Category Archives: The Witcher

Game Review: The Witcher

The_Witcher_EU_boxI was very much intrigued by The Witcher the very first time I heard about it, back around 2005 or so. “Dark Fantasy” had not really been a huge thing back then and the concept sounded like a fresh new approach to the genre that to me was mostly defined by The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. The game was released in 2007 and I played it the first time not very long after that. However, I never actually finished it. And greatly enjoying the books now and wanting to play the second game again, it seemed the appropriate thing to give this game another go.

Background

The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy books written by Andrzej Sapkowski during the 90s. Basically it started out as taking themes and archetypes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with some elements of Polish folklore and turning them into serious modern tales of violence and prejudice. It’s a bit similar to what Neon Genesis Evangelion did in Japan with it’s own take of children controling giant robots to fight city annihilating monsters to save the earth. Though usually there’s also a good amount of small meta-jokes here and there that really go a long way in keeping the books from drifting into grimdark territory. The main hero is Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. When the world was still full of monsters that threatened the survival of human civilization everywhere, the Witchers were created to be superhuman monster slayers, highly trained in swordfighting and the basics of magic and turned into alchemical mutants through various potions that give them immunity to disease, resistance to poison, accelerated healing, hightened senses, and so on. But as the world has become more and more pacified many people doubt that these dangerous freaks are still necessary and there are only very few of them left and even fewer new ones being trained. But as monsters are starting to go extinct, it becomes very clear that this won’t make the world any more safer or peaceful as people are really one of the biggest source of violence and missery. While the last book in the series was published in 1999 and has been translated into over a dozen languages, the English translation has always been very late and the final three books are only being released in English right now, with the last one coming in 2017. The game takes place 5 years after the last book, which of course kind of spoils the ending of the series, but given the popularity of the games it’s pretty much like “I am your father!” and “Aeris dies” now. However, given the themes and moods of the series, I am really not feeling like this makes reading the books any less fun or exciting. The game does a very good job of remaining very brief on what exactly happened during the books and don’t really tell you anything about what was going on at the final showdown. Still, feel yourself warned when I go deeper into the story later in this review, where I will mention how the transition from the books to the game takes place.

witcher3Gameplay

The Witcher is in many ways a “classic western RPG” with lots of similarities to various Dungeons & Dragons games, The Elder Scrolls, or Dragon Age. However, because you’re playing a fixed character and there is a pretty clear main story, it’s in many ways much closer to the Mass Effect games. I think the closest comparison would probably be the Gothic series that was developed and released in the early 2000s, but to my knowledge didn’t get very popular outside of Germany. (It was a huge hit here, though.)

Geralt is very well known for the signature weapons of a witcher. A steel sword and a silver sword. Steel is the weapon of choice to kill people and animals but does relatively little damage to supernatural creatures. The silver sword is much better suited to that, but is more blunt in comparion and not ass effective against regular enemies as the steel sword. Though, how Geralt himself puts it “both are for monsters”. Since Geralt is a swordsman through and through, fighting with a sword and no shield is the primary, and effectively only form of combat. You can pick up daggers, axes, and clubs from enemies, but your skill with these doesn’t ever improve while you can become a total beast with your swords. There are three modes of fighting. A strong mode for big and heavily armored enemies, a fast mode that deals the most damage to small and fast enemies, and a group mode in which you lash out against every enemy around you. The group mode deals the least damage per strike, but since you’re hitting lots of enemies at the same time its perfect any time you are dealing with three or more enemies at once. While this is a neat idea in theory, there is very little strategy involved. Usually you can see immediately if the enemy takes more damage from strong or fast mode attacks and all you do is press the button to select the right mode for the current enemy. There is never really a question which mode might work best, it’s always obvious so there isn’t really any choice or tactics involved. The main tactical element of combat is deciding where to stand, which enemy to aim at, and when to move to a new position to avoid getting swarmed by to many opponents at once. But that’s also what you do in Baldur’s Gate or the first Dragon Age and while the animations of Geralt’s awesome fencing style look amazing at first, the novelty of it quickly runs out. Combat is serviceable, but not a particular highlight of the game. The second game went the right way with getting ride of modes and giving you a strong attack button and a fast attack button instead. Continue reading

Write what you would want to read, Part 2: Stylistic influences

A few weeks back I wrote about my goals in how to structure the ideas for Sword & Sorcery stories that have been flowing through my head for some time. And yes, I could be writing on those stories instead of writing this. But this also is work. Spelling out my thoughts always helps me getting them into order and once I have free floating ideas put into some form of pattern it becomes a lot easier to build upon them. Expanding ideas is always much easier than creating something great out of a vacuum. It’s like starting a puzzle by first sorting out the pieces that go on the edge, put them together to create a frame and then building inwards from there. Trying to find two matching pieces out of 500 is almost impossible and takes forever. (A puzzle under 300 pieces is not worth the effort.)

So here you have my incomplete list of works that captured my imagination and influenced what I would like my own works to be like. In some cases I’ve literally been thinking “I wish there was a fantasy book like this.” Since I seem to be most easily impressed by visuals, most of these are actually movies and videogames. You might also notice that there’s actually more science-fiction than fantasy on the list. But there won’t be any post-Iron Age technology in the Ancient Lands. When it comes to pulp and adventure fiction, their essence is really about personal experience and emotion, which generally can be explored just as well in fantasy as in science-fiction, or even historic settings (see Indiana Jones), and it seems that in the past decades the majority of creators seem to have chosen to go with an outer coating of sci-fi instead of fantasy. After all, in the early days of planetary romance they regularly did both at once. My plan for the Ancient Lands is to continue in this century old tradition of writers and once again going with a fantasy guise again.

  • Knights of the Old Republic: The comic, not the videogame. This part of the Expanded Universe could be seen as a spin-off of the regular Star Wars universe, being set 4,000 years before te movies. You got the Jedi and the Sith, but they are different from those of the later ages, being much more numerous and acting much more out in the open. Which leads to this era feeling even more like traditional fantasy than Star Wars already does. And I actually like them a lot more. It started with the Tales of the Jedi comics in the early 90s, which were created simultaneously to the Jedi Academy novels and served as a kind of backstory but were also standing on their own feet. Later BioWare used those comic as basis for their videogame set some 100 years or so later. And then we got a comic series that takes place just before the game and visiting many of the same planets and having some appearances from the characters of the game, but mostly they are their own story. And while I am not usually fan of American comics, it’s actually my favorite Star Wars work. (After The Empire Strikes Back, of course.) I want to reread it and write a very extensive review for it as wrll. The main hero Zayne Carrick is not so great, being posibly literally the worst Jedi ever. While he’s a complete failure as a Jedi he still manages to become quite heroic in his own way, which is something I consider very much worse exploring in Sword & Sorcery. But to me the real star of the series is Jarael, who is only one character of Zayne’s weird gang of anti-heroes but also got her own storyline that runs parallel to his. And absolutely kicks ass. It’s a bit like Avatar, where the story of Aang was quite entertaining and often interesting, but I really always came back to see the story of Zuko. What I like so much about this era is that it takes the fantasy elements of Star Wars and gives them even greater emphasis, and also makes the universe feel more ancient and mystical. The absolute core concept of the Ancient Lands is “KotOR without the space ships”.
  • Mass Effect: If there is one thing I love almost as much as Star Wars, it’s Mass Effect. The first game blew my mind just by seeing the main menu, but the second one is what I consider the greatest videogame of all time. Mass Effect was created by BioWare after Knights of the Old Republic and being clearly a successor of it, but being set in their own new universe meant that they no longer needed to be confined by the Star Wars license. There are various reasons why Mass Effect had such a huge impact on me. The first one being that it made me understand how much better any story becomes when it is about something meaningful and that this can also apply to whole universes. Mass Effect almost never gets preachy and has no sermons, but everything you run into deals with ending conflict and reaching reconciliation by admiting that you have been wrong in your actions or convictions. Blame and guilt become insignificant compared to forgiveness and only rarely can anyone claim the moral high ground. And because of it the conflicts all become so much more compelling and meaningful. There is real conflict and real doubt, not the artifical lack of ambiguity created by black and white stories where no thinking is required. This also hits very deeply to my existentialist contemplations and believes. These are the kinds of story that are really worth telling. This is the stuff that means something. The other thing about the series is that I like the way the visual style creates atmosphere. There’s something very late 70s movie about them. The way the places in the games feel, particularly the second, is what I want to capture and recreate. There is something ethereal about it which I find just fascinating.
  • Morrowind: I’ve talked about this game a lot in recent months. The world of The Elder Scrolls is not particularly interesting to me in general, but the specific region of Morrowind is amazing. It’s both exotic in its landscapes and wildlife, but it is also a mythic lands, full of philosophers, secret societies, and living gods who live alongside mortals.
  • The Witcher: I love both the books and the games. I often see comments about Sword & Sorcery that claim that it is an outdated genre from the 60s that failed to keep up as culture had been changing and being stuck in a past that has very little to offer to modern audiences. There certainly is a sense that all the good stuff has been by Howard and Leiber and that nothing really got close to them since. But The Witcher seems to me like a series that is very much a new attempt at Sword & Sorcery for the new post-cold war world. I think there was actually a massive shift taking place in entertainment in the early 90s, with one of the most striking examples being the difference between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. (Also a good topic for a future article.) The stories of Geralt of Rivia have a very strong deconstructive element to them. Fantasy in general, but really Sword & Sorcery in particular, is mercilessly disassembled, all the pieces critically examined, and all the hypocrisies and inconsistencies exposed. But they are not just a hateful critique or even a satire, but instead continue and attempt to straighten out the faults and emphasize the qualities. Or to put it more bluntly, Sapkowskis characters travel trough fantasyland and continuously call each other out on their respective bullshit. But they also have genuine respect and appreciation for their redeeming qualities. Sapkowski takes all the different characters of fantasyland down from their high horses and cuts them down to size, and they all come out of it stronger and you can appreciate what they have to offer for storytelling in the 21st century. Sword & Sorcery is not obsolete, but it could really use some fixing up. And I think reading the books can really help to recognize in which areas Howard and Leiber could be expanded on. They are a solid foundation, but not the end of all there can be to Sword & Sorcery. The writers of the videogames also manged to capture this aspect of the stories very well.
  • Thief: I actually finished this 17 year old game for the first time only earlier this year and somehow I still have not been able to finish the review draft I’ve started for it. The main character may look like a cliche now, being a sneering and sarcastic loner with a dark hood and a master thief as professional as he is unrepentant, but I think Garrett might actually have started this whole trend. Thief is the most straight example of Noir fantasy you’ll ever come across. It’s always dark and rainy in a claustrophobic city of narrow alleys and high roofs and it feels like The Maltese Falcon set in a steampunk version of the middle ages. The first game of the three also is a pretty straight Sword & Sorcery experience, which the second game largely abandoned and went more steampunk James Bond. Though it makes sense as each game focuses on one of the three factions of The City and the first one is all about the Pagans who worship Chaos and nature, while the second is about the Mechanist who are all about Order and technology. I hope to get a propper review done soon, but I really love the first game. It has relatively little action in the conventional sense, but Garrett’s sneaking around in extremely dangerous and heavily guarded places is just as daring and outrageous, even if there are no buckets of blood or piles of corpses. It’s a very gloomy and well thought out story which in many sections dips very strongly into horror as well. What I want to take away from it the most is how ot creates tension, danger, urgency, and dread without relying on combat.
  • Riddick: Thinking of the Riddick movies as very well made B-movies would not be inacurate. And if someone calls them cheesy, cliched, and failing at trying to be artistic, I could see where this impresion would come from. While they are science fiction on the surface, they have the undiluted essence of Sword & Sorcery running through their bodies. It’s hardboiled Planetary Romance. Genres that have always had a reputation for being a bit trashy, but every Sword & Sorcery fans that under the simple and rough presentation there is a depth of meaning and emotion in them that many great artist would envy, if you just know what to look for. The third movie is of similar quality as Conan to me. They are small productions but true art. Like Italian exploitation movies from the 60s were “art”. Of a type that probably is so foreign to most people that it might be impossile to see. What I like about the movies is the sense of desolation and a huge universe that seems almost empty. Civilization being tiny while the wilderness is empty is an idea I find very fascinating but rarely seems to get explored in fantasy. And of course, there’s Riddick himself. He is super cool to the point of beinf ridiculous, but the movies treat it with full seriousness and that makes it work. And as his story progresses (though there is barely any real plot in the conventional sense) you get a character that is both a real monster but also not despicable. He’s a beast, but a magnificent one.
  • Mushishi: This was originally written as a series of short novels, if I recall correctly, but also made into an absolutely amazing anime series a while back. Mushishi is about Ginko, a man who wanders Japan and can be thought of as a kind of ghost hunter or exorcist. But the creatures he is dealing with are not great dragons or demons, but just mushi. The tiniest and most primitive of spirits that are more similar to bacteria than to people or animals. They are a fundamental part of nature, but invisible to most people, except for the mushishi. The series is very slow, has few words, and very little happening, and is very melancholic in mood. While mushi are a part of all nature, it sometimes can happen that their presence has unusual effects on people who get too close to them. And since they are invisible there’s usually no way to tell where they are and what they are doing, unless you know exactly what to look for. When strange events are happening or people seem to become cursed for no apparent reason, the mushishi are the only ones who can help. The special charm of the series is that Ginko can identify the source of the problem and show the people how they can avoid any further harm from the mushi. But he does not destroy them and he also has no ability at all to reverse the damage that has already been done. Sometimes people die from the mushi, often they are severely cripled or maimed. This is no kind of curse that can be lifted and Ginko has no magic to remove the effects. All he can do is to help the people to live with the changes and to ease the pain, and sometimes his help comes too late. In many ways, Mushishi is the total opposite of Sword & Sorcery. There is no fighting or any action scenes. It’s not fast paced and loud but extremely slow and quiet. But what I really love about it is how it deals with the aftermath of encounters with the supernatural. One way in which I think classic pulp tales are falling short is that they generally don’t bother with any consequences. You get a big fight scene and it’s done. I’m actually not much of a fan of action scenes and violence, it always is much more interesting to me how people are dealing with it. And sometimes you don’t win and everything is alright again. Mushishi is all about that.
  • Wuxia: If you’re not familiar with it, it may come as a surprise that the Chinese really love fantasy. Specifically the genre of wuxia, which really is pretty much exactly the same as Sword & Sorcery set in a Chinese inspired world. And they’ve been making a lot of often pretty good movies based on novels for quite some time. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably the most famous one in Europe and America (though not considered particularly remarkable in China), but there’s also Hero, and House of Flying Daggers and I also very much enjoyed Reign of Assassins and the most recent adaptation of A Chinese Horror Story. For one thing, I really quite like the setting. Most of it is based on medieval China and probably just as accurate as western fantasy is dealing with medieval Europe. There’s swordfights, witches, and monster. Evil spirits are different than Greek monsters or classic demons, and the magic system is based around chi, similar to the Force in Star Wars, which is all very appealing to me. But there’s also one big difference to western Sword & Sorcery and that is the big place that is made for romance. Romance in western fantasy usually is terrible. But most wuxia movies I’ve seen somehow make it work. Queen of the Black Coast might be somewhat similar. Or pehaps the messed up relationship between Geralt and Yennefer in The Witcher.
  • Ghost in the Shell: A great comic and the movie based on it is probably my favorite movie after The Empire Strikes Back. Ghost in the Shell is probably the defining work of the post-cyberpunk genre, (which is primarily defined by removing the punk from cyberpunk) and particularly the movie adaptations are extremely existentialistic. All the main characters are cyborgs and the main hero has so many enhancements that she has essentially turned into something superhuman, more machine than mortal. While it is as hard as hard sci-fi can possibly get, it often turns quite deeply spiritual. When the brain can be directly plugged into computers and machines, it really feels a lot like magic. It’s a world vastly greater than the human mind with possibilities that can not even be imagined. And of course, there’s also various forms of mind control and manipulation of memory and thoughts. Ghost in the Shell has a really important impact on me to how I am thinking of incorporating magic and the Spiritworld into fantasy stories.
  • STALKER and Metro: Stalker is a videogame inspired by a Russian novel and a movie, while Metro is a series of Russian novels which also got two videogames closely based on them. They are all post-apocalyptic science-fiction and can there really be any kind of sci-fi more closely related to that? I am pretty sure that the games and Metro novels are very strongly based on the experience of growing up in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine. Things were not great under the Soviets, but in many respects things totally went to shit after that. Turning to post-apocalyptic fiction as a means of expression seems completely natural in that situation. They are not dreams about creating some new utopian societies inspired by the Old West, but instead you have some people who just somehow survive and linger in the ruins because they really have no idea what else to do. It’s not a rebirth of civilization. It’s just some remnants fading away. What inspires me about them is the strong presence of ruins. Wherever you look it’s urban and industrial decay. The Ancient Lands are a world where villages and towns disappear just as fast a new ones are build, with societies remaining at low numbers and ruins being found anywhere. And sometimes there’s still stuff left that can still be useful to the people of a later generation. I want to make exploration and treasure hunting a big theme, as that’s what lots of Sword & Sorcery bheroes do, but instead of robbing tombs I want to go with the leftovers of failed settlements. Both Stalker and Metro are giving me lots of ideas for both ruins and treasure hunters.

Book Review: Blood of Elves

Blood of Elves is the third book of the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, by Andrzej Sapkowski. Unlike the two previous books that were collections of stories, this one is the first novel, but they all can really be seen as a single series following a common storyline. In The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, continuity consisted mostly of regular characters that would travel alongside Geralt for a while and there were several references to previous story. In this book the plot begins to become concrete. Geralt and his friends stop wandering around wherever the road and coincidence take them and start pursuing a common goal. Now they have a purpose.

Blood_of_Elves_UKRight from the start it is made clear that this story is revolving around Ciri, a girl whose story began in The Last Wish and who first appeared in person in The Sword of Destiny. The one who is going to be Geralt’s Destiny, even though nobody knows what this is going to mean. But the circumstances of her childhood and previous encounters with Geralt are too strange for anyone to dismiss as coincidence. War is brewing in the Northern Kingdoms. The mighty empire of Nilfgaard has already conquered all the lands in the south and already devastated and occupied Cintra and nobody believes that they are going to stop. To make matters worse, the Nilfgaardians have open support within the Northern Kingdoms in the form of the Scoia’tael, radical young elves and dwarves who are hoping for autonomy as provinces of the empire instead of opression under the feudal lords and kings. Maybe they are impatient or under direct order of the emperor, but many have already begun striking at the human lords and their subjects wherever they can, causing chaos and destruction and forcing others of their kind to pick a side. All nonhumans become suspect and the situation in the towns is only going to get worse for them. In these dark times Ciri is having regular terrifying visions she can neither make any sense of nor remember, and out of ideas the witchers turn to their friends among the sorceresses for help. Meanwhile a mysterious assassin appears in the Northern Kingdoms, looking for both Ciri and Geralt.

Continue reading

Book Review: The Sword of Destiny

The Sword of Destiny is the second collection of stories of the witcher Geralt of Rivia by Andrzej Sapkowski that predate the novels. The events of the stories are only losely connected, but there are frequent nods to previous stories that establish some degree of chronological order, that appears to cover a couple of weeks or months, several years after the stories from The Last Wish. This is quite similar to how Fritz Leiber often connected his Lankhmar stories. Unlike the previous book, this one does not have an overarching “meta-story” in which the other stories are inserted as kind of flashbacks. I thought it was a pretty clever device (and I believe added long after the individual stories were originally written), would have been fun to see something similar done with this one as well.

I am having a bit of a hard time reviewing this book in my usual format, because frankly my main impressions pretty much comes down to “The Last Wish was much better”. Giving away my final opinion of the book right here at the start, I don’t think it’s a bad book. But not as great as The Last Wish, that comes before it in the series, or Blood of Elves, which comes after it and I have been putting on a break after being about two thirds through it to read this one first. And having read the entire thing as a whole, I think it’s really worth reading for fans of the first book who want to continue with the series. But more on that later.

The Last Wish

The Last Wish

The Sword of Destiny consists of six stories, which in a similar fashion to the first book all have titles that sound corny and pretentious at first, but have a real meaning that only becomes apparent after you completed them. You can’t get any more cliched with a fantasy book title than “The Sword of Destiny”, but though the term comes up several times there isn’t any actual magic blade to be found anywhere. The Witcher is not that kind of fantasy. Overall, the book is a lot more introperspective than the other two books I’ve read so far, which I think is a major reason why it felt so odd, especially at first. For stories about a monster hunter in a brutal world, the Witcher always has remarkably few and often quite subdued action scenes, but here even more so than usual. Very little is done and the center of the book is really Geralts inner life. Which particularly in the first two stories is not very well done. Geralt is gloomy, talks almost nothing, and I can’t help to think of the word “moody” or maybe even “moping”. He’s always there, but all the talking and acting is done by other characters while the main hero stays in the background with a bleak mood. In the third story he seems to have gotten over it and from then on I enjoyed the book a lot more. But even then I never felt like “Fuck, yeah! Geralt is badass!” However, Dandelion appears in half the stories and he’s always having a blast. Continue reading

Witcher RPG in 2016?

So apparently there’s a Witcher RPG in production to be released at some point next year. It’s being done by R.Talsorian Games and will be using the Fuzion system the company has been using for many other games. I am not familiar with it, but having taken a look at the basic mechanics and looked up popular oppinions about Cyberpunk v3, Artesia, and Bubblegum Crisis I am really not impressed. Consensus about games using the Fuzion system seem almost universally to be that they are greatly done books but all suffering from a pretty bad system. Well, most people to whom a Witcher RPG will appeal will already be very familiar with the setting so wonderful presentation won’t be much consolation.

Looks like another case of “Great License stuck with a bad system” this year, after Conan and John Carter. If I’ll decide to run a Witcher game, I’d simply use Fantasy Age. That thing seems to be almost tailor made for that setting and is so much simpler and lighter.

Nonhuman characters in Sword & Sorcery

When talking about Sword & Sorcery and the essential traits and themes of the genre, there is almost always at least someone making the claim that the absence of nonhuman character is outright essential and that a work can not be Sword & Sorcery if it has any nonhumans that are not monsters. Yesterday someone made the commendable effort to provide a reason and supporting evidence why nonhumans are not a thing in the genre, by stating that there are pretty much no works of Sword & Sorcery which have nonhumans as counter evidence. Now obviously that gets us to a True Scottsmen argument. If your definition of Sword & Sorcery includes “no nonhumans”, then of course there are no works that have them. You could also say that Sword & Sorcery doesn’t have guns. But Salomon Kane has guns and I haven’t seen anyone claiming that he isn’t Sword & Sorcery. Guns are just uncommon, but not conflicting with essential traits of the genre.

However, I want to argue that there are in fact many works that have all the relevant traits of Sword & Sorcery and also nonhumans, and in which the inclusion of nonhumans doesn’t in any way conflict with with those essential elements and themes.

  • Atlantis: The Second Age (rpg)
  • Bound by Flame (videogame)
  • Dark Sun (rpg setting)
  • Dragon Age II
  • The first three Drizzt novels.
  • Elric
  • Primeval Thule (rpg setting)
  • Rune Soldier (anime)
  • The Witcher

I admit, most of these are fairly recent. But just because something is not found in the oldest works doesn’t automatically make it incompatible with a genre. It still walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks as a duck.

Setting up conflicts in worldbuilding

While I am revising my Ancient Lands setting, I’ve set down to once more give some deep thoughts to the underlying conflicts of the world. I make no secret about my oppinion that the Mass Effect series has the best worldbuilding I’ve ever seen anywhere. Not because there is a lot of lore on the locations and a long detailed history. In fact, there is barely anything in that regard, at least if you don’t read up on it in the ingame codex. Perhaps there is some, but I didn’t read any of it and I still think the worldbuilding is superb. The Mass Effect galaxy is incredible because it has lots of factions that are tightly interconnected with each other, forming a complex web of conflicts and alliances in which absolutely everyone is included in some way. And these groups are friends or enemies with each other not simply because the writers say so, but because they share a common past which can be sufficiently explained in three or four sentences but gives them good reason to feel what they feel, and in a way that perhaps doesn’t make you approve of, but at least understand their views. The same company that made the Mass Effect games also made the Dragon Age series at the same time, and while I am not as much a fan of that setting, it also excels at having lots of conflicts that affect everyone in some way and in which each side has some good points.

This made me realize that conflicts are really what makes a fictional setting tick. Cultures, landscapes, religion, and magic are all nice, but to get your audience invested in what is going on in the world and its people, underlying conflicts probably define the world more than anything else. This applies both to settings for roleplaying games, in which you usually want to give the players the option to chose the side their characters are taking, and to episodic fiction in which different parts and aspects of the world are explored in each story arc. So I’ve been looking at all the other fantasy and sci-fi worlds I think have great worldbuilding with interesting conflicts and dynamics between factions. From Star Wars to the Witcher, and from Halo to Forgotten Realms. And I made an important discovery when it comes to creating conflicts: Even if you have a conflict in which both sides have a point and you could easily get into the mind of a character of either group, the conflicts still always started because someone was a giant dick!

Back to Mass Effect, lots of nice sidestories with difficult moral descisions involve the alien Krogans and the human Cerberus group. In many cases you can sympathize with them, perhaps even support them, and actually very much like individual characters of these groups, even though many people consider them evil and villains. But the thing is that in the past their leaders made some descisions and ordered some actions that were really total dick moves. No questions about that; those things were wrong and they got what they deserved. But those past wrongs were not commited by the specific people you’re dealing with right now. These people can be really nice guys and they might not have done anything wrong. But for some reason or another, they are now part of this group that has a long and violent conflict with some other groups. The source of the conflict lies in the past, but it established some facts that still matter a lot right now. And I think that’s really the key when setting up some underlying conflicts for a setting rich with ambigous characters and descisions. Creating a conflict in which neither side is truly bad is really difficult, if not outright impossible. But that does not have to prevent the existence of conflicts in which neither side is truly bad now. If you want to set up a conflict that lasts for generations and affects whole peoples, make the conflict start with one terrible person making a really unfair descision. Doesn’t really matter if it’s too much black and white, because that person likely is long dead or may not appear in the story at all. What does matter is the people who are on opposing sides right now, and being sufficiently removed from the original source of the conflict, they can easily be as ambigous as you want. In Halo 2, some of the alien enemies quit the Covenant and start a civil war against their former masters, which put them on the same side as the humans. But that doesn’t change the fact that they had been the officers in charge of the Covenant army that had been leading a war of annihilation against humanity for the last 30 years. They hardly could be called friends by any stretch, but from that part in the story they have to work together and fight their common enemy, whether they like it or not. There still is great hostility between them and from a worldbuilding perspective you can still regard them as two opposing sides in conflict with each other. You can sympathize with characters on both sides, but also have no trouble at all understanding accepting that they won’t be nice to each other and getting into fights.

So this is my appeal and my advice: Conflicts neither have to be black and white, nor fairly balanced. You can have very good underlying conflicts built into a setting, which started out with one side being the villain, but by now has developed into a state of regular agression from both sides.

Things I still plan to review

This list is actually getting longer instead of shorter because I constantly forget that I wanted to write reviews for these. Hopefully I get around to do them someday not too far in the future. And if you want to, you can bug me about them still being late. That usually motivates me quite a lot. ;)

  • A Princess of Mars
  • Atlantis: The Second Age
  • Barbarians of Lemuria
  • Conan (Comic)
  • Dark Sun Campaign Setting
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Demon’s Souls
  • Gargoyles
  • Heavenly Sword
  • Hellboy
  • Knights of the Old Republic (Comic)
  • Metal Gear Solid
  • Mirror’s Edge
  • No Salvation for Witches
  • Pitch Black
  • Primeval Thule
  • Red Tide
  • Riddick
  • Seirei no Moribito
  • The Savage Frontier
  • The Witcher 2
  • Thief: The Dark Project
  • Trawn Trilogy

This looks even worse that I thought. oO

Books I have not read yet

But plan to do so in the near future:

  • The Witcher Saga by Andrzej Sapkowski. I am actually already two chapters into Blood of Elves, but for some reason haven’t really been any books these last couple of weeks.
  • Bloodstone by Karl Wagner.
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin.
  • The Saga of King Kull by Robert Howard.
  • The Gods of Mars by Edgar Burroughs.
  • Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky.
  • Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock.
  • The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan (when it’s out in July), because it has a knight on a dinosaur on the cover!
  • Imaro by Charles Saunders.

The Witcher finally fully translated to English

Overlord at Fantasy Faction shared the news that the deal for the translation of the rest of The Witcher series has come through.

The short story collection The Sword of Destiny will come out this May, and the two remaining books of the novel series The Swallow’s Tower and The Lady of the Lake in 2016 and 2017. The English translations seem to have a rather weird history, with a rather irregular schedule to put it mildly.

Collections

  • The Sword of Destiny (Pol. 1992/Engl. 2015)
  • The Last Wish (pol. 1993/Engl. 2007

Novel Series

  • Blood of the Elves (Pol. 1994/Engl. 2009)
  • Times of Contempt (Pol. 1995/Engl. 2013)
  • Baptism of Fire (Pol. 1996/Engl. 2014)
  • The Swallow’s Tower (Pol. 1997/Engl. 2016)
  • The Lady of the Lake (Pol. 1998/Engl. 2017)

Without any guarantee that the translations would ever be finished, I certainly wouldn’t have bothered with starting a five book series at all. Fortunately, I can also read the German translations, which had been completed four years ago. I don’t have the slightest clue why the English version was taking the longest. Even the Spanish, French, and Lithuanian translations had been finished years ago.

I reviewed The Last Wish last month, which I consider an excelent book and probably the best pick to get into the series. To me, it’s the best example of modern (post-80s) Sword & Sorcery and reaches even up to Conan in quality. I can’t recommend it enough.

I also happen to find the original announcement from the publishers site.