Monday, October 22, 2018

Barbarian Emperor by Jon Mollison

Alexander Macris has been posting some publicity for this volume, so I decided to give it a shot ($2.99 on Kindle), as I have been looking for something new to amuse myself for the last few months.

Superficially, it's another sword and sandal fantasy story, albeit one in an ACKS friendly setting. I bulled through the inauspicious beginning; wherein the old Barsoom trope of the hero being mysteriously translated to another world gets a trotted out. As the new setting is an ersatz-Roman Empire, it was doubly inauspicious to me, as I am extremely well read in the history of the Republic and Empire; not just having read the popular histories and even Mommsen's seminal works, but having dug up writings on demographic patterns, city planning, and Roman religion (pity Varro's books didn't survive outside of Augustine's hatchet job refutation). Since I didn't watch the series, I can't say how much the story was influenced by Spartacus: Blood and Sand; but it certainly has more to do with that than the writings of Polybius or Caesar.

Then the action started, the pace of the story picked up and the author began to weave different threads into a tapestry, every scene advancing the hero's story. The tale became increasingly more enthralling as it moved away from ersatz-Rome to a unique borderland. Pulpy like Robert E. Howard's stories but in a different, self-consistent and suitably mysterious way. Exposition of the characters thought processes provide reasonable rationales for decisions, both good and bad; and almost as importantly are concise, setting up the next action scene. No spending half a book lost in the fens outside of Mordor's front door in this story!

Three plot twists that caught me off guard. One I should have seen coming and one where I completely swallowed the hook. Well played! In the end the hero gets a girl and a crown ... and I found myself wanting to know what happens next. That to me is one of the marks of a good story, when it leaves me hungry to know what's in the next chapter.

I won't give out any spoilers, you can always drop me a line after you've read the book if you want to know what I missed until the end.

Over all, I give it four skulls out of five and recommend you pick it up for a couple of hours of light reading pleasure.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Interlude in Pavis

I started a RQ Classic campaign recently, with four players who have been
playing mostly a AD&D 1e campaign and an old grognard who primarily
played RQ in college in the early 80s.

For a setting, I'm using Pavis & The Big Rubble.  The characters started
off at Old Fort at the confluence of the Scritha and East Scritha at Sacred
Time of 1610, just after the Lunar occupation begins.

To introduce the newcomers to the system, I started them with answering the
KoDP clan questionnaire, followed by a ‘how the clan survived’ heroquest to
demonstrate how skills are used and advanced and give the players a taste of
how spiritual as well as physical quests mix in Glorantha.  
In the Great Darkness the Brothers left the village to search for food.
First Brother came to a barren field, from it he heard voices calling out to him. Digging in the field he found Ernalda's children and brought them back to the village where they grew into crops.
Second Brother came to a cave where a giant lived with his cattle. Second Brother disguised himself as a cow and joined the herd when they went into the cave. When the giant fell asleep, he led the herd out and back to the village.
Third Brother was walking along the stream when he saw a strange girl drowning under the water. He leapt in, swam down and saved her. She taught him how to catch fish.
Fourth Brother found a set of tracks and followed them up a windswept hill. At the top he found an alynx with it's fur matted and ribs showing. He fed it all the food he had, in return it followed him back to the village and kept Ernalda's children free from rats and chaos vermin.
Fifth Brother was lost in the forest, finally he began to climb the largest tree in the wood. He climbed all the way to the top where he beheld the first sunrise. Foolishly, he climbed the sun's rays until he disappeared into the sky.
The heroquest also functioned as a divination for the coming year. Based on their rolls, their village will probably be wiped out by famine.   

A couple of side quests, where I split the group by family relationships, had
most of them tracking down a prize bull that had been stolen by a nomad.  
Even though I gave them all some ability to speak Praxian, no one
understood what he was saying, so it ended in combat. The other character
is a son of a carpetbagger who returned from Tarsh with the Lunars.  He
went out on a patrol with the Marble Phalanx detachment and was introduced
to the Morokanth slavers, baboons, trollkin and herdmen through the
Borderlands Scouting the Area encounter.

Then they set out for Pavis, losing a character in a drinking contest during an
encounter with a Troll caravan.  A quick trip into the Rubble cost another
character half an arm and put most of them in bad odor with the local Mostali.
 They then signed up at a variety of temples for training before we called it a

Overall the new players seemed to enjoy it.  The lethality surprised them, but I
had made a batch of pre-gens so they didn't get bogged down in character

One thing that went over well was I had grabbed pictures from a number of the
PDFs I've picked up, so I could show them a morokanth, a trollkin or the gate
at Pavis

Friday, January 12, 2018

Thracia - an ACKS Campaign

[Adventure report from a new campaign.]

     Dave [Thief], the somewhat scapegrace second son of the Count of Mount Haemus [comes Haemimontus], accompanied by his bodyguard Corwin [Fighter] and his secretary Goris [Venturer] were sent to retrieve the Rhododendron Amulet by his father.  Along the way the encountered Brother Hendel the Healer [Cleric], who had been dispatched to the same village to investigate reports that the local Temple of Nature's Justice had been taken over by some frog faced cultists calling themselves the Temple of Justice Everywhere. 
     As they approached the village, thunder rumbled regularly in the distance.  Corwin considered that in his experience it was natural, not gunfire.  Nearer, they could see lightening stabbing down ahead.  Whatever was being struck was hidden by a hill and woods on the other side of the village itself.  Interrogating the first yokel they encountered, Dave learned that it was the Lightning Tower down on the coast, and that the it had been this way for decades.  Incredulous that no one had investigated, he pressed the yokel, who responded defensively that they made sure to keep the cattle away from it.

     Getting directions from the yokel, they went down the road to the manor, having decided that Dave's errand would take priority over Brother Hendel's.  Along the way they passed the Temple and had a clear view of the Lightning Tower and of the four iron massive iron spikes around it.
     Walking boldly up to the front door of the manor, they were derailed by the sight of three corpses leaning against the wall.  Approaching cautiously, having heard tales of skeletons and zombies, they determined that one of them was a peddler Brother Hendel had known to sell healing herbs in Hadrianoplis.  They could not determine the cause of death based on inspection.
     Leaving the corpses, they rang the bell, and stayed off balance when they came in and saw that the butler was the ghost of a balrog [ed.  Gotta love these pre-cease and desist lawsuit adventures].  When they questioned him about the corpses outside, he responded that he thought the gardener had already taken care of them, but that he would follow up.  
     The confusion continued when Dave asked for Sir Rankling as directed and the butler asked in response "His picture or his spirit, my lord?"  Choosing the spirit they were given directions to another room.  However a nasty battle with twelve skeletons in the first room they needed to cross room left Brother Hendel and to a lesser extent Corwin, too wounded to continue, so they returned to the village.

     Engaging rooms at the White Horsed Sleigh, they went in search of Arnthora, the dispossessed priestess.  In her pokey little room, crammed with the furnishings she had been able to retrieve at the Temple,  she told Brother Hendel of being forced out by the cultists and that their influence was growing in the village.  She had little to offer on the Lightning Tower and opined that if they could handle the cultists, they could handle anything in the manor.  Whether or not they could handle either was an open question.  She was well aware of Bertalan the butler and didn't seem to see anything amiss, just that the manor had always been that way.  And by the way Sir Rankling was the current owner's great-great-grand uncle and had been dead for some time, but his picture could answer questions about the manor.  She also warned them not to look at the other portraits in the manor. 
     Over supper at the inn, Corwin, Goris & Brother Hendel observed two people enter and sit down with a couple of locals at another table.  The newcomers had green faces and extremely wide mouths.  Inferring that these were some of the cultists, Corwin and Brother Hendel went to get Dave, who was dining in his private room.  Corwin remarking that the green was tattooing.  Before they returned, the other party got up and left.  Goris moved to intercept the locals, pretending that he was here to inquire into some tax irregularities.  This gave him and earful about the ruinous assessments from the mayor and an appointment to meet the next morning to go over the books.

     While the others sold four of the goblets they had recovered at the manor, Goris went over the books and earned contempt for not only failing to find anything; but for not asking for a bribe either.  Brother Hendel passed him on the way out; and tried some very unsubtle intimidation on the mayor.  After a quick meeting with Arnthora, who warned Brother Hendel to leave town after he recounted his visit with the mayor, they went back to the manor - this time choosing to cut across the fields, rather than going close to the Temple.  That idea seemed to work out until they crossed through a narrow woodlot and discovered that the ground was torn up by some large beast.  Sadly, none of them has Tracking proficiency, so they don't know what to be worried about.
     The gardener having apparently disposed of the bodies, they delighted Bertalan by allowing him to take their cloaks.  But he knocked them off guard again when Dave asked how he knew to call Dave 'my lord' and Bertalan responded he had nipped home and looked them up in the Book of the Damned   Deciding this time to try asking Sir Rankling's picture which turned out to be hung right there in the Entry Hall.  Dave led off by asking the picture"How are you doing?"  Which got him a pleasant response, but the picture wouldn't respond to any other question.  Deciding to check another portrait, Dave then fell into a frenzied fit on the floor.
     Questioning Bertalan, they learned that the portrait would only answer one question a day; the skeleton's that they had fought had been guests of Lady Rithiena; and that the Rhododendron Amulet was on a shelf in his bedroom.  He couldn't go fetch it for them, as the werewolves were expecting visitors but he gave them instructions to his room.  Brother Hendel and Goris left Corwin watching the foaming Dave and had a uneventful trip through the manor, taking care not to touch anything else than the amulet itself.
     Beating a hasty retreat back to the village, they passed an quiet night.  Brother Hendel had a final interview with Arnthora and promised to bring help.  he also left her with one of the goblets to sell for funds.
    On the return trip they stumbled across some kobolds in the process of setting up an ambush.  They quickly routed the little dog lizards, leaving three dead and three fleeing.  Goris, mistaking himself for an AD&D monk, had attempted to knock a javelin aside - but caught it through his off hand.  Despite Brother Hendel's quick actions, he ended up losing three fingers.
   After a day of rest in the larger village of Bizye, they spent the trip back to Hadrianopolis debating if giving the Amulet to Dave's dad would set off some sort of arcane apocalypse.  In the end Dave turned it over, winning his father's favor and learning that it was essentially a magic dog whistle that his father had won in a wager with Sir Runic - who in his father's opinion is a first rate poltroon who has abandoned his responsibilities while living in Constantinople. 
     Brother Hendel has been informed that there is no one with the requisite skills available at the Temple to solve Arnthora's problem.  Dave and his staff are being sent back to investigate the Lightning Tower and check the condition of an old Roman fort in the area.  He has however, convinced his father to let him take a horse and some riding mules from the stables.