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Friday 14 October 2016

Sweet Christmas! Thoughts on Luke Cage

Quite definitely contains spoilers. So don't read any further if that bothers you!!

The Netflix adaptations of the Marvel Universe go from strength to strength. Riding on the back of the success of Daredevil seasons 1 and 2, and the incredible Jessica Jones, there was a fair bit at stake with the Luke Cage series. But, all credit to them, they made a superb job.

We'd met Luke Cage as a key character in the Jessica Jones series, where his erratic romance with Jessica de-railed following the revelations that The Purple Man, Killgrave, had compelled Jess to kill Luke's wife. In that introduction we learned a few key aspects about Luke, namely he'd acquired his powers via some experiment, and that he was a remarkable principled and moral character. (The origin episode is superb, as is his retro- afro/ tiara/ yellow shirt).

Following his intro in JJ, Luke's left Hell's Kitchen and gone to Harlem. This is a cool dramatic move for two reasons: one it avoids excessive cross-over with Hell's Kitchen heroes such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and --I suppose--The Punisher. Secondly, there's few areas that typify Black American culture as Harlem. And this focus, this placing of the narrative against a backdrop of Black America is expertly done.

The plot follows a fairly predictable arc: we start with Luke being a reluctant hero in Harlem, trying to keep his head down to avoid attention and thus linkage with his custodial past. Then trouble finds him, and his mentor/ friend is killed, prompting him to declare 'war' against the first villain of the piece, Cottonmouth. He's a well written psychopath, whose origins emulate those of Fisk in Daredevil, and whose aspirations run parallel to his cousin's, (Mariah) who is a local politician. I liked Cottonmouth as villain--he has a charismatic style that you can't help be drawn towards, and even though you know Luke's power level totally outclasses him, he provides an effective foil for the first half of the season.

In the second half of the season we get to meet the key villain, Diamondback. Buffed with tech from Hammer corporation (the rival to Stark in Iron Man  2), the flamboyantly insane Diamondback is set on destroying Luke for what I thought was a smooth plot twist. Their ultimate clash, after a few well set build-ups, was excellent, and cleverly used flashbacks to their respective childhoods to add to the drama.

Luke Cage follows Daredevil in that respect, with the emphasis on the childhood experiences moulding the characters into heroes and villians. In Daredevil we had both Fisk and Murdoch having adverse childhoods, with poverty, violence and loss of fathers. In DD these similar origins produced two different characters, one a hero (albeit conflicted) and one a villain (with a strange ethical code hidden in him). In Luke Cage, we have the childhood link between Luke and Cottonmouth that draws them into conflict. The commonality of the preacher father figure is then evolved with Diamondback's religious quotes, and obsession with biblical verse and teachings. It was a slightly contrived touch, after all the Bible-quoting psycho villain paradox isn't exactly original, but with its tie-in to the past, I'll forgive it as a device. Naturally it is there to illustrate that Luke, evidently not religious or ever alluding to Bible teaching, is admirably moral throughout, whereas Diamondback is distinctly opposite.

Luke's character is nicely portrayed. His almost naïve heroism stands in opposition to the less mortally robust Jessica and Daredevil, and I look forward to the dynamics in the Defenders when it arrives. The strong female characters often tease Luke about his corny lines, and social awkwardness, and it really made me like Luke perhaps more than any other of the Marvel-Netflix heroes so far.

Three more things about the series really leapt out for me. The series felt far more a part of the MCU than the prior three series. The Avengers were referenced repeatedly, although clearly this series is set (as is DD1 and 2 and JJ) between Avengers 1-2 and Civil War, as there's no mention of Registration. The dude with the hammer, the big green guy, and even Captain America by name, are all mentioned. The use of Justin Hammer's tech is a great inclusion. The character of Claire provides a link between the other Netflix series (she's in all three, I think), and I seem to recall Patsy's voice on a radio show debating Luke's effects on Harlem. More than the other series it examines the nature and effect of a hero, and a vigilante, whose identity is not a secret. The awesome Misty Knight, and yes I did squee like a fan-boy, provides the gradually adapting face of authority, and Claire the proponent for vigilante-heroes. This conflict is exploited by Mariah in latter episodes, and the Judas rounds (using Avengers 1 fall-out alien debris tech) in the hands of the police a nod to the philosophical arguments from Civil War.

The second stand-out is the music. Just superb. Ideally chosen for the setting of Harlem, it mixes soul with rap with funk. The guest appearances by Method Man and Delfonics set the tone, and the soundtrack had some excellent songs from Issac Hayes, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Rakim, Wu Tang Clan, Gang Starr, and even Nina Simone and John Lee Hooker. Given that the soundtrack was such a big deal with Stranger Things, Netflix's huge success of the summer, and also Marvel Cinema's Guardians of the Galaxy, I think that we'll find that the soundtracks become significant features in these series.

My final love of the series was the representation of black American culture. Given the style of the series, a black superhero, it could have so easily gone wrong. I was expecting a portrayal of gangstas battling Luke with escalating tech, and some black stereotypes tossed in. But the portrayals in this series were some of the best I've seen since the Wire, with well rounded and intricate characters providing enough variety. Sure there were some slight stereotypes--Mariah, the Councillor, was
tricky to gel with for me, and Pops and Bobby Fish edged on the obvious--but generally the characters felt very alive and very vibrant to me. And the writing was saturated with pop culture references, whether the jokes about kung-fu films, Shaft, Different Strokes, Dr Seuss, The Warriors, or the answer to 'who you goin' to call?' being... well... Ghostbusters! And Diamondback's reminiscing about being the Son of a Preacher Man, with Dusty Springfield playing. Just little touches that lifted the entertainment level above Jessica Jones and DD for me.

So, hope you agree with me on these points, but if you don't then comment as to what you think of the series. Next up is Iron Fist, in March, which has the tricky task of maintaining the standard. And the Defenders... well that's going to be so cool, especially as Sigourney Weaver is on board!!

Thursday 29 September 2016

The Temple of Elemental Evil - part 1

And so into one of the legendary OD&D modules with the kids. The ToEE (T1-4) was one of those iconic modules I recall as a teenager mainly because T1 (Village of Hommlet) had been out for what seemed an age before the rest arrived. It was released as a 'super-module' in an era where the ethos of OD&D changed from simply providing a setting populated by monsters and traps to one with a story/ narrative.

Now I love both aspects of play, but I find the down side of the latter can be that players get railroaded through, as there's often only one real way to make the story work. This was much the case in the Dragonlance series, and in the re-working of A1-4 and G1-3/D1-3/Q1. For my part, the kids had already started T1 a few years ago before our playing was de-railed by them arguing all the time! So this time around, I went straight for the dungeon with a fresh mission and a mild tweak to some of the locations in the vast dungeon....

So, our heroes are: Elangos (half-drow assassin), Crue (elven mage), Vicdak (half-orc fighter-cleric, and general hard-ass), Emelia (half-elf mage-thief), Loren (half-elf paladin of Pelor), Loki (human ranger) and Gideon (NPC cleric of Pelor). The intro I wrote them was as follows....

Fireseek CY577

The deep snows of winter ground the normally vibrant streets of Verbobonc to a frigid halt. After three weeks in the city, having brought in the New Year, you are itching to find of the urgent task that has brought you so far north.

It had been mid-Autumn, in the end of Patchwall, when the novelty of a house in Saltmarsh had run dry and the desire to return north had crept in. The merchant ship had sailed north from Keoland, skirting the treacherous coats of the Pomarj, and its infamous slaver lands, and followed the Wild Coast to Safeton, the homelands of Vicdak. By this time the first snows of Sunsebb had begun, but an urgent summons for Gideon and Loren from the Temple of Pelor in the City State of Verbobonc had dragged you from the warmth of Safeton and across the Gnarley Woods and Kron Hills.

A few minor skirmishes on the journey kept you occupied. The slaver ships notorious for raiding the Wild Coast had got braver, pushing inland as far as the northern Gnarley Woods. Their misguided attempt to spring a trap on the caravan that you all accompanied resulted in Vicdak and Loki competing in who could kill the most slavers in one battle. Astonishingly, and much to Loren's disapproval, it was a draw.

Enjoying some hospitality from the gnomes in the Kron Hills, you reached Verbobonc in time for the yuletide festival of Needfest. The small city, capital of the Viscounty of Verbobonc, sits on the Velverdyva River and enjoys a healthy trade with the gnomes of the hills, the nearby walled city of Dyvers and the great kingdom of Furyondy to the north. As with many cities in the north it has a temple to the sun god, Pelor, although meagre in size compared to the huge edifices in Ulek, and it was this church that provided shelter through the vibrant festival.

Whereas Loki, Vicdak, and Emelia enjoyed the festivities Crue spent his time more constructively. Huddled away in the moderate library of the Viscount Wilfrick, Crue sought more information on the bizarre appearance of the masked wizard in the underwater layer of the Sahaugin. There seemed little to find on wizards wearing masks, save the association between mummer's masks and the elven god, Erevan Ilesere. Of the trident, Wave, there was slightly more: crafted by the sea elves of the Sea of Gearnat, originally as a weapon of their god, Sashelas, it became a weapon in the fight against demons and devils in the hands of holy warriors, such as paladins. It had been lost for nearly a hundred years, seemingly destroyed in a naval battle between the Holy Warriors of Procan (God of the Sea) and the evil forces of the witch Iggwilv, on Lake Quag, in Perrenland.

Crue knew that to find more he would have to seek a larger library, whether back in Ulek, or to the east in Dyvers or Greyhawk. Accepting this, he re-joined the others for the much anticipated meeting with the High Priest of Pelor, Tarin Hyret, at the grand cathedral of Pelor.

Tarin was a trouble man. Originally from the Shield Lands that ran between the foul Empire of Iuz and the fair kingdom of Furyondy, Tarin had been sent south to Verbobonc when his temple was sacked by a horde of bugbears. His wrinkled face reflects many of the fears of the Furyondy folk: three years ago the Crown Prince of Furyondy, Prince Thromell, went missing following a battle against the forces of Iuz. His betrothed, Jolene of Veluna, is now in mourning and open once more to suitors and the potential force for good that a unification of two great nations would bring has disappeared on the wind.

Yet Tarin's fears are more local. Four months ago, in late summer, he received word from an agent in Nulb, who worked for both him and the Viscount, that there had been secret traffic spotted near the ruined Temple of Elemental Evil near Nulb. Accordingly, Tarin dispatched a party of adventurers, led by his daughter, Allis, priestess of Pelor, to investigate. The months have passed, but no word has come and the Viscount's agents have not seen Allis or her companions.

Elangos, hailing from the far northern region of Tenh, had only limited knowledge of the Temple. With a sad smile, Loren recounted the fell history of the place. In CY569, eight years ago, the forces of good (humans of Furyondy and Veluna; dwarves of the Lortmil Mountains; gnomes of the Kron Hills; and elves from Ulek, and Celene) fought the foul denizens of the Temple near the village of Homlett, south of Verbobonc. Defeating the evil army on the Fields of Emridy Meadows, the armies besieged the Temple and defeated, then trapped the demoness, Zuggotmy. The Temple was sealed, and left ruined. Loren served in the human army, one of the Crusaders setting the orcs and gnolls to the sword.

If there was a chance that Allis was lost in the ruins of the Temple, then Loren knows he must investigate, and so too must Gideon. The pair accepts High Priest Talin's mission, and only on insistence from Emelia and Elangos, the fee that he will provide for such a service.

And so to the Temple…

The first session was a brief journey to the Temple south from Verbobonc and into the Kron Hills. The weather is turning cold and foggy, and in the mists they encounter a strange group of pilgrims, all with pale features and white hair. The pilgrims are tricky to talk to, and seem fascinated by Vicdak, who's half-Suel/ half-orc. The eagle-eyed Elangos spots one of the pilgrim's dagger is coated in blade venom, and a scrap breaks out.

The pilgrims are the Scarlet Brotherhood, the nutty Suel-supremacists (sort of Greyhawk Nazis), who in this era (pre-Greyhawk Wars) are a largely unknown quantity. They've been tasked by one of Iuz's (half-demon ruler of an evil empire) chosen warriors to gather information on the theft of a sword, Blackrazor, by the wizard, Keraptis.

The scrap doesn't push the characters as much as I'd thought, and they find on the bodies several useful items: bracers of defence, which Crue takes; a Gem of Seeing, which Emelia grabs; and a letter...


Fair Greeting to Lord Gryst, Scion of Iuz

It is with heavy heart that our great network has failed to locate the whereabouts of the fabled blade, Blackrazor. It's dreadful reputation is surely matched only by the passion the blade ignites in your fell heart, my Lord.

Our Brotherhood have had greater success in the identification of the vile miscreant who stole your blade. The method of its theft, the destructive use of sorcery, and the mask he wore have led us to identify him as Keraptis. A Suel sorcerer of old, his history is handed down in legends preserved amongst only the purest of Suel supremacists such as our Brotherhood. Yet, Keraptis was only truly half-Suel, an aberration of elven and Suel blood, and it is reputed the impure blood that flowed in his ancient veins was that of the Elven deity,  Erevan Ilesere.

Keraptis's manipulations and trickery earned him a dark reputation amongst the Suel, though his last act of sorcery was in the far off lands north of the Nyr Dyv, near eight hundred years ago. We would surmise that an imposter adopts his visage, although there is the small chance that Keraptis's insanity has returned.

We are certain the value of this information is apparent to you, and your dread father, and a return of those secrets we require shall be forthcoming.

With respect
The Father of Obedience

So the mystery of Keraptis, who the characters encountered in U3 when he purloined the trident, Wave, deepens. Armed with this info, and a chunk of cash from the Scarlet Brotherhood the party continue their journey and skirt the town of Nulb (a grotty pit of vice) and head towards the 'ruined' Temple. The Ranger Knight, Otis, approaches them under cover of gloom and shares what little he knows of Allis and her group. Allis had journeyed into the Temple with five others about two months ago, but nothing has been heard since. Otis is certain there is activity inside the Temple, but his remit is one of spying not assault. He offers his followers, three Brownies, to guide the characters to the Temple. With their range of concealment (camouflage from the pseudo-dragons, a ring of invisibility that Elangos uses, and a darkness spell) they manage to get to the main door without the brigands in the watchtower spotting them.

The main door is sealed with runes and magical protection and the characters wisely avoid trying to break in this way. Rather they jemmy open the side door, and enter the vast Temple... or at least that tiny proportion of the Temple that exists above ground...

Tuesday 20 September 2016

U3: The Final Enemy

The heroes finally made it to the third adventure in the trilogy, and one of the tougher modules in first edition DnD. In the last installment the characters assaulted the lair of the lizardmen whom they had discovered were purchasing arms from local smugglers near the town of Saltmarsh in Keoland. After a moderate amount of green gore and treasure grasping they discovered that the lizardmen were trying to form an alliance with other underwater humanoids to tackle a tribe of Sahaugin who had invaded their home on the border of Keoland and The Hold of the Sea Princes.

The module opens with the characters once more before the Saltmarsh council, discussing a reconnaissance mission along with a unit of lizardmen warriors and human marines. For a substantial fee the seven agree to enter the Sahaugin base and scope out the number of enemies, defences, leadership and so forth. Without further ado, the seven sail towards their mission....

To recap, we have Elangos (half-drow assassin), Crue (elven mage), Vicdak (half-orc fighter-cleric, and general hard-ass), Emelia (half-elf mage-thief), Loren (half-elf paladin of Pelor), Loki (human ranger) and Gideon (NPC cleric of Pelor). They also have the Sea Elf, Oceanus, with them.

They notice on arrival, during the daylight, that the sea level has risen up the side of the island that houses the lair. Instructing the ship to keep a fair distance, as the Sahaugin 'sea devils' may come patrolling, the characters, lizardmen, and marines land onto the causeway and enter the lair. Straight off they battle some Sahaugin guards, with some others through a lowered gate taking pot shots. Crue and Emelia dispatch their pseudo-dragon familiars through the bars and into the second chamber to activate the mechanism controlling the gate.

As the gate raises, the characters scrabble under and tackle the second room of guards whilst the lizardmen fight the first room full. The battle is swift and bloody, and moving from here the group explore the upper level. They find little beyond the alterations and building work that the Sahaugin and their slaves have done, taking notes on the layout and rooms. With luck they find a near-dead adventurer who tells them, in his dying breath, of the equipment of his deceased colleagues. With a bit of searching they find the hidden room, and the hoard of magic items that generate a rather long debate about who should get the Wand of Polymorph. Ultimately, Emelia grabs the wand and Elangos the cloak of the manta ray, and Vicdak the Ring of Free Action. With a few water breathing potions also discovered, they begin to wonder about what these items indicate.

It becomes apparent in the next room, after defeating the Sahaugin guards and freeing some slaves, as the stairs down to level two slosh with sea water. Emelia smartly uses the wand to polymorph Loren, Loki, Vicdak and herself into Sea Elves, with the potions shared between Crue and Gideon. And then they descend into the depths, slowed by the non-polymorphed members.

Moving through the murky depths the heroes headed south, discovering some rooms normally occupied by Sahaugin who are downstairs at the arena. They do find one chieftain who they kill quickly, and then a huge chamber full of women which they wisely avoid. Heading back north they stumble upon the vestry and quarters of the priestesses, who they discover in the temple about to engage in Sahaugin eugenics. A huge scrap kicks off with the characters focusing on the clerics, whilst the lizard men tackle the shark (by cunningly trying to get eaten and choke it...). Taking a few lumps, the players slay the priestesses, and bag the loot.

So with some quick healing, they swim further onwards and into a huge pillared chamber and then creeping to the portal into the throne room wherein are the toughest Sahaugin, including Baron, his elite guards, and the high priestess. Oh, and a shark.

A drama is unfolding: two Sahaugin are showing an unearthed stature to the Baron, and in its stony clutches is a glittering trident. As the players watch a robed figure materialises. He wears a mask, like  a Venetian mask with a joker-style leer. With a flourish he pulls loose the trident, is heard to say (through the water) "Ah, Wave, at last." And disappears.

The Baron looks about furiously as to where his newly discovered artefact had gone. And he sees the characters looking equally stunned. An epic scrap follows, with both the four-armed Baron and the pesky priestess proving tough to kill. But, with a few wounds, and a few dead lizardmen, they win! The Barons loot is discovered, and his vile missus is killed on discovery.

After this climax the adventurers head down and discover a barracks, and rather worryingly several score of Sahaugin pissed about their dead boss. The chase is on, and the characters barely escape the lair with the remaining lizard men, and the marines who had secured level 1. The boat comes to fetch them and they outrun the Sahaugin, returning to Saltmarsh with what info they've gathered and the news that the Sahaugin command are dead.

With the reward, treasure, and XP for killing some tough baddies, the characters all increase in level - and with a house in Saltmarsh as a gift, they gain somewhere to rest and recover....

The six characters are doing really well. Charlie's three are tough: Vicdak is a combat monster, now gaining double specialisation (from Unearthed Arcana); Crue is fourth level MU, with a big range of spells that I think Charlie plays a little too cautious, but who'll be rock-hard when he gets to 5th (fireball time); Elangos, although not as tough, now has a Ring of Invisibility, which is a big boost to an assassin.

Evelyn's trio are developing personality-wise. Emelia's thief abilities are a real bonus to the party, and she seems to do well in combat. I can see her being fun for some solo adventures. Loki has also gained a double specialisation level, with his skill being in the longsword. Loren, as a paladin 4 gains some great abilities, and his persona is evolving well. He's got a great AC as befits a righteous Crusader of Pelor. I think the ToEE will test them when they hit the second level and below.

And so onto the next classic... the Temple of Elemental Evil, and more revelations about the mysterious masked sorcerer (and his ultimate link to White Plume Mountain).

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Greyhawk Adventures book 1: Saga of the Old City

As I'm re-visiting my adolescent love of Dungeons and Dragons, and running the adbetures in the World of Greyhawk, it seemed appropriate to read the books that Gary Gygax, Godfather of DnD, and latterly Rose Etes, wrote. From the outset it's fair to say that this particular book is probably only of interest to those with a background or curiosity about the hobby. Even compared to other DnD books (Paul Kidd's DnD classic module offerings, and Salvatore's dark elf books) it's not the best of the bunch. But to a fan of Gygax, and the magic he created with Dungeons and Dragons, whether the manuals, the modules, or the world of Greyhawk, it's fun reading.

The hero is Gord the Rogue, a solid adventuring thief who we follow from humble beginnings as a cutpurse and beggar-thief in the sprawling City of Greyhawk. The first section of the book takes us along his early encounters, fleshing out the City vividly, and Gord's involvement in a 'turf war.' Gord comes across as a likeable character, with a suitable charm and wit, and his tricks and scams make easy reading.

The middle third of the book then takes us on a tour of Gygax's world, with Gord adventuring, romancing, and scrapping his way from Greyhawk City, across the vast Nyr Dyv, and then around the Bandit Lands, Urnst, the Theocracy of the Pale, Nyrond, and ultimately to the edge of the Great Kingdom. Now to me as a gamer currently reading the source material of the Flanaess, and Greyhawk, this was a great tour—the depth and detail to each area is a real bonus. But for a more casual reader the lack of a central driving plot beyond a series of vaguely related encounters could be frustrating. The plot through this stage feels half way between a bunch of DnD scenarios and a travelogue. We do get some development of him as a character, but rarely a decent in depth insight into him that a book this length should provide.

In fact the lack of a real purpose beyond Gord getting some cool weapons, picking up skills, and ducking/diving, is a real weakness. The book has a patched together episodic feel, which I suppose in some ways emulates the pulp fantasy that inspired Gygax's original DnD game (Robert E Howard, Fritz Leiber, Moorcock). I could just imagine reading  it serialised in Dragon magazine.

In the last third of the novel Gord links up with some more substantial characters: Gellor, a mysterious spy/bard; Chert, a barbarian (reminiscent of Fafhrd, from Lankhmar); and Curly, a plump bald druid-ranger (my favourite). We then get a trip out to a dungeon, and a suitably nasty demon to sort out. This part of the book at least had the right balance of action, purpose, characters and humour. It felt as if Gygax had got into the swing of things, and as I recall from Book 2, he continued this momentum and developed a fairly solid plotline.

So much in the way that superhero origin films never feel all that good, as they establish a history and a setting, this book is very much an intro, both to the world and to the character who ultimately sees us through five or so books (as Gygax departed TSR). It's a 4 star for fans, probably a 3 star for those DnD-naïve.

Sunday 4 September 2016

U2: Danger at Dunwater

And the adventure continues with the kids' party of six:

Loren: half-elf Paladin of Pelor (a Crusader) from Celene
Loki: human ranger from Duchy of Geoff
Emelia: half-elf thief-magic user from County of Ulek
Vicdak: half-Orc fighter-cleric of We Jas. His mother was Suel, hailing from the Wild Coast
Crue: elf Magic-user, from County of Ulek
Elangos: half-elf drow assassin (Flan origins on human side, from Duchy of Tenh, then onto Greyhawk city)

Having trained now to second level (and in some cases, third) the refreshed characters and their mentor, Gideon, are sent by the Council of Saltmarsh to investigate the Lizardmen threat gathering at the swampy mouth of the Dunwater River. The smugglers in U1 (Secret of Saltmarsh) were found to be running quality arms to these Lizardmen, and naturally the Council are scared about attack. It seems swifter to send the characters than lobby the King for aid, especially given that Saltmarsh is on the fringes of Keoland, and very close to the border of the Hold of the Sea Princes.

Taking a small boat, the players sail along the coast and land in the swamp. They have gained some very useful assistance in the form of Pseudo-dragon familiars, and this allows several of their number (most usefully Emelia the theif-mage) to become camouflaged. The gang enter the Lizardmen lair via the main entrance, immediately scrapping with the guards. They beat them fairly convincingly, then tackled the second wave from the adjacent room.

With a swift bit of healing they continued into the lair--moving first into a Banqueting Hall, where they encountered some of the Lizard females. Crue sent them off to sleep with a spell, and the party tied them up with rope and gags. Exiting the Hall, they then came into the Throne Room where two kids were playing. Deciding that they (a) would loose a ton of XP for bumping off the kids, and (b) didn't want the kids stalking them, they grabbed them, tied them up and bunged them in the Hall with the mums.

Back into the corridors, Emelia scouted ahead and found more lizard women cooking in the kitchens. The bloodthirsty adventurers were tiring of these non-combatants! Back into the corridors, the party move around to the east and come into the barracks, wherein they find nine warriors and a shaman. An almighty scrap ensues, driven by the shaman's fervent hatred of humans/ elves as heretics and infidels. Emelia disables one of the warriors with a sleep, and when the battle ends, they question him. At this point they learn that the Lizardmen are actually living in exile from their prior home, and that there is argument between clergy and the Minister about humans and whether they are enemies or not.

It's at this point the adventurers realise that the Lizardmen aren't the big enemy. Given the trail of green blood and orphans they've just left behind, it is with some trepidation they go to make peace with the Chieftain. A big discussion ensues, and ultimately the party accept that to recompense the Lizardmen (a weregild) they must perform a task: to slay a Giant Crocodile that the Lizardmen can't tackle due to religious reasons.

So, out into the swamps and what begins as a battle against a huge crocodile is soon joined by an Oriental Dragon. It's a close battle (see Hidden Dragon ), but the characters prevail and return to Saltmarch with cash, a few choice items ( a periapt of proof against poison, a magic sword, and some potions). And the conclusion to the adventure awaits, in The Final Enemy.

Wednesday 24 August 2016

The Wise Man's Fear

It's taken me a while to get around to reading the second book in Pat Rothfuss's series. That's not because I didn't enjoy the first book, it's just it came to my attention on a wave of hype, and it didn't quite live up to it. There was. However, enough to make me buy the second whilst looking for my holiday read from a fab bookshop in York.

The story picks up in its two timelines fairly promptly. The contemporary narrative (in third person) has Kvothe, the legendary hero, hiding as an innkeeper and recounting the flashback to a scribe, the Chronicler. The sleepy village inn has just been rocked by a possessed mercenary being killed in the inn, and the locals are organising a funeral. The events in the present occur over a day (which presumably means the flashback narrative is being written by a scribe that can write twenty times faster than I can type). The motivation of the Chronicler, to record reliably the truth of the heroic deeds of the legendary Kvothe, is further driven by the fae, Bast, who wants to return Kvothe his mighty past. We wonder at Bast's motivation, whether driven by a concern about the ongoing war (which we are led to believe Kvothe has begun by killing a king) or some other reason connected to the Fae (whom we discover more about in book 2).

Noting the above, the meat of the book is in the flashback section. Book one was dominated by Kvothe's first year at the University, his on-off fascination with the mysterious Denna, his rivalry with the rich kid, Ambrose, and the ongoing desire to learn more about the Chandrian, the seven creatures that killed his parents. It culminated in a scrap with Ambrose in which Kvothe broke his rival's arm by 'naming' the wind, namely harnessing its power using magic.

Image from

Unlike book 1, which was dominated by the University, this book takes Kvothe out of the restrictions of academia, and to the lands in the east of the civilised lands. He takes a sort of 'gap year' after a trial draws negative attention to the University and his fees are hiked. Seeking a patron to fund his side-line as a  minstrel, he journeys to the city of Severen where he works for the Maer, a noble. This leads to a series events involving bandits, the Fae, training with a race of pseudo-samurai, and then performing a daring rescue. All of this bolsters his reputation, and finally leaves him with cash in his pocket and a kick-ass sword.

There were so many good things in this book. Kvothe is endearing and believable as a hero. He is moral, but not overly so. His cheekiness and charm bring forth images of the cocky protagonists of so many movies, yet inside he has a deep burning anger at what destroyed his life in the early parts of book 1. This bursts forth in a well written sequence later in the book where he slaughters a group of thieves. He's not above foolishness and arrogance, yet you forgive him those moments because ultimately you root for him throughout.

Kvothe meets Haliax by Brad Sutton art

Rothfuss excels in several areas for me: the intricacy of the magic system, and the detail of the foreign cultures. Of the former, the rationalisation of the various disciplines of magic studied at the University are beautifully done. The near scientific basis of 'sympathy' (manipulation of energy, linking objects thermodynamically), 'alchemy' (portrayed here as advanced chemistry) contrasts with 'sygaldry' (using runes, although in quite a engineering manufacturing artefacts type way) and 'naming' (following the Le Guin idea of everything having a 'true name' which conveys control over an entity or element). I love the idea that philosophical and ethical progress has matched these disciplines, and that they are discussed between characters as degree-level subjects would be in our world. It tickled me that the concepts they discuss I medicine in the book are far advanced from most pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds (the use of the term 'sepsis' for example). It all provides a very believable structure to the narrative.

The second salient point to me was the depth of Rothfuss's cultural creation. Hinting at his skill with the descriptions of the Court of the Maer, with its protocols and etiquette, he excels himself when Kvothe trains with the Adem. The richness in the way the Adem speak, perceive, believe, and regard other cultures is so well written that it made the book for me. I loved the concept of the Katan, even with the corny Kung-Fu names, and the indefinable Lethani ethos. I loved the tree with razor leaves, and the culture shocks Kvothe experienced, especially the idea of singing as 'whoring.' Just great.

Kvothe by Shillesque.

The supporting characters grow as well as can be expected in a largely first-person narrative. The University ones are a little lack-lustre, with perhaps the exception of Elodin, and the curious Auri (who earned her own book). Denna, as I'll note below, irritated me yet was well drawn. Devi I liked and hope we can see more of her in book 3, although I suspect not.

The book isn't perfect. The pacing really struggles at times, and this may be a personal thing. Whereas I liked the period of training in Ademre, and the preceding period hunting bandits, I found the general flow of the book tricky. Certainly it was long, although not overly so, but there were periods of stagnation that really dragged the story. I'm all for the author enriching their world, but some parts of the book felt indulgent and in need of trimming.

Similarly, the structure is rather odd. The book seems to peak too early, the phase in Ademre and the rescue of the girls is the nearest we get to a finale. Then the book sort of ambles to a conclusion after this, with a fair bundle of hooks for the next book. I accept it is part of a series, yet other authors manage to create a story within their series that comes to a conclusion, that resolves some in-book themes, and that leave you feeling you’ve read a book not an instalment. George RR Martin doesn't, Steven Erikson and Scott Lynch do, and as I read more and more fantasy I'm erring to prefer the latter.

And finally, Denna. I see what Rothfuss is doing, showing the complexity of their relationship, the intricacy of a well written female character. But with two books of a thousand pages we don't seem to be advancing anywhere with her. We're left with the same frustrations as we had ending book one. I'm certain the next book will see her character finally hit the spot, and I wonder whether her abusive patron will be tied up with the actions of Kvothe in starting the war?

And of the third book… I hope Rothfuss doesn't do a Martin on us, and get side-tracked. I can't see how this series will be resolved in just one book, unless he either cranks up the pace, alters the balance of contemporary vs. flashback, or writes another series about Kvothe in the modern day.

We'll see. And I'm desperate to know what's behind the doors…

Tuesday 23 August 2016

Hidden Dragon (DnD tales)

Thought it would be fun for the kids to see their epic finale from module U2 in story form. So here goes...
The hesitant dawn tainted the mists a rusty colour. Despite the early hour the marshland had a stifling closeness, the air seeming dense and obstructive. Progress from the Lizardmen’s lair had proven sluggish, and the stinking water had soaked through Emelia’s boots at least an hour ago.

She glanced at her companions as they fanned out nervously at the edge of the large pool. Long sharp grasses mixed with twisted reeds around the fringes of the murky water, thickening into a copse of slimy trees at the far side. The creature was surely in the water, yet Emelia had an uneasy sense something terrible was watching them from the dark of the wood.

“Stay vigilant,” Loki said. The ranger crouched low, checking the mud around the pool for signs of their quarry.

“Can’t be too hard for you to track a crocodile the size of a house,” Crue, the elven mage chuckled. Loki frowned but did not reply.

“I do declare, it might have been safer to just give the Lizardmen their gold back,” Gideon said. The cleric of Pelor was clasping his holy symbol nervously.

“My spell books don’t pay for themselves,” Crue said. “And besides, we took that gold in good faith before we realised the Lizards’ true intent.”

“We have much to compensate for,” Loren, the Paladin, said. “At least this way we slay the…”

The brackish water erupted as a huge crocodile burst forth. Its speed belied its vast bulk, as its huge mouth roared in fury. Slime glistened on its thick green hide, tendrils of weed hanging from its underbelly.

Emelia’s heart was in her mouth as she sprinted to the side, mind desperately trying to recall a spell that would be of use against such a monster. To her left se could see the huge half-orc, Vicdac, take a more traditional approach and charge in with his sword.

The crocodile sloshed out of the pool, its massive tail swinging through a splintering hail of reeds. Vicdac’s massive sword carved a vicious furrow along its side and dark emerald blood mixed with the slime and marshwater. To the creature’s far side the spear of Oceanus, the Sea Elf, plunged into the crocodile’s flank.

Words of sorcery spilled from Emelia’s lips and she felt the surge of power as a crimson bolt crackled forth. It struck the beast under its jaw in a cascade of sparks. The crocodile focused its attention on Emelia and she felt a surge of terror.

“Try this for size,” Crue yelled from behind a nearby tree. The marshland glowed with the nimbus of sorcery around the elf, and a magical arrow hurtled across the waters and into the monster’s flank. There was a glare of light and then a horrid hiss as acid devoured a chunk of flesh.

I need to find the creature’s vulnerable area, Emelia thought as she darted around the fringe of the pool. Charging in from the front is hardly my style. I’m on this mission to crack locks and dodge traps.

The hide of the crocodile was as tough as iron, and despite its wounds it had slowed little. With a mighty lunge its huge jaws clamped around Gideon as his swing with a mace skittered off its head. The cleric screeched as the dagger long teeth ripped through his armour. Emelia watched in horror as blood spattered across the companions—Gideon’s blood.

“Get him loose,” Loki yelled, jabbing at the crocodile’s throat. “We can still save him.”

Oceanus charged with his spear, and straight into the crippling impact of the crocodile’s tail. The blow sent him hurtling across the water and into a tree with such impact the trunk splintered.

“No!” Emelia screamed, and dashed around the pool. The mud clutched greedily at her boots. To late she saw the trees part and a far more terrible creature emerge.

The water of the pool erupted into flames, and Emelia threw herself back. Her uncanny reflexes had saved her vicious burns from the mystical flames.

A creature of legend emerged, its vast snake like coils propelling it towards the companions. A wicked set of teeth leered as burning orange eyes narrowed in hatred. Crimson membranes glowed with power between gnarled spines jutting from its draconian head and back.

A dragon. A coiled dragon. Emelia knew of such creatures only from the dusty tomes of Ulek’s famed library.

Oceanus had stumbled to his feet, wincing in pain and lowering his spear. Glancing back, Emelia saw that Elangos, the dark skinned warrior, and Vicdak, had also seen the dragon emerge.

The persistent jabbing of weapons had prompted the crocodile to drop Gideon’s limp body. In a deft motion, Loren caught his mentor, whilst stabbing ineffectively at the roaring crocodile.

The heat from the flames was unbearable, and Emelia knew she would be better in the cover of the reeds than stood with wavering sword before a dragon. She scuttled through the reeds almost colliding with Crue, who was skulking like a thief in cover.

“A pan lung. A coiled dragon,” Crue rambled. “We’re stuffed.”

“My magic is spent,” Emelia said. “Are you…?”

“I’ve got some left, but the acid arrow almost burned me out. If I’d have known…”

“Easier to scowl at the past than smile at the future,” Emelia said. “This battle is more suited to bruisers like Loki and Vicdak.”

Circling above the pair, their familiars came into focus. The two pseudo-dragons had wisely being hiding in the reeds. The elves smiled grimly, and then allowed their own flesh and clothing to magically adopt the colour of the surroundings.

Even from three feet away, Emelia could hardly see Crue.

“Good luck, my friend,” Emelia said, and then scrambled through the reeds.

The crocodile was trying to bite Loren, but the paladin’s ornate plate mail deflected the attempts. Loki had moved around towards the dragon, with Elangos and Vicdak, but the flames were hard to breach.

Through the reeds, Emelia crept, trying to anticipate the swing of the huge tail. Her hands were so sweaty with fear that she feared she’d drop her sword. The flicker of flames from the nearby water danced across the flawless elven metal.

With a clatter the huge tail slammed into Loren. The magical plate armour dulled the blow, yet it sent the paladin staggering. The crocodile reared to attack, and Emelia knew she had one chance.

Hurtling from the reeds, she plunged her sword into the soft belly of the crocodile and threw all her strength behind the blow. A gout of viscous blood and entrails spilled from the wound, and she kept on moving, dragging her keen blade along the length of the abdomen.

The monster thrashed and gurgled and then crashed to the mud. The impact sent Emelia spinning across the marsh and into Loren. The pair splashed into the swampy ground and then lay laughing in relief.

“Some help…?” Vicdak’s guttural voice echoed across the marsh.

The dragon hissed in pain as a magical bolt arced from the reeds and into its neck. Loki was injured, but still fighting through the flames at the dragon. With horror, Emelia saw the injured Oceanus, staggering in the flaming pool, trying to thrust his spear at the monster.

There is so much I could learn from him, she thought. Erevan help us, throw your fickle dice our way for once.

The dragon snapped down at Elangos, ripping a chunk of flesh from his shoulder. The dour warrior splashed back through the water, as Vicdak hacked furiously against the dragon’s impervious hide. The battle was taking its toll on the companions, and the dragon showed little sign of fatigue.

Elangos had retreated to the water’s edge and was aiming his crossbow. There was something about the dark-skinned half-elf that Emelia couldn’t fathom. Yet she had met few warriors from the northern fringes of Tenh, and those she had were soured by the constant battles in the region with barbarians and orcs from the lands of dreaded Iuz.

Urging her aching muscles to action, Emelia hastened over to the unconscious cleric, Gideon. They had been good friends since meeting years ago in their homeland of Ulek. Although Gideon and Loren worshipped Pelor, God of Light and Healing, and Emelia considered her patron gods, Erevan Ilesere, Elven deity of mischief, and Boccob, human god of magic. Yet Pelor’s disciples were ever tolerant of other faiths, especially when working for the common good (which naturally Emelia did… most of the time).

Blood ran from Gideon’s mouth and nose, and his chest excursion was uneven. Swiftly Emelia tugged loose a vial of potion and carefully poured the contents into the cleric’s mouth. He gagged and spluttered, and was then surrounded by a shimmering light. His eyes flickered open.

“Gideon, are you…?”

“I declare, the dawn has nothing to compare to your fair visage, mah dear.”

“You’re fine,” Emelia said, and dropped Gideon’s head back into the mud with a splash. She stood,  winced, and retrieved her sword. Her friends would need her help, magic or no.

With Loren at her side, she rushed forwards. The dragon was wounded, the water bubbling ferociously around it as the heroes splashed across the muddy banks. Loki was retreating, multiple cuts dirty with swamp water. Oceanus had slumped on the bank, and the flames licked greedily at his burned legs.

A shrill sound sprang from Elangos, an ancient Flan war-cry that sent shivers down Emelia’s spine. Some dormant memory arose within the dragon, and it turned its sinister gaze towards the dark figure on the edge of the pool.

The flames illuminated Vicdak’s mighty blade as he lunged forth. His huge muscles propelled the sword deep into the dragon’s throat, and he roared a prayer to Wee Jas as a fan of emerald blood coated his pale Suel features.

In a flicker the magical flames were gone, and the companions stumbled wearily before slumping into the marsh. Checking the coast was clear, Crue emerged from the reeds and retrieved the dagger he had thrown moments before. His camouflage faded, and he smiled spritely at his exhausted companions.

“Alright, maybe Gideon was right. Paying back the gold would have been an easier option.”

Emelia closed her eyes and smiled.

Details of the adventure to follow soon.