Friday, April 20, 2012

Temple Hill by Drew Karpyshyn

Another standalone book in the Forgotten Realms series, The Cities. I managed to pick up this book from the Half Price book store for the princely sum of $1! Cheaper then most e-books I'll tell you. Speaking of e-books, a quick search of Amazon shows that nope, no ebook version over there. Anyway, Temple Hill does a lot of things that I felt the other book I read in the series failed to do.

First off, most of the action actually takes place in, below, and around the city. This involves throwing several organizations in there including organized religion, some of the famous factions of the setting like the Harpers, the Cult of the Dragon, and an guild of protectors that falls and rises again within these pages.

Next off, a lot of the material makes more sense in the context of the story here. While there are some moments where I wonder how things are justified in terms of how the action rolls off, those are the 'gamer dice' rolling in my head and don't interfere with my enjoyment of the story. The characters here are competent and knowledgeable, they 'fit' into their setting. More impressive is that Drew takes a female and male pair and doesn't have them fall in love at the end of the novel! Applause to you Drew Karpyshyn!

In terms of gaming, the male hero of the tales, Corin, has a patron in the form of the gnome that raised his half elf employer, Lhasha Moonsilver. This allows him access to goods that he might not normally be able to have access to. This also works out well in a city based campaign because many of the enemies a player may have to face in a city based campaign are human or humanoid and those huge cash reserves that players may be used to stumbling over in a dungeon probably won't be found here.

This isn't to say that precious gems, jewelry, objects of art, and other valuable bits like magic items, can't be found but if the party has a patron who can supply them with 'loot drops' at appropriate times, it can help to curb some of the more outrageous bits that may pop up and more importantly, it allows the party members some access to a 'small' magic shop that the GM controls with a pretty sturdy hand if he so chooses.

Drew makes sure to throw in a lot of elements that make Dungeons and Dragons what it is. This includes evil life draining swords, a strange fierce enemy for Corin to battle, several groups that have their own unique leaders, one with a powerful mage, another with a Beholder, and the use of another magical creature, in this case, a Medusa, almost as a weapon of mass destruction. The utility of these setting bits, not setting bits to the Forgotten Realms, but to Dungeons and Dragons, gives the book a homely feel. If you can bring the elements that mean Dungeons and Dragons to your group, and those will vary from group to group, then you're doing your job right.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Fifteen Hours by Mitchel Scanlon

Another victory for the dollar spinner from Half Price Books. Did a quick check on Amazon and see no ebook there but no dice. On the other hand, the Black Library has a ton of stuff but their organization is crazy and most of the ebooks there go for $7.99 which is well outside my comfort range for most ebooks.

Anyway, Fifteen Hours isn't in a genre that I often read but let's be honest here, Warhammer 40K is about as far away from hard science fiction as you can get and still be sci-fi. It probably has more in common with Star Wars than Star Trek with it's prayers to machines, orks, and other assorted oddness.

Mitchel does a good job of bringing the setting to life with a hero who is indeed a farm boy but unlike so many of his fantasy counter parts, isn't actually the son of a god of a chosen one. Just some poor bastard who learns that war is hell. It's a solid novel and if you like the setting, it's another selling point. I'll be hitting some spoilers below so if you'd rather not know about the actual events in the book and how things shake out, read no further.

First off, the book uses a lottery of sorts to drawn and draft people into the Imperial Guard. This is a classic way of raising troops and with all of the brain washing that goes on in the Empire, it's often not problematic when those being called up for duty don't know any better due to their limited education. You see, despite being in a far future setting, most of the people have little technical knowledge.

Mind you, today we aren't much better off. Sure, many of us can drive a car or turn on a computer, but actual working knowledge of how these things do what they do and how to fix them? Well, much like the main character, Arvin Larn  we might be praying to the machine spirits to start. I know in horror movies we see it all the time. "Come on you stupid car, don't fail now of all times!" and such other great sayings.

Anyway, the book's real strength is in showcasing how damning bureaucracy can be on all levels. As a person who works in a factory that at one time had over a thousand people, as an inhabitant of Chicago, as a person who has had to deal with phone customer support, yeah, we all know this one.

But when you're in the military? And that bumbling sets you off into a war zone that you were never supposed to be? And when the supplies and news and all information is FUBAR because of this poor management? Well, the fifteen hours of the book title is exactly how long new soldiers to this planet are supposed to last.

While some of the material here is mundane, and isn't appropriate for all campaigns in terms of tone and feel, some fantasy campaigns like Midnight, the OGL and d20 versions, got a lot of mileage out of the standard things in the setting. How are you set for supplies? How are you set for healings? How are you set for general knowledge? How dangerous is the world around you?

In a setting like Star Wars, you can easily see the Empire falling into this type of decadence. Poor training, unmotivated employees and a host of other problems effect many corporations in the day to day activities that go on around every day. How much worse when they happen in the military? Wars have almost been started due to false information or a lack of proper communication. Allies can quickly turn into enemies and live soldiers into dead heroes.

When looking at your own campaign, don't forget the bumbling bureaucrats. They can add layers of complexity that the players won't appreciate but will remind them of the real world for sure.

Falcons of Narabedla by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The dollar spinner at Half Priced books is filled with many items of antiquity and modern masterpieces as well as assorted garbage. I'm not the type to shy away from reading a genre or an author because they've had one dog. I recognize Marion Zimmer Bradley's name from the old school of doing things. An author who put out a few single books that were not thousands of pages long. So when I saw the Falcons of Narabedla for a dollar, I snagged it.

Interestingly enough, it's available as an e-book for $2.99. I read the book and enjoyed it so I spent another $2.99 on it. Why? Because I want to support that price point and I want to show case that even older material is worth bringing to this format.  My cover notes that the price was $1.75 from 1979. Not bad that it managed to get a total of $3.99 from me, some of that even going to the author.

The book has more in common with John Carpenter of Mars than a standard sword and sorcery tale. The main hero, Mike, has an accident and that accident takes him from our world of Earth to Narabedla where he winds up in the body of a former tyrant. In many ways, the initial set up reminds me of the old manga Cobra or the movie Total Recall in that Mike is a stranger in this foreign body but has some of the memories, including the muscle skills, to not only be a capable swordsman, but also a master of horse and the unique weapons of this setting.

One interesting though for seeding a campaign, is that almost all of the original inhabitants were drawn from our modern times. I can't be the only person who gets tired of seeing this dark and gritty settings that have ultra-modern and politically correct attitudes strewn throughout them. Why not give them an actual reason to exist? Sure, those equal rights for everyone may fade in the wake of might makes right, but if the ideas and teachings are wide spread enough, it can at least provide the germ of the rational as to why slavery isn't completely wide spread and why people have one common tongue.

It also acts as a good way to bring in a temporary character for someone stopping by for a one shot. Much like Erekose the Eternal Champion, for some reason he is summoned and must do his duty and afterwards, may return to his home. This allows you to pop characters in and out in an unsteady group without having too much worry about the internal consistency or the why of it all.

In addition, where most old sword and sorcery style magic tends to be ritualistic, depending on illusions, necromancy, or summoning with little flash, the 'magic' here is that of the mind caused by mutations in individuals known as Dreamers.

The setting that Mike finds himself in also has another bit. Much like Planet of the Apes, it's actually the Earth but one that Thundar the Barbarian would be comfortable in. A few people live in near absolute power while the rest suffer horribly. In this two-sun world, the tyrant that Mike has taken over was trying to change that but perhaps had other plans within plans as he did so?

The name of the book does come into play because the falcons are artificial creatures. In the book they have blood are are organic, but the concept of bio-technology was probably a little ahead of when the book was written. This semi-science lends the book a slightly different feel that a standard fantasy but it works well.

In terms of these falcons though, one of the things I thought interesting as a side, was that the use of the falcons to hunt is something done in ancient Japan as well as in other societies. The act of hunting is done even by chimps and other animals as a group activity to build alliances and bonds. In the manga Berserk, in the 'Golden Age' arc, Griffen is a member of the knights who is on the hunt with the king and the other nobility, a great honor in and of itself.

These social activities are necessary in an era where there's no interent, no television, no phones and no instant gratification through instant communication. Hunting serves as both a social activity and a means of showing skill either through social interaction or through actual hunting ability.

When looking at your own game, don't forget the little things like hunting. While the players may not be seeing through the eyes of bio-engineered falcons that hunt men, they can still show off their abilities, especially when something unexpected crops up either the dreaded assassination attempt or the wandering encounter. Such events allow the players to really showcase how adventurers do it.

Falcons of Narabedla is more sword and sandal than sorcery but is a done in one that is well worth the $2.99 Amazon is asking for it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


There are some classic tales that are retold time and time again. Sometimes these retellings are fairly obvious such as when the Seven Samurai became the Magnificent Seven and other times, such as with Ironclad, it's the theme of the elements, that of a small group holding against a larger one, that is lifted until a new telling.

Ironclad takes many liberties with history but remains an entertaining film painting the heroic defenders with broad strokes and showcasing the vital nature of skilled and passionate warriors against the nameless hordes. In many ways, it makes a great showcase of how a unique group assembled for their talents may have that one last glorious battle against overwhelming odds.

Such a methodology sounds like the makings of an excellent one shot. Several characters all of advanced years and abilities that may not know each other but do know the stakes in the latest game, all assembled together to protect something or someone.

Some of the things I enjoyed about the film include its visuals. For the most part, the inhabitants of the world are gritty and dirty and having thick bears or in need of a shave. This dark outlook paints the setting in ways that modern television often fails to. Few people look perfect, few people look like the actors they are. Instead they look like they could all use a bath and a good meal.

The nature of the siege also gets a few winks but not a ton of devoted efforts. For example, while there are some siege weapons brought into play both for offense and defense, it's more the nature of man against man that takes the spotlight. In terms of healing, no dedicated doctors here. Burn those wounds closed or choke off the blood flow and fight on. There is an innovative use of pigs where the pig fat burns so quickly and so hot that it essentially acts as a cannon being fired straight upward and that destroys a large chunk of the castle but that required some sapping, some digging under the castle proper to use.

And during the siege there are bits for individual heroic actions. For example, during the long part of the siege where the enemy tries to starve out the defenders, one of those defenders makes his way to the enemy encampment and steals some food. Nothing like a morale builder that comes straight from the enemy himself.

Ironclad uses the frame of a classic story and for those who enjoy seeing this style of movie, a fake historical fictional tale, it does so fairly well. For those whose enjoyment comes from historical accuracy or other details, this move should be passed unless you enjoy the gore feast that  follows from the clash of steel on steel.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Jewel of Turmish by Mel Odom

I've recently mentioned the perils of shared settings. That sometimes the setting can work against the author and that I try not to take such books as more than popcorn reading. Even with that in mind, Mel Odom's The Jewel of Turmish, unless you find it in the bargain bin for $1 like I did, is probably better off skipped.

In terms of things I didn't like as a book, some of those may work in a game as a prelude or a highlight of an upcoming menance.

For example, we are introduced to a group of young thieves and given a run down of their various hardships and how they stick together. They are horribly murdered. We are introduced to a group of priests where their leader is granted a vision by his goddess. These priests are horribly murdered. In killing off such groups well after numerous little bits have been introduced, the author was in my opinion, wasting time. In terms of a role playing game though, where you as the Game Master want to showcase a powerful villain, giving the players some premade characters and having them struggle against some unknown horror can bring out some anticipation for the players.

Another bit is misdirecting the audience. Don't label your campaign as a heroic high end super hero campaign and then have the players run into Wolverine, the Punisher, and other gun totting murderous villains and heroes whose only goal is to increase their body count. Don't talk about running a high magic and epic campaign and then force players to keep meticulous track of their rations and arrows and copper pieces. In that vein, this book called the Jewel of Turmish and part of a series called The Cities, failed, to me at least, to bring to light anything about the city itself.

Another aspect is beware of overusing old cliches that you've already used. In Mel's previous work that I've read in the Forgotten Realms, the one about the old sea monster coming back after many years of imprisonment, why is Mel's next book bringing out a villain who is coming back after many years of imprisonment? It's a common enough theme but don't be the same author bringing the same plot where gods themselves couldn't kill the villain but some dumb kid can.

Another bit is know where your action lies. If you know that the main thrust of the campaign is going to involve demons and undead and betrayal by once loyal allies, don't bog the players down in long drawn out fights against such mundane foes as man eating wolves and the difficult decesions they must make in terms of balancing the right and wrong of their actions.

Mel can do better than this and I've say this book is actually worse then Revan which makes it, the worst book I've read in 2012. Here's hoping the next one brings up the averages a little.