The biggest complaints about the new Mage game tend to deal with two things. First off, the original presentation is boring and lacks any clearly defined antagonists (the main “big bads” are so vague as to be non-issues, at least initially) and second is the fact that it ties the origin of all mages into a monomyth about Atlantis. A not all that interesting monomyth, to boot. Secrets of the Ruined Temple attempts to fix some of those issues, and while it doesn’t totally succeed it’s still a welcome addition to the game line.
First off, there’s Atlantis. I’m one of the people bothered by it: both by the fact that it’s Atlantis (Enoch, Babel or whatever would work much better for me), and the fact that it reduces a game that should be about secrets into one with a (boring) “known history”. Well, the first part of this book confuses the issue. Maybe Atlantis never existed, maybe it was something totally different than commonly pictured, maybe it only ever existed as an Astral realm, maybe it actually doesn’t exist yet but will sometime in the future. Lots of fun discussion, and suggestions on how to handle the Atlantis thing in your game. Of course, most of the other sourcebooks still talk about Atlantis like a concrete fact, but… this is better than nothing. I still hate Atlantis, though.
Then we have content that the book title and cover art implies: tomb raiding. Well, sort of. Since the core game has the problem of being directionless and boring, this book provides one possible game focus: searching for lost (Atlantean, yech) ruins and going all Tomb Raider / Indiana Jones on them. So far so good, and we get some nice ideas of what said ruins might contain in the way of content, traps, guardians etc. There’s even a short mini-adventure, as an example implementation. I liked that.
However, there is a lack of “show, don’t tell” here. We’re told about a lot of possibilities, but all too many of the ideas presented seem… well, lackluster and somewhat boring. For ancient ruins built by an equally ancient (and magical) civilization, many of these somehow lack “oomph”. The writers do try, and sometimes succeed, but I get the feeling that the dead weight of Atlantis is hurting things, even here when the writers are trying to shake things up a bit.
So… don’t expect to pick up this book and transform your game into Indiana Jones and the Tomb of Magical Horror. There are nice ideas here, and the discussion about alternate Atlantis myths and realities is welcome, but the GM needs to do quite a bit of work to turn this into something actually exciting.
With The Wide Window, Lemony Snicket’s “Series of Unfortunate Events” series of children’s books moves into its third chapter. The Baudelaire orphans need a new place to stay after the tragic events in the previous book, and the vaguely well-meaning but incompetent Mr. Poe shuffles them off to the care of Aunt Josephine. Said aunt isn’t unpleasant as such, but is hysterically afraid of… pretty much everything. The new “family” mostly eats cold cucumber soup and such, since Aunt Josephine is afraid that the stove will explode if she tries to use it. Heating is, naturally enough, another much too risky venture, so the children have to make do in a chilly clifftop house. Josephine used to be different, but when her husband died on the lake below the house, attacked by killer eels, she lost heart. Now she only lives for grammar. Very proper grammar. Which is all fine and good, but does not keep one warm or well-fed, and neither does it protect from nefarious strangers tracking the Baudelaire children.
The book follows the basic formula of the previous one: the children arrive at a new home, find out things about it (most of them unusual or strange), and then find out that Count Olaf is trying to gain access to them via some disguise and false identity - at which point none of the adults believe them, and it’s up to the children to save the day. Details vary. While it works, I’m hoping that not all of the book here follow the formula quite that exactly. Of course, it’s quite possible that they do – a dependable formula can work very well, especially with children’s books, and the details of the story are the most important ingredients in any case. I guess a lot of the books I read as a kid were very formulaic, and I just didn’t notice. Or, maybe, didn’t much care since I liked the formula.
That said, it’s a fun, fast read, and gives me no reason to reduce my high opinion of this series.
Don’t Read This Book is a fiction anthology based on the game Don’t Rest Your Head, in which some people get struck with extreme bouts of insomnia… and find that not sleeping opens their eyes to another reality. One in which nightmares are real, are hunting for them, and will find them the moment they fall asleep. Oh, and insomnia gives them superpowers. Well, at least a superpower, and it’s usually something damn weird. Insomnia also makes them a bit crazy, and it gets worse fast. It’s a neat game with a vicious “death spiral” mechanic which really enforces the themes of the game. I like it a lot.
This anthology is also very good, and avoids a lot of the cliches of just telling the standard “new player character” story. The tales range all over the place. Some take place in the real world with just glimpses of the weird, some are in the Mad City with normality a fading memory. While the quality varies, none of the stories are real clunkers and some are really good. If you want to get some extra idea on how the game might work, or if you just want some weird fiction entertainment, this book is a good choice. I suspect it would work pretty well for readers not familiar with the game, too, but hard to say for sure.
I you are into weird fiction / urban horror-fantasy and the like, I suspect you’ll like this book (regardless of whether you have any idea of what Don’t Rest Your Head is).
The print book is still in pre-order, but the e-book version is available right away. It wasn’t, initially, but when I tried to place a pre-order for the print book it only have me a ridiculously priced shipping option (to the tune of $35 extra for one paperback book). Contacted Fred at Evil Hat, who said it’s a bug in their online shop software (he hasn’t been able to configure it to give more reasonable non-priority-mail overseas shipping options). Having said that, he announced the immediate availability of the e-book version the next day, so that international customers could get the book without having to wait for a print copy to (maybe) make its way to a local store. Yay!
Terror in Talabheim is an adventure (close to a “mini-campaign”) for Warhammer, focusing on the walled city of Talabheim and also focusing on the Skaven. Reading the Children of the Horned Rat sourcebook in conjunction with this is probably a very good idea for a GM intending to run this, since the furry horrors feature front and center (eventually) in this.
The first third or so of the book is a sourcebook on Talabheim. The page count involved isn’t huge, but it’s enough to give a basic overview of the place and focuses on some important spots. Of course, the GM will need to improvise most smaller detail, but the info given here should be enough to get started. After that we get the adventure itself and… it’s pretty damn good, and a lot more large-scale and cinematic than I was expecting. Skaven plots are usually hidden in the background and involve assassination and subtle blackmail, but here… well, I don’t want to give specific spoilers but it’s fair to say that the shit well and truly hits the fan (and the PCs) in this one.
The story begins with the PCs (who are assumed to have at least some ties to Talabheim) stuck outside Talabheim where a plague is raging. Presumably the cure can be found inside the city, but that way is closed. Well, officially at least. Eventually the PCs do manage to gain access, and that’s when the real fun begins. It’s quite a ride. There are some things to be aware of here: first off, the GM needs to provide decent motivation for the PCs to want to enter Talabheim. A plague is given here, but some PC groups may just try to take the “run far away” option, which needs to be made into a very (obviously) bad idea. Secondly, the action near the end involves a lot of large-scale set pieces, so the GM needs to do quite a bit of prepwork here and fill in some detail where needed. That said, it’s a very nice adventure and switches gears and themes quite a few times. The beginning is social skullduggery and some covert sneaking around, while the end part is pure mayhem.
Reality Optional is a new Paranoia novel from Gareth Hanrahan, one of the main developers of the new Paranoia game edition. I’ve enjoyed his work on the game a lot, and I really liked this book too. In fact, it managed to be better than I was expecting, and I was expecting something quite good to begin with.
The story concerns one Jerome-G, a loyal (well, “ish”) employee of the Threat Obfuscation Department, tasked with creating new fake threats (so as to cover up real ones, according to the Computer’s brilliant plan). Things are fine and well (within Alpha Complex limits) until one daycycle when his “fake” threats start becoming real. The really do seem to be pirates (of the “yarrr!” variety) in the transtube tunnels, there really does seem to be a robotic independence movement, etc etc. Not that Jerome-G has too much time to worry about this, since he has apparently raised the ire of a Violet-level executive and his latest assignment (starting now) is reactor shielding duty. It’s a good thing he “accidentally” “found” this neat set of high-tech goggles, which allow him to view and bypass some Alpha Complex security settings. It’s a not-so-good thing that the goggles in question also seem to be raising a lot of interest. The kind of interest that wants to see Jerome-G become reactor shielding and the goggles moved to a more… deserving owner.
It’s a really fun tale, and reads somewhat like an old-style spy thriller (with distinct Paranoia overtones). This time around, there really is a theme of “paranoia”, since Jerome-G needs to figure out who (if anyone) he can trust in a world where everyone has at least three ulterior secret motives. He is also convinced that a secretive uber-conspiracy controls everything in the background… and he may well be right. Gamewise, this book mostly reflects the “Straight” story style (with a dash of inspired craziness here and there) – while the Computer does at times execute citizens on a whim, the main dangers are getting demoted, fined, or otherwise lost in bureaucratic hell.
The Reptile Room is the second book in the “Series of Unfortunate Events” series of children’s books, and it continues the delightful tone of the first book, at times improving on it – here the base setup has already been done and the main characters introduced, so there is a bit more plot here. This time, the unfortunate Baudelaire children are sent to the care of one Dr. Montgomery (“their late father’s cousin’s wife’s brother”) – who turns out to be altogether surprisingly pleasant, if a bit obsessed with reptiles and snakes in particular.
One might imagine that the source of misfortune this time around would be those snakes, but one would also be wrong. It seems that Count Olaf from the first book is a recurring villain (perhaps for the whole series), and he makes his vile appearance later on in the book and things take a dark turn once again.
It’s a fun, quick read, and a nice one even for adults since there are numerous puns sprinkled here and there, ones obviously more meant the the adult readers. Nothing risqué, just cultural references which will probably be missed by young readers. Of course, it still is a children’s book and as such is somewhat simplistic and short on page count, as such books are. I probably would have loved this book (and series) at the target age (8-ish), and it’s entertaining enough even now.
The Mage: the Awakening core book is horrible. It’s dry, confusingly written, and devotes all too much page count to rotes (i.e. “hardcoded” spells, as opposed to freeform ones). I’ve been told that Mage has potential as a game, but you really need to read some other sourcebooks to see that – and Tome of the Mysteries is the most often quoted “must-have” book. I can see why.
The book is a lengthy examination of how magic works in this game, with emphasis on freeform magic use. We’re given a system for categorizing various effects, giving the GM and the players guidelines at how many dots are needed for different things. There’s also a lot of discussion on how magic works in general (in the game, that is), including how it feels to cast it and other “fluff” but very important things. Given how dry the core book is, you might think that a book on the mechanics of magic to be a tedious read – but it’s actually not, most of the book is very well written and illustrates at time obscure points and effects in an engaging fashion.
The book ends with some more esoteric stuff, like use of Abyssal magic and the possible powers of Archmages. The Abyssal stuff is fun, a classic “get power fast, but at cost” trap with lots of story potential. The Archmage stuff is more abstract and not really all that useful, but at least it’s something.
Overall, this is a fantastic book for anyone actually thinking of running or playing in this game. It lets the players use freeform magical effects without too much GM headache, and provides a very nice conceptual framework for talking about them… and one that is also usable as an in-game subject of discussion.
Still not really sold on this incarnation of Mage, but this book does improve on the core book a lot.
This book used to be out of print and very hard to find at a reasonable price (annoying for such a “must have” book), but it has recently been entered in White Wolf’s “print-on-demand” program and is now available directly.
Skaven (the elusive “rat men”) have been somewhat conflictingly described in Warhammer Fantasy. On one hand, we have numerous sources citing the official line of “they don’t exist!” and the general belief that they are just a myth. On the other… well, they seem to crop up a lot in various adventures, and there seem to have been various “historically confirmed” cases of said rat men overrunning towns and even small cities. Of course, this isn’t really all that much of a conflict: adventure are by no means representative of the normal state of things (and a good thing that), and “officials” throughout history have been extremely good as denying even the blindingly obvious things – especially so in a world with little to no reliable news, where normal people generally do not travel at all.
So, skaven. According to Children of the Horned Rat, they exist (shocker) and are very very nasty. What most in the Warhammer world do not realize is that they are also quite intelligent, easily on par with men – it seems that without their built-in hyperactive personal survival drive (which leads to near-complete disregard of others, or the “larger picture”) they would have conquered large parts of the surface world long ago. As is, their vast warrens exist underground, in poisoned, supposedly uninhabited areas. There they dream ratty dreams of world domination, keep hordes of slaves, and dabble in murderous infighting.
The skaven are separated into clans, with very different focuses. One concentrates on disease, one on weird technical gadgets (ratling guns!), one on biological mutated horrors, one on stealth and assassination… the list goes on. Outside these major clans exist large numbers of minor clans, all looking out for a chance to grab their own chance for glory… which generally would happen at the expense of one of the other clans. It’s a very rat-eat-rat world.
There’s a lot of nasty here. The skaven aren’t just rats the size of men, they are also quite loathsome in behavior and hold zero esteem for other races; the main use for humans is either as slaves (to be worked to death) or food. Or both. You do not want to be taken alive by these guys. Alongside the nastiness we also get some humor; the fact that their own nature will almost always ensure that their large-scale plans fail, usually via a series of backstabs and betrayals, is great plot fodder. Also, the weird technological gadgets (most of which have a huge chance of going awry) are good for a fun bit of chaos, quite like orkish gadgets are in Warhammer 40k.
The book ends with a short example scenario, which is interesting in the sense that it can be played either as “normal” humans, dwarfs or what have you, or it can alternatively be played with skaven PCs – the book also contains rules for skaven character creation. I can see something like that working very nicely for a one-shot or short campaign, though a longer game as skaven might get tricky… their life expectancy generally isn’t all that long. Of course, some sort of underground Paranoia/Skaven mishmash might be a ton of ratty fun, if it focuses on skaven internal politics and backstabbing.
It’s a good intro to the skaven race, and gets extra points for giving up tools for actually playing skaven. The page count is somewhat on the low side, though, so I’m sure there was material that had to be left out of this simply for page count reasons.