Stuffed Crocodile

Mazes, Martians, Mead

Terry Pratchett is dead

Terry Pratchett is dead.
I don’t think there is a single other author who had such an influence on me and my view of the world.
Scribner once said “Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” and so I think that he will live on, in a way, in all of us who spent part of their life in his books. And his books remain.

I hope that he will continue to change the people of this world for the better.

[Shadowrun] A Night’s Work (1990 Shadowrun Promo)

Action! Magic! Matrix! Cheesy CGI! Improbable 80s hairstyles! This one has it all!

[Shadowrun] Run 1.1: Speakeasies, Devil Rats, and lots of Pizza

So, we had our first session of Shadowrun 5th edition today. It was a bit of a surprise for me. I had the rules beforehand (only as a pdf though, which was hard to read from), but I did not actually plan to do anything with it. Then my players actually asked if we could play some. It seems they didn’t play the pen and paper game yet, but they did play Shadowrun Returns.
It went ok, I guess.

We did not actually get far, despite the fact that I consciously had my players choose archetypes from the books instead of creating characters by the priority system. But then it turned out that one of us had to go on a spontaneous business trip in the morning, and another had to be home earlier. So, we managed to get the meeting with the fixer, the meeting with the Johnson, a single fight, and some legwork in.
On the other hand we want to meet next week again, which would be a record for our group.
The group consisted of a Chinese Ork gunslinger with triad ties (the archetype from 4th edition), a covert ops specialist (also from 4th), a black dwarfish decker with an online persona modeled on the Ms. Marple novel (the archetype from 5th ed.), and an occult investigator with an alcohol problem (also from 5th). I considered properly converting the archetypes from 4th edition to 5th, and then realized that the ones from 5th edition are wrong anyway, so I just did some basic conversion stuff to be able to get going and left it at that (well, I calculated the limits for the characters). If they get hooked on the game I might be able to create proper characters with them, so far those were mostly just so I could show them what was possible.
I also made pizza and salad, and one of my players brought tiramisu brownies, so that should have helped keeping the mood up.
I should have studied the combat rules more intently. I wanted to do some test fights against some opponents, but in the end I did not have the time for that. And that was after I had a week more to grok everything. Basically I only grokked most of the rules on Thursday. We were supposed to play last Saturday but had to reschedule, so that was not possible. So, after another week I now felt able to do it properly. It was a partial success. The Shadowrun 5 rulebook is slightly obtuse.
The characters met up (the decker only as an icon) in a dingy pizza place in Seattle Downtown, some dive that mostly was kept alive as a front for the owner’s fixer business. In a sort of emergent gameplay the characters all ordered a pizza and demanded to see the manager, which we established was the way to get an audience with the fixer. We soon came to the conclusion that that this also was the only reason why this place made any money to begin with.
The owner, a huge ogre called Mario, told them about a job. They were to meet their Johnson in The Speakeasy, a 1920s styled bar with some period-appropriate backrooms, and some less period-appropriate jukeboxes in the entrance hall. Hey, its all 20th century, ain’t it?
The Johnson was a mousy type who clearly was nervous. The job was simple: a datasteal from a small soda factory in Tacoma. The runners even managed to fret out the guys motivation, which either means I was playing the role really well, or just way too transparent.
After a few initial investigations the runners met at some dive bar in Redmond (The Crash) the occult investigator knew. She knew the bartender and asked if they could use the attic. Sure, the bartender said, if you don’t mind the rats. They did, but they agreed to take care of the rat problem, found out that the Ms. Marple-like icon they met at their fixer was actually a tough black dwarf, and then tried to take care of the rat problem.
And here I encountered the problem that I A) underestimated how tough devil rats are and B) did not completely figure out the combat system until 3 rounds in.
The combat took longer than expected, especially because I had to revise the rules constantly.
It took me nearly the first round before I noticed that yes, devil rats have a physical limit of 3, so they actually can’t have more than three successes in unarmed combat and defense rolls, even though I nearly burned a hole into the table with my successes.
The players on the other hand rolled mud. Most rolls they had did not even hit enough to start hurting the rats, and the ones that did glitched out at the same time. In the end it took 3 rounds until the decker finally managed to hit one of them by sheer luck. Two of the rats were finally killed by a spirit the occult investigator summoned, and that more because I couldn’t find the rules for spirits and did not want to bog down the game too much. Also I wanted to get on with things and at least I did roll successes for the spirit.
So then they had some planning and some legwork. After a short planning session one of them went out again to investigate further, he broke into an nearly abandoned property next to the factory and did some reconnaissance.
And then we had to stop.

Lets see what next week brings.

I remembered again what I liked about the game back when I played it more often, around 2000. The adventures are easy to do, the system is maybe not intuitive but easy to understand, and the background allows people to do a lot with their character. The world is just close enough for them to get into their roles properly, but far enough to have some really great worldbuilding in the game.

25. Lodz International Festival of Comics and Games

So yesterday my wife[1] and me went to the International Festival of Comics and Games in Lodz (Międzynarodowy Festiwal Komiksu w Łodzi).

Yes, there is an international comics and games con in Lodz, but don’t get your hopes up, it wasn’t really that international. Actually, the most international thing about it was that Alan Grant was there, and he was the only guest who wasn’t from Poland itself. Oh, and I myself was skulking through the trade floor, so I guess I count as well.

I was in one of the earlier editions of the con a few years ago (2009?) and actually liked it back then. Since then they moved to a new, bigger location and got themselves an additional focus on games. It used to be only a comic con. The focus on games? Mostly video games. It was rather impressive actually. It now is held in the Atlas Arena in Lodz and the whole floor was full with computers and consoles, while the panels were in conference rooms underneath.

There was more than just comics and video games there though, Lego had displays, and there were a few board game companies that had their stalls. Most of the traders dealt in comics though, both used and new, and of course in the usual fan paraphernalia.

One particular shop had really good rates on American comics, basically giving them away for 2/3rds of what they normally cost (they had a 1$=2pln exchange rate). Unfortunately it was, as so often, kind of hard to still find something after the whole of Lodzian comic fans already went through their stock.

I did not actually get to any of the panels, but some of my friends who did were not really that impressed. Although they did get free comics out of that, so there is that. (this one among others actually, which is a mix-up of The Shadow with Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth; cheeky).

One thing that surprised me was the amount of Polish comic publishers. There were a lot of them there, selling their stuff, and sometimes rather obscure stuff as well. My wife found herself some mangas and some Polish indie comic, while I managed to get what was most likely the only German RPG product in the whole building. I actually wonder how that particular book made it there considering that the product line isn’t even so popular in Germany (it’s a monster book for the high fantasy setting for Das Schwarze Auge, written as a travelogue). Now of course I have to find the rest of the more recent Myranor stuff somewhere. My collection is lagging behind.

All in all a nice change of scenery, but it lacked focus. It would have been better if it was just comics, or just games, but like that it was a bit bland.

[1] if you were wondering why I didn’t post in ages: I got married, and Jesus Christ the amount of stuff and things to do and documents to get for an international couple is just crazy. I felt like going mad sometimes. It actually reminded me of this classic movie scene.

Review: Whose Body?

Whose Body?
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nervous architect Mr. Thipps had the unpleasant surprise of finding a dead gentleman wearing nothing but a pince-nez in his bathtub. At the same time a famous financier of roughly the same description has been found to have disappeared from his own bedroom.
Could this be the same person? As it turns out: no.
Still, there are some very curious elements in these cases that seem to overlap in strange ways. The first case is investigated by Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocrat with the rather unbecoming hobby of investigating crime, the latter by his friend Inspector Parker. They soon come to the conclusion that both cases are somehow linked, and start investigating a dastardly crime.

This is the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and it is evident why there would be sequels. It is without a doubt a strong story, quite gruesome in parts, and in others oddly whimsical [hehe]. The novels have been written during the 20s and 30s, and so actually by now are a sort of historical document of criminology (or at least mystery novels) in addition to being good yarns. Wimsey himself is more fleshed out as a character than other, similar copycats would later be. A shellshocked veteran of WWI, Cambridge graduate, gourmet and bibliophile, he easily puts on a mask of an aristocratic buffon whenever he finds it necessary to further his goals. Not that his natural state is so much less of an ass. Sometimes you just want to hit him in the face. I guess it is the sign of a good author that she can create a character that one can both despise and root for at the same time.
Later books developed his character further, and into more positive directions, but this book is already rather enjoyable. If there is one thing that bugs me it is the ending. Without spoiling too much, it was just too neat, too easy in the end. There is absolutely no doubt who did it, because the police caught the perpetrator just as he was writing a detailed explanation of what he had done and how.

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Review: The Chinese Maze Murders

The Chinese Maze Murders
The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert van Gulik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Judge Dee novels by Robert van Gulik are a strange beast. The author was in the Dutch diplomatic service in Asia during WWII and decided to translate an old Chinese mystery novel based on stories of the historical Judge Dee Renjie. (the Tang-era personality still is well-known in China, there have been two high-end movies and multiple TV series based on the same character within the last decade or so).
The original book, the Dee Gong An, was written by an anonymous author in 17th century Ming-dynasty China, and recounted three cases as they were solved by the main character and his assistants.
After this translation saw some success on the market van Gulik decided to try his hand on writing mysteries in the same style as the original book, which makes this book, and all of the 14 or so that followed, basically fanfiction.
Rather good fanfiction though, and some that captures ancient China in a way that it hardly has been before or after in the west. Robert van Gulik was a noted Sinologist, and he seemed to go out of his way to let his knowledge shine through, even if the structure of the novel was slightly westernized. (traditional Chinese mysteries had a Columbo-style reverse Whodunit format, where the murderer is known from the beginning).

The Chinese Maze Murders is one of the earlier books in the series, and very closely follows the model set by the original book, but allows for some deviations. One of these is the framing narrative which has a Ming-dynasty gentleman writing down a story related by someone he met in a wineshop. Which explains why this story has the social conventions of the Ming Dynasty instead of the Tang Dynasty, and all other historical inaccuracies. (cute, but a bit bothersome; van Gulik would later fade out this part of his narrative structure, after it became more and more bothersome to use it).
It also has a slightly cumbersome beige prose format, which takes getting used to. This is a direct holdover from the original novel, which tried to related things like a true crime account/court document than a western novel. This also would be abandoned in later novels.

Judge Dee has just been assigned to the far off border province of Fan Lan when he already has to deal with a few mysteries and a political powder keg: a local strongman has taken over the city by bribery and force and killed at least one previous magistrate, a widow relates the story of a weird testament to him, a girl has disappeared, and a retired general has been murdered in his own locked study. The judge and his assistants go on doing their jobs trying to unravel these mysteries at the same time.

It is this interconnectedness of the cases which makes these novels so interesting. A judge/magistrate in ancient China often had his hands full with things and could not just leave one case lie around while he cared about the others.
And so one case might be solved, but in it’s wake leave an even bigger mystery.

In my opinion this is a perfect little gem of a book. Later books in the series varied the formula towards a more westernized form of storytelling, but in this book we have something that both provides a look at normal life in ancient China, and a good mystery story.

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Review: Starfighters of Adumar

Starfighters of Adumar
Starfighters of Adumar by Aaron Allston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One thing that is very noticeable is that the situation the protagonists get thrown in in this book is suspiciously specific for their skillsets. Adumar is a slightly backwards world that has just contacted the New Republic and would be open for negotiations. There is one small problem though: they don’t want to negotiate with career politicians, they only will accept starfighter pilots as negotiators.
And so Wedge Antilles and a few others from Rogue Squadron end up on Adumar and have to deal with a lot of culture clash and cloak and dagger espionage business. It turns out that Adumar is actually a balkanised world and that they only were contacted by the most powerful nation there, that the Imperials were contacted at the same time and now are competing with them, and that the Adumari are not only fond of starfighter pilots, they are obsessed with them. And with honor. And with honorable feuds to the death. In one of the funniest sequences in the book our heroes are on a stake out when someone else sneaks in and wants to use the same hiding place.

At one point during the later part of the novel our pilot heroes are so fed up with this world and their idea of honorable combat that they’d like to tell them to screw themselves and just go home. But they are our heroes, and so of course they don’t and save the day instead.

The novel is not exactly Shakespeare, but it is definitely one of the better Star Wars novels out there. It is fun to read, the worldbuilding is impressive for Star Wars (remember, this is the franchise that gave us such interesting locales as a desert planet, a swamp planet, a city planet, and a Northern Italy planet), and it works as a coherent story on its own.

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Review: The Compleat Traveller in Black

The Compleat Traveller in Black
The Compleat Traveller in Black by John Brunner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Somehow I expected a bit more of this one. It was enjoyable, yes, and the setting was something not seen too often (King later used a similar setting for his Dark Tower series), but all in all it was a bit too flowery in its’ prose and too skimpy on actual plot.
Well, technically it is a collection of short stories, although the way they are presented makes them appear more like an actual novel. There is a sense of continuity between different stories. One element from one story will for sure appear in the next, and stories harken back to earlier ones without explanation. Also there is a continuing exploration of the main character’s quest.
So, more of a novel then.
It follows the travels of the Traveller in Black who has many names but only one nature, as he travels through a surreal world that seems to be neither here nor there and definitely not really our past or future, trying to bring order to chaos.
His gimmick is that he grants wishes and will do so in the most unexpected and ironic ways possible, sometimes to his own deep regret
It might be interesting to note that this book, similar to The Lord of the Rings, is about the loss of magic. The continuing quest of the Traveller is one that causes the magic to go away and slowly transforms the brutish world he inhabits into something rational, but ultimately more survivable. Where the early stories are very much in the vein of Sword and Sorcery, with gory human sacrifices and questionable morals, later stories more and more evoke a more civilized society.

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Day 3: In which I slowly learn that buying Forgotten Realms is like pissing away money

Day 3: First dungeon you explored as a PC or ran as a DM.
Hmm… my memories here are a bit foggy. I think it was either the first dungeon from the Starter Set or the one from the Forgotten Realms campaign setting box. The first one was nice, the latter taught me that FR is horrible.

No, come to think of it, it was the one from the FR set actually. (from the book on Shadowdale in the boxed set: “Beneath the Twisted Tower”)

The Forgotten Realms seemed to be a good idea at the time. Most of the material that was translated at all was set there, if it wasn’t generic, and the boxed set was one of the first products then-current AD&D publisher Amigo translated into German.

Of course once I actually read the whole thing I noticed what a strangely incoherent place the Realms really were. In my youthful ignorance I thought it might play better than it actually looked on paper, but soon after I noticed that no, sometimes you can’t polish a turd.

I don’t even know anymore what exactly made me think that way, there were so many things wrong with it in many subtle ways. Political systems didn’t fit together, cultures were in weird places in relation to each other, sometimes expies for Earth-cultures were doubled or tripled (how many Egyptian cultures are there actually on Faerun?), and everything was full of overpowered showstealing munchkin NPCs.
I ran the guys through the dungeon in Shadowdale and killed off one of them. Hilarious antics followed.

Well. I don’t know. The problem was that the Realms never clicked with me.
I did buy a few more products afterwards, but never really used them. I suffered from a bit of scarcity-induced gamblers’ fallacy: I already spent so much money on stuff, lets try to buy some more to get something out of it! And the fact that the only things I could get for AD&D were Forgotten Realms things didn’t help.
It never got better though. The Harpers sourcebook showed me that there are even more showstealing NPCs around, the Cult of the Dragon was bland like cottage cheese, only the Guide to the Underdark gave me some ideas for some fancy monster lairs. I think that one was the only one I ever used, and then it was for a campaign set in Mystara.
FR kept on being bland and untinteresting and pointless. Oh, but the computer games were a bit of fun. I played Baldurs Gate and a few of the SSI games.

Hmm… I guess that was not what people want to hear. On the other hand I killed my first PC in that scenario, but that is a story for another day.

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Day 2: Oh no, I created munchkins

Hmm.. I noticed that I might be kind of weird in this blog hop. I actually decided to post all the questions and answers in seperate entries. Most of the other participants just seem to do the whole thing in one batch. Me? I am using this as an excuse to actually post a lot more than I have been doing the last year or so. Small entries might not be so great, but at least I can get them out quicker than those I write on for ages and then don’t publish. There is one which I want to publish tomorrow that has been laying in my drafts since January last year!

Day 2: First person YOU introduced to D&D? Which edition? THEIR first character?

Did anyone else notice that some people in this blog hop are kind of weirdly focussed on the edition thing? Seperating AD&D and D&D and for some reason starting with 3rd edition it’s something completely else.

Not that I like 4th edition, but I don’t doubt that it’s D&D. On the other hand neither do I doubt that of Pathfinder, Labyrinth Lord, or any of the retroclones, so there is that.
The people I introduced to D&D first were my friends Achim and Julian. Horrible munchkins the both of them, which is why they both ran multiclassed human Fighter/Mages in AD&D 2nd edition, houseruled in by their Monty Haul GM. Which was, uhm, me.

Ok, I admit, I should have read the combat rules better. They managed to talk me into strange situations in-game and were a on a power trip. They managed to conquer an island (empty, well, after they killed the gnomes that lived there, but what did they care? They wanted to grow weed on it) around 5th level. That was when we decided to retire them and start over with a bigger group.

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