Sunday, July 31, 2016

Vagabond by Bernard Cornwell

Book Two in the Grail Quest Trilogy
Bernard Cornwell
416 pages
Historical Fiction

Vagabond is book two in the Grail Quest series. It follows on the Archer’s Tale, and continues the chronicles of Thomas the Archer and his quest to find the Holy Grail.

A well detailed historical adventure bouncing between England and France and various places within and about, Vagabond is a solid read that fans of the English wars that Bernard Cornwell writes about in his various historical fiction series will enjoy.

Thomas is an interesting viewpoint character not only because he is likeable, but because despite his charm and skills, he’s failable. He suffers loss after loss but continues to strive against the darkness and to seek redress against those who’ve wronged him.

In so doing, he encounters many interesting characters. These characters, makes Vagabond a entertaining read. There are those who stand against Thomas, like fellow Englishman the "Scarecrow" who rules over his own band of thugs including the enormous footpad known simply as “the Beggar”. These unique names give the characters their own life.

It’s not just the villains that give Thomas’s world such color. His Jewish doctor friend Mordecai for example, provides an entirely different viewpoint to the times that Thomas is living in. At one point, Mordecai mentions his son is going to be a doctor and Thomas feels that Mordecai is going to compare the righteousness of being a healer against Thomas' own cause or being an archer. In this case, that’s not it at all. As a Jew, Mordecai’s son isn’t allowed the right to use weapons. The inherent discrimination, the systematic discrimination, is palpable.

And Thomas himself? He's raised with a great degree of education. He speaks English well enough, but also Latin and French. He can write. He is knowledge of nobility but isn't of "pure" noble blood but rather a bastard. This limits him but allows him to mix circles. One of his friends is even a captured enemy from another country and the two grow to become close friends.

Bernard Cornwell doesn't shy away from the absurdities of things. Multiple nations shouting out to the same God to strike down their foe. Class discrimination abounds in both the attitudes of nobles against commoners and even against half-blood bastards like Thomas himself. The plight of women against an entrenched society that literally rapes them almost at will.

The author manages to keep the reader interested in numerous little things. One of my favorite, is how the giant siege weapons are all named. It gives them a sense of personality. The advancement of the story through the seasons also shows time passing, further entangling the reader into the believability of the tale.

Bernard Cornwell wraps things up at the end with justice delivered to some of Thomas' foes, but not all. No, for that, future adventurers await in the next tale, Heretic, but for now, there is peace.

If you want an action packed blockbuster style novel, Vagabond is your next read.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Hard to believe that the new Star Trek franchise is already on it's third film. Star Trek Beyond brings the cast of the previous two films and their evolving plot lines back around. This will be my "spoiler free" thoughts on Beyond.

I saw it in Imax 3-D with immersive technology or whatever they are calling it. What I call it is loud! I felt like Grand Pa Simpsonwhere he's screaming that they need to turn it up and people's heads are exploding.

In terms of movie review, it's quality summer fair.

Sound? Check. Things blow up nice and loud.

Visuals? Check. Colors are crisp and bright and dark and shadowy as appropriate.

Plot? If you overthink it, it's going to go by the wayside. The big "reveal" actually caught one of my friends by surprise but me and another friend were like, "Yeah, I know where this is going..."

Character designs? Space battles? Destruction of the Enterprise?

Solid designs on the bad guys and the new alien ally. There's several nods to the previous Star Trek series in that in the dreaded real world, actor Leonard Nimoy recently died and that is tastefully incorporated into the film at a few moments of introspection.

Space battles are done well giving a sense of different styles of combat that in this particular setting, we haven't seen before.

The albino design on the alien with the blue markings, Jaylah? The new main bad guy Krall? The ship and technology that Krall uses to devastating effect against the Enterprise? All thumbs up.

Of course there are moments for the "Three" if you will, Jim, Spock, and Bones. They are the foundation on which the other members move around. In many ways, most Star Trek movies and stories are not about the aliens, they are not about the dangers. They are about the relationship these three have.

This is true even when there is a push to make things more inclusive. No matter how much the theory of inclusivity is pushed, the standard ring of three remain the backbone in this film from which all things move forward.

Spock having a hard time in his relationship with Uhura? Well, heck, that's not as important as how his relationship with Kirk is going.

Jim thinking of leaving his ship for a promotion? Again, not as important as hanging with Spock!

Bones being bones and providing a nice chunk of humor here?

And it's not that other actors don't get a few minutes here and there. I'd even argue that outside of the big three, the biggest 'star' of the movie is Scotty. It's Scotty who finds a native ally in Jaylah. He gets a nice chunk of screen time and his sense of humor works well here.

If you're a fan of the new cast and want to see a summer blockbuster, this is a great movie to see at the theater to beat the heat.

Friday, July 22, 2016

While The Black Stars Burn

While The Black Stars Burn
By Lucy A. Snyder
$4.99 on Amazon
166 pages

One of the things I enjoy about short stories, is I can fit them in when I'm waiting for someone, riding the busy, or just looking to kill a few minutes.

Not too long ago, Amazon had While The Black Stars Burn on sale for 99 cents. As I am a book hoarder, I picked it up. I'd never heard of Lucy A. Snyder previously and was eager to see how I'd like her writing style.

The book includes several short stories that fit straight into the 'horror' genre. A few of them fall into the Lovecraft vein. One of them is a Doctor Who short story.

I found that the original works tended to be a little more telling for me. Her writing chops are fantastic. If anything, the thing that annoyed me most about While The Black Stars Burn, is that a lot of the stories end just when their getting "good", when my interest in them was at its peak.

If you're a Call of Cthulhu "Keeper", you should pick this up. There are several bits that fit right into a horror story right away.

The Strange Architecture of the Heart: In a war ridden society, the bonds between people may be fragile but that between mistress and robotic sex slave? Priceless! I'm not even kidding. The strain of living in a foreign land and having to work puts a woman more at home with a robot that does all it can to please the woman and her desire for a family. Solid social opinion.

Approaching Lavender: Here's a great "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" using a different medium instead of plants. Imagine you marry someone but they turn out to not be who you thought? Imagine that you sadly find out you were right as your own life is taken over by a painting.

The set up and slow build in Approaching Lavender are fantastic and it would make for a great one off, where the characters notice after a large art show opening that people have changed, or as part of an ongoing campaign where one of the character's friends exhibits vast differences in outlook and opinion.

Dura Mater: If you've ever watched the horror-science fiction movie, Event Horizon, this one shares some themes. Isolation, horror, the unknown. It goes with a more traditional "alien/outer alien" then the whole "Warp/Hell" bit of Event Horizon, but again, if you run one off's, this would be a great story to structure around.

Cthylla: Of the directly inspired Cthulhu stories, this one is the best. A young woman, the daughter of a computer scientist and a model, finds herself like neither of them and in being an outside, gets caught up with another outsider. The layers of conspiracy that get pulled back and the descriptive prose make the "switch" ending worth while and provide a great "cult" enemy for Keepers looking to add something to their campaigns. 

In terms of fantasy, there's one story that stands out, Spinwebs. A family owns spiders but the mob mentality against their ownership is  turning hostile. A young girl and a newly hatched egg are going to fight against that tide. But just when that determination is made, the story ends. Still, in the span of a few pages, the world building that happens is great. 

If you're looking for inspiration for horror one shots or direct stealing for a Call of Cthulhu RPG, While The Black Stars Burn is a well written book.

Talk Like Ted: The Nine Public-Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds

Talk Like Ted
The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds
Carmine Gallo
$9.52 at Amazon

I've mentioned before that when running or playing a role playing game, having a large expanse of reading is only going to be a good thing.

I know some are going "Yeah, but Talk Like Ted?"


The book breaks down nine different tips for speakers and even if you're just looking at it from a Game Master view, you're a speaker and the audience is the players.

Here's a quick recap of why you should Talk Like Ted:

1. Unleash the Master Within
This one boils down to the question, are you passionate about the subject matter?

I can't speak for anyone else, but man, there have been some games when the guy running it was not into it. Sometimes during the game they'll pick up as they become engaged with the players but often, it's a drag to play in a game where it's obvious that the DM would rather be doing something else.

If you're going to run, run it like you mean it.

2. Master the Art of Storytelling
This should be a no-brainer for roleplaying games which are, after all, about a 'type' of story ,even if it's just a dungeon crawl.

Often though, people forget to weave stories in the games their weaving. One of the reasons for Dungeons and Dragons having so much fan support for the settings of the 90s isn't necessarily because the dungeon crawls were so awesome but because the settings were ripe for stories and the fiction lines helped reinforce that.

3. Have a Conversation
A chapter discussing the importance of practice, of reaching out to your peers, of trying your material first.

It's a lot easier to do these days then when RPGs first started! With communities like and others around, you can share stories, ask about power levels of different monsters and all manner of sharing that just weren't possible at the start of the hobby.

4. Teach Me Something New
People want to learn.

In roleplaying games, this can take the form of important background information or showcasing how some new rules work.

I had planned at one point to run a campaign based around the Magic of Incarnum set in Waterdeep where the traditional roles of magic were challenged by this new power source. It would have slowly feed the new information of the book into the campaign and allowed players the option of being in the old guard learning about it or in the new rules rolling out.

5. Deliver Jaw-Dropping Moments

These are more than just buzzwords. A lot of this in a role playing context, may be in the setup of where a big fight is going to take place. Having a battle at a huge castle with armies of orcs and allies on the wing for one popular example.

Modern action movies have kicked this up a notch so be on the lookout for bits you can steal and add to your own games.

6. Lighten Up
While I am a fan of "grimdark" you don't want to sink the mood at the table. People are coming together to have a good time so don't forget that it's a game and you should relate to the players as a fellow enjoyer of the game as well as the Dungeon Master.

7. Stick to the 18-Minute Rule
This one is about attention span and hey, if I was going to steal this rule, it's be about when players are floundering. I'm not a Game Master that thinks role playing with other characters in the setting, trying to get deals on various shopping, hunting down information or other activities are time wasters, but if the party is sitting around trying to figure out what their next move is, maybe give them a push in the right direction.

8. Paint a Mental Picture with Multisensory Experiences
I've known gamers who hate modern rpg books because the cost is so high. A cost they associate with the art, fancy layout and design and other factors that go into making a book physically appealing.

I don't want to say that their personal opinion is wrong, but for the great mass of people, art matters. Layout matters. Design matters.

And again, with easy access to the internet, it's no problem to grab images of what characters, monsters, and locations look like.

With the Lord of the Rings and other movies like Beowulf out, there's also no reason not to dabble in music.

With the music, in my experience, you might want to make sure that it's not overpowering the session. I've known some Dungeon Master's who when playing something like Cyberpunk will be blasting Korn, Nine Inch Nails or another industrial group and it competes with the gaming.

9. Stay in Your Lane
This one gets to authenticity. For role playing purposes, I'd say run games you want to run. Run games you'd want to play in. Make sure that the group knows what's going on. Nothing like starting off the night in a gritty police setting and fifteen minutes later having Superman and Batman show up because the Game Master wanted to run a DC Heroes game in the first place.

Talk Like Ted is a fun book that anyone reading it should get a lot of use of in both the dreaded real world and in role playing games.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes

Finished off Sam Sykes' The City Stained Red.

Great stuff.

There are a few authors I'd compare Sam's style to. Might give any readers a frame of reference as to not only my preferences in terms of grouping, but how Sam compares to others.

K J Parker, author of books like the Folding Knife.

Mark Lawrence, author of series like The Broken Empire (Prince of Thorns, etc...)

Joe Abercrombie, author of books like Half A King.

These authors tend to be a little darker.

They tend to be a little... funnier. There is a fair amount of sarcasm not only in how the world acts, but in how the characters tend to see themselves.

They are also solid writers.

In the City Stained Red, a group of adventurers makes their way to the City of Silk to collect overdue pay only to wind up knee deep in the dead.

How can a game master use such a fantasy novel in their own games?

1. Steal the Setting: The City of Silk has a lot going on for it. There are numerous guilds, organizations, and tension that run underneath it all. The city is known for it's silk and all of the sudden, one of the merchants of silk starts making silk better than anyone else. His secret? Hey, feed those giant spiders people! Turns out a strong silk.

In terms of silk, anyone remember the old Arduin books? These were little fantasy books meant to be their own system as well as work with old school Dungeons and Dragons. One of the things you could get in it, was Spiga Silk. There were different types of these monsters, indicated by color, but at best, one of these types of silk had the protection of plate mail armor and hey, as a thief? Effectively wearing no armor meant a boost to your skills.

2. Blow it up: They always say you should murder your children right? By the end of the City Stained Red, the City of Silk has undergone massive change. Religious wars, guild wars, and perhaps the end of the world on the horizon. Hundreds if not thousands of people dead, whole power structures shifted. All the things that make moving forward even more entertaining.

3. Surprise! At the end of the book, the 'leader' of the group discovers that a 'friend' of his is not what he seems. Not what he seems at all. It's going to lead to some entertainment in the next book for sure.

There are other bits I could talk about. There's the world structure itself. The familiar yet different fantasy races. The icons that fit into standard fantasy given a slight tilt to make them interesting to the reader.

But really you should get yourself a copy and read it.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The City Stained Red (Bring Down Heaven) by Sam Sykes

The City Stained Red (Bring Down Heaven)
640 Pages
Published by Orbit
Written by Sam Sykes
$16.00/$14.37 at Amazon

I'm a book hoarder. If it goes on sale and I have some extra money, it goes on the shelf. This is especially true of digital books as the digital shelf has a lot more room.

Many moons ago I picked up book one of Bring Down Heaven, The City Stained Red, and thought no more of it.

A mistake I'm rectifying now. I'm still reading it, but it's highly enjoyable and very much fits into a classic Appendix N read fit for roleplaying inspiration.

The tone is highly sarcastic, a touch dark, and not shy. There is more than a little profanity and amusement to be found in Sam Sykes anti-heroes. The world is also not a pleasant one as some of his fantasy race analogs tend to be more than rough around the edges.

So what did I like about the writing? What makes it fit into some role playing modes? Here's a nice bit from the start.

"You're an adventurer." He spat the word. "Too cowardly to be a mercenary, too greedy to be a soldier, too dense to be a thief. Your profession is wedged neatly between whores and grave robbers in terms of respectability, your trade is death and carnage, and your main asset is that you're completely expendable."

There's a lot of things like that.

Now if you're looking for Lord of the Rings, Conan, or even Elric type heroics, then no, The City Stained Red is just not going to do it for you. While there are great battles and numerous factions to watch for, these characters are not necessarily cut from the same cloth as say the Twain or Hawkmoon.

But if you've enjoyed some Parker novels like The Folding Knife or the Hammer, or some Prince of Thorns... it's right up there.

In terms of little seeds you can steal and use in a RPG right away, consider the following:

1. Gang War: Often used in Samurai movies and remakes of those samurai movies, there's nothing quite like walking through town and finding yourself in the middle of a gang war as strange but distinct individuals from two clans are gunning for each other and whoever gets in their way.

2. Access Denied: The quote about adventurers occurs when one of the heroes is trying to get access to "the city" and denied. Often it's assumed that characters have free reign to go where they want. In today's highly political world, in today's highly untrusting world, in today's world looking for easy scapegoats, that might not be the case. Perhaps one of the demi-humans like elves or dwarves are wanted for crimes against the kingdom. Perhaps all Northern Men are distrusted. Whatever the cause, getting to the city in the standard fashion just isn't going to cut it.

3. Media Res: Start the campaign off after the adventure while the characters are looking to get paid. They agreed to take on a job and now their benefactor has wandered off. Was it intentional? Was it a kidnapping? Is he trying to stiff the party on the bill?

4.City Sights: There are two noted things that the reader gets to experience through the characters. One is a statue of "The Hound Mistress", a well loved figure who defeated, at least temporarily, a guild of rogues and assassins known as the Jackals. The other is a massive tower structure that looks like it couldn't have been made by humans because it wasn't. Try to give your cities their own unique personalities, especially in longer term campaigns. 

Same Sykes does a great job of bringing a lot of classic fantasy elements to the table with a modern sarcastic tone and I'm highly enjoying it and may have more to say after I finish off the novel.

Anyone else read The City Stained Red? Any favorite parts?

Is Sam Sykes follow up a solid read? His other works?

Hit me up in the comments with similar recommendations!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Marco Polo: Season 2

Marco Polo is a fictional series on Netflix that gives its own spin to the time the "Latin" Explorer Marco Polo spent in the courts of Kublai Khan.

Below I'll be discussing some of the finer and lower points of the series and there will be plenty of spoilers so if you're the type of person whose enjoyment of a series, episode, life itself, is ruined by spoilers, turn away now! You shall not pass.

For everyone else, read on.

Marco Polo's first season, finished off with Kublai Khan in a great victory, in the defeating of the Southern China faction. In the dreaded real world, it was the Mongols who actually managed to unite China which had been divided for hundreds of years prior to their take over.

So what remains to be done?

In many ways, the second season of Marco Polo does smaller character work. Oh, there are still external threats but for the most part, the threats are brought on by internal strife. Some of these are well done and well rounded by others seem painfully obvious.

Above all though, the show engages the viewer through the characters. While the scenery and the costumes and the mix of high action and sex do help the sell, if the characters were not worth watching, the whole thing becomes an exercise in futility.

One of the things I enjoyed about a different cable series, Spartacus, was the character interactions. If you could draw out a flow chart of how the characters reacted to each other, you can almost instantly generate stories just by pulling on those connections.

Marco Polo, is much the same.

Kublai Khan: It all starts with the Khan of Khans. He's the centerpoint of the series in many ways. Don't let the view point of the series being named after Marco Polo divert you from who has the power in the series.

The actions of Kublai, reflect out from the center, creating ripples around the world. Sometimes these are not actions that would make a man proud.

For example, at the behest of his adopted son Ahmed, he kills the Southern Chinese Prince. This results in an uprising. He does this with no pleasure. He does this with no illusion as to what he is doing.

But he does it nonetheless.

His adopted son is known to have taken a concubine, Mei Lin. The Khan, to put it mildly, does not like her and ill uses her. The punishment to Mei Lin however, reflects poorly on Ahmed who is powerless before his Khan's actions and acknowledges that when the Khan makes mention of his deeds.

And there is the continued interaction with Marco himself. Despite Marco saving the Khan's life directly and uncovering vast conspiracies against the Khan, when delicate information makes its way to the Khan the the Khan knows Marco also shares? Well, the Khan decides perhaps (again) it's time that "the latin" and his usefulness have ended.

The Khan is a complex character and serving in his court is both boon and bane. His actions shake the land.

Chabi: The wife of Kublai Khan. While she does not wield a sword, she is capable of committing acts that others would consider monstrous. She is capable of making "the hard decisions."

Prince Jingim: The flesh and blood son of the great Khan. Due to the growing influence of China on the lifestyle and culture of the Mongols who live closer to China than Mongolia, Prince Jingim is often called "The Chinese Prince" and it's not a honorific meant to flatter. Rather, it's an insult. Jingim yields little apparent power and is almost too bland or normal. He loves his wife, he pays homage to his father. Initially in the first season, jealous of the attention his father lavished on Marco, he grows to treat Marco as a brother. His only flaw is that he's so honest he can't see the world about him in the negative and the webs that Chabi weaves around him in terms of politics, are not ones he would want himself.

Despite that though, he hints that he knows exactly what's going on when his fourth wife, the Blue Princess, becomes pregnant at just the right time. At a time when the legitimacy of the Khan is in question, the matter of heir becomes vital...

Kokachin, the Blue Princess: An imposter who lacks any power in the true sense of the word. She knows she is in a bad situation but even so, with a forced marriage to the son of the Khan, she strives to make peace with it. She strives to be a good wife.

It is not enough. One of the threads of the series is "the hard choice". Chabi decides that Kokachin will get pregnant and uses a man outside her husband to achieve this. Forced rape and carry of a child and it weights on Chabi.

It weighs more on Kokachin. There is a point in the series where it looks like the actual Blue Princess returns. Where this Blue Princess wants her life back.

But there is no real Blue Princess! It a hallucination and that the stress of rape, carrying an imposter's child, knowing that it's an imposter's child, and the potential consequences to come from that? Too much for her mind to handle.

And in looking at the links between characters, Chabi knows what must happen to keep the Blue Princess quite about the father. She also knows that Prince Jingim must never "officially" know no matter what he hints about.

Hundred Eyes: The mentor for all in the Khan's army in martial arts. He works for the Khan because Kublai put it bluntly. "Do my bidding or I'll destroy all of your art, history, and proof that your people ever existed." He falls into line and at some point even acknowledges the inevitability of serving the Khan because of the corruption of the old Chinese Emperor. He makes a reacquaintance in this second seasons and if you enjoy the old "Samurai Sundays" that included various Chinese Martial Art films, there are some great fight sequences that come out of these meetings.

Byamba: Bastard son of the Khan. He is married to a rival clan. He suffers quite a bit. He is much like Prince Jingim in that he's a relatively simple character to understand. He lives to live. He does not seek status or social improvement. He fights for his father because to him, it is the right thing to do.

Marco Polo: And the title character himself, Marco Polo. He seems to have a gift for stating the obvious and that may only be because he is the view point character and seeing things through his eyes gives us the advantage of sometimes seeing things as he sees them. For example, seeing that Ahmed is deliberately making bad decisions? That Ahmed is quickly reacting and threatening when those decisions are called out?

Macro is in a bit of a unique position. His training from the monk Hundred Eyes puts him well above a standard soldier, but he's not trained enough when facing individuals like Lotus, a former lover of Hundred Eyes who makes her introduction this seasons.

Marco is also in a bit of a dangerous position as when his father makes his way with an enemy army sent by the Pope, Marco goes out of his way to insure that his father survives the encounter. A fact that does not go unnoticed by the great Khan who adds it to the list of reasons to kill Marco.

If you enjoy shows like Vikings and have a Netflix account, Marco Polo is worth a watch. If you want to check it out on DVD, season 1 is available from retailers like Amazon for $19.96 right now.

Any fans of the series? Any favorite characters? Hopes for season 3?