Saturday, February 26, 2011

John Jakes Brand of Sword & Sorcery

John Jakes is best known for his historical fiction, prominently his Kent Family Chronicles and his North and South trilogy; however, before he gained fame for his historical fiction, he was best known for his Sword & Sorcery stories.

Born in Chicago IL March 31, 1932, Jakes sold his first stories to pulp magazines. It was his character Brak the Barbarian that first brought him to my attention.

First off, I want to admit that it was not until recently that I read a single John Jakes story. I was ignorant of his contributions. It was through my gaining interest in Lin Carter in 2010 that I Jakes even came across my radar. Prior to reading about him while researching Carter, I passed him off as a historical novelist that held no interest for me. Ironically, he is my father-in-law's favorite author for his North and South Trilogy.

When Lin Carter formed the Swordsmen and Sorcerers Guild of America (S.A.G.A.) in the 1960's, John Jakes was included in the roll-call amongst fantasy greats such as Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Andre Norton, Jack Vance and of course Carter himself. Other then being a loose-knit social club with a drinking agenda, Carter set forth to publish the works of the founding members in the Flashing Swords anthologies. Later on other authors were added to the roll-call, C.J. Cherryh, Katherine Kurtz, Tanith Lee and Roger Zelazny just to name a few.

The premise of S.A.G.A. was a love and respect for the fantasy sub-genre of Sword & Sorcery tales first made popular by Robert E. Howard's Conan, Kull and Dark Agnes stories. Thus S.A.G.A. was a club for like minded authors that shared an enthusiasm for tales of blood, guts, honor, mystery and adventure.

By the 1960's, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was gaining massive popularity. Riding the coat tails of this popularity was a new found love for the Conan yarns of REH. Conan was most likely saved from obscurity by the editorship of L. Sprague de Camp in the Gnome Press hard cover editions of Howard's tales. Later, Lancer publications would join with more affordable paper back editions and Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyberg would join de Camp as co-conspirators. Some fans have never forgiven the three of them for "finishing" many of Howard's unpublished tales and converting non-Conan tales into Conan tales; however, in my opinion, if they had not done these things, perhaps Sword & Sorcery would not have survived Howard's death. At least, not with the popularity which Conan did, eventually spawning popular comics with Marvel and leading to the making of a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Because of the Conan popularity "boom" of the 60's and 70's, it was not uncommon to see many titles featuring a "Clonan" type character and bearing the inscription: in the tradition of Conan. It was these sorts of stories that Jakes set out to write with his Brak the Barbarian tales.

I'm not sure when and to whom Jakes sold his first Brak the Barbarian tale, but according to Lin Carter, Jakes began writing Brak tales in 1963 and sold most of the earliest to the Ziff-Davis magazine Fantastic. The cover to the left is from the 1980 Tower publication of Brak the Barbarian. In its introduction, Jakes states that the title of the first Brak story was "Devils in the Walls" and he also freely admits that it was "...a Howard pastiche". Brak the Barbarian was Jakes first of five collections of Brak stories and first saw print in 1968 with Avon Publishing. It is currently out of print and it took much haunting of used book stores for me to acquire a copy.

I was curious about them for Lin Carter stated his admiration of them more then once. I respect and follow Carter's recommendations; after all, the man was the editor of the fabulous Ballentine Adult Fantasy series, which I have not yet read a bad volume of.

Brak the Barbarian proved to me that Carter's opinion is not infallible. I did not hate the book, but it was not worth the time it took me to find a copy. Brak is a collection of five stories: "The Unspeakable Shrine", "Flame-Face", "The Courts of the Conjurer" , "Ghosts of Stone" and "The Barge of Souls". The edition pictured above that I read is illustrated by Thomas O. Miller, whose art I am unfamiliar with. The stories are loosely connected in the sense that they are sequential, but they could easily be read separately. I gained the sense that Jakes performed much post-editing in an attempt to join them into a weak serial.

In this book, Brak has recently left his home in the north for the fabled land of Khurisdan based upon a flimsy notion that he is destined to do so. In each of the five stories, our hero - who differs from Conan because he has blond hair kept in a braid, and always wears his lion skin pelt (how did a barbarian from the north come across a lion skin pelt?) - in each story he encounters adventure. In the opening story "The Unspeakable Shrine" he does battle with an ancient evil sorcerer named Septegundis and the sorcerer's evil daughter Ariane; both worship the evil Yob-Haggoth. He defeats them, but it is promised that Septegundis and he shall meet again, perhaps in Khurisdan or before. Four more adventures follow and the fifth ends with Brak continuing his journey to Khurisdan.

I expected Brak to be a Clonan. With that I take no umbrage; however, the lack of originality was banal. These stories are in the vein of Conan with Lovecraft imagery thrown in for spice, but they read like the poorest of pastiche. I am not against Conan pastiche. I used to read lots of them in my younger reading years and every now and then I get a yearning to buy one at a used book store, check my brain at the door and read for pure pleasure. They are perhaps a guilty pleasure for me, but I stopped feeling guilty long ago. In hopes that the Brak stories grow stronger, not weaker, I will probably continue to look for them. At the very least, they read quickly. This one was great "airplane" fodder. I like books I can read in entirety on a two or three hour flight, and this one fit the bill.

A much more enjoyable read by Jakes is Mention My Name in Atlantis, 1972 Daw SF Books. From the back cover blurb:

The continent of Atlantis had troubles enough before Conax the Barbarian washed ashore. The king was on his last legs, his generals were plotting, there were those scary lights in the sky, and Hoptor the Vintner's favorite girl was being put up for auction on the slave block.

Then Conax, the self-styled king of Chimeria - a place nobody ever heard of - turned up at the auction with broadsword, his barbaric manners, and his hair-triggered temper.

John Jakes, author of Brak the Barbarian and many fast-moving novels of past and future, has written an uproarious cliffhanger that even Robert E. Howard would have approved...not to mention his legion of readers.

This book was as entertaining as its blurb led it to sound. It clocks in at 142 pages and reads in its entirety easily on a long afternoon sitting, or again on a two or three hour flight. I actually read this novel prior to Brak, and based upon it, I had higher hopes for Brak. In Atlantis, Jakes sets out to satirize the numerous volumes of Howard pastiche that were being published at the time. Note his dedication:

To the memory of the real Robert E. Howard who has been kept spinning in his grave for the last decade by the new antics of his favorite character's overactive ghost, not to mention his busy and admiring imitators.

Jakes' attempt makes for an enjoyable read. It is obvious from the get go that Jakes is even making fun of himself here. Note his description of Conax the Chimerical:

he was young with eyes of brighter blue...A mane of yellow hair reached well below his shoulders.

"Yellow hair", just like Jakes' own creation Brak. I liked Conax, perhaps because I am a fan of Conan pun characters such as Groo the Wanderer; however, it is the main character Hoptor the Vinter that is the real entertainment. Hoptor is a weasel always one step ahead of the law and his creditors. He makes his living by brokering deals, in fact his name is his livelihood. he often gets himself out of a sticky situation by convincing others that he can get them a great deal if they visit X merchant and "mention my name" (hence the title).

Based upon the enjoyability factor of Mention my Name in Atlantis, while I may or may not be done with Brak tales, I am not done with John Jakes.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Enemy Within Sessions 3, 4 and 5 Report (WFRP)

I did a quasi report of sessions 3 and 4 previously, but am reposting them here. Also, One of my players posted a report of session three

Session Three:
Session 3 was our first evening with no combat. There was actually minimal rolling of the dice. After the action heavy session 2, this was a nice change of pace. The players dug into the meat of the investigation itself and moved things along nicely. There were only three players for this session. Our new player was once again a no-show, and was for session 4 as well. We have not heard from him and at this point, I've ruled his character on official "Red-Shirt" status. Our out of town player was having technical difficulties and was thus unable to Skype in.

Session Four:
Session 4 was a different beast. We were up to what I now consider full-force, our out of town player was able to Skype in.

Having followed many clues to their conclusion, the bulk of session 4 was spent at a quickened pace. Their investigations from session 3 and a few more leads that the players followed up on in the beginning of session 4 brought them to the conclusion that a butcher by the name of Emil Stark was holding Hannah hostage. Moving at a break neck pace, they arrived at the final confrontation with Emil, whom they killed, and two beasts of chaos, one of which was Hannah the poor missing daughter of the butcher Herr Fleischer - Emil had been feeding her chaos infected sausages and the second was a missing noble rake named Rudi who had also been horribly mutated by Stark.

During the final battle, Gottfried received a critical wound to his left hand, courtesy of a crossbow bolt fired at him by a niggling little street thug named Dirty Dan (truth be told, I don't know if I ever revealed his name to the players - BAD GM! BAD!).

The group first encountered Dan in session one. He offered to take them to an inn that was sure to have open rooms for a mere two pence and instead led them into an ambush of thugs. They encountered him by chance in a tavern during session three. They were hoping for some payback, but Dan eluded them yet again. I had decided that I would give them one more chance at revenge.

It was called out in the adventure, "Sing for Your Supper" that their main antagonist, Emil Stark, was to have a lackey on hand awaiting to ambush them. I arraigned for this lackey to be good-old "I'll do anything for two-bits" Dan. When they arrived at the ambush sight, I rolled a secret Perception test for each player. None of them passed. Dan fired his loaded crossbow at Gottfried. I rolled a "10" for damage, re-rolled Dan's Ballistic Skill and confirmed the critical hit. A total of 15 points of damage was dealt to Gottfried's left hand. Gottfried passed his test to remain conscious and delivered the groups' final vengeance upon Dirty Dan.

They did not deal with the chaos mutations. Instead, they turned Hannah over to her father and the mutated Rudi, Gottfried reported his circumstance to the Cult of Sigmar who dealt with him. This occurred only after they considered burning half of the city down to take out one mutant. Our group has a history of burning cities down.

All of the above happened in session four. I ended the session leaving Gottfried's player in suspense. I didn't do this just to be cruel, that was only a small part of the reason, the main reason was I had just re-read some interesting optional rules on Barber-Surgeons and wanted to make use of those rules.

In the end, despite the fact that the girl and her father were given the final mercy by Shallyan Priests, they received their promised reward of 25 gold crowns, quite a small fortune.

Session Five:

Play action was picked up the morning following the events of session four. My first order of business was determining the fate of Brother Gottfried, Initiate of Sigmar.

I ended session 4 leaving Gottfried's player in suspense. I didn't do this just to be cruel, that was only a small part of the reason, the main reason was I had just re-read some interesting optional rules on Barber-Surgeons and wanted to make use of those rules. I did so in the beginning of session five, and they were entertaining. I was merciful by ruling that Gottfried had spent a pain filled evening at the Cult of Sigmar where they had made it a point to clean and dress the wound. This ensured that he wouldn't have to deal with the nastiness of infection. It also allowed his Fortune Point Pool to replenish.

For those that don't know Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay that well, each character has a number of Fortune Points that he can use each game day. One of these can be spent to re-roll a bad dice roll, and for a few other things as well. The number of a character's fortune points is determined by his Fate Points. Fate Points are spent to avoid death. They are not a "get out of jail free card", meaning, if a player is forced to spend a fate point to pull his bacon out of the fire, it probably means he may have been dealt a deadly critical wound. Crits are deadly in WFRP and can often result in neat new nick names like "Lefty", "One-Eyed Jack", or "Crutch". It is a grim and perilous world.

Thus, having the Barber-Surgeon appear the next day was a great boon for Gottfried. All turned out well for the initiate. The surgery was performed by an old bone-saw that had seen much action in the Imperial Army.

I let five game days pass. This allowed Gottfried some much needed healing time and it gave the characters an opportunity to spend some of the 25 gold crowns they had been paid. Willow the halfling took advantage of this, and had some new armor tailored to fit her small frame. The elven Wizard's Apprentice replenished his stock of magical components, which included some time spent trying to catch fire-flies. Bartloff, being the good protagonist he is (read "Asshole for Hire") went looking for trouble and easy coin.

Trouble he found, along with an offer to make much more money then he'd ever dreamed. He met a fellow protagonist named Rudolf (yes, he had a red nose) that after Rudolf challenged Bartolf to fight, in which Bartolf gave as good as he got, he told him that his boss, one Three-Fingered Willy, was looking to hire a few blokes for a dirty job. Rudolf gave no details, he only stated it involved busting some heads and that it would pay 100 GC for each participant. He also mentioned that if Bartolf knew a few blokes that were looking to make some coin, he could get them in on the deal. The job was to happen in a few days time.

The next night, a thief that had been secretly following Willow around after seeing her pay for new armor, tried to rob them. The players had opted to get themselves a private room instead of staying in the common room that they were previously. Willow awoke to find the thief trying to steal her purse while she slept and she alerted the other characters to the situation. They easily overcame him in a short pursuit. The thief had nothing of value on him but some lock-picks and a dagger. He was also carrying a note with a leaf motif that had one word upon it: "Malindi". Bartolf then shocked Willow with how he dealt with the thief. His solution was to tie the thief's hands behind his back and throw him out the window, where he fell upon his head, snapping his neck.

A couple of nights later, the characters met Rudolf and Three-Fingered Willy and were given more details about the job. The job consisted of raiding a place called The Asylum. The Asylum is a complex that three separate gangs use as a hide-out: the Schatzenheimer's, the Valatina's and the Huyderman's. Three-Fingered Willy is a prominent member of the Schatzenheimer Gang. He has the backing of over half of the gang behind him and he is looking to depose the current gang leader Kurt Volger. Three-Fingered Willy is being bank rolled by Alphonse Oldenhaller, the younger brother of Counciller Albrecht Oldenhaller who is a successful merchant of Nuln.

Alphonse hopes that with a newly organized Schatzenheimer gang on his side, that he can take his older brother's place as head of the Oldenhaller Merchant Family. Also, Alphonse had hired the Schatzenheimer gang to acquire an item for him. Smelling more money then what was offered, Volger has been refusing to turn the item over. Willy was made it a point to not tell them what the item was.

Willy's plan was, he had a majority of the Schatzenheimer gang willing to back him. His "boys" were to be in the hide out that evening, with Volger and a much smaller number of Volger's supporters. Willy had arraigned for the bulk of Volger's supporters to be out that night doing a job, which they were not to return from until early in the morning hours. Willy and Rudolf were going to lead the characters into the hide out where they and Willy's supporters on the inside, would slaughter Volger and his boys. When Volger's other supporters returned in the morning, they would set up an ambush, giving them two choices: accept Willy in charge, or die.

The characters were of course suspicious, but the lure of a king's ransom in gold helped them overcome their doubts. When they arrived at the Schatzenheimer's den, it was obvious that someone had beaten them to the punch. All of the Schatzenheimers were dead. The Valantina Gang had killed them leaving calling cards on the corpses that read: "Congratulations, you have just met the Valantina Anti-Personnel Crew". The characters noticed that the leaf motif on the calling cards, matched the leaf motif they had found on the body of the thief that had tried to rob them. After searching, Willy announced that the item that they were to retrieve from Kurt Volger was missing.

Willy stated that he had to report this to Alphonse Oldenhaller. He asked to characters to enter the Valantina hide out and retrieve the item. An argument occurred at the end of which Willy offered to increase their payment to 150 GC's and he was forced to tell them what the item looked like: a small lead box fixed to a chain, the lead box has a single coin in it, and it should remain inside the box. Rudolf also informed them that the calling card they had found upon the thief was most likely the Valantina's current password.

The agreed to the terms and proceeding forward, they used the password, Malindi, to gain entrance to the Valantina hideout. There, they managed to pass themselves off as stevedores. After posing as stevedores, they managed to gain an audience with the leader of the Valantina gang: Emilio Valantina; however, someone had managed to sneak into Emilo's room and behead him. They found his headless body, no head was found, nor was anything found that matched the description of the item they were sent to retrieve. A trail of blood led to a book shelf and ended. After a short search, they discovered a hidden door behind the bookshelf.

That is where play ended, session 6 will pick up in action.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Today's Find at the Hobby Shop

After many years of haunting ebay and after being outbid more times then I can remember, I walked into my hobby shop today. Not believing my eyes, I pinched myself to assure I was indeed awake, I spied a copy of WFRP Empire in Flames on the shelf.

For those that don't know, EiF is part five of the classic Enemy Within Campaign. It was published by Games Workshop many moons ago. Fans received it, and Something Rotten in Kislev - the volume preceding it, poorly. While Shadows over Bogenhafen, Death on the Reik and The Power Behind the Throne (the Enemy Within parts one, two and three respectively) were all applauded, most found the final two installments lacking.

I've run SoB and DotR, plus I've been a player in the Enemy Within up through PBtT. I own and have read SRiK. Up until now, I've never had the opportunity to read Empire.

I'm sad to say, while all the pages are there, there are loose pages in the beginning and end; however, the price I paid reflected the damage. I paid $40 and I've routinely seen this book online with a $99 price tag. So overall, I'm happy with the price I paid.

I'm looking forward to finally being able to form my own opinion on the concluding chapter of the Enemy Within.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Today's Score: Pathfinder

While about town running errands for work, I noticed there were not too many cars parked in front of my local Borders Books Store which is closing soon. I previously mentioned that I had stopped there over the past weekend in hopes of snagging a copy of Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook; however, I was not willing to spend an hour plus in line for only 20% off cover price.

It was near time for my lunch break anyway, so I rolled the dice and went in. SCORE! There was still one copy left. I bought it, then later was angry when I realized I could have purchased a copy from Amazon for $7 cheaper, and had free shipping, GRRRRR, but at least I have a copy.

I've only had a bit of time to flip through it and I intend on giving it a thorough read before making any solid comments; however, I must say, this is one large handsome book. I've contemplated picking up a copy before, but being a cheap-skate, I always talk myself out of it. I am familiar with Paizo products, as I have a subscription to their Planet Stories line of books. With each shipment, they include a brief catalog describing their products. More then once, after breezing through their product listings, I have been tempted to buy this.

I've been playing the world's most popular roleplaying game for 28 years. In that time, I've seen no less then five new editions. I cut my teeth on this guy:

From there I moved onto Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Oddly enough, I never really made the conversion to second edition. I bought many of the products (modules, campaign settings, etc.), but found so little difference from 1st and 2nd, that I never purchased a rulebook beyond the Players Handbook until years later when I found a copy of the DM guide in a used bookstore. I never had a problem mixing Basic with Advanced (both 1st and 2nd edition) and it never occurred to me that I shouldn't. My next graduation step was to:

During my high school and college years, the Rules Cyclopedia was my go-to gamer's bible. The largest attraction to it for me was the fact that everything I needed to play was between two covers: players section? Check (levels 1 to 36. 36 for Christ's Sake! Who has time or patience to level their character that high?). Game Masters section? Check. Magic Items? Check. Spells? Check. Monster Manual? Check. Brief Description of The Known World? Check. It had it all.

It was these same attributes that initially attracted me to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (first edition). I've always had a thing for "all-in-one-books". That was my initial reason for liking GURPS (3rd edition) and Tunnels and Trolls (5th edition).

When a third edition of D&D was announced for 2000, I initially said "pass". I saw no reason to change. I had been happy with the same old D&D for nearly 17 years. Why would I want to buy all new books? I've always been resistant to "brighter, shinier, newer". I don't get involved in the flame wars that erupt on rpg forums over this issue, in my opinion "edition wars" are one of the lowest forms of nerdage, but I do resist them for one reason: I'm cheap. My cheapness has kept me from buying GURPS 4th edition and T&T 7/7.5. Hey, if it ain't broke (or at least easily fixed) why would I buy a new edition of anything. Heck, I drive a 96 F-150 for two reasons: it runs and it's paid for.

I'm not against others who do enjoy the latest edition of any game that I enjoy and I even sometimes do choose to "upgrade". I did so with WFRP 2nd edition (the current edition I play) and I even purchased the huge, expensive box that is WFRP 3rd edition (I have never played it, and plan on writing more about that on a later date). Tenkar, over at Tenkar's Tavern, even almost has me convinced to give T&T 7.5 a go.

Back to my path to Pathfinder (pun intended), I did eventually try D&D 3; although, I did so kicking and screaming at the request of my gaming group at the time. Despite my doubts, I liked it. I did not like it enough to purchase 3.5 just a few short years later. Again, I did not see the point.

It was for that reason that I was hesitant to buy Pathfinder. From my understanding, PF is a re-working of the 3.5 rules set. Why would I want that? I knew there were problems with 3rd, I'd encountered them myself, and I'd heard of the problems with 3.5; however, I've read mostly positive things about PF and from what I've read, it seems that many of the problems with 3rd and 3.5 have been addressed. I was still resistant though, as there are many great retro-clones available (many for free, my favorite price being the cheap skate I am), not to mention, I still have my old reliable Rules Cyclopedia.

The only good reasons I have are, I can't resist a good sale (even though I could have gotten it cheaper, grumble, grumble) and I'm curious what all the hub-bub is about. I'm not an active part of the OSR. I enjoy it, and originally I started this blog because I though I wanted to be a part of the energy, but frankly, the arguments over which edition is better get tiresome (on both sides of the fence). I have not ever tried 4th edition D&D, and therefore I can not say anything negative about it. In my mind, it is the old New Coke versus Classic Coke battle. I'm a Classic Coke guy, but I can't even really use that example, because I've never tried 4th ed. while I'm sure I did have at least one can of New Coke. 4th edition is confusing to me. I'm not sure what products I would even need, but the nostalgic gamer in me has eyed the Red Box reminiscent of the Monte Cook edition of Basic D&D.

So I have this 500 plus page book of geeky goodness. I'm not sure if I will ever play it, but I do intend on giving it a fair shake.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Lack of time for Geekdom, Harry Potter and Border's Bad Business Practices

I haven't had much time for blogging as of late. I tried to make up for that today. I still have part two of my Lin Carter series to finish up, plus a couple planned posts exploring Gilgamesh, Beowolf, The Odyssey and The Iliad as precursors to the genre of fantasy. I also have a few reviews of Phoenix Barony products to post, along with updates to my reading lists.

While I've had time to read the subjects at hand, home repairs/remodels and family business have ate into much of my time. I've been concentrating my "geek time" on preparations for my WFRP "The Enemy Within Campaign". On a side note, I've become once again engrossed with jig-saw puzzles. A good jig-saw puzzle to me is just as engaging as a great book. Both keep me up at night. I have also been rejuvenating my interest in painting miniatures as well and hope to post more on that soon (with pictures).

On the TV/Movies angle of my geekdom, I've been slogging though Conan: The Adventurer and I've been watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand. I didn't expect to enjoy Spartacus as much as I have, but have found it enjoyable. At this point, only three episodes in, I would describe it as 300 on Viagra with an unhealthy mix of steroids. On the movie scene, due to the looming tax season and having to watch every penny so I can pay my taxes, I haven't enjoyed as many trips to the theater as I would like. I did manage yesterday to make a rare family trip to one of my favorite second-run theaters, a lovely place called the Bear Tooth that features gourmet pizza and micro-brewed beer (consequently, two of my favorite things in life) to see Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows Part I. I had not paid any attention to the Harry Potter movies until lately. I viewed them as something I wouldn't enjoy, and consequently have not read any of the novels either. After seeing the trailers for Deathly Hallows, I was intrigued enough to Netflix the prequels and watch them in succession. Both of my children have enjoyed the Potter movies, and books in my son's case, in the past. They are older now, and to find a movie they are willing to watch with me is a serious family treat. All four of us went. My wife, who is decidedly not a geek and has not seen a single Potter movie, even enjoyed it. Aside from a brief altercation with a rude gentleman behind me that felt it his responsibility to give a running commentary throughout the entire flick, we enjoyed it greatly.

On a side note, my wife, daughter and I visited our local Border's Book Store. After reading last week's announcement that they would be closing some 200 of their super stores, I was convinced that ours would be one of those closing. I was right. This gives me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I do not often frequent Borders, or their competitor Barnes & Nobles. On a political level, I am anti-big-box stores. I prefer smaller "mom and pops" stores. My ultimate preference is for used book stores run by a few people that love books, and perhaps has a lazy cat sunning itself in a front window.

However, the prospect of up to 60% off was enough to lure us there to see what we could snag; unfortunately, by the time we got there, the vultures had picked over much of what was left. I had designs upon picking up a copy of Pathfinder (core rulebook), but while there was a copy left, two things kept me from picking it up. One, they were only offering 20% off - I can get a military discount of 15% off at a local hobby store that I like to haunt - and two, judging the size of the line, we were looking at a minimum of a one hour wait to purchase whatever we wanted. If my daughter or wife had found anything they wanted to make our wait in line worth it, I would have sucked it up and bought; however, the vultures had all ready picked over what they wanted. The wait just wasn't worth it.

Like I stated, I am not a Border's person. I don't appreciate their business practices, and prefer to frequent smaller local businesses; in addition, Borders is on the wrong side of town for me. If I choose to patron a big box store, Barnes & Nobles is much closer for me. I am sad though, as my community of Anchorage AK is small enough that the closing of a retail store such as Borders is a real kick in the family jewels. So while I will not personally miss Borders, I mourn for those that are now out of a job.

Game on!

Mini Review of Plundered Vaults and Report on Sessions 3 & 4 (WFRP)

One of my players all ready posted a report of session 3, but I wanted to add my own short report of that session and session 4 in preparation of session 5 tomorrow night and as a mini-review of the adventure and book it is found in itself.

I've been running my players through an adventure called "Sing for Your Supper" which is included in the book Plundered Vaults which you can read about here.

The book includes 3 reprints:"Rough Night at the Three Feathers", "Grapes of Wrath" and "The Haunting Horror"; and three new adventures: "For Love of Money", "Carrion Call" and the adventure at hand, "Sing for Your Supper".

Before I get to "Sing" I will say a few short words about the book itself. When it was first published in 2005 by Black Industries, it represented exactly what I had hoped for in a second edition of WFRP. When Hogshead (hereby designated "HH") stopped publishing the first edition of the game, fans such as myself were left in hiatus. HH had promised reprints of many long out of print Games Workshops titles. I was eager to buy, read and play a promised revision of the final chapter of the Enemy Within Campaign. The original "Empire in Flames", I have never owned, read nor played, but from what I've gathered, it was a flopping disappointed. I had managed by haunting my local game store and shopping online, to acquire most of the original first edition books; however, a few always alluded me. "Empire in Flames" and "The Restless Dead" were two of the few I have not yet managed to acquire. For the most part, I've given up on finding those books I've missed. The Doomstones Campaign never held much interest for me and the uber hard to find Realm of Chaos titles are too expensive for my purse.

Plundered Vaults was an early publication in the new line up. It included two scenarios from The Restless Dead, two adventures I did not own, and three new adventures. It seemed things were of to a good start. Black Industries was doing as promised. They were bringing back some hard to find older materials and publishing new material to boot. To their credit, before 2nd edition went "tits up" this promise was mostly carried out; however, a revision of "Empire in Flames" went, well, up in flames (pun intended). Now, with 3rd edition being published by Fantasy Flight Games, it is once again in doubt that an official revision to the seminal conclusion of TEW will ever see light. Three is a wonderful fan created re-imagining available by the golden pen worthy MadAlfred available for download here (I discourage my players from downloading and reading it).

I chose to open my campaign with "Sing for Your Supper" because it offered my favorite style of WFRP adventure which includes investigation, creeping doom and just the right mixture of combat. Written by Nathan Greavey, "Sing" is not a perfect adventure. While it does not necessarily depend upon players being led by their noses, it does make a few leaps in faith that players WILL follow up on sometimes obscure leads. I anticipated this ahead of time, and was able to fill in the blanks by making things jive on the fly. This didn't bother me for as GM, I welcome this opportunity. It did do exactly what I wanted. It served as a nice introduction to the flavor of the city of Nuln and despite a few false starts and a bit of moving things along on my part, it was a good investigation adventure. I added a bit more combat then was originally called for, but I did this by choice to knock the dust off the WFRP percentile dice. Now I will address the sessions themselves.

Session 3 was our first evening with no combat. There was actually minimal rolling of the dice. After the action heavy session 2, this was a nice change of pace. The players dug into the meat of the investigation itself and moved things along nicely. There were only three players for this session. Our new player was once again a no-show, and was for session 4 as well. We have not heard from him and at this point, I've ruled his character on official "Red-Shirt" status. Our out of town player was having technical difficulties and was thus unable to Skype in.

Session 4 was a different beast. We were up to what I now consider full-force, our out of town player was able to Skype in. As a group, they quickly followed up on loose ends from session 3 which launched them into the final confrontation with the adventure's villain, Emil Stark. This final confrontation involved confronting Emil himself, whom they killed, and encountering two beasts of chaos, the poor missing daughter of the butcher Herr Fleischer and a missing noble rake named Rudi who had also been horribly mutated.

In the end, despite the fact that the girl and her father were given the final mercy by Shallyan Priests, they received their promised reward of 25 gold crowns, quite a small fortune. Gottfried, our initiate of Sigmar, received a critical wound to the left hand. No doubt, they will spend part of session 5 learning the fate of Gottfried - it is not known at this point if he will be able to keep his hand -and spending some of their new found wealth. After this, I will launch them into an entirely different style of adventure.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Good Mood, Good Blogs, Frank Cho Art

I'm in a great mood today, and great moods put me in the mood to seek and share great art. I've mentioned my liking of Frank Cho's art before. I came across this gem at a blog that I enjoy called Shanna the She-Devil, which pointed me in the direction of Cavegirls in Fur Bikinis! Check out both of these blogs, if you - like me- enjoy jungle adventure tales featuring scantily clad women.

This particular Cho piece is an obvious homage to the old Coppertone Sun tan lotion baby adds.

In short, it is a delicious piece of Cho good-girl art. Enjoy, I hope your day goes as well as mine.

Game on!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Appendix N: Leigh Brackett's "The Ginger Star"

One thing I've noticed since my previous post about Leigh Brackett, is the more I read her, the more I like her. That is true of the first book I read by her in the Planet Stories line. Of the two stories in that book, I enjoyed the first, "The Secret of Sinharat", but I liked the second, "People of the Talisman", more.

The Ginger Star is another John Eric Stark story. Originally published in 1974, The Ginger Star would be Brackett's return to the character of Stark after a nearly twenty years. As I mentioned in my review of The Secret of Sinharat, that book, published in 1964 was a re-write of two earlier short stories, both of which were published in the late 40's and early 50's. In the three previous Stark stories, Brackett had adapted the typical 40's Space Opera milieu which assumed that there was indigenous life in our solar system other then our own. Many authors other then Brackett had assumed as much about Mars, Mercury and Venus. With Brackett's return to Stark, she abandoned that curio of the golden age and created a new planet with Skaith.

It is because of Skaith that The Ginger Star so easily finds its place on Gygax's Appendix N. It is stuffed full of action and exotic locals. Several times while reading it, I kept finding myself tempted to stop and start building a campaign world around Skaith. So many things in this novel fired my imagination - The Corn King, the Farers, the Wandsmen. I won't ruin it for you by explaining what these things are, just please trust me. If you haven't ever experienced this novel, pick up a copy from Paizo and do so.

There are some weaknesses in this novel. Brackett does not take the time to develop here characters in this story. Most seem card board cut outs meant to stand in just long enough to push forward her plot. That criticism aside, she does deliver a fast paced story in less then 200 pages and while her secondary characters are not well developed, her main character is engaging. I think of Stark as a blending of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan (and in some respects, John Carter) and Robert E. Howard's Conan.

I enjoy the Planet Stories selections that I've purchased from Paizo. I have not yet had the opportunity to read all of them - I have two more Henry Kuttner volumes to read, a collection of earlier stories written by contemporary authors titled Before they Were Giants and a double feature of Michael Moorcock and Joe Lansdale. Each book has attractive well done cover art, plus the covers are pre-creased (something I really appreciate). The paper used is of good stock that will not fade easily. Paizo has also sought out some great talent to write their introductions. I have one very glaring criticism: TYPOS! The Ginger Star featured the most annoying typo yet, as the copy editors had the characters stabling their "breasts" instead of their "beasts".

To steal a line from one of my favorite NFL pre-game shows: COME ON MAN!

Such glaring typos detract from an otherwise great product and I would love to see future products missing such errors.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Enemy Within Session 3 Report (WFRP) - Willow's Journal

I wish I could claim that I painted this well done mini, but I didn't. You can find out who did here (plus see some other great stuff!).

The following journal entry is also not by me, but by Willow's player.

Dear Mother and Father,

It has been almost two weeks since I arrived in Nuln and I am still wondering why, exactly, I came. I know I need to make some coin to help pay off the farm debts, but things here are very different to home. Streets paved with gold? They’re even more covered in muck than the roads in our village!

On the boat I sort of fell in with some fellow fortune-seekers. I don’t have much in common with them aside from that fact, but there’s no one here I know, and it’s already proven to be a good idea to have people at my back. Right off the boat we fell into a bad crowd when a cowardly scum-faced beggar led us into an ambush instead of to the decent inn he advertised… I am well now, but I had to spend a lot of my savings on a healer. Fortunately, my compatriots had the decency to help me out, and we’re sticking together, at least for now.

We’ve found a decent inn, but steady, good paying work is proving hard to find, and Bill’s lodgings and food, as well as mine, are eating into my coin. Still, today we were offered a job and given an advance, with the promise of more if we complete our job successfully. Things are starting to look up. We also met a nice elderly lady who helped us get into a restaurant we were investigating (We’re making an investigation! It’s just like the stories!), though the cost of the meal nearly bankrupted us again. Still, it was a nice change to eat decent food again. I miss your cooking, Da.

That’s all there is to tell for now… I am well, and so is Bill. I miss you, but with luck I’ll be able to send home a little coin soon, and maybe, in a few months, come back home for good.

Give my love to the cousins.

Your devoted daughter,


The Enemy Within Session 2 Report (WFRP) - Gottfried's Journal

The following report of session 2, which I previously entered, is written by one of my players from his character's POV.

By the light of Sigmar, and all that is holy, this is a dirty city! Even the people coming into "The Rest", where I have been staying smell of the sewers.

I have spent several days attempting to convince Eponaia, a stout member of the Elvish Folk, about the goodness that is Sigmar. He will require more convincing of the light of Sigmar, but I am sure he will come around.

This evening, two of the ones smelling of sewer came in, and got themselves into what I suspected would be a bit more trouble than they bargianed for. I observed the fellow the smelly one had been talking to passing money around to others who then followed him out.

Suspecting foul play, and having that sense of guilt over the traveler I met on the road to Nuln on my conscious, I went to the back door to warn the smelly one that he was about to be in for more company than he bargianed for.

As the fellow with the coins and friends came about, one of them ordered me to close the back door, while they tussled. I bristled at this and pulled out my bow in responce to his crossbow pointed at my chest.

I had no choice, and opened fire, By the light of Sigmar it was in my mind the rider in the forest all over again.

The fight ended swiftly, some dead some run away.

Back in the Rest as we were drinking eating and Praying, I noticed a fellow twitching at his ear. When I got up to investigate him and his friend got up and ran out in a huff. I no sonner followed them out than I heard two thunks which turned out to be cross bow bolts in their neck and eye. Stripping them bare of their refinement we found purple hand tattoos on their shoulders. I thought this most strange, thus making note of it.

Upon our re entry once more into the Rest, a fellow came up saying how he liked the way we fought and handed out a card. By the Light of Sigmar, I know it was pompous of me, but I knew that my training at the temple in Reading and Writting would allow me to read this card, and I assumed the rest of them didn't know how to read.

"Herr Georg Fleischer", the card read complete with his address.

During the confusion about who and what the note was for and why, I became introduced to the smelly one, Bartolf, and his female companion Willow, and another man named Rickter, who smelled almost as bad as the smelly one.

They retired, to baths thank the Light of Sigmar, and I likewise retired to my sleeping area to pray and contemplate how the Light of Sigmar was guiding me.

Character Background (WFRP): Gottfried Oberholtzer

The following is written not by me, but by one of my players.

I am Gottfried Oberholtzer. I am an initiate of Sigmar, Light be upon him. I came to be in the service of the Great Sigmar from my fathers poor farm about half way between Nuln and Strelssen along the River Aver. My parents were very religious, and very poor. I was urged to work the farm with my hands, and praise Sigmar with my heart. Eventually however I grew bored with helping my parents with the farm, and with their blessing I set out to become an Initiate of Sigmar. It would after all bring great blessings on my parents and family for their son, me, to become a priest of Sigmar.

All Journeys have their beginning, and this is mine. I traveled to Nuln on a whim, instead of Strelssen, I don't know why. As I traveled the road to Nuln, I decided to wander off the road, having seen a Hare which I thought would be good eating. Having chased the Hare some distance into the forest I came upon a dieing rider and his dead horse. He had been so badly hurt that he could not even speak. To my shame I thought to run away, but I could not bring myself to move. He had been attacked, or so it seemed, and he was beyond any help. As I leaned in he asked me to help him end his pain. By the light of Sigmar, I have told no other, I unsheathed my sword, and ran him through to end his suffering. I still feel shame that I took his bow, and the roll from his horse which had this complete set of leathers, and a small purse of gold, but it seemed a shame to waste them.

When I arrived in Nuln I found myself readily welcomed by the Priest of Sigmar as an Initiate. They prayed with me in the temple, and trained me in the Light of Sigmar. Yet I could not bring myself to tell them of the traveler I found n the road. I feel such shame and guilt that I do not know if I could ever tell another soul. I was sent forth by old priest who told me that I had to grow in my faith with Sigmar, cure the pain in my heart so that I could embrace Sigmar fully as His servant. I could have sworn that the Priest suspected but no one knows. Having been told to convert others to Sigmar and come back with more experience under my belt, I took up Sigmar's blessed hammer to make my way in the world hoping one day to return and be allowed to become a Priest.

This sorta disappointed me, I had expected... more. I didn't know what I would do at this point, and having no immediate plans or goals I set off for "The Fisherman's Rest". Having been on the river much as a younger boy, I thought I might find something familiar and comfortable here. Armed with my trusty Sword and Bow, my Leathers, and my faith in Sigmar, I have set forth to glorify Sigmar's name in the Empire.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Appendix N: Leigh Brackett's "The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman"

Born December 7, 1915 and passing away March 17, 1978, Leigh Brackett was an author of science fiction, hard-boiled crime fiction and she was a screen writer as well. It is her screen writing that most remember her for; particularly, she is remembered for writing the script for The Empire Strikes Back. That script was completed just prior to her death, and underwent heavy re-writing before the movie was made. A pirated version of her script is rumored to be floating around the web; however, I have never seen it.

Other then The Empire Strikes Back, she also screen wrote The Big Sleep (1945, co-written with William Faulkner), Rio Bravo (1959) and The Long Goodbye (1973) amongst others.

It is not her screen writing that made Gary Gygax mention her in Appendix N; rather, it was her science fiction stories. I recently read The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman. The edition I read was published by Paizo Publishing in 2007 as volume five of their Planet Stories imprint. The volume includes two stories: "The Secret of Sinharat" and "People of the Talisman". It includes an introduction by Michael Moorcock, who was a long time friend of Brackett and her husband Edmond Hamilton (her husband is credited by some as "the father of Space Opera", alongside E.E. 'Doc' Smith and he is well known for his "Captain Future" stories). The cover art is by Andrew Hou.

I've read a number of the Planet Stories volumes by such authors as C.L. Moore, Henry Kutner and Manly Wade Wellman; without exception, I've enjoyed them all. The good people at Paizo are on a mission to keep these classic authors in print, and I am supporting their efforts by maintaining a subscription with them. The name "Planet Stories" is meant to pay homage to the magazine of the same name that saw print from 1939 to 1955.

Like the other volumes I've read, I enjoyed this one as well. I did, however, note an increased number of copy-editing mistakes that unfortunately detracted from an otherwise greatly enjoyable reading experience.

As for the stories themselves, "The Secret of Sinharat" is a novella expanded from a short story titled "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" (originally published in Planet Stories Magazine in 1949) and "People of the Talisman" was expanded from an earlier story as well, "Black Amazon of Mars" (originally published in Planet Stories Magazine as well in 1951).

The stories in this volume are both Eric John Stark tales. Stark was her most popular creation. He is perhaps made a bit in the image of Burrough's John Carter with a dash of Howard's Conan. Stark is a hard-bitten mercenary for hire. His skin is baked dark by the harsh sun. He was born on Mercury where his parents died and he was raised by the Mercurian aborigines who gave him the name N'Chaka, meaning "the man without a tribe". Both "Secret" and "Talisman" could be classified as Planetary Romance, or possibly even Sword and Planet. Technology is present, but so are swords made of cold-hard steel.

After reading both of these tales, it is easy to see why Gygax recommended Brackett in Appendix N. Here are tales of harsh lands, false gods, lost civilizations and high adventure. It is worth noting that Gygax recommended all of Brackett's works. I am in the midst of reading The Ginger Star now (another Stark book), and will blog about that when I am finished.

In closing, this short book serves well as an introduction to Brackett and her character Eric John Stark. If you enjoy Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, February 7, 2011

In Remembrance of Lin Carter

On this day, in the year 1988, Linwood Vrooman Carter, creator of tales of science fiction, fantasy and sword & sorcery, died after a battle with cancer.

Some revile Lin Carter. It is said that his fiction was little better than amateur fan fiction. Critics panned him as an imitator. Indeed, he stated himself several times that he was an imitator of the authors he loved; most notably, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Lord Dunsany and H.P. Lovecraft.

As an author, Carter never did write a great masterpiece. Instead, he wrote in quantity over quality. It is not for his writing that I remember him. I relish him as an editor. As an editor, he rescued many forgotten classics when he took the reigns of the Ballentine Adult Fantasy Series. Including precursors to the series proper and a couple of "post" additions to the series, Carter pushed nearly 80 volumes in the series to publication. This number included six anthologies and three studies of the fantasy genre. He brought many classics to the public eye, including E.R. Eddison, Mervyn Peak, Fletcher Pratt, Lord Dunsany, William Morris, James Branch Cabell, George MacDonald, Hannes Bok, Evangeline Walton and George Meredith, amongst others. As editor of the Ballentine series, he also helped launch the career of Katherine Kurtz.

He was a founding member of SAGA (the Swordsmen and Sorcerer's Guild of America) where his editorship, and contributions, to the series Flashing Swords! helped bring attention to sword and sorcery writers such as Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson, Fritz Lieber, John Jakes, Andre Norton and Jack Vance. His partnership with L. Sprague de Camp on Conan pastiche helped fuel the fire that would rescue the works of Robert E. Howard from obscurity.

He was prone to self-promotion, opinionated and unoriginal; however, he gave more to the fan community then he ever took. That alone is worth remembering him for.

For My Players who cheered for the Packers.... wake up, alone and naked in the Chaos Wastes of the Far North. You do have your trusty fruit knife with you, but no rations.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


I am so freaking ready for tomorrow. I am one of five Steelers fans attending the Superbowl Bash that I go to annually. I am ready take their hatred and represent.


The Enemy Within: Session 2 (WFRP)

A long work week, with after hours filled with unexpected house hold repairs have left me with little time for blogging; however, we did manage to squeeze in a second session of WFRP this past week.

We had one player from the previous session fall too ill to play, but we had two more players join in, one via Skype. Skype opens up new avenues for role playing. One long time member of my table retired this past year and moved out of state. We had tried Skyping him in before, but a slow connection made it impossible at the time. Now, armed with a faster connection speed, we were able to make it so.

Neither of the two players who joined in had an opportunity to make a character ahead of time, so our first hour and half was spent making characters for them while chatting. I didn't mind this, as I had not spoken with the player that was Skyping in a good long time. Our start was also delayed as our other player joining in was running late himself due to illness.

When all characters were complete, we started. Our party now stands at a strength of five: Bartolf (human male Protagonist), Gotfried (human male Initiate of Sigmar), Ildrial Eponaia (elven male Wizard's Apprentice) and Rickter (human male Marine). I kept things simple. With the time remaining alloted for gaming (about two and half hours), I had four goals:

1. Introduce Gotfried and Ildrial to the group while keeping Rickter involved (Ricter's player stayed home sick).
2. Let enough time pass for Willow to heal from her wounds suffered in session 1.
3. Introduce some future plot elements.
4. Get the players involved in the main plot.

All four goals were easily met. I started with goal 2. Following up on one of the notices found at the Reik's Platz in session one, Bartolf and Rickter took a job with the Nuln city watch repairing, replacing and dredging sewer grates. They stayed at this job for three days, earning a bit of coin and giving Willow enough time to heal her wounds.

The first goal was accomplished by having the characters all end up at the same inn for a night of drinking: The Fisherman's Rest, more commonly referred to as "The Rest". While there, two strangers dressed in the garb of middle class merchants, attempted to send secret signals to Bartolf. They seemed to believe he was someone else. This was observed by another stranger. A tall human male wearing a grey cloak. He seemed to make sure that no one could see his face by keeping his hood up. When the two strangers gave up on sending signals to Bartolf, they left with looks of confusion and disgust upon their faces. The characters decided to follow them out.

The two strangers realized they were being followed by the characters and took off at a dead run. They did not get far before the sounds of them being attacked were heard. When the characters caught up to them, they were both dead. One had a bolt through the neck, while the second had a bolt through the right eye. The bolts were from a hand crossbow. The characters tossed them for what they could find, even stripping them of their fine clothing. When they stripped them, they saw that both men had a half-dollar sized tattoo of a purple, right hand print upon their left shoulders.

They returned to the Rest where a bit of camaraderie was established by having a fellow protagonist challenge Bartolf to a brawl. Bartolf accepted and Gotfried and Ildrid noticed that Bartolf was not going to be met alone, and was walking into an ambush. They jumped into the fray to help, joined by Willow and Rickter. A short combat occurred with the characters walking away with an easy victory.

A very drunk merchant observed all of this and afterwards gave his card to Gotfried. He introduced himself as Herr Georg Fleischer. He stated that he had need of people with their skill sets and that they should visit him at his butcher shop the next day.