Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mercadian Masques: Magic the Gathering

I may have mentioned before that I tend to hunt through the dollar spinner racks at Half Price Books on occasion. They tend to have a LOT of line fiction. I probably have ten or so books in the Magic series. Mind you it's usually not all of them or in the correct order but it's a shared fiction setting so how in depth and detailed can things be that I'll be like, "Oh noes! I iz lost! How will I ever catch up?"

Over at Amazon, I see that there is no current version in print. An odd thing considering how popular Magic still is. One of their regular hits as far as I understand things.

In terms of how the novel reads, it reads okay. When speaking of not worrying about where I'm at in the novels, it's a good thing because this one starts immediately after some previous major stuff happened in the other novels but that's okay. It provides enough background and detail that I sat back and enjoyed the read.

It's not going to compete with A Game of Thrones but it's not a bad shared world story. It has a few things going on that I truly hate but I suspect such things were well beyond the author's control. I'll be discussing some specifics below so if you need to avoid spoilers, read no further.

1. The MacGuffin. The book relies on gathering several MacGuffin's and does so by bringing the background of the setting heavily into focus. When getting ready to use such a plot device, decide ahead of time how much actual game time is going to be spent gathering these things. Is it a one shot deal? Is it a multiple game spanning quest? Is it a specific number? In D&D, there is already a long tradition through magic items such as the Rod of Seven Parts and other items that may be made up of multiple smaller items.

2. Kill Your Children. One of the villains here is killed twice in the last few chapters. The one time was enough but then to see the guy pull himself together after being almost cut in half and then get his ass handed to him again only to escape death again? This is one of the things I was betting that the author didn't have a lot of control over. Me? I would have rather seen the villain run away before the defining trouncing. It doesn't make the character more interesting. It doesn't define the villain more. It just makes the villains one of those, "Oh I guess we have to wait until that card set comes out for him to die." If the players beat the bad guy, hey, congrats to them. They've done their job. There are millions more when that guy game from. Heck, monster books are one of the most popular and consistent sellers for role playing games. What's Pathfinder up to know? Bestiary 4? And that's not counting the unique monsters per each adventure path and the little sourcebooks? Let that guy die. He's just not that cool.

3. Treachery! One of the things I did think well done was the use of a shapeshifter to try and drive a wedge between the heroes. It works when you don't see it coming and can work well. In one campaign I ran, I purloined an idea from a Dragonlance short story where a dragon shapechanges into a patron and hires "the best!" dragonslayers around only to lead them to their deaths. Worked well for my game when I used "Red Raven", a Red Sonja rip off in appearance that the players never bothered to check against until she used a breath weapon on the dwarf fighter and incinerated him leaving the others to flee for their lives after losing many resources.

4. Don't lie to the players. The Weatherlight is a flying ship that can travel the planes. It's a pretty powerful toy. It's broken in the very start of the novel and the characters spend the rest of the novel gathering the MacGuffin's to repair it. When they do so, the author goes on and on through hthe various heroes about how much more powerful the ship is. Only it turns out that it almost gets destroyed in its first outing. This is something that anime is famous for. For example, Dragonball Z is famous for the "Its Over 9000!!!" bit. It is something that seems to matter a lot until we get many episodes going on and on and Goku squeaks out a victory. If it was such a big deal, you'd think Goku would've just came over and whipped on those guys but that would make a boring episode. Don't overplay the character's power level.

This is especially true if you're playing with people who already know how the game works. You go up a level, the monsters go up a level. Sure, the scenery and stakes may get bigger, but unless the GM is kindly throwing some small fish your way, the math, outside of a terrible swing in most high level games, tends to stay the same. Don't beat them over the head with how awesome they are as chances are their going to have similar issues to the foes they face as they did in the past.

5. Myth weaving. One of the other good things the novel does, is bringing the storm of Ramos to live through different cultures and their mythology. Turns out all of the myths have some elements of true to them but are fundamentally flawed. Making your mythology like this allows you to move things about without having to completely rewrite them.

6. Multiple Settings. Another nifty thing about the setting is that there are multiple worlds and planes in play. We have Rath and the homeworld of the Magic setting itself alongside of this setting where the characters initially land and I'm sure many others in the setting. Providing several settings, as WoTC and others have done with Planescape and Spelljammer, allows the GM to switch up the menu without completely throwing out the core of the campaign.

Mercadian Masques is a good quick read and is the first book of another trilogy set in the Magic the Gathering settings.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Lords of the Sky by Angus Wells

I read a few of Angus Wells books when I was a younger man going to Demon Dogs before it closed. There was a nearby library that I would snag books from and head off into the train station. Not too long ago at Half Priced books, I spied Lords of the Sky by Angus Wells and well, it was in my favorite spot, the dollar spinner rack.

I finished it today. It's a massive tome, some odd six hundred pages plus long. It took me a few days to read in between work, painting, and the other dreaded real life concerns going on. It was a nice, one shot book told well. It does some good world building and showcases some interesting moral questions I've often seen hit on in of all things, super hero comics with the old great power and great responsibility bits.

When I look at Amazon, and see that it's $11.99 for the Kindle edition, I shake my head.  Sure, there's no mass market paperback, and the regular trade is like almost thirty dollars before the Amazon sale price, but man, I think that the author is losing a lot of potential sales by his company keeping the price so high up there. And it's not just this book. Most of the ones written by Angus hit this price point. Oh well. It's not like there aren't plenty of others books out there on sale.

I'll be discussing some very specific spoilers below so if you'd know no more of the book, read no further.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book, is the motivation of the main character, Daviot who is always questioning things. Always asking the why not of things. Almost always seeking to do good for those about him. Notice I say almost always because there is a blind spot in his character and that is his love for his lady mage, Rwan . For her, he would sacrifice his duty, leave his country, and be hers alone. This motivation is powerful in him. His appreciation for his friends is also strong. It makes him a little more than just 'the hero'.

She on the other hand, is always about duty. But to her, it's not just duty to her cause, not just duty to her people, but duty to the greater future of the world. Her strength in this conviction leads her to move past his loyalty to family, kin, and country and battle all comers in an effort to bring about a new era of peace. She powerful and strong is her faith in this belief, she is able to convince others of the necessity of it through any means necessary.

The other players are friends of Daviot, and while I do not want to 'lessen' then status, it's of that friendship that I'd make mention. Too often the character motivations are of material possessions or of status. Rare, save for in perhaps the Lord of the Rings, are characters friends. Are characters entities that would sacrifice for one another.

I'm not talking about in game play. Foolish is the PC who would let another one die because he's annoyed at the other character. Such methods lead to retribution, anger, and well, a crappy game in some instances. I remember one game where two players kept making their characters specifically to kill the other one and since the GM enjoyed it, it continued well beyond the "that was funny phase."

But in having players have some loyalty to one another, that in their own personal life that they might suffer, the GM can create an interesting weave of possibilities. I understand that it may be too much to assume that another player should be reduced in role like that, but don't hesitate to use NPCs to fill those roles. Frodo and Samwise both have their part to play in the shaping of Middle Earth and one could not have performed to the point they did without the other.

Solid friendships need good foundations and the GM should strive to put forth those opportunities for the players to engage them.

Lords of the Sky provides an entertaining read while providing some thoughts about the nature of friendship, sacrifice, and motivation.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lost Cities in the Modern World

The modern world is very well connected. Technology is everywhere. Spies are all about us. Our movements tracked. It's easy to imagine that there is nothing new under the sun. That we know all we shall about our world.

Then we find out, often, that no, that's not quite true. How about the discovery of a lost Maya city? Sure, the rain forest has a lot to do with its concealment all these years, but most fantasy settings play host to far more dangerous and hostile terrain than a rain forest. When seeing the numerous "lost cities" it's easy to grow skeptical. To think cynically that its an unoriginal idea. That it's all been done before.

While not as recent, another "Lost City" discovery leads to one of the many 'cities of gold' that the early Spanish and English explorers sought out in their travels in the Western side of the world. These cities often have heroes associated with them as well as their own legends that are at least fairly well known by the locals.

An article linked to from that one, shows a perfect 'necromantic' trap in the form of 80 skeleton warriors.

Forests are not the only place where one can lose a city though. A far easier "buy" in is an city that has fallen not only to ruin, but into the sea. Ruins of this nature are being discovered on a fairly 'regular' basis if one were to label the frequency of findings.

In a fantasy campaign, the players may be part of an exploration party that's requested by one of the 'friendly' races of the sea such as merfolk, sea elves, or tritons. They may want the 'muscle' that the players can provide and in exchange, provide them with magic that can allow them to survive underwater. Perhaps even turning them into the race in question for the duration of their hunting of the haunted halls.

The world is still filled with wonder and if we can mine it for our games, all the better.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

While I've read the Great Gatsby a few times, it has been many years since my last reading. I would definitely not consider myself a scholar in any way, shape or form. I also have not seen the previous movie with Robert Redford in it so have no starting point to compare this one to.

I took my girlfriend to see it. Initially she didn't want to go. One of her friends specifically warned her away from it saying the only thing good about it was Leonardo's acting. However, she heard some music from the sound track and my girlfriend can easily tie the strength of a soundtrack to a movie. Not perhaps a good idea when judging films.

When arrived very early. She thought it started at 7:20 PM and it turns out that was 7:50 PM. Of course that means the movie didn't still till well after 8:00 PM thanks to the plethora of commercials the user is bombed with. Initially the crowd was very thin. I suspected it would stay that way with a new Star Trek movie, the hanging power of Iron Man 3, the new Fast and Furious Movie, and Will Smith's new flick in. I was wrong. By the time the movie was getting started proper, the only seats left were those directly in front. A fairly packed house. And one that for the most part, was very well behaved. I was pleasantly surprised. Normally you get a few fools in a public showing but the audience seemed enthralled.

For her, the movie was a disaster. She couldn't stand Gatsby himself. His language and manner just struck her as wrong. Mind you, she has read the book recently. She has seen the Redford version. She also was struck unaware by the numerous rap styling in the movie. It struck her a mighty discord to see the costumes and designs of a bygone era with such modern and distinct music being used. She actually fell asleep during part of it.

I suppose if you are a Gatsby purist, you may not enjoy the film.

I too was struck by the disharmony of the music and sights but that aspect was only in a small part of the movie and didn't ruin the whole of the cloth for me. The story, which tries very hard, to be a love story, of loss, or that unattainable object and perfection, is done well in my opinion even though the framing device feels a little heavy handed at times. If you are a fan of great scenery, of Leonard Dicaprio's acting, or just looking for some time to kill, the Great Gatsby might be for you.

I'll be discussing some specific spoilers from the movie below so if you wish to avoid those, read no further.

1. Character Motivation. There is a scene where Gatsby, living on a dirt farm, is starting at the sky and the wording is something like he makes himself into a better individual. He wills it to happen. He takes the actions necessary to do so. This drive for success, to be better than he is, is not something unique to Gatsby. Griffith, from the Berserk manga and anime, is a similar creature. One who is born with nothing and yet manages to work his way up among the highest peers of the land. When looking at a character's motivation, what brings them back to seek out loot? To risk life and limb? While for many OSR games, the money for ale and whores is a tempting bit, some may have something more in mind.

2. Social Structures: In many ways, Gatsby could be an adventurer. He engages in illegal activities to amass a fortune. He surrounds himself with items of great taste and importance. He holds onto his funds only through the continued use of illegal actions. His social circles include those who are reduced to those circles, and those who exploit them. The Sopranos dealt with this idea a bit too. That of 'old' or 'legitimate' money being inherently better than 'new' or 'found' money. Those in need often just go to those who have the money. In Japan part of the social turbulence in their history involves the rise of the merchant class and the end of wars requiring samurai.  These social circles though, can be shifting because in some scenes, especially those in 'the wasteland', we see that society doesn't break down along racial lines, it breaks down along financial lines.

In the slums of your cities, do half orcs rub shoulders with half elves? Do humans dream of a better life in an elf empire? Do outcast dwarves handle work that no one else will because it's the only way of earning a living that doesn't involve a life of crime? In such low ranking housing, powerful individuals can spring forth because what do they have to lose?

3. Everyone loves a party. Getting characters together is one of the oldest headaches in the book. The bar is an old standby as adventurers flock to it like lighting to rods. But what if instead of a bar, the characters are invited to a massively sized mansion to meet a new benefactor? While the rest of the guests are among those who casually show up, in the among the great scenes, the music, the dancing, the alcohol and other intoxicants, the characters are actually invited. To secure their work though, they have to find their host. While doing so, they may come across numerous merchants, politicians and criminals of all social spheres who make themselves at home in the fine manor. Perhaps they stop a minor robbery before it becomes something more? Perhaps they come across a couple of different social spheres whose activities, were they known to others, could cause scandal. Would the players seek to profit directly through blackmail or hold it in their back pocket for future use or just consider it a favor? By changing and enlarging the initial meeting place of the start, the characters can have a much larger canvas to walk through.

4. Be different. When running a game, especially if it's a classic adventure, some game masters may have a dread in their stomach. They've run it so many times they don't know what to do anymore. They can run it in their sleep. Be bold. Put some different creatures in the adventure. Throw some different treasures in there. Move the secret rooms around. This can prevent those who may have played the adventure under other GMs from thinking they know everything and can provide a surprising amount of satisfaction in doing so.

There are some other bits in the movie that viewers could take. I've mentioned the use of catch phrases before such as the Hulk and his famous, "Hulk Smash". Gatsby has one here himself but he uses it so much, it's a reminder that a catchphrase should be used only during those special occasions like the good old SDF-1 and "Fire the Main Gun!"

Other points may be the scenery. Can you engage the players in descriptions of the area? Can you tell them how one statue stands above the center of the park and seems to judge everyone and everything with it's ceaseless vigilance? Can you explain that due to the mining in the community, that everything is often covered in a thin layer of black powder? Can you relate the heat of a hot summer day when there is no automatically grabbing some ice or a cold drink to cool down?

Gatsby may not be a faithful reproduction of the novel but it has its own merits and those looking for inspiration could do worse than enjoy it.