Friday, June 19, 2015

On Good Game Stores

Last week I returned to my home town of Rochester, New York for a few days. I haven't been back for five years, so I was curious about the state of the local game stores there. My old haunt from the '90s was Crazy Egor's Discount Game Warehouse. That was a game store comparable to the Source Comics and Games in the Twin Cities. It carried pretty much everything. Paul, the owner, and his staff loved games and gamers. It was a super friendly FLGS.

In the late '90s, Paul sold the store in Henrietta, and the new owners renamed it Millenium Games. The change was pretty remarkable during my visits in the mid to late 2000s. The new owners sold off a ton of vintage games for bargain basement prices. They began narrowing their selection considerably.

Every time I came in there the place felt odd - like the owners and staff saw the store as just business. There was a begrudging vibe. Asking if a new product had come into their store yet seemed like a weird, offputting question to the staff. They didn't seem to know the product lines and forthcoming products at all. They didn't seem to know that diehard gamers are all obsessives. So when I came to town, I visited there, but never got my hopes up too much that I would find something I'd like.

I was pretty disappointed this trip. While they had Night Witches on their new shelf (which my FLGS hasn't stocked yet), as well as OVA, that was pretty much it for non-Fate indie releases. Even less shelf space was devoted to RPGs than on my visit five years ago. Instead there was a big frisbee section in the store, a lot of board games, and a some comics. Fate books but no Fate dice.

We weren't exactly ignored during our visit but we weren't really greeted either - not to mention not being asked "anything you're looking for, chummer?"

But six or seven years ago a new game store opened in Rochester. It was a friend who collected records who clued me into its existence.  My friend Terry got a kick out of the name: Boldo's Armory. He's not a gamer but he could sense the gamer vibe just from the name.

Boldo's sells armor, RPGs, card games, and Warhammer stuff. A snug store right on Monroe Avenue (a neigborhood combining hip and grunge), Boldo's makes good use of modest space: games on the walls, game tables in the center of the space. Boldo's packs a lot in.

On prior visits I noticed that what they carried wasn't always the newest stuff, but you always got the sense that the people working there were gamers who cared about games. Their tagline is A Better Place For Games, and that really shows from their friendliness and willingness to engage (not stalk, not ignore) visitors.

Finally on this trip, Boldo's pulled ahead in terms of its RPG stock. Lots of vintage stuff still (I saw a copy of Star Frontiers there!) but also some new RPGs that have never hit the Source. I picked up Tremulus, a storytelling game of lovecraftian horror, during my quick visit to the store. If I had stayed longer, I would have purchased more. The owner was friendly, knowledgeable about games, and said he had read the Tremulus rules and thought the game was pretty interesting from a design standpoint.

I can't imagine I'll be getting back to Rochester any time soon, but the next time I do, I'll be heading straight for Boldo's Armory.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Works of Leigh Brackett

Gollancz cover illustration by Les Edwards

This afternoon, the Second Foundation Reading Group gathered to conclude its discussion of the works of Anne Leckie, and begin its discussion of the works of Leigh Brackett. Best known as the author of a screenplay for the Empire Strikes Back, which you can download here, Brackett in fact was the writer behind a number of classic Hollywood films such as the The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Long Goodbye.

I have read some of the Skaith novels in the past - one or two quite recently, thanks to Paizo's late, lamented Planet Stories imprint - and for this session I read two of the Eric John Stark novellas set on Mars: "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" and "Black Amazon of Mars". Both were quite good, with a strong classic planetary romance feel and some interesting female supporting characters and adversaries.

I am sure that Brackett's Mars was very much influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, with its city-states scattered among deserts and ruins, and exotic cultures that have seen better days. Oddly enough, the native peoples of Brackett's Mars have a lot of Irish names, and there are even Martians with red hair. "Red Planet, Red Hair" as one member of the reading group quipped!

But the differences go a little deeper than that. You won't see a spaceport on any maps of Barsoom, but you do find them on Stark's Mars and the other worlds in Brackett's solar system. Earth has commercial interests on Mercury, Venus, and Mars, and Leigh Brackett's most memorable character, Eric John Stark is in fact a human orphan who was raised by the non-human natives of Mercury. He was something of a feral child until discovered and "civilized" by an agent of Earth. Thereafter Stark has a series of adventures: some on his own, some as a not-always-willing agent of meddlesome Earth interests.

In the course of reading Brackett's Mars stories I discovered a few things that made me go hummm. There is a "Seven Kingdoms" on Brackett's Mars. There is an ice wall in the far north and a city just south of the Wall which guards the Gates of Death. Then there is Eric John Stark himself. In the Skaith novels, he is described as a wolf's head (meaning an outlaw), and of course today we know another Jon Stark, I mean Snow, who also has a wolf's head (the sign of his father's House, and the the decoration on the pommel of his sword). And there are great hounds on Skaith. So I wouldn't be surprised at all if Leigh Brackett was an influence on George R. R. Martin.

The next gathering of the Second Foundation is Sunday, August 9, from 2-4 PM at Merlin's Rest in Minneapolis. We're going to continue our discussion of the works of Leigh Brackett, and begin to discuss the 1960s SF of Samuel R. Delaney (my favorite SF author). I'll be reading more of Leigh Brackett's pulp SF work for that session, as well as her novel The Long Tomorrow which I have heard is very good.

Reading more Brackett will also be good preparation for Diversicon in late July, where Leigh Brackett will be one of our posthumous guests of honor along with Gene L. Coon and Sun Ra.  I plan to run a pulp SF RPG scenario there called Princesses of Mars; Or, the Search for Stark. All the PCs will be female characters, each with a connection to Stark. I'm working on some clever scene titles for the scenario, including:
  • A Game of Starks
  • Devils in the Dark
  • Mothership  
As far as Delaney, I may re-read Nova and Babel-17, as well as read The Fall of the Towers trilogy, which I have taken a couple of stabs at recently. All of this should make for great summer reading.