Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Art of Ian Miller

US $34.95 ($25.24 at Amazon)
160 pages

The Art of Ian Miller is a collection of Ian Miller's artwork stretching over a long period of time and includes over 300 pieces. It includes both color and black and white artwork. A quick way to get a glimpse of what's inside, is to do a google search like this one.

I can't tell you when I first encountered the art of Ian Miller. I know that it was either through the books of Steve Jackson's Sorcery, the tabletop game Warhammer, or reprints of H. P. Lovecraft's work that I found in used book stores. In my mind, I associate Ian Miller with imagery of 80s Warhammer and the chaos gods in particular.

The book starts off with an introduction by Brian Sibley before getting into the work itself. Broken up into different sections, some much smaller than others, it includes the following:

Maelstrom: A collection of images inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's story, "A Descent into the Maelstrom." This section is black and white.

Dragons: Ah, Ian Miller doing dragons. Some of these are images that hail from the Tolkein Bestiary. I found that fascinating as I don't associate Ian Miller with Tolkein, as opposed to say, Games Workshop. This includes black and white, as well as pen work in red and other colors.  The double page spread of what appears to be a phoenix surrounded by dragons is in full rich color and rewards multiple viewings with its numerous intricate details. 

Men, Monsters & Machines: A collection of a variety of pieces, many of them that look like they came straight from Warhammer. I say this because of the odd faces, leering and snarling on shields and helms.  There are a variety of styles here ranging from pen and ink to full color, including more work for the Lord of the Rings animation. 

Castles & Kingdoms: One of Ian's favorites is apparently the old Gormenghast Novels and he has several works of his take on the castles, as well as Arkham, the fictional city in Massachusetts. Another bit that comes through, is work he did for an animated feature by Ralph Bakshi called Wizards. Another bit that intrigued me as I knew nothing of Ian's involvement with Ralp or Wizards up to this point.

Dreams & Nightmares: To be honest, I'm a little confused as to what makes a piece fall into Dreams & Nightmares as opposed to Men, Monsters & Machines. Is it more of a dream like state? More of a "Well...", a gut feeling if you well? 

One of the problems is that for the double page spreads, the art doesn't handle it well because of the immense detail that Ian brings to his work. For example, the double page spread of Cthulhu on page 48-49? There's quite a bit not necessarily lost, but the flow is immensely interrupted.

Another problem? Despite the size of the book at 9.3 x 12.5, it's too small. This is because Ian is relentless in his use of lines for detail. You could easily have this book at twice the size and still spend hours studying one picture. His use of repetition and patterns is everywhere. 

For under $30, under $26 if you use the Amazon link, the art of Ian Miller can be yours to study.

For those already familiar with Ian, do you have a particular favorite? For those who already own it, any illustrations that are you quintessential Ian that are missing?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour by Lord Egerton of Tatton

First of all, thanks to those readers of the blog, twitter, and other interactions on social media. This book is a direct result of sales through the Amazon Associate link so I appreciate it!

Second, if you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know I'm a sucker for books on weapons. Indian weapons don't necessarily get a lot of recognition. They don't have the 'Katana' that is so popular among the second part of this book's title, "Oriental Arms and Armour."

Even in role playing games, there isn't that much in Indian settings. While there are notable exceptions, especially now with an OSR game, Arrows of Idra or the Pathfinder city book Parsantium , the majority of games either focus on pseudo European or pseudo Japan.

Sometimes such references pop up in odd locations. For example, the manga Berserk has several characters that take inspiration from the lands of India including one champion, Silat, that the main character, Guts, keeps running into. Over here on Deviant Art is a good likeness of Silat by 20AznHuskarl20.

Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour is a bit different than I thought it would be. I'm used to the Dover books being fairly inexpensive reproductions of material long since out of print. Which this is. But this is a bit more scholarly than I thought it would be.

For example, "The shield is deemed the only fit salver on which to present gifts, and accordingly, at a Rajput court, shawls, scarves, jewels, are always spread before a guest on bucklers." That's a neat little bit right there and "parallel between the Rajputs and the feudal races of Scandinavia and Germany. In feudal, as in Rajput communities, arms played a conspicuous part in all military pagents, as well as in all the business of life."

There is also a ton of black and white artwork. One of my favorite bits is a picture of different types of swords that includes at least two pata or gauntlet swords.

At 43 years old, I'm old enough to remember a fantasy movie called Willow.

One of the characters from Willow, is a heroic warrior with no peer known as Madmartigan. During a showdown with his opposite, the fierce General Kael, one of the weapons Madmartigan uses in a two sword fashion, is the pata. It's a fantastic scene.

Visually it's an interesting weapon. Different enough from a standard sword to stand out, but still with enough of the form and functionality to be identified quickly.

There are several such weapons throughout the region, several of which, thanks to media, have become well known, like Xena's chakram.

Having an exotic non-standard weapon like this gives characters a bit of difference. It makes them stand out among others who may only be using standard sword and shield.

And it's not necessarily just a visual difference. Where did they find the weapon? Who trained them? Do they know how to get back there? Are there other treasures and bits of information that can be fed into the campaign?

In the Black Company, a fantasy story about mercenaries and their vague origins, the later books, or Books of the South, allow Glen Cook to tell a story focusing on a completely different region with non-standard heroes and villains that still provide a powerful story.

While I'm still reading through Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour, it's so far proven both visually appealing and interesting reading. Its too short to go into much detail on all aspects, but does point out enough interesting bits that where I'm curious I can hit up other sources for further research.

If you want to dip a toe into the exotic world of weapons that go beyond long sword and broad sword, Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour is a solid start.

As a Game Master, have you ever added any such weapons to your own campaign? Back in 'the day', I had a bounty hunter that used to have a special ability to use any weapon he picked up and used that to justify a whole range of odd weapons. It wasn't something that I innately came up with though as I believe I based it off an old Ral Partha miniature, Nimrod the Hunter from their Warlords boxed set.

Nimrod was the one on the left with the shield that has a tri-dagger peaking out of it and the odd shaped sword and no pants.

Anyone use any monsters from these far away places? I was fortunate to be able to back Harwood Hobbies last miniature Kickstarter and one of the pieces you could get is an Avatar of Kali, but some of the assassins from the thugs cult also look great.

It's a wide world out there and having more options can allow for some variety in the stew.

Any other great books or references I'm blatantly missing? Throw a link in!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Dungeon Master's Screen Review

Looking over the Dungeon Master's Screen for 5th edition.

The outside art is top notch. One of the best fantasy pieces I've seen in a long time. Over at the blog Shadowcore, you can see the artist other work:

Bad news? It's kinda m'eh. It's why I put a picture of the Savage Worlds screen below it with some inserts. If you need more game information than you do pictures and graphic design, the Dungeon Master's Screen is going to leave you cold.

The good news?

It's pretty cheap at Amazon. The blank Savage Worlds screen from Amazon is $22.25. The Dungeon Master's Screen is $9.22

I'm a little disappointed that with so many editions to review and gather examples from, even from other game systems, that the designers decided pretty was more important than useful but hey, maybe other people LOVE the art and design and would rather have MORE items like this?

It has given me a better appreciation for the custom screen that Gale Force 9 did for the campaign Tyranny of Dragons though. That had some very specific information that made it easier to run. Bad news is that one is twice as expensive as the generic one.

Can't win!

Let me know what you think of the new screen and how you'll be using it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Steppe by Piers Anthony

While it doesn't seem that long ago, 2009, Steppe by Piers Anthony, was brought back to print by #Paizo Publishing, the makers of the Pathfinder role playing game.

It fell under their Planet Stories. This line didn't do well despite it bringing some of the classics of the science-fiction/fantasy line back into print. Paizo didn't quickly give up mind you though as they tried different formats to save it but eventually give it up.

Mind you in the modern era, they might have been able to do more with it as they didn't have rights for the e-books when they were publishing these novels.

I haven't read all of them. I have read many of them though. I don't consider it my 'duty' or anything of that nature to read 'classic' or older science fiction or fantasy books, but I do try to stretch my wings and read a variety of authors and pieces when possible. It helps provide a grounding effect for books I'm reading now, or even how far society and technology has come.

Many people are probably familiar with South Park. Last year, 2014, they did an episode about Youtube Stars.

In Steppe, which looks to have been first published in 1976, Alp, the main character of the book, is an early example of a star made by passive viewers.

You see Alp was taken from his time, hundreds of years ago, into the future, so that his knowledge of that time may be useful to those playing a game that to modern readers would seem to combine elements of the Matrix, in that it's not real, but also elements of MMO's in that the characters are in different times and eras.

And it was in 1976.

So through passive viewing, Alp at the end of his adventurers, becomes an 'internet' celebrity years before such a thing could even be possible.

I know people point to shows like Star Trek and other popular science fiction bits and look around at our current technology and go, "Ah Ha!" but don't underestimate the unexpected places you may find those predictions of the future coming true.

Piers Anthony hits it out of the ball park in quite a few fields in Steppe. For example, invasion of privacy in terms of when a person voluntarily subjects themselves to being view, such as say through modern Youtube, and involuntary, such as brought to our attention by Edward Snowden.

If you want a quick read of a man out of time, a genre for which Planet Stories was known, Steppe is a great yarn. If you want to see how far Piers Anthony could see the future from before 2000, Steppe takes on a deeper view of technology and man's use of it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Nagash: 5 Reasons to Use Nagash in your Fantasy Role Playing Game

I'm a big fan of Nagash from way back in the day. Hunt threw some of my ideas to revitalize the Warhammer line and you'll see me talking about a "Summer of Nagash" where the big undead returns and gets to use a variety of unique models as well as those from Vampire Counts and Tomb Kings.

Well boy did that come to pass eh? For those who don't know, Nagash is an undead sorcer from the Warhammer Fantasy setting. At the end of 2014, Games Workshop started the 'End Times' and did a lot of different things to the Warhammer Fantasy setting. The first book of that was with Nagash.

But why is Nagash so awesome? I'm approaching him not only from a miniature appreciation, but because it's Warhammer and I've been a player of the Warhammer setting for years, also as a role playing character.

1. The God That Walks: Dungeons and Dragons has a fat bloated goat headed demon lord known as Orcus. Nagash is a man who pulled himself up into a god like status and fought Sigmar, another former man, now god, in hand to hand combat. Fat goat demon versus man who pulled himself into the higher reaches of possible power?

2. Nagash has magic items. The Books of Nagash or the Liber Mortis, are potent necromantic artifacts in and of themselves that drive others to search them out. These artifacts can make little games in and of themselves as players, if good, must prevent others from finding them, and if evil, take them and master them before others do. His name is also associated with other artifacts of her time like the Black Pyramid of Nagash. This lending of his name to various things, without he himself being there, lends his character power. Take the fat bloated goat headed demon again. What's his wand called? Yup, Wand of Orcus.

3. The First: Nagash has a lot of things attributed directly to him or about him ranging from necromancy and vampires to lichdom. And if not him creating them directly, him being involved either as a counter against his power or early experimentation. This is one of the few times where a setting has a definitive answer. "Where did vampires come from? Where did liches come from? Where did necromancy come from?"

4. Potent Characters: How can you not love Nagash when he has a follower like Arkhan The Black? I have the original model of this character and he's a lich on a skeleton chariot. His never version is even more impressive. When you need a high priest for the undead? Having someone who might be a match for Vecna when Vecan was a lich as opposed to the deity he became? And how about those on the edges of Nagash lore like Krell, a former Chaos Champion who was raised by Nagash and wound up serving Heinrich Kemmler, the Lichemaster? Those names in and of themselves were of powerful entities and they're just entities on the chain of Nagash's influence.

5. Backstory: Because he wasn't overused, Nagash remained a potent character despite having a terrible model in the older edition of the game. This allowed the writers of the Warhammer Fantasy setting to fire with both barrels and deliver a ton of new models, new characters, new scenarios, and new events that could fit in with what we know of Nagash. In Spartacus, there is rumors of "The Shadow of Death" before Spartacus fights the gladiator. Putting bits and pieces of lore about Nagash well before the characters ever meet him? Classic!

When you want to build a monster of your own for your campaign, you could do far worse than look at how Games Workshop handled Nagash.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Nightglass by Liane Merciel

I'm somewhat ambivalent about the Pathfinder Tales fiction line. While I enjoyed Heretic of Death, the novels Prince of Wolves and Winter Witch, the latter by an author I normally enjoy, didn't impress. FRP Games was having a blowout sale at the end of the year though, and I picked up Nightglass by Liane Merciel on a lark.

And am pleased to have done so.

Roughly broken into two sections, Nightglass starts with Isiem, a youth raised in a village in the kingdom of Nidal, who shows much promise with magical abilities. Abilities tested initially through a magical device known as a Nightglass.

Taken from his country side village, Isiem is raised to learn magic and faith in the city of Pangolias. In this empire of the shadows, dedicated to an evil god, one who feeds on pain and discipline within that pain, it felt like the author, Liane Merciel, was taking several pages right out of the Elric novels in her descriptions of the training and torture that the students undergo.

For example, there is one chorus that is played when a student inserts a flute pipe into a victim's throat. Done correctly, every breath creates its own note. Done incorrectly, death for the one who did it incorrectly and of course, the person whose throat has been punctured.

Liane's description of how the students are tested again for potential, with the "Joyful Things", inhuman creatures that wrap their tongues around a hopeful student's skull. Those who don't pass their judgement? Not good things. There are other numerous bits that added to the feel of how evil and vile the society was. How difficult it would be to have any hope, to be normal there.

Isiem doesn't escape this unscathed though. His outlook is similar to what the old Fighter's Handbook personalities section would label "Fated Philosopher" He acknowledges the things that are outside of his control, that are outside of his agency to influence. And he plans how to expand his agency to expand his control.

This opportunity comes in what I'd call the second half or part of the book.

If the first half was all vile torture and teachings of dark arts and acceptance of fate, the second part takes a page from various westerns including Deadwood where Isiem winds up in a frontier town where he must lend his arts to the empire that his own country is aligned with. This makes an interesting change of pace and Liane handles the transition well.

From stuffy halls and doom shrouded classes, to rugged outdoorsmen who are fighting for their very survival. From agents of Nidal worshipping their dark god and passing their dark magics onto a corrupt political country that finds it easier to murder a silver mine owner than tax his wealth. It's all very Western in feel and brings those elements home gracefully.

Here though, things take a turn for the worse and Isiem gets what is possibly his first true taste of freedom and then has to decide what to do with it.

I'd never read any work by Liane Merciel before. I will be reading her work again. She doesn't shy away from description but does so in a way that is quick and easy to read. While some may say they were able to see what was coming a mile away, I find that true for most works of fantasy fiction, or indeed, most movies. The telling of the story is what interests me more than having some bright new singular idea that stands out above all others.

One of the things I enjoyed is that while Isiem is competent, he isn't some 'farm boy out to save the universe.' His abilities fall within the realm of possibility for the setting the novel is based in. His growth and things he can do, fit in with the setting. He is not slinging artifacts around, nor able to outfight the many situations he winds up in. He often needs planning, allies, and the willingness to admit that he cannot do everything himself. This makes Isiem, especially for a magic using character, a tremendous breath of fresh air as opposed to Forgotten Realm spell slingers like Blackstaff and Elminster who shrug off demon lords and deity avatars like last week's old soup.

In terms of this being a Pathfinder Tales novel, if you know what you're looking for, it reads as one. The kingdom of Nidal is given four pages of description in the Inner Sea World Guide, and that's not four pages of dense text. There are several illustrations and a map as well. the details that Liane puts into the setting? Puts into the characters? If you have players who read this novel and aren't interested in making a Shadowcaller from this region, or want to liberate this region, or to serve the dark god who rules with an unbreakable claw, they've read a different book then I have.

In terms of gaming information? This book showcases the difference between reading a game setting, and reading a good piece of fiction.

There are several bits that could easily be put to use in game terms here.

1. The Joyful Things. They know something that the players need to discover. Can the players withstand talking to these horrific entities and deal with their dreaded touch long enough to learn what they came for?

2. Dungeons of the Dusk Hall: One source of information that the players need to find is in the dungeons below the Dusk Hall. Have can they navigate to there through the heart of the Midnight Lord's capital city?

3. The Slave Market: Knowledge is such a funny thing. It can be scattered here, there, and even in the most unlikely of places, a slave's mind. The players have to outbid other potential buyers for a slave who has a particular bit of knowledge that they need in their own quest.

4. Shadowbound: One of the players has been cursed to shadow and supposedly the only place to undo this condition is in the kingdom of Nidal.

5. Dubious Allies: In a setting with as many organizations as the Pathfinder one has, even knowing some Hellknights could get the players alliance through proxy to those of Nidal.

6. Freeing the Shadow Lord: While not specifically mentioned here, if you've read the Inner Sea Gods book, you know that the god of Nidal is himself not what he used to be. Can the players free the god from the things that bind him?

Nightglass is the first book in a series that Liane Merciel is working on. Unfortunately, Paizo is, in my opinion, holding back potential sales of any of their fiction line. The electronic versions are only available through Paizo directly, not through Amazon or Google Play. That only makes sense if these books are terrible sellers. While it does provide Paizo with all the funds, it limits their streams of revenue. It also limits the ability for Amazon to put any of these books on their daily deal sales and expand their readership that way. There are many an author I've picked up on a lark because it was inexpensive.

With the Paizo store charging $9.99 for paperbacks and $6.99 for epub versions, I'm afraid their cutting their potential market out quite a bit. The long tail on such sales will potentially suffer.

Still, Paizo has been around a long time and I hope that the line is successful for them. For me? I'll be looking for Nightblade and other books by Liane Merciel next time I'm at the book store.

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

I had finished reading this some time last week, but was prevented from posting due to internet connection problems due to having no electricity. Ah, the perils of modern day life in America in the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is Chicago.

The short review is that Silver Pigs is a little rougher around the edges than the second book in the series, which I  happened to read first, but hey, this is an award winning book and a little rougher around the edges for Lindsey Davis is like how I would hope to be able to write one day.

Readers are presented with a Rome that's just come out of a civil war and not everyone is happy with the victor. To that end, there are some seeking to fund another round of rebellions using silver stolen from Britain.

Our hero, Falco, has bad memories of Britain. Turns out he was in Britain for one of the larger revolutions, one involving one Boudica. More of which can be found here:

Falco was in the units that well, didnt' fare well due to poor intelligence so he wasn't too keen to go back but to find out who and why the silver is being stolen, he does, even enduring some time as a slave in the silver mines.

The novel is full of characters and relationships. This is the novel that introduces Falco and Helena and how they first meet and fall in love and shows the vast gulf between them in terms of social standing but how for a little while, even that doesn't deter their love.

Reading this first novel by Lindsey Davis, it's clear to see that she would become even better as time went on, and as she's done well over twenty books, apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so.

In terms of gaming, reading mystery books puts me in a different mind than the standard Dungeons and Dragons.

For example, while Falco does become engaged in a few brawls and does have to fight for his life at times, the majority of the book deals with Falco solving mysteries, with Falco forming links between people, events, and times so that he can discover why things have happened in the manner in which they have.

Such efforts might seem an odd fit for Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, but Lorefinder, a supplement for Pathfinder that could be adapted to 3.5, shows that it can be done. I hope one day that WoTC gets off their ass in this electronic everything now era and puts out a license so we can see Peregrine Press make a similar book for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition.

The overall plot can be easily dragged into any role playing game though.

1. Characters see girl being chased by thugs.

2. Girl tells character she has a secret.

3. Secret is inkling of vast conspiracy against current government.

4. Characters are caught up in their own plots for moment and girl dies.

5. Characters follow threads of mystery to another country with ties to their own where they may not be well liked.

6. Characters encounter other natives of their land that must accompany them back to their home but those NPCs have complications of their own which then become tied up with the characters. To make matters worse, one of these NPCs is related to the dead girl and blames the characters for her death.

7. Characters uncover conspiracy goes all the way to the top and will be rewarded, but must keep silent on how far up the chain the conspiracy goes.

8. Characters have to decide how to move on with the knowledge that the current government hides its own corruption that would allow innocent youth to die while at the same time trying to bridge the gulf between it and themselves.

If you're looking for ideas of what life, travel, food, and the difficulties of climbing social ranks were in ancient Rome, Silver Pigs is for you.