Monday, August 31, 2009

Trailblazer houserules

I've been reading through a bit of the Trailblazer pdf, a real steal at $5 for anyone who has any interest at all in continuing with 3.5 instead of (or in addition to) migrating up to 4e. I haven't read it all the way through yet (in part, because I hate reading pdfs on screen... see my earlier screed against that here on this very blog) but I've read parts of it that I think are really fascinating.

The first point I want to address is class balance. I don't think it's any secret to anyone that the druid and cleric classes in particular are really powerful compared to the others, and that some other classes, notably the fighter and possibly the rogue, tend to lag behind in usefulness compared to many others. This is quantified numerically (although the numerical values given to class features are somewhat subjective themselves) and pans out in accordance with conventional wisdom.

Then, to better balance the classes, they're all slightly rewritten. The fighter and the rogue, for example, are bolstered in several ways and most of the other classes were also rejiggered slightly. Some of this rebalancing wasn't just for balance; it also addressed some problematic, or at least finicky details about class abilities. Let me mention brief fixes to the Rogue and Fighter class (and a few combat house rules that also benefit them) as examples; I think I'm going to go about officially incorporating these from now on.

  • Increase to d8 hit dice.
  • Critical hits immunity of undead and constructs is removed. This means that Rogues can now Sneak Attack them.
  • A "Combat Tactics" To Hit bonus that scales with level. This means that when sneak attacking, Rogue's attack with an effective BAB similar to that of a Fighter.
  • Also, the consolidation of some skills means that the Rogue's skill points per level can go further.


  • Increase skill points per level to 4. Also, see above on skill consolidation.
  • A "Punitive Strike" ability that gives a major to hit and damage bonus on all Attacks of Opportunity (although conditions which spark AoOs are reduced in the Trailblazer ruleset)
  • Additional Weapon Proficiency abilities that make the Fighter more able to do interesting things with their weapon of choice. This is an a la carte menu that includes such abilities as increasing your threat range, your damage dice, your reach, etc. with your weapon.

Some of the other classes have been slightly tweaked as well, and the way spellcasting works has been significantly overhauled. In general, I don't know that I agree that such radical changes were needed, at least for my games, because the highly broken classes were spellcasting classes (cleric and druid being the worst offenders) and I tend to de-emphasize them significantly. For example, if I allow them at all, I like to have them act as Advanced classes, with requirements to enter that place them beyond the reach of extremely low level characters, and only have ten levels that you can take anyway. With this, a lot of the balancing isn't as strictly necessary, although in the case of the Rogue and Fighter, I think they're kinda nice anyway, and they certainly go a long way towards making the classes more attractive to play.

Quick Update

Just as an aside, in spite of my better judgement, I picked up four new novels today, two of which are actually omnibus editions with three component novels each. For a total of... eight novels, really.


So, my list of books that I own but still haven't read continues to grow at, at least, more or less the same pace at which I'm reading them. Because of this, I've vowed that I won't buy anything else until I've read at least five books off my list. With the exception of the upcoming Cheliax book from Paizo, because that's little and doesn't really count. I've also vowed to not check out any more books from the library for the same time period. And, I've vowed to step up my efforts to finish Deadhouse Gates, which I've been plodding through for much of the summer, without making tons of progress.

So, the books I picked up were Amanda Downum's Drowning City, Mike Lee's Nagash the Sorcerer, Steven Savile's Vampire Wars and Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn. So, three of the four are game fiction books, from the Black Library imprint. I probably should have thought that through better... game fiction tends to be pretty mediocre. Although Black Library game fiction tends to be above average, at least.

What I believe I will read, once I finish Deadhouse Gates is the sequel to Warrior of Llarn, called Thief of Llarn, and which I should have read some time ago, Swords of Haven, the first omnibus of Hawk and Fisher novels by Simon Green, and then possibly the three Leigh Brackett Skaith books. I hesitate to project too far beyond that.

In gaming related books, I'm actually closing in on everything I've got; after finishing Sandstorm and Qadira, I started reading Weapons of Legacy and I've only got a few unread titles left in my collection.


Qadira: Gateway to the East

Qadira is the latest (for a few more days) in the Pathfinder Companion series, a set of small, 32-page 8½" x 11" full color sourcebooks for the Golarion campaign setting. Where most of the action in this setting takes place in a vague equivalent to Europe and North Africa, Qadira is the far-flung, most westerly province of an analog of the Persian Empires, the Ottoman Empire and the golden age Islamic Caliphates all rolled up into one.

This makes the book Qadira unusual. Not in that it romanticises the historical era to which it loosely corresponds (that's actually par for the course) but because it isn't a nation, really... it's a mostly autonomous satrapy of a much greater nation. This makes it also very unusual compared to it's historical inspiration; few of the nations in real life were an autonomous group, warmongering Ottomans to Taldor's fading Byzantium. It's not even easy to guess if it's supposed to be Asia Minor or the Levant, although that's probably a good thing. This is, after all, a fantasy setting, and a too close analog to real life history means that design hasn't done enough work.

That said; what are some of the themes here? Genies and genie-touched races figure prominently. Genie-related magic does too: there's a prestige class focused on being a genie-friend, and there are new races and "monsters" that are genie blooded humans, basically. Highly cultured courtly life is important. Slavery is big, although maybe not quite as integral to the concept as it was in the Katapesh book. All in all, somewhat like Taldor, this felt more like an interesting sourcebook from a historical perspective, but not one that screamed with adventuring locations.

I think they tried a bit more; there were some intriguing adventuring sites presented, but all in all, I got the feel that this was a more settled land, and that adventurers of the typical D&D stripe weren't necessarily all that welcomed by the officials of this land. Rather, I think the set-up here was for showcasing exotica and involving the PCs in urban, courtly intrigue much moreso than exploring ruins, dungeons and whatnot.

Which is fine by me; I prefer that kind of game anyway. I found the book to be very interesting, but I freely admit a bias towards this kind of product; I like a slightly more exotic setting, and I like looking towards the historical great empires of the real Middle East moreso than to the smaller kingdoms of historical Medieval Europe for inspiration.

Conan and the Tower of the Elephant

I recently re-read the third trade paperback of Conan-related original (new) comics by Dark Horse. I own the first four trade paperbacks, and didn't buy any beyond that because the creative team changed and I was leery of getting burned. I have, however, since Interlibrary Loaned books five and six, hence my re-read through.

But I'm taking my time. Lots of stuff to occupy myself, so blasting through comic books isn't the top priority on my mind.

That said, I'm still really enjoying this. This one was a bit unusual; "The Tower of the Elephant" itself, as the "starring role" story of this collection and a Howard original, was inferior in my opinion, to the secondary new creation by Busiek and team, which had a nasty Lovecraftian entity formed as a side-effect of Conan's theft of a magic crown. Conan's girlfriend was inadvertently eaten by this creature, who kind of looked like a jelly maggot, while fighting with another ex-lover over who got to enjoy the spoils of Conan's successful thieving career.

The hounds of Marduk, who only appeared as a footnote, were also very interesting, if nothing else for their visual design.

Part of the reason I really like this one is because Conan is in Zamora, in the Maul, a stereotypical, debauched fantasy city, not unlike Lankhmar in many ways. It's an environment that I love for my fantasy, and here Conan spends most of the TPB in that exact environment.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


After a very slow read-through, I finally finished Wizards of the Coast's Sandstorm, a Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition sourcebook on deserts and hot places. Mostly deserts. I'm kind of a desert guy, actually---I've been hiking in the wilderness of southern Utah, Big Bend National Park, and other places, and I find the deserts to be both fascinating, diverse, and beautiful in real life. So, I had high hopes for Sandstorm.

I was also initially quite excited about the entire environmental themed series, but after reading this and Frostburn, the "cold" book, I'm not so sure. Wizards of the Coast's authors have the unviable task of trying to write a generic book that's still interesting and flavorful. But, because it has to be generic, they can't go too crazy with the flavor that they do add, or it won't be as useful to players around the world. In this case, I think they went so far the other direction, that they've also become relatively useless to players around the world.

I've recently read several other RPG books that are compatible with 3.5 and have a desertish theme; the Katapesh and Osirion books from Paizo (and I'm reading a third, the Qadira book, right now) and Monsternomicon II by Privateer Press. Which isn't strictly speaking a desert themed book, but it happens to have a lot of desert related stuff in it. Those books are great. While technically specific to the settings for which they're published, in reality, they're useful because they're so good that I want to use them. Sandstorm, on the other hand, leaves me very little material that I'd care to use.

It introduces two new races; a humanoid race who's whole schtick is that they can swim underneath sand or other loose soil, and hippy goblins who live in the desert. I didn't find either of them particularly compelling. The prestige class line-up is similarly strange; either too generic to be interesting, or two unusual to be useful. A guy who specializes in riding on horse-sized burrowing worms, for instance... what do I do with that? Or a character class who's all about building sandcastles and other weird sand form sculptures, and embuing them with magic? Or a river guardian, who's clearly stuck in one very constrained geographical area for all her abilities?

There were a few monsters that were interesting, and it's always nice to have stats for more actual, regular animals here and there for us low-magic folks, who think stats for camels and jackals might be useful, but otherwise, they also came across as merely desert skins thrown on top of other existing ideas rather than stuff I can turn around and use right now. The "dry lich" for example; do we really need a dry lich, who's thematically and mechanically not really all that different from a regular lich?

The adventuring sites near the end were also really bland; your typical Valley of the Kings style pharoah's tomb, and desert necropoli, and stuff like that. Nothing overtly bad, just... nothing that really fired the imagination.

TSR used to have a couple of really interesting desert themed settings, including Dark Sun and Al-Qadim (Dark Sun in fact being slated for a 2010 re-release for 4th Edition) so there's a rich legacy to tap here. Instead, we're treated to nothing more than watered down D&D Egypt. I confess I'm disappointed.

I'll still go on to acquire (and read (and review)) Stormwrack and Cityscape, and in fact I've still got high hopes that the latter is the best of the bunch, but so far the environmental sourcebooks have struck me as a better concept than an actual product; an exciting idea that didn't quite turn into what I would have liked to see.

New books to investigate

I really don't need any additional new books, but I spent my "lunch" hour today browsing the fantasy section at Barnes & Noble looking for potential new titles to read. The following all caught my eye. Most are the first novels in a larger series.
  • Amanda Downum Drowning City of the Necromancer Chronicles
  • E. E. Knight Way of the Wolf of the Vampire Earth series
  • Dan Abnett Horus Rising of the Horus Heresy series
  • Mike Lee Nagash the Sorcerer
  • T.A. Pratt Blood Engines of the Marla Mason series
  • Kat Richardson Greywalker of the Greywalker series
  • Lisa Shearin Magic Lost, Trouble Found of the Raine Benares series

If anyone has any experience with any of the titles above, let me know. I'm mostly going off how good the cover art was (did it catch my eye in the first place) and how intriguing a subsequent read of the back cover was. The Warhammer novels, on the other hand, I got because I was interested in them for other reasons; notably, that I'm a fan of the settings.

5973 Hyperspeed Pursuit

I recently got the new Space Police set 5973 Hyperspeed Pursuit. I'm always a little disappointed when you get a largish set, but instead of a large vehicle, you get two medium sized ones, but I was willing to in this case because both vehicles looked excellent, the minifigures that came with it looked excellent, and the set looked... well, all-around excellent. In that regard, it doesn't disappoint. Both vehicles are about the same size as the main police vehicle in 5971 Gold Heist, which I reviewed earlier. But I like the vehicles of this set substantially better.

The police vehicle is the first one I built. It's got a very attractive and athletic design; it looks fast and aggressive both. I was particularly impressed with the thrusters. I remember back in the very early days of LEGO Space when all you needed was an L-girder to change your stud direction and a rocket exhaust cone, and that was sufficient to be a thruster for LEGO spaceships. These thrusters now are much beefier; much more complex and attractive designs. In fact, they're very complex and attractive designs; much more complex than I'd ever seen an official LEGO design do.

I also really like the prison pod. This is now the third prison pod design (since it's the third Space Police line-up) and I like this one the best. It's made of two half-cylindrical blue trans elements, and has a fun little "push tab" that causes it to pop open, and attaches snugly to the rear of the vehicle between the two thrusters and wings. In fact, the police ship looks a little funny without it attached, although that's not unusual for Space Police vehicles of any line and their prison pods.
There are, however, two nitpicky quibbles I'd make about the police vehicle. First; the cockpit doesn't open. You have to just pull the cockpit piece off to get the policeman in and out. Would adding a hinge element have been that difficult? That was a bit of a surprising decision. The second one is that once completed, the vehicle is surprisingly flat. There's very little to it from a profile angle. It's very sturdy though; especially compared to the rickety feeling Gold Heist police cruiser.

As much as I liked the police cruiser, the criminal flier was even funner, though. It's got this combination hot rod and pirate theme going, with skull motifs, a big intake valve, racing stripes, and scattered bullet holes along the fuselage. It's got a small "pick-up" like bed in the back, with a box for stolen gold, and it shoots padded missiles from the front end. The vaguely "box-like X" shape to the vehicle makes it look sleek and predatory, as does the toothy rack along the top. It's also very sturdy, but it's also a bit flat in profile, and it also has a non-opening cockpit, so you have to take it apart a tiny bit to get the minifigure in and out.

The minifigures are also quite fun. The policeman is just another space policemen, nothing too extraordinary (although I do have to say that I really like the dark gray suits that they wear.) He's got airtanks this time, which is perhaps a little odd, since he doesn't have a fully enclosed helmet. The aliens are really cool, though... not as unusual as the four-armed alien from Gold Heist, but very evocative nonetheless. Their bodies are black, and in fact have a black leather "space biker jacket" look to them. They have pure white faces, three eyes, and a helmet/mask that makes them look like little Cthulhus.

I'm still excited about Space Police 3, and would like to pick up a few more sets, including the medium sized beefy ground vehicle 5979 Max Security Transport, and the large spaceship 5974 Galactic Enforcer. There's also a limited edition 5980 Squidman's Pitstop that serves as an alien base of sorts with a few nifty little vehicles, and 5972 Space Truck Getaway has been growing on me as well. If I get those, I might as well round out the collection, since the only sets left are the very small (and therefore cheap) 5969 Squidman Escape, with a single mini-flier, and 5970 Freeze Ray Frenzy with two very small fliers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Blacktron II

The next set of LEGO villains were actually just Blacktron again; although they'd been revised and reskinned. Now they looked less sinister, and frankly much less villainous, which of course made them also more boring. To attempt to counter that, they came with a few nifty design cues; the globular cockpit was always a great idea, for example. For whatever reason, the line had a lot of sets in it, but many of them were very, very small. Most likely, a good number of them were originally sold in those little bags.

Anyway, let's get to it. The 1462 Galactic Scout was a great example of a generic tiny ship, while the 6812 Grid Trekker was a tiny land vehicle, most notable for having at least given the little Blacktron astronaut a jetpack to fly around with.
Slightly larger, yet still small, spaceships included 1479 2-Pilot Craft, 1887 Scout Patrol Ship, and 6832 Super Nova II. 6851, the Tri-Wheeled Tyrax was also a tiny little land vehicle.
Blacktron II also revisted some Blacktron I themes, like 6878 Sub Orbital Guardian, which was another walker type vehicle, and 6933, the Spectral Starguider, which was not unlike the Battrax vehicle. The 6887 Allied Avenger and 6981 Aerial Intruder are medium sized spaceships that feature the globe cockpit. Like Blacktron I, there is no really large spaceship.
In fact, the spaceship that came with 6988 Alpha Centauri Outpost was nearly as big as the Aerial Intruder on it's own, and the base was very similar to the Message Intercept Base from Blacktron I.
While not a set per se, there used to be a value pack where you could get three sets together, and they had instructions on how to build a vehicle using parts from all three sets. This 4741 Super Vehicle was a nifty gimmick, but not a very cool design in its own right. The elongated globe cockpit is perhaps its most memorable feature.

As before, here's a handful of home made Blacktron 2 constructions. The really massive spaceship is... well, it's really massive. And really cool. I still have no idea how he got that curved surface. The small flying saucer is a "reskin" it's actually a Spyrius design remade in Blacktron II colors. We'll get to Spyrius next, as they're the next major bad guy syndicate to come on the scene when Blacktron II were finally phased out.

Game fiction

I've reviewed a few D&D novels in the past, including a bunch of mediocre Eberron novels. A few of these books are OK, many are absolutely terrible.

However, I think the Black Library imprint, associated with Games Workshop, does a better job than most at putting out readable fantasy fiction based on their games. Enough so that they're collecting some of their earlier successful book series in Omnibus format. Although I didn't actually buy any of them (yet) I fast-tracked Matthias Thulman, Witch Hunter, Vampire Wars: The Von Carstein Trilogy, and The Vampire Genevieve as ones I probably want to buy.

I also saw some of the Del Rey Robert E. Howard collections that I don't have. Although I haven't yet read all of the ones I do have (the three Conan and the Kull volumes). They didn't have Solomon Kane, which I would really have liked, but they did have Howard's horror stories, which is probably my next choice anyway.

Part of the reason I didn't buy them is because my list of books that I already own but haven't yet read is already quite lengthy---easily 30-40 books long, and several of those are also omnibus collections with three novels in them. But, I have no doubt, I'll be unable to resist for long and will eventually give in and pick up at least one of those four listed above---one of the three Warhammer omnibuses, or the REH horror stories (or Solomon Kane) book. I guess that's five. I can't count this morning.

Any recommendations from amongst them?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Trailblazer and Pathfinder

Just a quick note: within the last week or so I've picked up pdfs of both Pathfinder (the new Paizo alt.D&D3.5) and Trailblazer (a modular "skin" to add on top of D&D3.5 that addresses many of the systemic problems that the game had exhibited over time.) Despite the formating differences (one being a complete game meant to stand alone, and one being a number of patches and fixes that is unusable without your 3.5 PHB) the similar names highlight similar design goals to both systems.

Both are also cheap, at least on pdf: Pathfinder is $10 and Trailblazer is $5. I couldn't tell you (yet) how well they work, and given that they're both significantly large pdf files, I probably won't read them cover to cover. However, I'll report some scattered findings from each other time.

As a guy who has little interest in dropping my 3.5/d20 game for a 4e game, I'm obviously quite interested in fixes to the game, especially ones that are inspired by a similar mindset to my own. For this reason, I anticipate that I'll enjoy the toolkit approach of Trailblazer more than the complete alternate approach of Pathfinder, but at the end of the day, I guess we'll see...

One thing that I'll say is that both books have absolutely great cover art. I included the Pathfinder one as a sample. Can't wait to see a good version of this without markups and titles on it. I wonder if I can find a way to extract it from the pdf?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Blacktron I

You may think that my blog has been converted into a LEGO® blog, but that's not true. I'm just termporarily really excited about them. Again. All of my hobbies tend to come and go in waves. LEGO is one that comes up less frequently than some (gaming being pretty much "always on" in comparison) but when it hits, it hits pretty hard. There's something about constructing your own world in tangible form via these standardized building bricks that just really appeals to the creative side of me. Plus, I like making the standardized models too, as an excercise in (easy) model-making.

Anyway, I'm going to do a small series of posts as a tribute to the various "bad guys" of LEGO Space, posting catalog images of all the sets in their lines, and then a handful of creations I find online that are really nifty. This means, of course, that I have to start with Blacktron. Blacktron are, as near as I can tell, the original bad guys of the entire Legoland universe, and they're still one of the most sinister and appealing in appearance. LEGO hasn't really topped them yet, which is a shame, although they've had some notable other successes too.

The first set I'm showing, 1875, is a bit of an anomaly, as it doesn't really highlight the classic Blacktron color scheme, and is perhaps a transitional set between Blacktron I and Blacktron II.

Anyway, Blacktron was also always noted for its interesting ground vehicles. The Alienator was a walker, no doubt inspired by the walkers that George Lucas had shown us just a few years earlier in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The Battrax, on the other hand, was an ATV tank-like vehicle, with big, beefy wheels.
There wasn't really an extremely large space ship set; the Invader was nice, but rather smallish, and the larger Renegade was also at best only medium sized. The Renegade was also very notable for it's assymetric design.

The final official set was the Message Intercept Base, again with a title that hints at their nefarious goings-on.

Now, below are a few of the images I've found via Google Image Search of home-made LEGO creations of a Blacktron I theme. All of these are really cool, but I especially want to point out the final one, because it's a remake of another vehicle from another official set, redone in Blacktron I colors. The "prototype" of that set is actually in the new Space Police III line, where it's a criminal or pirate ship being chased by a police vehicle. Also, the third one down is very similar to a Blacktron II set... but you'll see that later when I get to Blacktron II.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

LEGO evolution

Because I'm still temporarily jazzed about LEGOs and because the internet encourages this kind of junk, I've spent some time looking over LEGO sets over the years.

Now, I've never been a huge fan of the Town theme; y'know, the various sets that approximate stuff you'd see if you looked out of your window while driving around where you live. Real stuff that you see every day. I always liked the exotic and the futuristic. Made me a natural for the Space theme. But, because of its longevity and because of the consistency of source material which it emulates, it's a great example of what I hope to show.

Below are images scanned from catalogs, including the newer online catalog images, so the more recent are better quality pictures. But ignore the picture quality and pay attention to the detail of the sets themselves. I've included the year in which the set was first published. All of these are police stations; a standby of the LEGO Town theme; there's been a steady stream of police stations in print since at least 1972; long before the minifigure even came out.

Check out the evolution of these police sets! It's apparent to me that the LEGO designers have really improved over the years. Also, the addition of more specialized parts gives them the ability to better model real life. Also a focus on less stylized and more realistic size and form has been apparent over time as well.

However, before I spend too much time talking about the post-minifig sets, here's some interesting historical perspective; the earlier sets that preceded the advent of the minifigure. This first set, from 1972, is (as near as I can tell) the first LEGO police station ever released. I've included the 1973 catalog scan rather than the 1972, because it's slightly more zippy, and it's titled Police Heliport.

As merely an item of personal interest, the very first LEGO set that I believe we ever owned in my family was this little bugger from 1975: again; a police van. It has some early LEGO guys that were almost but not quite minifigures. Actually, they still had a long way to go.

The second actual police station previews the minifigure stations: it has a bunch of pre-minifig LEGO guys, and is the direct ancestor of the first "true" minifigure police station in 1979. The vintage for this set was 1976.
The first minifigure police station was from 1979. It was a decent set for its time. It utilizes a number of regular LEGO basic bricks (as was custom for the time) and few specialized parts, but was still an order of magnitude less crude than the 1976 effort. Heck; few specialized parts had yet been invented; the inventory of specialized pieces would skyrocket over the next few decades. If anything, the late 90s and 2000s seems to have been the era of proliferation of specialized parts.
In 1983, the Police Headquarters was replaced with the Police Station. This isn't really a change in crudity (or lack thereof) compared to 1983, except that the color scheme was slightly more coherent, the car at least had a top (although it still looks little like a real car) and some things changed just to mix things up and add variety. In 1986, the Police Station was replaced with the Police Command Base, which seems to be an improvement. A few Space theme pieces were incorporated into the design (notably the radar dish) and it included for the first time an "open" design with big windows with "glass" pieces. This is a preview of future designs to come. This set, unless I'm missing something in my survey (which is entirely possible) was in production for a long time; it wasn't replaced until 1993. I think this really encapsulates the theme better than prior efforts, in which police stations were little more than houses in black and white that had a car, a motorcycle and a helicopter parked on the roof. This one really felt like a police station.

1993's Central Precinct HQ took a lot of design cues from the older Police Command Base. Featuring again modern architecture, open windows, an actual helipad, and some other notable improvements over the first sets, this was an attractive police station. It also had a major improvement in the vehicle design; the helicopter doesn't look like a tiny little cobbled together design that doesn't even have any room for, say, an engine; it looks like a real helicopter. Kinda. The regular police car (still tiny and roofless) is also joined by not only a motorcycle, but also a 4x4 off road vehicle, so the police can get to those difficult to reach rock-climbing criminals or something. By 1996 the catalog scans lack the titles of the sets, so I can't tell you what this next one is called, but it's an interesting innovation (from now on, I'll just call them all Police Stations.) Similar to 1993's station, this one also has a little pier and a boat attached. The two vehicles are replaced with a single van-like vehicle... so you can now get your SWAT team out there or something, but you're better off not trying to pull over anyone driving very fast. That's what the two motorcycles are for. Interestingly enough, the catalog scan indicates that prisoners can attempt to escape through a hatch at the police boathouse. But they may not want to, since the set also comes with a shark, no doubt hanging around waiting to gobble up any prisoners who make the attempt. By 2003---the next year a police station came out, if I'm correct, catalog images had been vastly improved, no doubt due to the ability of the catalog layout artists to use Photoshop to add backgrounds and other cool things to the set. This police station comes from the World City subtheme; a shortlived attempt to combine European and North American design cues with a slightly futuristic bent. Check out the curved glass on this set, the new and improved prisoner outfit (nobody wears black and white stripes anymore; we're all about orange jumpsuits for prisoners), new colors and shapes and all kinds of specialty pieces, and that futuristic police car. I also like the obvious camera mounted on the station wall. I'm not sure if the City theme replaced the old LEGO Town theme, or if City is in fact a long-lived subtheme within Town (most LEGO websites treat it as such) but when City came out with a police station in 2005, it was happenin'. It's got a dog, a complex lock-up cell, vastly improved vehicle and architectural design, spotlights, and a raised platform to make the station itself much more interesting. This is a busy set, and there's a lot going on. Compare this in particular to the original 1970s sets and look how much the concept has evolved! But this isn't the final word on LEGO police stations; one more recent set came out in 2008 that I'll cover next...
The final police set is, in a way, a harking back to some original design ideas, just modernized. It's not quite as busy, it's not trying to do too much... it feels a little cozier and less ACTION-PACKED! ALL THE TIME! It's even got flowers and shrubs. But... it's a lot improved, too. The cars are pretty slick and realistic (considering), the gate entrances are a nice realistic touch, and the building has a lot going on: the side balcony, the little office, the holding cells, the lookout tower and radar; in fact, this seems almost half a prison instead of just a police station. Anyway, that concludes my tour of the police station history in LEGO, and hopefully makes my broader point more apparent; that the same concept, when it's held forth over time, has been greatly improved upon and is much better done these days then when they started. That's not necessarily surprising, but... it's nice to know that it's true nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Blacktron City

Here's some video of a gigantic Blacktron city, taken from a LEGO convention a couple of years ago. Pretty impressive stuff. Adding the Men in Black theme by Danny Elfman was also brilliant.

Blacktron was always my favorite subtheme. Not only was it the first subtheme from the greater Space theme, but it also happened to be one that was a bit more sinister, a bit darker and edgier; these were the first LEGO "bad guys" that I know of. Nobody knew exactly what made them bad, but the fact that the paramilitaristic Space Police line-up had to lock these guys away in those little prison pods, plus their dark, pure black suits, and their nearly black trimmed with yellow like some kind of dark hornet color scheme for their vehicles made them attractive all around. In general, LEGO Space fans tend to be quite fond of the original LEGO space villains.

I'm not sure what all the marching Classic Space minifigs are up to. Are they attacking Blacktron? Are they Blacktron agents getting ready to infiltrate the rest of LEGO Space? Or is Blacktron on friendly terms with them in this scenario, and has invited them to come by via parade? I have no idea.

As an old timey Space fan, I'm also quite jazzed about the Galaxy Commander in variant color schemes at about 1:07 on the video. There's an original Galaxy Commander, but there's also one in Ice Planet colors, one in M:Tron colors, and one in Space Police I colors. All four are excellent.

The only thing that's actually somewhat disappointing it seeing row after row of the same vehicles parked. That's realistic, after a fashion... but somewhat boring.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Space Police III: Gold Heist

I got to check out the set 5971 "Gold Heist" which is the smallish medium sized set of the new Space Police III line-up, retailing for 19.99 U$D. As you can see from the image, it looks great. One thing that I'll say about the newer Space lines (and I suspect this is the influence of having done years and years of Star Wars sets); the design aesthetic has really improved. For comparison, I built my 6897 "Rebel Hunter" and 6984 "Galactic Mediator"; two space ships from the Space Police II line that I own, and they look really clunky and silly in comparison.

The other thing that became apparent shortly upon buying this; it's not a space ship. It looks like one at first glance, but these new Space Policemen don't wear oxygen tanks, or even a fully enclosed helmet, and the engines aren't rockets; they're VTOLs, very similar to the jet engines on some of the City theme airport sets, or other sets that feature jet engines, such as Agents or others. No, rather, this is the proverbial flying car; something equivalent to the speeders in which Anakin and Obiwan chased the bounty hunter in Attack of the Clones. Relative to earlier Space Police themes, this one also has a much more... well, much more "police-ish" look to it; the vehicle is white with black trim, has red and blue sirens, etc. This is kinda in line with the little flash movies that LEGO has put out on their homepage; for one of the sets, the Space Policeman is literally pulling over an alien for running a red light.

Anyway, that's the good. Here's the bad. Stickers. I know, I know; LEGO has fallen in love with stickers. I'm sure that it's cheaper for them than printing on the bricks, which they seem completely unwilling to do anymore. It sure does suck for the consumer though. I will not stop complaining about stickers. They bite. It's a pain to put them on, it's very difficult to get them straight and properly aligned, and they just don't even look nearly as good either. Also; this set lacks "swoopability." It looks like the kind of set that would be tons of fun to pick up and fly around through the air making "swooshing" sounds, but you actually can't do that very well. It's got too many moving parts. The canopy moves all over the place. The jet engines, front and rear, move all over the place. The safe that it's carrying in the arc in the back feels rickety. The little hot rod "space moped" that the alien is flying is tiny and kinda silly. (The alien himself is very cool, with a weird lizard like head and four arms. They did this by creating a very bizarrely cast "head" piece that is actually an additional torso section and head combined, and then has green "battle droid" or "skeleton" arms attached to this head piece. The rest of the body is regular minifig stuff.)

Still; those reservations aside, this is a promising ship, and the line itself is promising as well (for that matter, so was the Mars Mission line that relaunched LEGO Space a couple of years ago.) This bodes well for the future of my beloved Space theme, which I hope to see progress for some time to come.

Interestingly enough, the box refers to a LEGO Space video game for the Nintendo DS, which it says is "Now Available." Even though it's also rated "Rating Pending." Clearly the box art was approved some time ago, and the game has not managed to meet the schedule. Rumors are floating around the internet ever since this Space Police packaging started appearing promising what sounds like a fun video game... which isn't actually available after all. Including that it may be available for the Wii too.

I'm really curious to see this. I wonder if it'll revisit a lot of the other Space subthemes from past years, and even revisit classic favorite sets from the past? Here's hopin'. Since I've got boys who love most of the LEGO games to date (especially the ones done by Traveller's Tales and based on licensed properties; the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Batman games) if this game is even at all good, I can almost guarantee that we'll get it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

More LEGO space

I wonder if there's any value in trying to make some sense out of the LEGOverse and craft an actual setting based on the ideas therein?

Much of the earlier stuff is fairly generic. Classic Space doesn't imply, really, that these guys are anything other than astronauts exploring the Moon, and possibly other space bodies. When the subthemes started happening, though, they got more interesting.

Blacktron (both varieties) were definately villains. Other villainous subthemes were Spyrius, UFO, and Insectoids (originally planned to be a villainous organization for the Rock Raiders... but see below), while Mars Mission and Space Police 3 have "bad guys" embedded within the theme (making the reboot of the Space subthemes after the Star Wars hiatus seem more like self-contained units.)

The Space Police (1, 2 and 3), Unitron, and Roboforce subthemes are the "heroic" guys; the good guys of the LEGO space universe. All of them are some kind of space law enforcement, with Unitron having an almost (but not quite) militaristic feel to them.

A lot of subthemes also seem like civilians: the original Classic astronauts, Futuron, M:Tron, Ice Planet, and Exploriens. The astronauts of Life on Mars and Mars Mission don't seem to fit the paradigm quite so cozily; they abandon the "space opera" feel of the other Space subthemes, and instead come across as a more "hard SF" tone, or at least the attempt at such. Also they seem to be a more near-future, almost realistic astronaut and vehicle vibe to them. Well, Life on Mars does anyway. Mars Mission is a more localized space opera with human astronauts fighting off Martians. I'm not quite sure that those two subthemes can be reconciled with the rest of the subthemes.

Some other themes, though---not overtly space, fit in fairly nicely with the Space theme. Two town themes, Launch Command and Space Port, have a astronaut feel, but today's astronauts, today's space shuttles and satellites, etc. An interesting counterpoint, even if all you do with them is mix the parts into your parts bin. There are a number of other themes that are overtly science fictionish in nature, although not set in space, that could also concieveably be reimagined into the LEGO Space universe. The various Aquazone themes: Aquanauts, Aquasharks, Aqua Raiders, Hydronauts and Stingrays are futuristic undersea guys, and even include alien humanoids, or something of that nature. I'd like to think that besides airless Moon-like worlds, the LEGO Space guys may also have found a habitable planet completely covered in water, and that's where these guys live. The Exo-Force theme is based on Japanese manga/anime about big giant robots and the guys who pilot them, so it's also a good fit with Space. I'm not sure where they fit; possibly a militaristic subgroup that is at odds with itself (there are two factions within Exo-Force.) The Rock Raiders and the Power Miners are two themes that have people driving futuristic drilling machines under the earth and finding rock monsters already living there. This could be another civilian group, easily enough, and I think that they'd work well anywhere within the LEGO Space universe as such. Given the fact that the Insectoids were originally going to be a Rock Raiders "bad guy" and later became a Space "bad guy" I think the ties already exist.

What would I do with this pretext; this unification of the LEGO Space subthemes and a few other sci-fi feeling themes, into a coherent setting?

I'm not sure yet. But I might toy around with the idea a bit more before I move on to something else.

Also: just for fun, I included a really slick picture of some guy's LEGO creation of a shipyard, with a ship under construction.

LEGO Space

This blog entry is going to be very image intensive.

As an imaginative kid, fascinated with science fiction, and spending my formative childhood years during the late 70s and early 80s, I was fascinated with the new-fangled Space sets. In 1978, LEGO introduced a number of "lines" of sets that were themed. Space was always my favorite (although I grew up with a fair share of Castle and Town themed sets as well, of course.) In fact, it became traditional for us as kids to expect several LEGO sets each Christmas; at least one big one and several medium sized and smaller ones. And after opening presents, we'd go into the "boys' room", open up the LEGO sets, build them according to the instructions, almost immediately take them apart, mix their pieces in with our existing LEGOs, and then just spend the entire rest of the day (and much of the rest of the Christmas vacation) playing LEGOs. I've attached an image of the Galaxy Explorer, the very first "big spaceship" set in existance.

I didn't go on to be one of those adult Legomaniacs, who collects sets and builds all new designs as a hobby (which would, unfortunately, be a pretty expensive hobby, too) but I've never quite lost the mystique for the feel of those early Space sets, and the kinda campy, kinda cute and kinda clever later lines that developed after the fact. And I do pick up sets now and again for myself, that I won't even let the kids play with. I keep my toe in the water of fandom, anyway.

The original space line was fairly straightforward; it featured astronauts in space suits, and things like lunar rovers and space ships that seemed futuristic... yet not too much so. They were futuristic in the sense that the movie 2001 was futuristic in the late 60s when it was made; it all seemed pretty reasonable, all things considered. This wasn't necessarily true of the space sets; I remember even as a kid thinking it odd that flared rocket "exit chute" could be attached directly the back of the seat that an astronaut was supposed to sit in in his little tiny space-going flyer (where the heck is the actual engine?) but it had that same feel anyway.

Later on, Space diverged into multiple subthemes. Futuron was the first one, in the late 80s, followed closely by Blacktron, Space Police, and more. In fact, for a while it seemed that each theme had a three year life cycle, with a new theme appearing every year and an old theme phasing out. This lasted for quite some time, until the entire Space theme essentially disappeared at the very end of the 90s. The gap was filled temporarily by the Star Wars sets.

More recently, for whatever reason, LEGO has revived the space theme, and two subthemes have come out. One of them has apparently just launched within the last few months, and is a "re-do" of a classic theme, the Space Police idea. This is, in fact, the third version of Space Police. I've included an image of the new "big spaceship" of the line, as well as the original "big spaceship" from the old Space Police line. Enjoy.

Another thing I've discovered is that some of these older Legomaniacs have been putting their stuff online for years (actually, I've known that for years too, but the building standards and photography and Photoshop capabilities of them has improved, to the point where a lot of their work looks tons better than official stuff. Here's a few of my favorites, all snagged from the retro-blog