Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Fallicon cometh...

I've never been a dedicated convention-goer. When I was a high-school and college student (back in the ancient days of AD&D 1st and 2nd edition), I dreamed of someday going to GenCon, but never had the money for such a trip. SF conventions intrigued me, too, but never quite to the same extent.

I didn't attend my first convention, for any fandom, until my early 20s. Shortly after moving to Boston for graduate school, I made a new friend at a temp job who was active on committees for Arisia, a speculative fiction con in Boston. He was thrilled to have another F&SF nerd to chatter with, however briefly, during our daily drudge. The con was coming up very soon, so he offered me one of his spare complimentary tickets. It was great fun--particularly meeting a couple of artists whose work I admired--and I attended the next couple of years on his comp tickets, too. (I'm embarrassed to admit that I can't recall that generous gentleman's name anymore. Tony, I think?)

By that time, I had found the Boston-area LARP community, and my interest in Arisia waned (though I played my first LARP at an Arisia). That's also around the time that I met and started dating my future wife, Erika. LARPing was one of our many shared interests. We attended an all-LARP convention, InterCon, for a few years running, as well as the very first couple of Vericons (a gaming convention at Harvard). But then impending parenthood diverted too much of our time and money to continue LARPing regularly. We attended once (for a single day, I believe?) when the kids were very little, and one last time (for the full con) when they were in early grade school.

In 2003, GenCon moved from Milwaukee to Indianapolis, which was only an hour from my childhood home (where my mother still lives). I had been living in Boston for a decade at that point, which still made the con an expensive trip. In 2011, we combined a family visit with my long-awaited first time attending GenCon. (Erika and the kids--now 6 and 7--came on a family day pass that Sunday.) I played many, many games (including the Iron GM competition, as a player), met some of my favorite game designers (including Steve Jackson and the core staff of Green Ronin, both of whom I had done some freelance work for by that time), and generally reveled in the spectacle of games, cosplay, and art.

Despite moving to Kentucky a couple years later--only half a day's drive from Indy--I still haven't managed to get back to GenCon again. Much of the reason is financial, but there is also the awkwardness of my kids' school year starting earlier here than in Boston--many years, it's been the very same week as the con.

However, I have found some consolation recently by learning more about local game conventions here in Lexington. This past spring, all four of us attended Lexicon, a weekend gaming convention with a robust Paizo gaming track. (We were talked into going--and Erika into GMing a few scenarios--by friends we'd made through Pathfinder Society.) Unlike some bigger cons we're been urged to try (like CincyCon in Cincinnati), Lexicon was close enough to drive home each night, which made it surprisingly affordable.

This coming weekend (November 1-3) is Fallicon, a PFS charity event for Extra Life. This year it's being hosted by our Friendly Local Gaming Store, D20 Hobbies--a mere 15-20 minute drive from our home. Erika is helping to organize it, and is GMing a few games. I will also be running my very first tabletop RPG at a con this weekend--which will also be my first time GMing Starfinder. The kids game just about as regularly as we do these days, so they are both very excited, too. We've been scrambling the last few days to make sure all the characters they intend to play are fully updated, and Erika and I have been doing GM prep (her far more than me, though I'm also supplying maps for her and some other GMs). My daughter even designed an adorable goblin sticker for donors to the raffle.

But someday--someday--I will make it back to GenCon...

Friday, October 25, 2019

Unearthed Arcana and Freeport, Part 12: Even More Subclasses, Continued!

Welcome back to my ongoing series of capsule reviews of "Unearthed Arcana" with an eye for how to use them with the Freeport setting. This time, we'll take a look at articles released in September and October 2019. These three installments seem to complete the latest round of new subclasses (see Part 11), with one for each of the twelve classes in the Player's Handbook.

For my past columns about using D&D Fifth Edition sourcebooks with Freeport: The City of Adventure, see the Freeport 5E Index.

Bard and Paladin (9/18/2019): The College of Eloquence gives a bard increased powers of persuasion and inspiration. The Oath of Heroism is for paladins who are destined for legendary greatness, enhancing their own powers in a way that eventually can be used to inspire allies and frighten enemies. (No suggested alignments are given for this sacred oath. None of its tenets preclude any alignment.)

Of these two new subclasses, the College of Eloquence bard is more likely to fit into a Freeport campaign. However, an Oath of Heroism paladin may still find a place. The subclass seems more concerned with personal glory than the greater good, and that kind of egotism does fit Freeport just fine.

Cleric, Druid, and Wizard (10/3/2019): The Twilight Domain is a natural fit for heroes who brave the darkness to combat the dangers that it hides. Two examples in Freeport canon include Tagmata's dualistic light-based faith of Astrape, and the cult of Nut in Hamunaptra.

The Circle of Wildfire embraces both the destructive side of fire and the new growth that it makes possible. It's imminently suited for druids who live near volcanoes like the one on A'Val--but such a character is likely to inspire a great deal of terror in Freeporters due to their painful memories of the Great Green Fire that ravaged the island a few years ago.

Finally, the arcane traditon of Onomancy is an attempt to translate "true name" magic into D&D. As such, it would be best suited for the erudite wizards of Hamunaptra (where words and names are considered to have innate power), as well as for summoners and cultists who seek out true names to bind supernatural beings to their will.

Fighter, Ranger, and Rogue (10/17/2019): The Rune Knight martial archetype for fighters learns how to imbue their possessions with the power of giantish rune magic. In the World of Freeport, this archetype would be most common among the northern barbarian tribes of Druzhdin.

The Swarmkeeper ranger archetype has a connection to fey nature spirit that manifests as a swarm of tiny beasts sharing their space. As the ranger advances in level, this swarm can increase their weapon damage, enhance their movement, spy remotely, and eventually attack others at range. This subclass is rather bizarre and potentially offputting in social encounters, but could be appropriate to a wide variety of characters, from fey-bonded wood elves from Rolland, to worshipers of insect or plague gods from Hamunaptra, to weird outcasts who dwell in the sewers beneath Freeport.

The Revived archetype for rogues represents a character who becomes aware that they have died in the past, and recall parts of one or more past lives. This connection to death gives them a bonus skill or tool proficiency, the ability to go without eating, breathing, or sleeping, and a ranged option for Sneak Attack. Later levels allow the character to gain knowledge from the dead (or while on death's door) and even teleport short distances via the Ethereal Plane.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Book Review: Shadowtide

ShadowtideJoseph D. Carriker. Jr.'s second novel, is set in Green Ronin's Blue Rose RPG setting. It tells the story of three members of the Sovereign's Finest who team up to discover what happened to two colleagues who disappeared in the Shadow-tainted Veran Marsh.

The Blue Rose setting debuted in 2005 using the True20 System (a d20 System derivative originally crafted for this setting), and was relaunched in 2017 using the Adventure Game Engine (AGE) rules set. Both versions belong solidly to the romantic fantasy genre, inspired by the character-driven fiction of Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane, Tamora Pierce, and others. Blue Rose caused quite a stir upon its initial release due to its deliberate inclusion of gay, bisexual, transgender, and asexual characters, as well as its normalization of polyamorous and polygamous relationships. The new edition of the game goes even further to be welcoming and all-inclusive, with intelligent, sensitive discussion of characters with disabilities being one new addition to the spectrum of possibilities.

Much as he did in his first novel, Sacred Band (which I reviewed here recently), Carriker puts a great deal of thought into his characters and how they fit into the setting. His trio of protagonists are very representative of the kinds of heroes found in this setting, while being very distinctly their own unique selves. All three belong to the Sovereign's Finest, an organization of diverse special agents serving the enlightened nation of Aldis--the symbol of which, the Blue Rose, gives the setting its name. (In most Blue Rose campaigns, the PCs will belong to the Finest, or aspire to join them.)

  • Master Soot is a rhy-crow, one of the many varieties of rhydan, animals who have manifested sentience and psychic powers. All can use mindspeech (telepathy with other intelligent creatures), but Soot has also mastered healing magic and communication with normal animals. He recently returned to field work after some years in semi-retirement training other adepts.
  • Ydah is one of the night folk, a race originally created as servants to powerful sorcerer kings in ages past, but since freed to find their own place in the world. Ydah is a tough-as-nails warrior and a skilled ranger, but at the time of the novel's beginning, she is still grieving the loss of her bond-mate, a rhy-wolf who died protecting her.
  • Morjin Brightstar is the one human on the team. He is a Roamer (similar to our world's Romani) exiled from his family's caravan, who can tap into seer-like abilities when consulting the Royal Road (this setting's name for the Tarot deck). Most of the time, however, he relies on his good looks and quick wits to gather intelligence as a spy for the Crown--and when those fail, his skill with knives helps him to survive another day. 
Soot uses his contacts in the Finest to recruit Ydah and Morjin, who are already in the Veran Marsh and have some familiarity with the region, to help him trace their missing colleagues. Their investigation takes them to Serpent's Haven, a gang-ruled refuge for people who wish to avoid the rule of both Aldis and Jarzon (who border opposites sides of the marsh). Like many newly-formed adventuring parties, these three face some struggles in working together smoothly, but soon prove to be a very effective team. (And, quite naturally for both the genre and the RPG, that team is iconically composed of one adept, one warrior, and one expert--as well as one human, one near-human, and one rhydan.) 

The Veran Marsh was created by devastating Shadow magic ages ago, and is still something of a magnet for corruption. From the start, Soot suspects a Shadow cult to be responsible for whatever happened to his protege, but none of our heroes is truly prepared for just how dangerous and insidious the enemy proves to be...

Shadowtide is a very satisfying introduction to the world of Blue Rose, as well as a being a rousing adventure tale in its own right. I anticipate that it will leave many readers eager to try out the game for themselves--as well as hungry for more of Joe's excellent fiction. A sequel, the novella Pit of Vipers, was recently released in e-book format by Nisaba Press. There are also two free PDF tie-ins available:
  • A Guide to Shadowtide, in which Carriker provides more background information on Serpent's Haven for Blue Rose games, as well as stat blocks and histories for the novel's three heroes. 
  • Shadowtide: Recipes from Aldea, by Jess Hartley, which presents recipes for some of the novel's cuisine.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

TBT: Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa

A couple of decades ago, a friend of mine created a book review site, "Raven's Reviews," to which I contributed a number of pages. The format was a couple short paragraphs about the author, followed by a paragraph or two for each book that was reviewed. Avoiding spoilers was an important part of the site's philosophy, so only the first few chapters of any individual work would be described in any detail. Similarly, a series review would focus on the first book, and do little more than name the titles of later books in the series.

Last month I finished reading one of the books I reviewed for Raven's site. Sadly, her site was retired several years ago, but I still have copies of the text of my reviews, so here is my page for Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa.


Eiji Yoshikawa

Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962) was one of Japan’s most prolific and popular writers. His long novel Musashi was first published in serial form in the newspaper Asahi Shimbun (1935-1939). This work has become an important part of Japanese culture; it has been reprinted numerous times, adapted for stage, television and cinema, and translated into several other languages. It has been published in the US in a huge single-volume hardcover (Musashi: An Epic of the Samurai Era) and as a five-volume paperback series. I can’t vouch for the quality of Charles S. Terry’s translation, though I can tell that it is not an exact literal translation.

Yoshikawa’s novel is a work of fiction, but attempts to accurately depict important historical figures of the time, including the title character. Fans of both martial arts stories and Asian historical pieces should enjoy this work. Yoshikawa provides well-developed characters with the context needed for a modern reader. And for you anime-fiends who crave an element of frustrated romance in your samurai stories, there’s some of that, too (though you’ll probably be disappointed at the scarcity of strong female characters).


Musashi is set in the early 17th century, just after Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan, ending generations of constant warfare. With the land at peace (however uneasy at times), the samurai were forced to adapt to a new age which needed something more than mere warriors. Miyamoto Musashi (1584?-1645) was a product of this time, a man of samurai descent who strove to perfect his swordsmanship as a path to achieving his full human potential. He spent most of his life as a wanderer, perfecting the Art of the Sword by studying works on strategy, by challenging other swordsmen, and by more esoteric forms of enlightenment.

The Way of the Samurai (Book I of the Pocket Books paperback version) begins with the aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara. Two youths from Miyamoto, Shimmen Takezo and Matahachi Hon’iden, had joined the army to earn names for themselves. However, they were nearly killed when their side lost, and are forced to go into hiding from Tokugawa’s soldiers. Matahachi falls afoul of a seductress and fails to return to his family--and to his fiancee, Otsu. Takezo tries to return to Miyamoto to let the Hon’idens know that Matahachi is still alive, but he gets blamed for his friend’s disappearance. His punishments at the hands of a Zen monk, Takuan Soho, begin his enlightenment, and kindle his desire to live and become a real human being, rather than dying as a brutal, ignorant beast. Reborn, he changes his name to Miyamoto Musashi, and sets out on his life-quest of becoming a master swordsman.

The paperback edition continues with The Art of War, The Way of the Sword, The Bushido Code, and The Way of Life and Death. These later sections continue Musashi’s early career, including his long feud with the Yoshioka School and his growing rivalry with another swordsman, Sasaki Kojiro. The fates of Matahachi and Otsu also play important parts in the novel. The story should be read in order from the beginning; the paperbacks provide short summaries of previous volumes, but the volume breaks are rather arbitrary and a reader will need the context of the previous sections to avoid being confused. Musashi has the episodic format typical of much Japanese storytelling, but it was written to be a single, long novel, not a series of stand-alone stories.

The novel ends while Musashi is still relatively young (28 or 29), but even by that age, he had earned a enduring place in Japanese legend. This swordsman continued to perfect his art, and near the end of his life, he composed The Book of Five Rings, a treatise on strategy. This work, which remains popular today with Japanese and gaijin alike, has a style and purpose similar to that of Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, one of the works that Musashi revered.