The Hour of the Dragon

About five and a half years ago, Borders in Cambridge had a sale on the Fantasy Masterworks series. I bought a lot of them, sure that I would get round to reading them eventually. I have just finished getting through them. (I still have some other books that I brought with me from England, but none quite so old. I do have journals from that long ago, though, still waiting to be read.) The one I’ve just read is the second volume of the collected stories of Conan the Barbarian.

I actually enjoyed this rather more than I expected to. While they are not going to join the list of my favourite books ever, they were definitely fun. Conan is implausibly strong, with impossible stamina and fighting skills, and a remarkable tendency to meet extremely attractive women in metal bikinis. Or nothing at all. He tends to go into underground complexes, kill monsters, and come out with treasure.

Oh my god, it’s Dungeons and Dragons.

D&D is often described as “Tolkienesque”, but the basic narrative structure is not very much like Tokien at all. In fact, back when I was writing for the Lord of the Rings RPG, one of the really striking things was how little like the standard D&D conventions Tolkien’s work actually was. Similarly, although Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books are cited as influences, and some ideas were simply lifted, the tone of the Dying Earth is nothing like the tone of D&D. (And the Dying Earth roleplaying game is very, very different from D&D, as it should be.)

Conan the Barbarian, on the other hand, reads more like a write-up of a D&D session than most D&D novels. (OK, “than most of the D&D novels I have read”, which only comes to a tiny fraction of the total published.) Since Conan is one of the archetypal “pulp” story series, this means that D&D is really a pulp RPG.

And this, dear readers, is why Conan the Barbarian counts as work for me. This sort of realisation is directly relevant to writing games, because it gives a bit more insight into what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s a good thing I love my job.

Midnight, Second Edition

I think I might be able to catch up a bit on writing about the books I’ve been reading. The problems with my blog meant I fell behind, and then I was busy with work. However, today is a public holiday here (Spring Equinox), so I have no students, and my other work went well this morning, so I’m finished very early.

So: Midnight, Second Edition. This is a setting for d20 (Dungeons and Dragons, basically) that can be summed up in two words: “Sauron won”. It is a hundred years after the Dark Lord won the final battle against the forces of good, and you get to play the resistance.

The setting is Tolkienesque, as it really has to be to work. The basic idea, after all, is that the thing you can absolutely rely on in Tolkienesque fantasy didn’t happen. The elves are perhaps the most reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings, bringing Galadriel and Lothlorien irresistably to mind. The dwarfs are also a lot like Tolkien’s. The humans and other races, however, are rather different. The Dark Lord (called Izrador) is served by armies of orcs, but also has human priests.

Characters themselves are made rather more powerful than they are in standard d20 games, unless they are spellcasters, in which case they are weaker, particularly at high levels. In addition, there are few magic items, and treasure means food or tools, not gold or gems. This makes the basic experience very different from standard D&D, and, probably not accidentally, rather more like The Lord of the Rings.

And that brings me to the only real weakness with the setting book: it is not quite clear enough how you should run adventures in the setting. Overthrowing Izrador is explicitly beyond the scope of the game, reasonably enough. In the setting, holding the line against him is the best that has ever been achieved. The book is not clear on what could be achieved, however. Could the PCs reasonably hope to liberate a city and hold it against the armies of the Dark God? Unite the dwarfs? Destroy the great tower of Theros Obsidia, the fortress where Izrador’s presence manifests? Kill one of the Night Kings, the four dread lieutenants of Izrador? The guidelines do say that it is important to keep hope alive, but don’t make it clear what the designers envisage you hoping for.

I have the first edition as well, and the second edition does spend more time on this topic, but it still isn’t enough, in my opinion.

Of course, I can make my own decisions. Personally, I’d let a group of player characters achieve any of the things on the list above, although I probably wouldn’t let one group achieve all of them. The setting does provide lots of places where adventure can happen, and in that respect it’s an excellent piece of work. It also covers a wide range of possible styles of play; it’s even possible to get away from the constant threat of Izrador and play more “classic” adventures, although doing that all the time would rather miss the point.

Overall, then, I can recommend this book. It does what it sets out to do very well, and the only flaw is one that any competent GM can easily rectify.

Power of Faerun

I’ve just finished reading Power of Faerun, a Forgotten Realms book for D&D. I have to confess that I wasn’t over-impressed with it. It wasn’t actively bad; quality control at Wizards of the Coast is far too good for that to happen. However, it was distinctly uninspiring.

It’s a background book, dealing with high-level (powerful) characters in the Forgotten Realms setting. Each chapter covers different sorts of things that they can do. Unfortunately, most of these chapters failed to inspire me with lots and lots of ideas. A good RPG setting book should inspire the reader with more ideas than he could possibly use in a lifetime, and quite a lot of the previous Forgotten Realms books have actually done so, for me. I like the Forgotten Realms setting, because it’s “classic” high fantasy done well. It’s a good roleplaying setting, in a style that I find appealing. Thus, good setting books for that world tend to inspire me.

This book generally failed. The chapters seemed not to go beyond “Your character could become a high priest!”, “Your character could lead an army!”, and so on. There was very little that generated ideas beyond the obvious, or looked likely to save me substantial amounts of time if I actually wanted to use the material in play.

It wasn’t a complete failure; there were a number of vignettes and examples that inspired some ideas. But it did strike me as weaker than most books in the line. It’s also not obvious how it should have been done, because there are a lot of options. I think this format could have been done better, with a heavier emphasis on adventure and campaign ideas, but the format could also have been changed. For example, one chapter is about becoming a religious leader. That could easily be a whole book, with each chapter giving details of the current politics of one major faith in Faerun, and pointing out how a player character could rise through the ranks, and the problems he would face. Or a book could cover all the aspects of power for one region of Faerun, including a discussion of how to get all the characters in a standard party into positions of power at once: the cleric leading a temple, the wizard the power behind the throne, the fighter a border lord with an important keep, and the rogue a merchant prince.

So, a bit uninspiring. Essential for Realms completists, obviously, but probably not for anyone else. Although you should still buy it through my link to Amazon. (I suspect I’m not going to get much money from the link from this review, but then I don’t get much money from the links anyway.)