Tor.com content by

Mordicai Knode

Gene Wolfe: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Did you know Gene Wolfe, who turns 84 years old today, invented Pringles? Well, okay, okay, that is a smidge hyperbolic, but he did develop the machine that makes them. I like to imagine that their famously mustachioed logo is an homage to Wolfe—look at that twinkle in his eye—but that is strictly head canon.

That is just the sort of person Gene Wolfe is though; he’s not content with writing a science fiction epic, or revolutionizing the fantasy epic, or creating a science fantasy epic that bridges the subgenres. Or that Neil Gaiman called him “…possibly the finest living American writer.” Or that Michael Swanwick called him the “…greatest writer in the English language alive today[,]” or that the Washington Post called The Book of the New Sun “[t]he greatest fantasy novel written by an American.” Oh no. He has to take a detour and help invent a new kind of potato chip. Even his life has secret nooks and crannies for the wary reader.

[Gene Wolfe: Unreliable narrator?]

Series: On This Day

Legends & Lairs in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition’s “Monster Manual”

Most “monster manuals” are a perfect blend of “fluff and crunch,” of ideas and mechanics. I say perfect, because there is enough material in a decent monster book to satisfy those who are just looking for rules—perhaps just intending to re-skin the monster and call it something else to suit their homebrew campaign, even—and there is enough description and inspiration to interest someone who doesn’t even run the system but is enjoying the art, the ecology, the mythology and inspiration.

I think the Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual is a triumph of fluff, with story hooks that synthesize past edition’s mythology into well-packaged blocks. There is also a lot of great crunch here, but I am ready for the mechanics to go to the next level—they just need a little house ruling to get there, if you ask me.

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You Gotta Deal With It: The Legend of Korra is Over

Tor.com’s offices are here in the Flatiron Building in New York City, a distinctive architectural wedge. Seeing Korra face down Kuvira’s giant platinum Colossus in The Legend of Korra series finale from atop a sharp triangular building in Republic City was a fun coincidence, huh? Really makes you feel like you’re in the thick of it…but then, I felt the same way when they put the Daily Bugle in the Flatiron Building in Spider-Man. Hey, and J.K. Simmons, Tenzin’s voice actor, played J. Jonah Jameson. Weird.

I know I’m rambling, but I’m still filled with nervous energy from the cliched-but-truly stunning conclusion of the series, and trying not to use a spoilery image at the top of the post. The Legend of Korra ended with action and romance and most importantly of all, the series ended with Korra continuing the arc of the Avatar spirit, begun in Aang: towards greater compassion, greater empathy.

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

All Your Giant Mecha Dreams Come True! The Legend of Korra, “Kuvira’s Gambit”

That’s…quite an eponymous ploy, hm? This episode of The Legend of Korra is named “Kuvira’s Gambit,” and I frankly was expecting something like the inverse of the Gaang’s invasion of the Fire Nation, or the Rebel’s plan on Endor, or Suyin’s assault on Kuvira in the first place. Make a distraction and let an elite team take out essential targets. I was expecting Kuvira and a crack assault time to ride in on, I don’t know, a heavy paratroop drop, and hit Republic City in the heart.

But no, I had it all wrong: Kuvira’s gambit is a 25 story tall mecha suit. It’s a short jump from last week’s “Operation Beifong”: now that the crew is back together—kit and caboodle—they’ve almost got a chance to prepare…

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

“Operation Beifong” Strikes Back on The Legend of Korra!

What is the sibling term for “Linsanity?” Su-per Sa-yin? Okay, that’s pretty dumb, but Suyin cutting loose in this episode of The Legend of Korra, oh boy! I should say all the Beifongs bring the pain, and I do mean all the Beifongs—excepting Batar Jr. I suppose—because guess who came out of retirement to kick some butt? That’s right, the Original Beifong. Yeah, it’s a Beifong blitz!

But despite the episode title “Operation Beifong,” it isn’t all about the Beifongs. The heroic Bolin from “Battle of Zaofu” steps up to maturity, Zhu Li gets up to some new tricks, and Korra reaches out to the Spirit World. After last week’s more focused character piece, I am ready to see some earthbenders go toe-to-toe-to-toe…to-toe-to-toe! There are a lot of bare toes in this episode is what I’m sayin’.

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

How Korra Got Her Groove Back: The Legend of Korra‘s “Beyond the Wilds”

One consistent theme in The Legend of Korra is: Korra trains. It’s a motif consistent with Avatar: The Last Airbender, in fact. Aang traveled the world looking for bending teachers, and Korra has been doing the very same thing, right under our noses, learning from both friends and enemies. Airbending from Tenzin, pro-bending from Bolin and Mako. She’s learned spiritbending from Unalaq, she’s learned metalbending from Suyin, she’s studied with Toph…and now Zaheer. Korra’s problems stem from her being cut off from the Spirit World, which is ultimately caused by the anxiety caused by trauma, and with Zaheer’s guidance—as crazy as that sounds—she accepts what he did to her, and accepts that she survived it. The what is, not what might have been.

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Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th Edition is Built on the Lessons Learned from Past Editions

Well, this is the edition to play. Dungeons & Dragons has gone through some vicissitudes over the last few years, but I think the 5th edition of the Player’s Handbook puts any edition controversy to bed.

The 3rd edition, its Open Game License, and its 3.5th revision were a golden age for the hobby, but the more tactical combat-oriented 4th edition turned a lot of folks off; and it all went down while Pathfinder, the unofficial 3.75th edition, was coming on strong.

We all remember the dark days of the Edition Wars; they never left some dark corners of the Internet, but 5e seems to be largely immune. I playtested it in early versions and have been playing it with folks from around the Tor offices since then… and now it’s bound and printed and finalized! It’s different enough from rivals to be its own thing, and it’s learned smart lessons from previous editions, combining AD&D 2e’s relative simplicity with 3e’s customization. There’s more of 4e in there then some people will want to admit, too: at-wills, short rests, hit dice, all the bonus actions, races and powers.

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The The Legend of Korra‘s “Reunion” is All About the Ties that Bind

Well okay, with this episode of The Legend of Korra, Kuvira seems to be well and truly beyond the pale. Ethnic concentration camps, Kuvira? Yep, you’ve gone and Godwin’d yourself. Not to mention that all the guys have the sides of their heads shaved, all Hitler Youth style. It’s a good look in Sleep No More, but here it is frankly just ominous. There is no doubt in my mind that the next stage in Kuvira’s plan is the “re-unite” the Earth “Empire” is marching to conquering Republic City. It looks like she’ll be in black-and-white by the time she gets there, though this season’s theme of “Balance” still gives me hope of some nuance in the final ethical calculus.

Worry not: this is a fun episode; a nice change from last week’s episode that features Asami’s stun glove, Bolin’s hot lava, the Noah’s Ark of Bumju, Naga, Pabu and some sky bison & flying lemurs, and Korra back in Water Tribe duds.

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

Kuvira Ascendant: The Legend of Korra, “Battle of Zaofu”

The real winner of last week’s episode of The Legend of Korra was Zhu Li, making the winner of this week’s episode is fair turn about: Varrick! The absence of his much-needed assistant has made his heart grow three sizes. The other big winner in this episode is Kuvira, which means—you guessed it—that everybody else from Korra to Suyin is a loser. Varrick and Bolin are the only non-losers, and while I’m proud of those two disasters for somehow managing to evade trouble—Varrick, above all else, has a knack for that—I don’t quite know if “winning” sums up Bolin’s rather desperate situation. I think “not losing” just about covers it.

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

Zhu Li Does the Thing on The Legend of Korra‘s “Enemy at the Gates”

This episode of The Legend of Korra, “Enemy at the Gates,” is a nice beat in the tale. It isn’t rushed to get to the bang-pow-smash ’em up bits, but it isn’t treading water, either. After last episode’s healing, Korra is ready to get back into the story, and this episode eases her in, gives us a wiser Korra trying to take the high road, while forces work around her escalating the conflict.

The main story happens out of Korra’s sight, as Bolin and Varrick figure out that Kuvira might not be all that benevolent a dictator after all, and have an all out mecha brawl escaping. So okay, maybe a little whammo-biff-sock brawling, after all… plus Asami Sato, solo, sorting out her life all on her own. So much for friends!

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

Demon: The Descent is His Dark Materials Meets Terminator and Aliens

The front of the book calls Demon: The Descent a “game of techgnostic espionage,” but what the heck is that? Imagine you are playing a cyberpunk game, but instead of having an implanted set of Wolverine-like spurs…you have an implanted flaming sword that chants “hosannah” in a blasphemous growl. Imagine a game of top secret cat and mouse like The Matrix, but rather than men in black and hackers wirefighting, H.R. Giger-esque shapes with the names of angels clash. It’s Twin Peaks, where the death of Laura Palmer was engineered by a false gnostic machine-god at the heart of the Black Lodge and Agent Cooper is an enlightened angelic freedom fighter (which he sort of already is, to be fair).

Demon is a game about building up a mortal life as a “Cover” and using that Cover to strike back at the horrifyingly Lovecraftian God-Machine that keeps the World of Darkness in chains. You know how to hit it where it hurts because you used to serve it as one of it’s constructs, one of it’s robots, one of its angels. Before you Fell.

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“Your grandpa was a real pain in my butt!” The Legend of Korra: “The Calling”

Great news everybody: the sad times on The Legend of Korra are over! Well, for now, anyway. Thanks to the Amazing Airbending Kids setting out last episode, and thanks to Toph playing Iroh and, ultimately, thanks to Korra. I was glad to see the “recovery story” take a sideways turn in the second episode and become its own weird story about Korra seeking for answers, for help, for her own path. I appreciated that but I’m pretty much always glad for a gloomy plotline to wrap up in television. Now it has.

I wish Toph could be telling this story— “…and Sokka fell in a hole.”— but you’ve got yours truly instead. Alright! Korra learned important lessons! She overcame her own conflicts! Now let’s get out of this swamp and have Korra go solve some external conflicts. In sweet glorious bending battle and what have you.

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

Kuvira Always Gets What She Wants: The Legend of Korra‘s “The Coronation”

The politics in The Legend of Korra are getting down to brass tacks. It’s hard not to see Kuvira as a net positive. There is no reason whatsoever to support the royal dynasty. Heck, as far as I’m concerned, there was every reason to support its overthrow. An actual caste system, an apartheid of rings that is so culturally ingrained that even the mall in Republic City’s “Little Ba Sing Se” is segregated by class. A powerful secret police, kidnapping and press-gangs. Propaganda and cruel whim and extortion. I’m with Bolin on this one.

I think Kuvira should hold an election—why wouldn’t she, she’s beloved—and then just claim authority thus. President Raiko sets a precedent for it. Then there you go. We should be so lucky: I kind of want to see Bolin succeed at keeping her on the strait and narrow…even as tensions increase.

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

The Non-Linear Hero’s Quest: The Legend of Korra, “Korra Alone”

Well this episode of The Legend of Korra was a lovely treat, and not just because we saw you-know-who. You might think it strange to call an episode that focuses entirely on Korra’s painful physical rehabilitation and distressingly empathizable post-traumatic stress disorder a “treat,” but “Korra Alone” really was.

What I didn’t want was a whining, emo, “feels” episode. I’ve sort of had my fill of them for a bit, not that they don’t have their due time. I was hoping for, at best, a recovering montage. What I got was something like I was talking about when I discussed Kuvira last week: neither one option nor the other, but a new, third path. We got Korra on her own self-motivated Hero’s Quest. She’s neither sulking nor recuperating: she’s proactive.

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

Whatever Happened to Avatar Korra? The Legend of Korra Returns!

For someone who happens to have a show named after her, Korra sure doesn’t get much screen time in the premiere of the new season of The Legend of Korra! Doesn’t bother me none, personally; I’ve always like the without-the-Doctor Doctor Who episodes, myself. Still, can I tell you something? I’m well ready for this depressing plot line to come to an end already. Really, I hope the whole recovery story arc runs on an accelerated track. I’ve had enough emo Korra in this series; I’m ready for no-holds-barred, cage-match, all-or-nothing Korra to come back.

I think Korra’s ready, too. She’s brawl-bending, putting her in the underdog role that Bolin and Mako were in as pro-benders in season one, and they’re the authority figures with government ties; how the tables have turned. We’ve had three years of lapsed time, so I think it is possible. Plus…perfect opportunity for Korra to be taken under Toph’s wing as a mentor, just sayin’.

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

Dungeon World Puts Narrative First

Dungeon World is having a very real, meaningful impact on how I look at games, and how I look at my game.

I’m a big believer in cross-product, system-neutral play, which is to say that I encourage everyone to steal from every game they own when building a campaign or creating an adventure. If the mechanical crunch doesn’t work, ignore it and take the story ideas or abstract rule concepts that you like. If flavor and genre don’t match, use the mechanical parts you like and just reskin the rest. I’ll use Pathfinder’s GameMastery Guide to roll up a random location for my World of Darkness game just as easily as I’ll repurpose the time travel rules from Transdimensional TMNT with a heaping serving of cosmic horror for my Great Race of Yith themed Call of Cthulhu mini-series.

No matter what, I’m always on the lookout for the next mechanical innovation to inspire my own homebrew campaign; last time is was Mouse Guard’s Trait system, and those are now being tempered by Dungeon World’s similar Tags and complications. I like this game enough to…already be thinking about how I could rebuild it from the ground up to suit my play style.

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Descend Pathfinder’s The Emerald Spire

Pathfinder’s The Emerald Spire is a true megadungeon. Rise of the Runelords was a campaign, but Emerald Spire is an big old fashioned dungeon that just keeps on going and going. I like boutique, meticulously DM-crafted worldbuilding. I like open, sandbox games in unique homebrew settings. I also really like giant, out of the box, hardcore superdungeons. There is no need to be forced into some “new school versus old school” rivalry here. Have some cake. Eat it, too! Then throw it at opponents for d3 non-lethal damage in a giant food fight, that’s what I’m saying.

If you have talked to me at any length in the past year, you’ve probably heard me go off on a rant about defeating The Temple of Elemental Evil; one of the perks of playing one of the great classic dungeons is that you can brag about it, as well as share war stories with other survivors. The Emerald Spire belongs up there with your Tombs of Horrors and Castle Ravenlofts; PCs are going to be delving into the Spire for a long time, and I’ve no doubt it will generate its same share of shaggy dog stories.

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The Legend of Korra Season Finale: “Enter the Void” and “Venom of the Red Lotus”

So you want a big, two-part, smash ’em up finale? The Legend of Korra delivers and still leaves enough room for a bittersweet not-with-a-bang-but-with-a-whimper capstone. I’m left thoughtful in the wake of everything that happens; in a lot of ways, this feels like the spiritual sequel to the end of Book Two in Avatar: the Last Airbender, and the preponderance of crystal and gurus makes me think that’s quite intentional. As the same time, these episodes intensely channel the series finale of “Sozin’s Comet,” but with the clever conceit of a role reversal. Here the nimble, evasive airbender is the villain, and the one soaring around on jets of flame is the Avatar.

Book Three of The Legend of Korra has been great, not just in comparison to the first two seasons but on its own, and it concludes here. It’ll all end in tears, but what kind of tears?

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

Is The Legend of Korra‘s “The Ultimatum” the End of the Line?

Let’s not everyone freak out at once. Just last episode we talked about the knife edge of doubt that an “all-ages” show like The Legend of Korra has been able to walk when it comes to violence. The Earth Queen’s demise could have been the Earth Queen’s defeat until the burden of context clues pushed it over. Heck, this episode we see a number of seemingly fatal falls turn out to be misdirection, on all sides, so I guess my point is: all we can do is speculate about the ultimate fate of one of our favorite characters.

One thing I’ve said this entire season is that the stakes and the tension are high; it feels like anything can happen. I’m hoping the fallout from this recent turn of events is more of a melancholy sad, with more of an “Appa’s Lost Days” feel to the consequences than what the worst case scenario could be. Enough of all of this vague spoiler-free mummery; let’s talk brass tacks, below the cut.

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com

No Kings, No Masters in The Legend of Korra‘s “Long Live the Queen”

Well, The Legend of Korra continues to be amazing. Like, old-school, top of its game, Avatar the Last Airbender good, that’s what I’m talking about. Zaheer…ah, I’ll sing his praises as this season’s villain enough later on in the post, no need to start now. Asami, sure, I’ve been asking for more Asami and now I’ve got it. Basically at this point I’m starting to get a little cocky—can I just ask for anything and get it? Stock in Cabbage Corporation? I never got that Koh the Face-Stealer cameo I was hoping for from the Book of Air with Amon or from the Book of Spirits’…well, spirits. Maybe I’ll be in luck next week; at this point, anything seems possible. I’m very excited about this show right now, and I really hope the “digital transition” is going well. If there was ever a time to proselytize a show to show the number-crunchers and bean-counters what’s what, it’s now.

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Series: The Legend of Korra on Tor.com