Monday, July 19, 2010

The Convoluted History of My Campaign*, Part Two B: Giraffes and the City (In Character)

The First Bit

The countryside near the City of Vek is more varied than usual due to forgotten ancient deeds of wizards, or something. First, the intrepid party passed through a forest. They were attacked by a polar bear, a stirge and a rather ineffective giraffe. They managed to kill the stirge and the fleeing giraffe, and subdued the polar bear enough so that when the owner of the circus it had escaped from arrived he was able to recapture it. Unfortunately a misunderstanding about the circus folks intent led to the wizard setting them on fire. Dungeon Master appeared, furious. He took the wizard with him when he vanished and later on a dragonborn warlord who also claimed to be Tom turned up. They were beginning to get used to this sort of thing.

While stopping to rest at an inn, their cart and horse was stolen along with two others by a hapless group of goblins. The party soon chased them down and retrieved the stolen goods, although one horse was slain and its cart destroyed in the process. Next, they passed through a desert. On hearing of some gnoll raiders that had a base to the south of the road, they decided to go "deal with" them. The gnolls were sharing their lair with a grell, which posed more of a challenge. Finally, they passed through a swamp. A foolish young black dragon decided to attack them. It failed to stay out of their reach, and was slaughtered. Charles reluctantly took only the head as a trophy.

On finally reaching the city, they gained entry by claiming to be merchants, and promptly got involved with some gang warfare and became acquainted with a wanted criminal. They cleanly sorted out both problems by helping the criminal to escape the city and faked his death using a magical amulet and the body of an alchemist who'd been supplying bombs to the gangs. They were then able to claim the bounty on the outlaw, and as part of it were given the deeds to a house in the west. They explored much of Vek's sewers, hunting down an escaped mutant crocodile and allowing it's prey, a giraffe, to escape. A straight-forward task involving retrieving stolen property led them to uncover a group of assassins. While wiping out the assassins, they encountered a young elf ranger called Mouse, and her animal companion, Cat. The head of the assassins turned out to be a crippled black dragon who'd made her home in the sewers. The five of them soon made short work of her, before retiring to the inn.

During the night, Mouse was woken by another assassin who had just slit Chuck's throat. The assassin and his partner were soon captured and while claiming to not know who had hired him, they admitted he was ordered to kill all of them except the Warlord, who they were to kidnap and leave at an arranged spot at dawn. Dropping the assassins off with the authorities (and leaving Chuck's body for someone else to deal with), the remaining four made the rendezvous and discovered those sent to collect the Warlord were warforged soldiers from the castle. Suspecting the Magus, the King's advisor, to be behind this, they decided that they possibly still weren't ready to take him on. After exploring the sewers some more, and finding a way into the Magus' undead guarded tower from there, they left town and headed to their new house.

Approaching the estate, it was obvious something was wrong. The crops in the surrounding fields grew progressively sicklier and warped as they got nearer the house, with the nearest plants being almost unrecognisable as anything of this plane. Searching the outhouses carefully, they found only a shadow-tainted horse who had apparently been recently fed. On entering the house through the main door, they discovered it to be overrun with demons and the restless spirits of the cultists who summoned them. After killing all the invaders they came across, they went down to the basement where a portal (presumably to the Abyss) lay. Dungeon Master appeared to help them close it. He then informed them of a set of magical stones, scattered across the world, that had untold power when reunited. One of these stones happened to have surfaced in the nearby town of Port Haven. As the party wished to engage craftsmen to rebuild the ruined wing of their house, they resolved to go there next. However, while searching the house for valuables, they came across a walled in mirror that was obviously magical. Throwing caution to the wind, they touched the mirror one by one and vanished from that place.

* Still need to think of a name.

The Infernal City by Greg Keyes

I don't expect much from a video game tie-in novel, let alone one I happened to win in an online competition. Which is just as well, as, honestly, The Infernal City doesn't offer much.

This is not to say it isn't a reasonably entertaining read, but probably only if you're familiar with The Elder Scrolls games. Most of the fun comes in recognising the setting, being able to visualise well the locations and spotting the various references to the games: Vivec city and the Ministry of Truth are mentioned, the eruption of Red Mounatin is referenced, the sword Umbra is a key plot point and even the Huntsman Hircine make an appearance. Aside from this, the floating city of Umbriel is a fascinating creation and vividly evoked: its alien nature is described well and you get a feel for the social dynamics without too much exposition. The potential of it as a location makes me wish Bethseda would release a game set there - maybe another expansion for Oblivion?

The plot is fairly basic: floating city appears, killing people it passes over. Various heroic types set out to try and stop it. Presumably being only the first in a series, they don't get very far, and the ending seems a little rushed. Also, there are far too many characters for so short a book, and some have distinctly less to do than others. Indeed, the subplot involving the spy/government agent Colin could have been dropped completely - I assume it will be continued in further books but here just seemed an unnecessary addition. He only appears about three times, and his investigation doesn't uncover much that isn't at least implied during Prince Attrebus' storyline.

Overall, its just a bit too pedestrian and predictable. I probably won't go out of my way to read any follow-ups, but if I see them in the library (or happen to win them in another competition) I'll probably pick them up. I admit to being slightly curious to see how Umbriel will be stopped and the protagonists stuck there escape.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds' House of Suns tells the story of Campion and Purslane - two clones or "shatterlings" of the Gentian Line whose sole purpose is to explore the vast reaches of the human-colonized galaxy, experience as much possible and share those memories with their fellow shatterlings. An unexpected and horrific act of violence upends their world and while they attempt to solve the mystery of who was behind it, further betrayals lead to a desperate chase and fight for survival.

Reynolds certainly write very well, and specifically writes space operas very well. A human race spread across the galaxy and remnants of a vanished super-advanced race might well be age-old tropes of the genre but still feel fresh in his hands. Fans of his Revelation Space series will recognise his distinctly realistic approach to the physics of the setting including believable space battles, mind-boggling lifespans due to relativistic speeds and ingenious weaponry that only an astrophysicist could think up. The book has its fair share of intrigue as well as spaceship porn, and raises a lot of questions about identity and how important memories are to making us who we are. Add to that a carefully weaved plot that manages to both reward reader expectations and subvert them without it feeling like a cheap trick and you've got a pretty good read.

A not necessarily major criticism however is that, towards the end of the book, the protagonists' actions can seem meaningless and futile as they are trapped by events beyond their control and at the mercy of smarter, more capable and almost god-like beings. Their failure to achieve their goals can be a little depressing, and the ending is...odd, as if they've accidentally completed someone else's pilgrimage and you're not entirely sure how you or they are meant to feel about that. But nevertheless, it is still a book I would and will read again - not least to reread the flashbacks to Abigail Gentian's early life with the benefit of hindsight to see how it ties in with the main plotline.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Convoluted History of My Campaign*, Part Two A: Four Players and a Dungeon Master (In Character)

A masterful GM called Dave decided to run a 4th ed D&D game. He gathered together a diverse collection of his friends: Charles, an upper-class Englishman who hasn't quite realised the Empire is no more; Pete, an Australian philosophy lecturer; Ed, an experienced roleplayer; and Tom, who...well, he's just Tom.

They created their characters (Charles made a dwarven cleric, Pete, a human swordmage, Ed, an eladrin rogue and Tom, a human wizard) and settled down to the first session. A storm hit, causing the electricity to go off. Dave borrowed a black, skull-shaped candle from his creepy housemate - a mistake as it turned out as it gave off a lot of smoke and smelled awful. First Dave, and then the players blacked out.

And the four players came round in woodlands, inhabiting the bodies of their characters. To their confusion, they seemed to have all the knowledge and abilities their characters would have. Before they could spend too long pondering over what had happened, they were attacked by a group of kobolds. Shortly after obliterating them, they were approached by a Gnome wearing red robes and carrying a staff, who told them they would have to search to find the way home and gave them all shiny items. Pete got some magic leather armour, Ed got a dagger which did thunder damage, Tom was given a green hat which could conjure up a small creature to fight for him, and Charles got some goggles which told him more about the creatures he was facing. The Gnome (quickly nicknamed "Dungeon Master" by the players) also told them of more kobolds hiding out in an abandoned hall to the north, who had been harassing the nearby town of Fallcrest, and suggested they do something about it. He was confused by their apparent reluctance to do as he said, but as they had nothing better to do, they decided to go hurt some more kobolds anyway. After that, they mostly refused to pay attention to Dungeon Master (much to his annoyance) and headed north to find more dragons to kill, as Charles wanted a trophy.

There was a brief interlude where they were attacked by drop-bears, took one prisoner, and then negotiated peace between the drop-bears and some lizardfolk. Then they came across the remains of a battle and were attacked by some skeletons that were less dead than the rest. The nearby town was populated by creepy clones who seemed blissfully unaware that the battle was long over and were awaiting the return of their warriors, oh, and who turned into mindlessly violent zombies come nightfall. Dungeon Master arrived to provide exposition - turns out some guy called The Magus had arrived and performed a ritual that went wrong - during the day the townsfolk looked like him but carried on with their previous lives - and also took the magical stone that was preventing the dead from rising in this Shadowfell tainted part of the land. They enlisted the help of a nearby dragon who was an expert ritualist (and much too hard for them to kill, yet) and managed to undo the worst of The Magus' doing, but without the magical stone the town would continue to be plagued by zombies. The party set off after The Magus, to the City of Vek.

On the way they came across a ranger and his son who were vaguely helpful and offered them shelter while telling them of a mining operation nearby which was causing problems. The morning they decided to go investigate this, they awoke to find Pete had disappeared and in his place was a half-orc fighter who claimed to be called Chuck. Mysteriously, Chuck told them she'd come in place of Pete as he couldn't make this week's session. As none of the others remembered anything from outside game, this didn't seem to make much sense, but they soon forgot about it and beat up some orcs. Investigating the orcs' mine they came across some kuthrik which they killed, and some more orcs, which they killed. The deepest point of the mine turned out to be the lair of two purple wyrmlings....the party fought well, but the wyrmlings' breath dazed them and after a long fight and the rogue and fighter on the ground, the other two decided they had to flee to heal up. Before they could come to the rescue, Chuck came round, alive and a prisoner of the orcs. After fighting off the orcs, Chuck met up with the others and they went back to finish off the wyrmlings, finding the rogue's corpse there. They took the body of their friend to bury, and one of the wyrmlings to stuff for Charles' trophy. They also discovered that part of the treasure they'd looted was a special Artifact that could by used by the cleric to deal extra damage to undead. This seemed like a useful thing to have when going to confront a necromancer like The Magus.

Outside, they ran into a drow sorcerer who looked a lot like Ed. In fact, he claimed to be Ed, although he also had a vague memory of having always been a drow. Chalking this up to another weird thing about this place, they continued on towards Vek.

To Be Continued....

*Still trying to think of a name.

Monday, July 5, 2010

That Was The Weekend That Was III

The last few days have mostly been lost to a low-lying fog of depression. Saturday was mostly good, with friend visiting for a few hours in morning and lunch out. SO had to go plot evil in Nottingham and, due to lateness of plotting, stayed overnight so it was just me and the boy for a bit. We coped, although I did get very bored once he was in bed. Realised I was still sucky at fighting in Oblivion and tried Black and White instead but got a bit bored. Despite the handholding, I felt I was still going much to slowly and didn't quite know what to do. Maybe I was just in wrong state of mind.

Sunday morning must have happened, and while waiting for SO to come back I started to read House of Suns. Reynolds fast became one of my favourite authors after reading Revelation Space a couple of years back, but it's been a while since I've read any of his stuff. Will try and do a proper review when I've finished it, so far it's being interesting with the usual Reynolds thing of far future civilizations, realistic physics and cunning tech.

Rest of Sunday I don't think went too well. I had a couple of naps and was mostly stressed. Some Carcassone in the evening helped lift both our moods, and today started off ok but it didn't take too long for apathy to kick in. Lack of suitable jobs to apply for meant less stress but more pessimism for future. Housework is hardly enthralling either, and again this afternoon I had a nap rather than do anything useful or even fun with my time. I managed to drag myself to school to pick up boy and started to wake up more on way home, but suddenly got a hit of agoraphobia and began to get jumpy whenever someone walked by. We were still on campus at this point, so my far-too-sensible six year old suggested we go see Daddy as he knows to tell Daddy when I'm "not feeling well". Hugs helped calm me down a bit, and we went home together. Got boy's school report which was mostly good (only problem is he talks too much and doesn't always pay attention - quelle surprise. So after going through it with him, we decided to "celebrate" by having a meal out, as it's been ages since we went to our usual pub meal. Probably didn't do my diet any good, though.

And then this evening I've been feeling pretty good. Silly moods. Watched University Challenge and then had to watch the Only Connect repeat on iPlayer as our digital TV reception is still only partial (after a few days of being non-existent). So, um, yeah. That's it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Primal Adventures III

(Part One, Part Two)

To recap: we're longtooth shifters, bad stuff is happening, we were on our way back to the rest of our tribe when we got attacked by some of them looking not-right.

After beating our tribemates into the ground, we paused to catch our breath and then while the others debated what to do with them, I examined them. They didn't appear to be infected or ill, and no signs of anything outwardly wrong with them except their colouration which was a bit too grey/black. Whatever had changed them and caused them to not recognise and attack us was definitely not natural and beyond our experience, and indeed understanding. As they others took weapons off them and talked about tying them up and taking them back to camp, I suggested trying to sedate them. It was while the Warden and I were scavanging for ingredients to do this that the Shaman spotted more coming through the trees towards us, weapons at the ready.

A fairly chaotic fight kicked off. The Barbarian charge at stuff through the trees, the Warden went after others that were coming in from the left, and I ended up being flanked after charging one on the right. I got stabbed up pretty bad, and the Shaman and his pet spirit bear came up to heal me up, and then got stranded as I charged something else. Things went kind of badly for him, and me, as the two squishiest party members, but miraculously neither of us went down. I think I was on four hit points at one point though. By contrast the other two were barely being hit. Then one of the enemies got past everyone, picked up one of the unconscious "prisoners" and made a break for it through the trees. The Barbarian chased him down and killed him, while I had to intervene to stop another one grabbing another body. Another badly injured one fled, but we let him go to gang up on the last one who'd barely been touched all fight.

After beating him into the ground, the DM told us we felt great, stronger and more powerful. We hit level 5.

So the game pretty much stopped for bookkeeping. The DM was giving us the appropriate Weapon/Implement Expertise feat for free, but as most of us had already taken it, we got to pick another feat as well as a level 5 daily power. I decided it might be big and clever to get Longtooth Spirit Shifting which ups the regeneration given by our racial power by two - in other words doubling it for heroic tier. This should help me recover a bit faster as I seem to get hit a lot (from the charging into fights, I suppose). I also reluctantly decided to retrain away my level 2 utility: Skittering Sneak (which lets me turn into a mouse-sized animal and gain bonus to Stealth) while fun, has few actual applications, whereas Sudden Bite (which lets me shift into beast form before making opportunity attacks) is a lot more useful as my basic attack in human form *suck*. Mostly due to my refusal to carry a weapon, but still. I think I like the idea of emphasising the difference between my character in human and beast forms - she's more aggresive and impulsive in beast form, and more curious in human. That could work, if I ever remember to roleplay it that way.

Turns out that fight was a very hard one by XP budget - the enemies were a higher level than us and there were more of them. Yet we still coped, even with lack of coordination on our part. Slightly worried how far the DM might push it in an effort to challenge us. Will just have to wait and see I guess.