Friday, July 31, 2009

Japanese people are weird...

On the off chance that you didn't already know that, or don't believe it, check out this trailer for RoboGeisha. Coming soon to a Japanese theater. Probably not near you.

Dungeons & Dragons

Someone who read my profile and was struck by this line: "It so happens that I'm not a huge fan of D&D per se, but that type of game is what we're talking about here. " asked me, reasonably I think, why I cared about Dungeons & Dragons then. The context here was a discussion about the "OSR movement" (which I'll post on at some other time because that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish) in which I guess it was questioned why I should "care" about discussing D&D when my stated opinion is that I don't necessarily even like it.

Well, that's a fair question. Maybe I should give a quick and dirty "RPG autobiography." That way you can see where I'm coming from and what I'm up to when I talk about RPGs.

I started off very young (2nd or 3rd grade, so it would have been... 1979 or 1980 or so?) I had a friend, who's house I really liked to go to because he was kinda spoiled and had a complete collection of the Kenner Star Wars toys. This was before The Empire Strikes Back came out, so, again... confirmation on the date. That movie came out in May of 1980. He also had a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons boxed set (don't know which one) and he attempted to run me through a scenario. I say "attempted" because, frankly, I was much more interested in his Death Star Playset than I was in this game he was trying to get me to play. It didn't "click" with me yet.

Not too long afterwards, though, I "got it." I actually picked up (or was given, more likely) the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Guide, and reading through that book finally made me understand what the game could be all about. I had always been a fan of the fantastic: mythology and fantasy, and now here was a game where you could take on the role of one of those fantastic heroes and go... do cool fantastic stuff. That said, I still only sporadically got a chance to play; that friend with all the Star Wars stuff? He moved away. I didn't know anyone with D&D anymore, although I saw them at bookstores, department stores and the hobby shop down the street from me, and flipped through them every chance I got to absorb what I could of the ambience.

A few years later, in late elementary school, middle school and junior high, I had some friends who played and were also fantasy fans. We'd lend each other books, argue about who was cooler between Tarzan and Conan; Tolkien or Lloyd Alexander, and... we played D&D. For the first time, I was able to take the concept I liked and run with it. About this time, Endless Quest, TolkienQuest and Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks were out too, so I ate through those at a voracious pace.

However... I quickly became disaffected too. The whole paradigm of what characters did in D&D; the obsessive searching of empty rooms in bizarre "dungeons", the focus on killing for treasure and experience... that didn't resemble at all the fantasy stories that I loved, and which was the whole reason I was so fascinated with the promise of fantasy roleplaying. There was an awful lot of strange arbitrariness in D&D too that really rubbed me the wrong way. I also tried out lots of other games, mostly the TSR ones like Star Frontiers, Top Secret, Boot Hill and others, but eventually I kinda fell away from gaming as I advanced into my High School years. I was still friends with these same guys and still saw them, but they got distracted by the other pleasures of being a teenager too. I don't know if they also were disaffected by the way D&D was structured or if I was unique in that regard, but in any case, I left D&D in the mid-80s, well before Second Edition came out, and didn't look back for a long time. Other than a handful of looks on the shelf at the bookstore to see what was going on with the hobby from time to time.

In the mid-90s, three things happened more or less together which changed my attitude on gaming substantially. The first was that I discovered the White Wolf games; Vampire and Werewolf. I was instantly caught up in the excitement of playing in this innovative (well, it seemed like it at the time) setting, and I hate to say it, but the pretentious "storytelling" vibe also appealed to me too, seeming to eschew all of the things that I had disliked about my D&D experience, and crafting a roleplaying game expectation that was more in line with my tastes. I eventually became equally disaffected with White Wolf, but at the time, it was a tremendous influence on me.

The second thing that happened was that, while in the apartment of a friend of mine doing something (I forget what) I saw a boxed set of Top Secret S.I. in his room. This led to a conversation about gaming, and later to a session or two. With adults. Gaming with adults, who apparently had similar tastes as me in what we wanted from the game (a happy coincidence that at the time I had no idea how wrong that could have done) was such an improved situation from the junior high gaming I'd done years ago, that I really could see how my gaming ideal; the one that I left the hobby because it seemed unrealizable, was perhaps realizeable after all. One of the other guys had been big into Traveller, so I picked some of that up too, and my own copy of Top Secret. And I started buying Werewolf books. Mostly to read, but I did use them on occasion, too.

And the third thing that happened was that I discovered the nascent internet. Now, I could read news, essays and arguments on the old Usenet forums and private messageboards about gaming. I even tried my hand at playing in a play-by-email game or two.

These three things together meant that I rediscovered gaming as a viable hobby and never once looked back. That doesn't mean that my gaming was necessarily all that good. I was in grad school, working full time, married, having kids, and otherwise very busy. The guys I gamed with were also getting married, graduating and moving away, going on internships, working long hours and studying even longer hours... in short, our gaming was good when it happened, but the schedule was infrequent and irregular. None of us in those days looked at D&D.

In June 2000, I finished my MBA and took a full time job, moving across the country for work and taking my young family with me. This was about the time that Third Edition and the OGL came out. I found this movement fascinating, and now with a regular schedule (which meant time) and a regular largish paycheck (which meant disposible income) I jumped back into D&D again. Third Edition initially seemed to have addressed many of my concerns; the system was now robust enough to handle a variety of tasks that the older editions either ignored or handwaved away poorly, and much of the arbitrariness was taken away. I felt for the first time that I could play D&D the way I had always wanted to. When d20 Star Wars and Wheel of Time came out, I came to see the possibilities of the system as a whole (although I also remarked that Star Wars and Wheel of Time were, after all, not too far removed in tone from D&D). When d20 Call of Cthulhu came out, I finally agreed that d20 could do anything I needed it to. In fact, the d20 Modern game seemed designed specifically to facilitate just that.

Cracks in the seams started showing themselves, though. 3.5 came out. What? I just bought this stuff, and now you want me to rebuy it for a few minor changes? Well, a lot of the changes weren't minor. Or, at least they weren't few. But they weren't necessarily improvements either. Some of them were, but some of them clearly took a step backwards. This helped me to start seeing things without the rosy glasses of excitement in the moment. d20 wasn't necessarily that great of a game after all. It didn't work well across the entire spectrum of levels. Higher level d20, especially D&D, was in fact very tedious and difficult to play. I realized also that a lot of folks didn't play the way I did; I took to heart the motto "tools not rules" and used the rules of the game in ways that suited me, not bothering to nitpick and double check every single skill check DC and crap like that. Other people found the game very difficult because of the arcane web of rules that governed every possible thing you tried. I didn't; like I said, I ignored a lot of rules unless it looked like it'd be fun to use it, and played fairly fast and loose, and so did my group, but I can see the merit in the problem anyway.

The inherent D&Disms also started to really bother me after a while. Magic was everywhere. As prestige classes, feats, items, monsters and spells proliferated, I found many of them trite and silly. The whole tone of the game started to wear on me. The game didn't play well "cinematically"; without a battlemat, it was difficult to run a decent combat. This is when I realized that, although it had been flexible enough to allow me to play the games I wanted to, it really was designed around a "back to the dungeon" concept; a paradigm that drove me away from D&D in the first place. Again; D&D didn't resemble anything I had ever read or would want to; my whole problem with it in the first place.

However, this time rather than give it up, I decided to roll up my sleeves and find a way to make d20 work for me. It wasn't really that hard; if I don't like high level play, I can avoid it by keeping my games at low and mid level. A few house rules, most of them cribbed (rather than designed by yours truly; a talent I do not really possess) from Unearthed Arcana and third party publishers banged the inherent setting that the mechanics implied into something much more palateable to me. A few other more drastic optional house rules reduced the need for so much magic all the time, and in fact did away with some of it.

The modular and moddable nature of d20 came to the rescue, and while what I prefer to play has a passing resemblance to D&D as written, it's really also got some very notable differences to the point where a few people have said that it's some other d20 fantasy game altogether.

I'm OK with this. I've made my peace with d20. Rather than continue to look for the mythical "Holy Grail" of gaming systems, I've got one that I can use for almost any game I could possibly imagine wanting to run, with only a minimum of fuss to customize the system for the game in question. There's still a few things I don't really like about the system, but I shrug and live with them. They're not dealbreakers for me anymore. Not only that, the positives outweigh the negatives in this case; I can swallow a few things I don't like in order to get the stuff that I do.

So, when Fourth Edition was announced, and it immediately became clear that backwards compatibility with my d20 stuff wasn't going to be a high priority, my interest in it waned to a mild academic curiosity. I had no interest in actually adopting those rules any more than I had any interest in adopting the older rules that drove me away from the game in the first place. Could I make them work for me? Sure. I'm a much more experienced and tested gamer now; I know what I like, I know why I like it, I know how to get the experience I want from any game. But why bother? I had a game that already did most everything I wanted; why would I want to start from scratch rebuilding it, to arguably not even be any better off than I already was?

That's where I am right now. I've run, in the last year, three D&D games, but only one of them really resembled "standard" D&D very much. I played in another long-running D&D campaign, Age of Worms, and everybody involved was ready for it to be over I think when it finally was. Right now, I'm in a BRP Call of Cthulhu game, and enjoying the change of pace.

But, I find that I also crave D&D. In spite of the problems I have with it, I find that I've got a strange love/hate D&D relationship. I want it. Even if it turns me off to play it too much. So, my house-ruled game, that's almost D&D 3.5, is after all my favorite game after all; the one that I most prefer to run and that I most wish someone would run for me.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pillars of Creation... gone?!

The so-called "Pillars of Creation" is one of the most popular images from recent astronomy, and probably one of the best known Hubble images taken. I've included it in this post. Right there, to the left, see?

The Pillars of Creation are actually dark clouds of gas and dust, similar to Bok globules, found in the Eagle nebula. The Eagle nebula itself is a bright cloud of gas and dust, so... same basic concept, just lit up like a Christmas tree and superimposed over it are the dark fingers of "The Pillars."

However... a recent Spitzer telescope wide view image of the Eagle Nebula shows that a shockwave from a supernova is moving through the nebula. Because the Eagle Nebula is 7,000 light years away, we can still see the Pillars, but this would suggest that they were swept away and destroyed by the shockwave 6,000 years ago, and we're just waiting for the image of that to travel the last 1,000 light years to Earth so we can see it.

That's the weirdest thing about looking into space; you're also looking backwards in time. What we see 7,000 light years away is what was there 7,000 years ago... not now. I can't recall off hand any science fiction stories that have made hay with that concept; once you get out into space, it's suddenly different than what you see on earth because of the things that you can't have seen yet. It'd make for a great story concept, though.

Modular D&D Setting

A while ago, I started a wiki specifically to contain modular fantasy setting elements that I found I was re-using frequently in any D&D (or other) fantasy game that I ran. The first one I attacked was the hobgoblin empire that I used to use frequently, but I also have a pantheon page, a linguistics and language page, and others. Coming soon is a vampire kingdom, based on an idea on the Wizards website that accompanied their Open Grave release.

Anyway, it's far from complete, but there is enough content on the wiki that I feel comfortable officially "opening it up for business" so to speak, as the rest of the content gradually starts filling in.

The "crown jewel" of the wiki---so far, anyway---is a reasonably complete module on a hobgoblin empire. Just a few more pages to post, and a map, and you've got a kingdom all set and ready to run.

Frank Frazetta tribute

I've been a big fan of Frank Frazetta for many, many years. I mean, heck; what fantasy fan my age wouldn't be? He's a classic himself; and he's illustrated most of the classics of the genre, back when they were going through their late 60s early 70s revival, and he's an extremely talented artist to boot. I mean, he doesn't necessarily reproduce things accurately (which of the two would you guess is supposed to be the "red Martian" in the painting below? Would you believe... both of them? Well, the guy is half red Martian half Earthling, anyway. Also; good grief, how many moons is Mars supposed to have, anyway?) In fact, in terms of detail, he pretty much just skipped it. But the vibrancy of his paintings is impossible to deny. The sense of action, of tension, of passion and power; he really makes fantasy come alive in a way that no artist before or since has done. He's been often imitated, but those imitations have always been inferior to the original. Much like Tolkien, I think his work is a kind of stand-alone work that subsequent artists would do well to distance themselves from rather than copy; any copy will be compared to the original, and not favorably.

Pbp update... no update

Well, Circvs Maximvs, where I run the "Demons in the Mist" play by post game, is still running so erratically that it's been impossible to actually make any progress on the Pbp. This has been the situation now for... oh, almost a week.

Very frustrating.

Scary hot women

For some reason, I've always been drawn in fantasy fiction to the notion of a very powerful, very beautiful, yet very evil woman. Maybe it goes back to my life-long love of Disney's Sleeping Beauty and the well-done prototype of--not a Dark Lord, but a Dark Empress--Maleficent. She's the real deal---a self-proclaimed "Mistress of All Evil" and, apparently, viewed as "the most powerful and sinister of the Disney villains" and the end scenes of Sleeping Beauty are amongst the darkest and grimmest that Disney ever produced (with the possible exception of The Black Cauldron which was otherwise a very silly movie, sadly.)

More recently I've been captivated by the fictional character of Dorotea Senjak, i.e., "The Lady" of Glen Cook's Black Company fame. Although in her case, her kinda sorta reformation was a key character development issue away from many of the very traits that made her so fascinating. Although the fact that it was--at best--a kinda sorta reformation makes her merely more human rather than less interesting. I mean, she still massacred the priests of Taglios because they stood in political opposition to her, after all. Hardly the actions of a "hero."

The reason I bring this up is that I was browsing the Pathfinder blog recently, and snagged this image; the young Queen of Cheliax, a powerful kingdom that is, essentially, a devil-worshipping theocracy (at least as I understand it; the more detailed book isn't out yet.) In part because I'm fascinated with the concept of an overtly evil-themed society and the adventure possibilities inherent therein, and in part because of a superficial resemblance to some of those earlier Dark Lady archetypes that I've liked so much in the past, I've been more excited about the release of the Cheliax book than I have been about many of the Pathfinder Companion books, as well as being a little disappointed that it's being covered in the shorter Companion line rather than the Chronicles line, which would be twice as big. Although, plenty of other Cheliax themed source material has come out from Paizo, albeit in disconnected form, in other products as well.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pbp woes

I'm trying to have a thrilling finale to my Pbp and things keep conspiring against me. My timing was terrible; I started the fight right before leaving for vacation for two weeks, I've been swamped with work ever since getting back, meaning I can't move very quickly, and now the website on which I run the game has been running agonizingly slow the last several days, making the thought of trying to update the game painful to even think about.

It's times like this that make me almost want to swear off Pbps as a viable medium... except that at other times, I've had some rather remarkable success with the idea. There's no denying that it's been frustrating at times to try and make the medium work for me, though.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Blog templates

Well, I've done a small amount of customization of the blog template, but not being fluent in CSS, I've been reluctant to make too many major changes. Normally I look at my blog from one of two computers, both of which are set at the same resolution, so it never occurred to me that this was a problem. Right now, I'm looking at it on a third computer and... my blog is really narrow, just sitting in the middle of the screen with gigantic brick margins on either side.

I tried to play around with some of the settings in the CSS template, but I wasn't getting exactly what I wanted (I shrunk the brick margins by effectively expanding the brown background behind the posts, but the posts themselves, and parchment-like background image that they're on didn't expand to match, so that looked really dumb.

Anyway, I'll probably keep playing around with it... but has anyone else already converted the pixel parameters into percentage parameters and can tell me which lines of the template I need to make sure and do?

If so, thanks!

Pleistocene wiki

For some reason, I'm on a real roll making updates today. Might as well keep striking while the iron's hot.

Every once in a while, I'll get an idea for a setting, go create a wiki, spend about five minutes working on formatting, and then walk away from it to more or less forget about it. I've got no fewer than eight setting wikis in progress, and only one of them really has enough content to be useable (which is because it was used for my play-by-post "Demons in the Mist" game,) while a second one approaches useability, if not completeness.

One of these wikis I just rediscovered while going through my old files; it had formatting and a splash page that literally said nothing more than "Coming soon..." Whoops! Six months or more later, that's kinda embarrassing.

Anyway, I added a little bit more to the splash page. It's little more than a half-page summary of what could one day be a setting Bible, but it's a bit of a start. The idea was a combination of two ideas that I already had, and thought worked better as one. The first idea was an alternate history in which Viking settlement in America was more pervasive and longer lasting, allowing for a string of prosperous and stable Viking colonies on the northeast coast of North America, interacting with such locals as the Five Nations, and late stage mound builders. The second idea was a Conan-esque Sword & Sorcery setting that uses North America before the Pleistocene megafauna extinction event. So, you've got sabertooths, mammoths, mastodons, Scott's horse, American camels, dire wolves, etc... and familiar animals too like bison, lions, deer, bears, etc. This was more overtly fantastic, being always envisioned as a sword & sorcery setting, than the alternate history one, but still... I decided that the two concepts were a match made in heaven. Here's the defining principles of the setting, as it will eventually develop, from the wiki frontpage.

1) This all takes place in North America in roughly 975 A.D. or so, during the highpoint of the so-called Viking Age of Europe. In this setting, travel across the Atlantic will probably be constrained by a brief period (a few years) of exceptionally (and possibly supernaturally formed) cycles of winter storms and other bad weather, effectively isolating North America from Europe for at least a few years.

2) First change from real history; the Viking age here is considerably more "Golden" than it really was; there were more vikings, going to more places and just generally "doing more" than they really did. They've discovered North America at least 100 years before Lief Erikson's time, and settled it successfully almost immediately, building a number of colonies on the East Coast of Canada and the Northern Seaboard that are still thriving.

3) The second change from real history is that the Vikings, being more successful and widespread than in real life, may have migrated, or caused to migrate, other European populations or refugees. Therefore, there are also population pockets in the New World of Slavs, Saxons, Scots and Irish.

4) The third (and possibly most significant) change from real history is that the extinction event which impoverished the megafauna of North America supposedly 10,000 years ago never happened. The Great Plains of North America are much like the savannahs of Africa; native North American lions, sabertooths, scimitar-tooths, short-faced bears, wolves, coyotes, pumas, "cheetahs" and dire wolves all hunt several species of native horse, ass, pronghorn, bison and even two species of mammoth (up north the Wooly mammoth, and down south the Imperial or Columbian mammoth, which is, essentially, just an elephant, as closely related to the African and Indian elephants as the African and Indian elephants are to each other) and mastodons. A handful of other fictional critters such as predatory diurnal hunting bats and whatnot, complete the scene.

5) Since we know very little of the American indian populations of 975 A.D., I'm going to assume that the historical populations from the 1600 and 1700s just get pushed backwards in time and get used anyway. Therefore, the Vikings, Saxons and whatnot can interact with the Five Nations of the Iroquois, the Algongquins, and the classic, well-known tribes of Plains Indians, such as Apaches, Comanches, Sioux, etc.

6) There are hints that the Chinese may have also "discovered" America. In this setting, they have, and also have colonies on the West coast.

7) The Moundbuilders are a nation, or group of nations, still extant in the east central part of the continent. Although some nations, such as the Cherokee and other Iroquois speaking nations, may have some link with them, they purposefully keep seperate; the mound builders are feared and shunned as dark shamans and sorcerers of ill-repute. They appear to be a hybrid culture of native american and stragglers from Atlantis.

8) As the last entry hints at; I'm not at all opposed to throwing in plenty of overtly fantastical elements into the stories. Dark wizards or shaman, ghosts, demons, malevolent spirits; all of these will feature prominently in any stories set in this setting.

Call of Cthulhu

People always think that the Chaosium game Call of Cthulhu is unsuited for campaign play, because the deathcount is too high.

I don't see why this needs to be. I've been involved in a BRP CoC game for several months now, and only two characters have had to be replaced.

Sadly, they've both been mine. One of them, I took the stats as rolled even though our GM specifically told us we could arrange them to suit. His Wisdom was very low, which meant that his starting Sanity was also very low. A chance meeting with Nyarlathotep, disguised as a human that we knew of, caused me to fail a sanity check and become psychosomatically blind. Well, he wasn't useable anymore. Oh, well. So much for my idea of porting Bertie Wooster into Lovecraft.

My second character was actually killed on a night when I wasn't there, so I don't count it as any failing of mine. He's actually the only character who's died. My third character has taken neither hit point nor sanity damage... so far.

A lot of people say that even "normal" encounters with thugs and cultists are lethal in this game, but I'm not finding that to necessarily be true. Rather, it's not unlike playing fairly low level D&D... in fact, low level d20 games might if anything be more lethal than Cthulhu, which stands the notion that it's this highly lethal game completely on its head.

The image is a cool one I found at an artist blog, of a Deep One rising from the sea. Since we've got Deep Ones and their fishy fellows in our game, I thought it seemed appropriate. Plus; holy cow, cool image.

Who needs fantasy...

...when real life is so fantastic on its own? I often think that while driving through scenic areas just here in our own country, but there are places in this world so exotic that they beg to be used... somehow... in a fantasy setting. The first one I've thought of (and went and grabbed some pictures of) is the so-called "mud mosque" of Djenne in the west African country of Mali.

Anyway, here's a few pics of the mud mosque, cribbed by Google image search. See what I mean?

D&D with kids

My oldest son, Spencer (13) has been showing a fair amount of interest in Dungeons & Dragons for a little while now, so on a whim I whipped up three third level characters, and asked my kids if anyone was interested in me running them through a little sumthin-sumthin. Spencer and Alexander (7) both responded positively; Jessica (11) wasn't interested at this point, which was fine, although I think she might have enjoyed it. I had characters for the three of them whipped up, a human sorcerer for Spencer (I figured he was old enough to handle the added complexity of casting spells) and a human ranger named Ormando for Alex. I had a human rogue (Carlota) for Jessica, and maybe Carlota will get some action before all's said and done yet.

We only had about an hour to play, but stealing some names and ideas liberally from the Golarion setting, I had them set out from the Academy in Absalom, recently graduated, and offered a job as security/sherrifs at the small, frontier town of Sandpoint. While travelling, their riverboat was attacked by bandits; two on the shore shooting arrows and two on a boat coming over to board them. They handled them very well; Spencer's character Bendek took a few arrow wounds, but his spells also managed three of the bad guys quite well, while Alex's character shot his bow very poorly, but managed with longsword and tomahawk to way overkill the last bandit, who was threatening them all on the boat.

A young passenger flirted with them after this a bit, the mayor of Sandpoint congratulated them on a good start, put them up in a nice little cottage on the edge of town, and then we were out of time.

The kids enjoyed the combat most of all, but did also enjoy the roleplaying activities a bit too. I think it went well. Both were intersted in playing again on Sunday (which we did not have time to do, and now Spencer's at Scout camp, so next weekend at the earliest before we can follow up.) We'll see how it goes.

Anyways; any ideas on where to go from here? I'm thinking of maybe starting them off with some kind of little mean-spirited fey or goblin like creature who's kidnapping children and hiding them in the crawlspaces of the town, or in a cave in the limestone cliffs just out of town that they have to deal with, but other than that, I'm flying kinda blind.


Again; I'm not going to review it in full, but I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows this weekend, and am moving on to Deadhouse Gates; the follow-up to Erikson's Gardens of the Moon which I only reluctantly finished, and which only the last third or so redeemed from being a turgid, disorganized mess. That said, even fans of the series say that Gardens is a difficult read, while Gates is supposed to be excellent. So, I guess this will be the author's second chance to try and impress me.

As to the Harry Potter finale, I liked it better than I remembered. I had felt earlier that the series ended on kinda a flat note; I think now that rather than that, it just didn't show a few things that I really would have liked to see. Rowling also does a few acrobatics with "magic as a deus ex machina plot device", but she kinda sorta makes it work. I do, however, find myself feeling better about the series as a whole, after being disappointed earlier. The ending is growing on me.

Another quick formatting note; I removed the Gentlemen of the Road image from the "what I'm listening to" thingy on the side there. I started listening to it, and my batteries died. Normally that wouldn't be a problem (I have rechargeable ones that I can sub in at any time) but I actually can't hear the audiobook very well. The earbuds just aren't that loud, and they don't filter out ambient noise at all. Until such point as I can get some good old-fashioned earphones, I'll have to put that concept on hold.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Great Beyond

Well, as I said in a slightly earlier post, against my plan, I went ahead and read the latest Pathfinder Chronicles volume to cross my path, The Great Beyond. This was an interesting book, as it's like a little Manual of the Planes (which was one of my favorite sourcebooks of the original Third Edition era, by the way) customized for the Pathfinder setting of Golarion.

However, it is at times too much like Manual of the Planes. I get it that the Paizo folks really enjoy a lot of the old D&D tropes, and that they also believe that their core market is based around folks who weren't interested in migrating to Fourth Edition because it changed too much stuff. But there was a very powerful sense of déjà vu while reading this... because much of it really isn't all that different than the Great Wheel cosmology. It's slightly simplified; the Golarion cosmology has an outer plane for each full stop on the nine point alignment system, while the Great Wheel has these bizarre filler planes in between each of the full stops on the nine point alignment system. Also, planes like Heaven, Hell, the Abyss, etc.---many of them are very familiar even outside of a D&D context, and they're pretty much... exactly the same as they are in D&D in that case, or only very minorly tweaked. A few had minor name changes, but otherwise felt very familiar. This focus on alignment is unfortunate, I think, since alignment, after more than thirty years of gaming, still doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and is more a constraint than a useful tool, in my opinion. The best thing that can be said about it is that using alignment as a guide creates a situation that greatly resembles the Great Wheel cosmology. For better or for worse. I never use anything like the Great Wheel cosmology personally, but I know plenty of folks really dig it. The Great Beyond also features a set of inner planes and transitive planes that are... very familiar to D&D players. Although with a few nifty tweaks. Unfortunately, the same problem that these planes have always had in D&D carries through here. What in the world do you actually do in a place so inhospitable and empty as, say, the Negative Energy Plane? (negative energy? Think about that concept for a second anyway. What in the world is negative energy?)

Where the book excels, rather, is where it does something new. D&D has always had a long, storied history of exploring devils and demons, the "lawful evil" and "chaotic evil" fiends respectively, it's never really had a good concept for the in-between fiends, the "pure" evil or "neutral evil" group. They had the daemons back in the day (which was confusing since that's a little bit like saying color and colour are two different concepts... when you can't even tell them apart by saying it and of course they mean exactly the same thing being, in fact, the exact same word. Daemon is merely the British spelling for demon.) This concept never seems to have completely taken off, so in the Second Edition era, they were renamed and expanded upon greatly, remade as the yugoloths. Although this excited a small population of hardcore Planescape fanatics, otherwise the yugoloths also seemed to have been a concept that struggled to find fertile ground in which to grow. Green Ronin sensibly came up with a concept for them based on the seven deadly sins of famous Catholic doctrine (and Brad Pitt/Gwynneth Paltrow gritty cinema interpretation), although unfortunately they used the word daemon again. Paizo seems to have come up with yet another concept, basing them, thematically, on the Four Horsemen (of the Apocalypse) and making them a band of nihilistic fiends, arguably amongst the scariest in the lower planes now. So, good show there.

There's a few other really good ideas strewn throughout the familiar landscape of an abbreviated and expurgated Manual of the Planes (it's even organized more or less the same!) including the demi-plane or "other" plane Leng, ripped straight out of Lovecraft's The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath. While not explored in this book very much (one of the last Second Darkness adventures gave this detail, if I remember correctly) the Paizo guys have re-used a lot of the demon heirarchy that Erik Mona used when he wrote Green Ronin's Armies of the Abyss, including a nearly complete demonic "pantheon" based, mostly, on Judeo-Christian demonology.

I guess in general, I'd say this product, like The Manual of the Planes that it so strongly resembles, suffers from being a book that's difficult to actually use in play, but which is interesting to read, at least. However, the fact that it also so strongly resembles the earlier book makes a good half of the book feel almost superfluous.

The "evil" campaign

Here's a brilliant in-character justification from one of my players for why his hobgoblin character just turned around and ran away from the campaign's grand finale battle. Slightly edited to preserve the sensitive sensibilities of potential younger audience members.

Technically, this campaign isn't "evil" it's alignment-less. But really; most of these characters aren't nice people. Entertaining, certainly. But not nice.

"He's been carved up badly in less than 10 seconds, his employer, who he thought of as a slightly damp source of money and Ricardo plaything, just displayed a level of skill and fighting prowess far in excess of his own, or most people he's fought, and the Mist-blasted Hobgoblin King, who has to be tough by dint of his position, is here dishing the hurt. Lash isn't especially patriotic, but it's the King! That's a bit intimidating to him. (Also, being a regicide might hurt business.)

His friends are either turning into demons and blathering incoherently or wildly jumping on guards with daggers, or otherwise just crazy.

Also, there is no money to be made by staying. I don't think I can emphasize this enough.

It's just time to go."

I think people really overestimate the difficulties of playing an "evil" campaign. I've actually come to prefer it. Maybe it's just that I like the antics of roguish characters, like the the old Sword & Sorcery stories used to focus on (did anyone ever mistake Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, Conan, or even Cugel the "Clever" for heroes? No. Protagonists, yes. But not heroes.) Maybe I just find the motivations realistic because I'm a cynical old fart myself. Anyway, the old Demons in the Mist campaign that I've blogged about in the past is in its swan song phase; I thought it best to end on a high note rather than let it slip away ignominously. I could already see a few signs that its heyday was over.

In real life rather than online as a play-by-post, it might have lasted longer. Either that, or done exactly as it has done and merely ended a long time ago because the pacing of the two mediums is different. Although I thought that somehow I had escaped many of the problems that have always plagued any attempt at a play-by-post (Pbp) game, I did eventually start catching up to them. It just took me a lot longer. Two players have gone completely AWOL; they essentially don't even post at all anymore (and not just in the game, I mean... I haven't seen them anywhere else anymore either) and I'm getting more and more frustrated with trying to run combat in a map-based system online without a map. Maybe I'm just using the wrong system for online games, but d20 works so reasonably well for literally everything else I could want to run that it didn't really occur to me to entertain any alternatives.

When I'm completely done, I'd like to take a few posts reflecting on the nature of Pbp games, the wild success of this particular one, and anything else related to online gaming with people who are widely separated geographically in real life.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A few formatting notes

Well, I said that I was only going to read one RPG book at a time, but last night I ended up picking up The Great Beyond and starting it anyway, so... I guess Sandstorm is effectively on a short-term hiatus. I also added Gentlemen of the Road which I'm listening to as an audiobook while commuting.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dark Markets: A Guide to Katapesh

"You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."

I just finished reading the Pathfinder Chronicles book/periodical Dark Markets: A Guide to Katapesh. Katapesh is a part of the Pathfinder setting, set on the eastern coast of what is loosely fantasy Africa. It's a relatively wild place, famous for it's slave trade and drug trade, and features a kind of "Arabian Nights" feel to it, or possibly something akin to the feel of Morocco during the movie Casablanca, although part of that could be the subtle similarities between the name Katapesh and Marakesh. The quote above (from Obiwan Kenobi in the first Star Wars although hopefully you didn't need me to tell you that) applies quite well to Katapesh, (which is both a nation and a city) but, for that matter, it applies well to most fantasy cities, starting with the first famous fantasy city, Lankhmar, going on down through Greyhawk, Camorr, Freeport, and more. For that matter, Paizo have themselves now given us three differently themed "wretched hives of scum and villainy" in urban fantastic form, Korvasa, the devil-worshiping city that's gradually falling into decay, Absalom, the "center of the world" that's much more traditionalist in terms of what fantasy conventions and tropes it uses, and now Katapesh.

As I said, Katapesh is both a nation and a city; an overview of the nation takes up about the first 25 pages, an overview of the city takes up the next 25, and the last 12-13 pages or so cover a big collection of plot hooks, a new prestige class, some rules for pesh addiction, a few spells and feats, and a handful of monsters and animals. The nation is largely desert and savannah, and the city is old, decadent, corrupt, and... like I said, pretty Lankhmar-like (which in turn resembles Cervantes' version of Seville... I guess there's no stopping a good idea.) Savage creatures like gnoll slavers (and worse) inhabit the wastelands, making them dangerous to the hardy pesh farmers and caravans that cross the region. There's a lot of possibility for adventure laid out here in the boonies of Katapesh (making the fact that I'm also reading Sandstorm intriguing, because it's a great mechanical counterpoint to Katapesh's "fluff").
I'm a huge sucker for urban intrigue, though, so I found the section on the city of Katapesh more my speed. The relatively lawless nature of the city (unless you disrupt trade, which is the only real taboo) makes it the kind of setting I could spend several entire campaigns exploring, no doubt. Spending a little bit of time discussing pesh, the highly addictive and dangerous drug that is the main export (illegally, mostly) of Katapesh was also quite welcome. It envisions a society in which the (relatively) casual use of a drug that's known to be quite dangerous is seen as fairly normal, and why characters might want to gamble their fates on drug use for certain short-term benefits. This makes the drug integral to the setting, to an extent, rather than an afterthought; something you can really use. Although drug use is a fairly heavy, serious theme for an RPG, it does give the setting a dark, gritty, and semi-realistic (verisimilitudinistic, more accurately) feel that few RPGs explore.

I can heartily recommend this sourcebook, especially if you like picaresque sword & sorcery that feels an awful lot like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Now that I'm done with it, I'll probably slow down a bit (I've been simultaneously reading two RPG books at a time, and making notable progress in only one of them.) So rather than replace this book with another Pathfinder Chronicles volume, I'll finish Sandstorm and then move on from there.

Half-Blood Prince

I'm not going to make a formal review out of it, but I finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (again) late last night. I put Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows already on my "What I'm Reading" box on the side there, but I haven't technically started it. It's going to take my fiction reading slot, though.

I went to the library last night with the family, and came back with two audiobooks on CD; another YA book that---because according to previews has been adapted into a movie due this February---I decided I wanted to read called Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. I also got Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road which has been described to me as a kind of historical fictional version of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. From what I could tell, it also sounded similar to the old Louis L'Amour book, The Walking Drum. I'm interested in seeing what Chabon is made of; he's been highly lauded as an author, but I haven't read anything of his yet (I did see Spider-man 2 of course, a draft of which he wrote.) He's been tapped to revise and polish the screenplay for the upcoming John Carter of Mars, a movie that will be based on what is probably my favorite book ever (after Lord of the Rings), A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. So I admit that I'm approaching my Chabon experience with a critical eye, to see if he looks like the kind of writer that can do one of my favorite books justice when translating it to the silver screen.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Tales of the Dying Earth

Seeing that my main hobby is roleplaying games, often Dungeons & Dragons, I thought it remiss that I had never read any of Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" novels. The Dying Earth novels are a big influence on D&D, especially in regards to the magic system that D&D sports, which is often called "Vancian" in honor of Jack Vance. I don't know that this is necessarily a sustainable opinion; Jack Vance used magic more as a plot device rather than as a system that could be understood and "parseable" based on the book's text itself. Be that as it may, like I said, it was such an undeniably big influence, that I felt like these books were something that I kinda had to read, just to see what the big deal was.

The omnibus edition pictured here is the one I got, from my public library, and it contains all four of the Dying Earth "novels." I say "novels" in quotes like that, because two of them are clearly not novels, but rather "fixups"---a term for a series of short stories strung together into novel-length and with a few bridging sections put in to make it have a superficial resemblance to a novel. The first and fourth "novels" (The Dying Earth and Rhialto the Magnificent) are fixups, while the two middle sections, The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga are proper novels, and in fact, a matched pair with Cugel's Saga being a clear sequel to Eyes.

I checked the book out, and also ended up renewing it the maximum amount of times that I could (three) for a total period of nine weeks. This, as you might guess, is already not a good sign; books that I really enjoy I can read in a remarkably short time, even when I'm busy, and clearly that was not happening here. In fact, I didn't finish the omnibus at all; about halfway through Cugel's Saga, the third of four novels, I quit and turned it back in. It wasn't strictly going to be due for another week and a half or so, but since I had been unable to muster the desire to even pick the book up since before renewing it---for a good two weeks---I finally decided that it wasn't worth it to try and force myself to read something that I clearly didn't really want to read.

I'm not sure that I can pinpoint my disatisfaction with the books. The fixups were relatively easy to read, as each "chapter" (formerly an unconnected short story) required little commitment. The novels, in fact, felt much like a fixup in that regard as well, the chapters were relatively self-contained narrative modules, with only a loose connection between them. The "hero" of the two novels, Cugel the "Clever" was a reasonably entertainined protagonist; a con artist, basically, who thought himself very clever but who was clearly out-conned repeatedly.

Somehow, though, I found the whole less than the sum of its parts. While on paper, everything looked good with the books, in reality, I just found them difficult to read. Perhaps it was the lack of a compelling narrative focus. Because of the loose, almost short story like nature of even the novels, I found that the books were the opposite of a page-turner; when I finished a chapter, I felt like there was no compelling reason to immediately start reading the next one. The lack of any interesting or sympathetic supporting characters might be a part of it, the fact that Cugel, while charming enough at times is also frequently frustrating to read about, and the fact that each chapter being an unconnected vignette makes many individual chapters feel occasionally tired, pointless or skipworthy may be another. Coming as I am, from the standpoint of a fan of the pulp aesthetic, that may sound surprising, but the fact is, I can't read huge blocks of Howard, Lovecraft or Burroughs either. They're best handled if taken in moderation, I think, broken up with something else in between to remind you of what compelling novel writing is like. A diet of all short-stories over a prolonged period of time, is like a junk-food diet in a way. You can read plenty of words, but I---at least---find it unsatisfying over time. Maybe I should have approached Vance differently, and not tried to read all four of his Dying Earth books back to back as a huge chunk. In fact, I may yet come back to it to finish it later, but I can't do it now. I'm just a little burned out on the format for the time being.

All in all, I don't dislike Vance as much as I dislike Moorcock (another "classic" fantasy author, pivotal to D&D, who's writing actively turns me off) I just found it... unremarkable. Not my thing, I suppose. In fact, I figure that Gary Gygax and I might have been at loggerheads, if the occasion had ever come up, in terms of what fantasy is good. Not only do I not like Vance or Moorcock very much, but I'm also not a fan of L. Sprague de Camp or Poul Anderson (although I admit to not having read the particular books of theirs that were most inspirational to D&D itself)---whereas Gygax expressed a certain level of disinterest in Tolkien, who I consider to be completely brilliant. Maybe it's somewhat generational; Gary was more or less my parents' age (a few years older, but since my parents had me at a young age, he's almost exactly the same age as the parents of most kids my age) but I'm not so sure. I started reading fantasy fairly young; before it became a boom genre for the book publishing business, and as such, I was fairly steeped in the so-called classics from a youngish age.

In any case, now that I freed up my "fiction reading slot" I actually picked up some J. K. Rowling again. Watching the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince movie reminded me that I didn't really recall the details of that book (or the next one) very well anymore, so I'm rereading them, probably back to back. For what it's worth, I've read more than half of the lengthy Half Blood Prince novel in just two days, so I'm flying through it, especially relative to my speed chugging through the Dying Earth novels. After I finish that, I plan to belatedly finally pick up the next Erikson book, Deadhouse Gates. The fact that I went from a dissatisfying novel considered a classic by many fantasy fans to a Harry Potter book may say something about my tastes to my loyal reader or two, but be that as it may, one thing I think it's difficult to refute about the Harry Potter books is how easy they are to read, and how they very successfully manage to suck you in with 1) likeable, readable characters, 2) reasonably entertaining plots and 3) an engaging setting. I'm not sure that Jack Vance managed even one of those points well.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I've had a tumultuous relationship with the Harry Potter series of books and movies. When the first movie was imminent, I decided that it'd be nice to read the book first, so I picked it up in a cheap mass market paperback format. I read it in one day.

Then, I turned around and bought the next three (the only ones available at that time) and read them all in a couple of days. Then, literally, I turned around and read the whole series again.

I really loved them at the time; I thought they were extremely charming books about extremely charming characters, and the turn at the end of the fourth book towards a darker atmosphere got me really excited as well. The movie went ahead and came out, and as an adaptation of the book it was... workmanlike. Nothing wonderful, but not an embarrassment either. The best parts about it were the production design, the eclectic casting of famous British actors in, essentially, cameos, and the John Williams score which, while not revolutionary, is still one of his better ones.

More books came out. I was actually very much put off by the fifth book, which disappointed me greatly (it's since grown on me some, but only some.) The movies continued coming out, and I think they've largely improved each time. The sixth book was a return to form, but the final book, again, disappointed me.

So, my earlier excitement and furor over the series has been greatly diminished by a few missteps, and in particular by a conclusion that didn't satisfy me. Yet, I still have a love for the characters and their setting, at least, and so it was with quite a bit of excitement that I went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with Julie and the kids last night. Again, in case you missed it, this was one of my favorite of the books, a fine return to form after the disappointing Order of the Phoenix.

The movie was interesting. Visually, it was a treat. The movies have all improved in this regard. The acting is superb compared to past efforts. The young stars have really matured and honed their talents. The movie has a fair bit of comedy, especially around the budding romances brewing amongst the characters. Pacing-wise, the movie was a bit flat. If you didn't already like the characters, and enjoy seeing them interact for that reason alone, the movie may disappoint you. I do, so I enjoyed it, but the feedback from everyone in the family was that it was kinda slow and much lighter on action than previous ventures. A looming, brooding sense of impending menace wasn't quite sufficient by itself. And, although this is an artifact of the source material, it really also felt like an extended "coming soon" advertisement. Most of the Harry Potter books (and movies) have been pretty self-containted; this one felt much more unresolved at the end than any that have come out to date.

I think, without spoiling anything major, it's not too much to say that there are two budding romances throughout this movie; one of them was handled very well; believably, and even charmingly. The other felt rushed and undeveloped, and we were merely supposed to accept that it happened because the movie told us so. This is also an artifact of the source material (although it was more egregious in the movie), but the movie's subtitle was really an afterthought. The fact that they mentioned it at all felt tacked on clumsily.

Despite these minor quibbles, I enjoyed the movie, and I think it set up the remaining two quite well. I continue to be excited to see the conclusion of the series.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Monster Manual V

The Monster Manual V is the kind of book you can set down for a while and then pick up again and not miss a beat. For that reason, I've been reading it for quite a long time, but I finally finished it today when I went out to my car for a "lunch" break.

You'd think that the monster manual concept would be played out by the time they're on number 5 (and if you count the Fiend Folio and the smaller Monsters of Faerûn book, they're really on 6½, not 5.) However, that wasn't the case at all. The Monster Manual V was quite a good book, and in fact I enjoyed it quite a bit more than Monster Manual III, which I read not that long ago as well. It's a lot of really good monster ideas, and I really like the implementation of them.

There's fewer than in some monster books; each entry took at least two pages, because they spent more time talking about the monsters, their role in the ecology and campaign, a few strategies, etc. These still weren't as flavorful and inspirational as Privateer Press's Monsternomicon series, but it was a darn sight better than the original Monster Manual. It really made the signal/noise ratio for this book fairly high, I thought... I could immediately see where I'd potentially use most of these monsters, rather than just kinda gliding over them saying, "meh." The concepts were, somewhat surprisingly, useful, not weird esoteric ones. In fact, some of them, like the Wild Hunt, are so iconic from folklore and mythology that it's almost embarrassing that it took so long for them to get done. Even the less "creative" ones, like variants on hobgoblins and kuo-toa so you can throw an entire society at the PCs with very little work, were interesting reads and potentially very useful entries.

All in all, I can recommend this book highly, moreso than most of the other monster books in the 3e/3.5 line-up (you still really need the first Monster Manual though; it's got too many of the basics). Now that it's finished, I'm replacing its slot in the line-up of "what I'm reading" with Sandstorm, the environmental book that focuses on deserts.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Taldor: Echoes of Glory

Just read the quick little book Taldor: Echoes of Glory from Paizo last night. The Pathfinder Companion series are short little books, 32 pages. About a third of the book is a description of the country itself, a third is a description of Oppara, the capital city, and a third is mechanical options like a prestige class, some spells, feats, and NPCs.

Taldor as a setting element is kind of interesting; it's got a lot of clear (and purposeful) correllations to the late Byzantine Empire (including even an analog to the Varangian Guard); it's a country on the brink, teetering towards dissolution. Maybe not even teetering, a succession crisis is brewing as well. Qadira even works as an analog to the Ottomans (or the Sassanids before that); a powerful Eastern rival with smoldering border conflicts and territory that often goes back and forth.

Although the book was a very interesting read, one thing that I don't think it did as well as some of the other Pathfinder books, however, was give immediate and obvious adventure hooks. The text is great information for supporting games, but if you set a game in Taldor, what do you actually do? I'm not sure. I mean, I'd have to think of it myself; the book itself doesn't immediately suggest a lot of gaming activity. There's some vague mention of brigands and river pirates, and it says in several places that ruins abound due to the decayed state of the empire, but that's not much to go on, and it's kinda generic to boot. Maybe Paizo doesn't really see that as a problem; they are primarily, after all, an adventure publishing company, and this Pathfinder Companion product line is supposed to merely be support. I don't know that I see it as a problem either, because I've been running games for a long time and am confident I can think of plenty of things to do. But it's worth noting.

The next volume in the series is Qadira and after that Cheliax, both areas of the Golarion setting that interest me greatly (enough so that I wish they were getting the larger Pathfinder Chronicles treatment rather than the relatively more abbreviated Pathfinder Companion treatment. Oh, well.) I imagine I'll pick both of those up in short order as well. In the meantime, I'm still marching through Monster Manual V and have picked up my copy of Dark Markets: A Guide to Katapesh to read (and review) next.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Balor ilo

I'm curious in an academic sense about the upcoming release of the Pathfinder RPG by Paizo Publishing, a kind of "3.75" Edition D&D alternate. I'm not actually interested in updating my 3.5, to be honest with you, but I might grab a handful of house rules from the betas of that game that I've got from them.

I am, however, very interested in what Paizo is doing with their setting, the Golarion setting, which I've reviewed here in the past. I've got many of their setting books, and I think they're excellent. And although I'm not actually a huge fan of the concept of published adventures, Paizo's are genuinely fun to read, and even if I don't run them as is, they've got tons of stuff I can "borrow" including great monsters, locations, NPCs, and just concepts in general.

As part of their Pathfinder RPG, they're releasing their own version of the monster manual, and they've put up a few art samples. Here's their version of the balor (I presume; it wasn't actually labeled as such), and frankly, it's one of the best illustrations of that iconic, balrogish monster that I've ever seen. The four eyes makes it look just alien enough that it differentiates itself from other balrog rip-offs, like Warhammer's bloodthirster, for instance.

Good stuff. Congrats to Paizo for putting together what looks to be (yet again) another quality product. I'm a big fan of their writing, their design, and---for that matter---their production values, which I think is an often overlooked and undervalued commodity in the RPG business.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Libris Mortis

I finished Libris Mortis, actually a few weeks ago before leaving town. All in all, I found it the least impressive of the monster speciality books, which is disappointing, because undead are incredibly iconic to the fantasy genre. In fact, I'd daresay I have more occasions to use undead than dragons by an order of magnitude, but the text in this book was fairly flat. It did little to make undead seem "alive" (no pun intended) or much more than a mechanical challenge for the characters to face. The new monsters section was fairly underwhelming. I found finishing the book to be a chore. Even the organizations near the end, and the alternatives for various monsters---sections I was looking forward to---didn't impress me much.

Of the series as a whole, I think Hordes of the Abyss is my favorite. It's extremely well done, the subject matter of the book is very iconic and interesting, and it's engagingly written and the ideas spark the imagination. It's diabolic counterpart is also good, although Hell as corporate cubicle culture was either an extended joke that went on too long, or just plain not that great an idea in the first place. But in general, the series quality overall has been excellent, and I have little but good to say about Lords of Madness and The Draconomicon too. Which is why Libris Mortis is so disappointing; it's not that it's a bad book by any means, it just feels very pedestrian and boring compared to its collegues in the monster speciality subseries.

In any case, I've moved on to Monster Manual V for now. I think my next gaming book forays may be into some Paizo material that I've had for some time, but not read because the format is so difficult for me to work with. I'm actually going to buy some hardcopies of books I already own on pdf, and I've learned my lesson not to go that route anymore thinking that it's a time saver and a convenience. Clearly, at least for me, it has not been. Maybe if I had a laptop it would be different. And maybe in the next year or two I will have one. But for now... it's been difficult to read pdf books, and I've made very little headway on books that I've owned, literally, for years in some cases.