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Minireview: The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

The Republic of Thieves continues Lynch’s “Gentlemen Bastards” series, detailing the adventures of two “gentleman thieves”, Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen. Set in a detailed fantasy world which is apparently built on the ruins of a much older civilization, the series is a brilliant romp which oscillates between a heist story and bloody horror (sometimes with overlap). The first book, “The Lies of Locke Lamora” was set in the city of Camorr, and detailed Locke’s origin story and how he and his companions crossed path with the Bondsmagi, with fatal results. In “Red Seas Under Red Skies”, Locke and Jean try their hand at piracy, and now here, in the third book, the Bondsmagi force Locke and Jean to help rig an election in the city of Karthain. Turns out there are various factions within the Bondsmagi, and not quite everyone there wants to kill Locke. At least, not immediately.

Also entering full-frame into the story is Sabetha, Locke’s “lost love” from earlier times, now running a gang of her own. Some of the best portions of this book involve the one-upmanship between her and Locke, as their mutual game becomes less and less of a game and more something deadly serious.

It’s a great read, like the two previous books. It doesn’t fall into easy narrative solutions very often, and there are twists and turns aplenty. At times it’s the “Ocean’s Eleven” of the fantasy world, at other times it’s something a lot more brutal and nasty. It doesn’t pull too many punches, and that makes for a powerful story where nothing ever feels quite safe.

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Minireview: The Monastery of Tuath (Shadows of Esteren)

The Monastery of Tuath is a sourcebook for Shadows of Esteren, focusing on the religious Temple and “Church of the One” faction and specifically focusing on one example monastery. Patterned heavily after “The Name of the Rose”, this is fairly grim and ascetic place, hiding equally grim secrets. The first part of the book details daily life in the monastery and gives a nice overview of what sorts of routines are involved; while you could easily run an Esteren monastery with some cursory knowledge of medieval church and monastery organizations, it’s helpful to have a guide to the places where this differs from the real-world historical counterparts. Mostly this has to do with the fact that here, monsters and magic is real (to some limited extent), as is “technomagic” – to the dismay of the Temple.

The book also has a investigation-heavy scenario, very much inspired by “The Name of the Rose” without being a carbon copy. It’s nicely done, and has leads to much larger (and more sinister) plots which the GM can expand upon, if needed.

As before, the production values are high and the art is pretty. This is a quality addition to the game series, though one squarely aimed at GMs.

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Minireview: Shifting Sands (Pathfinder "Mummy's Mask" 3/6)

Shifting Sands finally moves the “Mummy’s Mask” into its main plotline, a bit belatedly in my opinion. Here, the PCs search for an ancient vanished library in order to do some research about what they are up against. This is a refreshing change of pace from the normal “kill stuff and take loot” approach taken in D&D -style modules. In order to find the library, there is an initial “wilderness hex crawl” section which is potentially quite nice, though the GM would need to keep tight control on the game flow in order not to frustrate the players. One small problem is that the encounters here have little to no connection with the main plot, so they should be kept to a small number. Then, later, in the library, the module has a research minigame to reflect how well they do. And, of course, there’s combat.

It’s not bad at all, and as noted finally zeroes in on the “main plot”, which has been quite elusive and mostly invisible to the players up to now. There is a fun NPC here, but since it’s a single central figure, care should be taken not to make the NPC a source of frustration – the PCs will need to handle social interactions carefully, here. Of course, the fact that the module has social interaction and not just endless combat is a plus point.

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Minireview: Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey

Cibola Burn is the fourth book in the “Expanse” series, and the first one to take place mainly on a planet outside our solar system. The gate system opened up by the alien “protovirus” has opened up a Pandora’s Box for humanity, and a mass exodus to the stars has begun – some with “official” blessing, most not so much. A large part of that has to do with the highly unstable political situation, where multiple parties claim to be the ones “in charge”. No single party actually is.

Some explorers and settlers had managed to use the gate system before the temporary military shutdown, and now some “official” expeditions are coming into conflict with pre-existing colonies on new, habitable planets. Foremost here is the planet Ilus, where a squatter colony’s claims is contested by a large, corporate expedition, and tensions are running high. Enter Holden and crew, and diplomats and negotiators. Yeah, right. Fat chance of that working out.

In a way it’s a bit of a Western, in its setup. Small, plucky settlers are being menaced by corporate power, threatening to steal their claim. Into this setup, a “neutral lawman” rides in. But of course, it’s not quite that simple; the colonists are no angels, and while the corporate head is a stereotypical Bad Guy, most of the people on that side are normal, decent folk. In any case, the “Western” bit morphs into something else, when it becomes clear the planet may be holding some ancient secrets of its own, and some of them may be waking up.

Like the previous books, it’s a fun ride and a great read. As typical here, the end portion is one long rollercoaster ride which wraps up nicely but leaves the big picture open for sequels. It answers some questions regarding the Miller/protomolecule storyline, but also opens up a few new ones. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, and maybe not quite as coherent as a story as the previous ones, but still very much worth the read for people who have liked the series so far.

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Minireview: Shadows of Esteren (Books 1 and 2)

Shadows of Esteren is an interesting fantasy rpg. Originally published in French, it has now gained a translated (and beautiful!) version via Kickstarter as a set of two hardcover books: Book 1 “Universe” and Book 2 “Travels”. The game itself bills itself as “gothic-horror medieval fantasy”, and there’s an element of truth there – though it’s not a horror game, more a gritty fantasy game with some horror elements. Also, some steampunk, which is not always a smooth fit.

The game is set in its own game world, with the current books focusing on the peninsula of “Tri-Kazel”. It’s not a huge area, in raw size, but very mountainous and hard to navigate, and filled with ample adventuring potential. There are three major factions: a pseudo-Celtic one, focusing on ancient rituals and “pagan” traditions, a monotheistic “Temple” which seeks to convert everyone to their “One God”, and the steampunkish “Magientists”, who do… Science! Sort of. It makes for nice drama, but having pagan tribes next to a pseudo-Catholic theocracy and a steampunky group of mad scientists is, at times, a bit jarring. Still, the factions and related geographical areas are nicely written, and should work fine in a game. There’s a lot of very nice cultural detail here.

The main “bad guys” in the setting are the Feond, monstrous creatures which are appearing with more and more regularity, and which threaten travelers (and, at times, settlements). There is no traditional “monster manual” provided here, though some examples are given – the idea is that Feonds should not be predictable or familiar. I like that, though it makes for a bit more GM work.

The rules are… interesting. Instead of traditional skills, characteristics etc the mechanics are based on how you typically accomplish tasks. Characters have “Combativeness”, for example, and “Creativity”, among others. A character with high Combativeness will naturally enough be good in a fight, but will also approach other tasks (for instance, social interactions) from the same angle. This leads to an interesting tidbit: each approach is also a negative factor. That character with high Combativeness may get penalties to some actions, due to being too hot-headed. This is an interesting balance, and makes for fun balances. I have no idea how it works in practice, but it sounds fun. Otherwise, the mechanics are a mix of traditional mechanics and some other innovative bits. To be honest, I have no real idea how the mechanics work as a whole; they are medium-crunch, with some interlocking bits, so it’s hard to get a full understanding just by reading the ruleset. As befits a game with “horror” elements, there is also a sanity mechanic, and going insane is a very real danger.

Book one (“Universe”) is the core player book, it contains the rules, lots of basic info about the game world, and other critical stuff. Book two (“Travels”) is more of a GM book, it has creature stats, more in-depth information about the world (some of it semi-secret), and some adventures. There’s also a thin “Book Zero” available, which provides some more ready-to-run adventures.

The production values are high (as typical for a French game). The art is beautiful and the layout mostly excellent. The sectioning of the book isn’t totally smooth, if you read it from start to finish there are some jarring bits where rules mechanics are mentioned before they are explained, and where important world details and terms are referenced before definitions. These are minor bits, though, and only mean some jumping back and forth while reading the book. The writing is good and at times evocative. In some places I got the feeling that the native language used here isn’t English and that this is a translation; some turns of phrase felt a bit awkward. This is fairly rare, though, and is a very minor quibble. The provided adventures are interesting, with some of them being very untraditional and weird. In a good way.

I like this game. It has some rough edges, and I have no idea of how the somewhat unconventional mechanics actually work, but it’s a refreshing take on the sometimes overly generic fantasy rpg trope. It’s low-fantasy, but still has room for weird horror and some elements not commonly found in gritty fantasy. The fact that it’s also a very pretty game doesn’t hurt, of course.

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Minireview: The Conspiracies Sourcebook (Conspiracy X 2.0)

The Conspiracies Sourcebook is a sourcebook for Conspiracy X, second edition which provides an overview of several “conspiracies” in the game world, mainly Aegis (the default PC organization) and NDD (the default “bad guys”), along with a bunch of other smaller players. As far as I can figure out, it’s a combination of slightly modified reprints from 1st edition sourcebooks, along with a bunch of new material. It’s pretty good; there’s a lot of info here and much of it should be useful for anyone running this game, and I suspect many of these groups could be lifted whole from this game into some other “modern conspiracy” -type game with only minor modifications. Probably the best part – at least the interesting, to me – was the listing of several smaller cults and groups, along with info on how to construct your own.

As with the other books in this series, this is a dense book; the font is quite small and the pages thin, so the book ends up being a lot more hefty than it looks based on outside appearance. This is not a bad thing, but it’s not exactly quick, light reading. The writing is decent, quite good in some places and more plodding in others (probably due to different writers and/or sources). Art is the same as with previous books, sparse but decent enough.

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Minireview: Empty Graves (Pathfinder "Mummy's Mask" 2/6)

Empty Graves continues the “Mummy’s Mask” storyline, and after a lackluster first episode I have to say that this is more like it. It’s not problem-free, but at least it now starts the actual main plot (though that is still quite hidden to the players).

The events of the first episode triggered an attack on the city of Wati by and undead horde, and the PCs are expected to track down the source. On the plus side, this opens up Wati into a nice sandbox environment and expands on the (somewhat meager) location selection of the first adventure. There are neat little set pieces, and the fact that there are multiple plot lines running at the same time gives the GM some help for providing events for the PCs to tackle. On the minus side, I have a slight problem with PC motivation here; in the beginning, they are expected to be tomb raiders (of sorts), and now they are suddenly expected to save the city? Why don’t they just say “well, screw this!” and get the hell out of Dodge? Some GM intervention may be needed there. Also, I’m a bit worried that the main plot is too obscured here, and that the players will probably finish this with (still) no real idea of what is going on. This is not good for player buy-in. In any case, it’s a decent module and better than part one at least.

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Minireview: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is one of those books to come out of nowhere a few years ago and suddenly appear on all sort of “read this!” lists… including getting shortlisted for several major awards. It went on to win a Hugo, a Nebula and the Arthur C. Clarke award, among others. For a debut novel, that’s impressive. And you know what? It’s a very impressive book.

The book is set in a far-future universe with some slight Iain M. Banks overtones, but where Banks’ universe is tilted towards the utopian, here things fall somewhat in the other direction. The protagonist, Breq, is a citizen of the vast and imperialist Radch empire, which conquers and exploits worlds with brutal force. Those that submit quickly enough are allowed to exist as vassals of the empire, those that do not are eradicated. Under the absolute rule of Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, vast armadas enforce the rule of empire. Braq “herself” is unusual since she isn’t human, she’s the surviving fragment of an AI which used to be the starship Justice of Toren, destroyed nineteen years ago due to treachery. Nobody knows that Breq survived, downloaded into an “ancillary” (a mind-wiped body from a conquered planet), and she intends to keep it that way while she plans her revenge.

There are two storylines intertwined here. One has the “current-day” Breq, in her ancillary body, journey back to the heart of Empire. In the other, we see events nineteen years in the past when Breq was still the Justice of Toren, and slowly learn what led to the destruction of that ship. It’s an unusual tale, told via an unusual protagonist. It’s also refreshing in that here everything is viewed through the eyes of a huge, conquering empire, instead of some rebellion against it. The Radchaai conquer because that’s what they’ve always done, it’s the proper way of things. Even Breq, rogue that she is, doesn’t really question this (though she slowly starts to question other assumptions).

Also noteworthy is the novel’s treatment of gender in general. There’s a nice trick in there, which I won’t spoil in advance. Read it yourself.

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