Monthly Archives: March 2016

As you know…

Why on earth does the phrase “As you know, …” exist in dialogues? Why would any person ever use it in conversation? It does occasionally come up in lectures and presentations, but then it means “as you should know, but I am saying anyway to spare you the embarrasment of asking the question, …” When you know the other person in a conversation knows these facts, it just makes no sense. Even as a writer, if you want a character to say something that is redundant because everyone in the conversation knows it, why would you draw attention to it by adding “as you know”. It might have gone by unnoticed that the statement was redundant for the characters if those words hadn’t been there.

Don’t draw attention to your flawed scene setup!

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.

Dressed to kill

I started playing Bloodborne this week.

The game would really have to impress me with the stats on later armor sets and weapons to make me get out of this stuff.

The weapons are from among those you can start with, the hat, gloves, and boots are the first you can find in the game, and I think the coat is right after defeating the boss to progress from the first area of the game.

I am bashing the skulls of monsters in with a pimp cane that also transforms into a steel whip! And in the other hand I have a sawed off shotgun. While wearing a tricorne! There’s no better way to dress to hunt werewolves.

Task-based adventures for RPG campaigns

In a discussion from an RPG forum someone dug up one of my old posts in which I had written a lengthy piece about adventure design. I had actually long forgotten about ever having written it and it turns out to have been just two months before I started this website. Reading it again, I am quite pleased with it, and so I want to preserve it here for the future:

The standard types of adventure modules

As I see it, there are basically two main types of adventures, when it comes to published adventure modules. Plot-based adventure (“Paizo-style”) and site-based adventures (“Gygax-style”). Both come with a number of advantages and disadvantages. First, let me say a few words about “plot”. A plot is a sequence of events that are put into a logical order that forms a chain of causes and effects. This is not the same as a story. A story can be made up as you go, with new and unexpected things happening and no real idea how things will turn out in the end. When talking about plots, it means the entire chain of events from the beginning to the end. The term “plotting” is often used to mean making a plan, and in statistics it means making a graphic representation of data points (events). In either case, a specific outcome is desired, or the events have already happened and can now be analyzed. When you start reading a book, watching a movie, or playing a video game, the entire story is already determined and the outcome set, which is why the terms story and plot are used interchangably.

Plot-based adventures

In what I called the Paizo-style adventure, the entire is already plotted out. “PCs get their quest from that NPC, go to that location, fight that monster, find that clue, follow to the next location, fight the villain, stop his evil plan.” There is one big problem which usually goes by the name of Railroad. There really is only one possible outcome. At the end of the adventure or campaign, the PCs will be in one specific room where they will fight the main villain, and almost always kill him. This will happen, in exactly this way, regardless of any choice the players ever made. Which means all those choices were effectively meaningless.
You have an adventure that says “the big door at the top of the tower is guarded by a big monster. Behind the door is the wizards lab and on the desk is a letter that mentions the location of his masters base”. The PCs have to fight their way to the top of the tower. The PCs have to kill the monster that guards the door. The PCs have to get through the wards that guard the lab. The PCs have to kill the wizard. The PCs have to take the letter. The PCs have to go to the base of the Big Bad.” All these things have to happen and the have to happen in that order.

They have to fight the guards in the tower, and they have to fight the monster, and they have to fight the wizard. That means they all have to be defeatable. The players know that. Also the players know that the GM does not want a total party kill, so they know when things turn back, the GM will intervene to have them succeed regardless. It still can be a fun and enjoyable adventure, but I think it could be so much more.

Site-based modules

On the other hand, there’s the Gygax-style dungeon module. There usually are many entrnaces into the dungeon and there is no set order in which the PCs have to meet all the encounters and discover all the rooms. Some treasures or even rooms might be hidden and the players might never find them. Since many of the monsters don’t have to be killed to enable the PCs to explore the rest of the dungeon, not all monsters have to be easily defeatable. In fact, the PCs might even lose some fights and hope that at least some of them can flee with their lives. Those are descisions the players have to think about, and they have actual consequences.

Unfortunately, as written, most of those classic modules and many recent retro-clone modules seem to be aimed at tactical wargaming. They don’t have a story. “There is a dungeon with monsters and treasures. You are adventurers. Go into the dungeon, fight the monsters, take the treasures.” If you get lucky, there’s an additional “Monsters from the dungeon attacked local villages. The villagers asked you to kill the monster.” And very often that’s it. Again, people have been having huge fun with it for decades. But again, it could be so much more.

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