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Minireview: The Second Year of Our Reign (Reign)

“The Second Year of Our Reign” (available as a free PDF here) collects the second batch of ransom-funded supplements for Greg Stolze’s “Reign”. Reign itself is a cool but unusual fantasy game, which takes cues from decidedly non-Western tropes (a lot of African influences there, among others) and has a world which is actually the entwined bodies of two (dead?) gods. This book is a grab-bag of small supplements about the world, the rules system (ORE), and various other bits and pieces.

Among the non-crunch bits, we get details on the Maemeck Matriarcy, the various Ussient tribes, and lots of tidbits about various other regions (including some notes about coinage, with pictures). In the rules section, we get rules for pursuit & evasion, for squad-level combat, new esoteric techniques (including notes on how to design your own), a new alternative combat system, rules for seafaring & for handling storms, new enchantments. The book ends with some new “one-roll” generators, and some suggested campaign seeds.

It’s good stuff, and a fun read. I love how Reign is so non-standard in its approach to fantasy, there’s a lot of “weird” here. Of course, that can make the game a bit hard to grasp at times, since it isn’t your bog-standard fantasy cliche.

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Minireview: Switchflipped, by Greg Stolze

Switchflipped is a stand-alone novel with a lot of Unknown Armies influences, but it’s not an UA novel; it’s just written by Greg Stolze who was also one of the authors of UA, here playing with a different take on some of the concepts. It’s an “urban fantasy”, set in the modern world, featuring a hapless guy named Jasper who starts out chasing after his long-lost, then found, then vanished again (ex)fiancée… and ends up stumbling into an secret, occult world of the “switchflipped”, people who embody and channel various traits and concepts and get strange powers as a result. That’s the main UA link, and it’s also a (small) bit like the basic setup of Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”.

I liked the book quite a bit, but also found it a bit frustrating. The story rolls along nicely, and the characters are a zany bunch; Stolze is a good writer and this is him on home turf… sort of. It’s a lot more light-hearted than most of his tales, and even though there is action and tension, there’s very little real sense of danger here. That’s perhaps a small minus, though it depends on what you are looking for, the story does entertain. My frustration mainly comes from the ending: the book just ends, quite suddenly, leaving lots of important plot threads unresolved. While the main dangling plot is quite clearly left open-ended on purpose, the fact that the primary conflict just sort of… gets resolved, quite quickly, leaves the reader going “huh. that’s it?” at the end. This book could really use a sequel. As is, it doesn’t quite satisfy in the end.

All that said, it’s a fun, lightweight urban fantasy tale, with fun characters and good writing. Great summer reading.

There’s also a short story “/ + 7” available, which provides some background detail and clarification from a different viewpoint. Worth reading.

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Minireview: Mask of the Other, by Greg Stolze

Mask of the Other is a new ebook-only piece of fiction from Greg Stolze. I picked it up as soon as I saw it, since, well… Greg is a good writer, I was in New Zealand and thinking about what to read next, and the price was right. I’m glad I did, it’s actually a really good book. It’s also a Cthulhu mythos book, though it doesn’t directly advertise that fact.

The book consists of three separate strands, which slowly weave together into a coherent whole. It is also not told in strict linear order, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the year numbers which precede each chapter. The book starts off with the main protagonist group, a squad of U.S. soldiers in 1991 back-country Iraq, caught in the middle of a surprise attack with some extremely weird factors thrown into the mix. From there it jumps to the other narratives: 1974 and coastal Cyprus, where something came out of the sea, something unkillable. And 1988, when a rock band vanished while shooting a video at a long-abandoned island town. I don’t want to describe the plot much more than that, but I will say this: it’s awesome for once to read about people facing the Mythos with actual combat tactics and modern heavy firepower. No, that doesn’t help quite as much as you might think, but it’s still a different ballgame from the usual “scared civilians with shotguns”.

It’s a good tale, and overall a very solid piece of modern(ish) Cthulhu fiction. Recommended.

…and hey, any book which starts off with a chapter named “Saddam’s Got a Death Ray” can’t be all that bad.

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MInireview: The Marriage of Virtue and Viciousness, by Greg Stolze

The Marriage of Virtue and Viciousness continues (in a way) the story begun in Hunger Like Fire, skipping much of the side events in Blood In, Blood Out. Persephone Moore and Solomon Birch are front and center, with much of the book focusing on the politics surrounding Birch – his Blood Bond to Prince Maxwell is largely seen by his “own people” (some elements in the Lancea Sanctum) as too big a liability, and the demands for him to step down escalate. At the same time, there is apparently a vampire hunter in town, a mortal who somehow manages to be dangerous to local Kindred.

There are two main threads running through the book. One is the vampire internal politics one, which is interesting enough since the status quo is threatened and various parties scramble to hold on to their positions (or grab someone else’s). The other thread concerns the vampire hunter, and it’s the best part here: it’s both exactly what it seems (an angry mortal out for blood) and not quite what it seems (I’ll avoid spoilers on that part). The whole book underlines many of the subtle schemes that underlie much of Kindred existence, and as such highlights much of what Requiem is supposed to be about as a game.

It’s probably the best book in this sort-of-trilogy. It’s not awesome by any means, but it’s competently written and serves as a nice intro to the game world. While it probably works as a standalone, reading Hunger Like Fire first is recommended.

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Minireview: A Hunger Like Fire, by Greg Stolze

Compared to the older World of Darkness, the new one doesn’t have all too many novels attributed to it. Some may say this is a good thing; the general quality of the old WoD novels was atrociously bad. A Hunger Like Fire is the first in a trilogy of novels for Vampire: the Requiem, and there is reason to be cautiously optimistic here: Greg Stolze actually knows how to write. After having read it… yeah. It’s actually not bad at all. It focuses quite a bit on vampiric politics, but like the game itself it’s a lot more local-scale and, well, gritty than the old Masquerade was.

The book starts off with one of the best depictions of a just-Embraced (and left to fend for himself) vampire I’ve read to date. All too many times this is depicted as a normal guy with a great life suddenly having his old life snatched away (in multiple ways). Sure, that works, but here the protagonist is a loser. He drinks, he’s not all that smart, and he doesn’t treat his wife or daughter all that well. He’s not a “bad guy” either, just a… loser. Then he gets turned into a vampire, and the depiction of how he deals with things (and fails to understand much of anything) is a lot of fun.

From there the story segues into the larger scale of vampire politics in Chicago. We get Persephone Moore, a character who starts off a bit stereotyped but develops character fast. She’s trying to stay human, to keep in touch… and it’s not quite working. Then there’s Prince Maxwell, who is left as a bit of an enigma. At least he’s not quite the stereotype of an elder. Last but not least, there’s Solomon Birch, who is a religious fanatic and leader of the local Lancea Sanctum. While being in a way the “bad guy” of this piece, he’s not totally that. He has convictions and he tries to live his “life” by them, and he is at least somewhat loyal to old friends. Still, he is closer to the monster side of things than most others in this book.

It’s an entertaining read, and it breathes life into how the game is supposed to work: local-scale politics, without the endless metaplot weirdness and mysterious Elders pulling all the strings that plagued so much of the old Vampire. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff was entertaining too – but here the fiction showcases what makes this game somewhat different. In the end it comes down to Stolze being a competent writer, compared to all too many others who have written WoD fiction in the past.

Incidentally, this is the first book I’ve ever read completely via an e-book reader. The PDF format was a bit crummy for that, but either my Sony managed to display that semi-legibly or I did a Calibre conversion to ePub – I honestly don’t remember. I suppose DriveThru will offer these books as ePubs too, sometime in the future, but at the moment White Wolf doesn’t have staff to handle that sort of conversion.

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Big Bad Ransom

Arc Dream is really getting into the ransom model nowadays. The latest one is from the esteemed Benjamin Baugh, for Bigger Bads: an expansion book for Monsters and Other Childish Things.

If they reach the required sum by January 15th, they’ll do a print run and the contributors will get physical copies and/or PDFs (and their names in the credits). Greg Stolze recently did this sort of thing for Reign Enchiridion, a paperback “just the rules” edition of Reign, with a few extra goodies thrown in. It actually reached 120%, so here’s hoping this one does well too.

Minireview: The First Year of Our Reign

The First Year of Our Reign collects the first six “ransomed” supplements for Greg Stolze’s Reign into print form, with nice formatting and also lots of content from the Reign wiki added in. This is a very interesting book from a publishing viewpoint: all of the content here is available for free… in fact, the book itself is available for free in PDF form (!). The print version is, obviously, priced as a real book because printing costs money (duh). I actually have the (pretty!) full-color limited version, which Greg showed to me at Ropecon and which awakened my “it… must… be… mine!” reflexes, much to the detriment of my wallet. But anyway: this is a book that collects now-free Reign PDF content into print form.

Now, you might imagine that the market for such would be small, and you’d be both right and wrong. Right in that the market is small; all indie rpgs operate in tiny markets. Wrong since within that market, quite a few people (me included) are interested in a print copy of stuff they already have as PDF (or could get as PDF if they wanted). Why? Well, for one, reading a book is just so much nicer that reading a pile of printouts or text from a computer screen. Also, the damn thing just looks so pretty (Daniel Solis’ cover art is, again, brilliant). Greg did not want to double-charge people for PDF stuff that (some) had already paid for, so he opted for this solution: free PDF, and the hardcopy costs enough to cover print and distribution cost. I think that’s cool.

In fact, I’ve actually now paid for this material twice, since I’ve also participated in ransoming all the supplements included here. Am I crazy? Dunno. I like to think of it as supporting artists that I like.

Enough about the business aspects of the thing… what’s it about? Well, as noted it collects the first six supplements, and that means a mismash of extra stuff for Reign. Most of it is specific to the game world (cultures, regional info, etc), but lots of that could easily be transported over to other game worlds too. Some of the ideas here are really cool – sorcerers who need to eat eyeballs in order to keep up their powers, and a society built around that, just to mention one detail. There is some pure “crunch” here, too, but world info dominates. Pretty much all of it is interesting and very varied & colorful.

This was actually the first time I read all of this material from beginning to end, before this I have just read bits and pieces here and there from the PDFs. Read as a whole, it’s a lot more coherent and works better.

So… if you’re running or thinking of running Reign, there’s a lot of cool stuff here to include in your game, even if you’re not using Greg’s game world – as noted, most of the cultures etc can be transported elsewhere with relatively little effort, I’d imagine. If you’re unsure, just grab the free PDF version of the book and check it out.

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Minireview: A Dirty World

Ok, so on to A Dirty World, which is Greg Stolze’s new “film noir” standalone roleplaying game. As I mentioned eariler, I was lucky enough to play in a demo run by Greg at Ropecon and I had a blast. The game really seemed to promote the “feel” of film noir, though of course part of that credit goes to the very nice demo scenario we were playing, and to Greg’s quite excellent GM skills.

It’s a small, compact game engine, based on the ORE engine (as seen in Nemesis, Wild Talents, Reign, etc) – though this incarnation has been tweaked heavily in the “Forge” direction. In a good way, I think. The stat/ability design is quite clever, and the game has your stats changing every scene – the player characters get challenged and change all the time. A “femme fatale” character might begin her slow climb from corruption to purity – or become even more corrupt with every scene. It’s up to the player, and dependant on how the character acts in the scene. As befits the genre, going towards the “bad” direction is much easier than “good”, generally. This mechanism rocks, since “noir” tends to feature people confronted with difficult choices and being forced to compromise, and then to live with the results of those choices. The ruleset is extremely abstract and combat is handled in the same way as any other test in the game. For some games this might be a problem but here it seems to work wonders, since in the noir genre social skills (and attacks & backstabs) are at least as common and deadly as are flying bullets.

The book includes a “random noir plot generator”, in the style of the random one-roll generators found in Reign. It’s very cool, and gives you a basic story framework to build on. Greg also includes a couple of nice examples of how to build a story with it.

All in all, this is an excellent, modern “indie” roleplaying game that is tightly focused on one genre and one type of story theme. It also shows how versatile the core ORE framework is. Recommended.

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Flee to France!

A quick “what’s up” note, this. Ropecon 2008 came and went, I had a lot of fun despite getting very little sleep. The traditional big VTES tournament was a success once again, I now have a tournament report available for that. The other highlight of the con, for me, was managing to attend Greg Stolze’s demo of his new game, A Dirty World. It was actually the first convention rpg game that I have ever attended, and boy was it worth it. Besides being a kick-ass game designer, Greg proved to be a very cool guy and extremely competent GM. I had a ton of fun playing a heroin-addicted femme fatale…

The rest of the week has been spent in recovery, of sorts. Janka and I are both on vacation now, so we’ve just taken it easy for a while. That said, it feels like it’s been an extremely busy week, I’ve continually been doing something and feel that I managed to only do a small portion of the stuff I had intended. So it goes.

We decided that we needed a short break from all this, so we booked a flight to Paris – leaves tomorrow morning, back on Saturday. It’s been… what, 30 years since I was last there, so I don’t remember much anything, and Janka’s never been there at all. So we’ll spend three days doing the tourist things (Louvre, Notre Dame, the Catacombs, etc) while trying to get by on our extremely limited French vocabulary. Should be fun. I’m trying (in vain) to remember the basic rudiments of French verbs…. and since I know that’s doomed to failure, I’m taking along a phrase book and trying to resist the urge to go for a Monty Python French accent.

Back by the weekend.

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Greg Stolze at Ropecon

Woot, I just got the news that Greg Stolze has confirmed he’s coming to Ropecon as GoH this year. Seriously cool news, Greg is the mastermind behind the new “rpg.net darling” game Reign, as well as co-author to the best modern occult game I know of, Unknown Armies. In addition to that, he has contributed to lots of gaming books during his career, written a pile of novels, and in general been a creative powerhouse. Will be nice to meet him in person.

The thing with Greg is that he’s a very good and engaging writer, in addition to being good at rpg design. His books are good reads, in addition to playing well. After chugging through some game books that are great as games but read like school textbooks, that’s something I really appreciate.

With the other “major” GoH being Chris Pramas from Green Ronin, this looks to be an interesting Ropecon (at least from my point of view). I love what Green Ronin are doing with the new systemless Freeport books, I hope that becomes a trend.

Oh, and the latest Reign supplement (#6, “The Popular and Unique”) came out of ransom today. A download link will probably appear on the supplements page soon, in the meantime here’s a direct link to the zip file. Greg has also said that he’s working on publishing the supplements in some kind of collected and printed form for those of us who would also like a printed version. Nice.

We’re playing a small test game of Reign at the moment and it’s working well. In addition to exploring how the Company rules work, we’re trying to deal with a table that apparently is actually a demon egg, rival guilds, old enemies, and the general hassle of trying to run a black-market “mercantile” operation while studying magic on the side. Good stuff.

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