Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Xas Irkalla! Horror Role playing by the genius, James Vail. Don't miss this one!

From Xas Irkalla

I happened upon Xas Irkalla by a happy accident.

I was cruising around Blogger and found mention of a KickStarter campaign that looked interesting.  So I went to take a look

I was impressed by what I saw and what I read, so I wrote a blog entry of my own to encourage people to check out the genius that is James Vail.  When I first wrote that blog I had not had any contact with James.  You can see that entry HERE

Now I've had the opportunity to read Xas Irkalla and below I'm going to give it my review as a book and as a game.  But before I do, a bit of disclosure:

1) I have since had the opportunity to communicate with James Vail on a number of occasions.  I find him to be an intelligent and likable fellow. Having said that, I've made every effort to disassociate the work from the man to bring an honest review.

2) I'm a fan of horror in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft and Bram Stoker. We can discuss the virtues and failings of both somewhere else.  I bring this up because my taste in horror may be different than yours.

3) I'm a novice game designer.  There is a certain amount of observational bias involved in any assessment of a game system as I look at system design and playability.  Again, I'm working to be as objective as possible, but in the interest of honesty (and scientific accuracy) I acknowledge that I have a particular vantage point from which to view the design.

Enough with the disclosure, lets talk about the book and the game!



The art within Xas Irkalla is a black and white treat to your darker fantasies and a reminder of nightmares that plague your subconscious.   I found art that evoked the dread of ancient horrors, and images which fell outside my comfort zone.  When you're talking about horror, these are exactly the traits you want.  If this book contained an image with a resemblance of our own normalcy, then it would only have served to further enhance the the alien aspects of the dark vistas within.

If you are a fan of supernatural horror, the art within this book alone makes it worth picking up.

Game Mechanics:

Character creation is remarkable for its simplicity and consistency within the setting. Coupled with the death mechanic during play, I see no reason why someone couldn't be playing a new character within ten minutes of a character death.

I was particularly impressed by the character advancement mechanics.  Your characters have a wide array of options to pursue in their advancement, and are ultimately limited (in part) by a cap of ten ascendancies. 

The dice rolling mechanic is interesting in its simplicity but adds a new dimension of long term strategy to your efforts.  Will you risk added stress to roll more dice in your efforts? Will you brave a higher doom score and thus bring yourself closer to death?   I'm looking forward to running this game for my friends, in part to see what strategy they will employ for their dice applications.

Enemy creation is simple, and doesn't require much work for the game master to create usable opponents.  If you want to play and haven't had much time to prep, I think this is one facet of the game design that will be very popular with game masters.

You can pick up this game and start playing in ten minutes time.  Have your game master read through the book a couple of hours ahead of time and you'll be ready for a fantastic time.

Horror theme/setting:

A pleasant surprise was that the majority of page space in the book is dedicated to setting information and other game master data.

The civilizations noted carry a form of logical consistency that provide a setting backdrop for the moments of terror to play out upon.   Adventure seeds provided are relevant and intriguing.  My one critique here is that I would have liked just a little more page space devoted to each civilization.  Maybe someone can convince James Vail to create a series of supplement books, perhaps just short splat books, providing additional material for each civilization. (He hasn't expressed any such interest to me, so this is just an idea.  If you think its a good idea, comment below and hopefully he will see it.)

The psychosis mechanic is every bit as much a setting aspect as it is a game mechanic. The psychosis mechanic allows for horrific encounter generation facilitated by your players.  Honestly, I think its genius.  In many ways it echoes a principle of horror few seem to comprehend, that the darkest horrors come from within.


Page border art, and art integration is nicely done.

Flavor text is thoughtfully integrated and enhances the overall setting experience.  You can easily derive inspiration from the inset text to give birth to frightful tales for your players to confront.

I did not proofread the book for typographical or grammatical errors.  To be perfectly honest, I became immersed in Xas Irkalla and if there were any such errors I didn't notice them.  The book was well written, easy to read, and intriguing.

At 161 pages Xas Irkalla packs a lot of playable game in a small package.  I was genuinely impressed by this book.  It also left me wanting more material, but in a good way.  I finished the read through and found I would like to see James Vail add more material to expand upon his original vision.  What they may be, I wouldn't know, but I'm sure if he ever sets his hand to it, we'll see something exceptional.

My thoughts:

I want to play Xas Irkalla with old friends and see how they cope with the challenging setting, and no nonsense game mechanics.  There are very few horror games that have sparked my interest like Xas Irkalla has.  I feel perfectly justified in saying that if you are going to play ANY horror RPG this year, you owe it to yourself to play this one!

Recommended for:  Mature role-playing game players who value the opportunity to play, appreciate a challenge, and who appreciate the macabre or horrific.  Also recommended for fans of Charles Stross's Laundry files,  H.P. Lovecraft, supernatural horror, and metal fans with a flair for the horrific.

Not recommended for:  Pregnant people, hyper religious zealots, un-medicated schizophrenics, fascists, Nazis, real life cult leaders (this is another book that could give you ideas I don't want you to explore), Putin, and extra-dimensional psychic entities (I don't want you thinking we are crunchy and good with ketchup).

On a scale of one to ten, I give Xas Irkalla a solid nine for horror fans, and a solid eight for non-horror fans.

If you are fan of well crafted RPG material then I would recommend you follow James Vail on KickStarter.

For other creators, take note:  James Vail's book contains sketch material on pages 156 and 157. These are an ingenious way to credit backer support.  They also happen to be fantastic examples of the art style of the book.  Don't miss this attribution to the contribution of KickStarter backers.

Finally, this game should be nominated for awards at GenCon.  Seriously, it is that good.  So pick this one up and give the big thumbs up for a remarkable product!


Thank you for reading this latest review.

I hope you'll join me again next time!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Dresden Files: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Hello, and thank you for joining me for this review.

Today I am reviewing the fourth book in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, Summer Knight.

Jim Butcher's writing skills continued to improve from Storm Front forward and we see his ability to tell a story remains strong.    Summer Knight is the first book in the series where Butcher utilizes the Faerie courts, and Queen Mab, to facilitate the story.  Rather than seeming like a forced plot hook, Butcher masterfully blends Mab's unexpected appearance into the story with natural pace, creating a compelling story line.

Spoiler Alert:  If you have not yet read the first three books in the series, you need to take a step back and read those before completing this review.  Spoilers are ahead and they are significant. You have been advised!

The story begins in classic Harry Dresden fashion with Harry in desperate need of cash.   Enter a potential client, an alluring woman of unnatural beauty. Harry's suspicions are confirmed during the interview with his new client, and she is revealed as none other than Queen Mab, ruler of the Winter Court of Faerie kind, and a being of incomprehensible power.  Now Harry's past has caught up to him, as his own faerie godmother has sold his debt to her to Queen Mab, and she intends that Harry WILL make good on that debt.  Mab informs Harry that he can repay his debt by completing three tasks.  The first of which being to solve the mystery of who killed the summer knight.

The plot twists intricately and beautifully through this story.  We are introduced to the concept of changelings, people of human and faerie parentage who must choose which world they are to be a part of.  There is a mystery afoot, treachery at play, and what can only be described as an insane plot to destroy the world.  Leverage that with the politics of the vampire war and the White Council tasking Harry to help Mab (or else!) and you see the much abused Harry Dresden placed into one of the most daunting challenges of his career.

My thoughts: 

This book could be twice as long and still be filled with the elements at play it already has.  The story moves quickly through winding paths of conflicting interests.  One of the underlying story elements this novel establishes is that where faeries are concerned you have to make your own choices.  The fay will put you in positions where you don't seem to have much of a choice, the options may be horrible, in order to manipulate into doing what they want. Yet, you always have a choice on whether to play their game or not. 

Mab's offer to Harry, for him to become the winter knight, is an unpolished jewel in the Dresden Files story line.  Mab repays the current winter knight in this novel for his deeds, and throughout the series and leading up to the novel "Changes". Harry Dresden's decision to reject Mab's initial offer haunts the series in many ways.  Butcher manages to build upon the events in Summer Knight masterfully, as Harry's decisions in this book set him upon a path that strengthens him, and eventually puts power into his hands, of a most terrible sort, when he most needs it.

Jim Butcher picks up the pace in the Dresden Files with this tale, as the stakes in each novel hereafter are dire.

Recommended for:  Everyone who has read the first three books, fans of faerie tales, anyone who enjoyed modern fantasy, and aspiring writers who want a good example of how to integrate plot points.

Not recommend for: People who haven't read the first three books of the series.  You really don't appreciate this book if you don't have the backdrop of the series to help you understand some of the underlying tension.  Summer Knight's plot points do rely on existing story material, so read these books in order.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Ghost Assassin: An indie comic book

A first for this blog, I'm reviewing an indie comic that isn't actually out yet!
From the talented people at DarkSlinger Comics,
Ghost Assassin Issue One, launched on KickStarter today, January 23rd, 2018.

I've had the opportunity to speak with the creators and read through the KickStarter material, and I have to tell you, I am excited about this comic!  So this review is about what I've read, why I think its a cool campaign to support, and to give you easy access to check it out.

Enjoy this preview!

What it is:
A new comic from the talented team at Darkslinger Comics.

From their campaign:
"The goal of this Kickstarter is to raise funds for the printing of issue #1 of the new Ghost Assassin ongoing series.  The first issue of Ghost Assassin is print ready.  All artwork, coloring, lettering and graphic design for the first issue are complete.  Issue #1 is a 32 page full color comic written by Adam Watson with artwork by Joel Cotejar and Charles Carvalho with coloring by Edward Bola and Gulliver Silva.  The cover for issue #1 is penciled by Joel Cotejar with coloring by Ceci De La Cruz."

Ghost assassin tells the story of David, an assassin living with the sins of his past.  This is a literal truth as he sees the souls/ghosts of people, including those of people he killed.

What excites me about this book is the unbridled potential of this new series as an ongoing story, coupled with great art, and a story theme I can sink my teeth in.

What I've read:

David is ruthless in that he has no qualms about killing.  Its natural for him, which is a terrific train for a professional killer.  Having to live with seeing the ghosts of people, especially the people whom you killed, is a neat twist that I see a tremendous amount of potential in.

Why I'm exited:

The concept is intriguing.  I haven't tried to pry the story out of the creators, beyond what they are doing as their theme and some juicy bits they let slip (check out their podcast to learn more on that), but I imagine a number of possibilities.

Living with the ghosts of those he's killed means that David is literally haunted by his past. Is his ability to see the unquiet spirits of the dead what lead him to be so callous about taking life?  I really look forward to discovering the layers of this character issue to issue.

Why its a cool campaign to support:

1) Indie comics are the crucible of original thought for today's comic book fans.  Your choices aren't limited to just the major publishers anymore.  Indie comic book writers and artists are producing intriguing stories with high quality art all the time.  This is a great example.

2) Really impressive backer reward levels.  This campaign is put together in a simple and straightforward way that lets you get copy as reward, but that's not all!  There is a premium reward tier where YOU can be illustrated as a ghost in an issue.  That is a really great reward so if you can afford it, take advantage and be the drawn right into this intriguing story.

Check out the campaign for some tantalizing tidbits and to get your hands on this great new comic from the talented team at DarkSlinger!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Laundry Files: The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

Welcome to my review on another fine work by Charles Stross.

Today's subject is "The Fuller Memorandum", oh boy!

Bob finally has a manager he respects and gets along with.  If the universe of Charles Stross has proven anything, it is that Bob cannot have a happy work life.  Keep in mind that while Bob reports to his manager on the organization chart, he works for the Eater of Souls, in the person of Angelton.  While this distinction is subtle, it places Bob in a position that is grooming him for greater responsibilities while teaching him (the hard way) about following the demands of a rigorous civil service command protocol that relies on a seemingly arcane chain of command.

This book is so much more though!

From the previous books we've been treated to tidbits about Angelton and his power both within the organization and his supposed arcane might (which is routinely hinted at).  Angelton is so much more than he appears though, and this book grants the reader some firm insight into the depth of this character.  In other words, PAY ATTENTION to Angelton!!!  There will be a test afterward that will jeopardize the sanctity of your sanity.

There are bad guys in this story too, and they are of the most devious and dangerous sort.  In any intelligence organization personnel are always a concern.  You trust people with secrets even though humans are notoriously terrible at KEEPING secrets.  So when reading this book enjoy the irony of the vulnerability of an organization which routinely defends the Crown against alien intelligences from beyond space-time, which finds itself in jeopardy from human actors.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and all of it is important.  I'm going to keep this short, with no spoilers.  You'll thank me after you read the book.

This book, like all works by Stross, is a masterpiece of the writer's craft.


My Thoughts:

This book stands well on its own even without the support of the previous books to bring you into the world Stross has crafted.

That said, if you haven't read the series yet ... start at the beginning. Seriously, you'll be grateful you did.

Bob ends this book with a large dose of mental and physical trauma.  The effects of the Fuller Memorandum haunt him (literally) through the series to date.  This is a book you absolutely must read if you intend to go any further in the series.  Savor the experience.

Recommended For:

Fans of the previous Laundry Files novels, law enforcement officers (seriously, you'll enjoy this),  people in the intelligence community, IT personnel, fans of Lovecraft's work, anyone who loves a good spy thriller, and Sidney (please read these... please).

Not Recommended For:

Fascists, Nazis, traitors, real life cult leaders (this book will give you ideas I don't want you to have), Putin, people with psychiatric disorders, and alien entities from beyond space-time.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Dresden Files: Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Hello.  Thank you for joining me for this review.

The Dresden Files has been a fan favorite for most of two decades now.  Today, I'm reviewing the third book in the series, Grave Peril. 

Grave peril further immerses the reader into the Dresden files setting.  In this book, we get a lot of information about ghosts, death, and the true nature of the vampires of the Red Court.  The reader is also introduced to examples of two other factions of vampires in the character of Thomas of the White court of vampires (incubus and succubus who feed on the life force of victims they seduce) and Mavra of the Black Court (classical vampires of the Bram Stoker variety).  Mix in with this a cameo appearance by a dragon, the revelation of the nature of ghosts, Harry's faerie godmother (yikes!), and some robed characters who re-appear in later books. 

Grave peril also teaches us a lot about Harry Dresden as a person, and reflects his underlying humanity.  In spite of impossible odds, against all reason, he launches an assault to rescue his girlfriend/lover Susan and a sex addicted victim (Justine) from the Bianca of the Red Court.

There are a few underlying story elements that deserve recognition:

1) In many ways this story is facilitated by Bianca's need for revenge on Harry, as he revealed the ugly truth of her nature in their last encounter.  Harry bested her in that meeting, but Bianca never forgot it.  She orchestrated a plot that put Harry in a no-win situation that should have cost him his life, and his soul.  In the end, her search for revenge is frustrated, she is downed by the ghosts of her past (literally) and through her actions, she brings about an incident that the supernatural community cannot ignore.  Bianca's rise to power, is reflected upon later in the series, as she amassed a considerable amount of mystical power in a short time.  It is later speculated that unseen puppeteers who have been throwing the supernatural world into chaos may have facilitated her rise to power.

2)  Thomas of the White Court:  There are a lot of spoilers I will not dish out here.  I do want to point out to you, that you should consider Thomas's actions carefully.  As the series evolves you'll find that this is a vampire who is acting with a purpose, but not one you would immediately expect.  If you read through the series, do so in order of release, so that once you get to "White Night" you can fully appreciate the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle actions from Thomas. 

3) Harry and Susan, the star crossed lovers:  Remember the old saying, that a man will destroy himself for love and quite readily?  Remember also the old saying, that you should be wary of the man of peace who is provoked to war?  Yeah, keep those in mind.  People do crazy things for love, and Harry Dresden as a young man in his twenties and early thirties isn't the most emotionally stable character to begin with.  Add in the horrors he has faced, the stress of his chosen profession, the power he wields, childhood trauma, and it should be evident that this is a person you should not wish to push over the edge.  Bianca made the mistake of counting on Harry's humanity to be a weakness, on his commitment to his organization to be his constraint, and she made a horrible mistake in doing so.  If you wondered whether Harry Dresden loved Susan before, this book will put that question to rest.

4) The underlying story of Harry's faerie godmother.  This storyline is still very much in play.  Pay attention to her.  She's tricky.

5) (Spoiler) ~ The events of this book lead the White Council and the Red Court of vampires to war.  It gets ugly in the streets from here on and the war is an ever present back drop from here all the way to the end of "Changes".  War changes people, and in the Dresden Files, this war changes Harry Dresden a bit at a time. 

6)  The underlying story of the manipulation of the supernatural world's communities.  There are things in this book that don't seem important (at all) until way later in the series.  Beware of strangers giving strange gifts.

Edit:  Item (7)  I can't believe I forgot to include this originally.  Michael Carpenter is in this book.  One thing you can count on, is that when Michael Carpenter is involved in a Harry Dresden story, things are going to be extremely dangerous for Harry.  So dangerous in fact, that only the knight of the cross can keep him safe.  Michael Carpenter is an incredible character, so savor his every appearance.


My Thoughts:

Grave Peril is another great example of the evolution of Jim Butcher's writing skills.  You will see that by the time he has written this book, his narratives are much more compelling and his crafting of his story is fabulously done.  As fine a work as this book is, Butcher continues to improve his story telling and his writing abilities over the next several books.  Grave Peril gives you a glimpse at the great write Jim Butcher becomes.

Recommended for:  Everyone who read Storm Front and then read Fool Moon.  Fans of supernatural romance, romantic tragedy, stories of loss and revenge. 

Not recommended for:  People who have not read Storm Front and Fool Moon.  Seriously, read those two first, then come back to Grave Peril.  It makes a world of difference in how you perceive the character interactions. 

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