Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Hammer and The Blade by Paul S Kemp

The Hammer & The Blade
An Egil & Nix Novel
Written by Paul S Kemp

Paul S. Kemp may be more familiar to fans of the Forgotten Realms through his characters of shade and shadow. Here Paul starts a new chapter in his writing career, one that launches a new world with new characters with some very old themes.

Cast in a similar vein as the ruin hunting adventures of Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Nix the Lucky or Nix the Swift, is the companion of Egil of Ebenor. Nix is clearly the 'rogue' of the pair. He does most of the sneaking, is quick, is known for his accuracy with thrown daggers, and like the Mouser is a dabbler in magic thanks to a year in a sorcerer college.

Egil is a bit different. While you couldn't tell from the cover, he's often described as being so hairy that he's mistaken for a bear or wearing a heavy winter coat in summer. Like having a mustache and beard even. Like having a ringlet around his scalp of hair.

In terms of being 'of Ebenor', that's the God who is of the Moment. In this case, an entity that was a god for a moment. And while Egil is referred to as a priest throughout the novel, he's not a spellcasting priest. He's a dual hammer wielder.

The novel starts with the duo doing some tomb raiding and that spirals out into the main body of the story. Paul keeps the cast small and the setting around the cast. He expands upon that setting through the use of historical murals, psychic visions, and playful banter back and forth between the characters.

Paul's work focuses on the 'adventuring' aspect with tombs to plunder and foes to battle. There's a lot of fighting going on in a setting that has sorcery and magical items but isn't awash in them like say the Forgotten Realms. Paul's descriptions of the numerous fights the duo get in are captivating and move along pulling the reader with them. Many of the foes the duo face, both magical and mundane, are able to be effected by normal steel and the dreaded forces of gravity. This gives it far more of a sword and sorcery pulp action feel than a setting where the main character is disintegrating individuals with power enough to destroy them from the timeline.

At this point, neither character bears an enchanted or named weapon and their competencies are tested over and over.

Despite the familiar ground, Paul walks, he brings his own twists to things. For example, the final 'fate' of the villain of the piece? Hinted at earlier but perhaps cruder than we'd have seen during the genre's top popularity.

If you're a fan of sword & sorcery, of high action, of good guys who aren't necessarily 'good guys', The Hammer and the Blade is a great place to introduce yourself to Nix and Egil.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Crossing the Streams: Civil War

When I talk about stealing ideas from any source, some may seem odder than others. How about Marvel Comic's Civil War for example?

If you look at the 5th Edition D&D Player's Handbook, you've got the following classes:

  • Barbarian
  • Bard
  • Cleric
  • Druid
  • Fighter
  • Monk
  • Paladin
  • Ranger
  • Rogue
  • Sorcerer
  • Warlock
  • Wizard

So how many of those classes cast spells or use some type of magic? How easy would it be to incorporate the idea of 'registration' for anyone who could cast magic? Even if it's just limited to a portion of the setting, it could create complications with most parties.

Imagine in Waterdeep you are automatically tagged and put into a school and have to work for the city.

Imagine in Cormyr you HAVE to be in the War Wizards.

In some ways, the settings often work something similar if at a reduced structure into their settings. But when you push things to an extreme level? They can take on different shades, different meanings.

It can also provide automatic breaks for the campaign. Imagine that it's not ALL magic using classes, just those that are arcane. All of the sudden you're sorcerer and warlock who didn't have to study for their magic, outside of the usual bits, now have to deal with witch hunters from all over the campaign setting. Now they have to deal with clerical spellcasters armed with dispel magic scrolls and a great knowledge of arcane magic.

Imagine the competition so fierce that warlock patrons are being killed off in the campaign by the deities of the setting, forcing people who still wish to be spellcasters to turn to deities for their power.

Pushing the ideas further, imagine groups that were once considered 'good' working on these terms. The 'Harpers' all of the sudden becomes a group that advocates for all mages to be registered and trained specifically so that they don't do any wrongs and that they have to be kept tabs on at all times. They point out the 'rogue' wizards of places like Zhentil Keep and Thay as a perfect reason why these laws must be passed and other countries, like Cormyr, fully agree, on the insistence that while in their country, these wizards work for both the Harpers and the country.

Still further, and you can see anti-magic zones like those created during the Time of Troubles becoming hot spots where the martial classes would gather to plot their works against the wizards of the world.

Still further and you can see countries using mage sniffing demons, hounds, or other entities that could sense and eat/countermagic.

This might lead to mages that don't rely 100% on their magic, mages that are multi-classed or are in hiding by claiming to be clerics or druids.

Comics can be a fun way to see how plot lines and ideas play out. Don't hesitate to steal from them.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Of Truth and Beasts

Of Truth and Beasts
A Novel of the Noble Dead
Written by Barb & J.C. Hendee
Published by Roc

It's been a long time since I've read the Noble Dead series. Part of that was I don't like Wynn, Chane, and Shade as much as the original trio. They are pale reflections of the unique features that the original trio brought to the series.

It's not that they don't have their own charm.

Wynn is a scholar, a sage even, whose motivation in finding things out is to help save the world. In this her guild works against her because there are things that the guild thinks man is not meant to know and so it's a back and forth between her guild and the factions within it, including those that think, due to Wynn's tenacious nature, that she will find a way through to long-forgotten knowledge.

There's there's Chane. Spoiler alert folks, he's a vampire who was killed early in the series by the former star, Magiere. She even went so far as to cut his head off. It didn't take but the decapitation left him a nice scar and a raspy voice.

Oh, and he and Wynn have an 'unspoken thing' between them. You know, like Cheers. 

The last of the original trio is Shade, a fey hound of sorts that doesn't speak in words, but rather conveys things through memories. It works well in some points but also limits how the character can be used in terms of interaction with the others. 

Having said that, since I haven't read any of the books in a long time, it was a pleasant read focused mainly on exploration and character interaction not only between the new trio, but also Ore Locks, a dwarf seeking redemption for one of his ancestors. Important when that ancestor is known as The Lord of Slaughter and you're not a worshipper of Khrone.

Part of this back and forth involves trying to get permission to engage in the mission in the first place. The Sages aren't really keen on letting Wynn out of their sight but at the same time, if they banish her or try anything funky, well, there's the vampire dude and the dwarf and the fey dog... so many complications! Better to try and feed her a little information at a time and lead her in the direction they want her to go.

But Wynn is not one so easily lead and quickly slips the leash taking limited funds and spending them all in an effort to get ahead of her own guild, which to a certain point works.

The novel includes a few different factions that don't all get equal face time but it does give us a peak into the wraith, Sau'ilahk, a man who served the 'Enemy' because he thought he'd get to be young forever. Nope! Turns out they bound him after a long lived life and took his flesh so he's a formless, shapeless, black cape! He could be a super villain, "Fear the Wraith!"

He's kind of annoying. When a villain gets a good death scene, go with it. And in the last volume, Sau'ilahk got that death scene. Bringing him back and giving him some more background and motivation works to a point, but it's also a mirror of bringing back Chane in previous volumes. "Kill your darlings" as the old saying goes.

Having said that, the mix of exploration and character conflict comes to a nice climax in an ancient dwarf hold and the things in that old dwarf hold? Well, let's just say that fans of The Hobbit aren't going to be disappointed. The novel ends with an epilogue that sets up the next series in the Nobel Dead series.

If you're a fan of fantasy exploration and standard races with a bit of a twist on them, like Ore Locks and how the dwarves in this setting work, you'll enjoy it. If you're looking for high action thought and intense combat scenes like David Gemmell or R. A. Salvatore or known for bringing to their series? Not so much.

The Nobel Dead continues to move the plot forward with "the McGuffin" for at least another 'phase (3 even!) of five books so if you like your series long and epic, the Nobel Dead should hold you over.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Elantris Appendix N Musings

When you read a beefy tome like Elantris, many elements may start to swirl around your brain and demand a place at your gaming table.

1. Take the most popular city in your setting and destroy it. Forgotten Realms? Waterdeep sent into the plane of Shadow. Eberron? Sharn collapses and is surrounded by a psionic energy barrier that flares with runes similar to the various house marks. Greyhawk? Well, of course, Greyhawk city!

You can either have it happen right at the start of the campaign or as something that has happened in the recent past. No one knows how or why it happened but it gives the players the chance to explore the ruins of a freshly destroyed city. They can hunt for survivors. They can hunt for lost lore. They can try and return the city to its former glory. The options are almost limitless when you're dealing with a subject as big as a lost city in a magical setting.

Players may also get caught up in the changes that are wrought by a major city falling. For example, if Waterdeep itself falls, what about the various farms outside of Waterdeep? What about the various towns outside the city? Will they rise and take over the maintenance of the roads leading north? Will they be destroyed by raids from nearby towns looking for plunder?

What about the political situation? Waterdeep, as a large city, an old city, as a trading city, has many alliances and enemies. Will those in the South use this as an excuse to invade their northern neighbors and become the new "Gateway to the North"? Will those in the north use this as an excuse to start an extermination of evil in order to safeguard their own lands and ensure that the same thing that happened to Waterdeep does not happen to them?

2. NPC Motivations: Some characters aren't necessarily evil but they have a goal. That goal can range in time and tune with the evolution of the campaign. In Elantris, Roial and Ahan are merchants that compete with one another. Roial always getting the better of Ahan. Under the promise that Roial would be imprisioned, Ahan betrays Roail and their friends. Thing spin rapidly out of that as the one Ahan betrayed the group to decides not to imprison Roail and the others, but to kill them. An event completely against the wishes of Ahan but outside his control once the ball started rolling. Things move as motivation directs them for a character, but when that motivation encounters other character's motivation, it can spin in a completely different fashion.

Are there secrets that friends of the characters know? Are there things that might make others jealous? Have the players learned something that is of vital consequence to others in the region but they themselves don't see it that way?

And motivation doesn't have to be used against the players. One of the main characters of Elantris, Hrathen, is the high priest of Fjordell and is in Arelon to convert the people. This is his goal. To convert the people.

When he learns that his church never had that as an intention, he turns against them. This is the classic case of organized religion versus a man's own interpretation of that religion and the organization fell short.

3. Secrets. During the course of the novel, prince Raoden uses two different aliases in order to move forward with his own plans. During the course of the novel, we learn that Raoden's father was a member of a cult that engaged in ritual sacrifice. As the novel unfolds, we learn of a hidden cult of killers within the religion that Krathen seeks to bring to the people of Arelon. At the end of the novel, there are still mysteries left to ponder. Keep some things hidden from the characters. Keep enough elements of the campaign that the characters may choose to follow a few of them without ever knowing what the others lead to.

Now mind you in a multi-year campaign where the players are playing the same characters and growing in tune with the campaign itself, that's a little harder to do but in many campaigns, especially shorter-lived ones, it gives the players something to look forward to the next time they come back to the campaign.

4. Minor Characters: In a dungeon crawl that's packed with monsters, Non-Player Characters aren't necessarily that important. Oh sure there might be a 'Meepo' in the waiting or something of that nature, but mainly, it's about the crawl.

In a city-based campaign, in a campaign that interacts with civilization, it's in part about the people. A Game of Thrones, one of the most popular of novel series, has dozens of characters. While Elantris in one book does not boast quite so many, it does have numerous individuals. For example, Sarene is married to Raoden. Raoden and Sarene both have fathers. Sarene also has an uncle. That uncle has children. Some of those children are married. Many of these characters have their own little niches about them.

The depth and details of the campaign can shine much greater when the players have an actual attachment to the campaign. Some of these can serve as mentors, as friends, as allies, as rivals, as enemies. The amount of swordplay or violence directly in a mirror to what the player's do.

5. Social Combat: One of the most interesting aspects of Elantris to me, from a gaming point, is the lack of fighting.

Hrathen vs Sarene: As a high priest, Hrathen is out and about preaching. He is intent on bringing the people into the fold. Sarene has seen the works of the church in other countries, sometimes resulting in bloody revolutions and is determined to stop it. So when Hrathen is out preaching, Sarene is there asking questions that undermine the church.

Sarene vs King Iadon: The King has no use for women in the court. He feels them useless and out of place among the political games that go on. Sarene is having none of that and at first, plays off as if she were too dumb to understand the problems that Iadon has with her being in the court. She does this once by pretending to paint and claiming it's part of her own courtly duties.

Raoden vs Sarene: During part of the novel, Raoden is in exile in Elantris and Sarene is bringing food to the people of the city. Raoden is in many ways the default ruler of the city but doesnt' control all of it and seeks to keep things are while at the same time trying to get more supplies to improve the lot of the people of Elantris. This leads to a list of goods needed by Raoden while Sarene not trusting him, provides corrupted versions of them. For example, instead of blocks of iron, bent nails or near transparent sheets of metal.

The use of social combat and the gaining and losing of status is often underlooked in roleplaying games. Most of the rules in games like Dungeons and Dragons are for spells and combat but social combat can be a little more involved and allows the players to occassionally lose without dying on the spot.

Are there any other parts of Elantris that you'd bring to your campaign or thought would make for some interesting bits in a game?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Written by Brandon Sanderson
Published by Tor Fantasy
638 pages (paperback version)

Elantris is the first book written by Brandon Sanderson. In paperback at least, it's a weighty tome clocking in at over six hundred pages. Took me a little while to digest it.

The concept is a solid one. Elantris, the 'city of the gods', has fallen. Those who once did magic that could heal wounds and create light and energy for their people lost their abilities overnight and they were quickly slain.

This did not stop the 'gifting' of Elantris, where people outside the city would once become like those of Elantris, powerful and silvery skinned, but now, their bodies 'die' and they are cast into Elantris which is more akin to the city of Dis, a city of the damned.

The back cover brings us three main characters:

Raoden: He's the prince of the city outside Elantris proper. He works against his father's ways. In ma ways, Raoden is far too modern for the times he finds himself living in. One thing I appreciate about Raoden, is that he's an optimist. He's always searching for answers. He's always looking for the biggest reasons why. He's always trying to minimize violence and harm to others.

It's a refreshing chance of corse. In many tales, the hero is so grim, so gritty, that at times, I would love to see him killed off just so that someone more interesting can replace him. Being a bitter washed up old hero is played out.

Hrathen is a high priest of the country of Fjordell. He's been sent to Raoden's country of Arelon to convert the people. That didn't work out too well for the last country Hrathen converted. Turns out that when you turn the common folks against their rulers, a massacre when thousands, if not tens of thousands of people can happen.

I was pleasantly surprised by Hrathen several times. While he plays the 'villain' of the piece to a point, he's much more complex than merely a ranting religious figure that all the woes of humanity can be tied onto.

He's clever. He appreciates those who share this trait. He's not a devout fanatic and is even brought to the point where he has to consciously question his faith and how that faith interacts with the organized religion. In these things, Sanderson doesn't' paint any one character with too broad a brush save perhaps the actual zealots, but I found Hrathen very entertaining and interesting in his own right.

Sarene is another character born out of time. A tall woman whose height intimidates some, her willingness to wade deep into political matters that in Arelon at least, were only considered things for men to discuss.

She brings swordplay to the ladies of the court as a hobby to the women. She runs an alliance against the actual king of Arelon. She is a princess of Teod and now of Arelon and she is not to be ignored.

As a done in one novel, Sanderson brings the main body of the story to a close, but he leaves a lot of events open-ended. Looking at the book, I see there is now The Emperor's Soul, book 2 in the Elantris series.

When I get my reading queue a little more organized, it's one I'm going to have to check out. I enjoyed Mistborn. I found the ending of that series to be a neat switch on the whole 'one of prophecy bit' and I find that Elantris also does a good job of moving some of the troupes around.

Brandon's enjoyment of making magic systems with their own rules and rituals is clear in the series. His ability to work events and tie in different elements is solid. Stories from the start of the book come to have a greater impact towards the end. He's truly a believer of the whole gun from the first chapter getting used in later chapters.

If you're a fan of fantasy novels, especially high fantasy novels, Elantris is a solid read.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Abbot's Gibbet by Michael Jecks

The Abbot's Gibbet
Written by Michael Jecks
A Medieval West Country Mystery
A Knight's Templar Mystery

Michael Jecks continues the tale of former knight templar Sir Baldwin Furnshill and his ally and friend Simon Puttock in the fifth novel in the series.

The mystery around this time starts off with a headless corpse. In an era where modern forensics are unknown, to have a corpse with no head leads to difficulties beyond the standard whodunit mysteries.

Setting the murder during the fair of the 'dock' city of Tavistock, makes things more difficult. Michael Jecks initially hits us with so many characters, that the names and descriptions come fast and furious. It takes a while before we even get to Sir Baldwin and Simon!

As with other books in the series, Michael's enjoyment of the era comes through. This isn't blind devotion or thinking it a superior in terms of moral authority, but a knowledge of how things work. Take the title of the book itself, The Abbot's Gibbet. Sir Baldwin's order, the Templars, did not fare well under the agents of Gods mercies. When Sir Baldwin looks at that, the ultimate sign of authority over life and death, he is not a man pleased with his place in the world.

It does serve to steel his spine and ensure that he always works towards providing the justice he feels his brothers in the templars were denied.

Michael continues to expand the setting. This novel introduces us to Lady Jeanne, a widower who benefits from the generosity of the Abbot. Sir Baldwin, who is a single man of no small years, is smitten with her and her presence is hinted at being continued strongly through their courtship in the novel.

There are enough characters and possible motivations and possible rationales and red herrings, that if you catch the villain before the end piece, I salute you. Mind you, this is somewhat deliberately obstruction in some instances as bread crumbs leading in very specific directions are laid before pulled back. Too much of that can ruin a story but as more information comes to light, nothing from before is invalidated.

For me, it's enjoyable to read these books because it's fun to see where the characters are going. Who the characters are interacting with. How the setting itself as it involves the characters, is getting larger and more involved.

If you're interested in history or more information on Michael Jecks, check out his youtube channel.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Kickstarter Current Thoughts: 05-07-2017

Way back in the day, I backed many a Kickstarter projects.

Over the last say, two years, I've cut way back. Way back.

This is due to several factors.

Kickstarter is terrible at allowing a user to know what a vendor is about. There should be some type of dashboard that each vendor has where I can see customer satisfaction, how often they hit their marks, how late their product is, and other information. Things like posts before funding, posts after funding. It's always telling if you see that between the time a late project fulfilled and when it started the posts count goes way down.

Instead, we get what? Here's how many projects this company did. Wow. Thanks. That's not really useful information in telling me anything at a glance as I now have to delve into each project and see how they went.

It's 2017. Big data is a thing. This isn't some weird request to provide information that isn't instantly available with existing technology. Kickstarter, get your head into the game of providing better customer service!

Okay, so that's one.

Two, I've had trials and tribulations. Let's see, a few years ago, my formerly awesome mechanic just completely missed like $3,500 worth of repairs that my old Saturn needed. So it was new car time. New cars are expensive.

My mom's been hospitalized a few times. Life doesn't get easier when you have a chronic condition like diabetes.

I was hospitalized! Parking in an alley is awesome in most seasons but in the winter it's challenging. So challenging that I got caught on a huge snow mound and had to get underneath my car with a shovel to get out of it. The reward? A few slipped disks that prevented me from doing anything outside of laying down without being in excruciating pain. I was very lucky in that three months of physical therapy and a few shots to the spine were able to restore most of my mobility and make the pain manageable.

I was laid off! After 19 years at my last gig, they had decided, "You know, it makes more sense for us to have like, what, five job fairs and fire the people already working here" Corporate America for the win yeah?

That one worked out a bit better for me as I have a job making significantly more money and every time I talk to peeps from the old place they have some new issue to harp on.

Three, Kickstarter projects are often on sale. Anyone heard of Zombicide: Black Plague?

I didn't get the exclusives. I also didn't wait for it to be published. I also got it for 50% off. This doesn't count other board games that get deep discounts like The Others, another one I got for almost or 50% off. I ordered it and Amazon sent it to me the same day.

Anyone remember The Grand Temple of Jing? It was about this time I was starting to get leery of these games. I don't know if gamers are just terrible project managers or if they are a cursed lot of mankind because that project was massively late. two years or something late. I picked up my copy from The Miniature Market on some crazy blowout. Think I paid like $20 or $25 for it.  A Beautiful book by the way.

How about Razor Coast? Picked up the whole lot for more than 50% off.

So yeah, outside of some great exclusives or 'freebies' like giving you the PDF with the physical copy, I'm not seeing a lot of benefit for backing these Kickstarters when so many of them are just poorly managed and late.

Four, lack of accountability. Kickstarter continues to hide behind "it's not a preorder, it's funding a process" or some nonsense that if you took it to a bank and asked for a loan they'd laugh you out. As I alluded to above, way too many of the kick starters I've picked up have been the results of late or bad management. Heck, I didn't' even get started on Sedition Wars that decided for the good of the game to screw the initial backers in some obscure ways that didn't, by the way, make the good of the game viable.

On failures, I've backed? I was a backer of the Tome of Horrors, both of 'em. Should have known the warning signs on that one. Sigh. That doesn't count Drake.

That doesn't count some that are technically still going like Imbrian Art's where they're literally using new Kickstarter, sending out the goods to those people on the new Kickstarter first, and eventually will get to the original guys who sent them money. It's not that Jody isn't an awesome sculptor. It isn't that he hasn't had his own 'curses' but damn that's a shitty thing to do to people who originally believed in you.

 Another one that's long overdue is Assimilation Alien Host. It took in over $50 thousand and it's been bleeding out at a slow fraction. Thankfully the creator decided to actual start communicating with the backers again and on a regular basis and most people are happy with the communication skills and the slow but steady progress forward.

Five, there's awesome stuff out there right now! That isn't being Kickstarted! Don't get me wrong, I get that Kickstarter for many companies, like Goodman Games, is probably more of a marketing and preorder thing to engage with their potential customers than a vital necessity, but in the meantime, there are publications like Pathfinder Bestiary 6 out there.

You want it? You want it now? You simply go buy it. Done.

Sixth, I'm crazy. I have a problem just kind of backing a thing. Like there were some awesome awesome dwarf miniatures out recently, The Iron Crows!. My nature would've put me at a pretty high pledge level on that one.

Seventh, I'm not playing or painting! My new job is cool in that it's only four days a week, but it's four ten hour days, with an unpaid hour for lunch, and it's about an hour both ways so it's a thirteen hour day. Not complaining but it is a schedule that makes me pretty unavailable for anything during the week because I have to be up so early. And then on the weekend the dreaded adulting strikes! So even though I've bought the Other and Black Plague, I haven't done much more than look at them.

Why on earth would I back anything else?

Mind you there are a few I've backed just because they looked fun and were from companies that I trusted. In reality, I did not need to back Godoman Games and their new boxed set of the Duo but I like the Twain so even though I never used the Runequest stuff, I wanted to throw some support at them.

But overall? Yeah, my spending on Kickstarter, unless it gets serious about not only accountability, but customer friendliness in data sharing, is going to continue going down.

How about everyone else? How are you doing with Kickstarter? More? Less? The same? Am I way off my gourd here?