The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre: I feel like le Carre’s spy novels owe more stylistically to Dickens and 19th century literature than they do to Ian Fleming or Len Deighton. The cast of characters is huge, the plot’s oblique, and the prose ripe with caricature and grotesques. I love the world he crafts, but can understand anyone’s complaint that there’s not enough action. If anything le Carre deflates the action oriented spy story, as the more James Bond a character is, the more likely they are to get killed – and not only by enemy agents, but by their own country’s spy services in some inter-departmental spat.
Anyway, all that’s in here as George Smiley seeks to rebuild the British spy service post-Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and sends agent Jerry Westerby to Hong Kong to unearth a Russian “gold seam” of covert money being paid to a Chinese tycoon. As Westerby follows the trail, he travels throughout South East Asia (circa the early-1970s and the final days of the Vietnam War) on a grisly odyssey.
It’s a slog at times, but I absolutely recommend it.
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan: This is Book #1 in the Memoirs of Lady Trent and documents her youth where she developed a passion for dragons and naturalism, her debut in society and marriage to a husband who shares her interests, their expedition to study dragons in a remote region of their world, and the adventures that unfold there. It’s a fun blend of Jane Austen, 19th century travelogue and naturalist writings, and simple adventure story. I’ll likely continue with the series. It’s definitely fun and smart, and I’m curious how Lady Trent develops.
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold: My first foray into the Vorkosigan Saga and I liked it. Miles Vorkosigan is the disabled son of a military hero in a highly militaristic society (I imagined them to be like a planet full of Prussian Hussars). He fails to achieve his goal of making it in the military and so sets out to visit his mother’s homeworld, which is like a planet of efficient hippies (ever meet anyone who had a Montessori education? Beta Colony is a planet of those people). Soon Miles finds himself and his starship crew embroiled in a small interplanetary war and mayhem ensues from here.
This is fun swashbuckling space opera and yes I could side-eye bits of it, but I won’t. I also chose my favorite cover for this. It looks like a Soviet-era poster.
Sweet Silver Blues by Glenn Cook: I never really took to Cook’s Black Company books, but this I liked. It leans a lot on detective tropes, but I think the covers and ad copy sell that idea more than the book warrants. In a lot of ways this reminded me of Jhereg and the character Vlad Taltos. Very urban, secondary world fantasy, heavily informed by RPGs with the adventure being undertaken for mostly financial reasons. Some of the fun comes from upending expectations, the rest from Cook’s ability to have a plot sprout complications. The bad bit is that it is written in what I can only describe as the uninterrogated Testicular style where the characters spend a good bit of time exasperated by the existence of women. You have to wonder if Cook assumed that no one but guys would read his books.
Abbott by Saladin Ahmed, Sami Kivela, and Jason Wordie: I’m a fan of the paranormal detective genre and Abbott takes the usual tropes but puts them in 1970s Detroit. Our detective is Abbott and she’s a reporter for a local paper at odds with the powers that be, and she’s also someone with a history of having encountered dark powers. While the villainy might be familiar the milieu isn’t and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre.
The Light of Day by Eric Ambler: A heist novel full of grotesque characters narrated by a petty crook! So much to like and love here. Not only are people awful, but they have dandruff and leak fluids at inopportune times. My kind of book! Oh yeah, also the basis for some classic movie by some director that annoying film-buff friend of yours won’t shut-up about even though they’ve never seen any of the director’s movies.
Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn: Despite what it says on the Goodreads tin, this isn’t a dystopian novel. Sure it’s set after the collapse of civilization, but in the new society that emerges that’s more agrarian, and to be honest I quite like it. People walk around. The greatest sin is greed, over-consumption, and reproducing without approval. It’s quite utopian but in an acoustic guitar soundtracked 1970s film sort of way. Of course, I have questions about the setting and how did this collapse but that didn’t, but, eh, why pick nits? Part of this is bildungsroman as young Enid searches for her place in the world. The other part is a murder mystery as an older Enid, now an Inspector, must solve a murder in an otherwise peaceful community.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: Everything I read by Tove Jansson floors me. This continues the trend. It has a simple outline plot (young Sophia is spending the summer on an island in the Gulf of Finland with her grandmother), insightful vignette chapters, particulars of the human condition that verge on the grotesque, beautiful, and/or the sublime, and Jansson’s pen and ink illustrations. There’s a kind of minimal stripped down prose that’s rare to find, yet somehow still manages to become dense and rich by how it points itself at what it’s describing. Jansson’s work is the epitome of that quality. (Other examples of it, for me, are Russell Hoban and Alan Garner.)
I did some traveling over July and that meant a lot of time spent on planes, trains, buses, and even a boat for a few hours. Also a lot of time sitting in airport lounges and awake at odd hours from jetlag.
Long story short this meant I read a lot.
A Coffin For Dimitrios by Eric Ambler: I am a sucker for thrillers that involve little more than a nebbish protagonist traveling around the world so they can listen to various weirdoes monologue at length. Here a mystery writer gets fascinated by a death told to him by a Turkish police captain and out of nothing more than idle curiosity starts to investigate the dead man’s life. This promptly opens open a can of worms as the dead man had ties to international terrorism, human trafficking, and drug smuggling. Also fascinating glimpse into the 1930s.
We Are Never Meeting In Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby: This is a collection of self-scathing essays by someone who got their start by being funny online. Cringe-worthy much of the time, but also very funny almost all the time. If you see this and you enjoy the David Sedaris/Roxanne Gay wry confessional style, read this.
Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett: No one ever talks about how Chine Mieville’s Bas Lag is just grimdark Discworld. For me Pratchett’s a bit like Agatha Christie. Each of them has lots of books that my friends adore and which I’ve read a little by, but have never done a deep dive into. Their books are also more or less ubiquitous and one of the easier things to score second hand, so their a bit easy to take for granted. ANYWAY, I read this and The Colour of Magic and enjoyed them both immensely..
Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin: You ever notice how almost all Le Guin’s SF novels have titles that sound a bit like Spaghetti Westerns? I don’t know what to make of that, but I think it’s kind of cool. I also like how she swears in her books and writes characters who are quietly and respectfully down to fuck. This novel is a series of linked novellas taking place on a pair of planets, Werel and Yeowe, where the populations were once sorted into “owners” and “assets”, but then a revolution occurred. The characters have either lived through that revolution or have arrived in its aftermath as a new society emerges. Harrowing stuff at times, and in another writer’s hands I’d be worried, but Le Guin does a great job here. (I also reread The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu from the Earthsea series and can still say I adore them.)
The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce: I adored this book! I want to call this folk horror, but it’s not quite horrific enough. I’ll call it instead folk horror adjacent contemporary fantasy. It’s the 1960s and Fern Cullen is the teenaged assistant to mammy, the local wise woman in a small English village. Most of their work is herblore and midwifery, but they also provide abortions where required. And it’s this that lands them in trouble. As the world changes around them and Mammy ends up hospitalized, Fern must decide whether she is willing to continue the work Mammy has taught her or adapt and change with the times. Like I said, I adored this book and wholeheartedly recommend it.
Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2) by Martha Wells: When we left Murderbot at the end of All Systems Red, they’d saved their humans but fled from their offer of sanctuary, choosing instead to learn the truth of their own past. And so that’s where we pick up here with Murderbot stowing away onboard ART, an Assholish Research Transport vessel, and returning to the site of the massacre they believe they committed. Of course this puts Murderbot in danger, bot only from humans but from other robots that see Murderbot as something of a role model. If you want fun, SF action entertainment these books deliver.
I’ve run a few sessions of Blades in the Dark (BitD) now and am going to outline some of the problems I’ve encountered trying to teach D&D players a new game. Your mileage may vary, but seeing the potholes I’m hitting might clue you in to what pitfalls to expect when leaving behind “the world’s most popular roleplaying game”.
One big problem is that my players don’t have a common language for RPGs like they do for board games.
Now I don’t think Blades is any more difficult to learn than D&D. But when I sit down to play a board game I’ve never played, my pal can employ a language I can quickly understand. She can say, “this uses a dice mechanic or an auction mechanic or a bidding mechanic” and I’ll know a good bit about how to approach the game. RPGs have less of that. And while you can suss out a board game’s mechanics over the course of a game, roleplaying games require more time and personal investment to learn, especially for inexperienced players. Yes, there’s talk about system mechanics (you use a d20, 2d6, prehensile dice), along with the more esoteric talk about Theory you need to be clued into, but when I sit down to play/learn a new RPG the ways those Theory and mechanics operate and mesh together aren’t often readily apparent. And D&D does you no favors here because its system mechanics (getting good at killing stuff) are at odds with what it claims to be about (creating stories).
One thing a friend suggested as a good way to show D&D players the wider range of game mechanics is to use either The Quiet Year or Fiasco to teach other play styles and things like narrative driven mechanics. All so’s to get away from the sword and sorcery style play. That makes sense. Next time around I’ll do that.
On to the problems. . .
Solid Crunch vs. Memory Foam
- An example: ghost punching versus Attunement: It takes a bit to wrap your head around the agency you as a player are given in BitD. In D&D you’re a ghost hunter and get a +5 whenever you punch a ghost. In Blades you’re a Whisper and get a bonus to attunement and have a special link to the ghost field and when you’re like “Cool! What does that mean?” your GM will look at you and say, “Well, you tell me?” Some folks will have their eyes light up here. Other folks will stare blankly at the GM and gulp audibly.
Organic development vs. Mechanic development.
- In Blades advancement triggers arise from play and not from killing monsters.
- No builds. If you’re used to a game having the level of crunch where you can go online and find an optimized build, Blades is not that game. Even outside whether or not it’s easy, being a Cutter that rolls 5D6 take-the-highest skirmish is a lot less satisfying then optimizing a guy to do 10D8+10 damage every time he hits someone with a sword.
- On a side note, I hate builds. Sure if the game’s super crunchy and I don’t want to deal with learning rules I’ll hop online and follow a build if that means I get to play the game comfortably. But simultaneously if I’m in a game where a player builds the best killing machine possible, I will intentionally Nerf my character. “What you’re optimizing your thief to be an elite killing machine using some tactical progression you read on an online forum? Fuck you, my barbarian’s now multiclassing as a wizard.” (This raises the question of whether I’m the problem. I can be a shit person at times.) But I hold by the notion that RPG characters should grow organically through play and not be optimized like the Terminator. I also recognize that this very optimization might be someone else’s jam, so I don’t know. Hopefully we get along, because otherwise maybe the best thing would be that we never play games together.
- Players looking around for the boss monster.
- This is likely more about my own bad habits when it comes to adventure design and trying to get out of the habit of encounter-based adventures and more towards heists, but there needs to be a comparable change in player mind-set. If D&D fosters one kind of play style and gives you the tools to play that way, you might see all games as having the same style.
- The heist mindset as opposed to the party exploring mindset. An example: The score is to break into the soul vault beneath the temple of the Empty Vessel and destroy the soul of a cruel factory boss. You hear the high priest has a fondness for blood sports. So PC 1 sets up as a fight promoter causing a distraction, while PC2, a sniper, finds a spot on a nearby rooftop, while PC3, the whisper, breaks into the vault. Except the Whisper PC played D&D and knows you never split the party and go off alone, so he sticks to PC1 and sits at the table checking his phone while the decoy fight goes on instead of being a daring scoundrel.
Hit points and Healing
- Hitpoints vs. Harm-Armor-Resistance-Stress asset management. Hit points are straightforward. You have 30 hit points. It’s right there on your character sheet. The orc hit you with an arrow. It did 5 points of damage. You now have 25 hit points. When you reach 0 hit points you are dead/unconscious. This is simple. BitD does this instead: Harm-Resistance-Armor-Stress-Asset Management. You’re stabbed through the lung and take 3 Harm. Your armor can reduce that to 2 harm, cracked ribs, but you can reduce that to 1 harm, bloodied, by rolling your prowess and taking stress, which from the looks of it might mean you end up traumatized. GM says “What do you want to do?” Player says, “ Can’t I just take 5 hit points damage?”
- I like Blades’s healing mechanics. The rolls and the de-stress mechanics, they add to the gritty, grinding feeling the setting is designed to create, but also it feels gritty and grinding, and if your players aren’t ready for that they’re not going to be happy. Especially if they’re used to short-rest/long-rest, have a healing spell/potion, start the next adventure at max HP. This means their initial reaction to Blades’s healing mechanic is not going to be a favorable one.
The Crew Game in a reactive setting
- My players are having a hard time wrapping their head around the crew game and how that puts them in the setting. No one’s really excited about it. Partially my fault, I suggested they play as vigilantes and everyone agreed to that without having much knowledge of what that meant. But overall the crew game is viewed as an accounting chore and not as a way to generate story momentum.
- With 5e the setting dial is very loose. How much the Forgotten Realms reacts to the characters can be dialed way down or way up without too much change to at table play. If players are used to a game style where they can stomp around a make believe land without too much push back or even organic impact, then the whole faction game is going to be alien.
- So when the setting reacts to players in ways that should be obvious to them, and the players aren’t aware of or picking up on how they could shore against those setting reactions, it can start to look like the setting is out to get the players. If your players aren’t picking up on how reactive Duskwall is to their actions, and how they can be impacting other factions, Blades gives the impression of being out to get the PCs. This is part of its design and why I like it, but my players aren’t used to such a reactive setting and I think this leads to paralysis on their part. “We can’t do anything without pissing off somebody and I’m uncomfortable taking risks.”
- Solution: have the players make characters but hold off crew creation until after a few sessions. For players unfamiliar with how the game operates the crew level game might be the advanced game or the goal of the entire first season. At least give the inexperienced player time to get their feet under themselves. I definitely think the Crew game is 3rd level, expert blue book kind of stuff. Once the players get a feel for the setting, they’ll be in a better space to start an enterprise.
A last point about buy-ins and touchstones
- Your friends will lie to you. You’ll say, “It’s like Penny Dreadful meets Watchmen.” And they’ll say, “Cool.” But when you get to the table and two adventures in it’s not that they’ve never watched Penny Dreadful or read Watchmen. It’s that their default game style is Teen Titans Go! And they’re not going to change that. This is fine, I guess. My player pool is not deep. The other option is that we don’t play a game.
- But what do you do? The players said they’re into what the game’s about, but two three sessions in you can see they’re not really onboard. Part of that is my fault. I could’ve done a better job in the early adventures showcasing the series from the start. I tried, but feel like I failed.
- Also a bit about theme songs… no matter what ambient acoustic ethereal blues crunk you say your game’s theme song is, when you sit down you have to work hard to prevent your theme song from becoming Yakety Sax.
Yo. Here’s some of what I read and liked over the month of June.
The Ipcress File by Len Deighton: I like the spy novels that tumbled in on the wake of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and which positioned themselves as being distinctly anti-Bond. The nebbish cuckold of John Le Carre’s George Smiley and Len Deighton’s working class paycheck and expense account obsessed Harry Palmer. This is the first in Deighton’s Palmer series (which isn’t even the character’s name but the one Michael Caine gave him in the film version) and it’s an enjoyable spy romp involving nuclear tests, brain washing, and the international trafficking in prominent scientists. Sure, the scheming is topsy-turvy and the plot exhausting after a bit, but the voice carries you to the end. Dry, acerbic, and bemusedly aloof is my jam.
Armed in Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield: It’s 1328 and the Chatelaine of Hell has besieged the city of Bruges with her army of chimeras and the widow Margriet de Vos is mad at Hell and not going to take it any more. Also her husband won’t stay dead and still puts claims on the property Margriet sees as her inheritance, an ill-gained hoard of riches and a magic weapon that just happens to be the key to Hell. This forces her to flee Bruges with an assortment of companions, nearly all of whom are wronged women like Margriet herself. For such a small book there’s a lot going on in Armed in Her Fashion and while there were a few moments where I wished Heartfield zigged instead of zagged, I overall enjoyed the ride. Novels based on Brueghel paintings are my jam. Check out Dulle Griet.
Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley: I am a huge fan of Hurley’s Bel Dame series and this book is a collection of short stories that serve as something of a tangential prequel to that series. Former Bel Dame, turned mercenary Nyx is still a battered and rebuilt veteran of the ongoing brutal war on her world, and here she’s putting together the team she’ll have around her in God’s War. If there’s something of a through line to the book’s stories, it’s Nyx’s struggle to be slightly less awful than the default awfulness of her surroundings. She might not have a completely functioning moral compass, but it works from time to time. Violent bug-fueled science-fantasy is my jam.