I actually don't know much of fairy tales past the ones that Disney has engraved on popular culture, but I actually ran into "The Twelve Dancing PrincI actually don't know much of fairy tales past the ones that Disney has engraved on popular culture, but I actually ran into "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" in the webcomic Erstwhile a year or so ago, which was just long enough to forget some of the details before reading Jessica Day George's more romantic adaptation.
There's an honest soldier, and a strangely helpful witch, and a mysterious curse, and all the other hallmarks of a classic fairy tale. There's also enough room to develop some characters, and a well executed plot. While fairy tales have a habit of things 'just happening', that isn't the case here. George has thought the story out, and it all hangs together with a fairly rigorous logic. (With one exception. And she presumably knew more than she was telling.) This is a around a late grade-school level book, and is still a fairly simple story, but still novel length and engagingly written. It's also a... nicer version than the traditional ones, as it uses an external villain in place of the princesses. In a way, the story has been 'Disneyfied' by this treatment, but I have to say it also makes more sense this way.
I first discovered Jessica Day George just about a year ago, and this book is another reason why I'm happy I did....more
Barbara Hambly is a name I saw a fair amount of when I was haunting SF&F bookshelves as stores as a teenager, but I never got around to trying anyBarbara Hambly is a name I saw a fair amount of when I was haunting SF&F bookshelves as stores as a teenager, but I never got around to trying any of her books. I later found that I indeed had been missing out, and have been slowly going back and reading her books. In this case, I got a Kindle edition of her first work, The Darwath Trilogy, on sale; in all, the book was well put together, and I did not notice any glitches, though the few maps seem to be a bit extra small, and not well cleaned up from a scan.
The Time of the Dark starts as something of a standard Visitation Fantasy. Gil Patterson is a post-graduate student at UCLA, who keeps having disturbing dreams of a world under siege by creatures just known as The Dark. These become more than dreams when a wizard from that world, Ingold Inglorion, crosses over to visit her, hoping to find a temporary refuge, or short cut, for an escape plan. Things go wrong, Gil and Rudy Solis (who happened by) end up trapped in the fantasy world, as going home could lead to the Dark invading Earth.
Past the beginning of the first book, Gil and Rudy share viewpoint status for the rest of the series, which is a bit awkward at first, as the viewpoint shifts between the two inside the same chapter, which gets a little confusing. Past the first book, any viewpoint changes happen at chapter breaks, which works much better.
Rudy, a mechanic and artist in a biker crowd, discovers magic, and Gil... moves from scholar to swordswoman. This actually works well, and puts the two on different paths as the narrative grows in the second book. The two make their way through vastly changed circumstances, and stay central to, but not the mainsprings of, the plot.
That, of course, is the coming of the nightmare creatures of the Dark, and the destruction of the kingdom of Renwrath, with the ensuing fight for survival of the remnants of the human population. Things get creepy, things get scary, things get political, and things get tragic, and it all keeps up over the rest of the trilogy.
The series does get a good and satisfactory ending (though there are further books in the world written years later), and while all the central mysteries are brought to light, there is a small number of dropped threads. There are a very few places where I could see something the characters couldn’t (most notably in the final climax, alas), but they were fairly beat up and tired by that point, and most of the time, the action stayed ahead of me. Well recommended; partly traditional epic fantasy trilogy, partly bucks the trends....more
Danielle Jensen's first novel reads fast, but has quite a bit going on in it. At the start of the story, the main character (Cécile) is kidnapped, andDanielle Jensen's first novel reads fast, but has quite a bit going on in it. At the start of the story, the main character (Cécile) is kidnapped, and taken to a hidden city of trolls, where she is 'bonded' to a prince to fulfill a prophesy. The first part of the book is recognizably a "Beauty and the Beast" romance after that, but the plot soon outgrows that tale. Even in the first few chapters, quite a bit is going on.
Overall, the worldbuilding overshadows the characters a bit, most of whom go by fast enough that they never become fully-realized characters, but are drawn broadly enough that you still know exactly who they are when they show up again. Of course, this is a function of there being a good number of secondary characters in a fast-paced book. The plot itself is well-done, and small things early on in the book are important later. This is the first book of a trilogy, and the end of the book is very much not The End, but it does end the current equilibrium, and the next book will be very different than this one.
This is the first time in quite a while that I've gotten into a series just as it's beginning, and I'm looking forward to the next two books!...more
A year after putting out Waterdeep and the North, TSR published one of the most unusual boxed sets in RPG history. Usually a boxed set is a varietyA year after putting out Waterdeep and the North, TSR published one of the most unusual boxed sets in RPG history. Usually a boxed set is a variety of material, including a couple of books, and maybe a couple large maps; but in this case, it contained one thin booklet and twelve poster-size mapsheets. Technically, the booklet could help out with running a game in any city, but this was less than entirely accurate, and the real reason for the box were the twelve mapsheets, and all of these were about one city in particular; Waterdeep.
The booklet itself is 32 pages long, and has some notes about the what the rest of the contents of the box were all about, and then reiterates the basics of the city of Waterdeep from FR1, including the history and laws of the city, though this includes a timeline not present in the original. There is a reiteration of the building key as well (needed, since the included maps mark the same buildings), as well as a ‘guide to services’, which lists them by type and map/grid location, so that this time there is an easy way to answer sudden questions such as ‘where are the nearest stables?’, from the party.
After that, there is finally something that could be used with any city; ‘street scenes’. These are large random tables (d100) of things and people going by on city streets that can be used to help set the stage (flavor, witnesses, etc.) at any point in an adventure in Waterdeep. These tables are keyed to the different wards of Waterdeep, but it wouldn’t be too hard to adapt to another city. There is then a short discussion of using recurrent encounters to help drive a sense of continuity in city life, with a page of suggestions, and the book finishes up with four pages of random tables for the potential results of picking a random NPC’s pockets.
Ten of the twelve mapsheets in the box go together to form a huge 67″x108″ map of Waterdeep (arranged in a 5×2 pattern; Waterdeep is quite rectangular). It’s quite impressive—if you have the space for it. (I don’t currently.) This isn’t the best that it could be, as the buildings are color-coded by what ward they’re in (handy, but a bit heavy-handed), and each keyed building is cut out of the image, leaving a white area with the number.
Waterdeep isn’t actually as wide as two mapsheets put together, and that’s where some of the more useful parts of the product come in. Along the outer edge of each sheet are a number of floor plans of potentially important buildings. These aren’t anything truly inspired, but they are potentially handy, and probably the most useful part of the entire product with about thirty different floorplans (most with multiple levels) in a 5 feet to the square scale.
The eleventh sheet is an isometric map of Castle Waterdeep. This includes a plan view and a close-up of the castle itself, showing the long switchback ramp up to the main gate. It’s not entirely bad, but the design is a very poor looking collection of narrow round towers with no thickness to the walls (probably not enough to support the structure, much less keep out rude neighbors), lines of windows along the top galleries, and not an arrow slit, machicolation, or other sensible defensive siege feature to be seen. TSR’s chronic lack of understanding of siege engineering is on full display here.
The final sheet isn’t really a map. It’s an illustration. A view of the city as seen from the top of the fortifications of the harbor. Since the southern part of the plateau the city is on slopes down to the sea, you get a very good view of the southern parts of the city, the ridge/mountain that Castle Waterdeep is on, the castle itself, and part of the city walls, though the actual South Gate runs off the right side of the view.
Assuming that TSR was able to just blow up their existing map of Waterdeep without much re-work, this box set was probably fairly easy to produce. However, value is lower than even that fairly simple job. If you want to run a game centered (or entirely) in Waterdeep, this can give good value, as the extra color will help, and the easier to read, blown up map will help. However, it is in no way essential to that, and if you aren’t heavily involved in Waterdeep, there’s extremely little of interest. Map junkies will still enjoy it however....more
There have been three main centers of activity in Ed Greenwood’s own Forgotten Realms campaigns. Two of them, Shadowdale and Cormyr, are in the centraThere have been three main centers of activity in Ed Greenwood’s own Forgotten Realms campaigns. Two of them, Shadowdale and Cormyr, are in the central area well covered by the original boxed set. The third, the great city of Waterdeep, is a bit north of the focus area, and was the primary subject of the first setting supplement from TSR, FR1. It has appeared many times in the years since then, in adventures, such as part of the Avatar trilogy, later supplements (such as City of Splendors: Waterdeep (Forgotten Realms)) several novels, and even one of the Catacombs adventure books (Knight of the Living Dead).
It contains the usual 64-page sadle-stiched book, with a three panel separate cover, with a small map of Waterdeep on the third panel, and is backprinted with a schematic map of the wards of the city, the main sewer system, and some typical building interiors; this only takes up the two main panels, and the third is blank. Also included is a keyed poster-sized map of the city.
One of the first chapters in the book grants it it’s ‘and the North’ title, giving a rough guide to trade and important locations in the area. The North is generally defined as the area between the Sword Coast and the great desert of Anauroch from the latitude of Waterdeep on north. The problem is, that the geography talked about is more detailed than is available in the boxed set, and there’s no map in the module to guide you, making the entire chapter very confusing reading. The North: Guide to the Savage Frontier would eventually cover the same ground (and partially quote these entries), with a pair of poster-size maps covering the region in detail.
Dragon #128 includes the article “Welcome to Waterdeep”, which had been cut from the supplement and details the area near the city. The module would have been better off to cut the entire chapter on the North, and include this material instead. It would have better aided the focus of the rest of the text, and the map of the area would have easily gone on the blank interior cover panel. I have a feeling that the decision to cut it was already long made when layout of a map of the North advanced to the point that it was realized that the entire region doesn’t quite fit in one 30 mile/inch poster map. Also, the publication of The Crystal Shard may have caused TSR to decide to do a separate module on the North, that could also include the Icewind Vale area.
The bulk of the supplement focuses squarely on Waterdeep itself, and is very well done, with a few problems. It is obvious that Ed had a bunch of material to present for this, and efforts were made to fit it all in, with the main text being a smaller font than normal (about 9 point), with some parts being an extra-small 7 points. A brief history of the city is given, wrapping up with some current news, before turning to the nature of government. The main government is sixteen lords, whose identities are kept secret behind robes and (anti-magic) masks, except for a high-level paladin who serves as the primary public face of government. This is all too idealized to be really believable, with the lords honestly working for the overall benefit of the city with clarity and foresight, and the protected identities not only protecting them from plots in general, but allowing them to be recruited from all levels of Waterdeep society, keeping the government in touch with the needs of the lower classes. However, there are political maneuverings from the nobles (not detailed) and the guilds (better detailed), so not everything is ideal all the time.
A large section of the book is a key to nearly 300 buildings, giving the name of the establishment, the general type of place, with occasional other details. This accounts for perhaps 5% of all the buildings shown in Waterdeep (probably less), and leaves plenty of latitude for the DM to establish his own residences and businesses (and perhaps borrow a few from the CityBook series…). Along with the standard taverns and inns are guild houses, noble villas and fences.
The main problem with the approach taken is that while a DM can sit down with the book and map, and really study an area, and get to know the neighborhood the party is based in, it is horrible at questions such as ‘where is the nearest inn?’ There’s no easy list of such establishments, so a party randomly asking after something in a random location (which of course they will) has to be met with either a lot of looking up possibilities or just making up a nearby one (which is perfectly fine… but the purpose of a supplement like this one should be not to need to do this).
The biggest problem is the amount of flavor that is buried away, where it can be easy to miss. If you look through the listings, you will note that there’s a bunch of tanneries located in the southeast corner of the Dock Ward. Tanneries generally stank to high heaven, so they were forced to exist in one corner of medieval cities to keep stench away from the rest of the city. But none of this is pointed out in the book, so if you don’t know this bit of trivia (and most people don’t—I certainly didn’t in 1987), nor sit down with the map and key to see the pattern, a bit of the logical flavor of the city will be lost, never to emerge in play. The fact that wooden buildings are restricted to one story by law, and anything taller (as most are now) must be made of stone is buried in the description of the Guild of Stonecutters, Masons, Potters & Tile-Makers.
The best part of Waterdeep is that it physically feels right. The city stops at the city wall, which even with edicts against building against the walls seems unlikely, and the few hints of farms and the like outside the walls seem to include a village with no marked path to the main road. But inside the walls, the streets both run straight and branch off in random directions that feel right for a living, evolving city.
In all, this really is a good springboard for urban adventures, and feels like it’s possible to DM such a large and diverse city without it feeling completely foreign to the original intent. This is a tall challenge, and one not often tackled in fantasy RPG writing. Despite the problems, there’s a lot here, and it fits together well, and I have to think this is one of the better city supplements that has been done....more