Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thunder God by Paul Watkins

Thunder God is another selection from Half Price Books dollar spinner rack. When I went to compare the prices to any ebook versions, Amazon came up with no Kindle versions.

The short review is that it's an entertaining first person tale of religion, exploration and many of the things that people still struggle with today such as trying to make the past fit the present, trying to live with the current realities and trying to strive for a better future. Paul's writing is crisp and flows quickly. If I see another book in this vein by him, I'll pick it up.

But what about for gaming purposes?

Exploration plays a bit of a theme here. Not necessarily the standard exploration of go to location X, meet person Y, and do action Z. But the different places that are visited by the main characters allow the reader a quick glimpse into some of these different venue.

For example, when starting off in the small village, you get an idea of the daily life. When the character's village comes under attack from raiders and he is kidnapped, the travel to the city of what is know Istanbul, when it was still the Holy Roman Empire, allows you to get a feel that in that time, the city of  Constantinople, you get a feel that it's a huge city where people of different races, ethnicity, religions, and ways of way come to trade merchandise from all around the world.

Latter on, when the character travels back, you get a feel for the perils of travel. Still later, as the characters are on a different quest, they are thrown off by a huge storm and wind up in the Americas. Here's they run into the Mayans. It's not that they life there their whole lives, but they get to experience the differences between places. And in so doing, especially told in the first person, it allows the reader to get a peek into what life might have been like in these times and places.

Outside of that, the book, much like the last historical book I read, has a treasure and that treasure is guarded not by a ton of armored knights or by powerful warriors, but rather by its lack of prestige. A small church built into a spire so that its not visible to raiders and one would almost have to know exactly where it was prior to raiding it.

When designing defenses, it doesn't hurt to allow a 'win' for the characters every now and again by having places that no one would know about be unguarded. Well, perhaps unguarded for the most part with the most fantastic and powerful treasures having their own summoned guardians.

Another bit that crops up is coincidence. The main character has a habit of running into those he's befriended, or running into those related to those he knows. These by products of relationships should be useful in your own games as well.

If the players are part of an adventuring group for example and are known for their harsh treatment of their hirelings, this information may wind up coming back to haunt them. On the other hand, if the players have backgrounds that involve other bits, like a fighter who retired from a military unit, perhaps when out on the road and coming across other military units, they meet those who have relatives in their old unit and can trade stories and make a positive impression on those other guards.

Religion crops up another notch here as it does in several of Benard's series. In this case, a king pushes forth a religion and uses tax men, who in some ways, act as a connection between the kingdom to collect taxes and pass laws. In an era where there is no Internet and no method of passing information back and forth securely, safely, or even insuring that the information is passed, these collectors are an interesting option that might make for an interesting change of pace for players to take the roles of.

In the old Legend of the Five Rings, one of the assumptions was that the players can be Magisters. But what if the players are tax collectors or perhaps tax assessors? They are there to list the wealth of the town and make sure that information gets back to their lords and leaders? This can lead to all sorts of side deals being cut out as the players are bribed to look aside from certain wealth in the town in exchange for their own cut.

Thunder God isn't filled with external conflict, but it does press the characters and push the story forward and is filled with enough potential ideas to get a campaign well underway.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell

The first book in the Grail Quest series by Bernard Cornwell, Harlequin is another look at one of England's greatest weapons, an archer and his adventurers.

Without going into too much detail, if you like adventure based historicals, this one has plenty of it and is a meaty tome. It took me a few days of reading between the overtime and the dreaded real world, but I was pleased by how well the book worked out and how open it leaves itself to the sequels.

Now on for some specific mentions so those who want no real spoilers so read no further!

One of the things I've usually enjoyed about Bernard Cornwell's material, is that it doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of life in these dark times. For example, families are huge in theory, but so many people die of so many mundane issues that in practical terms, they are boasting a few members aside from those lucky ones. One discussion talks about the plague. Another talks about how a simple cut from a farming implement becomes infected and the person dies. The state of doctors is terrible so wounds that might not be fatal in our time are essentially a death sentence here.

The other thing I enjoy, is how comfortable Bernard seems to be in describing everyday things like the red herrings that the English eat, or how archers are fairly limited to England because of the time and training it takes to master the bow. How things like cannons are starting to roll out here but aren't at their peak yet.

There is the occasional interjection of the idea of chivalry in terms of trying to gain honor in combat. Often it meets with the brutal realities of having to win in combat as opposed to showcase combat prowess.

In terms of character development, Cornwell does a few interesting things that are worth noting for Game Masters who have players engaged in more than only dungeon crawls. For example, Sir Simon is a powerful knight of great skill and ability for the English. He is a noble born. Thomas on the other hand, is low born and an archer and a bit of a wild card. The two do not mix and through various bits and pieces, the two become enemies that seek to kill one another to the point that Thomas is hung and Sir Simon defects from the English to the French.

By having Sir Simon be noble born, it prevents Thomas from just decking him out in the street, although it does not prevent him from trying other methods. But by being noble born, there are certain expectations of status put upon Sir Simon and his own actions make him enemies enough that he is banished. By providing characters with enemies whose role isn't only on the battlefield, the Game Master is able to push them in ways that a sword in the face can't necessarily cure, or at least, can't cure right at the time it happens.

Another useful reminder, is the background about the characters. With a climactic battle at Crecy, which is the start of the Hundred Years War, Bernard Cornwell makes sure that his characters are going to be in the thick of things. There will be wars, and opportunity due to the chaos of war. In the manga Berserk, it is this chaos, this turmoil, that allows the Band of the Hawk to rise to nobility. The same can happen in any role playing game.

When I think about the various event changing novels that Wizards of the Coast often threw out on the Forgotten Realms, as a fan of the setting I often though, "Man, another epic tale eh?" and not in a good way. As someone who looks around at modern history these days and sees things like the Arab Spring and other world changing events, the pace of history stops for no man. Indeed, the real problem with those game changing novels from Wizards of the Coast isn't that they changed the setting, it's that they often went to a near status quot at the end.

Imagine if you take the bits from the Threat from the Deep where the oceans and seas become more dangerous, and add in the threats from the Nehtril Shadow Wizards, and add in the reclusion of the Elves, and add in the dragons rampaging across the realms, and add in Thay becoming an undead nation with negative energy all over the lands and Sembia becoming a Thrall state to Nethril and and and... It may sound like a lot, but when you think about everything that is going on all the time, isn't there some sense in a setting as large as the Forgotten Realms having multiple crisis points going on all the time?

Part of this though, is how the Forgotten Realms works. In Harlequin, the English think they have God's blessing. The French also believe this. As do other countries. And yet, the 'heroes' of this tale are murderers, they are rapists, and they are thieves. In short, they are complex. Thomas watches his father killed and eventually allies himself to the ally of the man who killed his father because that man too has been betrayed. A woman Thomas loves uses him during her time of need and moves on but tries to keep him close like a chess piece. Various priest speak of old threats and heresies even while being part of war and partaking of those benefits and plunder.

And the problem is that the Forgotten Realms novels tend to work in a manner familiar to the game system so the paladins are usually good and trustworthy, the clerics god fearing folk, and most of the people with views and outlooks that encapsulate the best of what we currently think we are. In short, it can be damn boring at times.

The one problem I can see happening with players who read this book, is they're going to wonder why the long bow is so lame in whatever game system you're playing. As described here and in other works and through the victory at major battles, the longbow should be a killing weapon almost unequalled in any game. It should far surpass the crossbow and even any early guns introduced in terms of killing power.

But then there's that training issue. If the longbow becomes an ultimate weapon, what are all the players going to make to maximize their character's damage output? Yeah, that one is pretty much a no-brainer. It's game balance on a generic and bland scale but its necessary in some forms.

If you're looking for some high action reading with character based plot and motivations, The Harlequin will provide much fodder for the imagination of both player and Game Master.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Revan by Drew Karpyshyn

Writing a novel in a shared universe must be a difficult task. It may be more difficult if the era you're writing about is not the standard, such as this Star Wars novel set during the Old Republic. Revan is a character in an older game that helped make that Old Republic a viable property and one that companies like Dark Horse and Del Rey have visited several times, not to mention a very popular MMO that's supposedly stealing players from World of Warcraft.

But in terms of this specific novel of the Old Republic? Pass. My brief review is that its jumbled by time skips and by making too many choices that seem very odd to even a casual reader of Star Wars. Mind you that the Clone Wars sometimes have this problem as well where characters apparently forget they have other abilities than just jumping around and swinging light sabers so maybe it was the set up which caused this novel to fail. It's not the worst novel I've ever read, but it is the worst novel I've read this year.

Having said that though, there were some things I'll discuss specifically so if you wish to avoid spoilers, read no further.

The Jedi in this book are portrayed as narrow minded idiots who brim with hostility and no common sense. While it goes against their own code, and something that the main character verbally jabs another one of the Jedi for, it showcases that any organization, no matter how noble or righteous, can go rogue or too far in one direction.

Even the fabled comic, Order of the Stick recently touched on this subject as well. I myself played a paladin who took a PrC that allowed him to smite anyone, not just evil enemies. Pushing the boundaries of what is good and normal can make for some interesting role playing experiences but if the Game Master does it and does it too often, there should be a valid reason for it that needs to be reflected in the campaign.

For example, if an order of paladins doesn't like the players, and the players are typical murder hobos, that's probably understandable. On the other hand, if the players are members of the local militia and have saved the town several times and the town folk are reacting as if the paladins are right, the players are getting screwed in this deal unless all of them are under mind control.

Am I saying that the paladins can't dislike the players? No. And if the players hear the paladins out preaching about the evils of the characters and how despite those characters military victories that their spiritual hollowness rings out, that can go a long way in establishing a rivalry. Indeed, if the players aren't careful they could end at burned at the steak as witches.

Another bit that might not work well in a game is a time skip. There are two of them here. One when Revan is captured for years and that time just snaps by and another where Revan is.... yes, captured again but this time the span is much longer and he doesn't escape. If you and your group are comfortable with large time skips, then by all means do so. It's a great way to introduce younger siblings, or on a large enough jump, a new generation of characters. Mind you this doesn't always work as the readers and writers of Dragonlance, and of course, Star Wars the New Republic know, but nothing ventured nothing gained.

From a gaming prospective, one of the things I least like about the skip ahead, is trying to determine if the characters gain any power, lose any prestige, suffer any permanent wounds or things of that nature. Runequest has a Cities supplement that back in the 2nd edition days I would gladly roll on and it had all sorts of useful bits to it.

Anyway, when reading a book you're not too fond of, keep looking for things, both positive and negative, that you can take to your own game.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The King of Thieves by Michael Jecks

When Borders Bookstore was closing, I purchased many a book that looked interesting. I didn't do it when the hordes were crowding and pushing one another for 20% off. I waited until the books were well and low priced at 60% or greater. Mind you, the selection wasn't at its peak but there was more then enough that I'm still reading those books when I find the time.

I'd never heard of Michael Jecks before. I'm also NOT an armchair historian. However, I do like a good historical and I find them easier to mine for role playing purposes since most of the games I play tend to be low tech, dark ages styling. Well, magic is usually a big element too but that's another thing I'd have to add as needed.

I'll be discussing some spoilers pulled out of the book so if you want no spoilers, read no further on Michael Jecks The King of Thieves.

Let's start with terminology. I love it when the author provides us some details. Like a Crophead being slang for a priest, or a harvester a cutpurse or a picker, a thief who takes everything from his victims or a planter, a thief that makes fake jewels. Great stuff. Adds to the atmosphere of the book right away.

Another thing I enjoy is learning about real characters that were... interesting so that I can steal, I mean, borrow them or their routines for my games. I hate to say it, but I was ignorant of Hug Despenser and that's a shame because after reading some on him in this novel and on good ole Wiki, I have to say, he's a hell of a bastard and looks like he would make a great rival noble enemy for characters, one whose protection from a higher source means that the outmaneuvering must take place in the courts and not on the field of battle where character often have an advantage.

Another character mentioned in this historical, is Charles Martel, a well known warrior with his own nick name. Adding such background elements to your own campaign, famous warriors, generals, saints, and other well known figures of history, can provide more depth to the setting as it gives, say, the martial characters in the game, something to strive for, to go beyond.

"and now the King was married to his third wife..." Not a particularly grand statement in all things but one that puts out there that people, everyone suffers. One of the problems I've heard players complain about with their loved ones or NPCs close to them, is that the Game Master is always messing with them so its easier not to have any close contacts. Well, remind them that life is indeed a contact sport and kings and queens suffer the disasters of disease and death in child birth and other ravages, that its okay for them too.

"But the instability which he had assisted was now growing alarming. Robert Sapy's deputy in Wales had been attacked... There had been a time... when no man would have dared to treat such an important man in such dreadful a manner, but that time was past. Now no one was safe."

Political unrest can be a powerful tool. But it might be only part of a problem. For example, if there is famine, is there is plaque, is there is banditry, then adding to that a King whose most favorite subject is widely hated? Yeah, that might cause some problems. On the other hand, it also sets the stages for players to shine. I've mentioned it before, but if you're playing a 'standard' styling of Dungeons and Dragons where players will be in combat, then you want there to be unrest in the land, you want political factions lining up to march to war, you want bandits for the players to fight, you want church and state taking shots at each others. The more conflict, the easier it is to get the players actively involved in it.

"A large sideboard stood at one wall and upon it were many silver plates and some goblets... Large tapestries covered the bare walls on two sides...the large goblet with gilding all around it."

A quick quote about the wealth of one man of the cloth. This type of wealth, these material things that are not coins, is mentioned several times. I myself am guilty to resorted to X amount of platinum, Y amount of gold, and Z amount of silver, but it can give the setting some contrast and character when you start throwing in physical art objects. In this case, one of the objects actually turns out to be a clue later on. The physical descriptions of combs, plates, goblets, utensils, tapestries, and other non-coin wealth can say a lot about the campaign.

Of course it doesn't hurt that at lower levels it can make it difficult for the players to simply pick it all up and leave.

"Let me put it like this: the King is now moving his prisoners from one castle to another."

In terms of those uprisings, well, there really weren't any prisons in those days. You did a crime, chances are you'd get the immediate punishment, like having your ear clipped or your lip split and then be sent on your merry way. Otherwise you went into the dungeon of a castle. Not good times. In the above case, the King's forces may not be up to the task of taking care of fomenting rebellion so he keeps the prisoners on the move to prevent them from being freed.

"It was hard when speaking to someone like this to remember that he was just a man like any other. Jean was intimidated by rank. He was too aware of his own lowly background."

IN today's 'modern' D&D, for some reason we still have kings and farmers but no slaves and a social system that tries its best to mime modern times so that rank and other non-tangible values are well, meaningless. When setting up your own campaign, talk with the players about their own expectations of what they assume the setting is going to be like. If everyone is on the same page, that's great, but if you're running a dark and gritty fantasy campaign with low magic and rank is everything, well, wandering adventurers may get a  welcome they'd rather not have.

"Just the atmosphere made Jean feel chilled as he entered the place. There were marks scrawled into the walls here, the despairing words of prisoners who knew that their time was almost over..."

Here's an idea for a map. Instead of finding one in a treasure lair on a piece of paper, what if it's actually a huge map on the wall. A dragon, beholder, or other fantastical creature would have no problem defacing a granite wall and it would give the players a little something different to remember as they try to copy down the map.

"Cardinal, if is your duty to uphold God's laws, surely."
"I have many duties. I have served four Popes now. They each were different men, but the main thing was, they were practical men."

Here's an interesting one. When looking at fantasy religions that actually have deities and miracles and divine powers in the game, how does one NOT serve correctly? In Eberron, well, the gods don't necessarily take an active interest. It's far more nebulous than say the Forgotten Realms where the gods have walked the earth and even had children. ON the other hand, the Forgotten Realms has had its share of heresy and its share of deities impersonating one another. Some churches, like that of Tempus, encourage active war fare as that is the god's portfolio. Others... you kind of have a hard time seeing them not be one large brother hood under that active god. Think about the role of religion, how heavy the god's hands are, are they any clerics who've actually lost spellcasting ability, or is spellcasting ability something only players can do? It changes setting assumptions quite quickly if it is.

"It was mere good fortune that he himself was not present in the Preceptory on that day, and thus evaded the arrest and subsequent punishment."

It's a comment about the fall of the Templars. In Dungeon Siege 3, it starts off with your organization being crushed. Some might think that heavy handed but organizations come and go all the time in history. The stalwart warrior against God's foes today, is the gold laden victim to be robbed tomorrow. If the players are part of a guild, it's always good to have a few real life organizations that were taken down in order to show case that, no, you as the Game Master are not being mean to them and that these things do happen and will they please man up about it.

"He killed my boy' the cook said...

Anyone ever see New Jack City? The heroes of the tale go about finding out how to take down a very bad man. They lose friends and allies and suffer great hardships and loses and at the end, the bad guy is going to walk away free as a bird when an old man pops out of the crowd and guns him down!

The same thing happens here where the heroes find out the clues and find the murderer and that murderer is killed by another minor character.

That doesn't work too bad in a movie or in a novel but I personally would NOT be happy as a player if the Game Master were to do that. "Great game guys. You spent weeks hunting down the murderer but it's the kings brother. He laughs as you'll never be able to prove it all but then old man Fellows whose daughter was killed steps up and stabs the King's brother right in the neck!" Ugh. If you want to write a story, there's no need to drag the players into it. Write the story. Give the players their moment of glory.

On the other hand if the players are getting restless with the current crop and don't want to do the whole law and order thing and you asked them if they'r ready to move on, yeah, it might be time to New Jack that NPC.

Michael Jecks does a great job of bringing history, and Paris, to live. He makes Paris a filthy city, but one that is teeming with life of all sorts. A strong read, I hope to find more Jecks on sale or for those ebooks to come down in price.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Monsters Resurrected: Chill, Kill, or Ill?

And the use of Apex Predators continues!

The last episodes provide some more entertainment and I felt for a little while that I was watching some old show on an off station past midnight. I suspect in fifty years we'll see them do something like this for cars. "Here we see a pack of cars feasting on a train after one of the pack has sacrificed itself to slow the vehicle down." Or something along those lines. "The Hummer was the Apex of vehicle predators."

The dialog, cutting sequences, reuse of video material, and other bits are suffer greatly because apparently this was designed for small children whose parents couldn't afford a babysitter that would be filled with like ten thousand commercials so they have to continuously remind you were they left off. Ugh.

But on a more serious note, the last episode ends with who killed the mega beast? I thought it might have been Doctor Lucky in the living room with a crowbar but no, turns out there we have a whole field of experts to tell us basically that we don't know! Thankfully they do provide some entertaining options as to what could have happened and as I was watching, I kept thinking about how some of these elements would fit into a game.

For example, if we look at the chill factor. The world gets cold, and covered in ice. This in terns destroys the ecosystem that the animals, these mega-beasts, rely on. In D&D, Ice Age settings can be a one off and you get to fight against the sabertooths and mega-sloths and whatnot, but most settings don't really discuss them in terms of 'modern' history. And I'm not talking millions of years ago. Most think that the ice age 10,000 bc. In a game with liches, elves, constructs, and other forms of immortals, don't you think that would be a bit of a subject?

"So Legolas, how about that winter eh?"

"Bah, you puny humans. This is no winter. We had winter when I was a kid. It lasted a few thousand years."

If we go with that not untold time of ice age happening though, we could have things like neanderthal liches. Maybe the clerics or shamans of those dark winter gods were saw through those dark times and can now prey on modern man?

Such ice age events thought happened some would argue at least twenty times previously than the one where the mega-beasts are roughly wiped out so most of the other 'experts' tend to dismiss ice as the sole reason for death.

So how about kill? To me, this could be a no-brainer. A group of large mammals meeting humans? The animals don't know to hide? Humans tending to overhunt? Yeah, I could buy that. Hell in one instance, the Moa are essentially known to have been 'eaten' off about seven hundred years ago. That's even much closer than the old ice age. A lot of long lived races would remember humans killing off an entire species to satisfy their bellies.

The other thing about the kill factor though, is that tool using humans can be seen to be pretty smart compared to their prey. One expert was asking why would the humans overhunt so much? Another talks about how hyenas do it so yes, humans could to. But, at least in terms of mammoths, and maybe this is because I've seen too many of these shows, one theory is that to kill the big beasts with fewer risks to personal life and limb, the proto-humans would force them off the cliffs. May not be the most efficient in terms of meat and preservation of said meat, but beats going heat to heat with such a creature. Sure, you kill another five to ten of these creatures, but that's okay right? You made it!

The weird thing about Dungeons and Dragons though, is how exactly would this work out with character classes like the druid and ranger which in many instances are green peace hippy warriors? Unless these are new classes and new ideals, which with the druid, one of the older religions, would be funny, there would be clashes between humans who wanted to save the mega-beasts from extinction and those who, you know, wanted to eat them.

Druids would have a lot of formidable tools in their command of such beasts, but it gets back to what's the druid's actual role in the society? Are they priest who are for man, or are they hippies willing to kill their fellow man for hunting down wolves?

In terms of ill, the 'hyper diesease' is not found. But there are some thoughts along the line that if all of these animals started to die off at just about the time humans came around, that even if it wasn't humans that killed off the animals, that the animal companions normal people travel with, like dogs, could have contributed to the death toll.

In some cases, it could have just been bad timing for those other creatures. When you look at the dodo, one of the factors that contributed to it going out is the pigs and dogs people brought with them. Dodos are apparently very tasty to such animals and humans brought them to a new landscape where dodos had no idea what the hell was going on. Another fairly recent case of animal extinction that I can't see the old hippy elves being too cool with.

"Hey Arragon, what's up with wiping out the native species?"

"But Lego, you're eating dodo now?"

"Damn it!"

But the final theory, ah ha, they fooled you you stupid viewer you, the final theory is that it's a combination not only of all those elements, but the way man lives. See, humans have a huge tendency to make the land ours by clearing it out by slash and burn techniques. These aren't things that are no longer used by the way. We cut down forests and burn them clean so that we can farm.

If you're a nine foot tall tree dwelling mammal, well, you're finished. That's it. Game over. You're done.

Man's ability to completely change the landscape to suit his farming needs, which is still going on today if you think about things like aquatic Dead Zones caused by the run off of farming fertilizer, our powers to cause death and destruction are so advance that they might as well be magic. I can see humans finding the crypt of Cthulhu and saying that he might have been in a state of suspended animation once but all the cow shit has finished off the old boy and he never had a chance.

But in such terms, imagine what some of those things could do to aquatic civilizations if there was run off in fantasy settings? Sea Devils, Kuo-Toa, Deep Ones, and other nightmare creatures might be destroyed not through deliberate actiosn but because of rain water run off.

If you think about the potential conflicts in such elements of man versus the wilds, and assume that the wilds have protectors, most fantasy settings would be  vastly different in terms of how almost all the non-humans view humans.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Monsters Resurrected: To Hyper Specialize or Not Hyper Specialize?

So one of the stranger dinos on this show, Spinosaurus is showcased as being another of these dreaded 'apex' hunters. (Seriously guys, get a thesaurus or something.). It's one of the largest dinos in its time. It's arms actually look to have some functionality to them. They end in massive claws. It's so powerful that it's teeth aren't designed to rip meat off the bone, but rather, it shakes the prey until it is ripped apart and then repeats the process.

But... and here's that dreaded but again, when its own food source goes away, it now has to compete with another type of creature that's smaller, faster, and uses pack tactics. In some ways, sounds like the good old terror birds against the wolves.

Acrocanthosaurus aka the Great American Predator, is like a variant of the T-Rex in that its another top level predator. It's jaws are designed to pull that meat right off the bone. Its neck designed to not break. Its arms, despite their small size, having vast strength. Its downfall? Its food source goes out and all these specialized features it has aren't that handy in taking down the other types of prey about. And it too has to compete with smaller and dangerous predators. And yeah, there's the whole "my eggs are laying on the ground and easy for predators to eat thing."

And as I'm watching these shows, and they push out millions of years at a time like I would discuss waiting for a bus. "In a manner of 15 minutes, the bus had arrived." but you know, "in a mere fifteen million years, the reign of this predator was over." But no, brain, come back to the point.

Because so many of these creatures are hyper specialized, when their niche is gone, so are they.

And to be honest, as a GM, I both play to, and play against players who do that.

In terms of playing to? I'll let the players know what type of campaign I'm setting up, What I expect to be using in terms of some of the major enemies. It allows the players to theme out if they wish. If I'm going to run the Age of Worms, they know that undead are probably going to be popping up left and right for example. In such instances, I encourage the players to pick up the pace when it comes to making characters that may specialize in the field of destroying undead, even offering them some advice in terms of useful feats and Prestige Classes they may not have heard of.

But at the same time, when I see a player whose so dug into his niche, like a warrior without a single missile weapon, yeah, it's on. Kobolds have slings, goblins have short bows, gnolls and orcs have longbows, duergar and hobgoblins have crossbows and of course other such assaults.

Mind you, I give them plenty of time to shine as well, but I've got no problem hitting them with the highlights just to point out, "Uh, you might at the very least want to you know, carry a hand axe or something to throw."

The same can also be done with wizards. I've seen some get so into their theme that they refuse to work out anything that goes past that. In some cases, this can be great as its the player roleplaying their differences, their style, their choices. In others, they're just bin min-maxers. I'm not going to tell you what's going on at your table. You're already there. You'll know from the way the player acts, how he reacts, and what he does in the future as his character advances.

Just don't be reluctant to shine a little light on them.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Monsters Resurrected: Terror Birds

Walking with Dinosaurs and others are shows that I enjoy. Monsters Resurrected is in the same vein if a little less impressive and cool. For one thing, it reuses the same footage over and over again. I get it, you're going to recreate the animal and you're going to show how awesome it was! But after you see the same elements over and over again, you're like, give me a damn break about it already eh?

Anyway, the first episode is about terror birds. I've seen these in D&D with all sorts of names including Axebeaks for example and there were probably several varieties of them in 3.5 with the utility of the OGL.

One of the interesting things about fantasy campaigns, Dungeons and Dragons in particular, is that the game isn't worried about the 'real' ecology of the landscape. Sure, Dragon magazine back in the day used to have some great ecology articles, and Kobold Quarterly has taken up that mantle, and even Paizo has their various 'revisited' lines. But to think that a setting could support as many giant, super predators as the typical fantasy setting has in it's back yard? Probably not going to happen.

Even here when talking about the terror bird and how it was an apex predator and had an impressive length of time as king of the wheel, it's two main competitors for food were not things like T-Rex or tool using man, but rather, sabertooth tigers and wolves. Turns out that not having teeth, being a solitary predator and laying eggs on the ground are possibly reasons why the wolves managed to use pack tactics, use packs to keep the young alive, and well, have really good teeth that can quickly down a meal before other predators come by.

To me, I always figured it was more like cow tipping. With those tiny little arms they probably got pushed down by proto-cavemen who were bored and couldn't get up like a little turtle on its back.

But no, seriously, when looking at these monsters with their razor sharp beaks and ability to inflict tremendous damage, with great eye sight, with fantastic hearing, and with great speed and stamina, in a fantasy setting, they would make for some great mounts. As meat eaters, they could dispose of any left over orcs, or if the orcs are riding them, any left over humans. In some aspects, they might make better beasts of burden for monstrous riders as those monstrous humanoids probably wouldn't feel too squeamish about feeding them any wounded on their side either.

Still, with the sheer variety that terror birds have been visualized with, its not that difficult to see different variants of the bird serving one master while another variety serves still a different one.

Another interesting aspect of these creatures, is that like with most ancient and old entities, they are always finding or testing out this theory or that, or how the animal might have lived and fought including some impressive kicking skills and larger speciemens.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Death's Heretic by James Sutter

Death's Heretic as a novel, would make a great Gumshoe adopted Lorefinder Adventure. It's a tale about a man who comes from a nation of atheists that serves the god of death.

Note that here, the setting is using this country of atheists not as not believing in deities. They know that these entities exist. They know that the outer planes are real. They know that they have souls. However, they do not believe in giving themselves over in worship or accepting that aid in return.

That's just a touch of background on the main character. Before I move onto some of the other elements, I'm going to put the big flashing warning notice on. If you wish to avoid spoilers, read no further.

The main thrust of the book is Salim Ghadafar's quest to discover what happened to a missing soul. There are several red herrings and much exploration of the planes in the setting. There are several characters that come under investigation that interplay with Salim.

In looking at a more investigative style adventure, it's important to have a wide selection of non-player characters in your library. By having these NPCs build up before hand, you can use them as a buffer in terms not only of time, but in setting up future adventure seeds. These individuals may be offended by the manner in which they are questioned. They may see the players as potential future allies, henchemen or catspawns to be used at a later date. By providing some interesting encounters for the characters to navigate through that don't necessarily rely on combat, the Dungeon Master is setting the stage for future use if he ever needs it.

In terms of exploration,most fantasy game settings have some type of belief system that physically exist. There is often a real heaven and a real hell. These places might be able to provide a quick shot of exploration and investigation. It allows the Dungeon Master to showcase some of the unique beings and inhabitants of the setting. In this case, Salim's quest takes him to a Limbo state where he meets the pure chaotic inhabitants that run that particular aslyum. This is in addition to his association with a Marut, an agent of law, and his middle man, the black angel on the cover. These elements bring the setting to light.

One of the better written books in the Pathfinder series, Death's Heretic manages to be done in one and provides some interesting ideas for how a soul could be yanked in the first place and how someone would go about finding it again.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Winter Witch by Elaine Cunningham

Winter Witch is a fantasy novel by Elaine Cunningham set in the Pathfinder setting. It's a done in one that introduces new characters and provides some brief exploration of the setting. I'm going to hit real quick on a few things.

First, damn am I old. A paperback that runs $9.99 eh? A fantasy paperback that runs $9.99 eh? Ah well, at Amazon it's part of their 3 for 4 bit so that's not too bad. No kindle version eh? Let me get this straight, a relatively new line of fiction that is not taking advantage of every possible revenue stream and on the Paizo site, charging $6.99? Sure, it's available in PDF and you get an ePub version with it. I'm using a 3rd party app on my Toshiba Tablet to read it in ePub version. I bought my e-copy as part of a 2 for 3 deal so once again, I'm not feeling too bad but at this point, I would never pay that much for a ebook. Cheap? Stupid? Whatever. I'm the customer. I could've bought it at Half-Price for $2.50 not that long ago but I'm getting more and more into e-books.

Two, when the main character joins a caravan. He doesn't do so as a guard, but rather as a passenger. That was slightly different. What make the scene stand out to me though, was the caravan master asking him if he was worried about being killed and all his possessions taken. The caravan 'people' are the stand ins for the Gypsies of the setting so yeah, that's possible, but it struck me as something I personally haven't worked into any of my own games and something that could easily be a quick encounter.

Such a scenario could occur in a few ways. There is the unassuming method where the party is just hiring on as guards for the caravan and then once away from civilization, they get ambushed by the people they've been paid to protect.

Another scenario could occur if a relative of a former guard comes by the characters and hires them to investigate the caravan. Now the players have a reason and a potential payoff at the end of it. The players could even have a relative who is also an adventurer whose disappeared the last time this caravan went off and now have to find out what actually happened.

Another option may be that the caravan isn't actually doing the dirty work themselves. They are hiring adventurers and taking them down a path that leads to a very dangerous encounter and the caravan master sends scouts ahead that inform the monsters of what the players can do and where they're at and recommends some strategy to them based on how the players act and what they do up to that point.

The last thing (for this post!) that I thought was interesting was the Nolanders. Different tribes of barbarians get rid of the undesirables by banishing them to dark and dangerous places. So what happens when these murderers, betrayers, and most vile of the vile get together? It's like a Warhammer Marauder tribe with cannibalism and raiding becoming the norm. I thought for a second it was a weird spelling on Northlander because of where one of the characters comes from, but nope, it's No Lander and wherever they go, it makes it a no-man's land. A great bit when you want to throw real savages at the players.

Winter Witch has some good stuff to it and gives some nice details to the Pathfinder setting. Worth a read if it's in your comfortable purchase price zone.