Thursday, June 23, 2016

When Pulp Meets Urban Fantasy

I love a good urban fantasy yarn. I'm a regular reader of the tales of Harry Dresden, Atticus O'Sullivan, and Detective Inspector Wei Chen. There is just something about the combination of noir tropes with magic that excites my literary appetites. I'm also a big fan of Pulp heroes like Nick Charles, The Spider, Doc Savage, and Billy Byrne. In my opinion, these two genre are too rarely combined. Manly Wade Wellman's tales of John Thunstone are among some of the most imaginative fiction I've read. The Thunstone tales combine the cool atmospherics of a Thin Man film and add a wonderful layer of sinister mysticism. Thunstone faces fantastic foes who lurk on the edges of human society, seeking our destruction.

The Complete Thunstone from Haffner Press. Image by Raymond Swanland.
Given my love of these kinds of stories, and my love of Angry Robot Books, it is surprising that I missed the release of Alyc Helms' The Dragon of Heaven which is the first entry in her Missy Masters/Mr. Mystic series of books. This July will see the release of The Conclave of Shadow, a title that echoes Wellman's School of Darkness, and it looks to be an intriguing entry.

The books tell the tale of a street magician named Missy Masters who had inherited magical powers, and a job as the vigilante hero Mr. Mystic, from her estranged grandfather. Missy soon discovers that it takes more than a snazzy clothes and a talent for witty banter to combat the forces of evil effectively, it also takes experience.

From this basic premise, it appears at first glance that Helms brings in narrative elements that might be inspired by Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds series and dials up the magical power dial up to 11. It's hard to tell where on the scale of Savvy Scholar outwits the Forces of Evil to Sorcerer Supreme obliterates Cosmic Threats this book series lies, but the premises are intriguing enough for me to find out. I'll be checking out this series in the next couple of weeks, so I'll let you know. I might even throw in a Savage Worlds and Shadow of the Demon Lord write up or two for characters in the series.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Shadows of Voltan -- A Shadow of the Demon Lord Character Sheet for Crow

A while back, I did a post discussing Hawk the Slayer and provided statistics for the character Crow in both Savage Worlds and Shadow of the Demon Lord format. While I was happy with the statistical representation, I wasn't happy with the formatting. So I spent some time in Publisher and worked this sheet out. I've got the original publisher file, and a version of this character sheet in pdf, so I'll likely be adapting some more characters soon.

It's my plan to do a series of articles, including some fanbrew campaigns, for Shadow of the Demon Lord because I am increasingly convinced that it is one of the better introductory rpgs on the market. While the game has a granularity that most long time gamers will appreciate, it's very accessible. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Explore a Futuristic Kowloon Walled City as a Cat?!

After reading Jim Butcher's latest book, The Aeronaut's Windlass, I found myself confused by some of the public book reviews. I saw many references to "giant talking cats" popping up from time to time. It's true there are cats in the book. It is also true, to a certain extent, that they talk. The thing is, they aren't "giant" cats and they don't "talk" in any way that is particularly fantastic. In Butcher's book, the "fantastic" thing isn't that cats can talk, rather the fantasy element is that some humans can speak cat. In our own "non-fantastic" world, grown cats only seem to meow in order to communicate with humans. They will, in fact, modify their meows to create a subtle cat to human interactions that simulate language, but we humans seem to be pretty dim when it comes to understanding what cats are trying to say. Some of us are, that is.

What really impressed me was Butcher's ability to write about cats without overly anthropomorphizing them, though there are Warrior Born who go a little in that direction. He was so successful in his writing that he created an interest I didn't know I had, an interest in playing a cat based adventure game on the computer or console. It looks like game designers Koola and Viv are working on a project that will perfectly scratch this its. They are working on a third-person adventure game where you play as a cat exploring a terrain based on Kowloon Walled City. I don't think I could ask for more.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Throwback Thursday Gaming: Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons

"I was busy rescuing the captured maiden when the dragon showed up. Fifty feet of scaled terror glared down at us with smoldering red eyes. Tendrils of smoke drifted out from between fangs larger than daggers. The dragon blocked the only exit from the cave.

Sometimes I forget that D&D® Fantasy Adventure Game is a game and not a novel I'm reading or a movie I'm watching."

Thus opens the Tom Moldvay edited Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook, and with those words my own fascination with the role playing game hobby began. It's a simple - even simplistic - introduction to a fantasy tale. It begins with that most cliche of story lines, the rescuing of a maiden, which was stale even at the time the rules were being published. It was such a stale trope that the film Dragonslayer, a rare truly magical fantasy film from the 80s, used a reversal of that cliche as a central component to its narrative. But the imagery of "smoldering red eyes" and "fangs larger than daggers" was more than enough to capture my childhood imagination.

It is often said that "the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12," meaning that what each reader considers the Golden Age of Science Fiction is the literature they read when they were 12 years old. While there is some small amount of truth to that, I do have a fond spot for the fiction I read when I was 12 and I was briefly under the nostalgia induced delusion that the 80s Fright Night was better than the more recent remake, but it isn't always the case. In fact, my favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy - and those I think are canonical "Golden Age" classics - are stories I read in my 20s and 30s. What's ironic is that the stories I read in my 20s and 30s are the "traditional" classics, while the stories I read when I was 12 where the avant garde rebels. My 12 year-old Golden Age is Moorcock's Elric & Corum, Donaldson's "Land," and Cook's Black Company. It wasn't until I was older that I gained a true appreciation of Tolkien, C.L. Moore, Kuttner, Heinlein, Asimov, Burroughs, Howard, and so many others.

Given my referential baseline of Fantasy literature - Moorcock, Donaldson, and Cook - it might seem odd that Moldvay's Basic set would be the one that set my imagination alight. The book's line art, most of it by Bill Willingham, Erol Otis, Dave LaForce, and Jeff Dee, is a far cry from gritty and looks closer to the art that would be featured on the D&D cartoon than it does to the covers of a Black Company or Elric novel. Even odder is that by the time I came to be introduced to D&D, the Mentzer edition was already in publication, and the Jeff Easley art it featured was much closer to the fantasy images my readings brought to mind. Yet, to this day, when I think about what is best about D&D, I think about the Moldvay rules.

Tom Moldvay's editing of the Basic Set presented the D&D rules in a clear and easy to understand manner that left little ambiguity in my young mind regarding how the game was played. Having read the Original Little Brown Books that were the first public presentation of the D&D rules, I now understand what a remarkable task this was. Yes, Moldvay was following in the footsteps of Dr. Holmes' first Basic Set and was able to stand on the good Doctor's shoulders. Dr. Holmes first Basic set presented D&D's rules in an intelligible way, but the rules were written for the older teen to adult gamer. Tom Moldvay's rules, as should be evident by the fact that his "Appendix Moldvay" of recommended readings is filled with Young Adult and Kid's Literature, were designed as an introduction for the young gamer. That's what makes the edition so strong. It presents rules that could be described as arcane and mysterious, in a manner that most 10 year olds could begin running a game within a couple of hours...and they'd be enjoyable hours of reading. Not just because of the clearly written prose, but also because of that lovely line art.

Do yourself a favor. If' you've never read this edition, go back and read the Moldvay Basic Set. It's a bargain and well worth giving a try.