Book Review: Swords & Dark Magic (Part 4)

Dark Times at the Midnight Market by Robert Silverberg: This story is about the tiny Vroor magician Ghambivole Zwoll, a creature with a beak and tentacles, and his business partner Shostik-Willeron, a two-headed Su-Suheris, whose magic shop has fallen on hard times as the world has become so overcrowded by magic that there is simply no more profit in it. An opportunity arises when a nobleman comes to their shop to buy a love potion, which ends up getting them into deep trouble. Robert Silverberg can write, that much I have to give him, and he might do quite well in writing for his familiar genres. But this story does have absolutely nothing to do with Sword & Sorcery. That this one was even submitted as a contribution to this book already indicates a failure on the side of the publisher, who apparently wasn’t even able to set any clear submission guidelines.

The Undefiled by Greg Keyes: I was really hoping the stories would get better the longer I keep reading, but instead it is only getting worse. By absolutely any standard I can apply, this story is just shit! The protagonist is called Fool Wolf, and always in this full form, never shortened to either Fool or Wolf. Apparently he is possessed by his girlfriend, who he raped to death in a berserker rage or something. There is no context at all, not even the slightest indication that locations are shifting, and there, and nothing makes any sense. Later on it is revealed that one of the groups extends its life by raping little children, and then somehow they are dead and the story stops. This is shit! Please don’t write anything again.

Since I have given up hope on this book, I am going to wrap up this review by quickly summarising what the remaining stories are about:

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Book Review: Swords & Dark Magic (Part 3)

A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet by Garth Nix: This short story is about a knight who is in hospital with a broken foot who is looking for a presen for his bodyguard golems birthday. There is not a single good thing to say about it.

Red Pearls by Michael Moorcock: Finally! Finally we are getting someone who really knows what he is doing and who actually understands the genre of this book! The story is about Moorcocks famous character Elric, of whom I actually only know that he is some kind of superhuman with a really powerful sword. Elric is traveling with his companions to the underside of his world for reasons only he really knows and, what appears to be his typical fashion, doesn’t share with anyone else. As they reach the port at the end of the sea voyage, Elric is already awaited by a woman who shares his highly unusual physical appearance. Elric has come for a magic sword, but in exchange he has to find a pair of red pearls.

It’s really obvious that Moorcock has writing stories like this for a long time and both understands what is expected and what he has doing. Pacing is good and he’s making the effort of actually describing things and not leaving the characters and the reader in a blank vacuum. This is the first story since the very first in the book that has actual action scenes and even incorporates sorcery at the same time. Which I had expected from all the previous seven stories as well! The presentation of this story is very well done. Unfortunately, the actual plot isn’t that interesting either.

The Deification of Dal Bamore by Tim Lebbon: This story is about a priestess of an all-powerful church who is transporting a rebell leader to his public execution when the procession is attacked by his supporters. While the style of the story is really quite effective at creating tension and a rich atmosphere, the author made the unusual descision to write everything in present tense, which feels particularly strange as half the story is told in flashbacks, which just feels like a very odd combination. A major element of the story is that the priestess believes the prisoner must be kept alive until his execution under any circumstances, but only until the very end do we get kind of an explaination why that would be important. Her soldiers don’t understand either and I think it’s not a great device to keep important details secret from the reader even though the entire story is narrated from inside the priestesses thoughts, who seems to be the only person who knows what’s actually going on. Despite its shortcomings, I think this is still actually one of the most exciting stories in the book and even though it barely checks any of the boxes of the genre, it seem still like a worthy contribution to this collection. (And far more so than mosy of the other ones.)

Book Review: Swords & Dark Magic (Part 2)

The Singing Spear by James Enge: One of the shortest stories in the book. It’s about a man calles Morlock Ambrosius. Really? Oh, well… Morlock is a maker of things and since he invented a still that could destill wine and gave it to a tavern owner, he is getting free alcohol and is permanently drunk. His hazy life gets disrupted when news come to him that someone recovered the Singing Spear, a magic spear he created a long time ago, which unfortunately is cursed. Now a madman is roaming the cuntry slaughtering everyone and everything he comes across, but Morlock doesn’t care. Not his problem. Until the tavernkeeper joins the refugees who are fleeing the country, which means no more free booze for Morlock! So he got to do something.

This is another really bad story. It’s short, nothing happens, and it overall feels like a draft written in two hours and phoned in. You don’t submit such a thing for publication. The common complaints apply here as well: The actual story really begins only in the last third and the author wasted not a single sentence on describing anything.

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Book Review: Swords & Dark Magic (Part 1)

Swords-and-Dark-MagicSwords and Dark Magic – The news Sword and Sorcery is an anthology released in 2010, consisting of 17 stories in the style of classic Sword & Sorcery. It got pretty decent reviews and ratings, and with most of the big names of the genre being quite old already (Conan even made it into public domain almost a decade ago), I was quite intrigued to see what current authors have to offer as their personal take on it. I have to say that my personal knowledge of contemporary fantasy writers is very superficial, but even I have certainly heard of such names as Steven Erikson, Glen Cook, Michael Moorcock, and Joe Abercrombie. Since each story is by a different writer and was created independent of the others, the only sensible way to review them in detail is to do them each separately. I will keep it mostly spoiler free, but still point out specific things that I consider worth special mentioning.

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Fritz Leiber: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

As a big fan of Robert Howards Conan and fantasy works with the common themes and features of Sword & Sorcery, I still never got around to read anything by Fritz Leiber. He was the man who introduced the term Sword & Sorcery for the already existing type of fantasy literature, that with the massive impact of Tolkiens Lord of the Rings needed to identify itself as its own distinctive niche. (In hindsight, Leibers attempt to define a fantasy subgenre might have been the only one that was actually successful.) He introduced the term of Sword & Sorcery referring to the type of his own stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but also considered Robert Howards Conan and Kull as prime examples of the genre he wanted to define.

So there really was no way I could push this out any further in my own explorations of the genre, and finally got around to get myself the (chronologically) first two collections of the series about these two famous heroes. Swords and Deviltry and Swords Against Death. It turned out to be a highly sobering experience.

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Primeval Thule Campaign Setting: Having a William Gibson moment

Damn you, Richard Baker! Did you steal my notes?

While browsing around on my continuous search for inspirational material for my Ancient Lands setting, I stumbled on Primeval Thule, a new RPG setting by Richard Baker, David Noonan, and Stephen Schubert that had a Kickstarter last year, but never really got a second glance from me. The final version was completed and released just last month, and with the 272 pages pdf being only 15€, I decided to make the gamble and give it a try without any helpful reviews of it being around it. And it looks good. Really good. You might even say too good!

Just after the first two pages I was starting to get a William Gibson moment. The story goes that Gibson was just in the process of finishing up the last touches on his groundbreaking novel Neuromancer, went he went to the theater and watched an obscure sci-fi movie called Blade Runner. And realized with a shock that he was seeing almost exactly the same thing as his own original and entirely new vision. Primeval Thule looks a lot like the outline for my own Ancient Lands setting on which I have been working for the last four years. A large, mostly unexplored continent of wild forests, where humans have arrived just 300 years ago, finding a world inhabited by the remains of the kingdoms of elves, snakemen, rakshasa, and cyclops, with much older and stranger beings slumbering underground and the weapons and armor technology being primarily bronze. Replace “cyclops” with “mountain giant” and make the elven kingdoms still powerful, and the description matches perfectly with the Ancient Lands as well.

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Psions, sorcerers, and redundancy in D&D 3rd Edition

I’ve just been thinking about psionics in AD&D and in particular how you could run a Dark Sun campaign without having to bother with the psionic rules and instead use something like 3rd edition sorcerers with limited spell lists.

And I think I know see why psionics always seemed redundant, as someone starting with 3rd edition. In AD&D, magic is something that is always learned. All you need is to meet the ability score requirements and you can learn arcane and divine magic. There was no such thing as being born with magic power or having a special natural talent that opens the path for magic training to you.

And that was the point of psionics. Psionics is a type of magic that can not be taught, but is something you are born with. A psion was simply a person who spend all his training on improving and expanding the powers he was born with, at the cost of forgoing the training of any other skills other character classes get.

And that’s exactly the same thing that sorcerers do. 3rd edition said that characters do have the option of being born with magic powers. But instead of bothering with an alternative list of abilities and mechanics, sorcerers simply use the same spells that wizards do.
But when they later added psionics to the game, that created a redundancy. Sorcerers and psions have the same fluff. They fill the same role only with different mechanics.

And that’s why you sometimes see people making such a big deal about psionics being not magic and being completely different because the power comes from within. In 3rd edition, that’s the same thing as sorcerers, but in AD&D, it was indeed a big difference. Magic was always something you learned about altering the world around you, never something you had naturally within you.

It also explains why the 3rd edition Monster Manual has creatures with psionics, which work 100% like spell-like abilities. In AD&D, aboleths and yuan-ti were getting their powers from the list of psion powers, not from the spell-lists of wizards and clerics.Apparently some writer wanted to keep calling it psionics, even though they were now spell-like abilities in everything but name.

So now I think that when you use psionics in a 3rd edition or Pathfinder game, that campaign should not include sorcerers. Other classes like bards or beguilers can stay, their spells seem to have always been considered learned instead of inborn (except for dragon disciples, but those are their own can of worms.)

3 Acts and no End in sight

Yesterday I saw an article about the pacing in RPGs and 3-act story-arcs at Run a Game, which made me think of something that has been on my mind several times before. I actually think it’s a really good explaination of the subject and I don’t mean to criticize the authors views, but I think there’s something fundamentally flawed, or at least problematic with the whole premise of the subject.

The first sentence of the main article goes “Most western stories are structured around three acts”. And that’s the whole problem with it.

Three act story structure may be a classic and considered tried and true, and I think when it comes to theatre plays and movies, it’s still a valid approach. There are only two or maybe three hours to tell the whole story and that really isn’t that much time to have an elaborate beginning and end, as well as a good deal of additional action between them in the middle. But when we’re dealing with both literature, roleplaying games, and also video games, this is usually not a restriction the writer has to work with. And there is a serious downside to this approach. Because three act structure is comon in most western stories, things tend to become fairly formulaic. Not only do we have a pretty good idea what will happen, but also when it will happen. Things are getting too predictable. The first act twist and second act twist are not twists, and the third act revelation is not a revalation. Because we already know that they are coming, often long in advance.

A great example of this would be the Mass Effect series. In my oppinion, Mass Effect 2 is the greatest video game ever made. It actually beats everything else that is out there. But when I finished the game for the first time and the credits were playing, my first thought was “Wow, what a great ending. But what room is there really to continue from here?” While each game may have its own three act structure, the series as a whole is three acts as well. The first game introduces the great threat, and while it is contained for now at the end, we still know that this was just a first taste of the real trouble to come. In the second game, it is where the protagonists make progress toward solving the story problem, coming up with a goal and plans to address it, then gathering resources to achieve their goal: knowledge, skills, allies, and equipment. The stakes rise in the second act.” This was quoted directly from the Run a Game article (which again, does a really good job at examining the subject). But as soon as the credits ran, I know immediately what the next game would be like. Because there could only be one way the third game could be like. Things start to get much, much worse and it’s looking really bad for the heroes, but all hope rests on a newly introduced superweapon that may have the power to destroy the enemy, but will only be able to be deployed right at the brink of total annihilation when everything comes down to a massive final battle.

And that’s exactly what happened. Because it could not have happened in any other way. The conventions of the three act structure and the action hero genre demand it. Mass Effect 3 is now famous for being one of the most despised endings of any video game series with a backlash rivaled by few, if any, other things in the business. But as many problems as I have with the game, and there are a lot, I do give the writers a lot of credit for their attempt to break out of the overused cliches and do something different at the very end. They completely blew it in the execution, but I have great respect for them for at least trying.

I say, when it comes to the pacing for a campaign, stay well away from the standard three act structure. It’s just too predictable. In a minor spoiler for Mass Effect 3, there is a moment at the very end when the hero presses the button on the Phlebotinum Device and collapses from her injuries (female Shepard is the only true Shepard), having come all this way to do what nobody else could have done, overcoming countless obstacles that defy what should be possible. And nothing happens. You even get a radio call from your allies, asking frantically if you have already activated it. Now in the game, there comes one more thing the hero needs to do to save the galaxy, but imagine if it didn’t. Imagine everyone put everything on one card… and it’s a dud. What happens then? Is it all over? Well the battle might have been lost, but turns out it wasn’t so final at all. What now? Do we have a Plan B? We really need to come up with a Plan B now! And that’s when things are getting really interesting and exciting! The players are in a situation they don’t know, in which there is no default way to continue on. And that means that at this points, the players have actually more freedom to take control of the game than they did at any other point of the campaign. But you don’t have to wait until the very end to do this, you can start with it from the very beginning. Have NPCs switch sides, have people change their mind about important things, let people make mistakes, and let good plans end in failure. Don’t have the players simply going through the motions and performing their role. It may be called roleplaying game, but it’s not about performing a role in a script, but take free control over a character. In recent years I’ve come to love Japanese and Chinese movies because they are telling stories I have not heard before. Things are happening that I didn’t anticpiate and not just because it’s an obligatory sudden twist that was unforseeable. There probably will be a cool fight scene in the end, but usually I don’t know who will win and who will get the girl. Maybe the girl wins?!

So yeah… Three act story arcs are bad, mkay…?

Sandbox campaign logs?

While I get the general idea of dungeon crawl sandbox campaigs and use some elements of sandbox settings for my own campaign, I’ve been puzzled about how such campaigns actually look in practice. I occasionally see advice that GMs should not direct the players to anything and that any story that evolves comes entirely from the players descisions. I have a hard time imagining that, but so far never had any luck in finding actual gameplay reports of such campaigns.

This post is a kind of open call to everyone to pointers where one could maybe find campaign logs and play reports of this type of campaign. Any replies will be highly appreciated.

XP for treasure

One oddity of AD&D 1st edition that had always seemed nonsensical to me, is to give characters XP not only for defeated monsters, but also for the value of treasures they bring back with them into town. Why do that? Picking up stuff that is lying around does not make you better at fighting or casting spells. And in those games I’ve been playing the most, treasure is there to be sold so you can buy better equipment and magic items. But in campaigns of a more oldschool leaning, there frequently are no more things for sale, which you don’t already have by 2nd level. So why bother with treasure at all?

Very often, and probably most of the cases, defeating an enemy also gets you treasure. But you can also defeat an enemy and not getting any treasure (because he doesn’t have any). And you can get treasure without defeating an enemy!

That’s what makes XP for treasure relevant. Sometimes an enemy can’t be fought, or the risk is regarded as just way too high. But if you can find a way to get his treasure while avoiding him entirely, you still created a clever solution to a problem. Which is rewarded with XP. Even in a game where money has no practical use, treasure still serves as a measure of your accomplishments. When you return to town, the treasure you bring back with you is your proof for your deeds.

You can’t make the player feel the comforts the money of the PC can buy him. And it’s extremely difficult to really play out the benefits of good clothing and a fancy house. To the character, being rich has great value and benefits. And when the chracter sees a golden idol, it is luring him with expensive wine and crocodile skin boots. But since comfort does not carry over to the player, XP can serve as a substitute lure. Instead of dollar signs in the players eyes, it’s saying “XP”. What matters is the emotional response.

When the GM describes a golden idol with ruby eyes on a pedestal, the player should think “I really, really want this. I hope there’s a way to get it without getting killed.” In other games like D&D 3rd edition and later ones, the player will want to have it because it can be traded in for magic boots or enchanted armor. So there is no need to add the additional lure of XP.