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Wednesday, July 6, 2022
Return to Brookmere by Rose Estes
Jousting Tourney - An Unusual Game
So on the weekends, Chainmail was our go-to game. My personal favorite section is the Jousting Table. If you don't have a lot of time, The Jousting Table is always there. It's a diceless system made up of a simple pair of tables and a shield schematic. Pick a position and target, compare and there are your results.
Being my dad, we had 25 mm figures for every entrant in the Tourney. Even better, my dad cribbed lines from books and movies like Ivanhoe, The Lone Ranger, and an amazing number of Errol Flynn movies. The results were not simply "kill", "unseated", etcetera. It was a full-on color commentary on the action. More akin to hockey than jousting.
Every once in a while, I like to throw a wildly different mechanic at my players. The more complex the rule system, the harder it is to integrate a completely new mechanic. I have simply written ruleset for sprinting, I call it the Movement Game. It is less than one page long, has a picture or two to help, and is largely based on AD&D's regular movement system. It is also remarkably non-lethal and covers a range of scenarios. The danger of it is players will try to invoke it when things go to hell in combat. It's relatively harmless when player-invoked.
I probably came up with it while thinking about the Jousting Table from Chainmail. Instead of a table, every character has a figure or chit and can move an inch, one right after the other. Dirt simple.
For my next session in November, I am brainstorming a mechanic called "Evil Eye". A character who has the center position on a gameboard can impose a status effect like "freeze", "fall" or "flee" on enemies. The central player can only affect a 30-degree arc of the playing area, so keeping enemies away is difficult because the players are surrounded. Exactly who is giving the orders really depends on the party, who realizes the center of the board is important, etc. So it could be the Super Amadeus Arch-Machiavellian... or the cook he hired.
It's so much fun to bring something simple to the table.
Tuesday, July 5, 2022
Thieves World Short Story Review - Sentences of Death By John Brunner
Author: John Brunner
Ah, John Brunner. Between 1970 and 1975, Brummer penned 9 novels. Some of the finest works of SF. In 1978, his short fiction work, Sentences of Death was the first short story of the first book in the Thieves World collection. And what an open piece it is.
We meet Sanctuary's gritty streets and self-made fortunes through the eyes of scribe Melilot and his young protege Jarveena. Using forgery, blackmail, and mistranslation, Melilot fits right into Thieves World with his stable of scribes for hire. Through Melilot's exploits, the reader is introduced to what makes Sanctuary tick and what those ticks do to the people in the city, young, old, and in the middle. The children are the core of commerce in Sanctuary, much of which is exactly what one with think of trade in children. Jarveena is dragged right along with her master's plots.
Jarveena, Melilot's latest scribe has business and vengeance on the mind. A chance encounter pits her against the captain of the guard, Aye-Gophlan and his men who took everything from her. Jarveena craves vengeance and boy, does it work. As if having the criminal mastermind of Melilot at her back wasn't enough, she encounters the mage Enas Yorl who simply seals the deal for her.
The story revolves around a magic scroll that none can read. This little monkey paw of a device winds a tortured path through the story, running from a street urchin scribe all the way to the Prince of the city.
As per the typical fare for Thieves World, winning isn't always a good option as Jarveena and Enas Yorl discover. Sentences of Death is artfully crafted and while grim, is an excellent primer for Thieves World.
In the review of these stories, I'd like to link them back to classic D&D. While scribes don't exactly fit as a class of D&D character, the function could be fulfilled by Magic-Users, Clerics, and of course, Thieves. Enas Yorl is accursed, which is an interesting take on a magic-user. Some of the other magic in the story hints at Dimension Door and Polymorph (large writ) while Aye-Gophlan's behavior and beliefs tend to model closely to poor characters just trying to get a leg up while being deluded as to their station in the story.
Monday, July 4, 2022
Author: Stefan Jones and David Brin
Rule set: GURPS
Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Ok, I am taking a break from novels and switching to games to review. This one is a trick review. I don't play GURPS, I've never played GURPS. It's not that I don't like it or anything, it is merely outside of my experience.
Having said all that, I'll point to that 5-star rating right now.
Here is what I know: GURPS or the Generic Universal RolePlaying System is one of the most, if not the most successful RPG using a common rule set for a variety of settings. To get the most out of this book, you'll need The GURPS Basic Set, and players will find a lot of help from GURPS Space and Ultra-Tech. All of these are available through the links at DriveThruRPG.
Hopefully, from my reviews of Sundiver, Startide Rising, and The Uplift War, you have gotten a sense of the types of stories David Brin weaves in his Uplift double trilogy. From David Brin's forward, Brin is an avid gamer and was interested in doing a series where players' actions were complicated and nuanced. This was written in 1990, but as I flipped through this work, I see that there is information that would not have been available to those reading the novels at the time. It's not a huge amount, but it is interesting. Gene raiders, Jopher, and E-space come to mind.
The author, Stephan Jones breaks the book into 8 sections, starting with The Uplift Universe and moving to more and more detail with characters, which include some pre-generated characters from the novels. From there, we dive into the culture in the chapter Family, Friends, and Foes, before digging into the concepts of Uplift. The last four chapters cover the various forms of technology and travel plus two chapters about campaigning and adventures.
The entire book has dozens and dozens of pictures, all of them pretty standard for the 1990s. The main advantage of these images is it depicts what Brin described in the book. I don't foresee a series of movies based on these works, but Xandar in the Marvel films is kind of close.
While I already mentioned that I am probably unqualified to rate the rules in this set, I do want to focus on some of them because of the setting. In Brin's Uplift series, the sophonts are living on the bleeding edge of technology and biology.
The cover depicts a dolphin in space, after all.
In some ways, there is little to differentiate technology from biology and dolphins are a prime example. They have walker shells and manipulator arms that they wear on land or in space. They suffer very little from their environment, although they can't climb trees. The rules make sure that some of these odd cases are outright disallowed but in some edge cases are perfectly plausible. For example, Chimpanzees are rotten swimmers in real life, therefore Chims in the Uplift world don't swim at all.
Brin stuck to the basics of reality when coming up with these limitations and they are all well thought out in this book and the novels, even the fantastic ones. Jones continues that in fin fashion. Dolphins were known to use tools back in the 80s, so robotic arms are not so fantastic. Chimpanzees were once thought not to swim, but it appears that they may not be the strongest swimmer but can if they desire. They also possess an ability that humans don't have, they can sink to the bottom so they can walk and hop through deep water, like a human in a wave pool. It is unclear if Uplifted Chimpanzees can or can't swim, the ones depicted in the novels don't like to get wet and usually take to trees rather than going down into major water obstacles. What is interesting in the books is, so Chims are mortified if they startle and jump in a tree or other perch for safety while others view it as a tried and true escape tactic.
These approaches to games are great. I've almost sold myself on a set of GURPS books. I hope I sold you, too.
Sunday, July 3, 2022
The Uplift War by David Brin Review
Author: David Brin
"Sometimes I wish I could boldly go where no man has gone before... but I'll probably stay in Aurora." Garth.
Sorry, wrong Garth.
Garth is the next world we visit in the Uplift Trilogy. As the hunt for the Snark Class Streaker expanded, the war cut off Earth from its colonies. Garth was one of those colonies. Predominantly populated by Chimps or uplifted Chimpanzees, the planet must fend off the invading Gubru, a vicious avian clan of galactics. While Garth had a large population of Chims, many other clans were represented. The story uses the word Chims collectively, so I will stick to that moniker for the rest of the review.
In order to secure their hold, the Gubru indiscriminately used hostage gas on the planet. Any humans who breathe the poison were forced to turn themselves in for an antidote. The client Chimpanzees find themselves without their patrons and allies.
Of course, no plan is perfect and a handful of heroes escape the planet-wide gassing. Fiban, a Chimpanzee officer loses his spacecraft in the brief battle for the planet, crashlanding in the wilderness. Robert, a human child of the planetary council members escapes with Athaclena, the daughter of Uthacalthing, the Tymbrimi ambassador to the planet. Uthacalthing himself was shot down fleeing the main city with Thennanin ambassador, Kault.
These unlikely compatriots engage in a certain type of warfare which shall not be named, using ambushes and diplomacy to wear down their Gubru invaders. As the story plays out, Athaclena and Robert work with the Chimpanzee irregulars while Fiban's team performs recon for the ah... guerrilla force. Uthacalthing ran the Gubru and Kault through the countryside on a wild goose chase for a legendary pre-sapient species never before seen on the planet.
Garth is a sad backwater planet granted to Earthclan for ecological recovery. Humans have a talent for ecology having pulled themselves back from the brink of planet-wide pre-contact disaster. Poor Garth's previous tenant devastated the planet by hunting most species to extinction. Rumors of the pre-sentient species in the wild are a type of improbable, magical thinking that seems to attract all who wish for order and better outcomes for Garth.
Whoever restores the ecological balance to the planet takes not only the planet but also gains a client species for their clan, a great honor to all of galactic society. Unfortunately, Bururalli, the last tenants of the planet destroyed any hope of restoration with planet-wide slaughter. There was no way any large, pre-sapient species could have survived the holocaust.
Where Sundiver gave the reader a host of alien species and Startide Rising expounded on their way of thinking and beliefs, The Uplift War really digs deep into the ways and minds of Humans, Chims, Gubru, Timbrimi, and Thennanin.
The reader will be surprised as to what Humans have become in the face of these threats and delighted by the charm of the Chimpanzee heroes. Through Robert and Athaclena's leadership and love, the reader is given yet another study of both the humanity and alienness of the world he describes. The prank-loving Tymbrimi possess almost superpowers with their powers of adaption and a nearly biological form of empathy or weak telepathy, which is distinct from actual psi powers in this series. Both the Gubru and Thennanin are conservative, dour enemies of Earthclan.
In the Startide Rising, the antagonists are portrayed as ruthless and bloodthirsty. In The Uplift War, the Gubru and Thennanin are revealed to have passions that drive them. While the Gubru are honor driven, the Thennanin are impassioned by service and preservation of all life forms, great and small. At least in theory. As these plays of honor and love of all play out, the aliens seem more frightening for all of their similarities to Earthlings rather than their differences.
In my past few readings, I cannot help but notice how unfixed certain tropes are in time. If I wanted to pin the idea of jaded, sarcastic, carelessness on a time period, it would be the 1990s. This trilogy has that in spades in the middle of the 1980s. The Thieves World books show some of the same from the late 70s. Clearly, ideas take time to foment.
I only mention this because this novel appears to have a serious moral/values dissonance depending on the reader's outlook when reading it. The Gubru strip the Chimpanzee's patron and allies from the picture in the hopes that a young client species will relent and surrender to an obviously powerful patron class invader. The author, David Brin takes an extreme form of "show, don't tell" which can leave the moral of the story very ambiguous. If you read too much into a single plot line, it will appear that the Gubru are correct that chims are a lesser species ripe for domination without their patrons, however, there are several other plotlines and details which lead to the other opposite conclusion.
I've read this book several times and often wonder which group is snider: humans, chimps, or alien zealots. It's hard to tell some days. It's odd when the author embroils a reader so deeply into the universe that the whole meaning and moral of the story is really in the eye of the beholder.
Of all of the Uplift books, I like this one best as it contains a coming-of-age story similar to any of H. M. Hoover's works. The best part of my childhood was taking a rank of some real-life skill, and most often these rank takings were most memorable when I was young and coming of age myself. I love that sense of self-discovery.
Again, if you can't find this title at a local book store, you can find The Uplift War at AbeBooks.
Saturday, July 2, 2022
Startide Rising by David Brin Review
Author: David Brin
Startide Rising was the book that introduced me to the series. Being that this novel is not expressly linked to the first one left me confused as to where this series was going.
Anyway, Brin starts this book in the middle of a mess. The Earth ship Streaker was running for 10 different kinds of trouble. Crewed by 150 dolphins, seven humans, a savvy and wise AI and a socially awkward chimpanzee, the Streaker's mission was to research data provided by The Library, an alien font of all known knowledge.
The Library is an interesting piece of technology sold to Earth Clan. It was advertised as a completely unbiased cache of all information known to the citizens of the Five Galaxies. Brin's use of this device to drive the plot was excellent. The machine is persnickety, offering a deluge of information not really pertinent to anyone's needs. Its reactions to who asks the questions and how came across as maddening.
It doesn't take long for humanity to grok that the Library was a great booby prize that came at a greater cost. Captain Creideiki's mission was to pick away at the cache's information and find flaws. He immediately scores a win for humanity with the discovery of The Shallow Cluster, the resting place of thousands of ancient alien ships, many of which have mummified crews. During the course of the mission, the Streaker suffers its first loss when the Captain's Gig was destroyed in an accident, claiming the lives of many brave fins.
Even in their loss, the crew make wonderous discoveries and transmits their discoveries to Earth. The answer was as timely as unexpected:
“Go into hiding. Await orders. Do not reply.”
Soon the Streaker and her crew are fighting for their lives. Thennanin, Soro, Brothers of the Night, Tandu and dozens of other fleets of battleships engage the tiny Streaker. Creideiki orders the Streaker to a distant, fallow system named Kithrup to hide and make repairs. Kithrup, a water world offers mobility and safety for the dolphin crew while exposing them to the danger of metal-rich poisons. Their refuge was also a death trap.
As the fleets hammer away at each other over a period of a month, the crew succumbs to primal urges and fractures. The array of responses are both typical, fight or flee and unusually, devolve to presentience or mutiny. The humans and the Captain struggled to keep everyone in line as they hatch a plan to escape.
Under a sky of enemy ships, the Streaker made repairs and ploys to allow them safe passage from the system. As if the original discovery wasn't enough, the Streaker's crew unlocks several mysteries of Kithrup's past. As the battle rages around them, the crew bravely draws their opponents to the surface before making a heroic attempt at escape.
Startide Rising is a strong second novel in the series, one of the strongest follow-up works I have ever seen. Brin does world-building on an epic scale while amplifying the sense of frustration and isolation of the claustrophobic Streaker.
This was one of my favorite novels when I was younger. I'd love to say that this one was my favorite of the Trilogy, but the next novel in the series is my hands-down favorite. Both are excellent reads, hence the tied score of 5 of 5 stars.
Again, your best place to find this title is a local used book store, but if you can't find it there, I suggest AbeBooks. Click this link to search for Startide Rising on AbeBooks. Results are sorted from lowest price to highest.
Friday, July 1, 2022
Sundiver By David Brin Review
Author: David Brin
Sundiver by David Brin is the first book of a trilogy that birthed a second trilogy.
For those of you on MeWe.com, you friend the author right here. For those of you who don't know, David Brin is an award-winning author, scientist, and futurist. He has even jumped on board with games, GURPS Uplift. It is sadly out of print, but an informative read even if you have no inclination to play GRUPS. It's that excellent and will be the subject of a future review.
Sundiver has a couple of high-interest points being the first of two trilogies. First, it lays the groundwork for the Uplift series by introducing a horde of aliens. There are actually two different types: the Terrians, and the Galatics. At least this is how I think of them.
Earth evolves pretty much as you would expect for near-future science fiction. Engineered solutions are the way humans work. Brin described space needles fueling a new space race as the primary vehicle to introduce the main character Jacob Demwa. We'll circle back to him after we get through the tech. Terrians have also found clean energy and skill sets to fix the environment. It alludes to that they launched some sort of interstellar ship, but we don't see that in this series. However, the capstone of Terran achievements is the uplift of chimpanzees and dolphins to human-level intelligence, with other creatures like whales and gorillas waiting in the wings.
The galactic aliens are a vast and varied culture spanning 5 galaxies. There are more species than appear in all of Star Wars and Star Trek combined. The core defining feature of these aliens, which is held on to almost as a religion is stewardship of the environment and the uplift of lesser species to sapiency. This pattern was created by the mythic, almost godlike Progenitors. Woe until those who do not believe.
The book lands the reader in a disaster of epic proportions. Many galactic hate Terrians because they violate the tenants of their religion: "Who uplifted humans?"
"No one," is the wrong answer.
They have a secondary hatred of humanity and its kind as humans have shown great achievements of uplifting not one but two client species with two or more waiting in the wings without any help from a patron. The dilemma for the aliens is really clear, humans defy and prove their central beliefs.
Not all aliens are bloodthirsty killers. There are some who are curious about earthlings and others who are willing to bide their time in picking a position. A few position themselves in such a way as to annoy other aliens for profit, politics, and fun. The galactic aliens nail a few tropes without being any singular one, which is very interesting.
Now, I can introduce Jacob Demwa properly. Jacob is a classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy character. He is a scientist working on refining the dolphin species uplift, a dabbler in other scientific fields with a warrior's heart, a ton of savvy spycraft, and a network of alien friends and enemies plus a big personal problem.
As previously mentioned, some of the aliens take a long view of humans and have sold them a ship capable of traveling to the sun. Surprisingly, the Terrans upgrade this ship with standard, non-standard human tech and moxie to make it a Sundiving ship. As in, one that can travel into the upper atmosphere of a star. Stunningly, they discover a sort of ghost, hereunto undiscovered species by any galactic culture. Alien adventurers, scientists, and miscreants pour into the solar system just for a chance to take a ride of discovery on the Sundiver. Some hope for a new form of life catalog or a new path of spirituality, if they are ghosts, are real while most hope to see the humans burn in shame from chasing imaginary beings.
The cruises below the sun's surface are wild, while the crew and observers are even stranger. As the ghost story progresses, Jacob Demwa must use all of his skills to keep the aliens in their lane while preserving the ship's crew on its journey. It's a rough ride, to say the least. Notably, Jacob is not the captain of the ship or even a member of the crew. He is an outside consultant.
This novel is interesting as it is not required reading for the rest of the series. It's a strong stand-alone work which both compelling and fun to read. Brin totally nails it with Sundiver.
Now for a few months, I've been listening to books on Audible, an Amazon company. I lost my Amazon associate account for sharing links on my blog. So, I can't point you to a link on Amazon. So, I have been suggesting people look for these books at their local bookstore, which is great if you have one. If you don't find what you need there, you can probably find Sundiver on AbeBooks at a good price.I haven't had many takers on the links to AbeBooks, but it's always there if you need it.