Saturday, September 24, 2016

Plague of Shadows by Howard Andrew Jones

Plague of Shadows
Written by Howard Andrew Jones
Pathfinder Tales
350 pages

I've never read any of Howard Andrew Jones work before. After this book, I'll be sure to keep an eye out. The author's own website can be found here: http://www.howardandrewjones.com/

Plague of Shadows is well written high fantasy. It includes numerous nods to old favorites, such as showing the otherworldly nature of the elves as Tolkien might as well as villain redemption and other good bits. If you're looking for a fast-paced fantasy, Howard Andrew Jones delivers.

One thing I enjoyed about Plague of Shadows more than most of the other Pathfinder Tales books I've read, is that there is an actual group of characters to follow. There's also a bit more history here than I'm used to seeing.

In terms of the party of adventurers, we have the following:

Elyana: An elf ranger raised by human parents. I like how the author brings in the Pathfinder Tales specific naming for such an event, a 'Forlorn'. Howard's description of how Elyana's magic, that of a ranger, differs from other types of magic, is also a nice touch.

Drelm: A half-orc warrior, a captain of the guard for the small barony that Elyana works at.

Renar: The son of one of Elyana's old adventuring companions, a warrior by trade and a noble son by birth.

Vallyn: A bard who's also an old adventuring companion of Elyana.

Kellius: A young court wizard comfortable in his own skin and not afraid to throw the magic around.

The nice thing is that while these are the main characters, there are numerous flashbacks to the "good old days" showing Elyana, Vallyn, and their other comrades, including Renar's father. It works well and allows the setting to feel more than it's just a duo or three people wandering a huge setting.

Howard Andrew Jones also makes good use of the Pathfinder setting itself. The setting is a huge one and Howard shifts us through enough of the region to understand the local politics and the effects that actions in the past have on the present. His nod to the deities of the setting and the power of piety, even when it keeps those who love each other apart, is also handled well.

The mix of Pathfinder setting specifics, the party of adventurers, the nod to classic fantasy tropes, and the done in one approach, make Plague of Shadows one of the stronger entries in the Pathfinder Tales line.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Wizard's Mask by Ed Greenwood (Gaming Notes Edition)


The Wizard's MaskWritten by Ed Greenwood
400 b & w pages
High Fantasy
Pathfinder Tales
$9.99


Below will be some things that ticked in my brain when reading The Wizard's Mask in terms of gaming inspiration. There will be spoilers so if you don't want any spoilers, read no further.

Named Items: I actually mentioned this in the book review portion but named items tend to have more personality. When you make the items actually intelligent like The Whispering Blade, a blade that speaks to its victims and informs them of how sweet it's razor sharp touch feels, well, then it gets more interesting.

This doesn't always click though as, on the cover, the "Masked" is holding up a gauntlet, a specific magic gauntlet, and it has what I'd consider a boring name: The Fearsome Gauntlet. Mind you, if the Gauntlet didn't throw around numerous force effects and instead actually did 'Fearsome' things, I might have a different opinion on it.

And here's the thing, names are personal taste. Some people might be going, "Man, Joe, you're crazy! The Whispering Blade is so lame and the Fearsome Gauntlet, now that's awesome!" You'll have to wing it on your own names but if I may add one suggestion. Give them a 'real' name and then the generic moniker. Tarakul, the Fearsome Gauntlet for example.

Limited Charge Items: Turns out that the Fearsome Gauntlet wasn't that fearsome. After an epic battle, the gauntlet's magic simply runs out and it falls apart. In addition, during the course of the novel, the duo manage to drink numerous potions.

If you want your players to hit above their weight level on a temporary basis, throw them some cool magic items that only work for a limited time. Or even some 'mundane' items that they might need to overcome an specific enemy that only work for a set number of times. Creature needs a +4 magic item to effect? A wand that grants items a cumulative plus for 10 rounds at a time can help that out and be drained quickly.

But keep in mind that by hitting above their weight level, the characters are going to be gaining more experience and access to things that they might not normally have.

Cursed Items: One of the heroes, The Masked, is known so because he stole a cursed magical mask. It is slowly eating away his face. If the mask suffers damage, he suffers damage. Note that this last bit isn't necessarily that rare even for non-cursed powerful items.

For example, after Marvel comics killed off Thor in the Avengers Disassembled storyline, when they eventually brought him back in Michael Straczynski's run, his hammer was damaged. With the help of Doctor Strange, the hammer was repaired and bound to Thor's life force. If the hammer was damaged, Thor could die as a result.




Inherent Goof: Consider this a near off topic ramble. During the story, Tantaera, the short halfling, loses her hand thanks to the kiss of the Whispering Blade. Remember how I mentioned that the Fearsome Gauntlet simply ran out of juice? It turns out that after spending a great deal of money, Tantaera was able to replace her hand with the Gauntlet which will still probably retain some powers that she's unaware of in this novel but may come into play in future novels.

I call it a goof because when you have specific magic items that people are looking to chop their own limbs off and replace them with, having the option to have one of your own limbs replaced with a magical item seems like it'd be MORE expensive than having a spell to replace the actual limb cast.

But that's why I call it an inherent goof. You see similar things in comics all the time. "I'm a bad ass cyborg!" or "I'm just going to run around WITHOUT an eye because I look cooler with a patch!" And usually, it's part of the torture porn you see in comics.

For example, Wolverine has a healing factor and despite being a 'great fighter', gets tore up all the time. Vision and Red Tornado? Poor bastards. Machines so they get destroyed all the time.




 Even Cyborg whose FACE is still human gets put into situations where you're like, "Uh, why wouldn't you always have a faceplate on dude? You're not an actor, you're a guy in the comic. We don't need to see your face." But they rarely go for that instead destroying an arm or leg or something.

Just keep it in mind when you're putting the players in a goofy situation that's dedicated in part by the rules that the players will go with those rules.

The Wizard's Mask is high fantasy and high action with some focus on rogues that tends to be rare in a world where every series is about a farmboy destined to save the world.








Monday, September 19, 2016

The Wizard's Mask by Ed Greenwood (Book Review)



The Wizard's Mask
Written by Ed Greenwood
Pathfinder Tales
400 pages
$9.99


Ed Greenwood should need no introduction to any role players of Dungeons and Dragons nor anyone whose read fantasy fiction in the last 25 years. My own introduction to Ed comes from Dragon Magazine and his numerous articles for the Forgotten Realms, leading up to the publication of the original 1st edition boxed set of the Forgotten Realms and many books beyond.

For those who don't know Ed, he's got his own website over there: http://edverse.officeedgreenwood.com/ and he's got a Wiki entry as well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ed_Greenwood

Ed's writing isn't for everyone. While I've highly enjoyed his gaming material, his fiction often is hit or miss for me.

This book is both.

On the negative side is the believability of the story. It's not that a fantasy tale needs a high level of such a factor, but if the characters are given to X, then they should be able to accomplish it. If they are given to X and all of the sudden they are doing things that require the whole X, Y, Z, and a hand on from the higher powers, it stretches the enjoyment of the story.

The other thing is probably just me. As I get older, I'm more aware of how writers handle their female characters. In this novel, we are introduced to two characters, the "man known only as The Masked" and "an escaped halfling slave named Tantaerra."

"So...a halfling woman, probably in her thirties and with the lined face of someone who'd known hunger often enough, despite the fact that she still had plenty of chest and hip on an otherwise scrawny frame."

This doesn't count the numerous times' she's made naked or that she's actually shorter than a regular halfling. It's just a weird thing. This extra short child sized individual clearly suffering from hunger with big tits and ass.

Okay...

The other problem I had with the book is Ed needs to know when to let a villain go. The villain that the duo tangles with most isn't even the 'big bad' but Ed keeps using him and as a reader I didn't find him interesting at all and was just waiting for him to die. It's like, "Okay, we know the author likes this bad guy for some reason, but really? He sucks. Let him die this second time, this third time..."

In terms of popcorn reading though?

Top notch.

The story starts with action. The action easily goes across one hundred pages. If you dig chase scenes like those you'd find at the start of the newer James Bond movies, you'll enjoy those parts. Ed has a great way of moving the action from left to right with the action dancing across the page.

Ed also keeps the action flowing.

The author is hit or miss on the names. For example, one of the magic weapons in the novel, the Whispering Blade? It's a blade that telepathically communicates with those it's seeking to dismember and does so in an ominous voice that Ed captures perfectly. The name fits it.

And then there's the magic item that the duo are sent out to seek in the Shattered Tomb to begin with. The Gauntlet of Fear or the Fear Gauntlet. Really? Ugh.

Ed also uses some odd choices in his monsters. The creature on the cover is a particular type of monster native to the Pathfinder Tales region and Ed puts it to good use. Little nods like that are great.

If you're looking for some light reading heavy on the action than the Wizard's Mask is going to do you right. Ed's not building up a setting like some authors in the Wheel of Time or A Game of Thrones but the Pathfinder Tales are not about that.

There's enough character development that another book is possible but all of the main plots and threads of this novel are done in one and that in and of itself is a refresher.




Saturday, September 17, 2016

Liar's Blade by Tim Pratt (Appendix N Edition)


Below I'll be talking about some of the things I found in Liar's Blade that I think would make for good gaming material.

First off, you've got Rodrick and his talking sword, Hrym to start with. They could make dubious allies or the players could be looking to learn something from them. In Liar's Blade itself, the duo initially thinks they've been hired to be bodyguards but their employer knows right off the bat that they are thieves and con men. No reason why the players wouldn't know either.

Next, you've got Hrym, a talking sword with numerous magical abilities. One of the problems with gaming is the need to codify everything. It's a natural need as in playing a game, rules are handy to have around.

At the same time, they can kill the fun. You don't want something that the players can abuse left and right with minutia, which they tend to, but by tying the abilities into a separate entity, in this case, an intelligent sword, you've got the fun stuff that can make ice bridges and spare the Rodrick from extreme cold, as well as something that doesn't just go, "Yeah, freeze the blood in everything around us."

Another benefit of a magic sword that talks, is that it allows the Game Master to have a presence in the game that he can feed the players useful and not-so-useful information. After all, there's nothing to say that an intelligent sword doesn't have its own agenda or can't be wrong just because it's an intelligent sword.

Third, don't overprepare. Rodrick and his talking sword cover a lot of ground in this novel. They meet Sword Lords, travel through the River Kingdoms, and do some deep lake exploration. If you as the Game Master has spent a long time making numerous encounters in each location and place that the characters have stopped, you might be upset that they haven't had all of the encounters you've mapped out.

It's a rock and a hard place situation. I've been in games where it was clear that the game master had no idea what was supposed to happen next. They had no monsters ready. They had no NPC's ready. It was a sit-down and well, we'll figure something out.

If you're sharp on your feet and can quickly change up the pace, this is not a problem.

Most people won't admit it, but they are generally not that guy. Have your stat blocks, have a flow chart of how you're expecting the adventure to go, have some 'generic' encounters that you can slide into the campaign at any time, but don't plan each and every second out of the game because it's not all going to be used. Make sure you've left yourself enough wiggle room to handle something that happens in the campaign.

Fourth, use false employers. Most players are not self-directed. They don't decide, "Hey, today we're going to do X." Mind you that might just be a scenario that happens because they don't have the information themselves to go do X. Player's usually have plenty of motivation.

But false employers are those who hire the players for X and instead, it's actually Y that the players are doing.

And when you use this little gem, the double cross, don't be afraid to switch it up. Have the characters guarding some shady individuals who are actually up to good. Perhaps the players have been hired to guard a few halflings who happen to have a magical cure for the disease rampaging across the region but need guards because they are being hunted down.

Liar's Blade provides a lot of entertainment and is a quick read for those looking to explore the Pathfinder setting proper.



Thursday, September 15, 2016

Master of Devils Appendix N Edition


Note this is my 'gaming muse' edition of Master of Devils. There will be spoilers below.

The Pathfinder setting is vast. In Master of Devils, Dave Gross takes his two main characters,  Count Varian Jeggare and bodyguard Radovan, to Tian Xia.

Tian Xia is the Pathfinder equivalent to Kara-Tur from the Forgotten Realms or Rogukan from Legend of the Five Rings.



In terms of gaming ideas, a few things hit me:

Missing Players: You ever play with someone on military leave due to being a reserve or someone who got a new job? In this novel, Radovan and his boss, Jeggare are separated at the start of the novel. Radovan goes through intense training and multiple encounters that in most situations would be far too dangerous for him.

At the end of the novel, Radovan goes back to his normal form and his normal abilities.

In such a situation, it would seem to me that the GM decided to run Radovan as an NPC and have him in the action even if he wasn't in the direct action. This allows the character to keep moving and doing things even if the player isn't there.

Chaosium way back in the day used to have a Runequest Cities book with a catch-up table that provided some fun stuff.

If you're looking to keep the group together, running one of the characters as an NPC for a brief time, even if you go ahead and make them into something a bit different can be one way to do it.

Mundane Encounters: One thing I see people post about running Kara-Tur or other 'Oriental Adventure' style games, is what type of adventurers should they have?

Normal ones.

Ancient China has numerous ruins. It'd be hard to believe that the fantasy versions of said settings don't.

Heck, even mundane encounters like bandits are acceptable. The very first thing we see in Master of Devils is that the duo and their wagon and guards are under attack by bandits! Sure, they have a funky name and my be using weird attacks or a different strategy, but at the end of the day, they're bandits!

This doesn't count that in a side quest going on later, there is an introduction to a goblin possessed of a kami. But mind you, this goblin has been kicked out of his clan. Numerous companies have a lot of great visuals if you're looking for ideas on how such goblins might look. The miniature game, Confrontation for example, has numerous goblins and ogres donned in Samurai and Ashigaru

The Exotic: So one of the things you can do when characters move to another setting, is bring out the strange things. There are numerous named characters here ranging from Jade Tiger to Judge Fang. Play around with appropriate names to the new setting but dont' go overboard with it because if every character name, every item name, every magic item, every spell, every combat maneuver starts sounding like an episode of Samurai Sunday, it'll become harder for the players to remember what all of that means.

But if you want to introduce the 'Shadowless Sword' a blade that moves so fast the sun cannot give it a shadow, or a few unique spells to the region, now's the time do to so.

Secrets: Along the telling of the story, there is a certain criteria that must be met in order for the characters to gain access to a dragon's 'heart pearl' and to use that to make a wish. (Dragon Ball Z in the house!). One of the characters that the readers, or at least most readers, assume is X, turns out to be Y and has that very criteria needed!

Another character appears initially to be merely a humble farmer but has too much skill and dedication and knowledge to be merely a farmer and turns out, he's actually a prince!

Characters that are more than one dimensional provide a great opportunity to add to the player's role-playing experiences. It can be boring in a campaign that's not focused on merely hack-and-slash, if all of the non-player-characters are one-dimensional pieces. Give them patrons that the characters might not appreciate. Give them hobbies that the players do appreciate. Give them outlooks that challenge the player's out outlooks.

The Big Dogs: Being the 'Oriental Adventurers' of the Pathfinder setting, it's great to see famous characters used. In this case, we get to see both the avatar and the Monkey King himself. The Monkey King is a famous religious/legendary character from various parts of China, similar to say, Thor or other more familiar deities.



Having a known element make an appearance can provide the characters a touchstone in the unfamiliar. This can work against you if you as a Game Master if you make those characters the focus of the campaign though so a light touch is needed with them.

Master of Devils looks as a non-standard setting and provides a lot of inspiration for game masters who might normally not appreciate running a non-standard campaign and is worth picking up for that reason alone.




Lair's Blade by Tim Pratt



Liar's Blade
Written  by Tim Pratt
Pathfinder Tales
Published by Paizo
$9.99 paperback
$6.99 Kindle
400 pages

The Pathfinder RPG is fortunate enough to have numerous New York Time Bestsellers writing for it. They've expanded the setting from its original roots with numerous entertaining tales including Liar's Blade, written by Tim Pratt.

You can check out his website here, http://www.timpratt.org/.

This is the first book I've read by Tim so I had no expectations going in. Liar's Blade introduces the reader to Rodrick, a bit of a rogue and con man, and his talking blade, Hrym, a long sword made of ice with command over numerous abilities related to ice.

Unlike two normal characters in a fantasy setting known for its heroes, as Pathfinder is, these two are, well, con men.

It's not that they can't fight. Rodrick is no Conan mind you, but he gets by. And the sword itself is very powerful, almost too powerful as one wonders why the characters often don't just do X or Y, but they'd prefer to take things easy and to do things the easy way.

As I read, I noticed that the titles of the chapters were an homage to Fritz Lieber, one of the founders of the whole sword and sorcery genre. Titles like "Sword and Ice Magic" for example. Several such to be found throughout the novel.

It's a great touch.

The story starts when the duo are hired by Zaqen, a sorcerer of inhuman tainted blood who works for a 'gillman', Obed. Rodrick and his blade find themselves doing a job where the payoff should be fantastic but the odds of successfully getting out alive keep getting worse and worse for them. They explore a lot of the setting that's not normally touched and the only reason I recognized so much of it, was from my time running the Adventure Path that took place in the River Kingdoms.

If you have a wide depth of knowledge on the setting, you'll see those nods as well.

Tim knows the setting well. He uses the historical information of the setting to put various pieces together that fit into how the setting itself was originally designed. He uses things that are a bit off the cuff so to speak, in that many of the characters in the book have their own unique abilities and their own view on things.

He makes the characters, like Zaqen, into believable entities as opposed to just copy paste villains who you'd look eager to see meet their end.

The best thing about the novel? I never felt the characters were stupid. Have you ever watched a movie, especially for some reason a horror movie, and been yelling at the screen? While you may be disappointed in how the characters chose to act, they never do so from a place that would baffle someone who hadn't read the novel.

Rodrick and his blade Hrym manage to pull off several fast ones in the novel and they do it in a way that makes sense for the setting and for them as characters. The other characters also get their moments to shine and even if you don't appreciate where it takes them, none do it leaving the reader scratching her head.

Liar's Blade is a very promising entry for Rodrick and Hrym into the Pathfinder setting and I look forward to reading their further adventures as Tim's already written several more books in the series.








Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Master of Devils by Dave Gross

Master of Devils
Pathfinder Tales
Written by Dave Gross
400 pages
Published by Paizo




Master of Devils is the second book I've read by Dave Gross that takes place in the Pathfinder setting. The Pathfinder setting is high fantasy with a wide array of character types of various nationalities and racial origins. For those not in the know, it's based on a role-playing game with modified Dungeons and Dragons rules.

The heroes of the tale, Count Varian Jeggare and Radovan, tell their tale in first person prose, along with a little help from their dog. Count Varian Jeggare is half-human and half-elf. He has some swordplay skill and a bit of magic on his side, while his bodyguard, Radovan, is half human and half fiend. In game terms, a tiefling. He's a burly sort who goes in with the fists and the swords and the punching and the stabbing.

The fun thing about this novel, is it takes place in Tian Xia. This would be a 'Far East' style setting similiar to that used by the game system Legend of the Five Rings. The Count and his bodyguard are our "eyes" to this exotic local.

Initially, I was worried that Dave Gross was going overboard with the Kung Fu super names. For example, Radovan and his boss, Jeggare, become separated.

Radovan winds up trapped in his "devil" body. Much like Mike Mignola's Hellboy, Radovan has a 'normal' fiendish look and then there's the 'super fiend' look. In this intimidating form, Radovan winds up working with Burning Cloud Devil, who is out to avenge his dead wife, Spring Snow.

While on the opposite end, Jeggare winds up fleeing the Falcon Clan bandits and working with Jade Tiger.

At first, Dave was naming numerous kung fu attacks and stances and other bits common to such lore. But when the characters names themselves are up there with the other super hero sounding names, it can get confusing. Fortunately, most of the other characters have "normal" sounding names so it doesn't become too ridiculous.

In many ways, Master of Devils would make a great limited series anime. Radovan's training under Burning Cloud Devil is much like a "villain of the week" where Radovan continues to gain in knowledge and use his abilities to prepare for a 'boss' attack.

The parts where Jeggare comes in, also include a lot of training and exploration of the exotic, but more so on the subtle side. He trains in a monastery and undergoes numerous trials and tribulation as well as getting a glimpse of court life.

Even the dog and his adventures with Judge Fang and their gathering of animals and kami to fight the upheavals of Heaven itself provide entertainment.

Master of Devils doesn't go into a ton of setting detail. Radovan spends much of his time fighting and Jeggare is confined to his training while the dog is visiting odd spots. But what we do get provides a brief glimpse into things on this far away setting.  I hope that Paizo expands it with a "Tian Xia" anthology or something along those lines.

If you're looking for some light and fun popcorn reading, Master of Devils is fast paced and action packed.