Intruder begins the fifth(!) trilogy in C.J. Cherryh’s long-running (and excellent) “Foreigner” sequence. It’s once again a great book, but like the first books in these sort-of-trilogies tend to be, it consists mostly of scene-setting for the continuation. Mind you, it’s delightful scene-setting, since it’s entirely centered on Atevi court life and politics. This might sound dull to someone not familiar with the books, but it’s anything but. Unlike the previous books, this one is entirely lacking in any sort of “action” as such (unless you count an escaped sort-of-monkey) in that category. There’s tension, to be sure, and lots of it, but it’s all due to high-tension politics. There’s also quite a bit of humor, mostly due to young Cajeiri’s reluctant acclimatization into stifling and sheltered court life. As can be guessed, he doesn’t take that very well and begins… measures to make his life less unbearably dull. With, at times, hilarious consequences.
The events center around Machigi, the Marid lord, and his visit to the center of his erstwhile enemies’ center of power, the Bujavid. As detailed in the previous sequence, Machigi has changed status from “leader of the enemy coalition” to “reluctant ally”… and while Bren, Ilsidi, Tabini and the rest of that group see this as a (very) good thing, there are factions at work at the capitol who see the upcoming visit and alliance as a threat to their power (or sensibilities, due to past bad blood). So Bren, once again, has his hands full with trying to finesse the situation with certain hostile Atevi lords, many of them also openly hostile towards humans.
If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, you’ll most likely enjoy this one. I did.
The Zalozhniy Quartet aims to bring to Night’s Black Agents what the core game lacks: something that’s ready to run without too much preptwork. Of course, everything is relative, and Zalozhniy Quartet still retains some of the “toolkit” mentality of the core game event though it is a campaign. This is, by and large, for the good, since the toolkit aspects here are very well done.
The campaign consists of four semi-independent parts, linked by a core background plot. The clever bit is that they can be played in any order; each one has multiple entry and exit point suggestions, some depending on PC actions and some on what the GM wants to do next. The links are very well done, giving the GM lots of ways and means to build the story… assuming he/she has read the thing multiple times; it’s a somewhat complex story with lots of moving parts, so quite a bit of prepwork (as in “reading and re-reading”) is needed here. The campaign also follows the core game’s line in not precisely defining what the vampires are, that is still left up to the GM,
Plotwise, the campaign contains an extremely nice mixture of moods and subgenres. As presented in the book (remember that the order is not set in stone), the first part, “The Zalozhniy Sanction”, has the PCs trace some gun runners in Odessa. Predictably, things are not quite what they seem and things will most likely go south, in a big way. This is an “action movie” segment, mostly. Next up (in book order) is “Out of the House of Ashes”, which involves old-world spooks and social skills – if someone pulls a gun here, things have gone very, very wrong. It’s a huge change of pace from the previous part.
The third part is “The Boxmen”, which is a heist story. The PCs will need to figure out how to get access to the contents of a Swiss bank vault. Cue Ocean’s Eleven (or maybe some other movies, if the PCs try for brute force). Lots and lots of room for PC (and player) tactics and planning here.
Last is “Treason in the Blood”, which has the closest ties to the background plot, and involves ancient plans (which the PCs will hopefully disrupt). It’s best suited as the final “endgame” scenario, but as noted it doesn’t need to be that. As a slight spoiler: like many spy stories, the background “big plot” has ties to the old infamous Philby spy ring in Cambridge. The link is so unconventional, however, that mentioning it here isn’t much of a spoiler at all.
All in all, I very much liked this campaign. The flexible structure is very cleverly done, and the individual parts all showcase a somewhat different subgenre of the game (and need very different approaches from the players). In addition, the four parts are only loosely connected, so they should work very nicely as standalone “one-shots” also. Excellent stuff.
Night’s Black Agents is a “Vampire Spy Thriller” game by Kenneth Hite, based on Robin D. Laws’ “Gumshoe” game system (best known from its “Trail of Cthulhu” incarnation). The main innovation there was the separating of character skills into “investigative” and “general” skills, which work quite differently – while “general” skills work in a somewhat traditional fashion, “investigative” skills always work. There is no danger of you botching a critical investigation roll and losing all access to a critical game clue, which has traditionally been a problem in Cthulhu games (and suchlike). Robin realized that certain types of rolls needed to always succeed or the game would grind to a halt, and that in practice GMs were fudging them to always work anyway – so why roll in the first place? While “Night’s Black Agents” is more an action move game than an investigation game, there’s enough of that to make Gumshoe a good fit as a rules system.
The game itself takes cues from the “Bourne Trilogy” series of movies (among many others), posing the players as highly trained (ex)operatives of the now-defunct Cold War; people with interesting and usually shady talent portfolios now working either freelance or for some GM-specified party. The trick here is that in the basic setup, the PCs have discovered that their employers are actually vampires. And no, not the “glitters in the dark and tries to look sexy” variety. The “rip your throat out and kill your family too” type.
Outside that basic setup, this is a toolkit, not a ready-to-run game. The game doesn’t even lock down what the “vampires” in your game actually are, though it gives lots of suggestions. They could be “traditional” vampires, they could be extradimensional parasites, they could be (space) aliens…. up to the GM. While this does pose more work the GM, in the end it means that your players will have very little idea of what to actually expect, and may find their preconceptions of what “vampires” are to be more of a hindrance than an asset. The GM is also given some tools to model the whole “vampiric conspiracy” in an abstract way, while planning what to hit the PCs with next. The default story has the PCs uncover more and more of said conspiracy until a climactic confrontation with the main “bad guys” – but again, up to the GM,
So, it’s a toolkit for creating games which mimic action movies (like the Bourne ones), with some supernatural elements thrown into the mix. The default game mode goes for cinematic action rather than gritty realism, but the game provides many extra modes which can be used to tweak the game genre in a freeform fashion: “Burn” gives some extra rules for modeling psychological damage, “Dust” pushes things more in the gritty realism direction, “Mirror” emphasizes double-crosses and hidden agendas, and “Stakes” gives the PCs personal motivations (intended to escalate drama). The assumption is that many of these will be used at once, as the GM sees fit.
It’s a very neat little game, at least based on reading it; whether of not the rules system works as intended in practice is something that would need playtest to figure out. The layout is clean and modern, the art is on the good side of things, and the writing is good. Only a few minor negatives come to mind. First off, the organization of the book isn’t quite perfect, in many places rules systems and rules-specific terms are referenced before they are explained in any way, making for at times confusing reading for people not familiar with Gumshoe. Secondly, this is a toolkit, which mean that there is very little here that a GM can use without significant prep time. For some, that may be a turn-off.
Masters of Jade is one of the last books published for the 2nd edition Exalted game line. Many of the writers are people who are involved with the 3rd edition, here they present their view of the Guild – and it’s a very interesting one. While there is some very small overlap with the 1st edition “Manacle and Coin” book, this is mostly a very different viewpoint. The book is split into three main sections. The first one describes the Guild all over Creation (including a creation story for it), It’s interesting stuff, but nothing all that extraordinary. It’s the second part that is most interesting: details of how the Guild deals with supernatural creatures, including Solars. That’s something that the 1st edition book mostly just ignored: how do you form a huge organization that’s not vulnerable to supernatural mind control and other nasty tricks that Exalts and other powerful creatures may throw at them? The answer lies in many directions, but the main point is huge size, combined with very loose organization. It’s very hard to decapitate the Guild; it’s not trivial to even figure out what the leadership structure looks like. Sure, a Solar may gain control of one or two major movers and shakers (after much effort tracking them down), but that won’t give them the Guild on a platter. It may result in profit, sure, but the Guild can handle that. Alongside that, the Guild handles powerful figures much the way any large semi-criminal organization would: bribes, flattery, misdirection, threats…. whatever works. It’s a very interesting treatment of the subject.
The book winds up with a rules subsystem to handle organizations, “The Creation-Ruling Mandate”. This is the part of the book I can least comment on, since I have zero idea of how well this works based on just a read-through. I like the fact that the book includes rules for modeling big stuff like this, the game doesn’t have anything like that at the moment (most of the subsystems in the Exalted 2nd edition core books are… a bit broken). I’m not sure this is anything anyone will ever use, though, with 3rd edition heading our way. Hard to say.
Most of the book is rules-free, and as such works fine in any edition. I liked what the writers did with the Guild here, and especially liked the stuff about “big organization vs powerful supernaturals”.
From Hell’s Heart concludes the “Skull & Shackles” adventure path, and does it with a style consistent with the earlier installations. In other words, it’s pretty good, and forms a satisfying conclusion to the story – though one with lots of continuation possibilities if needs be.
With their previous nemesis dead or at least beaten, the PCs should now be poised to step into a leadership role in the Shackles. About time, too, since there is now a huge fleet sailing in their direction, with the intent of getting rid of the “pirate menace” once and for good. If things go the way they are most likely to go, the adventure path will culminate with an epic-scale naval battle which will decide the fate of the region (and the PCs) once and for all. While it’s expected that the PCs (and their allies) win the day, it’s always possible that it’s not their day. In this case, the PCs may have to fleet the Shackles, maybe for good.
While there isn’t anything overly clever here, it does form a fitting culmination of the story. Overall, I’ve liked “Skull & Shackles” quite a bit, it seems like a nice balance of sandboxy piracy and loosely connected plots and set pieces. This based on reading, of course, these things may work very differently in actual play.
A Quantum Murder is the second part in Hamilton’s loose debut trilogy of books about psi-powered war veteran Greg Mandel, set in a future England ravaged by global warming (flooding) and a subsequent Socialist government which veered quite close to a fascist police state before being brought down. The setting is relatively interesting, but the characters are quite two-dimensional. Characters have never been Hamilton’s forte, and since this is his early work his mannerisms and stereotypes are in full swing here. Now, I like Hamilton’s books in general, his faults as a writer are overshadowed by his imagination (most times, anyway). This was no exception; while it’s not his best work, it was an entertaining tale, though some of the twists were seriously far-fetched and do not really hold up under scrutiny.
The first book in the series, “Mindstar Rising” was mostly an action tale, while this one tries to be a murder mystery. As such it works to some degree, though it’s debatable if the twists were things an astute reader could have figured out. In the end, it’s a decent science fiction mystery/investigation story. The plot concerns the shocking and gruesome murder of the eccentric physicist Edward Kitchener. The killer seems to have been caught almost red-handed… but the problem is that he has no discernible motive for the murder, and claims innocence. Enter psi-detective Greg Mandel, invited to the case by the rich, young and brilliant Julia Evans (herself a prime example of a Hamilton character stereotype). Greg isn’t too wild about “getting back in” after a stint at semi-retirement, but is persuaded by the weirdness of the case. What follows is interrogation of witnesses, general sleuthing, and a lot of digging into past events which some parties very much want to stay buried.
It was fun entertainment, nothing more but nothing less either. His future England is refreshing in that it’s not a dystopia, it’s recovering from one. That distinction also gives the book several crucial plot elements.
I mostly know Chuck Wendig’s work via White Wolf’s roleplaying games, he’s written a lot for them. Besides that, the only novel of his I’ve read before this was Dinocalypse Now, which, while a fun pulp ride, was quite lightweight. Blackbirds is… not that. Oh, it’s a quick read and hard to put down, but it’s also disturbing, violent and pretty damn good.
The book is not connected to any game worlds, it’s a standalone “modern day occult” story. While there is some World of Darkness feel here, there are also connections to lots of other things; it reads like a mix of Tarantino and Stephen King. It’s a lean and mean story, no filler and with lots of grit and darkness, but there is a (very) dark strain of humor that surfaces now and then.
The protagonist is Miriam Black, a young woman living her life on the road, robbing the dead. Not dead because of her, dead in spite of her. You see, every time Miriam touches someone, she sees how and when they will die. Earlier on she tried to prevent some of them, it never worked out. Nowadays, she just makes sure she’s there when they die, and takes their cash. It’s not like they need it anymore. Oh, and just try to imagine having relations (intimate or otherwise) with anyone, when the first time you touch them you know (and directly experience) their death. Yeah. So she’s also a loner, and somewhat messed in the head.
Then she meets a guy she actually likes. And another one who tries to use her. And then there are those very nasty people who are now suddenly gunning for them all. Hit the road.
As I said, I liked it, quite a bit. There’s a sequel available, but I haven’t read it (yet). This one comes recommended – but a word of warning: it’s violent, and it’s grim, and there are a lot of messed up people and situations here.
The kick-ass cover deserves special mention. It rocks.
The Adamantine Arrow is a splatbook for the militant “Adamantine Arrow” order, one of the so-called “Pentacle Orders”. It’s pretty standard stuff; it describes the history of the order and the current reality, and then goes on to detail everyday life as member of the order, along with a pile of specialized spells and artifacts that the Arrows like to use. As a sourcebook of character enhancements and ideas for a player of an Arrow it’s probably quite useful, and it does contain quite a few plot hooks and story ideas centered around the faction.
However, I didn’t like it all that much. Part of that is the writing style (it’s a bit dry), but the larger part has to do with the content itself. This book is from the early days of the game line, when they really pushed the Atlantis creation myth, and here it shows. Instead of having Atlantis be a vague and mysterious thing which may or may not have even existed at any point (and may have been something very strange), here it’s presented as a matter-of-fact history. While some nods are given to the “mages are different around the world” thing, most things are still presented in the light of a strictly defined and static Atlantean history and uniculture. This annoys me, on many levels. The whole Atlantean uniculture -thing is, in my mind, the single biggest flaw in the new Mage. Happily they tried to distance themselves from it in later books in the game line, but here it’s very much in your face.
The other thing here is somewhat more subtle: the Arrows are, well, somewhat boring. They’re warriors, and like warriors in most games, there’s a certain lack of depth to the concepts available. To their credit the writers do try to spice things up, but in the end it’s a book about the “fighters” of the Mage game line. Compared to an Order like the Guardians of the Veil, for example, these guys are plain vanilla.