Review: Shelby Steele’s Shame

Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country came out in 2015, but it remains as relevant as ever as an analysis of race and the political divisions that have become inflamed in America.

Shame is autobiography interspersed with historical and political context, making it a book that is more interesting, though perhaps less dryly academic, than the work of many others like Thomas Sowell (in, for example, The Quest for Cosmic Justice).

Steele follows a similar trajectory to Sowell; starting out as a young black man in America and then experiencing a world that had prejudged him. Steele’s account of racism shows how even those who perceived themselves as enlightened took part in bigotry and were unwilling to make personal sacrifices to reach the proper standard of just behavior.

And like Sowell, Steele brings his concerns with the political machinations of the modern left to the table. As a staunch advocate of individual rights and reforms, he argues that the philosophical and intellectual leaders among the conservatives have undertaken a noble quest to remove injustice and create a more perfect system.

He compares this perspective–the perspective of his father–with the modern belief that the past oppressions of America have shown it to be unfit and that only radical changes can improve society.

In 2015, this might have been derided as a strawman of the left, but recent events have shown Steele’s judgment to be eerily prescient.

His experiences with student radicalism and the Black Panthers in exile play a prominent role in forming his perception of the left, and one of the fundamental distinctions that he cites is the question of American exceptionalism: the idea that something novel about liberty, freedom, and self-reliance has been responsible for America being distinct from other countries.

Steele is less focused on the nature of American exceptionalism–he discusses it only in passing–but it is the divide between the political right, who see the exceptionalism as something that makes America worth preserving, and the political left, who are cynical about whether it even exists that forms the underlying foundation of the work.

Although it is less academically rigorous and more anecdotal than some other books written by prominent conservative voices on race in society, Shame is an important contribution to the corpus. Perhaps it is exactly the personal nature, the intersection between the world and the man, that makes it as powerful and valuable as it is.

Find it: Amazon affiliate link. I listened to the Audible version, available from the same page.

Rating: 5 out of 5

For the kids: It’s not a light text, but it blends personal interest and useful information. Shame includes accounts of real events and quotes that might trouble younger readers.

Who will enjoy it?

Conservatives seeking an answer to Critical Race Theory-derived views on the American history of race. People who like biographies with a touch of extra cerebral material. It’s well-written enough to hold broad appeal to audiences as a relevant text to understanding the American experience.

Review: Thomas Sowell’s The Quest for Cosmic Justice

Thomas Sowell is one of the most prominent American conservatives, and his The Quest for Cosmic Justice is a testament to why he’s achieved that status.

Sowell breaks down the distinction between what one could call the conservative (e.g. Austrian economics, universalist theories of law) plan to improve the lives of all Americans and the progressive (e.g. Keynesian/Rawlsian) method.

He focuses primarily on the concept of justice, and where he feels that progressives have gotten things wrong.

I will not seek to replicate Sowell’s argument, but the points that stood out to me are:

  1. The statistics and factors that lead into poverty (and why the Rawlsian approach should not be applied in particular to race and gender, as is in vogue with progressives)
  2. The distinction between traditional justice which seeks redress for grievances regarding crimes committed by individuals, and cosmic justice (which is more in line with modern “social justice” theory) which seeks to balance outcomes across a broad variety of people.
  3. The hazards of creating power structures required to seek cosmic justice; both in their propensity to create unintended consequences and tools for people who seek to abuse power.

Sowell’s work is brilliant at building a case and offering a well-read insight to social and political philosophies. However, if you want vibrant delivery, you may find his lectures, debates, and interviews more engaging.

In Sowell’s defense, the reason for the dryness of this book is that it is short for the level of content it delivers. While much of the book has interest, it relies more on the logic of its arguments and high-level analysis. This is not to imply that it leaves out key details. It just doesn’t have Hayek’s fervor or Steele’s personal connection that can bring some more engagement to a reader-unfriendly subject when it delves into economics.

With that said, I have more than a passing interest in economics, political philosophy, law, and cultural issues, which makes me the ideal target audience for Sowell’s work.

One note for audiences in 2020 might be to point out that Sowell refers to progressive thought primarily in the Rawlsian sense. While modern critical theorists build on this foundation, they have philosophical distinctions. Sowell’s arguments are still valid regardless, but you might find that postmodernists have different values than Rawls did.

Find it: Amazon affiliate link. I listened to the Audible version, available from the same page.

Rating: 5 out of 5

For the kids: If they have an interest in the subject. It’s not the most engaging and thrilling read, but it’s good solid stuff.

Who will enjoy it?

Political philosophy types, economists. If you’re a fan of Sowell, this is a classic work of his. It’s in the vein of Hayek’s blend of economics, political theory, and philosophy as seen in The Road to Serfdom, with a stronger emphasis on America in specific.

Snow Crash: Reviewing a Cyberpunk Classic

Snow Crash is a book as old as I am. Cyberpunk is a genre noted for capturing a certain zeitgeist, the ennui of the late 20th century measuring up the anxieties and hopes of the digital explosion. We’re about three decades late for it.

I find myself hooked with the first paragraph.

Why?

Teenage rebellion. High-speed, high-octane identity crisis. Swords. It plugs straight into adrenaline and plenty of it.

Continue reading “Snow Crash: Reviewing a Cyberpunk Classic”

Thoughts on the Altered Carbon Quick-Start

The Altered Carbon Kickstarter launched recently, and with it a “Quick-Start” that’s 65 pages and attempts to introduce potential players to the game.

I’m a fan of Altered Carbon (both the books and the show), and I’ve looking pretty seriously at Cyberpunk Red and Eclipse Phase, which have both had major releases recently and are planning to do more stuff in about the same timeframe as the Altered Carbon game. They’re also the most immediately obvious competitors, with Cyberpunk Red taking a more traditional cyberpunk approach and Eclipse Phase doing more weird and horror-themed transhuman elements.

So, does it look good?

Continue reading “Thoughts on the Altered Carbon Quick-Start”

Review of Atlas 10 Pro+

Back in June I was looking for a laptop or tablet that could be something that I could use on the go as a way to keep up on writing and work while traveling.

However, since I’m going back to school and doing writing as my main way of getting money, I had to get something extremely cheap. I was looking at Chromebooks ($200 or so), Windows laptops ($300+), and Android tablets ($100 or so), but I hadn’t been able to find anything that met all my needs that I felt comfortable shelling out the money for.

Then I called my brother, who works at a church. It turns out that they were using RCA tablets that came with detachable keyboards that they liked quite a bit, and he sent me a link to a few of them on Amazon.

I ultimately settled on the Atlas 10 Pro+ (affiliate link), which ran me about $100. The selling point here was that I’d have something similar in style to the Surface Go (tablet functionality, keyboard), but pay about a quarter of the Surface Go would cost if you wanted the type cover. There were also some very low-end Windows laptops that I had considered, but I wasn’t really sold on them.

Now, you do make a lot of sacrifices for that, especially in system memory (the Surface Go’s lowest end model has 4 GB of RAM, the Atlas 10 Pro+ has 1), and Android isn’t going to offer all your old Windows software if you’re committed to the ecosystem like I am, but the price was right. All of the alternatives I’d considered were pretty much equivalent in user experience, with the downside of being at least twice as expensive (Microsoft was actually sold out of the HP Stream 11, which would have been my first choice from my research at the time) and trying to run an operating system that is notoriously hungry for system resources.

The Atlas 10 Pro+ runs Android 8.1 Go. The Go variant is a special version of Android for low-spec systems, but I haven’t noticed the difference in any significant way. There are Go versions of a couple apps, like the Google Assistant and Google Maps, and supposedly more on the Play Store (I haven’t been able to figure out how to use Go-specific apps), but you’re not locked out of any apps. I ued the standard version of Docs to type this and I’ve also gotten Firefox as my main browser, and I’ve been pretty happy with it. Without a cellular connection, the Atlas 10 Pro+ isn’t going to replace a phone, and it certainly won’t replace a full desktop or laptop (though I did use it on my GenCon trip and found it quite satisfactory), but I’ve been liking it so far.

The performance is acceptable, and largely limited by the system memory. YouTube is a passable experience in Firefox and through the native YouTube app. Never having used Android with a keyboard and touchpad before, I was pleasantly surprised by how much it felt like a standard laptop experience. The 10” size definitely becomes a factor in what you can and can’t do, but it acquits itself pretty well. As an added bonus, it actually works as a laptop without being hot on your legs or feeling too large and awkward, because the tablet is vertical and so the part that gets hot (though it really only gets warm even under stress) is not resting on your lap.

The one thing to get used to is being patient. Apps load okay, but you’ll see a little delay between pushing play and Spotify starting if you haven’t listened in a while and the app isn’t open (this may also be Android not knowing which application to use), or between tabs in Firefox (which seems to reload the webpage every time it gains focus, perhaps due to memory constraints). Chrome may be smoother, but I don’t like it as much. You get used to this pretty quickly, and when you’re actually using stuff it feels responsive.

The camera is… about what you’d expect in a really cheap Android tablet.

Yikes! Yeah, this was probably not the ideal test environment (on my kitchen table, taking a photo of a reflective surface a few inches from the camera). There is a front facing camera, which is just as awful (perhaps even more awful; it’s hard to describe how awful it is), but given the price it’s still an addition. Given the fact that most people have smartphones and I’m not going to be using the Atlas 10 as a photography tool, I’ll give it a pass. However, if you absolutely need to take a photo or video, it can do that. In fact, it’s probably the perfect photography tool to use if you spot Bigfoot!

The screen resolution is not terrific, but honestly I don’t notice it all that much. As someone using a fairly large 1080p display as my primary driver, it doesn’t bother me to have a 1280×800 resolution on such a small screen. While the display is glossy turning up the brightness can help to mitigate any unwanted reflections; I haven’t had any problems with using it in any indoors condition, though I haven’t actually tested it. The touch-screen feels very much like plastic, and I’d bet that they’ve traded scratch resistance for something more shatterproof. After a couple months’ use I haven’t seen any issues. Since the keyboard makes for a very natural screen cover, I’m not too anxious about this, and since a lot of the touch controls are used less than they might otherwise be on a tablet because of the pairing with a keyboard I’m not too worried about it.

The touchscreen is one slightly annoying bit. It’s not inaccurate in the sense that you’ll get crazy wild results, but it’s not sensitive and there seems to be distortion around the edges of the screen. Having a dedicated keyboard makes this better, but I find the on-screen keyboard somewhat painful to use (though I don’t use the standard Google keyboard on my phone, so there could also be an adjustment pain here).

The speakers are not super-tinny, though you can definitely detect some distortion at higher volumes. They come out of the side of the tablet when it is docked (bottom in portrait mode), and they don’t get particularly loud. I’m not an audiophile, and they work fine for me, though I’d usually not use them unless I had to. It has a headphone jack, which is perfectly functional. The microphone is miserably awful, and sounds like you’re about eight thousand feet under-water and about twenty or thirty feet away from it. There was a little background noise when I was testing, and the one upside is that you can’t discern it. In an ideal situation, it might be better, but it’s probably still going to be terrible. If you want to do a whole lot of Google Hangouts, you might want to consider a Bluetooth headset with a microphone.

The actual build itself feels pretty good. Both the keyboard and tablet feel sturdy, as does the connector that runs between them. It’s thicker and meatier than a lot of alternatives, and the whole setup weighs somewhere between two and two-and-a-half pounds, with the vast majority of that being in the tablet. This means that if you pick it up and carry it by the keyboard it feels really awkward, but it still keeps the same angle it’s open at despite a little wobbling in the joint during sudden movements. There’s a micro USB port (which may or may not double as a charger; I’ve never bothered testing) and a DC charging cable that you can use for either the tablet, or the keyboard (which has its own battery and DC charging port, though it doesn’t have any USB ports that I can see). The keyboard is connected through a six-pin connection and uses magnets to stay connected to the tablet: this makes it really easy to remove when you want but also feels pretty sturdy against accidental jostling. Compared to something like the Surface Go, the Atlas 10 Pro+ is bulky, but I found that once it was in my laptop bag I’d forget which pocket I’d tucked it in. It’s all relative, and it’s light for its size.

Both the keyboard and tablet can be charged at the same time by a dedicated wall adapter; the keyboard does not have its own micro-USB port for charging, but both have the wall adapter plug (it’s a standard one that I’ve seen Chromebooks use, but I’m not familiar with the terminology).

If, like me, the disappearance of the humble headphone jack bothers you, you will be happy to know that there is one on the Atlas 10 Pro+ (which is something of a conceited name), as well as an SD card slot. The internal storage is 32 gigabytes, about 6 of which is used by Android, but that’s probably enough for most users given the camera short-comings.

The keyboard itself is surprisingly good. Honestly, it’s got one of the better laptop-style keyboard layouts, and while it’s tenkeyless it includes a full set of media controls. Some of the keys are pretty small, but despite my relatively large hands I actually don’t find them that bad. I’m not making typos, even adjusting from a glorious mechanical keyboard. My only gripe is that the left control key is really small and there’s a function modifier key where a full control button would extend, so I’ve fairly often hit that instead of control and not gotten what I wanted. The keyboard is not capable of wireless functionality, despite having its own battery, so you have to attach it if you want to use it. If you’re like me and you want something that has similar functionality to a laptop you won’t be disappointed; the keys actually feel really good to use. This morning I actually dug out an old Gigabyte gaming laptop, and I was surprised by how bad the keys on that felt compared to my tablet’s keyboard.

The integrated trackpad is actually better than I thought it would be, though it lacks dedicated buttons so you’ll have to tap on it to click. Since there’s a touchscreen on the tablet this is easily overcome if you find it frustrating, but I’ve found it really natural to use. The only downside is that it doesn’t really do multitouch, though I prefer to scroll and zoom using the touchscreen anyway since it’s more precise to work in screenspace rather than on a small touchpad no matter which device you’re on. If you don’t like the touchpad, you can disable it (and re-enable it) with a keyboard macro (FN+Space bar), which is nice.

In the few months I’ve been using the tablet, I’ve never had any issues with the battery life. As far as I can tell I get the six hours it says on the box (I’ve never let it run all the way down), and while there’s no way that I’ve found to figure out how much juice the keyboard’s battery has stored I’ve been able to use it in lieu of the charger (I did this in Indianapolis the first night I was there).

I’ve used it for a few things; I haven’t tested its outbound screencasting functionality (it is compatible with Chromecast devices, from what I gather), but it is able to be used as an external display with the help of apps. It’s not really a remote desktop option so much as a mirrored display, because it’s pushing its abilities to the limit with something like Parsec. Slack and Spotify work fine, as do the Google Suite and Firefox. I have intentionally avoided putting any games or other distractions on the tablet, so I can’t report on their functionality.

Screen rotation is sometimes a pain because the Android Go setup seems to love portrait mode, but this is a very small portion of the use experience, limited to first-time setup and the built-in Android Go app hub thing (I’ve used it three times, mostly out of curiosity).

In terms of value, I’m not 100% certain how other tablets compete. This is a pretty humble Android device in terms of specifications, and it lagged a lot during initial setup and app installation. The lag went away after that was done and it’s actually pretty smooth now (not as smooth as my Android phone, but my phone’s more expensive). If a lot of apps are running at once you may get some weird performance, but I’ve found that closing unused apps by swiping them away in the app-switch view usually fixes any issues.

The real question here is how you would value the tablet and keyboard combined. I didn’t do a whole lot of research into the competition in terms of tablets since this came with a personal recommendation, but as far as I could find on Amazon there didn’t seem to be a comparable 10” tablet available new at the same price range, much less one that came with a keyboard and external battery as part of the bargain.

If, like me, you’re primarily looking for something that lets you do light productivity-related tasks and function as a sort of computer away from home, this is a surprisingly full experience. It’s not going to win any performance benchmarks. When I tried using Parsec to stream a game from my PC to the tablet, it definitely hit its limits pretty quickly. However, for actual daily use it works fine; it definitely isn’t high-end, but it handles typing well.

I think I’ll be able to make this thing pay for itself pretty easily. After a few months’ use, I’ve found it to be really handy. The more I use it the more comfortable it gets, and it definitely is something that is pretty hassle-free to travel with (if you remember the charger). The only superlative it gets is “Cheapest laptop experience you can get without going for a used device”, but that’s quite a deal all things considered. I’ve been typing at least a few hundred words per day on it pretty consistently now, and I like the way that it’s liberated me to move around and find places where I can focus on my work, then get that work done.

Review of Stephen King’s On Writing

I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), which I found to be interesting. I’ve read a few other books on writing recently, so I figured it’d be interesting to compare King to other writers.

In the past I’d heard that King’s book was not really all that great for a writer, so I approached it with a certain amount of skepticism.

I split my reading across four days; the first two days covered roughly a third of the book each, then I split the remaining third up between the rest of the main text and the appendices.

At the end of the first day, I was in agreement with the skeptics. On Writing contains enough autobiographical content to be considered King’s memoir (which, coincidentally, is mentioned right on the cover, so there’s not really a surprise there). If you like King’s writing (I do) it will be a pleasant enough read, but other than seeing some traits and habits you can emulate there’s not a whole lot there in the way of practical advice.

The rest of the book, the remaining days of reading, were much more effective. King launches into a top-to-bottom overview of his writing process, which is quite interesting. Although it generally doesn’t do a whole lot of coaching on some of the elements, it gives a certain amount of insight to each.

And this is really where the recommendation gets tricky.

You see, King doesn’t give a whole lot of details about how you should write. He gives points you’ll need to address if you want to be a good writer, sometimes in a very basic way (e.g. “What is a good starting seed for a story and how can you tell?”) and sometimes being more specific (e.g. “How should you structure paragraphs?”), but he never goes into meticulous detail about anything.

For me, as someone who’s a fairly comfortable writer who wants to open up the world of creative writing, that’s useful. But I taught English, and while I don’t always adhere to best practices (do as I say, not as I do), I am at least familiar with them.

If you’re writing and you worry that the quality isn’t good enough, King doesn’t really have a lot of stuff for you, other than the reminder that he practiced a ton and wrote a lot of subpar stuff before he got good (which is largely communicated in the memoir portion of the book). If you’re putting out work that other people find unintelligible, you’re going to need to learn to fix that elsewhere.

I think this is best illustrated by his example for editing.

Now, this comes from work that was contemporary with On Writing, so it’s after he’s already become an expert writer, but his first drafts look tremendous compared to any first draft I’m currently in the realm of (not that I’m a good benchmark for quality), or any I’ve ever seen outside Stephen King’s (people do not usually rush to present me with first drafts, so again I’m not the best benchmark here).

By the time King’s showing us the process, the manuscript would probably be in a publication-worthy state for a lesser writer.

Now, a lot of that’s because King doesn’t want to waste his reader’s time time; proofreading isn’t the focus, revision is.

But it is an example of how the book generally goes.

As someone who’s been through four books on writing in two (three?) months, I think it’s a great example of a companion to other books. A more advanced, less specific book that leaves more to the individual and treats them like a journeyman or master instead of as an apprentice.

Plus, it’s written by Stephen King. Even if the lessons are occasionally thin, the writing is good enough that I found it a pleasant read; King intersperses humor and examples well enough that you forget you’re reading what could be an incredibly dry book (and I’ve read the dry writing manuals, ones with exercises, for crying out loud!).

Review of Justice Velocity

Justice Velocity (affiliate link) lives up to its name: it’s fast-paced high octane roleplaying.

Now, that’s right up my alley, so when I heard about it I had to go and check it out.

I’ve played various examples of games that claimed to be action-oriented, and the question is always how well they do at streamlining and simplifying play versus how well they do at making the game feel thematic. I’m going to focus my review on that, today.

The Overview

Justice Velocity runs about 70 pages. I’d say it’s done really well; there’s not a whole ton of art, but what’s there is good and thematic, and the cover does a really good job of getting players involved.

I’m going to take a moment to talk about what I perceive as the target audience of this game: people who want a break from their regular game or who are not roleplayers (or not frequent roleplayers) who like action films.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t play Justice Velocity for a long campaign as a stand-alone game, but I think this is outside of its primary wheelhouse. It’s 70 pages, and a lot of the rules for stuff are “do what seems cool” instead of highly fleshed out and meticulously balanced things.

And you know what? I like that. It’s a game that respects the intelligence of its players; it’s simple enough to play without the rulebook being referenced all the time, but elegant in its threshold-based 2d6+modifiers mechanic.

Now, it’s not going to let you achieve a lot of mathematical whimsy, it’s a thin book, but one of the things I’ve learned as a game designer is that sometimes people need a game they can play without worrying about a bunch of math, and Justice Velocity is in a genre that lends itself to raw cinematic action and hits that niche.

Now, with that said, it is simple. If you like Shadowrun or GURPS or even D&D you might feel like you’re moving to a much simpler system.

But that’s where we move into the more specialized parts of this review.

Is it Sleek?

Yep.

One of the reasons why Justice Velocity is 70 pages is because it sticks to very basic rules for everything but cars and gunfights (or fistfights, if that’s your speed) and doesn’t complicate those terribly much either.

But the rules actually deliver on that.

It has rules for grid-based play, but the book recommends theater of the mind for most combat (and trackers for vehicles, which is a must). If it’s a one-on-one cinematic moment, you can easily do away with the trackers in vehicle races and chases, both of which can be represented at varying degrees of detail.

It’s worth noting that while I describe Justice Velocity as simple, it has an attributes, skills, special abilities, gear, and usually vehicles to track. That’s a handful of moving parts, but it doesn’t worry too much about the nitty-gritty. Gear is handled entirely by GM fiat (which could cause issues), and advancement is very simple.

One nice thing is that whenever the rules extend beyond simple mechanics, they are very clearly explained and usually get a nice in-depth example. I’m willing to bet that people who play Justice Velocity and want to stick to the rules-as-written experience all play pretty much the same game, which I can’t say about every roleplaying game out there. It’s tremendously clear, and I could probably run almost every part of the game from memory after reading it once (the one exception being the vehicle rules, which get a little more detailed).

Now, I will say that I am a little concerned that the point-buy system might not actually work the best for what they’re hoping to achieve. This might be the only time in history that I’ve ever said those words. There’s a certain amount of character overlap because it’s a game primarily focused on guns and cars, and a good handful of character options aren’t about guns and cars and are unlikely to be taken.

So you’re in an odd place where a lot of people are going to have the same skills (in theory; in practice you never know), and a lot of skills might not be represented. Combat skills come free, though, so it’s more a question of what would matter.

In this way I think the system is perhaps over-streamlined. Skills all cost the same, for instance, and characters don’t necessarily start with any skills. So you wind up with a situation where a lot of people are going to have a couple skills (especially Driving) but not necessarily have any skill represented.

This is probably fretting about nothing; skills give a +2 bonus, but there’s no penalty for not having them. The majority of a character’s bonus is going to come from other sources anyway, but it might have been nice to have a couple free knowledge or language skills, especially as a way to ground people, or have them cost 1 point instead of 2 during character creation.

A small concern I have is that in theory Will could be a little strong because it feeds skill rolls, gives limited uses of a bonus die, and boosts HP. However, since the distribution curve of attributes is relatively slender (players spread 20 points across five attributes) I don’t see a huge problem barring a couple weird situations I’ll discuss elsewhere.

The important thing here: the rules are simple enough for players to understand without needing to read (always a good point, especially for a game you could play impromptu and a genre that fits that style), and a competent GM can take them a long way.

Is it Thematic?

Yes. Eight hundred times yes. It may have a little testosterone poisoning, but it’s both self-aware and blissfully unconcerned about what people think about it.

Cars. Guns.

You want ’em? Justice Velocity’s got ’em.

It’s the sort of game I’d be totally happy just kicking back and playing, and one that’s a great rainy-day or missing-player backup game. I don’t know if the rest of my group would enjoy it, because they’re not really into the genre like I am, but if you ask “Could I use this game to recreate X?” and X is any major action movie of the last 20 years, the answer is almost certainly yes.

The one exception I’d point out is that the rules are very focused and tight. You wouldn’t be recreating Netflix’s Bright, for instance (but why would anyone in their right mind?) or some of the other genre-action hybrids like superhero movies, but that’s not the point of Justice Velocity and they don’t lie and pretend that it is.

Vehicle chase rules are a stand-out positive part of the ruleset. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them better elsewhere, and it has one of the few random tables to help with inspiration for obstacles and boosts that you might encounter while racing around a city.

They do get a little complicated compared to the other rules, and it would’ve been nice to see perhaps a little more of the under-the-hood dice in the way of examples (the first example is a little vague on what exactly people rolled).

The Elephant in the Room

Before I move on, I want to quickly address a couple issues I do have with the game. I don’t want to be too negative here; they’re not deal-breakers, but they are things that I would be remiss if I overlooked.

A lot of things are left to “roll with it” mode. I’m a believer in the intelligence of average (and even slightly below average) players and GMs to figure out what the heck they want from their games, so I’m totally fine with this.

The problem is that if you don’t know what you’re doing, or even have an idea of it, you can really easily mess stuff up.

Character advancement is practically nonexistent; though it’s present the rules are basically “Throw some AP (Advancement Points, of which each player gets 10) at it”, and the method for determining that is left up to you. If players expect AP every session in a fifteen session game, you’re going to run out of options for them very quickly before they start stealing the spotlight from each other, and I don’t think the book is clear enough about that.

One of the suggestions is to base AP gained on Will, which is probably the only big balance issue I see; the game is generally loose on balance, but as an exercise in collaborative storytelling I don’t see a problem here. With that in mind, you could expect to see people gaining 2 AP per session and people gaining 6 AP per session if someone were liberal with AP (I don’t think anyone who read the book would go beyond that), and the people who started with high Will could easily dominate the competition.

Keep in mind, however, that they are clear that the idea of the story isn’t to follow people gaining bigger numbers but to follow high-octane action. Not having advancement is not the issue; not being consistent with it is.

For a group that’s already frequently roleplaying, I think this is a non-issue. People will use the method they like from other games. It’s for first-timers and infrequent roleplayers that I see this becoming an issue, which is why I’m hesitant to openly recommend what would otherwise be an excellent first-time game, unless the GM has experience.

If there were two things I’d change about Justice Velocity, I’d put a lot of the things that currently are just given the “season to taste” treatment into organized tracks for “high-power”, “baseline” and “high-stakes” play so that things like the rates at which you refresh resources and how to handle character death could be communicated to players directly. This would make it playable by novice roleplayers and address 99% of my concerns about the game.

The second is that I’d tweak the AP costs of some things or give starter packages for players.

Other things are all nit-picky. The sample enemies are next to sample PCs and other content in Chapter 3, when it might make sense to move them to the GM-specific section in Chapter 7. There’s inconsistent capitalization in the Abilities table. The word roll is misspelled as role once.

Very nit-picky. This game is well-edited and obviously lovingly playtested to get rid of any significant errors, and while it’s not A-list Hollywood production value, it’s probably the most solid indie title I’ve seen in a while.

The Verdict

I really like Justice Velocity and don’t regret buying it. Will I recommend it? Conditionally.

If you’ve played other roleplaying games and want something fast and light that’s built with some really solid chase scenes, this is an easy option to recommend. I feel like its bespoke mechanics do a better job than, say, Savage Worlds, which would handle the action movie genre well but has a lot of extra stuff to handle other stuff as well, for the particular milieu it occupies.

It’s also easy enough that you can play it with your friends who are interested in roleplaying games but think that “dice” is what you do to vegetables when you’re cooking. Because you can pretty much play with just a couple six-sided dice, you can really easily play anywhere, and you can make characters super-simply by using a point pool system, which is great for both speed and balancing some of the otherwise frenetic moments, and despite my griping about a couple small elements it’s tremendously well-made with room to customize it to fit your needs and the theme you’re going for.

That there are two things I’d change about the game, and both of them are easily resolved by a good Session 0 or a savvy GM is a good sign. I’d like to see a second printing/edition with a little more bulk (perhaps delivering on more of the Kickstarter goals?) that keeps the underlying stuff exactly as it is.

Review of Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Amazon affiliate link) offers a different look at writing than you are likely to see in other writing books. It does so with passion, zeal, and above all else a sense of clarity and purpose which combine make it refreshing.

I’ve read or listened to quite a few books on writing recently, like John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which I also highly recommend (my review), but Lamott takes an approach that is conversational and cordial, making the reader (or listener) a co-conspirator with her in the ups and downs of life as a writer.

Two of the most challenging parts of writing are finding a spark, figuring out what you want to write, and then figuring out how to transfer it to paper. Lamott focuses on these two subjects almost to the exclusion of everything else, but she does so with such depth and from so many different angles that she never repeats herself and covers a good portion of everything else that you would want to know as a writer on the side.

Lamott captures the spirit of writing without feeling preachy or over-romantic. I think of Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (my review) as an example of a book that is sentimental rather than practical, basically a collection of calls to action and motivational speaking rather than an example of what writers are likely to encounter. Lamott, on the other hand, takes the experiences from her own personal perspective, giving the reader emotional attachment and lending them part of her drive.

Lamott is bitingly sarcastic and incredibly funny. She is transparent about her personal crises, leading to a book that shows both the bigger picture of the publication process and the smaller moments that make up the triumphs and ordeals of the writing process; from the feel of getting galley copies in the mail to the shared anxiety of calling another writer on the day of publication to realize that neither she nor he achieved the runaway success that they had dreamed of.

I wouldn’t suggest this book to younger readers due to some of the language and content in it, but it is still one that I would recommend to novice writers because Lamott never does anything that might come across as intimidating or elitist (at least, not without lampshading it in a devilish self-aware fashion). You get a feel for her personality and character and how her life has motivated her to write:

“I try to write the books that I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives… and that can make me laugh… Books, for me, are medicine.”

I think this is a meaningful outlook, and it’s worth noting that unlike some authors Lamott leaves it to the writer whether they want to have any overarching message or ideas. If all you have to say is a small truth that you learned from something that happened to you, Lamott gives as much encouragement as you would expect if you were to say that you had figured out the way to fix the universe. She also avoids giving too much of a dogma. A large part of her advice is to figure out methods that work for the individual writer, as a more airy and vapid individual or someone who wishes to sabotage their potential rivals might, but she actually gives enough advice and framework to make it possible to follow that path.

I went into this book with no knowledge of Lamott or her work, and left feeling like she had given me an intimate look into both her writing process and her advice for writers. Comparing it to something like Stephen King’s On Writing, which is definitely more autobiographical and takes longer to get into the craft side of things, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which is heavily predominated by craft.

I’d recommend Bird by Bird without reservation. It’s like having an intimate conversation with a great writer, and even barring an interest in writing it’s funny enough to be worth reading. That it has surprisingly practical and down-to-earth writing moments tucked underneath every joke and anecdote is a triumph that makes it sublime.

Review of Unbroken

I recently read the book Unbroken (Amazon affiliate link), written by Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken came out as a “major motion picture” a few years back, and I saw it in theaters and thought it was pretty good, but the problem with any film is that they have to choose between making things interesting and dumping a bunch of information on you.

A book, on the other hand, offers the potential to provide both information and engagement, since good writing can carry even a dry and boring subject to an amusing or fulfilling conclusion.

I’ve been meaning to read the book, written by Laura Hillenbrand, ever since I watched the movie. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian and WWII veteran, as he goes from a youth during the Great Depression to a man who overcomes some of the worst situations and harshest environments that people have ever found themselves in.

The book doesn’t pull any punches (a young-adult version is also available, aimed at students), but this helps it overcome the potential boredom that a 500 page book could descend into. A good portion of the book is dedicated to footnotes and notes, which turn Unbroken from mere story into a well-researched history and biography.

The story by itself would still be inspiring. Louis finds himself in Germany for the 1936 Olympics, joining the likes of Jesse Owens and others. Although Zamperini doesn’t directly experience or witness any persecution in Germany (which was trying to hide its crimes from the world at that point), he does see the gathering storm through a variety of signs, both subtle or otherwise.

Louis’s role as a bombardier in WWII is one of the more harrowing parts of the book. The sheer toll of the bombers on their crew and the number of airmen lost not just to the enemy but also to accidents sets a bleak precedent.

When Louis’s bomber crashes and he escapes along with two others (from a crew of around 10) to rafts, the story gets even more desperate, culminating in his eventual capture by the Japanese.

The POW experiences are captured well by the film, but the book goes into more detail about Louis’s fellow prisoners, showing them with a depth and richness that the film was incapable of replicating.

The film also ends with Louis’s freedom at the end of the war (a sequel was made, but went direct-to-disc), where Hillenbrand’s book carries through to the end of Louis’s life, with a major focus in the immediate postwar years.

It adds a level of complexity and hope to the story, showing not just what Zamperini went through but also what he accomplished.

Unbroken tells a tremendous story through its subject, but it matches the strength of its narrative with precise and deep language, the willingness to slow down to explain where necessary coupled with the skill to keep the pace flowing, and a raw and objective look at important events in history.

Unbroken may aim to tell a single person’s story, but it manages to speak to the human condition through its remarkable subject.

I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Review: Of Dice and Men

I recently read David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men (Amazon affiliate link), a book that provides an overview of what roleplaying games are and how they came to be.

I’m a game designer myself, so I’m fairly familiar with the industry. However, Ewalt’s work is intended for anyone; a novice or outsider can benefit just as much as an old-school gamer.

This can be credited to his journalistic work, actually going on the ground and talking to people who were intimately involved with the advent of Dungeons and Dragons.

And the book predominantly focuses on D&D. There’s a few reasons for that; not the least of which being that D&D is the largest game and that the events surrounding it tend to have to been played out over and over again within the industry. Ewalt’s own gaming hobby extends beyond D&D, though most of the examples of gaming are given from the context of D&D’s “3.5” edition.

With that said, it’s worth pointing out that in a 250 page book, more mention could be made of alternative games. Ewalt has a connection to D&D that runs deep, both in terms of the game itself and the interviewees throughout the book, but he misses a lot of potential by not looking outside the box. While he is able to draw a few connections that would be difficult to draw from scattered details and show a side of the industry that you don’t always get to see from the outside by getting an inside look at how the sausage is made, so many of the events are part of “nerd canon” as it were that there’s a little bit of overlap.

And it’s worth noting that Ewalt’s story is deeply personal. If you have no experience with D&D at all, this serves an illustrative purpose. I can appreciate it as a journalistic device as well, since it’s giving an insight to how the game is actually played.

These interludes are not poorly written, though I wouldn’t describe it as being made up of grand narratives. They’re evidentiary, not epic, and somewhat romanticized and streamlined (at least compared my own experiences).

I personally enjoyed the book quite a bit. It covers a variety of angles: personal interest, living history, explanation of a phenomena, and so forth. However, the one place where I will give it a bit of grief is this: Of Dice and Men really wants to be incredibly dramatic, and there are places where it is willing to sacrifice to do so.

Let me give an example. There’s a section where Of Dice and Men covers the whole history of gaming, but goes through it in maybe twenty or thirty pages. It also spends thirty pages on wargaming, which directly preceded D&D (Gary Gygax was primarily involved with wargaming when D&D became the new hot thing, as was Dave Arneson). The legal woes of TSR practically get a chapter unto themselves (which is not necessarily bad), while the decade and a half following them gets largely blipped over until we come to D&D Next.

Admittedly, this is the time which would be familiar to most gamers at the time of publication, but at the same time it feels like it’s a bit of a jarring transition. When you’ve already got 250 pages, what are another 50? Some incredibly influential games, like White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade get hardly any mention, and despite the in-depth history of TSR almost none of their other games get any serious coverage.

I don’t think that this is accidental, but I do think that if Ewalt had wanted to cover the full phenomena of roleplaying games as a culture he could have included some of the more notable alternatives, both because they’ve had a huge influence and because they serve as a potential gateway to people who don’t have an interest in the swords-and-sorcery setting that D&D is most known for. Likewise, the main discussion of D&D’s many settings is limited to Greyhawk and Blackmoor, both of which are noteworthy and meaningful, but the transition to different settings marks noteworthy philosophical shifts.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It has a lot of good ideas for people who want to get into gaming, and it has stuff that even an old hand like myself can get into and learn from. However, it doesn’t quite achieve what I think it set out to achieve. If you rely on it for all your knowledge you’ll be left with gaps. This is true of almost any book, but Of Dice and Men comes so close to greatness that it legitimately hurts when it only nears its potential.