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Minireview: Bigger Bads (Monsters and Other Childish Things)

Bigger Bads is an expansion book for the Monsters and Other Childish Things game, by Benjamin Baugh. While the main focus is adding huge monsters to the game (think King Kong & Godzilla), it also contains lots of rules tweaks and add-ons, most of which are pretty neat. We get rules for abstracting how big a monster is (and what that means), for abstract distance and reach (needed when things go Godzilla-scale), an abstracted “Threats” mechanic which is quite nifty and useful for modeling lots of non-monster threats and antagonists, and various other bits and pieces including “weird skills” for the children themselves. The main bulk of the book consists of a list of new pre-statted antagonists, some of which use the new “big monsters!” rules. They are quite excellent; innovative and yet not tied to any one setting. Some are quite funny, some are more serious, and all are interesting. The book ends with a campaign seed, in which the PCs are kids recruited into a secret government monster-hunting organization… which is unlikely to stay secret very long, since some of the opponents are in the Godzilla category.

Great expansion book for a quirky little game.

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Minireview: Transhuman (Eclipse Phase)

Transhuman is more or less the “Player’s Guide” to Eclipse Phase. Unlike the previous support books, it provides very little new setting info, and instead focuses on filling in and improving some weaker points of the rules and the existing general world detail. Since the base character generation rules for the game are… well, “overly complex” to be charitable about it, this book introduces a new, “package-based” character generation system. With it, players choose and tailor general packages related to various character concepts instead of micromanaging each and every skill and related creation cost. While I haven’t tried it out, it looks very good and a big improvement over the original. There is also a new “lifepath”-based character generation option, which looks like fun.

Apart from the new chargen options, we get expanded information (and pictures) or lots of morphs and bots – good stuff since these figure heavily in the game, and having visual references is good. Then there’s a big section on Firewall itself, with guidelines and hints on how to play agents and what needs to be taken into account in the Eclipse Phase world when it comes to investigation, combat, stealth, etc. Very useful.

While it’s not perfect (there are lots of social implications of the Eclipse Phase world that I still haven’t seen covered anywhere, typical family structures being one), it’s very good. The writing is clear and entertaining, the art is good, and overall it just improves the game on many fronts. This book is close to a must-buy for players (or GMs) of the game.

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Minireview: Demon's Heresy (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 3/6)

Demon’s Heresy is the midpoint of the “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path, and it eases up the pace quite a bit. Where the first chapter had the PCs reacting as survivors and the second had them go on the offensive against the demon horde, this third part is more of a sandbox affair. They’ve secured their hold on the city of Drezen, and now need to venture out into the wilds of the Worldwound to seek out certain new McGuffins and seek new possible allies (and clues to how the demons might be stopped).

It’s pretty nice. The fact that it’s more a sandbox than a linear affair is good, since the previous events have been much more linear. The encounters are quite interesting generally, and the NPCs are nicely written and have varying motivations (sometimes very much against stereotype). Of course, the dangers of a sandbox exist here also; without good GM guidance this can devolve into a boring “wander around the wastelands aimlessly” affair. PC motivations and plot flow will probably need some GM tweaking here and there. In any case, the design here is quite solid, and while there is some “dungeon crawl” involved it’s not too bad.

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Minireview: Embassytown, by China Miéville

Embassytown is, as far as I can figure, the first pure science fiction book China Miéville has written – though it is, not surprisingly, a very strange one. At its heart, it’s an attempt at portraying a truly alien culture, and also an examination of language in the role of creating reality.

The story is set in the titular “Embassytown” on the planet Arieka, at the far edge of the known universe. Access is via the “Immer”, a sort of alternate space which can be used (with some difficulty and danger) for interstellar travel. The protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, has spent a long time in the “Out”, as an “Immerser”, and now returns back to her native Arieka (something few people do). Arieka is a very strange place, inhabited by the alien Ariekei, with Embassytown having an artificial human-breathable atmosphere, while the rest of the planet is more hostile to humans. Embassytown is where humans, the Ariekei and other “exots” can meet, trade and learn from each other.

What makes the situation on Arieka unique is the Ariekei themselves, or more exactly their way of communication. They speak with with a dual, overlapping language which requires multiple mouths to produce, and are utterly incapable of understanding any other form of communication. Humans, having tried various artificial means (to no avail), have stumbled on a solution where bio-engineered human twins are raised as “Ambassadors” and can speak with two minds but one “mind”, allowing communication with the Ariekei. To add to the difficulty, the Ariekei language does not allow for lies or any sort of speculation; their only form of doing that is having someone (who can be a human) physically enact similes, which can in turn become allusions for the Ariekei to use in their communication. For example, Cho herself is known to the Ariekei as “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her” (which is literally what was done to her). In addition, the Ariekei periodically host a “Festival of Lies”, where they compete is who can come closest to telling an untruth (something which is both exciting and a taboo subject for them).

Into all this walks a new Ambassador, who is a singular being engineered to be able to speak the Language by himself. This should not work, and has never before worked, but now it does. And all hell breaks loose.

It’s a very strange book, diving deep into a truly alien mindset and setting. The role of language is at the forefront here, and its role is shaping how we view the world. We tend to think of language as just a neutral tool, but it really isn’t that, even for our human cultures. Words matter, and many languages lack core concepts from other cultures. Here, of course, all that has been pushed to the extreme, with the Ariekei Language forming the ultimate shaper of reality for them, and also acting as the spark of conflict. While this may be a somewhat hard book to love due to its deep strangeness, it’s very much worth reading because of that.

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Minireview: Fate Worlds: Worlds on Fire / Worlds in Shadow (Fate Core)

Worlds on Fire and Worlds in Shadow form volumes one and two of “Fate Worlds”, supplements for the Fate Core ruleset which contain an assortment of game settings for various styles and genres. The books are the result of stretch goals from the mega-successful Kickstarter for the core game, and what was initially projected to be “a few example settings” grew into two sizable volumes. Good ones, to boot.

The books don’t really follow any strict themes, though there is a small “fire” theme in the first volume and the settings in the second one are maybe a slight bit “darker”. All settings are presented in nice, compact fashion, with setting descriptions, suggested core rules tweaks, example NPCs, and story seeds all laid out. The art is generally good, of the same quality as in the core game book.

“Worlds on Fire” contains a fantasy setting (“Tower of the Serpents”), a setting simulating a TV series (“White Picket Witches”), a real-life firefighter one (“Fight Fire”), a weird but wonderful alternate-history WW1 setting (“Kriegzeppelin Valkyrie”), a strange post-apoc setting (“Burn Shift”) and a Wild West setting with superpowers thrown in (“Wild Blue”). So yeah, quite a mixed set, but they are all good (in very different ways).

“Worlds in Shadow” starts off with a section devoted to the “crime caper” genre (“CrimeWorld”). This isn’t a setting as much as it’s an intro on a genre (think TV shows like Leverage and movies like Ocean’s 11). Next up is a setting where the players work for a time-travel agency with an agenda of changing history in a way which suits the aims of the agency (“Timeworks”). Naturally enough, this has some sinister implications. Next, there a 1920s “pulp”- themed romp (“The Ellis Affair”) which is ok but maybe not up to the same quality as the other offerings. After than there’s “No Exit”, which explores how to do horror in Fate Core (not something it’s best at, generally). It’s a great and creepy affair, playing on the concept of memory. Next up there’s perhaps the most bizarre setting in these volumes, in which players fight an alien invasion as members of Louis XV’s (decadent) court (“Court/Ship”). For some reason, it reminded me a bit of some Dr. Who episodes – in a good way. Last is… well, another contender for the “most bizarre” setting, in which players enact Arthurian legends with big stompy robots (mecha), in “Camelot Trigger”.

Overall, these books are a fantastic collection of very unique and imaginative settings and game tweaks, covering a huge swathe of genres and play styles. Even if you don’t want to use any of these “as is”, there’s a lot of info and hints here on how to tweak Fate Core into various different directions. If you like Fate Core, these are very much worth picking up.

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Minireview: Sword of Valor (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 2/6)

The “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path continues with Sword of Valor, in which the PCs start the offensive against the demon hordes. The first part had the PCs (and some additional NPCs) as the survivors of a massive demonic surprise attack; here, they are recruited by the surviving leaders to head a counter-attack into the Worldwound, to fetch a McGuffin (the Sword of Valor) from the demon-occupied city of Drezen. To mirror the “heroic” theme of this adventure path, it’s naturally assumed that the PCs are the heroic types which will eagerly take up the task, otherwise things will grind to a halt.

Like the first part, this is pretty good stuff. The first half features an overland journey towards the occupied city, encountering demonic resistance along the way. The good thing here is that this is not only of the “kill, smash!” variety, there’s a lot of more subtle resistance also (including possible corruption of some of the NPCs, depending on PC actions). It’s well done, and reads like an interesting journey. As an extra bonus point, we have the (fairly subtle) introduction of two separate gey couples into the story, in a way which doesn’t make a big deal of their orientation(s).

The second part features the city of Drezen, and mass army combat. Mass combat rules are included here, but I have no idea of how they work in practice. Assuming they work at least somewhat, this second portions should also be interesting, with the PCs leading an army to reclaim a city. There’s also some more conventional small-scale combat, when the PCs attempt to find the artifact they came here for.

I continue to be positively surprised here, I wasn’t expecting all that much from this adventure path. Good job.

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Minireview: Kraken, by China Miéville

Kraken, a standalone “urban fantasy” novel by China Miéville, is a strange beast (and features one). It’s the story of Billy Harrow, an emplyee of the British Museum of Natural History, who suddenly notices that a forty foot specimen of a (dead) giant squid has suddenly vanished from its display case. At the same time, a dead man is discovered stuffed into a giant glass bottle with a mouth much too small to fit a man – an impossible crime. A special secret squad of the London Police is called in, one which knows there is something sinister behind it all, and one which focuses on Billy and his possible role in the events. Billy himself gets slowly sucked into a world of secret squid cults, sinister urban sorcery, impossible technology, and a dead god which may or may not exist and which may or may not be a harbinger of the end of the world.

It’s a mad mix of a ton of ingredients, and precisely the sort of tale I tend to love. It’s convoluted, and features strange occult themes and high weirdness. Somehow, however, the whole thing left me a bit cold. Maybe it’s a case of too many ingredients, too much fine detail which eclipses the plot itself. It’s confusing, and the writing style is also a bit hard to follow at times, switching viewpoints with wild abandon. The book is a somewhat exhausting read, and while there are lots and lots of fantastic set pieces here and interesting characters, somehow the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It’s well worth a read though; Miéville is a great writer and there’s a lot to love here. I view this book as a partly failed stylistic experiment.

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