Skip to content

Book Review: Tschai (Planet of Adventure)

March 1, 2015

Tschai is a science fiction series made up of 4 books written by Jack Vance in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These 4 books are: City of the Chasch (or the Chasch), the Dirdir, the Servants of the Wannek (or the Wannek), and the Pnume. I first read these books 30 years ago after reading Vance’s Moon Moth and the Last Castle in a collection of Hugo Award-winning stories. I’m a big fan of the series and have read it multiple times, though this is the first time I’ve read the series in its entirety in well over 20 years. The books, which have been in and out of print, are now available digitally either as separate books or as one volume. In the past, the series has been published as one volume under the title ‘Planet of Adventure’, the digital version is simply called Tschai.

At its core, Tschai is essentially a “Planetary Romance” or “Sword and Planet” story. This genre generally features a lone individual from Earth engaging in various adventures on some far away planet. Weapons and cultures tend to be a mix of the primitive and high tech. It’s not unusual for such stories to include an attractive female (not necessarily human!) who needs rescuing. Tschai features such elements but Vance being Vance he uses these elements in unique and original ways.

Adam Reith with his companions: the Emblem Nomad, Traz Onmale, and the fugitive Dirdirman, Anacho

Adam Reith with his companions: the Emblem Nomad, Traz Onmale, and the fugitive Dirdirman, Anacho

The series opens with Earth explorer Adam Reith stranded on the distant world of Tschai after his ship and his companions are destroyed by a missile from an unknown adversary. Reith quickly finds out that the planet is home to four alien-races: the reptilian and cruel Chasch, the amphibious Wannek, the predatory Dirdir, and the mysterious Pnume. (The Pnume are actually indigenous to Tschai but were driven underground long ago by other alien races.) Reith is also surprised to find humans on Tschai whom he surmises were taken from Earth in the distant past. Each alien race has its own servant/slave human population known respectively as the Chaschmen, Dirdirmen, Wannekmen and Pnumekin. Some of these servant humans are surgically or genetically modified to resemble their master race. Though many other humans live free, all are intimidated in some way by these alien races. Not being the dominant species on the planet has affected the psyche of humans on Tschai, they are used to playing the victim and would never dream of rising up against the other ‘superior’ races. Reith obviously has a different mindset which serves him in good stead while trying to find a way home.

As mentioned, there are a number of ‘planetary romance’ elements in these books. Technology is a mixture of primitive and high tech – it is implied that aliens make sure that the human population on Tschai is kept technologically deficient to keep them from becoming a threat. There is a princess to be rescued but in typical Vance fashion he turns this planetary romance element on its head. The grateful princess is saved by Reith and they become lovers. However, as Reith journeys to take her back to her country of Cath, she knows her love for Reith – an outlander – will bring shame and dishonor to both her and her house. This inner conflict eventually drives the princess to violence and suicide! (One can see why George RR Martin thinks so highly of Jack Vance.)

The rest of the series details Reith’s encounters with the various alien races and humans that make up Tschai as he tries to find a ship that will take him to Earth. His adventures take him from ruined cities where terrifying Phung lurk, to the dreaded Carabas where Dirdir hunt and eat men, to the tunnels of the Pnume where he avoids being added to their Museum of Foreverness. Along the way, Reith often causes drastic changes to the status quo.

Tschai is overall a great read. It also may be the best introduction to Jack Vance out there. The series is imaginative, the dialogue is vintage Vance, the action is essentially non-stop, and the protagonist is actually sympathetic. That’s not too say there are no issues with the books. Reith himself is a fairly underdeveloped character. We never find out anything about his life before he’s marooned on Tschai except that he is not currently in a relationship. We never hear about his life on Earth and no family or friends are mentioned. The story itself has some issues: it seems way too easy for Reith to get away from the Pnume when he rescues Zap 210, for instance.  Still, for me at least, these complaints are mostly quibbles. I give the series a 4 out of 5, highly recommended.

Weird War II – Common Knowledge

February 26, 2015

In my Weird War II campaign, characters are members of OSI. As such, it is assumed they know the following information:

What you know:

OSI (Office of Special Investigation): The OSI is a secret organization that has been tasked with battling supernatural threats conjured or created by Axis operatives. Members are chosen from the military and must have had some sort of confrontation or experience with the supernatural. OSI is a joint American and British organization.

You are a member of OSI.

Ancourt Disaster: On August 9th, 1942 the Allies raided the French port town of Dieppe on the Normandy Coast. The raid had a number of official objectives including seizing and holding a major port for a short period, both to prove that it was possible and to gather intelligence. The raid had the added objectives of boosting morale and demonstrating the firm commitment of the western Allies to open a front in Western Europe. Unofficially, the Dieppe Raid was meant to be a diversion so that MI13 units could attack and destroy the Ancourt Installation, a series of bunkers used by SS Sonderkommando H which was located 10 miles southeast of Dieppe.

Like the Dieppe Raid, the raid on Ancourt was a complete debacle, with a high number of casualties and almost none of its objectives met. Losses from the Ancourt raid have seriously hampered efforts to stop Nazi arcane activities.

American Soldier

Extra-Temporal Pamphlets (ETPs): Pamphlets containing incantations and wards. They are basically spell scrolls, though you’ll never hear an OSI member refer to them as such. These pamphlets are usually contained in steel bound portfolios and are normally only a couple of pages long. Incantations used by OSI tend to be subtle and are mostly for protection from supernatural forces.

All pamphlets are handwritten by specially trained individuals using unusual inks and materials. One cannot just type up a spell on a typewriter.

MI13 (Section M): The British equivalent of OSI. Already well established before America’s entry into the war, elements of Section M resisted the idea of integrating with the American dominated OSI. However, after the Ancourt disaster (see above), most remaining Section M assets were integrated with OSI.

Sonderkommando H (Special Unit H): Unit of the SS concerned with magic and the arcane, the H stands for ‘hexen’ German for ‘witch’. The so-called rune mages are members of this unit. OSI agents are under orders to kill all members of Sonderkommando H that are encountered unless commanded to do otherwise.

Special Procurement Officer (SPO): An OSI operative who is designated an SPO is the individual responsible for “procuring” the powers contained in extra-temporal pamphlets that are carried on a mission. SPO’s are generally referred to as scholars within OSI.

Note that some members of OSI refer to an SPO as a willy. (Probably from the term ‘willie’, as in: “That guy gives me the willies.”)

Old School Review: Skyrealms of Jorune

February 15, 2015

Box cover for Jorune rpgI was going through my old game collection when I came upon a game from the mid-1980s called ‘Sky Realms of Jorune’. I remember this rpg fondly. Back in 1985, I saw advertisements for the game in Dragon magazine, I then saw the box set at my FLGS with the illustration shown to the left. I purchased it that day.

The game had a lot going for it. The artwork was all done by Miles Teves who is currently a major Hollywood concept artist (www.milesteves.com). Up to that point, I don’t believe there was another game that had better art. Teves’ illustrations really brought Jorune to life. Also, the game setting was unique and very detailed. It even had it’s own vocabulary (though this may also have been a detriment, see below).

Skyrealms of Jorune had a “Sword and Planet” type setting. Humans had settled the planet Jorune 3500 years prior and had encountered a number of alien races including the Shanthas, who we were native to the planet and dominated most of the world. At first, the human settlers lived in peace with the other races on Jorune, but an apocalyptic war on Earth changed all that. Humans began infringing on Shantha territory in search of resources which precipitated a war. While the humans considered Shanthas to be primitive, the Shanthas were the masters of isho, the ambient radiation or energy that was produced by the planet Jorune’s crystalline core. The Shanthas were able to manipulate and use Isho to devastating effect. Both races engaged in a genocidal war that knocked the survivors back to a primitive state.

The game takes place 3500 years after the Shantha War. Humans have rebounded, creating a civilization that is fairly close to the Renaissance in technological and cultural development. There are a number of races that inhabit Jorune including human offshoots known as Boccord (think ‘half-giants’) and Muadra (smaller but can wield isho). There are also the Iscin races, these were Terran animals that had been ‘uplifted’ to sentience by a xeno-biologist named Iscin shortly after the Shantha War. This was done by Iscin so that the animals could both survive on a hostile world and carry on humanity’s cultural legacy. Other intelligent beings were found on Jorune when humans arrived: besides the aforementioned shanthas (who are not necessarily hostile), there are the thriddle (small beings with eyestalks known for their intellects and language mastery), the cleash (hostile insectoids banished to the far north by the Shanthas millenia before), and the ramians (tall, skinny stoics covered in exoskeleton, often hostile). And these are just the primary races! Jorune has a number of mysteries and backstories, and these different races are deeply involved in them. Most of these races are playable as characters, but humans have one big advantage over all of them – ancient Earth-tech only works when wielded by human hands. So if a blaster is found by a party, only the humans in the party can use it.shanthawarrior

Characters normally started out in the main human realm of Burdoth. Their goal is to become a Drenn (citizen)To become a citizen, one must get a current citizen to add their mark to your challisk; in otherwords, you had to do something for a citizen so that they would sponsor you. Enough sponsors and you would become a citizen. Obviously, this created a good excuse for players to go on adventures. Jorune provides a good basis for many types of adventures: exploring sky realms, seeking out lost Earth tech, learning how to manipulate isho (Jorune’s version of casting spells), finding out what the other races were up to, investigating shanthic ruins, etc.

After reading the rules and background, I had my gaming group roll up characters and we proceeded to play 2 or 3 sessions. I remember liking it, but I also remember there were issues with both the setting and the rules. Our interest waned and we went back to D&D.

So what were the issues? The first and lesser issue revolved around the use of language. Jorune had it’s own vocabulary, often using setting terms in place of standard gaming terms. For example, in the game the gamemaster was called a Sholari, while players were referred to as Tauther. You see this throughout the game. In my experience, a little of this goes a long way towards helping players get immersed into a setting but if you use it too much your players don’t get immersed; instead, they feel like ‘fish out of water’.

The second, bigger problem was the rules for the game. They were needlessly complex. Take combat for example, it involved a lot of dice rolling. The basic structure had players roll a d20 for Advantage. High Advantage characters went first. Attackers rolled a d20 against their attack skill target number while defenders rolled d20 against their defense skill target number. If the attack succeeded and the defense failed, the attacker had a potential hit. He would then roll 2d6 on the hit location table, and THEN 2d6 on the armor penetration table, if necessary. If the attack got through the armor, then the attacker would roll 2d6 one more time on the appropriate damage table to obtain a descriptive wound result: superficial, minor, major, or critical. Not only was this overly complicated, combat itself was pretty deadly. It’s fine if a game wants to discourage combat, but when your setting emphasizes blasters, nasty aliens, and powerful offensive powers (dyshas – essentially spells using isho) combat seems an inevitable part of the game. Using ishowas even more complicated…

thriddleThat all said, the game certainly had its merits and I do remember enjoying at least some of it.

A third edition was licensed and published in 1992 by game distributor Chessex. This version was supposed to streamline the rules. I own this edition as well, though I’ve never played it. Looking through the book I notice there are charts for combat, something most rpgs had gotten away from by 1992. There are certainly still issues around language. While I’m tempted to give this edition a playtest, I have read that these rules were rushed into production and basically never playtested; hence, they are supposed to be a mess! Chessex put out some supplements after which the license was pulled.

In 1994, a PC version of the setting called ‘Alien Logic’ was released, but it didn’t do very well. Since several parties were involved in the PC version of the game, the rights to Jorune became murky. As a result, the game appears to be dead, which is a shame. That said, there does appear to be some fan conversions online, including a Savage Worlds version which appears to be complete. If you are interested in Jorune, you might want to pick up an old edition of the game and maybe try a rules conversion. There’s a lot to like.

Games I Want to Run

January 13, 2015

Around April of 2014 I brought my original Aspects of Fantasy campaign to an end. For a variety of reasons I’ve not run a game since. Now I’m ready to run something new, be it a new Aspects of Fantasy campaign or something else. Here’s what I’m interested in:

Weird War II – I’m in the mood for something different – something a little outside my comfort zone – and this is what I’m interested in running right now. The characters will be part of a diverse Allied unit specializing in eliminating supernatural Axis terrors. At the most, it will probably be a mini-campaign. Influences include Hellboy and BPRD, plus I’ve always been fascinated by WWII. I’ll be using Savage Worlds Weird War II setting. We’ll see how it goes.

Pegana Campaign – This is my next Aspects of Fantasy campaign heavily influenced by pulp stories and games (see my previous post). I’ll be using Aspects of Fantasy, but there will be some changes. These changes include: different player races, tweaking the magic system to make it less ‘flashy’, and I’ll be introducing firearms.

D&D 5E  – While I’ve gotten away from D&D over the last couple of years (I hated 4E and was burned out on 3.5/Pathfinder) I like the new edition of the game, at least what I’ve read so far. I’ve bought the 3 books (Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and DMs Guide). I may just run it straight – something I rarely do – and see how it goes. This will also give me a chance to get my Pegana Campaign ready.

OTHER GAMES

Dungeon Crawl Classic (DCC) – This is Goodman Games pulp dungeoncrawl rpg. We did a quick playtest of this game and I really enjoyed running it. Even better, the players enjoyed playing it. I may run this game if I decide I want to run a ‘dungeoncrawl’ type game besides D&D. Plus, I’ve published a supplement for the game which has done fairly well (Alternate Occupations), maybe I should actually play the game. :-)

One Ring – My friend Bruce ran this game for a couple of sessions until he tired of waiting on Cubicle 7 to come out with promised material and gave up  on it. However, I really enjoyed the game and was sorry that Bruce stopped running it. Since then, Cubicle 7 has gotten somewhat better about getting out product. (Though their release schedule is still pathetic and it seems to take forever for C7 to get physical product released.)

I’ve been picking up everything that comes out for the game and have found the material produced for One Ring to be very good. It’s easily the best Middle Earth rpg ever created, imho. That said, there are a number of other games I would rather run right now, so One Ring gets pushed to the side – at least for now.

Science Fiction – I haven’t run a Science Fiction campaign in over 20 years. Back in the 1980s I ran a couple of science fiction campaigns using FGU’s Space Opera. In the early 90s I ran a Cyberpunk campaign. Since then, I’ve always wanted to run a science-fiction campaign but no system has really appealed to me. However, some new systems have come along recently that I’m interested in. These include: Savage Worlds Science Fiction Companion, Thousand Suns, and even FFG’s Star Wars.

So many games, so little time. :-)

Movie Review – Fury

November 9, 2014

Saw the movie Fury at the local theater a couple of days ago. The movie is about the crew of a Sherman tank during the last months of WWII. It stars Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf and some other actors that I had never heard of.

*SPOILERS BELOW*

The movie is well acted. Brad Pitt is great. I normally can’t stand Shia LaBeouf and I hesitated seeing the movie because he was in it, but he’s really good in Fury.

The movie has the most realistic portrayal of tank warfare I’ve seen on film, especially a scene where 4 Shermans take on a Tiger tank. Only one Sherman survives as it’s able to get behind the Tiger and hit it in the rear where its armor is weakest.

I was impressed with the movie’s ‘realism’, at least when it came to the equipment used. The Americans are running around in real Shermans, the Germans have a real Tiger tank (at least, it looked real). The Sherman’s fire white phosphorus (Willie Pete) something I’ve never seen portrayed in a movie before (even though it was something that was commonly used). The Germans use panzerfausts which can be devastating against a Sherman. I’m anal about this stuff, so I appreciate when this is done right in a movie.

Though my review is mostly positive, I did have some issues with the movie. Not sure if I would call this ‘bad’, but the tank crew is portrayed as battle-hardened and are generally callous and grim. I’m sure this was done on purpose, but I had a hard time empathizing with them as a result. They don’t do anything really wrong, they’re just not very sympathetic. The movie itself bogs down while the crew is in a German town interacting with some of the locals. More of a ‘quibble’ then a complaint, but the ending battle scene may have been a little too “over the top”. I’m pretty sure it was fairly easy for infantry to take out a stationary, disabled tank in short order. Oh, and if you don’t like ‘grim and gritty’ you probably won’t like Fury (I personally like ‘grim and gritty’ so had no problem with the films overall tone).

*END SPOILERS*

Overall, I’d give the movie a thumbs up, or a 3.5 out of 5.


fury

PEGANA: A Campaign World for a Pulp-style Fantasy Campaign

October 4, 2014

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had been reading (and re-reading) a lot of pulp fantasy of late. Not just Lovecraft and Howard, but Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsany. The reading has inspired me to run a ‘dungeon crawl’ fantasy campaign based on the works of HPL, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith and others. The world the campaign would take place in would be a version of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands with a heavy dose of Smith’s Hyperborea and Zothique, as well as Dunsany’s “worlds” (I named the world after Dunsany’s Pegana). Where appropriate I’ve added my own elements and place names. I’m certainly not the first one to do this. Chaosium’s version of HPL’s Dreamlands  has some Clark Ashton Smith while the artist Jason Thompson created a Dreamlands map with elements and place names from both Smith and Dunsany. However, I found Chaosium’s version of the Dreamlands too sparse and the map created by Jason Thompsan  – while excellent – was too abstract for gaming. I wanted to map a world that I thought my players would want to game in, a world both different and familiar.

The map below is what I’ve come up with. The map is done is Photoshop and I used a number of different graphic elements:

  • The forests and certain symbols are from brushes created by StarRaven, which can be found at this link: (http://starraven.deviantart.com/art/Sketchy-Cartography-Brushes-198264358)
  • Banners and other images are stock art by Outland Arts. Some artwork copyright William McAusland, used with permission.
  • Certain images are clip art in the public domain.
  • Other images were drawn by yours truly and scanned in.

Please let me know what you think of the map. Are their items I should add? Are there graphic elements you would change?

Pegana

In a Weird War II Mood

August 23, 2014

I’m currently in “ferret mode” when it comes to roleplaying. Since roughly the year 2000, I’ve been running a fantasy rpg campaign of one sort or another. First it was D&D 3.0 and 3.5, then I ran a rather short lived 4E campaign. Finally, for the last 3 years, I ran Aspects of Fantasy (my current game of choice). While I’m still interested in running standard fantasy, I’ve also been wanting to run something else. As mentioned below, I’m looking to run a fantasy campaign in a version of Lovecraft’s Dreamworlds. However, I’ve always been a WWII buff and picked up both the Savage Tales version of Weird War II and Achtung! Cthulhu. Now I’m in a Weird War II mood.

With this in mind, here’s a couple of image murals I’ve come up with for a Weird War II game. The first mural is of normal Axis soldiers that an Allied soldier might run into in the ETO (European Theater of Operations). The second mural has been put together by the ‘Office of Special Investigations’ as an addendum for their own operatives.

axis_mural

axis_mural_osi

These illustrations are taken from various sources. The first uses images from my Osprey collection. The second uses images from around the internet.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.