Monday, June 30, 2014


Placeholder post.  Will finish later.  Because I don't always visit the emergency room on short notice, but when I do, I bring chicken sandwiches.

Friday, June 27, 2014


In legend, the ankou is a personification of death from Breton and Cornish folklore, a kind of dark psychopomp.  But the ankou in the Pathfinder game is a much more decidedly fey and murderous creature (courtesy of Pathfinder #36: Sound of a Thousand Screams).  Its party trick is creating up to four shadowy duplicates to fight alongside it.  As instruments of their fey lords’ dark wills, ankous terrify other fey—no wonder, since their claws function as cold iron weapons—and nasty spell-like abilities like prismatic spray and circle of death only add to the body count.

All those special abilities mean the Bestiary 4 entry doesn't have the room for all the juicy flavor tidbits from the original: “an ankou slumbers in a cocoon of darkness”...“the only words they can utter are those whispered telepathically into the victim’s ear an instant before death, and those words are spoken in the voice of the one who sent the killer”…“one of these assassins might be told to kill the victim many times over—murdering its target, waiting for its connection to the First World to reform it, and then killing it again.”  [For the unfamiliar, this last bit is a reference to the regenerative powers of Golarion’s fey realm.]

One final note is that each ankou serves a different fey lord. So there’s no reason that every ankou has to look just like the winged skeletal shadow-horror in the books.  I imagine the progenitor of the quickling race might fashion his ankou to look like a knife-covered cutpurse, rail-thin despite its Large size.  A fey lord of harvest might have a pumpkin-like monstrosity, while a spirit of the crossroads might employ a crow-monster or a hanged man with wings made of iron and rotted ropes.  Then again, winged skeletal shadow-horrors that nest in cocoons of darkness do have a certain primal appeal, and might be symbols of terror throughout the fey realms no matter who they serve.

While exploring an undocumented cavern, adventurers come upon a slumbering ankou.  It attacks them upon waking and pursues them through the dungeon as best it can.  If the party escapes the cavern complex it leaves them be, unless it hears them singing or they grievously wound it (reduce it to 25% of its hit points), in which case it retreats to plot its revenge—which it will enact no matter how far they go.  If the adventurers kill the ankou, they are not out of the woods, for the shadow-beast’s death, however, temporary, draws the eyes of its fey master upon them.

Duke Summer’s wrath is all the more terrible for its rarity, descending almost without warning like a summer storm.  On a mission to save the world, a faerie agent and her mortal adventuring allies are taking a shortcut through Summer’s realm when they break one of his strictures.  Insensible to reason in the face of this flouting of his authority, he sends an ankou after the party, declaring, “And as I am Summer, the world may burn.”

Other creatures fear cold iron claws, including demons and night hags.  A faerie lord allies with adventurers to take down their mutual enemy, a particularly powerful and troublesome night hag.  Careful listeners will note that he promises them the obedient services of the beast “until the night hag has well and truly perished”…with not a word about what comes after.

Pathfinder #36 80–81 & Pathfinder Bestiary 4 10

Work and life has me a bit slow to reply to reader comments (and I simply can't give everyone the props they deserve) but I do appreciate all of you who are weighing in despite these comparatively new/unfamiliar monsters. 

Just a heads-up: With July 4th almost here, I’m going to be taking a vacation to do some traveling.  I’m debating posting next week and almost definitely will not be posting the week after.  So if you don’t see your daily entry during the next fortnight, that’s what’s up.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Animal Lord

I love the animal lord.  It’s a concept that is richly represented in folklore and fiction (especially, my gut tells me, short fiction, but I may be making that up.)  It makes sense in the game—in a world suffused with divine magic and nature deities (not to mention an overabundance of super- and supernatural predators), surely animals need their champions.  And around the gaming table in your living room, it’s an easy way to transport players into a more mystical realm.  PCs used to tangling in the grimdark milieu of slavers, daemons, and seugathi may find encounters with Seamus O’Finnegan, Leprechaun for Hire, too twee to take seriously.  But when the Lord of Owls calls a meeting at the Stone Table, you don’t ignore that invitation.

I also love this excerpt from the Bestiary 3 description:

[W]hen an extant animal lord strays from its charge or otherwise fails, the force that created it might create a replacement to send against the fallen animal lord to challenge it in a combat to the death, with the victor claiming the right to rule or a chance at redemption.

Those are stakes.  To an animal lord, a successor appearing unasked-for is the ultimate insult.  I want PCs in the middle of that fight, and I don’t much care which side they take.

That said, I’m very willing to go further than the standard description in the Bestiary 3, especially for a more mythic or high-level campaign.  For instance, I can easily picture an entire nation of leopard lords (or at least a ruling class or family composed of them, à la Marvel’s Black Panther).  That might explain, for instance, why a province of hunters hasn't been overrun by the magocracy next door, or why explorers have never returned from a particular deadly savannah.  In some campaigns, “There can be only one” is exactly the story you want to tell, but the second I need a race of crocodile lords I’ll throw that rule out the window…

The Leopard Kingdom is no poetic name—the nation’s ruling clan is composed entirely of leopard lords.  They tolerate travelers in their domain along the Chopana River, as it is the fastest way to get men and arms to the Protean Storm and the war against Chaos raging there.  But any foreigner who tries to travel more than 15 miles from the river will receive a stern, likely lethal visit from one of these shapechanging rangers and her charmed companions.

Takar was a god once, back before an asteroid drove his people to near-extinction.  Now he is not even a deity, just a dinosaur lord who is born, matures, ages, dies, and is born again in an endless cycle of reincarnation.  He still watches over his charges, though.  In his current incarnation as a monk who can take the form of a stegosaurus, he works to save a hidden valley of pterosaurs, stegosaurs, ceratosaurs, and awakened parasaurolophuses from drow exploitation. 

Verdun was once the wolf lord, bearing the token of a savage nature deity.  Then he was injured while under a curse that trapped him in wolf form.  He was found by a blacksmith and nursed back to health, and the experience caused him to reëvaluate everything he knew about humanity.  After the curse was broken, time spent in the form of a man—first learning to read and play music, then poring through old tomes and swapping tales with bards—exposed him to tales of his predecessors, whose bloody work had undone human progress at crucial junctions in history for centuries.  Verdun had had enough.  He renounced his heritage and has spent the past 80 years as far from the woods as possible.  Now his savage god has sent a new wolf lord to kill him, an assassin who also recruits a team of adventurers to help him do the job.  But when Verdun catches wind of this, he plays on the adventurers’ sympathies to get them to switch sides.  (And if that doesn't work, he’ll try money.  Lots of money.  He is a wolf, after all.)

Pathfinder Bestiary 3 14–15

I’ve been sticking cat lords into this blog for ages…since literally the first week, in fact.

Now I want to see the adventures of Seamus O’Finnegan, Leprechaun for Hire.

Speaking of folklore and fiction, you may remember I veered into literary criticism last Thursday, because I’d encountered a series (and an author) too compelling not to discuss.  The bad news is, it turns out the two books that sparked my very mixed review represented him at the height of his powers.  Also in my stack of library audiobooks was the first book in his most well-known series, and it is—and I mean this without malice—a crime against fiction.  Avoid at all costs.

Also: I MISSED FREE RPG DAY.  Completely spaced.  I normally go to the comic/game store right after my radio show, but I took artisticlicensetokill to the zoo and completely missed it.

I don’t usually ask stuff of you guys, but if any of you are willing to part with your Pathfinder Free RPG Day module, I know a certain blogger who is very sad he doesn’t have a copy.  I wouldn't say no to any Free RPG Day products with Mage or Star Wars the cover either.  [Edit: I just got an email from the professional and prompt Katina Mathieson at Paizo and she says I can buy the Pathfinder module legit on July 1.  Crisis averted!]

(Also, though I’ve mentioned this before and had nary a nibble, I am always looking for issues of Dungeon from the 1e and 2e years.  If you have some that need a good home, holler at me and we’ll work something out.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Ah, the androsphinx.  Supercilious and disdainful of physicality, Low Libido androsphinxes form the last corner of the dysfunctional sphinx love rhombus—wait, no, pentagram—joining the Princess gynosphinx, “Nice Guy” Criosphinx, Rapist heiracosphinx, and Necrophagous cynosphinx (courtesy of Pathfinder Adventure Path #82: Secrets of the Sphinx).  Seriously, Dan Savage should be writing this entry, not me.

I’ve already said most of what I wanted to say about sphinxes here.  That said, a few more notes for role-playing the male variety…  If you took philosophy in college, now’s your chance to use it.  (I didn’t; I took religion, which at my college was philosophy, semiotics, and hermeneutics with a blood sacrifice chaser.)  Rather than engage in riddle play, male sphinxes love philosophical debates, so in the back of your mind I think you should assign a school of thought (fantastic or otherwise) to each of your androsphinxes, so you know through what lens they view the world and frame their answers.

The following androsphinxes attempt to avoid the usual tomb/temple/mountain pass/necropolis locales in favor of locations more in keeping with their studies, but rest assured most of these magical beasts still guard relics, ruins, and holy sites all over the desert.

Androsphinx Bartumyubus is a political philosopher, and his convictions have him secretly pulling the strings of several Cyan Crescent communities, each one enacting a different form of utopian government.  Unfortunately and despite his goodly intentions, the firmness of his convictions and his geographic distance from his policies’ effects leave him unable to process the very real harm he is doing to the people under his influence.

Ramset IV prefers a sun-baked cliff overlooking the water to an empty desert.  There he collects stories about the laws and customs of undersea nations (when not composing sestinas).  Given that he demands knowledge before he offers any, novice travelers are discouraged from calling upon him…especially since the uneven rocky slope he dwells upon makes his roars particularly lethal.

Drawn in by the arguments of a kyton, former Stoic scholar Blackwing has begun to fall under the outsider’s rhetorical spell.  Any advice the sphinx gives now comes laced with danger, as he has become convinced of the cleansing clarity that comes from facing danger and pain.  Should adventurers return his way again after more than six months have passed, they will find a surgically altered beast who is unknowingly giving more and more of himself over to the fiend with every surgery.

Pathfinder Bestiary 3 251

I should note that Mythic Adventures has a mythic (albeit gyno-) sphinx.  And (as I’ve mentioned before) Jonathan H. Keith has a chapter on sphinxes in Mythical Monsters Revisited.  Finally, in “basic” D&D male sphinxes had access to magic-user (wizard) spells while female sphinxes had access to clerical spells.  You might want to emulate a similar divide if you decide to give your sphinxes class levels…

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


If you ever wonder how committed Golarion’s designers are to genre bending, look no further than the Inner Sea Bestiary, where the very first monster is the android.  Clearly this is not your father’s fantasy role-playing.

(…Except it is, because even the most cursory review of the pulp forebears of Pathfinder and the world’s oldest role-playing game (once again I’ll plug Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode’s Advanced Readings in “Dungeons & Dragons” series) reveals that fantasy worldbuilders of the past were plenty comfortable mixing lasers, robots, and aliens in with their sword & sorcery.  The Chinese wall separating fantasy and sci-fi is largely a recent (1980s?) invention…albeit one that feels older than it is (probably because Tolkien’s discomfort with modernity gave this separation a certain historical heft).)

Anyway, androids make great NPCs and even great player characters.  Their stat bonuses and penalties line up exactly how you’d suspect, the nanite surge is a nice special ability with the potential for facilitating some really cinematic/heroic moments, and blue circuitry is always cool.

The big question is how prevalent you want your androids to be and how much they have to hide (or not) to fit in—and what the consequences are when they don’t.  They might be rare beings who come from only one region, as in Golarion, or they might be as common as droids (or at least Rodians) in Star Wars.  As always, it’s up to you.

An android joins a new adventuring party incognito, hiding his circuitry beneath sailor’s tattoos and blaming his stilted manner on his “foreign” heritage and years away at sea.  Unfortunately, one of his old shipmates saw the android use his nanite surge to rescue a comrade during a boarding action, and now he stalks the android, hoping to carve off a limb to sell to a wealthy buyer for study.

Androids in Pellerin may look alike, but their characters vary widely depending on their mother forge’s programming.  Promise Keepers keep their race a secret while toiling to unearth a crashed alien vessel.  The Tribe of Rule has discovered the Plane of Law; craving the approval of the axiomites, they have begun creating inevitable-like robots of their own. The Midwives bring organic creatures back to their home forge to be rendered and reconstructed (“reborn”) into cyborgs.  Finally, every Bladeborn has a list imprinted within its operating code.  Who knows what the list was originally for, but centuries of bit rot have convinced the Bladeborn that this list is a hit list, and everyone named on it must die.

The Far Home of the Elves is not some mystical isle or magical realm, as is often supposed, but another planet entirely.  Moreover the elven race, long rumored to be in a sort of shambolic decline, is actually nearly extinct.  Most “elves” one meets on the road are androids vat-grown to serve as interlocutors between real elves and the outside world.  The charade has been going on so long that many common stereotypes of elves—their legendary aloofness and reputation for rune magic, for instance—are actually just side affects of android silicon and circuitry.

Inner Sea Bestiary 3

Numeria: Land of Fallen Stars arrived at the close of last week, and since a) I was excited for it and b) it had caused a debate on these very pages, I raced through it.  Golarion fans will be pleased—it has everything you expect: a short gazetteer; some technological hazards up to and including radiation, parasitic nanite infestations, gray goo, and mysterious fluids that will have you rolling on a pretty scary random results table; major organizations and important adventure sites; and 18 pages of monsters.

That said, if you’re not a Golarion fan, this book doesn’t drop quite as effortlessly into a generic campaign the way, say, Isles of the Shackles or Into the Darklands might.  In part this is because it bridges several other Pathfinder publications.  Certain key monsters (androids and gearsmen in particular) appear not in this book but in the Inner Sea Bestiary; we’ll be getting a closer look some of Numeria’s cities in future Pathfinder Adventure Path issues; and the juicy my-character-gets-a-jetpack bits are coming in the Technology Guide.  So the full pleasure and potential of this book is likely to unfold in stages from August to January.

My advice for fence-sitters: Browse it in your local game store.  Check out the Numerian Fluids Side Effects table, the robot and mutant-filled Bestiary, and the really, really pleasing Adventure Sites section on pages 34–43.  That should tell you everything you need to know, and you’ll be supporting your brick-and-mortar retailer to boot.

Monday, June 23, 2014


Some plant monsters emphasize the monster, being practically humanoid (vegepygmies) or beastlike (shambling mounds).  Others rely largely on ambushes (assassin vines) or active hunting (quickwoods).  And some, like most carnivorous plants in real life, fish through seductive lures.

In the alraune’s case, that lure is seductive indeed: a beautiful woman.  Or man.  Or whatever—it can reform its pistil into the shape of whatever it thinks its victims (whom it has scoped out in advance via commune with nature) will desire.

And those stats! CR 13, AC 27, 19 Hit Dice, Melee +20, Int 10, Wis 17, Speed 40 ft. (not to mention special and spell-like abilities)!  Normally when we talk about plant monsters we talk about them in terms of side quests, hazards, and random encounters…but there’s no reason an alraune can't be the main antagonist for an entire adventure arc.  With four languages under their bulbs, they’re more articulate than the party barbarian and they can outrun the party paladin without any effort.  They even “convince foes to dig their own graves [emphasis mine] and bury themselves” prior to feeding!  Forget side trek…the alraune might as well be listed after the atomie under “Audrey III.”

The Forest of Doon is rumored to be haunted by dryads and harpies, as few who go in ever return, and sometimes shrieking can be heard at odd hours.  Actually, all the “dryad” sightings are of the same alraune using different lures.  The shrieks are her cries of frustrating at being thwarted.  Should prey ever escape her grasp (a rare occurrence), she uproots herself and chases after her victim on great thorny vine legs, screaming in outrage the entire time.

An alraune and a vouivre have embarked on a rather unorthodox lover affair, conducted almost entirely through their respective humanoid lures.  Of course, their shared lust for blood far outpaces any lusts of a physical nature.

Covered in thorns, rose elves are practically more plant than elf; indeed, they are the ones who pioneered the adoption of plant animal companions (see the Advanced Race Guide).  The subrace’s dark secret is that they are not ruled by their fellow elves at all, but rather by alraune botaniarchs.  Most rose elves are druids or sorcerers, but a few enchanters are always needed to help lure more willing victims to their queens.

Pathfinder Bestiary 3 13

I tried to tackle the alraune over a year ago at the request of a reader, but that didn’t end up working out and I never got back to it.  Apologies, Sincubus!

Sadly, Earthdawn beat me to the idea of thorn-covered blood elves.

My sister-in-law called my show “weird” this weekend.  Which it was, because it was done completely on the fly and with five random DJs hanging out in the booth with me.  Also, the stream ripper is nearly 10 minutes ahead, so the file has dead air at the start and then cuts off early.  Nevertheless, if you’re loyal and pure of heart, this show is for you.

(Yeah, there’s eight minutes of dead air at the front. That’s what the fast-forward slider is for.  If the feed skips, Save As an mp3 and enjoy in iTunes.  Link good till Friday, 6/27, at midnight.)

Friday, June 20, 2014


If you couldn’t tell from the string of L’s, R’s, CH’s, and A’s, the alpluachra is a newtlike faerie from Irish folktales.  Should it catch you sleeping by the river, it promptly slithers down your throat.  There it becomes a parasite, eating all the food you consume and slowly starving you to death unless you douse it with salt.  Charming, right? 

(I can easily imagine how tales of the alpluachra got started.  Having failed to get St. Patrick to drive out the newts along with the snakes and frogs, we Irish apparently just decided to badmouth and scapegoat them instead.  A bunch of herpetophobes, we are.)

The alpluachra is a great nod to folklore, but it's not really a high-adventure kind of encounter…more like an incidental happening at a stop along the road, or a solo encounter for one player when the rest of the group is absent.  Killing an alpluachra is a nice way to earn some cred with the locals, to be later cashed in for rumors or favors.  And it’s just a nice way for new adventurers to begin engaging with the magical world. 

The hard part is spotting the alpluachra before it implants or diagnosing soon it after.  Otherwise the fey could quietly haunt its victim for weeks without him or her knowing.  Then again, if a parasitized PC drinks the wrong potion, the effects could be immediately amusing and/or dramatic.  (Let’s just say it’s a good thing that the enlarge person spell description specifies that it only works on humanoids.) 

And then there’s the matter of alpluachras speaking not Sylvan, like most fey, but the dark tongue of Aklo instead…

An alpluachra haunts the common room of a riverside taphouse.  So much time spent in the gullets of barge workers has gotten it addicted to pipeweed.  If its current host doesn't partake, it will sneak out late at night to pilfer unfinished cigarillos and perhaps find a new throat in which to dwell—which may afford adventurers extra opportunities to spot the fey.

A dwarf elder is starving to death.  An elf armchair physician suspects an alpluachra, rightly assuming most dwarven caregivers would be unfamiliar with the woodland fey.  If adventurers can convince the dwarf to try the saltwater cure, they may both save his life and usher in a thawing in dwarf-elf relations…assuming the cure doesn’t kill him.

A leprechaun hears a group of adventurers nervously plotting their first trip below the surface.  He introduces himself just as they are lamenting their lack of firsthand knowledge.  For a certain amount of gold, he promises to supply a guide who speaks both Common and Aklo.  Only after they’ve agreed does he produce said guide, a particularly intelligent alpluachra, and reveal the “one little, ahem, rider” in the contract.

Pathfinder Bestiary 4 9

Thursday, June 19, 2014


People have asked why I don’t post pictures of the monsters I blog about.  And honestly, I sometimes wish I did—there’s no question I could triple my audience that way.  But early on I decided this blog was going to be original content only.  So unless one of you draws it or I photograph it, no dice.

But if Paizo is going to post a picture, I damn well can link to it.  Feast your eyes on the almiraj.

The almiraj seems like a joke at first, but it’s actually got a storied past from Islamic poetry as Al-mi’raj.  And Mattias Fahlberg’s Bestiary 4 art perfectly straddles that silly/serious line as well—that bunny is one part derp, one part “Seven gods above, it's digging its horn into the wound!”

And did I mention it has to eat its prey—yes, it’s carnivorous—alive, because if it kills with its horn the corpse turns to stone?

I’m sure in most campaigns, almirajes will remain witch’s experiments, faerie creatures, or limited to the remotest of areas.  But who knows…if your campaign takes its cues from Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Maxx, or Wildstar (Look at me! I’m current! I have seen a trailer for a video game!), almirajes might be as common as prairie dogs.

After Lord Bavend’s cavaliers were routed—“by bunny rabbits,” he snorts (not having witnessed how the acrobatic predators pogoed up the knights’ own lances), the aristocrat swears he will have a cloak trimmed with almiraj fur and an almiraj horn dagger to match.  And whom does he send to fetch these items, to drive the insult home to his retainers?  His worst squad of irregulars, of course: a band of novice adventurers.

Driven aboveground by violence, a band of svirfneblin has not acclimated well to surface life.  Utterly paranoid, they plot to kill anyone they cannot hide from. Typically this involves inviting their quarry to take a meal with them in a nearby cavern, before releasing their pet almiraj to deal with the guest.  Whatever evidence the magical beast does not eat, the svirfneblin quickly shatter with their heavy picks.

Any soldier at Fort Tillman will tell you jackelopes aren’t real.  But in their spare time the superstitious halberdiers skewer almost any rabbit they can find with quarrels or musket fire.  When pressed, they whisper that Jenas Medicine, the local Proudfoot witch, swore to send her familiar after a squad who had bullied a local weaver.  The men who laughed all wound up as stone lumps in the scrubland.

Pathfinder Bestiary 4 8

Folktales from both the American South and South America are not my strong suit.  Props to dr-archeville and agelfeygelach for enlightening us re: the ahuizotl with healthy doses of hags and flytraps.

My buddy Damien has been kicking around LA recently, and recently that work has been bearing fruit.  Assuming I get this up by 9 PM (Edit: Well, I almost made it), you should watch the new show he’s been writing for, Dominion, premiering on SyFy tonight.

Do you guys care about audiobooks?  They’re how I do the majority of my “reading” lately, because the Internet has destroyed my attention span and my bed is a sinkhole of sleep.  I don’t usually do critiques here, because there are plenty of other spaces for that on the Net…but sometimes a notion grabs ahold of me and won't let go until it gets expressed.

Anyway, one of the things I like to do (and am forced to do, since I get most of my audiobooks from the library) is pick up a book from the middle of a series.  Yeah, sometimes spoilers are a pain, but if Book X can hold me with zero introduction, I can be confident I’ll probably like the rest of the series.  In fact, I’ve discovered some of my favorite worlds that way: White Night (#9) got me into the Dresden Files, Black Powder War (#3) got me into Temeraire, The Far Side of the World got me into the Aubrey–Maturin series, and after some initial resistance I fell for Lirael (#2) of The Old Kingdom.

So now you know how I got into Imager’s Challenge (#2 of The Imager Portfolio) and Scholar (#4, but kicking off a new trilogy set a hundred or so years before) by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. 

There’s a lot here to recommend to a Pathfinder/D&D audience.  The world’s system of imaging is interesting—I need to go back to the first book and find out how it is initially introduced and described, but I picked up the gist quickly enough and found it to be a nice take on magic in a low-magic world (and one with rudimentary gunpowder to boot).  IC is also to be recommended because it avoids the fantasy tropes of the orphan or lone wolf; Rhennthyl has a family and a love interest, and the actual work of maintaining those relationships in the face of adversity/adventure is very much part of the narrative.  The Imager Portfolio also portrays an interesting monotheistic religion—unusual both for the aforementioned single deity (most fantasy novels either go for a pantheon or skip religion altogether) and the detail with which its worship is rendered.  (That said, the sheer amount of page time it gets puts it in an awkward place—it’s too well explored not to be part of the plot…and yet by and large the belief system offers little of relevance, at least not in the two books I’ve listened to.)  And finally and most importantly, there’s plenty of intrigue and plotting (especially in Imager’s Challenge) and a decent share of action. 

That said, none of the above praise should be taken as an endorsement of Modesitt as a stellar writer, because (though it pains me to say this about a fellow Eph) he’s simply not one. 

He’s got the usual problems endemic to mid-level sci-fi/fantasy authors: character names that are unlikely strings of letters…too many characters who exist only to let the author try out various disquisitions on power or politics…allowing the protagonist to do ethically questionable things but exonerating and absolving him almost immediately, rather than to let him (and us) live with the ambiguity and consequences…just to name a few.

He’s also got some peculiar peccadillos of his own, which, when taken in toto, are absolutely maddening. 

Modesitt does a lot of furniture moving—a term one of my mentors used for showing exactly how a character gets from point A to B, like a play that leaves the lights up during a scenery change instead of lifting the lights at the start of the next scene.  Modesitt has two protagonists, separated by hundreds of years, with almost identical attitudes toward everything: politics, beer, smart women, and especially their absolutely identical questioning—down to word choice—of whether their god, “the Nameless,” exists (and oh, how that questioning is repeated…and repeated…and repeated).  He is obsessed with food.  He is entranced by the routine of bureaucracies and especially police and military structure. 

Modesitt also insists on describing every room a character enters, no matter how consequential or incidental to the plot, as if he wanted the reader to draft it on graph paper: the exact dimensions in yards, the location of the window casements, the light sources, and the placement of significant objects, with speculation on their use.  This fetish for exactitude goes the other way, unfortunately, if Modesitt’s protagonists cannot be sure of something; then the narrative is overrun with qualifiers: “it seemed to,” “but he couldn’t be sure,” “most likely,” “apparently.”  Seriously, just this morning I encountered a description of Quaeryt going to visit an official (forgive the paraphrase, but I’m not far off) who was located “under a tarp, or perhaps a tent with its sides rolled up”—because that distinction and the uncertainty it represents is apparently crucial.

Most damning, for me anyway, is that Modesitt is utterly incapable of having a character go to a restaurant and not play out the entire exchange between him and the waitress—from picking the table to taking the drink order (always lager) to choosing an item off the menu.  This is a ritual that is fascinating to literally no one who has ever been in a restaurant where the silverware is already on the table when you sit down.  Yet Modesitt doesn't trim or condense a syllable, not once in either book.  And given the urban settings, these characters eat out.  All.  The.  Time.

I’ve done some browsing, and Modesitt gets a lot of praise on the Web for his realism.  But this isn't realism—no character or observer catalogs every room in terms of square yardage and compass points in exactly the same cadence every time.  You can be obsessed with food and fabrics—Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series might as well be a medieval Prada catalog—or the minutia of military life—look at the naval porn that is Patrick O’Brian’s work—but in those works the authors let their descriptions expand and contract to the needs of the characters and the plot.  For them, an antechamber is an undescribed antechamber, unless describing its dimensions offers clues that a character is being insulted by being forced to wait there, or to highlight her inability to hide if the wrong person finds her there.  Not all rooms, meals, and encounters deserve equal weight.

Maybe in print, these flaws aren't readily apparent.  But that’s the joy and the curse of an audiobook: Brilliance is magnified; insufficiencies blare like a siren.  (I suspect, though I cannot prove this, that it also points to the lack of resources publishers have in a post-Amazon world—an editor with more time on his or her plate could have (hopefully) helped Modesitt to recognize and excise these tendencies long ago.)  And they're flaws that should be absolutely unacceptable in an author with more than 50 novels to his credit.

The thing is…I like these books.  At least well enough to listen to and get more from the library.  I’m engaged!  I’m putting them on my iPod as I go walking, and the intrigue and narrative pull is worth at least an extra half-mile.  And it's that disconnect between the pull of the story and the pall of the storytelling that has me so fascinated.  If you’re looking for Renaissance/Enlightenment-ish low-magic fantasy with a dash of espionage, this is a series very much worth exploring.  But go in with your eyes (and ears) open, and don't be afraid to slide the book, respectfully but firmly, back upon the shelf.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


My Wednesdays have become rather involved schedule-wise of late.  Rather than rush to get this entry out by midnight, I'll post more thoughtfully in the morning.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Don't you just hate it when your dog marks his territory by calling up a polar vortex via control weather?  Or how every time you try to give him a bath, he spontaneously turns into 6-ton killer whale?

No?  Your dog doesn’t do that?  Ever?  Huh.  Weird.

Move over owlbear…we’ve got a wolforca!  By which I mean the akhlut, of course.  Which would be tempting to make fun of, except 18 Hit Dice, Huge size, and a swallow whole attack that does bludgeoning and cold damage have a way of commanding respect.  Plus, the akhlut comes from Inuit myths, so it has a pedigree we can respect.  Besides, how can you not love a creature that creates entire storms on a daily basis just to mark its territory?  And the spectacle of a killer whale storming onto shore as a Huge wolf and completing its charge in the following round (with a +8 initiative bonus) is too cinematic for words. 

I’m guessing locals would regard akhluts as practically divine beings, given their storm calling ability—perhaps even as protectors, since they drive predators like winter wolves, sharks, and frost worms away.  Of course, how they go about avoiding or placating such a beast might have nasty ramifications for PCs…

Whalers become the hunted when an iceberg sinks their ship and their lifeboats are set upon by killer whales.  Adventurers hitching a ride with the whalers have just helped get one of the boats ashore when a killer whale bursts out of the water and becomes a giant wolf right before their very eyes…

The We Shu folk regard cetaceals and akhluts as two sides of the same coin, the yin and yang of the sea.  Some clans even take to revering one or the other as totem spirits.  Those that respect the akhlut celebrate storms, prefer to hunt or fish to tending any crops, and often engineer “accidents” to happen to strangers so that their akhlut totem animal remains well fed.

When the low-lying Yangmarahji Jungle floods after the monsoon season, the forest floor becomes one giant estuary.  Bull sharks, giant crabs, and river dolphins with fierce underbites swim between the trees as if they were born there.  But the Yangmarahji is a darkly magical place, and some of those dolphins have settled in the jungle for good.  When the waters recede, the giant river dolphins take the forms of wolves or boars and continue hunting.  This causes little trouble for the area’s flying apes, the derhii, but other travelers might not be so lucky.  (These tropical akhlut are partly responsible for the jungle’s rainy climate even during the dry season, and they are immune to the effects of silt, quicksand, or sinkholes.)

Pathfinder Bestiary 3 11

After Friday’s post, knightdisciple analyzed Agyra in a way that put my reading to shame.  Some highlights:

One thing that comes to mind is that the multiple heads and breathing lightning, as well as a big tail whipping all over the place, also reminds me of King Ghidorah. Which makes this a three-for-one Kaiju special!

See, this is the kind of expert testimony a Toro newb like me can't deliver!  Then he dug deep into the stats:

No matter what, while Agyra’s not overly talkative (Int 3), it/she is scary good at intuiting motive (Wisdom 29!).

A great point, and this calls to mind the Zillo Beast from Season Two of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  The Zillo Beast wasn’t much of a planner or thinker, reacting primarily to stimuli.  But it had an uncanny ability to sense motive, able to immediately identify Chancellor Palpatine—a Sith Lord canny enough to be able to act right under Yoda’s nose, no less—as a malevolent threat and the source of suffering to be extinguished. 

And, of course:

I will say the Pacific Rim Fanboy in me wants to say there’s a monster of some sort, like, a golem or something, that PCs can control that’s at least of a size with Kaiju. Alternatively, maybe crafting such a defensive artifact is the culmination of a Kaiju-centric campaign!

*Forehead slam*  Why did I not think of that?!?  My helm is off to you, knightdisciple.  And for you and all the other PR fanfolk out there, there’s an old Companion-level D&D adventure you have to check out: Earthshaker by David “Zeb” Cook.  I’ve never read it, but I know it features an adventure inside one such gnome-constructed mecha.  And if you want your mecha to fight other mechas, The Book of Wondrous Inventions, edited by Bruce A. Heard, reveals the Alphatian and Glantrian answer to the Earthshaker in the form of a transforming golem, Jaggar’s Transforming Gargantoid.  Happy hunting for both books!

Anyway, read all of knightdisciple’s post here.

Finally, regarding yesterday’s post…who am I kidding?  Anyone who has seen even one of my character sheets knows I would read the hell out of Elves of Golarion III, IV, L, or whatever.  Once you go elf, other races go on the shelf.