The Alexandrian

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ category

 Go to Part 1

Hugo Awards - 2014Moving up the list of literary length, I’m transitioning from the Hugo-nominated novelettes to the Hugo-nominated novellas. Let’s start at the bottom:

6. “The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen.

This is an astonishingly bad story.

It literally opens with multiple pages of hamfisted “As you know, Bob” exposition. My favorite part of this incredibly lengthy sequence is, “As you know, Bob, you’re the one who brokered the original cease-fire with the horrible aliens.” I was really hoping the response to that would be, “Well, gosh, I’d plumb forgot that, Bobette! Thank goodness you reminded me!” Instead, the actual response is, “As you know, Bobette, I managed to convince the aliens that human religion was such a fascinating mystery that they shouldn’t wipe us out until they understood it.”

And thus we come to the central premise of the story: The aliens are genetically incapable of experiencing “faith” in anything they can’t directly observe or scientifically prove. (There are several problems with that, but let’s ignore them.) During the previous war, a human prisoner of war (our main character) realized that the alien scientists studying them were really interested in the concept of “religion” and managed to negotiate a ceasefire in exchange for teaching them about it. (This is fairly flimsy and is never really locked down with the kind of specificity required to make it seem in any way believable, but let’s ignore that, too.)

Where the story completely falls apart into silliness is when it’s revealed that the aliens refuse to talk to anyone about religion except the main character: Scholars and religious leaders and actual experts are offered, but the aliens refuse to talk to them. Okay, I’ll assume there’s some sort of hand-wavey “this is the way of the aliens” thing going on (although Torgersen never bothers to perform the hand-wave), but it gets even worse when it’s revealed that humanity itself has completely ignored this guy — the linchpin of human survival — for decades. And then it gets completely absurd when we learn that this guy is pretty much completely ignorant about religion and refuses to educate himself about religion in any way.

This final point might, in some way, be defensible if this was a story about this guy’s bullheaded stubbornness and ignorance. But, incredibly, that’s not the story: Instead we’re told repeatedly (and ad nauseum) that this guy will “do anything to finish the job, even if it means disobeying orders.” Apparently “anything” doesn’t include doing the one thing that might let you succeed at your job.

While this incredible sequence of baffling exposition is tumbling out through turgid and repetitive prose (the second scene literally consists of the exact same exposition as the first scene being delivered through a slightly different set of characters exchanging “as you know, Bob” witticisms), the actual plot of the story is slowly unfolding. And it is equally hilarious: The humans have managed to reverse engineer some of the alien technology and have rebuilt some of their infrastructure from the previous war. If they have enough time they might be able to level the playing field, but they know that if fresh hostilities break out that they’re seriously, seriously screwed.

So the humans decide it would be a great idea to start the war themselves by assassinating the alien leader at a peace conference.

You might think that would be the nadir of the story, but no: You still haven’t gotten to the part where the main characters try to outrun spaceships on foot.

Grade: F

5. “Wakulla Springs” by Andy Durance and Ellen Klages.

Wakulla Springs - Andy Duncan and Ellen KlagesThis is a tough one.

“Wakulla Springs” is a beautiful, haunting, multi-generational story rich in atmosphere and character and subtle drama. It is easily the best-written and possibly the most entertaining novella nominated for the Hugo Award this year.

It also isn’t speculative fiction.

So while I highly recommend that everyone reading this take some time out of their day to read it over at Tor.com; to savor all of its rich complexities; to luxuriate in its soft warmth; to swim through its crystal clear prose; to twist painfully in its easy evocation of a primitive and savage age… Ultimately I’m constrained by the same standard I confronted with “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” in the short story category: This story fundamentally doesn’t qualify for the award, and therefore I’m forced to rank it here.

Grade: A

4. NO AWARD

3.”Six-Gun Snow White” by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow White - Catherynne ValenteWhile reading “Six-Gun Snow White” I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the story to reveal some incredibly clever (and hidden) dimension which would transform it into a mind-blowing experience. But… the shoe never drops. This is a story which fundamentally asks, “What if Snow White was a Native American girl who… I dunno… had a gun?” And then reveals that the answer is, “She would be a Native American girl who has a gun.”

There’s just something lacking in it.

This simplistic reading of the story, however, does it a fair share of disservice. The reason I was waiting to have my mind blown is because Valente’s storytelling is incredibly complex, her verse is richly compelling, her fantastical imagery is richly evocative, and her exploration of character is heart-wrenching. Valente is also doing some really fascinating deconstruction work on the underlying fairy tale and using it to inject immense depth and breadth into her characters.

In short, it’s a great story and it is told with precision and skill. It just never quite reaches the point of critical mass necessary for the scintillating fission it holds out with a tantalizing and yet ultimately unfulfilled promise.

Grade: B-

2. “Equoid” by Charles Stross

Equoid - Charles StrossCharles Stross writes great and imaginative stuff and he writes it faster than I can keep up with it.

“Equoid” is part of his Laundry series, featuring a mid-level employee of the British intelligence service dedicated to dealing with the hidden realities of the Mythos. Previous entries in the series generally take a fascinating and original spin on the Lovecraftian Mythos and hybridize it with a satire or homage of a popular thriller or spy novelist (Len Deighton in The Atrocity Archive; Ian Fleming with The Jennifer Morgue; and so forth).

“Equoid” follows the same model by unveiling an incredibly clever and utterly creepy Lovecraftian interpretation of unicorns and then crosses that with a satire of… H.P. Lovecraft.

And that combination doesn’t quite work. Partly for the same reason that Woody Allen’s Casino Royale or Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers fall flat (trying to satirize a creator with their own work is problematic at best), but also because it seems somewhat mean-spirited to write a series of bestselling novels on the foundation of Lovecraft’s work and then write a story where you literally call him a hack. When you’re standing on the shoulders of giants you shouldn’t unzip your trousers and start pissing on the giants.

I don’t even really think that Stross intends for the story to come off this way, but I’ve read it twice now and the bad vibe it has really takes the shine off.

With that being said, Stross’ conception of the unicorn is awesome. And the plot races forward in a careless careen of headlong excitement. So I still recommend it.

Grade: B

1. “The Butcher of Khardov” by Dan Wells

The Butcher of Khardov - Dan WellsWhen I first scanned the list of nominees for Best Novella, I’ll admit that the WarMachine tie-in fiction was the last story I expected to top my list. But here it is.

And the reason it’s here is because “The Butcher of Khardov” is just a fantastic piece of fantasy fiction: Wells centers his story around the biography of a strong central character and then presents the tightly plotted arc of the character through a cleverly constructed non-linear narrative that cranks up the dramatic stakes.

It should be noted, perhaps, that I am not personally well acquainted with the WarMachine universe, so the milieu of this story really had to live or die on its own merits. And it thrives. The fantasy elements are interesting, the depth of the setting is leveraged to also create a sense of distance within the character’s own timeline, and the day-to-day life of the inhabitants is vividly transmitted through the page.

Grade: B+

Go to Part 1

Continuing my review Hugo nominees this year, I’m tackling the novelettes to day. Ranking them, once again, in reverse order:

6. “Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day.

Easily one of the worst pieces of fiction I’ve read lately. The “world-building” consists of thinly veiling the Catholic Church by inconsistently swapping out the names and terminology and then slapping in some magic-wielding elves. (You might think that magic-wielding elves would have some sort of meaningful impact on the beliefs or teachings of the Church, but they don’t.) The “plot” would be stretched thin on a very short story, but it takes a truly prodigious amount of “talent” to stretch it over the length of a novelette: An elf shows up at a not-Catholic monastery and says, “I killed your missionary. Now I’d like to stay here and study your God.” He decides to stay for several decades while he single-handedly illuminates an entire copy of the not-Bible by himself. This is interrupted by a single scene in which he asks the head of the monastery a question about his religious faith, prompting the head of the monastery to respond by literally cribbing Thomas Aquinas at interminable length. No one in the monastery has their faith or their lives remotely affected by the elf. The elf leaves for a bit and everyone in the monastery is brutally killed by some other elves. Then the elf yells at a statue of not-Jesus Christ.

It’s not so much a story as it is a train wreck of bad writing, bad plotting, bad world-building, and bad characterization.

Grade: F

5. NO AWARD

4. “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen.

The premise of this story is that cartoon Chinese Communists from 1950s propaganda pamphlets are brought to life, travel through time to the 2030s, and assume control of the future Chinese People’s Republic. Zany hilarity ensues.

… okay, not really. It is, however, the only way I can explain how the anachronistic cartoon Chinese Communists ended up in this story.

If you can look past that bit of nonsense, however, the rest of the story is a decent little bit of pulp adventure: Military space-jockeys with remote control exo-suits have to defend the red, white, and blue of their All-American Space Station(TM) from the terrible scourge of Cartoon Communists.

This clears the “No Award” threshold for me, but just barely. (And I’m having second thoughts about that even as I type this.) It would have benefited tremendously from the solution to the Cartoon Communists being in any way clever or thoughtful or unique.

Grade: C

3. “The Waiting Stars” by Alietta de Bodard.

It was really hard to rank the top three stories in this category. “The Waiting Stars” is a beautiful tone poem of transhumanism mixed with a pleasing tinge of space opera. Of all the Hugo stories I’ve read so far this year, this had the strongest and most interesting and most nuanced handling of its characters. In fact, I think the story would have benefited tremendously from giving the characters a little more room to breathe: A bit too much of the story was pushed into a past-tense summary. I would have preferred to actually experience the growth of the characters instead of being so frequently told about it.

The story was also injured for me because one of its central speculative conceits didn’t quite make enough sense. (Keeping things fairly vague in an effort to avoid explicit spoilers: I buy a culture believing that they would benefit from having their AIs go through that experience. But I’m unclear on why they would build them so large as to be dangerous and painful.)

Those quibbles aside, however, I do recommend this story. And it can be read freely on Alietta de Bodard’s website, so you have no excuse not to!

Grade: B+

2. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Another well-crafted character piece with strongly woven themes. Kowal uses alternate history to evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia and then uses that nostalgia to create a strong empathetic bond between the reader and her protagonist. She then capitalizes on that bond by forcing her character to make tough, complicated choices that Kowal refuses to simplify or trivialize in any way.

Also freely available online.

Grade: B+

1. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang.

My one quibble with “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is that I feel it would benefit from more fully developing its central character arc with the great success that, for example, Kowal does in “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”. The reason it edges out “The Lady Astronaut” to receive my #1 ranking, however, is that Chiang expertly invokes an immensely complicated psychological depth around a near-future technology. What I initially thought was going to be simply a polemical text suddenly drops away into a stunningly fractal depth of expression and thought.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is a modern day version of True Names (a fantastic short novel from Vernor Vinge which I’ve reviewed here). But whereas Vinge fired a bold cannon of transhumanism into the heart of the industry, Chiang works subtly within a well-developed theme and pulls out something that feels powerfully and transcendentally real. Reading this story feels like stepping into your life circa 2025. There’s a fervent power to that kind of clear, speculative vision when it is executed with such effortless belief.

And it is also freely available online.

Grade: B+

 Hugo Reviews 2014 – Part 3: Novellas

 

Hugo AwardNot sure how many of these I’ll get to this year before the July 31st voting deadline, but for the first time ever I’m a member of the World Science Fiction Convention and, therefore, eligible to vote on the Hugo Awards. I’m taking this fairly seriously and making an effort to actually survey all of the nominees before casting my ballot. And I thought I’d also take the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

We’re going to start with the short stories. Reviewing short stories is a tough gig because it’s really hard to comment meaningfully upon them without spoiling them entirely, but I’ll do the best I can to walk the tightrope here. Without further ado, here’s my voting slate for the Short Story category in reverse order:

5. “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky.

Despite the use of the word “dinosaur” in the title (and its frequent use throughout the text), this is not actually a work of speculative fiction. I’m not really sure the story is award worthy even if it were speculative fiction (it’s a decent little “shocker” story with a twist reveal, but while the prose builds nicely the twist is more of a straight line and there’s nothing of real substance here), but since I consider the Hugo Award to be something exclusively for speculative fiction I’m definitely forced to rank this one below…

4. NO AWARD

3. “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” by John Chu.

This story starts out really strong, but then somehow ends up in the same place that Swirsky’s story does: It really stops being an SF story and simply becomes a really good piece of character fiction.

The central conceit of the story is found in its title: One day the world changes and every time you tell a lie a bunch of water falls on you. The general implications of this suddenly universal truth detector are lightly touched on (with occasionally inconsistent metaphysics), but Chu’s primary interest in the first chunk of the story is exploring how this dynamic would completely transform interpersonal relationships. And he does a very, very good job of it: It’s one of the rare pleasures of SF to see fantastic character dramas that are impossible in the real world. (The exploration of the alien in human form often makes me reflect on the bizarre fantasies the dramas of our contemporary lives would be to someone living in, say, Elizabethan England.)

Unfortunately, the back half of the story largely falls apart: The titular water becomes functionally meaningless and the character drama resolves into the sort of cliche I would expect to see in a freshmen composition course. Particularly crippling is that the story structures itself entirely around a challenge faced by the main character… which turns out not to be a challenge at all. (He faces no internal conflict; his external conflict turns out to have literally no ability to oppose him; and the ideology he thought was opposing him is revealed to have never existed in the first place.)

This one is worth reading, although the failure to live up to its promise is crushingly disappointing.

2. “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.

This pleasant little romp is a Thai version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood with a fantasy twist.

That particular blend of imagery may be too esoteric for anyone but me to really appreciate, but it’s actually quite difficult to talk about “The Ink Readers” without spoiling it. What I can say is that I was very pleased to see Heuvelt not only posit an interesting conceit for his speculative fiction, but to then develop the consequences of that conceit in multiple, creative, and increasingly speculative ways. (The revelation of what the titular Ink Readers were was the moment when the story won me over.)

With that being said, the story strives to achieve mysticism through incoherence and that’s not a genre technique that I’m particularly fond of. The plot of the entire story also depends almost entirely upon a glaringly huge continuity error, which I have occasionally gathered to be an acceptable foible in the sort of magical realism which Heuvelt appears to be pursuing but which I find intolerable. Although I , once again, recommend the story these reservations knock it back a pace for me.

1. “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” by Sofia Samatar.

I’ll be honest in saying that “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” did not blow me away: But it takes a singular conceit and uses it to transform interpersonal relationships like Chu’s “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” (but follows it through to the end of the story). It uses a speculative conceit as metaphor for character growth and pain like Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” (but doesn’t leave the metaphor strictly as metaphor). And it also takes its conceit and improvises on it like a jazz theme (albeit not to the same richness or cleverness as Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”).

It’s a complete package and I’m comfortable saying that it should win the award this year.

 Hugo Reviews 2014 – Part 2: Novelettes

Ex-RPGNet Reviews – Go Wild!

October 17th, 2013

Tagline: A strong card game, reinforcing this line of family-oriented card games which made a name for itself with Twitch.

Go Wild! - Wizards of the CoastLast year Wizards of the Coast released a series of four family-oriented card games (in the tradition of Uno and Skip-Bo): Twitch, Pivot, Alpha Blitz, and Go Wild!. After reading about it in an RPGNet review I picked up Twitch and quickly became completely addicted to its fast-pace play style. On the strength of Twitch I ended up buying the other three games in this abbreviated line and have been slowly playing my way through them (in addition to Twitch I have also reviewed Pivot here on RPGNet – a review of Alpha Blitz will pop up whenever I get around to playing it).

So far I have been heartily impressed, and the games have readily taken their place alongside other family favorites, such as the aforementioned Uno and Skip-Bo.

Go Wild! is a trick-based game (like Hearts or Spades) designed for 2-6 players. There are six suits of cards – five colors and the wild cards. Each player is dealt twelve cards, which forms their hand. The game is played in a series of rounds, each of which is made up of three tricks. You win a trick by more cards of a particular color — which is determined by whoever leads the trick — than anybody else.

At this point it sounds like a pretty tame, typical game. You might as well pick up a copy of Hoyle’s. But this is where the designers throw you a curveball: You score a variable number of points depending on which trick in the round you win, plus, if you win the first trick of the round, you become the Wild One. Here’s how it works:

If you win the first trick of the round, you score 1 point. In addition, you become the Wild One (there’s a card included that identifies the Wild One). On the second trick you score 2 points, and on the third you score 3.

Here’s the cool bit: Only the Wild One can use wild cards.

In other words, the strategy of the game is not just to win the most tricks – but to choose a specific strategy which allows you to win. Do you toss out as many cards as possible on the first trick of the round in order to secure the Wild One? Or do you gamble a little bit and hope to pick up more points by winning the later tricks?

The most important question to be asked of games like this, however, is: Does the concept actually work in execution? The answer here is: Yes. Absolutely. Go Wild! is an excellent game, exploring a new and interesting variation upon the old trick-based card game concepts. In that sense, Go Wild! continues the strong tradition I found in Twitch and Pivot. Not only are these fun games, but they are extremely innovative.

The only serious problem I had with Go Wild! was the rule for who got to lead the first trick of the game: The youngest player. Okay, fine. Works all right the first time. But when you play two or three games in a row, it becomes a little frustrating for the same guy to always have that advantage.

I was most impressed by the fact that the game proved itself to actually by playable by two players. Most games listing 2-X players are “playable by two players” only in the sense that the rules work – the entire dynamic of playing is skewed by the presence of only two players. Because of the complex tactical consideration of Go Wild!, however, two players can easily challenge one another.

Of the games in this line, Twitch is undoubtedly the best (it’s guaranteed to consume hours and hours of your free time). That being said, Go Wild! will definitely be placed on my To Be Played shelf, and not my Been There, Done That shelf.

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: Grezegorz Rejchtman
Company/Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cost: $6.95
Page Count: n/a
ISBN: 1-57530-601-8

Originally Posted: 1999/10/23

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Tagline: A book which doesn’t quite seem to know what it’s trying to accomplish, but succeeds through a sheer mass where it may fail in style. Recommended.

Jovian Chronicles: Chaos Principle - Dream Pod 9This is the worst Dream Pod 9 product I own, with the exception of Video Fighter (see my review). It’s still better than the vast majority of the products on the market (a testament to Dream Pod 9’s outstanding strengths), but is critically flawed in several areas.

First off, the book is slightly schizophrenic. About fifteen minutes into reading it I suddenly realized I had no idea what the product methodology was supposed to be. What I mean is that, when you buy a roleplaying supplement, the supplement is supposed to do something – and that something should be very specific. Deities and Demi-Gods describes deities and demi-gods for AD&D. Berlin by Night describes the city of Berlin in the World of Darkness. And so forth.

But who sat down at Dream Pod 9 one day and said to themselves: “Let’s make a book with a bunch of information on the Jovian Confederation; some tidbits regarding the Martian War; an adventure/campaign set in and around the Jovian Centennial; a tactical campaign set around/on Mars; a bunch of vehicles designs for Mars, Jupiter, and CEGA; a mis-named “JPDS Campaign”; and a semi-update to the year 2213.”

I began to think, in short, that the word “chaos” had been well chosen.

The second major problem is that this is a book ahead of its time. Rule number one of the design of an effective roleplaying line is that, before you can take the line anywhere, you must first establish a baseline. Rule number two would be that, when you take the game line somewhere, make sure the GMs and players have all the info they need to go there with you. Chaos Principle provides a partial update to the year 2213 (from the year 2210, which is the baseline of the setting) – and therein lies the problem: A partial update. There are too many unanswered questions about what happened in the interim for me to successfully run a campaign here.

Finally, the book is the poster child for the serious editorial problems which plagued Dream Pod 9 during 1998 and early-1999. During this time frame the Pod was suffering from a combination of personnel changeover and rushed production schedules, resulting in poorly copyedited texts – typos and editorial marks, for example, were routinely left in the text. This book takes the award for the worst of the batch, however, with all the problems of other books, plus a page where the text which is supposed to be there has been wiped out by a mistaken cut-and-paste from another section of the book (the correct text for page 11 can be found on the Pod’s website and will be corrected in future printings). (It should be noted, also, that the Pod is now over these difficulties. Their last handful of products have been spotless in my experience.)

The upside is that this 128 page book is chock full of all sorts of different stuff. Perhaps the best analogy would be a grab bag. With a grab bag you have the disadvantage that there is no coherency to what you’ve purchased, but you have two advantages as well: First, that you get a wide variety of stuff. Second, that you might just find a gem or two inside.

UPDATE TO 2213

Chaos Principle is primarily described as an “Original Cinematic Adventure” (or OCA). This is a wordplay on “Original Video Animation” (or OVA), a term for anime which was designed to be sold direct-to-video. Typically an OVA is a stand-alone story, even if it uses characters from a series with a story arc (which, while being limited to Babylon 5 in this country, is fairly typical with Japanese anime).

So, as an OCA, Chaos Principle is designed to be an adventure book – describing a short campaign centered around the events of the Jovian Centennial celebration. I’ll be discussing that component of the book a little later on.

At a more basic level, however, the book is serving as a semi-update to 2213. An update because it provides details of events which happen between 2210 (when the core rulebook is set) and 2213, “semi” because it doesn’t do a very thorough job of it. Specifically: Information relating to the Jovian Confederation is given in great detail, while events elsewhere in the solar system are covered briefly if at all.

What you end up with is almost unusable except in the context of this single product. You know, for example, that General Thorsen (the Jovian commander responsible for the Odyssey) has escaped and then went to Venus to engage in some guerilla combat… but once Thorsen is outside the Confederation’s dominion suddenly you don’t know what happened next (specifically, what happened on Venus).

I understand the methodology behind this (this campaign is set in the Confederation, so you provide Confederation-related information), but it’s bad methodology. As I mentioned before, this book would have been much better off if it had been released two or three years from now – once we knew the Jovian Chronicles setting better and more support product had been provided. As it is, we’ve got this campaign out in 2213 (which you can run fairly effectively), but that’s all you have. I don’t know enough about the solar system of 2213 from this product in order to run a campaign there and, quite frankly, that time period is not going to be supported for some time to come yet (since now they need to backtrack and fill in all the holes in 2210).

JOVIAN CONFEDERATION SOURCEBOOK

Because there hasn’t been a Jovian Confederation sourcebook published yet, it’s not sufficient for Chaos Principle to simply provide an update – it’s going to have to provide you with some additional setting information in order to make the campaign playable.

My problem with this section is not its competency or its completeness. Wunji Lau does an excellent job of expanding our knowledge of the Confederation from the information found in the core rulebook. You get a societal overview, a look at some of the major colony cylinders, a little historical information, a look at some major organization, and an analysis of some major characters in the setting. All-in-all, an excellent resource – and anybody wanting to set a campaign in, around, or involving the Jovian Confederation should definitely pick up this book.

No, my problem is not competency. My problem is that someday the Pod is going to have to release a full-scale Jovian sourcebook. And when that happens it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to pull it off successfully. Why? Because you’re going to be in the unsavory position of making a tough choice: Do you duplicate the information found in Chaos Principle? Or do you attempt to present all-new information?

If you choose the former path, then you’ll have successfully produce a Jovian Confederation sourcebook which can stand on it’s own. You’ll be able to pick up that book, just as you should, and have the rock-solid foundation you need to run a Confederation campaign. But there are two problems. First, those of us who already own Chaos Principle will be buying repetitious material. Second, those who don’t already own Chaos Principle (they’re new to the line, for example), will end up with repetitious material when/if they do buy it. Either way, you’re lowering the overall informational value of the two products.

On the other hand, if you present all-new information in this hypothetical Jovian Confederation sourcebook, you have now created a dependency relationship between the two products. Now, in order to have a complete foundation for a Confederation campaign, you’re going to have to own both this sourcebook and Chaos Principle. You’d end up hurting the primary sourcebook by making it rely upon a secondary supplement.

Once again, these problems are created by the fact that the book is two or three years too early. If the book had been produced at some point after the release of a Confederation sourcebook than the writer could have simply assumed it as a prerequisite (and, therefore, sufficed himself with a simple update to the material found in it). Heck, with the extra space he could have then gone on to provide the additional update material in order to make any 2213 campaign feasible with the purchase of this book (see how it all hooks together?).

THE MARTIAN WAR

One of the things we learn from the update is that the cold war has suddenly decided to heat up. The Martian Free Republic (allies of the Jovian Confederation) have been implicated in the destruction of the orbital elevator during the events of the Odyssey. The Martian Federation (allies of CEGA), who controlled the elevator, are enraged by this knowledge. Tensions rise and finally break as the Federation declares war on the Free Republic. As things begin to spiral into chaos, both the Jovian Confederation and CEGA dispatch fleets to Mars.

Can you hear the ominous music playing in the background?

This is cool stuff. Things get weird, however, when the book presents a mini-tactical campaign focusing on three major battles (two on the surface, one in space). There’s nothing wrong with these scenarios, but why are they here?

Before reading the book I assumed that the tactical scenarios were somehow related to the roleplaying campaign (as was done with The New Breed campaign book for Heavy Gear). Such is not the case. The roleplaying campaign has absolutely no connection to the tactical campaign (indeed, the roleplaying campaign gets nowhere near Mars).

Obviously the book is trying to make it worthwhile for a tactical player to pick it up (since they would benefit from the update material). In the long run, however, it sticks out like a sore thumb – symptomatic of the misguided grab bag nature of the book.

(On a side note: I’m not too sure how I feel about the Battle of Kurtzenheim and the events which follow it. I won’t spoil it for you here, but there is a certain degree of anti-climax to it.)

THE JOVIAN CENTENNIAL

This is the core of the book – the Original Cinematic Adventure which is focused on the events taking place around the Jovian Centennial celebrations.

Dream Pod 9 does some fascinating things as designers – they always have a firm understanding of not only what methodology they’re using to design a product, but the impact that methodology has (which is why the failure for a clear methodology to present itself in this product is so odd). One of the ways in which this manifests itself is in the innovative manners in which they present campaign and adventure material (reference my reviews of The Paxton Gambit and The New Breed for more details).

Here they’re trying something a little different, but once again they seem to have a fairly good grasp of what the essential elements are – which allows them to play around with the other ones to their heart’s content.

First, you are given a variety of tools which let you get your players involved. Primarily, the book gives you four default characters (Ariana, Jared, Khoi, and Joseph). Think of these guys as the cast of your favorite television shows – they have vivid personalities, interrelationships, etc. The easiest thing to do is to have the players step into these character’s shoes and proceed.

They’re not content to simply let that be the only way, though. The book also provides three different sets of “hooks” to get you involved. The first set, the “Campaign Hooks”, are ways of pulling in non-standard PCs to the general campaign. The second set, “In Media Res”, assume that Ariana, Jared, Khoi, and Joseph are still present and carrying out their “default actions” (more on that in a moment) – the PCs get involved in the evolving campaign at different points in the middle of the action (which is what “in media res” means).

But it is with the third set of hooks – the “Adventure Hooks” that you begin to feel that things aren’t coming together quite right. These hooks suggest “alternate” campaigns which would only use the presented campaign material as a “backdrop” for the actions which the PCs are taking.

Which is a neat idea, in and of itself. It only falls apart later on, when you read past the campaign material, and hit some other stuff: Like “Secondary Effects” and “Adventure Seeds” – both of which have very similar goals. The way this should have been done would be to isolate all of this material together (preferably after the campaign material, because trying to discuss alternatives to material the GM hasn’t even read yet is pretty ineffective). This would provide a sort “united front” and make it easier for the GM to access the toolbox, so to speak.

Now, for the campaign itself. It is broken into four phases (“Introduction”, “Emergence”, “Action”, and “Climax”), each composed of various scenes. The cool part is that each scene is dynamic – with multiple entry and exit points. At this most basic organizational level, this format has a tremendous amount of potential. In the actual execution, however, things go a bit askew.

Each scene description is broken into two parts: A semi-narrative description of what happens and a set of “Adventure Suggestions”. Essentially, the semi-narrative (which reads like a scene outline) describes the default actions of the pre-established cast. In other words, if you just read through these you’d have an idea of what would happen if the PCs weren’t involved at all (or if the players weren’t controlling the actions of the primary cast members). The “Adventure Suggestions” section then outlines exactly how the situation should be handled in game terms.

If done properly, the dual nature of the scene descriptions (coupled with the dynamic scene connections) would end up providing the best of both worlds: An active, established storyline – from which the PCs can easily deviate. In the actual practice of the Chaos Principle, however, this doesn’t happen – to the point where, if you don’t generate completely original material, the PCs are going to be extremely railroaded at certain junctions.

Beyond this, there are several structurally questionable narrative choices: Such as having the default cast of four start out as two separated teams of two who have no knowledge of or connection to each other.

All that being said, the story itself is extremely engaging: A neo-nationalist group known as the Principii believe that they, and only they, can save the Jovian Confederation from its worst enemies. To do this they want to start a war with CEGA (a war which, obviously, the superior Confederation will easily win). With a senior CEGA official (Ignatius Chang) in the Confederation for the Centennial celebrations and warships on their way to Mars, the Principii see a rare opportunity: Assassinate Chang and you start a war. The PCs stumble onto the plot from different ends, meet up in the middle, and have everything come down to a climactic battle between experimental exo prototypes.

Once again, rock solid material. But the pieces just don’t fit quite the way they should.

ODDS AND ENDS

Let’s see… We’ve got an update, a sourcebook, a tactical campaign, and a roleplaying campaign. Isn’t that enough for one book?

Apparently not.

There is, for example, an extensive (30 page) technical supplement – detailing equipment, technical updates, new vehicles, etc. Also, there is a completely bizarre, three page, “sample campaign”. It is titled “JSPD Blue” (for Joshua’s Station Police Department) and deals with the ESWAT (Enhanced Special Weapons and Tactics – i.e., they use combat exo-suits and deal with extreme situations) team on Joshua’s Station. And there’s some other stuff spread throughout the book in a faintly haphazard manner.

CONCLUSION

Chaos Principle could be a truly excellent book, but somewhere along the line things just didn’t gel right. That being so, let me explain why I give the book the relatively high marks (double fours) that I do:

Style. Well, the book takes a hit for the handful of instances where material is unnecessarily spread out or laid out in an unintuitive fashion (for the most part, this isn’t true, though). It takes another hit for the typos and the misplaced text. But it gets a boost from the fact that, where the text isn’t compromised by poor editorial control, it is clear, concise, and informative. It gets another boost due to the (typically) outstanding artwork of Mr. Ghislain Barbe. It’s too strong to be below average (1 or 2), and too weak to be truly outstanding (5). So this leaves me with “average” (3) and “better than average” (4). For me the strengths outweigh the flaws, so it gets a four.

Substance. It takes a hit because of the scatter-shot approach of the material. It takes another hit because of the insufficient update material. It then takes a third hit from the flaws in the campaign material. With most companies, this trio of flaws would be enough to send the book spiraling to at least an average rating, if not worst. But the Pod succeeds at packing so much material in here that it nicely counteracts these negative aspects. In other words, it may be a grab bag – but it’s a really big grab bag. And the stuff in it is of above-average quality for the most part. So it slides by with a four.

Nonetheless: Probably the worst Pod product I’ve read. The fact that it still scores as highly as it does with me is an indication of the quality which the Pod normally produces.

And, at the end of the day, I have to strongly suggest that any fan of Jovian Chronicles pick this book up. There’s just too much territory covered in it, in various forms, for it to be lacking from your game shelf.

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: Wunji Lau
Company/Publisher: Dream Pod 9
Cost: $20.95
Page Count: 128
ISBN: 1-896776-24-8

Originally Posted: 1999/10/23

Hopefully the real conflict I was feeling in trying to rate this mish-mash of a product was clearly communicated in my conclusion. In retrospect, however, I feel that I was much too kind to it: The campaign material is a mangled mess that would require far too much work to actually bring to a gaming table; the rest of the material is a grab-bag of irrelevancy for anyone using the core 2210 time period for their campaign; and, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s really clear that this was the first warning sign that the Jovian Chronicles product line was about to implode into mediocrity and nonsense (something which I describe in more detail in the postscript to this review). I suspect that a more accurate rating of Substance would have been 3 (or possibly even a 2).

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

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