Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Campaign settings

I just bought the Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting which is the setting book associated with the Pathfinder (surprise, surprise) line of products, which is what Paizo Publishing has been focusing their efforts on since the expiration of the Dungeon and Dragon Magazine contracts that they were doing.

I like campaign settings in general. I've got quite a few. Here's a few of my thoughts about some of them that I know better than others:

Eberron: Great setting. Intriguing hook for a setting, well executed, very interesting, and with several new useful things that I've since borrowed heavily (shifters and changelings, most particularly.) The Pulp Noir vibe is a great change of pace from "default" D&D tone, while at the same time not being all that radical of a departure to begin with. Eberron is one of my favorite fantasy settings. The only thing is suffers from a it is being too kitchen-sinkish. Keith Baker (the setting's creator) had to leave it open-ended enough that everything in D&D could fit if needed by individual DMs, and he had to make a lot of D&D conventions default. Not his fault, and I'm not surprised by it, but it is a weakness. It occasionally makes the setting feel a bit scattershot.

Forgotten Realms: Lots of elements to borrow, but I don't really like this setting much. In fact, it's the "setting I love to hate." I don't like the over-the-top high fantasy tone, I don't like the hippie sexual utopia vibe (granted, that's pretty subdued in the setting book itself. As it should be), it's way too inclusive to the point of incoherence, and just generally there are few things that it does that I don't think I could get better elsewhere. That said, there are plenty of things here that are nice to borrow: the Red Wizards and Thay in general, for example. The Shining South and Unapproachable East and even The Underdark books are all top notch. Worth having in my opinion, just not worth running as is.

Greyhawk: I've got the old 3e Gazetteer, which arguably isn't enough of a setting to go on, but I think it qualifies. Greyhawk is pretty much unadulturated iconic D&D. I'm not a huge fan; it feels very vanilla to me, and has many cheesy/silly elements.

Diamond Throne: This is the setting that went along with Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed alt.PHB. Pretty nifty in some ways, although boring in others. Conflict is kinda minimized, the world is a relatively peaceful happy place that doesn't scream "Adventure! Action!" like it should, and it's also a lot more high fantasy than is my wont (I'm a bit of a low fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, grim'n'gritty fan if that's not already clear.) One thing I did like was that the setting was relatively open ended rather than extensively cataloged. But heck, that's even more true of a homebrew setting, right? Anyway, a few things worth borrowing, and worth reading as an exercise in creating a d20 fantasy game and setting that's specifically not D&D and seeing how it's done.

Midnight: This is another setting that benefits from a strong hook. There's only one god in Midnight, and he rules with an iron fist, cruelly oppressing the typical PC races. A lot of people describe this setting as "Lord of the Rings, except that Sauron won." I think, being a bit of a Tolkien pedantic, that it more closely approximates Beleriand after Nírnaeth Arnoediad, when Morgoth rules openly having defeated most of the elvish and mannish kindgoms one by one, right up before Eärendil went west and got the rest of the Valar to come kick him off his throne once and for all.

I think the setting is also a great toolkit to borrow from. In fact, I specifically by default borrow a lot of the setting rules for other games I run; the Defender is a great low fantasy alt.monk and the Wildlander is one of the best alt.rangers in print, in my opinion.

Iron Kingdoms: This is, by far, my favorite D&D setting right now. Not being content with vanilla, more of the same, Privateer Press created a world in the throes of an industrial revolution, threw out or radically redesigned most of the standard D&D races, and made a real tone change. Iron Kingdoms simply isn't high fantasy; it's gritty and rough and tough. It works best with themes of social revolution, open warfare between superpowers, intrigue and espionage, and rooting out horror elements (so some of my favorite themes are guiding principles of the setting, as you can see.) Very highly recommended. Very highly.

I've got more, but let's stop there for now. Also, I haven't read enough of the Pathfinder setting to comment yet anyway...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Wizard of Earthsea

Although I tried (and failed) to read it as a teenager, A Wizard of Earthsea was a setting concept, at least, that I quite liked. The idea of a massive, convoluted system of islands, lumped together in the middle of a vast and supposedly unending ocean all around it was pretty intriguing.

But, like I said, I couldn't really get into the book. Over the intervening twenty so odd years, I've become slightly embarrassed by the fact that this slim little trilogy (each book less than 200 pages long) that's considered a classic by so many fantasy readers, has eluded me, so I finally broke down, got it from the library and read the first volume. Just finished it an hour or so ago.

Honestly, though, it felt more like a duty than something I enjoyed. I'll probably read the next one or two also, just to say that I have, and because they're short, but I didn't really like it that much.

Still enjoy the setting idea, though. One of these days I'll make my own Islands in an Endless Sea setting, and give a nod to Ursula LeGuin as the inspiration for the basic idea. I seriously doubt I'll add any other borrowings from Earthsea beyond that, though.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Dark DND"

After letting it lie fallow for quite some time and working on other projects, I'm actually having a bit of fun poking around on my DarkDND wiki. It's funny how I got back to that; I recently picked up A Wizard of Earthsea because I hadn't ever read it and kinda wanted to. I had forgotten that 1) Nemmerle is a character from Earthsea (I had made an abortive attempt to read it years ago, so I know something about it) and that his setting, Aquerra, was loosely based on a similar idea geographically. So, I started poking around his wiki.

He's actually the one who turned me on to wikispaces in the first place, so that made me turn to my wiki (plus I can cross pollinate with my other setting; both now feature a circum-Mezzovian Sea geography, for instance) and when I turned to my wiki, naturally I wanted to start typing a few new entries.

Sigh. I wish I had a better attention span.

Monday, September 22, 2008


It's my own fault, of course, but I'm getting a massive backlog of books lined up. I haven't cracked open Gardens of the Moon in the better part of two weeks because stuff came in from the library that I had for a limited time only--Dead Beat, Proven Guilty, The Wizard of Earthsea, Iron Angel, White Night and The Case Against Barack Obama.

In the meantime, I also bought Deadhouse Gates in anticipation of finishing Gardens. Le sigh.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

All the good ideas have already been done!

I've lamented this before. Just today... a few hours ago, no less... I finished reading the 7th Dresden Files book, Dead Beat. As the title implies, this one features necromancers and undead.

One character got the very bright idea of animating Sue. Yes, that Sue, the most complete and largest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered, and sitting in the Field Museum in Chicago (actually, I'm not certain if that's where Sue is these days. She went on a roadshow for a while, and I've lost track of her location. But that's where she was in the book.)

And what do you do with an undead dinosaur? You strap saddles on her back and ride her through the streets of Chicago to go munch on the other characters wimpy regular zombies and specters, of course.

*sigh* Whenever I think I have a really cool idea that's actually kinda original, I find that someone else has already done it. Rampaging undead dinosaurs? Cross that one off the list.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New character

Well, my "Pirates of the Mezzovian Main" game ended this last weekend. Sadly, I'm a poor finisher, in my opinion, and it kinda started fizzling and I hurried the end up because I was tired of running it. My set-up and plot twisting occasionally exceeds my ability to bring it all home. Granted, the group's increasingly erratic schedule during the summer kinda dimmed my enthusiasm too, making me much more amenable to just "let's wrap this up and move on" kinda thing. So, anyway. The game's over.

Fun setting, though. As I mentioned earlier, my Dark•Heritage setting has borrowed a lot from my Mezzovian Main (including the Mezzovian Sea), which in turn borrowed a ton from Dark•Heritage. Funny incestuous and tumultuous relationship between the two settings. D'oh.

Our new game is going to by a Bob-run Cthulhu campaign set during classic 1920's Cthulhu times. Apparently we're starting off in Perth, Australia, although there's no reason that we have to be from there; just there at the beginning of the campaign visiting someone in the loony bin.

I knew that 1920's Cthulhu was coming up, and in casting around for a character on which to model my character, I early on turned to Bertie Wooster. Perhaps a bit less excessive, a bit less of a parody, but similar nonetheless. Luckily, the character I rolled up fit that fairly well, although perhaps too good in the Intelligence and Education stats. Still, I can run with it. I don't have a Jeeves, so I can't be quite as incompetent and Bertie himself was.

I'm still looking for a name; I came up early with Basil Haverghast, but I might yet change that. Might even borrow a name or two from Wodehouse myself; Basil "Chuffy" Chuffingham, for example. Or Willoughby Fink-Nottle. Something vaguely silly, but not too over-the-top.

For those of you who are familiar with Wodehouse and Lovecraft, how do you suggest I pull off that fusion? (assuming anyone reads this in the first place?) I'm all ears for suggestions on how to make this a memorable character. My last two characters with this group ended up being a bit forgettable, and I want to avoid that, without going too far and becoming an attention hog. I think the somewhat arrogant and a naive/helpless Bertie Wooster model might be a way I can do that. He's not completely useless; he can shoot a shotgun like crazy, and he's been trained as a doctor, although he finds the practice droll now that he can afford not to do so. He speaks French and Latin reasonably well, has tons of credit rating (influence with the peers, no doubt... or the Drone's Club) and can do a few other things. Being a parasitic comic relief character who can't do anything on his own wouldn't help create a good group dynamic, after all. Plus, I don't have a Jeeves to get my bacon out of the fire, so I need to be able to credibly do it myself on occasion.

For what it's worth, our group will also have a rather gruff bruiser named Billy who works on a tramp steamer, a silent movie star (possibly with a weak and/or annoying voice, so he's worried about the rumors of "talking movies" that's starting to work its way around Hollywood), a professor of parapsychology (female) educated at Cambridge, so a natural rival for my Oxford (Balliol College) educated character, and an Aussie cowboy.

Fantasy Top 10

Because I saw some other random guy on the internet make a list of Top 25 fantasy novels/series, I thought I'd try my hand at it. I'm not going to do 25, though, I'm going to only do 10. There's no point unless you're a little but selective, after all.

Also, I'm letting myself take on a fairly broad definition of fantasy. That primarily will be apparent in three of my picks, that are arguably not fantasy, but which I think are close enough that it's quibbling and nitpicking to not accept them. I'm also going to include a shorter list of very popular books/series that I did not include and why. And, of course, my own personal experience is not comprehensive. There's a lot of fantasy that is very highly regarded, but which I simply haven't gotten around to reading. Naturally, I can only pick stuff with which I'm familiar.

10. Myth Adventures, by Robert Asprin. A rather long-running series of fantasy parody books, starting with Another Fine Myth and continuing on ad nauseum. Asprin somewhat lost his way after a while, but there's a least half a dozen really good books before it starts getting stale. Fantasy does have a tendency to take itself too seriously; these books are great because not only do they parody a lot of fantasy riffs, but they are qualitatively good stories in their own right; they're not just silly parodies. A relatively high tolerance for puns is required to read these, though, and a thorough knowledge of history, literature and pop culture will help in getting some of the jokes and references.

9. The Dragonlance Chronicles, by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. I'm as likely as anybody to belittle and deride game-related fiction. Most of it isn't very good. Most of it, in fact, is downright terrible. This three-book series, though, is the exception to the rule. In fact, it's probably fair to say that this is the series that kicked off game fiction as a viable genre. Without Weis and Hickman's trailblazing work, there wouldn't even be any such category in the market today. But don't hold that against them; this features compelling characters, a charming plot, and some interesting scenarios. Despite being a branded product, it still managed to create an interesting setting to feature it all in as well.

8. The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath, by H. P. Lovecraft. This is actually merely a single novella, but it features an awful lot of ties to the infamous "Cthulhu Mythos." Despite being part of his Lord Dunsany inspired "dream cycle", in my opinion, it's actually one of the best "mythos" cycle stories as well, featuring as it does a visit to the far side of the moon with the terrible froggy weirdos that live there, and a visit to Azathoth's own blasphemous court deep in outer space. When it's not showcasing some of the better horror that Lovecraft ever wrote, it reads a bit like a slightly more intellectual sword & sorcery fantasy, with a lot of atypical and very intriguing ideas. Also, because it's relatively short, it's an easy breezy read.

7. The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs. This is another rather short work, that's actually somewhat difficult to find nowadays, which is suprising. I love it. It's purportedly at best semi-serious and somewhat humorous, and certainly the rather silly old wizard and his buddy who make up the main characters are faintly comical. However, Bellairs slips in between this cozy pseudo-comedy and actually terrifying writing with a facility that surprises me. The Face in the Frost also manages to be a great "horror fantasy" novel at the same time that it's a great "traditional fantasy" novel. Highly recommended.

6. The Warlord Trilogy, by Bernard Cornwell. I really enjoy this series, but some might take exception to it being called a fantasy. It very neatly straddles the line between fantasy and historical fiction. It includes a number of fantastic characters (including Merlin and Nimue) who do work magic… but at every turn you have to wonder if the "magic" isn't just a lot of luck, coincidence and con artistry. Be that as it may, any story that features King Arthur, the quest for the Holy Grail (here an ancient cauldron important to the druidic tradition rather than a Christian artifact) and Merlin will appeal to fantasy fans. I consider this a gritty, realistic fantasy set in Dark Ages Britain (and Armorica) with well drawn characters, fascinating plots, intrigues, betrayals and an ending of tragedy and pathos as the native Celts, despite their successes, eventually give way, allowing Britain to be Saxonized and themselves to be thoroughly Christianized. This theme of the "Golden Age" which ends is an important one in fantasy as well, which makes it feel even more like an exemplar of that genre, for those who still quibble about its inclusion here.

5. Conan, by Robert E. Howard. Del Rey recently put all of Howards seminal Conan stories together into three trade paperback volumes and put them back on shelves after years and years of expurgated neglect. Although Howard as a writer has some notable weaknesses (his prose is sometimes clunky, Conan is too good to be believed in many cases, he can tend to offend modern sensibilities here and there) it also has some remarkable strengths. It's really alive in a way few writers have ever managed to get their prose. It jumps out at you, grabs you by the throat and throttles you. The rather amoral, realistic nature of his setting is also fascinating; unlike much of the post-Tolkien fantasy, Howard completely ignores issues of good and evil, and while in many ways Conan himself is a relatively honorable chap, in many others he's an execreble and frightening fellow as well. He feels very much like a larger than life historical character in a historical version of our world… that just happened to never exist, and which happens to have all kinds of weird and frightening demons, monsters and sorcerers hiding in its darker corners. The Conan stories are one of the two pillars on which the modern fantasy genre is built, so they really can't afford to be missed.

4. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond Feist. Feist has tons of books set mostly on his world of Midkemia. I think there's something like twenty five or thiry. I've only read about the first half dozen or so, but they are really good books. Oddly enough, although not technically a game related fiction like the Dragonlance books, Midkemia was created for the college group of Dungeons & Dragons players to which Feist belonged in the early to mid 1970s, and in a lot of ways, it starts off with a very D&D-like "Tolk-clone" manner. I gotta give Feist credit, not for being really all that innovative, but for his really good execution. He's the writer who proves the axiom that even cliches can be absolutely fine if the story's well written, the characters engaging and the plot dramatic. Of course, at the time he wrote the first book or two, the cliches weren't yet so thoroughly ingrained anyway. To some extent, it looks more cliched in retrospect than it would have when it was new.

3. Star Wars, by various authors. Granted, this is a multimedia extravaganza. They are primarily movies, though, with attendent novelizations of the movies. And lots of people really quibble with this as a fantasy. But think about it. Although it takes place in space, has spaceships, blasters, and all of the trappings of a decidedly non-fantasy type setting, Star Wars is absolutely fantasy. The Force is just another word for magic, and the Jedi are just an order of wizards (Obiwan is specifically called a wizard by some characters in the first movie.) The lightsaber dynamic makes the Jedi also analogous to knights-errant. In addition, there's the much-touted correllation between the grand story of Star Wars and the "heroic mythological cycle" as described by Joseph Cambell. To be honest with you, I'm a bit sceptical of this myself; I'm not that impressed with Joseph Campbells thesis (he genericizes so much that it's difficult to find any story that doesn't follow his heroic journey outline. Is that a case of him finding the key to the human psyche, or simply the fact that he removed so many details that he's not saying all that much?) and I'm also skeptical that Lucas ever meant to create a "modern mythology" (his early interviews never mention it; they talk about him making a modern serial a la Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Personally, I think Lucas latched onto Campbell's theories after the fact because it lent his story some artistic credibility and Campbell latched onto Star Wars because it fueled the popularization of his name and his theories… and thereby drove up his book sales.) Be that as it may, when the setting, the characters AND the plot all feel like classic fantasy with a twist, I'm calling it fantasy.

2. John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Barsoom series of short books, starting with A Princess of Mars are probably going to get me a little bit of grief too, since they bear a passing resemblance to science fiction. However, c'mon. A guy travels to Mars by some kind of mystical means and hits it off with a princess. The stories and the setting itself are very classic fantasy fare. Heck; more fantasies would be improved by looking at what old ERB did years ago. Long before Tolkien did it, ERB was creating coherent geographies (well, more or less) and laying the groundworks for fictional languages. Not only that, some of the early Barsoom stories are some of the funnest stories ever written. That said, the series went on longer than it probably should have. Later volumes are very retreaded and some of them even read like parodies of his own earlier work.

1. Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. This shouldn't be a surprise. Tolkien is the other pillar on which the modern genre is founded, and frankly, his shadow and influence can be a daunting thing. Most modern fantasy imitates Tolkien to a greater or lesser degree which is unfortunate. I would want to de-emphasize my own similarities to Tolkien if I were a published writer, because the comparison can only make me look poorer by comparison. Despite the fact that the pacing and style clearly aren't for everyone, Tolkien was a true master of his form of prose. Every single word is carefully chosen and placed in a really remarkable way, and the setting itself is lovingly developed far beyond what is explored in the books themselves. I've probably read the three books of LotR more often than I've read anything else ever written. I think it's a true masterpiece, and without it, the fantasy genre either wouldn't even exist at all today, or it would look tremendously different than it does.

A few books didn't quite make my list, but I want to mention them. Lloyd Alexander's five book Prydain Chronicles are excellent, classic high fantasy built on a real world mythological basis. Glen Cook's Black Company novels kicked off an entire little subgenre and he has many imitators. The Dresden Files novels are another interesting series; a fusion of Raymond Chandler and Harry Potter; hard-boiled fantasy detectives in modern day Chicago.

A few notable series did not make my list, and astute, clued-in fantasy readers may wonder where they are. Robert Jordan's sprawling Wheel of Time novels had a great start, but bogged down so badly near the end that it's no surprise really that the author died before finishing them. That series is at least three times as long as it should be, and it still didn't finish. George R. R. Martin is similarly overwritten, but at least it seems to avoid being too soap opera-ish. Steven Erikson is a relative newcomer, but with seven (or is it eight now?) books in his rapidly growing Malazan Book of the Fallen series, he's hard to ignore. So far, I've only read (most of) his first book, and I don't think it's all that good. However, word on the street is (nearly) unanimous that he improves very rapidly from a weak start. If I redo this list in a year, who knows? Maybe he'll be on it.

I'm not a fan of Terry Brooks, David Eddings or R. A. Salvatore. To me, their plots and characterizations are pretty thin, and their settings aren't very interesting. I know they sell an awful lot of books, though. Eddings in particular has openly admitted that he writes formulaic drivel on purpose because he thinks that's what the market wants. Based on his sales figures, sadly, he's probably right. I also really struggled with Phillip Pullman and China Mieville; two authors that get a lot of attention. I didn't find their books engagingly written. The best thing that could be said about either is that their settings were at least unusual. The Narnia books are considered classics of the genre, but they're not quite my cup of tea, so to speak. Children from our world mysteriously becoming heroes in another is a little too Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan for my taste.

A few other authors are starting to make waves (actually some of them made waves years ago), but I haven't yet read them, so I can't comment. Guy Gavriel Kay is one. Ursula LeGuin. Brandon Sanderson (in fact, I'm intently curious in him, in part because it occurred to me that there's a small chance we could be related---my mother's maiden name is Sanderson, and there's a few other correspondences as well. I need to dig into some family history and see if we coincide somewhere.)

Lots more. The fantasy genre has really exploded over the last few decades, and it's well beyond the capabilities of most readers to stay in the loop about everything going on anymore.

As an aside, you may also notice that quite a fair number of books I picked are books that were also on the list I posted below. Only one of them (Face in the Frost) did I discover because of that list, though. Obviously Mr. Rateliff and I simply think very similarly in terms of what's good fantasy and what isn't.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Classics of Fantasy

Just found this set of links again. I read these articles years ago and I think they're very well written.

Hobberdy Dick
The Hobbit
The Books of Wonder
Tales of Averoigne
The Book of Three Dragons
Watership Down
The Night Land
The Face in the Frost
A Wizard of Earthsea
The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
The Worm Ouroboros
Bridge of Birds
A Voyage to Arcturus
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
Collected Ghost Stories
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
The Well at the World's End

Series discontinued...

Well, whatever I said I was going to post; I'm not.

I'm not even in the same headspace as last time I posted. Because my wife monopolizes the computer at home in the evenings a lot, I tend to post these blogs from work. When work gets really busy, I tend not to post blogs. That's happened just recently, and work doesn't look like it's going to slow down much in the next few months. So whatever I promised I would post (a series on Capcom and SNK backgrounds, I think, was the latest nonsense) I won't.

Instead, I'm getting caught up in stuff that's going on now which means 1) new TV shows (season 4 of Supernatural, season 2 of Terminator, season 1 of the Clone Wars and possibly season 3 of Heroes. Trying to decide if I care at all about the last one or not.) Also, books. I just read Scar Nights by Alan Campbell, and it's an interesting debut novel. Quite good. I also finally broke down and started reading my copy of Gardens of the Moon; the first book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series (so far clocking at eight of ten projected volumes) in part because so many of my friends recommended it so much---I checked it out from the library earlier and struggled through about 100 pages before giving up.) I'm doing better with it this time, but it's still not well-written in any sense of the word. Word on the street, though, is that the series improves dramatically after this weak opening act. I also bought the collected Books of the South volume of Glen Cook's Black Company series. So I can finally move beyond the first three volumes, the "Books of the North" as they're sometimes called. Also, technically, the only ones I don't own now are the "Glittering Stone" subseries; the last four volumes. Glen Cook is another writer who's style I don't really like, but who's ideas, plots and characters manage to hold my attention anyway.

I'm also feeling guilty and unhappy that my own novel is progressing so slowly... I'm gonna really buckle down and start writing, setting myself a goal of 1000 words a day. We'll see if that's supportable or if I'll have to reduce it to 750 or even 500. For now, that's my goal, though.