Tag Archives: books

The Return of Essentials

I really like Essentials for 4e. I appreciate the formatting, and the class design. It’s not perfect, I hate the random treasure, though that’s not even properly supported, and I think there’s slightly too much overlap between the products. I would love to reboot my campaign with Essentials only PCS. I think they have more flavour straight out of the books, and I think they might make the game move more quickly.

But all that is old news. What’s new is Players Options: Heroes of Shadow, which is the Shadow power sourcebook that looks like Classic 4e on the outside, and turns out to be Essentials on the inside. I’ll let the more mechanically minded rant about the crunch, but I liked the writing and art very much. It’s an odd mix when you add it directly to the two Heroes of… books, but eventually it will even out with the Fey book and whatever else they have planned.

So, the 10 strong product line has turned out to be 11 after all. That’s not counting DDI stuff. So what’s next?

Please please please let it be scenarios. Imagine the Orcus series completely rewritten to Essentials sensibilities. Better still, a new run of modules, perhaps one for heroic, and another for paragon. There’s some good adventuring in the current Essentials boxes, but the last decent standalone scenario was Orcs of Stonefang Pass. You might wonder what the difference might be, but I can see a reformat doing a lot for WotCs rep as an adventure publisher.

Maybe the mooted Madness at Gardmore Abbey will show whether Essentials means anything to DMs rather than just players?

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Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks

Grabbed this from Amazon after not getting it for Xmas this year. First saw it on the WotC site and listened to the author on their podcast. Intrigued I’ve checked out his website and I like what I see.

I’ve since read the whole thing in two days, and he should take that as a compliment.

The author is one of my generation, early 40s, played D&D when it went mental in the late 70s/early 80s, fell out of the hobby when he discovered beer and girls. Not an unusual story. He brings it up to date by using his journalistic clout to head off on a series of junkets to see what fandon entails in the 21st century, and whether fantasy escapism is a power for good or ill. His range is wide. He tackles D&D, MMORPGs, LARPing, re-enactments, Cons, and the legacy of Tolkien. This could be seen as a flaw in the  book, as it’s a fairly shallow primer to the fan worlds both for the beginner and the expert. But that’s fine, that’s not what this book is about, Instead it’s an examination of fandom, not of the subjects that spawn that particular sub culture. Each individual subject is tackled in an engaging way, with a mix of personal feeling and cosy interview. I very much like his style. I like to think of myself as a well rounded hobbyist with 30 years of experience, yet there were sections of this enquiry that meant little or nothing to me, and that’s a good thing. My eyes have been opened to the online and SCA stuff, and I think I want to know more.  

Let’s take D&D for instance. There’s some excellent reportage of attending the 4e launch day and a lovely, bittersweet essay on the first Lake Geneva Gaming Convention following Gary Gygax’ death. This section doesn’t acknowledge any RPGs beyond D&D, no White Wolf, no GURPS or Warhammer, no indie movement, no Traveller, Runequest, Tunnels & Trolls, and really nothing much on other creators or their place in RPG history. Instead there’s snapshots of conversations with real hobbyists, and observations on how it feels trying to get involved. All the participants seem to be treated with respect and actually they all come out of it very well indeed. The game played with Frank Mentzer sounds like a treat.

Other subjects are less engaging, but that may well be because I’m less disposed to apprecaiting them. In particular the whole costume thing. It’s never appealed to me and although the participants look to be enjoying themselves immensely, I couldn’t bring myself to really join in. I think the author actually felt the same way. In fact, he never really gets to join in fully and immerse himself in the subject. Given that the whole book is a journey to seek immersion, that’s a shame.

The other shame is that in the end, there’s no return of the prodigal son to the hobby, he remains an interested observer, but no more than that. I wonder if theres a niggling doubt that it shouldn’t be taken seriously, even when he’s been exposed to the hard evidence that yes, fun can be a very serious business. I know what it’s like to be a little embarrassed by your predilections, but if you’re going to publish a book on it, I’d like to see him really throw off the mental shackles.

None of this particularly dented my enjoyment of the book. It’s too much to expect anyone to love every part of it (surely no hobbyist could be properly involved in all these activities?) but for the parts that do resonate, they are treated with sensitivity and respect. Any time he wants a spot at my table, he’s more than welcome. Go on give it a go, treat yourself.

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A novel idea for a setting

I found myself in the public library today, which is a rare occasion. I was scanning the fantasy/sci fi/horror section, surprised at how much stuff they had, and wondering why on earth I spend what I do in bookstores. I checked a few back covers for a precis that sounded interesting. While doing that I came round to thinking about how my reading tends to be mosty gaming related, and that includes the novels I pick up. It struck me then that I’d been slowly coming to a decision over recent months and it goes a little something like this.

I’ve got loads of RPGs, about 5 or 6 times as many as you can see in the banner for this site. The vast majority of them have a setting as part of the game. Consequently, I’ve internalised an awful lot of imaginary worlds. Add to that the weird predilection I have for trying to see everything in the real world as potential gaming fodder and you might begin to see how full my head is. Novels and comics are an obvious source of gaming maaterial, but as time has gone on I’ve realised I’m never ever going to sit down and write a setting bible based on a novel, I’m just not. It’s way to much work and frankly, if my players aren’t as invested in the setting as I am then it’s never going to see time at the table. Let’s not even think about publishing it, not going to happen. Last time I tried to do this was with the Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F Hamilton, my favourite author. It’s absolutley ripe for gaming and I sincerely hope someone will do it one day. But it’s more than 3000 pages long and the cast of characters, locations, kit etc is absolutley enormous. Even the really hard core wiki builders struggle with that challenge.

So I don’t do it. I don’t even really build my own settings out of whole cloth, nor do I really pay a huge amount of attention to game worlds so much any more. The reason being, there’s just too much stuff, often of little relevance and too little of it ever reaches the ears of my players. Where’s the utility in a 300+ page book where 297 pages are just dry historical detail?

Let me give you an example. I recently bought Eclipse Phase after reading some reports and reviews online. It’s fans are vocal and passionate to say the least. Just browse RPGnet, you’ll see what I mean. When a poster said I could do Night’s Dawn with it I was totally sold. However, after an hour reading it from the first page I started to flick, never a good sign. ten minutes after that, I’d shelved it. The reason was I felt I would be better off reading a novel as I’d get the same giant infodump but in a more entertaining medium. Believe me when I say this isn’t a dig at the game, I’m sure it’s as brilliant and innovative as people say, but it’s not for me with the way I want to approach gaming these days. The short fiction at the start seemed like something from Shadowrun circa 1994, while the rest of the book was a patchwork of the authors favourite transhumanist scifi of recent years. again, it’s a perfeectly valid approach to a game book, but actually I found myself wishing I’d read the source material instead.

So I noticed a section of books by Charles Stross in the library, and his works are mentioned in Eclipse Phase. My interest piqued, I checked out the splash page. turns out the one I’d picked up is his first published work called The Atrocity Archives and I don’t think it’s one of the transhuman books. Here’s the back page for you:

Bob Howard is a low-level techie working for a super-secret government agency. While his colleagues are out saving the world, Bob’s under a desk restoring lost data. None of them receive any thanks for the jobs they do, but at least a techie doesn’t risk getting shot or eaten in the line of duty. Bob’s world is dull but safe, and that’s the way it should have stayed; but then he went and got Noticed. Now, Bob Howard is up to his neck in spycraft, alternative universes, dimension-hopping nazis, Middle Eastern terrorists, damsels in distress, ancient Lovecraftian horror and the end of the world. Only one thing is certain: it will take more than control-alt-delete to sort this mess out…

There’s enough there for a whole campaign no? And the preface makes it even more succint. In it Ken MacLeod points out:

Think, for a moment, what the following phrase would call to mind if you’d never heard it before: ‘Secret intelligence’

And there’s about 20 of the games on my shelf summed up. Except those books then give me another 13 chapters of explanation and detail which is mostly unnecessary and has the effect of dulling and diluting the original concept. Bringing it back to RPGs proper, the worst offender for me was The Iron Kingdoms, a superb setting from Privateer Press originally for d20 gaming. It started with a trilogy of adventures which gave the DM just enough to go on, and  crucially it all came out at the table as the party progressed. Three modules later and everyone knew as much as everyone else at the table without having to study for hours and without losing any immersion either. I think it was better than most settings just because of that ‘reveal during play’ approach. Obviously the fans wanted more and the publishers got to work. The first book was Lock and Load, really just a conversion supplement for standard D&D. It came with maps and geography and history, all in 64 pages. Brilliant. And then a long, long wait while the big hardback sourcebooks were produced, weighing in at 600 pages over 2 hardbacks, all as dry as dust. They’d utterly explained away all the magic. A crushing disappointment, especially when you consider their minis game in the same world, Warmachine, had exactly the same job to do, yet managed it in colour with barely a third of the page count. 

Now, this post haas gotten way too long and is in some danger of becoming a rant. So part 2 tomorrow…

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Pulp Fiction

So, most of my reading is an adjunct to my gaming. This is because one of the first things I look for in a game book is the “inspired by” or “recommended reading” lists. It’s lead me down some peculiar avenues in the past (‘Illuminatus Trilogy’) and some genius too (‘Zen and the Art…’)
Strange then that I’ve not read more Lovecraft. I remember ‘Call of Cthulhu’ from the core book and that’s about it. With my Trail game underway I thought I’d rectify my omission. So I started ‘The Rats in the Wall’. Didn’t take long for my mind to drift.
Maybe I wasn’t in the mood. Maybe its my long standing distrust of the short story format (if I’m enjoying it, I want it to go on) or maybe it was not grabbing me. Whatever, I decided to try another tack.
Robert Elvin Howard. Again, not often on my nightstand. Stivi bought me the complete Conan for Xmas and I picked up the complete Soloman Kane on a whim. Going with the HPL connection I started in on the Nameless Cults collection. First up, ‘the Black Stone’, which I admired more than liked. Very unsettling, there’s a scene with a baby that makes me shudder even now. Second, ‘The Worms in the Earth’, which was fabulous! Incredibly pulpy revenge fantasy with dirty Romans and a Pictish king who only speaks through gritted teeth. Every bit of dialogue was said with the characters clenched fists shaking at the sky. The Mythos connection was a bit tenuous but who cares? A ripping yarn.

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