Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Asian Spell Compendium

Asian Spell Compendium
Published by Legendary Games
For Pathfinder
36 Full-Color Pages

Over on Twitter, a discussion moved to products enjoyed for gaming, and one of my interactors mentioned Legendary Games did some solid Pathfinder compatible work.

Looking them over, I decided to pick up the Asian Spell Compendium from Amazon. With my Prime shipping, it arrived in no time.

So initial observations. It says it's 36 pages, but that's the PDF bit talking. It stops being numbered at 32 pages and includes a few white pages. Probably there for printing purposes as it's easier to print X number of pages than Y.

Next observation, is that it's a little "talky." The back cover gives a solid breakdown of what's in the book. I don't need another internal page dedicated to repeating the almost exact same information.

I also don't need the cover reproduced on the first page.

A full page for the credits.

Another page for the OGL.

A page talking about the idea of Adventure Path Plug-Ins. It's an interesting bit, take an adventure path and provide opportunities to expand upon it. I especially don't need to hear about the electronic bonus features that are obviously missing from the paper edition.

But it doesn't actually mention what Path this is for. Is it for the Jade Regent out some time ago or something else? Is it just an all-purpose book? If so, why waste a page on something that doesn't matter?

The breakdown by spell levels, spells by class, and spells by school, is necessary and useful.

The two pages of ads in the back? Perhaps not quite as useful or necessary.

So in a $14.99 '36' page book, you get from page 6 to page 30 of actual spells.

The aesthetics of the book?

Top notch.With the advances in graphics and design in terms of programs and access to talent with the web, not every company takes advantage of that. Legendary Games does. If you saw it on a shelf, while the pages aren't glossy, but are instead matte, the layout and design would stand right up there with Paizo and others.

Interior artists include William Hendershot, Michael Jaecks, James Krause, Matthew Manghi, Daniel  Robinett, and Steve Wood.  While you can go pages without seeing art, the art that is here is top notch. It's often very thematically appropriate to the book providing jade objects or characters that would have an 'Asian' theme to them in appearance.

The game mechanics? Like anything, including 'official' books, you've got some hits and misses. For example, Spirit Ward "This spell functions like protection from evil, but it wards against any of the following types of creatures. The protection of a spirit ward extends 5 feet in all directions from the target creature's space and moves with the target."

That's it. That's the spell. "wards against any of the following types of creatures... I know I'm dense sometimes but WHAT types of creatures exactly?

Many of the spells seem a bit underpowered in some instances, but the author attaches secondary effects which may either kick it up to the too powerful level or make it more paperwork than some appreciate.

For example, Lizard Scales. At first, you're like, "Oh man, a nifty first level spell that gives you a bonus to natural armor class. Up to +5 natural armor class at 12th level. Then the "Also" kicks in as the armor gives you spiny scales that inflict 1d3 points of slashing and piercing damage to anyone that grapples you... Not bad as it specifically calls out grapple as opposed to touch.

Another example would be Hail of Needles. Another first level spell, this one deals 1d4 per level, up to 5d4 to as many targets as you have dice, which cause bleed damage. This is one point per die for a number of rounds equal to your caster level. So a 5th level caster is going to cause up to 5 points of bleed damage to one target for 5 rounds so up to 25 points of damage, not counting the initial 5d4, with a 1st level spell?

Don't let what I'm saying throw you off, though. I get that everyone's game runs differently and that even the core spells have their winners and losers. With over one hundred spells, you may even find a favorite in there.

With top notch art and layout, I can see why Legendary Games has fans. I'll pick up a few more products before I make any final decisions about them, but the professional stylings definitely have my attention.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout

The Battle For Your Mind
By Al Ries and Jack Trout
Published by McGraw Hill
$20 ($10.08 at Amazon)

Normally I don't talk about the 'business' books I read. Mainly they don't often offer enough material that I'd be able to relate to gaming. Now that's often my weakness as opposed to the book, but Positioning is one where as I was reading it, I could see how it actually sometimes worked in how games are presented.

For example, Dungeons and Dragons is one of the oldest role playing games around. It's taken the title of "grandfather" of games and it's used that as a means of staying if not number one, easily number two in a field that is very crowded.

One of the rules of positioning? Get their first. Or at least make it seem like you're first. Get their first and stay viable? When ads sing "Coke is the Real Thing", well, that's a positioning bit talking about the age of it.

Another one that's good? Anyone remember the old Rolemaster Ads that had specific instances of criticals compared to "You hit and do 6 points of damage?" This would be the "against" position. In this case, the specifics of Rolemaster are being put directly against the genericness of Dungeons and Dragons. In relating itself specifically to the rules of another system, it 'positions' itself for those who want those specific rules and aren't getting them in Dungeons and Dragons.

Mind you, this whole trick was used against Rolemaster at a later time when Rolemaster jokingly became known as 'Chart Master'. What's good for the goose...

I don't know if the book's themes always pan out in role playing fields though. For example, it talks about the dangers of line expansion. About how if you're not first and not filling a specific niche, then if you take your brand and make it cover too much, you're brand doesn't stand for much of anything. On one hand, Dungeons and Dragons does this well.

Most of the other games that covered different genres had different names, even when they used the same rules. For DnD specifically, you have Greyhawk, Spelljammer, etc... When they didn't cover the same rules, you have Alternity, Star Frontiers , Gamma World, etc... But those often didn't do that well.

Part of that may have been the positoning in and of itself. For example, while Alternity did have a setting, there were parts that it branched outside of it. Weakening the brand?

On the other hand, what about generic game engines like GURPS and Hero? Did Star Hero weaken the brand while Champions, with it's unique and distinct history behind it, stay the pack leader? Or is it super heroes are more popular than generic science fiction?

Positioning is a fascinating look at how marketing can work and if you're and older gamer like me, a great way to look at how different advertisements work and don't work in the gaming field.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Bridge of Birds
A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was
Barry Hughart
Book 1 of the Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox
Historical Fantasy

I pick up a lot of books with the intention to somedy read them. Bridge of Birds was one of those. With my enjoyment of martial art movies and samurai movies, I'm always on the lookout for fantastic fiction in that vein of genre.

Bridge of Birds is a novel of an Ancient China that never was, and while it has some supernatural elements to it, it is more of a detective story than anything.

The young and naive Number Ten Ox, the tenth son in his family, is strong as an Ox, but is not a great fighter nor a great swordsman.

Master Li on the other hand, is an enfeebled and ancient scholar who plays the role of detective and is also not a great fighter nor a great swordsman.

Despite that, these two get in a considerable amount of trouble.

In terms of writing style, Barry Hughart brings us the tale through the eyes of Number Ten Ox in first person view. It's a great method as Number Ten Ox has a great sense of observation and it makes the novel a fast read. It's also an entertaining novel that moves from one chapter to the next. Of the three books I've read this year, I've enjoyed this one the most.

The author uses repeition to bring home ideas and characters. If at the end of the novel you're not laughing at master Li Kao, a scholar wit ha slight flaw in his character, you're probably not going to enjoy the book as Hughart ties things together nicely with throw backs to earlier points.

The Ancient China that never was is filled with fantastical characters and monsters. There are mazes that flood, abandond cities surrounded by magma, guarded by an invisible mosnter of gigantic size known as the Unseen Hand. There are characters seeking redemption and unredeemable villains.

And in all this, the young and somewhat simple Number Ten Ox. A man on a mission to save the accidentally poisoned children of his small village. A man on the hunt for the Great Root of Power! The original Ginsing itself!

This also makes me smile as recently I had opportunity to go to a Korean resteraunt that specialized in all manner of foods that were prepared with Ginsing. Little bits of lore about the history of the plant as well as mythology of it were scattered throughout the novel.

In terms of it's telling, the book touches on a lot of genres and types. We have ancient myths that are sprinked with fairy tales. We have historical sounding bits added to ghost stories. We have pscyhological bits like racial memory added to deliberate attempts to destroy records of the past to ensure secrets are safekept.

I don't know how he does it, but Barry Hughart takes all these elements and blends them together into a story that's fun, fast paced, and makes you wonder not only how will this duo gete out of their current situation, but how will they get into the next one!

If you're interested in how the series sounds, I'd recommend the digital omnibus on the Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. At $9.99 it's a little over $3 per e-book.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Gates of Fire

Gates of Fire
Written by Steven Pressfield
Historical Fiction

Steven Pressfield was known to me for his non-fiction book, "Do The Work". It's a sequl of sorts to his other non-fiction book, "The War of Art." The former was good if a bit short, the later I've not read.

The story behind Gates of Fire is well known to most modern audiences. Frank Miller put forth a frentic energized version in his graphic novel "300" which was later turned into a movie.

Note, this was not the first movie to capture the tale of the 300. The 300 Spartans was out well before Frank took his interpetation.

Steven Pressfield's book Gates of Fire isn't a frenzied tale of blood soaked madness in rapid fire. It's an unwinding tale told by a survivor of the original battle at the  Gates, one who is captured by the Persians and feels compeled by Apollo to tell his tale. It winds in and out of different time periods providing the reader with a great scope of the region than 300 dudes going to a blood soaked pass to fight.

It's well told and flows smoothly. The narroator brings us around various cities and regiions while providing his own history which is filled with tragedy of the times. I'd trust Steve Pressfield's descriptions of the Spartans having actual armor and a variety of methodologies over Frank Miller's warrior nudists.

Another benefit of a tale told longer, is there are more characters with their own stories prior to getting to the Gates. This allows the reader to see the daily lives of both those who life and breath the Spartan way, and those like the narrator who while a Freeman, are not of the caste but serve under it willingly as this allows them to serve under the best.

One of the nifty things that Steven Pressfield's book brings to the table, are nicknames. For example, we get "Suicide", a warrior who fights alongside the Spartans and rushes into battle eager to die and yet never does. We get "Rooster", a short onery fellow who hates the Spartan's despite his father being one as he identifies with his mother's people. Yet it is Rooster who provides opportunities to the Spartan's that they would not have had without him.

Gates of Fire is tale of the military at it's core. The strengths necessary to fight off "this factory of fear" as some of the Spartans refer to their flesh. To love their brothers enough, to love their cities enough, to love their civilization enough, to fight not to win necessarily, but to provide courage and inspiration to those that will come after them.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Ten Thousand by Michael Curtis Ford

A Novel of Ancient Greece

The cover boldly proclaims “In the ancient world, one army was feared above all others…” With such a proud figure on the cover and such loud proclamations, I gladly picked up The Ten Thousand. I was fortunate in that the cover notes that this is a worthy successor to Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, which I also managed to snag. Each book bought for a mere $1 apace.

The Ten Thousand is not filled with battle upon battle. Rather it is a well written novel of how Xenophon became a leader of the Ten Thousand, Greek Mercenaries who in this case, lost their patron half way across the world, and how Xenophon had to lead them back to safety.

The writing is highly descriptive without being overly boring. Michael Curtis Ford brings even small characters to mind with a few well placed bits, such as telling an old story that even modern readers should be familiar with. There were several sequences I initially though he was babbling, wasting pages, but they come back to fruition later on in the novel, one of the earliest sequences I thought fascinating but wasteful, nearly at the very end of the novel itself.

In short, if you want to read a historical novel of Ancient Greece, a well written, well researched novel, one based on the book Anabasis, then The Ten Thousand is a fantastic way to spend a few evenings.

For role players though, what can be gleaned?

1.       The environment must play a part in your campaigns. The initial trek to met with destiny takes the Ten Thousand away from their familiar coastal areas and through harsh desert terrain. Have you ever wanted to actually use your desert sourced theme books? Do so. On the way back from crushing defeat, the army moves through blinding, killing, snow. Want to use those winter themed books? Do so. The world is small enough that ever environment should play it’s role in your campaign.

2.       Start After a Loss: The book really picks up pace after the army that the Ten Thousand are but a small part of, meets disaster. That’s when the heroes of the book must come together and fight as one. This can be done at any level but you have to be willing to start with loss. The caravan is overrun. Waterdeep is destroyed. The Prime Material Plane is vaporized. The city of Sigil falls into the Abyss. After opening with such a crushing defeat, the players should be motivated to do what they do best!

3.       Historical Context Builds Culture: “Some three hundred years earlier, Sardis, even than a great city, had been overwhelmed by hordes of pale-skinned barbarians who had swept down from the north in endless numbers like packs of ravenous wolves, devouring all its riches and mingling their wild barbarian blood with that of the refined and delicate natives. It was said that so many men and women were killed during the barbarians brutal sweep through the city that when the carnage was over, thousands of children were left wandering the streets, homeless and wailing. The offspring of royalty mingled with those of the lowest cowherds, and the children’s identities were obliterated through the effacement of their outward customs and manners as they scrounged for scraps in the gutters. It was finally decided that no one could determine their origins with certainty, for every child claimed to have been sired by the king, and so they were simply lined up in the market like so much chattel and auctioned to the highest bidder, as slaves of the barbarians or for adoption by surviving Sardesian adults. Since that time, each baby has been imprinted with a tiny, discreet tattoo shortly after birth, usually along the hairline on the nape of the neck, depicting an identifiable family symbol such as an animal or a letter.” A few sentences of background and you’ve got a cultural bit that almost instantly identifies people from Sardis. Great stuff.

4.       Unique Characters: Description can be a boring and tedious thing but making sure that the players remember the main attractions of the event is important! “Clearchus was as terrifying an individual as Proxenus had led us to believe, and worse. His face was so homely and pockmarked as to be almost comical, but he had an evil, jagged scar running halfway down the side of his temple, which he was constantly picking at, keeping it inflamed, perhaps intentionally, for effect. His beard was so ragged and lice-infested as to raise eyebrows even for a Spartan, and he never smiled – in fact, he hardly talked except to cuss out his men, and could barely chew for the rotten blackness of his teeth.”

If you’re looking for inspiration, The Ten Thousand deals it out chapter after chapter.