Monday, November 26, 2012

The Art of Jason Engle

So I'm painting a miniature that comes from the old company, Magnificent Egos. They didn't necessarily make a big splash but they had some great figures. Some excellent assassins.

 They were even doing miniatures for the d20 game Oathbound as well as Monte Cook's Iron Heroes. I'm a bit unsure about what happened to the company, but they became Valiant Miniatures and even went to a resin or plastic casting way before it became the in thing to do.

One of the artist they had on hand for the visuals included Jason Engle. While looking for an upclose of one of those assassin miniatures, I stumbled across his deviantART galley. I know art is highly subjective and if you don't like Jason's style, then his art gallery probably isn't going to move you much, but there are some great named scenes in there and some potential names for different things in the campaign.

Sadly, I did not find what as I was looking for, as Koyote, the second miniature here, the painted one, really only has that one painted example and while I could have searched a bit more or hunted down some other painted examples, I didn't want to spend a ton of time on something I was just doing to knock out a few more rogues in my collection.

Heck who doesn't love a place called the City of Twilight with such colorful characters eh?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Heir of Novron by Michael J. Sullivan

The Riyria Revelations conclude in this final omnibus edition, Heir of Novron. This volume includes the two novels, Wintertide and Percepliquis.  Again, Micahel J. Sullivan's writing does not fail to impress as he weaves together numerous plot points from previous novels and ties them up.

I'll be discussing specifics from the book including spoilers so for those who want to avoid such things, read no further.

1. Elves. I mentioned previously that the elves of the setting were different. Well, the real trick is that the elves are such supreme entities that the only reason mankind wasn't wiped out was that one elf lord challenged another for control of the empire. It was a 'civilized' way of handling conflict so that many elves didn't have to fight and die. See, elf life is precious and there was no reason to do things the uncivilized way. On the other hand, the elves are so unstoppable that when it comes time to renew the challenge, they are able to take out civilization almost without trying. The music that accompanies their army for example, is so binding to humans that unless they stop their eats up, they cannot fight back. They control monsters that can only be killed with specific blades designed for that deed.

2. Deception. Sometimes those who befriend you don't really have you best interest at heart. Royce had a long time mentor who betrays him in the worst way possible because he doesn't believe Royce is worthy of a specific that was going his way. Suffice it to say that this betrayal leads to some 'bad behavior' on Royce's part as well but the whole point of someone being willing to do whatever it takes to thwart a player's designs, even if that might mean their own death, should be something that GM has in place for at least a Non-Player Character or two. Imagine a player who is about to rescue a princess when his old friend grabs her and provides a quick soliloquy that while he loves the player like a brother, this is one time he can't stand back and dives with the princess of the cliff into a volcano or something dramatic in that vein.

Sometimes the action may come as a complete surprise. Sometimes the player will have to find out from third party sources why this happened. It should always tie into the campaign. For better or worse it should be built out of the characters background stories, or better yet, out of events that happened in the campaign.

3. False History. While I appreciate how Michael J. Sullivan handles the twist here, that the savior of the empire that has enslaved elves is actually an elf himself and that the history of the whole land has been twisted to fit one madman's desires and wishes, it can be a tricky bit to handle in an established campaign setting. Pulling the veil back and telling the players, in essence, "Got You." with the background can be great fun, especially in a home brewed setting or one that the players are not intimately familiar with, but doing something like that on their own background on in an established setting with playing with setting purists can be a little more difficult. Know your audience if you're going to pull a big reveal where much of what the players know is false.

4. The Future! When the mage with no hands is killed, his cloak passes on. The wearer of the cloak starts to experience all sorts of visions and past life scenarios. Others have the ability to read the future through an individuals life line. Often times the answers aren't bold and in front but are a good method to add more information, especially if the players are stuck on something. In terms of life line reading, its also dangerous to do with elves as they tend to have very long lives and this is something that can actually lead to death if done on an elf with a very long life ahead of him.

5. The Gods! One of the father of the gods committed an unspeakable crime for which he strives to attain atonement through good deeds. Every time he does one and the act is deemed acceptable, he gains a white feather. This is something that's been mentioned several times in the series. At the end, we find out that Royce was given his special dagger and essentially his freedom from an inescapable prison because Royce would one day be very important and would have to redeem himself from his own actions. The whole theme of redemption and the very gentle hands of the god are good themes here as it doesn't put the deity as the forefront of the action and rather, act as a stepping stone to setting the characters on their own path. Good stuff.

Heir of Novron is a quick paced novel that will bring characters up and cast others down and provides a lot of inspiration for a fantasy campaign.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Rise of Empire by Michael J. Sullivan

Volume Two of the Riyria Revelations, Rise of Empire by Micahel J. Sullivan, continues to build on the work of Theft of Swords. The duo Royce and Hadrian, continue to work their magic. Now no longer mere rogues, they find themselves working with Alric, the king of Melengar against a newly risen empire even as Royce seeks out more information on his friend's background.

Michael's writing continues to be a breeze to read. The world continues to develop one piece at a time through the use of characters and their stories and the way the world reacts to the characters and their influence on it.

I'll be discussing some spoilers from the book below so if you'd rather avoid them, know this; if you enjoyed the first book, you'll enjoy this one which is an omnibus edition of Nyphron Rising and The Emerald Storm.

1. Make Your Own God! This is something that will crop up again later but when the 'Empire' is rising to its prominence, in part that's thanks to the rise of the Emperess. She is the ordained one, the heir of Novron who slew the mythic monster that no one else could. Thing is though, its all bunk. The Empresses is a sickly youth whose victory over the monster in the previous volume was due to the efforts of the Riyria (aka the duo) who managed to secure the weapon that she used. In addition, the church is flexing all of its power in this effort and has been doing so for quite some time. These lies on top of lies allow the whole to almost seem like one true story. Which brings us to...

2. The Role of Religion. In so many stories, in so much history, religion is such a massive force that it can change the course of history. It is even now changing the course of history. Do not underplay its importance to the setting. Unlike some things in a campaign, even in fantasy campaigns that rely on massive pantheons and not a single deity, religions often cross countries, often cross continents. The methods and specifics of each may be different and at the end of the day, if there are no other enemies they may turn on each other for heresy and harboring heretics, but prior to that, they will band together against outside forces and threats. The church can have members in various militaries. They can have members in different guilds. They can have the heart and soul of the common people. Its often why some nations completely outlaw religion in an effort to remove that influence from their own rule. Think on how church and state vie for power. Think of where the heart of the church is. Ponder at what the roles within the church are. There's so much meat in religion that its a shame to just use it as a place where clerics come from.

3. Players Role: Good players are more than just a single set of stats. Even if they weren't though, as they rise in level, even the most mundane and martial of them, are often more than a match for a soldier or a patrol of soldiers or even an army of soldiers. When engaging the players in a setting where war is around the corner, try to have a shopping list of things that the players can do that can change the tide of war. Fighting in the front lines is one thing, and if you're not playing Rolemaster or Warhammer (at least the 1st and 2nd edition), where a good roll can kill even a high level character, then players butchering their way through low level soldiers can be quite boring after a while. Have dispatches that they need to intercept. Have secret labs that they need to raid. Have vehicles with coded languages that they need to break. Have power sources that need to be destroyed. Keep the players from being more than soldiers but do it with a good reason.

4. Character Growth: Depending on where in their lives players meet NPCs, such characters should change. Younger characters can take on traits of those PCs that they favor. On the other hand, they may take on the opposite traits of those they dislike. Characters may also grow in abilities as well. For example, in the series, Arista, a princess who initially sets the duo on their way in the first book, has grown in her own abilities not only in terms of her commanding and taking more royal responsibility, but also in terms of sheer power as she's essentially, the last human mage alive. Allowing the cast of characters around them to grow is one way of keeping the setting a bit 'stagnant' if you will but does allow the players to continue travelling with those they know. Think about it in Dragon Ball Z terms. Almost all of the characters gain powers at one point or another but Goku is still pretty much the man to beat.

5. The Good Bad Guy: I'm not talking about characters like Royce who are often painted with a black brush despite their numerous good deeds. Rather, I'm talking about characters like Regent Saldur. He's a player in many ways. He's able to talk about the woes of men and about the wonders of the old empire. He's able to claim sympathy for any worthy cause and friendship to one and all. But if you get in his way you better make sure you're ready to fight to the death and look over your back every second of the day. He comes across as a character devoted to the common man, but much like, say Marvel Comics Doctor Doom, he does so because he feels that he knows better than the common man what needs to be done in order to assure a better tomorrow. Yes, kings may need to die today, and friends may need to be betrayed, but in that 'big picture', it's all worth it. You see, tomorrow will be a better world under his guidance.

6. Destroy the Boat! The Emerald Storm is a boat that the duo wind up traveling along in the second volume here. Like most fantasy RPGs I've been in, it gets destroyed. All too often, that's the fate of the boat. Destroy it and move on with the action. There's nothing wrong with long term campaigns that revolve around boats. Master and Commander and the series by Patrick shows that. But most RPGs aren't going that route as there are often long stretches of boredom so that the only TIME you need to wake the players is when something, often something horrible, is happening.

7. New Lands. While the starting point of the book is somewhat familiar to readers of the previous books, the duo move to new areas here and find themselves fighting against new foes. Most campaign settings are huge in nature and scope. Don't hesitate to throw the players into new arenas when they've gotten too comfortable or familiar with their current landscapes.

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Sometimes the good old Science Fiction Book Club catches my eye with a sale. I had never heard of Michael J. Sullivan before and SFBC had two books already out with an option to preorder the third. It was some impressive sale where it would be like $5 per title with no shipping. Hell, might even have been last Thanksgiving when I bought them. I checked out the ebook versions first. While I don't mind ordering from SFBC, I also don't like having all of these physical books around.

Well, through Amazon and other vendors, the price was then, as it is now, something like $9.99 per volume. Uh... no. So off the order went to the SFBC, as well as some others, where mind you, one of the books I did order was less expensive through Amazon, and when I did receive my order, they sat for many, many, many moons. Most of that time still in the box it was shipped in mind you.

I had a few days off thanks to Turkey day so I went in and read Theft of Swords and quickly devoured it and the sequels, Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron. Each book is actually an omnibus edition with two novels within it.

Theft of Swords for example, is actually The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha. While both do involve the acquisition of swords the two aren't necessarily that related. I found the reading to be fairly light but engaging at the same time. While there is a lot of background we are feed through various characters, none of it seemed as heavy or detailed as say, A Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time. These tales are far more like Conan or Fafrd and the Grey Mouser in that they tend to be more character stories, even though there is an over arching story.

The two main characters, Royce, a rogue with a dark disposition and his comrade, Hadrian, a warrior who carries around a wide variety of swords and is Royce opposite in attitude, are enjoyable to read about. 

If your looking for some quick reading material, Theft of Swords, and the whole series of the Riyria Revelations, has you covered.

Below, I'll be discussing some of the material which will include spoilers

1. Reputation. Some of the characters here are known for their skill set. Some are known for their outlooks and attitudes. Neither Royce nor Hadrian are fresh characters that are on their first mission and are presented as skilled, at the peak of their ability, rogues. Others are known for their sword mastery. These reputations provide the characters with quick hooks to hang plot lines about and on. For example, one character lost a sword fight earlier, supposedly because he did not have his personal sword. Later on, when he does have that sword? We do see indeed it is a special weapon.

2. Named Styles. Hadrian is a master of several fighting styles of ancient origin that make him essentially unbeatable in individual combat when he wields his prefered weapons. Others know parts of those styles. In the old Complete Fighter's Handbook, there was a small effort at making things like One Handed Style, Two Handed Style, and others. Later editions added onto this with feats, prestige classes, level substitution abilities and more. Depending on the complexity of the game, this may be something that needs to be done. On the other hand, if your playing a tenth level fighter in a first edition game and want to say you're a master of the M'alfa'z style, what's to stop you? Game mechanics are important and do have their place but when adding details and background to the game do no harm, the should be encouraged.

3. The Not Quite All Powerful Wizard. In many genres of fantasy, wizards are ancient and powerful beings. This novel brings us Esrahaddon, a wizard who is an ancient prisoner with vast pools of knowledge but those who captured him were not going to take any chances on him having full access to his power so they removed his hands. This allows him to act as a knowledge source and still provide valuable information ,especially to lost eras of the setting, but doesn't make him some defacto genie that can do all the work but still somehow relies on others to do the tasks for him. Its a nice change of pace.

4. The Knowledge Continues! In addition to the wizard who has vast stores of knowledge, there is still a whole wide world out there. This is where Myron comes in. This monk, and that's not the kind that traditionally Dungeons and Dragons has used, but rather, the historical, scholarly type, has a photographic and perfect memory where he can read something and remember it for future use. Tie this into his lack of exposure to the 'real' world due to his time spent in the monastary and you have a character that is constantly surprised by the outside world but who has a wealth of knowledge that may be more commonly known but is not often known by say, two rogues who are caught up in events that may be past them.

5. Race Reversal: Well, this one is a bit more popular these days. The dwarves for example, have no empires and are often in the slums despite their ability to work metals and engineer marvels unlike any others. The elves, at least those we see early on, are not the masters of the forest. They are not the masters of the arcane. They are not lofty. They are essentially a slave race. While I've heard of this being done in several other fantasy media, such as Dragon Age and The Witcher I believe, it's my own first encounter with it and it's an interesting twist for me. Even Royce who can see in the dark, tends to keep his heritage, of being a mir, human with at least some elf blood, secret.

6. The Talos! Well, not quite Talos. In the old myths, Talos is a monster that only has one weakness. In this book, we come across a monster that like the Talos, only has one weakness and the players must discover what the weakness is in order to kill it. In some ways, in say, 4e, this would almost be better suited as a Skill Challenge rather than an actual fight as the combat effects and abilities of the players, unless they are following the specific manner in which to kill the creature, are useless.

7. The Play's The Thing: After their first job, there is a play based on the events of the activity. This becomes incorporated into the setting and is referenced in severla later books. It's a nice tough and shows how the characters actiosn effect the setting in direct and non-direct ways. When the players do something, how does it effect the setting? What are the repercussions? Who benefits? Who suffers? Who is inspired? Are plays written? Are histories updated?

Theft of Swords has solid characters and a quick pace and provides some food for thought to those running RPGs.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Conan: Black Colossus Volume 8

Recently I was at Half Price Books when they were having one of their sales. In this instance, it was 50% off on a Sunday so I picked up this volume of Conan for like a fiver. From what I know, there are already several volumes past this one but I'll have to wait for the store to have it in stock and for another sale. Thankfully one of those criteria will be met tomorrow and I'll have to see if the other is when I go there.

And sorry if I'm pitching out so many of those mini-notes on the Conan books but while I've got some time off, I figured I'd better take advantage of it.

In the collected Conan comics that make up volume 8, Timothy Truman is joined by Tomas Giorello and Jose Villarrubia. This collection features a new telling of Black Colossus which has had a few interpretations over the years.

One of the biggest problems this volume faces is found in the early version with art by John Buscema. His line work is fantastic. It's not that the artists here are bad mind you. The artist who does the chapter breaks, Joseph Michael Linser, is top notch and I'd love to see him fully illustrate some Conan.

John's artwork though, is gigantic in scope. From the first page of the original, where Shevatas a thief stands on an outcropping of rock locking over the ruins of Kutchemes, the tone is set. In the new version... it's almost a little too carton like in scope in terms of the line work. It's too bright, too vivid. John's artwork relies on the almost impossible to appreciate details he puts into it. His pages are often packed with illustrations while the new volume uses pages like they were going out of style.

Now mind you, that may be part of the whole publishing bit. When stories like this are told for today's audience, the intent is usually to collect them which requires a certain number of pages and issues to do so. John didn't necessarily have to worry about that and may have had to ram the page with art.

The good news though, is the new version is actually more... useful for mining for role playing ideas. It has a few things that I've mentioned are useful to gaming before. For example, Conan has work as a mercenary. His patron keeps him around because he's the best swordsman he has. Sounds like something players would fall into with their unusual skill sets.

In addition, dreams are a part of the scenario here. The princess who hires the mercenaries Conan is allied with is haunted by visions of a sorcerer who desires her for his queen. She on the other hand seeks out wisdom in the temple of Mirtra and is provided instruction. Dreams and the messages of the gods working their ways on the campaign may seem a bit high fantasy for a Conan tale but they're in both versions. Visions and omens from the gods and supernatural elements shouldn't be overlooked as ways to hint at things.

Conan also discovers that working for mercenaries means that there are those who might not like a potential threat to the status quo. In this case, he makes an enemy of a fellow officer who causes a bit of trouble for him. Having rivals that the party members can't simply kill right away due to time or circumstance can add a level of pressure to the players as they have more things to take into account when they make their plans.

Speaking of that circumstance, having something ready and on hand to throw into the campaign to keep it moving is always a good idea. When the mercenaries here are at rest, Conan's patron finds out that they're not getting paid and so that leads to the mercenaries sacking the town and then moving on. Be prepared to move the adventure forward and push the players so that they're not always just sitting around waiting for the next mission.

In terms of my biggest fault with the new version here, is something that probably wouldn't hurt to throw in the campaign every now and again just to add that dreaded 'realism' to the setting. In this collection, the sorcerer who survived three thousand years and the sacking of his own city, loses his powers because he was so focused on getting his queen that he failed to abide by the terms of his pact with his demon god Set. Love makes people do crazy things. Throwing some weakness like this into your master villain can make them more interesting and rounded.

Conan: Cimmeria Volume 7

So we get Timothy Truman, Tomas Giorello, Richard Corben and Jose Villarrubia this time around for the collection from Dark Horse Comics, Conan: Cimmeria Volume 7.  There's some great art this time around as Conan learns, as others before him have, that you can't go home again.This volume felt... cleaner than previous ones. While there is some callback to other events and events here do become incorporated into the ongoing bit in their own way, the whole felt more accessible and stood on its own.

The art is top notch as well. Richard Corben does a bang up job of bringing the adventures of Conan's grand father, the one who in many ways set him on his path, to fantastic light with great coloring to provide some differences between the 'current' story and the flash backs.

In terms of adventure seeds, alas, much of it is old ground.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished versus Rewarding Good Behavior. On the one hand, you don't want a campaign to become stagnant and only have elements flow in one direction. The world is larger than the characters, larger than the current backgrounds. Those who adventure forth without bothering to learn legend and lore may find themselves stepping into deep waters.

In this instance, Conan's grandfather interrupts a ritual where a mother is slain and her two children are about to be. Turns out those kids were werewolves but the twist is that one of them is 'good' and the other bad. The further twist? Turns out that it's not the wolf that makes the one rogue, but his humanity. O the irony eh?

The other one, the 'good' one, winds up saving Conan and relates that tale to him, even coming back later to provide further assistance.

Giving the game layers and multiple options, allowing it to evolve based on the player's actions, even when their good intentions have bad results, should effect different parts of the campaign differently. Those that are pragmatic and suffer thanks to the players actions may think of them as foolish do gooders who aren't ready for the world. Those that are always on the side of right and righteous may want to take them under their own wing, may want to provide them their own tales and background of how decisions they themselves made went wrong and how they are seeking to undo those negative effects now. Not only does that provide the players an option to bond with some non--player characters, but it also allows the Game Master to sprinkle campaign lore and legend through the use of the NPCs.

I mentioned that this book isn't heavy with ties to previous material. On the other hand, Conan comes across Caollan, his first lover, in chronological order, introduced in the collection Conan 0 although I think printing wise that comes later. The ability for writers of all material to invent the past is one that can be useful when adding details to NPCs and cities and other elements of a campaign. Tread carefully when doing so with the players though. It doesn't hurt to ask a player if they mind you doing X and adding it to the campaign. Many will look forward to seeing what you do but some are very protective of every aspect of their character.

In addition to Caollan though, she is being hunted by Horsa, one of the Aesir who Conan claims to know. Now on one hand, this provides a bit of deeper context to the fighting Conan does and Conan, while I won't say goes out of his way NOT to kill Horsa, it does provide some interesting things to consider when running a campaign. For instance, if two friends come across each other at opposite ends, how far will they go? Will one drop the job? Will they both try to finish it without getting in each other's way? Will they go straight for each other's throat? The impact shouldn't be limited to just that incident though.

For example, if the players are known for being ruthless to former allies, what will future allies think of that? Some may find it appropriate and be prepared for future eventualities including meeting the players again. Allow things to evolve organically.

For the environment, Conan winds us using some weakened ice to escape some pursuit on a narrow ledge. In another instance, to prevent himself from being surrounded, Conan retreats into a cave and the cave ends in a massive cavern that is covered in pitch. Pitch and torch against monstrous flesh? For Connacht, Conan's grandfather, when travelling the passes to his home of Cimmeria, he was almost killed by an avalanche that buried him in snow and broke his legs.

Where are the players? How stable is their footing? How stable is the ceiling? Can things be set afire? Will they have to climb? Will they have to hold their breath?

In terms of switching the visuals around, of using old stats with at least new looking monsters, we have the Skrae. I saw that because while they look impressive and they are excellent trackers, they, like pretty much everything, gets cut down like wheat. They are terror inducing and unique in appearance, but man, Conan's already at this stage met a few relics of ancient eras and killed worse so... Yeah. If your players are looking for some interesting twists, you don't have to reinvent the wheel each and every time you want to throw some 'new' monsters at them.

Conan Volume 7 showcases the old adage you can't go home again quite well and its end throws Conan somber and weary of soul back onto the road.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

To The Edge of the World by Wolfgang Baur

One of my friends has been running the Shackled City with no break for many moons and done so through several essential TPKs. I told him that I saw an adventure that I could get for review purposes but I wanted to actually play it. I’ve already read it a few times and I like the idea that “To the Edge of the World” is high in scope in terms of not killing rats and other low level vermin that players have to traditionally slough through.  Should have played it last week but work was beating me down mightily with overtime and with all the Kickstarters I’ve been supporting, I had no space to say no.
However, with the days of Turkey Slaughter upon us, I’ve managed to reread the adventure. One  “To The Edge of the World” by Wolfgang Baur.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. I already told the players to expect a one shot with some second levels characters to give Tom a break. They were okay with that although they were a little disappointed in the level as we’ve already got past that in Tom’s Shackled City.
In terms of layout and appearance, the book is great looking. This is bad for a PDF. Great looking full color cover, full bleed yellow background pages. Anyone want to print this out for me for reference? No? Okay, I’ll keep using my Toshiba Thrive Tablet to read it but man, it isn’t easy. The tablet is great for some reference work but not necessarily for reading full on. One reason I was hoping that 13” Excite Tablet was coming out….
So fancy borders, full color interior art, full color interior maps… yeah, it’s a fantastic looking piece.  In terms of PDF, it has a nice section in its bookmarks and is easy to navigate around. Great art, solid maps, and if this was a print product, it would earn some oohs and ahhs for its appearance. As a PDF that I’d like to print out? Not so much.
While that’s an annoying problem that I can overcome, what’s no quite so easy to do are the numerous references to other works.  We hit page four for example, and get a reference to Midgard Campaign Setting and then another one for Journeys to the West. Neither one of those is vital mind you and this is a campaign specific adventure so I can see those being included.
Looking at a potential encounter on page five though, we have seaweed leshy with like three monster stats and a reference to Bestiary 3 and right above that, a reference to Bestiary 2. These stats, in my opinion, are not enough to run the encounters. In addition, there aren't even full descriptions of the monsters.
That might be okay for something like a goblin or an orc. For a reefclaw? No. If you cannot run the adventure without outside references you are doing it wrong. That’s my opinion. In a PDF especially, there is no need to reduce the amount of pages if it would’ve taken extra room for it. Some might go, “What about the file size?” To which I’d point out the elaborate graphics and full color illustrations. There’s also a reference to the Midgard Bestiary. So… something like five extra books to get all the references here? Disappointing.
I’m still going to run it but will have to make sure to have all those game stats printed out or haul around several big books and well, as I don’t even own the Midgard Campaign, Journeys to the West or Midgard Bestiary,  that would be even more problematic.
I’ll post a playtest report. With my group and their foreknowledge that it’s just a one off, I suspect that it’ll be a fun romp. Someone may say, "Man, you just spent all that time talking about the problems and think its going to be fun to run?" For me, I know my friends. These are all people I've gamed with for years. Not having the full stats and descriptions is annoying but since i have most of the material thanks to the recent Paizo sale and have it the Bestiaries in hardcover anyway, I'm just thinking of how muc MORE annoying it would be for other people who don't have that material.
Anyone else read this one yet? Playtest reports?

Conan: The Hand of Nergal

Written by Timothy Truman and art by Tomas Giorello, the
Written by Timothy Truman and art by Tomas Giorello, the barbarian's collection travels in this sixth volume have some pros and cons.

For one, it ties up some old business. It also has Tomas Giorello as the full time artists here and he provides some great visuals.

On the other hand, while I like the story well enough, some of it felt kind of "m'eh". And this isn't a bash on the guys doing the work but I've been reading Conan comics for years and Ernie Chan and John Buscema left a huge void for anyone to fill and with the numerous Savage Sword of Conan reprints, even the color art here may not be enough to compete with that old school goodness.

Anyway, in terms of some of the ideas that are good for yanking into any campaign...

1. Recognize talent. Often times players are fighting just to survive but here Conan sneaks past some guards and knocks out the largest of them in order to sit by a warm fire and have some food. Instead of having the soldiers attack him, the commander rewards him for his abilities.

2. The Old Switch: During some battles, a young female magician thief who has come to warn Conan of a great darkness following him is wearing a Princesses robe. She is then mistaken for that princess.

3. Saving Throws. One of the things that was kind of m'eh to me in terms of the story was this ultimate bad ass that looks and people and they crumble before him. Works on everyone. Conan just kinda kills him. It was very anti-climactic. Still, when you have monsters in the game that have an all or nothing effect, be prepared for the players to always make those rolls and at the same time, be prepared for them to fail it. Nothing kills a game quicker faster than a bunch of bad rolls because you didn't plan on the whole party failing their saving throws versus the basilisk glare. I know that in the old computer game Baldur's Gate that was a section that was VERY annoying when all of the sudden you've got a whole party of stone and didn't even know what happened.

4. Swap out the Appearance. The things Conan battles look to be chaos spawn from the Warhammer world but are more or less, animated skeletons or zombies. Still, the art of Tomas Girello brings such vivid features to life that it makes the appearance at least more impressive. Don't have the things that party fights be dictated solely on the standard. Switch them up even if you don't change a thing in the stats.

5. Reminders: Conan is battling an elder evil in this volume when the place starts going up in flames. This ties back to using the environment to spice things up when possible. Maybe every round the players have to make a save or take some minor fire damage or worry about some of the treasure they're there to save? Another bit is Conan gets a good whipping put on him so that the enemy actually thinks he's dead. Well, the book is called "Conan' so yeah, he does survive that and like any true adventurer, quickly recovers and sets back off on the road of victory. Sometimes if the enemy isn't specifically out to murder the players, like they're just guards on a caravan or something, maybe the enemy passes them by while they focus on their real mission?

Conan continues to have some impressive visuals but story wise here I think they were trying to tie up too much material and 'open' up new material for the next volume. Sometimes in these collections it works better than others.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Conan: Rogues in the House by Timothy Truman, Cary Nord and Tomas Giorello

Conan's adventures by Dark Horse comics continue in this, volume 5 of the collected single issues of the series. Written by Timothy Truman this time around with art chores still handled, at least in part by Cary Nord, who does the cover, the series continues to provide a quick sword and sorcery fix for those who prefer a visual run of their material.

In looking at what elements bring conflict and potential adventure, there are a number of elements to put into a check box.

1. Relationships. Conan's ladylove Jiara is a bit tired of the low life living and when a suitor of apparent means and manners comes to woo her, she quickly throws her former comrades to them in exchange for a life of comfort. Of course nothing ever goes as planned but this brings into focus the need to keep characters around the players that can involve them in future adventures.

2. Failure is not the end. Through the series, in both the originals and in various forms of media, Conan is often captured. This in and of itself is something that players often don't like due to the lose of control of their character. However, it can be used to launch new adventures. In this volume, Conan is released from jail in order to hunt down 'The Red Priest'. In other series, such as in the Theft of Swords, when the main characters there are captured, they are put on a new mission in exchange for their freedom and their lives. By putting the game back into play from failure, the GM can keep the continuity of the campaign going while allowing the events to have played out.

In the Shackled City campaign I'm playing in right now, the group recently lost a fight. No one died in the actual fight itself but we were all down and unconscious. The GM decided that one of the players that wasn't there in person that night came in and saved us at the last minute. At first I was a little annoyed at that 'break' in the game but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "You know, it's probably for the best." A few of the other players had been suffering from some numerous character deaths and didn't want to make another character, a few others were okay with it either way it went, and in the end, the game wasn't hurt by the incident and it fits well into the old movies "fade into black" followed by "to be continued!".

3. Gonzo. By this I mean having a variety of weird elements. In the case of Conan mind you, Robert E. Howard tried a bit to throw in some pseudo science into the game where a lot of the 'elder' beings were aliens who'd fallen into decadence. In this book, the Red Priest's home is host to numerous traps that can be activated through various manners and some of them are almost science-fiction in nature. If it's good enough for Robert, it's good enough for you. Don't be afraid to throw some odd elements into the campaign from time to time.

4.Apes! Gorillas! Monster Men! I've read a bit of Conan through the years. I don't know if it was Howard's initial intent or what but between the old Conan #100 where his lady love there is killed by a carnivorous winged ape, also of a decadent race mind you, or Thak, the monstrous semi-man ape here, as well as others I'm sure I missed, it seems there are a lot of ape potential in the series. This might be more of the 'near' man bit but unfortunately, it's a niche well filled in most fantasy games. Bringing to light the savage and the civilized, the morale and the unfit into contrast is not always an easy thing, especially in traditional D&D games where there are alignments with monsters hard coded to fit those elements but bringing those characteristics to the game can provide more than combat to the game.

Rogues in the House is well told and provides the reader some great visuals and while the classic confrontation between Conan and Thak isn't necessarily up with the iconic image from Fazetta, it gets the job done.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Conan: The Hall of the Dead and Other Stories by Kurt Busiek

One of the interesting things about cleaning up is that you often find things not as you left them. For example, this is volume 4. I can't find my volume 3 anywhere. I shall have to continue the search and hope that it eventually springs up.

In the meanwhile though, Kurt Busiek continues to work his talents on the barbarian and is joined this time around by Mike Mignola, Timothy Truman and the ongoing efforts of Cary Nord, who did the cover in this case.

I'll be discussing some specific spoilers below so if you want to avoid any of those, read no further.

Relationships can be a source of almost infinite adventuring seed generators in and of themselves. The book starts off with Conan wooing a magistrate's wife as he plunders her treasures. This in turn angers his current lover who then goes and has her own affair and in the process, does some more selling out of her own. The back and forth between the two in this instance directly sets Conan against the law and against other rogues.

The 'problem' if you will in such instances though, is that the Game Master has to have a world to hang these characters on. Conan's relationship with Jiara is not necessarily that of true love so while they are both out with others, then those others have to be created and then the people who deal with those others, such as the magister or the nobles, have to be fleshed out. It can be effort, especially for those that are only going to have a few appearances but keeping a set of generic game stats around for such characters can cut down the preparation time considerably.

In terms of good deeds, its often the motto, "No good deed goes unpunished." While that may come around true eventually, allowing the players good deeds to have, at the very least, some good karma, is not necessarily a bad thing either. Kiresh, a young woman who is practicing magic and at such a low level of the social strata that she is thieving her dinner when caught and Conan saves her, then works, behind the scenes mind you, to check on Conan. This allows the GM to return NPCs to the field when they work in the background and provide a reason for them to do so.

For foes, one of the creatures Conan fights here is a gigantic demon toad. When Conan hides from it, his presence is given away by another toad that bellows his presence to his master. Having themed monsters can make for memorable encounters. For example, a gigantic spider, such as the one from the Lord of the Rings, who has smaller spiders talk out her prey.

While Conan encounters his share of soldiers, he also encounters those that include would be bandits. The twist of a 'hero' like Conan though, is that even when killing bandits, he's not necessarily doing so out of a pure motive. Turns out that he winds ups stealing for those who were already being robbed. Mind you he doesn't kill or rape the people he's stealing from and even this robbery comes back to haunt him but having characters that are neutral in a campaign means the GM has to be prepared for more 'work' in terms of what the players will do. They aren't necessarily going to always follow a 'good' script and always be predictable in that fashion.

In terms of bringing old troupes to fantasy gaming, the old horror movies The Hills Have Eyes has been a source of inspiration in Pathfinder with their Ogres, but also in Conan as he encounters a clan of inbreed brigands whose intentions are as monstrous as their mutations. Despite that though, they still have contacts with the outside world including people who bring them fresh victims in exchange for getting the use of their muscles against specific enemies of their own.

In terms of overcoming foes, sometimes you can provide methods to the players that don't necessarily just involve battering the enemy until they die. When Conan battles the demon toad, it's not his sword that kills it, but rather, he drops a massive statue on it. He he's fighting against the hill folk, while his sword does indeed do a lot of killing, knocking out the support for a carved cave and then cutting a rope bridge does an excellent job of bringing that death total up even more.  Provide your players options to do things a little... easier and see if they talk them. These cinematic events can work against the players too mind you if they're not all up to the challenge of navigating the new terrain.

For example, if there is a monk, a barbarian, and an armored knight crossing that bridge and it gets cut, do all three make it across? Does the knight have to tie himself to the bridge to avoid falling to his death? The lightly armored characters, especially in this example, already benefit from a faster movement rate, both because of the lack of armor and the innate abilities. Try to provide situations that doesn't always favor one type of character over another in these instances.

Volume four of Conan from Dark Horse continues to bring the fantasy to a medium that could certainly use more variety and if your looking for some well illustrated tales with some interesting background bits on Robert E. Howard, this graphic novel has you covered.