Montag, 16. November 2015

Shiny, shiny book covers :)

The dracoliche's artist pet is drooling over this shot from Rebekka Mand, with the prints of her Viking saga books:

Mittwoch, 9. September 2015

Happy people!

Job Duel time!
Right now I'm painting book cover #25 in less than two years, among other things of course. And eventually I realized that I've always been passionate about every single book cover I did, no matter if it was supposed to be detailed or a "I can't pay much" thingie. I don't care much about "I can't pay much" if the people who say so are fine with what I can do in the time they pay for. And I never had my hands on any book cover which I just wanted to get done. Each single one was more like: Give me a deadline, or I will paint till I die from lack of caffeine!

Unfortunately this does not happen with all game projects. I don't speak of indie projects, but regular ones, well-paid and with an experienced team. Perhaps its because I have worked as a game designer in a day job for almost nine years. Perhaps it is because a game project runs over many months, up to years, while a book cover lasts one to three days of actual work, plus some time to communicate and get feedback. Perhaps it is because game projects tend do be work for an audience of which I'm not necessarily part, while I am certainly a reader and book fetishist (give me paper! With letters on it!).

But no. I also don't appreciate working all alone over teamwork, nor the other way round. The big difference between my two jobs, of which I don't want to miss one, are happy people.

Game projects wear a team out over time. Most of all the people who have to work overtime, either to catch a deadline or to catch theirs because someone else missed theirs earlier in the process. Changes need and have to be made. And all of that makes someone unhappy; just have a look at the programmers and QA, who work against time even after everyone else finished the bunch of their work.
This is when others disappear into holidays, while the core team lives on coffee and sleeps on the keyboard and sticks cynical cartoons to the office doors. Its part of the job. But it makes noone especially happy. Even when I went into my last three weeks of holidays and barely checked my e-mails in the evenings, I felt with the people who had to wait for my answers on design questions, who probably spent half the night coding or melted away at 38°C in the office, while I was watching underwater life in a cool lake. I think I'm enough of an egocentric to like my holidays anyways; but I did feel bad when I checked my e-mail.

Its hard to get a "yay! That's great!" feedback during the latest parts of a game project, unless everything runs smoothly (enter mad laughter about the impossible here). Mostly you'll hear things like "whew, finally it works".
The usual feedback is necessarily, critique, bug reports, polishing; things which have to be done, but rarely appear positive until they are resolved. The team is busy and focused on this, so there's no "rejoice, only two more months of crunch time!" ... unless someone is being sarcastic, which obviously does not help. Theres not even a reason to try and outweigh the neutral or even negative input with positive input, because the critique is needed in order to keep getting better.
When the game is eventually being announced somewhere, the best one can do is never to read the comments below an article or the forums. Leave that to the community people. There will be motivating comments, but there will also be trolls and mewling sissies. They have high expectations about a game they want, they're blinded by nostalgia, whatever. Even with a perfect game, you can never avoid the mewling sissies. (They are around books too, but try to find a negative comment on a decent cover or illustration from readers ... they're rather rare.)

That's the point when usually someone tells me "go look for a new job!" without realizing how they whine about their own job at times (silently or not), and that game design has its bright parts too, quite lots of them. I simply quitted the smiling, eager crowd who cries out "dream job!" to keep themselves going, which usually ends up badly.
Read this, and you'll know what I mean:
I love my job. And I use to criticize the bad parts in things I love, so they'll be noticed by whomever they concern, and can be dealt with.
Intermission end.

As much as I like making games, there's almost always a point where I consider a book cover in between as holidays. Even if this book cover means additional crunch time, I can both relax my brain and paint away, and as I mentioned above, the authors and publishers for whom I worked so far are amazing people. They say what they don't like; but most of all, they do say, and show, what they like. They aren't down and out from months of work. They're hitting the finishing straight. There's no severe bug or glitch that can throw a book off at this stage, and they know they'll get it wrapped up, literally. I work for the line in the final e-mail that reads like "thanks for putting color on my book and make it shine!"

With games, I have to wait for the release party, and the (hopefully) happy players are so far away and unheard of when I'm eventually catching up on sleep.
This is why right now, illustration wins over game design for me. It makes people happy, and I get my share of this happiness right away. Perhaps I was just lucky to get the commissioners I have. To all of them:
Thank you, folks, you're great!

I'm curious how this will turn out with indie games ... once I find some time to work on them. I hope they'll also make a lot of people happy. :)

Mittwoch, 26. August 2015

Conan the remade Barbarian

So, after some years, I eventually gave in and watched the Conan movie from 2011. And now I have to realize how amazing concept art, CGI and matte painting can help in killing a great story.

I don't see the fault with the art at all. It has simply been used as a disguise for the rickety construction beneath that presumes to be a plot. And the reason why this upsents me so much is that it happens over and over, not only in movies, but also in games. The reason why I chose Conan for this rant is simply that there's the old movie, the new movie, and loads of people have seen both of them; and they make a great example.

I have no idea how many times I heard the old Conan movies considered trash. Maybe they appear to be made for nerds only, with a muscular sword-wielding idol and a shallow story; but hells, all you people out there who don't have a knack for fantasy, please snap out of it for a moment and try to see that these movies are some great pieces of art which achieve exactly what they aim at. They are made for fun, not to carry a profund message or just to indulge in the, hum, slightly exaggerated characters.

No, wait. The old movies are that good. The new one is trash. I'm not even sorry to say so.

The old movie starts with the Riddle of Steel: Conan's father forging a blade and explaining his little boy how the gods lost the riddle of steel to the humans, who solved it and now are able to forge blades and shape the world. He tells his little boy not to trust in gods, because he would be deceived. He tells him to trust in the steel, and at the same time, that he has to understand the sword before he can wield it.
Message for Conan to learn: trust in your own abilities. Learn from what you find. Don't let yourself be deceived by promises that lead only to others exploiting you for their own good.
This message can be found throughout the movie, from the enslaved Conan to the sheepish procession at the Mount of Doom to the orgy in the temple where the feasters don't even notice that they are being served human meat. It's a message that obviously wasn't even noticed by many viewers, considering the very low ratings the movie got.

The new movie starts with the birth of Conan amidst battle, with his dad cutting him from the womb of his dying mother without even looking (oh, yeah, sure), actually lifting a heavy dagger and butchering away. Everything in this scene is absolutely nuts (not looking; cutting her open in the thick of battle without getting slain by someone passing by; his pinky finger between her teeth not getting bitten through; lifting his kid to the sky, yelling like mad, without anyone killing him; etc etc.) and it tells us what? That Conan has been a baby? Battle-born? He's a damned helpless baby, though a lucky one, but the whole scene has absolutely no use and no message.

Let's skip his childhood scenes (with the equally dumb quail-egg initiation scene, the absolutely unbelieveable fight, and the unfortunate implication that the bad guys from the woods visually remind of Native American tribesmen) to the nonsensical sword-forging here. What does it tell me? The whole Riddle of Steel is missing, mentioned in half a sentence, not tied into the storyline or telling little Conan anything he might use for his future. Instead, there's some hollow rambling about ohhh you need fire and ice to forge good steel! Oooh! Now that's surprising (yawn). And then it never even reappears in the further storyline, maybe as a metaphor Conan takes to gain some idea from later. It's another three minutes of movie spent to nothingness.

In the old movie, Conan's mum is beheaded in front of her child, and little Conan is taken away into slavery, first for work, then for fighting. I don't care much that the Wheel of Pain scene is exaggerated and totally dumb if it comes to the question how he could get trained all over if he only trudged along around this wheel all day. The scene carries too much symbolism to be taken as "oh, he only did this all the time".
Throughout the movie, Conan will remember how his mother died. He will treat women with respect. He hates the murderer of his parents. He's a character, and he behaves like a character. And his quest ends up as not only revenge, but also by doing what his dad tought him: rely on yourself, not in gods. He kills a god in order to restore mankind to its own strength, and also to its own responsibility.
If this message is why so many people voted so low for the movie, then ouch. I don't want to think that to it's bitter end.

In the new movie, Conan's mom dies on start, so she's outta the way when little Conan tries to save his dad from molten steel ... which, honestly, should have been cold already when they tied him to the crucible (what's the use of a crucible below the ceiling of a straw-thatched house anyways? Besides, huge droplets of molten metal burn through everything, they don't just bounce off little Conan's face). This could have been a good scene, but again, it ends up hollow, 'cause little Conan has no real choice (no conflict there) and in the end only lifts a seemingly way too heavy sword, screaming in a wannabe heroic way.
He's not even taken away as a prisoner or slave, but left behind by a thoughtlessly sadistic idiot who didn't read the Evil Overlord manual. And he does not even have to learn to fight any more, because we saw earlier that he is already a great warrior even if he's just a little boy, for whatever reason (this strikes me ten times as dumb than the Wheel of Pain could, even if it were annonunced as "yes, he trudged in a circle for ten years!"). Symbolism and exaggeration don't work if the character arc is ... uh ... not only deformed, but simply nonexistent.
Conan will hunt down the murderer of his father. His mom is never mentioned any more. Throughout the movie, he's a dick who treats women like a possession (he even says so!), a decoration, sex reward, and oh, wait, he even rescues the plot device chick, so there's even the use of them to make him look loving and heroic! Wow!
This is not about Conan's dad and not about Plot Device Chick, it's about manly pride being injured by the Evil Overlord. Conan's quest is a blunt revenge tale. That could be nice, but it tries to be more, and that attempt at deeper meaning gone wrong messes up the whole story.

I'm not sorry to be blunt as well: this story only works for  viewers who want to indulge in an empty character shell who gets served the chopped up plot on a silver platter in order to seemingly restore his injured pride, including getting the girl, a lot of badassery, being rewarded for unbearable egocentrism and for behaving like a guy whom every woman should kick where it hurts because he cries out for it.
So, does it work for anyone? Or is it just a blow to the face for the bigger part of the audience?

Except for some servants (of which there are also male ones), all female characters in both old Conan movies are strong, self-reliant (usually highly, even the naive princess from the second movie makes use of her brain), they have motives, goals, background, and they are not only there to make Conan look good. When Valeria, his thievy lover from the first movie, dies, the audience goes all Nooo! because they love her as a character, not just as Conan's female decoration. As he said in the second movie to the princess: he loved Valeria because she was like that ... and the princess immediately talks the Amazon warrior into training her how to fight. With the following scenes, the message becomes clear: teach her self-confidence and self-reliance. She notices that she's terribly insecure and naive, because she never saw anything of the world. If you have never seen a certain scene from Conan the Destroyer which is sheer innuendo, watch the movie again. It is both a mirror in the face of real-life prudery, shows a young woman with the want to break free of this status, and serves a wacky dialog which is too great to miss.

I can't believe how the producers, screenwriters and directors of the new movie managed to rush past all those "Hey! Look! This is what made the old movies great!" moments which are so damned obvious. But they did, and ended up in the Lands of Modern Hollywood Boredom. While the old Conan movies are surely not No Woman's Land scenarios, the new one certainly is; it even is a Male Fantasy Dreamland scenario. Congrats, guys, you just made a movie that will piss of the female half of your audience (never expect just men to watch Conan movies), and part of the male audience too. Conan's nekkid butt in one scene does not make up for all female characters just being two-dimensional story devices, and the main character an undesirable asshole.
Movies are never great if you fail to implement characters as actual persons. I'm not aiming at a feminist stamenent here, it's just usually the female characters who end up being the story device. That sucks pretty much. Anyways, the makers of the new movie also managed to leave out the magnificent mage, and cut down the thief to a terribly stereotyped nobody who has absolutely no place in the story.

I don't know where to start prying the rest of the story apart. Actually I don't even have to do so, 'cause it falls apart when you poke it with a stick, like the sand men conjured by the Evil Overlord's witch daughter. When they brought up these, I thought: hey, finally a great idea! Wear down the edge of Conan's precious steel, make him realize he can't fight these with a sword! (Which is another message in the old movies, said aloud by Conan himself: "We need a mage. I can't fight black magic with a sword." If you can't win, get the fuck help instead of running head-first to your demise.) Instead, the sand men turn out to be mere minions, and pretty weak ones too. Thanks to the script, Conan never thinks about attacking the witch. He gets away with the girl in the end. What was the whole fight good for? Any hint? Oh, right, they needed a useless two-bladed weapon show-off!

Not to talk about the extremely stupid fighting scenes at all. ... Oh, I can't help it. Yes, the old movie actors used swords like hammers. That's typical for the time, and I roll my eyes about it, but at least these fights still carry suspense. I see whats going on.
The new movie had all the benefits of three decades of historical martial arts, sword nerdism and whatnot, and they didn't give a shit about it.
Miss Story Device makes a fancy move with a dagger like three or four times in the movie, always the same and always to exactly no effect. She screams before backstabbing her opponent's kidneys. So does Conan, always warning them to introduce another meaningless fight in which noone will die. And if that wasn't enought to topple all the stakes and kill suspense, they try to incapacitate my eyeballs by zapping from one shot to the next three times per second, showing not one move to its end.

This is not only a problem of realism in fights, it's mainly about robbing the audience of the core of any fighting scene: Why the hell are they fighting for? Ninety percent of the fighting at least are pure script dumbness (stand around and watch instead of throwing in everything you can) in both characters and antagonists, and even showing that half of the people who should fight just stands around gaping witlessly, waiting for the script to tell them that something happens.
Blargh. Again.
Perhaps they tried to avoid fighting choreography. Perhaps they noticed too late that their sword designs are basically overly heavy fancy stuff you better put on a wall than in someone's hand. But then, the Sword of Crom from the old movies was even more unwieldy, and they still managed to make it look useful inside of the movie's world. I'm speaking of consistency here. The old movies were less realistic and more exaggerated all over, they knew it and they stood true to it. In the new one, the exaggerations stand out in a very ridiculous way. I tried to track down why this happens, and I guess it's the tonality, the desperate try to lift the movie to a more earnest, darker, grittier level.

Even the big battles are just lost to the audience. The first one, in which Conan is born, seems to be a victory, since his dad and he survive. But it isn't ever mentioned any more. The second, when the settlement of the Barbarians gets raided, suffers from the need for most amazing fighting scenes. While in the old movie a small village is raided by a rather small number of bandits, in the new one a small village suddenly spits out more than the ten or twenty warriors who could proably have lived there when the few riders who start the attack suddenly expand into an army who would most likely have erased the whole village in no time.
(Oh, not to forget, who would ever hide a horribly dangerous artifact below their floorboards? Please. I feel insulted just by watching this.)
The first quarter hour is symptomatic for the whole movie: a thoughtless and illogocal, inconsistent script aimed at providing one awesome shot after the other. They never got the fact that awesomeness in a picture and in a story are not the same. One can't put shiny wallpapers over a rickety frame and consider it solid.

There's so much potential wasted on this movie. The art. The costumes. Several ideas, all poof into nothingness before they ever play out as something amazing. The acting. Even the best actor can't save a nonexistent story illusioned by dialog that physically hurts me when I hear it.
Talking about dialog, there's a joke about the old movies, that Arnold Schwarzenegger got the probably highest gage for the least number of words spoken. Hey, it works, doesn't it? And it does because the story is well-done from the overall arc to the tiny aspects.
When I watch the new movie instead, I feel like I'm going to shake the screen any moment and yell at Conan just to shut up, 'cause every word he says just makes the whole thing worse.

Well, at least one thing in this move is epic, and that's this most Epic Fail.

Donnerstag, 12. März 2015

What the fuck? or: how to write it.

What the ... yeah, this rant contains the f-word, and some more words for adult people besides. It also contains topics for adult people. But never mind, if you read this you're likely old enough to know that the Stork does not bring babies.

But this is no rant about prude people. I don't care for what others do in their bedroom, as long as nobody peeks into mine. Still, as a reader and writer, I use to peek in fictional bedrooms. Hey, don't tell me that you never did!
There have been countless essays and discussions about how to write a good sex scene. There have been contests and even collections of the best, and more so, of the worst. The only point they all have in common is one: people's tastes vary so greatly that it seems impossible to tell how a good sex scene is written.
So here are some basics. This is no how-to, but the condensed experience from years of reading, writing, re-writing, getting feedback and giving feedback. (Sorry that I can't add an example; this blog is open for everyone to read.) I won't say that I found the holy grail of writing saucy scenes. This is a scrappy map. As always in writing, you'll have to find the X by yourself.

I did not read Fifty Shades of Grey, 'cause the style and lengthyness threw me out during the first chapter countless times. Curiosity had me look for excerpts and some good, critical reviews. Without exaggeration, I know each single saucy scene from quotes (some people counted them) and twice as much of the surrounding questionable relationship stuff. I'm truly sorry to say bad things about a book, but hells, the best part of FSoG is the title. Sex sells, that's obviously true, even if it is wrapped up in explicit words and saucy phrases which, to me, are as exciting as logarithms, and bet that I hate maths.
The majority of sex scenes in literature is fucking boring. Not even thanks to the content, but 'cause many just read all the same no matter what happens. When things get boring, dare to experiment.

Why the f... does bad mommy porn like FSoG sell like this? Why didn't these endlessly repetitious tiring un-sexy sex scenes make people put the book away? Why, on the other hand, do some of the same people who read it point at the kitchen scene in the Name of the Rose movie and cry that it is only there because sex sells? This happened in a discussion where someone came up with "But hey, look there, even that movie uses the sex sells trap!" Which is not true; the scene also in the book, and with a very philosophical reason and high impact on the character of Adson.
The movie scene is not even very explicit with all the deep shadows, just like the monk(!) Adson tends to wrap his confession in the book in every paraphrase he can think of. But as close as the book version is to Adson's inner turmoil, as close is the movie to the characters; believeable, intense, real instead of idealized. Are some people embarassed by that? Then all hail the author and the movie team, 'cause the scene has the essence of good storytelling: it supports immersion so perfectly that you don't notice to be immersed until they've got you. If the scene were shallow and meaningless, there wouldn't be a reason to feel caught in the act.

Sex in stories works just like the Most Evil Monster or the Most Beautiful Creature Ever: it will be best when a good deal of it remains hidden between the lines and allows space for the reader's imagination. So, when I sneak into a bedroom with quill and paper ready, I never put down all the biological stuff. We all know how it works. No body part names need to be copied from Reproduction For Dummies. No dumb and overused phrases too, please. And never ever tell me what the protagonist feels unless you have established that feeling already in the text.

Put your own fantasies aside completely, get into the brains of the point of view character, and stay there during all of the scene. That may be hard to imagine if the character does not correlate with what you would do or what you even know, but hells, that's the challenge about writing, isn't it? Do some research, read, think, try to roleplad in your imagination, get yourself an anonymous account in an online community, ask people, get feedback. Fifty Shades of Grey does not work at all in showing love, because the author probably never thought about the mechanisms of relationships that deserve to be called romantic, and even less about what exactly is the point of kinks and fetishes and what makes them desireable instead of scary.
Here's someone who did it right: Stjepan Šejić with the graphic novel Sunstone.
You'll need to log in on Deviantart to read it, but it's absolutely worth to do that. If you're going to write anything, think out of the box and learn how people tick.

An even more crucial part is not to drop out of perspective.
For example, in A Game of Thrones, George Martin messes up the nice, quiet Daenerys-and-Drogo scene I ranted about here by adding too many descriptions of female body parts. He does so mainly towards the end of the scene, where readers should be stuck in Daenerys' head. Instead he writes a fantasy, a picture seen not even from Drogo's perspective, but from beyond the Fourth Wall. As this is the turning point where Daenerys learns that Drogo is no moron, that her marriage might not be all crap but the start of something greater, it's a marvelous waste of potential.

When I read a hot scene, I want to feel what the characters feel. It's all about sensation and emotion. Of course there may be some body parts - people use to consist of them - but it's likely shoulders and skin and hands; touches and warmth and tension, details and hints suffice to start an avalanche of subconscious effects. Pacing and flow of language need to be perfect to lead into the scene. Words hush, hesitate, caress, tremble, and climax with the characters to create immersion. Writing erotic scenes is not science, it's more like poetry.

Don't take me wrong, poetry can be overdone. A good love scene can even be written cold and cynical. There is no way to write the one perfect love scene, for each individual will react differently to the same words. There's a thin line which may part plain biology from explicit porn, but a bold streak parts both of these from erotics and art: unless there's a very good reason avoid to be explicit, don't choke the scene with an overload of metaphors, and don't replace human body parts with shamefully indirect surrogates. Read the scene aloud and ask yourself if you feel anything about what happens.
It's like Sandro Del Prete's dolphins and couple picture: The more you see the dolphins, the more is wrong with the sexy scene.

Context and function are extremely important. Sometimes you may not need a sex scene in your story. Unless something important happens while the characters are at it, a mere implication will help more than even the best written scene could. For example, read William Gibson's Neuromancer for the implication variant, or The Godfather, where just half a line says that Kay and Michael made love in the hotel room. Sometimes, that's just enough, and everything else would only be an excuse for porn. Which of course is okay if you want to write that.

Creating immersion was never easier 'cause evolution has been so kind to make reproduction nice. At the same time few things are harder to write, as many societies have banished everything carnal from everyday life since hundreds of years and more, and will need another long time to get rid of their self-made chains. As a writer, you need to get rid of your personal shackles: never guess what your readers may think when they read what you put down on the paper. Don't be ashamed of your own writing. Kick prudery in the balls and allow your characters, your readers, and yourself to feel like human beings.

Montag, 9. März 2015

How to seriously fuck up a love scene

Guess I'm getting better at attention-drawing headlines. :P
Oh, some strong language here, like "blatantly" and "unbearably" and even the f-word. And I'm well aware I'm years late with this rant, but as the topic is timeless and the example just perfect, I don't care.

Some time ago I read Film Crit Hulk's rant on a rape scene in Game of Thrones.
As usual, he puts the problem in words way, uh, more capital and more precise than I could, because I get in an claw-some-eyes-out mood when I read about such an idiotic handling of a severe problem in fiction. I confess I almost fell into the same trap of using such screwed-up so-called love scenarios for the purpose of shallow dramatization myself when I started writing, but fortunately I'm a lazy ass and never published anything before I stumbled upon the light of reason - well, no, but understanding - in that matter (and still published nothing of notion). I threw away hundreds of pages and rewrote just as many. Maybe check out the Ouch! rant for further babble on how to handle a 'fate worse than death' scene based on only too real situations.

So this one sounds rather harmless, but is also pretty fucked up. In the novel A Game of Thrones, George Martin wrote quite some bedsheet scenes, some of them all nice and consensual, some not. If there is one outstanding among all of them up to A Dance with Dragons, I believe it's the wedding night of Daenerys and Khal Drogo. And I'm truly not a person who likes even the sound of the word wedding, because I doubt the whole concept as it is in most of the world. Still, I like this scene, because Drogo proves that he's the probably only not-an-asshole man in his whole damned world. In later chapters, he proves to be one as he handles Daenerys all of a sudden like a rubber doll, which for me simply shattered his credibility as a character. But this scene is good. Not well-written - I'm quite picky about what I consider a sexy scene - and overly descriptive to the end, but basically, it works. Of course Drogo could be even more understanding, but then I might not have believed him too. He gets a totally scared and by the hands of her own brother abused young bride. He handles the situation like a person of his rather patriachic culture, and still not like the stereotype expected in the No Woman's Land which Daenerys experienced so far (link to the Entangling Maze Of Tropes at the bottom), but obviously he does not totally lack empathy. If you want to interpret the scene, by letting Daenerys undo his braid he pretty much lets his armor down completely. He gives her time (mostly), is gentle, and ohgods, how kitschy sounds that. Well, he's not being a moron.

The TV series restores continuous credibility to Drogo over this and the next episode, but unfortunately not by making his further love life with Daenerys believeable (moron again), but by making him a moron in the first place. In the book, a minor scene did not match the picture; in the series, one of the key scenes turned from the implication of a pretty neat wedding night to flat-out marital rape.
Now that makes me like Drogo.
If I hadn't known the books in advance, I'd probably quitted the series at the point when Daenerys went cooing about him and their great, great love. It was a bit weird reading the scene in the book where Drogo suddenly turns into a "she's my wife, I fuck and don't care about her" idiot (at least he simply does and does not make a statement about it), but these scenes felt wrong at all, like a piece from the wrong story glued into the book. Thus I just read on and found a working Drogo character later again. One whom Daenerys truly could grow to love, which is key to her character development.
In the movie, Drogo is introduced as a self-centered careless friggin' asshole. That does not just go away by Daenerys starting to announce heartfelt world-shattering love later. It's so blatantly unbelieveable that I asked myself ever since I saw this scene how it could ever get to the screen. But unfortunately, the answer is easy: it's not half as blatantly dumb as way too many relationships in fiction are (like a certain grey-ish series I'm never ever going to read or watch, 'cause I still need my brain). It's sad, but such behavior of fictional characters leaves an impression in everyone who sees them, and thus influences also the writers, directors and producers of new scenes of this kind. Of course this does not mean these people are morons, but this silent influence seems to be strong enough to make them write more crap without thinking about it from another angle. Ooh, let's add some rape for the flavor, huh?
I'm getting all poke-some-eyes-out about it because I actually like both the books and the series. There are many newer works of fiction that still suffer from the same incredibility, and partially way worse. The detail that makes me rant about this very scene is that a nice existing reference has been thoughtlessly fucked up. Literally. So I don't even feel bad about ending this rant with the worst word-play at hand.

Beware the sticky trap of tabbed trope browsing.

Good Dog

So, after being lazy for almost a year, I dug up some old rants in the making, and here they are, because I have new ones ready. Meanwhile, go play with the dog. ;)

If I were an NPC, I'd want a player character instead of a dog. They sleep and eat elsewhere (or not at all), don't need to be taken for a walk (just give them a goblin to play with), they are not smelly (even if they just crossed a swamp full of undead hydrae) and all you got to do is giving them some coin (which a game designer placed in your inventory) when they solved the task you gave them. Sometimes you can even send them to someone else for payment. You may even tell them you tricked them into work and refuse payment 'cause you are oh-so-terribly poor. As long as you don't withhold their experience points, they won't even eat your brains. All in all, they make marvellous pets.

Though, pets can be quite unnerving if they do the same all day. Dogs retrieve sticks you throw for them. Player characters retrieve stolen jewellry, your ancient family heirloom, or just a random number of, well, sticks. So what if you want a more interesting pet? Tell him so save the world? That's crap, you'll just get killed by the evil guy to motivate the player character. But there are different kinds of tasks to send them off with and still survive.
For an instance, send them off, then disappear into nothingness and leave the payment trouble to someone else. Your opponent in a certain quest, at best. The only important thing is not to leave them without a quest solution; they would pursue you and get your purse or your head, or both.
You're on the secure side when you just hint the quest stuff as a rumour to the player. Make them get you a bottle of good old wine, have a nice drink and rant drunkenly about that treasure hidden in some old ruin or in the house of another NPC whom you would wish some decent thieving. Even if this is not the whole task, it's a good start: When players need to do something beforehand to get the real quest, when they do something and find out there's more behind (like a dump of rotting corpses in the basement of the NPC's manor) they're more likely to run after the stick you throw them.
Sometimes you can even get money from them. Put on the worst set of clothes in the game, wait by the roadside and whine about them evil robbers in the woods, or the baron who threw you out of your house. Money is only the usual part, of course. The true worth in this kind of quest is not the gold, but the fun when they slay the robbers or the baron, or get themselves some bruises while trying.

The annoying part is that you'll never get the really cool items which the player loots from their foes. Players always keep the good amulets and swords; if not, they'll be pissed. So make them choose: The item they are to fetch, or a good deal of money instead; or a different item. Whatever they take, they will feel it's worth even more as is truly is, as they choose and paid. It might get even more worthy when they have to do something evil to gain it. Truly evil. Others must loathe them for the deed, and not talk and trade with them any more.
Always a nice distraction are curses. Be it a cursed object which they shall find - or which they stumbled upon, what a coincidence! - or a curse which their opponent in the quest lays on them; it gives you a good reason to get them rid of the object and claim it for yourself. Still, they fulfilled the quest. Most likely, they needed the cursed weapon to do something awful which you didn't want to stain your own hands with, but you'll look like the nice helpful NPC until you're off with the amulet / sword / handkerchief of doom.
The most amusing and most content player character pets are those who never notice being pets at all. In the end you can even decide to let them know they've been a nice dog. But then, keep in mind you're an NPC, and worth some experience points if they want to whack you with their newly gained weapon.

The unspoken reason why vampires suck

Yeah, vampires suck, we all know that as there are bazillions of rants on the web on the topic. I don't mean to join in. My reason why vampires suck (pun intended, as usual) is the one which every player of a typical experience point-based Pen&Paper system or digital game should know: they drain levels.

To all those readers who now bray "powergamer, stop whining!", I can simply say read on or turn away and miss some experience points for yourself. This is not about the loss of levels, but about a severe game design flaw that took hold in RPGs with the one really old pen&paper system that is named after dungeons and huge flying lizard-things. Actually, I tend to play this system once in a while, and as I play the one character who is always the lucky one to be level-drained, I started to think about the reason why I was way more pissed of permanently losing levels - which means: experience points - than gold, as both experience points and gold can be re-gathered. I'm pissed by this concept as well in digital games, even in modern ones where the level drain is clearly temporarily, and there are quite some of them who employ basic level drain mechanics.
To keep things straight, I'll stick to the pen&paper system mentioned above, but the overall issue applies to any other level-draining game mechanics too. And vampires are simply my scapegoat of choice.

Mechanics are not what the classical tabletop RPG and it's digital cousins are about. Once this construction breaks through the surface, once a character speaks ingame about "experience points" or even about "experience" as something that implicitly can be measured by a value, the illusion shatters, immersion is lost, maybe even the atmosphere killed off as if it weren't important.

So, vampires drain levels. What, by the names of all pantheons of the Multiverse, is a damned level? Tell me in in-world terms what a vampire does to a person.

They let you age, I was told.
But no, a ghost lets the characters age, explicitely described that way. Whoever sees or touches a ghost ages some decades in mere seconds, hair turning white and eyes hollow. That's a pretty neat concept, close to folk tales and horror stories, and extremely dangerous.

They drain your blood, I was told.
Oh. Sure. I wasn't aware that blood carries experience and abilities. I was pretty sure that the brain is the culprit. Now don't tell me that blood loss affects the brain, or lose some levels the next time an ogre smashes your character into the ground, causing some quite severe blood loss.
Besides, it suffices that a vampire manages a successful attack in almost every game system to drain levels. They don't have to bite, not mentioning to suck blood. They would drain levels by giving you a thick ear.

They drain energy, I have read many times.
What the heck is energy? Life energy? Why do they also drain the experience points, not only the level-related health points? Answer in one sentence, or throw the whole concept of level drain away, as it is one huge inconsistency in the game mechanics that stinks of an idea which someone did not think to the end. Instead, this game mechanic was glued into the world and not even painted over. And one game after the other took the idea and made it's own variation, with the same effect.

It's, uhh, vampire ability! Or vampire saliva! You don't need an explanation for a game system!
I can't believe how many times I heard that. Of course we do need explanations. For the simple reason that the game promises adventures, which means stories, in a foreign and fantastic world, and not Beating The Game Rules. I do that when I want to test a prototype of a game or when I want to play something that's only about assembling items and abstract numbers. When I play my Pen&Paper character, I want to think in in-world terms and forget about the mechanics.

Levels and experience points are the most abstract of all game concepts, meant to be representation and management tool of the character's progress. They have absolutely no base in the world itself. Health points aka life energy (sic!), character attributes like Strength, Dexterity and Wisdom, skill points - everything is the abstract background for ingame values that can be translated to in-world terms with one word. Sometimes they simply are described by this word. Level would only be possible in a world of bots and cyborgs, but in a sword-and-sorcery world, it's an epic fail to mention these terms ingame or remind of their existence before the evening is over and the players - not the characters - deal with newly gained experience points and level settings.

Experience points are obviously only partially fitting in the game world as a measurement for someone's experience (wouldn't have guessed that, huh?). Levels, on the other hand, are based on this value, and thus absolutely abstract. A level is also the base for other values, like additional health points, the gain of new skill points, abilities, saving throws, natural resistances. So when a vampire or any other energy-draining monster drains a level, they drain the one value which has absolutely no in-world relation, and break the fourth wall in the most inconvenient way.

There is no saving throw against level drain in the original system, a vampire simply needs to score damage; some other opponents even only need to touch their victim. And do you think it's the fighter who gets the problem, or the character with the highest level? No. He has the best armor. It's usually the weakest character who bears the highest risk of being drained. More so, vampires drain two levels at one hit, some even four.
In both tabletop and digital systems this overthrows the balance of the group severely. This way, level drain is a powerful, but hardly controllable tool in the hands of a game master.

Of course there is usually a method to get your level back at the next temple, but you'll never get the whole lost experience. You pay an extraordinarily high price to be restored to a part of what you had earlier. In any case, the level drain leaves you with the feel of being cheated about something, as you did exactly nothing wrong, but the game system does not allow a saving throw like against almost every other incident, e.g. a dragon puking acid all over an adventurer.

Now there's an interesting point: you lose health, and other bodily attributes like saving throws besides. Fine. You could lose these and get them back by spell together with the level.
But instead, the level drain takes everything related with this level: experience points, skill points just as well. Of course this can be explained if one tries hard enough. Anyways, explanations like this are simply a mask for a poorly integrated part of the game system, and it doesn't help to paint over that just one more time.
Let me flake off the paint completely: even if you manage to come up with reasons, explanations and excuses for all of the above, tell me what the extreme and rare experience of being bitten by a vampire, fighting a vampire or even watching others fight a vampire will yield in abundance? Right. Experience. But instead, despite all the new experience points possibly gained from the adventure, you lose way more than you gain. No talking about getting them back by a restoring spell; as the spell will always only yield a capped amount of experience, there's likely no gain at all. Excuse that, and take care not to get a knot into your tongue whilst trying.

Of course any game action which is technically based on someones level may show a player that their character is only a name on a sheet full of numbers. Which is, truth be told, no fun at all. For the same reason I like point-less experience gain better than any pointless try to depict the learning curve of a living being, if only an imaginative one, by points.
Level drain most effectively abolishes the working concept which health points or health slots have established. After all, I, the player, still feel betrayed before I think about what my character feels.
Vampires suck an abstract value, not my character's life.