Sunday, June 16, 2013

Captain Blood: His Odyssey

Sabatini's Captain Blood: His Odyssey is a defining book for the swashbuckling buccaneer genre. I wish I'd read it as a kid, but I think I got more out of it as an adult. There is a lot of derring-do and high adventure, but there is also a good bit of history.

Peter Blood, adventurer, soldier, and physician, is caught up in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 and railroaded into a conviction of treason. The charges are spurious, at best, but given the political climate of the times, very little is needed to have Blood packed off into slavery in the Caribbean. Blood is given more latitude due to his expertise as a doctor, but it's still a dreary, harsh, and often arbitrarily cruel existence.

When the Spanish raid Barbados, Blood and a number of other slaves take the opportunity to make an escape. They seize the Spanish ship and off they go, with Blood's experience as a captain earlier in his career making him the natural skipper. Eventually, Blood's daring and ingenuity make him the scourge of the Spanish in the Caribbean, and beloved by buccaneers.

Along the way, Blood makes a number of enemies, from Colonel Bishop, who owned Blood as a slave, to a family of Spanish admirals. He makes a few friends, including Colonel Bishop's beautiful niece, Arabella, but he is destined to suffer from a series of romantic misunderstandings with her and a fellow suitor that will almost bring him and much of the British-ruled Caribbean to ruin.

There is a lot of fun here, with Blood leading raids and fighting off attackers almost non-stop, except for months of lazing around Tortuga or Jamaica, often feeling sorry for himself because of being scorned by Arabella. He also walks a tightrope between being a buccaneer preying upon the Spanish without being technically a British agent, and outright piracy. He briefly enters into the service of both the English and the French at different times, but both times he is faced with superiors so ludicrously villainous that he soon finds ways that his contracts with them have been violated, and thus, null and void. Colonel Bishop is one of those superiors, and is so wrapped up in his desire for revenge on Blood for escaping slavery, that he spends a good bit of his time as governor of Jamaica thinking of ways to hang Blood rather than doing anything productive.

George MacDonald Fraser provides an interesting introduction to the book I have, taking us back to his days as a Scottish schoolboy discovering Sabatini's book and being transported by it. Fraser is, of course, best-known for his Flashman books, about one of the worst poltroons I've ever read about. Although Peter Blood is a heroic character, always ready to risk death for what is right, one can discern Sabatini's influence on Fraser's writing, mostly in how deftly both authors wove the exploits of their characters around and through historical events.

That's N.C. Wyeth's artwork on the cover, which is the same painting that graced early editions of the book in 1922. Wyeth's work is always interesting, and in this case, it's easy to see where Errol Flynn's look came from when he played the title role of the 1935 movie of the book.

The book alternates between lighteartedness and some rather grim events, giving it a jarring, dichotomous feel. Also, major characters die "offstage" at times, making the demise of some of Blood's most persistent antagonists and faithful companions frustratingly anticlimactic. The ending of the book itself is oddly, and ambiguously, ominous, casting a shadow on what might have been a happy resolution. All of these things sound like I found them to be detriments, but I ended up finding them adding to the mystique of the book. There was something realistic about it all, with no character safe and some plot points left dangling, as often happens in real life. Sometimes life is messy and unresolved, and even Captain Blood cannot swashbuckle his way out of every grim situation...even ones he'd hoped for and found not as satisfying when he finally got his wish.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Starlight and more...

Late last night, closer to dawn than Midnight, I awoke and, feeling restless, stepped outside for some air and to let the dog do his business. The sky was star-filled and very peaceful. As I scanned the skies, to the northeast I saw a strobing flash I assumed to be a jetliner's running lights. When I see a red-eye flight tracing its way across the sky, I tend to look and ruminate on all the souls winging their way to their destinations way up there in the firmament.

But there was no further flashing. I stood for a moment, puzzled. There was no plane up there, just the stars. I don't know if I saw one of them pulse, or if it was a shooting star. I've seen plenty of shooting stars in my life, and this didn't look like any of those. A star that pulsed like that - far brighter than the twinkling you see when the atmosphere bends the light about - would be an astronomical event that would, at the very least, show up on space-related websites and blogs. I don't know a lot about astronomy, despite a lifelong love of it, but I do know enough to understand that such a pulse is a big deal in the astronomical world. So far, I haven't seen any mention of a star flashing last night.

So, the only conclusion I can come to is that it was either a very, very ephemeral shooting star, or a plane that had its lights out and suddenly flashed one of them once. The latter seems unlikely, so I'm left with the former. It would have been cool to witness a major event in the stargazing world, but hey, a shooting star is always a treat.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The road goes ever on...Palantir Quest

 The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter I: A Long-Expected Party

The Lord of the Rings is a book of endings: the end of the time of Elves in Middle-earth; the end of the reign of the Stewards in Gondor; the end of King Theoden's line, and his life; the end of the tale of the Ringbearers; and, of course, the end of the great Shadow that had darkened the world for millennia, which also ended the third, and very troubled, age of Middle-earth.

Yet, it is also a book of beginnings. The Fourth Age dawns as the book ends. The age of Men begins. Mirkwood is reborn as Greenwood. Elves and Dwarves move into new homes. Throughout Middle-earth a Renaissance starts, with the Peoples of Middle-earth coming together to create a new society. Rebuilding of much that was destroyed is begun. That which was lost is recovered. There is much remembered sorrow, but much hope for the future.

I never felt the need for Tolkien to write more about the Fourth Age. The story, as written, is deeply satisfying, even if also deeply melancholy. His attempt to set a tale in this new Age was soon abandoned by him, and it's understandable why; after the towering achievement of The Lord of the Rings, everything else would have been anticlimactic, and risk undercutting the power of that epic.

However, the needs of a reader and the desires of a roleplaying gamer are two different things. The Fourth Age of Middle-earth is ripe with opportunity for glorious deeds. Many - though not all - roleplaying games are, at their hearts, very optimistic. Adventurers go out to tame the wilds, recover the lost, and rebuild the ruined. For such games, the Fourth Age is a nigh-perfect setting. 

Sauron is gone, but his legacy still lingers. Middle-earth is still a dangerous place. Ancient secrets stand ready to be brought to light. For the first time, Iron Crown Enterprises decided to explore this new Age with a tour-de-force adventure.

I said in the last post that I had finished with the setting sourcebooks for the Middle-earth Roleplaying game. One last book remains that fits within the parameters of this blog. This is not a book about a place, but rather a grand epic journey of exploration and adventure across the entire continent detailed in all those books I've discussed before. This is a search for some of the great treasures of Middle-earth, long thought lost. This is:
Not the most dynamic cover, but one that helps capture an evocative mood and personage of a long-forgotten age.
After years of publishing solid, meticulously-detailed books and adventures for their Middle-earth Roleplaying game, Iron Crown Enterprises began to slow the pace of their production. At least, it seemed that way to me. By the mid-1990s, I rarely saw new MERP books. Occasionally I did see revised and expanded versions of earlier material, ranging from Arnor, which covered the same region as Rangers of the North: the Kingdom of Arthedain, Lost Realm of Cardolan, Bree and the Barrow-downs, and Rhudaur (in the form of Hillmen of the Trollshaws), to Moria, to Mirkwood. There was even, finally, a book dedicated to the Shire itself. Unfortunately for me, though, I decided to pass up these bulked-up books, figuring at the time that I already had the originals, so why would I need these? Given the crazy prices I've seen some of them going for now, and the revised Moria book I did, luckily, find for cheap, I now regret not picking them up when I saw them back then. Regardless, it seemed to me that MERP was slowly fading away as a game; in fact, when I found Palantir Quest for sale as a brand-new product, I was surprised. I'd thought the game had finally given up the ghost before then.

Palantir Quest further surprised me for what it was. Though the bulk of the material ICE published for MERP was set in 1640 of the Third Age of Middle-earth, Palantir Quest finally broke new ground and set the adventure in the Fourth Age. While many of the books and adventures that existed by then had brief notes for the setting at other times, Palantir Quest was the first to be explicitly set after Sauron's fall and the end of the War of the Ring. This was something I'd waited a long time for.

One of the problems with setting a game in Middle-earth is the carefully plotted timeline Tolkien had established. One could ignore the timeline and allow the player characters to do what they wanted, even to the point of changing the entire course of the narrative of The Lord of the Rings. ICE attempted to head-off this potential problem (though some might not see it as a problem at all) by making the time setting for their game material more than 1400 years before Bilbo was born. That era was rife with adventuring possibilities, with little chance of knocking all of Tolkien's story off-track. The downside was that Middle-earth did not much resemble what most potential players would be familiar with going in. There was no Rohan, and there was still a king in Gondor, for two big examples. Still, there was a lot for adventurers to do...but it just never really appealed to me, to be frank.

I've detailed elsewhere how the Fourth Age of Middle-earth is full of gaming potential, without the baggage of books and movies detailing everything about it. The downside to that, of course, is that players, being what they are, and most likely Lord of the Rings fans to boot, will also likely miss being able to interact with some of the setting's most famous characters. Another complaint I've heard about the Fourth Age is that there is "nothing to do." The One Ring is gone, Sauron has fallen, and even his greatest servants have been vanquished. It's an understandable reaction, of course; who wouldn't want the chance to at least help overthrow Sauron? Conversely, many roleplaying game settings don't have such a narrative focus around which they revolve, making the Fourth Age of Middle-earth much more reminiscent of them. It's a wide-open time, with plenty still left to do, and an incredibly long and detailed backstory for it all.
This isn't really related to the adventure at hand, but shows a pretty spectacular moment in Middle-earth history.

Palantir Quest cuts right to the heart of the matter by centering around one of the great remaining mysteries of Middle-earth. The seeing-stones of the folk who founded Arnor and Gondor were powerful and coveted artifacts, desired by everyone from the kings of Gondor to the Dark Lord himself. Few in number in the first place, their numbers dwindled as the centuries went by, lost to war and betrayal. Yet they weren't truly lost; palantiri are nearly indestructible. One was taken to the Uttermost West by the Elves who left Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age. Some may have been rendered unusable: the one in Minas Tirith would only show flames and Denethor's burning hands after that doom-haunted Steward of Gondor took it to his funeral pyre, though someone as strong-willed as Aragorn likely could have used it if he exerted himself greatly; while even if recovered, the one Sauron held at Barad-dur is likely too tainted by evil to ever be usable again by mortals. The Orthanc stone, used by Saruman, is the last known working palantir in Middle-earth, held and used by King Elessar (aka Aragorn) in Minas Tirith. However, three stones still remain unaccounted for, though still in Middle-earth. Locating and recovering them would be a great step in helping the Reunited Kingdom rebuild.
I would have thought they'd make the pedestal taller for the palantiri...

The three remaining palantiri were lost to the depths; the one in Osgiliath fell into the mighty Anduin River, while the other two, one that had been in the tower at Weathertop, the other from the long-ruined city of Annuminas, were lost together in a shipwreck in the far northern sea. These latter two are the focus of the titular quest of the book discussed here.
Polar bears?
Woolly oliphaunts?

Yes, please.
Palantir Quest is a true tour-de-force adventure. It ranges across Middle-earth, from Minas Tirith to the far north, and many familiar sites in-between. It even moves into territory only hinted at by Tolkien, including a hazardous sea-passage to an incredibly ancient ruin on the last bit of land remaining from the great continent of Numenor, which was drowned beneath the sea due to the hubris of its folk. If that last reminds you of Atlantis, it should; the tale of the Numenoreans, Aragorn's ancestors, is, indeed, Tolkien's take on the Atlantean legends. It's not an exaggeration to say that this quest is for lost artifacts of Atlantis, to help rebuild an ancient civilization that fell to its own folly and the anger of the gods.

This is what is called an "event-based" adventure, as opposed to a "site-based" adventure. However, many of the events take place in certain sites, so, in effect, this book is a pretty decent balance of the two. "Event-based" adventures have a negative connotation to some, since such adventures acquired the reputation of having things happen beyond the will or ability of the player's characters to change them. In effect, the players and their characters would become spectators to a story, not forging their own destiny. At their worst, these kinds of adventures are likened to amusement park rides through "haunted houses" or "jungles," where the riders are in no real danger, but also cannot truly interact with what's going on. They're also called "railroads," since they only go in one predetermined route (video games that are like this are said to be "on rails").  

Palantir Quest doesn't fall prey to much of these problems, though I'd suggest a careful reading of the book by the person who is going to run it for the other players. I suggest this so that the gamemaster (the person running the adventure) can grasp some of the possible side adventures, and add to them when and where appropriate. As an example of what I'm getting at, a brief interlude in the Barrow-downs could end up becoming a much more involved adventure of its own; also, the trek from Bree to Annuminas is glossed over, but the players, if they're like most gamers, will likely want to veer off the road or explore the wilderness. Thankfully, ICE's practices of old remain intact in Palantir Quest: there are detailed charts of random encounters possible for most of the regions passed through on the quest. I highly recommend their use, as, too, the climate tables. I'd also recommend the use of the regional sourcebooks in tandem with this book, as many of them contain information easily usable or adapted for the Fourth Age of Middle-earth.

The art is especially good in this book. While it doesn't contain the full-color Peter Fenlon maps of so many MERP books, it does have snippets of them, apparently reused from other books in the series. There are a number of other maps, of specific locations, that help detail the constituent adventures of the larger campaign, and which are pretty nice in themselves. I do have to mention the art of Kent Burles, which makes up much of the character and creature illustrations. I'm particularly enamored of his art, and it's too bad that I haven't seen more of it, either in other MERP books (besides in the expanded Moria sourcebook I mentioned and linked to above) or any other game books I've run across. Still, I greatly appreciate what there is.

I'm avoiding spoilers in this overview. I know it's an almost-twenty-year-old book, but adventures for roleplaying games are, by their nature, evergreen. I'll quote some of the text from the back cover of the book to give an idea of what the quest is all about:

Strange portents in the great Seeing-stone of Minas Tirith give promise that one of the lost palantiri of the North has returned to the lands of Men. Can the adventurers find this legendary treasure and bring it to King Elessar? Rogues of the wilds, blizzards out of the Forodwaith, and the greed in Men's hearts all conspire against them.

Plus, the player's characters get to hobnob with Aragorn and impress him. That's cool in itself.
I really like this depiction of Aragorn, or King Elessar, all decked out in his royal armor.

Being given this quest should come after the player's characters have established a name for themselves. You could start the campaign out cold, with the players using new characters generated to be powerful enough to take care of themselves in a dangerous quest, but it would be way more satisfying for them to be given this quest after several accomplishments under their belts from earlier adventures. Successfully completing it not only results in some great rewards, but also in gaining the trust of the King of Gondor. Of course, such trust means even more quests assigned...there is the issue of the still-missing palantir, washed down mighty Anduin and, likely, into the sea. Who knows where it now rests, or if someone has already recovered it and holds it, ignorant of its power, far to the South? Plus, Aragorn and King Eomer of Rohan will be striking into the East and South to vanquish the armies of Sauron's erstwhile allies, and seasoned, trustworthy lieutenants are always needed...
These places aren't going to explore themselves, after all.

This adventure has a lot of potential for fun. It's a well-thought-out campaign, taking the characters into interesting places in Middle-earth, some they will almost certainly recognize, others merely hinted at in the books and movies. It illustrates really clearly how the Fourth Age of Middle-earth was an untapped reservoir of adventure possibilities, and how disappointing it is that this reservoir was only tapped to this much depth the one time.

In my last post, I noted that it was the last of my essays and reviews of Iron Crown Enterprise's regional sourcebooks for their Middle-earth Roleplaying game. This post is the last on this blog for any MERP books. This book was unique in being a whole complex series of linked adventures, a campaign, rather than detailing a region and including adventure ideas, or an adventure of lesser scope and impact. It might interest the non-gamer who wonders what might have happened after Sauron was defeated; game adventures like this aren't necessarily the best reads for those unacquainted with roleplaying games, but this one is clearly-written enough to be worth a page-through. As such, it seemed fitting to end this series of posts with this book.

So there you have it. A series of articles about MERP books, books that I spent a lot of time poring over long after many a witching hour. In fact, these books were some of the first things I thought of when I first started this Dark Dimension blog. It's satisfying to have taken a close look at all of them, and written about them for those interested. This isn't the end of Dark Dimension, just the end of a project I didn't think I'd have the patience to complete. Stick around, and I'll see what other obscure subjects I can explore that are best perused on the other side of Midnight.