Category Archives: fantasy

V. Schwab’s A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC, reviewed


A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Man, I really wanted to like this book. It has all the elements that I’m usually game to read from cover to cover instantly– a touch of magical realism, set in vaguely familiar proto-steampunky, parallel universes, evil guys, good guys, cynical guys. A plucky heroine from the bad side of town, with a heart of gold. The setting is this sort of mystical micro-universe where there are four known variants of existence– Grey London, Red London, White London, and a fourth, vanished Black London. Grey London (of course) is the London we all know from THIS world, the one in Britain, at the time of George III. Magic is almost unknown there. Red London, a much funner place where magic flourishes, a good dynasty reigns over a country that is not-England (although London stays London in all of them). White London is a harsh place where two descendants of Vikings(?) rule by murder and coercion. Black London was destroyed in a magical cataclysm that sealed the worlds off from one another– it is apparently the place where magic is sentient, seeking more power by devouring human hosts. I think? There are only two individuals that can transverse the boundaries of the Londons– they are the ‘Antari’, depicted with one solid black eye and one normal eye. The Red London Anatari is Kell, who spends his time as an errand boy for the Red London Royalty, and smuggling artifacts from various Londons. In addition, he is the property of the Royal Family, and adopted brother to the Red London Prince (Rye). Of course, Kell is considered a bit of a rogue but responsible enough to be riding heard on his womanizing brother Rye. Rye is a familiar trope in fantasy, a rogue and a wastrel (they say, we don’t see much of it) who is growing into the role of the future king who will one day have to take life seriously and blah blah blah. The other Antari is Holland, from White London (of whom, more later) Kell, the adopted Red Antari, is on a mission to White London (a nasty place with the Bad People in it) and he gets hoodwinked/set up/made a fall guy to pick up a package that turns out to have a half of a stone token from mythical (destroyed) Black London. He gets ambushed in Red London, flees to Grey London, and runs afoul of the OTHER Antari, the decidedly nastier Holland. Holland is apparently behind a conspiracy(?) to dominate? control? the other Londons, to open them up to conquest by proxy by White London, using the Wild Magic amulet (the Black Stone from Black London, which is a super magic weapon).
While Kell is hiding from Holland in Grey London, he encounters the other POV character, Lila Bard. Lila is yet another fantasy/steampunk trope, the plucky but lovable guttersnipe who dresses like a man and has the heart for adventure. She is a pickpocket, a cutpurse, and a girl makin’ it on the mean streets of almost-victorian London (George III is on the throne, yet they have revolvers in common use? Whaaaaah?) Anyway, she’s tough.. the author reinforces how tough as nails and bitter she is. Page after page. Awkward dialogue after awkward dialogue. We get it. Kell and Lila make an awkward alliance to bring the stone back to Black London where it will be safe, adventures transpire, lots of people get killed willy-nilly, and the vast extent of the betrayal of, well, you know, the bad guys, becomes clear. Except it doesn’t. There were two things that bothered me about this book. I like the basic concept just fine, I love the parallel Londons idea.. but man, the execution was clumsier than a new born chick running a marathon. The dialogue was very hackneyed in places. I think if I had a nickel for how many times I read “Lila.. (dramatic pause)… RUN!” .. well, I’d have a mess o’ nickels. And the motivation! What the heck? WHY do the bad guys do what they do? WHY? Sure, Holland is evil and twisted, but we never know what he thinks, he’s just a creepy ciper. And the mega bad guy.. he’s a monologing psycho from the old school, but what the hell made him so angry at Kell? Wasn’t Kell useful to everyone who wanted to talk or trade between worlds, just a while ago? Aren’t there only TWO of these guys? Why be angry at him? Why try to kill him?  Just because you have an evil plan? So the Big Big Bad is hard to understand, therefore their motivations are murky and the plot and denouement kind are kind of a big muddle.

With that said, A Darker Shade of Magic did have some great, although not exactly original ideas, with the Red-Gray-White-Black London setting, the various flavors of magic, the Antari (all two of them) and how it all kind of lurched to an ending eventually. V.E. Schwab isn’t what I would consider a great literary stylist but I’m sure this series (and it will be a series, I checked) will go down well with the Young Adult crowd. For me, it started out well but became a bit of a chore to get through, so I’ll give it 3 stars.

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ROGUES: An Anthology by G. Martin and G. Dozois, Reviewed


RoguesROGUES by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the best reasons to read a themed anthology like this is that it gives you a peek at authors that you either already like or haven’t discovered yet. ROGUES delivers on this promise nicely. This is my first anthology of (mostly) SF/F writers edited by George RR Martin, though not my first by Gardner Dozois. The theme is “Rogues”.. those people who aren’t good, aren’t bad, but mostly out for themselves in the most amusing way possible. Martin didn’t just plow the field of fantasy and science fiction for this book– there were some great examples from the mystery and historical fiction genre, too. I was surprised how densely packed this anthology is. I won’t call out every single short story in the book, but I definitely will mention the ones that I thought were standout:

“Tough Times All Over” by Joe Abercrombie
Well, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Joe Abercrombie, I haven’t been stinting on his praises. Tough Times all Over reads like a continuous moving shot in a motion picture– a very important package is robbed from a courier, and exchanges hands multiple times through the story before it culiminates.. clever structure and illustrates the theme nicely with Abercrombie’s trademark dry wit.

“What Do You Do?” by Gillian Flynn
One of my favorites in this anthology was the story of a sex worker turned con-woman and spiritualist encountering what is, possibly, a real haunting. Or maybe not. Her wonderfully blase ending leaves the reader wondering. By the author of Gone Girl, which definitely flavored this piece.

“The Inn of the Seven Blessings” by Matt Hughes
Where has Matt Hughes been in my reading life? I loved this story– all about a very personable and human thief encountering a caper with tiny god, possession, raving cannibal beasts, and a treacherous acolyte. Told in a very endearing, humorous style that echoed Shea or Vance.

“Bent Twig” by Joe R. Lansdale
My favorite shit-kickin’ literary genius from East Texas delivers up a short Hap and Leonard story complete with beat downs, ambushes and ass-kicking. Great fun.

“Tawny Petticoats” by Michael Swanwick
Sure, I had read Swanwick before, but nothing from the universe of Tawny Petticoats, and her odd New Orleans with hired zombie labor, wizards, witches and werewolves. Loved this, want to see more.

“Provenance” by David W. Ball
A fun little art heist with a great twist ending. Not the best, but very readable.

“A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” by Scott Lynch
One of two stories I read twice… mostly because I just discovered Scott Lynch and the Gentlemen Bastards series. This is a somewhat different setting.. a retired thief in a city run by Super-Wizards gets set an impossible task by one of the ruling council. Fantastic setting, I hope there are more of them in this universe.

“Bad Brass” by Bradley Denton
A contemporary humorous mystery, about a ring of thugs flogging stolen band instruments in a Texas town. The OTHER story I read twice. It was amusing, funny and kept me engaged throughout, and ends on an upbeat note.

“Ill Seen in Tyre” by Steven Saylor
I like Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder series, and the blase mention of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in this story had me hooked– really funny ending and perfect for the anthology theme. Kind of light.

“The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives” by Lisa Tuttle
A Victorian feminine “Watson” character playing off a decidedly vaguely formed replacement Sherlock. as they investigate a ring of suspicious burials and disappearances. Much of the narrative returns to “a woman making it in a man’s world” themes, but the story passes over this to deliver a very mysterious tale of hypnotism and malice.

“How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” by Neil Gaiman
A shortish visit into the Neverwhere universe with Neil Gaiman. A very amusing narrative of an adventure of The Marquis of Carabas, the smooth talking rogue from Neverwhere, as he searches for his stolen coat in an adventure featuring mushroom people, an Elephant, and his sworn enemy. Quite amusing.

The other stories were certainly worthy, or at least that’s what my short term memory tells me. If I can’t remember much about them two weeks after reading them, draw your own conclusions. As it turns out I have already bought some follow on novels from some of the new discoveries I made in this anthology, so mission accomplished, Mr. Martin. You win this round!

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Discworld on Youtube


I’m an off again on again fan of Discworld by the late great Sir Terry Pratchett, who sadly left us last year. One of the problems with living on the right side of the Atlantic Ocean is that you sometimes aren’t in the know about what gets produced for British Television, although that is changing quickly with the advent of BBC America. So I am totally not hip about some cultural artifacts that our British cousins enjoy that we may never hear of. Just yesterday I heard of a few from the realm of Discworld, Terry Pratchett’s universe featuring a flat disc shaped world supported on the backs of four giant elephants on the back of a giant tortoise that sails through space. Do I need to explain this? Of course not. Anyway, apparently there are a few locations where one can find BBC (I expect) adaptions of Discworld novels, for internet viewing. I had no idea this existed, I’m not sure what the limitations are, and I kind of feel bad about sharing it, but shucks, I figure they’ll be shut down soon enough. Let’s party!

GOING POSTAL (TV mini series, 2010, based on the 33rd Discworld novel of the same name)

first of several links.

HOGFATHER the 20th novel in the Discworld series (another mini series, this time by Sky One, aired in 2006 at Christmas time, appropriately).

part 1 of 4.

THE COLOUR OF MAGIC, the first novel in the Discworld series of course! (Another special from Sky One, in 2008)
part 1 of unknown parts.

So, that is what I know of for now. I hear tell there are to animated films floating around in the aetherverse, but they have eluded me so far.

I know what I’ll be bingewatching shortly.

If the links are broken at some point, don’t kvetch. They come and go on Youtube, for obvious reasons.

Review: Frostgrave Cultists, by Northstar Miniatures


FROSTGRAVE CULTISTS Warband box
Plastic soldiers, 28mm scale, sold as sprues that are assembled into a variety of poses
URL: http://www.northstarfigures.com/prod.php?prod=7731
Created for the game FROSTGRAVE (Osprey Publishing) but can be used for a variety of skirmish games in the 28mm scale. Not really a good addition to historical army, the fantasy theme is very pronounced.

I picked up a box of Frostgrave “Cultist” figures at the recent Cold Wars convention. This is a big box of assemble it yourself plastic figures– and I mean big, you can make 20 figures with this box. The intent of the plastic soldiers is to quickly give a Frostgrave player suitably Winter-themed troops to rapidly bulk up warbands. I’ll stress up front they aren’t required to play the game– you can play Frostgrave with anything that seems to fit the scale and setting. I got them because they looked pretty good (I love pointy headed cultist heads), they are in scale, and there’s a lot of them.

The Box Cover. Click to enlarge.

Details: There are 4 sprues with 5 body variations on them (I think). Essentially a mixture of cloth, leather armor, maybe some studded leather. There are many head variants in this box, most of them with pointy hats, helmets or hoods. Only two bare headed head variants per sprue, I used those sparingly. There is also a few weapon variants sculpted to represent skull heads and skeletal arms. Decent variations for possible weapons– a two handed knobbed club, a bow, a crossbow (two handed), several variations of hand weapons, mostly a Kopesh, a small sword, various daggers, a couple of target style shields, a spear etc. There are some hand-only variations and nice extra bits (like quivers, pouches, sheathed knives etc) to add to the figures to increase variation. Sculpting is excellent here– very detailed and weird looking cultists with a variety that really sells it. The best part of this set is just how well the two-handed weapon sculpts fit on every body type provided, every time, with minimal glue. The plastic type is hard gray styrene, you will need a Testor’s style glue to construct them. Every body provided comes with a matching styrene circular base.

And here’s my first batch of cultists. I actually did make 20, one of them broke and was drying after a repair job. Click to enlarge

I only have them primed up at the moment but they will take a coat of paint nicely. I’m very pleased with my first “war band” purchase from North Star. I would give this a 4 out of 5, for a few minor nits about weapons choices (I would have liked to have a longsword carried by a human arm, and larger shields so we could indicate Men at Arms types, but that really IS minor).

If you purchase these, and North Star’s other warbands, they should mix very well with the regular soldier types and the follow-on skeletons. Don’t throw away the sprues whatever you do. I had to fix some broken weapons pretty quickly– be sure to use a storage system with some padding as the swords can be a little fragile. Scale wise they mix perfectly with 28mm pewter from the same company, but would also work with Warhammer Fantasy (although they might be a tad chunky in comparison), Reaper miniatures, even older pre-painted monsters from the D&D Miniature and Pathfinder miniatures lines, although the latter may lack detail in comparison.

I’m glad I bought these cultists, they will be very handy going forward with Frostgrave games.

Small Wars: Frostgrave, what’s it all about


Today’s SMALL WARS post is about FROSTGRAVE, the new-ish fantasy skirmish game set in the frost shrouded city that gives the game its name. Frostgrave is a game of magic, combat, looting and exploration that combines a little old and a little new with a strong fantasy narrative element that fosters both a connected campaign game and good storytelling.


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Amidst the frozen ruins of an ancient city, wizards battle in the hopes of discovering the treasures of a fallen empire. In this fantasy skirmish wargame, each player takes on the role of a wizard from one of ten schools of magic, and builds his band of followers. The wizard’s apprentice will usually accompany his master, and more than a dozen other henchman types are available for hire, from lowly thugs to heavily armoured knights and stealthy thieves. Wizards can expand their magical knowledge by unlocking ancient secrets and may learn up to 80 different spells. While individual games of Frostgrave are quick and can easily be played in an hour or two, it is by connecting them into an ongoing campaign that players will find the most enjoyment. The scenarios given in the book are merely the beginning of the limitless adventures that can be found amidst the ruins of the Frozen City. [Osprey Publishing]

[editorial note— I use the phrase “blue line” here to represent most of Osprey Publishing’s recent output of low-cost, introductory miniature game rules on a myriad of subjects, both historical and fantastical, because of their distinctive use of the color blue on the cover.  Osprey does not use this term as far as I know]

frostgraveFrostgrave came out from Osprey Publishing earlier this year (2015), with the usual minimal fanfare I associate with an Osprey wargame release– I knew nothing about this game, then suddenly it was on the Osprey publisher table at wargame conventions, on Amazon, and there was some online buzz associated with it, about as much as any other “blue series” Osprey wargame– one more among the horde of releases, in my opinion.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the blue line series of rules, and I’m happy that Osprey is stepping up to the plate and supporting the natural marriage of great historical art and somewhat okay wargame rules at a very affordable price.  I especially like the Kindle releases of said rules, for various reasons.  I do think the flood of releases tends to create a “cult of the new” effect, when Osprey Publishing might be better employed releasing fewer rulebooks a year and doing the legwork associated with new entertainment products– building some social media buzz, energizing a fan base, recruiting some GMs to run high-profile demo games, etc.  For all I know, this is being done, somewhere, I just haven’t seen much of it in the historical miniatures community.  A quick look at the Preliminary Events List (PEL) at a recent Historical theme miniatures convention (Fall-IN! 2015) showed few, if any, games being run from Osprey publishing previous line of blue line rules.  That’s including In Her Majesty’s Name, a blue line game release that came out with lots of fanfare, two expansion books and a series of excellent 28mm figures from Northstar Miniatures.   In Her Majesty’s Name has only been out since the middle of 2014, and already, well, nada… and it’s a great little game, too!

One game I did start to notice being run at conventions (including Fall-IN!) was Frostgrave, released in the first half of 2015, was not following the “blue line pattern”.  First of all, it’s not a thin paperback, not that there is anything wrong with that.  The print edition is a large format hardcover, with extensive and vibrant illustration throughout.  It’s also 96 pages, which is quite a bit more extensive then the smaller paperbacks.  That’s not all fluff and superfluous stuff, either, but lots and lots of supporting material for the game, including campaign options, but we’ll get to that shortly.

To characterize Frostgrave by a certain type, it’s a points-based, fantasy themed skirmish game set in a consistent universe, namely of various parties investigating the ruins of an ancient city of Frostgrave.  If that sounds familiar to gamers with longer memories, yes, this has been done before as a game– namely Mordheim, by Games Workshop.   Mordheim used a very similar framework for a fantasy skirmish game back in 1999, where small bands of adventurers explored another ancient city for the same motivations– treasure and glory.  Mordheim was a big hit back in its day and (in my recollection) a pretty good small skirmish set– I have seen it adapted to many other settings besides fantasy, including a WW2 game I played in.  One of the selling points of Mordheim was the continuous campaign concept, which is also a feature of Frostgrave, and I suspect will contribute to Frostgrave having a longer shelf life.

Wizards, Schools, Spells and Warbands

The primary focus of Frostgrave is the individual Wizard character.  These are not the wimpy magic users of old D&D.   These are tough, hard-bitten specialists that live lives of adventure, plundering ruins, stealing loot, and they are not shy about reaching for some iron when the magic runs low.  Wizards study at ten schools of magic.  Schools of magic form complex relationships with each other– some being aligned, some being opposed, and some neutral.  This effects spells selection,and in a greater sense, how the game will play out tactically.

Chronomancy
Elementalism
Enchantment
Illusionist
Necromancy
Sigilism
Soothsaying
Summoning
Thaumaturge
Witchery
Table 1: Schools of Wizardy

Each school has a list of spells associated with it (See table 2) and he or she must choose EIGHT of them to start. Three must come from the Wizard’s OWN school of magic, one must come from each of the three ALIGNED schools of magic, and the last two must be from any of the five NEUTRAL schools of magic.  Each description of a school has a small table outlining alliances, neutral schools and opposing schools to make it clear.

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Table 2: Spell list per School

All of these spells have their strengths and weaknesses.  I think this is one of the detail areas that really lends a certain color to Frostgrave games.  Most of these spells are firmly within the “flavor” of their School and caster-type.  Illusionists rely on perception spells, such as Monstrous Form and Beauty.  Elementalists are kind of like magic style Green Lanterns, summoning big Elemental hammers and bolts and shields.  Chronomancy spells localize “something” and allow it to pass through time– causing decay, crumbling, and petrification, but also speeding someone up really well.  If you are at all versed in fantasy style roleplaying games, you know about all you need to know about the background to Frostgrave’s magic and wizardry.  There’s nothing particularly new about it to any avid fantasy geek.

The Wizard’s existence is summed up as a collection of statistics (called a stat line) describing how he performs.. none of that is particularly new to a roleplaying fan– Move, Fight, Shoot, Armour, Will and Health.  The higher the number, the better.  I’m from the “people move a certain way, swing a sword a certain way, fire shooty things in a certain way, defend in a certain way and run away when they don’t want to hang out any more” school of design.  In other words, all the actions defined by the “stat line” are, and should be, generic.  There just isn’t a need for that much detail there.  Frostgrave gets high marks from me for making all this stuff as simple as possible.

Warbands are another critical element to this game.  Wizards may have spells at the ready but it’s suicide to enter the ruins of Frostgrave alone.  A smart wizard recruits some cannon fodder erm, hirelings to accompany them into the ruins.  The wizard gets 500 gold crowns (GC) to hire muscle on a points/cost basis.  A must-have is an Apprentice Wizard for 200 GC.  He (or she) is a little insurance for long campaign games where the boss wizard might perish from wounds.  The Apprentice can rise up and take the boss’s place, and hire another apprentice!  There is a wide range of potential hirelings from the rulebook that can bulk up the wizard’s followers into a proper warband (see table 3).  In addition, the FRPG savvy Frostgrave player can probably add anything that seems to fit into this table, as long as it has a workable stat line associated with it.

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Table 3: Warband Hirelings (from the Frostgrave rulebook)

This is another area that adds color and customization to the game.  I could easily see slinking into Frostgrave, my Wizard being followed by his hireling thief, assassin, and infantrymen.

What do we do with all this stuff?

So you have some miniatures painted, and warbands assembled and some decent terrain put together?  What next?  You actually get into the mechanics of playing the game.  Don’t worry, they’re very easy to pick up.

  1. Initiative
  2. Action Phases in this order:
    1. Wizard
    2. Apprentice
    3. Soldier
    4. Creature

That’s pretty much the bulk of the game sequence.  Action Phases allow each active agent to perform two actions– moving, shooting, casting a spell, etc.  Combat is pretty simple skirmish stuff.  If you have played a skirmish miniatures wargame of ANY kind, including historical, all of this is fairly familiar to you.  Movement hampered or boosted by terrain, objects as cover, melee when bases come into contact, etc etc.  As I’ve alluded to above, I favor a KISS principle for running miniature skirmish games and Frostgrave is all about simplicity.  I’m not criticizing, here.  I think the familiarity that many experienced players will bring to this game is a big strength.  Frostgrave is like comfort food.. meatloaf rather than Pâté, to be sure, but it’s still a tasty meal.   There are some chrome elements of the game– critical hits and the like, and casting spells is a process that can be heavily modified by the tactical situation, but all of this is rather well defined and easy to understand.

Victory (kind of), or the long game

“Winning” is an open ended concept with Frostgrave.  You can score points by gathering treasure, but the real winner is the guy with troops (and most importantly, a living Wizard) who live to loot another day.  Frostgrave plays very well as a one-off 2-3 hour long skirmish game in a fantasy setting, but I think the game really shows its true colors when you start playing campaigns, which the rulebook concerns itself with from chapter 3 onward. There’s a certain satisfaction watching your characters grow with experience.  I haven’t seen that since.. since.. Mordheim, actually!   I have yet to play anything but a couple of quick skirmish games, myself, but the game left me wanting to continue my character from game to game.  If you want a good workable campaign system for fantasy combat, this is the game for you.

In Summary

I think Osprey Publishing has developed a great little game in Frostgrave.  There’s nothing extremely innovative about the game itself– if I could sum it up in a sentence, I’d say that Osprey has taken the fast melee sequence out of a D&D dungeon crawl and called it a skirmish game.  Before I get grief for that statement, understand that I think that’s a great thing.  Many people don’t have the time for long drawn out roleplaying sessions where they build the game narrative through repetitive trips to town to buy things, research things, interact with the local tavern and government.  Frostgrave assumes this is taking place off screen and focuses on the bare-knuckle brawl once the action starts.  I like this approach a lot– it’s about as RPG as I can get at my age and level of commitment.  The game is very well supported by Osprey and supporting material is already being published.  I just picked up Thaw of the Lich Lord and I believe other publications are about to drop or are scheduled for early 2016.   Northstar Figures, whom Osprey partnered with for the In Her Majesty’s Name game (and expansions), is producing quality 28mm figures to represent the primary wizard types, with apprentices, war band soldiers and some summoned creatures.  These are in the popular 28mm scale and can be easily supplemented with standard FRPG miniatures or GW Fantasy figures.

 Northstar Figures Frostgrave miniatures

I have a few of Northstar Figures wizard packs and will be painting them up shortly and blogging about the project, like one does.

In FROSTGRAVE, Osprey Publishing has found a system with legs that plays fast, can be taught quickly to novices, and is big and colorful with a wide-open fantasy milieu.  It’s already being played at conventions and I suspect it will grow in popularity as long as Osprey keeps supporting it.  Osprey should probably develop an outrider-style program for GMs who want to run Frostgrave at cons, as I could easily see this game gaining some traction in the upcoming year.  Well done, Osprey.

 

 

The Burning City, by Niven/Pournelle, reviewed


The Burning CityThe Burning City by Larry Niven

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do not have much background in Larry Niven’s Magical parallel universe of Warlock and drowned Atlantis, but that’s mostly a matter of missed opportunity. I have read LIMITS, the short story collection, which references Lion’s Tower, which plays a part in this tale. Niven has a certain style, so does Pournelle, and when they write together it is often different for either author’s style on their own. The combined Niven and Pournelle authorial voice is less engaging than either writer by himself, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable as a team– as anyone who has read The Mote in God’s Eye, Footfall or Inferno can attest to. Still, I think both a protagonist and plot might suffer from being divided between authors, and I think that might be the case with the Burning City. I like the Magical universe setting– especially for the reason that Magic is treated as a non-renewable resource. The energy that powers the universe, Mana, started being used up long before the events in this novel and only occurs naturally in a series of unlikely places where Wizards don’t usually go. The setting for the first part of the novel is Tepps’ Town, home of Whandall Feathersnake, the novel’s protagonist. Whandall is a “Lordkin”, which is group of sanctioned thugs that routinely commit crimes against a conquered underclass, called the Kinless.  In addition to this, there is a mysterious, only semi-defined group called the Lords, who live in a better part of town that the Lordkin are not allowed in on pain of death.

Magic doesn’t appear to work in Tepp’s Town, as a result of the intervention of the local fire deity, Yangan-Atep.  Yangan Atap has almost grown dormant over the years but still wields great influence in the town. For instance, cooking fires go out when lit indoors. The central character, Whandall, spends his childhood and young adulthood in Tep’s Town, plotting to escape.. somehow. The second half is Whandall as an adult, having fled Tep’s Town to start a new life as a Trader, and the confluence of events that bring him and a Wizard comrade back to Tep’s Town again.

As I’ve mentioned, the Niven/Pournelle combination creates characters that don’t’ reveal much about their motivations and desires. So there was a lot of me rewinding, rereading passages and pondering where the heck THAT came from going on as I read. There’s a lot of allegory in this book– The crazy custom of burning the city to the ground that occurs once in a great while while the citizenry is possessed by Yangen-Atep clearly is meant to portray the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King beating (in fact, Rodney King shows up, after a fashion, in this novel, and yes, his beating does set in motion a great burning). There were a lot of quirky references to real or literary events in the Burning City, including the Tale of Othello, the O.J. Simpson murder case and others.   The entire Lord-Lordkin-Kinless relationship evokes modern imagery of race relations in Los Angeles (on purpose, I think)– and perhaps the mysterious “Toranesti” are the LA Cops?  Hard to say!

For all of their standoffish literary style I ended up liking the setting and the story of Tepp’s Town and Whandall quite a bit. It takes a while to jump in with both feet, but it is a very satisfactory read after you figure out the world that Whandall lives in.

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Citadel of Blood (SPI, ARES magazine) now in digital rules library


The original ARES #5 cover

I guess I’m on a roll! Making DEATHMAZE for epub format recently had me re-reading Citadel of Blood, the Deathmaze-style tile-laying dungeon crawl game that was published in ARES Magazine, issue 5, in 1980. This magazine can be found in the Internet Archive as a PDF download, and an EPUB download. However, the epub download is of very poor quality, so I remade it from scratch.

I’m fairly pleased with the results. I added a few graphics here and there and that bumped up the file size a little. I think it’s far better than the epub that was on the Archive, and easier to read than the original PDF on the archive, as it’s based on an old scan.

However, if you are interested in a high quality READABLE PDF (graphics intact!) of Citadel of Blood, I strongly suggest you check out the great Todd Sanders’ re-imaging of Citadel of Blood he completed in 2012. The graphic update is splendid, the tiles and counters excellent, and you just need to invest in some glue and cutting time. FILES ARE HERE (in the FILES section).

You will find the EPUB in the DIGITAL RULES section of this website, under “Commercial games, out of print”.

NOTE! This is JUST an Epub file, for use when playing the physical game and you want to read the rules on a tablet. It does not have any counter images, map tiles, or anything other than the rules themselves. If you want to play the actual game instead of reading it, you’ll need the physical components for the game. I don’t think there’s a better set around for this game than what Todd Sanders has created (including the originals published by SPI). Check out the links above.

Game Camp 2014, Day Two: BDB Quest for the ORB Pt. 1


Tuesday was a day taken up with running the MAD QUEST FOR THE ORB OF POWER scenario again. This was the scenario I ran at HISTORICON two weeks ago, with minor changes– we introduced the Little People Flotilla in this game, as well as Aquatic Mines.

The objective of the game was the same– Gordon the Enchanter has holed up in his Wizard Tower, with a lot of hired swords and big guns surrounding his little island. He has spent a lot of gold and a lot of time hijacking the Orb of Power, a magical artifact of such great power that it will upset the balance of power in the Middle Sea for generations.

Gordon’s Tower

THIS IS PART ONE OF TWO Basically the kids navigated around the tower, encountered outposts of mercenaries on the outer ring fo Gordon’s defenses– just mercenaries and gun batteries. This proved to be tough work for the Brothers of Saint Brendan, who dropped off a landing party of four coracles full eagerly rowing Brothers, trying to perform a conversion or two.

Woops! Don’t row in front of a battery of quick firing guns!

The Bone Brigade attacked straight out at full speed and made the base of the tower quickly, but got shot to pieces by missile fire. They did get a major landing party ashore under fire, which is commendable. They were immediately engaged by Tower Guards, and the issue is still in doubt.

The Wood Elves and the Little People’s Flotilla were slow to come into conflict, just fighting with one battery which was quickly subdued.

Sylan Terror (Wood Elves) and Things 1 and 2 (LP Flotilla)

The Seng covered a lot of distance and when it became the back of the tower was mined with aquatic mines, effectively used a Spell of Gaseous Form to go over the mines with no harm coming the their ship, the Grey Empress Tzu.

As the game is a bit of a bear to set up, with lots of figures and pieces, we didn’t get started until late, and could only play for 2 and a half hours. I budgeted some extra time to play BDB, and it paid off, we will be running this scenario tomorrow first thing. It’s really heating up to be a fun battle.

Here’s a SLIDESHOW of the BDB Game, enjoy!

A Magic System for Big Danged Boats



In the existing version of BDB, magic, or “the ability to alter reality” is touched upon as a faction power– the goodly Brothers of Saint Brendan can pray the sea state down to calmer waters (by playing a special action card), for instance, and other factions can perform “magic like” actions like stench power from the Undead Pirates, or summoning a squid god, and et cetera– but they’re not really magic spells per se, just cool powers each faction can use.

Splintered Light Miniatures “Warriors of Magic” set– click to embiggen

So, I’ve been contemplating about adding single figure unites to the system, designated by a special base marking, playing the role of Wizardly types– just a single class of figure different from a LDR that encompasses someone who can render supernatural or divine assistance to a boat crew in crisis moments. I was greatly inspired by seeing Splintered Lights’ “Warriors of Magic” set painted up, so it set my mind to work, and I have picked up some 15mm wizard figures, starting with the pack you see above.

Assorted Demonworld Wizards and Shamans found on Ebay lately.

Assorted Demonworld Wizards and Shamans found on Ebay lately.

I also located some Demonworld Wizard figures from various alignments on Ebay. As you can see, the sculpts are quite colorful. All told I might have about 15 magical single figures, which should be more than enough for this idea.

Going through the old spell books from D&D I found a few that would work in the BDB universe.. things like warp wood or stinking cloud, or shock person or lightning bolt. Magic should be a close up activity, I think. So no more than 2 sticks away from the intended target. I would like the spells to be a mixed bag– clerical and magic users, all reasonably consistent with the universe. My thinking is that the spells could have level numbers and spell effects listed on a card. The card would be like a weapon that is fired at short range by a Magic User type. The MU rolls dice per spell, looking for 6s. The target person can fire off a counter-spell, if they have a wizard, but he may be of only a certain level to attempt this.

Effects would be varied, and hopefully it wont’ be enough to require generating a large amount of specialty spell tokens. Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts.

The Rebirth of Ares Magazine… well, hopefully


Simulation Publications, aka SPI Games, Inc, the late and still lamented games publisher, was an innovative and incredibly prolific publisher of games that existed between 1969 and 1982. I liked their approach– their forte was military conflict simulation games, of which I owned plenty, and they published maybe the best gaming magazine of that distant era, Strategy and Tactics, a magazine with a wargame in every issue. S&T (as it is commonly abbreviated) outlived its parent company, and has lived on under a variety of owners, the most current being Decision Games. S&T was a great magazine and a great marketing tool that allowed the parent company to stay in touch with the core audience’s likes and dislikes using a simple feedback mechanism using postcards in every issue. The magazine would poll the audience about future game proposals and generally make decisions about what to publish based upon that feedback. A simple system, and it worked very well.

say whatever you like about 70s graphic styles, this is colorful and memorable.

say whatever you like about 70s graphic styles, this is colorful and memorable.

One market niche that was taking root and growing fast in the late 70s and early 80s was the desire for fantasy and science fiction games, a niche that SPI did very well, in my humble opinion. Their version of War of the Ring, John Carter of Mars, War in the Ice, even supposedly “lowbrow” stuff like The Creature that Ate Sheboygan… well, maybe they weren’t genius designs, but they sure were fun to play, and the market was growing by leaps and bounds back then. Remember, D&D had been out for just a few years (from roughly 1975 onward, but really 1977). The market wasn’t nearly as saturated as it is today for F&SF game products, so SPI did reasonably well in that niche. To support their expanding hobby base, SPI decided to create another magazine, specifically themed for fantasy and science fiction games, with the intention of supporting the existing SPI F&SF game products, adding in short fiction and science articles, and of course product reviews from inside and outside of SPI. Best of all, there would be a game included in every issue, just like S&T managed to do. Thus, SPI could field a publication that could included in different marketing outlets that might not support a military history themed gaming magazine, like comic book stores. The new magazine was called ARES. From the start it was big and bright and colorful, displaying Redmond Simonsen’s particular genius for evoking themes from simple images and bright colors.  Individual issues retailed in the six dollar range.   A grand total of 17 issues were printed before the parent company SPI, facing disastrous financial issues, was swallowed up by TSR, the company that published D&D.   TSR, though in the fantasy business, of sorts, didn’t know what to do with a gaming magazine that was a former competitor to their own in house magazine, THE DRAGON (1976-2007 in printed format, online thereafter).  So they added an “Ares Section” to each issue for about a year or so (focusing solely on TSR Science Fiction games like Gamma World! and Star Frontiers), then even that died out, and that was that for ARES magazine.  During its short and productive life, ARES created some fun games and a magazine that was genuinely entertaining to read.  The fiction pieces were no slouches, either, with some genuine talents here and there.  John Boardman’s science essays were generally very informative.  One in particular, “No, you won’t be going to the stars”,   which was featured in the premiere issue, has stuck with me my entire life as a reference for just how LONG travel between stars will be.

Greg Costikyan, who contributed his share of F&SF games to SPI’s output, published a canonical List of Ares Issues and contents on his website.  He’s what I would call an authority.

Nowadays, if you’re interested in revisiting individual issues from that long ago era, you can download every issue published before the TSR takeover in various formats from ARCHIVE.ORG, though I recommend the PDF version.  The Epub conversion are less than optimal.

One Small Step Games (who I had thought folded tents a long time ago) is a not very prolific publisher of small format games that used to fit in the “Microgames” niche– noticeably from their own (long defunct) gaming magazine, GAMEFIX/COMPETITIVE EDGE (ceased publication in 1998).  Like SPI of old, their magazine also had a game in every issue while it lasted, which was 13 issues.  I liked GF/CE games– many of them designed by some reputable designers like Richard Berg and Joe Miranda.   I had lost track of this little company a while ago and thought they had jumped on the road to palookaville, like a lot of small game companies.  I’m glad they are still around, as it turns out– they recently announced on their blog that they are in the process of acquiring publishing rights to ARES MAGAZINE, the great old Fantasy and Science Fiction themed magazine-with-a-game product from SPI’s past.   I’m a little apprehensive of the language being used, here.. 

The vision we hold is for an all-new Ares magazine, published bi-monthly, with 80 pages of fiction, 20 pages of OSS nonsense, and a complete game in every issue.

If you remember the old magazine fondly, the new edition will retain the portion of the original formula that makes sense, but provide more content and higher quality. If you don’t remember the original edition . . . well, you still get all of the delicious nutrition, but without any of the nostalgia.

There are still a hundred things that can go awry with our plan, but if we can stay on course, you should see our Kickstarter program before the end of the year. 

A little snippet of the map from ALBION: LAND OF FAERIE (Issue 11)

A little snippet of the map from ALBION: LAND OF FAERIE (Issue 11 of ARES Magazine)

100 pages a month?  That’s a lot of pages to fill.   80 pages of fiction and 20 pages of “OSS Nonsense?”  Did I get that right?  So is it.. what.. a gaming magazine with a LOT of fiction included, or a SF magazine with a tiny bit of game content??

Oh well, count me in as one of those people with “fond memories of the original magazine”.  When the inevitable Kickstarter is announced, I’ll be in on this one.

This little snippet has inspired me.. I might do an issue by issue review, like I did with Metagaming, here in this blog.  Especially now that it’s archived on Archive.org.

54mm Troll Shaman painted up for the Magi


54mm Wizard figures are few and far between, and usually cost a lot. A happy exception is the Iron Wind Metal’s Spellcaster line, which has about ten good figures in a useful scale for my game of THE MAGI. I’ve collected most of the entire run of SPELLCASTER line of 54mm Wizard figures over the years, from a variety of sources.  I’ve found extras of a couple of them– the Barbary Mage and the Human Mage are both figures I’ve found as extras in “buckets of stuff” in flea markets.  The only one I don’t have is the Elf Mage that comes with the Spellcaster game, and that probably isn’t worth buying a thirty dollar game (still! and it didn’t sell!) to get one figure and a repeat of a figure I already have (Moon Witch) to get.

In any event I was recently lucky enough to pick up two that I had not had any luck with in a long time, the LizardMan Shaman and the Troll Shaman.  It’s my intention to paint up at least these two– of what I have left in my “big Wizards” queue, I have the Lizard Man, the Lich, the extra Human Wizard, and a Tom Meier 54mm Wizard guy.

I got the Troll Shaman done over the weekend.  Here we go:

Ain’t he a handsome feller?

Top View

Full on

I painted him basic Greenskin with some green ink shadowing. Brown Skins with a tattered dark red cloak. All over wash in a brown tint to get the shadows and warts, with some highlighting and sprayed with Dull-Coate.

I like him. There’s a lot of detail here and he even has an interesting expression on his face. He’ll fit right in!

BDB: Summon the Squid God? Now we have a squid god.


One of the more peculiar groups in Big Danged Boats game is the mighty Cult of F’Vah, the inhabitants of the FOOT OF THE DEAD GOD. The cult is a pretty strange group, consisting of a small cluster of high priests riding on a platform that serves as a floating altar for calling up their God, F’Vah the Squid God.

The Cult of F’Vah sails into Danger!

Certain factions in BDB get their own thematic FACTION CARDS, or capability. This is a balancing mechanism to give them an edge on more powerful opponents. The Cult of F’Vah has a unique capability from their Faction Card. Useable once per game, they can SUMMON THE SQUID GOD for free.

Summon the Squid God!!!

When played, F’Vah would show up and slap a ship with the equivalent of a mega-ram factored tentacle slap. Prior to a recent discovery, I had a few tentacles stand in for F’Vah to demonstrate his Mighty Presence:

The Squid God Slaps the Gnomish Siege Machine SILLY!

The tentacles were a lucky find from AUGIE’S GAME STORE ONLINE. They are made of durable vinylish plastic, similar to heroclix stuff.

I like the tentacles just fine and they certainly work, but the implied menace of a really, really pissed off aquatic god was missing. The Cultists can summon him once for free; in subsequent turns they can summon him again (in tentacle form) by removing (sacrificing) one of the crew… and he may or may not start getting angry. If he DOES get angry, he might just show up in person to protest. That’s the form I wanted to capture for the game. And so I did.

All hail the mighty F’VAH! Destroyer of Life!

The idea being that F’Vah might show up and try to eat the High Priests if they anger him unduly. This is a model from Scotia Grendel in the U.K. It’s the “Swamp Creature”. I love the look of this one.. the big angry eyes and the way he’s encrusted with plant life. Had to get it. I’m not crazy about the tentacles, which had to be drilled and pinned before epoxying. So I’m just going to stick with Auggie’s Kraken tentacles for now and I painted F’Vah to match. I think it’s a great model and I think it will add some fun to our games.

All Hail the Squid God.

Big Danged Boats, Get Bit and Olympica.


Thursday: the kids were jonesing to finish Big Danged Boats from Wednesday afternoon. I left it set up for them.

The End of BIG DANGED BOATS

The Spartans were attempting a rear ram, which wasn’t going to happen, even with a broad beamed ship like the Siege Machine. They DID end up next to the Siege Machine not moving, and moved into Boarding and Melee. The melee rules now look like this:

MUCH deplete Spartans charge across the paddle-wheel housing to slaughter some Gnomes.

Boarding procedure:

Target ship being boarded fires off a defensive volley with any shooters that can fire. (The Gnomes had 8 AD worth of fire).

Line up attackers and defenders.

Gnomes and Spartans lining up

each side rolls AD and DD. If they match, go to crit table. If the net result is negative for the attacker, he retreats. If he scores positive, he’s hit his opponent.

Unlike the last game, the Spartans got the butts handed to them this time. Only the Captain and one Spartan were left.

Since the Gnome ship was sinking fast, the Gnome Captain boarded right back, and slaughtered the Spartan crew.

Bad luck for the Spartans!

Cedric, running the Gnomes, played the FROM HELL’S HEART I STAB AT THEE action card. This blows up the ship and anyone around it. He ended up losing some Gmomes and the Black Galley lost some crew as well.

The rest of the action was inconsequential. The Black Galley went down to hard poinding, and then so did the Deadnought.

The last fighting ships were the Wood Elves, Primus, the Gnomes escaping in the Hoplite, and the Dwarves.

We called it as it was starting to drag a bit. <a href="nizzocles's Story” target=”_blank”>Here’s a slideshow

OLYMPICA Game

We had a great time running a repise of last year’s OLYMPICA game at Garrett’s request. This is a miniatures version of the old Metagaming microgame, somewhat expanded in scope. Unlike last time, the UN actually got pretty close to the Web of COmpulsion generator and if they hadn’t been converted, would have won this one.

The UN started closer than usual and took advantage of a glaring hole in the tunnel network:

The Webbie’s Tunnel Network. Notice tunnel 5-6. That ends up right behind the web of compulsion, which the UN Figured out.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to finish it, but I thought the UN might have pulled this one off. They at least discovered where the web generator was in this game, but quickly got converted by it.

UN Company converted by the Web Generator. You have a new boss now!

They got this close:

See the WG counter? That means WEB GENERATOR. They were RIGHT there. Sadly the demonic web generator impelled them to desert the UN and join the Webbies.

I tinkered with the balance on this one and will publish a rewrite shortly. Both sides are a little better represented now. I think the game would have reached conclusion in about four more turns.

Olympica 2013

For more pictures, see this Slideshow.

Camp Day One: 54mm Fantasy Gladiators okay, The Magi kicks butt


Well, we’re in the midst of running game camp for kids in Alexandria, VA. Day One was “Fantasy Gladiators” in the AM using a simple gladiator rule set adapted a little bit to play with fantasy creatures. One thing I didn’t expect was how UN-bloodthirsty this crowd was.. I had to manufacture more creatures to get the chicken hearts engaged on the sides of the battle. I work with MUNERA SINE MISSIONE by Alan Saunders, a great, easy rule set for gladiator fights that has been out there forever.

image_20

The big unexpected HIT of the day was running THE MAGI in the afternoon. This is a previously mentioned experiment to get a version of WAVING HANDS by Richard Bartle converted to miniatures format. The result was splendiferous! Even the shy kids got into the animated spell casting aspect of the game. To play you have to actually cast the spells using somatic (hand) gestures as part of the conflict. When you add miniatures, line of sight and visuals become very important. I made some big changes to bring it to a kid crowd but it really went over well. Everyone said they loved it and now we’re running it again tomorrow.

Here’s a Youtube depiction of the first day’s action:

Enjoy!

New Faction in Big Danged Boats: The Orcish Revolutionary Council (ORC)


Orcish Ship

The SCIMITAR OF THE PEOPLE, the first warship of the Orcish Revolutionary Council or O.R.C.

The Orc and Goblin races of the Middle Sea were largely content to be as they had been for centuries, warring incessantly and acting as the paid or unpaid mercenaries of this or that evil goon dotting the landscape. Until, one day, an Orcan Warboss with a rare sense of curiosity and even rarer ability to read the common language found some ancient scrolls. Initially he couldn’t make head or tail of the material but gradually, he understood their message of equality, economic collectivization and centralizing of political power in the People’s Soviet. This Orc Warboss became the first Kommisar of the Orcish Revolutionary Council. Primarily a land power, The orcs of O.R.C. have recently taken to the seas in captured vessels. Orcs are fierce fighters, relentless in attack, and more than willing to launch a boarding party onto another vessel. Their fearsome secret weapon, the Orcan Kommisar, stays belows decks until the time arrives to spring into action– which he can do from half a stick’s distance. Once on an enemy boat, the Kommisar is treated like 6 Orcs in the attack, but only 1 in defense. Altogether savage and unrelenting, the Orcs of O.R.C. will prove to be a contender on the Middle Sea.