Showing posts with label Fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fantasy. Show all posts

Friday, October 28, 2022

Appendix N May Have Influenced Dungeons & Dragons, but Moldvay Basic Influenced How I Read Fantasy

 now become a widely used shorthand for the literary origins of RPGs."  James' site often includes discussions of the Appendix, its influence on the early days of the hobby, and from time to time he even reviews books and authors featured in the Appendix. 

Given that he has taken the time to review the Carnelian Cube, a book that fellow Appendix N advocate Erik Mona has found "wanting," it is my hope that James will someday review the Kothar series by Gardner Fox.  Though if that doesn't happen I might just find the time to do so.  Having endured a couple of Lin Carter's Thongor books, I figure they cannot be much worse.  That said, Carter at least has the virtue of being one of the best editors in SF/F history even though his Thongor stories fall very short of the best of Sword and Sorcery fiction.

If I were to say that the influence of Appendix N extended beyond the gaming table and that many of the works therein are also seminal works of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I don't think there would be many who disagree.  The Appendix includes luminaries like Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Manly Wade Wellman, and Robert E. Howard -- and many others beside.  But the list is also incomplete as a glimpse into an earlier era of Fantasy, Scientification, and Sword & Sorcery.  There is no listing for Clark Ashton Smith, for example. 

While Appendix N is the best known Dungeons & Dragons recommended reading list, one that has inspired the DCC roleplaying game and several books, it is not the only list of recommended reading that Dungeons & Dragons games have provided to readers. There are other lists.  The Erik Mona edited Pathfinder roleplaying game, or as I call it D&D Golarion, has it's own Appendix 3. This Appendix features a list of recommended reading.  It is a longer list than Gygax's, and a good one, that includes a wide range of readings including some more recent works.

My own favorite "Appendix N" is a combination of the "inspirational source material" provided by Tom Moldvay on page B62 of the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic and in the module X2 Castle Amber. Without those two resources, my experience of fantasy would be entirely different than it was.  While others may have based their youthful Fantasy purchases on Appendix N, I based mine almost entirely on the Moldvay Basic list.  It should be noted that Tom Moldvay was assisted in the creation of his list by Barbara Davis who was Children's Librarian at the Lake Geneva Public Library at the time that D&D Basic was published.  Davis eventually became the Library Director from 1984 to 1996.  Barbara is no longer with us, and her contribution to D&D and D&D fandom is understudied and underappreciated, but I'd like to thank her for the many hours (years) of joy I experienced due to the  list she created. I image her list created joy for many other young people as well.

This isn't to say that no one has discussed the list at all. James Maliszewski has already written a brief comment about how the Moldvay list differs from the Gygax one, and argues that it represents a shift from material that influenced the design of the game to a list that might provide inspiration or entertainment for those who play the game.  To quote James, "Whereas Gygax's list was a list of the specific books and authors who influenced him in creating the game -- and are thus a window into how he saw the game -- Moldvay's list is a generalized quasi-academic survey of fiction and non-fiction that might hold some interest to players of D&D."

His language is strong, and as much as he demurs from the quote being used as a "this list is better than the other list" statement, it seems clear to me that the use of the term "quasi-academic" is somewhat loaded.

Let's just say that James and I hold similar, but not exact positions on the lists.  I agree that the Gygax list is a specific list that influenced him in creating the game.  I think the list was also one which he thought would appeal to people who were currently playing D&D.  That is to say, adults.  When AD&D was first published, the game was just beginning to escape from college campuses and niche SF/F reading circles and into the mainstream.  The Moldvay list, on the other hand, was written for a generation of emerging players.  It was written for the young. It was written for me. 

Both lists include some overlap -- Fritz Leiber, Robert Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and J.R.R. Tolkien.   Moldvay's list differs in one very distinct way. It is divided into many sections and these sections lead down a wide variety of learning paths, all of which can inform your playing experience. 

There is the "Fiction: Young Adult" section , which includes Lloyd Alexander, L Frank Baum, and Ursula Le Guin. What a range of stories!

There is a "Non-Fiction: Young Adult" section, which includes Olivia Coolidge's Legends of the North.

There is the "Fiction: Adult Fantasy" section with Poul Anderson, Leigh Brackett, Avram Davidson, E.R. Eddison, Heinlein, Jack Vance, Karl Edward Wagner, and a host of others. Karl Edward Wagner?! When Davis/Moldvay say Adult Fantasy, they mean Adult Fantasy.

"Adult Non-Fiction" includes Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beasts and Thomas Bullfinch.

In most ways, the Moldvay list is inclusive of Appendix N.  There are only four authors Moldvay's list leaves out that are in the Gygax list.  These are Frederic BrownAugust Derleth,  Margaret St. Clair, and Stanley Weinbaum, though it should be noted that these are important authors contextually. 

If you want a wonderful overview of the Fantasy, Scientifiction, and Sword and Sorcery field, I would argue that you should start with the Moldvay list and add the four authors that Moldvay excluded.  If your primary mission is to see the books that influenced Gygax, stick to Appendix N.

Both are good lists, but I still prefer the Moldvay/Davis list. This is especially true when you add the Clark Ashton Smith tales featured in Castle Amber. Man do I love that module.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Hither Came Conan to Role Playing Games Part 1 (OD&D)

Fantasy Background Retrieved from WallpaperPlay and Cartoony Conan Image by Todd Pickens

The fiction of Robert E. Howard (who was born on this day in 1906), and the stories of Conan in particular, were among the stories that inspired the creation of the earliest editions Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. The game has developed along lines that moved it away from its early Sword & Sorcery roots through various phases and back again as the game has become its own genre of Fantasy fiction.

The early Greyhawk campaign was very much a fusion of Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Poul Anderson. Blackmoor added more Vance a more than a dash of Burroughs and Science Fantasy. D&D's "The Known World" spiced things up by adding direct references to Clark Ashton Smith to the mix. While the official worlds reflected the entirety of Fantasy fiction, the game as played was very Tolkienesque. The inclusion of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits (later called Halflings), inspired a many gaming groups to have campaigns that mirrored the exploration of Moria. With the purchase of The Forgotten Realms and the development and publication of The Dragonlance modules, TSR began producing settings that were more Tolkienesque in execution.

But D&D never left its Sword & Sorcery roots entirely. The publication of the Dark Sun setting, a mashup of Howard, Vance, and Burroughs is one of the best demonstrations of this argument, though the wildly imaginative Planescape, the space hamster infused Spelljammer, and the dark Fairy Tale inspired Birthright settings are also of note. D&D as Fantasy is a genre that is wilder and more patchwork than those who want to argue that D&D is "Tolkien based" fantasy adventure.

Tolkien's influence is undeniable, but his world isn't filled with Dragonborn, Changelings, Living Constructs built for war who are now sentient beings, and races specifically bred to host Entities from the Realm of Dreams. Those are all races common in modern D&D sessions. The game was designed with Sword and Sorcery sensibilities, where Humans were meant to be the most common species played, but it has become something more. It is its own thing, and yet in that gonzo amalgamation of a vast array of Fantasy fiction, the game has in some ways retained a closer connection to its early Sword and Sorcery roots than to being an "Elf Game." The Sword & Sorcery fiction that inspired D&D was freeform. It was in many ways genre-free, in the sense that anything was possible. Before there was an Appendix N (the list of inspirational fiction in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide), there was this introduction to the "Little Brown Books":

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those
who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping
through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do
not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS &
DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find
that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite
you to read on and enjoy a “world” where the fantastic is fact and magic really
A quick look through that list sees fiction that includes airships that fly by the power of the 8th Ray to propel themselves through the sky at high speeds, adventures where people are transported to the fantastic world of Spencer's Faerie Queene by thinking of mathematical equations, dark and polluted urban settings where the smog is as much a character as the protagonists, and tales where men of strong arms and strong wills flee in terror when they encounter frog headed demons. What you won't find in any of these stories are Elves, Dwarves, or Hobbits.

Though Appendix N has been used by many as the main argument for the primacy of Sword & Sorcery fiction, I would argue that one need look no further than the official game material produced by TSR. They included statistics for Conan and Elric in the Original Dungeons & Dragons Supplment IV (Gods, Demigods, & Heroes) and published a game based on Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom.

Of these influences, Robert E Howard's creation has served as the inspiration for or been directly adapted by more game companies than any other. TSR adapted Conan for OD&D and AD&D and created a role playing game devoted to the character. Steve Jackson Games produced GURPS Conan. Mongoose Publishing produced a Conan series of books for 3rd Edition D&D. Modiphius is currently publishing a Conan game using their in house 2d20 game system. Beyond these licensed adaptations (though the OD&D adaptation was likely not licensed), games like Barbarians of Lemuria, Sorcerer (with its Sword & Sorcerer supplement), Carrion Lands, and Shadow of the Demon Lord all owe debts to this man of great mirth and great melancholy. Sword & Sorcery is THE major influence of fantasy role playing games and Conan IS the apotheosis of Sword & Sorcery.

So how well have role playing games inspired by Conan's adventures emulated him, both stylistically and mechanically? That is the central question of this series of blog posts and the answer is "depends." This blog post will focus on the version of Conan presented in Dungeons & Dragons Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods, & Heroes and later entries will examine formal and non-formal adaptations. The Wizards of the Coast reprint of the book lacks his entry, but I've transferred the information from that entry onto a character sheet below.

Mechanics from TSR's Gods, Demigods, & Heroes. Illustration by Gil Kane.
This brief entry tells us a few things about the design of Dungeons & Dragons and how good, or not good, they were at emulating a specific character from fiction. Keep in mind that the statistics were produced after the publication of the Greyhawk supplement and thus reflect the full adoption of the "alternate combat system" as the official D&D combat system and the formal publication of the Thief class. The Thief class was created by Gary Switzer of Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, CA and was incorporated into the D&D game via a rules addition and eventual publication in the Greyhawk supplement.

The first thing that we see is that Conan is classified as a Fighter with Thief abilities, the descriptions in the actual supplement are "Fighter Ability: 15th Level" and "This Fighter of the 15th level also has the abilities of a 9th level Thief." In the "post-Greyhawk" supplement rules, the designers had to break the rules as written to emulate what they thought Conan should look like mechanically. In OD&D only demihumans like Elves and Dwarves are expressly described as being capable of having multiple classes.

In some ways, this is an argument against the development of a Thief class at all and an argument for some way of arbitrating things like hiding or climbing walls other than dialog and DM fiat. The Thief class was designed to emulate characters like The Grey Mouser, but the Fighting Man class from the D&D rulebooks could do equally well with only a few additions to the basic rules set. I'm not opposed to having a Thief class, and thing the class has evolved in interesting ways over the years, but I do think that the game would have been perfectly fine had it stayed with Fighters, Magic Users, and Clerics as the only actual classes. Given that the Mouser and Fafhrd were both fantastic swordsmen, but also "thieves," having a Thief class that doesn't fight particularly well seems an odd way to go. This is especially true given how bad Thieves are at thieving. Don't even get me started on what effect it has on realism that thieves have the ability to climb walls, hide in shadows, and move silently when no one else does. 

Had there been no Thief class in the Greyhawk supplement, Conan would likely have been described only as a Fighter. As it is, the authors demonstrated that the emulation of fictional heroes required modifying the rules as written, even for a character as simple to emulate as Conan.

For all the talk of violating the rules as written, you might think that I think the authors have done something terrible. Quite the contrary. I think that by demonstrating that even a character as basic in archetype as Conan requires house ruling, the authors of Gods, Demigods, & Heroes are telling DMs to open up their game play and to not be restricted by the rules as written. As Timothy Kask writes in the introduction to the book, "As we've said time and time again, the 'rules' were never meant to be more than guidelines; not even true 'rules.'" OD&D rules were meant to facilitate play and not restrict it. The arguments for "RAW" play don't get heavily promoted by TSR until the publication of AD&D, and even then are for the purpose of tournament play and not house play.  

Gods, Demigods, & Heroes is an odd and wonderful book. One the one hand it seeks to show DMs how they can modify the rules to create the types of games that best fit their gaming group. On the other hand, it was written as a "last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters." It was meant to show players that even the "most powerful" weren't of ridiculously high levels and that campaigns could be fun at lower level play. And yet, it became for many a menagerie of monsters to be slain by player characters; having the opposite effect it intended.

All of that aside, in a book filled with mythologies the authors only included two that were not "real world" pantheons. They chose to give statistics for the worlds of Conan and of Elric, two sides of the same coin. Two of the best characters in Sword & Sorcery fiction. In doing so, the demonstrated how central Conan and Sword & Sorcery are to the creation of D&D.

Conan would appear in TSR products again a decade later with statistics in two different game systems, but that's a discussion for the next blog post.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Geekerati Monday Geekosphere Snapshot 12/16

It's time for another snapshot of the Geekosphere! Today's post features products and posts of things I thought might be of interest to my fellow geeks.

Cat Themed Dice Trays from Cozy Gamer.

First and foremost are these cute as a kitten Cat Dice Trays from Cozy Gamer. Ever since I backed the first set of Symbaroum products, and received their mouse pad material dice tray, I've been a big fan of having dice trays at the table. They minimize the number of times you are on your knees looking under the table for a die that went wild. These trays are cute and look extremely durable. I know I'll be checking them out!

The AD&D Fiend Folio was a collection of strange monsters pulled from the pages of White Dwarf magazine's "Fiend Factory" column edited by Don Turnbull. Like many other gaming legends, Turnbull's contributions are sometimes overlooked. His coordination of postal Diplomacy games helped to build gaming communities and presaged modern internet based gaming. The "Fiend Factory" column contained a wild array of monsters. Some were classic monsters by different names, others like the Githyanki would go on to become classic D&D monsters and influence later fantasy fiction. While many of the monsters have been incorporated into the Monster Manual, and other monster books, this new volume of creatures contains many who have been left behind. As an added incentive to buy it, the proceeds for this product go to Extra Life who uses donations to fund Children's Hospitals.

From Deadline: " Legion M has acquired Brian Staveley’s bestselling fantasy epic The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne and brought Weta Workshop aboard to begin the visual concept work for a one-hour fantasy drama series that will share the title of the bookshelf trilogy’s first entry: The Emperor’s Blades. "

"But one thing I can predict about this ninth Star Wars episode is that it won’t make everyone happy. That’s fine, mind you, but the Star Wars franchise finds itself in an odd position of being a singular pop culture juggernaut where everyone has their own ideas of what Star Wars should be. The Rise of Skywalker can’t possibly be all things to all fans."

"...the company went all-out on the toys, including an app-controlled Porsche."

We chatted briefly with Keith Baker about the new game during our last Geekerati Radio Episode, but more details are emerging.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Robert Hewitt Wolfe's THE GOBLIN CROWN Continues a Long Standing Fantasy Tradition

It is a sign of the times that it took me three years to discover The Goblin Crown by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. I'd like to put most of the blame on the fact that we live in an era where there is more genre content being produced in a year than can be easily consumed in a lifetime and a good deal of that content is self-published, Kickstarted, or patron supported. I'd like that to be where I place the blame, but it was more likely due to the fact that I am in the process of earning my Ph.D. and don't have as much time to delve into the Science Fiction and Fantasy mid-list and new author stacks as I used to have.

While Robert Hewitt Wolfe's is an accomplished television writer whose credits range from Star Trek: The Next Generation to Elementary and include The Dresden Files (which gives him significant geek cred) and the underappreciated superhero show Alphas. The vast majority of Wolfe's television writing has been genre work, so it is not surprising that his first novel The Goblin Crown would be a Fantasy novel that is heavily steeped in genre tropes.

The Goblin Crown is the first volume of a series of (at least) three books in which Wolfe tells the tales of three high school students as they are transported into a fantasy realm. These teenagers are  the socially awkward Billy Smith, the angsty Lexi Aquino, and the prototypical quarterback Kurt Novac. These students must find a way to work together and combine their unique talents to help save the day for a desperate and outnumbered people, who are on the verge of extinction as war ravages the realms. These people are currently being rallied by a charismatic leader in a last desperate push for survival.

The twist? It is the Goblins who need saving from a massive human army. Goblin prophecy states that when Goblins most need them, a king from another world will arrive to save them and one of these young adventurers is destined to be that king.

What Works? 

Wolfe's talents as a writer are quickly apparent as he doesn't hesitate to make the main antagonist of this volume as psychologically complex and compelling as any of the protagonists. Wolfe's use of point of view characters is spot on for maximum emotional effect. We allowed to see into the mind of a hopeful Goblin named Hop who has quested into the depths of Mother Mountain to see if a new Goblin King has been sent. We become acutely aware of the worries and stresses of young Billy and Lexi as they adapt to this new world. Most importantly we get to experience the torment of General Sawtooth who wants to preserve his people, even as he knows he may have been misled by The Dark Lady and that his people may be doomed. The characters are compelling and have clear motivations that set up the conflict to come.

As mentioned earlier, Wolfe's basic conceit is that our young protagonists have been transported into another world. This is a common trope in fantasy and science fiction that is some variation of the "Trapped in Another World" trope and the "Down the Rabbit Hole" trope. While this is a common trope, it is one that has been used to great success by to many authors to list here, but that list includes like Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Sprague de Camp, Michael Moorcock, and Andre Norton. For the trope to be successful, the conceit must be delivered quick and painlessly. The author must not make the reader wait too long before being transported into the magic realm and God forbid the author spend too much time describing the how and why the transportation works. Best to pull the veil away in a rapid and compelling fashion.

Let's examine a couple of archetypical examples of the genre.

In "Solomon's Stone," author Sprague de Camp transports his protagonist from our world into the Astral Plane. The protagonist, Prosper Nash, is transported by the will of a demon he and his friends summoned at an evening's dinner party.
Prosper Nash felt a tremendous shock, as if a destroyer had dropped a depth bomb on him. While his mind strove to keep a grip on his body, he could feel that body being pulled out of his mental clutches--going--going--gone!

He was moving with great speed--or falling; it was like an express-elevator plunge, only more so...

Keep your head, J. Prosper. Let's take a look at this astral body of ours first.
-- L. Sprague de Camp "Solomon's Stone" Unknown Worlds vol. 6 no. 1 (1942).

It's quick and too the point. Sprague de Camp gives us a little more of the "whys and wherefores" of travel beyond the veil of the mundane in his more famous Harold Shea "Enchanter" stories, but he still gets us there quickly.

There, on sheets of paper spread before him, were the logical equations, with their little horseshoes, upside-down T's, and identity signs. 
His scalp prickled a trifle as he gazed at them. But what the hell! Stand by for adventure and romance! He bent over, giving his whole attention to the formulas, trying not to focus on one spot, but to apprehend the whole:

'If P equals not-Q, Q implies not-P, which is equivalent to saying either P or Q or neither, but not both. But if not-P is not implied by not-Q,  the counter-implicative form of the proposition--'

There was nothing bu six sheets of paper. Just that, lying in two neat rows of three sheets, with perhaps half an inch between them. There should be strips of table showing between them. But there was nothing--nothing...>

It is through this focus on a logical equation that Harold Shea is transported to Midgard's border and where is adventure begins. L. Sprague de Camp's tales were inspirational to Gary Gygax as he worked on the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game, and that work in turn inspired Andre Norton's Quag Keep, which uses magical lead miniatures as the conceit (and does so much quicker than de Camp). One of the most iconic versions of the Trapped in Another World trope is Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, which sees Civil War Captain John Carter transported to the fantastic world of Barsoom through sheer force of will.

As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My situation was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination--it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it an on that far gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as a lodestone attracts a particle of iron.

My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space. There was an instant of extreme cold and darkness...
And...BOOM! He's on Mars. It's powerful imagery that makes no logical sense. We are given no plausible reason for the transportation to work, but it does and it is magical. This is the kind of conceit Wolfe uses in his book as Billy wills himself into another world:

What do I do? Please, please, Billy prayed silently, I have to get her out of here.

At that moment, Billy saw real light, a shining cell phone, illuminating the culvert.
Unfortunately, it was carried by the last person Billy wanted to see.

"What are you idiots doing?" It was Kurt. And he sounded furious.

Billy tried to catch his breath, push past the pain, and lift Lexi, anything to get her away from Kurt. To get Lexi to safety.

I need to get out. I need to be anyplace but here.

Then, suddenly, as if in answer to Billy's unspoken wish, the world around him shifted, warped, and bent. His stomach lurched. His ears popped. And just like that--

Billy was somewhere else.

Wolfe's description of transportation here is a combination of Burroughs and de Camp and it works nicely. You have the desperation of the scene, the compulsion to get away, and that's enough. Wolfe doesn't spend pages describing how and why the kids are transported, just that Billy wants to go and so they do. This is a fantasy novel and that comes with suspension of disbelief. When the trope used is a common one, such suspension is easy and granted eagerly. Don't spend time describing how and why, that only opens up the critical eye and limits the visceral experience. Wolfe understands this and takes us away quickly.

The reader is exposed to the world of the Hanorian Empire and Mother Mountain, which isn't given a world name in The Goblin Crown, at a nice pace. It's clear by his inclusion of Burroughs-esque use of language (and language acquisition) that Wolfe has a mapped out a compelling fantasy world. It may lack the Mythopoetic realism of Tolkien's Middle Earth, but it is logically consistent and has a history that mirrors the migrations, expansions, and invasions of real Earth history. If you don't find echoes of actual historical engagements between cultures in the backdrop of this story, you aren't paying attention. Wolfe has set up a clash of civilizations that views both societies as "human," with all the virtues and flaws that entails, which allows him to explore moral complexities.

While the majority of The Goblin Crown takes place within Goblin society, readers are given enough of human history to see a broader world. This first volume spends its time building Goblin society, and it's a rich one. We are given glimpses of the Goblin worship of  the Night Goddess and the justness of the religion's matriarch. These are not Warhammer's mindless Goblins. While they are still the untrustworthy, sneaky, and vicious Goblins we are used to, they are also a gentle, family minded, and caring people. Wolfe humanizes the Goblins without demonizing the humans and it makes the impending conflict more powerful.

One of the most developed aspects of the world, is the underlying magic system of the races. Humans, who worship the sun, have fire based magic and Goblins, who worship the Night Goddess, have cold based magic. Each system has strengths and weaknesses and both systems of magic come with the risk of madness and death if they are overused. We as readers are able to learn the intricacies of the magic system through the interactions between Lexi and a Goblin Wizard named Frost. After being transported to the new world, Lexi discovers that she is a Fire Mage and that her fiery temper may well lead her down the road to destruction.


As entertaining as The Goblin Crown is, I read it in an afternoon and ordered the sequel immediately thereafter, it isn't a perfect novel. 

Even as one of the novel's major is how well developed the majority of Wolfe's characters are, there are holes. While General Sawtooth, the major antagonist of the novel, is offered as a point of view character, Kurt Novac isn't. Given that Kurt is one of the core four characters (maybe five if you count Frost), having to rely on his conversations with other characters to reveal his inner thoughts is a bit of a letdown. We get Lexi, Billy, Hop, and Sawtooth as point of view characters. Leaving Kurt out of this list maked it seem like the author was attempting to prolong a mystery that wasn't really a mystery. Was the only reason Kurt wasn't used for point of view to leave us wondering who the Goblin King really was? Given the title of the novel, and the copy on the back cover of the book, one hopes not. Kurt needed to be explored a little more, especially since the character does evolve and shift from antagonist to one of the heroes as the book progresses.

The second area for critique is very much related to the first. The initial narrative misdirection regarding who and what the Goblin King is and how it is chosen was unecessary. While this misdirection leads to some very important narrative outcomes, and allows the point of view character to learn more about the world and their new abilities, it felt like a bit of a cheat. This is exacerbated by the fact that it's pretty obvious. It's a mystery without a mystery. It's like guessing who the murderer in a typical episode of Matlock is. We all know it's the Guest Star. What makes Matlock interesting isn't the who, but the why. Had the misdirection explored the why of the Goblin King, it would have worked. Instead, it was primarily a vehicle to move the characters from one location to another.

Final Thoughts

Setting aside these two relatively minor critiques, The Goblin Crown was a fun ride. It has a narrative and cast of characters that appeals to our inner child with a complex moral backdrop that engages our more cynical adult minds. If you love fantasy for all ages, or have a tween who is looking for a series to start, you couldn't do better than The Goblin Crown. Wolfe draws inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs, de Camp, Tolkien, and classic children's tales and creates a world worth exploring.

And explore this world is something I'll be doing over the next couple of weeks. I'll be writing up statistics for some of the main characters for a role playing game. I haven't decided on which game to use yet, but I'm leaning toward Genesys, Shadow of the Demon Lord (hey, he's planning a Kid Friendly Version), The Index Card RPG, or Symbaroum.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Brandon Sanderson's WORDS OF RADIANCE Continues a Delightful Series

Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive, #2)Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brandon Sanderson's second volume in The Stormlight Archive adds some significant complexities to the plot, but it does so without introducing a laundry list of new characters. In many multi-volume door stopper epic fantasy series the authors substitute adding new characters and new plotlines for adding depth and conflicts to existing characters. This kind of writing is typically suggestive of an author who, while talented, doesn't have a clear map for the overall series. It's clear that Sanderson knows where this story is going and it looks like the story is going some interesting places.

Where the first volume introduced the major characters in the epic, WORDS OF RADIANCE introduces the major factions (similar to political parties) who are driving a great deal of the conflict in the narrative. Key characters are revealed to be members of these factions, each of which wants to "save" the world and each of which seeks to do so through different means. These factions include both Human and Eshonai factions, and less political factions among the Spren as well. There is politics a plenty in the world of Roshar, and WORDS OF RADIANCE is where we readers begin to dip our toes into the complex political interactions Sanderson has set up. In an effort to refrain from spoilers, I won't say what each faction wants but will say that each faction seeks a "better" world even if their actions are heinous.

In addition to the factions, Sanderson continues his exploration of the theology of Roshar in particular (with some about the Cosmere in general) as we find out more about the Knights Radiant, The All-Father, Honorspren, Crypticspren, and the nature of Shardblades. That last one would be a huge spoiler, but it demonstrates the real cost of the Recreance in an emotionally powerful way and conversations between Kaladin and Syl about Shardblades suggest future plot development.

There was an emergence of a potential love triangle in the book, and obvious one, and it's one that I hope Sanderson doesn't move forward with because it seems like a tangent that might lead to a repeat of the kind of betrayal committed in this book. A repeat of that betrayal, even if different in nature, would be staid in an otherwise fresh story. It's fine to have emotional dynamics and love triangles, but I pray that this one doesn't come to dominate the conflicts of the overall plot. There are plenty of factions and conspiracies, we don't need a repeat of Camelot here. Even if it's nice to see echoes of mythic tropes.

While I have my favorite characters, and those are shared by others, I was particularly impressed with the development of the Parshendi General Eshonai in WORDS OF RADIANCE. I want a lot more of her character as she, Rlain, and certain "wanderers" have created an opportunity for the series to end with a brighter tomorrow in a way that once again brings to mind David Gemmell's book DARK MOON. In fact, this series continues to have a Gemmell-esque feel even its volumes are much longer than a typical Gemmell tale.

I am eager to begin reading OATHBRINGER, the third in the series, and hope that it continues to develop the major conflicts of the series and lets us get to know even more about the wonderful characters (both virtuous and vicious) who inhabit Roshar.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Black Company is Excellent Military Fantasy

The Black Company by Glen Cook
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Glen Cook's first entry in the Black Company series is an interesting combination of originality and trope that bridges the gap between epic fantasy and sword and sorcery. This volume tells the tale of the Black Company from the point of view of Croaker, the Company's surgeon/medic, as they begin their employment under a mysterious figure known as The Lady. While high magic abounds in the world of The Black Company, and happens in the vicinity of the Company, it is not the focus of the story. The main narrative focuses on the skirmishes, battles, and scouting and assassination missions that the Company engages in during a revolution against The Lady.

Descriptions of events are sparse and most character names are nicknames like The Lady, Croaker, One-Eye, Raven, The Captain, The Limper, Darling, Soulcatcher, etc. It is rare that an actual name is used, even in the case of locations in the book. This gives the reader a feeling that they are reading a translation of a text written in another language where the author has translated names into the new language, or a feeling of narrative distance that one gets when reading a history rather than a story.

Cook borrows strongly from existing fantasy literature, both high and low. The Lady can manifest "The Eye" in a manner that echoes Sauron in Tolkien. The grim and gritty battles echo the writings of Robert Howard and the first assassination mission echoes a Fritz Leiber tale of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. While the narrative tapestry borrows from a myriad of earlier literature, with Dark Lords and Prophesied Saviors and all, the end result is highly original. It's a fun read, and Croaker's voice comes through as experienced but not jaded. Some of the best details are focused on the "hurry up and wait" culture of the military, details that add greatly to the realism of the book.

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Back in the d20 era, Green Ronin published an excellent sourcebook for the series. I'd love to see an updated version for the AGE system...which I think might fit the setting better than d20 did. 

Friday, November 04, 2016

An RPG of Rifles and Magic: Brian McClellan's Powder Mage RPG is Coming Soon.


The best way to describe Brian McClellan's Powder Mage stories is by saying that they are an entertaining combination of Sharpe's Rifles and Full Metal Alchemist and The Scarlet Pimpernel. The novels, and short stories, fall within the noble genre of Military Fantasy fiction which has seen a resurgence since the publication of Temeraire by Naomi Novik. Like the best fiction in the genre, McClellan's Powder Mage tales evoke a world in which large struggles are taking place, and where one man can make a difference, but without the need for the "dark lord" trope that dominates much of Epic Fantasy.

Promise of Blood, the first book in the series, tells the story of Field Marshal Tamas who engages in a coup against his king and sends corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine. McClellan's imagery here is a combination of the French Revolution and Napoleon's French Consolate. It's a world where magic exists, but it doesn't exist around every corner. It's a world where old gods awaken. It's a world of intrigue and politics, but it is a world at war.

The books have sold over 250,000 copies and are enjoyable reads, but now fans of the series can bring Powder Mage adventures to their kitchen tables with the recently announced Powder Mage Roleplaying Game. The game is currently in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign and I had the honor to do a brief interview with Alan Bahr the game designer working with Brian McClellan on the upcoming RPG. Below is our brief exchange.

Brian McClellan's POWDER MAGE trilogy seems a perfect IP for a role playing game. How did you get attached to the project?
 - A mutual friend (who happens to be an author and my best friend, Steve Diamond) introduced us at GenCon 2014 after it'd been announced I'd be doing Planet Mercenary for the Schlock Mercenary team. I pitched Brian, and walked him through what such a project would look like, and we just sorta...went from there.
When adapting an IP to a role playing game, one of the biggest challenges a designer faces is translating the setting. How are you addressing this challenge? Are you reading the books 100 times, working with Brian (who's an avid gamer), or a mix of both?
- Heh. Well I have read all the books a few times now (enough that I'm actually pretty jumbled!), but I think the biggest thing that will help us do that, is Brian himself will be writing most of the setting/fluff pieces in the book. My job is to just write the rules that need to be written, and only those.

Usually game worlds are by necessity bigger than the glimpses we get in stories, what strategy will you and Brian be using to fill the gaps or encourage GMs to make their own versions of Adro and the neighboring states?
 - Honestly, just trusting the GMs and players to the story they want to tell. Not everyone will tell the same story, so we just make an effort to provide them all the options and some of the cool setting nuggets Brian hasn't disclosed yet in order to let their imaginations run wild. I think any RPG, especially an established setting, just has to give that trust to the group using it.

What was it about the Savage Worlds game system that you think makes it the best fit for the Powder Mage Trilogy?
- How it plays. We actually wrote two custom systems for the game, and while they worked, it quickly became apparent that it wasn't quite working perfectly. But we also tested a few systems we could license for it, and after a few months, it was pretty clear that Savage Worlds was the one everyone responded to the most, and turned out the best on the table. It was the flexibility of the magic system that really allowed us to grab the feel of Powder Mage in the rules.
I know that you are working on the writing side, and you've hired a stable of artists, is there anyone else working on the project?
- Well, Brian is writing most of the world fluff, and I wrote most of the rules. We'll be putting the game through layout (by Robert Denton), and editing (we haven't chosen an editor yet, we'll probably use two), but the primary writing will be Brian and myself at this point in the project.

One of the common features of Savage Worlds books, both official and licensed, is the use of Plot Point Campaigns and Campaign Generators? Will the POWDER MAGE role playing game be featuring GM Friendly options like these?
 - We definitely have plans to include adventures and adventure generators. Exactly how much we include is determined by how high we fund!

You mentioned the flexibility of the Magic System being one of the things that you thought was a way that Savage Worlds captured the feel of the Powder Mage Trilogy? Could you expand on that?
- The way the magic systems work in Savage Worlds fits the idea of Powder Mage very well. There's a lot of flexibility, and the ability to use magic in a lot of different ways, but have similar effects really fits Powder Mage and the style of stories it evokes. Honestly, the only "new" magic we had to create was how to depict the effects of the titular Powder Mages.

While not mentioned in the interview, one of the things that makes the Savage Worlds system ideal for Powder Mage gaming and Military Fantasy gaming in general, is the speed with which combats are resolved by the game's mechanics. While Savage Worlds is a robust roleplaying game, it has its origins in skirmish miniatures gaming and this foundation allows the game to handle large combats in less time than it takes other game systems to emulate. This is one of the reason's I'm very excited about this game and about Savage Worlds related games in general.

[Cross Posted at Geekerati Media]

Thursday, June 23, 2016

When Pulp Meets Urban Fantasy

I love a good urban fantasy yarn. I'm a regular reader of the tales of Harry Dresden, Atticus O'Sullivan, and Detective Inspector Wei Chen. There is just something about the combination of noir tropes with magic that excites my literary appetites. I'm also a big fan of Pulp heroes like Nick Charles, The Spider, Doc Savage, and Billy Byrne. In my opinion, these two genre are too rarely combined. Manly Wade Wellman's tales of John Thunstone are among some of the most imaginative fiction I've read. The Thunstone tales combine the cool atmospherics of a Thin Man film and add a wonderful layer of sinister mysticism. Thunstone faces fantastic foes who lurk on the edges of human society, seeking our destruction.

The Complete Thunstone from Haffner Press. Image by Raymond Swanland.
Given my love of these kinds of stories, and my love of Angry Robot Books, it is surprising that I missed the release of Alyc Helms' The Dragon of Heaven which is the first entry in her Missy Masters/Mr. Mystic series of books. This July will see the release of The Conclave of Shadow, a title that echoes Wellman's School of Darkness, and it looks to be an intriguing entry.

The books tell the tale of a street magician named Missy Masters who had inherited magical powers, and a job as the vigilante hero Mr. Mystic, from her estranged grandfather. Missy soon discovers that it takes more than a snazzy clothes and a talent for witty banter to combat the forces of evil effectively, it also takes experience.

From this basic premise, it appears at first glance that Helms brings in narrative elements that might be inspired by Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds series and dials up the magical power dial up to 11. It's hard to tell where on the scale of Savvy Scholar outwits the Forces of Evil to Sorcerer Supreme obliterates Cosmic Threats this book series lies, but the premises are intriguing enough for me to find out. I'll be checking out this series in the next couple of weeks, so I'll let you know. I might even throw in a Savage Worlds and Shadow of the Demon Lord write up or two for characters in the series.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Fantasy Film Friday: HAWK THE SLAYER (1980)

For gamers of a certain age, Hawk the Slayer inspired the imagination as much as Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. The film's story is staid, predictable, and pretty forgettable, but the overt sternness of "Crow," the over acting of Jack Palance, and the "Sword of Mind" made it all worth it. I cannot overstate how many times I watched this film as a wee lad, but I will say that my love of this film does a lot to explain why I'm less critical of films like Seventh Son. All I care about is whether the cast is having a good time.

There are several reviews of the film on the internet, if you want to read a review, but this being a gaming blog (supposedly) I will be providing Savage Worlds statistics for Crow...the Elf for Savage Worlds and Shadow of the Demon Lord.

Name: Crow  (Savage Worlds)

Race: Elf

Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d6

 Fighting d6, Intimidation d8, Notice d8, Riding d6, Shooting d12, Stealth d8, Survival d8, 
Throwing d6, Tracking d8

Charisma: -2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 6 (1)

Hindrances: All Thumbs, Code of Honor, Loyal, Outsider

Edges: Marksman, Quick, Rock and Roll!

Gear: Bow (Range 12/24/48, 2d6), Dagger (Str+d4), Leather (+1, Covers torso, arms, legs)

Special Abilities:
  • Low Light Vision: Ignores penalties for Dim and Dark lighting.
  • Rock-n-Roll! edge gives Crow an RoF of 2 with his bow instead of normal bonus.
While Savage Worlds has been my "go to" system for quickly stating things up for gaming, because of it's Fast, Furious, and Fun nature, I've decided to provide statistics for Crow using Robert Schwalb's excellent Shadow of the Demon Lord system. Partly because of the easy to use and learn system that allows for a lot of customization, and partly because the background of Hawk the Slayer includes the intrusion of a Demon Lord into the world of our heros.

Name: Crow (Shadow of the Demon Lord)

Ancestry: Elf                      Level: 7
Classes: Warrior (Novice), Fighter (Expert), Nightstalker (Master)*
Professions: Tracker, Artisan (Bowyer), Exile, Highwayman, Hunter

*Class featured in Terrible Beauty expansion.

Strength: 11 (+1)      Agility: 14 (+4)      Intellect: 10 (+0)      Will: 12 (+2)

Size: 1                        Speed: 12               Perception: 11          Defense: 15
Health: 42                 Healing Rate: 12

Corruption: 0           Insanity: 1

Talents: Shadowsight, Spell Defense, Bewitching Presence, Iron Vulnerability, Catch Your Breath, Weapon Training (longbow), Combat Prowess, Forceful Strike, Swift Shot, Combat Expertise, Durable, Darksight, Shadowblend, Silent Moves.

Special Abilities: Immune to damage from disease; charm, and disease.

Equipment: Adventurer's Pack, Longbow, 40 Arrows, Dagger
I think that each system brings out some of the intricacies that made Crow an entertaining character. If you are interested in playing either Savage Worlds or Shadow of the Demon Lord, you can purchase them by clicking on the hyperlinks.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Perils of Public Statements and Why Natasha Pulley is the Bravest SF/F Fan I've Ever Read

The Guardian is one of the few newspapers that truly takes Science Fiction and Fantasy literature seriously on a regular basis. They frequently have reviews of new releases, cover the latest kerfuffle in fandom, and run a number of opinion columns discussing the genres. As a fan, it's nice to find a place in the mainstream media where I can see one of my obsessions treated without a hint of irony.

This isn't to say that The Guardian doesn't wander into Clickbaitlandia from time to time. I took one of their regular writers, Damien Walter, to task for asking if we were "in a post-Sci Fi era." Damien was kind enough to take my discussion seriously, which made for one of my own personal blogging highlights. One does not often imagine that people who have deadlines to meet, and who are halfway across the globe, have time to respond to one's little island of ideas.

About a week or so ago, Damien wrote a piece lamenting the tyranny of mega-novel series in epic fantasy fiction. As a fan of the Fantasy genre, who is tired of being expected to read 10,000 pages over the span of 20 years in order to get a complete tale told within an author's mythopoeic construction, I was glad to see someone I respect shared my views. I miss the compact and deep shorter novels of days past. Long gone are the days of Elric of Melnibone, we now live in the era of The Wheel of Time. I think that today's readers are poorer for that experience, but there are those who disagree with Damien's view. Among them is an aspiring author named Natasha Pulley.

Natasha Pulley argues in her own piece at The Guardian that, "High fantasy...hinges on world-building. When there really is a whole world to build, and not just a historical period or a particular country, world-building does not take a few paragraphs in a short story; it takes chapters. Add to that the anvil on which creative writing schools hammer their students now, show don't tell, and these details take even longer to convey." Her argument is that the modern genre of Epic Fantasy requires the massive amounts of elaboration that so many modern Fantasy novels indulge in as a condition of additig literary value and verisimilitude. In Pulley's analysis, many of the best Fantasy stories are very simple tales at there core and it is the addition of world-building and subtle portrayals of character interaction that make these stories truly worthwhile.

There is more to her argument, to be sure and you should read her piece in its entirety, but it is one that I could not disagree with more. I think that the kind of "subtlety" of interpersonal interactions that makes up much of the verbiage of many a modern tale are flaws in writing and not virtues.

Before I elaborate on my reasons, I want to take a moment to repeat something I wrote in the headline of this post. Natasha Pulley may be the bravest SF/F fan I've ever read. I write this because she has written column that takes up a somewhat controversial opinion during a time when fandom won't hesitate to demonstrate to you exactly how wrong you are, and often not in the nicest of terms. The reason I am writing this post is less because I disagree with Pulley and think she is in need of "correction," rather it's because of the ire she raised among my Facebook friends. I have an odd collection of "friends" on Facebook who run the gamut from "not at all interested in SF/F" to editors in the field, and many of them were outraged by Pulley's piece. One of the nicer critiques was that it seemed that The Guardian had recently become a cesspool of nothing but click bait articles.

I, myself, even tweeted out a brief "you clearly haven't read x..." tweet in response to Pulley's article. I wasn't insulting in tone or language, but I think I was a bit dismissive. Pulley's response was perfect, "I'll add that to my reading list." Not only is she brave, but she clearly cast a Stoneskin spell upon herself after writing the piece. The rage on my feed, and Pulley's own polite response to my snark, are why I'm writing this post.

I'll begin my critique of Pulley's piece by using a trick she uses in her own article. In order to demonstrate how simple, almost simplistic, Epic Fantasy tales can be, she reduces a couple to their barest skeleton. Her choices are Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. I'll go a step more modern, into a series that is "windier" (pun totally intended) than Rowling at her most "we are camping for 300 pages," and pick Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind.

Name of the Wind  : Homeless youth goes to college and acquires student loan debt.

Spoiler alert. That's pretty much all that happens in that book and it takes a long time to get there. Readers are led through sidebar after sidebar of other short stories along the way, but that's the crux of the book. Oh...and it's very enjoyable because it's well written. A part of how well it is written is in the little short stories that take place throughout the book. In fact, the sidebars contain far more world-building than the wordy narrative. Some of the best world-building in Rothfuss' book are the product of "off-hand" comments made by characters in the book. By off-hand, I mean off-hand to the characters, they are very intentional by the author.

This brings me to my main point. While Pulley is correct in stating that the on page development of deep friendships or interactions between characters can be page consuming, she is wrong about world-building. The problem, and blessing, of modern Fantasy is that it gives us entire conversations. This makes for very believable characters, but neither moves the story along nor gives the reader a sense of the world.

The best world-building is seen in shorter fiction, not in longer. It is, as Pulley rightfully acknowledges, extremely difficult to write short fiction let alone short Fantasy fiction. That's one of the reasons, much to Susan Palwick's disappointment I imagine, that I have not published any fiction to date. It's hard to be creative. But as difficult as short fiction is to write, it is where the best writing occurs.

Robert E Howard's first Conan tale, which I examined at this blog some time ago, is rich with world-building. Sometimes Howard achieves world-building through heuristic shortcuts where certain nations are "inspired" by our own history. He's not alone in this though as Robert Jordan borrowed from Dune, King Arthur, Tolkien, and a host of other sources for his Wheel of Time series. One would imagine that with all of the world-building shortcuts Jordan used, he wouldn't need so many books to tell his tale.

Fritz Lieber's classic tales of Nehwon are all short fiction, usually novellas, that give a strong sense of place in a very small number of words.

Michael Moorcock's Elric Saga is brilliant for its world-building and yet the world gets no "bigger" the more books you read. The world is real from moment one, even if you don't get the heuristic shortcuts Moorcock is using.

Garth Nix's tales of Hereward and Mr. Fitz take place in a fully imagined environment and never have they wandered into even the novel in length.

H.P. Lovecraft build complex mythologies within the short form.

C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith is one of the most realized characters in all of fiction, and his tales are a collection of shorter stories.

Barsoom is fully realized in "Under the Moons of Mars." Yes, that's a novel, but it isn't a massive mega-novel series. Even as a series, the full of Barsoom lore pales before a single volume of Rothfuss in mass.

Averoigne is as real a place as any other, but Clark Ashton Smith did not need 12 volumes to immerse us there.

The depth of a setting can be shared with arcane and subtle references that inspire the imagination. One need not have a fully articulated mythology akin to the Silmarillion fully referenced within a tale to give that tale depth. I'm not saying that having a fully written Silmarillion isn't helpful to an author who wants to be able to share subtle references with readers, it probably is. Instead, I'm saying that all readers need are subtle references to fill in the blanks. Gary Gygax's Appendix N is filled with tales of wonder far shorter, and more inspirational, than much of what is published today.

Leave gaps for the readers to fill. Let our imaginations live in the spaces between.

It is a tragedy that Fantasy has wandered too often away from praise of shorter fiction, short stories, novels, and novellas. They are still printed, but they lack the commercial success of their mega-tyrants. Given how much easier it is to translate a shorter tale to other media, other fandoms are ill-served by this tyranny.

I've shared only a few of my favorite shorter tales of Fantasy. What are some of yours?