Dune: Adventures in the Imperium

*Originally published at British Fantasy Society

Published decades ago, Frank Herbert’s award-winning Dune spawned a series of novels and is now a tabletop roleplaying game from Modiphius. The game puts players into the complexities and nuance of Herbert’s deep space interpretation of the future of human civilization. This adaptation of the classic story is primarily focused on the novels to develop the game, rather than any other media.

There’s a lot to like about this book, and it is very readable, containing everything needed to pick up and go with minimal effort. The art is fantastic, and although it feels a bit dark, it captures the atmosphere of the novels. Additionally, Dune’s massivetimeline is annotated,  listing each book as they relate to the game’s lore. This is great for referencing the original source material, and for newcomers. Predictably, the default setting is Arrakis, the planet Dune is namedafter. Arrakis is nicely outlined, but it would have been helpful to have visual aids since there are only a couple of cities on Arrakis. 

Need friends and enemies? There’s a useful NPC gallery containing some of Dune’s most important personalities, as well as NPC archetypes that can easily be re-skinned. What’s more, there’s even an introductory adventure module that can be run to give people a taste of how the game plays without having to prepare the material. Resources are plentiful to assist people just to easily dive right in.

Some of the rules are innovative, for example, there are two ways to create characters. Players can take the time to develop a fully-prepared persona, or create a skeleton that grows as a campaign progresses. There’s even  “troupe-style” play where players use ‘supporting characters’, basically, NPCs, that are important, but not necessarily managed by the GM. This adds complexity to the game, but these secondary characters give players a different presence at the table, a fun twist on gameplay. 

One aspect of the system that stood out is Assets. How this appears to work is that a player could spend Momentum to introduce an asset to help them overcome an obstacle or a conflict, for example by calling in a debt. In principle, this is a pretty nifty idea, but in practice, this could be problematic. GMs will need to be alert, and ensure assets fit the game’s scope. 

Beyond designing characters, players construct a House. The rules for this process are simple, containing pros and cons for the scale of the House. Unfortunately, the characters are supposed to all belong to the same house. While this makes perfect sense, it would be fun to have rules allowing characters to be members of different, even rival houses. 

What makes this game stand out as a TTRPG is in the chapter for Gamemastering on how to implement Dune’s themes, such as religion, the effects of spice, the scale of the environment, and so on. What’s in the book is great, but a bit academic. Here’s an example from incorporating faith,

When incorporating elements of faith and religion into their stories, you should try to balance these meta-narratives implicit in the setting against the characters that experience these concepts as authentic expressions of themselves and their beliefs. 

The section is vital to making Dune unique, but it could be presented with language that was a bit less opaque.  As an RPG, Dune has resulted in a remarkably comprehensive book. There are areas that are lacking in detail, but this is a game that is loaded with opportunities for supplements. It would be stunning if Modiphius wasn’t already working on these. Like any other game adapted from existing media, it’s going to be for fans of Dune before anyone else. However, there is a lot in the core book, and it all feels very open for anyone that might be looking for a well-developed science-fiction line.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, a review

It is a rare thing when an author of so-called “literary fiction” veers off to create genre fiction. However, when it does happen, it can be a thoroughly engaging read. That is the case with The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The Nobel Prize-winning author is well-known for a number of literary works, but his fantasy novel, The Buried Giant, stands a bit apart from those other texts. It is most definitely dramatic, the story incorporates fantasy elements, enough of which drag it into the genre itself. To be specific, the story is probably best catalogued as “Arthurian” due to its references to the fabled king.

The tale is set in Britain shortly after the death of Arthur, but at a time when his knights may still be roaming the countryside. The protagonists are an elderly couple (Axl and Beatrice) that set off to visit their estranged son. However, they can’t remember where he lives on account of a memory-draining mist that is created by an enchanted dragon. As you can plainly see, the story has fantasy elements.

For my part, I found the book to be very well-written, but not at all dependent upon genre conventions. There were times I doubted the story to be fantasy at all and was instead a dramatic story relying on a combination of folkloric superstition and unreliable narration. An example from the text would be when Axl and Beatrice were early in their trek and speaking about a sleeping giant that was beneath a hill. Neither characters question the veracity of the knowledge, even if it seemed absurd. It was taken as fact that there really was a giant slumbering just where they were somewhere beneath the topsoil. Rather than shirk from the genre, Ishiguro stuck it out and embraced all of this, tidily wrapping fantasy conventions into his story about two travellers at the end of their lives.

It’s here that I have a quibble. While I appreciate the talent that Ishiguro possesses, I can’t help, but wonder if there aren’t some aspects of the story that didn’t need to be present. Years ago, I had read something about writing genre fiction, I believe it was by Stephen King, and the idea put forward was that, if a writer can remove an element of the story, but the tale stays the same, then removing those elements is probably worth the writers time.

Basically, while an author might want to write a paranormal horror story, if that approach is being forced, then the author might want to consider writing a thriller without supernatural elements. It may have served Ishiguro to have taken this approach. A lot of his fantastic elements were presented literally, as though they truly existed, but I’m not sure it was necessary.

Presenting the more fantastic elements of the story works fine. They have a place and don’t detract. My slight sense of confusion comes from considering that the narrators, like everyone in the book, are unreliable. No one can remember anything, or be certain of very much. This makes the idea that folkloric superstitions are omnipresent as viable as the fantasy concepts that were at work in the story. If no one knows what is true, then anything can be.

There were never really any demons, but Axl and Beatrice were certain of their existence. Was it really a monstrous wolf creature, or just a large feral dog with mange? In order for the book to remain a fantasy novel at various points, you need to convince yourself as a reader that the fantasy elements had to be there, even when it isn’t entirely justified.

That being said, Ishiguro stays the course, and works through his story with dragons and knights and maybe even a voyage over the River Styx? Sir Gawain, the Green Knight himself! even has a role in the book. While there was ample opportunity for this to have been historical fiction or magical realism, this story does a credible job at fantasy.

Ishiguro doesn’t break the mould, but the story is a quality tale from start to finish. His real artistic flourishes come not from the genre but from his own approach to the story. The main characters are senior citizens. Historical references and allusions are peppered throughout the text. The story is built upon the architecture of earlier Arthurian stories but references a member of the round table no one in my book club had ever heard of before. Did they even exist? We actually had to debate this because it was subtly worked into the story, that no one could tell if Ishiguro invented the character, or if there was a real historical inspiration.

One thing that has remained after having finished the book is that it has lingered in my memory. Fortunately, I’m not feeling the effects of the tale’s dragon! I finished it weeks ago, and have finished other books since then. Yet, the story continues to reverberate in my mind, especially the ending. It’s one of those books.

Maybe it isn’t the best thing I’ve ever read, but it will make you think if you give it a chance. Ishiguro is an expert wordsmith, and while he’s not necessarily innovative, his fantasy novel is worth your time. This is probably a great book for people that want something that straddles that line between literary and genre fiction, or people that need a break from the more formulaic entries in the genre. I promise, if you let him, Ishiguro will present a challenge, and all while regaling readers with knights, heroes, dragons, and an endearing couple in search of their long-lost child. What’s not to love?

Talisman Adventures RPG Core Rulebook

Originally published at British Fantasy Society

Originally released in 1983, the board game Talisman has been around for decades. As noted on publisher Pegasus’ website, the game is currently on its fourth edition and has ventured forth into new territory as a tabletop roleplaying game, Talisman Adventures: Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Transitioning from a fantasy adventure board game to a fantasy RPG seems simple enough, but there are areas where re-creating the classic game could go awry.

Ultimately, Pegasus has done a great job. The core rule book is a complete full-colour standalone product with great art. It is a player’s guide, gamemaster resource, bestiary, and introductory module. Reading through the game gives one the impression that it was designed to be efficient, but still offering enough that players had options for customization. No, there aren’t overwhelming lists of equipment, spells, or feats. There is enough to give a respectable variety of options.

The game makes use of some interesting mechanics such as the Kismet die and fate.  The kismet die is a very simple way of augmenting the action in the game. For example, a rapier might be able to ignore armour on a good kismet roll, or it could break if being used against a two-handed weapon on a bad roll. In either situation, it could significantly impact the game. Then there is what’s called light fate and dark fate that can be used to swing the momentum towards or against the players. It’s a fun tactical/dramatic element that can abruptly alter the course of the action.

Pegasus included some fun options for playable characters as well, including being either a ghoul or troll. That’s right, players can hunt for treasure as the walking dead or the much-maligned villains of classic fairy tales. The book even takes a jab at trolls saying that, as great builders, “no one knows bridges, as well as a troll does.”

In contrast to its more unique elements, the game feels a bit lacking as far as the setting goes. Even though Talisman has been around since the early 1980s, this RPG feels as if it were embracing fantasy as broadly as possible, maybe even to a fault. Now, some might appreciate this, but it lacks any distinctive flair. There’s even a city called, “The City”. It’s the kind of thing that feels like a placeholder in a homebrewed adventure, not a professionally published game.

Adding to this is that the world feels very “contained”. The borders are very clear and even though the scale isn’t specified on the map, it still gives a sense of being kind of limited. That doesn’t mean that the world couldn’t be expanded upon by a GM, but once players have trekked through a couple of forests there could be the sense that they’re running out of terrain.

Without actually saying it, Talisman feels like a tool kit for tinkerers. Beyond fans of the board game, this would be a great fit for people that like creating their own gaming material. The specifics were intended to be left to the players. Instead of offering fleshed-out details for everything, the game poses questions to consider throughout the rulebook. 

Ultimately, this is a tightly conceived ttrpg, derived from a board game that has endured for decades. While it lacks flavour for its default setting, the devil is in the details. For Talisman, it appears that the point isn’t to reinvent fantasy RPGs, rather it aims to put its twist on the tried and true of the genre. It is a simple d6-based game, with a very open world that invites players to make it their own. 

Call of Cthulhu: Children of Fear

*Originally published at British Fantasy Society

There’s nothing quite like diving into a new book by a favourite author, even if they’re dead. When it comes to RPGs, massive campaigns such as Chaosium’s offering, Call of Cthulhu: Children of Fear most definitely offers a heaping-helping of H.P Lovecraft. This historically set tale sees players following frightening clues all over Asia to get to the bottom of a terrifying mystery. 

First, the book is not for everyone. There are some extreme themes within this yarn, as one would expect with anything that has to do with Cthulhu.  What is available is a robust, intelligent book, but it’s substantial and adult-oriented. There is no shortage of information, almost to a fault. 

In fact, there’s a fine line between “too much and not enough” information in gaming. As expected, there are maps, (well-made) NPCs, and even material (books, music, movies,…) to help people who want supplemental content to get more context, but that isn’t all. Some people will appreciate nuance and presentation of extensive details, such as the make and model of a car, plus its top speed. On the other hand, some people see stuff like that as superfluous. Is it excellent context for setting and theme, or too much notetaking? The resulting effect is that the book sometimes struggles under the weight of all its finer points

There are tips for character creation that will help the players, such as a list of occupations that the players, (great for newbies!) would benefit from incorporating. It’s easy to be a bit harsh, letting players go without guidance, but it’s nice to see that suggestions are available.  This kind of approach to the design makes it clear that the game is meant to be played as thoroughly as possible. 

Reading through it, I couldn’t stop feeling that it reminded me of a novel that was slow to get going. Sometimes a story doesn’t really come together until it’s a third to halfway through the tale. That can be OK for fiction but tough for an RPG, and slow pacing can be an issue for a group of people playing a game. Depending on how long it takes to get through a session, there’s a risk that things drag a bit before the plot gets going. Anyone stepping up to run the game will need to keep this in mind to ensure players are engaged. 

That early gradual progress must have been anticipated because there are multiple optional “extras”, that are themselves at times fairly substantial, that can be thrown at players to keep them on the edge. What’s more, some sections say things like, “If the investigators take this course of action…,” and offer different ways of dealing with different situations-a nice touch. 

 An exceptional amount of work went into creating this book. From start to finish it’s probably as dense a resource as anything I’ve ever read. Some may find the sheer volume of what’s available to be simply too much. When combined with what can feel like an incremental rate of storytelling throughout the book, this mission has a sense of simply plodding along, but everything builds as the adventure progresses. 

By the time the campaign comes to a head, there is an abundance of freakish horror present in the story. Along with all of the historical research that creates the entire book’s architecture, loads of extras, fantastic production values, and suggestions for gameplay, this book is packed from cover to cover. It is a complete product and one that will keep a gaming group occupied for quite a long time.

Conan: Waves Stained Crimson Campaign

*Originally published at British Fantasy Society

There have been a slew of releases for Modiphius’ Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed of since the initial Kickstarter brought the game to life. However, the multi-part campaign, Waves Stained Crimson Campaign stands apart from the others. It’s a dark adventure on the high seas where the PCs are tasked with rescuing a kidnapped member of an elite family. On the surface, it feels fairly straightforward, but it’s absolutely not.

This really felt like a story-a tale by Robert E. Howard told in five acts. If someone were to readapt this into a novella of about the same length, it would read like a sort of harsh Lovecraftian fantasy. Elder gods, depraved sorcerers, deadly duels, intense battles, and more. It works very well at capturing the elements of Conan and puts players in what they’d expect to see in the classic fiction. Run it as a series of one-shots, or in its entirety. It’s flexible and accommodating.  

The art complements this very well, and there are great full-colour illustrations of the story all throughout the book. It’s a very reasonable length, despite being much more than a single quest. Players are given a lot of latitude for resolving the different sections of the campaign, but it’s all smoothly crafted.

However, this is not for people that really like their characters. It is difficult. As expected, every chapter ends with a short section on rewards for successfully completing that particular part of the story. Yet, that same rewards section for every chapter begins with a phrase such as, “Characters that survive…” and then the rewards are listed. It’s fairly clear that PC death is to be expected while running this from start to finish.

Ironically, despite the difficulty, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this campaign should have had some kind of timer. Players should need to finish in a certain amount of time in the game world, or they lose. This might seem unfair considering how hard this already felt, but the primary antagonist has a plan that they want to see through to its conclusion. Although, the fact that PCs aren’t really on a clock makes Waves Stained Crimson more forgiving.  If this had been a race against time, it would ratchet up the tension even further, but it also may have been a different kind of story. 

This tale is worthy of Conan, but it might be a rough way to introduce new players to the game. Someone might be all excited about creating their first character only to have it die by the time the group has completed the first leg of the adventure, and then have another character die in the next section, and so on. If you want a swashbuckling challenge that is filled with freakish occult horrors, this will scratch that itch. Pirates, demons, treasure, and more! This is a great, albeit very difficult, addition to Modiphius’ Conan line.

Is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ an origin point for fantastic art?

Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s summer, and where I am that means it’s convention season. There are several cons on the horizon that will likely draw visitors in the tens of thousands. One of my favourite things about a con, especially a comic convention, is the artist’s alley.

It’s become something of a tradition for me, but I love to find a nice (and affordable!) print that I can hang up on my wall. Of course, I look for comics, but I also make it a point to find something that I can use to decorate my home. There are always great artists that have cool stuff on display, and some of it is truly inspired.

Thinking about all of this got me wondering though, what are the roots of the fantastic illustrations that I love? is there one person? Does fantasy art have an origin story? The answer is likely wide-ranging and not something that can be attributed to a single person. Regardless, it’s fun trying, and I had a good time digging around in image archives to look for older pictures that could be catalogued as “fantastic art”.

Interestingly enough, my search led to the classic story, Alice in Wonderland. The story’s author, Lewis Carroll (born, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was himself a bit of an illustrator, but it was the work of artist John Tenniel that most people probably recognize. I’m not a biographer and would suggest any interested parties take some time to look over some of his background that has been recounted elsewhere.

What I’d like to focus on is Tenniel’s work. Incredibly, despite having been created in the 19th century, much of Tenniel’s work still endures today. There are images reprinted on all kinds of merchandise that refer back to the original story he had illustrated for Carroll.

I don’t know about you, but I love this image. The detail, the shading, the composition of the scene, basically, everything. It’s not something that anyone would likely ever see hung in a prestigious museum, but it is a fantastic piece of art, both literally and figuratively.

Tenniel’s work has no doubt served as inspiration for many many artists that have followed him. Is he the origin of fantastic art? Maybe, but probably not. There’s no doubt a number of artists have contributed works that could be described as “fantastic”. However, are Tenniel’s contributions significant historical pieces of fantastic art, and by extension art history? Absolutely. It’s not often that both a story and its illustrations endure in equal measure. Tenniel’s work has, and that’s why he merits special consideration here.

Please enjoy other works by John Tenniel that are available via Wikimedia Commons as well as the Internet Archive. It’s worth your time and all of Tenniel’s works should be in the public domain. Happy browsing!