Category Archives: review

My thoughts on Crypts & Things

Just a couple of days ago I got very excited about finally being able to get a look at Crypts & Things, which I’ve often seen praised as a fantastic Sword & Sorcery take on OSR games.

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But I have to admit that very quickly after starting to read, my enthusiasm for it went down very fast. Crypts & Things is not a bad game and it’s certainly more Sword & Sorcery than other OSR games, even more than Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. But my feelings on it are that it’s not a particularly impressive game and that it follows a concept of Sword & Sorcery that is exclusively Conan and Conan-clones, which is perhaps the dominating view among OSR players.

At ita base, Crypts & Things is Swords & Wizardry with a couple of variant rules and new mechanics. I’m very unimpressed with S&W to begin with and pretty much all the shortcomings I see in it apply to C&T as well. There are however a couple of nee ideas that I quite like. In C&T, bonuses for high ability scores are the same as usual, but penalties for low scores never get greater than -1.
The effect is almost the same of rolling 2d6+6, which I wrote about last month. This makes characters that are good at many things, but not really bad at anything, which fits Sword & Sorcery very well.

C&T has its own classes, of which the Fighter,Sorcerer, and Thief are pretty much as usual. Fighters get access to various weapon skills as they advance but the bonuses are so small that it just seems to add complexity for no real benefit. What I quite like however is that the thief’s skills are not exclusive to thieves. All characters can make a skill check based on their character level, but each class gets a +3 bonus to activities that fit their archetype. The barbarian is a new fourth class that turned out not to be another berserker as you usually see in D&D, but actually a lighter warrior with better wilderness skills. Filling the very same role as my Scout class for LotFP. Of course, I consider this a goo idea as well.

There are also five special classes including an elementalist but also lizardman and serpentman characters which can be used as NPCs or might be allowed for players in some campaigns.

Next there’s 11 pages of tables to create randomly generated character backstories.I’ve never been a fan of any such things.

A big difference to S&W is the spell list for sorcerers which consists mostly of magic-user spells and a few cleric healing spell. It’s still the regular D&D spells,which I find particularly unsuited for Sword & Sorcery. These spells are in three groups and classed as white gray,or black magic. They function very much the same but casting a white magic spells alerts demons that are close by and black magic spells can increase a character’s corruption. Interesting idea for a new mechanic, but I think this is an area where C&T falls flat to me.

Corruption is a cool concept in Sword & Sorcery, but in C&T it simply accumulates unti the character gets a mutation that seems mostly cosmetic. Kt feels overly bare bones to me.

Same thing with Sanity. You get insanity points as the game progresses and once you got too many the character goes mad and is out of the game.

Then there is also Luck, which is basically a regular action point mechanic with not much else to it from what I can see from my brief reading.

These are all concepts that are implicitly present in much Sword & Sorcery (particularly the hammy Clonan type) and that could be quite interesting to have in the game, but the mechanics presented here all strike me as very bare bones, bland, and also somewhat boring. I know I am a very tough customer when it comes to variant mechanics for simple games, but neither of these three makes me want to see it in action. I applaude the intend, but the execution isn’t doing anything for me.

All in all, Crypts & Things strikes me as a game that should work well and that I would play without complaints if invited to it, but I don’t really see anything in it that would make me want to run it instead of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. You can see that it’s made for Sword & Sorcery, but doesn’t seem to be any more suited for it than any other generic OSR game.

Reading through Cook Expert (1981)

D&D Expert

This one is blue. Interesting cover, but not nearly as cool as the Basic Set. It’s okay, but nothing too impressive.

In the original Box Set, this book came bundled with the module X1: Isle of Dread, also written by Cook, and which is probably one of the most highly regarded adventures ever made. I might perhaps cover this after the Expert Set is done. (Because it is indeed very good, but also very unlike any other modern modules.)

The first page is a number of tables from the Basic Set, like the Ability Score modifiers, missile weapon ranges, and all the Encumbrance rules. The idea here seems to be that you have any tables you might need too look up during a game in a single book. Very thoughtful.

Part 1: Introduction

Obviously, this is an expansion to the Basic Set and assumes that you know how Basic works. The idea of reassembling the two books into one is mentioned again, but without printing all 128 pages (which I won’t) it’s hard to get an impression of how good that would actually look.

The Expert Set has rules for letting characters advance to 14th level, and includes new spells, magic items, monsters, and treasures for such higher level adventures. (Or lower levels when you go to dungeons.) There is also a big deal being made from going beyond dungeon adventures into wilderness adventures. “In expanding the campaign, the DM will create whole nations and cultures, giving the characters a history and background. Adventurers can even shape the hisoty of their world as they become more powerful.” We’re going to see how well the book delivers on this lofty promise later on.

At higher levels, players also may build strongholds for their characters and then become lords of their own territories.

A few new terms are introduced as well: A wilderness is any area that is outdoors. When characters reach 9th level, they have achieved name level, as by then a magic-user is called a “wizard” and a fighter a “Lord”, and their title won’t be changing any more after that. (At the lower levels, every class level comes with a fancy sounding title that doesn’t actually mean anything.) When characters build their own fortified base, it is called a castle when build by fighters, clerics, or wizards, a hideout when build by thieves, and a stronghold when build by demhumans.

A new concept introduced here are reversed spells, which allows spellcasters to cast their spells for the opposite effect they usually know. There is also magical research, which allows spellcasters to invent new spells and make magic items. “Many details of magical research are left the DM.” Interesting they already felt the need to mention that here in the introduction of the book.

There’s a historically very interesting paragraph on the second page of the introduction. At least if you have an interest in early D&D and the nerdiest aspects of OSR.

Most important, the characters in the wilderness campaign do not exist in a vacuum. The DM should have events going on elsewhere that may affect (or be affected by) the actions of the players. There may be any number of “plots” going on at once, and the DM should try to involve each player in some chain of events. These should develop logically from the actions of those involved. It is important not to force the action to a pre-determined conclusion. The plot lines can always be adjusted for the actions of the players.

This could very well be argued to be official definition of what is now usually called Sandbox campaigns. You could write small books about this quote alone. (And I am pretty sure someone did.) I won’t go into that here in great detail as there is plenty of more immediate stuff, but it’s interesting to see that Cook was stressing some points about open world campaigns that are still the source of great debate 35 years later.

Since player characters die with considerable frequency and the default assumption is that all new characters are created at 1st level, “As a guideline, not a rule, it is suggested that characters who have a difference in levels of 5 or greater” should not play in the same adventures. The reason for that being that a 1st level character in a 6th level party would not have any realistic chance of surviving anything the party might run into and that a 12th level character in a 6th level party would simply clear out all obstacles by himself, reducing the other characters to supporting spectators. Still, I can imagine a great number of 3rd edition players considering even a 5 level difference an outrage and a travesty.

The suggestion that a 3rd level character and an 8th level character should probably play in different adventures seems strange though. This seems based on the assumption that D&D is played in wargaming clubs where there are plenty of different games run by different groups. However, the Basic Set explicitly mentioned that B/X is meant to make D&D accessible to people beyond this original crowd, so it seems a bit out of place. The obvious alternative solution would be to have new characters created 5 levels below the highest level character in the party.

There’s also a couple of extra notes for people who want to use the Expert Set with the older Holmes Basic rules. I know nothing about that one, but I assume the Expert Set would indeed have everything needed to do that. The only thing it’s really missing are combat rules, monsters, and spells, which the Holmes Basic set most likely already had in a very similar form. Continue reading

Reading through Moldvay Basic (1981)

Last year I did a forum thread about reading through all of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert rules for the first time, after having flipped through it briefly and being quite impressed by what I saw. Looking over it again, I think it turned out interesting enough to preserve it here for the future.

D&D Basic

Lets’s do this really thoroughly. Let’s begin with the cover.

First thought: It is red. Though the art is changed in the Mentzer version two years later, the red color is kept, resulting in it being called the Red Box. (As there’s also the original White Box and the Forgotten Realms Grey Box.) It really does stand out. The art is very well done, especially when compared to the cra… less sophisticated art of AD&D 1st edtion. It has a fighter and a mage fighting a dragon in a dungeon. That dragon looks angry, the fighter has his spear raised, and the mage is about to throw her magic missile.There’s also a torch providing dramatic fire and the dragon is standing in water so it splashes around. This kicks ass! This could only be more awesome if the dragon was breathing fire. Also nice to see someone with a spear instead of a boring sword, but that’s just me. The shield is wrong, but whatever. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of the artists personal style, but he really seems to have put a lot of thought into how to make the picture communicate the contents of the book. It’s not just some guys standing around posing for the artist while looking menacingly. It actually tells you what the game is about. And it’s red! You don’t need to know what Dungeons & Dragons is and with this cover you’ve already taken in all the art before you even read the name at the top. It looks a bit unsophisticated compared to modern cover art design, but I think sdjusting for the different styles of different periods, this is probably the best RPG cover I’ve seen so far.

I also like “For 3 or More Adults, Ages 10 and Up”. Nice touch.

Next is the whole table of contents on a single page. Very nice. And then we get the credits OH MY GAAHH…!

dragon

I said the only way the cover could be more cool is if the dragon were breathing fire. This one does! And this wizard is throwing his magic missile and it’s also a dragon! The dude with the bow is about to shot the dragon into the mouth and the dwarf is under the dragon, raising his hammer to smash its knees. And that elf chick blocking the dragons breath with her shield while looking cool? Totally badass. Let me put on the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack before I continue writing this.

Why is this picture here on the credits page? This isn’t really telling us anything or illustrating something that is explained on that page, like most RPG art. It’s simply there to make the page not look as empty. So why not put something there that gets people hyped up for them game after they are already curious from the cover?

curiosity

Okay, let’s get to actually reading the book. It has a short foreword, which I usually don’t read, but since the interest here lies not just in the specific rules of the edition, but how it is related and compares to all the other rules versions, let’s give this a look. There is a bit of nostalgic musing about OD&D (if you can call it that after just 6 years), but Moldvay spells it out specifically that OD&D was written for experienced wargamers. The primary goal of this revision of the rules was to make them accessible to completely new players, who are not familiar with these types of games at all. Many of the changes were made in direct response to letters send by players to TSR with questions about specific elements of the rules. Interestingly, it doesn’t mention the Holmes version that had been released 3 years later. Perhaps he was including it with “the original D&D rules”? As I mentioned before, I don’t know anything about OD&D or Holmes Basic, so I am unable to even guess.

He also dedicates a short paragraph to say “In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions”. He encourages to make changes, “particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination”. Which certainly is an important thing, especially with games of this period. But I think to completely new players who barely have any understanding of the rules as they are written at this point, this doesn’t really seem like particularly helpful advice. It seems a bit too much “yeah, whatever” to me. A few more sentences on explaining that it’s best to first fully understand the rules and using them for a while before trying to improve them for the personal requirements would have been a good idea. However, since this game is very compact and quite simple to begin with, it seems much less of an issue than with many other, much more complex games. The chance to accidentally cause a chain reaction as whole structures of rules collapse with rules on which they are build being taken away seems quite low here.

In the Aknowledgements, there’s special thanks to Frank Mentzer who helped with organizing the rules. He’s the one who would do the revision of this revision three years later.

Part 1: Introduction

This is two pages of the basic “What’s a Roleplaying Game” stuff. Usually I’d skip this, but here it might be interesting to take a closer look. It already mentions the Expert Set, as the two sets had been developed as a pair. The Basic set is for characters of 1st to 3rd level and deals mostly with dungeon adventures, while the Expert set will cover the 4th to 14th level and have rules for adventures outside the dungeon. It also announces the Companion set with rules for 15th to 36th level, which actually got released only 4 years later, together with a revised Basic and Expert Sets.

It’s recommended to remove the staples and cut the double pages up into single pages and make a ring binder out of them. So in theory you could later do the same with the Expert (and Companion) rules and have all the spells and monster together. For that purpose all the pages are numbered B1, B2, B3, and so on and then you’ll get the pages X1, X2, … from the Expert Set. But I do have my doubts if that actually would lead to a well organized binder, since with several monsters on every page you couldn’t get them all alphabetically. And I believe the Expert set has a few bits of errata but doesn’t duplicate the whole section of rules, just the specific paragraph. If I remember it, I’ll check it after having covered all of the Expert rules.

And here we do have a longer paragraph adressing how to judge whether to change a rule and advising on thinking it through carefully. Very nice.

The section “Definitions of Standard D&D Terms” begins with READ THIS SECTION CAREFULLY. In ALL CAPS and bold. Why no excalmation marks? Though will most of this section is most likely completely obvious to anyone reading it now, it probably was very important at the time of release and the intended audience. It explains not just things like Dungeon Master or Player Character, but also much more basic things like “party”, “dungeon”, “class”, and “adventure”. These are all now very common terms, but they are still technical terms, and not something that could be assumed to be instantly understood.

It also introduces the task of the mapper. The mapper is a player whose job it is to make a map of the dungeon as the party explores it, based on the description by the GM. It explicitly mentions that the map made by the mapper will be inaccurate and get even more so the further the players explore. While the idea of moving around with a shoddy map certainly is a lot of fun, making that damn thing sounds like a huge pain in the ass. It also requires that everything is done on grid paper for the mapper to have any chance of creating something that has passing resemblance to the actual environment, and that path has let us down to tens or hundreds of thousands of very implausible floorplans. In a game that is really just about exploring a dungeon and nothing else, it might have some excuse to exist. But once you start expanding into stories, grid paper maps really become much more of a burden than a useful prop.

The other role is the caller, which I think we know simply call the party leader. Every game with more than 3 PCs I’ve seen very quickly developed a party leader, but it was never an official position and there wasn’t any election or appointment. It just worked out that way. Here it is made much more official and exists on the border of ingame and metagame. The players may be debating and talking as much as they want, but it becomes actual ingame action only once the caller tells the GM what they are doing. I’ve never been quite sure what the purpose of this was. Probably might have something to do with groups reportedly being regularly pretty big, and I almost never run games with more than four or five PCs. I also always play only with good personal friends. With a group of mostly strangers for a one-shot game, getting things orderly and civil might be a lot more difficult, and if you then also have 10 players on the table, I can see it being a great reduction of work for the GM if he can have all the kindergardening outsourced to one of the players. For a home game with a few friends, it seems superflous though.

And, I kid you not, a quarter of a page dedicated simply to the many uses of the the word “level”, so that people don’t get too confused by it. Come on, guys! You obviously realized it was a problem! You are directly adressing that problem here. It was 1980, you still had an opportunity to fix this mess and introduce a few more terms to clear up the ambiguity of the language before it becomes standard terminology throughout all RPGs and video games. But no! You just had to keep doing it. At least it doesn’t seem to have caught on to say that monsters have a level. They simply have Hit Dice (or later a Challenge Rating). I think at least in AD&D, there is also a “monster level appropriate for a given dungeon level”, and a dungeon level does not just mean which story of a building it is, but also it’s difficulty level, as it is appropriate for PCs of a given character level. No surprise that this concept has been almost entirely forgotten in modern games.

Next is a simple explaination of dice notation. There’s also a short paragraph on explaining how to read the d4 and how to throw it. Though in my experience, players rolling dice too weakly so that they don’t really roll on the table is a significantly more rare problem than throwing dice with way too much force. Gamer Protip: Buy couches with enough floor clearing to fit a fist under it.

Finally a short paragraph on “How to ‘Win'”. Here we already see the term referee making an appearance. Which in my oppinion is the second worst term to use for a gamemaster after “storyteller” because you can not be an impartial judge if you also play the opposition and have the goal of making the game most fun. But that’s a completely different topic.

Continue reading

A first look at the Fantasy Age Bestiary

The Bestiary for Fantasy Age has been released in pdf now, and it really was about time. When the game came out last year it was the most demanded addition to the rulebook, which only provided ten or so sample creatures to show what their stat blocks look like. Which is really not much as a basis to easily get an introduction in how to effectively make new monsters for your campaign. Now a dedicated monster book has finally arrived.

GRR6004_450_1024x1024The big downside that immediately stands out is that there are only about 60 creatures in the book and the majority of them are pretty generic stuff that you find in every D&D Monster Manual 1. On the other hand, every creature has a full double page of description, which is more than I’ve ever seen in any other monster book. The description consists of a basic summary of the creature, usually a few paragraphs on making special customized versions of them, and three plot hooks as ideas how the creature can be used in play. This is something that I very much approve of. Unfortunately most of the creatures are not really interesting at all and so it all ends up being pretty uninspiring.

In Fantasy Age all the special abilities of a creature are in its stat block and usually it’s not too many of them to get too confusing. Often just four or five, with the creature’s natural armor and the ability to see in the dark being one item each. Most abilities are stunts which the creature can activate when it rolls two same numbers on its attack roll of 3d6 (if I recall correctly). Which in many cases makes a lot more sense than having them be special actions that are done instead of an attack and is one of the big features of the rules system. The downside is that the creatures have almost entirely only abilities for combat. That’s a bit too much needlessly imitating D&D in my opinion.

All in all, the Fantasy Age Bestiary seems like a book that is both necessary and unsatisfying. And like the rulebook itself it seems to be overpriced. There are so much better and bigger monster books out there which are much cheaper or even free and 15€ seems to be really too much. If you’re a huge fan of Fantasy Age and desperately waiting for a monster book to help running your campaign then this book seems like a necessary purchase. But if you’re looking for new monsters and inspirations for any other kind of campaign I very much recommend against it.

RPG Review: Qelong

Qelong is a small sandbox setting written by Kenneth Hite for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Since it’s a short little book, this will also be a somewhat short review. Qelong consists of a river valley on the coast of a fantasy country loosely inspired by Cambodia. Two immortal beings have been fighting over the country for a very long time, and some 20 years ago one of them discarded a broken weapon during a battle and it landed in the headwaters of the Qelong river. Since then it has been leaking a supernatural toxin into the water and into the air, making the calley barely inhabitable. The player characters are intended to mercenaries from a far away land who might be on a mission to remove the weapon from the poisonous swamp or salvage pieces of it for a sorcerer unbothered by its dangers.

117257The book consists basically of three parts: Mechanics, creatures and factions, and locations. The content covers 45 pages plus two simple maps. While it’s certainly compact, I am not a big fan of the organization. There are several important faction in the setting, but half of their description is in the monster section and the other half in the descrption of their base in the locations section. This made it somewhat difficult to get a first bearing and when I tried to read the book simply from front to back, most of the things mentioned in the mechanics section didn’t mean anything to me yet. It’s only once you made it through the whole thing (admitedly not long) that you get the whole picture and what the book provides and what it doesn’t. A general outline that tells me what this sandbox is about right at the front of the book would have been really appreciated.

I am also somewhat under the impression that this was not actually playtested. And that the author is not a veteran GM of this game system. As other reviewers have pointed out before me, the rules for the supernatural poison are much too long and complicated for the minimal payoff they have. There are three full pages on how the toxin works, but in actual play it will come down to the players starting to make occasional saving throws after a few weeks and eventually they will fail one and get a -1 penalty to most of their rolls plus some wild magic effects for spellcasters. Counting the number of days spend breathing the toxic air and how much poisoned food and water has been consumed, and how often each character was injured is just overkill. The other thing that stands out is the abundance of special attack that are basically instant kill. I think the naga should have no problem completely wiping out a full party in a single turn.

But the main issue I have with Qelong is the amount of content. For a hexcrawl (which I assume is meant to be the default use) there is just too little material there. The area is 24×18 hexes, yet there are only ten locations in total. Seven of which are already clearly marked on the player map handout. So not really anything to discover beyond the next hill unless the GM creates it. On the other hand, for a fishtank the factions are all much too one dimensional. It’s not really more than you would find in an old D&D module from the 80s. And what makes the whole thing somewhat annoying is that the content that is actually there could have been fully explained in a lot less space. You get a full page of text that doesn’t really give you any more information than “One 8th level dwarf with ten gnome slaves and a mechanical elephant mining for gems”. You still have to make a map yourself and have to come up with your own ideas for how interactions with the NPC could play out. So I have to wonder, who is this book for? The crunch is too little to be usable out of the box like a D&D module, and the fluff is too light to get stories going. Either way, you’re going to have a lot of work ahead of you to run a Qelong campaign. You can use it as a starting point for your own creative work, but the material that is already present doesn’t really seem that imaginative to me.

Pretty much all the reviews that I had read have greatly praised it as a wonderful Asian fantasy sandbox with great spooky and weird elements, but I am personally not seeing any of that. The Asian elements really only go as far as a few names and terms, with no real references to Southeast Asian cultures. Which I don’t have a problem with. Taking inspirations from other cultures is great, and there is no harm done unless you have an outsider who understands very little of a culture attempting to educate others about its traditions and social meanings. Which Hite really doesn’t do at any point in this book. Nothing objectionable about that. And it’s great when you see a western author create fantasy that isn’t set in faux medieval England. But there also isn’t any ground to praise Qelong for it’s presentation of an Asian fantay setting. It’s a generic fantasy setting with monsoon, lotus, and stupas. I am also not finding anything spooky or weird about it. When it comes to spooky content, Dungeon magazine adventures regularly went a lot further. Now the garuda-lich is a cool idea, I admit that. But the myrmidons, the naga-kin, and the lotus monks are all very much standard fare.

Now is Qelong a bad book? No, I would not say that. It’s reasonably well done and at $7 it’s also reasonably priced. But I am not a fan of it in any way, and neither do I think this is something others should check out. So when it comes to chosing yay or nay, it does come down to nay.

Book Review: Jirel of Joiry

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore is widely considered to be one of the great honored ancestors of the Sword & Sorcery genre by fans. There are a total of five tales of the character of which four have been published between 1934 and 1936, making them contemporaries of Robert Howard’s Conan tales and some of Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea. Moore is primarily known for her science fiction work (and she wrote the first draft for The Empire Strikes Back) and build a very considerable reputation over the course of her career. I had not read anything by her before, but the name recognition alone had me go into this with pretty high expectations.

Jirel of Joiry is the ruler of a principality somewhere in “medieval” France. She’s a ruler and a warrior, which makes her the first published female hero of Sword & Sorcery (though Robert Howard wrote some which he didn’t get published), and you have to look pretty far and wide to find any other. However, I have to say I personally found her to be a very flat and one-dimensional character. She has no backstory whatsoever other than being the ruler of Joiry and her personalty consists of the two emotional states of anger and defiance. To me that barely qualifies her as a character.

941226The stories themselves are a mixed bag. I quite like the first story Black God’s Kiss and the last story Hellsgarde, but was hugely disappointed by the other three. One thing that Moore does get very right is the creation of atmosphere and the imagining of strange and alien sights and landscapes. This is stuff that stands up pretty well when compared to the imagery evoked by Clark Ashton Smith, who was certainly a master at this. But this is not much consolation considering that the plots all completely suck.

Black God’s Kiss stands well above the others in this regard, as it has things happening and progressing. Jirel has been defeated by an enemy general and imprisoned in her own dungeon, after having suffered the terrible insult of being forced to kiss him. This can not stand and so she calls on the priest of her castle to help her getting her revenge by leading her to a secret passage that leads into a strange nightmare realm, where she might find some source of dark magic to slay her enemy. The journey down the strange passage and through the other world is quite well done and I greatly enjoyed reading it. The story also ends in a quite surprising way that I found to be pretty brilliant. I’ve seen comments about people considering it misogynistic, but my impression was that there are dark forces at work and not that Jirel succumbs to some “female weakness”. I very much recommend reading this one and seeing it for yourself.

The same can’t be said for the other stories. Black God’s Shadow is pretty much part two of the previous one, but reads more like Moore was recycling all the strange sights she had cut from Black God’s Kiss to keep the story from getting too long and losing its pacing. But nothing actually happens. In Jirel Meets Magic and The Dark Land, she finds herself in different strange realms of magic that have their own weird sights, but again nothing at all actually happens. These three stories consist of nothing but descriptions of strange things seen in strange lands, but without a plot it’s hard to care about any of them. Hellsgarde is better again in that it doesn’t go to yet another strange realm and that it has a plot. Jirel has to travel to an old haunted castle in a swamp to ransom her knights out of captivity but finds it to be not entirely abandoned. It’s not a great plot, but it’s a plot, and it has a surprising reveal at the end, that unfortunately fails to actually change anything that happened before.

Another big problem I have with the stories beside the lack of character and plot, is that Moore did a pretty poor job at making things feel threatening. The stories are mostly nothing but descriptions of things, but she still managed to completely fail at following “show, don’t tell”. Pages over pages of descriptions of how things look like and how Jirel feels about seeing them, but the things she describes don’t appear to be threatening at all. The moonlight looks poisonous, the shadows look evil, and the river looks terrifying. And we have nothing to go with than taking her word for it. There’s no mention of how the moon, the shadows, or the river look different from ordinary examples and so there’s no reason why we should feel anything similar to what she tells us Jirel is feeling. In Hellsgarde we even get a man of ordinary stature with “the face of a hunchback” and “the voice of a cripple”. At the third mention of the hunchback with the straight back, I couldn’t help myself thinking: “You keep using this word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

So in my final assesment I have to say: Nay! While I think Black God’s Kiss is a good story and entertaining read, Jirel of Joiry is not a good or interesting collection at all. In fact, I think it’s really pretty bad. Moore is one of the few women who wrote Sword & Sorcery and Jirel one of the very few female protagonists of the genre, and I suspect this might be the reason of the character’s limited fame. We want more female writers and more female protagonists, and being able to find one back in the 30s we latch onto it. However, more recently we got The Copper Promise by Jen Williams which also has a female protagonist. I am currently reading it and while I am not much of a fan yet, Williams easily pushes Moore down to second place for women in Sword & Sorcery. Let’s just hope we’re going to see more competition in the coming years.

Comic Review: Tales of the Jedi

Totj_kotor1Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi is a comic series that was published by Dark Horse from 1993 to 1998 with a total of 35 issues. This was only two years after the Thrawn Series by Timothy Zahn had kickstarted the Expanded Universe as we know it now, placing it pretty early in the history of Star Wars tales. The series was created by Tom Veitch, who had written the Dark Empire comic series a year earlier (which I consider the greatest travisty of the Star Wars universe after the Holiday Special), but he was joined by Kevin Anderson in 1994, who had just released his Jedi Academy novel series (which also has a pretty poor reputation among fans) and became the sole writer for the series a year later.

The Tales of the Jedi are set 4,000 years before the movies, in a time when the Republic was still smaller, the galaxy less explored, and the Jedi much more numerous. The first three story arcs, written by Veitch, (and giving us the now popular title “Knights of the Old Republic”) follow the adventures of the young Jedi Ulic Qel-Droma and his brother Cay and their fellow knight Tott Doneeta, who are send to the planet Onderon to help the government of the capital city end a war with the tribes living in the surounding jungles. They discover the spirit of the Dark Jedi Freedon Nadd manipulating the events on the planet, facing the three Jedi with a much bigger threat than they anticipated. As the crisis escalates, Ulic’s path crosses with the newly trained Jedi Nomi Sunrider, who has an exceptional talent for the Battle Meditation technique, which allows a single Jedi to coordinate the efforts of an entire army and making her extremely valuable.

Once Kevin Anderson joined as second writer, he introduces Exar Kun, a character from his Jedi Academy novels, whose spirit is trying to turn Luke’s Jedi students on Yavin 4 to the Dark Side. Exar Kun is unhappy with his master not trusting him to learn about the dangerous powers of the Dark Side and so sets out to learn more about them on his own. A path that very much mirrors that of Anakin Skywalker in the movies that were made a few years later. Exar Kun gets corrupted by the still not fully destroyed spirit of Freedon Nadd who leads him to the ancient Sith tombs of Korriban, where he once more unearthes the ancient secrets of the Sith. At the same time Ulic Qel-Droma is trying to infiltrate the leadership of a new Sith cult called the Krath who also have been guided by Freedon Nadd and establishing their own galactic power by allying with the Mandalorians and become a major threat to the Republic. Halfway through the arc, after the Dark Lords of the Sith series, Veitch left as a writer, leaving the field entirely to Anderson with the Sith War series.

A third main arc is set a thousand years earlier and centers on the first clash between the Republic and the Sith Empire under the leadership of Naga Sadow, who uses trickery and conspiracy to first destroy his rivals for control over the empire in The Golden Age of the Sith and then sets his eyes on the Republic in The Fall of the Sith Empire. A final, much shoter arc called Redeption, is set some years after The Sith War, but is mostly a personal story of Nomi Sunrider’s daughter Vima and doesn’t really add much to the historic lore of the Old Republic.

The setting of these comics would later return on the Knights of the Old Republic videogames, which right after the release of the second game got another comic series also, and confusingly, called Knights of the Old Republic. I was interested in those comics and had read the Jedi Academy novels at some point in the late 90s, so I decided to start at the very begining with the Tales of the Jedi series to know more about those references to Exar Kun, Ulic Qel-Droma, and Naga Sadow. When I first read them some three or four years ago, I quite enjoyed them. But having read them again over the last two weeks, my opinion of the series is now very different.

The first arc, written by Veitch, is really pretty bad. The art is very sloppy and ugly, characters are as flat as it can get, and what little traces of a plot there are are almost entirely told by exposition in boxes with the characters not really contributing anything with their own words. The second arc, begun by Veitch and Anderson, is a noticable improvement in that the art now looks only bad and that the plot consists of exposition in speech bubbles instead of boxes. It’s still a bad comic, though. The third arc, now done completely by Anderson alone, first starts surprisingly well with Golden Age of the Sith. The art has now been upgraded to simply ugly, though servicable, and there’s actual plot and Naga Sadow has some real personality as we follow him taking out his rivals and becoming new Dark Lord of the Sith. Sadly that didn’t last and The Fall of the Sith Empire is right back to being a jumbled mess of exposition. The short Redemption at the very end is okay, I guess. I still don’t think it’s any good or very interesting.

So yeah. My final impression of the Tales of the Jedi series is that it’s bad! There are noticable improvements over time, but those are simply from “godawful” to “only bad”. The only reason why I would recommend to anyone to read any of these comics, would be a great interest in the lore of the early days of the Star Wars universe. But even then I would say that only The Golden Age of the Sith and The Fall of the Sith Empire are worth it. If you really want to know about Ulic Qel-Droma and Exar Kun, then you’re much better of at just reading the page on Wookiepedia. There is so little plot and characterization in Veitch’s comics that you really are not missing out anything. It probably is much more exciting to read a detailed summary than to shovel your way through that pile of dung yourself.

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

Book Review: The Desert of Souls

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones is the story of Asim, captain of the guard of a powerful nobleman in Bagdad in the 8th century. He is also the narrator of the tale, reporting of his adventure with the sage Dabir some indeterminate number of years later. I am usually not a fan of historic fiction or first person narration, but here it turned out to be surprisingly fun. When their master had been sad about the death of his favorite parrot, Asim took him to a trip to the market to distract him and cheer him up, with Dabir getting roped in against his will. On their trip they met a fortune teller who told them that an opportunity for great adventure was waiting for them right outside her door, but if they prefer to go back to their ordinary lives all they would have to do is stay inside her house a few minutes longer and it would simple pass by. But of course they didn’t.

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Even though set in a historic setting, the book is clearly a fantasy story. But even the two heroes are very sceptical that anything supernatural is going on for quite some time. And while miracles and supernatural beings are accepted facts of their culture, the ideas of sorcerers and undead monsters in the middle of Bagdad just seems too unbelievable to everyone. It’s a very “classic” adventure tale and I’ve seen Jones write frequently about his love for Robert Howard and Harold Lamb. And it shows. I think as historic settings go, this is as close to the spirit of Sword & Sorcery as it gets. I am also reminded of Indiana Jones and Tarzan, so you probably might get an impession of what kind of adventure this is.

Asim’s narration works very well for the book. Overall I think the characters are not very complex, but both Asim and Dabir have clear personalties and it shows through not only in their dialogues but especially in the way that Asim describes the events and adds his own thoughts on them. He is somewhat of a simple man and while apparently being able to do a good job at protecting the house of his master and his family, all the praise for him is generally about his loyalty, honesty, and bravery. But he really isn’t the sharpest knive in the drawer at any stretch. The language he uses to tell his tale is simple and he often glosses over the details of the more arcane and ocult things that are going on, admitting that he didn’t really understand what the sages and sorcerers had been talking about. At the same time you also learn a lot about him from the little and seemingly irrelevant details he does mention because they seem to be important to him. It’s frequently mentioned in passing that they took a short break for prayer or that they washed hands before sitting down to eat, and while you almost never see him mentioning the turbans people are wearing, there are numerous cases where he points out that a person did not wear a turban. I don’t know the cultural dress code of that place and period, but simply by mentioning it it becomes obvious that Asim considers them improperly dressed and that to him that tells quite a bit about their character. While somewhat simple minded and a warrior, his honesty and integrity are without doubt and he is very conscious of his manners and proper behavior. Or at least as he sees it.

I sprang off my left foot, caught the roof ledge with my fingers, and pulled myself up. Dabir urged care; I do not think he heard my response, as I was too busy not falling to answer clearly, and my words do not bear repeating.

As far as knowledge of history and culture goes, the Arab world is not one I am particularly familiar with, but throughout the book it is always very apparent that Jones does. At least once or twice every chapter there is something mentioned that makes me stop and think “Oh yes, I think I heard about that somewhere before. Interesting to see it included in this story.” I mentioned the regular breaks for prayer and the washing of hands, as well as the absence or loss of turbans, but there’s always a lot more of this kind everywhere. At one point early in the book there is a mention of Turks, and that seemed somewhat dubious to me so that I looked it up. And as it turns out, the Turks had already been muslims in the 8th century, even though it was only many centuries later that they migrated from modern Kazhakstan to Turkey. And not only are there muslims in Bagdad, but also Zoroastrians and as they travel down the Tigris there are scenes involving “Marsh Arabs”, an ancient ethnic minority probably very few people in the western world have ever heard of. All this makes it feel that this story takes place in the real Abbasid Caliphate and not just some Arab-themed fantasy world that has some well known place names thrown in. What always intrigued me most was the use of the term “Greek”. In the tale as told by Asim, it’s always simply “the Greeks” without any additional commentary, and given the way he narrates the story it feels very appropriate. Asim knows what he means by Greeks and assumes that all his listeners do as well. But at this time in history, any “Greek” ambassadors or spies would be from Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. And most of eastern and northern Europe was not christian yet, so to Arabs in the 700s the word Greek might even be seen as synonymous with Christian. I really liked that the Greek sorcerer in the story is a necromancer. Resurrection of the dead is a purely Christian concept and the whole idea of Hell was adopted from ancient Greek mythology. I don’t know of Jones took any liberties there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were rumors circulating in the muslim world about Christians creating undead monsters in secret. The Romans had rumors about Christians being canibals and practicing child sacrifice some centuries earlier, so it doesn’t seem unlikely. And after all, even the word necromancy is Greek. In contrast to that, the Zoroastrian priests use fire magic, which also seems like something that the people of Bagdad probably would not have found too difficult to believe.

Jones has written quite a bit about the Sword & Sorcery genre over the years, among them some of the most interesting and insightful articles I’ve seen about it. He really does know the genre and how it works, and this shows very much in this book. It’s really a lot of fun. There’s almost always something happening and the narrator is always giving his own thoughts and perspective on the events in a way that is very enjoyable. (The first boat ride was the only point where I thought it should hurry up and get back to the action.) There are frequent fight scenes, but they are generally kept brief enough to not bog down and keep the action moving. Things tend to happen in interesting locations and there are lots of turns that give the whole thing a certain pulpy quality. Calling the book formulaic would be doing it a great disservice and create the wrong impression. It’s not a heap of cliches in any way and feels very original. But I think overall it could have much more of a spark and been much more audacious. Jones manages to avoid the story getting campy or pretentious, which is always a real risk with this genre, but I think it could have used a good amout of more fire. Structurally I think it’s an excelent adventure tale, but I got the impression of it being a bit too careful and slightly stiff. Aside from Asim, who being the narrator is always present throughout the entire tale, the supporting characters all seem somewhat underused. From what glimpses we get of them, Sabirah, Hamil, Farouz and even Diomedes seem like really interesting characters, but they actually do and say only very little throughout the entire story. Ali could have been a villain you would love to hate simply based on all the times he showed up to ruin someone’s day, but sadly we don’t really ever learn anything about him. He’s just the knife guy.

But even considering that, I think this book is really pretty great. It doesn’t read like a book by a seasoned career author, which it isn’t, but it’s one of the books I had the most fun reading in quite some time. That’s really one of the things I’ve been missing from many books I’ve recently been reading. As well written as many of them are, they are not fun. There’s a second book with Asim and Dabir, which I am sure I’ll be reading eventually. And if Jones adds a bit more fire and audacity to his tales, I think he could be really outstandingly good.

Book Review: Kull: Exile of Atlantis

186182While most people know of Conan, only few have ever heard of Kull. Kull was, to my knowledge, the first serious attempt of Robert Howard to write heroic fantasy, but he had only very little commercial success with the series and I believe only managed to sell a single story to a magazine. It was only much later when he had already become famous with Conan that people really took interest in his earlier stories about Kull. This collection appears to include everything Howard ever wrote about Kull and I think even goes a bit overboard with it. Not only does it included several full stories (which admitedly would have made for a pretty thin book), but also earlier drafts for some of them and a number of fragments that were never completed and sometimes only conist of a few pages. If you only look at the actual full stories, this book is a lot shorter than it looks.

Kull does have his fans and many of them are sometimes quite vocal in asserting that Kull is not simply a proto-Conan. And while it’s true that Kull is not just that, he still is very clearly a proto-Conan. Kull is a barbarian from Atlantis who had a turbulent career as a slave, gladiator, and soldier, until he led a rebellion against the king of Valusia and strangled him with his bare hands, taking the throne for himself. Not only is that pretty much exactly what we’re told about Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel, but The Phoenix on the Sword is 80% identical to the Kull story By This Axe I Rule. Conan did not come from nowhere or out of nothing. Conan was Robert Howard’s attempt to take Kull and make the stories more action-packed with more monsters and grander villains. And as we now know, it worked.

While I’ve heard some people say that they actually like Kull more than Conan, I’m really not feeling that way. As a character, yes, perhaps Kull might be a bit more interesting. But when it comes to the actual stories and what is on the page, Conan is playing in a completely different league. The stories of Kull are not bad and clearly the work of a writer with a fascinating imagination. But as the craftsmanship goes I do find them rather lacking. There are good ideas, but as pacing and tension goes they are mostly pretty weak. And I don’t really feel surprised that Howard was not able to sell them to a magazine for publication. Even the completed stories still feel like drafts, and often like first drafts at that. As completed stories they aren’t just that good and I think reading Kull at his best is comparable to seeing Conan at his weakest.

When it comes to rating this book, it really is much easier than I’d like to: Nay! I do not think this is a good book. I can not recommend it to people looking for something fun to read. It’s still worth reading if your interest in Kull is an academic one. This is where Sword & Sorcery really started and where it took the shape we now know. And this is Robert Howard when he was starting out writing fantasy, which is also really fascinating to examine for a fan. But I don’t think it is offering much when you’re looking for entertainment.