Sunday, December 17, 2017

Wulf the Saxon by G. A. Henty

Wulf the Saxon
A Story of Norman Conquest
Written by G. A. Henty
$6.99 Paperback

I've mentioned shopping at the Half-Priced Books in Skokie Il before and perusing their dollar rack. This book is another captured from that shelf.

It's not going to win any modern awards, but it is a book over one hundred years old! I didn't realize that when I first picked it up. My cover is so out of date that I couldn't find the right image to put up on my blog so I had to scan it. I've also never read anything by G. A. Henty and was surprised that he had written so many books that I might be interested in as their historical eras are ones that have long fascinated me.

It's the story of 1066 and the battle of Hastings as told through the eyes of Wulf the Saxon.

There are a few bits readers should draw out for their own games:

1. Water is powerful: There are two separate occasions Wulf has trials and tribulations due to the waves he rides upon. One time casting him and his liege at the prisoners of William the Conqueror, the other dashing the boats of the English navy to pieces. This is a common trope in many stories though. If you've seen Frank Miller's 300, there is a scene where the Persian Fleet is destroyed.

Don't be afraid to showcase how wild, powerful, unpredictable and uncontrollable elements are outside of the characters and even their patrons.

2. Death is not to be feared: When the former king of England is ready to die, he's speaking of rejoicing. If the belief in the afterlife is firm, death should not be a trial. It should not be a tribulation. It should be a time of earnest celebration.

3. A celebration of Victories: If the party is in town and the GM needs to give the town some local color, have the players come upon the village while it is in the midsts of celebrating a victory over some regional foe. Orcs, bandits, ogres, trolls, and even hill giants all may be threats to such townships but having claimed a victory over a great force, say perhaps at a ford or river or pass, the town celebrates that victory every year to remind themselves of the cost and the valor of those who died to achieve that victory.

4. Names. There are many ways to go about naming a character. For example, we have William. He's sometimes referred to as William of London or even as Bishop William of London. The main character, Wulf, is known as Wulf of Steyning and eventually takes the last name of the family he's adopted into.

5. Hostages: George R. R. Martin's fantasy series, A Game of Thrones, has 'Reek' who was raised by the Starks only to betray them. Being raised by an enemy is a common feature of history. Your children go as hostages to another lord and are raised under that lord's banner and learn that lord's ways and methods. It can lead to high drama if years down the road those loyalties are tested.

A name can come from a variety of places. Adding the 'of XXX" is a frequent use. We have such individuals of Edwin of Mercia in this book. In fantasy, we have Elric of Melnibone for example. Instead of 'of XXX,' sometimes it's a descriptor, Conan the Cimmerian.

Names can also be of a profession or of a rank. Many nobles may go by Lord or Lady, for example, Lady Agnes. In religious factions, the rankings of the Church should be in full play. Is there a difference between a Bishop and a Cardinal? If you have four or five characters call Harold, you need a way to distinguish them.

They can be descriptive. Elric is also known as the White Wolf as is the most popular of Witchers. In this book, we have Edith of the Swan Neck.

Names can denote heritage such as Harkon the Son of Sweyn.

Names can also be of the House. For example, the House of Leofric. The House of Jor-El.

A character's name can say a lot about him without the character ever saying anything. Use it wisely.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Focal Point: The Complete Game Master's Guide To Running Extraordinary Sessions

Focal Point
The Complete Game Master's Guide To Running Extraordinary Sessions
Written by Phil Vecchione, Walt Ciechanowski, and John Arcadian
Published by Gnome Stew
234 b & w pages

Dusts off blog.

Been busy with work, painting miniatures and day to day living. Been reading a lot of work-related non-fiction and short story anthologies like House of Fear. I bought House in October for Halloween themed horror and am still reading it.


Anyway, in between the mundane, I did manage to finish off Focal Point, a book on game mastering by Gnome Stew by a trio of authors who've done some work for Gnome Stew before.

First off, I hope one day to never see a non-standard gaming book size again. I get that there's some weird small press creed or it's easier to stock or they can be thrown farther or what have you but man I hate the way they look on my shelf.

Layout is simple one column format with different varieties in type to set off special sidebars. Art is solid and goes well with the material. I'd say the cover art is one of the weakest pieces in the book. They might have been better just going with the die and the lighting as opposed to the art there is there. Then again, everyone's an art critic right?

I've been playing since the mid-80's.

I generally play with the same group of people.

Some things in the book will not apply to me.

That doesn't make it any less useful to read thought.

When running a game, there are many chainsaws to keep in the air. Any book the helps remind you of things you may have missed, that provides you with ideas on game elements that could be enhanced, that's told in an entertaining way, is worth reading.

The authors use Gemma and her group to frame the 19 chapters. Chapters are organized into wider sections, Lights, Camera, Action. The chapters move and the story of Gemma and her group flows with it. It's a good framing device.

For me? As long as I play with my normal group, things like 'trigger' warnings aren't a problem. Advice on getting people to pay attention to the game? Variable utility depending on who the culprit is. Good to see that I'm not the only one with such problems though.

Advocating game mastery as a way to streamline gaming? Such good advice. I'm tempted to have one of my friends who works with wood put together a sign, "Read the Fucking Book."

I get at conventions or a brand new system, there are going to be things unknown for players who may be dipping a toe into the waters of the game. But four weeks later, few people, especially the Game Master, should be pondering how the skill check system works. Or at least know where it's at.

I'm not sure if it's just me being an older bastich, but watching how some people think that anyone who knows the rules is 'merely' a rule lawyer and they suck, is wrong.

Expertise in a game system is not a problem. Abusing that knowledge over your other players, standing in every effort to move the game forward, arguing with the GM, those are bad elements.

Knowing your game system is not bad.

One of the things that the book hits a few times, is that gaming is a group effort. The gamers need to get along together. They should know how they're going to work in combat. They should have some idea of how things are going to happen once the action starts. They need to have each other's backs.

Now again, as it's important to point these things out least someone go, "But what about..." Yes, if you're playing the Shield or playing some Vampire double betrayal special, then group unitiy in and of itself may not be the end goal of the game.

But even in those instances, system mastery will reward the group as one player is not dominating game time thanks to not knowing the system and having to look up everything over and over again.

Focal Point may read a little dry at times, but it's all solid advice. It'll go on the shelf next to the other books in the series and perhaps one day be updated through a Kickstarter into a big old Hardcover with all three books that can sit alongside the big boy books and leave it's paperback short shame hall.

If you'r a game master, especially a new game master, I recommend not only checking out Gnome Stew's web site, but picking up their books. You may come across bits you already know, but tuck those away and move onto the examples and other bits that may be new territory for you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Murder in Lamut: Legends of the Riftwar Book II

Murder in Lamut
Legends of the Riftwar Book II
Written by Raymond E. Feist & Joel Rosenberg
$3.99 Kindle Edition
$6.34 Mass Market Paperback

I picked up my first Raymond E. Feist book from the SFBC, Magician by Raymond E. Feist, many decades ago. One of the fun things about the internet is you can google the image of the book you used to have.

I haven't kept pace with everything but I have bought a few of the old Midkemia Press gaming books like Carse and Tulan. Recently I even had bought a few more, Jonril and Heart of the Sunken Land.  Be sure to check out their website as they even have a few free PDF products.

I never played any of the Betrayal series, but I have friends who did back in the day and they loved it.

In short, Midkemia as a setting has received a lot of love.

In the Legends of the Riftwar series, Raymond E. Feist allows other others to join him in crafting stories set during that time period. In this volume, Joel Rosenberg, best known for his Guardians of the Flame series, to play in the city of Lamut.

The novel starts with three different introductions, one for each of the main characters. Durine, Kethol, and Pirojil, are mercenaries who have fought against the Tsurani invaders, the 'villains' of the Riftware series, as well as the 'bugs' in the mountains. Throw in goblins and other humans and what have you and you'll understand that these are seasoned men.

The characters are given small arcs to showcase their unique talents but as this isn't one of those mega-novels, their development arcs aren't lengthy or intensely detailed. At the end, the characters are much the same as they were at the start.

Durine is a huge ugly individual whose reknown for his strength and size.

Kethol is known for his wilderness lore. He is the closest we have to a 'breakthrough' character in that he starts to care about the job and the people involved.

Pirojil is the brains of the operation. He sees beyond people's everyday facades and it makes him the one best able to determine who may be a murderer in Lamut.

They are hired by the city's Swordmaster to protect one Baron Morray. As outsiders, as skilled outsiders, they are not involved in the many local factions and ongoing issues that the Kingdom itself is going through. Fans of the Riftwar series will enjoy the numerous references to other events in the series as seen from far away and will enjoy the 'guest' appearance of Fantus the drake.

Although some novels in the series are high magic on the order of gods and things older and worse than gods battling, Murder in Lamut is entirely down to earth. None of the main characters are magicians or magic users, and at this point in time, the series hadn't gone to the higher ends involving the magician's guild.

This makes it a good read for those who enjoy a little bit of gritty work in their series but take note when I say gritty, I don't mean the subgenre 'grimdark'. There are people working hard and the characters have an earthy feel to them, but one never reads the novel as if this was a work where anyone could die at any second and that life itself was but the stuff of stardust dreams.

It's been a long time since I've read any Raymond E. Feist work and even longer since I've read any Joel Rosenberg's work so I can't tell you who wrote which section, but I can tell you that it doesn't feel that it was written by two people. It's a smooth flowing book that a dedicated reader with enough time should be able to finish in a day.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Red Knight by Miles Cameron

The Red Knight
Book 1 of the Traitor Son Cycle
Written By Miles Cameron

The internet works in mysterious ways. I bought the Red Knight a while ago when it was on sale with the intention of reading it whenever it fits into my schedule. But as I have a ton of books that fall into that category, the time never seemed right.

Then I was reading on Mark Lawrence's blog about 'grim' fantasy books, and The Red Knight was receiving high rankings in a list. Being a fan of Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorn's book, I immediately went and downloaded the Red Knight.

Fantastic stuff.

It's a massive tome being well over six hundred pages.

It takes place in its own fantasy medieval Earth or at least medieval style Earth. It retains tropes of real-world religion while throwing magic and divisions of that magic into the mix. The 'Wild' that of nature is green in hue and wild in power. The 'Sun' or religious power, is Gold and pure in power.

The Red Knight is a 'nameless' knight known as The Captain for most of the novel. He leads a ragtag band of mercenaries through the war-torn world, currently in an Arthurian country where a true king leads his knights into glory for his beauteous queen.

The author's writing perhaps isn't the pinnacle of 'grimdark', but people come and go with some frequency. Just when you think, "Ah, this character is important to the plot... oh wait, a spike in the neck, nevermind."

Since the Red Knight has a mercenary group at his command, there are a lot of characters to play with. That not being enough though, the author gives us viewpoint characters for the 'Wild' as well, including 'Thorn', the former royal mage who betrayed humanity itself and now looks more like Groot or Treebeard.

The Red Knight himself is almost typical in his design. A young man blessed with an extraordinary power which is filled with heresy because of his emo origin. He's an excellent swordsman, he's a great magician, he's a great leader. Yet he's not happy. His angst makes him less than perfect and makes those around him want to help him.

As more of his background becomes known, the reader has to wonder how much of his rage is justified and how much of it is wasted. For example, when the Red Knight meets one of his brothers, the two are more or less on the same page and join forces.

There are numerous complexities in the novel and multiple factions. The author does what I thought was a great job in showcasing elements that lead you to believe one thing only to turn out to be an entirely different thing.

One of its overarching themes though was that of love and sacrifice. In some ways, it reminded me of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is there to show how love and sacrifice for others can better the world. When the Wild is perhaps closer than its ever been to victory, one of the key players on the Wild side finds that he cannot do what needs to be done to cement that win. I found it ringing true.

But there are also elements that ring about the sacrifice part. The heroes don't just walk away from all holding their heads higher. Many die in the battles, many gain new scars, some scarred in ways they thought themselves immune to.

The Red Knight has a lot of things going for it. The large cast of characters, the numerous factions, the exploration of how magic itself works, the red herrings, all provide hours of entertainment.

Miles Cameron, in addition to his writing chops, is also a gamer, so if you want to support players who write fiction, especially great fiction, you could do worse than the Red Knight.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Red Knight and the Art of Making NPCs

The Red Knight
Book One of the Traitor Son Cycle
Written By Miles Cameron
$11.80 at Amazon

When making Non-Player Characters in Dungeons and Dragons, the question is really how much is too much? How many game stats do we need for the effective playing of such characters?

If you're an artist or have an artist friend willing to help out, portraits are a quick way to customize your NPC's.

If you're strapped for time though, having a list of names and associations with those names is another route. It's a route Miles Cameron takes in the Red Knight to describe many of the mercenaries who follow their nameless Captain, the Red Knight.

Some examples:

Sauce had won her name as a whore, giving too much lip to customers. She was tall, and in the rain her red hair was toned to dark brown. Freckles gave her an innocence that was a lie. She had made herself a name.

Ser Thomas: Bad Tom to every man in the company was six foot six inches of dark hair, heavy brown and bad attitude. He had a temper and was always the wrong man to cross.

Two Veteran archers - Kanny, the barracks room lawyer of the company, and Scrant, who never stopped eating.

Bent, the eldest, an easterner, and Wilful Murder...

Geslin was the youngest man in the company, just fourteen with a thin frame that suggested he'd never got much food as a boy...

The book is filled with such characters. Sometimes a few sentences of description, sometimes not even a single whole sentence.

Giving the characters something for the players and the Dungeon Master to latch onto, makes the keeping of said characters easier, even if you don't list out height, weight, hair, eyes, or even armor. This is probably much more important to keep in mind when dealing with characters that the players are not going to engage in anything more than banter in. Extra work that the Dungeon Master enjoys is never wasted work but is it work that you could be doing something else you enjoy, that will see game play?

Miles Cameron brings his wide cast of the crew to life with quick descriptions and it's a great mining pool for those Dungeon Masters who want examples of how the pros do it.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

Three Hearts and Three Lions
Written by Poul Anderson
$6.15 at Amazon

Three Hearts and Three Lions is another book by Poul Anderson that is recommended in the original Appendix N of the original 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game in the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Despite that, I'd never read it until now. It's a book fit to be placed in the same realm as the Red Book of The Illustrated Bulfinch's Mythology, the Legends of Charlemagne. While Charlemagne and his paladins are perhaps not as popular as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, heroes such as Roland hail from the time of Charlemagne and one of TSR's green historical books focused on those paladins.

Being an older book, Three Hearts and Three Lions has many covers. The current one is serviceable enough, but my favorite would probably be the following:

Holger atop his black horse, the mighty swan behind him, his wood dwarf comrade at his side. The sense of motion with the clouds moving from left to right. It's a great piece.

Concerning writing, Poul Anderson is a writer worthy of reading just to study his word crafting. His descriptions are not overly long but provide a reader with detail enough to know where the characters are, what the character looks like, and what the mood of the land is. He tells in one book something that another author might have taken six to do so.

The main hero, Holger, is a 'modern' man who while fighting Nazis is grazed in the head by a bullet and awakens in another world. Poul doesn't spring everything on the reader at once. There is a build up of one scene to the next, each increasing the hero's awareness that he is not in his own time anymore, indeed, not even in his own reality anymore.

This time traveling hero bit borrows a little from the even older A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: by Mark Twain and is even referenced in the book itself.  The adventures of 'modern' man in other worlds was a favorite device before it fell out of favor. Even authors like Robert E. Howard used it as a means of taking modern giants of the world into environs more fitting for their strength and powers.

Holger's trip to the fantasy realm is one of the troublesome issues in that he appears to be of this new world. The horse he spies upon awakening seems to know him. The arm and armor he spies fit him perfectly. His knowledge of the language of the world is quickly mastered. His knowledge of deeper issues comes and goes at times prodded to the surface by current happenings.

This book brings many bits to fantasy. Here the troll is not a mythic race like those of the Norse, able to use magic and arms and armor, but rather, a massive brute with a huge nose and black eyes with green skin. Its most fearsome power though is its ability to heal from any wound.

Here is also perhaps one of the earliest examples of Law and Chaos in war. Chaos is wild and free and often evil while Law being civilization and the uplifting of man. Even in his time, Nazis were known for what monstrous acts they'd committed, and Poul Anderson puts them firmly in the grip of Chaos, evil entities intent on ripping down the civilization of humanity.

We also get a taste of courtly love as Holger travels with a swanymay, Alianora, a young woman raised outside of the norms of humanity and kin more to the wood dwarves and spirits of the woods like the unicorn she rides. Being a swanymay, Alianora is capable of becoming a massive swan with powerful wings and a stinging bite.

She does this through a magical garment, gifted to her supposedly from the Valkyries, as opposed to being an innate shape changer.

The use of Chaos and its minions, like the timeless and fey elves, who aren't evil necessarily, but are bored and are capricious at best, are intent on spreading their world. For them, the sun and its light, for example, are anathema. Their own world lies in a subtle shade that protects them, and there is a distinct difference between the world of man and that of the Fey.

The arrival of Holger is during a time when Chaos is on the rise. A time when Chaos may make a great play for the world. A time when Giants stalk the land and when those whose inheritance may have a touch of the old blood, are stirred to action.

Holger's travels bring him against wild men of the woods, fey courts, and one of the most powerful allies of the Fey and of Chaos, Morgana of Avalon.

The novel ends with Holger knowing who he finally is and wielding his sword, Cortana, a blade made of the same material as King Arthur's Excalibur and Roland's sword Durendal. In the restored Holger, better known as Ogier the Dane, a hero who, like King Arthur, went to dwell on Avalon until he was needed, rides forth to save the world form Chaos.

Given how far removed modern readers are from the story, it's hard to emphasize how unique and enjoyable this book must be to someone who's spent years reading Games Workshop's various tales and their own Moorcock inspired tales of Chaos. How far Dungeons and Dragons have taken the rare and powerful paladins of older editions and made of them another class that's equal among the others with their own distinctions.

Given its age though, the novel's prose remains top notch and easily readable. If you're looking for a way to kill an afternoon and to wonder at where some of the foundations of modern fantasy come from, Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions fits the bill.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

The Broken Sword
Written by Poul Anderson
$6.15 Amazon Kindle
208 pages

Let loose the red tide! Let the men be heaped like reaped golden wheat! Fall back in this telling in one book what would take modern authors a dozen times more pages!

Poul Anderson, one of the original quoted Appendix N authors in the original Dungeon Master's Guide, brings a tale of Norse revenge across generations.

If you are a fan of the show Vikings, if you're a fan of Elric of Melnibone, of cursed swords, of dire destinies, or cruel, uncaring gods, or things that never were but fit into the tales of old lore, then you should read The Broken Sword.

Poul Anderson weaves together some things that we say now are not true, such as the winged helmets of the Vikings, as well as land conquest as England suffers the raids of the Vikings. Of the rise of the One True God against those gods who used to rule. It showcases many different elements of mythology into one where there are still differences, but the mythological world is shared.

The gods of old Ireland are half gods, the elves here, not mere mortals with long hair who are good with bows. The trolls here are ancient and elderly powerful creatures that are not mere brutes that only know how to howl, but how to plan, how to set forth on ships warded against the wild seas, of using weapons of massive stone and bone because their strength allows them to do so.

The elves here are masters of magic, they control the weather, they can heal, they speak with the dead and are all things cruel and capricious. But they are few in number and even as they are timeless, they are not immortal. So when the opportunity arises to steal a man-child and add his mortal strength to their own, they take it.

Sadly they take this man child from a family that has wronged natives of England, and one woman who survives grows powerful in the dark arts of Witchery and sells all including her soul to darker powers to cast dark fate against the family that slew her own.

Into this mix comes the elves who when they capture the man-child, replace him with a troll born changeling. A heartless brute who has sisters and brothers and who will find his destiny leading the trolls against the elves and their kin.

Here the elves and trolls share a weakness to iron, they share magics even if the trolls are not as advanced as the elves, the two are both moral-less entities that are unseen by men as their battles are not fought in the mortal world. They both dislike the sunlight...

Poul Anderson crafts the tale and moves through the lives of these twins, the elf raised Skafloc, a champion more elf than man, more inhuman than human, and his pale troll kin shadow, Valgard.
Their lives intersect in unknown ways as the witch sets her sights on Valgard, a non-human raised among men whose brutish lusts for battle and his desire for the women who manipulate him through the whole of the story.

So much happens in The Broken Sword, that Poul only hints at some of it. When Skafloc must seek to mend the Broken Sword, this cursed weapon forged long ago, a weapon whose fate spirals down time with such doom, that mighty Thor himself shattered it, Skafloc seeks out the heroes of Ireland. He sails with the lord of the Sea to the lands of Jotun where the sword is forged anew but the travel there and back is merely hinted at.

Even at the start of the tale, when we are introduced to how much of the culture of elves flows through Skafloc, we are given a description of Imric, the ruler of the elves, the one who stole Skafloc, fighting against "with a troop of exiled gods, grown thin and shrunken and mad in their loneliness but still wielding fearsome powers."

That in and of itself sounds worthy of more pages! Who were these old mad things that were once gods?

Other gods, more familiar, are still about. The Dark Prince himself, claims to have known Odin in the guise of Loki and liked not the one-eyed Lord. Odin, the master manipulator, the one who pulls strings, who would be a good fit for Merlin from Excalibur, weaves a fate to the son of Skafloc that is again, only hinted at here. The final fate of the gods, or mankind, or the Broken Sword itself? Vague prophecy but no finality.

And for this book? It works perfectly. It casts the net of the tale against a background much larger than what we see here. We are visitors to the tragedy that besets violence and only for a limited time. We see how the effects of the coming of a new religion forces out the old, we see those ancient powers still mighty, still magnificent in their own realms, know that their time is limited even as they themselves are timeless.

Poul Anderson brings us no glowing heroes. There are none here who escape without the reader seeing their faults. The elves, proud and haughty, the witch consumed by vengeance, the old gods striving to survive, the trolls, equally proud and equally haughty, the old glory of Ireland, the sorrow of the fauns who survived the passing of the old Gods of Greece and Rome... it's a tale that set forth so much more than modern readers, especially those who say enjoy A Game of Thrones, might even be aware of.

If you want to see where the roots of modern fantasy come from if you want a rousing Viking tale of old gods and cursed blades, The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson is the perfect fit.