Monday, June 15, 2009

3e wishlist

Every once in a while, I like to make lists. I may have made this list before, in which case it probably hasn't changed too much. This is the list of 3e (or 3.5) books that I want to buy but still never got around to. Actually, that's not exactly true. This is the highish priority list. There's a few more also that I wouldn't mind picking up, although I wouldn't go too far out of my way for them. Anyway...

The rest of the Complete series that I don't already have:
Complete Mage
Complete Arcana
Complete Divine

As you can see, I don't much care for spellcasters. I mean, heck; I've already got Complete Psionic for cryin' out loud, before I got any spellcaster completes. But; I want to complete the set.

The rest of the monster manuals:
Monster Manual IV

Yeah, that's it. I count Fiend Folio as a MM. But I've already got it.

The rest of the environmental books:

I actually am not counting Dungeonscape. I don't care about that one. I've actually only got Frostburn, but holy crap, great idea for a line of sourcebooks.

Other books I want that aren't exactly part of a series per se:
Player's Handbook 2
Heroes of Horror

That's nine books. In nine books, I could be done.

Of course, I could also be not done. If I get past those nine books, I've got another list of lower priority books to buy.

The rest of the Races series:
Races of Stone
Races of the Wild
Races of the Dragon

I bought Races of Destiny on the cheap years ago, and I wasn't impressed with it enough to make a point of collecting the rest. But, probably, one of these days I'll get around to it.

Two of the Complete books I've never been that interested in, but the completist in me will probably eventually drive me to buy:
Complete Champion
Complete Scoundrel

A few other books, that belong to no series per se that I can percieve:
Magic of Incarnum
Tome of Magic
Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords
Spell Compendium
Dragon Magic

So; ten more. Low priority, but still; I'd eventually like to have them.

Of course, then we start on the Forgotten Realms and Eberron books that I don't have.

D'oh. I've got a lot of buying to do after all.

Still; only the first nine are really "high" priority, and by "high" I mean, even though they've been out of print for a year and a half (or longer) I still haven't gotten around to buying them. High being a very relative term in this instance.

Fantasy subgenres

As a self-professed genre-bender, who likes to mix and match fun genre conventions regardless of origin, you'd think I wouldn't care much about the rather nitpicky and esoteric subgenres of fantasy, but actually, I think that they're quite interesting to examine. As a reader, occasional writer, and long-time fantasy roleplaying game fan, I also care quite a bit about the "feel" of certain genres, and often try to implement this feel regardless of other conventions sometimes.

This list isn't meant to be exhaustive, although it does catch most of the major categories.

High Fantasy: The grand-daddy of them all. Well, not really, but High Fantasy is what so many people think of when they hear the term fantasy that for all intents and purposes, to them High Fantasy is synonomous with Fantasy. High fantasy usually takes place in a secondary creation (i.e., a fantasy world, not the real world), often includes quests to save the world, often includes a dynamic of good vs. evil, and often follows such conventions as Campbell's Hero's Journey very blatantly, including the farmboy turned hero/king. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is High Fantasy, for example.

Sword & Sorcery: This is the other major pillar on which most modern fantasy rests, and it was pioneered by writers such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, etc. S&S does not feature "save the world" as a plot element, it is often told in short story format, the protagonists are often fairly amoral guys, looking for adventure and glory rather than higher ideals. It's focus is on exotica, action, and fast pacing. S&S originated in the pulp magazines (especially Weird Tales of the late 20s and early 30s) and as such, it bears a strong helping of the "pulp aesthetic." As already mentioned, the most prominent and iconic Sword & Sorcery fiction is the Conan cycle of stories by Howard.

Heroic Fantasy: This is a slightly unclear definition, and seems to be used most often to label something that would include both High Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery, making it an umbrella term of dubious value. However, it's worth pointing out that games like Dungeons & Dragons, which feature an intriguing mix of High Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery conventions mixed together, is perhaps best served by this label.

Low Fantasy: This is probably a bad label, but you may see it frequently. It's defined more by what it's not than by what it is, i.e., it's not High Fantasy. So, this includes Sword & Sorcery, for example. And dark fantasy

Dark Fantasy: Best described as a hybrid between horror and fantasy. Some dark fantasy "leans" more towards one endpoint or the other. Dark fantasy is also often "non-heroic" i.e., characters are vulnerable to nasty death at every turn, often don't have plot immunity, and the grittiness and "realness" of life is emphasized. Glen Cook's Black Company series could be considered dark fantasy (as well as other things), as could George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire & Ice.

Contemporary Fantasy: Fantasy that doesn't take place in a pseudo-medieval setting. It could be, literally, the real world of today, or it could be a fantasy setting with modern trappings. The most obvious and popular contemporary fantasy today is J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

Urban Fantasy: A subset of Contemporary Fantasy, urban fantasy takes place in the dark alleys of the modern metropolis. Growing out of a dark fantasy/horror scene, urban fantasy features a lot of overlap with that scene. The Anita Blake and Dresden Files novels are a great example of Urban Fantasy. For that matter, so is much of the World of Darkness line of roleplaying games from White Wolf.

Romantic Fantasy: Fantasy mostly written by women and targeting a women audience, this subgenre combines elements of traditional high fantasy with the romance novel. Mercedes Lackey wrote a ton of this kind of material, and a roleplaying game by Green Ronin dedicated to it even came out, Blue Rose. I don't know how successful that game was, but it was the direct predecessor to the True20 system, so it's worth it for that alone, if nothing else. In case a bit of bias is showing through here, I'll go ahead and officially say it: I have yet to read a single book of this subgenre that I like, and I actively avoid it now.

Science Fantasy: Perhaps not so much thriving subgenre in its own right as opposed to a label retroactively applied to a few works that don't easily fit in other subgenres, science fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that has science fiction trappings, but other conventions (and even cliches) from high fantasy, or other fantasy works. Frank Herbert's Dune is probably one of the earliest well-known varieties of this, but the Star Wars franchise is usually what it meant when this label is applied. Of course, things like Warhammer 40k could also be called science fantasy, and for that matter, you could easily retroactively call a lot of space opera science fantasy today, like E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen series.

Historical Fantasy: As the name implies, this is fantasy that takes place in a historical setting. Celtic fantasy, Homeric fantasy, Arthurian fantasy, etc. If it takes place in the real world, using real (or real legendary) characters, at least as window dressing, if nothing else, then it's historical fantasy. Regardless of how much magic, monsters, dragons, and whatnot happen to infest this fictional real world.

Epic Fantasy: You probably hear this term a lot, but it is unclear. Some people use it to mean something that's identical to High Fantasy. Others use it to refer to how long a work is. Neither is a particularly useful definition, in my opinion, so I tend to ignore this label as nonviable.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


New musical discovery, y'all. Parralox, an Australian synthpop duo that's been compared to Dare-era Human League, and fairly too, in my opinion. They've got a full-length CD out, and a remix single for the song "Sharper Than A Knife" which I'm embedding from Youtube.

Love this stuff.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

D&D Horror

"Mr. Joshua, why in the world would you want to use the rules of D&D for horror?" I can already hear the cries (actually, I can; I started a discussion about this on one of my gaming messageboards, and right off the bat, the idea of "why don't you use an existing horror game?" came up.)

The reason is: everyone has D&D. Everyone who games, that is. The rules are right there, easy to find and nobody needs to relearn them. And even if you don't, hey, online SRD. They're free. Plus, D&D has tons of horror influences. Vampires, zombies, demons, Cthulhu-esque monstrosities; the game is rife with this kinda stuff.

What D&D doesn't have is a paradigm appropriate for horror. In D&D, you're expected to charge heroically into battle against the horrors of the night and smite them or whatever. In a horror genre game, you do that, you're dead or worse. Every time.

I think a few other small mechanical changes can help encourage players to keep in mind the paradigm that, even though we're using D&D rules here, we're actually playing Call of Cthulhu.

1) Level isn't necessarily something that players scale like a ladder. I can pick a level that has the PC power and capability that I think is appropriate for the game, and peg it there. All players create third level characters. You don't ever level up. Ever.

2) That doesn't mean that you can't have character advancement. You still get experience points. You can spend 1,000 to gain a skill rank (up to the maximum skill rank at 3rd level, which for class skills is 6 ranks) and you can spend 5,000 XP to gain a feat.

3) Forget CR. Forget wealth by level. Forget dungeoncrawling for profit and thrills. They are completely inappropriate for this genre. For that matter, be very cautious about combat. A primary theme of horror is that you're in over your head before you start. A straight up combat, unless it's with regular guys, cultists, or whatever, is one that you can expect to lose. You've got to be more clever than that.

4) 3rd level means any magic using classes have 2nd level spells. At best. If, for some bizarre reason, you really need higher level spells than that, they'll have to be converted into incantations and cast outside of combat. And expect to pay a hefty price for them while you're at it. Magic is unknown and scary, not a utilitarian tool for PCs to wield with impunity.

5) Still casting around for a potential fear/madness mechanic. I've actually got lots of options; I'm trying to figure out which one I like best.

Anyway, any comments? Other than that the image I picked for this post is only, at best, tangentially related to the topic at all by virtue of being a Google Image Search result for horror?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Monsternomicon II

I quietly removed Monsternomicon II from the "What I'm Reading" list. Not that I'm not reading it (slowly), just that I don't think it should really count, as I have read it before.

The two Monsternomicon books are almost unique in terms of monster books compatible with D&D. They're fascinating to read. Every single entry screams with flavor. Every entry is enjoyable ( enjoyable! really!) to read. There are very few gamebooks that I read more than once, and very few that are actually really fun (as opposed to utilitarian) but the Monsternomicon books certainly fit that bill.

Friday, June 05, 2009

New book

You may have noticed (most likely not) that I quietly put away the image of Blood and Honor in the "What I'm Reading" sidebar, and replaced it with one of The Dying Earth, the first of the Dying Earth series by Jack Vance. It was simply taking me too long to get through the D&D novels, and I, frankly, wasn't enjoying them enough to attempt to renew them at the library for a third time. So, back they go, the last one unread except for a few pages in. I'll try it again some other time.

In the meantime, I've never actually read Jack Vance. The Dying Earth is not really a novel per se, but a "fixup", which means that it is a series of loosely related short stories that have been strung together, bridged, slightly modified and framed to approximate the form of a novel. So far, I've only read the first of the short stories that is essentially Chapter 1: "Turjan of Miir."

Interesting stuff. I'm not going to say that I've been blown away by its brilliance (nor that I expected to be) but it's one of those kinds of things that pretty much every fantasy fan, and particularly D&D fans are expected to have read, so I figgered I better get on the bandwagon already.
Anyway, because I have more than one cover image, I'm attaching a different one to this post than I have in the "What am I reading?" sidebar. Actually, the version that I'm reading has neither cover; I'm reading an omnibus edition with all of the Dying Earth series combined.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

RIP David Eddings

I'm not actually a big fan of his (and I've been guilty of making fun of his work many a time, and his characterization of fantasy fans has at times bordered on insulting) but the original Belgariad series is still a decent read. So, it's with some small sadness that I announce the news that David Eddings passed away at the age of 77 last night. It's been floating around the sci-fi and fantasy news circuits today, and I just stumbled across it.

The Grand Unification Theory of Supernatural Evil

It's been more than twenty years, but the last time I was formally trained in physics, the Holy Grail of physicists was the Grand Unification Theory that would link conceptually the strong and weak subatomic forces with the electromagnetic force and gravity. To be honest with you, I'm not that concerned with unifying forces that occur at a subatomic level, but I am interested in merging forces that seem redunant. (We still haven't proved that those forces are redundant, for one thing.)

In particular, the genesis of supernatural evil in D&D is… overdone. The Monster Manual is rife with creatures that are supposedly powered by, if not generated by, supernatural evil force. Add in the other monster books and quickly this gets out of hand. You've got devils, demons, daemons (or yugoloths), demodands, night hags, kythons, hordlings, rakshasas, and… oh, I dunno, literally scores more of individual monsters that don’t belong to a greater class per se.

You've also got Undead, which are powered by Negative Energy. Conceptually, negative energy is quite silly in my opinion, and really at the end of the day, its just another euphemism for evil.
Why does D&D have this? Is it an artifact of any cultural genesis of the creatures being represented, i.e., a folkloric or mythological basis for this? No, absolutely not. If anything, folkloric and mythic basis would argue for a Grand Unification of Supernatural Evil. Does it make sense from a cosmological scheme endemic to D&D? Not really. Kinda sorta, in that several of the varities of fiend are there to represent the nine point alignment system, which makes, fundamentally, three kinds of evil which are separate from each other. And Negative Energy is the counterpart of Positive Energy. So, there's a weak endemic situation that this explains, but not well… it fails to explain a lot of other supernatural evil creatures, for example, as well as being… again, conceptually kinda silly. I don't like it, in other words.

Rather, I'd like to turn to a more folkloric basis for supernatural evil for my games. Something that's more consistent, which allows for as much variety as you want, yet has the same underlying philosophy behind it. A Grand Unified Theory of Supernatural Evil, if you will.
From a fundamental metaphysical level, then, this post will describe my "ideal" cosmology a bit more. This borrows somewhat from Judeo-Christian and Islamic thought (as does "mainline D&D") but I'm not attempting to make any comment on that. My sole purpose is to create a scenario that facilitates the kinds of games I want to run. This is because it makes it easier and funner for me, and for no other reason.

So, I'm also a "hands-off" kinda guy when it comes to cosmologies. Did the universe just appear, complete with metaphysical context one day, or was it created as such by some divine agent? I don't even want to answer that question, and evidence points both ways. One piece of evidence that points for the latter interpretation is the existence of spirits, intelligences, or sentiences of "evil"---those whose purpose is to undo the universe, or those that live in it. Where did these spirits come from? What is their genesis? Even they don't know. It's possible they simply appear as forces of cosmic opposition, although others have theorized that they come from "outside" creation somehow. These sentiences and forces animate undead as well as take corporeal form as various fiends. They don't choose to do so, but the end result is the same. Undead that contain the spark of the person they were prior to becoming undead are actually a fusion of a living mortal soul and this evil spirit.

For the most part, prior to incarnating as a fiend, these spirits are unaware and largely insentient. A very few exceptions exist; spirits that remember multiple lives as different types of evil creatures, but none of these remember their genesis; their memory does not stretch all the way to the beginning.

Non-supernatural evil, of course, requires no explanation. People are just bad. Frequently.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Expanded Psionics Handbook

I've had this book for many months, but I hadn't read it all the way through until... well, until just a couple of hours ago, actually. In fact, I didn't even buy it until very late, since psionics was loaded into the SRD, and I didn't think I really needed it.

It's one of those books that's actually difficult to read; mostly mechanics with very little flavor. That said, psionics has always interested me as a totally new way of doing magic. I don't actually think that psionics alongside divine and arcane magic is all that interesting, but psionics instead of divine and arcane magic is a topic that fascinates me.

In any case, the book is pretty solid. The mechanics are cleaned up and better all 'round than the original 3e Psionics Handbook. I've gotta believe that this product only serves a niche market, but I happen to fall into that niche.

The notable thing to me is that psionics is very much simply magic. Lots of D&D players will tell you (or at least I've seen this expressed frequently) that psionics is too "science fictiony" for their tastes. This obviously doesn't turn me off, because I've expressed here before how I like the combination of science fiction and fantasy (and horror) elements in the old-school, classic "weird tale", but in this case, it's particularly irrelevent. There really isn't anything science fictiony about psionics, at least as presented here. It's really just nothing more than magic, except with different mechanics.

In the Claws of the Tiger

James Wyatt's Eberron novel, In the Claws of the Tiger, is another surprising jewel in the War-Torn series. In case you've missed it so far, this "series" features a completely different author for each volume, completely different characters, and no ties other than that they're all part of the Eberron campaign setting. I'm not quite sure why they get binned as a "series", other than that they have the same layout and cover artist. Even the title isn't necessarily descriptive; the first volume didn't feature characters who were unduly affected by the war, or anything. Which is odd, because considering the scope and timing of the war, you'd think an author would be hard-pressed to not have his character impacted by the war.

Anyway, all that's neither here nor there; James Wyatt's novel is, as I said, actually pretty good. It's a fairly breezy "Indiana Jones" esque foray into a set of ruins buried in the desert of the southern continent "of adventure", Xen'drik. It features travel across the face of the setting, intrigue, betrayal, a Belloq-like character who exists to be the anti-protagonist who thwarts him repeatedly. There's romance, danger, death, undead, demons, and more. Fun plot, well-developed characters, reasonably witty banter and dialogue, fun settings... it's got everything you could want from a light-hearted pulp-inspired adventure story, and ranks up there among the better D&D specific novels I've read. I do quibble a tiny bit with the game mechanics "showing through" the text on occasion, but it's not nearly as bad as I've seen in some other D&D fiction. In fact, to some readers, that may even be a positive. To me, however, the fact that they needed to find a substitute for the missing "cleric" smacked of "we need the typical well-balanced party structure, otherwise game balance will be affected" rather than something that I could accept in the prose of the novel. I prefer to forget that I'm reading a novel based on a game, and just think that I'm reading a novel. Period. The description of magical healing and damage reduction also reminded me forcibly that I was reading a D&D novel, not just a novel, when it could have been written in such a way that it was more subtle.

But, that's a fairly minor quibble, really. I thought the book was reasonably fun, fast-moving and easy to read, and a great example of what a prototypical Eberron campaign could be like with a good GM who gets the vibe of the setting and is able to see beyond the typical D&D paradigm. I highly recommend it to someone who's looking for D&D specific fiction to read, and I don't mind recommending it to any fan of fantasy literature, regardless of association with the game or the setting, although in that case my recommendation is a little bit more guarded.

Another fairly minor quibble, that this book shares with The Orb of Xoriat; I have no idea what the cover art is meant to portray. The main characters do indeed come across tiger-men in Xen'drik. However, that's in a desert ruin that should look more like the archeological dig site in Egypt where Indy finds the Ark of the Covenant, not in the jungle. I'm also not sure who the characters are: the tiger-lady is never described like that (although that's an artistic liberty I'm OK with, since she looks cool) and the main characters are also not all recognizable based on in-novel descriptions. There's also no scene in which the tiger-lady queen and her soldiers ambush the main characters in the wild.