Saturday, October 30, 2010

Way of Kings: A Review

Way of Kings is the first book in the new Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson.  The name may ring a bell for fantasy fans.  That's because Sanderson was tagged by Robert Jordan's widow to be the writer that finished Jordan's... sprawling (let's just go with that) masterpiece, The Wheel of Time.

So, no pressure there, Brandon!  Just about 10 million people waiting to see if you can pull off wrapping up the approximately 50000000 dangling threads that Jordan left hanging there for ya.  Hell, the Fates couldn't spin that freaking story into a comprehensive narrative.  But I'll tell you this - I've read the first book of his wrap-up, and I enjoyed it more than ANY of the series, except the first 3, which were still reasonably-paced and before Jordan added a bunch of characters I don't give a shit about.  I'll give you a hint - I want to read about Matt.  And Perrin if you have to.

But anyways, I've wandered off-topic.  Sanderson has major chops as a fantasy author, and I've read pretty much all his other books, except for Warbreaker, which I just could not get into.  Generally, Sanderson does quite a few things well.  The biggest being, he doesn't stick to vanilla medieval fantasy settings.  Pretty much all his books are set in odd, magical or alien environments, with unique and neat magical powers that are both interesting and consistent.  He also writes fairly character-driven stories - there is very little of the "bring the maguffin to mount anti-maguffin" in his work.

So what you can expect from a Sanderson novel is - neat, imaginative world that is very different from a standard fantasy one, and interesting characters that have to deal with this world.

Which is what you get from Way of Kings.  Except... Sanderson seems to have caught a slight case of "Holy shit my publisher will let me write a really long book" from working on The Wheel of Time.  Way of Kings is long.  Like, 1000 pages long.  And it's supposed to be the first of... TEN.  So strap yourselves in, folks.  If you don't get really into this world and story within the first couple hundred pages, put that motherfucker down and leave - you don't want to get invested in something like this in a half-assed way.  This is a series for readers.

But really, if you're a fantasy fan, you'll probably find a lot to like here.  The series title refers to the "magical" energy source of the world, Stormlight.  This energy is brought to the world by massive storms, called Highstorms, that periodically sweep across the world, wreaking destruction but also bringing energy, which can be captured in gemstones.

It's clear that Sanderson has given a lot of thought to what a world affected by Highstorms would look like.  The storms have stripped much of the world of topsoil, and most wild animals are insect or crustacean-like, able to take cover and survive the Highstorms.  Grain is grown inside hard-shelled "rockbuds", and huge, lobster-like "chull" are beasts of burden.  So, cool enough setting that just exploring it is fairly interesting.

Sanderson also manages to create enough interesting characters to keep you engaged.  The self-loathing Assassin in White, the honorable and disenchanted Khaladin Stormblessed, the rigid warrior Dalinar Kholin and a number of others drive the plot forward as the fight to survive and to understand the magic and the world they live in.

Sanderson is also quite good at making the actual nature of the world and it's history mysterious to the reader and the characters, and it's a fun and engaging ride to learn truths (and lies) with them.  The book keeps up a fairly good momentum, rarely dropping into what my buddy Loren calls "the swamp" where you are forced to keep reading even though you're rather just stop, because you want to see if it gets interesting again.  So, no swamp, good characters, neat world.

The only real complaint I have about this book is that it's got a lot of the whole Ancient evil from the past returns to destroy the world thing going on.  Although that's been done to death, generally, Sanderson's well-thought-out world and past a mystery thing help keep it fresh enough not to seem too repetitive.  We are as much in the dark as most of the characters as to the nature of the threat, the "Desolation", so finding out bits and pieces from each character's narrative ties everything together and keeps you reading.

If you don't mind getting into a long haul, you should check this book out.  It's a good one.  And Sanderson, unlike Jordan, when he was alive, actually gets books finished and out - the only author in fantasy that keeps up an output like Sanderson is Steven Erikson - probably the subject of my next review!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

4e and AD&D - The Best Comparison

I was browsing through RPG Blogs today, and I came across this little gem.

The best part of this article is a single line: It’s like modern (i.e. 4th edition)  D&D is software, while the first edition of AD&D was tax code, becoming more byzantine the longer it existed.

So that makes Basic D&D what, programming instructions for a VCR, translated poorly from Japanese?

I jest, but only a little.  4e really is software, though.  As a software tester/seller, I can tell you that for certain.  And many of the issues that people have with it are issues that apply to complex software, as well.  The biggest being "The Errata Issue".

Because of DDI and digital distribution, WotC has the technological capability to quickly and comprehensively update their "software" in a way that has never, ever been possible for an RPG publisher.  Indeed, in my old online 4e campaign, there were no paper character sheets.  In fact, no paper was used in the making of the entire game, except a few pages from my notebook when doing adventure planning.

I was aware of the fact that errata was coming out, but it rarely had any kind of impact on me.  As a DM, I rely on my players to inform me of the capabilities of their characters. I do random "drug testing" just to make sure that things aren't being abused or misunderstood, but really, why bother to learn everything about every class?  I didn't do it when I DM'ed 2e, or Vampire, or Warhammer.  So the inclusion of the errata doesn't really make a difference to me, one way or the other.

But many people don't use the DDi tools, and don't do the digital thang.  So we also have all these paper copies of the "software" floating around.  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think that the analogy is slightly off.  4e is like software + manual.  AD&D is straight manual.

Before I continue, let me tell you a bit about the company I work for.  We make specialized database/management software for Fire Departments.  We update our software frequently (once a week or so) and our software manual is about 5,000 pages long.  I shit you not - it's 2 massive 3-ring binders, completely stuffed full.  It's modular software, so nobody uses everything, but somebody uses every part of it.

In terms of market share, we are probably Palladium - kinda niche market, but popular enough.  But we have a system set up that is almost EXACTLY like what WotC has going with 4e.  Many people use the program, some keep it updated, some do not.  Some use the hard-copy manual, some do not, and rely on the digital manual.  So I have much experience regarding the issue of Errata.  

Therefore, complainers about errata, listen closely and learn exactly why WotC releases so much errata:

1) It costs them very little to do so.  With digital distribution, once you have the infrastructure, the cost of updating is negligible.  A little writer/programmer time, and you're done.

2) Some people want bugs fixed.  This should be obvious, but somehow, on the issue of errata, it isn't.  Just because you don't use the "Jaws of the Wolf" power or whatever, doesn't mean that somebody doesn't want it fixed up.  And lets be clear - if something is broken and isn't fixed, it can be a real problem to the people that use it.

3) Users are not required to install all updates.  If you are happy with how the system is running, you don't have to install the updates.  Sure, you might get some new little features with them, but it's not necessary.

4) You can also keep the printed manual up-to-date, if you want to spend the time.  Personally, I think it's a waste of time/money when you can refer to the digital document, but that's just me - you can if you want to, but it's in no way a requirement.

5) It's dirt cheap for users to get the updates.  Hell, I tend to subscribe to DDi for 1 month every year or so.  I update Character Builder (and I can update it 6 times - so my group updates their character builders), I update the monster builder, I dump Compendium into Masterplan.  I just got 1 year of content for what, $12?

So, if you don't like the errata, or all the changes that WotC make to 4e, give your head a shake and think the following:

I don't have get the update if I don't feel I need it.

If I do feel I need it, it's cheap and easy to get.

If I must have the hard-copy update, it's a bit of a pain, but doable.  It wasn't really even an option in earlier versions.

None of this stuff was ever an option before - the fact that it is now is of great benefit to users.  It's a living, active, supported piece of gaming software.  If it's not your cup of tea, fine - but don't bitch about it being a cash-grab - the 3e model was much, much worse - just print more books - all hard-copy manual, all the time.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Now I Understand (a book review)

I used to like RA Salvatore.

I know.  I KNOW.  I mean, The Crystal Shard came out in 1988, when I was 13 years old, so I have some excuse.  But by that point I'd read Tolkien and Howard and Lovecraft and Herbert, so I really have no excuse.

I read all the Forgotten Realms books, the Spelljammer books, the Dark Sun books...  plus a ton of other books.  So maybe I do have an excuse.  See, I read a LOT.  Like, 2-3 novels a week, on average, and it used to be a lot more.  I can go through a short novel in one sitting, 3-4 hours and bam.  A Steven Erikson takes a bit longer, and the addition of my daughter to my life, while TOTALLY AWESOME, also cuts into my reading time (and sleeping time, and eating time, and... time).

But back to RA Salvatore.  I bring him up because I have a beBook Reader ( and I picked up RA's new novel, Gauntlgrym, for it.  I've read his books on and off for years, mostly to just fill in the gaps between interesting books, but also because I've always had a fond place in my heart for the Forgotten Realms, and for Bruenor Battlehammer (but not for that fucking Mary-Sue Drizzt).

Before I go any further, I should point out that I have been a fervent, sometimes even vicious, defender of 4e D&D since it's arrival.  I think that many of the complaints that people have about the game are straight-up stupid, and have not shied away from pointing that out.

BUT!  Upon reading Gauntylgrym, I gained new insight into some of those complaints.  I felt the nerd-rage, I steamed about the arbitrary and seemingly nonsensical changes.  I DRANK THE KOOL-AID.  On top of the normal problems that I have with an RA Salvatore novel - the 1-dimensional characters, the juvenile attempts at creating a "gritty" world, the unbelievably over-detailed fight scenes, the CONSTANT use of the word "Blasted".  Besides all that, there is the 4e stuff that is just arbitrarily dropped into the novel.

OK.  OK, I know he's writing with somebody else's IP, so he has to toe the line here, but the Spellplague, this massive, horrible world-changing event, gets maybe 2 lines in the novel.  And tieflings get added pretty much out of nowhere.  He mentions them "no longer lurking in the shadows".  But there are about 1000 of them in the book.  That's some serious motherfucking shadows, to loosely paraphrase Jules Winfield.

Also, there is a Primordial.  Titan-like gods would presumably have been noticed by the inhabitants of a planet that they occupied, one would think.  And he throws in a couple of 4e attack-power descriptions, like "the axe snapped down like the jaws of a wolf".  Fuck. Off.  Seriously - I like the idea of the 4e attack powers, but I can describe them just fine without you pounding them into my head.

In addition to those niggling issues, the book jumps forward through big chunks of time, presumably to catch the timeline up to current Realm cannon, but the jumps are handled so abruptly and clumsily, it feels like I'm reading about the first time I drove a stick shift.  Fine, fine, fine.. sudden forward lunge, fine, fine, stall.

And the book can't help but stall.  There are just so many annoying minor characters/antagonists, like the bisexual elf warrior-chick who wears earrings that show that she murders her lovers, and the crazy dwarf warrior who says everything in rhymes and laughs "Bwahaha" all the time.  He actually types it out, "bwahaha", a bunch of times.  You have to read through chapters of this mess, with idiotic, unpronounceable names, tissue-thin motivations, and loving details of all the foot-movements and stance-shifts of each interminable combat scene.

So, non-4e fans.  This book made me feel your pain.  It managed to make me dislike several things that I previously liked - 4e, Forgotten Realms, RA Salvatore novels.  Man, talk about multi-tasking.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Weird Known World

Since we've started playing a Rules Compendium game every week, I've become more interested in what other people are doing with the old D&D rules.  So in the spirit of inquisitiveness, I downloaded the free rules for Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG.

I love Raggi, although I totally don't agree with him on a lot of scores.  Still, he is a passionate and talented advocate of gaming, which you can't really argue with.  I also thought about picking up the LOTFP boxed set, but I didn't get around to it - if he does it as a collected hardcover, that is a sure buy.

The sandbox-y setting that Raggi included is called "Weird New World".  It sounds interesting, and I'm looking forward to checking it out.  But a world doesn't have to be new to be weird.  I found that out recently when I started researching Karameikos and found... THE VAULTS OF PANDIUS!

I typed that in CAPS because it really should be said in a really deep, impressive-sounding voice.  Because it is freaking insane how much information is on this site.  Hundreds of pages, maps, collected information about Mystara.  I don't know why people want WotC to re-release old D&D stuff - there's a fuck-ton of material out there on the internet for free (and I'm not talking about torrents, people).

Since we're running the new game in Karameikos, I've been doing some reading on the ole Grand Duchy, and have uncovered a number of curious things about it.

1) The original inhabitants of modern-day Karameikos were the "Traladarans"  or possibly "Tralaladarans".  Knapsacks and singing were apparently their most popular exports.

2) The capital of Traladara used to be called "Marilenev", but the name has since been changed to "Specularum". Sources appear to disagree as to whether this change was made by the Thyatians or by Duke Steve-O.  I've been operating under the assumption that it is Duke Stefan.  Hence my previous comment about "Duke Stev the Gynecologist".  (If you don't understand the reference, do a google search for "speculum".  Do NOT do an image search).

3) Steve, formerly of Machetos, is a HUGE DICK.  Really - he traded his ancestral lands to the Thyatian emperor in exchange for Karameikos (or Tralalalalalalaldara or whatever).  The emperor promptly strips the place of everything valuable, then hands it over to a crony to run.  So the people who have trusted and supported Steve's family for generations get the shaft, Steve gets a shiny new country to run, and the emperor gets richer and rewards one of his boys.  Serious dick move, there.

4) Duke Stev is retarded.  No, seriously - he's disabled.  Apparently he's unable to understand the motivations and actions of chaotic or evil people.  Which pretty much means he's high-functioning autistic, or at least Asbergers.  Which leads us to the next bit of "lore".

5) The Black Eagle Barony.  Where to start, here?  Run by Ludvig von Hendriks, some sort of relation of Steffo's.  Ludvig wears all black and silver.  He runs his fief like North Korea, plots constantly to take over the Duchy, changed the name of his city (formerly Mirov) to FORT DOOM.  Oh, and his main advisor is a dude named Bargle (my character was totally gonna nail Aleena, she was Elmore-hot) and somehow, Sir Steffeo the Smart doesn't notice.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, that Mystara is hella-weird.  But a good place to go on an adventure!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

First Session

Well, the first session of our old-school game has come and gone, and it was generally pretty excellent.

It's been 20 years, roughly, since I played this particular game.  Yet I still seem to remember all the rules.  Like when to make morale checks, and listening at doors and business.  I forgot to pay my taxes one year, but I remember that the first time the monsters are damaged, they make a morale check.  WTF, gamer brain?

Anywhoo, we are playing this game using and  I've done 4e games online this way before, so I knew the drill, but we did have a few technical problems.  One player couldn't get on Skype (she could hear but not talk) and one couldn't get on Maptools, but generally, it was working.

Perry, the DM, set up tokens for our characters - mine was a gay little elf-boy in green tights with a bow.  Considering that Fingolfin is a plate-wearing, sword and javelin wielding veteran of Duke Stev the Gynecologist's (I will explain this later, I promise)  very inventively-named "Elfguard", this did not seem appropriate.  But I can deal with it, so we continued.

We found ourselves in the tavern of Guido's Fort, along the river a ways from the town of Threshold.  A prosperous-looking fellow entered, and began waving around a large bag and shouting.  Apparently, he had recently inherited a castle, but it was full of monsters, and he wanted to hire "Extermination specialists" to clear it out so he could, presumably, live in it.  Several of us raised our hands, and were promised 100 gp each to clear the place out.

Our party of 4 consisted of Fingolfin, the elf, Hanz Verboten, a scrawny thief, Zhanna Titova, an impressive-looking female Cleric of Petra, and Elric something or other, a weedy-looking Wizard.  We looked for henchmen, but apparently none were available - not even stupid farm kids to hold our torches and carry stuff. Disappointing.

Fingolfin and Elric immediately sat down and started copying each other's spellbooks.  Somebody muttered something about "secrecy of the magi", but both of them ignored it and promised never to tell!

Then we loaded up Fingolfin's mule (Bill - it's a tradition) and hiked the five miles to "Castle Caldwell". To say that the place is unimpressive is an understatement.  It's not very big, and appears to be 1 level - a rancher-style castle, as it were.  Leaving Bill outside, we head up the ramp to the main doors, unlocking them with the key provided by the owner, Harold "Harry" Nuckols.

We were then confronted by a hallway with doors on either side.  Starting on the left side, we instruct the thief to listen and see if anything is inside.  He listens carefully, and announced that he hears "Nothing - quiet as a tomb".  This is not terribly reassuring, or surprising - he apparently hears things about 30% of the time...

With the armored elf and cleric blocking the door, we open it, and check the room.  It appears to be an abandoned dining room - tables and chairs covered in cobwebs.  So we toss the place.  Harry did promise that we could keep everything we found!

And boy, do we find stuff.  There is a bag under one of the tables, full of silver coins.  Hundreds of them!  What an excellent start to the day.  Worked for five minutes and already we made more than most farmers do in their ENTIRE FILTHY LIVES!

So we drag the coins outside and bury them in the side of the dirt ramp for later retrieval.  Then, back to the 2nd door!  This time, the thief actually hears something - it's a loud argument in an unknown and unpleasant language.  He tries quietly opening the door, but he sucks at that too, so the short, ugly humanoids that are arguing inside stop arguing and look at the door.

4 of them, 4 of us, and they are standing in a room with literally piles of coins!  Like, BIG piles.  So Fingolfin shouts in Orcish (see ROTS #5) - "Surrender or Die!".  The goblins don't speak orc, don't like elves, and come up with option 3 - CHARGE!  Which they do.

They are met with arrow and sling fire from Elric and Hanz, and a javelin from Fingolfin, who decides not to use the "encounter ender", or sleep as it's otherwise known.  One goes down with an arrow in it, and the other 3 splash up against Zhanna and Fingolfin.

We learn a number of things about this version of DnD in this first combat.  Things like - there are no criticals. 20's are automatic hits, but that's all.  Goblins apparently have very high morale, that's another thing.  Oh, and ALL spells are Dailies - Perry and I got a good laugh about that one.  Also, weapon skills are ree-donculously overpowered.   I'll get into that in a totally separate post.  So we squish 2 more of the goblins, and seriously wound the last one, who promptly surrenders.

After a brief discussion, we decide that we can't trust the goblin, can't talk to him, and therefore elect to squash him.  Zhanna also decides that goblins remind her of "beastmen" who apparently Petra has issues with, so, towel-time (as in, you're going to need a towel to get all the goblin off your armor).

Then we check out what the goblins were arguing over.  Literally THOUSANDS of silver and copper coins.  After some discussion, we drag the table over from the other room, use the other table to build sidewalls and skids, load the coins onto it, and drag the whole mess back to town behind Bill the mule.

We then use the coins to buy, in no particular order, 1 cart, and 3 more mules - we would have got draft horses, but Guido didn't have any for sale. It's now midday, so we retire to the tavern, get some fresh towels and booze, and call it a day.  Ahh, the life of an adventurer!

More About the Slog

For those of you who aren't the sort of voracious fantasy novel readers that I am, the Rules of the Slog might be a somewhat obscure reference.  It's from the new R Scott Bakker novel, The Judging Eye, which is the first book of his second series, the Aspect-Emperor.

If you have not read R Scott Bakker, and are a fantasy fan, they're a very good read - the first 3 anyways.  The new one is a STUPENDOUS read, especially the portion about the dungeon-crawl into the Mansion of the Nonmen.  Really - this is Old-School at it's best.  A few high-level characters, Achamian, Kosoter, Cleric (actually an insane Nonmen wizard), a few mid-level henchmen, and a bunch of low-level grunts, the Skin Eaters, collectively.

The battle scenes in this book are fast-paced, gory and very, very fatal for most participants.  Enemies come out of the dark in shrieking waves, magic is brutally powerful, except when it fails totally, and high-level wizards are engines of destruction who are also terrifically fragile.  If you want to read pretty much exactly what OD&D dungeon-crawling is like, pick up this book!

The rules of the slog are the guidelines of the Skin Eaters, veterans of many trips into hostile territory, populated only by hordes of implacable enemies (aka, adventures).  They are fairly simple rules, enforced with a ruthless lack of compassion.  Rules like: No weepers on the slog.  Fail a morale check with these boys, and you don't get to go home...

For our new Rules Cyclopedia game, I'm working on our own set of "Rules of the Slog".  No, obviously we can't go killing the help - the orcs will take care of that for us, but I think I can come up with some excellent rules of thumb for those unfamiliar with this particular gaming genre.

1) HAVE A PLAN:  Pretty self-explanatory, you would think.  But actually put into place a lot less than you would expect.

2) DON'T PANIC:  If you run, you pretty much just die tired.  I'd rather have a TPK than get cut up piecemeal.

3) STAY IN FORMATION: That means you, thief!  I know you can backstab for tons of damage, but you wear leather and have 3 hp!  So stay the fuck behind the plate-mail and shield boys, OK?

4) IF IT LOOKS LIKE A TRAP, IT IS A TRAP:  The old neckbeards who wrote these modules were evil fucking bastards.

5)  TALK, THEN KILL:  This one is missed pretty often in the era of balanced encounters and milestones.  If you talk to them, you may not actually have to kill them, and better yet, they may not try to kill you.

6)  YOU ARE SQUISHY:  All character, the entire campaign long.  You never really get tough in a save-or-die environment.

I'm sure I'll think of more later.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Not Sure What All the Fuss is About

Well, looks like I'm going to be getting back into some regular gaming now that the summer is over.  My buddy Perry, who I have been playing DnD with since basically forever, is running a once a week, 1-hour Old-School Sandbox game.  We're playing with Rules Compendium R.A.W.  I rolled up an Elf.

Now, I'm normally a Dwarf guy myself - and I could have played a Dwarf no problem, I got a decent enough set of stats.  But I liked the idea of the elf.  Access to any weapons/armor and spellcasting?  You betcha.  So was born Fingolfin the Elf.

It's been a really long time since I read these rules, and I have to say, there is some seriously senseless shit in here.  I've gotten a little punchy in the past with Ole Trollsmythe about the preposterous "D&D is Always Right" garbage that some people spread about, and I see nothing in these rules that changes my mind.

First off - some spells are ridiculously overpowered.  Sleep, just for example.  I like the no saving throw aspect of that.  Light is handy - I'm particularly fond of how blinded people can't attack or move.  Saving throws are very difficult to make, so good luck on that.  Other spells are just absolutely fucking useless, and other stuff is just... so arbitrary.

Like... encumbrance.  This is a flat amount for all characters.  Over 800 cn, and you're at 3/4 move.  Over 1200 and you're at half.  Functionally, this means that my 130 lb elf can haul 119.9 lbs of gear around at 60' per whatever.  In real life, I weigh 230.  120 lbs of gear is fucking brutal.  Roman legionnaires didn't carry that much, and Caesar called them "human mules".

Plus, a 90 lb halfling with str 5 can carry THE SAME AMOUNT OF GEAR.  And my spellbook weighs 200 cn!  WTF?  Even my university collected works of John Milton textbook didn't weigh 20 lbs.  Also - I love the spell selection.  Everyone gets 2 spells, but one of them pretty much has to be "Read Magic", or you won't ever have more than 2 spells.  So why not just give everyone 1 spell and Read Magic?  We'll never, ever know.

I could really go on for hours here - but truth be told, I'm actually really stoked to play this game.  I know this style well - and the rules of the slog are pretty straightforward:
Thou shalt not open doors when you don't know what is behind them.
Thou shalt map like a motherfucker.
Thou shalt NOT get in any stand-up fights if you can help it.
Thou shalt talk first, then fight.
Thou shalt have the thief check EVERYTHING. (even though the rules give a lv 1 thief about a 1/8 chance of actually finding anything - how do they ever get to be high-level thieves?)

Also, we found the most amazing example of gamer OCD - the Vaults of Pandius.  If you ever want to run a Known World/Mystara sandbox - head over here - there is a generation of material available.