Spire: The City Must Fall, or, “Menzoberranzan Writes Back”

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.

Oh, and about those spiders…

The comments, of course, are moderated.

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All the Stuff I Didn’t Write in 2018

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.

Hey Mr President Ramzan Kadyrov, is this your cat?

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. 

Just a Little Lovin’ will be run in the UK in the summer of 2019. Signup is now open. The photos on that site are all from the Finland run, incidentally, if you want to see what it looked like.

In Memoriam – Greg Stafford

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.

Stuff I’ve Been Up To: PlayLab! Magazine

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:

I also wrote three research highlight pieces, where we took a game studies paper from a recent publication and wrote a popularized version of the text. These are my own words, but not my own thoughts:

Also, the Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of review by Markku Vesa and Vampire: The Masquerade review by Aleksi Kesseli are based on game sessions that I ran.

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.

Hugo Neepery, the 2015 Edition

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.

Also, it is a crying shame that Sing No Evil was not on the ballot. Or The Causal Angel, or Memory of Water, or “The Truth About Owls”, or the Southern Reach Trilogy, or The Blood of Angels, or Only Lovers Left Alive, or What Makes This Book So Great, or Sibilant Fricative, or The World of Ice and Fire or the second part of Heinlein’s biography, or nearly anything else than what we in so many categories received.

The Hugo voting is open until July 31st, and there’s still plenty of time to get your Sasquan membership and Hugo Voter Pack and see for yourself if I’m right or wrong.

Review: The Paranet Papers

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 CoatSide 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.

The Contents

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.

The Conclusion

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.

Review: Dangerous Games Trilogy, by Matt Forbeck

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…

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.

The moment when I truly fell in love with the trilogy was in the third novel, where Frank Mentzer gives Parker copies of the original Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks as a minor plot point. I went “squee”. It should be stated that not many things can make me go “squee”.

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.

Finncon 2014, Part II: The Obligatory Literary Snobbery

Continuing from my previous post, this is a sort of appendix about my thoughts on the Hugo fiction categories. Quite a few of them are available online, and links have been supplied.

The panel. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

From left to right, Tommy Persson, Marianna Leikomaa, Jukka Halme, yours truly, and Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

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.

Read this.

Read this.

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.

This, too.

This, too.

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.

Finally, there are the short stories, the only category where I did not feel the necessity to field the dread “no award” option. My favourite was John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere”, very closely followed by Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, which is seriously funny. I think too many writers forget that humour is sometimes necessary to offer contrast to the bleakness and even more often that something being legitimately funny in its own right is a valid thing to aspire to. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” and Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” don’t quite do it to me in the same way, but neither is bad.

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.

Review: Quag Keep

This is where it all began. The first ever novel based on a role-playing game. The book that launched a genre with a thousand titles. An unkind critic might say that it set the tone of things to come.

Quag Keep is a book of many mysteries. The chief of them is the question of how did Andre Norton turn out something so deeply disappointing. At the time of its publication in 1978, she’d been writing professionally for over forty years. The World Science Fiction Society had awarded her the Gandalf Grand Master a year previously, the SFWA would name her Grand Master five years in the future. She’d been already nominated twice for the Hugo. These are not honours lightly bestowed and put her amongst names like Tolkien, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Moorcock, Le Guin, Leiber, and a dozen other undisputed masters of the craft. To pick up something from an author of such singular credentials and receive this was somewhat jarring.

quag_keep_old

The original cover

I think it just goes to show that every author had their off days. Moorcock has his Jerry Cornelius tales, Heinlein his Lazarus Longs. Norton, apparently, has this.

The story of Quag Keep is… I’m not actually sure there’s a story. There’s a plot, certainly, but there’s no real tension. The main characters are seven adventurers in the world of Greyhawk, who are also player characters in a role-playing game, who get somehow melded with their players. The players’ memories are subsumed for more or less the entire time, so this is just a device to get them to meet in a tavern and go upon the most railroaded adventure in the history of gaming.

They also each have been given unremovable bracers with sets of dice on them that rule their fate. Additionally, a wizard places a geas upon them to go and solve this thing lest the world be beset by some cataclysm or other.

The prose starts out purple and overwrought, but somehow becomes simpler and easier to read towards the end, possibly as the author got as fed up with the tale as I did. At the start, we get lines like this:

“His pale face above the high-standing collar of his cloak marked him as one who dwelt much indoors by reason of necessity or choice. And, though his features were human enough in their cast, still Milo, seeing their impassivity, the thinness of his bloodless lips, the sharp-beak curve of his nose, hesitated to claim him as a brother man.”

As we near the end, run-on sentences are still the order of the day, but they are more straightforward:

This was no axe-swinging berserker but the were-boar, near as tall as the orc at the massive shoulder, grunting and squealing in a rage that only the death of an enemy might assuage. Milo leaped quickly to one side, lest the animal in battle madness turn on him also, as had been known to happen when friend and foe were pinned in narrow compass.

Likewise, dialogue fluctuates between such florid phrasing and the occasional out-of-place modern idiom.

The characterization is also weak, and especially the focal character, the swordsman Milo Jagon, is boring and his dominant, pretty much only, character trait seems to be insecurity. The story keeps a distance from its characters and they end up having little in the way of personality. This only really works in the case of Gulth, the lizardman, who is inscrutable and difficult for mortals to understand. This works less well for, say, the elf Ingrge, though once you’ve named a character Ingrge, there’s not much you can do to save him.

The lizardman character has some other problems in his depiction. The novel makes a big point of his cold-bloodedness and he nearly dies of the cold in the mountains. He is saved by wrapping him in blankets. Ectothermy does not work that way. It’s the bloody definition of the concept. A blanket, which basically insulates heat, is good for a warm-blooded creature like a human, whose body generates warmth, but will do jack for a reptile who relies nearly entirely on outside heat sources.

The world is… well, sort of there. Though the book is ostensibly based on the World of Greyhawk, this only holds for some of the nomenclature. There’s the free city of Greyhawk, but the world through which our intrepid heroes traverses is all but unrecognizable to one familiar with the more recent and fleshed-out depictions of the setting. According to a Q&A forum thread with Gary Gygax, Andre Norton made most of it up herself, and it cannot be taken as a representation of some sort of proto-Greyhawk.

This brings us to the inclusion of game elements. The novels of Margaret Weis or R.A. Salvatore are often criticized for the reader “being able to hear the dice roll”, for wearing their game system origins on their sleeves. Well, Dragonlance ain’t got nothing on Quag Keep, where the dice really do roll. The characters also seem aware of rules concepts. The party’s cleric is described as a cleric of “the third rank”, and Milo Jagon is explicitly and repeatedly titled “a swordsman”, which was the level title for a 3rd-level fighter. Therefore, we may determine that the party is about third-level. This doesn’t really jive with the stuff that they accomplish, but I’ll let that slide since there is a limit to how much I am willing to complain about the depiction of game rules in a work of fiction. But if you’re going to use them, get them right, dammit!

quagkeepnew

The reprint

Quag Keep is also remarkably didactic in its depiction of the alignment system. We are told how all swordsmen cleave to the side of Law and how orcs are servants of Chaos. On the face of it, it looks like the Moorcockian Law–Chaos thing, but it’s really just good and evil by different names. The narration is remarkably contemptuous of neutrals, for some reason. Seriously, The Dark Elf Trilogy had more subtlety in its treatment of alignment.

So, all in all, we have a third-rate fantasy novel with some remarkably stilted prose. Or do we?

As a gamer, I can tease out another reading. It does not really make the book any better, but hear me out. Read as a critique of a bad gaming session, the book becomes quite interesting (and we also run into the problem of deliberately bad literature, which I’ve tackled in the past). The geas and the cursed dice are a depiction of heavy-handed railroading. Much like the player characters in such a campaign, the adventurers of Quag Keep have no agency and little control over their fates. The partial and controllable nature of the dice in their cursed bracers is a metaphor of this lack of freedom, and the resolution of the story, where they have defeated the Game Master and Milo rolls the GM’s dice symbolizes how they have wrested narrative control of the game from their Viking hat GM.

The characters have no personality because they are poorly roleplayed and are more or less extensions of their teenage players’ developing personalities. Milo is insecure because he’s played by a teenage guy with a crush on the only girl in the group. The game terminology leaks into the story because the players keep talking rules during the game and the Law–Chaos conflict is brought front and centre because of its connection with a simplistic playstyle where all orcs are evil and therefore free game and a character’s alignment is all the nuance their moral outlook requires. The modern idioms in the dialogue are because the players don’t quite handle the elevated style they’re going for in their in-character interaction.

So, Quag Keep is not completely irredeemable and does indeed display the mastery that Andre Norton is known for.

I just think it would’ve worked way better as a short story.

Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part III

We come to the final installment of my look into what the hell we were doing for the last 27 sessions.

The final two modules of the adventure path mostly take place in the subterranean city of Ilmurea, built by the serpentfolk millennia ago in the caverns of the Darklands. Saventh-Yhi was eventually built above Ilmurea, first as a staging point for an assault upon the serpentfolk and then as a monument to the heroine Saavith, who first defeated the serpent god Ydersius.

The Thousand Fangs Below

In the fifth part, the party has just reclaimed the crystals that allow them to activate the portal to enter Ilmurea in order to find and rescue the Pathfinder Eando Kline who can tell them about the serpentfolk’s plans to resurrect Ydersius. The city of Ilmurea is an interesting place. There are a number of power groups in there. The first the party will likely stumble upon are the morlocks, who are chaotic evil but revere Eando Kline as a god, because the Pathfinder Society doesn’t come equipped with the Prime Directive. With the help of Juliver or any Pathfinders of their own, the party can leverage this to get the little bastards on their side.

Then there are the urdefhan. They’re also evil, a species of Darklands-dwellers related to daemons. They also sort of occupy a similar niche as the githyanki do in brand-name D&D and wield very strange swords with two-pronged blades, like a humongous fork. They’re scheming bastards who want the party to take out a defector who’s lairing with the serpentfolk. This is a way to get them on your side.

There are also some drow hanging about and a neothelid that the party can run into if they’re too nosy. Mine was. Curiosity killed the half-elf oracle, who was replaced by an elf fighter disguised as a half-orc.

Finally, the main event of the adventure is a serpentfolk stronghold where Eando Kline is held captive. It is a good dungeon – presents a variety of foes while remaining logical, interacts with itself and reacts to the player characters if they figure out they’re under assault. Importantly, it’s also manageable in size and length. There are also a bunch of very challenging enemies whose tactics are effective, make sense, and take all sorts of contingencies into account. The BBEG of the adventure ended up being a torturer in the deep dungeons whom the party could not take out and opted instead to flee. First time for everything.

So yeah, I like The Thousand Fangs Below. It’s not perfect, since I think it’s sort of a middle part where the entire plot is about the party doing something in order to be able to do something else instead of doing it because it must be done. To put it in terms of philosophy, their primary goal has a primarily instrumental value instead of an intrinsic value, which I think is also one of the problems in Vaults of Madness. Same goes for Sins of the Saviours in Rise of the Runelords, really. While such an adventure can be fun, I’d prefer each part of an adventure path to be more meaningful than that.

Your mileage may vary, of course. If your players are familiar with the Eando Kline stories from the first three adventure paths, they may be keen indeed on rescuing him, but for my players (and me) he was just some guy out there. Personally, I remember having read them but cannot for the life of me remember what happened. At least he’s not as annoying as Drizzt was.

Sanctum of the Serpent God

It may actually be fruitful to think of The Thousand Fangs Below and Sanctum of the Serpent God as the two halves of the same adventure. They blend together pretty well, seeing as all the really interesting stuff you get to do in The Thousand Fangs Below actually has its payback in Sanctum of the Serpent God. Befriended the morlocks? Good, you now have underground infantry for your army. Get along well with the urdefhans? You’ll have their sword. It’s time to march against some serpentfolk.

In Sanctum of the Serpent God, the party finally has enough information to know what to do and the allies to make it happen. Out of the different factions and tribes still left in Saventh-Yhi and the different power groups that are not directly hostile to them down in Ilmurea, they shall build an army, and drop the spears of Saventh-Yhi through the very bedrock of Mwangi itself, deep into the Darklands, to penetrate Ilmurea’s ceiling and give their troops a way to invade en masse. While the army draws out most of the serpentfolk from their main fortress, the party does the commando thing, goes in through a side door and takes out the officer corps, the high priest, and the god.

Well, it’s not quite that straightforward. There’s first a dungeon crawl where they take out a bunch of urdefhans and daemons to rescue a cyclops general who has spent the last ten millennia in stasis, because he’s the only one who knows what the damn spears are for. There’s also a series of assassination attempts on the party that I ended up skipping since I was rather tired of it all at this point and with the stable of one-trick ponies I had, half to three quarters of the party would have died.

The final dungeon is not quite as nifty as in The Thousand Fangs Below, but the endboss, avatar of Ydersius himself, makes up for it. He’s a legitimately tough solo adversary. Usually, a single enemy in Pathfinder RPG gets screwed over by action economy. Four heroes against one enemy means four times more actions directed against the bad guy than the bad guy can wield against the heroes. Simple math. Karzoug the Claimer, back in the 3.5 version of Rise of the Runelords, was victim to this and went down quickly. However, Ydersius is tough. He can withstand a lot of punishment, is immune to a whole lot of interesting tricks and has ways of removing heroes from the field for a few rounds at a time. The final combat was challenging and tense. At the end, the heroes triumphed and cut off the serpent god’s head, but it was close.

In Conclusion

Would I recommend the Serpent’s Skull adventure path? No. Not as the whole it is now, and not as written. Adventures two through four have a number of issues and little to make up for their flaws, The Thousand Fangs Below is uninteresting plot-wise, and at the end the whole campaign just feels like it is overstaying its welcome. Much like some its adventures feel more like ways to pass the time until the PCs are high-enough level to take on the next big adversary, the whole campaign feels like it mainly exists to be a traditional campaign between the nation-building sandbox of Kingmaker and the horror extravaganza that is Carrion Crown.

It is not, I must hasten to add, a total loss. Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv is one of the best published adventures I’ve ever seen. The campaign itself, with some heavy rewriting, can be made into a pretty great work. The potential is all there, it’s just the execution that’s wanting. Add a local Mwangi faction, perhaps as a replacement for the Free Captains (the devil are they doing inland, anyway?), squeeze The City of Seven Spears and Vaults of Madness together, add some heavier foreshadowing of Sanctum of the Serpent God into The Thousand Fangs Below to make it feel less like a keycard hunt, and you’re golden.

Of course, the amount of work involved in all that probably defeats the purpose of using a pre-written adventure path in the first place, but it is my hope that after reading this and the preceding installments, you should be equipped to decide on your own whether it’s worth it for you.

Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part II

Last weekend, I discussed the first two parts of the Serpent’s Skull adventure path. In those, the party finds some clues on a deserted island and follows them into the deep jungles of the Mwangi Expanse, in search of the lost city of Saventh-Yhi, preserved and hidden by Azlanti magic for these past ten thousand years.

The next two scenarios of the adventure path take place in Saventh-Yhi, as the party first explores and tames the city in The City of the Seven Spears and then roots out its secrets with a purpose in Vaults of Madness.

Before I delve into the details of these works, I should note a few things that I neglected to mention in the previous post. As with other adventure paths, there is a wealth of third-party and fan-created content created to support the campaign. One that I made much use of was the line of paper miniatures. I love the work done on the Serpent’s Skull line, which includes a miniature set for each of the adventure modules and one more for the compiled bestiaries of the series. The art has character, and I especially like the vivid use of colour. Excellent work, there.

Another thing I’d like to point out is Wayfinder #4, a compilation of fan-created game articles and fiction. The fourth issue’s theme was the Mwangi, making it useful for GMs running Serpent’s Skull or Skull & Shackles. I must confess that I did not actually utilize any of the material in it, but there’s a lot of it and someone else might find stuff more to their liking.

There are also a couple of Paizo-produced things appropriate for use with the adventure path. The most obvious ones are the sourcebook on the Mwangi Expanse, Heart of the Jungle, and the player-oriented sourcebook on the colony of Sargava, named Sargava, the Lost Colony. There’s also one thing I used in Vaults of Madness from the Rival Guide, a Mwangi-based party of evil adventurers (complete with an awakened dire ape antipaladin!) that was good for one challenging and interesting combat encounter.

Finally, here there be SPOILERS.

The City of Seven Spears

The City of Seven Spears has an interesting story. No, not in the module – it’s a practically plotless sandbox. The story is about how the module came to look like it does.

Unfortunately, I don’t know all the particulars, but as far as I can tell, someone didn’t quite deliver and some other people were called in for rescue and that’s why there are three names on the cover and not much interesting between them. The problem with Saventh-Yhi is that it’s a huge city with seven distinct, discrete districts that have all their own hotspots and plot points, and all this has been crammed into about 50 pages. The party is not given a lot of guidance on what they should do besides “explore”. There are some tools for managing conflict between the different expeditions (because regardless of whom the PCs picked as their backer, the other four will also show up eventually), but not much. The emphasis is on the city and its encounters – and boy are there a lot of those, for a city supposedly lost for ten thousand years.

Saventh-Yhi is an old Azlanti city, so the underlying concept of magic operates on a system similar to the sin magic of ancient Thassilon (which was a corruption of the Azlanti system). This may seem familiar to those who have played Rise of the Runelords or Shattered Star. Each of the seven districts is dedicated to one of the Azlanti virtues of rule (which in Thassilon were corrupted into the sins), and has a purpose in accordance with that virtue. The military district is dedicated to righteous anger, the government district is dedicated to honest pride, and so forth. This is all relevant, because each of the districts also has a Spear, a tall obelisk atop a ziggurat, which has a magical aura that it spreads over its district. With a specific ritual, the spears can also be activated to grant an empowered aura.

To get to do any of these rituals, the party should also do something about the tribe occupying the district. Six of the seven are occupied by tribes. Charau-ka in the military district, degenerate serpentfolk ruled over by a rakshasa in the government district, and so on. Most of them are hostile from the beginning and from the kind of monstrous races that the PCs will probably set about exterminating from the start, but there’s a tribe of Garundi humans who may be negotiated with. Actually, one of the possible conditions for “conquering” a district is killing a crapload of the local mooks. Who, I ask of you, has the time or the inclination to run combats against 100 mook vegepygmies who are not quite mooky enough that you can just handwave their deaths? It really gets my goat that there are a lot of combat encounters in here, such as practically all of the patrol encounters, which present no threat or challenge whatsoever to the party, yet are still there to take up space with their stats.

The adventure picks up with plot again once the PCs hit level 10. In our game, this took seven sessions and frankly, we were starting to get bored. Also, the level limit on the final event of the book highlights what the exploration of Saventh-Yhi essentially is – grinding for XP. It could have been made interesting, but I think it would have taken a smaller city so there’d have been more material to make it interesting and to run the archaeology and exploration stuff.

Anyway, at the end there’s a feebleminded Pathfinder who shows up through a portal, with an undead serpentfolk necromancer and his cronies in pursuit. There is a fight and once she’s cured of her affliction, she will a tale unfold that will harrow up thy very soul – the next adventure is also about exploring Saventh-Yhi.

Vaults of Madness

Yeah, you heard that right. The Pathfinder, Juliver, came to Saventh-Yhi through a portal from the serpentfolk city of Ilmurea, which has been slumbering for as long as Saventh-Yhi, except now it’s stirring in its sleep. She was part of an expedition led by the disgraced Pathfinder Eando Kline (hero of the short fiction pieces in the first three adventure paths). The rest of the party were captured by serpentfolk and only Juliver managed to get away. The portal required these crystals to activate, and she broke the crystals on the portal she came through in order to deter pursuit.

So now it falls to the party to scour the city for more crystals so they can activate the portal and head into Ilmurea to rescue Eando Kline.

They need six crystals, of course, so counting the vault with the portal in it, that makes for seven vaults. There’s once in each district, naturally. For some reason, they are not mentioned in The City of Seven Spears, so the party will likely not be aware of their existence regardless of how careful about mapping they have been.

And why are they called the vaults of madness? They’re all infected with a madness-inducing fungal spore, which was good for some role-playing. Of course, once the party figures out what’s up, they take the appropriate precautions and the affliction can be safely forgotten. The vaults are a series of seven mini-dungeons. One of them is flooded, one of them is the battleground between two tribes of evil humanoids, and so on. They’re not, honestly, the interesting thing in this adventure. The interesting thing is that there’s actual plot! There are events! There’s stuff to do besides go down a hole in the ground and kick someone’s undead ass!

One of these is a battle against the Aspis Consortium, whose boss gets taken over by an intellect devourer. The intellect devourers, incidentally, occupy much the same niche in Pathfinder RPG as the WotC-product-identity mind flayers do in brand-name D&D. Then there’s the centrepiece of the adventure, the visit from Ruthazek, the Gorilla King of Usaro. He is one of the more interesting NPCs around, and he’s there with his retinue to find out about the city and the heroes and to test them. There’s a feast, which I’ve written more extensively about before, and if done well, the encounter can be one of the most memorable in the campaign. He’s also evil and powerful enough to stand a chance of taking out the entire party all by himself.

By this time, I was so thoroughly fed up with the vaults and the endless grind that I also had Ruthazek award the party the last crystal they needed, having dug it up himself from the vault.

Fixing Saventh-Yhi

So, what could have been done differently?

I think the entire premise of having two scenarios, meant to be played back-to-back, in the same area and relying largely on exploration and sandbox-play, is faulty. You’re going over the same ground twice, which is not interesting and the verisimilitude suffers when suddenly there are these vaults that are honestly not hidden well enough that they wouldn’t have stumbled upon one before the plot dictated that they could.

There’s also the issue that The City of Seven Spears has no proper motivation for the party beyond the acquisition of treasure, which is in conflict with the serpentfolk plotline introduced in the previous parts and pretty weak on its own. There are elements of plot present in these two books and Vaults of Madness is quite good about it, but the third module of the campaign is nearly void of it. The campaign is in danger of stalling, here.

So, what I suggest as the solution is to combine the two adventures into one. This would require some significant rewriting of stuff for the appropriate levels, but moving the introduction of Juliver forward and dropping the vaults in where the PCs may stumble upon them from day one would do a lot to make the adventures more interesting. Another aspect that could do with more writing are the factions themselves and the faction conflict. I’m afraid there’s not a terrible lot of material on that beyond what’s suggested on the forums, but highlighting that the PCs are not alone in their exploration and giving the other expeditions a more active part in the adventures as rivals, not necessarily enemies, would make for more interesting gaming. The adventure would also benefit from a system to determine what the other expeditions are up to and how their explorations and conquests are going.

Yeah, it’d be a crapload of work. I am not convinced it’s less work than writing something from scratch, but there is cool stuff in here, and it’s no use throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so my first instinct would be to fix what is broken instead of scrap whole modules.

Next time, the grand finale.