Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Adventure Review - 'No Tears Over Spilled Coffee!'

I have to be honest, I don't play e5 much. People cry over it. There should be no crying in D&D. I wouldn't have noticed this adventure except for the hue and cry people put up over it. 

The free adventure is called 'No Tears Over Spilled Coffee!' and is available at D&D Beyond

Allow me to throw up the standard stat block before I get into the review. 

Title: No Tears Over Spilled Coffee
Author: Michael Galvis
Year: 2022
Pages: 6 pages
Rating: 2 of 5 stars

The hue and cry over this adventure revolve around the premise of a band of characters working in the Firejolt Cafe, a coffee shop. Let me tell you, every person who offered this criticism is wrong. Flat wrong. 

There is a long history of landing adventures in the wrong role for the rule of funny. Robert Asprin's Myth Adventures come to mind rather easily. If Asprin can have Skeve walking into an Expy McDonalds in search of a trollop and finding trolls waiting tables, then so can you. 



I have to put an ad in here to honor the late author Robert Asprin. His characters, much like the characters in Coming to America, know their version of Mcdonald's is treading dangerously close to some sort of infringement. It is the rule of funny. 

A DM or blogger really shouldn't say something unless they can actually sell it. So, I have links to Amazon Ads to really, really sell it to you. 

The setting is not where this adventure falls apart. 

The Crew

The character's mission starts with a call from Ellina, the owner of the Firejolt Café. She has lost all of her staff and the party of new hires is her last chance to stay open. Unfortunately for all, Ellina is starting to get sick, so this first day will include some training, then Ellina will absent herself from the rest of the adventure. 

Literally. Like her employees, she never comes back for the rest of the adventure. 

There are a couple of problems with this scenario, beyond being snatched from the headlines, possibly right from your player's typical workday. 

Some of the problems could be reworked to be funny as opposed to problems. For example, it seems the author thinks there are cell phones in this world. "Called..." Yeah, if you accept some sort of anachronistic coffee shop, then you get cell phones. 

But imagine the contrary. Metron the Mercilous is lost, at sea between campaigns. He hires a band of criers to advertise his willingness to cut on people and burn villages.  In response, a crier approaches him with an excellent, turn-key opportunity with Ellian. Metron orders his henchmen to assemble as he reaches out to his assassin and thieving friends, plus a cleric of dubious intentions to seal the deal. He and his warband march off to the Firejolt Café to claim the prize appointments, prepared for the obvious campaign of bloodletting. 

To his surprise, he finds a gang of union members around the Café trying to get him to join. They promise Metron and his boys a minimum of 15 coppers an hour. Metron reaches for his battle-ax as Ellian quickly runs out to separate the gangs before anyone is separated from their heads. 

Yes, the whole premise could be seriously funny. 

Anyway, back to the actual adventure. 

Ellian (and the DM) walk the players through the game mechanics for play. Some characters can gain an advantage by being observant and utilizing the offered materials in the Café. Eventually, the party breaks common tasks down and gets to work. 

The day progresses without offering the players and their characters any option using strategy or tactics or any bit of creativity to succeed. 

Yawn. 

The Challenge

Finally! A challenge presents itself. The party has to work together to deal with a particularly difficult task. Ok. This is fine. 

The party has to come up with a perfect drink for a difficult customer. This is where the whole thing unravels. 

Up to this point, the characters have had an easy time of it. In order to complete this challenge, they must pass 5 successive DC 11 skill rolls. And here in lies the problem. 

Do you know the chances of rolling an 11 or higher on a 1d20? It's 50-50. A coin toss. Players generally know how to measure their chances and this one will ring out as carney style game. 50-50 sounds pretty great. That's easy. 

But 5 in a row... ah... That works out to be a 3% chance. That's exactly like flipping a fair coin 5 times in a row and getting tails each time. 

Worse than 3%

But it's worse than the numbers hint at. As each player attempts to roll an 11 or higher, there will be a crystal clear point where someone's failure will screw the party. 

Essentially, as the party rolls, someone has a 50-50 chance of blowing it and that failure will land on a single player and their poor die rolls. Even if the characters have a skill that pushes up their chances to say 12 in twenty, the chances rise to a mere 7%. The check would have to push to 18 in 20 to give a better than 50% chance of success. 

It is one thing where a party snatches victory from the jaws of defeat by careful application of skills and talents. It's something different when you have some to roll less than an 18 which sounds like a challenge until you flip it around and ask them to roll over a 2 on a twenty-sided die. 

Presentation

As you can see, under 18 and over 2 sounds like two different things because of the presentation. This adventure's saving grace is the slick presentation where it sounds like the party can do something together. But the math shows otherwise. 

While the premise could be interesting, the given purpose and tasks offer little or no reward to the players and are actually crocked to ensure the party fails. 

I gave this adventure one star for being free and a second for being creative. It is an excellent learning experience for DM to learn how not to create an adventure. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

New Reviews - Five Books

Last year, I managed more than 52 reviews. Most of them were sci-fi-themed as I reviewed a ton of Helen Mary Hoover books. Technically, she is a young adult author but also ticks off the science fiction and young women coming of age in bleak future tropes. I love them. I hope to finish up the last of her books this year. 

I've got a great start this year, having tackled 5 books in 15 days. Well, 5 novels anyway. I read a few more than that if you include gamebooks or science lectures. Back in 2016, I graduated with my Bachelor's in History. I would typically read a book a week per class. Each 16 week semester I would chew through 45+ books, not counting textbooks or articles, or other reading materials. Two or 3 books a week is a nice slow pace for me. It makes the content easy to digest.  

All but one of these are classics, being over 20 years old and must-reads for the science-fiction or fantasy buff. The odd man out is Inhibitor Phase by Alastair Reynolds as it was published in 2021. 

My intention with this post was to have all 5 reviews done before posting. But that turned out to be more time-consuming than I anticipated. As I post more reviews, I will add more links. Additionally, I would like to rework the top page bar at the top of my blog to break down reviews into categories, so that Traveller Fans don't have to pick through fantasy books and vice versa. 

As a part of the digestion portion of these readings, I also plan to have a post about science fiction weapons that are terrifying. Niven, Pournelle, and Reynolds have stuff in their books that is absolutely insane and somewhat based on reality. 

In addition to all of this, I also have several new sources for books beyond physical or electronic books from Amazon. I have my favorite two or three local bookshops, but those aren't available online. Abebooks is an excellent resource. I will be sharing each of these with you as a part of the review process. 

With Amazon, you have physical books, ebooks, and Audible books. One attractive feature of Audible is the ability to purchase the ebook along with the Audible version. I have done this a couple of times and found it less useful than advertised. I probably won't do it in the future. 

If you need an Audible account, click the link below. All clicks to Amazon result in remuneration to me, which supports These Old Games. 

Book Review - The Winds of Gath by E. C. Tubbs

Title: The Winds of Gath
Author: E. C. Tubbs
Year: 1982
Pages: 192 pages
Print Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Audible Rating: N/A 

The Winds of Gath is a curious story that was suggested to me by SAFCO podcast. This is the first in a series describing Earl Dumarest journey back home to Earth. Being born on Earth, Earl is the only person who knows it is real, everyone else believes it's a myth. 

E. C. Tubbs spends a lot of pages describing the titular planet of Gath, the winds, and the society that Earl must navigate to get home. By way of explanation, Earl was presented as a youthful 30-something, somewhat unaware of the nature of the worlds he navigates. From the text, it is very obvious that the Traveller game has roots here. The older age of the protagonists, the technologies, skills available and the progression Earl follows to the conclusion all harken back to the aesthetics of Traveller. 

What I find interesting is the obvious comparison to the book, The Grapes of Wrath. The hard-luck freedom gained by Earl and Tom Joad in the opening of each book is similar. Their exploration of their immediate situation leads to a journey full of adventure, disappointment, and mediocrity. Both stories end with a brutal fight against the powers that be, Tom beating a deputy and Earl beating a battle-trained prince. Where Tom's story ends, Earl's continues in a series of 32 other books. Welcome to the Dumarest Saga. 

Obviously, where Tom was a Christ analog, Earl is not. All three take the role of teacher at various points, but Earl's situation is wildly different as this is a story of belief as opposed to one of leadership in belief and love.  

I find this story to be very creative and appealing. However, I think that Earl and Tubbs come into their own in future titles, as the point of this story is less the journey and more the miles. 

As always, I suggest that you look for this title in your local book store. However, if it is not available you can check out AbeBooks.com for a copy. Click here to search for The Winds of Gath by E. C. Tubbs. All clicks and purchases provide remuneration to support this site. 

If you prefer the electronic version or have an Amazon Prime account, the book is available there, too. 


Book Review - Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

Title: Swords and Deviltry: The Adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
Author: Fritz Leiber
Narrator: Jonathan Davis, Neil Gaiman (introduction only)
Year: 1970
Pages: 254 pages
Print Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Audible Rating: 5 of 5

In 2022, I would like to add a lot more fantasy to my collection of book reviews. Today, I look at a classic by Fritz Leiber.

Swords and Deviltry tells the story of The Gray Mouser and Fafhrd's first meeting in 4 short stories that Leiber weaves together into an excellent novel. 

If you have never read Fritz Leiber, his prose is clean, poetic, and fine. This is the perfect book to listen to via Audible as Jonathan Davis's voice is amazing. At the outset, I had my doubts because the book has an introduction by Neil Gaiman, whose voice sounds like golden whiskey to me. Davis sounds plain by comparison, but his care and tone with the characters is perfect. Davis does not do "voices" for different characters, but his style of slightly changing his voice while adding subtle tones conveys so much. 

As mentioned before, this "novel" is 4 stories assembled in novel form. They were originally separate short stories for magazines. I have provided the date of publication next to each one: 

  • Opening Introduction/Credits read by Neil Gaiman. 
  • "Induction" (1957)
  • "The Snow Women" (1970)
  • "The Unholy Grail" (1962)
  • "Ill Met in Lankhmar" (1970)

Induction was the primer on the world of Nehwon and was only about 300 words long. It wasn't really necessary to include it, but Leiber was building epic characters so the magical world of Nehwon needed to be set. 

The Snow Women dealt with Fafhrd's family issues and lovers. Fafhrd leaves his lover Mara behind to adventure south the sultry actress Vlana. Fafhrd danced delicately between the two women and the magic, onuses, and curses sent by his mother and her coven. Davis, the Audible narrator really shines in this presentation, giving voice to both Vlana and Mara. His tone and tempo convey a sense of drive and passion in these characters. You can almost hear blushing, eye-rolling, and pursed lips in his delivery. This was very important to the presentation of Fafhrd, who has what could be described as a feminine voice himself. At no point is this confusing to the listener. On paper, in prose, these characters are driven and strong, no doubt about it. Both renditions were excellent but I was surprised at Davis's performance in the audio version. 

In the 3rd story, we meet Mouse as the apprentice of the magician Glavas Rho. Mouse is torn between what type of magic he wanted to pursue. Mouse, as read by Davis becomes stronger and more solid as the performance and story progress, which seems to have been the intent of Leiber writing of him. Sure, but not cocky, determined at first and later driven describes Mouse's transformation. And what a transformation it is. His hand was forced as the Duke slew Glavas Rho while capturing the poor Mouse. As a captive, he discovered the Duke's daughter, Ivrian was also an apprentice to Glavas Rho. Using her as a conduit, he escaped torture by casting the darkest black magic at the Duke. 

And finally, in Ill Met in Lankhmar, the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd bushwacked a pair the thieves on their way to the fence some items at the guild house. Realizing they are kindred, the two adventurers join forces to infiltrate the thieves guild. Unfortunately, their loves pay for their daring and are killed, setting the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd on a path of vengeance and adventure. 

This collection was the very start of the duo that really shaped sword and sorcery fiction. Six more books followed these first adventures.  

I cannot suggest Swords and Deviltry enough. I would hope that the book is available at your local book store, but if it isn't click the link to search AbeBooks.com.

Of course, the Audible book is available from Amazon as are paperback and Kindle copies.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Book Review - Footfall by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven


Title: Footfall
Author: Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven
Audible Narrator: MacLeod Andrews
Year: 1985
Pages: 495 pages
Print Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Audible Rating: 4 of 5 stars

I explored two different versions of this title: the ebook and the Audible version. Both have their flaws, but of the two I found the ebook superior until the final 100 hundred pages where the Audible book is by far superior. Niven 'n Pournelle are a dynamic duo, the authors of dozens of books together. And they fit together nicely as it is difficult to sense a shift of voice that can happen with two authors. However, this is a weakly told story with many flaws. 

I find Footfall difficult to review as it doesn't really fit with my reading habits. It's iron-hard science fiction in the guise of a summer blockbuster. It's tough on the reader. Back in 1985, I am sure that it was groundbreaking but over the years, 75 to 85% of the book is dated to the point of being trite. The ebook edition leads with a cast of characters that is longer than the chapters of books I have read. The Audible version experiences many near-failures with trying to render an alien language which makes the narrator sound like he is having a stroke. It really wasn't Andrews' fault, it was the story. 

In order to get through the review, I will ignore the flaws and get right to the 5 W's and H questions. In 1995, the Soviet Union is winning the Space Race and the Americans are deeply concerned as a mysterious spacecraft is spotted near Saturn. As the craft approaches Earth, a cast of easily a hundred characters in the United States and the Soviet Union band together to welcome our first contact aliens, the Fithp. 

Niven and Pournelle flesh out these aliens to an insane degree. They have a language, a homeworld, a collection of technology, and psychology. They are elephant-like creatures with superior firepower and a herd mentality. The authors hang out the lampshade on war-like, herd animals right at the outset and screw in a strobe light so the reader never forgets it.

First contact goes as well as you can expect, with a human delegation on the Soviet space station taken captive as all infrastructure for communication and war-making was bombarded from orbit. Much of the American countryside was laid to waste and the story shifts from the East and West coasts to the heartland states. 

As the human captives were interrogated, the reader and the humans learned more about the Fithp than the Fithp learned about humans. As I said, the lampshade non-preditors having war machines was unavoidable. Back on Earth, President Coffey moved his office and command to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. The best and brightest minds were assembled like the Avengers, everyone from scientists and military men to the Secret Service and sci-fi authors who are thinly veiled analogs of real-world authors, including Niven and Pournelle themselves. The best and the brightest were able to probe the Fithp's motives and limits to come up with several plans to fight back, which climaxes in the titular Footfall, an asteroid dropped into the Indian Ocean. The devastation was incredible. It neutralized every force except for a couple of small rag-tag bands in the United States and U.S.S.R. 

The Fithp had the upper hand but a herd mentality is difficult to shake off. On the Fithp homeworld, there was a technologically superior race that died out, leaving the Fithp all of their scientific knowledge. The knowledge that a band of exiled Fithp planned to use against the people of Earth. The Fithp, being herd creatures do not engage in battles to the death, they surrender if overwhelmed. They do not understand why humans continued to fight back. More importantly they, like the authors, do not understand how humans would suddenly band together against a common enemy and say, "F--- it, let's kill 'em all."

The story itself is a 2-star yarn. Where it shines is in the diversity of characters and the incredible feats of realistic science, all of which become apparent in the end. The last 100 or so pages of the book are pure awesomeness. I won't spoil it for you. 

But let me tell you about the hurdles that the final 100 pages had to overcome to drag this book from 2 stars to five. First, back in '85, the United States and the Soviet Union were super clear white hats and black hats. The Soviet characters actually age well, becoming more heroic than the author intended. They have a female cosmonaut, a handicapped astronaut and insisted on having a Keyan delegation member onboard the space station to meet the Fithp. They are smart, wise, and cunning. The Soviet cosmonauts come across as absolutely ruthless adversaries to the Fithp, as if the authors believed the reader would suddenly feel compassion for murderous aliens. They almost read as noble determinators. 

Illyana, the deputy officer on the Soviet space station highlights the second problem with the story, whacky scrabbled-egg misogyny engaged in by the authors and all of the male characters. Every woman in the novel as a vehicle for sexual use or a strange depreciation. Oddly, the story can't happen without these characters as they seem to be the prime movers for every plot point. It is the strange case of "Livia was a whore AND she did it". 

Livia cum filio suo Tiberio.

In case you don't get that reference, Livia was the wife of Caesar Augustus. In Roman history, women were tagged as either saintly women or as evil stepmothers. Livia strangely had both attributes as she wisely advised her husband until his death, but might have also murdered him for her son's benefit. There are T-shirts that read "Livia did it." The women in this book, despite being the prime movers of the story are not treated as kindly the Augusta. 

The degradation doesn't stop with the writing, in the Audible version all but two women are portrayed with a whining tone at all times, which makes it difficult to distinguish them. Only two (maybe, three) women don't have this attribute or characterization and are better for it, but they have little to do with the major plot points.  

I hate to say it, but the authors were confused about what the characters did and their importance. With a cast of 100, cutting off 50 female characters at the knees doesn't help with the confusion.

How can a book like this jump from 2 stars to five? The human response to the aliens and their ruthless methods of destruction and subjection of the threat. Earth fights back. And hard. This is no snub fighters against the Deathstar. It ends in a curb-stomping battle of diamond-hard science.

The Fithp have lasers and relativistic kinetic weapons. The humans have better. Gamma-ray laser and 2000 lbs. nuclear shells. And I haven't even told you the best part. I won't spoil it for you, read it yourself. All I can say is after I read the last quarter of the book I reread it. Then I switched to the Audible version because I couldn't believe what I heard. The Narrator who had been suffering through the first three-quarters of the book positively shone in the last quarter. It was amazing. 

Footfall may be available on AbeBooks.com. This affiliate link will take you to the appropriate AbeBooks search page. Books are sorted by title and lowest price. I find that AbeBooks is a great source for old paperbacks and hard-to-find books at a good price.  

This title is also available in print, Kindle, and Audible forms at Amazon.com.  

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Inaugural 2022 Post

Welcome to 2022! The year of Time Runner and Soylent Green. 

As promised, I will continue to do science fiction and fantasy book reviews. Last year I was heavy on the sci-fi so this year I hope to swing the other direction into fantasy. 

It's January 2nd and I have already burned most of a $75.00 B&N gift card and a good chunk of an Amazon Gift Card. And read a book, Inhibitor Phase by Alastair Reynolds. I have a couple of other books lined up for review this year, classics like Fritz Leiber's Swords Against Deviltry and a newer title, After Dark by Michael and Shell DiBaggio. I also have Aurora Rising, Permafrost, The Winds of Gath for my Traveller friends and Sanctuary for you murderous thieves lurking out there. 


Lastly, I have picked up about 7 game titles from Noble Knights and DriveThruRPG to round everything out.

I hope you stay tuned this year. Don't forgot to click those Amazon links above and join me on a year of epic reading.