Saturday, January 31, 2015

Return to the Mines

It's been a while since I ran my 5th edition Lost Mine of Phandelver mixed with the King Maker adventure path. The last two weeks though have seen a return to form of sorts.

Part of the problem? After being away from the game for so long, most of the players had no clue where we last left off. Not only that, but the continuity or knowing the NPCs, the locations, and the other minutia were lost on them. This is a real world penalty for taking a month + long break from the game. We'll either get over it or we'll work through it.

Another problem? I've got seven players at the table. Most of them are good solid players who know the system and  can answer any rules questions brought up quickly. But when combat happens, it's still seven players and a simple equal combat can take up a good chunk of the night, even though 5th edition runs much quicker than 4th did.

I also have been playing with my gaming style. Because I mixed King Maker and Phandelver, the characters are fifth level in a section of Phandelver that is for like second level characters. I narrated one of the fights because, well, I didn't have an hour and a half to have them go room to room killing bandits.

Has anyone else ever done that? In my mind, I know I have options.

1. Beef up the opposition: Again, 5th edition is good in that because of the low numbers, you can throw more grunts into the mix and it makes a real difference in terms of resources consumed. Problem is that it is adding more time to the combat.

2. Customize the opposition: Instead of bandits, it's bandit chiefs or some substandard in the middle.  This is the ideal road I should take but I'm using prewritten adventurers because of time constraints and I should really make MORE time to run the adventure as opposed to just winging things like that off the cuff.

But maybe my group is humoring me because they didn't seem to mind the "this is what happens" bit. I guess when you can do it for trips that have no random encounters on them, you can do it for fights in which the likelihood of death is minimal.

The good news is that the party is no onto the last branch of the Lost Mine section and should be finishing that one up soon. I've already done some legwork in possible additions/changes to the last end boss which will vary depending on the number of players that show up as the usual is anywhere from five to seven.

So far, because Wizards of the Coast hasn't released any additional adventurers and hasn't put out an official OGL or anything, the offerings remain scant and if you're looking to get into 5th edition and have an adventure out of the box, I'd still recommend Mines over the Tiamat based hardcovers.

Other opinions out there? People playing the Goodman Games unofficial adventurers? Recommendations?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Art of Ian Miller

US $34.95 ($25.24 at Amazon)
160 pages

The Art of Ian Miller is a collection of Ian Miller's artwork stretching over a long period of time and includes over 300 pieces. It includes both color and black and white artwork. A quick way to get a glimpse of what's inside, is to do a google search like this one.

I can't tell you when I first encountered the art of Ian Miller. I know that it was either through the books of Steve Jackson's Sorcery, the tabletop game Warhammer, or reprints of H. P. Lovecraft's work that I found in used book stores. In my mind, I associate Ian Miller with imagery of 80s Warhammer and the chaos gods in particular.

The book starts off with an introduction by Brian Sibley before getting into the work itself. Broken up into different sections, some much smaller than others, it includes the following:

Maelstrom: A collection of images inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's story, "A Descent into the Maelstrom." This section is black and white.

Dragons: Ah, Ian Miller doing dragons. Some of these are images that hail from the Tolkein Bestiary. I found that fascinating as I don't associate Ian Miller with Tolkein, as opposed to say, Games Workshop. This includes black and white, as well as pen work in red and other colors.  The double page spread of what appears to be a phoenix surrounded by dragons is in full rich color and rewards multiple viewings with its numerous intricate details. 

Men, Monsters & Machines: A collection of a variety of pieces, many of them that look like they came straight from Warhammer. I say this because of the odd faces, leering and snarling on shields and helms.  There are a variety of styles here ranging from pen and ink to full color, including more work for the Lord of the Rings animation. 

Castles & Kingdoms: One of Ian's favorites is apparently the old Gormenghast Novels and he has several works of his take on the castles, as well as Arkham, the fictional city in Massachusetts. Another bit that comes through, is work he did for an animated feature by Ralph Bakshi called Wizards. Another bit that intrigued me as I knew nothing of Ian's involvement with Ralp or Wizards up to this point.

Dreams & Nightmares: To be honest, I'm a little confused as to what makes a piece fall into Dreams & Nightmares as opposed to Men, Monsters & Machines. Is it more of a dream like state? More of a "Well...", a gut feeling if you well? 

One of the problems is that for the double page spreads, the art doesn't handle it well because of the immense detail that Ian brings to his work. For example, the double page spread of Cthulhu on page 48-49? There's quite a bit not necessarily lost, but the flow is immensely interrupted.

Another problem? Despite the size of the book at 9.3 x 12.5, it's too small. This is because Ian is relentless in his use of lines for detail. You could easily have this book at twice the size and still spend hours studying one picture. His use of repetition and patterns is everywhere. 

For under $30, under $26 if you use the Amazon link, the art of Ian Miller can be yours to study.

For those already familiar with Ian, do you have a particular favorite? For those who already own it, any illustrations that are you quintessential Ian that are missing?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour by Lord Egerton of Tatton

First of all, thanks to those readers of the blog, twitter, and other interactions on social media. This book is a direct result of sales through the Amazon Associate link so I appreciate it!

Second, if you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know I'm a sucker for books on weapons. Indian weapons don't necessarily get a lot of recognition. They don't have the 'Katana' that is so popular among the second part of this book's title, "Oriental Arms and Armour."

Even in role playing games, there isn't that much in Indian settings. While there are notable exceptions, especially now with an OSR game, Arrows of Idra or the Pathfinder city book Parsantium , the majority of games either focus on pseudo European or pseudo Japan.

Sometimes such references pop up in odd locations. For example, the manga Berserk has several characters that take inspiration from the lands of India including one champion, Silat, that the main character, Guts, keeps running into. Over here on Deviant Art is a good likeness of Silat by 20AznHuskarl20.

Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour is a bit different than I thought it would be. I'm used to the Dover books being fairly inexpensive reproductions of material long since out of print. Which this is. But this is a bit more scholarly than I thought it would be.

For example, "The shield is deemed the only fit salver on which to present gifts, and accordingly, at a Rajput court, shawls, scarves, jewels, are always spread before a guest on bucklers." That's a neat little bit right there and "parallel between the Rajputs and the feudal races of Scandinavia and Germany. In feudal, as in Rajput communities, arms played a conspicuous part in all military pagents, as well as in all the business of life."

There is also a ton of black and white artwork. One of my favorite bits is a picture of different types of swords that includes at least two pata or gauntlet swords.

At 43 years old, I'm old enough to remember a fantasy movie called Willow.

One of the characters from Willow, is a heroic warrior with no peer known as Madmartigan. During a showdown with his opposite, the fierce General Kael, one of the weapons Madmartigan uses in a two sword fashion, is the pata. It's a fantastic scene.

Visually it's an interesting weapon. Different enough from a standard sword to stand out, but still with enough of the form and functionality to be identified quickly.

There are several such weapons throughout the region, several of which, thanks to media, have become well known, like Xena's chakram.

Having an exotic non-standard weapon like this gives characters a bit of difference. It makes them stand out among others who may only be using standard sword and shield.

And it's not necessarily just a visual difference. Where did they find the weapon? Who trained them? Do they know how to get back there? Are there other treasures and bits of information that can be fed into the campaign?

In the Black Company, a fantasy story about mercenaries and their vague origins, the later books, or Books of the South, allow Glen Cook to tell a story focusing on a completely different region with non-standard heroes and villains that still provide a powerful story.

While I'm still reading through Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour, it's so far proven both visually appealing and interesting reading. Its too short to go into much detail on all aspects, but does point out enough interesting bits that where I'm curious I can hit up other sources for further research.

If you want to dip a toe into the exotic world of weapons that go beyond long sword and broad sword, Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour is a solid start.

As a Game Master, have you ever added any such weapons to your own campaign? Back in 'the day', I had a bounty hunter that used to have a special ability to use any weapon he picked up and used that to justify a whole range of odd weapons. It wasn't something that I innately came up with though as I believe I based it off an old Ral Partha miniature, Nimrod the Hunter from their Warlords boxed set.

Nimrod was the one on the left with the shield that has a tri-dagger peaking out of it and the odd shaped sword and no pants.

Anyone use any monsters from these far away places? I was fortunate to be able to back Harwood Hobbies last miniature Kickstarter and one of the pieces you could get is an Avatar of Kali, but some of the assassins from the thugs cult also look great.

It's a wide world out there and having more options can allow for some variety in the stew.

Any other great books or references I'm blatantly missing? Throw a link in!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Dungeon Master's Screen Review

Looking over the Dungeon Master's Screen for 5th edition.

The outside art is top notch. One of the best fantasy pieces I've seen in a long time. Over at the blog Shadowcore, you can see the artist other work:

Bad news? It's kinda m'eh. It's why I put a picture of the Savage Worlds screen below it with some inserts. If you need more game information than you do pictures and graphic design, the Dungeon Master's Screen is going to leave you cold.

The good news?

It's pretty cheap at Amazon. The blank Savage Worlds screen from Amazon is $22.25. The Dungeon Master's Screen is $9.22

I'm a little disappointed that with so many editions to review and gather examples from, even from other game systems, that the designers decided pretty was more important than useful but hey, maybe other people LOVE the art and design and would rather have MORE items like this?

It has given me a better appreciation for the custom screen that Gale Force 9 did for the campaign Tyranny of Dragons though. That had some very specific information that made it easier to run. Bad news is that one is twice as expensive as the generic one.

Can't win!

Let me know what you think of the new screen and how you'll be using it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Steppe by Piers Anthony

While it doesn't seem that long ago, 2009, Steppe by Piers Anthony, was brought back to print by #Paizo Publishing, the makers of the Pathfinder role playing game.

It fell under their Planet Stories. This line didn't do well despite it bringing some of the classics of the science-fiction/fantasy line back into print. Paizo didn't quickly give up mind you though as they tried different formats to save it but eventually give it up.

Mind you in the modern era, they might have been able to do more with it as they didn't have rights for the e-books when they were publishing these novels.

I haven't read all of them. I have read many of them though. I don't consider it my 'duty' or anything of that nature to read 'classic' or older science fiction or fantasy books, but I do try to stretch my wings and read a variety of authors and pieces when possible. It helps provide a grounding effect for books I'm reading now, or even how far society and technology has come.

Many people are probably familiar with South Park. Last year, 2014, they did an episode about Youtube Stars.

In Steppe, which looks to have been first published in 1976, Alp, the main character of the book, is an early example of a star made by passive viewers.

You see Alp was taken from his time, hundreds of years ago, into the future, so that his knowledge of that time may be useful to those playing a game that to modern readers would seem to combine elements of the Matrix, in that it's not real, but also elements of MMO's in that the characters are in different times and eras.

And it was in 1976.

So through passive viewing, Alp at the end of his adventurers, becomes an 'internet' celebrity years before such a thing could even be possible.

I know people point to shows like Star Trek and other popular science fiction bits and look around at our current technology and go, "Ah Ha!" but don't underestimate the unexpected places you may find those predictions of the future coming true.

Piers Anthony hits it out of the ball park in quite a few fields in Steppe. For example, invasion of privacy in terms of when a person voluntarily subjects themselves to being view, such as say through modern Youtube, and involuntary, such as brought to our attention by Edward Snowden.

If you want a quick read of a man out of time, a genre for which Planet Stories was known, Steppe is a great yarn. If you want to see how far Piers Anthony could see the future from before 2000, Steppe takes on a deeper view of technology and man's use of it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Nagash: 5 Reasons to Use Nagash in your Fantasy Role Playing Game

I'm a big fan of Nagash from way back in the day. Hunt threw some of my ideas to revitalize the Warhammer line and you'll see me talking about a "Summer of Nagash" where the big undead returns and gets to use a variety of unique models as well as those from Vampire Counts and Tomb Kings.

Well boy did that come to pass eh? For those who don't know, Nagash is an undead sorcer from the Warhammer Fantasy setting. At the end of 2014, Games Workshop started the 'End Times' and did a lot of different things to the Warhammer Fantasy setting. The first book of that was with Nagash.

But why is Nagash so awesome? I'm approaching him not only from a miniature appreciation, but because it's Warhammer and I've been a player of the Warhammer setting for years, also as a role playing character.

1. The God That Walks: Dungeons and Dragons has a fat bloated goat headed demon lord known as Orcus. Nagash is a man who pulled himself up into a god like status and fought Sigmar, another former man, now god, in hand to hand combat. Fat goat demon versus man who pulled himself into the higher reaches of possible power?

2. Nagash has magic items. The Books of Nagash or the Liber Mortis, are potent necromantic artifacts in and of themselves that drive others to search them out. These artifacts can make little games in and of themselves as players, if good, must prevent others from finding them, and if evil, take them and master them before others do. His name is also associated with other artifacts of her time like the Black Pyramid of Nagash. This lending of his name to various things, without he himself being there, lends his character power. Take the fat bloated goat headed demon again. What's his wand called? Yup, Wand of Orcus.

3. The First: Nagash has a lot of things attributed directly to him or about him ranging from necromancy and vampires to lichdom. And if not him creating them directly, him being involved either as a counter against his power or early experimentation. This is one of the few times where a setting has a definitive answer. "Where did vampires come from? Where did liches come from? Where did necromancy come from?"

4. Potent Characters: How can you not love Nagash when he has a follower like Arkhan The Black? I have the original model of this character and he's a lich on a skeleton chariot. His never version is even more impressive. When you need a high priest for the undead? Having someone who might be a match for Vecna when Vecan was a lich as opposed to the deity he became? And how about those on the edges of Nagash lore like Krell, a former Chaos Champion who was raised by Nagash and wound up serving Heinrich Kemmler, the Lichemaster? Those names in and of themselves were of powerful entities and they're just entities on the chain of Nagash's influence.

5. Backstory: Because he wasn't overused, Nagash remained a potent character despite having a terrible model in the older edition of the game. This allowed the writers of the Warhammer Fantasy setting to fire with both barrels and deliver a ton of new models, new characters, new scenarios, and new events that could fit in with what we know of Nagash. In Spartacus, there is rumors of "The Shadow of Death" before Spartacus fights the gladiator. Putting bits and pieces of lore about Nagash well before the characters ever meet him? Classic!

When you want to build a monster of your own for your campaign, you could do far worse than look at how Games Workshop handled Nagash.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Nightglass by Liane Merciel

I'm somewhat ambivalent about the Pathfinder Tales fiction line. While I enjoyed Heretic of Death, the novels Prince of Wolves and Winter Witch, the latter by an author I normally enjoy, didn't impress. FRP Games was having a blowout sale at the end of the year though, and I picked up Nightglass by Liane Merciel on a lark.

And am pleased to have done so.

Roughly broken into two sections, Nightglass starts with Isiem, a youth raised in a village in the kingdom of Nidal, who shows much promise with magical abilities. Abilities tested initially through a magical device known as a Nightglass.

Taken from his country side village, Isiem is raised to learn magic and faith in the city of Pangolias. In this empire of the shadows, dedicated to an evil god, one who feeds on pain and discipline within that pain, it felt like the author, Liane Merciel, was taking several pages right out of the Elric novels in her descriptions of the training and torture that the students undergo.

For example, there is one chorus that is played when a student inserts a flute pipe into a victim's throat. Done correctly, every breath creates its own note. Done incorrectly, death for the one who did it incorrectly and of course, the person whose throat has been punctured.

Liane's description of how the students are tested again for potential, with the "Joyful Things", inhuman creatures that wrap their tongues around a hopeful student's skull. Those who don't pass their judgement? Not good things. There are other numerous bits that added to the feel of how evil and vile the society was. How difficult it would be to have any hope, to be normal there.

Isiem doesn't escape this unscathed though. His outlook is similar to what the old Fighter's Handbook personalities section would label "Fated Philosopher" He acknowledges the things that are outside of his control, that are outside of his agency to influence. And he plans how to expand his agency to expand his control.

This opportunity comes in what I'd call the second half or part of the book.

If the first half was all vile torture and teachings of dark arts and acceptance of fate, the second part takes a page from various westerns including Deadwood where Isiem winds up in a frontier town where he must lend his arts to the empire that his own country is aligned with. This makes an interesting change of pace and Liane handles the transition well.

From stuffy halls and doom shrouded classes, to rugged outdoorsmen who are fighting for their very survival. From agents of Nidal worshipping their dark god and passing their dark magics onto a corrupt political country that finds it easier to murder a silver mine owner than tax his wealth. It's all very Western in feel and brings those elements home gracefully.

Here though, things take a turn for the worse and Isiem gets what is possibly his first true taste of freedom and then has to decide what to do with it.

I'd never read any work by Liane Merciel before. I will be reading her work again. She doesn't shy away from description but does so in a way that is quick and easy to read. While some may say they were able to see what was coming a mile away, I find that true for most works of fantasy fiction, or indeed, most movies. The telling of the story is what interests me more than having some bright new singular idea that stands out above all others.

One of the things I enjoyed is that while Isiem is competent, he isn't some 'farm boy out to save the universe.' His abilities fall within the realm of possibility for the setting the novel is based in. His growth and things he can do, fit in with the setting. He is not slinging artifacts around, nor able to outfight the many situations he winds up in. He often needs planning, allies, and the willingness to admit that he cannot do everything himself. This makes Isiem, especially for a magic using character, a tremendous breath of fresh air as opposed to Forgotten Realm spell slingers like Blackstaff and Elminster who shrug off demon lords and deity avatars like last week's old soup.

In terms of this being a Pathfinder Tales novel, if you know what you're looking for, it reads as one. The kingdom of Nidal is given four pages of description in the Inner Sea World Guide, and that's not four pages of dense text. There are several illustrations and a map as well. the details that Liane puts into the setting? Puts into the characters? If you have players who read this novel and aren't interested in making a Shadowcaller from this region, or want to liberate this region, or to serve the dark god who rules with an unbreakable claw, they've read a different book then I have.

In terms of gaming information? This book showcases the difference between reading a game setting, and reading a good piece of fiction.

There are several bits that could easily be put to use in game terms here.

1. The Joyful Things. They know something that the players need to discover. Can the players withstand talking to these horrific entities and deal with their dreaded touch long enough to learn what they came for?

2. Dungeons of the Dusk Hall: One source of information that the players need to find is in the dungeons below the Dusk Hall. Have can they navigate to there through the heart of the Midnight Lord's capital city?

3. The Slave Market: Knowledge is such a funny thing. It can be scattered here, there, and even in the most unlikely of places, a slave's mind. The players have to outbid other potential buyers for a slave who has a particular bit of knowledge that they need in their own quest.

4. Shadowbound: One of the players has been cursed to shadow and supposedly the only place to undo this condition is in the kingdom of Nidal.

5. Dubious Allies: In a setting with as many organizations as the Pathfinder one has, even knowing some Hellknights could get the players alliance through proxy to those of Nidal.

6. Freeing the Shadow Lord: While not specifically mentioned here, if you've read the Inner Sea Gods book, you know that the god of Nidal is himself not what he used to be. Can the players free the god from the things that bind him?

Nightglass is the first book in a series that Liane Merciel is working on. Unfortunately, Paizo is, in my opinion, holding back potential sales of any of their fiction line. The electronic versions are only available through Paizo directly, not through Amazon or Google Play. That only makes sense if these books are terrible sellers. While it does provide Paizo with all the funds, it limits their streams of revenue. It also limits the ability for Amazon to put any of these books on their daily deal sales and expand their readership that way. There are many an author I've picked up on a lark because it was inexpensive.

With the Paizo store charging $9.99 for paperbacks and $6.99 for epub versions, I'm afraid their cutting their potential market out quite a bit. The long tail on such sales will potentially suffer.

Still, Paizo has been around a long time and I hope that the line is successful for them. For me? I'll be looking for Nightblade and other books by Liane Merciel next time I'm at the book store.

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

I had finished reading this some time last week, but was prevented from posting due to internet connection problems due to having no electricity. Ah, the perils of modern day life in America in the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is Chicago.

The short review is that Silver Pigs is a little rougher around the edges than the second book in the series, which I  happened to read first, but hey, this is an award winning book and a little rougher around the edges for Lindsey Davis is like how I would hope to be able to write one day.

Readers are presented with a Rome that's just come out of a civil war and not everyone is happy with the victor. To that end, there are some seeking to fund another round of rebellions using silver stolen from Britain.

Our hero, Falco, has bad memories of Britain. Turns out he was in Britain for one of the larger revolutions, one involving one Boudica. More of which can be found here:

Falco was in the units that well, didnt' fare well due to poor intelligence so he wasn't too keen to go back but to find out who and why the silver is being stolen, he does, even enduring some time as a slave in the silver mines.

The novel is full of characters and relationships. This is the novel that introduces Falco and Helena and how they first meet and fall in love and shows the vast gulf between them in terms of social standing but how for a little while, even that doesn't deter their love.

Reading this first novel by Lindsey Davis, it's clear to see that she would become even better as time went on, and as she's done well over twenty books, apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so.

In terms of gaming, reading mystery books puts me in a different mind than the standard Dungeons and Dragons.

For example, while Falco does become engaged in a few brawls and does have to fight for his life at times, the majority of the book deals with Falco solving mysteries, with Falco forming links between people, events, and times so that he can discover why things have happened in the manner in which they have.

Such efforts might seem an odd fit for Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, but Lorefinder, a supplement for Pathfinder that could be adapted to 3.5, shows that it can be done. I hope one day that WoTC gets off their ass in this electronic everything now era and puts out a license so we can see Peregrine Press make a similar book for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition.

The overall plot can be easily dragged into any role playing game though.

1. Characters see girl being chased by thugs.

2. Girl tells character she has a secret.

3. Secret is inkling of vast conspiracy against current government.

4. Characters are caught up in their own plots for moment and girl dies.

5. Characters follow threads of mystery to another country with ties to their own where they may not be well liked.

6. Characters encounter other natives of their land that must accompany them back to their home but those NPCs have complications of their own which then become tied up with the characters. To make matters worse, one of these NPCs is related to the dead girl and blames the characters for her death.

7. Characters uncover conspiracy goes all the way to the top and will be rewarded, but must keep silent on how far up the chain the conspiracy goes.

8. Characters have to decide how to move on with the knowledge that the current government hides its own corruption that would allow innocent youth to die while at the same time trying to bridge the gulf between it and themselves.

If you're looking for ideas of what life, travel, food, and the difficulties of climbing social ranks were in ancient Rome, Silver Pigs is for you.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis: Home is where the Heart Is!

Fortune smiled on me! I managed to find a copy of Silver Pigs, the first book in the detective novels in Ancient Rome, for $1 off of the spinner rack at Half-Priced books.

This one is smaller than the second one I read, but the writing is still fantastic. Still reading it so this isn't a full on review of the book, but if you like a little humor and sarcasm in your first person mysteries, this is a solid novel.

No, rather, I wanted to quickly note that one of the things I enjoy about Lindsey's writing, is how Falco, the hero of the story, has a home and it's well, a slum. He frequently doesn't pay the rent and often makes an escape out of neighbors apartments of which he has an 'arrangement' with them.

The apartment itself though, does have a nice view of the neihborhood and can be advantageous when looking at the city as a whole.  Since it's in a bad part of town, this also lends some ambience to the character of Falco.

It's also where his family is and it allows him to mentor his nephew since his brother died in service to the Empire.

These touches provide more 'touches' if you will to the character of Falco.

In your own campaigns, where do the characters live when they're not in dungeons? Where do the characters go when they're not on the road? Do they have family and loved ones waiting for them in a prime city?

Things like this, these little touches of the bakers and sellers on the street, are reasons why I enjoy city sourcebooks like Waterdeep and the City State of the Invincible Overlord. When you can get the characters to invest in the city, to enjoy the city, to miss the view, to miss specific people, to wonder what's happening there right now, you've got them.

Make your cities interesting and the players will return to them. Make the players invest in them, and the players will fight to save them, even if they are saving the city from itself.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Kundo: Age of the Rampant

I knew about Kundo from previews,  I had seen on Hulu back when it was first show in theaters in America. It looked like a solid action film but I did not get the chance to see it in the movies. While looking at various martial arts action films, I stumbled upon this on Netflix. 

Kundo is a South Korean martial arts film. The costumes and weapons are great but it feels a little long in the tooth. There are several characters but really only one main one, Dolchi, a former butcher who uses two massive clever style weapons.

Part of the problem is that the movie is too long clocking in over two hours time. In some movies that can be nothing and it can flash by in a minute. In this one, you keep waiting for the inevitable duel between Dolchi and Jo Yoon, his nemesis. 

I give Kundo, as an action film, three stars and its worth watching if you want to see all the different costumes and unique weapons.

For those who often wonder how to run a Oriental Adventurers game or Legend of the Five Rings, this would be a good 'introduction' film in that many of the issues the 'heroes', a group of bandits have with the legitimate rulers, are issues that could be common to almost any setting and almost any time period.

Here's a summary by Wiki: "it is about a power struggle between the unjust wealthy noblemen who run society and a group of righteous outlaws who steal from corrupt officials to give to the downtrodden and starving"  Is it about Robin Hood? Is it about some Solos and Net Runners in the future? It's an easy, almost too generic plot piece but it is a prime example of how people can sometimes get too involved in the 'culture' of a foreign land and forget about the basics.

In terms of gaming, it has several things going for it that make it more interesting than if you were only watching it for the action sequences.

1. Environment: One of my old favorite fight scenes is from Ninja Scroll. Our main hero, Jubei, is outfought by a blind swordsman but in a bamboo forest, the hero is able to use the forest to his advantage and claim victory.

In this movie, Jo Yoon is such a bad ass that he beats Dolchi easily several times. Even in the 'heroic' end game rematch, Jo Yoon holds the upper hand until Dolchi leads him into a bamboo forest that hinders his movements. The bamboo though, isn't brick or steel and it makes for a great sequence as they both slash through the trees and have to dodge the falling debris. 

Note that it appears that fighting in a bamboo forest is a bit of 'old school' itself for such action movies.  

2. Non-Player Character Motivation: I'm going to sound a little rambling here. Jo Yoon is the illegitimate son of a noble. He is taken out of his mother's house, a house of prostitution, and raised at home because the noble has no male heirs. Then the wife sees this and uses a variety of methods to become pregnant and gives birth to a male heir. Bad news for Jo Yoon in many ways.

First, his parents treat him as a second class citizen which causes him to act out, which causes the parents to discipline him even worse.

Then he decides, "Well, I know how to take care of this problem" and goes to suffocate his baby half brother. But when he starts to, he looks at his baby brother and realizes that he cannot do it. This could have been a turning point for him.

But he's caught by his mother-in-law and well, the punishment is sever including his birth mother killed and his personal valet crippled. These acts help explain why he's such a vile bastard and even still loyal to his own father.

His main motivation is to be the heir to the family, and it appears that when his half-brother is killed by the 'heroic bandits', that his time may have come. But the wife was pregnant. This leads to all sorts of things ranging from hiring a butcher to kill the wife, to destroying the village of the heroes, including slaughter of women and children.

At this point, Jo Yoon for some reason, brings home the rightful heir instead of just killing him. Bad idea as now his father sees the true heir and doesn't appoint Jo Yoon the position. Anyone remember the Russel Crowe movie Gladiator? Anyone remember the discussion on the Four Virtues and the claims that "I have other virtues." 

The son so wanting, so needing to be loved by his father, finally does the unthinkable and committed patricide. 

But when he turns to the child, again, Jo Yoon cannot find it in him to kill a baby. He's older now. More wicked now. More capable of even the foulest deeds. But for whatever reason, even when it puts his own life in danger, he protects the child. 

These elements make for great bits. They make Jo Yoon more 'complete' as a character if you will than the hero Dolchi who is essentially Batman looking for vengeance.

My own problem comes in in that we, the audience, known this. But no one else does. In a role playing game, the depth of the non-player characters isn't' known by the characters, or isn't accessible to the characters, say from friends of Jo Yoon, or from journals, or from some other sort of records like punishment records, then it doesn't exist anywhere but in the Game Master's Mind.

The greatest stories in the world that aren't known arent' great stories, they're not great motivations, and their not all the useful to the players.

They can cement the character for the Game Master though, and in that aspect at least, still have value.

Themes are often times universal. I've mentioned several Western films, and other forms of medium, like anime, that use the themes and scenarios painted in Kundo. When you're watching a wide variety of material, see what's cycling over and over again. See what works when it's used over and over again and pluck it out for your own use when you can.

Now I have to find another movie to kill some time! Anyone have any recommendations?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Grandmaster

I've seen a few lists floating around the old intranets talking about the top movies available to stream RIGHT NOW! One that hits a few times is The Grandmaster. So after running around this morning taking my mom to the doctor, picking up her prescriptions, prepping some chilli, and various other duties, I sat myself down and flipped Netflix on and stream the Grandmaster.

The movie is about IP Man, the teacher of Bruce Lee. In some ways, I'm kind of surprised that there have been so many movies on IP Man, and so many of them so entertaining. This movie though?


The visuals in terms of the ambiance of the film are powerful. The scenery is its own character in this movie. It has its own style and makes itself felt throughout the entire movie.

Its action packed and yet has moments of reflection and advancement as its not covering one year or two years, rather, its covering a period of time from 1936 to the 50's. An era when China would be at War and not be victorious in those initial battles. An era where the simple life of a Kung Fu Master could be turned upside down.

This doesn't stop the personal moments from being more interesting than the bigger picture though. There's tragedy and potential, but the reality of the situation is what it is and the characters all continue to move through their paces.

It's not a happy movie. It's not a sad movie. It's a movie that in a short time brings a lot of elements of loss and triumpth to the theater and frames it all with kung fu battles that amaze in their performance.

If you have Netflix and were a fan of the old Kung Fu movies, let me know what you think!

In terms of gaming, there's a lot that could easily be lifted from here.

1. Schools: The country is broken up into North and South schools. This gives the people of each school a bit of a built in rivalry. It allows different martial arts to have themes to them while still retaining their own unique abilities.

2. Limited Impact: The greatest fighter of an a city, the greatest fighter of a country, the great kung fu master in the world, and well, when China falls to Japan, what good is it? It doesn't put food on the table. It doesn't stop the invasion. It doesn't stop friends and family from dying of starvation. The bigger picture, the larger scope of horror in an uncaring world, is felt handily against Ip Man who even when he moves to Hong Kong to build a better life, is cut off from his past life. And he's not the only one. In a scenario where the warriors of the party are truly outclassed, either by the scope of the threat or by the amount of threats there are, what is a warrior worth?

3. Limited Resources: When Ip Man moves to Hong Kong and becomes a teacher, he discovers that the competition is fierce. That people will challenge you for status, to save face, to have just one more taste of how things used to be in the old days. This pits him against specialist and grand masters who are, like him, striving to find their new way in this new world. Do all of them take to their new position with the same acceptance? Do some become skilled assassins? Do some become madmen and stalk the streets? Do some seek out challenges to the death in a bid to reclaim that lost glory?

4. Personal Loss: Despite the unimaginable loss of two of his daughters to starvation, and the loss of his wife to the isolation he faces in Hong Kong, Ip Man suffers another loss when one he could've loved loses her own way. It is despite these multiple wounds to his soul, to his very being, that the fact that he continues to teach, to strive forward, to bring his abilities to the common man, that make him such a figure.  In many ways, it reminded me of the 36 Chamber where bringing the skills to the common folk was a turning point. Perhaps all life is a circle?

5. The Ambiance: The movie opens up with Ip Man fighting a group of attackers in slick rain drenched streets in the dark. It's very atmospheric and while the rain doesn't make the sure footed martial artists slip, it does add to the intensity of the fight. In a further fight, two warriors face off against the backdrop of a moving train which acts like a zone of death as the two duel on a platform and the train roars past them, each trying to move the other into the train. Be aware of what the players see. What the players here. What the players feel. Is it raining? Snowing? Is it hot? Do birds take off like in a certain scene in Face Off? Is there a drop of a pin and then action?

The Grandmaster brings a lot of visuals to the screen and a lot of action in the fight scenes that do take place. Capture that energy and bring it to your table.

To Shield the Queen by Fiona Buckley

Here it is, 2015, and I'm still pretty much doing the same thing.

Still reading.

Still employed.

Still taking care of a sickly mother. Sigh.

I'm reading a few books right now. One of them, Black Swan, a book about highly unlikely events/things/happenings, is a book I've been reading on and off for months now. Another one, the Design of Everyday Things, was recommended by +Scott Rehm aka the Angry DM. It's an interesting book so far and good reading.

In terms of fiction, I just finished reading To Shield The Queen, a book set in Queen Elizabeth I's court. Written by Fiona Buckley, this is the first novel in a series of mysteries that introduces Ursula Blanchard, a woman of the court. There are over ten books in the series so far but alas, most of them go past my 'impulse buy' threshold in kindle format. They range from $5.99 to $15.99.

This is another of my $1 finds off the spinner racks of #HalfPriceBooks. It's another one that my mom initially read and I decided to snag it before returning it to the used bookstore. I figure might as well get the full dollar worth out of it.

What I'm going to say may sound contradictory but I found this an excellent example of a book written in the "tell not show" methodology. The good news though, is that the author has a good writing 'voice' if you will. Even when the author is telling us what the main character is telling the reader, it still moves quickly.

It's done in a way that prevents this 300+ page book from becoming a 400-500+ page book.

I will, if Half-Price willing, or Amazon Kindle hits up with the $1.99-$3.99 sales, be reading more of the series.

The author also includes her own research material into the era, which is always a nice tool to have for those trying to recreate the feel of a particular book they've read.

For those wondering about any gaming things I might have yanked from it as I read:

1. Female Main Character: I hate to say it, but I can recall too many conversations that tried to sideline female characters based on the pseudo historical context of a campaign setting. It's one of the reasons I'm always interested in seeing 'women warriors/queens' and other bits in that fields to show that there are always exceptions to the rules and when talking about player characters, they are by default the exceptions.

2. Multiple-Priorities: The main character, Ursula, is loyal to Queen Elizabeth. She is loyal to England. She is a woman in love. Her love is against the things she is loyal to. Ursula walks a fine line between defending the things she loves and the man she loves. While in the end she is true to queen and country, she is still tied to her love through binds of marriage as well as actual love. Fiona does a solid job of providing an antagonist that the protagonist doesn't want to kill but wants to overcome.

3. Family Live: I've mentioned it before, but the more hooks a character has in the campaign, the more ways the character can be drawn into the setting. In this instance, Ursula has a daughter, Meg, and relatives that 'took care' of her when she was young and her own parents dead. These elements come into play several times and work as not only active elements, such as when Ursula must save Meg, but as background elements as Ursula seeks a better future for herself in part to provide for her daughter. It's also a good way of siphoning off funds that don't involve the latest and great magic item or castle creation.

4. Religion: Always a touchy subject when it concerns real world religion, the degree to which people will go, then as in now, to spread their religion, is devastating to those who just want to go about their day to day business of survival. In some ways though, it's one of the problems with fantasy settings that have a pantheon. It's hard to picture an schism like that of Catholics and Protestants, especially when it was happening, occurring in a fantasy setting. While the Forgotten Realms did make a passing effort at such with the Dawnlord, as one deity of dozens of deities, the rest of the setting pretty much kept going the way it was going previously.

5. Henchmen: Ursula is a lady of court. As such, she is expected to have her own maid. She also has her own manservant. Both of these characters provide abilities and well, bodies in places when needed, to do the things that Ursula can't do because she's busy elsewhere. While the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is reknown for it's use of disposable henchmen, and the excellent adventures of +Brian Patterson and his webcomic d20 Monkey have brought us many an amusing illustration of disposable henchmen, here they are minor characters in their own right.

6. Investigation: Despite the era, despite death by smallpox to Ursula's husband before the story starts, despite her manservant being killed on the road by 'robbers', violence in and of itself is almost a secondary thing that happens in To Shield the Queen. Indeed, much of the action Ursula takes is to prevent violence. When looking at the arcs characters go through, are there any that can be designed on finding things out, rather then killing the orc to take his pie?

To Shield The Queen takes a historical event and twists it on its edge to give us a different look at how things might have rolled out.