Big Review: Wrath & Glory (Warhammer 40k RPG)

(This is the 2nd of 17 posts leading up to my 200th blog post for my “200 for 200” goal. It’s a long post instead of several short ones to conserve the number and buy myself some time for the goal!)

This review is going to be different from my previous reviews in several key ways: First, I happened to order the “All-In” Pre-Order package for the Wrath & Glory RPG from Ulysses Spiel, so I’ll be reviewing physical products alongside my review of substance. Second, I’ll be sharing some general, probably stream-of-consciousness thoughts about gaming in the 40K universe–some of which will be purely opinion and editorial with little to do with the review proper. Let’s dig in:

Roleplaying in 40k (Come for the War, Stay for the Stuff)

I grew up playing the Warhammer 40k miniatures game. Though I don’t currently play any minis games (having over the past few years played Warhmachine, Infinity and Malifaux) and I don’t really have the patience for 40k’s massive set-up time, I do constantly think about collecting the miniatures again for the joy of kitbashing and painting and finding some minis-rules sets that I liked better to run some narrative skirmish-level games with friends. Of course, there’s now new Necromunda (which I also played and loved in its first incarnation), Kill Team and Warhammer Quest: Blackstone (I spent many hours with the original, fantasy version of Warhammer Quest).

But, over the past ten-to-twelve years, my experience with 40k has been in reading some of the novels and running RPGs. I was so excited for a 40k RPG when Dark Heresy was announced, I immediately pre-ordered the deluxe, leather-bound version of the first edition rules.

This is all predicate to a discussion of my love/hate relationship with 40k. Perhaps there’s some deep-seated resentment of the cost of 40k gaming, but that is not where my angst really lies.

The long-used motto of the 40k universe is (say it with me, kids): “In the dark future of the 41st millenium, there is only war.” Let’s sidestep the fact that the source material has now carried the universe into the 42nd millenium.

My response to that motto has long been, “Come for the war, stay for the stuff.” A dark future of only war makes sense for a wargame, but not so much for a deep roleplaying setting. Without further, this constant, unquestioning conflict doesn’t have the depth I prefer for a roleplaying setting. Fortunately, even before the Dark Heresy RPG, there were some sources of that depth I sought.

I have read only a fraction of the available Warhammer 40k novels. I’ve mostly restricted myself to Sandy Mitchell (Caiphas Cain) and Dan Abnett (having read the Eisenhorn Trilogy, much of Gaunt’s Ghosts and the more recent Magos–which I’ll likely be finishing up today). Both Mitchell and Abnett do an excellent job of writing stories that stand strong on their own accord, even if they’d been written in a different setting, that also bring down some of the over-the-top “grimdark” of the 40k universe into a more relatable and–frankly–far less silly version of itself. They add the “stuff” to the 40k universe necessary to the setting to develop interesting stories for roleplaying.

I’ve started but not finished a number of other 40k books. Most of them, in my humble opinion, belong on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight; that is, the “do not read, ever!” shelf. They’re not well-written, have ridiculous plots, and mostly just string together action sequences with little in between to make me care. Abnett (whose non-40k fiction is also worth a read) and Mitchell seem to be the exceptions to the rule.

Since the release of Dark Heresy and its related 40k RPGs (though I never had much use for Only WarBlack Crusade or Deathwatch), much additional setting information conducive to running a satisfying RPG campaign has been produced, thankfully.

Even so, it strikes me that the 40k setting, as typically advertised and as displayed in the majority of the fiction written about it, can’t sustain a roleplaying setting as is. The setting is too over-the-top, too nihilistic for nihilism’s sake, too grimdark. Now, if you’ve read my blog posts or my fiction, you know that I have a preference for the gritty. Too far, though, and the gritty becomes like chewing sand–painful and to no purpose.

To run a successful roleplaying game, the tone of a 40k RPG needs to come down a few pegs. We need to see that the Imperium of Man is not simple a fascist totalitarian regime if you’re going to play characters who feel duty and loyalty to it (in my opinion, at least). You need to see that there is some happiness and good in the universe worth fighting for, or what’s the point? Roleplaying games, like the best fiction, are about creating meaning. If your game universe runs circles around you, skipping about and proclaiming that, “nothing matters, everything is the worst, and you’re all going to go insane and/or die in the next five minutes!” there’s going to be an issue.

Perhaps the upside, though, is that the 40k universe, in needing to be tweaked to work in the roleplaying milieu, invites us to do what we should be doing with all published settings we’re using to run a game: make it our own. Like Mitchell and Abnett, we need to inject some logic, some flickers of goodness and hope, and some depth of character into the setting. That invitation, perhaps buried under piles of lore (being a worldbuilder and writer, I hate the term “fluff”), has the potential to grant us great freedom in using the setting. The flipside of this, of course, is canon-mongers who will exclaim at the gaming table, “that’s not the way it is; on page 47 of Fulgrim it says…” Those players are heretics; I hereby denounce them to the Inquisition.

I’m not likely to run a Call of Cthulhu campaign, as the types of stories that setting tells are generally very limited in scope. But, at least once warp-twisted to our own designs, 40k has the potential to tell stories with the same themes as CoC when desired, while making way for many other types of stories as well.

Scaled back a few pegs from full-bore nihilism, the setting allows us to play games that are tough on characters (without being unfair to them) in line with the setting and theme. I’m a big fan of John Wick’s Play Dirty books; the Warhammer universes (both fantasy and 40k) have provided me with my best experiences in implementing those ideas (in my own way, of course). The rate of character deaths in my Warhammer games is exponentially higher than in other RPGs I run, and a proponderance of those deaths are inflicted on one player character by another. Fortunately–and this is partially because of the themes of the setting–those character deaths have always seemed to be aspects of good writing: meaningful and somehow simultaneously surprising and seemingly inevitable in retrospect. Because of that, the players have not had hard feelings about these events, instead having a sense of profound collective storytelling. For a GM, there’s not much better than players getting that feeling, however achieved.

In short–though it’s certainly too late for that, isn’t it?–the 40k universe provides a very problematic roleplaying setting if used as labeled on the box, but if that difficulty is instead viewed as an invitation to make the setting your own (and the RPG material and the Mitchell/Abnett fiction are the best guides for that), there’s a lot of fun that can be had in 40k.

[Aside: While originally intending to put the linked material in this post, I thought it would be kinder to those not interested to separate out a digression on Christianity and 40k into a separate post. I invite you to read if that’s something that piques your curiousity.]

Updates to Setting (Immediate and Meta)

Wrath & Glory debuts after Games Workshop has implemented some radical changes to the 40k universe. With the (re-)appearance of Roboute Guilliman, the partially successful summoning of the Aeldari god Ynnead (and the changing, undoubtedly for copyright purposes of “Eldar” to “Aeldari,” just as “Imperial Guard” was changed to “Astra Militarum), the breakout of the great Cicatrix Maleficarum dividing the Imperial of Man into the Imperium Sanctus (still within the sight of the Astronomicon) and the Imperium Nihilus (on the other side of the massive warpstorms composing the Cicatrix Maleficarum and thus outside the light of the Astronomicon), the 40k universe is now a drastically different place, with many systems partially or wholly cut off from the rest of the Imperium.

Wrath & Glory does a good job of using this new situation for fullest effect, referring to it as a reason a disparate group of heroes with vastly different backgrounds might be working together. This gives easy permission to roleplaying bands that include an Aeldari corsair and a Primaris Space Marine next to the human characters who may be commissars, Rogue Traders, Inquisitors and the like. In short, it allows a justification for a smorgasbord of characters that would have been difficult to rationalize in earlier incarnations of 40k roleplaying (especially segmented into different game lines: Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, Only War, etc., etc.).

The “default” setting for Wrath & Glory is the Gilead System, a collection of planets technically within the Imperium Sanctus but cut-off by surrounding warpstorms navigable only along a near-mythical path called the “Straits of Andraste” (now where have I heard that name before?). The Gilead System is designed to have a collection of the Imperial Planet types (Forgeworlds, Agri-Worlds, Shrine Worlds, Hive Words, Forbidden Worlds, etc.) so that each planet type is available without the characters needing access to a Warp-capable starship. Other than this, the Gilead System only has the barebones information given–a few names and factions that might serve as patrons or antagonists to the characters and some high-level story hooks.

This is both a boon and a bane, as it gives a GM great leeway in filling in details–but requires the GM to fill in details. If that’s not something you want to spend your time on, there’s nothing stopping you from setting your campaign before the Cicatrix Maleficarum and using the voluminous materials for the Scintilla area of the galaxy (or other published locations) from previous editions. For that matter, you could simply take that material and update it to the present in-universe time.

The Rules

I very much appreciate the new rules. If you’ve read some of my other writing about RPGs, you’ll know that I’m not so found of percentile systems and quite fond of dice pool systems. Wrath & Glory has moved 40k roleplying from the former to the latter, so from my initial approach I expected a positive reaction to the system. Not so much so that it was guaranteed, but I’ve found that the system is well-written. I’ll hit some of the high points.

Core Mechanics

The dice pool system uses attribute + skill, familiar to most roleplayers and six-sided dice, available everywhere. Certain things, like items, may add bonus dice, but most negative circumstances will adjust the difficulty level rather than the dice pool, allowing for faster logistics in making tests, as GM and player can calculate their respective parts simultaneously. A test must generate a number of icons equal to the difficulty level for the action to succeed. A result on a die of 4 or 5 generates a single icon, while a roll of 6 on a die generates 2 icons. In certain situations, icons in excess of the difficulty level can be “shifted” to achieve additional effects.

As a side note, the rules use the word “dice” for both the singular and the plural. This annoys me greatly. Other than this infelicity of language, the rules are clearly written and easy to understand.

Giving dice the potential to generate 2 icons allows for a much greater range and granularity of difficulty levels than might ordinarily be expected with a dice pool system. While I lack both the coding and mathematical skills to easily run statistics on this arrangement (my favored roll percentage calculator does not have the bandwith to make calculations this complex, apparently), the benefit should be relatively obvious.

Wrath & Glory (& Ruin & Campaign Cards)

Each test uses a single Wrath die (in the case of psyker powers, described below, multiple Wrath dice may be employed). A six on the Wrath die generates a point of Glory for the rolling character (which can be spent on bonus dice, damage and critical hit severity in combat, and seizing the initiative in combat). A roll of “1” on the Wrath die generates a complication to the scene at hand. These effects are independent of the success or failure of the test itself.

Characters also have Wrath points (hence, one supposes, “Wrath & Glory“). Wrath points are gained through good roleplaying, accomplishing objectives and through campaign cards. Wrath is used to re-roll failed dice, restore shock (non-fatal damage), improve Defiance tests (not dying when severely injured) and to make narrative declarations (I very much like this choice, both from a roleplaying design perspective and because it appropriately softens some of the grimdark of the 40k universe).

The GM also has a points pool called “Ruin,” allowing for similar boosts to NPCs.

As an additional side, the Wrath & Glory rules contain a full-page sidebar on failing forward. This, I think, reveals the modern gaming influences on the system design, but also indicates a conscious move away from the pure grimdark of the setting (and perhaps the earlier rulesets) just as the player ability to make “narrative declarations” does.

You may have noticed that I mentioned “campaign cards” a little ways back. A deck of the cards is available for purchase seperately from the rulebook. Each player is supposed to receive one campaign card at the beginnign of each session, which is lost if not used, but use is not required. When played, its effects are immediately resolved. Admittedly, I have not yet spent a lot of time with the campaign cards, but my sense is they are designed to give players a little more agency. Could you play without them? Absolutely, but I’m honestly not sure how much that would change the feel and play of the game. It may not be an extreme change.

Tracking Wrath, Glory, Ruin and Campaign cards (and other available cards) may seem to be a lot of fiddly-bits during play. On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with games like Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime or FFG’s Star Wars/WFRP3 games, you won’t have issues.

Combat

You’ll find many of the combat rules to be familiar territory if you’re a veteran roleplayer. I’m going to just pick out a few highlights.

First, the book explicitly states that there is no set time unit for a combat round, instead specifying that the narrative should inform the length of each round. This is relatively minor, but I think it provides some good insight into the design approach, and I like that.

Second, Initiative is handled quickly and efficiently. Under most circumstances, at the top of the combat round, the players decide which one of their characters will act first. After that character’s turn, a GM character acts, followed by another player character and back and forth until all actions are resolved. Ruin and Glory can be spent by a character to break the normal procedure and act next in a combat. Some circumstances (ambush) may also change this routine. Randomized initiative is offered as an option.

The rules include provisions for “mobs” to handle groups of less-talented foes. In my mind, this is an essential aspect of modern and effective game design.

There are rules to accommodate miniatures but they are not necessary. While I like minis games, I don’t like the drag on play efficiency that minis create in most RPGs.

Like many dice pool combat systems, the active character rolls against a static Defense number to determine whether an attack is successful.

Reloads are abstracted so that bullet-counting is unnecessary. That said, bonuses for “spending” reloads are available, giving players a reason to risk the dramatic position where they are out of ammo. Best of both worlds, in my mind.

Combat has enough variance in choices of actions for tactical complexity, has gritty critical hits, and all your favorite 40k weapons and armor.

Overall, combat appears to be a good compromise between narrative efficiency, gamist tactics, and “realistic” detail.

Psykers

I’m not going to spend much time on Psykers, but I want to point out one or two things. If you’ve played past 40k RPGs, you’ll be familiar with the psychic “disciplines”–biomancy, telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokineses, divination, etc. “Minor” psychic powers available to any Psyker are also available, though some (like “Psyniscience”) seem like they should be innate abilities rather than require a player to choose them as specific powers–the number of which a character may have are relatively limited.

A character using a psyker power must choose the mode of its use, from most conservative to most reckless: Bound, Unbound, Transcendant. The more reckless forms of employment grant extra Wrath dice but also increase the chance of Perils of the Warp–this is exactly what psyker powers should do in my opinion. Further, once you move up the scale, you can’t move back down in the same scene. The genie doesn’t go back in the bottle. Again, this matches the fiction and the feel of the setting.

“Magic” of any type in a roleplaying game is difficult from a design perspective. For a game to feel “balanced” you ideally want your “magical” characters to be somewhat limited in the types of effects that they can use and to have a very real cost to achieving those effects. Fortunately, the setting in 40k matches with this approach; in many fantastic settings the lore is difficult to fairly “balance” mechanically. The implementation here is about the best I’ve seen.

Character Creation

From the GM perspective, the core rulebook offers “Campaign Frameworks.” These are basically campaign hooks with recommendations for tier level, character types, theme and expected content.

Character creation itself is done by point-buy, though “standard arrays” are given for each Tier level to speed the process for those new to the setting or wanting to create a character quickly.

The Tier represents the campaign’s overall power level, both by determining the number of build points players have for their characters and which archetypes are available to them (Psykers require Tier 2, Inquisitors Tier 4, etc.).

Build points are used to purchase an Archetype, attributes, skills, special abilities, wargear, etc. The system is not so complex as Shadowrun, per se, but it does have enough depth to it that I would say you should expect an hour or two for character generation, perhaps more fore those unfamiliar with this or other RPGs.

On the other hand, the point-buy system allows for great flexibility in character creation, which I appreciate. Additionally, unlike previous 40k RPG incarnations, rules for playing Aeldari, Orks and Space Marines (regular and Primaris) are right there from the beginning.

Other Rules

Basic rules for vehicles and voidships are included in the Core Rulebook.

Overall

I’ll have to update this once I’ve been able to run a few sessions (be on the lookout for posts about the Dark Inheritence campaign I’m currently writing and hoping to run soon), but my readthrough leaves me impressed. Modern game design and a more narrative approach that lightens the grimdark just enough meets with a setting I’ve loved for a long time.

Physical Products

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I pre-ordered the “All-In” package when Ulysses Spiel US announced the opening of pre-orders. The above is the scope of what I received: the core rulebook, battle maps, pre-genned character booklets, the Dark Tides adventure book, the Blessings Unheralded adventure book, the soundtrack CD, acrylic tokens for characters and enemies, dice, a GM screen, themed poker chips for tracking points and six sets of cards (Campaign, Wargear, Psyker Powers, Perils of the Warp, Combat Complications Deck and Wrath Deck). The cards are of the quality I associate with CCGs, like Magic or Doomtown.

The books are bound as is typical for RPG books, with beautiful art and color. One difference enthusiasts will notice right away is that the art is distinctly lacking in “Blanchitsu.” I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a bad thing, especially given that the game design dials back the grimdark a few clicks. But, the art does border on the cartoony.

Everything came in a large box of heavy cardstock:

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Overall, I’m very pleased with the construction quality of the materials. I’m actually tempted, despite my usual preference for digital books, to spend a good deal of time with the printed materials. That’s a pretty high praise for me.

Conclusion

If you like the 40k universe and want to game in it, I highly recommend the Wrath & Glory game. Again, I’ll update when I’ve had a chance to run and/or play it, but by all accounts I expect a satisfying experience.

 

 

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review: Your Own Private WestWorld

I ride up to the crest of a hill, my trusty mare stamping at the earth as we come to a stop. Across the valley (modeled after Colorado, it seems), a stagecoach pulls into view, rolling down the deep ruts of a well-traveled road, unaware of the danger that awaits it.

I check my pocket watch. It’s right on time, like my informant at the train station promised. Through binoculars, I can see two men riding atop the wagon, one driver, one riding shotgun. A few riders flank the vehicle, rifles in hand.

Nothing too serious. With the right tool, I’ll make quick work of the guards and the driver. If my lock-breaker won’t do the trick, a well-placed stick of dynamite will open the strongbox that holds my reward. I just need my lever-action rifle to kick things off, the one I’ve customized with dark wood covered in dark leather, black metal accented with gold engraving.

Unfortunately, I have to open up a menu and scroll through more than a dozen longarms to get what I’m looking for. It’s a game, so maybe I could live with that, but I’m tacitly asked by to ignore the massive hammerspace my horse must have in the invisible quantum field that surrounds my saddle. Having to choose what to take with me when I leave camp would have been far more interesting.

That’s been my experience of the game in the (frankly embarrassing) amount of time I’ve spent on it. Things seem great until the game’s systems ruin the immersion with rigid, often-nonsensical responses.

On an HD TV and and Xbox One X, the game is stunningly beautiful–except for the people. Their expressions are just a bit much, their faces waxen and on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. Not too beautiful, but still inhuman.

The physics of the game veers from the believable to the frustratingly sudden. I’ve lost a number of horses (typically after reaching the max level of bonding–and thus unlocks–with them) to having them suddenly run headlong into trains or wagons (after I’ve jumped onto said train or wagon). Likewise, in the midst of thrilling chases, I’ve been launched ragdoll-like, my horse crumpling beneath me on some unseen sharp edge of the terrain.

But it’s not the physics of the game that really destroys the immersive potential. It’s the asininity of subsystems of the game that infuriate. For a game about the last outlaws of the Old West, it makes little sense to include an “Honor” system that rewards not doing many of the game’s draws–robbery, theft, gunfights and bucking the law. What’s worse, the Honor system has nothing to do with getting caught by others. Even without witnesses, you lose Honor for looting a body or taking something that’s not yours. That’s not fun.

This is exacerbated by the fact that “restoring” or improving your Honor to a high level (where there are in-game perks) is tedious and uninteresting. Help people in radiant events while traveling, kindly greet all the people you come across, perform repetitive and dull chores (“move this from here to there” in camp). There’s nothing interesting about being a white-hat in the game except for mechanical benefits. Being a roleplayer first and foremost, I see that as exceptionally bad form in design.

The “law enforcement” system also makes little sense. There is one fun/interesting aspect: witnesses to crimes will try to run away and contact the sheriff or other members of “the Law.” You can chase them down and threaten them to keep them from tattling. Unfortunately, everything’s downhill from there. The witnesses don’t actually have to run to a specific point to summon the Law–once they make it far enough, they simply disappear to be replaced by lawdogs.

The excitement of this is further diminished by a number of other flaws: rob a store and an alert automatically goes up to the law when the robbery begins (unless you’re robbing a business’s secret side business). Wearing a mask only slightly delays identification of you as the perpetrator, even in a place where no one should know your name. Of course, if you can evade fast enough, you can leave the scene of the crime, hide out for a few minutes, and come back like nothing ever happened. Without changing your appearance.

Be identified while committing crimes and a bounty will be placed on your head–this bounty increases for each infraction, but killing an officer of the law only raises it by $20. According to the internet, the 2016 value of that amount is about $2,891.65.

If your bounty gets high enough, bounty hunters will start to seek you out–though they appear randomly and without cause for being able to track you down in the wilderness. Of course, you can avoid this by going to any Post Office and paying off your accumulated bounty. Apparently the Old West works off of the ancient Germanic weregild system rather than 19th century American justice.

This is complicated by the fact that many of the “iconic” outlaw activities of the Old West net very little income compared to bounty you’re likely to generate during the activity. For instance, robbing a train got me about $100 in goods and cash while generating a bounty of $380 for defending myself from the near-instantaneous onslaught of lawmen from their hiding places in the wilderness where they must have been waiting for just such an offense to occur.

Playing the game, I can’t help but compare it to WestWorld. The game seems more like an Old West themepark than any verisimilitudinous experience. Scripted actions, often clearly weighted toward “game balance” rather than any sense of authenticity serves as a constant reminder that the whole thing is a conceit, a game. NPCs are robotic and caught in activity loops, wooden and predictable. Actions have only short-term consequences before everything is reset to its “natural state.”

The story missions are mostly good and the characters within Dutch van der Linde’s gang have at least a modicum of depth–though most of the dialogue is canned and you have very little opportunity to control Arthur Morgan’s treatment of his companions (which, again, makes the Honor system seem arbitrary and ridiculous).

Red Dead Redemption 2 is being hailed as a massive success in open-world gaming, but I just can’t agree. The game doesn’t do anything that Witcher 3 didn’t do better–and more believably. And when a fantasy setting feels more real than a pseudohistorical one, its hard not to think that the creators have strayed pretty far from the goal.

Is the game fun? Yes, yes it is, but only as a game. Does it feel like the systems of Grand Theft Auto have been conveniently ported to the Old West without much scrutiny. Yep. If you’re looking for immersion that gives you an easy time imagining yourself in Arthur Morgan’s shoes, you’ll find ocassionally satisfying bits (particularly while hunting, where animal behaviors are linked to some real-world expectations–at least in terms of diurnal/nocturnal cycles) but you’re ultimately going to be disappointed. I don’t regret picking up the game (even in limited edition at full price) and I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent on it, but I just can’t help but feel that the game could have been much more.

I’ll probably keep playing it for the time being to kill time, but not without the feeling that I could be employing my time to higher and better purpose. If I manage to finish it before Fallout 76 drops, then I’ll finish it. If not, I doubt I ever will. Certainly not in the near future given the games set to release before the end of the year or in 2019.

Review: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, First Edition, was the first fantasy roleplaying game I ever owned. It was the early nineties, and like all good Christian parents, mine denied me access to Dungeons & Dragons, fallout and carry over from the demonic-worship craze of the late eighties. As we all know, but I didn’t question as a child, there was nothing inherently demonic or evil in D&D (the opposite mostly, though one of Tom Hanks’ early films told a different story). But, not knowing better, they allowed me this gem of a game, darker, grittier, and far less wholesome than the high-fantasy cheese of AD&D.

Ownership of this vaunted tome (which I lost or gave away or sold somewhere along the way, much to my present chagrin) had a very formative effect on me. It solidified my love of roleplaying games, proved the gateway into my miniature gaming hobby, and gave me my first real taste of dark fantasy (a penchant I cannot shake even now). As someone, even in elementary school, deeply interested in medieval and early modern history and wanting some semblance of verisimilitude in my roleplay, it’s little wonder that WFRP, warts and all–no, warts especially–has a special place in my heart. Before high school, I’d also purchased several of the Rolemaster FRP books so, though I didn’t know it, 80’s “realism” in RPGs became my foundation.

I never ran or played a game of First Edition WFRP, though I did manage to collect most of the books at one point or another. When Second Edition was released (I was now in college), I scrupulously and slavishly purchased each of the books as it was released and ran a few games with those rules (though I admittedly used the Riddle of Steel rules, released close in proximity, for those Warhammer Fantasy-based games I most enjoyed). My miniature gaming had focused mostly on 40K, but something about the Tolkien pastiche smashed up with a more historically-influenced setting always called me back to WFRP in my gaming (of course, the first edition of Dark Heresy had not yet been hinted at even–though that’s a story for when I review Wrath & Glory, I suppose).

Likewise, when FFG published the third edition of WFRP, I couldn’t help but go all in on that system as well. For all of the quirks and fiddly-bits of the 3rd edition (much of which I found very innovative and fascinating from a design standpoint), I ran some of the most narratively deep scenes based on those strange custom dice. The board-game like pieces really did provide some opportunities for building unique subsystems to support the story, from chases to countdown clocks. The “stances” adapted just enough from Riddle of Steel (which remains one of my favorites for three reasons: (1) at the time of its release, I was a study group leader for the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and deeply invested in the study of real swordplay; (2) the writer of TRoS was also a member of ARMA, one with whom I’d had the fortune to spar with; (3) there are design ideas, like spiritual attributes, that I still find amazing, even if I now find the combat system too intricate for my gaming needs and desires) to sate my desired treatment of combat at the time.

I don’t want to participate in “you-should-have-been-there”-ism too much, but I will relate one fascinating development in one of the WFRP games I ran. When the PCs stumbled across some warpstone, one of the characters decided to squirrel some away to sell later. As it tends to do, the warpstone started to have an effect on this character, and a fellow PC (a staunch and suspicious Kislevite), discovered this. While the first character slept soundly, the Kislevite snuck up on him and, pressing the barrel of a pistol to the first character, ended the foolish threat to the party. What surprised and pleased me was the response of the murdered character’s player: “Yeah, that’s what you should of done. That was not going to go well.” That’s mature roleplaying from dedicated players. Drama!

I should also note that, perhaps the result of my fumbling with Rolemaster, I’ve never been a huge fan of d100/Percentile RPG systems. I fully admit that this is a personal thing and not some objective complaint about that style of system itself (my preference, almost certainly a side-effect of my playing White Wolf games, Shadowrun and TRoS, is for dice pool systems).

When I heard that Cubicle 7 had the contract for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition, two things excited me: first, I’ve found the One Ring to be both the most faithful RPG version of Tolkien’s world yet and mechanically innovative to boot; and, second, I’d hoped that the new ruleset would veer away from the d100 system used in the past (as Wrath & Glory has done). One of those things proved true.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give WFRP4 is that it’s a percentile system I’d actually consider running. Even with my preference for the Fate or Cortex Plus/Prime systems, this ruleset reinforces the grittiness and darkness of the setting in what I feel merits the additional crunch. Reading the rulebook has also reminded me that, second only perhaps to D&D/OSR rules, how much material there is out there that could be easily adapted for subsystems or alternative/house rules for WFRP4. I’ve found myself very interested in some of the things that the Mythras system has done with d100, and then there’s all of the Chaosium, Runequest, Zweihander (particularly appropriate) and Rolemaster stuff out there as well.

My personal confession to the versatility and playability of percentile RPGs is not the point of this post, however. Let me instead focus on the (many) things that I really enjoyed about this system, especially as an iteration of the first and second editions (which I’ll assume you’re familiar with).

First, the art is beautiful. Andy Hepworth and Jon Hodgson, who worked on The One Ring illustrations also worked on this tome, and the artwork is similar to that of TOR: watercolory, somber and evocative of the setting’s tone. As I said in my Witcher RPG review, the artwork itself is almost worth the price of admission–but I’m a very visual person.

Additionally, in the style you’ll remember from the FFG version of the game, much of the setting information is given in-character through letters and reports. The beginning of the book combines pictures with a skillful economy of words to highlight the Empire, giving just enough detail for even a newbie to the setting to run a session that a seasoned veteran would say, “Yep, that feels like Warhammer.” I just love this.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself, though. I really should have led with the thing that I love most about WFPR4–its transparency that the players and GM should make the setting their own personal version of the Warhammer Fantasy world, supplemented with reminders about this throughout the text on the subjects of both mechanics and setting, and supported by optional rules and reminders that rules that don’t fit your game should be ignored or changed.

Let’s talk about some of the changes to the previous incarnations (of course skipping the outlier that was 3rd Edition). Fourth Edition has “softened” character generation and brought it into the world of “modern” gaming. Where the early editions of the game relied entirely on random generation of player characters (yeah, everyone wants to be a Ratcatcher, but no one wants to play the poxy doxy), the latest edition has kept the random generation tables but has given rewards to sticking to them rather than making them mandatory. For instance, for your starting career, you first roll one result. If you take that result, you get a substantial XP bonus you can either hoard or spend on starting upgrades to your character. Didn’t like that result? You roll two more, and if you pick one of the three, you still get an XP bonus (though not as substantial as when you only had the one option). Don’t like any of the three results? Just choose what you want to play. No XP bonus, sure, but at least you’re playing something you find interesting. This goes for most aspects of character generation.

Above, I mentioned the Spiritual Attributes of The Riddle of Steel RPG. While WFRP4 doesn’t use those per se, it does join the forefront of modern player-driven (narrative) gaming by giving both the individual players and the group as a whole ambitions. Ambitions are short- and long-term goals that, when completed, grant XP for character improvement (in addition to the normal XP of session survival and accomplishment). Like 13th Age’s “One Unique Thing” or Milestones in Fate, they give the GM some guidance on what players are interested in dealing with in the narrative of their game.

As well, ambitions are a call-to-action for players to learn about the game world (so that they can craft good ambitions) and help define those elusive both most-important aspects of character–character itself (as in the inner life, personality, beliefs and psychology of a fictional entity beyond the mechanical numbers on the page).

My other favorite new thing in Fourth Edition? The “Between Adventures” chapter. These optional rules recall the “township events” of Warhammer Quest (God that we would get an updated version closer to the original instead of the bastard “End Times” game that was produced–oops, my rabid fanboy is showing). I spent a good deal of my youth (when I was but had not realized that I was an introvert) playing that game. In WFRP4, the Between Adventures chapter gives the players interesting complications that might arise while not in the wilderness fighting orcs or Chaos as well as endeavors that might be undertaken to gain small–but perhaps lifesaving–advantages during the next adventure. It’s a clever way to provide for some roleplaying opportunity and character development without having to devote large amounts of playtime to characterization–though if that’s what your group wants, there’s no reason you can’t do that, either!

Much of the rest of the rules will prove familiar to the player of the first or second editions–nasty critical hits, rules for corruption and disease, limited magic, careers that range from the extraordinary to the ultra-mundane (if historically accurate), Skills and Talents, etc.

Petty magic is back for those who missed it (I did). Each Career now has four tiers of advancement, so the Apprentice Apothecary and the Master Apothecary are within the same write-up instead of spread across four different careers that represent incremental steps in the same line of work and training. Character social status (as within the Bronze, Silver and Gold tiers of society) is more explicitly treated and made relevant to gameplay. Task difficulty has been more effectively balanced (Very easy tasks are now +60 to Attribute+Skill Ranks) given the relatively low attribute and skill values of starting characters. Advancement, XP and skill ranks have been streamlined in a way I find to be an improvement.

First and second edition adventure material should require little or no adaptation to be usable, and previous mechanics or careers will be relatively easy to adapt.

In short (though perhaps it’s too late for that), if you liked the first and second editions of WFRP, you’re very likely to enjoy Cubicle 7’s take. If you didn’t, I’d take a look anyway.

The main competitor for WFRP4, I think, is the indy-game Zweihander (itself an iteration of WFRP2), though Shadow of the Demon Lord may be a better fit for those who want a game closer to classic D&D but heavily influenced by modern gaming mechanics and the approach and feel of Warhammer (the creator, Robert J. Schwalb, worked on WFPR2 among other things).

The release of the book has very much tempted me to return to the Empire circa 2511. If I do, I’ll probably even use this ruleset rather than trying to adapt to a more narrative-focused system, as WFRP4 seems a decent compromise between massive crunch (which I ideologically though not practically miss) and the narrative-focused games to which I’ve become more focused.

Have you had a chance to read through the book? What did you think?

Quick and Dirty Review: The Witcher RPG

I only found out about a week ago that R. Talsorian Games would be putting out an RPG for The Witcher, so I fortunately only had about that amount of time to wait before sinking my teeth into the new game. This stands in contrast to Netflix’s upcoming Witcher TV show, which seems to be coming to us only at a laborious pace.

Regardless, I’m a big fan of The Witcher books and setting, and I’m a firm believer that The Witcher 3 video game is hands down the best video game made to date. So an official RPG for this world certainly caught by attention. Not only for the setting itself–my own Avar Narn setting is a gritty fantasy world and I’m always looking for innovative design ideas that might influence my own eventual RPG design.

A brief caveat: this game was (as far as I could tell) just released on DriveThruRPG.com last night (at the end of GenCon, where I believe that hardcopies were available). I picked up my PDF copy on DriveThru for $24.95. A hgher price than many RPG PDFs I’ve purchased, but not as high as several others in my collection.

I do have a day job, so this review is based on a quick read of the book. Take that as you will.

R. Talsorian is known for the Cyberpunk RPG, a classic in the development of roleplaying games as a whole, though a game I’ve never played. The rules are derived from that system, though crafted to fit more particularly with the dark fantasy of The Witcher.

I will say this about the rules–they are sensible, and relatively easy to grasp in their various parts, but there is a complexity to them that makes me think, “Ugh. A fight’s going to take forever.” The attacker rolls for damage, the defender rolls to dodge, the difference between the numbers is compared to determine a hit or critical hit. Hit location is rolled. Damage and critical hit results are rolled (criticals make use of charts that vaguely remind me of The Riddle of Steel RPG and its successors). Those things are all great for creating a gritty feel for combat, but there are a number of ways that all that dice rolling for a single action could be made more efficient.

Still, if D&D is your go-to, I don’t think that you’ll find that this game plays slower than that. And, between the two, I’d take this combat system over D&D and its derivatives any day. It may have a lot of rolling, but its somewhat intuitive and at least interesting under its own mechanics. Sorry, I digress.

I will say, though, that tracking weapon endurance points is a bit much. It’s one thing to have weapons break at dramatic moments, or to have a system that encourages players to have their characters maintain their equipment, it’s another to have to knock off a point of reliability every time I use it to block (though there are exceptions that allow for blocking without sacrificing weapon endurance in certain circumstances).

The other gripe I have is not necessarily a gripe with the rules but a potential pitfall for any RPG that does this setting justice–players who have characters who are not witchers or mages may find themselves greatly overshadowed. Careful planning and discussion before a campaign begins may be warranted to ensure that players are all on the same page.

To me, a “regular” guy (to the extent that RPG player characters ever represent average people, even within the game world they occupy) forced to deal with monsters is perhaps more interesting than a witcher who does–Geralt excepted, mostly because I don’t believe it’s his being a mutant monster-killer that makes him most interesting.

The rulebook misleads on this front a little, I’m afraid. While continuously making clear that most monsters take half damage from non-magical or non-silver attacks, it seems implicit within the writing that the designers just don’t believe that non-witchers would ever have access to silver weapons. I just don’t find that plausible.

It should also be noted that the game is licensed from CD Projekt Red, and thus based on the video game Witcher 3 rather than the books directly. There are some optional rules to bring the game more in line with how things work in the books when that divurges from the game.

As for the look of the book: the layout and artwork are exceptional; the end result is surely a thing of beauty. Combined with fairly extensive background information on the world of The Witcher, I think that this book is a must-have even for a fan of the setting who doesn’t have any interest in roleplaying games.

But for those who do, the gamemaster section of the book has some excellent advice for gamerunners. There are plenty of roleplaying game books that are valuable in particular for their advice to the GM (and a growing number of books dedicated solely to that task), but this is a nice additional benefit.

The Witcher RPG releases at an interesting time, I think–the early draft of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition just dropped recently. Both are gritty fantasy settings full up with desperate surivors over heroes, where adventuring is not a glamorous or desireable profession. Both are intricate settings with deep history and a rabid fanbase. Both games have, I think, pretty similar levels of “crunch” to them (though, to be honest, I hate the terms “crunch” and “fluff” attributed to games). In other worlds, they fill the same niche, a more mature-by-design setting for fantasy games compared to D&D and other “epic” fantasy games.

Is the RPG market big enough for them both? On the one hand, I’m not sure that it matters. They’re both out and I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of supplements for The Witcher RPG (though I won’t mind being surprised). If history is any indication, WFRP4 will have more supplements than the biggest guy at the gym. Certainly, there are loads of high-fantasy games and no shortage of designers trying to make it with new ones (or their own particular flavor of OSR games, for that matter).

In some ways, The Witcher RPG reminds me of the Artesia: Adventures in the Known World rulebook, a RPG that uses a pre-existing-ruleset-that-is-fascinating-but-more-complex-than-I-really-want-to-run to bring to life a fantasy setting born out of traditional fiction that I very much love.

Given that, I expect that The Witcher RPG will fill a similar role in my collection–an RPG that is fun to read but that I’ll probably never run.

Wonder Woman: Some Thoughts

I know, I’m way late to the game. I’m not a big superhero fan (being that I like my fiction a bit grittier, though I acknowledge that there are some gritty comics), so I didn’t see Wonder Woman until it happened to show up on one of the streaming services to which we subscribe.

I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like it, not because it wasn’t entertaining (it was) or I had any issue with the acting (it was pretty good) or I didn’t like the setting (WWI is interesting). I didn’t like it because of the way it argued against its own narrative.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

If you haven’t seen the film, or have forgotten it, or have paid no heed to the spoiler warning, the main conflict of the film turns on the conflict between Wonder Woman (as champion of the mythical Amazons) against Ares, the god of war. In the story’s twist on Greek myth, Ares killed the other gods in a war over humanity but was injured himself such that he is only returning to exert his influence to destroy humanity in the early 20th century.

A key point of his plan is to create a souped-up chemical weapon (an improved mustard gas, if you will) to prevent an armistice from ending World War I so that humans will keep fighting and killing one another because Ares believes they are evil, selfish beings that deserve to be wiped out.

You can bet my ears perked up at this, because this is an existential-level question about the nature of man. An interesting set-up, but poor followthrough. Despite some platitudes between Diana and Steve Trevor about how you can’t defeat the kind of evil that Ares simultaneously represents and accuses humans of possessing with more violence, that’s really the only tool they employ (except perhaps for Trevor’s attempt to detonate the poison gas at a high enough altitude to render it harmless).

I couldn’t help but compare Wonder Woman to the poison gas itself–she functioned in most respects as a weapon against which there is no ready defense. If she entered a room full of German soldiers, you can bet that they were all dead within seconds despite the feeblest of attempts to defend themselves (which was the best that they could manage given that Wonder Woman herself is later revealed to be a god).

And thus, despite a clear intent to communicate something more, the film falls fatally into that great American lie: that the road to peace is travelled by being stronger than everyone else and able to coerce them into following your idea about what is good–or else.

Violence is never more than a temporary solution that causes as many future problems as it overcomes in the present. I’d like to say that that’s the reason I never really got into superheroes like many of my friends did–this latent power fantasy that we all in our darkest selves want to own, the ability to be forced, coerced or conquered by no man and no thing, thus establishing what is “good” and “true” by fiat.

I am not against fictional violence. I play and enjoy combat-oriented video games and tabletop games, preferring those that force tough moral choices. I watch and enjoy action movies and TV shows that often feature violence. They are exciting and when death or severe injury is on the table, the meaning of the action is heightened. This is excellent for narratives and games, but not so much for real life.

Thus, I think it’s important that we treat characters a little more realistically. Not that we can’t or shouldn’t have characters with kewl powerz, but that we take the time to nuance the choices and morality of those involved in a story. Maybe this is why, ultimately, I prefer my fiction gritty: it’s easier to put into context people who are broken and flawed participating in violence because they are unable to take more noble courses of action, separating my enjoyment of their struggles and stories from my beliefs about right behavior and moral action when real lives are at stake.

So, while the film was well-acted and well-shot, I just couldn’t get over the characters’ actions arguing so strongly against the values that they claimed to espouse. The cognitivie dissonance I felt on their behalves became too much for enjoyment.

Review: The Last Jedi

This is my first review of a film instead of a book, but Star Wars merits an exception, doesn’t it?

Disclaimer: I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I don’t own a lightsaber or much in the way of memorabilia; I’ve never been to a Star Wars con; and I don’t spend any time on Star Wars-specific forums or subreddits. But I’m still a huge Star Wars fan.

I grew up on the original films, and my first roleplaying game was the second edition of the old West End Games Star Wars RPG. There’s a special place for Star Wars in my heart, and it’s probably fair to say that, as a young person, it and The Lord of the Rings had the greatest influence on my fascination with fantasy and science fiction. I’m not sure I’ve played all of the Star Wars video games ever produced, but I’m sure I’m close. When Disney “reset” the canon, I began to pick up the books as well, vowing that I’d try to keep up with the universe this time in a way I never did previously.

So, like most of us, I think I went into this film with great expectations. I enjoyed The Force Awakens, but it followed too closely to the formula of A New Hope for my tastes. A few days before my trip to the theater, I heard a glowing review for the film on NPR–this only increased my anticipation.

The Last Jedi is, to date, my favorite Star Wars film. Before seeing it, I probably would have said that Rogue One was my favorite, as (predictably) I loved its grit and its willingness to take some narrative risks that the “main” films mostly shied away from.

The Last Jedi is currently my favorite Star Wars film because it does an excellent job of capturing the wonder of the original films while throwing in modern sensibilities. From the tactical gear worn by stormtroopers to the new variety of settings (like the casino-city of Canto Bight), the visuals of the film expanded on and brought the setting out of the late 70’s and early 80’s (while still sporting that retro style and incorporating the feel of McQuarrie’s art).

More important, the film moved away from pure Campbellian structure and adopted a depth and complexity that made everything feel that much more real. Both Rey and Kylo Ren have a depth to them that lacked in previous Star Wars films, and Skywalker himself added bore a combination of concealed hope, determination and burned-out jadedness that made us (me, at least) simultaneously love and hate him.

It’s quite possible that what’s going on here is that nuance is one of my very favorite things; The Last Jedi brings nuance to Star Wars in spades. One of the greatest things about the Star Wars universe is the ability to explore it–through the films, other media, roleplaying games, etc. The latest installment gives us permission to explore more than just the variety of the aliens and worlds in the setting, but a variety of moral questions and morally ambiguous characters–such as the rogue DJ.

In this, Star Wars has finally come into its adulthood. At forty years old, it’s certainly a late bloomer, but well worth the wait.

Additionally, this film follows some very interesting trends in the setting since its acquisition by Disney. The first of these is, as a friend put it, “the democratization of the Force.” We’ve seen that in the series Star Wars: Rebels, which adds several surviving Jedi other than Luke to the canon, and its certainly a driving force (pun intended, I have) in Luke during this film.

For me, this is very well taken. As much as I love Jedi as the samurai priest-knights of science-fiction bushido–Buddhism, I’ve long been of the opinion that, from the perspective of the common person in the Star Wars universe, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. From that perspective, they tend to be self-righteous, religiously fanatic, prudish and unwelcome intervenors with a tendency to bring at least as much (and possibly more) conflict than peace. Their obsession with balance in the Force makes them seemingly culpable of making peace with some injustices and the Jedi Code (to me, at least) reeks of insupportable philistinism–they are supposed to represent light and good, but are told that they should never love and should avoid attachments. Rather than embracing suffering and attempting to overcome it, they simply attempt to avoid it altogether. If the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, the Jedi Code is–again in my estimation–emblematic of the corrupting power of that meta-fear.

I realize my nerd is showing; but you knew what this was before you started reading.

As Luke says, it is time for the Jedi to die. They ought to be replaced by a new type of Jedi who eschews a rigid and unflexible Code in favor of striving for the greatest good–in favor of following the Light side of the Force with reckless abandon. But keep the lightsabers, because they’re cool. Before the film released, there was much speculation that there’d be movement toward the philosophy of the “Gray” Jedi (look it up). I think The Last Jedi has given us some indication of that.

Not to overly combine my interests in this blog, but the message of this film regarding the Force is quite apropos for the times. It is a call to move away from the uncompromising nature of fundamentalist religion and toward the truer (but more difficult) ambiguity of seeking after good and valuing Creation and relationships. It is a condemnation of the consequences of unquestioning religious fanaticism which, paradoxically, tends to ignore and reject the deeper and more important ideals on which the religion (whichever it may be) is based.

And maybe that’s what I liked so much about this film. Yes, it was a lot of fun. Yes, it was well-written (there are some arguments about this, but I stand by my statement). Yes, the characters were good. Yes, it’s Star Wars. But most important, it’s a deeper Star Wars that allows us to struggle with philosophical, moral and existential ideas rather than giving us a mythopoeic argument for a two-dimensional worldview. It’s Star Wars that is, at its core, theological.

 

Review: Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies

I love pirates. Maybe it’s the frustration in H.L. Mencken’s quotation (“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”). Maybe it’s the rawness of men living by their own ideals (however misguided) and skill and cunning. Maybe it is the more idealistic aspects of piracy–a good scholarly argument exists that American democracy has more in common with how pirate vessels voted on their leaders and courses of action than with ancient Athens. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just love pirates, whether historical or fantastic.

If you read my review of the previous novel in this series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, you know that I had many good things to say about it. The characters, the tightness of the plot, the fantasy heist–all of these worked in concert to create a story I very much enjoyed.

The sequel, more or less, picks up where the first novel lets us off. I don’t want to go to far into the details lest I give too much away, but Red Seas Under Red Skies takes what works in the first novel and throws in some maritime hijinx and semi-fantastic pirates. I must admit that I had my doubts about this at first; it seems a strange turn for the novel to take after its opening (and in light of the substance of the first novel). By novel’s end, my reservations were allayed; the story and its nautical elements manage to work their way in while preserving the atmosphere and mystique created in the first book.

Again, Lynch proves a master of “narrative circles,” those precognitions and slight references that turn out to have great significance before all is done. I’m not sure that I can remember any “loose ends” left at the end of the novel that proved unsatisfactory.

What really interested me about this novel was its focus on the relationship between Locke and Jean. Their brotherhood drives the plot, the complexities of their emotions toward one another and their interactions ring true of familial relationships, and the story ultimately turns on the extent of their willingness to sacrifice for one another. That’s a strong–and effective–message for a fantasy novel.

Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can give Mr. Lynch. If stories ought to entertain, educate and inspire, the fantasy genre manages to reach its highest art when it manages to effectively do these things with style. As more writers like Lynch are able to do this, the fantasy genre gains legitimacy, legitimacy it greatly deserves, as the fantasy genre allows us to address all manner of existential and philosophical questions with creativity and relative safety (compared to the cost of exploring these questions in “real life”).

Don’t start with this book; I don’t think it stands alone without the extensive character background for Locke and Jean in The Lies of Locke Lamora. But if you’ve read the first novel, I highly recommend that you proceed to the second.

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first book in the “Gentlemen Bastards” series by Scott Lynch (first published in 2006). Go read this book now. I can’t stress that enough; go read the book. For those of you who are by now used to ignoring my advice (don’t worry, you’re in good company), by all means continue to read.

As is my wont, I listened to this book on Audible. The narration of Michael Page truly brings the text to life—his voices, accents and narrational panache accentuate the style of the writing in a powerful synchrony. That said, you do not need to listen to Mr. Page read the book to you to enjoy the pleasure of this novel.

I love a good fantasy heist novel, and that motivated me to pick up this book to give it a try. The story begins with a focus on a fantasy con with all the cleverness of anything that’s been done in our own world. If, like me, you’re interested in the schemes and stratagems of con artists (fully knowing that I’ll never put such knowledge to use), you can follow along with the realistic moves made as Locke Lamora masterfully strings along Don Lorenzo Salvara and his wife Sofia by appealing to their egos, their greed, and their credulity by turns.

But this is not a heist story, or even a con story. Yes, the Gentlemen Bastards at the heart of the story are thieves and con artists of the highest level, but the story quickly takes a turn. Where the tale begins as somewhat light-hearted and jaunty, with the unpleasant aspects of the criminal underworld only appearing at our peripheral vision, it soon becomes a grim and gritty tale of survival, revenge and underworld power plays. This only made me love it more.

There are four major compliments I can give to Mr. Lynch to help establish his bona fides as a talented author:

First, his style is simply a pleasure to follow, accentuating the tone of the story and shifting ever so slightly to fit the mood—he just plain writes well.

Second, Lynch gracefully steps back and forth in time in telling the story. Intermixed with the present struggles of the Gentlemen Bastards are stories of their upbringing. They were raised together from their tender youth by a master thief and priest of the Crooked Warden known as “Father Chains” or “Old Chains” to be exactly the kind of expert thieves and conmen that they presently are when the book begins. This reminded me somewhat of the TV show Lost, where every episode would reveal something about the past of one or more characters that gives us insight into their present motivations and behavior. But Lynch goes even beyond this—each childhood story told not only reveals something about one of the Bastards, it directly relates thematically to the present-day scenes that follow it. Which leads me to my third point:

Mr. Lynch is a master of firing Chekov’s gun. I like to think of this tactic as a “literary circle,” where something in the early text returns to add significance to a later event. Most published authors whose advice for writers I’ve read strongly suggest that the culmination of a story needs to create some level of both surprise and a sense of inevitability in the reader when confronted with the story’s climax. This is, I think, exactly what Chekov’s gun is about, and Lynch liberally distributes them throughout the work, some subtle and some not so much.

Fourth, his worldbuilding is excellent and hits that unicorn of a middle-ground such that the setting amplifies the story without overwhelming it. To be fair, Lynch has taken the shortcut of basing the City of Camorr, where the action takes place, on late-medieval or early-Renaissance Venice. But he does so in a way that shows that an author can use a historical backdrop as an influence in a way that gives the reader quick insight—as a Renaissance scholar and lover of early-modern Italian history, I readily recognized the inspiration for the setting and this allowed me to make assumptions about how the world of Camorr works without Lynch having to say much about it. At the same time, the Venetian inspiration does not prohibit Camorr from standing on its own, from being different enough from a historical place and time (this is a fantasy novel, after all) that the reader finds herself satisfied with the setting and not turned away from the story by it. If this had been a real-world story, early-modern Venice would have been the perfect setting for it. As it is a fantasy work, Camorr serves in the same role.

I ought to admit some personal bias here. There are a number of aspects of Lynch’s world that are close to some of the setting choices I have made (or will make) in writing some of the Avar Narn novels. While the settings are ultimately vastly different in many ways, the feel of the setting and story matches what I hope to capture in my own works and it seems that Mr. Lynch and I share similar positions on certain meta-approaches to “modern fantasy.” So, take with a grain of salt my glowing review of his choices—I may be lauding him in the hopes that my agreement with him means that I may, too, be successful as a fantasy author. That very much remains to be seen. Very much.

And let me leave you with my greatest criticism of this work. The antagonist is well, meh. He’s two-dimensional and unfortunately just not very interesting. He exists mainly as an obstacle for the Bastards to overcome, as a threat to their existence, rather than as a fully-realized and believable character. In a novel with so many interesting characters, written by an author with such talent, this is a grave oversight. Not one that tempts me not to recommend the book to others, but one that nevertheless leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth when the rest of the work was so satisfying.

I’ll be beginning the next book in this series presently—and hopefully I’ll finish it in a shorter time than it took me to get through this one.

Review: The Barrow

By Mark Smylie

I must admit being a Smylie fanboy. I fell in love with the Artesia graphic novels back when I first encountered them—high medieval warfare in a magical and engrossing setting carefully built with ideas taken from (among other things) Greco-Roman religious cult practices and starring the ambitious daughter of a witch. What’s not to like? Not to mention the art—Smylie’s watercolors are truly a pleasure to behold and different from any other comic-style artwork I’ve seen.

I really cannot say enough good things about the setting that the Artesia and Stjepan Black-Heart (the arguable protagonist of The Barrow) stories take place in. It has everything extraordinary world-building should have: beautiful maps, a complex mythopoeia that provides a basis for the beliefs, superstitions and worldviews of the inhabitants (and even a guidebook to the historical, mythological and cultural in the setting), cultures influenced by historical Earth cultures that nevertheless stand on their own, magic and grit, grand, capital “E” Evil and shades of moral gray. I daresay that I prefer Smylie’s setting to Tolkien and Martin.

To boot, Smylie worked on a roleplaying game for the setting called Artesia: Adventures in the Known World (using the Fuzion System). It’s perhaps a little more rules-heavy than I prefer my RPGs to be, but written directly by the author and it captures the feel of his setting beautifully.

Did I mention that there’s an undertone of Lovecraftian horror? It’s in the existence of the Nameless Cults that worship forbidden gods (cf. Unaussprechliche Kulten or “Nameless Cults” in the Mythos), the chapter titled “Dreams in the Witch House” and the naming of the dead necromancer as Azharad (cf. “Abdul Alhazred,” Lovecrafts “mad arab”).

So, perhaps you should take my review with a grain of salt—there’s just so much in Smylie’s works that appeals to my personal tastes that I cannot help but be biased in his favor.

With that warning, I’m going to highly recommend The Barrow.

It is, in some ways, a classic fantasy story—the quest to recover the mythic sword Gladringer from the long-last barrow of the necromancer-king Azharad, who stole the blade from the “good guys” in centuries past. But the story goes well beyond the simplicity of “classic fantasy,” the members of the “fellowship” that seek this treasure are often at cross-purposes, forced together by circumstance and as likely to kill one another Hamlet-style as to actually succeed. This is, in many ways, a combination of the epic fantasy story with the “small stories” of personal victories and survival favored by post-modern fantasy.

There is much more going on than what the reader sees on the surface of the quest, and while epic dangers may exist in the novel, it is realpolitik that connects this story to the greater world more than the object of the quest itself. Life is cheap and bad things happen; even the highly-competent Stjepan (the sister of the eponymous Artesia, by the way) is out of his element or otherwise subject to the whims of fate at times.

Story aside, the book is very well-written, descriptive and poetic in places while avoiding the prosaic and matter-of-fact when that style best suits the narrative. I read this book rather than listening to it (I’ve been listening to Glen Cook’s Black Company novels at present, with a review forthcoming) and it reminded me of the pleasure of words in print. That said, there are some noticeable editing errors throughout, mostly improper pluralization, verb tense or a similar-sounding but incorrect word written in lieu of what was intended—all understandable writing mistakes, but ones that could have easily been fixed with another round of editing. Still, nothing that rendered a sentence inscrutable or that severely disrupted the flow of the words.

The characters are, for the most part, deeply drawn and well-nuanced, enjoyable to read about without all of them being likeable. Where characters are seemingly two-dimensional (the mad wizard Leigh comes to mind), their stereotypicality is used to good effect, whether humorous, metacommentary about the genre, or a twist on expectations.

I found the story’s ending to be masterful, the kind of skillful writing that leaves the reader somewhat surprised but satisfied with the logical progression of developments that lead to the resolution.

Readers should be warned, however, that the story does contain some graphic depictions of sex acts, some of them highly unpleasant. Mr. Smylie has commented on his website about the reasons he chose to include those scenes, and I find his argument persuasive. Our American society seems to be strangely at home with graphic ultra-violence and yet extremely perturbed by the depiction of sex, even when romantic, consensual and healthy. As I mentioned above, some of the sex in this book is quite unsettling, but not everything that happens to people in this world or any fantasy world is pleasant, and I didn’t find that any of the depictions were there for their own sake or merely for shock value—they made narrative sense, and much more than the too-oft used, “you know this guy’s a bad guy because he’s a sexual deviant.” In many ways, this book is focused on outsiders, on those who are, for various reasons, either at the very threshold of societal expectations or far away from them altogether. The sex in this book provides additional development of that theme.

If you check reviews on other websites, you’ll find that the book has received generally good reviews, but not necessarily review ratings as high as I’d expect. I think that the discomfort caused in some readers by the depictions of sex in the book are likely responsible for some of the lower ratings. That’s not really fair.

There is also graphic violence in the book, but since that doesn’t tend to offend like sex does, I don’t feel a need to address it.

Overall, if you are a fan of the fantasy genre, and in particular if you’re a fan of gritty fantasy (a la Martin or Cook), you really owe it to yourself to read this book. Smylie’s short story published in the collection Blackguards is also good, but should only be read after finishing The Barrow.

I eagerly await the next book in the series.

Review: The Wendigo

By Algernon Blackwood

On a whim last night, I decided to read this short story. I’d heard much about it, intended to read it for some time (it had been languishing in my Kindle app on my iPad for months) and finally got around to it.

Glad I did.

The story takes place on a hunting trip in the Canadian wilderness at the beginning of the 20th century and was the first to introduce the mythology of the wendigo into “mainstream” (read: white) culture.

It’s a horror story, a classic. Now, I can’t say that it was the type of story that had me hesitate to turn off the lights or drove me to chills and goosebumps. For me, its horror is of a more satisfying (and disturbing) type; existential horror about the nature of man and the universe. The wendigo is unsubtly a metaphor for the uncertainty of human life beyond civilization, for what happens when, as Nietzsche says, “the abyss looks back into you.” There’s a cold reminder in this story that, for some of us, our personalities and identities are stable only because of our circumstances—that in another place and time, or just a different situation, we might be surprised or terrified by who we might become. I’m not sure that there’s any horror so horrifying as the loss of selfhood.

There’s an illusion about writers of bygone eras. The archaic feel of the language they employ, however slight in reality, gives this feeling that they write with an aplomb illusive to the modern author. This is a trick, of course, and there are in fact scores of awful writers throughout history (just as there are today; check your bookstore).

Blackwood, however, writes in a style that provided noticeable pleasure to read. His words evoke both the beauty of the virgin wilderness and its intimidating expanse and uncaringness. We are made to feel small in the vast apathy of the universe. Judging by Lovecraft’s writings from about the same time, that feeling is par for the course in the genre.

To say much more is to intrude upon the story itself, to ask you to think more about the story than to experience it. That would be a shame.

Instead, I’ll simply state that I think it’s worth reading, especially since you can likely get it on Kindle for free. It takes an hour to an-hour-and-a-half to make the journey; I don’t think you’ll find it time wasted.