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Jonathan Rowe "deadmarlowe" (UK)
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Dove Maximum Protection Go Fresh Pomegranate and Lemon Verbena Scent Antiperspirant Deodorant Cream - 45 ml
Dove Maximum Protection Go Fresh Pomegranate and Lemon Verbena Scent Antiperspirant Deodorant Cream - 45 ml
Price: 5.00

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lovely smell, silly applicator, 15 Jun 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Being a man, and a man with the grooming technique of a Barbary ape, I'm not reviewing this for myself, but for my Loved One who requested it. You see, the Loved One is a hard-working lady, likes moving furniture about, hits the gym often, always active, but take a pride in herself, so is always hunting for fragrant odours and other anti-ick devices. This deodorant looks like the business for her because (a) Dove, a trusted brand, and (b) pomegranate, a favoured fruit. But sad to say, it did not find favour with the Loved One. No it did not.

The cream itself is sensational: smell fantastic, kind to skin, no nasty rashes or white traces on clothing. If it came in a tube or a pot it'd be a sure-fire winner. But it comes in this weird applicator. Now, it looks pretty baffling to Your Reviewer, but then most items of feminine kit look pretty baffling to me and this one no more so than most, so I hand it over to the Loved One and leave her to coo and ooh over it. But instead I hear clucks of rage and tuts of frustration. "Rubbish!" declares the Loved One, returning the product to me, apparently unused, "Epic fail!"

Now, I'm used to the Loved One giving up easily and I suspect that a more reasoned masculine approach will solve this, so I start trying to apply some of the cream myself, to show her how it's done. I chuckle in a patronising way and turn the dial on the base. "Like this!" I say. But nothing happens. No cream emerges. The Loved One taps her foot and folds her arms, in that way of hers. "Hang on!" I advise, now turning the dial the other way. Then I read the instructions. Then I try the dial again, then engage in a bit of constructive cursing.

You can see the cylinder of semi-solid cream inside the applicator and turning the dial ought to advance this towards a plastic mesh through which it will press itself, ready to by rubbed onto the Loved One's peachy skin. What could be more simple? Well, too simple for Your Reviewer, who returned the applicator sheepishly. In fairness, the Loved One has managed to coax some of the cream out and declares herself satisfied with its effects (and Your Reviewer can attest to how fragrant and soft she is) but she finds every use of the device an exercise in frustration. The search goes on for an unction, balm or elixir worthy of the Loved One's fair complexion because Dove, you've invented a device too simple for us to use I'm afraid.


XMI Xmini Max Duo Portable Mini Speakers for iPhone/iPad/iPod/MP3 Player/Laptop - Gun Metal Grey
XMI Xmini Max Duo Portable Mini Speakers for iPhone/iPad/iPod/MP3 Player/Laptop - Gun Metal Grey
Price: 32.64

5.0 out of 5 stars Little sonic grenades that nestle in your palm, 21 May 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I break out the Xmini speakers, link them up like a daisy chain and show them to my friends, who are unimpressed because they look like small grey dustbins. So I turn my iPod on at full volume and their eyes bulge as the room reverberates. It's a bit like being inside a bell. OK, so it's not block-rocking, but it comfortably fills a suburban dining room with bass-heavy sound. People have to raise their voices to be heard over it. "Quite loud isn't it?" I hear them say, or possibly "White towel dizzy fit?". The speakers themselves vibrate angrily on the glass tabletop and start hopping their way towards the table's edge with each thump of bass, like a pair of blind frogs tethered together. Dropping the volume to 70% calms the frogs and they stop hopping and vibrating. Also, we can comfortably talk over the music now.

"Good bass sound" someone says. We all nod. In fact, the bass is meatier and more resonant than, for example, my car stereo or PC speakers. Memo to self: try the Xmini out in the car.

"Bit tinny though" someone adds. Well, yes, you can't change the laws of physics. Heavy metal and dance-pop suffers worst from this effect, but jiggling the iPod's treble compensates somewhat. Still, if you're going to headbang while making a metal salute, you probably want some big industrial speaker stack in front of you and the Xmini is never going to compete with that. Switching the music to something that starts at the tinny end of the musical spectrum (i.e. Simon & Garfunkel) and the effect more or less disappears. So: ideal speakers for acoustic folk or cool jazz. I pop the cork on a crisp white wine, to get myself into the mood.

A long car journey gives me the chance to try out these little sonic bombshells (which do have a quirky, military look to them) in an enclosed space. And see what they can do with classical music and showtunes. Strings swell out and fill my car at once. The effect is rather like an airbag going off: too loud at 100% and 30mph, but still perfectly audible on the M6 overtaking trucks.

Destination hotel room gives me a chance to explore the other end of the Xmini's capacity - how does it do quiet? Midnight guests in rooms to either side probably don't want to explore my Jazz Funk back-catalogue after a long day in conference, but I want to hear the music distinctly while reading in bed. This is the Xmini's strong suit, because the sound is crisp and distinct at low volumes.

18 hours of battery life, eh? I leave the things on overnight and check them out again while brushing my teeth the next day. No discernible difference. This is good, because I never remember to recharge anything.

So I'm happy with my little music grenades. I've named the left one Hugo and the right one Ximinez. They work best in enclosed spaces (the all-around sound projection blows away in a strong breeze) and are a gift for jazz, folk and ballads. The bass is up for a bit of a rumble with rock and dance music, but the tinniness can be distracting. Soft surfaces will stop them leaping about so much at maximum volume and a corner placement concentrates the effect, reducing tinniness further. Yes, for the same money or a bit more you could buy some entry-level bookcase speakers, but try putting those things in your pockets.

For portable speakers that look a bit like Daleks, these chaps are loud and longlasting and more than enough for serenading anyone in the bath, the bedroom or the overtaking lane on the M6.


Coming of the King: The First Book of Merlin (Spectra)
Coming of the King: The First Book of Merlin (Spectra)
by Count. Nikolai Tolstoy
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably the most amazing Dark Age fantasy novel ever written, 18 Feb 2013
Got to say, I entirely disagree with the negative reviewers. This book is a literary tour de force. I read it in the 80s as a student and it blew my mind. I come back to it regularly, just to delight in the craftsmanship and erudition on display. This is an esoteric adaptation of Welsh mythology into a narrative that veers between witty, scurrilous, poetic and downright mystically intense; that would be enough to make a great book (read the passage about the far-famed farters of the Isle of Prydein and if you're not laughing you're clinically dead), but then Tolstoy goes further, shifting to the measured metrical tone of Anglo-Saxon epic for the Beowulf chapters, pastiching the Kalevela for the Finnish chapters, dipping into the Red Branch for the Irish chapters, wow: his invention knows no limit. OK, if it flags anywhere it's the Latin chapters about Belisarius' campaigns, where the tone becomes Gravesian historico-political narrative, but they kinda have to be there to balance the other voices clamouring for space here. This is the James Joyce of historical literature; the fact that a libel trial impoverished the guy and robbed us of the sequels is a major blow.

If you want to do some pre-prep, Tolstoy's non-fiction Quest for Merlin makes a nice study guide. Yeah, it helps if you know your Beowulf, Ulster Cycle, Red Book of Hergest, etc but if you don't, it's still readable as a masterclass in wordplay. If you don't like that sort of thing, then of course there's the Marion Zimmer Bradley, Bernard Cornwell, etc school of Celtic adventure-romance. I'm not knocking them (hey, I love 'em), but they're bodice-ripping potboilers, this is the Matter of Britain.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 28, 2013 7:19 PM GMT


All the Wars (Ltd. )
All the Wars (Ltd. )
Price: 13.66

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great tunes, dumb lyrics, a band with nothing to say, 20 Oct 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: All the Wars (Ltd. ) (Audio CD)
Indie-proggers The Pineapple Thief are letting us know their new CD is a Very Important Album Indeed. We've got the arty cover in the classic style of Storm Thorgerson, the deluxe book presentation and lots of songs that have WAR as an ongoing motif. So, it's going to be a solemn prog-rock meditation, then, like Pink Floyd's Animals, perhaps? Or maybe Radiohead's Kid A?

The Radiohead allusion doesn't entirely mislead, with singer-songwriter Bruce Soord coming on like Thom Yorke in mannerisms, even if he lacks the Radiohead frontman's vocal athleticism. It's not noodly blues like Floyd, though: this is heavy rockin' music, with sawing guitars and pounding drums, softened only by a wash of orchestral strings, some sinister choirs and the odd electronic beeps and buzzes. The tunes are strong and catchy, if a little samey and over-reliant on chant-along choruses -you know, the way The Muse can be? It demands to be played loud, maybe while driving fast, and for a prog rock band that has to be a compliment.

A lot of the songs are clearly built from the ground-up around some quite interesting guitar riffs and the acoustic bonus disk will please those who like a forensic examination of the structure and development of The Song. Tracks like 'Warm Seas' and 'Build A World' have especially powerful, even thunderous, hooks while the final 9-minute odyssey 'Reaching Out' reaches Wagnerian proportions and builds to a delirious, symphonic climax with wailing guitars and throbbing cellos merging into a wonderful cacophony. Top marks and tick the box marked "Grandiose".

But, oh dear, oh dear, this is also dumb stuff. Great packaging and razor production wedded to strong hooks and insistent melodies all put into the service of... a sort of Sixth Form adolescent poetry runner-up, all snide and bitchy polemics at the girlfriend-who-just-didn't-appreciate-me. I'm afraid so: it isn't about WAR at all. No. War turns out to be a big metaphor for (shudder) RELATIONSHIPS. Really really glum relationships. Total bummers, in fact.

So, 'Burning Pieces' isn't about the use of bunker-buster bombs in contravention of international agreements, no: it's all about "the hell inside of you". And 'Last Man Standing' isn't some ironic dissection of US foreign policy, no: it's about how some girl "drove off and left me here". Even the title track turns out not in fact to be about All The Wars: it's about crying and falling out with someone. So when we get to songs like 'Give It Back' we know it's not going to be about an Israeli-Palestinian Two-State Solution, no: it's about begging someone to reciprocate "a little love".

Now, I'm an old romantic and I'm as susceptible as anyone else to a weepy ballad and an angry kiss-off. I like Beck's Sea Change and Jackson Browne's I'm Alive and even Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. I even get a kick out of Don't Leave Me This Way, Don't You Want Me or I Will Survive. But Soord's brand of romantic miserabilism tests my patience because it's so banal. "I cannot tell you why I adore you" he whines in one song; "I don't know why you say the things you do" he moans in another; "I don't know why" he also admits, "I'm sat here waiting". There is certainly a lot Soord confesses to not knowing, but how to write a decent break-up song should be added to his list. I find myself casting around for adjectives to express how self-absorbed but imaginatively empty all this navel-gazing is, and I think I'm going to settle on "jejune", so I guess I should thank Soord for making me extend my vocabulary.

Look, if Soord's had a bad time with the ladies and wanted to get it off his chest, write his own Blood On The Tracks, then far be it from me to tell him not to. And you might challenge me by asking, if I'm so clever how many break-up songs have I written and the answer would be, not a single one. But lyrically, this is weak stuff: plaintively self-pitying, but without insight or wisdom or even a bracing spasm of anger and contempt. You find yourself missing the delicious shock of Alanis Morissette being "wined, dined and sixty-nined" because there's nothing that fresh, surprising or honest here.

It's all the more regrettable because the music here is so good and emotionally rousing. If Soord was singing about something important, it would be electrifying; if he was singing about something personal but with a poet's eye to truth and detail it would be harrowing. But the vague and indifferently handled military motifs go nowhere, revealing nothing new about either war or romance. I'm reminded that, though pomp is an artistic virtue, pomp without purpose is merely pompous.

A massive missed opportunity from a band who can do great tunes, but don't seem to have anything to say.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 23, 2012 7:29 AM BST


English Electric, Part 1
English Electric, Part 1
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: 11.40

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensational yokel-prog, stoking the fire of bramble and briar, 14 Oct 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
You know how you sometimes get sucked in by the hype for a new album, the Internet being what it is? And so you buy the thing on pre-order and it arrives and you play it and, huh, big disappointment? Well, that's what DIDN'T happen this time!

So I don't know much about Big Big Train, except that Nick D'Virgilio is the drummer from Spock's Beard. And the guitarist used to be in XTC. But anyway, the early reviews all ooh-ed and ahh-ed and made favourable comparisons to early Genesis, so why not give it a go? I'm so glad I did!

Well, for starters, it does sound like early Genesis on first listening. Singer, principal songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Dave Longdon DOES sound eerily like Phil Collins, except for the bits when he rather reminds you of Peter Gabriel. And the songs have that none-more-English leafy bucolic quality you associate with '70s British prog - yes, Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound, but also people like Wishbone Ash and Gentle Giant are clear influences here. So it's comforting, familiar, a warm bath - maybe a bit self-indulgent? Actually, I think it's better than that.

Opening track 'The First Rebreather' sets the tone of the album. Lyrically it concerns the heroic diver who sealed a breach in the Severn Tunnel in 1880 and the "descent into darkness" is a metaphorical conceit that resurfaces throughout the album. Structurally, it follows the multi-segment formula ordained by the Gods of Prog (ie Yes) with the obligatory jazzy keyboards and squalling guitars, but the presence of flutes, violins and cellos freshens the mix. There's a singalong chorus in there too, but stick around: this is by no means the strongest song on the album.

Sophomore track 'Uncle Jack' is where the magic begins, combining an aching, yearning sentimentality for the English countryside with affectionate memories of Longdon's uncle and his quasi-shamanic connection with the Derbyshire landscape. The multi-voice chorus builds deliriously like a dawn chorus... song thrush, yellowhammer, lacewings, ladybirds... it becomes mantric, hypnotic. It also reveals to me the compelling non-prog touchstone for this album: XTC's wonderful Skylarking, which ploughs a similar green furrow, to similar woozy effect.

'Winchester From St Giles Hill' surveys the Wessex landscape and takes in the swoop of prehistoric settlements, Roman and Saxon forts, ruins, castles, cathedrals, a dizzying tumble through the English centuries and a ramble through the stream-beds of the chalk hills at the same time. This is the best sort of intelligent music, where the poetry and the melody harmonise to complement each other beautifully. It's great.

As if sensing this could all get a bit bogged down, the following track 'Judas Unrepentant' is a bouncing pop-rock number, telling the tragi-comic tale of art forger Tom Keating, undone by his own skill and poisoned by his own paints. It doesn't really fit, musically or lyrically, with the rural themes, but every concept album has one odd-one-out track that's so catchy and energetic you're glad the band stuck it in regardless and this is certainly one of those.

'Summoned By Bells' continues where 'Winchester From St Giles' left off, now moving through the railway embankments of Leicestershire, building up to the apogee of 'Upton Heath' where anything that might be dismissed as twee or precious in the earlier songs is subsumed into an aching soaring ballad, all sunbeams and blue sky breezes and a pantheistic epiphany. I contemplated re-arranging the tracks on my mp3 library to get 'Winchester', 'Summoned By Bells' and 'Upton Heath' to flow together as a triptych of nature-worship, but somehow 'Judas Iscariot' refuses to budge, at least imaginatively: I guess the band are right and it belongs where it does. And where else could it go? Not at the end, because the penultimate track is the dark, Wagnerian 'A Boy in Darkness', the darkness being the colliery where 11-year-old Godfrey Fletcher was sent to work and also (I take it) the darkness of illiteracy, injustice and ignorance to which his generation were condemned. Strong notes of Jethro Tull emerge here in this, the most muscular composition on the disk.

We surface for air and light at the end, with 'Hedgerow' sampling the chorus of 'Uncle Jack' and painting a vision of quintessentially English paradise for the souls in subterranean darkness. Very, very sweet.

I don't normally write track-by-track reviews, but this album demands such consideration. It's a concept album in the best sense of the word and progressive in the best sense of that word, the sense of being ambitious and grown-up. The Genesis comparisons are superficial because Big Big Train are clearly following their own muse; if anything, XTC from the Skylarking/Oranges & Lemons period or Jethro Tull from Heavy Horses / Songs From The Wood provide a better template; the unified construction and nostalgic tone references Marillion's Misplaced Childhood and the wild English whimsy seems to draw on Kate Bush' Hounds Of Love. Regardless, I'll be ransacking their back catalogue looking for more clues, while keenly awaiting "English Electric, Part 2" in 2013.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 23, 2012 8:15 PM BST


Changeling: The Dreaming (World of Darkness)
Changeling: The Dreaming (World of Darkness)
by Phil Brucato
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A game of straw that you can spin gold from, 29 Sep 2012
First promised as "Faerie", the final World of Darkness RPG emerged in 1995 as "Changeling" instead. The turnabout in nomenclature is interesting and goes to the heart of my problem with this game, but more of that later.

Physically, this is the most beautiful of the Storyteller games, with lavish full colour throughout. Much here is familiar from the other games: a secret society of (near-) immortals, a supernatural subculture with a hierarchy of power and strict rules about interacting with humans, philosophical conflicts about how power should be used and an approaching Armageddon. As Fae spirits, the characters reincarnate in human bodies over the centuries, emerging in childhood or adolescence before winking out in adulthood under the pressure of Banality, a cosmic force of dullness and despair. Changelings inhabit a swords-and-sorcery world that's real for them, with dragons and magic swords and floating castles, but entirely unreal for ordinary unenchanted humans. The setting is galvanised by the return of the Sidhe, the faerie aristocracy, from Arcadia; these majestic refugees have snatched human bodies more abruptly and are setting about recreating their old feudal power structures. Meanwhile, the mystical power of Glamour is fading from the world and the Unseelie changelings are plotting to devastate or subjugate humanity in order to survive.

There's a real and very surreal appeal to all this. The idea that a tramp's cardboard shelter might be a portal into a magical fortress in which he rules as a king, or a child's tree house might be a palace, or a pen-knife might become a burning sword, all has a lot of imaginative potential. Enchanting humans and bringing them into your world is a dramatic in-game moment, up there with "wolfing out" in Werewolf: The Apocalypse or vampirising someone in Vampire: The Masquerade. You read the concept and you want to start playing...

The mechanics, however, are laborious. In the 1st Edition, they involved silly bunk cards (bought separately) and changelings were remarkably wimpy and ineffective. The 2nd edition gets rid of the cards and beefs up the changelings somewhat, but the system for casting "cantrips" (faerie magic) is strikingly inelegant and the powers are unimaginative. Compared to the fluid sorcery in Mage: The Ascension or even Vampire's pick-up-and-play Thaumaturgy, cantrips are frustrating and limited in what they can accomplish. A shame.

Similarly, the Storyteller system has a combat engine that is blunt, to say the least; some might say it's broken. In Vampire and Mage this hardly matters, since they're not combat-orientated games. In Werewolf, it was somewhat mitigated by the Garou being so overwhelmingly tough the dice-rolling was a formality. Here we have characters who will want to joust, duel and, well, swash-buckle, but the clunky and unsophisticated combat rules just aren't up to the task. In fairness, the designers recommend freeform combat, but what sort of published game advises you to abandon its own rules?

The dual setting - partly in the modern world, partly in some parallel spirit reality - echoes the set-up in Wraith: the Oblivion and suffers similar problems. It sounds great, but the moment you roleplay with it the questions start piling up. Just what is the Dreaming like? How does chimerical reality work? Can a 9 foot tall troll fit in a lift? What happens if someone parks their car where you left your faerie carriage? Once again, the 2nd edition makes great effort (ie long essays by the designers) to clarify matters, but the concept is confused at its very inception and never gets properly ironed out.

Then there's the Kith themselves the different faerie "species" if you like. One of the charming things about Vampire was that the different vampire Clans pretty successfully embodied undead archetypes from legend and fiction but were broad enough to allow for a lot of latitude in character creation. The werewolf Tribes also felt archetypal without being limiting. The traditions in Mage were more specific to US culture but were based on real-world occult practices and were therefore easily adapted. But what the heck are Boggans and Nockers? What's the difference between a Troll and a Redcap? A test of a game is whether you can fit a well-known legendary original into it and, sure enough, Dracula slots nicely into Vampire and Merlin fits well into Mage. But how would Changeling systematise Oberon and Titania? Or Llew of the Long Hand and Blodeuwedd Flower-Face? Or the Little Mermaid for that matter? Although the game poaches a few names from folklore, the kiths feel hokey, modern and contrived. Some of them are memorable (like the whispering Sluagh) but none of them feel authentic and all of them limit you to roleplaying a narrow type - Satyrs are lecherous party animals, Boggans are humble homebodies, Nockers are grumpy mechanics. How tedious.

Despite all this, I've returned to Changeling often and run some very enjoyable games. What other RPG lends itself to playing children terrorised by a demonic librarian, pensioners trying to escape from a fortified retirement home and old gods helping the Resistance against the Nazis in WWII Norway? But all of these stories had a narrow focus and involved quite a lot of wrestling with the mechanics, concepts and the Kiths. I always want to re-write the Kiths.

White Wolf themselves never seemed satisfied with the game. Some sourcebooks (notably Dreams and Nightmares) were inspired oddities, but the scenarios supporting the product were, dare I say it, banal and focused on a political revolution plotline that suited vampires better. The game never found its own style and theme, was farmed out to another company then withered away. That's Banality for you.

Changeling: The Dreaming has a great idea at its core - a brilliant, mercurial, ever-adaptable idea. Unfortunately, the setting and mechanics for deploying the idea as a game feel hastily contrived and thrown together. Crucially, there's no real feel here for what "faerie" means and when the designers gave up on creating a Faerie RPG and opted for humdrum changelings instead, they perhaps sold this game's soul in order to meet a deadline. Imaginative Storytellers and indulgent players will, like Rumpelstiltskin, spin gold from the straw on offer here and the 2nd edition goes some way towards helping you do that, but plenty of spinning will be needed first.


Wraith: The Oblivion (World of Darkness)
Wraith: The Oblivion (World of Darkness)
by Sam Chupp
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious concept, but a dip in quality control, 1 Sep 2012
Vampire: The Masquerade introduced the Gothic Punk setting and personal horror storytelling; Werewolf: The Apocalypse made it global and Mage: The Ascension made it cosmic. What would Ghost (as it was originally dubbed) do next? Well, what emerged was called Wraith and the change of name perhaps hints at the creative upheavals that created it. Mark Rein Hagen insisted the game should be existentially disturbing to play and Wraith is certainly ground-breaking and ambitious. It doesn't quite work, though.

Of course, you play ghosts (or Wraiths) and the setting has a doomed, tragic atmosphere. The Shadowlands are a decayed spirit world parallel with the physical world, periodically ravaged by soul storms called Maelstroms and cut off from the living by a barrier called the Shroud. Wraiths cluster together for safety but are governed by a brutal institution called the Hierarchy that bases its power on military might, slavery and "soul-forging" reluctant dead people into objects that have a physical reality for wraiths. Wraiths experience paranoia, persecution and the ever-present threat of being sold into slavery or hammered into household objects.

On a brighter note (perhaps), wraiths are driven by Passions that reflect what mattered to them in life and keeps them in the Shadowlands. By haunting the living, wraiths "feed" off mortal passions that resemble their own. They also guard the Fetters - people, objects or places - that keep them safe from the Maelstroms. Catch is, the Hierarchy forbids you from crossing the Shroud and comes down pretty hard on wraiths caught messing with the living. In fact, the Hierarchy has its own agenda and wants to induct you into its Legions of the Dead and send you into battle against the forces of Oblivion, a sort of gestalt entity representing absolute entropy, served by swarms of hideous spectres.

Spectres are the external "baddies", the monsters lurking in the cracks in the Shadowlands. The psychological horror comes from the fact that you have one inside you and will turn into it one day. Every wraith has a Shadow, their own dark side, whispering and tempting them. It can offer great power, but accepting its help makes it stronger. Eventually it will take over.

The Shadow is the most dramatic innovation in gameplay here. The rules suggest another player becomes your Shadowguide and you theirs. You roleplay each other's Shadows and plot to subvert each other's hopes and dreams. Yeah, grim.

And this is where the problems start. The setting is gripping and the conflicts are fascinating and seriously grasped. The gameplay is the problem. Running each other's Shadows is, for any group of players who aren't semi-pro improvisational theatre veterans, a frustrating experience. Either the Shadow gets neglected as everyone focuses on their main character, in which case a key aspect of the game is missing, or else it dominates all interactions, in which case players fall out and nothing gets done. The safest option is to let the Storyteller run the Shadows, but this places a huge demand on her to be constantly roleplaying these inner monsters while refereeing a story about conflicts with outer monsters too.

It isn't just Shadows that present practical problems. The whole concept of the Shadowlands is, at best, ambiguous and, at worst, hopelessly muddled. Just what exactly are the Shadowlands like? What occupies the spot in the Shadowlands where a tree or a car or a building stands in our world? Do wraiths get forced to go incorporeal every time a car or a door or a person or even a falling leaf passes through them? Or are there no cars, doors, people or falling leaves in the Shadowlands? The rulebook is unclear and later supplements show that this confusion was never resolved by the designers. Sure, wraiths can go hang out in out-of-the-way places, but the rules suggest the dead gather in Necropoli within big cities and try to stay close to the people who remember them. These questions aren't just theoretical: as soon as you start the game players will (rightly) ask, What does it look like? Can I go there? Does this thing exist in the Shadowlands? And the Storyteller has a headache trying to answer, because the question is unanswered at the deepest level of game design.

To a lesser extent, the Hierarchy is problematic too. So Hierarchy wraiths wear masks and chains do they? Why? And where do they get them from? Who's running the Hierarchy, given that most wraiths care only about chasing around pursuing their Passions? Just thinking about the whole chain of command structure and spirit economy (given a workover of relentless tedium in several sourcebooks) drives the central absurdity home. Why would someone dead for 200 years with a passion for designing Neo-Gothic churches end up as a centurion in some ghostly army? Why would anyone?

It's not that these questions are unanswerable (supplements like The Hierarchy and Sea of Shadows: Storyteller's Guide to Tempest have a good stab at it), but that the ambiguity is in the central concept itself, so no amount of worthy essays by subsequent designers really feel like they're properly fixing this world, making it feel plausible and intuitive and consistent. Eventually, White Wolf got frustrated with the game and wiped it clean out of their continuity with a spectral Götterdämmerung that annihilated the Hierarchy and destroyed everybody's wraiths, sort of the designers' equivalent of kicking the Scrabble board into the air and shouting "It's all a stupid game anyway".

Now, look. We're all grown-ups here (at least, if you're interested in a game like Wraith I assume you're either a grown-up or a very precocious adolescent). We can make this game work. We can tweak the background till we're happy with it, or until the cracks don't show too badly, and each group will find its own way of getting round The Shadowguide Business. And if you put the work in, there's a really good roleplaying experience on offer here, something quite unlike any other game. But you have to put the work in; unlike the previous World of Darkness games, wraith comes to you under-developed or, shall I say, half-baked. It has at least been half-baked... to see what a game looks like where the concept is still at the "raw ingredients" stage, you need only look at what White Wolf did next with Changeling: The Dreaming.


Mage: The Ascension (World of Darkness)
Mage: The Ascension (World of Darkness)
by Phil Brucato
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tour de force of philosophy, wit and high adventure, 29 Aug 2012
Almost certainly, the most mind-bending game to have come out of White Wolf Studios. Quite probably, the most philosophically ambitious roleplaying game out there. In my opinion, one of the most exciting RPGs you can play.

It's all about magick [sic], the power to reshape reality in line with your beliefs. The players are exceptional individuals who have Awakened to the true (flexible, subjective) nature of reality and find they can bend it to their will. At first, they need the props and tools of an occult or esoteric belief system to hep them with this - pentacles and wands, prayers and chanting, ether goggles and VR helmets - but as they grow in power and insight they learn to ditch these crutches and warp reality at a whim. Altogether now: "Cool!!!"

This odd notion, that reality is a point of view and the strongest will gets to make it the way they want it, is essentially post-modernism applied to magical realism and the authors have done their reading: if you want to wade off into the deeper waters of semiotics, deconstructionism and the works of Foucault, Baudrillard and Derrida then this game serves as a fine springboard. Most players will just want to fly, make stuff explode, step through to the spirit world or travel in time, which is fine by me.

The player characters come from a ragtag coalition of mystical Traditions who used to find their magic and miracles (in the context of this game, they're the same thing) easier to do, until the masses embraced science and stopped believing in sorcery. Belief, you see, is what we're fighting over, and if the masses went back to believing in wizards and saints and shamans then magic would get easy again, dragons would fly and so would broomsticks, but your TV would stop working.

To stop this happening, we have our antagonists: the Technocracy. These are Awakened mages too, but they pursue Science and Rationality instead of mysticism and superstition. They've sold the new scientific reality to the masses and now they police it with genetically engineered Men In Black and killer cyborgs. As if that wasn't bad enough, reality tends to be democratic and back the majority, so when mages pull off stunts that ordinary people would find incredible or unbelievable a force called Paradox descends, like some cosmic policeman, to put everything back the way it was and punish the offender.

The implications of a setting like this are immense, but the default premise is that mages wage a sort of guerilla war against the all-powerful Technocracy, protecting the last mystical places and creatures and seeking out Ascension, some transcendental state where magick can flow freely and everybody can enjoy the reality they want, without having to fight about it. To mix things up a bit, the Marauders are mad mages who've lost their grip on any sort of agreed-upon reality and the Nephandi have a take on reality that involves serving hideous Demon-Gods and Outer Things. This last bunch owe a huge debt to H.P. Lovecraft and tie Mage in with other World of Darkness games, especially Werewolf: The Apocalypse.

Most RPGs claim to offer limitless scope for storytelling and adventure, but with Mage the claim is actually true. The action ranges across the world, since all humanity's occult, religious and alternative science traditions can be turned into magickal Traditions and the Technocracy serves as a fine metaphor for globalism, post-colonialism and aggressive secularism. But the setting also extends to the Umbra, or spirit-world, and the Heavens and Hells of every religion, the Underworld of the dead, the moons of Jupiter, the Hollow Earth of pulp action stories, the far future and the ancient past. If it's in a belief system, then it has a reality in this game.

Of course, this great strength is also the game's weakness: it can be baffling. Several sourcebooks help tidy things up a bit and the Book of Worlds is pretty useful for exploring the spirit world and the Book of Madness looks at villains in more depth. It helps if the Storyteller has a good grip on comparative religion, mythology, world history and a dash of Thomas Kuhn's anti-realist theory of scientific paradigms. Alternatively, just run around supermarkets throwing fireballs at killer cyborgs.

The Storyteller system isn't to everyone's taste, but it works well enough for this game, since conventional violence is de-emphasised. In crossover games mages are relatively weak against werewolves and vampires, but the potential of True Magick is boggling. In later editions the designers got spooked by what they'd created and tried to "tame" the game, limiting what mages could get up to and accomplish, but this Second Edition gets the balance about right.

And then there's the the setting which is is unashamedly American, which is fine: it's an American game. The Traditions embody various archetypal figures from the American counter-culture (the Cult of Ecstasy are beatniks and hippies, the Verbena are neo-pagan tree-huggers, the Virtual Adepts are Internet anarcho-hackers, etc) and the Technocracy is, well, it's The Man and the Traditions are trying to, y'know, Stick It To The Man. If you're British, you might find these stereotypes a bit remote,or even silly, and prefer to play the Traditions straight - after all, we have an actual Stonehenge and our druids don't need to be ersatz New Agers. Frankly, any Storyteller who can get her head around the game's premise will be just itching to start translating its ideas into her own (sub-) cultural setting.

A final note: twenty years on from its first release, it's absolutely striking how prescient this game was. Now, we have anti-globalism protesters, eco-activism, the Anonymous computer hackers collective, religious fundamentalism, a widespread acceptance of relativism in liberal circles and the emergence of virtual reality as a mainstream concept. Applause where it's due, to Stewart Wieck, Mark Rein Hagen, Phil Brucato and the rest: Mage is your magnum opus and we are so not worthy!


Werewolf the Apocalypse
Werewolf the Apocalypse
by MitchILL>Prescott Byrd
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Werewolves saving the world = awesome!, 29 Aug 2012
This game is almost worth reading purely for its imaginative and original take on werewolves and its apocalyptic vision of environmental collapse. It's also a hugely enjoyable Tabletop Roleplaying Game. Lavishly produced and durably bound, it remains great value for money if you can pick up a copy from Amazon Marketplace.

The premise is that the players are members of the Garou, a race of shapechanging guardians defending holy Mother Earth from, well, from us humans really. Right at the start, there's this shocking flip - of course we regard werewolves as evil monsters, but that's because WE are the real monsters. The Garou have a doomed nobility to them, guarding the vanishing wilderness, striking out at the developers and polluters, but always dwindling in numbers. These werewolves aren't cursed humans and their state isn't infectious; they're shamanic saints and holy warriors of the Earth Goddess with a history going back to the Stone Age.

This would be a compelling idea in its own right, but the game gives this conflict a cosmic dimension. As well as fighting the earth-raping despoilers in the material world, the Garou can "step sideways" to the spirit world to wage a parallel battle against the demons of pollution, poison and perversity. Lurking in the background is the Wyrm, a spiritual manifestation of death and corruption that infects humans and spirits, marshalling an army of mutants, zombies and monsters against Earth's furry champions.

On a political level, the Garou are a house divided, so whole games can focus on their own internal conflicts. Some Garou tribes are descended from wolves, others from humans; some call for the brutal culling of humanity, others want to educate and save mankind; some think the battle is to be won in the spirit world, others on earth. There are the ancestral kings and leaders and the new upstarts and the modern urban werewolves who control the spirits of electricity and technology.

The game uses the Storyteller System, which has its critics, but the basic premise can easily be extracted and applied to any other fantasy RPG. It would be interesting to cross the game with, say, Call of Cthulhu, Fudge or GURPS.

There are some criticisms. The game is heavily combat orientated, but the Storyteller System uses a particularly blunt and inefficient combat system whose failings are only highlighted every time the werewolves frenzy and attack.

The Garou society and culture is an interesting mixture of tribal practices, animistic religion and medieval real world societies (eg the Get of Fenris are modern day Vikings, the Black Furies are Greek Amazons, the Wendigo are Native Americans). This can be a bit hard to get your head around. Similarly, it's a bit hard to imagine what it's LIKE being a werewolf, how they live, how they grew up. The game gives a lot of articles, short fiction and cartoons to help illustrate this, but you'll be tempted to spend further cash on the separate Tribe Books or the Werewolf Player's Guide, which sure adds up to a big spend.

Similarly, the spirit world (or Umbra) is a curious place that can be hard to visualise. Some sample spirits are provided, but if the players are going to be spending a lot of time here, the Storyteller is going to want Umbra: The Velvet Shadow and/or Book of the Wyrm to flesh things out.

If you already play the other World of Darkness games, then Werewolf is a great addition. It gives a cosmic and philosophical framework to the ancient war between vampires and werewolves and many of the same concepts reoccur in Mage: The Ascension and Wraith: the Oblivion. However, it's a violence-heavy game and Storytellers who want to emphasise spirituality, indigenous cultures or the environment might struggle to rein in many players' natural inclination to "wolf out" and kill things. In crossover games, werewolves tend to overwhelm other characters too.

A brilliant idea, then, and topical too (even now, 20 years after its first publication) but a complicated and confusing setting that needs a lot of fleshing out and a rules engine that is inadequate to the frenzied mayhem the heroes are capable of unleashing.


Werewolf: The Apocalypse (World of Darkness)
Werewolf: The Apocalypse (World of Darkness)
by Mark Rein-Hagen
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Werewolves saving the world - awesome!, 28 Aug 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This game is almost worth reading purely for its imaginative and original take on werewolves and its apocalyptic vision of environmental collapse. It's also a hugely enjoyable Tabletop Roleplaying Game. Lavishly produced and durably bound, it remains great value for money if you can pick up a copy from Amazon Marketplace.

The premise is that the players are members of the Garou, a race of shapechanging guardians defending holy Mother Earth from, well, from us humans really. Right at the start, there's this shocking flip - of course we regard werewolves as evil monsters, but that's because WE are the real monsters. The Garou have a doomed nobility to them, guarding the vanishing wilderness, striking out at the developers and polluters, but always dwindling in numbers. These werewolves aren't cursed humans and their state isn't infectious; they're shamanic saints and holy warriors of the Earth Goddess with a history going back to the Stone Age.

This would be a compelling idea in its own right, but the game gives this conflict a cosmic dimension. As well as fighting the earth-raping despoilers in the material world, the Garou can "step sideways" to the spirit world to wage a parallel battle against the demons of pollution, poison and perversity. Lurking in the background is the Wyrm, a spiritual manifestation of death and corruption that infects humans and spirits, marshalling an army of mutants, zombies and monsters against Earth's furry champions.

On a political level, the Garou are a house divided, so whole games can focus on their own internal conflicts. Some Garou tribes are descended from wolves, others from humans; some call for the brutal culling of humanity, others want to educate and save mankind; some think the battle is to be won in the spirit world, others on earth. There are the ancestral kings and leaders and the new upstarts and the modern urban werewolves who control the spirits of electricity and technology.

The game uses the Storyteller System, which has its critics, but the basic premise can easily be extracted and applied to any other fantasy RPG. It would be interesting to cross the game with, say, Call of Cthulhu, Fudge or GURPS.

There are some criticisms. The game is heavily combat orientated, but the Storyteller System uses a particularly blunt and inefficient combat system whose failings are only highlighted every time the werewolves frenzy and attack.

The Garou society and culture is an interesting mixture of tribal practices, animistic religion and medieval real world societies (eg the Get of Fenris are modern day Vikings, the Black Furies are Greek Amazons, the Wendigo are Native Americans). This can be a bit hard to get your head around. Similarly, it's a bit hard to imagine what it's LIKE being a werewolf, how they live, how they grew up. The game gives a lot of articles, short fiction and cartoons to help illustrate this, but you'll be tempted to spend further cash on the separate Tribe Books or the Werewolf Player's Guide, which sure adds up to a big spend.

Similarly, the spirit world (or Umbra) is a curious place that can be hard to visualise. Some sample spirits are provided, but if the players are going to be spending a lot of time here, the Storyteller is going to want Umbra: The Velvet Shadow and/or Book of the Wyrm to flesh things out.

If you already play the other World of Darkness games, then Werewolf is a great addition. It gives a cosmic and philosophical framework to the ancient war between vampires and werewolves and many of the same concepts reoccur in Mage: The Ascension and Wraith: the Oblivion. However, it's a violence-heavy game and Storytellers who want to emphasise spirituality, indigenous cultures or the environment might struggle to rein in many players' natural inclination to "wolf out" and kill things. In crossover games, werewolves tend to overwhelm other characters too.

A brilliant idea, then, and topical too (even now, 20 years after its first publication) but a complicated and confusing setting that needs a lot of fleshing out and a rules engine that is inadequate to the frenzied mayhem the heroes are capable of unleashing.
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