Early this year, before the world went all the way to hell, back when we still met people, a friend dropped off his entire collection of Knights of the Dinner Table at my place. This amounted to about 40 Bundle of Trouble trade paperbacks, all five Tales from the Vault collections, a few other collection books, and where the paperbacks tapered off, single issues up to around 240’s.
So I did what any self-respecting geek does and began reading, while taking notes.
The strip itself started in 1990, intended as filler for the Shadis magazine, and kicked off in 1994 as a monthly comic book which is still ongoing. The first Bundle of Trouble collects the first three issues of the magazine. The first eight Bundles of Trouble are stapled, but from the ninth book onward they are perfect-bound. Starting from Vol. 12, they compile four issues of the magazine each.
Here are my observations after reading the first book.
The comic tells of a gaming group in Muncie, Indiana. The Game Master is B.A. Felton, who’d like there to be role-playing in his game. Brian, Dave, and Bob are hack & slashers to the core, and will kill everything they meet. In the second issue, they are joined by Sara, who’s also capable of diplomatic solutions. Nobody ever talks in character. I understand Bob, Dave, and Brian are based on certain people Blackburn knows, while Sara is a composite of many female gamers of his acquaintance.
It’s been drawn once. There’s a wide shot of the table and the players, a couple of close-ups, and some variation on these themes that’s then copied and pasted into comic strips. These are short tales, a couple of pages long at the most, about how something goes wrong. Half the time the players threaten each other or B.A. with violence and in several instances they actually come to blows. It’s like looking at some secluded tribe that never came up with the idea of non-violent problem solving. What I don’t get out of this is why these people would spend time with one another or play role-playing games. They don’t seem to be having any fun, ever. The strip is missing the love of the game that’s intrinsic to the success of, say, The Order of the Stick.
The jokes are so worn that the stories would be disturbingly familiar even if I’d never read KotDT. The first story in the book is a retelling of “Eric and the Gazebo”. There’s a larp story, where Dave and Bob go to a vampire larp and start dressing up goth and wearing makeup and piercings, because larping is weird. There’s the story where Sara joins the group, Brian doesn’t dare talk to a girl, and Dave is a tedious sexist. Sara solves the situation by threatening Dave with violence. There’s a story where the players go play with the infamous Nitro Ferguson (or Furguson, or Fergueson – Blackburn never settles on a spelling) while B.A. is away. Nitro runs an adventure based on Deliverance and Bob gets traumatised by what his elf experiences. He no longer wants to play the character. This is played for laughs.
In the editorials and the collection’s introduction, there’s a running theme of fans finding their own experiences and their gaming buddies in the situations and characters of the comic. In a way, I kinda also do, but in these characters I see all those people I’ve had to ban from gaming clubs and online spaces. The image of gamers in KotDT is suffused with the self-loathing that characterizes American nerd media, which makes most of this stuff entirely unbearable (see also The Big Bang Theory).
It will be interesting to see how the book’s portrayal of gamers changes with the times. Three down, 237 to go.
There were ultimately three monster books released for the Planescape setting, the Planescape Monstrous Compendiums I-III. They eschew the product numbering of the rest of the Monstrous Compendium line, which was a mess anyway. The first printing of the AD&D 2E Monstrous Manual was a big binder with loose-leaf monster entries, running off the idea that additional monster supplements could just be slipped in and you’d have all your monsters in the same place. While I like the idea, they’d have needed something in place to address the issue of new monsters that fall alphabetically between two creatures that are on different sides of the same sheet. Anyway, by the time this book rolled around, that concept was dead and buried, and thus in 1994 we got this lavishly illustrated 128-page book and its sequels. Well, by the time this book rolled around the second time.
A lot of Planescape Monstrous Compendium Volume 1 — or PSMC1 — is actually recycled content from 1991’s MC8 Monstrous Compendium Outer Planes Appendix. And when I say “a lot”, I mean “nearly all”. There’s a convenient Wikipedia page that lists the critters and where they’re originally from (while it’s generally bad form to use Wikipedia as a source, but I did check, and at least now in late March of 2020 it was valid). MC8 has 91 monsters, while PSMC1 has 105. By a quick count, 71 of these were carried over. Of the remaining 20, most resurfaced in Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix II and Planes of Law (notably the archons). Only the air sentinel, the celestial lammasu, and the adamantite dragon didn’t make further appearances. The air sentinel is basically an off-brand djinn native to Bytopia (or the Twin Paradises as it’s still known at the time), and the other two are what it says on the tin. The adamantite dragon is also native to the Twin Paradises. Its breath weapons are the traditional cone of flame, and a time stop effect. Planescape didn’t really do dragons, which is probably why it made no further appearances.
All this makes PSMC1 a dissonant book. While the art was all redone by Tony DiTerlizzi and the layout is the Planescape we know and love, complete with in-character blow-up quotations, a lot of the text was not given the proper attention. While it’s by no means just copypaste, and some entries are lavishly expanded from the original, the fact remains that MC8’s writer J. Paul LaFountain was not a particularly good prosaist. The text is janky, which is thrown into sharper relief when it sits alongside material written specifically for this book.
However, PSMC1 is a vital book. It gathers together most of the major critters of the setting with the exception of modrons and some of the good-aligned outsiders. It’s got the main lineups of baatezu, tanar’ri, and yugoloths. There’s the marut, which D&D 3E later ran with and used as a springing board for the inevitables. There’s the random monster generator that is the hordling, there’s tieflings, shadow fiends, night hags, and the animal lords of Beastlands. We’re introduced to the combatants of the Blood War and the whole larva ecosystem/economy that the Lower Planes have got going on.
Most of the art is good, though a couple of the fiends only have very closely framed mugshots that don’t really tell much about how they look besides ugly, and it took me until the 3E-era Wayne Reynolds illustration of the ultroloth to figure out what it looks like.
Possibly my favourite thing about this book are the mephits. They’re basically elemental imps; small, winged humanoids with breath weapons and bad attitudes. The core of the entry is boosted off MC14 Fiend Folio Appendix, but that one has six mephits whereas this book has sixteen, one for each elemental, paraelemental, and quasielemental plane. They’re characterised by weakness as combatants and being an amusing collection of unwanted personality traits, but what makes them really shine is the concept of mephit messages. They are used as messengers by more powerful creatures, but the mephit itself is the message, and the type of mephit sent. A radiant mephit offers truce, a salt mephit declares open warfare, and so on. It’s like the language of flowers, if the flower was also an asshole to your pets, smelled bad, and tried to cadge cigarettes off you.
Next up is Planes of Chaos, and I’ll see if I can’t draw something more interesting out of that.
Around a year ago we inaugurated an RPG book club on Facebook and it took me this long to figure I might use the social pressure to get me working on this project again. So, to reiterate, as I am the keeper of a complete collection of the Planescape product line, I will read all of it and jot down my musings.
A lot has changed since I started these. Nowadays, this stuff is available in PDF on DriveThruRPG, with product histories written by Shannon Appelcline. I will be drawing on those histories as I go. I also noticed that the blog Guile’s World has created conversions of Planescape things for Pathfinder 1E, which I’ll be linking as we go along. The Eternal Boundary’s conversion is here.
Here we go, then. I chose The Eternal Boundary, partly because it’s a short 32-page adventure and I could get through it in an hour even while taking notes, and partly because it was the first adventure module published for Planescape, coming out in June 1994. Its product code 2601 is the next one from Planescape Campaign Setting.
Incidentally, an in-depth look into its bowels will contain SPOILERS.
The Eternal Boundary is written by L. Richard Baker III, who according to Wikipedia is the same person as the Rich Baker or Richard Baker who worked on a lot of AD&D, D&D and Alternity stuff as well as some of the better Forgotten Realms novels like the Last Mythal trilogy and City of Ravens.
The first thing that strikes about this thing is that production-wise, they weren’t messing around. It comes with its own DM screen, with NPC stats and dungeon maps on the DM side and art, a tavern map and a map of the Hive on the player side. The adventure itself is a coverless booklet.
The Eternal Boundary, spread out
Plot and Structure
The adventure’s background is that a wizard by the name of Green Marvent, based in the gate town Plague-Mort, is hatching a cunning plan to destabilize the kriegstanz and become a real shaker in Sigil. It’s a bit on the convoluted side, but the basic idea is that his agents pick out barmies in the Hive – the mentally ill, beggars, people nobody will miss – and take them out with a spell called feign death, which makes them appear, well, dead. They’re then taken to the Mortuary, where Marvent’s agent on the inside flings them through a portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire, ostensibly for cremation but really into a base run by other agents, who take the knocked-out barmies, reprogram them by telling them they’re dead but have a second chance at life, and give them orders to go to Sigil and join a faction. Marvent would then use these sleeper agents to do something that’s not described in detail. Green Marvent’s outfit is named the Illuminated, and they’re what we would call a sect.
The 1996 German translation by Uwe Körner.
The adventure is meant for low-level characters, levels 1st-3rd according to the text, 1st-5th according to the back cover. I checked my German-language copy, which says “Die Ewige Grenze is geeignet für eine Gruppe von 4-6 Charakteren der Stufen 1-5″, so I guess that settles it. This makes sense, first adventure and everything, and it kinda also works as an introduction to Planescape. It’s not a Grand Tour of the Planes kind of thing, but starts off slow. I figure a playthrough would take some four to six hours, depending on how quick the players are on the uptake and how much fighting they end up doing. In my judgement, this could be run as a one-shot.
The Eternal Boundary is structured into three parts, “The Hive, “The Mortuary” and “The Eternal Boundary”. In “The Hive”, they are hired to look for a person. It depends on party composition which introduction they get. If there are no faction members or only members of the Dustmen, the Bleak Cabal, or the Xaositects, they get the no-faction intro, and otherwise they get the faction start. This is because those three factions are deeply involved in the plot and especially having a Dustman in the party can shortcut most of the second part.
As a side note, it’s always felt to me like some of the factions are more NPC groups than others, and these three are on the NPC-ey end of the scale. I will talk more about this once we reach Factol’s Manifesto.
Anyway, they’re hired to look up a Hiver by name of Eliath because he has information about a demiplane called the Isle of Black Trees. This is funny to me because Planescape: Torment was later developed by Black Isle Studios. Anyway, by meeting people they should be able to figure out Eliath was killed recently and taken to the Mortuary.
“Should” is the operative word here. AD&D wasn’t the best system for running investigations and the DM is advised to just give them the map with hotspots and then throw encounters at them. They will meet Dustmen and Chaosmen and/or Bleakers, and a barmy local who “dies”. The Bleakers and Chaosmen are investigating the deaths and may decide that the PCs are either guilty or impeding the investigation. They will eventually be assaulted by the Shadowknave, Green Marvent’s catspaw, and his gang.
Hopefully, the party eventually figures out they need to investigate the Mortuary, which brings us to Part II, “The Mortuary”. First, though, they will be informed by their boss that Eliath has been spotted alive, and will hopefully look him up and interrogate him (among the things they can find out is that the Isle of Black Trees is a dead end with him). They’ll also encounter the barmy they saw “die” in the Hive, now going by another name and a member of a party member’s faction.
At this point, the party should have enough railroad track built to figure out there’s something sketchy going on at the Mortuary, so the next thing is to infiltrate it. Hopefully infiltrate, because a frontal assault will result in character deaths. Getting caught, on the other hand, will shortcut the entire second part of the adventure, since whoever catches them will either be Illuminated or hand them over to the Illuminated undercover agent. Unless they come clean to Factol Skall, who will conduct an investigation of his own and “dispose” of the PCs, which feels like bad design to me and I would have Skall throw the PCs at the problem on the philosophy that if it doesn’t make the problem go away, at least the PCs did.
The Mortuary is basically presented as a dungeon crawl instead of a more reasonable format for an infiltration mission, which I suppose is understandable considering the book reads AD&D and 1994, but does take up a lot of space. Incidentally, the Mortuary presented here is basically the same as the Mortuary of Planescape: Torment, with in some cases not only precisely the same floorplan but also the same encounters.
The problem with Part II is that by my reading, the clues the PCs go into the Mortuary with are pretty thin. They’ll have “the Mortuary” and possibly “Elemental Plane of Fire”, but unless they have a particularly kleptomaniac outlook and go to a specific crypt, they will not discover the agent’s name. These are always a bit hard to see just by reading the text, but to my eye the investigation does not flow naturally.
Anyway, one way or another they will end up through the gate to the Elemental Plane of Fire and the Citadel of Fire. The setup implies a few ways for them to go about this such as infiltration, but the end result is likely going to be an assault. At this point the party will likely have enough information to piece together what’s going on and will try to end it. There’s a boss, a githzerai fighter/mage named Imogen, to fight who will demonstrate admirable initiative once she figures out there are intruders, and will gather a team to seek and destroy them. This makes speed imperative – the more enemies the party can take out before Imogen gathers up her posse, the fewer members it will have. I like the crew in the Citadel of Fire. There’s a nice variety of adversaries. I have no idea what the stone golem is doing in a low-level adventure, though. By my reading, they’re not supposed to fight it, but it’s there and under the control of Imogen, which is weird.
The ideal ending is presented as destroying the life support gem, rescuing the prisoners, and returning to Sigil. What bothers me is what’s not presented. Green Marvent’s whole plot isn’t laid out very well, which makes failure or partial failure harder to adjudicate. The Eternal Boundary also doesn’t present options for follow-up. It’s like it’s written as the first part of a series but there are no sequels. Green Marvent, the evil mastermind, is never encountered. While he’s mentioned in the Plague-Mort entries in Planescape Campaign Setting and later in Well of Worlds, there’s no follow-up that I’ve been able to find. Reading this is like watching a story through a keyhole. I have a constant awareness of missing context.
The other side of the screen.
The Eternal Boundary is the first place where we encounter the concept of sects. Not quite as large, or powerful, or as Sigil-centered as the factions, they’re similar, significant power groups. Some of them have a governing philosophy of some kind, some – like the Illuminated – are mostly just a bunch of thugs. We will be formally introduced to sects in Planes of Chaos.
Another thing that struck me with its absence was Tony DiTerlizzi’s art. There are three full-page colour illustrations of a Sigil street, the Mortuary, and the Citadel of Fire, by Rick Berry, Ned Dameron, and Alan Pollack. The cover, portraying a Mortuary zombie with a number on his forehead, is by Robh Ruppel. I like it as an atmosphere piece but it is a bit drab.
So, there it is, The Eternal Boundary. I feel it is more interesting as a resource on the Mortuary than as an adventure module. Indeed, if its description of the Mortuary hadn’t been so detailed, I think it could’ve accommodated more immediately usable material such as more a more thorough description of the Illuminated and a rundown of Green Marvent’s masterplan. If you want a starred review, 3/5.
Next up: Monstrous Compendium Planescape Appendix I, unless someone convinces me otherwise.
I am probably late to the party on this, but just this past week I discovered the game Spire: The City Must Fall. It looked absolutely fascinating, so I threw myself into it and read the entire book cover to cover, and now I have thoughts about it.
I have not yet played the game, though I’m already scheduling one-shots to kick the tyres a bit and see how this bad boy works in practice. The book itself clocks in at 220 pages and is gorgeously illustrated by Adrian Stone. I bought the PDF. It is published by the London-based Rowan, Rook, and Decard Ltd. and written and designed by Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor.
Spire is a game about drow elves. The drow live in the city known as Spire, an impossible pile of buildings that reaches towards the stars. A proper hive city. It used to belong to the drow, but two hundred years ago an invader came, and their rule was overthrown, and they are now the underclass, the dregs of society. That invader was the aelfir, or the high elves. To earn the right to live in Spire, a drow must do a period of indentured servitude known as the durance. Perhaps they will serve in the army of the expansionist aelfir, perhaps in the city guard to oppress their fellow drow. Perhaps they will be servants to the high elves.
Whatever their profession or background, all player characters belong to the Ministry, a quasi-religious revolutionary conspiracy. Their goal: to overthrow the rule of the aelfir and restore Spire to the drow.
To start with, a word on the ruleset. The system looks like an cousin of Blades in the Dark. This is not a generic system. There’s character classes, which are woven deeply into the world of the game. There’s the Knight, which is a fighter class, but also the member of a drunken and disorderly chivalric order, who can glance at the room and instantly determine who to pick a fight with in order to create a distraction or impress people. There’s the Midwife, who’s the caretaker and defender of drow eggs (!) and gets weird spider abilities. The Firebrand is a revolutionary who eventually becomes to embody the anger of the people. Each class has a couple of abilities they get at the beginning, and advances that are grouped into Low, Medium, and High. There is no level or experience system as such, but the characters gain advances as they effect change in the Spire. In addition to the ultimately finite lists of advances from their class, the characters can also pick advances from the lists of specific organizations, or related to their durance. The system is lightweight but the characters seem very customizable.
The basic resolution system is elegant. You roll a small dice pool of d10s – possibly as few as one – and the highest one counts. There’s degrees of success. You can fail bad, just fail, succeed at cost, succeed, and succeed really well. Failures and success at cost inflict stress. The durability of your character in Spire is measured by stress and resistance, and there are five types of resistance. Blood measures your physical durability and is basically your hit points – you fuck up in combat, you usually get Blood stress. The other resistances measure your finances, mental stability and wellbeing, cover identities and secrecy, and local reputation. As stress accumulates, the GM rolls stress tests and failing one of these results in fallout, which comes in minor, medium, and severe. The fallouts are narrative. Severe fallouts may result in death. A minor Blood fallout might be “bleeding”, a medium one “broken arm”, and a severe one “dying”, which gives the character a choice of either doing one final action with bonus dice, or trying to desperately cling to life, losing something vital in the bargain. I like this system. Character death in Spire feels like a thing that happens and should happen, and the character creation seems light enough that creating a new one even at a higher level doesn’t feel like a drag.
The setting, then. I’d describe the world as “weird fantasy”. While the drow are definitely D&D, the city of the Spire is a closer relation to China Miéville’s New Crobuzon than Waterdeep or Menzoberranzan. The book itself acknowledges as much. It’s a fallen world, littered with the detritus of a bygone precursor civilization that the humans have reverse-engineered to bring about their own industrial revolution that hasn’t quite percolated all the way to the elven lands. Spire is a backwater metropolis beset by social issues and religious strife. There’s high weirdness in the city, such as the Vermissian, a subway system that was never finished, whose tunnels interact with strangely with the quaint notion of three-dimensional space, and where odd creatures roam, and whose maintenance ways lead to the Vermissian library.
Spire does not entirely make sense, and is famously unmappable (okay, there is a map, but it’s one of those that more suggests “here there be cool shit and also dragons” than telling you where place A is in relation to place B), which means the GM doesn’t need to worry about where whatever they want to put there would actually fit. There’s competing academies and universities, and “it is hard to find a school that isn’t a recruitment agency for a dark cult, insidious conspiracy or apocalypse cabal, so students in the know do their best to learn what they can and get out before they’re roped into murdering a city official or sacrificing a blind gutterkin on an altar of the hungry deep” (p. 81), and cults practising air burial, and the sky docks where megacorvidae soar and skywhales bring wares from distant lands. Hidden gnolls lurk in the slums, something dire lives in one of the algae vats, and down in Red Row, Brother Hellion’s Church of the Gun congregates and worships.
It’s a delight to read, has its own voice, and sets a unique tone that fires up the imagination to come up with more.
The relationship between Spire and New Crobuzon does not stop with the weird fantasy, but extends to the thematic level. The astute reader may have picked up by now that it’s what might be described as “explicitly political”. The entire setup is basically a postcolonial critical reading of D3 Vault of the Drow. The classic D&D drow is a sadistic, evil, hypersexualized monster of a person, who’s also by the way black, in contrast to the white, noble, cultured and good high elves. This is kinda, you know, racist (and the art in Spire leans into this – instead of white hair, the drow here are black-haired and sport dreadlocks, cornrows and undercuts). Spire is a reading of this against the grain, the classic D&D drow a creature of aelfir propaganda. Another inspiration that the game lists is Discworld, and this is the only place I’ve seen where the influence of Pratchett is the anger. (My own additions to its Appendix N would be Warren Ellis’s superlative comic book Transmetropolitan, which has become more and more relevant every damn election cycle ever since it was released in 1997, and Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins, for its depiction of low-tech counter-intelligence in action.)
The setting and setup of the game are a juicy commentary on oppression and colonization. The institutions of higher learning are controlled by the high elves, but is anything they teach about the drow true? Are they even the same species? While even during their durance a drow is legally a person and not property, the injustice and economic implications of the system are complicated. Oh, and the drow Home Nations are embroiled in a brutal civil war and refugees are streaming into the city. The worship of some of the drow gods has been banned, driving their faithful underground and radicalizing them.
Spire is also harsh about the life of the resistance fighter. From the point of view of the high elves, or even the ordinary drow on the Blue Market omnibus, they are a terrorist organization. Though the top-level setup of colonizer vs. colonized is black and white enough, on the practical level it becomes a grey muddle of who you can trust, how far are you willing to go and what is the personal cost of the struggle. The characters are not murderhoboes but have relationships with NPCs, who may (will) end up hurt in the course of the revolution. The game states up front that your character will die, the Ministry itself and their own families will sell them out when they become liabilities, and the best they can hope is to become the bastards in charge.
And sure, you can play Spire without getting all political about it and just run it like it was released by Ubisoft. This, to be fair, is probably how it’ll mostly get played and how I would also run it in, say, a convention setting with a collection of random players. The deeper level is there, though, and it’s explicit about it.
I really have only a single, minor quibble. That quibble is languages. Though the Azurite class has two different advances that deal with language acquisition, Spire is remarkably coy about what languages there are actually spoken in the city. The information that aelfir speak their own language and have trouble communicating with ordinary citizens is squirrelled away in the glossary appendix, and all other mentions of language in the book are of occult, dead and some cases executed, forgotten and forbidden tongues, which are not really the purview of the merchant-priest Azurites. I feel this is also significant because when you’re running an insurrection and counter-intelligence operations, who can understand what language is very important – do they need an interpreter, can they be compromised, and so on. It’s possible the setting book Strata or the crypto sourcebook Secrets Kept from the Sun go into more detail on this, but really, a couple of paragraphs in the corebook would’ve gone a long way.
And that’s it. Spire is one of the strongest games I’ve picked up in recent years. The system is elegant and fast to pick up despite the amount of character options, the city of Spire is delightfully weird and offbeat, and the game has a clear, bold vision in critical dialogue with established tropes of the genre. It dares to get POLITICS IN MUH GAMES, and I respect that (of course it helps that I agree with those politics). Most importantly, it does this in an accessible way. Spire is an ambitious work but unlike many such role-playing games, especially from the storygame side of things, it doesn’t demand that from the players.
If my dance card wasn’t full for the year, I’d look into kicking off a campaign.
It’s time for my semi-annual “imma write more this year i promise” post. Last year was terrible on so many levels, and though my inability to stick to any kind of posting schedule is kinda eclipsed by the President’s office of Chechnya whining about RPGs, this is at least the kind of thing I can affect personally.
Well, in any substantial fashion, at least.
Truth be told, there were a lot of posts that I started and then never finished, or that never made it past the outline stage, or that I promised but never even began to write. It’s been an exhausting year and news, gaming and otherwise, make the entire genre of horror fiction feel redundant. Writing about anything of substance – and a lot of perfectly inconsequential things – feels like it carries with it an invitation for abuse from a myriad of online cesspits.
But hey, illegitimi non carborundum. So here’s a turn-of-the-year listing of the ten most interesting posts that never made it off the drawing board but actually really should have, cut down into a couple of paragraphs instead of the nuanced 2,000 words most of them would deserve.
Delta Green Has Aged… Poorly
First of all, let it be known that I love Delta Green. The first edition and Delta Green: Countdown are some of the finest gaming books ever written, and especially Countdown keeps getting named as the best ever. It’s not entirely undeserved. The idea of a conspiracy of agents within the American law enforcement, intelligence, and military organizations fighting against the gribbly things of the Cthulhu Mythos was a really great idea. In the 90s.
The problem with this is, of course, that we’re no longer in the 90’s. The cultural touchstones for FBI agents and American special forces is no longer The X-Files and Hollywood action films. Nowadays it’s Guantanamo Bay, and Seal Team 6’s war crimes, Black Lives Matter, NSA Director Keith Alexander’s megalomania, and a drone strike after drone strike. While as a game DG2E is very good, where it falls down for me is in its lack of acknowledgement that as a member of these organizations the PCs themselves or their superiors at the very latest are very likely complicit or directly guilty of some pretty terrible crimes. JSOC isn’t a heroic background, it’s what you should be fighting against. And it really doesn’t help that Tcho-Tchos are nowadays a legitimate and recognized ethnic minority in the United States with their own anti-racism initiative.
This post actually did make it out into the world, in the surface-scratch form of a review I wrote for PlayLab!
I Was a Magic Newspaperman
Professor Rabasse. Photo by Przemysław Jendroska.
I played at College of Wizardry again, bringing back my character from College of Wizardry: The Challenge. This time around, Étienne Rabasse was a hotshot young journalist attached to a visiting lecturer position at Czocha College, which meant that I did the school paper again.
This post, if it ever sees the light of day, would be a practical look at churning out several issues of a fake broadsheet during a larp, what the benefits are for the game, how to make the on-site production as painless as possible, and perhaps a different alternatives to how it could be made. I will not even attempt a summary, and to be honest, it’s more likely to be in a future KP book than here, because it’s also going to be rather more rigorous work than my usual word-noodling here and possibly even deserves the dead-tree treatment.
As an entirely tangential side note, I will be playing Professor Rabasse for the third time at College of Wizardry 20 in April. I will not do the newspaper.
Vampire: The Masquerade Fifth Edition – Twelve Hangry Men
I bought and played the fifth edition of Vampire: The Masquerade. I liked it, especially the Hunger Dice and how they drive the game onwards. I also like the recommendation that combats are played for three rounds and the ended the way things were going. Fighting was always the least interesting bit of Vampire for me. I like the graphic design, though admittedly a part of that is because some of the images are from the 2016 run of the larp End of the Line, which I played.
I also like the Anarch and Camarilla books, except for the Chechnya chapter which really is badly written, though in my opinion if it offends Ramzan Kadyrov that he’s depicted as a bloody-handed tyrant in thrall to a greater power he really should stop oppressing his own people and donate his collection of Vladimir Putin t-shirts to Goodwill or something.
I think the ruleset in general is superior to the older version, and the advances in metaplot and slight rewriting of things make for a more playable setting. Tremere are allowed to do cool shit without being immediately dusted by their superiors. The major sectarian conflict being now Camarilla vs. Anarchs feels like both sides are playable much more than the former Camarilla vs. Sabbat. I’m kinda on the fence about the Second Inquisition, but it’s very versatile in how it can be played.
I backed the Chicago by Night kickstarter. I’m looking forward to future releases, though if Modiphius is really not going to make Camarilla and Anarch available after the preorders are done, that is a shame.
And though the current incarnation of White Wolf made some definite missteps in PR and marketing, their stewardship also saw the production of a Vampire larp in the European Parliament.
Living Greyhawk Ten Years Later
The Living Greyhawk organized play campaign ended ten years ago. The campaign saw the release of over 2,000 adventure modules in its eight years of existence, and it was magnificent. Sometimes it was terrible, sometimes weird, often clunky, but always fun. It was a baroque creation that ran away from its creators as the regional triads started creating their own regional identities and the players took plotlines in unexpected directions. It was simultaneously a marketing scheme and an enormous, unique co-creative work of art. Nothing has approached it since – Pathfinder Society and Adventurers’ League are both too firmly in the leash.
We shall never see its like again, and it should not be forgotten.
I did write a post about Living Greyhawk for Loki, but of course, the language barrier applies.
Fairweather Manor Revisited
I also played at Fairweather Manor. Again. Whereas my last game was mostly serious except when it a scene out of P.G. Wodehouse intruded, somewhat political, and somewhat removed from the scheming of the aristocracy, this time was the complete opposite.
My character was Patrick “Jack” Hennessy, the firstborn son of the Duke’s black sheep brother. He was born in Hong Kong, lived there for most of his life and was stuck in England because of the war along with his younger sister Ginny. He was essentially an entitled brat with no sense of consequence but all the privilege. He was also Buddhist, and Orientalist in a somewhat insipid culturally-appropriative way, and wrote letters to his Chinese mistress in Hong Kong. I folded them all text-side outwards and gave them to servants with the instructions to mail them to Hennessy House in Hong Kong, they’ll know what to do with them. They were signed “Your Monkey, Jack.”
It’s a testament to the robustness of design that what for me in one run was a serious and emotional experience, in another run was transformed into an upstairs-downstairs comedy while still allowing other people to play the experiences they sought. Partly this is due to the sheer size of the game, partly because having a fully realized character also allows you to step into more – or less – serious play when someone else’s game requires it.
This is another game I will be revisiting in 2019. Having played two of the three male pacifist characters in the game, I thought I’d go for an officer.
We did some fencing. Photo by Kamil Wędzicha.
War of Agaptus: Fate of Ashes Review
This is actually something I was supposed to do over a year ago, but a computer malfunction ate around a thousand words of text, and I was too pissed off to continue, and then it was just one distraction after another in real life, around the same time as my output here generally petered out. I’ve returned to the review now and then to noodle around with it, but I’d really need to re-read the book to do it with the proper depth. So here’s the short version.
War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus is a new [okay, was new] fantasy role-playing game from Evil Hat. Like most of the company’s games, it’s got FATE System purring gently under the bonnet.
The lead designer on the project is Sophie Lagacé. Fate of Agaptus is actually based on a pair of miniature wargames from ZombieSmith, called Shieldwall and Shieldbash. To capitalize on an existing miniatures range, Fate of Agaptus contains a more detailed combat system, involving the use of those miniatures.The book itself is 370 pages long.
The setting is an early Medieval fantasy that eschews the D&D cast of fantasy races and instead presents the four factions: Elvorix, Vidaar, Jarl, and Kuld. The Elvorix are a formerly great civilization now in decline, the Vidaar are an aggressive offshoot of the same race that are raiders and pirates, the Jarl are militarist expansionists, and the Kuld are beastly creatures that are coming down from the north to eat everyone. The sun is growing dim and the inhabitable area of the world is growing smaller, driving everyone to fight for resources. The game calls its aesthetic grimsical. It’s The Muppets in the ranks of The Black Company.
The setting is designed for a wargame and unsurprisingly there’s a lot of combat rules. Some of the stuff adds on to the standard FATE set, such as the froth phase in combat, a cultural feature of the world, where the warriors psych themselves up and try to intimidate their enemies before the bloody business starts. There are occasional asides where the writer highlights this or that thing and explains why it works the way it does, which I like.
Overall, it’s a cool game and executed well, but the setting has a very specific aesthetic that will inevitably divide opinion. Definitely worth a look.
Just a Little Lovin’: A Larp About AIDS and the 80s
In June, I played in the Finnish run of Just a Little Lovin’. It is a larp about the AIDS crisis in the USA, and is set over three consecutive 4th of July parties from 1982 to 1984.
It was one hell of a larp. I have never had my emotions manipulated with such deftness and elegance. It is a larp about friendship, love, and death. It’s regularly described as a life-changing experience. I can likely never hear Dusty Springfield’s “Just a Little Lovin'” or Dolly Parton’s version of “Star-Spangled Banner” without a part of me returning to the yard outside Mr T’s summer retreat, saluting a flag as Dennis, a veteran of Vietnam and a member of a free love commune. It’s weird to miss people who are not real. It was a deeply emotional, sad, sometimes sexy game with the warmest, kindest, most supporting player community around it that I have been a part of.
I’ve had several abortive attempts to write about it but trying to unpack the staggering complexity of the larp and my personal experience feels like a daunting task. There’s a book about the 2013 Danish run of the game available as a free download, and I feel like explaining everything I have to say would probably take another. And then I always have to answer the question of who the hell am I even to tell this story? I belong to none of the communities hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic. It is emphatically a story that I have no ownership of. It’s a question that occupied me even about the game itself, and throwing up a wall of text about it on my blog is something I’ve yet to find the confidence to do.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the passing of one of the greats of the field. Greg Stafford was the father of Glorantha and creator of King Arthur Pendragon. It’s one of my favourite games even though I’ve only managed to play it a couple of times. Stafford’s grasp of mythology was tremendous, and the influence of his work runs through the DNA of many modern role-playing games.
I never met him, though I did see him in passing when he was at Ropecon many years ago. Unfortunately, I had yet to discover Pendragon at the time.
Hell of a year. I have plans for 2019, but they warrant their own post.
One of the reasons it’s been quiet over here at the Worlds in a Handful of Dice is that my writing energies have been directed elsewhere. I completed a rather large creative writing module at the university over the past two years, I have been doing some translation work, and then there’s a thing I can actually link you. Well, quite a few things, really.
These past two semesters, I was involved with PlayLab!, the webzine from the game researchers at the University of Tampere. It’s a game journalism course, basically, where the texts are peer-reviewed. I did nine pieces in total, and if PlayLab! returns next semester, I may be back. Here’s my stuff:
Review: Legend of Grimrock, examining the retro-dungeon crawl through the OSR aesthetic. The fun part in reviewing a game this old is that you can skip the “what’s this game like” expectation of cutting-edge game reviews and engage in more critical analysis.
And last but not least, we did a collaboration article where each of us listed their favourite game from 2016, PlayLab! Best Games of 2016. My pick was the Vampire larp End of the Line, which was also recently nominated for the Diana Jones Award.
These past couple of posts I’ve been warning that I’ll be writing up a separate post discussing the Hugos this year. It’s a somewhat controversial topic this year. You may remember how last year we had some trouble with a few authors having an entitlement problem. Well, they’re back, and this time the lunatic fringe also showed up to the party.
The way the Hugo nomination process works is that if you have at least a supporting membership of an appropriate Worldcon, costing around $40, you get to nominate works for the Hugo ballot. Since the English-speaking world sees some 1,000 works published for the novel category alone each year and the field is very broad, ranging from fantasy of manners to hard military science fiction, the votes tend to spread out quite a bit. Because of this, were someone to write up a slate of nominations, which Brad Torgersen did and then Theodore Beale imitated and expanded upon, and tell all their friends and family and fans to vote on it, it would only take a couple of hundred warm bodies to have an effect. This is entirely legal by the rules, but tremendously unsportsmanlike.
So, we’re left with the end result that the majority of nominees on the ballot did not make it there on literary merit alone. Indeed, there are a number of works there entirely lacking in merit literary and otherwise. The short fiction categories and Best Related Work are a lost cause this year, and though there are a couple of works there that I thought were pretty decent, like Kary English’s “Totaled”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” (though last year’s “Ink Readers of Doi Saket” was much better) and one or two others, they’re still not quite what I’d think of as Hugo quality and the rest of the nominees are too weak for me to call it a contest. This is one of the more insidious things about slate voting. Even if there was something that would normally have a fighting chance on the ballot, the contest isn’t going to be fair if it’s accompanied there by stuff that’s merely okay or worse, and an award won in a category where the rest of the nominees are present only because Little Teddy wants to promote his vanity press is hollow. It’s a spectacularly shitty thing to do to writers who neither asked nor were asked to be on the slate.
Best Novella is particularly dire and contained nothing that I did not detest outright. I shall also single out John C. Wright’s Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and the Awful Truth as the worst book I have ever read, a nearly perfect intellectual, artistic, and moral failure.
That said, Best Novel has a lot of good stuff, and I think Best Graphic Story was the strongest it’s been in years.
My vote for Best Novel goes to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel about a fish out of water in a setting of courtly intrigue. It’s very much “Jane Austen’s The Lord of the Rings“. The prose is beautiful and the main character, Maia, is relatable to a degree that’s starting to feel manipulative. It’s sentimental and cozy, and somehow makes it work. It was also light in tone, which is a refreshing break from all the George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie I’ve been reading lately.
I also liked Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword and Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. Actually, Addison only edged out Leckie for first spot on my ballot because Leckie already won pretty much everything except the Pulitzer last year. Liu’s novel was interesting and a worthy successor to its models in the grand tradition of idea sci-fi, but the prose and characters felt flat to me. So sue me. I’m not a big fan of Clarke, Dick or Asimov either.
Jim Butcher’s Skin Game I can take or leave. I loved Cold Days, but this one just left me cold. I’ve been a fan of the series, and Butcher still writes eminently readable stuff. However, the focus on Dresden’s sexual frustration in this one was tremendously awkward to read, and the end resolution felt anticlimactic for all the stakes they had piled up. Also, the pop culture references went far over the top. Especially at the end.
Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars I found merely dull. It’s very long, has aliens with katanas, and is simultaneously the sequel to a long series that it assumes you’ve read and the start of a new series, so it sort of assumes that you know all this stuff already and the actual payoff is going to be delivered a few books down the line.
For Graphic Story, I’m giving it to Rat Queens, Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery. I have been reading a lot of Order of the Stick and Nodwick lately, and Rat Queens draws from the same well, the genre of D&D fantasy, where adventurers are a profession unto itself and mysterious strangers hand out quests in taverns. All three comics play with the tropes of the game and the genre, but whereas Nodwick is just a loose collection of jokes and Order of the Stick is an epic fantasy tale layered with the trappings of a role-playing game, Rat Queens captures the actual play experience like nothing I have seen before. It deftly weaves together the absurdity of a casual gaming group with the ostensible seriousness of the adventures they have. It’s also too funny to be read in public while trying to maintain decorum. And the art is pretty.
After Rat Queens, there’s the third installment of Saga, the first trade paperback collection of Ms. Marvel, and the first volume of Sex Criminals, all of which I liked. There was also a zombie comic of some sort, but it was not included in the voter package, was off the Sad Puppy slate and is a zombie story, which together killed my interest and I could not even be bothered to dig it up.
The Paranet Papers is the third book of the Dresden Files RPG by Evil Hat Productions. Technically, it isn’t out until a month from now, but I received the PDF as a review freebie.
It’s an impressive piece of work, much like Our World and Your Story were. The book is sort of a general accessory that mostly focuses on delivering different settings that explore alternative ways of building a campaign from the ways given in the core books, but also includes a load of new rules items and updates material from Our World to include material from Turn Coat, Side Jobs, and Changes (Dresden Files book #12; the series is now at #15). It’s also a big book, with 378 pages of stuff parceled out in eight chapters. Incidentally, this review will contain SPOILERS for that book.
For those of you unfamiliar with the game, the DFRPG books are presented as “in-universe” documents, a role-playing game that one of the characters, Will Borden, is designing to sneak information about supernatural threats to the general public (in the novels, Dracula was a similar work and led directly to the spectacular collapse of the Black Court of vampires). The game books are editing drafts of the final game books, with editorial notes in little post-it notes and a lot of highlighting pen work. This allows the books to include big secrets kept by the characters, usually with an “oops, I’ll remove this in the next draft” from Will, while simultaneously presenting a lot of data as mere speculation, with no obligation for the novel series to follow it. Where in the first two books, the comments were by Will, Harry and Bob the Skull, here they are from Will, Karrin Murphy and Waldo Butters, dealing with Harry’s apparent death and sniping at each other with pop culture references that usually at least one of the three doesn’t get. The illusion is broken only by the absence of “see page XX” notes – the real page references tend to be among the last things you can insert when laying out a book.
Let’s see what this fat bastard’s eaten, then.
The first five chapters are descriptions of different areas of the world that act as campaign outlines and also as case studies of different ways to do city generation and campaigns in Dresden Files.
The first of these is Las Vegas, more or less an exercise in standard DFRPG city-building. It’s a city with a long-standing supernatural status quo that was contingent on a very powerful Red Court vampire. Then Changes happened, and now there is a power vacuum and the big players in the city are all getting ready to make a grab for it. The situation is not yet at a boiling point, but it is simmering aggressively. There’s some wyldfae, and some Skavis, and the local cops, and the mafia, and a cult of Ishtar, and a bibliomancer at the University, and some dude who may or may not be the actual Charon hanging out at the Venetian, and loads of other things. It’s a very complex, juicy situation, presented in a lovely, creepy manner. Like all the campaign ideas, it also notes which of the NPCs in the city are suitable for use as PCs.
The next chapter is Bloody October, set in Russia… in 1918, with the Civil War in full swing. The city they picked was Novgorod, a very old but much smaller city near St. Petersburg and Moscow. It’s an example of a historical setting, but also one that is based around the different mortal power groups in the city rather than locations and their themes. It’s also a place where the shit is currently in the process of hitting the fan and spraying everywhere. The Russian Civil War is one of the great clusterfucks of the 20th century. I remember the historian James Palmer once commenting on another game product set in the era to the effect that the goings-on were so gonzo already that a high-level fantasy adventurer party in the middle of Siberia would be just par for the course.
Of course, Rasputin is here, lurking in the background. Baba Yaga also makes an appearance, as does Koschei the Deathless. My personal favourite, Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, isn’t represented, but then again, his theatre of operations was thousands of kilometres to the east. Oh, and the local Cheka supervisor may or may not also be the Winter Knight. The Novgorod chapter is really cool stuff, though one of the NPCs presented is a Karelian Jew named Svetlana, from the lands of an evil Baron, which seems somewhat off to me. My cursory search couldn’t find references to East Karelia’s adminstrative division under Imperial Russia, but a Jewish village outside of the Pale of Settlement, in an area that never had a large population and most of that urban, seems kinda weird. The chapter is sourced from some old letters by a friend of Czar Nikolai II who also happened to be White Council and whose apprentice bumped off Rasputin (It didn’t take. It never takes. You’d think anyone killed that hard would stay down, but nooo…)
Bloody October is also mostly illustrated in a style resembling old Soviet propaganda art, which helps set the atmosphere. I like it.
The third chapter is Neverglades, or Okeeokalee Bay, a town in the swamps of Florida, home to the actual Fountain of Youth, where about a third of all inhabitants have some mystic ability or skill and the existence of the supernatural is more or less public knowledge, taken as just one more thing. Hell, the town sheriff is a changeling and the chapter is narrated by a weregator who also doubles as the town’s tourist guide. Okeeokalee Bay is an example of a tightly-knit community, which is organized around the people instead of locations in a system they call the Neverglades Twist. We get several faces for a theme, and characters who can be the face of both a location and a theme, and so forth.
This is one of my favourite chapters in the book in how it presents a believable small community with an interesting variety of plots and tensions (there’s giant bugs! there’s the crazy blood-addicts of the deceased local Red Court dude! there’s a Conquistador ghost! there’s a love dodecahedron!). It’s very self-contained milieu with a strong, somewhat quirky atmosphere that I feel would be easy to bring to life in actual play (the narrator makes some very casual remarks about disposing of bodies, for instance). There are also infoboxes about local traditions and sayings, the latter of which is probably handy for people who game in English.
Then there’s Las Tierras Rojas. In both the first and third chapters, there’s a key element in the setting resulting from the destruction of the Red Court in Changes. Well, Las Tierras Rojas, the Red Lands, or South America as the rest of us know it, is nothing but that. It’s a treatise on the former lands ruled by the Red Court and how the area is dealing with the power vacuum (not well). It’s narrated by an agent of the Fellowship of St. Giles, the vampirism-infected guys fighting the good fight, who also got decimated as a side effect of the Court’s destruction, when all their vampire mojo left them. There’s also someone who may or may not be Manco Capac.
Whereas Neverglades focuses on a very small area, Las Tierras Rojas is a very large one, and I’m not sure if it really works. I’m not getting a feel for the setting in here, and I feel it would have needed more geographic precision. I’m not an expert on South American geography, but I have a working knowledge of it and I still had to hit Wikipedia every couple of pages, such as when one of the locations is described as “a hill in Veracruz”. While it was very educational to go find out what Veracruz is (a state of Mexico on the southwest coast of the Gulf), I feel that “a hill in the Mexican state of Veracruz” would have been handier. In general, The Paranet Papers really doesn’t seem to do maps.
Then we come to The Ways Between, a discussion of ways to get from point A to point B through the Nevernever, which also includes a ready-to-run road trip campaign, complete with pregenerated characters that it’s more or less tailored for. Personally, I don’t really get DFRPG’s affection for pregenerated characters. I’ve had players categorically refuse to play even a one-shot where they didn’t generate their own character.
This is a chapter with a lot of good ideas in the margins and at the edges, such as a lot of nifty and creepy Americana, urban legends come to life and supernatural hobo signs, but the actual campaign unfortunately does nothing for me. Then, I never made it past six episodes of Supernatural, either. The adventure locales seem too standalone and only a couple of them, like Concretehenge, a circle of stones in an abandoned quarry with a faerie guardian, and Old Man Oak, a tree that’s a magnet for misery, looked interesting to me. Apart from those, there’s a mysterious abandoned asylum, a demon-possessed mine, a safehouse in the middle of a forest inhabited by a gargantuan dream spider thing, and so forth. They feel like they should have been fleshed out more and most of them lack oomph. This isn’t helped by most of the art in this chapter being fairly uninspired (one of the artists that worked on the book has an unusual view of human anatomy).
The rest of the chapters cover a variety of crunchy bits. The first of these is the Spellcasting addendum. Here we get new rules for soulfire, more in line with what was seen in later novels, and lots of other little additions to better model new material. There’s a couple of pages on spellcasting in the Nevernever, several pages of expanded and clarified thaumaturgy rules and if that’s not your thing, the simplified and streamlined “Cheer-Saving Thaumaturgy”. The name comes from Will’s Arcanos group’s tradition of “He who kills the cheer springs for beer”. Then there’s a couple of pages on the philosophy of magic and the elements in the world of Dresden Files, which was interesting and felt like a welcome oasis between all the numbers.
I’m really, really bad at reading rules, if you haven’t figured that out by now.
The final two chapters are addendums to Goes Bump and Who’s Who, detailing new information about known creatures and characters as well as new acquaintances. This is pretty basic stuff. Having rules for the fomor is nice. The Who’s Who addendum also covers “plot device” characters, who are characters so powerful there is no real sense in trying to model them in the ruleset. They’ve been popping up a lot more in the novels. These are types like the Leanansidhe, Donar Vadderung, and so on. We also get Harry and Karrin statted out to the end of Changes, as opposed to the Storm Front stats provided in Our World.
The book wraps up with a comprehensive index. This is a good thing.
It’s a pretty great book. I’m not all that hot on all the material and the novel guide aspect of some of the latter chapters is probably an acquired taste, but it’s written well and was an entertaining read. I especially like how the different settings are not just the setting, but also examples of new ways to create a setting under the DFRPG ruleset. That’s handy, and even a chapter like The Ways Between that was distinctly my least favourite in the book, has stuff that I can put to use.
The Paranet Papers gets my recommendation. It exhibits the same skill that was used to put together the two previous volumes of the game, and the presentation as an in-setting roleplaying game is great. The release schedule for the game may be glacial, but the wait has been well worth it.
About a year ago, I joined a role-playing game film club. The unofficial club’s stated goal is to watch every movie, every documentary, every episode of a television series, every reality show, every damn television advert and fan production that somehow references role-playing games or larps. This is part sociological research into how gaming is presented in media and part turkey film appreciation.
We’ve watched a lot of spectacular turds, but that is a topic either for a later post or a teary-eyed rant at a convention bar sometime not too long before last call. For a taste of what we’re up against, see our host Juhana’s blog.
Anyway, in my opinion the best film I’ve seen there was The Gamers: Hands of Fate. Unlike most of the stuff we watch, it’s a genuinely good movie, made by people who understand not only their source material and the phenomena they are commenting, but also the limitations of their budget, the basics of filmmaking and screenwriting, and even comedic timing. (Better than Knights of Badassdom which was a bit formulaic and relied too much on CGI that wasn’t up to the task, or Zero Charisma which is a good film but tremendously uncomfortable to watch.)
What does any of this have to do with the post’s headline? Well, it turns out that Hands of Fate has a novel tie-in, a moment where a character slips from one work to another and then stumbles back, shocked by what he has found. Matt Forbeck, in his mad attempt to write twelve novels in a year, produced The Dangerous Games trilogy of novels. They’re short, NaNoWriMo length crime comedy thrillers, and they’re spectacular fun.
Mmm, graph paper…
The trilogy comprises the novels How to Play, How to Cheat and How to Win, and traces the life of police-academy-trained game designerLiam Parker through three Gen Cons, each novel starting at the Diana Jones Award ceremony and then leading inevitably to murder and criminal investigations in the largest role-playing game convention in the world. Forbeck had fun writing this, and it shows. Well-known game designers, many of whom are undoubtedly his friends, are mercilessly stabbed, shot and thrown off tall buildings. Half of Ropecon’s former guests of honour make cameo appearances, such as Peter Adkison who ends up being Parker’s employer, and Frank Mentzer.
What I think Forbeck really succeeds at is in presenting a strong sense of place and atmosphere at Gen Con, and conveying his own love of the convention to the reader. I have never been to Gen Con myself, but I can recognize the sense of community from Ropecon, the one event that gathers together all of Finnish gamerdom from the four corners of the land, where weirdness reigns, games are played and shop talked into the wee hours. That shared experience translates across the ocean, from gaming con to gaming con. That’s what makes this trilogy special.
They’re by no means perfect – I think the second volume suffers from the usual problems of the middle book in a trilogy, and the third is a bit too dark, but these are flaws I can forgive. Apart from all the stabbing and shooting and murder, that’s what a gaming convention looks like. It’s what a gaming convention feels like.
It also looks like they’re on discount at DriveThruFiction for the rest of the month. They’re cheap and short, 192 pages each. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
I tried to read all the material before the panel. I got everything else done but had to give up on Wheel of Time after the fifth book. I simply cannot see the appeal of the series, and I object to the length. I think that in a novel, the first 300 pages are free. That’s a good length for a novel. It may suck, but it’s a decent pagecount and whatever else its successes or failings, will not feel too long. After that, though, you have to earn every page with something more than just “entertaining”. You need to have themes, depth, ideas, beautiful prose, something to bring it meaning. Neal Stephenson can pull it off. Eleanor Catton can pull it off. Umberto Eco, George R.R. Martin, Thomas Pynchon, and yes, J.R.R. Tolkien himself can pull it off. Should Hannu Rajaniemi someday be possessed by the imp of the perverse and pen an 800-page doorstopper, I am sure he would pull it off and look good doing it. Robert Jordan did not, in his first five novels, even remotely pull it off. The length of the series is respectable, yes, but apart from the distinction of numbering among the longest works of literature ever written, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. There’s your Chosen One, complete with whining about his destiny, your Prophecy, your guiding Obi-Wan dudes, your orcs and your Dark Lord and your plot coupon collection. To top it off, it’s so damn humourless. David Eddings told the same story, but he only took five to three novels per telling and he could be funny when he tried.
I admit that I cannot speak for the Brandon Sanderson novels that cap off the series since I never got that far. Perhaps they are better, perhaps not, but I am separated from them by a gulf of thousands of pages I’ve no intention of reading.
That said, the Wheel of Time is not the most objectionable thing on the ballot this year. It merely bores me and takes up far too much space. It does not actively offend me in the way that Vox Day’s “Opera Vita Aeterna” does, for instance. Apart from what thoughts I have of the author’s political views (he’s something of a caricaturish embodiment of all the negative stereotypes about Christian fundamentalists), it’s some remarkably bad writing, with clumsy English, clumsier pseudo-Latin, and a vestigial plot that has the tension of an overcooked noodle. It feels like background worldbuilding for a larger series and the entire payoff of the story is tied to that some other series. There are also enough descriptions of medieval monastic interior decoration to make a novelette-length story somehow feel bloated. Then, it’s probably necessary for the story because it would never have made the shortlist at short story length.
I am also not entirely taken by Brad Torgersen’s stories, “The Exchange Officers” and The Chaplain’s Legacy, which read like someone found a couple of unedited first drafts written in 1956 and decided to print them as-is.
Larry Correia’s Warbound, on the other hand, I was predisposed to dislike, but the entire trilogy was in the voter’s packet so I read it all and was quite entertained. The 1930s superhero setting works, and reminds me of Godlike in a number of very positive ways. It feels gameable. The story keeps going, it maintains a sense of humour about how goofy it is (Count Zeppelin was an Active supergenius) and has a nice touch in Hitler getting executed for his troubles after the Beer Hall Putsch and the bad guys being Imperial Japan. I’ll read any novel where Ishii Shirō gets offed. That said, I still don’t think Warbound has much of a place on the ballot. It’s not nearly as strong as the trilogy’s first part, Hard Magic, and for all its virtues as fun entertainment, it simply has no depth. I am also not enamoured with the occasional gun porn or the overly gory descriptions of violence. They feel off and out of place.
Ranting over. Like I said, we all thought Ancillary Justice was the best of the lot. It’s science fiction doing what it was born to do, exploring the what ifs and why nots of the human condition. The novel focuses especially the concepts of identity and language. The main character is actually a part of a spaceship, whose native language has no gendered pronouns – and she defaults to she in English (it also just occurred to me that “Radch”, the name of the empire that is the main character’s home, is probably pronounced /ɹɑːdʒ/). It is a simple and elegant way of highlighting and problematizing something that we take for granted, the male as the default. It also probably renders the novel untranslatable into any language that doesn’t do gendered pronouns, like Finnish.
It’s also a bit of a send-up of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, another favourite of mine. It’s already deservedly picked up pretty much every other major award in science fiction, and the Hugo would be a logical extension of the series. I mean, I won’t cry if it loses to Neptune’s Brood (Charles Stross at his internet puppiest, complete with an extended Monty Python joke, clever ideas by the bushel and a rather too abrupt an ending), but it really shouldn’t.
In the novel category we also have Mira Grant’s Parasite. I do not have a lot to say about it since it brings together medical horror, which I dislike, and zombie horror, which I hate, and the pacing is off. Almost the entire first half of the novel consists of doctor’s appointments, treatments and the protagonist’s everyday life. It does pick up once the zombie outbreak gets going, but it’s too little, too late. Additionally, there is a revelation at the end that was implicitly told to the reader a hundred pages previously. Even I caught it and I was skimming at that point. Sometimes figuring out the big reveal ahead of time makes the reader feel smart, but this one was too obvious and felt like sloppy writing. Personally, I think the zombie novel has jumped the tapeworm.
In the novella category, we get Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, which is a fascinating blend of western and fairytale. The story is beautifully written in this frontiersy, Deadwood kind of voice, and I ended up reading it aloud to myself to better appreciate it (as well as the sound of my own voice).
There’s also Equoid by Charles Stross, which is a worthy instalment to the Laundry series, with H.P. Lovecraft and the coolest unicorns anywhere. my favourite thing about the story is how the writing dates it between the second and third novels of the series, sometime in 2007 or 2008 – someone has a MySpace account. The category also features Wakulla Springs, an evocative story of the early days of filmmaking. And swimming. It has a very strong atmosphere and a powerful sense of place, but I find the speculative fiction elements kind of lacking. Someone commented that it should be read as a work of American magical realism, which I guess works, but does not quite do it for me.
In the novelette category, my favourite is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, a sentimental, beautiful and sad retro-futurist story about getting old and the pull of the final frontier. It’s just good enough to pull it off without becoming cloying. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars” was interesting and well-written, with an intersting way of tying the two seemingly unrelated narratives together. Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” I felt was somewhat distancing and cold, a very methodical exploration, perhaps even a dissection, of its themes. It was too explicit about them, and I think I would have preferred a subtler approach.
The darkly funny thing about the inclusion of Correia and Vox Day and Torgersen on that list is that they’re all known for being politically somewhat to the right (sufficiently to come around into being politically wrong), and there is a certain temptation to frame this particular year’s ballot as a true test for the fandom, to reject the bigotry and the outdated values of yesteryear, to once and for all declare that science fiction and the people who love it truly stand for progress, for looking into a better future. However, it really isn’t. If it were Orson Scott Card or Dan Simmons on the ballot, that argument could possbily be made. What we are up against here, though, is one decent entertainer and a couple of guys whose work has the subtlety of a political manifesto, the finesse of a boot to the head, and a grasp of language easily rivalling that of an an eight-year-old English-as-second-language student. I can come up with no metric of literary quality that would see any of these men walking away with a rocket statuette. It is defeat enough that they’re on the ballot. While I would have no problem voting No Award over any of their works simply because there is a point in political discourse where I can no longer in good conscience agree to disagree, it is not relevant to the situation because their works are not the Best Novel, or Novella, or Novelette of the year, or even among the ten best, or in most cases any good at all.
Rant over, hopefully for good this time. We’ll see next month.