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Author Topic: PC147: Card Sharp  (Read 6919 times)
Talia
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« on: March 08, 2011, 08:57:58 AM »

PodCastle 147: Card Sharp

by Rajan Khanna.

Narrated by Wilson Fowlie of the Maple Leaf Singers.


Originally appeared in the anthology Way of the Wizard edited by John Joseph Adams.

He reached into his pocket and withdrew the Seven of Diamonds. The card flared like phosphorous in his hand, then disappeared in a wisp of smoke. He felt an ephemeral film coat his body. He moved from his hiding place behind some trees and moved down the walkway and to the ramp leading up to the riverboat.

He could feel the stares of the riverboat guards on him, even though he knew they could not see him. Using the Seven of Diamonds might have been overkill, but better safe than sorry. Still, his neck hair prickled at the idea that at the moment, their rifles could be trained on him, preparing to fire.

He made for a small washroom near the center of the main deck. As he approached it, the riverboat’s great paddlewheel began to move, churning the water in a great roar. With a lurch, the riverboat began to move, taking Roland Ketterly and his men down the Mississippi.

Quentin slipped through the washroom door, taking care to close it quietly and minimize his noise. Whatever concealment the first card had provided was visual alone.


Rated PG.
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ElectricPaladin
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« Reply #1 on: March 08, 2011, 12:39:36 PM »

I am the king under the mountain, and I have made the first post on this thread!

I loved this one. It sometimes seems that straight up fantasy - stories that don't try to be literary or deep, but are content to be fun, dramatic, character-exploring romps through cool settings - are rare in today's climate. Or maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places. In any case, I enjoyed this one a great deal. The setting, echo of Deadlands that it was, was still full of fascinating possibilities. The character was archetypical, but it was a pretty compelling archetype so that didn't bother me.

And Wilson Fowlie's narration... who could of thought that someone so North could make a voice so very, very South?

The only thing that actually annoyed me, just a little, was the main character's refusal to carry a gun. The excuse - he wasn't comfortable with it - just didn't jive with me. It seemed like a rather transparent excuse for the character to use tons of cards in the penultimate confrontation. Ultimately, I had no idea why he'd scruple to wield a gun. He clearly had no problem killing people.

A little more background would have solved this problem, which is part of why it bugged me so much. Other potential flaws in the story like the deeper implications of the card magic, the exact mechanics of who can make a deck for who under what circumstances, and the answers to other questions (is it that you can only make a deck for another and not yourself? is each card a once-per-lifetime deal, or is each deck a once-per-lifetime deal, but if you found a partner the two of you could take turns making decks for each other? Or is it a once per deck per maker deal?) would have taken so many more words that I can forgive the author for not including them.

In conclusion, a great story that I enjoyed a great deal, with a plot hole that only bothered me because I'm a jerk.

By the way, the reference to the king under the mountain thing cracked me up. Do you think I should explain what the heck I'm about here, or just let it be?
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« Reply #2 on: March 08, 2011, 12:50:16 PM »

And Wilson Fowlie's narration... who could of thought that someone so North could make a voice so very, very South?

When Wilson's reading came in, I played part of it for my wife, then asked her where she thought the reader was from. She guessed South Carolina Smiley

By the way, the reference to the king under the mountain thing cracked me up. Do you think I should explain what the heck I'm about here, or just let it be?

 Grin

I was imagining it was a reference along the lines of this? I could be wrong, though. But it just rolls off the tongue so well, I wanted to appropriate it for the feedback segment  Smiley

ETA: Er, that's not to say "Don't tell us." Feel free to share Smiley
« Last Edit: March 08, 2011, 01:09:04 PM by DKT » Logged

acpracht
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« Reply #3 on: March 08, 2011, 05:41:43 PM »

I really enjoyed this one!

The idea was so compelling, I didn't notice the plot holes until pointed out in the first post on this thread. They are valid, but got washed away in the fun and nerdy joy of it.

Honestly I'd like to see an expanded book based on this idea. Could the magic maybe be infused into other likely game objects? Say... chess pieces or maybe even a cookbook - I don't know. I agree that it would be fun to explore the mechanics of this deeper.

I have often wanted to live in times that didn't frown upon a weapon such as a sword being carried at all times. This story may have just given me a solution to feel like a badass all the time - carrying a deck of cards.
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« Reply #4 on: March 09, 2011, 09:51:24 AM »

I quite liked this one.  It was made awesome by the magic system, and used the gambler archetype very well.  (By the way, DKT, I think that the "ch" in "archetype" is a hard "k" sound, like in "chaos").  And a revenge plot to sweeten the pot.

ElectricPaladin might have a point about the protagonist's gun qualms.  I think an explanation could be made without a big stretch of the imagination, though I don't think the text supports it.  He seems not to anticipate that Roland is a card sharp too, but he has to know he'll face off against another at some point in his life.  Facing off against a card sharp, a gun's not of much use (It took, what a 7 of clubs to stop a hail of bullets, presumably it would take less to stop single shots from a handgun).

And regarding the rules of the system, it seemed that cards weren't necessarily the only focus for magic, but they're the only ones used in the story.  They're a handy tool for it, due to their high count and combination of symbols and numbers, as was pointed out in story.  I'm guessing that the 52-card poker deck was used simply because it'd be the most familiar to readers?  Otherwise, why limit yourself to 52?  Tarot decks have like 78 cards.  Or why not make up your own--You'r enemy has an Ace of Spades?  Well why not draw the 57 of clubs for defense?  I suppose it's probably because the current deck is imbued with meaning because everyone agrees in its validity.  Maybe rather than a gambler, a card sharp should be a maker of games, and go peddle them at GenCon, once they gain enough widespread use the cards should gain power.  Wink

Anyway, good story.  Also, I know that "card sharp" is correct usage, but I'd always thought "card shark" made more sense.  Like a loan shark, ruthless in its hunger.





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acpracht
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« Reply #5 on: March 09, 2011, 11:59:02 AM »

Playing devil's advocate on the gun thing - it also took one unexpected gunshot to injure Quinn and nearly undo him completely, so... Smiley

I think you have the right idea on why one can't make their own cards - the magic simply rejects that sort of unlimited power and it doesn't fit within the framework of human minds.

If I were to expand this world, it would be interesting to expand the magic to other games and have them take on the character of the focus objects.
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« Reply #6 on: March 09, 2011, 02:30:32 PM »

I agree with EP's assessment of the story, overall, though I didn't enjoy it quite as much.  Light and fairly fluffy, content to move mostly on the surface and plainly.  It was fun but kind of forgettable, in the end.

I found the lecture on the magic system to be kind of irritating.  It was pretty clear just from the opening paragraph what the rules of the magic were, and thus a lot of Hoyle's discussions and the load of information on all the meanings of the cards and the rules for using them felt kind of unnecessary in terms of the story.  (I know "Way of the Wizard" was supposed to have stories that were explicitly about how magic worked, and this is probably why it went into such detail, but I still found it mostly a distraction and would have enjoyed the story more were most of that excised.)

The reference to Hoyle and the Old West setting (or at least Old Southern Midwest) reminded me inextricably of Deadlands, whose card-based magic system I have to say I massively prefer.  In Deadlands, Magicians literally play poker with evil spirits, and if they win, they can use the power.  The more power, the harder the game is to win, and if you lose too much to the spirits, then they drag you to Hell.  Now *that* is a gambling-based magic system!  I found the idea of "You get 52 cards, period, ever," to be an uninspiring limitation; it encourages caution and stasis rather than creativity, where it's in the card sharp's best interest to never use the cards unless they had to and to use them in the most straightforward and reliable way they could when they did.  It doesn't really make me go, "Ooh, that would be neat to have!"  Heck, I get a little antsy just thinking hypothetically about having such a clear limit to magic power.  (Whenever I'm playing any games, I get nervous if I don't have my backup stockpiled.  I used to squirrel away one of my $500 bills in Monopoly and never, ever use it unless I had to.)
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Balu
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« Reply #7 on: March 10, 2011, 07:27:48 AM »

Another great little story really enhanced by outstanding narration. It was engaging, well paced and fun. I don't really agree with the criticisms above either.

First of all, only ever getting one deck of cards was a really well thought out limitation.

From a world building point of view it was essential, at least if you wanted the magic to be rare enough to leave the world close to our own. If these cards were everywhere then it would have been wildly different. That isn't a bad thing in itself, but in this case it means that we would have lost a really cool historical setting.

More importantly, only ever getting one pack works because it forces characters to make choices. If the cards are unreliable and irreplaceable then it strikes me that you would be better off using the whole pack as a tool to accomplish something truly meaningful (like the protagonist) rather than frittering them away (like his mentor).

The second point is the lack of a gun. Guns are noisy, innaccurate and tools which were mastered by the protagonist's enemies. They are also obvious. The thing with the cards is that nobody knows what's going to hit them until it does.

Personally I would have used lesser cards to make a heap of money, hired a bunch of mercenaries and sent them in en masse like in Scar Face. But then I don't have the protagonist's passion.

 
« Last Edit: March 10, 2011, 07:33:04 AM by Balu » Logged
tinygaia
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« Reply #8 on: March 10, 2011, 10:00:29 AM »

I found the idea of "You get 52 cards, period, ever," to be an uninspiring limitation; it encourages caution and stasis rather than creativity, where it's in the card sharp's best interest to never use the cards unless they had to and to use them in the most straightforward and reliable way they could when they did.  It doesn't really make me go, "Ooh, that would be neat to have!"  Heck, I get a little antsy just thinking hypothetically about having such a clear limit to magic power.  (Whenever I'm playing any games, I get nervous if I don't have my backup stockpiled.  I used to squirrel away one of my $500 bills in Monopoly and never, ever use it unless I had to.)

I have this problem as well! When I receive gift cards, I agonize over which single thing to buy out of all the many things I want. If I had these magical cards... Well, I'd have a whole pristine pack of magical cards.

That's one reason I like this story: it made the protagonist seem more decisive and heroic to me than he probably actually was. Here's a guy who totally doesn't have my weakness and flaunts that fact impressively. Rock on!

I also liked how this story got me thinking about how the cards work and what one could do with them.
Personally I would have used lesser cards to make a heap of money…

I was thinking along those lines too! For example, knowing that the diamonds are related to wealth, and knowing that it won’t work if you try to do something too big for the card, I wondered what would happen if I used a two or three of diamonds, bought a scratch-and-win lottery ticket, and thought “Card, just net me the biggest win within your power.”

Lastly, I want to heap more praise on Wilson for his reading. The accent was great, Wilson!
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« Reply #9 on: March 10, 2011, 10:17:24 AM »

I really enjoyed this story, and Wilson's reading.  Good stuff.  I'd would be nice to have the MCD fleshed out a bit, but I think the story did what it was intended to do, that is introduce an intriguing magic system, and be highly entertaining.

<music>You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to throw 'em, know when to walk away, know when to send hot, broiling fire hurling toward your opponent</music>  I think Kenny Rogers could make it work. 
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« Reply #10 on: March 10, 2011, 12:34:22 PM »

I liked the magic system - though if I were going to use it in a gaming world I'd use the tarot rather than modern playing cards.  Those major arcana would be useful!

The fights were well written too, making for a fun story.  Not a lot more to it, but there doesn't need to be.

I also think the training session flashbacks were un-needed or at least over-labored.  The basic idea was obvious right off and could have been covered in more detail in the main narrative. 
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« Reply #11 on: March 10, 2011, 12:50:07 PM »

<music>You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to throw 'em, know when to walk away, know when to send hot, broiling fire hurling toward your opponent</music>  I think Kenny Rogers could make it work. 

Ha!  I love it!

I agree with scattercat's point that the magic system was over-explained.  But I think the one-deck limitation was reasonable.  Yes, it encourages you into stasis rather than action, but then when someone acts with them it really means something.
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« Reply #12 on: March 10, 2011, 03:50:31 PM »

I enjoyed the story quite a bit. You can tell I did because I didn't lead off with the narration commentary, which I usually do when I don't like a story.

If anything I had some issues with Roland and Quentin's final showdown, after Roland's cardsharp was killed. Quentin getting shot didn't have a ton of impact to me, and while I'm a fan of not actually explaining what happened, I kind of want to know... well... what happened to Roland. Maybe I'm biased in that regard, because I've had editors tell me to go ahead and show what happened, rather than leave it up to the reader's imagination.

A story like this opens up the mind to what else might be magical in the world. If playing cards can be a magical focus -- and if what Hoyle said was true, that the cards simply focus the mind -- then why not food magic? Shoe magic? Could a prostitute use condoms as a focus? A juggler use ping-pong balls? What about an enchanted MP3 playlist where the music or story focuses the magic a certain way?

And I suppose it's only fair that a favorite narrator's story is narrated by another favorite narrator.
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« Reply #13 on: March 10, 2011, 04:53:16 PM »

I enjoyed this story. not much of substance, but a really fun, interesting idea that was done very well.

The main character was interesting enough to carry a fairly simply, but still nicely put-together plot, without being terribly original or complicated. It was well written and very well narrated.

Probably the highlight was the magic and how it worked. I really liked the idea of having magical cards. I agree that, at times, it was over-explained, with some bits left conveniently vague (like how one makes a deck for someone and what rules dictate that). Even so, it was a fantastic idea that I'd love to read more about
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« Reply #14 on: March 10, 2011, 05:42:26 PM »

The only thing that actually annoyed me, just a little, was the main character's refusal to carry a gun. The excuse - he wasn't comfortable with it - just didn't jive with me. It seemed like a rather transparent excuse for the character to use tons of cards in the penultimate confrontation. Ultimately, I had no idea why he'd scruple to wield a gun. He clearly had no problem killing people.

I assumed that it meant, not that he was necessarily emotionally or philosophically uncomfortable with a pistol, but physically so, in the same way that I am with a twirling baton, or a unicycle, or Linux.

As you point out, he certainly had no problem with the general idea of having a weapon (also supported by the bit about regularly carrying a knife, immediately following the part about the pistol).

Someone is going to say, "But there's no reason he couldn't learn to use a gun."  That's true, but the story doesn't say he couldn't use one, just that he wasn't comfortable doing so.  Some people can pick up a gun (or sit at a piano or get behind the wheel of a car) for the first time and it seems like a part of them from the first moment, and they'll probably use it well in pretty short order.

Others can pick up (or otherwise use) the same item and never feel, well, comfortable with it, even if they practice to the point of being competent.  Quentin was obviously very comfortable with a deck of cards even before he got the magic ones, so I see no stretch that using one as a weapon would feel more natural than using a gun.

But then, I'm not an American.  Wink


(Actually, I'd be genuinely interested in knowing whether there was a general difference in reaction to this point between Americans and those from other countries.)
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« Reply #15 on: March 10, 2011, 05:47:22 PM »

It's not that the limit was bad; just uninspiring.  Intricate magic systems set me to thinking in roleplaying-mode instead of story-mode, and a strict lifetime limit on the amount of magic you could use would be a total buzzkill for a roleplaying game.  This is one reason I don't really like extensive descriptions of magic systems: they put me in the wrong mood to enjoy a story.
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« Reply #16 on: March 11, 2011, 09:17:03 AM »

Well, I wish you all hadn't brought up the gun because it didn't bother me when I was listening to the story, but now I'm sitting here thinking, yeah, this revenge plan would have been a lot easier if he'd just learned to be a sharp shooter.  I enjoyed the magical system, but the plot didn't really hold a lot of surprises for me, so in the end I found the story to be a bit forgettable. 

The main character makes the choice not to save his mother, but there's never really a consequence for that--he ends up getting to save her in the end.  In fact, he makes the choice to be a revenge-driven man, unlike his father, but there's no consequence for that, either.  He just gets to play out the rest of his cards as a different type of man.  I found that a bit unsatisfying. 

I wondered if the author was going for a Hamlet metaphor but those parallels didn't really pay off.  That might have given a bit more depth to the story.

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« Reply #17 on: March 11, 2011, 09:23:06 AM »

with some bits left conveniently vague (like how one makes a deck for someone and what rules dictate that). Even so, it was a fantastic idea that I'd love to read more about

I don't think the vagueness of creating a deck was a flaw of the story.  Hoyle purposefully never taught him how to make a deck.  They made a bargain to teach how to use cards in exchange for delivering the deck to the son--the bargain did not including learning how to pass a deck on to someone else (and in any case the protagonist has no real drive to make a deck for someone else anyway).

It's not that the limit was bad; just uninspiring.  Intricate magic systems set me to thinking in roleplaying-mode instead of story-mode, and a strict lifetime limit on the amount of magic you could use would be a total buzzkill for a roleplaying game.  This is one reason I don't really like extensive descriptions of magic systems: they put me in the wrong mood to enjoy a story.

Fair enough.  It certainly would be a buzzkill for an RPG, prompting an undesirable dynamic where the most powerful characters are the freshly made ones.  It might be worthwhile to kill off your own character just so that you can have an excuse to start a new player with a fresh deck.


The main character makes the choice not to save his mother, but there's never really a consequence for that--he ends up getting to save her in the end.  In fact, he makes the choice to be a revenge-driven man, unlike his father, but there's no consequence for that, either.  He just gets to play out the rest of his cards as a different type of man.  I found that a bit unsatisfying. 

I wondered if the author was going for a Hamlet metaphor but those parallels didn't really pay off.  That might have given a bit more depth to the story.

That's a very good point.  I'd forgotten about his decision to not heal his mother, and that scene seemed like it was setting something up, but it didn't.  In retrospect that's a little disappointing.
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« Reply #18 on: March 11, 2011, 09:30:28 AM »

The only thing that actually annoyed me, just a little, was the main character's refusal to carry a gun. The excuse - he wasn't comfortable with it - just didn't jive with me. It seemed like a rather transparent excuse for the character to use tons of cards in the penultimate confrontation. Ultimately, I had no idea why he'd scruple to wield a gun. He clearly had no problem killing people.

I assumed that it meant, not that he was necessarily emotionally or philosophically uncomfortable with a pistol, but physically so, in the same way that I am with a twirling baton, or a unicycle, or Linux.

As you point out, he certainly had no problem with the general idea of having a weapon (also supported by the bit about regularly carrying a knife, immediately following the part about the pistol).

Someone is going to say, "But there's no reason he couldn't learn to use a gun."  That's true, but the story doesn't say he couldn't use one, just that he wasn't comfortable doing so.  Some people can pick up a gun (or sit at a piano or get behind the wheel of a car) for the first time and it seems like a part of them from the first moment, and they'll probably use it well in pretty short order.

Others can pick up (or otherwise use) the same item and never feel, well, comfortable with it, even if they practice to the point of being competent.  Quentin was obviously very comfortable with a deck of cards even before he got the magic ones, so I see no stretch that using one as a weapon would feel more natural than using a gun.

But then, I'm not an American.  Wink


(Actually, I'd be genuinely interested in knowing whether there was a general difference in reaction to this point between Americans and those from other countries.)

That's a very interesting question. I don't even like guns, myself, but I have to admit that if I were to go on a crazed revenge quest, a gun is the first thing I'd get.

I do feel, however, like magic for its own sake - magic that fails to move the plot sufficiently to justify its own existence - can be a problem. The cards may have been that, with regards to killing people.
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« Reply #19 on: March 11, 2011, 11:45:38 AM »

I thought this story was really fun and a great listen for a Friday morning. Smiley I agree with a lot of the above comments (especially BlueLu's) but I didn't really think about any of those things until after it was over. Having said that, while we were waiting for the holding spell to wear off enough for Quentin to grab another card, all I could think of was this:


Quote from: The Incredibles
Lucius: [Bob and Lucius are sitting in a parked car, reminiscing] So now I'm in deep trouble. I mean, one more jolt of this death ray and I'm an epitaph. Somehow I manage to find cover and what does Baron von Ruthless do?
Bob: [laughing] He starts monologuing.
Lucius: He starts monologuing! He starts like, this prepared speech about how *feeble* I am compared to him, how *inevitable* my defeat is, how *the world* *will soon* *be his*, yadda yadda yadda.
Bob: Yammering.
Lucius: Yammering! I mean, the guy has me on a platter and he won't shut up!
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