Boston Unveiled

Boston Unveiled is the default setting book for Mage: The Awakening. These books serve a couple of functions. The most obvious is to provide a developed setting for chronicles, to save storytellers a bit of time. The other is to provide examples of the ways that the rules can be used, and the sorts of characters you might create. On the whole, I think they are more successful in the second role.

This book is no exception. As a collection of example mages and cabals, it does a very good job. It fills in the details of what the Awakened might do with their time, or want from their power, and, naturally, makes them all slightly tainted, because the series is essentially a set of horror games. The non-mage ideas are also good; I particularly like The Prince of 100,000 Leaves, an imaginative and terrible horror. That’s an idea that I immediately want to steal.

However, I’m not sure that they work so well in the first role. The problem is, I think, inherent to the form. They fix the broad outlines of the chronicle, but leave most of the details to be filled in. However, designing the broad outlines is the fun and easy part; it’s filling in the details that takes time and effort, at least for most people. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to do the details without the broad outlines.

I think the Tribunal books we do for Ars Magica are a bit more useful, because they provide a lot of information on the history and medieval myths of the area, and that saves storyguides a lot of research. But, fundamentally, they suffer from the same problem; they run the risk of cramping the storyguide’s style without saving him a lot of time.

This is not, therefore, a criticism of this book. I think it’s a good book for Mage, and very useful for people playing the game. I’m just not sure that it actually achieves, or can achieve, the ostensible aim.

Skinchangers

This book is a supplement for the World of Darkness, and covers shapechangers of various kinds, as you might guess from the title. The WoD contains a whole game about werewolves, so this book is about other shapechangers. The first chapter is about humans who steal the shapes of animals, generally by killing animals and wearing their skins, or something similar. The second is about people possessed by spirits who make the change shape. The third is a grab-bag, ideas that do not really fit into the categories of the WoD setting. The last category is quite important, because in a horror game, it matters that you have the unknown.

The second chapter has a pet peeve. It takes up the Kitsune, shapeshifting foxes from Japanese mythology, and makes the head fox Inari. Inari is not a fox. Foxes are the messengers of Inari, in Shinto. Grrr. (This is standard RPG fan annoyance when the authors get something wrong in a field I happen to know better than they do. It’s something that, wearing my author’s hat, I have to learn to live with.)

Apart from that, it’s a good book. Several bits inspired me with ideas for stories and characters, which is the main point. The Kitsune, in fact, were good apart from that Inari thing. The Serpent Guardians, snake-spirits who hoard knowledge, also had a lot of story potential. The whole first chapter suggested lots of ideas, for various sorts of skinthieves. I’m not sure that I’ll ever get to use these ideas, but they’ll probably help if and when I have to write other books for the line.

It also confirmed my strongest impression of the new World of Darkness; I want to run a mortals campaign in it. I might segue it into a Mage chronicle at some point, but this version of the WoD is set up to work really well as a horror game for ordinary human characters. There are the layers and layers of secrets needed to make such a game work, as well as powers that humans cannot hope to confront head on. This is something that I never felt that the old World of Darkness really managed, so I think this is a significant improvement in the overall setting. It’s more flexible than the old one.

Overall, then, this is a good, solid book for the World of Darkness, with interesting twists to add to any chronicle.

Promethean: the Created

This is the latest in White Wolf’s new World of Darkness series. Each game covers a monster type, and this time, it’s the turn of Frankenstein’s monster. I have to confess that I wasn’t particularly enthused by the concept, and basically bought the book because, as I’m writing for the new WoD, I feel that I ought to be at least generally familiar with all the major elements of it.

However, the game looks a lot better than I thought. Characters have a fixed goal: become human. The chronicle is of finite length, and is built around achieving that goal. This isn’t like Vampire: the Requiem, where it may be possible to become human again, or may not. It is definitely possible for the created to become human again, and some of those who have done so are around, and may help or hinder those who still seek it. This is, generally, brought off very well, both in the flavour text and in the rule systems.

One of the things that helps is Disquiet, which means that Prometheans draw the hostility of humans, and corrupt the land if they stay in one place for too long. This gives them a good reason to seek humanity, even though that means they will lose their kewl powaz. This is, however, one of the few problems in the book. The description of Disquiet given in much of the text is a lot like The Gift in Ars Magica, creating suspicion and hostility in those who deal with the Promethean in person. However, in the section on Disquiet itself, the description is completely different. Personally, I’d just combine the two, but it was a little disturbing.

A lot of the structure of the book will be familiar to anyone who’s read World of Darkness games. There are five types of Promethean, and five philosophical factions, for a basic total of twenty five possible character types. There are kewl powaz unique to Prometheans (called Transmutations). And there are enemies for Prometheans, in this case Pandorans: the creatures that result when an attempt to create a Promethean goes wrong.

It looks like it would be a fun chronicle to play, and the publishing model is similarly different. After the main rules, the supplements will be published over a single year, and may, in fact, already all be out. This is something that White Wolf have done before, but it does seem particularly well-suited to this game’s concept.

In short, this game appealed to me a lot more than I initially expected. Recommended.

Fury of Shadow

Fury of Shadow is a sourcebook for Midnight, by Fantasy Flight Games. It covers the forest of Erethor, the home of the elves and the last large area free from the control of the Shadow, and against which Izrador has turned all of his fury, hence the product’s title.

It is not a bad product. There are useful descriptions of the whole region, with story ideas, and of the forces massed against elves, along with the defenders of the forest. It would certainly be a major help to anyone running a Midnight campaign set in and around the forest, and should give them a lot of ideas.

However (and you could see that coming, couldn’t you?), it wasn’t absolutely inspiring. I think that may be partly due to a lack of the right sort of detail. What would be inspiring would be if there were well-detailed things that player characters could do, at various levels of power and with various backgrounds, to blunt the assault of the forces of Shadow, along with some consideration of how that would affect the outcome of the war. The default course of the war is detailed, and it isn’t good for the elves, although they are not completely defeated. There is even a bit of background on how player characters could intervene at various points. I feel, however, that developing these in a bit more detail, and making them a bit more specific, might have improved the product.

Ego Boost

This post on the White Wolf forums has made me feel all warm, fuzzy and competent.

So, obviously, I have to tell everyone about it. Look! Look! I have a fan who isn’t my mother!

OK, more seriously, this is one of the things that makes writing worthwhile. The Guardian had an interview with Keira Knightley, in which she said that, if she believed the good stuff, she’d have to believe the bad stuff as well, so it’s better not to believe anything. While we’re in very different situations (like, she’s actually famous), I can’t agree with that position.

I think one of the things that’s hardest to learn, really learn, when going into a creative industry, or just being creative, is that you can’t please everyone. I mean, everyone knows that. It’s a cliché. On the other hand, it’s remarkably difficult to really understand and accept it on a gut level. You can’t please everyone. That means, in concrete terms, that there will be actual people who do not like your work. In this age of blogs, mailing lists, and internet fora, there is a reasonable chance that they will tell you so. Possibly at length, and almost certainly in terms of objective failure.

All this tells you, though, is that you really can’t please everyone.

On the other hand, I’m not creative purely for myself. Some people are, but I want to give pleasure to, and maybe inspire thought in, at least some other people. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with creating purely for yourself, and I do it sometimes; there are files on my hard drive that are not intended for other people to see (and not exclusively because they’re about sex, either). But it’s not what I’m doing in the material that I have published.

Thus, the appearance of people, like the poster in the thread I referenced, who like my work to the point of describing themselves as a “big fan” of it, means that I have succeeded. Obviously, the more people who think that way, the better, all else being equal, but if there’s even one such person, I haven’t failed. I’ve merely chosen a minority form of expression. (If there were only one, I’d have failed commercially, but that’s a different issue.)

So, I think you can believe both the good and the bad. The bad tells you nothing new, just that you can’t please everyone. The good, on the other hand, does tell you something new. It tells you that, in at least some cases, you have succeeded. It tells you that your work was artistically successful.

And that, I think, is well worth knowing.

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.)