Monday, July 23, 2012

What I've been reading - Part IV

Towers of Krshal – the Disturbing Supplement about the Sinister City is the OSR-product of the moment. This 32 pages PDF is a series of tables (and a few maps) describing the bizarre city of Krshal, which can cover an entire world, could have been built over a “grave temple” of titanic size and is probably run by sapient Difference Engines.

As you can see all this “cans/coulds/problablys” give a good idea about how this product works. The author uses various random tables to summon a flavor and a series of themes that describe to the Referee the bizarre/unsettling/weird vistas of Krshal. It’s like reading a “lite version” of Vornheim and its great!

There tables are: Rumors about the City, Name of the Citizens, 20 Towers, 12 Sinister Sorcerers (excellent!), 8 Thinking Difference Engines (I’m still not sure on how to use these), 50 Drunkards (perfect!), Ossuary random findings, Scrap Yard random findings, Trash Pit random findings, 20 Ghoul Mothers, 20 Cthonic Gods, Six Blind Demons (another of my favorite), 20 Magic Lanterns, Six Lethal Molds, 20 Magic Keys, Weird and Unusual Items, Swarms! and Ten Gardens.

Towers of Krshal also has a vertical stylized maps of the City’s Sewers, the Palatial Complex of Mar Gat’nep and the Reverse Pyramid; besides a dungeon (the Demon’s Entrails – the Worm Maze).

Towers of Krshal is a very direct product. There’re no illustrations or layout, just clean text with simple formatting. The map’s graphics aren’t eye-opening, but are useful and inspiring. Actually, this is the kind of product that gives you ideas – lots of ideas. Maybe my Vornheim analogy isn’t 100% precise – while you can use Towers of Krshal on the spot for Old School games, it works best as a set of ideas to be developed.

You can find the PDF of Towers of Krshal, for $3.50, here.

Cavaliers of Mars Quickstart

This is my finding of the week. I don’t have the slightly idea if this thing is new or old (or just a potential vaporware – I hope not!). Cavaliers of Mars is a beautiful 17 pages colored PDF, with a really evocative B&W art.

The setting is a fascinating mix of Edgar R. Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars with the more dark and strong elements of Sword & Sorcery literature. No, there’re no magic or supernatural element (at least blatant ones), but I got a strong “Howardian” vibe to the way this fantastic Mars is described. Because this is a Quickstart, the world is more implied than really described. However, in this regard I found it a strong point! Check it out:

Return now to dying Mars in its last age of glory. A planet of flashing swords and choking sands, of winking courtesans and lantern-lit canal cities. Mars, where fortune and death are two sides of the same obsidian chit, where lost cities and dry oceans stretch between the last bastions of civilization. Where the First Martians, the monument-builders, are but a haunted memory. Where the Red Martians become decadent and reckless in their last days. Where the Green Martians rule the wastes, remembering a history whose weight would crush a lesser people.
Find yourself dashing across the towered crypts of Vance, digging desperately for treasure in the lost tombs of Chiaro, spitting defiance at the Roundhead priests of wild Ziggur. Lock steel with the Princess Invincible, even as your hand reaches towards your flintlaser for insurance.
Live, fight, and love on Mars, a world of red death and strange mystery, a world of savagery and romance.

As you can see there’re a lot of clear references to Planetary Romance authors and elements and it’s easy to see form where the authors are pulling their sources.

OK, the setting is great, the product is evocative and engaging… what about the system? Well, this is where Cavaliers of Mars really surprised me: it’s based on Wushu (although I do hope the authors rethink their original idea of using other systems –like Barbarians of Lemuria, FATE and Honor + Intrige).

I must have read Wushu a dozen times already but the system never managed to grasp my attention. I understand why some people like it, but it’s one of those (rare) RPG systems that I’m sure I’ll never used… until I read Cavaliers of Mars. The authors’ version of Wushu really managed to draw my attention to a system that I never really cared. If there’s stronger point for buying a RPG product than that, please let me know.

Oh, and did I tell you that this Quickstart is free?

The New Death and others

I received a few months ago a review copy of The New Death and others.

I don’t usually review literature; first because I’m not an expert at it (I’m not an expert at RPGs either, but at least I know a lot about them); second because when I do reviews books, it’s by comparing the author’s work with that of other author’s, and some people find that offensive or just too vague. Well, with these warnings in mind, let’s proceed…

The New Death and others is a 94 pages collection of 19 poems and 44 short tales (with links, thank you!).

The first thing that any fantasy/horror enthusiast will be interested are the poems based on the works of R. E. Howard (The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune), H. P. Lovecraft (Under the Pyramids), C. A. Smith works (The Garden of Adompha) and Lord Dunsany (Charon).

Given those references, it’s certainly not a coincidence that The New Death and others is inspired, thematically if not stylistic, in the fantasy cycle of those authors – particularly Lovecraft and Smith. It’s nothing as heavy or arabesque as those authors’ prose, which actually is a good point for many, especially first readers.

Hutchings’s fantasy is a mix of the whimsical, the bizarre and the mundane. The first tale – The God of the Poor – is simple and direct, almost fable-like. The second one – How the Isle of the Cats Got Its Name – is pure fantasy and very flavorful, and I wish there’re more material along these lines.

The Scholar and the Moon is my favorite – imagine if MiĆ©ville attempted to narrate weird stuff in the surreal and succinct way of C. A. Smith. It has all the right elements (for me at least): a protagonist with an esoteric (and egoistical) quest, strange denizens (like the gargoyle with silken-like wings) with yet stranger customs, a bizarre realm (the upper levels and hidden temples of a human city) and a doomed (besides sarcastic) conclusion. The Scholar and the Moon takes place in Hutchings’s Telelee fantasy (and I believe campaign) setting and is just great.

Many of The New Death and others’ tales (and even a few poems) are modern-time parables. Examples include The Doom That Was Laid Upon Fame and Weary Love. They remind me of Neil Gaiman’s work – again, thematically.

Some short stories are total oddballs (in an already eccentric collection) but ones that provide good surprises and variations – like the flavorful The New God.

I quite like the author’s humor, although at times the puns and references are just silly – The Adventure of the Murder Philanthropist and When Love Calls. However, even in those cases the author does manage to pull interesting twists – like in The Face in the Hill.

You can find the Kindle Edition of The New Death and others for $0.99 here.

Monsters of Sin 1 – Avarice

Monsters of Sin 1 – Avarice starts a new line of PDFs from Open Design. Each Monsters of Sin is a 10-pages colored PDF, with a beautiful cover and layout, bringing to Pathfinder 3 new monsters, and 1 high CR outsider – all thematically-aligned to one of the famous deadly sins.

The first Monsters of Sin is all about avarice. The PDF doesn’t waste words and, after a brief paragraph of text, we get the new template – Avaricious Creature. It allows the creature to heal wounds by ingesting treasure. It’s a very bizarre trait to be applied generically – although it does make a lot of sense for dragons and certain outsiders (like devils).

The new monsters are the Hoard Golem (CR 12), the Map Mimic (CR 1) and the Midasite (CR 4). Hoard Golems have a terrific flavor text (“born from the paranoia of dragons” is a great line) and literally creatures made of treasure. It’s a great concept and the probably the monster whose body will be the “pillage dream” of any adventuring party.  The Map Mimic is a variant (and delightful) take on the (almost) homonymous creature; while the Midasite is a bizarre insect-like fey that can turn people and objects into gold (a power that, I believe, deserved more serious limitations).

The Embodiment of Avarice is a CR 20 avatar-like monstrosity which can be used as the backdrop for an entire adventure – particularly if the GM extrapolates the concepts behind the creature’s Avaricious Aura and Stomach Vault (personally I’d expand it to a full dungeon).

Monsters of Sin 1 – Avarice costs 2.99 bucks.

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