DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea

DCC’s Sailors on the Starless Sea went from “This is way too easy for a funnel” to “How the hell’d they expect 0-lvl characters to finish?”*

“Uh… Agatha Agartha, my chaotic alchemist wearing the chaos robe and chaos torc kneels in obeisance and hopes for the best… She uh.. was clearly drawn here to serve the chaos lord–it’s her destiny. Also, she pushes Varra, my elven falconer, into the lava.”

With 30 beastmen, a beastman shaman, a chaos avatar, and no win-state in sight, we settled for a non-standard game-over cutscene. Thing is, if we’d had a standard group of level 1 or 2 PCs, I think we could’ve wiped the floor with them.

 So, I’d say that Sailors may be a good 1st or 2nd level module, but was NOT a very good funnel…

I’d like to take a look at the module myself and see just how bad we screwed up, going from unscathed to unconditional surrender.  Ironically, just as predicted, Stinky Pete the Cheesemaker, my -5 character, was the only PC to survive by virtue surrendering to the tax collectors and not hopping on board the stupid dragon boat. As a local, they assumed he’d been captured by the rest of the party, who they’d believed were chaos cultist due to us wearing chaos robes and, in our cockiness, attacking the search party.

The tax-collectors probably weren’t in the module; I think they were there to keep from whittling away slowly and going back to town. The logic was that a) the Barron doesn’t like people messing around the castle, and b) there was some missing tax money, so we had to leave town or get blamed; the tax collectors would eventually look around the keep for the missing money (which was actually either stolen by beastmen or stolen by villagers/thieves who were turned into beastmen, or the thieves who stole it were captured by beastmen). Otherwise we were all “Well, we’ve solved the mystery of the missing new pairs of boots; your sons are dead, Hiram the Blacksmith. Good job, everyone!”

I think that the problem with a lot of funnels may be the lack of incentive for 0-level characters to risk life and limb. Best Funnel I was ever in, we started as prisoners and conscripts of a sewer militia that was a front for cultists. A quick intro, a tough fight with environmental stuff to take advantage of, and a spooky fungus-filled sewer to avoid the stuff in while escaping. One session and we had our 1st level characters.

Someone has recommended to me that it’s a good idea to intentionally kill subpar characters at the first available opportunity, in part because if they do survive, they’ll wreck your campaign experience, but that’s definitely not something I could subscribe to.

I love my crappy sub-par characters! First game, my crappy thief ended up the longest lived and genuinely scariest party member. By the time we ended that game, she’d made it to level 4, had 9 hit points and a collection of faces she’d cured and turned into masks. Plus, with the way the Thief skill tables work, they can be pretty good at doing their jobs regardless of stats. It’s a great class to dump mediocre characters who survive the Funnel into.

But when it comes to funnels, the downside of killing sub-par characters intentionally is that it reduces your economy of action.

Still, as much as I want to like DCC and still want to play more of it, there’s something about it that leaves me feeling a little let down. I like a lot of DCC’s concepts, but every time we put them into practice, we’re all “Gee, I can’t imagine why we ever stopped playing this system D:<” Clerics suck, the magic system is clunky as hell, the crit tables are dumb and don’t work… Really the concept of the Funnel is the one part that my group actually finds appealing (which is why we ultimately rebuilt WHRPG around the concept of a perpetual Funnel).

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*:Ranged characters. If we’d all picked ranged weapons and not lost a few party members to the tax collectors, we probably could’ve taken the hordes with slings and javelins. Also, given the module’s name, I would’ve expected a more nautical theme, not just the train ride to the boss-fight involving a boat.

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Guest Post by J. Comer: The World’s Desire, by H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang

The history of fantasy and adventure stories is a rich one, and Cirsova can barely scratch the surface of it  in reviews.  Nevertheless, no survey of fantasy novels and adventure tales is complete without mentioning H. Rider Haggard[1].  Best known for She and King Solomon’s Mines, the author actually wrote ten volumes of nonfiction, hundreds of newspaper articles and forty-six novels.  While his attitudes toward race and imperialism are badly dated, his works are still read and enjoyed today, and several have been adapted for movies and television.  His colleague and friend Andrew Lang is remembered primarily as a folklorist, having written hundreds of volumes about the legends and traditions of Scotland and other lands.  Lang was also a novelist, and in 1890 he and Haggard collaborated on a blockbuster adventure tale later reprinted by Lin Carter as part of Carter’s effort to bring older authors back into print. The story, titled The World’s Desire, is now available online at Gutenberg.

Lang helped with the first four chapters, while most of the rest of the book was Haggard’s work.  The story begins with Odysseus returning to Ithaca, after a voyage, and finding his family dead of plague.  He sees a vision of Helen of Troy and goes off in search of her.  Caught by wicked Phoenicians, he escapes and ends up in the Egypt of Merneptah.  What happens next may spoil the book, but it’s been out for a while.

The plot depends on two literary and historical conceits. One is that Helen was in Egypt, as Herodotus and Euripides both mention they had heard, and that Patroclus and Hector died for a phantom.  The other is that Merneptah was the Pharaoh of the Exodus (of the Hebrews, in the Bible).  The daring of this is breathtaking, whether the reader is religious or not.  I am perfectly aware that the historicity of the Exodus and of the Trojan War is dubious, but this story is too much fun.

The crazy daring of this plot, which mixes Homer, the Bible, real Egyptian history (the Sea Peoples!), sorcery, sex, and good old-fashioned swordplay, is a rip-roaring hoot.  While I consider the Bible to be true, I found nothing in this wild romp to which I could object.  Odysseus meets and befriends the wicked queen, the Hebrews flee the Nile Valley in the midst of chaos, arrows fly, and a ‘strange Hathor’ draws men to their doom….  The novel ends in sadness but not in tragedy, to quote Sandra Miesel, and in entire accordance with Greco-Roman mythology.  Note that the Egyptians of the novel are neither white people nor African blacks, but the reddish-brown folk depicted in the art of the Pharaonic period, and that Odysseus, a Bronze-Age Greek, regards their civilization as far more advanced than his own (as it indeed was).

I recommend The World’s Desire to lovers of ancient history, the Bible, Greek mythology and adventure.

[1] He was knighted as Sir Henry Rider Haggard in 1912, but never wrote using the honorific

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!

Reviews of Stuff (Which Probably Aren’t Gonna Happen) – Ethics in Pulp Journalism

I’ve added a lot of contemporary stuff to my reading pile lately, but for a handful of reasons, I probably won’t be actually reviewing a lot of it.

I’ve reached a point where conflicts of interest are going to put a damper on a lot of the content I could write about the newer stuff on my reading list. If I feel particularly strongly about a work that i want to share, I may end up singing it from the rooftops with the appropriate disclaimer, but…

Pulp Revolution Folks

I really can’t review stuff coming out of the Pulp Revolution crowd honestly and dispassionately. I’m too close with many of the writers and in some cases have even offered services to see stuff get to market.  If there’s something I like, my review will doubtlessly be colored by my personal relationship with folks involved. If there’s something I don’t like, I’ll be tempted to restrain criticism on account of those personal relationships. A lot of these people have written reviews for Cirsova, and I don’t want to get into review swapping. Not just that, they’ve spent money on us, buying copies and sometimes advertisements, and no negative review can be trusted, because no matter what, I’ll be writing in ways that don’t chase fans away.

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I will likely avoid reviewing works by writers or editors who have advertised with us or done ad-swaps. At least within a recent time-frame. I’ll be sure to try to highlight those works and creators who have tried to support us, but I won’t be reviewing, because a positive review will look like I’m sucking up to capital and a negative review would be self-consciously written to not drive away future capital.

I’ve ad-swapped with Red Sun and with Storyhack, and I’m happy to talk those guys up; I’ve referred authors to the former when I haven’t had money or space, and I’ll likely do the same with the latter in the future. But I probably won’t review specific stories or issues of those publications.

Other Stuff

Some folks have sent me stuff for review. If I have it in print, I’ll try to get to it in a reasonable amount of time, I really can’t add anything else to my queue for a bit. Open submissions are coming up, and that’s going to be taking up A LOT of my time.

I already feel like the quality of my content is slipping because I have too many things going on.  I’d like to be able to maintain my daily M-F schedule, but if I need to dial it back in June and July, I might have to.

 

A Very Short Review of Aye, Robot and The Yanthus Prime Job

The other night, I finished Robert Kroese’s new Rex Nihilo book, Aye, Robot.aye robot

While I enjoyed the first one, it did push me to the limits of my tolerance for spoof and parody in SFF – Starship Grifters got away with a lot I wouldn’t normally forgive because Kroese’s such a damn good and damn funny writer.

Starship Grifters’ sequel, Aye, Robot, was much more satire than parody. With the basic level Star Wars stuff out of the way from the first book, we’re left with a much more interesting and less predictable story. All of the top notch humor and brilliant writing from the first book was still there, but its move into unfamiliar territory with its narrative made Aye, Robot even more enjoyable.

Rex is still a Zapp Branniganesque scamp, but he has a few moments of real genius shine through; enough that one might question if some of his mannerisms aren’t just an elaborate act to throw people off. The secondary characters of Boggs and Donny were far less useless than the companions from the first book, so while entertaining in some of their antics, they helped keep Aye, Robot from being another “one sane man” (or one sane robot, in Sasha’s case) story. Even Vlaak managed to be a bit interesting as a character this time around (as opposed to merely a flamboyant cross between Darth Vader and Falco).

In short, while I liked Starship Grifters, Aye, Robot was a much better and much more enjoyable book, even if the humor was not quite as machine-gun-like as in the previous.

YanthusPrimeJobCover_medium-313x381I was also happy that Kroese included his Pepper Melange novella, The Yanthus Prime Job, as a bonus. I’d gotten an ebook of it, but honestly, I probably would’ve never gotten around to reading it had it not been in print. While still including some of Kroese’s brilliant humor, YPJ was a much more straight-forward sci-fi heist story, which I liked a lot. Pepper is a tough SF dame in the older mold – smart, clever, quick thinking on her feet, and creative in her approaches to problems, rather than a 5’2″ war machine in pleather. She was one of the better parts in Starship Grifters and took a lot of the burden off Sasha from being the one competent character, so it was fun to see her in her own story. FWIW, The Yanthus Prime Job is a lot closer to the sort of fiction that I, myself, am looking to buy for Cirsova than either Starship Grifters or Aye, Robot (even though they were both great). YPJ shows me that Kroese’s talents go way beyond clever wordplay interspersed with his nod-giving action SF; in a fairly silly setting, he’s able to tell a straight-forward but intense story that showcases his short fiction chops.

I’m already looking forward to the next installment in the Nihilo-verse, but I think I’ll be looking into more of Kroese’s fiction before then, when I get a chance.

Also, thanks for putting a ray gun in Rex’s hand on the cover. He looked kinda weird just standing there hands- on the last one.

starship grifters*: I backed the Kickstarter for a softcover of the first book. I think that Robert may have sent me a copy of Aye, Robot for having shilled for him (unpaid, of course) on Twitter. If that’s the case, thanks, Robert, I really appreciated it!

Aldair, Across the Misty Sea

Aldair, Across the Misty Seas is a book I bought by mistake. The bookstore was dark, and for some reason “Barnett” looked like “Brackett” when I was pulling various DAW, Ace and Zebra books off the shelf for a flea market haul.

Aldair is a pulp-style post-apocalyptic furry sword & seafarer science fiction. It could be that I jumped in on what turned out to be the third volume of a four volume series, but what left me gobsmacked was the appearance that it was written from a ‘place of furness’.

Now, what the hell do I mean by that? When folks talk about writers writing from ‘a place of whiteness’, they generally mean that the writer and the characters in the story take for granted the fact that they’re white – they are the default, and other races and cultures are “the other”. Well, in Aldair, it seemed as though the fact that everyone was an anthro furry was taken for granted.

It took several pages before I figured that something was up. The locations and races were described in terms of faux antiquity, so that it read like a historical adventure – the seafaring Vikonen, the fallen empire of the Rhemians, the Stygiann, rattling off places like Gaullia and Niciea… They were shorthand for the familiar used in a way similar to Howard’s Hyborian world. So, when the narrator mentioned that someone from Gaullia would come up to the chest of a Vikonen warrior, I thought that maybe it was just a figure of speech.

Then the main character describes his Niciean buddy, Thareesh, and his Rhemian dame, Corycia, who is the daughter (or niece, I forget) of Titus Andromeda (so she’s a princess!). The Nicieans are greenskinned and scaly. Cool, Aldair’s got reptile friends! Then Aldair describes the first time he met Corycia, with beautiful auburn hair and a revealing green dress that accentuated her rows of breasts.  Wait.  Rows of breasts?! Throughout the book, characters are described in terms of having paws or claws, muzzles and snouts, but with the exception of the lizardmen who are pretty specifically lizardmen (as a non-furry other), it’s left very vague as to what kinds of petting-zoo people these folks actually are. I’m proud of myself for having correctly guessed that the Vikonen were bears, and by the end I figured out rounds about what most of the characters were, but the book never came out and said “Corycia was a faux-Roman cat-girl” or “Signar is an axe-wielding bearman sea captain”, because the narrator never saw fit to expound on those details. Again, this could be that I just jumped in on the 3rd book of a series, but it made for an interesting reading experience.

But was it good?

Yes, it was pretty damn awesome. And considering that I had no benefit of having read (or until an after-the-fact Google search even known that there were) previous books in the series, it STILL held up on its own, that says something. It was a mix of Baron Munchausen and Horatio Hornblower with a touch of Frank G. Slaughter’s or Anya Seyton’s historical adventure romance; crazy adventures on the high seas, swashbuckling adventure, sword-fights, and even some robots.

In a dark and distant future, Man created anthro-furries, then Man destroyed himself in various wars, leaving petting-zoo people to repeat the history of man, building their own kingdoms and empires that would flourish, war, and fall into ruin.

Aldair is on a quest to find the secrets of Man, hoping that somehow he will find something that will allow beast-kind to break the chains of history’s vicious cycle. In this book, his adventure takes his small fleet from a Vikonen village in what is probably Greenland to North America and eventually to the Amazon, with countless disasters and fights with scary monsters happening in the intervening time. It’s well written and strangely compelling. Again, the comparison that springs most to mind is Forester’s Hornblower stories (particularly those early-ish in HH’s career). Reading Aldair’s travails as captain of a small fleet of ships supported by his quirky and likable lieutenants was a joy.

The only downside is that my reading list just went up by three books as I now need to track down the first two for some context and the last book to find out if Aldair ever rescues his dame from the mutineer who absconded with her into space.

aldair

Aldair and Thareesh in a hot air balloon scouting for the ship that got separated from fleet in a storm. Even the covers of the first 3 books make it impossible to tell what kind of petting zoo person Aldair is! (he’s a piggy man)

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Corycia, Rhalgorn, Aldair, and Signar, shown in all of their beastness on the 4th volume’s cover, which was done in a completely different style from the other three. I kind of imagined Aldair looking a bit more dapper…

Winter/Early Spring Short Review Round-up

For those of you not following along at Castalia House, I’ve reviewed several more short stories, including a lot of G-Men detective yarns. Plus, I reviewed Kroese’s Starship Grifters and Cynthia Ward’s The Adventure of the Incognita Countess. Check em out!

http://www.castaliahouse.com/retro-fandom-friday-rocketship-x-m/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-panama-peril-by-jean-francis-webb/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-pa-howdy-goes-fishing/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-thieves-blueprint-by-ronal-kayser-as-dale-clark/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/review-starship-grifters-by-robert-kroese/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-too-smart-to-die-by-george-antonio-wetter/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-review-you-cant-plant-murder-by-donald-bayne-hobart-beware-and-the-black-chamber/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-death-by-a-dusty-blade-by-frank-johnson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/review-the-adventure-of-the-incognita-countess/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-moon-that-vanished-by-leigh-brackett/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-that-mess-last-year-by-john-d-macdonald-and-galactic-heritage-by-frank-belknap-long/