So we’re off in a few hours. First to Sydney for a week, and then a tad over a month in New Zealand (where we’ll, among other things, tour the place in a rental hippie campervan thingy).
The 9+9 hours of flight to Sydney is bound to be “interesting” with 9-month-old Saiga along – especially since it looks like the plane is pretty full and their seating systems are in a mess, we probably won’t get a bassinet seat. Not to mention the return trip, which is over 24 hours. Joy.
We’ll try to avoid the vegemite, ravenous dingos and thieving hobbitses.
It’s been ages since I read the first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant trilogy. I remember feeling somewhat conflicted by it. On one hand, it was a distinctly personal take on the “epic fantasy” theme – the protagonist was an anti-hero (before that sort of thing became more stylish in these sorts of tales), and the many of the conflicts were framed as personal struggles, with “self doubt” the main danger as opposed to endless hordes of orcs. On the other hand… gaaah, the protagonist (Thomas Covenant) was a massive whiner, and you could easily create a drinking game around the books. Take a swig every time he says or thinks “leper outcast unclean”. You’ll be in a coma in no time. As an aside, this seems to be a tendency in Donaldson’s books in general, his protagonists tend to be people with… problems. Here it was a leper whose wife had left him, in the “Gap” scifi series pretty much everyone was screwed up, and in the “Mordant’s Need” books (my favorites from his work) the heroine was mostly useless. At least in the beginning.
Anyway. The Wounded Land begins the second trilogy of Thomas Covenant books. Covenant is living as a hermit near a small town, trying to retain his sanity and take care of certain obligations. By random chance, a doctor, one Linden Avery, moves to town (running from he own demons), and circumstances maneuver to put her in contact with Covenant. After a rocky start, they end up communicating, and after certain a violent night end up in the Land, together – with Covenant possibly dying, back in the real world. Turns out that four thousand (or so) years have passed since Covenant’s last visit, and the Land has gone to hell. Lord Foul has returned and slowly corrupted everything. The Land has become a hellish realm, with a strange event called the Sunbane switching it from poisonous desert to equally poisonous jungle at a moment’s notice. The few remaining inhabitants scratch out a meager existance, using blood sacrifice rituals (taught to them by the mysterious Clave) to avert the doom that’s upon them. There is little trace of the old Earthmagic. To add insult to injury, Covenant is now blind to the Land’s need, with Linden inheriting his connection. Together, they embark on a quest to fix everything, or at least reclaim some part of what was lost.
It’s a grim book. The Land is no longer the typical verdant fantasy wonderland, more a sort of purgatory. Covenant has lost much of his reason to keep on going, and Linden… is a deeply troubled woman, who has problems grasping her situation. Covenant isn’t as annoying here as he is in the first books; he whines less and tries to do more. There is still a lot, perhaps too much, of internal turmoil and angst – but in a way, that’s part of what makes these books tick. Linden takes a while to get used to, and in the beginning she almost becomes Covenant #2, but this changes and she starts to gain her own distinct voice.
I guess I’m also a bit conflicted about this book. It’s not bad at all, and there are some great scenes here. On the other hand, it’s slightly dreary going, and Donaldson goes out of his way to use obscure words; I can see him having a Thesaurus permanently open while writing this. It becomes a bit excessive at times, with (it seems) the writer trying to find out how many obscure words he can throw at the reader. He’s not alone in this, of course, Gene Wolfe is notorious for stuff like this too.
In the end, the book was worth reading, and I’ll continue with the second part, but I wasn’t completely “wow’ed” by it. It was somewhat plodding, at times… as was the first trilogy. As a bright point, there are two protagonists here (instead of just whiny one, as in the first books), and both become quite proactive as the book progresses. That’s a nice change.
Up to the point this book was published, the new World of Darkness didn’t have a coherently described “Underworld” (land of the dead). While Geist deals heavily with ghosts and the underworld, the page count in that book did not allow for much description or detail. Book of the Dead attempts to fix that – and succeeds very well. It’s a bit like Shadows of the UK in that while it’s labeled as a general WoD book, it’s skewed towards one game line (Geist here, Werewolf in the UK book). However, this is more honestly a general WoD book; while it does have some Geist-specific content, a lot of page count is devoted to general “Underworld” descriptions and also to mechanical details on how other supernatural creatures (and/or mortals) would fare in that realm. It’s very good stuff.
Turns out the Underworld is both a dreary and a fascinating place in the new WoD. It lacks color (literally!) and for many of the inhabitants it’s an endless prison existence. On the other hand, it holds echoes of ancient civilizations long gone from elsewhere (or never having existed at all in the real world). There is (mis)information, wisdom and madness too to be found, so potential “graverobbers” have lots of motivations. It’s not an easy place to enter though, and neither is is an easy place to leave.
The Underworld is split into multiple levels, separated by mystical gates and rivers, which often need some sort of sacrifice to pass. The “top” levels are still fairly normal, as far as vast underground-ish networks go. The lower “down” you go, the stranger things get… and there is no real “bottom”. Just a depth from which few, if any, ever return. While I liked the book a lot in general, some of the deeper “kingdoms” were especially strange and brilliant. There’s a realm where two ancient Kerberoi wage an endless war, there’s a vast and potentially bottomless “sea” which strips away everything, including your name and what you are. So in theory, it would be possible for a vampire to shed the notion of being a vampire, and become human (or something else entirely) by visiting that place. Doing so, however, would be an epic undertaking, since it is difficult to find and even more difficult to leave without leaving much more than you wanted behind. Changing what you are loses its appeal if it means the potential effective death of everything that makes you “you”.
There’s a lot of very cool stuff here, and best of all this version of the “land of the dead” is very different from other White Wolf iterations on this theme. This is no Stygia or Labyrinth (though some Labyrinth-worthy ideas can be found here), and neither is it Exalted’s Underworld. It takes a lot of cues from real-world mythology (the tale of Orpheus, and other older ones). The book is also quite useful outside the Geist context and provides helper mechanics for any sort of WoD game that involves the Underworld.
The original print run of this book was tiny, and quickly sold out. This resulted in ridiculous prices (in the $100+ region) for the few copies floating around, and made the book into one of the hardest-to-find books in the new WoD lineup. The good news is that it’s now available via the Drivethru print-on-demand program, so people who want a copy no longer need to pay ridiculous prices for one.
Sigmar’s Heirs (subtitled A Guide to the Empire) is… just that. A guide to the Empire, a gazetteer of sorts with some general history write-ups. While it may seem like a thin book, it actually contains quite a bit of stuff due to a small font (verging on “too small”) and layout with very little unused white space. There’s quite a bit of raw information here. Of course, it is a gazetteer for the most part, and as such is somewhat of a dry read. On the other hand, for many GMs this book will be used as a regional resource and not something that they read through from cover to cover, so that’s not a huge issue. There are entertaining bits here and there, and it’s quite well-written as a whole.
The book details each region of the Empire, including major cities, general characteristics of the inhabitants, and other notable information. There aren’t many detail maps here, people looking for maps of cities (for example) will need to look in other books. This is a very “bird’s eye view” of everything.
It’s a great resource for the Warhammer (fantasy) game world, and since it contains very little crunch it works just fine for other editions of the game. Notably, 3rd edition has less pagecount for stuff like this, so this book would make a good background reference even for people running the latest ruleset. My only complaint is the font size – it’s a bit too small for truly comfortable reading, at least with my aging eyesight (though lighting etc will have a huge effect, there).
The Brinewall Legacy (written by James Jacobs) starts off the latest Pathfinder adventure path: “Jade Regent”. In the long run it heads off towards the “Orient” of Golarion, but it starts off in Sandpoint – the same seaside town that featured in the first independently published Pathfinder adventure, “Rise of the Runelords”. Having a copy of that handly will help a bit here, since though the module contains some basic description of Sandpoint, the older module has a lot more detail which can be used to enhance things.
Things start off with a goblin hunt in a nearby swamp. Not the most illustrious of beginnings, but it escalates from there. Turns out a friend of the PCs has a mysterious family past which comes back to haunt her (and other people around her), and she badly needs friends to sort things out. Enter the PCs! This module ties in with the new “We Be Goblins!” Free RPG Day module in which the players play as goblins (providing some out-of-game background for some events here). Events lead the PCs to an old destroyed settlement, and the hidden history of how and why that settlement met its doom.
It’s a nice start, and the main plotline shows promise. The “hook” in the beginning is maybe a bit weak (what if the PCs aren’t interested in goblin hunting?), but that can be maneuvered around in multiple ways. The interesting thing here is the cast of NPCs – they are all given extensive writeups, and there is a “trust” mechanic for tracking how each NPC feels about each specific PC… and this can have direct mechanical consequences later on. It’s also assumed that the PCs go off “adventuring” together with many of these NPCs, which adds a new dimension to things. None of then are high-level, so it avoids the trap of “uber GM characters”. Neither are they pushovers, and they all have some agendas of their own. I liked this a lot.
It seems like this adventure path will feature a lot of wilderness travel. Here’s hoping it pulls it off better than “Serpent’s Skull”, which (I felt) severely underused the possibilities of its “exploring unknown jungle” premise.
Ravenor is an omnibus collection of the three books in the “Ravenor” sequence: Ravenor, Ravenor Returned and Ravenor Rogue, set in the Warhammer 40k universe. It’s a continuation of the Eisenhorn sequence, set some time after the events in those books. Eisenhorn is long gone – maybe dead, maybe just vanished – and his once protégé Ravenor is center stage in the story. Horrifically injured during Eisenhorn, he is cripple in a floating tank-like life-support mechanism. Helpless, except for his vast psyker powers. His team mostly takes care of the on-site physical details, with Ravenor himself overseeing everything psychically and taking direct control if needed. As a setup it’s interesting, since it places the main protagonist in the sidelines and makes his team the principal players. It works well, to the most part.
Like Eisenhorn, the story is twisty and turny, with lots of surprises I didn’t see coming. It starts off with Ravenor and his team investigating a new and sinister drug called “flects”. Possibly of xeno origin, it warps the minds of users and Ravenor, as part of the Inquisition, is most interested in tracking down the dealers because he wants to track down possible access to heretical and/or xeno artifacts. Events progress (at times in explosive fashion), and it turns out that the drug is just a side issue, with the main threat being a certain arch-heretic pulling the strings behind the scenes.
It’s a great read, and along with Eisenhorn is firmly among the best game-related fiction I’ve read. Abnett isn’t the greatest of characterizers out there, his characters tend to be somewhat flat and caricatures… but on the other hand, that’s less of an issue in Warhammer 40k than it might be elsewhere, with the whole game universe being one big caricature (in a way). What he’s good at is plots and scenes; the action happens in some weird places indeed and the twists, while a bit over the top at times, do keep up the pace. Abnett spends maybe a bit too much time describing what his characters wear and what gear they have – but otherwise, it reads like decent scifi/fantasy and not like your normal gaming fiction.
Recommended to anyone even vaguely interested in the Warhammer 40k universe.
Shadows of the UK is a sourcebook about the United Kingdom for the new World of Darkness… or at least that’s what the book blurb says. In fact, while it is about the UK, it’s not really a general WoD book, it’s almost completely dedicated to Werewolf. In fact, I get the impression that the book was intended for the Werewolf line during development, and was changed into a general WoD book near the end (probably for marketing reasons). There is some general WoD material here (and stuff for Vampire and Mage), so it’s not completely false advertising – but it’s somewhat misleading none the less.
That said, it’s a pretty good book. It skips most of the obvious UK mythology and introduces a lot of atmospheric and weird stuff. Not that I’m all that familiar with UK myths (aside from the obvious ones), but the feel I get from this is quite British (actual natives may disagree, of course). as noted, a lot of pagecount is devoted to Werewolf. Turns out the war between the Pure and the Forsaken is somewhat skewed in the UK. The Forsaken control the cities (more or less) and the Pure control the countryside… but in fact, the Forsaken have a vast numerical superiority but are mostly unaware of that fact. The Pure control vast areas of land through cleverness, terror tactics and the control of critical high-power sites. As a result, the Forsaken think the Pure are much more powerful than they actually are, with the Pure quite happy to keep up the illusion. This makes the UK cities crowded with Forsaken werewolves, and the locals actually a bit hostile to foreigners (shades of real-life multiculture xenophobia here).
Outside the Werewolf realm, the book describes some local Mage and Vampire cliques – quite interesting, though nothing spectacular. The best parts of the book, in my view, are the general “WoD” parts, where actual and modified UK mythology is fused with WoD weirdness to create some extremely strange and creepy results. Some of these do involve Werewolves… one is a very creepy little “mining town” which only exists now and then. Perhaps the best part of the book involves a shadow part of a major city, highly reminiscent of some of China Mieville’s work. It’s inventive, strange and very dangerous… just the thing to throw at your players and foil their expectations. This sort of thing is what the new WoD does best: general weirdness that isn’t easily tied to any specific “splat”. It’s much more “horror” than the old WoD, in that sense.
So, apart from the misleading labeling, it’s a good book if you’re interested in modern-day weird/occult UK. Also quite useful in other modern-day occult games, there isn’t all that much WoD-specific crunch here.
Old World Armory (subtitled “Miscellanea and Militaria”) is both a great and a so-so-book. It focuses on “stuff”… more detail on weapons and armor (with rules for creating custom variants), and also a lot of detail on the economics of the Empire: coin types, lots of price lists, lots of information about everyday items in various parts of the Empire. It’s great because stuff like this can really bring detail to a campaign, being able to introduce a huge pile of different coins (with the associated hefty exchange rates and disreputable back-alley currency dealers and counterfeiters) is a fantastic way to bring some “real” to the game, as is the introduction of all sorts of local color and detail. There’s nothing here that you absolutely need in a game, but lots of nifty and useful extra detail.
It’s also only a so-so book on the basis that this stuff really should have been in the core book to begin with. It reads like an extra chapter from the Warhammer 2e core rules book instead of a stand-alone tome. It’s not like the page count of the core book was so huge that this info could not have been included in the first place. Also, to some people, the fact that a large part of this book is “just” color and detail to the setting makes it less than useful (I disagree, but it’s a valid viewpoint in a way).