Academy of Secrets is a stand-alone module for Pathfinder, which also has a slight link-in with the old Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path. It features an annual deadly “Breaching Festival”, where a Korvosan magic academy opens its doors… well, in a way. It’s a competition, where the academy mages build up all sorts of nasty magic traps and countermeasures, and volunteer contestants try to gain entry without getting fried to a crisp or just vanishing forever. A winner would get a huge jackpot, since the prize goes up every year and it’s been 150 years or so since someone last gained entry and lived. Enter the PCs…
Oh, and to make things more interesting, the contest isn’t quite what it seems, and manages to be even more deadly than you’d expect. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say anything more on that subject here.
It reads like quite a bit of fun, though it does railroad some small bits and may need some GM sleight of hand to handle overly clever or curious players. It also has the generic fantasy rpg fault of over-inflated time spans. I mean really, 150 years? That’s like a modern annual competition with huge prizes to have last had a successful winner in the year 1861. Why not just have it be, say 30 years or such? That’s still a long time, without diverging into the ridiculous. Oh well, it’s not like this module is a specific problem case in a genre which typically has empires which last thousands of years, and suchlike.
Other than those small nitpicks, it’s a fun self-contained module, with lots of opportunities for both clever problem-solving and combat.
I read this wrapped in bandages, recovering from a bad upper body flash fire burn and tranked up on medication… I needed something lightweight (both contentwise and physically) to read, and my mom grabbed this from her bookshelf. While nothing all that special, it proved to be an entertaining-enough read, even in my fuzzy state of mind.
Lockout is a fairly standard police procedural, except that the protagonist is a woman. While not making a huge difference, it does add the element of her trying to adopt a child while trying to solve a case and ward off nasty repercussions brought on by her identifying a fellow police officer doing something he should not have been doing. Lieutenant Norah Mulcahaney (of NYPD) is given the case of a rock star’s brother’s death by gunshot wound – inside a locked studio with extremely limited access (thus the title of the book). The case itself is close to a classic “locked room mystery”, though not quite the puzzle piece some tales like this can be… it has more to do with the tangled social relationships between the people involved. Another source for the book title may be the shunning Mulcahaney receives from some of her fellow police officers after she fingers another officer; while some agree with her choice, many don’t, and shades of misogynism also simmer under the surface. That conflict and Norah’s quest to adopt a daughter take up as much or more of the page count as the mystery itself, which threatens to get buried in the background noise.
It was an ok book, nice light entertainment. Not good enough for me to seek out others by the same author, but by no means bad either.
I must admit that The Year of the Flood is the first book by Margaret Atwood that I’ve read; yes, I know that The Handmaiden’s Tale is considered a classic, for example, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. This may not be the ideal book to start with, since it’s apparently a sequel of sort to an earlier book, Oryx & Crake, but it worked well enough as an independent tale (though of course I missed all connections with the earlier book).
It’s a dystopian science fiction tale about a (near?)-future U.S., where government has broken down mainly due to lack of funds, and corporations have taken over – a trend that you don’t even have to be too paranoid to see here and there in the current world. Or at least that’s the way the world was; while that situation is probably explored more in the earlier book, this one deals with the end of the world. In a way. A virus, probably due to unfettered corporate research, is accidentally unleashed and this “Waterless Flood” sweeps across the globe like a tidal wave, killing almost everyone and leaving a desolate wasteland behind. Some corporate enclaves remain, and some survivors here and there, but they are few and far between.
At this point I must digress, and note that Margaret herself is famous for not considering her work science fiction, she calls them “speculative fiction” – which, to most scifi readers, means the same thing. To her, “science fiction” means spaceships and aliens, so her stuff is not that. While it’s true that “science fiction “is a somewhat ill-fitting term and that “speculative fiction” is much better, that’s etymology for you: most people who read (or watch) science fiction consider the terms mostly interchangeable. If “1984” is considered a landmark work of science fiction… well, the shoe fits here too. This is quite classic dystopian scifi in its basic premise, though the tale is told with quite an unique voice and the emphasis isn’t on the usual post-apocalyptic fare. For the most part, anyway.
So, when the book begins, the apocalypse has come and gone. A few separated survivors try to, well, survive, and think back to their earlier life. In effect, much of the book is backstory, with the viewpoint switching between the “now” of the post-Waterless Flood world and the earlier days (which weren’t all that happy ones for most of these people, either). Ren, a young prostitute, is in lockdown in a sterile facility (due to a possible STD), and now has no way out with everyone who knows where she is dead. Toby, a convert to a strange eco-religious cult called God’s Gardeners, finds her self a sole survivor of her social group, and holds vigil in a rooftop garden, all the while trying to figure out if anyone elso out there is alive. Most of the tale is told via these two viewpoints, two young women who knew each other before the Flood, but who got torn in different directions by events.
The pace is slowish, but it’s far from boring. It takes a while to figure out what’s going on, but the tone is interesting and somewhat unusual for a post-apocalyptic tale. Instead of marauding bands and violent breakdown of everything, here we have two people for whom life in some way almost got better after the Flood. Or if not better, at least not horribly worse either. The world before the Flood wasn’t a pretty one, at least not for poor/lower class people like the protagonists, and the world afterwards is in many ways a new beginning. One not devoid of dangers, though, and things get very nasty before events wind down.
It’s a strange book. At times philosophical, at times melancholy, at times violent and gritty, it refuses to drop into any one easy stereotype. If it has a fault, it’s that it meanders a bit, and the constant flashbacks to past events sometimes detract from the narrative. I liked it, though it might have been better had I read Oryx & Crake first to get some background.
Piece By Piece is not an autobiography as such, it’s a book of Tori talking about her music and parts of her life, with side comments by rock journalist Ann Powers. In parts very interesting, in parts somewhat irritating, it’s worth a read if you like Tori’s music. The basic concept is sound; record a “conversation” between Tori and someone else, about her views and music. Problem is, it doesn’t come off as a conversation, it’s Tori writing about stuff and Ann interjecting with her own comments… and those comments are mostly inane, noncritical and bring nothing new to the conversation. Now, it may be that Ann’s comments had a positive effect on the formation of the book, but the final result would be a lot better without her in there.
As for the book itself, it’s a mixed bag. Some of it goes heavily into feminist/mystical territory, which I found somewhat irritating at times – though since Tori gets a lot of her inspiration from there, I can’t fault her for talking about it. I found her viewpoint of being just a channel from a bigger universal Source interesting, it explains some things (like the title of the compilation album “Tales from a Librarian”). Seeing yourself as a “librarian” and the songs as independent entities that come out on their own is nice viewpoint. It makes for a somewhat humble worldview, also, since it deprecates the Artist and Sole Creator role to some degree.
I found the later parts of the book, where she talks about the realities of life on the road, and how she integrates being a mother and a touring showperson, to be the most interesting. It can be a tough life, but Tori says that she needs to perform music live in order to have it work for her; studio music isn’t enough. So yes, when you’re the mother of a young girl and need to take her along with you on the tour, you need iron discipline in other to figure out something that works. At the very least, young Tash has had an interesting and unusual childhood.
The book is also interesting in what it doesn’t discuss. There is very little talk about her personal life between the time after her debut album and when she married her sound engineer and settled down. I’ve gotten the impression that she experimented a lot (with many things) and that it was a wild and turbulent time. That time doesn’t get much mention here, which is a pity since she made a few great albums then. It seems she’s maybe a bit wary of discussing all that, maybe with the view that her daughter will be reading the book at some point. I’m not sure. In any case, we don’t really learn all that much about Tori as a person here, there is a distance.
So… it’s well worth a read for Tori fans. For others, not so sure.
Inferno takes a look at demons in the new World of Darkness. These are very different in most ways from “demons” in the traditional sense, and this also has nothing to do with the game “Demon” in the old WoD. This is not based on Judeo-Christian mythology in any way, the creatures described here are spirits of sorts, which just happen to take certain forms and have certain common characteristics. They may or may not come from a “Hell”, but that is never described… though it’s apparenly a place the entities want to escape from. The “demons” here are tied in with Sins (Vices) in the game mechanics; I’m of two minds about this, one one hand it’s a handy mechanical tool, on the other hand I’m not too wild about the whole Virtue/Vice thing in the new WoD.
Anyway, the book posits a group of spirit-like entities which love to tempt people, make deals with them, and sometimes posses them. The mechanical support is very nice here, you’re given a lot of mechanics on how the whole thing works, and what both parties get out of the deals (almost always, the demon comes out the winner). Of especial note are the rules for “Possessed” characters, people who have made pacts with demons. They gain strange powers, but are of course damned in their own way. A lot of interesting and new stuff here, tools for throwing weird antagonists at your PCs… and hey, if a PC wants to make a deal with a demon, this book gives a lot of framework help for that. There is also a “bestiary” or sorts on the main classes of demons; how they work, what their motivations are, and of course stats.
It’s a good book, assuming you don’t expect it to be something it’s not. It’s a book about demon-like beings for the new WoD, it’s not about “traditional” demons in the Judeo-Christian sense (though these creatures absolutely love posing as such, or as angels, or whatever works). It gives GMs some new creatures to play around with, and a way of resolving the situation if the PCs really want to consort with demons. As noted, there is no description of “Hell” (as in ‘the place these creatures come from’), it’s just assumed to be an alien realm and one the creatures want to leave when given the opportunity. Is it linked to the Abyss (via Mage)? Maybe. Are these “just” extremely strong spirits (via Werewolf)? Maybe. Ultimately, it’s up the GM, and fits in with the new WoD’s intention of making things harder to classify and pin down exactly. Where the old WoD had exactly defined supernatural splats, the new WoD is a lot more… murky by design. This, I think, is a good thing.
Fearful Passages is a Call of Cthulhu (mini)scenario compilation with a good initial idea, but somewhat shaky execution. The idea itself is solid: make a collection of short adventures that deal with travel and different vehicles, ideally in a form that could be plugged into another game/campaign – after all, traditional Cthulhu involves a lot of travel, and having something available to spice up a long sea voyage (for example), would be nice. However, the end result is a bit less than it could have been.
The first problem is that all too many of these are very specialized, and aren’t at all suitable for inserting into an ongoing story. They involve weird “vehicles” (elephant, anyone), exotic locales, or require a specific backstory and NPC cast. Nothing bad with all that in general, but here it goes somewhat against the intent of the book. Also, the more exotic/weird entries here are also the longer and more interesting ones, with the shorter entries, the ones you might easily insert into ongoing scenarios, being not that good.
So, the adventures themselves go against the general intent of the book. On the other hand, if you examine these as standalone adventures, you’ll find more value here. The initial scenario “Fear of Flying” is one of the best ones here, showcasing the early days of commercial air travel. There is also an interesting one involving a haunted train (of sorts), and the final Russian scenario (involving a sleigh ride as the main “travel” theme) is long and intricate. This is by no means a bad compilation. Sure, it doesn’t quite do what it claims to do, and sure, some of the adventures are in the “not that hot” category… but there are a few interesting ones here, and it’s always possible that even some of the more intricate offerings here could be inserted into an ongoing game with some prepwork. There is perhaps more emphasis here on “action adventure” than you’d have in typical Cthulhu, but the general travel theme does tend to push in that direction.
Since the topic came up on an IRC channel, here are some notes on what I did to get Deus Ex (the original) running on my gaming rig, in widescreen. It’s a classic game, considered one of the all-time greats. I played it a bit years and years ago, but didn’t get too far. I don’t remember why I stopped, but probably just other things came up and I just never got back to it. The old “first world problem” of too many great games, too little time. Sure, I could find time to play all the PC games I have, but then I wouldn’t have time to do all the other stuff I want to do in my free time.
In the year 2000 when it was published, it was a groundbreaking game: a first-person shooter / rpg hybrid, with a deep storyline and multiple ways of achieving goals. The fact that it still holds its own as a game, even though game technology has evolved by leaps and bounds, speaks volumes. Of course, there is no getting around the fact that technology-wise it’s an old game, and the vanilla version looks like crap on modern widescreen systems. Fortunately, there are mods available that improve the look&feel, though it still looks aged no matter what you do.
Anyway, I’m now playing the game seriously for the first time, partly fueled by the just-published Deus Ex: Human Revolution which I hear is equally brilliant. I sort of want to play the original game first, assuming I don’t run into any showstopper bugs or such. I’m not too far yet (New York subways at the moment), but so far the game has only crashed once (at the end of the tutorial) so things are looking good.
Since people asked, here is what I have installed (in installation order):
- The Steam version of Deus Ex (Game of the Year edition)
- The New Vision Mod version 1.0, provides high-def textures for the game
- Hotfix (v1.000001) for the above, from the same site.
- Kentie’s DX10 renderer (from his site, not from the New Vision package), version 3
- The Shifter Mod, version “1.8.4. probably”. Fixes and tweaks for the game engine, including secondary fire buttons for most weapons, increased NPC lethality, etc.
- The Deus Ex Enhanced Mod. The new version 2.0.0, which includes some hi-def icons, did not work for me. Version 1.3 (which just fixes scopes and binoculars) worked.
In all cases, I followed the installation instructions, taking a backup of the original files first. I set “Default GUI”, 16:10 aspect ratio, and 1920x1200 resolution on Kentie’s launcher, and things worked. Looks pretty nice, all things considered, though the fonts and icons are quite blocky. The new “Deus Ex Enhanced” mod is supposed to fix those, but as noted it didn’t work for me.
Maybe the above will help someone. Of course, it’s only with a “worked for me, if it doesn’t work for you I can’t really help” disclaimer.