Book Review: The Etched City

I’d been wanting to start doing some book reviews as I work my way through the massive backlog of bibliage that bows my shelves, but I realize, after a couple tries, that I don’t really enjoy that. I hate doing synopses, and a number of the books I’ve read lately feel a bit beyond the level that my critical skills can fully encompass.

So instead I’m going to try talking about individual concepts that interest me in or around the books I’m reading.

First up is K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City, and asymmetry.

I’ll start by saying that this book is really frickin’ good. Anyone who can pull together flavors of Marquez, Mieville, and Squaresoft into a single book and make it work is doing something right. There’s depth and juice in the worldbuilding, there’s interesting philosophical freight and multifurcate narrative, and there’s a dude who forges his dead wife into a battleaxe. What more could you want?

When I took an initial stab at writing up a review, I had a paragraph about how I felt one of the book’s weaker points was its asymmetry. The book’s first fifty pages are set in a war-ravaged country (this bit read like a novelization of a console RPG in a very weird way), and then the protagonists go to the city of Ashamoil and pretty much stay there for the next three hundred-odd pages. The story is ostensibly a braided narrative about two estranged ex-revolutionaries and their tribulations in Ashamoil, but the vast majority of screen time goes to Gwynn, the brooding badass with the gun and the sword and the other gun.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I think that the asymmetry may be an effective narrative device. It’s unbalancing. You expect the narrative to shift from Gwynn back to Raule any minute now, or from Ashamoil back to the Copper Country or on to some other peregrination, and it consistently doesn’t. The net effect is that you lose your expectations, leaving everything possible. This may be essential to what Bishop is endeavoring.

The Etched City is basically magical realism set in a constructed world, which I’ve never seen before. Constructed-world fantasy tends to be naturalistic; the given circumstances may be different, but the world’s details proceed logically and predictably from those given circumstances. This is typically because it’s hard to make a story work when the audience lacks a touchstone to orient themselves by. In most magical realism, the familiarity of the real world is the axis mundi which makes the dream logic of the narrative comprehensible. Constructed-world magical realism lacks this anchor. I’m not sure how Bishop pulls it off, but my hypothesis is that she starts off with a fairly gritty, naturalistic base (the section in the Copper Country) and then uses distancing techniques like asymmetry to slowly ease the reader into the more dreamlike world of the later Ashamoil sections.

I have trouble describing this book in ways that don’t make it sound disastrous, but somehow it works. I recommend it highly.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: Three Books of Occult Philosophy

Last night I finally slogged my way to the end of Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, one of the major tomes of Renaissance magical thought. It is a mighty slab of words, and the translation preserves that (possibly intentional) opacity that is typical of magical writers; it was a pretty long trek. I’ve been reading it for months.

At the end, my feelings are mixed. I wish I’d picked up more of the classics at some point in my education; I kept wanting more background in Aristotle and Pliny. Certainly I have a better sense of what magic was about at the dawn of rationalism now. I know the humors better, and I finally know the difference between a cherub and a domination. The astrology was a little past me at points, and a lot of the angelology would have been way more comprehensible if I knew some Hebrew. On the other hand, Three Books also has the most accessible introduction to Kabbalah I’ve read yet.

Basically, I learned a lot, but I’m not sure it was worth the massive investment of time. And I certainly wish I’d finished it before I started working on GURPS Magic.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: The Disinformation Book of Lists

I like The Disinformation Company. I like Russ Kick. They do a lot of cool work distributing strange and wonderful information that more people should know, and they do it with style. Alas, I think this set me up to want more from the Disinformation Book of Lists than it could deliver.

To be fair, I would have loved this book with a deep and abiding passion ten years ago. It’s possible that I have simply lost my hardcore edge. But I think it’s more than the Book of Lists is … well, the best way I’ve been able to put it is that it’s conventionally subversive. Lists of heroin brand names, smart drugs, and incidents of homosexuality in animals are interesting, but not exactly mind-blowing. It’s nice to know that Sherlock Holmes was a coke fiend, but my world is not rocked. Nor is it really a shock to learn that characters in the Bible do horrible things.

There are a few lists in the book that are more powerful. I think these are the ones that take advantage of the power of the list format by showing the reader patterns of things that they might have otherwise dismissed as a freak accident. Most people have heard about a nuclear test that dumped radioactive dust on a nearby Nevada town; it’s harder to accept the story as a regrettable mistake when you’re presented with a dozen separate incidents. The same principle works with botched executions and prisoners exonerated after years behind bars. It does not add any power to the aforementioned list of heroin brand names.

I think the book works best, however, as a source of cocktail party conversation. The right type of person can draw a lot of fodder from all the ways people have died at Disneyland. I certainly have.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: Sirio

Sirio is the autobiography of Sirio Maccioni, proprietor of the famously exclusive Le Cirque in New York. It begins with his childhood as an orphan in Tuscany during World War II and chronicles his ascent through the ranks of the restaurant industry over five decades and four countries.

I like nice restaurants, and I have a soft spot for a good Horatio Alger story, so I thought it would be a fun read. And I really enjoyed the first half of the book. His tribulations as a busboy and waiter in the postwar restaurant scene, at the verge of the nouvelle cuisine, are interesting social history and a ripping yarn besides. A brush with the forbidden ortolan and chasing down a cruise ship in a Cuban police boat are fun grace notes to the series of ever more responsible jobs that are the hallmark of the up-from-poverty narrative.

Around halfway through, however, with the closing of the famous Colony, where Sirio had been maitre d’, and the opening of Le Cirque, his own venture, the snap begins to fade. In a way, there’s nowhere left to go but down, and the youthful exuberance and relentless progress fades into an endless series of battles with the New York Times restaurant reviewers and his own chefs.

You can’t edit a man’s life, of course, but I would have loved more pages on the scrappy waiter and fewer on the beleaguered restaurateur.

First published on LiveJournal

Review: Bluewater Grill

888 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025

Bluewater Grill is a nice-looking seafood place along the route by which I take Jen to work, and on several occasions we’ve said, “We should go there sometime”. Well, tonight we finally got around to it. And this is not your grandfather’s seafood restaurant.

Oh, wait. Yes it is.

The food wasn’t bad, mind you. It was just … unexciting. The free bread was an uninspired sourdough. It was warm, which was nice, but the crust was unexciting and chewy and the crumb was uniform and bland.

We ordered wine and appetizers to start with; Jen had a glass of Pinot Grigio and a cup of clam chowder, and I had a glass of Riesling and a bay shrimp cocktail. The waitress warned us that the Riesling was sweet, but I like sweet wines (what can I say? I’m a wuss). Jen’s wine was good, and the clam chowder was tasty but very rich. My shrimp cocktail was also good, though I probably would have eased up on the cocktail sauce a little. I’m not sure what to think about my Riesling. I now understand what they mean by wines having “apple notes”, because my wine tasted like cider. This was OK — I like cider — but it was a little weird. Still, so far so good.

In passing, I want to note that there was a massive box of Old Bay on our table.

For the entree, I ordered grilled catfish, and Jen ordered scallop and shrimp skewers. We both got sliced tomatoes and sauteed spinach as sides, because we are people on a diet, not professional food critics. And here is where Bluewater Grill didn’t come through for us.

The spinach was OK, but swimming in oil, which made it a little unctuous for my taste. The tomatoes were quite good; firm and sweet and huge. Should you go, I recommend the sliced tomato side. Alas, my catfish was profoundly bland. It was cooked well — tender and moist. Just deeply uninteresting. You would never know it was grilled. Jen’s skewers, meanwhile, were similarly bland. It took a while to find any evidence of grilling on the scallops, and the pieces of seafood were spaced on the skewer with unappealing squares of bacon, charred at the edge and underdone at the center. Judging from the look of the food, they used the exact same seasoning on the catfish, the scallops, and the shrimp. That just doesn’t seem right.

We also had to ask three times for water, which was annoying.

In the end, Bluewater Grill seems to have good-quality ingredients, but not a lot of ingenuity in putting them together. If I were to go again, I’d focus on dishes where the flavor of the seafood itself is paramount. The shrimp cocktail was good, and I’d bet the raw bar might be tasty too. More assertive fish like salmon might also fare better with their chef.

Food Review: Mulligan’s

2650 Broadway
Redwood City

It turns out to be very difficult to review a bacon cheeseburger. It’s hard to pick what distinguishes a particular bacon cheeseburger from the many I’ve had in the past. However, I discovered this after I’d already ordered my meal at Mulligan’s, so I’d best make my best effort nonetheless.

They make a good bacon cheeseburger at Mulligan’s. It’s got a good heft to it. The bacon is good and thick. They cook it medium rare when you order it medium-rare. The beef is good quality and well-seasoned. They put mushrooms on mine; I’m not clear on whether that’s standard. Indeed, I wish they hadn’t. The mushrooms added unnecessary moisture to an already juicy burger. The wetness was in fact my only real complaint; I like a juicy burger, but I prefer not to be juggling napkins while I’m eating because my food is oozing onto my hand and I can’t put the burger down because the plate is covered in drippings. I think the mayonnaise was a contributor here as well. I like mayo on burgers sometimes, but mayo’s main value in sandwiches is as a moistener, and this burger was in no need of extra moisture.

I ordered a side salad. It was unexciting — green lettuce with some tomato and cucumber and a watery Italian dressing — but I don’t expect salad perfection from a bar/restaurant with seven TVs of football on.

Jen ordered the French dip. She said it was pretty good; the beef was not at all gristly, and they toasted the bun, which was a nice touch. However, Mulligan’s is one of the places where they put cheese and onion on a French dip, which Jen thinks makes the sandwich bitter and interferes with the true French dip experience.

She got fries as a side; I wish I’d followed her lead. The fries were crispy but not overdone — very tasty. A little salty, perhaps.

Each entry was, as I recall, $7.95, with the side included. On the whole, it was a reasonably good dining experience. There are a lot of places you can get decent bar-style food for eight bucks, but Mulligan’s is as good as most of them, and if the urge strikes while you’re in Redwood City, there’s no reason not to stop in.

Originally published at LiveJournal

Food Review: US Chinese Food

2490 El Camino Real
Redwood City, CA

I have a taste for bad Americanized Chinese food. I credit it to the year when a New Haven hole in the wall called Main Garden was my source for several meals every week. As such, I tend to hunt down low-end Chinese food wherever I go, in hopes of finding food both tasty, ample, and dirt, dirt cheap.

US Chinese Food isn’t a bad entry in the field. It’s a cheery, brightly-lit place as steam table cafeteria-style restaurants go; it lacks the plasticized aura of Mr. Chau’s (a local Chinese fast food chain, for those outside the Peninsula area). A combination plate, which includes an entree and either chow mein or fried rice (or half and half), is $3.95. The service is friendly and quick, and the food is pretty fresh for steam table food (they do one thing I haven’t seen before: they wrap half of each large tray in plastic wrap, thus staving off the inevitable drying out).

I had beef broccoli this time out. It was good, but not exceptional. The beef was fine; not delicious, but not rubbery or unappetizing. The broccoli was surprisingly fresh-tasting. Most steam table beef broccoli has been steamed to within an inch of its life, and this entry was actually firm and crunchy. I would have been a bit happier with this development if they’d used less stem; fresh crunchy florets are great, but you want broccoli stem a little more thoroughly cooked. The sauce was OK. Sweet and unassertive.

I got half and half for my starches. The chow mein was good — greasy, but that’s to be expected. My only complaint is that the noodles were a little…institutional. They were square, and a little doughy. Very filling. The fried rice was mediocre; nothing was specifically bad, but there was a flavor to it that just didn’t seem right. (It’s surprising to me that relatively few restaurants around here make good fried rice. Gin Mon back in Belmont made a darn good fried rice, and I’ve been to a couple places up in SF that were good, but a good fried rice seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Safeway used to make a decent pork fried rice, but these days they only seem to have chicken fried rice, which is not as good.)

Jen got the General Chicken (one of the peculiarities of modern Chinese food is that there seems to have been a consensus, at least here in the Bay Area, to drop the whole debate about how to spell Tso/Tsao/Cho/Mo/whatever and just call the spicy-sweet fried chicken bits dish General Chicken. Better than Default Chicken, I guess). The general consensus is that it was pretty good. Not very spicy, and probably would be better if it were fresher; this tends to be generally true of fried chicken dishes in steam table restaurants. Jen agreed that the starches were unexciting; the square noodles seemed to bug her more.

Still, when all is said and done, it’s a decent Chinese lunch for 4 bucks a head, and the portions are quite hefty. They don’t take credit cards, but they have an in-house ATM. They have tables in the store if you want to eat in, and they have parking in back. I suspect I’ll be going back the next time I get the yen for a big mess of cheap Chinese.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Food Review: Tacos El Grullense

El Camino Real at James
Redwood City

Tacos El Grullense is a small, scuzzy-looking taco stand near the Redwood City Caltrain station. In accordance with the Law of Taco Stands, therefore, it has really good food.

The menu is simple: tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tortas pretty much exhaust the options. Lest you think you’re in some sort of downscale Taco Bell, however, they offer many of the more exotic Mexican meats — sesos, tripas, and the like. (That’s brains and intestines, for the non-Spanish-speaking readers)

Jen got three beef tacos, for a dollar each. They were small, maybe three inches across, but the price was right, and I’m told they were excellent.

I got a torta, for $3.75. Tortas are Mexican sandwiches — not entirely unlike a taco on a grilled roll rather than a tortilla. They’re really good; tortas have become my measure of a Mexican place in the last few years. This may shed light on why I don’t like Chevy’s; they don’t have ’em.

The Tacos El Grullense torta is really, really good. The roll is a nice hefty round number, probably a good six inches across, grilled to just the right point between crispness and chewiness. The onions, lettuce and tomato are nice and fresh. And the beef is superb. Seasoned and grilled to perfection, and chopped coarsely. The salsa is excellent, too; hot enough to leave a low burn in your mouth, but not hot enough to make you stop eating.

Unusually for a torta, it doesn’t come with sour cream or guacamole. I was a little disappointed at first, but it does make the dish healthier, and I didn’t miss the fatty goo when all was said and done. The only real downside is that the beef is chopped small enough that some is prone to fall out; a saucier torta avoids that.

On the whole, however, I was mightily pleased. Good Mexican food for less than five bucks including drinks (sodas are a dollar each), close to home. I’ll definitely be going back to try some different dishes and different meats.

Probably the carnitas, though.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Review: The Two Towers
(Dec. 13, 2002)

To begin with … this ain’t a movie review. I haven’t seen Two Towers yet, so don’t get all excited. This is a review of the video game, which came out some time ago.

I was looking forward to this game. Friends who’d seen it spoke glowingly of it, advance screenshots were beautiful, I like Lord of the Rings, and I like tactical fighting games. I was looking forward to it a lot.

Sadly, I am disappointed.  EA did a lot of things right, but they got a few things wrong – woefully wrong – and those things cast a shadow over the rest of the game. There is probably an audience for this game, but it isn’t me. Let me explain why.

Every level of The Two Towers follows the same basic theme: after selecting a character (you can play Aragorn, Legolas, or Gimli), you move through a linear level wherein you hit things and kill them, followed by a boss fight which has some secret which you must figure out in order to win. There are slight variations: some levels give you an ally to fight beside, and others give you a time limit, but these changes rarely make a difference to gameplay.

This scheme is a classic model for a side-scrolling fighting game (which The Two Towers essentially is, despite its 3D environment), but frankly, it bugs the bejesus out of me. The linear mook-thrashing is unimaginative but harmless enough; boss fights with secrets, however, always seem to me like a ploy to keep the strategy guide publishers afloat. Boss fights with slightly unorthodox challenges are one thing, but they should never make your normal moves and tactics useless. The best boss fights combine your normal tactics in new and unusual ways, requiring you to think a bit without completely changing the skill set that the game requires.

These boss fights are particularly aggravating in The Two Towers because its boss fights often have multiple stages – one which is relatively straightforward, followed by a stage which is unbeatable until you figure out the secret. If you die, you must repeat both stages; one level even forces you to repeat the entire level!

The higher-level design is also uninspired. The game is essentially linear. You can play any of the three characters (indeed, I think you’re meant to play each of them through each level), but every character gets the same series of levels. There are a handful of unlockable levels and special features that depend on getting your characters to certain levels, but it’s pretty much a straight shot from beginning to end.

Aside from the level design, the game has uselessly deep tactical gameplay. It has a wide variety of moves and combos, but they don’t readily come into play. New moves are introduced very poorly. After a brief tutorial level which explores the basic three moves – fast attack, strong attack, and parry – you’re on your own. Every button press initiates a fairly long animation, so it’s difficult to tell exactly what combos are doing. Gameplay is sufficiently fast and furious that there’s never really a good time to experiment and figure out how to make best use of your combos. It’s possible that long practice would allow the full range of attacks to come out, but the learning curve is steep — too steep, for my taste. I found myself mostly just button-mashing, as did everyone else I know who tried to play.

Ranged weapons, too, are frustrating. There’s no first-person view mode, and aiming is unintuitive. Sometimes your bow or axe locks on readily, while other times enemies seem to be out of your field of fire entirely.  It’s particularly annoying when you consider than the game has no jump ability: an orc archer can be standing on a short stump, shooting you repeatedly, and yet for some reason you just can’t hit him.

At this point, the game’s problems start to have second-stage effects. The issues with combos make the advancement system, otherwise clever and well designed, essentially useless. After every level, you earn experience points. These points seem to be based on how many kills you get, and how clean the kills were. When you kill an enemy, a word appears on screen – either “fair”, “good”, “excellent”, or “perfect”. The end screen for each level counts how many of each type you got, and awards points accordingly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain how it rates your kills, but it seems to be related to how many hits it
took to kill the enemy, and possibly whether you were injured in the process. Experience points enable your character to gain levels and become more powerful; in the process, you get to spend points on buying new combos. But because the combos aren’t really useful,
spending those points is pointless.

On the up side, the game is beautiful. And I mean stunning. They’ve done a really good job with the graphics – from the behind-the-scenes movie, it seems that they used set designs from the actual movies, and they apparently were able to get the original actors to do the voice work for the game. There are a few decisions that initially seem odd, but on reflection are very clever. For example, the game frequently goes from a scene from the movie to an animated cut-scene of the quality you’d expect from a good video game, and from there into actual gameplay. Sometimes, the EA cut scene recapitulates things that happen in the movie. It seems perplexing, but it makes the transition between game and movie much less jarring. The EA animation is sufficiently good that, while it doesn’t compare to the actual movie, it doesn’t give you the sense of having changed mediums. Similarly, the transition from game animation to game is smooth enough that it isn’t jarring either. Indeed, the game sometimes takes you by surprise.

The graphical implementation isn’t without its flaws. The game is really dark – physically dark. I had to turn up the contrast and white level on my TV in order to play it comfortably. The game also runs afoul of one of the demons of modern 3D games – collision.

The Two Towers, like most contemporary games, is lovingly detailed, with rubble and gnarled trees and rough terrain everywhere. However, it would take too much computing power to deal with characters and objects interacting on the same level of detail. Hence, while a tree looks like a spindly and warped sapling, the game engine treats it like a simple cylinder. This discontinuity between the visible shape of objects and their “real” shape leaves you in a bind. If the collision object is too small, characters pass through objects. If it’s too large, characters run up against invisible walls. If it’s too angled, characters get stuck on things for no apparent reason. The Two Towers has the latter two problems. There are several levels in which your character moves along a path with seemingly arbitrary boundaries; sometimes, there isn’t even a change of incline to mark the boundary of where you can go. In other levels, it’s possible to get stuck for a few seconds on an invisible outcropping. This can be crucial when fleeing bosses with powerful attacks.

One last quibble: graphically rich games are usually the best single-player games to play with spectators. The backgrounds, which the player can’t pay attention to, are worth the price of admission for the spectators, plus they get to kibitz and give the player advice. The Two Towers is impossible to do this with. When you’re watching someone play, it looks like there’s a completely obvious thing to do that the stupid player just won’t do. Then you pick up the controller, and you learn that you just can’t do it, and your aggravating friends are backseat playing until you want to throw the controller at them. It’s frustrating on both sides.

The Two Towers has things to recommend it. It’s very pretty; the unfolding plot is satisfying; the advancement system feels right; there are some fun interviews with the movie cast to watch. I wanted to have fun playing it. But I just couldn’t get past the random chaos of the
fighting, and the maddening boss fights. The tactical gameplay is too clumsy to be anything but a button-mashing game, and the difficulty is set too hard for a button-mashing game.

The last time I read The Two Towers, I thought to myself “You know, a tactical fighter set at Helm’s Deep would be really, really cool. Like Dynasty Warriors set in Tolkien.” EA almost made that game.

But not quite.

Review: Sovereign Stone

Sovereign Stone is a solidly designed fantasy game with a well-executed setting behind it. Unfortunately, competence alone isn’t quite enough to distinguish it from the hordes of fantasy games on the market, nor to bring it out from the shadow of the 800-pound gorilla of fantasy gaming, Dungeons & Dragons.

The game comes from a consortium of former TSR heavy hitters–Larry Elmore, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Don Perrin, Lester Smith…the list goes on. These are people who made D&D what it is today, and with Sovereign Stone, they’ve done more of what they do best. That’s both good and bad: these folks’ craftsmanship is evident, but the result has trouble getting away from the feel of a D&D setting, and I wonder if the game’s world was really best served by being presented as a standalone game.

The rules that Perrin and Smith have dished up are pleasingly simple, perhaps the most attractive thing about the system. Attributes and Skills are rated in dice, with d4 at the low end of the scale and d20 at the high end (a rating of d30 is possible for NPCs). For almost any task, you roll the appropriate Attribute die and Skill die, comparing the sum either to a fixed difficulty number or to the sum rolled by your opponent. You can also accept Stun damage in exchange for an extra exertion die. It’s a good mechanic if you like using polyhedra, but want to avoid complicated rules and handfuls of dice.

Character generation is point-based, though a semi-random system for generating attributes is provided. Each stage of character generation is balanced separately; attributes are paid for out of one pool, skills out of another, and advantages and disadvantages must be paired up to balance one another. Further skills, advantages, and disadvantages go along with your character’s race or nation. Advantages and disadvantages can add or subtract from certain task rolls, or can provide more intangible benefits like speaking to animals or being able to detect magic. Like the core mechanic, it’s simple, but players might chafe at its limitations.

The combat system is elegant; one attribute+skill roll determines both initiative and success. All combatants declare actions, then roll. Then each character performs his action in descending order of the sum rolled. If attacked, a character may choose to abort her action and defend, opposing the attacker’s roll with her full combat roll, or to persist with her original action and oppose with only a reduced defense roll. Damage is equal to the amount by which the attacker wins the opposed roll, and is divided into Stun and Wound points; when the total of Stun and Wound exceeds a character’s Life Points, she passes out, and when Wound exceeds a character’s Life Points, she dies. There’s a mechanic called Second Wind whereby a character can shake off in a single combat round Stun damage that would ordinarily take hours to recuperate from; I’m a little dubious about this one, but I suppose it reflects a heroic view of combat.

Magic is organized along the four classical elements–air, earth, fire, and water, as well as the element of Void, which is primarily the domain of evil. Magic is a skill, resolved with a normal attribute+skill+exertion roll. Different spells have different difficulty numbers. Magic use also inflicts Stun damage on the caster above and beyond any taken to gain an exertion die. I like the magic system; I think it’s one of the game’s strongest points. It’s simple and elegant, and the spells are interesting and flavorful. It makes me want to play a mage.

Elegant mechanics aside, however, a fantasy game lives or dies on the strength of its setting. I’m of two minds about Sovereign Stone in this regard. There’s great potential here, but the book needs more detail in important places, and the world of Loerem (which, for the record, I would take more seriously if it weren’t an anagram of Elmore) feels like a D&D setting.

By that, I mean that while the authors have created a setting with multi-layered action and intricate political interplay, it’s a world populated with humans, elves, dwarves, orks, and critters suspiciously like halflings. It works, but I can’t help but wonder why they chose to stay within traditional D&D tropes when they weren’t writing for D&D. Add in the distant gods, the evil reptilian race bent on world conquest, and the magic item that can save the world, and it seems like Weis and Hickman are returning to familiar ground (and the first person to say “universal mythic themes” gets the back of my hand). Again, it works, but I wish they’d broken the mold a little bit more.

Within this traditional framework, though, Loerem does novel things with its races. The Elves are a clan-based society deeply concerned with honor and restraint. The Dwarves are a nomadic horse-riding people who believe themselves destined to rule the entire world. I particularly like Loerem’s Orks, a superstitious bunch of seafarers with an abundance of odd customs. Finally, we have the Pecwae, a diminutive, retiring race with an unusual empathy for animals and a talent for magic. The book also describes the Taan, dreaded reptilian menace from the West, but they aren’t presented as a player character option, and they’re pretty much your typical evil warrior race anyway. I’m disappointed that while humans are divided into multiple cultures and nations, each nonhuman race gets only a single culture and nation. However, many fantasy worlds maintain that humanity is an unusually culturally diverse race, so I can’t be too harsh on Sovereign Stone in that regard.

A larger problem with Loerem’s cultures, to my mind, is the face that most of them are pretty strong analogues of Earth cultures. The Elves, for example, are clearly modeled on the feudal Japanese, to the point that the Elven political system, with its dual seats of power, almost exactly duplicates the feudal Japanese shogun-and-Emperor system. The Dwarves are Mongols, the human Karnuans are Arabs, and so on. The cultures are well-implemented, but they’re not exciting; we’ve seen these before. The most interesting human nation is Nimorea, a pseudo-African matriarchy warped by generations of exposure to the pseudo-Japanese Elves. That’s how I’d like to see more fantasy nations done–start with real-world cultures and ideas so the reader has a touchstone, but mix them up a little. This is another reason I like the Orks–they aren’t a direct analogue of a real-world culture.

Quibble though I may at Loerem’s cultures, however, its geopolitics is first-rate. The world situation is ripe for adventure on a variety of scales. On the epic scale, the evil mastermind Dagnarus and his Taan army have just appeared, their intentions unknown. They are ripe for the intervention of some meddling kids. On a less epic scale, tensions and conflicts between and within the different nations abound, from the near civil war of the Elves to the standoff between the two human superpowers to the struggle of the Orcs to win back their holy mountain. And on a still smaller scale, the game provides a variety of interesting assortments of creatures and places to discover and explore.

Some of the smaller-scale elements could stand a little better integration. I thought Loerem’s dragons were really interesting, and I liked the gigantic, magic-hoarding Bahk, but where they fit into the setting as a whole was unclear. Similarly, there are plenty of monsters, but their role in the world, other than making it more dangerous, is vague.

I also wish the book provided more detail on some elements of the setting. Take the Sovereign Stone of the title, for example. It’s a holy relic, split into one part for each major race which permits the races to create supercharged paladins called Dominion Lords. It may be Dagnarus’ ultimate goal; it may be the key to defeating him. We don’t know. Indeed, we know very little about Dagnarus, his goals, or his resources, at all. More discussion of these issues, which are important to any game using the Taan invasion as a major plot element, would be really helpful. Obviously, individual gamemasters can answer these questions to their own satisfaction, but while elsewhere the setting is full of unresolved issues that seem ripe for development, Dagnarus and the Sovereign Stone just feel…unaddressed.

I wonder whether Sovereign Stone’s future includes a metaplot. I hope not; I think a setting with as many and as diverse possibilities as Loerem is not well served by the tendency for metaplots to fix in stone what a world’s focus is. I’m pleased that Weis and Hickman set their trilogy of Sovereign Stone novels two hundred years before the current game date. However, the aura of mystery surrounding Dagnarus and the Sovereign Stone smells of a tease. On the other hand, the supplements released to date don’t seem very metaplot-oriented. We’ll see.

Another welcome addition would be some detail on daily life in Loerem; there’s excellent material on politics, military matters, and general cultural traditions, but not so much on, say, the day-to-day life of an Elf. The few exceptions, like the Trevenici barbarians, were really compelling and created a much fuller picture of the situation in Trevenici lands than of the situation in other parts of Loerem. I hope Sovereign Press chooses to detail the different cultures further in sourcebooks.

Physically, the book is very nice. It’s an attractive hardback, and seems sturdy (though I haven’t had a chance to put it to the test). The interior design is excellent: the layout is clear and readable, the text is divided into manageable chunks, and there’s just about the right amount of interior art for my tastes. One touch I particularly like is the fact that the ink seems to be a very dark brown rather than actually black, which gives the book a distinctive look–sort of antique without resorting to illegible design effects. The downside is that one of the interior artists has a watercolor-oriented style which, when combined with the brown ink, gives their pieces a somewhat washed-out look.

I’m a little less enthused about the editorial layout. The book’s organization is a little haphazard. The chapter order makes sense, and individual topics are reasonably well organized, but it’s unclear how the editors made the decision to put any particular topic after any other. Perhaps as a result of this, the authors repeatedly refer to things that have not yet been introduced. In the world section, we get repeated references to characters, people, and places which won’t be introduced for several pages. The combat section has detailed discussions of turn order and lost actions before it introduces the basic combat mechanic. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it makes you wonder if you missed something. I often flipped back looking for things I should have been flipping forward for. Finally, the book divides player and gamemaster information oddly. Instead of a general player section and a general gamemaster section, there are player and gamemaster sections for each individual topic. This makes it necessary to repeatedly flip from player stance to gamemaster stance, which can be confusing.

In the end, I think Sovereign Stone is promising, but incomplete. With the right supplements, Sovereign Press could have a really excellent game; specifically, the game would benefit from a more in-depth treatment of the different cultures in the setting, and it needs a more explicit treatment of Dagnarus’ goals and capabilities. It seems that the sourcebook The Taan may cover some of the latter problem, but a really full treatment of Loerem’s cultures is yet to appear on the horizon.

Originally published on