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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: Three Days To Never, by Tim Powers

For those in the know: it’s a Tim Powers book. Buy it. Enjoy.

For others… well, Three Days To Never is the latest book by the esteemed Tim Powers. It follows in the footsteps of most of his other books, arguably being placed in the same world – one where the “supernatural” exists, but is usually rare, subtle, scary and bizarre. While not quite as complex as some of his other books, that’s only by comparison; simple this thing isn’t and some of the plot twists make your head hurt. The story features Albert Einstein, Charles Chaplin, disembodied talking heads, psychic projection, telepathy (of several bizarre sorts), remote sensing, ghosts, time travel, and multidimensional alien beings. It’s also the story of a professor and his daughter, who accidentally fall down the occult-intelligence-organization rabbithole while checking up on their just-deceased grandma, and find themselves chased and shot at by various organizations including the Israeli Mossad. As per the title, they have three days to figure out what’s going on, before many things end. Permanently.

Determinism (or lack thereof) and time travel play a big part here. It’s also helpful to have some general understanding of general relativity in order to follow some details of the plot (especially of the 4-dimensional “event cone” concept), though the book does have quite a bit of exposition to help the reader along. Unusually much, I’d say, for a Tim Powers book.

Tim Powers remains one of my favorite authors. His output is slow, but the quality makes up for lack of quantity. This book isn’t quite up to the class of the amazing Declare, or my second-favorite Last Call, but it’s still a very good book. The pacing meanders a bit at times and I found the exposition to be a bit heavy in spots. On the others hand, “I could not understand what was going on!” is a common complaint with Tim Powers, so maybe that exposition has a place – and it wasn’t especially bad in any way.

What I love most about Tim Powers is how he deals with the supernatural in his books. It’s never “I cast a spell!”, or “summon monster!”, it’s… far more subtle. You get the feeling that there are rules to everything, a method to the madness, but those rules are simply bizarre. A covert operative might step on sidewalk cracks just so, while humming a certain tune, in order to distract a tail. Others might routinely carry a bottle of vodka with them in order to commune with ghosts. There are means. There are ways. But it’s a secret world, with those in the know usually jealously guarding what little they know from others. The role-playing game Unknown Armies took a lot of cues from Tim Powers and is probably the game that’s closest to his books. In his world, the supernatural takes a heavy toll, and there’s always a “playing with fire” feel. I like that.

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Minireview: The Ascension of the Magdalene

Ascension of the Magdalene is a strange creature. It’s a pregen adventure set in 1610 AD Prague, dual-statted for Unknown Armies and D&D (of all things). Yes, it’s a pretty bizarre mix, and ends up being a bit problematic for the adventure in general.

The base plot is interesting, and quite suitable for UA. A notorious and religiously (perhaps) blasphemous painting has vanished, and several factions know where it is and want it for themselves. The player characters are suitable dupes who can be talked into invading a mad emperor’s castle and stealing the thing. So far, so good, and we’re given a nice set of factions and motives so that the startup can be made into something quite a bit more intresting than a “you meet a man in a pub”.

…but then things go awry. The main problem is that UA and D&D are just very, very different games, and you just can’t write up something that works as-is for both. While the writer here has to be given points for even trying, the end result is a strange semi-mystic dungeon crawl which doesn’t quite jive with either game’s tone. There are interesting bits in the thing, and I’m sure that with some effort you could get either a nice historical UA game or a nice D&D dungeon crawl out of this – but it would need some work. For UA, you’d want to remove most of the “dungeon crawl” aspects, and for D&D you’d probably want to increase them.

I hesitate to call this a totally failed product, it doesn’t deserve that. On the other hand, neither does it really work all that well. I think this project was doomed from the start.

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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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