Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dominion

Earlier this holiday, I finished David Chandler's A Thief in the Night.  Although the final book of the Ancient Blades trilogy, Honor Among Thieves came in to me from the library, quite frankly, by the time I managed to finish book 2, I was done with the trilogy.  I might possibly return to it and finish the last volume at some point, but I doubt it.  Frankly, I just wasn't enjoying the series.  The second book had many of the flaws of the first--wooden and unlikable characters who seemed more like caricatures than characters, a weak plot supported by dubious coincidences, a ham-fisted wink and nudge towards some genre conventions, appalling attempts at comedy by using gratuitous crudity and coarseness and even more ham-fisted attempts to cram crude social metaphors into the text as well.  And to make it all worse, the setting for most of the book is a gigantic dungeon, complete with nonsensical traps, a suspicious "ecosystem" and it was--frankly--a boring setting.  It's not for nothing that it was dedicated to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, I suppose.

In any case, I enjoyed the book very little and decided to abandon the series, and return--at least for the time being--to my read-through of my newly purchased copies of the Dresden Files series.

Also, I've spent some time over the holidays playing Dominion.  We already had Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue and for Christmas this year, I also landed a copy of Dominion: Prosperity.  These are games that I think any "gamers", i.e. folks who play RPGs might like, and they've also taken the self-labeled "sophisticated" gamer crowd by storm as well, catering to folks who like the German board games and whatnot.  Dominion is itself not a boardgame, and it has frequently been compared to a CCG like Magic: The Gathering in the sense that you build a deck.  Of course, you don't buy random packs of cards; you buy the big boxed set(s) and build your decks with the cards contained therein, but the concept is still somewhat similar.  There are--basically--three kinds of cards (with two sub-kinds, if you will, included as well: action cards (including reaction and attack cards) that you play first in your round, each of which has a small and simple rule subsystem that comes into play when it is played, treasure cards which you use in the next phase of your turn to buy more cards, and victory cards which you don't use for anything and which don't do anything, but which the acquisition thereof is the entire point of the game, since they're the only ones who count towards your score when you're tallying up to see who won.

The remainder of this post will assume a passing familiarity with the Dominion rules--I'm basically going to give a quick and dirty run-down of all the cards available in each of the three sets I contain, which can be freely mixed and matched in any given game (in fact, the possibility of doing so is one of the main things that gives the game such longevity; the strategies for winning with one suite of cards may not work well with another, and the amount of permutations are, for all practical purposes, limitless.  To add to that, although the rules say that only ten kingdom cards are to be used in a game, I've played before with twelve or even more, and found that it works quite well (although the games go on a bit longer that way) so an even more varied experience can still be had.

Dominion


The original game has the most pragmatic and--dare I say it?--simplistic set of cards, but many of them are necessary to actually  play the game, and most of the rest are sufficiently useful that they are always welcome.  There are three times of treasure cards, copper, silver and gold, with increasing purchasing power.  There are five types of victory cards--three are straightforward--estates, duchies and provinces give you a set number of victory points.  Curse cards are negative victory point cards, and are used rarely, while the Gardens card is a relatively cheap card that gives you one victory point for every ten cards you have in your hand at the end of the game.  The Garden is quite a good card; I've found the normally I end in the 40s and occasionally in the 50s (although rarely in the 30s)--in the 40s, it's a bargain on victory points at four each card, in the 50s, where it's worth five, it would almost be too good.  Of course, it's hard to predict if you'll be able to get into the 50s (it happens for me rarely in a game of either three or four players) and the risk that you'll somehow end up in the high 30s and find that your Gardens were a relatively poor investment is always present.

All that said, I've found that some kingdom cards are always welcome, while others linger without being bought when we play.  Most of the trashing cards get very little play, unless there is a Witch in the deck, and frankly, the Witch isn't all that popular either (curiously, since I think it's a great card--relatively low price, good basic benefit (draw 2 cards) and giving everyone else a Curse card is nice.)  The trashing cards include Remodel, Feast, and Moneylender.  The Mine, on the other hand, is the exception, since you can only trash money cards, and you always get a better money card when you do.  The Cellar, Festival, Village, Library, Council Room, Market, Smithy, Laboratory and Woodcutter are all great cards, and actually, having several of them in your deck so that you have good chances of "mondo" turns where you keep playing actions and drawing cards, which include actions that you can play and more cards that you can draw, etc. is part of the fun of the basic Dominion cardset.

Many of the Attack cards are also sturdy, dependable and always fairly welcome.  The Bureaucrat has one of the best benefits to the player who plays it (and least onerous to everyone else) but the Militia, Spy and Thief all have their place.  Only the Thief is especially unpopular when played--for obvious reasons.  The Throne Room, which doubles any action card, is a fun addition.  The Workshop, which gives you a modest "free" card every time you play it is great for a while, although in end game, it becomes pretty superfluous.  And the Adventurer is great when you really want to get at your money further down in the deck.  And finally, the Moat is the best defense card in the three sets that I have, as well as the most useful all-round, and a fairly useful card to use even when you aren't defending and happen to have it in your hand.  The Chancellor is the only card that I really can't see the point in at all.  It, along with Remodel and Moneylender never get picked up in my  home games, and like I said, the Chapel only is useful when Curses are in play.

Dominion: Intrigue


Although playable as a standalone alternative to Dominion, I'm not sure that I recommend it exactly--Intrigue  replaces many of the sturdy, dependable cards of the original game with cards that have if/then statements on them, are more complicated to use, and often are less dependable--they can be good, but they can also be worthless time after time going through your hand.

Even at the basic level, the game is a bit different; rather than Gardens, they have Dukes, which are worth 1 victory point for every duchy that you have in your hand.  There are also three types of victory cards that are also either treasure or action cards--Harems, Great Hall and Nobles.  All of them are a bit pricey, but tend to be popular in our games, since they're useful during the scoring and also have a decent utility in play as they come up.

The Secret Chamber, in addition to sporting artwork that is an obvious homage to Harry Potter, is a lesser defense card, inferior in every way to the Moat, yet a bit more interesting in how it works.  There are a number of attack options in Intrigue (as the subtitle perhaps hints at) including the Minion, who can cause everyone to have to discard their entire hand and draw a new one, the Saboteur who can cause other players to trash a card and pick up an inferior one (an altogether nasty option), the Swindler, who can ruin your well-crafted deck by changing cards out from under you to others that are nominally worth the same, but perhaps not really what you're looking for, and the Torturer, who gives Curse cards.  There's another group of cards that allow you to voluntarily trash cards--never a very popular option unless Curse cards are flying about thick and heavy (which doesn't describe any of our games) and which mostly just become dead weight in your decks, including Masquerade, Trading Post and Upgrade, and the Steward and the Mining Village also give you that as an option that is rarely exercised.  I've also found that the Scout and the Wishing Well get very little play, and when they do, offer very little benefit.  The Courtyard's benefits also are somewhat dubious--they often don't amount to as much as you might imagine when you're stacking your deck with them.

On the other hand, the Baron, the Bridge, the Conspirator, Coppersmith, the Ironworks, the super-cheap Pawn, the Shanty Town and the Tribute cards are all quite good.  Some of them, frankly, may be a bit too good; there are cards that offer similar benefits at a more expensive price in the basic set on occasion.  The others are more solid and dependable.

One side effect of the way Intrigue is set up, though, is that I've noticed that the more unpopular cards, and those deemed to be more useless, are not often picked as options in our games.  For all intents and purposes, the Intrigue card set is more limited than the basic one, because there are more cards that we're not interested in.  Unless I mix my Intrigue kingdom cards with some other set, I really have fewer viable ones to choose from.  These means that "pure" Intrigue games tend to have less variety and play more alike.

Dominion: Prosperity


I'm not quite sure why Prosperity doesn't come with the cards to make it a "full" game, but for whatever reason, it's missing the basic money and victory cards.  It does, however, add newer "big money" versions of both; the platinum piece which is quite a bit better than the Gold, and the Colony, which is worth more than the Province at the end of the game.  The other notable addition is the ability to get victory points as small metal tokens that sit on a mat in front of you and don't therefore have to cycle through your hand.  This little off-line trade in victory points is a somewhat distracting side game, but then again, my wife swears by it, and she tends to win often by picking only a handful of cards and going big into them rather than having a broad base.

There are a number of other Treasure cards that have special conditions associated with them--Contraband can be used to buy things, but the person to your left excludes one card from you and makes it off limits.  Despite this limitation, it still is a fairly good deal anytime.  The Bank, Hoard, Quarry and Talisman are also great deals--the Hoard in particular is probably too good a deal; the card should cost more and should probably only give you a silver card, not a gold card, whenever  you purchase a victory point card.  The Royal Seal and the Venture cards, on the other hand, are somewhat less useful, and the Loan card is downright silly--I can't imagine ever being tempted to buy that card when anything else is available.

The Counting House, Mint and the City seem like especially weak action cards, and the Peddler is somewhat as well (although you can end up getting it for a steal if you're smart, which makes it at least not overpriced).  I've found the Vault very useful in games with Hoard, because you end up with a lot of useless green cards in your hand that you wish you could do something useful with.  Expand and Forge are fairly expensive and unpopular options in our games.  The Monument and the Bishop, for the victory point tokens, are very popular on the other hand.  The Goons card is way too good unless the Moat is in play, and I hate feeling like it's ruining all my turns when someone has quite a few of them and they get frequent play.  The Watchtower is a decent defense against attacks that deal Curses, but is completely useless otherwise--notably, against Goons.  The Mountebank and the Rabble attack cards are fairly low-key, not onerous, but sufficiently beneficial to the person playing the card to make them worthwhile nonetheless.  Only Intrigue has the really "mean" attack cards that get people frustrated with the game and the lack of good defenses other than the Moat.

The Grand Market and the Worker's Village are good, all-round cards, similar to other cards in the other sets that give you a few extras with little in the way of complication, and the King's Court is kind of like an expanded version of the Throne Room.  The Trade Route is another kind of needlessly complicated offline operation that tends to distract a bit from the game.  The jury is still out in our group as to whether or not it's a good thing.

We don't play this often enough to justify running out and buying Seaside and Alchemy anytime soon, but I do hope to eventually get them as well, just to keep things fresh in the world of what's available with Dominion.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Ethnicity in Dark•Heritage, part 3

After a long delay, here's the next part of my DARK•HERITAGE ethnicity series:

• The balshatoi, or Northshoremen, are an ancient ethnic group who live, as their name suggests, mostly on the north shore of the Mezzovian sea.  They are politically subordinate to the terrasans in the empire, but many of them have been highly integrated into the fabric of society, and for the most part, the northern cities--Segrià, Iclezza, and Razina--and all the lands around them, are high in people who claim balshatoi blood.  In the hinterlands, smaller villages, and backcountry, these people live much as their ancestors many generations ago--farmers and villagers with their own customs and their own languages, owing only nominal allegiance to any of the Dukes or Kings of the area--but in the cities and surrounding areas, they are fairly thoroughly "terrasanized."  The balshatoi language is somewhat endangered; few speak it in urban locales except the elderly, and culture, music, cuisine, architecture and fashion are all more recent local developments that are more based on trends from the south than they are backwards looking into their own heritage.  Although the culture of the north shore can be considered a hybrid of sorts between ancient balshatoi and terrasan mores, it's one that owed more to the south than the locals--this is the so-called nordero culture, described in the first part of this series.

Ancient balshatoi building styles
That said, as Terrasa weakens, a nationalist and separatist sentiment has been growing amongst the northern cities.  The norderos--the hybrid northerners--more and more emphasize their links to ancient balshatoi kingdoms and peoples, like Rozovķa, Ryazan, Vuronezh, Pjarmia, and Pezhek.  There have been (some merely half-hearted) efforts to revive the use of the ancient balshatoi language in its many dialects, and architecture based on ancient Rozovķan  or Pezhekan designs are popular (and of course, some older buildings from the Rozovķan or Pezhekan periods still stand.

But mostly, the balshatoi people who remain in their rural fastnesses are somewhat skeptical of the intention of these norderos to embrace them as long-lost brothers, and are even more skeptical of getting caught up in talk of potential wars of seccession or revolution.  The balshatoi life-style today is somewhat free, and many balshatoi men--and even entire families, clans and tribes--wander the wildernesses north of the seashore trading in furs, lumber, game and other commodities.  Their settled kingdoms of the past are often referred to as a weakness and a mistake.  The modern balshatoi has a reputation as a mountain man, plains-rider, and somewhat of a barbarian, albeit one painted in sympathetic "noble savage" undertones.  The reality is that life for most balshatoi wanderers is somewhat harsh, and many of them are little more than mercenaries and outlaws.  Indeed, many of the bandit groups that have cut off Calça from the empire are primarily balshatoi in  make-up, leavened with tribesmen from even further north and other southerners.  In fact, balshatoi as an ethnicity is somewhat dubious--it's more a lifestyle than a genetic heritage in many ways, since it's always been a semi-permeable society that accepted people of any heritage who did not fit into the urban lifestyle of the south, were willing to move into the wilderness, and proved to their collegues that they had something worthwhile to offer to society.  Women in particular have long been multiethnic, many of them captured in slave-raids, but then turned into wives and mothers for the newer generations.

Modern balshatoi camp on the prairie
Most balshatoi have a deeply tanned skin from their time outside, but are naturally fair, and occasionally freckled.  Hair colors range from dark brown to blond and even red, and eye color is brown, green, blue or gray.  They often sport exotically and barbarically shaved patterns in their hair, sporting topknots or simply bald heads, and men often wear big, bushy moustaches.  Balshatoi value their livestock, and the keeping of horses particularly is a notable affectation (as it is to the plains-dwellers further north as well) and one of the most insulting things you can do to a balshatoi is to bring harm to his horse.

• Before the spread of the tolosan ethnicity and their various subsets, the north shore of the Mezzovian Sea was largely populated by balshatoi kingdoms and their peoples.  But they were not indigenous either, although their origins and where they came from are now lost in a maze of legends and half-truths.  One thing that is known for sure is others were here before them, because one such kingdom remains, an island of a largely unmixed ethnicity--insular, xenophobic, and of dark report and reputation amongst the others.  This kingdom, now shrunk from its past glories, at least somewhat, still stands strong and impenetrable eastward of the Razine peninsula, with port cities like Mnar and Mzagi but otherwise surrounded by dark and haunted forests.  It's name is Tarush Noptii, and the ethnicity that populates it are the tarushans.  Dark and sullen, tending towards gracility and shortness, the tarushans speak a language completely unlike any other in the region, and their manner of dress, their cuisine, and their customs and traditions strike the rest of the Mezzovian sea region as exotic and strange, and frankly, often somewhat disturbing or vulgar.  Few peoples of any other ethnicity have traveled in Tarush Noptii, or visited any part of it save the port cities, so the interior of Tarush Noptii is a vast unknown, and few others have any cause or opportunity to interact with tarushans either. 

Tarushan "gypsy" in the woods near Iclezza
The main exception to this is are the refugees who live in small enclaves throughout the region, or who travel Gypsy-like across the landscape.  Speaking in hushed tones about fleeing the darkness of their homeland, these refugee tarushans are even more sullen and close-mouthed than the ones in Mzagi or Mnar, and are infamous for their superstition and fear of witchcraft (which ironically, they are very often suspected of dabbling in.)  It's no secret that Tarush Noptii is ruled openly by a vampiric aristocracy, and groups of tarushans are frequently suspected of being the traveling companions of a vampire in disguise.  They're also frequently suspected of belonging to ghoul cults--grabbing the poor and unmissed from the societies amongst which they live or pass through, and feasting on their flesh in grisly rituals meant to give them the power of their rulers.  Mostly, of course, this is complete nonsense, but it has been true frequently enough that they are rarely welcomed in groups, and frequently tarushans live alone or travel frequently to avoid entanglements with suspicious strangers.

• Northlanders are a group of people that are still mostly unknown to the Mezzovian area, but they live on the outskirts of it, north of the stranzero lands, and in recent years, a few of them have started filtering into the lands of the Three Empires (referring to the lands around the Mezzovian Sea and nearby--where the dominant political groups are still Terrasans, Qizmiri and the remnants of Baal Hamazi.)  In truth, there's a vast population of these poor souls, living as far south as the whispered Cannibal Isle, amongst the Green Mountains and the shores of Tarqan Lake and Lake Hali, and on the plateau of Leng, in the Qashan jungle, and their benighted cities of Alar and Carcosa and possibly even Kadath itself.  It's unclear the extent of their lands, what their political and cultural groupings are amongst themselves, or what their culture and goals are--too few of them come to the land of the Three Empires to get a read on them, although it is certainly possible--maybe even probable--that their own polities are as powerful as any near the Mezzovian Sea.

The few individuals who come out of their Forbidden Lands seem to almost exclusively be cultists on missions of some kind--either sorcerers looking to spawn cult cells outside of their native lands, or divine assassins, pursuing mysterious agendas, but often offering their services to bidders.  While northlanders are not often recognized for what they are, even when they do appear, the reputation of Cannibal Isle, at least, as well as Carcosa, Kadath and other cities in the Forbidden Lands, is a well-known byword for horror and fear; a literal Hell on earth.

Northlanders are physically very distinctive, though.  With pale, almost white eyes, chalky whitish skin that does not tan or burn, a tendency for extreme face piercings and black tattoos, frequent baldness and white hair (although coal-black hair is also common), they look like no other ethnicity in the area, and their original provenance is completely mysterious.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Points of Light

From a Rich Baker article on the Wizards of the Coast website, describing the implicit setting assumptions for D&D 4e:
The Dungeons & Dragons game assumes many things about its setting: The world is populated by a variety of intelligent races, strange monsters lurk on other planes, ancient empires have left ruins across the face of the world, and so on. But one of the new key conceits about the D&D world is simply this: Civilized folk live in small, isolated points of light scattered across a big, dark, dangerous world.
Most of the world is monster-haunted wilderness. The centers of civilization are few and far between, and the world isn’t carved up between nation-states that jealously enforce their borders. A few difficult and dangerous roads tenuously link neighboring cities together, but if you stray from them you quickly find yourself immersed in goblin-infested forests, haunted barrowfields, desolate hills and marshes, and monster-hunted badlands. Anything could be waiting down that old overgrown dwarf-built road: a den of ogre marauders, a forgotten tower where a lamia awaits careless travelers, a troll’s cave, a lonely human village under the sway of a demonic cult, or a black wood where shadows and ghosts thirst for the blood of the living.

Given the perilous nature of the world around the small islands of civilization, many adventures revolve around venturing into the wild lands. For example:
• Roads are often closed by bandits, marauders such as goblins or gnolls, or hungry monsters such as griffons or dragons. The simple mission of driving off whomever or whatever is preying on unfortunate travelers is how many young heroes begin their careers.

• Since towns and villages do not stay in close contact, it’s easy for all sorts of evils to befall a settlement without anyone noticing for a long time. A village might be terrorized by a pack of werewolves or enslaved by an evil wizard, and no one else would know until adventurers stumbled into the situation.

• Many small settlements and strongholds are founded, flourish for a time, and then fall into darkness. The wild lands are filled with forgotten towers, abandoned towns, haunted castles, and ruined temples. Even people living only a few miles away from such places might know them only by rumor and legend.

The common folk of the world look upon the wild lands with dread. Few people are widely traveled—even the most ambitious merchant is careful to stick to better-known roads. The lands between towns or homesteads are wide and empty. It might be safe enough within a day’s ride of a city or an hour’s walk of a village, but go beyond that and you are taking your life into your hands. People are scared of what might be waiting in the old forest or beyond the barren hills at the far end of the valley, because whatever is out there is most likely hungry and hostile. Striking off into untraveled lands is something only heroes and adventurers do.

Another implication of this basic conceit of the world is that there is very little in the way of authority to deal with raiders and marauders, outbreaks of demon worship, rampaging monsters, deadly hauntings, or similar local problems. Settlements afflicted by troubles can only hope for a band of heroes to arrive and set things right. If there is a kingdom beyond the town’s walls, it’s still largely covered by unexplored forest and desolate hills where evil folk gather. The king’s soldiers might do a passable job of keeping the lands within a few miles of his castle free of monsters and bandits, but most of the realm’s outlying towns and villages are on their own.

In such a world, adventurers are aberrant. Commoners view them as brave at best, and insane at worst. But such a world is rife with the possibility for adventure, and no true hero will ever lack for a villain to vanquish or a quest to pursue.
How does the DARK•HERITAGE setting coincide, and how does it differ from this point of view?  First off, that's largely true of my setting.  The Terrasan Empire, the main force of civilization in the lands of the Mezzovian Main and surrounding areas, is a decrepit, rotted, and ineffective excuse for an empire, and honestly, calling themselves an "Empire" was perhaps more grandiose wishful thinking rather than accurate labeling in the first place.  Overland travel is increasingly dangerous, and increasingly avoided, hence the "loss" of entire provinces like Calça or Baix Pallars.  The major city-states that are the core of the empire, on the other hand, are connected only by sea.

Even that route is plagued with problems, though.  While the Mezzovian isn't known for its tempestuous nature, making it an ideal road for travel, sudden storms aren't unknown either.  More importantly, the shipping and travel lanes are more and more plagued by pirates, corsairs and raiders, and Terrasa's navy is completely unable to rise to the challenge of detering them.

Strange kingdoms, races, tribes and peoples have lived in the area.  Although the terrasans and their allied peoples are ascendent (if only just) still, they are the last in a long litany of former inhabitants.  Many of the inhabitants are, in fact, mysterious.  The most recent kingdoms, particularly the so-called balshatoi kingdoms of the North Coast are reasonably well known, and descendents of those proud ancient peoples still live throughout the area.  But before them, only the vaguest rumors, legends, ghost-stories and crumbling, mouldering ruins of often mysterious purpose still linger.

Where DARK•HERITAGE most notably differs from the D&D assumptions, as spelled out by Baker above, are in two major areas.  First, in my setting, there is no assumption that the protagonists will be heroes.  In fact, given my recent (although years long now) infatuation with darker, grimmer, "fantasy noir" tropes and conventions, it's a pretty good bet that my protagonists aren't heroes at all.  At best they're anti-heroes, although they could frequently be likeable rascals and scoundrels or even complete and utter villains entirely.  The the second way in which it differs dramatically is the incidence of monsters.  In this older post of mine from about 13 months or so ago, I mentioned my preference for tropes and characteristics of supernatural horror over that of high fantasy.  What that mostly means is that monsters are never disposible; they remain monstrous by being rare and frightening, never routine or commonplace.  That requires a more careful touch; Baker can cheerily populate his wilds with all kinds of crazy monsters.  That's what the high fantasy genre (which more and more D&D starts to resemble, despite it's sword & sorcery roots) calls for.  However, my game has slightly different genre requirements.

Den of Thieves

Just a few days ago, I finished David Chandler's Den of Thieves and I've already embarked on a read through of the sequel, A Thief in the Night since I had it from the library.  Together with the just released (or just about to be released; I haven't been paying close attention) with Honor Among Thieves, this makes up the Ancient Blades trilogy, a very old-fashioned style fantasy story (so far.)  The dedication on Den mentions Leiber, Howard and Moorcock, and the dedication on Thief is to G.G. and D.A. in the outer planes; clearly a somewhat coy reference to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson of "we created D&D" fame.  That should also give you some indication of what kind of story it is.

The books' publisher, HarperCollins, on the other hand, would have you believe that it's in the tradition of the new darker, grimmer epic fantasy; they refer pointedly to Brent Weeks, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and even make a wild claim that Chandler might have toppled George R. R. Martin from his throne as superlative grim and gritty new fantasy writing.  He was also compared to R. A. Salvatore and Raymond Feist; in my opinion, those are more reasonable (and accurate) comparisons.

In Den of Thieves, the setting is basically a single city, the Free City of Ness, where no man is a serf or villein.  The setting is very Medieval in some ways--rather than merely being "generically" Medieval like a lot of fantasy, this one referred specifically a lot of Medieval institutions and practices, much moreso than most fantasy that I've read (it did use the word villein, after all, as one example.)  That said, it's hardly meant to be a work of thinly veiled historical fiction; the main character, Malden, is a thief with a fairly modern attitude, who finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue and sorcery somewhat by accident.  The main action of the book is two "dungeoncrawls" where he raids two separate facilities to steal the same crown.  Both have a very D&D dungeoncrawl feel to them, including magical traps, demons to overcome and more.

In fact, in all ways, I had a funny feeling that this was the kind of book Gary Gygax himself would have enjoyed, and would have seen as iconically D&D (especially keeping in mind that Gygax also liked to use more authentic Medievalisms than is popular in the game--or the fantasy genre overall--today.)

I found it a little bit less satisfying.  Much less so than, say, Douglas Hulick's recently released novel, which had a similar title and somewhat similar premise.  There were three "main" characters, Malden the thief, Sir Croy, a painfully naive knight, and Cythera, the cursed witch with whom both of those two fall in love (but who cannot touch either of them, and who is enslaved to the main antagonist, sorcerer Hazoth.)  A few minor characters round out the call sheet; Cutbill, the head of the organized crime outfit that employs Malden, the Burgrave, the leader of the Free City, Bikker, the mentor and trainer of Sir Croy, who has turned cynical and mercenary, Slag the dwarf, who makes all of Malden's fancy thief tools, and Kemper, the cursed card shark who assists Malden in his second, more dangerous, heist.

For the most part, I found all of those characters flat and unengaging--more like wooden caricatures than real characters.  This was a major turn-off, as a character like Malden really needs to be somewhat charming and likeable to work.  Sir Croy, in some ways, was the more engaging character, until during the last act of the book, he became frustrating and annoying, and seemed like a tool whereby Chandler could deliver the ham-handed message that honor and idealism is for suckers.

Although the book is reasonably well paced and the action scenes are described beautifully, I also thought the plot and motivations were pretty weak and unconvincing.  More than once, I found myself scratching my head (not literally) and wondering exactly why something had happened, only to decide that it happened because it had to happen to advance the plot, and for no other reason.  Needless to say, that kind of thing takes you out of the book's "reality" when you're reading, and breaks the fourth wall on accident; never a good thing.  One good--and interesting--bit of world building that Chandler did was the concept of the Ancient Blades, which the series is named after.  A number of magical (albeit ugly and utilitarian rather than fancy and Excalibur-like) magical swords, which are the only ways in which demons may be harmed, make up the backstory of Croy and Bikker.  Curiously, this first book doesn't advance that very far, leaves no real open ends to tie up, and leaves little indication that it's part of a trilogy of any kind; it's a very self-contained book, and the series title would seem to be not very apt based on just this book alone.

I think a lot of D&D players will like this book.  It has a very D&Dish feel; maybe even moreso, in some ways, than the official D&D novels.  However, it seems to have some of the same weaknesses that a lot of D&D fiction does; it feels too much like a D&D game and less like a novel in which organic events happen to real-seeming characters.  I'm glad I convinced my library to spring for this series for me; I would have been disappointed if I'd bought these books myself.

Meanwhile, I'm halfway through the sequel already, A Thief In the Night, which looks like it will have much of the same flaws and strengths.  Curiously, I'm still waiting for this to feel like a trilogy and not just unconnected adventures which happen to feature (some of) the same characters.  We'll see how it goes as I advance through the series; the third one is "On Order" via the library, and I'll get it as soon as they have it available and processed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gaming update

My own recent attempt to run a game of DARK•HERITAGE fell victim to time constraints, and I had to bow out and not run anymore, after kicking off a few initially successful sessions, and then devolving into mediocre sessions where I "punted" and just ran the characters through lame quick and dirty Dungeon module adaptations.  After that, we fell back into our Rise of the Runelords game.  We're about halfway thorugh that, having finished three (of six) modules, I believe.  However, we've been plagued by poor scheduling, and the "bombshell" revelation of a few days ago--the GM is feeling burnt out, feeling like other priorities in his life are suffering as a result of his dedication to always being there and always having to prepare, and--in a nutshell--he's pulling the plug on the campaign.

It looks like now that a long-anticipated (by much of the group, anyway) Star Wars game run by one of the other guys that I've never played under is our current direction.  We'll see how that goes.  Personally, I'm a bit leery of the notion of playing in a pre-written game--and when he makes comments like "rewriting the NPC monologues" and stuff like that, I further cringe, as those are usually danger signs of a major railroad and possibly oh-so-precious game by a would-be novelist. 

But that's speaking in the abstract.  As I said, I've never played under this guy, and he's been a good enough player and good enough friend that I'm certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and try his game out before writing it off as incompatible with my preferred style.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Hiking and Sightseeing 2

OK, here's my revised itinerary.  This includes a drastically reduced stay at Colorado National Monument, including eliminating most of the more serious backcountry hikes, but adds a nearly full exploration of the hiking potential of Arches National Park and Natual Bridges National Monument.  It also presents a more even mix of staying in el cheapo hotels along the way and camping, plus eating fast food on the way vs. cooking myself or packing in lunches when possible.  Part of my "sales strategy" for this trip is that it'll be cheap, after all.

Day 1: Drive from Metro Detroit area to Lexington, NE (15 hours).  Let my oldest son get in some practice on the freeway while I'm at it, although he should be (barely) officially licensed and good to go by then.

Day 2: Drive from Lexington to Scott's Bluff National Monument (about four hours) then stick around for about three hours there stretching our legs, and seeing the visitor's center briefly and what hiking there is to do.  The hiking isn't much... there's a mile and a half hike to the top of the bluff (and then a mile and a half back--but you can take a shuttle.  I'm thinking shuttle up and hike down makes sense).  Hit the road again and drive the remaining seven and a half hours to Grand Junction, CO, probably arriving a bit late.

Day 3: Sleep in, go to church in the morning, then go to the monument, sign in for a campsite and set up tent.  Do the Rimrock drive, plus four ½ hour hikes that have trailheads either at the visitor's center, the campground, or along the road, including the Window Rock Trail, the Canyon Rim Trail, the Alcove Nature Trail, and Otto's Trail.

Day 4: Sleep in a bit, and spend the entire day doing slightly more ambitious hikes, including the Coke Ovens Trail, the Devil's Kitchen Trail and the Liberty Cap Trail.

Day 5: Get up early, take down tent and drive two and a half hours across the state line to Arches National Park.  Again, go register for camping (reservations to have been made in advance); I'll spend two nights in this campground, cooking on the camp stove and eating pre-packed lunches.  There are a number of very short hikes (about half an hour or so) that are off the main drive at Arches; the plan is to do all of them (if possible) this first day, although there should be enough time in the later two days to catch one or two if they get missed.  These include Balanced Rock, Broken Arch, Courthouse Wash Rock Art Panel, the Delicate Arch Viewpoint, Double Arch, Sand Dune Arch and Skyline Arch.

Day 6: Some of the moderate length hikes within Arches, including the Park Avenue hike, Landscape Arch, The Windows Hike, Tower Arch, and Delicate Arch (the real hike, not the Viewpoint hike, which we'll do the day before.)

Day 7: Pack up the tent nice and early, and do two longer hikes, the Devil's Garden Primitive Loop, and Double O Arch.  Also, the guided Fiery Furnace hike, which can only be done with a ranger, I believe.  Spend the night in a hotel in Moab, taking showers and maybe picking up some fast food.

Day 8: Morning drive to Natural Bridges National Monument--three hours away--get campsite, and then spend the afternoon hiking all the (relatively short) trails.  Relaxed evening by the campsite, and early bedtime.

Days 9 and 10: Long drive home, stopping halfway in Omaha or Lincoln or somewhere 'round there.  It still makes for two fourteen hour days, though.

Curiously, three of the four parks are smack in the heart of "red rock country" and therefore will be offering, in many ways, very similar scenery to enjoy.  In particular, I wonder if Natural Bridges will feel somewhat underwhelming after three days at Arches.  Ah, well.  If it is, well it is.  It's not even a full day, really, and that's kind of the last, more relaxing stab at doing something fun before the grueling drive back home, so it'll be whatever it'll be, I suppose.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Sightseeing and hiking

For those who have followed my blog--that is, for me basically, and maybe my mom (hi, mom), it shouldn't be any surprise that my idea of a perfect vacation is to escape to a wilderness area somewhere in the great American west and hike around, seeing as few people as possible, and generally absorbing the wilderness ambiance that--not coincidentally--makes up an important part of the DARK•HERITAGE setting. Of course, so would be hanging around the Mediterranean coasts of Spain, France and Italy, as well as exploring Sicily, Sardinia, some of the Moorish architecture of Andalusia, and maybe hanging out in Casablanca or Marrakesh.  That's less likely to happen in the near future, but I've made a tentative plan for a late spring ten-day sojourn westward.  My wife's not completely on board yet, but I'm thinking me and the boys in my smaller car is a better bet than the whole family in the minivan anyway.  Here's the tentative itinerary, just for the curious.

Day 1: Drive from my home in the Detroit area to Lexington, NE--about 15 hours.  This is enough to keep me busy all day; that's a lot of hours to drive all by yourself.  Of course, my oldest son can take a turn behind the wheel if he comes--but he doesn't have any experience with long-distance driving yet, so I'm not going to have him log all that many hours, I don't think.

Day 2: Drive from Lexington to Grand Junction Colorado, with a small detour to Scott's Bluff National Monument, which shouldn't take more than about three hours and which will give us a nice chance to stretch our legs and get out of the car for a while.  The bluff itself is kind of a singular geographic feature, so there's not a lot of hiking to do.  Basically, you see the visitors center, spend maybe an hour or two on the few short trails, and take a bunch of pictures of the bluff, and then a bunch of pictures from the top of the bluff.  Then you get back in your car and hit the road again.

Day 3: After sleeping in a little bit, we go to Colorado National Monument, register for a campsite (because they're first come first served, although I've been told by the ranger that they rarely ever fill up) go see the visitors center, and do the Rimrock drive.  There are a number of short (about half hour or so) hikes that have trailheads along the Rimrock drive, so we'll do those on Day 1.  These include the Window Rock Trail, the Canyon Rim Trail, the Alcove Nature Trail and Otto's Trail.  Starting this day, we also eat only what we brought with us--six days of backpack lunches and dinners cooked over a camp stove in the evening.  We're also in the desert, so everyone drinks three bottles of water every day, plus as much as you want in the morning and evening.

Day 4: Three slightly longer trails, including the Coke Ovens Trail, the CCC Trail, and the Devil's Kitchen Trail.

Day 5: Now we get into more serious, backcountry trails, including Serpents Trail (called the crookedest road in the world) and the Black Ridge Trail, each of which is a good half-day of hiking.

Day 6: Two other 4-5 hour hikes: Monument Canyon Trail and Liberty Cap Trail.

Day 7: Three other backcountry trails: Ute Canyon Trail, Old Gordon Trail, and Corkscrew Trail Loop.

Day 8: The most ambitious of them all, the all-day un-maintained No Thoroughfare Canyon Trail.  As the name implies, the last few miles are basically trailless, so we'll probably be bushwhacking.  In the evening, we leave the monument, stay in a hotel, eat out, and take showers.

Days 9 and 10: Driving home in two 12 hour stretches.

When we're done, we will have completed pretty much all that those two national monuments have to offer, as well as having done some fairly ambitious hiking.  Without going on multiday backcountry hikes, which I'm not ready for, especially if I really do bring my two younger boys along, it's about as ambitious as you can get, especially the No Thoroughfare Canyon hike which is an all-day walk in the desert on a trail that ranges from poor to nonexistent.

Not only that, my budget for a trip like this is fairly small; I can do the whole trip for just a little over $1,000. Bonus.