Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Book: Back in the Saddle

 Between Two Kings by Alexandre Dumas, Translated and Edited by Lawrence Ellsworth, Pegasus Books, 2021

Provenance: Amazon. Birthday present from the Lovely Bride. 

Review: Everyone knows The Three Musketeers. Most people know The Man in the Iron Mask. But between these two posts were a slew of other tales, first those within Twenty Years Later (talked about here and here) and now those within Ten Years After, also known as the Vicomte of Bragalonne. This particular volume is the first 50 chapters of the latter book, which culminated in aforementioned The Man in the Iron Mask.

So were this a simple trilogy, this would be the "saddle" book, the one between the declaration of the problem in the first book, and the resolution in the third. But these stories of the Three Musketeers were not built as such - they were written for publication in weekly journals starting in 1847, so they are a long as they need to be. The volumes of collected work are after-market sales. And it shows - it takes its time getting places, characters can be delayed or engage in chapter-long discussions, and the pacing rolls from action-packed to leisurely. It does pose a challenge for people collecting up the stories into something less than a single massive tome. Yet every chapter holds its own as a unit and encourages the reader to follow along. Translator Ellsworth captures the flavor, flair, and completeness of the original French manuscript.

This first volume concerns itself primarily with the Return of the King, in this case King Charles II of England. Yes, we're back in England, again. We presided over the death of Charles I in Blood Royal, as the heroes were unable to completely contravene history, and now Dumas plays a bit fast and loose with the facts, making his heroes key to restoration of the monarchy. D'Artagnan, still a lieutenant in the Musketeers, has had enough of the young French King, a particularly emo Louis XIV, and strikes out on his own with a scheme to restore Charles to the throne and make a tidy profit for himself. Athos, who was the recipient of Charles I's last words, encounters the son and pledges himself to help restore the young man to the throne, powered by the sense of noble duty. Porthos and Aramis are missing from this text, except for chapters where D'Artagnan goes looking for them and finds out they just left.  Even Athos' son, the Viscomte named in the original title, is mostly absent for the first fifty installments.

Athos, who was a bit of a wet mop in the previous volume, shines here through his own nobility, honesty, and generosity. The same attributes that worked against him in Blood Royal (trust, respect, duty) now prove to be indispensable. He is respected by his potential enemies and taken at his noble word continually. D'Artagnan is more comic than usual, still very much the farmer from Gascony after all these years, and talks himself into (and out of) various messes. Ultimately, each man has his own screwball plan, and together, the plans work. But this is really Athos' book,

The Royals in these tales are generally useless. Louis XIV is kept inert while his Prime Minister, Mazarin, backed up by Louis's mother, Queen Anne, pretty much run things. Charles of England is impoverished and depressed, lacking both cash and manpower to retake his throne. Anne herself, whose diamonds drove the plot of the first book, forgets old allies and servants with alarming precision. Henrietta of Stuart, Charles II's younger sister, was horribly impoverished in the previous book, but after restoration she becomes a coquettish tease. All the rest are pretty unsympathetic, courtiers just waiting for the chop a hundred years later. 

Of more interest to Dumas are the powers behind the throne - Cardinal Mazarin for Louis, and General Monck for Charles. They are the ones that our heroes mostly contend with. Mazarin is effective but venal and greedy. Monck is honorable, such that he takes Athos at his word, and throws in with Chalres when the young King impresses him. Throughout the books Dumas was a fan of Richleau and his ilk, not so much Louis XIII, and it reflects in his treatment of the true managers of state here.

What strikes me most as I move through this book is how in politics people switch sides with frightening regularity. Enemies from the Frondeur are now respected members of the court, and old alliances and services rendered are conveniently forgotten (yes, I'm looking at YOU, Queen Anne). It is very much a case that you need a scorecard to figure out who is currently plotting against who, which Ellsworth kindly provides in extensive footnotes and historical bios. 

This volume is just the first 50 chapters of a 268-chapter story, and while it tells a coherent story, it is all warm-up for the main acts to follow, wrapping up some of looser ends from the Twenty Years After and introducing some of the new cast going forward. It breaks at a correct moment, and sets us up for the what follows. And yeah, I'm here for the ride. 

More later,

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Recent Acquisitions


So, games continue to arrive. Some are the result of Kickstarters that have come due, but some are outright purchases off the shelf.  I have read parts of some of these, and have played absolutely none of them, so these are hardly reviews and more akin to first encounters. Be advised.

Traveller: Deepnight Revelation (Martin J. Dougherty, Mongoose Publishing) This was a Kickstarter that grew like kudzu. Originally a boxed set for Mongoose's incarnation of Traveller, the campaign went so well that they just kept adding supplements, so there are six (!) hardback books attached to it by the time it arrived. The idea is that you take an exploratory starship on a 20-year(!) mission to the edges of known space and beyond in search of a potentially cataclysmic opponent. This would be a year's worth of a small company's production and several years worth of gaming and in addition to everything else the boxed set has extensive rules on running a long-term exploratory mission. However, it wrong-foots me at the start, in the fact that I can't figure out exactly how I know where the cataclysmic opponent is. It seems to just be assumed your players will have that information at hand at the start, and even the intro adventure presents the threat but does not make a hard link to the distant system to you are going to. even so, it is so otherwise complete I would strongly consider it if I chose to return to Traveller, or adapt it for a d6 Star Wars game.

Scarlet Citadel: A Dungeon of Secrets (Steve Winter, Kobold Publishing). This 208 page hardbound is a nice Kickstarter dungeon that was offered with a fully laid out map folio. I didn't get the folio, and if you intend to run this adventure, yes, spring for the map pack. In addition to having full-size playing maps for miniatures, the pack has overlays for how the dungeon changes as the players explore it. The dungeon itself has an attractive history (Sorcerer's Fortress), a reason for the creatures to be there, and, what I like most of all, is a dynamic creation, so things you do in one area affect other encounters (None of this "you hit three rooms and the fourth room is still waiting for you to come in"). Steve Winter is my regular 5E DM and I see parts of what we've been running through peeking out here and there.

The Red Book of Magic (Jeff Richard, Greg Stafford, Steve Perrin, Sandy Peterson and more, Chaosium). Hardcover, 126 pages. Runequest is my personal tsundoko - having more books than you ever are going to read, or in this case, games you are never going to use. I find Glorantha fascinating, ever since White Bear/Red Moon, and have followed Runequest through its many incarnations (including the AH version and HeroWars), yet never played the RPG. This volume is primarily a spellbook on spirit magic, gathered from many previous sources and brought up to date, and, like all of the modern Runequest material, looks impressive.

The Well (Peter Schaefer, Shoeless Pete Games) 120 pages squarebound. This Kickstarter was recommended to me by a friend (OK, Steve Winter, see above) who worked with the designer at Wizards of the Coast. The concept is compact and neat - You live in a city that is moving slowly down a great well. Below you is mystery, above you are the remains of your past. You go raiding into these past remains in traditional dungeon style, but your enemies are reassembled dead and cleanup crew. New mechanics looks good.  Once upon a time TSR was hot on the idea of a "reverse dungeon" - here you go. Yes, I want to play this.

Dune: Adventures in the Imperium  (Nathan Dowdell, Design Lead, Modiphius Entertainment) Hardcover, 330 pages. I still think the original Dune was a fantastic work of SF, and re-read it every so often. Like Lord of the Rings, its prose has the ability to suck me back in almost immediately.  But I will be honest, the series for me peaked with Children of Dune, and then sort of trailed off from there, and I never engaged with the canonical books after Frank Herbert's passing. This one was in my Friendly Comic Book store, and I was stalking it for several weeks before I made the plunge. The book itself is textually dense, first-class production, though can't yet speak to what the mechanics (a 2d20 system) are like. Impressive.

Seance and Sensibility (Finn Cresswell) 60 pages, saddle-stitched, self-covered. This one came with an apology (it was more than a year late, dating back to the PREVIOUS Zinequest) and  the designer included a slip apologizing for its lateness. No apology necessary. I consumed this simply-crafted booklet in one sitting, and emerged for the first time how the Powered by the Apocalypse Engine should work. Other PbtAE volumes should take note. The theme is Jane Austin fights cultists. Worth tracking down.

Tales of the Glass Gnomes (Noet Cloudfoundre) 26 pages, saddle-stitched cover. This is an entry from this year's Zinequest on Kickstarter, and is pretty charming, reminding us of the ultimate roots of such personal projects. It has straightforward production values and art that could fit into the original D&D wood-grain box. It presents a new culture for you gaming enjoyment that is not your standard gnomes. Worth looking at.

The Children of Fear (Lynne Hardy and Friends)  This 414 pages hardbound is the latest Call of Cthulhu hardbound, set in Tibet, Northern India, and the interior of China in the 1920's and involving the conflict between the mythical realms/cities/factions/entities of Shambhala and Agartha. While I admire the updating and reissuing of classic CoC material (Masks of Nyarlathotep, Horror on the Orient Express), it is really, really good to see new original material of this quality.  Picked up both this volume and The Red Book of Magic At Olympic Card and Comics down in Lacey. OCC (also know as Gabi's) has a lot of deep stock in RPGs and carries a bunch of indies and small press that might not otherwise see the light of day. Every three-to-five months or so, Stan! and I make a road trip down there, get lunch somewhere in Tacoma, and make a day of it. Products like this make the trip worthwhile.

Flott's Miscellany Vol. 2 ((Andrew Devenney and others, Superhero Necromancer Press) 36 pages, saddle-stitched cover, This is more of the same amusing material I had in Flott's Miscellany Vol 1, which in turn was based on the Rainy City. It has a lot of bits and bobs that can be slotted into a campaign, with a rather wry, Dying Earth (Drying Earth?) sort of vibe. I like it.

Grey Seas Are Dreaming of My Death (Derek Sotak and others). 108 pages digest, squarebound. This one missed the class picture last time, so I thought I would show it off here, in case you find a copy at the Local Game Story, or elsewhere. If you do, pick it up.

More later,