Monday, August 8, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Shadow Knight

Welcome back to my Roger Zelazny book reviews! In my review of the core book for the ADRPG, I commented that I like the supplement, which deals mostly with the second series, more in some ways than the original. Zach replied in the comments that's only because I love Merlin so much.

And he was of course making a joke there. I think I keep it pretty well hidden, but astute readers here may have picked up some subtle hints that Merlin is not my favorite character.

I happen to like the cover for Shadow Knight. It's certainly better than the one for the ADRPG, which makes the plagarized cover for Trumps of Doom look like a masterpiece of composition.  It's also got a picture of the serpent of Chaos on the rear cover, the image, I would imagine that is on the back of the Chaos trumps. It's a fine looking book with a decent index. They layout is a bit sprawling, but that's something I happen to like in game books and I think it works well with Wujcik's style. There's nothing I enjoy more than opening my RPGs to a random page and coming across something that seems new to me.

I think the biggest difference between the two books is one of tone. The first book depicted godlike Elder Amberites and advocated an adversarial tone both between players and, to a lesser extent, between GM and players. The former, I think, was a reflection of its era. 90s RPGs were full of non-player characters whose power level the PCs could never approach. I also had a brief exchange with Erick Wujcik himself on a message board that we both frequented, where he said that this was in order to help some Amber GMs who needed a little help elevating the Elders.  Here's a link to the post if you want to read his own words on the subject. 

The first book had some influence from the second series, such as the Logrus and the rules for sorcery, which were clearly influenced by the Merlin books. I forget which Amberzine had an account by one of Wujcik's former players on his techniques as a GM, and it featured an exchange where his character was in trouble, and he contacted his talking bird via Trump for a quick exit. The bird said that he probably wouldn't want to come through, but the player was like "Just bring me through, damnit!" The bird complied and our bossy Amberite wound up on the narrow ledge where the bird had been perching.

I'm torn. There's a fine line between giving the players enough rope to hang themselves, which is generally fun for everybody and the "you-didn't-say-you-were-putting-on-pants-when-you-went-outside-so-you-didn't" gotcha style of GMing, which isn't, and this strikes me as closer to the latter. (Though it's worth noting that this wasn't the impression I got from the author of the account, who seemed amused by the whole thing.)

Even if my style of running an Amber game is different from how Wujcik's had been, that's fine. The tent is big enough for all of us, and as no less an authority than great-souled Sam reminds us, "As you know, the personal strengths and weaknesses of a leader are no true indication of the merits of his cause."

The NPCs in Shadow Knight are less powerful than than the children of Oberon in the core book, and I figure that's by design, either to serve as models on how to build a PC or to give characters peers of similar power levels.  

As in the core book, there are several different possibilities for each character. The write up for Flora includes "Faithful Servant of the Crown", "Proprietor of Shadow Earth" and "Power in Waiting". 

I think I like this book because none of the conceptions of Merlin are particularly flattering. Wujcik gives us Merlin as "Man-child of the Courts", "Knave of Chaos", and "Power Monger". Stupid Merlin! 

Julia Barnes has an writeup, which surprised me, and she has various possibilities, just like the other characters. Maybe she's a human, maybe she's a lost princess of Amber and maybe she got her sorcerous abilities from a blood transfusion from Merlin. I like this one because it has a sidebar titled "Was Merlin stupid to donate blood?"

Jurt's whole entry is great. I particularly like the introduction, which does a great job of humanizing him.

"Well, he's nasty. But he's kind of clumsy, too. At least he's screwed up whenever we've fought and left a piece of himself behind."

- Merlin, in Sign of Chaos

Not fair, Merlin, not fair at all.

Yes, Jurt is clumsy. He stumbles over his words, and other things. He's also young.

Besides, Merlin, what about Dara? If she's so awful, so difficult, so exasperating for you, the golden boy, the smart one in the family, what must she be like for Jurt?

Yeah, Jurt is brash, and he makes a lot of mistakes. Picking fights he can't handle isn't too bright.

On the other hand, Jurt says what he thinks. A not too tactful thing to do, especially when Jurt admits that he's untrustworthy, and that he wouldn't get along with a duplicate of himself.

Merlin, if Jurt admits he wouldn't get along with his own Ghost, why are you so surprised that he can't get along with you?

First you don't take Jurt seriously. You talk to him as if he were a naughty little kid, and as if you were ready to offer a spanking. Not the brightest way to deal with the baby of the family.

Second, remember when the Ghost of Jurt told you how he started practicing when he heard you were running in college? Jurt didn't want to kill you, Merlin, he just wanted to beat you.

So, Merlin, lighten up. Plenty of brothers fight. Usually they get over it.

I know it's blasphemy, but I think Wujcik put more thought into Jurt than Zelazny did. He was just this cardboard adversary for Merlin to wallop in the books, but he's almost sympathetic here.

There are some more character outlines, some updates to the Elders from the first book, and collection of essays and advice, and also a bunch of speculation about Undershadow and Wonderland and the other locations from the Merlin books. I like the whole book, but I think this is my favorite part. "Hey," Wujcik seems to say, "Undershadow could be this or this or this, so grab the one that works for you and have fun!"

That's why I like it. I'm a fan of what Zelazny created in Amber, and so was Wujcik, and the enthusiasm of a man working with what he loves really shows through. Fans take the series and we run with it, and when we find mistakes, we don't crow about them, but instead we chew them over and try to figure out how they're not really mistakes. It's all part of the fun of being a fan! 

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