Category Archives: Bibliophilia

52 stories

Like many, I make resolutions for the New Year. Unlike many, I avoid resolutions that entail deprivation or significant self-regulation. Instead, I choose some enjoyable activity that I want to be a greater part of my life. Previous resolutions include trying a new cocktail every week, making omelettes on weekends, and working toward a handstand walk (link is the original inspiration; I am still working on this myself). I look for an activity with relatively low bar to entry that I can pursue as a habit, where it is easy to mark progress by doing rather than by level of performance1. I required a resolution with modest level of time commitment due to a number of professional irons in the fire, so for 2018, this past year, I decided to read 52 short stories, on average one per week.

While short stories often lack the ambition and potential of longer fiction, I personally find the form aesthetically superior due to the necessity of tighter constructions and the limited scope for setup and digression. The short story respects the reader’s time rather than simply being a diversion, or, even worse, stringing a reader along extensively while ultimately failing to deliver.

I had an informal bias toward reading hard copies, partly because I have accumulated a number of short story collections. One of my materialist indulgences is the well-bound physical book, and for me reading a nice book facilitates attention and lends a ritualistic aspect to the activity. For fiction in general, my taste leans toward the fantastic and supernatural, as you can probably tell from the list of authors. A few of the 52 were rereads (several of the Leiber stories and Call of Cthulhu), but most were new to me. Ghost stories are heavily represented for whatever reason.

I let the authors themselves define what counts as short, based on the presentation of the story; length ranged from a handful of pages to several hundred pages. Stephen King’s The Mist, which was the longest, could easily have been published as a short novel.

As a further experiment, just after finishing each story I rated my satisfaction with the story, from 1 to 5, where the numbers have the following meanings:

  • 5 Memorable, would surely read again
  • 4 Enjoyable, something made it stand out
  • 3 Decent, but one reading is probably enough
  • 2 Not a total loss, but missing something or caused annoyance somehow
  • 1 Probably would have been better off doing something else

From Green Magic by Jack Vance

Take no strong judgments of quality, originality, or influence from these idiosyncratic ratings. Looking back, there were a few surprises. The few Robert Aickman stories I read fared poorly, despite being one of my favorite short story writers, and Hodgson, whose House on the Borderland might be in my top 10 written works of prose fiction period, also fell short. On the upside, I think every single story I read by Le Guin was a 5. I knew I liked her work before, but that still seems notable. I think my standard for enjoyable stories in the adventure fantasy mode is lower than for, say, ghost stories, where my standard is relatively high.

If I had to pick a single work to spotlight positively, it might be Blackwood’s The Willows. Though Delany’s Nevèrÿon stories ended up mostly 4s, they are remarkable, being, if I had to oversimplify, something like Conan by way of Foucault, flawed only by occasional awkward didacticism. It seems fashionable to hate on Stephen King for his popularity, productivity, and tendency to retell The Lord of the Flies, but when he is good he is on fire2The Mist is one of my favorite stories in the cosmic horror tradition, up there with Lovecraft’s best.

Here are the stories I read, sorted descending by rating. (Order within rating means nothing; consider, for example, Dragonfly and Number Fourteen, both 5s, to be rated equivalently.)

  1. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (rating 5)
  2. The Mist by Stephen King (rating 5)
  3. Bones of the Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  4. Darkrose and Diamond by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  5. The Circle Curse by Fritz Leiber (rating 5)
  6. On the High Marsh by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  7. Number Fourteen by Sarban (rating 5)
  8. The Finder by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  9. Dragonfly by Ursula K. Le Guin (rating 5)
  10. Green Magic by Jack Vance (rating 5)
  11. Celephaïs by H. P. Lovecraft (rating 5)
  12. The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft (rating 5)
  13. The Gods of Pegana by Lord Dunsany (rating 5)
  14. The Tale of Small Sarg by Samuel R. Delany (rating 5)
  15. The Border Line by D. H. Lawrence (rating 5)
  16. The Door to Saturn by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 4)
  17. The Medusa by Thomas Ligotti (rating 4)
  18. Death Nymph by Arthur J. Burks (rating 4)
  19. Odour of Chrysanthemums by D. H. Lawrence (rating 4)
  20. Claws From the Night by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  21. A Tropical Horror by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
  22. Jewels in the Forest by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  23. The Kith of the Elf-Folk by Lord Dunsany (rating 4)
  24. Capra by Sarban (rating 4)
  25. The Sunken City by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  26. Ringstones by Sarban (rating 4)
  27. A Rendezvous in Averoigne by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 4)
  28. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen (rating 4)
  29. The Miracle Workers by Jack Vance (rating 4)
  30. The Tale of Gorgik by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  31. The Tale of Old Venn by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  32. The Seven Black Priests by Fritz Leiber (rating 4)
  33. The Voice in the Night by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
  34. The Gateway of the Monster by William Hope Hodgson (rating 4)
  35. The Tale of Potters and Dragons by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  36. The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers by Samuel R. Delany (rating 4)
  37. Hand in Glove by Robert Aickman (rating 3)
  38. The Goddess of Death by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
  39. The Red World of Polaris by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 3)
  40. The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis by Clark Ashton Smith (rating 3)
  41. The Rocking Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence (rating 3)
  42. The Haunted Pampero by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
  43. The Inmost Light by Arthur Machen (rating 3)
  44. The Dust by Brian Evenson (rating 3)
  45. The Mitr by Jack Vance (rating 3)
  46. The Men Return by Jack Vance (rating 3)
  47. Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany (rating 3)
  48. Out of the Storm by William Hope Hodgson (rating 3)
  49. The Rose Garden by M. R. James (rating 2)
  50. No Time is Passing by Robert Aickman (rating 2)
  51. Conversations in a Dead Language by Thomas Ligotti (rating 2)
  52. Helping the Fairies by Lord Dunsany (rating 2)

For 2019, I have decided to play more video games, though I am unsure yet about the details.

…men of power do not swear, it is not safe… —Le Guin, The Bones of the Earth


1. There is some relation here to Carol Dweck’s idea of learning goals and performance goals. See: Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(1), 5-12.

2. For novels, especially check out The Eyes of the Dragon and The Gunslinger, though I would say avoid all the other Dark Tower books with great prejudice.

Final Fantasy Ultimania Volume 1

Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1 covers the first six Final Fantasy games, only three of which were originally released in North America. Physical quality is high: the binding is stitched and the paper quality is worthy of an art book. Props to Dark Horse. The overall content and layout is geared toward nostalgia, but that takes nothing away from the beautiful artwork. See the linked video for my full review (duration two minutes & 36 seconds).


Gallery

Final Fantasy Ultimania Volume 1 on a bed of blue velvetFinal Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1

Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1


Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-10-17
  • Price: $44.70 CAD ($22.84 USD on Amazon.com at the time of this writing)
  • Details: Amazon.ca (product link)

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

Inventory v.1

Inventory v.1 is a small paperback by Sam Bosma with labeled illustrations of items an adventurer in a fantasy setting might carry. That is all. It is a nice mix between mundane and fantastic, humorous and serious, functional and superficial. Immediately, my mind went to using the book as a trinket table for starting PCs.

There are 71 items, and they are not numbered. This is a somewhat awkward total to use as a random table. One could always roll 1d100 and re-roll results above 71, but 29% inefficiency is unsatisfying. There is a solution, however: the d6-12 table. This is a variation on the d6-6 table, where one rolls 2d6 and reads the results as a number base 6. A d6-6 table has 6 * 6 = 36 entries.

Happily for my purposes here, a d6-12 table has 6 * 12 = 72 possibilities, leaving one extra for the blank page at the end. (I put “roll again or choose” there.) So, to determine an item randomly, roll a d6 and a d12 and look up the relevant page. Since the pages are not numbered, I wrote in the d6-12 numbers for each item (as you can see in the pictures).

In addition to use as a collection of starting trinkets, each item could come along with a characteristic ability. For example, beginning with the Giant’s Axe might grant the ability to wield gigantic weapons (OD&D rules: 5 encumbrance slots but a full additive 2d6 damage). Beginning with the Abyssal Bell might come with fluency in the language of demons (and the bell itself summons a demon when rung; consult either the AD&D DMG Appendix D or the LotFP summon spell).

You can buy Inventory v.1 here. As far as I know, it is only available in hardcopy softcover. Some sample pictures are included below. LotFP Rules & Magic (A5 size) included for scale. Sam also has an art tumblr. I have been thinking about putting together a basic, portable DM box for myself (something about the size of the original white box with a base rule set or two, dice, a Moleskine full of dungeons, etc). When I get around to that, I think I will include this little book too.

2015-06-08 19.27.32 inventory v1 2015-06-08 19.28.14 inventory v1 2015-06-08 19.28.42 inventory v1 2015-06-08 19.29.23 inventory v1

Hiroshige hexcrawl

For a while I had kept a particular Taschen edition of Hiroshige’s 100 views of Edo in my “saved for later” section on Amazon, waiting for it to come back into stock. I had heard that it was of excellent quality given the low price and also bound in a traditional east asian manner. Well, just recently, I noticed it had come back into stock, and was still less than $30 though enough to qualify for free shipping. By the way, Edo is the old name of Tokyo, which was built up from a fishing village by the Shoguns during the years leading up to what is now considered the Tokugawa period of Japanese history, as a power center separate from the traditional imperial capital of Kyoto, whose emperor acquired a more ceremonial, pope-like role as true power came to be located in the Bakufu (the Shogun’s military bureaucracy).

Here is the book itself:

IMG_7280 hiroshige edo

The external hard cover is not attached to the book proper. But more on that later. Naturally, the first thing I thought about when paging through this gorgeous book was RPG setting. It even contains a keyed map of Edo, which could be used to set the scene whenever PCs visit a particular area.

IMG_7286 hiroshige edo

One could, of course, set a full campaign in Edo itself and probably never run out of material (perhaps focusing on the Oniwabanshū, the Tokugawa era secret police?). But why stay in Edo? A highway, the Tōkaidō, connected Edo to Kyoto, with officially maintained stations periodically along its length, and this great road was also illustrated by Hiroshige in the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. The Kiso Kaidō, an alternative route between the two great cities, is also illustrated by Hiroshige in the Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō (though unfortunately Wikipedia does not seem to have copies of the full set). The Eight Views of Ōmi shows Shiga prefecture around Lake Biwa, which is also sort of between Kyoto and Edo (though closer to Kyoto).

Some thematic coherence is gained by sticking with the work of Hiroshige, but there are many other older works, even if one wanted to only use woodblock prints, that would also fit. The encounter tables could perhaps be built from Gazu Hyakki Yagyō and other traditional yokai bestiaries. One great thing about this approach is that almost all of this work is now in the public domain. All 100 views of Edo can be seen on Wikipedia, for example, in addition to the other sets linked above.

Okay, so it would probably be more of a point-crawl, but that does not have quite the same ring. Add this to the ever-growing junkyard of campaign ideas.

Back to the book itself, which is worth showing off. Most traditional east asian books were softcover in this manner, though this particular one reads left to right (the western orientation) rather than right to left. The cover feels like silk but is probably some synthetic microfiber, and notably every page is a double-fold (not sure what the correct book binding term for that is); you can see the technique in one of the pictures below. I have also included photos of a few of my favorite prints so that you can see them in the context of the book, though the full versions on Wikipedia linked above probably contain more detail.

Now this is how you make a book. And so cheap!

IMG_7281 hiroshige edo

IMG_7282 hiroshige edo

IMG_7283 hiroshige edo

 

IMG_7285 hiroshige edo

IMG_7287 hiroshige edo

IMG_7288 hiroshige edo

IMG_7289 hiroshige edo

IMG_7290 hiroshige edo

IMG_7295 hiroshige edo

IMG_7297 hiroshige edo

IMG_7299 hiroshige edo

IMG_7300 hiroshige edo

IMG_7298 hiroshige edo

 

Ragemoor

From the blurb:

Born of the stars, nurtured on pagan blood, Castle Ragemoor exerts its will over any hapless mortal who dares set foot within its living walls! Fortress … sentinel … guardian … prison! Those who oppose it, it kills! Those it would enslave, it drives insane!

Seriously, a comic about a living castle drawn by the great Richard Corben that is equal parts Gormenghast and Lovecraft? Get out of my head! Do I really need to write anything further? I want to write up a mega-dungeon inspired by this and run it right now.

Note that Corben’s art is wonderfully adult-oriented (that is, potentially NSFW).

I read the hardcover compilation of the first four issues, which I believe encompasses the entire story (I don’t think more issues are coming). It is a quick read, and I’m sure I will return to it many times.

Ragemoor

Ragemoor — preview image from darkhorse.com

A tale of two books

Swords & Wizardry Complete

Swords & Wizardry Complete — gorgeous Erol Otus cover

ACKS core book

ACKS core book

That is, the ACKS core book and the recently reissued Swords & Wizardry Complete. For those that are not familiar with these systems, ACKS is a second generation clone that adds proficiencies and detailed economic domain rules to a base inspired by B/X D&D. Swords & Wizardry Complete is a first generation clone of OD&D and all the supplements with a few new ideas (like a single saving throw, support for ascending AC, and a challenge rating system). But I’m not going to talk about either of the game systems here. Instead, I’m going to consider at the physical books, both of which have notable strengths and weaknesses. I find the content in these books valuable, and would recommend both texts to anyone interested in old school D&D or its simulacra.

ACKS binding flaw -- click to enlarge

ACKS binding flaw — click to enlarge

The ACKS books is nicely laid out. However, the binding is terrible. It is glued (like a perfect binding), not sewn, despite having a hard cover. My copy has never seen play or a game table, and I have only occasionally leafed through it physically (I had access to the PDF well before the hardcopy arrived, and did most of my ACKS reading digitally). Despite this very light use, the back endpapers have somehow separated along the line of the spine, and the pages have begun to pull away from the spine.

Excellent sewn Swords & Wizardry binding

Excellent sewn Swords & Wizardry binding

The binding on the Sword & Wizardry Complete book (done by Frog God Games) is excellent. It is signature sewn and feels durable. All the Frog God books I have are similarly high quality (the recently kickstarted Rappan Athuk and the Tome of Adventure Design, for example). However, some of the internal images are horribly pixelated. I’m not sure what process was used for image transfer, but I can get better results with my iphone camera and home laser printer.

These criticisms are made in a spirit of love, not malice. I like both of these systems, wish them success, and may even play them directly some time. Even in the age of deluxe original reprints, and cheap PDFs of the Basic and Expert rules, there is still a place for the simulacra, especially when they introduce innovations (such as ACKS lairs and the Swords & Wizardry single saving throw), maintain communities dedicated to older styles of play, and offer free downloads (such as the “3 LBB” version Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox). However, some of the pleasures of this hobby are the physical artifacts, both in terms of art and book quality. Especially for their price, both of these books deserve better construction. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, in comparison, with a similar customer base, has managed to put out virtually flawless books (in terms of their physical qualities, at least).

Swords & Wizardry pixelation -- compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation — compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation -- compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation — compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation -- compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry pixelation — compare image to text

Swords & Wizardry Complete -- excellent stitched binding

Swords & Wizardry Complete — excellent stitched binding

ACKS -- perfect binding pretending to be a proper hardcover

ACKS — perfect binding pretending to be a proper hardcover

Carcosa in detail

In Carcosa, almost all of the identifiable tropes of D&D are gone, yet the essence remains. There are no dragons, demi-humans, magic-users, or magic items. There is little overlap in the bestiaries other than the oozes, slimes, molds, and jellies (which are cleverly recolored to fit the setting but otherwise pretty much the same).

The LotFP version of this book has a somewhat odd status. Originally, Carcosa was published as a supplement to the 1974 D&D rules. Though that was seen as presumptuous by some, it made the intended use of the book obvious, at least to someone who was familiar with OD&D and its supplements. Carcosa the saddle-stapled digest book was easily identifiable as the same sort of book as, for example, Supplement II: Blackmoor. This new release of Carcosa is not, in and of itself, identifiable in the same way, though it is still the same sort of book at its heart. This is not a problem for me, but may be for someone less familiar with the OSR community and OD&D in general.

I have organized my thoughts around the entries in the table of contents, which I arranged into several groups of related items and reordered. These groups represent the five different types of content in the book.

Setting

  • Sorcerous Rituals
  • Monster Descriptions
  • Carcosa Campaign Map

These sections are the most tightly bound to Carcosa the setting. The most impressive thing to me is how integrated all these different parts are. Most games separate these parts (think about the PHB, Monster Manual, and campaign setting split of most D&D products). For example, with every monster is a listing of relevant rituals. And many rituals require components which can only be gathered in specific locations (or must be performed in particular locations). I suppose you could steal a hex here, a ritual there, and a few monsters, but if you just pick and choose bits from these sections, you will not be taking advantage of these linkages. This is a template for how to put together a really engaging hexcrawl campaign. Make all the different categories of rules and setting interrelated. The way the pieces fit together, the whole is definitely greater than the parts.

I would love to see a reworking of the classic D&D magic system along similar lines. Take all the original spells, flavor them up, and then scatter the components required over the hex map. Up the power a bit so that they are more impressive, and also include elements like making spell X only functional at certain times or in certain places. I would be all over that.

  • Space Alien Technology
  • Technological Artifacts of the Great Race
  • Technological Artifacts of the Primordial Ones
  • Desert Lotus

Now we come to the toys. That is, things that PCs might play with. The Space Alien Technology functions, I imagine, much like the magic items function in other games (though obviously with a different flavor). There is a random generators in the back for Space Alien Armament also. The “technological artifacts” are likely to be rarer (like artifacts in D&D). You will notice that three of those four categories are the technology of higher-order beings, which highlights one of the main themes of Carcosa (and, in turn, of H. P. Lovecraft, one of Carcosa’s spiritual progenitors): the universe is a vast and unknown place which was not built for the comfort of humans.

Other than humans (the only option for PCs), there are three other major types of being. Space Aliens are about what you would expect from the name. The Great Race is something like Robert E. Howard’s Serpent Men. And Primordial Ones (also called the Old Ones) are incomprehensible, mostly disgusting, Cthuloid entities (many named creatures taken directly from the pages of H. P. Lovecraft). This forms a hierarchy of beings, with humans on the bottom rung, followed by Space Aliens and the Great Race (I’m unsure which of those should be considered more sophisticated or powerful), with the Old Ones at the top of the food chain. Humans don’t really have anything to their name, other than sorcery (which is really just borrowed from the Great Race).

All of these are well-crafted and evocative, and could easily be dropped into any game, or inspire your own artifacts.

Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer

This is an intro module. It also functions as a nice template for how to detail a village without going overboard. Paired with a nice, quick method of randomly generating a village layout (think something like Vornheim), and some practice using such a system on the fly (I’m still getting there), I think this is all you need.

The module is a single 10 mile hex blown up into sub-hexes of 704 yards and includes a number of mini-encounters, adventure hooks, and one small dungeon. I wonder how many such hexes Geoffrey has detailed for his own campaign?

Random generators

  • Spawn of Shub-Niggurath
  • Space Alien Armament
  • Random Robot Generator
  • Mutations

This is the most setting-agnostic part of the book, and all of these random generators are easily repurposed, even for games with less gonzo flair. Mutations could be used to add flavor to NPCs, or as the result of a botched spell. The random robot generator is also a random golem (or automaton) generator in clever disguise. The Spawn generator cranks out minor (though still dangerous) Cthuloid entities.

These parts of the book are very strong, and should be useful to every old school ref. One can’t have too many random monster generators (at least, I am far from my saturation point).

New rules

  • Characters
  • Dice Conventions

At first I felt like the sorcerer class was superfluous. My concern was not originally about balance (the sorcerer might be fighter+, but that comes at the cost of slower advancement). Here is Geoffrey’s explanation for why the Sorcerer is a separate class:

I imagine Sorcerers as men who had to spend 10+ years learning the intricacies of the esoteric language of the lost Snake-Men, and twisting their minds in such a way as to be able to comprehend and effectively perform sorcerous rituals. (Consequently, I can’t imagine any Sorcerers under the age of 30.) Being able to do this is a lifetime commitment. There are no dilettante Sorcerers. Nobody could ever say, “I’m not a Sorcerer, but I’m going to spend the weekend learning how to conjure and bind the Inexpressible Presence of Night.”

And that makes sense to me. It would have been nice if he had said as much in the book. I would probably differentiate the sorcerer a little more, just to emphasize that very difference (a different hit die would work, but for the dice conventions). Also, if sorcerers have spent 10+ years mastering the intricacies of sorcery on such a primitive world, why do they get the same base attack bonus as fighters? I would probably cut that in half, or go the LotFP route and have sorcerers never get better at fighting. The game would also function if you imported any classic set of classes, and allowed anyone to perform rituals given the proper components and configuration, though the feel would change slightly.

I think the dice conventions are important, though they are likely to seem very foreign to many readers. They show the level to which D&D can be hacked and still maintain integrity. I believe a similar idea was originally introduced with either Arduin or Tekumel (I haven’t read either yet, but vaguely recall someone mentioning that on a forum). Personally, I don’t think I would like to re-roll hit dice (and with variable dice type to boot) for every combat, but the idea of re-rolling hit dice per-level or per-session is intriguing. And it means that you might catch Cthulu on an off day (though one might argue the same thing could be achieved with less overhead by just rolling hit dice, as you could still roll all ones). I think there may be a typo in the dice conventions table lookup example. A minor issue, but still unfortunate given that I can see this section being confusing to some.

Conclusion

This is a fantastic book, and a fantastic toolbox for classic D&D. It is perhaps the most aesthetically attractive book in my RPG collection. Oh, and did I mention the art? It is wonderful. All by Rich Longmore. I like the unity. This is art direction done well. Like the Planescape of Tony DiTerlizzi (which is a setting that I have come to not particularly care for, though I still adore it for the art). I didn’t expect this, but I find myself wanting to run Carcosa out of the book, no house rules, completely on its own merits (I had planned on just using it as a toolbox).