Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

The last DC movie I saw in theaters was Man of Steel. If you see a preview clip for the upcoming Justice League, there's this whole bit about how Superman brought hope and showcased what people could be. Man of Steel showed little of that.

Wonder Woman makes Diana Prince's entrance into theaters as someone who brings inspiration and hope to those who meet her.

A small portion is given over to how Wonder Woman is raised but it's a rather simple origin. She was given life by Zeus and is the only child on an island of adult, apparently ageless warrior women. Her regimen that she starts as a child, is learning the Amazon ways of war. The island has its own charm and beauty, outside of being a timeless tropical paradise, it's covered with ancient art and is in a timeless pristine condition.

Diana grows up learning about Ares and his terrible plot to bring an endless war to the world of Man. She's shown the sword, the God-Slayer and told this weapon will one day end the threat of Ares.

I'm not like an ancient of the world but as a comic reader since the 80s, I was there for when Crisis of Infinite Earths changed up the Wonder Woman status. I loved George Perez's incarnation of Ares. I enjoyed that version more than the even recent version in the New 52 era.


Note these stories and more are collected in the massive George Perez Wonder Woman Omnibus. If you're a comic fan or want a retelling of Wonder Woman's tale, this is a great source of said tales.

So how does Diana wind up leaving the island? Steve Trevor, being pursued by a WWI German force, crash lands in the waters directly outside Paradise Island. Diana saves him but then she and her sisters immediately have to fight off a German landing party.

While the action sequences are fantastic and showcase a lot of energy and vibrancy I felt a twinge of "The Amazons are amazingly stupid." Atop of a hill, armed with bows capable of shooting further and farther than any WWI weapon, after a quick volley, they dive right into melee with a foe they've never encountered before.

Flesh and bone versus even, by today's standards, primitive firearms, provides something that the Amazons haven't had for perhaps thousands of years; casualties.

Steve, under the duress of the lasso of truth, reveals that he is a spy and has learned of a terrible chemical weapon that is going to be used to kill millions and he must return to London and try and stop it. The Amazons have no interest in 'Man's World'. Except for Diana whose been raised that it is her duty to help. That is it the reason she exists, to stop Ares.

When Diana's mother forbids her leaving, she does what any child does. She rebels. She steals the God Slayer and other assorted Amazon artifacts grabs Steve Stevor and preps a boat for taking off on the beach. A quick meeting with her mother who blesses her but tells her she may never return to the island leads us to the second act.

Diana is able to contrast the cleanliness and beauty of Paradise Island with London. London does not fare well. It's a place of filth, of smoke, of massive crowds and fear. Diana learns the current role of women in 'man's world' and fights it tooth and nail every inch of the way.

After a shopping trip to provide Diana with some less conspicuous clothes, Diana and Steve recruit a group of individuals who act almost as Doc Savage's crew. These are individuals who bring unique or specialized talents to the mission, an actor, a scout, and a sniper. Add in Steve and Diana and you've got Doc Savage and his old crew.

For those who don't know the old Pulp era hero Doc Savage, he was one of the first near superhumans of his era. He was one of the best fighters, one of the best scientists, one of the best people. And he traveled with a group of people who each had their own specialty. But it always seemed that Doc could do everything they could and more.

But Doc couldn't' be everywhere at every time and Diana at least, unlike Doc, doesn't know 'man's world'. Her crew fits her better.

I was impressed that in a WWI film, they managed to squeeze in so much diversity without it feeling pushed or fake. The scout, 'The Chief', works for everyone and is a well-known figure on the front line. The actor, Sammar, the one with the smooth tongue, able to use his 'lowly foreigner' status to fool people into thinking he's less than he is and moves about unobserved. The sniper? A drunk who is haunted by those killed in The Great War, but also a singer and player of the piano. the group works well. A diverse lot like this over the great range of Europe with the variety of people living in the continent makes a certain amount of sense.

Diana's role? The role she believes she has? It's to kill Areas. Based on information she's found so far, she believes it to be the German Ludendorff. She's intent on killing the man, of doing so at an elite gathering, one last 'huzzah' before peace is signed over. Trevor is intent on destroying the chemical supply.

To get to Ludendorff though, they must first cross 'No-Man's Land'. It's another one of the great action sequences in the movie. Wonder Woman in full costume, with shield and bracers, with strength greater than any normal man, advances into the hail of machine gun fire, taking the attention of the Germans long enough for others to make their advance and return fire.

The struggles that follow mire Diana further in the horrors of life in wartime. Innocents, men, women, and children, dying for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. People undergoing the horrors of starvation. People, she might be able to save suffering caravan breakdown as horses become dragged down in mud and muck. She learns she cannot save everyone.

But she manages to save a  town and they celebrate the victory with dancing and even a rare photograph, the methods were far more primitive than simply pulling out a smart phone and selfie stick.

Diana manages to sneak into the party and is about to attack Lundendorff when Steve stops her and tries to bring her to his side of thinking. While that goes on, a shell of the weaponized chemicals is shot into the village Diana just saved.

Outraged, Diana blames Steve for all these peoples deaths and goes on to fight Lundendorff!

This fight was well done but such a red herring that it even had me fooled. See, Diana is far more than human. At this point in the story, she's not on Superman level or showcasing an ability to shrug off tank shells, but she's able to lift a tank, cover tremendous distances with a single leap, outfight whole rooms of trained soldiers and such.

Lundendorff is given some type of super steroid by 'Dr. Poison', the genius responsible for coming up with the chemical weapon in the first place. It's apparently enough to give him the ability to fight Diana on equal terms.

When she slays Lundendorff and the Germans don't stop loading a massive plane with the chemical weapons, learning that man is indeed monstrous even without the advent of Ares leading them on, that further breaks Diana's heart and she cannot understand why this is still happening.

Steve Trevor, a man on an almost single minded mission though, asks for her help again and she refused. Steve and his allies move on against the still loading plane and debate best on how to take down this terror weapon without activating the chemical agent in an occupied area.

A guy named Steve and a dangerous plane? Anyone see where that's going?

As Diana considers her options, the 'real' Ares shows up. There are several stages to this battle but it starts off with the simple act of truth. Diana rams the God Slayer at Ares who not only blocks it with an open hand but destroys it.

Turns out the God Slayer isn't the sword, it's Diana herself. Diana who in this incarnation, turns out to be a goddess, the last legacy of Zeus to the mortal world. This part wasn't as big a reveal to anyone paying attention to the beginning with all of the "Diana cannot know what she is!" bits but to those unfamiliar with such nods in the super hero genre, it may have come as a surprise.

Diana picks up her game considerably her. She moves faster, hits harder, and fights with more innovation.

Ares is unimpressed and thrashes her easily. At one point knocking her so far away from the battle that she falls from the sky and tumbles across the ground like a skipping stone where Steve finds her and a deafened Diana can't hear his words to her and ponder the meaning of Steve giving Diana his father's watch.

Diana returns to the conflict while Steve boards the plane.

Diana continues to suffer at the hands of Ares while Steve flies the chemicals high enough into the air that he feels confident that setting them off won't endanger millions. The explosion is seen on the ground where Diana undergoes a transformation.

Normally I hate Dragon Ball Z power ups.

1. Fight somewhat equal but villain having an edge.
2. Villain showing 'true' power and beating hero easily.
3. Hero seeing loved one slain and gaining an immediate power up.
4. Hero becoming more powerful than the villain.

In this instance, it fits the evolution of the character. An Amazon whose only learning that she's a goddess. An Amazon who as Ares asks something along the lines of "let's see what type of god you are."

Turns out she's the goddess of love. Not lusty love. Not love of self. But an unselfish love for all humanity.

As corny as it sounds, the actress pulls it off. Her defeat of Ares isn't Wonder Woman conquering Ares, it's peace, hope, love, overcoming war, despair, and hate. It fits the movie far better than say, Superman snapping Zodd's neck.

Wonder Woman has a great score. It has great scenery. It has fantastic action sequences. It is a great showcase of 'The Hero's Journey'.

In terms of super hero movies, I was impressed that they went with the Great War instead of WWII. I also enjoyed that the movie takes itself seriously. I enjoy a lot of Marvel films and appreciate that they go to great lengths to avoid 'grimdark' that DC movies seem to seep themselves in. Wonder Woman however, doesn't use needless comedy and despite the subject matter, despite the Great War background, it has a lighter hearted feel than Man of Steel. Diana is a hero because she's a hero. It works for her. It works for the audience. She's earnest in what she seeks to do.

Wonder Woman is a solid film and a great super hero film. While I don't hold a lot of hope for the upcoming Justice League, I am hopeful that others will look at the different ways that great story telling in and of itself, can be used in a super hero movie and continue to push the boundaries of the genre.







Monday, August 14, 2017

The Bloody White Baron by James Palmer

The Bloody White Baron
Written by James Palmer
Published by Basic Books
$15.99 ($10.98 from Amazon)

The Bloody White Baron is a book I saw one of my fellow G+ users reading along with a pile of other books relating to Russia, Mongolia, and China. It looked more than interesting enough with a subtitle of "The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia."

I enjoyed James Palmer's writing style. I use transparent note stickies to hit passages I want to return to. The book is covered in them. Its flow is a little rough though because James provides a lot of backgrounds so we move chronologically back and forward. It's not Event X happened at year A in the start and event Z happened at year C at the end. There are numerous bits to try and catch the reader up to the larger picture around the Bloody White Baron.

Due to when the events happened, it's interesting to look back at how people saw the Bloody White Baron, also just called The Baron. Descriptions of him include having the power to cloud men's minds. That he was the child of crusaders and privateers. That he fit certain Mongolian legends of a White Savior.

His actual historical deeds? Monstrous is a quick way to describe them.  Not quite a proto-Nazi, Ungren was firmly anti-Semitic. In some instances, the mass murder of Jews was 'simply' for the acquisition of their property, wealth, and other mundane bits.

In others? I'd hate to say 'typical' anti-Semitic nonsense but a look at America in 2017 and chants of blood and soil and Jews will not replace us should give you a small peek into the mind of someone who has an earnest fear of Jews and that killing them was the only way to be safe, the only way to follow the 'true path'.

Ungren was not kind to his own men either. He was a torturer and a sadist in using typical Buddha hells in order to come up with new and horrific manners in which to punish his own men. Note I said his own men, the Soviets. Those who followed him from the start, those who joined up with him later ignoring the warning signs. He did this because he could not indulge his sickness against his Mongolian allies.

Part of this was practical. He relied on the Mongolians for shelter, political alliance, and other understandable bits. Part of it was religious based. He was a man who sought out Oracles. A man who believes in Mystics. A man who despite not being very good with his own religion, was one who tolerated all religions as seeing them under the same cosmic umbrella.

He was a man who came from a country where the threat of the 'Yellow Peril' was widely spread. A man who came to see his own country as being weak, as being corrupted. A man who sought to behind the scenes to help a new Asian emerge, to bring forth a new realm of divine kings.

Ungren was also unusual in that he was not cut from the civilized cloth. He thought of horses and their role in combat and mobility as being unstoppable. He hated paperwork. He fought on the front lines often and was rarely injured there.

He disagreed so much with those in the civilized courts that he was often banished from their halls. His removal from numerous schools growing up was only allowed to advance as far as it did due to his family's background and nobility.

It's fascinating in many ways because James Palmer doesn't let us forget the poor bastards on all sides who get caught up in this madness. Russia at the time undergoing horrific civil wars. China undergoing a loss of monarchy and the rise of communism. Mongolia? Stuck in the middle with both sides claiming ownership of it or at least ownership over parts of it at different times.

One is not sure who to feel worse for. Those poor souls condemned to various monstrous torture under Ungren that were his own soldiers, the Chinese soldiers who are nomad like in their wandering from war to war seeking to merely survive day to day or the Mongolians whose fate under Russian 'leadership' left millions and millions dead even as their own culture was stripped from them.

If you don't know a lot about the time and reigion, a very specific time and reigion, The Bloody White Baron is a good place to start and a solid read.







Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Disfavored Hero (The Tomoe Gozen Saga Book 1) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson


The Disfavored Hero
The Tomoe Gozen Saga Book 1
Jessica Amanda Salmonson
$6.15 Kindle format or free on Kindle Unlimited

While I'm pleased with the selection of graphic novels available on Kindle Unlimited, I'm less so with actual novels. I'm also on the lookout for interesting stories about non-western fantasy as it's a field ripe for exploration. I was pleased to discover The Disfavored Hero where the whole trilogy is available in the Kindle Unlimited library.

I will say though, that the publishers of the kindle book have gone the 'classic' yet cheap route on the cover. Look at the original from 1981:

That looks like it came right out of the 80s and it's glorious.

That's also something going for it. Jierl of Joiry gets a lot of credit for being one of, if not the first female heroes in the fantasy field and one of the first by a female author. But Jierl was not a great hero in her own tales. That might have been an artifact of the time but her sword skills and actual abilities always seemed to get the beat down being saved by the weird even more so than the original Conan tales.

Tomoe suffers defeat herself but her abilities are on a far superior level.

The book itself?

Less so.

It's hard to describe the writing. At first, I thought this was a translation because it moves between telling the reader what happened and actually having some dialog between characters. It's more of a style thing that didn't gel with me. Heck, may be an 80's thing. In some ways, it reminds me of old fairy tales or legends.

It's also a bit rough in places in terms of transition.

The cast of charactes is not wide. There are a handful introduced throughout the series with a few originally introduced making their way back towards the end but it's not a huge cast, no Game of Thrones. 

But the meat of the story itself?

A lot of fantasy goodness there.

Tomoe herself is almost too powerful. When she's first introduced, she's a samurai who's already been on an important mission to the mainland of fantasy China to kill a traitorous swordsmith who was making weapons for the mainland.

She kept two of those swords for herself and along with three of her friends, grew into a legend. Again, this is before the book starts. When the book gets moving though, we see Tomoe use her two Chinese longswords against an army and win. Mind you the author notes that it's not that unusual for a highly trained, heavily armored and armed individual, to be able to cut through poorly trained chattel but Tomoe takes it to a new level.

In the doing so, Tomoe is injured unto death and is only saved through dark magic that temporarily enslaves her. During that magical enslavement, she commits acts of treason under a Chinese mystic but is restored by her Samurai honor being tested. Her honor proves stronger than the binds put upon her.

Now free, she wanders as a Ronin and encounters the people of fantasy Japan, which here the author calls Naippon, a slight change of wording to indicate it's relationship with the real world. Other authors, especially Gary Gygax, would do this with Oerth, Aerth, etc...

In this tale we get to see ghouls that when hacked apart, put themselves back together again with whatever is available. We get to see ogres and oni. We get to see kappa and dragon queens. We get quasi-planes and transportation through strange dimensions. The author does a solid job of bringing the fantasy and the unusual to her version of Naippon.

The tale and test set in the first section of the book come full circle in the end when Tomoe gets to met the only one to easily beat her but did so only because of the 'unpure' style she initially was using. It's mythical in the cyclic nature it takes.

As a side note, there's also several black and white illustrations in the novel. It's a nice change of pace for the standard walls of text and I enjoy seeing how an artist interpets the scenes and characters.

I recommend the novel to anyone who's looking for something outside the standard westernized elves and dwarves. To anyone looking to run a game of Legends of the Five Rings or old school Oriental Adventurers.

The most difficult time I had with those settings when younger, was looking for inspirational material. The Tomoe Gozen Saga has it.







Monday, July 10, 2017

Kindle Unlimited: Old School Fantasy Picks

Join Amazon Kindle Unlimited 30-Day Free Trial


With Prime Day coming up, Amazon recently did a bit where if you were a prime member, you could subscribe to Kindle Unlimited for 2 years at 40% off. It's not cheap by any means, but I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where I could afford it.

My main purpose was to give my mom access to move reading. She has near unlimited time being a retiree and she's much less picky about starting something new than I am. She's read dozens if not hundreds of books that initially I purchased from a Daily Deal or monthly deal.

But did that mean there was nothing for someone who grew up in the eighties? Someone who grew up reading Michael Moorcock and David Smith among others?

This is kind of a trick question in many ways. For example, while The Fellowship of the Ring is part of the Kindle Unlimited bit, I read it. If you've stumbled upon my blog, you may not know, but I rarely go back and reread anything as I have dozens of books I haven't read at all. Among those 

The Silmarillion, which is also available in Kindle Unlimited.


When trying to find titles, it's a massive miss. For an electronic company, the ability to sort the options in Kindle Unlimited suffers vastly. There is no way to sort by author. What an amazing lack of forethought here. You can sort by featured, price, average review, and publication date.

But not by author.

Eh?

You'll also note that you can't sort by title. One of the most basic functions of sorting and you can't do it here.

You can use the various options on the left side of the screen to cut down and chop up the options, but again, no ability to search by author.



Some might be thinking, well, how about using something like the sword & sorcery to cut down the sexy mage ladies?



That gives you options like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Whoever is setting up the meta tags clearly has no idea of what they're doing.

Failure Amazon. 100% pure failure.

It does hit some popular titles. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is in the Kindle Unlimited package. So if you, like me, have missed that particular icon of modern fantasy, well, there's a lot of hope for you.

And if you're willing to just dive into a fantasy series, man, you've got your options. Some of the covers I recognize from long deals that Amazon has had on the series. Others look like supernatural fantasy modern day 'Buffy' style books that my mom devours daily.

Most I don't recognize at all.

But a few do stand out!

The Princess Bride: Despite greatly enjoying the movie, I've never read the book.

Llarn Cycle: There are many great authors that I didn't read when I was younger because when I found out about them, the books were out of print. Nowadays that isn't such a problem IF the books are in e-format AND I remember them. Garder F. Fox is one of them. Some of his stories were even reworked into Marvel Comic's Conan. Heck, most comic books fans will be familiar with Garder from his work on the comics that did things like introducing the multi-verse to DC.

That whole bit is a win for me. I appreciate that not all of the oldies are goodies. That a lot of what has come since has been done better or is more fitting for modern politically correct times.

But I also like seeing where the genre came from and that includes things that are rarely touched on like Planetary Romance sagas.

Also included among other series by Garder, is his Kothar series. A pastiche of Conan? Perhaps but more fun stuff from back in the day.

Witch World: Here's a series I'd HAVE to reread because my reading of it was all messed up due to the publication of the original series in how I bought them. Andre Norton has a LOT of books in the Kindle Unlimited bit and that alone almost makes it worth the purchase for me.



Sword & Deviltry by Fritz Leiber:  While it's great to see some original Appendix N love here, it's almost a tease. The first book in the Kindle Unlimited, the rest? Nope.



There are other features to the Kindle Unlimited I haven't got to yet. For example, there are a ton of comics.

But again, no easy way to see the authors I like or even to list it in plain alphabetical order. Again, an immense failure by Amazon.

I'll keep digging into the Kindle Unlimited and noting some of the gems when I run across them.

Those who who already have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, are there are comics, fantasy, science fiction, historical, or business books you'd recommend? I'm going to try to get some utility out of this even if I initially bought it for the mom.










Sunday, July 9, 2017

Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski


Baptism of Fire
The Witcher Book Three
Written by Andrzej Sapkowski
Translated by David French
Trade Paperback: $16.00 /$11.34 Amazon

The numbering of the Witcher series confused me at first. The first book is the Last Wish and that makes this the fourth book.

But it's only the third book of the 'series' as the Last Wish is a collection of short stories. Nothing too complicated but it does throw the numbering off on different sites.

Baptism of Fire brings us Geralt, the White Wolf, the Witcher. He is a highly trained warrior of an order of monster slayers whose origins lie in the use of mutagenic potions to augment the human body past its normal limits.

His standard companion, Dandelion continues adventuring with him. In many ways, Dandelion is a good 'companion' style character, much like Monglum of Elric fame. He's not a great fighter, but can at least thrust a sword. His background and socialite ways give him a far different, perhaps more civilized outlook, to the Witcher's monster butchery.

There are other new companions along the way that join the Witcher in his 'Baptism of Fire', including a hunter, an old enemy, and one who should be an enemy. Other characters met along the way, like Zoltan Chivay, will be familiar to anyone who's played the video games.

The translation work is fairly done. It's not obvious that this is a translated work in terms of rough passages where you ponder what the author meant. There are times, however, when a lot of telling the audience what's going on instead of showing the audience what's going on happen.

On one hand, tell not show does save a ton of space. On the other, it's not as effective.

There's also some weirdness where a storyteller is telling children about the Witcher's tale. It's not badly done, just out of place compared to the previous chapters that didn't use a wandering storyteller.

Yennifer, the sorcerer who is at times the Witcher's lover and ally, has a brief spot in the book but it's more of a set up for future novels. Much of the material involves the Witcher save for a few brief spots on other characters just to see what they are doing.

Like previous novels in the series, this one ends not quite at a cliffhanger, but close enough that the reader is left eager to pick up the next novel.

In terms of stealing for a game of Dungeons and Dragons or other Fantasy RPGs, the game is ripe with ideas.

The Witcher in and of itself is a title bestowed upon those who pass a series of tests that make them more than human. Many die in the trying due to their bodies rejecting the potions that transform them. Others are changed in ways far more horrible than pale flesh and white hair.

The Witchers are supposed to be neutral, not serving any particular king or kingdom but instead, dedicated to the cause of killing monsters for profit.

It would make an excellent PrC or Paragon Path in 4th edition. The real trick is what do you bring in? In the novels, Geralt isn't that much of a showcase for Witcher power. Oh sure there are times when the author has the White Wolf cut through soldiers, but the novel starts with Geralt incapacitated due to wounds and it takes him a long time to recover. We also don't see any fancy spellcasting from Geralt in the novel nor even herb use or lore.


False Princess

Ciri, the 'foretold one' if you will, the girl with all the bloodlines, is supposed to be a noble character and bearing.

Instead, she travels with 'the Rats', a youth bandit gang that is murderous.

Play with player's expectations of how characters will be. Have them met people and later on find out that those people have undergone changes that might not seem normal, but are part of the growth they've been forced to experience by the harsh realities of the world.

Red Herrings

The Witcher is bound to Ciri from events in previous books. This isn't just an older warrior feeling parental over a young child. Rather Geralt knows what's happening to Ciri through dreams and the dreams foretell a life less than happy.

Initially, Geralt hears that Ciri is in one country and is being prepped for marriage to seal an alliance. He spends a lot of time and effort moving across the land in order to get there.

But the information is wrong. It's false information to keep people off the real trail. The time lost in seeking out this false hope is considerable.

When you're running your own campaigns, don't be afraid to toss red herrings into the mix. If they players are seeking someone with a common name, do they have the right person? Are there multiple crypts with the same name? Is there a crypt and a tomb? Is there a lost library and a lost labyrinth? 

War As An Obstacle

Outside of the normal problems that war presents, in a war where the players are not part of any army or part of any nationality involved in the war, they are at risk for being attacked by all sides.

This can present it's own unique opportunities though as character get involved in the strangest things. For example, in Baptism of Fire, Geralt winds up saving a queen and becoming knighted. 

The other problem with being in a war zone is that humanity is terrible. There are rapes, murders, genocide and other wretched factors that happen in the real world all the time. In a fantasy setting? Who knows what strange things may happen. For example, many settings ranging from the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, to more modern Eberron, have some part of the campaign setting scarred from a 'big weapon' that ended a previous war.

War As A Resource Drain

In addition to the dangers of getting killed outright, there are dangers of a more subtle yet still potentially dangerous origin.

Supplies.

In their travels, the Witcher and his allies come across a logging operation. It's a vast operation and takes up a lot of space and slows their advancement as they cannot easily cross the logging operation. The trees cut down are shipped out for supplies elsewhere.

Anyone who's seen the Lord of the Rings knows that one of Treebeards biggest factors in influencing his decision to fight against Sauraman the White was the logging of the forests. "A wizard should know better."




And in many cases, it's not going to be just trees. Food, metal, and in a campaign setting with available magic resources, any of those, will be up for grabs and become crucial points of potential conflict with the enemy.

The Witcher continues to expand the setting and touches on some modern issues while at the same time remaining fundamentally a fantasy story. If you're looking for something to inspire interesting characters as a player or different monsters and monster origins as a Game Master, Baptism of Fire is a good pick.







Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Devlin's Luck by Patricia Bray


Devlin's Luck
The Sword of Change: Book 1
Written by Patricia Bray
Published by Spectra
434 pages
$7.99 Kindle
$7.99 Paperback

A great thing about having a Half-Price Books close by is their random and changing selection of $1 books. It's a lot easier to take a chance on an author you've never heard of when you're only out $1. Same is true of the old Kindle books when they hit the various sweet spots on sale.

Devlin's Luck is a solid fantasy book for someone just starting the genre. It uses a small cast, small kingdom, and easy missions to get the reader involved. If you're looking for 'popcorn' reading, Devlin's Luck has you covered.

At the end, the book looks to expand in size and complexity allowing the setting and scope to grow with the series.

Devlin's Luck is a perfect 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons book in many ways. The 4th edition D&D default setting was a points of light setting. A generic kingdom where things used to be better and the world was more dangerous than it should be. Devlin's Luck takes place in 'The once mighty kingdom of Jorsk is in decline, its borders beset by enemies, both worldly and otherworldly. The king has retreated to the capital, abandoning the far-flung provinces."

That's not only a 'points of light' setting, it's a fairly standard low-level setting in most instances. There are things that need to be taken care of and the heroes are the ones to do it!

The hero of the story, Devlin Stonehand, is a former farmer and metalsmith from a rugged frontier part of Jorsk, recently conquered by the superior militia of Jorsk. He's come to the capital city to become 'the Chosen One', an old institution where a champion fights for the people of the country. It's been so dangerous lately that the kingdom pays the new Chosen One and binds them with magic to only work for the safety of the kingdom.

In the 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons, the idea of the Chosen One would have worked as a 'kit'. The profession initially doesn't seem to have a lot of character enhancing powers but does have a lot of social responsibility to it and does have a lot of social perks that go with it. The kits in 2nd edition were notorious for trying to use social issues in place of game balance.

For a small setting, the book throws the deities names out immediately. Part of being the Chosen is picking a patron deity. 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons introduced new deities in part by stealing them from other settings and by adding new ones like the Raven Queen.

Here we get:

Haakron, the Lord of Death.

Lady Geyra: Healers

Lady Sonja: The War Goddess.

Lady Tea: Mother Goddess. Patroness of those who worked the land.

Kanjti: The God of luck. A God with no temples or priests. Some called him the bastard god, the only one of the seven whose origin was a subject for hot debate. A god with no family. (pg 21-22)

Heavenly Pair: Father Teo and Mother Tea.

Another thing that Patricia Bray does, is not shy away from languages. Even though the setting is small, there are a variety of languages spoken by the people including older languages like High Jorsk. Even today in countries like China that are 'one country', there are multiple languages spoken. Never underestimate the value of languages in creating the setting that you're running.

Adventure Seeds:

One of the things I enjoyed about Devlin's Luck is it doesn't pretend that it's trying to rewrite and rework the fantasy genre or some of the simple things that can be done with it.

"There are reports of a band of marauders living in Astavard forest, who prey on travelers along the King's old highway." (pg 77)

"There was no invading army, no great battle in their future. Instead the Kingdom was dying for a thousand tiny pinpricks." (pg. 90).

Another example of how a potentially long campaign can be designed. It allows the players to pick and chose what incidents and events they will investigate and so move the campaign in a direction of their choosing.

How much more classic than bandit attack can you get?

Character Actions

If you want the players to be engaged with the setting, both in the dungeon and out, make sure that others are paying attention to what they do for both good and ill.

"His self-discipline was contagious, and she noticed that her own guards trained all the harder for his example." (pg. 249)

"As he tried to read t he mage's expression he realized that for the first time in their acquaintance Master Dreng's eyes w ere clear, and the hand that clasped his was steady. A remarkable change in one who was reputed to spend his entire life deep in his cups." (pg. 256)

Humans are social animals. We try to be like others, we try to make organizations and achievements with others. Seeing someone strive to be better may encourage us to be better. Seeing someone who needs us at our best may encourage us to be at our best.

If you show that the actions the players take off the battlefield have consequences in the setting, the players may decide to go with that. If you want to encourage that type of behavior and the player's don't normally do such, have the background be influenced by others. You can either act or be acted upon. When the players see people taking after X, Y, or Z instead of them, perhaps they'll be more motivated to be part of the setting as opposed to rogue loners. 

Culture:

"I trade with many, but always with Brigia deMor, daughter of Nesta of the Mountains. She has given me the blessing of her name," the woman said proudly.

A blessing was a powerful thing indeed. In the literal sense, it meant that Brigia deMore regarded this woman as a member of her family. It was rare for any outlander to receive such an honor." (pg. 35)

When designing an adventure, a setting, a character, or a quest, what role does the background of the people play in it? What are they known for? What are their codes of conduct? What makes one valued among them?

Culture doesn't have to be a whole society. It can be a part of the society.

'A copper armband lay on the workbench. Favored by soldiers as a luck token." (pg. 59) The history of an organization, of a society, or a group of individuals, can be telling in many ways. It can be tattoos, it can be slogans, it can be art. 


Points of Light


"Devlin's foot skidded across a slippery stone, and he flailed wildly before regaining his balance. At the start of his journey, this road had been paved with interlocking stones, with a raised crown that allowed water to run off into the ditches on the side. The farther he traveled from Kingsholm, the worse the road became. The stones showed signs of wear, than cracking, and then weeds had begun to appear. By now, nearly two weeks' journey from the capital, there were many places where the stones had vanished altogether. And the drainage ditches were choked with weeds and debris so that instead of draining the water, the roads were covered with mud washed won from the fields on either side. (pg. 95) 

That's a great example of how a point of light campaign can be described. What was one mighty has tumbled. What once was great, is not even standard. It shares themes with Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales where the Viking raiders are in awe of the Roman structures left behind in England. 

Taverns and Inns:

"The Singing Fish is in the old city, near the river. It's not fancy, but they have good food and a very fine cellar." (pg. 30).

Devlin is new to the city. He's new to this part of the country. Where better to hear how the common folk act that in a tavern in the old part of the city? Where the common folk mingle? It's an old trope to be sure but it's continued use showcases that it's still a viable way to gather information and to have a gathering place.

Weather:

'But then the rains had come. For the past three, days he had slogged on, ankle deep in muck.' (pg. 94)

Never forget that the sun may rise in the east but the players don't necessarily have to see it. Clouds, fog, mist, rain, humidity, the dew point! All of these things can make the setting seem more alive than just using standard sunny days when the characters are traveling from point A to point B.

Devlin's Luck by Patricia Bray is a solid fantasy story that contains many little nods to realism from numerous languages and social structures, to the evolution of Devlin Stonehand as the Chosen One. I look forward to eventually reading the next books in the series.







Monday, July 3, 2017

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger


Little Big Man
Written by Thomas Berger
Published by The Dial Press
$17.00/$11.51 Amazon

One of the reasons I enjoy reading outside the 'fantasy ghetto' is that you never know what you'll stumble upon. I can't remember where I first read that Little Big Man was a classic of the Western Genre, indeed, of American literature itself, but I'm glad I dug into it.

After finishing the book, I was informed of the movie featuring Dustin Hoffman. He does a great job in a solid movie but man, if anyone from HBO or Showtime is listening, Little Big Man could use a truer to book edition in a season or limited edition format.



So what does Little Big Man bring that makes it worth reading for gamers?

First off, Thomas Berger is a great writer. If you're looking for one liners or other bits to throw into your game, Thomas has more than his share of them.

"However, I believe that when Wild Bill Hickok faced a man he looked at his opponent's eye as if it was a cork." (pg. 305)

Alien  Cultures

Jack Crabb spends a lot of time among the Indian Cheyenne tribe. During that time, he enjoys boiled dog as well as having four wives. He returns to the tribe several times and it contrasts the ways of the Cheyenne, who call themselves 'Human Beings' to the 'White Man'.

In terms of other nationalities, we get a brief taste of them. For example, while on a raid, Jack is ambushed and almost scalped when the ambusher realizes that he's actually a white man. That particular tribe is fond of the whites so lets Jack live. Jack promptly repays him with three arrows in the back.

When adding different cultures, much less different races,  think about why they are different, to begin with. If the only difference between humans and elves turns out to be the lifespan, might as well just get rid of one or the other.

Think about how the children are raised. Are they raised by the clan?

What roles do men and women play?

What foods are eaten? Even in the modern day world people in the United States tend to look in horror at southern China's holiday where they eat dog. Now never mind that the Cow is a sacred animal to millions of Indians...

How is history kept? How is the passage of time measured? The author gives us an event driven history that doesn't rely on days or dates but on seasons and events.

Are there common sayings?

'My son," says Old Lodge Skins, "if it cannot, then the sun will shine upon a good day to die." (pg. 220).

Culture can be a thousand things and none of them are easy to digest in one sitting. Don't hit the players over the head with things until they stop playing but feed into the differences a bit per session until the players can recognize weird words and phrases both in character in the real world.

Character Behavior

Behavior and motivation are separate things. Behavior depends on a series of actions that are necessary for a profession that may be technical or may be encouraged by other's behavior.

'This is a good example of the suspiciousness which warps the minds of gunfighters. I had fell into it right quick, just being in Wild Bill's proximity. You feel like your whole body is one live nerve. At that moment one of them cardplayers having just won a pot, let out a holler of triumpth, and both Hickok and myself come out of our chairs, going for our iron..." (pg. 285).

'Of course I could see he was a fanatic. You had to be, to get so absorbed in talk of holsters and cartridge loads and barrel length and filing down the seat to make a hair trigger and the technique of tying back the trigger and arming the hammer to fire, etc., etc...

"Now then, about that S & W you carry. It is a handsome weapon, but the shells have a bad habit of erupting and jamming the chambers. I'd lay the piece aside and get me something else: a Colt's with the Thuer conversion..." (pg 286-287)

Here, the profession of the Gun Fighter shows its professional side. It's the difference between a mercenary who picks up a weapon and is surprised when it jams and the professional who can disassemble and reassemble it. 

Character Motivation

'Course, he says, there's where the personality come in; whether fast or slow, there was one perfect shot for each occasion, and you killed or died according to how close you come to achieving it. Once arriving at your decision to fire upon a man, your mind becomes a blank, and your will, your body, and your pistol merged into one instrument with a single job.' (pg. 305)

One of the easiest motivations for adventurers in any genre is to find that moment. While Dragon Ball Z's main hero Goku is nearly silly in his desire to be the strongest there is and to fight great opponents, he's always earnest in his desire. Gunslingers have been portrayed as seeking to be the best, the same is true of swordsmen. 

Family

Jack Crabb comes from an interesting family and makes more along the way. His father a bit of an insane preacher. His sister a strong woman out of her time. His brother? A dealer of poisons.

But then there's his 'cousin' Amelia. Only turns out, Amelia, a former lady of the night, isn't actually his cousin and Jack knew that from the start. Rather, it's that Jack 'adopts' her into his family and their both okay with it.

The family you make as opposed to the one you're born with.

Jack is also the father to a son not his own. He also loses his wife Olga and son to an Indian attack and finds them long after they would recognize him as both they and he have undergone many changes. The transitional nature of family and the roots one sets are made in numerous contrasts.

History

"That still leaves the matter of the meat, and you can't escape the fact that there was awful waste in that area, whereas Indians generally consumed in one form or another every inch of a buffalo from his ears to the hoofs, including even the male part, from which they boiled up a glue." (pg 325).

Sometimes the world moves in a direction and no matter what some due, they can't stop the movement of the world. In this case, Jack is assuring future readers that in many instances, the slaughter of the buffalo wasn't done to intentionally harm the natives, but rather, simply to make money.

If you look at the environment in 2017 and see how laws have been enacted and repealed and worked for and against, the pursuit of profit against the manner in which humans live, like dumping coal ash into rivers, is still debated.

Elves may love their forests, but people need the wood for fuel, they need it for constructing weapons and buildings. They need the space cleared for crops and grazing. Sorry elves, nothing personal, but you got to go.

Dwarves? Dwarves in a gold-rich environment? I can't imagine the slaughter that would take place in any fantasy campaign that wanted to throw historical accuracy at it unless the dwarves were able to completely fight off the attackers. Problem is that doesn't count say the numerous horrors for the beneath the earth that the dwarves are usually dealing with.


Plot Seeds

Unappreciated Treasures

Towards the end of the novel, Custer and his cavalry, are on the move. To ensure that the Calvary stays focused on the mission, Custer hasn't paid the men. Instead, the money is kept separately from them. When Custer and his people are slaughtered, the money blows away in the wind.

Sometimes the opponents a group faces, don't have the same values as those they fight. While some of the Indians may have found a use for the money, most were happy to take other sorts of grisly trophies of their victory against Custer.

In a fantasy campaign, if dealing with an insect people that have no appreciation of gold, jewelry or man-made weapons and armor, because they craft everything they need from the corpses of their dead using hard chitin weapons and armor, perhaps the players stumble upon a huge treasure that the enemy may not appreciate, but appreciate the presence of the player's even less.

Range Dependent Magics

'I was born there, on the Rosebud Creek. Indeed, my medicine works only half-strength when I come below the Shell River." (pg. 220)

Games like Rifts use Ley Lines or 'Dragon Blood' or some manner indicating that a certain part of the earth is rich with magic. Are there specific parts of a campaign setting that are known to be that like? Does victory depend on getting the enemy away from such a land?

In the Forgotten Realms for example, after the age old Avatar Crisis, there were wild magic and dead magic zones. Mages wouldn't be caught dead in a dead magic zone if they could help it. 

Use variances in power level based on location and see how the players can turn it against their opposition.

Reputation

'Wild Bill Hickok was never himself a braggart. He didn't have to be. Others did it for him. When I say he was responsible for a ton of crap, I don't mean he ever spoke a word in his own behalf. He never said he put a head on Tom Custer, nor wiped out the McCanles gang, nor would he ever mention them ten shots inside the O. But others would be doing it incessantly, and blowing up the statistics and lengthening the yardage and diminishing the target." (pg. 284)

In a game where there are 'wild lands' or sparsely populated areas, 'badlands', a player's reputation can take him far. What's he known for? What's he been seen doing?

A bounty hunter that uses a particular weapon in a particular way may have a greater reputation than another bounty hunter that uses the same weapon ever other hunter uses.

A character that gets lucky in a big brawl or arrives at just the right time may find themselves with a great reputation.

The only problem? Wild Bill Hickok had to defend that reputation and in this book at least, his actions come back to haunt him the one time he doesn't sit with his back to the wall. Being known for something, especially something that involves violence, means that there will always be others out there trying to make their own reputation. 

Reputation can be public and private. 'Even as a remnant, the Seventh Cavalry lived up to its glorious traditions, linking arms in public while privately slandering one another.' (pg 438)

An organization may be known for its professionalism and its tactic, but those who know the 'real' organization may have different things to say about it. You often see this with people with terrible secrets. "Oh, Fred? I would never have suspected that he was a cannibal."

Senses

'But as we come closer, the marble-white was not clear, but streaked and sometimes drowned in red which the heat turned brown, and the smell was starting up too, attended by millions of flies, and the birds rose in great circles at our approach and coyotes scampered off to a safe range.' (pg. 424)

Berger puts the most obvious sense, sight to good use. But then he goes into smell. And then, the byproducts that often accompany death, the scavengers. If the players come across a slaughtered caravan, do you describe how ripe the smell is? Do you tell them that the ground is sticky with blood? Do you talk about the insect life making it's home in the corpses? The egg laying? The eye feasting? 


Weird Stuff

'And then, the summer of '74 billions of grasshoppers descended on the plains in a great blanket stretching from Arkansas to Canada...a Union Pacific train was stalled at Kearney, Nebraska, by a three-foot drift of them insects.' (pg. 338)

Sometimes something weird happens. Throw it in the campaign.

Little Big Man is an excellent book for both players and game masters of any genre. Character motivations and adventue seeds aplenty, NPCs and settings call to those who heed this book.