A Little Debt Financing Between Friends Goes A Long Way. Plus Pirates.

The party stands on a beach on the other side of the world facing down an army of 30,000 heavily armed but lightly armored orks.  And they wonder… how did we get here?

King Stephan II is at war with his neighbor.  He no longer remembers what the war was about or how it started.  It began in his father’s father’s time.  All King Stephen II knows is war is expensive and the Royal Treasure is heavily in debt to a number of incredibly dubious concerns.  He’s not worried about the debt, though.  King Stephen II is phenomenally concerned about a more pernicious virus working its way through his Kingdom: boredom.

When war is good it’s very good.  The realm has no professional standing army.  Instead, when it’s time to go to war, the King bribes his Dukes to mobilize their private armies.  The Dukes bribe their Barons, the Barons bribe their Knights, and the Knights rape and pillage the land to raise money for armor, weapons and horses which flows back to the Faires where the brokers make their cash. 

The military is a loose confederation of adventuring groups, mercenaries, Knights and their buddies looking to grab a well-paying hostage, Barons trying to get ahead, and Dukes eyeing the Throne.  Theoretically, all these groups show up at the same place at the same time after a fun trip through the countryside where they force local peasantry to fete their betters with enormous and locally expensive feasts.   If all goes well, they route the enemy. The victors grab as many hostages as they can reach, and the Knights go on a rampage burning down the local villages.  Everyone makes out well and the local treasury overflows with its cut from this heroic misanthropy.

The enemy has been busy with their own internal problems leaving King Stephen II with a multi-pronged problem:

  • Bored nobility.
  • His treasury holds dust and his creditors are circling.

The Good and Wise King can debase the coinage – he’s done this a few dozen times before – to raise more money for his treasury and squeeze the peasantry as the harvest is good.  But his real problem is the nobility.  King Stephen II is Half-Elven by some tangential definition of “Half Elven” – he claims an ancient ancestor was an elf and he possesses some great and noble elven blood.  So do almost all of his nobility, even the Duke of Shoral, even though that Great and Wise Duke is clearly a half ork.  (The Duke of Shoral claims not only an ancient ancestry of elven blood, he claims his half-orkness is a special expression of that blood.)  King Stephan II is in truth only a man and he needs his nobility entertained otherwise they will begin to entertain themselves with each other.  Nothing is worse than bored heavily armed personal militaries.

Wizards, or at least their agents, live on the Trade Nexuses.  The Glorious and Most Serene Republic of Bavoria is just such a trade nexus.  Built on the ruins of an ancient harbor left by the previous civilization who had excellent taste in city locations, Bavoria benefits from a wide, protected harbor, access to timber in the nearby foothills of the mountains, and excellent roads.  In the far-flung past, Bavoria mostly did trade in honey, wax, and wine.  Now it trades everything its network of brokers can buy from all over the world.  With trade comes money, and with money comes the academic trades – the writers, the poets, the painters, the sculptors, the philosophers, the alchemists, the libraries and the universities. With the universities and an access to expensive and rare reagents come the Wizards.  And the banks.

The Doge of Bavoria is a Transmuter and sits at the head of the Colainni family, an ancient family who were among those who built Bavoria in the mists of history.  The Colainni family was a proud family exclusively of wizards but today most of the family business is in finance and murder – much more lucrative than wizard’s robes and runes. And the hats? Oh, the amazing hats.  The Colainni family has managed to fuse the Merchant’s Guild with the Thieves Guild and Wizard’s Craft Guilds to build a small banking empire to Kings.  

Doge Uberto Colainni has a pirate problem.  He’s always had a pirate problem.  Before, they could be bribed to pay back a cut to him of what they stole but they’ve not paying up and they’re putting a dent in the profits.  Normally, he would send out the Bavoria fleet to take care of the problem but King Stephen II is in to him for 1.2M gold plus interest from the last little adventure in War five years ago.   The Doge knows the good King has an entire kingdom of Knights and brave adventurers who might be getting the hot idea to come adventuring right at him.  The Doge prepares a courier and sends a message.  In returning for forgiving a bit of that war debt – debt the good King will run up again – the Doge will send his Knights off somewhere that will keep them occupied for a while.

The King’s Men fan out across the Kingdom and position themselves in Inns offering adventure.  An old man wearing the King’s colors tells a thrilling story around the fireside of sun drenched cities and horrible pirates and a chance for glory and stuff. The King himself is calling adventures to join the cause.  The adventurers can keep any booty they find!  All the adventurers need to do is rendezvous with the contact in Bavoria – here’s a name – in a month’s time and they can take part in this, well, let’s not call it a crusade, really.  A fight for Chivalry.  Pirates are evil!  Rar pirates! Go good!  Fight evil!  Go over there so you stop draining our coffers!

And a bunch of Random Encounters later, the adventures find themselves in Bavoria.  A city of money!  A city full of crime!  A city where scoundrels will roll the party blind! But it’s also a city of wealth, of wild parties, of politics, of murder, and of ancient ruins the party can go through and level in if they are a little under-leveled.   The Guild of Diviners will identify magic items for quick cash but then we’re back to the problem of actually selling magic items. It doesn’t help that the diviners are also in the pocket of both the Thieves Guild and one of the other great families of Bavoria, the Campise, who is standing up a competing Thieves Guild-slash-Financing House, and now they know the party has magic items and of what size and what kind and from where… but first, pirates.  

Sure enough, Knights and Lords from all over King Stephen II’s kingdom filter into Bavoria.  They feted on the backs of peasants all the way from their capital city here.  And they are ready to kill pirates.  Oh are they ready to kill pirates.  Is the party ready to kill pirates?  The NPC knights are all about killing pirates! 

First problem: no one can take horses. The boats don’t have enough room for all the armor and the squires and the mercenaries and the adventures and tents and supplies and horses.  The boats are only so big. The horses must go, and due to a sudden glut of horses, they’re going at half price.  Now Bavoria has a lively but short-lived trade in horses!  A win for everyone!

Second problem: the clerics of King Stephen II’s Kingdom are slightly different from the clerics of the Republic of Bavoria so no one agrees on the right blessing. After an altercation and possible cleric-and-paladin fist fighting, the party has a problem to solve.  They can solve this however they see fit, including allowing the clerics to hit each other until they’re unconscious and then have the party cleric bless the mission. And clerics?  They’re mean.

Finally, everyone boards.  The boats cast off!  They float around on the sea for a while.  They fish.  They have fights on the sea with pirates!  And the party lands on shore surprisingly fresh.

Here’s where maybe someone should have asked a few questions. The Doge of Bavoria did not have King Stephen II or his Knight’s best interests in mind.

  • The pirate generator is an enormous walled city surrounded on the shore by a river and otherwise surrounded with desert.
  • If the party thinks to ask no, no one brought any siege equipment.  Why would we bring siege equipment?  What those walls?
  • The NPC Knights, however, did bring many barrels of wine.
  • The pirates, knowing the Doge was getting irate, called their buddies who called their buddies and they have bored warriors and mercenaries, too. Now just off the city is an army of 30,000 heavily armed orks on horseback.
  • The orks on horseback don’t seem interested in attacking. They mostly seem interested in sitting just out of range and laughing.
  • Also Knights?  In the desert?  In heavy plate armor?  Without horses?  All those good Knights and Paladins aren’t going anywhere fast.

This is where the party is at.  There’s all sorts of interesting possibilities the adventuring party can pursue:

  • The party can be super clever, figure out a way into the city through some ancient sewers and destroy the pirates from the inside.  The city is not a normal city full of people kept hostage.  It truly is full of nasty goblins, orks, evil demi-human races, hobgoblins and the occasional bugbear.  Meanwhile, outside the city walls, the NPC Knights will try to make a single siege weapons out of driftwood (which burns) and mostly die of heat exhaustion in their metal cans.
  • The party can have a throw down with the champions of the ork army after sets of skirmishes.  In some twisted ork tale of honor, if the two champions of two armies meet, the one set of champions who survives is the winner of the war. Winning will disperse the ork army.
  • The party can attempt to oust the useless head of the NPC Knights, one of the erstwhile Dukes but not the Duke of Shoral he was too smart for this, take over the army and actually hold a useful siege. But they won’t get any respect unless their head is also Nobility of King Stephen’s Kingdom.
  • The party can get back on boats and fight the pirate menace on the seas. Sooner or later they will meet a Pirate Boss who will give them an epic fight.
  • No doubt there’s all sorts of interesting exotic places to explore off the beaten path: other ruins, interesting trade cities with strange cultures, and more clusters of pirates.

The head of the NPC Knights, a Duke of Canet, who claims descent from elves and the royal line of Kings, has little interest in anyone’s advice.  He will bat it away with one hand and drink hot wine under a hot sun in another.  To him, this is a big party and the longer it lasts, the better.  The siege entertains his men and occasionally one of the small skirmishes results in booty.  He has to milk this siege in a far away land for all it has.

Regardless, the NPC Knights after a long time of hanging around in tents with bright banners, screwing around, getting each other killed in skirmishes, and generally failing to do anything useful, will eventually tear down their tents, get on boats, and go home.  Unless the party manages to take the city and defeat the pirates themselves, the Knights return to Bavoria totally and completely successful in their own minds despite it looking pretty, well, like a huge failure.   

But someone wins in all this.  Who wins? 

  • The Doge wins because regardless what happens, the pirates back off a bit giving him a great financial victory which he will use to hire assassins and off members of rival wizarding families.
  • The pirates win because they still have their big army, their pirating base, and they made a bunch of knights look like jerks.  The tiny war thinned their numbers so the pirates back off for a bit but check out the recruiting propaganda they get in return!
  • The party wins because they get to go on cool adventures and take stuff.

King Stephan II gets rolled.  Sure, he gets his Knights out of his Kingdom for a while but the Knights didn’t return with much he could put into his treasury.  He’s still in debt to the Doge.  And his neighbor is still having its own civil war problems and can’t come fight him.  But the Doge is thinking of going to war with his neighbor, the Glorious Republic of the Iron Isle and could use some Knights. He’ll be happy to forgive some debt but King Stephen II will have to arm them… 

The moral of this long drawn out story: Maybe the old man in the inn giving out adventures doesn’t have the best of intentions.  Also, more importantly, wise rulers keep a constant war at the edges of their kingdoms far away from their central cities and bases of power.  Campaigns work best when they send adventurers out to the far reaches of civilization.  D&D is essentially a western.

As you can probably guess, this was all based on real history of the Crusades which were exactly as dumb as this.  And every bit as successful.

On the Unloading a Pair of Magic Boots and Troubles Therein

While killing an ogre for the local Baron for a quick pickup of 100gp, the party offs the ogre’s buddy, a nasty little goblin.  This guy was a real jerk.  Once he was good and dead – the fighter stabbed the goblin extra for good measure – the party did what adventuring parties do.  They rolled the bodies.  Among the handfuls of copper pieces, a few unusable weapons and a convenient cache of crossbow bolts, the party discovers the goblin was wearing a pair of Boots of Striding and Springing. 

For whatever reason, the party decides it doesn’t want to keep the boots.  Perhaps it is a matter of taste.  The style is out of fashion.  The size is too small.  Also, as magic items go, boots of striding and springing are on the low-end of the interesting scale.  Regardless, the party takes the boots to the nearby peaceful peasant market town to unload them as one does with unused magic items.

The local cordwainer won’t accept the boots of striding and springing.  The cordwainer, a member of the local shoemaker’s guild in good standing, doesn’t recognize the boots as magic but he does recognize them as a different make than other boots made in the region.  Good quality, good make, but they’re not his nor one of his fellow guildmates so he cannot resell them.  He is not authorized to buy and sell foreign goods and if they’re left in his shop, he’ll get found out by the guild for hoarding strange makes of highly unauthorized footwear.  There’s a price list.  He likes being part of the guild, see.  They help him and his family out when he’s down.  His father was part of this guild. His grandfather was a grandmaster of the cordwainers of the peaceful peasant village.  And he doesn’t want any trouble.  Besides, he only pays in script and not in coinage.  The party needs to move along.

The local merchant doesn’t recognize the boots, either, but he recognizes them as magic immediately on inspecting them on the counter in his small shop.  The wizard’s craft mark is on the inner sole.  See that right there? These are wizarding shoes.  Great magic in wizarding shoes. The merchant’s guild in this region isn’t permitted in its charter to resell strange, foreign wizarding shoes.  They banged this charter out so the merchant can sell commodity goods here and the Baron stays over there where the town would like them and the Baron, well, he takes interest in these sorts of things.  Maybe the party took them off a wizard?  That’s a problem right there, too.  The merchant can’t pay for strange foreign wizarding things in his shop.  Brings nothing but trouble.  Besides, the town mostly works on script, ledgers, loaning and mutual debt.  The merchant can only pay in Bob the Baker’s bread.  Do you like bread? Bob’s bread?  Fantastic.

  • Forcing the merchant to accept the boots unearths the hard reality that the Merchant’s Guild of the town is also the Judge’s Guild, the local Mafioso Guild, and the Government Guild. This merchant?  He’s also the Mayor.  And the Head Judge.  The merchant will call in his friends and his friends will make sure the party doesn’t sell no weird, foreign, and possibly evil wizarding shoes in this town.  We won’t kill you right here and now because of the ogre business but maybe it’s time to go.  The locals are not much when it comes to fighting but leaving an entire town murdered over a pair of boots – there’s a slippery slope to neutral evilhood.  The party’s cleric might be irked.
  • Getting the local Baron involved brings up all kinds of ugly questions like: “Why are the lower folk walking around with a pair of magic boots?“  And then the magic boots will belong to the Baron because he needs to go on campaign and he doesn’t have magic boots.  Now he does. Yours.  Not a great plan.  Great guy until someone shows up with some magic items and then not such a nice guy any more.
  • Barding up the merchant or pulling out some merchant background can get a bit of “I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.”  Maybe there’s something the merchant needs for a bit of favor.  Besides, the guy trades in favors all day.  The local merchant is not of any help but there might be an upstream reseller.  Here’s a bit of a written introduction and a rough schedule for a Faire that moves around a number of cities.  Nomenally that faire sells cloth but an entrepreneaur can unload a pair of boots if the buyer is right and the place is right and the money is right.
  • Calling down on God or Gods is a thing that works because if there is anything a merchant needs, it’s a blessing to help him move those more mundane items in his shop.  But he still doesn’t handle foreign magic goods and he can only pay in what he owes to other townspeople.
  • Cutting the inner soles out of the boots to remove the wizard’s mark and leaving them with the local non-guild affiliated peddler with his jingle jangle wagon of assorted goods for a few copper will get rid of them quick but these boots are worth some serious scratch.  Always an option but no adventuring party is going to get rich off filing the serial numbers off magic items and unloading them on movable consignment stores.

No one in the town is going to buy the boots the local head cleric explains to the party on their way (hopefully) out of town.  And no one wants them. These are good people.  Godly people.  People who tithe regularly to their local Temple.  What the local head cleric, who is one of those nice guys affiliated with one of the local Gods of home and hearth, wants is the party to take the boots and leave. They will bring nothing but instability to this nice little community. If there’s anything the Gods want, its stability. 

A group of towns who want to become cities situated on ancient trade roads hold a rotating open market.  What it is, who hosts, and where it is held depends on the time of year.  The external appearance of the Faire is selling well-known commodity goods: one week is cloth, another is spices, another leather and other durable goods.  Merchants travel over incredible distances marked with the occasional Random Encounter to make it here to unload from all over the known world and over it all a rich and powerful Lord who makes it happen with the guarantees of security and law.  It’s his Law but his Law is he gets his tax.  As long as no one sets the entire town on fire and brings the Lord into it, he’s fine with whatever nonsense happens.

No one sells magic items in the open here, either, but the party can lay hands on some seriously upgraded pieces of mundane equipment if necessary.  At night, behind the tents and in the bars, people settle their accounts and the interesting goods exchange hands.

By knowing a guy, having a letter of introduction, getting the right people drunk, surviving a few fist fights, and generally running around depraved, it’s possible to find the magic items broker.  The party will bump into a bunch of other guys, too.  Nothing is ever simple on the quest to unload a pair of slightly magical boots:

Someone from one of the Wizard Craft Guilds is attending the Faire looking for the same sets of background deal brokers to unload their magic items into circulation.  (How else do they make their way into dungeons and random treasure tables?) The Wizard Craft Guilds aren’t like a small peaceful peasant village Shoemaker’s Guild.  These are guys with money, muscle, and agents to move their merchandise.  And these aren’t the Wizards themselves, of course – no self-respecting Wizard is going to come out of his tower to sell at some Faire. That would mean getting dirty.  This is a broker’s broker with his own set of thugs. And they want to know why this party is selling strange, foreign magic boots with a different wizard’s mark than their Guild into circulation.  

    • Is the party now magic boot-making competition? 
    • Is there a collect and resell effort from foreign points going on to dilute the list prices of magic items? 
    • Are the local wizards of the Wizard Craft Guild being scammed?

Maybe what the party needs is a visit from the broker’s local group of armed friends, in the cover of darkness, behind the bar.  Because while the party may not have to go, the boots certainly do. 

The black market gets whiff there’s some action in the magic items area and, unlike the rubes back home, these are guys who know how to move magic items and get them into the hands of discerning dealers.  Sure the party might be running from the thugs behind the Wizards Craft Guild but here’s a friend – really! a friend! – who only wants to get the best price for the boots for his quiet, discerning client.  This is safe. This is clean.  No Guilds involved at all except for Ours but you don’t need to know about that.  This will move the boots and sell them to a discrete buyer.  The Necromatic Arch Lich and his Legions of Terrifying Evil who simply need high quality footwear as they trample on the necks of the local populance.  You know how it is.

Running amok away from the thieves’s guild and the wizard craft guild, the party draws the attention of the local Merchant’s Guild who both try to turn a blind eye to all sorts of shenanigans but if inns start getting burnt to the ground, they’re both going to get wary. Luckily for the party, the local Merchant’s Guild is on a whole different playing field than the local Merchant’s Guild of the small town. These guys finance entire armies for rich patrons.  They have their own set of mercantile laws that have nothing whatsoever to do with local Law, or the Lord’s Law, or laws from the local Temple. These guys are judge, jury, executioner, and the entire local government.  We leave that for now, because the Merchant’s Guild wants to see if the party lives.  If they do, there might be something in it for them.

And after lighting some bar on fire while running out, the party hooks up with their guy.  They have wizard guild thugs after them.  Black market mafia thugs after them after breaking their deal to sell the boots.  They got beer all over their new leathers.  Letters of introduction are exchanged. In a room in quite another inn across town, the magic item broker looks at the boots, looks at the wizards mark in the sole, and he tells you his fee for moving the boots is 37%.  At a list price of 5500gp, he’s going to take a little over 2000gp from the party for the price of taking those boots off the party’s hands.  Good magic item laundering service is expensive.

In a time of craft guilds, merchant guilds, organizational guilds, nobility, and wizards in towers protected by armies of thugs, it’s hard to move foreign merchandise.  No one wants to accept the risk of explaining where the item came from.  And all the rich guilds have their form of muscle and protection.  This is all to say, one can get mileage out of a pair of boots rolled off a dead goblin. And maybe in the end it is easiest just to pull the soles and unload them on the peddler.  It’s cheaper that way. 

The Faire is based on the Champagne Faires, a thing that happened before the rise of the Hanseatic League and a tribute to the absolute determination, in the face of Kings and Guilds, to turn a buck. 

On Mid-Medieval Economics, Murder Hoboing and 100gp

The party stands before the local Lord of the small town they’re passing through and responding to an ad:  Kill the local ogre in the hills for 100 gold pieces!  George the Ogre menaced the roads leading into the Lord’s holdings and villages so the Lord wants George gone.   You, the Murder Hobos, who breezed through go hey, we have weapons, we have skills, we have experience points, we can take out George.  And you do!  The local Lord hands out the 100gp (along with the party getting whatever experience points an Ogre was worth) and the Murder Hobos hobo along.

Where does the 100gp originally come from? 

Assuming the fantasy world our Murder Hobos inhabit is plausibly “Vaguely Western European Medieval” with some hand waving about elves, 90% of the population works in agriculture.  Sure expensive magic could make agriculture marginally more effective for the whole population but the structure of most of the countryside are manors of Lords overseeing combinations of bonded villeins and free peasants working the land. Even elves need to eat – or maybe they don’t, but people do.   Dotting along the road is the occasional inn and a few small market towns with functional marketplaces – and these are where our friends, the Murder Hobos, hang out.

Unless the Petty Lord in question owns a mine of some sort, he has few options to raise that 100gp:

  1. Squeeze the Peasants. Why bother to pay that 100gp himself to get rid of that ogre when his peasants surely have a few coins stashed under the floorboards somewhere?  This is what Sheriffs are for.  Go squeeze the villeins and free peasants – those free peasants are always good for cash.  Ever wonder why in old 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons the cash rewards would be in weird denominations? As long as it all adds up to 100gp, who cares the Lords squeezed the peasants a few copper at a time?
  2. Raid a nearby village.  Why squeeze one’s own peasants, who will surely resent being squeezed, when one can go burn down a rival’s village and force the peasants to cough up 100gp at swordpoint?  It really only takes the few buddies that live with the petty Lord, some horses, a few swords, and some flasks of wine… It’s one thing to knock over a few peasants, and it’s another thing to take on an ogre. An ogre is dangerous business.
  3. Squeeze the hostage. Hostage? What hostage? Where did a hostage come from? Surely at some point the petty Lord went on his campaign with his Lord. And that guy has a Lord above him — a Duke or Earl, perhaps. And that Duke got lucky on his last campaign when knocking over some other peaceful peasant villages. The petty Lord, with supreme luck, managed to take out a rival Knight and now has said rival Knight hanging around eating all the food. But the rival Knight’s family is another set of Lords with their own peasants to squeeze so our original magnanimous Lord with the ogre problem sends away for a bit of financing. And here it is.

Our party goes and rolls the ogre.  Possibly the ogre has some goblin friends, maybe a few orcs, and maybe if he’s a high charisma ogre a bugbear.  (Bugbear!)  The party rolls the enemy, collects a few trinkets, and saves the village.  Huzzah!  The peaceful peasant village is saved! They are heroes!  The petty Lord gives them 100gp to go away because he needs to get back to the pressing business of ensuring this year’s crop comes in to cover all his costs for his next year’s so-called war with his Lord. 

And the murder hobos do go away because they have 100gp burning a hole in a pocket and it needs to turn into stuff.

Medieval agrarian societies experienced little inflation over long periods of time.  Little money entered into the macroeconomic system to force prices to fluctuate and the pernicious guild system held prices artificially static.   The cost of wheat was the cost of wheat.  For prices to rise, someone dumps buckets of cash on the society as a whole.   Serfs had little money because they were serfs, Knights (petty Lords) had little money because they had to pay for the arms of war and kick up to their Lords… one had to crawl up the hierarchy before the murder hobos find concentrations of wealth.

But then a group of murder hobos would hoover 100gp out of one small community, find the nearest marketing town, and dump it all there like insane agents of the Invisible Hand.  100gp didn’t just buy drinks, it bought the entire bar.  The best thing for the entire community is if the murder hobos took their money and left.  Talk about acts of redistribution.

Since economic pressures put on groups of elves and dwarves in a Feudalistic society who take up arms to wander the country side and kill ogres interests me, I can game out some of the our party’s choices after spending their 100gp on whiskey.

1. Roll over to the next Lord and take another well-meaning good-aligned job they heard from the previous bar to rescue another peaceful peasant village.  The process starts anew, except this time the murder hobos ask for250gp instead of 100gp because the party leveled and they have more expensive equipment and reagent needs.   They continue along like this until they fight the big boss at the end of the module and destroy a small country’s carefully balanced economy by dumping the treasure on a small marketing town.  Perhaps once the adventure completes, the murder hobos become an upgrade: the murder mercenary company.  Why take out goblins when one can take out towns and knock over petty Lords themselves?  Cut out the middle man.

2. Climb up the ladder from petty Lords to big Lords and Churches. If anyone has money, it’s those local Temples that dot the countryside squeezing the local free peasants and moderately wealthy landowners for their cash (since they can pony up and don’t have their own private shrines.)  You Clerics you with your wealthy Sanctuaries and need for adventuring teams to go do things.  At higher levels, the murder hobos can shake down people who shake down people who squeeze the peasantry en masse.  Not only does it make more money and destabilize an agrarian society faster, it’s more efficient for higher levels!

3. Get thee to a city.  And hold onto that thought.

Once the petty and not-so-petty Lords get rolled a few times by the murder hobos, they have their own choices because they need to get their wheat to market, they don’t know how to figure in inflation, and seriously they have bills to pay and these guys need to move on.  They can (lists of threes!  lists of threes!):

1. Buy another murder hobo company and sic them, for another 100gp, on the first murder hobo company in hopes of mutual annihilation.

2. Militarily mobilize against the murder hobos – oh thank you for saving us now please go far away and stop hitting all the manors on the road for jobs please.  Maybe raising troops and mass mobilization is the best way to get right of the plague of lawful good adventurers who just want to help the poor and the oppressed against the legions of evil?

3. Join ‘em.  It’s more lucrative to murder hobo rather than run lands as Knight So and So of SuchandSuch.  Grab the sword, leave the gun, take the cannoli and surely they need an NPC fighter!  Who doesn’t?  There’s a Storm Giant menacing a village over the rise.

And now our, oh, 7th or 8th level murder hobo group who has saved many peasant villages now have an entire chorus of ex-petty Lords helping them to right the wrongs while they ravage the countryside, and some Duke or Earl or even King will get smart and point them at their enemies for a bribe of, say, 10,000 gp ganked no doubt off the back of a hundred thousand peasants paying taxes…

Murder hobos are no good for a fine Western European Medieval economic climate full of elves.  So much for the long-term economic stability of the Hobbits of the Shire.

Cities – small, filthy and few as they are – are the only civic and economic structures with enough wealth to support the rapacious needs of the average, healthy, constantly leveling murder hobo.  A 100gp disappears into the cities dark streets like water after rain.  Guilds extort from one another.  Landed Churchmen run the heads of their Temples out of Cities.  Governments make their headquarters.    These are the guy with hard cash.  Where they got the hard cash is of no concern – they have hard cash.  Never mind with landed nobles. Those guys are broke.  There’s some Guild there who has long term grudges with another Guild and wants to get their pay and all they need is a group of murder hobos who have leveled up siphoning all the money out of the countryside. 

Imagine the rogue class of the Auditor who works for the Guilds with the Guild Artisan background who makes sure that now the team is part of the City they pay their kickbacks to the Guilds themselves….

When Guilds don’t have enough money, some Lord of a rich city state who doesn’t bother with such things as lands and rents but in real things like proto-banks and ports needs to have a rival sacked.  Here’s a scroll of fireball!  Gratis!  Go sack.  Hope you don’t come back!

Given an infinite amount of time and actual economic pressures, all adventuring groups become neutral evil. 

There’s a lot to this subject.  This doesn’t even touch money-lending and usury and rents.  This is a time with no real banking – where do the murder hobos store their cash? – and few mints churning out coin.  Lords pass off murder hobos based on IOUs they never intend to pay and then other Lords who will call those in.  Backstabbing guild politics of the highest order and free peasants willing to use murder hobos on their climb by their fingernails up the economic ladder so they can buy themselves a title.   And this is just what is rolling around in my head.   The murder hobos rely on an invisible system to support their need to Do Good: the wealth of the churches, the rent taking of the lords, the control of the guilds, the networks of small market towns destroyed in their wake by overindulgence of beer.

The White Company is the best of real history rapacious and completely gonzo mercenary adventurers who had some fun in 14th century France and Italy.   A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman describes the White Company and the role of mercenaries in medieval society in loving detail.

Anything on the Black Death is good for exploring what happens when disease upends a perfectly good Feudalistic system.  The history of printing gets one into guerilla warfare tactics between guilds and free enterprise (printing was never guild controlled) and the length they will go to blowing up each other.    Seriously, the history of printing and the printers wars with keeping out of guild control is the best historical story no one knows about. 

Debt: the first 500 years has a chapter on Western medieval economics in detail and describes what happens when one dumps huge amounts of liquid cash on a low cash velocity society.  (Hint: massive hyperinflation –just ask Spain!)

I am currently reading the Story of England by Michael Wood which describes life in a Medieval and Renaissance society in loving, personal detail.  Also, academics are jerks.   If you thought monasteries were bad they are nothing compared to a small Liberal Arts college in 1300AD.

Nothing coughs up ideas like real life.

In which I rant about Tieflings for no good reason

Yeah, okay, of all the dumb rants there are in the world this is one of the dumbest and worse it is several years out of date but it’s one of those things boiling over into nerdrage and the entire point of this blog is to have a place for nerdrage so it is serving its purpose.

So.

Tieflings.

Back in the wild world of AD&D 2nd Edition we had a thing called Planescape and it was good. Well, it wasn’t good. But it was better than most. And Planescape introduced a nice place called Sigil that was full of kind people who liked to stab — each other, other people, you know, in general, stab. Stabbing was a thing in Sigil. In Sigil were these people called Tieflings. Since Sigil was the center of all the Planes all based on the 9 D&D alignments it made sense that the occasional Demon or Devil or Fiend would wander on through, leave a couple of babies with the local whores and barmaids, and wander on their way. Could the demons help it if they were good looking? No, probably not.

Tieflings were the closest thing that Sigil had to a native population. Each one was weird in their own way. Grandpa was a Cambian and Mom was some sort of nasty half-fiend so you’re just this freak with giant bulging red eyeballs and vestigial wings that go fwip fwip fwip and your poker buddy has 6 foot tall curving horns and hooves. But no one cared because over infinite time in Sigil everyone was a damned Tiefling. One assumed any Tiefling sorcerer who fell through a Door and ended up in someone’s campaign was only adventuring to get back to their goddamn poker game where they had a full flush high they swear and they leaned back in their chair and now here they are fighting goddamn orcs what the hell is this garbage. Old Tieflings were guys who had fireballs in one hand and cigarettes in the other and weren’t interested in that sword in that magical horde because they could do a thing. They were cool guys.

I was one of those people who liked Tieflings. And yes, I know they are lame.

Tieflings were like this in 3rd edition and survived that way through the patch but then were watered down into non-existence. Instead of an interesting background of some demon passing through town now it is a Mysterious Ancestor who Tainted a Bloodline and now all Tieflings are Generically the Same. They were gutted of all their interestingness into bland sameness with a Spooky and Mysterious Past that was Spooky and Mysterious. And they are all weird in the exact same way and have absolutely no knowledge about plains or Evil Grandpa George the Demon or extra-planar games of chance.

And because not everything can be awesome, in D&D 5th Edition Tieflings are still a race with a mysterious tainted bloodline with a tail and flamey eyes all in the same way.

So screw that. I have declared an Official House Rule that all Tieflings are Different, Dammit. They might not be from Sigil — a summoning could have gone wrong, someone hung around with Great Evil too long, who knows. Something interesting. Something interesting happened that was more than a vague and unspoken spooky evil that is strange and spooky. Something awesome happened. And that’s the whole point of Backgrounds. Something. Awesome. Happened. And I have declared it So for all Tieflings.

Life is too short for boring bland evil backgrounds.

On the D&D5e Starter Set

Yesterday, we got together, went through character generation, and played several hours of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set.  To paraphrase: I wasn’t a huge fan of 4th Edition because I am a habitual minis player and 4th Edition felt like a minis game.   I did love the board games – Wrath of Ashardalon and the like – because I love roguelikes and those games felt like the right balance between a roguelike and a ridiculous dungeon run.  4th Edition needed grids, minis, rulers, and careful measurements to play and combat bogged down.  It wasn’t the D&D I remembered so the books went largely unread and the game went unplayed.

D&D5e is not D&D4e. 

Character generation is good old fashioned D&D character generation.  Pick a race, pick a class, apply some bonuses, pick some weapons, fill out a form, and rock & roll.  I picked a Mountain Dwarf Fighter because smashing imaginary goblins with a two-handed maul is fun and because I love Violet from Rat Queens.  We all filled out our character sheets wrong in the same way – it’s the bonuses from the stats which count, not the stats themselves but because we were all trained by AD&D 2nd Ed we are still thinking the Fighter needs an 18/00 strength to be effective and, well…

Backgrounds shone.  We didn’t have many to pick from, this being the Starter Set, but I see a glorious future of entire splat books dedicated to backgrounds alone.  Two of us picked Soldier and one picked Criminal and we came up with some tenuous relationships between us.  Rolling randomized on tables to create character personalities came up with some mixed results but the concept of backgrounds works.

Combat is what we all care about.  Gone are the 5’ steps, the grid requirements, and the trappings of a minis game that starter in 3 and exploded in 4.  Combat was fluid and fast – we managed to get through 5 combats in less than three hours which might be a world speed record for D&D.  Granted, these are 1st level characters with 1st level character combats so they’re expected to be fast.  Goblins squish.  But there was a good balance of risk, reward, tension, and fast play to keep combat fun.  

The Advantage/Disadvantage system is a bit of genius.  It forces the players to think more tactically without the need of physical tactics.  Players want to get the drop on monsters to get those Advantages so they’ll work harder, think more, and work together to get those pluses while trying to stay away from situations which give them Disadvantages.  (For those not yet exposed to it, Advantages are when you can roll 2 d20s and take the best, and Disadvantages work the same way to the enemy’s benefit.)  This gives the combats more color and encourages teamwork. 

To understand the general tone of game play, go back to D&D 3rd edition and instead of shooting off into 3.5/Pathfinder, pull out everything that feels extraneous – most of the mechanics around Feats, measurements – and put in a more fluid saving throw, skill and combat system.  It is not AD&D 2nd Ed like people have claimed – there is no THAC0, the d20 is still king, it is still all rolling and adding – but there’s an essential AD&Dness mixed with the enormous improvements found in 3rd Ed to make 5th Edition.  It feels like Dungeons and Dragons.

It’s a super good game if you are in the mood for the kind of cheesy, ridiculous fun playing D&D brings.  And it has all the feel of murder hoboing without the overhead.

Will play again and will acquire the core books when they come out.

A Single Issue Roads Voter

It’s election ramp-up time!  We’re mumble months out and the commercials have begun.  So let’s talk about politics!  Yay!

I can’t much care about politics on a Federal level in the Midterm elections because the Federal Government has turned into an Insurance company protected by a large and well-funded standing army.  I cannot vote to get the US Government to represent my views on Basic Research or Climate Change or anything so I’ve just sort of table flipped there.  On the local level, though, my vote still carries a teeny tiny bit of weight.

In my old age, on the state level, I’ve become a single issue voter.  I used to pay attention to the postures and positions of the various candidates and vote liberal anyway.  But now a days, I only care about one issue: roads

Here’s what I want out of my representatives and government who take my state and county taxes:

  • Build roads
  • Fix bridges
  • Fix potholes
  • Maintain roads
  • Employ our friends, Civil Engineers

Here’s what I don’t want out of my representatives and government on the state level: much anything else.

My thinking works like this:

… if you’re super into building and maintaining roads …

… you’re probably super into building roads that go useful places or get people to useful places

so you might even be interested in those useful places and the people who work there

… so you might like, oh, say, schools and hospitals and ambulances and the ability for police to answer 911s …

… you might even be interested in some more interesting things like electric car charging stations or running municipal fiber at the outside …

… so, in general, you like modern human civilization.

And thus, I will vote for you.  A vote for roads is a vote for a city, county, and state that is not a crumbling heap of post-dystopian life.

I’m getting to the point where I actually send campaigns emails asking about the candidate’s stance on roads.  Do you like roads?  How do you feel about roads?

As far as I can tell:

Libertarians are morally opposed to roads in any form.  They never leave their homes and teleport from place to place in Ayn Randian teleportation devices.

Republicans, who used to be very pro-road — after all Eisenhower built the freeway system — have crammed their heads up the butts of the abortion/contraceptive/rapey rape caucus.  They no longer have time to stop their moral umbrage to fix a road.  Besides, roads cost money and they no longer pay for things when that money could be going to their buddies.

Greens never build roads.  Why aren’t you walking or riding a bike?  You don’t need a road for a bike.  You can use a mountain bike.   Roads destroy the environment.  Just stop using roads entirely.

This leaves me with the occasional Democrat since we don’t get Independents.   Even they are weak sauce on roads but they do fix an occasional pot hole or fix a bridge.  That’s something.  But if the Democrat won’t fix roads either…

On the local level, I offer my hands in the great greeting of also becoming a single issue voters.  I could care less where a candidate stands on gay marriage or abortion.  All I care about is this: if I elect you, will you ensure that some hole in the freeway won’t destroy my suspension?  That’s what I want to know.

On Learning French On The Cheap

Off and on the last ten years I have tried learning French and not gotten far – except for this time, when I might have hit upon a winning combination that, if anything else, is working for me. 

First, Duolingo is an on-the-go free application that teaches Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and German in a manner quite like Rosette Stone.  It costs nothing and its coverage of a language is quite comprehensive.  However:

  • It tells you when you get something wrong but it never tells you why you got something wrong often leading to frustration.
  • It never teaches you any reasons behind the grammar it introduces.   It just introduces grammar complexity and laughs at you as you fail lessons.
  • Sometimes the translations are colloquialisms or verb tense changes without any warning.
  • It nags.  Meh.

Duolingo is terrible for learning a language from scratch since it leads to frustration and confusion but it’s fantastic for vocabulary drill.  Since vocabulary drill is the name of the game, it’s worth doing the minimum 10-15 minutes a day with the app – with something else.

Second, the podcast Coffee Break French is really good.  It’s really good.  I thought the JapanesePod 101 stuff was good but no, this is really good.  Instead of drilling vocabulary I get what Duolingo doesn’t cover:

  • Clear pronunciation instruction to get pronunciation correct.  Man, I sound like a horrific Canadian trying to speak French.  It’s sad.
  • Grammar instruction and explanation.  For example, Duolingo’s pronouns lessons became much easier once I heard a Coffee Break French lesson. 
  • Build block learning of vocabulary to build up full sentences.
  • Listening practice at full speed to full conversations. 

If you get super interested you can buy the supplementary materials but I have all the volcab drilling in the world from Duolingo.  It can be sucked down via iTunes.

Third, I bought a cheap, used French High School Textbook off Amazon for $13 (Vis-a-Vis Beginning French 4th Edition).  There comes a time, I found, when one needs to give it up and just look up the grammar rule in question and get a written explanation with examples.    

The last bit is just diligence.  I try to get ~20-30 minutes of French instruction shoehorned in every day.

So there you go!  Try it and have fun!

A Few More Upgrades

Still upgrading the blog and trying to drag it until the next year so I can just send blog posts to it via the Surface Pro.  

  • Removed the Social plugin in favor of the Jetpack equivalent, Publicize.  Slowly downgrading all old plugins in favor of Jetpack equivalents.  This hopefully removes the twitter double-post.
  • Installed Disqus comments.  I know they’re annoying but after years of trying to deal with commenting systems that weren’t actually horrible moved to something cloud hosted.  The thinking here is I can blame the cloud provider instead of myself.  If it turns out terrible I’ll go back to the regular WordPress commenting system.  It should have guest commenting turned on so it shouldn’t force anyone to make a Disqus account.

Nothing to see here.  Just move along.

Also, ha ha ha I have the proofreader plugin turned on so it smacks my fingers with a ruler whenever I use a passive tense verb conjugation.

On the Surface Pro 2

Hey look!  A return to blogging!  The blog is getting a slow but certain face lift.  But this isn’t about blogging, but about my new blogging device, a 128GB Surface Pro 2, which showed up under the tree on Christmas.  After 48 hours of heavy use of the device I’ve come to some nuanced conclusions about it and how it fits into the technological niche.  The tl;dr is that I am terribly fond of the device but it comes with some caveats.

This is also my first time blogging or writing of any sort on the device.  Let’s see how this goes!

The Good

  • Steam!

Steam runs.  Steam plays.  Steam downloads games.  Game run!  Games run well.  Unless your gaming tastes run to high performance FPS then Surface makes a surprisingly nice portable steambox.  I’ve downloaded and tested several games and they have all run flawlessly.

  • Windows Live Writer

Microsoft offers Windows Live Writer, a piece of fully featured WYSIWYG blogging software with tools to embed images, movies, maps, etc., for free.  It hooks to WordPress sites and has an enormous list of tools for formatting and laying out blog posts.  It runs without issue on the Surface Pro 2, turning the ultrabook into a portable blogging machine.  Who knew?

  • The Pen and Manga Studio 5

Easily the most impressive piece of software on the Surface Pro 2 so far has been Smith Micro’s Manga Studio 5.  The pen interface works perfectly with the art studio software turning the ultrabook into a full featured drawing tablet with velocity and pressure support.  It is no wonder web comic artists swear by Surface and drawing software.  The first time running the software with the pen is the first time I realized this little box was something completely unexpected. 

  • Netflix

Netflix is everywhere, on everything.  It’s embedded in my DVD player.  Today, Netflix players come with socks from Target.  But between the touch interface and the aspect ratio, Netflix feels natural on the Surface.  Not many other pieces of natively built in software stands out but Netflix did a nice job on their conversion of the client for Surface-oriented clients.

  • The Kickstand

The kickstand keeps the Surface Pro propped up at a comfortable writing height, especially on a table, a tray or a writing desk (full disclosure: it is currently on a writing desk).  It isn’t neck-crane difficult to see and it isn’t lying flat.  It sits at a natural height for doing serious work, and then collapses down again to be a lap or portable device.

  • The Type Keyboard

The type keyboard (not the touch keyboard) plugs into the bottom of the Surface, disconnects, acts as a cover, folds backward, and has highly accurate and responsive keys.  Although it is an expensive add-on, the type keyboard is worth it – it turns the Surface Pro into a device that both can be used for media and for actual Word/Excel work.

  • Flash

And it plays Flash.  If, say, your favorite web comic is loaded with flash files….

The Bad

  • Windows 8 is pretty terrible

As every technology magazine and blog has pointed out over the last year, Windows 8 is pretty terrible.  And it is pretty terrible.  It’s a well meaning mess that has no direction, no clear sense of self, and gets in the way between people and their computer.  Metro can be bludgeoned into shape by someone with the patience to read blog pages on usability but if you’re expecting it to be usable out of the box, it’s not usable out of the box.  It’s 8-12 hours of use to set up the hacks around the roadblocks it throws up to get it to work.

Don’t get me started on the insane security requirements and the “run as administrator” button.

  • The Touch Keyboard is also pretty terrible

The clicky-clicky type keyboard is superior in every way (see above).  The touch keyboard is garbage.   It rarely registers clicks, it slides around, and it feels cheap.  Avoid at all costs.  Get a type keyboard.

  • The Windows Store is sad

The Windows Store is full of sad widgety software which hardly works.  The store itself has hardly any pieces of software of note.  Most of the software doesn’t work right.  Windows has tons – TONS – of software.  Pretty much every piece of software available on WIndows 7 runs on Windows 8.  Steam games run.  Word and Excel runs.  Skip the store.

  • The inexplicably terrible experience with Youtube

I’m still not sure what is going on here, but Youtube hates the Surface Pro 2.  The apps in the Windows Store are worse than useless so one needs to run Youtube in the browser.  That’s not a dealbreaker by any stretch but I am so used to the super slick Google Youtube and Jasmine apps available on the iPad that not having a nice Youtube app feels like a travesty, especially in the face of the extremely well-done Netflix app.  Very strange.

  • Browsers

Well… the good news is, after several hours of cajoling, Google Chrome does work on the Surface Pro… kind of.  It’s support of touch controls are schizophrenic.  It has no idea how to draw the screen half the time.  Firefox does not work at all.  Don’t even think about Firefox.  I have not tried Opera. 

IE10 is not horrible and has terrific touch support but it is Bing centric.      

  • Windows Live Accounts

Yep.  You have to hook yourself into the Microsoft microcosm to use the Surface.  It did take my Gmail account so I didn’t need to suddenly manage yet another email account.  But having to create yet more accounts in yet more systems to do yet more things is annoying.

Overall

Microsoft sells the Surface Pro 2 as a tablet designed to compete with the iPad but the Surface Pro 2 is not a tablet, it’s an ultrabook.  One does not lie in bed and read a book with the Surface Pro 2.  It is too heavy to hold comfortably one-handed.  But it does everything a performant PC does and more.  If the expectation is one of a nice ultrabook with a touchable screen and an 8 hour battery life, it delivers.  If one is expecting an iPad or Galaxy Tab-like experience… it’s an ultrabook.

It’s filling a blogging/Steam playing/on the couch using niche in my life.  It’s been given a mouse, it runs twitter and social networking apps, it plays the Stanley Parable.  I can see how it isn’t for everyone and I can see how an iPad/Galaxy Tab is plenty for most people.  But like the XBox 360, Microsoft occasionally puts on an excellent piece of hardware laden with some terrible software – and if you can get through the software barriers there’s a gem inside.

Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one point in David Mitchell’s amazing Buddhist science fiction novel “Cloud Atlas,” a character in the past comments on a character in the future he might or might not reincarnate into which you, the reader, knows is true (the action and the reincarnation) because you already read that passage about the character in the future because you’re reading from the future to the past and your brain explodes all over the wall in a big greasy lumpy mess you say “Maybe this is a good book.”

Six sections all written in the style of the section’s time period (the Canticle for Lebowitz section is arguably the strangest to read);

Six different stories from a South Pacific Travelogue to the transcript of a futuristic TV show all referring back to the events in the stories backward _and forward_ in time;

At least four character reincarnating with one ascending to Buddhahood and returning to suffering to help usher in a new era;

Big themes of the novel hidden in the structure of the novel itself;

A big puzzle of nesting stories where actions in one story impacts the others;

And an awesome science fiction novel for 33% of the story.

You might not bother to see the movie but you should read the book.



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Review: Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a difficult time slogging through Debt. It shares a similar problem with Niall Fergeson’s completely unreadable “the Ascent of Money:” it mixes in the author’s politics and political leanings with history to give everything this weird political sheen (in this case left to Fergeson’s right.) In this case, Graeber’s book covers more facts than political lecturing but it’s bumped several stars for being overt.

However, Debt is a worthy read for anyone interested in the span of history from early Sumerian – Middle Ages. The sections on Babylonian debt-based society and the Roman slave society are especially strong; the entire chapter on the Axial Age and the move to coinage over debt to pay for mercenaries is good and solid read full of meaty “stuff.” The effect of the fall of the Roman Empire on the coinage left in circulation and how that contributed to the Dark Ages while the smaller communities returned to earlier debt and borrow strategies is also good. I liked the breakdown on how debt goes back to wife trading and wife purchasing with cows as demonstrated in Africa and moving from that to a more generalized market — the first people to ever price physical objects were, of course, thieves who needed to sell them for other things. And the most precious commodity is a human being.

Debt falls down in the Islam chapter and the China chapter, both which feel thin and full of conjecture. China has a big piece to play in the Cortez-dumping-silver-on-the-European-economy section but otherwise, it’s glossed over. The chapter on the rise of Islam and the role it plays is dry and nearly unreadable.

What I want to say about Debt is to skip the boring parts and read the interesting ones. Skipping to halfway through the book to the Axial Age chapter is a good strategy. Skip everything after the Middle Ages — Graeber hardly has interest in things like 18th century stock bubbles (although mentioned) and the rise of the East India Company. Saying, “Yeah this is a great book on ROME!” is good. Saying, “This is a great book on the history of monetary policy!” is not. It’s an okay introduction to the genesis of debt, a great discussion about ancient and near-ancient monetary policy, and a fairly terrible one on the modern day.

Not a waste of time, but not 5 stars either. A good 3.5 star book.



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Review: The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I have a weekend to read!” I thought. “And Pynchon’s novels are all now on the kindle! What better than to spend a few hours reading an Official Classic of 20th Century American Literature ™!”

I have learned that:

– I’ll finally get off my butt and read Pynchon’s longer novels.
– A continuum of exists from Nabokov -> Pynchon/Vonnegut -> Davis Foster Wallace that neatly explains my reading habits.
– I will spend the next week looking for loops and horns.

Greatly enjoyed the quick, short read although it leeched all sanity out of my mind. Was a bit shocked how much it read like /Infinite Jest/ in tone and style as, for some unexplained reason, I was not expecting that at all. It’s a classic of literature! It’s on the kindle so it’s trivial to acquire. You should read it, too.



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Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic 2/3rds of a book and a flat 1/3rd of a book. If you quit at the 2/3rds mark, I’m fine with that because the last third falls flat.

Swerve is about the re-discovery of Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,” an Epicurian poem extolling an early Roman atheist worldview of a universe made of atoms descended directly from the Greek Epicurians. For the first third, Swerve dives into the literature movement of the Roman Empire, the nature and industry of hand-written books on scrolls, libraries, and a world of literacy in a time of hegemony. And then Rome fell apart bit by bit and the books were lost to mold, moisture, Christians with torches, and monks who didn’t care to make copies. The early Christian Saints clutched their chests and fell on their fainting couches about how Roman Literature in its beautiful literate manicured Latin, so much better than the crude Greek or Hebrew of the Levant, destroyed their souls and should never be read — wink wink — really don’t read it except you should. To no one’s surprise, people took the Saints seriously and it went from oh no we’re not reading that to NO WE REALLY AREN’T READING THAT and thus, books get lost and destroyed and neglected and used for kindling. Some of the books were copied and recopied in rotation in forgotten mountainous monasteries. On the Nature of Things was one of those.

The second third of the book is about the academics of early Renaissance Florence who fought precisely like academics do. Nothing is better than threats and slander and lies and assassination attempts over translations of Latin. Some of the books crept out, some of the books stayed in collections, but fundamentally these crazy academics established fonts and notation and procedure and pedantic lexicography and everything the modern world needs to analyze literature. These are good people, the crazy ones who go to the Alps to steal books from monasteries. It’s like an Umberto Eco novel except it all really happened.

So thus the book about the atoms and the atheism is returned to circulation.

This is all well and good. But the last third of the book stretches to make Lucretius’s poem important in the course of history. The arguments are tenuous at best. Galileo! Thomas Jefferson! Newton! I think there was a Kant reference stuffed in there. The argument isn’t very good because it was an whole body of literature, not just one poem, entering the literary market once again (histories, plays, philosophy, huge books of maps) that helped kick things along. Sure a book talking about atoms had some impact but wow, it felt overblown. This is unlike Fourth Corner of the World where the return of Ptolemy’s Geography had noticeable and traceable effect — before Geography, no maps; after Geography, maps — it’s unclear what the return of Lucretius’s poem actually had.

Again! Absolutely fantastic first two thirds of a book. Worth reading. Perfect in its awesomeness. Last third — merely good and sometimes bordering on okay. Recommend for the first two thirds, which is more than I can say for 90% of the history books I’ve ever read.



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Review: Sarum: The Novel of England

Sarum: The Novel of England
Sarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I greatly enjoyed Sarum. All 1033 pages of it.

Sarum is the first Edward Rutherford book I tackled, although his New York book has stared at me with longing on a shelf for years. Starting at the end of the last Ice Age, Sarum follows the generational paths of five families through time to the modern day. The book hits all the strong beats: the building of Stonehenge, the Roman Invasion of Britain and their colonization, the Dark Ages, Saxon Britain, the Norman Invasion, the War of the Roses, the High Middle Ages and the Black Death, the coming of Protestantism and Queen Elizabeth II, the English Civil War, the conquest of India and the American Revolution, Trafalgar and Waterloo, the Great Wars of the 20th Century. Sarum left me with a great sense of breadth and time and gave me an appreciation for age and the passing of time. Everything starts and everything ends — cultures, religions, industry and business, technology, reigns great and small. That which felt eternal at the time it happened passed and soon became someone else’s archeology.

The highlights of the book are the grisly Stonehenge chapter (nearly a novella in itself), the building of the Salisbury Cathedral and the horrible chapter on the Black Death, followed by the Revolution and the Cavaliers in the Civil War. Of the five families, two are the main focus of the book: the horrible decedents of Tep, the river man who has always been there since before the Ice Age ended, and the Shockleys, decedents of a Saxon Thane whose fortunes rise and fall with England’s. For 1500 years those two families have back and forths, constantly crossing paths until finally joining in the 20th century. The other families (Caius Porteus’s decedents, the family of Nooma the Mason, and the Godefrei’s) play second fiddle — save in the Cathedral chapter — to the others.

Sometimes the chapters felt a little too short and that generation ended too soon but, generally, I read this book with Wikipedia and my (nonfiction) history of England open to flesh out some of the details where the book glossed over. Overall, I enjoyed the rich detail Rutherford supplies in with the every day lives of his inhabitants of Sarum to give grounding in the time period. No politics get injected in the background of historical period detail — it is told, straight, to help couch the feelings and motivations of the characters.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read some meaty historical fiction or to get an entertaining grounding in the history of Britain. Although some of the archeology in the early part of the book is a little wobbly now (book came out in 1987), the rest is solid and was backed by my reference books.

Five stars.



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Review: Miskatonic School for Girls

We picked up Miskatonic School for Girls at PAX East 2012 and we’ve since sat down and played several hands of the two-player variant of the game.  Here’s my specific feedback in Exciting Bullet Point Form.

- The packaging and game pieces are professionally done.  Nothing about this game feels cheap due to being kickstarted.  The play boards are sturdy.  The cards have attractive art on front and back.  The instructions are bright and clear.  Pieces return to the box with relative ease.  

- The game itself takes about five minutes to set up for a 2 player hand.  Decks sort into their respective piles.  What goes where is clear after a quick look at the instructions.

- The art for the monsters is top notch and the monster names are adorably Lovecraftian and clever.  The girl cards were bland in art and name, making it hard to tell what was a real “key buy.”  

- We were up and playing a first hand quickly.  The instructions are easy to understand to anyone who has played a Dominion-like deck-building game in the past.  By the way, folks: if you have not played Dominion and you want to play any of the new card-and-board games on the market, find someone who has Dominion and play several hands.  Every hot new game uses some “twist” on the Dominion deck building mechanics.

- Every turn in the “buy” phase, a player buys a girl for their House (ala Harry Potter) and a new member of the faculty of the school who is, naturally, some horrible abomination from beyond the stars.  These go into the purchase pile and always come out next turn.  Like Ascension, Miskatonic provides stock “buys” of transfer students and substitute abominations should a player not be able to buy a student or a faculty that turn.  

- Miskatonic School for Girls has a nice twist on Dominion-like play: when buying a horrible member of the faculty, one plays it into one’s opponent’s deck and, like any “buy,” must come out next turn.  So you, the player, has incentive to buy the biggest, nastiest monster on the board and send it into your opponent’s deck knowing well they must deal with it immediately while at the same time buying the most amount of “fight” into one’s house to defend against whatever is being sent into your deck.  This sets up a nice bit of tension and competition over cards on the board and strategic buys.

- And as a second twist, whenever a monster ends up in a player’s hand from drawing a hand, at the end of the buying phase, the player has to fight the Cthuloid horror with students in the house.  Should the students fail to hold off the horrid Lunch Lady from Beyond, the House as a whole takes sanity damage.  When sanity hits 0, the player is out of the game.

- Faculty and students get shuffled into the deck after buy-and-fight phases ala any deck building game so faculty can pop out of the deck at any time to gnaw on the student’s heads.  Near the end of the game, a player can draw an entire hand of pure faculty which is, as we discovered, bad.

- The game has a built in “sanity death spiral.”  As the decks grow, more faculty come out.  As more faculty come out, more students lose sanity.  As more students lose sanity… It’s a nice mechanic.

- Cards do have different effects on them — both girls and monsters.  They were a bit forgettable, though.  For an expansion: punchier effects!  

- The game does have generators the same way Ascension has constructs.  They felt a little undercosted and overpowered but still… generators are good.

- The game’s play is considerably more Ascension-like than Dominion-like, although the games are close in play and composition.  If you like Ascension, you will certainly like Miskatonic School for Girls.  If you believe Ascension is an abomination upon the Earth and a blight on all deck building games you should stick with Dominion and its 10,000 expansion packs.

- An entire game takes 30-40 minutes, tops. 

We enjoyed it.  I would gladly play it again.  I would lug the game over to a friend’s house to play several hands.  What struck me during play was how well expansions of monsters and students would fit into the gameplay seamlessly so I have some expectation of expansions in the future.  For Fun to 11’s first stab at a commercial product, it’s a success.

Recommended buy for the deck building card-and-board gamer in your life.