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Minireview: Caliban's War, by James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War is the second book in James Corey’s (pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) “The Expanse” series, and it doesn’t slow down a bit from the pace of the first book – and is just as dangerous for causing sleep deprivation. The plot continues from where the first book ended, with some new people getting introduced. On Ganymede, Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper is witness to her whole squad getting wiped out by some sort of “supersoldier”, while in the halls of power (U.N.) Chrisjen Avasarala, and elderly politician with a foul mouth and quick temper, tries to figure out what the hell is going on. There’s also Prax Meng, a scientist on Ganymede, whose daughter has been abducted by parties unknown, perhaps involved in the recent violence.

…and then of course there’s James Holden and the merry crew of the Rocinante, now loosely allied with the Outer Planets Alliance. They get swept into the events, and (predictably) all hell breaks loose. Oh, and there’s also the alien “protomolecule” building who-knows-what on Venus, which makes pretty much everyone very nervous. Not that they weren’t already.

Like the first book, it’s tightly plotted and written in page-turner fashion. It’s almost an exhausting read, but in a good way. The plot twists keep on coming, and things escalate in a logical but still surprising fashion. Avasarala is a fun character, and provides a new viewpoint character for the series. Bobbie, the U.N. marine, is also a nicely nuanced character. Sure, some of the bad guys are almost cartoonishly evil, but it works here – their motivations (power, money) are classic but mostly believable.

A great read. While it is largely a self-contained tale which does (mostly) wrap up within this book, this book should be read as part of a series and after reading Leviathan Wakes, otherwise you’ll miss out on lots of details and character development.

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Minireview: Songs of the Sun and Moon (Werewolf: the Apocalypse)

Songs of the Sun and Moon is a byproduct of the “W20 Changing Breeds” Kickstarter, and like the other similar anthologies from other Onyx Path Kickstarters, it’s quite good. Perhaps surprisingly so, considering the “classic” quality of White Wolf fiction, which is… not that hot. Here, we get seven short stories about the “Fera”, the other (non-wolf) shapechangers in the (Classic) World of Darkness.

All of the stories are at least decent, with some being quite good. They focus on different types of Fera, and cover most of them (though not all, especially the ancient vanished tribes). Some are somewhat lighthearted (like Eddy Webb’s Nuwisha story), while others are much more grim (Matthew McFarland’s “The Sin of Sharks”, for instance).

A good, entertaining read, if a quick one. Works even if you aren’t familiar with the Fera (I read it before reading the actual “Changing Breeds” sourcebook), but probably works better with more background info.

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Minireview: Hillfolk, Blood on the Snow

Hillfolk, a game by the esteemed Robin D. Laws, is the product of a Kickstarter that got quite a bit of support; the originally pitched 128 page book with iron age clans + narrative rule system ended up as two books of twice that size: “Hillfolk”, which is the core game plus a big bunch of extra settings, and “Blood on the Snow”, which is billed as a “Dramasystem” companion and contains some rules discussion and tweaks, plus an additional big pile of settings.

The core of the game is the “Dramasystem” rule system, which is a highly narrative rules framework meant for playing socially-oriented games. Quite different from traditional rules systems, it focuses on dramatic moments in the story and runs on a Drama Point economy. Someone has described it as “a slightly more crunchy version of Fiasco”, and based on reading it I cannot disagree. It sounds interesting, but actual play (which I haven’t tried) is where the rubber meets the road. Fiasco works beautifully in what it sets out to do, so this one may also result in great games. I suspect it depends a lot on the players, and on them being on the same page. Like most narrative-heavy game systems, this would probably collapse if treated with an overly “gamist” approach and minmaxing. In any case, it’s a fairly lightweight and interesting system for running drama-based, social rpgs.

To this game system one plugs a game settings, here called a “series pitch” – one more nod towards the aim of dramatic stories, in the same sense as good TV series are. The default series pitch is a tribe of “hillfolk”, primitive hunter-gatherers who try to survive. It’s more actual history than fantasy, there are no magical elements here (primitive religion and superstition may exist, but they have no “reality” behind them). It’s decent, but maybe not something I’d run myself… which is not a problem since the book contains a whopping 30 extra series pitches, with genres all over the place. There are Cthulhu cultists, scifi settings, traditional fantasy, ninjas, pirates, and all sorts of fun stuff. In this sense also I get a small Fiasco feel from this; a simple core rules system which is plugged into a game/setting document.

Blood on the Snow is a companion book to Hillfolk, and features such things as LARP rules, discussion on rules tweaking and how to fine-tune the system, and (of course) an extra set of series pitches. Between these and the ones in the core book, I’m pretty sure there’s something for everyone – and you can always plug the Dramasystem machine into your own setting, it’s quite simple.

Overall, it’s a non-traditional and interesting narrative game framework + huge pile of game settings. The production values are great and it’s a good read, but as to how well it works in practice… well, that would require a playtest or two.

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