Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Prince [NORTON]

Everyone's heard of The Prince, and the adjective "Machiavellian" has become a regular part of the English language.  It was illuminating to re-read the text and the critical essays contained in the Norton Critical Edition.  The essays helped place the text  within the context of the discourse up to the time of Machiavelli's writing, in which long treatments of statesmanship were centred around abstract and unrealistic exhortations to virtue.  The reason The Prince became so (in)famous was because it broke with that tradition and explicitly set morality aside in order to act as a practical primer on how a ruler could stay in power given the ever-changing currents of war, diplomacy, and popular unrest around him or her.  Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was that, despite the assistance he may have provided to would-be tyrants and dictators, Machiavelli lived in the republican city-state of Florence and was a strong believer in the benefits of the republican form of government over monarchies and other types of government that he had first-hand experience with as a professional diplomat.  On the other side, the great admiration that Machiavelli had for the diabolical Cesare Borgia is a testament that he really believed in what he wrote.  I wished the edition had a better essay summarizing Machiavelli's life and detailing what led to his torture and retirement from public life.

[Note that the second edition is pictured here, but I have the first edition]

Monday, December 5, 2016

Magnimar, City of Monuments [PATHFINDER CAMPAIGN SETTING]

Magnimar, City of Monuments is the first book I've picked up in Paizo's line of campaign setting books for the Pathfinder role-playing game (I'm running an adventure path in which the PCs are likely to visit).  The book is out of print now, so I secured my copy from a used-book seller (PDFs can be bought from paizo.com).  The first thing that stands out is the cover--fantastic!  One of my favorite pieces of art from the game, and something that would make a cool poster.  On the interior front cover is a map of the city, showing its division into nine different districts.  The book is then divided into three main parts.

The first main part consists of sections on each of the districts and has a smaller map of just that district (which is why the main map on the inside front cover is done at a very high level of abstraction).  The district sections include a separate stat block which is a nice touch and then includes capsule descriptions of a handful of prominent locations.  Occasional sidebars are throughout the book, such as "Nine Famous Magnimarians" or "Thieves and Thugs of Magnimar".  I frankly found the district sections a bit boring to read straight through, but I think as a reference and game preparation aid they would be quite useful.  Most importantly, they detail one of the things that sets Magnimar apart from other cities in Golarion: the presence of ancient monuments (dating to the time of Thassilon) which, if the correct rituals are performed by the PCs, give them temporary mechanical bonuses.  It's a great way to tie the city's history into something that your players will care about because the flavour is matched with bonus crunch.  Before I get to the last two parts of the book, I'll again praise the artwork: the interior pictures of NPCs and important buildings are gorgeous.  Just look at the Forever Man on p. 46 and try to suppress adventure ideas!

The second part is titled "Plots and Perils".  It includes brief overviews on the hinterlands around Magnimar, the city's sewers, a villainous organization called the Midnight Dawn, and, most importantly, the Irespan--the ancient, enormous bridge whose remnants conceal secrets from thousands of years ago.  For a campaign set in Magnimar, the Irespan would be a natural site of adventure and has enough to interest PCs for some time.

The third part, "Denizens", includes something I appreciate: random encounter tables, separated by day and night, for different parts of Magnimar.  I do wish there'd be a guide on how often one should roll on the tables, but I guess that's left to GM discretion.  Next, there are descriptions and stat blocks for monsters and NPC types: Angelic Guardians, Aspis Agents, City Guards and Captains, Mystery Cultists, Night Scale Assassins, Sczarni Thugs, Shifty Nobles, and Shoanti Gladiators, Shriezyx (the spider monsters featured on the cover), Swamp Barracudas (again, great artwork), the Vyrdrach (a gargantuan creature that can capsize large ships), and, last, a celestial called a Yamah.

Discussion by commenters on the Paizo site correctly notes that the table of contents for the book could be much improved (it only has three entries, one for each of the big parts of the book) and that the book is lacking an index.  These things can be an editorial chore when deadlines loom, but they make a big difference in how useful a product is in the middle of a gaming session--no one wants to sit and wait for the GM to flip through to find that one inn they wanted to describe for the PCs.

All in all though, I was quite happy with the book.  Magnimar seems like a fairly "safe" place for PCs to visit, but has enough adventure lurking right outside (or underneath, or overhead) that it could serve well as the centre of a campaign.  It'll certainly help me with the adventure path as well.  I'm looking forward to reading the other books detailing cities in Varisia.

Blood of the City [PATHFINDER TALES]

Blood of the City was the first Pathfinder novel I've read.  I picked it up because the setting of the story, the Varisian city of Magnimar, is relevant to the Rise of the Runelords adventure path I'm running.  The story follows the cool concept of an "urban druid" (though never called that by name) who is part of a family of semi-aristocratic trouble-shooters.  There's an amazing twist about a third of the way into the book that I couldn't believe at first.  Overall, the novel was fast-paced and interesting, with good character development.  It also served its purpose as a good introduction to Magnimar, including its Chellish inhabitants, how Shoanti are perceived, the role of the Mayor, etc..  I would definitely read more by the author.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Prince of Wolves [PATHFINDER TALES]

Prince of Wolves is the first in a line of novel-length fiction set in the world of Golarion, home of the Pathfinder role-playing game.  Written by Dave Gross, the book consists of alternating chapters told from two points of views: an aristocratic Pathfinder (professional explorer and knowledge-hunter) named Varian Jeggare and his bodyguard, a rough-and-tumble streetsmart Hell-touched bodyguard named Radovan.  The pair are on a mission in Ustalav (a land of mists, moors, and the undead reminiscent of Ravenloft) in order to find out the fate of another missing Pathfinder.  Both of the main characters are interesting, as neither fits squarely into an "adventuring class" and they have distinct but likable personalities.  The plotting seems a bit rough in spots, but was solid overall.  Gross wasn't shy about littering the book with references to Golarion, so fans of the campaign setting should be happy.  After reading the book, I learned there were some short stories published on the Paizo website that gave a great deal of backstory to the characters--I wish the novel would have mentioned them!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Frankenstein [NORTON]

I've read Frankenstein a couple of times before, but it was still enjoyable to read it again.  One of the things that stands out is how the most iconic scenes from pop culture and movies (the moment of creation, the creature chased by a mob, etc.) are completely different in the novel, and how the creature is quite smart and well-spoken.  To me, the most evocative scenes are set in the desolate,  frozen wastelands as Frankenstein chases the creature.  There's also a few bits that stand out to me as unnecessary, such as the over-long backstory of the Turkish visitor to the blind-man's hut.  The essays in the Norton Critical Edition are good, but they start to get repetitive as almost every one focusses on various feminist readings of the text.  My favourite essay is the last one, "Frankenstein, the True Story; or, Rousseau Judges Jean-Jacques" as it cleverly critiques critical scholarship on the novel as being constituted primarily of interpretations that rarely engage with each other.  I know I'm rambling a bit, but overall this is a good edition of the novel and, from the essays, it seems like the version included here (the original 1818) is much better than Mary Shelley's later revision.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Piers Anthony's Steppe (Planet Stories # 23)

Steppe is a Piers Anthony science-fiction/fantasy novel from the mid-1970s that anticipates, in a surprisingly accurate way, some concepts that have become commonplace today.  The story involves a 9th century Uigur warrior from the steppes of central Asia being abducted into the future in order to play a role in a vast game.  The game, run by a powerful central computer, allows people to take on roles in a historical simulation and tracks their progress (and rewards) by how well they succeed.  If a character "dies", the player exits the game but can pay to come back in with a role that could be better or worse depending on how well the player did with the previous role.  In short, it's the idea of a massively-multiplayer online RPG about twenty years ahead of its time!  Anthony's story has a clever way that the computer anthropomorphizes entires countries as individual people in order to teach players history before they enter the game.  The story drags a little in the latter half and could have a more interesting conclusion, but the basic concept is really cool.  A good add to the Planet Stories line.

Mynock Squadron Recap # 16 [RPG]

[4.7.19 continued]

Having returned from a conference on immunology, Warrant Officer Kero Andro lands her shuttle in one of the Flourishing's many hangar bays. The information she obtained about the nanoshape virus is not good: researchers have had no luck compiling a shutdown signal for the virus, and only extreme cold seems to keep it from spreading quickly. In a bid to prevent panic and preserve military security, the existence of the virus is being kept highly confidential.

When she lands, Kero is greeted by Private Mikaela Sor, a new member of Mynock Squadron responsible for communications and operational support. Sor tells Kero that with Torga still in hypo-stasis and Stavros having received a medical discharge, Tuvolo has arranged for a new member to be added to Gamma Flight named Max Cindarion. Sor goes on to tell Kero that her fellow members in Gamma have been sent on a Search & Rescue mission to find Max, but they haven't returned. Kero resolves to go after them, but first prepares for the inhospitable climate of Haruun Kal by requisitioning a slughthrower and some valuable crystals to serve as currency.

Meanwhile, after an uncomfortable night's sleep inside the Y-Wings, the other members of Gamma Flight awaken. Keth quickly realizes that jungle nexu are circling the vessels, and one has even jumped up on the fuselage of Waric and Tazo-Rhi's ship. Realizing the threat, Waric tries to spin his turret around rapidly to knock the creature off, but it nimbly avoids the maneuver and starts scratching at the turret canopy. In their vessel, Trill and Max commiserate over being forced to fly such antique starfighters. When she hears about the nexu, Trill orders Keth to lift off and serve as a spotter so that Max can advance on foot towards Waric and Tazo-Rhi's Y-Wing and shoot the nexu that are surrounding it. Max resists the order at first, but eventually complies and opens the canopy of his vessel's cockpit. A nexu hidden under the fuselage claws and scurries its way on the vessel's top surface. Max tries to retreat by climbing up a tree, but falls and lands awkwardly on the ship's port thruster. The nexu advances, but Trill slows it with a blast from the Y-Wing's ion cannon turret. Max executes a perfect somersault, draws his blaster, and kills the creature seconds before it can leap on him.

Kero, having first stopped at a Korrunai village to trade for some portaak amber to insulate electronics from the native spores, arrives at the scene in her shuttle. Seeing several nexu circling the grounded Y-Wings, she draws upon her knowledge of predator carnivore physiology and broadcasts an extremely high-pitched frequency to drive them away. After Waric, Trill, and Max receive first aid, Waric and Keth succeed in repairing the engine on the downed Y-Wing and Gamma Flight is able to escape the dangers posed by Haruun Kal.

When they arrive at the Flourishing a few hours later, the pilots are told they have a short period of free time before a major briefing that will involve the entire Squadron. Kero chats with the newest member of the group, and Max tells her his military specialities include flying, dueling, and infiltration. Kero explains that she was extremely bored at the medical conference, and the two decide to share some blaster target practice. Keth requisitions a new sidearm to replace the one that was damaged on Haruun Kal and then joins them. Warik runs a self-diagnostic on his cybernetic equipment and then writes an after-action report on the failed mission to secure the Guiding Heart. Warik writes that he suspects the unusual manifestations of energy and strange behaviour of Gamma Flight may have been caused by some sort of anomalies in the Force. Later, Kero talks with the director of the Flourishing's medical team and suggests that if the native Haruun Kal spores disrupt electronics, they may be useful in suppressing the nanoshape virus. The medical director seems intrigued by the new line of inquiry and promises to research the idea.

When the members of Gamma Flight enter the briefing room, they see that the members of both Alpha and Beta Flights are there as well. With Mikaela Sor operating the holodisplay, Lt. Tuvolo explains that the sudden withdrawal of Grand Moff Artis Kain's Pentastar Alliance from known space has left the Imperial-held planet of Nishr vulnerable to attack. Mynock Squadron has been tasked by the Provisional Council with liberating the planet, and Tuvolo explains each Flight's role. Alpha is to establish air superiority near the Imperial garrison and Beta is to sneak in and destroy the garrison's shield generators so that regular New Republic infantry can lay siege. Meanwhile, Gamma Flight has been tasked with freeing the four remaining members of Nishr's past elected government to serve as transitional leaders once the Imperial grip on the planet has been broken. 

The members of Gamma Flight pay close attention to this part of the briefing, and learn that the four politicians, and many other prisoners, are held in a detention camp about twenty kilometers from Drushar. The camp is operated by DuraSun, a mercenary group hired by the Imperials. A small contingent of TIE-fighters have been assigned to the camp to provide combat air patrol, but the camp is also defended by multiple E-Web blaster towers, an electrified durasteel weave perimeter fence, and armoured landspeeders. However, a member of New Republic Intelligence known to Gamma, Marrass, has infiltrated the camp in the guise of a captured member of a rival Imperial warlord and is able to provide some intelligence through a short-range synthflesh transmitter. Sor will be coordinating the entire operation in orbit in a shuttle, and will land to pick up prisoners once the evac signal is given.

Tuvolo says that the C.O. of each Flight should decide on a tactical plan in consultation with their subordinates, and that a proposal should be brought to him in the morning. The members of Gamma Flight proceed to discuss various options long into the night, including whether they should go in "hot" and fight their way into the camp, or go in "cold" and infiltrate the camp. Warik suggests that a combination may be feasible, with someone on the inside to help Marrass secure the high-value prisoners and the others on the outside to destroy the E-web towers. There is major disagreement on the best way to handle the E-web towers, with Warik initially suggesting that he could sneak up and plant explosives on each one, but Kero stating that the idea is too risky. She suggests, instead, using the group's assigned Y-Wings to destroy the towers with proton torpedos, but Max expresses his view that the turrets might shoot down the aged starfighters, and there is some general concern about what will happen if a stray torpedo hits the prisoner blocks.

Discussion turns to whether someone should infiltrate the camp. Max suggests that the infiltrator could start a riot of prisoners to provide a distraction, but Kero says there is no guarantee they would assist during a battle. Discussion is had as to whether two Gamma members should infiltrate: Max as a prisoner, and Keth as a mercenary. Warik and Kero clash over the idea of someone infiltrating as a prisoner, because Kero doesn't see the value of having one of their few assets trapped inside during an attack, unarmed. Warik replies that they could provide useful intelligence. 

After thinking over the various proposals, Kero tells the others that she has made a decision: most of Gamma will remain in their Y-Wings to destroy the TIEs and E-Web towers from the air. Meanwhile, Max will approach the southeast corner of the compound on foot, cut or blast through the fence, and release the prisoners. The plan is for him to carry with him several stealth suits so that he, Marrass, and the prisoners can sneak away while the guards are distracted from the heavy bombardment coming from the Y-Wings. Once the prisoners are a safe distance away from the camp, the shuttle can fly down to extract them. 

At first, Kero's decision meets with resistance. Max says it's suicidal to have just one or two people on the ground going up against over a dozen hardened mercenaries. Kero remains firm in her decision, however, and replies that the air support will provide enough of a distraction to keep the guards from heavily defending any particular part of the base. Warik suggests using a concussion-missile launcher from the ground to soften up the E-web towers without the danger of proton torpedoes, and preparing some proximity mines for aerial dispersal at select points inside the camp. Kero agrees.

Having decided on a general approach, the members of Gamma set to work deciding on equipment to requisition and sorting out other important details of the operation.
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Director's Commentary (November 13, 2016)

I thought this session had a really nice mix of action and role-playing.  The conclusion of the Haruun Kal cliffhanger was exciting and proved a great introduction to Max Cindarion.  I was really struck by how clever Kero's player was in suggesting that the native spores on the planet (which suppress electronics) could be the key to stopping the nanovirus--it makes perfect sense, but I hadn't planned any such solution at all!

The latter half of the session featured a lot of strategic planning.  This is something I really wanted to see happen since it's one of the things that distinguish a military-themed campaign from the usual "bunch of adventurers stumbling into trouble" sort of campaign.  I think it went pretty well, though it did reveal that some players couldn't separate the in-character disagreement from out-of-character disagreement, and that some players didn't have a lot of patience for planning.  Still, as we'll see next session, their plan went off like gangbusters . . .