Friday 19 July 2013

Book Review: Desert of Souls

Cover by Charles Keegan
Desert of Souls, by Howard Andrew Jones, came out early in 2012 and I've been waiting, mostly based on a review on the now-defunct Grognardia blog, for a UK release.

Well, that still hasn't happened and maybe never will, so I got a copy of the US edition. I'm guessing that sales haven't been great as my copy is a first printing of the first edition, despite being ordered about 18 months after release.

"Never judge a book by its cover", they say, but in this case it's hard not to. Firstly, the front cover illustration is great. Secondly, it's a US fantasy hardback and these have always been a bit exotic and weird. I remember as a youth seeing the US editions of the Thomas Covenant books for the first time and being a bit shocked to see rather gaudy close-up scenes of characters from the text in place of the grandeur of Peter Goodfellows triptych panorama of The Land as seen from the far west.

I've noticed that US covers generally have a much stronger tendency to show figures than British editions and, although the impressionistic effect here means that it isn't an issue, I feel it often leaves the artist as a hostage to fate should it prove that the reader doesn't interpret the characters the same way.

All that aside, the other thing that US publishers do is that they put reviews on their books. Not one or two, as UK editions do, but as many as they can physically squeeze onto the cover, often continuing inside. Desert of Souls is no exception and is festooned with blurbs and endorsements from front to back to inside jacket-fly. One even comes from Monte Cook ("Author of The Dungeon Master's Guide, 3rd Edition" it says here) and the D&D feeling in the book is indeed strong.

If these blurbs are to be believed, the book is a debut novel from a writer who is practically the new Robert E. Howard (mentioned twice) with even a touch of Omar Khayyam. I can only assume that E. E. Knight ("author of the bestselling Vampire Earth Series") has never actually encountered any of Omar Khayyam's writing while sober.

So, clichéd advice about books and covers notwithstanding, it's hard not to open this slim volume without a feeling of anticipation - pausing only to note that word: "slim".

Bizarrely, when I first thought about ordering the book about a year ago from Amazon (a company I normally avoid, and in fact did) the description said that DoS was 500 pages. When I actually did order it from, the text there said 400 pages. In fact, it's 300 pages in a not particularly small font.

So, it wasn't the epic I was expecting - having missed the correct page count in the Grognardia review. In the end it even felt a bit stretched at 300 pages.

"I still have the deerstalker on underneath, Waton"
The book itself concerns the adventures of a semi-sortof-partial-Sherlock Holmes figure called Dabir ibn Khalil and his companion Asim who, like Watson, provides both a touch of military force and the first person view point of the narrative. So, like the Holmes stories and Big Trouble in Little China, we see the action from the viewpoint of someone other than the main character, which I generally like as a device.

The story has undertones of a satire of, or at least comment on, The War on Terror™, although given just how often history repeats itself that may just be my reading of it. The main baddie is a wizard, a Zoroastrian magi, who's family was killed as collateral damage from the Caliphate's putting down of a rebellion near Mosal. The modern resonance is heightened by the fact that the characters start in Baghdad and travel down to Basra and back again in the course of the adventure. Of course, it's hard to write about the period in question without mentioning places which are heavy with premonitions for the modern reader, so perhaps I'm seeing things when I read "drone-attack gone wrong" instead of "troops that went beyond their orders" as the cause of Firouz the magi's vengeance.

The adventure proper is kicked off when Firouz obtains a pair of door-pulls which legend says were attached to a doorway in a long lost city in the empty quarter of what is now the Saudi Peninsula. This doorway was into a room built around a sort of node to the land of Djinn and the door pulls allow entry to the node.

The thing is, though, that the city in question was destroyed by Allah and its soul was cursed. His plan is to go to the lost city (which, obviously, he has found), build a new pair of doors and, via a magical relationship with time, steal the cursed soul of the ancient city and swap it with the soul of Baghdad.

There is a resonance of this in the book's larger mystic theme whereby souls are presented as the currency of the supernatural world - human sacrifice is essentially the process of paying some other-worldly beast for its service.

Religion, eh?
Anyhow, Dabir gives chase, alternatively helped and hampered by Asim's slightly clueless company and the under-developed romantic interest of Sabirah, an 18 year old genius unfortunate enough to be born into a woman's body in 8th century Arabia and who is chafing at being used as coinage in the political marriage exchange.

When Dabir and co. find themselves on the wrong side of the doors after they are closed and the pulls removed, they discover themselves in the titular Desert of Souls. There they encounter a strange beast that is collecting souls to power a Telumelesque device it needs to restore it to its homeland.

I'll not go into the rest of the plot, but it's no shock that Dabir wins out in the end. The key question is whether the journey to that point is worth the while.

The Critical Bit
The answer to that question is: more or less. The whole book reads like a D&D adventure written down after the event by someone who's main aim is to record the sessions and not embellish it beyond what "actually" happened. There are no sub-plots to speak of. Firouz has a necromancer side-kick from Byzantium and there's a suggestion of political tension there, and Sabirah clearly wants to find an alternative life or role from the one dealt to her, but in fact neither of these proto-plots come to anything at all. Even the Desert of Souls itself is underdeveloped, being basically the setting for a single, reasonably interesting, encounter.

The characterization of the two central characters is pretty well developed, I think, but the peripheral characters seem sketched in. One point that stood out here is that Firouz said to have gone from being a good, kind man to one filled with rage and hate because his wife and friends were killed. Yet one of his first major acts of magic in the story results in the death of his father without producing any apparent emotional impact on Firouz at all.

I get that there is a message being pitched that revenge often turns a person into the very thing that they hate, but this jarred at the time and moreso in retrospect.

At the same time, Firouz's reluctance to kill Dabir and Asim each time he has the chance (and he has many chances) gets a bit wearisome too and the excuse that he and Dabir were once friends only goes so far when Firouz has a partner in crime with no such history or qualms.

Another characterization issue is that much of the dialogue feels too modern and American; there is at least one very casual use of the name of the prophet Mohammad which I didn't think seemed right for a believer and a haggling scene that ends with one character announcing "Done!" in a way that made the Arabian setting suddenly feel like it was a another sketch waiting for the artist to get the oils out and really set to work.

Similarly, there is a laziness about the way in which Dabir's master, Jaffar, simply brushes aside any possibility of the supernatural even when he has witnessed it, passing it off as the effects of drugs. This seemed strangely hyper-rational for the setting and only included to produce a required degree of frustration in the reader and the other characters. When he is confronted with indisputable evidence of the existence of magic toward the end of the book, when a sense of frustration is no longer needed, Jaffar seemingly has no difficulty adjusting to an entirely new world-view and I don't think he even mentions it afterwards.

It's perhaps worth noting that Jaffar (a relatively minor character beyond the first couple of chapters) and his master, the caliph Haroun al-Rashid, are both real people as well as being characters in 1001 Nights. This makes Jones's otherwise irritating use of foreshadowing in relation to them more acceptable as many readers (although not this one) would already know what fate had in store for them.

Take your pick
The other place where reality intrudes is with the girl, Sabirah. I can understand the desire to have a romantic entanglement, and even a doomed one. But her position in society is so low and so completely set in stone from the moment that we first meet her that it really just doesn't have anywhere to go. Ironically, she ends up being a MacGuffin handed around the real players in the plot in order to motivate them rather than a character in her own right. It's realistic but depressing and another example of an idea that sprouts but never flowers in a book that promises a perfumed garden on the cover but delivers a neat box-hedge inside.

The D&D Angle
There is a strong feeling of D&D about the characters, magic, and setting (someone even jams a door by hammering iron spikes under it) and in the afterward Jones also recommends GURPS Arabian Nights and ICE's supplement of the same name as casual introductions to the setting. Clearly the man is a role-player. The question is whether he is a story-teller.

Game sessions which are great stories for the participants can often be very linear for those where were not there and that is the very strong feeling I get from DoS: a reasonable re-telling of an adventure run by a slightly over-generous DM and then committed more or less verbatim to paper. "We were here and this happened, so we went there and this happened but then we were surprised by this so then we had to go there."

One reason role-playing in da old-skool style works so well is that the players have a feeling of the events happening rather than being directed and this makes up for a certain shallowness to the player's viewpoint - there is no real chance to see events from another angle while one is embedded into the developing story. When transposing an account to a book, or trying to capture the feeling of a role-playing adventure, an author has to thicken the broth as it were. Either the sense of being there needs amplified or the plot has to be expanded in some way.

Robert E. Howard (also mentioned in the author's afterword as an inspiration) could put the reader into a place as if it were their own memory instead of words on a page. Jones is nowhere near that level yet, unfortunately, and only the early chapters in the palace have any major sense of place.

If I were to suggest any one thing that would have improved this book it would be to either shave 50 pages off or add another 50; either skip one round of "but then they escaped" to keep the pace up, or give some extra time to the setting or to a third party which complicates the two-horse race to the Desert of Souls.

The magic d8 of criticism rolls a 5 - get it as a disposable e-book; you'll probably not have a burning desire to re-read it.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Faberge and 1e XP

Good rolling
The BBC ran a documentary recently about the famous Faberge easter eggs made for the Romanov tsars of old Russia. There was a particular statistic which caught my ear: that one of the eggs took 15 craftsmen a year to make. This is interesting in the context of AD&D because it is often said that gems and jewellery are massively over-priced given their weight. Specifically, it is often claimed that craftsmanship can not account for such big a markup in the material or bullion value.

Well, let's look at the Faberge egg: 15 of the best craftsmen in the field working for a year. If we assume that these master jewellers are pulling in the equivalent of £50000 per year then that is £750000 in labour costs for the egg in question. Since the eggs are not huge, considerably smaller than an Ostrich egg, and hollow, then even if made of pure platinum the labour costs would vastly outweigh the materials cost. Stick a retail markup on that and you're looking at over two million quid for something in the region of £5000 worth of gold and other bits and pieces, in terms of scrap value.

As previously mentioned, I treat 1gp as roughly £100, so the wholesale price of the egg in question would be 7500gp, which is in the mid-range of the top "platinum with gems" category in the DMG (p26), or at the top of the "gold with gems" category.

However, in the world of by-the-book AD&D my rule of thumb isn't relevant - there's an official pay rate for jewellers: 150gp per month. For various reasons, the rate is independent of the jeweller's skill so we don't have to worry about estimating a special rate.

Anyway, at 150gp per month we get a labour value of 27000gp for an item that has an encumbrance value of 50gp.

One caveat is that the figure of 15 craftsmen working for a year is highly dubious. The eggs (and their contents, including a clockwork elephant in one case) certainly took a year to make (and more) and 15 craftsmen may have worked on any given egg, but I doubt that all 15 worked solidly for 12 months each. What ratio to multiply these values by is anyone's guess. If we pick ½ then the DMG figure comes out at 13500gp; for ¼ it's 6750gp.

One other way of trying to translate a real-world item into game terms is the relative cost based on either average or minimum wages. This is the system I prefer, but it runs straight into the "two economies problem" discussed here and elsewhere at great length. Basically, there are "small economy" prices and wages - including the standard hirelings' prices - and there are "big economy" prices which include man of the experts, including the jeweller. For example, the jeweller's wage is 150 times that of the linkboy. If we think in terms of the linkboy being absolutely minimum survival wage of, say, £10000 per year then every jeweller in the game is on one and a half million per annum!

Which means that, if we have a relative figure for cost Vs wages then AD&D generally gives us (at least) two "reasonable" equivalent gp values.

We're told by the Beeb that the cost of one particular egg was 42⅗ times the average annual wage, and the Beeb would never lie, so that gives us another approach to looking at treasure values.

"Maybe I'd rather have 42⅗
strapping young tailors,
my dear?"
If "average wage" is a tailor (30sp/month) then this is 766gp 16sp. If the "average wage" is a scribe at 15gp/mth then the egg's value is 7668gp (which gives a clue to where I got £100 per gp from as it's very close to my original estimate above - generally I multiply the standard hirelings wages by 8, which makes a tailor's wage 12gp/mth).

These prices too are subject to a multiplier based on how much time one feels the craftsmen actually spent out of the year on a single egg. It's pretty obvious, though, that the DMG jewellery prices are drawing on the big economy of big prices, values, and wages and not the system where every blacksmith lives in a palace (with an income in the region of £3m - although they're still wildly overpaid in the big economy too).

What has this to do with the price of gold eggs?
What this points to is that a largish gold egg (and trinket) found in a dungeon and weighing less than 5lbs can in fact be valued at thousands of gold pieces without actually being madly unreasonable. Particularly so if the treasure types are being used as a guide to what is placed.

But who is this value to? To some passing tinker the value is in the scrap - no more than 50gp. The people paying the listed price are collectors and royalty back in the big cities, not village or even town money-lenders and the like.

A great source of cash for jewels are sages - wealthy educated individuals many of whom are on the lookout for anything to do with a range of subjects from history to art and crafts. A lone nobleman's castle may produce an offer well above the scrap if the noble is a collector or has some specific interest but in the absence of the rival-offers that one might get in a city the gems and jewels will still fetch much less than the "list price".  And anyone who is willing to pay top prices for jewels will also be a potential funder of expeditions to find specific items too, of course.

"I think this one's gone off"
This has an interesting implication for xp: we are told that xp is awarded for treasure taken out of the dungeon or lair and turned into a transportable medium or stored in the player's stronghold. So, low-level characters must head back to the big city (and a potential adventure or two there) to get the big bucks and the big xp, while high-level characters have an additional option of "simply" building a stronghold and sticking their master-craftsman eggs over the mantlepiece and receiving the full xp value but no actual gold in hand.

So: Jewels - not necessarily just 50 encumbrance points of inexplicably high-value cash-substitute but perhaps interesting artefacts in themselves with characteristics and styles that may suggest where and who to take them to for the best price.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Magic Item: Phylactery of Scrolls

"Yeah, I got the phylactery.
Also, the eyes of minute seeing"
Appearing to be a typical religious item, these small lacquered boxes have straps to allow them to be worn on the body (typically the arm or head). When found, close inspection will often reveal a small amount of ash and sealing wax which gives a clue to its method of use. A few may be found in the sealed condition, particularly if taken off an enemy. The item radiates a strong aura of alteration magic if detected for and may be used by any creature with an intelligence rating higher than 'non'

The item is utilized by burning a scroll and placing the ash into the box, which must them be sealed shut with wax and a seal depicting either a deity or a pentagram. Once this is done and the item is worn, the phylactery imparts knowledge of whatever was on the scroll to the wearer, although language differences may preclude understanding, but only for as long as the phylactery is worn.

While this has many educational and ritual applications, the most interesting possibility for adventurers is likely to be the ability to store spell knowledge from spell scrolls.

The boxes vary in size and can hold 3d6 spell levels. The scroll or scrolls to be stored must be burned until no text is visible and then quickly (within one turn) sealed into the phylactery. If the user is in a hurry then the DM may want to require a Dex test of some sort.

Note that magical scrolls can not be cut up to fit without ruining their magic, and that a scroll from which some spells have already been removed by use is no smaller than it was when new.

For example, a box is found and identified for what it is, although the capacity is unknown to the finder (perhaps "small, medium, or large" could be given as a hint by the DM). A magic user finds a scroll of four third-level spells and casts one while on an adventure; this scroll still counts as 12 levels for the purposes of using the phylactery even though it will only confer the knowledge of the three remaining spells to its user. If the box only holds 11 or less levels, then the first the magic user will know about it is when there is some ash left over and the scroll is ruined.

Protection and other non-spell magic scrolls can be converted to "spell-level equivalents" by dividing their xp value by 200 and rounding up. Thus, a scroll of protection from lycanthropes is equivalent to 5 spell levels and one of protection against demons to 13.

The phylactery does not grant any more uses of magical effects on the wearer than the original scroll does, it merely allows quick and convenient access. Thus, a scroll of three fireball spells still only allows three fireball spells to be cast (at which point the ash of that scroll will be useless) and a scroll of protection can be called on but once.

When storing non-magical information the DM must make a judgement about capacity but a treasure map might be, say, three spell-levels worth, and a speech or ritual one spell level equivalent per round. It is possible to mix magical and non-magical text but doing so would make it impossible to "recharge" the magical texts as there would be no way of removing only the expended scrolls and leave the other material behind (the UA gather cantrip is not sophisticated enough for this task).

Note that there are many non-magical uses for such a phylactery. For example, a path through a labyrinth may be placed inside and given to someone who is to be allowed access. When the person leaves, the phylactery is removed and unless they have made some alternative effort to record the path, the knowledge is lost. Pass-phrases, special rituals, and many other things may be usefully imparted on a short-term basis by the use of this item. However, it does not grant spell-casting ability to those who do not have it (including high-level thieves who may not use this item to cast scroll spells) although spell-casters may risk casting spells higher than their normal limit as per usual and, similarly, spells must be of the correct class for the caster (DMG p128).

No more than two boxes may be used at one time and any given scroll must be placed entirely into a single box; putting a part of a scroll into one box and part into another (or simply discarding it) will negate the use of the entire scroll).

Also notice that successful use of this item requires various tools: something to burn the scroll with and in, which can catch the ash; some way of transferring all (ie, 99%) the ash into the box; sealing wax and a metal seal with one of the required devices upon it; and the scrolls themselves of course.

"So, that's 'under the gate,
over the narrow bridge,
through the enchanted hedge,
left beside-SQUIRREL!"
Finally, the phylactery can be used to grant information to animals, such as dogs or birds. The scroll would have to be in a form which was in some way intelligible - using commands that the dog is trained to understand, or as a "birds-eye-view" for an eagle etc. Clever players will find a myriad of applications but remember that animals are unlikely to worry too much about looking after the item itself and may even try to remove it if it becomes burdensome, nor does the item actually charm the creature or improve its normal obedience or concentration in any way.

xp: 1250
gp: 2500
Enc: 10

Thursday 4 July 2013

Ban This Dangerous Fantasy Before it Claims More Kids' Lives!

Some "believers" think magic spells work.
but the real Debbie would know better
Disturbing news reaches us of an incident where a family's obsession with fantasy caused the death of an innocent 11-year-old girl.

Unknown to her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, Kara was diabetic and when she became ill her parents didn't phone the doctor or call 9/11. Instead, they asked a character from a book to heal her!

The Neumanns are one of what is thought to be many thousands of people who think that characters in a book about magic and gods can actually answer the calls of those who are "believers". Even when Kara was on the verge of death, her father said that he thought that repeating phrases in the book ("prayers") would cause her to come back to life even if she died! Obviously, this proved not to be the case.

The Book
"I used the Bible as an excuse and made
So, what is this book that has ensnared so many people into twisted slaves, prepared to watch their own children die a slow death? Well, in fact it doesn't have a name, and is just called "The Book" or "The Holy Book", usually with a thin layer of pidgin Latin to make it sound "gothick" - "The Bible". It's pretty distinctive if you look for it, whether in its normal all-black binding or the even more sinister "Children's editions" with their bright covers featuring characters seemingly designed to invoke association with healthy reading material like the "Harry Potter" or "Discworld" books. There is little clue to the true nature of the contents.

The book is in fact an anthology title - a fairly straight-forward example of the "shared world" collection where a range of authors take a basic concept and timeline and produce a series of more-or-less connected stories set in the world thus described. Thieves World is perhaps the best known, but the genre can trace its roots in English at least as far back as Dickens' Mugbe Junction of 1866.

Same idea; done better
The Book is considerably older, having been put together in its common form sometime around 1100, but with material reaching as far back as 800 B.C and originally in two languages - Hebrew and Greek - which have been translated, not always successfully, into pretty well every language in the world today.

Naturally, the material is patchy - inconsistent, even - but that's par for the course for these anthologies. The stories are arranged in an approximate internal-chronological order starting with a couple of alternative accounts of the creation of the world. One of these, clearly written later, is a very curt account resembling parts of Tolkien's Silmarillion and is little more than a fragment of a synthetic framework where all the threads are nicely tidied away and tucked in.

It is immediately followed by a different author's account of the creation which is much more "rough and ready" and happily skips ahead from the creation to a point where there are lots of people but one particular couple live in a protected garden, away from everyone else - obviously the inspiration for the anti-social "gated communities" that the "believers" are so keen on today and are prepared to protect with lethal force.

Talking out your ass
What follows are a range of what appear to be fairly normal fantasy stories about talking snakes, donkeys, clouds, bushes, and statues which help, hinder, advise, or trick the various heroes and villains within, ending with a strange sort of appendix of letters written by the main editor in his attempts to get the book out to a larger audience. In fact, this last item is perhaps the most innovative part of the book as the supposed editor is in fact just another character in the book itself which has at this point become somewhat meta.

The Threat
So, what's the problem? Sounds like fun! The problem is that not everyone is a fantasy role-player. We know the difference between truth and fantasy when we see it. When someone tells us "an angel came down and told the virgin that she was pregnant" we think "Oh, interesting. Must have been an incubus; probably used charm person. Neat story." and on we go to the next tale.

But not everyone was raised with the sort of understanding of comparative mythology that fantasy role-playing instils in kids and for many of them the framing device of The Book - that it is a series of factual accounts - is confusing. The so-called letters of Paul at the back have particularly confused many simple folk with their apparently eye-witness accounts of this would-be editor fighting pagan gods and performing miracles as he plods around what seems to be our eastern Mediterranean Sea.

"I have a polearm and reasonable armour; roll initiative!"
It reminds one of Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle in some ways as "Paul" seeks for the one person that can release him - and all the believers - from their troubles only to ultimately find that salvation is not available from outside and he too dies at the hands of those who's religion he insults and attacks at every turn. It's all moving stuff, although it's hardly The Death of Sturm, to be honest.

The problem is that believing that the Book is actually a real account of real events is not the same as believing in UFOs or fairies at the bottom of the garden or that Margaret Thatcher was a human being. These are mostly harmless eccentricities.

In comparison, the Book encourages people - and bear in mind that this book is routinely aimed and marketed at children as young as 3 or 4 years old - to be grossly intolerant of other people's beliefs; to own slaves and to force them to have sex; to overlook serial incest if it gives an old widower some sexual relief (but not a widow); to hope for their enemies to be slaughtered indiscriminately without trial; and, amazingly, to do the slaughtering themselves.

"I can't find any WMD in Sodom"
Because the major flaw in this shared world is the massive difference in tone between the early stories (the "old" stories) and the later ones. The blood flows for hundreds and hundreds of pages with the minimal of motivation. Rape is overlooked or even approved of, cuckolded husbands are murdered to protect the reputation of "holy" kings, and at least two cities are nuked after the most cursory of investigations into the supposed "sins" of the inhabitants.

Remember, kids, only Glastonbury can
really bring the dead back to life
THEN, suddenly a new character is introduced by the name of "Joshua" (badly mangled in at least the English translation to "Jesus") who says that everyone should be nice to each other! This message, which he is very emphatic about, causes a lot of trouble and eventually, after various adventures with stormy seas, flying magic users, and dead people coming back to life, he too is killed for his trouble. Luckily, he gets better and, in a really clunky deus ex machina, flies away to "heaven" without giving a firm date for when he would be back other than to say it would be in the lifetimes of those he was talking to.

The paradox of the evil influence this book has had is that this last part is both the source of so much confused belief and the clearest indication that it is fiction - for the events recounted are set almost 2000 years in our past and, clearly, Josh never made it back.

But today, many "believers" are prepared to select the bits they like (and most aren't too keen on the "be nice to everyone, even the people who attack you" bits) and use them as a guide to living their real lives in the 21st century! Worse still, they are raising their kids to believe that personal responsibility can be washed away by reciting magic words to people no more real than Sherlock Holmes. Literally hundreds of children have died due to this most base of superstitions.

It is well past time that the authorities stepped in and either had the book removed from circulation or at the very least made sure that the cover was clearly stamped "fiction" and kept away from children until they are of an age where they have played enough Dungeons and Dragons to have developed into well-balanced adults capable of telling fact from fantasy and won't run off on a crusade or refuse to get someone medical help because they think that a character in a book will magically help them.

References: Parents leave child to die. A different couple allow two of their children to die on two separate occasions.