Sunday 12 April 2015

On R A Salvatore and the Echoes of an Earlier Age

Somewhere along the line, I reached this point where I was embarrassed of many of the things I enjoyed way back in high school. This certainly applies to much of the music that was in vogue in the 90’s, but it also holds true for my then favorite author, R. A. Salvatore.

The Folly of Youth

R. A. Salvatore is a bestselling fantasy author, who got his start writing DnD tie-in novels set in the Forgotten Realms. (He gives some great interviews, which are worth listening to at-length, but one of the themes I found interesting is how much of his career was determined by split-second decisions.)
Why, looking back, do I find myself embarrassed of my former Salvatore fandom? For one, his popular character Drizzt Do’Urden, is a total Mary Sue. He's an Elf who lives nearly forever who, as a child, dominated the Drow version of Ender's Game and is painfully proficient at everything under the sun, a sort of Fantasy Superhero, and yet, he’s an outcast who must fight for acceptance and bla bla bla…my brain just turned-off. That, plus the fact that his writing itself, characteristic of many popular writers of the day, is rather thematically simplistic and artistically uninspired. It is, however, utilitarian. Salvatore writes in a clear and organized fashion and I almost never have to puzzle over what I just read. In fact, his books just fly by easily--they are supremely readable.

Sort of like this guy...
I was introduced to Salvatore’s work while hanging out with one of the coolest guys I knew in HS. Tony was a smart guy, but in a cool way. He had interesting hair. He always had an intelligent opinion on anything and it sounded even more intelligent because he was originally from Leeds and had a really great accent. At one point, during lunch, he pointed out that he was currently reading through Salvatore’s Drizzt books. It wasn't long until I had gone to Barnes and Noble and procured every book of Salvatore's and over the next few years I read them avidly and repeatedly(OK, actually I remember finding the Cleric's Quintet rather dull--but I still read through all five books twice!)

Fast-forward through half a life time, 8 years of higher education, 9 years of full-time work, the last 8 of them including marriage and raising a family. I'm picky about what I read. I don't just read any old genre fiction. I read Genre Literature! Let's just hide this collection of Salvatore books behind the Gibson, the Weird Tales greats, the Tolkien, and the thick cobwebs of bibliophile snobbery...

Rereading Salvatore

You know, where the entire events of the Hobbit took place...

Lately, I've been reading the first 2/3 of Salvatore’s “Crimson Shadow” trilogy, which I think belonged to my younger brother, but somehow ended up in my book hoard. I’d never picked it up before. They definitely have their weaknesses. Luthien is a fairly run-of-the mill fantasy protagonist. A young, naive lad who goes out into the big world and rises to greatness. At least he’s not a farm-boy. Instead, he’s the son of a lord, who spends most of his time in “the arena”, a combination of Roman gladiatorial combat and the Chivalrous Tourney.

And, of course, it apes Tolkien insufferably(though one could certainly claim that all modern fantasy literature shamelessly copies Tolkien, usually quite poorly). There's Luthien's name, of course, though apparently it's an appropriate name for Human Males now, and even more confusingly is the fact that the stories are set in Eriador. Is the Crimson Shadow an unauthorized sequel to Lord of the Rings or is this a different Eriador? I was surpised to see that no map appears in the beginning of the books, but then I realized that it's because the setting is just Fantasy Britain re-skinned with new names. Eriador is Scotland, Avon is Britain(or maybe just England?), and Gascon is France. Also, the Cyclopians are clearly just reskinned Orcs.
Salvatore's Avon

The books are very readable, although the plots are a bit simplistic. Also, there are lots of little details that strike me as poorly thought-out. For instance, in the many mass combats, neither army seems to use scouts and this allows them to get away with all sorts of tricks that wouldn't work if this huge army would just deploy a few scouts to look out for ambushes/keep an eye on the other huge army. That said, I could totally see how Luthien's character would have been relatable for my teenage self. He's a young guy with a good heart and lots of potential but who is clueless with regard to girls, politics, and just generally everything. That said, everything he tries succeeds spectacularly, sometimes because he listens to his friends, sometimes because of sparks of raw talent, and sometimes due to honed martial skill, and he rises to fame and fortune(besides that, the second book is all about this love triangle where he has to choose between foxy half elf girl or fiery redheaded warrior chick. Not only that, but then their rivalry changes to ever increasing fondness for one another, to the point where you start wondering where this is going--I'm starting to understand why this guy was my favorite author in High School...)

Of Fair Folk and Bird-Men

symbolism doesn't have to be subtle...
Anyway, to sum up this rambling review, I've made my peace with Salvatore. He writes very readable fantasy, with true general appeal, especially to young men(as I once was myself). As to the lack of Artistic Merit... I think the recent movie Birdman does a better job than I could of presenting the dialectic of creating entertainment for an audience vs. creating art for art's sake. The film shows how impossible it is to completely separate between the two. Salvatore's work is immensely popular, but one also get's the impression that he truly loves coming up with this stuff, and perhaps that is Artistry at it's truest, regardless of how entertained the snobs and critics may be...

Thursday 9 April 2015

Catching-up with the Dragon Queen

Behold Kunab! Wonder and be amazed!
Well, I can't say I've been terribly on-task with our Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign. I've been lazy about posting updates and also I've missed many of the game sessions. Real life has been getting in the way again and when I don't have as much time to game I also find I'm less excited about posting summaries when I do manage to join our group. That said, I've had a week's vacation to recharge my batteries, so here goes:

Session X

First off, I switched-out Sir Manly for a bitchin DCC Wizard: Kunab the Wizbarian, randomly generated at 6th level from He's pretty mediocre at the whole Magic-thing, and a bit low on the hitpoints, but he got personality up the wazoo!

On the trail of the dragon cultists and their treasure, the party found themselves at the nexus of a number of teleporters, and near a rather large and imposing hunting lodge.

Kunab summoned some small birds to spy the place out and the party determined(incorrectly, as it turned out) that the place was being run by cultists and rather ripe for the plunder. We weaseled our way inside and split the party to more speedily loot the place. Half the party(including my characters Kunab and Rama), went off to check out one of the rooms dominated by a large magic painting, while the other half went off to poison the lodge's food supply with sleeping elixir.

Kunab, Rama and the party's Paladin quickly found themselves on the wrong side of the tapestry which, much to their dismay, included exactly zero magically enchanted stags and one all day hike to rejoin the party.

The rest of the gang ended-up in a full-out brawl with the kitchen staff and then other denizens of the lodge, which they managed to survive.

Finally, towards the end of the day, the party was reunited and we got to meet the mistress of this lodge, Talis, a high-ranking, magically-inclined cultist. She immediately saw through our attempts to explain away the reduction in her staff but nevertheless hired us to sabotage the plans of her rival cultist.

Session X + 1

Gulliver and Laputa
Is the following session, Talis sent us after her rival's floating castle, which is being used to transport the hoard.

(On a side note, floating castles are one of the most popular trope's in fantasy literature. Their first appearance seems to be Laputa, from Gulliver's Travels, though even that seems to be inspired by the floating island of Aiolia from the Odyssey.)

In any case, the party made their way to this remote village near the floating castle, disguised as cultists with the pass-code to the castle. We quickly ended up in a fight to the death with the inhabitants of the local tavern.

Now here we had a misunderstanding. All the players had assumed the village was full of "civilians" not associated with the cultists. So, when they started actively trying to prevent us from leaving the bar, things quickly escalated.

DCC and VSOP, always a winning combination
Towards the end of the combat, the DM told us that, in fact, the village was entirely populated with cultists and that he had told us that already and it was our problem that none of the players had heard that detail. That may be true--we had a lot of info dumped on us at the start of the session, while leveling-up our PCs and I'm sure I missed at least half of it.

Now there is certainly something very Old School about that sort of "Gotcha" DM attitude. That said, I generally prefer a different approach. It's true that the DM should act as an oracle for the setting whenever players ask, but that isn't enough. I think it's also the DM's job to proactively correct player misunderstandings regarding setting details.

Many of our players have jobs and families and we only get together once or twice a month for a couple hours. None of us has the time to read about the setting on our own. Not only that, but our game sessions tend to be rather rushed, trying to fit as much as possible into 2 hours or so. So often times, the setup for a session occurs while ordering pizza, leveling-up characters, or communicating with players who are running late or trying to connect via video-chat. That being the case, the DM should keep an eye out for misunderstandings or missed information.

Of course, there's another side to that coin, that we, the players, also need to make sure and ask if something is unclear and to try and help the DM understand what we have missed.

In any case, the party eventually neutralized the denizens of the tavern, stole their magic mug of endless ale, and blended-in to the large cultist caravan, before we could be caught by the cultist Warden and his pet wyverns. Once we passed through the gates of the floating castle, we ended the session there...

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Old School Inspiration from The Man Eaters of Tsavo

Masai Warriors
In DnD, people often talk about sources of inspiration for the DM to craft his gaming world and the adventures therein. A more neglected topic, is the need for Player Inspiration i.e. materials to inspire players in playing their PC. That said, with the trend towards player-led action in general, and sandbox gaming in specific, I think this latter type of inspiration is of growing importance.

So with that in mind, I found some powerful player-inspiration in the appendix of Colonel John Patterson’s “The Man Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures”(1907). After recounting his many adventures while working as an Engineer building the railroad through the British East African frontier, Patterson begins the book’s appendix with some advice for Europeans organizing a gaming expedition in those territories. This practical guide from another era is fascinating and it looks like something straight out of some alternate player handbook. It gives a good idea of the sort of preparations the party would want to make before an extended search into the unknown, and could easily be used as an adventure hook for an actual RPG scenario set during that time period(perhaps as an alternate beginning for Masks of Nyarlathotep).


Col. Patterson
The good Colonel begins with the topic of weaponry:
The battery, to be sufficient for all needs, should consist of a .450 express, a .303 sporting rifle, and a 12-bore shot gun; and I should consider 250 rounds of .450 (50 hard and 200 soft), 300 rounds of .303 (100 hard and 200 soft), and 500 12-bore shot cartridges of say, the 6 and 8 sizes, sufficient for a three months' trip. Leather bandoliers to carry 50 each of these different cartridges would also prove very useful.
A couple of hundred rockets of various colours should certainly be taken, as they are invaluable for signalling to and from camp after dark. These can be obtained so as to fire from a 12-bore shot gun or from a short pistol, and some should always be left with the camp neopara (Headman) for use as occasion requires.

He then continues on with other assorted equipment:
The hunter's kit should include a good pith sunhat, a couple of suits of khaki, leather gaiters or a couple of pairs of puttees, wash-leather gloves to protect the hands from the sun, and two pairs of boots with hemp soles; long Norwegian boots will also be found very useful. The usual underclothing worn in England is all that is required if the shooting is to be done in the highlands. A good warm overcoat will be much appreciated up-country in the cool of the evenings, and a light mackintosh for wet weather ought also to be included. For use in rocky or thorny country, a pair of knee and elbow pads will be found invaluable, and those who feel the sun should also provide themselves with a spine-protector. The latter is a most useful article of kit, for although the air may be pretty cool, the sun strikes down very fiercely towards midday. A well-filled medicine chest should of course not be forgotten.
A good field glass, a hunting and skinning knife or two, and a Kodak with about 200 films should also be carried.

This goes on for a while:
As regards camp equipment, all that need be taken out from England are a small double-fly tent, three Jaeger blankets, a collapsible bath, a Wolseley valise, and a good filter; and even these can be obtained just as good locally. Chop boxes (food) and other necessary camp gear should be obtained at Mombasa or Nairobi, where the agents will put up just what is necessary. About a month before sailing from England a letter should be sent to the agents, stating the date of arrival and what porters, etc., will be required. The sportsman will then find everything ready for him, so that an immediate start may be made.


Patterson then gives advice on hirelings, paid in Rupees, of course(all of his Headmen, Gun-Bearers, and many of the workmen throughout the book are actually Indians who come by boat to work in British Africa for extended periods)
Unless money is no object, I should not advise anyone to engage porters at Mombasa, as equally good men can be obtained at Nairobi, thus saving 20 rupees per head in return railway fares. It must be remembered that for transport work men are infinitely preferable to donkeys, as the latter are exasperatingly slow and troublesome, especially on rough ground or on crossing streams, where every load has to be unpacked, carried over, and then reloaded on the animal's back. The caravan for one sportsman—if he intends going far from the railway—is usually made up as follows, though the exact numbers depend upon many considerations:

  1 Headman ................ 50 rupees[1] per month.
  1 Cook ................... 35    "         "
  1 Gun-bearer ............. 20    "         "
  1 "Boy" (personal servant) 20    "         "
  2 Askaris (armed porters). 12    "         "      each.
 30 Porters ................ 10    "         "      each.
[1] The rupee in British East Africa is on the basis of 15 to the pound sterling.

He then discusses, at length, wages (half are paid in advance), equipping hirelings, as well as how to pick good men for each role.

Alt Treasure

The next section is an English translation (from Pakistani) of the epic poem written by one of the workmen, in Patterson’s honor, upon his slaying of the second Man-Eater. The poem is very colorful, but too long to include here in full. One gets the impression that the poem is among the Colonel’s prize “possessions” from his time in Africa, along with the silver bowl his workmen had commissioned for the occasion, the new sub-species of Kudu(T. oryx pattersonianus) that Patterson discovered and was named after him, and of course, his many hunting trophies.

Excerpt from epic poem by Roshan mistari, son of Kadur mistari Bakhsh

I think there’s a lesson here for both players and DM. “Treasure” doesn’t have to be gold or magic items. Really, it is the adventures themselves that are most valuable. As such, the keepsakes that recall our adventures and the companions we shared them with are the possessions we most prize.

Colonial Map

Finally, like the best RPG products, Colonel Patterson finishes his book of with a very game-able map:

As a final note, I'll just point out that "The Man Eaters of Tsavo" is a great read, especially if you like Edgar Rice Burroughs' fiction. You can get it on project Gutenberg, but I prefer the PDF version which has pictures.