The Dreams of Ruin: The Review

Truthfully, this will be more of an “overview” of The Dreams of Ruin by Geoff Grabowski than a review. Being friends with Geoof and having written for him, plus being a huge fan of the out there weird fiction science fantasy that populates the spaces in Geoff’s head between gardening and economics (no, really) I am not really qualified to give you an unbiased review of the book. That said, my goal isn’t to simply sell you the book either, except by telling you what it is, for real, and if that’s a thing you want to experience (and it should be) then go out there and get it. Or, well, click here.

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 The Dreams of Ruin (DoR) is a 261 page supplement for Labyrinth Lord and Mutant future, so called Old School Renaissance games published via the Open Games License by Goblinoid Games. As such, the book is compatible with most other old school rules systems, from Swords and Wizardry to OSRIC and, with a little more work, the likes of  Basic Fantasy and Castles and Crusades. It is not a complete game, but is also more than simply a setting book or an adventure. Aimed at high level (15th or higher) play it is designed to give epic heroes a run for their money.

 

Setting and Tone

The title refers to a setting element that can best be described as an inter-dimensional infestation or infection — a world ending seepage across realities that takes the form of a terrible, primeval dark forest haunted by corrupted beats, faceless puppets and hate filled unseelie Fair Folk. It is at once the villain of the piece as well as the location in which adventures take place, and due to its pan-dimensional existence it can contain elements from worlds of fantasy, science fiction and every permutation of the two together. this is the key component of the DoR from a genre standpoint: it hearkens back to the weird fiction roots of D&D, where elephant headed alien gods entertained Cimmerian barbarians and fantastic city states of the dead sat on the ruins of a billion year old Earth. In an era of fantasy dominated by Lord of the Rings and The Song of Ice and Fire on botht eh page and the screen, it can be easily forgotten that what we call the fantasy genre started out much more diverse and stranger than it appears today.

 

If you are familiar with Geoff Grabowski’s work as line devloper of White Wolf Publishing’s Exalted RPG the fusion of epic struggle and science-fantastical elements that dominated that game are here as well, though in a much more focused manner.

 

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The art of DoR is evocative of that same weird fantasy vibe. It ranges in both polish and quality but never wavers in tone. Whether it is a horned devil encased in power armor or a Puppet of Ruin (seen in the image above) massacre, the art remind the reader that this fantasy is different than the endless stream of heroic quests that have come before it.

 

In tone, the writing of DoR is generally conversational. The author addresses readers’ (presumably Game Masters) concerns directly, anticipating questions and alternating between readable prose and bullet points. He wants you to be able to understand this stuff so that you can use it in your game, which is often forgotten by game designers and authors. This book is full of strange ideas and non-standard fantastic elements and the author endeavors to get you to understand and accept those elements before moving on to the next bit. That said, it is not “simplistic” and the book does not appear to be written for the Game Master new to the craft or new to Old School games. it is safe to say that the author expects that your campaign reached the suggested high levels through actual play and therefore the GM knows how to run the game and incorporate new ideas.

 

Nuts and Bolts

The Dreams of Ruin is more than a descriptive book. The author develops a numbner of subsystems that provide concrete guidelines on how to implement the DoR into a campaign. The two most important are the rules governing how the “dark forest” manifestation of the Dreams works in play, and the rules for actually overcoming the threat of the dreams.

 

As stated above, the DoR are an infection in the world. Not surprisingly, that means it starts out small and grows in both size and virulence. In the parlance of DoR, the Dreams go through a series of Blossomings before they consume the whole world. The author lays out in meticulous detail how each blossing occurs, including tables for the size of the Dreams as they spread. In addition, each stage of the Dreams is given its own encounter tables and associated rules. It is possible using these rules to divorce the Dreams from its world ending aspects and simply use it as a very dangerous zone in the campaign world.

 

In addition to encounter tables, there are rules for the effects the Dreams have on those that travel through the forest (hint: it isn’t good) and the various sorts of entities and hazards that fill the Dreams. These are more than quick stat blocks. there is an ecosystem of terror here, with warring factions and dangerous interlopers — because of the inter-dimensional nature of the DoR, almost any sort of terror or treasure can be found within. Make no mistake, this is a truly high level threat zone and low level characters attempting to pass through, even briefly, will very likely meet a grotesquely cruel end.

 

The other major rules component covers how the player characters can actually cleanse their world of the infection that are the DoR. This is not simple task of killing a boss monster or casting a high level spell. Instead, a detailed process of research and experimentation is laid out. There are the usual assortment of new spells and magic items, but in order to “win” the player characters will have to understand the threat their world faces and then develop a method by which to counter it. It is a long process that engages players as well as their characters and gives the GM a built in system for motivating investigation and adventure. Most of all, the process is as spectacular as one would expect to be undertaken by PCs that amount to godlings themselves.  For example, one of the prescribed methods to stem the tide of the Dreams is referred to in the book as “Massive Geomancy.”

 

Final Word

The Dreams of Ruin is unlike anything currently on the market for Old School Renaissance games. It considerably expands the horizon of that particular subgenre of adventure game fantasy, inviting the audience into a world where slaying the dragon and saving the princess are barely more  interesting than doing the dishes. It embraces the weird fiction influence of the past while being wholly original. And while I will not give it a grade due to my personal relationship with its creator, I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who enjoys OSR gaming and wants to try something out of this world.

 

For a few more days as of this writing you can back the Dreams of Ruin Kickstarter here. You can even get a copy of the game here beforehand and then decide that Geoff deserves your support. If you want more information, read my interview with Geoff here.

 

Happy gaming.

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Dreams of Ruin: The Kickstarter

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My friend and colleague Geoffrey Grabowski has created a amazing high level adventure supplement for old school science-fantasy (a la Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future from Goblinoid Games) called The Dreams of Ruin, which I have teased here for a couple of weeks now. The Kickstarter is finally live and you can back it here. Geoff was the developer of the first edition of White Wolf’s massively successful Exalted Role-Playing Game and Dreams of Ruins comes from the same origin point in him, full of big weird ideas intended to be played.

The game releases for free on May 15th. “Wait, if it is being released for free, why have a Kickstarter?” you ask. I’ll let Geoff explain from the KS page:

We’re going to release the book into free circulation under a CC-NC-ND-BY license on May 15th. That means, you are free to circulate it, but you can’t use it for commercial purposes, you can’t create derivative works, and you have to attribute it.

We are then going to sell copies of the archive for $22 ($20 + KS fees). When I have sold the equivalent of 5,000 of them — a total of $100,000 net of direct selling expenses like venue fees — the license on the product will convert to CC-BY. You will be free to create derivative works, and even reproduce the material commercially, so long as you attribute the work.

In other words, “buying” the book helps make it truly Open. It is an interesting funding model and license structure.

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In support of Geoff and this project, I will be using my quiet little corner of the internet to help get the word out. Next time, I’ll have an interview with him and then a full review of the book. I will cap it off with my own set of conversion guidelines for using The Dreams of Ruin with 5th Edition D&D.

 

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

 

I don’t normally do reviews on this blog, but I had to make an exception for Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s most recent summer blockbuster.  First and foremost, just to get it out of the way, the movie is AWESOME — 9.9 out of 10 (and the .1 is only deducted due to the pointless post credit’s scene, but I’ll get there eventually). The second thing to know is that GotG is not, in any way, a super hero movie. It inhabits the same super-heroic setting as the rest of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe, and given the presence of big-bad Thanos in the film, I am sure it’s plot will tie directly into said universe (my guess is it comes to a head in Avengers 3). Guardians is  a science fiction movie. More specifically, it is a big dumb Space Opera populated by planet destroying super weapons, ships the size of cities and mining colonies in the severed skulls of cosmic beings.

 

ALso, I suppose I should give a good old fashioned SPOILER WARNING: I will be speaking freely about plot elements from the film.

 

Guadians opens with perhaps the saddest introduction since Up! by Pixar: young Peter Quill is present when his mother dies of cancer and is so distraught by her passing that he runs away from the hospital. Until the very end of the film, this is not only the most powerful emotional moment of the film, but arguably the only emotional moment of the film. Even so, it serves to establish a powerful motivation in the character of Peter Quill/Starlord for making many of the decisions he makes in the film, without seeming overwrought or silly. I went to see the film with my son, who is about the same apparent age as the young Peter and found myself choked up at the idea of having to say goodbye to him in that way. It was simple but also powerful. That scene ends with the boy being abducted by an alien craft, and from there the fun begins.

 

I want to be clear about this: Guardians of the Galaxy is, above all, a fun movie. It is a big summer tent pole sci-fi-action-comedy with a budget bigger than the GDP of some countries. Nary a mention is made of how all these weird alien species apparently speak English as a universal language, nor should it. There is nothing in the construction of the civilization as we are shown it that makes any sense in a “hard sci-fi” kind of way, and this is a feature, not a bug. Space Opera has been stagnant in cinema since the original Star Wars trilogy, populated either by poor imitators (including the Prequel Trilogy, IMO) or deconstructionists. Guardians of the Galaxy embraces is big dumb space opera roots unapologetically and in doing so creates some of the best space opera ever depicted on film.

 

The other thing about GotG is that not only is it fun, it is funny. While appropriate for most kids in the 10+ range, it is just profane enough to give it an adolescent sensibility. The main character of Peter Quill/Starlord is a rogue through and through, including criminal activity and debonair womanizing, but both are merely suggested at. Much of the humor comes from the inherent ridiculousness of the characters — a walking and talking tree than can only speak three words, a cybernetic raccoon bounty hunter, a femme fatale assassin turned good, and a musclebound seeker of vengeance incapable of understanding or communicating in anything but the literal — but never turns any of them into a clown. There is no C3PO in this movie, and for that I am grateful. Secondary and side characters are treated with the same degree of quasi-seriousness: they are often quirky and strange, but never stupid.

 

The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy is fairly straight forward. Multiple groups are after an orb of (at first) unknown nature, including the main villain Ronan the Accuser (played with grandeur by Lee Pace, currently of Halt and Catch Fire) who has a grudge against the planet Xandar and wants to basically kill everything. People are willing to pay for the orb, thus driving much of the action by our “heroes” and it is eventually revealed that the orb contains an Infinity Stone. This is the part that is going to eventually bring Thanos to bear against the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the context of GotG suffice it to say that Ronan really, really wants it — and manages to get it, in one of those interesting story decisions that happens in movies sometimes, which in this case totally worked. One of the nice things about Ronan as a villain is just how bad-ass he is, so powerful that none of the heroes pose a threat to him. Of course, they do defeat him eventually, with something that looks like a bit of deus ex machina if you weren’t paying attention at the beginning of the film, but even in doing so he is never diminished. I personally hate it when a villain is supposed to be extremely powerful, but just a little extra effort because they really really mean it by the heroes is enough to defeat the villain. That doesn’t happen here and it is refreshing.

 

The movie is fast paced and clever with big explosions and striking visuals. I saw it in digital, without either IMAX or 3D and never really felt like there were scenes foisted upon me to fulfill the ticket prices of those formats. Nonetheless, it was beautifully rendered and the different environments were given distinct visual styles (very important in space opera).

 

The only failure of the film, in my opinion, was the post-credits scene. Marvel has taken pains to train us to sit through the credits and expect something of value, or at least something clever and worth the three to five minute wait while scores of stuntmen and digital artist names scroll by. I won’t spoil the post credit scene for GotG, but I will say, “Don’t bother.” Once the scroll starts, you are free to leave and can Google the scene spoilers on the way home. It will be faster and you will miss nothing of value.

 

Overall, I think GotG qualifies as the second best sci-fi film of the summer (the winner is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — that movie is just great) and the best space-opera since Return of the Jedi. Go see it.

The Anti-Hero via “The Dark World”

The 2008 Paizo Publishing edition of “The Dark World”

 

On a recent flight from New York to Las Vegas, I finally had opportunity to read Henry Kuttner’s The Dark World. I have a particular appreciation for the science fiction, fantasy and weird tales of  the “pulp” era (though the edges are a bit fuzzy on that definition, as some works are in the vein but predate “pulp” by decades and some were published many years after the last of the trashy magazines either died out or evolved into more mainstream speculative fiction repositories). Like most modern fans of the fiction of that era, I am well versed in Borroughs and Howard, Leiber and Lovecraft, and a smattering of Clark Ashton Smith and “Eerie” horror comics. And like most, I am aware of a much broader list of names I might have read a story or two from an anthology, but otherwise ignored most of the less-than-giants of the era. Henry Kuttner (and his wife C. L. Moore) are among the names the come up most often on lists of “must reads” and so I purchased both The Dark World and Moore’s Northwest of Earth from Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories line. I am well pleased I finally went for Kuttner’s classic — which I chose for the flight on the merits of its relatively brief length; at three times the thickness, Moore’s Northwest book is reserved for the beach.

 

I will not give a full review of The Dark World here — there are more interesting things I want to discuss than it’s “quality” — but suffice it to say that the novel is a rollicking adventure yarn of weird science fantasy, prone to the overwrought language of many works in the same genre, and while it does display what we now think of as a particularly “privileged” protagonist (read: white, male, straight and six kinds of awesome), and there is a heaving bosom or two, it avoids the truly noxious racism and misogyny of some of its contemporaries. Overall, it is an enjoyable novel with a fast paced plot and an intriguing hero — or, anti-hero, which is what I really want to talk about.

 

Anti-heroes are difficult subjects. In their worst forms, they are an overly masculine authorial avatar, freed of moral constraints by a big gun, sword or gunsword. They are the worst kind of Mary Sue, because they serve to do little more than expose the power fantasies of the author. At the the other end of the spectrum are the tortured souls, the “Breaking Bad” Walter Whites of the world that force us to watch a decent man make the self destructive descent into immorality for all the “right reasons.” He is a bad man that was once good, or perhaps a good man who has to do bad things. Either way, this latter sort is the new vogue, while the former is more familiar to the readers of the pulps. Not surprisingly, the protagonist of The Dark World hews much closer to the former sort, but departs and reaches for the modern in a very interesting way.

 

What follows includes spoilers for what happens in The Dark World, so if the above have inspired you to read it, by all means bookmark this page and get yourself a copy. It is only a few hours’  read and you will be, at the very least, entertained for those hours.

 

The anti-hero protagonist of The Dark World is a man named Ganelon who hails from a parallel Earth where mutants reign. When we meet him, however, it is as Edward Bond, Ganelon’s Earth doppleganger who, suffering from PTSD and certain he his is being hunted by something, is transported into that parallel world. The novel does not take terribly long in establishing that a group of rebel freedom fighter Foresters, through sci-fi-sorcery, exiled their greatest foe Ganelon to Earth and drew Edward Bond in his place, making an ally of him. Ganelon, the real protagonist, believed he was Edward Bond until his allies in the malevolent Coven that rules the Dark World brought him back. Although there is plenty of  Lust and Greed and Pride to go around, it is Wrath that finally focuses Edward Bond into accepting his true identity as Ganelon — wrath against the treacherous Coven, so he joins the rebel Foresters disguised as Edward Bond anyway, aiming to destroy the Coven, betray the Foresters and rule the Dark World alone. There is also the small detail of Ganelon being “sealed” to a Lovecraftian horror called Llyr that truly rules the world and Ganelon’s desire to destroy that creature, too (since how could he rule with the real master still in power?) It sounds more convoluted than it is; Kuttner does an admirable job of laying out the twists and turns in a linear but fresh way so that while you are shocked at the moment of its revelation, you are not particularly surprised by it.

 

What is so interesting to me is that even after Ganelon has rejected Edward Bond in his own mind — and in the process truly becoming a protagonist, acting of his own accord rather than being manipulated by others — the mind and memories of Edward Bond never quite disappear. It is similar in a sense to moments of weakness for a character like Walter White, who remembers his old life and regrets the loss of certain elements of it, but in Ganelon’s case, it is all an illusion. Edward Bond is a false memory, a prison built in Ganelon’s mind, but even being so, adds some much needed balance to the otherwise too-vicious and one dimensional Ganelon. It is a sophisticated bit of character development by Kuttner, especially considering The Dark World is little more than a throwaway pulp science-fantasy novella. (I should note that it is known that Kuttner and Moore collaborated constantly even when they did not create a pseudonym for the purpose and The Dark World‘s complex and romantic aspects are often attributed to Moore’s input.)

 

The climax of the novel does an interesting thing, though it is not wholly unexpected. The same witch allied with the Foresters that originally exiled Ganelon and conjured Edward Bond summons the latter one last time for a battle in Limbo (which seems to be a purely psychic plane) between the two dopplegangers. Ganelon appears to win the day, breaking Edward Bond’s back, but this, it turns out, becomes Ganelon’s undoing. By killing Bond, Ganelon commits a form of suicide. The witch says that only someone who truly hates himself can kill himself ( a revealing perspective on suicide from the era, no doubt) which allows Bond to be ultimately successful. In the end, Bond is still exiled to the Dark World, but his has his Forester love (a pair among the various heaving bossoms) as well as a new world to build, now devoid of both Ganelon and the eldricht monster Llyr. This notion, that self hatred is the underlying weakness of an anti-hero, is a powerful and even sophisticated one. Kuttner posits, in this resolution to the tale, that hatred and rage are useful in achieving victory but ultimately they must be discarded for anything lasting to emerge. That there is no sequel to The Dark World, about the further adventures of Edward Bond, perhaps troubled by the re-emergence of Ganelon, seems to bear this out. With the tale done, Kuttner seems to be giving his final opinion on the subject.

 

The Dark World is a good example of pulp era science fantasy and is well worth your time to read it, especially given its brief length. More importantly, Ganelon/Bond as an example of an anti-heroic protagonist straddling between the old anything goes Mary Sue-ism and today’s tortured good men gone wrong makes for soem surprisingly complex writing given the genre and era.

On “Of Dice And Men”

Of Dice And Men (ODAM, hereafter) is a book by journalist and self described nerd David M. Ewalt. It is, essentially, three kinds of books in one: a history of Dungeons and Dragons, the story of Ewalt’s re-discovery of his love for the same, and a collection of in-character fiction from the games in which Ewalt is involved. I will address each of these three aspects of the book separately before discussing the work as a whole.

As a history of Dungeons and Dragons, ODAM is both entertaining and informative, if not exhaustive. Playing at the World by Jon Peterson is a much more detailed and scholarly take on the mergence of the role-playing game in general and Dungeons and Dragons in particular (Ewalt admits as much and references that work in his own) but as such feels like a dissertation. For those with a serious love of gaming history and detailed analysis, Playing at the World is the better choice. For the rest of us, ODAM serves perfectly well as a primer. in fact, I decided to pick up ODAM simply because after a few hundred pages I found it increasingly difficult to force my way through Peterson’s treatise. A historian, I shall never be.

Ewalt (intentionally, I think) omits a lot of the nuance in the events that led to the creation of the first role-playing game, but manages to include the strange characters, weird plot twists and tense conflicts that shaped the game. This is a good description of his book overall, in that Ewalt is driving a narrative that while not necessarily false, is designed more to engage and entertain than to educate. Ewalt wants to tell us a story (or three, as stated above) and he does so admirably. He goes so far as to advise the reader who might want a more detailed history to seek out Peterson’s book.

The secondary narrative in ODAM is Ewalt’s own, about his engagement with Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) after a long absence. It is similar to Ethan Gilsdorf’s Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks in that regard, except that Gilsdorf made an effort to try on every geek hat in the wardrobe while Ewalt was interested primarily in picking up a twenty sided die again (though he does engage in a little LARPing on the side).

I found myself disliking Ewalt sometimes, in that same way that we gamers sometimes dislike our fellows on internet message boards. It is not that I thought him a bad guy, just that his perspective and persona as the author and in the narrative of his own rediscovery of D&D clashed significantly with my own views and experiences. We are of an age, for example, yet I never left the hobby as he did so I never felt the self-loathing he seems to take great pains to both describe and overcome. In addition, Ewalt’s constant description of gaming as an “addiction” bothered me. In my opinion, he over emphasises the metaphor to the point of making gamers, himself included, look bad. He recovers to some degree, but never quite washes the bad taste out of my mouth. In his LARP experience in particular he exposes the depth of his self consciousness and hints of self loathing I found uncomfortable and off-putting.

As a narrator of fantasy adventure, I put Ewalt somewhere between R.A. Salvatore and Christopher Paolini. Note that neither of those names should be considered a compliment from my perspective. Ewalt often uses in-game narrative to further one of the two narratives described above — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t — but just as often he is simply describing how awesome his character or his campaign is. There is nothing wrong with that and it certainly fits the tone of the book, but there were times when I barely skimmed the “fiction” in order to get back to the well written parts of the book. This sounds uncharitable, of course. I don’t mean to be too harsh, but Ewalt is definitely a better journalist than fantasist. That said, both the campaign in which he plays D&D set on a post apocalyptic, Vampire controlled Earth) and plans to run (a fantasy world on which a future-Earth, nanobot infused, Godling-AI controlled mothership crash landed an age ago) sound like awesome fun.

One aspect of the final portions of the book that bothered me was its emphasis on D&D Next (the upcoming, 5th edition of D&D) and its complete failure to mention Pathfinder. Given the latter day history of D&D, I don’t think it is possible to describe what has happened to the hobby and its fans without delving into the WotC/Paizo split, the rise of Pathfinder and the very real fracturing of the player and fan base between 4th Edition and Pathfinder.

Overall, I think ODAM works well as both a history and a peak into the mind of a lapsed-and-reborn player. It is not a terribly long or difficult book and is well worth the e-book Kindle price. If you are a former or current D&D player, nostalgia will likely grip you throughout certain parts of Ewalt’s narrative. If you are new to D&D and interested in the hobby because of an interest in fantasy, video games or because of the involvement of loved ones, it is a good primer to understands the way the game might be played and how it came about.