Some of My Favorite Graphic Novels

A few months ago I shared a few of my favorite books. But one thing you may not have guessed from that list is that I also happen to be a bit of a graphic novel fan. There’s something about seeing the story visually come to life in front of you that makes you experience the story in a new way — and it’s cool to see a variety of art styles across the graphic novel genre, much like authors have their own voices. It gives you a reason to slow down and appreciate the craft that went into creating the art. So in no particular order and with the caveat that this isn’t an exhaustive list, here are some of my favorite graphic novels.

Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy. I don’t remember how I first heard about this book, but I’m really glad I did. It tells the story of a boy with diabetes who gets transported into a fantasy world during one episode when his blood sugar drops. The story bounces back and forth between his quest to defeat King Death in the fantastic world and his attempt to raise his blood sugar level in the real world. This sets up some really cool parallels between both worlds, like his pet rat becoming his anthropomorphic warrior-rat companion in the fantasy world. These cool insertions and imaginative illustrations combine to make an awesome portal fantasy.

reMIND by Jason Brubaker. This began as a webcomic, so I first read it online (where it’s still available to read for free). Putting aside the fact that Brubaker using the blog format to both host the webcomic and chronicle his journey in publishing reMIND is awesome itself, the volumes also tell an engaging story. Though it begins with a normal girl living in and maintaining a lighthouse, it soon introduces a talking cat, lizard-men, and an underwater kingdom to create a story much larger than what you see on the surface. This quirkiness is complemented by a unique art style that blends Brubaker’s background in storyboarding with textured colors, and was designed from the ground up to play with different ways of filling the pages.

Bone by Jeff Smith. This is probably on more than a few top 10 graphic novel lists, and it’s easy to see why. The story begins with the antics of a trio of cartoony brothers getting lost and gradually but consistently growing in scope until it becomes an epic. After getting separated, the brothers begin exploring a secluded valley, meeting its inhabitants, and discovering that life there may not be as idyllic as it originally seems. It has just the right mix of humor, adventure, drama, suspense, and romance, and Smith’s smooth illustrations demonstrate what a labor of love it was for him to craft it from beginning to end.

Mouse Guard (series) by David Petersen. I think the first book in this series (Fall 1152) is what first got me into graphic novels. In this world, mice live in a pseudo-medieval civilization, and are protected by the Mouse Guard, who are essentially knights who travel the land to protect villages and travelers from threats. The story of the first entry begins with a patrol out on a mission where they soon discover that the Mouse Guard itself may have threats of its own to worry about. Each entry develops the world even further, introducing different elements of life in the mice’s world. This setup, combined with Petersen’s wood-engraving-esque style of illustration and the square format of the books, make this a really unique series of graphic novels.

Rust (series) by Royden Lepp. One of the advantages of graphic novels is the ability to read them without technically reading words. Rust is probably the best example of that that I’ve read. The series follows a farm family who takes in a strange boy with a jetpack after he protects them from a massive, violent robot. But while he’s trying to keep his past a secret, others are doing everything they can to uncover it. It’s set in a alt-history world where robots and steampunk-esque technology aren’t out of place on sprawling farms and prairies, but the sepia-toned artwork helps it all to feel timeless. And Lepp isn’t afraid to let that art tell the story by itself. Action scenes in particular can go on for pages without word bubbles interrupting them, allowing this graphic novel to really play up what makes this medium so special.

Again, these are just a few of my favorite graphic novels — and I’m always looking for new ones! Do you have any suggestions?

Tales of the Arabian Nights Board Game Impressions

Over the weekend, my wife and I played a couple games of Tales of the Arabian Nights. This week, I want to talk about why I think it’s my favorite board game ever.

Brief overview: Tales of the Arabian Nights is a story-based board game where players travel around a world inspired by the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, earning points along the way. Players encounter thematically-appropriate characters, locations, and situations every turn, and choose how to interact with them based on a list of possible actions. This leads to a certain paragraph-length scene that fleshes out how the encounter went before awarding any relevant points or rewards.

That’s the bare-bones description of how it works, but today I want to share why I like it so much.

At its heart, Tales of the Arabian Nights is about stories. You could completely strip away the game mechanics, and it would still work as a neverending episodic adventure following a group of travelers figuring their way through strange and exciting encounters that grow increasingly bizarre. For example, at the end of one game my character had become a large serpent serving as a vizier with no control over his body — but still somehow commanded respect from everyone. I lost, but it was so fun it didn’t matter.

The board is kind of incidental to gameplay, mainly serving to provide some sense of movement and physical goals. Gameplay itself begins with encounters, which present players with a range of things to interact with (such as minor treasures, people like beggars or wizards, or house fires). Players then must choose an action from a provided matrix, listing interactions such as examine, fight, buy, follow, drink, etc. From there, you’re directed to a numbered paragraph in the game’s enormous Book of Tales.

This is where the story element of the game largely comes into the play. Players are also given quests that usually provide a reason to travel around the game board, but the short scenes that play out during encounters are what bring the characters to life.

It’s during these encounters that you learn exactly how the action you chose creates a story with the situation you stumbled across. Sometimes it’ll play out exactly the way you imagined. Other times, you’ll learn that the designers had something different in mind. It’s fun, maddening, and occasionally hilarious.

I particularly like the fact that these scenes’ outcomes don’t usually rely on a dice roll. Success or failure often depends on whether or not you have particular skills (like storytelling, weapon use, or courtly graces) that you choose at the beginning of the game or learn along the way. Even the bad outcomes are easier to swallow when they’re the result of simply not having the right ability, as opposed to punishing you for rolling a 2 instead of a 6.

At this point, the game may start to sound like a role-playing game — which it definitely isn’t. I think of it more as an elaborate choose-your-own-adventure, with more intricate paths that can shift based on how you shape your character. There’s always the option to roleplay your character, but there isn’t much room to customize the story just the way you want.

Another element that differentiates it from RPGs and is also another reason I enjoy it is the limited interaction with other players. Mechanically, the game boils down racing to get the most points the fastest. And there aren’t many ways for other players to get in the way. Some negative effects that can impact your character include giving other players control over your movement or which actions to take, but generally speaking the game doesn’t lend itself to competition. I’m a big fan of this gameplay choice because I think it allows everyone to best enjoy the stories being told.   

But it gets even better — this isn’t the only way to play the game. On the official website, publisher Z-Man games provides three free rule variants (scroll down to the Downloads section). There’s a PvP variant, which adds rules about interacting with other players and making it a little more competitive. There’s a Storytelling variant, which encourages players to use their imaginations and embellish the story part of the game even more. And there’s even a Solitaire variant making it possible for people to play it by themselves, tweaking gameplay and victory conditions to make it more satisfying to play alone.

These variants speak to just how customizable the game is. (We’ve already instituted a couple house rules to suit our style.) Even if the story scenes remain the game’s driving force, the other components like character traits and skills lend a level of flexibility that gives players a fun range of material to create the game — and stories — they want to experience.

And really, that’s what stories are supposed to be: personal and unique. Tales of the Arabian Nights revels in that truth, giving players a new experience to play and stories to create every game. It relieves some of the pressure players might feel playing an RPG, while providing enough of a mold to tell a fun story in a world of fantasy and magic. I’d strongly recommend it to gamers looking for something more story-driven, or writers and readers interested in exploring what today’s board games are capable of accomplishing.

Sound like something up your alley? Check out its official website or get it on Amazon today!

Impressions of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Just to be clear up front, yes, I’m going to take this opportunity to write about a game that came out five years ago. That game is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I’d been playing it on and off for three years and finally completed the final quest recently — and enjoyed nearly every moment of it. And as this blog is still in its early stages, I’m going to take a break from my writing journey to talk about this.

I remember first learning about this game when they were talking about the creative leads on it: Ken Rolston (game designer), R.A. Salvatore (author), and Todd McFarlane (artist), all well respected in their fields. While I don’t recall a ton about the marketing, I remember downloading the demo as soon as it became available, and seeing a rather expensive limited edition pre-order with a map, deck of game-relevant cards, and a small statue.

It got decent reviews, but didn’t seem to make a big splash in the gaming landscape (that is, until its lack of a big splash effectively put its developer out of business, at which point it made a big splash in the news). I think that’s a shame because it does some cool things like requiring you to read inventory descriptions to progress in quests, leaving surprises for exploring the entire map, or allowing non-social-interaction skills to be usable in conversations. I really enjoyed how this encouraged me to try new things as a player and discover what else the game could be hiding.

The story of the game begins your character coming back to life after dying in battle. In the world of the game, this means that you’re no longer bound by fate, but have the ability to shape your own destiny — and therefore the destiny of everyone/thing else, too. With this new power, it falls on you to turn the tide of war as dark elves invade your land. Of course, this is just your main quest. The game has 250+ (!) side and faction quests, with a variety of lengths. It’s enormous.

Even though the story itself is pretty linear, the game uses its emphasis on destiny to acknowledge your choices at key points. The coolest part of this is in a feature called “Twists of Fate” which mechanically give you different skills, but also serve as a record of the feats you accomplished and the choices you made. These, coupled with the “Destinies” you unlock (by leveling up and assigning points into Might, Finesse, and Sorcery abilities) help make your character feel very unique. And they all have really cool artwork.

There were a few issues like the occasionally uncooperative camera, irregularly occurring glitch, or a criminally small inventory for a game that throws so much loot at you, but overall I had a really fun time playing the game. Nowadays I imagine you can get it (and a couple DLCs) for pretty cheap on PC and the last generation of consoles. And if you like fun, somewhat experimental open-world RPGs (and don’t mind spreading a game over a long period of playtime), I recommend that you do.

Those are my main thoughts as a player, but as a writer/creator (to bring this back for a moment), what did I think? I still really liked it. Small things like granting experience points for finding new locations or interacting with bits of lore drove home the idea that this game is about more than combat. And that’s what I’d like to capture with any (interactive) fiction I create. I wouldn’t want to just reward the action, but the experience of exploring and discovering the world in a variety of ways. Easy to say, difficult to accomplish. But I think KoA:R offers a good example of how it can be done.