Instilling Common Sense into Players – Part 2

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0482

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Campaign Mastery Blog

Instilling Common Sense into Players – Part 2

I posted a request from a GM who needed help putting the fear of death and consequences into his players. Last week, you heard from several readers with advice and suggestions. This week, we wrap up on this topic with the remaining half of responses received. Thanks again to everyone who wrote in.

Original request and Part 1:

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Revenge of the Dead PCs

From Charles D. Shell

Okay, mrmike, I think I see your problem.

First, you suggested this was your first attempt to ‘teach them a lesson’. Well, they were probably still operating under their old assumptions: they can handle whatever you throw at them. If you want to suggest to them that these opponents are something different, here are a couple of suggestions:

1) Have them make knowledge or intelligence checks to recognize how powerful these jokers are. This is kind of metagaming, but it might serve your purpose. Roleplaying- wise, it’s a bit weak, but sometimes the crunchy bit’s work.

GURPS has an advantage called Common Sense. It means that anytime a player is about to do something the GM feels is stupid, he looks at the player and says: “Are you sure you want to do that?”

2) Before they actually encounter these badasses, show said foes turning somebody or something they know is really powerful into mincemeat. It’s a kind of “show me, don’t tell me” axiom, as from writing. I’d think twice about tackling a group I saw dismember a powerful dragon.

Either of these might work, but if not, slaughter away. Enough dead characters and people will usually learn. And if you’re worried about consequences of character death, you can always have an experience penalty for any new characters introduced or something similar.

A more sadistic approach would be to have dead characters show up as particularly lethal undead in the future, or have them form an undead adventurer group to torment them.

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It’s About Players Knowing You as A DM

From Rafe

D&D is a tough system for instilling common sense into players. The DMG sets out what the party should face per encounter, per level, per number in the party. If you follow those guidelines all the time, you’ll have a group of players that expects to face few issues.

That said, the 4e DMG says to vary the degree of difficulty, and you should. However, the first thing I would do is say, “Okay, guys. I am letting you know up front that not everything that comes your way will be easy to defeat. You may actually need to turn tail, or use terrain to your advantage, etc.”

“It won’t all be level 5 critters for a level 5 party. Sometimes it will be level 3 critters, and other times level 7. My descriptions are designed to give you an inkling as to which one of those scenarios a given encounter might be. If you decide to take on an extremely difficult fight willy-nilly, expect to pay for it.”

There’s no issue, in my opinion, in talking about this at the gaming table as a metagame discussion. After all, it’s not about the characters being fearless; it’s about the players knowing you as a DM.

If they typically have a pretty easy ride, they’ll expect that. If you suddenly throw something tough at them (despite a great description) before you’ve spoken to them about deciding to change things up, they’ll probably still think you’ve planned the encounter for their level.

Shake things up in terms of varying degrees of difficulty, but let them know you’ll be doing that!

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Give Players a Decision To Make

From Riina Stewart

I’ve had a couple thoughts about mrmike65’s request. First of all, I’m sure many people will write in and suggest that killing a PC or two should drive the point home. And if

you’re running a Gamist style campaign, old school hack’n’slash style, this is probably the right advice.

But since mrmike65 seems to have leanings towards a more collaborative style of play, I have a few tips from a story-and character-driven perspective.

I don’t kill PCs in my games at all any more, and only occasionally have trouble with PCs abusing this and acting invincible for no good reason (I also play games like Nobilis, where characters really are invulnerable sometimes, but that’s another can of worms).

Demonstrate with NPCs

There are plenty of ways of demonstrating the danger ahead of time. You can kill allied NPCs, or you can set things up with clever tricks, like introducing an NPC party that has a brief rivalry with the PCs, and beat them soundly at a friendly competition. Finding them dead further down the track tends to send a pretty clear message – these guys are better than you, and they’re dead – caution is warranted.

Break and Discuss

Sometimes all the setup in the world has no effect. The best thing to do is talk to your players out of game about what they want, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. You can do this in general terms after a session, or address it as it comes up. I think the latter can be powerful, and can avoid awkward conversations.

For example, in a recent session of a game I play in, one of the PCs had a cocked and loaded gun to his head, and decided to move and jump the guy holding it. The guy was facing him, the PC was kneeling, the barrel was touching his head, and his character was a normal human.

The GM let it happen, and my suspension of disbelief ended up on the floor in pieces (where the guy’s brain should have been). The GM was none too happy about it afterwards either, but hadn’t wanted to kill the character, and couldn’t see an alternative.

I think he should have stopped play briefly and said to the player, “If you do this your character’s brains will get blown out. There are ways this can be cool – this is a game world where alternatives of yourself from another dimension, or clones, are possible – but this version of you will be dead. Is this what you want?”

If the player had really wanted to play his double or clone or something, he could have gone ahead with it, and died then and there. If he had wanted to keep his current PC (which I suspect is what he wanted) he could have kept still and not jumped the NPC who had him dead to rights.

When players pull this stunt, they force the GM to make a decision. Kill the PC and ruin all the plots you had planned for them, and probably ruin the player’s day as well. Or let them get away with it, ruin the game’s suspension of disbelief, and encourage further liberties in future play.

Push Decisions Back to The Players

Not a fun decision. I see nothing wrong with pushing that decision back on the player – it’s their character – so they can choose how it plays out, as long as you make it clear that getting away with it is not on the table.

The best thing of all is that this is usually fun – players like making these decisions.

Players often don’t think about things from a GM’s point of view. They’re too busy playing out their fantasy, and they can get carried away with it and forget about the effect their actions have on the game as a whole.

I think it’s entirely OK to occasionally pull them up and throw them a GM style decision, especially where their character is on the line. Collaborative gaming is a two-way street – players need to collaborate with the GM as well for it to work.

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Set Expectations and Meet Them

From Heath Dobson

The key is to state up-front that this is a deadly campaign – then stick to it. Sure, they won’t believe it the first time, but when they do something dangerous, and you actually kill off the character, they will learn the lesson.

I always tell my players, “I do not save PCs from stupid player actions,” and “Not every encounter is meant to be defeated – sometimes, the best thing to do is run away, or negotiate, or even (gasp!) surrender.” What fun is a game if there are no consequences for failing?

The biggest issue with this, though, is the lack of penalty for death. So, I make a replacement character (as opposed to a player joining the game for the first time) start out one level lower than the lowest in the party – and that includes magic items.

Players suddenly feel less effective, which can be dismaying to players used to being the leader/risk taker in the party (I still make sure there are chances for them to shine, though – I want annoyance, not giving up in frustration).

Once they realize brute strength is not always the way to go, players get into the planning and strategy side of things, as well as recon and social solutions to problems.

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Attack Possessions

From DM

Killing player characters just to make them more cautious seems to be a little heavy handed. The solution I use is to destroy their beloved possessions. Not afraid of dragon breath? Have that +20 Holy Shield blow its resistance check and melt to slag. Or maybe the fire just leaves a permanent scar and reduces their Charisma by two points.

Killing someone who can just roll up a new (cooler) character doesn’t have the same effect as forcing them to live with the consequences of their actions.

Another tactic I use is to have an annoyingly suicidal character knocked out for an hour or so. They miss all the fighting and looting, and I enforce a “no suggestions from unconscious characters” rule. Kind of like a “timeout” for a six-year-old. A couple encounters like that and the super aggressive fighter in our group started waiting for backup.

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Use Situations That Demonstrate the Need For Caution

From Derek Rawlings

Good question. Here are some answers:

Use Flavor Text

“The pincer digs deep into the paladin’s leg, splitting his plate armor like it was Saran Wrap. It heaves him up like a rag doll and he awkwardly lands, blood spewing from his fresh wound.”

“Your sword rakes across its carapace, making a nails-on-a-chalkboard squeal, but it keeps advancing on you like it didn’t even notice.”

Remind the players that “it isn’t even bloodied yet” and make the monster’s actions sound casual, like it isn’t even breaking a sweat. At the key moment, when the players are down and bloody and out, give them a very clear way out.


Place previous adventurer corpses at the foot of the dangerous area to discourage entry. Make it clear that the corpses belong to experienced adventurers. Similarly, plant rumors in town about how other (clearly more experienced) adventurers have not returned from there.

Players are wont to ignore these warnings, so place a “scout party” at the front entrance that threatens them considerably.

Red Shirt

My favorite. Send an NPC with the party who shouldn’t be a slouch, and then kill them off in the ensuing combat with one punch, preferably with lots of gore. This warns them that the monster in question is one bad mutha.

And His Friends….

Place a challenging encounter against one bad guy in a dangerous zone. It doesn’t have to even be a solo monster, just one that is well above the PCs’ level that uses up a decent amount of their resources.

After this encounter is done, have four more of them show up. The PCs, with knowledge of how tough the first one is, ought to think twice before engaging the new threat.

Altered Victory

In this case, the monsters have a motivation that isn’t just killing the party; they may be content to chase off the intruding adventurers, or just may be passing by, and don’t want to be inconvenienced. Perhaps they need to take prisoners as offerings to their dark gods or some such.

Because the consequences are not fatal, it allows a DM to really let loose, and when the PCs do vanquish an enemy they previously thought unbeatable, it is definitely satisfying for them.

Deus ex Machina

Just as doom is ready to descend on the party, from a group of enemies that is too powerful to defeat, fate intervenes. Another monster, bigger and more powerful, enters the fray and the PCs are such small potatoes this new monster could care less about them.

The PCs must use the opportunity to escape. This is also the category for environmental changes at the exact right time (avalanche separates PC from bad guys, earthquake, etc.) or the bad guy realizes he has something far more important to do than just beat up the chump PCs.

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Have A GM-To-Player Chat

From Nigel Ray

How to instill common sense in players? I just tell them what I want, out of character.

In the situation as described, I would say, “Just to be clear, guys, you don’t stand a chance here, even with an ambush. Does suicide advance your characters’ story arcs?”

I have found that being upfront with my players is very helpful in keeping us all on the same page, instead of guessing what other people are trying to do.

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Run Non-Balanced Encounters

From Norman Harman

The major problem is a certain popular RPG has promoted balanced encounters that are level appropriate. Players have been instilled with a sense that every encounter is beatable, and that they should endeavor to beat every encounter.

Some things to consider:

  • Create obvious combat encounters that have non-combat solutions players are aware of, and bad consequences if they choose to go with violence.
  • Stop rewarding XP for combat and start rewarding it for avoiding combat.
  • Provide encounters that are trivial or no challenge, so players begin to understand not every encounter is perfectly balanced for them; some encounters aren’t worth the game time dealing with them.
  • Crush the party with an overwhelming encounter. There are several ways to handle their defeat. Have it been a dream sequence they wake up from when last character dies. Have a third party resurrect them. Have the enemy capture them?
  • Soon after their crushing defeat, have the party encounter those same foes. Be sure to provide a way for characters to avoid the encounter.
  • Flat out tell them, “If you don’t flee now, some or all of your characters will die.”
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Allow PCs Deaths

From Kayet Lavate

I recently played in a Troll Lords game. One of my issues with the GM was that he stated he would never kill a player character. That took a lot of the challenge out of the game. I was playing a low-level wizard, with low hit points, low armor class, and a limited number of spells. Death should have been a constant threat as we stumbled through the wildlands west of the northern Misty Mountains.

Instead, I knew that as long as I stood fast and supported the fighters, I could not be killed.

As a DM, I run a fairly loose campaign. I don’t lead the players by the nose with strict plots and geas level impediments. My party knows that if they decide to head in the opposite direction of all my careful plans, I’ll switch gears and build something more to their liking in the direction they head.

They also know that if they decide to attack an adult dragon at low level, they will probably be rolling up new characters. Every time they enter combat, they steel themselves for the possibility that their characters will die. Every time they enter a ruin, a wilderness area, or the subterranean realm, they understand that the rest of the party might be carrying their bodies out, if possible.

Usually it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it does. Then more role-playing occurs as the survivors try to determine (without the input of the dead character’s player) what to do with the body.

Do they save the money to resurrect? Do they hold a funeral? What rites does the character’s culture use? Do they take the character’s gear?

But the players keep coming back, because they enjoy the game. They know I am not out to kill them. Roleplaying is supposed to be about telling a story, not a competition between the players and the GM.

Too often GMs and players both lose sight of this. My players know they can devise their plans within my hearing, and the enemy will not act on the knowledge that I possess as the GM.

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Reader Tip Request

One-On-One Games

My next campaign will be D20 Star Wars (Saga Edition), set about 3,000 years before the Battle of Yavin. Before the campaign starts, I want to run prologues with each character as one-on-one adventures, lasting for about 1-2 hours.

Having never run a prologue for more than about 10 minutes, or any other kind of solo adventure, I’m not too sure where to start. I have gathered background information and character questionnaires from each player, which gives me the starting blocks for the material, but I’m not too sure how to write the adventures themselves.

One thought is to run the adventures like the old Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books, which would probably work well given I don’t actually want to roll any dice.

Any tips you or your readers have would be greatly appreciated.

-James S.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Tracking Monster Minis

From Kristine C.

Here’s a tip for tracking large groups of monsters that’s simple and cheap. Rather than use miniatures for weaker monsters I use dice. I own several sets of small d6’s in different colors. I can have six orc raiders as blue dice while the 4 orc archers as red.

Each die has a separate number. Thus orc raider #1 is the blue d6 with a 1 showing. This method of course only works up to six units of one type and has its flaws, but it has helped simplify things for me a great deal.

The other potential problem is this method is easy for PCs to figure out, and thus any colored dice that are out of the ordinary they will assume to be bosses or the NPC that needs to be taken out first.

I avoid this by sometimes hiding NPCs among other units, e.g., the orc chieftain might be blue #5 in a group of 5 orc raiders.

I love using the d6 method for Savage Worlds’ games. I track non-Wild Cards as 6’s and then drop them to 1’s if they’re shaken. For Wild Cards, I track their wounds (with 6 again being healthy) as they get hurt. This eliminates the need to track damage on a separate piece of paper. It’s all there on the game mat!

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Tracking Monster Minis Revisited

From Ben S.

In RPT #481 someone asked about alternate ways to mark identical monsters.

I have a few methods:

  • Use printed tokens with numbers on them. The D&D Starter set contains many of these made of cardboard which are quite handy.

You can also make them by scanning in the monster manual illustration onto your computer, and then cropping the head or resizing the image and crop however much you want (you will want just under a 1″ x 1″ square or circle, but a square works best for facings).

Then, put a number in one of the corners (with a solid glow in a contrasting color to make it stand out, if the program you are using allows this).

  • If you happen to have any transfers from Warhammer models (Space Marine Tactical Squads work great) you can cut them out and stick them to the base, so the miniatures have numbers.
  • In a variation of the above, you can paint the base a normal color like dungeon floor, wood or grass, but paint the edge of the base a different color to mark different models. This will make the model still look nice, but will make it distinct.
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Calendar Maker

From Chad Samuels

I know this is boring, but I just make my calendar on my word processor to create a table.

Calendars are more interesting when the days of the week do not have the same date each month.

To make your calendar-building less time-intensive, make sure that the number of days in a year is divisible by the number of days in a week. This is because you will not have to change your calendar from year to year, so each day will always fall on the same day of the week each year. All you will have to do is print out another calendar.

Here’s an example: How to Make Calendar PDF

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Calendar Maker

From JB

There was a comment from Erik in a recent issue about a calendar generator, and it got me thinking this is something I would find useful as well.

So I have whipped one up. It is only basic at the moment, and I would love to get some feedback:

At the moment you can specify the length of your week, month (in weeks) and year (in months) all creating a uniform calendar.

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Dragon Jokes

From Eric FitzMedrud

What does a dragon do when he has bad servants? He fires them.

What do you feed a dragon? Anything he wants.

Why couldn’t the kingdom weigh the dragon? He was on a whole different scale.

How did the dragon become the most powerful in world? He clawed his way to the top.

What did the dragon say after eating the enemy dragon’s clutch? You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

What did the mother dragon say to the shy dragon egg? Get out of your shell, make some friends.

What did the egg say to the mother dragon when she sat too heavily upon it? You crack me up. Mama replied: The yolks on you.

What weighs 500 pounds, has a +5 bonus, is adamantine, and requires a 24 strength to wield? Dragon toenail clippers.

Why did the dragon have bad teeth? She kept eating the dental hygienists.

What is the best way to sneak into a dragon’s lair? Don’t.

What did the human wear to the dragon ball? Asbestos.

What is dark, wet, acidic, and digesting us? I don’t know either; I must have blanked out after the dragon saw us.

What do dragons shoot? Dra-guns.

Thank you folks, I’m here all week. My father would be so proud.

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Two Movie Recommendations

From Sean P Shannon

A couple of recent movies that were very influential in my own campaigns:

“The Book of Eli”

Nothing portrays a ‘wandering wasteland holy man’ better than The Book of Eli. I have put this movie on the recommended viewing list for one of my players in my post- apocalypse game.

“Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”

A perfect movie for how a super-heroes game or a low-magic D&D campaign can be changed with a little cultural flair. This, as well as Sky High, and a few other superhero movies, have been the inspiration for a low-magic heroes game I plan to run.

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Fantasy Reading Recommendations

From Patrick Irwin

[Comment from Johnn: Pat is a player in my game and an avid reader. I asked him for some fantasy book ideas, as I had just finished up a book and was questing for my next. His emailed comments were great, so with his permission, I thought I’d put them in the e-zine for your benefit too. Thanks, Pat!]

Gardens of the Moon (The Malazan Book of the Fallen Volume 1)

– Steven Erikson

This book is highlighted by a third-person, non-omniscient narrator, with close perspective on between three and ten focal characters per book. It’s a tale of the men and women of the Malazan Empire’s armies, and the people of the lands they seek to subdue, as well as the various Ascendants (immortals, gods, demigods) engaged in a power struggle around them.

I can’t recommend this series highly enough and it literally changed the way I looked at fantasy novels forever. It has a lot of problems: it’s long (stupidly long), it starts en media res, and it makes no apologies for that.

It may also take you several books to feel like you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on and who’s who, and there are spots you may have to throw out what you thought you had figured out, and start all over.

The upshot: you probably won’t care about that, because Erikson (real name Steve Rune Lundin, a Canadian who’s published some other stuff under that name) is quite simply one of the two best authors of epic fantasy I’ve ever read (in competition with the next guy down this list). He’ll make you laugh (really laugh, not chuckle) and he’s made me cry more than once (literally, not figuratively).

It’s sword-and-sorcery action, a military epic, and a tale of vast intrigue stretching thousands of years. It’s sheer, heart-breaking, breath-taking brilliance. And I have to admit, you might hate the thing. I don’t understand it, but a lot of people do.

The series is on Book 10, with one left, and there are a couple of tie-in novels by a guy called Ian C. Esslemont as well, which are much shorter, but irrevocably entwined with the larger series.

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The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles Book 1)

– Patrick Rothfuss

It’s a first-person narrative, broken up with a frame narrative told from a semi-omniscient third-person narrated perspective. This one is the story of Kvothe Kingkiller, a bard, a mage, a scholar and a warrior, told from his own perspective in an effort to set the record straight about his life before legend and rumor have a chance to get it wrong.

Alright, Penny Arcade’s Gabe recently pitched this in a news post after Tycho made him read it, and they both love it, so that ought to tell you how broad the appeal of this book is. He’s tied with Erikson for my vote for best author because he’s so good. (Again, the laughing and the crying.)

This work starts off from the very beginning with Kvothe telling of his first memories as a child, and he takes you up through his whole life, none of which is boring. This comes with a disclaimer; it’s been two years since I picked this up, and there’s still no solid date on book two.

That being said, there was a very promising pic he threw up on his blog of a manuscript next to his baby (almost 2/3’s the size of said baby) so that’s good.

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The Blade Itself (First Law Trilogy Book 1)

– Joe Abercrombie

This is a tight third-person narrative focused on a small group of characters, rotating between each in turn as the focus of the story, giving the reader fascinating multiple perspectives on the same character.

This book takes all the conventions of a sword-and-sorcery, party-of-adventurers epic tale, and twists them until they start to splinter.

To give you an idea of what I mean, one of the characters whose viewpoint is used for narration is a former war hero and knight who was taken as a prisoner of war and tortured until he was crippled.

Eventually, he was returned to his home country, and now he works for the Inquisition as a torturer. He’s totally vicious, can barely get out of bed most mornings, and has to eat gruel for every meal; I swear I love the evil bastard to death. I could’ve read the whole thing if he was the only focal character.

There’s also a vicious northern barbarian with a reputation for uncontrollably murderous blood-rage who’s probably also the only truly good and decent man in the entire series.

The whole trilogy is out already, as well as a standalone that takes place after the trilogy’s events. I cannot stress enough that you should avoid reading the standalone until you’ve finished the trilogy; there are a few spoilers. It’s all action-intrigue, heavy on the action, but nothing is ever predictable. It’s gritty all over the place.

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Imager (The Imager Portfolio Book 1)

– L.E Modesitt Jr.

Like a journal the character was writing constantly in his head, this is a first-person, past-tense narrative.

If you’ve never read Modesitt, or you’ve heard bad things about him, please give this one a chance. This is a brand-new series, with a new world and all the trappings, with none of the baggage of a hojillion books’ worth of backstory that his other, more established series have.

It’s also the single most undersold book I’ve ever read. The cover blurb makes it sound like an Imager is somewhere between an overblown artist and a mage, and the story will be a coming-of-age tale.

In reality, Imagers are one of the more mind-blowing and powerful conceptualizations of the mage archetype I’ve ever seen, and while the tale starts off with the coming-of-age angle, it moves into intrigue and action that would be much more at home in one of the Bourne movies, and stays there into the second book.

This isn’t straight sword-and-sorcery; it’s more like what might have happened if Ian Fleming had decided that putting Bond in the real world was too close to home for him, so he wrote him in a fantasy world (that’s novel-Bond, not Hollywood-Bond).

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Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt Book 1)

– Adrian Tchaikovsky

Similar to the First Law series, this is a third-person-narrated, rotating-perspective work.

This is more standard fare, containing well-written but not revolutionary sword-and-sorcery – though instead of sorcery, it’s set in a world where people are divided up into different tribes and clans based on the type of giant insect, to which their ancestors bonded them totem-style, thereby gaining different powers based on their ancestry.

For instance, Ants gain telepathy and the ability to live and work in perfect unison. Wasps can fly and fire a bolt of lightning that they refer to as a sting. Mantises are absolutely perfect killing machines, taking it way beyond an art.

It’s not barbaric at all, instead being a little steam-punky in flavor (some of the tribes/races have the ability to invent technology and use it, whereas others don’t), and if it doesn’t surprise at every turn, at the very least it kept me more than adequately entertained throughout.

There are at least three books out now, and I’ve read and enjoyed all of them.

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Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera Book 1)

– Jim Butcher

While it has one dominating focal character, this one has a tight third-person narrative and rotating cast of spotlight characters who are largely the same book-to-book.

This is just solid, well-written, burn-through-in-a-day-or- two (or a week, for normal people) sword-and sorcery with an epic can’t.

Set in what is basically fantasy Rome at the peak of its historical power, in a world where humans can bind “furies” of various elements to themselves to produce what is basically magic.

Everyone can do this, except for the main character Tavi, who, for whatever reason (it’s totally not plot relevant) is unable to bind or even call a fury of his own, and thus is left to his wits and his hands when the feces collide with the turbine.

The series chronicles Tavi growing up and becoming a badass in his own right, and while it’s epic, the stakes are always personalized for the focal characters. You get action and intrigue, romance (albeit light) and magic – and the Butcher.

If you liked Dresden, you will like this; if you didn’t, you still might. If you haven’t read Dresden, take a chance and grab the first book of that (Storm Front) at the same time you pick this one up. This series is ostensibly finished now at five books or so; Dresden is maybe halfway done and has many more books out.