Nov 062012
 

This week on UnderDiscussion we’re joined by both Lance and Kat to discuss fantasy fiction. We mention the awesome site Goodreads, admit that we’re totally the proof of belasaro’s maxim, what we are reading, what he have read, what makes a fantasy novel (and what we think makes a good fantasy novel) and we finish up with our assigned reading list.

The Undergopher Summer Reading List

This episode clocks in at about 49 minutes.

Dec 022011
 

This week I only have one thing that can justify this post’s inclusion in my RPG feed, but it’s enough. Also, we continue the brief reviews of all the Harry potter books and I reveal I’m an uncultured swine with my Animal Farm “review”. Let’s get started, shall we?

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The Astromundi Cluster (Spelljammer Game Accessory 1087)The Astromundi Cluster by Sam Witt

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I don’t generally buy campaign setting books, but since this was part of the SpellJammer line I had to pick it up. My single biggest problem with the Astromundi cluster was that it was too contained, that it allowed no real chance to escape into the wider galaxy of spelljamming. I know that there are a lot of people who hated the crossover setting approach that Spelljammer took, I personally hated having to deal with the Dragonlance steel for gold exchange scheme that by players came up with, but there was no reason to trap players in a single sphere for an entire campaign.

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I own every single SpellJammer product that was not an article in Dragon Magazine, and this is my least favorite. There is really nothing in this setting that I could mine for my home brew SpellJammer spheres.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3)Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my opinion this is the best of the Harry Potter series. They introduce a great character who might actually care enough about Harry to help him in his epic struggle against an evil wizard who couldn’t kill a baby in a crib (Memo to voldemort: just use a knife). The dementors thing was cool, but the deus ex time travel thing was easily the worst part of it, and really introduces the the biggest plot hole the series has.

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Some people may disagree, but I think it was all down hill from here.

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Angel: After the Fall, Volume 1Angel: After the Fall, Volume 1 by Joss Whedon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a fan of the Angel (how I became a fan is a funny story) I felt that this was a good start to a comic adaptation of the series as well as a good start at resolving the cliffhanger ending that Joss and Co left us with. I think the way it jumps into the action a while after the end of the show and with LA plunged into the heart of hell was the best way to deliver a great story and I would recommend the comics to any Angel or Buffy fan.

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Great followup to a great series.

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Animal FarmAnimal Farm by George Orwell

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I have to admit, I read this only because it was required reading in High School. I’m not a fan of political satire, and while I understand why this book was assigned I’m still not a big fan.

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Remember, these review posts are just sort of a “light snack” to start off your day. You don’t have to tell me how wrong I am about my opinions in the comments section of this post. I would hate it if some big internet personality, like say Wil Wheaton, were to point his followers at this page to show me how wrong I am in my views or how badly I spell.

That would just be awful.

Nov 252011
 

This week’s post is full of imagination and excitement. Oh, and the Iliad.

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Descent into the Depths of the Earth (Greyhawk Classics, #3)Descent into the Depths of the Earth by Paul Kidd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second in what I refer to as “the Justicar series” is just as much fun as the first book. It was amazing to me that licensed books based on old D&D adventures could be this fun to read. Paul Kidd does a great job with the main characters. There’s action and adventure, mystery, humor, and clever thinking to get around a few of the puzzles that the module the book is based on is known for. I would say that it feels like a group of players playing through a campaign, but these characters are written better and there aren’t any Monty Python jokes being tossed around.

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I honestly wish that Paul Kidd would write more addaptations of classic adventures. These are great and I’d love to see him continue with the cast of characters he’s created for them.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not sure I can give this book a fair review, coming back to review it after reading the rest of the series. It’s another year at Hogwarts, and this time the awful school secret that tries to kill Harry and Co. is a big snake. An average book for the series, which is still saying something positive.

Again the characters are mostly well written, I felt it was sort of an ass-pull to have a big chamber of snake dwelling evil hidden in a freakin’ school, but I didn’t attend school in England, so for all I know it’s nothing out of the ordinary. We get more quiddich, which is like wizard soccer and just as interesting (take that as you will).

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I’m just joking about the quiddich being like soccer. Mostly because I can imagine reasons why people like to watch soccer. Quiddich is a horrible game and I hate the fact that so much of the book series was dedicated to it. We get it, Harry is super good at the one part of the sport that makes everyone else useless, move the hell on!

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Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe - Book 1Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe – Book 1 by Stan Lee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(This is my review for both volumes)

I’ve always been a fan of the Marvel “What If” and DC “Elseworlds” series of books, so it was interesting to see what Stan “The Man” Lee would have done with the DC universe. He was given a chance to reimagine the classic lineup of DC heroes, and the result was the miniseries collected in these two volumes. In some cases (Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash) I preferred the characters to their regular versions, but in most of the others I think they were a little too “classic Stan Lee” to really be successful. I would have loved to have seen a few of these characters get miniseries of their own.
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With the reboot that just occurred at DC I’m sort of sad that they didn’t go with a few of the concepts that Stan The Man came up with for the characters.

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The IliadThe Iliad by Homer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Even remembering this book makes me want to take a nap. It’s a long, drawn out combat between two forces and ends with the only memorable scene (the trojan horse) in the entire thing. I recommend that you skip right to the Odyssey.

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I have nothing more to say about this book.

Nov 182011
 

This week’s short reviews are a classic campaign setting and three classic novels.

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Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (Forgotten Realms) (Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition)Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (Forgotten Realms) by Ed Greenwood

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I have to admit that the Forgotten Realms is my least favorite campaign setting only because I don’t have an opinion about Greyhawk. Now, my experience may be colored by the people who I gamed with at the time I was playing in the Realms, but I did not enjoy the excruciating level of detail that the setting has accumulated over the years. My first foray into Dungeons and Dragons was Game Mastering, and I hadn’t yet developed the GM chops to shut down the irritating players in my group. Having to deal with the one Canon Lawyer picking apart every single plot and description made the game nothing but a chore.

I think the biggest issue that the later era Realms setting has going against it was that TSR decided that all novels became canon to the setting. It filled the setting with all powerful demi-gods that rendered most adventurers moot and filled in way too much of the map.
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Are my perceptions tainted by the jerkbag I used to play with? Yes, but I’m laying half of the blame on the “everything’s canon” policy for making me have to deal with it.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the beginning of what could be considered a fantasy renaissance. Sorcerer’s Stone (sorry, I’m an American, we didn’t get the proper title on this side of the pond) was the first in a seven book series that, along with the Lord of the Rings movies, made fantasy popular again, and for that alone it’s deserving of four stars.

I love the cast of characters and I personally thing that Rowling does a good job of bringing the setting alive.
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I’m not going to hear any arguments, Harry Potter is one of the new classics and will be read and talked about in centuries to come the same way that the next two books are read and talked about today.

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Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this as part of my “read the classics” project and was fully expecting to hate it. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the dry humor throughout made it a pleasant read.

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I don’t think I’m stating clearly enough in my review how much I was surprised I liked the book. I was dreading reading this. I had just finished reading Dracula (which I hated) and wasn’t looking forward to another Victorian snoozer. Imagine my reaction when I finish the damn thing in a day and a half. It wasn’t anything like the books that I usually read (I’m a fan of genre books, not literary stuff like this). I enjoyed it enough that I’m actually not looking forward to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, because I don’t want to see it “ruined forever” in my mind.

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The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read this as part of my “read the classics” project for justifying an e-reader. It’s a little slow at times but is the grandfather of the fantasy adventure, so it can be forgiven for a few pacing issues.

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I’m going to say that this is so much more readable than the Iliad it’s not even funny.

Nov 112011
 

This week I brave the mind twisting horrors of Xoriat, the evil machinations of the Space Witch, the boring schemes of demons, and the sinister plans of an evil book club.

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The Orb of Xoriat (Eberron: War-Torn, #2)The Orb of Xoriat by Edward Bolme

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fantastic book! It fast paced without feeling rushed and the author did a great job with the fight scenes, vivid descriptions without being unnecessarily gory. I liked the main character, he was a little flat at first but the author developed him well. The book does a good job of explaining only as much as the reader would need without getting bogged down in setting details, but there is alot here for an Eberron fan to make this feel like it couldn’t have taken place in another setting. It was a fun action/adventure and I would gladly recommend it.
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This was the second of the Eberron novels that I read,  and it follows up on a short story from Tales of the Last War (The first Eberron novel I read.) It follows Teron, a monk trained for war and little else, trying to prevent the disaster to come if the title relic were to fall into wrong hands while also trying to find his place in a post Last War world. I think it was one of the better book I’ve read this year and I recommend picking it up if you get the chance.

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Hunt the Space-Witch!: Seven Adventures in Time and SpaceHunt the Space-Witch!: Seven Adventures in Time and Space by Robert Silverberg

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It was a little different from what I usually read. I’m not used to the magazine pulp style of Sci-fi stories in the book (as a child of the nineties I’m used to a full length novel). They were interesting tales of adventure and I’d definitively read more from the author if I could find a collection of his stories that were a little more interlinked than the seven in the book.
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It was interesting. I liked the stories that were a little more developed (such as the story that gives this collection it’s name) over the stories that didn’t get a lot of development (like the very first one in the book). I gave it 2 stars because I didn’t hate it, but I also didn’t really like large parts of it.

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Here Be Demons (Demons, #1)Here Be Demons by Esther M. Friesner

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I may be being more harsh on this book than I should be, but I didn’t like this one at all. The point of view shifted without warning, the descriptions got really obtuse in places, I wasn’t able to figure out if the plot was trying to be funny or serious or ironically serious or if it just didn’t care. I would not recommend this one.

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This book was slow, none of the characters were likable, and I’m not ashamed to say that I didn’t finish it. I know that it’s sort of a sin to review a book you didn’t complete, but nothing in the first hundred pages led me to believe that the last hundred or so were going to be any better. I’m glad that I only spent $1 on this at half priced books.

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The Library of ShadowsThe Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book had an interesting premise, and it was executed well enough, but it didn’t really grab me. It’s a decent enough urban fantasy, with secret societies and magic book reading powers and it has an interesting gimmick that I’ll most likely use in a future game, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to say that it was more than just ok. The characters were well written but the pacing felt slow in more than a few places and the book was a touch on the verbose side. I could go into more detail, but I don’t want to spoil it other to say that, due to the premise of the novel, the resolution was sort of corny in my opinion.
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Spoiler alert: The book is about people who read so awesomely they get super powers from it. Not cool super powers, like in Inkheart, but lame super powers, like “really making someone enjoy hearing you read a book” super powers. For what it was (the classic dismissal) it was alright. I didn’t hate it and the characters were written well, but the premise did not light my fire.

Nov 042011
 

This week the reviews are very fantasy heavy without necessarily being RPG centric.
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Winter WitchWinter Witch by Elaine Cunningham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Winter Witch was enjoyable, but it had a few issues that kept me from rating it higher. The setting felt fleshed out but that’s mostly a given because this novel takes place in an established RPG campaign setting. The main characters were well written and had mostly clear motivations that made sense but almost everyone else (including the main antagonist) just sort of felt like they were to there only to provide precisely enough motivation necessary to keep the main characters on track for the end of the book and nothing more.

The book is a travel story, and can’t really be described as an adventure. I would say that a good three fifths of the story were devoted to getting the main characters to their final destination, and while the setup didn’t feel rushed the ending really did. Once at their destination the events that compelled the main characters from the beginning are quickly and almost laughably easily resolved, leaving the main characters just enough pages to fall in love and wander into the sunset together.
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This was an OK book and I would recommend it if you want to get a good bit of flavor for a couple of regions in the Pathfinder Golarion campaign setting, but frankly the ending sucked. It felt like the author really wanted another 200 pages to finish the book. As it stands the ending feels like it was there to setup a followup novel with the two main characters but needed to end the story so it could stand on its own. There are also a few of the standerd fantasy plot holes that crop up but harping on them could get a bit nit-picky.

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The Falling Machine (The Society of Steam, #1)The Falling Machine by Andrew Mayer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was interesting to read a steampunk novel. Trying to translate what is (in my opinion) an entirely visual style into a written form must be quite a task for an author. I have to admit that, while this book is quite descriptive at times, I feel it still fails to really sell the steampunk.

Other than that I did enjoy this book. It was fun, had a fast pace (that did seem to slow a bit at times) and the main character was generally well developed.

What I disliked about the book (and what ultimately led me to giving it three stars instead of four) is that it ends rather abruptly on a clifhanger. I was hoping that when I picked up the book the “Society of Steam: Book 1” meant that this was going to be part of a series and that it wasn’t just going to be half a story. Regardless, when I have the time to track down a copy I intend to read the second book.
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The other reason I gave this otherwise decently written book only three stars was because I felt that the author had a great idea that he refused to use. The story essentially takes place at the twilight of a sort of steampunk Justice League. There are hints of a lot of cool backstory and conflict in the team of aging heroes that could make for more interesting reading that what we ended up with in the book. I felt that there is a much more interesting story to be had set about twenty years previous to the one in this book and think that it could make a great idea for a supers campaign.
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In the Name of Honor (Star Trek, #97)In the Name of Honor by Dayton Ward

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Star Trek book I’ve picked up in a long time, and I’m glad that I did, as this book is really good! Set between the fifth and sixth books looks at the drive for peace between the Federation and the Klingons while also exploring the way the Klingons changed between the original series and the Next Generation from a Federation viewpoint. I enjoyed the way he dealt with the stark differences in attitude between TOS and TNG Klingons and managed to make the transition between the two believable, and the book presents a good back story for the developments that occoured in The Undiscovered Country.

I’ll have to say that, in my opinion, the author really knows how to write Klingons. It never felt like he was forcing the issue, there was never a “Look, they’re doing Klingon things, look at how Klingon they are” moment, but he also wasn’t shy about using the trappings that have developed for the race when it was appropriate. I also enjoyed the pairing of Kirk and Sulu for the mission (that I won’t spoil in this review), it’s not a standard team up in most TOS crew Trek books and it was good to see.
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This serves as a nice transition between between the TOS era Klingons and the TNG era Klingons that I personally prefer. It touches on the tensions between the two styles of Klingons and that conflick could be great material for an all Klingon Star Trek campaign.

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Fable: The Balverine OrderFable: The Balverine Order by Peter David

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ll admit, I’ve recently become weary of licensed novels, so under normal circumstances I would have left this book on the shelf at the local book store, but two things persuaded me to pick it up: 1)it was written by Peter David, one of my favorite authors and 2) it was 70% off.

I’m glad that I picked this book up. It had travel without feeling like a “travel adventure” book, it had great characters, an awesome build up, and a satasfying finish that has left me hoping that Peter David gets to write another one of these. It was also kind of nice to see that he managed to use references from the source games without really over using them.

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While the Winter Witch was a travel story that didn’t feel like an adventure, this is a travel story that I would have no trouble classifying as an adventure. It was fun, it had a great sense of scope, it felt like the different areas visited were distinct and plan to rip off a few of them (I mean “homage”) for an upcoming game.

Oct 282011
 

This week I review a grim world of perelous adventure, a comic where the writers just don’t care, a novel where the author obviously does care and a guide that may know too much! Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: A Grim World of Perilous Adventure (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay)Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: A Grim World of Perilous Adventure by Green Ronin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this RPG. On the one hand I hate the setting. I hate the heavy handed grim darkness of all of Games Workshop’s IP, and warhammer fantasy has always felt like someone just took a bunch of fantasy tropes and threw them in a blender with half a gallon of despair and a jar of dirt.

On the other hand I once played through a year long WHFRPG 2e campaign run by a fantastic game master who managed to make the game enjoyable despite the crapsack setting. I have a few fond memories from that campaign that colors this review.

On yet still another hand (we’re up to three) I feel that the mechanics of the RPG itself, seperated from the setting, are easy to use and allow for a variety of character choices that matter (or would if you didn’t have to work against the random career thing) but there are a few issues that keep me from being able to recommend it as a good RPG engine. For example, the way the combat initiative works you might as well not bother rolling to see who goes first as it will be very rare for combat order to deviate from one fight to the next. My dwarf character always and without exception went last in combat. That might have not been an issue were it not for the two archers that were able to end almost every fight before it started, leaving me nothing to do. (I ended up annoying the GM a bit because I resorted to bringing a book to the games to read when combat started, because it would almost always end before it rolled around to my turn to act.) This game is only well loved because the critical hit charts go into gory details describing someone’s death.

If you like random character creation, random character death, and a setting devoid of any hope then this is the game for you.
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I’ve talked about the Warhammer Fantasy campaign I played in on the podcast. The campaign that That Damn Punk ran for the group was one of my favorites, but it was great only because he made it great.

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World War HulkWorld War Hulk by Greg Pak

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book really highlights why I wish they would have left the character on the alien planet of the previous year’s storyline for another year or two.

Short version: hulk was shot into space because Marvel didn’t want to have to deal with him during the Civil War storyline. While on the alien planet Hulk has some really awesome Conan and Spartacus style adventures and ends up in charge of the place (I personally would have stretched the adventure part out for another year before he gained control, but I don’t work at Marvel, so what do I know.) Some spoilery stuff happens, Hulk comes back to Earth, wrecks up New York while making some other heroes fight each other, then the book ends with the Hulk fighting the golden Deus ex Machina know as the sentry and giving up.

I was incredibly disappointed that they took one of my favorite characters from a setting that was perfect for him and brought him back to a place where no change can last longer than the development time for the next movie.
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I seriously hated how this series of issues was basically a hulk sized waste of everyone’s time and had no impact on the Marvel universe.

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Voyage of the Mourning Dawn (Eberron: Heirs of Ash, #1)Voyage of the Mourning Dawn by Rich Wulf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So far this is my favorite novel set in Eberron. Most of the characters are well rounded. All of the side characters are developed enough that they don’t feel like they’re there just to dispense plot coupons. A lot of the book is travel from one location to another and the author does a good job of keeping it interesting and of making the different locations feel different. I’ve been really enjoying the action scenes, which for the most part fit into the story without any forcing on the part of the author. My only real complaint is the antagonist and his group aren’t really developed all that much, but I expect that is to keep the central mystery of the trilogy interesting.
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I’m in the process of reading all three novels in the trilogy and I meant it when I said that so far this is my favorite of the Eberron novels that I’ve read.

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Conspiranoia!: The Mother of All Conspiracy TheoriesConspiranoia!: The Mother of All Conspiracy Theories by Devon Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fun little book that will have you either laughing, scratching your head, or closing the blinds and huddling in the corner. The author manages to show you how all the biggest conspiracy theory targets are linked in a vast web of evil. The real treat is the flowchart infographic on the first page of every chapter. This is a great reference for any modern game of conspiracy and weirdness.

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Running a campaign set in the modern day and want to add a little conspiracy? Look no further than this book. This is like a wikipedia of secrets, each entry is cross refrenced with each other to show the how and why of who and what.

Oct 212011
 

This week we look at classic RPG staples: the zombie apocalypse, time travel, and the ever important question: what if? If this is your first read of an Undergopher book review Friday post I generally post a few RPG centric thoughts after a book’s review. these aren’t meant to be in-depth discussions, more just something light to get the Friday off to a fun start.
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What If? Classic Vol. 1 (Marvel Heroes)What If? Classic Vol. 1 by Roy Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always been a fan of the question “What if?” It’s inspired me in writing, it’s inspired me in gaming, and it’s inspired countless others as well. Marvel comics was also inspired by the question and for several years produced a series to answer it. What If was a book that looked at a moment in a story and showed what would have happened had history taken the left turn instead of the right, had zigged when we remember it zagging and ordered vanilla instead of chocolate.

Fans of modern comics might not enjoy the collection, but I would recommend it for anyone why finds themselves pining for the days when superheroes didn’t wage war with each other, when continuity wasn’t a thing to be reviled and when issues contained stories and not the other way around..
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What if the Nazis had won the war? What if the Roswell incident had been aliens? What if Lincoln had been a time traveling ninja? The “what if” has led to more awesome times around gaming tables than any other question since “What if the troops got better as the campaign carried on?”
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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's CourtA Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“What would you do if you found yourself suddenly back in time?” I think there are only two real answers to the question: “We have to preserve the time line!” and “Timeline-Schmimeline I’m in it to win it!” I think it can be safely said that the protagonist of this story is firmly of the later opinion. After finding himself in the days of King Arthur he quickly uses his superior knowledge of science and history to debunk Merlin and start his rise to power.

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Whenever I read time travel stories where the hero decides to become the king of everything thanks to his knowledge from the future I’m reminded of the episode of Futurama Roswell that Ends Well. “Suddenly Mr. I’m My Own Grandpa is worried about the timeline!” Written before the major tropes of time travel were established there’s no real concern about the timeline, no butterfly effect, no worry about erasing oneself from the past, just good harmless fun subjugating history for your own end.

I’ve sometimes been tempted to run a time travel game where the players had that sort of free reign, but knowing most of them, it’s turn out more evil that an anti-paladin puppy kicking competition.
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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For some reason the zombie apocalypse has been a particularly popular subject in post-apocalyptic fiction. I think it’s because it lets us imagine how we would react in such a scenario. It also helps that it’s one of the few end of the world scenarios that can be survived. There’s not much planning involved if the world ends with a rock from space cracking the planet in half.

In WWZ Max Brooks shows us the horrors and heroes of the world wide zombie outbreak through the stories of the survivors. From the initial outbreak to the worst of it and finally the triumph of humanity overcoming and retaking the world. I enjoyed the stories and how the author gave us different viewpoints from around the conflict.

I disagree with some other reviewers that say there is no tension in the book because you already know that they’ll survive. Few and far between are the books written where the protagonist doesn’t survive the story. I recommend this one for fans of zombies and general end of the world type stories.
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The zombie apocalypse seems like something that could be great for gaming, and in my opinion it is, provided it’s for a limited campaign and not something intend to be long running. In my opinion there just isn’t a lot to it once the players manage to gather enough resources and hunker down is a relatively safe area. Perhaps it’s just the groups that I’ve played with, but there’s only so much game you could ring from the tension of the constant threat before the players just start “Greyhawking” things, preparing for every eventuality.
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The Anubis GatesThe Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. While the big twist (that’s not a spoiler, ALL good time travel stories have a twist) was a touch obvious, it was foreshadowed well, all of the main characters were fleshed out nicely, and the author did manage to surprise me a time or two. I felt the book was well paced and the author did a fantastic job bringing the setting to life IMO.

View all my reviews
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Not a lot to say about this one because I don’t want to give too much away. It’s a much better time travel tale than Connecticut Yankee but that may have more to do with being more solidly written. No offense to Mark Twain, but Tim Powers has a much higher word count to bring his characters to life with and he uses them to a much greater effect.