Sunday, 29 June 2014

Review: Fated by Benedikt Jacka

Urban fantasy is a genre that has grown up to its full strength over the past couple of decades; even though its roots lie back in the distant past. Today with authors like Mike Carey, Jim Butcher, Kelley Armstrong and others writing books based in urban environments, all using the idea that just around the corner there may be something out of the ordinary; it is safe to say that the genre has arrived and is as distinctive as other forms of fantasy fiction.

Fated fits well into the line of 'wizard as protagonist' novels that have been published in recent years, and carries a nod in the first few pages to Butcher's Dresden novels; mentioning a mage in Chicago who advertises under 'wizard' in the phone directory. This element of awareness is pleasing if only because it suggests the Jacka acknowledges his novel is part of a young tradition.

In practice Fated fits a little too well into the conventions it plays with. Once the nod to other work is out of the way the world feels entirely too familiar. There are light wizards, dark wizards, a council to rule both and a world that's tucked away from human eyes, a little too conveniently. The structure he uses brings with it the usual squabbling politics and elitism that feels like the sort of thing that both J.K. Rowling and Jonathan Stroud put into their worlds with more vim and vigour. Part of this problem is that we, as readers, are so locked into the perspective of the protagonist, Alex that we get to learn very little about the world in a true sense. Everything is marred by the attitude towards his fellow mages: that he wants as little to do with anyone else as he possibly can.

In Jacka's defence, the novel is well written and well paced; there is little waiting around for things to happen, and the twists towards the end of the book are unexpected and satisfying. The supporting cast is rather more interesting than the protagonist, the curse that affects Alex's assistant Luna is both intriguing and unique; whilst the air elemental he interacts with breaks the pattern of a great many of these books simply because she's not very bright and has the attention span of a cat. Perhaps the saving grace as far as Alex's character comes late in the novel when an extensive sequence delves into his past, providing details of his apprenticeship to a dark mage (who he later betrayed). It at least provides a stronger context for his antipathy to the idea of interacting with mages, albeit in a fashion that suggests that he is suffering from some sort of post traumatic stress disorder.

All in all I feel I can only recommend this to readers who know they enjoy this sort of novel. It has a good pace and the writing is good. It is a shame that more has not been done to push it away from the safe haven of other urban fantasy novels to encourage it to stand on its own.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Gaming Ad

Proposed ad to go up at Waylands Forge (my Friendly Local Gaming Store)... 

GM/player in South Birmingham looking for 3 or 4 players for horror, steampunk and urban fantasy games, in the main. I'm mostly interested in World of Darkness, Cthulhu/Laundry, Gumshoe and a few other games (sorry, no Shadowrun, D&D, Warhammer 40K or Star Wars). My game style favours investigation, mystery and social interaction, and I don't really enjoy combat and dungeon bashing. Please contact me at (email) if you're interested.

Review: Last Call by Tim Powers

Las Vegas is a strange city from all accounts. A place of dreams with little reality underneath, where tourists are disorientated by the fact the hotels cut them off from the outside world, the tables never close and the windows don't open wide enough for the man who's lost everything to jump.

This is the world Last Call inhabits, a world of gambling, obsession and magic. The protagonist is Scott Crane, a gambler who hasn't played poker for 20 years, after losing badly at an occult game called Assumption in '69. As he is dragged back into the shady world ruled by the stranger end of probability and cards his life, already breaking, falls apart completely.

Obsession is the key to the novel; every character from the hitmen chasing Crane to the gamblers who inhabit the world he's forced into and beyond is touched somehow, broken by their obsessions and their connections to the strange otherworld that hides under mainstream Americana. Powers makes no bones about how insidious the world under the mainstream is, we see it reach out to little boys and infect ordinary life far too easily. We see inventive uses of magical power, the way cigarette smoke pools during a card game becomes mystical for instance, as does the way cards are dealt. Poker hands become ways to describe people's souls, places become part of people; water becomes 'tamed'.

The other side of this is that magic does not just come from the cards or obsessions, the book links back to older ideas, exploring the meaning of the tarot and how it connects to ideas of pre-Christian divinity. In particular Last Call takes the idea of the moon goddess very seriously, presenting invocations of Isis and her sister goddesses as being the necessary way to change the situation in the city. As women compete for the moon goddess' power they clash with powers as terrible and restrictive as those wielded by the obsessive gamblers, being forced to adopt an archetype and the strictures it brings.

Powers' worlds are always deep and strange and the one in Last Call is no different. This is not an easy book to get into, the style is thick and fast and Powers makes little attempt to slow the pace to appeal to the casual reader. He seems to have an obsession with waves and crystallisation, something that appears in The Stress of Her Regard and Declare as well as Last Call (enough to make me wonder if one day a connecting novel would be possible). He plays this obsession well though, using it in interesting ways as the plot progresses; tying to it patterns and symbols.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Gaming: A Positive Note

I roleplayed for the first time in over six months on Sunday, in a small game of Barbarians of Lemuria. The plot was largely ripped off Robert Howard's Tower of the Elephant and involved me transforming Sataria, the setting's 'melting pot' city into a low fantasy Venice just because... well that's cool right? As I say there wasn't much originality to the plot, from the bar brawl start to the way the characters found out about the gem the size of a man's fist (blatantly stealing the Jewel of the Seven Stars from Bram Stoker by way of Kim Newman) and beyond.

The game was purposefully combat, planning and gravitas light. I dislike the former pieces of that trinity (I feel they suck the drama out of the game) and the players I was gaming with aren't much for serious tones. At the same time though the game felt like sword and sorcery rather than vanilla fantasy and that was really good; one of the things that annoys me is when a game doesn't have the right atmosphere (having sat through 'horror' games where it felt more like we were playing Toon or D&D including a Vampire game back in Uni - the first time - where an attempt to deal with nasty things in the sewers transformed the game into a dungeon crawl - not my finest hour as a GM).  The PCs ended up riding a huge stone gargoyle thing out into the swamps before the magic animating it faded. 

So the short of it is: that was was fun. The players got to be inventive and take control of the plot in places. We skipped over the boring bits and focused on the fun bits - playing around me cooking a roast dinner, which perhaps wasn't the best juggling act to perform (but I think it worked).

I'm not sure where this points for the future. It likely means that I'm not selling up everything I own, but that I'll be pulling back the focus of my gaming to stuff that's more story driven and shifting away from a lot of more traditional games that can't be hacked into the sort of thing that interests me. Playing with new approaches to games and especially to ways in which I connect games to player characters (hopefully bypassing the work for hire cliche) has made me interested in gaming again and I'm not washing my hands of the hobby entirely.

Eve has suggested trying to more gaming with the Barbarians group, which is her, Emma and Alyssa. That's quite tempting, especially if Alyssa gets a job over here. My limit for gamers at present is 3 or 4 people - anything more and I find that the game loses something and I start to get crabby. The other option is to put up an ad in my local gaming store, Waylands Forge and hope a) that people want to game with me, and b) they aren't invested in a game style I find abhorrent.

On the other hand one swallow doesn't make a summer, I'm unsure if this is a one off and if returning to the hobby in a more permanent way will simply show me that all roleplaying can really be is running around enacting stupid plans and punching non existent things in the face whilst trying to get as much money as possible out of some poor mug. I can plan (and am planning) to get around those things but that doesn't mean anything in the long run because the players are the people who set the tone, pace and nature of the game not the GM. If they're not on board with this idea then it'll go nowhere. I guess this falls into the need for more preparation, stronger links with gamers and not accepting 'I don't mind' as an answer; focusing on the 'how' rather than the 'what'.  Given that the three people I'm likely to game with are pretty story focused I'm pretty confident that we can manage this.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Review: The Moon King by Neil Williamson

Fresh from NewCon Press the Moon King is an interesting, in some ways challenging, read. Set in the island city of Glassholm, a place with a more intimate relationship with the moon than is perhaps healthy, the book follows a number of plots; focusing on a group of characters whose paths cross but each of whom has their own distinct stories within the narrative.

The moon is held captive above the city and as it progresses through its cycle the city changes, and the people change with it. This creates two dangerous times Full and Dark which are significant to the story's development. Owing to its relationship with the moon, Glassholm is isolated and considered strange within its world and, in general, the reader is given the sense that the city's inhabitants are incurious about the world beyond their island.

Essentially a mystery story, one  beginning when an engineer wakes in the palace and is informed he is the king, the Moon King is an exercise in peeling back the layers that make Glassholm what it is, uncovering the truth about its past. Without wanting to reveal too much, by the end of the book Williamson has answered pretty much every question and seems to have revealed every secret the city holds. It must be said that the world building is well handled, the city has a sense of layers that build up into a credible place, even if I was not always sure of how Glassholm was laid out (a map would have been useful). The legends within the book carefully feed into the narrative, establishing a true sense of myth in what feels like a post apocalyptic world, though this aspect is treated as simple historical fact; even as a few characters struggle with the legacy of ancient machinery they do not understand. 

The characters are believable and solidly written, with well conceived relationships. They are nonconformists and outsiders; something that proves to be important later in the novel.  Williamson proves to be an understanding author, giving a grounded and sensitive perspective of the various challenges he establishes for his protagonists without tipping into preaching or making it feel as if their travails are inconsequential.

Sadly the pace is sometimes not as engaging as it might be, I found the start of the book a struggle because of this. Also the disparate plots and characters make the beginning of the story strangely disjointed, there's no sense of connection between the various elements until later and whilst I would recommend persevering, it is a little confusing to work out how everything fits together.

All in all this a well thought piece of fiction, with a fresh perspective on the genre. If you are looking for a new challenge then this could be the book for you.

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Penultimate Mark

Yesterday I got my penultimate mark for my MA in Writing. I got a 60 for Reading into Writing, which is the lowest mark I've earned so far on the course but I'm still pretty happy about it. I'm still on course for a commendation and that's a good thing. It wasn't the strongest piece of work I've handed in so its going to take a bit to get it ready for its next challenge - getting published.

I'm still loving the course and can't sing the praises of the people on the course highly enough. They're a great bunch of teachers (and I take my hat off to them for putting up with me).

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

More Dream Games

I haven't much to post at the moment. I'm slogging through writing sword and sorcery style stories for the MA's Final Project, researching a PhD proposal, and put part of my first novel in for the Bridport Prize.

Otherwise I'm bouncing back and forth in the grip of indecision about things like gaming (I'm not sure I want to go back to the hobby because, frankly the idea of trying to organise a game makes me feel stressed and I find myself thinking that if all gaming can be amounts to the list of things I don't like then I'm not sure I want to be involved with it).

Anyway, I wanted to post more ideas about 'dream games' and throw them out for your delight and edification. I think a lot of these would end up being run with a generic system like FATE or BRP but I'm not sure.

Damnation County

Something dark has woken in the American West, a murderous spirit ushered into being by the Civil War, fostered by New England's folklore and the race for the west. It has suckled on the shadows of the USA, grown fat on slaughter and pain. Where it goes darkness follows.

The dead rise from their graves, animals sicken, curses carry weight and the old, forgotten secrets in every family scratch their way to the surface.

Somewhere a headless horseman rides the night.

The player characters are people living in Damnation County - I don't suppose it much matters who they are as long as they're willing to stand against the darkness (I keep toying with the idea of generating characters for this, starting with a two fisted preacher with an attachment to the bottle and an outlaw who kept the preacher alive during a hard winter when they were fleeing west).

As a game this would take place in a fictional county in the USA, or perhaps more properly North America given the ongoing Civil War and the attraction of states like Colorado (which I think was unaligned for a lot of the war). I think I would want the game to initially be tied to the county very strongly - using the setting generator in Diaspora with a few tweaks, if possible. Later on I'd be happy to expand outwards but at present I'm very wary of anything that's too ambitious.

"Mercy Heights"*

A space hospital that tours the galaxy, offering medical aid in war zones. The hospital is part of the Intergalactic Red Cross and the player characters are all members of staff, medics, ambulance pilots and so on, dealing with evacuating areas, collecting the wounded and other duties. They are armed but the focus on the game would hopefully not cater to fights much beyond scaring off scavengers, dealing with truculent patients and dealing with the occasional saboteur.

The game would open with the hospital arriving at a new theatre of war, meaning that characters would have to establish the local faultlines, work out alliances, loyalties and all the rest of it before starting to run missions to rescue people. A fun twist might be having guerrilla units out on some of the planets, adding to a danger of attack from some desperate cells when the ambulances land. Add in a black market in medical goods, the danger of being taken hostage and the game starts to get quite a few levels.

I think I'd run this with Mind Jammer given half the chance, or maybe with FATE core. A similar game would be possible with Eclipse Phase, albeit in a stripped back form, probably resembling Thunderbirds more than a hospital drama.

*The name is taken from a 2000AD strip that had this concept.

The Dig

A game idea for Numenera which casts the characters as part of an expedition for the University of Qi - the setting's biggest centre of learning. I wanted to avoid the 'wandering adventurers' idea and go for something more grounded whilst at the same time playing to the game's strengths.

The expedition has fetched up at a strange city in a circular one hundred mile stretch of desert and the plan is to explore it, document new finds and bring back rare pieces of the past to the camp. Obstacles exist in the form of various local tribes, creatures in the ruins and the city itself which is difficult to traverse thanks to the jumble of broken walls, oddly angled walkways and general lack of repair. That's before you even get to the issues in the camp, two battling professors who hate each other's guts (and theories), a mysterious mercenary who excuses himself at every meal and an apprentice who is secretly in the pay of a renegade scholar who's looking for artefacts to keep for himself.  This last would lead into other adventures as the player characters discover a plot amongst the mean people conspiracy (sorry I just can't recall the group's name) to try and either kill or save one of their leaders which is spilling out into the world at large.

And then there's the nature of the city, which is actually a crashed alien spacecraft, composed of liquid memory metals and which, once awakened, can change its shape at will.

My gut feeling is that this would make a good arc to lead up to but there should probably be some sort of opening adventures to let players be comfortable with the game system first. These might involve recovering a map that leads to the city or finding some of the liquid metal as part of an adventure to set up the premise of the main arc. I would not want to delay getting to the meat of the game too much but a handful of small introductory adventures to establish the world seems like a good thing to have.

London Pride

A Dr Who game, spinning off the learning drugs in school idea I posted in the first Dream Games blog. The basic idea is to run a campaign set entirely inside one place, I'd be using London obviously, but with the freedom to go back and forth in time. This would let the TARDIS go back to Roman times and forward to who knows what - part of the joy of the series is that the future is not set and you can do pretty much anything with it, which opens up a lot of possibilities. The reason why the TARDIS is stuck in London would be a major plot point for the campaign (I'd need to check my Who villains to work out a likely candidate, it smacks of Gallifrey but we all know that that's sealed outside time, right? Right?).

There are lots of possibilities for villains and plots, lots of untouched bits of history to play around with. You could have a chase through the Great Fire to catch someone who's managed to abscond with the TARDIS, Weeping Angels haunting Victorian London, or a Cyberman at the court of William the Conqueror; the possibilities are endless.

Again, this feels like it could be a basic game suitable for beginners, after all you can start off with a few adventures set in London before the player characters discover that they're trapped (my commitment to some sort of openness at character gen means the players themselves would know that initially they'd be stuck there). I'm not sure if a good Microscope session should be part of character generation/session zero, would it be too restrictive to have futures mapped out and given the wibbly wobbly nature of Who's timelines would mapping the future be inherently redundant?

And that's it for now... hope you enjoy the concepts.