Saturday, May 31, 2014

And a Fifth Horseman Shall Appear and his name shall be Next

I'm going to admit it right up front, I haven't been paying much attention to what's going on with Dungeons and Dragons. When they dropped 4th edition and dropped Dungeon and dropped Dragon, neither of which I'd been subscribing to for a while, I pretty much lost interest.

But lo and behold, the internets are ablaze with the new information about 5th edition. The obvious news? It'll be at Gen Con, or at least, one of the books will. That strikes me as odd since AFAIK, the books are not printed in the United States and any changes that need to be made aren't going to get incorporated into the later books anyway. Live by the China, die by the China.

In addition, the price point for the core set is too high. Mind you, let me be clear, that's my opinion. I also don't think it will hurt initial sales at all. I think that there is every possibility of a sell through at Gen Con. Right now Amazon has the Player's Handbook for just under $30 bones. That's $10 more, at Amazon, than 4th edition.

For those that find that too expensive, there's even a starter box set that's under $13 right now. There are supposed to be some online rules to complement that which allow some further play than just the boxed set itself.

Let me be clear. It's not that I think these are bad values mind you. For $150, if you're only getting the core three books, you can probably get many moons of game play from.

But well, that $150 can buy a tablet. It can buy a few board games. It can buy dozens of supplements for free rule sets of the OSR that are readily available right now.

Mind you, some will point out that Amazon discount brings that down to $90 if you get them all at a heavy discount. But that's now. What happens if Amazon tells Hasbro they want more money like Amazon has done with a different publisher and cuts their deep discounts out? Companies need to stop pricing their books to account for the Amazon discount if they don't want to be beholden to Amazon's pricing.


It's not that it's a bad price, I just think it's a bad price for the core books for Dungeons and Dragons. Pathfinder has a core book that is the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide combined. If $100 for two books is great value, what does that put the Pathfinder system at? Awesome value?

In addition, there is some weirdness going on. Let's look at the adventurers. For many people, the adventurers of a system are what a system lives and dies by. People talk about great campaigns for decades after the games have been run. It doesn't matter what system either. Talk about Warhammer and people will instantly pipe up with The Enemy Within and their favorite parts of that, or even smaller adventurers like The Three Feathers. Others will mention things like the Orient Express for Call of Cthulhu.

Both third and fourth edition didn't necessarily have a lot of great adventures in that vein. Wizards of the Coast has a real weakness when it comes to doing adventure paths. When they lost Paizo, the former caretakers of the print magazines Dungeon and Dragon, they lost the ability to do well regarded adventure paths, which for better or worse, are a standard for Dungeons and Dragons or D&D like games these days.

But the new edition has some starting adventures. In this instance, done by Kobold Press, a company that has supported Pathfinder, 3rd edition and even 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. The first I believe is Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but that strange Amazon pricing comes through as this book is over $25 dollars and only has an 11% discount. Are you going to pay almost as much for a single adventure as you are a core book, with discount?

Strangely enough, despite being done by a third party and published by Wizards of the Coast, indications seem to be that any OGL will not be immediate.

That makes me wonder why then they picked Kobold Press. Let me be clear. It's not that Kobold Press is a bad publisher. They have a wide range of products and a wide range of materials ranging across different editions.

But not everything has gone smoothly.

Take their recent book Deep Magic for example, is a weighty tome available in hardcover and PDF. But right after it came out, there was an addendium. That's not a good sign.

Or how about some of the material that's currently late for their Kickstarter projects? For example, if you backed their adventure anthology, Midgard Tales,  you've been waiting for Freeing Nethus for over a year.

If you backed the kickstarter for the miniatures for the Midgard setting, those were due either a year ago, or just under a year ago.

And Wizards of the Coast chooses them?

I'm sure that they'll pull through and that the various issues that Kobold Press is having with those different aspects are aberrants and of course, not standard practice, but if you've been waiting for either of those and you see their name associated with the new D&D that may not give you the warm fuzzies.

I think that not supporting an OGL right off the bat is potentially disastrous for Wizards of the Coast in terms of longevity of Dungeons and Dragons. Mind you, if they have their character creation software so heavily integrated, it might not matter anyway as that more than the limited third party support 4th edition received, keep players I know from buying material that wasn't in the software.

Why buy Goodman Games or other material that you would have to manually tally when everything else was so fairly well done within the system itself?

If you're a new player and you see Dungeons and Dragons and limited support only through Wizards of the Coast, and you see Paizo and Pathfinder and you see dozens of publishers being actively supported by Paizo, on the companies home page and receiving high praise from many of the people who make Paizo the community it currently is, which company are you going to buy from?

Mind you, there are some people who dropped buying things from Wizards of the Coast when WoTC stopped printing physical copies of Dungeons and Dragons magazines. There are some that stopped when WoTC pulled down the PDF's. There are some who stopped when WoTC dumped 4e and went with Essentials editions. There are some who stopped when WoTC took their character generation from a downloaded software to an online only software.

Here's the thing. Many of those players are NEVER coming back. Either they've fond something that met their fantasy need, ranging from Pathfinder or 13th Age for 'new school' players, or any one of the many OSR products already out and fairly compatible with the hundreds of 1st and 2nd edition products already out in the wild.

Me? I've got the boxed set and Player's Handbook preordered. I'm not a 'D&D' player do or die or anything like that. Those reading the blog on a regular basis know I'm a player in a Warhammer 2nd edition fantasy campaign. And if you look at that, an old system that's not supported and was replaced by Fantasy Flight Games with weird dice and an expensive core book, you might see some potential futures for a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons that doesn't' take into account that not only are they not the only fish in the pond in terms of what people can spend their money, and more importantly, their time on, their not the only Dungeons and Dragons game that people can spend their money and time on.

The Thousand Thrones: Children Say the Damndest Things

Yesterday I managed to get in another game of Warhammer FRPG second edition in the Thousand Thrones campaign. It started off with potential, as at long last, thanks to the Liquor Bar in Niles, I was finally able to find my Ty Ku coconut flavor in the full sized bottle. Lots of places have it in the small bottles but they want like $10 a bottle and here I was able to get the full sized one for under $20.

The bad news? I forgot it at home! Noooo!

The good news? Another one of my amigos brought Pacifico and between three of us, we managed to quickly down his twelve pack. As awesome as it would have been had there been more than a twelve pack, I hesitate to think of the effects of such a consumption of a large amount of alochol of my poor liver.

Good news is now I can save the Ty Ku for next week!

But in role playing...

Everyone managed to make it this week. We've recently been cursed with car problems. One of my friends suffered them last game and I have also suffered them to the tune of having to break down after twelve years and destroy any free funds I may have had for oh, the next six years by buying a new car. Ugh. It's a Kia Soul 2014 in the standard silver. It's so damn new it doesn't have a CD player. Somehow they decided that was an optional thing.

But anyway...

One of the things I've enjoyed about the Thousand Thrones, or well, Warhammer FRPG, is that there is a LOT more investigation going on. There is a often in the prewritten adventurers, a huge chunk of characters, scenarios, and well, an openness that allows the players to interact with the world far more than most standard Dungeons and Dragons adventures that rely on the funnel of a Dungeon to get everyone the XP and magic items that are required to advance.

I mention magic items, because while we've going on game five or six or something now, we've got exactly zero items. Which isn't bad in terms of power raise or anything, but I'm just pointing out that despite the swing of combat and how dangerous it can be, we're still managing to destroy enemies even when burning up fate points thanks to things like Ulric's furty. In D&D it'd be assumed, by the book of course, not individual campaigns, that by level X, you HAVE to have A, B, and C or the module and other prewritten adventure assumptions are just completely off the rail.

We did a lot of investigation that was a little hampered by our skill set. The player who is our 'faceman' if you will, is a little new, wild and reckless who tends to speak a bit before he realizes that he's wandered wall and off the beaten path, whereas I like to think I'm good at these sort of things, my character, a troll slayer, has a completely different path for gathering information.

So I went about it like I figured a dwarf would. Looking at the armaments of the camp without asking too many questions. Started to count the different uniforms, weapons, and armor and see where they broke up into different groups. Started to listen to the various back and forth between those who were merely camp followers there to make a living, those who were true believers, and those who weren't necessarily believers that the child was Sigmar reborn, but was something special and they wanted to be there to be a part of it.

After a few hours of hunting down information and writing down a ton of names and numbers, the opportunity for action is thrust upon us. Because of the open nature of the game, there may be moments of paralysis while the players seek information and debate on what happens next. In such cases, it's good to have an outside even happen that can provide some opportunity for the players to immediately interact with the setting.

In this case it was a zombie invasion with ghoul lieutenants and a vampire leader who sought to capture the child. We started off fighting the ghouls and zombies and moved onto the big guy.

Being a troll slayer, I figure, well, might as well fight the ghouls. They are the greater threat and therefore, the greater opportunity for death!

Remember how I said that combat is swingy? Well, not only did I never get hit and suffered no damage in the two fights that occurred that night, I only hit like three times out of like twelve attacks, and at some instances, my chance to hit was as high as 70% thanks to outnumbering the enemy. I was whiffing swing after swing and the three times I did hit, one of them  was for terrible damage. There was no Ulric's fury that night I tell you.

The bad news? Well, we've known for a while now that the "kid" we're following, his 'Crusade' if you will, is one that is influenced by his chaotic ability to manipulate those closest to him into loving him. This isn't a total domination effect because those effected still do what they want to, save that if the child asks them to do something, they have to, unless it's something completely out of character. Turns out that one of the group, during the vampie fight, decided to move closer to the child and BAM! Under the spell thanks to a failed will power roll.

And then when the rest of us decided, "Yeah, we're heading back to the encampament" we were ambushed by his zealots and brought into his presence. The halfling and I made our will power rolls but everyone else is pretty much at the call of the Child now. It'll be interesting to see what happens next game.

Personally I was tempted to try to plant my great axe into the kid's skull but with three members of the party under the kid's control, and let's be honest, my character wouldn't know if it was everyone or not, I decided to play it cool. It wasn't like we were being asked to actually DO anything yet. My character was figuring that being killed by his own comrades would not be a glorious death!

Next week I'll be curious to see where we head out to. We'll be on chapter four of I think... nine chapters +Tom Wright mentioned?

Anyway, it was a good game. For those who aren't necessarily playing Dungeons and Dragons but other games that might require a little more player interaction, do you find that there is ever a time when the group comes to a stop because they're not sure what the next move is?

For those playing in fantasy campaigns that aren't necessarily high magic, or common magic, like D&D, do you find that you miss magic items and the easy gathering of wealth? I know my character in the Warhammer setting is still scrounging some coin together to try and replaced the lost leather vest (destroyed by a critical) but I'm okay without having it, as after all, that will assist me in a glorious death!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Cesare Borgia: Advocate or Antagonist

With his position as the son of the Pope and his ambition to united Italy, Cesare Borgia is an excellent historical character to view in terms of how someone like him could be used in a role playing game. Many RPGs, including fantasy, post apocalyptic, and even science-fiction, often have some type of 'Border Kingdoms' where the right person with the right backing and the right timing and fortune, can make of themselves something new that rivals the old powers.

So how would someone like Cesare be used?

1. Patron: This is the most obvious use of a character like Cesare. Much like Griffith from the anime and manga Berserk, Cesare is going to need "feet on the ground" to do things that he himself might not be able to do, or should be seen doing.

1a. Assassination: There is a specific political opponent that needs to be eliminated.

1b. Kidnapping: In order to insure compliance of some allies, some children will need to be kidnapped.

1c. Liberation: Say you have a target that is necessary to acquire and in most instances, would willingly ally with you, but hey, the enemy boss used a little of that 1b and now the characters have to go and free those taken hostage.

1d. Defend the Fort: During his imprisonment, one of the only things that kept Cesare alive, was his forts manned by his loyal commanders, could not be taken. The players could be those commanders.

1e. Spies: One of the strengths Cesare had, was not in his actual military commanding or his own personal fighting ability. No, rather, it was his tight grip on accurate and recent news. He was able to take advantage of his enemies ignorance and use shock and awe techniques and often didn't have to strike a single blow.

1f. Scouts: While similar to the above, it's more of an outdoor thing. In the Borgias series, Cesare is able to take a fortress without a lengthy siege by discovering its weakness. In history, Cesare used speed of troop to navigate his forces where they were not expected to be. Players could be the ones scouting out passes, mountain trails, and other routes that haven't been in use for years or creating new routes specifically for the soldiers.

1g. Strategic Targets: In one of the various Troll Slayer novels about Felix and Gortex, the pair are in city under siege. Some of the weapons being used to bring death and destruction and demonic siege weapons. Gortex takes battle axe in hand and goes out in a sneak attack mission to cripple those weapons and give the city further time to repel the invasion.

2. Enemy: What happens if Cesare is on the opposite side of the characters and how would that happen if he's been using them?

2a: An Example Must Be Made: One of the things Cesare did was kill one of the harsh commanders that inflicted discipline on the newly formed barony. He did this in order to assuage the fear and loathing that the common people had of the man, and the forces he belong to. By killing that commander, Cesare was able to lift the people's spirits and able to insure that the people were loyal to him.

2b: It's a Mistake: One of the keys of drama is misunderstood circumstances. Imagine that the players are relaxing at City A when their master's chief enemy comes into the city unknown to them. Would you believe that it was a coincidence? Or what if one of the player character's has a relative that starts working against the player character's patron?

2c: Cost Savings: Well, I know that I agreed to pay you X, but it's simply easier to kill you at this point. One of the problems with working with unscrupulous individuals is that there often comes that moment of "curse you for your sudden but inevitable betrayal."

2d: Player Strikes Back: If the players are powerful enough, they may decide that this setting yourself up as a baron and ruler isn't a bad idea and go against their patron before the nobles even know what hit them.

When looking at patrons, allies, and enemies, there are many options that the GM should consider and how those elements may play out. For example, suppose that none of the above happen, but when a new official of some importance is elected, either religious, criminal, or military, and they say, "We're now turning our eye to your patron. If you're there, you will not be."

Cesare for example, did very well while his father the Pope was still alive. But when the Pope died and Cesare's enemy became pope? It was all over for a large number of people. The players have to decide if they want a last man standing showdown that they can't win or wash their hands of the whole thing.

Da Vinci: Undiscovered Treasures

One of the problems I have with most fantasy role playing games or settings, even including those I've worked on, is the tendency to glorify the past. Historically, there is some precedence for this. The great works of Rome for example, are often looked on by those who came after, hundreds of years, as magnificent and unable to be recreated. Some of the things designed then, still in use now.

But due to the exaggerated nature of role playing games, this tends to be exaggerated in terms of time scope and WHAT was lost. The arts were better. The magic was better. The societies were better. The weapons were better. The enemies were bigger. And most of these settings tend to have a very modern outlook that they white wash everything with. Slavery and other horrific issues are so glossed over that you have to wonder why there is ever conflict to begin with.

The other problem is the near instant communication most fantasy settings seem to have. People from the far north generally have no problem getting to any other region of the world. The fact that the majority of people decide to stay in their locals, especially when those locals are terrible to begin with, is always a head scratcher. "Hey, remember how that one dude became an adventurer and left all of this ice behind? What a fool he was eh?"

But in terms of discoveries and knowledge, knowing that there are things that even know are being uncovered that we didn't know before, in terms of documents, art, and even whole lost cities, the nature of making those discoveries over and over again in a fantasy game isn't that far off.

For example, Paul Strathern notes that Da Vinci had the following:

1. Fist comprehensive published description of anatomy. Not only does Leonardo do this before Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish physician, he does it better and includes more details and important information. Difficult to do since cutting up corpses was a big taboo. In a fantasy game, whose done this for giants? Dragons? Unique monsters that are difficult to kill and you need to know their weak points?

2.The author argues that Da Vinci noted, "The sun does not move" and that Galileo's own works would've went much further if he had Leonardo's notes and information. No access to the original telescope, it has to be developed again.

3. Blood flow: William Harvey discovers the circulation of the blood in 1628, something again, Leonardo notes.

The book notes other things throughout but the important bits are, that despite his current widespread "fame", in his own time, his ideas were not widely spread. His knowledge, and more importantly, his ways of looking at the world, were so radical, that instead of having a university or other wide spread information, most of what Da Vinci does, dies with him. Many of his original paintings and works of art and sculptures, lost to the cruelties of time.

Think about that. A man who dies in 1519, has little of his original works available to us in the year 2014. In role playing games, "Hey, X did this 3,000 years ago." Magic my friends. Lots of magic has to be involved there. Don't be afraid to play with those vast ages of things. One of my favorite bits in a Michael Moorcock Elric story, While the Gods Laugh, is when after searching for an ancient book that is supposed to have the truth of the universe contained within it, Elric fights through many sent assassins and guardians only to have the damn book crumble in his hands. Age is the ultimate enemy there.

In terms of adventure seeds, Da Vinci's works, or in a fantasy campaign, someone's works like him, would be of tremendous value. The author notes that despite his 'change of heart' from his time with Borgia, that Da Vinci continued to work on ideas on how to effectively wage war but since he knew that these devices would be put to evil uses, never published them.

In a role playing campaign, it's a simple matter to have someone know that the creator, perhaps a mage whose harnessed the energy needed to open summoning gates into grenade like weapons, has written these ideas and devices down on paper or tablet or rune staff, and send the players out to capture it.

This would pit the characters against a great thinker. One who may not wish to go out or allow his ideas out into the world to cause harm, but would probably not want himself to come under such harm. Such a thinker might have a wide vareity of traps and guardians of his own.

In a historical based campaign though, well, that might not be true. Imagine a world where someone knew that Da Vinci was still working on his weapons of war and captured those notes? How could Leonardo have fought them off? Mind you, the artist did use a special "mirror script" that would be difficult to translate. Even back then he knew the value of what he did and those ideas he had.

Historically, over half of what Da Vinci wrote was lost to history. His many books and efforts to capture his process into an even flow never having taken place.

Knowledge can indeed be lost but remember that it can often be lost forever if the means of preserving it aren't taken into account.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior by Paul Strathern

After watching the Borgias and Borgia, two separate shows based on the infamous Italian family of the 1500s, I was curious to see what others had written about them. Seeing The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior, a book discussing Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia, three figures fairly well known to modern audiences, I was curious as to their historical importance to one another.

In the Showtime special, I don't remember Da Vinci at all to be honest. Machiavelli showed up mind you and was well played. In the Borgia series though, Da Vinci is part and present with Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia. There is a great scene in the later where Cesare is atop an armored carriage with his famous slogan, "Caesar or Nothing" in all his prime and power while Da Vinci quickly sketches him.

Written by Paul Strathern, the author of Napoleon in Egypt among others, I'd never read anything by Paul before. Fortunately, his writing voice is easy and flows nicely. Reading the book is a pleasure. The author presents several sources of information and informs the reader when these sources are questioned and provides a massive "Notes" section which provides where the information is drawn from.

Paul brings the reader to prior to the three meeting, as well as what happens when they meet, and what their eventual ends are. The author notes that in their own time, they were often considered failures. While Da Vinci was known for his impressive and wide ranging talents, his inability to FINISH things was well known to his many patrons who often grew tired of that. He was fortunate to die under the patronage of the current king of France who treated Da Vinci almost like a father figure and kept him around only for company and didn't expect anything from him.

Machiavelli, best known perhaps for his writing of the Prince, which is based off of his meeting with Cesare Borgia. It even notes where exactly that Machiavelli believes that Cesare failed in not realizing his power base from his father the Pope was more important to Cesare that he realized and helping to elect the man who would wind up being his doom, Julius II.

Machiavelli, due to what he refers to as "Fortune" is cast down from his lofty position and winds up living much of his end days out on his familial lands in poverty and away from 'the action' of the court. Even when he manages to write the Prince, it turns out that the people of the time are more shocked and horrified of it then awed by it. The Prince, and all books by Machiavelli, wind up going into a books banned by the Church list. Going against the church is never a good thing, and in an Italy where the Pope is actively engaged in things? Even worse.

Cesare? After many years of what must seemed to have been almost super human 'Fortune', suffers setback after setback when he no longer has Papal forces at his command. After taking over much of the Romagna, and installing law that brought its own peace and even a level of joy to the people who lived there, the Romagna is taken from Cesare and Cesare suffers capture.

To me, it's interesting that the author speculates that Cesare, after having suffered these many setbacks, including almost dying of the same disease (or perhaps poisoning) that killed his father, in effect commits suicide through recklessness. This is a theme I've seen played out when Police Officers start taking unnecessary risks, or firefighters or any occupation that is inherently dangerous in the first place. Even comic books don't escape this theory as it was recently decided that Cyclops of the X-men, was committing "Suicide by Supervillain."

While Paul doesn't provide a ton of depth to the information here, he does bring out a lot of the interesting aspects and speculates on others backed up with the information on hand. In addition, with all of the reference work at the back of the book, I can't imagine anyone who wants to know more about this time period and these people, would be leaving the book with no further place to go.

If you're looking for more information about three three and the world they shared and some of those they shared it with, like  Louis XII, Alexander VI,  della Rovere, the Sforzas, Orsinis, and Medicis. Many of these famous in and of themselves, but together, forming an impressive tapestry of historical significance.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Warhammer FRPG: Thousand Thrones Slog Continues!

Everything started off in a mix of suck and pleasant. On my way to +Tom Wright house, everyone decided, "Hey, even though this street is closed off, let's ALL take this side street. We're super smart that way!" So there was traffic off his street for four blocks. I parked about two blocks away because that traffic just wasn't going anywhere.

On the other hand, I did stop at Sarpino's and pick up a meatball calzone. While I'm not a huge fan of their pizza, their calzone's are pretty good for fast food.

Even better, one of my other amigos had brought over Justice League War. That carton movie appears to be based off the new origin of the Justice League in the new "52" version of DC. M'eh. There is some good dialog and banter back and forth between the characters. The use of Shazam as opposed to Aquamen was interesting but strange in that you now have Superman and Shazam on the same team.

The movie itself though?  It boils down to one long fight screen between the Justice League and Darkseid. I've seen worse but it just didn't do anything for me. If I want a real long fight scene I'll go turn on Dragonball Z and watch the Cell saga or something.

But the amigo who brought over the movie also brought over Dos Equis and although it was only a twelve pack, it made everything much more... interesting!

So we started off recovering from our fight with the nine vampires. A fight that the GM assured us we couldn't win. So we decide to head back after the 'Child', some weird mutant with the ability to influence those around him and the strength of the influence increases with the time spent with the child.

We wander through a forest, following the trail. Lots of refuse and corpses left in the wake of the wagons of the child's entourage.  As night starts to fall, we come across a way inn. For those who don't know, in the Warhammer setting, way inns are stations where travelers and rest and relax in dangerous places in relative safety.

Turns out the crusade has apparently already been here as its abandoned. We search around for a while looking for some provisions or other treasures that might have been left when a wagon with a priest and his various guards and attendants come up. We and they decide on a mutual "ignore each other" bit and set up shifts to patrol the walls.

The elf and I take one of the later patrols since we both have night vision. Hey, look at that, some critters on the inside of the fort tring to open the gate. They blather about wanting only food and shelter but their on our side of the gate trying to open it to the OUTSIDE where other creatures are already gathered.

Remember when I said that combat in Warhammer can be swingy? One of them hits me with a sling bullet for 18 wounds right off the bat. Unless you're traveling with the right party, especially with the random rolling of starting character careers, getting heavily wounded sucks. Anyway, my dwarf has 14 wounds and a 4 toughness so I'm up but seriously hurt. A few rounds of combat allows us to finish off those on the inside.

Turns out the ones on the outside are also mutants but see, their being chased by Beastmen. So the guards who were firing on the mutants while we fought the ones inside, them help the mutants into the fort.

What follows is almost a narrative combat in which mutant, beastman, and guardsmen suffer horrific damage. I burn through a fate point, one of my other buddies burns through a fate point, the GM is kind and allows another player whose already burned through all his fate points to 'only' be knocked to zero wounds.

At that point the wood elves show up and massacre the Beastmen.

Yeah, I felt that anything we did at that point was pretty much a m'eh opportunity.

And that's the second time that's happened in two sessions.

If the next session involves another ass-whipping with no possibility of victory, can't say I'll be continuing this campaign.

I enjoy a challenge. I enjoy having the potential for death. You get fate points and fortune points so there isn't a real threat from something stupid happening once or twice.

I hate narrative rail roading. Or at least when used too much. I've had my share of players that are like wild chickens and need some structure to get them going onto the adventure proper. But beating the players down in encounters time and time again isn't quite the same thing.

For those who've run through the Thousand Thrones, I've seen some positive and negative comments about it. I'll be curious to see where the next session takes us but may have to bring a 24 pack next time to wade through it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Fist of The North Star: Rei

The anime based on the manga, Fist of the North Star, has two main schools initially. The one used by the protagonist, Kenshiro, is the Fist of the North Star. The other is the Southern Cross. The North Star is supposed to only have one practionioner while we discover later that the Southern Cross has no less then Six, and one of those Six, the General, has Six defenders who are also masters of martial arts.

Visually, I always liked the Southern Cross. It's a style that cuts its opponents to pieces whereas the North Star causes them to blow up. Of those who practice it, Rei was my personal favorite. His introduction is all over Youtube but this clip is as good as any other I suppose.

The thing about Rei that works, is initially, he's very much out to pursue a specific goal. In this case, finding the man with seven scars on his chest. (Kenshiro has seven on his chest by the way!) and killing that man. Apparently such an individual killed Rei's parents and enslaved his sister!

Of course it turns out NOT to be Ken and the two managed to join forces to kill those who've done these terrible things.

The thing I like about Rei though, is his change. He becomes concerned for other people. He sees the value in what Kenshiro is doing. He grows to care for Bat and Lin and others in a short time. He understands that its not just about doing only what he wants to do.

And that makes him a perfect example of how some players should fit into the game. Sure it's all fun to be the 'Wolverine' or if this was the 90's, the 'new' Ghost Rider, but in a role playing game that's not a solo game, you need to have hooks that fit in with the other players. You need to be able to engage them. Even if your initial concept is lone wolf, you need to be able to have hooks that go into the others.

For example, lone rogue whose only goal is wealth? Role playing an appreciation for what the other characters can do if only as a nod to the fact that a group can gather more wealth than an individual rogue can, is the way to go. "While I may not appreciate the noise that this armored buffon makes, I admit that his ability to destroy ogres and hill giants is quite useful in the liberation of their funds."

A wizard whose only purpose is to find more and greater magics to master? "While Amar is a fool for worshipping the gods instead of magic, I admire the fact that his ability to channel positive energy saved me the trouble of having to pull out real arcane power to destroy that lich and its minions."

You have to role with it to roll with it.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Fist of the North Star (Anime 1984)

It was the mid-80's when I went to the theater, the Music Box, and first saw the movie, Fist of the North Star.

 It was an intense action movie with ultra levels of violence that brought two of my favorite things, anime and kung fu, together into a glorious feast for the eyes. I would later buy it on VHS and DVD while one of my friends owned it on laserdisk. The laserdisk version was a fantastic transfer while the VHS and DVD copies were terrible in color and quality.

Even back then though, the movie didn't make a lot of sense. It had so much going on that seemed to belong to something else.

So on +Hulu they have both seasons of the original anime from 1984 and it's like over 150 episodes.

And I see that Amazon has a few of them, but I'm not sure if that's the 'revised' one or the original ones.

It's one of the reasons I've been quite over here. I've been trying to plow my way through it. Back in the day, Viz comics was publishing the Fist of the North Star in monthly serials. They folded. Then another company was publishing master editions in full color that were graphic novel sized. They stopped production around seven or eight.

So I was always curious to know, "WTF was all that?"

Having seen it all, m'eh.

Part of this is just the age of it. The subtitles are terrible in some instances. Like flat out wrong. In addition, it was done in a time before widescreen so you've got the black bars common to those older shows. This shows up in the quality of the animation as well as the sound of the animation itself.

And remember how I said it was ultra violent? Like martial arts whose techniques involve cutting through people like katanas or making them blow up by hitting pressure points?

Censorship from Japan must have been weird in those days. If the character has blood on him, it's okay if it's red. If it's an explosion of blood, it's white. Which looks funny and in some instances "wrong" depending on where all the blood is splashing.

I enjoyed some of the characters. The designs on some of them are very 'super heroic' and at the same time, very 'Mad Max.'.  It's certainly inspiring for anyone looking for visuals in a wasted world where strength is the only law. It's great for those who want names for special martial art maneuvers for whatever games their players.

For anyone who wants a coherent story? Ugh. The translations are terrible to start with, and more worrisome is the soap opera nature of things. Hidden brothers, hidden half brothers, hidden blood lines, hidden martial arts and a whole slew of things that just go straight into that soap opera realm.

In terms of themes, well, people are going to die, especially people you love. That seems to be one of the biggest themes. You may be the strongest fighter there, you may be able to come back from beatings that should have killed you, but if you have any loved ones, wish them good bye when you see them, often getting killed just as you arrive.

The other problem, and I'm pretty sure it's not just the anime, was the consistency of the character's in terms of their size. Ken is the main hero of the story. Everyone whose 'good' or 'non-monstrous', is drawn like Ken in terms of body type. In that aspect, it reminds me of how toys used to be designed. Every toy was the same damn toy just with different outfits and accessories.

But the 'monstrous' characters, like Raoh? In some sequences he's a little bigger then Ken, in others he's like three times Ken's size.

There's also the whole internal consistency of things. When Ken is angered and going into an all out attack, he often bursts straight out of his clothes. In the post apocalypse world, who is repairing those clothes?

And after watching the whole thing, I have to wonder, what the hell planet is this supposed to be? There are some bits that are like, "Well, maybe it's Earth in the future (from when it was done), but no one calls any of the places by their old names. The technology is a mix of motocycles, because they look cool, crossbows and arrows, and well, in some sequences, a city whose lights are powered by slave labor. Those things were just a little annoying, but paled in contrast to the whole drama of the series.

For example, we learn that Toki and Raoh are actual blood brothers. Toki takes Ken to graves for his parents and for himself and Raoh. All a big revelation at the time. But later on, when Ken crosses the sea to fight Raoh's older brother, we see in a flashback that Ken and Raoh talk about the later's older brother. And their mother died on that other shore so whose buried in the graves? Messes like that show up all over the place.

For a bigger example, Ken is supposed to be the sole heir to the martial art, Divine Fist of the North Star, because it's such a dangerous martial art. But there is Toki, Raoh, and well, a former teacher who decided not to pursue the art and I'm sure a few others I'm missing. But when Ken finally does decide to do something about Raoh, to "seal his fists", he's already let Roah kill hundreds if not thousands of people and it feels very forced.

These inconsistencies go on and on. The one that annoyed me personally is when we see Souther, a man who has a secret that makes him immune to the deadly martial art that Ken pratices. Because of that, Ken is beaten like a dog and hung out to drain of his blood. While Ken recovers, another martial artist fights Souther and is killed. In the meanwhile, turns out Toki knew the weakness. Good work Toki, you managed to get more people killed by not telling anyone ahead of time.

Again, ugh!

The thing I'll give Fist of the North Star over say, Dragonball Z, is that the battles are relatively quick. In some episodes of Dragonball Z you could leave and come back four episodes later and the same fight is still going on. Here that may happen once or twice with the biggest villains of the series but for the most part, the fights against one specific individual are done in one while the battles against that person's minions may take a while, which in and of itself is actually more boring. "Oh, fifteen people that are all freakishly large with giant mohawks. I wonder how long it'll take to kill them."

And then that gets me thinking about how stupid everyone is in the series. Raoh takes over territories and gives them to people who aren't 'super villain' evil, but 'stupid villain evil'. "Ah, in this desolate time of no food and water, I villain A will waste all of the food, while villain B wastes all the water!"

I can see the whole series being a touch different if written today.

"Roah, come out and face me!"

"What, what is it Kenshiro!"

"I've come to seal your fists!"

"Didn't we already do this whole fight thing?"

"Yes, but now I'm possessed by justice!"

"Ken, you're like the most honest guy I know. Turns out these warlords I've been using are stupid as hell, How about being an agent of good and going around killing the corrupt and incompetent idots out there so that we can get some work done eh?"

"Raoh, you want to conqueror the heavens!

"Turns out they don't care. I took my big ass horse to the biggest mountain and hey, it was cold up there and the air was thin. Seems that I should actually you know, prepare for the invasion of the other land. Maybe give Falco and a few other people a call and see if they're looking for jobs. Some good people that aren't getting properly used."

"I hate you Roah."

"I love you Ken."

No, seriously, like 90% or more of the villains of the series would've been normal people if they just had some normal conversations with people before they were on the verge of death.

Anyway, I'll probably have more to say about the anime in terms of inspiration. When I was a young man, that experience at the Music Box opened my eyes to how powerful and ridiculous you can make martial arts and that served me well in many games ranging from Champions to Rifts. As an older man, know that I already know that, the storylines here make me cringe, but some of the names and visual executions of the moves are still popcorn worthy.

Long live the Fist of the North Star!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Warhammer FRPG: Fight or Flight?

+Tom Wright ran his Thousand Thrones last Friday and the car worked and I was able to get to the game. Hell, I even brought 312 in a twelve pack and an old friend who I've been gaming with since high school was there. It was great.

The Warhammer game does have some swing to it. The 'Ulric's Fury' means you can inflict some tremendous damage with a lucky roll, especially if you're using a weapon that lets you roll two dice and keep the better of the two.

Our adventure this week was a little rail road as we approached a town and were captured by the local militia who insisted we were outlaws but would verify our story as long as we did them a favor. Not the worst thing to happen as it wasn't like they took our money or branded us and it could have been handled much worse.

But back to how Warhammer can be a little swingy in combat.

I mention this, because unlike say a standard level based game, such as Dungeons and Dragons, you may know necessarily know when you're outclassed.

Can you see where this is going?

During our investigations, we came across a vampire. It's been a long time for me, so I wasn't sure what the power level of the vampires were, but one of my friends was like, "Yeah, we need to go."

But the rest of us were like, "How tough could it be?"

We soon found out and managed to retreat without too many of us spending fate points to make that escape!

When you're running a game, do you provide any cues for players to let them know that, "Yeah, maybe you don't want to fight this." In some games, you can get the baseline depending on how well you know the game. Dungeons and Dragons is a good example here because if you're first level and start running into hill giants and ancient dragons, yeah, might be time to hall off.

If you're playing a game you've never played before? Or one that doesn't use levels at all but something like Call of Cthulhu where it's all % based and advancement isn't necessarily do anything for durability?

For players, do you have any 'warning' signs you've learned to pick up from the other players or the game master? Do you wait until you're at some point in your abilities or health where you decide, "Yeah, might to be time to head out."

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell has been writing the Warrior Chronicles, also called the Saxon stories since 2004. Seems every two years he comes out with another one. I was inspired this time around to purchase the book well ahead of the trades which I usually get, in Kindle format, due to the History Chanel's showing of Vikings. Love that show and with the recent season two end, I wanted something more.

And The Pagan Lord delivers. Bernard Cornwell tells a first person account very well. It makes this book an easy page turner and a book I finished in less than a day.  The story chronicles the account of Uthred, a noble raised by Danes who worships the old gods, Thor and Odin among others, but finds himself fighting for the Christians who often turn against him as soon as they're able. The constant struggle for a place of his own in a land where Thor and Christianity have little tolerance for one another is well told.

Uthred, despite his advancing age, despite his military mind, despite his own previous experiences, still finds himself in trouble with the Church of England. Still finds himself with treachery on all sides. Still finds himself tried and tested at every opportunity. And he does not emerge from these contests whole and undamaged. He does not win every engagement.

It's these tests, these throws of the dice, these moments of doubt, that make Uthred such a great character. Sure, he has a solid cast about him. Certainly he has worthy friends and a growing family. But it's his own intrinsic character that isn't always right, that brings the book into a higher place than just an action historical tale.

Bernard has a great command of language. When Uthred sails for examples, you can feel the freedom that Uthred feels. You can see the joy he takes in the voyage itself. When he speaks of his foes and their fighting prowess, even when he's weary of them, you still get that feel of distinct confidence that Uthred tends to radiate.

If you, like me, have enjoyed Vikings and want a little more, start off with The Last Kingdom which runs for $9.27 in trade paperback format or $8.81 in Kindle format.

Below I'll be discussing several bits from The Pagan Lord that might be useful for role playing games. Some of this will probably hit themes and tones I've mentioned before because Bernard Cornwell does reinforce themes and mood with repetition throughout the novels. It creates a sense of returning home after not reading one of the novels for a while.

1. Family: Uthred has two sons. One of them, the eldest, decides to become a priest. Due to Uthred's hatred of Christianity, he disowns his son, calling him instead 'Judas'. At the end of the book, Judas comes along to help Uthred in a battle that helps set the tone of England from that day forward. His younger son however, displays more traits similar to Uthred including a thirst for battle and extraordinary skills in combat. Family is more than just characters to be taken prisoner or killed off to encourage a mood or theme. They should be used as their own characters that have their own motives and goals.

2. Action-Reaction: In Uthred's disgust at his eldest son's priesthood, in the scuffle against the priests there, he kills one of them. This leads to the villagers destroying Uthred's property and being an outcast. For every action, there is a reaction.

3. Misinformation: One of the things I appreciate about Bernard Cornwell's writing, is that he does an excellent job of showcasing how slowly information moves. By providing misinformation in several areas, enemies can become powerful. By countering that with his own misinformation and sleight of hand, Uthred is able to sow confusion and disorder against his foes. This is a bigger problem in high-fantasy games where the essence of them is taken mainly from modern day eras in terms of near instant communication or ability to discover facts quickly. Use misinformation where possible and don't automatically counter the player's attempts at doing so.

4. The Glory of Rome: Britain is saturated with old stone and marble ruins from the time of Rome. The natives generally don't like them, melting the marble down to make lime and using the stone to build other types of fortifications when possible. Uthred sees the glory of these ancient statues and bridges and wonders what the hell happened. How did the world descend so far from that glory? While I'm actually pretty tired of ancient empires having greater technology, magic, and well, everything than their modern counter parts, it is refreshing to see how the people living in those times might react to those remnants when they're not discussing super powered magic swords and magic.

5. Historical Accuracy: Despite the skill and knowledge base that Bernard Cornwell has in terms of the Vikings and their era, he isn't afraid to change historical events in order to tell a better story. Unless you are playing some weird game where outside agencies are enforcing documented events, don't be afraid to let the players influence what happens and how things move around the world. The History Channel's show Vikings for example, is full of things that are historically wrong but it's a fine piece of entertainment.

6. Failure: Uthred's initial plan is to conquer his homeland, a mighty fortress with stealth and surprise. That fails. He does manage to capture his nephew and said nephew's mother mind you and they come in handy at other junctures, but the initial raid itself is a failure and it is not the only failure that Uthred suffers. Having a "what if" mentality in terms of designing your scenarios can help you quickly keep the game moving. Don't let the game stall when the characters fail but rather have something else for them to quickly move to.

The Pagan Lord is well told and provides a lot of inspiration for those who want to take their reading a Viking. The Pagan Lord is currently $7.99 in Kindle format and a little under $22 in hardcover.