April 2009


"He's just pissed off because his Turing test came back negative." - The Duke of URL

April 2nd, 2009


"Wolves Beyond the Border" is one of the original Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard. The action, however, does not feature Conan himself. Howard chose to skew his literary camera off to one side and look at the world around his protagonist from a different angle.

This is my first memory of being exposed to this particular technique. It creates a very interesting effect, although -- ultimately -- I think the story is a failure. In the years since then, I've seen the technique used in a variety of series, and the result is more often failure than not.

Which is why, when I realized that Athyra was going to be using this particular approach, I subconsciously bunkered down for a long and painful slog...

... only to be more-than-pleasantly surprised to discover that my fears were unfounded.

In fact, it didn't take me very long to realize that Vlad Taltos lends himself particularly well to this particular approach. Part of it can simply be boiled down to the fact that the Taltos stories have been told from the POV of Taltos himself. So this is literally our first opportunity to see what he looks like to other people. (Whereas with Conan, for example, the stories are told from a third-person POV, so there's already some distance from the character.)

But Taltos' susceptibility to this kind of technique also has a lot to do with the nature of the character himself: Taltos likes to play his cards close to his vest. He plots and he plans, but he usually keeps those plans -- and even the information those plans are based on -- a closely kept secret. When you're inside his head, though, he can't keep any secrets from you. It's like watching a poker tournament on TV: You can see all the cards.

In Athyra, on the other hand, we suddenly find ourselves on the outside looking in: The cards are hidden from us. And that, in itself, is interesting.

But what really makes it fun is that, at this point, we've gotten to know Vlad pretty pretty well. So we still have a pretty deep insight into the types of games he plays and the way he plays them. So, on the one hand, we can suddenly sympathize with the new protagonist who finds himself baffled by Vlad's hidden strategies (a POV that suddenly gives us a fresh insight into the perspective of many supporting characters from the previous books), but on the other hand we can also appreciate the deeper structure of what Vlad is doing.

I think the other thing that makes Athyra work is the type of story Brust has chosen to tell: The main character is Savn, a young Dragaeran lad on the cusp of reaching adulthood. The novel, in short, falls into the familiar genre of "young boy/girl finds unique bond with exotic mentor while coming of age". (My personal favorite in this category is probably Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis, although you'll find examples of the genre cropping up everywhere.)

This type of story weds itself well to the enjoyment gleaned from knowing Vlad better than the main character does. In fact, the entire genre is largely driven by the fact that we -- either as adults or as the genre-aware -- can appreciate the "exotic mysteries" of the mentor figure. Part of the genre's effectiveness is that it saddles both sides of the chasm which is "coming of age". On the one hand, we remember the (relative) innocence of our youth. On the other, we know the wider world which is being revealed. In the interstice between the two, we remember what that coming of age was like... and thus become intimately sympathetic with the main character as they follow the same journey.

(When I was a kid, on the other hand, these stories operated on a very different level: The fictional mentor became my mentor as well, and I became intimately sympathetic with the main character because their journey was my journey.)

The other thing about this type of story is that, although it is not told from his POV, the mentor is a main character. When done properly, the story is as much the mentor's as the student's. So even though we're pushed out of Vlad's head, Vlad in some sense remains a main character (which I think helps make the technique work).



In my reaction to Yendi I discussed the genre-alteration of familiar tropes. Brust has a talent for taking existing archetypes, running them through the unique characteristics of his fantasy world, and creating something refreshingly unique and entertaining.

In the case of Athyra, Brust is telling a coming of age story for Savn... but Savn is 80+ years old.

Savn is a near-immortal Dragaeran with a lifespan of several hundred (possibly thousand) years. He is also a farmboy still serving in his apprenticeship to a physick. So in terms of social position (and even maturity), Savn is basically a teenager. A very old teenager.

Brust appears to be consciously attempting to explore what it would mean to be a near-immortal living in a society of other near-immortals. It's a bold challenge. And, in the narrow case of Savn and the story of Athyra, Brust succeeds.

But, to a large extent, he only succeeds by "cheating" -- and so, in a broader sense, he also fails.

By "cheating", I mean that he has placed Savn in a rural community which is socially backwards and largely populated with ignorance. This allows Brust to get away with having Savn be relatively naive and culturally under-developed. In other words, it allows him to largely draw a line of equivalence between "human 16-year old" and "Dragaeran 80-year old".

Which, as I say, works just fine for the story... but still disappoints on some level because it misses out on what could have been a much bolder and more dynamic challenge.

Let's try to break this down. If you actually took human lifespans and started lengthening them, what would happen to the concepts of "childhood" and "adulthood"?

Well, to some extent we don't have to imagine it: It's been happening all around us for the past hundred years or so. The concept of "teenager", for example, is a recent one. (The term itself wasn't even coined until the 20th century.) It represents a rather radical departure from ages past, when people we now consider "kids" would have actually been seen as fully functional adults. And over the past decade or so, I have noted increasing trends to infantilize college students, with a growing expectation that colleges and universities should be acting as some sort of surrogate parents for their students.

And this social trend appears to be expanding even as recent physical trend lines indicate that the onset of puberty is happening at earlier ages.

Speaking in general terms, I see three reasons for this expansion of pre-adulthood:

First, the increase in average lifespan lessens the sense of urgency in reaching adulthood and pursuing adult goals.

Second, the amount of "basic knowledge" expected for someone to function as an adult in society has drastically increased. We've gone from the completion of high school being exceptionally rare to a college education being seen as a fairly standard expectation. The acquisition of more knowledge requires more time, and this naturally expands the amount of time it takes to become an adult in the eyes of society.

Third, the amount of leisure time and the economic structure of our society has fundamentally shifted. When it's an economic necessity for your kids to help you in the field, you'll get them out there as soon as they're physically capable of helping you. But the vast majority of modern careers don't have that kind of structure. This, again, reduces the sense of urgency in reaching the transition from childhood to adulthood.

But there's an important proviso here: The 16-year old of today is not the functional equivalent of the 10-year old of yesteryear. And this is the mistake that Brust makes when he draws the line of equivalence between a modern 16-year old and a Dragaeran 80-year old. The expansion of childhood isn't like taking the same chunk of butter and spreading it over a larger slice of bread.

Because, fundamentally, the 80-year old Dragaeran will still have 80 years of experience, even if they're not functionally an adult in the eyes of their society. And you can kinda duck around that, as Brust does, by putting the character into a situation where they can easily hit a ceiling of knowledge and an endless cycle of dreary life.

But I think you're ducking out of the really interesting question: Whether it's a matter of physical maturation or social construct (or both), what does it really mean to be 80 years old and still be a child?

Athyra doesn't try to answer that question. If it did, it might have been a great novel. As it is, it's merely a fun one.


April 5th, 2009



Go to Part 1

For our third OD&D session in the Caverns of Thracia, we had four new players. Two of these players were completely new to RPGs; one had spent most of her time playing in the original World of Darkness; and the last had once played in a D&D campaign where the other players didn't bother explaining the rules to her and she had basically watched while somebody else played her character for her.

This last player was particularly leery about giving D&D another try. In fact, I'm not sure if she would have shown up at all if it hadn't been for the fact that OD&D was only one of the options for what we might play that night (the other was Arkham Horror). When the group decided on OD&D by a single vote, however, she joined the rest of us in rolling up a character.

I'm going to spoil the ending here: All five of the new players had a great time and all of them were eager to play again, including the player who had suffered such a sub-par experience the last time that she'd tried to play.

The new characters were: Greenwick the Halfling, Brennan the Fighting-Man, Howard the Magic-User, and Bob the Fighting-Man.

The spiel for introducing the rules and walking everyone through character creation took a little longer than in previous sssions because of the complete neophytes at the table, but we all had a good time of it. Howard's player, in particular, glommed onto the OD&D rule that all weapons deal 1d6 points of damage and decided that, instead of buying a weapon, he could just convert a gold piece into copper and then throw the copper coins at people.



We also had two returning characters: Reeva (who had missed the second session) and the halfling Thalmain, who had now catapulted himself all the way to 3rd level (despite suffering an XP penalty from his low prime requisite).

At the end of the previous session, Thalmain had gotten himself cursed while opening a chest. Making a ruling based on the costs for creating a magical scroll, I decided that getting the local priest to cast remove curse would cost him 200 gp.

Fortunately, Thalmain's share of the loot from the previous session had tallied at 240 gp.

This also gave us a nice hook for the new session: While the other PCs from the previous session were carousing with their loot, Thalmain found his own personal purse considerably lighter. Thus he had a motivation for rounding up a likely group of rag-tag treasure hunters (i.e., the other PCs) and returning to the ruins ASAP.

It was around this point, as the group was gearing itself up for the expedition, that Thalmain's player asked for the map they'd made in the previous session.

I grinned my evil DM grin and said, "Herbert was the one mapping."

And, of course, Herbert wasn't there.

After a bit of haggling, I decided that Herbert would be willing to sell the map to Thalmain. Thalmain had 40 gp left, so I grabbed 2d20 and rolled... two natural 20's.

Thalmain decided that he didn't particularly want to go completely broke, so he decided to instead steal the map. This proved easy enough, since Herbert was cavorting at the local tavern with his wealth.



As Thalmain led them into the Caverns of Thracia, he was able to act as a bit of a tour guide for the new players/characters. ("Here's where the bridge almost burned down... Don't open that door... Here's the pit trap I heroically saved the party from... Here's the place where I roasted lizardmen...")

Eventually, however, they began pressing on into unexplored territory. A short while later, they found themselves descending broad stairs of stone...

And that's when things got epic.

In the Caverns of Thracia, there is a room keyed thusly:

The Burial Crypt of the Cult of the Dark One: The reek of decaying flesh permeates the air here. Lying in ordered rows are rank upon rank of corpses. Most are long decayed and in skeletal form, but many are still fairly fresh, not having been dead for more than a few weeks (if you can call that fresh!). [...] If the southernmost pair of columns is approached within 5' or if the columns are passed between or to either side, 1-4 skeletons will animate and begin to attack intruders. Each additional melee round 1-4 more skeletons will animate as long as there are living intruders to fight, up to a total of 400 skeletons. Skeletons, AC: 7, Move: 12", HD: 1, Damage 1-6, HP 3.

I decided that the Thanatos cultists that they had killed before would have been moved down here, so there were also about a dozen bodies laid out directly before the leading into this large chamber and covered with fresh linen. (This creeped them out because, of course, it implied that there had been somebody around to move the bodies.)

Inevitably, of course, the PCs moved far enough into the room to trigger the undead guardians. As the corpses began to stir and wrench themselves free from the cordwood-like stacks of the dead, the party fell back to the entrance.

The two halfings -- skilled in ranged weaponry -- picked off the first wave. (Aided by the occasional coin-toss from Howard.) But more and more of the dead were beginning to stir, and they realized it would only take a few unlucky die rolls for the skeletons to reach their defensive position.

(Actually, I don't think I've discussed this previously: Halflings are described in OD&D as having "deadly accuracy with missiles as detailed in CHAINMAIL". These sessions are being run with the conceit that I don't "have" Chainmail, so we decided that halflings would simply get a +1 bonus to damage while using ranged weapons.)

Against the eminent risk, they quickly rearranged their lines. Brennan and Reeva took the front line. Greenwick switched from ranged attacks to a polearm in the second rank. And then Howard, Thalmain, and Bob lined up in back using their ranged attacks to thin the undead ranks before they reached the melee fighters.

But, more importantly, they also started spreading oil in front of their defensive position. And as soon as some of the undead got close enough, they lit the oil.

Based on my interpretation of the room key, the undead would just keep coming. Each undead had 1d6 hit points. Those that survived the ranged attacks would enter the oil, suffer 1d6 hit points, and frequently die before they even threatened the melee fighters.

After a couple of rounds, it was clear that the 1d4 skeletons per round were just never going to pose any kind of credible threat: The defensive position they'd created was too strong. And while the oil would only last for 1d6 rounds, they had stocked up on it (in large part due to Thalmain's success with a similar tactic during the last session).



I was in the process of trying to figure out how to make the encounter more interesting (since wittling through 400 undead 1d4 at a time wasn't particularly exciting) when the PCs made it easy for me:  They decided to try proactively eliminating the undead before they could rise. They tossed a flask of oil onto one of the piles of corpses and then fired a flaming arrow into it.

I ruled that the resulting conflagration was successful in destroying a large number of potential undead... but it also had the effect of rousing them. I rolled 1d10, got a result of 8, and went from rolling 1d4 to rolling 8d4 for the number of undead animating each round.

As the undead rose en masse, the piles collapsed -- sending the dead cascading across the floor of the chamber.

It's a testament to the strenght of their defensive position that they managed to hold out for several more rounds against the larger waves of undead without sustaining any injury. I was literally rolling fistfuls of d6's to calculate the skeleton's hit points while the players rolled a fistful of d6's to calculate the damage wrought from the wide moat of fire they had laid down. They would read off the results and I would toss d6's aside or lower their totals to reflect the current hit points of the skeletons.

Unfortunately, many of them were just 1st level characters. Eventually the law of averages worked against them and one of the skeletons emerged from the flaming oil and with a howl of undead rage managed to rip out Brennan's throat.

Around this same time, my d4's rolled high and a wave of 22 skeletons started heading towards them. At that point, they decided that discretion might be the better part of valor. But they weren't done yet: Howard moved up to the melee line and they held the position for another couple of rounds.

As the wave of the 22 skeletons got close, however, they fell back.

But they weren't done yet. See, Brennan had been the one carrying most of their (very large) supply of oil. So before they retreated, they rolled Brennan's body into the flames.

1... 2... 3....


Surprisingly, a couple of the skeletons managed to actually emerge from the far side of the inferno and pursue them a couple of steps up the stairs. (I say a couple of steps, because Thalmain and Bob put arrows through their skulls before they got any further.)

When it was all said and done, I tallied up the dead:

They had killed 76 skeletons.

Killed? It's probably more accurate to say "slaughtered" or "massacred" on a scale that a bunch of 1st level characters (with the exception of the 3rd level Thalmain) should really not be capable of dealing out.

Of course, they weren't 1st level any longer. Everybody not only leveled up, but also maxed out their XP for the next level, bumping into the "thou shalt not get enough XP for two levels" ceiling. (Well, except for Thalmain, who bumped into the "thou shalt not advance past 4th level" ceiling for halflings.)

76 skeletons.

It isn't the largest single-battle slaughter I've ever seen in a D&D game, but it's almost certainly the most impressive. The only battles that rival it in terms of sheer number involve groups fighting large hordes of significantly weaker opponents. 

Smart play. Very smart play.

Admittedly, if the skeletons had been smarter they wouldn't have continued marching into the flames. But, on the other hand, I'm not sure how much difference it would have made: The skeletons had no access to ranged weapons and any possibility of a retreat was cut off by the chasm to the north). Even if they had hung back, they would have simply been picked off by the party's ranged attacks.

To be continued...

April 7th, 2009


A false rumor spread around the Internet this morning that Dave Arneson, original creator of the dungeon crawl and co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, had died.

Unfortunately, Dave Arneson is seriously ill. He was taken to the hospital on April 5th due to a sudden worsening of his cancer. As of this writing, the latest news is that he has been transferred to a facility where his comfort can be best attended to.

An address has been established to which messages can be sent:

Dave Arneson
1043 Grand Avenue
Box #257
St. Paul, MN

I hope you will all join me in sending hopes and prayers in his direction. Not only is Mr. Arneson a shining beacon of creativity who has improved the lives of millions through his work, but -- by every account that I have ever heard -- he is a truly decent, generous, and wonderful human being. His passing, whenever it may come (and I hope it is a long time yet in coming), will be a tragedy and a loss beyond measure.

April 8th, 2009


Reading Orca is a somewhat surreal experience right now. Written in 1996, it nevertheless feels as if it should have a "RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES OF TODAY!" blurb blazoned across its cover.

In my reaction to Jhereg, I described the novel as: "A pulp detective novel by Raymond Chandler, except that the main character is an assassin instead of a private detective and his seedy office is in a world of high fantasy instead of the 1940s."

Orca, on the other hand, is just a flat-out pulp detective novel. It feels like Chinatown played out across the financial headlines of today in a world of high fantasy.

And, much like Jhereg, that's pretty much as cool as it sounds.

Orca also continues Athyra's approach of using non-Vlad points of view to tell the story. I have two thoughts on this:

First, Brust makes this approach work in Orca for reasons completely different than what made it work in Athyra. In Orca the technique is used to show us Vlad from the angle of one who knows him not at all.l In Athyra, Brust uses the technique to show us Vlad from the angle of one who knows him very well... and in the process reveals a lot about both Vlad and the narrator.

Second, there is a very deliberate effect being created in choosing to tell the story of this portion of Vlad's life through the eyes of others. There is, in fact, a layering of narratives: The story is being told to a very specific character (Cawti) by another character (Kiera); and as she narrates to Cawti, Kiera also re-tells parts of the tale which were only told to her by Vlad.

So while some portions are, at first glance, still being narrated by Vlad in a traditional fashion, even that narrative is being filtered through a second point of view.

Unreliable narrators are often used for cheap effect. But there's nothing cheap -- or simple -- about what Brust is accomplishing here.


April 8th, 2009 (2nd Update)

R.I.P. DAVE ARNESON - 1947 to 2009

Dave Arneson passed at 11 pm last night.

I can't really think of anything to say that I didn't say two days ago. Instead, let me simply call for a moment of digital silence in the memory of a great man.

April 12th, 2009


With this novel, Brust seems to have lost the unique voice of Vlad Taltos. Instead of the clever wittiness of previous volumes, the Vlad of this book is merely sardonic and shrill. There's also an oddly anachronistic tone in a patter drawn with distinctly 20th century rhthyms and tone.

This loss may have something to do with the fact that Brust is, once again, jumping back to a much earlier time in Vlad's life. He handled this back-and-forth movement of the meta-narrative adroitly in the past, but the Vlad that we had last seen in Orca had been deeply transformed. Brust wouldn't be the first author to demonstrate that, sometimes, you just can't go home again.

The other failings of the book are less understandable, perhaps, but might ultimately have the same origin: If Brust was struggling to find young Vlad's voice, that inauthentic note can very easily spread to other aspects of the work.

Notably there's a narrative bloat coupled with a lack of focus. There's lots of stuff on the page here that doesn't seem to serve any real purpose and a lot of it is authorial meandering of the worst type. ("I'm going to talk about my inability to cook a particular type of bread because I've got a word count to hit by Friday and I don't know what else to write just now.")

Even the non-traditional narrative structure doesn't work. It's not actually being used to accomplish any specific effect (unlike the similar structure used in Taltos). So it just comes off as gimmicky and trite. In fact, the novel probably would have been better without this cheap trick. (In Taltos the same technique improved the novel because the structure reinforced the themes of the book and gave wider context to the individual events.)

In the case of Dragon, Brust tries to blatantly tell you that he's giving you wider context. But, in actual practice, he just deflates the entire plot: The fact that you know what's going to happen long before it happens just adds an even larger sense of bloat to the mild bloat which is already dragging the novel down.

It should also be noted that things generally improve as the novel continues, feeling almost as if Brust was warming up to his subject. In the end, however, I found this to be the weakest of the Taltos novels.


April 13th, 2009


This material is covered by the Open Gaming License.

A character can choose to push the limits of their normal abilities in exchange for the character suffering some fatigue from the effort. Immediately after using extra effort, a character becomes fatigued (-2 Strength, -2 Dexterity, cannot run), even if they are normally immune to fatigue. If a character uses extra effort while fatigued they become exhausted (-6 Strength, -6 Dexterity, one-half speed). If a character uses extra effort while exhausted they become unconscious.

A character using extra effort can gain one of the following benefits for a single round:

Activate Class Ability: Gain an additional use of a class ability that has a limited number of uses per day.

Desperate Parry: As an immediate action, gain the the benefits of fighting defensively (or using the Combat Expertise feat) against one attack. If the character was already fighting defensively (or using the Combat Expertise feat), double the bonus gained.

Desperate Speed: Move at double speed for one round or take an additional 5 foot step.

Emulate Feat: Benefit from a feat they don't have for 1 round. The character must meet the prerequisites of the feat.

Emulate Metamagic: The character can use a metamagic feat they don't have or don't have prepared. This increases the casting time of the spell to at least a full round unless using the Quicken Spell feat. A caster with prepared spells must use up a prepared spell of the appropriate level, but can keep the original spell being modified. A spontaneous caster can use extra effort to use a metamagic feat they do know without increasing the casting time of the spell.

Extra Attack: When performing the full attack action, make 1 extra attack at their highest base attack bonus.

Focused Skill Check: Take 10 on a skill check even when they normally couldn't.

Opportunist: Take an extra attack of opportunity.

Prodigious Strength: Double their carrying capacity for one round or gain a +2 bonus to a single Strength check (or Strength-based skill).

Spell Boost: A caster can use extra effort to gain a +2 bonus to their effective caster level for a single spell. (Must declare before casting the spell.)

Turn the Blow: Automatically negate an opponent's critical hit (turning it into a normal hit).

Vicious Blow: Automatically confirm a critical without making an additional attack roll. (Must be declared before checking the crit.)



A character performing an exhausting effort suffers from exhaustion. If a character is fatigued when performing an exhausting effort, they become unsconsious. Exhausted characters cannot attempt an exhausting effort.

Intense Skill Check: The character can Take 20 on a physical skill check without expending any additional time on the check and even in circumstances where they normally couldn't.

Recall Spell: Spellcasters who prepare their spells can use exhausting effort to recall any spell previously cast on the same day. The spell can be cast again with no effect on other prepared spells. Spontaneous spellcasters can use extra effort to cast a spell without using one of their daily spell slots.

Second Effort: The character can reroll any one die roll and use whichever result is better.



The Extra Effort mechanics serve a function similar to Action Points. One key difference is that while Action Points are a dissociated mechanic, the Extra Effort mechanics are associated: They specifically model that moment when a character digs deep and finds the inner reserves necessary to do what must be done.

The specific list of benefits that a character can gain from Extra Effort should be considered a sampler. Players should be encouraged to propose their own, situation-specific benefits from Extra Effort.

In judging whether or not a particular benefit is appropriate, I propose a simple spot-check: If it's appropriate for a 2nd-level spell, then it's appropriate for extra effort. If it's appropriate for a 4th-level spell, then it's appropriate for an exhausting effort.

The rationale for this is simple: Fatigue can be removed with lesser restoration (a 2nd-level spell) and exhaustion can be removed with restoration (a 4th-level spell). Therefore, in a worst case scenario, the system can't be abused any farther than a character using extra effort and then immediately wiping it out with a 2nd-level spell or using exhausting effort and then immediately wiping it out with a 4th-level spell.

In playtesting, for example, exhaustive efforts were created when the Recall Spell ability proved too powerful: Characters were getting the benefit of a mnemonic enhancer spell for the use of a lesser restoration spell. Mnemonic enhancer, however, is a 4th-level spell -- so if characters want to use a 4th-level restoration spell to more-or-less mimic the effect of another 4th-level spell, I've got no problem with that.

APRIL 2009: