The Compass of Celestial Directions, Vol. VI - Autochthonia rounds off Exalted 2e’s “Celestial” world book line, which focuses on various non-Creation realms. This time the subject is Autochthonia, the vast body-world of a dying Primordial, cast off into some sort of Void ages ago and almost (but not totally and permanently) cut off from Creation. It’s a dystopian world which was lightly described in the Alchemicals book, but the page count there went more towards describing the Alchemical Exalted. This book focuses on the world they live in.
It’s a fantastic book, possibly the best of the “Celestial” line. Autochthonia is clearly laid out as a dark and dystopian place, where endless toil is poor conditions is better than the alternative: utter annihilation, either via some Voidbringer cult, or by the final death of their world/god. The inhabitants of Autochthonia are somewhat aware of the plight they are in, though the clerical castes try to put a “pray and sin less, and things will be fine again” shine on things. Most know their world is dying, bit by bit, simply because they see districts vanishing into the gloom, never to return again – or at least return in any form that anyone wants to see again. I liked how this book emphasizes the fact that the mindset of most Autochthonians is very different from the Creation-born. Here, tradition and conformity is everything, since that keeps you alive (“except it doesn’t, anymore!” scream the few dissidents).
Autochthonia is Exalted’s answer to steampunk, in a way. The world is very different from Creation, and even their Exalts are… strange. Vast machines, the sound of distant engines, and dark, steamy corridors are constant facts of life, and “nature”, such as it is, is tainted both by the Void and the very nature of the world. Autochthon is/was a builder, and that is mirrored in every little detail. There’s machinery, there’s steam-powered weirdness, and there are goggles. Oh, and even zeppelins, in some areas.
So, what makes the book so good? Simply put, the writing and the ideas. Most of the page count goes into describing the eight major “nations” of Autochthonia, and it’s a fascinating read. They are all very different (though some have similarities and overlaps), and many of them are fantastic creations. I also liked the sections on the “Reaches”, the wild areas. We get a vast ocean of… oil and other lubricants, in which submersibles hunt for the best patches of oil while dodging things that can actually live in that environment. At the other end of things, there is the elemental pole of smoke, which is (if possible) even more nasty. There are so many cool locations and ideas crammed into here that any GM will find something here to love. In all probability, lots of somethings.
The only negative? Autochthonia is a very different realm, and a game that dives into Autochthonian life doesn’t really mix very well with stock Exalted. Sure, you could have Solars do a road trip around the place, but it would not be the same as with native-born characters.
Switchflipped is a stand-alone novel with a lot of Unknown Armies influences, but it’s not an UA novel; it’s just written by Greg Stolze who was also one of the authors of UA, here playing with a different take on some of the concepts. It’s an “urban fantasy”, set in the modern world, featuring a hapless guy named Jasper who starts out chasing after his long-lost, then found, then vanished again (ex)fiancée… and ends up stumbling into an secret, occult world of the “switchflipped”, people who embody and channel various traits and concepts and get strange powers as a result. That’s the main UA link, and it’s also a (small) bit like the basic setup of Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”.
I liked the book quite a bit, but also found it a bit frustrating. The story rolls along nicely, and the characters are a zany bunch; Stolze is a good writer and this is him on home turf… sort of. It’s a lot more light-hearted than most of his tales, and even though there is action and tension, there’s very little real sense of danger here. That’s perhaps a small minus, though it depends on what you are looking for, the story does entertain. My frustration mainly comes from the ending: the book just ends, quite suddenly, leaving lots of important plot threads unresolved. While the main dangling plot is quite clearly left open-ended on purpose, the fact that the primary conflict just sort of… gets resolved, quite quickly, leaves the reader going “huh. that’s it?” at the end. This book could really use a sequel. As is, it doesn’t quite satisfy in the end.
All that said, it’s a fun, lightweight urban fantasy tale, with fun characters and good writing. Great summer reading.
There’s also a short story “/ + 7” available, which provides some background detail and clarification from a different viewpoint. Worth reading.
While I found the first part of the “Shattered Star” adventure path to be too much of a dungeon crawl for my taste, Curse of the Lady’s Light is much more to my taste. Sure, it’s still a dungeon crawl (I’m given to understand that’s the theme of this adventure path), this is a damn good dungeon crawl. The thing that makes it rock is a bunch of good NPCs, with relevant non-combat interaction – even one of the main “bad guys” is actually someone you could reason with, and maybe arrive at a deal. The beginning has two different tribes of swamp creatures, and the PCs have the option of dealing with one, both, or neither of them. After that, they have to deal with the now-exiled Gray Maidens (see the old “Curse of the Crimson Throne” adventure for details on them), which is both interesting gameplay-wise and interesting from a campaign history viewpoint: this adventure path is intended to be a continuation of sorts to both “Rise of the Runelords” and “Curse of the Crimson Throne”, and links like the Gray Maidens go a long way towards realizing that continuation.
The name of the adventure comes from “The Lady’s Light”, a Statue of Liberty -style ancient statue which, of course, holds all sorts of stuff inside (the aforementioned “dungeon crawl”, to begin with). It’s at least an interesting place to put a “dungeon”, I’ll give them that.
While I’m not wild about the “fetch six McGuffins” main plot, and about dungeon crawls in general, I have to give credit where credit is due: this episode is quality stuff. Hack & slash PC groups can keep on hacking and slashing, while more subtle parties are given lots of additional options.
Extra points for a very nice trap, which may have (fun) repercussions for the whole rest of the adventure path.
The Nano Flower wraps up the loose “Greg Mandel” trilogy of books, and it shows signs of Hamilton’s future directions as a writer; this is one his earlier works and he went on to write the (imho awesome) Night’s Dawn trilogy after this. Not all of the developments are positive – the page count is much higher than the previous two books, and the plot is quite convoluted compared to the relatively lean predecessors. While this style of writing works quite well in Night’s Dawn, here it doesn’t quite gel; many of the side plots seem superfluous and the main plot sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
Here Greg has been semi-retired for a decade or so, running a farm together with his wife and enjoying the quiet life… well, as quiet as it can be with lots of children around. Enter young billionaire Julia Evans once again. Since the previous books she has married, and her somewhat eccentric husband has recently vanished. He’s apparently alive, judging by the strange flower he sent her, but is somewhere where even a well-connected billionaire cannot find him. At a loss, Julia turns to Greg, prodded on by the fact that flower seems actually alien, based on non-terrestrial evolution. Greg reluctantly agrees to look into it, as a favor for Julia and her husband. And things get weird, and occasionally violent.
It mostly a good read, and the plot does (finally) wrap things up, though in a fashion that is both unexpected and very strange. What bothered me most here was the fact that the supposedly-brilliant main characters jumped to some very weird conclusions based on flimsy evidence, and did not question that in the slightest during the tale. For instance, they assume that there is an alien present, based on one strange flower. Fine, except that there’s evidence that someone is trying to perfect a matter manipulation technology – and such a tech would easily enable the construction of an “alien” flower, among other things. But no, everyone decides that there’s a real live alien behind the scenes and goes on from there. Also present and annoying are many of Hamilton’s stock character stereotypes. To be fair, they are even more present and annoying in Night’s Dawn, but that doesn’t make them go away here.
Lots of people seem to like this book, but the I actually enjoyed the two previous books a bit more: they were more compact and didn’t try to tell five different stories at once without quite the skill to make it all work together seamlessly.
Dan Abnett is most well known for his Warhammer 40k novels (which, it must be admitted, are pretty good). Embedded is a standalone novel, not related to any game license – while it does stay in the “military scifi” genre, well inside Abnett’s comfort zone. Here, mankind has spread out to the stars, though many old political/power blocks have remained; the United Status is one (almost too-obvious expansion of the modern-day U.S.), and the Bloc is another, seemingly an alliance between old-world China, Russia and such. Colonization is constant and routine, as marked by the planet this story happens on: it doesn’t even have a name yet, just the number “86”. It’ll get a name later on, if things work out, but in this case things have gone a bit sideways. How much sideways? That’s what ace reporter (and self-described arrogant bastard) Lax Falk is there to find out. The Settlement Office militia says it’s just some disgruntled colonists and saboteurs, but Falk has a gut feel that it’s more than that. After getting a run-around my the military, he embarks on a strictly off-the-record and illegal venture, getting himself quite literally embedded in the head of a grunt who is headed out to the real war zone. To no reader’s surprise, things go South fast, and Falk, with no real military experience, finds himself deep in hostile territory.
It’s an enjoyable tale, though not without its faults. First off, it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. The beginning is in Catch-22 territory and promises black satire of military life… but then it morphs into a more traditional military tale (though one with a twist). The characters are somewhat two-dimensional, though that doesn’t hurt the action too much. Abnett’s somewhat irritating style of over-describing military hardware and all the gruesome wounds weapons inflict gets a bit old here. It’s a good effect the first couple of times, but after a while one really doesn’t need a graphic descriptions of yet another dismemberment. On the plus side, there are some nice plot twists (some surprising, some not so much), and the tale does entertain. It’s decent lightweight reading, if military(ish) science fiction is your thing.
Chicago By Night was one of the earliest sourcebooks for the first edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, and it shows – not necessarily in a bad way, though. While the art is hit-and-miss and the layout is somewhat primitive, the content itself is pretty damn good. Some of it’s cliché, but in a strange way: this is actually the book that gave birth to many of Vampire’s clichés. Ancient Methuselahs slumbering beneath a city and controlling what happens while waging an ancient war against each other, a Prince whose rule is constrained by a strong Primogen group, the Nosferatu who knows much of what is going on (but won’t tell)… the list goes on. Many games (both tabletop and LARP) have copied the elements presented here, because they are quite interesting. Until they get overused, of course.
I’ve only read this now, and not when it was first published in 1991, so I can’t totally gauge the impact that this book (and the game itself) had when it first came out. While it’s a “classic” game now, at the time it was quite different to what was on the market. It emphasized social interaction instead of combat, it spent page count on description and atmosphere instead of raw mechanics or stat blocks, and in general it was just…. different. It also attracted some new audience to roleplaying games, some of them even (gasp!) female.
Onward to the book itself. As one might imagine, it’s a city setting for the game, using a World of Darkness version of modern Chicago as the base for a large population of vampires. The structure of the book is interesting, and quite different to what was the norm back then (and the norms even now, to a large extent). It spends quite little page count in describing the city itself; that’s one of the benefits of using a modern, existing city as your base model. The bulk of the page count goes towards describing the inhabitants, with pictures and descriptions of a huge menagerie of Kindred. Again, this highlights the game’s focus on social interaction and politics. I was quite surprised as how little stereotyping I found here. While there are some “Clan stereotypes” here and there, most of the NPCs are anything but, and most are quite interesting. Also included are lots of diagrams showing the interactions between the different social groups, and also their internal politics. The book wraps up with some story hooks, but it’s almost an afterthought, this book is clearly meant to be used as a “social sandbox” to dump the PCs into, sink or swim.
I was quite impressed by this book, all in all. Considering its age, I wasn’t expecting anything all that great, in fact I expected to find a ton of silly stereotypes. I (mostly) didn’t get that. Sure, there are the occasional slightly silly bits, but a lot less than I expected.
As an aside, many of the small details here are interesting from a game history point of view. I haven’t read the first edition of Vampire so I’m not sure how that book presents things, but from reading this you get the impression that many things that later became Camarilla staples are here presented as Chicago-specific oddities. The concept of Elysium is presented as something weird that that was imported here by the whim of the Prince, the setup where a strong Primogen constrains the Prince’s actions is presented as something strange and unusual… in fact, the whole concept of the Primogen is presented as somewhat of an oddity. I have no idea if these were things that later evolved into the game’s basic features or if some of the material here is just confusingly presented (and/or the writers were still figuring out the game). It doesn’t really matter which, but I have to admit I found this model to be somewhat more interesting than the “standard Camarilla” which became a bit too much of a uniculture for my tastes later on. Here, you get the impression that each city is very different, completely depending on the whims of its vamipiric ruler, and the Camarilla itself doesn’t exert much direct control.
Of course, the book does contain some of the more annoying traits of the game line, leading with the idea that whatever happened at whatever point in history, “vampires did it”. The concept of ancient immortals controlling modern society is interesting, and was new(ish) when the game was first published, but at times they want way overboard with it, especially in the early days. Oh, and the book also contains a vampiric Al Capone. For some reason, it’s a lot less silly that it might seem, maybe because he’s decently written into the game and makes some sort of sense. Still a bit silly, though.
Children of the Revolution is the third Kickstarter-backed new book for Vampire: the Masquerade from Onyx Path. While not without its faults, it’s vastly superior to the V20 Companion book, in that it actually has interesting content. It’s modeled after the classic Kindred Most Wanted and Children of the Inquisition books – “coffee table” books which detail a number of Kindred (with a certain theme), with full-page artwork for each one, a reasonably detailed history, and game stats. Like the earlier books, this is mostly for background color in the game world, though some GMs may want to use some of these characters as-is.
So, since it’s a big catalog of NPCs (18 in all), it lives or dies based on the strength of the characters. On that basis, this book partly succeeds and partly fails; some of the characters are quite interesting and avoid easy stereotypes, while a few are particularly poor (including one fairly silly “Dread Pirate Roberts” wannabe). The characters are quite varied, which is a bonus. Some are young Neonates, while others are truly ancient creatures. The theme of “revolution” is used here as a basis for selecting the characters, and while it’s easy to see in some cases (a young ex-Occupy Wall Street protester), it’s vague to the point of invisibility in others.
The art is mostly high quality, and the layout is quite pleasant. While the characters themselves are of mixed quality, the writing itself is perfectly competent and usually engaging. In the end, this is a decent book; an interesting read if you’re into old WoD metaplot and back story or if you’re a GM looking for ready-to-use NPCs.
Shards of Sin kicks off the “Shattered Star” adventure path, which is supposed to feature a hunt for six pieces of an ancient artifact. As such, that sounds more than a bit clichéd, “find the pieces of ancient artifact McGuffin” has been a staple plot of rpgs (and some bad fantasy books) for ages. Ok, so the main “big plot” promises to be a bit… worn, no worries…. this first installment is supposed to be a city-based adventure based in Magnimar. Sounds decent.
Unfortunately, we don’t get a city-based adventure. We get some initial setup scenes in the city, but the bulk of the adventure is one huge dungeon crawl. Sigh. While I’m sure there are lots of people who love their dungeon crawls, it’s not like there’s a shortage of them in Paizo adventures. It’s lazy writing; it’s easier to just plop down a “dungeon” with lots of combat encounters than it is to design a more fluid plot and setting.
It’s not all bad. In fact, I wouldn’t call this adventure “bad” at all, just… mediocre and missing a lot of potential. As noted, the main “big plot” is somewhat tired, and relies on PC greed/curiosity as main plot drivers. Ok, to be fair, there is a strong Pathfinder Society connection, so “quest for personal fame” is a good motivator too. The initial part of the module is also the best part; it features the criminal underground of Magnimar and has some (small) opportunities for non-combat encounters. After that, though, we get the huge dungeon crawl thingy… which isn’t bad either, for a dungeon crawl, and is more logical than many (the backstory is somewhat interesting there).
In the end, this is a ho-hum start to an adventure path with a ho-hum main plot. Not an auspicious beginning, especially since usually the beginning tends to be the best part in these things. We’ll see. Maybe this adventure path will break the usual pattern, and get better as it goes along.