Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Borgias: The First Season

I've mentioned before that I'm often behind the times when it comes to various shows that might hold my interest. One of those is a Showtime Original called the Borgias. I've heard of the family before, notorious in some circles. One of the things I like about the site is that there are some interesting links to things of 'how life was like' on the site.

The Borgias has a lot going for it.. The costumes and set pieces are visually arresting. The characters have many flaws but many strengths for the viewer to root for. The period in history, the shows start at 1492, is one of turmoil for Italy. As a fan of the various mercenaries that make up a lot of Italy history, this is the point at which the idea of city state mercenaries starts to be overwhelmed by national level mercenaries. It is an era where gunpowder, especially the craft and creation and innovative uses of canons, becomes more common.

In this field, we are put firmly into the family if the Borgias.Jeremy Irons does a fantastic job of playing the head of the family, Rodrigo Borgia with a family that is strained at the best of time and threatens to unravel with the strains put upon it. The head of the family pushes forward for power but at times, does so out of devotion for the future of his family. At other times, for his own selfish fulfillment.

The backdrop allows for individuals of various power and position. For example, we Caterina Sforza who is a powerful warrior princess. It's been a while but I suspect that her character has been used for many a warrior woman archetype. We also have King Charles VIII of France whose claim on Naples puts him square against the Borgias. This doesn't count a certain philosopher who wrote many a book such as 'The Prince' or 'The Art of War'.

By using a family, the series is able to weave complex situation and historical events into a more familiar and watchable sequence. For any fan of city adventures, the Borgias is well worth a watch.

Below I'll be discussing some of the specific spoilers and themes of the show and how they might apply to role playing games.

1. Change: The whole of Italy is in the throes of change at the start of the show. The methodology of war is changing. Wars for example, are now making more use of canon. The King of France uses a cannonball with chains on it. When fired these chains whip through the air like chainsaws cutting people and horses in half with ease. Canons are being designed larger with more power and range. Add into all this a new Pope whose the leader of all Christian Hood and you can see that much is different than it was at the start.

When great social change comes, such as a Pope dying, or when innovation of new weapons need to be crafted, when possible, have the players be part of it.

2. Spies are everywhere: Any place there is an opportunity to be overhead or seen by those who should not see, spies could be there. Outside the bedrooms are waiting pages who are listening. By windows are those who should not be sitting.

3. Family complicates matters.

4. Elaborate Outfits: The church seems to have dozens of different outfits and dozens of different colors. For example, colors may vary on the position of the church member.

5. Battle: Fights may be common but not to the death. For example, a fight may be to the first blood, or to one is disarmed, or to one cries 'enough'. Fights may be until a deception is spotted.

6. Voting: When the new pope is in the process of being elected, votes may have to be cast over and over again. Contests may result in limited amounts of supplies and equipment given to those voting. To get information and communication out, people inside the voting may use birds to relay their messages and to get messages back in, may hide notes in foodstuffs prepared outside those walls.

To get the votes needed, there may be a variety of tools used. Bribes consisting of lands, money, ranks, titles, and of course, the Borgias favorites, murder and sexual favors.

7. Events: There are numerous events that take place in The Borgias. For example, the election of the Pope is cause for celebration which includes feasting, socialization, public appearances by those who might not normally do so, as well as the need to break out the fancy clothes. During some of these celebrations, a march across town may represent an opportunity to steal something, like a Pope's Crown, that is only brought out for these special occasions. An 'Ocean's Eleven' so to speak. A Tri-Crown studded with gold and gems worthy of any rogue worth the name.

8. Ethnic Tensions: The SPanish and Italians have issues. The Jews, Muslims and Christians have issues. There are tensions that go back hundreds if not thousands of years and break up from large generalities to specific tribe and family hatreds. In some things, there is no change.

9. Unique Positions: The Papal Army is small but effective. It allows for unique characters and abilities to be put into play that may not occur in other venues.

10. Faux Pas: Insults may require more than an apology. They may require the one doing the insulting to be humiliated or paid back with violence. If these humiliations are made public, they may become the source of nick names or other negative attributes given to a character so suffering from them.

11. Reversal: Tools may be used by more than one person. For example shortly after the new Pope's appointment, someone tries to poison him but the poison is turned against the one who tried to have the pope killed.

While I watched The Borgias on Netflix, I'm thinking of picking it up on bluray from Amazon. I see that it's $27.43 but know that they usually have some HBO/Showtime specials so may wait on that. In an interesting 'sale' twist, I see that the novel 1492 is on sale and what's when the series starts and for $3.99 I picked that up in kindle format.

For those who may own the blu ray or standard DVD edition, is there enough in terms of extras there to purchase it?

In terms of fantasy games, have you as a GM ever run a 'family' style game where characters played members of the same family or allies of that family?

The Borgias season one set the series off to a solid state and from what I've seen of season two, it continues on that path of awesome.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Descent of Angels by Mitchel Scanlon

Descent of Angels is another volume in the long running 'The Horus Heresy" taking place in the early years of the Warhammer 40K setting. The book to me, for about 90% of it, feels very complete and very done in one. Mitchel Scanlon does a solid job of bringing the various cast and characters to life by having a focus on one of the youths of the setting who sees his world transformed and then his own life transformed.

The military chapter that comes into play here, The Dark Angels, are lead by Lion El'Jonson but this is a tale from before he actually lead them. Rather, it starts off on Caliban, a so called 'death world' where survival is difficult. I found the writing good enough to drag me into a sense of wonder where the characters are part of a near medieval system but are using ancient technology such as old school bolters and swords and unaware, for certain at least, if there is actually a Terra.

The main character, Zahariel , is growing up in this world and is not alone. His cousin, so close they are like brothers, Nemiel, are in a state of constant one ups man ship. Almost a mirror for the activities of the Lion and his second in command, Luther. The constant state of competition, of almost being equals, shows its strain many times but the problem in this book, is it never comes to a head.

The book ends in a sort of "and then stuff happened" which leaves that aspect of it unsatisfying. For me at least, the rest of the book was well written. There is a lot of action and the nods to what is going to happen as part are told in a historical fashion as opposed to the character moments.

I'll be discussion some specifics of the book below so if you'd rather not have any more specific spoilers, read no further.

1. Rivals: One of the things that's supposed to be 'tragic' about the whole of the Horus Heresy is how Horus turned against the Emperor and how brother fought brother. Here we see just a taste of that between the Lion and Luther and Zahariel and his cousin Nemiel. Having characters in the setting that the players don't directly fight against provides them ties to the setting that don't necessarily have to do with killing something. But how can you bring such a rivalry out?

1a. Games of Skill outside combat: Zahariel and Nemiel train against each other many times. While you could have the characters actually fight, don't forget there are other forms of competition. For example, in shooting or throwing weapons, the characters probably aren't going to be doing such against each other, but against targets.

1b. Kill Count: Just because the characters are all in the same setting, doesn't mean that the player's character goes out on the same missions as the NPC. For example, the player may hear what a great job his rival did and how many spawns of chaos were put down under his rival's sword.

1c. Advantage: Rivals may seek out an advantage over each other. In this case, Zahariel has an innate advance in that he has 'terror vision' or something of that nature and is a potential psyker which is a powerful ability in the Warhammer 40K setting.

2. Embrace Change: In Shadow World, a setting for use with the Rolemaster system, the Shadow World setting itself is merely one planet in the grand scope of the much larger Space Master setting. While there were several times I was tempted to drag the players into Space Master and more specifically Dark Space, I held off on it, but I could have done it and it would have fit the setting. Here, the characters go from an almost backwater planet to fighting among the stars. Roll with the changes when they make sense.

3. Have an Endpoint: One of the things that Mitchel Scalon didn't do well in my opinion, is have a good stopping point. If possible, have a number of end games in mind so that if something happens and the campaign can't continue to run or players drop or you need to switch games, that you can do so at an 'organic' place in the campaign where it feels logical to do so.

Descent of Angels is available from Amazon in paperback for $8.09 in paperback and is prime eligible. As with many of the Black Library books, there is no kindle version available but an electronic version is available from the Black Library directly.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Judge Dredd: Year One by Smith, Matt, Coleby, Simon and Staples, Greg (Nov 20, 2013)

So what do you do when you've left work for a half day because you're still sick as a dog? Why, you read comics of course.

Judge Dredd is one of those characters that's iconic for me in that I recognize him, but more like say, Conan in that I take pretty much everything I read or experience about him, in it's own book. Since I don't have a lot of experience with the character, I read Year One like, well, it was actually Year One. If there are numerous tosses to the standard continuity, I probably missed most of them. This is strangely opposite of how I am with other characters like say, Spider Man where seeing his marriage of 20+ years 'magically' dissolved annoys me or seeing DC, yet again wipe the history slate clean, and yet again fail to have enough editorial control to make it easy to jump into their comics.

Anyway, in terms of what I am interested in when I read Judge Dredd, is the art, the story, and the enjoyability of it.

The covers by Greg Staples are fantastic. I know I have a lot of favorite artist out there, and Greg is on top. I'd love to see a series illustrated by him because his various covers knock the ball out of the park. They are powerful and iconic in their own way. The cover with Dredd's helmeted visage over the burning Mega City One? The flames reflected in his visor? Powerful stuff.

The interior artist is no slouch either. He does a great job, along with the inker and colorist, of having central focus and bright colors for that image and the background, not empty, but of lighter hue, fade into the background where you can study it at leisure.

The story is a bit of a mystery and a bit of an example of how huge the Judge Dredd setting actually is. It's well told and wraps up by the end with a few flash backs (odd for a Year One story to have flash backs) but few enough that I'm not left wondering where Judge Dredd the breast feeding years are.

The enjoyability of the story, for me, was high. I get to see Judge Dredd, as a younger officer here, arrogant and cock sure of himself, not filled with any of that vulnerability crap that would just get him killed, still manage to evolve and learn lessons that prove vital to other Judges.

If you're looking for some violence in your funny books, Judge Dredd Year One by Matt Smith has you covered. Amazon has it available in their kindle format for $7.99 or in graphic novel, or what we used to call 'trades' when I was collecting comics, for $13.86. Hate to tell ya fellow readers but I picked mine up from Comixology when they were doing the run on sale and think I paid less than $5 for it. Huzzah!

I'll be discussing some specific spoilers below and how they might apply to the various role playing games I'm prone to enjoying so if you'd rather have none of that, read no further!

1. Competent Characters: Judge Dredd starts off here as a very able character. His physical prowess are second to few. His skill set with his weapon, the always impressive Lawgiver, give pause to many. His encyclopedic knowledge of the law, impeccable. Sometimes, even when starting out a character, it's okay for them to be able to do things that they should normally be able to do. One of the problems with a lot of game systems is they are set up to advance characters so when the players first start off, their characters are wondering how they survive walking up a flight of stairs much less engaging in a sword fight or pistol duel.

2. Mystery: When people start sprouting their own unique abilities for brief periods of time, it's up to Dredd to find out how and more importantly why. The advance technology and fellow judges, some of them telepaths themselves, can help Dredd but he's got to be the one to take the steps and do the work. When putting mysteries into the campaign, make sure that they're not too easy and that saying no doesn't just close the door to the whole adventure. In terms of the mystery, part of the enjoyment in it, is seeing that not every one who gets these unique abilities acts exactly the same with them. In one instance, the 'prep' even helps Dredd.

3. The Big Con: When Dredd find outs what's going on, it's essentially a big robbery but on a scale unknown previous to this. We're talking wholesale destruction of cities and possibly worlds. But it's for robbery on such a scale that proves that you always want to see what's behind door number one. Don't be afraid to mess with the players expectations when they are looking for 'deeper' answers. Make them work to find the true answers but don't be afraid to red herring it up either.

4. Limited Powers/Plots: One of the judges, badly injured earlier, is a telepath. He dons a helmet that augments his own abilities and allows Dredd to navigate a situation he would have died in. But why not use that all that time? Why not break out the Ultimate Nullifier whenever you need to be rid of someone? Because there is a huge cost associated with it. In this example, the augmented psionic powers that the judge enjoys, kill him. Using the Ultimate Nullifier destroys the user. Provide options but have a reason why they can't be used over and over again.

On a smaller note, when characters are in a setting where their abilities are not innate, such as Judge Dredd, having them in a different venue, like say outside the city in the Cursed Earth or say, on an alternative version of his home world, may limit their abilities and force them to rely on local weapons instead. A Lawgiver without ammunition isn't too useful.

On a similar but slightly different vein, what if you have access to what you need, say the Lawgiver, but using it will alert others to your presence? In the board game, Zombicide, you make noise, you attract attention. Many dungeons have specific wandering monster tables designed with a low chance of something coming along, but a chance that is higher if the characters are making a lot of noise. Remind the players of that as their tossing fireballs and battle cries down the tombs.

5. Scope: One of the things I was surprised at, is that the Matt Smith decided one of the first things Judge Dredd needed to to, was visit another reality, one similar to his own, but having already gone through the whole of what his is just starting to in the story. It works for a number of reasons. First, in this destroyed reality, Dredd still has the temerity to claim that he is the law. The judges of this world have already been badly beaten and need someone like Dredd. Second, it allows the author to show a what if style world. There are a lot of great modules and settings out there, and putting the players in a what if setting allows the game master to play with some of the assumptions, or allows the game master to put in really dangerous things that he might not want to use in a standard campaign, but since it's just a tiny little alternative reality being destroyed...

Matt Smith does a solid job of putting Judge Dredd in enough danger that he just can't blast his way out of that the reader is curious to know where it's going.

In addition to this volume, I've read a few others in the IDW take on the characters including Mars Attacks, which was very fun, and Judge Dread Vol 1 and 2. I've heard good things about some of the other volumes, but for those who've been reading the IDW material, any recommendations or any things to steer clear from?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Crimson Sword by Eldon Thompson

I continue to read through my dollar spinner rack from Half Priced Books. This time around, the length of the book kept me from posting for a few days. The Crimson Sword, written by Eldon Thompson, website here, clocks in at over seven hundred pages. What's worse is that this is merely book one of the Legend of Asahie meanings that there are more books in the series.

The cover piece is a nice scene taken from the book itself. I have the 'widescreen' edition where the top and bottom are in blue borders but we see more of the art itself. Shame though as the art is smaller and while the design is highly workable, this is a nice piece that I'm sure would look fantastic as a poster.

The Crimson Sword follows more along the paths of the old Terry Brooks series like the Sword of Shanara in that despite the length of the book, things are done. The story is told in one shot. Do not mistake me in saying that every single thing is wrapped up and finished, but at the end of the story, characters have moved from point A to point B and the world is not the same as it was at its start. It does not take twelve books each of 700+ pages to get us to that point. 

For which I'm grateful.

Eldon Thompson isn't the best writer I've read. I wouldn't put this in my top ten list or anything but the writing is smooth enough and the characters enough of an archetype, that despite its page length, it's an easy read. 

If you're looking to get your money's worth out of a book, The Crimson Sword has you cleared. I'll be discussing some spoilers specific to the novel below so if you'd rather avoid spoilers, read no further. 

1. Hidden Kings: A common enough theme in fantasy is the peasant hero who turns out to be related to, or is a king. It's been a while since I've read a story that actually went with this theme, so ingrained is it in fantasy fiction. For a while, especially when reading the Wheel of Time and other series, I worried that readers would drown in peasant heroes saving the world in their newly found kingly guises.

But it can work when its not used in every story. When its not the hook of every tale. And for a role playing game? If you want to elevate the characters from fighting giant rats and goblins to fighting against things that endanger the whole of the land while working their way up? It works well.

2. Magic Items: Another nice nod to older stories, is the powerful magic item. A very distinctive blade with red fire burning inside it that protects the user from hostile magic and is capable of cutting through the strongest enemy, the Crimson Sword itself makes a nice addition to the field. It's in many ways a Advanced Dungeons and Dragons artifact in that it does things that magic items normally can't do and that's okay for a weapon of that caliber.

For example, when Jarom is fighting in combat with it, he feels no fatigue, no fear, no pain. Those who fight with him, have a touch of that as well. Such an ability could be something like +2 to allies within 50' saves vs fear effects and endurance tests. It lets the GM throw new revelations into the setting later on as things can change or move around what the sword can and cannot do. Much as the unique spear in The Desert Spear by Peter V Brett, the Crimson Sword also functions as a rallying point for those who follow the character.

3. Archetypes Modified: While I could easily see several of the characters falling into place as standard archetypes, the shadowy assassin with a heart of gold, the country ranger whose bow skill is second only to his loyalty, etc..., one of the characters is an elf from what I could only describe as one of Robert E. Howard's 'Pict' backgrounds in taht they are savage and feral and broken into different tribes, some of which are man eaters. Having an elf be that true to nature goes well beyond even the 'wood' elves that many fantasy settings strive to bring in terms of the naturalist to play.

4. Multiple Quests: Initially it seems enough to retrieve the Crimson Sword but that's only the start. The forces, which Jarom initially thinks are lead by his brother, a wizard who conquered the land and killed the king, is actually only the tip of the iceberg. That wizard lacks the power of the Demon Queen who rises, and she has other more powerful allies like a dragon that can create dragonspawn which in turn act as an army for that Demon Queen to conquer the land.  The nice thing about the variance in enemies though is it allows more than just the Crimson Sword to shine through as the one who needs to kill the dragon isn't the wielder of the Crimson Sword, but another altogether whose had his own unique weapons when introduce whose origins prove the ideal method of killing the dragon.

5. Multiple Eras: One of the things that tends to be a downer in some fantasy setting is that while they usually have multiple eras and ages to them, that everything that comes about to the 'now' is of that one era. Here the Demon Queen is from one era while the Crimson Sword from an older, more ancient and legendary time. It makes for an interesting clash of times and eras.

6. Temptation: One of the things I'd mention to GMs who are inspired by their readings, is that the Demon Queen is part tempress. While Eldon Thompson doesn't go into great detail about her seductive looks and mannerisms, he does so enough that when he offers the wielder of the Crimson Sword anything he wants, that it could make a good moment in a role playing game. Have a plan for when the players yield to that temptation. To be the mate of a demon queen, at the head of a dragonspawn army, and to ask for your hated brother's life in the bargain? What gamer wouldn't want to do that? I'm not saying don't put such opportunities in the game, but I am saying have a plan for whatever the characters decide to do.

The Crimson Sword is available from Amazon for $8.09 in paperback, prime eligible, or $6.99 in kindle format.

Chances are I'll probably pick up the second book in kindle format. It's running like $4.99 right now so that's not a bad price at at the page count, I'm sure it'll earn it's ratio of page/price.

For those who've read further in the Legend of Asahiel, does Eldon's writing pick up? Are the stories relatively self contained? More of the same?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Discovering the Ice Caves

The above image is taken from the Smithsonian Article, "Deep Freeze Reveals Lake Superior's Secluded Ice Caves and is a tumblir picture from stpaulgirl.

 When it gets cold enough to freeze over lakes, well, things happen. Some of those things that may happen, is that the caves in the lake are revealed.

When I first heard about this earlier this winter, I tagged it to post about later because it makes a great adventure bit. Check out the website as it has several more pictures of the lake and makes great reference points for players. 

In the comic Lock And Key, there is an entrance to a demonic world that is in a cave and the cave is buried under water.

In many fantasy tales, including say the Hobbit when the Company is trying to find the entrance to the dwarf stronghold, they can only do so at a very specific time and under very specific circumstances.

Having locations that are inaccessible for much of the standard time of the campaign, provides such hidden locations mystic feel. It also prevents them from being trampled on by every other adventurer in the region.

When placing your dungeons and your dangerous areas, don't forget to add a few that can only be reached in very specific circumstances and if you want to be a real bastard about it, can only be left under similar circumstances!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Vikings: The Complete First Season

I haven't had cable television in years. It's one of the reasons I'm always behind on television series. I heard good things about Vikings. I was a little surprised to learn that it was a History Chanel program, but I've since learned that their programming is winning all sorts of awards.  and when it first came out, for some reason Best Buy of all places, was selling the bluray version for something like $19.95. So I picked it up.

And time passed.

And finally I managed to watch the nine episodes that comprise season one.

If you're looking from a grim and gritty take on the start of the viking invasion of England, this is right up your alley. The costumes, soundtracks, and landscapes, ranging from mountains and hills and rolling fields, to the ever present sea, provide a possible look at what life would have been like all those long years ago.

Make no mistake, while there are protagonists and antagonists, this is a time of savagery and barbarism. Having said that, it interested me enough that when season two hits blu ray, I'll be looking forward to picking that up as well.

I haven't dug into the special features yet as my LG bluray player for the computer has decided at the last minute that hey, why would I want to work and allow you to actually enjoy your purchase? Go watch that on the tv and leave the computer alone.

Below I'll be discussing some of the things I enjoyed and how they may or may not fit your own role playing games.

1. Family. Strangely enough, Ragnar, who claims to be a son of Odin, the all father of the Nose deities, is a family man with a shield maiden wife and two children and a farm. These lands bond him to his Earl and insure that he has servants and animals of his own. His relationship with his family is one that the authors of the show use multiple times in order to draw him into conflict with others. Not only does he have this family, but he also has an ambitious brother Rollo.

Rollo is a great character to have in this show and would be tricky to do in a role playing game. For you see, Rollo is all about his own interests and rise. When he first joins with his brother Ragnar, they are supposed to do so as equals but Ragnar, perhaps due to his vision of wanting to raid the west in the first place, or having an ally capable enough to make a ship to survive the voyage, is the one hailed and whose renown grows. This sits ill with Rollo.

So Rollo is always being tempted to be against his brother. Initially this is 'merely' being a witness against Ragnar during a trial but when Ragnar's wife, Lagertha also stands to be killed, Rollo decides against it. His loyalty is tested later on as well and we'll see how that plays out in season two! The good thing though about Rollo, is you never quite know if he's actually against Ragnar.

And that's the problem for a role playing prospective. How often would you let someone seemingly betray you before you distanced yourself from them either by not travelling with them anymore or by attempting to kill them?

Family can have many functions in a campaign. They can be a place to rest when returning from adventure. In Lagertha's case, they can be direct assistance to the characters when they are low on resources because of her shield maid skills for example. They can also act as complications as when Ragnar is cheating on his wife and his son is infuriated with him over it.

2. Exploration. While the raids and the desire for new wealth is a huge part of why the vikings sail to the west, Ragnar at least, is seen as an explorer. He wants to visit new lands and learn new things. The desire to see what's over the next horizon fits perfectly in most role playing games where the state of roads and technology in general are low at best.

3. Tactics: Bernard Cornwell describes the shield wall in several of his viking and Arthurian sagas. The writers of Vikings do not shy away from it. I suppose my point is that as well loved as 'Tucker's Kobolds' are, don't punish the players when they use superior tactics and outflank the enemy or should be outflanking the enemy. Not every encounter should be one with enemies who fight just as intelligently as the players, especially if the foes the characters face are arrogant and cocksure of themselves. Who expects a night raid after all? Who expects extra traps to be set? Who expects a force to keep fighting when its members are wounded?

4. The Gods One of the things about The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett is that it played off of Middle East assumptions that it's better to die against the enemy than grow old. Vikings had similar attitudes and did not wish to die old women. This is showcased as one elder viking swears allegiance to Ragnar and wishes to raid and fight and die in combat so that he may enter the halls of valhalla. The willingness to die, the preference to die in such a cause, stands against that of those they face who'd rather live to fight another day.

5.Mind altering substances: In his first raid, Ragnar captures a priest who was wide traveled and can speak Ragnar's native tongue. Learning about the people who have made him a slave occurs gradually over the course of time, but also happens in ceremonies where in one instance, special leaves are burned that enhance the story telling about ragnarok and later on, mushrooms devoured and perceptions altered of events at a religious gathering. With the leaves burned, it shows that directly putting some mind altering substances don't have to be something that characters have to be 'hit' by or drunk down.

5. Distinctive Features: I've mentioned distinctive features as being useful tools to distinguish one character from another before. Ragnar's hair style and the tattoos on the side of his head for example, are very much distinctive from others. Scars, large body wide scars, are often visible on those who fight alongside Ragnar. Rollo, during one of his times of loyalty to Ragnar, or simply because he didn't actually know, is scared across both sides of his face by the Earl. Taking this to an extreme level, there is the Seer who serves the northmen. This seer is almost an albino and whose face is like melted wax with blackened lips. Truly distinctive!

Vikings has a lot going for it. Season one is available to stream for free from Amazon Prime right now, and on blu ray it runs $39.98.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Savage Sword of Conan Volume Two

Dark Horse comics have long brought new life to Conan. I'm old enough to remember the many times the Conan stories have fallen out of print and when there were no new Conan books nor comics. In their revival of Conan, Dark Horse did something that hasn't been done in decades. They've taken the older Marvel Comics material, and made it available again.

These reprints have taken two forms. The old color comics were collected into graphic novel sized trades while the old magazines, the darker, more violent, more adult material? Reprinted into the Savage Sword of Conan. Volume Two has a host of excellent artists and fantastic covers. For a preview, the Dark Horse site has one available here.

It's always a pleasure for me to read these old trades. Their done up like the Marvel Essential titles in that they're huge thick volumes on 'newsprint' style paper but that's not the joy. Rather it's seeing some of my old favorite artists, most notably John Buscema. This volume collects 11-24.

There are always nifty bits in the series that are perfect for nicking for your RPG. I'll be discussing specific spoilers below so if you'd rather not have your knowledge of ancient tomes of Conan ruined, read no further!

Because it's such a meaty volume, I'll be going easy on how many tales I'll pick this time around. I'll limit it to the first two. The volume starts off with Abode of the Damned, based off the story The Country of the Knife by Robert E Howard.

1. The Abode of the Damned requires specific methods of entry outside of the obvious sneaking or storming. The first is to be vouched for someone who is known in the Abode. The second is to kill an armed person of the city. The third is as a slave. Conan manages the second quite easily. Not only that, the Abode is a special type of place, one for rogues and outlaws whose sword skills or other talents may be in high demand. Locations like this are perfect for those out of the way spots on your maps that don't have any information on them.

2. Hidden Identity: When Conan meets those going to the Abode, he claims to be someone else. this allows him to easily enter into the city and perform his business until his true identity is learned. Having hidden identities isn't something that should just be limited to villains. If the players can reasonably do it, such as being in an area where their names are known but not their likeness? Or those descriptions of them are wrong? But even as Conan goes about hidden, so does one of his foemen who if his true identity were known, would result in him losing power and prestige due to the racial enmity between the various factions of the land.

Having different ethnicities in a campaign can add a lot of complexity and if the game is merely about plundering dungeons, such details may be unimportant. But if the players can gain leverage by pointing out the differences in tribes and politicians and even religious beliefs, they can force one side or the other to come to them for assistance.

3. Timer: The Abode has an ancient planet consuming alien disguised as a gem stone. Three strangers come to the city to destroy it. The unsatisfying thing about this from a RPG prospective is that the characters don't really learn about this fact until nearly the end. In a role playing game, you can put a timer up and see if the players take any special action. I've read reports where the GM did this and every time the timer hit zero, a PC's head exploded. Provided lots of motivation to them.

4. Destroy your Idols: The writers had no problems destroying the cities and landscapes of the setting. By having a rough idea of what the city is and what its purpose is, the GM isn't necessarily going to ruin a lot of work by destroying it. By the end of the story, the Abode of the Damned is crushed below its foundations by powers from outside space and time to stop the alien menace inside it.

Next up is the Haunter of Castle Crimson.  This story is adapted from The Slave Princess by Robert E. Howard. The comics never had a problem borrowing from the Robert E. Howard library and liberally applies those ideas and concepts to the character of Conan.

1.Start the action! The book opens with a city in its death throes. A group of raiders have taken the city and are busy slaying the last of those alive in it. Into this maelstrom of death and carnage comes Conan who thanks to his own sword skills and abilities, is able to take from the takers including jewels and a specific slave. If you start the adventure off with the players in a situation that they have to act, it brings them to the table much faster as they have to figure out how they're going to interact with the mayhem around them.

2. Old Friends: Conan is made welcome at Castle Crimson because he knows the lord of it from olden days. Assuming the players don't murder and mutilate all that they come in contact with, provide them quick updates from time to time on where their old contacts and associates are. For example, if you've run an Adventure Path and the players initially took work from some merchants or low ranking nobles at one time, have those characters show up later either further up the ranks of their profession or fallen on hard times and looking for assistance to win back their former glory. They make good methods of adding adventure side quests or providing the players places to hide.

3. The Big Swindle: Conan saved the slave from the falling city because she looks exactly like a missing princess who is promised to someone who is offering a lot of money for her return. Conan's plan is to get the money and pawn the slave off as the princess. This falls into the pattern of the writers of using one person's identity, false or not, to hide the true personage. If the players meet people that appear to be of no importance, having one of them turn out to be of great importance later that have seen the players at their 'true nature' could come back to haunt them. Then again, there's nothing preventing the players from doing something similar themselves, especially if they have hirelings and or henchmen.

4.Complications: Ah, that brilliant plan of Conan's is cut short when his old ally and friend falls in love with the slave and is willing to kill Conan to keep her. Conan though valuing his friends more than money merely defeats his friend and doesn't kill him. In role playing games, such a fate might not happen and the GM should be ready to have any complications he throws into the game go multiple ways.

5.Secret Passages: The Castle Crimson is old and it has secret tunnels through its bones. Having secret manners and methods to enter such a place may allow the players more freedom than others might have. Such locations also make good ambush points since if the players weren't supposed to know of them, who can they go to for help without revealing themselves?

6. The Antechamber of Hell! While assassins sneak off with the slave pivotal to Conan's trade, Conan hunts the assassin down and finds him in a sunken cell where bones have been laying for over twenty years. This bone filled chamber does a few things here. The first is that amists the bones are weapons. This could allow players to find new items if for some reason they have lost their own, or if they have fallen behind the 'tread mill' in games like 3rd edition and 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons where items of X power are assumed at Y level.

The second is that the bones come to life when blood is spilt upon them. In a fight with others, say bandits or other attackers, for every round that edged weapons are used and successfully draw blood, more skeletons could be activated, attacking the person whose blood awoke them. This could cause the players to shift tactics quickly or to maneuver themselves out of the chamber and allow the undead to overwhelm their enemy.

7. The Big Swindle Undone: Turns out the slave girl Conan thought was a princess is actually a princess. The case of mistaken identity works to Conan's advantage though as the complication from earlier is turned to his advantage. When having cases of mistaken identity, don't be afraid to reveal that it is no mistake. Or is she? For example, the slave girl is actually a slave girl but takes to the role so well that even the girl's father is fooled.

An inexpensive collection with some fantastic art from the greats of the 70's of comics, Amazon has this available in Kindle format for $9.99 here or in paperback version for $14.05 here and it is Prime eligible.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Legend of Korra season one

I've admitted before that I'm certainly unhip when it comes to what's new and good in the various forms of media out there before. Way behind the curve so to speak. So I noticed that on Amazon Prime that they had the first season of The Legend of Korra, wiki over here and Nick site over here, which is the sequel to Avatar the Last Airbender taking place 70 years later.

I'll be speaking of some specifics below and as the series in nearing it's third season and I'm only covering the first one...

Korra is quite different than Aang outside of the fact that she's a woman. First, she's older than Aang was. Second, she's more proficient with the elements than Aang was. She's also more aggressive in her approach to things and doesn't have the angst of having her tribe destroyed or being displaced in time. In addition, the element she has a hard time bending, is air. This allows some other elements to be used by the mainstream character as opposed to airbending. These elements are a pleasant boost from Aang in that they allow her to do more right off the bat and engage stronger opposition off the bat.

The setting has many nods to the previous series. Not only nods if you will, but direct continuations. Aang has children here. Korra, while not directly related to Aang, has ties to the Water Tribe. The setting continues the use of technology, becoming almost steam punk like if not past that.

With some of the setting specifics, there are things in the previous series that are expanded and some of the previous unique elements have become standard. For example, metal bending, a unique element of the previous series, while still difficult, is something that the police, earth benders, all have the ability in. The ability to block 'bending', the ability to control an element, is now something used by a terrorist organization to hinder benders.

Kora faces two 'enemies' here. The first is councilman Tarrlok who uses the political situation to further his own ends. Not only is he clever in the fields of navigating the people and situations around him, but he has the ability to bloodbend, a unique water bending ability. Tarrlok provides a change of pace in that initially, he's not normally the sort of foe you can just attack without ramifications. His ambitions prove to be his undoing though as he actually loses his composure and attacks the Avatar.

In a role playing game, such methodology might also work. Navigating a political opponent into a position where they have to attack or where they have to show their darker nature is a common enough theme in fiction. 

The second foe is Amon. He claims that he is empowered by spirits to be a great equalizer and to take away the power of benders and make everyone on the same footing. Between Tarrlok's power grabs to benefit himself and Amon's methods of spreading fear and terror, he is more dangerous than most straight forward enemies could ever be. 

Amon is not only a leader though, but is also a holder of secrets. For example, he is Tarrlok's brother and also a water bender with an even greater ability to blood bend, to not only control people's physical bodies, but to take away their ability to bend. These unique elements continue with the pattern established in the original series where exceptional characters have exceptional abilities.

I personally thought it interesting that Tarrlok and Amon were brothers. Initially I would have bet money that Amon was actually Tarrlok but the writers surprised me.

In terms of 'small characters' or those with minor roles, the show does a good job of giving distinctive features to those that don't have big roles. For example, the announcer at the sports. These announcements are entertaining and the speaker keeps that voice over style going.

Part of the 'fun' of the series is its use of voice overs at the start of each episode. These are like the old radio serials from the early years of the twentieth century. Another fun thing is the 'propaganda' posters that Amon uses. For an example, there a great picture over here at Deviant Art:

Amon also has a unique apperance thanks to his mask and uniform. His charisma allows him to engage a series of followers that includes an inventor. The inventor acts as an excellent method of introducing new technological horrors including 'walking tanks' made of platinum. The reason their made of platinum is that's a metal that cannot be controlled with earth bending because of its purity.

By having an innovator against the characters, for example, in a fantasy setting, wizards traditionally fill that role, such as the creation of the old favorite the owl bear, the Game Master can add new mosnters and animals to the setting that might not ordinarily occur.

Another thing used in the setting, is statues to cement the heroes of yesteryear. For example, Aang is immortalized as a large figure in the middle of the bay. The damage from the previous setting, the near destruction of the air benders, is also continued here.

For more setting specifics, the world continues its use of animals that are made up of multiple parts. Kora's mount for example, is a polar bear dog combination.

In addition to the elements of the setting though, the strength of the series is in its characters. Kora has the son of Aang as her mentor, but he's not some solitary figure but rather a father of four with a wife and an 'old flame' whose the daughter of Toph from the original series. She also has friends and allies that stand by her side and throw some drama into the whole relationship circles that make the story more than a slug fest though.

In terms of information dump, the viewer gets a few venues for this. One of those is through the children. For example, the children are willing to talk just about everything and anything. This lets the GM pour information into the game that might not be accurate but still come to the players in at least an amusing method.

Kora, being the avatar, also has access to the previous Avatars. Because of this, she has access to previous memories and is able to have a broader understanding of what is going on. This includes learning that there was in the past, a blood bender who was able to use the manner without the benefit of a full moon. Having characters with access to such information dumps is a useful tool for bringing new information into the campaign.

In campaigns, long running ones especially, the series does a good job of showcasing temporary setbacks. Korra is defeated several times throughout the series but in the long run is victorious. A few adventurers have tried to capture this feel such as by having the players guard a city that is destined to fall only for the characters to defeat the main villains at the end of the saga even though they've suffered some setbacks.

The most surprising thing to me though, was one of the 'endings' of the series. After Amon is defeated and Tarrlok and he reunited, the two are sailing away and Amon is speaking of the things to come and how things will be just like they were when the two were chldren. Tarrlok then exploded the boat they were traveling on. While no bodies were seen, it's something like a play out of a Martin Scorsese  movie.

The writing of the series is particularly strong in a lot of aspects. For example the comedy of the series is well timed and comes through in small patches but at appropriate times. The writer's use of children for example, could be ill timed but the writer's make the most of it with their inappropriate comments and actions.

The Legend of Kora is available to stream on Amazon Prime for season one or on dvd for $14.96, prime eligible.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Grey Citadel Adventure Prep

Many moons ago I reviewed The Grey Citadel over at En World. The individual reviews look like they're now in some type of feed system over here.

I've been thinking of running some D&D and nothing too deep. One of the problems with me is that letting my players know I'm doing an Adventure Path is they get all up in character creation from 1st-18th level and have these unrealistic expectations. The Grey Citadel is much smaller but still meaty and I can probably get over a month's play out of the thing.

So I've been rereading it and trying to determine what the best methodology for setting the game up is.I've been downloading stuff from Dark Loch, the original website that supported the adventure. It still has all sorts of goods on it.

One of the problems is that while not absolutely required, 3.5 and Pathfinder in general, use miniatures. As I look through the book, I count up some of the monsters. There are several encounters with striges, one encounter having eight of the things. In terms of skeletons, one with something like 15 of them. Ouch.

But skeletons aren't bad. I've messed with skirmish style war gaming enough to easily have twice that level covered. There are a lot of encounters with thugs as well. And if I wanted to use city guard? Something like ten to an encounter. Ouch again.

Mind you I can use say Fiery Dragon and their digital counter collection. I know somewhere around here I have one of the CD's. Hell, I've used those magic life counters for miniatures in the past.

Still, there's nothing like the physical presence of miniatures on the table. Of course it helps that I like painting too mind you.

I'll have to start going through the old collection and seeing what I can find.

Another 'problem' is that I like having maps. Mind you there are some fantastic maps in the book but I'm talking full scale maps. There are also a few potential fights that don't have maps so I'll have to figure out where those could happen and review my various Paizo Pathfinder maps. Love those suckers as they have so many of them that might fit some of these scenarios.

In terms of the adventure set up, because I'm probably just going to run it as a one-off, I'm thinking of two itnroductions. The players have been summoned for their skills to the Citadel, they happen to be in the Citadel for their own business, or, the more likely possibility, is that they were escorting a caravan here.

I say most likely because The Grey Citadel includes a bit of information outside of the city and it appeals to me that I can use that information already included in the book to get some more mileage out of it and act as a way to introduce the characters to the city.

I've also started to make a few notes outside the book where I think the players would ask for more information. For example, there's a 'celebration' of a rival party of adventurers and I know the first thing the players are going to want are details on what they look like, weapons, etc... so I'm cribbing that in a separate piece so I can have easy access to it outside the book instead of flipping through it.

If the group does decide they're cool with it, and that's a big if as right now they're doing some World of Darkness stuff, which frankly isn't my cup of tea which is why I'm not playing with the amigos at the moment, (yeah, I know I'm a bad sport), I may have to make some more changes deciding on what character class and races the players pick.

The Grey Citadel is available from Drivethrurpg in a few formats. In e-book it's $7.98, in print it's $19.95, and combo is $20.95 The combo is probably the best value and I admit to being a little shocked at the print price as that's what it was when it first came out in 2003 and I assumed there would be some cost association with printing it.

For those who run prewritten adventurers like this, how do you go about it? How many read throughs? How much customization? Do you prefer to have specific miniatures that match the adventure or are you okay with substitutions?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov

Anyone else ever find they have books that they have no recollection of buying? I have this in hardcover, new, and don't remember when I bought it or for how much. I've never heard of Alexey Pehov (website here) before and as I was cleaning through my various stacks of unread books, came across this. The thing that moved it to the top of the pile?  "Reminiscent of Michael Moorcock's Elric series, drawn from the great heart of Russian folklore, Shadow Prowleer is the first work to be published in English by the bestselling new-generation fantasy author Alexey Pehov."

Elric? Alright then!

After reading it, no, not quite. There isn't a spellcaster whose doomed to slay his own people. There isn't a magical sword that drinks souls. There isn't travel to other planes and times. Those are some of the hallmarks of Elric at least to me. Oh, and short. Relatively short novels too. In terms of Russian folklore? I'm not learned enough in that field to say yea or nay but I didn't see a lot of the common tropes poking out like any visits from a certain Hut.

I don't know if it's a translation problem or something else but Shadow Prowler didn't make it up to the heights that other books I've read this year have. It's not bad by any means, and its more 'serious' than I consider 'popcorn' fiction like the various Magic the Gathering novels I read. But I'm not interested in it enough to buy the next book in the series when I'm still running through dozens of other books that need to go to make some room in the cramped apartment.

Part of it may be the naming conventions. The main hero is Shadow Harold. His mentor is For. One of the guides he speaks with it Bolt. The names are a little off to me which may be part of the translation or may just be common names in the native tongue.

The book has a nice nesting doll structure. The characters have to go to the Hall of Bones to retrieve the Ogre's Horn to fight the dark magic of 'The Nameless One' but along the way Harold winds up exploring a magically locked off part of the city, fighting assassins and goat men and using magic left and right. It has its up moments and is high fantasy with some questing thrown in for good measure along with a handful of interesting characters.

I'll be discussing some of the specifics below and how they might apply to a role playing game.

Racial Reimaginings: In this setting, orcs are the firstborn. They are the oldest race in the series. Elves have fangs and are not the creatures of beauty that other settings have them as. Gnomes and dwarves hate each other, and gnomes, while still shorter than dwarves, are the ones that have beards and cannons while dwarves have no beards but are still master craftsmen.

Background Dumps: Harold finds himself learning things through extrasensory methods three times in the book. The first is when he enters the forbidden zone of the city. The magic of that section overhwhelms him with the origin of the sector and how it came to be. The second is when he is mystically attuned to a magical key and learns how that key was forged. The third is when sleeping in a field and he learns how all of the bones came to be in that field. These methods of providing an information dump on the characters might be overwhelming but if the GM can provide the players with some pregenerated characters, the players can actually be the ones doing the fighting and determining how the story worked out. This may steal some time away from their regular characters but the investment may show them how it all went down in a way that the history books don't talk about.

Magic For Money: One of the things about the setting that reminded me of D&D, is that Harold is able to buy magic items and even use scrolls. The magic items are all locked up and take time to get to to prevent easy loss or theft and cost an arm and a leg but in a high fantasy setting, they are available for purchase. If your setting should logically support such commerce, there should be a good reason, perhaps a social or religious one, why it is not.

The Gods: One of the things I enjoyed about the setting, is that when a thief agrees to do something and is bound to it, not through magic, but tradition and the watching eye of the god of thieves, it's called a Commission. This provides a solid reason why anyone would trust a thief to do something that they might normally not want to do. By entering into these contracts, both parties can be sure that the other will hold to their end of the deal. The Forgotten Realms had something similar with mages and their unique sigils where Azuth would curse someone who copied the moniker of another mage. When looking at things that bind people to causes and duty, having the active hand of the gods be one of them, is an easy way to insure that word given, word kept.

Shadow Prowler is available at amazon in hardcover, for $19.24, mass market paperback for $7.19, and kindle for $6.83. The physical copies are prime eligible.

For those who've read other books by Alexey Pehov, is the series worth continuing into? Any recommendations in that vein?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

I read the Hobbit in the early 80s when I was a young lad. I honestly can't same I remember that much about it save for broad themes and character arcs. I remember the old carton, and some great comics that game about thanks to the fantastic source material.

But movies? Especially when the book was so small and has been spread out over three films?

As a fantasy fan first, I thought it was a hell of a movie. I'll be pinging various things from it and there will probably be spoilers. But seeing as how I'm so late in seeing it, those of you who would be offended by spoilers have probably seen it well before me.

Soundtrack? I felt it added greatly to the film. Moments of tension and danger highlighted by the score.

Visuals: There could be several things to point out. When Bilbo emerges from the Mirkwood Forest and is surrounded by butterflies and enjoys the sunlight after the oppression of the forest? The costume designs on both the heroes and the villains? The variety of scarring and wounds that the orcs proudly bear to indicate their fierceness? The destroyed city which is proclaimed the desolation of Smaug when the Company sees it from above?

One of my favorite bits is when Gandalf confronts Sauron. I don't care if it was in the book or not. The imagery here, of a burning orb with a black pupil, one that resembles Sauron's armored from and yet is instantly recognizable as the Great Eye from the Lord of the Rings trilogy? It works on many levels and serves as a great tool to tie the two franchises together.

In terms of visuals for player characters, the make up crew did a great job in insuring that the dwarves, despite the shared origins, have little in common. They do this by making their beards distinguished from one another with different styles.

They make the beards of different lengths.

They make the beards braided or combed.

They make some taller than others and some fatter than others and some bald.

the ability to bring quick defining visuals to the dwarves makes them more individualistic and stand out more than they would if they were just a merry band as I tend to recall them from the book all those many years ago.

Scope: Similar in theme to visuals, but a bit more in setting the mood, is how grand some of the things are. For example, the dwarven home has a huge dwarf statue outside of it. Other elements continue to showcase a grandeur missing from the previous movie. For example, Smaug himself. Nothing in the Lord of the Rings compares to Smaug's screen presence. His movements, his facial gestures, his power. Bilbo's flattery of Smaug seems more apt than mere flattery to gain a few moments.

Screen shots from the movie would make great role playing aids. They could easily lend themselves to a wide variety of setting and help showcase how wide and diverse the world is.

Mood: One of the things I didn't enjoy about the first mood was I though it a touch too silly.I'm not saying all fantasy has to be 'grimdark' or anything like that, but the Brown Wizard for example? Yeah, way too much for my personal taste and the second movie essentially has the Brown Wizard perform a cameo before departing.

Do I think the movie without flaws? I'm a little unimpressed with Bard, one of the men from Lake Town. Not because he doesn't have a great introduction, but because his apparent skill is an archer. By having the elves feature so much in this film, the mere act of archery in and of itself is squat.  Legolas proves to have archery as well as swordplay. Bard doesn't have too much presence though in the movie and I'll be curious to see what they do with him in the third film.

I also though the dwarves captured a little too often and released a little too easily. After a while you can only wonder why on earth they thought they could succeed in their mission.

For role playing games, there is a lot that could be taken.

Titles: Smaug boldly claims the title "King Under the Mountain" which is normally a dwarf honorific. Others have their own titles but some of these are for deception. For example, Sauron doesn't name himself as such but rather goes by The Necromancer. This prevents his foes from knowing that he has returned and grown in power and ability. Players could be searching out an old foe never aware that he has taken a new guise and name.

Chance Encounters: One of the things that can be difficult to do in role playing games, is the introduction of a new character. Here when the dwarves are in danger of being overwhelmed by the spiders of Mirkwood, they are helped by the elves. A quick method of allowing a new player to join or replacing a character that has died, is to have the characters encounter one another against common enemies.

Skills Tests instead of Combat: There are several encounters in the movie that I think would play out better as skill challenges as opposed to pure combat. For example, when they dwarves escape from the elves, they are beset upon by orcs. Mind you, the dwarves are in the river, in barrels. The whole chase scene has a touch of humor to it, but relies on some quick thinking and physical prowess that move beyond the realm of hack and slash.

In addition, the encounter with Smaug the dragon? It reminded me of some video games I've played where the point isn't to cast spells and hack at the enemy, but to set up a scenario or maneuver the enemy into a position where he'll be destroyed. If the players are facing, at the GM's design, some creature that is far beyond their power, if they are meant to overcome it, design the meeting or location or nearby locations in a way that augment the encounter and have the players talking about luring the dragon into the cave so it couldn't fly or poisoning the well water so that it couldn't breath fire or allowing the players some other method that could work, to actually work.

Animosity: When looking at role playing games that have alignments, one of the harder elements to juggle is why good races allow other good races to fight alone. For example, when  Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves, speaks with Thrandui, the elf king, the dwarf accuses the elf of leaving his people to rot and die while the elf replies that he warned the dwarves what would happen and could not prevent it. The  elves here come across as fairly xenophobic and wish nothing to do with those outside their borders. Even Legollas himself bears many of these features initially so I imagine we'll see a bit more of a character arc for him in the third movie that expands his capacity for empathy.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug may not win any awards for theme, plot, acting, or other bits, but I hope it can only shine a light to hollywood that there is a lot of potential money to be made from the fantasy genre that falls outside of A Game of Thrones.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Kindle Monthly Deals for Feb 2014 that Caught My Interest

So every month, in addition to their Kindle Daily Deals and their Gold Box Deals and their 'Big Deals', Amazon also does some odd 100 books for under $3.99

I review the list every month to see if there's anything on there that I'm going to wind up reading later on. Makes it easier to look them up since there isn't a physical book involved that requires me to store it somewhere in the meanwhile.

So for February 2014, here are some I'm looking over. Since these prices are good till the end of the month, I'm not too worried about picking them up RIGHT NOW but have it bookmarked and reminder to myself to review later.

The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England: An upstart French duke who sets out to conquer the most powerful and unified kingdom in Christendom. An invasion force on a scale not seen since the days of the Romans. One of the bloodiest and most decisive battles ever fought. This new history explains why the Norman Conquest was the most significant cultural and military episode in English history. Assessing the original evidence at every turn, Marc Morris goes beyond the familiar outline to explain why England was at once so powerful and yet so vulnerable to William the Conqueror’s attack; why the Normans, in some respects less sophisticated, possessed the military cutting edge; how William’s hopes of a united Anglo-Norman realm unraveled, dashed by English rebellions, Viking invasions, and the insatiable demands of his fellow conquerors. This is a tale of powerful drama, repression, and seismic social change: the Battle of Hastings itself; the sudden introduction of castles and the massive rebuilding of every major church; the total destruction of an ancient ruling class. Language, law, architecture, and even attitudes toward life itself were altered forever by the coming of the Normans.

Uh... wow. That's it.

Now quite true. There are a few I actually already own and a few in the genre I'm just not interested in. Some non Herbert books in the Dune saga for example.

Looking over it further, these don't reach out to me like The Norman Conquest does but may bear further investigation.

The Last Secret of the Temple: In the year 70 AD, as the Romans sacked and destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, a young Jewish boy was hidden away and chosen as the guardian of a great secret. For seventy generations this secret remained safeguarded. But in present day Israel, a Jewish radical threatens to reveal this hidden truth and use it to rend apart the fragile Middle East—and only an unlikely duo of hardened detectives of very different origins and a young, enterprising Palestinian journalist can unite to ward off disaster.

A relentless and fast-paced thriller that moves from Egypt to Jerusalem to the Sinai Desert, that spans the millennia and involves Cathar heretics, Nazi prisoners, and modern-day suicide bombers, Paul Sussman’s The Last Secret of the Temple is a thrilling, roller-coaster adventure that brilliantly examines the participants on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Timely, important, and completely absorbing, it marks Paul Sussman as one of today’s great thriller writers. 

The whole shift to Modern day kinda makes it blah for me and I have enough books that anything that doesn't jump out at me is put on the backlist. I guess we'll see as the month wears on.

Katharine of AragonFor the first time in paperback—all three of Jean Plaidy’s Katharine of Aragon novels in one volume.

Legendary historical novelist Jean Plaidy begins her tales of Henry VIII’s queens with the story of his first wife, the Spanish princess Katharine of Aragon.

As a teenager, Katharine leaves her beloved Spain, land of olive groves and soaring cathedrals, for the drab, rainy island of England. There she is married to the king’s eldest son, Arthur, a sickly boy who dies six months after the wedding. Katharine is left a widow who was never truly a wife, lonely in a strange land, with a very bleak future. Her only hope of escape is to marry the king’s second son, Prince Henry, now heir to the throne. Tall, athletic, handsome, a lover of poetry and music, Henry is all that Katharine could want in a husband. But their first son dies and, after many more pregnancies, only one child survives, a daughter. Disappointed by his lack of an heir, Henry’s eye wanders, and he becomes enamored of another woman—a country nobleman’s daughter named Anne Boleyn. When Henry begins searching for ways to put aside his loyal first wife, Katharine must fight to remain Queen of England and to keep the husband she once loved so dearly.

I like historical bits but this seems a little more romance to me. Some of the reviews give it thumbs up for it being a good time piece though so again, I'll wait and think about it.

1492: The Year the World Began : 1492: The Year the World Began is a look at one of the most fascinating years in world history, the year when many believe the modern world was born. Historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, author of Millennium, covers such iconic figures as Christopher Columbus and Alexander Borgia and explores cultures as diverse as that of Spain, China, and Africa to tell the story of 1492, a momentous year whose lessons are still relevant today

And yeah, that's about it. 1492 sounds more promising than the rest except my first choice of Conquest.

What's everyone else looking at in terms of sales? I know Barnes and Noble has a good science fiction fantasy sale going on over here that was still active last time I looked. Anything else from the February kindle sale that is outstanding?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Coffee Trader by David Liss: Round 2!

David Liss writing impresses me. He's able to distil the dozens of books and events he uses for research and condense it down into a historical novel that rings authentic with characters that are not perfect and who do not escape their machinations unscathed.

I would heartily recommend anyone looking for a well written historical to pick up any of his books and if they were interested in how commerce of this era worked, to give The Coffee Trader a read.

I'll be discussing specific spoilers below and how they might influence a role playing game so if you'd read none of those, look no further.

Scenario Reversal: 

The main character of the novel, Miguel Lienzo, is motivated by many things. For example, he doesn't want to be poor. He wants to be a good Jew. He wants to avoid being entangled in the webs of others who may wish him ill. For the most part, these motivations and desires don't cross the border into wishing others ill save when they cross him.

This leads him, while pursuing his goals, to, unknowingly mind you, to crush a woman who might have been his friend, to have a former ally crippled, and to turn away the friendship of a man he'd wronged in the past. It also sets him in a villainous light as his deeds, while indeed making him a small fortune, destroy the fortunes of his brother, and indeed, were set up to damage a man who sought to be his friend.

The depths of his being manipulated are thought provoking for me. For example, while he speaks to Hendrick, a burly enforcer, about handling some violence for him, the price offsets him which works for the better. The man he would have had beaten instead winds up turning Miguel's fortunes around and they part as friends.

Until Hendrick needing money does the deed anyway and demands the payment. This crippling beating he puts on Migel's associate costs Migel the associate, who flees the city, as well as a high cost that was initially discussed.

His involvements in other fields are also turned around so that many of the 'good' things he thought to do, to be virtuous, to be the 'hero' are turned in a negative fashion. So much so that the ending is a downer of sorts even as it has its ups.

It's complex layers can be difficult to bring to a role playing game.

I guess my rambling would boil down to, if the heroes don't enjoy success in all of their endeavors, find the ones that matter most to them and allow them victory there, but not without cost in other venues that their character motivations have treasured in the past.


Much of the novel involves the lives of the Jews in Amsterdam.  As I mentioned last post, there is not a single unity in the Jewish community, but for the most part, one ruling body.

But it doesn't control everything. For example, when someone is excommunicated from the main body, there are still some small groups that will allow the services and prayers to be done as long as they are not in the spotlight. These schisms can be small but eventually become their own religion.


Most role playing games use Trade Tongue to make things simple. They use it because it allows all of the players to start the game on essentially equal footing and not have to use precious character resources to spend on something that is essential to all of the players in order to communicate.

The novel takes place in Amsterdam. Here there are several languages spoken but because of arrogance and thinking less of others, sometimes people would speak their mind without knowing that those around them can understand their schemes.

If your setting has multiple languages, which most do, occasionally have the NPCs speak in those different dialects when they wish to keep things secret from the characters. Those who don't speak the language may remember a word or phrase but miss out on the meaning while those who do may either show their hand that they do speak the language, or in future dealings have a translator around whom they trust, perhaps one who is not introduced as such to give them a hand in future dealings.


Taking place in Amsterdam, the novel makes mention several times of the different faiths and people that meet and do business in the city. This is possible because the people allow the Jews to do their thing, and allow the Catholics, whom they defeated, to remain and do their business as long as they do not go out of their way about it.

This makes the city a melting pot of many cultures and faiths, which stretch across cultures. Most fantasy settings tend to have several large city states that encapsulate the entirety of the setting in a microcosm. Don't be afraid to throw some different things into the setting when it makes sense to do so.

The Coffee Trader is available in Kindle format for $9.99 or in trade paperback for $12.34 and Amazon prime eligible.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Coffee Trader by David Liss

While I enjoyed Peter V. Brett's novels in the Demon Cycle, I'm loath to order the next book and wait for it in the mail. Especially when I had dozens if not hundreds of books waiting to be read. Especially when there is another book or two after that third novel that hasn't even been released yet!

Among those is The Coffee Trader by David Liss, homepage here. It's worth a look at if you're a fan of historical fiction or comics. Yeah, that's right, David Liss writes comics as well. Sheesh.

I'm mentioned David Liss before, for example, the Whiskey Rebels, and he's a fantastic historical author. I find a lot of things to think about in terms of how the world was, how it is, and how those things can be applied to a role playing game.

For example, while I'm nowhere near finished with the Coffee Trader, there are numerous bits talking about the plight of Jews.

There is the terror of being a hidden Jew. One that has to do everything relating to its religion in secret and fear the Inquisition coming for them. One problem here is that because the Catholic Church gets your property and possessions if you're convicted of being a Jew, that prosperous merchants fall to the Inquisition even when they are not Jewish.

Another problem reveals itself, in talking about who to tell your faith to. I mention this because one of the ladies in the novel doesn't know she's Jewish until she's married off. Her father and family were worried that she would be too much like her mother and have a tendency to gossip which would result in the family being killed. So for her, being a Catholic who hates Jews is all she's ever known her whole life.

That makes an interesting character. Where one's training and background have all followed one path her entire life only to be told, "Well, that's not the truth." Even her 'real' name is different. The potential for character moments are high there.

In addition to the outside persecution though, there is still internal strife. When the characters feel they have a 'safe haven', they are taken in by the Jews of Amsterdam but then have to follow all of the laws of those Jewish tradition holders or be thrown out of the community. This leads some of the merchants and traders to do business in places out of the way, where they will not be seen by members of their community.

Now that's also role playing potential. Not only is there the risk of being spotted by members of your own faith and community and being thrown out for it, there's risk in putting yourself into those situations where no one from your faith or tribe can help you. In those out of the way locations, who knows what could happen.

The Coffee Trader is so far enjoyable and I'll probably have another post about it later. The role of faith and ethnicity and the merchant  background that David Liss brings the reader into are so far compelling and enjoyable while being thought provoking at the same time.