[Book Review] The Fourth Part of the World

The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History's Greatest MapThe Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History’s Greatest Map by Toby Lester

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read history books the way others read genre fiction. Some of them are well-written and some not, some well-sourced and some not. Sometimes a book claiming to be a work of historical scholarship is actually a political screed. When I read one well-written, well-sourced, and about a subject not often tread, I am in my happy place. The Fourth Part of the World is one of those books and it’s about maps.

To be precise, it is about one map: the first map in the world to name the New World “America.” But to get to that point, one has to go back in time and start with the Medieval maps of the 12th century and slowly move the clock forward through the Golden Horde and the Crusades. The Travels of Marco Polo and “the Book” — no authoritative version of the travels of Marco Polo exists but any number of versions await a reader’s pleasure. The endless fascination and eternal quest to find Prester John, an imaginary king with an imaginary army waiting just over the hills to come to the assistance of the Crusaders and who existed in every unexplored corner of every map. The re-discovery of Greek in Western Europe, lost for a thousand years, and the translation of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographie, a book with instructions on how to draw maps, described latitude and longitude, and with 8000 places in the ancient world. Great convocations on religious matters where men of learning got together and, for the first time in dark rooms, discussed the forgotten philosophies and mathematics of the ancient world as they were feverishly translated, and exchanged books. The printing press. The invention of the Caravel. Dreams of Japan. The Portuguese and Africa and what they found there. The first trip around the Cape of Good Hope. The men of Bristol who saw something, once, a long stretch of coastline while chasing schools of cod. Columbus. John Cabot. Amerigo Vespucci. de Medicis and Papal Spies and secret societies of Royal mapmakers and the quest for the way to India. Lies and false letters and Monarchies jostling to lay hands on the New World.

And it all comes together with two men in a small town outside of Strassburg, one a philosopher and one a cartographer, who had access to a printing press, a stolen map of the New World, and a set of forged letters full of imaginary extra adventures of Amerigo Vespucci. They fell in love with the alliteration of Africa and Asia and Europe and, with small metal letters and newly translated Latin poetry in their heads, named the new world America. It was a best seller for twenty years but maps being what maps are and they wore out as new ones appeared. The map disappeared from the face of the Earth until one copy complete, in tact, and whole, found… and now in the Library of Congress.

The book ends with a very nice touch of the impact of the maps of the New World on Nicolaus Copernicus who quotes much of the intro text to the first true world map in his On the Revolutions. It leaves proof that, while perhaps not all of his theories of the Earth revolving around the Sun came from this source, it had bearing on his thinking. With the Fourth Part of the World, the old Aristotelean view of the world no longer worked. And if it didn’t work, what else about how the world worked was outright wrong.

The Fourth Part of the World is terrific. For anyone interested in the history of maps and learning in Western Europe, or the Age of Discovery, I can completely recommend this book. It’s a fun read, it’s well written, it’s incredibly well sourced, it is full of pictures of maps to help with the text, and it’s all around great.

Fantastic. An easy 5 star rating.

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[RPG Review] Bookhounds of London (a Trail of Cthulhu Supplement)

Bookhounds of London by Ken Hite
Available from Pelgrane Press

Bookhounds of London isn’t so much a hardcover supplement for Trail of Cthulhu as a tesseract, a sort of space-time aberrant tear where more information exists between the two covers than the physical space inhabited by the book. In no way could so much dense Cthulhu information exist in such small a space. But then again, this is not just some book. This is a Trail of Cthulhu supplement. It may be warping space time around it preparing for its flight to some far-off alien existence.

So that’s a good thing.

Books go naturally with Cthulhu. After all, Lovecraftian horror is full of fun tomes teaming with terrible ideas which worm their ways into the mind and rip it to shreds. Book selllers and buyers and owners of bookshoppes and librarians and occultists are, also, a natural fit. Who else has the books? Hordes the books? Handles the books? Presented is precisely that: new character templates for book sellers and book agents and book forgers to help the supply and the occasional occultist. But that’s not all! Rules for book stores. Libraries. Book auctions. Book sales. The actual books! Detail on the wear on the books. The bindings of books. Why, there are even more books.

About this time I’d be totally satisfied with the supplement. That’s enough to get up a Cthulhu game centered around the buying, selling, and underground trade in evil books but Bookhounds of London is a strange supplement black hole containing far more information than can be contained in a single supplement. The section on 30s London is thick with NPCs, places, rumors, descriptions, and color plates in the appendix. New cults! Expansions on current cults! New monsters! Even more NPCs for rivals and villains and…

And then a very lengthy adventure involving Gods and crazy city magic and German witch hunters and sacred ley lines and, oh hell, Jack the Ripper. Maybe. A book, perhaps, is involved. And murder. And creatures from beyond. And a race against time. And other good stuff. Unlike most supplement adventures, the Bookhounds of London adventure (Whitechapel Black-Letter) does not disappoint — it can be run, and it makes a great intro-adventure to a big Bookhounds campaign.

The sign of a decent supplement is one good character idea by the end. A great supplement is three character ideas. Bookhounds of London leaves one with ideas for complete Cthulhu variants, teams of rival book stores, and several complete campaign ideas. And this is from someone who doesn’t run all that many campaigns these days. It’s good stuff.

A few things in specific:

* The new skills are brilliant but the best is the Knowledge. Having a skill representing deep and precise geographical information is a great skill for Investigators. Also, claiming to have the Knowledge on a character sheet is damn awesome.

* Bookhounds allows for building a rivalry with NPCs. This cool game mechanic doesn’t exist in normal Cthulhu where the Investigators go and investigate without too much outside pressure beyond “bad guys wish to chew off their faces.” Rival bookstores and rival book auctions introduces a new and interesting pressure on the group without introducing more cackling evil cultist villains. (Although nothing is wrong with cackling evil cultist villains.)

* One can never have enough cults or monsters.

* The new play styles are interesting — Sordid, Arabesque and Technicolor. Yes, one can fill a game full of horrible relationships or trips to Deepest India or like a movie from the 60s.

* The boxes, callouts, rumors — as good as the original book in quality and variety.

* I love the bundle of PDF+Hard Cover. The bundles make me very happy from a customer perspective.

I heartily recommend Bookhounds of London to anyone who bought Trail of Cthulhu. It does require ToC, but if one has ToC sitting on a shelf, it needs a friend. The quality is spectacular. Buy it, cuddle it, read it, run the games for your friends. Definitely pick up a copy. And I still have no idea how all that information got crammed into 128 pages of text.

Meanwhile, I need to finish working up some notes on a Bookhounds of Leverage, a Bookhounds/Leverage crossover game….

[RPG Review] Trail of Cthulhu

Trail of Cthulhu by Ken Hite from Pelgrane Press

In middle school I discovered horror fiction.

I cannot remember what was the first book — I suspect Stephen King’s the Shining in used book form — but I do distinctly remember reading anything that had a dismemberment. If it featured splatters of blood, I read it. Good writing, bad writing, schlock writing, I read it all, and in great spews. Somewhere in there I laid hands on a collection of horror short stories that contained the usual standbys of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”* It also had HP Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls.” And that one was my favorite. I read it over and over.

Later I read the rest of HP Lovecraft’s stuff. Some of it was good. Some of it was terrible. Some of it was incomprehensible. And some of it was the Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath.

My copy of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition** is actually the second copy as my first copy disintegrated from overuse. The glue binding did not hold up to the love and after a while the pages fell out. The second one is a used copy from somewhere or other. I know dimly there was a 6th edition but I only have the 5th; that was the version for me. Even reading the rules of the BRP version of CoC belied the obvious: the only way someone was going to get out of an adventure was by being an illiterate track star. The BRP rules were charming in their crappiness but they had that one beautiful sanity meter rule, and that was a permanent brain worm. For 20 years I have been rolling my SAN and I am pretty sure by now it’s pretty low.

BRP had a special lethal charm. I knew of Runemaster games ended in the first five minutes by the entire party failing swim rolls when crossing a river. Or another character killed by a highly dangerous glass of water. But BRP was what was in Chaosium’s books and Chaosium’s books were special so we played it, and made it work, and CoC got ran and played anyway. That’s the greatness of CoC.

That brings me around to Trail of Cthulhu, a game I read and fell fiercely in love with but for completely different reasons than the clunky charm of CoC 5th Edition. It’s CoC where you get to live until you get your head eaten by Azathoth in the end, and that’s the kind of CoC we want to be playing.

A bit about GUMSHOE

I talked about GUMSHOE in my review of the Esoterrorists, so for an overview of GUMSHOE it’s best to consult there. Trail runs with the core idea of getting to the end of the story and not being held up by the system. When we watch Law Dramas, we don’t want the Intrepid Cops to end the plot because they failed a “look for clue” roll. We don’t want House not figure out the disease in the last act because he failed to make some surgery roll halfway through. We do not want our Cthulhu hunters to be killed by a wayward glass of water.*** It’s no good to be blocked because of a botched roll, so GUMSHOE waves that part. The players always get the clue. The question is what do they do with it? That’s where the play is.

And that’s what Trail brings to the table. It feels less blatantly horror-focused as Esoterrorists, it adds some new skills, it goes in with Drives to give players motivation for why they are hunting down the terrors that go bump in the night. The SAN meter is now dual tracked: you can take a Stability hit or take actual Sanity damage but it takes a bit to shave off a little of the ol’ SAN. The focus is on episodes like a show: the point is not the bumbling around with skill checks; the point is to get to the end of the story — where no doubt everyone is turned into splatters.

GUMSHOE is a perfect fit for Cthulhu. You don’t need to be an illiterate track star. You can still be that uber college professor and run away. Run away! AIIII!

PURIST vs PULP

Trail is set in the 30s where, yes, there are Nazis. And where there are Nazis, there are guns and planes and tanks and Socialists and Swinging Archeologists and other such tropes. Trail provides two modes of play: PURIST and PULP.

I get people want to play Cthulhu in all its deadly, terrible, horror glory. And that is what PURIST is for — as close to a simulation of the old BRP system with high levels of DEATH. A great thing for those who love difficulty in their gaming and where a gun is going to kill you.

Then there is PULP. PULP is where you get to shoot Cthulhu. In the face. Or ram him with a boat — HP Lovecraft’s preferred Cthulhu Removal Device. But who doesn’t want to shoot a tentacle or two? It might seem a little silly but hoards of evil cults with dark books that cast horrible spells are also a little silly. So is Hitler on his quest for the Spear of Longinus. It’s all silly, but sometimes, horror calls for a little pulp horror.

Dark horror vs. the Mummy. I find I want to run the game in PULP mode. Who said Cthulhu wasn’t high adventure?  When isn’t the dark spawn of the universe high adventure?

The Awesome of the Call-Out Boxes

RPGs almost always have these inset boxes with little bits of random information or skills or stats or tables or whatever in them. They tend to be a bit lame; I find them annoying and want to read around them. In Trail read the call-out boxes because they’re the best parts. Either about the 30s or how to build cults (please add cults!) or about Gods (please don’t add more Gods!) or creeping totalitarianism, they are all wonderful. The boxes are plentiful and worth the price of the book alone. They don’t contain any rules, per se, but they are so chock full of goodness that it is worth sitting there with the book and flipping from call-out box to call-out box.

I need to mention the call-out boxes because they are so deeply wonderful.

Oh, and while I am talking about the call-out boxes with all their wonder, the section on the Cthulhu Elder Gods/Outer Gods is superb and packed with so many incredibly insane ideas for running plots it is hard to talk about it without waving hands around incoherently. One small sentence about Elder Gods as meme loads was so compelling it was a hot topic in my house for three days. If you’re into CoC at all, this is worth getting to juice up campaigns and take them to 11.

And Overall…

I can gush about Trail of Cthulhu for a long time. Much of the original Call of Cthulhu (5th Edition) was preserved from one edition to the next. It’s all here: the Gods, the Monsters, the Cults, the Horrible Books, the Spells, the must and the rain, the horrible New England cities. The Cults section is wonderful**** and full of juicy goodness of evil. The GM section on how to build an adventure from the Horror to the Beginning and then through a list of clues is also very helpful — the advice is spot-on for crafting a horror based adventure.

Me? I am picky about my Cthulhu. I don’t like no d20 editions or LARP editions or Savage Realms. I don’t do Cthulhu card games.  In my mind, it is the crumbling second copy of CoC 5th Edition. This is the only worthy successor and it’s glorious.

So I’m fanboying a little bit. I do that on very rare occasions because I’m a curmudgeon and I hate everything. But this is truly, honestly a great version of Cthulhu. It is not Call — it’s a different system — but Trail is an excellent game with compulsively readable text that has ideas and stuff packed into every corner and page. Is it worth the $40? Yes. Would I run it? In pulp mode, yes. Would I play it? Definitely. Can I recommend it? Oh hell yes.

Go buy it. Stop reading blog posts! I bought my PDF+Hard cover bundle from Indie Press Revolution right here.


* The only work by Faulkner I ever liked. A tiny bit of excellent gothic horror.
** Always 5th Edition.
*** Okay, maybe we do. It’s Cthulhu. Those glasses of water are dangerous as hell.
**** And one section turned into a new supplement, the Booksellers of London.

Book Review: River of Gods

River of GodsRiver of Gods by Ian McDonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In August in 2047, in the city of Varanasi in the country of Bharat in central India, nine people converge on one singular event that changes everything for mankind. For some, it’s an asteroid containing the alien relic the Tabernacle. For others it is chasing down AIs. And for others, it is about finding themselves in the midst of a water war when the monsoon rains no longer come and the Ganga runs dry.

The good: River of Gods does very interesting things with the arc of the growth of computers and computing into every corner of life. Even the very popular soap, “Town and Country,” is completely computer rendered with fake AI actors having fake AI-based weddings and entire “People Magazine”-like publications fawn over the imaginary private lives of the AIs inhabiting the rendered soap opera. Everyone has a cellphone-like device, even the most poor. Everything is wired together. And AIs (called aeais in the book) fill every corner of existence — driving cars (but apparently not the taxis), running heating and cooling systems, injecting themselves into medical devices, everywhere. One of the main themes of the book is hunting down rogue AIs, those who have somehow “evolved” through illicit programming or through happenstance to become “Generation Three” AIs, those AIs that have developed full native intelligence. The question the book grapples with is not only how these beings come about and flow through the interconnectedness of all computers, but how they see existence and how their consciousness is represented by copying millions of copies of themselves. The other is how humans react to the super intelligent AIs, hunting them down, and “excommunicating” them with huge EMP pulses and destroying all the copies hiding in the machines.

Another bit of good comes from grappling with how humans are forcing their own evolution through selective breeding, gene therapy, and remaking themselves with extensive surgery. From this comes a shortage of women, strange children who age at 1/2 the rate of regular human beings called Brahmins who have no empathy for the human race, and nutes — a group of people who have surgically removed all gender. The reaction from normal humans is revulsion but the book implies this is the forward trajectory of humanity and the normal people will soon be an out-bred relic of the past.

The bad: I generally like books with multiple viewpoints but River of Gods has nine and it felt overdone. The themes of the book were focused over the actual characterization of the characters. Only the nute Tal really stood out as a distinct personality. The rest of the characters tended to flow together into one amorphous mass. All the characters _do_ get a different view of the actions during August 2047 to give a perspective on how the whole plot comes together in the end — with a little bit of Science Fiction Plot Device thrown in.

The science fiction is a little too precious at times. Sometimes it wants to be Arthur C. Clarke and sometimes it wants to be Blade Runner with just a dash of the original Philip K Dick and it doesn’t seem to know which is which.

The Hindi sprinkled through is not much of a challenge. However, the kindle version of the book lacks bookmarks so looking up terms in the back of the book is a major challenge. Also, the kindle version is sprinkled throughout the text with enough typos for it to be called out.

The ending is about middling for a science fiction book. It’s not awful. It’s no Sphere. It’s not a total collapse like Snow Crash. The book ends very definitively.

River of Gods by Ian McDonald is an awful lot of book. It’s big. In parts it goes on and on and on and on. Some of it drags in places when it goes BEHOLD MY INDIA OF THE FUTURE! For an easy comparison on pure word count, it’s about 1 Red Mars. Figure out how long it took to read Red Mars, add a tax for having to look up all the words in Hindi in the appendix in the back, and that’s about how long it takes to get through River of Gods.

So, not bad. I made it all the way through. It definitely does have some good ideas and it is one of the better science fiction novels floating around. It’s in the “pretty good” category but it’s not Childhood’s End or anything. It’s a decent read but it’s not one of those science fiction novels that lays hooks in your brain that lie there and fester until they get disgorged in some argument one day. I give it about a 3.75 stars but the rating system isn’t that fine grained so I round it up to a four. It’s not quite a four star book. It’s very much a 3.75 star book.

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Review: Cocoa Programming: A Quick-Start Guide for Developers

Cocoa Programming: A Quick-Start Guide for DevelopersCocoa Programming: A Quick-Start Guide for Developers by Daniel Steinberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I usually don’t read tech books cover to cover. Typically, they’re used for reference — looking up something here or there, finding a technique and reading the chapter, or just giving up because the book is written so badly the more advanced sections are completely impenetrable. This was an exception. I read every chapter, did every exercise, and came out feeling I actually learned enough to be dangerous.

"Cocoa Programming: A Quick Start" is not for beginners. It assumes from the outside the reader has had years of C and C++ experience, is familiar with all of the standard programming techniques and the standards OO development techniques and, near the end, has a good grasp of threading and functional programming. The idea is not to teach /programming/ per se but to get a professional software engineer from 0 to building useful MacOSX, iPhone and iPad apps in a relatively short about of time. Projects begin with the very simple, no code required application using widgets all the way through to writing somewhat complex applications using threading and queuing with all the very important pieces — delegates, notifications, memory management, persistence, introductions to core data — in between.

For someone dedicated to working through the book, I found it takes about three weeks to get through all of the tutorials. The tutorials must be completed — no skipping steps — because the next chapter often builds upon the first. The text is clear and I found all the code samples in the book to be pretty bug-free. The concepts move pretty fast. Only a few paragraphs are spared for a new concept before jumping in feet first. Since I’m one of those people who "learn by doing" this worked for me. After typing in the tutorials by the end of the book I was comfortable with the Objective C MVC models, I understood how connections and bindings worked, and I could see how to extend my own controllers with new messages to make new event-driven models. I was surprised how many applications fall into CRUD models (create/read/update/delete) but also pleasantly surprised how easy it is to work with Core Data to make data-driven applications.

I only have really two issues with the book. The first is mechanical: the text applies to XCode 3. XCode 4 was a major revision to the GUI interface of the iDE so many of the hot keys and screen shots no longer apply. This was incredibly confusing for the first few chapters until I learned where everything was. The second is finishing the book leaves me with a "what now?" feeling. There’s a few days of failing while ideas about projects coalesce.

I would and do recommend this book to seasoned adventurers who are looking for a brave new world to conquer. Objective C, once one gets past the mildly bizarre Simula-based syntax, isn’t that bad and there’s lots of cool things to build. "Cocoa Programming" is a pretty strong place to start to get oriented and get going causing app-based havoc.

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Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar FishesUnfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The day Unfamiliar Fishes came out, it was downloaded to my Kindle. I loved Sarah Vowell’s previous books, especially Assassination Vacation. Sarah Vowell has turned into a sort of deep sticky underbelly of American History sort of historian whose books feel like long episodes of The American Life (and I love This American Life). I foist them on everyone I see — “Want to learn bizarre facts of American History? Read these books!”

I liked Unfamiliar Fishes, a book on the history of Hawai’i from 1778-1900, but the subject matter is so soul-crushingly depressing the upbeat sarcastic tone of the text clashed with the actual text at times. The narrative begins with the death of Captain Cook in 1778 at the then-named “Sandwich Islands” for doing horrible things to the local natives and then discusses what Hawai’i was like at that time: not a peaceful paradise. The islands had just been forged into a Kingdom after a bloody civil war. The society was highly stratified with bloodlines of chiefs and a feudalistic system of land division. Men and women were segregated from one another at meal times and women were forbidden to eat certain foods under kapu laws. They had their own Gods — Ku the War God gets prominent mention for his prominent temple. Then the missionaries came with their Jesus and their Bibles in 1820 and everything changed.

Everything would have changed anyway. Had it not been the missionaries it would have been someone else. The missionaries at least came with the printing press and a zeal for learning. They translated the Bible into a new written form of Hawai’ian and, from there, others wrote down all the chants and religion and myths and culture they could to preserve it. The missionaries came to save the Hawai’ians, which meant stamping out the local culture, shoving New England Protestantism on it, and persuading the high Chiefs to do away with various bits of their culture to make it more “modern.” Granted, by the time the missionaries came, the Hawai’ians were starting to dismantle some of their culture anyway, so perhaps some of it is moot, but it would have taken a different course.

Then the shipping came, and then the sugar plantations, and the imported workers, and the round trips from newly established and totally hot San Francisco, and then with it came the smallpox and the malaria and the dysentery and everything else that could wipe out a local population. In time, the US Navy started eying Hawai’i as a Pacific port, especially with the sexy Pearl Harbor. Enterprising grandchildren of the original missionaries decided to stage a coup, and then decided to get Hawai’i annexed to the US to avoid tariffs on sugar. When Congress voted against the treaty of annexation due to the protest of the islanders, Pres. William McKinley decided it was good old “American Manifest Destiny” and figured out a back door to get annexation through anyway.

The sugar plantations are gone, now. And there’s a huge revival of local culture — a good thing.

Why did I give this book 3 stars? Mostly because Goodreads won’t allow me to set 3.5. This is a good book, but not a great book. It does feel like a long episode of This American Life, but not one that sticks in the memory. I also felt terrible and depressed at the end because it’s a terrible and depressing subject, and no amount of sarcasm and no number of funny stories about insane Mormons who are trying to become King of the Pacific make up for how sad and depressing the story is. It reminded me strongly of George Carlin’s bit, “Religious Lift.” It goes like this:

“Like I say, religion is a lift in your shoe, man. If you need it, cool. Just don’t let me wear your shoes if I don’t want ’em and we don’t have to go down and nail lifts onto the native’s feet!”

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[Game Review] The Esoterrorists

“The Esoterrorists” by Robin D. Laws from Pelgrane Presss.

I picked up the Esoterrorists from the IPR booth at PAX East. It is a surprisingly slim, non-pretentious volume at 88 pages. It was also the first dead-tree game I have bought for a while, as all my purchases lately have been PDFs through various outlets and read on my iPad.

I was aware of GUMSHOE* because I read Robin Law’s livejournal daily. He posts occasional updates, hints, or little drabbles that don’t make it into books; the link is above and can be added to an RSS reader. I have also made most of my way through his newest book, “Hamlet’s Hit Points” which discusses emotional beats.

I tend to think of Robin Laws written games like Feng Shui and Dying Earth as these tiny, compressed awesome gems of indie games who syphon off the best ideas from the raging community and presents them with clean, easy to comprehend rules that guarantees, at minimum, a very strange gaming experience. I do love them, and I am far from alone.

I read this one cover to cover, so my thoughts…

What the heck is this thing?

It’s a horror gaming system with a thin veneer of setting laid over the top. For many years, those of us who love horror have gone back and forth on the best way to play and run a horror game. The old Call of Cthulhu 5th edition system was the ANSI Standard for Horror Systems**. Sure there was a CoC 6th edition and a CoC d20 and a CoC worn as a hat and a myriad of other horror games of all shapes and sizes and levels of awesomeness and Changlingness. And there was KULT, a Very Special Game. When we talk about horror gaming, we’re talking about CoC 5th edition as a base state and sort of working from there.

The problem with CoC 5th edition is it uses this crappy wargaming system where a single botched roll can bring an entire adventure to a screaming halt. This is terrible. Horror games are games of discovery. Otherwise, how do the characters find the horror? If they’re too dumb to miss it, they’ll never be horrified!*** GUMSHOE attempts to address this core problem in horror gaming… with a very simple system that assumes all investigative rolls succeed automatically.

It’s clever. It works. It fixes the issue. But…

The Overall Package (Organization, Presentation, Readability):

In the days of expensive, glossy, full-color artwork in RPGs, the Esoterrorists feels a little old school with its black and white pages and its sparse layout. Perusing the tables at PAX East, it felt like every book was this full color loving work of art. Esoterrists is back to the 90s.

But it didn’t seem to impede the reading of the text. The text is laid out single width with generous margins, so even the 88 pages of book feels less than 88 pages. A little thread of ascerbic sarcasm runs through the book and its a joy. Yes, this is horror, and yes, everyone is going to die, but that’s okay — here’s a hack to get the next set of chararcters in the mix so the story can go on! Yay! And a bullshit detector skill! Everyone needs one of those!

I’m not knocking a non-glossy-hollywood production here because the text is fantastic and readable. It’s good stuff.

The Setting:

And here is where the Esoterrorists falls down. The book sort of kind of has a setting. You’re in a super secret black ops group and there are bad guys called the Esoterrorists and they do bad things. You need to stop them.

And that’s about all you get. Granted, for the nitpickers out there, the book has 4 monsters. No real stats or anything. But they have pictures! Kind of.

So that’s that.

(Yes, I know there are now supplements that fleshes out the Esoterrorists and books of monsters and all that good stuff.  But still.)

The Rules:

GUMSHOE is a cool system and I found, as I read through it, I like it alot because it is so dead simple. Each character has a set of investigative skills. These never fail. Then the character has a set of more physical and mental skills (SAN is swapped for STABLIITY but it is still SAN) that the character can and will fail. Players have pools. They roll a single d6 against the target. Make it, things are good. Fail it, things are bad.

The system is like thus:

– In doing an investigation, if the character has the right skill and says they are using the skill, it works! Yay! Tossing in a few pool points may make it succeed extra awesomely.

– In doing stuntly things, the GM sets a target. The characters can toss in from their die pools. They can work together. They can support actions. Someone rolls a d6. Points are added together. Either it works or it doesn’t.

There you go, you’re playing the GUMSHOE system. The book does flesh out all the special cases and how to handle health and sanity and those important bits but that, right there, is the core.

Various Bits of Awesome:

I want to call out the adventure at the end of the book. I normally skip adventures at the end of books but it was a full 1/3rd of the book so I felt I should read it. I’m glad I did because it’s amazing.

The investigators start with a ritual murder in a downtown DC and use it to follow a black ops gone bad and people being grabbed and sent to the Dominican Republic for sacrifice and a little cannibalism. I don’t want to spoil the adventure but I want to call out some bits:

– It walks through how to put together a great investigative plot.
– It shows how to make the assumptions that characters will get the clues.
– It also demonstrates the right places to use physical tests.
– The adventure is nicely paced so the horror is contained to the reveal at the very end.
– It’s excellently written and worth the read in general for “how to write a cool adventure.”

Wrapping up my thoughts:

The Esoterrorists is worth the $10 to download it as a PDF. GUMSHOE is a good idea with more good ideas that solves a clear issue: how does one do procedural investigations in an RPG that don’t hang on every die roll succeeding?

I knock it hard because it needs other supplementary material to make this game a full boy. Very rarely do I want more pages in an RPG. Normally they feel overstuffed and bloated from trying to make an esoteric pagecount. NPCs who don’t need to be there, an extra adventure, whathaveyou. This time, I dearly wished for more monsters, more GMing advice, and simply more stuff about the setting. Since the core book came out, several books of supplementary material have been released to flesh out the setting. But it feels a little bait-and-switchy and I would have been happy with a 128 page core book with all the material rather than an 88 page book with extra books to buy.

If you are interested in the GUMSHOE system, by all means, buy it. For me, reading the Esoterrorists has made me want to read Trail of Cthulhu very badly; and that is the next RPG teed up for me to consume because Cthulhu does not lack for setting and the idea of a Cthulhu where people could actually play out a story? Yeah, awesome.

Overall: a 3.5 stars out of 5

* Also, GUMSHOE is the system in Trail of Cthulhu which is a slightly different discussion.

** NIST has lots of time to set standards, you see.

*** This is the CoC Dumb Trackstar hack.

Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaNothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Nothing to Envy" is the most depressing book in the world.

Following the lives of six ex-pat North Koreans who, through luck and perseverance, managed to get out through China and to South Korea (where they are automatically citizens), "Nothing to Envy" chronicles the rise and fall of the last Soviet Communist State who has managed, somehow, to hang on when dictators world over are falling. At first, Kim Il-Jong’s make-believe Communist Paradise, established in 1958 and propped up by the Russians, looked like a Korean Miracle. Built on top of left behind Japanese trains, electrical lines, factories, and roads, the Communist experiment looked, from the outside, to actually work: the per capita of those in North Korea was higher than South Korea as South Korea went through its post-Korean War growing pangs. Sure everyone in North Korea was pigeon-holed based on the allegiances of their grandparents and their opportunities in life granted or removed based on some superficial caste almost as harsh as found in India, but the people were fed, everyone had health care, people had jobs and school, and the trains ran on time.

Then three things happened: the Soviet Union fell, Kim Il-Jong died, and Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms in China caused China’s economy to rapidly expand. North Korea never was anything more than a puppet state; it never made or sold anything itself. The moment the money dried up and North Korea’s allies became more interested in money than a Communist experiment, North Korea began to starve. Everyone starved. Hundreds of thousands died. And the government never relented to feed its people, all for ideology.

The six very personal stories chronicles the period of intense starvation and the re-discovery of capitalist markets in North Korea from 1991 to the present day. All of the people featured in the book, some young and some old enough to remember the Korean War, are all survivors, tough enough to survive the famines, cross the border into China, and sneak all the way to South Korea. "Nothing to Envy" chronicles extreme poverty under crushing 1984 conditions where, even while starving, a stray word against the government meant a trip to the Gulag. Televisions are fixed to only one TV station, radios only get the North Korean State station (but easy to hack), cellphones banned, no computers, and the people are sealed in a hermetic bubble. It doesn’t matter, though: electricity is so rare people steal the copper out of the power lines to sell for black market rice. The electricity hasn’t been on in twenty years. Cities crumble, trains die on the tracks, and the factories sit idle. There aren’t any cars. North Korea is a wasteland.

After reading this book, it’s unclear how reunification would work. North Korea is a poverty-stricken nation stuck in the 1960s and reunification would mean retraining some 23 million people in how to exist in the 21st century. Estimates are between $800 billion and $1.3 trillion to rebuild North Korea to a livable, workable standard. It’s not the de-brainwashing as much as the sheer rebuilding.

"Nothing to Envy" is a very sad book about a very sad place run by a madman who would rather his country be ideologically pure than his people eat. It’s unlikely North Korea will survive another change of hands considering how China is leaking in over the northern border and running North Korea’s black markets — the only source of food they have. But when it does happen, it will be a real mess. North Korea is a humanitarian disaster.

Recommended for anyone interested in what life is like in North Korea.

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Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Millennium, #3)The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What do I say about this book?

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest the Return of the King of exceedingly trashy thriller novels. Conspiracy! Fraud! Illegal Wire Tapping! Chase scenes! More chase scenes! Good cops! Bad cops! Evil cops! Hacking! Hot heroic women! And, of course… MURDER. Oh, and don’t forget the sex, the yugoslavian mafia guys, the biker gangs, the evil government officials, and the Heroics of Mikhael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander and the Millennium crew! When I say "trashy" I don’t mean it in a bad way. Trashy is good. Trashy is often great! But art it is not and boy is this novel trashy. It transcends cheese and right out the other side into glorious, glorious trash.

The story is 600 pages of chase novel. It opens with Lisbeth Salander in the hospital after being shot in the head (!!) and then the quest to clear her of All Wrongs and her eeeevil father, the ex-Soviet military spy and defector to Sweden, just down the hall plotting her horrible demise. Meanwhile, a super secret government group called the Section comes out of retirement to deal with their wayward spy, cover all their tracks, destroy Millennium before evidence is published, and bury Lisbeth Salander forever in a mental institution. No one is going to keep Mikhael Blomqvist from getting the story — and along the way a girl — about something as scandalous as a bunch of old Cold Warriors who will do anything to keep an old Soviet Spy who has moved into sex trafficking a secret.

And then everyone runs all over Sweden — except Lisbeth, who spends 80% of the novel lying in bed in a hospital hacking. The Girl who Kicks the Hornet’s Nest is the book where Stieg Larsson figured out how to write. The scenes are short and breathless. The chapters are laid out day by day so while Horrible Things happen one day you just have to know what happens on the next. Despite having an enormous cast, the plot moves along at breakneck pace. It’s a fun read! And surprisingly, fairly well plotted.

Most of Lisbeth’s hacking actually manages to pass the smell test. It’s a little exaggerated in places simply through time compression but otherwise its likely plausible enough. My only true quibble with this book is the Erika Berger B plot which seems to serve no purpose other than for Erika to leave, run around, whine, and then return to Millennium older and wiser and having learned a Valuable Lesson. Perhaps I simply do not like the Erika Berger character, but I found the B plot to be a little tedious and pointless. Otherwise, I enjoyed most of the second fiddle characters — the Milton Security guys (and gal), the Constitutional Protection Police in SIS, the regular cops, and, overall, the bad guys who, to their credit, are immensely bad.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest firmly earns its 5 star rating by bringing the story to a complete conclusion. The very end is a tad rushed but it ends. The trilogy concludes. I feel comfortable walking away from Lisbeth Salander and Mikhael Blomqvist and all their friends and enemies. The story has been told.

I feel comfortable recommending the series after the conclusion of the Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I know, you’re probably looking at the books and going: "Man, these books are everywhere. Should I really read them?" My answer: yep. The third book is all payoff, baby.

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Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium, #2)The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The Girl who Played with Fire" has middle book of a trilogy syndrome. It doesn’t have all the setup and introductions and background and exploration of character that the first book has and it doesn’t have the resolution of a final book. It is the Empire Strikes Back of the Millennium Trilogy — neither an opener nor a closer, but with plenty of "I am your father, Luke" moments. This leaves the book feeling a little bit at loose ends.

My biggest issue with "The Girl who Played with Fire" is that nothing of plot consequence happens for the first full third of the book. It opens with a big "meanwhile" where Lisbeth Salandar does stuff for a while and Mikhael Blomqvist does stuff for a while and the magazine does stuff for a while and really, people do stuff for a while. There’s some good old fashioned lesbian sex, some regular straight sex, and lots of people sitting around drinking and talking. Then people get shot up real good and blood splatters and the book becomes enjoyable. We demand blood splatters! Give us dead bodies or go home!

The book tosses in characters who are so numerous it gets hard to follow after a while: cops, bikers, a professional boxer, the staff at Millennium magazine, the people at Milton Security, some dude named Zala, a big blond giant who goes around hitting people with his fists, government flunkies… and they all have names that end in "… berg." It becomes an exercise in being cross-eyed after a while. The story becomes /super/ exciting when it involves Lisbeth Salandar (our autistic heroine) or Mikael Blomqvist (our intrepid reporter) but then stalls a bit when it flashes to this secondary character or that secondary character. Well, I guess those characters need to have lives, too. Then there are fights — one thing I can say about Stieg Larsson books is the guy knew how to write an exciting fight scene — and implacable villains who are implacable and villainous and an absolutely amazing final 10% of the book full of, to put it bluntly, Empire Strikes Back moments with Big! Gasping! Revelations! GASP! Read that passage again! GASP!!!!

Except Lisbeth Salander gets to keep her hand. Sort of.

For the final 10% I bumped my review from three stars to four simply because the payoff is worth the slog at the beginning. For the most part, "The Girl who Played with Fire" is a three and a half star book. It plods in the beginning and bogs in places where the cops run around coming to incorrect conclusions. It is not as tightly plotted or as cleanly written as "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." It isn’t as enjoyably trashy, either — sure, it has a lesbian sex scene but it is a bit on the tame side and Blomqvist doesn’t sleep with /everyone/. It is trashy, sure, but it is not quite as trashy as the first book. In places it even feels a little conservative. The closing scenes, though, are worth the price of admission.

It also has no resolution. It’s a middle series book. No opening and no closing. Luckily one can get "the Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest" from Amazon and it downloads right to the Kindle…

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