Review: Iron Council by China Miéville

19 08 2008

China Miéville is a brilliant writer. This was not a difficult conclusion after reading Perdido Street Station.

Miéville visualizes and commits to paper ideas that could never occur to mere mortals. His world of Bas Lag is so rich and full of amazing scenery — an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ place, yet strangely compelling. Everything bizarre disjointed and imperfect, yet meshes to create a layered and interesting world in which nothing is ever simple or black-and-white. In fact, there are few moral judgments made at all. Everything is shades of grey. It’s magic steampunk to the max. For the best description possible, read the Science, technology and magic section on wikipedia:

“New Crobuzon’s technological capabilities are decidedly steampunk: difference engines, advanced clockwork “constructs”, helium-balloon airships, firearms, primitive photography and coal-powered trains and ships all abound in the three Bas-Lag novels.

Where science fails… magic steps in. New Crobuzon harbors a large population of magic-users — broadly referred to as “thaumaturges” — who are capable of earning a substantial living from their craft.”

I’m one of those people who runs around imagining a fantasy world unfolding over mundane scenery. Anything to add richness or feed me with ideas is welcome, even sought out. I can not get enough of Miéville. Perdido Street Station was amazing, and then I read The Scar which was not quite as good, but still filled with amazing imagery. Iron Council, the latest book set in this world of Bas Lag, was a veritable travel journal across the continent and back. The ideas and images were amazing and terrifying and new.

Despite this glowing recommendation of Miéville’s writing, I don’t actually recommend Iron Council. If you’re a casual reader of fantasy the beautiful and alien images in his writing won’t be enough to string you along for very long. When I said it read like a travel journal, I mean it. If I actually told you the plot of the book it would spoil the first two hundred pages of people running around to find it. It picks up around the last fifth, as actual life-threatening motivation is introduced to the characters.

The book is also plagued by one of Miéville’s major flaws — the inclusion of what are essentially gamesmaster controlled NPCs. These overpowered deus ex machinas characters drive the plot forward when the protagonist can’t because he’d be flattened by some terrifying slug monster from beyond reality or the army of terrifying fish-men. It’s a problem in The Scar and a worse problem in Iron Council. When these characters step in, it seems almost like the author is rolling dice to figure out what happens next, because their actions are sometimes so random and unexplained or overpowered compared to the more mundane elements of the world. It rarely makes much sense.

If you haven’t read any Miéville, I recommend starting with Perdido Street Station, though folks who read The Scar first seem to recommend that. If you desperately need more, I suppose you could read Iron Council but don’t say I didn’t warn you. There are times where you’ll have to force yourself forward through the beautiful-described plodding non-plot. At this point, I don’t expect any brilliant stories from Miéville, but if he wrote a Bas Lag codex or encyclopedia, or other supplement to a role playing game, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

Personality in RPG

23 04 2008

Pendragon I recently came into the possession of the rpg Pendragon, also known as King Arthur Pendragon (a much more epic name, don’t you think). I found it while looking for the ElfQuest game by Chaosium.

I have a thing for Chaosium games. While growing up, my father played RuneQuest with his friends. Their children and I also played it. Some kids grew up on D&D, but I grew up on RQ. I also grew up on ElfQuest. My best friend had the original series in collections, so I read it. Over and over. Recently, the comic has been re-released online for free (hooray!) so I did what I always do these days—looked for any associated rpg materials—hoping to stumble across something unique, nostalgic, and creative.

I found it! Though it is not as unique as I had hoped. Imagine my surprise that it was designed by Chaosium. The game uses the RuneQuest system, or Basic Roleplaying System as kids are calling it these days, but vastly stripped down for the simple world of ElfQuest. In the package I also got the Elric and Hawkmoon RPG, and the Thieves’ World setting, which is apparently compatible with nine different systems. Ohmygod!

Of all the similar rpgs that I’ve seen, in fact, all of them in general, Pendragon is unique in that it quantifies characters’ personalities in the form of opposing traits with thirteen balanced scores. Chaste/Lusty, Honest/Deceitful, Just/Arbitrary, Valorous/Cowardly, etc. As the score on one side goes up, the score on the other drops. The DM can force characters’ actions using these personality traits, and the players can easily make roleplaying choices for their characters. The DM has a chance to change how characters act by making players roll against the balance, and the players can find their character acting in ways they didn’t intend. Furthermore, it does away with mental statistics completely. Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity, and Appearance are all accounted for, but Intelligence and Wisdom are ignored. The mental state of the character is much deeper.

It is probably one of the most role-playing friendly systems I have ever encountered. I ran the starting scenario out of the book the other night, and it went really smoothly. At every turn, the book says, “Ask your players how their characters feel.” I felt there was more in-character talking between players in that little game, with completely new characters, than any established game in which I’ve ever been involved. Even the LARPS. My guess is because of the personality traits—you know who your character is and how they will act in many more situations.

I desperately want to play around with the Personality Trait system. I think it can lead to a greater variability in characters. Unfortunately, I get very tired very quickly of stories that others have written. King Arthur has been done before, over and over. As long as you take this system and dump it in a setting with social codes and rigidity as bizarre as romantic chivalric feudalism—the people who wrote the book for the Victorians—you should come out with something interesting.

The system has other very interesting aspects that I think are a pleasing change from monotony, but I’ll get to those some other day. I have to go help someone turn into a Lovecraftian fish-man now.

Gary Gygax Dies, As Does A Piece of Childhood

5 03 2008

Gary Gygax, one of my distant childhood heroes died today (technically yesterday). Gygax invented Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve been playing D&D or some other form of RPG since I was six or seven. It’s very sad news. Two different people came up to me today and said, “I think you’ll care about this.”

Almost nearly as disappointing is the AP’s description of D&D:

Dungeons & Dragons players create fictional characters and carry out their adventures with the help of complicated rules. The quintessential geek pastime, it spawned a wealth of copycat games and later inspired a whole genre of computer games that’s still growing in popularity.

Accurate to a stereotypical ‘T’, and so clinically sterile it sounds downright… boring. Though it doesn’t reflect my reality, I prefer summoner geeks as a description. (Summoner geeks is a cover of a SNL skit.)

On another topic, my housemate’s favorite words include good ones like moxie, gumption, chutzpa. Also: guff, sass, backtalk, lip, attitude.