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book review: you

YOU: A Fiction is a second-person narrator story about you, a guy named Leo Evans who does your best to be a good servant. A necessary one. The story starts with you getting a library book stolen from you and then things escalate. There are weapons and photographers that use film (ptui digital!) to stop time and destroy bodies, love is commodified and there’s a weird doppelganger made of mint. It’s full of weirdness and relationships and weird relationships. I liked it.

Greg Stolze is one of the creators of my favourite roleplaying game, Unknown Armies and You is set in that world. That gives the reader a bit of a grounding in the thoughts motivating some of the characters, but I think as a story it works better for a person who doesn’t know the universe (I found some of the explanations a bit on the nose and would have appreciated a bit more vagueness about how things work since I know the rules, but whatevs).

Good weird book. If you read it and like it let me know, ’cause it’s been years since I’ve run a game.

book review: saint germaine – shadows fall

I was primed by my love of Greg Stolze and John Tynes’ RPG Unknown Armies to really like Gary Reed’s Saint Germaine comic. I mean a story about the great immortal wandering the earth, dying a thousand deaths, but always returning to witness more of humanity is bound to be kind of awesome. Well, no.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a story here. A writer is summoned to the immortal’s home to write his tale. He’s attacked by shadows of Lilith, the immortal’s companion. There are scenes from the Spanish Inquisition and Moscow, pre-Napoleon. The writer is consumed by shadows and used as a weapon against Lilith. That’s what I’ve got.

Maybe it would reward a more careful reading, but nothing about the art or the writing really drew me in to say, here’s something great. And with my preconceptions about the First and Last Man (and let me say again that Unknown Armies does really cool stuff with this bit of myth), this book needed to be great instead of meh.

book review: terminal world

Terminal World is another one of these Alastair Reynolds books that reminds me why I read him sporadically. There are neat science fictiony adventurous ideas in his books but the writing makes me clench my teeth. No one behaves in a neurotypical fashion: everyone’s dialogue is clichés or exposition-speak. It feels more like the transcription of a bunch of socially-awkward 14-year-olds role-playing. Which is a shame because the plot and setting would be pretty spiffy if it was described by someone with a bit of flair for language.

It’s thousands of years in the future, on what appears to be Mars, even though everyone calls it Earth (I think that’s supposed to be clever, to show that they’ve forgotten they were once colonists). In the giant spire city of Spearpoint there are different zones of technology, from the Celestial levels where the angels who can fly and are filled with nanotech live, down to Neon Heights and Horse Town. These zones aren’t just stylistic; the rules of physics are different in each zone, making the technology from a higher zone cease to function in lower ones. It’s a pretty clever idea that gets developed as the story goes on, and is a good excuse for energy weapons and dirigibles to coexist.

Quillon is on the run from the angels so he’s heading out of Spearpoint for a while. He has a guide and they rescue a woman and child who will “change the world forever” (of course). There’s nothing really surprising that happens in the book. And the prose is boring. But it would make a pretty good RPG setting to play in.

book review: mouse guard – fall 1152

I’ve known about David Petersen’s comic Mouse Guard for a long time, flipped through pages in the bookshops and game stores but never taken the plunge. Now I have and man, Mouse Guard is everything I wanted Redwall to be.

Basically the gist of the setup is that there are communities of mice, who are small and easily preyed upon. They’re the kind of mice that walk on their hind feet and sometimes wear armour but no pants. They have communities that trade with each other. And they have the Mouse Guard, who defend mice (from snakes and crabs and the like) outside their settlements.

In this first book in the series, a spy is selling information about one of the communities to a faction that wants to control it. There are three mice who stumble onto this plot and have to try and save their society. It’s awesome.

The art is all in browns and reds and is incredibly moody. It feels old, like this is a tale from long ago and it works really well.

There’s also a roleplaying game based on Mouse Guard, which is also supposed to be fantastic. It uses modified Burning Wheel rules and I’ve heard it really captures the idea of being small and heroic in a world where anything can kill you.

game review: fiasco

I played my first Fiasco game on Saturday with Jonathan (who’s a boardgamer and RPG dabbler) and Jamie (who had never played a tabletop RPG before). I’d just bought it at Emerald City Comicon, so it all seemed very serendipitous.

Fiasco is a GM-less storytelling game and it’s often pitched as “a game for creating a Coen brothers movie.” Unlike a more traditional RPG, the dice are more of a pacing mechanism than strict determinants of success and failure. Characters are generated through the relationships they have with each other before you really get into the specifics of what makes them tick. The other keys to the game are Needs, Objects and Locations. Each of those, along with the Relationships, are supposed to be things that will get the characters into a huge mess of trouble.

The game rotates through scenes focusing on each of the player characters. Halfway through a Tilt element is added, and then in the end you show what happened. Setting things up is done through a mix of choice and randomness based on the charts in each Playset (which are a basic setting).

Our game was set in the old west. We had a sick lazy Sheriff, his “doctor,” and his deputy. The doctor and deputy were trying to steal Widow Tompkins’ inheritance and get away with murder. The sheriff just wanted some pie (and everyone else at his beck and call). In the end, the doctor got away scot-free, the sheriff was an invalid being tended to by a disgraced deputy.

The game is definitely fun. There’s a lot of choice and everything feels pretty meaningful (as far as sitting around telling stories about made-up people can be). I think the next time we play, I’d want to push our scenes to have slightly higher stakes and stronger conflicts. We could have ramped it up to be a bit more madcap by the end. A gun was drawn in anger, a widow was defrauded, but it never got out of control.

Part of that was just because this was our first game and we were learning the ropes. We sometimes stumped ourselves deciding what the next good scene might be, and we could sometimes go a bit overboard in the establishment, leaving little for the scene itself to do. I can see how with a bit of practice and sense of short clear questions that the scene will resolve this game will produce some awesome experiences. I can’t wait to play again.

book review: throne of the crescent moon

I was one of the first people to get Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon from the VPL but I have to say my anticipation was unwarranted. I was just not a big fan of this book.

It follows Adoullah, an old hunter of ghuls and his sidekick Rassad who is a dervish as they track down the person who created some ghuls (in this setting you can have sand ghuls and skin ghuls and stick ghuls – they’re sort of like zombies, sort of like golems, and eat flesh like ghouls). These ghuls are hugely powerful so they need help. They get help from Adoullah’s friends and they save the city. Huzzah.

My biggest problem with the book was how stilted the language was and how every character’s thought had to be so drawn out in its contractionless dullness. I just couldn’t connect with any of the characters because they seemed like such roleplaying game cliches. It read like flavour text you’d find in an RPG, but drawn out to boring lengths.

The setting was interesting. I would read more stories about this Arabian urban fantasy tale themed world, but I’d rather read about it in more original words.

book review: vegas knights

I read Matt Forbeck’s Vegas Knights despite the concept being pitched on the cover:

It’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Harry Potter when two college students scam a Las Vegas casino – using Magic!

(This was an ARC so I hope to death they change this on the real cover, because it does the book no favours.) The reason I picked it up is because I remember Matt Forbeck’s RPG work, especially on Brave New World. BNW was a bit metaplot heavy and too secretive for its own good, but had some interesting takes on superhero gaming.

A lot of my problems with Vegas Knights come from magic basically just being superpowers. The rules of magic are well-established and once a character does something one way he doesn’t forget that it worked, which can sometimes happen. The thing bout i was that there didn’t seem to be much of a cost to magic. It was just manipulating quantum probabilities and some things were easier than others and bullets got transmuted into air and you couldn’t phase through living things. So it was consistent, but not very grabby.

The characters were what you want out of a Vegas story. The poorer guy who is more timid and the risk taking life of the party who isn’t quite as smart. There’s also a half-Hopi woman who is the savvy local, the main character’s long-lost father and a pretty cool antagonist.

The plot felt pretty predictable, though there were points the characters had real choices to make and they didn’t do exactly what the plot required of them, which I applaud. But I never really got into it. Part of it may have been the constant references to Hurricane Katrina (the protagonist is from New Orleans) and other references that feel dated.

The best part of the book was the (slightly melodramatic) final battle scene. There was a lot going on and by that point you’ve surrendered yourself to the book and you come away thinking it wasn’t a terrible few hours you spent with it.

I suppose I sound a little luke-warm on this book and I am. My copy doesn’t say it’s being marketed as YA, but that’s definitely how it felt to me. If I’d known that going in I’d probably have had different expectations. There are some interesting ideas in there but in general it feels a little superficial. I’d suggest Tim Powers’ Last Call if you want to read a really excellent story about magic and Las Vegas.