Dateline – Storm Point

*** Potential Spoilers ***

The adventure described below is loosely based on the great sword-and-sorcery novel Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. I think what happens in the game is probably different enough from what happens in the novel that nothing’s gonna get ruined, but things change in play, and I might end up using some plot point from the book that reveals a little too much. I’ll try not to let that happen, but you have been warned.

Oh, and you should also go read Throne of the Crescent Moon, because it’s a fantastic book.

Last Sunday, after a lenghty hiatus ((Caused by the fact that it’s hard to schedule people for a casual game during the summer months, especially when the majority of the players have kids. Also, it’s been a pretty busy summer for me.)), we managed to get the gang together to wrap up the Throne of the Crescent Moon inspired adventure I’ve been running. It looked – right up to the last minute – like we might have a full house, but then someone had to cancel ((We missed you, Br. Linton!)), so we had four out of five players.

Because of the long stretch between the last game and this one, everyone was kind of fuzzy on what was going on and why the characters were doing stuff, so we opened with a pretty in-depth recap. I had been completely unsure about what the group would plan to do with the information they had uncovered last time, so I was pretty much flying by the seat of my pants on this session. I had a stack of stats, and some half-formed ideas about various options, but nothing really solid, because I didn’t know which way the group would jump.

After some discussion ((Which, of course, ran pretty far afield from the game for a bit.)), he gang decided that the main goal was killing Mouw Awa, because he had pissed them off the most. Oh, and they also figured that they should probably stop Dhamsawaat from staging a ghul-backed coup of Belys. Investigation of the sewers, where they had last encountered Dhamsawaat, located the entry to the crypt where they had faced him previously. Unfortunately, that entry was a rectangle of runes carved in the bricks, similar to a teleport circle.

This entry seemed to open an actual physical passage to a remote location, rather than teleporting people there. And it was closed with some sort of key or passphrase that the group didn’t know. So, they set up a blind in the sewers, and decided to camp there until the next night without moonlight ((I rolled a d8 to get the number of nights they’d have to weight, and got a 7. After two nights, they said, “Screw this,” and went and paid a seer to tell them when the next moonless night would be.)). When the gate opened, they went charging down into the crypt, which was once again full of ghuls.

Mouw Awa was there, of course, and he did his level best to mess the crew up. The ghuls were are minions, so were an annoyance but not much more. And in behind them all, Dhamsawaat was working some strange ritual that the players didn’t even notice until about three rounds in.

Because of their history with him, our heroes concentrated everything on Mouw Awa, dropping him to about 8 hp in the first round. Then he possessed the team’s tank and went to town on the others. Things got kinda messy after that, but the group finally realized that, under cover of Mouw Awa and the ghuls, Dhamsawaat had been steadily channeling power into a huge mound of skulls, and that couldn’t possibly be good.

The way I had set up the ritual was that Dhamsawaat could use a move action each turn to power it. After he had powered it seven times (and he was able to power it twice in one round, because he couldn’t see the characters to attack them), a huge bone ghul was going to rise from the skulls and hand the heroes their heads before going on to rampage through Belys. The power was at four or five when someone finally attacked Dhamsawaat and pulled him out of the magic circle.

This broke the ritual ((Initially, I mistyped broke as borke, which also fits, because the ritual was well and truly borked.)) and released a blast of energy ((2d6 per point of power in the ritual, so 8d6 or 10d6; I forget which.)) that finished of Mouw Awa, dropped the characters’ main tank ((Though with his triggered actions, he wound up with more hit points than he had before the blast went off. Stupid dwarf fighters.)), and fried all the ghuls. It also caused the crypt to start to collapse, in best action movie style.

Dhamsawaat ((Who, at this point, was barely scratched.)) fell into the cracks forming in the earth, and our heroes made a panicky escape ((The warlord almost fell to his death a couple of times, saved once by a lightning lure and once by someone grabbing his arm. And one of the others who went to save the warlord almost fell to his doom, as well. It was lovely.)).

By that time, we were about two and a half hours overtime, so we called it a night. Before the next game, I think I’m going to have the characters take some downtime and level up to about level 14. Gotta look at the numbers before I commit to that, but that’s my plan.

In closing, I just want to say thank you to Saladin Ahmed, author of Throne of the Crescent Moon for writing the book that served as inspiration for this adventure, and for being cool and encouraging about me running it and writing about it. Thank you, sir. You are a scholar and a gentleman.

I’m looking forward to book two.

Twittering Throne of the White Birds

I haven’t talked about books in a while, and now I have three that I want to tell you about, so I’m putting them all in one review.

The reason I’m doing this is Twitter. I found out about each of these books on Twitter, tracked them down, read them, and thoroughly enjoyed each one ((That’s the quick review.)). More and more, I’m using my Twitter feed to find out about good books and authors that I might not hear about otherwise. These three books are just the first that I’ve picked up this way – there are more that I’ve found and read ((Like John Scalzi’s Redshirts and John Horner Jacobs’s Southern Gods.)), and others ((Like Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son.)) that I’ve been teased with, but that aren’t yet released.

So. Yeah. Twitter is fast becoming my go-to book recommendation service.

Enough about that. Let’s talk books.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

Throne is note-perfect sword-and-sorcery, in the tradition of Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard, but with a more modern sensibility to things like the inner lives of the characters, diversity, language, and the like. It takes the rollicking, swashbuckling, over-the-top action and adventure of the pulps, and adds character depth, ambiguity, and actual moral dilemma, creating a novel that is both exciting and rich in story.

It’s set in the pseudo-Arabic city of Dhamsawat. I say “pseudo-Arabic” because it’s not set in the real Middle East, even by cleverly changing the names, but in a fantasy world that combines the best of the 1001 Nights and real touches of history to create a place and time that is richly evocative of a fairy-tale Arabia. The main character, Adoulla, is a ghul-hunter – the last of a mystical order that hunts down and destroys the undead ghuls and the sorcerers who create them. He’s old, he’s fat, he’s cynical and irreverent, but still has the heart of a hero ((As well as the appetite.)), though he’s slowing down and thinking about retiring before he gets killed.

And so, of course, he gets dragged into one last case by an old flame ((Yeah, there are a few nice noir touches in there, too.)).

I loved this book ((So much so that I’ve used it as the loose basis for a D&D adventure.)), mainly because of all the ways it subverts genre tropes. First off, a non-European-based fantasy world is a treat. No clones of Arthur and his knights or the Fellowship of the Ring showing up. Characters of different races and cultures – sure, pseudo-British and pseudo-German cultures are fine and good, but we’ve seen a lot of that over the years, and it’s nice to get a different perspective on things. Faith is dealt with in an interesting, two-edged way, showing both admirably pious characters and villainous zealots. And a nice contrast of ages, as the older characters ((Including the main character.)) and younger characters each show very different strengths and weaknesses.

And every one of the heroes kicks ass. The aging ghul-hunter? Kicks ass. The pious and naive young dervish bodyguard? Kicks ass. The angry young nomad shapeshifter? Kicks ass. The old alchemist, worried about her husband’s failing health? Kicks ass. Her husband, the mage, who spends his own life-force to power his magic? Kicks ass.

The bad guys are suitably detestable, whether they are the shadow-jackal servant Mouw Awa ((Easily one of the best-written, creepiest bad guys I’ve read.)) or simple thugs in the street. Perspectives shift and change as the simple question of who is raising the ghuls evolves into a desperate race to save the entire city.

It’s a wonderful book, and you should read it. If you like sword-and-sorcery stuff, you’ll like the way it handles the genre. If you hate sword-and-sorcery stuff, you’ll like the way it subverts the genre. It’s clever, and dotted with little delights to keep you reading. Go buy it now.

White Horse, by Alex Adams

The only reason I found this book was because I butted into a conversation about chickens ((Evil, stupid creatures. Ambulatory plants motivated by pure malice.)) on Twitter, and Alex Adams was involved. We bantered, and she followed me, and I followed her, and then I checked out her page, and found that she was an author with this book coming out, and it sounded interesting, so I bought it ((Authors on Twitter take note: being a friendly, approachable human being is good marketing. You don’t always have to be hard-selling your stuff. That said, no one begrudges you a little self-marketing either. Mix the two – like the authors I’m reviewing here – and you’re golden.)).

The story is a little bleak. It tells the tale of Zoe, a young woman who survives a multi-stage end-of-the-world scenario, and is on a journey from the US to Greece. It flashes back to the time before and during the… well, Apocalypse, I guess… slowly building a very compelling, ground-level view of how the world ends. There’s scientific hubris and human fear and agression and sheer bad luck all mixed together in bringing things to the point where most people are dead, a lot of technology is trashed, and strange things are happening to the survivors. By showing it through Zoe’s eyes, the whole thing is personalized, and the impact of it is visceral. Chaos, confusion, fear, loss, and desperate hope all get some page time as we see the world fall apart.

In the midst of all this grimness, Alex Adams weaves some solid literary magic. She plays with you. She teases you with a couple of wonderful bait-and-switch-and-switch-again threads that follow Zoe through her journeys, both inner and outer, leading you to the edge of revelation before showing you that – again – things aren’t what they seem. I don’t want to give away what those threads are, or where they eventually lead; discovering and following them, thinking you’ve got them figured out and finding that the author is still a step ahead of you, that’s one of the great joys of this book.

I’m gonna be honest: I almost didn’t finish this book. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fantastic book, with some great writing and compelling characters. And I’m not afraid of a bleak story.

What got to me, what almost made me stop reading, was the lack of any really likable male characters ((There was another, subtler issue, as well: the fact that Zoe was determined not to kill, even when her opponent was someone that I, as a reader, really felt should have been killed. But there’s another dynamic, only partially gender-based, at work there – in the bleak, post-apocalyptic world, we expect life to be cheap. But to Zoe, it wasn’t. It was the most precious thing there was, and I finally started to get that later in the book, and began to understand the strength it showed. Just a different kind of strength than we’re used to in the kind of book I expected this to be. Again, my expectations were confounded, and brilliantly so. Bravo.)). Well, okay, not really lack of them, but the nice guys were pretty quickly removed from play, and the male characters that took the centre stage were all unmitigated bastards. I hated them. They were vile, brutal men, and they made me want to throw the book across the room.

Why didn’t I stop? Well, because I’ve been reading a fair bit about privilege, and I thought it would be enlightening and good for me to read a book where I wasn’t given a character that I, as a straight white male, could identify with as my proxy in the story. I mean, I read a lot of books where I am given that character, but other readers – women, non-white, non-straight readers – aren’t. So I wanted to see how that made me feel, to raise my awareness of such issues.

That’s the end of my little political tirade, by the way.

I’m immensely glad that I didn’t stop reading the book because Alex Adams – and I picture her with a saucy, knowing smirk when I think about this – plays games with this, too. Expectations are both fulfilled and confounded, understanding dawns as the final tricks are exposed, and the issues are revealed as both subtler and more complex than they first appeared. And I am left marveling at the craftsmanship and beauty of the story, and the delicate, artful way that my emotions and reactions have been led to the end.

Normally, I read a book, enjoy the story, and move on to the next. White Horse lingers with me, making me think about how I read it, what it did to me, and how I reacted to that. It has shown me something new about myself and about the world. It wasn’t an easy journey, but it’s one that I’m immensely grateful I was able to take.

And I’m eagerly looking forward to Alex Adams’s next book.

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig has written some of the most entertaining – and profane – writing advice I’ve ever read and enjoyed. So, I wanted to read his novel when it came out.

First things first: if you have a problem with coarse language, avoid this book. Because the language is coarse like a cheese grater rubbing on your most sensitive bits. But Chuck uses obscenity like the craftsman he is, building brilliant, dark images and situations with finely crafted expletives, each polished to perfection. He is deliberate and inventive in his cursing, understanding the rhythm and pace of each horrific bon-mot he includes. He is an artist in vulgarity, and worth reading just for that.

Anyway, with that caveat out of the way, on to the book.

This is the story of Miriam Black, a young, troubled woman who just happens to be able to tell when people are going to die. When she touches someone, she sees the time, place, method, and circumstances of their death. She can’t change anything about it, though; what she sees comes true, and if she tries to change things, she winds up contributing to the death she’s seen. This has, as you might imagine, messed her up some, and she currently wanders the highways and by-ways, hitching rides and living hand to mouth. She isn’t really a nice person, but she is someone you can root for.

Two things come into the picture that change things for her – the first is a vision of the death of someone that she doesn’t want to die, and the second is someone who has figured out her secret.

The book is fiercely focused, and quite short. There are no wasted words, no distractions, nothing to take you away from the story. It is a brutal trip through a pulpy charcoal sketch of bad people and nasty situations, and it drags you pretty aggressively through to the end at top speed. Along the way, you see how Miriam got to be the way she is, and what she’s really made of.

There’s a dark delight to the story, a nobility in the seediness of the situations and locations, and great heroism happens on very human scales, feeling more real and immediate than all the over-the-top thrillers. It’s a very human book, with messy, damaged characters, rife with good ((Or not so good.)) intentions and stupidity, fear and hope, desperation and resignation.

It’s not a happy book, but it is a hopeful one. And the darkness in it is wonderfully entertaining.

Word is that Miriam’s coming back, too. And that’s good.