Monday, January 27, 2014

What I've Been Reading

Long-time readers of the blog know that I periodically write about things I've been reading, mainly with an eye toward the premise of "is there anything useful in this book that you can adapt for your table-top role-playing games." That's one of the reasons why I write my "New Comics Wednesday" posts - every single one of those reviews has a section at the bottom indicating what kinds of things you can pull out of the comic to use in your RPGs. It's also why I started my "Inspirations" series of posts, as I think sometimes as a community we can get a little too myopic and focus too much on published game materials or genre fiction for inspiration, whereas I think the best ideas actually come from non-fiction historical texts, non-genre fiction, and yes, comic books.

With that said, here's a look at a couple of books I've been reading over the past few months, with some ideas of things you can steal for your games.

The Encyclopedia of Christmas
I wrote recently about how much I really like Christmas, and I have a very large selection of Christmas-themed books. They're about roughly split equally between Christmas fiction (stuff like The Autobiography of Santa Claus, which is a really neat and fun book), and non-fiction about the history of the holiday and how and why we celebrate it the way that we do. I'm a huge fan of wanting to know why I'm doing something before I do it, which is one reason why certain rituals (usually religious) tend to be a bit off-putting to me. I recall going to a church once with a girlfriend and there were a lot of very elaborate rituals going on involving a lot of standing up, sitting down, and making various hand gestures, some of which I'd seen before, but one particular one was new to me. I remember asking her, "Why are you doing that? What does it mean?" and the response was, "This is what we do when reading a verse from that particular book." And I said, "Yes, but what does it mean? What's the background behind what you're doing? What does it symbolize?" I never got an answer, because the people in this church community had been doing that for so long, they'd never thought to ask what those gestures meant. It was simply rote.

In any case, if I'm going to put up a Christmas tree, hang mistletoe, tell my daughter to hang up her stocking, I want to know where those customs come from. This book is a great overview of many of these customs. As an Encyclopedia, it doesn't go into a lot of depth on any particular subject, but rather gives you a basic background and also provides sources where you can go investigate deeper into anything that grabs your fancy. It also covers a wide range of topics, everything from specific Christmas songs, movies, foods, decorations, related festivals, and how Christmas traditions are celebrated in other countries (including who their gift-bringers are, if it's not Santa Claus, how they celebrate, etc.).

It's these last bits that provide fascinating research for tabletop role-playing games, particularly of the fantasy variety. Most fantasy games come with a ubiquitous pantheon of gods, but aside from naming the gods and listing their spheres of influence (Bob is the god of windows and pools), it's often easy to overlook them in everyday play. We often only think about them when playing a cleric character or when our characters need healing and we seek out a local temple.

I've written about incorporating feast days and festivals into my own home-brew campaign setting, the World of Samoth, before. This book provides tons of ideas that you can steal for your games, especially when reading about how Christmas is celebrated in, for example, Poland or Guatemala or the Philippines. It's very easy to simply change the name of the holiday to fit your own campaign world, but keep all of the related trappings mentioned in this book. It'll give you some instant ideas to make a particular holiday or festival "come to life" and you can use that as a springboard to start coming up with your own ideas. I often maintain that historical human culture is much more creative that much of the standard fantasy fare we see these days, and I'm a huge proponent of incorporating real history into my games to help make it easier for the players to immerse themselves in the setting.

And while you're at it, you may learn a thing or two about some of the Christmas traditions you've been keeping and where they come from.

Beer in America: The Early Years 1587-1840
This book was a Christmas gift from my friend Loren and I jumped at the chance to read it immediately, as it covers two of my favorite topics: beer and history.

In this book, we find out exactly how important beer was to the early American settlers; how ships from the old world had to make sure they had enough beer on board for every man, woman, and child; how crews would mutiny if the beer began to run out; and how in every early town in America, after the settlers disembarked, one of the very first structures they built was a brew house and pub.

As modern role-playing gamers, the tavern has become so tied to the game, particularly as the starting location for the first adventure, that we often forget why it's there in the first place. In the 1600s and earlier, people were nearly afraid of drinking water, as most water they drank was stagnant and disease-ridden. They didn't know how or why, but what they did know was that beer did not make them sick. Back then, they didn't understand that it was the boiling of the water as part of the beer-making process that killed most of the disease-causing germs and bacteria. All they knew was that if you drank water, you'd get sick, but if you drank beer, you wouldn't. Hence, there was a great need to build a brew-house for every town, where a master brewer could make a drink that could keep the local populace from being sick all the time. Beer wasn't just a nice way to relax after the end of a long day or a way to celebrate with your mates. It was a necessity.

This book tells the process of how the early Americans slowly began brewing their own beer versus importing it from the Old World, and how the need to make beer shaped the early colonies and everything that came after. As an example, the very first paved street in New York is Stone Street (clever name). Before that, however, it was called Brewers Street and was the site of (you guessed it), a brewery. There was so much overflow water pouring out of the brewery (as part of the beer-making process) that Brewers Street was a quagmire of mud all the time. So, they paved it to help channel the runoff water and keep the street from sinking. Think about just how important beer was to these early colonists, that it caused them to embark on pathway to paving their city streets.

Now think about the role that beer, or taverns for that matter, play in your fantasy games. If you're like I was when I began role-playing, I pictured the standard D&D tavern as essentially a fantasy version of Mos Eisley Cantina, with elves and dwarves standing in for aliens. Later on, I "grew up" and pictured them as akin to the Prancing Pony from Fellowship of the Ring. However, in all that time, I pretty much always just assumed that people were there simply to have a good time, and that brewers made beer because people wanted to "feel happy." The real story is much more complex than that, and having a little bit of knowledge like this can go a long way toward helping the taverns in your game be more than just a place where the adventurers happen to meet before trudging off to the dungeon.

These are just two of the books I've recently read. In addition to these and my continually growing list of monthly comics, trade paperbacks, and graphic novels, I read a really fun book my daughter (and wife) gave me for Christmas, Super Graphic (wherein the author makes clever use of really interesting infographics to talk about his comic collection as well as pop culture in general), and Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History, a gift from my sister for Christmas, about one of my favorite musicians. I'm also continuing to make my way through the 13th Age RPG Rulebook, about which I'll have a review soon.

Hanging: Home office (laptop with brand new 27" second monitor!)
Drinking: black coffee
Listening: "Ceremony" by the Cult

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New Comics Wednesday: Breath of Bones & 47 Ronin

Today is Wednesday, and that means it's New Comic Book Day - the day all of this week's comics hit the store shelves (both physically and digitally). Typically on Wednesdays, I feature a comic here on Daddy Rolled a 1 that I'll personally be picking up later this evening when I go to my local shop with my daughter after I pick her up from preschool.

As I looked at the titles I'm picking up today (Batman, Batman & Robin, Harley Quinn, Justice League, Midas Flesh, and Trinity of Sin: Pandora) I realized that it might not be a great day to focus on one of those. Batman is of course fantastic, but you don't need me to tell you that. It's also in the middle of a sort of year-long origin story called "Zero Year" which would be a bit difficult to jump into mid-stream. Justice League and Pandora are both in the middle of a huge DC "Event" called Forever Evil, which again would make it weird to try to jump in on the current issue. Batman & Robin is currently titled Batman & Two-Face (given the events that happened to Robin in Batman Incorporated #8), and it's also in the middle of its story arc. Lastly, Midas Flesh is only on issue #2 and I wasn't super excited about issue #1. I want to give it another chance before I officially recommend it.


Where does that leave us? Well, I recently reviewed two trade collections over at ComicAttack.net, both of which should be of interest to role-playing gamers. [As a quick aside a "trade collection" is basically just one single book that collects a short mini-series or a self-contained story-arc of a particular comic book; it's different from a "graphic novel" in that, generally speaking, a graphic novel is a story that was originally written to be published as a single bound book, whereas a trade collection features stories that were originally written in a monthly or weekly format).

As always, please note that every Wednesday, I tweet out which issues I picked up that week, and then over the course of the week I send out individual tweets with 140-character reviews of each issue. You can follow me on Twitter here.

Lastly, if you want to read more of my reviews over at ComicAttack, just search my name-tag to see what I've reviewed lately.

BREATH OF BONES: A TALE OF THE GOLEM

This was one of my favorite short mini-series that was published in 2013; the original story was only three issues. The trade edition will be coming out next month in a lovely hard-cover edition that also includes a cover gallery and some early character sketches.

You can learn the basics of "What's It About?" as well as "Who Are the Creative Team?" and "Who Will Like It?" over at my full review on ComicAttack (link below).

Any Good Ideas for my Role-Playing Games?
This is a tale about a Golem. Well, more specifically, it's a tale about a man who builds the golem, and a young boy who ends up controlling the creature as his village is about to face destruction from the Nazis during World War II. 

Golems are ubiquitous in D&D and related fantasy RPGs - flesh golems (ala Frankenstein's monster), Iron Golems, Stone Golems, etc. While many of these do have literary or historical precedents, the actual word "golem" comes from Jewish folklore and refers to "an animated anthropomorphic being, created entirely from inanimate matter. The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material (usually out of stone and clay) in Psalms and medieval writing" (source: Wikipedia.org).

In this story, there is plenty of great fodder for your imagination to fuel your RPGs, whether you're playing a World War II themed game, a horror game, or a straight-up fantasy game. The creation of the golem in this story is powerful and touching, all viewed through the lens of a young boy and the rest of the villagers who don't necessarily have the faith to believe that the golem can be created, and yet hoping against hope that it might actually work. The golem itself is terrifying to behold and yet retains some sort of spiritual essence of the man who created it.

The story really gives you a sense of the type of person who might end up creating a golem - it's not always a mad scientist in a gothic laboratory, or a power-hungry wizard in a tower. In this case, it's a simple villager who wants to create something to protect his family.

Is It Good for Kids?
Sadly, not for younger kids, but for older kids (maybe 12+), this is a great introduction to non-standard folklore (e.g., not Greek or Norse), and it touches on history (World War II) and also features a young boy as the main protagonist of the story, and he makes the perfect viewpoint character for the reader. But, there's a lot of shooting and death, the Nazis are thoroughly cold, militant, and unconcerned with the lives of the Jewish villagers, and the golem is unwavering in its assault on the Nazis. While we want to cheer as the Nazis get what's coming to them, younger kids will probably be a bit scared, as the golem dispassionately dispenses justice in some very gruesome ways (but in a nice bit of symmetry in terms of how the Nazis themselves acted during the war).

Here's the first section of my review of ComicAttack:

Breath of Bones is a comic I read earlier this year in single-issue format. A total of three issues of this mini-series were published by Dark Horse, and they’re being collected in a hard-cover trade edition on sale February 26th. If you missed the single issues, you’ll definitely want to pick up this trade, not just for the excellent story but for the spectacular artwork by Dave Wachter.

Upon picking up the book and looking at the cover and the front-piece that leads into the first chapter, the reader may make the mistake that this is simply yet another World War II tale...
 You can read the rest of the review here.

47 RONIN
I have reviewed 47 Ronin before here on the blog, way back in May 2013 when issue #4 of this 5-issue mini-series came out. All five issues have been collected into a trade edition which goes on-sale next month.

I won't cover the usual stuff here, as you can read my previous review here on the blog and also my more in-depth review of the trade collection over at ComicAttack. Suffice it to say if you're at all interested in Japanese-themed role-playing (looking at you, Lord Gwydion), this is an excellent resource, both in terms of the story but also in the detailed drawings of the arms, armor, and architecture of feudal Japan. Don't like the cartoon-like style fool you - there is a ton of well-researched detailed in the drawings.

I'll just finish by saying that if you don't know the true, historical (yes, is really happened) story of the 47 Ronin (not the abomination that's being marketed by Hollywood right now with Keanu Reeves), then you should learn it and this comic collection is a great place to start.

Here's the first section of my review at ComicAttack:

Dark Horse Comics continues to come out with some excellent trade editions of some of my favorite comic stories of 2013. Being published next month on February 19th is the trade collection of 47 Ronin, a five-issue mini-series that was published last year.

First off, for those of you who don’t know the true story of the 47 Ronin, you need to disregard the trailers you’ve seen for that movie with Keanu Reeves that shares the same title. Although the movie looks like it takes place in Japan, as far as I can tell, that’s where the similarities stop.

The tale of the 47 Ronin is actually a true story, based on real events in Japanese history
You can read the rest of the review here.

Cheers, and Happy 2014!

Working: home office (brand spanking new laptop!)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Weirdo" by New Order



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