Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Game of Thrones

So, I know that I'm probably one of the last people on the planet who has not already completely digested Mr. Martin's magnum opus, but I am now caught up with the HBO series, and I have carved my way through the first book.  As far as fantasy goes, I mostly prefer the pulpier short stories that were written by Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft, Leiber, and Moorcock.  I have never been a huge fan of the sprawling, high fantasy epics.

I've certainly read The Lord of the Rings a couple of times, and I read the first book in the Wheel of Time series, back when I was 14.  That was 24 years ago.  I suppose I don't have the patience to stick with a series that spans thousands of pages.  I did read War and Peace, recently, which was around a thousand pages.  I wonder why Robert Jordan couldn't sum up his epic within a similar number of pages.  We all know the answer, of course.

Getting back to A Game of Thrones, I was surprised that I liked the first book as much as I did.  I mean no disrespect to George Martin.  He is, in my opinion, a fine writer.  He earned his stripes toiling in Hollywood and the genre mines.  The prose is, by and large, spare and evocative.  He uses the word crunch a bit too much for my taste, but that is a minor quibble.

I guess I like the series because George Martin knows how to create interesting, multifaceted characters. Although the series features knights, castles, and tournaments, there is none of the chivalry that typically accompanies these tales.  The knights in these stories may wear baroque armor, but most of them are little more than brigands and rapists encased in steel.

I appreciate the fact that Martin's stories, in a certain sense, subvert the tropes that are typically associated with this genre.  Morality in Westeros is presented in various shades of grey.  For example, the rogue who shoves a child through a window saves a woman knight from being violated by a pack of bloodthirsty warriors.  I find myself hating and respecting him, simultaneously.  No one in the tales is wholly good or bad.

My loyalties, such as they are, are very divided.  It is very hard not to side with The Starks, even when their confederates prove that they are capable of the same atrocities as the soldiers fighting under the aegis of the rival houses.  It is also difficult not to smile when Tyrian the dwarf's cunning helps his family prosper.

I'd say the only character that I truly despise is the young dauphin and king of the Seven Kingdoms.   While appreciate why the young boy acts as he does, Martin makes it very difficult to like or respect the young king.  I suspect that this might change as the story develops.  For now, I reserve my right to despise the flaxen-haired bastard.

From what I've read so far, I am enjoying A Game of Thrones, and I look forward to finding out what happens to each of these characters.  I have my suspicions about how certain plots will play out, but I hope that George is cagier than I am, and that he outwits me and takes these stories in unanticipated directions.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Atlantis: The 2nd Age Kickstarter

What do you get when you mix Elric, Conan, and a D20?  You get Atlantis: The 2nd Age. For someone who loves the genre of sword & sorcery, this is probably the most enticing copy that has ever been written.  It is for this reason that I gleefully decided to support Jerry Grayson's Kickstarter project to relaunch the rpg Atlantis: The 2nd Age. 

Even better, I recently had the opportunity to participate in a one-shot adventure which was run by Mr. Grayson, the mastermind behind this hellenistic reboot.  I'd prefer not to blather on about the game, because you can learn about it directly from Jerry, at

It should also be pointed out that Jerry is one of the brains behind Khepera Press, which produced the great games Godsend Agenda and my beloved Hellas.  I haven't had a chance to play Godsend Agenda, but I've heard nothing but good things about it.  Hellas, in my humble opinion, is one the best games that has been produced in the last decade.  The production values are outstanding, and the concept is even better.  I am, therefore, quite excited that Atlantis is the hands of such a capable press, and that it seems to share similarities with Hellas.

Atlantis, as the name implies, is an antediluvian setting.  As such, it teems with sandals, swordsman, cunning sorcerers, and most of the other tropes that one expects to find in a sword & sorcery game.  All this iron-thewed goodness is fueled by the same system that propelled the outstanding Talislanta 4th edition.  That is to say, a single D20, a bit of number crunching, and reference to a simple table - period.  That's about as complicated as it gets.  One rule to rule them all, as the saying goes.

A system such as this easily accommodates a free-flowing, cinematic type of game, and suits the genre quite well.  During the one-shot, I played Callidus, a scarred Atlantean swordsman.  It should be said that characters in Atlantis are a cut above the unwashed masses, and they begin their journey far more skilled and storied than beginning characters in other fantasy rpgs.  While some people may not appreciate this, I am a big fan of portraying heroic characters with rich backgrounds.  It goes without saying, then, that I enjoyed every minute of it of Jerry's play-test.  I'd provide a post-play rundown of what happened, but I think Jerry plans to run the adventure again, so I won't spoil it for anyone else.

I could speak ad nauseam about how great this game is going to be, but no one wants to hear my prattle, least of all me.  Visit the Kickstarter page and have a look.  Jerry is kind enough to provide a hefty .pdf of the rules for folks to review.  I believe that the game has changed significantly since the publication of this .pdf, but the document certainly provides enough flavor to let you know quite clearly what Atlantis is all about, and what it aspires to accomplish.

I should also mention that Jerry is a really wonderful guy.  I had a great time getting to know him during the one-shot, and  I am happy to support this project.  I look forward to the finished product.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bran Mak Morn

It has obviously been a long time since I've posted.  Life, leisure, and laziness are responsible for this ebb in activity.  In other words, I have no one to blame but myself.  Fortunately, my current diet of Robert E. Howard has wrenched my from my torpor.

Although Tolkien was instrumental in drawing me to the genre of fantasy, the sinewy tales of a particularly saturnine Cimmerian really inspired me.  I think the main reason Howard's stories (warts and all) resonated so much is that they got on with it, as it were.  Tolkien had the luxury of time and space to describe the minutiae of his beloved Middle Earth.  Howard, on the other hand, was laboring under the scrutiny of pulp editors, who wanted stories that were as kinetic and titillating as they were short.

In my case, I started out with the ACE paperback version of Howard's Conan - the ones that attempted to place Conan's stories in an artificial chronology; more offensive still, these books, with their lovely Boris and Frazetta covers, included many stories written by other writers.  Some of the stories were not bad, but no one one but Robert E. Howard can write like Robert  E. Howard.

I came back to Conan early in my third decade, and, after reading all of Howard's Conan stories, I moved on to Solomon Kane, Kull, and, recently, Bran Mak Morn.  I am currently reading the fine story called "The Worms of the Earth".   Bran, the direct descendant of the Pictish warrior Brule the Spear Slayer, is a lithe, doomed leader of a race that is reverting to savagery.  Bran is more like Solomon Kane than either Conan or Kull.  He is, in some ways, the most nuanced of Howard's characters. 

Although the stories are clouded with a patina of historicity, they are, in essence, just as fantastical as any other of Howard's tales.  What I love most about the tales is that Bran seems far more human than Kane, Conan, or Kull.  He does not share Kane's puritanical zeal or the equanimity of Conan's freewheeling youth.  He is similar to Kull in that he shoulders the burden of kingship.  In his case, he leads a moribund race teetering on the brink of extinction.  He seems to know, intrinsically, that he is fated to lose both his battle against the encroaching Romans, as well as his struggle to rescue his people from reverting to out-and-out savagery.

Bran is, in point of fact, of a different bloodline than his people - a line that can be directly traced back some 100,000 years to Brule the Spear Slayer, Kull's trusted companion.  In the story that I'm reading, Bran is poised to achieve a Pyrrhic victory over the Romans.  Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that Howard and Lovecraft corresponded a great deal; this story bears the fruit of that correspondence.