Friday, April 29, 2011

Book Review: A Song of Ice and Fire Book 1: A Game of Thrones

"When you play the Game of Thrones, you live or you die."

I first read this book about 13 years ago when it first came on in paperback. The reason I picked it proved to be a bit ironic but that's a tale for another time. HBO has recently aired its version of the series which has sparked an interest in the book at my office so I went back to read through it again (I am also watching the TV show which so far is quite loyal to the books).

I had almost forgotten how great a book it is. Its a fat book packed full of story goodness. Initially there are two plot lines. The peripheral storyline involves the exiled princess Danaerys. and the main plot involves King Robert and the Lord of the North, Eddard Start. The main plot quickly branches into many storyline involving most of the big players and each chapter is written from one of several characters' viewpoints. The cast is quite large and you are fed lots of backs story and world information early on and its easy to lose track of who is who and many of the minor details get lost. On this read through - the first in 4 years, I am picking up many tidbits that I had never noticed in earlier passes.

What is the book all about? Well, if I had to define it, I would call it a medieval political thriller. The author, George R. R. Martin, used England's War of the Roses as inspiration. The book's main plot involves intrigue between the realm's major houses as they jockey for power. There is lots of sex, violence, and intrigue. There really isn't much in the way of magic. Dragons have been extinct for centuries and monsters and other things that go bump in the night are the stuff of children's stories (although the prelude would indicate that there is still something out there).

All of the characters come across is human. While you can easily classify some as heroes and villains, many fall into the grey in between and all have their faults and failings. The best example is probably Tyrion Lannister. The Lannisters can easily be viewed as the villains of the tale. Tyrion is a dwarf with mismatched eyes, and lacks the beauty of his kin. He is the stereotype trickster. His tongue both gets him into trouble as well as out of it. He seems to be involved in lots of awful things but its hard not to cheer for the underdog. While Tyrion can be merciless to his enemies he has a soft spot for other outcasts and cripples and will go out of his way to assist them.

This is not a Disney fairy tale. Don't expect the heroes to win or things to work out in the end. This is a realm where cheaters do prosper, and where might makes right. The climax of Game of Thrones punches you in the gut and leaves you reeling. The ending will leave you begging for more. Thankfully the awesomeness continues on though books two and three. I found book 4 dreadfully disappointing. Hopefully when book 5 is released in July it will get the series back on track.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: Dragon Age 2 (long)

I know that a video game review falls outside of the normal realm of what this blog is all about but Dragon Age has its own RPG (that actually looks rather fun although I haven't played it).

The first game was great. Epic story line, interesting characters, very difficult combat system. So difficult in fact I had to play through the game on easy because I was tired of TPKs every 30 minutes on Normal.

Dragon AGE brings back most of what was good about the first game and tries to expand on it. The combat system works a little better now. Fights don't involve pausing the game to issue new commands to your party every 10 seconds because the AI is now smart enough to run party members you are not directly controlling fairly effectively.

The Difficulty has also been toned down. In DA1, on easy, I would still suffer the occasional TPK but in DA2, I pretty much only had to worry about Boss fights once you learn a few combat tactics.

Again there are three main classes - Warrior, Rogue and Mage. Your choice influences the storyline but not a great deal. The mage's area effect attacks have been toned down in DA2 but they are still not to be trifled with and are to be killed first whenever encountered. The warrior and rogue both can focus of specialty skill trees (2 handed vs sword and board for the warrior or 2 weapon vs archery for the rogue) or work on generic trees which affect all combat. At levels 7 and 14 (game caps between 20 and 25) you unlock a specialty focus which opens up another skill tree (there are three to choose from so you can only get 2). The mage's skill trees grant spells instead of special attacks and work much the same way.

Combat animations are great. The amount of blood and gore borders on the ridiculous but few things are more satisfying than watching an enemy burst into pieces, blood spraying everywhere after they die from a critical hit. Any cut scenes after a battle still show the characters covered in splattered blood and gore. Most boss fights include a death animation when the main character finishes off the baddy on some wicked way. I think my favorite occurs near the end as you leap onto the head of an abomination, stab it a few times before pulling a smaller maggot demon from within. You hurl it to the ground and then walk over and crush it's head under your boot.

The settings are a bit of a mixed bag. At first you'll find each area really impressive. The reason they were able to spend so much time making them nice is that you return to the same locations over and over and over again. You fight in the foundry at least 4 times and the same can be said of most of the other locations.

Of course the best things about the game are the plot and the characters. The main plot focuses around the conflict between Mages and Templars as told by one of your companions to a Templar Seeker. There are a couple spots in the game where the dwarf begins to exaggerate and the Seeker cuts in, accusing him of lying and makes him start that part again. Each of your companions has their own quest lines which do affect how the main plot progresses. I have played through twice trying to make different choices each time and although the game plays largely the same, some of the side quests are different and your companions will react differently as well.

The characters make this game. They will chit chat with each other as you run around and depending on how things play out some will come to hate each other and others like each other. The emo elf hates mages and if you put the 2 mages in the part with him they do nothing but bicker. The pirate and the dwarf flirt and the pirate gives sex advice to the captain of the guard. Aside from your brother or sister (who you get depends on your choice of class) each of your companions fills one of the archetype roles (sword and board (Aveline) vs 2-Hander (Fenris), 2 weapons (Isabel) vs archery (Varric), offensive mage (Merill) vs defensive mage (Anders)).

Overall its a great game which is probably why I've sunk over 60 playing through twice so far. I may play through a third time as a warrior and try to find anything that I've missed. My daughter loves watching me play and is constantly asking to play the "Red game" (after the color of its start-up icon) so we can "Kill monsters". She's found it scary in a few spots but she's tough. I can see her being a big gamer in a few years.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What's going on out there?

Is it just me or is there a palpable air of decline in the tabletop rpg world lately? Even though the stock market crash that led to our current global recession hit back in October, 2008, it didn't seem as though the economy had all that much of a chilling effect on the gaming business over the last couple of years. However, I sense that the recession is finally beginning to bite just at the time when the global economy seems to be bouncing back. I'm sure much of the apparent malaise comes from the recent announcements from Wizards of the Coast about cancelled product lines and reduced publication schedules. When the biggest player in the market is producing less product, it no doubt trickles down through the whole industry. Still, it seems the effect is percolating throughout the tabletop rpg community, even to corners which should be largely insulated from goings-on in Renton, such as the OSR. A lot of fairly prolific rpg bloggers seem to be posting less often. Also, many small publishers seem to releasing fewer products, or at least fewer products that attract my attention. I don't mind the extra money in my pocket, but I do miss trotting over to the FLGS to lay down my sheckels on the new hotness.

There are, of course, bright spots in the gloom. Paizo is still going strong and Ultimate Magic is due for release next month. Also, Chaosium seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival thanks to the success of Cthulhu Invictus and The Chronicles of Future Earth. They have a new hardback version of BRP due for release very soon and a massive new Viking-oriented BRP setting called Mythic Iceland is in the pipeline. Likewise, something or other is always going on at Cubicle 7, although I'm not much for FATE, so I'm only dimly aware of their activities. Hopefully, the current lull is only temporary and we will have more to talk about and gush over in the months ahead. While I shudder to think about it, D&D 5e might be just what we need to kickstart things. Just don't expect me to buy it.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Weird War II - The Sons of Solomon and the OSI

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, more commonly known as the Knights Templar, was a powerful Christian military order charged with the defense of the Holy Land during the Crusades. From humble beginnings, the Knights Templar grew to become a wealthy organization, with holdings from the eastern Mediterranean to the British Isles. With the fall of the Crusader States in the late 13th century, the Knights Templar lost its primary function as an order of fighting monks, becoming, in effect, a multinational bank with a standing army. This was a situation which caused both envy and fear among the kings of Europe. In 1307, King Philip IV of France, with the grudging support of Pope Clement V, brought the hammer down on the Knights Templar, executing its leaders and seizing its assets under trumped up charges of heresy and corruption. The Templars were no more, or so the official historical record says.

During the time the Knights Templar resided in Jerusalem, they were exposed to the ancient knowledge of Greece, Persia and Egypt. They learned of prophecy and the mysteries of the world beyond the frontiers of Christendom and they grew powerful in the practice of sorcery. Although their accusers did not realize it, some of the Templars really were guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. Forseeing their own demise, they orchestrated events to ensure the survival of their inner circle of sorcerers and their most valuable and potent treasures and magicks. Escaping to Scotland, which was under papal excommunication at the time, the surviving Templars eventually made their way to North America. Abandoning their old name and their association with the Roman Catholic Church, they became the Sons of Solomon, a fraternal order of sorcerers dedicated to understanding the true nature of the universe and defending humanity from the horrors of the void. They remained very secretive for centuries, but questions persisted. Only a handful of Templars were executed and a minority were absorbed in other orders. This still left many hundreds of Templars unaccounted for. Rumours of a secret order circulated and it was assumed, of course, that much of the wealth of the Knights Templar remained in the hands of that group. As the population of the United States grew, it became more difficult for the Sons of Solomon to keep their activities secret. So, they created Freemasonry. Purposefully secretive and incorporating many symbols associated with the Knights Templar, the Freemasons drew the attention of those who believed the Knights Templar persisted. They were well-funded and they attracted a lot of powerful men, especially in 18th-century America. Once fully-established, the Sons of Solomon drew away from the Freemasons, secure in the knowledge that they could retain their anonymity. In truth, the Freemasons, though steeped in mystical traditions, never had much understanding or belief in the arcane basis of their rituals. They were little more than decoys, providing cover for the true power, the Sons of Solomon.

Throughout their history, the Sons of Solomon have fought many evil sorcerers, who sought power through alliances with horrors of the void. The most prominent include Vlad Dracul and his son, Vlad Tepes, Countess Elizabeth Báthory and Rasputin. Throughout the centuries, their power was always sufficient to ensure the enemies of humanity could not establish a foothold in our dimension. However, the seers of the Sons of Solomon saw a rising darkness as the Nazis rose to prominence in Germany. Their visions were cryptic and hazy. A great, malevolent force was rising in the heart of Europe and for the first time, the Sons of Solomon felt their power was inadequate to contain the enemy. Using their Freemason connections, the Sons worked to influence the US and UK governments and militaries. They arranged for the creation of the OSI to serve as their eyes and ears on the battlefronts of Europe. Embedded within the Allied armies, but not part of them, the OSI would investigate incidents of a weird or supernatural nature, always seeking to ascertain what Nazi sorcerers were doing. They even recruited the great British sorcerer, Aleister Crowley, despite his unsavoury reputation and far too public profile. Crowley's sorcerous delvings proved immensely invaluable, giving the OSI much-needed intelligence into the activities of the Ahnenerbe. Sadly, his scrying efforts would eventually cost Crowley his sanity, but without him, the Nazis would have surely proved victorious in the war.


Thursday, April 07, 2011

Rippin' on Rifts...again

Zack and Steve take another shot at Kevin Siembieda with their look at Rifts Worldbook 10: Juicer Uprising

Juicer Uprising