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January 2019

Books in December 2018


Autonomous (Annalee Newitz)
This is cyberpunk, updated. The villains of the piece are Big Pharma and the agency that protects patent rights which is downright brutal in its methods of enforcement. The main character is a bio-tech hacker who moves drugs she’s reverse engineered in a submarine. She’s pursued by a self-aware and indentured robot and its master from the agency, who leave a bloody trial of destruction. She rescues an indentured human (once AI/robots were deemed to be sentient, some humans demanded the right to be indentured too, the only difference being that it’s assumed that humans always start free) who helps her along the way as she tries to correct a mistake she’s made. The robot working for the Agency gains limited autonomy at one point and also choses to identify as a different gender.

So we have freedom and rights for autonomous self-aware beings, gender issues, bio-tech, nasty corporations with aligned government agencies, brave hackers and resistance against the regime, all contributing to a modern take on cyberpunk. If William Gibson had written Neuromancer 30 years later, perhaps this is more what we would have had from him. However, I think that his skill as a writer exceeds that shown her by Newitz, and his broken characters were more real - and likeable - to me. I enjoyed this: I could imagine the RPG scenario or film of it, but it didn’t quite hit that five star rating. I’ll be interested to see where her work goes next.


Lies Sleeping (Ben Aaronovitch)
Book 7 of the Rivers of London series, so this was like an easy pair of slippers to get into. DC Peter Grant continues on his beat, and the simmering conflict with the Faceless Man starts to draw to a close. The book moves quickly (although there is a section which deliberately pauses) and comes to a satisfying ending. Not the best in the series, but a good book and one that leaves me wanting to read the next (a novella) which comes out in July 2019.


Forbidden Lands RPG (Fria Ligan)
The Forbidden Lands RPG comprises two hardbound leather-effect books; the Player’s Handbook (character generation, the game engine, combat, spells, journeys, strongholds) and the Gamesmaster’s Guide (principles of the game, history, gods, kin, a bestiary, artefacts, encounters, creating adventure sites and three sample locations). There’s also a large map of the Raven Lands and stickers to go with it, plus a more detailed handout guide to give characters a deeper background.

The game uses the Year Zero engine, as seen in Coriolis and Tales from the Loop. Like both those games, it has been tweaked to fit the setting. In this case, it has become significantly more lethal and dangerous. Characters are fragile, like those in early D&D. The dice pool rolls generate negative outcomes which can seriously mess your character up, making them ‘broken’ and vulnerable to critical. The game engine also moves away from just D6s. Although these are the standard dice, you can sometimes roll a D8, D10 or even D12, all of which can bring much more successes than the D6. You’ll need to be clever and alert to avoid injury.

The game engine also generates willpower points, which are a limited currency. They fuel spells and talents and can only be obtained by failing a roll in certain circumstances. If you don’t fail, you don’t refill your points pool.

There is a big focus on the exploration side of the game, and it is definitely influenced by The One Ring. Players take different roles, and you need to ensure enough food and - especially - water or treks across the wilderness can go horribly wrong. The map doesn’t assume the location of any of the adventure sites in much detail from those presented in the book or in Raven’s Purge. The GM can position them, and use the stickers to mark up the map. If you clear an old ruin or watchtower, you can turn it into a stronghold, creating a mini-game not unlike high level D&D or Pendragon. Of course, setting up a stronghold is only the start of the story; holding on to it is the challenge.

The rules have random tables for the creation of adventure sites, using a D66 in many cases, and wearing the OSR movement inspiration on its sleeve. The usage dice concept from The Black Hack is also adopted for consumables. The principles section would not seem out of place in a Powered by the Apocalypse Game

All in all, the game is a thoroughly modern take on a wilderness D&D style game, with hints of Stormbringer. It reminds me very much of many of the early Fighting Fantasy games, especially with the gorgeous B&W art (which is in a similar style to that which I grew up on). I would like to run this, and I hope to play in First Age’s game.


Forbidden Lands: Spire of Quetzel (Fria Ligan)

The Spire of Quetzel is another book for Fria Ligan's Forbidden Lands RPG. This is a homage to the OSR movement and presents four adventure locations. The title adventure, written by Patrick Stuart, has the characters entering a spire to face a Demon-Queen. The blurb claims that it is very Moorcockian, and I think that's right as I could easily imagine running this with Stormbringer. The second adventure, 'The Bright Vault', sees the characters entering a vault that imprisons demon-spawn that could threaten the world. The sibling spawn all have different needs and motivations which can be played against each other.

The third scenario, Hexenwald, has witches and necromancy, set in an area of forests and lakes not unlike the Black Forest or Russia. The NPCs all have interesting motivations and rivalries that leave plenty of opportunities for adventure. The final scenario, The Graveyard of Thunder, has the characters drawn to an adventure site where one of the last of the Thunder Lizards prepares for its death. They face orc rivals and the threats of a guardian.

I liked this collection, my favourites being 'Hexenwald' and 'The Spire of Quetzel', both of which I'd like to run. This is a short collection of good adventures that will certainly be remembered by the players.


Forbidden Lands: Raven’s Purge (Fria Ligan)
I read Raven's Purge, for Fria Ligan's new Forbidden Lands RPG, at the start of December. This is the default adventure campaign for the game, but don't think you are getting something like The Temple of Elemental Evil or one of the other epic TSR sets. Instead, expect a pretty well written group of adventure locations which mesh together in a unique way for every GM as they will have to place artefacts and use rumours and NPCs to draw the PCs into the heart of the plot. This has more in common with GDW's Twilight's Peak for Traveller than the old epic D&D scenarios.

There's a lot to draw on here, nicely presented. That said, I think the GM will have to put some work in getting this ready (or be ready to manipulate it on the fly). There are a lot of core NPCs which can have varying motivations at varying places. I think the key to this would be to bring it in as a slow burn; ultimately, the characters may end up leading an army to attach the evil Sorcerer that dominates the Forbidden Lands, but they need to grow into that.

The only concern I have is that the game is very lethal, so the chance of playing through with the same characters may be lower than you'd like. That said, this is good stuff.

Review of 2018 Books

65 books read including 4 re-reads and several on graphic novels

Best novel read

Winner: The Labyrinth Index (Stross)
Runner-up: Thin Air (Morgan)
Stross pips this one by keeping me up all night with an absolute page turner. Lyonesse is not on this as I read the first two books originally at the end of 2017

Best gaming book read

Winner: The Sword, the Crown and the Unspeakable Power
Runner-up: Delta Green Handler’s Guide
SCUP wins this by underpinning my best gaming experience this year.

Notable point - I’ve read hardly any graphic novels this year.

Science Fiction (14)
  1. Autonomous (Annalee Newitz)
  2. Thin Air (Richard K. Morgan)
  3. Runcible Tales (Neal Asher)
  4. Mason’s Rats (Neal Asher)
  5. The Parasite (Neal Asher)
  6. The Expert System’s Brother (Nicolas Tchaikovski)
  7. Owning the Future: Short Stories (Neal Asher)
  8. Dogs of War (Adrian Tchaikovsky)
  9. Bridging Infinity (Ed. Jonathan Strahan)
  10. Noumenon (Marina J. Lostetter)
  11. Noumenon Infinity (Marina J. Lostetter)
  12. Lifeboat (Marina J. Lostetter)
  13. Elysium Fire (Alastair Reynolds)
  14. Ironclads (Adrian Tchaikovsky)

Urban Fantasy/Horror (7)
  1. Lies Sleeping (Ben Aaronovitch)
  2. The Labyrinth Index (Charles Stross)
  3. Witches of Lychford (Paul Cornell)
  4. The Lost Child of Lychford (Paul Cornell)
  5. A Long Day in Lychford (Paul Cornell)
  6. Wyntertide (Andrew Caldecott)
  7. Delta Green - The Way it Went Down (Dennis Detwiller)

Fantasy (9, 1 graphic novel, and 4 re-reads of Lyonesse books so 13 total)
  1. Norse Mythology (Neil Gaiman)
  2. Through the Woods (Emily Carroll)
  3. Collected Folk Tales (Alan Garner)
  4. The Letter for the King (Tonke Dragt)
  5. Alice (Christina Henry)
  6. The Red Queen (Christina Henry)
  7. Lyonesse 1: Suldrun’s Garden (Jack Vance) x2
  8. Lyonesse 2: The Green Pearl) (Jack Vance) x2
  9. Lyonesse 3: Madouc (Jack Vance) x3

Spy Novels (3)

  1. The Trinity Six (Charles Cumming)
  2. The Man Between (Charles Cumming)
  3. The Swiss Spy (Alex Gerlis)

Noir/Detective/Crime (2)
  1. Rupture (Dark Iceland #4) (Ragnar Jónasson)
  2. Whiteout (Dark Iceland #5) (Ragnar Jónasson)

Biography (1)
  1. The Princess Diarist (Carrie Fisher)

Contemporary literature (2)
  1. The Reservoir Tapes (Jon McGregor)
  2. Reservoir 13 (Jon McGregor)

Gaming (15 but misses out re-read of SCUP and lots of short books = 16)
  1. Delta Green Agent’s Handbook (Dennis Detwiller)
  2. Delta Green Handler’s Guide (Dennis Detwiller)
  3. The Forbidden Lands Player’s Guide (Beta)
  4. Forbidden Lands RPG (Fria Ligan)
  5. Forbidden Lands: Spire of Quetzel (Fria Ligan)
  6. Forbidden Lands: Raven’s Purge (Fria Ligan)
  7. The Journal of Reginald Campbell Thompson (Cthulhu Britannica)
  8. The Journal of Neve Selcibuc (Cthulhu Britannica)
  9. Tremulus (Sean Preston)
  10. The Sprawl (Hamish Cameron)
  11. The Sword, The Crown and the Unspeakable Power (Todd N. & Tom J.) x2
  12. The Cthulhu Hack (Paul Baldowski)
  13. The Dark Brood (Paul Baldowski)
  14. Cthulhu City (Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan)
  15. Dark Albion: The Rose Wars

Non-Fiction (7)
  1. A Brief History of Time (Professor Stephen Hawking)
  2. The Storm before the Storm (Mike Duncan)
  3. Surviving AI: The promise & peril of artificial intelligence (Calum Chace)
  4. Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History (Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer)
  5. Stranger Things - The Companion (Nick Blake)
  6. Notes from the Upside Down (Guy Adams)
  7. Stranger Things - The Ultimate Guide (Stephen Smith)

7 January 2019