Book Review: Drinking From The River Of Light

Drinking From The River Of Light:  The Life Of Expression, by Mark Nepo

If you want to read a lot of terrible books with terrible advice written by people who are absolutely ignorant about what they are talking about but cannot stop writing about it, a great subject to do a lit review about is the subject of creativity.  In few subjects are people so willing to expose themselves to the ridicule of the world for the nonsense they spout out while being so woefully ignorant about even the basic and fundamental aspects of the given topic.  In reading about creativity, it is very common to see a lot of information about people who think of themselves as being creative in particularly important ways while not realizing that their self-absorbed discussions about themselves fail to respect their own Creator and come to all the wrong sorts of conclusions about what it is that creativity is really about and what is it that we are trying to do as creators.  All too often people want to proclaim the nonsense that they view as their own truth without recognizing that most genuine and worthwhile creations are like pearls that result from the irritation and agitation of existence within us from which our insights and art is produced.  It is not so much that the insight is inside of us as much as it is that we gain insight through wrestling with reality and coming to grips with the life and times that we have been given.

This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into four parts with unnumbered chapters.  The author begins with an exploration about the river of light and the life of expression that he believes he has lived.  After that the book begins with the author’s view of basic human truths (I), including the question of why we write (1), explores the gift of vision (2), demonstrates his confidence in the art of perception (3), and discusses our heart as a tuning fork that inspires us to an inner experience of truth (4).  After that the author explores how we are shaped by life (II), through unraveling the self (5), bearing witness of our truths (6), and looking at our instrument and its gifts (7).  After that the author posits his own view of depth (III), in breaking the surface (8), giving and receiving attention (9), and understanding the value of practice (10).  Finally, the author discusses the importance of becoming at one with existence (IV) through understanding the magic of liberty (11) and swimming in the timeless river (12) of life, after which there are acknowledgements (the author calls them gratitudes), notes, permissions, and information about the author.

This book contains within it a great deal of writing that the author has viewed as insightful and important and a lot of the author’s own personal thoughts.  To the extent that the author is someone that one would want to know more personally concerning how they view creativity, this book is not a total waste.  To be sure, the author’s religious perspective, with its New Age Buddhism mixed with a sense of Jewish mysticism, is by no means congenial to my own, and thus I am less likely to enjoy this book than many other readers will be.  To the extent that the author views his writing as personal opinions based on his own incorrect worldview, this is certainly not the worst book I have read about creativity, or even in the bottom 5 (the field really is that bad), but it is not a book I can recommend.  Just about everything in this book is either the author’s opinion, which isn’t worth much to me, or is rubbish spouted from the author’s misguided and mistaken belief system which is impossible to reconcile with reality.  This is the sort of book that seeks to flatter the reader, and as a result does not provide the insight that a better book would.

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Book Review: Creativity, Spirituality, & Making A Buck

Creativity, Spirituality, & Making A Buck, by David Nichtern

If this book is instructive, it is not so much instructive in the way that someone who is creative should live but rather instructive on a certain type of person and approach that is all too common in the contemporary world, namely someone who is hostile to Christianity and traditional ways who demonstrates the self-deception that is common among the left.  This book is indeed an attempt by a blind guide to make a buck on the longing of people to feel as if they are creative people in touch with the spiritual world.  The book is peppered with references to people like Michelle Obama and Richard Gere and various yogis and Maya Angelou that demonstrate the author’s belief that he is far more insightful than he happens to be.  He’s one of those people who cannot be bothered to stay married to their spouses but have the nerve to talk about how enlightened their ethical lives are in keeping with principles of karma.  In short, this book is a monumental ego trip written by a classic leftist hypocrite that is a revelation in what it says about the author and others of his ilk and not about the elevated moral principles of life and the worth of creativity that the author has no evident expertise in.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and it is organized into six parts and 31 short chapters, along with other material.  The book begins with a preface and a note on how to use this book, which might more profitably be used as a doorstop or paperweight or something to prop up a wobbly chair or table than actually being read.  The first part of the book consists of basic principles (I) involving man’s position in the middle (1), mindfulness (2), contentment (3), thriving (4), and synchronicity (5).  The author gets down to business (II) by looking at clarifying one’s offering (6), taking it to the marketplace (7), looking at the business body (8), and providing some various business jargon (9).  The author follows with some business principles (III) like never negotiating against oneself (10), keeping it simple (11), protecting one’s intellectual property (12), and being authentic (13).  The author gives some advice on interpersonal skills and ethical content (IV) like not blaming or whining (14), appreciating others (15), not lying, cheating, or stealing (16), being merciful to others (17), and viewing things in an enlightened hierarchy (18).  There are discussions about personal attitude (V), including impermanence (19), the illusory nature of Buddhist reality (20), monitoring one’s energy flow (21), being friendly with yourself (22), avoiding self-deception (23), mindfulness again (24), and overcoming the scarcity mentality (25).  The last part of the book discusses creativity (VI), by urging the reader to forget everything they had read in this book (26), being daring (27), knowing where one is on the timeline (28), leaving some space (29), mastering one’s crafts (30), and letting go (31).  The book then ends with an epilogue, acknowledgements and thanks, and an appendix that gives instructions on how to engage in various Buddhist meditations, along with slogans and some information about the author.

To be fair, this book does at least discuss all three of the points it seems to make in its title.  The author’s view (and it happens to be my own) is that human beings are innately creative and that if we live we have been able to be creative in dealing with the conditions of life that we happen to come across in our existence.  The author, sadly, does not take his interest in the universality of human creativity as indicating a deeper moral purpose to creation or the value of paying attention to our Creator.  Likewise, the author does spend some time talking about making a buck, but mostly either in talking about he made millions from one of his songs and then how he makes a living as a charlatan profiting off of the interest of others in New Age babble, or alternatively in positing a view that comes out of “the secret” with a belief in the efficacy of our own imaginations in bringing wealth and success to us through optimism and belief.  Most of the book focuses on Buddhist spirituality, and here the author demonstrates an ethical view that offers either fortune cookie mantras or ethical principles that amount to obvious general revelation, and no improvement on the Judeo-Christian moral law that the author and others of his ilk are so eager to reject.

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Vou Tentar

The motto of Norwich University, where I received an MA in Military History almost a decade ago, is “I will try.”  The quote springs from the experience of Norwich founder Alden Partridge in the War of 1812, and Norwich University itself was founded to support the ideals that Partridge had for an egalitarian citizen soldier in opposition to the aristocratic officer class that was being promoted at West Point, and became the founder of the ROTC and the inspiration to other private military universities in the United States that blended an interest in engineering and the military arts, both of which I must admit to having some personal and academic interest in.  This mindset of daring and stating one’s willingness to try in the absence of certainty that one will succeed can be contrasted with the pseudowisdom of Star Wars’ Yoda, who famously intoned that “Do or do not.  There is no try.”

How are we to account for this opposite proverb situation?  We know that Partridge’s saying that became Norwich’s motto expresses the willingness to dare to do that which is difficult in uncertain consequences.  If you are an officer in war, or a manager of a division of a company, you may be given tasks to accomplish that are immensely difficult and whose success does not wholly depend on your own efforts but on circumstances beyond one’s control.  One cannot say, in good faith, that one will succeed because one does not know that.  But to honestly say “I will try” and to give an honest and intense effort to succeed is within the power of everyone to do and is certainly a response that should be respected by everyone.  On the other hand, it is also true that I will try is sometimes used as a cop-out by those who do not want to put a great effort into something and have little confidence of its success.  When we are talking about individual efforts to do something that is within one’s power, one does not accept mere trying, but only success.  “I will try to behave” is not an acceptable statement from an unruly child.  But “I will try to take that hill in the face of massive gunfire and artillery” is an acceptable statement because all one can promise is one’s most serious effort in such circumstances.

How do we know what is in our power and what is not?  Our subjective understanding of our agency may vary widely based on our temperaments and personal experiences.  Those people who have grown up in the shadow of abuse may think of themselves as having little personal agency.  This problem of learned helplessness, as it is often called, can drastically damage the lives of people by leaving them paralyzed in the face of things that they have some influence or control over because of the traumatic experience of having been powerless to prevent the horrors inflicted upon them.  On the other hand, a great deal of New Age thinking posits a belief in the “secret” law of attraction that states that one’s subjective feelings control what the universe sends our way and that if we believe strongly enough that we will prosper and succeed, the universe will bend around our subjective longings and desires.  In between there are various beliefs in the existence of an objective reality that is outside of our subjective world that we can sometimes influence and sometimes control but must at all times recognize as being occasionally neutral to or even hostile to our plans and wishes.  That objective reality can include the subjective feelings of others, so that I may desire to court a particular woman whose own feelings are quite contrary and antithetical to my own, and thus my own feelings may run counter to some aspect of objective reality that hinders my success in such endeavors.

How do we know whether to judge “I will try” as a statement of firm determination but a grimly realistic assessment of likelihood or as a cop-out to avoid putting forth effort?  A great deal of that depends on context.  If someone tells you “I will try” and they are a person who has the visible body language of determination and firmness, we will likely not see their statement as a sign of avoiding effort, but rather a realistic to pessimistic appraisal.  If that appraisal is less optimistic than we would wish to be the case or that we believe to be the case, that is a different matter, and perhaps the person saying “I will try” would need to know information that might increase their confidence in the endeavor.  On the other hand, if we see someone saying “I will try” with a total lack of confidence and body language that suggests indifference or a total lack of effort that will be involved in said trying, then one needs to challenge the level of effort that will be involved.  Much of this depends, of course, on one’s understanding of body language, one’s understanding of the challenge level of the task that is to be assayed, and the reputation and past record of behavior of the person making the statement.  Discernment, as is the case often, requires an understanding of such matters on a case by case basis rather than as a general rule.

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Book Review: Lonely Planet: Cuba

Lonely Planet:  Cuba

One of the smarter habits I acquired when I started to plan my own international trips was to read the Lonely Planet guides.  To be sure, the guide are not perfect, but they do present a great deal of information and give the reader a lot of insight into the feasibility of doing certain things.  I have not always taken up the writers of the guides on their more adventuresome suggestions, like how to travel across international borders in sketchy transportation options, but at the same time I have always found myself being given lots of ideas and worthwhile advice that has made me a less vulnerable traveler, and that is something I always appreciate as a moderately clueless person who happens to like being abroad.  At any rate, if this book was not entirely useful given my plans to visit Havana and perhaps the immediate area outside of the city, it certainly did provide some useful information about food to try and places to visit, and that is always something to appreciate.  You will obviously get more out of this book if you plan on seeing more of the country, but the benefit of reading a book like this one is that it is useful so long as one plans on visiting the country at all.

This book is more than 500 pages long and well organized in the typical Lonely Planet fashion.  The book begins on how to plan one’s trip with a welcome, national map, top 21 sights, need to know information, suggestions for first-time visitors, month-by-month information, itineraries, and a glance at Cuba’s regions.  After that the vast majority of the rest of the book focuses on the usual detailed information about Cuba’s various regions including the population of cities, maps of a lot of cities and towns, tourist sites, hotels and other places to stay, restaurants, clubs, and the like.  This begins with Havana and then progresses through the Artemisa & Mayabeque provinces of Eastern Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, the Valle de Viñales and Pinar del Río Province, Varadero & Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Villa Clara, Trinidad & Sancti Spíritus Province, Ciego de Avila, Camagüey, Las Tunas, Holguín, Granma, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantánamo Provinces, making notes about which places have been overrun by touts and which remain available for tourists looking for more quiet and peaceful places to travel.  The book ends with some information to help the reader understand Cuba today as well as its history, food & drink, way of life, literature and arts, architecture, music and dance, and landscape and wildlife.  The book then ends with a survival guide that includes a directory, transportation, language help, and a glossary.

Admittedly, some aspects of this book will put off some readers.  The authors seem to think that naturists and the alphabetical community are a big part of their reading audience and so quite a bit of the discussion of places and their desirability is based on that, which is not particularly helpful for me personally.  More useful is the book’s advice on how to avoid touts and their offers of cheap cigars and overpriced products.  The people who wrote this book have clearly been to Cuba and seen a lot of the country and have plenty of insight to share about their trips, and that is something that one can appreciate even if they give advice on a lot of areas that the reader may not be interested in at all.  Given the way that many parts of Cuba are very obscure despite interesting histories and worthwhile sights, this book is useful in encouraging its readers to step beyond the usual tourist norms, and as someone who strives not to be an ordinary tourist, this advice is something worth taking to heart whether it talks about Cuba or any other nation.

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Book Review: DK Eyewitness: Cuba

DK Eyewitness:  Cuba, by DK Travel

In reading this book I was struck by the way that the authors spent about half of the book talking about what could be seen in and around Havana.  To be sure, Havana is the biggest city and capital of Cuba, but there is a lot of country outside of the capital city, although this book assumes (rightly in many cases, I think) that most people who visit the nation of Cuba will mainly be looking for information about what is in and around the capital given the limitations of time and comfort in traveling throughout a country as forbidding as Cuba is.  As it happens, my family and I are planning a trip to Cuba, which is why I read this book in the first place, and the book’s focus on Havana is quite welcome as far as I am concerned given our own plans to focus in this area.  Admittedly, the book does show that there is quite a lot to see when one travels and is written from the point of view of those who greatly appreciate the country and expect those who travel there to appreciate it as well.  We will see if that is the case.

This book is less than 300 pages and is divided into four unequal parts.  The first part of the book, which is about 50 pages long, encourages the reader to discover Cuba through a welcome message, some reasons to love it, an introduction to where one can explore and get to know the country, as well as some itineraries, a schedule of exciting events, and a brief history of the country.  After that the next part of the book contains a bit less than 100 pages focused on the city of Havana, most notably the old city, the center of the city, the area of Vedado and Plaza, and then the areas beyond the compact central core of the city.  After that there are about 120 pages on the rest of country, which is divided into Eastern Cuba, the Eastern and Western part of Central Cuba, and Eastern Cuba.  After that the book ends with some suggestions as to what the authors think that the reader would need to know about Cuba, such as some suggestions before one goes, getting around, practical information, an index, a phrase book of useful Spanish expressions, and acknowledgements.

This particular book was deeply interesting to me, not least in the way that it focused the attention of the reader on a very small area of Cuba that can probably be explored in a limited amount of time, while also providing at least some look at the wider expanse of Cuba for those who have greater time and an interest in exploring outside of the capital.  While my maternal grandfather visited Cuba quite often, at least from what I have heard, during his time as a coastguardsman in the period before Castro’s takeover in 1959, no one in my family has, at least to my knowledge, visited the country since then.  It is interesting to reflect upon the fate that a socialist nation has in throwing itself open to tourists in the hope that they will allow the economy to continue to function, and what sort of freedom Cuba wishes to have from its much larger neighbor even as it struggles to provide freedom to its own people.  A book like this certainly gave me a lot to think about and ponder concerning the state of Cuba and how it is likely to view a tourist like me to the extent that it recognizes who I am.

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Book Review: Cuba (Opposing Viewpoints)

Cuba (Opposing Viewpoints), edited by Noah Berlatsky

In reading a book like this it is fascinating to see some of the aspects of a subject like this that draw substantial disagreement and also what matters that may appear to be of deep or timeless interest that do not last the test of time at all.  As I am planning a family trip to Cuba coming up in the next few months, I figured it would be worthwhile to study up a bit more on Cuba than I have done before, not least because its anomalous status and issues have made it a complex area whose economy has been dependent on its friendship with Venezuela (a nation that has definitely seen better times).  Can Cuba survive on its own?  What would it take for Cuba to come in from the dark and open up its society to such a degree that its people could safely read blogs and would be able to earn decent incomes based on their obvious levels of education?  How can Cuba avoid the shadow of its overmighty and very nearby neighbor?  These are not easy matters to figure out, and any post-Castro Cuba will have to wrestle with a lot of such questions.

This book is a relatively quick read at about 200 pages or so, divided into four chapters with a lot of short articles written mostly by foreign policy wonks of one kind or another.  The first chapter discusses the state of Cuba, with wildly different judgments of its state from statements of progress towards economic liberalization, the adoption of a more flexible socialism (whatever that means), Cuba’s dismal record on human rights, its works in health and education, and their low-standard of living and whether or not Cubans accept such poverty (1).  The next chapter tackles Cuba’s relationship with the world (2), from Cuba’s ties to Moscow to the question of revolutionary doctors to the Cuban relationship with Venezuela and Canada.  After that there is a discussion of the relationship between the Cuba policy and American domestic politics (3), with musings on whether Cuba is a security threat or whether Cuban-Americans are moving away from the Republican party or not.  Finally, the book ends with the question of what America’s policy towards Cuba should be like (4), with predictably partisan and self-serving answers as well as a bibliography, suggestions for further discussion, organizations, and an index.

In reading this book, I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed in learning far less about Cuba than about what a lot of people (including an alarmingly large amount of leftists) thought about Cuba, which is unsurprisingly a lot less interesting and valuable.  Had this book given more information from the point of view of articulate Cubans, it would have been more valuable.  Had the overall bias of many of the authors been less stridently leftist, it would have been at least more tolerable.  Had the book talked more about the issues of Cuba itself and what it is like for someone who would want to visit there and less to do with the political posturing of people who do not know what they are talking about, whose political worldviews are totally unacceptable, and whose self-serving perspective is transparently obvious, this would have been a much better book.  Unfortunately, a book like this one does a good job at providing opposing viewpoints but not always a good job at revealing what the reader might actually want to know about a given subject in particular.  That is certainly the case here, where I am far more interested in what it is like to visit or live in Cuba and far less about the voting patterns of post-Mariel Cuban-Americans.

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We Forgive You, Germany

One of the most reviled songs to be released last year was from comedian and not particularly skilled musician Lil’ Dicky, whose abominable charity single “Earth” sought to raise money for woke listeners to try to save the earth.  Included among the many clunkers and non-jokes in the song’s lyrics was one that attracted a lot of negative attention from the musicology community, “We forgive you, Germany!”  A great deal of the negative press about this particular quote, as may be expected, concerns the enormity of Germany’s historical sins during World War II against the Jews and others that led to the killing of millions of innocent people.  It was obviously not contemporary Germans who were guilty of such crimes, and it was not only Nazi Germany that was guilty of such historical crimes against humanity–few regimes survived World War II with their honor intact when it came to their behavior towards civilians, and Communist regimes have killed many millions with less blame in part because of the political biases of many academics in the West.  Nor does the 20th century exhaust the sort of historical wrongs that people fight over, not by a long shot.

When we look at historical crimes against humanity, there are a lot of questions that make such matters difficult to deal with.  Who do we assess blame to?  Should we assess blame?  How can such wrongs be repaid?  Whenever we look at some sort of historical disaster which drastically affected the viability of peoples throughout time, there is a very real conundrum about how such wrongs can be repaid [1].  After all, those people who died in World War II or in Communist gulags and laogai or in the Atlantic or Muslim slave trades by and large did not have very many survivors left to claim damages on their behalf.  When a tribesman from East Africa was turned into a eunuch and sold on the slave markets of Baghdad or Istanbul or somewhere else, he by definition did not have children.  Nor did the many people who died of such horrific treatment by slavers.  Nor did most of the people who died in the Middle Passage, or those who were stolen from their homes and workplaces to some dark dungeon or work camp where they were worked to death in brutal conditions for some evil regime.  In most cases, the governments that had the responsibility to seek the well-being of the victims was itself part of the problem, whether as collaborators in evil through selling people to slave traders or in committing those atrocities in the first place.  Even in such cases as the brutal Mongol treatment of China and Central Asia, a lot of the time the regimes ruling over cities where many hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered were themselves to blame at least partially for the destruction that befell their people.

These problems are consistent when we look at historical conflicts.  Our support of underdogs cannot blind us to the genuine difficulties in justly apportioning blame for historical and contemporary wrongs.  Likewise, the most horrific historical wrongs are precisely those where it is most difficult to find those people who can receive whatever reparations are due, if that is indeed the right way to deal with such matters.  Can we expect the Turks to repay the Armenians for the mass slaughter of Armenians during World War I that was stirred up by nationalistic fervor, and does it mitigate the wrong of the Turks in admitting that the Armenians themselves generally favored the side of the Russians, which no doubt contributed to some of the fear and panic that was involved in Turkey’s grave wrongs against a small nation?  Who is left to claim whatever repayment exists for the sins of the Qing against the Dzhungars?  And so on it goes throughout many examples in history that we might examine if time and our patience permitted.

The case is not made easier by the recognition that the search for money as reparations for supposed historical wrongs is itself a sign of envy on the part of those nations which may be termed as historical losers and who have not managed to do very well for themselves and which might seek to assuage their sense of failure through attempting to coerce and manipulate others into subsidizing their failures.  We might point to the wrongs of the Roman Empire against France and England during the course of Rome’s expansion as an empire, and look at the atrocities committed by Julius Caesar and others, but it would obviously be unjust for contemporary Italians to be made to pay for their sins to nations that are doing as well or better than they are at present.  Nor are there politically powerful lobbies in France or Great Britain seeking reparations from Italy for the historical wrongs of the Romans.  Not only are the French culturally very different from the Gauls and the contemporary English from the Britons of old, but those cultures have actual successful endeavors behind them and are not trapped by the continual haunting of history.  The desire to paint oneself as a victim of history is most often undertaken by those peoples who have failed at life to have done works worthy of respect and honor.  Those who succeed point to their works; those who fail cry victim and look for sympathy from others.

We may thus, returning to our original example, see that there are many layers to the folly of Lil’ Dicky’s statement about forgiving Germany.  For one, it is not easy to apportion blame for the wrongs committed by the Nazi regime, not least when a country has sought for decades to cast off that blame.  For another, only those who were wronged by the Nazi regime in some fashion have the right to express forgiveness for those wrongs committed against them.  Many of those people died and are unable to forgive, whether or not they want to.  Those who survived may not be inclined to do so.  They may have let bygones be bygones and so on and so on so as to create a better life for themselves.  They may have decided to let God judge or may have accepted what reparations they received, however inadequate it is that money should pay for the death and humiliation suffered at the hand of evil regimes.  Who are we to interfere in such matters, or to assume that such wrongs can be made right at all, or that we have the power to seek to enforce payment against the innocent on behalf of the envious?

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Guildmaster’s Guide To Ravnica

Guildmaster’s Guide To Ravnica, by Wizards RPG Team

What would a fantasy world be like if it was one giant city filled with quarreling factions?  Aside from not seeming all that different from our contemporary world, it would be quite a lot like this book.  As far as a book that seeks to present a potential alternate world for one’s gaming, this was an enjoyable one to read.  It is not exactly the only book I would want about this particular world, as it would appear that the quests offered in this book are either sketchy or very limited, and would require a GM who was able and willing to create a great deal of the scenario for oneself.  This is certainly the sort of task that can be trusted to an experienced Gamemaster, but not most I would suspect.  Then again, I imagine that few people would consider a world like this unless they were fairly polished players and figures and were looking for an adventure that offered a great deal new after one had done a lot of the standard quests that are far more common.  And for polished players looking to add a layer to their gameplay experience, this book should be welcome.

This book is about 250 pages long and it is divided into six chapters with a lot of sidebars that give additional details about the world the book is attempting to construct.  The book begins with an index of stat blocks and an introduction that discusses Ravinca as a global city of guilds with different goals and a precarious peace between them along with a currency and languages.  After that the author discusses character creation and the importance of choosing not only a race and class but also a guild and also contains some new options for clerics and druids (1).  After that there is a lengthy chapter on the guilds of Ravnica, including their character types and backgrounds and guild spells (2), which give a lot of interesting suggestions as to how campaigns could be run with very specific parties of a faction, some of which are notably imbalanced (missing clerics frequently, for example).  After that there is a chapter on the tenth district, which is where the adventures tend to take place, it would appear, and its six precincts and life under the streets as well as above it (3).  After that there is a look at the guilds and how they can be used to create adventures by the GM (4).  After that there is a discussion about treasures (5) as well as about friends and foes in one’s adventures (6).

One of the most notable aspects of a book like this one is the way in which it can help us to better understand the divide in our own world.  A great many people have motivations which are complex and those complex motivations give them a great deal of conflict with others.  It is telling the way that the authors of this book view the search for power within government as being a neutral activity (essentially selfish if lawful), while viewing conflict between those seeking after justice and those seeking to preserve environmental balance, and between those engaged in espionage, those involved in technological advancements, those seeking to recycle and deal with the dead, a corrupt religion with heavy mafia elements that seems cribbed from the Roman Catholic Church, and contemporary bioengineers with an unholy perspective on blending life forms together in genetic engineering efforts.  This book manages to speak about our times in a subtle but deeply interesting way that demonstrates some of the reasons why we are so divided and so hostile to each other.  If this book does not provide any obvious ways forward, it at least does a good job at showing the cleavages that made civilized order difficult to maintain.

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Book Review: Tales From The Yawning Portal

Tales From The Yawning Portal, by the Wizards RPG Team

It’s easy to see why this book exists.  There are some books where the purpose of their existence is puzzling and has to be explained, but here, even if the premise of the book is more than a bit shaky and the adventures included as part of a suite don’t all coalesce together, the reason why this book exists is very easy to understand.  There are a lot of old and classic D&D quests that needed to be updated for the 5th edition, and there was an easy way of loosely connecting them together for players.  And so this book was the result.  As far as cash grabs go, this is not a bad tone.  The book honors the history of all of the quests that are inside of it, and the quests themselves are timeless classics that have stood the test of time.  If the concept that ties them together is somewhat weak, and it is, there are certainly worse things that a party can do than play some dangerous quests that force the party to think of diplomatic ways of solving problems and which emphasize cleverness as much as brute strength in achieving one’s goals.

This book is slightly more than 200 pages long and it is divided into seven chapters (for the seven quests) along with other material.  The book begins with a short introduction that uses the Yawning Portal as the bridge between these generally disparate quests.  After that the book contains the Sunless Citadel quest (1), with tips on its locations and how to run the adventure.  This leads into the Forge of Fury (2), a quest that has some hooks for characters as well as the aftermath of the quest.  After that there is the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (3), with some advice on how to run the quest.  A similar approach is taken to White Plume Mountain (4), along with some advice on how one can escape from the dungeon.  After that considerably more information is included about the lengthy and detailed quest Dead In Thay (5), which offers a lot of areas for a very long grind.  After that there is a giant-themed mission, Against The Giants, which includes three different enemies (6).  The final quest included is the classic Tomb of Horrors with its large amount of traps and small amount of actual enemies (7).  The rest of the book consists of supplementary materials like magic items (i), creatures (ii), and maps.

In looking at these particular quests, even if I don’t think that the quests as a whole are all that impressive, nor the unifying idea of the Yawning Portal bar itself as the place where the stories are connected, there are definitely some quests here that I think would be fun as one-off quests for a party that could use a particular type of challenge.  When reading a book like this, that is all that is needed for a quest to be interesting.  Given the fact that this book has genuine historical appeal in tying together quests that have gone back a long way, this book is also easy to appreciate on those grounds.  This book would have been far easier to dislike had the book sought to present these particular quests as being new when they were not, but honestly honoring the past while trying to re-work it into present game mechanics is something that I can understand and appreciate and even respect.  And if you have a love of old quests, even in a somewhat ramshackle format, it is likely that you will find a lot to appreciate here.  The only people who won’t are those who have no interest in classic quests or who just like to do hack and slash quests.

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Book Review: Storm King’s Thunder

Storm King’s Thunder, by Wizards RPG Team

If you are familiar with the various Norse heathen myths of frost giants and other forms of giants who were at odds with the Norse gods than a lot of this book’s mythos will not be too familiar.  If you are familiar with the general sense of D&D as a game and the way that it freely adapts the heathen myths of cultures into adventures for role playing gamers, this particular book will not be too surprising, as it shows some good giants and some neutral giants and some evil giants all fighting over their place in the general order and also dealing with old and new enemies and pondering the ancient history of areas like Waterdeep.  Although this is by no means a very large book, to play this book out based on its contents could take a very long time and could lead to someone’s character being leveled up from 1 to over 10 without any great difficulty.  As for me, giants aren’t the sort of enemies that I would most want to deal with so this particular book wasn’t all that appealing to me, but if you want a campaign that seeks to defuse tensions between Giants and dragons, this is certainly a way of doing it.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and is divided into 12 chapters and various other materials.  The introduction shows the giants and their struggles and the disappearance of King Hekaton as well as a synopsis of the adventure.  After that there is a discussion of the giant upheaval that this campaign involves (1) and the rumblings in various areas that require the protection of special NPC’s (2).  A very large chapter shows the peoples of the north and a suite of random encounters in all kinds of places that offer considerable challenges to parties (3).  After that the campaign provides an adventure to the eye of the All-Father (4), a fight in the den of the Hill Giants (5), a fight in the canyon of the Stone Giants (6), a frozen city of the Frost Giants (7), a forge of the Fire Giants (8), a castle of the Cloud Giants (9), and a hold of the Storm Giants (10) to provide even more combat opportunities to advance the characters.  After all of this there are additional aspects to the campaign involving a fight against the Kraken (11) as well as an attack on a dragon in the desert (12).  In addition to that there are appendices which provide linked adventures (i), magic items (ii), creatures (iii), and special NPCs (iv), as well as various figures and maps for the party to use.

Even if this isn’t the sort of campaign I would find most interesting for a D&D party I was involved in to run, I have to respect the sheer ambition of the people who made this book in thinking of how to integrate the problem with giants and their wars and struggles into the standard world.  That ambition is sometimes breathtaking when one sees the sort of random campaigns that are planned for parties that go virtually anywhere in the game during this campaign, and certainly makes for compelling content that provides one with friends and enemies and the potential to gain considerable power (including the building of a tower if one does one of the quests well; if you know me you know I’m all about the property investments).  In reading this book I was struck by the way it was elegant in offering a lot of action but doing so with very little space, which means that this book would likely require having other books around as well to run the campaign, which most GMs would have anyway, it must be admitted.  I can think of at least some people who would want to run this adventure and for whom it would take quite a bit of time to do so.

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