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Three Novels of Pulp Action and Fun

****( )

A collection of three old Silverberg novels/novellas from the '50s, very pulpy and science-light space operas, which should indicate whether or not you'd like them. From my standpoint, two of them are Silverberg's better "pulpy" novels (Starhaven and Shadow on the Stars are fine books), and the other one is a roller-coaster of action, so this is a damn fine collection. If you like the good-old-days of pulp fiction, space opera, of simple yet thrilling science fiction, you are the ideal reader.

Some of them were renamed since their days as Ace Doubles, so I'll use their new (well, originally intended) names here.

The Chalice of Death:
Hallam Navarre, Earthman adviser working for decadent a alien noble is late for work, and claims he's working to discover an ancient tall-tale: the Chalice of Life. The noble thinks this is a swell idea, and sends him off to find it. Navarre (and his two friends, a half-breed and another adviser to another noble) decide they're more likely to find the mythical, long-lost planet Earth than the Chalice, so they set off to find it.

Rapid-fire story that began as a three-novel serial, and that shows. It's all non-stop movement and action, the characters falling in and out of trouble, getting thrown in jail (repeatedly), being double-crossed, and making a miraculous discovery that will change the fate of the universe. I thought it was a little too fast, leaving it with under-developed characters and plot, but if you're okay with leaving those behind you'll get a rollicking adventure.

Beachcomber Johnny Mantell is blamed for a murder he didn't do, so he flees to Starhaven, an artificial planet-fortress full of pirates, murderers, and thieves. There, Mantell falls in love with Myra, secretary for dictator Ben Thurdan, and is caught up in a plot to overthrow Thurdan to prevent a less-beneficent dictator from replacing him.

Starhaven is a great blend of pulp action, intrigue, and from its slow speed and developments, it has stronger characters. It combines Silverberg’s wild ideas and creativity with great pacing and a balanced story arc; it’s near the top of his early novels, and I enjoyed it. Also, I dig Starhaven as a perfect pulp paradise mixed with a Bond villain's lair; great setting.

Shadow on the Stars:
Ambassador Baird Ewing heads from the colony world Corwin back to Old Earth, to requisition help against the insectoid alien Klodnoi. But he finds a changed earth, with pacifist inhabitants about to become the protectorate of another colony world. A colony world whose ambassadors believe Ewing is working against them, so he's taken into custody. He's saved by a mysterious stranger, and the next day, discovers that Earthling rebels have time-travel technologies... you see where this is going.

Many of Silverberg's early novels had glimpses of his future brilliance, straining to be something more important than a pulp novel, and Shadow on the Stars is one of the few that succeeds at doing so. It's got a strong, character-driven focus, a puzzle-like approach to time travel paradoxes, and a unique giant space battle near the end. Its finale is predictable, but perfect.

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One fantastic beginning


This is probably the best first-level module, and first Adventure Path installment, that I've run. I loved it, the players loved it, they still talk about it today.

The characters are hired to meet up with a trade caravan and reclaim an Arabesque city from gnolls, in order to restore it to a functioning trade hub; while the path goes to bigger and greater things later, here, it's low-level town reclamation and gnoll slaying. In fact, the module is kind of a low-level guerrilla assault on the gnoll-occupied village, where the players have the freedom to choose how and where they strike. Likewise, there's a lot of room for gnoll counter-attacks, or an assault on the PCs' monastery base.

And not just gnolls; there's a great variety of monsters at play, leading to some interesting and memorable combats. Best of all was the introduction of some gremlins as introductory villains. These little guys are pushovers stat-wise, but exude an aura of unluck which makes them really tough to deal with. Plus, they have a habit of hiding out in areas that have dangerous terrain features---cactus patches, for one---that has great synergy with their aura.

Granted, there's a lot more than just killin'. There's a lot of places to explore, including some interesting adventure seeds, and a set-piece mini-dungeon later in this book. The module introduces a batch of NPCs with the caravan, with plenty of opportunities to roleplay; on top of this, there's options for several of the "bad guys" to be talked/bribed into the PCs' side. And there's several locations, including the entire town, for the PCs to reclaim and occupy.

All in all, a very memorable module with a lot of grit and detail. The enemies are challenging without being overpowered, the setting is great---the art design in these books is simply stunning---and the plot is interesting and engaging. Add in the standard Path features---a bestiary, an overview of the gnoll tribes in the area---and you have a lot to work with adventure-wise. I highly recommend this Path; even alone this module is worth it.

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This Path starts with sandboxy goodness

****( )

The first module in the Serpent's Skull Adventure Path starts off with the players being shipwrecked and stranded on a jungle island. It's a massive sandbox for your players to explore while they attempt to escape. Think Mysterious Island meets Indiana Jones, with a little bit of Morrowind.

The island, Smuggler's Shiv, is filled with set-piece locales, monster lairs, and vile cannibals. Plus, there's a half-dozen fellow castaways to roleplay, each with their own... issues. Lots of wilderness survival and jungle encounters, but also several solid dungeons near the end of the Path, and some roleplay/story encounters thrown in. Also, if you want to ramp up the Survivor angle, there's disease, morale, and camp-building to deal with. Quite a lot of variety.

Really, there's a lot to do, and plenty of room for a GM to add more. The encounters are balanced; some are quite challenging, others are a lot of fun. The NPCs have a lot of flavor, plus some quests (and rewards!) of their own. The set adventure locales cover a wide spectrum, and they're all really interesting.

As a sandbox, though, the module has a lot for the GM to keep track of: the NPCs' morale and helpfulness, the camp, random encounters, weather, etc. If you're strapped for time, this is not the Path to get started on; if you like modifying and expanding pre-packaged modules, this Path has plenty of room for you to work with.

I found it a lot of fun to run, but also pretty labor-intensive for a canned adventure.

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Three HUGE Awesome Maps!

****( )

Unlike the earlier Adventure Path map folios, this one is just three poster maps of the three major encounter areas. Which isn't very helpful if you're looking for battlemaps.

They are, however, beautiful, filled with all sorts of details. And they're huge, 22" x 33", so that detail is clear. And there's a lot of it. Since these are the three big sandbox locations in the Path, I think the map folio is well worth it just to illustrate the locations for the players. Gives them a good sense of scale, putting "an island" or "a city" into perspective. (They don't have any keyed locations noted on them, which makes them perfect for a player aid.)

The first is the island of Smuggler's Shiv, which is really nice but pretty barren---it's all just wilderness, trails, and beach. Which is good because it doesn't give anything away, but bad because it shows where all the trails and mountains and stuff are, which takes away from the exploration bit. These small issues are the only reason it doesn't get five stars from me.

The second are impressive urban landscapes from cities later on in the adventure path, Saventh-Yhi and Ilmurea, which are stunning. If you're running this path, and are going to do a lot with modules 3 and 5, this folio will be a great asset. It's a great eagle's-eye view of the cities, rich with detail---tons of buildings, terrain, geographical features. Lots of locales for the PCs to go adventuring; as a sandbox-heavy Path, the folio's a great help.

I found that this folio has a lot more utility than other map folios I've bought: I can actually show them to the players, and they're of locations I'll be using for more than a night or two. (My group spent over a month on the Shiv.) Then again, I really like big location maps; if you want battlemaps for miniatures use, you'd be better off getting GameMastery Map Pack: Jungle or something similar.

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