Showing posts with label Angry Robot Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Angry Robot Books. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Guest Post: Wesley Chu (THE LIVES OF TAO) on Playing Games with Kids

[Editor's Note] A couple of months ago, Shawna and I discussed Wesley Chu's new book THE LIVES OF TAO on our Geekerati Podcast. In addition to asking Wesley to join us on the podcast, I asked him if he would be willing to write a guest post for my Advanced Dungeons and Parenting blog and he agreed. Below is the article he wrote for the site. Before you read, I'd like to point out that reading his ADP guest article gave me a great deal of pleasure. It isn't often that I meet a fellow Mystara fan. So read on and enjoy.[End Editor's Note]

In honor of Advanced Dungeons & Parenting, I wanted to get on my soapbox and tell parents to force their kids to learn to become responsible adults by leveling characters in Dungeons and Dragons and/or Pathfinder.

My main poison from grades one through eight was Dungeons and Dragons, the non-advanced version. This is back in the eighties and nineties back to those old school TSR days when we had those red, blue, teal, and finally gold manuals. Back then, rules weren’t nearly as complicated and there weren’t a bazillion books to have to buy.

I have fond memories of the land of Mystara. My old stomping grounds were the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, the mage kingdom of Glantri, and the merchants Republic of Darokin. Sometimes, we’d venture as far out as the Ethengar Khanate. Now, Mystara, or The Known World, at the time was a fantastic sandbox. I had leveled my mage Kraven (before I knew what that name meant) up to the point he became a baron in Karameikos. What does this have anything to do with being a responsible adult? Well, I decided to build my first keep. Now, my memory of all this is a little fuzzy, but I distinctly remember thinking to my fourth grade self that “damn, I need a big frigging castle with a moat! And a huge stable! And a very high tower!”

I didn’t take into consideration for materials, defenses, garrison size…etc. I just wanted a big castle. I remember begging my parents for grid paper so I could map the entire thing out. I believe I had a dozen blue prints before I settled on a design. And boy, was it a beautiful, poorly conceived, audacious castle. Note to self: not becoming an architect was a good thing. In my defense, I had enough gold to build the damn thing. Sure I basically had to hire myself out as a high level mercenary and do some rather unpleasant things (that’s what happens when you have a mean older brother DM) and basically taxed my poor peasants to near death. But at the end of the day, the castle was built with all its needless additional towers and silly additions only a kid with too many legos could imagine.

However, I was so poor and in so much debt that I couldn’t maintain my garrison and ended up losing the castle to a marauding Dwarven army. Actually, it wasn’t even very marauding, just like 50 dwarves who snuck in from a really ill-conceived part of my defenses. I had hardly garrison and it seems my amateur architectural planning had more than a few fatal flaws. In the end, poor Kraven was left broke and destitute, and had to spend the rest of his days guarding caravans in Darokin. But, like those wise lessons learned by watching Monty Python:

"That [castle] burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.” 

I had learned some lessons that I carry with me to this day:  

1.       Don’t spend more gold than you got. 
2.       Hire a proper architect or someone who is an expert on what you need done. 
3.       Never be house poor. 
4.       Castles are expensive as hell to build, and even more expensive to maintain. 
5.       Wizards should just get a nice tower in downtown Glantri.

So parents, do your kids a favor. Play games with them, and sneak in those life lessons that will help them when they get older. After all, if you don’t, a bunch of rampaging dwarves might end up sacking their castle.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

[Book Review] GIANT THIEF -- Where's the Likeable Rogue?

Easie Demasco is a character with whom I am conflicted. On the one hand, he is a witty character who has a well developed sense of humor. One the other hand, he's a jerk -- one who never really becomes more than a jerk. He's also the strongest and most compelling feature of David Tallerman's novel GIANT THIEF (published by Angry Robot Books).

GIANT THIEF is a fairly straight forward tale of:

1) Thief acquires MacGuffin not understanding it's value.
2) Thief meets people who understand value of MacGuffin and seek to use thief in battle against evil.
3) kind of know the rest.

Often these tales include a heroic journey or follow a bildungsroman format in which our Thief undergoes some major transformation or grows in some way -- usually evolving morally. Not so with GIANT THIEF.   Easie begins the story as a selfish and greedy rogue, and he ends the story as a selfish and greedy rogue with more grandiose plans than before.

Technically,  that does count as some kind of character development, but it lacks the moral evolution that often occurs in these tales.  Easie goes from a petty thief to an individual who seeks to become a master thief. He goes from pick pocket to one who wants to become a Thomas Crown-esque figure, but he lacks the sophisticated charm of a Thomas Crown and has instead a clownish sense of humor.  If one were to cast Easie for a film, one would look more to comedic talent than to cool sexuality.  He's more Daffy Duck than Han Solo.

There are quite a few clumsy moments in the book and the chapters establish and follow a  predictable rhythm. One is tempted to say that the book is one that isn't to be recommended based on these flaws, as they are often fatal to good storytelling. And yet...

I keep finding myself wanting to throttle Easie Damasco, or watch him get caned, or at least have a long talk with him to wake him up and set him on a more moral path. I keep finding myself imagining conversations with him.

All of which means that Tallerman has achieved something that is often rare within a novel, he's created a realistic character who lingers in ones mind weeks after a book has been read. That is a good thing indeed. If only Easie were more likeable. He's a rogue and a scoundrel...and that's it. He's not loveable. He's not nice. He doesn't harbor a hidden heroic heart. But he is interesting and I want to know more about him

[Gaming Notes -- Contains a minor Spoiler]

The book's MacGuffin and interpretation of Giants are perfectly suited for adaptation to the gaming table.  The MacGuffin is a non-magical stone sacred to the Giants that signifies who is the Giant's chief.  In Giant society the orders of the chief must be followed without question, even if they violate the morality of the tribe members.  The Giants in this case are gentle pacifist vegetarians, but they are asked to do some terrible things.  All of which could make for a compelling and morally complex D&D adventure.

You can play with PC preconceptions regarding Giants and slowly introduce them to the moral complexity of the situation.  How many Giants will the players defeat, or even kill, before they discover the secret of the stone?  How will they feel about their actions later.

These are good questions, that can make for a rewarding adventure as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Well Shoot! -- We didn't win Angry Robot Books' "Steampunk" Kindle

Last month, Angry Robot Books ran an online competition where they solicited "Steampunk" themed artistic creations and offered a Steampunk skinned Kindle as a prize. I am a big fan of Angry Robot Books -- if you aren't reading their books you are really missing out on a wonderfully diverse list of SF/F offerings -- and thought that the Steampunk skinned Kindle looked amazing.

So...even though both Jody and I already own Kindles, and I already own most of the books Angry Robot was preloading into the prize offering, I asked Jody to draw up a submission to the contest. She drew up an inspired image of our cartoon doppelgangers dressed up in thematic garb. I loved the piece and immediately entered it. I think it is magnificent.

Sadly, our entry didn't win. I would scream "Sour Grapes!" except for the fact that the winning entry is pretty cool. I still like Jody's offering more -- they could have at least given her an Honorable Mention for goodness' sake -- but the winning entry is a combination of cute and original.

Congratulations to all the winners. And thanks again to Jody. It's hard to compete with Steampunk Guitars, Dirigibles, Weapons, and Pop-Up cards.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Kell's Legend -- An Action Packed Fusion of Legends Past and New Concepts

It is often said that you cannot judge a book by its cover, but we know that isn't entirely true. Marketing departments work hard to ensure that a book's cover conveys a hint of what a book's contents will be. The cover to Andy Remic's book Kell's Legend, published by Angry Robot Books, practically screams at the potential reader.

"Psst! You! Yes, I mean you. You like David Gemmell books right?"

I am a big fan of Gemmell and I admit that the prospect of an author continuing to satisfy my pulp action reading itch is a pleasant one. Gemmell had a way of combining tried and true narrative tropes with interesting characters and pulse pounding action with a hint of moral philosophic undertones. Gemmell's originality as a writer wasn't in plotlines -- some of his most famous books were adaptations of the Spartan stand at Thermopylae and stories of Scottish rebels -- it was in his ability to create human characters in a genre that too often presented ciphers.

By making the comparison to Gemmell, the marketing department set the bar to impress readers fairly high. How did Remic fare?

Kell's Legend -- the title even evokes Gemmell comparisons -- opens with a massive army invasion. From the initial description of the invasion, the reader does not hold much hope for the Kingdom of Falanor to resist the Iron Army that seeks conquest. The Iron Army is more than a disciplined army comprised of skilled soldiers led by a talented commander invading at an opportune moment -- though it is all of those things -- it is also an army that has access to sinister "blood oil magic." This magic can win battles before they even begin as it creates a frightening pogonip like "ice fog" that can freeze defenders, and citizens, to death before the first blow is struck.

This pleases General Graal for many reasons, not the least of which is that his army doesn't merely seek to conquer the Kingdom of Falanor. His army seeks to harvest the blood of Falanor's citizens to provide food for his people to the north. General Graal, and his kin, are a vampiric fusion of man and machine. The country from which Graal hails is one where the citizens are merged with clockwork mechanisms as children in a process that creates a race of vampire machines -- or as the book calls them "The Vachine." The process doesn't go well for every child. There are those whose minds and bodies are twisted in the attempt. These poor souls become the feral "cankers," primitive societal rejects filled with bloodlust and rage.

This is the force that our hero Kell must resist. When the novel opens, Kell is already a legend among his people. His "Days of Blood" are the subject of great ballads that travel the land, but those days are long past. Kell would rather spend his time supporting his granddaughter's pursuit of an education, and leave his bloodbound axe Ilanna hanging on a wall mount. While the axe is mounted, it cannot speak to him, grant him its terrible strength, and he can attempt to forget all of the terrible things he has done. Things that have brought him fame, but at what personal cost.

Through the events of the tale Kell encounters his chief ally, a master swordsman named Saark. Saark is the Grey Mouser to Kell's Fafhrd, the Moonglum to Kell's Elric, the eternal companion. Like Kell, Saark has done horrible things in his past. He too has killed for King and Country, but he has also betrayed them. Saark is a witty and self-loathing character who often takes his own self-hatred out on others. He was once a paragon of virtue and now he wallows in debauchery as a means to punish himself. It is only in meeting Kell and fighting a hopeless battle against the Vachine that Saark can find any possible redemption.

The book has everything one could ask in pulp fantasy. It has pulse pounding action, brooding heroes, elements of horror, clockwork vampires, epic battles, and ancient evils.

Did I mention the clockwork vampires?

Like Gemmell, Remic is working in territory familiar to the fantasy fan, but he combines familiar elements into an engaging tapestry of action. Remic's writing jumps off the page and leaves reader's asking for more as the book's final page ends on a desperate cliffhanger.

Though the book is quite good, it isn't perfect either. The milieu of the novel is filled with allusions to a detailed history, but these allusions often come up after the information might have aided the reader in understanding the context of narrative elements. We are given the name vachine before the term is explained to us. Given that "vachine," and "canker" for that matter, sound like things you might catch frequenting brothels, this is an oversight on the part of the author. When the clumsiness of the introduction of the vachine as race is contrasted with the introduction of the Stone Lion of the Stone Lion Woods, it becomes clear that Remic has a detailed setting from which to draw. I could easily see myself highlighting passages of the book to form the basis of an rpg campaign, there is myth-building going on here. It is just sometimes presented out of order.

Remic also has a penchant for profanity in the book which that can seem shocking at first. The sexual escapades of Saark are a necessary part of the narrative, they demonstrate his self-loathing aptly, but Remic's choice of vocabulary was straight out of Deadwood. Like Deadwood, the reader becomes used to certain characters and their use of what Spock called "colorful metaphors," but one does wonder if the word choice itself is as vital as the scenes where the vocabulary is used. What does the use of the "c" word and "q" word add to the verisimilitude of the tale?

As can be seen from the brief synopsis of the book's opening, Remic draws from many of my favorite fantasy authors for inspiration. Kell's Legend contains echoes of Moorcock, Lieber, Howard, and Gemmell while maintaining a rich originality.

While Remic's book lacks the subversive political critiques of Moorcock, or the Just War undertones of Gemmell's fiction, it does contain imagery that makes for interesting discussion about modern man. By making the results of man and machine into horrifying vampiric creatures, sometimes less than human and sometimes more, Remic allows us to consider the wisdom of fiction's current obsession with "Transhumanism." By becoming more than human, are we really becoming less than human? The industrial nature of the exploitation of conquest itself adds some interesting elements for conversation. When the Vachine invade, they harvest the conquered and prepare them for processing in their "Blood Refineries."

Some may find such descriptions as too "on the nose," but I found them fresh, topical, and engaging.

The battle scenes of Kell's Legend are vivid, the human relationships are compelling, and the hints at the legendary past of the world spark the imagination. That is exactly what one should be hoping for when one opens the pages of a novel.

I am eagerly opening my copy of "Soul Stealers."