Chill November’s Surly Blast

OUT OF THE BOX
1998-11-03

Whether that refers to the weather outside or to my reaction to the three-four interesting yet flawed products under discussion today, and whether the one has anything to do with the other, can be left as a discussion for the student. Be that as it may, only the thinnest threaded theme connects this week’s gallimaufry, so prepare to wander a bit with me, won’t you?

Egyptomania!

I may be unfairly responding to Thomas M. Kane’s GURPS Egypt (128 pages, $19.95) not as the book it is, but as the book in my imagination that it fell short of being. Palladium’s Valley of the Pharaohs by Matthew Balent, and Iron Crown’s Mythic Egypt by Earl Wajenburg, both approached the task of presenting Ancient Egypt as the natural roleplaying setting its history and mythology make it; I thought Wajenburg came closer to success. But — and perhaps this was just the Nephilim line developer in me — I always thought that something better was waiting, something that would bring it into focus and drag the mummies kicking and screaming out of their tombs to raven among the kohl-smeared living.

I had high hopes that GURPS Egypt would be that game; Jon Ziegler’s GURPS Greece presented a solid take on “Heroic Age roleplaying” that showed real experience and real promise, and Ken and Jo Walton’s GURPS Celtic Myth, although something of a wash as a Celtic myth sourcebook, really exceeded itself in capturing the flavor and Otherworldly beauty of Celtic Epic gaming. But GURPS Egypt doesn’t quite grasp the nettle; and annoyingly, there’s one or two places where the real potential shines through. The chapter on Egyptian magic, for example, is one of the best summaries and guidelines on the topic I’ve seen in a while; it does an excellent job of putting a truly Egyptian flavor into the relatively colorless GURPS Magic system. The first thirty pages, on Egyptian daily life in Pharaonic times (GURPS Egypt only goes to the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty; from there you have to skip ahead to GUPRS Arabian Nights, which is a great history/culture book, but skimps on the flavor of the Nights themselves) are competent and well-framed; a historical campaign can be more than two-dimensional tomb art after reading this. The bestiary is well-done, useful and surprisingly comprehensive, too.

But the sections on the history and the gods (two relatively key sections for a book on Ancient Egypt) fall into the “too long for a summary, too sparse for a setting” trap. To an extent, GURPS China had some of the same flaws, although it didn’t have many of GURPS Egypt‘s successes. The section on Akhenaten and Tutankhamen manages to be almost boring (nearly impossible given the topic), for example, and the sidebar on “Hitler and the Hittites” is just plain ludicrous (perhaps this stems from the bibliography, everything in which, with three or four exceptions, is either outdated or unreliable). The gods get even shorter shrift, being consigned to the sidebars of a pedestrian retelling of the Theban mythic history. Given the amount of thought that went into, for example, GURPS Religion‘s clerical magic, and Kane’s obvious grasp of Egyptian magic, a reversal of emphasis would have made better roleplaying material and better reading. The “Egyptian Campaign” chapter begins well, by giving any number of possible “sponsors” for a group of Egyptian PCs, but the adventure seeds just take up space.

Graphically, the book is more of a mixed bag than the last batch of generally-successful GURPS sourcebooks; Ann Dupuis’ maps are, as always, a delight, and about half the art is pretty good to very good (there’s someone with an illegible signature and a pointillist pen-and-ink style who works excellently for Ancient Monument type illos). Unfortunately, the rest sort of isn’t, and the header fonts and “papyrus” sidebar screens just look cheesy. As a whole, then, GURPS Egypt really isn’t. Rather, it’s something of a hybrid, just like Anubis — half man, half jackal.

Not Egypt, But An Incredible Simulation

Well, really more of Alexandria plus Baghdad plus a dash of Constantinople, and it’s all in the Arabian Nights spirit rather than the Egyptian Evenings tradition, but what do you want from a segue? In the world of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms is the Big Ball of Everything. Orcs, drow, elves, halflings, gnomes, Pronoun’s Adjectival Incantation and Odd-Name’s Adverbial Device all rule here, without regard for cohesion or flavor, in the most successful fantasy world of all time. (Spooky thought.) Steven E. Schend and Dale Donovan’s Empires of the Shining Sea (a box containing a 192-page book and a freaking enormous two-part full-color medium-detail map of said empires, $29.95) is the “Arabian Nights” part of said Realms, and like most of those parts, doesn’t entirely disappoint. (It’s any two given parts that break me out in hives when I contemplate that they’re supposed to be neighbors.) The book is certainly impressively-enough detailed, although the eyestraining type doesn’t exactly make up for the occasionally overboiled prose. (“Amahl VI was a military man, a warrior with a history of strict but fair leadership among his officers and troops, whom he led in the eastern campaigns…” and so on and on.) But, at least there’s some there there, and a DM looking for what people in Calimshan eat, and the rules of “face” and family pride, and the nature of the fourth emperor of the eighth age, and whatever, can find it eventually. The real problem with Empires of the Shining Sea is that it’s a decent, well-developed (I won’t say overly well-developed) Arabian Nights world with Forgotten Realms-style bog-standard fantasy welded painfully onto it. Although the lynx-riders are cool.

Calimport (96 pages, $16.95) is the capital of Calimshan, and is just a wicked, wicked city — as wicked as a PG-13 rating can get you, at least. I love urban roleplaying, and urban settings delight me; Calimport is a noble try by Steven E. Schend and has at least as much potential as any other AD&D city, and perhaps more. The maps, by Todd Gamble, are top-notch, even if I would have given some of the streets names if it were my version of Alexandria. There’s lots of gameable details, and the waterfront district of Erare Sabban is interesting in that it’s the safest waterfront district in Calimport; an original notion, and an interesting variant on the “town the dungeon delvers return to” trope in AD&D. However, the key to running an effective urban RPG is the DM’s knowledge of the city, and there’s no index, no summaries, no starting points besides reading the whole book. This isn’t made any easier when the unstapled cover slips off the booklet, and this without a map on the inside cover or any other good reason to avoid staples. C’mon, TSR, for seventeen bucks, shell out for a stapler.

Down By The Old Maelstrom

The city of Diodet, centerpiece of Hubris Games’ Maelstrom Storytelling supplement Tales From the Empire (96 pages, $15), is another kettle of fish. It wants to be Vienna, crossed with New Orleans, I think. (Both jazz and opera are Diodet’s passions, it seems, which might mean that it’s supposed to be Paris, but it’s not.) This city springs, like the world of Maelstrom before it, from the mind and pen of Christian Aldridge, and (I’d guess) from a bunch of things that archetypally seem cool to him. Hence, jazz and opera, and omnibuses and gaslights and airships, and dueling and manners, and coffee and opium.

Since I think all those things are pretty cool myself (except, of course, for the opium — kids, don’t do opium, or you’ll fall into the lacquered clutches of the fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu and be forced to toil on his giant centipede farms forever), I enjoyed my trip through Diodet, annoying “Dio” slang and all. (There’s a trick to writing successfully in a made-up slang; Heinlein could do it, Aldridge doesn’t seem to have it quite down. I certainly don’t, which is why I don’t try.) But the trouble with a setting made up of elements which have only their creator’s vision in common is that said elements don’t often cohere well without the creator present; you don’t get a sense that there’s really a “there” there. With the best of intentions (and despite some very nicely-sketched scenario outlines — so far, that’s been a big and consistent strength of Maelstrom; its sense of story), Diodet doesn’t entirely gel. Part of that, of course, might be intentional; the world of Maelstrom is ever-shifting, although Diodet is supposed to be the One Fixed Point. Part of it, I’m afraid, isn’t — Daedalus’ Nexus: Infinite City is a model of a successful “interdimensional city that feels like a real one.” On the other hand, if you’re running a Maelstrom game (or an even-odder-than-usual Castle Falkenstein game), there’s enough Diodet here to put your own spin on it and solidify it for your game.

The maps in this book are the best of the lot both as maps and as evocations of a place; Ivan E. Ramirez’ draftsmanlike work blends well with the “sketchbook” imagery that Maelstrom aims for, and the majority of the art in Tales From the Empire is more than passable (one particular ink wash of a fencer is nigh-superb), and even the howler exceptions (there’s one portrait drawn by someone who apparently has never seen a human head — which might make sense given the world of Maelstrom but sort of jars on us human readers) don’t break the mood the book works to convey.

Kenneth Hite is the author or coauthor of roleplaying game books from GURPS
Alternate Earths
to Mage: the Sorcerers Crusade and the Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG; line developer for Chaosium’s Nephilim RPG; and editor or assistant developer for companies including Chaosium, Steve Jackson Games, and Last Unicorn Games. His column of general weirdness, “Suppressed Transmission,” now appears weekly in Pyramid Magazine. He deserves some credit for writing this entire blurb without once using the word “brilliant.”

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