Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review of "Gunlaw" by Nicholas Stillman

So, something I like to do once in a while is grab some friends, usually geeky types who I happen to be hanging out anyway, and read one of these aloud to them.

I made the mistake of doing that with Gunlaw, without previewing it myself first.

On the plus side, we had a hilarious time. On the downside... *sigh* I would say this is the worst gamebook I've reviewed yet, if I hadn't reviewed "The Thing That Crawls" earlier this week.

Where can I even begin? Okay, we open with a pre-apocalypic (Genre Count: 1) Western (Genre Count: 2) in which the world has gone broke, frightened masses fled the cities, and the countryside has reverted to a new Old West. Our story is set in the town of Gunlaw, which has only one law: every citizen must carry a gun.


But wait! It gets better! Our hero, Billy Joe Canfield, is on a mission to rescue children (Genre Count: 3) from Maslow, the City of Lowdown Death, which apparently is populated by gouls. (Genre Count: 4) After a long and amusing discussion about the nature of gouls and how the word should be pronounced--we settled on a Brooklyn accent--we trekked off into the car-wreck-littered countryside to rescue us some kids. A very Mad Max vibe, but we won't count that as a new genre, since Mad Max falls somewhere in between pre-apocalypse and Western, anyway.

But then Canfield runs into a terrifying apparition that appears from the shimmering horizon: a van full of hooting jocks armed with beer, wearing the jerseys of their high school in Maslow. (Genre Count: 5) The boys, and I quote, "hop from their van like monkeys off a river raft," whereupon, "One stud throws back his gelled hair and howls while crushing a full beer can in each fist." (Genre Count: wtf?)

At this point, there were howls. Oh yes, there were howls. Gales, you might even say.

Once we recovered enough to keep reading, we found the winning insult of the season, "This posse amounts to short stature diabetics with gynocomastia."

I'll let that sink in.

Next, to our dismay, Canfield accidentally shoots the jock captain in the heart, whereupon he has a "drop siezure without the siezure." Another classic line.

At this point, I became physically incapable of reading on. Fortunately, a friend stepped in to read the cheerleader's heartbreaking cries of anguish over her fallen boyfriend. Canfield, being the stalwart, upstanding guy that he is, immediately goes through the cheerleader's purse, and then requisitions her services at gunpoint to drive him into Maslow.

After some deeply confusing descriptions of the city of Maslow, Canfield, with his hostage and stolen van, starts getting pursued by police, which results in a shootout. (Genre Count: 6) To resolve the situation, he takes the only logical action he could: climbing out of the window, up onto the roof of the van. Um... as you do?

From his stable vantage point on top of the van, he nails the cop driver right in the unibrow (not even kidding) causing an accident in which all the cop torsos are kept safe by their harnesses, but all of their limbs "detach and rain over a kilometer stretch of the highway," causing Canfield to gain 1 Justice Point. Aw, yeah!

At this point, Canfield, sensing his need to escape, detaches all the clamps on the motorbike that's on top of the van with him and, in a spectacular stunt of motorcycle driving, rides the bike right off the van through a midair jump to land on the roadway and tears off to safety, tires squealing. (Genre Count: 7)

Before he's gone three paragraphs, he comes across a crying, skinny little 8 year old girl entering a suicide booth, (Genre Count: 8) who he is unable to save. He is able to blow the brains out of an unsympathetic passerby though. Because that helps.

As the cops catch up to him, a mysterious stranger offers him asylum, which Canfield accepts, because the only other option we're given is to go along with the cops quietly. Because we've apparently lost our legs and won't be able to run until they regrow.

(As a side note, no, Canfield has not actually lost his legs. I was being silly trying to explain why "running away" is not a third option in that scenario. But when I cracked that joke to my friends, summarizing what had happened, the story is wacky enough that they honestly thought I was not kidding, and that Canfield had lost his legs and was waiting for them to regrew. Just sayin')

But I digress. Going with the Employer, we find ourselves in a high-tech, white-walled room being offered a job to assassinate the mayor (Genre Count: 9), in return for which, the Employer will tell us the location of the only remaining healthy child in all of Maslow. (Implying that 8 year old from the previous scene was the second to last child in the city?) But before he's willing to hire Canfield, the employer insists Canfield try to kill him.

Yes, it's that kind of story.

Finding himself unable to kill the Employer, but still impressive enough to be hired, we take a break while switching scenes...

To a scene completely out of left field in which the Mayor of Maslow and his cronies are watching two individuals mysteriously through a one-way mirror.

One of them is a synth woman who looks, and I quote, "hotter than nukes in her miniskirt." Except for the GIANT TITANIUM FUCKING BEAK sticking out of her face! WTF? The other is a prisoner, who the synth woman proceeds to seduce and then STAB IN THE FACE WITH HER BEAK AT 20 PECKS PER SECOND OMG AAAAAAAAAAH (Genre Count 10)

Incidentally, the author did his homework. 20 pecks per second is exactly the rate at which a woodpecker pecks. Scariest fucking woodpecker I've ever seen...

Somehow intuiting, perhaps from the trail of bodies Canfield has left behind him, that Canfield doesn't kill women, the Mayor's plan is to use the hot-as-nukes female synth assassin to kill Canfield. Let's just hope the bloody titatium beak doesn't give it away.

Canfield, needing to kill some time before killing the Mayor, shoots his way into an elementary school to find some kids to rescue. There we come across fifty morbidly obese children who have all had their legs amputated at birth reciting their times tables in a droning voice (Genre Count 11) What genre that is, I have no idea, but it's definitely a new one.

After shooting up the school a bit, during which all the children vanish in their motorized chairs, Canfield gets the mysterious choice to either punch the principal, or refuse to use unnecessary violence.

Now? After all this? Now we get to choose, "Canfield walks away, refusing to use unnecessary violence?"

For the sake of the excessive and unnecessary length this review is growing to, I'll abridge the rest, but his future enemies include the Neckbeard Gang (they don't last long), a homicidal 600 pound sumo ninja in a tight yellow jumpsuit sporting dual uzis who calls himself Gus (he lasts only slightly longer), a cop in a wheelchair (who Canfield rides like a pony until he dies), the black-armored Bulldog the Headhunter (who runs away squealing after Canfield shoots his thumb off), an apartment complex full of boy bands (who die in a fire after Canfield burns the building down), the beak-nosed synth assassin woman (who loses both hands to Canfield's gun when he instantly recognizes her murderous intent behind the innocent veneer of GIANT FUCKING TITANIUM BEAK), a crowd of stampeding shoppers who have been convinced Canfield is holding some coupons, (who Canfield tricks into practicing sword-swallowing while riding lawn tractors... to predictable results), Mayor Dunlop and his cronies (of whom, Canfield shoots all the males), a lynch mob gathered by tweet, (who Canfield burns in a diesel fire).

Eventually, after much violence and some breaking of the fourth wall, Canfield escapes Maslow empty-handed, having failed to save any children at all. Good job, Canfield.

Total Score: ??/25

Okay, I'm not sure how to rate this with a straight face, and the experience was completely transformed by reading it aloud with friends. Eventually it became clear the whole thing was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but I think it would have been stronger if it had acknowledged that up-front. We still thought we were dealing with a straight shooter (so to speak) right up to the time my friends gave up, leaving me alone with the rest.

But the opening was pretty good. Before it becomes clear how completely apeshit this entire book is. It presents what appears to be a compelling setting and simple, excellent rules.

That said, I'm marking it down pretty heavily for not accurately representing the book to come. I don't know if Stillman started out writing this in earnest, and lost patience and went a little nuts halfway through, or if he always intended it to be a bit comedic, but either way, the book as a whole suffers from the fact that the tone isn't made clear right at the beginning. It would have avoided a lot of "what the actual fuck!?" moments if we'd realized from the beginning that that was intentional.

The rules were good--neither too light nor too heavy--so that's an up mark in this category, but the choices you make rarely have anything to do with the results you get. That's problematic.

I don't see much by way of underlying narrative structure. Mostly it seems to be an excuse to whisk the reader from one absolutely insane adventure to the other.

Ah... what can I say? I have no idea how to grade this.

To be fair, while reading it aloud with my friends... it was awful. Like, genuinely, I don't think I've ever read alout anything as bad.

But also, to be fair, it had us in stitches. We were dying laughing. So if that was the intent, and I'm starting to be more of the opinion that it was, then he succeeded.

An old GM of mine used to play a game with us, where we could ask any question we liked. There were four possible answers: "Yes," "No," "There's one way to find out," and "Moo."

"Moo," was reserved for questions that have no possible answer, questions that are phrased so poorly or so disconnected from reality that they leave the entire concept of "question" long behind.


I can't mince words about it too much... this story was awful. A preternaturally skilled cowboy venturing into a hyper-tech dystopian city to rescue children while gunning his way in a bloody swatch through the semi-innocent populace?

I suppose a good story could have been written that would have things in common to this, but... the specifics of what happens are so completely batshit insane that I just can't find redeeming virtues. Nothing in the entire book was plausible. Not even one thing. The only hesitation I have is that, well, we had a GREAT time! Which leads us to...

Secret Sauce
Any specific thing that you look at in this book is largely terrible, especially if you take it straight at face value. If you don't look at this as a comedy, it could be siezure-inducing due to the sheer WTFness of it.

But the fact is, reading this aloud was one of the must fun things I did that day with my friends, and we did a lot of fun things. We had a blast. We were dying with laughter from left to right. We felt bad at the time, that we were laughing so much at this, but later, finishing it on my own, I realized that we're not laughing at the author; we're laughing with him!

This was never intended to be delivered straight. It's a comedy, and as a comedy, it was incredibly successful. Thanks to the author for a wonderful afternoon.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Small Talk, the RPG

I'm going to interrupt my regularly scheduled programming to give a nod to this brilliant little game I found posted on

Enjoy :)


A conversational role playing game for 1-∞ players.
Characters: The player’s play themselves, so there’s no particular character set-up process.
Small talk is a game of conversation for its own sake. It’s a collaborative game. The reward is opening for deeper conversations, affirming relationships and avoiding silence.
It’s good practice to play the game with new acquaintances.
The game can last as short as a casual greeting or as long as it takes to get your hair cut at the hairdresser’s. Or the length of a taxi ride, as the case may be.
Some rules:
* Greet the other players in a friendly way.
* Try to keep the conversation upbeat and positive.
* Casual compliments are ok, but keep it superficial. Don’t get creepy.
* Try out some casual eye contact now and then, but don’t stare.
* Smile.
* Respect the other player’s personal space.
* Be polite and respectful.
* Find common ground. Be politely inquiring about the other player’s interests, and see if you can find some topic of conversation that will interest you both. Or that you can endure listening to.
* Ask open-ended follow-up questions starting with words like «how…» and «what…». Or make relevant statements.
* Share some stuff about yourself and your day, but don’t over-share. Don’t get into symptoms, diseases, sensitive subjects and extreme negativity.
* It’s ok to bitch and complain as long as you don’t do it about sensitive topics. The weather is a very good topic of conversation.
* Notice your surroundings. You can riff off of them for further conversational topics.
* Avoid sensitive subjects like religion, politics and sex. You can also drop death, divorce and diseases. You know what I mean.
* Humor is good. Just remember the taboo topics.
You can even play the game without anyone knowing you’re playing a game.