Review: Frayed Knights, Skull of S’makh-Daon

This review is long overdue. Of course part of it is just that life and business got in the way, but originally one of the biggest stumbling blocks was I was at a loss for what to say about something I enjoyed so much but had so many complex thoughts on. And for the time it’s taken me to get around to actually writing this, I apologize, since the time it’s taken has not actually made it proportionally better.

A few months back, Cirsova contributor Jay Barnson sent me a copy of his FPRGP Frayed Knights: Skull of S’makh-Daon. While I was playing it, I was absolutely addicted and could not stop until I finished it.

On the surface, Frayed Knights is an exploration-focused first person RPG with a fair share of hack-and-slash, but there’s a great deal of nuance to it that really scratches a lot of itches that someone who has played a lot of CRPGs and maybe burned out on them because of that “seen it all before” feeling will end up still getting a kick out of it and find it highly engaging.

First of all, the writing is great; which should come as no surprise, as Barnson’s a great writer. But the party’s dialogue is consistently witty and entertaining, giving the characters all a unique feel and personality and giving life to a world which is less a spoof than a humorous homage to old-school dungeons and dragons. While not so self-aware as KoDT, fans of that franchise would certainly enjoy the tropes played with. Plus, there are plenty of Easter Eggs that a fan of old D&D would enjoy, not the least of which being that it is set in an expy of the Caves of Chaos.

Something you can’t say about very many CRPGs is that combat was always a dynamic and engaging challenge. Except in areas you may have backtracked to for whatever reason, there was almost never any time where you could just hold down the attack button and expect combat to go your way. While you might settle into a few strategies that are more consistently effective than others, the combination of the pseudo-realtime initiative, exhaustion system, and variable equipment abilities, it was often a unique puzzle to figure out just what the best strategies against certain groups of foes might be – battles could often swing back and forth, and a lucky break or skin-of-the-teeth play could bring you from the edge of defeat back toward victory. One kinda funny part that may be unique to Frayed Knights is that in any fight, even a gimme fight, it is more effective for a magic user to cast a low-level spell than swing with their weapon—your level 1 damage spell is likelier to hit than the weapon against many foes and will also probably accrue less exhaustion.

While there were a couple of particularly tough fights, though, there was never much need for grinding – the biggest problem I had was, due to recognizing the homage to the Caves of Chaos and applying certain assumptions to Frayed Knights, was doing certain dungeons out of order and suffering the consequence. For instance, the Ogre caves present far less of a challenge as a smaller mini-dungeon than the Goblin Caves which, as a major plot dungeon, are filled with a much wider range of tough nasties (like those Shamans who will dish out damage and keep you from downing front-line gobos).

There are some obvious negatives; you might be put off by the low-res textures and simple models or, in some cases, the incongruous assets (generally non-animated NPC models). Graphically, it’s somewhere in the middle-ground between Daggerfall and Thief: the Dark Project. I love both of those games, but the look won’t be for everyone. Really, for me, though, the biggest problem I had was with the game’s scope. And it’s a weird complaint, but Frayed Knights is just big enough that once I was truly impressed by how large it was, I ended up being disappointed by how small it felt. It has a very Episode 1 feel to it; it set me up with expectations of a truly huge world with multiple hub towns, with even more areas to visit and explore, because what IS there is off the one hub town we’re given IS impressively vast.  A part of me wishes that instead of a new game with a new system, Frayed Knights would continue with new cities and new content added (nodes and hubs appear listed as you visit them, and newly visited areas can be quick-travelled to). Frayed Knights ends on something of a cliff-hanger, and it made me wish I could actually go and visit some of those other towns and locations mentioned beyond the original hub. But still, there’s an impressive amount of real estate to explore; maybe not to the extent of an Elder Scrolls game, but enough that you might come to expect it, forgetting that the game, as huge as it is, was developed by a small indie team.

The upside of Frayed Knights 2 being on a new system is that obviously it will allow the dev team to make improvements to the engine and graphics, and hopefully optimize things a bit (you get some vast and seamless 3D environments in each location, but at the cost of some really long loading times). I also hope that you’ll be able to port characters, but that may not necessarily be in the cards.

Still, I absolutely think that if you dig D&D and/or CRPGs, you should check out Frayed Knights!

Cirsova 2018 Lineup Announced

Hey, all! We’re thrilled to announce our lineup for 2018. As you can see, we’ve got some really great writers, old and new, with stories with us for next year.

We will be updating our Contributor Page accordingly and linking to where you can find more about these fantastic authors.

#7 Spring 2018 (Feb/March)
Jason Scott Aiken – The Legend of Blade
Michael Reyes – The Iynx
Adrian Cole – In the Land of Hungry Shadows
Louise Sorensen – The Toads of Machu Hampacchu
Marilyn K. Martin – The Great Culling Emporium
Dominika Lein – Galactic Gamble
Michael Tierney – The Criteria for Admission Into the Galactic Community

#8 Summer 2018 (May/June)
Jim Breyfogle – Brandy & Dye
Amy Power Jansen – Breaking the Accords
Nathan Dabney – Slavers of Venus
Ken McGrath – Party Smashers
Jon Zaremba – Promontory
JD Brink – Littermates (Pt 1)
J Manfred Weichsel – Going Native
Jennifer Povey – Only a Coward

#9 Fall 2018 (August/Sept)
SK Inkslinger – The Bejeweled Chest
PC Bushi – Antares
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt – The Dream Lords
Rob Lang – Hot Water in Wormtown
Spencer Hart – Jeopardy Off Jupiter IV
Paul Lucas – All That Glitters
Edward McDermott – The Faerie Pool
JD Brink – Littermates (pt2)
NA Roberts – Our Lords, the Swine

#10 Winter 2018 (November/December)
Misha Burnett – An Interrupted Scandal
Jim Breyfogle – Sword of the Mongoose
Brian K. Lowe – When Gods Fall
Jason Carney – A Song in Deepest Darkness
B Morris Allen – Crying in the Salt House
Bo Balder – Cirque des Etoiles
Lauren Goff – Amsel the Immortal
Frederick Gero Heimbach – The Best Workout

Guest Post, J. Comer – Cora Ives Semmes’ The Princess of the Moon: A Confederate Fairy Tale

The genre of sword-and-planet, best known from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, is a frequent topic at Cirsova.  This kind of literature, of course, had its inspirations earlier.  One such was the ‘Edisonade’, such as Garrit P. Serviss’ Edison’s Conquest of Mars. These proto-SF tales featured interplanetary war, wild new technologies, and weird critters.  They served to introduce the ideas of adventures with new technology, and established the SF tropes of Earthlike life on other worlds and the inventor as hero.

Another forebear of sword-and-planet was lost-world and otherworld fantasy.  Several writers of this genre, including Rider Haggard, E. Nesbit and Charles Kingsley, wrote for younger readers.  Another was Cora Semmes Ives.*  Her 1869 The Princess of The Moon: A Confederate Fairy StoryThe Princess of The Moon: A Confederate Fairy Story is a proto-sword-and-planet fantasy.  

The pro-Confederate tone of this novel gave me pause.  Unlike Augusta Evans’ Macaria, it was not written during the War.  However, the author’s biases are clear.  Some readers would dislike the story for this reason.  However, I believe that this tale is worth study and will discuss the reason.  

Ives begins by stating that she made the story up to amuse children at Mecca Plantation.  A Southern soldier named Randolph wanders after the end of the War. He sees the Moon and wishes to flee there.  A fairy appears from the moon and gives him a flying horse in return for his devotion.  Randolph flies, sees the wrecked Confederacy from the air, and then heads to the Moon- a pacifistic utopia lacking war and slavery.  The fairy is the mother of the monarch (‘moon-arch’?).  Her granddaughter is the ‘Princess’.  The hero woos her in disguise, is captured, but wins the grandmother’s approval after a hallucination which resembles Muhammad’s Night Journey.

Thereafter the Yankees appear in balloons bearing carpetbags  (somewhat unsubtly). They bear with them a former slave of Randolph’s who is glad to see ‘old massa’.  The Yankees steal the Moon-folk’s silver spoons, but Randolph pleads for mercy, and the thieves are spared.  

What is it possible to say, a hundred and fifty years later, about a story as eccentric as this?  The plot is a stock fairy-tale with a winged horse, swordsmen, and a princess.  The hero is hardly a distinct character.  But there parallels to a later work.  A hero transported by a wish to another world?  A swordsman who flies around on his adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess?  A Virginian Confederate officer?  The Princess of the Moon is echoed, decades later, by A Princess of Mars! I am unaware of any direct connection, but further investigation may be fruitful.  In closing, read this novel if you want to.  Recommended for connoisseurs of planets, swords, and oddities.

*:Daughter of Captain Raphael Semmes of the Alabama and wife of Joseph
C. Ives, Western explorer and Confederate officer.

Greater than Gods

Given the Google nonsense, I think it would be fun to give a little synopsis of C.L. Moore’s Greater than Gods.

Male babies are dying out, and a scientist is working on a means of using X-Rays to ensure a balance between the genders. More importantly, though, he’s trying to decide between Betty and Veronica (their real names are unimportant). His friend comes in and tells him how crazy it is that the future exists in a quantum state and how our choices can cause entire universes to come into or flash out of existence. Coincidentally, the scientist is psychically contacted by his future descendants at the same time… But they are from completely different timelines!

Short version, if the Doctor marries Betty, he spends more time with his beautiful but vapid wife, he has a kind and sensitive daughter, his work fails, and mankind slouches into a decadent feminist dystopia in which everyone is hippie-dippie and living in peace and harmony in little groves as all knowledge and technology is lost, dooming the race of man to end in a whimper.

If the Doctor marries Veronica, the sexy brilliant scientist gives him a brood of strong and virile young men, his work succeeds but leads to endless war and conquest of earth and someday the stars, with a mankind bred to rule and be ruled.

One of his lines of descendants will be wiped from existence, and he can doom mankind to a future of decadence and death or galactic immortality and perpetual war.

Given the choice between feminist dystopia and war world, he immediately proposes to his secretary instead, wiping out both possible futures and  opting instead for the unknown.

Pardon Our Absence

I don’t normally do “sorry, this isn’t a post” posts, but we also haven’t had a content fall-off like we have had the last week or so.

We’ve been busy getting Issue 6 ready to boot out the door and haven’t gotten into any good arguments about game mechanics lately.

My D&D group has started playing Sailors on the Starless Seas (DCC), so I may have some more thoughts on that system and the challenges it presents a fledgling DM.