Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday Inspirational Interview: Steel Blood

Taking a bit of detour with today's post. While there's plenty of inspiration in the cover image below, there's also an interview to go with it!
J.L. Gribble, my friend and author published her third novel in the Steel Empires series, Steel Blood, on July 19 (you can order it through these links at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or directly from the publisher, Dog Star Books) and since I know she’s a gamer (she's spent a fair bit of time at my table) I wanted to talk to her about how gaming has influenced her writing.


Let’s jump right into it: How has gaming influenced how you write?
JLG: As a table-top gamer since high school, I think the other players have influenced me more than the mechanics of gaming itself. Gaming involves working together with other people to solve problems, so I’ve never been one for the “lone wolf’ protagonist. My characters are surrounded by friends and loved ones and allies of convenience, who must all work together to solve conflict or escape their current situations. The variety of characters, played by such variety of people, that I’ve experienced over the years definitely helped me realize that relationships are just as important as plot.
In most games, magic systems need some fairly explicit rules to keep the game from imploding. Have you figured out how magic works, or are you winging it, or something in between?
JLG: Definitely somewhere in between. I have structure for how magic exists in my world: different classes of magic, who can use each, what each class specializes in. But the little stuff like spells and shields are more free-form, make it up as I go. The most important rule that I write by, however, is that magic always has a price or cost. Power doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and has to come from somewhere. There is no waving of wands to make problems disappear with no effort.
While I know you’ve written some fanfiction, the Earth of the Steel Empires series is something you developed on your own. You’ve got weredragons ruling your version of China, werewolves ruling the British Empire, and vampires running things in Rome, plus a tiny little Greek-like city-state down at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. Can you tell me about how you decided on what to include and how to fit it all together?
JLG: I wish you’d asked me that 15 years ago! Now, it’s all just in my head, as if that’s the way it’s always been: especially the British and Roman Empires. Now, as my world keeps expanding, I pick what I want to write about and then decide how it got there (most other alternate history writers are now very uncomfortable and are not sure why). Once I do decide something, I do the research I need to either back it up or throw the idea out and start fresh. For example, I’m currently writing a later book in the series and I want to introduce the basic ideas of “angels” and “demons.” But how do you incorporate those in a world that doesn’t have major monotheistic religions? So, I wish I could give you an answer that shows how nicely I’ve planned out my entire world, just like I plan every scene in every book before I start writing page one. But nope: I’m mostly making it up as I go.
And speaking of werewolf brits, did you snag that from Doctor Who? And how do you feel about “appropriating” little things like that in books and games? Cheap trick, or fun nod to the other things you love?
JLG: Funny story—I created my world in the late 1990s. I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until 2007. Some things just aren’t original, no matter how hard you try. But I didn’t let that stop me! In my latest book, Steel Blood, I did intentionally incorporate a reference one of my other favorite television series, Stargate. It’s incredibly subtle and nerdy, so I don’t expect very many people to get it. But I know it’s there, and it amuses me, and writers should always write for themselves first.
When running games, you’ve always got to keep on your toes since players will never do what you expect. Do you ever run into that with your characters?
JLG: Since I’m a “plotter,” someone who figures out each scene in the book before I start writing, this doesn’t usually happen in dramatic fashion. I know where I’m going, but I don’t always know how I’m getting there. This is where my characters sometimes surprise me with snippets of dialogue or actions that solve problems I was having with the story. Sometimes they create entirely new problems!
What’s the most applicable part of world building for books that you’ve gotten from games? What’s the best bit you’ve gotten from writing that you’d like to see applied to games?
JLG: As I wrote above, the most applicable thing is that magic should always have a cost. That’s not as clear-cut in fiction, where characters don’t have a mana bar or list of daily spells. But it’s a lesson that I think has made my stories stronger. Conversely, I wish modern video games had more opportunities for diversity in character creation. Some game designers are already doing this beautifully, that’s probably why I love games such as Dragon Age. But I really wish I could play an Assassin’s Creed that features just a female character, not a game that feels like it still needs a male playable option to be acceptable to the masses.
And last question: why would gamers want to read your books?
JLG: Because they’re fun! I play games to relax and turn my brain off. I wouldn’t call my books mindless popcorn, because I don’t shy away from heavy subjects, but I’m not here to teach you life lessons or bludgeon you with political ideaology. I write genre fiction because I want to entertain people, give them an escape from the mundane, and let them explore a world different from our own. Part of why I’d love to see my books adapted for a table-top RPG is because the possibilities are endless. Would you be a mage with water powers? A grizzled half-elven mercenary? A werewolf noblewoman? A vampire politician? In a world as expansive as the Steel Empires, there’s room for everyone. Let me know where you fit.
#
About the book:
As her children begin lives of their own, Victory struggles with the loneliness of an empty nest. Just when the city of Limani could not seem smaller, an old friend requests that she come out of retirement for one final mercenary contract—to bodyguard his granddaughter, a princess of the Qin Empire.
For the first time in a century, the Qin and British Empires are reopening diplomatic relations. Alongside the British delegation, Victory and her daywalker Mikelos arrive in the Qin colony city of Jiang Yi Yue. As the Qin weredragons and British werewolves take careful steps toward a lasting peace between their people, a connection between the Qin princess and a British nobleman throw everyone’s plans in disarray.
Meanwhile, a third faction stalks the city under the cover of darkness.
This is not a typical romance. It’s a good thing Victory is not a typical vampire.
Buy links:
About the author:
By day, J. L. Gribble is a professional medical editor. By night, she does freelance fiction editing in all genres, along with reading, playing video games, and occasionally even writing. She is currently working on the Steel Empires series for Dog Star Books, the science-fiction/adventure imprint of Raw Dog Screaming Press. Previously, she was an editor for the Far Worlds anthology.
Gribble studied English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She received her Master’s degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where her debut novel Steel Victory was her thesis for the program.


She lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, with her husband and three vocal Siamese cats. Find her online (www.jlgribble.com), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/jlgribblewriter), and on Twitter and Instagram (@hannaedits).

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Steel Blood

Disclaimer: I read an advanced reviewer e-copy of this book from the author, who is a friend (and one of the former players in my Friday night D&D game). Didn't stop me from buying a dead tree copy for myself!



Yet another fast paced installment of the Steel Empire series. This is another squeal to Steel Victory, as it takes place concurrently to Steel Magic showing what Victory and Mikelos are doing while Kane and Toria were off doing their apprenticeship. Of course, what should be an easy bodyguard contract for Victory ends up turning into so much more...

While it doesn't move the plot elements from Steel Magic forward, don't think this is just a filler novel! Steel Blood brings in plenty more plot elements that have the possibility of reverberating through the author's world. And once again getting to see more of the world is one of the great delights of this series! In this installment we're introduced to the Qin Empire (aka China) and its were-dragon nobility, and the werewolf nobility of the British Empire. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Victory's meddling will bring about in future installments.

As with the other books in this series, it continues to defy easy classification. Yes, it's a fantasy alternative history, yet that only just scratches at the surface. What this series really is about is the characters, and the fact that some of them are wizards and were-creatures is truly incidental to that. This whole saga is the story of Victory and her family, whether they're dealing with the fate of nations, the warping weave of magic, or a pair of star crossed lovers, in the end it's all about family.

Once again, my major complaint is that it's so enjoyable and such a fast read that it's over too quickly. We all have to wait another year before we get the next installment! At least the fact that each book has been better than the last, that year is one of anticipation!

Cross-posted to Goodreads and Amazon

Monday, July 17, 2017

Stonehell: Reptile House of Horrors!

Session 37b was played on 5/5.

Eiric, wizard 3 (Kat)
- torch bearers (JJ Swats)
- men at arms (C, D)
- Namish (dog)
AARon, Thief 1 (Henchman)
Orpheus, Human Fighter 3 (Yann)
Matthias, Dwarf 4 (Julia)
- men at arms (M&M, Nnnn, Ood, P.P.)
- Herrick (dog)
Sarin the Ugly, Human Fighter 1 (Josh)
Menchi, Human Cleric 1 (Laurel)
Daryll (NPC Cleric 2)


Back in town, Matthias hosts a reserved beer tasting. AARon sneaks off and joins the local thieves guild. His experience with dungeon traps is something the local guild is sorely lacking.

Gathering everyone together, and picking up the stock of beer for the Tavern at the Korners, they head back into the dungeon. The trip was uneventful and the handoff of the beer went smoothly (aka no one (Sarin) was required to mop kobold shit). Eiric asked about going out the back way from the Korners into the Quiet Halls, but the kobolds objected to the party stomping in through the back door of their holdings, especially if they keep breaking the locked door. Eiric pointed out that they wouldn’t have to break the lock if they had a key.

Trustee Sniv saw the logic of that, and decided that the kobolds were better kept on the party’s good side. He handed off a key, but demanded a promise that they would keep the door locked.

  • And that they wouldn’t let anything follow them in.
  • And that they’d hand over their weapons to a check point that he’d set up just for them.
  • And that they wouldn’t just go stomping through their homes, and upsetting the pups.
  • And that the occasional luxury good might happen to find its way to him....

Eiric promised, and the party went on its way through the back door of the Korners, into the Quiet Halls, and down the stairs into the Reptile House. Almost immediately they encounter a kobold hunting party returning with a chunk of unidentified meat, as well as their usual tools and weapons. The parties gave each other room to pass, and each continued on their way. Checking out the room the kobolds were leaving, they see a spiked pit trap with some fresh liquid on the spikes.

The next chamber they check has an assortment of elaborate pictographs covering the walls but there’s no time to examine them, as a hunting party of lizardmen lies in wait, and attacks the party! Unfortunately for them, they’re vastly outnumbered and the 4 creatures are cut down. The party has little to show for their efforts, as they were carrying nothing of value.

Moving on they follow along the path that brought them to the room where they lost half the party last time they were down here. While the faint odor of swamp gas still lingers, the area is clear, but also empty of anything of value.

Backtracking to the stairs, the party comes to a chamber with a pedestal atop which is the broken remains of a stone serpent. Beyond they discover the passageway that connects this area to the Asylum. Recognizing now where they were in relation to what they’d previously explored (or the previous members of the party had mapped for them) they went past the elevator into unexplored territory.

A large hall with 4 pillars carved with a variety of stylized reptilian creatures opened before them. From the shadows another lizardman hunting party attacked. As before they were cut down quickly, and once again they carried no treasure. Beyond the pillared hall, the passage became less worked, and the floor was covered in mud with lots of lizardman footprints. Following the twisting passage they came to a lizardman watchpost, with both more lizardmen and a giant crocodile! The party worked hard to concentrate on the massive reptile, taking some hits before killing the creature, then the lizardmen. One tried to escape further down the passage, but only managed a loud warning cry before being cut down.



The session was running late, and we knew we’d all be playing again in 2 days, so we broke my usual rule about ending the session in the dungeon, and paused the game here for the night.



Gains
Kills: 15 lizardmen, 1 giant croc
Losses

Friday, July 14, 2017

Stonehell: Who Runs the Asylum??

Session 37a was played on 5/5. As with most of this group of sessions, the games ran long, and so the reports are split into multiple parts.

Eiric, wizard 3 (Kat)
- torch bearers (A A Ron, JJ Swats)
- men at arms (C, D)
- Namish (dog)
Orpheus, Human Fighter 3 (Yann)
Matthias, Dwarf 4 (Julia)
- men at arms (M&M, Nnnn, Ood, P.P.)
- Herrick (dog)
Sarin the Ugly, Human Fighter 1 (Josh)
Menchi, Human Cleric 1 (Laurel)
Daryll (NPC Cleric 2)

Rested and recovered from their previous expedition, the party returns to Stonehell, and immediately makes for the second level. They take the stairs down, pass by the skeleton whose mother never loved it, poked around in the bone room, once again disturbing the intricate but inscrutable design. Then back to the vampire’s coffin. The charred remains of the coffin revealed nothing. If there was a body there, it was either dust or gone. They took the chain.

The spear trap was again destroyed, and they passed under the well opening, then by the ogres’ workout room, up past another spear trap, this one they disabled. Onto the solarium. Matt**** breaks the weird rocking horse, but replaces it with a creepy doll made out of an empty wineskin. They open the door to the bathing chamber, then head down to the trio of chambers that include the labyrinth.

The great pillared dining hall, draped in cobwebs (and spider webs) which burns nicely after a spray of PowerThirst. The roasted spider falls to the ground with a satisfying crack. Making their way through the hall, they pass by the shattered door to the 3rd level, and into an old dorm room where 3 inmates are just hanging out. They briefly chat with the party, but their incoherent ramblings are less than helpful.

The next room explored has 8 big beetles, most of which are dropped in a 1 or two hits. Nothing of interest or value is found in their nest.

The next door opens into pure blackness. Sarin tentatively pokes at it with his sword. Orpheus grabs him by his backpack, and pushes him into the darkness, holds him for a second, then pulls him back out. As soon as his head clears the blackness, his scream fills the corridor. Deciding that magical darkness and silence isn’t worth investigating, they close the door and move on.

Another old dorm room is found, and then some kobolds fetching water. They insult Sarin, and move on with their barrels. The next room is trapped, but the party spots it and disables the trigger, saving themselves from being smashed by a big stone.

This unfortunately brings them back to the room with the cursed mural. Deciding to blindfold a few members of the party, they test out the effects of the curse. Thankfully not looking at it seems to preserve their sanity, and they successfully make their way around to the door, releasing 6 insane zombies. Darryl prevents them from being any sort of threat, and they’re quickly dispatched. The room they occupy with it’s iron throne is carefully examined, but no one is willing to play the Game of Thrones.

Having now mapped the Asylum, the party backtracks out of Stonehell, pausing only to kill the beetles and centipedes that they encounter on their way.

Gains: Finished Map and XP Bonus for the Asylum
Kills: 10 beetles, 4 giant centipedes, 1 spider
Losses:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

New Terrain Project: Battlefield in a Box

A couple of years ago I embarked on a project to fill a Frostgrave table with terrain for $25. While I never got around to building everything I had planned before moving, I could fill a small table. With my move, I passed that box of terrain on to my old gaming group for their use, and now need to start over. I’m operating under different constraints this time around. Before I was limiting myself by budget. This time the plan is to build enough terrain to again fill a Frostgrave table, but to make it so that it all fits in a paper box. Specifically, this paper box.


Really, this should be not only doable, but pretty easy.
(Famous last words)

Now, I’m already aware of Fat Dragon’s flat fold terrain, and it’s certainly something I’m planning to explore, but paper terrain has never really appealed to me that much. It feels too insubstantial. But I have several sets that were included as part of the Bones III Kickstarter, so I’ll print out a building or two at the print shop around the corner and give it a try.

My initial thought is to make my main focus making a lot of basic walls/corners. Things that will break up line of sight, but not take up a large footprint either in the box or on the table. Ideally most of these walls will have ledges for figures to stand on, and for walkways and ladders to link together to give tactically interesting places for figures to move around on.

Aside from that, I’ve got the graveyard stuff from Bones 3 already. Just need to assemble and paint it up. But what Really would be lacking was some good vertical terrain. Towers, namely, either ruined and open or with balconies/ledges that treasures can be hidden on.

One crazy idea I’ve had lurking in the back of my brain for a while now is to make a completely vertical terrain board. No more than say… 2” deep? But that’s not what I’m planning on working on next, so nevermind.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

5e FLGS Session 1 Player Recaps

I've been writing session reports for my games for so long now, that having not one but four different players all opt to take advantage of the bonus 100xp is just crazy awesome! I know you probably won't get as big a kick of out reading these as I do, but I hope you enjoy anyway!



Dear Diary,

It's been a long road getting from there to here. So somehow, I've done enough cool stuff and killed enough bad guys to get deputized!!!! How exciting is that! I even got a sparkly badge! I've been lumped in with a group of grumpy grumps to go off to the Badlands. We're supposed to help a group of humans tame the land and battle some goblin guys or something. Human people sure do talk trash about beings they don't know much about! We walked for what seemed like forever and my companions have MUCH longer legs than I, so I am really getting a workout! Luckily, I remembered to pack some extra mushroom snacks for the road! Some of the gang get really grumpy when they're hungry. It's the worst. So the gang is really interesting! There's' a dragon-born guy he's super tough and really tall! and red!!! There's this guy who keeps making magical stuff, but nothing is really doing what he says it's going to do and it's kind of funny. He has a weird gem in his hand and I am trying to get a closer look at it because I know about gems, but it's kind of awkward and he seems kind of secretive about it, so I'm just waiting for the right time. There's a halfling guy who is unusually feisty and seems to like to pick fights. He's more of my size, so that's nice, but he doesn't seem to have mastered the nuances of asking questions before he shoots his arrows. There's also a Kenku. He is really good at mimicking sounds. I wonder if I can convince him to make some cool music with me! There's some guy who seems kinda fancy but is totally trying to slum it. But he is pretty nice. There's an elven monk too. He's pretty quiet and does really good punches and kicks!

Anyhow... We walked for like EVER until we got to the village. I played some music to some screaming babies so we could get some info from the tavern keep. That felt nice! We also found out that there's a weird eyeball head guy freaking people out. Spooky!!!! I am starting to write out some sweet riffs in case we meet him and I can write a song about it. Anyway, We were supposed to check on a farmer who they thought was murdered by goblins. The gang kept talking shit about goblins. I decided right then and there that I was going to make friends with a goblin. ON our way, we saw some goblins washing a dress in a river! Weird right?!!! Anyhow, we killed it. We bickered for while about what we were going to do next and went to the farm. It turns out the goblins were working the farm and seemed to do a pretty good job at it! The farmer was all bungled up and the Kenku fixed him up! It turns out the farmer's daughter is married to the goblin king!!! WHAT?!! We thought maybe she was magic-ed into it, so we bickered about what to do next and decided to set-up a trap of sorts to figure out if that was true. The goblin king and the farmer's daughter came to visit and I played and AMAZING song all about their illicit love. It was epic. It really was because I had to play for a LONG time while the KEnku did some weird magic to find out if she was ensorcelled. It' turns out its TRUE LOVE!!! or at least not magic. SO the halfling was all ready to kill him for no REASON!!!! Luckily Mr. Secretly a lord or some shit offered the king a gift and we were able to make a plan where everyone is happy and now we are going to battle hobgoblins. I am closer to my goal of making a goblin friend!!! Maybe I need to befriend a hobgoblin?

I'm SO EXCITED!



My Dearest Ellinora,

I do not know if you are getting these missives, hopefully my brother spoke true when he said he could pay one of your servants to deliver them. i yearn for the day when we can be together, but until that happy morrow comes to pass I will pour my heart onto these pages for you.

(This paragraph is composed mostly of cliched or strained metaphors relating to Elinora's beauty and professions of undying love.)

My goal of establishing myself started of promisingly. I bought a set of laborer's clothes and, with a suit of mail I bought from one of my family's guardsmen, I received the Duke's badge and was sent to the Borderlands. I met with a varied group of adventurers and was able to blend in as one of the common folk, I doubt they had any idea who I was during our trip. Once at the Keep, we heard tale of many strange things. There were plenty of stories of goblin attacks, but also one of a strange being who's head consisted solely of one giant eye! What mysteries our world holds, how does it blink? Our band decided to investigate a nearby farm that seemed to have been cut off from the community. We set off alongside the river, leading into Goblin territory. After a few hours of walking we spotted a group of Goblins washing something in the river water. Some of the more headstrong members of my group rushed forward to do battle and I, not knowing what else to do, followed to help. We made short work of those small fellows and looked to see what they were doing, it turned out they were washing a woman's dress! At this point the Kenku in our party, a strange one indeed, began cawing at a raven for several minutes. More productively, Wolfsbane the elven monk, tracked the goblins to their lair. He noticed however, that there were quite a lot of them and we determined that discretion was the better part of valor. We decided to resume our course to the farm.

At the farm we saw a strange sight. Goblins working the field while a human man sat on the porch. When we arrived the goblins scattered and we went to talk to the older man. I confess that I was chagrined by our earlier actions, since we attacked those poor goblins without parley or offering a chance of surrender. The man told an interesting tale. It seems his daughter had fallen in love with the goblin king, and he in love with her. When the man tried to bring his daughter home, the king broke his leg. He sent the goblins to work the man's fields in recompense. While the farmer said his daughter had been enchanted by the king I saw the clear parallels in our own tragic tale and decided that I was on the side of love.

My compatriots were not so romantic as I, and set up a plan to determine if the girl was truly a willing bride. We sent work to the goblin king that we had gifts for his wedding and entreated him to meet us at the farm. The gnomish lute-player Marceline would distract them while the kenku would work a ritual he claimed would determine if she was ensorcelled, The rest of us would lie in wait to ambush them if the king was the blackguard the farmer claimed him to be. The king arrived with many bodyguards, but was distracted by a masterful song from Marceline. Our shoddy ambush was quickly discovered and I had to think quickly. Seeing, that the goblin king was a bit of a dandy, I offered him the gift of my velvet doublet as a wedding present. That seemed to mollify him while the bird-man completed his ritual. The farmer's daughter was under no enchantment! It was clear violence would not be the salve for this wound. Diplomacy however, would require the word of more than a handful of unknown adventurers. It was with a heavy heart that I declared myself and signed a letter asking the Baron to meet to negotiate with the goblins. My first challenge as an adventurer was solved by relying on my family name, not a promising start to my goal. Happily however, the Baron and King were able to reach an agreement of alliance, provided we helped the goblins against their enemies. To seal this alliance we were sent to attack a hunting party of hobgoblins, which we dispatched with ruthless efficiency.
I hope I have not rambled overmuch my love. I will write again soon. Until then I remain your eternal servant,

Roland DuKaine



Well Finally. Lorenzo set off, after being deputies, and met the whole group of adventurers (or Co-Workers) like himself and they went together to achieve their first task together.

They had arrived in a small village where they met with a rather rude man who was loyal to the baron. Lorenzo was concerned with the food and board of the group but thankfully it was provided..

The man told us about a group of farmers that lost contact in the area and goblins cause. Putting 2 and 2 together Lorenzo figured the goblins were cause of the trouble.

The group wanted to take rest in the tavern. Which was good because we have been traveling for a few weeks. The food and beer where...less than adequate, but with a touch of magic that problem was fixed.

Setting off to solve the problem we ran to a minor dilemma. 2 goblins were seen mocking washing clothes of humans. In anger, he tried to zap one of the goblins only to discover magic is more crazier and out of control than he thought. He teleported into them

With the help of the team the 2 goblins were quickly disposed of. In discovery the goblin lair was also located however, things amiss, the group headed to the farm.

Arriving at the farm. We discovered that the owner had a broken leg and the daughter eloped with a goblin king.

Fortunately with some clever planning and great diplomacy. We actually found a non violent solution to the matter. Except a clause where we had to remove some hobgoblins. Which a few weeks later we did....



I Ove, halfling rogue went on a strange mission tonight. It took us three weeks to get to this keeper which was on the outskirts of any known land. There was some kind of conflict with goblins who were already living there. I certainly did not want to get into a fight with a bunch of goblins where were living there first.

Our party had two fighters, a monk, a bard, a sorcerer, and some strange non talking bird. I hardly describe the group as battle ready. We did hatch a plan to try and ambush and kill the goblin king - I thought it could work but the bird person of our party convinced us to try diplomacy. By using his magic while dancing, he convinced us that the farmer's daughter was not under a spell. I still think that I could have knock out the king with my shortbow from the roof of the barn.

In the end, it work and the manor of humans and goblins agreed to work together. To satisfy our combat eagerness, we did agree to take on some hobgoblins in the end by ambushing them in some blueberry patch.

The highlight for me was the stealing of 71 gold coin pieces from our unsuspecting fighter who I hear does not care that much about money and has more of it. You can bet that I will be keeping a close watch on him. I think I will spend the next week hanging out in some taverns, playing cards or dice.