Monday, December 16, 2013

Reading changes

I'm going to have to ditch reading Dance of Cloaks, because it's due and I'm not even close to finishing it.  Too busy to read it in the last three weeks while I have it, and by library due date is up, and because someone else put a hold on the book, I can't renew it.  I'll try again later.

That's not necessarily bad; because I'm also reading City of Rogues on my Kindle app, I was finding that I was getting the too books occasionally confused.  They were too similar in tone, feel, and characters for me to really successfully separate them in my head.  Probably one of the reasons I didn't make as much progress as I'd hoped.

Once Christmas is over, I hope to see my schedule free up a bit, so that I can more easily get through library books within the time frame that the lease period is.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Hobbit, part 2

I ended up liking The Hobbit last year more than I thought I would, although I freely admit that I went in with pretty low expectations.  In spite of that, my expectations for this second Hobbit movie are extremely low, especially in light of some new news that's popping up lately.

You may wonder why I'm chasing spoilers for a movie that's still coming, but 1) I don't care as much about spoilers as some do, and 2) c'mon, I first read the novel thirty some odd years ago, and I've read it many times since then.

I haven't been happy with the additions that wormed their way into Jackson's LotR movies.  With The Hobbit, a novel of considerably less content, stretched out into three lengthy movies, it was clear that even with using the Gandalf and Dol Guldur stuff at the same time, that a lot of crap would have to be added to pad out the movies.  We'll really start seeing that this time around, and the previews have given us our first glimpse into what that will mean--this ninja, Joss Whedon-esque "warrior babe" elf.  Who, it appears, will now be torn in some kind of love triangle thing between Legolas and... Thorin Oakenshield.  Girls all over can now decide whether they belong to Team Thorin or Team Legolas.

Holy crap.  No wonder the Tolkien estate is ticked off.  Adding a cheesy girl-porn romance angle to The Hobbit sounds like just about the worst decision I can possibly have imagined.

Expectations have plummeted and are now in complete freefall.  Ugh.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

New DNA analysis provokes suprise, opens questions

One of the conceits of science is that it is an ever improving journey towards "The Truth™" and that we've come a long way and know a lot of stuff.  Sadly, the credibility of the science industry has taken quite a beating in the news lately.  One article I read suggested that only 6% of experiments that were the basis of our pharmaceutical industry were repeatable (with another paper by another agency coming to similar, although not identical conclusions.)  Controversy after controversy has plagued climate science, and now the consensus is that anthropogenic global warming is not real--although that's merely a footnote; consensus is not science.  In fact, that methodology is a big part of the problem (that and the politicization of certain sciences.)  Peter Higgs (of Higgs-boson fame) says that in today's environment, he never would have been able to propose the Higgs particle.  He never would have even been able to think of it, much less get it published, in the professional climate that exists today.  Nature even published an experiment that highlighted the ease with which fraudulent (to say nothing of sincere yet shoddy and wrong) scientific papers can be published. 

This means, of course, that models, theories, and years--decades, even--of work can be built on assumptions that turn out to be faulty and flawed.  In which case, our science has done nothing to bring us closer to The Truth™, and in fact has led us away from it on a chase after a red herring.  This can be a traumatic event for scientists, who continue to try and prop up and explain models that really no longer fit the data.  One would think that eventually The Truth™ will win out, but it is often not so sure.  A great example of this is the spectacular and somewhat embarrasing failure of the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) team, as well as the XENON-100 team, to detect any sign whatsoever of the supposedly ubiquitous dark matter.

And yet, astronomers will continue to insist that dark matter, and dark energy, must exist, even though to an impartial observer with no horse in that race, it certainly appears that dark matter is merely a mathematical fudge factor that allows equations to balance rather than a real property of our universe.  And if it requires a mathematical fudge factor to cause our equations to balance, that certainly calls into question the validity of those equations, and the models on which they are based.

It is at this point that one usually pulls out the credentials card; citing the fact that the person making the criticism is not part of the secular priesthood of Scientists™ and therefore unqualified to point out criticisms that anyone can readily see.  The same thing happens in climate science, when climate scientists insist that in spite of all the record low temperatures, the 15+ years of no warming, and the numerous allegations of fraud and bad science which have propped up the global warming paradigm, that global warming is still very real, and a consensus of scientists say so (in spite of the fact that these scientists are not necessarily climate scientists, and in spite of the latest polls of climate scientists who affirm that there is in fact a consensus that anthropogenic global warming does not exist.)  The same was shown in the contempt by Egyptologists for Robert Schoch's water erosion data on the Great Sphinx of Giza--rather than address his arguments, they retreat back into their existing models and say that there is no room in their models for this data, no matter how good it may or may not be, it can't possibly be true, because it doesn't fit their model.

This, of course, is not science.  It's the absense of science.  It's dogma.  Models don't precede data, data precedes models.  If data exists that contradicts the establishment model, and the data is good data that can't be dismissed as fraudulent or mistaken, then the model needs to change to accomodate it.  If the model is completely thrown out, and an entirely new model needs to replace it, then so be it.  That's science.

Anyway, there's been a lot of talk about how DNA evidence is throwing off all kinds of archeological, and even paleontological, models.  One of the latest is that modern human DNA showed up some 4 times earlier than it was supposed to, throwing all kinds of paleontological models about the spread and development of early humans into a mess.  Another one is this article which throws similar disarray into our models of the spread of people into North America.

This one is of particular interest to me, because I've long thought that our models of the settlement of the Americas was overly simplistic and inherently unlikely--in spite of the scientific "consensus" around it, which is taught in schools and in textbooks around the country.  With the appearance of the Kennewick man, the Spirit Cave mummy, the Solutrean hypothesis, and many other findings that seemed to stand in contradiction to the dogmatic model of a monolithic Clovis migration from Berengia as the sole ancestry of the pre-Columbian settlement of the Americas.

The article linked attempts to link this European DNA to Kennewick man, which is absurd, as it ignores the fact that Kennewick man is not European, and appears to be most similar to the Jōmon people, or other Asian populations that predate the current east Asians--proto-Ainu or Polynesians, for instance.  Other articles on the subject, that have popped up, have Europeans migrating to the Lake Baikal area, and from there staging migrations into North America--after marrying a bunch of local girls first, I presume.

But the reality is, this data doesn't solve anything; it in fact does quite the opposite.  It further muddies the waters.  It criticizes the existing model, without really offering anything in return, other than perhaps circumstantial support to other "fringe" theories, such as the Solutrean hypothesis.  But accepting them based on this data doesn't really give us a clearer picture of the settlement model of the Americas.  It just highlights the need for a revolution in our existing archeological models to one that comfortably encompasses all of the available data.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Baboons in Dark•Heritage

I've been playing a bit of Temple Run 2 on my Android, and I just saw Catching Fire.  I also not too long ago saw After Earth (I waited until it came out on DVD to try it.)  What do all of these have in common?  Killer baboons.  Well, technically the Temple Run monkeys are some kind of weird skull-headed ape, but close enough, right?

It's amazing to me how scary baboons can truly be, if they're large, in large numbers, and suitably angry or territorial or hungry.  The animals in both movies mentioned were among the creepiest scenes in each movie.  Of course, keep in mind that they are larger than any living monkey.  The mandrill, closely related to the baboon (and with the famous "painted" face is probably what many people think of when they hear the word baboon anyway) is the world's largest monkey, but large males average about 50-80 lbs, with exceptionally large ones only reaching just shy of 120 lbs.  The monkeys in Catching Fire, by rough estimate, looked like they weighed a good 200 lbs. each or so.  Maybe even more.  They were as large as a jaguar.  Perhaps this, then, is why E. Gary Gygax chose the mandrill as the basis for his Prince of Demons, Demogorgon.  The two mandrill-headed demon, with scaly tentacles is an iconic image from Dungeons & Dragons and perhaps one of the better inductions into the canon of fantasy overall.

Large, territorial, and occasionally even carnivorous baboons also inhabit DARK•HERITAGE.  For the most part, these live in Kurushat (which has an Old World Pleistocene fauna) although some have made it to the north.  Macaque-like monkeys of various sizes, mostly cat and dog sized, live throughout the Mezzovian Main region, and are common in Terassa itself, where they live somewhat in symbiosis with humanity in the cities themselves, but on the rooftops and the trees.  A few are even domesticated, or feral.

Larger savana baboons wander the grasslands of Baal Hamazi.  Here, they are the prey of cougars, bone-dogs or lions, although they are fierce fighters, and with three to four inch long fangs and 200 lbs. or so of stocky muscle, as well as traveling in mobs of fifty to five hundred, they are an intimidating prospect unless somehow separated from their group, or injured, sick or elderly.

Most disturbing of all the baboons of the north, however, are those that live in the Hsan Jungle, a place notorious for it's intelligent, albeit savage, apes and monkeys.  Not too terribly disimilar to the apes of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, this society is largely made up of arthropoid man-apes that are not gorillas or chimpanzees, but some close relative of the two.  Baboons of similar intelligence live among them, although usually of a lesser caste.  They are, however, more numerous, and make up many of the soldiers and workers of ape society.  Their god, a semi-legendary figure who may actually be yet living as an immortal sorcerer, is an anthropoid baboon; with gorilla-like strengh and size, human-like erect gait and a baboon-like muzzle and face.  Some depictions also have him with curved gaur-like horns on his forehead.  It is claimed that he taught the apes and baboons of the area to speak and to think, a possibly legendary reference to the use of sorcery to raise them to the intelligence of humans.

This society, in part due to its savagery, but in part due to its isolation and the fear and loathing that all humans give to the notion of intelligent, weapon-wielding baboons and apes, this society has not expanded beyond the Hsan Jungle very far.  Their only semi-friendly relations with any human society is with the debased and corrupt humans of Sarkomand and Inganok.

Update on the What I'm Reading bar there to the side:  For the last month or two, I've shown that I'm reading Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn.  Eagle-eyed observers might wonder what in the world is taking me so long to get with it.  In reality, I am not reading that at all.  I intended to.  I read the prologue chapter, thinking that I would begin, and I added its image to the What I'm Reading bar there on the side.  But I never really started it.  I haven't picked the book up since I got it off my shelf and read the first few pages.  In reality, I've been reading non-fiction; researching potential hiking locations for our summer trip to Yellowstone, the Tetons and elsewhere in the Rockies, browsing through free ebooks on my Kindle app for my Android, and picking up a few other library books.  I recently finished the hardback Avengers vs. X-men anthology, which confirms my prior belief that I've probably parted ways with Marvel Comics for good.  I didn't love it, even though it was nominally the best that the company could come up with in the last few years in terms of major events.  I haven't loved anything that they've done in years except for the early run of Ultimate X-Men, the Ultimates, and Ultimate Spider-man, all of which ran aground in disappointing and frustrating and inexplicable developments.  That, and Dan Abnett's take on the Starjammers, using Alex Summers, Rachel Summers and Lorna Dane as replacements for Christopher Summers, Hepzibah and others.  This space opera superhero drama was one of the best runs of Marvel anythings in quite a long time, and the rise of fall of the character of Vulcan.

I also read a number of free ebooks of dubious quality.  Or rather, I started too, but chucked a bunch of them in disappointment.  Rather, I filled my Kindle app with some tried and true titles from the public domain, including the first two Tarzan books, the first three John Carter books, and the complete works of HPL.  Eagle-eyed observers may note that I show HPL compilations on my To Read list.  Given that I consider myself a Lovecraftian fantasy blog, it may seem odd that I'm appearing to not have read these books before.  Well, I haven't.  I have read, of course, most of the actual stories within each of them, but not in the compilation form that I own them now.  And for each compilation there are at least some stories that I've never read.  So, I show all of the HPL library as to be read, even though I've actually read most of it.  Many times, in fact.  Currently, I'm going through Tarzan of the Apes on my Kindle, even though I own a copy of it in print form already: a copy that I've read many times, with the great Neal Adams cover.  What a great book.

In addition to that, I've picked up A Dance of Cloaks from the library, which I can't renew (since it's still classified as a "new" book) so I'm going to spend more time on that before I pick up Mistborn again.  With any luck, I'll finally really start reading Mistborn over the Christmas break.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

New Weird

For a while, a few years ago when the label had more currency, I wondered if maybe my preferred setting ramblings were leading me into New Weird.  Ultimately, I decided that they weren't, in part because a good, definitive definition of New Weird never materialized, and in part because I didn't necessarily love the work that was called New Weird, if I could get through it at all.  But ultimately, I have to admit that a lot of what New Weird is about, at least at a high level, coincides with my own recent take on anti-traditionalist fantasy.  Here's a few quotes, one from Wikipedia and one from TV Tropes, which attempt to take on a good description of what New Weird really is.  TV Tropes suffers from the over-use of too-"cute" slogans and labels, but I think it works well enough.

Of the definitions given below, Reid's capsule is probably closest to what I'm doing--basically, erasing the hard genre distinctions between fantasy, science fiction and horror.  A slipstream experience where genre conventions can migrate in or out as needed.

Looking at it that way, however, how is Star Wars not New Weird?  It's fantasy with science fiction trappings, sorta.  If you look at the Clone Wars TV show, you've got episodes that are the noir episodes.  Episodes that are the Godzilla movie episodes.  Episodes that are the Kurosawa episodes.  The ability of Star Wars to utilize and then discard a genre convention from any genre imaginable is part of it's appeal.

And yet, nobody seriously calls Star Wars New Weird.  I guess it lacks that *-punk aesthetic, which somehow seems to be a requirement.
Various definitions have been given of the genre. According to Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer, in their introduction to the anthology The New Weird, the genre is "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy." According to Gardner Dozois, however, the VanderMeers' anthology "ultimately left me just as confused as to what exactly The New Weird consisted of when I went out as I'd been when I went in." Robin Anne Reid notes that while the definition of the New Weird is disputed, "a general consensus uses the term" to describe fictions that "subvert cliches of the fantastic in order to put them to discomfiting, rather than consoling ends". Reid also notes the genre tends to break down the barriers between fantasy, science fiction and supernatural horror. In comparing The New Weird to Bizarro fiction, Rose O'keefe of Eraserhead Press claims that "People buy New Weird because they want cutting edge speculative fiction with a literary slant. It’s kind of like slipstream with a side of weirdness."

Part of this genre's roots derive from pulp horror authors, whose stories were sometimes described as "weird fiction". The "weird tale" label also evolved from the magazine Weird Tales; the stories therein often combined fantasy elements, existential and physical terror, and science fiction devices.
The New Weird movement is a post-modernist take on certain kinds of literary genre fiction. In a nutshell, it's a specific genre of Scifi/Fantasy/Horror literature that does not follow the conventions of derivative Sci Fi, Fantasy or Horror, without being an outright parody or deconstruction. Similar to the New Wave Science Fiction movement of The Sixties, but it took off in the mid-nineties, and was at its peak in the early-to-mid Turn of the Millennium.

New Weird incorporates elements from certain genres, but tries to avoid being typecast as stereotypical examples of any of them. The purpose of the movement is partly as backlash against the lack of respect that sci-fi, fantasy and horror works get. Proponents of New Weird are of the not unreasonable belief that the reason genre fiction is held in such low regards is because it caters to a very specific audience who likes to read the same sorts of things. The word "Fantasy" becoming almost a brand name that invokes the idea of pseudo-Europeans living in medieval times using sorcery while Tolkienesque elves and/or dragons putter around somewhere in the background. Sci-fi and Horror share similar fates, just with different connotations (spaceships, aliens and explosions for the former; serial killers, monsters and the undead for the latter). Some writers in the genre are playing right into the Sci-Fi Ghetto themselves, with the belief that any Science Fiction that does not involve spaceships, robots and lasers must be an entirely new genre, or that any Science Fiction that does have such elements is bad by default.

Genres such as Romance or Historical Fiction do not lend themselves as well to the concept of New Weird. Writing characters in a non-mundane setting would end up with the work in question being recategorized as science fiction or fantasy.

Works in the New Weird genre are therefore, heavy in their use of Deconstructor Fleets and Mind Screw. Some of them may even take on a disdainful stance against the genres they hailed from, with liberal amounts of Take That. New Weird fiction will often — but does not have to — take place in an Urban Fantasy setting. For some reason, the various "punk" subgenres are acceptable, if not downright embraced in New Weird fiction. For the most part, anything goes as long as it doesn't Follow the Leader.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

W is for Wiksekka Mountains

The Wiksekka Mountains form the southern boundary of the Kurushat region.  Since Kurushat is located on the southwestern corner of my map, it's effectively the boundary of my entire setting, at least in that corner.  This begs the question... what's past it, and why isn't it detailed?

According to many esoteric theories throughout the region, humanity isn't the first race to haunt these lands.  Even the Neanderthals who wander the Kvuustu steppes are newcomers compared to Those Who Came Before.  The nature of Those Who Came Before is mysterious, but faint clues of their existance percolate up from the depths of Deep Time occasionally, to mystify and frighten humanity.  Many believe that the Plateau of Leng in the Forbidden Lands is a legacy of Those Who Came Before.  Most likely, so is the land south of the Wiksekka Mountains.

The mountains themselves are not terribly extraordinary.  Temperate desert is their best description, made up of weathered and carved sandstone of white, yellow and reddish color, like layers on a cake.  Juniper, piñon pines, sagebrush and other cool desert plants crawl up their slopes.  In the summertime, they can be hot, and in the wintertime a mantle of snow covers them, although they are not overly high.  There is little to recommend them for settlement, being short on resources that the kurushi value, and difficult as a place to make a living.  Even for those who enjoy the mountains as a challenge, or for their own sake, look askance at the Wiksekkas, which offer little in the way of extraordinary scenic views (with some exceptions).  In fact, travel to the Wiksekkas is specifically outlawed by the kurushi, although given the vast wilderness that they encapsule, as well as the relatively empty lands that lead up to them through either the bleak Sawado Desert or the tangled and dangerous Leitu Forest means that they don't exactly enforce or patrol this law effectively.  Some few outlaws, runaway slaves and other ne'er-do-wells eke out a difficult life in the mountains.

The lands to the South are blighted beyond all recognition, and it is possible that they are so inimical to regular life as we know it, that literally nothing can survive here.  Strange atmospheric effects and other bizarre astronomical oddities range the gamut from extraordinary to strange to outright impossible--and yet they occur regardless.  The air is very thin here, and possibly poisonous to those who manage to survive it for any length of time.  Bone-searing cold grips the land in an ice that is made up of water, as well as carbon dioxide and other compounds that don't normally freeze on the surface of the earth at all.  Strange eruptions of gas and crystaline faults hint at some kind of geological activity of the surface, but these gaseous vents bend sharply in wind shears high above the surface.
The atmosphere is, in fact, so thin that the sky is black and stars can be seen in the sky even during the day; the air is too thin to properly cause Rayleigh (no relation to R'lyeh) scattering, which gives the sky its blue coloration.  Most ominous, if there were anyone to observe it, is the presence of a blue, circular body in the sky, like a gigantic blue moon.  This is called Yuggoth in some blasphemous texts.  They hint at the possibility that this is, in fact, an alien planet, far distant in space and time, and that the area south of the Wiksekka Mountains is some kind of rift that leads to such a place. 

This line of thought leads rather ominously to the possiblity of alien entities entering our world through this patch of strange, cold land.  Some scholars in the past, before their research was suppressed and burned, believe that semi-legendary figures like the wendigo or the gnoph-keh are exactly that--creatures of extrawordly extraction that slipped through the Wiksekka Mountains to plague the world beyond.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A few things, all at once

So, we got hit by the big Midwest storm last night.  Strong winds (a tree in our cul-de-sac broke in half, it looks like.)  Power out for many houses in the area.  Tons of rain.  Tornado watches all evening.  Tara Reid and Ian Ziering were spotted in the area with chainsaws and bombs.

Speaking of which, Sharknado is now available to stream on Netflix.  I'd love to get together a party of guys to watch it in all of it's "glory."  I'm so busy, though, that I'll probably end up watching it on the Netflix app on my phone while sitting in my car over the course of two or three days worth of "lunch" breaks.

Although this is more a topic for my Lone Star Hiker blog, I'll toss it in here for the heckuvit.  My ambitious trip plan for taking the family on a suite of day hikes (among other things) through much of the central Rockies will take a minor hit, as I've now discovered that I can't leave quite as early as I'd hoped, due to a scheduled activity for my older kids that I totally agree that they need to be able to do.  This means I'll have to squeeze a day or two from the schedule.  Because nobody is as excited about hiking as I am, that means I probably better not squeeze Noah's Ark in Wisconsin Dells from the schedule to make for more time in the Tetons or whatever.  Dangit.

Through much of this last week, I've been trying to "marathon" Star Wars.  Not a true marathon, just watch the movies (and then the Clone Wars) all back to back over the course of... however long it takes me to do so, while just watching it when I have time.  A few comments on that:
  • My kids, curiously, don't really like any of the Star Wars movies, even though they're fans of the franchise.  The original trilogy movies are old and clunky-looking to them, and the Prequel trilogy is slick-looking but stupid and boring.  To use their own adjectives, although I don't disagree with them at all.
  • The pre-Special Edition versions of the movies are the way to go, although they aren't really readily available.  I still have the old videotapes that I bought before the Special Edition went on sale.  One of these days I'll have to get the DVDs with the "original" version, if I can find them at a decent price.  Otherwise, I'll probably have to rip my VHS tapes before they wear out.  The improved special effects mostly are welcome; the "disimproved" editing and other meddling is not.
  • George Lucas often says that Star Wars was always aimed at "children."  That's not really demonstrably true during the originals except in a few moments Return of the Jedi, including rather juvenile attempts at humor in Jabba's palace scenes and the ewoks.  I suspect this is another case of Lucas creatively editing the perception of events by claiming something that wasn't ever really true in the first place to cover for his failure with the prequels.  While it may be an interesting observation that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view, in reality the evidence is right there, publicly available for anyone to see.  Plus, that's a scary argument to make with a straight face.  Those Jedi were really a piece of work.
  • Jedi is also where the plot holes start to become too obvious to be ignored.  I was particularly struck by the small, short scene where Luke goes back to Dagobah and talks to Yoda.  Yoda tells Luke that his training is complete, and that there's nothing else he needs to learn to be a Jedi.  But then, not thirty seconds later, he tells him, with regards to Vader being his father and why didn't they tell this to Luke in the first place, that his training wasn't complete and he wasn't prepared for the burden.  So which is it?  Was his training complete or no?  He didn't get any other training between the time that Yoda says his training was incomplete and the time that Yoda says that his training is complete.  So, apparently Yoda's relationship with the truth isn't really much better than Obiwan's.  Since both are stand-ins throughout the entire franchise for the entirety of the Jedi order, this is a searing indictment of the Jedi way of doing things (although proper context to see that won't come until much later in my marathon... although, of course, it's hardly the first time that I've seen this stuff.)  Already by this point, I'm thinking that the only ones who can still defend the Jedi with a straight face are the New York Times staff editorial writers.
  • I'm a little intimidated by the prospect of watching the prequel trilogy again back to back.  I don't really like them well enough to think that that won't be anything other than somewhat painful.  I'm really asking myself if I think it's worth it or if I should just skip around, watch the better scenes of them and miss the worst ones.  Or even not watch them at all and just go straight to the Clone Wars TV shows.
  • I'd like to throw the "Samurai Jack" style Clone Wars DVDs in there while I'm at it.  I don't normally watch those, but I should.  They were pretty cool, if I recall.
  • The Empire of Dreams documentary is really interesting.  I made a point of showing my kids the part of it where it happens to show the opening crawl of Star Wars... and it wasn't called Episode IV: A New Hope.  It was just called Star Wars, and after the big title in fancy font, it went straight to the crawl without subtitles.  So now they understand why I disregard the A New Hope title and just refer to the first movie as Star Wars, and in fact, insist on doing so.  Because I'm stubborn and opinionated.  Plus, I remember many years of that being the actual title of the movie; it wasn't until it was re-released after Empire Strikes Back came out that it was subtitled and numbered.
Unrelated to that whole endeavor (at least directly), I've put together a quick and dirty character sheet for use with my Star Wars m20 system.  The sheet is fairly basic, with relatively big fonts and boxes--you could write all this by hand on an index card if you really wanted to.  But I like regular-sized character sheets, and m20 has always had pretty good ones that were clean, simply, with plenty of white space, so it was easy to read and easy to find items on it.

I used the back of the sheet for ship details, although because I had so much space, I made two columns.  I doubt any character would ever actually have two ships.

And a smaller one that fits on a single side of a single piece of paper, while still having room to detail your starship:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

V is for Vuukrat Savana

The Vuukrat savana is the northern third of the territory of Kurushat.  Nestled between the Karkose Sea and the Saheli and northern Black Mountains, and pierced nearly in half by the Sukotu River, the Vuukrat is the backcountry just beyond the major urban centers, and core area where Kurushat culture developed: Sinjagat and Jekara.  The soil of the Vuukrat is dark and volcanic in origin; in ancient times, massive lava flows swept over the area, only to be eroded eventually into fertile soil.  Volcanic activity is now quiet over the Vuukrat--the hot spot that lead to the lava flows has migrated due to continental drift, and the center of volcanic activity in Kurushat is now Mount Kadu and the Ash Wastes.

The Vuukrat Savana, like the American Great Plains, is the breadbasket of the empire. Numerous farms dot the landscape, especially along the Sukotu River banks. Farther afield, drovers drive enormous herds of semi-domesticated bison who make up the main meat, leather and other animal products industry for the empire. Beyond that, the savanas are wild and largely unexplored. The wildlife is dangerous; hairless mammoths, elephants, cave hyenas, giant black lions, scimitar-tooths, and worse. The savanas are not as flat as one would expect; rolling hills and occasional brakes of trees keep the horizon hidden often, and craggy volcanic plugs jut like isolated castles from the yellow sea of grass. Fragments of crumbled ruins from some mysterious civilization that predates the rise of the kurushi are hidden deep in the savana as well.

The Sukotu River pierces the Vuukrat.  It is not a major highway, for it is often fast and rocky, and other times shallow and silted up, but it is a major source of drainage across the Vuukrat Savana, and brings fresh water to both Jekara and Sinjagat; two cities that are on opposite ends of the Sukotu river delta. The Vuukrat benefits from lake-effect rain from the endorheic Karkose Sea, whose water is not entirely fresh (the Karkose is very comparable in both size and composition to the Caspian Sea.)

The Saheli Mountains make up the northern border of the Vuukrat, and of Kurushat itself. There are no large settlements in that region, as the mountains are considered useless and resourceless. This isn't strictly speaking true, but the kurushi have yet to find anything worth exploiting in the region yet, with the exception of a handful of hardy herders and stockbreeders. The mountains are also extremely cold, and are notorious for their difficult to find and traverse passes and trails. Very little traffic of any kind crosses the mountain range.  A handful of small military outposts guard the few strategic passes and charge taxes on any travelers that pass through; otherwise, the empire officially rarely acknowledges the region whatsoever.

What few in the empire realize, however, is that there are many hidden colonies of escaped slaves and revolutionaries that live in the mountains, plotting against the empire. Some of these are clandestinely supplied by the empire's enemies, or even by the Emperor's enemies within the empire. Kajim Qaerkuun, the Emperor's favored heir and khan over the entire armed forces, is one such individual. In his search for any method to accelerate the death of the emperor, while his own status and likelihood to ascend are still high, he's considered trying to lure the khagan back into the field of battle where he can be carefully ambushed and killed without anyone being the wiser, and he believes that these escaped slaves and revolutionaries might just be the group to serve as his bait.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Monty Haul vs. Mr. Scrooge: Challenges and Rewards in Star Wars

Dungeon Magazine may have warned us against the Monty Haul style of GMing, which has influenced countless games of D&D (no doubt for the better.) But keep in mind this thought...

At no point in Star Wars do I recall a character ever really needing some piece of equipment and not having it. When Luke and Ben need to fly to Alderaan, they divest themselves of their old landspeeder, and it's enough to get them there on the Millenium Falcon. When Luke suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of a chasm in the Death Star, well, voila!, he's got a rope to swing on in his belt (this isn't quite as cheesy as having bat-shark repellent handy just when you find yourself being attacked by a shark, but nearly so). When Luke needs to attack the Death Star, there's an X-wing there for him to fly. And apparently the Rebel Alliance just gives those things away to people that they like, since he continues to use it throughout the series.

The landspeeder is also an interesting case in point. At no point do the characters bog themselves down with equipment either. In a game like D&D, resource management and logistics is part of the fun (for some players. Not me, actually.) Worrying about actually having all the right equipment is important. Worrying about how much you can carry so you can make sure that you actually have what you need when you need it is important. Making the hard decisions on what to carry to keep your weight at a point where it doesn't bog you down is important.

I can't ever remember anything like this ever being a consideration in any Star Wars movie or Clone Wars episode that I've ever seen. It is a concern sometimes in The Old Republic or Knights of the Old Republic because those are games that are, to some degree or another, based on the D&D paradigm. And it is in many of the Star Wars campaigns in various RPG settings that I've played in the past. Although, again, this is mostly because the D&D paradigm is hard to shake for folks who've grown up on it. But in my Star Wars d20 game, worrying excessively about equipment and money has clearly been one of those things, when we've allowed it to take over our game, has significantly hurt its ability to feel like Star Wars.

Although at times characters have been on the lookout for a ship, they never had to do anything too extraordinary to eventually procure one, or at least the services of one. This is the biggest single expense item that a character can have, but a character really needs to have a ship. Going from planet to planet, and engaging in space combat is part and parcel of playing Star Wars.

That said, you don't need a bunch of individual ships for your entire group. For most of the movies, the Millenium Falcon plus Luke's X-wing (so he can split up from the group and do his own stuff) are sufficient, with only the occasional other ship (shuttle Tyderium). Characters shouldn't be carrying around backpacks full of stuff, or have a pack mule or porter to bring all of the things that they might have in their ship. They don't need swoops or speeder-bikes or land-speeders or anything else on a regular basis. Let them have some money to spend on stuff from time to time, and make sure that stuff is available for them to purchase. And then don't worry too much about it. The equipment list isn't extensive enough that having nearly everything on it buried in the cargo hold somewhere would be a problem even, and realistically, characters can't use everything all at once either.

Some classes, such as fighters, also benefit from having tricked out equipment. Especially at higher level, it's assumed that they'll have it. The Mandalorians wouldn't be nearly as cool without their armor, for instance. How would they stand up to the typical Jedi without their jetpacks, missiles, and whatever else? What's Cad Bane without all his gear?

Encourage your players not to get into gear-hoarding mode. That's not Star Wars. And then err on the side of gratuitousness with equipment. If it ends up being a problem, there are ways to bleed that off as needed. Equipment can get stolen, or broken or whatever. It's usually considered "cheap" to do this, so don't do it unless you really need to bleed off an excess of equipment. But honestly, given the list here, that's not likely to be an issue. You can also bleed off excess money or loot by having players need to repair battle damage to their vehicles or droids, by wastage caused by using disposible items (like thermal detonators) or allowing them to pick up a droid cohort (start at 3-4,000 credits for a base level 1 droid, let them spend more to equip him with more stuff, and force the cohort to level up by gaining levels the same as any other player character.) Let your players have the equipment that they want, for the most part. That's part of the setting's conceit. While characters aren't rich, challenging them with resource management isn't very heroic, swashbucklery, or Star Wars like.

And the characters may need to come into money fairly quickly. If it's the character's conceit that he's got armor equivalent to a Mandalorian battle-suit, well that thing costs out to over 18,000 credits. If he can't get it until near the end of his career, that kind of sucks for him as a player too. He can't wait to afford a starship and an astromech at 7-8th level in a 10 level game. That doesn't mean that your fighter needs a full-fledged Mandalorian battle-suit at 1st level either.

As a rough guideline, I think characters should get between 5-10,000 credits worth of money (or stuff of equivalent value) per level, mostly. And they should spend 20-30% of that on maintenance of stuff. The fighter that wants the equivalent of a Mandalorian battle-suit should have to piece it together bit by bit over the course of a few levels, getting stuff and then upgrading it as time goes on. By 3-4th level, he should have most of what he wants.

And at some point, characters should get out of the game of worrying much about equipment or money at all. There is no wealth/level guideline. Once the characters have what they want, you should focus on maintenance with your money rewards. As always, keep in mind that logistics, accounting, and shopping are not at the heart of any Star Wars game. Use scarcity (especially at lower levels) to be a bit of a motivator, but don't be a Mr. Scrooge GM. But if your players are concerned about getting monetary rewards for their characters (unless it's in character--i.e., Han Solo) then they're missing the point and you need to recalibrate your game somewhat.

Monday, November 11, 2013

FYI; housecleaning

Just FYI; I made some serious updates to the ABOUT THIS BLOG page to more accurately describe it.  In case you're too lazy to click on that link, but aren't too lazy to read this post, I opened it up topically just a bit; I specifically noted that I'll be tinkering with other homebrew projects besides just DARK•HERITAGE (specifically my homebrew STAR WARS and the ODD D&D series; although I don't anticipate that either will grow anywhere near the scope and size of the original.)  That way, if I meander through those topics and don't get to DARK•HERITAGE for a while, I won't feel needlessly guilty for straying off topic, since they are now specifically in-scope. 

And to help shameless promote random and senseless pageviews with this post, I'm going to add this image of Emily Ratajkowski eating a gigantic burger.

The Force vs. Normals: How to Strike a Star Wars Balance Between Classes

Star Wars has often been very much about the Jedi and the Sith. Luke's discovery of his heritage as the son and later apprentice of a Jedi, and his grand finale battle with the Sith Master Palpatine, can be seen as the over-arching story of the entire Original Trilogy. The prequels even more overtly deal with the Jedi--hardly a major character exists who isn't a Force-using Knight of some kind or another, and the story is designed to be told from the perspective of the Jedi. Or at least some specific Jedi--Obiwan, Annakin, etc. The Clone Wars, which is the last major outlet for "true canon" as far as my setting iteration is concerned, is also primarily told from the perspective of the Jedi, and is about their doings.

This focus partially obscures some things, though. In the Original Trilogy, Luke, Vader, the Emperor, and to a lesser extent Ben Kenobi and Yoda are the only knights that make any appearance at all. Many other characters are significant characters, like Han, Leia, the droids, etc. Lucas famously over-committed the reality of the situation when he said that the point of view characters are the droids themselves. What's important here is that non-Force using characters can be pretty darn important to Star Wars, and in fact should be. You can see this in many episodes of the Clone Wars too--while overall the series is about the Jedi--especially Ahsoka and Annakin, many episodes barely feature them, or even don't feature any Jedi, Sith or otherwise at all. And presumably, the Star Wars: Rebels series will focus on them even less (although I'd be surprised if some underground, lingering Jedi of some sort or another don't still show up from time to time. And the Inquisitor is obviously a Sith assassin. And let's not forget that since Ahsoka left the Jedi Order, it's concievable that she'd survive the Jedi Purge and still be kicking around during the Rise of the Empire era.)

Sometimes the writers (including George Lucas himself) lose sight of this, and make the Jedi both too good, too capable, and too important for anyone to stand up to them in any meaningful sense. But other times, it's quite clear that non-Force using characters can be the equal to a Jedi when they need to be. Jango Fett fought Obiwan to a standstill in Attack of the Clones. Highly skilled bounty hunters like Sugi, Embo, Cad Bane, and others showed themselves equal to the Jedi (or Sith) when they needed to be. Pre Viszla's duel with Darth Maul showed him to be highly capable, and he might have won, even though Maul was one of the most dangerous combatants in the galaxy.

Of course, in order to do this, these characters almost become superheroes themselves. It's actually easy to see Embo as an alien Captain America, and Sugi as an alien Black Widow. The Mandalorians, with their tricked out supercommando battle armor, almost seem to be Iron Man like at times.

But maybe this is the lesson in how to run Star Wars. The action is over-the-top. It is extremely swashbucklery, and borders on overt comic book like in tone and feel, quite frequently, even. It's easy to justify this superheroic action with the Jedi, because after all, they have the Force with them, which makes them superheroes. But when the plot dictates, anyone else can be just about as capable, either through intense training, fancy equipment, or a combination of the two. In in reality, that means that highly capable non-Force users should be like Batman, Hawkeye, the Black Widow, or other characters, who while lacking overt superpowers, routinely are able to go toe-to-toe with actual superheroes as needed by the demands of the plot of the stories that they're in.

And aside from any meta reasons to make characters be equal, it's only good fun for everyone involved if everyone is more or less balanced with everyone else. If one character is just so much more capable than everyone else that he ends up doing everything, and the rest of the players are relegated to being his sidekicks, that's not likely to be very fun for very long. But, the tendency can be to bring knights down to a regular character's level, when what usually works better is to bring the other characters up to the knight's level, in terms of swashbuckling action. Let your scoundrels and fighters and whatnot be Embos, Sukis, Boba Fetts and the like--the Captain Americas and Batmans of the Star Wars setting--rather than making everyone feel an "action tax" dictated by your sense of what is more reasonable for real people to do. This isn't about real people. This is about Star Wars characters. Forgetting that and making things too difficult to accomplish, or penalizing those who want to attempt some kind of wild, swashbucklery action in lieu of a more conservative, cautious approach, isn't Star Wars. It may be some other game, including many people's idea of D&D, for instance. But not Star Wars.

When in doubt, and since it's now in Free-To-Play mode, check out The Old Republic. Only half of the character classes are Force Users, and the Bounty Hunters, Scoundrels, Imperial Agents and Republic Troopers don't suffer because of their lack of the Force. Rather, they're great examples of what Star Wars can be when knights aren't around.

And, to counter this, Star Wars is filled with mooks. By this, I mean antagonists who aren't really meant to be terribly threatening, especially not on an individual level. From battle droids to stormtroopers, part of what makes the heroes seem so cool is the fact that they can mow through mooks with relative ease. Not impunity, but relative ease. Mooks don't have any hit points. Any hit at all and they go down. They slow down the heroes. They can threaten the heroes in large numbers. But to some degree, the whole point of mooks is to make sure that the heroes feel heroic.

The End of an Era

Well, I suppose the end actually came quite some time ago, I'm just late (as usual.)  Because we were so busy a year ago, and we weren't watching stuff very fast, our DVR was starting to get overly full, and I made the decision to drop the Clone Wars from my docket and just catch it on DVD when it came out.  So, I finally, just last night, finished watching the Clone Wars.  Of course, is it really finished... ?

There were three episodes mentioned on the Star Wars blog that never aired, there was some footage released prior to Season 5 debuting which never aired (see below).  There is also talk of some other material that was developed, and a promise by Dave Filoni himself that this missing Clone Wars material will somehow get into the hands of fans in 2014 still.

But, barring that bit of "extra" material coming out, out of order and out of context, no doubt, the Clone Wars is finished.  It's all been aired, and it's all been released on home media, and I've now actually watched it all.  While Star Wars: Rebels will no doubt fill much of the same shoes, it'll be different.

Of course, over the last few days, there have also been other big news items for Star Wars.  The release date for Episode VII was issued (and it's not Memorial Day weekend, like normal, but is rather in December 2015.)  And, Star Wars' facebook shared this link.. which doesn't actually say it's for Star Wars, but c'mon.  I think we can all figure out that it is.

So it is the end of an era.  But it's also an exciting time as the new era is peeking out through the curtains, letting us know that it's on its way too.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Season V

I just realized that it was just over a year ago that Disney announced that they had purchased LucasFilm and would immediately begin development of new Star Wars theatrical release live action movies.  With a release date about a year and a half in the future, they're no doubt full on into working on the movie, although little is known about the status thereof, including if anyone has been cast or not yet.  But, my interest in the franchise has been a bit keyed up as a result of that news.  It had previously been somewhat subdued due to... you probably guessed it... disappointment in the prequel trilogies and nothing really new or exciting to look forward to anyway with regards to Star Wars.

But that's not really exactly true.  I've had a lot of cool options to enjoy Star Wars over the last few years.  There's been some great video games out there.  The Clone Wars TV show has been a major hit, that has only gotten better season after season.  In fact, what I'm specifically posting about now is the fact that I finally got my hands (a few weeks late, but I've been busy) on Season V of the Clone Wars, the season that ended up being the last season.  There is new material out there that hasn't been released, but one of the details of the sale of LucasFilm to Disney, which isn't surprising if you saw what happened when Disney bought Marvel a few years earlier, was that they cancelled licensed TV shows out there and replaced them with new content on Disney-owned networks.  The Clone Wars, being a Cartoon Network show as it was, was therefore a prime target for cancellation, and the show that will replace it, Star Wars Rebels, will be on DisneyXD instead.  Based on some early shots or concepts, Rebels looks like it will look a lot like The Clone Wars, although presumably it will focus considerably less on the doings of Jedi, since it will take place after the Purge.

Although I'm just now picking up Season V, I watched some of it while it was actually airing--about 5-6 episodes or so.  I'm surprised right out of the gate to see that they've rearranged the order of some of the episodes.  "Revival", which kicked off the season, is moved back to air alongside the rest of the Darth Maul episodes.  In fact, they've grouped episodes together so that they've essentially converted, if you ignore the credits and opening sequences at the end of each episode, blocks of four episodes into almost Star Wars movies.  About 88 minutes each, so a little on the short side, but not completely outside the range of a feature length film.

In fact, they've done that all along (although not quite as drastically) through the show; several story arcs are 3-4 episodes long, making them effectively mini-movies, starting with the opening sequence that was actually converted into a theatrical release pilot of the show.  Looked at from that perspective, there aren't six Star Wars movies in existance right now, there are nearly thirty, depending on how you count them!

This current content, the promise of future content, and my current Star Wars game have conspired to make Star Wars stay near the top of my interests, and not cycle down from time to time, as all of my interests that I can't do anything about currently, will tend to do. 

With this, I'm almost ready to debut my Star Wars m20 wiki.  I need to massage the draft starship rules a bit, and I'd like to add a bit more setting detail, but otherwise, I'm ready to go.  And I'm rarin' to run something.  I'm excited to get back in the GM saddle after an extended run in the player's seat.  Right now, running Star Wars sounds at least as exciting as running my own DARK•HERITAGE setting... and that's saying something.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Speaking of Star Wars...

I was gratified (and somewhat) amused to see my interpretation of the Jedi corroborated almost point for point by Dave Filoni (supervising director for Star Wars: The Clone Wars and definitely a position of some authority with regards to this particular question.)  This was from an interview he gave recently to celebrate the DVD release of the fifth (and final, as it turns out) season of the show.  I still question how much of this was intentional on George Lucas' part--certainly plenty of comments from him over the years (and even quite recently) seem to indicate that it was not, but the failings in the Jedi order, the failings even in such iconic characters as Obiwan Kenobi and Yoda themselves, who are, even at the very end, still blind to their inconsistency and hypocracy and failures, are obvious enough for anyone looking at them.  Dave Filoni certainly gets it.  I quote a section from the intervew:

I’ve always thought Ahsoka’s existence is tied to two things: A) if we can come up with a story that’s good enough that George said, “Okay, she can keep going,” and B) if fans likes the character enough that we can all say, “Okay, she can keep going.” Those are two pretty important things.

Her ultimate point is that the Jedi are aware of Anakin’s shortcomings. They’re not naive to it. Yoda, in particular, talks to Obi-Wan and they give him this Padawan, saying, “Knowing Anakin as we do, he will not want this girl to be around. He’ll resist it. But if and when she wins him over, he will bond with her like everything else he does. Like R2-D2, like Obi-Wan, like Padmé. But this girl will be different, because he’ll basically raise her. She’ll be trained by him, and he will see in the long run that she overcomes her fears and she becomes a Jedi, and she does not need him. But she respects him and they become equals, and Anakin needs to learn this so he can let go.” And Yoda knows this is critical for Anakin. If you look at her episodes, as early as when she rescues Plo Koon from the Malevolence, and she’s learning from Anakin how to disobey orders but still be creative within following orders. And then she has a big failing when she goes to Ryloth and all these pilots die, in a way, because of her error, and she has to overcome her fear that she’s going to let them down again. She’s learning. Then we see a big, critical episode arc where Anakin and Luminara kind of compare Padawans, Barriss and Ahsoka. And that arc, I think, really set an interesting tone for ourselves and for the fans. We were trying to illustrate the difference between the way Anakin is raising his Padawan, and how much he cares about her, and the way Luminara raises her Padawan. Not that Luminara is indifferent, but that Luminara is detached. It’s not that she doesn’t care, but she’s not attached to her emotionally.

And at the end of the day, one of the questions that I guess I pose is, is that really a good thing? Is Anakin’s way of being so compassionate wrong? Because on a certain level, you have to accept that the Jedi lose the Clone War. So there is something that they’re doing that’s wrong. There’s something they’re doing that doesn’t work and that the dark side is exploiting. If anything, it’s Luke’s overwhelming compassion and love for his father that in the end overthrows the Emperor because it’s something that he doesn’t understand. So as far back as Anakin, there is a seed of an idea of love and compassion, which admittedly in Attack of the Clones, the Jedi say they’re lacking because they’ve become arrogant and very sure of themselves. As Ahsoka gets older, her first big challenge comes when she’s abducted by Trandoshans and put an island [to be hunted for sport]. Anakin is put in a position where he can’t help her, and he obsesses over trying to find her, and there’s nothing he can do. But she survives anyway, and at the end of that she says, “I was only able to do this because of your teachings. Because the other Padawans I was with, boy, they were completely messed up. They were cracking.” So again we see this comparison of where Ahsoka is at because of Anakin, and where these other Padawans, which represent the other Jedi, are at. When you get to the finale [of that arc], once you see her pretty much taking on the role of a mentor and teaching these younglings to survive, you see Ahsoka doing more things on her own and you notice Anakin’s not around.

Then at the beginning of the last arc [of Season Five], she basically saves Anakin the way Anakin would’ve always saved her in the past. And Anakin’s unconscious, he’s like, “What happened?” She says, “I saved your life, don’t worry about it.” It’s fun and he laughs about it then, and he’s not embarrassed by it. They’re a team. So we get them to that moment and then we put a ton of pressure on it. And through the whole trial, Anakin is the only one that stays 100 percent in her court. I think Plo Koon stays 75-80 percent of the way in her court because he says, “I don’t believe she could’ve fallen so low.” In Obi-Wan we really see the Jedi because he is compromised. Obi-Wan doesn’t believe Ahsoka is guilty of these crimes, but he has a very hard time arguing politically that the Jedi Council shouldn’t do what they do to her. He trusts in the Force, which is what they love to say when they don’t know what they’re doing, and they expel her. He can’t argue the logic. He doesn’t like Tarkin’s logic [but he can't argue] that they can’t try her within the Jedi because the public, which we show in this episode arc, who are losing faith in the Jedi, would cry foul ball. “How can you put her on trial? Of course you’ll find her innocent. She’s a Jedi and you’re a Jedi.” So they expose themselves, and we see how they’re exposed. All of these things that are wrapped up in Ahsoka’s story, which ultimately make her realize what the audience realizes. “I love the Jedi Order. They’re very important to me, I’ve always respected them. But there’s something wrong here, and I need to walk away from it to assess it.” It all feeds into Revenge of the Sith when the chancellor says, “The Jedi have just made an attempt on my life.” When you see these four episodes, I think you have a better understanding of how he gets away with all of that, because you see how compromised the Jedi Council is. And these episodes aren’t just meant to get Ahsoka on her way, but they’re meant to explain in more detail the scene [in Revenge of the Sith] where Yoda, Mace, and Ki-Adi-Mundi are discussing arresting the chancellor, and what a gamble that’s going to be for them. Because you see that to the average Coruscant citizen who’s not impressed with this war or the Jedi anymore, they’ll see it as treason. It’s probably the arc that connects to the movies the most and has the most impact. I think that’s why it works on so many levels for me and is one of my favorite arcs, because it’s such a companion piece to the films.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Star Wars d20

We had another session of our much delayed Star Wars campaign this past weekend.  To the uninitiated, it's worth pointing out that we're not actually using the Star Wars d20 rules--any of the three options--we are actually using a house-ruled D&D 3.5.  Realistically, it's not substantively different from playing one of the first two Star Wars d20 iterations, to be honest with you.  I think the GM was simply more interested in house-ruling a game he already had and liked than in buying someone else's interpration of said houserules.

My character right now
Because our game is fairly heavily weighted towards Jedi-like operations, we have a lot of Jedi characters (four of six, as I recall.)  And by Jedi, I really mean Jedi as a character class, not necessarily Jedi as an in-game organization.  My character is an 8th level Jedi... but is not a member of the Jedi order, nor is he likely to be.  In fact, my character is a Sith acolyte defector; he's disillusioned by the Sith order and wants to bring them harm (hence his alliance with the Jedi) but he has not shed much of the baggage of his Sith training.

We're finally at high enough levels that our Jedi characters can finally feel like Jedi.  One of my early complaints about the rules is that things that even very young padawans (i.e. Ahsoka) seem to take for granted were out of our league even after being granted full Knight status (for all Jedi characters except myself, of course.)  This, naturally, impinged on the ability of the game to feel like Star Wars.  So the good news is, that we feel like Star Wars more now, in at least that respect.

I also think our DM has an unfortunate tendency to be a bit more punitive and difficult in terms of his rulings and DCs and whatnot that he assigns to tasks.  This, again, may be great in some games (including many games of D&D) but interferes with the game feeling like Star Wars.

In any case, because we played again--for the first time in a few months, I was reminded that I had been house-ruling m20 to run Star Wars the way I think it should be run; a way that focuses on the canonical source material (and here, I mostly mean the movies and the Clone Wars tv show--Old Republic games also get a pass.  Much of the rest of the EU is otherwise explicitly ignored.)  And looking back over those rules, I was reminded that I never did actually get spaceships done, so I'm missing a major hole in the ruleset!  This is not good, and therefore is something that needs to be addressed ASAP!  As I mentioned over on my Star Wars m20 wiki, I have two drafts--two other interpretations of Star Wars into m20 to work from to borrow my starship rules from, but neither one of them did everything completely right, so I'm hybridizing the two and additionally modifying it into the perfect "my Star Wars" ruleset.  I recall being a bit unimpressed with the spaceship rules in both iterations, which is probably why I never really got around to completing that section of the rules.

I'd also like to add a bit more; so I've got the rules, I've even got some setting background--moving the game forward to 1,000 years after Jedi so I have plenty of freedom to do things my own way.  Given that in 2015, we'll see new Star Wars movies (plus new material of other types--the Clone Wars TV show is ending, but Rebels is ramping up to replace it) I better either play this sooner rather than later, or be stuck later modifying setting information to fit new canon.  This means that I need to also start looking at some specifics--i.e., if I run a game of this, what will the players actually do?  And then I need to recruit some players and have at it.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

OddD&D Part VII: The Yuan-Ti Kingdoms

In contrast to the Lizard Kingdoms, the Yuan-Ti kingdoms have a more parasitical relationship with the "warm-bloods" and therefore do not see them as pests worth little other than to be exterminated.  In fact, the primary conflict between the war-like lizardmen and the much more subtle yuan-ti is about the treatment of the mammals; the yuan-ti see them as needed to preserve their own way of life.  In this respect, they almost seem like an advocate for humans and their kin, but only in a very narrow sense.

The yuan-ti exploit humanity (and demihumanity).  They do not value them other than as a source for tainted ones and other hybrids.  It is, in fact, believed by some that the yuan-ti race was created in the distant past when humans prayed to the reptilian gods for salvation from the lizardmen, and demon-god Sertrous answered their call, turning them from humans into the first yuan-ti purebloods.  The rest of the diverse yuan-ti race soon followed.

Some among the beleagured human and demihuman communities see this as an opportunity to make common cause with the yuan-ti against the lizardmen.  However, it is clear that the yuan-ti do not see any human or demihuman person as anything close to an equal--they are at best cattle: valuable enough while alive, but disposable and useful only as a resource to be consumed.

Some among humanity know this, and stand as firmly against the serpents as they do against the lizards.  Others know this, and think that they can exploit this fracture between the reptiles to their gain, keeping a wary eye on the yuan-ti.  Others know this and think that being the cattle of the yuan-ti is better than being dead on the blades of the lizards.  And finally, some actually trust the yuan-ti's promises of aid and succor.  These poor dupes were once a fringe in human and demihuman society, but their numbers are growing, particularly as yuan-ti secretively infiltrate more and more of it.  And this divisiveness among the "warm bloods" is a wedge that the yuan-ti can exploit to infiltrate even more deeply.

Like the lizardmen kingdoms, the yuan-ti are divided into several city-state or larger entities, which have a fierce rivalry with each other, but which are reluctant to show lack of unity to their enemies.  Often, embassies, or even armies, are designated by multiple such nations to speak on behalf of the entirety of yuan-ti-dom.  But it is in the snakes' nature to constantly attempt to deceive and manipulate each other as well as their enemies for their own gain.  Many of their cities are in the drier parts of the continent, alongside rivers.  The yuan-ti require little in the way of water to survive, although some live deep in constantly humid rainforests or swamps as well.

The lizardmen collectively control about half of the territory on the continent.  The yuan-ti, about a third.  That leaves (roughly) 15% that is either too remote and resourceless to be of use to anyone, or under the control of the warm-bloods.  The yuan-ti, generally, would like to reverse some of those percentages, with them controlling half of the territory, and humanity taking over a larger chunk, although under their own watchful eyes.  While temporarily useful, the yuan-ti have no long-term use for the lizardmen at all, and would not weep to see them completely eradicated.  They know, of course, that such a goal is a long-term one, as the lizardmen today are the strongest group on the continent by far.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Periodic table of synthpop

Work and real life have conspired against me, and I didn't make any of the posts yesterday that I hoped to make and which I referred to in my last post.  *sigh*

Today, I think I'm going to punt and talk about something else that requires a little bit less thought and effort on my part as well.  I discovered this interesting little image when it was posted on Apoptygma Berzerk's facebook feed.  Synthpop is really my favorite kind of music.  And it's a bit varied.  There's more than one "style" of synthpop, as you'd expect from a genre that's been kicking around since the late 70s (usually at this point, one points out that the first song generally considered true synthpop is "Hiroshima Mon Amour" by Ultravox! on their 1977 album Ha!-Ha!-Ha!  The first synthpop album is also generally credited to Ultravox (now sans exclamation point): 1978's Systems of Romance.  However, it wasn't long before Tubeway Army, Sparks, The Human League and others were really introducing the synthpop sound, often having arrived at it independently from mixing Kraftwerk and other "krautrock" type sounds with a more poppish flavor.

Synthpop (although not known by that name in the US at the time) was intensely popular during much of the 80s (when I was a kid--hence my love of it) and especially by the late 80s, synthpop bands (often British, but not necessarily so) were regularly charting in the US--Depeche Mode, New Order, Erasure, Information Society, the Pet Shop Boys, etc. is just a taste of what came out in the mid to late 80s and received generally high sales and airplay.  By the 90s, though, synthpop dove sharply underground as mainstream tastes changed and grunge (and other movements) revolted and pushed back against the synthpop sound.  By now, however, the internet made sure that the genre couldn't die, and indie bands were able to reach a fairly high level of sales and visibility thanks to its auspices.  This is the case today, and it is well represented here, by the various splintering of styles and whatnot.

I've never heard some of these labels before (and I expect they were made up for this chart, partially tongue in cheek.  Noble synthpop?  But, somehow, it fits.)  And there's a few bands on this list that I'm not familiar with, but not too many.  I'd quibble just a tad with some placement--why is Assemblage 23 not listed with Futurepop, for example?  And why is Visage New wave and not New Romantic, when Visage almost single handedly created New Romanticism in the first place?  But these are very minor quibbles.

Rather, I think the chart is missing an important component--where is the modern mainstream synthpop?  Stuff like Lady Gaga, La Roux, Owl City, Hurts, The Presets, etc.?  Darkwave is more of a hybrid genre (as is futurepop), so if they're in, why not electroclash?

Yeah, yeah--I get it.  The entire thing isn't meant to be taken very seriously.  But still, I think those are major misses.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blogger stats

I like to look at my blogger stats.  I'm always surprised when a post, many times several years after I make it, starts to take on a life of its own.  Currently, this post right here for instance is topping the views right now, the views for the day, the views for the week, and it even cracked into the top five views for the month.  A review of a book that I posted years ago.

I suppose Google image search has something to do with it, and I do have a cool old image of Demogorgon from the D&D coloring book (a fixture of my childhood--I used to doodle dragons on my homework for years in elementary school, using techniques more or less learned by imitating the drawing of Tiamat from that book.)

But there it is.  For some odd reason, that post has soared in views.  And this post here easily tops my all-time views.  And curiously, most of those views came in over a one month or six weeks or so period of time, where it suddenly spiked dramatically, and then sank again into obscurity.

I don't get the internet sometimes.

Hopefully, I'll have time to post both a DARK•HERITAGE and an ODD D&D post later today.  But for now, this random thought keeps me in the game.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Odd D&D, part VI: The Lizardmen kingdoms

Still keeping my furlough of DARK•HERITAGE topics on while I talk about my ODD D&D setting development instead.  For those of you just tuning in, check out the tag ODD D&D and read the rest of the posts in the series.  Otherwise, here's a quick summary.  The premise of this game is that it uses 100% official D&D rules (3.5 edition, although it could easily be adapted to another edition, I'm sure) but it deliberately eschews the normal D&Disms that typically one finds in a D&D game.  So, the races are pretty shook up--there's no elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes, etc.  The classes are a bit shook up.  There's no arcane or divine magic, and psionics instead provides all of the supernatural F/X (and keep in mind that especially with the Complete Psionic book, psionics can duplicate most of the effects of both divine and arcane magic anyway.)  There's no dungeons, and there's no dragons.  Rather, the theme of the game is a kind of vs. the reptiles--the PC races live in small, fringe communities that bicker and play dirty politics and skulduggery with each other, even as they are pushed to the fringes of a Greenland-sized continent by powerful lizardmen empires, and scheming yuan-ti empires.  The wildlands between their settlements cross dangerous territory where the reptiles hold sway, both in terms of their civilized warriors--who see the mammalian PC races as either interesting slaves or food--at best--and gigantic dinosaurian wildlife.

Anyway, for today, I'm going to talk a bit more about the lizardman kingdoms, or Squamousii, as they're collectively called.  Although often referred to as an empire, in reality, Squamousii is a collection of city-states united in more or less amicable alliance and by a common shared culture.  The leadership caste of the lizardmen are the priest-kings, who are almost always psions, or other psionic-using classes.  True psions often become morbidly obese and bloated with magical power, to the point where they can't even walk and must be carried always on a palanquin.  Pictured here is a young priest-prince; a priest-king in the making, just starting to become swollen with power, and not yet immobile.

Lizardmen don't live in regular family units--their females lay eggs in large nesting grounds, where a large number of nests sit in close proximity, and then guarded and tended communally.  The young are also raised communally, and lizardmen society has nothing that approaches marriage, since reproductive functions are not related to anything like familial or spousal love.  The lizardmen are much too pragmatic for that approach, and compared to the mammalian races, are viewed as cold and emotionless.  This is as much due to the totally alien nature of their faces, which do not emote in ways that humanoid races can interpret as it is to reality, but the way in which young are raised communally reinforces that notion strongly.

Around large nesting sites, which have been used for centuries by colonies, often even millenia, is where the city-states have grown up as the lizardmen acquired civilization--by adopting complicated building techniques and division and specialization of labor amongst the communities.  The largest city-states have literally millions of occupants, spread over many square miles--the equivalent of many smaller European countries, or US states in terms of size.  At the center of each city-states' area, is a megalithic, Cyclopean city, with strong, stone walls, gigantic, sheer-sided pyramids as big as mountains, a complicated social hierarchy built around the near-worship of the priest-kings and their chthonic gods, and the support of vast armies of soldiers and workers.
Some mammalian humanoids live in these cities, occasionally as guests of the priest-kings, but more often as slaves, chattel and livestock, for lizardmen see nothing wrong with eating mammalian humanoids (although they usually prefer other meat.)  These cities also have large embassy compounds, with representatives of their brother-kings from other city-states, as well as from yuan-ti states, which have a more guarded, and occasionally even hostile relationship with the lizardmen.  Mammalian humanoids also--occasionally--have embassies in these cities, but in general, the lizardmen think too little of the humanoids to treat with them as anything approaching equals.  The other thing that humanoids have recently discovered--through these embassies--is that they are not the only mammalian sentient creatures on the continent.  Embassies of intelligent apes have opened in a few of these cities.  The lizardmen actually seem to treat these intelligent apes as more worthy of respect than the humanoids, although it is unclear to most humanoids where they come from and what the extent of their kingdoms and power truly is.

Although the lizardmen (and the yuan-ti) are both reptilian, that does not mean that they are slow, sluggish, or cold-blooded (i.e., ectothermic, or poikilothermic.)  Like the early archosaurs of our world, the ancient ancestors of the lizardmen (and many of the dinosaurian creatures that are their ecological room-mates) developed a degree of warm-bloodedness, which has been refined and developed until it is as complex and efficient as that of the mammalian humanoids.  Young lizardmen hatchlings are actualy covered in a fine coat of downy pelage, which they lose as they grow, and the thick, scute-like scales that cover their bodies become more prominent and hardened.

As they grow older, their metabolism does slow down (as it does in you and me, for that matter, but the effect is more marked in lizardmen) but when younger, their metabolism is actually quite a bit faster and their internal furnaces burn even hotter than in mammalians, leading to a great consumption of food resources.  In the rare times of very severe famine, lizardmen are known to eat their own young.  Because the metabolism of the older saurians is slower, they need to eat less than the young do.  Sometimes, the young subadults are strong and powerful enough of as a population to turn the tables and instead eat the older, slower full adults when this happens--but the circumstances have to be extremely dire for either situation to occur.

Lizardmen, as their mouths and teeth indicate, are obligate carnivores, and have a very poor ability to digest or derive nutrition from any plant material.  They also retain water vastly more efficiently than mammals do.  Because of this, the strongly tropical--both dry desert and wet rainforest and jungle habitats that cover much of the mainland are better environments for lizardmen than for mammals, and the lizardmen thrive where humanoids struggle.  Because of this obligate carnivory, lizardmen are not farmers, but are instead rancher and hunters or fishers, and keep vast herds of smaller dinosaurs (hypsilophodonts and protoceratopians, mostly) which are raised for both meat and eggs, which the lizardmen greatly like to eat.  Hunted meat is more varied, and can include the large dinosaurs, as well as any mammals (including humanoids) although such meat is considered poor fare, and is only usually given to lower caste lizardmen, or eaten in times of duress.

While lizardmen are united in their disinterest or even disdain of humanoids, and their opposition to the ambitions of the yuan-ti, they are not truly united politically, and it is not at all unheard of for one city-state to march to war against another.  When they march to war, the adults and subadults are conscripted into the army and equipped in a somewhat ad-hoc fashion.  These conscripts are strong, fast, and fierce, but are poorly trained and disciplined, and make good fighters, but poor soldiers.  More highly trained elite forces, on the other hand, make up the core of such armies, and are much more difficult to fight, both individually and as units.  The massive blackscale lizardmen, a variant that can grow to nine to ten feet tall and weigh up to a thousand pounds or more of muscle and bone and massive battle-implements, are thankfully rather rare. They are not s subspecies or breed; rather, certain eggs, during incubation, develop the signs that they will hatch a blackscale, regardless of who laid it--becoming larger and darker in color before hatching.  Blackscale hatchlings are not separated from their smaller, green brothers, and while still tiny hatchlings, they often eat their nest-mates.

Perhaps even more frightening and certainly more dramatic, are the beasts of war that that the lizardmen utilize.  As Indians or Carthaginians in our world used war elephants and howdahs, the lizardmen do the same with much more dangerous and ferocious dinosaurian inhabitants of the land.  Some ride on gigantic carnivorous beasts, while others ride on horned and armored dinosaurs, using them almost as tank-like platforms that are very difficult to assail.

Even when not in war, caravans and travelers use domesticated dinosaurs as mounts and beasts of burden, which can be extremely dangerous to any traveling humanoids that they may encounter.  Humanoids are, unless somehow specifically invited, strongly discouraged from seeking out any contact with lizardmen of any kind.  The best defense that humanoids have developed to avoid being swept off the continent entirely and into the sea (or the lizardmen's larders) is that they inhabit marginal terrain where the environment is more hostile to the lizardmen--in the cooler mountains, and deep in the fjords along the coastline, mostly--or other more easily defensible and inaccesable locations.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Odd D&D part V; making gnarly pulpish dinosaurs

One of the conceits of the game is that various reptilian monsters rule most of the continent.  Mostly, what this means is that I'll have nations of lizardmen (including the big ogre-sized blackscale lizardmen) warring against nations of yuan-ti, with the "mammalian" PC races pushed to the fringes, caught in the crossfire, or otherwise downtrodden and afraid.  In particular, the lizardmen use a lot of ferocious and dangerous wildlife as domesticated beasts of burden and war (while those same animals make cross-country travel particularly hazardous.)  Looking at the Warhammer Lizardmen armies as inspiration, we see a lot of "fake" dinosaurs--creatures that are basically dinosaur-like, but "pulped up" if you will; made gratuitously more spiky, toothy and dangerous looking than even actual dinosaurs would have been.  For example (and this isn't necessarily meant to be complete) we've got:
  • Bastilodon, an elephant-sized ankylosaur, with even sharper armor, and a horned head.  Its teeth look, well--maybe not carnivorous, but certainly dangerous.
  • Carnosaur - A T. rex sized animal with raptor claws on its feet and long arms.  Greatest hits of features from big carnosaurs and fast raptor-type dinosaurs (dromeosaurs, for the curious, is the technical name for this group of dinosaurs.  Although I'm being a little fast and loose with my dinosaur terminology, I'm actually a fairly technical paleontology nerd.)
  • Cold One - a horse-sized dromeosaur, capable of being ridden into battle.
  • Terradon - a mean, chunky and robust Pteranodon, with a stronger, meaner bite and stronger meaner claws.  Also capable of being ridden by skinks, the small-sized lizardmen.
  • Ripperdactyl - Uglier, meaner pterodsaur-like creatures, with sharp teeth and big heads.
  • Stegadon - A Triceratops-like creature, with a lot more spikes on its head (basically, it's got every spike every ceratopsian ever had, all jammed into one head.)  As if that wasn't enough, it's also got a Stegosaurus style tail, complete with "thagomizer" and sharp teeth in its hooked beaked mouth.
  • Salamandars look a bit like more reptilian dimetrodons, but shoot a biological Greek fire of sorts.
  • Troglodons are carnosaur-sized animals that shoot venomous spit.
  • Razordons are lion-sized lizards that are covered in spines which they can, apparently, shoot out of their body in large numbers to impale enemies.
See, that's what I'm talking about when I say that dinosaurs need to be even more over-the-top than they already are in ODD D&D in order to conform to a gratuitous pulp aesthetic.  And although taking a scary-sounding English word and addiing -don to the end of it doesn't exactly make an animal sound like a dinosaur exactly (-don is a portion of the Graeco-Roman scientific naming convention that means tooth.  So, Iguanadon, for instance, means iguana-tooth) it still beats the heck out of whatever Wizards of the Coast were thinking when they tried to do a little bit of this in the Monster Manual III and had dinosaurs called battle-titans and fleshrakers, and stuff.  Frankly, I'd rather than a Terradon or a Stegadon than a battle-titan, if I need to come up with names here.

D&D already has a lot of stats for various dinosaurs.  Frankly, I think it's overkill.  I'd rather see stats for a few "types" of dinosaurs, and then a few a la carte options to over-the-top them a bit.  So, from the SRD (or PRD) or other monster listings of dinosaurs in d20, I'd go with the following as my basics:
  • A big-headed meat-eater.  Use stats for Tyrannosaurus, which is a huge animal.
  • A faster, but big meat-eater.  Use stats for Megaraptor, which is a large animal.
  • A ceratopsian.  Use stats for Triceratops, which is a huge animal.
  • An armored herbivore.  Use stats for Ankylosaurus (MM2) which is a huge animal. 
  • A big sauropod.  Use stats for Seismosaurus (MM2) which is a colossal animal.
  • A large pterosaur.  Use stats for Quetzalcoatlus (MM2) which is a huge animal.
  • A big swimmer, like a Elasmosaurus, which is a huge animal.
  • The Giant crocodile.
Now, you add extra attacks.  Take each base statline, and make sure that they have two major attack forms.  For example, if you have a T. rex, you really only have a big bite attack (complete with swallow whole.)  Give it another attack option; either a crushing tail attack like an ankylosaur, or a gore attack like a Triceratops, or--if you want to make it like the carnosaur mentioned above--give it also claw attacks (like a Huge-sized megaraptor) in addition to it's T. rex bite attack.  If you want to be really nasty, give it Pounce and Rake.

Or, you could make any of these animals venomous, including having the ability to spit venom as a ranged touch attack.

If you pay attention to such things, no doubt, this will increase the CR by 1 or 2, or possibly even 3 in some cases--although keep in mind that most animals can only take advantage of so many new abilities in a single combat, so it doesn't necessarily make them more difficult to defeat.