Monday, June 30, 2008

Plug: Jim Shepard and Glen Hirshberg at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog

I got to chat with two talented writers over at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog: Jim Shepard and Glen Hirshberg.

Book Review: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Two by Jonathan Strahan

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.

The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Two is pretty much the first volley of anthologies that collects last year's best science fiction and fantasy. At the very least, it's an interesting set of stories based on previously published material. Personally, I've read many of the stories included yet revisiting them actually made me appreciate them more rather than feel exhausted. Perhaps one thing I noticed is that there's a stronger science fiction balance in this anthology compared to the previous volume--although that might also be because the lines between science fiction and fantasy easily gets blurry. The opening piece, Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and The Alchemist's Gate", is a good example. This is easily my favorite story and arguably Chiang's most accessible piece. The physics of time travel is narrated with an Arabian Nights flavor and theme, appealing to both science fiction and fantasy fans. If you're more of the former, you'll appreciate the concept it tackles. If you're more of the latter, you'll enjoy its tone and voice. Next on my favorite stories list is "The Last and Only, or Mr. Moskowitz Becomes French" by Peter S. Beagle. I enjoyed it the first time but after rereading it and examining it more closely, this is a layered story with depth and gravity, yet tackled lightheartedly and with much comedy. One can appreciate it on the surface level--and the story very much succeeds on that level already--yet sophisticated readers will find there's more to mine in this narrative with subsequent readings. The last story I'd like to draw attention to--and could easily have been the other contender for opening this anthology--is Daniel Abraham's "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics". Abraham tells an enticing tale through simple and concise language as well as being consistent with his theme. What makes this story work however are his compelling characters and how a concept we take for granted becomes transformed into this enchanting tale that makes you think it couldn't have been written any better. There are honestly a lot of great stories in this anthology from authors like Jeffrey Ford, Ted Kosmatka, Neil Gaiman, Ken MacLeod, etc. and they otherwise would have made my top three but I really feel strongly about the stories mentioned above and is easily worth the price of the book. Some stories I feel are simply good instead of great but that's always been the case with various anthologies and at the end of the day, one must admit that at the very least, The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Two provides an interesting selection of short stories.


Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.

Book Review: Goblin War by Jim C. Hines

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.

Hines continues his fantasy satire/underdog story with Goblin War where our protagonist Jig unwillingly finds himself in a less-than-enviable position. I didn't read the previous book, Goblin Hero, but I pretty much got the gist of the previous events and had no problems engaging the story. Fans who read the first book, Goblin Quest, will find resolution to the events that transpired there as an integral character makes a return appearance. Hines's tone and writing has remained consistent and carries the same flavor as the first novel. Practicality and common sense is still the way the author approaches his humor and his writing is quite functional. As for the characters in the book, Goblin War still relies on fantasy stereotypes (and the subversion of them) and that's either a boon for high fantasy readers or a bane for people entering the field blind. Overall nothing really striking, either for or against this novel. Pay-off in my opinion goes to the readers who followed the preceding books but that's not really a requirement to enjoy this book. If you're familiar with fantasy D&D-isms, you might want to check out this series as that's where much of the humor stems from.

Rating: 2.5/5.

Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.

The Worst Thing

I'm cramming a short story for a local horror submission and then I realized that the worst thing that could happen isn't that your story gets rejected, but that it's published in its unedited/uncritiqued glory.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Clockpunk Anime

I was channel surfing and I found this not-so-recent (2000's) anime entitled Karakuri Kiden Hiwou Senki or Hiwou War Chronicles. It's set in the Meiji era and instead of robots, you get marionettes which are powered by clockwork.

The YouTube video can be found here which is the first half of the first episode. Opening credits start at 3:30.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Plug: Nathan Ballingrud at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog

I got to interview the talented Nathan Ballingrud at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog.

Top 10 Best-Sellers as of 2008/6/22

From USA Today's best-seller list (you can find out their basis here):

  1. Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich
  2. Sail by James Patterson and Howard Roughan
  3. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  4. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  5. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow
  6. Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich
  7. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  8. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  9. The Shack by William P. Young
  10. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

Thursday, June 26, 2008

2008/6/26 Tabletop RPG Podcasts

Every Thursday, I post links to various podcasts that deals with tabletop RPGs.

Tabletop RPG (Mostly)

General Discussions/Reviews/Everything Else

Actual Play Sessions

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Essay: Filipino-Chinese Marriage Practices

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

I don't seem to have the words to describe the kind of relationship the Filipinos have with the Chinese. An over-simplification would call it a love-hate relationship but that's not quite accurate either. On one hand, the Chinese are one of the earliest "immigrants" the country had--and one that didn't attempt to take the country by force unlike the Spanish, Americans, or Japanese (of course I expect there were the occasional pirate clashes or perhaps even raids ala the Vikings). Of course by the same token, Philippine culture is remarkably distinct and different from the other Chinese-influenced nations in Asia such as Japan or Singapore--precisely because the Chinese didn't attempt to assimilate us into their culture. Spain, on the other hand, was more than willing to jump at that particular opportunity (see Culture and Histsory by Nick Joaquin for more references), giving the Philippines a more European--and later Western--atmosphere as opposed as to what is usually perceived as "Asian"*.

Trade was one of the earliest methods in which the Chinese interacted with Filipinos and so it should be no surprise why Ongpin or "Chinatown" was located in Manila, a popular port and market hub several centuries ago. Even before the Chinese Revolution, migrating to the Philippines seemed like a lucrative opportunity: it was the new frontier and a gateway to the West yet remaining familiar because of prior experiences with trade. Later on, the Philippines became a haven for those wanting to escape the Chinese Revolution or its one-child policy.

Perhaps what many people are unaware of is the Chinese minority that actually fled to the Philippines. China is a huge country that has variations in language and dialect. People wanting to learn "Chinese" are actually studying Mandarin or the other prominent dialect, Cantonese. In the Philippines, majority of its Chinese immigrants speak Fookien (I can already imagine the mnemonic technique of "fuck!"), a remnant from a southern Chinese province. I don't think a modern Chinese citizen would be able to understand Fookien, although we get to use Fookien when bargaining with some vendors in Hong Kong. Suffice to say, Fookien is the dominant Chinese language in the Philippines despite the fact that Mandarin is the language being taught at schools (and in the case of my generation, more students are proficient with the former than the latter).

With the history lesson out of the way, I can begin to talk about the Filipino-Chinese culture. Many Filipino-Chinese families take a more conservative stance when it comes to tradition. I suspect this is one of the last few ways they cling on to their culture. The Chinese elders that I talk to don't consider themselves Filipinos for example. They consider themselves Chinese. The term Filipino-Chinese is in many ways a modern construct that is accepted only by the recent generation who grew up in Philippine culture. Even today, whenever I talk to my parents about a friend, the first question they'll ask me is langna or huana which translates to "Chinese or Filipino?" A classmate even asks me the same question when I bring up an unfamiliar name. Suffice to say, for the Filipino-Chinese, there is a divide between people they consider Chinese and people they consider Filipino.

Of course if the Filipino-Chinese community is arrogant and prejudiced in their disposition, Filipinos haven't really attempted to dispel this notion either. I'm sure there are many Filipinos who perceive the Chinese as grabbing the business opportunities that should have gone to them. There are those who would, given the chance, deport all the Chinese from this country, making it a "Philippines for Filipinos" ideal--never mind the fact that many modern Filipino concepts such as SM Megamall or the fast-food chain Jollibee are run by Filipino-Chinese entrepreneurs. When the Spanish originally inhabited the Philippines, they labeled the natives as "indios" in much the same way America labeled its natives as Indians or its slaves as negroes. The Chinese were once called "instik" by native Filipinos although the label has lost its derogatory meaning over time.

Going back to the conservative stance of the Filipino-Chinese community, purity of blood is still a tradition that is still valued. There are some traditions that we've dropped (i.e. arranged marriages) and some that we've kept (i.e. dowries). But the last bastion of tradition the Filipino-Chinese will fight to the death is probably its preservation of its pure Chinese blood (which similarly leads to the popularity of exclusive Filipino-Chinese schools). Currently, it is still taboo for a Filipino-Chinese to marry someone who is not Chinese. There have been many actions taken to reinforce this belief. A friend once shared with us that his father took him to a strip bar when he was just a teenager to show him that there were many beautiful women in the world and not to fall in love with the first woman who caught his interest. Another friend was threatened to be kept out of the will and disowned should he marry someone not Chinese.

What interests me is the hypocrisy of exemptions that occur under these practices. Filipino-Chinese families will have qualms if you marry someone Filipino but if you're some other foreigner--let's say an American--that's perfectly fine (having said that, there are still some racial combinations that is frowned upon such as an Indian marriage). If you're a Filipino who's particularly wealthy, the family will probably also make an exemption. What baffles me are the Filipino-Chinese families who aren't of pure descent to begin with: the father who married a Filipina but is forbidding his son or daughter from marrying someone not Chinese.

That's not to say people haven't broken taboo. It's probably easier these days for a Filipino-Chinese person to marry someone not Chinese compared to one or two generations ago but the stigma is still there. My uncle married a Filipina but he eventually migrated to the US. Whenever he visits us and my late grandfather, he never brought his family. Whether this is simply a logistical problem (accommodations, expenses, etc.) or simply avoiding bringing up old wounds, I don't know. Having said that, this exemption mentality has also brought up a new prejudice: if anyone in the family is going to marry someone not Chinese, let it be the male child.

A friend once asked me why this is so and I replied that she should remember that China is a patriarchy and most of the benefits go to the men. She replied that if that were truly the case, then they shouldn't care who their women should marry. Well, for one thing, humanity has always been contradictory. For another, I see it as the Filipino-Chinese having this belief that if anyone should break tradition, it should be the person with the most authority. So while there's been progress when it comes to Filipino-Chinese marriages, we're not there yet. The males can break taboo with some difficulty but that's not the case with females.

*Sadly, friends recount numerous anecdotes of Americans asking them if they know kung-fu when they claim that they are Asian.

Stalling for Time

I got home late last night so hopefully I can brush my teeth, eat, then travel to the office before I can finally write this week's essay (alas, I've exhausted my inventory).

In the meantime, check out photographer Jay Tablante's recent exhibit which is up at DeviantArt. Various Filipino celebrities are styled in various pop icons from X-Men's Rogue, Kill Bill's Gogo, or Final Fantasy's Yuna.

Plug: Sarah Monette at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog

Sarah Monette gets interviewed over at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Feature: What I'd Like to See in an Anthology

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

For the past few years, I've been on a steady diet of short stories. Since I'm in the Philippines and renowned speculative fiction magazines are expensive to ship here, my source of short stories are usually anthologies. Here's what I'd like to see in an anthology although priority goes to content (and trumps all of these details).

  1. The Year - There's a couple of anthologies that have a "Best of the Year" theme to it. Which is fine if it was recently released but sometimes, you run across copies where you don't know when it was published. So is the book supposed to represent 1998 or 2008? Citing the year would be helpful or failing that, perhaps a volume number (both would be best but between a volume number and the year, I'd choose the latter). I'd crack open the book and look at the copyright page but a lot of books in local bookstores are wrapped in plastic (often shrink-wrap).
  2. A Complete List of Authors - This doesn't have to be in front, it could be at the back but it would be helpful to see a complete list of authors featured in the anthology (even better if there's a list of their short stories but I understand if there are space constraints). Again, this is probably a problem due to the fact that taking books out of the plastic is taboo (but actually permissible) in the Philippines. I expect marketable authors like Neil Gaiman to grace the covers but hopefully there's enough space in the back to include a roster of authors.
Inside Pages
  1. Page Numbers - Not that I've seen an anthology lacking page numbers but just in case, it's convenient for a book to actually have page numbers.
  2. Table of Contents - Again, not that I've seen an anthology lacking one (although I have seen a collection lacking a table of contents) but a table of contents becomes quite important in an anthology, especially with its mix of various authors and stories. (I don't think I have to mention that a Table of Contents only matters if the book has page numbers...)
  3. Author's Name and Story Title - Usually in either the header or footer of the book. It makes recognizing the author and the title of the story you're currently reading much easier without needing to refer the Table of Contents or flipping back to the start of the story.
  4. Bio and/or Afterword Near the Story - Now there are usually three places where an author's bio is located: before the story, after the story, or at the end of the book. I'm fine with the first two, not so much with the last part mainly because I'm bad with names and by the time I've gotten around to the end of the book, I've probably forgotten who wrote what (unless it's a name I readily recognize or the anthology is that short). It's better for me to associate the story with their corresponding author if I see their name either before or after the story. As far as afterwords and summations go, hopefully they're at the end of the story because there are some intros to stories that can spoil the ending or attempt to train the reader what to expect from a certain reading (i.e. "this is an Arthurian story...", "this is a political story...", etc.).

Feature: Analyzing The Costs of Using Print-on-Demand in the Philippines

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

In any endeavor, there are three elements that one leverages: time, money, and talent. If you're like me, you've probably thought about publishing a book yourself. I'll also bet that a lot of times, one excuse you'll tell yourself is that you don't have enough money to publish a book. In actuality, if you have the time and the talent (and I'm not talking about writing talent but rather being talented in one of the steps of the publishing processes; see below), publishing a book is feasible. It's probably not as cheap as your monthly salary (well, at least not with my job) but certainly within reach of anyone with a middle class income. Unfortunately, I'll be the first one to admit that I don't have both the time and the talent which is why I'm interested in exploring other publishing alternatives but let me show you your hypothetical options should you consider publishing a book.

Previously, I couldn't talk about book publishing without providing concrete numbers. However, I recently discovered Central Books which has a matrix of what it'll cost you so that gives us a rough estimate. Let's take it from the top. Central Books has two packages, the classic package and the workbook package. The biggest difference between the two is that 1) with the latter, you'll either have to do your own paperwork or your book isn't legal, and 2) you don't have promotional posters. #2 you can live without if you're willing to do your own marketing or interested in simply getting your book out there*. #1 however should concern you, especially if you're planning to run your book publication as a business. Now the workbook package is P4,000 cheaper (roughly $100.00) than the classic package. However, you will be burdened with acquiring an ISBN and submitting copies for copyright purposes. Since this is the Philippine government we're talking about, this is easily several hours of your time and will take several days. I'm an employee with a 9 am - 6 pm job. I don't have that luxury of taking a leave that long. I mean using my vacation leave for a day or two is fine. But the entire process will take days of you going back and forth. If I had the money, I'd simply play for the classic package. The extra cost is well worth it considering the time I'm going to give up. More importantly, I'll be avoiding the hassle of everything that goes along with securing an ISBN, such as proving that you're an actual publishing company (tax records, minimum money in the bank, etc.).

So here at Step 1, publishing a book already costs you either P9,500 ($240.00) or P5,500 ($140.00). This is just the preliminary costs.

Step two is figuring out how much the actual book is going to cost you. Central Books has a neat little matrix. Let's say your book is "6 x 9", slightly larger than your average mass market paperback. Now count how many pages your book will consume. Let's say you're publishing an anthology with minimal pictures (I assume that the package is for black and white books so none of those full-color coffee table books). 200 pages is a good estimate for a nice book that's not too lean. Now another estimate you'll be making is how many copies you want to be printing. If you studied the chart, you'll notice that the more copies you print (capping at 1000+), the cheaper it is. But before you decide to publish your book by the thousands, calculate if you can afford it. What's deceptive when it comes to printing cost is that the printer gives you the cost per copy. P82.79 ($2.00) might not seem much but when you multiply it by 1,000, that's costing you P82,790 ($2000.00). I don't know about you but that's way out of my budget. Let's settle for something more modest, say 100 copies. At P155.64 ($4.00), it's nearly twice as expensive but I'm not ordering a thousand copies, just a hundred. That's a total of P15,564 ($400.00).

At Step 2, for 100 copies of your book, you're spending either P25,064 ($640.00) or P21,064 ($540.00). Since this is print-on-demand, you can probably get a cheaper deal from an actual printer but remember, you'll have to do your own paperwork and most printers have a minimum print run of 500 copies.

Step three is reading the fine print. Currently, you have a rough estimate of how much your book will cost. However, that assumes that 1) the book has already been laid out and 2) there will be no revisions to the final output. For #1, assuming your text is perfect and requires no edits, you'll need a graphic designer to layout your book. Arguably you could do it yourself but you'll need to teach yourself how to do it and don't expect the book to look as good as it could be. If you're on a budget, one can theoretically layout an all-text book using Open Office or AbiWord and then covert the file to a PDF. Remember what I said about talent and time? As for #2, you'll notice that Central Books charges revision by the page. I've been working in a magazine for three years now. Never had I encountered a publication that did not need revision. Heck, there's still some errors when our magazine is placed in the newsstands. If you want your book to come out good, allot money for a graphic designer and make allowances for revisions.

Okay, let's assume you have a friend who's doing the encoding and layouts for you and that the pre-final manuscript has errors you can live with. It's off to the presses. Once the printing is done, you'll need to pick up 100 pieces of your book. I'm not the strongest man in the world but even if I was, I wouldn't be lugging around 100 books. Let's say you take a cab and let's assume you live near Central Books. Add P100.00 to your expenses. Now here's your real problem: how do you distribute your book? Let's tally your expenses so far:

At P25,164 ($640.00) or $21,164 ($540.00), your book roughly costs P251.64 ($6.50) or P211.64 ($5.50) per copy. What price will you be selling your book? Now here's the problem with distribution. If you're selling it at convenient outlets such as a bookstore, you'll usually need two things: 1) transportation to deliver your goods and 2) an official receipt (again, much like the ISBN, more paperwork!). Assuming you've got those two factors handled, it's time to negotiate how much is the retailer's profit. Theoretically, the formula is that a 40% of the product goes to the producer, 30% goes to the distributor, and 30% goes to the retailer. I don't know how it works elsewhere but from my experience, that's not the case here in the Philippines. If you're fortunate enough, 20% of the final cost goes to the consignee. That means slapping an additional 25% (yes, 20% = 25%... if you don't want to do the math, just take my word for it) on your product. If you're selling your book at cost (no profit), your retail price is roughly P315 ($8.00) or P265 ($6.75). However, that's assuming you get it cheap. The big bookstore chains like National Bookstore usually takes in 40% - 60% off the retail price. Let's assume it's 50% so effectively, you're selling your book at twice its cost: P500.00 ($12.50) or P422.00 ($10.50) per copy. And then there's more shipping costs as not all of your books will be sold by the retailer and you'll have to pay for the cost in transporting it back home. You guys still with me on this?

As can be seen, distribution can be quite as (if not more) difficult as getting the book printed. That's why a lot of authors prefer to go through publishers. But if you don't have that luxury and have that DIY mentality, well, there's the breakdown. Obviously, the costs will vary depending on how much time, money, and/or talent you're willing to invest in the project. I'd honestly hire an editor, a graphic designer, and perhaps a dedicated messenger to handle some of the other needs of the book and all for just 100 copies. Again, there are cheaper alternatives such as going to an actual printer (who'll most likely give you a cheaper rate but you'll have to print more copies) but here's a rough estimate of the publishing process.

*As a requirement for my Creative Writing program, our class was required to publish our own book. It didn't have to be a legal book so if you're in the same scenario as I was, you might want to look into the workbook package.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Plug: Ellen Datlow at the Shirley Jackson Awads Blog

I got to interview the Summer Queen Ellen Datlow over at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog.

Book Review: In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.

I've heard the term interstitial fiction thrown around but it wasn't until I read this collection of short stories from Theodora Goss that I realized how elegant this fusion of genres can be. Suffice to say, there are sixteen stories in In the Forest of Forgetting, all of which are beautifully written. Goss is not afraid to experiment and while her hybrid fiction can be daring, they remain quite readable through her use of simple yet entrancing language. Here are my top three stories in the book: "Lily, With Clouds" might be short but it delivers a big impact to the reader. It begins mundanely enough with the protagonist visiting her sister who was stricken with cancer yet as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the narrator's foil possesses something unexpected. This is very much a story carried through language and subtlety as much as character. "Sleeping with Bears" is readily one of the more blatant use of interstitial fiction as this could have been a normal wedding story if it weren't for the fact that the groom and his family are bears. Again, this is a relatively short story divided into eleven parts yet each mini-chapter is carefully worded as to serve a bigger purpose in the entire narrative. For pretty much the same reason why I enjoyed "Lily, With Clouds", the strength of this story is what is implicit rather than what is explicit. "A Statement in the Case" has a distinct tone of character and atmosphere different from the other stories in this collection. The narrative is simple and readily apparent but Goss transforms a normal crime story into something fantastical and surreal. Overall this is an impressive collection of short stories that challenges genre conventions and proves that you don't have to be difficult or alien to be daring.

Rating: 4/5.

Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.

Book Review: Deep Inside: Extreme Erotic Fantasies by Polly Frost

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.

Deep Inside by Polly Frost is described as supernatural erotica on the cover and in my opinion, this collection reads more like an erotic collection with supernatural elements rather than a supernatural collection with erotic elements--which should set expectations from the get go. There are ten stories in the book and most of them are titillating--but I'm a hot-blooded male in a Catholic-dominant country and nine of these stories features a female protagonist so I don't know whether this is the author simply appealing to male fantasies or something that applies across the board. Frost's language is simple and easy to get into, leaving no room for vagueness. Writing style is quite functional, giving you the basic details and expounding on the erotica scenes. All the stories have a speculative fiction element to it, whether it's aliens, conspiracies, or some sci-fi plot device. Overall it was an enjoyable read, perhaps more in the guilty pleasure sense and along the lines of watching a porn film. Having said that, there were some stories that stood out for me, mainly due to the horror element and the ambiguity Frost provides when it comes to the ending. The first is the opening story, "Threshold", which is a sexual coming-of-age narrative with unique twists along the way. Frost focuses on characterization in this story and while it's not a full-blown delve into the character's psyche, it provides a sturdy backbone. Another notable story is "The Pleasure Invaders" which is anime porn personified but written with a crime angle. Here, Frost captures a bit of the private-eye noir tone while remaining serious and sensual. The last is "Viagra Babies", another coming-of-age story of sorts revolving around a science fiction concept and the only story told from a male viewpoint.

As long as you have no illusions what to expect from this collection, you'll do fine. Frost covers in my opinion a very marketable niche and writes kinky erotica. One of my complaints is that there's little variation in Frost's writing style or technique so this is one of those times where you'll either be hooked by the author's formula (either in large or small doses) or you won't. If you want face-value erotica, buy this book.

Rating: 2.5/5.

Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Typhoon Knocked Out Our Electricity and Phone Lines

Pffft. Won't be getting any work done. Hopefully the rest of the country is faring better.

D&D 4E: Using Poker Chips In Your Game

Me and my gaming group have a set of cheap, plastic poker chips (costing around $1.50) which we mostly use for our Savage World games. They come in three colors: white (the most abundant), red, and blue.

Now in the first sessions of 4E D&D that I ran, it didn't occur for me to use the poker chips. Players kept track of their healing surges, their marks, and their action points. For the second game, I thought to use the poker chips to keep track of all three elements. I distributed white poker chips to keep track of healing surges (and the Defenders had such a huge stack!), red chips to keep track of marks (we had both a Fighter and a Paladin in our game), and blue chips to designate action points.

This proved to be a good idea as I was running a huge group (seven players with all but the Warlock class covered) and the poker chips not only made it easier for me to keep track of everybody's conditions (i.e. the Paladin went through most of his healing surges by the time we ended the game) but it also gave an abstract concept (healing surges and action points) a tactile feel to the players.

I noticed a boost in game play the second time around. First, the white chips helped players gauge how much damage they were receiving. The party's Paladin was complaining at how he was down to his last two white chips but was congratulated by the rest of the party because theirs was mostly untouched and that he was covering his role quite competently. Second, because I was GMing for a huge group, I was similarly throwing a lot of monsters against the players. The red chips helped me keep track of which monsters were marked and which weren't--and this particular fact becomes helpful when you're running anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen monsters at a time. In many ways, the red chip also informed players who weren't paying close attention which monster was getting hit and who to focus fire on (the color red simply screams "hit me"). Lastly, there were the blue chips. In the previous session, few players used their action points, and only after a few reminders from myself. In this session, I didn't need to plod them to do so (and in fact some used action points at times I never would have--such as to kill a surviving minion) and the blue chips reminded them that they had such an option. Dispensing of action points was also as simple as me "rewarding" them with chips and them returning the chips to me whenever they expended it.

The usage of poker chips, while not required, enhanced my D&D game: it's a shiny thing players get to hold and play with while as a GM, it also enabled me to keep track of what was going on the table. Of course the design philosophy I used for poker chips doesn't have to be limited to keeping track of healing surges, marks, or action points. By using index cards to keep track of Powers for example, the same effects can be reproduced: players hand to their GM their Encounter Power cards whenever they expend them and they get returned once the encounter is over (same goes for Daily Powers except they're returned after an Extended Rest). This theoretically discourages indecision paralysis (less cards in their hand means less options to choose from) and reminds them of some of the resource management involved in the game.

Does all this make Dungeons & Dragons feel more board game-y? Perhaps but my main priority is what would make the game more fun. And tactile components (just don't go too overboard with them) are a great way to remind and entice players into the game.

I Survived Frank

Have you met Frank? He goes by the name of Fengshen as well.

Anyway, last night the company was in charge of hosting Fete dela Musique here in the Philippines. We had three stages, two of which are outdoors. I got assigned to the latter one. Unfortunately, the only cover we had were tents suspended by thin metal bars. Aside from the typhoon, it did not help that our location was literally beside the bay.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Plug: 3rd Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards

From Fully Booked:


The 3rd Philippine Graphic Fiction Awards

After two successful years of exploring Filipino Unrealism through prose fiction and comics, the Philippine Graphic Fiction Awards opens its third with a new category: short film.

All Filipino citizens may send their original entries in the prose fiction, comics, and short film categories to any Fully Booked branch.

The winning prose and comics entries will be compiled and published by Fully Booked, with a foreword by Neil Gaiman. All winning short films will be screened on awarding day.


1. Submissions must be given or delivered before or on September 30, 2008, with a duly accomplished application form and resume, to be sealed inside a legal size letter envelope with the heading, "3rd Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards." All submissions should be given or delivered to:

Fully Booked Customer Service
Fully Booked
Bldg 6, 902 Bonifacio High Street
Bonifacio Global City
1634 Taguig City

Only 1 submission per envelope (for those submitting to all three categories). Application forms may be downloaded below.

2. The contest is open to all Filipino citizens, even those who may be in a foreign country at the time, so long as they are still legal citizens, except current officers and employees of Fully Booked and the contest's sponsors.

3. All submissions must be in English except for the short film category, which may be in English or Filipino with English subtitles.

4. There are three categories: comics, prose fiction and short film. Contestants may join in all categories, and collaborations are allowed; however, each contestant may only submit and/or be involved with only one (1) submission per category.

5. Submissions must not have been awarded by another body or published in a national publication. Submissions to the short film category must not have been exhibited commercially, locally or internationally.

6. All submissions must be original. No adaptations of produced / published / copyrighted material are allowed. All intellectual property rights of submissions must belong to the author/s and director/s. Fully Booked and its sponsors shall be exempt from any and all liability in the event that the submission is said to infringe upon the intellectual property rights of another existing work. All rights revert to respective authors and directors, but FULLY BOOKED maintains/reserves the right to publish submissions without permission / approval / compensation.

7. a. PROSE - Submissions must fall under the genres of science fiction, fantasy and/or horror. Stories may not exceed seven thousand (7,000) words. Submissions must include four (4) hard copies, typewritten or computerized (preferably computerized). Submissions should be double-spaced on letter-size bond paper (8 1/2 X 11 inches), with approximately one-inch margin on all sides. Fonts should be Arial or Times New Roman and the font size should be 12. The author/s' name and address must not appear on the submission or any of its pages. Every page must contain the title of the work and must be numbered consecutively (e.g. 1 of 20, 5 of 15 and so on). The submission must include one (1) soft copy on a CD-ROM (files should be in .rtf [Rich Text Format]).

b. COMICS - For Comics, the theme is open (non-fiction is allowed). Twelve (12) pages is the maximum length. All submissions should be in black and white. Contestants may use any media they wish. No signatures/names must appear on any of the pages. Submissions must include four (4) hard copies (letter-size bond paper [8 1/2 X 11 inches]) and one (1) soft copy on CD-ROM (files should be in .jpg format, with art scanned at a minimum of 300 dpi); no original art must be submitted.

c. SHORT FILM - Submissions must fall under the genres of science fiction, fantasy and/or horror. The production of the short film must be in 2008, it should not exceed 20 minutes (including credits) and must be submitted in a digital video format (DVD). This category is open to professionals, however, no corporate financing is allowed.

8. Fully Booked has no obligation to return submissions.

9. In case submissions from overseas win, an authenticated copy of the Authorization Form by the Philippine Embassy or Consulate will be required.

10. The Board of Judges shall have the discretion, not to award any prize if, in its judgment, no worthy submission has been entered.

12. Fully Booked has the sole right to designate the persons who shall constitute the Board of Judges in each of the contest categories. The decision of the majority of the Board of Judges in all categories shall be final.

13. All rules and guidelines of the contest must be followed STRICTLY. Non-compliance will subject the submission to immediate disqualification.


Plug: Christopher Fowler at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog

Christopher Fowler's also up at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog!

Plug: M. Rickert at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog

Over at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog, I got to interview the talented M. Rickert.

Top 10 Best-Sellers as of 2008/6/15

From USA Today's best-seller list (you can find out their basis here):

  1. Sail by James Patterson and Howard Roughan
  2. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  3. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow
  4. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  5. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  6. What Happened by Scott McClellan
  7. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  8. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle
  9. The Shack by William P. Young
  10. High Noon by Nora Roberts

Thursday, June 19, 2008

2008/6/19 Tabletop RPG Podcasts

Every Thursday, I post links to various podcasts that deals with tabletop RPGs.

Tabletop RPG (Mostly)

General Discussions/Reviews/Everything Else

Actual Play Sessions
Video Podcasts:

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Plug: Interview with PS Publisher Peter Crowther

The publisher of PS Publishing, Peter Crowther, gets interviewed over at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog.

Technical Difficulties

Somebody stole the phone lines at our house so my Internet time won't be as consistent as usual.

Essay: Two Areas for Improvement in the Tabletop RPG Community

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

I'm a big fan of RPGs, especially Dungeons & Dragons, but unlike many gamers out there, I wasn't playing during the Gygaxian era. My first D&D game involved a D&D Basic Set (using AD&D Rules for levels 1-3) that was set in Mystara, featured character templates using what I would later find out to be Dragonlance Art, and included a CD that described specific locations and encounters. I was the GM for my first game that involved two of my classmates and it lasted for about an hour before I tucked the box away, never to be opened again. Luckily, 3rd Edition came along and renewed my interest and I quickly progressed from neophyte to rules lawyer. So you could call me a D&D 3rd Edition baby but this essay isn't about the glories of 3rd Edition. Rather, it's about me witnessing some changes in the RPG Industry/Community, and how various gamers don't take advantage of these changes.

The first issue I want to tackle are PDFs. To some gamers, the immediate response when you bring up the topic of PDFs is that "I don't want 'em, I want something to hold in my hands". Well, if you don't like to read on a computer screen, I won't try to convince you otherwise but there's a point where I think people are exaggerating how much they can't stand reading on the computer. I mean if this was a person complaining to me about PDFs in a face-to-face conversation, that's perfectly fine but when you're reading about it in a message board that's ten pages long, well, how bad can it truly be?

Of course what I want to clear up with PDFs when it comes to the RPG industry is that products aren't limited to reading texts. There's a misconception that PDFs equal rule books or adventures when that's not always the case. Small, independent RPG companies out there are publishing PDF products that are neither rule books nor adventures. They could be maps. They could be tokens. They could be three-dimensional figures which you cut up and fold. They could even be sound clips which you can insert into your game. I'm not saying that there's a PDF product for every gamer out there (although there most likely is) but don't immediately shut down your options just because you have a bias against PDFs. Give them a look and when you find that you have no use for them, that's fine. But bear in mind that PDFs are more than just a book of rules not printed on paper.

And then when it comes to PDFs that are actually full of rules, well, here are some advantages of the medium. First off, there are the bookmarks (assuming the PDF publisher included this in the product) and search function. You don't have to bring your PDF "book" to your actual game but during game preparation, finding that piece of nugget is easier than scanning through the table of contents or the index (let's not even get started with indexes in game books). It's for that same reason that I find the online d20 SRD more useful than the actual Player's Handbook/Dungeon Master's Guide/Monster's Manual when preparing for games or making characters. Second, if you're the person that types their GM notes or characters on the computer, PDFs are a godsend. It's easier to multitask using various PDFs and your word processor (especially on a Mac) compared to you-and-your-one-dozen-books and your word processor. And let's not forget the convenience of copy/paste. Third--and this might very well not apply to you--some gamers find it more convenient to lug around their laptop or their flash drive as opposed to their half-a-dozen gaming books. You might have no use for PDF products but other gamers or someone else in your gaming group might. Fourth is the price. If you're tired of buying gaming books that costs $30.00 and you're only using 25% of it, the PDF market is the place to buy books wherein you use 100% of the material and is costing you significantly less than $30.00. Just want one class or prestige class? You can probably buy a PDF of it for $1.00. Just want all fluff? Or all the crunch? There's probably such a PDF product. The PDF market isn't limited by shipping and economies of scale after all.

Moving on, the second issue I want to tackle are podcasts. Yes, I'm being biased here since I love podcasts and I'm one of the people who compiles the various podcasts on the Internet, but many gamers don't even give podcasts a second look, or are simply unaware of them (between PDFs and podcasts, the former is more ubiquitous). Perhaps what irks me the most is that many people are asking for help or suggestions in various other mediums yet it's freely available in podcasts. Want interviews? There are a lot of podcasts that interview various people in the gaming industry, whether you're a Steve Jackson or Fred Hicks. Want GMing advice? There are a lot of shows which tackle that particular topic. Game reviews? Check. Gaming anecdotes? Check. Retrospectives on old games? Check. And here's one feature that podcasts are able to deliver that other mediums can't: actual game recordings. Why would you want to listen to an actual game recording? Well, for one thing, it shows you how other people play the game. It's your one-part free intro/preview into the game and your one-part game review without the reviewer directly telling what's good/bad about it (you're free to judge for yourself). Other podcasts like Virtual Play (oh no all that editing!) even enhances their game discussions by giving concrete examples based on their actual experiences on the game table.

Oh, and podcasts are free! And are portable (you can listen to them on the computer, burn them onto a CD and listen to it on your car stereo or on the game store's CD player, or upload them to your mp3 player). Here's my own podcast story: I love making stat blocks, whether it's my PCs or monsters. But let's face it, for some people, those pre-game preparations can be boring. During those times when I'm writing stat blocks, I listen to podcasts. It alleviates the boredom and apparently I can multitask reading game text (but not fiction) while listening to podcasts. The same logic extends to when I'm commuting. Or waiting for my gaming group when they come to the game late.

I know how some gamers can be reticent when it comes to change but hey, look at all these great tools that are available.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

D&D 4th Edition Podcast Madness (So Far)

Feature: Book Ordering in the Philippines

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Here's the quick, dirty low-down: there are lots of great books out there but you may never see those books stocked at local bookstores. Some people will simply give up while others will wait until a relative travels abroad and ask them to purchase that particular novel. In my opinion, one of the most under-used services of a bookstore is customer service. I used to be that shy, introvert customer myself and never thought of talking to the salespeople. But I want my books and by golly, I found a method to acquire them. Bookstores do provide the option of taking special orders and get you the book that they wouldn't otherwise stock. If you're looking for immediate gratification, no book ordering service will satisfy you but if you can manage to wait, this is your best option.

The 10,000-pound gorilla in book ordering is Amazon. However, that's not really feasible to the local market because they're based in North America and while they do give you huge discounts, one thing you must take into account is shipping. How expensive is shipping? Checking their shipping rates and using the cheapest option, books have an initial cost (i.e. the more items you buy, the lesser the per item costs will be) of $4.99/P215 and a per item cost (i.e. for every item you purchase, you're paying this fee) of $4.99/P215 again. What does this mean? Well, your average mass market paperback is in the $8.00 ~ $10.00 range. Let's say you're ordering Jim Butcher's Storm Front. The actual book is costing you $8.00 and if that's the only book you're ordering, you're paying an additional shipping cost of $10.00 (the initial shipping cost plus the per item cost). If you're ordering both Storm Front and Fool Moon, shipping will cost you $15.00 (the initial shipping cost plus multiplying the per item cost twice). Basically, what this means is that you're paying an extra $4.99/P215 for every book you buy at Amazon. That might not sound so bad but remember, we're talking about the cheapest shipping method and the books will arrive in 18 to 32 business days--which is anywhere from a month or two.

That's not to say you should never order at Amazon. The Chicago Manual of Style for example is an expensive book at $55.00. Thankfully, Amazon is giving us a discount of $20.00 so I'm still saving $10.00 if I order the book from them. I just have to wait for 18 to 32 business days for the book to arrive. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn't really solve my dilemma because despite doing all the math, I don't own a credit card so online transactions is moot. However, here's a tip: if you're intent on doing your shopping via Amazon, check out Amazon Japan or Amazon China (if you can understand Chinese). The former has an English-language interface and failing that, the site is a direct port of the American site. You can check out their shipping info in English. Now as Filipinos, you want to order from the Japanese site because 1) shipping is faster and 2) cheaper. 2~5 business days (a week) is quicker than any service a bookstore might provide and it's only setting you back Y300/P126 per item and an initial shipping costs of Y1900/P800.

Now if you're the type that doesn't own a credit card, afraid that your credit card account will be compromised, technophobic, or simply want to patronize local bookstores, below is a guide to the pros and cons of the book ordering system of the various bookstores. The procedure is simple: approach the customer service section of the bookstore and inform them that you want to special order a book. The more info (title, author, publisher, etc.) you give them about the book, the better. Personally, I give them the 10-digit ISBN (you can look the ISBN up at Amazon) so that there's no mistaking what book I'm interested in (many books share the same title and even if they don't, come in various formats such as hardcovers, paperbacks, limited editions, etc.). Book shipments is included in the list below and that fact informs you when the bookstore's new stocks arrive (and has a bearing on how soon you get the books you ordered).

Bookstore: Powerbooks
Anything purchasable at Amazon
Downpayment: 50% of the cost
Exchange Rate: $1.00 = P60.00
Delivery Time: 3~5 weeks
Discount: Discount cards apply
Book Shipments: Monthly.
Miscellaneous Comments: I personally haven't tried ordering at National Bookstore but the methodology should be the same.

A Different Bookstore
Anything purchasable at Amazon
Downpayment: 50% of the cost
Exchange Rate: $1.00 = P80.00
Delivery Time: 4~8 weeks
Discount cards apply
Book Shipments: Every 15th and 30th of the month
Miscellaneous Comments: This used to be the quickest method of acquiring books but I was recently informed that book shipments will be scaled down to once a month.

Bookstore: Booktopia
Virtually any book
Downpayment: 50% upon confirmation (see
Exchange Rate: $1.00 = P50.00
Delivery Time: 1~2 months
Discount: No
Book Shipments: Monthly
Miscellaneous Comments: Booktopia can theoretically try to acquire any book you're interested in as they not only sell brand-new books but secondhand books (and remainder copies) as well. Unfortunately, Booktopia has cut back on its shipping schedule and books may arrive once every two months.

Bookstore: Fully Booked
Anything purchasable at Amazon
Downpayment: No downpayment necessary for books under $30.00 each
Exchange Rate: Unknown (see Miscellaneous Comments)
Delivery Time: 3-5 Weeks
Book Shipments: Twice a month (roughly the weekend of the 15th and 30th of the month).
Miscellaneous Comments: For the record, I did place an order recently on various books (from indie publisher Night Shade Books and Prime Books--not necessarily the easiest books to acquire) but they never arrived so Fully Booked never got back to me. This is not the first time that I placed a book order with them and the staff never got back to me (even if just to say "no, we cannot acquire the books you ordered").

Monday, June 16, 2008

In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night, No Dirt Shall Escape My Sight!

Plug: Zoran Zivkovic at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog

Whoa! I actually got to interview Zoran Zivkovic over at the Shirley Jackson Awards Blog.

P.S. The Shirley Jackson Awards fundraising anthology, Jack Haringa Must Die! is now available.

Book Review: Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.

I was eagerly awaiting for my copy of Pump Six and Other Stories to arrive and when it did, well, it didn't disappoint. There are ten stories (eleven in the limited edition) in this collection and while the book isn't particularly long (under 250 pages), the quality more than makes up for the quantity. Bacigalupi takes aspects of the modern world and exaggerates them to the point that they form a dystopian science fiction setting. However, more than his modern-day relevance or his genre leanings, the strength of Bacigalupi is clearly his characters, whether they're nigh-indestructible humans who've forgotten what it's like to be vulnerable or cultural minorities simply making their way into the world. The author's writing style also goes beyond functional and injects new-fangled terms to the point that it reminds me of Cyberpunk--yet this one is more palatable.

"The Fluted Girl" is easily the most memorable story in the collection, mostly due to its ambiguous ending that Bacigalupi executes perfectly. Throughout the entire story, it had its appropriate beats which packed emotion and suspense at key moments. "The Pasho" was another story that impressed me and again, Bacigalupi triumphs thanks to his ending but unlike "The Fluted Girl", there's no ambiguity here. Instead, the story relies on the development of its two central characters. "Yellow Card Man" is another compelling story and as someone who understands a bit of the Chinese language, I'm amazed at how Bacigalupi manages to utilize the nuances of the language without citing Chinese words per se. Aside from that fact, it's a well-developed story that includes metaphors that work on multiple levels.

There's a lot of great stories in Pump Six and Other Stories and only a few that are just good. One gets a sense that many of these stories are set in the same dystopian future yet the execution is varied. Bacigalupi's stories pack a whallop while remaining compelling and accessible.

Rating: 4/5.

Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.

Book Review: White Time by Margo Lanagan

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book reviews.
In the collection White Time, Lanagan writes with a clear, distinctive style that's not spoon-feeding but rather challenges the reader in a good way. Her text is multi-layered and works on multiple levels, at the same time narrating an interesting speculative fiction story whether it's using the tropes of science fiction or fantasy. This book features ten stories and each is unique and different. The feature story, "White Time", is the opener for this publication and Lanagan combines a strong sci-fi concept with grounded, complex characters. In fact, this piece sets the mood for the rest as it shows that one of Lanagan's strengths is writing compelling characters and human drama. Another favorite is "The Boy Who Didn't Yearn" which takes place in an urban setting except for the fact that the protagonist has a particular trait that sets her apart from other people. Again, character is Lanagan's biggest asset in this story as she establishes the personal conflict of the protagonist. The ambiguity of the ending is warranted and justified, giving it an atmosphere of surrealism. The last story I want to draw attention to is "Wealth" which is the most "conventional" story in the collection yet it tugs the reader at all the right places despite the alien setting. What impressed me with White Time is how it's a good example of a short story collection that dares to be different and unique yet at the same time is grounded by character. Lanagan combines style and technique to deliver an interesting read that's both exciting and literary.

Rating: 3.5/5.

Rating System:

1 - There are better ways to spend your time.
2 - Ho hum books, usually typical of its genre. Probably only recommendable to die-hard fans.
3 - A cut above the rest, usually with one or more elements that sets it apart from the norm.
4 - Highly recommended and is easily a pioneer of the genre.
5 - A classic or it will be.