Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Leering Fungus Beastie, Avenging Princess

Hiero's Journey, Chapter 11:

(For the previous installment in this series, click here.)

At the top of Chapter Eleven, and from the top of the forest, the Dryad Queen Vilah-ree tells Hiero a little bit more about his new adversary, The House. This formidable mutant slime-mold, Per Desteen realizes, probably occupies the very site of the ruined city he had traveled so far to find. This convenient coincidence reconciles him to doing battle with the monster, though in his patriarchal way he does ask if there are any dryad-type men who can help him fight. Vilah-ree first says no, then backtracks and says there are none capable of fighting. We will learn the cause of her hesitation later in the chapter.

Hiero also demands to see his companions again, and Vilah-ree, at length, agrees. Once the priest and dryad return to the companions' campsite all of Hiero's compadres have a good leer, and Brother Aldo gives Vilah-ree a pious swat on the bottom, which she ignores. The dryad queen asks to have a word alone with Hiero's fiancee Luchare, presumably about post-apocalyptic girl stuff. “Women! Who knew what they were thinking?” asks Hiero (p. 264). I am tempted to say “Not Lanier,” but we've already established that Per Desteen isn't omniscient, and by mid-chapter it becomes clear that Vilah-ree and Luchare have motives that make sense to the reader but which Hiero can't predict. This is better characterization than one finds in the average pulp novel, and Lanier deserves some credit for it.

After Vilah-ree and Luchare have their private chat, a party of dryads leads Hiero and his core companions to the edge of the forest, where they are stopped by the overpowering odor of corruption. Gorm and Hiero go ahead as scouts, leaving Aldo and Luchare behind. The latter is quite angry at being ditched again, and as it turns out her anger will prove Hiero's salvation.

Per Desteen and his mutant bear friend advance into a landscape of evil mushrooms, puffballs, and blowflies, all of which turn out to be part of The House's collective intelligence. The flies alert the enemy to the intruders' presence, and abruptly The House seizes control of Hiero's mind. As Hiero stands paralyzed, with his foe extruding psychic tendrils into his brain, he learns that The House is a hive mind, with many life-forms' mentalities “swarming like so many maggots in and through the gelid and gelatinous structure” (268). It is also more than a little Borg-like, and mentally urges Hiero, “leeringly” as Lanier puts it, to abandon his physical body and become part of the all-consuming hive. Is The House trying to seduce Hiero or just eat him? Both, apparently. That's just how post-apocalyptic wastelands roll. 

Fortunately for Hiero, he is not alone with Mssr./Mlle.* House. The House has no interest in mutant bears, and Gorm is able to interrupt Hiero's communion with the slime-hive, allowing Per Desteen to regain control of his mind if not his limbs. Then, as the giant slime creature with burning tentacles from Chapter 10 hoves into view, Hiero's other companions come to the rescue. Luchare, who I suspect is the leader of the rescue party, and Aldo and several of the dryads enter the scene and shoot flaming arrows at the monster. The House proves highly inflammable, and the flames quickly spread to the nearby fungi and puffballs, cleansing the land of the fungal menace and its “filthy vapors” (272).

Luchare apparently got fed up with Hiero's insistence that she stay out of harm's way, and decided to prove that she hadn't forgotten the combat skills she learned earlier in the narrative. It seems that you can only patronize and marginalize a D'alwah princess for so long before she decides she has to rescue you from certain death.

Coming next: Hiero does field research on the reproductive cycle of the post-apocalyptic dryad.

* I assume The House is of indeterminate gender, but it doesn't hurt to be polite.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Low-Budget Galadriel

Hiero's Journey, Chapter 10 (Continued):

(For the previous entry in this series, go here.)

It doesn't actually take Aldo and Hiero long to catch up with the readers and discover there is a Disturbance in the Force, and after a Mind-Mojo scan of the forest Hiero reports that he has seen from afar the ghostly form of a green-eyed and greenish-skinned woman. This future mutant dryad-thing appears to be watching the party, and possibly reading its thoughts. Luchare immediately gets mad and says she is jealous of the green woman, and Hiero and Aldo paternalistically dismiss her “female anger” (250) so they can get on with more important guy things. I would give Lanier a hard time about this, but A) it's not entirely out of character for Luchare, who is very young and from an overly privileged background, and B) it's not entirely out of character for two priests to act like douchebags toward women. Anyway, none of these three characters are particularly important to the reader at the moment: what interests us, or what should interest us, is the identity of the Mysterious Vilah-ree, and to what stereotype she conforms. I'm putting my money on "Low-Budget Galadriel."

As Hiero and company debate turning around and getting the hell out of Dodge, Gorm informs Hiero and Aldo that the return path has been blocked by some large, ominous mutant beast, or so his Spidey-bear senses tell him. The travelers reluctantly continue onward, until they reach a large clearing in the woods, festooned with moss and lit by an unsettling light. These magical clearings have a way of appearing in the strangest places, don't they? This one contains three tables loaded down with food and wine, which, after some consulting with his mojo - actually, with the same mysterious green woman Hiero has seen - Gorm confirms are safe to eat. The party tucks in, and most of them go to sleep shortly thereafter. Hiero tries to stay awake and stay on watch, but either the food was drugged, or the wine was very powerful, or his mysterious host is just too psychically powerful, because he too passes out.


Hiero then has a dream vision of the green woman, who is nekkid and kind of purty. "The manhood in him rose to the sexual challenge of her shape" (254), which I'm sure is just a figure of speech. (Ahem.) He is also oddly repelled, because the woman appears to be a construct run by some sort of plant intelligence. Reading this, I could not help but think of Bela Lugosi's line about women and vampire movies in Ed Wood: "It both ATTRACTS and REPELS them." Presumably men are the same way with beautiful plant women. I must therefore conclude that Luchare was right to be jealous of this 76th-century dryad. You're welcome.

Mlle. Green identifies herself with a string of syllable sounding like "Vilah-ree," which Hiero decides to use as her name. After showing Hiero that his companions are still asleep and unharmed, she leads Dream-Hiero out of the virtual audience chamber where she had met him, and up to the top of one of the taller trees in the forest, from which they can get a good view of the radioactive wasteland nearby. It is clearly a very dangerous and threatening place, even more so than the usual radioactive wasteland. Between the desert and the forest is the front line of a biological attack: “sickly,” “diseased” fungi cling to dying trees, and a giant slime creature, with a body of “dark, rotted velvet” and pseudopods tipped with “putrid orange fire” (257) roams the land. Lanier's description of the fungi forest includes this line: “Even as he watched, a bloated bag of some monster puffball sort exploded, and the view was momentarily darkened by the billions of tiny spores [it] scattered” (ibid). I wonder if Hayao Miyazaki read this novel before directing Nausicaa, as this image is very reminiscent of his post-apocalyptic toxic jungle.

Vilah-ree says that the slime monster, and presumably the fungi, are creatures of The House, an alien intelligence that, presumably, Hiero must now help Mlle. Dryad defeat. Good luck with that, Per Desteen.

Coming next: Come and play with us, Hiero, forever and ever and ever...

(The illustration above is of a Public Domain Dryad. Like many of my readers, I prefer my Public Domain Dryads clothed, and not necessarily green. YMMV.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Settlers Ain't All That

Since its release in the mid-1990s The Settlers of Catan has been a name to conjure with in the gaming community. Combining some of the colonization, trade, and development features of Civilization with the blocking strategies of railroad games, Settlers quickly gained a big fan base and helped start a craze (in the United States) for so-called Eurogames, heavy on strategy and light on theme. It also generated many supplements and spin-offs, such as Seafarers of Catan, Starfarers of Catan, and Settlers of America; a collectors' edition with a molded resin board; and many lavishly detailed and scaled-up home models of the original game, some of which one can find at GenCon and other gaming conventions. Settlers generates much excitement among neophyte gamers who have never played it before but heard good things about it. Once they've tried it out a few times, however, their excitement usually fades. I know mine has. Why?

1)      It takes too darn long. I've rarely played a game of Settlers that wrapped up in less than two hours, and three-hour games aren't unheard of. Long games are fine if, like History of the World or Through the Ages, they give players lots of choices to make, but simple entry-level titles like this one, or Alhambra, or Guillotine should take only about 45-60 minutes.

2)      There's too much luck involved and too much potential downtime as a result. An unlucky player who sets his/her initial settlements next to land tiles that the dice don't like can spend long stretches of the game doing little more than rolling those dice, while others steadily accumulate the resources they need to build new roads and settlements and thereby acquire more resources. Bad die rolls deprive players of the ability to make choices, and the paralytic effects of bad luck are cumulative.

3)      There's little incentive for players to trade. Presumably players should benefit from exchanging resources they need with each other, but as the game progresses the advantages that trade gives to the active player grow too great to risk. No-one wants to give a rival the means to complete the Longest Road or build the new city that will probably hand them the game. Interactivity thus quickly turns into “screw your neighbors” (by moving the Robber or blocking other players' expansion), and nothing else. I've had more than one Settlers game end with my feeling like I'd just played a stupider version of Diplomacy.

Some of these problems are theoretically fixable. Giving players who receive no resources on a given die roll a gold token that can be swapped, 2-to-1, for any resource card is one way to deal with Problem 2. So is creating some sort of mechanism for borrowing resources from the game supply or other players, with a victory-point penalty if they don't repay the loan with interest in a set period. However, a game that has been around for twenty years shouldn't still need basic repairs to make it appealing. There are certainly variants and spin-offs that I enjoy: the Cities & Knights of Catan expansion makes for an appealing, if very long version of the base game, and the spin-off games Settlers of America and Merchants of Europe are well-made geographical variants with some agreeable historical “chrome.” I wouldn't recommend any of these for beginners, however, and I don't think I would recommend the original game to anyone. In the world of designer board games, older doesn't necessarily mean better.