in what today is called a Mannlicher stock, which I'm guessing is named after German weapons designer Ferdinand Mannlicher from the 19th Century. I used to have a 10/22 very similar to this one, but the stock was then known as an "International," and I've kicked myself for getting rid of that rifle because it was always a favorite. My original didn't have the checkered pattern of this one, and I admit I didn't like that pattern at first though it has grown on me.

10/22s are a great rifle to have for a lot of reasons. They are solid firearms, which is especially pleasing for a .22, which often enough have kind of a cheap feel to them, at least in my opinion. The price is great, usually about $300 give or take, depending upon lots of variables, the type of barrel, the stock, other bells and whistles, etc.

Another great thing about a 10/22 is that it is one of the most customizable firearms on the market. If there is something you don't like about the rifle, you can always change it. Or if you simply want to jazz up your 10/22 with a fancy stock or some bright colors or what-have-you, there's probably an option available out there somewhere.

Also, though it barely needs to be said, the .22 ammo is easy to find and usually costs less than other types.

I've put about 200 rounds through my new Mannlicher so far, and I've been pretty happy with it for the most part. I usually don't shoot further than about 50 yards, though I probably could except the longer areas of open land on my property leave questionable what is beyond; I'm mostly surrounded by woods, so I'd likely be safe to shoot out to 100 yards, but there is a road that runs fairly close to my place and I'd rather not risk it. So, at 50 yards and less, my groupings are pretty tight, which is especially nice considering my eyesight ain't what it used to be. This particular Ruger shoots a little high and to the left, but I'm sure I can make some minor adjustments to the sites to compensate.

All that being said, there are a number of things I've not cared for with this firearm.

First, quite a few of the parts are made of polymer instead of metal. My original 10/22 had all metal parts, having been purchased about 15 years ago. I realize manufacturers are turning to more and more polymers to keep costs down and to lessen the weight of firearms, but I personally think this is mistake. As evidence I'll bring up the auto industry. Years ago cars were made of almost all metal parts and those parts lasted seemingly forever. The last few decades, more and more parts have been made of some kind of plastic, and in my opinion that has simply lead to more and more cars breaking down all the damn time. But maybe that's what the auto industry wanted so you'd have to spend more money.

The magazine release is that small black lever hanging
down in front of the trigger assembly at bottom.
Another thing I don't care for is the magazine release on the 10/22. This is somewhat of a contentious situation for 10/22 fans because Ruger has changed the release lever a couple of times over the years, some people liking older style releases, others liking the newer ones. I hate to say it, but I've never been a fan of any of the magazine release switches on the 10/22. In fact, it's probably been my least favorite aspect of this firearm. At least there are some after-market modifications that can be made with purchase of some specialized releases levers, but even those haven't done much to please me. If I had any suggestion to make to Ruger concerning the 10/22, it would be to come up with a completely new and simplified release mechanism.

Related to this, another problem here is that the release lever doesn't "pop out" or any such the actual magazines, simply making it possible for the magazines to be pulled out. This isn't much of a problem for extended magazines, but the originals that come with the gun are small and flush with the stock, making it no easy task to pull those babies free, at least for me. And with my big fingers, it's not a lot of fun to have to try and stick my fingers into the little notch in front of the magazine to try and pull it out. Extended magazines are practically a necessity for me. Now, in all fairness, when an original magazine is loaded down with ammo, it will drop out just fine on its own. But come on. Usually when you're changing magazines, it's because the one is empty. Right? Right.

Okay, I've bitched enough. Despite my grousing, this is an excellent gun, one any collector or enthusiast should have in their arsenal. I've even known shooters who have owned five or six of these Rugers, and I can understand why, especially if you're someone who likes to tinker with their guns. This is a great firearm for the experienced and the beginner alike. Shoots clean, great quality, and ignore my petty gripes, for this is a solid product.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 35 -- The Black God's War

by Moses Siregar III

Started: August 19
Finished: August 24

Notes: A few years back I read the original novella which is part of this longer novel, and I've been meaning to get to the longer piece for some while now. As I'm trying to read more fantasy of late, specifically epic fantasy, I thought it time I got busy reading this one, especially as I recall being impressed with the novella.

Mini review: The first half of this novel was somewhat slow for me, but you have to keep in mind I had already read much of that material before, so perhaps that was why I felt that way. It was also somewhat difficult for a while to keep track of the many characters here, in no small part because a number of the characters share similar backgrounds, sort of. Let me put it this way ... there are two sides to a war, and on each side there are characters who fill somewhat similar roles to those on the other side, making it a little jarring at first to keep track of each figure. But by the halfway point of this novel, everything came together quite well, the characters were more individualized, and the plot sped up nicely. In the end there's a scene almost reminiscent of Hamlet, or The Wild Bunch, or Reservoir Dogs. Catch my drift? Without me giving too much away? Anyway, the second half of the novel I liked quite a lot, and the ending I loved, though it didn't tie everything up in a perfect little ribbon for the reader ... which is actually something I appreciate.

Thoughts of a widower

It's the middle of the night and I can't sleep, so I thought I'd blog a little, something I've not been doing enough of the last year or so.

And I thought I'd write a little here about being a widower, as it's been more than a few months since my wife died and a little more than two months since my dad died. I have tried not to write too much about this because, frankly, I don't want to bore people and I don't necessarily feel the need for an out gushing of sympathy and pity, not that I mind condolences and the like.

I might ramble a little. These are just thoughts of mine that have come up, some that might seem quite weird.

First of all, it still doesn't feel like she's gone. It feels like she is away at the hospital, and I am still waiting for her to come walking through the door, or for her to call me to come and pick her up. This feeling is not as intense as it once was, and it doesn't take up my entire day, but I still sense it every day.

Nights are still the hardest. Once the sun goes down, it still seems like an empty house. Our pet rabbit, Silky, passed away a few weeks ago, and that has been one more presence gone from the house. It's just me and the beagle, Lily, and while this isn't a big place, sometimes it feels far too big.

I still have most of my wife's stuff to go through. I've given away or donated quite a few things, but I'm hanging on to a lot of stuff that is either supposed to be picked up by someone at some point, or I'll be taking it to friends and family who live out of state whenever I get the chance to visit. I was supposed to have a yard sale, with the proceeds going to a local cancer organization, but it has either rained or I have had other plans for the last month.

I don't cry nearly as much as I did a couple of months ago, but sometimes I do. I'll hear a certain song, or I'll see a picture of Kelly, my wife, and often enough that will get me to weeping again.

My emotions with my dad has been different. I've hardly cried for him, though I have missed him tremendously at times, and a couple of times I've caught myself thinking, "I should call dad." Maybe I've not cried as much because he was older, had lived his life, or maybe it's because I've been in shock or numb from Kelly's death. Or it could even be the fact my father and I grew apart in the last five or so years of his life, which is an odd thing because for most of my life he and I were quite close. He had changed during the last decade, definitely the last half decade; maybe that was age catching up to him, or possibly it was his OCD or even the cancer. Either way, it saddens me that we were not as close, and I have not been happy with the fact I was not there with him when he passed ... but such is life.

My feelings about lengths of time have flipped. I used to look forward and think, "Man, I've got 20 or 30, maybe even 40 years left to live, and that doesn't seem like nearly enough." Now I look at all that time and think, "God, 20 years sounds like an awful long time." I guess living my life without Kelly makes me look at things that way.

I have unusual thoughts tied to Kelly all the time.

I'll be emptying a jar of mayonnaise and think, "She was still alive when we bought this."

Or I'll go to the store and remember, "I don't have to buy diet Dr. Pepper any longer."

Or I'll use a kitchen utensil and think, "She was the last person who used this before now."

Or I'll give away her laptop mini-desk she used in bed, my heart nearly breaking at doing so, but all the while realizing I'll have no use for the thing.

I can't watch movies she enjoyed, or movies she wanted to see but hadn't had the chance. I've tried. 20 minutes is about the most I can take. I don't start crying or anything, but there's just this growing feeling of, "What's the point?" Experiencing the movies with her was the point, at least for me, and now that's gone.

Also, I'll think about how things have changed since she was gone.

She had always wanted a smart phone, but we had never gotten around to getting one. Then my dad passed away and left me a smart phone. Figures, doesn't it?

She had wanted our vehicle paid off, and guess what? The Explorer got paid off within weeks of her passing.

She had wanted Lily, our beagle, to have surgery for a tumor. Lily had the surgery a week after Kelly left us.

Things she didn't get to see, little hopes she had, dreams. All gone.

And at times I feel as if I have died myself, that I'm cursed in some purgatory that allows part of me to live on and see what life would be without her, and even without myself to some extent.

I've also found that it's not so easy going back to former modes of life. For instance, because I work from home now, I have no strong ties to where I live. I can move just about anywhere I want. However, I have told myself I will not make any drastic life decisions for at least two years, and I'm sticking with that. But what I'm finding as I've looked back at favorite places I've lived, and as I've considered locations near where friends live, that it simply would no longer be the same. Yes, some of it is because Kelly is not with me, but it's also that things have changed, people have moved, places aren't the same as they used to be, etc. All of this is fine, it's all quite natural, but the notion of change is unsettling to me at the moment, probably because I've faced so much of it during the last few months.

Perhaps I'll feel differently at some point.

One last thing: It's easier for me to remember the good times than the bad, but I tell you, I would take the worst knock-down, drag-out fight Kelly and I ever had just to see her again.

Anyway, I'm sure there are things I've forgotten, but for now, I'll sign off. Hope I didn't depress anyone.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 34 -- The Wind Through the Keyhole

by Stephen King

Started: August 17
Finished: August 18

Notes: There are three reasons I am reading this novel now: 1.) I am woefully behind on my King reading, and at one time I had read practically everything by the man; 2.) I am a fan of King's Dark Tower series and this book is a followup to that; 3.) I've been telling myself all year I will read more fantasy, but I keep getting distracted by other material, and while this isn't exactly straight fantasy, the Dark Tower series is King's own unique form of epic fantasy with elements of horror and even the occasional touch of sci-fi thrown in.

Mini review: It was very nice to venture back into the world of Roland Deschain, like visiting with old friends. One of the things I like about King's fantasy is that, for me, it brings a sense of wonder I see rarely in most fantasy literature nowadays. Some would find this book annoying as it is a story inside a story inside a story, not an unknown tact for King, but I've always felt King does this well, perhaps even better than any other author I've read, and I'm one who usually does not enjoy flashbacks or stories within stories. Is this King's best work? Probably not, but it's still pretty darn good, and it was nice to see fantasy literature with a sense of honor and gentleness about it.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 33 -- Blaze

by Richard Bachman

Started: August 14
Finished: August 16

Notes: Is there anyone who isn't aware Stephen King occasionally writes under the pen name of Richard Bachman? Either way, I'm way behind on my King reading, much of his work from the last decade, so I thought it time I got back on that wagon.

Mini review: Sort of a light crime novel (with shades of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men), this is not King's best work, but that's to be somewhat expected considering this is basically a "trunk" novel of his originally written back in 1973 while King was in his 20s. Still, this is a pretty solid book, and I believe the story's structure is quite strong as are the characters, which is almost always the case with King. The ending is a tad underwhelming, but again, that is often the case with King, and it is by no means the worst ending I've seen him give a tale. If one is a King fan, then this book needs to be read because it will provide some enjoyment, but this is not a book I would suggest to the casual King reader or to one coming fresh to the author for the first time.