Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monster Hunter International and.... Star Wars

I read Monster Hunter International and finished it yesterday.  It took about a week, and at just over 700 pages, that was a pretty good clip.  I had a friend lend it to me, and he's been talking it up for quite a while.  To be perfectly honest, I was a little hesitant at first.  My friend tried to sell it to me on the basis of it being a fantasy book told from a right-wing perspective by a gun nut.  I dislike political ideology in my fantasy and am largely indifferent to guns.  But I loved this book after all.  Great storytelling.

There's a famous review floating out there which is mostly famous because it's kinda funny, but it makes a throwaway point at one point in it that's actually pretty germane and interesting.  It talks about two kinds of ideological works of fiction; overt ideology and subtle ideology.  Something that overtly preaches an ideology is ... well, overt, while a setting that doesn't do so, but which finds itself steeped in assumptions is more subtle (to varying degrees.)  A great example of this (partly because it's not really all that subtle) would be your average book my S.M. Stirling--which a friend of mine once disparagingly wrote off as always having the same theme; the world is made safe by heroic lesbians, feminists and/or nerds.  Especially lesbians.

The Monster Hunter books are also more subtle.  Yes, they definitely focus on the notion that guns are awesome.  The author is a confirmed gun nut himself, so that's not surprising.  Luckily for those of us who appreciate but who are largely otherwise indifferent to guns, this doesn't really go overboard.  A lot of reviews make a lot of noise about how accurate and detailed the guns are; I didn't find it to distract from the story in any way.  I'm guessing that's something that the real gunheads can appreciate, but which otherwise doesn't factor into the story much.

Yes, the stories are set in the South.  Mostly Alabama, to be exact.  And the stories are sympathetic to the South and its culture rather than disparaging and dismissive (a trend that I'm glad to see reversed.  I grew up in Texas which is part of the South.  As well as part of the West and as well as completely its own thing to boot--but definitely sympathetic to the culture of the South.)  Given the predominent subtle ideology of most works of fiction, who are written by liberal folks who live in urban areas near the east coast, the west coast, or inland liberal meccas like Ann Arbor, Michigan or Austin, Texas, this was a nice change of pace.  I definitely felt like it was written for the vast body of "fly-over" states who lean reddish in elections.

Yes, the stories are not very sympathetic to the notion of government intervention, giving a distinctive Libertarian slant to the point of view character.

But like I said, this doesn't really stand out much.  It's all in the background.  Frankly, it felt like home to me.  It was written by a guy who understands the people and place where I grew up, people I knew from childhood, and recasts them as realistic fictional characters.

Yes, the main character seems to have a bit of a Mary Sue thing going on, another point I was worried about going into the books based on scuttlebutt I'd seen in advance.  This also didn't get out of hand, and before I knew it, I found myself forgetting that it was a concern I had going in.  In point of fact, the main character does have some obvious flaws and a bit of an arc, which makes the idea of him being a Mary Sue a little more difficult to pull off.  Yeah, he is large, likes guns, and was an accountant.  Same as the author.  This came across as more the author writing what he knows rather than making his main character into a super heroic version of himself.

The books have a fair bit of humor and light-heartedness to them; as much good horror and semi-horror does, while still managing to wrangle a pretty good deal of horror too.  In fact, much of the horror is overtly Lovecraftian, which is interesting, especially to me.  Clearly author Correia knows his stuff around fiction; he hits all the right notes for a blockbuster action movie, for a good horror story, it has some good buddy cop stuff here and there, it hits a lot of B-movie tropes, a lot of Lovecraftian tropes, and even a handful of specifically fantasy tropes, making vague reference to Dungeons & Dragons, and having a few things that were obviously very specifically similar to how D&D does them (in particular, much of the undead.)  On top of all this, it's engagingly well-written and reasonably fun.  I also borrowed the next two novels from my friend, and frankly, I've already charged nearly 100 pages into the second book, despite an incredibly busy schedule which makes that kind of reading kinda difficult.  Luckily for me, the second book is a bit shorter.

The second thing which I can't help talking about today, is the big entertainment announcement that blew up the Internet yesterday--Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm (including all subsidiaries) for just over $4 billion, George Lucas' retirement from blockbuster film-making, and the passing of the torch of Star Wars to other hands, with three new Star Wars movies planned with only limited involvement from Lucas himself as a retired "creative consultant."  My relationship with Star Wars is complicated; the first movie came out when I was five years old, and it's literally the first movie I ever remember seeing in theaters.  For many, many years I also listed it as my favorite series of movies, and if I had to pick a favorite, then it would be The Empire Strikes Back.

I don't hate the prequels.  George Lucas didn't "rape my childhood" or whatever other nonsense melodramatic language is du jour there these days.  I do recognize them as deeply flawed films that aren't really very much fun to watch, though, except as an appreciation of visual design.  The same with the various "updates" given to the original trilogy.  I own the DVDs.  I also own DVD-Rs ripped from the laserdiscs, and frankly, when I want to watch Star Wars, that's where I turn.  Much of what Lucas has done to Star Wars in the last fifteen years or so has diminished the franchise.  That said, the Clone Wars TV show on Cartoon Network, and the Old Republic stuff by BioWare have both polished the franchise off to the point where I can say that I'm excited to see new Star Wars material again.

In general, I'm more a fan of Disney than not, although I recognize where they've dropped the ball on various things as well, so I think the development is positive.  Certainly, Disney isn't likely to drop the ball as badly as Lucas himself has with the latest movies.  I think there's room for some optimism about the future of the franchise here.

A few folks have got to be on pins and needles, though.  The Clone Wars cartoon will almost certainly end at the end of the current season to make way for some new Star Wars content on Disney owned TV stations like ABC, ABC Family or DisneyXD (like what we saw happen with Marvel's Cartoon Network shows.)  Dark Horse Comics has got to be sweating bullets knowing that Disney, who now is the facilitator of the license that they have to print Star Wars comic books, already owns a world-class comic book company.  In fact, the world-class comic book company, which has mostly consistently led in sales and volume for decades.  When that license expires, I imagine we'll see Marvel Star Wars comics again, and Dark Horse will have to look for something else to do.  Fantasy Flight just started talking publicly about their Star Wars license for RPGs--how does that play into announced new content?  Probably way too early to tell, and I doubt anyone has given any thought to that yet (or will for a long time to come.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Special month designations

So, all this last month (October) has apparently been Breast Cancer Awareness month.  It was a hard one to miss; I saw gigantic pink everythings all over the place.  I actually have a personal connection to breast cancer awareness; my mother-in-law is a breast cancer survivor, which means that I'm keenly aware of the possibility that my wife may get breast cancer someday as well.  Certainly it's something that I am concerned about in her behalf.

And yet... I find most of the breast cancer awareness paraphernalia to be shallow, superficial, and faddish, and I'm not quite sure that it accomplishes much good other than to make the people who participate in it feel better about themselves.  Cranky and judgemental?  Possibly.  I make no excuses anymore for the fact that I've become a cantankerous old guy, lamenting the values of "kids today" and people who stand on my lawn.

And maybe I'm also just a bit put out by the fact that until sometime this last month, I didn't even know that September is National Wilderness month.  Hey, why is literally everyone aware of National Breast Cancer Awareness month, and nobody knows anything about National Wilderness Month?  It's probably a good choice to pick September; conventional wisdom is that in most years, the best time to spend time in the mountains is late August and through much of September.  Occasionally I get people who I've talked to about my love of the wilderness assuming that I'm an environmentalist.  I actually dislike that label, mostly because it would associate me with people I consider to be really stupid and kind of crazy (like those folks on Whale Wars for instance.)  Rather, I consider myself an "old skool" conservationist, and take much of my lead on conservationist issues from the likes Theodore Roosevelt, and I take cues from the likes of John Muir and Ansel Adams as well (although Muir and Roosevelt didn't always see eye to eye on all issues.)

Because of that, here's some belated Wilderness shots, celebrating our nation's remaining wilderness areas.  Some of them I've even been to; others I strongly desire to visit and are on my short list of places to see.

Shadow Lake and the Ritter Range from across the valley on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Approaching the Cirque of the Towers in the Popo Agie Wilderness of Wyoming.

The Mount Timpanogos Wilderness in the Uinta National Forest.

The Chocolate Drops, Maze District, Canyonlands National Park.

Cerro Castellan, Big Bend National Park.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Gothic horror slash fantasy

I've been re-reading my copy of Paizo's Rule of Fear, a location-centered splatbook on the nation of Ustalav.  Paizo's modus operandi is to give each of their nations a strong "hook" which roots it in genre or location specific tropes.  For example, the Land of the Linnorm Kings is the Viking country, Osirion is the Egypt country, etc.  Ustalav is the horror fiction country, and needless to say, it's one of my favorites.

So much so that, even though I've been developing this here DARK•HERITAGE setting for a long time, I'm tempted to propose as our next game (that I would run) an E6 3.5 D&D game--played fairly straight in terms of rules--that takes place in a modified version of Ustalav.  I'd borrow quite a bit directly from the setting book, with really only kinda minor changes.  The orc nation to the west would become a breeding ground of beastmen (a la Warhammer), I'd also borrow skaven and put them in the dark corners of much of the world, I'd borrow a bunch of stuff from the Iron Kingdoms setting (which as a d20 setting was quite a bit more horror and dark fantasy oriented than the later Warmachine and Hordes books made out.  The success of those games and their style fundamentally changed the tone of the setting, and not for the better.)  From Iron Kingdoms, I think a lot of the Circle Orboros faction is tailor-made for a horror campaign.  And of course Cryx is as well, although they're a bit over-the-top, and have had the unfortunate habit of sweeping up lots of independent evils, especially of the undead or overtly horror style, under its wings in a way that's not satisfying to a fan of the roleplaying setting rather than the miniatures wargames.  Many of the werewolf specific areas of Ustalav can instead of thick with Tharn, for instance, occasionally with Blackclad leaders.  The Lord of the Feast is just plain terrifying, as are many of the other wilderness horrors detailed in the Monsternomicon books.

The Vampire Counts army from Warhammer has also evolved considerably in recent years, and fits hand and glove with Ustalav.  I really like the variant vampires, and the devolved monstrous vargheists, varghulfs, the terrorgheist and more.  Chaos in general is really dark and scary in Warhammer (except when it turns tongue in cheek, which thankfully it's been a little careful to avoid lately) and needs to be borrowed from a lot.  After all, the Worldwound is not unlike the Chaos Wastes, and the Worldwound is supposed to share a border with Ustalav too.

Putting all of this into a kitbashers pot, and making sure not to drift too far from the original Ustalavic framework (which I should point out, is also surprisingly humanocentric for a D&D setting kingdom) actually makes for a quick and dirty setting that I actually think I'd really like to explore as a D&D player or GM either one.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Wild Hunt

For my first post about some specific "wights" of DARK•HERITAGE, I'm going to refer you back to the discussion I had earlier on the major portion of the pantheon of spirits that people in the Land of the Three Empires worship as deities.  I'll also point out, however, that that was never meant to be seen as a comprehensive list of the "wights" that are known and receive at least some form of reverence, fear or propitiation, or who figure in the stories and folklore of the people who live in the area.

One specific other figure is Herne, the Green Man, a sometimes vassal of Selvans, the god of the wilderness.  Herne appears as a man cloaked, hooded and masked in leaves.  According to folklore, he was an indepedent deity of no mean strength who challenged Selvans for rulership of his lands.  He was badly beaten and hanged from the tallest tree in Selvans forest for a thousand years, where the leaves grew over his body and merged with it, and the crows, ravens, buzzards and condors picked at his flesh incessantly.  Finally released by Selvans himself, he is now a trucculent lord of the forest, who reluctantly comes when Selvans calls.

Other than this origin story, Herne is best known as a hunter.  When not called by Selvans (which happens infrequently) he prefers to wander the mystical dark and tangled woodlands of his Otherworldly home hunting anything that passes through it. While doing so, it is said that sometimes his Otherwordly woods cross over into the real world, and Herne himself wanders the darkest, thickest and wildest of woods deep on moonless nights.  His favorite prey is human trespasser.

In addition to hunting by himself, Herne is the kennelmaster of the Wild Hunt.  The Wild Hunt itself rarely rides forth without it's true lord, none other than Selvans himself, at its head, but sometimes Herne can lead it too (it is said that before his defeat at the hands of Selvans, Herne was the Master of the Hunt, a title that he still retains in some tellings, although it is a vassalge title under Selvans now.)  The Wild Hunt itself is made up of damned souls who fell deep in the wilderness to strange and Otherwordly predators--including Herne himself.  Many of them retain much of their visage in life, although made more savage, feral, or decayed and rotted.  These can ride Otherworldly horses or elk-stags, beasts that superficially resemble their real world counterparts but which often have a sense of wrongness or mutation to them.  Some of them appear as little more than mummified or skeletal husks of beasts of burden, prompting some to posit a link between Herne and Caronte, the King in Yellow.

The more devolved predators in the Wild Hunt, any who run with it for too long, become first animalistic ghouls, and finally become black shucks--Otherworldly apparitions that look like massive black hounds or wolves with glowing red eyes.

It's not known if the hunters are damned forever, or if its a kind of Purgatory from which these poor souls can eventually escape and find their way back to the afterlife that they've earned.  Depending on which occult expert you ask, you may get either answer.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Wights is an old English word (not Old English, or Anglo-Saxon--although it is descended from an Old English word, wiht) for a being.  It is a cognate with other Germanic words, such as Dutch wicht, German Wicht, Old Norse vættir, Swedish vätte, and Danish vætte.  Today, the word is a bit confused, depending on which language you want to look at.  In Low German, it reportedly means "girl" (not being a speaker of Low German myself, I can't attest to the accuracy of that report.)  In many of the other languages, it refers to various spirits, often mischievous or unfriendly--occasionally translated into English as imp, but bearing most resemblance to various little fairyfolk of English folklore; the elves of the shoemaker's fame being among the most famous (and pleasant.)  The Old Norse word, vættr, in fact seems to refer to any humanoid spirit, and is an inclusive word that has under it's big tent not only the elves and dwarves, but the jotunns or giants, and the two families of gods, the Vanir and the Æsir.  So to the vikings, not only would little nature spirits and dwarves be wights, but so would Odin and Thor.

Of course, in modern times, this usage has fallen out of favor and is only remembered by either historical or comparative linguists, for the most part.  Rather, the word has taken on a new lease on life in the works of fantasy fiction, thanks to John Ronald Reuel himself, who of course, brought the word back into usage when he described the Barrow-wights—some kind of animated corpse.  Curiously, Tolkien did not call them Barrow-draugs or Barrow-dréags (ideally, I would translate the Old English word from standard Old English to the Mercian dialect, which didn't really use the [éa] diphthong much--but I'm not linguist enough to know how to do that properly.  Tolkien himself did for most of the Old English words he used.) I suppose it was because he was borrowing the usage of earlier proto-fantasty author William Morris who, although not responsible for bringing the word barrow-wight into the popular conscious, actually seems to have coined the term as a translation for draugr in the Grettis Saga, which he translated into English along with Eirikr Magnusson.) The concept behind the Barrow-wights clearly seems to be the Old English word dréag, better known to us through its Old Norse cognate draugr, or land-draugr, and the traits and abilities that the Barrow-wights display seem to follow the Norse concept of the land-draugr almost to the letter.  (There were also sea-draugr, but other than their manner of death and place of burial, they seem to have been viewed as very similar.)

To be perfectly honest, I doubt many of my readers really care overly much about the linguistics involved.  Why did Tolkien call his draugr Barrow-wights, thus ensuring that wights in games like D&D and Warhammer are forever considered undead creatures?  And why did Tolkien also so casually give us the word dwimmerlaik (based on a Middle English attested word, dweomerlak) which has had no traction, even though it also means something animated by necromancy or magic?  Well, who cares?  The concepts are more important than the names, aren't they?

Probably so.

So, in that spirit, what do I want to talk about in relationship to the DARK•HERITAGE setting today?  While I've often interpreted the setting as quite supernatural poor in relationship to much of fantasy, it's rather that the supernatural is more discrete and stealthy.  Rather than there being extremely rare supernatural, a la Dracula, think of much more careful supernatural, a la The Dresden Files.  There's not just one or two vampires, but you may be certainly forgiven for not really believing in literal vampires anyway in DARK•HERITAGE.  Many people don't, Tarush Noptii notwithstanding.  Dresden's stories are chock full of the supernatural, and yet they take place in the real world, where belief in the supernatural consists of dubious ghost and angel stories, and of course, religion and the occasional disputed Bigfoot sighting.  There's precious little in the way of direct evidence of the supernatural, and even those who believe in it are more often than not sceptical about any specific claims of having witnessed it.  In that sense, there are a great many wights, as defined by the Old Norse and Old English forms of the word, see above, that one may come across in DARK•HERITAGE.  Many of them will not be native to the world, coming from one of the various places described in the cosmology, but many of them are simply discrete nature spirits, or Chthonic beings who dwell just out of sight.  You may not see or hear of them much, but some of the old stories and ghost tales are quite true.

And I like incorporating some elements of classic mythology and folklore to the setting.  It's always been one of the great attractions of fantasy, and I love the notion of the "dark fairytale" lurking just behind the Disneyfication.  This doesn't represent a change in direction to the tone of DARK•HERITAGE at all, but I do want to spend some time going over what kinds of "wights" one could expect to possibly come across  in the setting.  I've created a new heading, and in honor of my linguistic nerdery, I've given it the tag of wights--but this isn't Warhammer wights, or D&D wights, or barrow-haunting wights--this is an exploration of some of the non-human, supernatural creatures that hide in the quiet or dark places of the world.  Although to be fair... some of them could be draugr-like creatures as well, in which case, yeah, they would be wights after all.

Heh.  Linguistics.  Anyway, here's a picture of a Barrow-wight molesting a hobbit.  Just because after all that, you deserve it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Creepy RPG fodder?

I'm not normally one to post this kind of stuff, but someone pointed me towards these videos.  And look!  Three times in one morning, I've posted off-topic posts!  I'm clearly having a day where I'm not in the mood to be very productive.

I'm also not really a fan of dubstep, so the songs are weird and... not my style.  But these really surreal videos strike me as great RPG fodder of some sort or another.  The little girl who baits pedophiles and then kills them with her demon powers has got to make an appearance in DARK•HERITAGE somehow. 

Separated at birth?

I have a bunch of pictures of mountains that cycle through as my wallpaper on my computer.  That shouldn't be surprising.  :)  Anyway, by coincidence the following two pictures, both cribbed off of Wikipedia some time ago, came up back to back earlier today, and I was struck with how similar the two mountains appeared to be in shape, color and contour.  What do you think?  Separated at birth?

Reynolds Mountain in Glacier National Park, up in the Lewis Range, part of the Rockies, in Montana near the Canadian border.

And Banner Peak, in the Ritter Range, part of the Sierra Nevada in California, the Ansel Adams Wilderness, very close to Yosemite National Park.

Maybe I'm just a bit mountain happy these days.  Thousand Island Lake in front of Banner Peak also gives it a very distinctive look compared to its Rocky Mountain counterpart... although I should point out that Hidden Lake is just beyond the scope of the shot of Reynolds Mountain too.

It's the little things...

Just a quick, weird little aside.  I was looking at an article on MSNBC's website this morning about the vice-presidential debate last night.  The author, one Michael O'Brien, made an aside that the President's performance a week or so ago was laconic.

What?  Laconic?  Clearly neither the author nor the editor actually knows what the word laconic means.  I mean, opinions will certainly vary on the performance of the various debators, but I don't know anyone who has made the claim that the President was dry, pithy or sarcastic, and it's clear from context that O'Brien wasn't trying to say that either.

In fact, it's pretty clear that what he meant to say was lackadaisical, but only got as far as lac- and then faltered and picked the first word that started with lac- that he could think of.  And this is a journalist?  And this article went through an editor?  That's depressing.  Words matter.  You can't just substitute one for another when they actually mean something completely different.

Clearly editorial careers in the world of journalism have devolved significantly.  I'm trying here to come up with a way to compare them to malarkey, and not quite getting there, so I'll quit while I'm ahead.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On the importance of being E6 (apologies to Oscar Wilde)

Although I've long been a fan of the E6 tophat, I was reluctant to advise using it specifically with any d20 game except D&D itself (with or without other houserules.)  Looking back at it now, I'm not sure what the source of this reluctance was.  I've now decided that any d20 game--from D&D to d20 Modern to Pathfinder to d20 Star Wars to... well, like I said: any d20 game at all, can benefit from being played with E6.

Here's why.

The D&D game--and the rest of it's d20 derivatives by default, can be divided (by design, in fact, according to Ryan Dancy) into four quartiles, each corresponding roughly to five levels of play.  You can break down, if you like, the "genres" which each quartile best serves as follows:
  1. Levels 1-5: Grittier, low fantasy
  2. Levels 6-10: Classical sword & sorcery or high fantasy
  3. Levels 11-15: Much larger than life heroes; Achilles, Gilgamesh, Sigurd, or wuxia characters
  4. Levels 16+: The Justice League or The Avengers in fantasy drag
Think of things this way.  Most of the regular people in your average setting will have a level or two of an NPC class, right?  Mostly 1st level commoners, with fewer 1st level experts and warriors.  Only a rare few will have a second level, and an even rarer few--typically--have any levels in a PC class at all.  From the perspective of a 1st level commoner or expert, any character of even 1st level in a PC class is already pretty cool.  A character of 5th or 6th level is a hero of nearly legendary prowess.  Using standard D&D to illustrate:
  • A 6th level wizard can incinerate your entire house and most of the villagers too (if they're packed closely together) with a gesture and a few mumbled words (fireball spell).  He can summon horrors that can kill you and most of the villagers you know easily (summon monster III).  He is an epic character to be feared and respected.
  • A 6th level fighter can fight with preternatural skill.  His ability to hit and damage opponents in melee (or ranged) combat is unparalled (total to hit modifier of close to +10, probably doing damage enough to kill a 1st level NPC twice over regularly--three or four times over with a good, critical hit.)  He can roll with hits that would kill an entire platoon of lesser soldiers (hit points probably in the 50-60 range, compared to a 1st level commoner's hit point total of... 3 or so.)  In fact, he can be expected to take on an entire platoon of well-trained soldiers (1st level warriors) and kill them all, and at the end of it, still barely be breathing hard.  He is an epic character to be feared and respected.
  • A 6th level cleric can commune with deity.  He is a being of unbelievable holiness, who can heal the sick and afflicted, bringing them back even from the brink of death, curing them of diseases (or inflicting them,) create food and drink to sustain himself from nothing, cure blindness, deafness, and literally walk on water.  He is an epic character to be feared and respected.
I could do more, but surely you see the point.  You don't need to be really all that high level in D&D to be a thoroughly intimidating and larger-than-life character compared to the masses of characters that are out there.  The spiritual ancestor to E6 was an article published in Dragon back in 1977 that posited that Gandalf was only a 5th level magic-user.  In context, it kinda punctured the bubble that a lot of power-gaming folks had made prevalent in the days in which it was written.  Curiously, the power-gamers seem to have won that in the long-term, so if anything, that sentiment is even more relevant now then when it was originally written.  Although I'm not certain that the original author of the piece was really trying to make that point specifically.  E6, by playing with only the first six levels and then having feat-based continuous (but much more modest) advancement keeps the game firmly in the first two quartiles of play.  It can approach the 3rd quartile in power and efficacy levels of the PCs, but never really cross into it.

Mostly I like E6 because it keeps the game much more firmly in line with the fiction that we read.  The higher level D&D type stuff doesn't feel like anything other than itself.  To me, that's a major bonus.  I'm always a bit non-plussed when I hear D&D players who seem unable to grasp the concept of fantasy that little resembles D&D.  Especially given that such players are at least sometimes, maybe even often, fans of fantasy literature.  Although I can think of plenty of reasons why people may prefer a more superheroic fantasy game than that offered by Tolkien, Leiber or Howard, I can't think of any reasons why anyone would dismiss the notion of gaming in that vein out of hand.  It is, after all, the exact same foundation on which D&D was supposedly built in the first place.  But if you need some other reasons to take a look at E6, here's a few from the designer and author who came up with the concept--paraphrased and added to by me:
  • System never gets "big" or complex enough to bog down play.
  • Focus on planning, not levelling. To take on really monstrous monster, like a CR 10 beastie, the PCs will need help, special resources, and/or inside information.
  • A low magic game that everyone feels comfortable playing without lots of reference to rules.  This also leads to much quicker prep for GMs, who also can find it much easier to run on the fly with less prep, for that matter.
  • Encounters are rarely if ever meaningless. Nor do they drag out to consume an entire session (or more.)
  • Classic monsters stay classic throughout the campaign; even wild animals are dangerous.  Creatures like chimeras or vampires will always be challenging, even to higher level characters.
  • Even legendary heroes remain mortal; sure they're tougher than the NPCs around them, but they can't act with impunity and expect to pull that off for long.  Large groups of even weak minions will always a a threat that can't be ignored.
  • Market research Wizards of the Coast did back to support the design of 4e suggested that most people played shorter-lived campaigns that focused on these levels (and a little above them) anyway, and rarely played in the higher levels.  Possibly because they didn't have good options to do otherwise, rather than continue playing as the game got higher in level, they started over.
  • That same research suggested that many people preferred those levels anyway, and that it was commonly believed that the higher levels of play didn't work all that well, and never have in any edition of D&D.  Plus, they were widely considered very difficult to run effectively, because the game just got too darn complex at higher level.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

High Sierras

The mountain hiking season is coming to an end, really, as the early winter starts to settle in at higher elevations.


I did get to do a few fun outdoorsy things this year, but as always, not nearly as much as I'd have liked.  This looks like my dream.  The PCT is probably too ambitious--I can't imagine ever having six months to spare to go hiking from Mexico to Canada (and I don't really relish the idea of having to be in such a rush the entire time either, rather than being able to slow down and enjoy the journey) but the JMT?  That I could do.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

I is for the Inquisition

One hundred and twenty years ago, the ruler of the Terrasan Empire--which had a greater claim to the title of Empire in those days than it does now, convened a quorum of experts on matters occult and theological.  While there isn't an official church or religion in the lands of the Terrasan Empire, culturally the people recognize a common pantheon of divine beings who influence the lives of mortals in ways both subtle and--occasionally--less so.  Small churches attended by decentralized friars, have sprung up over the centuries all throughout the area to cater to the spiritual needs of the people.  While the empire has resisted allowing these churches to centralize too much, or to gain too much political power, in reality, many such friars have evolved into advisors for local leaders--mayors, lords, dukes, and even kings.  As they've done so, they've managed to become very wealthy, and their small churches have evolved into massive cathedrals. 

While they remain politically impotent as a group, individually, many of them are among the most politically powerful men in the land.

That original quroum of learned individuals was called the Inquisition, and their original purpose was to inquire (hence their name) into matters occult.  Terrasa was rocked by a series of occult scandals, including the revelation that the king's own brother was possessed by a daemon, and the putting on of a play, of all things, called "The King in Yellow."  This play was maddening; most of the audience that saw its only known performance went violently insane and rioted; killing or consigning to an asylum many of Terrasa's cultural elite and leaving their ranks thinned for generations.

The recommendations of this body to the king were that some occult threats were too dangerous to be allowed to fester, and that the King should take a stronger hand in preventing them before they came to be scandals or crises like the two that rocked the capital that year.  And so, in a strange joint venture between these academics, clergymen, and the King's own Guard, the Inquisition was formed, a secret police dedicated to the rooting out of occult and supernatural threats throughout the empire.

Their mandate was, of necessity, somewhat secret, and although the rumors of a militant Inquisition that act as a secret police are not uncommon, few really know much truth about the organization.  And the fact of the matter is, that the body is very constrained anywhere except in its strongholds in the capital and a few other large cities of the Empire; beyond that, the only authority that Inquisitors possess is that which they can demand by nature of their strength of will and arms.  In fact, in many areas, they openly clash with other bodies of authority, who do not recognize them at all.

In this way, the Inquisition is less politically powerful in DARK•HERITAGE than in some other settings... and yet, they are if anything, perhaps even more sinister.  Lacking overt political power, they are the masters of subterfuge and espionage, and consider themselves above any law.  And while, of course, many Inquisitors are less kind-hearted than one would like, they serve mankind as a whole, preventing forces which would otherwise overwhelm the fledgeling mortal race from doing so, at least for a time.  If a few innocents have to be sacrificed along the way--or even if many innocents have to be sacrificed along the way, the greater good stipulates that such sacrifices are necessary and should not deter them from their task.

And if the Inquisition must utilize the weapons of its enemy to serve the greater good... they do not shy away from that either.

Monday, October 08, 2012

What to read next...

Other than posting book reviews from time to time, I rarely talk about my reading list.  I do have a separate page for my reading list.  One quick glance at it will indicate that I'm a bit of a compulsive book buyer, and I can't keep up with reading all that I buy.  Much of this is because I also get lots of books at the library, which interrupt my reading of my own books. I also have a friend who likes to lend me stuff.  And, let's face it, I just don't have as much time to read as I used to and as I'd frequently like.  So what happens is that I make little progress in my mountain of "books that I own but haven't yet read" stack.  At current counting, it was 63 titles (although that includes books that I read as borrowed books before and subsequently bought copies of because I liked them a lot and figured I'd want to read them again sometime.)  Because I don't tick titles off of the list fast enough, I tend to buy them nearly as fast as I read them, keeping the number very near the same.

In any case, here's a small discussion on my reading plans for the next month or two.

I'm currently re-reading the Dresden Files books, since I bought most of them in paperback relatively recently.  I'm on Changes now, so I'm nearly caught up--just Side Jobs and Ghost Story to go.  Of course, very soon now, Cold Days will be out (in November, if I remember correctly) so my timing is pretty good in terms of getting done before the new one is out.  I actually haven't bought the next two yet, because Side Jobs'  only paperback release has been in large trade paperback size, and Ghost Story's mass market paperback release just happened recently.  In any case, I'll finish Changes and put Side Jobs and Ghost Story on hold at the library, hopefully to finish both before Cold Days comes out--which I've also got on hold from the library as soon as it's released, processed and ready to go.  I only buy them in mass market paperback format, but I don't want to wait a year until it's released in that format to read it, of course!

Meanwhile, I'm also reading the four volumes of the Write Great Fiction series.. although slowly.  I may have to take those back to the library before I finish.  Although I have read them before in the past.

Once I finish Changes and am still waiting on more Jim Butcher, I've also got Poul Anderson's Three Hearts Three Lions on hold and waiting for me, which I've never read, but which is considered a classic of the genre before it got to be big and mainstream.  It's also considered to be a pivotal and important book in Gary Gygax's own lexicon, and imnportant to the formation of D&D, so... I also have an academic curiousity about it as well.

After that, though, other than the Butcher titles, it's time to read more of my own books, or books borrowed from my friend.  In fact, the latter will get priority; I've borrowed the first three Monster Hunter books from him, which he's heartily recommended to me as being likely "very much up my alley."  There's a fourth one of those too, I see on Amazon, but given that I haven't read the first three yet, I'm not too concerned about getting that right away.

I happen to have a lot of tie-in fiction, and after reading several books in a row of non-tie-in fiction, I'll probably be due to read some of that and get a bit caught up there.  Although my mind may change by the time I get there, I'm thinking that first I need to read the last volume in Don Bassingthwaite's Legacy of Dhakaan series, then I'll start one of two Warhammer fantasy trilogies--either Steven Savile's Vampire War trilogy (which I have in omnibus trade paperback format) or Mike Lee's Rise of Nagash trilogy which I have in three mass market paperbacks.

I hesitate to project too far beyond that already, though.  Heck; I hesitate to project as far out as I have, and I may yet see major changes to the schedule based on whatever piques my fancy between now and the time I get that far.  That is, after all, 13 titles of projection already.  But those will most likely get me as least as far as Thanksgiving, given my current reading pace. 

Although with any luck, I'll actually be able to pick up the pace as high school football season starts to wind down in a few weeks.  And I've got five vacation days that I have to spend this year so I don't lose them; I may use them mostly at home recovering from an elective surgery.  Or, if not, at least I'll use them mostly sitting at home relaxing.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

New Star Wars RPG

I'm currently in a Star Wars game with my home group.  I may have mentioned that a time or two here before.  We're using a brusque house-ruling of d20 (not the d20 Star Wars game, mind you--the SRD.  D&D houseruled to be Star Wars, in other words.)  I also have two of the three Wizards of the Coast produced d20 Star Wars games--the original and the Revised.  Although the third, the SAGA edition seems to be widely considered to be the best of the three, given that I still haven't played with either of the two I already own, buying a third version of the same game using basically the same game engine seems... foolhardy, at least.  The closest I ever got to doing so was playing the older Knights of the Old Republic games, which use a slightly modified version of that system to represent your player characters.

I never played the WEG d6 version, although it seems to be fondly remembered by many gamers.

So... I'm not sure if I should be a little bit excited about this or not.  I really don't need another Star Wars roleplaying game... yet at the same time, I never thought that the d20 version quite got it right--although they did a number of things really quite well.  My biggest concern, of course, is that I'm not actually playing much Star Wars... and now that I finally am, it's house-ruled D&D fer cryin' out loud.  (And frankly it works about as well as the d20 Star Wars game does IMO anyway.  Frankly, it's not really all that different.)

And yet, on some level, I can't help but be a little excited.  It's Star Wars, after all.  It's got great production values.  It looks slick.  And I'm still excited about hopefully making some time to explore the all new free-to-play Old Republic option here soon.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Houserules doc

Although my houserules can be referred to easily on a single sheet of paper (i.e., use d20 Modern, "Shadow Stalkers" campaign model, reference to my gun rules, my chase rules, the Madness rules, Incantations. and E6) my houserules aren't really that short of a document if I actually put all of the texts of most of those modules in one place.  I recently did so, referencing all of the text of all of the rules except those that are specifically part of the MSRD.  I thought this was a more convenient place to house them.

I still think it's more to swallow at one time than many gamers would prefer, but for that, I've got the summary above.  This is the more inclusive document that, along with your copy of d20 Modern, and your character sheet, I'd expect most gamers would actually bring to the table with them.

Anyway... for the heckuvit... here it is.

EDIT: Link got moved.  The wowway service was cancelled.