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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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Minireview: Fate Core & Fate System Toolkit

Fate Core is the long-awaited “generic” incarnation of the FATE roleplaying ruleset, having previously been seen in various game-specific incarnations in lots of games (“Spirit of the Century”, “Dresden Files”, “Diaspora”, etc). It’s a “state of the art” version of the system, combining various good ideas and dumping some other baggage which hasn’t worked out so well. The result is quite stunning, frankly; this is the version of FATE I would use for pretty much anything. The book, in digest format, is very clearly laid out and organized with lots of examples, and the art ranges from “ok” to very good. The system is generic, but the book contains hints on how to fine-tune it for various different genres.

FATE itself is somewhere between low- and medium complexity. It uses special dice (so-called “fudge dice”), with minus (-) and plus (+) symbols on d6 dice instead of numbers. It’s easy enough to use normal d6 dice if fudge dice aren’t available, so it’s not a big deal. The game is very abstract, and instead of hard numbers and “stats” instead focuses on “aspects”, which are… pretty much any sort of condition, aspect or property you could attach to something. A good aspect should have potential for both good and bad as far as the character is concerned; for example, a character aspect of “Afghanistan war veteran” could be used by the player to justify various feats related to previous army experience, but the GM could also use it to provoke flashbacks to nasty situations are inopportune times (provided the player agrees). All this works on a “Fate Point” economy, characters have “fate points” which can be used for bonus, and which can be regained when the GM tags an aspect as an obstacle for the players (among other means). This gives players to create aspects which are interesting and which aren’t purely positive for the character. and all this helps move the game along and build the plot.

The combat is similarly abstract. It, too, runs on aspects, and tends to avoid hard numbers. Distances are abstracted into “zones”, and there is absolutely no need for miniatures, measuring tape or any of that tactical wargame stuff. Damage also avoids any sort of “hit points”, and instead has a separate “stress track” for mental and physical “damage”, and three “consequences”. The stress represents small stuff you can easily shrug off with some bit of rest, while consequences represent the serious stuff: broken bones, severe mental trauma, etc.

Fate System Toolkit is an expansion book to the system, and while fun it’s by no means essential. It’s a “hacking guide” to the FATE ruleset, with lots of guides and examples of how to modify the system, and what the effects and drawbacks of each approach is. If the core game doesn’t quite fit your needs, this book is worth checking out for various hacks, but otherwise it can easily be skipped. Since the core engine has been fine-tuned quite a bit, modifying it blindly is not a good idea.

The System Toolkit also provides hints on how to go about creating new races and character types (and how to balance them), and how to add various different types of magic systems to the game. Again, useful if you are tweaking the system to fit your game world or idea, not so useful otherwise.

I would recommend Fate Core to anyone who has played & liked a Fate system game, and to anyone looking for a fun, semi-lightweight “generic” game system to run their game with. As long as you are fine with abstractions (this game is not for simulationists!), it’s a very smooth game engine. There is a small learning curve, though, especially for groups more used to “traditional” game systems and unused to “indie” game concepts. Figuring out how aspects work and how the fate point economy works can feel a bit weird in the beginning.

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Minireview: The Worldwound Incursion (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 1/6)

The Worldwound Incursion opens up the new “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path, set near the demon-infested Worldwound. I was a bit sceptical of how interesting a “legendary heroes fight demons” adventure path would be, but at least this first installment is promising. The path ties in with Pathfinders “legendary characters” rules options, which give extra power to the PCs so that stories can reach “epic scope” without needed ridiculous levels of character experience.

The initial setup is great, and something a bit out of the norm. The crusader city of Kenabres is hit by a massive demonic assault, and the PCs happen to be the only survivors at ground zero. All this is kicked off “in medias res”, with actual play beginning with the survivors dusting themselves off at the bottom of a vast underground chasm and figuring out “well, what now?”. No “meet stranger at pub”, no “ally X asks for help”, just “shit happened, you are a bunch of random people in the middle of it, go”. As a bonus, a few NPC survivors, each with different agendas, are also included. How the PCs deal with them and whether or not the NPCs survive has repercussions later on. All in all, this is a great way to kick off a campaign, and makes it easy to figure out PC motivations for what comes later. The included NPCs were also quite interesting.

Strong start to a new tale.

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Minireview: Tears at Bitter Manor (Pathfinder)

The Pathfinder stand-alone module format has recently moved to a “fewer releases, bigger modules” format, and I for one think the change is a good one. Even though the “new style” module so far have been merely ok in quality, the format does make room for more involved plots. Here, in Tears at Bitter Manor, that extra space is used to introduce a plot more centered around investigation than combat – always welcome, in my book.

The plot involves an old band of retired adventurers who meet up with each other once a year. This year, one of them has failed to show up, and since this coincides with some other dark events in the region, the PCs are asked to look into the matter (various possible hooks are described in the module). Of course, all this would work best if the NPC band of retired adventurers had been introduced to the PC earlier, in other contexts, but that sort of thing isn’t always possible. In any case, it is assumed that the PCs take up the case, and of course there is a sinister plot behind it all. Isn’t there always.

This is a decent adventure, but it could be better. The main bad guy isn’t all that interesting, and the NPCs themselves could be a little less stereotypical and more interesting. They aren’t bad, it’s just that they are a bit bland. I did like the fact that not all of this is combat, though, so in the end it’s one more in the “decent but nothing fantastic” pile.

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Minireview: The City & the City, by China Miéville

The City & the City is a deeply strange book… but then again, since it’s by China Miéville, that’s a given. I absolutely love many of his books, while sometimes, most recently in “The Kraken”, I can see what he’s trying to do but it just leaves me cold. This book lands squarely in the “absolutely loved it” department, in fact I think it’s one of his all-time best.

This is a stand-along book, not connected to any of his other stories. It’s set in the dilapidated city of Beszel, in some vaguely Eastern European country. It’s also set in the city of Ul Qoma, which… ok, here I have to post a warning, since it’s impossible to discuss this book without some spoilers.

So, you have been warned. If you have yet to read this book, I suggest you stop reading this, right now, and go read the book. Welcome back, afterwards.

Ok, so Ul Quoma both is Beszel and and very much is not. It occupies the same physical space, but it logically separate. Citizens of Beszel do not see citizens of Ul Quoma, and vice versa. Oh, they could see them, but they are conditioned since childhood to “unsee” things that do not belong. If you want to visit Ul Quoma from Beszel, you need to go to the border checkpoint (in the center of both cities), and then, having officially crossed over, are free to go back to the same exact spot – at which point you can see Ul Quoma, but cannot see Beszel anymore.

Sometimes, people accidentally see things they are not supposed to, they fail to “unsee”. This can result in bad things happening. Very bad things.

All this very slowly dawns on the reader, through the narrator: inspector Tyador Borlú of Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad. A native of Baszel, he describes everything in a matter-of-fact tone which, initially makes everything seem just like a routine police procedural. Slowly, the reader becomes aware just how weird this supposedly-normal city is, and that it’s about much more than a routine murder mystery.

The plot? Initially, it’s about a murdered young woman, a citizen of Ul Quoma found in Beszel – with no record of her having crossed over. Slowly, Inspector Borlú is drawn deeper into a plot that seems to involve much deeper and darker things, including a legendary “third city” co-existing with the other two, hiding in some mysterious dimension just outside reach. Sometimes people get too close to the real truth, and vanish, never to be heard of again.

It’s a fascinating and unique tale, with hints of Kafka and others. It teeters on the edge of “science fiction”, while arguably not being that. It also has elements of urban fantasy, without quite being that either. The fantastic, partly anonymous faux Eastern Europe locale even has some themes in common with Al Amarja (from “Over the Edge”), without being tongue-in-cheek.

An impressive book from an already impressive writer.

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