Monday, July 10, 2017

Kindle Unlimited: Old School Fantasy Picks

Join Amazon Kindle Unlimited 30-Day Free Trial


With Prime Day coming up, Amazon recently did a bit where if you were a prime member, you could subscribe to Kindle Unlimited for 2 years at 40% off. It's not cheap by any means, but I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where I could afford it.

My main purpose was to give my mom access to move reading. She has near unlimited time being a retiree and she's much less picky about starting something new than I am. She's read dozens if not hundreds of books that initially I purchased from a Daily Deal or monthly deal.

But did that mean there was nothing for someone who grew up in the eighties? Someone who grew up reading Michael Moorcock and David Smith among others?

This is kind of a trick question in many ways. For example, while The Fellowship of the Ring is part of the Kindle Unlimited bit, I read it. If you've stumbled upon my blog, you may not know, but I rarely go back and reread anything as I have dozens of books I haven't read at all. Among those 

The Silmarillion, which is also available in Kindle Unlimited.


When trying to find titles, it's a massive miss. For an electronic company, the ability to sort the options in Kindle Unlimited suffers vastly. There is no way to sort by author. What an amazing lack of forethought here. You can sort by featured, price, average review, and publication date.

But not by author.

Eh?

You'll also note that you can't sort by title. One of the most basic functions of sorting and you can't do it here.

You can use the various options on the left side of the screen to cut down and chop up the options, but again, no ability to search by author.



Some might be thinking, well, how about using something like the sword & sorcery to cut down the sexy mage ladies?



That gives you options like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Whoever is setting up the meta tags clearly has no idea of what they're doing.

Failure Amazon. 100% pure failure.

It does hit some popular titles. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is in the Kindle Unlimited package. So if you, like me, have missed that particular icon of modern fantasy, well, there's a lot of hope for you.

And if you're willing to just dive into a fantasy series, man, you've got your options. Some of the covers I recognize from long deals that Amazon has had on the series. Others look like supernatural fantasy modern day 'Buffy' style books that my mom devours daily.

Most I don't recognize at all.

But a few do stand out!

The Princess Bride: Despite greatly enjoying the movie, I've never read the book.

Llarn Cycle: There are many great authors that I didn't read when I was younger because when I found out about them, the books were out of print. Nowadays that isn't such a problem IF the books are in e-format AND I remember them. Garder F. Fox is one of them. Some of his stories were even reworked into Marvel Comic's Conan. Heck, most comic books fans will be familiar with Garder from his work on the comics that did things like introducing the multi-verse to DC.

That whole bit is a win for me. I appreciate that not all of the oldies are goodies. That a lot of what has come since has been done better or is more fitting for modern politically correct times.

But I also like seeing where the genre came from and that includes things that are rarely touched on like Planetary Romance sagas.

Also included among other series by Garder, is his Kothar series. A pastiche of Conan? Perhaps but more fun stuff from back in the day.

Witch World: Here's a series I'd HAVE to reread because my reading of it was all messed up due to the publication of the original series in how I bought them. Andre Norton has a LOT of books in the Kindle Unlimited bit and that alone almost makes it worth the purchase for me.



Sword & Deviltry by Fritz Leiber:  While it's great to see some original Appendix N love here, it's almost a tease. The first book in the Kindle Unlimited, the rest? Nope.



There are other features to the Kindle Unlimited I haven't got to yet. For example, there are a ton of comics.

But again, no easy way to see the authors I like or even to list it in plain alphabetical order. Again, an immense failure by Amazon.

I'll keep digging into the Kindle Unlimited and noting some of the gems when I run across them.

Those who who already have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, are there are comics, fantasy, science fiction, historical, or business books you'd recommend? I'm going to try to get some utility out of this even if I initially bought it for the mom.










Sunday, July 9, 2017

Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski


Baptism of Fire
The Witcher Book Three
Written by Andrzej Sapkowski
Translated by David French
Trade Paperback: $16.00 /$11.34 Amazon

The numbering of the Witcher series confused me at first. The first book is the Last Wish and that makes this the fourth book.

But it's only the third book of the 'series' as the Last Wish is a collection of short stories. Nothing too complicated but it does throw the numbering off on different sites.

Baptism of Fire brings us Geralt, the White Wolf, the Witcher. He is a highly trained warrior of an order of monster slayers whose origins lie in the use of mutagenic potions to augment the human body past its normal limits.

His standard companion, Dandelion continues adventuring with him. In many ways, Dandelion is a good 'companion' style character, much like Monglum of Elric fame. He's not a great fighter, but can at least thrust a sword. His background and socialite ways give him a far different, perhaps more civilized outlook, to the Witcher's monster butchery.

There are other new companions along the way that join the Witcher in his 'Baptism of Fire', including a hunter, an old enemy, and one who should be an enemy. Other characters met along the way, like Zoltan Chivay, will be familiar to anyone who's played the video games.

The translation work is fairly done. It's not obvious that this is a translated work in terms of rough passages where you ponder what the author meant. There are times, however, when a lot of telling the audience what's going on instead of showing the audience what's going on happen.

On one hand, tell not show does save a ton of space. On the other, it's not as effective.

There's also some weirdness where a storyteller is telling children about the Witcher's tale. It's not badly done, just out of place compared to the previous chapters that didn't use a wandering storyteller.

Yennifer, the sorcerer who is at times the Witcher's lover and ally, has a brief spot in the book but it's more of a set up for future novels. Much of the material involves the Witcher save for a few brief spots on other characters just to see what they are doing.

Like previous novels in the series, this one ends not quite at a cliffhanger, but close enough that the reader is left eager to pick up the next novel.

In terms of stealing for a game of Dungeons and Dragons or other Fantasy RPGs, the game is ripe with ideas.

The Witcher in and of itself is a title bestowed upon those who pass a series of tests that make them more than human. Many die in the trying due to their bodies rejecting the potions that transform them. Others are changed in ways far more horrible than pale flesh and white hair.

The Witchers are supposed to be neutral, not serving any particular king or kingdom but instead, dedicated to the cause of killing monsters for profit.

It would make an excellent PrC or Paragon Path in 4th edition. The real trick is what do you bring in? In the novels, Geralt isn't that much of a showcase for Witcher power. Oh sure there are times when the author has the White Wolf cut through soldiers, but the novel starts with Geralt incapacitated due to wounds and it takes him a long time to recover. We also don't see any fancy spellcasting from Geralt in the novel nor even herb use or lore.


False Princess

Ciri, the 'foretold one' if you will, the girl with all the bloodlines, is supposed to be a noble character and bearing.

Instead, she travels with 'the Rats', a youth bandit gang that is murderous.

Play with player's expectations of how characters will be. Have them met people and later on find out that those people have undergone changes that might not seem normal, but are part of the growth they've been forced to experience by the harsh realities of the world.

Red Herrings

The Witcher is bound to Ciri from events in previous books. This isn't just an older warrior feeling parental over a young child. Rather Geralt knows what's happening to Ciri through dreams and the dreams foretell a life less than happy.

Initially, Geralt hears that Ciri is in one country and is being prepped for marriage to seal an alliance. He spends a lot of time and effort moving across the land in order to get there.

But the information is wrong. It's false information to keep people off the real trail. The time lost in seeking out this false hope is considerable.

When you're running your own campaigns, don't be afraid to toss red herrings into the mix. If they players are seeking someone with a common name, do they have the right person? Are there multiple crypts with the same name? Is there a crypt and a tomb? Is there a lost library and a lost labyrinth? 

War As An Obstacle

Outside of the normal problems that war presents, in a war where the players are not part of any army or part of any nationality involved in the war, they are at risk for being attacked by all sides.

This can present it's own unique opportunities though as character get involved in the strangest things. For example, in Baptism of Fire, Geralt winds up saving a queen and becoming knighted. 

The other problem with being in a war zone is that humanity is terrible. There are rapes, murders, genocide and other wretched factors that happen in the real world all the time. In a fantasy setting? Who knows what strange things may happen. For example, many settings ranging from the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, to more modern Eberron, have some part of the campaign setting scarred from a 'big weapon' that ended a previous war.

War As A Resource Drain

In addition to the dangers of getting killed outright, there are dangers of a more subtle yet still potentially dangerous origin.

Supplies.

In their travels, the Witcher and his allies come across a logging operation. It's a vast operation and takes up a lot of space and slows their advancement as they cannot easily cross the logging operation. The trees cut down are shipped out for supplies elsewhere.

Anyone who's seen the Lord of the Rings knows that one of Treebeards biggest factors in influencing his decision to fight against Sauraman the White was the logging of the forests. "A wizard should know better."




And in many cases, it's not going to be just trees. Food, metal, and in a campaign setting with available magic resources, any of those, will be up for grabs and become crucial points of potential conflict with the enemy.

The Witcher continues to expand the setting and touches on some modern issues while at the same time remaining fundamentally a fantasy story. If you're looking for something to inspire interesting characters as a player or different monsters and monster origins as a Game Master, Baptism of Fire is a good pick.







Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Devlin's Luck by Patricia Bray


Devlin's Luck
The Sword of Change: Book 1
Written by Patricia Bray
Published by Spectra
434 pages
$7.99 Kindle
$7.99 Paperback

A great thing about having a Half-Price Books close by is their random and changing selection of $1 books. It's a lot easier to take a chance on an author you've never heard of when you're only out $1. Same is true of the old Kindle books when they hit the various sweet spots on sale.

Devlin's Luck is a solid fantasy book for someone just starting the genre. It uses a small cast, small kingdom, and easy missions to get the reader involved. If you're looking for 'popcorn' reading, Devlin's Luck has you covered.

At the end, the book looks to expand in size and complexity allowing the setting and scope to grow with the series.

Devlin's Luck is a perfect 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons book in many ways. The 4th edition D&D default setting was a points of light setting. A generic kingdom where things used to be better and the world was more dangerous than it should be. Devlin's Luck takes place in 'The once mighty kingdom of Jorsk is in decline, its borders beset by enemies, both worldly and otherworldly. The king has retreated to the capital, abandoning the far-flung provinces."

That's not only a 'points of light' setting, it's a fairly standard low-level setting in most instances. There are things that need to be taken care of and the heroes are the ones to do it!

The hero of the story, Devlin Stonehand, is a former farmer and metalsmith from a rugged frontier part of Jorsk, recently conquered by the superior militia of Jorsk. He's come to the capital city to become 'the Chosen One', an old institution where a champion fights for the people of the country. It's been so dangerous lately that the kingdom pays the new Chosen One and binds them with magic to only work for the safety of the kingdom.

In the 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons, the idea of the Chosen One would have worked as a 'kit'. The profession initially doesn't seem to have a lot of character enhancing powers but does have a lot of social responsibility to it and does have a lot of social perks that go with it. The kits in 2nd edition were notorious for trying to use social issues in place of game balance.

For a small setting, the book throws the deities names out immediately. Part of being the Chosen is picking a patron deity. 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons introduced new deities in part by stealing them from other settings and by adding new ones like the Raven Queen.

Here we get:

Haakron, the Lord of Death.

Lady Geyra: Healers

Lady Sonja: The War Goddess.

Lady Tea: Mother Goddess. Patroness of those who worked the land.

Kanjti: The God of luck. A God with no temples or priests. Some called him the bastard god, the only one of the seven whose origin was a subject for hot debate. A god with no family. (pg 21-22)

Heavenly Pair: Father Teo and Mother Tea.

Another thing that Patricia Bray does, is not shy away from languages. Even though the setting is small, there are a variety of languages spoken by the people including older languages like High Jorsk. Even today in countries like China that are 'one country', there are multiple languages spoken. Never underestimate the value of languages in creating the setting that you're running.

Adventure Seeds:

One of the things I enjoyed about Devlin's Luck is it doesn't pretend that it's trying to rewrite and rework the fantasy genre or some of the simple things that can be done with it.

"There are reports of a band of marauders living in Astavard forest, who prey on travelers along the King's old highway." (pg 77)

"There was no invading army, no great battle in their future. Instead the Kingdom was dying for a thousand tiny pinpricks." (pg. 90).

Another example of how a potentially long campaign can be designed. It allows the players to pick and chose what incidents and events they will investigate and so move the campaign in a direction of their choosing.

How much more classic than bandit attack can you get?

Character Actions

If you want the players to be engaged with the setting, both in the dungeon and out, make sure that others are paying attention to what they do for both good and ill.

"His self-discipline was contagious, and she noticed that her own guards trained all the harder for his example." (pg. 249)

"As he tried to read t he mage's expression he realized that for the first time in their acquaintance Master Dreng's eyes w ere clear, and the hand that clasped his was steady. A remarkable change in one who was reputed to spend his entire life deep in his cups." (pg. 256)

Humans are social animals. We try to be like others, we try to make organizations and achievements with others. Seeing someone strive to be better may encourage us to be better. Seeing someone who needs us at our best may encourage us to be at our best.

If you show that the actions the players take off the battlefield have consequences in the setting, the players may decide to go with that. If you want to encourage that type of behavior and the player's don't normally do such, have the background be influenced by others. You can either act or be acted upon. When the players see people taking after X, Y, or Z instead of them, perhaps they'll be more motivated to be part of the setting as opposed to rogue loners. 

Culture:

"I trade with many, but always with Brigia deMor, daughter of Nesta of the Mountains. She has given me the blessing of her name," the woman said proudly.

A blessing was a powerful thing indeed. In the literal sense, it meant that Brigia deMore regarded this woman as a member of her family. It was rare for any outlander to receive such an honor." (pg. 35)

When designing an adventure, a setting, a character, or a quest, what role does the background of the people play in it? What are they known for? What are their codes of conduct? What makes one valued among them?

Culture doesn't have to be a whole society. It can be a part of the society.

'A copper armband lay on the workbench. Favored by soldiers as a luck token." (pg. 59) The history of an organization, of a society, or a group of individuals, can be telling in many ways. It can be tattoos, it can be slogans, it can be art. 


Points of Light


"Devlin's foot skidded across a slippery stone, and he flailed wildly before regaining his balance. At the start of his journey, this road had been paved with interlocking stones, with a raised crown that allowed water to run off into the ditches on the side. The farther he traveled from Kingsholm, the worse the road became. The stones showed signs of wear, than cracking, and then weeds had begun to appear. By now, nearly two weeks' journey from the capital, there were many places where the stones had vanished altogether. And the drainage ditches were choked with weeds and debris so that instead of draining the water, the roads were covered with mud washed won from the fields on either side. (pg. 95) 

That's a great example of how a point of light campaign can be described. What was one mighty has tumbled. What once was great, is not even standard. It shares themes with Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales where the Viking raiders are in awe of the Roman structures left behind in England. 

Taverns and Inns:

"The Singing Fish is in the old city, near the river. It's not fancy, but they have good food and a very fine cellar." (pg. 30).

Devlin is new to the city. He's new to this part of the country. Where better to hear how the common folk act that in a tavern in the old part of the city? Where the common folk mingle? It's an old trope to be sure but it's continued use showcases that it's still a viable way to gather information and to have a gathering place.

Weather:

'But then the rains had come. For the past three, days he had slogged on, ankle deep in muck.' (pg. 94)

Never forget that the sun may rise in the east but the players don't necessarily have to see it. Clouds, fog, mist, rain, humidity, the dew point! All of these things can make the setting seem more alive than just using standard sunny days when the characters are traveling from point A to point B.

Devlin's Luck by Patricia Bray is a solid fantasy story that contains many little nods to realism from numerous languages and social structures, to the evolution of Devlin Stonehand as the Chosen One. I look forward to eventually reading the next books in the series.







Monday, July 3, 2017

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger


Little Big Man
Written by Thomas Berger
Published by The Dial Press
$17.00/$11.51 Amazon

One of the reasons I enjoy reading outside the 'fantasy ghetto' is that you never know what you'll stumble upon. I can't remember where I first read that Little Big Man was a classic of the Western Genre, indeed, of American literature itself, but I'm glad I dug into it.

After finishing the book, I was informed of the movie featuring Dustin Hoffman. He does a great job in a solid movie but man, if anyone from HBO or Showtime is listening, Little Big Man could use a truer to book edition in a season or limited edition format.



So what does Little Big Man bring that makes it worth reading for gamers?

First off, Thomas Berger is a great writer. If you're looking for one liners or other bits to throw into your game, Thomas has more than his share of them.

"However, I believe that when Wild Bill Hickok faced a man he looked at his opponent's eye as if it was a cork." (pg. 305)

Alien  Cultures

Jack Crabb spends a lot of time among the Indian Cheyenne tribe. During that time, he enjoys boiled dog as well as having four wives. He returns to the tribe several times and it contrasts the ways of the Cheyenne, who call themselves 'Human Beings' to the 'White Man'.

In terms of other nationalities, we get a brief taste of them. For example, while on a raid, Jack is ambushed and almost scalped when the ambusher realizes that he's actually a white man. That particular tribe is fond of the whites so lets Jack live. Jack promptly repays him with three arrows in the back.

When adding different cultures, much less different races,  think about why they are different, to begin with. If the only difference between humans and elves turns out to be the lifespan, might as well just get rid of one or the other.

Think about how the children are raised. Are they raised by the clan?

What roles do men and women play?

What foods are eaten? Even in the modern day world people in the United States tend to look in horror at southern China's holiday where they eat dog. Now never mind that the Cow is a sacred animal to millions of Indians...

How is history kept? How is the passage of time measured? The author gives us an event driven history that doesn't rely on days or dates but on seasons and events.

Are there common sayings?

'My son," says Old Lodge Skins, "if it cannot, then the sun will shine upon a good day to die." (pg. 220).

Culture can be a thousand things and none of them are easy to digest in one sitting. Don't hit the players over the head with things until they stop playing but feed into the differences a bit per session until the players can recognize weird words and phrases both in character in the real world.

Character Behavior

Behavior and motivation are separate things. Behavior depends on a series of actions that are necessary for a profession that may be technical or may be encouraged by other's behavior.

'This is a good example of the suspiciousness which warps the minds of gunfighters. I had fell into it right quick, just being in Wild Bill's proximity. You feel like your whole body is one live nerve. At that moment one of them cardplayers having just won a pot, let out a holler of triumpth, and both Hickok and myself come out of our chairs, going for our iron..." (pg. 285).

'Of course I could see he was a fanatic. You had to be, to get so absorbed in talk of holsters and cartridge loads and barrel length and filing down the seat to make a hair trigger and the technique of tying back the trigger and arming the hammer to fire, etc., etc...

"Now then, about that S & W you carry. It is a handsome weapon, but the shells have a bad habit of erupting and jamming the chambers. I'd lay the piece aside and get me something else: a Colt's with the Thuer conversion..." (pg 286-287)

Here, the profession of the Gun Fighter shows its professional side. It's the difference between a mercenary who picks up a weapon and is surprised when it jams and the professional who can disassemble and reassemble it. 

Character Motivation

'Course, he says, there's where the personality come in; whether fast or slow, there was one perfect shot for each occasion, and you killed or died according to how close you come to achieving it. Once arriving at your decision to fire upon a man, your mind becomes a blank, and your will, your body, and your pistol merged into one instrument with a single job.' (pg. 305)

One of the easiest motivations for adventurers in any genre is to find that moment. While Dragon Ball Z's main hero Goku is nearly silly in his desire to be the strongest there is and to fight great opponents, he's always earnest in his desire. Gunslingers have been portrayed as seeking to be the best, the same is true of swordsmen. 

Family

Jack Crabb comes from an interesting family and makes more along the way. His father a bit of an insane preacher. His sister a strong woman out of her time. His brother? A dealer of poisons.

But then there's his 'cousin' Amelia. Only turns out, Amelia, a former lady of the night, isn't actually his cousin and Jack knew that from the start. Rather, it's that Jack 'adopts' her into his family and their both okay with it.

The family you make as opposed to the one you're born with.

Jack is also the father to a son not his own. He also loses his wife Olga and son to an Indian attack and finds them long after they would recognize him as both they and he have undergone many changes. The transitional nature of family and the roots one sets are made in numerous contrasts.

History

"That still leaves the matter of the meat, and you can't escape the fact that there was awful waste in that area, whereas Indians generally consumed in one form or another every inch of a buffalo from his ears to the hoofs, including even the male part, from which they boiled up a glue." (pg 325).

Sometimes the world moves in a direction and no matter what some due, they can't stop the movement of the world. In this case, Jack is assuring future readers that in many instances, the slaughter of the buffalo wasn't done to intentionally harm the natives, but rather, simply to make money.

If you look at the environment in 2017 and see how laws have been enacted and repealed and worked for and against, the pursuit of profit against the manner in which humans live, like dumping coal ash into rivers, is still debated.

Elves may love their forests, but people need the wood for fuel, they need it for constructing weapons and buildings. They need the space cleared for crops and grazing. Sorry elves, nothing personal, but you got to go.

Dwarves? Dwarves in a gold-rich environment? I can't imagine the slaughter that would take place in any fantasy campaign that wanted to throw historical accuracy at it unless the dwarves were able to completely fight off the attackers. Problem is that doesn't count say the numerous horrors for the beneath the earth that the dwarves are usually dealing with.


Plot Seeds

Unappreciated Treasures

Towards the end of the novel, Custer and his cavalry, are on the move. To ensure that the Calvary stays focused on the mission, Custer hasn't paid the men. Instead, the money is kept separately from them. When Custer and his people are slaughtered, the money blows away in the wind.

Sometimes the opponents a group faces, don't have the same values as those they fight. While some of the Indians may have found a use for the money, most were happy to take other sorts of grisly trophies of their victory against Custer.

In a fantasy campaign, if dealing with an insect people that have no appreciation of gold, jewelry or man-made weapons and armor, because they craft everything they need from the corpses of their dead using hard chitin weapons and armor, perhaps the players stumble upon a huge treasure that the enemy may not appreciate, but appreciate the presence of the player's even less.

Range Dependent Magics

'I was born there, on the Rosebud Creek. Indeed, my medicine works only half-strength when I come below the Shell River." (pg. 220)

Games like Rifts use Ley Lines or 'Dragon Blood' or some manner indicating that a certain part of the earth is rich with magic. Are there specific parts of a campaign setting that are known to be that like? Does victory depend on getting the enemy away from such a land?

In the Forgotten Realms for example, after the age old Avatar Crisis, there were wild magic and dead magic zones. Mages wouldn't be caught dead in a dead magic zone if they could help it. 

Use variances in power level based on location and see how the players can turn it against their opposition.

Reputation

'Wild Bill Hickok was never himself a braggart. He didn't have to be. Others did it for him. When I say he was responsible for a ton of crap, I don't mean he ever spoke a word in his own behalf. He never said he put a head on Tom Custer, nor wiped out the McCanles gang, nor would he ever mention them ten shots inside the O. But others would be doing it incessantly, and blowing up the statistics and lengthening the yardage and diminishing the target." (pg. 284)

In a game where there are 'wild lands' or sparsely populated areas, 'badlands', a player's reputation can take him far. What's he known for? What's he been seen doing?

A bounty hunter that uses a particular weapon in a particular way may have a greater reputation than another bounty hunter that uses the same weapon ever other hunter uses.

A character that gets lucky in a big brawl or arrives at just the right time may find themselves with a great reputation.

The only problem? Wild Bill Hickok had to defend that reputation and in this book at least, his actions come back to haunt him the one time he doesn't sit with his back to the wall. Being known for something, especially something that involves violence, means that there will always be others out there trying to make their own reputation. 

Reputation can be public and private. 'Even as a remnant, the Seventh Cavalry lived up to its glorious traditions, linking arms in public while privately slandering one another.' (pg 438)

An organization may be known for its professionalism and its tactic, but those who know the 'real' organization may have different things to say about it. You often see this with people with terrible secrets. "Oh, Fred? I would never have suspected that he was a cannibal."

Senses

'But as we come closer, the marble-white was not clear, but streaked and sometimes drowned in red which the heat turned brown, and the smell was starting up too, attended by millions of flies, and the birds rose in great circles at our approach and coyotes scampered off to a safe range.' (pg. 424)

Berger puts the most obvious sense, sight to good use. But then he goes into smell. And then, the byproducts that often accompany death, the scavengers. If the players come across a slaughtered caravan, do you describe how ripe the smell is? Do you tell them that the ground is sticky with blood? Do you talk about the insect life making it's home in the corpses? The egg laying? The eye feasting? 


Weird Stuff

'And then, the summer of '74 billions of grasshoppers descended on the plains in a great blanket stretching from Arkansas to Canada...a Union Pacific train was stalled at Kearney, Nebraska, by a three-foot drift of them insects.' (pg. 338)

Sometimes something weird happens. Throw it in the campaign.

Little Big Man is an excellent book for both players and game masters of any genre. Character motivations and adventue seeds aplenty, NPCs and settings call to those who heed this book.






Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Hammer and The Blade by Paul S Kemp



The Hammer & The Blade
An Egil & Nix Novel
Written by Paul S Kemp

Paul S. Kemp may be more familiar to fans of the Forgotten Realms through his characters of shade and shadow. Here Paul starts a new chapter in his writing career, one that launches a new world with new characters with some very old themes.

Cast in a similar vein as the ruin hunting adventures of Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Nix the Lucky or Nix the Swift, is the companion of Egil of Ebenor. Nix is clearly the 'rogue' of the pair. He does most of the sneaking, is quick, is known for his accuracy with thrown daggers, and like the Mouser is a dabbler in magic thanks to a year in a sorcerer college.

Egil is a bit different. While you couldn't tell from the cover, he's often described as being so hairy that he's mistaken for a bear or wearing a heavy winter coat in summer. Like having a mustache and beard even. Like having a ringlet around his scalp of hair.

In terms of being 'of Ebenor', that's the God who is of the Moment. In this case, an entity that was a god for a moment. And while Egil is referred to as a priest throughout the novel, he's not a spellcasting priest. He's a dual hammer wielder.

The novel starts with the duo doing some tomb raiding and that spirals out into the main body of the story. Paul keeps the cast small and the setting around the cast. He expands upon that setting through the use of historical murals, psychic visions, and playful banter back and forth between the characters.

Paul's work focuses on the 'adventuring' aspect with tombs to plunder and foes to battle. There's a lot of fighting going on in a setting that has sorcery and magical items but isn't awash in them like say the Forgotten Realms. Paul's descriptions of the numerous fights the duo get in are captivating and move along pulling the reader with them. Many of the foes the duo face, both magical and mundane, are able to be effected by normal steel and the dreaded forces of gravity. This gives it far more of a sword and sorcery pulp action feel than a setting where the main character is disintegrating individuals with power enough to destroy them from the timeline.

At this point, neither character bears an enchanted or named weapon and their competencies are tested over and over.

Despite the familiar ground, Paul walks, he brings his own twists to things. For example, the final 'fate' of the villain of the piece? Hinted at earlier but perhaps cruder than we'd have seen during the genre's top popularity.

If you're a fan of sword & sorcery, of high action, of good guys who aren't necessarily 'good guys', The Hammer and the Blade is a great place to introduce yourself to Nix and Egil.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Crossing the Streams: Civil War


When I talk about stealing ideas from any source, some may seem odder than others. How about Marvel Comic's Civil War for example?

If you look at the 5th Edition D&D Player's Handbook, you've got the following classes:

  • Barbarian
  • Bard
  • Cleric
  • Druid
  • Fighter
  • Monk
  • Paladin
  • Ranger
  • Rogue
  • Sorcerer
  • Warlock
  • Wizard


So how many of those classes cast spells or use some type of magic? How easy would it be to incorporate the idea of 'registration' for anyone who could cast magic? Even if it's just limited to a portion of the setting, it could create complications with most parties.

Imagine in Waterdeep you are automatically tagged and put into a school and have to work for the city.

Imagine in Cormyr you HAVE to be in the War Wizards.

In some ways, the settings often work something similar if at a reduced structure into their settings. But when you push things to an extreme level? They can take on different shades, different meanings.

It can also provide automatic breaks for the campaign. Imagine that it's not ALL magic using classes, just those that are arcane. All of the sudden you're sorcerer and warlock who didn't have to study for their magic, outside of the usual bits, now have to deal with witch hunters from all over the campaign setting. Now they have to deal with clerical spellcasters armed with dispel magic scrolls and a great knowledge of arcane magic.

Imagine the competition so fierce that warlock patrons are being killed off in the campaign by the deities of the setting, forcing people who still wish to be spellcasters to turn to deities for their power.

Pushing the ideas further, imagine groups that were once considered 'good' working on these terms. The 'Harpers' all of the sudden becomes a group that advocates for all mages to be registered and trained specifically so that they don't do any wrongs and that they have to be kept tabs on at all times. They point out the 'rogue' wizards of places like Zhentil Keep and Thay as a perfect reason why these laws must be passed and other countries, like Cormyr, fully agree, on the insistence that while in their country, these wizards work for both the Harpers and the country.

Still further, and you can see anti-magic zones like those created during the Time of Troubles becoming hot spots where the martial classes would gather to plot their works against the wizards of the world.

Still further and you can see countries using mage sniffing demons, hounds, or other entities that could sense and eat/countermagic.

This might lead to mages that don't rely 100% on their magic, mages that are multi-classed or are in hiding by claiming to be clerics or druids.

Comics can be a fun way to see how plot lines and ideas play out. Don't hesitate to steal from them.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Of Truth and Beasts


Of Truth and Beasts
A Novel of the Noble Dead
Written by Barb & J.C. Hendee
Published by Roc

It's been a long time since I've read the Noble Dead series. Part of that was I don't like Wynn, Chane, and Shade as much as the original trio. They are pale reflections of the unique features that the original trio brought to the series.

It's not that they don't have their own charm.

Wynn is a scholar, a sage even, whose motivation in finding things out is to help save the world. In this her guild works against her because there are things that the guild thinks man is not meant to know and so it's a back and forth between her guild and the factions within it, including those that think, due to Wynn's tenacious nature, that she will find a way through to long-forgotten knowledge.

There's there's Chane. Spoiler alert folks, he's a vampire who was killed early in the series by the former star, Magiere. She even went so far as to cut his head off. It didn't take but the decapitation left him a nice scar and a raspy voice.

Oh, and he and Wynn have an 'unspoken thing' between them. You know, like Cheers. 

The last of the original trio is Shade, a fey hound of sorts that doesn't speak in words, but rather conveys things through memories. It works well in some points but also limits how the character can be used in terms of interaction with the others. 

Having said that, since I haven't read any of the books in a long time, it was a pleasant read focused mainly on exploration and character interaction not only between the new trio, but also Ore Locks, a dwarf seeking redemption for one of his ancestors. Important when that ancestor is known as The Lord of Slaughter and you're not a worshipper of Khrone.

Part of this back and forth involves trying to get permission to engage in the mission in the first place. The Sages aren't really keen on letting Wynn out of their sight but at the same time, if they banish her or try anything funky, well, there's the vampire dude and the dwarf and the fey dog... so many complications! Better to try and feed her a little information at a time and lead her in the direction they want her to go.

But Wynn is not one so easily lead and quickly slips the leash taking limited funds and spending them all in an effort to get ahead of her own guild, which to a certain point works.

The novel includes a few different factions that don't all get equal face time but it does give us a peak into the wraith, Sau'ilahk, a man who served the 'Enemy' because he thought he'd get to be young forever. Nope! Turns out they bound him after a long lived life and took his flesh so he's a formless, shapeless, black cape! He could be a super villain, "Fear the Wraith!"

He's kind of annoying. When a villain gets a good death scene, go with it. And in the last volume, Sau'ilahk got that death scene. Bringing him back and giving him some more background and motivation works to a point, but it's also a mirror of bringing back Chane in previous volumes. "Kill your darlings" as the old saying goes.

Having said that, the mix of exploration and character conflict comes to a nice climax in an ancient dwarf hold and the things in that old dwarf hold? Well, let's just say that fans of The Hobbit aren't going to be disappointed. The novel ends with an epilogue that sets up the next series in the Nobel Dead series.

If you're a fan of fantasy exploration and standard races with a bit of a twist on them, like Ore Locks and how the dwarves in this setting work, you'll enjoy it. If you're looking for high action thought and intense combat scenes like David Gemmell or R. A. Salvatore or known for bringing to their series? Not so much.

The Nobel Dead continues to move the plot forward with "the McGuffin" for at least another 'phase (3 even!) of five books so if you like your series long and epic, the Nobel Dead should hold you over.